· 10 min read · Features

General Election 2010: Interview with Theresa May, shadow work and pensions secretary

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With family-friendly policies set to be at the heart of the Conservatives' election manifesto, shadow secretary for work and pensions Theresa May could be the most powerful woman in Parliament if the Tories win.

She tells Sian Harrington why flexible working and affordable childcare make good business sense.

Theresa May, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, is outraged. The Election date has yet to be called, but that hasn't stopped the press starting early the long process of electioneering. On the day I meet her in her House of Commons office, it's an article in The Times that has caused her ire. The story concludes Tory leader David Cameron has failed in his pledge to transform the perceived image of the Party as white, middle-class, wealthy and male. While May concedes there is still much to do, she predicts: "If we win the General Election, the face of the Conservative Party in Parliament will change significantly."

Her confidence is based on the fact that if the Tories won the Election by just one seat, the number of female Tory MPs will rise from today's 18 to something like 60. The Times, however, suggests this will still be fewer than two women for every eight Tory men. But, May adds, 9% of Conservative candidates are either black or ethnic minority, with several in Tory-held or highly winnable seats, such as Surrey East and Stratford-upon-Avon. "We have made significant progress because David (Cameron) put it at the top of his agenda when he first became leader," she says.

The subject of diversity is one close to May's heart for, as well as her role in work and pensions (a role she understands better than many, having worked in the male-dominated City before becoming an MP), May doubles up as shadow minister for women and equality. And if the Conservatives emerge victorious in a month's time, she will be the most powerful woman in Parliament.

Having such a vocal and high-profile champion for equality is useful for Cameron, who has put the family at the heart of his draft manifesto. Indeed, with family-friendly policies tripping off the tongues of members of all parties, it appears the family is up there with the economy as the key electoral battleground. The Conservative contribution includes committing the party to ensuring the public sector becomes a world leader in flexible working. The Tories were also quick to oppose the prime minister's plans to withdraw tax relief on childcare vouchers from April 2011, a plan he has had to revise thanks to a huge outcry. The Government now proposes to retain tax relief at the basic rate.

Significantly, the Tories have pledged to take flexible working further than the existing legislation that gives parents of children aged up to 16 the right to request flexible working, as well as carers. If elected, they will increase that age to 18, as well as change maternity leave to flexible parental leave, enabling parents to decide whether the father or mother shares the leave, other than the first 14 weeks which will remain as maternity leave.

But doesn't all this seem a bit interventionist and cuddly for the party of business? "I think it is absolutely right that David has put the family at the heart of policy, and we do have an aim to make the UK the most family-friendly place to do business," states May. She is adamant this is the right move for the country, despite a shaky emergence from recession and very real fears of a double dip in the economy. "Yes, it's important we look ahead to future economic growth - and obviously we are conscious of the need to encourage this growth. But if we look to the future of the workplace, these sorts of measures become even more important."

Showing that a company has embraced the concept of flexible working is very important in terms of making it attractive to high-calibre staff, she believes.

So shouldn't all employees be able to request flexible working hours? Work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper certainly seems to think so, given her department is working with employer groups to find ways of enabling all staff to have the right to request from the beginning of their employment.

May will only say "the longer-term aim is to make it available to as many as possible". But there is more work to be done on fostering a better understanding of the concept, she says, shaking her head wearily when I mention a businessman I recently encountered who said he would not employ any woman aged over 27 as she would be of child-bearing age.

"I recognise that, in order to get over some of the concerns and barriers about flexible working, we need to be clear about it. Flexible working is not just about mothers with children," she says. "Many different groups of people would benefit from it. When I talk to companies that have introduced it, there is some evidence that if people working within a company unit or department are able to decide flexible working among themselves, it works better than just enabling a small group to have the right to request."

For many parents, however, flexible working is just one part of the employment jigsaw. Recent Daycare Trust figures put the average cost of childcare at £4,576 a year for 25 hours of nursery-based childcare a week for a child under two years of age. This amount continues to rise and in London there are reports of families paying up to £22,000 a year.

So is parents' inability to afford childcare an obstacle to people returning to work? May agrees that affordability is one of the main obstacles, availability being the other. She says the party is committed to retaining Labour's Sure Start programme, which aims to deliver the best start in life for every child, although she says the Tories want to ensure the remit focuses on its original aim of providing for the most disadvantaged families

Employers too can play their part, she believes, through tools such as childcare vouchers. "They are helpful and this may well be an area that can help employers attract staff as well as retain them," she says. "It is important to look at childcare in the round."

But will she be answering the Daycare Trust's call for an election commitment from all parties to make a great investment in childcare? The answer here is a definitive no. "There is not a pot of money that can suddenly be made available to help childcare for the simple reason that, with the state of public-sector finances, money is going to be tight," she says sternly. "We need to address this deficit and ensure we don't risk damaging future growth. So I can't say the money is there."

On paper, family may well be at the heart of a future Conservative government, but save for the instant change in female representation in Parliament itself, more substantial family-friendly policies may take a little longer to implement.

Theresa May - you ask the questions....

Given the increasing gap between public and private sector pension pots, what plans do you have to tackle what appears to be the biggest elephant in the room?

I absolutely recognise the growing disparity and the strength of feeling about that disparity. It cannot be ignored - we need to address it. One of the first steps is to get a proper basis in relation to what the liability of public sector pensions is. We plan an Office of Budget Responsibility, an independent body that will challenge government on its management of debt. One of the things we would ask them to do is audit of public sector pensions so we could start any consideration of the issue from a proper basis.

You published a paper recently on pensions, in which you pledge to reverse the decline in occupational pensions and ensure an adequate level of security for all in retirement. How will this work?

We are looking at ways in which we could make it easier for those companies that want to retain defined benefit schemes to do so. Obviously they have been closing at a rapid rate to new members so is there something government could do, possibly in a regulatory way, to help those companies who still very much want to keep their DB schemes but are finding it difficult?

We are looking at a number of things. During the process of the last pensions legislation we raised the issue of conditional indexation, which is one of the things that enabled pension funds in the Netherlands to easier retain their DB schemes. We have not got a list of what would happen as we are considering other regulatory issues. But we are also looking at what a new model could look like that would enable some risk sharing between employer and employee because if you move to defined contribution scheme all the risk falls on the employee. There are a number of options there.

Do you think companies are right to have concerns about auto-enrolment?

We are committed to review NEST if elected. We are committed to the concept of auto enrolment, but players are raising issues about the complexity of the process and requirements that going to be placed on scheme and employers. It is important auto enrolment is not simply part of NEST. We have tried to encourage government to allow companies to bring forward voluntary auto enrolment if they want to do it in advance. Other questions are around the impact of means tested benefits - how many people would discover that effectively saving is not worth it for them. And there are questions around government running a big IT project like this. There is also a real concern about the potential of leveling down, this is something I want to look at. With all the pressures on companies at the moment who are providing occupational pensions scheme,s will we see companies saying let's just have everyone level down to the contribution rate in NEST?

You plan to give DWP power over tax credits as part of a simplification of the system. Why?

An overhaul is required because I have seen far too many people finding the tax system complex and difficult.  One of the key problems I have seen as a constituency MP is people in financial difficulty often because they have gone through the process only to find a year down the line they are faced with bill of couple of thousand pounds. This can be because HMRC has made mistakes in relation to claims or these people thought they had told HMRC what their new circumstances were and HMRC has not acted on that. But parents rightly assume  what they receive is correct.

It makes sense to bring tax credits into DWP and to look at the system as a whole - benefits and tax credits together. We are working on the question of making work pay, particularly for people coming off benefits into low income jobs. It is important to look at issues such as how benefits are withdrawn. If we have the system together it will make some of these decisions easier.

Having said that, it is not simply a question of picking up an IT system and moving it from one department into another. A lot of work needs to be done to make sure the transition is smooth and that we can do things without disruption to people, which is crucial.

Jobcentre Plus has been under fire. Obviously it has not been able to deal with the type of people becoming unemployed and here at HR we have received many complaints from people experiencing poor service.  How would you change this?

There is no doubt Jobcentre Plus found it difficult to cope with increased numbers, partly because what we saw in 2008 was the Government carrying on closing on average one jobcentre a week despite the fact unemployment was already rising. A report published a few weeks ago commissioned by DWP said doubt Jobcentre Plus was ill prepared for dealing with the recession and the numbers coming through.

It found it particularly difficult dealing with the more managerial sector, professional and older age as these were not people regularly coming through Jobcentre Plus doors and I think those people found it difficult going into a job centre. I visited one where it was opening the evenings and had special sessions for people within these categories that were more tailored to particular needs. We have been calling on the Government to enable people to do a full time training course straight away rather than having to wait for period of unemployment and it has still not done this to the extent we would like. Professional or managerial people in particular recognised there were not going to be many job opportunities in their field and wanted to retrain but found they went to the cenre and had to wait because of the way they operate.

Overall we will make more use of the private sector and welfare to work providers. People will be assessed when they go into a job centre as to whether they are likely to be able to get themselves back into a job relatively easily or whether there are barriers to getting another job. According to that assessment - we have not set the exact bands of that assessment yet - someone would either remain with the job centre for a period of time or would immediately be referred to a welfare to work provider. This provider would be paid on results, the results being a sustainable job/work for a year. Young people will be referred after six months, earlier in terms of referral for all young people than the Government is currently doing. So we will have much more use of specialist providers able to give a more personalised service to individuals.

How will a Conservative government look to positively influence the European agenda from an employment law and employment values perspective?

First of all in we would play our full role in relation to employment law in Europe. We would be looking to re-negotiate control back to the UK. Issues we are particularly concerned about are the Working Time Directive, which has a key impact in the public sector in areas such as health and the fire service, and the Agency Workers Directive.

What measures would the Conservative party take to reverse ageism in recruitment?

Age discrimination legislation will be incorporated into the Equality Bill that is going through Parliament at the moment. We are supporting the bill, although there are some aspects that we disagree with the Government on, but we very much want to see that equality legislation on the statute book before the Election.

The greatest difficulty in dealine with ageism in the workplace is that we need a cultural and attitudinal change towards age and ‘older people'. There is a real need to stop the type of thinking that says once you reach state pension age you are somehow then in an entirely different category of person, you somehow become old. It doesn't reflect reality today.

One of the things we have said is that, in principle, there shouldn't be a default retirement age, though there are some complicated issues in trying to bring that about. We need to change how we define a career. In the UK we always tend to see a career as rising up until you reach the top of your career and then retire,  whereas actually it is more likely to be a curve with opportunities for people gently running down towards eventual retirement.

Would a Conservative government have a Minister for men? For some years more women than men have been entering the workforce and the increasing underperformance of young men in the education system is a ticking time bomb.

This is an interesting comment. There are real issues to address in making sure young people have the skills to get into the workplace, not just specific skills but general life skills such as understanding that if you are employed from 9am-5pm then you need to turn up at 9am. The honest answer to this question is that I don't make these decisions - the Leader makes them - but I would point out that I am Shadow Minister for Women and Equality so includes that includes men.

You emerged squeaky clean in the expenses saga. But how long does it take to process an MP's expenses.

It is about to change as the administration moves from the House of Commons to the new independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. I don't know what the new process will be but I have always approached expenses in the same way as I did in business - putting invoices into the fees office and they pay directly to the supplier.