HC Deb 12 June 1975 vol 893 cc652-5
Q1. Mr. Canavan

asked the Prime Minister what actions Her Majesty's Government propose in response to Commonwealth Conference discussions on the role of women in public affairs.

Q5. Mr. Tomlinson

asked the Prime Minister how, following discussions at the Commonwealth Heads of State Conference, Her Majesty's Government propose to provide for the full participation of women in our national and international affairs.

Q8. Mr. Grocott

asked the Prime Minister whether he will make a statement on the role of women in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the United Kingdom following the discussions at the Commonwealth Conference in Jamaica.

Q9. Mr. Wrigglesworth

asked the Prime Minister if, following the Commonwealth Heads of State Conference communiqué, he will make a statement on the role of women in public affairs.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

This Government are fully committed to the objective of securing equal status and opportunities for women in all aspects of our national life. A comprehensive Sex Discrimination Bill—which makes sex discrimination unlawful in employment, education and in the provision of the general run of goods, facilities and services to the public—is now before the House.

Mr. Canavan

Bearing in mind the words of Mrs. Burnham, of Guyana, that the best way to achieve women's liberation is through Socialism, will the Prime Minister explain the sudden reduction in the role of women in the Ministry of Overseas Development, following the replacement of the only Member of Parliament in Scotland who is both a Socialist and a woman by a successor who is neither?

The Prime Minister

I have not found the matter confusing. With regard to the Commonwealth Conference, a leading part in this question has been taken not only by Mrs. Burnham but by her husband Mr. Forbes Burnham, the Prime Minister of Guyana. On the other issue raised by my hon. Friend, there was no discussion of these matters at the Commonwealth Conference in Jamaica.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

May I invite the Prime Minister to join me down memory lane by recalling the occasion when he attended a most enthusiastic rally to mark 50 years of votes for women? Has he noticed that there are only 27 women Members of Parliament out of a total of 635 Members in this House? Does he agree that that is not a particularly attractive ratio? Has he noticed that my party does best, because we have two women Members of Parliament out of 11 Members in our ranks, while the Liberals, the Ulster Unionists and, I regret to say, Plaid Cymru have not one woman Member of Parliament to brighten up their benches? If we consider Scotland, we find that the Labour and Tory Parties have only one woman Member each. Should not the Prime Minister—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is enough.

The Prime Minister

Let me correct the hon. Lady. The ratio, although small, is highly attractive. I recall that last week the hon. Lady asked me to go to Stornoway with her, and this week she wants me to join her. As for the celebrations of 50 years' votes for women, I did join the function that the hon. Lady referred to, and I also took part in a reception marking International Women's Year. I believe the hon. Lady made a valid point. I believe that all the major parties can be subjected to the criticism—it is a fair one—that we do not have more women Members of Parliament, particularly in the more winnable seats. That is no derogation of the high quality of many Members in all parts of the House, not least in my own party.

Mr. Tomlinson

Will my right hon. Friend accept that many of us would welcome the appointment of a woman and a Socialist as chairman of the commission which has recently been announced to deal with discrimination against women? Will he ensure that the commission not only has the legal armoury that lies behind the Sex Discrimination Bill but has adequate funds and staff to deal with the task that lies before it?

The Prime Minister

I know that that is the intention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. As my hon. Friend knows, it is widely conceded that the Sex Discrimination Bill, which has now been reported from Committee, is the most comprehensive legislation of its kind in the democratic world. It is the intention of my right hon. Friend and his colleagues at the Home Office to ensure that it is a question not only of legislation but of a follow-up by the administration.

Mr. Graham Page

What did the Prime Minister mean when he referred in his first answer to "comprehensive sex?"

The Prime Minister

The word "comprehensive" governed the Bill, not the sex. I referred to a comprehensive Sex Discrimination Bill. I hope that that is clear to the right hon. Gentleman. In case he was raising wider questions, I think that these are matters for consenting adults in private, for which the Government have no responsibility.

Mr. Grocott

I welcome the fact that in a number of Commonwealth countries women have obtained high, if not the highest, positions in their political systems, but does my right hon. Friend share my concern that during International Women's Year the prospect of there being a woman Prime Minister in Britain is no nearer now than it was six months ago?

The Prime Minister

I do not agree with my hon. Friend in this matter. There are more women members in this Government—as, indeed, there were in previous Governments which I headed—than was the practice under Governments of other parties. I believe that the present Cabinet is the first to have two women Cabinet members. I look forward to more.

Mrs. Thatcher

As some people in public affairs are capable of cutting through the trivia to the real problems of the nation, may I, as a woman in public affairs, ask the Prime Minister what action he proposes to take to deal with the main problem facing the nation—that of inflation?

The Prime Minister

I agree with the distinction made by the right hon. Lady, but when she spoke for 50 minutes in the debate on economic affairs she did not cut through any trivia. She did not get to the real problems, or offer any real solutions. Nor, I understand, did she take advantage of the 45 minutes during which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor answered Questions today to put any relevant questions. I refer her to the answers given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer this afternoon.

Mrs. Thatcher

The Prime Minister can talk out Question Time but he cannot talk out the crisis facing the nation. He talked out the economics debate. How much longer is he going to dodge the real issue?

The Prime Minister

Had the right hon. Lady been listening to my right hon. Friend she would have heard what he said, especially about our discussions with the TUC as well as with the CBI. I would have hoped that she would have reports on the matter. I am surprised that she has not warmly welcomed the initiative taken by the TUC this week. I am surprised that she has not welcomed the initiative taken by Jack Jones, and the warm follow-up which is being given to these matters by the Government. The right hon. Lady has said that she is opposed to a statutory pay policy. If she has any ideas apart from those which we are following—which she condemns—she should let the House know what they are.