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MINISTER FOR WOMEN

The Minister for Women was asked—

Flexible Working

19. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to encourage businesses to adopt flexible working patterns for parents of young children. [67743]

The Minister for Women (Tessa Jowell): In April 2003, we introduced the right to request flexible working for parents of children under six and disabled children under 18. This law has been a success and welcomed by families. The evidence is that more than twice the number of mothers returning to work now do so to work flexibly than did in 2002, and that 90 per cent. of the requests made by parents—mothers and fathers—to work flexibly are agreed.

Michael Fabricant: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. She is right—the law has been a success—but does she not also think that home working is very important, too, and that it is very much a possibility through the use of home computing? Did she make representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer with regard to the repeal of the home computing initiative, which may prevent poorer families from buying computers that they could use to work at home?

Tessa Jowell: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting issue, which I will certainly pursue, but he will be aware that the right to work flexibly applies not only to hours but to working at home.
 
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Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): All too often the cry is about women in senior positions. Will my right hon. Friend outline to the House what steps she is taking to ensure that there is more flexible work for women in senior positions?

Tessa Jowell: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which was addressed by the women and work commission, chaired with such distinction by Baroness Margaret Prosser, and we are considering all the commission's recommendations. The essence of closing the gender pay gap, which the commission was established to consider, is opening up more opportunities for women to do senior jobs on a part-time basis—that is the key—and we intend to make proposals, with the social partners, on how that might be achieved.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I agree with a lot of what the Minister has said, but will she confirm whether the Government will also pay attention to the many thousands of women who not only look    after small children but have other family responsibilities, often more difficult ones, as carers for elderly, ill or disabled relatives or friends? Does she agree that the problem for many women in the work force is having to deal with both ends of family responsibilities? Will she undertake to consider carers in all that the Government are planning to do to encourage flexibility in the workplace?

Tessa Jowell: I agree that it is important to consider the needs of women and men who have elderly relatives who depend on them, which is why the Work and Families Bill, which is being considered in another place, includes a proposal that the right to request flexible working should be extended to men and women with caring responsibilities. I am delighted that there is cross-party support for that provision, but the hon. Lady may not wish to remember that her party voted against the introduction of flexible working.

Mrs. Laing: I did not vote against it.

Tessa Jowell: The hon. Lady is an exception to the general rule in 2002.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Research published in Wales by the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Welsh Development Agency shows that small businesses are more profitable if women and men work at every level of the business. What can my right hon. Friend do to educate and inform small businesses of the need to use all the skills available, and to adopt flexible working patterns for    parents of young children and carers with responsibilities for elderly parents or disabled people?

Tessa Jowell: My hon. Friend will be reassured to know that small businesses have extended the right to request flexible working, just as larger businesses have done. In particular, I commend the Work Wise UK campaign which is supported by the Government, as its purpose is specifically to ensure that businesses of all sizes up and down the country are aware of the obligation to offer the right to work flexibly as well as the benefits of flexible working in reducing turnover and preventing the waste of
 
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talent that is often the price of inflexible working patterns. Everyone who has stood up for those proposals for many years can be proud of their success.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): May I ask the Minister to return to the question asked by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), as she failed to answer it? Was she or the Department consulted on the Chancellor's Budget decision to abolish the home computing initiative? Does she not regret that decision, which will have a negative impact on flexible working patterns for parents of young children?

Tessa Jowell: As I have already said, I am happy to pursue the matter. I did not raise it specifically with the Chancellor, but the Government have a proud record of extending, particularly to people in poor communities, the right of access to information and communications technology and training, not least through the initiative funded by the lottery that is operated by my Department and that has been successful in ensuring that every library in the country is wired to the internet.

Part-time Workers

20. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): If she will make a statement on the gender pay gap for part-time workers. [67744]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Meg Munn): The pay gap between women working part-time and men working full-time has narrowed slightly in recent years, but remains unacceptably large at 41 per cent. The women and work commission has made recommendations to tackle the causes of unequal pay which we are taking forward.

John Bercow: Research by the Equal Opportunities Commission shows that four in five part-time workers are working below their potential, which represents a huge waste, and the women and work commission recommended that the Department of Trade and Industry should spend £5 million on the establishment of a quality part-time work change initiative. Can the hon. Lady therefore tell the House what progress has    been made on the implementation of that recommendation, thereby giving us the chance to slash the part-time gender pay gap, which has remained stubbornly unchanged for the best part of 30 years?

Meg Munn: The women and equality unit in the Department has established an implementation group to take forward the commission's recommendations, and the Government are committed to producing an action plan within six months. As the hon. Gentleman will know, Baroness Prosser will look at our progress within a year. Those issues are being tackled, and there are good examples of companies that provide quality part-time work. As soon as we have information about the details of the plan we will make it public.

Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): The Fawcett Society has highlighted the fact that black and minority ethnic women, many of whom work part-time, face the greatest inequality in the workplace. For example, the pay gap is even bigger for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to tackle that problem?
 
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Meg Munn: It is enormously important to understand that the pay gap is different for different groups of women, and my hon. Friend rightly identified the problem for certain groups of minority ethnic women. She will know that the Equal Opportunities Commission has undertaken an inquiry into precisely that issue, and we look forward to its report. The Government will look at the way in which we need to tackle the issue in relation to different groups of women in our response to the women and work commission.

Entrepreneurial Opportunities

21. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): what further steps the Government plan to take to increase the number of entrepreneurial opportunities for women. [67745]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Meg Munn): To provide high-profile leadership to accelerate women's enterprise, a task force on women's enterprise will be operational from June 2006. It will work with key partners, such as the regional development agencies, to increase the levels of female-owned businesses in the UK.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for her efforts and the work that she is doing in helping these women.
 
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Does she realise that it is estimated that if the same levels of female entrepreneurship in the United States were to be seen in this country, we would have 700,000 new businesses within the UK, which would have a substantial impact on productivity and employment? Will my hon. Friend redouble her efforts to tackle the under-representation of women in the higher skilled sectors of the economy, which would significantly improve business start-ups and opportunities as a result?

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is right that if we had as many start-ups by women as in the US, there would be considerably more businesses. The figures are changing. There is good news that there are more women starting up businesses. We estimate that there are about 500,000 more businesses. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is right. I will continue to do all that I can to promote this issue. Specifically, some of the work that we are undertaking is to ensure that the regional development agencies, which deliver our business support, are ensuring that appropriate advice is given to women, as women undertake these activities in a different way—in particular, often starting up when not being in work and taking on self-employment to fit in with family responsibilities.
 
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