Sharon wrapped up an Oppostion Day Debate on Women and the Cost of Living.
The debate was on a motion which read:
That this House believes that the Government is failing to deliver a recovery for women and is making women pay three times more than men to bring down the deficit, according to research by the House of Commons Library; notes that under this Government, women’s unemployment has reached its highest levels for a generation; further notes that wages are stagnating in jobs where women are predominant; and calls on the Government to support more women into decent work by extending free nursery places for 3 and 4 year olds from 15 to 25 hours a week for parents at work, provide a legal guarantee for 8am-6pm breakfast and afterschool club childcare, and bring in Make Work Pay contracts to provide a 12 months tax rebate for firms which sign up to pay the living wage.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): We have had a high quality debate today, and it has been superbly led by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero). I also congratulate the Economic Secretary to the Treasury on winning the opportunity to open for the Government. I say that because it must have been a fiercely fought competition if it has resulted in the Minister for Women and Equalities—the one voice for women at the Cabinet table—and her Tory junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), both being sidelined in favour of the Economic Secretary. It is just a shame that, having won that battle, she gave such a complacent speech. Anyone listening to her would think that everything in the garden was rosy for women. However, as we have heard in many excellent speeches, especially from Labour Members, that is far from being the case.
I want to pick the Economic Secretary up on one point. She accused my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) of scaremongering when she pointed out that the £1,200 fees were putting women off taking their employers to a tribunal when they had been wrongfully sacked because they were pregnant. I fear that the Minister might have been trying to play down the problem. Maternity Action, whose representative I met just a few hours before the debate began, submitted evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that showed that only 3% of victims of pregnancy discrimination took their claim to an employment tribunal, and that the fees involved were cited as one of the significant barriers that women faced. I recommend that the Minister meet Maternity Action to learn some facts about the impact of this Government’s policies on women’s lives. I am sure that its representatives would be happy to meet her.
It is clear that the Prime Minister’s cost of living crisis is hurting everyone except the millionaires who are enjoying their huge tax cuts. It is women who are bearing the brunt of the pain and who are seeing their financial support slashed the most. New mums have lost thousands, £7 billion has been taken away from families with children, and nearly 500,000 mums have lost up to £1,500 a year in support for child care. It is women who are seeing the services that they value being hollowed out. Sure Start funding has been slashed by more than half in real terms over this Parliament, and there are now 578 fewer Sure Start centres as a result. Many of those that remain are cutting back their services and opening hours, or charging for sessions that used to be free. It is women who are facing the greatest pressures in trying to make ends meet.
Harriett Baldwin: Does the hon. Lady therefore disagree with the Office for National Statistics when it says that the equivalised, after-tax income for the poorest fifth of households has risen under this Government, and that that income has fallen the most for the richest fifth?
Mrs Hodgson: I just do not recognise those figures. Our figures from the Library—and any other figures that we have seen on this matter—show that women are £1,600 a year worse off under this Government—[Interruption.] It is true, and I will write to the hon. Lady and give her the figures.
Child care bills are rising five times as fast as incomes under this Government. Energy bills are shooting up at similar speeds. The weekly shop is getting even more expensive, and real incomes are down by between £1,500 and £1,600 as prices have outstripped wages in 40 of the 41 months of this Government. Women’s long-term unemployment is up 80,000 since the election, compared with a figure of 10,000 for men. Older women’s unemployment is up by a third, while the figure for men has marginally fallen. More than 1 million women are unemployed, and countless others are stuck in low-paid, insecure jobs.
It is women who are struggling to get by over the long school summer holidays, with extra child care to pay for, school uniforms to buy and extra food to put on the table, yet we hear from the Government that they want to slap 15% VAT on the school uniforms on our children’s backs, on the cereal in their bowls and even on the electricity that lights their homes. How out of touch can the Government get? Despite all that, women hold the key to building a sustainable economic recovery that works for everyone. Millions of women want to get back into work or to increase their hours.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): My hon. Friend is giving a great speech. Are women who work in social care not one of the most tragic cases of women struggling with the hours? Often they are not even paid the minimum wage any more, because they get an hour here and an hour there and do not get paid for travel. These women may want to work 45 or 50 hours a week but end up working only 20 hours. Is that not something we should be ashamed of: the most important job we have, yet that is how they are paid?
Mrs Hodgson: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, and I commend her on the excellent work she does and has done in this area for more than eight years.
If we could support carers and the other women we have been talking about in finding extra hours and finding a job we could add more than £1 billion to our tax receipts, yet still it is women who face the biggest barriers to progressing in their careers. The reason for all that is because women are sidelined and ignored by this Government—and why should we be surprised? This Government have more millionaires in the Cabinet than women—in fact, women outnumber Davids at the Cabinet table by only one, and let us not forget the Lib Dems, the party with as many knights as women MPs.
We have another autumn statement coming up soon. The Chancellor could use that opportunity to make amends for the disproportionate impact of his decisions so far, but if it is anything like last year’s we will just see that unfairness entrenched. I am aware that the Economic Secretary was not in the Treasury at that time—in fact, no hon. Ladies were in the Treasury at that time. Perhaps that accounts for the gross imbalance in where the Chancellor’s axe fell. If it does, I hope she will be able to tilt the balance back in women’s favour this year.
The hon. Lady quoted the late Baroness Thatcher, so let me reciprocate. This may be the first time, and will probably be the last, that I quote the former Prime Minister, but this one line sums up perfectly everything that is wrong with this Government. In 1979, she said:
“Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.”
I may have spent my early life suffering because of the policies she implemented, but I have to say that she had a point. Does it not explain why this Government have such a poor record? They are a Government led by a rich boys club completely out of touch with the problems that so many ordinary women face just to keep the money coming in, a roof over their child’s head, clothes on their child’s back, food on the table and their energy bills paid. They are a Government who cannot tackle the cost of living crisis women face because they have no idea what that crisis means to the people they are supposed to serve.
The Prime Minister knows that he has a problem with women. He even had to hire an extra adviser to tell him why women do not like him—as a women, I call tell him that for free. The Prime Minister has a problem with women because we know when we are being let down and we know when promises have been broken. Even if his party chairman tries to wipe any evidence of their ever making any promises off the internet, women have been let down and seen promises broken time and again by this Prime Minister, as we have heard today. These are promises on affordable child care, decent jobs, energy bills, tax credits, financial support, Sure Start and public services. Time and again women say they need help, and time and again they are ignored.
Government Members should be under no illusion: those same women will be looking at what they do tonight. These women will see the proposals Labour have put forward to help: real help now with finding and affording early years and school age child care; capital projects that create good quality jobs for women, not just men; and businesses supported to boost the incomes of women on the lowest wages. Those are the kind of policies that will help to tackle the cost of living crisis that women are facing now, today. They are kind of policies women want and women need. They are the kind of policies that women deserve to expect from any Government. But at the same time they are the kind of policies they know they can get only from Labour. Every vote against this motion from those in the Government parties—every Tory and Lib Dem who would rather please their Whip than stand up for women in their constituency—will be yet another reason for those women to give this out-of-touch Government the boot in 2015.