HC Deb 04 March 2002 vol 381 cc13-4
6. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)

What recent studies he has undertaken to identify the obstacles facing women returning to work. [36330]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown)

Research commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions has identified four main constraints that affect women who want to return to work: child care; ill health and disability; a lack of relevant skills and work experience; and housing costs. The Government have several measures in place to alleviate those problems, including the national child care strategy, and the introduction of more than 1,000 lone parent advisers in our jobcentres.

The Government recognise the part that employers have to play in encouraging a healthy work-life balance, in addition to our own campaign on that. We also know that women from ethnic minority groups are much less likely to be in employment. Next month, we are introducing a new service in five areas to reach out to people from ethnic minorities, who face a disadvantage in the labour market.

Siobhain McDonagh

Will my right hon. Friend comment on Opposition Members' assertions that the Government's plans to increase maternity pay and leave will make it even more difficult for women to continue in work?

Mr. Brown

I do not think that that is right. Indeed, employers themselves stand to benefit: if only 10 per cent. of those who currently do not return to work stayed in work, the savings to employers on recruitment costs would be about £39 million. We have also extended relief for small employers. About 10,000 firms are now entitled to recover 100 per cent. of the payments, and they also get an extended contribution to cover the costs.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Is the Minister aware that the vast majority of workless lone parent households are women-led and that his new deal for lone parents has proved an abject failure, making it more difficult for women to return to work? That, plus the obstacles that the Government are putting in the path of women claiming pensions, is making it more and more difficult for women in the workplace.

Mr. Brown

The first part of the hon. Lady's assertion is of course correct—the majority of lone parent households are headed by women—but I do not accept that the new deal for them is a failure. In fact, it has had substantial successes. Moreover, there is no alternative—a phrase that will no doubt echo with her. The fact is that, if we want to abolish child poverty and enhance the income of lone parent households, by far and away the best way of doing it is to get them an income from work rather than leaving them dependent on benefits.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North)

A major obstacle to moving from benefit to work, especially for single parents, is the loss of the free school meal entitlement. Is my right hon. Friend aware of any moves to extend that entitlement to recipients of working families tax credit?

Mr. Brown

I cannot make an announcement now, but I am aware of the issue. The most commonly asked questions are about the effect of returning to work on people's housing benefit and on council tax rebate, and for single parent households with a substantial number of children, school meals are clearly an important factor. We are considering what more can be done, but I cannot make an announcement yet.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Is the Minister aware that, in addition to the list that he enunciated, which is clearly right, many women of a certain age would like to go back to work but cannot do so because employers discriminate against them because of their age? I appreciate that it is extremely difficult to do anything about that, but will he assure us that he takes the matter seriously and tell us what steps he has taken to alleviate the situation?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is right: there are still discriminatory practices, often based on subjective perception and not rationally founded, against older people, including those who seek to return to work. Older people have a great deal to contribute. I often discuss the matter with private sector employers. The many services provided by Jobcentre Plus are, at least in part, available to older people who want to return to the labour market.