HC Deb 09 April 1919 vol 114 cc2108-20

(1) It shall be lawful for His Majesty by Order in Council to establish consultative councils in England and Wales for giving, in accordance with the provisions of the Order, advice and assistance to the Minister in connection with such matters affecting or incidental to the health of the people as may be referred to in such Order.

(2) Every such council shall include women as well as men, and shall consist of persons having practical experience of the matters referred to the council.


I beg to move, in Subsection (1), after the word "council," to insert the words except as specified in Sub-section (3). Our object is to set up a consultative council composed exclusively of women. I moved a similar Amendment in Committee which was defeated by a small majority, and I hope the House will reverse that decision. The Bill proposes to set up a number of consultative councils to assist in the administration of its provision. They will be on the analogy of other councils already set up—for instance, by the Board of Trade and the Board of Education—and we were given to understand in Committee that there would certainly be three and probably four of these councils. There will be one composed chiefly of members of the medical profession, another representative of local authorities, probably another representative of the insurance interest; and there will be a council of a general nature representative of persons not directly connected with any of the other three interests. It is the desire of many women, and many men I believe as well, that, in addition, there should be a further council composed exclusively of women. I am aware that certain women's organisations do not desire such a council, but no fewer than eighty women's organisations, representing more than 500,000 women, many of them very representative women, both rich and poor, desire the institution of such a council. The objections that the President of the Local Government Board made to the proposal were mainly that it would be of an artificial character and that these councils should be composed both of men and of women, and that none of them should be restricted to one particular sex. I quite agree that on the ground of theoretical equality there is a great deal to be said for that contention, but as a practical measure I am convinced that if you wish to enlist for this Bill the support of the great body of women of the country, it is much better at any rate to start by what at first sight seems an artificial arrangement, and to set up a council exclusively of women.

In the present state of public opinion there are certain questions connected with health which it would be better for women to discuss amongst themselves in an exclusively women's council. I am quite aware that there are many women who quite rightly do not desire privacy for the discussion of such questions as I have in mind; at the same time I believe that there are also many women who are not doctors or professionally connected with health questions, the sort of women we wish to get interested in this Bill, who would probably in the present state of public opinion prefer to have not a mixed council but a council of women on which they could speak perfectly freely. Even if that opinion is not shared by many Members they will agree with me when I urge that unless a woman's council is set up, women will not really get their full representation in the Ministry of Health Bill. Obviously, with the present position of women there will not be many women doctors on the medical council. There will be very few on the local authorities' council. Probably again there will be few, if any, upon the insurance council. Upon the general council it may be that there will be a certain number, but even so that will leave women, who after all will have a greater influence than anybody else on the success of this measure, with a representation far below that to which their influence and numbers entitle them. On that account I am anxious to require from the very beginning that even though the institution of a special woman's council appears rather artificial, we shall have such a council, and by that means get a larger women's representation in the administration of the measure than in my view we should otherwise have.

I put that forward when I moved the Amendment upstairs. I do so with all the greater assurance now for this reason. In the Committee I and other Members proposed several Amendments for ensuring the safeguarding of women's interests. For instance, an Amendment that the assistant secretary of the Ministry must be a woman. That was opposed by the Government. We proposed another Amendment—that in the appointment of officials to the Ministry of Health no discrimination should be made between men and women. The Government opposed that Amendment, but we carried it against them. I understand that to-day the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is going to ask the House to reverse that decision. The fact that the Government took up that attitude with reference to these various women's Amendments which we moved upstairs makes me think that it is all the more necessary to insist to-day upon one of these consultative councils being restricted to women. The President of the Local Government Board in Committee upstairs said that no doubt there would be Sub-committees connected with various consultative councils composed of women. That does not meet our contention at all. We desire that women should not have to act through Sub-committees, an organisation which is rather low in the official hierarchy, but should be able to bring direct pressure on the President of the Local Government Board from the top. On that account we are particularly anxious that women should have a woman's council by which they could go direct to the President of the Local Government Board. I am sincerely anxious that the administration of this Act should be from the first a great success, and I am convinced that, if it is to be a great success, we must enlist the support of the great body of women, not only professional women, but mothers of families, ordinary women, without whose support the Bill will not be launched with that chance of success which we all desire.


I have pleasure in seconding the Amendment of my hon. Friend. Few words of mine are required when following a speech so excellent in form and so sound in argument. A very great and new departure is being made, for which we are all very thankful. In order that this experiment—because it is an experiment—should have the largest possible measure of success, it is necessary to enlist for this service the largest possible amount of public support. One can put the special case of women in regard to this matter in a very few words. As was said excellently by an hon. Friend of mine upstairs, women are the great medical public health officers of the home. The question of health or sickness in the home affects them more directly than it affects men. They are the special guardians of the physical as well as the moral well-being of the future citizens of the country. As far as I can see from the Report of the Committee, my right hon. Friend in charge of the measure stated that there would, at any rate, be sub-committees entirely composed of women, that he might form such a general consultative body as this, but he did not want to be forced to do so. He gave a Government assurance with regard to certain subcommittees that they would be entirely composed of women. What we want him to do now is to go a step further. He agrees that probably there will be no real harm in it except that to some extent he thinks it might tie his hand. Let him weigh that disadvantage against what we think is the great advantage of a really fine experiment of this kind, of giving women a special consultative position on a matter in which all might reasonably agree that they are predominantly interested.

The argument used upstairs that this might in some way tie his hands does not outweigh what I hope the majority of Members of this House on this occasion will think is the advantage of an experiment well worth trying. It has been said that there are a number of societies who say that they do not want this done. That is always easy to get, but we ought not to be influenced very much by that. Our real concern is with the broad merits of the proposal. On the ground which my hon. Friend so well put forward, and, I may hope, one or two of the suggestions I also made, we urge strongly on the Government that they should give way on this matter. A very strong case has been made for giving women just one representative council. There is no suggestion as to numbers. A very small committee, I think, might be very useful. The whole question of the numbers of the committee and of the class of women upon it should be left entirely to the Minister in charge. All we suggest is that this should be a consultative committee composed entirely of women. By having such a committee you will have the advantage of having the women's point of view expressed in a thorough way by a woman's committee, and if this is opposed it will cause great disappointment. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will give way to a strong body of opinion, both inside and outside the House of Commons, and make this experiment, which he himself admitted was really harmless, and the only objection to which is that it might tie his hands a little.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sir A. WARREN

I happen to have been a member of the Standing Committee, and I have a pretty vivid recollection of what occurred in respect of the Amendment that was there proposed and the exhaustive manner in which it was argued. A majority of the Committee supported the Minister in his attitude against the setting up of several committees composed entirely of women. We do not want if we can help it to perpetuate class distinction in this great and comprehensive measure as to health, touching as it does so vitally the lives and happiness of our great population In my judgment the strength of the consultative committees will largely lie in those committees being composed of men and women. Whatever may be the views of a certain section of the female population, I am bound to say from some experience of committees, that, generally speaking, women rather look for the guidance and direction of men in their committee work. I have yet to learn that there is any expression throughout the country on the part of women that they shall be differently treated from men. The movement which has been in operation, and which has ended so successfully up to the present in regard to the female population, has been that they should be placed upon equal terms with men, and that where men were there women should be, and that what men can do women can do. I have had some forty years' experience of the great friendly society movement in this country, and during the last five years we have come very much into contact with the Government in relation to national health insurance. In that great movement there are tens of thousands of women, and both in the friendly societies and in the approved societies, they are playing their part in the administration of those societies, and doing so with very great earnestness and with very great success. On none of them has there been any claim to set up separate women's committees, but, on the contrary, they rather welcome the inclusion of men, because in the interchange of views and in association and experience they are often more able to do good work and more successful work than if they were left entirely by themselves. I submit to the House that there has been in no sense any desire on the part of the women of the country to be so separated. I am prepared to admit all that has been said about women as to the part they play in regard to the health of the nation. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was quite correct when he spoke of their action in the sick chamber, and all that they do in ministering to health. But if there had been any intense desire on the part of women to be differently treated and segregated and set out in separate terms, then, in my judgment, this House would have been bombarded with literature and flooded with communications begging Members to take the action which is proposed by the Amendment. I am bound to say that this matter received most careful consideration, and was very fully and freely debated in the Committee, and I sincerely hope that the House will stand by the Clause as it now is and reject the Amendment.


It may assist the House, and particularly those who were not members of the Committee, if I set out briefly the proposals of my right hon. Friend in this matter. Before doing so, let me make one general observation. I, like so many hon. Members, find it very difficult to realise when women have in fact come by their own that they are now anxious to introduce the question of sex, since I thought that it was equal rights that were sought and that the question of sex was no longer to come into consideration. I think it would be a step backward instead of forward if we were to take sex as the basis of the composition of the particular council or body, such as we are now discussing. My right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board is more fully alive than any hon. Member can possibly be to the need of having the support of women, whether experts or lay or whether they live in any other part of the country. As we said in Committee every woman in the home assists to make the administration of the Health Ministry a real success. My right hon. Friend more than anyone else wants to get her assistance, and it is because he wants the assistance of women in the Ministry and outside the Ministry that he proposes to put women on all the consultative councils he is going to set up. There are to be four councils, one an expert medical council, on which there will be women, and one an expert council representing local administrative bodies, and a council representing the insured side of the societies, and a general council representing the general population. And not only will there be women on that, but my right hon. Friend proposes that there shall be a large number, and I am authorised by him to say at least half the members of the general council will be women, and in addition to that there will be women on all the expert bodies.


Will that be set out under Regulation so that it will be carried out consistently?


I am explaining my right hon. Friend's policy.


I am quite willing to trust the present Minister.


In doing so my right hon. Friend shows a spirit which has enabled us to get through so many contentious measures because we trust each other to carry out the policy which we explain and lay before the public. I think there was some misunderstanding on the part of the Mover. He appeared to think that women were diffident about serving on mixed councils, and when he put forward that argument I think he contemplated councils not merely in London but councils on the periphery throughout the country.


I did not contemplate anything of the kind. I contemplated the Central Consultative Council.


It has been my privilege to serve on many committees on which there were women, and I found them of the greatest help. On one particular committee where the women were in the minority they were the most useful members of the committee, and did a great deal to direct and guide the body. Whether the bodies are expert or non-expert, we suggest we should be wrong in taking as the basis for any one council the exclusion of a sex, which is really what is now proposed. It is proposed as the basis for one of these many councils to have the exclusion of the male sex, and I suggest that is a wrong basis. We have adopted as the basis, whether for expert or for non-expert, the general population, which, I think, is the best basis on which to set up these councils, taking the matter on professional grounds, or administrative grounds, or grounds of public policy. We contemplate that there will be sub-committees of the general council. But there are not as many questions as some hon. Members appear to think on which only women are most competent to give advice. If you were asked to name suddenly some of those subjects on which women should be consulted, you might take baby feeding and midwifery, but, on second thoughts, I think hon. Members will realise that even on those specialised questions man's advice and experience would be most useful, and therefore even on those questions it would be unwise to exclude men The proposal is that there should be appointed sub-committees of this general council, and if for any special purpose women on the councils like to meet together to discuss sex questions facilities will be given to them to do so. We had the fallacious argument advanced about direct access to the Minister. I think it was the Seconder who appeared to think that the President of the Local Government Board or the Minister of Health would really not have a fair opportunity of consulting his women advisers, or that they would not have a reasonable opportunity of consulting him, unless there were direct access through a purely woman's council. I cannot imagine any Minister in the future denying to women advisers the right of coming to him direct. The mere fact that there is a purely woman's council does not mean that he or his successors will not give women advisers the fullest opportunity of assisting. What we want is to get the best people on the council irrespective of sex, and the one condition we make is that both sexes shall be represented. We want both sexes in the Department. My right hon. Friend has already appointed high up in the Department a woman doctor, Dr. Janet Campbell. We shall be adopting a wrong principle if we took for the basis of one of these councils the exclusion of one sex. It has been my good fortune to work with a consultative council on which women, and particularly women representing organised Labour, were largely represented, namely, the Consumers' Council of the Ministry of Food. They were of the greatest assistance to the Food Controller and to the Department generally, and because they were a mixed body and they were able to offer us better and more useful advice. I understand there are representatives of organised Labour here and they will doubtless put the point of view of organised Labour, which I understand is against this sex distinction. No doubt that particular point will be put by the representatives of Labour, but I would suggest this. When we have gone so far in national government to abolish sex distinction it would be unwise to revive sex distinctions, as suggested in the Amendment. We intend to give full representation to both sexes on all these councils and in the Department, and I suggest that we ought to give no preference to one sex to the exclusion and disadvantage of the other in setting up any of these councils. It is because of that that my right hon. Friend cannot accept this Amendment. He is fully determined to get the assistance of women, and he thinks he can get the assistance to the best advantage on the lines he has in mind.


I am glad the Government are resisting this Amendment. When it is proposed to give to one sex an advantage over the other surely a strong case ought to be made out for the granting of a special privilege. We have not, however, been told what this special consultative body of women are to do; in what respect they are going to be superior to a mixed consultative council; what particular questions, so far as health is concerned, are not common to men and women, and why a departure of this kind ought to be made. As to that we are left entirely in the dark. No claim can be made that this Bill is unjust to women. The Clause with which we are dealing, with its Sub-section, definitely provides representation for women on every consultative council, and there is no feeling of antagonism in the Bill towards women as such. I am speaking from my own experience and for myself alone. For the last thirty years I have been connected with a very large organisation, in which men and women work side by side under the same conditions, with the same rights in every respect, and I say that our women have never claimed special sex privileges. They do not desire them, and when they get treatment equal and equivalent to that of men they are perfectly satisfied. So far as my experience goes there is absolutely no suggestion that women, as a whole, desire a privilege of this kind. I ask myself what are the questions in public health which affect women solely, on which women alone can speak and can speak for the rest of the women of this country. I deny that there is any body of women whatever who, speaking for the rest of the women of this country, say that they desire a council composed exclusively of women, whilst the other councils are mixed. I challenge contradiction of that statement. There is no ground for assuming that the vast body of women in this country desire a body of women simply because women alone on public health matters can represent the views of others.

I am totally opposed to the spirit of the Amendment, because I believe the worst thing that can happen to our country is to give even a hint that women's interests cannot be properly attended to except by them. That is not true. The women do not believe it to be true, and their actions in the election prove that they do not. If women had believed that only women could represent their point of view many of us would not be on these benches and women would be speaking for themselves. I object altogether to sex privilege. I do not want sex privilege to swing from the men to the women, I want fair play. I hope the Minister will keep only one consideration in view in forming his consultative councils, and that is the capacity of the person he appoints to do the work, whether that person be a man or a woman. Surely what we want is the best. If a man can carry it out best, let the man do the job. If a women is better qualified let the woman do the job. But to set up a special council, with undefined duties, with no idea of why it is needed or of what it will discuss, simply because its members will belong to one sex seems to be neither good sense nor good business. Believing, as I do, that women are fairly treated under this Bill, and that to give them what the Amendment proposes is to give them a privilege, and that the vast majority of women do not want special privileges but only equality, I hope that the Government will stick to their ground, and that the Amendment will be defeated.

Captain LOSEBY

I would not intervene in this Debate if I did not think a vital principle were involved. This is an attempt to make women articulate, and although the hon. Gentleman opposite made a quite reasonable, though superficial claim, that this is an attempt to treat women other than on equal terms, I think it is easy to demonstrate that it is not so. As the hon. Gentleman remarked, women are rapidly coming into their own. Inside of twenty years, no doubt, they will come completely into their own, but they have not yet done so. Within a short period of time they will have a complete franchise, but they have not yet got it. It has been pointed out that there will be one medical council in which the men will outnumber the women by thirty to one. There will be the local authorities consultative committee in which women are hardly represented at all, or only very slightly so; and there will be national health committees, in which women are also very much in the minority. I am told that the right hon. Gentleman resisted the demands and requests of women that they should be guaranteed, to compensate their disadvantages, some definite representation on these councils. That was denied; that claim was strenuously made. In all human probability, unless we are successful in making our point to-night or in impressing upon the mind of the right hon. Gentleman that the women of this country do feel very deeply upon this subject, by the ordinary rule of things, taking representation alone, women will be so hopelessly outnumbered on these consultative committees—three at any rate—that they will not be articulate. My hon. Friend has stated that the right hon. Gentleman responsible for this Bill is going to allow women representation to the extent of one half upon the general council. Does that satisfy their just demands? I say that reasonably they may expect to be outnumbered by four to one on three out of the four, and on the fourth they are to have a half.

I am directly instructed by the constituency which I represent to support this particular Amendment. The idea that this women's consultative council would give women direct access to the Ministry has been laughed at and scouted, but it is a very serious and genuine point. I cannot see how the right hon. Gentleman can admit anybody and everybody to speak to him, at any rate, with any kind of authority, unless, as in this particular case, that person could go and say, "I am the chairman of a particular consultative body." I have very great fears that the women of this country will realise, not only that their claims have been resisted, but that they will be unable to make themselves articulate upon this one great question, on which they undoubtedly do feel so strongly. Let me just give one instance which, I think, prompted the people of my Constituency to vote for a woman's consultative committee. Municipal houses were put up in a certain town near the one which I represent. In no single one of these municipal houses was there a copper. I am told that that is a very serious and vital point so far as women are concerned, and at any rate it is the kind of thing that makes them think that they ought themselves to have a say in certain matters. I do not want to waste the time of the Committee, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman, who has left the Committee, as he left it on a preceding occasion when I ventured to oppose this Bill, will realise that the women of this country feel very seriously upon this particular question, and I hope he will be able to meet them in this respect.

Amendment negatived.