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I also want to say something about the Government’s “Real help now” campaign. We have all rightly raised various problems connected with the economic downturn. We all recognise what women and families are experiencing as a result of the downturn, but it would be very wrong to suggest that nothing is being done to help families cope or to support businesses at this time. I have listened to Conservative Members and noted their reluctance to acknowledge some of the steps the Government have taken to minimise the effects of the recession on families
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and businesses. I am not sure that that is very helpful in the overall context of getting information to people so that they do not have to suffer unnecessarily.

The “Real help now” campaign for families points to the following: £145-worth of tax cuts for every basic rate taxpayer; an additional £60 given to pensioners this winter; VAT cuts worth about £200 to every family; £3 billion of investment to protect jobs; and a £75 above- inflation increase in the child element of tax credit from April 2009, which could be worth a lot to some families, particularly those on the lowest incomes from earnings.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), but the suggestion of the Lib Dems that we should have a cut in tax credits and other multi-million pound cuts to public services is no way of helping families that are feeling the pinch.

Lynne Featherstone: I must refute that suggestion. The cuts that the hon. Lady mentions apply to things such as identity cards, not to front-line services.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: As I understand it, the Liberal Democrats announced cuts to tax credits just last week, and I am saying that that will be of no help to families that are feeling the pinch. It is also worth remembering that the Labour party has made tremendous advances on maternity pay and maternity leave, and although I know there is still some way to go, that should be acknowledged this afternoon.

We know that many women are concerned about the increased risk of losing their homes, but help is available and more of it is coming on stream in April 2009.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend is aware that support to help people pay interest on their mortgages is available only to people on contribution-based rather than income-based jobseeker’s allowance. Will she join me in pressing the Minister to urge our colleagues in government to link that support to working tax credits because it gives more help to unemployed families that risk losing their homes?

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I totally agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a very interesting point, and I hope that the Government will take it into account when they are putting in place additional packages of support after April.

Mrs. Maria Miller: I have just a brief question. The hon. Lady referred to the importance of improvements to maternity benefits, so how does she react to Lord Mandelson’s suggestion in the other place that enhanced maternity leave provision will be delayed?

Dr. Blackman-Woods: The hon. Lady raises an interesting point, but Lord Mandelson is, I think, entitled to an opinion and to have a debate on that subject. I am sure that Labour Members, who have been arguing for this provision for very much longer than Opposition Members, will manage to persuade him that we are right and he is wrong.

Several hon. Members rose

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Dr. Blackman-Woods: I want to make progress, but I will give way.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Is she telling the House that she believes that the noble lord was giving a personal opinion or does she, as I think, agree that he was giving an opinion on behalf of the Government? He is a member of the Cabinet and Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: As the hon. Gentleman will know, I am not a member of the Government so I could not possibly answer that question.

As I was saying, a lot of women are concerned about losing their home. It is important that we try to concentrate on the real issues that are affecting people, not the parliamentary tittle-tattle that we have heard from Conservative Members. The mortgage rescue scheme is designed to help to stop people losing their home through repossession. Indeed, building societies and other lenders have been asked to consider repossession only as the last option.

We know that many women will benefit from the increased investment in the public sector. Therefore, unlike the opposition parties, which seem determined to make cuts in public services, we realise that women rely—disproportionately, sometimes—on public services for help with child care, caring for elderly relations, help with benefits and, of course, training and education.

I am particularly pleased that, in my own region, £6 billion of public spending has been allocated and brought forward to deliver infrastructure projects. That is crucial, because it will support jobs in the regional economy. Indeed, the investment is directly related to regeneration and supporting jobs and skills in some of the sectors that we need to develop in the future, such as renewable energy and, I hope, a new generation of low energy use cars.

I also want to emphasise the fact that the Government are listening to women’s concerns and the concerns of families at this time. That is much to do with the work of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, who, with her ministerial team, has shown tremendous determination to focus Government attention on the issues that matter to families.

To respond to the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), we see the ministerial team taking forward the equality Bill. As we know, it is intended as consolidating legislation, but nevertheless legislation that will create a new equality duty on public bodies to ensure that the public sector pays due regard to equality when buying goods and services. It will provide additional funding to support the work being done by the trade union equality representatives and consider how Parliament can become more representative of society as a whole. I hope that that answers the question that the hon. Lady raised about whether there is determination on this side of the House to take those issues forward.

I hope, too, that the hon. Lady agrees that the fact that we have the Bill coming before the House should be supported by all parties. It will also help us to achieve greater flexibility in the work that is available to women
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and men and enable us to consider whether, as a society, we do enough to promote the rights of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people.

I return for a moment to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, because in addition to acknowledging that she has done a great deal to promote the rights of women and families—both in the House and outside it—I want to say that she has also had the guts to stand up to the bankers. She should be thoroughly applauded for making it absolutely clear that they must pay back their outrageous bonuses. After all, she has simply voiced publicly what many people feel: that huge pensions of £700,000 per year are simply immoral, and should not be tolerated. My constituents have told me that they want the Government to take action, including using any money that is clawed back from bonuses or pensions for front-line services to support families, particularly when a family member has lost a job.

I think that the stance adopted by my right hon. and learned Friend has been really strong and really courageous. I simply do not understand why the media have responded to her as they have. It seems to me that if they want to support hard work and decency—although I am a bit sceptical about that—they should support her campaign to make bankers, and others who have received outrageous bonuses, recognise that they owe it to society to pay much of the money back.

My right hon. and learned Friend supported all of us who want to create a much fairer society and—when we emerge from the present economic recession, as we will—an economy that is fairer, paying more attention to the need to care not just for our society but for the planet as a whole, and to ensure that future employment is, as far as possible, in green energy or elements of industry that do not pollute the planet.

It would be something worth celebrating on international women’s day if today, in this Chamber, we undertook to concentrate our collective will on the task of producing an economy that is fair throughout the world: an economy that does not exploit developed countries, does not exploit workers at home, and does not exploit the planet.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should point out that we probably have little more than half an hour left, and at least four Members are seeking to catch my eye. I will leave the arithmetic for Members to work out for themselves, but unless speeches are much, much shorter, some Members will be disappointed.

4.58 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I apologise for not being present throughout the debate. Unfortunately, I was detained in a Committee.

I join the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) in commending the focus of the Minister for Women and Equality, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), on the issues that we are discussing. It can be very difficult to continue to do such things in government, and the right hon. and learned Lady has
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shown some resilience in that regard. I believe that we can all work together to achieve a better deal for women, but it is not easy in government to ensure that such issues remain priorities, especially when there is clearly a mood in some parts of Government that favours changing those priorities.

A report issued by the Fawcett Society in advance of today’s debate explicitly refers to the society’s concern about the comments of the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and particularly about the suggestion of an attempt to roll back the extension of flexible working and delay the enhancement of maternity leave provisions. I hope that the Solicitor-General can lay the House’s own concerns to rest. We need to understand the Government’s position on these matters. It is clear from the response that I received from the hon. Member for City of Durham that their Back Benchers are not yet clear about the Government’s policy on, in particular, maternity leave and flexible working.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) rightly pointed out that the issues we are talking about today, to do with the economic downturn and its effect on women, do not just affect women in the workplace. They also affect women pensioners, such as those in my constituency, who are more likely to be living in poverty and have often not made the best arrangements for their retirement. It is right that the House should include that important group of people in today’s debate.

How is the recession hitting women? “Real Help Now for Women”, the document that the Government have issued, probably in advance of today’s debate to try to focus our attention, crystallises the problem, which is that women feel vulnerable, especially if they are pregnant or in part-time work. The figures suggest that their feelings are backed up by reality and that those fears are well founded. Figures from a number of sources suggest that women are perhaps at a higher risk of facing redundancy or losing their jobs. Again, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that, to ensure that we have clarity on where the Government are in interpreting those figures.

We know from our constituencies how important women’s salaries are. I am sorry, but the issue is not about women having a career or wanting to get away from the home; it is about women helping families to make ends meet. When the Government’s figures show that women’s incomes make up, on average, around one third of family income, we know that women being adversely affected by the recession will have a tremendous impact on family life.

Why do women feel so vulnerable? The answer is simple: caring is still seen as a women’s issue. The Government, the Opposition and, indeed, all parties in the House need to think about how we change that. Outside this place, families have changed well ahead of political parties. Families see that there is a shared role for mothers and fathers in bringing up their children. We need to ensure that that clarity, in the families in the constituencies that we represent, is reflected in the policies that all of us bring forward in this place.

I am proud to be a member of a party whose leader puts family-friendly working at the centre of our agenda for government. I represent a constituency that has a high number of both big and small employers. Many of
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the employers in Basingstoke know at first hand how important it is to put family-friendly working at the heart of their businesses, because if they do not, they cannot get the best employees.

Ms Keeble: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Miller: The hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not give way; a number of other hon. Members want to contribute and time is running out.

The adverse implications of the recession for women are broad and far-reaching. I would like to bring the House’s attention to a number of areas, particularly the impact on the family. We know that the loss of a job will mean the loss of income. Relate has done a great deal of research into the impact of a loss of income on families and the pressures that it can exert. Relate’s figures show that money and money worries can be the top cause of arguments among couples. Indeed, almost one third of couples who divorce do so because of financial problems or problems with financial management. Extensive research has been done elsewhere, particularly in the US, to show that financial pressures can be tremendously destructive for families. We need to pick up on that.

The second issue that I want to address is the impact on the long-term development of child care, a point that was picked up well by the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). Without good-quality, available and affordable child care—such care has expanded tremendously in recent years, which is one good thing that has happened in the past decade—women’s role in the workplace will continue to be limited.

Before the recession hit, there were already tremendous concerns about the viability of the child care sector that has developed in the UK. Since 2003, there has been a 68 per cent. increase in the number of day-care places closing and over the past decade there has been a 40 per cent. fall in the number of child minders. There has been an increase in the number of vacancies in day-care centres; the National Day Nurseries Association said that four in 10 nurseries are experiencing bad debt problems and half of all nurseries report a noticeable change in child care usage. All those changes took place before the recession hit, so the Government should look carefully at how we can ensure that the expansion of child care is sustained and does not wither away under what Labour has said will be a recession of the gravest kind.

As we have already heard, another reason the child care sector will be struggling relates to problems with the child care element of the working tax credit. In an earlier intervention, I mentioned my concern about the Government’s lack of action on something that could demonstrably support families at this very difficult time. We need to look at how we can sustain private nurseries, so that when women come back into the workplace, they will find good-quality child care. It is deeply concerning that almost two thirds of private nurseries are still not being paid the full cost for delivering the Government’s free entitlement to child care. We are still many months—if not years—away from resolving that issue.

How can we improve the situation for women? I shall keep my comments brief as other Members want to contribute. We need fundamentally to reduce the vulnerability of women in an economic downturn such
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as this. A clear way of doing so is by normalising many of the family-friendly policies that Members have talked about today. Whether it is parental leave or flexible working, we need to make sure that the policies are not just for women but for families—men and women together—to look after their children in the future. By doing that, we could help to take away that feeling of vulnerability and take the spotlight off women in these difficult times.

Another thing the Government need to consider far more carefully is how we can help support families through this difficult time. The Conservatives have announced robust policies to point newly-weds towards family support through the registrar system. I urge the Government to do as we have done and look at the work of organisations such as the Bristol Community Family Trust, where people such as Harry Benson are delivering good, solid support for families suffering relationship problems in these difficult times. Of course, the Government need to do everything they can to ensure that child care is sustainable in the future. We cannot ignore the growing problems in that area.

The measures I have outlined would really help to support women and families, and make the UK the sort of family-friendly place we would all like it to be. Even more important, they would make sure that the talents of every person in the country can come to the fore. If we do not do that, this country will not be the success we need it to be in the future.

5.8 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I am grateful to be called to speak. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) who has replaced me in Westminster Hall, where I was supporting the Minister responding to the debate on the report “A Life Like Any Other? Human Rights of Adults with Learning Disabilities”.

I was heartened by the contributions of both Front-Bench speakers at the start of this debate. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality outlined the staggering number of policies introduced by my Government that have most definitely changed the lives of many women. Equally, I was pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) open with a constructive and careful analysis of what is required by industry if it is to grow, and how that growth will ensure good employment.

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