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Westminster Hall

Thursday 10 November 2005

[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair]

Maximising Women's Skills (UK Economy)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Dhanda.]

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Meg Munn) : I am delighted to discuss the very important issue of maximising women's skills in the economy.

The Government have put productivity at the centre of the economic agenda, and the No. 1 public service agreement target of the Department of Trade and Industry is to narrow the productivity gap between us and our key competitors.

Using the preferred measure of gross domestic product per hours worked, the productivity gap between us and each of our peers remains substantial. The gap between us and Germany is 12 per cent. It is also 14 per cent. between us and the United States, and 29 per cent. between us and France. Improving productivity will allow us to produce greater output, which will allow us to support higher wages and profits, and to have better public services and a higher standard of living.

Today is a good day on which to hold the debate, as the up-to-date pay gap statistics have just been released and show that the pay gap is now 13.2 per cent.—its lowest level for 30 years—as measured by the median, and 17.2 per cent. as measured by the mean. Hon. Members have discussed the question of measuring the pay gap by the median, but we are following the advice of the Office for National Statistics in excluding the highest earning people, as including them distorts the overall picture relating to most people. That is why we use the median.

The pay gap also shows, however, that we need to go further and faster to reach the stage at which gender does not determine how much someone receives an hour. Closing those gaps would raise levels of prosperity in the United Kingdom, and reducing skills shortages would be a key driver of that. Significant occupational segregation is one of the main reasons for the current pay gap. Women are over-represented in certain types of low-paid jobs, and under-represented in other sectors, such as science and information technology. If there was no segregation between men and women in certain occupations, GDP could increase by between £2 billion and £9 billion a year, assuming that workers from higher-skilled occupations were not displaced.

Greater equality of treatment could attract more women into the labour force, and could encourage some part-time workers to work full-time.
 
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Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): The Minister's second point was interesting; will she repeat it? The difference between the previous statistic and the current statistic is striking.

Meg Munn : Is the hon. Lady asking about GDP or the pay gap?

Mrs. Laing : GDP.

Meg Munn : I am very happy to repeat what I said, because I want to highlight these issues today. If there was no segregation of men and women in certain occupations, GDP could increase by between £2 billion and £9 billion, assuming that there was no displacement of workers. Obviously much of this information is worked out according to hypothesis, but it is very important for us to recognise the cost of not paying women better.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I recruited graduates into the ICT sector for 20 years before I entered this place in 1997. Early on, there was little difference between the proportion of graduates wanting to work in IT who were female and the proportion who were male. Over the years, that picture has become skewed in favour of men, and the proportion of men has remained high since then. Will the Minister say what steps the Government should be taking to encourage more young females not to abandon areas of education that are likely to lead them into the hugely important area of ICT later in their lives?

Meg Munn : I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. That is certainly an important issue, and I shall discuss it in a little more detail when I talk about information technology. Although I may not cover all my hon. Friend's points in my opening speech, I can tell him that the Government have considered the subject. I recently visited the Intellect board, which involves leading people in the IT world. What is not in my speech is in the many documents on the Table, and I can return to relevant matters in my closing remarks if I do not satisfy my hon. Friend's curiosity before then.

In relation to segregation, greater equality of treatment could attract more women to the labour force, and encourage some part-time workers to work full-time. That is based on research showing that 25 per cent. of women who work part-time would be prepared to work full-time if better pay and more flexible working conditions were on offer. There would be additional GDP benefits of between £14 billion and £20 billion and those figures added together could amount to 3 per cent. of GDP. That is a significant figure and it is important to understand the work situation that means that we miss out on such a benefit to the economy.

Girls do well in education today and more young women than young men are likely to gain degrees. However, that level of attainment is not carried through into work. Instead, many women continue to work in lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs, and the economy continues to operate below its productivity potential. Encouraging women into higher-skilled, higher-paid jobs would help us to reduce the current skill shortages and ensure that women had the opportunity to reach their potential.
 
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Research by the university of Manchester found that women returning to work from caring or maternity leave experience, on average, a 16 per cent. drop in wages, owing to being over-qualified for the part-time job that they then take. We commissioned research with the London School of Economics that showed that in the context of qualifications higher skills raise productivity and lead to higher wages for individuals. Also, organisations with a greater proportion of female and part-time workers had lower productivity and wages, partly because part-time workers were being paid less than their contribution merited.

Further recent research by the Equal Opportunities Commission and Sheffield Hallam university found that more than 50 per cent. of women in part-time work are working below their skill level. That is a shocking statistic. Many of their managers are unaware that that is so. A further 30 per cent. of women in part-time work felt that, given training, they could increase their skill levels.

Skill shortages are higher in sectors with gender dominance. There is currently an annual estimated shortfall of 29,000 plumbers, with an extra 10,000 needed for engineering apprenticeships. Flexibility at all levels of the career ladder is important if women are to retain skills, particularly since those at the higher end of the scale are the greatest contributors to the productivity gains for companies and the economy. The Work and Families Bill, which the Government published on 19 October 2005, will extend the scope of flexible working law to carers of adults.

The women and work commission will issue its report on the gender pay gap in January and, from my regular discussions with Baroness Prosser, the chair of the commission, I know that it is considering practical ways to make a difference to women's working lives. The commission's key task is to consider closing the pay gap within a generation, but I hope that we shall see significant progress sooner.

Information technology is at the heart of the UK economy and is a key source of business competitiveness. It currently accounts for almost 5 per cent. of the UK economy and is set to increase. Employment in the IT industry, too, is set to grow at five to eight times the UK average in the next decade. What my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) was saying earlier is, indeed, correct.

David Taylor: Of course, it goes wider than employment in the narrowly defined IT industry of software development and allied areas. So many of our economy's highly paid, highly skilled and higher-status jobs depend heavily on IT skills, experience and qualifications, even though they may not be IT jobs in the narrowly defined sense.

Does the Minister recognise that the main area for advancement lies there? I hope that she will respond with something positive, even though I am the only male MP of the eight MPs present. I am perhaps an honorary member of the group because I have a large family of daughters.
 
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Meg Munn : I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for the extremely important points that he makes. I was about to say that the IT sector is at a disadvantage when only 20 per cent. of its work force are women, compared with just under half of the UK's national work force.

My hon. Friend is right to say that it is not only in the IT industry that we need IT skills. There are very few occupations now where some IT skills are not an important part of the job. It is predicted that women will make up the majority of the working population by 2018, so to get more women into the IT sector is "a must" for the work force, business profitability and growth, and the economy.

BlackBerry and the women's networking group Aurora hosted the women and technology awards in October. I was pleased to be invited to present one of the prizes and to speak about the event's importance. Award ceremonies such as those—organised by industry—recognise and celebrate women's achievements. They raise awareness that women have talents to offer. The overall winner at the women and technology awards was Jackie Edwards from De Montfort university. She has helped women who have been out of the workplace for several years to learn IT by talking to them and showing them how things work. She has done a great deal to build their confidence not only to re-enter the workplace but to re-enter the information technology sector using the skills that they have learned. I was delighted that BlackBerry recognised her contribution to making a real difference at grass-roots level.

I shall move on now to talk about women with science, engineering and technology qualifications. We need more women with those skills. It is a concern that 70 per cent. who have science, engineering and technology qualifications are not working in sectors that use those skills.

Last year the Government set up the UK resource centre for women in science, engineering and technology. I visited it in early September—it is just up the road from me, in Bradford—to see the work that is done there. I met women there whom the centre had supported. They had learned how to use their knowledge of and skills in science and technology in their work. Through talking to women who were looking to return from a career break, it was clear that the work that they were doing at the centre was enabling them to return to the areas in which they were qualified. It had previously been difficult for those women to do that.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that I have also visited the women's resource centre in Bradford. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Government on establishing the resource centre, which had been desperately needed for years.

The centre has within its grasp a collection of outstanding women who have been working in the field of science, engineering and technology for decades but who have done so poles apart. That facility brings those women together. Can the Minister reassure me that the Government will continue to support the centre to deliver its objectives, which are commendable and desperately needed?
 
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Meg Munn : The Government have invested in that area because we must act to prevent a loss of skills to our economy in an area that is important to future growth. The UK resource centre is developing, not just in science, engineering and technology, but more widely in its links to universities and the construction industry. The centre performs a vital role in attempting to reverse the current situation.

At the centre, I met employers from the region, some of whom were from the construction industry. We know that too few women go into construction and, too often, those who do face prejudice and discrimination. As I am from Yorkshire, I can say that one employer, in true, blunt Yorkshire style, told me that, in his experience, women in construction jobs were often more capable than men, but were often assumed to be less so. He had had conversations with others in the construction industry who had shared that experience. As a result of that experience, they were beginning to change employers' minds.

Fortunately, we also have significant allies in the business world who take occupational segregation seriously. In July, cosmetics firm L'Oréal and the UK resource centre announced a programme to address some of the issues faced by female scientists when returning to work after a career break.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : It would be pertinent at this moment to make my hon. Friend aware of a conversation that I had with the chief executive of one of the leading house builders in this country. He told me that he did not think that the construction industry was a place for women because he would never advocate that his wife worked in it. I consider that an incredible statement in today's society, but that was his position. That is why it was essential for the Government to introduce requirements for construction companies to recruit people from the workplace. I hope that we shall see stringent enforcement on that matter. While that chief executive might not wish to employ his wife in his own business, there are women around the country who would relish the opportunity of working in construction, and who need the assistance of the Government to do so.

Meg Munn : I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution on the experience of talking to people in the construction industry. As I said, my conversations were beneficial in highlighting that the experience of employing women was changing minds. We cannot do too much to share positive experiences and good practice. That is why the work of L'Oréal and the UK resource centre is important. Their programme provides three cash bursaries of £10,000 each, which are jointly funded by the partners, and granted to women scientists each year. They are putting money and investment into this area, as, indeed, are the Government. For those who are not familiar with the UK resource centre, I invite them to visit its website to see the range of its activities.

I am sure that hon. Members were delighted that London secured the 2012 Olympics. Hon. Members will wish to see the games act as a springboard for women in science, engineering and technology. It is an excellent time for women to get involved not only as athletes, but in senior roles and in all aspects of making the games happen, not least in the construction industry, which
 
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will play a vital part in developing the facilities. It is striking that, while female entrepreneurship in the US stands at 89 per cent. of the level of male entrepreneurship, in this country that figure is only 46 per cent. If we had the same rate of female-owned start-ups as that of the US, we would have 750,000 more businesses. The case for doing all that we can to boost women's enterprise in the UK is, therefore, clear. It is not a matter only of equality of opportunity, but an economic imperative if we are to capitalise on the potential that women have to offer. The Small Business Service and Ministers are consistently working to raise the profile of women's enterprise, following a dedicated women's enterprise public relations campaign. That arises from the recommendations of the strategic framework for women's enterprise and the women's enterprise content of the innovation report.

In June, we successfully held the women's enterprise online summit, to which more than 5,000 people logged on. The internet does not tell us whether they were men or women, but all are welcome. The summit was designed to motivate more women to start their own businesses and to tap into an exciting community of networking, support, useful resources and targeted services. It was a worthwhile opportunity for women to obtain answers to such questions as, "How can I speak to like-minded women?" "Who can I speak to about my business idea?" "Who can help me to start and grow my business?" and "What resources are available to support me on that journey?" As many hon. Members will appreciate, being able to get such advice and information from someone who is already running their own business is invaluable, particularly when it is another woman who is acting as a positive role model.

The campaign is additional to the range of activities in the women's enterprise programme throughout 2005. I am sure that hon. Members are aware that next week is enterprise week. We have a dedicated day for women in enterprise, which is next Wednesday.

The next few months will see the roll-out of phase two of the case for women's enterprise. That initiative will be principally aimed at mainstream business support providers. They may have limited experience of providing targeted services for women and may not   previously have considered segmenting their client needs using a gender perspective. The Government have a strong commitment to increasing the number of women starting and growing businesses and to ensuring that Government-funded business support services are accessible and appropriate to their needs. The Government are committed to maximising the skills of women in the economy and we shall continue to work to improve the chances of women in the labour market.

I could say a great deal more about the position of women in the economy and what the Government are doing, but I know that many hon. Members want to speak. I hope that I can provide the information that they want when I sum up the debate later.

2.52 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): Many of our key industries face skill shortages, yet too many women do not see themselves as part of the solution, in part because for centuries women have been actively discouraged from moving into certain fields of work.
 
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Shortages exist in construction and engineering and, as my hon. Friend the Minister emphasised, in science and information technology. Those industries are vital not only to our country's future success but, more specifically, to Plymouth's success. We need apprentices to work in the dockyard on everything from joinery to electronics. We need skilled workers to support our planned growth in housing and in the commercial sector, as part of the Plymouth vision, and to support our thriving scientific and medical research fields, which are burgeoning in the local economy but in which there are shortages.

We must tackle the relatively low skills base across both genders in Plymouth. There are issues not only about skill shortages but about the level of skill. Some excellent organisations are working in my constituency to address that deficit and to upskill our population. I recently attended an event run by Plymouth college of further education designed to encourage women into construction. My local chamber of commerce is working hard in that respect, too.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I know the Plymouth dockyard incredibly well because I did some of my apprenticeship there, and it is a marvellous place, full of huge opportunities for women. However, I have always been concerned about the Ministry of Defence—defence in more ways than one. Does my hon. Friend know whether the MOD is doing anything to attract women into the dockyard and into defence-related roles that involve the science, engineering and technology sectors?

Alison Seabeck : I welcome my hon. Friend's intervention on that point. The Ministry of Defence could be doing more, but there are genuine signs that it is looking at improving the gender balance, particularly in relation to entrants at the lower levels and apprentices. I recently attended an awards ceremony at DML—the management company that runs the dockyard—at which most of the apprentices were young men, but which included two young women who had done extraordinarily well. That is encouraging, because in previous years there had been no young women at all. It is slow progress, but it is some progress. The MOD could do better, and I am sure that my hon. Friend and I will stay on its case.

To return to the event at the Plymouth further education college, those who had been invited to attend were mainly young women who were about to leave school. Interestingly, in the group that I first spoke to, there were two or three who had interests in construction. One was very keen to become a bricklayer and could not wait to get her hands in the cement. Having done that as a young woman myself—my grandfather was a builder, so I laid a few bricks in my summer holidays—I can understand why she should want to do that. There was also an interesting young woman who wanted to be a motor engineer, but who thought she would come along to see what construction had to offer, and there were a few who were interested in decorating—painting and plastering.

However, after I had talked to those young women for a while I asked, "Do you actually see yourself developing this as a career?" and most of them said,
 
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"Oh no, my Mum or Dad do not think it is a very good idea." That is part of the problem that we face. One goes to events at schools and listens to parents, and they all say, "We are in favour of our daughter breaking down some of the gender barriers", but if one asks them, "Do you see your daughter going into construction?" they respond rather like the chief executive that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) mentioned earlier, who did not see his wife working in construction.

There are interesting barriers to break down. We need to keep raising the positive aspects. There are real positives about women going into construction. A lot of single mothers in Plymouth run their own homes, and do the electrics, the plumbing and the decorating. They have a lot of the basic skills, but they do not see themselves as earning a living in that field. Yet there is a lot of flexibility to be found in such jobs as plumbing or being an electrician—they could combine a successful career with managing their child care.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend referring to the activities of young mothers in her area. However, does she not agree with me that we are missing a trick at present with the apprenticeship programme because it is age limited? Many young women leave school and then have young children early in life, so they may be in their 30s before they turn to themselves and their own development. We ought to give those women the right to join such apprenticeship schemes if they wish. That is good for us and good for them.

Alison Seabeck : I am again grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, partly because she has just told me something of which I was not aware. I had not realised that the scheme had an age limit as low as 26. That would be an issue for some of the mums in my area. I know that a lot of them are accessing other courses, but an option to do an apprenticeship would make a significant difference. Perhaps that is something that I can look into at a later date.

I have talked about some of the positive aspects as well as some of the barriers. I welcomed the comments made by my hon. Friend the Minister, in which she set out some of the measures that have already been taken by the Government—as well as those that are in the pipeline—to address some of the difficulties faced by women in accessing and seeking to access certain industries in the UK.

In closing, I should like to ask the Minister to comment, in her closing remarks, on issues related to gender segregation in the modern apprenticeship scheme. The EOC research suggests that

For example, in engineering, 6 per cent. of those taking foundation modern apprenticeships were women, while 8 per cent. of those working in engineering jobs were women. I would welcome the Minister's comments on that.

I should like to know what the Government are doing to encourage wider participation by women in modern apprenticeships. As I implied at the start, those skills are vital to the development not only of the south-west, but of Plymouth.
 
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3 pm

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): I am a member of the all-party group on women in science, engineering and design, so I have an interest in maximising women's skills in those fields and, in particular, in manufacturing.

I worked in the manufacturing industry for 20 years, and employers, economists and the Government all acknowledge the importance to the British economy of manufacturing, which accounts for a fifth of the UK's total output and 60 per cent. of its exports. The Department of Trade and Industry-commissioned Porter report "UK Competitiveness: moving to the next stage" argues that the UK needs to make the transition from competing on the relatively low cost of doing business to competing on unique value and innovation. We are not going to compete with China, India and the Pacific Rim countries on cost, and Porter makes it clear that we can go no further along the road of deregulation and cost-cutting. Management strategies will therefore have to change and focus on innovation, high skills and high value.

I recently visited a Ministry of Defence research establishment in my constituency and I was told that there is no shortage of science graduates who want to work there. However, they are not from the UK, but from places such as China and India, and they stay a couple of years before taking the skills that they have acquired home with them.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : Does my hon. Friend agree that although it is perfectly commendable for us to invite people from abroad to help us with our skill deficiencies, it is a far better longer-term plan to recruit more people from this country, particularly women? In that regard, is she pleased about what the Government have done through their apprenticeship programme to address the shortages in the manufacturing sector?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry : I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and I am particularly pleased with the work that the Government have done on the modern apprenticeship scheme. In my previous employment, I was grateful to the Government for giving my company a grant, which enabled it to increase its research and to restart its apprenticeship programme, which had stopped a few years before.

Let me return to the point about science graduates. When we consider that China is churning out 4 million graduates a year to 250,000 in the UK, 125,000 computer science graduates to 18,000 in the UK and 270,000 engineering science graduates to 100,000 in the UK, we see the scale of the problem facing us. If we are to raise the skills level so that we have a competitive edge in the high-skills, high-tech market, we will have to persuade young people to choose the science, maths and engineering route. That means improving the image of manufacturing occupations by giving school leavers better advice and, most importantly, by ensuring that we tap into the talents of women, who are, I might add, not a minority group, but 52 per cent. of the population.

Many young people are choosing careers that are popular with their peers or that appear on television, but such careers might not be suited to their skills and talents. Girls in particular often look for careers in a
 
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caring profession and are drawn to nursing or social work, for example, but many professions in the fields of science and engineering are immensely caring. Of course, nurses save lives, but what about opening up to young people the possibility of saving lives in other ways? What about developing baby incubators, researching new medicines or developing computer systems to make surgery safer?

Many young people want to improve our world. We have seen the success of the Make Poverty History campaign and the fair trade movement, but how many young people have thought of helping people in the developing world by building machinery to help them to grow food or to rebuild vital bridges and transport systems?

Careers in the media sound really exciting to young people, but have they thought about designing, developing and manufacturing the DVD players and televisions on which we listen to music and watch films and TV?

Last year, when he was Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said:

in science, engineering and technology. Failing to encourage girls into science, engineering and technology means that the UK is missing out on that skills potential. Baroness Greenfield, director at the Royal Institution, said:

An approach by a major employer in my constituency, EADS Astrium, has been to sponsor the City of Portsmouth girls' school in its bid to become a specialist school— specialising in science and maths. EADS Astrium is the UK's biggest space company, employing about 1,000 people in my constituency in highly skilled jobs, but at its three sites in the UK, only about 15 per cent. of the work force are women, although they are predominantly involved in engineering and/or science, including project management, design, manufacturing and integration.

EADS acknowledges that 15 per cent. is insufficient and its support to the City of Portsmouth girls' school is one way it has identified to address that problem. Its support consists of the girls making visits to its manufacturing facility; it has graduates in the role of science engineering ambassadors who mentor the girls to help them to achieve higher grades in maths and science. They are given presentations by staff at EADS Astrium and work experience visits, and there are extended work placements for older students. For EADS, that support is a key element of its corporate responsibility policy, showing its commitment to promoting science in the future, and a conscious effort to shift the traditional image of scientists as predominantly male.

As an employer, EADS recognises that it needs to look beyond the existing range of students opting for science and engineering and to reach out to new groups, including women. It sees that support as helping to
 
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create the right kind of highly skilled, high-quality, home-grown work force who my constituency will need in the future.

The head teacher of the school is very enthusiastic about the project; she said that attaining specialist status in science will give the girls in her school a unique opportunity to acquire the technical, transferable skills that they need to thrive in the 21st century. However, that raises a fundamental issue: the City of Portsmouth girls' school is just that—an all-girls school. Are girls more likely to choose science and engineering as a career option if they are taught in single-sex classes?

I do not advocate the wholesale segregation of the sexes, but is there a case for science and maths to be taught in single-sex classes? From the early 1990s onwards, girls have been increasingly successful in subjects that many of them previously found difficult or which they disliked, such as maths, science, design and technology. Girls need additional support if they are to achieve their full potential and be in a position to choose science and engineering as a career. There is a danger that the needs of girls could be sidelined as the under-achievement of boys gains increasing attention.

Some co-educational schools recognise that problem and have introduced science teaching in single-sex classes, with some positive outcomes. In 2002, the Wise Campaign—Women into Science and Engineering—commissioned a report called "Singularly Successful", which investigated whether teaching science in single-sex classes could enhance the achievement of girls without disadvantaging boys and improve the female take-up of post-16 science, design and technology courses.

The conclusions of the report, which looked at several case studies, were very interesting: girls developed confidence and competence, and displayed a more positive attitude to science, technology, engineering and maths. It was noticed that in mixed-sex classes boys monopolised equipment, dominated hands-on activities and tended to show off. Many girls and quite a lot of the boys preferred being taught in single-sex classes, and parents, particularly those of girls, were generally in favour of single-sex teaching.

The report also focused on how science could be taught in a more girl-friendly way—for example, using everyday situations as starting points; emphasising the human application of science, including stories about male and female scientists; providing opportunities to explain and discuss opinions on science and technology related to social issues; and ensuring that there is no gender bias in resources and illustrations, although it was noted that that became much improved in later years.

A couple of issues were raised during the study that could be explored through further research, and I will be grateful if the Minister and her colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills take note of that. We should examine the different learning styles of girls and boys, specifically with regard to science, design, technology and maths. We should also examine whether the science and maths curriculum content is right for girls—for example, does it also meet the demands of the world of work and the needs of employers?
 
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If the UK is to retain its manufacturing base and competitive edge in the global economy, we need to ensure that employers have access to a labour market in which people have the right skills to support their business objectives, and that our young people are encouraged, in their education, on to the right pathways to get the groundwork qualifications in science and maths that they need to get those skills. We cannot leave it all to the boys; we need to ensure that the girls get to play with the boys' toys too.

3.10 pm

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): We can get an angle on what is happening in the work force, and on their gender nature, if we consider some figures from Tees valley, where my constituency is. The work force are about 50:50 male to female, but socio-economic statistics show that, for people aged 16 to 74, about 23 per cent. of men are in the professional and managerial classes, compared with about 4.3 per cent. of women. In comparison, lower supervisory and technical jobs are occupied by 13.3 per cent. of men and 4.1 per cent of women, and semi-routine occupations—shock horror, what a surprise—are held by 9.5 per cent. of men and almost 17 per cent. of women.

The average pay levels in Tees valley are as follows: for males, £466.70 a week, and for females £247.60 a week. In my constituency, in which there is a steel industry, which is well paid and wholly male-dominated, and a chemical industry—ditto—the situation is even worse. There, the average male wage is £513 a week and the average female wage is £250 or less—half as much. If one takes a closer look one sees that in the Tees valley 48.5 per cent. of men are employed full-time and 3.5 per cent. part-time, but of women, 23.9 per cent. are employed full-time and 22.4 per cent. part-time. So, it is pretty much half and half for women regarding full-time and part-time employment, while men are overwhelmingly in full-time employment. Of course, that is highly relevant, not only to pay, but—the Minister touched on this—to the quality of jobs available.

It may be obvious, but there is no shortage of women's skills in the Tees valley; there is no shortage of damn good women. Almost all the activities in the community in my constituency are run by women: all the volunteering is spearheaded by women; good mothers are involved in many of the sports activities, particularly for girls; and, closer to home, the Redcar Labour women's forum is streets ahead of the Redcar constituency Labour party—it is not so preoccupied with standing orders, has very interesting meetings, and is pretty big in number. I make that point lest anyone should think that women in Tees valley get poor jobs and pay because they have no skills. That is not the case.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : Yesterday, I attended a fantastic function held by Siemens in which it rewards young people who have done outstandingly well in engineering. I glanced, on the internet, at the composition of the board before I went, and I asked the chairman, "Was the woman on your board on holiday when the photograph was taken?" Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the absence of women at senior level has a profound effect on whether women achieve their potential in society? Does she agree that we
 
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are in a pretty lamentable state 30 years after the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force? Has she any ideas about how we can spread the good will of the Labour women's movement in Redcar to infiltrate the male bastions that still exist there?

Vera Baird : Those were three sharp questions, to which I shall give three short answers as I do not want to occupy the whole afternoon.—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) want to intervene?

Mrs. Laing : I did not intend to interrupt the hon. and learned Lady, but I fear that my whisper was too loud. I was simply saying that she was making a very interesting speech, and developing good points, and we have plenty of time this afternoon so I hope that she will not be too brief.

Vera Baird : Well, what an invitation, Sir John! How can a barrister by training resist? [Interruption.] Just settle down and go to sleep, girls; I shall be on for a while   now. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) is right that role models are very important. I shall talk in a while about my own legal profession and the shortage of role models at the top of that. The shortage of role models in the judiciary is a major feature that deters young women from sticking at the job long enough to be able to get into it.

The Redcar women's forum could tell the world at large that we work really well together, but the real point is that it is a good organisation because it is mutually supportive, and encourages people to go on and do such things as little training courses to become a chair or a secretary. Then people feel that they have the self-confidence to make moves forward. That is the strength of communal groups, and why volunteering is often dominated by women, because they are prepared to be that mutual and to press each other on.

There was a middle question, but I have completely forgotten it. Oh yes, why are we in such a terrible state 30 years after the Equal Pay Act and the founding of the Equal Opportunities Commission? That is a deep question and I do not have an answer for my hon. Friend, but clearly we are making a bit of progress, as the Minister said.

May I come back to part-time work and the questions of pay and wasted skills? We are talking about skills here, and women's skills in the community. The Minister mentioned a figure of around 5.6 million part-time workers, which is four out of five of Britain's 7 million part-time workers, the bulk of whom are women. The statistics in the Tees valley are pretty well replicated nationwide. So four out of five of our 7 million part-time workers are working in jobs that do not use their full potential. According to the results of a year-long investigation by the EOC, to which I am indebted, 3.5 million of those had higher qualifications and skills, and used them, and did more supervision of management of staff in previous full-time jobs, and a further 2 million were satisfied that they could easily work at a higher level, even though they had not done so before. That is a major problem.
 
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Sarah McCarthy-Fry : It is interesting that my hon. and learned Friend is talking about women working part-time. Very often, women work part-time after they have brought up their families.

Vera Baird indicated assent.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry : Picking up the point about the women of the Redcar women's forum working well together, does my hon. and learned Friend feel that there could be a way in which we could get women who have given up work or who are in part-time work to focus on getting back into full-time employment? When my children were young, I used to go to mother and toddler clubs. It is about giving people the confidence; women often lose their confidence when they are out of the workplace. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that that is something that we could take forward?

Vera Baird : I very much agree with that. It is quite possible that as children's centres develop on the model of Sure Start, there ought to be more co-operation with employment, recruitment and training. I am sure that the intention is to educate and support children and their parents. That must be a way forward.

The report to which I am referring is called "Britain's hidden brain drain", published by the EOC. It highlights the nonsense of old-fashioned thinking about work, which leads to men, who mostly work full-time, working among the longest hours in Europe, and women, over two-fifths of whom work part-time, ending up in low-paid jobs with no prospects. Women part-time workers earn about 40 per cent. less per hour than men working full-time, which is about the same pay gap as 30 years ago. Let me turn to that, because the Minister rightly   mentioned that it has improved, but it has improved only a little. Some material published on 10   November—today—by the Fawcett Society, of which I am pleased to be an active member, says:

the figure given by the Minister. That is the mean hourly pay gender gap. The mean gender part-time pay gap—female hourly part-time pay compared with male hourly full-time pay—has closed by 1.1 per cent. during the past 12 months. It now stands at 38.5 per cent.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?

Vera Baird : I shall finish the statistics first, as I am prone to muddle them.

The figure to which the Minister referred means that the pay gap for full-time work, which at the time of the Equal Pay Act was 29 per cent., is now 17.2 per cent.—a somewhat significant improvement—but the gap for part-time work was 42 per cent. 30 years ago and is now 38.5 per cent., which is not much of an improvement.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend will take comfort from the fact that there is a positive differential pay gap in the engineering community. Women in senior engineering positions are
 
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paid 19 per cent. more than their male equivalents. The sad fact is that there are only five such women; however, it is an important development. I have spoken to most of those women, and in order to achieve that preferential pay position they have had to move. They have not been promoted within their companies because they experienced a glass ceiling. To avoid that, they had to go elsewhere, to wherever their skills were needed. That is a sad reflection on the company structures that we have today.

Vera Baird : I agree with my hon. Friend. I am impressed by what she says about her industry, but if women have to be flexible and move from job to job, which often means uprooting the family, it will obviously limit the potential for them to achieve those higher pay rates.

Although that exception must be included in the average figures, the general rate of reduction in the pay gap means that it will take 80 years at the current rate of progress to close the hourly full-time pay gap, and it will take more than a century to close the part-time pay gap. Whenever I visit Bydales school, Redcar community college, Eston Park, St. Peter's and the other schools in my constituency, I have to tell the girls not only that they will have lower pay than men but that so will their daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters. And their great-great-granddaughters will be lucky to have achieved the same levels of pay as men by 2085 or 2105; not until then will they be able to save, invest and enjoy life, and have the same independence as men have had for the past 30 years—or at least since the Equal Pay Act.

Tonight, as I am sure many Members are aware, the EOC and the Fawcett Society are celebrating 30 years of the Equal Pay Act with a reception. That is good, and I shall be there—I hope everyone else will be there, too—but there is plenty of partying still to go because, at the present rate of progress, we will clearly need the Equal Pay Act for another 100 years.

We have overwork and high levels of stress among full-timers and men—the DTI estimates that stress at work costs £3.7 billion a year—but I suggest that stress is building up among women who are under-employed and under-satisfied, which is just as stressful. I know of a number of examples, but I was struck by one in the EOC survey. A women named Joanna said:

Sarah McCarthy-Fry : Very often, it is simply a question of changing attitudes and making people think about things in different ways. I mentioned before that I worked in manufacturing. I was asked to arbitrate in a situation in which a young woman had returned to work and had asked for part-time hours—she wanted to work three days a week. She worked in the stores, but no one had ever worked part-time in the entire history of the stores, so they said no without even considering it.

When we sat down and talked about it, the stores manager said that he was very concerned about losing her skills. He said that she was a superb worker and he
 
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did not want to train anyone else. We said, "Hang on; we are a large company. If we cannot be flexible, how do we expect smaller companies to be?" We then suggested five mornings, instead of three days a week, which the young women said she could do. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that we can secure job satisfaction for the employee and ensure that the employer does not lose the skills if we start to consider more flexible ways of working and stop being rigid?

Vera Baird : Absolutely. Such flexibility and interaction between employer and employee builds up a very strong and good relationship, which means that the employer derives more benefit from the skills of their employee because of commitment that he or she has shown, which the employee shows in return. That is clearly a way forward, not only for equality but for productivity. Joanna, the young woman for whom the only available job with flexible hours was that of PA, had a good degree and 10 years' management experience, and had handled million-pound budgets, but all they could offer her was the job of PA.

There are some quite interesting things about part-time work that are highly relevant to the way in which we progress into better pay and higher calibre jobs. Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that 25 per cent. of women part-time workers are shop assistants, carers, assistants or cleaners, and that only 4 per cent. are managers or senior officials. Nor will they be surprised to hear that even short periods of part-time work can be damaging. Women who have worked for 15 years and who move to full-time employment after only one year in part-time employment tend to earn 10 per cent. less an hour than those who have worked full-time for the total 15 years, so even a short period in part-time employment has a great impact.

There are a couple of interesting pointers to progress. First, in the past 20 years men have accounted for almost half the increase in part-time working. There are now an extra 1 million male part-timers. My guess is that that is a significant pointer towards the working conditions and pay rates of part-timers emerging as a more important item on the national agenda.

Secondly, we are frequently told that we are an ageing population. Again, the Equal Opportunities Commission makes it clear that many older workers would like more choice in their working patterns in the run-up to state pension age, and the option to carry on working after then. The experience of those over 55 is not being tapped. The EOC's report says that about 1.25 million of those over 55 are working at below their potential in part-time jobs. That is exactly the strand of people whom we want to make a more major contribution than they do now, so that we can deal with the demographic problem of there being more pensioners and fewer workers, and particularly with the band of people over 55 who are not working to capacity. The demand for part-time work has increased.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : There is a class war in access to education. If I had not been to university but I was a woman with A-levels and I wanted to go—I believe that I am still young enough—I could do a degree in medicine, become a qualified doctor in seven years and reap a good reward. If, however, I was a woman with significant skills and a desire to use my hands and develop a career in trade, I could not do so because the
 
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apprenticeship that would legitimise my position would be closed to me. It seems that people with brains can go to university and benefit as a result, but that the wonderful people in this country who are immensely creative and vocational get barred, do not receive financial assistance and are not assisted in the workplace. Does my hon. and learned Friend believe that we should not tolerate that situation in the longer term, as it denies women the opportunity to achieve their potential?

Vera Baird : I could not fail to agree. The argument was put extremely cogently and my hon. Friend is right about class imbalance, although that does not affect the whole proposition. What one can take from the EOC's report, "Britain's hidden brain drain", is the understanding that there is an increasing demand for part-time work, and the hope that that should result in improved quality in such jobs.

Let us consider women specifically. Many women's lives are characterised by part-time work for much of the time. People may well train and work full-time for a while, and then stop to have children. They may look after their children full-time and later, as has been said, do part-time work—a little at first, because of the need to take children to school and fetch them home, and perhaps more as they are better able to cope.

Those women may still, however, want a job that allows them to be in the home in the morning and afternoon. Often, transitional periods for children, between infants and junior schools, and junior and secondary schools, are difficult. Women often either stop work or reduce their hours to cope with that. The children then reach the examination stage, when they need support at home while they are put to the test. Mothers often cut their hours, or continue to work just part-time through that stage.

Finally, the women in question get their children off to work. They may then be able to work full-time, but whether or not they can move to full-time work, many return to part-time work because they begin caring for elders. The burden of doing that still falls predominantly on women. A pattern exists by which, if part-time work remains poorly paid and of low quality, women's lives will be significantly less than men's, and we shall not bring women, whose life patterns still tend to favour part-time work, into the skills arena in a significant way. Caring brings little reward and so does part-time work.

Part-time work is currently abysmally dealt with. Part-time workers are expected to have no career advancement and no ambition. They are rarely offered self-development or training opportunities. They are not regarded as a full part of a team and tend to be seen as a little replaceable cog that fits into a machine. That means that part-time workers live in poverty and do not get life satisfaction or the independence that they are entitled to.

Fawcett, which published figures on pay today, has some strong recommendations on dealing with the pay gap. Those include compulsory pay audits—we are all familiar with the need for those—for all organisations; well-enforced laws to ensure fair treatment of part-time work; full sign-up to the working time directive; and better quality flexible working, to allow men and women better to share responsibility. The Government have made huge steps in that direction, but it is plain from the figures that much still needs to be done.
 
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What is the problem with most jobs being available part-time? Is our thinking on the subject fresh enough? I was in conversation with the eminent journalist Polly Toynbee, who suggested that there should be a rule to make all jobs available part-time unless there was a sound reason against that. If we started to think in that way we might, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby said, arrive at a fresh approach that could break the problem down. Trying to break it down from the ghettos that women now occupy as part-time workers, where they are rarely unionised, have little economic clout and are replaceable is not the way to go about things. Fresh thinking from a different angle is needed.

Why should we not examine the assumption that all jobs are full-time unless they are subordinate? Why should we not assume that they can all be part-time? That seems to me an important thought. I have important thoughts only about once every six years, so I hope that hon. Members will value it.

I want to consider the skills gap in the criminal justice system, in which I spent my life. I should declare an interest because I am a criminal Queen's counsel by training. I also have the pleasure and privilege of chairing the Fawcett commission on women and the criminal justice system. During the two years that we spent on our original report—we are now into our third, follow-up year—we looked at women as defendants, victims and witnesses, and workers in the criminal justice system to see how they fared. We have an excellent body of commissioners, who are drawn from across the criminal justice system, including men, women, ethnic minority representatives and others at senior levels.

Our opening session was on workers, and the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Judicial Appointments and the British Association for Women in Policing all came. We looked at issues right across the board, including the appointing of judges, sexual harassment, and protective clothing for female police officers. We distributed a lot of questionnaires and we got feedback from the Prison Service, where there is huge discrimination, the police service, where there is a plan to overcome discrimination, and the probation service, where there is somewhat less of a problem, but a problem none the less. We also looked at the legal profession.

I shall not go through every year, but we started at 1922—the year that first saw women admitted to the legal profession after the rules against their joining it were removed by statute. Women now make up 40 per cent. of our 90,000 solicitors and 30 per cent. of our 11,000 barristers, and more women than men now study law as a first degree. None the less, the Law Society, which is the solicitors' professional group, has found that women leaving university and starting a training contract at a law firm—the training contract is their apprenticeship, as it were—are paid 7 per cent. less on average than men at the same stage. As of 2004, when the commission looked at the issue, the gap was widening.

That trend continues throughout women's careers, and female assistant solicitors earn £12,500 less on average than men. That is quite probably because of the size of firm where they work and the law that they practise, because, as in other sectors of the economy, women dominate in the specialisms that are presumed to
 
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be most appropriate to their caring nature, such as family law, but are unrepresented in highly paid areas such as patent law and intellectual property law.

Women lawyers still find it hard to get through the glass ceiling. Of solicitors with between 10 and 19 years' experience, more than 80 per cent. of men are partners but only 55 per cent. of women are, so women are staying at lower levels for longer. Not surprisingly, there is concern that women solicitors with that profile are leaving the profession in their 30s, and their skills are being lost to the legal economy just at the time when those women would, if they were men, become partners. There is a similar exodus at the Bar.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : In the engineering community, we have a marvellous scheme called the Daphne Jackson award. Daphne was one of the founders of Women into Science and Engineering, to which some of my hon. Friends have referred. The programme is aimed at highly educated, highly qualified women returners, who have done what they need to do in terms of their caring duties, but who want to go back to work, regain the position that they occupied before and make a contribution. Does my hon. and learned Friend know of any legal equivalent? If there is none, why does one not exist? Why have the institutions and organisations representing the law industry not recognised that the profession loses an enormous amount of quality and experience when it loses women?

Vera Baird : I am not aware of any similar plans in the legal profession. Of course, the situation there has a knock-on effect on the judiciary, and the imbalance is important more broadly. There is a similar exodus at the Bar of women in their 30s who are looking to start families. There are particular problems for women barristers because they are self-employed and do not receive maternity pay. Sometimes, if someone wishes to retain their tenancy during maternity leave, they must continue to pay rent to keep their place open, despite being off work. The Bar Council is working on that matter, but it moves at a snail's pace. If it took 100 years to secure equal pay, I have no idea how long it will take to sort that out.

Some 1,100 barristers, including me, have taken silk as a QC. That means that one can take on larger and more complex cases, and charge higher fees. It is an extraordinary system because, as a junior person, one may be doing the same work as a QC. I was leading on serious cases, which is what QCs do, for 12 years before I took silk. As soon as I received a small envelope, put on a new jacket with finely embroidered sleeves and strolled into the Old Bailey as a QC, I got paid 25 per cent. more, which was wonderful but inexplicable. I was doing more or less the same job, albeit with a slight hangover as a consequence of the celebration we held the previous night. That is the only time I have been hungover. I wish to place that on the record for the benefit of my constituents in Redcar.

Only 8 per cent. of QCs are women, and the process for their appointment has historically represented something of a prize. The process has changed, but one had to apply to the Lord Chancellor's Department, which operated a system of consultees whereby the
 
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applicant would submit a couple of references, as one would expect, when applying for promotion. The consultees would then ask for the opinion of everyone in the judiciary who might know the applicant. The Commission for Judicial Appointments does not make appointments, but it has scrutinised how the Lord Chancellor's Department has done so. It is made up predominantly of male, upper middle-class, public school educated men. In its first report in 2003, in what I regard as a moderate tone, it stated that

I can tell hon. Members that that view is accurate. Since that report, the CJA has examined the case of a woman, whom I know well, who was refused silk. One consultee described her professional performance in moderate but adequate language, but condemned her for having poor dress sense and for not being a "leader of the profession". Heaven only knows what that means; presumably she does not go to the right cocktail parties. Another person, whom I know well, found that one consultee had expressed his disapproval of an affair that she allegedly had 20 years previously, which was a source of scandal at the time, but did not stop the man in question getting silk.

Another unfair comment was made about a woman's performance in the Court of Appeal. However, she should have been given silk for her skill in cross-examining the feedback interviewer, from whom she extracted information that should not be disclosed—namely, the name of the judge who made the comment. She wrote to that judge, who backed off as fast as a train going through a tunnel, and said how highly he had always regarded her ability. He accepted that the problem he mentioned had been put in language that was rather too strong. Those are examples of problems that the Government's own institution, the CJA, found to be occurring and has reported on. There have been a number of allegations of sex discrimination; almost all of them were upheld.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): Is the hon. and learned Lady aware of a recent case of a woman who claimed to have been unlawfully dismissed because she was pregnant? She made the point that there was no deterrent to the law firm getting rid of her because the amount it would have to pay in compensation was so low that it represented only a fraction of her salary. Is the hon. and learned Lady aware of any other examples of such discrimination?

Vera Baird : No, but I accept that that appears to be the case. The EOC has done a good deal of work recently on pregnancy discrimination. The legislative framework that has been in place for quite a long time does not appear to have tackled that discrimination adequately.

As well as the discrimination implicit in what I have said, judges are drawn from silks, by and large. Therefore, discrimination that stops women becoming silks stops them joining the judiciary, as I shall explain. A woman's chance of becoming a judge is hugely cut as a result of keeping her out of silk.
 
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The judiciary performs a key function in any legal system. Some 96 per cent. of criminal cases are heard in the magistrates court, but district judges, recorders, circuit judges, Crown court judges and High Court judges hear the rest of what are increasingly serious cases. There are the two layers of appellate court on top: the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords, which is soon to be called the supreme court.

If one starts at the top—instead of at the bottom, as I did—and works down, one finds that, out of 12 Law Lords, 8 per cent. are women. The keen mathematicians among us—I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby is one—will immediately work out that there is only one woman among 12 judges in the highest court.

There are 37 lord justices of appeal, of whom 8 per cent. are women. That means that there are three female lord justices of appeal. Of 107 High Court judges, 7 per cent. are women, which means that about seven women are High Court judges. Women make up 11 per cent. of circuit judges and 12 per cent. of recorders, which is a slightly lower rank. Down at the bottom, 28 per cent. of district judges are women.

Not surprisingly, as one moves from top to bottom, the proportion of women rises strongly. Of 11,000 barristers, 30 per cent. are women, and of 90,000 solicitors, 40 per cent. are women. Judges are drawn from a mixture of those two professions, so should not women make up 35 per cent. all the way through the judiciary?

Those figures indicate exactly how strong the discrimination is. The legal profession often argues that there are not sufficient women at senior level, so there is a need for trickle-up. We have been admitted to the Bar and been solicitors since 1922. How old do we have to be before we have equal access to the higher echelons of the profession?

This is just a snapshot. The Government have taken action because they are aware of the problem in the profession. The profession will now determine who becomes a QC. It is yet to be decided whether those who became QCs under the old system will have to reapply for their jobs—I shall wait and see. My fees might go down, if I ever work as a QC again.

People will fill out a self-assessment form, so that they can put themselves forward. That is fine, but it is fairly well known that women tend to understate their abilities, skills and qualifications in self-assessment forms. There is a famous story that if a job is advertised in the press and a woman thinks that she has five out of the six qualifications for it, she will hesitate before applying, whereas a man with two of the qualifications will apply straight away. One worries that there may be an imbalance in the self-assessment process. However, the process is being undertaken by people with enormous human resources experience, which can only mean progress.

What will present a difficulty is the fact that the new panel for the appointment of QCs is entitled only to interview applicants. They are very good people, but they can only appraise self-assessment forms and conduct the interviews that follow. The panel will not be able to do anything about the structure of the profession, which is where the imbalance lies. Women do not receive sufficient support when they are in their 30s and having their families, yet that will not be dealt with to broaden the range of applicants.
 
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That continues to be a worry, but we must see how the new system fares. As everyone knows, there is to be a judicial appointments commission, which will have stronger powers to run the appointments system properly. It must attempt to widen the range of applicants for silk, as the interviewing panel cannot. The judiciary is dependent on silks, so the panel will have to include academics, solicitors and so on. It must take advantage of the Act that set it up, which states that it should "have regard to diversity". It should reach deep into the profession and advise it—indeed, drive it—to deal with the high drop-out rate among women, their lower pay and all the other factors that stand in their way. Frankly, it will have to consider such things as not appointing men from a set of chambers that self-evidently has discriminatory practices—perhaps because of its outcomes in terms of women's advancement—unless it puts its house in order and ensures that there is a fair and flat playing field for everyone.

It is a great delight to me that Baroness Prashar has been appointed to head the judicial appointments commission. She was first civil service commissioner and I had the privilege of serving with her on the Joint Committee on Human Rights; she is just the person for the job. Apart from changing the silks system indirectly, which I think the group will have to do, it could follow the experience of the police, who found it hard to recruit women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds because they did not have the confidence to think they could be police officers.

However, those people can be recruited as community support officers because they think they can do that job, and once they are on the first tier they realise that the job of policing would not be so much more difficult. That strategy has worked very well in the police force and has increased the number of black and women recruits to officer level. The judges probably will not like the analogy, but it follows that the recruitment we are discussing should start from tribunal chairs and the lowest level of district judge and continue to the higher levels of the profession.

In my beloved Redcar, and in my criminal justice profession, there are clearly difficulties in losing women's skills to the economy. I compliment the Government on the steps that they have taken, especially in my profession, to drive things forward. I look forward to the enactment of the Equality Bill, which will place a duty on public authorities to promote gender equality, although I do not know how it will play out and whether people really appreciate what a driver it can be in terms of contract compliance in the private sector. Bearing in mind the time scales that I quoted, we will have to work these new tools well, and speedily, otherwise we will not get access to equal pay and equal access to good work while any of the people in this Chamber are alive.

3.53 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I enjoyed the speeches of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry). I am so indoctrinated in the world of science, engineering and design that I hardly get time to put my head over the parapet, but having heard what my hon.
 
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and learned Friend said, it seems that the situation for women in the legal profession is far more difficult than that for women in science, engineering and design, because our world is changing.

Before I continue, I should declare some interests: I sit as a member of the Engineering Technology Board, which governs and regulates the engineering profession throughout the UK. We cover more than 232,000 people—by and large chartered engineers. I have been president of the Institution of Engineering Designers for the last two years. I was its first female fellow, and I remain the only one, which is sad, given that we have a membership of 5,000. I am a fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and I sit on the board of that institution. I am also a fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

I am also chair of the all-party group on women in science, engineering and design, and it is great that some members of that group are present. I also chair the all-party group on construction skills and training. I am a construction industry adviser and I also advise any of my engineering colleagues who seek advice on the retention and recruitment of women in science, engineering and technology.

My history in engineering goes back a long way. I started my career in engineering as an apprentice fitter on the docks in Portsmouth, so I have a great love of ships and also of Portsmouth docks, because that is where I started my involvement in the most wonderful profession that one could hope to be in.

I regard my current profession as interim—politicians are elected by others and we can be quick in and quick out—whereas I think that I was born an engineer, and I am grateful to say that I shall die one. No one can take that away from me. I suspect that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar feels the same about her profession. Sometimes we are genetically pre-programmed to be one thing, and I was genetically pre-programmed to be an engineer. The engineering world is extraordinary, but it is acutely short of women, and we greatly miss the contribution that they can make.

It caused me great sorrow recently to read another Equal Opportunities Commission report—a fantastic report that fed my worst prejudices. It gives an up-to-date platform from which to assess the progress we are making and lays down challenges for us in the future. As my hon. and learned Friend asked, what is 100 years in the development of women on this planet? It is a short time, and if we did not think so, we should be depressed. However, it is a salutary fact that our great great great-grandchildren might know some degree of equal opportunities in their lives. Oh, that we were so rich that we could tolerate that gap, but that is how it is.

The Equal Opportunities Commission report to which I refer is called "Plugging the Skills Gap: Challenging Gender Segregation in Training and Work". Colleagues have referred to it; I shall refer to some of its key points. First, there is a clear link between skills-shortage sectors such as plumbing, construction and engineering and the under-representation of women. Secondly, sectors experiencing some of the most severe skills shortages are also among those in which men make up the majority of the work force.
 
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Thirdly, widening recruitment pools to include more women most certainly offers a solution to this acute skills shortage. There are acute shortages in plumbing, construction and engineering.

Earlier, I forgot to refer to my work with women plumbers. The Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering is a marvellous organisation—chock full of men at the top, of course, but women drive the administration like mad. One part of that administration is a great woman called Carol Cannavan, who several years ago decided that the institute would offer a facility for women plumbers. There were not many at the time, and there are not many now, but the institute has provided a home for women in plumbing—there are quite a number now in London—and somewhere they can meet and support each other while they undertake training and work experience before going on to work on their own. I commend the institute, although it represents a small token.

I have not yet met anyone who has had a woman plumber attend their home, because the industry is by and large still dominated by men—99 per cent. The same is true of all other construction sectors. Unfortunately, the proportion of women working in trades and in the construction industry is still only 1 per cent. That is lamentably small, but the Construction Industry Training Board, which is a skills sector in its own right and which funds a huge amount of training for apprenticeships, is making special efforts with women and with people from ethnic communities.

How do we get women into apprenticeships? It is      exceptionally difficult. When I started my apprenticeship, it was not by design but completely by   accident. I went along to a jobcentre with some O-levels—GCSEs now—and somebody said to me, "What is it that you would like to do?" I said that I liked mathematics and working with my hands, and the man said, "Perhaps you would like to pop along to this place this afternoon and do a bit of a test." I did not like to ask him where I was going; it seemed rude, given that he was giving me a work opportunity. When I got there, it seemed even more rude to ask, "Why am I here, and what is it that you do?" However, I sat the test and at the end of the afternoon I was told that I had done exceptionally well and beaten all the boys. I was then asked whether I would like to come along on Monday. I went home that evening having passed the test, but not sure about what I was to do on Monday. I turned up, and the money was £19 a week. I was issued with a boiler suit, a pair of Totectors, a hard hat and goggles. Most of my male colleagues immediately abandoned the hard hat and goggles—safety has never been pre-eminent in the industry—but I hung on to mine. Four years later, I walked away with my deeds as a mechanical fitter. I was one woman among 3,000 men.

From forays that I have made into training schools recently, some of which I shall tell hon. Members about, I know that the situation has not changed. The four years of my apprenticeship were incredibly difficult. Half the men thought that I should not be there and should be at home. I did not have a family at the time, but they did not think that that was any reason to keep me in the workplace. The other half were delighted that I was there, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. They wanted to go out with me, and that included most of the married men who worked at the dock.
 
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Pursuing and enduring an apprenticeship in so isolated a position is incredibly difficult. Two young women came after me, but unfortunately they did not have the capacity to cope. There was no mentoring and no organisation to which I could look to support me in that environment. I just had to get on with it. That is immensely unfortunate: unless we change the environment that young women have to work in when they are significantly outnumbered by men, the attrition rate will be huge.

My route into an apprenticeship was ad hoc. Things seem to have been similarly ad hoc for the young women I spoke to today, but there is significant hope. Under this Government, we have seen the introduction of specialist schools. We do not have many single-sex schools left, so the specialist schools—particularly those with specialisms in engineering, mathematics and computing—are mixed, and plenty of effort is going into developing young people in those areas. That is leading to a larger number of women considering careers relating to science and engineering-based subjects. That is fantastic, because it gets rid of some problems in other schools, where the careers teachers, God bless them, do not have much experience of the engineering community: sexual stereotyping of such roles still predominates in the advice they offer to the young women and men in their care. If that was not the case, far more young women would have involved themselves in science, engineering and technology in the past 30, 40 or 50 years.

School specialism is making a difference, both because it focuses the school on a particular area and because it involves employers. Employers are crucial for women seeking apprenticeships, because being able to pick up the document that can mean a fantastic livelihood and financial independence for a woman means having work experience. Apprenticeships have changed. People can do college-based training, but that must be supplemented by work in the workplace with an employer. More women are entering apprenticeships, because schools have awakened their ambitions and provided them with steers. In addition, employers are interested in what schools are doing, because their businesses have skill shortages.

Women who are going into apprenticeships might have an opportunity to work with those employers. If they do not get such an opportunity, the discrimination that they, as opposed to their male counterparts, will face in trying to get work-based training remains significant. It may be possible to place a young man in work-based training, but a young woman, unless there is a family relationship or she has been sold positively by facilitators, will have a far greater problem finishing her apprenticeship. It does not really matter how good she is at the job. According to many of the companies that I have visited, a young woman is likely to get pregnant and go off to have children. Small companies in particular will go for the racing certainty of a young male over a young female, fearing that any investment in time and energy they make in a young woman will be lost when she leaves the workplace.

However, legions of companies in the construction sector are equally reluctant to take on a male apprentice because the industry—particularly small to medium-sized enterprises—absolutely refuses to put its hand in its pocket to train young people. It does not do that and
 
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tells me that it will not. Why should it, when the trained person will leave a company and go and work for somebody else?

Companies will not train people if they feel that they are going to lose that investment to another company, which is why we have a chronic shortage of suitably trained people in the construction industry. The industry wants images of perfection to fetch up on its doorstep every Monday, rather than put its hand in its pocket and train them itself.

Apprenticeships are a difficult field for young women to enter. I have recently been to one great training school, which I really liked. In fact, I would have liked to stay there rather than come here. It was wonderfully equipped, and was launched on the back of the Learning and Skills Council, working in conjunction with sector skills councils, which are both innovations of this Government.

I shall digress briefly. Sector skills councils are made up of representatives from industry, working with the further education sector through the learning and skills councils. They are directing those councils where money must be delivered in college-based training to satisfy the needs of industry. That is something that we desperately wanted in this country, and we now have it. The LSC is consequently funding thousands and thousands of places in construction to satisfy the demand of the sector, because—I say this on a party political basis—since 1997 there has been massive investment in construction. The previous 20 or 30 years saw nothing to compare with that huge investment. However, we are 88,000 people short of delivering the potential capital investment in the construction programme year on year. How we shall achieve the Olympics I shall never know.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry : That is a point I want to make. We have the building better schools for the future initiative and building better homes; now we have the Olympics. I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that if we are to get enough construction workers, we need to start now so as to ensure that they have the skills. We must put more emphasis on vocational skills and on encouraging people to take up such professions.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : We must—that is absolutely right. Jobs for life was something that our parents had, but we have been told that we could never expect it. We expect six or 18 months here and maybe two years there, but that is not true in engineering. Nor is it true for British Gas, which is saying, "Because of the contract we have to re-lay all the pipework in this country, we can offer you a job for life." That is fantastic. The starting salary is about £23,000, which is great money for people in disadvantaged communities. It will enable us to utilise a repository of individuals who were marginalised prior to this huge investment in public sector and utility infrastructure.

I agree with my hon. Friend: we have an enormous deficit of trained and well-equipped people in the construction sector, and we must start to address that now. We are making the investment that is needed to provide money for academic training. However, to repeat the point that I made earlier, academic training is fine, but it means nothing to the industry without being complemented by experience on the job.
 
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Women have great difficulties getting experience on the job for the reasons I have cited, but the Government can do something about that. We already have section 106s for public sector contracts. I doubt whether many people here will know anything about section 106s, but I, unfortunately, know everything—I am a bit of a 106 anorak, because I see their use as a pathway to a better door. They are a fantastic facility.

Local authorities attach section 106s to public sector contracts so that contractors who win work are obliged to employ local people on those projects. That sounds great; it is just what we need. I could say to all the women I see—or rather the few women I see—in apprenticeship workshops, "There is your route to a working opportunity: a section 106," but very few are enforced.

Mrs. Laing : I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. I, too, know quite a bit about section 106, having worked in the construction industry as a lawyer. I entirely agree with her. I have noticed time and again that local authorities and other public bodies that award contracts do not derive sufficient benefit from the opportunities provided by section 106. It can mean not only that local people are employed, but that local amenities such as extra roads, playgrounds and village halls are provided if that fits in with the purpose for which the contract was awarded. I rise merely to emphasise the hon. Lady's point. She is absolutely right, and I hope that somebody, somewhere, pays attention to what we say this afternoon.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : It is excellent that two of us have that knowledge. That is reassuring is it not? It is a pity that we do not represent all the chief executive officers of local authorities in the UK.

Section 106 is a fantastic vehicle. There is already a requirement for local authorities to engage local people. It is only a small jump to say, "By the way, of the proportion of local people who you involve, we must see a concerted effort to recruit women and people from black and ethnic minorities." That is absolutely crucial. Where else are women who are disadvantaged in terms of going into small companies going to get that vital work experience? I go into many schools to encourage young girls to undertake apprenticeships, because that is one of the best things that they can do in life, as it means that they would be able to be self-employed—for ever, in today's world—with hours to suit them. But I cannot do that knowing that they will not get the work experience that they need to complete an apprenticeship. It is a false hope.

The Learning and Skills Council desperately wants to ensure that its courses present that positive employment opportunity, but more often than not colleges completely fail to provide that opportunity. I do not know whether hon. Members read Construction News—my bedtime reading—but there is an excellent article in it this week about a training company in London, funded by the LSC, that has been recruiting so-called apprentices for the past 18 months. The LSC announced in today's Construction News that it is pulling out its funding immediately, and City and Guilds has also
 
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withdrawn its endorsement programmes, because the company, which is an unfortunate blot on the training landscape, has offered training contracts knowing full well that it cannot deliver the training element. Hundreds of the young people whom we desperately need in construction have started those apprenticeships and been badly let down. That is a source of great frustration to me, and to organisations such as the Construction Industry Training Board that are desperately trying to address the skills gap.

I have talked about women doing apprenticeships and the barriers that they face, and about the training centres that I have been to, including the one that I visited recently at which there were no women. I was told by the chief executive there that one was coming in a fortnight—the only one in the 300 trainees that would be on the programme this year. I felt really sorry for her—a young girl of 17 who would be on that programme with 150 17-year-old blokes. It may sound like paradise, but it would be really awful. It would be really difficult for her if she was just a normal, regular girl. She would be a subject of great interest, and that degree of interest is not helpful.

Such young women need access to other young women in their position. It is not that women lack the skills, nor that young girls do not want to be involved in that world, but when they are there, they need to reach out and be in contact with other young girls in the same position, not old women like me—I have a different cohort of colleagues to support. They need to know other young women of the same age doing the same thing. Organisations such as Wise—Women into Science and Engineering—and the Women's Engineering Society and now, importantly, the UK Resource Centre in Bradford, can play a role in providing that mentoring service.

There are not many women doing apprenticeships in the UK, but the numbers are growing, and there is a network of women and other people in similar positions whom they can turn to. The Government should be supportive of that; they have a significant role to play. I have already referred to that role in terms of offering work opportunities through public sector contracts, which is something that we must do. However, the Government should continue to support Government-backed women's organisations and require those organisations to bear in mind the fact that there are young women working in the UK who need their support, and that they should play a role in bringing them together. If they do not, women leave. The attrition rate for women is far greater than it is for young men. They leave because they do not have the wherewithal and the confidence to sustain a position on an apprenticeship.

What about women going on to higher education? They have a far better chance. Some people today have talked about science, engineering and technology, and about starting at the bottom and working one's way up. I loathe that expression. I am a chartered engineer—a professional engineer—but the thing that I am most proud of is that I am an apprenticed fitter. I am a fitter by trade. If I were asked whether I had made my greatest contribution as a chartered engineer or as a fitter, I would reply that it was as a fitter. As a society we need to recognise, as we are doing in part, that the contribution made by craftspeople in the UK to our economy and
 
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quality of life is equal to anything that professional individuals have made. Historically, in the engineering community, we have had the devil's own job recruiting young people into trades. That is because of people's perception of the value of a trade in our society.

Things are changing. We have seen that in relation to plumbing. Thank goodness that it became publicly known that plumbers earn—or could earn—£70,000 a year. Suddenly there was a mass rush to further education colleges for plumbing certificates. The bad news is that we will be totally overrun with plumbers in about five years' time, so their cost per hour will plummet. That is a good thing for the rest of us, but a bad thing for the plumbing sector, because there will not be adequately trained plumbers. The type of training that plumbers are getting now is not what traditional plumbers, or I, would consider adequate.

Some stereotypical views of tradespeople have changed, and that can only be of benefit to women. As I mentioned earlier, there is an organisation for women plumbers although unfortunately, there is nothing comparable for women electricians. That is because there have been no "Newsnight" items on television to say that electricians can earn £70,000 a year—although a competent electrician could probably earn more than £70,000 a year. By the way, there are no significant training courses in electrical systems, which means that there will be an acute shortage of electricians; anyone with a wiring problem at home needs to get an electrician soon, because in about five years we will not be able to get them for gold dust.

I am digressing slightly, and I shall return to the subject of women in higher education. It is fairly straightforward to go to university; one needs a good suite of A levels or GNVQs of a certain level. Absolutely super—no problem. We know that women invariably achieve better GCSE results than their male counterparts. That is proven year on year, particularly in mathematics and engineering. Indeed, I attended an award celebration yesterday, when Ellin Barklund was presented with the Sir William Siemens medal. That young woman is described as outstanding, and she is working in the field of renewable energy. However, she is not exceptional. I sat my degree in engineering with five other women, and two of them gained first-class engineering degrees; we were among a cohort of 35 men. It is not unusual for us to do well.

Unfortunately, we do not translate that achievement into our careers. We get good degrees and are offered good jobs, but we eventually reach a glass ceiling. We reach that ceiling for many reasons. Those of us who choose to have children once we have entered our professional careers invariably suffer. I do not want to dwell too much on that, as my hon. and learned Friend said a great deal on the subject. The problems associated with child care and the frustration of career development seem to be as problematic in the legal profession as they are in the science, engineering and technology professions.

We may have spent years obtaining qualifications and professional experience, but all that can be lost to British industry as and when a woman chooses to have children. It is a great shame, because we cost an absolute fortune. Engineers cost almost as much to train as doctors, but that national investment is entirely lost. I commend the
 
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Government for changing the law, making it easier for women to return to work and protecting their rights, but that is only a start. More needs to be done.

Shortage has always driven changes in company practice, but the acute shortage of staff in some areas of science, engineering and technology will force companies to take a far more tolerant attitude with regard to employing women.

Some sectors to which I referred earlier, including the construction sector, find it difficult to recruit even professional women. Some companies in the electronic sector find it incredibly difficult to recruit women, not because they do not exist but because those companies simply do not accommodate women—or they do not have an infrastructure or a history of working that promotes the advancement of women. The space industry, however, is an exception. Representation of women there is exceptionally good, and women do exceptionally well there. It attracts and retains women for an extraordinary time. Some jobs are for life, and jobs in the space industry are such jobs. It is an immensely attractive proposition.

Careers in science, engineering and technology are immensely attractive propositions for women, because whether one achieves employment in those sectors through an apprenticeship or through professional qualification, one can expect many of the benefits that are not to be found in other industries. The pay is higher relative to other groups or to other forms of work. Those with an apprenticeship who work on their own also have flexibility.

Flexibility is an equally valued attribute for the phalanx of men. Many of my male colleagues who work in the plumbing or electrical businesses fit their entire week around golf. Should you receive a call from a plumber who says, "I can't come to you this morning," please look out of the window. If the skies are blue, he is probably off to the golf links. People stand a much better chance of getting somebody to come and see them if it is raining, because then it is not possible to go to the golf links. Things are rather different with women working in those sectors, who will see customers between 9 and 3, but who then have to hop home for the kids. Moreover, they always carry with them a nice vacuum cleaner and a pair of Handy Andy Marigold gloves.

Mrs. Laing : I cannot allow the hon. Lady to give the impression that women do not play golf, too, because we do.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : Fantastic. That is very encouraging, is it not? Let us hope that more women scientists, engineers and technologists fill up those golf links.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry : While we are extolling the virtues of female plumbers, does my hon. Friend agree that elderly people might be frightened of having someone in their house these days, and that single elderly women, in particular, might feel much better and safer if they had a fellow woman in the house?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : That is a good point, and the women plumbers whom I mentioned are never short of
 
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work, for that very reason. When women living on their own hear that they could call a woman plumber to their homes, they will do so; they do not feel so threatened and intimidated. In some religious orders, of course, it is not possible to have men on the premises without a chaperone, so women plumbers are just the thing.

Personally, I prefer to have women working in my property. That is because of some of the sexist stuff that I just mentioned, such as the fact that women happen to be much cleaner, which matters a lot. They bring with them a suite of characteristics that some of my male counterparts do not have. On the face of it, they are far more efficient and administer their work far more effectively. Those who have dealings, as I do, with women who work in traditional trades know that they will get a quote in writing when they ask for one, as well as the follow-up documentation and certificates. Although I have not worked with that many women, I know that that behaviour is absolutely characteristic. I have worked with a great many men, however, and I am still waiting for the quotes even now.

I have discussed in some detail the difficulties that women experience getting apprenticeships, and what the Government should do to help them. I have commended the Government on the work that they have done so far, and I thank God for it. I have also discussed the role of women in the professional structures and the barriers that they face, although those are significantly fewer than the barriers faced by young women in apprenticeships.

I shall finish by returning to the EOC report. The commission was helped by some outstanding people, one of whom is here today, and I simply want to mention their names. It is important for us to know that the commission's work was substantiated by people who were conversant with the subject matter on which they were deliberating. Pat Langford is the director of the unit responsible for promoting women in science and technology at the DTI's Office of Science and Technology, and I am delighted that Pat was part of the team. In addition, we had Jeremy Crook, the chief executive of the Black Training and Enterprise Group, and Peter Lobban, the chief executive of the Construction Industry Training Board. Another, very important individual was Rob MacPherson, the Connexions 14–19 policy plus team leader. That is a very broad spectrum of individuals, which was complemented by people from the private sector, including Centrica, and by Rosamund McNeil, the principal officer on gender segregation for the National Union of Teachers. So there was a good mix of private and public policy developers working on the report.

Vera Baird : I hope that my hon. Friend will not overlook the fact that the chair was EOC commissioner Jeannie Drake, who is also on the Turner commission on pensions. She is principally responsible for the fact that there will be a chapter on women and pensions in the report when it comes out, and she well understands how the limits on women's work and on women receiving good pay, particularly for part-time work, continue to play on, so that women who have been poor in their earlier lives are also poor when they are pensioners.
 
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Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : That is so true. I do not know a great deal about fiscal policy, but the changes in pension rules next year, which I have just read about, will favour people on the 40 per cent. income tax rate. That will automatically favour people in highly paid jobs, the vast majority of whom are men. Again, the disadvantage to women will be very evident, and I hope that together we can do something about that.

I return to what the EOC is calling on the Government to do. As I said, members of the panel, who are civil servants and represent the Government, want a national strategy to be developed to tackle gender segregation in training and work, which I applaud. The strategy should

I have referred today to many of the Government's outstanding initiatives, but I have not dwelt, as I should, on the contributions that the various institutions have made, because they are all doing their bit. I know intimately all 38 engineering institutions in the UK, and they are all trying desperately to reach out to women and young people, but some are succeeding better than others. I shall single out the Construction Industry Training Board, which has been doing a great deal in this area because it is the area of greatest need. Along with the Government, however, it has not made a huge impact—I suspect because there is no joined-up thinking that brings all the players together.

Careers information is changing, but we need to do far more. We have portals for careers information—indeed, they are ubiquitous—but the industry does not agree on who will do what. If we search, we will probably find a million references to careers for women, but that does not help the person who is seeking advice. I know that Lord Sainsbury, the Minister with responsibility for science and technology, is keen for careers advice to be contracted for and developed to give young people a better opportunity to find the job that they want.

The report also recommends:

That goes back to what I said earlier—that specialist schools are getting more women into apprenticeships, but that the number is still tiny. The recommendation draws attention to the existence of the modern apprenticeships programme and to the fact that it is fantastic, it will be there for years and years, and it is a Government-backed initiative. Why, therefore, cannot we do more with it to realise the potential of women in engineering, science and technology?

I am not remotely depressed, but I wish that there were more women mechanical engineers, because they could have done much for society and for the quality of people's lives. I have been able to achieve very little. Some of the women with whom I went to school had such big brains, but they have ended up working in, say, a cake shop. There is nothing wrong with working in a cake shop, but we as a society have lost that potential, and we cannot afford to do so.
 
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We cannot, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar said, pay the bills associated with people being stressed out of their minds, not because they are working themselves to death but because they have never realised their potential. That applies to so many women who reach 50 and say, "Oh—if only." This Government have tried to eradicate that mentality. They have removed so many barriers and provided so much support, and given that we have made that commitment to women, I want us to do more with the resources available to us so that we can continue to get more women into the professions about which I care dearly.

4.35 pm

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): I welcome the chance to debate this subject today. It is a shame that more hon. Members have not taken part, but I found the comments of those who did attend very interesting. It is a sad reflection on our society that although more women than ever work, as has been pointed out, a huge number of them do not work in jobs that make full use of their skills.

I identified with the comments of the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) about part-time work. She outlined a situation that many women, of our generation in particular, can identify with—the pattern of part-time work. She did not say, but I hope that she would agree, that many couples or families tend to make the decision that one partner will be the major wage-earner, and that is usually the male, because he is usually earning a higher wage, so it is often an easier arrangement. The woman will often decide to work part-time for a while and will often compromise in what she wants to do, because of that.

However, I meet quite a few men these days who would love to work four days a week, or some other shorter working week, but feel that to do so would give their employers a signal that they were not interested in career progression. Part of the solution seems to me to be closer working with industry to get rid of the attitude that a person is interested in their career, and can do a good job, only if they work full-time—or even more. Many professions today have a very macho work-heavy culture, whereby a person is not seen to be doing their job unless they put in so many hours overtime. There is also networking. Perhaps the employees go off to the golf club, or the pub, and that can be a back way up the career ladder.

It would be useful to persuade employers that encouraging part-time work for all people will improve the skills mix in the long term. Some employers have realised it—perhaps those with a more proportionate mix of men and women in the workplace—and have introduced the relevant policies. However, there is more to be done. I am against forcing employers to act, but more remains to be done to persuade them in the right direction.

Women appear to find it much more difficult to obtain financial and practical support when they set up a new business, and that is the aspect of women's working that I want to begin with. The statistics are not very good in this area of women's work. In 2004–05 only 26.1 per cent. of self-employed people were female. As has already been pointed out by the hon. Member for
 
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Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), there are numerous opportunities—particularly in some skills areas—for women to develop their own businesses. More disappointingly, the figure of 26.1 per cent. represents a decrease since 2002–03.

Figures for 2003 show that only 12.3 per cent. of small businesses are managed by women or have women as a majority of directors, although the figure increased to 14 per cent. in the past year. According to the London Business School report, "Global Entrepreneurship Monitor UK", only 7 per cent. of women own their own business, compared with 16 per cent. of men. It has been pointed out in various quarters that if women started businesses at the same rate as men, the economy would benefit from 150,000 extra new firms each year.

Some might say that all is well simply because we have some targets. In May 2003, the Government launched their strategic framework for women's enterprise, which announced four areas for action: improving business support services; access to finance; caring and child care; and the management of transition from benefits to self-employment. I cannot argue with any of those.

That is all very well-meaning, but the Government have also set targets for 2006. The first was that women should account for 40 per cent. of customers using Government-sponsored business support services, or business link networks. That is quite a difficult statistic to monitor, because a number of different agencies are involved and increasingly some of that work is being taken over by regional development agencies. A national advocacy network called Prowess did some work to try to find out what the percentage might be. It surveyed various bodies that would give such support and concluded that only 20 per cent. of Government-sponsored business support services users were female. That is some way off the 40 per cent. target.

It would be helpful if the Minister would enlighten us on how the figures are being monitored. That is increasingly important, because we are moving towards involving regional development agencies and many of them do not disaggregate their statistics by gender—there is no compulsion for them to do so—so it is difficult to get a clear picture of what is going on and what support is being given. I gather that only five regional development agencies have appointed an officer specifically to deal with this policy aspect. It is possible that more of those officers will soon be on the way; I do not know. I would be interested in receiving an update.

The second target is for 20 per cent. of UK businesses to be women-owned; a longer-term objective is to try to match the USA figure of about 30 per cent. I would love the Government to succeed in that—and I am happy to say so, even as someone from an Opposition party. Currently, it is difficult to see how the target will be met, because, as has been mentioned, only 15 per cent. of small firms are owned by women. According to the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, that figure has not changed much during the past 13 years.

The situation in the United States is rather better, and it is worth examining some of the things that have been done there. Since 1979, the number of women who own businesses has quadrupled. The US ensured that gender was added to the business census in 1977. That might sound like a bit of a token effort, but the data from that,
 
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and the statistics that were produced, provided an evidence base, so that the progress could be closely monitored. The Office of Women's Business Ownership in the United States Small Business Administration was established in 1978. Then the Women's Business Ownership Act of 1988 put in place long-term infrastructure to support women's enterprise development. Various other Acts were also introduced.

What attention has been paid to the success story in the United States? What are we doing to emulate it? One thing that has worked well is a women's enterprise commission, which has real teeth. I will discuss that point a little later.

I have talked about women who are trying to set up their own businesses. It strikes me that we could do a lot more in schools and colleges to provide skills for men and women so that they had the self-confidence to set up their own businesses. Such things are not often learned routinely, and trying to find the help can be a bit of a maze.

The big concern, raised by a number of hon. Members today, is occupational segregation. As has been said, the Equal Opportunities Commission has done a lot of work on that subject. Seven out of 10 employers in the survey agreed that recruiting more young people of the "non-traditional" sex, to use the jargon, would improve their business as a whole. We have seen the statistics: only 8 per cent. of engineers are female, and the situation in the construction industry is appalling.

However, that also works the other way round: only 2 per cent. of workers in the child care industry are male. I pay tribute to the Sure Start website, which is obviously a Government website. It is amazing; every male carer in the country must be on there, because in depicting carers it shows a good picture of ethnic and gender diversity. If engineering firms could take it as an example, that might be helpful. As I was looking at many of the engineering and recruitment bodies' websites, I realised that there were very few pictures. I was half expecting lots of men in hard hats, and there were a few of those, but those websites were very boring and unsexy, and would not encourage anybody, male or female, into the sector unless they were already committed.

Unfortunately, most women work in occupations referred to as the five Cs: cleaning, catering, caring, cashiering and clerical work. Clearly we know our place, girls! Such jobs are traditionally badly paid, and our concern about that is shared by the Government. The Secretary of State for Education spoke at the launch event and pointed out that

Clearly, it is in employers' interests to widen the pool from which they recruit.

The "14–19 Education and Skills" White Paper contained proposals to improve the quality and range of information, advice and guidance available to
 
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teenagers. However, I have to ask whether that is a bit too late, and whether it is happening on the ground. Gender stereotyping starts early, and can affect young people's work placements. There is a lot of evidence to show that girls would quite like to try a job in a non-traditional area—to taste it, as it were—but they are not encouraged to do so. A lot of schools find work placements a bit of a drag anyway, and that seems a very negative attitude.

I was interested in the comments made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) about single-sex education and science. It was slightly different for me in my day. I insisted on doing physics because that meant that I could go to the boys school; a slightly different motivation was involved, and perhaps that is another way of looking at the problem. I thought that I would be with a few nice sixth form boys, but had not appreciated that I would have to run the gauntlet of every pre-pubescent boy in the school. That was a daunting experience for a shy 16-year-old, but I stuck with it.

The lack of role models does not help. Where are the sexy female scientists? I concede that we could also ask, "Where are the sexy male scientists?" A lot of young people are attracted to the softer, slightly trendy aspects of work, and we do not do enough to make them realise the contribution that they could make in other areas. There are some very good role models, whom we should promote a lot more.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I should say to the hon. Lady that the Institute of Physics—under the guidance of Julia King, who is now doing something important at Imperial college, London—has done a huge amount to recruit mentors from the world of physics, particularly women mentors, to go out into schools. That programme is complemented by the Government-funded science and engineering ambassador scheme programme, which is run under the auspices of the science, engineering, technology and mathematics network, SETNET, and the Engineering and Technology Board. Some 10,000 young people—I emphasise the fact that they are young—working in science, engineering and technology belong to the programme and are available if teachers need to know about a particular area. They are just a telephone call away, via their local government office.

Sandra Gidley : I am aware that there are a huge number of worthy and worthwhile initiatives. Where are the scientists in the media? We live in a media-oriented society, and they could make young people say, "Yes, that's what I want to do." The hon. Lady is involved with the organisation Wise—Women into Science and Engineering. Unfortunately, my daughter did not become a scientist. Probably the fact that she has two scientific parents put her completely off that sector. She had experience of Wise, and one sad aspect was that the school chose the brighter pupils to go on the Wise bus—a reflection more on the school than on Wise. The earlier point about encouraging technologists and people to take up trades that involve using their hands was well made. We need to make sure that we reach all young girls in school, rather than just those who are regarded as high flyers.
 
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Many girls do not know what problems are involved. They do not realise that they will be earning much less than others when they choose to enter a female-oriented profession. The equation is simple: the more men in a sector, the higher the wages. The message is not that difficult to get across. Had they been aware of the pay levels, 67 per cent. of young women would have considered a wider range of career options. A lot of good company initiatives are taken up by schools. IBM holds a week-long event to which it encourages schools to send groups of teenage girls. It does not concentrate on pure science. It encourages women into that industry in a range of roles. Such initiatives are worthy. Other firms could be encouraged to consider the examples that have been cited already today.

The EOC highlighted the fact that many mothers and carers work part-time for low pay. Reference has been made to the pay gap. Those women cannot find high-productivity work that can be combined with family responsibilities, and many are working below their potential. That may be a pragmatic decision in many cases for such women, but the fact that they are paid less is a problem, as is the fact that they are not trained. They fall further behind, and when they want to re-adapt to full-time work, they often have lost confidence. We need to find ways of improving things for those with softer skills.

Let us consider the acute problem in the information technology and electronic communication sectors. Throughout the industry, 23 per cent. of employees are women, of which 9 per cent. are at the higher level. It is a fast-growing area, but in 10 years' time there will be a big increase in job vacancies not only in that industry, but in related industries that need such skills. Women are well placed to fill the positions, but the number of them in the sector has decreased over recent years, which is a real problem. The drain of women over a certain age is a particular problem. The more we can do to reverse the trend, the better.

I want to draw attention to an initiative called Equalitec, sponsored by the European Union and the Department of Trade and Industry. It works with the university of Bath and engineering organisations to help women overcome the barriers to re-entry into employment after a career break by creating opportunities for professional and job-based training. The number of women involved is small, but we should encourage that initiative. If the Minister can outline further developments in that direction, it would be useful.

All the evidence shows that girls perform much better at schools and universities, but as soon as they start work—even a couple of years after graduating—they face a pay gap of about 4 per cent. We are clearly not making the most of women's skills. I sincerely wish the Government every success in trying to reverse that trend. Thirty years ago, the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force, and I did not think then that my daughter would be facing some of the same problems as I faced years ago. Sadly, she is—but we need to make sure that our granddaughters, at least, do not face the same problems too.

4.55 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Hon. Members present in the Chamber today all take it for granted that maximising women's skills in the UK
 
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economy is important—indeed, essential. Sadly, it is not taken for granted in the business world and the economic world generally, nor, entirely, within the political world. Today we have had an opportunity to prove that it is necessary to maximise women's skills in the UK economy, and the excellent speeches made by various speakers have done that. Not only is it right in altruistic terms that women should have equal opportunities, equal job satisfaction, equal pay and lifestyles equal in interest to men's—I could add to that list—but, more importantly, there is an economic imperative to maximise women's skills in the economy. I am therefore glad to have this opportunity to highlight some of the problems—and the solutions—in this area of our national life.

Soon, we shall debate the Equality Bill, which passed all its stages in the House of Lords yesterday and which will go some way to creating the correct climate and legislative framework for equal employment practices. There has been much emphasis today on encouraging women to become involved in traditional male jobs and professions. It was particularly interesting to hear what the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) said about construction and engineering. All her remarks were valid and I entirely agree with her, having had some experience myself of the construction industry. I have also had experience of the legal profession—I am a lapsed solicitor—and perhaps it was my time as a solicitor in the construction industry that finally finished me off so that I ended up here, but it is probably not right to extrapolate from the personal to the general.

Although it has been interesting to explore one particular aspect of the topic—women being excluded for one reason or another from traditionally male jobs and professions—there is a far more general point to be considered. We need women in the economy, because without women using their skills to the limit of their potential our economy does not function as it should. The Minister illustrated that well in her opening remarks with certain stunning statistics, particularly the ones relating to GDP.

As legislators we must take three essential elements into account. First, it is necessary to provide equality of opportunity in education and training for women and girls. Secondly, it is necessary to provide incentives to work, as opposed to incentives not to work. Thirdly, it is essential to remove the barriers that prevent or restrict women's participation in economic activity. The Government have taken some good measures—again, we have consensus. In debates such as this I try to bring in a little political disagreement because that is the spice of life in Parliament, but increasingly I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and with the Minister, because we are all doing our best to get a good end result in legislation and the legislative framework. However, as I always do, I warn the Government that if they go too far in introducing conditions and restrictions on employment, employers will not employ women in the first place—they will find some reason not to employ them. If there are three good candidates for a job and one is a woman who might have a child, the woman will not get the job if the employer feels that they cannot cope with increased conditions of employment around, for example, maternity leave.

I am not saying that we should not have the sort of conditions that we have been discussing recently and those that currently apply—of course we must. There
 
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must be protection of the employee, as well as incentives for employers to employ women and for women to work, but we must be careful not to let the pendulum swing too far. I think in particular of the recent much publicised cases of women who worked for large, wealthy corporations in the financial services sector in the City and who earned considerable amounts of money. Their unfair dismissal cases were clearly valid: large compensation payments have been awarded and if the court said that such payments were right in those cases, they were right. However, the result of those cases may well be that other women find it more difficult to get the opportunity to take on jobs at that level. I can think of relevant anecdotes but shall not repeat them, because anecdotes do not make good statistics and are not reliable, but we all know of promotion boards or employers that will not take on a woman in case they become involved in an expensive sex discrimination case. I am not saying that we should not go on fighting the battle. I am merely saying that we must be careful that the benefits, support, encouragement and legal rights that we give to women in the work force do not go so far that opportunities for women in the work force are diminished.

The first of my essential elements is education and training. The hon. Members for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and for Crosby discussed the subject extremely well, particularly the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North, who spoke about single-sex teaching and the hon. Member for Crosby, who spoke about specialist schools. Much can be done and in recent years a great deal of progress has been made toward achieving equality of opportunity in education for young men and women, but we all know that when they get into their early 20s and go past training into mainstream employment, the equality that they might have experienced until then diminishes considerably.

The second essential element is an incentive to work. The greatest incentive to work is a proper rate of pay for the job that is being done, and that of course means equal pay. We are indebted to the Fawcett Society and the Equal Opportunities Commission for the work that they have done on this subject. Some of the figures that have come out recently are shocking. We have become a bit complacent—we assumed that the Equal Pay Act has worked and is working, but as the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) said, we will need an Equal Pay Act for many years to come to safeguard the position of women in employment. Her examples from the legal profession were absolutely fascinating. I found it difficult to believe what the hon. and learned Lady was saying about the pay gap between male and female solicitors until I realised that the statistics reflect the fact that far more men work in the so-called prestigious, high-powered jobs, notably in large City law firms where salaries are far higher than, for example, in firms of solicitors practising family law, conveyancing or probate law in the provinces. There is a considerable earnings gap, and it deserves to be taken into account.

I cannot leave the subject without mentioning the Minister's pay, or lack thereof. I mean that in the most positive way possible—I am not criticising the hon.   Lady. However, it makes me angry that the
 
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Prime   Minister has decided that the one job in Government on which a Minister must work so hard in such a difficult role and in such a hard-working Department without receiving a salary is that of Minister for Women and Equality. It is so hypocritical it hardly bears repeating. I had better not praise the hon. Lady too much, because it might be counter-productive. I know how hard she works as a Minister because I am usually there to challenge her on what she does. Hon. Members on the Government Benches will not criticise their Prime Minister, so I shall do it for them. They cannot possibly think it right that all other Ministers are paid a salary but the Minister for Women and Equality is not. I hope that the Prime Minister will change that one day, but I realise that if I say much more about it, it will be an incentive for him not to do so.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I for one shall not be reticent. It is quite appalling, but I thank God that the Labour party has professed to be a body never of perfection but of work in progress. I hope that it will progress to the point where it acknowledges the right of this fantastic woman to be paid for the job that she does.

Mrs. Laing : The hon. Lady makes a good point. I hope that the Prime Minister is listening, although I very much doubt that he is.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I shall send him a copy of Hansard.

Mrs. Laing : To return to my speech, the second important incentive is pensions. The pensions system is an utter scandal, as even the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has admitted, and successive Governments have failed to deal with women's pensions. It is a scandal that one in four women pensioners in Britain live in poverty. They do so because the system simply does not work. It could be made to work, but does not because it does not take into consideration the different work patterns of women and men. Women have to build into their lives the bearing of children, whereas men do not. I do not see why we do not keep emphasising that fact. The production of the next generation is just as important a job as any other undertaken by any person in our society, yet it has been given scant consideration. Women of my mother's generation, who gave up work to look after their homes and families and who were dependent on their husbands, can find themselves with almost no income at all when they are widowed or divorced. It is utterly scandalous. I give the Government credit for considering that issue and I hope that the Turner commission will produce sensible proposals that we can put into action as soon as possible.

The third of my essential elements is the removal of barriers to employment and to promotion for women in the work force. Employees need flexibility. Flexibility in employment and accounting for the work-life balance must apply not only to women, but throughout the work force. A large proportion of people have caring responsibilities. It is not only babies and children who have to be cared for, but elderly and sick relatives and non-relatives—people's caring duties are not confined to caring for members of their own family. A lot of people have caring duties that we as a society require
 
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them to undertake. It is essential that employers sometimes be required and always be encouraged to take that into account, not only because that is right in altruistic terms in a decent, caring society, but because the work force require it. If an employer has taken someone on and trained them to do a job to the upper limit of their skills and that person has responsibilities outside the workplace that we, as a decent society, want them to undertake because it is the right thing to do, the employer must be encouraged to take that into consideration, whether the employee is a man or woman, a mother, father, child, daughter or carer of another kind. Otherwise, they will lose the employee's services and that is bad for the economy. The Minister said that the economy is operating below its productivity potential simply because women are not contributing to their full potential. It is not rocket science—the hon. Member for Crosby might tell me that it is rocket science or some other kind of science—to work out that if all employers were encouraged to do what good employers already do, good employees would be able to give more back.

That brings me to the appalling discrimination regarding part-time workers' pay, which shows that we as a society do not value people who work part-time and that we think that they are not committed. There is this macho thing about commitment to the job, but commitment is not always about the number of hours put in; it can be about the amount of work done within the hours of work.

Alison Seabeck : Does the hon. Lady agree that women who work part-time often struggle to make it to work in circumstances in which their full-time colleagues might say, "I'm not feeling very well; I'll take a day off," because they feel obliged to be there?

Mrs. Laing : Yes I do. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. Although the difficulties related to part-time work such as the need for flexibility affect all workers, they affect women disproportionately, so that issue is wholly relevant to our debate.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry : Picking up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), does the hon. Lady agree that many women who work part-time are doing full-time jobs in part-time hours?

Mrs. Laing : I certainly do. That is a point well made.

The time has passed in which the economy was satisfied by women either having a child or going out to work. That was the norm 50 years ago, in the post-war years when our economy was not strong and did not develop as it should and when it was accepted that women who worked would stop working if they had children. We see a hangover from that in the present attitudes of society and some employers. Having a child is not an add-on luxury for women, it is necessary for the future of our society and economy. To return to the pensions issue, we have a demographic time bomb waiting to go off. By the time that most of the people who are in the Room this afternoon are of pensionable age, there will not be enough young people working to provide pensions. At the moment, the balance is correct,
 
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but by then it will not be. Women today have to produce the next generation, have proper jobs and have the chance to work to their full potential.

I am pleased that we will soon be considering the Equality Bill. I am sure that during the consideration of that Bill we will revisit some of the issues that we have discussed today. I have not mentioned child care—strangely, it has not been much talked about in this afternoon's debate—but removing barriers to employment and advancement in employment requires the establishment of a structure of affordable child care at all levels of employment. Efficient health care, too, is essential. All those structures are necessary to ensure that we have a work force who achieve their full potential.

Yesterday, the Conservative party held a women's conference in which we discussed serious issues, such as those that we have discussed this afternoon and drugs. We had extremely good speakers from the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Fawcett Society and even from the England cricket team—an excellent lady called Clare Connor who was captain of the successful women's cricket team that brought back the Ashes. Did you, Sir John, read about any of that discussion in the newspapers this morning? No. The media chose to report that Conservative women discussed the underwear of the two leadership candidates. That, I assure the Chamber, was not the case—it was a 10-second jokey throwaway on Radio 4. When we discuss important issues relating to women in the economy, in the work force and in our society, we have a right to be taken seriously.

5.17 pm

Meg Munn : This has been an excellent, illuminating and interesting debate. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for indicating that I will not take interventions because I have a great number of notes from which I want to respond to the extremely interesting and wide range of points that have been made. I shall already have to go at something of a gallop to get through them all.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) should not apologise for so much consensus, because women can make common cause across political parties on these enormously important issues.

The issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) about training and education are enormously important. Barriers that women face must be broken down, and one way in which that can be done is by ensuring that young girls have access to the right skills, such as those who I have seen at the Turves Green girls school and technology college in Birmingham, which I first visited three years ago when I was on the Select Committee on Education and Skills. That college actively seeks to encourage its pupils to engage with technology, design and the science curriculum and also to take their designs on into enterprise. I was so impressed—it is probably the best work that I have seen in a school anywhere—that when we held our EU gender conference in Birmingham earlier this week, I had no hesitation in making that college one of the projects to which we took the EU Ministers to see what can be done and how girls can be inspired.
 
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My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) asked whether we should teach girls in single-sex classes in those subjects. I think that the best approach is to make the teaching of science, engineering and technology much more relevant to all pupils. The new science curriculum, which will come in from 2006, aims to do just that.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who has since had to leave the Chamber, raised IT issues. We know that in many traditional areas the culture can be oppressively male, but I hope he did not leave because he felt that the culture in the Room was oppressively female. However, I am assured by his note that that was not the reason. For his benefit, I can put it on record that the e-skills Sector Skills Council for IT has recently rolled out nationally it pilots of computer clubs for girls, which offer fun and educational activities. The council has been successful in getting girls aged 10 to 14 interested in IT. Initial research suggests that 66 per cent. of participants are now considering careers in IT.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North rightly identified the global competition that we face. As a result of competitive pressures, new entrants into IT must become more productive more quickly than in the past. The DTI is aware of the issues facing the IT industry and has published reports about women in IT, which have discussed the importance of the business case for diversity and how to retain women in that sphere.

On the crucial issue of skills and qualifications, up to a fifth of the productivity gap between the United Kingdom and its main competitors can be explained by the UK having a lower stock of human capital, especially at NVQ level. We are having some success attracting women on to foundation degree courses. The skills White Paper was also aimed at allowing women to acquire level 2 qualifications, because we know that 45 per cent. of women who are not working do not have a level 2 qualification. We are also giving priority support to level 3.

The Government have taken steps in response to the EOC's recommendations on apprenticeships. The Learning and Skills Council publishes annual data on apprenticeships by sector, gender, race and disability. An apprenticeship marketing campaign has been set up to promote non-traditional sectors of work. The Government are giving further thought to how we can provide a challenge on this issue, rather than replicate occupational segregation, as the EOC rightly identified.

Much of the debate focused on non-traditional work for women. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North referred to the image of manufacturing. The DTI has established a body as part of the Engineering Forum to consider the image of manufacturing to make it more attractive to all young people, especially to girls and young women.

Last week, the Government announced the establishment of a manufacturing academy, where the industry will determine how it trains the people needed to fill the current 48,000 vacancies in manufacturing. There is a good business and economic case for the arguments that have been put forward today.
 
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Role models are important in all jobs. I pay tribute to all the women present, as I am sure they have been role models in their previous careers. That is of great interest and pertinent to the debate. Role models are particularly important in non-traditional jobs. I am pleased that many companies are interested in what they can do and how they can use women to plug their skills gap. I have learned that a major civil engineering company, Ove Arup, is keen to recruit women and to increase the number of its women graduate employees. It has just produced its new 2006 calendar, with images of women in highly skilled roles, all of whom are fully clothed. British Gas is training female gas fitters, because that is often what their female customers want.

There is some good news on higher technical qualifications. The NHS employs 55,000 scientists—I am not talking about doctors and nurses—33,000 of whom are women. They work in highly skilled jobs, such as medical physics and the design of sophisticated equipment to help disabled people.

There are also some positive trends in some professions, even if not in that of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). Graduates in medicine and allied subjects, such as bioscience and veterinary science, are now 60 to 70 per cent. female. That is positive, but engineering and physical science remain harder nuts to crack.

Science, engineering and technology are very important, but we know that the overwhelming majority of people with high-level degrees in those subjects are male, especially those who have high-level degrees in subjects such as physics and IT, to which I have already referred. The picture is improving as more girls choose to study those subjects at university, but problems remain in subjects such as physics where progress has been slow, although I am not sure whether we should replicate the motivation of the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who wanted to do physics in order to go to a boys' school.

The Government are promoting science, engineering and technology for women in schools, universities and after, through the UK Resource Centre and through schemes such as the science and engineering ambassadors programme, in which female participation is now about 35 per cent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) rightly wanted to know about our funding of the excellent UK Resource Centre. The original contract would have ended in April 2007. Its total funding was £4.1 million, but it has been extended to the end of March 2008 and its total funding will now be £6.9 million.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North talked about the problems of women losing confidence outside the workplace. The UK Resource Centre has a programme of £1.5 million, ring-fenced for women returning to work, which includes the full funding of an Open university course to provide advice and information to women returners.

The Daphne Jackson Trust and its excellent work in getting well qualified women back into professional jobs were also mentioned. I am delighted to confirm that the DTI directly supports it and will continue to do so, certainly for the time being.
 
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Hon. Members rightly spoke about the pay gap and the shocking statistics that show the difficulties of closing it. I pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar whose illustrations and stories went beyond what I can do in the short time left to me.

The DTI has considered part-time working and has commissioned research called "The Part-Time Pay Penalty". The pay differential between women working full-time and women working part-time in occupations is very small. The occupation segregation of women working part-time and women working full-time explains most of the part-time pay penalty: that is, part-time jobs are in low-skill areas.

The hon. Member for Romsey highlighted the important issue of culture and how we can change it.Women in enterprise is an enormously important area, and the Government view the development of women's enterprise in the UK as an economic imperative. Women are hugely under-represented in enterprise and often offer a massive and largely untapped resource.

We talked about the regional development agencies and their role. They are key players, and I am delighted that some RDAs are taking the issue more seriously. The East Midlands Development Agency has appointed
 
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a women's champion, and Yorkshire Forward, which is in my own neck of the woods, has included diversity as a key priority in its recently revised regional economic strategy, on which I commented. Skills form an essential part of the approach, and RDAs will take action, such as encouraging more women into technology or craft-based careers, to promote qualifications and careers in key areas to non-traditional entrants.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest rightly expressed concern about restrictions and costs that might prevent employers from employing people. My argument is that protecting the investment in women employees makes sense, and that some companies, such as BT and Ford, already get many returners into employment by doing that.

Tackling occupational segregation and the gender pay gap is the right thing to do, not only because it is fair, but because it makes economic sense. Maximising women's skills in the economy could bring economic benefits worth up to 3 per cent. of GDP, which equates to the total value of UK exports to Germany. I leave that thought in Members' minds as we finish the debate.

Question put and agreed to.



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