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Looking to the future, women and families will be hit by the Government’s plan to increase national insurance on everyone earning over £20,000—that is, were this
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Government to be in place after the next general election. That means higher taxes for every qualified nurse and police officer, not to mention the £2 billion that it will cost businesses. That will fundamentally undermine economic recovery at the very time when the Government talk about building the fair and strong economy to which the right hon. and learned Lady referred.

The Government boast of their “real help” for women, but there is nothing helpful or fair about temporary tax cuts followed by permanent tax rises, particularly not when those tax cuts are simply compensating for the disastrous abolition of the 10p tax rate, one of the singularly most unfair measures implemented by a British Government. The Government are on difficult ground when they speak of building a fair society. We will welcome measures that genuinely seek to build a stronger and fairer economy.

We look forward to the publication of the equality Bill, but it is nearly nine months since the right hon. and learned Lady came to the Dispatch Box to announce details of the Bill, and it still has not been published. I was interested to hear her responses both in business questions and earlier in the debate. In business questions she said that the Bill would be brought forward over the next few months. In response earlier in the debate, she said that it would be brought forward in a few months.

We see further delay in the equality Bill, which was the Government’s flagship equality legislation promised in their 2005 manifesto. The Leader of the House is fast running out of time to get that on the statute book. It is hard to avoid the impression that, as the newspaper reports suggest, the Government are split on the issue. As soon as he was appointed, Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool let it be known that he would be delaying the Bill, and it looks very much as though he is winning the battle.

When, or if, the Bill is published, we will engage constructively with it. I welcome the opportunity that it will present to consolidate equality legislation, making things simpler for businesses and local authorities. But we need to be clear why, over recent years, equality has been given a bad name. To many people, equality has become about bureaucracy and box-ticking, getting in the way of business efficiency, particularly in small companies. Equality should never be the enemy of common sense, and it should not get in the way of businesses, but help them work better. So the equality Bill cannot be allowed simply to sweep existing equality legislation into a single pile, but must improve on what we have.

Philip Davies: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. May: Something told me that at some stage my hon. Friend might want to intervene on me. If he will allow me to make my next point, I will allow him to intervene.

The point that I want to make is important, and I believe it is shared across the House. There are those who suggest that equality can be swept aside in a recession. My view is that equality is for all times, not just for the good times.

Philip Davies: My right hon. Friend said that certain things give equality a bad name. Does she agree that one of those is the fact that the Equality and Human
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Rights Commission goes round lecturing all sorts of organisations about equality of pay and is given taxpayers’ money to make sure that everyone is paid equally, yet the same organisation, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, pays men more than women, non-disabled people more than disabled people, and white people more then ethnic minorities? Is that not rather hypocritical of that organisation?

Mrs. May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the point that he makes. The EHRC needs to look at its own practices, as does Government in some of those areas. As my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) pointed out in business questions, the disability pay gap in the Government is significant—in some Departments, such as the Home Office, rising above 40 per cent.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I do not know whether my right hon. Friend heard that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) also muttered sotto voce from a sedentary position that the delay in the publication of the equality Bill was to be welcomed. Although none of us could deny my hon. Friend the right to his view, does she agree that our hon. Friend suffers from the notable disadvantage of being wrong, and that the sooner the Bill is introduced, the better?

Mrs. May: I hope my hon. Friend will have noted, as I said, that we look forward to the equality Bill when it is published, and we have been chastising the Government for their failure to bring it forward earlier. I am concerned that it may not be on the statute book by the time of the next election. There are some measures that I hope we will see in that Bill—

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: I shall make a little more progress. Then if the hon. Lady still wishes to intervene, I shall give way to her.

For women, one issue of fairness is equal pay. I know that the Leader of the House shares my commitment to reducing the gender pay gap, which remains stubbornly high at over 17 per cent. Equal pay is not just something for women in the City, or in other highly paid industries. It is about ensuring that women at the bottom of the pay scale also have proper and fair protection—women who work hard to provide for their families, and some who may have the confidence to fight for fairness.

Back in 2007, I made a number of proposals that I believe will make a real difference. I even set up a Facebook group, Theresa May for Equal Pay, although as far as I am aware, the right hon. and learned Lady has not yet joined it.

John Bercow: It has a ring to it.

Mrs. May: I thank my hon. Friend. It does, indeed, trip off the tongue rather nicely.

It is perfectly reasonable to expect that where a company has been found guilty of discriminating on pay, it should have to conduct a compulsory pay audit. We do not argue in our proposals that all companies should face a pay audit—only those that have already
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been found guilty of breaking the law. I offered that as a policy to the right hon. and learned Lady two years ago when we first proposed it, but the Government have not done anything about it.

If the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) wishes to intervene, I will give way to her.

Judy Mallaber: I thank the right hon. Lady. I wanted to respond to her earlier comments, but my point is relevant to what she is now discussing. I know that she understands the complexities of dealing with the pay gap. Just as her party has found it difficult to bridge the gap in the numbers of men and women who are Members of Parliament, so a jibe at Government Departments and the EHRC, although we all want them to do more, reflects the difficulty that they are having in getting women and people with disabilities into more senior positions. That is what we need to deal with. Does the right hon. Lady agree that all political parties, particularly hers, are having similar difficulty in achieving equality between men and women as Members of Parliament? I am pleased that my party has gone rather further in that direction.

Mrs. May: I am happy to say to the hon. Lady that after the next election there will be a step change in the number of women Conservative Members of Parliament sitting in this House. The sadness for Parliament as a whole is that some of those women Conservative MPs will knock out sitting women Labour MPs, so Parliament as a whole may not see that big an increase, but we will certainly see a significantly increased number of Conservative women MPs sitting in the Chamber.

The hon. Lady is right that there is complexity in the gender pay gap issue, which is why the six-point plan that I published back in 2007 does not just focus on legislation, but relates to issues such as increasing flexible working, and also issues such as careers advice to girls, which is a particularly important element of ensuring that girls and young women understand the implications in pay terms of the careers choices that they make. Frustration about the Government’s failure to do anything about this led my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton to propose the Equal Pay and Flexible Working Bill in the House of Lords. In the Second Reading debate, the Minister for Economic Competitiveness and Small Business, Baroness Vadera, effectively said that there was no need for Baroness Morris’s Bill because all the measures would be covered by the Government’s equality Bill. I hope that when she speaks later, the Solicitor-General, who I understand will lead for the Government on the equality Bill, will confirm that all our proposals will feature in their Bill, and if not, outline exactly why the Government oppose them.

This is not just an issue of equality for women—it is about fairness for families, particularly those on low incomes. A TUC report last year found that tackling women’s low pay is the key to ending child poverty, not least because half of poor children come from working families. One of the problems is that women with children who are seeking work generally want part-time or flexible working opportunities but find those difficult to come by. That is why the second half of our proposals on flexible working is so important.

I have welcomed the Government’s proposal to expand the right to request flexible working to parents with children aged up to 16, although the proposal originally
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put forward by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition well over a year ago was to go up to 18. However, I welcome the fact that this April it will at least be extended to 16. It is important that we do all we can to help women with children into work once their children reach a suitable age. This is not just about highly paid professionals but about poorer families, because helping mothers into work will help to tackle poverty. Studies have shown that child poverty would be dramatically reduced if even a relatively small proportion of poorer single-earner families became dual-earner families.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I was struck the other day by a report that suggested that since the introduction of the working tax credit there has been a significant increase in divorce among low-income families. That seems devastating in terms of what we need to do to keep families together, and therefore wealthier.

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I was struck by those figures, too. This of course reflects the “couple penalty” in the working tax credit system, which means that for some people it is financially beneficial to be separate rather than together as a couple. That is why I am deeply disappointed that the Government have not adopted our policy to remove that tax penalty for couples in the working tax credit system and improve the finances and incomes of a significant number of families in this country.

Ms Buck: Does the right hon. Lady accept that the much talked about “couple penalty” almost entirely ignores the issue of housing costs and the need for both households to set up and run their own homes? It is purely a tax and benefit calculation. All the evidence indicates that although women are particularly affected, generally speaking neither party benefits from the break-up of a relationship. To try to draw a causal link between a tax credit and family breakdown is deeply disingenuous.

Mrs. May: The hon. Lady’s attempt to defend the Government’s inability to do anything about this is not very convincing. It is not only the Conservative party that is drawing attention to the impact of working tax credits on separation and divorce among families. That is having a real effect out there on many families. Strong economies rely on strong societies, and we have a responsibility to ensure that we are doing what we can to help bolster families, not bringing in systems such as the working tax credit couple penalty that make it better for many families to be apart rather than together.

Another cause for concern is the fact that about 40 per cent. of parents spend only two hours or less with their child or children each day. That is a particularly important issue at a time of recession, when families face greater strains. Making Britain more family-friendly will strengthen our society, and in doing so strengthen our economy. Business leaders recognise that as well. Many businesses have already embraced flexible working, finding that it increases staff commitment, productivity and retention. On both equal pay and flexible working, it is a shame that the Government did not take sufficient action in the good times and are now playing catch-up during a recession. We should have gone into the downturn
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with families in a far better position to benefit from flexible working and with more women getting the equal pay they deserve. That opportunity was missed, but we must now ensure that when we come out of recession we do so with more family-friendly business practices operating in a stronger, fairer and more family-friendly economy.

An economic downturn can obviously have serious effects on issues relating to the economy and the finances of a family, but it can go beyond the merely financial. At the women’s summit yesterday, one subject discussed was the impact on domestic violence. The Home Secretary and the Attorney-General have warned that at a time of recession, with pressures on families, we may see an increase in domestic violence. This is not an area for party politics, but I hope that Ministers have had a chance to read the paper that I published just before Christmas on ending violence against women, which makes several genuinely helpful proposals on domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. The Government have done some good work in this area; they introduced legislation in 2004 and the specialist domestic violence courts are a real step forward, but there is much more to do.

I have been calling for some considerable time, as has my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, for a cross-Government strategy on violence against women, and I welcome the fact that the Government have now said they will implement one. However, I hope it will have a particular focus on prevention. As the Home Affairs Committee said last year, the Government’s current approach

That is mirrored by services on the ground. Eaves Women’s Aid in Barking and Dagenham has said that it is

and therefore

There needs to be a rebalancing of policy towards prevention, working with schools, police, health care professions and the voluntary sector. I very much look forward to more being done on this.

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): The right hon. Lady says that there is a need to bring forward concerns about domestic violence and violence generally. That is a very important point. It has taken 20 or 30 years to get domestic violence treated properly by the criminal justice system as an offence, and we are still labouring to get rape dealt with properly as an offence. We must not take any pressure off achieving that end, because that is how we make it very clear that society will not tolerate it and men will be punished if they do it. Any rebalancing, as she put it, of that in favour of prevention would be a disaster; we have to do both.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for her intervention. She is right that there are still areas of the criminal justice system that we need to focus on. She refers to rape; I personally think that there is also a need to look again at stalking, including the legislation on it and attitudes that are taken towards it. All too often, it is not viewed as seriously as it needs
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to be. As we saw from the quotes that I just cited, the problem is that so far the Government have focused solely on the criminal justice system. We need to ensure that we are doing the preventive work to ensure that we do not have so much need to use the criminal justice system because we are preventing incidents of violence against women.

As we look forward to international women’s day, there are many other issues affecting women that we will not be able to touch on in this debate. I hope that in future we can return to important issues such as the role of women in international development and conflict resolution. I am sure that the whole House would also join me in wanting at this time to pay tribute to the many women members of the armed forces, who face particular challenges and deserve our continued gratitude for their dedicated service.

It is clear that women and their families are likely to be hit by this recession in a way that they never have been previously. The wide reach of the downturn means that many families today are struggling or fearing for their future. The Government have not done enough to help them. By adopting our plans to support businesses, and our fully funded tax cuts for families, the Government can still achieve their aim of helping women and families through the recession. But when the recovery does come, it must be built on fiscal responsibility, modern workplaces, and lower taxes that last; only then will we see the stronger and fairer economy that we all seek.

1.9 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I would like to spend a few minutes talking about child care, and its importance in helping families, and particularly women, through the economic downturn. I have concerns about modifications we may need to make to the child care strategy.

Before I do so, however, I would like to mention two issues, one of which has come up already in today’s debate. I was sorry that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was so dismissive of the achievements made in respect of the pension credit because I am proud of the contribution that pension credit has made to families, particularly to women and pensioner couples, in a constituency such as mine. The last time I looked at the figures, I think that we had around 7,000 households in receipt of pension credit, with an average payment £70 a week on top of the old income support level. It has been hugely important in helping women, and as I said in my earlier intervention, women have benefited most because they did not have that full contributions record.

It is of course true that any means-tested benefit will put some people off making an application, especially those who would get only a small benefit from an application. Any means-tested benefit involves a taper, and people at the narrowest end of that will not think that an application is worth their while. There is no real evidence to suggest that any underclaiming of pension credit occurs among those whose income would benefit substantially. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that those who are not claiming are those who would receive only a small amount of money.

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