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Earl Russell: My Lords, am I correct in remembering that the late Lord Wilson of Rievaulx refused to deal with those cases without contributions to which the noble Lord referred on the grounds that they were all over 80 and therefore would soon be dead?

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I do not think that was the reason he gave. At all events, with a number of these issues, longstanding positions have been taken which we need to reconsider. No doubt in the course of doing so we shall have the benefit of the advice and views of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos. I must not detain the House a moment longer from listening to what she has to say.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Crawley for initiating this important debate. As

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she said, she and I have both campaigned for women's equality over a long time, so it gives me great pleasure to respond to the debate today. I also thank all noble Lords who welcomed me to the Dispatch Box for my first debate.

As usual in this Chamber, the debate today has been thoughtful and knowledgeable. Many noble Lords have spoken from their own experience, reflecting a range of views on a complex and important subject. I shall try to respond to as many points as possible, but I must apologise at the outset because I know that I shall be unable to cover all the points that have been raised in detail. I shall write to noble Lords on any matters which I am unable to cover.

The last seven days have seen two significant initiatives which have women at their heart: last Friday the Equal Opportunities Commission introduced its proposals for the future of sex equality legislation. The Government welcome the EOC's proposals as a contribution to thinking on the promotion of equality between women and men. Of course, I have a personal interest in all this as a former chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

On Monday, my noble friend the Leader of the House and Minister for Women launched Delivering for Women: Progress so Far, which sets out the Government's achievements to date and outlines the key new policy areas she will be taking forward.

Welfare reform is about developing a social security system that meets the needs of people today. When our present social security system was formed 50 years ago, the world was a very different place. That point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, and other noble Lords. The norm then was for male breadwinners who supported their families. Men looked to the state in times of need and women were expected to rely on their men. Couples were expected to remain married, divorce rates were low and cohabitation rare. Social security provided help through pension and widows' benefits to women when they lost their husbands. However, because women were not expected to support themselves, we have the situation today where women make up the majority of our poorest pensioners. Although there have been changes to social security since then, many aspects of the system still reflect society as it was.

The picture for women now is very different and perhaps the biggest change is that more women are in work. This brings greater financial independence, not just while they are working but also by improving their own pension provision. Women are having children later, after achieving greater educational qualifications and establishing themselves at work. They are returning to work after having children, particularly where they are with a partner who works.

Despite these changes there is considerable evidence to show that women's incomes over their lifetimes are significantly lower than those of men of comparable age and occupation. Having children is possibly the most significant factor that affects women's income and earning opportunities. It can mean a drop in personal

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income, a loss of momentum on the career ladder or leaving employment for several years. This can exclude some women from contributory benefits and occupational pensions and often sits unhappily with the rules for means-tested benefits.

Women increasingly find themselves as the sole head of the family and less able to look to partners or husbands' work records to support them now or in old age. Social security must reflect these changes and provide a framework within which women can make informed choices about their lives. We shall be doing that with the personal gateway interviews. I repeat the comment of my noble friend Lady Hollis that the single gateway is a recognition that the knowledge of opportunity is itself about empowering somebody to make choices and lone parents will not be compelled to work. I draw that particular point to the attention of the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, both of whom have expressed concern. It is about choice. However, the action that is needed and being taken goes beyond the boundaries of social security. For the first time we see proper co-ordinated activity across Whitehall and beyond to make the changes that women in society need and want.

Before I turn to the specific areas of employment, women's role as carers and women's needs in old age, I should like to touch on one point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in respect of women refuges. This is one of the priority areas for the Women's Unit. Only this week this was reaffirmed by the Minister for Women in terms of the safety and protection of women from violence. As part of this process, the Government have commissioned research to obtain a comprehensive picture of the current provision of accommodation and support services. This includes a survey of refuges, detailed exploration of the sources of funding and a comprehensive review of provision by local authorities. Once we have that information we shall look at the policy implications.

We want to remove the barriers to women getting employment and make sure that work pays. We have already announced a number of initiatives which, taken together, will build a flexible workforce and employment opportunities. We have to provide an easy route for women to get the information they need to help them make decisions about work. This is part of the thinking behind the New Deal for Lone Parents. Through personal advisers women can get practical advice about the work and training opportunities that exist for them as well as help with childcare information.

However, action in social security alone would never be sufficient. The Government understand how important affordable, accessible and high quality childcare is for women in making decisions about work. That is why the national childcare strategy must be seen as a key element in responding to the needs of women. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Bassam and my noble friend Lady Thornton. It is about recognising the needs of women but also putting children first.

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We want to make work pay. The fact is that 1.3 million women earn less than the national minimum wage and the gender pay gap remains a serious issue. The average hourly rate for women in full-time employment is only 80 per cent. of that for men. The combined effects of the benefits system, tax, low earnings and the cost of work can make work simply not worth it for many women, even though they want to help to support their families in this way; or it can subject women to a lifetime of very low incomes without the opportunity to safeguard their own financial future.

I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, will agree with me that there is no single answer to the problem of poverty. We have put in place a number of initiatives to tackle the issue, including the New Deal, the working families tax credit--to which I shall return--the national childcare strategy, pension sharing and help for the poorest pensioners to claim their entitlement.

The national minimum wage will increase the wages of up to 800,000 women earning less than the current threshold for national insurance. Working families tax credit will provide an income guarantee so that every family working full time will be guaranteed an income of at least £190 per week. And no family with earnings of less than £220 (half average earnings) will pay net income tax, reducing the wasteful overlap between the tax and social security systems. Families on lower incomes will be able to receive up to 95 per cent. of their childcare costs through the combined effect of the working families tax credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit.

In response to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, that the working families tax credit will lead to a transfer from purse to wallet, that is wrong. Government have already said that there will be no compulsory transfer from purse to wallet. Couples will be able to choose which partner receives the working families tax credit.

Earl Russell: My Lords, perhaps I may elaborate my noble friend's point. Accepting the family choice as the Minister has just set it out, is there a risk that the money is least likely to go to the woman in those families where she needs it most?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, as far as we are able to ascertain, in around half of the families receiving working families tax credit the main wage earner will

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be the mother; and for the other half where the main earner is the father, there will be no compulsory transfer from the mother to the father.

On the working families tax credit, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, pointed out that it will waste money on higher earning families. In fact scrapping the working families tax credit would penalise families. It would mean a tax increase of £17 a week for up to 1.5 million hard-working families on low to middle income.

We want to recognise the needs of women as carers. We must acknowledge that women have caring responsibilities and wish to spend time caring for their children or dependent relatives. For whatever proportion of their time they choose to do that, they play a valuable role in society. The social security system has to respond flexibly to that by providing direct support to mothers. That is made through maternity benefits and the universal provision of child benefit, and a benefits system which supports women in work and recognises their role as carers, through carers' benefits and providing protection of pension entitlements. Those points were raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Ludford and Lady Crawley.

We want to improve women's income in retirement. We need to narrow the pensions gap between men and women to give women more security and independence in retirement.

Perhaps I may say this to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. The Government do not intend to abolish the widows' benefit scheme. The Government are considering reform of the current system of bereavement benefits as part of the welfare reform review. We hope to make an announcement shortly on that policy.

I am rapidly running out of time. Before concluding, I wish to take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, who stated that the Government do not have a clear sense of women's place in society. We are committed to looking at society's values, taking an integrated approach, looking at women's income over a lifetime, and at what happens to women at different phases and stages of their life. This Government recognise that women are not all the same. We want to build an inclusive society where independence is the goal. To do that, equality issues must be at the heart of policy development. Taken together, the initiatives upon which the Government have embarked will make it easier for women to enjoy economic security and independence. That is our goal.

        House adjourned at a quarter before four o'clock.

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