HC Deb 23 February 1998 vol 307 cc10-1
10. Ms Rosie Winterton

What action the Ministers for Women are taking during the UK's presidency of the European Union in conjunction with their European counterparts. [29083]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Ms Joan Ruddock)

The priority of the Ministers for Women has been to ensure that the women's perspective is introduced into the presidency's key theme of employability. Various activities are taking place on that theme. An initiative on action on violence against women is under way as part of our presidency.

Ms Winterton

Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity during the UK presidency to discuss the real problems faced by low-paid women, particularly in finding affordable child care? Will she encourage initiatives on a European level, such as the working family tax credit, which would greatly help some of the poorest women in our society to meet child-care costs?

Ms Ruddock

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I am pleased to tell her that her view that affordable child care underpins the employability of women concurs with our thinking and our priorities as Ministers for Women in the United Kingdom. We intend to discuss these matters in an informal presidency meeting of Ministers for Women of European Union member states in Belfast on 5 and 6 May. That will enable us to compare best practice, and to show for the first time that the UK Government take child care and the employability of women very seriously indeed. We want to share our thinking with our European partners.

Dr. Julian Lewis

Do the Minister's plans to improve the employability of women extend to the employability of the remnants of the Greenham Common women, of whom she used to be such a prominent supporter?

Ms Ruddock

I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes up valuable time at Question Time to make such frivolous points. The employability of all women in this country is of deep concern to the Government. We believe in equal opportunities. Women want to work, and we shall make it possible for more and more women to take their place in the workplace and to balance their family responsibilities, which they also take very seriously.

Ms Moran

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. I welcome the initiative that the UK is taking under its presidency. Is my hon. Friend aware that Britain is the poor parent of Europe in respect of child care? My sister, who lives and works in Paris, has been entitled to child care for her three children since they were one year old. My constituents in Luton would dearly love to have such a system. Can my hon. Friend assure us that, during the UK presidency, we shall see an expansion of quality child care?

Ms Ruddock

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I assure her that we shall have particular regard to good practice elsewhere as we develop a national child care strategy. We shall learn from other countries, and shall for the very first time put into practice a system of quality, affordable and accessible child care for parents and children, whose development will benefit greatly from that opportunity.

Mrs. Gillan

Does the Minister agree that in the United Kingdom, despite a great improvement under Conservative Governments, women's pay for full-time work is still on average only 80 per cent. of men's hourly pay, and that that issue is of great concern to all women? Does the Minister believe that she or the Prime Minister sets a good example to employers, or that the United Kingdom sends a positive message on equality to her European counterparts and gives the right lead, when the Prime Minister appoints her to a ministerial job at a rate of pay £23,623 less than that of her male colleagues? What does that say about the Government's attitude to women employees?

Ms Ruddock

The hon. Lady is perfectly well aware of the technical reasons for the impossibility of paying a salary for the new position.

Mrs. Gillan

Not for men.

Ms Ruddock

The hon. Lady protests, but there are men in the Government who are not drawing ministerial salaries.

The hon. Lady, who has represented her party and the Conservative Government as a spokesperson on women, has something to apologise for to the women of this country. The Government of which she was a member never championed women's needs; they took no trouble whatever to redress the imbalance between women's and men's pay. With the working family tax credit proposals—and, indeed, the minimum wage—this Government will do more to lift the wages of women than the Conservative Government did to lift the wages of any woman in nearly two decades.