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Theresa May says Government must do more to help women through recession

Theresa_mayThe House of Commons is debating support for women during the economic downturn this afternoon.

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and Shadow Minister for Women Theresa May has made the text of her speech available to ConservativeHome. Here it is in full:

"Mr Speaker, this is an important debate, and would have been timely even if it had not coincided with International Women’s Day this Sunday. For all the talk about bailouts and bankers’ bonuses, it is in the homes of millions of families across the country that the effects of the recession are most severely felt, and our thoughts must be with families struggling to pay bills or facing redundancy.

And we must be clear that the recession’s effect on women is not limited to the workplace. For example, women carers who rely on savings have been badly hit financially, not to mention their concern that local authorities will be forced to cut back on vital services that they rely on.

It is appropriate to concentrate particularly on women this afternoon. There is no ‘typical’ woman, and women will be affected by the downturn in different ways: as both employers and employees, as small business owners and entrepreneurs, as mothers, carers, home-owners, pensioners – women in all parts of the country will feel the effects on them and their families. This is the human face of recession, and it is essential that we take the right action to see people through it.

I do not believe that the Government has got to grips with how it is going to get us out of this mess. Whether it’s the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor or the Business Secretary, we have seen a flurry of activity that has grabbed headlines but seems to have had no real effect. This ‘headless chicken’ approach to policy-making is not going to help women and families or businesses.

Just look at the number of initiatives announced by the Government that have not actually come to anything:

  • The working capital scheme, still not operational
  • The internship scheme, which doesn’t exist
  • Recruitment subsidies, not yet active
  • The guarantee scheme for asset-backed securities, nonexistent
  • The mortgage support scheme, announced in December and still not in place.

What is going on? On the one hand the Children’s Secretary says it will be the worst recession for 100 years, yet the Government hasn’t actually put anything in place to deal with it.

Before explaining how Conservative proposals will help women and families through the downturn and create a strong economy for the future, I want to mention some of the ways in which women will be affected by the recession. We all see the alarming unemployment figures which are affecting families in all parts of the country. There is certainly reason to believe that women will fare much worse in this recession than they did in previous ones.

Whereas in the last recession, industries where women’s jobs dominate – such as retail, and hotels and catering – fared quite well compared to manufacturing and construction, this time it is clear that all sectors of the economy are being hit.

This is shown by the fact that, although men’s redundancy rates remain higher than women’s, the growth in the redundancy rate for women is double that of men. The effects of redundancy can be particularly harsh on women, who tend to earn less anyway and have fewer savings. Lone parents with children can particularly be at risk of hardship with evidence showing that women with dependent children are more likely than other women to be unemployed.

And the effect on a family of a woman becoming unemployed could be greater in this recession than in the past because women’s contributions to family income are now higher than they have been previously – even in a significant proportion of couple households women contribute over 50% of family income. In situation where their partner has been made redundant there will be additional pressure on women to stay in work or get back into employment. There is also concern that women’s aspirations will be hit as they pass up opportunities for promotion, concerned that ‘last in, first out’ arrangements might make it not worth their while. So this recession will directly impact women in ways that previous ones have never done.

The immediate priority for the Government must be to take action to support businesses and prevent further dramatic rises in unemployment. That means we need to get to the heart of the credit crunch and get credit moving again. With businesses threatened with closure every day, it is unforgivable that the Government has still not adopted our plans for a National Loan Guarantee Scheme. The bank recapitalisation has not worked in getting credit moving and now companies face huge problems because of a lack of working credit.

If the Government is serious about helping women, and men, then it must guarantee loans to businesses as we have proposed. Only by getting credit flowing will we prevent the further rises in unemployment that families fear.

There is so much more that the Government could be doing to support families at this time. Why don’t they adopt our plan to work with councils to freeze council tax for two years?

What about reducing energy bills for millions of people by enabling them to set up direct debits through their post office accounts? And what about giving a break to savers by removing tax on savings for basic rate payers, as we’ve proposed?

There is one particular area where the Government could be doing more to help women, and that’s in community learning, helping people who have been out of the labour market for a long time. Unfortunately due to the Government’s cuts, there are now 1.4 million fewer publicly-funded community courses than there were just 4 years ago. There are over half a million fewer women in further education or skills training now compared to 2005 – a far greater reduction compared to men, who have also lost out.

Community learning offers an important, locally-based route to training for those that have been away from the labour market, particularly women who have been out of work looking after a child and are now finding it harder than ever to get back into work. Of course, it also helps people that have been made redundant. The courses offered can be particularly beneficial to women because they are flexible – for example, short courses in IT and other skills that are important in boosting somebody’s employability.

The Government should adopt our proposal for a £100 million Community Learning Fund, paid for by refocusing the Train to Gain budget. Adult and community learning has immense social value and promotes social mobility. At this time more than ever it needs greater support.

Mr Speaker, the second part of the Government’s motion speaks of ‘building a strong and fair economy for the future’. But what is fair about increasing National Insurance on everyone earning over £20,000, as the Chancellor is planning to do? That means higher taxes for every qualified nurse, every police officer – not to mention the £2 billion it will cost businesses. That will fundamentally undermine economic recovery at the very time that the Government seeks to build the ‘fair and strong’ economy that the Rt Hon Lady speaks of.

The Government boasts of its ‘real help’ for families, but there is nothing helpful – or fair – about temporary tax cuts followed by permanent tax rises. Particularly not when those tax cuts are simply compensating for the disastrous abolition of the 10p tax rate, one of the singularly most unfair measures ever implemented by a British government.

So the Government is on difficult ground when it speaks of fairness. Nonetheless, we will welcome any measures that genuinely seek to build a stronger and fairer economy. We look forward to the publication of the Equality Bill, but it is now nearly nine months since the Rt Hon Lady came to the House to announce details of the Bill, and it still has not been published. What is the delay? This is the Government’s flagship equality legislation, promised in their 2005 manifesto. They are fast running out of time to get it passed. It is hard to avoid the impression that the Government is split on this issue. As soon as he was appointed, Lord Mandelson let it be known that he would be delaying the Bill, and it seems that he is winning that battle.

When, or if, the Bill is published, we will engage constructively with it. I welcome the opportunity that it will present to consolidate equality legislation, hopefully making things simpler for businesses and local authorities.

The Government is right to talk about fairness in the economy, but we need to be clear why, over recent years, equality has been given a bad name. To many people, ‘equality’ has become about bureaucracy and box-ticking, getting in the way of business efficiency particularly in our small companies. Equality should never be the enemy of common-sense.

Equality should not get in the way of businesses but help them work better. So the Equality Bill cannot be allowed to simply sweep existing equality legislation into a single pile, but rather must improve on what we have. And to those who suggest that equality can be swept aside in a recession, I say that equality should be for all times not just good times.

There are some particular measures that I hope to see in the Bill. For women, one issue of fairness is equal pay. I know that the Leader of the House shares my commitment to reducing the gender pay gap, which remains stubbornly high at over 17%. Equal pay is not just something for women in the City, or in other highly-paid industries. It is about making sure women at the bottom of the pay scale have proper and fair protection – women who work hard to provide for their families, and who do not have the the confidence to fight for fairness.

Back in 2007, I put forward a number of proposals which I believe will make a real difference. I’ve even set up a Facebook group – Theresa May for Equal Pay – although as far as I know the Rt Hon Lady hasn’t joined it. Despite the Government’s warm words on this issue, they’ve made little progress. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a compulsory pay audit in a company that has been found guilty of discriminating on pay. Of course, we do not argue that all companies should face a pay audit, only those that have already been found guilty of breaking the law. The Government could have done this two years ago when we proposed it. Why haven’t they?

It was this frustration that led my noble friend Baroness Morris of Bolton to put forward the Equal Pay and Flexible Working Bill which was introduced in the House of Lords. In the second reading debate, the Minister for Economic Competitiveness and Small Business, Baroness Vadera, effectively said that there was no need for this bill because all the measures would be covered by the Government’s Equality Bill. So when she speaks later, will the Solicitor General confirm that all of our proposals will feature in the Equality Bill? If not then will she outline exactly why the Government opposes them?

This is not just an issue of equality for women, but fairness for families, particularly those on low incomes. A report from the TUC last year found that tackling women’s low pay is the key to ending child poverty, not least because half of poor children come from working families.

One of the problems is that women with children who are seeking work generally want part-time or flexible working opportunities but find these difficult to come by. That is why the second half of our proposals, on flexible working, are so important. I have welcomed the Government’s proposal to expand the right to request flexible working to parents with children aged up to 16, although I would have preferred them to go to 18 as originally proposed by my Rt Hon Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

It is important that we do all we can to help women with children into work once their children reach a suitable age. Again, this is not just for highly-paid professionals but also for poorer families. Helping mothers into work will help tackle poverty. Studies have shown that child poverty could be dramatically reduced if even a relatively small proportion of poor single-earner families became dual-earner families.

Strong economies rely on strong societies. So it is concerning that around 40% of parents

spend two hours or less with their child each day. This is particularly important in a recession when families face greater strains. Making Britain more family-friendly will strengthen our society and strengthen our economy. And business leaders recognise this as well. Many businesses are embracing flexible working, finding that it increases staff commitment, productivity and retention.

On both equal pay and flexible working, it is a shame that the Government did not take sufficient action in the good times and is now playing catch-up during a recession. We should have gone into the downturn with families in a far better position to benefit from flexible working, and with more women getting the fair pay that they deserve. That opportunity was missed, but we must now ensure that when we come out of the recession we do so with more family-friendly business practices operating in a stronger, fairer and more family-friendly economy.

An economic downturn can have serious effects beyond merely the financial. As was

discussed yesterday at the Government’s summit on women in the recession, there is concern that there will be an increase in domestic violence. The Home Secretary and Attorney General have given similar warnings. This isn’t an area for party politics but I do hope that Ministers had the chance to read our recent Ending Violence Against Women paper. In it we put forward a number of, I believe, helpful proposals on domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. The Government has done some good work in this area but there is much more to do. I welcome the fact that the Government will be implementing a cross-government violence against women strategy – they will be aware that my Rt Hon Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I have been calling for such a strategy for a long time.

I hope that this strategy will have a particular focus on prevention. The Government will be aware of the comments last year from the Home Affairs Committee, which found that its approach “remains disproportionately focused on criminal justice responses at the expense of prevention”. This is mirrored by services on the ground. Eaves Women’s Aid in Barking and Dagenham said they are “concerned that the government is channelling resources entirely through the Criminal Justice System” and therefore “not really supporting the work done by specialist service providers such as ourselves.” I think there needs to be a re-balancing of policy towards prevention, working with schools, police, health care professions and the voluntary sector. I very much look forward to seeing more on this.

Mr Speaker, as we look forward to International Women’s Day there are many other issues affecting women that we will not be able to touch on in this debate. I hope that in future we can return to issues such as the role of women in international development and conflict resolution. I am sure that the whole House would also join me in paying tribute to the many women members of the armed forces. They face particular challenges and deserve our continued gratitude for their dedicated service.

So, Mr Speaker, it is clear that women and their families are likely to be hit by this recession in a way that they have never previously been. The wide reach of the downturn means that many families are today struggling or fearing for the future. The Government has not done enough to help them. By adopting our plans to support businesses, and our fully-funded tax cuts for families, the Government can still achieve its aim of helping women and families through the recession. And when the recovery does come, it must be built on fiscal responsibility; modern workplaces; and lower taxes that last. Only then will we see the stronger and fairer economy that we all seek."


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