HC Deb 06 May 2004 vol 420 cc1489-92
22. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)

What steps she is taking to encourage women to take degrees in information and communications technology. [170671]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

E-Skills UK, the sector skills council for ICT, is working with employers to make IT degrees, courses and careers more attractive to women. In particular, it is developing a new IT degree that focuses on the use of IT. We know from experience that it is likely to be more attractive to women.

Michael Fabricant

Does the Secretary of State accept that one deterrent to women entering the industry is the glass ceiling in the UK whereby women are not able to obtain promotion? Is she aware that in the old Soviet Union more than 50 per cent. of managers in this sector were women and there was no Minister for Women in the old Soviet Union? The figure is only 15 per cent. in this country now, so what is the Ministry for Women for—indeed, what is she for?

Ms Hewitt

Well, I am not for a return to the Soviet Union. I am for the promotion and extension of flexible working opportunities to women and men right across the economy. We know that one of the main reasons why women do not find IT attractive and why, all too often, they do not return to science and technology jobs even when they have the degrees is the lack of flexible working. That is something that the hon. Gentleman knows I have championed. I have changed the law and I am working with employers to spread the best practice that the best employers are already implementing.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab)

Has my right hon. Friend yet had a chance to look at the research published today by the Equal Opportunities Commission on gender segregation in work and training?

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Oh, please.

Judy Mallaber

Such segregation, including in IT, is one of the major factors in the gender pay gap, and the research would also help in relation to skill shortages in key areas. Will my right hon. Friend take on board the recommendations relating to modern apprenticeships, which is one of the issues that the research has specifically considered, and make sure that they are a priority for our work in that area?

Ms Hewitt

Judging from the comments we have heard from the Opposition Benches, that is another piece of work that the Conservative party would cut as part of its public spending cuts. The Equal Opportunities Commission is absolutely right. In most sectors, if there is real under-representation of women, there is a real problem with skills shortages. That is hardly surprising if employers are recruiting from only half the potential talent pool. I am working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to ensure that we spread apprenticeships, so that women go into non-traditional jobs and men go into the caring jobs that have hitherto been dominated by women.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con)

The Minister might note that the real answer to the actual question is that Labour's education policies are not encouraging anyone of any sex to take degrees. Here we have another example of how Labour policies are letting women down. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) said, the Equal Opportunities Commission reported yesterday that sex segregation in some areas of employment is contributing to skills shortages. I hear what the Minister says about that, but nothing is happening to—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady must not make a speech; she must ask a question.

Mrs. Laing

I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker. Has the Minister noted that, today, the Fawcett Society warns that key groups of women are "disillusioned, dissatisfied and deserting" Labour? Instead of criticising what the Conservatives did, she might note that Conservatives lead by example because we had a woman Prime Minister—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I call the Secretary of State.

Ms Hewitt

I am proud of the fact that in the past seven years, we have helped more women into employment and into education than ever before. I am proud of the record increases in child benefit, and of the introduction of the child tax credit and the working tax credit. I am proud of the fact that we introduced the national minimum wage—the Conservatives opposed it—which has helped nearly 1 million low-paid women to improve their earnings. I am proud of the fact that we have doubled the length of maternity leave, increased maternity pay and introduced flexible working. The reality is that Labour is streets ahead of the Conservatives in the representation of women, and in delivering for women real improvements in their daily lives.