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Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Does the Minister not understand that the best thing for the Government to do is to ensure that their loan guarantee schemes work? They have made a lot of noise about them, but the schemes need to start safeguarding the
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jobs that are being lost every week in constituencies up and down the land. That is happening in my constituency as well, and the women in my area who come to see me are concerned to explain how, thanks to this Government, their businesses are failing.

Ms Harman: When the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who run businesses go to see him, I hope that he makes sure to tell them how they can be helped with their cash flow. They can apply to defer tax payments, and they can be sure that the Government will pay their bills on time. We are putting money into the economy through the VAT cut and by ensuring that we keep the capital spending programme going. All those measures are being taken, and we will introduce further measures and schemes to help guarantee loans.

We want to reassure women that we are taking the necessary action and that there is real help for families that get into difficulty. That is why we have published the booklet “Real Help Now For Women”, which contains practical advice and information about employment rights and where to go for help if they lose their jobs. It also offers guidance about child care, skills and training. We want to make it absolutely clear that, if a family member loses their job, that will not mean that the family home is lost.

We want to reassure women too that the new school building planned for their area, which they fought for and are looking forward to, will go ahead. The same is true of their new children’s centre, college, health centre or housing, because we do not want a lack of confidence in the future to contribute to the problems of the economy now.

Mr. Hollobone rose—

Ms Harman: We will make sure that women know their rights, and that we get the message across loud and clear to employers that they cannot make part-timers or women on maternity leave redundant first, as that is unlawful and unfair. They have to treat everyone fairly.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): It is vital to safeguard the right to request flexible working, and I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will argue her case against those members of the Cabinet who have been reported as believing otherwise. That right could come under pressure in an economic downturn and affect women both disproportionately and very badly. We all support what she is arguing for in that respect, and I hope that she wins her argument against her Cabinet colleagues.

Ms Harman: I can tell the House that we will keep the right to request flexible work, which is so important for parents who have to balance work with bringing up children. Moreover, far from cutting back on that right, we are going to extend it: from 1 April, the right will be available for parents with children up to the age of 16, rather than just six.

We cannot tackle what is a global financial crisis in any one country. We need international action, and that is what the Prime Minister is taking forward in the run-up to the G20 meeting. For many women, however, the appearance on the news of a global economic
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summit does not inspire in them the sense that the people at the summit are talking about them—their hopes, fears, life and work.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon. Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, although tax credits and the national minimum wage have lifted women’s wages to a point that was not considered possible in the early 1990s, the pay gap still exists, especially for blue-collar workers? Is it not time that the salaries and wages paid by all companies were audited, so that equal pay for work of equal value became an absolute fact for everyone?

Ms Harman: I agree with my hon. Friend, and that is one of the important issues to be addressed in the equality Bill in a few months.

As I said, we need to take international action, but many women do not think that global economic summits talk about them or really understand their lives. However, April’s G20 summit in London will be different. It wants to listen to the concerns of women as well as men, to act to protect families as well as workplaces, and to hear women’s voices as well as men’s. Women’s voices will be heard at the summit through a big discussion about women and the global economic downturn.

The economic debate is being discussed in unusual channels. The discussion has been storming through the website Mumsnet, and I want to thank each and every one of the women who have posted comments on the site about the debate on the economy. I cannot help noticing that most of the posts are made at 9 pm or later, after the children have been put to bed.

Debate is raging not just through The Economist, as it will also feature in Take a Break magazine. Moreover, bankers and Ministers are not the only ones meeting in No. 11 Downing street to discuss the economy. Yesterday, a meeting in No. 11 was attended by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokespersons on these matters, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone). I thank them both for coming. It was also attended by representatives of the Towns Women’s Guild, the Women’s TUC, the Women's National Commission and the Fawcett Society. Their views, and the views of all the others who attended yesterday, will be fed into the London summit in April.

The matter is also being discussed by women in different parts of the world. It was discussed at the FEMM Committee of the European Parliament, which I was delighted to address last month on behalf of the Government. It is also being discussed at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York, and the Government Equalities Office is playing a part in that. After the London summit, I shall host a meeting of women Ministers from other countries to engage women in a continuous discussion of how we can go forward from the G20.

As well as offering real help now, we need to build a stronger economy and a fairer society after the recession. As I said, we will introduce a new law to give women and men who have children up to the age of 16 the right to request flexible working. Our Government enterprise
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strategy will support women entrepreneurs, and that very important work will be carried out through the regional development agencies.

We have set up an inquiry into pay discrimination in the financial services industry, which will be carried out by the Equality Commission. The financial services sector needs a major shake-up—that is clear beyond doubt. One of the issues that needs to be addressed is pay, not just for those at the top but for the 50 per cent. of financial services employees who are women.

The gender pay gap in financial services is worse than in any other sector. The pay gap for women in retail is 14 per cent.—that is still too big and unfair—but in financial services it is a staggering 44 per cent. The Equality Commission will give an interim report to me at the end of this month, and will then go on to make further inquiries and use its legal powers if necessary. We will also press on with our equality Bill to ensure fairer treatment of women at work—all women, including minority ethnic women, women with disabilities, and older women.

In conclusion, the task of the Government in these tough economic times is to ensure that the recession is as short and as shallow as possible. We must also protect the most vulnerable during it and ensure that we lay the basis for a better Britain, a stronger economy and—absolutely crucially—a fairer society.

Ms Dari Taylor: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way again. She is addressing the issue of the recession very positively, but will she comment on the statement made by one Opposition Member that recession can be good for us?

Ms Harman: I do not agree at all. That minimises the fears and the apprehension that we all understand and know about. We are determined to provide people with the reassurance and help that they need now. As we build for the future—as we build a new economic order—it is imperative that we lay the basis for a new social order, and that means putting fairness at the very heart of what we do. When people feel that their backs are against the wall, it is even more important to press on with equality, and to fight discrimination and prejudice.

Fairness is not just important to individuals, but vital for a strong economy and a cohesive society. In these difficult and painful economic times, we are giving people real help now, and real hope for the future. For Labour, that hope is of a fair and equal society that is strong, stable and prosperous, and in which everyone has a genuine stake. Today’s debate comes at an important time for women and families across the country, and will make an important contribution. I look forward to hearing the comments made.

12.40 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): This is indeed an important debate, and it would have been timely even had it not coincided with international women’s day, which is this Sunday. For all the talk about bail-outs, and bankers’ bonuses and pensions, it is in the homes of millions of families across the country that the effects of recession are most severely felt. Our thoughts must be with families who are struggling to pay bills, or facing redundancy.

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Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that we must of course be concerned about the impact of the recession on everyone, but this recession is having a different impact on women from recessions in the past. It is appropriate, in advance of international women’s day, for us to stop and give some thought to the particular effect that it is having on women. However, we must also be clear that the recession’s impact on women is not limited to the workplace. For example, older women—they may also be carers—who rely on savings have been badly hit financially by the interest rate cuts, so the impact goes beyond the workplace. There is no typical woman, and women will be affected by the downturn in different ways—as employees and employers, small business owners, entrepreneurs, mothers, carers, home owners and pensioners. In all parts of the country, women will feel the effect on them and their families. That is the human face of recession, and it is essential that we not only debate the issues, but take the right action to see people through it.

Mr. Hollobone: I thank my right hon. Friend for having the grace to give way, unlike the Leader of the House. I do not recall the Leader of the House mentioning women pensioners in her speech. Millions of lady pensioners—there are more women pensioners than male pensioners—will greet with alarm today’s announcement that interest rates are being cut to half a per cent., and there will be real alarm and fear about their financial future.

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I was keen to make the point early in my speech that it is not only in the workplace that recession hits women. It is too easy to focus just on that particular group. As he says, many elderly women—women pensioners—are suffering. Some are trying to supplement their income with that little bit of extra savings, and find their income severely reduced as a result of the interest rate falls. That is why I hope that in the Budget on 22 April, the Chancellor will take up our proposal to increase the older person’s allowance and remove the tax on savings income for basic rate taxpayers.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I am sure that everyone in this House recognises that there are real issues for some pensioners with savings, on whom the fall in the interest rate has had an impact. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the introduction of the pension credit has been particularly important in helping women pensioners, as women are less likely to have built up a contributions record that gives them full pension entitlement? We need to recognise and celebrate the achievements of the pension credit, which has had a real impact on women’s poverty.

Mrs. May: The pension credit would be better worth celebrating if the Government had not made claiming it so complicated that large numbers of people are simply not taking it up, and not getting the pension credit to which they are entitled.

When I looked at the Order Paper today, I was struck by the fact that the title of the debate has changed in the past few days. Last week, when the Leader of the House announced the debate, it was to be on “supporting women and families through the downturn and building a strong and fair economy for the future”. That has now
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been reduced to “Support for women through the economic downturn and for the future.” I wonder what has happened to “building a strong and fair economy for the future.” I suspect that the words may have changed because the Government are not building a strong and fair economy for the future; they have not got to grips with how they will get us out of the mess of this recession. There has been a flurry of activity on the part of the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has grabbed headlines but had no real effect. That “headless chicken” approach to policy making will not help women and families, or businesses.

Let us look at some of the initiatives announced by the Government that have not actually come to anything. The working capital scheme is still not operational. The internship scheme does not exist. Recruitment subsidies are not yet active. The guarantee scheme for asset-backed securities is non-existent, and the home owner mortgage support scheme, announced in December, is still not in place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) pointed out, for some women who are running businesses, and some employees of businesses, it is essential that the Government get the loans guarantee scheme up and running if those businesses are to continue and to keep people in jobs. On the “Real help now for women” document, launched yesterday, I note that in the section on “Help to start or grow a business”, no reference is made to the Government’s loan guarantee scheme—because, I suspect, it is not yet in place.

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families says that this will be the worst recession for 100 years, but the Government have not actually put anything in place to deal with it effectively. Later, I shall talk about our proposals to help women and families through the downturn and create a strong economy for the future, but first I want to touch on some of the ways in which this recession will have an impact on women that differs from other recessions. We know that the alarming unemployment figures are affecting families in all parts of the country, and there is certainly reason to believe that women will fare much worse in this recession than they did in previous ones. In the last recession, industries such as retail, hotels and catering, where women’s jobs dominate, fared fairly well compared with manufacturing and construction, but this time it is clear that all sectors of the economy are being hit. That is shown in the fact that although men’s redundancy rates remain higher than women’s, the growth in the redundancy rate for women is double that of men.

The effects of redundancy can be particularly harsh on women, who tend to earn less anyway, and have fewer savings to fall back on. The Leader of the House referred to lone parents who are women; lone parents with children can be at particular risk of hardship, with evidence showing that women with dependent children are more likely than other women to be unemployed. The effect on a family of a woman becoming unemployed could be greater in this recession than in the past, because women’s contributions to family income are now higher than they were. In a significant proportion of couple households, women contribute over 50 per cent. of family income. If their partner is made redundant, there will be additional pressure on women to stay in work, or to get back into the workplace.

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There is also a concern, raised at the summit held yesterday in No. 11—I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on getting into No. 11; perhaps next time she will make it into No. 10—that women’s aspirations will be hit. They may pass up opportunities for promotion because of concerns that “last in, first out” arrangements might make it not worth their while to take up opportunities. So the recession will directly affect women in ways that previous ones never have. The immediate priority for the Government must be to take action to support businesses and prevent further dramatic rises in unemployment. That means that we need to get to the heart of the credit crunch and get credit moving again. With businesses threatened with closure every day, it is unforgivable that the Government have still not adopted our proposal for a national loan guarantee scheme of up to £50 billion.

The bank recapitalisation has not worked in getting credit moving, and companies now face huge problems because of a lack of working credit. If the Government are serious about helping women and men, they must guarantee loans to businesses, as we have proposed. It is by getting credit flowing that we will prevent the further rises in unemployment that families fear. There is much more that the Government could do to support families at this time. For example, why do they not adopt our plan to work with councils to freeze council tax for two years? What about reducing energy bills for millions of people by enabling them to set up direct debits through their Post Office card accounts? And what about giving savers the break to which I referred earlier, in response to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone)? That would be particularly useful to those many elderly women who are trying to eke out their income with that little bit extra from their savings.

There is one area where the Government could be doing more in a very practical way to help women, and that is in community learning, helping people who have been out of the labour market for a long time. Owing to Government cuts, there are now 1.4 million fewer publicly funded community learning courses than there were just four years ago, so there are over half a million fewer women in further education or skills training than in 2005—a far greater reduction compared with men, although they have also lost out.

Community learning offers an important, locally based route to training for those who have been away from the labour market, particularly women who have been out of work looking after a child and are now finding it harder to get back into the workplace. Of course, it also helps people across the board who have been made redundant. The courses offered can be particularly beneficial to women because they are flexible—for example, short courses in IT and other skills that are important in boosting somebody’s employability. The Government should adopt our proposal for a £100 million community learning fund, paid for by refocusing the Train to Gain budget. Adult and community learning has immense social value and promotes social mobility, and now more than ever it needs greater support.

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