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Westminster Hall

Thursday 2 May 2002

[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]

Women and IT

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

2.30 pm

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness (Mr. Douglas Alexander) : The Government welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue. Information and communications technologies are perhaps the defining technologies of our generation, and to an increasing extent they pervade our lives and work.

Current estimates suggest that servicing the nation's ever-increasing demand for ICT provides jobs for more than 1 million people in the United Kingdom, but when one examines the profile of the IT work force, one is immediately struck by how few women work in the industry. Women comprise nearly half of the overall work force and slightly more than half of the population, but they account for only one fifth of the work force in IT—sadly, that is a declining trend—and for less than 10 per cent. of high-value-added jobs such as software engineering.

That is highly disadvantageous to women, because it means that they miss out on opportunities to earn the higher wages available in the IT sector. That is arguably another facet of the digital divide that, unless it is bridged, threatens to entrench inequalities between the sexes and within communities. It is also disadvantageous to business and to the wider economy.

An IT industry dominated by men harnesses only half of the talent and creativity available. That is a cause for concern in an industry that, despite current economic conditions, will in the long term have a growing demand for skilled labour. The Institute for Employment Research has forecast that, through a combination of expansion and replacement demand, the IT, electronics and communications industries will need more than 1 million people to fill jobs between 1999 and 2010.

Addressing the under-representation of women in IT is a top priority for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry both in her departmental capacity and as Minister for Women. However, in describing the Government's response, I shall talk as much about what other Departments, particularly the Department for Education and Skills, are doing as about what the Department for Trade and Industry seeks to achieve. That reflects the Government's view that we face a complex challenge that demands a joined-up response.

The Government are determined to play their part in helping to reverse the serious under-representation of women in IT jobs, working with partners in business and education. In "Opportunity for all in a world of change", last year's enterprise and skills White Paper, we stated our ambition that the UK should match the best of our competitors with regard to women's employment in IT. We want to open up to women the

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same opportunities in IT as are enjoyed by their male counterparts. We want them to be able to seize those opportunities on an equal footing. However, we do not underestimate the extent of the challenge.

I draw hon. Members' attention to recent research commissioned by the DTI, the Department for Education and Skills and the women's unit on women's participation in IT learning and employment, entitled "Women in ITEC Courses and Careers". The study covers women's participation in IT, electronics and communications. It reveals that compared to a number of other countries, including the USA, Canada and Ireland, the UK is not performing especially well in terms of the proportion of women working in IT and related high-tech industries: for example, in the US, women account for a fifth of the high-skill, technical roles in those industries, whereas the figure for the UK is only 9 per cent., with far more women taking lower skilled, non-professional occupations.

We must take a comprehensive and long-term approach if we are to be successful. High impact, sustainable solutions are required if we are to persuade more girls and women to consider IT as a career option, and we need to support them through appropriate education and training relevant to their particular circumstances. I shall now set out some of the major elements of our holistic approach to the challenge.

Within our communities, we must first ensure that everyone has equal access to IT. We cannot afford to allow any section of society—whether women, the unemployed, lower-skilled workers or people who face language or cultural barriers—to be excluded from those technologies. We are on target to have 6,000 UK Online centres in operation by the end of the year to provide training in and access to ICTs, in particular to deprived communities.

Recently, I visited a family centre in my constituency, Paisley, South. It has child care facilities in one room and computers with direct access to the internet next door, where training is provided, primarily for single mothers. I was struck by their hunger to learn, their interest and their appetite to engage with the new technology, but it became clear from my conversations with those women that if the child care facilities were not in the same building, they would not be able to gain access to the technology, despite their determination to do so.

We need to encourage more girls and young women to consider careers in IT and to develop the knowledge and skills needed to succeed. In England in 2001, about 24,000 girls achieved A to C grades in GCSE computer studies, compared to 32,000 boys. In the same year, about 4,000 girls achieved an A-level in computer science, compared with a little more than 13,000 boys. However, girls out-perform boys in the subject at GCSE and A-level. The position is similar in higher education, where only a fifth of computing graduates are women. Women make up only 15 per cent. of engineering graduates, but they perform especially well in that discipline, women having come top in the British Computer Society professional examinations for the past two years.

A factor that needs to be recognised is that too many talented girls are put off by male stereotypes of science, engineering and technology. That is why it is important

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that successful women in science and technology-based careers are highly visible, to act as role models for the coming generation. We are providing core funding to the WISE—women in science and engineering—campaign for the next three years, in partnership with the Engineering and Marine Training Authority, the Engineering Employers Federation and the Engineering and Technology Board. Our aim is to help enhance the impact and effectiveness of WISE by, for example, bringing the gender issue into the mainstream of science and engineering initiatives, especially in relation to young people.

The DTI and the DFES are also working to establish an extensive network of science and engineering ambassadors seconded from industry to act as role models and mentors in schools across the country. We want as many female ambassadors as possible to enthuse girls at school about IT, science and engineering. Given that the challenge is for industry as well as the Government, I am pleased to say that business is responding well. At the DTI's "Women in IT" conference earlier this year, IBM and Dell—two major employers—pledged to support their employees in becoming ambassadors. IBM alone is targeting 200 of its staff to work within the programme. We hope that other businesses will rise to the challenge and follow IBM and Dell's example.

We also need to ensure that schools and teachers have the tools and equipment they need to help girls to develop IT skills. We are already investing massively in IT for schools: more than £1 billion is available between 2001 and 2004 to equip schools, colleges and other places of learning across the country with ICT, including assistance to purchase computers, but we must go further. As part of our wider strategy to raise standards at key stage 3, which covers 11 to 14-year-olds, we are piloting a new programme to improve the teaching of ICT, with a view to rolling it out across England in the coming academic year. We are focusing on strengthening teaching and learning in ICT as a discrete subject in its own right, and will work to enhance teachers' pedagogic skills and subject knowledge. That investment needs to be maintained if we are to achieve our ambitious targets for 14-year-olds. We expect that, by 2007, 85 per cent. of 14-year-olds will achieve level 5 or above in ICT.

We know that girls are more likely than boys to turn away from IT, even after achieving good results at GCSE, so we need to find new ways to engage girls and to persuade more of them that IT is worth pursuing. That is why the DTI and the DFES have supported e-Skills UK to develop what we call the computer clubs for girls programme. Through a set of CD-ROMs delivered directly to the school, the clubs will provide a learning environment for girls that enables them to develop professional IT skills while undertaking tasks and projects that are of interest to them, such as creating magazine front covers with their photographs on them.

The clubs are a worthwhile development and the IT industry is excited about engaging in the programme. One company from the United States, Macromedia, has agreed to make its Flash web animation software free to schools when used in the club activities. I understand that e-Skills UK is talking to other software providers

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about donating software to the clubs. The clubs concept will be rolled out initially in several schools in the south-east with the support of the South East England Development Agency, which is to be congratulated on the initiative. That is an important first step in making the clubs a reality across the country.

The DTI has also funded the development of workshops to inspire 13 and 14-year-old girls to consider careers in IT. The workshops are hosted by IT businesses, and 10 companies have so far agreed to be involved as part of the ambassadors programme, which I mentioned earlier. The girls get to meet employees and to see that IT professionals do not in fact conform to some of the stereotypes that one reads about in the newspapers. Feedback from the girls has been enthusiastic and positive. The success of several pilot workshops in the south-east means that we are thinking about rolling the programme out more widely.

We have already supported an industry dialogue with the makers of television soaps and dramas. The idea is to show programme makers, who can influence public perceptions, that IT is not solely the domain of men. In time, we may see more realistic television portrayals of the IT industry and of the people who work in it, in all their diversity.

Girls and boys need to be able to access high-quality careers advice to find out what opportunities a career in IT offers and what skills and training they will need. With the support of DTI and the DFES, e-Skills UK has developed an online resource to fill exactly that need. The IT Compass website, which has been promoted through the media and specialist magazines, contains information about IT careers. It describes how to get relevant work experience, and there is a special section for women who are interested in jobs in IT.

IT Compass connects young people with role models and with case studies of people who already work in the industry. It seeks to break down some of the stereotypes and to show what opportunities are available to people with different talents and aspirations. There are also advice and support materials for careers advisers, so that they can offer students the best and most up-to-date guidance on working in IT. I am pleased to say that there have been more than 500,000 hits on the site since its launch in January 2002.

The site will complement and support the Connexions service, which is the new support service for all 13 to 19-year-olds. Connexions will offer young people integrated advice, guidance and personal development opportunities to help them make a smooth transition into adulthood and working life. It will also help to tackle gender stereotyping, which can drive women and men to think too narrowly about their career options. Several Connexions partnerships have linked up with the Equal Opportunities Commission to launch the "What's Stopping You?" campaign, which will highlight the damage that gender stereotyping can cause and work to change people's perceptions of men's and women's jobs.

We are taking action to encourage women to join the next generation of IT professionals, but there is a generation of women of working age who already have IT skills or want to develop them. Many are mothers who want to work but cannot find IT jobs with the flexible working arrangements they need to balance

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work and their responsibilities as parents. The industry is, after all, often characterised by a rather macho image and a 24/7 culture. Business must face up to its primary duty to introduce working arrangements that enable women and men to balance work and family responsibilities.

The Government, too, must play their part. We are introducing a light-touch regulatory framework through the Employment Bill, which supports our commitment to create highly productive, modern and successful workplaces through fairness and partnership at work. The Bill will deliver a balanced package of support for working parents, while reducing red tape for employers by simplifying the rules governing maternity leave and pay. It will also make it easier to settle disputes in the workplace.

In particular, the Bill will help working mothers by affording them an entitlement to six months paid maternity leave and a further six months unpaid maternity leave. It will also provide for a total increase of more than 60 per cent. in the rate of statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance from £62 to £100. More than 300,000 mothers each year will benefit from the increase in maternity pay to £100 per week and from the increase in the period of maternity pay to 26 weeks.

The Bill will also introduce for the first time new rights to adoption leave and pay and to paternity leave and pay. Paternity leave will be available to fathers following the birth of a child, or to one parent when a child is newly placed for adoption. A married couple who adopt will be able to choose which partner takes adoption leave. Adoption leave' will reflect maternity leave, with six months' paid leave and six months' unpaid leave. Paternity leave will be two weeks' paid leave.

The measures in the Bill will also facilitate flexible working. The Bill will give parents of children aged under six and those of disabled children aged under 18 the right to apply to work flexibly, and it will place a duty on employers to take requests seriously. That new right will take effect in April 2003.

We are also helping to develop and disseminate good business practice in work-life balance arrangements. Our work-life balance campaign has amply demonstrated the business case for introducing work-life balance arrangements. Improved productivity, greater staff retention and reduced absenteeism can all flow directly from effective work-life balance policies. BT, for example, instituted its "freedom to work" pilot project, which allowed employees to propose their own working patterns. The patterns piloted included occasional home-working, working full-time over four days, and working a combination of long and short days. Employees also tried banking time to qualify for longer periods of leave to meet their caring responsibilities. The company has reported improvements in productivity and greater retention of skills as a result of its initiative.

The work-life balance challenge fund provides funding to businesses to help them to understand and introduce successful arrangements such as part-time, term-time and other flexible working practices. In January, we announced moneys of up to £1 million in addition to the existing fourth round of the fund, specifically to support flexible working in the IT, telecommunications and electronics industries. I am

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pleased to say that we received a good number of interesting proposals and will make the final selection of successful projects shortly. We hope that the lessons learned by individual businesses will be adopted by the IT sector more generally in due course, and we will work with partners to disseminate information, key messages and good practice.

It is vital that we get our approach right and provide women with the opportunity and motivation to work. As many as 50,000 women in the UK with a degree relating to science, engineering or technology are currently not working. Of the women scientists and engineers who return to work each year, many will not take up a related occupation. That represents a massive waste of potential and talent and a serious blow to the nation's productivity and competitiveness. To help we have introduced a pilot mentoring scheme to support women scientists and engineers in the workplace, particularly those women who return to the workplace after a career break. The programme involves the direct participation of major companies, such as Ford and AstraZeneca.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): Does the Minister accept that many highly qualified female scientists and engineers might consciously choose to stay at home with their children? I hope that he does not regard that as a waste. They benefit the nation by raising their children.

Mr. Alexander : The Government's principal objective is to give people a realistic choice. We are determined to break down any barriers that inhibit women from returning to the workplace, so that they have a realistic choice and can exercise their judgment depending on their individual circumstances.

Like other sectors, IT suffers from a pay gap between men and women. That is not good for the economy or for the interests of employers or employees. Last year, the Government asked Denise Kingsmill of the Competition Commission to undertake an independent review of what actions business and others could take to close that gender pay gap. The Kingsmill report was published last December and makes an important contribution to tackling the pay gap challenge. It chimes with existing measures, including key elements of the Employment Bill and the work of the fair pay champions in supporting equal pay initiatives in their sectors. We have accepted and are taking forward the bulk of the Kingsmill recommendations, although we do not want to introduce any new regulations on the back of the report.

We also recognise that some women and men may require particular support if they are to capitalise on the opportunity that IT affords them; for example, the unemployed, disabled people, and ethnic minorities. Ambition: IT is the Government-business partnership aimed at unemployed people through the new deal programme. It encompasses a range of initiatives, including a national pilot that will train unemployed people as IT technicians. The training provision is just being set up, and we hope to see the first of Ambition: IT new dealers begin their courses later this year. We want as many unemployed women as possible to take part. Training will be made available in such a way as to enable participants to accommodate their child care and other family responsibilities.

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Courses provided through learndirect give adults easy access to ICT learning opportunities, including ICT skills, at home, in the workplace and at learndirect centres nationally. There are currently more than 1,300 centres nationwide, offering more than 500 different courses. Last year, more than 55 per cent. of learndirect learners were women. That is more than 136,000 women, of whom 113,000 were studying ICT courses.

The further and higher education sectors are also playing their part. Hon. Members will be aware of the Government's £100 million investment in developing vocational centres of excellence in further education colleges in England. The network of centres will comprise a strategic mix of high-quality local, regional, sectoral and national specialisms, including IT, to offer young people and adults the enhanced vocational learning that they need to succeed in the modern knowledge-driven economy. The DFES announced a further £40 million of new money for the network only this week.

Let me give an example. Lewisham college in south-east London is a beacon college which last year was also designated one of the first pathfinder centres of excellence in IT. The college's school of computing and IT caters for 4,000 learners every year: 40 per cent. are women, 60 per cent. come from ethnic minorities, and 60 per cent. are aged over 25. Lewisham has looked hard at its provision for women and has increased women's take-up of courses by providing courses during school hours and offering personal development sessions for learners, supported by an all-female development team and coupled with help in job-search techniques and work experience.

To increase the availability of high-quality ICT learning still further, the Government have now invested £25 million in encouraging regional consortiums of universities, colleges such as the one I mentioned, and businesses in England to establish new technology institutes. They will offer ICT courses, mostly at technician or intermediate level, but with progression routes to degree level and beyond. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has been considering applications for NTI status from various regional consortiums and I understand that the successful bids will be announced shortly. We expect there to be two new technology institutes in each English region by 2004–05.

I hope that it is clear that the Government are investing in a comprehensive package of measures to give women equality of opportunity in IT, as in other high-tech sectors of the economy. However, I do not want to leave the impression that Government can overcome such challenges alone; business, schools, colleges and universities have an equal responsibility to do all they can to engage women in IT. Time does not permit me to cover the many excellent regional and local initiatives supported by industry and education that are making a vital contribution—I am sure that hon. Members can cite examples from their constituencies; nor can I pretend that our work is near completion. Much has been done, but much remains to be done. However, our co-ordinated and joined-up approach represents a real chance of long-term success for women in IT.

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2.50 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): First, I have to admit that I was surprised by the title of the debate. When I was asked to contribute to it as my party's spokesman on women, I could not work out whether it was to be a celebration of women's equality in IT skills or a lament for the opposite. I now have the curious impression that it is to be a debate about a perfect world in which, if all the women were shackled to a computer, everything would be rosy in the garden. Speaking on behalf of my sex, I do not see things that way.

The title struck me instinctively as rather patronising—we would not, for instance, have a debate about women and telephones, so why have one about women and information technology? I have noticed that the researchers in my office, whether female or male, seem to have identical IT skills. Those skills are a function of the fact that IT was automatically part of their education, which took place 20 years after my own. Young men and women do not see any difference in their respective skills. I test marketed my theory that this was a rather spurious debate on my husband, who is a management consultant. He looked blank and said that information technology is, quite simply, gender neutral.

However, I dutifully did my research and most of it pointed to the fact to which the Minister has alluded, that fewer women than men choose to specialise in computer studies. It is important to recognise the distinction between those of us whose IT skills constitute managing—or not—that piece of equipment in the office that could transform our lives and those who want to study, work and advance the science and the industry.

Fewer women than men are employed in information technology, electronics and communications after graduation. The proportion of women employed in the industry has fallen from 16 per cent. a couple of years ago to 13 per cent., as the Minister said. We can only guess at the reasons. It could be choice. My party favours choice, which is why I underlined the fact that women who are highly qualified in IT might choose to have a career break so that they can raise children. They might feel at that point in their lives that raising children is as important—if not more so—than being at the cutting edge of the industry.

Perhaps the majority of women do not find IT very appealing. I do not know how many people of either sex would relish wrestling with such subjects as local loop unbundling, which is apparently on its last legs. None of my research suggested that women are worse than men at grasping IT skills; rather, it has traditionally been the fate of the sciences that women are not naturally attracted to them as a career. During my research, the expression "computer nerd" came to mind. I hesitate to say whether it conjured up a masculine or a feminine image—that is best left to hon. Members to surmise.

Women have traditionally been attracted to jobs that involve interacting with people rather than with machines. To many women, working at the cutting edge of IT and the computer industry can appear a cerebral and lonely activity, and not one that women who enjoy socialising, mixing, conversing and generally interacting with people might choose to pursue. I only speculate about reasons why women might choose an alternative career to IT.

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When the debate was announced, I heard from a company that has taught IT since 1964. That company states:


The company could not offer any particular reason for that. The people at that company sounded a little bemused when I told them the subject of the debate. They wondered what had caused it to be raised, but were none the less grateful for an opportunity to air the subject of IT training. It has been mooted that IT is not female friendly because of the tendency of IT managers to recruit in their own image, and there is evidence from the training industry to substantiate that. Whether the problem is related to role modelling gives us food for thought.

The report from the Select Committee on Education and Skills on the Government's individual learning account debacle was published earlier this week. In theory, the scheme could have encouraged and helped women back into a career structure late in life. That was one of the aims of the account when it was announced in the Labour manifesto in 1997. The account was cheap, simple and accessible, but as the report says, it was open to the most appalling abuse from unscrupulous providers. The scheme was not regulated, which means that even now, five months after the Government suspended its operation, there seems to be no clear picture of the extent of the fraud.

The report's judgment on the way in which the account was monitored is damning. It suggests that the Government failed to learn from the mistakes of the past. No check was put on the providers to give good value for money, and there was no incentive for the customer to complain. There are four whole pages of conclusions and recommendations in the report, which totally condemns the notion that the problems arose from the delivery of the account. Where have we heard that criticism before? I feel sure that all hon. Members can cite constituency cases that alerted them early on to the problems that would ensue.

The ILA scheme seemed custom built to introduce people to IT—indeed, many of the courses were geared to computer studies and were attractive to women who had missed out on IT training earlier in their lives. The potential of the ILA brought to my mind the testimony of a contributor to a document called "Choices", which I prepared in the last Parliament. I shall read the lady's contribution because it may shed light on the disparity in the uptake of IT skills and suggests that the scheme could have assisted people in her position if it had worked properly. I shall not give her name because she asked to remain anonymous, but she likes to be known as Elizabeth. She wrote:


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That is an illustration of another problem that has so far not been mentioned, which is that the differential between men and women in mastering information technology has less to do with gender than with age.

I do not want to sound ageist. Like Elizabeth, I had no information technology training at school, and I am sure that I am not the only Member of Parliament who sometimes has to rely on her children to set the video recorder and get the most rapid results from the computer at home. My 11-year-old daughter is a far better desktop publisher than I am. It is a plain fact of life that the younger generation who have grown up with the new technology can learn and retain the skills that they need more effectively than others can. To them, information technology is second nature. That is good, because those skills will become increasingly important at home and in the workplace.

It is essential that women are not left behind in learning IT skills, because those skills can be used in many different professions. However, it is not desirable that women should be encouraged to work in IT industries if that is not where their natural inclinations lie. They should have a genuine choice.

Mr. Alexander : I hesitate to disrupt the congenial atmosphere of the debate, but does the hon. Lady accept that there are any structural barriers to women exercising those fundamental choices? She suggested that the tenor of the debate was patronising, but passed over the statistics I quoted that show that even young women taking GCSE and A-levels show a disinclination to enter the profession? Does she accept that there are any structural inhibiters, or are we merely seeing the outcome of the exercise of a multiplicity of independent choices?

Mrs. Spelman : I am simply concerned that the Minister wants to explain away the differential in factual terms. He may be overemphasising the structural barriers. In matters of choice, it is right to stand back and say that in some respects women are better adapted to some professions than to others. There are many examples of women predominating in other professions—nursing, for example. There are male nurses but generally women find themselves in the caring roles; such roles come naturally to them, and they enjoy doing that kind of job. We should not fight like crazy to strive for a 50:50 balance between male and female nurses.

Mr. Alexander : The hon. Lady said that the topic of the debate came close to being patronising. Is not the suggestion that women have an inclination towards caring professions and a disinclination towards working with machines news to the many outstanding female scientists in this country? Does she accept that although a multiplicity of choices is being exercised by women as to the jobs they take, the endurance of the pay gap

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between men and women alerts us to the existence of structural inhibiters in terms not only of pay but the choice of profession?

Mrs. Spelman : I do not know whether the Minister is married, but I suggest that he goes home and talks to the female members of his family about their preferences. He will find, on the whole, that the women in his extended family have chosen or have been expected to perform the caring role. The fact that society does not sufficiently appreciate the value of women's caring role in society is a separate matter for debate.

Mr. Alexander rose—

Mrs. Spelman : I will not give way again on that point, but I will take up a matter that the Minister mentioned in the first of his two interventions—the equipping of women.

The theory underlying the debate is that providing women with additional IT training will definitely lead to better job prospects. We must be careful with that theory. There is no question that some of the access courses provided for younger women, especially those who have missed out earlier in their education, can play a beneficial role in getting them on to the first rung of employment. In my constituency, which contains four of the most deprived wards in the country, programmes run alongside crèche facilities, to enable young women who do not have any qualifications to take the first step in mastering the use of a personal computer. However, that is a long way from the reality of a well-paid job at the cutting edge of IT. I spoke to those women, and it is clear that they recognise that the first step towards understanding IT—something as simple as word processing—is the one that might get them a relatively simple clerical job. It is the means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): The hon. Lady is in danger of being complacent. Earlier, she stated that women are naturally drawn to the caring professions. Are not women encouraged to enter such professions because they are relatively low paid, and discouraged from entering ICT jobs because they are well paid?

Mrs. Spelman : I do not see it that way. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should consult his male friends. Men do not usually volunteer to undertake caring roles within the family; on the whole, it is the woman in the relationship who takes the children to the doctor's surgery or the playground and picks them up from school. Such tasks have tended to fall to the female in the partnership, and that is not a choice related to pay. Women consciously prioritise looking after those for whom they feel responsible within their families.

I am far from complacent today. A serious problem is looming. I can see where the Minister's is coming from, and there is no doubt that the IT revolution has opened up jobs for women. Call centres that have been the salvation of some domestic incomes—in the north-east, for example. However, I am deeply concerned about the consequences of that.

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During a recent visit to India with Oxfam, I witnessed the incredibly rapid increase in the outsourcing of call centres. All British Airways complaints are now dealt with in Bombay. In the back office of HSBC bank, I saw for myself how all banking inquiries are dealt with in Delhi, although they appear to be answered and settled in the United Kingdom. At the height of sophistication, it is possible for one end of the office to be handling calls from New Orleans, with the Indian operator speaking in a true New Orleans drawl and knowing the day's weather conditions in that town. The customer would have no idea that the call had been taken in the heart of central Asia.

The serious underlying problem is that those call centres are manned by Indian graduates who earn between £2,000 and £3,000 per year. Graduates in the United Kingdom would have enormous difficulty competing with those rates of pay. I fear that it is inevitable that more and more of our computer-based service operations will be relocated to countries such as India. At a conservative estimate, 20,000 such British jobs have been outsourced to India in the past year.

Mr. Alexander : I appreciate the hon. Lady's generosity in giving way for the third time. She raises an important point about the call centre industry—a focus of continuing interest and application for me. I recently met representatives of the Call Centre Association to discuss the issue. Does she accept that her position is not wholly logical? There is great merit in having this debate, because if there is a risk of low-value call centre jobs moving offshore because of competition based exclusively on cost per employee, the only sustainable future for the UK's call centre industry is to continue the evolution that is already under way and move up the value chain. People must have great familiarity with ICT if they are to work in the contact centres of the future.

Mrs. Spelman : I believe that there is consensus between the Minister and myself on that point. However, the Government should take a long, hard look at the realities of the marketplace. We must not fall into the trap of training people—women, in this context—for jobs that will ultimately disappear. There is no disputing the logic of that. The only way to recover from the marketplace revenue sufficient to meet the cost of living in this country is by constantly upskilling. The underskilling of many parts of our work force will condemn many families to a significant loss of income unless an important shift is made.

In my view, learning should start at school, right at the grass roots. There is no better place to learn information technology skills. They are a great deal more difficult to grasp and retain the older one gets, as I well know. I question whether women and IT is a clearly definable subject or a rather spurious combination that overlays more deep-seated problems of underskilling, underachievement and underperformance in school. I suspect that if debates like today's are still taking place in the House of Commons in 20 years' time—we will probably have a virtual House of Commons by then—the title is more likely to be "Women and Pencil Skills—a Lost Art?"

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): Order. Before I call the next contributor to this important

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debate, I must say that not only shall I chair the debate for the rest of the day but I shall listen carefully to what is said, because I am an honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Midwives. So, too, is the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), and we both attended the college's conference this week. I will take great interest what right hon. and hon. Members say.

3.11 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). I agree with much of what she said, but not with her introduction and conclusion, because I do not believe that the debate is spurious. I think that it is important because, as the Minister said, the issue of women and information technology presents challenges for the Government. I am here to challenge the Minister. My speech is half a page long; that tells hon. Members what I know about information technology. My hon. Friend the Minister has to convince women like me to get involved in IT.

I notice that there are few women here. I know that today is a very important day, but this is an important subject, and we need to attract women to debates such as this. More years ago than I care to remember, when I graduated in history after having specialised in ancient and mediaeval history, I thought that the quill pen was far too advanced an innovation. Using computers and all the other equipment to which we now have access is therefore not one but two, three or even four steps too far for me. There are many women like me.

The debate is important because I complacently assumed that things were getting better and that younger women and girls in schools were learning more about information technology. I am sure that there were computers when I was a girl, but one of them would probably have filled the whole Chamber while being able to do as much as a modern PlayStation. I never had access to computers. I thought that girls would now know how to plug them in, switch them on, and do all the other things that we are supposed to do with them—and I am sure that the Minister will tell me what those things are.

When my daughters were at school, they learned how to use computers and they feel at ease with them, so I was surprised to hear the Minister's statistics. I, too, have some statistics that show that all is not rosy in the garden. We need to be aware of that and not assume that young girls and younger women have more opportunities than I had. We must encourage them, for the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend the Minister.

In 2000, only 13 per cent. of workers in information technology in this country were women—down from 16 per cent. in 1999, and a lower proportion than in Canada, the USA and Ireland. Women's participation in IT education and employment is now declining in many areas. We must not be complacent; we need to ask why that is happening and see what we can do about it. As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, women are missing out on job opportunities, so I welcome the fact that the Government are tackling the issue cross-departmentally.

Many under-16 girls still in education continue to have a negative attitude toward computers. That attitude is not apparent in primary schools, nearly all of

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which now seem to have a room devoted to computers, and boys and girls use them equally. However, in IT and computer studies in secondary school, just as they do in many science subjects, girls feel that they cannot participate equally with boys. We need to make sure that girls in secondary schools are encouraged to participate.

We must involve IT training and education in the learning and career choices that young women make post-16. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will discuss that with colleagues involved in the new Connexions service, especially as that service will offer a much more intensive package of support and advice to young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds, who need extra support. I hope that no assumption will be made that young people cannot access jobs and training in IT; they should be encouraged to do that.

Like the hon. Member for Meriden said, with each passing birthday I feel more sympathy for women returners. Many have never had access to computers or learned the skills that today's children take for granted, but I agree that they have developed other skills. Many older women acquire interpersonal skills through looking after their families and juggling family life and work. They develop organisation skills and transportation skills—finding out how to ferry half a dozen children from A to B while simultaneously cooking a meal. Those are valuable skills but, unfortunately, not many employers accept that: they want to see a certificate—some proof that an examination has been passed.

Women need to be encouraged to explore the many learning opportunities that are available to them. Blackpool and the Fylde college—my local college of further education—now has many courses that enable women to learn basic and more advanced computer skills. The college does not set up courses specifically for women, but more and more women are attending the courses.

Older women and returners to the employment market need to know how to operate a computer, but they also need to learn skills to read a computer screen. That might sound absurd to a person who regularly uses a computer, but sometimes people read information from a computer screen and say to me, "Look—you can see X," but I cannot see it. I am used to reading books and papers. Reading information from a computer screen is an acquired skill, especially from screens that have blocks of information in different parts. The skills required are much broader than simply knowing how to plug in, switch on and log on—if that is a correct term—to the computer to access information. People should be taught not to be frightened of computers and to understand that modern information technology can be useful.

My secretary complains about the number of e-mails that she receives on my behalf, but she also tells me that e-mails are very useful. My husband told me recently that he corresponded with a university in America. Once, he would have had to check time differences to see whether the person to whom he wished to speak would be awake when he telephoned. Now, my husband can send e-mails whenever he likes and the man in America can read them when he is in his office.

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Modern technology has many uses and women should be made aware that it can make their jobs easier—it should not be a threat. However, training is vital if women are to get through the front door. Recently, BBC Radio Lancashire organised a community bus that is a bit like a mobile internet café. Radio reporters take the bus to small communities and towns in Lancashire and discuss various local issues with people. People are given the opportunity to climb on the bus and see a computer. They are told, "This isn't scary. Come in. We're your Radio Lancashire presenters. You know us and we're not going to frighten you. You can switch this on and we'll show you how you can access information."

There are many initiatives, and, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, they are not only for the Government to organise. Other organisations can encourage more people, especially women, to get involved in IT. That is why I welcome the initiatives that he outlined to use women who work in the IT field as role models and mentors. If girls in schools see women who work in the information technology field, they might think, "Yes, I can do that as well." There are more computers clubs for girls and we should encourage girls to use them. The women in IT champions will perform a useful role. The Minister gave us several statistics on the number of women and girls who pass GCSEs and who go on to university. We must monitor that and ensure that more girls are encouraged to enter for such examinations.

I agree with the hon. Member for Meriden that the debate should not focus solely on IT jobs for computer experts. Young girls know that they will need computer skills in almost any job. In the dim and distant past when I was a civil servant, everything was done on paper. We used paper files and filled in paper forms. These days, in any civil service outlet, such as the local jobcentre, more work is done with computers. Women who have language and basic communication skills now need IT skills as well to do clerical jobs in the civil service.

I am a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, so I have looked into the development of the new Jobcentre Plus. Lots of modern technology is going into that: more electronic claim forms are being developed, so that the clerk listens to the claimant over the telephone and inputs information to the computer screen. I never did that, but young women who seek that kind of career—and older women who are returners—will be required to do that sort of work, so they need training. The circle is complete.

There are increasing opportunities for women in the labour market, but many of those opportunities require them to have IT skills. They will need those skills for almost any job that they do. That is even true of shop work—take a look at modern shop tills; they are very complicated. There are also jobs for women in IT itself, and I hope to see more and more of them undertaking that sort of work.

If my hon. Friend the Minister can find a very basic course for me, I might step through the door and try it, but he will have to overcome quite a lot of reluctance on my part. In this context, my message is do as I say, not necessarily as I do. Nevertheless, there are lots of women out there in the country who want to do what he is

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saying they should do. They want to go through the door and learn how to get involved in information technology and computers. They want to do that not only for their own personal development, but because there are jobs out there for them to do, and they should be able to do them. I wish them good luck—and I wish my hon. Friend good luck, too.

3.26 pm

Sue Doughty : I stand here as a woman who used to work in IT. I have about 15 years' experience in project management, on both highly technical and very untechnical projects. I am pleased, therefore, that this debate is being held; it is taking place not a moment too soon.

When we talk about the problems facing women in IT, we should take a look at the Government's report on women in ITEC, because it has stacks of statistics that tell their own story. I fully agree with some of the things that the Minister said about the need for action.

I have employed women and men; I have been employed directly; and I have been a contract worker, so I have had lots of experience of dealing with some of these problems, and it is clear to me that, sometimes, being a woman in IT is like being a woman who goes in for politics—women in the Chamber may acknowledge some resonance in that. IT is not a naturally welcoming environment to women. It is not the sort of environment where women feel that they belong straight away. Sadly, I was reminded of that today, as I watched the Minister for Women, at Question Time. A Conservative Back-Bench Member put a sensible question, but she made a slight slip of the tongue: one might have expected the male MPs on the Labour Benches to do a bit of barracking, but it was the male MPs on her own Front Bench who did the barracking, when she was trying to make her message clear.

Sometimes, it is like that for women in IT as well. It is not an easy environment, and things need to be done about that. Women go into IT at their own peril, but taking up that career—or nursing, or anything else—should be a matter of equal choice. That should be the case, as regards the opportunity not only to enter a career, but to rise to the top in it, and to have parity in pay at every stage, because the Government's statistics show that women get fewer of the good jobs and that they have unequal jobs and lower pay at every stage. That is a big problem and I am glad that it is being recognised and highlighted.

Why does it matter so much? It is a real problem. The statistics show that there are 20,000 unfilled IT jobs in the United Kingdom; yet we have an untapped work force that should be pushed into such work, because women are jolly good at it when they do it. They have many skills to bring, some of which men do not bring. I do not want to introduce a gender argument, but women have special qualities, especially in working with other people. Those of us who have switched on a computer and tried to make it work have often wondered, "Who wrote this system? I bet it wasn't a woman, because she would never have done it like that." Some of our intuitive skills work jolly well in the discipline of IT, producing excellent systems that enable people who work under pressure in call centres, for example, to enter information quickly.

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Another set of statistics shows that the number of IT jobs has grown by 50 per cent. over the past five years, creating 336,000 jobs, whereas there was only an 8 per cent. growth in the general work force. Twenty-two per cent. of staff are women, but in 1994, the figure was 29 per cent. That decline is continuing, yet everything suggests that it should not; women are receiving a better education, and more women are obtaining degrees in the field, but it is happening nevertheless. We talk about positive discrimination for women in politics, but we have the same problem in IT. I do not like positive discrimination. I like to think that everyone should get there and that equality will just happen. However, the reality is that it does not.

We must also recognise that as a country we do ourselves no favours. We do not have enough skilled staff and are increasingly reliant on people from overseas. I have worked in organisations that brought in teams of programmers from overseas who subsequently returned to their own country to support the programme once it was developed. That practice is not foolproof. When someone works on the opposite side of the world in a different time zone, the costs involved are different from those in this country. People with support in their own office in this country can pick up the phone to report a problem that, due to the level of service, is solved within a certain number of hours. The call centre may not be able to deal with the problem. Money is also lost when the matter must be dealt with on a night shift or is not tackled until people come in the following day. The circumstances are not always as simple as they might be, although I recognise that with globalisation such situations will occur more often.

Many employers would employ more people in this country if they had the skills. Women are flexible workers and want to do well; they like to do their best. Not everyone wants to work full-time, and not every IT job needs to be done full-time. One of the last big implementations that I undertook involved large teams of trainers and support staff, some of whom worked every day, and some of whom did not. There were more women in training, and guess what? Women in IT training receive less than women with the same skills providing support, but they are generally the same people.

IT is a good career for women, and there is no reason why women should not succeed if they have the right skills and are capable when they acquire the skills. They have to be a bit pushy, but the men are pushy, too. We have to get through the barrier of young men employing other young men when they do not need to. We want a mixture of people, which will result in better and more realistic systems being developed, because computer users are not all men; nor are they all young or all old. Greater mixing of teams results in better systems.

Curiously, women do not often enter IT through the graduate route. I worked in one field, curiously enough, coming in to assist, when project management skills were not strong in IT. I used skills that I had acquired in other work, and in other aspects of the project—for example, drawing up the time sheets.

That was a long time ago, but we are gradually picking up skills. Other women become involved because they are the most articulate in the user community. They complain, "Look, you've designed this for me. I don't understand a word of it, and it'll

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never work because you've ignored all the following points." Women are good at such communication. The best thing that an IT manager can do in that situation is to say, "If you can articulate what's needed in the system as well as that, you're doing the wrong job. Come and join us." Many women do, but we forget that that is only the first move.

We leave women in support or low-level jobs, instead of asking what they could do next. That is a problem, and sometimes it is a question of overcoming women's lack of confidence. They need to know that computing is not a black art and that, with training, they will progress. There is nothing to say that men have different brains and can learn computing but that women cannot. However, women sometimes need counselling, care and encouragement so that they can make progress.

What happens in the early years is an issue. We need only consider IT games and how kids play on computers to realise that. Who gets to go on the computer and what are the games about? They are generally about shooting and beating people up, and girls tend not to play them. I was interested to hear about the work for girls projects and I would like to know how they work, because not all girls lean towards computing in the sort of environment that I have described. As a result, they tend to back off, and the home computer gradually becomes dad's or the boys' domain.

The women whom I know in IT talk about a new phenomenon called "Dad's server room". In the old days, dad had model trains trundling round the attic, but now dad has spent £3,000—money that was not necessarily available to mum—on a computer that is set up as a client server. His friends come over to play an interesting game of "Doom" on it and they send messages all over the place, and again women are excluded. We cannot interfere in the family set-up, but we must recognise that compensating activities are needed to counteract some of the inequality that exists in the home.

Mr. Alexander : I am greatly sympathetic to the hon. Lady's remarks. She has highlighted an issue on which I might have spent more time in my contribution: the importance of content, rather than infrastructure. Does the hon. Lady agree that the problem may be not that women have a predilection to work in the caring professions rather than with machinery, but that the software available in the household may not be as attractive to young women as it is to young men?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Before the hon. Lady responds to the Minister's intervention, may I suggest that she moves closer to her microphone? Those who are seeking to take down what is being said are finding it slightly difficult to hear everything that she is saying. I should be grateful for the hon. Lady's help.

Sue Doughty : Thank you for that advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I agree with the Minister that content is important, because for many women it is not the gadget that is important, but what they can do with it to enrich their lives.

There are other problems: one of which is how easy or difficult it is for women to stay in computing. It must be recognised that IT has particular problems because the

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skills move on constantly. It is not even the case that what someone knew last year will be good enough for this year or next year. Almost every six months—three months in some sectors—there is something new to learn, because most people in IT are problem solvers, and every day brings another problem, another system or another piece of hardware. Being away from the subject for any length of time is a major drawback.

Conversely, employers spend large amounts of money training people who then leave. In certain areas, that is a real problem. I shall cite an example, although I am slightly cautious about it, as it concerns a site that my husband set up when he was employed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to run its IT site at Guildford. I declare that as an interest, although it happened a long time before I knew him.

That IT department had a big problem with losing programmers, so the women who were leaving were asked, "Why are you going and what would it take to keep you?" People in the department had suddenly realised that if they could retain the women, they would not need to keep training new employees and investing in that training. The department wanted to know if it could do more to retain people. In the end, it set up a nursery and an after-school club, because as any woman trying to juggle children, family and career knows, it is not only care for the under-fives that is needed—the school holidays are a real problem. Unusually, the department managed to set up the facilities on-site so that mum or dad came to work and baby or holidaying schoolchild could go there and play with their friends. It was particularly good for the little ones because mum could pop along if there was a problem.

The unit worked well. Before it was set up, the average stay in the job was less than three years and turnover was 25 per cent. a year. The Guildford site was the worst of all the Government sites, but it had spare land and buildings, as Departments often do, unlike most organisations, which tend to buy and sell property as part of their normal activity. The unit was successful from day one in retaining women in the job.

Some women whose children have now grown up are still in the IT department doing excellent work for DEFRA. As the civil service pays lower rates for the same IT skills than commercial organisations, the unit was a vital factor in persuading key staff to stay on. It is worrying that DEFRA is considering outsourcing the whole of that department. Women who were able to pursue a good career knowing that their children were being well cared for are now getting extremely worried.

We have talked a little about training and some of the comments that have been made are very true. Curiously, when we were designing a training course to be used by lots of women, mousing and similar skills were important. The more we can get people designing systems and understanding the barriers between people and computers, rather than merely giving training at ridiculously low prices, the better will be the systems and the training.

The other issue is flexibility for women. I have a big criticism of the Government as regards the cost of keeping up IT skills and the situation with the

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independent sector, contractors and IR35. Women used to be able to work part-time and choose which projects to take up. I did that for some years. It was possible to work on a project, stop when one chose and then start again later. People often need to do that.

Under the current system people in IT are not taxed in the same way as in other businesses. They are independent. People who stay in a project for more than a year and work on-site are not paid to train. They are not paid to develop their skills, which can be expensive; they might have to attend an international training course. The employer does not pay for the computer that employees may have bought to get their skills up to speed on the next bit of hardware because they must always be right at the leading edge if they are to give added value in the project. They are taxed disproportionately compared with someone who describes himself as a business, brings in five people and sets that against his costs. That is a long-standing Government injustice against the IT contracting industry, and it should have been addressed.

We have to get away from the 24/7 culture. There is a temptation for businesses to exploit IT people, and women feel the pinch more than men when businesses try to bring in a project sooner than is reasonable. Instead of employing more people, companies hope that people will work longer hours. In those circumstances, women leave. They say, "That is the last project that I will do. Yes, we had a lovely dinner at the end and there was a bottle of champagne on my desk, but the next project that comes along will be 10 hours a day, day after day, and my husband will be pretty angry that I do not have time for the family." That is a pressure.

I welcome the Minister's comments about maternity and other leave, and the different models and their scope, but we have to remember the skill shift in IT. One of the problems that I experienced as an employer of women who were returning to work was that their previous job was almost certainly no longer in existence due to the reshaping and regrouping of IT projects in response to business needs. We need to recognise the additional work that is needed to bring someone back from maternity leave. Her job may have moved elsewhere and she will need something good to go to. She will also need a catch-up period to get her skills back, because her colleagues may have moved on to another programme or platform.

I agree that there are problems with individual learning accounts and we must get them sorted out quickly. It is an inexpensive source of training, especially for women who are wondering whether to return to work. It has been useful, but statistics show that women have not taken up ILA courses as much as men. However, if they are not available at all, no women will be able to take them up. It is a matter of urgency. I appreciate that the Government must not introduce something that has the same problems as before, but every delay is a delay in someone getting the training that they need for the job that they want.

We welcome the efforts to overcome stereotyping and would welcome more women in the IT industry. There is a challenge in the fact that many IT jobs are a bit anoraky, so women choose not to go for them. However, women must have the right to choose whether they want to be an anorak. Indeed, it might be good for some of the IT anorak clusters to have a few women

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working in them to help them to deliver better systems. We must give women that choice, but we must also ensure that employers recognise that they will never have world-class systems if they overlook such a valuable resource as women.

3.46 pm

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): I am delighted to take part in the debate. I should make two declarations. First, my initials are IT, and when I saw on the Order Paper that the title of the debate was "Women and IT", I wondered whether it was a forerunner of some headline in next weekend's News of the World. I declare that I have no knowledge of any connection between this debate and any salacious stories. Secondly, and more seriously, I have interests in the technology sector, which are fully recorded in the Register of Members' Interests. However, I believe that none of them has an influence on today's debate.

I have considerable sympathy for the Minister, not least because he has part of the portfolio that I had as a Minister for Science and Technology. I must be careful not to say that that was in the last Conservative Administration, because it was once reported in a newspaper that I was predicting that we had had the last Conservative Administration. I am sure that there will be many more to come, but in the previous Conservative Administration I had part of the Minister's portfolio and dealt with the same issues.

These will be brief remarks, and I must apologise because I had to put back a meeting to take part in this debate and must leave early to attend it.

We can examine the subject on different levels, a couple of which have been mentioned. One is whether women could enter the job market by having skills that young people who are currently being educated regard as natural. As the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) said, children in primary schools are having a wonderful time learning about IT. They do not regard computers as a threat or even breakable; they just work on them until they find what they want. That is important.

I launched an information technology for all campaign, which the Government have carried on in various forms. It was designed to demystify IT for all the population—not only women—and destroy the perception that computers are used only by other people. Access to the job market for women is a key matter that this debate could consider, and progress is being made on that.

I am concerned more by the problem that is felt throughout the UK of a lack of skills in research and development. That includes technology and, therefore, IT. There is also an under-representation of women in the adding of value in our economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) rightly said, low-skill employment—whether it is men or women in call centres is immaterial to my point—will ultimately be outsourced to countries such as India. As a Minister, I visited Bangalore in India to see what was going on, and I am sure that the Minister has done the same.

My concern is that women are under-represented among technology drivers. This country still has an opportunity to take the lead in that area. Businesses need such skills, and we must develop them in our

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universities. However, women are generally under-represented among graduates in information technology, electronics and communications subjects, despite the fact that they form the majority and a growing proportion of university graduates. That is worrying, not only because women are under-represented—I do not want to patronise—but because it means that there is no proper throughput of skills due to the under-representation of a growing proportion of the population. Women move away from information technology, electronics and communications skills as they structure their education towards a career. In the UK, that starts before entry into higher education. Although similar proportions of males and females study ITEC-related subjects at school, a smaller proportion of women qualify at GCE A-level.

The problem is serious, but there are various ways to help. The Government have sponsored certain schemes—for example, the UK Online action plan contains various suggestions for continuing training for women who have opted out of opportunities to use their added-value skills in industry. There is a role for industry—the pay differential was mentioned—but industry must do more for lifelong learning. That is where the debate becomes almost circuitous, as new technologies facilitate lifelong learning. Computers enable women who must leave industry for pregnancy and the early stages of raising a child to keep in touch with what is going on, as they can access the network of the company that they left. Some companies are introducing family-friendly policies that enable them to do that.

Many organisations, such as the British Computer Society's women's specialist groups, are aware of the problem. The HighTech Women website provides a network for women, even if they have opted out for years. When I was Minister for Public Services and Science, I considered with the Royal Society how scientists could continue their postgraduate and postdoctoral work if they became pregnant. Many grants were structured around a continuity of research, which did not allow for the fact that the pregnancy might not coincide with the development of the research project. I am glad that Dame Julia Higgins has become foreign secretary of the Royal Society. She did much to try to restructure universities' thinking about how they could retain women by enabling them to continue their research and have children. That was important.

We should concentrate on initiatives to keep women in industry, research and the professions. Such initiatives are to be welcomed, not in a patronising "we must do something nice for women" sense, but because the UK will suffer if a disproportionate number of women in our communities are not making that contribution. We have flexible working, distributed learning networks and policies for extending broadband to the home. I used to have responsibility for broadband issues, with which we are wrestling. ADSL technology provides homes with a terrific opportunity to participate in learning programmes and still be part of business while raising a child. There is a new mentality and approach.

I agree with the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) that the Government must try to ensure that its taxation and regulatory policies do not prevent people from taking advantage of that working

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flexibility. IR35 is a case in point. The Budget may have introduced a trend towards incorporation for taxation purposes.

Mr. Alexander : I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's argument in a speech with which I have great sympathy. His contribution seems to contradict that of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), as he recognises that as well as a multiplicity of private choices that will affect the productivity of the British economy, there is also a role for society in the public choices that we make, such as the roll- out of broadband technology, access to the workplace and levels of investment, skills and technology. The issue is a profoundly serious one and not amenable to an accusation of being patronising.

Mr. Taylor : My hon. Friend, who is one of the wisest contributors to the debate in our party, was making the point that there is a danger of it being patronising if it does not address the serious problems. I have tried to keep away from remarks about whether women can use a computer, which is a patronising approach. Some men and women do not know how to use computers, no matter whether games are more man-oriented. We could all recount sexist stories about whether women understand computers. My wife seems to have found much more interesting holidays since she learned how to go online—the tourist industry may have benefited from that, but I am not sure that the nation as a whole has.

I am concerned with how we retain women's interest in career continuity so that our economy does not suffer. We can do that by ensuring that technology is ubiquitous, and that the broadband revolution rolls out, so that people can work from home or at the company. There are many reasons why that is desirable, but one is because of the inevitability that a woman's place will for a time, if she is married and has children, be in the home. Women should not be cut off from productive work during that period. By using IT skills, they can contribute the added value of improving a product, presenting a company's activities or undertaking basic research. The motion is timely, and I am happy to have contributed to it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Before I call the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), I should like to thank him for his co-operation.

3.56 pm

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The debate on women and IT is about women's involvement in technology in general, and in engineering, maths and science. For many years it has been difficult to get an adequate proportion of women involved in those areas at a professional level. Much of the problem is to do with gender stereotyping.

I shall begin by recounting a little of my family history, as an illustration of that problem. My mother went to grammar school and became a shorthand typist, and my father went to a secondary modern and, after an apprenticeship, became a fitter, assistant foreman and eventually a training officer at ICI, training apprentices

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and graduates on graduate training courses. His ambition for me was that I should be an engineer, so I did maths, physics and chemistry and A-level. However, I disappointed him greatly by opting to do economics rather than engineering at university. Ten years later, my sister became an engineer and now works in the engineering industry. That little tale shows the extent to which family expectations of boys and girls can affect their occupations. My father did not expect my sister to be an engineer.

In many ways, the problem of insufficient numbers of women in information technology reflects the lack of women in engineering and similar occupations in the 1960s when I was at school. When I did maths, physics and chemistry at O-level, there was a balance of boys and girls studying those subjects, but at A-level about 90 per cent. of the students were boys. At university, all the engineering courses were heavily dominated by men. When my sister chose to study engineering, there was an article in our local newspaper about how remarkable it was that a woman wanted to be an engineer. She was the only woman studying engineering in her year. Such stereotyping and assumptions that some occupations are only for males make it more difficult for women to enter them.

The statistics on education from pre-16 to graduate level clearly show that the problems in engineering, science and technology also exist in IT. For every three girls who do a GCSE in computer science, there are four boys, so the gap is not great at 16. However, by the time they reach their A-levels, there are slightly more than three boys to every girl, and by graduate level there are four boys to every girl. In the space of five or six years, the position changes from one in which there is not much of an imbalance between boys and girls to one in which 80 per cent. of computer graduates are male.

It would be easy to go along with the view that girls are not predisposed to computer sciences and IT, but the reality is very different. I am not particularly computer literate or very good with computers, but I had experience of them at the organisation I worked for before I came to the House. We installed a computer system to provide word processing and a database, which was quite an expensive and sophisticated operation. Most of my staff were female. All the women with clerical duties, such as typing letters and administering the database system, ended up using the new computer software, and they had little problem doing so. It was the professional staff, such as myself, who had problems mastering computer skills. Ours was a typical administrative office, and we were used to staff running around and typing letters for us. Suddenly, we had to acquire keyboard skills, which we had never had to do.

That taught me a valuable lesson: women have the skills to operate IT, so it is not women-unfriendly. The real barrier is between professional and non-professional jobs in IT. As other hon. Members have said, the majority of staff in numerous call centres, banks, shops and other organisations are female, and those women quite happily and competently operate word processing and database systems. The majority of the people in this country who use IT day to day are women. What barrier prevents them from becoming professional computer operators, instead of using

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software that has been devised, written and prepared by someone else to use in the job that they already do? That is the key question.

I recently attended an engineering conference and listened to a presentation by a woman from the Association for Women in Science and Engineering, which was set up in 1984. At that time, 7 per cent. of engineering graduates were women, but that figure has now risen to 15 per cent. She went through a series of measures that could make the workplace more woman-friendly. One issue was networking. In professional organisations with very few women, the men tend to network among themselves, and the women need their own network to prosper within the organisation. There is also the issue of family-friendly policies.

We also need women who have been successful in IT to act as role models. From Bill Gates downwards, most of the role models in IT are men. The image we have is either of Bill Gates and his millions, or of an adolescent male, who is stuck in his bedroom, playing war games and designing computer software, and who suddenly gets a brilliant job at the age of 18 or 19 by producing a programme that is worth £500,000. If the problem is tackled properly, women will have a better chance of breaking into IT at a professional level than they do of entering a career in engineering, science or maths.

My constituency is heavily dominated by engineering. My father would regard himself as a craft engineer. The traditional image of an engineering company is oily rags, big machines and men with craft skills turning operations or working machines. Traditionally, few women have gone into that occupation, but the balance is shifting. There are fewer jobs at the craft end and more jobs in professional engineering, which require computer skills. There are no longer rooms full of draughtsmen designing things, because designing and testing is now done largely on computer systems, using sophisticated computer software, which allows someone to design an aeroplane, see if it flies, and then alter it a bit.

The whole image of the engineering industry is changing, but young people still grow up with the idea that engineering is all about oily rags and big machines. If under-16s are asked whether they think that IT is a male or female industry, it is clear that the image of IT is very different. In any school, girls are just as likely as boys to be using IT to access information for their projects, make fancy leaflets or play games. The traditional route from GCSEs to graduate level is through precisely the A-level subjects that have been the route into engineering, science and technology—maths, physics and other subjects that have traditionally been male dominated, and which it has been difficult to persuade large numbers of women to study. The challenge is to break the logjam, so that a similar number of girls who study computers, maths or physics at GCSE go on to study the same subjects at A-level and pursue a route into information technology.

Another crucial issue, which was mentioned briefly by the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), is the barriers that exist in many industries between professional and non-professional staff. The idea that unless someone has a degree in a subject they cannot become a professional is crucial in respect of engineering and IT. In many organisations, large numbers of women operate sophisticated computer systems, but they are

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not encouraged to gain the qualifications or experience necessary to move from being a non-professional IT operative to a computer programmer or to take more of a leadership role in the organisation. That is holding women back.

It is possible to change the image of an occupation so that women feel that they can compete successfully in it. When I was a teenager in the 1960s, two occupations were perceived as male, one of which was journalism in its broadest sense. The image of a journalist tended to be of a guy with an old raincoat, who drank a bit, smoked a lot and spent time getting information in pubs, and would then be stuck in some garret in central Manchester typing up stories. Since then, journalism and media studies have become occupations that women see as much for them as for men. That has changed during the past 30 years.

The other occupations that come to mind are those in the legal world. In the mid-1960s, the image of a lawyer was of a man. One rarely came across women solicitors or barristers, but probably as many women now go into law as men.

Mrs. Spelman : Not at the top level.

Mr. Borrow : The legal world has changed because there is no reason for barriers. The image of what an occupation is important.

I am convinced that the problems of women working in IT at a professional level should be tackled seriously. Some ideas mentioned by the Minister are useful and helpful. He talked about £1 million towards a work-life balance challenge fund to make it easier for people to work in IT by altering IT policies that were not family-friendly. A little more security on long-term funding of such schemes would be of assistance, so the Government could help.

Image matters, so it would be useful for a few light television comedies or soaps to involve women who work in IT, because the television image of IT is male dominated. I drop that in because of "That's Life", which was on a few years ago and pops up in repeats occasionally. It portrayed several 20-something professional lawyers, women and men. [Interruption.] It was called "This Life". It may have had many non-legal scenes, but it reinforced the fact that the legal profession is as open to women as it is to men.

Occupations shown by the media have much to do with how young people see their future careers. If we do not see women who work in IT in the media, that will make it more difficult for 16 or 17-year-old women to view the IT profession as one that they should go into, and we will continue to lose the chunk of women who take computer studies at 16 but do not pursue it through the age of 18 and on to graduation at 21 and 22.

4.14 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): What a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow). I thoroughly enjoyed his interesting and well-informed speech. I take a slightly different tack, although I agree with much of what he said.

The Minister referred to the report "Women in ITEC Courses and Careers", which was published in November 2001. Several hon. Members have drawn

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attention to the fact that, in 1998–99, only 21 per cent. of computer science graduates were women, but I think that we might attach rather too much significance to that statistic.

For 10 years before becoming a Member, I worked in the IT sector, particularly in the financial services sector. To a large extent, that was the cutting edge, mainly because that was where the investment and the large profits were made developing treasury and risk management systems for financial products. I cannot think of any contemporary of mine, either in my own bank or in the many other City banks, who had a degree in computer sciences. By and large, they were arts graduates, although I accept that a significant proportion of them were mathematics graduates. In that respect, the comments of the hon. Member for South Ribble had great force, but the industry was largely populated by those who acquired their computer skills subsequent to their degrees—as people do in many other disciplines.

I have some sympathy for what the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) said—indeed, the point was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)—which is that computer science has a terrifying jargon. However, it is precisely that—a jargon, whose only function is to act as a deterrent to new entrants so that those already working in the industry can maintain their price. It happens in all professions; barriers are erected to exclude new entrants in order to protect the interests of those already in them. Once people crack the jargon, and realise that that is all that it is, IT is like most other professions: most people can do it.

I accept that in some professions we want someone who has had prolonged training. For instance, I would not want people operating on me unless I knew that they were competent and had a great expertise and experience in their discipline. However, for the greater part of modern professional experience, my view is that most people can do it. That was certainly my experience of the computing industry. As someone who had a degree in late mediaeval church history, I quickly discovered that there was a limited demand for specialists on the heresies of the middle ages, and I managed, with some success, to pass myself off for 10 years as an IT professional.

The report includes figures—they were alluded to by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood—showing that the number of women in employment in the IT industry and the other industries covered by the report declined from 16 to 13 per cent. between 1999 and 2000. That strikes me as rather more worrying, and I am inclined to ask what has gone wrong. My experience of the industry was that it lent itself to women. In the financial sector of the IT industry, there was a disproportionate number of female employees—including those in the most senior positions. Perhaps I was in a quite untypical environment, but I have no reason to believe that that was the case. Women did disproportionately well in that industry, and I am therefore surprised and disappointed at that statistic.

My experience differs from that of the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), who saw movement into the industry from the user community. The traffic was

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largely going in the other direction, especially among female systems analysts, who quickly impressed the users with their understanding and skill in interpreting their requirements. Women's ability to sit down and understand requirements and get on well with the people who explain their requirements is much better than that of men. As a consequence, they tended to be poached by the user community. One often found that the IT industry, at least in financial services, was a springboard from which women moved from IT into the industry itself.

The Scottish bank for which I worked was a traditional employer and in many ways a Dickensian institution, but in 10 years we developed what might now be called flexible terms of employment. Those will improve further with the development of broadband, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) drew attention, and of other things that enable home working. The IT industry provides a helpful environment for women to thrive in, especially those with family responsibilities and the need for career breaks. There are many IT activities, such as programming and technical writing, that do not require people to be in the workplace. That trend developed when I was in the industry, to women's advantage, so I am worried about the statistic that suggests a decline in women in employment. I suspect that it may be a blip or that the statistic is questionable, because I find it very surprising.

I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden that the industry has to remain competitive because there is a great deal of competition overseas, especially in the Asian markets. Our bank outsourced the maintenance of what were called "legacy systems", the large batch programmes that were developed in the 1970s and early 1980s. All the maintenance and development of those systems have been outsourced to companies in India, which is a growing force in the IT market. We must take account of that and ensure that our business environment is helpful to IT companies, otherwise fewer men and women will be employed in an industry that is vital for the future.

4.23 pm

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, especially as it is my first opportunity to speak in Westminster Hall, although that is entirely my own fault as I have been a Member for almost a year.

I begin by welcoming the comments made by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who said how surprised she was about the title of the debate. I assure her that her surprise is as nothing compared to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who last night, after more than one pint of beer, looked at me aghast and said, "Are you really having a debate on women and ET?" Clearly, he has been detained on the Floor of the House, or he would have been here.

We should demystify some of the language that surrounds IT, as the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) said. Computers are not scary, but simple instruments to use. I was astonished to find how many pensioners in my constituency regularly use computers to access the internet and who do so, after a small

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amount of training, with a great deal of confidence—far more, I dare say, than many of my colleagues. We can always learn from the older generation.

My wife is one of those who have been scared off new technology by people saying that they are afraid to switch on the computer in case it blows up and other such dramatic suggestions. She has therefore decided that I am the only person in the household who can switch on the computer or set the timer for the video. It might be that she is either confused by technology or too lazy to do it herself. Given that she is not here, and that she never reads Hansard, I feel free to speculate.

I have had the privilege of serving on the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology for the past few months. It has discussed asking the royal societies why, as state-funded bodies, they have so few women members. The mere mention of such an inquiry precipitated a huge amount of panicked correspondence in the daily broadsheets. One of the defenders of the royal societies told me that to increase the number of women in those societies would be "to compromise excellence". It is profoundly depressing, at the beginning of the 21st century, that such attitudes hold sway, not only in academia but in industry.

There is no denying that the Government face a challenge in achieving a situation in which women have the same career opportunities as men. That is not to belittle other career opportunities and directions or the choice of the many women who want to remain in their homes. It is simply to say that women should be given exactly the same choice as everybody else.

We have mentioned statistics. Given that more than half of the university graduates in this country are women, we have to ask why only a fifth of computer graduates are women. That is a worrying disparity. The hon. Member for New Forest, West suggested that it might be a blip but I do not see much evidence for that. In 1995, seven years ago, only 25 per cent. of workers in the information and communications technology industries were women. Last year, that figure had fallen to 22 per cent. There is a medium-term decline in the number of women employed in those industries, and I am delighted that the Minister introduced the debate by telling us how the Government are trying to reverse that trend.

It did not have to be this way. The information technology industry—a brand new industry—provided an opportunity to reinvent the workplace. More than any other, it represented the future, yet we seem to have fallen into the bad old ways epitomised by some of our more traditional industries. When I think about my own city, Glasgow, I think of shipbuilding, but there are many other examples of male-dominated industries. I hesitate to name politics as one of them.

What went wrong? We have to go back to the classroom to find out. The Science and Technology Committee has been speaking to teenagers who are about to decide what subjects to take for their GCSEs or who are in the middle of their GCSE courses. In science, there is already a definite disparity between what boys and girls want to study. Even among those who go into science, girls are more likely to want to study biology and boys are more likely to want to study physics. I could be simplistic and conclude that that is because women are more interested in nurturing life and

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understanding how it is created, and men just like to blow things up. However, there is a more sophisticated analysis—

Mrs. Humble : No.

Mr. Harris : That is bit worrying.

There is no point trying to encourage school leavers to study computing science if they are not already familiar with the subject, having had an interest in it at school. It is up to teachers and the Government to find ways to encourage that interest.

The media must take some responsibility for taking a negative view of computer geeks, an expression that was used in the debate. The term "anoraks" was also used; I am not sure whether there are computer anoraks, as anoraks are usually worn outdoors and most computer geeks stay at home in their bedrooms. It is sometimes forgotten that in the early to mid-1990s, before the internet was recognised and used as almost infinite source of information, a communications tool and a source of entertainment, it was largely used by teenage boys to discuss the merits of "Star Trek" and "Dungeons and Dragons", and that image has persisted. Bill Gates, despite his intelligence, his achievements and his wealth, is invariably described in the media as a computer geek. That is the most obvious example of the media's patronising attitude to anyone who works with computers.

Another example is that of the movie industry. I have lost count of the number of times Hollywood movies portray male scientists as dysfunctional freaks, and female scientists are invariably played by implausibly pneumatic former models. The part of the nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones in the latest James Bond movie, which I recommend, is played by the actress Denise Richards. It is not difficult to understand why many young women, seeing that media stereotype, are not persuaded to pursue a career in science, although it is not for me to speculate on what effect Miss Richards's portrayal may have on the male audience.

Schools must make science in general, and computing in particular, attractive, dynamic and relevant and, most importantly, inclusive. The hon. Member for New Forest, West hit the nail on the head when he said that computer professionals like to make their job look more difficult than it is. That is a trick used in many careers. Computing should not be an esoteric, arcane skill that allows people into a new, rarefied world of computer wizards. It is a basic skill that most people can achieve with very little training.

The Government have done a great deal to ensure that those who live in socially deprived areas have access to new technology. Castlemilk library in my constituency has a room with brand new, internet-ready computers that enable people living in the area to go on the internet in a few minutes. I extend a warm welcome to the Minister to visit the library to see for himself what an excellent asset it is to the local community.

The Government have addressed the issue of social exclusion in that community, but we are discussing sexual, rather than social, exclusion. We must learn from the mistakes of the past. British boardrooms have suffered massively over the years because they have refused to utilise the skills and experience of half the

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population. The same has been true for many years of almost every industry, as it has been of this place, although I hope that the position is improving. Because IT technology is so fundamental to the health of our economy and to the future prosperity of the country, it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that everyone is included in the future of that industry.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : We are grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), whom I thank for his co-operation and for his informed advice on what films I should see.

4.35 pm

Mrs. Spelman : This has been an interesting debate, and I take from it some fundamental points on which all hon. Members are in agreement. Although the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) is not here at present, I take the opportunity to congratulate her on her new role as spokesperson on women's issues for the Liberal Democrat party.

There is no intrinsic reason why women and information technology should be incompatible. None of the barriers that we have evoked today is insurmountable, but it will take much initiative on all sides to dismantle real and perceived barriers. For the sake of those who take an interest in information technology, I wish to put on the record the view that it would be of enormous assistance to do something about the exclusivity of the language that tends to be used in the industry. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) described it as jargon. It is a jargon-littered subject, and that does nothing to encourage women to embrace the technology. I appeal to the industry to deal with the image that is associated with IT. I enjoin the media to be helpful and to contribute to a positive image that is associated with women and the use of information technology.

Hon. Members have tried to contribute constructively to the debate and to get a handle on the reality of the situation. The underlying, serious point concerns the skills set of our nation. We, as legislators, must help the Government of the day to see ahead and make sure that the future generation—male or female—will be well equipped to seek good employment opportunities. We must ensure that those who are currently faced with a difficult choice take whatever remedial action is necessary. Much of our debate has been about remedial action, both for generations that have not had the opportunity to acquire the skills as part of their formal school education and who have needed to acquire them latterly, and those for whom the school system has failed and who now perceive the need to acquire such skills. Much of our attention needs to be drawn to remedial action.

4.38 pm

Mr. Alexander : The debate has been wide ranging. I have certainly enjoyed and valued the contribution of all hon. Members. I wish to start my remarks with what may be a career-threatening confession about the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). When I listen to her during Trade and Industry Questions, I am regularly

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struck by her common sense, and by the fact that there are certain points of agreement between us. I sometimes wonder why she is a member of the Conservative party. However, given her opening remarks today, I have a better handle on why she is a Conservative.

The hon. Lady has a somewhat complacent view of this important challenge. She made the curious observation that women have a predilection towards working with the caring professions rather than machinery. That would be a revelation to the generations of mill girls, whose expertise working huge machines with their hands gave my town of Paisley world leadership in cotton production in the 19th and 20th centuries. It might also be news to Baroness Thatcher, who, as we know, was a research chemist before joining the ranks of the Conservative party. It may also be news to my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), who was a distinguished metallurgist before assuming her place in politics.

Although the speech made by the hon. Member for Meriden was well observed, it was premised on a fundamental error—that there is somehow a fundamental dichotomy between working with machines and working with people. The hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) made her point powerfully. The dynamic sectors of the economy reflect an ability to master and use technical knowledge in the service of commercial goals that involve working with people. Our traditional view of geeks on the one hand, and people who understand markets on the other, defies the reality of places such as Silicon valley, where the powerful interchange between people with an intuitive understanding of the capacity of technology, and those with an intuitive understanding of markets, has led to such spectacular growth in the IT sector over the past few years.

I take great issue with the analysis that there is a fundamental cleavage between those who work with technology and those who work with people—it reflects a broader problem in the approach to economic policy making. I sympathise with some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Meriden about the call centre industry—a matter of considerable concern to me. My ministerial responsibilities in the Department of Trade and Industry have afforded me the opportunity to visit Bangalore in recent months, to see for myself some of the competitive challenges that we will face from the Indian sub-continent. I have also met representatives of the Call Centre Association and individual managers within the industry.

To suggest that there is a great risk in adopting a low-skill, low-wage view of the British economy is a curious critique from a Conservative spokesperson. I am happy to welcome a repentant sinner to the view held for many decades by Labour Members: the best competitive environment for the United Kingdom is to establish itself as a high-skill, high-wage, high-productivity, high-value-added economy. Again, I must judge the hon. Lady's words against the reality of policy. In pursuit of that vision, Labour Members voted for the national minimum wage that was opposed by the Conservatives. That was why we wanted extra funding for education and additional support for a national child care strategy, which was also opposed by the Conservatives in terms of resources. One must take with a pinch of salt

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the suggestion that there is now unanimity that our future lies in a high-skill, high-wage economy—although that is certainly the view of the Labour Government.

A welcome degree of balance was brought to the debate by the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). She was absolutely right to acknowledge the risk of complacency creeping into the debate, given the seriousness of the subject. By quoting worrying statistics and urging the Government to work collaboratively, she certainly found favour with me. She made her points powerfully.

My hon. Friend began her remarks by informing the Chamber, with humour, about the importance of the quill pen in history. She used humour effectively to draw out an important point: although individuals exercise private choices about whether to learn to read and write, as a society we face a fundamental choice about whether the public interest is served by equipping people with basic skills. That is not a partisan point. One need only speak to the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, Mr. Digby Jones, to hear powerful arguments about the productivity of the British economy and the risk that we run if, after decades of under-investment in education, we do not deal with the basic skills challenge that faces us.

My hon. Friend's point about the importance of literacy in a previous generation holds true today: as a society, we face fundamental public policy choices. In the service of that, taking action to deal with fundamental challenges in literacy as well as the problems of ICT, is entirely consistent with our view—it is the effective interaction of Government and the market that can best offer us a future as a productive and dynamic economy. For many years, Labour Members have argued for equity and the need for people to realise their potential by getting basic skills. We are moving towards a knowledge-based economy, and there is great merit in advancing such skills for the productive interests of the United Kingdom. Given the range of jobs that now involve ICT—that was a common view of hon. Members—just as in previous generations we recognised an obligation to equip people with skills of reading, writing and basic numeracy, although we did not always fulfil that, we should now recognise that the challenge that we face is to equip people with opportunities to exploit those skills.

My hon. Friend suggested that I could give her grounds for encouragement in starting her journey toward more familiarity with ICT. Given the Rolls Royce machine that is the British civil service, I can offer her help and assistance, although I cannot vouch that each of the centres that I shall mention are in her constituency. In the environs of Blackpool, opportunities exist at a boys and girls club at Laycock Gate, Blackpool central library, Blackpool Foyer centre and Grassmere Road centre.

Mrs. Humble : I visit those establishments regularly, and every time I do, a lecturer or an assistant tries to detain me and sit me down. I shall have to do something

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about it, because not only the younger generation, but the older generation who increasingly use the facilities, have left me behind.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I do not know how the Minister is going to respond to that.

Mr. Alexander : My hon. Friend uses characteristic humour to make a serious point. In my constituency, training in basic adult literacy used to take place at the local further education college. I can think of few things that would be more intimidating to a person who did not have basic reading and writing skills than a request that they cross the threshold of a local FE college. The latest initiative that we have taken in my constituency is to ensure that we distribute information on courses in basic reading and writing to community centres. We can all learn from insights—not least my hon. Friend's experience—to ensure that courses are as accessible as possible.

I pay tribute to the contribution of the hon. Member for Guildford. I respect her expertise from her many years in the ICT field, and I agreed with much of her speech. I was sympathetic to her insights on the challenge that we face to transform attitudes in the ICT sector, and on our challenge to transform attitudes in this place. Much progress has yet to be made on politics and ICT.

I was pleased that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) was able to speak before he had to depart. He brought much to the debate by drawing from his experience as Minister for Science and Technology in a previous Administration. Although at times he came close to contradicting the position of the principal Conservative spokesman, he gave us a welcome insight into several challenges that we face on public policy. His understanding of public policy and broadband issues made an important contribution to the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) paid due tribute to his constituents' strength and expertise in engineering. He drew powerfully on his and his family's personal experience to show the lessons that we should learn and challenges that we face. I was intrigued by his description of the professions of journalism and law. I declare an interest because I served as a Scottish lawyer before I entered this place, but I take his point on board. When I studied law, the number of women who entered law school was significantly higher than the number of men. There are grounds for optimism, although the Conservative spokesman observed that there are not yet equal numbers of women in the higher ranks of the law. That is a fair observation, and I hope that it will be addressed by the ever-increasing numbers of women entering the profession.

Mr. Tom Harris : My hon. Friend referred to the accuracy of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble about solicitors. Speaking as a former journalist, I tell the Minister that my hon. Friend's portrayal of journalists was just as accurate.

Mr. Alexander : I am on my mettle as regards my response to that observation. I will neither contest nor endorse my hon. Friend's assertion, as some journalists might read the record.

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I take on board the points that have been made about work-life balance funding, and it might be appropriate if I were to offer to write to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble who raised a point on the sustainability of that funding. With regard to his contribution, I feel that there are grounds for optimism about being able to leave behind the old-fashioned view of the economy and of the contribution that men and women respectively can make to it. I suggest that we are leaving that behind and moving forward—that we are progressing from a view of society as seen on "That's Life" to one that will be seen on "This Life".

The next contribution came from the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who came close to suggesting that the statistic that underpinned some of the contributions to the debate was merely a blip. That point was addressed well by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), who pointed out that it was not an isolated statistic, because there are worrying trends that deserve the attention of the House. That is why the debate has been important.

I felt that the hon. Member for New Forest, West was on surer ground in his assertion of the critical competitive importance of the ICT sector to the British economy. To draw on remarks I made earlier, it is precisely for that reason that we do not approach the debate merely in terms of equity and an interest in equality—strong though those are. We also approach it in terms of addressing how we can best harness the true talents of the UK work force, in an environment and an emerging economy where human capital—the skills and talents of our individual workers—will be a significant competitive driver, determining the relative success of the UK economy. It would be a dereliction of our duty, if we were not alive to the possibility that we might be denying the British economy the full range of talents available to it, so a clear economic rationale has underpinned the debate.

I turn to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart, whose constituency is close to my own home. If that was his maiden speech in this Chamber, he has set himself a very high standard; it was worthy of people of far more experience, and of many more years in this place.

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From my own experience in my constituency of Paisley, South, I am aware of the kind of work that my hon. Friend described in his constituency. In Paisley central library, I recently visited a computer learning facility that is undertaking many of the same kinds of work that I imagine are under way in the Castlemilk library, about which he spoke. I would welcome the opportunity—if it were to arise—to visit Castlemilk, and to hear of the work that is being taken forward in Cathcart.

My hon. Friend's description of the media brought a novel and interesting flash of light and insight to the debate. Perhaps some of us should have touched on that subject earlier. I was also intrigued by his recommendations as to which films you should watch, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will bear them in mind. I end my remarks on his contribution by saying that his description of the problem left me stirred but not altogether shaken.

I will now conclude. This has been an important debate. I hope that the contributions—not only from Labour Members, but from across the Chamber—have convinced even those hon. Members who were sceptical at the start of the importance of the debate, on the grounds of both equity and economic productivity.

In my opening remarks, I acknowledged that there was still a great deal of work to do on the matter under discussion, and that the ambitions of the Government in that regard have by no means been fulfilled. We should regard the debate as the starting point of a continuing discussion about how, together with industry, we take forward some of the challenges that some of the more worrying statistics have revealed. Therefore, it is not a challenge exclusively for Government: there are many other players, not least the media and the sector itself, and there are a wide range of bodies that must take it forward.

I am heartened by the support I have received from Ministerial colleagues across Whitehall in rising to an important endeavour, and I will bear in mind many of the reflections that I have heard in the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I congratulate all the hon. Members who spoke in the debate on the quality and informed nature of their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.



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