HL Deb 18 May 2000 vol 613 cc360-2

3.25 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

asked Her Majesty's Government:.

Which areas of inequality, highlighted by the Office for National Statistics' report on social inequalities, concern them most.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, the report to which the noble Baroness refers portrays the inequalities in income, health, education and work that this Government inherited.

Noble Lords


Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Yes, my Lords, the report is based on statistics which go up to 1997–98, so by definition it is true that it analyses the problems which the Government inherited and are currently addressing. It will not surprise the noble Baroness that the inequality which concerns me most is the poverty, and therefore the inequality in life chances, of children.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. The Government are to be congratulated on producing such clear statistics, but are they not horrified that the report reveals that women earn on average 42 per cent less than men? That is totally unacceptable. The same report highlights the fact that girls achieve consistently better results at school and yet by the age of 20 they earn on average 10 per cent less than men. Does the Minister accept that this lower pay, combined with the fact that women take time out for childbirth and childcare, means that they may also face a poorer old age, with less good pensions? What are the Government going to do to root out this institutionalised sexism in pay? Are they thinking of reforming the Equal Pay Act?.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Baroness has addressed a very important point and the House is right to be concerned about it. I think I am right in saying that her statistic that women's pay is 42 per cent behind that of men is in terms of total income through earnings coming in. That may not take full account of the fact that women's work is more part-time while men's is full-time and men do more overtime. My statistics show that in the 1970s women's pay was 60 per cent of men's and in terms of full-time equivalence it is now 81 per cent of men's. That 19 per cent gap, comparing like with like, is no more acceptable than the kind of statistics offered by the noble Baroness. She is entirely right.

The noble Baroness asked what the Government are doing. The biggest leap forward in women's equal pay came, as she mentioned, with the Equal Pay Act 1970. The next biggest leap forward has come with this Government's national minimum wage. Twelve per cent of all women now benefit from the national minimum wage compared with 4 per cent of men. If one adds to that not just the national minimum wage but the working families' tax credit, which effectively pays women on, say, £4.50 an hour a man's wage of £9, one sees a real improvement in women's income and, as the noble Baroness hoped, a real improvement in women's pensions in the years to come.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, in the light of my noble friend's earlier Answer, does she agree that, of all the inequalities which trouble us, the most worrying are those relating to child poverty, because they are likely to be passed on from generation to generation?.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, my noble and learned friend is absolutely right. We know that if children are born poor they go on to experience poorer health, they go on to experience more truancy and they go on to experience fewer opportunities of employment. They are born poor, they live poor and they die poor.

The best way we know of to break child poverty, thus springboarding such children into the prospect of living a decent life, is to ensure that one or other or both of their parents are in work. The source of poverty is lack of access to the labour market. That is precisely why on the one hand we are endeavouring to bring lone parents into the New Deal while on the other hand, through our reform of the Child Support Agency, we will ensure that their children enjoy the maintenance that they should receive. If we get parents into work and child maintenance payments flowing, we hope the result will be that those children will have a decent chance in life.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, the Minister has implied that the statistics quoted all relate to inherited circumstances. Why, then, have the Government still done nothing to address inequalities in health, in particular as regards the indices of deprivation in physical health as well as those for my own field, that of dentistry? Is it not the case that the Government have done nothing to reach children who simply cannot get any form of National Health Service treatment?.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, as regards the second point made by the noble Baroness, my noble friend Lord Hunt has told me that we are working on the dental health strategy. In response to the noble Baroness's wider point, the Government's response to the Acheson report has been to state that local authorities must develop health improvement programmes. One of the primary functions of those programmes must be to address the real health inequalities reflected in cancer rates, strokes and the like. From the statistics that we inherited, we know that life expectancy at birth for a boy is around five years less in the two lowest social classes as compared to the two highest classes. If you are born poor, you will live for five years less. Those are the kinds of inequalities that my noble friend Lord Hunt and his team at the Department of Health are seeking to address. I am sure that we all wish them well in their task.