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3.34 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon). We were standing by the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst this morning in the sunlight, laying down flowers to mark what is an important day—international women's day. I was pleased to be there to lay down flowers on behalf of the Conservative party to mark that day.

Much progress has been made since the suffragette movement called almost 100 years ago for full and equal voting rights for women. Politicians today can celebrate a great number of things. Conservative Members will be celebrating the fact that the first ever female Member of Parliament sat on the Conservative Benches. That lady represented Plymouth, Sutton and has not been mentioned this afternoon, although other ladies have been mentioned at length. At the risk of incurring comments from Madam Deputy Speaker, the first female leader of a political party in this country was a Conservative, Baroness Thatcher, who became the first female Prime Minister. I was inspired by Baroness Thatcher to do what I am doing today. At the time I was inspired, I was living in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bridgend. When it comes to women in this place, it is to do with quality as well as quantity.

We have talked about many issues in the debate, and I should like to focus on one issue in particular but, before I do so, I think that hon. Ladies should reflect on one point. A number of us in the Chamber are new Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening). We joined the House in 2005. When I was sworn in at the desk down there, I was the 277th woman Member of this House. Many of my constituents find it shocking that, in the 90 years that women have been able to be elected to this place and to take their seats, we have yet to reach 300. While we may make party points about how many women there are on the Labour Benches and on the Liberal Democrat Benches, and how many women there are in the Labour party and in the Liberal Democrats, all of us have failed to get 300 women into this place. We should work together to do more to solve that problem.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): The hon. Lady may want to reflect on the fact that, in the Labour in-take in 2005, out of the 40 new Labour MPs, 26 were women. That is the first time in our party's history that the majority of new MPs were women.

Mrs. Miller: I think that that is great and I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising that point. We are doing a great deal in our party to increase the number of women in it. I just think that there is a philosophical difference in how we are going to do that. I thoroughly endorse my party's approach. We must ensure that we have women coming forward who want to do this job. I go back to what I said in my earlier intervention: for many women, this is not the ideal job.
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It is not something that they particularly want to do when they have a young family. For those of us who have young families, we know how difficult it is. I urge the hon. Lady to think about how we could make this more of a place that more women want to come to. That is important.

Before I move on to the main issue that I want to raise, I point out that there are many other women politicians in this country who do not get as much profile as they should. In Hampshire, I am delighted to say that we are just about to have a meeting to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women in local government. I am delighted to represent the county of Hampshire, which has 22 female county councillors. Indeed, my own borough council in Basingstoke has 18 women councillors. At local government level, we have found a way of enabling women to come through. We have heard that that has happened to an even greater extent at regional government level, too. That is to be applauded. I thank all those women in Hampshire who do so well to represent their constituents.

Meg Munn: The hon. Lady is making an important point about local government. There are indeed more women actively involved, but it is still only 29 per cent. across all the parties and the age profile is older, suggesting that women still take on those roles when their families have grown up.

Mrs. Miller: The Minister raises the important issue of older women who come into politics. There is much to be said for older women coming into politics when they have perhaps done another career, because they have experience that they can bring to this place or to local government. I appreciate that the Minister drew attention to that age profile to emphasise that such political roles conflict with child care duties, but we should not undermine the contribution that older Members of Parliament and councillors make.

International women’s day is about women seeking equality in society; an equal footing with men. How can they best achieve that? One important way is through the workplace. One of the major changes that has happened in the past few decades is the increased participation of women in the workplace, especially mothers. Now, 80 per cent. of the women who are employed in pregnancy return to work, a fact that I reiterate because I sometimes think that some outside this place can forget it. Those women account for a quarter of our female work force.

As people who are interested in these matters, we all know that two thirds of women with dependent children work. That is not a new phenomenon but has been a fact for a number of years, but that trend is increasing. It is the norm for children to be brought up with two working parents. It is certainly the norm in my constituency of Basingstoke. It is important for us all to remember that. Some say that the increase in female participation in the work force, especially in the past decade, has made a bigger contribution to global economic growth than developments in China. We cannot underestimate how much the increased participation of women has changed the economic focus of this and many other countries.

Why women are staying in the work force for longer is often debated in the media. It is perhaps worth revisiting the facts so that we have them before us. Yes,
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women are having children later. They first establish their jobs and perhaps have higher income potential as a result and that encourages them to go back into the workplace after having children; there is an economic incentive to do so. However, the majority go back not for career development or to keep their minds stimulated, although I am sure that that is an important factor, but because they need the money. They go back for financial reasons. Some 75 per cent. of women go back to work for financial reasons. It is little wonder when one looks at the facts.

There is an unprecedented level of consumer debt. Credit card debt among British women is now more than £11 billion and unsecured loans to women amount to £20 billion. The average overdraft of a woman in this country is £500. In total, female overdraft debt is £4.6 billion. Perhaps that is the new issue that feminists should be looking at. Debt is an important driving factor in getting women back into the workplace.

Women are already doing an awful lot to ensure that they go back to work on their own terms. Seventy-five per cent. of women change some aspect of their job after they have had a child. The majority of such changes relate to reduced working hours. It is about trying to improve the work-life balance. It is something on which I certainly think people should have more choice. The choice to return to work is important, and clearly there is a financial imperative for many women.

The Government have made great strides in increasing maternity provision, expanding child care provision and creating the right to ask for flexible working in certain sectors of the work force. Those are important and positive developments. I cannot underestimate the amount of additional changes that have been made, usually by large employers to their working practices to encourage more of their female workers back into the workplace after having children. Certainly in my constituency of Basingstoke a number of my larger employers—indeed, employers throughout the constituency—do all that they can to encourage women back into the work force. Why? We have less than 1 per cent. unemployment in Basingstoke. We need to use all our work force to the best degree; otherwise, we will find it difficult to fill jobs.

So progress is being made, but all too often it is still tough to make jobs pay after having children, despite the changes that have been made. The Minister will doubtless have seen the headlines just 10 days ago on the Equalities Review research, which pointed out that mothers face the worst discrimination in the workplace. Mothers with children aged under 11 are 45 per cent. less likely to be employed than men, despite all the work that the Government have done to date in this area. As I have said, many mothers try to change jobs to give themselves more flexibility; indeed, one in five mothers moves employer after having their first child to try to get more flexibility. However, the simple fact is that they all too often move to jobs that are less skilled. They downgrade to a lower-skilled job—this is downward mobility—and as a result their wages fall by approximately 16 per cent. Their wages fall not because they have reduced their hours, but simply because they are doing poorer-skilled jobs.

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The simple fact is that this country’s economy is not maximising the full potential of these women. They account for an increasing part of the work force, but we are not maximising the true potential of that growing proportion of our workers. In many ways, we are trying to fight our economic battles with one hand tied behind our backs.

Reports such as the Leitch report are deeply concerning. There is clear evidence that the market in unskilled jobs—the sort of jobs that many women are being forced to take, so that they can have flexible part-time working to fit around their families—is drying up. There are some 6 million unskilled jobs in this country, but the Leitch report reckons that by 2020, there will be just 500,000. So a group of women is being forced to look at an ever-dwindling supply of low-paid, low-quality jobs that are far below the standard of work that they perhaps undertook before the birth of their child.

A lot of concern has been expressed about the impact on children of having a working mother. Everybody has a view on this, but a recent UNICEF report indicated some worrying trends in the outcomes for our young people not just in the past few years, but over a long time. Many Members will appreciate the concerns that exist about the rise in antisocial behaviour. I should be interested to hear whether the Minister feels that the trend for women who have had children to take up lower-paid, lower-skilled jobs sits well with trying to solve some of the problems that such reports have pointed out.

Ms Dari Taylor: The hon. Lady is making some interesting points and I am listening to her with great care. She is not saying that working mothers are the cause of the increase in antisocial behaviour, is she?

Mrs. Miller: No, I am not saying that at all. What I am saying is that there is deep concern, as evidenced in the UNICEF report, at the fact that there continues to be difficult outcomes for children, and one big change has been that mothers no longer stay at home as much as they used to do. There is a great deal of pressure on parents—be it single-parent or two-parent families—in their working lives. Indeed, there are many different pressures on families. The hon. Lady will agree that the breakdown of families is demonstrably affecting outcomes for children. The blame for these factors cannot be laid at any one person’s feet. However, the problems that we experience in family life in Britain today should be cause for concern in all parts of the House.

Mrs. Moon: Does the hon. Lady accept that the problem is not that women are working, or even that both parents are working, but society’s unwillingness to set boundaries and limits on personal behaviour? That starts with children. Many of the nanny-type programmes on television, in which someone goes into a household where the children are behaving badly, are about helping parents to understand that their role as parents is to set limits and boundaries. That is not to do with working but with taking responsibility as an adult and a parent.

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Mrs. Miller: The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. The important point to note is that if parents are present in their children’s lives, they are able to do that. If parents are working long hours under pressure and are not able to be there to put in place those boundaries, that is a difficulty. I am sure that she would agree with me about the need for employers to be understanding about the need for parents to be physically around more in their children’s lives so that they can put in place those boundaries.

It is interesting to consider what is happening in other countries, especially the US, where they have implemented many of the family friendly policies that the Government have implemented here. Despite that, the number of hours that women are working in the US has increased and that is a lesson for us to consider. Just implementing such policies is not enough. We need to consider further how we can give women the sort of flexibility that will give them the time at home to undertake the duties that the hon. Lady mentions. Parents need to spend time with their children to help them grow up, form their personalities and be good citizens in the future.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I should say that I am not a parent, but one of the concerns that many parents have is that even if they can fit their normal working hours around school times, school holidays can be a problem. There is a mismatch between parents’ ability to be around and the time that the children are at home.

Mrs. Miller: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and those of us who have school-age children can sympathise with it. While many employers are sensible and flexible, and understand the value of having women workers in the work force, they may find it difficult to accommodate that sort of flexible working. Sometimes they find it difficult to accommodate for good reasons—perhaps because they are led by their clients and need to be responsive to them—but sometimes it is because they have not considered the benefits to their company of embracing more flexible working. All too often, companies see flexible working as a way of retaining staff, but it can be useful in recruiting staff.

I can speak from personal experience, as before I became a Member of Parliament I was a director of a company. I found it difficult to recruit high quality, well qualified women. Sometimes the best women to employ were those who had children and needed flexibility in their working patterns, because they were dedicated to their jobs, they were reliable and they wanted to make the job work. Flexible working, even accommodating school holidays, can be one way to attract and retain the best staff.

Ms Diana R. Johnson: The hon. Lady talked about learning lessons from the US about the flexibilities that had been introduced there. However, the US is not a good example, because of its culture of very long hours. The majority of workers have two weeks’ holiday a year, so their economy is very different from ours in the UK.

Mrs. Miller: I would like to agree that the US is different, but I am not sure that it is. As a country, we have a reputation for very long working hours. I do not
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have the figures at my fingertips, but I think that this country’s working hours are among the longest in Europe, if not the longest of all. What problems do women who have had children and who want to re-enter the workplace encounter? How can we remove the pressure on them to downgrade their jobs and take lower pay?

One difficulty has to do with integrating the idea of part-time and flexible working with more senior jobs. For example, just 3.6 per cent. of jobs at the higher occupational and managerial grades are performed by females working part-time. In contrast, well over half of the women in clerical jobs are part-time. That shows the mismatch between the numbers of women able to work part-time in the better paid and more highly skilled jobs and those who can do so in less skilled and lower-paid employment. We need to consider how we can ensure that flexible, part-time working can permeate all levels of the job market.

At the opening of the debate, I listened with great interest to the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). She talked about the great advances that had been made with part-time working in the judiciary. I am not sure that I share her positivity about that, as I believe that much work remains to be done to encourage a more flexible way of working in all areas of professional employment. An idea was floated earlier about part-time working or sharing jobs in this place, but I think that that may be a little further off.

Another problem, according to the statistics, is that women who take up part-time employment on re-entering the work force earn 27 per cent. less per hour than their full-time counterparts. The financial burdens that women face mean that they need to re-enter the workplace—and they may also choose to go back to work—but what can the Government do to support them? Going back to work must be a positive choice for women, and they should not be forced to downgrade and accept lower rates of pay. That will not help us to maximise the potential of women in this country today.

Many statistics show that there are many benefits to be gained from adopting a more flexible approach to work for women. For example, two thirds of the organisations that have implemented part-time and flexible working report reduced absenteeism and staff turnover. However, we must make sure that the part-time jobs that are available are the right ones, and that they fulfil the potential of the women who do them.

The Minister for Women and Equality will wind up the debate, and I hope that she will set out what the Government are doing to help mothers to return to the workplace. Helping mothers on benefits back to work is very important, but so is helping all mothers, regardless of whether six months or six years have passed since they had a baby. Too many women in my constituency feel left behind by the advances in IT, for example, but they have also lost confidence in their ability to participate in the workplace. What are the Government doing to help them go back to work and be economically active in a way that fits in with their family commitments and with the training that they received earlier in their working lives?

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Also, what can be done to help small and medium-sized employers, as they are often the ones that find it most difficult to understand the benefits of flexible working for women, both now and in the future? I am not talking about introducing regulation and making them feel that part-time working for women is a burden. Such companies need to be able to understand that flexible working can benefit them—something that I found out when I employed women on a part-time basis in the company that I worked for.

Earlier today, at the event that many Members attended to mark international women’s day, Baroness Boothroyd, the first woman Speaker, reminded me of the words of John Stuart Mill. In his work The Subjection of Women, he said:

Those words were read out today as we laid flowers at the memorial to Emmeline Pankhurst, and although they were written 140 years ago they are still highly pertinent, so I urge the Government to consider whether the policies they are pursuing truly address the issues.

Mrs. Moon: Given the sentiments that the hon. Lady has just expressed, does she share my concern that her party’s selection of 14 male candidates in a row indicates that there may be a long way to go before we achieve equality of opportunity?

Mrs. Miller: I thank the hon. Lady for making a relatively political point. All I can say is that we are doing much to encourage women to come forward for jobs in this place. We want highly qualified women with the experience to represent their constituencies here. Yes, it will take us time to fill those places, but we do not want the problems experienced by the hon. Lady’s party after the 1997 election, when far too many women MPs found that it was not the job for them. That does not help anybody. We need to make sure that the women who come to this place know the job and can commit to it for more than just one Session.

We need to make sure that the Government’s policies on women and the workplace truly address the issues that affect the 23 million women in this country, especially the 12 million in the work force, many of whom have families. At present, I am not sure that the policies ensure that they can maximise their potential for the benefit of our economy in the future.

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