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4.17 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), with whom I have made common cause on a number of
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issues in recent years, and to whose courageous contribution I listened with immense respect.

I would like narrowly to focus my remarks on the national minimum wage, to the compelling case for the introduction of which I long ago publicly converted. Before its introduction, too many people suffered too much for too long with too little done to help them. Since its inception, it is estimated that approximately 1 million people a year benefit from the annual uprating, of whom no less than two thirds are women. It is worth emphasising to boot that for those beneficiaries of the national minimum wage who are sole earners, it has been especially significant. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that its introduction has been an economic kiss of life to significant numbers of women who were struggling at the margins, and of whom it cannot reasonably be said that they lived their lives; they rather fought daily to continue to exist. That is a dramatic achievement.

It is instructive to look at the reports of the Low Pay Commission. Its sixth report, published in 2005, observed—probably en passant, while raising all sorts of other points—that although it was not the prime rationale for the introduction of the national minimum wage that it should reduce the gender pay gap, in practice it had had a major impact on that gap. That is especially true at the lower end of the income scale.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) referred to the sharp disparities in income in the financial services sector, and I think she would almost certainly be right in surmising that the sharp disparities are especially sharp at the upper end of the scale. It is to the credit of the Government that for people at the bottom of the pile, the introduction of the national minimum wage and the constant increase in its rate has narrowed that gap.

The ninth report of the Low Pay Commission in 2008 significantly observed that the evidence demonstrated that there was no adverse impact upon employment as a result of the introduction of the wage or from its annual uprating, in contrast to the predictions of the doom-mongers, among whom I readily number myself. It is easy to be convinced by one’s own rhetoric, or drenched in one’s own propaganda, and for an indefinite period of time to be convinced of one’s own preconception. I admit that I thought the introduction of the minimum wage would be hazardous, that it would lead to terrible consequences, that there would be a huge increase in unemployment and so on, and that has not proved to be the case, principally because the Government were politically and economically savvy enough to introduce it at a relatively low rate and then to look gradually and affordably to increase it.

The point that I want to make today in relation to the level of the wage, in the context of economic downturn and the particular problems that beset women, is this: I recognise that every year the Low Pay Commission looks at the wage, the state of the economy and what scope there might be for an affordable increase. It normally makes its recommendation to Government in February, with a view to the uprating taking effect in October.

As the Solicitor-General knows, this year the Low Pay Commission has sought permission from the Government, which was sensibly granted, to take a little longer in its consideration of the economic numbers before making a recommendation as to what, if any,
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increase there should be. My understanding is that the Low Pay Commission intends to furnish its advice to Government by May this year, though importantly and justifiably there is to be no delay in the annual uprating taking effect. That should take effect, if there is to be such, in October.

Over the past 10 years there has been a compound increase in the national minimum wage of roughly 59 per cent., if my arithmetic serves me correctly. Several years have witnessed increases of 4 per cent. or thereabouts, although I think I am right in saying that in 2001—I pluck that arbitrarily from the annals of election history; I am sure it was purely a matter of serendipity that there was an election in 2001—the Government chose to increase the national minimum wage by about 10 per cent. There are people who will say to Government, “It is very difficult. Times are tough. We can’t afford very much. Let’s have a stay on the increase of the wage or increase it only very modestly.”

I want to lob into the debate the radical but alternative suggestion that the Government should consider a sharp increase in the national minimum wage this year. That would conduce to the economic good, it would greatly increase the spending power of people who are languishing at the bottom of the economic pile, and there is every chance that it would be capable of being afforded by the public purse. I observe in passing that the public will be both bewildered and horrified by the massive public largesse that is shelled out in the direction of failed, incompetent and greedy bankers who have to be paid huge fortunes to go off, and are apparently not remotely embarrassed about taking such great departure payments.

It surely should not be beyond our economic competence or our moral sense to say of those who receive the national minimum wage, “These are people who are really struggling. Let’s give them a sharp increase.” From £5.73, we could increase the minimum wage by 10 per cent.—57p or thereabouts—to £6.28 or thereabouts. I hope that the Government will seriously consider that, and I challenge all the political parties to accept that there would be a powerful ethical case for behaving in that way.

That deals with the subject of the national minimum wage and its prospective increase, but there is another related issue concerning the large numbers of people, among whom women are disproportionately represented, who are currently paid below the national minimum wage. That has been referred to once or twice—and only once or twice—in the course of this afternoon’s debate. It is important to put it on the record that when that happens it is not merely undesirable, unethical or unreasonable, but palpably illegal. There ought to be some sense of moral outrage in the House if employers are paying people below the minimum wage. My understanding is that the annual survey of hours and earnings undertaken under the auspices of the Office for National Statistics showed that in 2008 no fewer than 185,000 women—1.4 per cent. of the female work force—were being paid below the national minimum wage. That is, frankly, an unconscionable state of affairs.

I recognise that, not least through the device of the Employment Act 2008, the Government have committed a considerable resource for the purposes of publicising people’s entitlements and facilitating an effective
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enforcement regime for the national minimum wage. If memory serves me correctly, the Government are currently spending about £850,000 a year on publicity and about £7 million a year on enforcement. It is absolutely right that that should happen. My anxiety is that when times are tough, there can be an inadvertent green light for the skinflint, the rogue, the cowboy to behave even worse than he would otherwise be inclined or feel able to. If this House exists for no other purpose, it must surely exist, convene and debate with a view to extending the greatest possible protection to the disadvantaged people in our community. We should always strive to help most those who have least.

I hope that the Solicitor-General will say to her right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform that they should keep a close watch on this budget and see whether, from time to time, it might be necessary even to increase it. I recollect that the Government established the vulnerable worker enforcement forum, which was a useful opportunity to exchange views about what needed to be done. I suspect that a greater resource will be required, and there will be people who will try to renege on their responsibilities. This is a big problem, particularly for women and not least for home workers, who are notoriously difficult to track and whose ill treatment is especially difficult to identify and expose. That problem must be addressed.

I know that the hon. and learned Lady will understand when I say that among home workers there is another factor—that of ethnicity. Significant numbers of people from the ethnic minority communities work as home workers. Let us be clear: there is a difference between people in this House, in the political class, whose familiarity with the regulatory regime, with entitlements, with what is due, with the legal position, is quite strong, and people out there, especially those for whom English is an additional language, who are more often than not, I would go so far as to say, unaware of their rights or, because of the economic circumstances in which they find themselves, frankly too frightened to claim and insist upon them. It is not good enough simply to respond in a legalistic sense. One very senior colleague in my own party once said to me, “Well, this is a matter to be pursued in a legal manner, John—it is not something about which we need to make speeches or anything of that kind. If people are dissatisfied with the way in which they are being treated, of course they have legal recourse.” I am afraid that that sort of reactive approach simply will not do.

I want to finish by saying that I applaud the national minimum wage and its continued uprating. It seems to me that it is economically justified, it is morally right, and for whichever party wins the next election it has to be an integral part of a counter-poverty strategy. In saying that, I emphasise that it is critical to the fight against poverty both of women and of children as well. There is a long way to go and I hope that we will see real and meaningful progress in the years ahead.

4.30 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), and he made an interesting case about increasing the minimum wage.

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I start by reassuring the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who is not in her place, that she should not read too much into the change in the title of today’s debate. Building an economy for the future is very much on the Government’s agenda and my party recognises that we need to include women fully in building that new economy. Conservative Member’s comments this afternoon show that they do not understand the global determinants of the recession that we are in, and so I have no idea how they will construct a new, properly functioning economy that will meet people’s needs.

I recognise that it is not just women who are suffering in the economic downturn. Obviously, men are suffering as well. Nevertheless, we meet today to debate issues relating to international women’s day, and it is worth taking time to reflect on the impact of the recession on families, particularly women, especially as so much time has been spent considering the actions of the mostly male bankers who got us into this situation in the first place. Much as I really do not want to dwell on them today, I want to say something on that subject a little later.

We know from research conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Government Equalities Office that the economic downturn has affected women in particular ways. The results are interesting, but perhaps not surprising. It noted that 75 per cent. of British adults were concerned about the impact of the economic downturn on family life, but, notably, 80 per cent. of women were concerned and 70 per cent. of men. It is also perhaps not surprising that in the discussion groups that were part of the research, men tended to focus more on who was to blame for the downturn, rather than on dealing with the aftermath. Unfortunately, that finding has not been replicated in the Chamber this afternoon. I counted the amount of time that hon. Ladies in the Opposition spent looking at the impact of the downturn on families, and the amount of time that they spent trying to blame the Prime Minister for the recession. About two thirds of their time was spent trying to blame someone, and about a third was spent on considering the impact on families.

The results of the research showed some variation according to age, employment sector and social grades in the extent to which people consider the impact of the recession on families. Some 33 per cent. of men were worried about losing their job compared with 40 per cent. of both women and men who thought that unemployment was one of the main issues facing the country.

I shall digress for a moment or two to take up a point that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) made. We are in danger of becoming a little more depressed than we need to be about people’s feeling that women’s jobs may be the first to go. I also want to cheer up the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), who is sitting alone on the Liberal Democrat Benches, by saying that the situation is perhaps not as bad as we have been led to believe.

A finding of the GEO research was that both men and women believed that it was important that the jobs of family breadwinners were preserved first. The survey
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did not actually specify that they had to be male breadwinners. However, when people were asked whether it was

some 94 per cent. of men and 95 per cent. of women said that it was more important to be fair than to protect the breadwinner’s job. That is an important finding, and it is different from the position as the hon. Member for Forest of Dean stated it. It means that people want fairness during the recession, not only in redundancies but in the policies to tackle the problems.

A particularly interesting finding of the research was the high level of concern about the recession among young people. Its authors put that down to the fact that young people had not witnessed a recession before. However, older people, more than others, believed that their personal financial circumstances would worsen in the next financial year. It is interesting that young people are very concerned about the recession but do not believe that it will have an immediate impact on them. That may have something to do with the fact that the Government have continued to put a great deal of money into education, skills and training to try to protect young people from the effects of the recession as much as possible.

Concerns about the price of food and utilities were, of course, mentioned more frequently by women respondents, and the most worried were women with children and those with caring responsibilities for elderly or disabled relatives—in other words, those who had caring responsibilities of any kind. Some groups of respondents also reported that family life had been made worse by the economic downturn. Interestingly, the women who highlighted financial concerns were particularly those who rely mostly on a male wage. One might think that perhaps they felt that they had less control over the family income.

What makes this recession different from others is that women now comprise 45.8 per cent. of the economically active population. I suppose that that is why we are considering the matter today. For the first time, it is very likely that women will lose their jobs in considerable numbers. We need to ensure that arrangements are in place to get those women help and support from their jobcentre. Their need for retraining and re-employment must be seen as being as important as men’s.

The research that I have mentioned is very recent, having been conducted in February. It probably concurs with what all of us who have been knocking on doors, and telephoning and speaking to our constituents have found in the past few months. We know that many women are trying to keep a family together through these difficult times and that they are worried about being able to put food on the table and pay bills and about losing their home. They are also concerned about the impact on their families of having to scale back on treats such as holidays or trips to the cinema. Women are experiencing a great deal of distress as a result of trying to keep some of those positive aspects of family life going at this difficult time.

About one third of women—compared with a quarter of men—thought that the quality of family life had been reduced because of the economic downturn.
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Nevertheless, many of the women I speak to recognise the huge support that the Government have given to families through tax credits and increases in child benefit. That was noticeably not mentioned by the Conservatives this afternoon because, as they probably do not want to recall, child benefit did not increase in line with inflation under the previous Conservative Government. Perhaps they should have applauded this Government for having supported family life in a way that the Conservatives have not done so far.

There are now better schools, so parents do not have to worry so much about their children’s education, and many parents benefit from the Sure Start children’s centres in their communities, not just as places that provide additional resources and facilities for children, important though that is, but as places that give much-needed support, counselling and health advice to mothers, including young mothers, and that point them towards other sources of support in their community.

Many families are also benefiting from the Childcare Act 2006, which was introduced by this Government, and under which local authorities have a responsibility to secure adequate child care provision in their area and to ensure that it is of good quality and meets the needs of the local population. That represented a huge step forward by the Government. I am not saying that all the problems relating to child care and affordable child care have been solved by that legislation, but it represents a huge step forward, and I think that there could have been more recognition of that today.

Lastly, I want to talk about domestic violence. We hear women talking about a reduction in the quality of family life, and there is also a wide recognition throughout society that domestic violence can increase in times of recession. That is a matter of great concern to all of us. We should also note, however, that the landscape of domestic violence and the way in which it is tackled in our society has changed massively in the past few years. That is very much as a result of the efforts of my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General who has run very successful campaigns to change the law on domestic violence. I know that she wants to take the legislation further.

These changes have meant that in my own area, for example, there is now specific training for police forces in dealing with domestic violence, and there is widespread recognition by all the key agencies that sit on the multi-agency task groups that they have to work together, to share information, and to be very sympathetic to the victims of domestic violence and do everything that they can to minimise its effects on women and children. In particular, they have to try to protect their housing, if that is possible. I know that domestic violence is a real problem, and that it presents a real threat, but we will have to see how the improved services for dealing with it play out over the coming months.

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