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I was taken aback by that statement for the simple reason that I was unemployed during the 1980s. Although I made many applications I did not succeed in getting a job for some time. I remember all too well the statements members of the Conservative Government made to me and the other 4 million people who were unemployed. Lord Tebbit told us to get on a bike and find work. Others in the Conservative party said unemployment is a price “worth paying”. I was, therefore, pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Maidenhead open the debate in such a constructive way, but sadly for her I also remembered the statements of the shadow Conservative health spokesman, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who in November 2008 wrote in his blog that recession can be “good for us”. That was a very disappointing and thoroughly unacceptable
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statement, and it made the right hon. Lady’s warm and constructive words seem nothing more than warm words—and also unconstructive ones.

I want to talk about some very ordinary and definitely low-paid women and families who live in my constituency. The Church of England “Thrive” project of the Church Action on Poverty group has started up in one of my deprived areas, Thornaby. It brought to my attention—and is bringing to the attention of many other Members—the fact that many ordinary people on low incomes or benefits believe that the only way they can purchase essential goods is to buy them from doorstep salesmen. I wish to make it clear that these doorstep salesmen are not behaving illegally: Buy As You View, a company that was brought to my notice, is not behaving illegally, but it is exploiting very vulnerable people. The project has brought it to my attention that ordinary people are paying interest rates of 40 per cent. and upwards of 100 per cent. for goods that are essential to them. An example was given to me. There is a family of a lady who looks after two disabled adults. She bought a fridge and a washing machine. The actual price of those items was probably in the region of £300, but she paid more than £3,000. Obviously, she needed both items.

It is more than time that we looked at this situation. Therefore, I ask my Government what they are doing about it. It is long overdue that action is taken. Ordinary folks sign up to agreements because they are desperate, and they might pay over two or three years and end up with astronomically high interest rates. They rarely understand the small print of these agreements. Nobody is there to explain it to them. Desperation forces them to sign, as they need the goods. It is long overdue for someone to step up and say, “No more small print; when you sign up, you must know exactly what you’re signing up to.” The Government and the local authorities can move in very neatly to stop this exploitation. There are trading standards departments, but they have no authority to investigate these companies or to issue warnings. We should use trading standards; that is long overdue. They are there to be used, and want to be used, to ensure that ordinary folk on limited incomes or tight budgets who are buying essential goods are not exploited in this way.

My Government and the House could also support the credit unions in a significantly more persuasive way. We should give them some status and get them more confidently located in our communities, so that people know they can go to a group they can trust, and that they will pay no more than an appropriate sum, and not the exorbitant rates that have been outlined by Church Action on Poverty. Now is also the time to say to the banks, “Provide a service to these people. You have the opportunity to do so. They are high risk and low wage, but they are capable of paying back.” We need the banks to work accordingly.

I am conscious of the time, and of the fact that other Members wish to speak. I wanted also to talk about the fact that women are not very visible in the world of apprenticeships and high-skilled labour. It is, again, more than time to address that. We are talking about the economy, and we should talk about women having such good, skilled, highly paid jobs, giving them some stability of employment. I do not have time to address this, but I say to my Government that these are crucial issues to women’s lives. We are talking about the economic
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downturn, of course, but we should also talk practically about the circumstances of many ordinary families, and support them.

5.15 pm

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I am conscious of the time, but I particularly wish to draw attention to one of the greater pressures affecting families across the country: overcrowding. Unfortunately, this Government have presided over a complete sclerosis in both the delivery of social housing and help to deliver housing that is affordable to rent. They went down the fundamentally flawed route of saying that everybody needed to buy, buy, buy. I wish to discuss housing and overcrowding, and its effects on women and families, because I believe that in this economic downturn, when people are going to lose their homes and when people may well be taking back “boomerang children” and other members of the family who are returning for whatever economic reasons, the pressure of overcrowding in homes will get even greater.

One thing that has not been mentioned is the fact that today is world book day, which got me thinking of a very famous essay that was made into a book. I, like many others, read it as a teenager as part of my school course for O-level, as it was at the time. I am talking about “A Room of One’s Own”, which is a sort of stream of consciousness, written by Virginia Woolf, about how if a woman had a room of her own and a small amount of money, she would be in an empowered state to be able to study, to better herself and to progress. I wish to read a little extract, because the book was written in 1928 and it is amazing how the sentiments are still so valuable today.

Virginia Woolf tells us that she had just received through her door a legacy of

from an aunt who had died in India and that she had also been made aware of the fact that she could vote. She continued:

She wondered why there were no colleges endowed for women to study, to better themselves and to get on. She came to the conclusion that the reason was that women who might have endowed colleges were busy bringing up children; they had not made wealth themselves to give to colleges. She concluded that without a small amount of money and a small amount of personal space to call one’s own, one would never be able to progress, to think and to write great literature; one would instead be burdened with the responsibilities and worries, as a woman was then, of running a family, with little hope of making money and having independence.

That is why I wish to return to the idea of overcrowding. The Government set themselves an extremely ambitious target of building some 3 million houses, but more than 500,000 households in England still live in overcrowded conditions—those are Government figures. The survey of English housing and the 2008 labour force survey showed that 565,000 households live in cramped conditions. The tragedy is that the situation has got worse, and it is has done so in a boom time. It has got worse at a time when the Government were throwing money into supposedly relieving poor conditions and overcrowding.
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Only 1 per cent. of owner-occupiers were classed as being overcrowded, yet social overcrowding has become worse under this Government’s watch.

Shelter, the housing charity, has said:

Given that more and more people may well, as I have said, be living in overcrowded conditions, and more children will be staying at home, the Government have to accept that they have been part of this problem. The failure to provide enough housing for those most in need has been well established. Less housing has been built under this Government than under previous Conservative Administrations. The current level of construction of social housing is running at a fifth of what it was in 1997.

Women are being disproportionately most affected by this situation. The number of single women waiting on social housing lists has increased year on year since 2003—it has been rising by 77 per cent. across those councils that have specifically recorded information on women. The increase in the number of homes being repossessed, which will also mean that more and more will be seeking those scarce social housing vacancies, will, I am sure, lead to increased pressures and increased hidden homelessness, whereby women, particularly young women, will end up sofa-surfing or staying with inappropriate partners or in inappropriate relationships simply to have somewhere to lay their head for the night.

It was very interesting that the “Homes Fit for Families” report by the Family and Parenting Institute pointed out that the increase in house repossession may lead to a rise in family arguments, sleep deprivation, lack of privacy for parents and poor attainment at school. Nothing much has altered since 1928. Why have the Government burdened the housing market with the home information pack, which does not work, and why did they encourage people to take out inappropriate mortgages, when they should have been in either private or social rented housing that was affordable and within their means?

The report highlights the serious emotional turmoil of living in a cramped house. One survey found that as many as 74 per cent. of parents living in overcrowded homes are sharing their bedroom with children, which naturally leads to a lack of privacy. The stress of domestic tension caused by overcrowding affects women more, as was revealed in the press yesterday. Marital stress increases heart disease in women, but not in men, according to the medical profession. A strained relationship affects women’s mental health, increases their blood pressure and the risk of obesity and leads to high cholesterol levels. All those factors contribute to increased risk of heart disease. How much will those problems increase if the Government do not deliver enough social housing or relieve overcrowding by freeing up the housing market?

The Government have to take responsibility. It is no good saying that all the bad loans started in the US: we were culpable here. Adam Sampson appeared before the Communities and Local Government Committee and I asked him whether we were enshrining a rump lower class by saying that people had only made it in life if
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they had bought their own home. He more or less agreed with that statement. When people were told that they must buy, no matter whether they could not afford to do so or how little a part of a house they could afford, very little emphasis was placed on delivering social housing, so this Government have presided over a massive increase in statutory overcrowding. That is not a record of which to be proud. It will haunt us in the future, with people facing job losses, home repossessions, returning to live with their mum and dad—who may be very elderly—or putting up members of their extended family. When people lose their homes, they lose their security. We will see a return to Dickensian conditions and, as Adam Sampson of Shelter said, the Government should be ashamed of that. In years to come, we will see the results.

5.22 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is not in his place, because I want to start by agreeing with his intervention in the opening speech when he pointed out that the economic downturn affects everybody and not just women. In a way, it grieves me that we need to have this debate, because women are 50 per cent. of the population, if not slightly more. I venture to suggest that we probably do slightly more than 50 per cent. of the work.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) is in her place, because I want to disagree with her. She said that women think differently and do things differently. I could not agree with her less. I like to think that we are all, male or female, individuals. There is an enormous spectrum of behaviour and opinion, and sweeping generalisations about enormous groups of people can be a bit inaccurate.

The one really significant difference between men and women is that women have children and men do not. I want to concentrate my remarks on how that affects women’s working and social lives. There is an inextricable link between women’s reproductive lives and their financial welfare, and that is the root of the problems that all the previous contributions to the debate have described. What we need is fair treatment, and what we do not want is positive discrimination.

I want to concentrate on one aspect of the debate that has not been mentioned today: unplanned teenage pregnancies. When that happens, the girl’s economic future is in ruins. We need to look at the reasons the incidence of unplanned teenage pregnancy in this country is so high. I understand that in 2007, which is the last year for which statistics are available, there were roughly 8,000 unplanned teenage pregnancies, three quarters of which were to girls under the age of 15. We need to look very seriously at why that is happening and at what we can do about it.

One reason for those pregnancies is a lack of aspiration and ambition among girls who have been brought up in workless households, where they have been shown no good example or good practice, where there is no work ethic and where the parents might not have had a good experience at school, have not achieved and have not gone on to further and higher education. We need to do
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much more for those girls, who think that the easy route to life with a free flat and free benefits is to have a baby. They do not realise how isolating and difficult that life will be or that it is not nearly as glamorous as they thought. Living in isolation in a council flat with the responsibility of a baby 24 hours a day is not a glamorous lifestyle option. We need to give these girls aspiration and ambition so that they can move forward in their lives and leave having families until they are emotionally and financially secure and mature enough to handle it.

In the 1950s, careers advice for girls in schools went along the following lines: there were only two respectable occupations for girls, which were teaching and nursing. A girl who did not want to do either of those things was a lost cause. Thank heavens that careers advice is very different now and that the whole spectrum of employment is available and open to girls. They need to be encouraged to consider jobs that have either not been traditionally for women or have not been favoured by women in the past. The television programmes about cooking at the moment feature a range of male chefs, which might encourage boys to follow cooking as a career. We need to get away from gender stereotyping in the employment world.

I tried to bring in a ten-minute Bill last year that would have obliged anybody who gave advice to an under-age child—that is, a child under the age of 16—on contraception or abortion to inform the parents first. It was a very small proposal, and I thought that it was a very common-sense Bill to introduce. I was taken aback by the opposition to it and it did not proceed. I think that it would have been a very important step in helping girls to consider how to manage their reproductive lives wisely and to delay becoming sexually active until they were old enough to cope with the outcome.

If any girl stood on the corner of the street with a collecting tin, shook it, and said “I might be going to have a baby because I’ve got careless sexual habits, will you contribute towards looking after it?”, how many people do hon. Members think would put money voluntarily into that collecting tin? Girls have to be taught real-life sex education in schools so that they know that if they become pregnant they will be left with the responsibility of that child. They may or may not know who the father is, and the extended families of the two young parents should be taking responsibility for that baby. Too often, the girl is on her own at a tender age. She has not finished her education and she is not equipped for work. She is barely equipped to look after herself, let alone a baby, but she is left with that huge responsibility. Her employment prospects are set back for years, and her further education prospects are set back for many years, until the child is old enough and she can pick up her life again. These are very important points to consider, because the incidence of unplanned pregnancy in this country is shamefully high. A lot of talent is wasted because women are diverted into bringing up children when they are far too young and before they are ready to do so.

Employers should be aware that women with children are a very good deal in the workplace, because they are all multi-taskers. Any woman with several children and a job who runs a home will do a million things every day. She will get out of bed in the morning and get herself ready, then make sure that the children are having their showers and cleaning their teeth. She will
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put out all the clean clothes that they need, and then make their breakfast. She will make sure that they have all the cookery equipment, sports gear and everything else that they need to take to school. She will give them their breakfast, and possibly even prepare a casserole and put it into the oven so that it can cook all day while she is out. She will take the dog for a walk and the children to school, and then she will go to work.

When she is at work, a woman will switch off. She will take her domestic brain out and put her working brain in and do her job for the rest of the day. When the day is over, she will probably do some food shopping on the way home, then she will welcome the children home, give them their dinner and help them with their homework.

It is like being on a treadmill, but women can do all those things. They can do half a dozen things at the same time, and all their skills are transferable. They are immensely valuable in the workplace, but women do not sell themselves aggressively enough so that employers realise what multi-taskers they are.

The debate is about supporting women through the economic downturn and in the future. The best support that we can provide now is to enable women—and especially those running homes and families—to make every pound do the work of two. There is a great talent in that, and anyone who has experienced difficult times when money has been tight will know how to cut a halfpenny in half. We need to look to the older generation, as they remember the post-war years when everything was in short supply. They know how to cut the cost of living.

The older generation has a wealth of information and knowledge about such matters. Young people brought up in the days of plenty and the throwaway economy, when everything could be replaced and there was never a shortage of money, may never have had to economise in their entire lives. They could tap into the wisdom of older people because, suddenly, they are having to go through an enormous culture change in their lives. Now, they are short of money and they need to keep their homes and families going. They should look to the older generation, because the oldest people in our communities can give them a huge amount of information, help and advice about how money can be saved.

We also need to make sure that young women get individual advice about finding employment and retraining. We should use the innovation and expertise available in the private and voluntary sectors to help women get into the workplace. In many families, the husband is the main breadwinner. If he loses his job, the wife will have to try to get back into work. However, she will need help: women returners are often low on confidence and do not understand what they have to offer. They need help and retraining so that they can present themselves to employers as the very valuable employees that they will be—reliable, multi-tasking, and of enormous value to any organisation.

John Bercow: I am sorry to press the rewind button, but my hon. Friend made an extremely interesting point about the older generation’s expertise in managing effectively but frugally on tight budgets. Is she suggesting that some sort of informal—or even formal—grouping could be put together from extended families of aunts, uncles and grandparents? They have a lot to offer, but they might not share their expertise as widely as they could if they merely exist independently.

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