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17 July 2007 : Column 179

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady appears to agree that these are the right priorities—it is right to focus on families, violence against women, and to support women in their communities. I assume she believes that those are the right priorities, but she criticised us for a lack of ambition. If she wants us to be more ambitious, I would welcome her support for our programme becoming more ambitious. It is important that we will the ends as well as the means. It is not right to say that one supports families who want to balance work and home but then vote against the legal rights necessary to help them. It is not right to say that one supports the fight against human trafficking but will not work with colleagues in Europe to deal with a Europe-wide problem. It is not right to say that one supports women in black and minority ethnic communities if one will not support the financial investment in those poor and deprived communities that the Government have made.

I urge the right hon. Lady to join us in our commitment to do a great deal more, and will the means, not just the ends. Rhetoric—she is absolutely right—does not help a single family, does not protect one single victim of crime, and does not help any minority ethnic woman struggling in her community. We have done a great deal, but we have brought to the House a focus on priorities in areas where we need to do more. I acknowledge that we have not set out a list of new policies. We have said what our three priority areas are so that people in the House and, importantly, people outside it, know what we are focusing on and can work with us to achieve it.

The right hon. Lady talked about choice and people being free to lead their lives how they want. Part of the problem is that the less money someone has and the fewer services available to them, the less choice they have, so I look forward to her support for extra financial support and public services. She talked about the difficulty of families caring for children, and it is true that one of the big demands from families is that people should have more time so that they can care for young children within the family, which is why tax credits and the minimum wage are so important. If someone has to work all hours to make ends meet, they do not have any time with their children, so the minimum wage is not just about money but about time.

The right hon. Lady spoke about pensions. Women in retirement suffering from inequality and having a poor standard of living is a very important issue for the Government, about which my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform will say more when we discuss the Lords amendments to the Pensions Bill in the next item of business.

The right hon. Lady said that action on the pay gap had stalled, and she mentioned some figures. It is true to say that the pay gap between women working full-time and men working full-time is about 12 per cent., but the pay gap between women working part-time and men working full-time is 40 per cent., so I agree with her that much more needs to be done to tackle unequal pay, and I look forward to her wholehearted support for more radical measures. I will pray her in aid when I am talking to my colleagues on the subject.

The right hon. Lady said that we had not done anything about stalking. That is not the case. We introduced the Protection from Harassment Act 1997,
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and we have done a great deal of work with the police, prosecutors and the voluntary sector to deal with the menace of stalking.

On human trafficking, it is not just a question of signing up to and ratifying conventions. It is what we do about the problem, working with the police, prosecutors and the courts. It is what we do about what is happening in our communities. I have a local newspaper, the Ham & High. The whole House should think about this. Here are some extracts from the personal ads:

We need to think—

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): If the Government ratify, we can deal with it.

Ms Harman: No. We need to think of the demand side of the problem. Who is reading those ads? This is a very difficult issue. There is no consensus about how we deal with the demand side—the men, the fathers, the sons, the brothers, the husbands who are reading those ads and who are fuelling the demand side of global sexual exploitation of women.

I welcome the support of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for our focus on women in prison. I think we can make progress on that. We would welcome working co-operatively with her on it. She says that the problem behind our approach is a lack of—did she say ideology?

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): A lack of ambition.

Ms Harman: A lack of ambition, but the right hon. Lady did say something about a lack of ideology. Our commitment is to making sure that we tackle inequality and empower women. I hope she will work with us on that.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for the courtesy of allowing me prior sight of the statement. I take the opportunity to welcome her to her position. She has an impressive track record of working on women’s issues, and I hope that in government she will be a strong advocate for women on a wide range of issues.

In the statement, the right hon. and learned Lady rightly put support for families up front. One of the biggest challenges facing women is balancing their family responsibilities and their work commitments, although that is an issue for men as well. We should not pigeon-hole it as a women’s issue. Indeed, we will probably be able to conquer the problems only when men, too, are engaged with the changes that are required.

On the pay gap, the figures have already been quoted—12.6 per cent. for full-time work and 40 per cent. for part-time work, and we need to do more to
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reduce the gap. Will the Minister consider extending equal pay audits to the private sector? On flexible working, the paper published today alongside the statement says that the Government are considering extending flexible working to parents of older children. Does that mean up to the age of 18? Will the Minister go further and accept that extending to all the right to request flexible working would help to change our working culture and reduce some of the resentment that can be created when some colleagues have an opportunity to request flexibility and others cannot?

Clearly, affordable child care is an important part of that, and I welcome the Government’s moves to make child care more affordable. Are new resources being announced to facilitate that? If not, how does the Minister expect that that will be achieved?

I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that the part that was missing from the families section of the statement concerned women’s pensions. Later today we will debate the Pensions Bill. Although there are some welcome improvements for women who have taken time out to care for families, they will be applied only after 6 April 2010. The difference that that will make to women who reach pension age the day before is that they will lose out on £27,000-worth of pension entitlements. I urge the Minister to comment on whether she thinks that is fair. If we are really going to be fair to women on pensions, surely it is time that the Government went one step further and based pensions on residency rather than national insurance contributions, because even under the new plans women with fewer than 30 years of NICs will not be entitled to a full pension.

On violence against women, it is welcome that a lot of cross-Government working is planned. The End Violence Against Women campaign has been scoring the Government in this respect. They got one out of 10 in 2005 and two out of 10 in 2006, so I hope that the trend is on the up. I hope that this will lead to better cross-departmental working, because that is what the campaign says has been missing, although individual strategies have been in place, for example on domestic violence. What steps will the Minister take to create an integrated strategy involving all Departments to tackle violence against women, instead of a piecemeal approach?

The moves on women in prison are welcome. We will of course scrutinise the Government on delivery and the action that is taken. However, given that four out of five women prisoners have a mental illness, it is urgent that the situation is tackled, and we will give the Government support in doing so.

On trafficking, it is welcome that the Government have now signed the European convention against trafficking in human beings and is planning the new legislation that is needed to implement the actions necessary to deal with the problem. The advertisements that the Minister read out from the newspaper will have been shocking and horrific to us all. However, while all these things are being put in place, it would be helpful for the House to have some idea of roughly when we can expect the convention to be ratified.

It is well documented that black and Asian women in communities across the UK suffer more discrimination than white women or black and Asian men, so that is clearly an important issue for the Government to tackle. However, the Commission for Racial Equality
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recently expressed disappointment about the discrimination law review and is concerned that there may be proposals to wrap the equality duties into one single duty that ends up being weaker. What reassurance can the Minister give that new proposals to simplify existing equality legislation will not result in a rolling back or weakening of the current race and gender equality duties?

Ms Harman: I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position and look forward to working with her. I thank her for her comment about the decades of work that I have done in this area. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage and I do not find ourselves on our own in taking forward this agenda. As well as the many men on the Labour Benches who support it, 97 women Labour Members of Parliament will ensure that it is taken forward.

The hon. Lady rightly says that this is an issue for men as well as women. If a new baby comes along and the father is earning much more than the mother is, he has to work increased hours to bring home more money while she works fewer hours to care for the child. The difficulty is that there is no choice. Because he is earning so much more, she has to be the one who takes more time off—they cannot share the responsibility equally or even decide that he will be the one who stays at home and looks after the child. Unequal pay is not just a matter of principle but a matter of choice within families at home. We have taken forward greater rights to paternity leave. Families are not just about women. Women shoulder most of the responsibility of the work of caring for young children and elderly relatives, but men increasingly want to share that responsibility, and we must ensure that the labour market and pay rates do not prevent them from doing so.

I agree with the hon. Lady that equal pay is important, but it is difficult to make progress in tackling discrimination in pay, or unequal pay, while it remains hidden. That is why I welcome our commitment to ensure that Departments publish gender pay audits, so that we can see what is happening in terms of pay rates.

The hon. Lady spoke about the right to request flexible working and suggested that everyone should have the right to request it. It is argued by many, particularly the Equal Opportunities Commission, that if everybody, not just those with children, or with disabled or older relatives, were entitled to request flexible working, it might reduce the hostility of those without children, or such relatives, towards those who have them. We must recognise that it is a social policy imperative to ensure good family care and support for children, disabled relatives and the elderly. We have to argue that case to people and say, “If you don’t have those responsibilities, you are freer at your work, and can do more work than those who are working on behalf of their own family and society as a whole in supporting and caring for elderly relatives, or bringing up children.” There is not a public policy equivalence between allowing flexible work in order to let someone play a round of golf, and allowing it so that someone can care for an older relative. I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s line of argument on that.

We have made progress on affordable child care, but—heavens above—we are just at the start. Many
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families are tearing their hair out because affordable, flexible, high-quality child care is still not available to them. We have a long way to go—there is no doubt about that.

The hon. Lady talked about inter-departmental working on violence against women. We are considering merging the inter-ministerial group on domestic violence and the inter-ministerial group on sexual offences in order to take an overall view across Government on violence against women.

The hon. Lady recommended that in order to tackle the problem of the inequality of men’s and women’s incomes in retirement, we should simply use residence in this country as the main criterion, rather than the contributory system. My view is that we must ensure that people can contribute when going out to do paid work, which should be recognised in their national insurance contributions, but when they stay at home, caring for elderly or disabled relatives, or children, that too should be recognised as a contribution, and they should be credited for it. The problem with our system is not that it has been contributory, but that the only contribution, which has been disproportionately recognised, is paid work, not the valuable unpaid work that women do in their families. That is the historic problem.

I agree with the hon. Lady that overcrowding in women’s prisons is a particular problem. It is cruel for women prisoners with mental health problems, who have offended because they were victims of violence and sexual abuse in childhood, or because of those mental health problems. We have a positive programme concerning women offenders, which has been ably mapped out by my noble Friend Baroness Corston.

The hon. Lady spoke about the review of discrimination law. There is no intention to have weaker legal duties; it is a matter of strengthening the role that the law can play in equality.

Finally, on the ratification of the convention on human trafficking, when I was Solicitor-General—a role that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) now has, and she is doing a terrific job—I worked with prosecutors in Brussels and many European countries, and with Interpol, and I can tell the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) that what we sign is very important, but beyond that is what we actually do. It is a question of what we do about the demand side. We are talking about billions of pounds of serious, organised crime.

I am in favour of ratification and implementation of any such treaty, but we need to consider some serious issues. What are we going to do about demand? Why is trafficking a multi-billion pound, lucrative serious organised criminal business? It is because men pay for sex with exploited, trafficked girls. We need to consider what we are going to do about that. We need to work further on whether and how to criminalise such exploitation. In Sweden, the problem has been tackled by making paying for sex a criminal offence. We must examine the way in which other countries try to deal with the problem.

Several hon. Members rose

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Many Members want to speak. May I make a plea for brief, single questions and short responses?

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her statement. It is great to have the priorities laid out at the beginning of her term as a Minister and I welcome the fact that consultation will take place. I especially welcome the section of the statement on carers. What more can we do to help carers who are unable to work outside the home because they look after a disabled or elderly relative and may consequently live in poverty and also be isolated? Has she considered those issues?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend may well be aware that the Prime Minister announced a review of support for carers. We must all acknowledge that the subject will move up the agenda, given that people with disabilities live longer, older people live to a greater age and family care is the choice of the older person and of the family. The question is, as my hon. Friend points out, how we support people to make those choices without their suffering financial destitution and social isolation.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments about me and my work. I pay tribute to her work in setting up Cardiff Women’s Aid, which is an exemplar of tackling violence against women, and in child care in Cardiff, including Chwarae Teg, which was a joint organisation of employers, trade unions and women’s organisations for greater flexibility at work.

John Bercow: I warmly welcome the right hon. and learned Lady’s priorities for women in public policy, but they must be reflected in such priorities in the work of the House. Given that she is both Minister for Women and Leader of the House, will she conduct an urgent conversation with herself and then agree with me that it is monstrous discrimination against her that she is allowed to answer oral questions for only 10 minutes a month, that the time should be at least tripled, and that, given that she is Minister for Women, it is only right and proper that, in 2007, we should have a Select Committee on women’s issues?

Ms Harman: The idea of having a conversation with myself and ending up agreeing with the hon. Gentleman is interesting. The point about setting out our priorities is that we will work alongside our ministerial colleagues as they take policies through their Departments, and they will be accountable to the House. Additionally, as women Ministers we are accountable. We must ensure that the priorities and objectives are clear and made mainstream in the work of different Ministers, who are then held to account by Select Committees.

All the time, we need to think about the structures of accountability and how we create a greater focus on the issues that we are considering. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments in that spirit.

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