HC Deb 26 February 2004 vol 418 cc410-2
17. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)

What discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer regarding gender and poverty in the United Kingdom. [156271]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

I have had a number of recent discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer about issues that impact on gender and poverty, including child poverty and pensions.

Tom Brake

I am grateful for that response. What progress has been made in the pilot project described in an article in the Financial Times on 27 November entitled "Brown to Focus Spending on Sex Appeal"? Will the project's findings be made public? Will any feedback from the pilot in respect of spending by gender be included in discussions of the comprehensive spending review?

Ms Hewitt

I am delighted to say that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for many years has undertaken gender analysis of, for example, the impact of Budget measures. I am not aware of the details of the pilot project to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I shall write to him about it. However, I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will make further provision in the forthcoming Budget to ensure that we reduce the poverty of women in our country, and to improve their well-being.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon) (Lab)

One reason why women are poor is that they do the bulk of caring, for young people, the elderly and people with disabilities. I appreciate that the Government have acted to give carers better support, but when does my right hon. Friend expect that carers—and in the main they are women—will get all the support that they deserve? When will they know that they will get a decent income, in their working lives and when they retire?

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has taken steps already to improve the home responsibilities credit, for example, and to ensure that women in the lower-paid, part-time jobs which those with caring responsibilities often undertake can get access to the full coverage of the national insurance scheme. Those and similar measures are already making a real difference to carers. I agree with my hon. Friend that more needs to be done, although it is a question of priorities. However, she is right: to ensure that women in that future do not suffer the poverty in retirement suffered by women today, we must continue to pay attention to the needs of younger women with caring responsibilities.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con)

I am glad that the Minister for Women has acknowledged that women in retirement suffer particularly from poverty. I am sure that she is aware of the research by Age Concern and the Fawcett Society, which shows that one in four single women pensioners live in poverty, that twice as many women as men rely on means-tested benefits in retirement, and that for every pound that a man receives from a pension, a women receives 32p. That is a shocking state of affairs. The same, research shows that up to 380,000 of the poorest women pensioners do not claim the pension credit to which the right hon. Lady referred. Three quarters of women near retirement age say that they are unhappy with the Government's handling of the pension situation. Does she accept that the Government are not doing enough to reach the poorest elderly women?

Ms Hewitt

I have great respect for the hon. Lady, but I am astonished by her ability to ignore her party's polices and the impact that they would have on women pensioners in particular. We are, of course, aware of the greater poverty that women suffer in old age, and we are, of course, doing something about it. I know from my constituency that the pension credit has already made an enormous difference to women who, in the past, were sometimes left living on even less than the basic state pension. By guaranteeing an income of at least £102 a week for single pensioners, we have done a great deal already to support elderly women in retirement. The introduction of the state second pension and its extension to women who care for young children or disabled adults will make a great difference to the next generation of retired women, about whom I am also concerned.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)

The Conservative party says that it will abolish the second state pension, which is one of the most progressive—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady should try again. The Minister is not responsible for Opposition policy and cannot answer.

Angela Eagle

I stand corrected—I thought that the point was relevant. Even as we speak, recipients of the second state pension are building up extra entitlements that will enable them to live properly in retirement. Just in case the second state pension is under threat, will my right hon. Friend undertake to campaign about the enormous benefits that it provides?

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—in all her comments. Perhaps not enough people know about the state second pension. It will benefit nearly 2.5 million careers who care for young children and older or disabled relatives. It will make an enormous difference to the problem of poverty in old age. I happily assure her that our Government at least will maintain the state second pension and will not abolish it.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

Is the Minister aware that the UK has a comparatively high level of low-birth- weight births? One quarter of such births are to mothers who are dependent on income support, which can be as little as £39.90 for 16 to 17-year-olds. It has been established that £39.90 is insufficient to provide a healthy diet and ensure the health of the next generation. Has the Minister made plans to improve the situation?

Ms Hewitt

I have discussed that issue with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children. Part of the problem is the issue of teenage girls on little or no income and from poor family backgrounds having children at very early ages. I am sure that the hon. Lady will welcome the increasing success of our programme to reduce teenage pregnancies. Where young mothers have babies, the programme to help them stay in education and improve their prospects and those of their children is also beginning to show good results.