Sharon Hodgson MP

Working hard for Washington and Sunderland West.

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Women's contribution to the economy debate 06.03.14

Sharon responded to a Westminster Hall debate on the contribution women can and do make to the economy, secured by Conservative MP Caroline Spelman.


Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): It was a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am sorry that you are leaving, but you are being replaced by the lovely Mr Sheridan, under whose chairmanship it is also a pleasure to serve.

It is great to be here for this excellent debate on international women’s day. Many important issues have been covered at length, as one is able to do in a three-hour debate when half our number are engaged in an important debate in the main Chamber. However, what we have lacked in quantity we have more than made up for in quality. The debate has not suffered for the lack of Members present.

I am pleased to be in the debate with the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), who has organised a full programme of excellent events today, culminating with tea with the Speaker in Speaker’s House for women MPs who are being shadowed by young women from their constituencies. Most of us are being shadowed by at least one young woman today, although the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) is being shadowed by six—she is a pied piper leading the way on this issue. I thank the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth for organising today’s events, which are appreciated by us and the young women who are shadowing us. I thank the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for securing the debate and enabling us to gather here to talk about such important issues.

Women helping and inspiring other women is obviously a key recurring theme of international women’s day. It is right that we promote it as a means of increasing women’s participation in the economy and public life, particularly at the higher echelons. When it comes to the scale of the challenges that we still face in promoting women in the workplace and harnessing their potential to contribute to the economic success of the country, everyone needs to pull together in the same direction to achieve the kind of change that we need.

The Minister will be well aware that the director general of the Confederation of British Industry made an important intervention on that theme earlier this week, on the back of a PricewaterhouseCoopers report that ranked Britain 18th out of 27 OECD countries for the participation of women in the economy. He rightly called for the current generation of top executives to set a much better example and really drive through the changes that will see women progress much further in the private sector. As part of that, he advocated the use of targets for women in senior positions, as a signal to the whole organisation that its leaders want those changes to happen.

That call has seemingly been heard by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who has asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission for advice on whether all-women shortlists for top jobs will be legal. That apparent reversal in the Government’s position is very welcome, as indeed it was to hear the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire talk about the fact that her party is now looking at all-women shortlists. As she knows, I was selected under an all-women shortlist, and they have been very successful for the Labour party in raising the number of women in Parliament, so it is very welcome to hear that her party is looking at that.

With regard to top jobs, targets are not just a means of promoting equality, which is an important end in itself; firms with greater representation of women in the boardroom and in senior positions throughout the organisation are much more likely to be successful businesses. However, the Minister and her colleagues might want to look a little closer to home. This is where, in this celebratory debate, I may come across as a bit critical, but I am the Opposition spokesperson, so you would surely expect nothing less, Mr Sheridan. It is also important to be brutally honest when discussing these important issues, and not just talk about the good bits.

I asked a series of parliamentary questions and I was quite shocked at some of the answers. Almost half of Government Departments are failing to meet the targets for women on boards that Ministers expect of top businesses. It is particularly poor to see that the Ministry of Defence, for instance, has no women on its board at all, and that only two Departments have more women than men on their boards. That is symbolic of a wider trend in senior appointments by the Government since 2010. Only 17 out of 114 Privy Counsellors appointed are women, and 13 out of 85 policy tsars are women. Fewer than one in five ambassadors and a quarter of permanent secretaries appointed since 2010 have been women.

Fiona Mactaggart: On the point about public appointments and women, I have been chasing Government Departments since 9 February—for a month—to try to find out what proportion of paid public appointments are given to women. I keep going round a particular circle, which gets me to a published statement by the Cabinet Office that gives the total number of appointments of men and women but does not state how many are paid. Frankly, the vast majority of those appointments are, I think, women to the magistracy, because the vast majority are in the Ministry of Justice. We really need those figures to be more transparent.

Mrs Hodgson: My hon. Friend makes a very good point.

Mrs Spelman rose—

Mrs Hodgson: I think I am just about to be intervened on by somebody who might have the answer.

Mrs Spelman: Just for the record, the Government achieved a 50:50 ratio of men and women in the role of permanent secretary when a female permanent secretary was appointed to my Department in 2012. Much more interesting questions are why there is such an attrition rate among those women in senior positions, and why there might have been a falling away.

Mrs Hodgson: I am not sure that that answers the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), but perhaps the Minister will glean the answer before her winding-up contribution.

This point is important, because if the Government expect to inspire and/or cajole top businesses to meet the 25% target for women on boards, which is a very welcome target and we certainly should expect them to meet it, they have to show much stronger leadership on the issue. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how she will ensure that that happens.

Coming back to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, one of the most telling graphs was on the proportion of women in full-time employment; the UK came last but two. That echoes the findings of the recent Institute for Public Policy Research report, “Childmind the gap”. In more than two thirds of the countries it surveyed, fewer than 30% of mothers worked part time—that is, for less than 30 hours. In the UK, it is more than 60%, so that is more than double the proportion of mothers working part time in this country than in the vast majority of others surveyed. We know that women are working part time either because they cannot find full-time jobs, or because they cannot afford or are unable to organise the child care, especially if they work unsociable or atypical hours. The Department for Work and Pensions’ own survey found that 43% of parents who have kids aged three to four and would like to work, or to work longer hours, cite affordability of child care as a barrier to doing so.

That is unsurprising, given that parents are being hit by what I call a triple whammy. First, child care costs are increasing way ahead of wages; according to the Family and Childcare Trust report a couple of days ago, costs for nursery care have risen by 27% since 2009 and continue to rise higher than inflation. They are now the largest family outgoing, outstripping even the average family mortgage. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) mentioned that, too. The second part of the triple whammy is that places are being lost; we have 1,500 fewer childminders and 900 fewer nurseries since the election, and the same report from the Family and Childcare Trust found that nearly half of local authorities—49%—do not have enough places for working parents. To round it off, the third element is that support for those on low and middle incomes through tax credits has been cut.

That is creating not only a cost of living crisis, but a cost of working crisis, which is bad for business and bad for the Treasury. The IPPR’s study suggests that a 10 percentage point increase in maternal employment rates to bring the UK more in line with our more successful European neighbours would bring a net benefit to the public purse of £1.45 billion a year. It also estimates that increasing the rate of full-time work among those mothers who already work part time by just three percentage points would generate a net benefit of £450 million a year. The study goes on to estimate that by equalising the labour force participation rates of men and women, the UK could increase its GDP per capita by 0.5% a year, with potential gains of 10% by 2030.

Because we on the Labour side of the House want to achieve those fiscal and economic gains under a future Labour Government, every working family will receive 25 hours of free, high-quality child care for their three and four-year-olds for 38 weeks a year—an increase of 10 hours a week on the current offer. That is help worth £1,500 a year per child per working family, paid for from a levy on the banks. As convenience is the key concern for parents of school-age children, our proposed primary child care guarantee will ensure that they will be able to access breakfast and after-school clubs through their school between the hours of 8 am and 6 pm.

Of course, the other side of making work pay is decent incomes for women and, certainly, parity with male colleagues in comparable jobs. In December, official figures revealed that the gender pay gap increased in 2012-13 for the first time in five years to an average of 10%. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Slough that for older women the figure is actually 18%. Under Labour, the gender pay gap fell by 7.7%, and it is deeply disappointing to see those gains going into reverse. Concerted effort is clearly needed to put us back on a positive course, but perhaps the most significant issue is that women are often clustered in low-wage jobs, as well as being far more likely to have poor conditions and even zero-hours contracts.

One in four women earns less than the living wage, meaning that even if she is in work and works as many hours as she can, she will still struggle to make ends meet. That cannot be right. Labour wants to make work pay for women by allowing firms to claim back one third of the cost of raising their staff’s wages to the level of the living wage, which is currently £8.80 in London. We will also strengthen the minimum wage and tackle the abuse of zero-hours contracts and agency workers, which again are a feature of the sectors in which women are over-represented.

Clearly, there is also an issue about aspirations among young women. We heard about that from a number of hon. Members. I do not think that aspirations are a problem for the young women shadowing us today, but I do know that far too many girls are still channelled down the “hair or care” path in school and further education, whereas their male counterparts will be pushed towards apprenticeships and other vocational qualifications with higher earning potential. The Government, to their credit, have recently been making a lot of positive noises on that, and particularly on the issue of driving up participation in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—in further and higher education.

I echo comments made by a few hon. Members about maths and science subjects. I am pleased to announce that my daughter is studying for her final exams in her maths A-level, which she will take later this year, but she is one of only a handful of girls in her A-level class. On average, girls make up only about 25% of maths A-level classes across the country. That must change because, as the right hon. Member for Meriden said, maths is one of the most valuable A-levels to obtain.

The one thing that the Government could do much better is the provision of high-quality careers advice. We have these conversations with young girls, but particularly important is individual face-to-face advice, which can inspire girls to aim higher, telling them how to get to where they want to be and giving them ideas, rather than reinforcing the old stereotypes and a learned lack of aspiration, which still holds back far too many of our young people.

Of course, employers have their part to play in all this. Yes, we need women in leadership roles, but also right along the pipeline. I know that there are many great employers in the UK. At the end of January, I met representatives of a dozen or so, who were telling me about some of the great packages of support that they make available for working mums, particularly while they are on maternity leave and when they come back to work. The one that I will name today is Ford Motor Company. Ford employs more than 11,000 people in this country and it not only gives its female employees a year’s maternity leave on full pay—I imagine that applications will flood in now—but offers them parenting support and classes, as well as an on-site nursery and emergency child care for when things go wrong—for when the child is ill and cannot come into the nursery. It also has facilities for new mums to breastfeed and express milk at work. Why does Ford do that? Yes, it does it because there is value in being seen as a family-friendly company, but primarily—I asked the company—it does it because it knows that having women in positions of influence over its products and marketing gives it a competitive advantage over its rivals, because women control most of the major purchases in most households. Buying a car is a decision that most women have a big say in. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] And rightly so.

We can see from that example why all those studies have shown that businesses with more women in positions of power outperform their less diverse counterparts. If 50% or more of a firm’s consumers are women, it makes sense to have people at the top of the organisation who know what women want—that is, women. If I may be just a little critical, perhaps that is why the coalition parties are faring so badly among female voters at the moment; there are not enough women in the top positions.

However, despite the clear common-sense case for promoting women in business, there are clearly still some bosses from the Nigel Farage school of equality. According to Maternity Action, 60,000 women are forced out of their jobs a year because they have the gall to become pregnant. To make matters worse, the Government are now forcing those women who have the energy and time, while pregnant or coping with a new baby, to take their employer to a tribunal to pay £1,200 to do so. The Minister probably believes that we are scaremongering when we talk about those fees, but we do feel that they will often put off quite vulnerable women from holding their employer to account. I do not think that those women see it that way; they do not think that we are scaremongering.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is looking into pregnancy discrimination; that is very good. The Government have funded a report, and I sincerely hope that the Minister is pressing for the time scale for the report to be as short as possible, so that she will have the opportunity to act on its recommendations before the general election in 2015. None of us wants to take a punitive approach to equality, but given that we know how much better companies perform when women are not forced out, there is clearly as much of an economic imperative to stamp out discrimination as there is a moral one.

Of course, a successful economy needs to embrace the creative and entrepreneurial flair of its citizens in setting up their own businesses and creating new jobs and wealth. Unfortunately, as we know, fewer than one in five SMEs are wholly or majority-owned by women, which hints at specific barriers to women striking out on their own. The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who is no longer in her place, has done a huge amount of work in this area and chairs the all-party group on women and enterprise, which I have recently joined. However, the silver living to that statistic is that it hints at a huge untapped pool of talent and creativity that could be put to good use. That is one reason why Labour has said that, instead of the Government’s corporation tax cut for the largest firms, we will help more people to start their own business by cutting business rates in 2015 and freezing them again in 2016 for small businesses.

The economy may well be back in growth after a period of sustained malaise, but that does not lessen the importance of doing everything that we can to enable women to contribute. The twin ends of greater equality and a more productive economy are not mutually exclusive; they are intrinsically linked. Greater female participation, better pay and conditions, greater progression and greater representation of women in senior and board-level positions are not ends in themselves. They are the means by which the UK can remain at the top table of world economies over the next 20 years, or achieve a respectable position in the Prime Minister’s “global race”. I admit that the Government are doing some things, and Opposition Members warmly welcome them, but this debate has been a timely reminder that until we are making real progress on all the measures necessary, we can and must do more.

Women are ready to play their part; in fact, they have always been ready. It is the responsibility of all of us, on whatever side of the House we sit, to remove any barriers in their way. We must not pull the ladder up behind us, which I am sure none of us in this Chamber would do, but ensure that we lower it and give a helping hand up to even more women, to enable them to follow us and successful women in all sectors and, ultimately, to achieve their full potential.

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