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I have some specific suggestions for the Government to take up. The Westminster Government should look at the ProAct scheme in Wales and see whether it can be extended to England. All schemes should be looked at in terms of their impact on women as well as men, and
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efforts should be made to extend them to women as well as men. Apprenticeship schemes should be viewed with reference to their availability to women. We also need to reflect more on informal child care.

It is particularly important to protect the women’s voluntary sector. I had a meeting yesterday with representatives from the women’s voluntary sector, who feel under enormous threat at the moment. Part of the reason for that is the lack of understanding by local authorities of the funding for organisations that work only with women, along with their lack of understanding of their gender equality duties. I was extremely concerned to find that so many women’s voluntary organisations felt that they were struggling in really difficult times. It is important to reflect more on that.

Most importantly of all, we must keep going ahead with our equality agenda. Many Members have already said this in today’s debate, but the recession must not in any way be used as an excuse to send women back to the kitchen; we will never go back to the old traditional family style with one male breadwinner and the woman based in the kitchen.

Several hon. Members rose

Julie Morgan: That sort of pattern has disappeared and I do not think it will return.

Mrs. Laing: Let me point out that, like her ministerial colleagues, the hon. Lady expresses a good intention with which we all agree—that we must not go back and that we must drive the equality agenda forward—but how will she do it if a small business has to cut costs or go under? That choice is being faced everywhere because of the economic downturn and the Government’s mishandling of the economy, so how will she persuade people not to get rid of the women in their work force?

Julie Morgan: It is a matter of ensuring that all the different initiatives from different levels of Government are used to help and encourage small businesses through these difficult times. I accept the hon. Lady’s point, but programmes are in place that will help small businesses.

Anne Main: Let me gently chide the hon. Lady on her point about women in the kitchen. I would not want any women who are in the kitchen by choice to be undervalued in any way, shape or form. My only concern is that a woman should not be disadvantaged in the workplace if that is where she chooses to be. If she is doing the most valuable job that I think she can possibly do—looking after her family, supporting home life and perhaps cooking proper food for her children, when we all complain about people buying the ready-made stuff—I would really hate it if she felt that that job was not valued when people keep saying that she must be at work.

Julie Morgan: I accept the hon. Lady’s point. If a women wants and is able to afford to be at home, that is fine and her choice, but we know that the vast majority of women want to go out to work and need to, because of the money and for many other different reasons. I am not devaluing those people who are able and want to
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stay at home—it is an enormously important job—but I also think that the majority of women want to go out to work.

Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) makes the point that some families choose for the mother to stay at home, which should be a perfectly valid choice. If they can afford to do that, we should not criticise them for it.

Julie Morgan: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. We do not want the progress of the last 50 years to disappear because of the difficult economic situation we are in, nor must we prevent the progress that we are planning to make or the equality legislation that we are planning to introduce. I look forward to the legislation very much. It is sure to improve things even more.

It has been interesting to hear what has been happening in other countries at this time. Everywhere in Europe and in the United States, voices are saying how important it is that we continue our strive towards equal opportunities. It is worth quoting the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities:

There is no doubt that, for the country and for different companies to flourish, we need to use all our talents. For a company to flourish, it needs the best talent available. We have made a lot of progress, but we know that women and ethnic minorities often still find themselves discriminated against when they try to get jobs. If we produce a more level playing field, that will allow for the best people to get jobs, whatever their background, and that can only serve to help businesses and the economy.

3.32 pm

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who always speaks eloquently on behalf of her beautiful part of the world and country. It is good to hear her.

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friends because, unlike the other parties, we have on our Benches three men who have come to the debate on international women’s day and what is happening to women in the economy. [Interruption.] The Solicitor-General is pointing out that, were it possible, or even desirable, for my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Buckingham (John Bercow) to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, she would see just what a diverse and broad church we are. I hope that we might look forward to that, although it is at your discretion.

I want to begin by saying something that will please my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. After all, we are fellow Yorkshire folk. We are discussing the impact of the recession on women, but it is important to say that the impact of the recession is simply devastating for all our fellow citizens when they are on the rough end of it, whether they are men or women. I would hate anybody outside who looked at the proceedings of the House to ask, “Why are they talking about women?”
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We are talking about women because it is international women’s day, but also because we are concerned about all our citizens, including men, and the impact on their families if they lose their job or their house.

The issues might be different or might disproportionately affect women, and there might be other reasons to talk about women, but we are having the debate because we are concerned about the plight of all British citizens—as well as citizens across the world, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) so eloquently set about explaining—and the impact that the economic crisis will have on us all, and disproportionately on some of the more vulnerable in our society.

Some of those vulnerable members of society are women. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North said that 90 per cent. of single-parent households with children are headed by women. The economic livelihoods of such people are on the margin at the best of times, given their part-time jobs, family tax credit and the need to pay the mortgage, or simply to make the budget cover something very expensive—the cost of children, who always come home from school saying that there is something that they want. They may want new trainers, or something that they have seen on television, or a new Nintendo game. Mothers want to provide such things, but when the economic situation becomes difficult, difficult economic choices have to be made. Many women must achieve a difficult balance in reconciling the family budget with the other priorities that they would like to make for their families.

We are in a dreadful state. We have heard some announcements today that will have a further impact, and to which I may well refer later, but at present a family, with a 125 per cent. mortgage because the rules allowed it when the property market was at its height, may be living in a house that is quite likely to be repossessed. Families were encouraged to believe then that the boom times would go on for ever and to take out loans amounting to much more than the value of their houses. Not only has the property market fallen in value, but such families must carry an additional millstone because they took out mortgages of more than 100 per cent. at the top of the market, and will walk away from their houses—or, perhaps, will be evicted by bailiffs—with a massive debt hanging around their necks.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest pointed out, the Government must bear some culpability for our present state. We know that there is a worldwide economic recession, and that every country from America to China has been affected by it, but it is simply not true to say that the actions of our own Government did not contribute to a significant extent.

This week we heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer some suggestion that culpability lies in the way in which the financial sector was regulated. The person from whom I am really waiting to hear, however, is the Prime Minister, who was the architect of our present financial regulation. The centrepiece of his first year in office was his proposal to change the regulation of the banking system, which had been regulated by the Bank of England for more than 200 years. The Bank of England would tap on the proverbial shoulder a bank that was getting into trouble in the same way as Northern Rock and say “Look, we do not think that your business model is particularly sustainable.” It would deal with the situation before it got out of hand. Now, however,
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three bodies are in charge: the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority. As we all know, if a job is given to three people, it does not always get done, because everyone thinks that it is someone else’s responsibility.

That system of financial regulation certainly did not disapprove of mortgages of more than 100 per cent., and it did not tackle some of the excesses of the banking system. A huge amount of culpability for the situation in which we have ended up lies with the “bust” of the financial sector.

Anne Main: My hon. Friend made a valid point about 125 per cent. mortgages. When the Communities and Local Government Committee took evidence on the delivery of affordable houses, it became clear to us that the Government were driving more and more people towards the idea of buying homes—even if their incomes were much lower than those of most people entering the property market—while reducing the construction of social housing and affordable homes. An increasing number of people were encouraged to believe that their properties represented an ever-growing pension pot on which they could rely in their old age. The Government made much of that.

Miss Kirkbride: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Yes, we did have a wonderfully prolonged period of economic well-being and growth that started, as we on the Conservative Benches often say, well before this Government came to power, under the wonderful stewardship of the present shadow Business Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). He handed over to this Government a golden economy—an economy that any incoming Government would have bitten your hand off for, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Government were pleased about that. One would have said until now that they had done jolly well in maintaining that economy, keeping inflation relatively low and interest rates at a reasonable level. Indeed, the Prime Minister encouraged that idea, with his incredibly hubristic boasts about how he had ended boom and bust. He said that many times at the Dispatch Box, and for a time even I started believing that somehow he had the magic wand to make things all right. I am meant to know a little about economics—I read a bit of economics at university—and in this House one is certainly expected to know a little about such matters. However, people outside were told by the then Chancellor that the “never had it so good” times were here to stay. They were told, in effect, “Don’t worry, it’s all going to be all right—we’ve cracked inflation and boom and bust. You can carry on assuming that you don’t really have to save very much, because those rainy days that you used to have to worry about aren’t going to come along.” That was simply not true.

It is therefore not surprising that people took out big mortgages that they could not afford and that were worth more than the houses that they were buying, so that they could add a new car or perhaps take a foreign holiday. We are still waiting—the press have been salivating for this all week—for the Prime Minister to come to the Dispatch Box and say sorry for encouraging people in the belief that things would be all right and that they did not have to take sensible precautions in their family budgets.

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It is also worth bearing in mind the fact that—I am sure that lots of hon. Members will make this point very eloquently when we have the debate on the economy next week—the then Chancellor and now Prime Minister is also culpable for changing the way in which we benchmark inflation. The housing market—historically, the biggest dynamic of inflation in the UK economy—was taken out of the official inflation rate, so that when the Bank of England set interest rates, it did not have to take into account the fact that the housing sector was on a roll. That has added to the nation’s indebtedness, encouraged more people to take on debt, either for their homes or on their credit cards, and, sadly, helped to create the state that we are in today.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Does she also recall that one of the very first things that the now Prime Minister did when he became Chancellor in 1997 was change the way advance corporation tax worked, thereby taking enormous amounts of money out of pension funds? He has pulled the wool over the eyes of generations of pensioners, who now find that the money in their hands is much less than they expected to have. They wonder where it went. It is not just the downturn in the economy that is to blame; it is the Chancellor’s positive action in changing taxation, taking money away from the individual and putting it in the Treasury.

Miss Kirkbride: Again, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, who has passionately explained what the then Chancellor did to devastate the pensions industry, possibly as his first act of vandalism on coming to office. Clearly the list goes on, but perhaps we will not be able to cover all the areas of culpability in this debate.

Philip Davies: Go on.

Miss Kirkbride: We have had a few, but if any more come to mind—

Anne Main rose—

Miss Kirkbride: My hon. Friend has one. Come on, let us hear it.

Anne Main: As my hon. Friend will know, many businesses are going under, particularly small businesses. St. Albans is not alone in seeing a number of small retail units becoming empty because the business has folded. Many of those businesses were started by women and are now being hit by the extra tax that the Government have slapped on businesses with empty commercial premises. That measure is not delivering what the Government thought it would deliver; it is delivering an extra financial burden on people during the recession. That is hitting businesses, families and women very hard.

Miss Kirkbride: Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although I think there is some relief in this financial year for smaller business premises, we very
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much hope that when the Chancellor gives his Budget, he will recognise the error of his ways for introducing that tax in the first place. It is devastating given the state of the economy.

As was mentioned earlier, the trajectory of job losses for women is becoming much greater, with the likelihood that more women than men will lose their job. Retail is just one of the sectors that has been particularly badly hit. I suspect that Woolworths was a good example of an employer more likely to employ females than men. Earlier, I was struck by something that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) said. I think she was proposing to Ministers that when the Government look at giving help to businesses—the most obvious examples are in the banking, manufacturing and car sectors—there should be an equality audit of the effect on male jobs compared to female jobs. I wondered what she meant by that. There is financial support from the Government in the current predicament but it has to have limits—the taxpayer cannot take much more—so we have to look at the areas that are most vital to the economy. Although we are all incredibly cross with the banks, we all grudgingly accept that they needed to be bailed out.

Lynne Featherstone: I was saying that as money is handed out to bail out any industry and as we move away from the banks—I think there is universal agreement that there was no choice but to bail them out—and turn to the private sector, there is a legal duty on the Treasury and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to examine any substantive policy change. I submit that giving vast sums of money to any industry involves a policy change, so proposals need to be examined in that light. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that every case has to be judged on its economic benefits, but it might also be right to include a judgment of the equality benefits, to avoid unintended consequences if money always goes automatically to the most obvious case. However much of a rush we are in and whatever crisis we are in, that is something we should consider.

Miss Kirkbride: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for explaining her point a little further. There has been speculation that the Government will introduce a Bill that allows them to help businesses more directly and we could pursue that debate at that time.

I want to add my voice on the gender pay gap, which has already been mentioned by many Members, but as we are predominantly women in the House today and as we feel particularly strongly about it, I do not want to exclude the subject completely from my speech. I was incredibly struck by the comment of the Minister for Women and Equality that although the gender pay gap is 17 per cent. across the UK economy in general, it is 44 per cent. in financial services, which is simply outrageous. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley might think that was a bit wrong. The statistics are a red rag to a bull. The men have all been bailed out for their recklessness, because one can only assume that the pay gap roughly means that the high rollers the men—the people—

Mrs. Laing: Men.

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