Alok Sharma responds to debate on women and work

Alok Sharma responds to a Westminster Hall debate on women and work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) on securing this important debate. In her speech, she spoke with passion and from the heart about her own experiences. It is often our shared experiences that drive us to bring about change and improvements. There was a discussion about role models, as raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), and he is right: they matter as well.

Many colleagues noted that last week we celebrated International Women’s Day, when we reflected on the achievements and progress of women not only in the workplace but in everyday life. This year’s theme encouraged everyone, regardless of gender, to press for progress—to think, act and be more gender-inclusive every day. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch that it is important that we celebrate the success and the progress that we are making for women in work, but I also agree with many colleagues that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) noted, there is more to do.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and others talked about the joint-record high for female employment, which, at 70.8%, is five percentage points higher than in 2010. I have no wish to introduce any note of rancour in the debate, but I point out that under the last Labour Government the highest rate was 67%, back in 2008. I agree that all of us—politicians and businesses—should be working together to improve the employment rate further.

It is irrefutable that there are more people in employment, but does the Minister acknowledge that work is more precarious, and that people have to do two or three jobs?

Unfortunately we do not have time for a long debate on this, but as I have said previously in the House, the welfare changes we have brought forward actually ensure that work pays. The hon. Lady will disagree, but I am sure that she will welcome the money made available in terms of childcare costs, as the hon. Members for Burnley (Julie Cooper) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and for Angus did. When I was first elected in 2010 and talking in my constituency to many parents—especially mums—of young children, the cost of childcare was a key barrier to returning to work and increasing their hours. We have acted by introducing 30 hours’ free childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds and tax-free childcare, and under universal credit the Government will cover up to 85% of childcare costs for eligible claimants. It is worth noting that an independent evaluation of the early roll-out of the childcare offer shows that parents are working much more flexibly and about 23% of mothers have been able to increase their hours as a result of that support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch and others referred to returners. Of course, putting in £5 million to fund specially designed programmes to help returners to the workplace both in the public sector and the private sector is very important. We should encourage that.

I do not think anyone mentioned the issue of women of black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, but we should be celebrating that the employment rate for BAME people is at its highest rate since records began, at 64.8%. An extra 1.1 million people of BAME backgrounds have got into work since 2010, and almost exactly half of that increase is women. However, there is much further to go. Women from some BAME backgrounds have an employment rate of only 51.6%, and as part of the Government’s race disparity audit follow-up we are working on pilots to see how to address that issue in the 20 challenge areas identified around the country.

We discussed the gender pay gap. The Prime Minister has made it clear that tackling injustices such as the gender pay gap is part of building a country that works for everyone. I am proud that last year we introduced groundbreaking regulations requiring large employers in all sectors to publish the differences between what they pay their male and female staff in average salaries and bonuses.

The hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) talked about what we are doing further. Of course, we are encouraging organisations to go beyond the mandatory requirements and, for example, publishing an action plan that sets out how they will close the gender pay gap in their companies. She is right that reputation does matter. In my role as Employment Minister, I talk to people who run companies, and they recognise that having a workforce that is representative of the country is important, so they will take this matter seriously.

We had a discussion about the increase in the percentage of women on boards, which the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) did not think was making a difference. Actually, if the people at the top of a company are representative, that makes a huge difference. I have to say, I really welcome the fact that we have a second female Prime Minister.

I am fast running out of time, but we had a discussion about the Taylor review and flexible working. One of the review’s key outcomes is a recommendation for employers to offer more flexible working.

A number of points were raised on shared parental leave by my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham and for Redditch. I confirm that the Government Equalities Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have launched a £1.5 million campaign to promote shared parental leave. There was also a discussion on encouraging women into science, technology, engineering and maths jobs, and the Government are making more funding available for that.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) spoke about discrimination. He will be aware that maternity discrimination is against the law, and the Government are working with ACAS to update guidance. As I said, there was a discussion on the Taylor review, and the Government have launched a number of consultations, which will make a difference.

We are almost out of time, but we have had a really thoughtful and comprehensive debate. Hon. Members have highlighted the significant progress made since 2010, but we should be under no illusions: there is further to go, and it is absolutely imperative that all of us strain every sinew to ensure we have a workforce in Britain that reflects the modern, diverse country that we are.

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