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Women play an important role in volunteering and working in the community. When I was a parliamentary candidate, I noticed that all the tenants’ or community
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groups to whom I spoke were run by women. I salute the women in my constituency who run community, tenants’ and residents’ groups. The estates in my community would not work as well as they do without the wonderful women who run them.

The Minister said earlier that it should be possible for all jobs to be part-time unless there was a solid reason to the contrary. The demand for part-time and flexible working will continue to grow. Over the next few years and decades more women will be working, and the number of carers, or people with caring responsibilities, will grow as well. It has already reached 6 million, and is expected to reach at least 10 million by 2010 and increase further thereafter. People will work for longer as a result of what we are doing here: changes in the retirement age are already planned for women born in the 1950s, and there will be changes for both men and women as the legislation kicks in. I see all those factors as drivers of change in the demand for flexible working.

Let me identify some other issues that are relevant to the world of women and work. I return to women’s representation, because we ourselves are drivers of change in that women Members of Parliament put these matters on to the agenda. How are we doing? We rank 61st in terms of women’s representation in politics, and when I think of the time I have spent striving to improve the lot of women in public life, I do not consider that very impressive.

I was pleased, as other colleagues will have been, to be one of 40 Labour MPs elected in 2005. There were 26 women in that group. That was the first predominantly female in-take of MPs. My personal experience is that that makes a difference for us. It makes a difference in that we have a grouping. Some of our male colleagues have complained that sometimes they feel out of it and outnumbered. I think, “Fine, I have experienced that for decades. You will develop some sympathy if you know what we experienced.” I was the first woman MP for Worsley and the first woman MP to represent Wigan. Since then, I am happy to say that the two local authorities, Salford and Wigan, have both appointed women chief executives. Barbara Spicer and Joyce Redfearn are excellent women and I hope that their appointment makes a difference in those authorities. They must be exceptional people already because only 21 per cent. of local authority chief executives are women. There are, sadly, very few in the north-west region. We have some way to go in local government.

Fifty-two per cent. of civil servants are women but only 26 per cent. of women in the civil service are in senior management jobs. That is up slightly on last year’s figures. In Labour Members’ meetings with Cabinet Ministers, we ask them to keep reporting back to us. It behoves women MPs to keep asking Cabinet Ministers what the position is on representation in their Departments.

From April, a public sector duty on gender equality will come into force. Public bodies will have to look at ways of improving that. We know that, without action, it would take 20 years to achieve equality in the civil service at senior management level. We have debated the figures. Depressingly, whatever figures we take, it
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will take over 70 years to get a representative House of Commons. Clearly, we are moving faster on that in the Labour party, for reasons that are obvious, I think.

Since I worked in the private sector, there has developed talk of glass ceilings and sticky floors. The first is defined as women being hindered in their progress to senior levels because of discrimination and/or—this is the important thing and perhaps where the debate is going—conditions of work at senior levels making it impossible for them to progress. I personally think that that is the thing to look at rather more. Sticky floors is defined as women being unable to progress from entry level jobs owing to the same attitudes or to the conditions of work. The Prime Minister visited ASDA recently and was told by a woman who was working part-time that she could not progress to being a manager because she could not take on shift work—she had child care commitments. It is clear that at every level that is an issue.

A couple of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), referred to the PricewaterhouseCoopers audit on women holding senior management positions. I understand that the audit was just of women holding senior management positions in the FTSE 350 companies and not of women in all professions, as was said earlier.

Comment has been made on that audit:

That is an issue. Interestingly, that audit, which is being reported today, is borne out by work done by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which found that thousands of women are missing from senior posts in business. We may need seriously to look at the reasons for that exodus. Lack of flexibility is being cited as one of the reasons. The commission recently said in one of its reports that flexible working is still seen

That issue must be looked at.

The smaller number of women in senior management positions is significant because those are the women who may reach the boards of their companies in years to come. It may be that they are entrepreneurial and are getting out to start their own businesses, but that is not going to help the boards of those companies in years to come when they are still all male, or predominantly male. In the same way as there is a journey to achieving election here as an MP—in my case, local government and working on national health and social care issues—there is a journey by women on the career ladders in British companies. It should concern us that women appear to be coming off that ladder before they get anywhere near the top.

I have touched on the need for flexible working, and I want to conclude by running through some aspects of the caring role of women, which is also an important factor. Obviously both men and women are carers, but women are much more likely to care at the heavier end of the caring commitment. Women are more likely to care for a child with a disability while men are more likely to care for a spouse and they may do so after they have retired from work.

Importantly, research has been done by the Future Foundation into a generation of women in their 40s and 50s who are now caught between working and the
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need to care for an elderly relative. It is estimated that that group will grow by 50 per cent. by 2020. Indeed, increased longevity will mean that many more people will have to become supercarers, who look after an elderly relative as well as caring for either children or grandchildren. It is estimated that there are about 2.5 million supercarers, but that with population changes that figure will rise to 3.9 million. Most are aged between 45 and 55, and 80 per cent. of them— 2 million—are women.

Unsurprisingly, supercarers are less likely to work— 38 per cent. as compared to the national average of 45 per cent. of carers who work. So this dual care is a new factor that we have to start to look at. Of course, it is increasingly accepted that caring at the heavier end of commitment has an impact on the health and well-being of the carer. Research has, not surprisingly, shown that dual care has an even heavier impact on the life of the carer physically and mentally. Only 65 per cent. of dual carers are satisfied with their life compared with a national average of 75 per cent., and well-being among such carers is less than 60 per cent. compared with the national average of 65 per cent.

We have made great strides in getting carers on to the Government’s agenda. In 1999 the first national strategy for carers was introduced. Three Bills have been introduced by Labour Members that have given carers rights to assessment of their needs and rights in relation to employment, leisure time and educational opportunities. I introduced a ten-minute Bill—the Identification and Support of Carers (Primary Health Care) Bill—last year, and I hope to bring it back at some point.

Local authorities have received carers grant to fund breaks for carers and other forms of support. Recently, the Government announced the new deal for carers, which included extra money for respite care, a national advice helpline and an expert carers programme. They are all welcome, but most important, at the same time the Government announced a review of the national carers strategy. That is a welcome development.

I am acting this year as the parliamentary champion for carers week from 11 to 17 June—I hope that hon. Members have it in their diaries. In the next few months, I hope that we can listen to carers and their needs as part of that review. We need to find further ways to meet their needs and tackle their issues, to give them the same opportunities to work, progress in work and undertake training and have the balance in their lives that we are striving to make possible for women throughout society.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I just say to hon. Members who are still trying to catch my eye that the average length of speeches from the Back Benches is running at about 23 minutes. Four hon. Members wish to speak and the Minister wishes 20 to 25 minutes for the wind-up. Perhaps hon. Members will do the maths if they are trying to help each other.

5.4 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I want to make a relatively brief speech on the contribution of microfinance in addressing poverty
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and in promoting women’s empowerment. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on microfinance, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to share my enthusiasm for this important poverty reduction measure, which helps the very poorest in society.

Many Members will have visited various projects—reference was made to such a visit earlier—but to set my speech in context, I want to describe one that I visited not so long ago in Kibera, which is the biggest slum in Africa, with more than 1 million people. I visited a market there where a very happy lady had a market stall that was crammed with sacks full of beans. One aspect of microfinance is taking out very small loans, often of less than £50. This lady started with such a loan and bought one bag of beans. She sold it, repaid her loan, made a profit and bought more beans. By the time that I visited the market stall, she had at least 20 bags of beans. Her profit is clearly growing, and it is making an enormous contribution to her family.

In recognition of international women’s day and the important link between women’s empowerment and microfinance, I tabled early day motion 1036, which focuses on microfinance in developing countries. I ask Members who support this enabling approach to poverty reduction to consider signing it today, before it is too late. Today’s debate is of course focused on the UK, and just yesterday, I heard a presentation by a microfinance institution in this country, so I thought this a marvellous opportunity to spread the word and highlight the potential for more support for such institutions in our own country.

The presentation was given at a meeting hosted jointly by the all-party parliamentary groups on microfinance and on sex equality, the chair of the latter being the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan). We focused on microfinance’s actual and potential impact in promoting gender equality, and we heard about examples of microfinance in Asia and Africa—and in the east end of London.

Microfinance is the provision of financial services to those who are traditionally excluded because of their economic position in society. Such services include providing small collateral-free loans to set up a business, providing access to saving accounts, remittances and insurance, and business support and training. It is essentially a hand-up, rather than a hand-out, approach to development, and is widely held to promote women’s empowerment. It is used primarily by women; in fact, 86 per cent. of the 113 million clients worldwide are women. Access to financial services is therefore having a real impact on the lives of women and their families, and on local communities across the world. Impoverished people, particularly women, are able to overcome poverty through the provision of credit to build up income-generating activities.

Women are more likely than men to spend income directly on the family. I asked women in several different African countries what difference microfinance had made to their lives. They said that it had provided them with enough food and shelter, but they also said, “It enables me to keep my children at school for longer.” That is so important, and there are also various health spin-offs. Research shows that this is as true in the UK as anywhere else in the world.

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The UK institution that I learned about yesterday is called Street Cred. It is a microcredit project in east London that links access to finance with tailored business support, and it is delivered through a peer group model adapted from the Grameen bank, in Bangladesh. It was set up in 1999 by Quaker Social Action, a regeneration charity that is working with communities in the east end.

The Grameen bank in Bangladesh was set up by Muhammad Yunus, and we celebrated greatly when he won the Nobel peace prize last year for his contribution to microfinance. Muhammad Yunus recognised that women wishing to start a small business were being denied that opportunity because of a lack of accessible and affordable credit.

The peer group model used by Street Cred in our own east end involves setting up small groups or borrowing circles, with four or so members. When a group member applies for a loan, the other members of the group participate in approving the application. If one client does not repay, no more loans are issued to the group, so there is much group pressure to repay. Solutions are often found through sharing knowledge and experience in the group. Street Cred offers a great deal of business support. Its experience shows that the impact of being in an all-women environment affects their ability to take risks, to share and to flourish. That is why it is an all-women project.

We have heard about barriers this afternoon, and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) mentioned that women make up only 14 per cent. of business owners in the UK. They face significant barriers, some—but not all—of which can be overcome quite simply. We have spoken a lot about child care and caring responsibilities. Those are complex barriers and we need to do so much more to address them. But lack of confidence and business knowledge are other barriers, as are lack of access to affordable finance and feeling excluded from mainstream business support services.

In certain circumstances, it is recognised that women are more fearful of debt than men. Women in this country are twice as likely to live in poverty as men and have more to risk by coming off benefits. We have spoken a lot today about glass ceilings, but I wish to redress the balance slightly by considering the position of the very poorest in our community.

Lorely Burt: I am aware of several microfinance projects. Does my hon. Friend agree that such projects, in addition to empowering women, can be really useful in alleviating the social exclusion suffered by ethnic minorities? Several of the projects that I know of are compliant with sharia law, so Muslim women are able to come out of what can be a restricted environment to start trading in their own way. That empowers them and brings them out into society.

Annette Brooke: I thank my hon. Friend for her helpful intervention. That is exactly what happens in the east end, where the project is working with ethnic minority groups. It is using the Grameen model, and of course some of the women are from Bangladesh. That project is working towards overcoming the sharia law
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aspect in terms of interest and profit. Although interest is paid, it is paid into a pot that is then lent again and the institution is basically non-profit making.

Microcredit reverses conventional banking practice by removing the need for collateral and creating a banker system based on mutual trust, accountability and participation. It works on the basis that the bank should go to the borrowers, not the other way round. Interest is charged on the loan and used to help other women. The rates of interest—at a typical annual percentage rate of 19 per cent.—are far lower than rates at which someone who is impoverished could hope to borrow from any other source, if any were available.

The repayment rates are remarkable. It is perhaps a feature of the women who repay, but the group support is also vital. In projects that I have seen overseas, the loans have been very small, £20 or £50, but in Street Cred a typical first loan is for about £500. There is still pressure to repay the loan in a relatively short time, but I think that that adds to the project’s success.

Interestingly, only 39 per cent. of women who join a borrowing circle actually take on a loan. The others benefit from one-to-one support and business help and are then able to access other sources of finance. A succession of loans is made in about 12 per cent. of cases, but the important point is that the people involved get off to a start and are then able to enter the main banking system. Microfinance deserves a lot more support because it offers a way to tackle financial exclusion in our affluent society.

I love stories about microfinance. They bring the subject to life, so I shall tell one very quickly. Karen Winchester founded Diveen’s Cuisine, a Caribbean restaurant and catering business in Walthamstow. At first, she had difficulty getting information and support, and many of the places that she approached were concerned that she had no experience of running her own business or a restaurant, and no collateral to access credit.

Ms Winchester found a leaflet about Street Cred and joined a borrowing circle in 2002. She attended a number of business workshops and had one-to-one meetings, and began her business by providing catering for events. Later, she opened her restaurant. Her first loan was used to purchase catering equipment and, when she paid that back, she took out another one to improve the restaurant. She found that she was able to pay the loans back without coming under the same pressure that she would have experienced with a bank. Sometimes during the week, she uses her restaurant to host her borrowing circle—an example of how good practice can be spread.

Time is short, so I must not indulge in giving the House more examples. I shall end by quoting a “Gracious Ordinance” that the “Honourable Lords” of the Royal Courts of Justice, the highest court in England, made in 1871. They said:

That makes it clear that they thought that lending to women was a bad idea.

We have made some progress since then, but it is important that we appreciate that microfinance is good for women. In addition, women are good for microfinance internationally and, as we celebrate international women’s
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day, we should remember the poorest women across the world. However, we must not forget the women in our society, for whom relative poverty can be very hard to overcome.

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