Alok Sharma responds to employment-related questions at Women and Equality Questions.
The welfare system treats individuals of all genders equally. It provides support and incentives to claimants to enter employment and progress in work. The Department for Work and Pensions and indeed the whole Government are committed to ensuring that all claimants have access to the right tailored support when they need it.
This question is about to completely contradict what has just been said. Under universal credit, lone parents under the age of 25 receive a lower payment than under the legacy system. This is totally arbitrary and discriminates heavily against women, who make up 90% of lone parents. Will the Minister urge the DWP to rethink the policy?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, over the last two Budgets we have put in an extra £6 billion to support the most vulnerable in universal credit. Sadly, he and his colleagues did not vote to support those changes.
Does my hon. Friend agree that ensuring that universal credit is fair and flexible for women is a vital part of supporting women’s economic empowerment?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the universal credit system, we have one-to-one support provided by work coaches, and it is working. We have just seen the figures released yesterday by the Office for National Statistics showing that the rate of women in employment is at a record high.
The Minister is also wrong with respect to national insurance contributions being attributed, or rather not attributed, to women who have more than one period of maternity leave within two years. Will he go back to look at the correspondence I have sent to the Department about this very serious problem?
Of course I will look at the correspondence and make sure that the appropriate Minister meets the hon. Lady.
With regards to the DWP’s pensions policy, this Women and Equalities Minister—the fourth—has had the opportunity to reduce the gender pay gap and tackle discrimination against those with disabilities, women and LGBT and BME people before another Prime Minister and another reshuffle. What is she going to achieve in this term?
We in the DWP have introduced a range of measures across the whole Government to make sure that we are supporting those across all sectors of society into work. As I said, the hon. Lady just needs to look at the jobs figures: we have joint record high employment, record high women’s employment and record high ethnic minorities in employment.
The Government of the day decided more than 20 years ago that they were going to make the state pension age the same for men and women in a long overdue move towards gender equality, and this change was clearly communicated. We need to raise the age at which all of us can draw a state pension so that it remains sustainable now and for future generations.
We know from House of Commons Library data that the number of women aged 60 claiming out-of-work benefits has increased since 2013 by more than the total number of claimants of all other ages, so what further evidence do we need that this UK Government have totally failed this cohort of women?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that additional money was put into the system—an extra £1.1 billion—which means that women in this cohort will benefit.
The fact is that 1950s-born women suffered discrimination and lower pay leading to smaller or no private pensions to fall back on, so it beggars belief that they then had to suffer the equalisation of the state pension age. Given the past injustices, the lack of notification of the Pensions Act 1995 and the way the Pensions Act 2011 Act has been rolled out, who in this Government is going to take responsibility for fair transitional arrangements?
As I said, additional money was put into the system, but ultimately this is a question of fairness between generations. We need to make sure that we keep the state pension sustainable, and of course we have to reflect improvements in life expectancy.
It will not be lost on those in the Chamber that the Minister has again repeated the myth that these changes were “clearly communicated”. The Work and Pensions Committee said in 2016 that the Department did not live up to expectations and that communication “was very limited”, so can the Minister look us in the eye and genuinely say he thinks he did communicate this to women and did not lead them up the garden path?