Jobs for the Girls - Two Years On

Westminster Hall, Houses of Parliament

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak to a report that comes from my Committee. I did not Chair the Sub-Committee that produced the report - that was ably chaired by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) who is in this Chamber today. She will speak to the report at greater length than I intend to. My remarks are only preliminary to hers.

I am sorry that there are relatively few hon. Members here today. I attach great importance to the report, and we are having this debate because of a solemn promise I gave the hon. Lady, so I am glad that the Liaison Committee found time to accommodate it in its programme. I should be in three places today. As well as participating in this debate, I should be in the Chamber taking part in an important and timely debate on energy providers, and I should be continuing a conversation I was having with the pupils of Blackminster middle school in my constituency. I was encouraged to see that a huge number of young ladies at that school show great enthusiasm for politics. Sadly, I have had to cut short my conversation with them to be here today, but I hope the nobler purpose that I serve by being here - one they heartily applaud - justifies my absence from the school.

As I said, the report was produced by a Sub-Committee of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee. We started the inquiry at the beginning of our Committee's incarnation in October 2005. At that time, there was a bewildering array of issues for the Committee to consider and, in fact, we formed two separate Sub-Committees on two separate matters. They have both produced excellent reports and I am delighted to be associated with them, albeit at one remove. We have not had Sub-Committees since then, but that does not reflect on the able chairing of the hon. Lady; it is because after that time we got things slightly more under control and were able to have a rational programme of work. I pay tribute to her and the members of her Sub-Committee, whom I think she will thank individually in her remarks, for the extremely good work they did on this thorough and important report.

It is not always appropriate to do this, but I want to put on the record my deep gratitude to the Clerk to the Committee at that time, Elizabeth Flood, who might be joining us later, although I shall draw her attention to these remarks in the printed record. I was going to say that she strove manfully, but that is not the appropriate word in these circumstances, so I shall say that she strove hard and diligently to produce the report and some of the detailed work around it. I believe the hon. Lady might mention that work in her remarks.

We are not allowed to use the R-word quite yet, but it is timely that we are having this debate today because the severe economic challenges that the country faces, about which we heard in the Chamber earlier, could be used by some as an excuse in relation to our country's commitment to climate change. That should not happen. Equally, those economic challenges might be used as an excuse to play down our commitment to equality and fairness in the workplace. That, too, would be wrong. I am glad that today's debate gives the opportunity for the record to be set right. The issue cannot be swept under the carpet at inconvenient times; it is of great importance to us all.

The debate is not only about discrimination against women; it is about the price we all pay for their exclusion or lack of full participation in the work force. There is still a significant gender pay gap: it has closed somewhat, but the most recent estimate is that the average pay gap between men and women is about 17.2 per cent. That is a significant figure.

Flexible working and a sensible work-life balance are elusive for many, if not most, women. I am alarmed that 41 per cent. of parents spend two hours or less each day with their children and that only a third of families manage to eat together daily. It is important for those families that we give women the flexibility they deserve. I realise this is not mainstream to the report, but we should not forget the pensioner poverty problem. For every £1 a man receives from a pension, a woman receives on average just 32p. There are big injustices that need to be resolved.

The report has a complicated chronology. I do not know whether the hon. Lady will take us through why the report has taken so long to reach the final stages, but the intervention of a general election in 2005 did not help, truncating as it did our predecessor Committee's work. I am glad that the report has eventually appeared and that the Woman and Work Commission's report, which it scrutinises, contained a number of recommendations that appeared in the Committee's original report - the predecessor report to this one.

Before I sit down to allow the hon. Lady to take us through the report in detail, I want to emphasise that it is not just the women who are subjected to discrimination who pay a price. We all pay a price. The abilities, enthusiasm and talents of women are crucial to our economic success: if we want to compete globally in the world, we have to maximise our use of every resource we have. One such resource is those clever and able women who are not being allowed to contribute to the economy or to the society of which they are a part to the extent that they could.

The gender pay gap is partly a problem of aspiration - I am glad to say that I can quote a woman in defence of that argument. The noble Baroness Prosser told the Committee that she

"agreed the situation was complex, and noted that the pay gap arose partly because women do not, largely speaking, push themselves for pay rises and promotion in the same way that men do."

I know that my daughter has received advice from a male colleague that she should not be satisfied with warm words from her bosses when she has done well; she should demand a pay increase at the same time. Women tend to take the warm words and walk away and men tend to demand the money. It is important that women are assertive in the workplace and ask for their just desserts.

I want to underline the importance of the report's first recommendation on careers advice. In my work as Chairman of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, I have become more strongly of the opinion that careers advice is of huge importance - or at least the failure of careers advice in our schools is a matter of huge importance. Children are not shown the reality of the modern workplace or modern economy. I passionately believe that engineering deserves a higher profile in careers advice. Manufacturing, too, is being dismissed by too many careers teachers, who are not aware of the realities of modern manufacturing, and women in particular are not being encouraged to pursue careers in industries perceived to be male dominated - particularly engineering, which is a passion of mine. One of the report's first recommendations states:

"The causes of occupational segregation start with the assumptions made by families and in schools".

The report goes on to state that the Department for Children, Schools and Families must give higher priority to careers advice and work experience, and should provide more support and funding, so that careers advice is not just seen as an extra duty. The report adds that further efforts are needed to build links with employers. Those recommendations are of huge importance.

I found the Government's response to that recommendation worthy, but a little complex. What we really need to achieve - not just for women, but for the entire UK economy - is a significantly higher quality of careers advice that is much more in touch with the realities of contemporary Britain.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who chairs the Committee so ably, for giving way. He has obviously had much time to study this important subject. In relation to the report's recommendations, does he think that the gender gap can be closed by attitudinal and best practice changes, or are legislative changes needed; or is a mixture of all three required?

Peter Luff: This is a cop-out answer in the sense that I think it is all three. The idea of relying on only one of those is clearly illusory. We need to ensure that the Government pursue best practice in their own areas of responsibility as an employer and a procurer. A mix of things are needed to drive the matter forward, as the report ably demonstrates.

I promised that I would be brief, and eight minutes is not particularly brief, so I will allow the hon. Member for Amber Valley to explain at greater length the work of the Committee and its important report.

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