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What we are seeing and what people find most offensive about the Bill is the way in which it sweeps away local democracy, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said. For generations, constituency boundaries have
been reviewed and adjusted by local agreements, not by central imposition. Local people have had the opportunity to object if community identities were threatened or unsuitable mergers with nearby towns or villagers were proposed. Formal hearings would hear representations, and a final decision would be agreed, if not always by total consensus then at least with broad support. Last time, the process necessarily took fully seven years in England.
The Bill has unilaterally dumped that process for a rigid two-year deadline in a straightforward fix, abolishing the right to trigger public inquiries and destroying a bipartisan, independent system of drawing up boundaries, which has been the envy of countries elsewhere in the world. So much for big society localism. The Prime Minister tells us that the big society is about "empowering local communities"-a favourite phrase of the Deputy Prime Minister. As the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills has said, however, the Bill destroys the essence of the British parliamentary democratic system, by imposing from the centre rather than developing from a pattern of constituencies. It rides roughshod over and breaks up local communities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said. It proposes an arbitrary and partisan reduction by 50, to 600 seats, because that would hurt Labour most. A steeper reduction would have abolished too many Conservative seats.
Most outrageously, the Government have said that they intend to redraw the boundaries based on the December 2010 register, when they know that the current register is missing more than 3.5 million eligible voters, predominantly the young, poor and black and minority ethnic social groups. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), a champion of this point, tellingly argued, the problem of under-representation is greatest in urban areas, student towns and coastal areas of high social deprivation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said, London will be especially badly hit.
The Liberal Democrat leader has allowed himself to be sandbagged by his Tory partners in his otherwise laudable attempt to introduce a fairer electoral system, risking a once-in-a-generation opportunity for electoral reform. Instead of introducing a separate Bill on the alternative vote referendum, which would have been supported by the Labour party in a vote through Parliament, in line with our manifesto commitment, the Government have spatchcocked it together with the most blatant gerrymander of parliamentary constituency boundaries since the days of rotten boroughs.
As our amendment argues, the Government should decouple the proposals into two separate Bills: one on the alternative vote referendum and one on constituencies. In the constituency one, they should ensure that the original, fairer, more transparent and consensual boundary review system is restored, and that new boundaries are not applied in such a dogmatic, rigid and politically discriminatory fashion. They should ensure that Wales is treated fairly and not punitively, and statutory automatic registration from other public databases must be included in the legislation. That way, we might get two better reform Bills, based on consensus; we might even get the alternative vote, which I have supported for decades.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): We have had an excellent debate, with a high level of interest from colleagues across the House: 74 Members put their names down to speak, and I counted 40 who managed to make a contribution, all of which were excellent. In the relatively short time remaining, I will not be able to refer to every colleague's contribution, but I will try to deal with as many of the issues as possible.
Before I do so, let me respond to those Members who raised concerns about the time allowed for debate and scrutiny of the Bill. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, made clear his concerns and those of his Committee. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) raised concerns about the programme motion, which he said was a guillotine-if it is, it has a very blunt blade. For a 17-clause Bill, we have proposed five full days of Committee on the Floor of the House and two days for Report, which adequately recognises the importance of the issue to the House. That was agreed through the usual channels with the Opposition, who presented no objections to our timetable. It is disappointing to learn that they intend to oppose it tonight, and even at this late stage I urge them to think again.
As for the time available for debate in Committee, I should make it clear to Members on both sides of the House that the Government want the House to be able to debate and vote on all the key issues raised by the Bill, and that Ministers will work hard to ensure that the House has that opportunity.
Let me turn first to the referendum on the alternative vote and the concerns expressed about the date. A number of Members pointed out that it is also the date of elections to the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and of elections in most of England. Eighty per cent. of English voters will be eligible to vote on that day.
Andrew Selous: I am extremely grateful. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that town and parish councils, whose elections are due to take place on the same day as elections to unitary councils, will not be forced by the AV referendum to hold those elections on a later date? That would cost some of them up to £50,000, money that ought to be spent on local services rather than on another election.
Mr Harper: I can confirm that our combination amendment will ensure that parish elections can take place on the planned date. As most of England will be voting on the same date, I foresee no problems with differential turnouts, and I think that Members who are concerned about that can be reassured.
I believe that, far from disrespecting the devolved Administrations-as was suggested by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who speaks for
his party on this matter-we are treating the voters of those countries with respect. We think that they are perfectly able to vote in their devolved elections and in a simple yes-no referendum on the same day. I think, if I may say so, that the hon. Gentleman underrates his fellow Scots and their capacity for decision making.
A number of Members cited the merits of different electoral systems. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said, that is a matter for debate not now but during the referendum campaign. I know that Members on both sides of the House, and on both sides of the coalition, will participate vigorously in that debate.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and my hon. Friends the Members for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) and for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) suggested a turnout threshold. Such a system would make an abstention effectively a "no" vote. It would give people an incentive to abstain from voting, and the Government do not believe that that can be right. As for the issue of turnout and legitimacy, I should point out that in the 2005 election only three Members of Parliament received the support of more than 40% of their registered voters: my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the hon. Member for Belfast West (Mr Adams), an interesting combination. Members who suggest that voting is legitimate only if turnout is above a certain level should think carefully about where the logic of that argument takes them.
The Labour party's position on the referendum on the alternative vote strikes me as ridiculous. Labour supported an AV referendum before the election-it was in the party manifesto-but Labour Members are not supporting it now. They are hiding their opportunism behind the fig leaf that the proposal is contained in a Bill that plans a boundary review to provide more equally sized constituencies and more equal votes.
The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) has criticised us for not presenting our proposals in a stand-alone Bill. Given that both our measures concern the election of Members of Parliament to the House of Commons, it seems perfectly sensible to link them. I remind him that he presented proposals for an AV referendum in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. That was hardly a stand-alone Bill. It also included measures relating to the civil service commission, the civil service code of conduct, the ratification of treaties, amendments to the Independent Parliamentary
Standards Authority, the tax status of Members of Parliament, financial reporting to Parliament, freedom of information, counting of votes and the Act of Settlement.
Mr Straw: The difference is that all of those had been subject to extensive pre-legislative scrutiny and were agreed across the House, whereas one part of this is agreed but the other is a wholly partisan measure. The political purpose behind it has been well exposed by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) in his excellent blog on the ConservativeHome website.
The boundaries argument is straightforward. The Government believe seats should be of more equal size so that votes are of more equal value. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman and his colleague the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) have both said at different times that they agree with that principle. They say that, in theory, they believe in it; however, they oppose it in practice. That is not, of course, on principle; it is because they believe our proposals correct a bias in favour of them in the current system-another example of opportunism.
Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends spoke powerfully in favour of our proposals, including my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) in an excellent speech and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South.
The right hon. Member for Blackburn cannot have it both ways. He tried to argue that our boundary proposals were purely arithmetic and did not take anything else into account, and simultaneously that they were about gerrymandering the system to suit us. Those arguments cannot both be true.
A number of Members, including the right hon. Member for Neath, referred to a likely reduction in the number of seats in Wales from 40 to 30, as did the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). That simply corrects the fact that at present Wales is over-represented in this House. Once the measures in the Bill come into force, Wales will be treated in exactly the same way as England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It will be represented in exactly the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom, which, it seems to me, is extremely fair. That is my response to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) as well, who made exactly the same point about Northern Ireland. The reduction in the number of seats simply corrects existing over-representation, which also used to exist in Scotland and was largely corrected at the last election, although there is a little more still to do. Every part of this United Kingdom will be treated in the same way, and most voters will think that that is eminently fair.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) talked about the linkage between Westminster seats and those for the Northern Ireland Assembly. They will both know that the Assembly is under a statutory duty to consider its operation by 2015, including the size of the Assembly.
The Government are committed to bringing forward further legislation during this Parliament to reflect the wishes of the Assembly. The Government have no intention of dictating the size of the future Assembly. We will work closely with the devolved Administrations.
Boundaries will continue to be drawn by the independent boundary commissions in each part of the United Kingdom. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, we will replace local inquiries with a much longer period-increased from one month to three months-for local people to be able to make written representations. The academics' opinion on this is very clear. They have described oral inquiries as
"very largely an exercise in allowing the political parties to seek influence over the Commission's recommendations-in which their sole goal is to promote their own electoral interests."
"it would be a major error to assume that the consultation process largely involves the general public having its say on the recommendations."
Electoral registration was raised by a number of Members, including the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane)-who, I know from the number of written questions of his that I have answered, takes a great interest in the subject. He will know that the registration rate in the UK is about 91 or 92%, which is broadly in line with that of comparable countries. The boundary review will use the electoral register, as it always has in the past. As the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged, there are issues with the registration system. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that when we announce our plans for speeding up individual registration he will find that the fears that he expressed this afternoon are misplaced. The Government have no intention of worsening the situation-quite the reverse; we plan, by the measures that we will introduce, to reduce the number of people who are not registered to vote and to improve the system.
A number of hon. Members raised the issue about the number of Ministers that will be in the House of Commons after the size of the House has been reduced, and they will know that the Public Administration Committee produced a report on the issue before the general election. That Committee, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex, is undertaking another inquiry to examine what Ministers do. When it reports, the Government and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will look closely at it to see whether the Government want to take forward any of the proposals about the number of Ministers in this House.
The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) talked about foreign nationals and EU nationals not being able to vote in parliamentary elections and therefore not counting for these purposes. That is not a change introduced by the Bill; that is the existing position. It is perfectly normal in most countries that in order for someone to be able to vote for the national Parliament they have to be a citizen of the country concerned. That is a perfectly normal process and we are not changing it in this Bill. It is the existing system and I feel sure that Mrs Clegg will cope with it perfectly well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) spoke powerfully on behalf of his constituents. I know that he received a reply to his letter before
today's Second Reading debate, although I accept that it was unacceptably delayed. An apology has been made to him for that, and I can assure him that either the Deputy Prime Minister or I will visit the Isle of Wight to listen to the concerns of his constituents in person.
Stephen Pound: Let us leave the Isle of Wight and turn to the island of Ireland. In view of what the Minister has just said, do the coalition Government have any plans to tear up the long-standing arrangement and reciprocal understanding between this country and the Republic of Ireland on voting?
I can assure the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) that the reference in the Bill to "counties", which she discussed, does include unitary authorities. So the Boundary Commission for England will be able to take into account the boundaries of all the unitary authorities in Berkshire as it draws up new constituency boundaries, subject to the issues relating to parity.[Official Report, 20 October 2010, Vol. 516, c. 8MC.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) raised the issue of spending limits and broadcasting rules for the referendum. The Electoral Commission will determine whether campaigning is relevant for the elections or the referendum and will issue guidance. This is not an unusual issue to face-we face it with European, London mayoral and Greater London authority elections, as was the case in 2004. The Electoral Commission will work closely with broadcasters to make sure that the rules are clear and fair.
This is an important Bill. As I have said, the Government have made available five full days' debate in Committee and two days for the Report stage, and we want to ensure that the key issues are both debated and voted on by the House. The Bill will start the process towards having seats of more equal size, so that votes are of more equal value, and will make a modest reduction in the size of this House. It will give the people the choice over the voting system for electing Members to this House of Commons. Whatever our views on AV and first past the post-many views are held by those in this House and it is no secret that members of the Government will be campaigning on different sides-we should have nothing to fear from letting the people decide, and I commend the Bill to the House.
That the following provisions shall apply to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill:
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
Proceedings in Committee
2. Proceedings in Committee of the whole House shall be completed in five days.
3. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to the proceedings on the Bill in Committee of the whole House.
Consideration and Third Reading
4. Any proceedings on consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be completed in two days.
5. Any proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the second day.
6. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
7. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on consideration and Third Reading.
8. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed. -(Jeremy Wright.)
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, it is expedient to authorise-
That the draft Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Consequential Amendments No. 3) Order 2010, which was laid before the House on 21 June, be approved.-( Jeremy Wright.)
That the draft Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (Contribution to Costs of Special Resolution Regime) Regulations 2010, which were laid before this House on 5 July, be approved.-( Jeremy Wright.)
Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I present a petition that collected approximately 14,500 signatures of a total of 17,529 including the electronic petition, which was shown to No. 10 this morning, on the OneWight campaign.
The Petition of residents of the Isle of Wight and others,
Declares that the petitioners believe that the unique circumstances of the Isle of Wight must be recognised in any proposals for parliamentary boundary reform.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons rejects any legislation that would merge any part of the Isle of Wight with a mainland constituency, and that the House of Commons urges the Government to ensure that the Isle of Wight benefits from exceptions similar to those applied to the Scottish Islands with no physical link to the mainland.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): It gives me great pleasure to introduce the first Adjournment debate after the recess. There could be no more important subject for it than that of women and the economy. Such a debate could not have taken place 50 years ago, when women's contribution to the economy was seen as marginal, temporary and time-limited. In the 21st century, however, women play a huge role in the economy, and it is right and proper for us to examine the impact of the Government's "cuts Budget" on women, the family and children.
This Budget-this package of public expenditure cuts-will bear most heavily on the poorest, on women and on children. Our Chancellor has cut and frozen too many programmes that were aimed largely at women, in one of the most unfair and regressive Budgets that I have seen in 23 years in Parliament. His decision to freeze child benefit, scrap the child trust fund, end Sure Start maternity grants, abolish the health in pregnancy grant, cap housing benefit and freeze public sector pay will have a greater impact on women than on men. Women will shoulder fully three quarters of the burden. Research findings in our own House of Commons Library prove that they will shoulder the biggest burden of the cuts. As a result of changes in the revenue raised through direct tax and cuts in benefit, women will contribute £5.8 billion of the £8 billion that the coalition seeks to raise by 2014-15. They will contribute three times as much as men. More than 70% of the £8 billion that Government Members are so proud of raising will come directly from the pockets and wage packets of female taxpayers.
No Labour Member is a deficit denier, and no Labour Member does not believe that we need to take action against the deficit in the long-term interests of society, the country and our economy. However, we are united in believing that the Government's proposals are uniquely unfair, and will also prove to be ineffective. The research findings in the House of Commons Library take into account changes in tax allowances, capital gains tax rises and changes in tax credit, benefits and pensions, but they do not take into account the £560 million-worth of cuts in the child trust fund, which suggests that women will be hit even harder than the Library figures suggest. Nor do the figures take into account the cuts in public spending and the effect that they will have on women who work in the public sector.
I am an inner-city Member. Most of my constituents work in the public sector. Many of them are women, and many of those women are in female-headed households. They do not have private sector jobs to step into, and they do not have a man to keep them at home. When families lose their major wage earner it is a huge blow to them, and I fear that it may take years for those families and communities to recover. Women will lose out whether or not they are mothers. Support for children has been cut by a huge £2.4 billion, but even when that is discounted women without children will still pay more than men. When we discount all the benefit changes that will affect mothers, women will still pay £3.6 billion towards the
deficit compared with £1.9 billion for men-that is twice the amount-and, as we know, the cuts in benefits will only exacerbate existing inequalities in income between men and women.
Underlying the Government's package-this Government who claim to be new, warm and inclusive-is a very old-fashioned view of society. I was very struck to hear Iain Duncan Smith, who has looked at poverty issues-
Ms Abbott: I was very struck to hear the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who has paid a lot of attention to poverty issues, saying that he thought it was important that people were prepared to move around the country from estate to estate in search of work. What family model is he thinking of? The family model he is thinking of is one where only the husband works. It did not seem to occur to him that many of these families also have women who work and who are not willing to pack up and follow their husband around the country. There are some very old-fashioned views of society here.
The Budget, together with the likely changes to the welfare system, seems to me to be more supportive of an outdated male breadwinner and dependent female carer model than the dual earner, dual carer model, which is more representative of society whether in Hackney, inner-city Newcastle or middle England. In short, it suggests that the Government are, for all the window dressing, out of touch and unwilling to move with the times.
The House will not need to be reminded that women rely more on benefits and tax credits than men. A larger share of women's income is made up of benefits and tax credits. More women than men earn too little-because women are largely among the lower paid-to benefit from the change in income tax thresholds. Women are also more likely to work part time or unpaid, meaning they rely on benefits, particularly tax credits, to boost their income. These changes and the cuts to benefits have been dubbed the worst for women since the creation of the welfare state. I have therefore called this debate in order to put on the record the fact that I think this Budget is not just bad for Britain, but bad for women in Britain.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer insists that his Budget is a progressive Budget but, sadly, that only proves to me that this distinguished product of St Paul's school does not understand the technical meanings of "progressive" and "regressive" in respect of economic matters. Under any analysis this is a regressive Budget because, in relative terms, it takes more from the poor than from the rich.
Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab):
On the comments that have been made about the Budget proving that we are all in this together, the analysis that my hon. Friend is setting out demonstrates not only that women are getting it with both barrels, but that at the same time as women are being asked to pay such a high price for the mistakes of the bankers who got the country into this financial mess, the situation of major industries will, through the cut in corporation tax, improve. Women will be expected to pay more, but big business, and
particularly the banking sector, will be better off as a result of the Budget. Does that not demonstrate that we are not in fact all in this together?
Ms Abbott: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. It is extraordinary that this so-called progressive Budget will disadvantage women with families-and particularly poorer women with families-and advantage big business and bankers. The welfare state, which Government Members love to decry, is essential for stay-at-home mums-a strong state is essential for them-but it is also important for working mums.
Government support is essential for mothers who want to stay at home with their children. I went back to work when my son was eight days old-he voted in the Lobby when he was eight days old-but that was my choice. I have always argued-as have my own Government when Labour was in office-that women should have a choice. We should not financially disadvantage women who choose to stay at home. This Budget, in the cuts that it will make to the welfare state, will make it harder for stay-at-home mums and for working women, because of the predominant number of working women in the public sector. Even the initial decision to freeze public sector pay will hit women, because 4 million of the 6 million people who work in the public sector are women and so women are twice as likely to suffer from the pay freeze. When discussing the public sector cuts further, we must consider the number of women who are head of their household and who will be affected by the 600,000 new job cuts likely by 2016.
Widespread discrimination still takes place in the workplace. A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission calculated that at the current rate of progress it will take 60 years for women to gain equal status on the boards of the FTSE 100 top companies. So we must ask ourselves why the Government have gone ahead with a Budget that hits women so disproportionately. We have to ask ourselves why they have used a ratio of public sector cuts to tax of 80:20, given that even the previous major Tory cuts Budget, which was under Norman Lamont, used a ratio of 50:50. The 80:20 ratio is at the heart of why this Budget hits women so hard.
The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for pay and pensions equality between men and women, has taken the Treasury to court over the Budget; it has filed papers with the High Court to seek a judicial review of the Government's emergency Budget, and it is right to do so. Its chief executive, Ceri Goddard, has said:
"Successive governments have failed to give enough consideration to how their policies will impact on equality between men and women, but this budget shows a whole new level of disregard for the importance of equality law and everyday women's lives."
The public are giving this new Government an element of a honeymoon period, but Government Members must mark my words. They will see what happens as the financial impact of this Budget comes to bear on ordinary people and they realise what the plans for child benefit are, what the consequences of abolishing the child trust fund and the health in pregnancy grant are, and what effects the proposed housing benefit cuts have on children living in housing need in London-the Minister knows this better than I. London is a high-rent area, so many women and children will find themselves homeless or having to live in more overcrowded conditions, which will make it even harder for them to access work.
Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that the increase in the personal tax allowance will help many women? It will remove 880,000 people out of income tax altogether, the majority of whom will be women.
Ms Abbott: That will help some women, but it will not help women on benefits or the very lowest paid women. As I say, the way in which the figures add up means that women are still hit disproportionately.
In conclusion, I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to re-examine the decisions they have made. In particular, I urge the Minister to take seriously the Government's legal obligation to assess the equality impact of the Budget on different groups, specifically men and women. I urge them to carry out and publish a gender equality impact assessment of the emergency Budget and to take mitigating actions where policies look set to hurt women disproportionately.
Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): I am delighted that the hon. Lady has raised this issue in the Chamber tonight, because I have worked with women in business for the past 10 years. On everything that she talks about-every consequence, every dilemma and every situation that women are in-she has to look to her Government and ask why we are in this disastrous economic state, and she has to bear the responsibility for what is happening. The picture for women in business is mixed. The latest results coming out this week say that a third of women are now the main breadwinner, 39% earn more than their partners and 19%-
Esther McVey: My point is that we have to move forward, and the Conservative party is looking at how to get the 150,000 women who are not setting up businesses-when compared with the number of men who are-to do so. That would be worth £7 billion to the economy. What would the hon. Lady's advice be to women on how to even out the economy?
Ms Abbott: I shall not allow myself to be distracted by the hon. Lady, except to say that the reason why we face the necessity of making cuts on this scale is not Labour's irresponsibility but greedy bankers' irresponsibility -greedy, under-regulated bankers who almost crashed the world economy.
I want the Minister to give us her assurance that, before making those cuts, the Government will carry out a full and robust gender equality impact assessment. We all know that savings have to be made; my argument is that they should not be made at the expense of women. We all know that we have to move forward; my argument is that women, certainly in my constituency, will not be able to do so with the ball and chain that welfare cuts and the removal of child tax credits represent.
They will not be able to move forward, shackled as they will be by unfair and unthought-out cuts in welfare and public sector spending.
Fifty years ago we could not have had this debate. Fifty years ago there would not have been this many women in the Chamber to debate it. I am glad that Government Members have stayed for this debate. It is important, and women out there, in the country, want to know that their voice will be heard on issues to do with the economy and the potentially devastating cuts package with which the Government seek to meet the challenge of the deficit.
The Minister for Equalities (Lynne Featherstone): I very much welcome the opportunity to speak on this subject, and to clear up once and for all some of the myths surrounding the Budget and its impact on women.
I shall refer first to some of the points that the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made, before putting the Government's case per se. The Library findings were biased in their Budget analysis. The analysis was not robust; it included only selective measures.
Mr Speaker: Impugning integrity is neither desirable nor orderly. Perhaps I did not hear as clearly as the hon. Lady heard, but I shall listen intently. To my knowledge, nothing disorderly has occurred, but the hon. Lady is a long-standing-I will not say old, because she is not old-campaigner, and she has put her view forcefully on the record.
Lynne Featherstone: Thank you, Mr Speaker. No integrity was being impugned, but the Library itself notes that its research paper is not a detailed assessment based on individual tax and benefit data and, therefore, remains a rough and ready approximation.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Has the hon. Lady commissioned the kind of detailed assessment, based on tax and benefit information, that she is uniquely placed to do? If she has, will she tell the House what it concluded about the emergency Budget?
Any analysis of tax and welfare changes by gender must make assumptions about how resources are shared within the household, and the Library's research makes an extreme assumption that no income is shared. It is not robust, and it is based on outdated assumptions about family structures. On the issue of cuts to welfare hitting the poorest hardest, the Government have been clear that the burden of deficit reduction will have to be shared. The reforms that the Government are undertaking do protect the most vulnerable, including children and pensioners, and I shall go into detail about that in a moment.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD):
There is some confusion about whether the Budget is regressive or progressive. Does the Minister accept that if analysis
is done by the size of household budget-expenditure deciles-the Budget is progressive?
Lynne Featherstone: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. Obviously, the Government case is that the Budget is progressive. We are increasing child tax credits for the poorest families, protecting them against poverty.
Lynne Featherstone: I think that the Institute for Fiscal Studies was inaccurate in what it said. The Government have made it clear that the burden of deficit will have to be shared. At the Budget, the Government took unprecedented steps in publishing details. The Treasury welcomes the innovative approach of the IFS in its revised analysis of the Budget and is open to exploring new ways of assessing the potential impact of Budget measures. However, the IFS states that in order to include previously unmodelled reforms the report makes some strong assumptions that add uncertainty to the analysis.
I wanted to address the point that the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington made about the public sector. Although there are a majority of women in the public sector, the Government have made efforts to support the most vulnerable public sector workers-those earning less than £21,000 a year, who will be exempt from the freeze. That will affect about 1.7 million public sector workers whose salary falls below the threshold-mostly women-who will see a flat pay rise of £250 in both years of the freeze. The Government are aware of the statutory obligations when assessing options for spending reductions.
I shall move on to a more general response to the hon. Lady. Fairness is a key theme, along with freedom and responsibility, and underpins our new Government programme. We see it as even more important during difficult times than in good times, not just because we believe it is the fundamental right of every individual to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential, but because we realise that fairness is the key ingredient to getting the country back on its feet. We cannot afford to continue wasting the talents and skills of women, of ethnic minorities and of disabled people-of all those who have been held back for no reason other than their background. Without fairness we will never achieve economic recovery, let alone full economic growth.
Yes, we have to take some tough decisions to tackle the unprecedented deficit we inherited, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) said, we should not forget that the cuts are Labour's legacy. Labour doubled the national debt and left us with the biggest deficit in the G20. We have to clean up that situation to get the economy moving. Unless we address the deficit first and foremost, more women will
be out of work and more women will suffer the consequences of the recession.
Fairness is at the heart of all our decisions, so that the most in need are protected. Lord knows, the coalition Government have made extreme efforts to address the issue of protecting the vulnerable. We have spent more than £5 billion to try to equalise. That is why we are refocusing Sure Start, which the hon. Lady mentioned. We are ring-fencing its budget for this year and introducing 4,000 health visitors dedicated to helping the most disadvantaged families. That is why, as was mentioned, we are determined to make work pay by raising the tax threshold, lifting 880,000 of the lowest paid workers out of tax. The majority of them are women, who will come out of income tax each year progressively until the threshold has risen to £10,000. That will aid the lowest paid workers.
That is why we are determined to reform welfare to get people into work, creating a new Work programme to give the unemployed tailored support. It is why, as I said, we are protecting the lowest-paid public sector workers. It is why we are increasing child tax credits for the poorest families, protecting against rises in child poverty. Child poverty rose in the past few years under the Labour Government. [Interruption.] No, the whole point of tax credits for the poorest families is to protect against rises in child poverty. It is precisely why we are getting to grips with the deficit-so that we do not have to keep spending more and more on debt interest, leaving less to deliver the crucial public services that women need and depend on.
We are absolutely committed to a fairer future for women and their families, but the Government are not just about supporting women and their families through the tough times. I forgot to mention the index linking of pensions. I remind the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington that it was the Labour Government who made the derisory 75p pension offer, and who abolished the 10p tax band. I did not hear Labour Members cause uproar about either of those measures-well, the hon. Lady may have mentioned them, but in general terms, those were Labour policies that affected the poorest and most vulnerable, and they definitely hit women hardest.
We want to give people better prospects for a brighter future. We want to create the kind of cultural change that will enable people to escape the vicious cycle of inequality and poverty, so that they can improve the quality of their life and the lives of their family. The hon. Lady should know as well as I do-our constituencies are not dissimilar-that more than 2 million children live in poor housing, in crowded rooms and in squalid conditions. One in five children lives in poverty. I see for myself in my constituency the consequences of that vicious cycle, which people could never get away from because there were no pathways out. That is totally unacceptable. She and I both know about the pressures on housing in areas such as Hackney and Haringey.
We are putting bold new measures in place that will tear down the discriminatory and cultural barriers holding people back. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime
Minister have set up a childhood and families taskforce to tackle the barriers that prevent a successful family life and happy childhood. One of the main issues that the taskforce will consider is how we can help parents to balance their work and life. The hon. Lady raised the issue of single parents; nine out of 10 single parents who are out of work do not want to live off the state. They want a paid job. They want their independence. The problem is that there are not the flexible jobs out there that could fit with family life.
Many couples and individuals find it enormously difficult to strike the right balance between work and home. Traditional arrangements, in which mothers take the lion's share of leave, simply do not suit everyone's needs in the modern world. I totally refute the hon. Lady's suggestion that the coalition Government are in any way old-fashioned. Our commitment is to moving the agenda forward. That is why we have already committed to looking at a system of shared parental leave and at extending the right to request flexible working to all. The latter, in particular, will tackle the old-fashioned notion that women ought to perform the bulk of caring-
Lynne Featherstone: We are making it easier for families to access high-quality, affordable child care. We are extending free nursery care provision to 15 hours a week for three and four-year-olds, and continue to fund early learning and child care for more than 20,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. All those measures make a difference.
We will promote equal pay by making pay secrecy clauses unenforceable, allowing women to shed light on discriminatory pay practices. We are working to end the glass ceiling, which blights so many women's careers, by promoting diversity on company boards. The Government will lead the way; that is why we have set ourselves the ambitious target that by the end of Parliament, at least half of all new appointees to the boards of public bodies will be women. We will tackle violence against women by introducing a coherent cross-Government strategy.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for omitting to refer to equality impact assessing, which she thought important. I totally agree with Opposition Members: it is important. In fact, it is a legal requirement.