HC Deb 07 March 1995 vol 256 cc151-240
Madam Speaker

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.56 pm
Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I beg to move,

That this House deplores the Government's failure to implement its undertakings made at the 1985 UN Conference to promote the progress of women towards equality by the year 2000; in particular notes the damaging effects of labour market deregulation on the position of women, the growing divide between families with two earners and families with none, and the cutbacks in pension entitlement which have had a particularly damaging effect on women; and believes that, taken together with its failure to implement a national childcare strategy, the Government is wasting the talent and diminishing the life opportunities of women in the UK. This is the second annual debate that the Labour party has organised in order to ensure that, henceforth, at least once a year the House of Commons takes stock of the progress of women towards equality. Last year, in the same week—the week of International Women's Day—we staged the first such debate to take place since a Labour Government passed the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

It is no coincidence that that debate took place when John Smith was the leader of the Labour party. Many tributes have been paid to John, and I would like, if I may, to add a tribute on behalf of British women. John's deep commitment to fairness, social justice and public service is well recognised. His fierce commitment to women's equality has been less widely celebrated. I suspect that John's commitment was particularly strong because he had three daughters. He was immensely proud of his daughters, and he simply wanted the world to be fair for them; he therefore realised that the world had to change.

It was under John's leadership that the Labour party committed itself to the selection of women candidates in half of all the seats that we must and will win in order to form the next Government. The process that was agreed is now working its way through. The consequence will be that, after the next election when we occupy the Government Benches, there will be at least 80 or perhaps 100 women Members among our ranks.

That will constitute only a quarter of the parliamentary Labour party, and there will still be some way to go to reach equality. However, I believe that that number will be sufficiently large to transform the culture of the House of Commons. Women of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicity will be a normal part of public life in Britain.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson (Aberdeen, South)

The hon. Lady will know that it is the Labour party's policy in my part of the world to create a directly elected Scottish Assembly of which, by law, half the members will have to be women. What does that do for the role of women in Scottish public life? What sort of electoral system will she introduce to ensure that that happens?

Ms Short

I applaud that commitment. Parliaments around the world are moving to require half the candidates to be women—

Mr. Robertson


Ms Short

They are moving to half women representation in Parliaments. Parliaments around the world recognise—in this regard, our Parliament is very backward—that democracy is incomplete when half the population is so grossly under-represented in the democratic politics of that country. I look forward to the Scottish Parliament being 50 per cent. men and 50 per cent. women. It will be a finer Parliament for that reason.

Once Labour has made the breakthrough which will produce so many women in the next House of Commons, other parties will scrabble to catch up with us. The transformation and improvement that that will bring to British politics and to the House of Commons will stand as a lasting tribute to John Smith.

The second change that will remain as a result of John Smith's commitment to women's equality is this annual House of Commons debate. Following last year's debate, I wrote to the then Secretary of State for Employment and Minister with responsibility for women, now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), to suggest that the Government should facilitate an annual debate to monitor the progress of women towards equality.

The right hon. Gentleman wrote back and said that there were many opportunities to discuss sex equality matters, and that the general principle was that the business of the House was a matter for the business managers, not for him. Well, I must say that my relationship with the Labour business managers must be much better than the right hon. Gentleman's relationship with his business managers. Given his failure, the Opposition decided that, in opposition and in government, we will facilitate an annual debate to monitor Government policies in promoting women's equality.

Weak as the posture of the Secretary of State for Employment was a year ago, it is interesting to compare the Government's response to the 1994 debate with their response in 1995. Last year, the debate was answered, as I have said, by the former Secretary of State for Employment, who was openly willing to admit that he was also the Minister with responsibility for women.

This year, we have a new Secretary of State for Employment. He is notorious for his hatred of all things European, many of which benefit women, and, of course, for being a fanatical advocate of low pay. We could only imagine his embarrassment when he found that his promotion to Employment Secretary also made him Minister with responsibility for women. The consequence seems to be that he has quietly dropped that aspect of his responsibility. The result is that the Government's 1992 reorganisation of the Whitehall machinery to deliver equality for women, centring responsibility on the Department of Employment, has been turned into nonsense.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster now chairs the Cabinet sub-Committee on women's issues. The sex equality branch remains in the Department of Employment. The Secretary of State pretends that such issues have nothing to do with him, and he leaves his responsibilities to the Minister of State, who, of course, is responsible for opposing the legal right to abortion in Britain, and who left her Church because it decided to ordain women priests.

We see the Government's commitment from 1994 to 1995 and their commitment to equality for women deteriorate because of the ministerial reshuffle. It is noticeable, however, that, when we refer to the Government's behaviour on the international stage, we find a completely different picture. It seems that the Government are willing to sign up for international agreements that commit them to action to promote women's equality, but that they have no intention of publicising those commitments at home, or of turning them into reality.

It is important to examine the Government's record on this matter in 1995, because the commitments that they made at the United Nations conference in Nairobi in 1985 are to be revised and updated in Beijing in September. I understand that the Minister of State, Department of Employment, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), is to head the British delegation.

Already, Britain has produced a glossy report suggesting that the position of women in Britain is highly advanced and deeply satisfactory. Indeed, the Government boast about that in their amendment. Let us therefore briefly examine some of the commitments that the Government made in 1985 and compare them with their record.

On employment, in paragraph 67 of the Nairobi forward-looking strategies, the Government agree that

Employment legislation should ensure equity and provide benefits for women … by providing minimum wage standards, insurance benefits, safe working conditions and the right to organise. We must conclude either that the Government were in favour of minimum wage protection in 1985 and changed their minds by 1995, or that they cynically signed up to those agreements without intending to implement them.

In paragraph 135 of the Nairobi forward-looking strategies, the Government agreed that

Measures based on legislation and trade union action should be taken to ensure equity in all jobs and avoid exploitative trends in part-time work, as well as the feminisation of part-time, temporary and seasonal work. In 1985, the Government appeared to be keen to avoid women being trapped in low-paid work. In 1995, 87 per cent. of part-time workers in Britain are women, and they are overwhelmingly low-paid workers.

The final part of the forward-looking strategies to which I shall refer concerns governmental machinery to deliver equality for women. Paragraph 57 states:

Appropriate governmental machinery for monitoring and improving the status of women should be established where it is lacking. To be effective, this machinery should be established at a high level of government and should be ensured adequate resources, commitment and authority to advise on the impact on women of all government policies". It is fair to say that, in 1992, the Government supported that recommendation; but by 1995, with the new Secretary of State for Employment, it had been ditched.

Did the Government ever really support the agreement that they made in Nairobi in 1985? Did they mean to implement those commitments—particularly the commitment to protect the minimum wage—or were they so embarrassed when they found themselves out of step with world opinion on women's equality that they agreed to commitments which they had no intention of honouring?

My view, and the view of the Labour party, is that the Government's failure to implement the undertakings which they gave in Nairobi in 1985—particularly on the question of low pay and the minimum wage—is wasting the talent and diminishing the life opportunities of women in the United Kingdom, and is seriously damaging the performance of the British economy.

Despite their commitments in Nairobi, the Government have adopted a strategy of encouraging competition by wage cutting. Thus, they have stripped away all the protections which previously existed for low-paid workers. That is why they are so strongly opposed to the European social chapter and to the national minimum wage.

Women have borne the brunt of the Government's strategy, but it has also been deeply damaging to the position of men in the labour market and to the overall performance of the British economy.

Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West)

Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a fairly old-fashioned distinction in attitudes between both sides of the House? The Opposition are arguing for equality for women, while the theme among my hon. Friends is equality of opportunity for women. If, as the hon. Lady wishes, equality for women is to be mandatory in this House in terms of the imposition of quotas for Members, does she take her logic further into any other sectors of public or industrial endeavour? Is she arguing for a quasi-quota system in other types of activity?

Ms Short

The Labour party has proudly decided that we will put forward women candidates in half the seats which we intend to win to form a Government after the next election. We believe that British democracy is gravely incomplete when women are so under-represented in the House. We also believe that the quality of debate in the Chamber will increase enormously when more women are represented here.

I take the view that the measures which are appropriate to ensure that we have proper and democratic representation here are not necessarily the same measures as should be used to promote women in employment, but the principle of promoting women's equality should inform all our social policy.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

Is it not rich for a Conservative Member to criticise the Labour party for ensuring that half our electoral representation will be women, when the vice-chairman of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold), spends half her life trying to persuade Conservative associations around the country to select women candidates, because there is a 50 per cent. target in the Conservative party for candidates at the next election?

Ms Short

Those who will the end, will the means, and the Labour party will deliver the goods. There will be a massive increase in the number of women in the next House of Commons, and I am sure that the Conservative party will introduce stern measures to catch up with us after we have made that enormous breakthrough.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Is the hon. Lady not aware that her party's campaign to bring more women into Parliament is patronising and insulting to women, because it is trying to introduce positive discrimination rather than allowing women to get to Westminster on merit, which is how I prefer to be here?

Ms Short

The hon. Lady must be aware that the view of the people of Britain is that the people who are in the House of Commons at the moment could not possibly have been selected on merit. The selection of a lot more women to come to the House will massively increase the average standard overnight.

The central argument that I shall put before the House is that women's demand for equality is not a zero-sum game; it is not a question of advancing women at the expense of men. Indeed, the present Government strategy of encouraging low-paid employment damages all interests. Labour's strategy, based on the need for a minimum wage, full-time rights for part-time workers and family-friendly employment policies, will benefit the performance of the British economy and the quality of life for all.

If we look at some of the facts, we see a devastating picture. In recent years, there has been a massive growth in part-time, low-paid and insecure employment, from 4.6 million part-time jobs in 1979 to 6 million in 1994; 87 per cent. of part-time workers are women, and nearly half of all women work in part-time jobs.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with part-time work in itself, but in Britain part-time work goes with low pay, poor employment rights, little pension entitlement and little access to training or promotion. We have the biggest gender pay gap in the European Union. Women part-timers earn only 59 per cent. of the hourly rate of male full-timers, and even women full-timers earn only 72 per cent. of the male rate.

The average mother of two loses half her total lifetime earnings as a consequence of having children; mothers in the United Kingdom have the largest such earnings loss in Europe. There is, of course, no income loss for men as a result of the birth of their children.

The Government's encouragement of low-paid work and the lack of a national child care strategy—we have another record here: Britain has the lowest level of publicly funded child care in the EU—traps many women in badly paid part-time work, and permanently blights their life opportunities.

The effects continue into old age, because low-paid workers have poor pension entitlements. In 1992, one in six women retired on a full state pension, compared with two in three men, and 87 per cent. of single pensioners on income support are women. The Government's pensions policy, which has eroded the value of the state pension and cut the value of the state earnings-related pension scheme, will disproportionately damage women pensioners and ensure that, in future, an even higher proportion of them will have to survive in poverty.

Under the Government's strategy, all parties lose. The consequences of the strategy that promotes part-time low-paid work for women also damages the interests of men. The restructuring of work since the 1970s has led to a massive increase in the number of men excluded from the labour market.

According to the family expenditure survey, in 1971, 93 per cent. of men were in full-time employment, 1 per cent. were working part time and 7 per cent. were not working. The deterioration has been devastating. By 1992, only 75 per cent. of men were working full time, 5 per cent. were working part time, and 20 per cent. were not working. The shortfall has been only partly made up by the growth in women's employment, as the number of hours worked in the economy has dropped; fewer hours are worked in the British economy now than were worked in 1979.

When we Members of Parliament sit in our advice bureaux, many of us find that older men who have been made redundant come to see us and talk about the fact that they are no longer employed and have exhausted their right to unemployment benefit. They say how useless and marginalised they feel having to live in a household that relies on their wives' earnings. I am very conscious that many families in that situation find that their marriages break up. That is one of the cruel consequences of the Government's employment strategy that affects men.

Thus, using women as cheap labour does not benefit men, but leads to their being displaced in the labour market. Women and men have a shared interest in achieving decent employment rights and pay for part-timers, to bring to an end the pricing down of secure jobs.

The effect of the changes between women and men in the labour market also increases the polarisation and divisions in British society. While part-time work and unemployment has grown, British full-time workers work the longest hours in Europe. We are witnessing a growth in the number of pressurised, work-rich, two-earner families, and impoverished, marginalised work-poor families. That is a result of the fact that traditional male jobs are declining, while the new jobs are low-paid women's jobs, with wages insufficient to support a family. The consequences are that only women living with an earning partner can afford to take them.

Eighty per cent. of women part-timers are married or cohabiting, and 91 per cent. of them have earning partners. An Equal Opportunities Commission study projects that such labour market changes will continue for the next 10 years. The consequences are socially and economically unsustainable. Growing male unemployment and a rising divorce rate will lead to a continuing growth in the number of families trapped outside the labour market.

The changes in the labour market are generating a massive benefits bill. Unemployment costs £10.1 billion in direct benefits to the unemployed. In addition, a portion of the £18.7 billion spent on the sick and disabled goes to people seeking work, especially older discouraged male workers. More than 500,000 low-paid families are dependent on family credit to bring them up to the subsistence level.

For example, the average payment to lone mothers is £48.69 a week. This subsidy to low pay is costing the taxpayer more than £1 billion in family credit alone. We have to ask whether it is right that the taxpayer should subsidise the wage levels paid by some of the meanest employers in the land. It is clear that the Government's failure to promote women's equality at work and family-friendly employment policies that enable men and women to work and care for their families is costing us enormous sums in benefit expenditure. It is also damaging the performance of the British economy. Competition by wage cutting leads to high labour turnover and poor investment in training. In both respects, Britain is very backward.

Britain is one place below Turkey at the bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's skills league for the proportion of 18-year-olds in education. Only one third of the United Kingdom work force has a vocational qualification; apprenticeships have virtually disappeared; and fewer people participate in higher education than in any of our major competitor countries. Investment as a percentage of gross domestic product in Britain was only 17.5 per cent. between 1979 and 1992, compared to 29.8 per cent. in Japan.

It is clear that there is no turning back from the changes that flow from women's demands for an equal chance in society. The days when women ran the home and men ran the rest are long gone. It is absolutely clear that women have made many advances. The struggle for the vote, for education and for the right to own property after marriage, access to contraception and the right to escape from a violent partner have transformed our lives compared to those of our mothers' and grandmothers' generations, but there is still a very long way to go before women have full equality.

Women are still absent from senior positions in all our major institutions. As has already been said, there are not many women Members of Parliament, nor are there many female judges, managers, senior police officers, professors and so on. As I said, the fate of nearly half British women is to be trapped in part-time, low-paid work, which damages their life1 opportunities permanently, right through to retirement.

The Labour party believes strongly that a modern and successful economy must promote equal opportunities for women. Thus, our commitment to the social chapter, the national minimum wage, full-time rights for part-time workers, a national child care strategy and family-friendly employment policies will improve the quality of life for women and men, so that both can enjoy a satisfying career and share in the care of their children, and their parents as they become more elderly, without being forced to depend on state benefits. However, we also believe that we must encourage investment in training and infrastructure to secure a healthy economic future.

The present Government's policy of encouraging low-paid employment is deeply damaging to the women of the United Kingdom and to the performance of the British economy. Labour's strategy will promote the interests of women, stop men being pushed out of the work force, and lead to a high-training, high-investment economy. We have a backward Government, taking us continually further backwards.

4.20 pm
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. David Hunt)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

notes with approval the progress made in the United Kingdom towards equality and increasing opportunities for women, as described in the United Kingdom National Report for the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women; and calls on the Government to continue the policies which have made this possible.". Last year, it was a pleasure for me to respond to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) in a wide-ranging debate about women in Britain. As Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on women's issues, I am proud once again to have the chance to respond to her opening speech, and to remind the House of what the Government are doing to promote equality of opportunity for women.

I am glad that the newly appointed Government co-chair of the Women's National Commission, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), is here to reply to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend on that important appointment. I know that the House will join me in wishing her well, and also in thanking her predecessor, Lady Denton, for the great contribution that she made during her three years in that post.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Portillo)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Hunt

I hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment echoing my views. When I was Secretary of State for Employment, I came greatly to value and respect the work of Lady Denton and the work of the Women's National Commission.

I am interested to note that, last Thursday, the debate was originally entitled, "The Position of Women in Britain", but the title on the Order Paper has now altered to, "Lives of Women in the United Kingdom". I welcome that, because it recognises the fact that we are discussing women in the United Kingdom as a whole.

Ms Short

The right hon. Gentleman is probably aware that, rightly, one of the Ulster Unionist Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland objected to the fact that the debate was entitled, "The Position of Women in Britain". That was a slip and a snub that was in no way intended, and we immediately adjusted the title to, "Lives of Women in the United Kingdom".

Mr. Hunt

As I said, I welcome that.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

The Minister referred to the Cabinet Committee that he chairs. I have asked questions of that Committee, and it appears to meet very infrequently to consider women's issues. I have asked about the issue of women suffering from domestic violence. When will the Government formulate a programme for safe hostels in every part of the country, so that women can be safe from domestic violence? I cannot obtain an answer as to what that Cabinet Committee has been doing about the issue. Perhaps the Minister will tell me.

Mr. Hunt

Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman. The way in which those Committees are referred to has been established by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for the first time ever. The present Prime Minister has recognised publicly the existence of Cabinet Committees, whereas under previous Administrations that was not even made public. He has not only published the identity of Cabinet Committees, but published the membership and the terms of reference. However, he and I follow time-honoured tradition in not revealing to the House the nature of the subjects being discussed or the dates of the meetings of the Committees. I believe that it is right to follow that tradition, but let me assure the hon. Gentleman that the work of the Committee continues apace. The correspondence and meetings take place, and indeed we shall meet this month. Let me simply say—

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, when the Labour party tried to oblige Labour Members of Parliament to elect more women to the shadow Cabinet, one fewer was elected and the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) lost her seat, but the Leader of the Opposition ignored the vote and simply appointed her regardless?

Mr. Hunt

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The artificiality of positive discrimination can often have the opposite effect. I take this opportunity to welcome the Labour party's change of policy, which is illustrated by the motion. It has at last dropped its idea of having a Ministry dedicated to women's issues.

For some time, the Opposition have demanded a separate Ministry for women, but their current proposals look remarkably like the arrangements that the Prime Minister introduced in 1992. It has taken the Opposition some time to catch up, but I am very glad to see that they are getting there. I welcome their change of policy and I am glad that Opposition Members do not deny it.

I therefore invite the Opposition to take another giant step forward and explain to the House why, of 68 general secretaries of trade unions affiliated with the Trades Union Congress, only four are women. In telling almost everyone under the sun what he or she should be doing to improve equality of opportunity, the hon. Member for Ladywood unaccountably omitted to proffer advice to the trade unions on that point. I hope that some of the later Opposition speakers in the debate will make good that omission.

Ms Short

I listed a series of our major institutions that have that deficiency, and the trade union movement was included in that list. It has been taking major steps to increase the representation of women—perhaps the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) will contain herself—on trade union executives and among senior officials. My union, Unison, has committed itself to the principle of proportionality. It believes that the officers and representatives at every level should reflect the number of women members. Clearly, a generation of trade union general secretaries are male and a generation of women are waiting to take over when the present secretaries reach retirement age.

Mr. Hunt

I am glad that the hon. Lady took the opportunity to set out her policy on that point. I hope that there will be some progress in the very important area of representation by general secretaries.

I hope that the Opposition are not confusing gender politics with gesture politics. Let us not forget that what really counts, in this as in any other area of policy, is practical action all year round, which leads to measurable progress. The Government have taken action and we are making good progress.

We have the figures to prove that. In the past 10 years, the number of women in employment has increased by 1,369,000. There has been a 14 per cent. increase in the number of women working full time and a 19 per cent. increase in the number of women working part time. The proportion of women in the labour force has been increasing and that trend is set to continue. As the hon. Member for Dagenham (Ms Church)—who is not in the Chamber at present—said when she introduced her ten-minute Bill, women will account for 1.2 million of the projected total rise of 1.5 million in the labour force over the next decade.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I would like the right hon. Gentleman to take credit for the fact that, because his Government have done away with so many of the heavy manufacturing jobs in society, almost inevitably more women are entering the work force in low-paid part-time jobs, because that is the only alternative form of employment that his Government intend to encourage.

Mr. Hunt

Although, for decades, there has been a progressive decline in manufacturing employment, particularly at the heavy end, in the past three months, manufacturing employment has increased by more than 30,000. I believe that that very welcome development is largely due to the Government's policies.

The proportion of women in the labour force has been increasing and that trend is set to continue. Women are also getting better pay. In 1970, before the Equal Pay Act, women's full-time average earnings were 63 per cent. of men's. By April last year, they had reached almost 80 per cent. of men's and the gap has closed in each of the past six years. Men's real terms earnings have gone up over the past 10 years. The figures show simply that women's earnings have been rising faster.

Together with the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Equal Pay Act provides a full legislative framework second to none in the European Union to combat and deter sex discrimination and to provide protection against sexual harassment.

Of course, legislation is not the answer to everything and the Government are taking many practical steps to promote the advancement of women. I have seen that at first hand, as Secretary of State for Wales and then as Secretary of State for Employment, before taking on my current responsibilities.

As the hon. Member for Ladywood will know, while at the Welsh Office I introduced a programme called "Chwarae Teg", which is Welsh for fair play. "Chwarae Teg" is the model for "Fair Play for Women", the joint initiative between the Government and the Equal Opportunities Commission that I had the pleasure to launch almost a year ago with Kamlesh Bahl, the chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

The Equal Opportunities Commission continues to play a vital role in ensuring progress on women's issues. The Government do not always agree with the views and actions of the Equal Opportunities Commission, which properly and keenly guards its independence. I have no hesitation, however, in paying tribute to the work of the commission and its many lasting achievements.

"Chwarae Teg" has demonstrated that a consortium approach to tackling the barriers facing women really can work well. Under "Fair Play for Women", a consortium has been set up in each of 10 English regions. I wish those consortiums well and they have already got off to a very good start. There is a huge amount of activity taking place all over the country this week to mark International Women's Day. The London "Fair Play" consortium is hosting a meeting to get across the good business reasons for improving labour market opportunities for women. The west midlands consortium is supporting pilot workshops for personal and career development and the Yorkshire and Humberside consortium is providing financial and promotional support to the university of Huddersfield and its "Women into Technology and Science" course.

As Cabinet Minister with responsibility for science, I attach great importance to promoting the participation of women in science, engineering and technology. That is why, at the end of last year, I set up a women's development unit in the Office of Science and Technology, which is already working on a number of imaginative new projects with partners in the field.

I listened carefully to what hon. Member for Dagenham said earlier in introducing her ten-minute Bill and to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher), warning about changing attitudes, but there are a number of important initiatives. For example, the unit is funding a special high-profile event at the science museum on the relationship of women to information technology, which will be linked to a planned exhibition on the information super-highway. Later this month, I shall be speaking at a reception to mark the National Council for Educational Technology's new project on attracting girls to information technology.

Of course, this is not exclusively Government business. The private sector initiative, "Women in Technology", encourages women to enter or return to careers in information technology. Over the past three or four years, it has organised 3,500 workshops for employers and a pretty well-established database for women returners.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend is moving from Government intervention to other forms of intervention, but may I draw to his attention one discrepancy that his Committee may like to consider? It may relate to the change in the title of the debate as it concerns the discrepancy between abortion laws in Northern Ireland and Britain.

As my right hon. Friend is probably well aware, abortion is governed by the Abortion Act 1967. That Act does not apply to Northern Ireland. As a result, there are underground and back-street abortions in Northern Ireland and women have to come to Great Britain to get abortions. Will my right hon. Friend consider the difference between the two jurisdictions?

Mr. Hunt

My hon. Friend raises an issue on which strong views are held in Northern Ireland.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

And here.

Mr. Hunt

And right across the United Kingdom, of course. I shall bring my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and we shall respond.

My unit is working with Opportunity 2000 to produce a joint brochure targeted at employers of scientists and engineers in universities, Government and industry. It will use case studies to highlight the benefits to employers of family-friendly working practices.

The Government have supported the employer-led Opportunity 2000 from day one, and four years later, 28 Government Departments and agencies are involved. As a large employer, the Government recognise the need to take a lead in promoting opportunities for women. For more than 10 years, we have had a programme of action for women in the civil service. I shall shortly launch a report that sets out the progress made over that period.

There is plenty of good news. The proportion of women at executive level has risen from 29 per cent. to 47 per cent. The proportion at higher executive level has risen from 14 per cent. to more than 22 per cent. At senior executive level, the proportion has more than doubled, from 6.4 per cent. to 15 per cent. The proportion of women at assistant secretary level, or grade 5—a senior management and policy grade—has doubled, from 6.6 per cent. to 13.3 per cent.

In the top three grades, nearly 10 per cent. are women, and a formal benchmark figure has been published, that by the year 2000, 15 per cent. of people in the top three grades are expected to be women. There is still a long way to go, but we have made steady and clear progress, and I see no reason for not meeting our future targets.

I am pleased to say that the Cabinet Office has a particularly good record on women's issues. A career break system allows individuals to take up to five years' unpaid special leave. At grade 5, the Cabinet Office tops the table of Government Departments, with women at grade 5 comprising 35 per cent. of staff.

The Government are committed to increasing the number of public appointments held by women. They hold 30 per cent. of Government-appointed posts, compared with 23 per cent. in 1991. Nearly half last year's appointments were of women. That shows what can be achieved by a positive approach—not falling back on some system of artificial quotas, which we all know to be unsatisfactory and which risks devaluing women's achievements.

That is being realised in the United States and—who knows—Labour may realise it one day, instead of undermining the status of some of its women electoral candidates in selection contests that are a million miles away from providing equality of opportunity for the sexes.

Opportunity 2000 is about not quotas but individual employers developing and rewarding their employees according to their merits, and addressing the factors that may prevent women achieving their full potential. There are 275 members of Opportunity 2000, employing 25 per cent. of the country's work force. Opportunity 2000's third-year report highlighted the range of measures being taken by employers to address directly factors that are holding women back.

Opportunity 2000 found that 58 per cent. of member organisations offer job share arrangements, 60 per cent. offer flexible hours, 23 per cent. offer the option of working from home, 25 per cent. offer contracts linked to school terms, 71 per cent. offer maternity arrangements above the statutory minimum and 67 per cent. offer paternity leave.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

How many offer a seat on the board?

Mr. Hunt

Too few, and I recognise that. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Employment, with her women's issues working group, is addressing a series of problems such as the absence of a proper representation of women at board level. Opportunity 2000 is also directly addressing that problem.

The figures that I have quoted show the extent to which employers are setting their own priorities for action. I do not believe for a moment that new legislation or more interference from Government would help. In fact, since 1979 we have removed many unnecessary restrictions and burdens on employers, which hampered the flexibility of the labour market. As a result, there has been a clear growth in the number of opportunities for flexible working, enabling individuals to balance their professional and domestic responsibilities to the benefit of everyone concerned.

The number of women in work in the European Union increased by 8 million between 1983 and 1991, and 25 per cent., a quarter of that increase—2 million jobs for women—was here in the United Kingdom. We have created the sort of deregulated environment in which employers can create jobs. To reimpose the sort of burdens to which the hon. Member for Ladywood referred would destroy work, particularly the flexible job opportunities that women find most attractive.

The Government are trying to maximise the options available to working parents by increasing child care. In 1993 we launched a £45 million initiative to help expand the provision of out-of-school and holiday child care by around 50,000 places. The funds are being channelled through the training and enterprise councils and the local enterprise councils. More than 13,000 places were created in the first 18 months and another 9,000 are already in the pipeline throughout the country.

Those new places build on what was already a much improved framework. Day nursery provision more than doubled between 1983 and 1993 to almost 134,000 places in all. There are two and a half times more registered child minders than there were 10 years ago and the total is now almost 300,000. Nine out of every 10 three and four-year-olds attend some form of child care provision.

The hon. Lady mentioned that in October last year the Government introduced a new disregard for child care in family credit, worth up to £28 per family per week. That is set to help some 150,000 families, including 50,000 women who are expected to be able to take up work as a result of that change.

The Government do not believe that the taxpayer should subsidise child care costs across the board, regardless of need. We are targeting children who are most in need and taking action where we can have most impact, for instance in developing out-of-school child care. It is worth recalling that the 1990 British social attitudes survey found that only 6 per cent. of mothers who were not in employment gave the cost of child care as one of the main reasons.

Ms Short

The right hon. Gentleman has just referred to the disregard for the cost of child care introduced by the Government, which they expect to provide some 150,000 child care places. In answer to a recent parliamentary question I was told, speaking from memory, that about 7,800 child care places were being provided under the scheme. Can the Minister explain why the result appears to be so much less than the promised figure that he has just quoted?

Mr. Hunt

I think that the hon. Lady is confused. The new disregard for child care in family credit, which is worth up to £28 per family per week, was set to help some 150,000 families, including 50,000 women who are expected to be able to take up work as a result of the change. Those are the correct figures, which I stand by.

I take pride in that, because the Government want to create the right conditions for women to have access to work, and the right conditions for women to have access to education and training. We are committed to ensuring that there are training opportunities that address the specific needs of women. Training and enterprise councils are required to set out an equal opportunities strategy with a plan for implementation and a procedure for monitoring progress. The Department of Employment has also asked TECs to report on the anticipated numbers of female participants in training for work and youth training in 1994-95. About half the places in further and higher education are taken up by women and many courses have flexible attendance arrangements to fit in with individual needs. I greatly welcome that.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Perhaps the reason why many women are not benefiting from the disregard for child care is that £28 a week comes nowhere near the full cost of child care. That is why many women still have to rely on informal carers, particularly when they are taking up employment. If the Government really want to help, they should look realistically at child care opportunities and help for women who want to go back to work. The present arrangements are not realistic for most women.

Mr. Hunt

I am glad that the hon. Lady did not challenge my figure of 50,000 women who are expected to be able to take up work as a result of the change. That endorses the reaction to the move of the Chancellor of Exchequer, which was widely to welcome his announcement, which a number of organisations said would have a real impact. The figures show that.

Ms Short

This may not be the best way of getting to the bottom of the matter, but the Minister has just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) that he was glad that she did not challenge his figures. I have here the figure given to me in answer to a parliamentary question, which states that only 7,180 families are in receipt of the disregard for child care in family credit and 35 per cent. of them receive less than £10 per week. Will the Minister explain the difference between the figure of 150,000 that he claimed today and that which the Government stated previously?

Mr. Hunt

It is simply that the new disregard was introduced only last year, in the way that I have said. I understand that the latest figure is that 10,500 families are currently receiving help. That is the figure at January 1995. I stand by the fact that the disregard will help some 150,000 families.

Ms Short

In the longer term.

Mr. Hunt

Of course in the longer term, as the disregard is increasingly introduced. There is no dispute between us. Let the hon. Lady at least acknowledge that the disregard received a wide welcome. Already 10,500 families are receiving help and it is anticipated that 150,000 will do so in the longer term.

Where the Government see clear evidence of a problem, they take action. I give one example. Last month, I announced additional funding to the Royal Society for the new Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships. They will be targeted at top-class scientists who have just completed their PhD—a time when, as "The Rising Tide" report showed, many women are lost to science. That is a step in the right direction.

There is no question but that in the past women who wanted or needed to work often got a raw deal. But during the past 10 to 15 years, the Government have taken action on a broad front to change that. The future looks promising. In our schools, girls are responding to the challenges that they face. They are outperforming boys in science subjects at GCSE level, breaking down those old stereotypes. As the benefits of the national curriculum work through, I expect to see young women coming through ever more strongly at A-level and in our university system.

Combine the Government's education policies—a crucial fact is that we are getting the macro-economic conditions right for growth and job creation—with our initiatives in child care, training, regional equal opportunities consortiums and Opportunity 2000, and we have a coherent package of practical measures to help ensure that women in Britain have the chance to realise their potential.

The Conservative party believes in equality of opportunity, not crude attempts to ignore the problem and to try to fix the outcome. Today's Labour party, however, is a prisoner to political correctness, blowing along willingly with every fad and whim. In its PC mania, Labour will compromise even the principle of equality before the law. It even plans a network of PC thought police throughout central Government and, no doubt, its proposed new regional governments, too.

When I came to the House 19 years ago, the Labour party may have been pretty incompetent, but it still stood not too far away from the mainstream of British—

Mrs. Dunwoody

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a convention of the House that Ministers of the Crown and members of the Opposition refer to themselves as Her Majesty's Government or Her Majesty's Opposition. There is a developing habit among Ministers of addressing Her Majesty's Opposition as the Labour party. Unless it is now our intention to refer to the Government only as the Conservative party, I hope that we might explain one or two of the conventions of the House to the Minister, as although he may have been here for 19 years, it is obviously not long enough.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

I have stated repeatedly in recent times that I am becoming greatly concerned about the lack of the common courtesies—on both sides—with which I have grown up in the House. Those courtesies seem to be going out the door. I hope that they will rapidly return.

Mr. Hunt

I listened obediently to the hon. Member for Ladywood, and she referred to the Labour party on several occasions during her opening speech. I am not too sure about the point, but, of course, I respect what you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was merely saying that, when I came to the House 19 years ago, the Labour party was pretty incompetent, but it was not far away from the mainstream of British common sense. But ever since then, I have watched the Labour party move inexorably into an ideological cul-de-sac of trendy posturing and political correctness, while the Government—not the Opposition—make steady progress in improving opportunities for women, indeed for everyone. Labour's fixation with window dressing on the outskirts of town just grows more embarrassing and I urge the House to reject the Opposition's sham motion and approve the Government's amendment.

4.51 pm
Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I find debates on gender inequality worrying, particularly in this place with its 91 per cent. masculinity. There seems to be a consensus on both sides of the House in that everyone agrees that gender inequality is something that they do not like and that it should not exist in society. Everyone says that they have never practised discrimination and that they are working very hard to achieve gender equality.

Complacency is added to hypocrisy by the insistence that the situation is getting better all the time. There is an assumption that the liberating effect of the combination of washing machines, contraception and Sunday shopping will lead inevitably to the greater involvement of women in positions of power, influence and wealth. That makes me feel profoundly uneasy, and I feel considerable disquiet about the analysis of what the future holds.

There was extreme complacency again today, writ large in the Government's submission to the United Nations conference on women, to be held in Peking. The number of women in the judiciary has increased from 4.8 per cent. to 7.8 per cent.—marvellous. The number of women police officers is up from 9 per cent. to 13 per cent.—marvellous. We heard today that in the top three grades of the civil service 10 per cent. of the posts are held by women—which means that 90 per cent. are still held by men.

Those figures increasingly give me cause to worry, for three reasons. First, the facts spelt out by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short)—and, indeed, the facts spelt out by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster about improvements—serve only to highlight the imbalance which still exists. It is true that only 2.8 per cent. of senior managers and only 3.7 per cent. of members of company boards are women. There is an incredible imbalance in the positions of power and influence.

Secondly, every suggestion that is made in the House to build on the progress that we are told is being made is met with implacable political hostility from Conservative Members. A major measure such as the introduction of a minimum wage would clearly affect women employees in this country for the good, because three out of four people affected by the Government's abolition of the wages councils were women. A vast majority of women would be affected by the implementation of a minimum wage; they are the people who would mainly feel the benefit of that change. Yet that is one of the causes of discord between Conservative and Labour Members.

Even a minor measure is met with implacable hostility—for example, the Bill that I presented this afternoon to extend to adoptive mothers the same maternity rights as are given to natural mothers, although it would possibly have added only 0.5 per cent. to the overall maternity bill. When a minor amendment was tabled to the employment legislation last year, it was met with implacable hostility and thrown out, leaving couples in my constituency to live on part-time earnings, incredibly badly off, during the bonding period following the adoption of a small child or a baby.

Then there are measures which cost nothing at all, such as provision for more openness and insisting that all employers produce gender-based employment statistics about who gets the best opportunities for training in their companies and who gets the best opportunities for preferment and career development. Without the collation of such information and statistics, there can be no real and permanent progress; yet it is at that point that we meet implacable political hostility to further progress.

Thirdly, I am concerned about hypocrisy and complacency because I do not believe that the improvements are inevitable: I believe that they could go into reverse. Women's suffrage, achieved in 1928, is only a generation behind us. It is only 50 years since the 1945 Labour Government brought in universal health care, state education for all and a universal pension. The drive behind the undoubted changes that have taken place has nothing whatever to do with the practices, thoughts or policies of the present Government and everything to do with democratic changes stemming from the actions that were taken by the Labour Government in 1945.

I believe that the current retreat from democracy to a quango state—the privatisation of public services and utilities and the emphasis on profit, share options and markets rather than on public service—could reverse the changes that have been made. Questions of public provision and collective accountability expose the need for gender equality and other types of equality between citizens.

The national health service is for everyone. A well-funded state education system allows boys and girls to feel that they have equal rights in regard to education. It has taken a generation of children, since comprehensive education became the norm, to bring us to the point at which—as has been rightly pointed out—achievement begins truly to reflect ability. Indeed, girls now outperform boys at every stage from O-levels to university degrees.

Women in their thousands toiled to sign millions of petitions against the increase in value added tax on heating. Women, in particular, feel outraged by the damage caused by the privatisation of our public utilities, and the fact that the bosses are taking the payments for which they have budgeted so carefully. Women who run household budgets know to their cost the difficulties involved in making those payments and they are personally outraged at the knowledge that their money is paying for multi-million pound salaries, share options and dividends.

In the past 10 or 15 years, local democracy—democracy in local government—has enabled councils to recognise the problem caused in their communities by gender inequality. They have taken the lead in monitoring the position, collecting figures, launching positive action projects and offering women enhanced training facilities. They have opened up the job market to women in local democratic institutions, pioneered job sharing schemes, and so on. We welcome the changes in the civil service that the Chancellor has described, but it should be remembered that they were pioneered in the public sector.

Having sat on the board of the Sheffield development corporation and also been a member of Sheffield city council, I observed a startling change between the two. The other members of the board exhibited the utmost complacency and ignorance in relation to anything to do with equal opportunities in jobs and training. They either treated such matters as a joke, or admitted that they knew nothing about them and had not heard of such practices in their private sector institutions.

More recently, I served on the Select Committee on the Environment and noted the obvious surprise when it was pointed out that only three members of the board of the Housing Corporation were women. That did not reflect the interests of housing association tenants. The same applies to many quango appointments: it is commonly felt that a retired business man is an appropriate appointee, because he will know about business and will therefore be more able than a woman to look after quango institutions or privatised utilities.

So although changes have been outlined ably this afternoon, the move from open competition for civil service jobs to head hunting and the appointment of Ministers' friends is symptomatic of a return to the old boy network. A drift back to the two-tier education system and the two-tier health service could well take the next generation back to the days before 1945 when the welfare state legislation brought about major improvements which have eventually found their way into our lives.

I fear that the basic instincts of an unchecked society are dominated by hierarchies. There is a tendency towards elitism, establishments and exploitation of the majority by the minority. We can never assume that equality of opportunity will happen automatically in any society. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster's speech was riddled with inconsistency; having claimed that the Government had taken action, he said in the next breath that they were succeeding because they had allowed no action to be taken. He seemed to be saying that they had allowed deregulation to take place so that equality could take its natural course. But that is not the way of the world, or the way of British society.

Opposition Members believe that only through constant vigilance, constant monitoring and—yes—constant intervention by a good, accountable Government can fairness and equality flourish. As soon as they begin to flourish, the development of a sound economic base, a reduction in crime and higher standards of education and skills will follow. On that the House can agree wholeheartedly and, I hope, achieve consensus today.

5.7 pm

Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

I begin with a quotation which, I believe, sets a background for much of what will he said today:

Can it be pretended that women who manage a property or conduct a business—who pay rates and taxes often to a large amount, and frequently from their own earnings—many of whom are responsible heads of families and some of whom, in the capacity of schoolmistresses, teach more than a great many of the male electors have ever learnt—are not capable of a function of which every male householder is capable? That was said in the House by John Stuart Mill when he moved the first women's suffrage amendments to the 1867 Reform Bill. I am sure that it was true then, and certain that it is very true today.

The topic of today's debate provides an opportunity to speak about the whole spectrum of women's issues. I would like to discuss many of those issues in depth, but time will not allow me to do so. I shall begin by highlighting the aims of the United Kingdom Federation of Business and Professional Women. In the 1940s, that federation of women's clubs had a number of positive objectives: they were to awaken and encourage in business and professional women a realisation of their responsibilities in their own country and in world affairs; to facilitate effective co-operation between business and professional women throughout the world; to raise the standards of education and training for business and professional women; and to work for the removal of sex discrimination in opportunities for employment, promotion and remuneration.

Here we are, 50 years later. What has happened since those aims were first laid down? It is interesting to analyse what has been achieved in the past 50 years; I shall look at that in a moment. What is certain is that, whatever progress has been made, much remains to be done. When women look at women's issues, they must never be satisfied with progress if they are permanently to believe in equality with men.

I believe that we often achieve equality with men, sometimes to the annoyance of the men. We often more than equal them; we out-achieve them. That has been proved by many girls and students in schools, colleges and universities. What do the men do then? I think that they move the goalposts and we then have to start the game all over again. We must never be satisfied with progress.

What have we achieved towards those aims of almost half a century ago and what needs to be done? Have women realised their responsibilities in their own country and in world affairs, perhaps by effective co-operation between women throughout the world? Women have, I suggest, always recognised their responsibilities, both here and throughout the world. The United Kingdom has not always given the lead. Certainly, in terms of women's suffrage we did not. On 28 November 1893, New Zealand women flocked to the polls as they gained the vote, and obviously made good use of it.

I recall that, at the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in New Delhi in 1993, Dr. Najma Heptulla presented a paper entitled "Women, a Saga of Struggle". She spoke about the meeting of women parliamentarians which preceded the IPU conference. The meeting took place on the day of rest for the conference. It was Sunday and all the men had a day off while the women went to work on what they wanted to discuss. Dr. Heptulla also said that, despite the pressures of societies and systems, women had, in different periods of history, emerged at the forefront and had proved their mettle, many in this country and many in other parts of the world. We can look back to Queen Elizabeth I—what a determined woman she was. We can look back to Queen Victoria and to our own Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. We can look at Benazir Bhutto and we can look back to Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Mrs. Bandaranaike, all of whom were leaders in their countries before we had a woman leader. I recall meeting Lucy Mobuelo, who was the leader of the South African Garment Workers Union. What that lady told us about the work she did in that country at a very difficult time was most encouraging.

There is, of course, always more that needs to be done. While we debate the position of women, we should also spare a thought for the many women throughout the world who do not have the advantages that we have here. We should try, and we should continue to try through our international women's organisations, to improve their daily lives because many of them do not have the advantages and facilities that we have, even though we believe that we can go further.

We must also look at what steps have been taken to raise the standard of education and training for women. We all recognise that education is vital to enable all people to achieve their full potential. It is widely recognised throughout the world that if one educates a woman, one educates the family; we must not forget that.

The number of women in higher education has risen by 100,000 since 1979. The proportion of women to men in the intake to higher education is now almost 50:50. I should like to be able to stand here in a year's time and say that we have passed that 50 per cent. mark. That would truly reflect the proportion of women in this country.

At A-level, girls have a higher success rate than boys, not only in English but in mathematics, physics and technology. At GCSE level, almost 46 per cent. of girls gained five or more passes at grades A to C compared with under 30 per cent. of boys in 1993. I suggest that our school students are making their own way towards the end of their education and the start of their careers.

Ms Short

Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the advantages of women asking for the statistics of achievement to be disaggregated—or, if the Daily Mail cannot handle that, broken down by the performance of boys and girls—is that we would see that the performance of boys in school is worryingly bad? Does she agree that equal opportunities mean everyone achieving his or her full potential? Does she agree that it is a priority for education policy to examine why boys seem to be underachieving so badly in school?

Mrs. Peacock

I was going to make that very point. The Government have encouraged choice and diversity in education, allowing parents to choose to send their children to single-sex schools which, on average, produce better academic results for girls. I was going to go on to say that it is, however, worrying, no matter how pleased we are at how well the girls are doing in school, to note that boys are not achieving so much and that we should find out why. Are they giving up because they see the girls doing better? I had sons and not daughters. I think that girls doing well helps to keep boys' noses to the grindstone. One of my sons benefited from that. However, we need to examine seriously why boys appear in some areas to have given up.

We need to encourage women who are now working, but who did not have the opportunity to gain qualifications at school, to become part of national vocational qualification training schemes and to take other training opportunities that will give them greater confidence in their future. This is happening to quite an extent in our textile industry where there have been specific schemes to train men and women between the ages of 25 and 35 who left school with no qualifications. Through NVQs, those people have been able to achieve a qualification and, often, to move on with promotion through their company and to take a more responsible job. We are all told nowadays that people need a certificate of competence, whatever that might be, to say that they can perform certain tasks. That is one of the great moves forward that we have made with NVQs.

We must consider steps to remove sex discrimination in opportunities for employment, promotion and remuneration. I do not believe that the position is as gloomy as it is always painted. The United Kingdom has the second highest proportion of women in work; Denmark has the highest. Women here account for 45 per cent. of the labour force and 12.1 million women are either working or seeking work.

The number of women in self-employment has risen by almost 80 per cent. since 1981 and women account for one in four of the self-employed. It is sometimes said that women who find that the glass ceiling, or the shutter, whichever one likes to call it, descends on them then decide that they will set up and run their own company. They are extremely successful in doing that and we should encourage more of them. However, we still want the many capable women in businesses to continue to push at the proverbial glass ceiling to ensure that it rises as the women rise throughout their careers.

Forty-five per cent. of women work part time. Between spring 1984 and 1994, there was an 18 per cent. increase in part-time employment. Part-time employment is often derided as not being good or sensible employment. However, I must tell the House that many women in my constituency want to work part time because it fits in with their family commitments and with having children at school. In Fox's biscuit factory, women can work twice a year—in the run-up to Christmas, when the company takes on lots of extra staff, and in the other peak period. Those women know that they have regular work each year for so many weeks. They find that that is ideal and that they can cope with that and a family. The work at Fox's is not slave labour: the women pack high-quality biscuits and high-quality goods; they have good training and the company has good working practices. This very good company looks after its workers, as many of us like to see. All part-time employment may not be quite as good; part-time work at Fox's is good. As an employer of more than 2,000 and sometimes 2,500 people in my area, the company is a most important employer. If women and, occasionally, some men could not work part time, the company would have to install machines. Before long, it will be possible to pack high-quality delicate biscuits by machinery. At the moment, that is not quite possible. Certainly, Batley would lose a huge amount of employment if it were decided to put machinery in to do that packing.

Since the Prime Minister launched the Opportunity 2000 initiative in 1991, company membership has more than doubled, and it now covers more than 25 per cent. of the work force. There is still a long way to go. We need to keep pushing such initiatives along and never sit back and think that we have arrived and achieved our goal, because we have not. The public appointments unit, of which many of us have been critical over many years, reported that in 1993 women took 40 per cent. of all new appointments to public bodies. That is certainly an improvement, as it was something like 30 per cent. in 1989. We also need to move that forward. I am sure that, by 1996, 50 per cent. of public appointments will be filled by women, which will reflect the number of women in the United Kingdom.

The Government have helped to create a more flexible environment for working women, especially by the provision of workplace nurseries, which attract tax relief, and by introducing a child care allowance worth up to £28 a week for those on family credit. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) said that that allowance was not worth much and did not buy very much. It may not be as much as many of us would like, but it is certainly £28 a week more than was available at one time. It may be that such help has to be given bit by bit to ensure that the country can afford all the schemes that we would like.

Dr. Lynne Jones

May I point out to the hon. Lady that although, in theory, £28 is available, many women are not eligible and many families do not receive that £28 because there is a maximum limit on family credit? As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) mentioned, most receive less than £10 a week. That does not go far enough, realistically, to help women with child care expenses.

Mrs. Peacock

I have been looking at who benefits and by how much in my constituency and, at the end of my inquiries, I shall report to the Minister on how effective I think that the allowance is. We were told that there was an opportunity for those on family credit to receive £28 a week. I am very interested, as always, to see how that works in practice.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I, too, was going to raise the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones). I am delighted to hear that the hon. Lady will look into the matter. The whole House will be interested to hear the results of her inquiry. Was she, too, slightly puzzled when the Chancellor said that the child care allowance disregard was to be gradually introduced? I thought that the House had been told that it was introduced already and was available. I was slightly surprised. I wonder if the hon. Lady was surprised, too.

Mrs. Peacock

My understanding of what my right hon. Friend said was that the disregard had been introduced but it had not been taken up all at once. As I understood it, the take-up would be more gradual as more people entered the system. I shall also look at that aspect. If the hon. Gentleman had been here a little longer, he would know that I am always fairly thorough in looking at how Government policies affect the people whom I represent. The disregard will be the subject of another one of my inquiries. I may not publish my results, but the Minister will certainly get them.

It is a fact that women in Britain enjoy the longest period of maternity absence of any country in the European Union and one of the longest periods of paid maternity leave— 18 weeks. Married women have independent tax status and may now choose whether to share the married couples allowance with their husbands, thanks to Conservative tax reforms in 1990 and 1993. Many of us campaigned for many years to have the right to be taxed separately. Although I do not mind my husband paying my tax, I would like to know on what I am assessed. As the House may imagine, he does not especially like to pay tax for me, but we have every right to he totally independent if that is what we wish.

Yorkshire, a very fine county, part of which I represent and where I was born and bred, recognises achievement, particularly in women. Each year, the Yorkshire women of achievement awards result in a great gathering. They reward achievement in all walks of life—not only public figures but, often, people who have made great achievements in their own life, perhaps connected to their family. Those awards are a very good way in which to highlight much of the work that is done behind the scenes by women. We also have the Yorkshire woman of the year award. We are not totally biased, however, because there is a Yorkshire man of the year award as well, so we have equality in that respect.

We all need to recognise that women of whatever age or background need to have some choice in what they do. I do not believe that many of the young women whom I sec in schools and colleges in my constituency and further afield need quotas. They have many more opportunities now and they are very determined. When I go along to listen to what they have to say, it never fails to amaze me how capable they are. In public-speaking competitions, they stand up, debate and win prizes. I do not believe that they want quotas. They do not want places saved for them. I certainly do not want quotas. I know from my experience over the past 12 years in the House that, if there were quotas and I turned up as a quota woman, my colleagues would say that they did not need to listen to my comments because I was here only because they had saved me a place. That is not the type of position or job that I would ever wish to have. I wish to be present on my Own merits and, therefore, to be taken seriously when I contribute to a debate.

It is true, of course, that although we would like women to have choice, some need to work to help the family budget. That is nothing new; it has always been so. Women go to work, not only to occupy themselves and to pursue careers but to help to keep the family and provide some of life's necessities. It would be nice if that did not happen, but it does, it always has and I cannot see a total end to it. The part-time earnings brought into the family budget by many women are most welcome.

Some women will choose to stay at home and look after their small children and we should recognise and applaud their choice. We should not devalue the role of motherhood or the woman who wants to say at home and look after her children. Being with a child in the first few years of his or her life is probably the most important job of a mother. We should, therefore, welcome that choice and put a high value on it.

Of course we need to see more women in Parliament, but I cannot see 300 of our colleagues laying down their arms, as it were, and saying, "Do have my seat." That will not happen. When I first came into the House in 1983, there were just 23 women. It was a very low percentage—I think, the lowest ever. There are now 62 women in the House. In just over a decade, we have almost trebled the number and moved on. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) said, next time, watch this space. We cannot wait. Even this House has moved on from Churchill's comment when Nancy Astor arrived in Parliament. He said it was

like being found naked in the bathroom with nothing hut a sponge to protect you". I hope that hon. Members do not take a similar view.

Mr. Ottaway

I do not wish to disagree with my hon. Friend, but will she correct me if I am wrong—perhaps some Labour Members may correct me—in thinking that when the Labour party put forward positive discrimination in favour of women candidates, a committee was set up to decide what was a woman and it decided that, in fact, it was someone who lived as a woman? That of, course, would include someone who dresses as a woman and did not rule out transvestites. What would the reaction be if a transvestite were to encroach on such matters, as is possibly envisaged by the Labour party?

Mrs. Peacock

I am afraid that I do not know anything at all about that.

Ms Short

Just for the record, I do not know where the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) read that. There was never such a committee.

Mr. Ottaway

In the Observer.

Ms Short

The hon. Gentleman should not believe everything he reads in the newspapers. I can assure him that there was never such a committee or such a judgment.

Mrs. Peacock

We must recognise that women who wish to become Members of Parliament will decide at different times in their lives when it is right to do that. Some young women might decide in school, as men do, that they wish to pursue a career in Parliament. Some will become Members as young women before they are married. Some will come in after they are married. Some may become Members before they have children, while some may come to the House afterwards.

Shortly after the 1983 general election, an article in The Times asked why the average age of the new male Member of the House was 31 or 33 while the average age of women Members was 45. The reason for that age difference is obvious. The majority of the women who became Members then came to the House after having children. They allowed their children to reach a sensible age and then decided that they wanted to do something else.

Mrs. Helen Jackson

Is the hon. Lady aware that all the studies in schools of schoolchildren reveal that the expectations of the jobs that boys and girls will have retain incredible gender imbalances? Virtually no girls at school think that they will become politicians. Most girls leave school thinking that they are going to he nurses, teachers, or part of the caring professions. It is the boys who see themselves as becoming politicians. That position has not changed significantly.

Mrs. Peacock

I hear what the hon. Lady says, but I do not believe most of those surveys. From my experience of talking to young people in schools, and particularly of talking to girls, I have found a totally different approach. Many of those young people are talking about doing quite different things. Although not many of them are talking about becoming Members of Parliament, there is an interest in politics. I am often invited to speak on that subject in schools in my constituency and further afield. I shall visit a school on Friday to talk to girls in a very male-dominated environment in an industrial area. It was felt that those girls have no role models. They wanted someone to talk to them about women performing jobs other than those which they might traditionally have performed.

I did not have any hopes or thoughts about becoming a Member of Parliament when I was at school. That desire developed over a much longer period through involvement in other things. Perhaps many young women will become Members as a result of that kind of progression instead of starting off with a desire to become a Member. It is our job as lady Members to encourage girls to think otherwise. We cannot do that through surveys. We must have personal contact and talk to girls in schools. We must listen to what they have to say.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Obviously, a fair number of hon. Members become Members at a relatively early age and stay for a long time. There is also a fair amount of turnover. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is just as important that people who may spend two or three Parliaments serving in the House feel that they can become Members for the first time in their 60s, 50s or 40s, just as much as in their 30s? We should not have an agist approach to the effect that it is better to be an ex-Member at 45 than to be one at 65 or 75.

Mrs. Peacock

I could not agree more. My advice to any young man or woman who wants to become a Member is that he or she should go away, get some experience of life, do various jobs outside so that that person has a little more idea about what he or she is talking about, and then become a Member at 40 or 45 because there is still time to bring outside experience to the House. Although many young people are becoming Members, they are single-minded and just want to be Members of Parliament. I am not sure whether we want to see a House full of such Members. We want a variety of interests and ages and also a great variety of backgrounds.

In a debate such as this, it is very easy to stand up and make a great noise about the terrible position of women in Britain. I do not believe that the position is so terrible. Having travelled in one or two countries abroad, I am always pleased to come home to the advantages and the position in the United Kingdom, as opposed to that enjoyed by some of our friends abroad.

The position of most women in Britain today is much better than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago. We now have organisations like the women's network where women get together and discuss professional issues and any other issues that women may wish to get together to discuss. Ten years ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) and I set up an old girls' network. Having become Members of this place, we decided that it ticked on the old boys' network. Over a cup of coffee, we decided that if we wished to survive, we should set up an old girls' network and we unashamedly did just that.

We now have a group of women from all over the United Kingdom—from the north of Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and elsewhere—who meet two or three times a year. It is a non-political organisation. The women welcome the opportunity to get together, to discuss and to hand out business cards. Our old girls' network is very successful. We now have a mailing list of 460 women of all ages and backgrounds throughout the United Kingdom. It is our responsibility to encourage others, in particular the younger women and others who may not want to come to Parliament but who want to take a leading role in public life generally.

We must consider women's issues with a more balanced approach. We must compare and contrast the position of women in Britain with that of women elsewhere in the world. Although there is much to be done, we have a pretty good story to tell. We must consider what has been achieved and I have tried to do that today. We must look positively at what needs to be done and I believe that I have highlighted one or two areas in respect of which we could move forward.

As women, we must now decide how to achieve all our aims and objectives, whatever they may be. I am quite sure that we all have different aims and objectives. We must begin by being very constructive. However, if that fails, as some of my colleagues will know, I am not against a little bit of militancy. One of my greatest regrets is that I was not born in a slightly earlier age so that I, too, could have been a suffragette and helped in the fight for votes for women.

I am not sure whether I would have been as brave as some of those suffragettes. Without their bravery and their actions—and although I am sure that we disapprove of bricks being thrown through windows—we would not be where we are today. We have a lot for which to thank the suffragettes.

I have always believed in standing up and fighting for what I believe is the positive way forward. I have been a member of the Business and Professional Women's Club for 30 years. Although the club does not see very much of me, I keep in touch. I believe that the club's aims and objectives will benefit all women, not just one particular branch of women. We are talking about support and education for women.

As I have said, we owe much to many brave women in the past. However, I also believe that women today must march onwards together, as much as possible, in the cause of our own future.

5.37 pm
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

I join the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) in paying tribute to the suffragettes. I am pleased that she paid that tribute, and I am sure that her feelings are echoed on the Opposition Benches.

In addition to the very well known women like the Pankhursts, women all over the country from various social classes were involved in the suffragette movement. We would do women a service if we did more to preserve their memory and to educate girls—and often ourselves—about the achievements and efforts of the suffragettes. For example, the first suffragette in Preston was Edith Rigby. An excellent book entitled "My Aunt Edith" describes her battles. I use the word "battles" advisedly, because battle is what she did. It is very important to carry forward those memories, but we do not do enough of it.

There are two problems in women's employment. One is that it is too narrowly based. Reference has already been made to the need for women to cast their nets wider. Girls should be encouraged to consider jobs that are not traditionally women's jobs. All hon. Members would endorse that. The other problem is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) said, traditional women's jobs such as nursing and teaching—the legitimate ambitions for girls—are undervalued. One thing that we must do to improve the position of women is enhance the value which society places on such jobs. They are honourable callings. I should not like, in our eagerness for girls to go into other jobs and other aspects of decision making, to connive in the undervaluing of teaching, nursing and other caring professions.

Mrs. Helen Jackson

indicated assent.

Mrs. Wise

I see my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough nodding vigorously.

I wish to concentrate on the problems of unemployment, under-employment and low pay. Official figures show that, apparently, fewer than a quarter of unemployed people are women. That is a gross misrepresentation of unemployment among women. Women's unemployment is not properly counted. Each of the 20 or so changes in the method of counting unemployment has worked to hide women and their problems in obtaining jobs.

Women are much less likely than men to be able to claim benefit. Therefore, they will not be counted. There are strenuous efforts even to prevent women from registering as available for work. Unreasonable requirements are placed on them to forecast child care arrangements in respect of jobs that they have not been offered, the hours of which they do not know, and the place of which they do not know. It is impossible for women who have not been born with second sight to outline child care arrangements when they have not been offered jobs. They are then deprived of the opportunity of registering as available for work.

Women, as well as being more unemployed than we think, arc also very much under-employed. By that, I do not mean underworked; under-employment is different. Official figures do not provide information on the extent of under-employment, but thousands of women experience it. For example, women who go back to work after having a family often return to lower-graded and less-skilled work—and, of course, lower-paid work. That is a type of under-employment. Such women are not permitted to use their skills and experience.

There are women who want to work full time but can find only part-time jobs. Women in part-time jobs have found their hours of work being steadily reduced. I endorse the comment of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen that many women want to work part time. I speak as the president and sponsored Member of Parliament for the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. We have many part-time workers in our membership—if we did not, our union would hardly exist. It is not that we are against part-time work.

At one time, women seeking a part-time job might have wanted to work, say, mornings or three days a week. The situation has changed vastly for the worse. Such women find their hours of work being steadily reduced against their will. Whereas, in 1981, 6.5 per cent. of women worked fewer than eight hours a week—they were counted as employed—by 1994 the figure rose to 11.7 per cent. The figure is well on the way to doubling. I do not believe that many of those women prefer to work fewer than eight hours a week. Employers often prefer it, because it cuts employees out of entitlement to employment rights, however long they have worked for the firm.

In 1981, 31.7 per cent. of women worked fewer than 16 hours a week. The figure rose to 52.5 per cent. in 1994. We are talking not about part-time work, which can have a useful part to play and be very popular with women, but about women whose hours of work and wages are being steadily squeezed.

There are also women who are on zero-hours or on-call contracts. They are supposed to be available at the end of a telephone when an employer says, "I want you in tomorrow, because somebody has gone sick." If someone says, "I am afraid I cannot get my child looked after at a minute's notice; I need a week or so to plan," that does not suit the employer, so no work is forthcoming.

I do not call that freedom or flexibility for women. I call it women being at the mercy of employers, who fail to plan their labour needs adequately and properly. It is rather like the system by which employers would say to the dockers in a pen, "I want you, you and you today, and the rest of you go home," except that one now has the dignity of not being in a pen but instead has the expense of providing a telephone. That is part of the process of casualisation, which has resulted in a massive increase in insecure, temporary and casual work.

That is a severe problem for women, and it is reflected in their pay. I do not intend to give tedious lists about what women earn, but there are some striking figures. More than 3 million people earn less than the income tax threshold, and 85 per cent. of them are women.

On 9 February, in answer to a parliamentary question, I was told that, according to the latest available figures—April 1994—3.1 million employees earned more than the upper earnings limit for national insurance contributions, over which, of course, contributions are not increased, so those people are in the happy position of paying a lower total rate of tax. Half a million of those fortunate people were women—16 per cent.

The mirror image of that can be seen in the fact that 3.1 million employees earned less than the lower earnings limit for national insurance contributions. There are 3.1 million people earning above the upper limit and 3.1 million earning below the lower limit, but 2.3 million of the latter are women. That is three quarters of these very low earners, who earn less than £58 a week. Those women are counted as employed, but the result is that they are not eligible for statutory sick pay, statutory maternity pay or main contributory benefits, including pensions. That is a stark example of what happens in respect of women's pay.

I have already said that my trade union is USDAW, of which I am the president. Retailing has borne the brunt of the Government's policies as they have acted to deregulate it completely. The last remaining thread of protection which existed for shop workers for tea breaks and meal breaks and the controls on excessive weekday opening hours have been wiped away.

There are increasingly complex shift patterns associated with extended hours, and it is usually part-time, temporary and casual workers who face the demands arising from the changes, with all the stresses and strains that those put on the individual worker and the family. Those workers have the least protection, and frequently have no protection, under our employment protection laws. Research on low pay conducted by my union has demonstrated that, since the abolition of wages councils, wage rates in former wages councils industries have dropped drastically. USDAW carries out regular surveys of pay rates on offer in jobcentres throughout the country. Recent examples include such jobs as a part-time supermarket cleaner in Hull at £2.05 an hour, a shop assistant in Northampton at £100 for a 40-hour week, and a hairdresser capable of working "to a high standard" in a Rochdale salon at £60 for a 42-hour week.

Those examples are not the most stark. There are examples which are worse, but we do not want to be accused of being completely untypical. Those examples could he seen by any hon. Member going into his or her local jobcentre tomorrow. It would be a good idea if some hon. Members did that. The new earnings survey shows that more than half women checkout operators earn less than £3.60 per hour.

It is true that there are now improved rights for part-time workers. The Government have been dragged kicking, screaming and resisting every inch of the way—they are squeezed between the European Union and the legal judgment of the House of Lords—and have given part-time workers, most of whom are women, some equal employment rights. But in reality, women workers are treated less favourably than male workers. They are not allowed to make the contribution that they would like to make, for themselves, their families or the economy in general.

I should like to mention with great approval the Carers (Recognition and Services) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks), which has received its Second Reading. The Bill aims to give carers some rights to have their needs assessed. That is extremely important to women, because three carers in every five are women. Of course all five car[...]s will benefit—the two men as well. It is fair to say that, every time one improves the situation for women, the situation for men—often men who are making an unsung contribution—will also be improved.

Following the welter of all-party support given to my hon. Friend's Bill, I wonder whether there will he the resources to match the rights which arc being extended to carers. A veil was drawn over that on Friday, and, while I do not like to disturb the equilibrium of the unaccustomed all-party approval, I must say that the thoughts going through my mind were less than charitable. Government support is given at the stage when further responsibilities are placed on local government, but will the resources he available when they are needed by local government'? Will there be all-party support then'? I hope so, but I have my doubts.

One reason why caring and caring jobs are undervalued is because women are under valued. The contribution which carers make to the economy was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon. North-West, and probably amounts to £30 billion a year. That is a substantial economic contribution, which could he more than matched by the other contributions made by women's unpaid work which is not counted as a part of GNP. I am pleased to associate myself with the campaign by my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) for women's unpaid labour to he counted when we are assessing the production of the economy.

The undervaluing of women has turned them into cut-price people, and has meant that their caring and economic role is undervalued. I believe that an essential prerequisite for getting real equality for women in the United Kingdom will be for women to cease to be cut-price people in their work, whether inside or outside the home.

5.55 pm
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

First, I apologise, both to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short), for not being here during their opening speeches. I had spoken to Madam Speaker earlier, and I was detained on a matter elsewhere in the House.

I would like to welcome to the Front Bench my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who I am delighted to see will be winding up for the Government. My hon. Friend is a shining example of a mother and business woman who has chosen to change her career to come into this House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ladywood on securing the debate, which seems to be becoming an annual affair. I remember exchanging blows with her last year during a debate on sex discrimination. It is good that she has been able to persuade her right hon. and hon. Friends to set aside a whole day to debate what I believe is an extremely important subject.

I was a little disappointed that, during International Women's Week, we could not have debated the subject of women on a far wider international motion. I believe that we are very fortunate as women in the United Kingdom. That is not to say that there are not still things to be done on our behalf. I would have liked to see the Members of this House turn their faces outwards to look at the plight of women in less privileged countries.

We have made a lot of progress in this country, much of which has been aided by good, sound Conservative Government legislation, but I would like to raise a matter on which progress has not been made.

I introduced a ten-minute Bill last year which simply asked for the same employment rights to he conferred upon adoptive mothers as are conferred upon mothers who give birth to their children. Adoptive mothers do not have parity with natural mothers. They do not have a statutory right to return to work after the adoptive period, and they do not receive any statutory payment during such an absence.

The condition prevails today, even though an adoptive mother may have paid the same national insurance contributions. I not only introduced a ten-minute Bill on the matter, but raised it on the Adjournment. It is not a party political matter. I would like to thank the hon. Members for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin), for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) and for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), all of whom supported my ten-minute Bill last year, together with members of my own party, who also supported the Bill.

Once again, I would like to ask Government Front-Bench Members to level the playing field for adoptive parents, and to introduce amendments to the employment protection legislation. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson), who today laid a similar Bill on the Table. We have already been in contact on the matter, and I am proud to have added my name to the list of sponsors. I hope that Ministers will take the request seriously. We are talking about a small group of women who are disadvantaged—a group that provides a service to some of our children and to the country as a whole. Those women actually save the Government money, and I think that they should have equal treatment with natural mothers.

As for the Government's record on legislation benefiting women, the impression often left by the debate surrounding women in this country is that the Tory party at best pays only lip service to women, and at worst does not care at all. However, the reverse is true.

I should have to speak at great length to cover all the measures introduced since 1979 that have benefited women, but three of the most important such changes, which have benefited women directly, have occurred in the tax system. The introduction of independent taxation in 1990, along with the replacement of the married man's allowance, was welcomed both by me and by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock). It was also welcomed by my husband with some relief, because he no longer had to try to get to grips with my simple—but to him fairly alien—tax affairs.

The provision of tax relief for workplace nurseries also took place in 1990. In 1991, no fewer than 20,000 women took advantage of that measure. In 1988, the reform in the taxation of maintenance payments occurred, so that maintenance was taken out of the tax system today. Those are probably the best known reforms; they are certainly those that are mentioned most often during debates on women's matters.

However, I shall also remind the House of a couple of other reforms introduced by successive Conservative Governments that are equally important, although often forgotten. It was a Conservative Government who in 1979 abolished the married women's half test. That was an additional contribution condition requiring married women to have paid national insurance contributions in at least half the years between marriage and pensionable age.

In November 1994, we introduced the severe disablement allowance, which, unlike its predecessor, was available to married women for the first time on the same terms as other claimants. In April 1990, we introduced the special payment for pre-1973 war widows, who had long campaigned on the basis that they had not benefited from improvements in the armed forces pension scheme. People often forget that it was a Conservative Government who did that.

In 1981, we introduced the British Nationality Act, which for the first time allowed women who were British citizens, whether married or not, to transmit their citizenship automatically to their children born abroad. Before that Act, citizenship could he transmitted only by the father, and then only to legitimate children. It was a Conservative Government who did that, too.

I could go on to talk about the Equal Pay (Amendment) Regulations 1983, which established the principle of equal pay for work of equal value, and the Sex Discrimination Act 1986, which removed restrictions on women's hours and times of work. That may have been a controversial measure in some areas, but it is not controversial for the members of staff in this place. many of whom are women, and who support us so admirably throughout our parliamentary year by working some very anti-social hours. I could go on and on, but I do not think now that I need remind the House any more of the commitment of successive Conservative Governments to the cause of women.

I now return to my opening remarks, about how disappointed I was not to be debating women's matters on an internationally framed motion. I wish to remain in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I have given some thought to how to do so, and I have decided to talk about the work of one woman in our Government—Baroness Chalker, at the Overseas Development Administration.

If the Labour party had framed the debate more widely, we could have talked about the women pearl divers in Lesotho whose lives are shortened because of the depths to which they dive, and about the way in which the Women's Institute has helped them. We could have talked about the women of central Africa who walk 15 miles a day to fetch water. I do not believe that any woman in the House walks 15 miles a day for water.

We could also have talked about the women of China who face the dilemma of being allowed to produce only one child. If that first child is a girl, what a terrible decision they have to make. What sort of privation are they forced into?

Dr. Lynne Jones

If the hon. Lady feels so strongly about those issues and about women's lives in the international scene, will she ask her Government to arrange for a debate on them in Government time?

Mrs. Gillan

I thank my friend—I mean, the hon. Lady, although I think of her as my hon. Friend-for that intervention. What she suggests would he a good idea. Perhaps we could both make the point to the Leader of the House during business questions on Thursday. I have not heard many voices from the Opposition Benches calling for a debate on that subject, but it would he an excellent idea. The Opposition have missed an opportunity by not highlighting the plight of women internationally.

Surely we should get our priorities right. Surely we should not gaze at our navels, but should look outwards to see how we can educate and help women in other countries. Baroness Chalker is giving us a formidable lead at the ODA. Indeed, on the front page of the booklet containing the ODA's annual review for 1994, among the aims of the aid programme, she specifically includes:

Promote the status of women". In many developing countries, women arc usually the poorest and work longer hours gathering hare essentials. They often have the sole responsibility for bringing up children. In 1993-94, the ODA almost doubled the sum spent on projects specifically aimed at women. It supported the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee and the Aga Khan Rural Support Project.

In the Pacific region, the ODA supports a judicial, legal and rights education programme aimed at providing training for women and encouraging them to go into a profession dominated by men. In Africa, it supports the work of African women's organisations in educating families and their children, especially about the problems resulting from female genital mutilation, which still occurs throughout the world, and which I find abhorrent. Baroness Chalker is taking direct action on desperately urgent projects. Many other women's organisations in this country—for example, the Women's Institute—also choose to direct some of their efforts abroad. I should like us to turn our eyes to those women. We must continue to make progress here. It is much more important to try to empower women who are so severely disadvantaged in underprivileged countries, when we in the United Kingdom are so privileged today.

Yes, we still have further to go, but as women, especially as women in the House of Commons, we have a strong message to take abroad. I hope that Baroness Chalker will continue to carry that message, and I hope that those on the Opposition Front Bench will support me in looking for more help for women in other countries.

6.8 pm

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) in urging the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) to bring to bear what pressure she can on the Government to arrange a debate in Government time on the situation of women in the third world. However, given that since 1979, under successive Conservative Administrations, this country has moved from being the second largest donor nation to being the second smallest donor nation, it is more than likely that her requests will fall on stony ground. However, I join her in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) for creating what I hope will be an annual event in the Chamber, that is, the discussion of women's position in this country and abroad.

The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) said that women's suffrage had been introduced in New Zealand in 1893, and I shall come back to that point in a moment. She also wondered whether she would have had the courage to withstand the pressure endured by the suffragettes. I can assure her that her concern about her possible lack of courage is not shared by any other hon. Member. We all know how she withstood the pressure exerted on her by Conservative Whips, so no one would argue that she lacked Yorkshire grit.

The hon. Member for Batley and Spen said that women had been granted suffrage in New Zealand in 1893. Last year, I was privileged to he invited to attend the celebration of the centenary of the same event in South Australia. We shall have to wait for 30-odd years to celebrate the centenary of women's suffrage in this country. Women from all over the world, from developed nations such as ours and from the developing nations, attended the conference in Adelaide. The theme that ran throughout the conference was that, despite women having suffrage in many countries, we still have a long way to go, given that women comprise half the world's population.

That feeling was reinforced by a report published by the United Nations in 1980. It showed that two thirds of the world's work was done by one half of the world's population, that one tenth of the world's income was earned by one half of the world's population and that one hundredth of the world's property was owned by one half of the world's population. It is no surprise to me or, I am sure, to any other female hon. Member, to learn that the half of the world's population to which the report referred is the world's women.

Nowhere is the failure of nations, including our nation, to reflect the fact that women constitute half the world's population more evident than in the world's legislative assemblies. It is especially apparent here, in the mother of Parliaments. Some women have had the vote in this country for 78 years, but the country is yet to he represented by 10 per cent. of women sitting in the available seats.

Since some women first had the vote in these islands, I believe that there have been only 10 women holding Cabinet office, but we have never had a woman Foreign Secretary, we have never had a woman Secretary of State for Defence, we have never had a woman Chancellor of the Exchequer and we have never had a woman as Home Secretary. For me, it is of course a bitter irony that the first woman Prime Minister that this country produced had to be Margaret Thatcher.

Some Conservative Members have described as patronising my party's proposals to enable more women to present themselves to the electorate in order that the electorate may judge whether they wish to return them to Parliament. I, in common with every other woman in the Chamber, have had a soubriquet far worse than "patronising" or, indeed, "token", hurled at me, and I have little doubt that much harsher insults will he thrown at us in the future. I find nothing patronising in the idea that, in certain targeted seats, it should he a requirement that constituency parliamentary parties make a final short-list of all women. What I do find patronising is that the Government can suggest, for example, that a nurse should accept an increase of one and a half pennies in her salary.

No political party could function without women. It is the women members and activists who do the hard and sometimes extremely boring work on the street that facilitates the election not only of Members of Parliament but of councillors in local government elections. It is patronising that women should be deemed to he capable and fitted for such work but not to sit at the table where the decisions are made. That view still seems to inform the opinion, not only in the Chamber but without, that women still have an awfully long way to go before they are capable of fulfilling the functions which, in the past, have automatically been presupposed to he spheres for which men are most suited.

There is a tradition and, in a sense, a culture, that seems to regard the abilities which men are supposed to possess and which, on occasion, they feel a necessity to express, as particularly valid in this Chamber. They tend to he those of aggression and abrasiveness and an adversarial style of argument. It is no accident that this Chamber is, I think, the only one in the European Union that physically still encourages the adversarial style— I understand that the parties are still kept two-and-a-half sword lengths apart. The majority of European Union debating chambers are oval, round or rectangular. It seems that the architecture reflects the tone of the debates.

Women arc not expected to he aggressive, adversarial or argumentative, characteristics still admired within the Chamber, but, I would suggest, less so in the country at large. That is one of the reasons why it is vital that all political parties, not least my own, should attempt to balance the less than even playing field that women have to traverse if they wish to present themselves to the electorate for possible return to the House.

An opinion poll recently carried out for one of the more popular newspapers found that the two least popular professions were that of journalist and politician, in that order. One of the reasons why politicians tend to be less than popular with the electorate stems directly from what is perceived as their ill-tempered, ill-judged, loud and, in some instances, schoolboyish approach to our debates.

If we disaffect the very people who send us here, if we present the image that matters of moment are not seriously and levelly discussed here and that it is the scoring of points that is valued rather than the attempt to achieve a solution to a particular problem, interest in our political system could decay. Our democratic system depends as much on the interest of the electorate and their willingness to participate in our elections as on anything that happens in the Chamber or elsewhere in the House, such as in Committee.

One sometimes meets people who say with no small amount of pride that they have never voted. That strikes me very hard as a woman because I am aware that women died to give me the right to vote. It is a responsibility that I exercise with great seriousness. I urge everyone whom I meet, especially young women in my constituency, to vote. Although I would much prefer that they voted for my party, it is more important that they simply vote. It would he desperate if our freedoms in respect of the franchise, for which lives were given, were lost due to a lack of interest and commitment on the part of the electorate. I suggest that we have a responsibility to ensure that their interest stays alive and fresh.

No one could reasonably argue that any country approaching the 21st century can afford to discount, discard and disregard the undoubted talents, abilities, energy, imagination and commitment that the women of that society present. I am of a generation to be extremely grateful, in one sense, to have been raised by the women in my family, simply because the men were away at war. During the second world war, as during the first world war, women ran not only their homes, but their country's factories, transport systems and hospitals. They ran the entire structure of their nation states because the men in those nation states were away, giving their lives in the defence of democracy and freedom.

Those women, at those times in our history, did not in that sense additionally have to improve themselves. No one thought that that was patronising them. They were by no means tokens in those positions. Our nation state was run extremely well during both—

Mrs. Peacock

I am listening with great interest. I agree with much of what the hon. Lady has said, but does she accept that it was the sterling work carried out by the women of this country, especially during the first world war, that helped to convince the men representing us in Parliament to pass, eventually, the Bill that enabled us all to have a vote, and enabled women to stand for Parliament? Does she agree that, without that war and the work done by women, we might not have made that progress?

Ms Jackson

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention, but I do not agree with her analysis of the way in which the vote was given to women in this country, not least because, at the cessation of hostilities in the first world war and certainly in the second world war, women were patted on the head and told, "Thank you very much indeed, but now go back to what you really do best"—which tends to be situated in the kitchen and the nursery.

I think that, in the House at least, progress resulted from a lack of energy to sustain opposition to the giving of the vote to women, and shame that the country had denied it. Given the contribution that women had made during the first world war, there would have been an even greater outcry, but I do not believe that the House was convinced of that argument. I am unaware that any major move was made, between those two—one cannot say "high points" because they were world wars—low points in our civilisation, to facilitate opportunities for women to rise to what I regard as the positions that they should occupy.

I regret that I am unaware of any major concentrated effort in this place, or by the Government, business or the professions, to acknowledge that women have a great deal more to offer to our society, throughout all its aspects and all the levels and layers of which the nation state is comprised.

Mrs. Wise

I have followed my hon. Friend's argument with keen interest. It is true that women proved that they could run everything that men could run, but is not it also a fact that it was demonstrated that the nation, society and business were willing to accept that work, yet pay only half rates for it? Women shop assistants, for example, who coped with rationing as well as money, received about half the rates that men shop assistants received. That was a very poor reward for the efforts that women made during the war.

Ms Jackson

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I am afraid that the position is pretty similar today. I heard an exchange on the radio, as recently as last week, about the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 arrangements that had come into being in a local authority in the north of England. The gardeners, who, in the main, were male employees, retained their salary rates, hours and conditions of work, but the dinner ladies had to take a reduction in wages and an extension in their hours of work before they won the contract.

In 1992, I believe, the museum of London rightly held an exhibition based on the suffragette movement. I distinctly remember standing in that place and saying that one of the aspects of women's life in our country that most motivated the Pankhursts, all those years ago, was the conditions in which women were forced to work in sweatshops, in this city and every city throughout the land. The Pankhursts wished to remove the possibility of women having to work in appalling conditions for interminable hours, for very low rates of pay. Yet today, less than three miles from the museum of London, it would be possible to find women working in homes in circumstances that are as bad as, if not worse than, they were 78 years ago.

I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Batley and Spen said. We have made progress in this country and in other parts of the world, but I contend that the country has a very long way to go. I do not think that any woman in the country needs to he apprised of the inequality of many of our positions and conditions. It is not women necessarily who need to change; it is those who arc less willing to help and move us forward to genuine equality.

All we ask, in essence, is to be able to exercise rights along with our responsibilities. No woman, in my experience, has ever shirked the responsibilities that life has placed on her. Every woman whom I have known has been able to balance and carry those responsibilities with no small grace, and often a great deal of humour. We have always made, and always will make, a major contribution to our societies. We are justified in asking very gently, and I have no doubt with a great deal of charm, that, on more than one occasion, we should be recognised for the contribution that we have made, and undoubtedly will continue to make.

6.26 pm
Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

As many other hon. Members wish to speak, I shall speak for only a few minutes.

I wish primarily to discuss the forthcoming conference in Peking, but first I wish to say how much I agreed with the remarks of the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise), who congratulated my colleague, the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks), on the introduction of his Carers (Recognition and Services) Bill on Friday 3 March. It showed that, compared with another Bill that was debated on Friday, if consensus is sought progress can he made.

Before moving to my main argument, I wish to mention a couple of other matters. There are two distinct sectors in which progress has been made on women's rights—the government sector and the non-government sector. Huge advances are obviously being made in the government sector. Many women are employed in the civil service, especially in senior positions. A woman heads Customs and Excise and a woman heads the Crown Prosecution Service. and I understand that we shall shortly have a woman permanent secretary at the Department of Social Security.

In the forces, huge progress has been made from the early 1990s onwards. The mistake made in dismissing pregnant women from the services has been recognised, and I am proud to say that a woman from Croydon became the Royal Air Force's first woman fighter pilot. Progress has been made by deploying Wrens at sea. It is riot always an easy and comfortable state of affairs, but it has established a significant right in terms of equality.

I am afraid to say that the one organisation in which little progress has been made in employing women in government service is the European Commission, where I understand only four out of 300 people in the top two grades are women.

In the non-government sector, progress is not so obvious. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) mentioned difficulties that arose in the Trades Union Congress. The same difficulties arise in business. There is undoubtedly a glass ceiling. Women who are perfectly competent—probably more competent than their male counterparts—are often denied career advancement. They come up against all sorts of harriers. My wife experienced that in her career in advertising. The only way in which she could get around it was by starting her own business and becoming her own boss. I believe that it will be another generation before the barrier is removed completely and we recognise that women often run things much better than men.

The right to reproductive health care services is not just essential for the maintenance of women's health, but crucial to the establishment of women's equality. The White Paper "The Health of the Nation" recognised the importance of reproductive health care services, particularly for young people. One of its key targets was a reduction in the number of teenage pregnancies.

Teenage pregnancy is a fundamental problem. One in five young women today report having had sexual intercourse before her 16th birthday. The good news is that, as a result of the efforts of the Department of Health, in 1991 the number of women younger than 16 who became pregnant fell for the first time in 10 years. It is far too soon to tell whether that represents a trend, hut those who work in family planning are optimistic.

In an intervention, I said that, as progress is made towards a settlement in Northern Ireland, it may he appropriate to consider the discrepancies in the abortion laws of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Abortion Act 1967 applies in Great Britain, but the House deemed that it should not apply to Northern Ireland. That is causing serious problems for young women in Northern Ireland in this modern sophisticated world. They are forced to have back-street abortions, to pay to have abortions because there is no national health service provision or to come to this country to have abortions.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster replied to my intervention by saying that it is a very sensitive subject. It does not appear to be high on the list of Government priorities. I hope that that issue may he put on the agenda as we examine the overall situation in Northern Ireland.

The fourth world conference on women will be held in Peking in September under the auspices of the United Nations. I was lucky enough to attend the UN conference on population and development in Cairo, where women's issues were very much to the fore. That conference advanced a plan of action which provided for a number of fundamental women's rights in the area of reproductive and maternal health. When I attended the non-government organisation forum, which is where all the bright ideas come from, it became quite clear that women's issues will dominate United Nations and international considerations.

The all-party group on population, development and reproductive health, which I am privileged to chair, decided to look at the draft plan of action for the Peking conference and it was appalled to find no mention of reproductive health or sexuality. In the past couple of months we have conducted hearings with some 30 women's groups, inviting them to comment on what they think should be included in the draft plan of action for the Peking conference. As a result, the group is releasing a report tomorrow to coincide with International Women's Day and I shall inform the House of some of its main findings.

First, the group believes that the conference should endorse and incorporate the agreed principles and language of the international conference on population and development's programme of action, with particular reference to inequalities in health status and access to health care services, violence against women and women's rights. Secondly, it believes that the draft plan of action should specifically include women's reproductive and sexual rights when addressing human rights. Thirdly, the group believes that, without reproductive and sexual health and rights, women cannot play a full and equal part in the economic, social and political life of their community and country.

The group's unanimous view was probably best summed up by Annette Lawson from the Fawcett Society, who said:

Women need to be empowered to make decisions about themselves and their own bodies. Without that empowerment—and we see that, and indeed the major international conventions do, as a human right (and women's rights are human rights)—but without that capacity, rather like not having the vote, it disables women to function equally in society". A preparatory conference will be held in the next few days to discuss the draft plan of action. I believe that it is important that that conference should take into account the strong feeling among women's groups that were consulted that those fundamental rights should be included on the agenda of the Peking conference. It is incomprehensible that they should not be included in this day and age.

I shall not take up any more of the time of the House. I simply make the point that we have consulted virtually every leading women's group in the country and we recognise that a number of rights are omitted from the draft plan of action. I hope that they will be included and discussed at the Peking conference.

6.36 pm
Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West)

It is a happy coincidence to follow the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) because he is my Member of Parliament. I thank him for his generous remarks about my private Member's Bill.

I wish to approach the debate by examining the impact on women and men of changes in work, family life and care patterns in this country. Many of those issues are particularly important for women because they often take on most of the burden of care—whether it is care of the young, those with disabilities or the frail elderly. If we are to achieve greater gender equality, those issues must be considered more seriously by boys and by men. I think that that is occurring.

Patterns of employment in this country show trends towards mass unemployment and a concentration of joblessness in certain families. Paradoxically, at the same time we have seen the rise of the dual worker family and the concentration of employment in certain kinds of family groups. I wish to address the issues involving dual worker families that have resulted from the dramatic increase in female employment outside the home.

The rise of the dual worker family has brought many benefits, not least material ones. The most effective family social security policy in this country is not the child benefit scheme—although I applaud that—but the earning power of mothers. That has been the major anti-poverty strategy of the post-war period. I think that we should he aware that many dual worker families are increasingly overactive, overworked and, I think, overly stressed. That is a trend throughout the western world. We are living longer—women are living rather longer than men—usually into our seventies and sometimes into our eighties. It was my father's 80th birthday on Saturday, so I have some experience of that.

Although we are living longer, we are concentrating some of our most important activities into a small proportion of our lives. We enter the labour market much later than previously—normally for good reasons such as higher education and training—and many men and women are not fully active in the labour market until their late teens or early twenties and those with post-graduate qualifications do not start work until their early twenties.

We are also witnessing an earlier exit from the labour market. Many people who in a previous generation would have worked up to and beyond retirement age are now, either voluntarily or because of redundancy, being forced to leave the labour market in their fifties or, certainly for men, in their early sixties.

Discussions on the equality of retirement and pension age and decisions on whether the pensionable age should be 60 or 65—it is now 65—are based on an increasingly ignorant assumption that men actually work until they are 65. One third, or 33 per cent., of men aged 55 to 59 are officially unemployed or defined as economically inactive.

We are concentrating much of our labour market activity into a small proportion of our lives, which to some extent coincides with the important time for family building. That particularly impacts on women. Like men, many women need to be fully active in the labour market and spend their late twenties and early thirties career building. That increasingly coincides with when they are considering having children, becoming pregnant and taking on the responsibility of caring for young children.

Those pressures also affect men. Many men find that when their wives are no longer in the labour market or working part time after having babies, they have to work harder to earn more money and develop their careers at precisely the time when, perhaps in a more civilised society, they should be able to spend more time at home as fathers. I am worried by what I see as the care-career collision, which puts tremendous pressures on men and women from their late twenties to their early and late thirties.

Mrs. Helen Jackson

Is my hon. Friend aware of evidence showing that 10 years after graduation four times as many women graduates as men graduates have chosen not to start a family? The pressure of worrying about making that choice clearly impinges much more on women's career patterns—and they may, therefore, choose to have children much later—than it does on men, who do not feel that it interferes too much with their careers.

Mr. Wicks

I am aware of that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point and I shall say something about the impact of that on fertility patterns and average family size in Britain.

Many families are overworked and overactive, trying to build their families at the same time as building their careers. If I am right about that, it is not an argument—as it might have been among some hon. Members a generation ago—about a woman's place being in the home, but one of increasing relevance to men and women, about the need to take seriously an agenda for family and work.

May I say something about changing patterns of care, which is obviously a major role—perhaps the major role—for the family? Traditionally, it has been the major role for women in all societies to provide care for those in the family who need it. However, if we are to draw up the agenda that we need, we must be aware of and fully understand the changing patterns of care as they affect men and women.

We think immediately of children. Women in Europe are having fewer children. On average, women in Britain arc having more children than those in most European Union nations, but the numbers are declining. In 1970, the average British woman had 2.4 children; in 1992, the figure was just 1.8. It will probably continue at about that level until the turn of the century.

Let us consider the average figures for the European Union, which relate to 12 member states rather than the present larger union. In 1970, the average European woman had 2.4 children. In 1992, she had just 1.5 children and the trend is downwards. A child has gone missing in Europe. That explains why fertility and birth rates are of great national concern and inform and instruct domestic policy in many other Parliaments in Europe. In Germany, the average number of children is just 1.3, in Catholic Italy it is 1.3 and in Spain it is 1.2. Those are dramatic trends and although we need to explain them in a number of different ways—and I shall not do so today—my guess would be that the pressures of work, career and family building on women and families lie behind some of the fertility trends.

We are having fewer children in Europe, although, interestingly, the trend is less marked here in Britain, and our children are dependent financially on others—typically parents, but sometimes the state—for longer. Gone are the days—although in Britain those days were only in the early 1970s—where six out of 10 children left school at 16 and got jobs. Today, many children will be dependent on their parents their until late teens or early twenties and sometimes their mid-twenties. The role of the family and the pattern of having children is changing considerably.

We are becoming aware that one of the major roles of women—and, increasingly of men—is the caring role for the frail elderly, as the aging of our population is such a dramatic trend. In 1981, there were half a million people aged 85 and over, whereas in 1901 the figure was just 57,000, so the number has risen 10 times in 80 years. The figure will double again between 1981 and 2001, so that by 2001 there will he more than 1 million people aged 85 and over. Many of them will be fit and healthy, but many will need care and have physical and mental problems. For example, Alzheimer's disease is a growing problem.

The issues of care that now impinge so much on women increasingly wear an older face, and we need to look at care patterns across four or five generations and examine how men, women and families respond to them. It is a cruel coincidence that family sizes are smaller at precisely the point in the country's demography when there are more elderly to care for. In previous generations, there might have been six or seven children to look after one elderly relative. The ratios today are moving in the other direction, with smaller families having more elders to care for.

Parliament and other institutions woke up, albeit late in the day, to the fact that many workers have the "annoying" habit of being parents, so there is an agenda covering maternity or paternity leave and provision for under-fives. We must wake up to the fact also that women employees and a growing number of male employees care for the elderly, so the carer-worker issue is growing more important.

At meetings that I have attended to inform myself for the Carers (Recognition and Services) Bill that I introduced last Friday, I was struck by how many carers—mainly women but men too—had to give up their employment and often successful careers to care for an elderly relative or disabled child or adolescent. Many people find it impossible, sometimes because of unsympathetic employers, to continue the dual role of carer-worker.

Up-to-date information is not available, but years ago the Equal Opportunities Commission published a survey that showed that the main reason for women leaving the employment market before retirement age was to care for an elderly relative.

If in future, for the benefit of women and gender equality, we are to balance work and the family, a newer analysis of the issues is needed that places less reliance on conventional economic indicators. Most people in the west think of work in terms of getting up in the morning, going to a job and getting paid for it. That kind of work, and only that kind of work, is quantified in employment statistics and it contributes to the gross domestic product. It excludes some of the most important work, typically done by women but also by men, in the community.

Such work excludes, for example, the female general practitioner whom I met in Cardiff. For years she was able to practise as a doctor but when her grown-up child became schizophrenic she had to leave the formal labour market to become a full-time carer. She immediately disappeared from employment statistics and her labour is not measured. Neither, in terms of conventional indicators, does she supposedly contribute to the country's GDP. In other words, she counts for nothing officially.

"Counting for Nothing", a book by an influential New Zealand academic and one-time National party politician, Marilyn Wareing, authoritatively challenged male-dominated economics. Although that line of analysis is of academic interest in the best sense of the word "academic", if we are not to make mistakes in analysing work and care issues about how to care for our children and the elderly and about the implications for social and employment policies, seemingly academic argument must move into the political world. There is an argument for Parliament, as an exercise, drawing up rival national accounts that introduce some of the value of care.

People rightly ask about the public expenditure implications of provisions such as those contained in my Bill, but they rarely ask about the cost-benefit analysis. Some years ago, I and a colleague—Melanie Henwood at the Family Policy Studies Centre—sought to calculate the value of care provision, and we have since updated the figure to £30 billion. The British Medical Association recently used the same methodology but produced a larger sum. That is not an argument for giving carers £30 billion, but in a society that, sadly, increasingly puts a price on everything and knows the value of nothing, sometimes it is necessary to attach a cash price to something to make people appreciate its value.

If community care services could be improved, that would show up in public expenditure documents. Some members of the Treasury Bench might see that as a problem. However, if only one carer in 10 surrendered that task so that the person for whom they cared had to enter a state institution or hospital at a cost of £2 billion, that would not show up in national accounts and would he invisible. It is nevertheless real arithmetic. Every week, as we know from our surgeries, a carer collapses under the strain and the national health service or a private nursing home has to take in one more person. An analysis that considers only public expenditure costs and does not undertake a wider cost-benefit calculation is misleading.

Care issues, the way in which we define work and a better balance between family life and employment are among the most crucial topics facing men and women. Parliament and Governments are less aware of those issues than the public. How we enable the modern Briton and European to be successful as a partner to the person to whom they are married or with whom they live, as a parent and as a carer if necessary—and also successful in the labour market and as a career builder—is crucial to women. Many men want to share the caring role, so that issue is of growing importance to them.

6.59 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

First, I apologise for not having been present throughout the debate. I had to attend a Committee in another part of the House, but I did hear the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short). I appreciate that today is an Opposition day and, quite naturally, the hon. Lady wanted to make complaints against the Government and set out Labour party policy, although we did not hear too much about that. However, had she taken a more bipartisan view on some of the issues that she raised towards the end of her speech, she would have found cross-currents coming from the Conservative Benches.

For example, the hon. Lady spoke about the legal position of women and the protection afforded to them by the law. That is an important subject about which there is some controversy at present regarding female victims of serious sexual offences. I would make common cause with the hon. Lady on the need to give maximum protection through the law to victims of sexual offences, particularly in relation to the disclosure of identity. There has been controversy about disclosing the identity of defendants in such cases and I do not want to argue about that—

Ms Short

I am more than happy when there is consensus on any issue that is dear to me because it means that we are more likely to make progress, but I sometimes think that Conservative Members do not live in this country of ours. The number of families struggling on low incomes with all the stress that results from the way in which the labour market is being restructured constitutes a crisis for our society. I meant every word that I said. I am afraid that the Government's strategy is making things worse for such families. If there is no consensus, then that is how it is.

Mr. Clappison

I shall take issue with the hon. Lady about that, but I am talking about an entirely separate and important matter which is of public interest at the present time and the subject of some controversy. I hope that the hon. Lady will make common cause with the point that I am about to make. I do not want to go into whether defendants should remain anonymous, save to say that the arguments about that are entirely separate from those concerning whether the victims of sexual offences should remain anonymous. It is important that they should remain anonymous and have that protection from the law.

I would go further and say that it is important that all impediments should be removed which prevent victims of serious offences from taking their cases to the courts. I welcome some of the progress that has been made recently on that, including the important change in the criminal justice legislation, which I think had cross-party support, in relation to the treatment of the evidence of complainants in cases of sexual offences, where we removed the need for judges to give warnings about corroboration. That important step forward will benefit many victims.

It was monstrous that in the past judges had to give a warning about the evidence of complainants in such cases as though they were inherently unreliable people. Many judges, particularly women judges, have referred to having to give that warning through gritted teeth and I am pleased that the requirement for it has been removed. We need to consider carefully how to make it possible and easy for victims in such cases to go before the courts without suffering unnecessary fear. I hope that the hon. Lady will make common cause with me on that.

I take issue with the hon. Lady on the substance of her speech today. She referred to living in the real world. If in her speech she was trying to suggest that there has not been any progress in the status of women, particularly in the opportunities for women to move forward in careers and the professions during the past 15 years, she has been living in an unreal world.

There is plainly a great deal of evidence that women have made progress during the past 15 years. One can look across the board at the professions. In my profession there has clearly been a great deal of much needed progress during the past 15 years. When the Labour Government left office—this was no reflection on the Labour party, however—only 10 per cent. of members of the Bar were women. Today, 22 per cent. are women.

The hon. Lady complains about the lack of female judges, and I agree that it is desirable that there should be more women judges, particularly in the higher reaches of the judiciary, but we have so few women judges today because of the lack of progress in the past and the lack of suitably qualified and experienced candidates. As progress is now taking place and the shortage of women at the Bar is being remedied, I happily predict that there will be more women judges in the future. The same is true across the board in the professions. Today there are more women doctors, dentists, accountants and architects. Across the board, women are making welcome advances.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said about the position of women in the civil service. Women are advancing in the civil service. The overall percentage of women employed in the top seven grades in the civil service has risen from 7 per cent. in 1980 to 13 per cent. today. I agree that there is still scope for improvement, but let us acknowledge the improvement that has been made.

Education is one reason why there will he more women entering the professions, but the hon. Lady cast doubts on the Government's achievements in promoting higher education and access to higher education for women. In the academic year beginning in 1979 when the Labour party left office, 190,000 women students were in higher education. That figure has more than doubled to 410,000 today. The proportion of full-time students has also risen, from 40 per cent. in 1979 to 49 per cent. today. I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that as progress and joins me in welcoming it.

Ms Short

I am fairly sure that I said that women are now equalling and even excelling boys in large parts of the education system. Nevertheless, the proportion of our young people in higher education is lower than, for example, in South Korea. There has been progress, but it is not good enough in terms of the future of the British economy compared with the investment in education taking place in other countries.

Mr. Clappison

The hon. Lady is having to scrape around for some international comparisons. The fact that stands out is that when the Labour party left office one in eight people in the relevant age group, male and female, went into higher education and today the proportion is one in three. The hon. Lady would do well to recognise that achievement. If we are lagging behind in any comparisons today, which I doubt, it is because we started from such a low point when Labour left office. The same applies to further education, where there has similarly been an extremely large increase in the number of females.

We have had a welter of statistics today on women in employment generally. I rest my case for saying that women's position has improved on three statistics. First, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said, there are more women in the work force today than ever before, more than there were in 1979 when 40 per cent. of the work force was women. Today the figure is 46 per cent. Those women are also earning more than ever before. In addition, the gender gap in earnings, to which the hon. Lady referred, has been closing since 1980. In 1980, women's wages were 37 per cent. less than those of men; today the figure is 30 per cent. The gap is closing, and closing quickly. Since 1990, female earnings have increased by 30 per cent. compared with 23 per cent. for men.

Those three statistics—the number of women in the work force, the increase in women's earnings and the closing of the gap between men and women's earnings—are significant, broadly based and persuasive. They demonstrate that, across the board, the lot of women is improving. Whether they are employed by large employers or in the professions or whether they are in managerial positions, there has been a significant improvement.

It is important for women to have successful role models to show them that it is possible for them in their chosen career or profession to rise to the top on the basis of their merits, judged on their abilities, enjoying full equality of opportunity.

Today's debate is timely in one respect, at least, in that approximately 20 years ago today this country elected the first female leader of a major political party, who went on to become Prime Minister and to win three successive general elections. When the now Baroness Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party in 1975, it gave an enormous boost to women in this country, because it showed them that they could rise to the very top. It gave a boost to women in public life.

One prominent female figure in public life told her diary, after hearing of Mrs. Thatcher's election as party leader:

I have had a growing conviction that this would happen: she is so clearly the best man among them and she will, in my view, have an enormous advantage in being a woman too. I can't help feeling a thrill … I have been saying for a long time that this country is ready—even more than ready—for a woman Prime Minister. Baroness Castle wrote that in her diary in 1975. She was objective in those comments. She was speaking as a woman, setting herself apart from her political views, which were obviously vastly different from those of Margaret Thatcher, but she felt that there was a lesson there for the Labour party.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a pity that the Labour party is unable to sustain, even remotely, the kind of progress that we have made? Is he aware that only three out of 73 trade union leaders are women, and they come from the Labour party?

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend's extremely good intervention was very well anticipated. I was about to quote again from the noble Baroness Castle's diary. I invite the attention of the hon. Member for Ladywood, as she will remember the time, I am sure. Barbara Castle wrote: I think it will be a good thing for the Labour Party too. There's a male-dominated party for you—not least because the trade unions are male-dominated, even the ones that cater for women. I remember just before the February election last year pleading on the NEC for us not to have a completely producer-oriented policy, because women lose out in the producer-run society.

Ms Short


Mr. Clappison

I will happily give way if the hon. Lady wants to tell us about a producer-run society.

Ms Short

I know that the hon. Gentleman apologised for not having been in the Chamber earlier, but that point was dealt with in an exchange between the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and myself.

Mr. Clappison

I did say at the beginning of my speech—I do not know whether the hon. Lady was here—that I was present for her speech. I heard that intervention and it made me think back to what I had read in the noble Baroness Castle's diary. I will share my thought with the hon. Lady. For all that the hon. Lady said to my right hon. Friend about what was taking place in trade unions, it struck me that there has not been a great deal of progress since 1975—20 years ago—when Barbara Castle wrote those words.

Today that lack of progress is indicated, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) made clear in her intervention, by the small number of women who are trade union leaders. The hon. Member for Ladywood will appreciate that there is a big difference between women being treated as some sort of sectional interest who can be accommodated—who can be made to make do with a gesture—and being given full equality of opportunity to rise to the top on the basis of their merits. There is a clear distinction between those two things. Clearly, an enormous amount of progress remains to be made in the trade union movement.

The hon. Lady will know that last year there was a leadership election in her party. I do not want to go into that, as that is a private matter for the Labour party, but she must concede that, from that election, it is clear that the Labour party is still a considerable distance from electing a female leader. I happened to read, because I am interested in these things, the election statement of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who now leads the Labour party. It came as a surprise to me that not once in that statement did he mention the role of women or what he intended to do for women. I know that the hon. Lady will say that things have changed since then and that the right hon. Gentleman has set out his policies, hut that seemed to me to be something of an omission and it says something about the subconscious attitude of the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

In my constituency the Labour party has decided to put up an all-woman list of candidates for selection. Is that not a disgrace? Does it not show a remarkable lack of confidence in the ability of women to rise to the top in the election process? If my hon. Friend looks around the Conservative Benches, he will see great examples of women rising to such positions.

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he has caused great interest among the hon. Ladies who surround me.

I do not want to go into private Labour party matters, but there seems to be a great deal of turmoil in that party—in its leadership elections, its candidate selections, and so on, in which women are fighting very hard to overcome what they see as prejudice. The difference between Labour Members and Conservative Members is that we do not have to fight against that sort of prejudice, because it does not exist here; it was expelled 20 years ago when we elected a female leader.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. in case I do not have an opportunity to get my fourpenny-worth in the debate. Leaving party politics aside, does he agree that the House is the jury of the nation? It is not an Olympic track, where the best person wins. It is not a company where the top talent rises. We are talking here about an institution which should represent the whole of our community—stupid, white, black, women, men, three-legged, two-legged, whatever. That is why getting into this place is different. It should be different from the race metaphor, which has been used time and again in the debate.

Mr. Clappison

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, which she made clearly. I would not want in any way to comment on or challenge the point that she made, save to say that she is living proof of the vibrancy of views within our party.

To return to party politics, since the Leader of the Opposition issued his personal statement, which omitted to mention women altogether, he has come to appreciate the importance of the women's vote. Speaking recently, he decided to announce an important policy initiative for his party, to She magazine, which is described as a magazine

For women who juggle their lives". It was a well thought out initiative and he was clear to whom he wanted to speak, as that magazine is produced by the same group which produces Country Living, The Antique Collector and House Beautiful. He was clearly making a bid for a different sort of readership for Labour party policy. He seems to have been conscious of that throughout his interview, in which he gave the lady interviewing him the impression that he was prepared to show, in her words

two fingers to the educational dinosaurs of the ultra-Left. I cannot imagine who he was thinking of at that point.

The right hon. Gentleman spelled out Labour party policy with his usual great clarity and restated much of what he said in his personal manifesto. When asked what he stood for, he said "social-ism", which he described as

the belief that people do best in a strong society. Unless you are prepared to create the underpinnings of that strong society, the individual does not move as fast as he or she can. It is not about class, or trades unions, or capitalism versus socialism. It is about a belief in working together to get things done. I hope that the readers of She magazine were illuminated by that and that Labour party policy was clarified for them. I hope that they had a nice cup of hot milk before bed as well.

Lady Olga Maitland

Is my hon. Friend aware that in the same article the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) pledged support for tax relief for nannies? Indeed, Labour Members have tabled a new clause to the Finance Bill advocating tax relief for nannies. The Labour party is putting up a nannies charter—a total U-turn after years of being utterly dismissive of professional women who choose to employ nannies.

Mr. Clappison

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has an uncanny knack of anticipating what I am about to say. She mentioned the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill. I hope I am not doing the Labour party an injustice, but it seems that its leader chose to reveal what would become party policy not to that Committee but to the readership of She. Although he said that he was cautious about committing his Government at this stage, he is quoted as also saying:

Tax relief is one of the things we are looking at". There we have it: the first step that the right hon. Gentleman has taken on his way to a caring, sharing society of social justice and co-operation is to consider tax relief for nannies.

I do not know whether that proposal will receive warmer applause from the working women of Sedgefield, who will presumably have to subsidise the tax relief with their income tax, or from high earners in Islington and elsewhere in the south of England, but I do not envisage Opposition Members such as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and his friends dancing with glee in the Lobby at the prospect of voting for tax relief for people wealthy enough to employ nannies.

Perhaps this will be the start of a new Labour campaign. Perhaps there will be a new slogan, and a new definition of the welfare state: "Full employment for all from the cradle to the nursery". The expression on the face of the hon. Member for Ladywood suggests that the policy has not been received with much enthusiasm by the Opposition and we would do well not to take it too seriously; it looks to me like another bit of window dressing from the right hon. Member for Sedgefield which will bite the dust before much longer.

Women in this country today can place their trust in the substantial and fair progress that has been made. There has been a move towards equality of opportunity: that is clearly demonstrated by the increasing number of women in top jobs. Women are moving through the professions; they are better paid than ever before in real terms. The gender gap is closing. All of that is solid progress—for which I commend my right hon. and hon. Friends—as opposed to the pie in the sky offered by the Leader of the Opposition.

7.22 pm
Mr. Hugh Bayley (York)

There is no better indicator of the health of a society than the health of its individual citizens; but to examine women's health in Britain is to see a divided nation. Many women, especially in the home counties and the south, enjoy the best of health, while many others in inner cities and the north bear an unnecessary burden of disease and premature death.

The 1991 census established the number of women with a "limiting long-term illness" in each health authority. According to that definition, the five healthiest health authorities are West Berkshire, North West Surrey, South West Surrey—that authority, of course, covers the constituency of the Secretary of State for Health—Mid-Downs and Tunbridge Wells. The number of women with limiting long-term illnesses in each of those authorities is more than 20 per cent. lower than the national average. The five health authorities in which women suffer the greatest burden of ill health are Central Manchester, North Manchester, Barnsley, North Durham and Sunderland. The number of women with limiting long-term illnesses in those health authorities is more than 30 per cent. higher than the national average.

Mr. Gallie

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the same ratio would apply to men? He is centralising the statistics to apply them to women, but what he says is irrelevant to the debate.

Mr. Bayley

I do not think that it is irrelevant. The simple answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is no: these figures do not apply to men as well. As he would see if he referred to the Department of Health's public health common data set, there are wide variations between the health of men and that of women.

The purpose of today's debate is not merely to highlight differences and inequalities between men and women. It is a debate about the lives of women in Britain today, and the inequalities in life opportunities and health between certain groups of women also matter greatly. Barnsley is one of the five health authorities with an exceptionally large burden of ill health. The census revealed that 20,809 women in the area had a limiting long-term sickness—36 per cent. above the national average. If the national average figure applied in Barnsley, there would be 5,508 fewer women with limiting long-term illnesses.

The national health service has simply failed to meet the health needs of women in Barnsley. Their needs have been ignored by a Government who are obsessed with the efficiency of the service, which they measure in terms of numbers of completed episodes—numbers of patients treated—rather than in terms of the underlying principle of the NHS, which is to provide health care on the basis of equity; in other words, on the basis of health need.

When people talk of women's health—this is also an answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie)—they often refer to diseases such as cervical cancer and breast cancer, from which only women suffer. In fact, the big killer diseases for women are strokes, heart disease and respiratory disease. Perhaps, on National No-smoking Day, I should also mention lung cancer, which is fast catching up with breast cancer in terms of the number of women's lives that it claims each year; indeed, it may have just overtaken it.

Smoking may cause those illnesses, but overwhelmingly they are caused by poverty. As others have pointed out—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise —poverty is more usually a woman's rather than a man's problem, and that mars the position of women in Britain.

According to the Department of Health's public health common data set, the death rate among women of all ages is lowest in South West Surrey—the area represented by the Secretary of State for Health. According to the census, two thirds of its population are members of non-manual social classes. The death rate is highest in Central Manchester, where fewer than a third are members of social classes I, II and IIIN—the non-manual classes. In other words, death rates are higher among women in lower socio-economic groups. If I may put it crudely, poor women die younger.

The death rate among women aged between 15 and 64 is lowest in Huntingdon health authority —in the Prime Minister's area—at 25 per cent. below the national average. Four other health authorities tie in second place: Tunbridge Wells, North West Surrey, Winchester and Norwich. There the death rate is 21 per cent. below the national average. It is highest in Salford, Central Manchester and North Manchester health authorities, where the figure is more than 40 per cent. higher than the national average.

The premature death rate among women in the poorest parts of the country is not only high but increasing. In the past five years, the Salford rate has increased from 42 per cent. above the national average to 53 per cent. above it; the Central Manchester rate from 58 per cent. above the national average to 69 per cent. above it; and the North Manchester rate from 68 per cent. above the national average to 80 per cent. above it.

The Secretary of State for Health says that the Labour party should not concern itself with health inequalities because the health of all groups of the population is improving and it is just that the health of the healthiest is improving fastest. That simply is not true. The health of the poorest and the most disadvantaged groups of women is declining in real and absolute terms.

It is not just inequality in terms of death rates. The same pattern of inequality between north and south and between inner cities and shires exists at birth. The percentage of low birth weight babies—babies weighing under 2,500 g—is lowest in a similar collection of health authorities, including Tunbridge Wells, Halton, Worthing, East Sussex and Salisbury, and highest in Nottingham, Central Manchester, Rochdale, North Manchester and West Birmingham. The NHS provision for women is marred by women's health inequalities from the cradle to the grave.

There are two ways in which to look at the problem. In the White Paper "The Health of the Nation", the Government tend to shrug off the problem. The White Paper says:

The reasons for these variations are by no means fully understood. The Australian Labor Government in their equivalent to "The Health of the Nation", a very hard-hitting report entitled "Enough to make you sick: how income and environment affect health", conclude:

Ill-health can lead to worsening social and economic circumstances, which in turn adversely affect health. So health care should be distributed according to physical and social need, not just physical need. The report identifies the social and economic circumstances that particularly affect women. It says that certain groups of women, especially sole parents, are likely to "have very poor health."

The British Government need to take a leaf out of the Australian Government's hook. First, they need to acknowledge that there is a problem—a widening problem—of women's health inequalities. Secondly, they need to agree that the health inequalities are not inevitable. Thirdly, they need to agree that there is a need to seek solutions.

Lady Olga Maitland

Although I do not dispute the general picture of ill health or poor health among less economically viable women which the hon. Gentleman gives, does he agree that that is why it is so important that we have a health service that delivers excellent health care at the point of delivery, always free of charge? More than that, we have a health service which, by ensuring that we eliminate waste, puts more money into patient care to look after the very women about whom, rightly, the hon. Gentleman and I are concerned.

Mr. Bayley

The first point on which I take issue with the hon. Lady is her description of "less economically viable" women. It is not that the women are inadequate but that the society that the Government create does not provide economic opportunities for those women. Secondly, the hon. Lady suggests that the national health service simply has to run itself in a way that maximises the number of treatments given.

Lady Olga Maitland

indicated dissent.

Mr. Bayley

That is what I understood the hon. Lady to have said. She said that the health service should be efficient and should maximise the number of treatments that could he given. What is important is to target treatment on those who most need it—those who will benefit most from health intervention. That patently is not happening.

Lady Olga Maitland


Mr. Bayley

I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a moment. I hope that she will listen to what I am saying.

Such targeting patently is not happening at the moment. The health inequalities are widening in the area of what the Government themselves describe as "avoidable diseases". If the burden of avoidable disease is increasing among the poor, why is the national health service not targeting those avoidable diseases? Why does the NHS not target strokes and hypertensive diseases, to reduce their incidence among the social groups that are most seriously affected? That is not happening as a result of the NHS reforms.

Lady Olga Maitland

On the broader picture, is the hon. Gentleman aware that there are deprivation payments to GPs in inner-city areas so that they can deliver the service that these women need? He is skating over the problem and trying to create alarm when help is available. I am sure that he agrees that we must help women to take advantage of the available assistance.

Mr. Bayley

The test of whether the policy is working is whether the health of the poor is improving. The Government's own figures show that the health of the poor is not improving as fast as the health of the better-off because resources are being targeted in favour of health interventions for the better-off. In the worst possible cases—I cited three earlier—the mortality rate of poor women in poor health authorities is deteriorating. The death rate for women between 16 and 64 in those northern health authorities increased in absolute terms between 1987 and 1992. That shows that the interventions made under Government policy are not matching the growing burden of ill health which environmental and social conditions are creating.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I do not want to get involved in the detailed points that the hon. Gentleman has exchanged with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). I ask him, because he is knowledgeable in these matters, how much of the change in some of the women's killer diseases, which have been growing, is the predictable outcome of smoking and how much is linked to what people eat? Obviously, there are environmental issues as well, which I do not dispute. Could we predict what the change over the next 10 years in the death rate among women who smoke will be, as a result of the increased number of women who smoke? I agree that we need to have fewer women smoking in areas where women still smoke too much. We should talk about those issues as much as we talk about deprivation payments and the concentration on inner-city health areas. We should try to get the improvements in other areas of women's health that we have achieved in maternal mortality and infant mortality, which are the two crucial points that the Black report, of which I have an original copy, said were the test of whether Government policy was right.

Mr. Bayley

The hon. Gentleman has an original copy of the Black report; he has a very rare volume indeed.

It is, of course, important to focus on the causes of ill health. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am concerned that, because of promotion by tobacco companies, the incidence of smoking among young women, especially, is increasing. The hon. Gentleman asked what effect that would have on mortality rates from lung cancer among women. I suspect that we shall see the result in the long term because lung cancer is a long-term disease. There is a typical pattern of 30 or 40 years of smoking before the penalty of lung cancer develops. Of course we must address those issues, as we must address the issue of diet.

The Government, however, make a mistake when they suggest that women's health inequalities are caused by genetic, cultural and behavioural factors. They are to some extent, but they arc also caused by poverty, poor housing, a lack of community care and a mistargeting of NHS resources on those women whose health needs are not the greatest. Those issues must be addressed if women's health inequalities are to he reduced. There is a maldistribution of resources for community care and health. Resources are not targeted on those women whose health needs are greatest. The time has conic for the Government to concentrate on putting those problems right.

7.39 pm
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House for not having been in the Chamber for a couple of hours, while I had to attend other committee meetings. I very much hope that I shall not repeat any of the arguments, although I shall doubtless be advised if I begin to do so.

Unusually for a politician, I wish to raise questions to which I have no glib answers. I would not expect my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to provide any answers, hut if she will consider the issues I raise, it would go some way towards reassuring me that we are moving towards a considered reaction to some of the complex issues that concern me.

Hon. Members have referred to economic changes in the past 20 to 30 years, and I have no intention of repeating those references. I was very active in campaigning for equal rights for women in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, which is why I shall not go into the matter in great depth.

Many hon. Members will not remember the days when there were no women news readers on the television. One of the achievements of myself and my friends in the organisation Women in Media was to change that in television and radio. Now, of course, there is more than equality among news readers.

That is a minor illustration of the major economic changes to the position of women in the past 30 years. Those changes, however, have brought with them some of the problems that we are discussing today. We have seen and gone through the increase in the number of women in the professions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) gave a very good exposition of it.

Those of us who have been involved in women's issues for a long time will know the phrase "the glass ceiling" very well. That glass ceiling has risen substantially, but we have still not got it up to the top, as witnessed by the debate about trade union leadership, the number of women directors and the number of women in significant posts.

I have some sympathy with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) about the difficulty of more women coming into the House of Commons, but that is a different issue, because one takes a most unusual career path to get here. I shall therefore take the number of women in the House of Commons out of the debate.

When I go around schools, as I am sure many of us do, to speak to girls and mixed classes in the sixth form, I still find the age-old problems that we all identified all those years ago: peer pressure, parental pressure and—the key problem among women—lack of confidence and belief in their own abilities. Women need a degree of encouragement that we do not necessarily find among their male colleagues. It is being overcome in education, hut socially it is still a problem, and needs to be dealt with. Sixth-form girls need that extra hit of confidence to put their foot on that ladder and know that they can get to the top and through the glass ceiling.

Not only is it true that, over the past 20 to 30 years, women have made tremendous strides in their economic position, hut the technology of work is changing towards favouring women. Heavy, unskilled work is being taken out of daily life and being replaced with the use of technology, dexterity and brains. Those are women's abilities and their principal contribution to the work force. We can most crudely describe that change as brawn now being cheap and brain being dear.

That brings us to a conflict. There is no reason why women who wish to progress cannot do so as far as they want, but—I hope not to be making either a party political or a moral judgment—there are also women who opt out. We need to consider very carefully the latter category of women. We need to find out why they opt out. Why do they become the single mums who are causing such problems and angst in our society? Many hon. Members have referred to the issue.

There are various categories of single mums. I am a product of a single mother who took over the family firm. I am therefore in one very privileged category. It is not new or unique. There are divorced mothers—left, perhaps, with a reasonable maintenance settlement. There are widows with children. Then there are those who are unmarried.

In my constituency, it is reckoned that more than 50 per cent. of all live births are to single mothers who are not in a stable relationship. That is a most horrendous statistic with which to deal. We all know that the children of those mothers, who—broadly—are condemned to a life of poverty, face a life of deprivation and find it difficult in school and in later life to become the social and economic animals that we all need to be to succeed.

Ms Short

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Lady's general point, as I want to see where she is going, but is she aware of statistics that show that many of those young women go on to form a partnership and a stable relationship? We often talk as though it is a condition for life. From the figures, it is not. Those women frequently form partnerships.

Mrs. Lait

I completely accept the hon. Lady's point, but, if I were to describe every category, I would not get through to the question that I am trying to pose. I hope that the hon. Lady bears with me and agrees that there is a category of women about whom most of us are concerned.

The group includes young girls, who—with the benefit, one would have thought, of sex education in school—are pregnant when they leave school. Alarming statistics show the number of girls leaving council care at the age of 16 who are either pregnant or with a child, and one has to ask, why are they in that position? What drives them to create a set of circumstances that they will find very difficult to get out of?

We may all offer simple explanations. The problem is that every explanation is different. There arc about 20 or 30 explanations and I shall not go through them, but they include getting away from mum, having a baby that is one's own and is a toy rather than a reality, and getting a house and benefits. I am not making any moral statement, but those explanations are given time and time again.

I am sure that it goes much deeper than that. Until we find out why this coterie of women are condemning themselves to a life out of the mainstream of society, we cannot fix the problem.

Mrs. Gorman

Before my hon. Friend leaves an extremely important and very interesting subject, I hope that she will turn her thoughts to the role of single young fathers. Young men, of course, get these young women pregnant and walk away from their responsibility. Does she not think that we should do more to educate our young boys in what used to be called good behaviour and honour towards women?

Mrs. Lait

I have tremendous sympathy with my hon. Friend's point. I, too, would like it if everybody who had a right also had a responsibility. By making it easier for boys to walk away, we are placing the responsibility for contraception and for the child on women. But I want to deal with the reality. It is the woman who is left with the child. One of the most recent sociological explanations is that, because unskilled young men can no longer maintain a family, women are rejecting them. They are positively deciding to reject them.

Ms Short

Because they have no income.

Mrs. Lait

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is yet another explanation of the phenomenon. We have not yet got to the bottom of the problem. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is now aware that there is no easy answer to it. I would be more than grateful if someone could come up with an easy answer, but I am sure that there is no such easy answer.

Dr. Lynne Jones

There is no easy answer. The hon. Lady has raised a very important issue. A large group of people in our society are alienated to such an extent that they have no hope for the future. They therefore have no aspirations beyond having a baby and obtaining the minimal levels of benefit. That is not a good life; it is a life of poverty. Why have those women lost that aspiration? Why has the situation become worse during the period of this Government, under whom inequality has risen? We should be concerned about that group in society which is alienated from the rest of us.

Mrs. Lait

I am afraid that the hon. Lady has added yet another explanation as to why the phenomenon has arisen without, other than in a very glib party political way, trying to solve the problem. This is the third time that I have made my point, and I apologise if I am being repetitive. However, we must be clearer in our minds what is genuinely causing the problem, so that we can begin to address the solution more effectively than the remedies that have been tried so far.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet (Fookes)

Order. I assumed that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) was giving way. Is that correct?

Mrs. Lait

Yes. I was giving way to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland).

Lady Olga Maitland

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, in what has been the most thoughtful and most useful contribution in the entire debate. I totally accept that there is no easy answer. However, will my hon. Friend ponder for a moment or two why marriage has now slipped from the agenda as the normal way of family life? It is now accepted that people will have partners and transitory relationships. Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot put the blame entirely on schools or the media? Society as a whole is to blame. Does she not agree that we must reinvigorate the concepts of the family and of marriage?

Mrs. Lait

My hon. Friend has added yet another strand to the conundrum we face. I have tremendous sympathy with my hon. Friend's point. We must get to grips with the problem, because society cannot afford those young women opting out and not making the best of their lives, quite apart from the lives of the children whom they are raising.

I have a further, possibly more radical, thought, on a different area. I said earlier that I campaigned very vigorously in the early 1970s for equal rights for women. One of the things I campaigned for was the Equal Opportunities Commission. It is now 20 years since the EOC was founded. It has funded and achieved some very distinguished legal victories. While many of us may find them difficult to live with, we probably agree in our heart of hearts with what has been achieved.

However, it is now about time that we reviewed whether the EOC meets today's needs. I have a brief resume of what the commission did in 1993. It produced 13 publications, including the annual report. Grants were given to 27 voluntary sector projects. Twelve research projects were commissioned, on topics such as women and low pay, and black women in the labour market. In 1993, the commission assisted 195 cases in industrial tribunals and the European Court of Justice.

Does the Equal Opportunities Commission need to perform those tasks? Are there sufficient research institutes, grant-giving bodies and legal help organisations to perform that function instead? If the EOC did not exist, would those bodies have performed that function?

Those are very difficult questions to he posed by a great supporter of the commission when it first started and to those who have become used to the commission. However, after 20 years, it is perhaps time to consider whether the commission is required, whether its composition needs to be changed and whether its aims and objectives need to reflect more closely the changes that have been achieved in the past 20 years.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

Does the hon. Lady agree that, under article 119 of the treaty of Rome, the Equal Opportunities Commission, from its very inception, has been the most effective body by a long way throughout Europe—and I do not normally say this kind of thing—in pursuing cases in respect of which women have been badly treated? It would be a tragedy to get rid of its expertise in that area.

Mrs. Lait

I acknowledged the commission's work, however inconvenient some of us may have found the results. I am not suggesting that that body of knowledge should necessarily dissipate simply because we change the aims and objectives of the commission, or review them in such a way that we decide that we do not need the EOC as such and move its responsibilities to some other policy institute. I am simply opening up the question for debate because, after 20 years, we need to do that. If we do not do that, such things ossify and become part of the system, which does not deliver what is required given the changes that have occurred.

I apologise if my next issue was raised earlier, but I became aware of its complications very recently. That issue is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment has been an issue for action and debate in the United Kingdom. However, I became aware of it as an even more potentially difficult problem as a result of a conversation that I had recently with a retired professor of international law from the United States.

The professor told me about the realities of life in an academic faculty where the politics of sexual harassment were such that men and women found that the level and quality of teaching was being affected purely because, in any one-to-one relationship between the sexes, neither could react in an academic but at the same time friendly way.

It usually takes 10 years for ideas from America to cross the pond. I would hate it if we were to over-react to allegations of sexual harassment in future and put in place techniques and controls to deal with sexual harassment which reduced the level of academic teaching. If we did that, we would be doing ourselves a profound disservice in terms of the ability of men and women to contribute to our economic and cultural success in the United Kingdom. We must be aware that we could over-react and penalise ourselves—for all the right reasons, but taken to excess.

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for posing questions rather than offering answers. However, I should he grateful if she would consider whether she can say that work will be done on some of the difficult questions that I have posed.

7.59 pm
Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

At the moment, the world summit for social development is meeting in Copenhagen, and the United Nations is using the summit to highlight the problem of poverty and to discuss solutions. In Britain, as in the rest of the world, the poorest section of the population are women and their children. The UN has said that women do two thirds of the world's work for 5 per cent. of the income and only I per cent. of the assets.

I apologise to the House for missing a good deal of the debate, because I was chairing a meeting on the Child Support Act 1991. Representatives of the single parent action network and the Child Poverty Action Group came to tell us of their reaction to the latest statement by the Government on alterations to the Child Support Act. They told us a story of the increased poverty of women; that the Act, which was supposed to help children, has in many ways made things worse. They told us of single mothers who at lunchtime went out and bought their children a bag of chips and had nothing to eat themselves. When members of those organisations went to visit those mothers, they found their cupboards and fridges empty of food. Increasing numbers were having water and electricity supplies disconnected, and even more were self-disconnecting because they did not have the money to charge the key or card meters which they are now forced to use and through which they pay even more for electricity than those who can afford to pay a quarterly bill.

I was shocked to find that 10,000 women have already suffered the benefit penalty because they were denied the right to refuse authorisation for their husbands to be pursued for maintenance, and that 17,000 more have been denied that right. They will also suffer a benefit penalty. That means that their benefit is cut by nearly £9 a week, so that, although they are already on the poverty line, there will be even less money to feed the children. There will not even be money for the bag of chips. That is a terrible situation.

There is great pressure on those women to go out to work, but the only jobs they can find are low-paid, part-time, insecure jobs. They cannot take insecure jobs. If they do, they go on to family credit. The family credit system sets the amount that they will receive for six months, and then, if the maintenance does not come through or the job is lost, because the jobs are not secure, the women are in serious financial trouble.

It is not a victory for women to be forced to go out to work for low wages, because they then have less time for their children. Child care is very lacking in some areas. There are not enough nursery schools, there are not enough qualified child carers, and good child care is usually not affordable. Mothers who work all day have less time to go to schools for parents' day. There are all kinds of problems. It is not all hay when they go out to work, especially when they cannot earn much money.

There is an increasing stigma on single mothers on benefits and on women who stay home to look after their children. They have been attacked by many Ministers, and they are beginning to feel the stigma, because society picks it up. Teachers begin to say, "That child is a nuisance; no wonder, he comes from a single-parent family," and the women themselves are affected by it. I say here and now that there is no disgrace in a woman wanting to stay home to look after her children.

Every mother is a working mother. Every woman works, whether she works for wages or she works in the home and does unpaid work. It is high time that the unpaid work that women do was counted and valued. It is counted on, but not counted by society.

It was recently disclosed that £30 billion had been saved for the state by the work of carers. That is probably an underestimate. If we counted women's work, we would begin to see just how much money has been cut from social services, because women have picked up the pieces of the shattered welfare state.

In addition to looking after their own sick and elderly relatives, women look after neighbours when the meals on wheels fail to roll up. They do a great deal of voluntary work for churches, schools and hospitals. That work is essential for the good of the community and for the happiness of the community, but it is not valued by society. Society has very strange values, because it values the work of soldiers as productive, but it does not value the work of mothers.

The EC social charter, which is anathema to Conservative Members, asks that the maximum working week be 48 hours, but nothing is said of the maximum working week for women, which can be as much as 80 hours if they go out to full-time work, and do the shopping, cooking, cleaning, caring for children and the myriad other tasks that women have to undertake for the family. Women would he rich if they were paid for the importance to society of the work that they do, but it is not women who are rich: it is the company directors who get the fabulous salaries and the tax-free share options.

It is not only single mothers who are poor: it is children, their mothers and their grandmothers—especially their grandmothers, because most pensioners, who are mostly women, are very poor. I am sick and tired of seeing in my constituency elderly women hovering outside the window of a butcher's shop, trying to make up their minds whether to go in, and whether there is anything that they can afford to cook.

After a lifetime of work, after living through the war, after living through the depression and after bringing up their families, women should not have to suffer that. They should not he unable to heat their homes properly, they should not have to stick to one room or sit in the kitchen, by the open gas oven as the cheapest way of heating, after a lifetime of work of value to the community.

The Government's statistics distort the reality of women and their pensions. It has been said that men retire but women tire. When women finish their paid work and finish bringing up their families, they often help to bring up their grandchildren, so that their daughters can go out and earn a hit of money. The Government are worsening the position for older women. The change of pension age from 60 to 65 will mean that women will lose £14,500 each, based on 1992 prices. It will probably be £15,000 if we base that on today's prices, and it will be even more when the change comes about.

The Government's statistics also give a false impression of occupational pensions. Only 28 per cent. of women over 65 have occupational pensions, and 72 per cent. do not. Only 12 per cent. in a recent survey had their own pensions. When my first husband died, I received half his occupational pension. It is not true that one person can live half as cheaply as two, because the bills come in for telephone, heat and light, and they are the same as those for two people who live in a home. My position was worsened, and the position of many women is far worse than mine was.

There is also the inequity of the occupational pension going to the husband when there is a divorce, and the wife who helped him to build his career and his pension receiving nothing. I hope that that matter will be addressed, and that changes will be enacted to give women a fair deal in receiving a share of the occupational pension when there is a divorce.

Middle-class feminists have a strategy for equality, and their strategy is to get more women to the top and to hope that power will trickle down. If women have talent, it is great if they can get to the top—if they can break through the glass ceiling—but that is not the way to help the majority of women. Women in politics were not lifted up by having a woman Prime Minister, despite what some Conservative Members think.

The facts speak for themselves. Having more women at the top will not lift up the majority of women. What will address the needs of women at the bottom of the scale will be to value and to count their work in the gross domestic product and in satellite accounts.

We must stop considering the work of women to he of no value to society and allowing it to be invisible. When women's unwaged work is ignored, their waged work is badly paid. It is a reflection of the value placed upon their unpaid work. The unpaid work of women is like the base of a pyramid on which the whole economy is built, and that should be recognised by society.

More women in organisations such as the Women Count network are demanding that women's work be counted. The Counting Women's Unremunerated Work Bill, which I presented to this House in 1989, has been replicated and passed in the European Parliament, and measures based on that Bill are now passing through the United States Congress and through Parliaments in the Philippines, Trinidad, and Germany. People in many countries who have read my Bill and have come to see me are now trying to get similar Bills through their legislatures.

I shall end by quoting Juan Somavia, the chairperson of the world summit on social development which is now taking place. I shall read two quotes. First, talking in February about the unpaid work of women, he said:

The devaluing of this work runs parallel to the subordinate status of women, since it is women who do most of this 'caring and sustaining'. To link productivity only with paid employment continues to render invisible the enormous amount of unwaged work that women do that undergirds and subsidizes all other kinds of work". In his opening speech to the conference on 4 March, he said:

The contribution made to society by voluntary work, artists, the elderly, and most especially, by women through unpaid household work, together with cost-free use of the environment, are in fact subsidising the economy. The women's movement is rightfully demanding that this contribution be measured, if not remunerated, to at least factor in the invisible components of an economic system that ignores the actors which indirectly deserve a share of the benefits". It is time that society changed its values. If we value the work of soldiers more than the work of mothers, it will have an effect on how we spend our resources. Instead of money going to help the welfare of children and future generations, it will be blown up and spent on Trident and more obsolete arms for the military.

8.12 pm
Mrs. Angela Knight (Erewash)

I apologise to hon. Members on both sides of the House for not being present for much of the earlier debate. Like other hon. Members, I was in Committee. It may be of interest to the House to know that the Committee on which I was sitting was the Finance Bill, on which six women are sitting. I believe that that is more women than have ever sat on the Finance Bill Committee before. I also had a wry smile at a note which was sent to me a few days ago, which stated that an Opposition Member was hosting the launch of a new beer in honour of International Women's Week this week. The new beer was to be called Femme Fatale.

I have some concerns about this debate in general, and they are related to two aspects. First, it is too general a debate. We could easily have done a better job had we discussed specific issues; for example the issues of health, which was raised by the hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley), single parents, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait), education, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), or pensions and the Child Support Agency, which was raised by the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon). The issues could have been dealt with better if we had had a series of separate debates, rather than the general one that we have had today.

My second concern is that today's debate seems to he hugely negative. Many of the speeches that I have heard and the Opposition motion have been negative. I do not think that women's issues are negative—I think that they are hugely positive—and I am sorry that they have been put in such a negative way. Some of the speeches have also denigrated to a considerable extent women's role in society, in this country and elsewhere.

One of the matters touched upon in the opening speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) was the number of women in the House of Commons. In many respects, I agree with her. Clearly, when about 52 per cent. of the population—and only 10 per cent. of Members—are women, there is something very much out of balance. I would like to see more women in the House of Commons, but I do not agree that a quota system is the way in which to achieve that.

In any job—whatever it might be—one must have the best person for that job. I do not think that that can be achieved by all-female lists or by all-male lists.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

But if it turns out that, in 80 per cent. of cases the list is all-male and that there are very few cases where it is all-female, what positive action can we take that is not positive discrimination, to get more people into the recruitment pool from which lists can be selected?

Mrs. Knight

I shall come to the issue of bringing more women into the recruitment pool after I have dealt with quotas. The Labour party has decided to designate my constituency as one where an all-women list will apply for selection purposes. There has been an outcry, and not just from the men. A number of well-known female Labour politicians who are local councillors believe that it is wrong to have women-only lists for my constituency. It has caused disruption in my area and division within the Labour party. I am not sure what conclusion the party will come to. Male and female members of the Labour party must feel that, by forcing upon them a selection from just one gender, the party is not giving people a true choice to select the person whom they want to represent them.

The real issue has been brought up by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley). We need to get more women on to the candidates' lists for all parties. There will always be restrictions, because clearly it is always difficult to be mum and to work. If one is a mum and doing this job with all its peculiarities a long way from home—in my case it is about 160 miles away—it adds to the normal complications that we all have in trying to combine bringing up children with a career.

It is likely that we shall get far more women to sit for constituencies in the south and the south-east. It is not so likely that women—and especially mothers—will represent seats a long way north of London. When I was checking some of the facts related to the debate, I noticed—Opposition Members may correct me if I am wrong—that only two female Opposition Members represent seats a long way north of London and have small children. On Conservative Benches, there is only me. Being a mother and a Member of Parliament is one of the hardest combinations to put together.

More can he done though in bringing women into public life, by encouraging them to take part in local councils. To serve on a local council is not only very interesting, but it gives one a good taste of public life. It can be done more easily because a local council is close to home. That, in my view, is the best stepping stone, and is a way of bringing people forward into this type of role. I have noticed that the number of women on local councils has increased substantially during the past 10 years. On average, more than 25 per cent. of councillors are women and, in some councils, the proportion is considerably higher than that. That is a positive step, and I would like to see it pursued with a view to increasing the representation of women in the House.

In general, I believe that there are four ways which, put together, constitute the greatest steps that can he taken to encourage women along the way, whatever job they seek to do. Encouragement is certainly one, but education, a range of employment opportunities and creating true equality by treating men and women fairly, especially in job opportunities, are the others. Put together, those are the four ways in which true promotion of women can take place.

I do not believe that people's lives are suddenly changed because a handful of people go and do something extraordinary. People's lives change because thousands of ordinary people start to do their ordinary things in a slightly different way. That is the way in which we have seen great changes take place over time in this country, and that is how great changes will take place steadily in the future.

Let us consider the key achievements of the past decade. We have more women in work than ever before. The fact that we have managed to get so many women into jobs shows that we must be getting quite a lot right in this country. Indeed, we have more women wanting to work than almost any other country in Europe. Moreover, women take up about 50 per cent. of all further and higher education places—and education is the key.

If we educate women, we give them the skills so that they can take the opportunities that become available. It is important to note how girls are now starting to outperform boys at school. I read an interesting article in the summer, which asked whether we should consider taking boys out of mixed classes and teaching them separately, to enable them to achieve what girls of the same age can achieve. That outperformance by girls is especially noticeable in science.

Another key change has been caused by more equality in the pensions system. We can now contribute to pensions in a way that was not open to us as women as few years ago. I know that the new national targets for health have created some concern for the hon. Member for York, but the fact remains that those targets are there: in screening for breast cancer and cervical cancer. The opportunities are there to be taken up. The difficulty, as so often, is getting women to take up the opportunities available. That brings me to one of the unknown questions and quandaries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye asked earlier, "What can we do about it?"

None the less, some of those key improvements sound good to me. They do not sound anything like the negative motion on the Order Paper. The trend in choice for women is moving upwards, too.

When I went to university in 1968 I read chemistry because it never crossed my mind that I, as a woman, could take an engineering degree. Only when I arrived at university did I realise that I should have been doing an engineering degree. When I entered the House, I asked the Library to tell me how many women entered university or other forms of higher education to read engineering in 1968. The answer was 500—only 500 in the whole country. So I feel that there was some excuse for my ignorance at the age of 18, when I did not quite know that I could have had that opportunity. However, at the beginning of the 1990s, 30,000 women a year were taking engineering degrees at university or in other forms of higher education. That is a good example of how opportunities have broadened for women.

Pursuing that line further, I asked the Library to compare the current figures for women employed in engineering and science with those from 10, 20 and 30 years ago. Again, the answers were extraordinary. The increases have been immense. In 1971, about 84,000 women in all were employed in science and engineering. In the early 1990s, the figure was five times that.

The proportion of women members of science and engineering professional institutions has increased, too, from 2.5 per cent. to 22.5 per cent. Again, dramatic improvements have taken place, because hundreds of thousands of people have gone about their ordinary jobs in slightly different ways.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

It is certainly encouraging if that is what is happening with professional institutions, but does the hon. Lady agree that it is rather appalling that the Royal Society, whose proportion of women members increased to 3 per cent. in the 1960s, still has only 3 per cent. of women members today?

Mrs. Knight

There is always a last bastion for us to break down. The proportion may be 3 per cent. now, but one wonders what it will be in 10 years' time. Just as changes have taken place in other areas, they can take place there, too. None of us can expect to win every battle on the first day that we open fire.

Let us consider some of the wider career opportunities, because we are now getting away from the traditional jobs that women were expected to do. Yes, there are still far more women then men in secretarial and clerical jobs, and in some of the caring professions, but nearly one third of the 3 million general managers in the United Kingdom are women. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere mentioned the percentage of women barristers, and indeed about one third of all lawyers are now women.

Furthermore, 29 per cent. of dentists, 29 per cent. of general practitioners, 40 per cent. of pharmacists, 26 per cent. of vets, 24 per cent. of chartered accountants and 42 per cent. of people in the media are women. The numbers are rising steadily both because of education and because of the wider job opportunities available to them.

Ms Short

Of course those figures are right, but does the hon. Lady appreciate that every woman has only one working life, so if the odds are still stacked enormously unfairly for the women who have not had the opportunities, those opportunities have gone for the whole of their lives? To say that things are changing slowly will sound a bit complacent to those who have missed out on some of their life opportunities.

Mrs. Knight

Again, that is an extraordinarily negative approach. It is not as if we were debating a situation that is much the same as it was 10 years ago. We have seen substantial changes—most of which have taken place within my lifetime, since the early 1950s—and women now have far more opportunities available to them. One of the conclusions that ultimately emerged from what the hon. Member for York said was that the health care opportunities available for women were simply not being taken up. That also applies to the jobs market. There are considerable opportunities available that, sadly, are not taken up. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye made that point, and it is partly related to the education system in this country.

It is true that not everything in the garden is rosy, but there are far more blooms than there were a few years ago, and there will be a lot more in a few years' time.

We tend to talk about the employment situation in a fairly superficial way. We often seem to imply, "Full-time jobs good, part-time jobs bad." Yet the reality of bringing up a family means that a part-time job is often the best opportunity for a woman. It not only brings extra money into the household, but it gives her as an individual that hit of independence and freedom and the knowledge that she is earning her own way in the world, which she would not otherwise be able to do. The part-time sector in the present job market is of considerable benefit, especially to women in my constituency, who still tend to work in the textile trades.

The greatest limiter of women's participation in the work force is having children—by which I mean the presence of young children in the family. Although one can work out the logistics, it is often difficult to work out the other aspects, and to deal with the feeling that as an individual, as a mum, one ought to be there. I have not yet learnt to come to grips with the guilt and I suspect that I shall not find out how to do so until my children are grown up.

The provision of adequate and affordable child care, which is often discussed in the House, is vital to working women. Participation in nursery education has increased substantially, but there is always a doubt in my mind when it is discussed. One of my children enjoyed nursery and one did not, and even the one who went to nursery attended no more than three mornings a week. Both liked playgroup and going to Grandma's—the alternative forms of child care that are available—and I believe that to opt for nursery care alone would ultimately be detrimental to many children, especially those who, like one of mine, did not like nursery at all.

Child care and nursery education with part-time working are necessities. But another problem arises because women tend to look after not only the children but the aging population as well. It is something that women have traditionally done and managed to combine with their careers. As the population ages, the demands on women to assist the elderly will undoubtedly increase. There is no getting away from it and there is no solution, but it means that more women will be able to say categorically that for most of their lives they did not one but two jobs at the same time.

I now deal with the encouragement given to pupils at school. The encouragement given to girls will colour their view of the types of jobs that they can take when they leave school. I am greatly concerned about the careers advice given at school. Too often, it is given by teachers who left school, went to teacher training college and then went straight back to school to teach. Consequently, their careers advice tends to be limited. The expectations of teachers and parents, especially when girls are involved, are the most fundamental moving force when it comes to girls choosing the career to follow. When my teachers asked me at the age of 14 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said that I wanted to go into industry. The school had a fit and provided me with a series of career novelettes that had wonderful titles such as "Susan Becomes a Secretary", "Nora Becomes a Nurse" and the wonderfully named "Angela becomes an Air Hostess". That was their idea of careers advice for a 14-year-old girl in the 1960s, when going into industry was not one of the things that nice girls did. There has been a considerable improvement since then, but the encouragement given to children at school and the advice from teachers can enable children to have a wider vision of the jobs available to them when they leave.

The very fact that women now make up half the young people going into further and higher education is an example of how careers advice has improved, but also of how girls are improving their skills so that they have more opportunities available to them.

The Institute of Management recently produced a report enticingly called "The Key to the Men's Club" and subtitled "Opening the doors to women in management". The recommendations set out clearly the type of policies that we should perhaps consider. It is in employers' interests to keep women in the work force and to attract women back to a company if they have left for the traditional career break. The reason why employers are especially interested to keep women is that women are reliable, responsible and accurate and, dare I say it, to a greater extent than the equivalent male work force.

The institute makes three recommendations in particular. The first is that employers should remove age limits or any unnecessary criteria to ensure that women who have taken career breaks or who are late entrants into the work force are eligible for all management schemes. The second is to ensure that women on a career break do not suffer downward mobility. The institute urges employers to keep in touch and to provide training and updating and scope for flexible working.

The third recommendation is that employers should recognise, accept and be positive about caring responsibilities and make clear their view that caring is the responsibility of all employees, not just women, and that child care support or provision should not be targeted only at women.

The companies that have signed up to those recommendations include the Midland bank, British Gas, the Bank of Scotland and Marks and Spencer, all of which are organisations that employ women extensively in a wide range of jobs. I believe that they are the sorts of policies that the House should pursue.

8.35 pm
Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

The House has been discussing the need to ensure that women participate at all levels in our society. It is gratifying that, with the exception of a few dinosaurs on the Conservative Benches, hon. Members have been united in recognising the waste of our nation's talents because so many women fail to reach positions of influence. The difference between the two main parties is that we have practical policies to redress the imbalance.

It was interesting to hear that the Minister who chairs the Cabinet Committee on women was not even aware of how few women have been able to take advantage—if that is the correct word—of the opportunities that the Government have made available through their child care disregard. The fact is that many of the Government's policies on women are tokenist and do not meet women's practical needs, such as the need for child care that enables them to go back to work.

As for getting more women into Parliament, again the Labour party will show the way. We will have more women in Parliament. We have learnt from the practical experience of other countries, especially the Scandinavian countries, where more than 30 per cent. of parliamentarians are women, thanks to the means that the Labour party has been advocating to get more women sitting on these green Benches.

Ms Short

On the Government Benches.

Dr. Jones

On both sides. The Conservatives will follow once we have shown the way.

Most of my remarks relate to the participation of women in a sphere in which increasing numbers are a matter of concern, not something to be applauded. I am referring to the large increase in the number of women going to prison. As of last Friday, there were 1,982 women in our prisons, which have a capacity of 1,858. The figure is up about 40 per cent. on two years ago. The increase is not a result of more women committing offences. In fact, the peak of offences occurred in 1992 before this increase in the prison population. Instead, there seems to have been a change in sentencing policy rather than an increase in crime.

More than a third of women who go to prison do so because they have been unable to pay fines for offences that would not usually warrant a prison sentence. For example, in 1993, 292 women were sent to prison because they could not afford to pay their fine for being unable to pay for a television licence.

The Home Office thinks that those figures are trivial, but hundreds of women who are not a danger to society are being put away for several weeks at a time. For those women and for their families, it is a devastating experience. Half the women in prison are mothers.

Poverty is resulting in women being sent to prison, but men too are being sent to prison for non-payment of fines. A recent study by Rona Epstein, a law student at Coventry university, showed that, of 116 people who were imprisoned for not paying the poll tax, 53 per cent. were on benefit and 14 per cent. had no income. The National Association of Probation Officers reckoned that about 80 per cent. of people gaoled for non-payment of fines are on benefit and already in multiple debt.

Some examples of people sent to prison have been highlighted by those studies, and I shall mention a few of them. An asthmatic woman with learning difficulties spent 10 days in prison for non-payment of poll tax before she was released on bail following the intervention of our very own Madam Speaker. A part-time cleaner, earning £42 a week, with five children, the youngest under five, was sent to prison for 20 days for being unable to pay her fine.

Many women who are being sent to prison are first-time offenders who have committed petty offences. Those have been highlighted by the National Association of Probation Officers. A pregnant mother was gaoled for 21 days for stealing £380 from the place where she worked, after she had already repaid it. She had borrowed it to try to keep a roof over her children's head. A 20-year-old mother served 56 days in Holloway prison for obtaining goods worth £91 by deception; she had no previous convictions.

It would be much better to give such people non-custodial sentences than to send them to prison, where they meet other people and are likely to be exposed to a culture of drug taking. Judge Tumim has noted that, in Styal women's prison, eight out of 10 of the women take drugs. It is an offence to our society that such women arc being sent to prison.

My interest in the matter was first raised by recognising that we were sending women to prison because they could not afford to pay for their television licences. A 39-year-old woman with two children was fined £200. She had a history of psychiatric treatment and no previous convictions. Her income was income support, and she had a catalogue of other multiple debts. She was sent to prison for seven days.

A 25-year-old west midlands mother of two children, one of whom has learning difficulties, was sent to gaol for 14 days. On the day that she was in court, no one was available to take care of her children. It was only after the intervention of social services that a relative in Liverpool was found to look after the children.

One can imagine the devastation that that must cause to those families, who are already living with the stress that results from poverty. That stress appears to have been growing during the past 16 years of Conservative government, as has been well documented.

Conservative Governments have allowed benefits to lag behind the general standard of living in society. The Conservative Government condone low pay, as evidenced by their abolition of the wages councils and the spurious defence of those policies by Ministers in the Department of Employment when they issue misleading statistics. Since the abolition of the wages councils, wages have decreased and are continuing to do so. Women especially find that the opportunities that are available to them offer poverty pay and mean continual stress in their lives, which means that they are unable to meet the basic needs of their families, which results in perhaps some of them being unable to pay for their television licences.

What is society's remedy? We send such people to prison. We should not tolerate that. I understand that the population in our women's prisons has become so great that crisis proposals have been made to send some female prisoners to male institutions. The Government should consider that growing problem, and should act to make it impossible for the courts to send people to prison because they are poor and cannot afford to pay their fines. In any case, it costs £15 million to send such people to prison, and in the end their fines are not paid. There are other means of making them contribute to society, and there are ways of making them contribute, to the extent that they can afford to do so, towards those fines.

I ask the Minister to consider that issue, and I ask the Government to take seriously their responsibility for the growing alienation of that section of our society that lives in poverty. Sending those people to prison is not the answer.

8.45 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) made some good arguments in the middle of her speech, but I think that the House would believe that she would be more effective if she dropped the idea of blaming everything on 16 years of Conservative government.

It is true that we should be moving past the time when people are sent to gaol because of pure poverty. If people are thought wilfully not to be paying who would otherwise be able to pay, some alternative, cheaper deterrent or way of recognising that they had done something wrong would be advisable.

The hon. Member for Selly Oak spoke about civil debts. It is worth noting that, 19 times out of 20, crime is a male offence. Drink-driving is, 19 times out of 20, a male thing. Male misbehaviour is the other side of the caring and conscientiousness that women show in fulfilling most family responsibilities.

I shall speak primarily about poverty and about Parliament. I hope that ordinary, middle-class people will forgive me for not concentrating on their problems, which have been well illustrated by others who have spoken.

One of the factors associated with caring for children and for elderly parents is that a woman tends to know more about her residential area and its problems than does the man who, if in work, tends to leave the area in the morning and return at night, and probably has a social life away from the home.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation "Inquiry into Income and Wealth" discusses the local authority areas that were the poorest in 1981 and those that were the poorest in 1991. It is interesting that, of the 15 poorest areas, five are common to the list at both ends of the decade but 10 of them make some dramatic changes. Corby was the poorest local authority area in 1981 and was a long way from the danger zone 10 years later.

Some of those changes are interesting. If we change our focus to ward level or estate level, we begin to notice a constellation of factors of failure—not purely as a result of inadequate money having been put into the estate, but because one tends to find pockets of high unemployment and some of the other problems that were well illustrated in the Rowntree report.

I quote now from volume 1 of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation "Inquiry into Income and Wealth". Among other things, it mentions

A cycle of 'poor parenting' resulting not necessarily from poverty, but from lack of experience of 'good parenting' themselves, inexperience because of youth, lack of understanding of the needs of children, lack of support networks and facilities, and isolation which can lead to depression and health problems. Those who have gained most from trying to spread a checklist of good facilities, good practice and good community approaches tend to be women. When I occasionally compare parts of my constituency with parts of my wife's constituency, I begin to see a complete contrast of opportunity between a town or village of 2,000 people in south-west Surrey and 5,000 people in an estate built in the London borough of Greenwich.

On an estate on an old goods yard, which was in my constituency and is now just outside it, 5,000 people lived for five years with no pub, no post office, no church or chapel, no police officer, no bus stop and no place at which anyone could work within a mile and a half. That is pulling out of people's lives many of the things that matter to them—things which lead to the natural growth of a community.

I believe that, in many of our residential areas, if we brought four or five people together—whether current parents or streetwise grannies—who would start saying what they wanted to happen, what type of activity they wanted that would be part of worthwhile activities for young people—the organised chaos of the scouts, the Boys' Brigade, the Woodcraft Folk or a junior band, or some amateur dramatics or some sports involvement—we would begin to receive a positive answer to the question that I have posed to groups throughout the country, "What do you, aged 12 or 14, do after school or after homework?" There is nothing to do in too many inner-city areas. Many of the programmes that I have talked about are run at virtually no cost, and communal fund raising could provide more and better activities. That would create a sense of hope, which may translate into better take-up of educational opportunities for women.

My borough of Greenwich comes 99th out of 109 education authorities around the country in terms of the proportion of pupils who get five GCSEs at A to C grade—the equivalent of the old O-levels. Someone must come 99th, but it need not be Greenwich. The local council should make headlines and the local press should carry headlines about that result. Parents in Greenwich should organise themselves in the way that workers would if they discovered that they came 99th out of 109 in a survey of wage levels. But we tolerate such things, and too often it is the women who carry the burden of inadequate performance by our public facilities, such as education authorities.

I praise the Evening Standard for its continuing in-depth study of the east end of London. It has highlighted the absence of good community facilities and the need to develop good general practitioner services. If the newspapers could spend more time examining those issues as well as education results, I think that we would see a general improvement in the situation.

More women in their teens and older must learn to appreciate the value of having higher expectations. We should look to remove barriers and embrace positive action, not discrimination. We must build competence and confidence, raise expectations and give encouragement.

One of the reasons why birth rates in countries such as Italy, Spain, France and Ireland are decreasing faster than in this country is that young women in those countries do not allow themselves to drift into a life of poverty. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) said about people who have babies too early.

We do not inherit celibacy from our parents. However, I believe that we must overcome the embarrassment-such as that caused by a 44-year-old male Member of Parliament talking about the need for sexually active people to worry about birth control or family planning—and discuss those issues. Family planning or birth control is the last thing on the minds of most sexually active young people. If they have the option, they may consider conception control. However, this week 6,000 people will contribute to a conception which will end in abortion—6.000 did so last week and there will be another 6,000 next week. Some 300,000 people contribute to conceptions that end in abortions every year in this country.

About 45 per cent. of sexually active people in this country will contribute at some stage to a conception that ends in abortion. In a relatively open country where information is readily available and we have the opportunity to learn from our own behaviour and that of others, we should be able to halve that figure in six weeks. Our abortion record may be 10 times higher than that of the Netherlands, but it should be lower.

We must achieve some openness in this area. I believe that the approach adopted by the headmistress of a girls' school in west London could be useful. Instead of saying, "We are now going to talk about contraception," the headmistress says to her girls—who come from mixed backgrounds—"Let's first discuss for whom contraception is not relevant." The girls then discuss the matter and they decide that it is not relevant for many pensioners, everyone below the age of puberty, those who are celibate, infertile or pregnant or those who want to be pregnant. She does not suggest that it is compulsory for everyone else; she simply points out that it has some relevance. That approach signals a move away from the idea that society is looking down on a bunch of hyperactive teenagers, and it makes contraception a part of normal life.

I agree strongly that males should be part of the decision-making process as well—it takes two to tango. We need to be more open about the contraception issue. Instead of a 44-year-old talking about it on Radio 4, those matters should be discussed on radio stations, such as Radio 1, Kiss FM and Virgin, to which young people listen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight) said, if we can get hundreds of thousands of ordinary people to do ordinary things often it will help to transform outcomes for society.

While we must try to reduce the number of people who fall into circumstances not of their own choosing, which they do not enjoy and which may affect their lives for the next 30 or 40 years, we should have sufficiently broad shoulders, big enough hearts and enough common sense to help people in whatever situations they face.

It is often women who visit people in gaol. Some 2,000 people—mainly male—commit their first serious crime every week, which makes a total of 100,000 people per year. Some 34 per cent. of men have already been convicted of a serious criminal offence by the age of 30. They may have been sentenced to gaol for six months or more. It is women who often perform a caring role when health—mental or physical—breaks down.

Sadly, the emancipation of women has seen an increase in the smoking habit among women. If women account for half the smoking in our society, they will account for half the 100,000 who will die prematurely every year as a result of smoking.

The hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley) said that we must be aware of health inequalities. Part of that problem is due to inequality of behaviour, which is probably a cultural issue. We cut the incidence of drink-driving among young men by 1.5 million per week over a year and a half with no changes to the law or to sentencing or enforcement procedures. We must try to do the same thing in other areas of avoidable disadvantage, distress and handicap in our efforts to promote general well-being. I think that we should adopt the key message in the first chapter of the Pope's new book, which essentially says: "Be not afraid." We must try to work out what we want to achieve and go for it.

I turn to the question of outcomes for children of mothers in different types of relationships. I hope that research will show whether I am correct in my belief that children are most likely to be brought up successfully—if that is defined broadly, without detail—if they are reared by widows. I think that is in part because widows know that they need to care, and in part because society is more willing to share the burdens that widows bear. I suspect that married parents are the next most successful at child rearing and that that group is followed by a mixture of those who have never married, those who are divorced and those who are separated.

That analysis is not really helpful in practice; we cannot say to children, "You will be all right," or "You are born to fail." However, it gives some guidance to people who believe that they have a choice. No one should be told nowadays that they should live with someone, marry or have children—that is a matter of individual circumstance and individual choice. I believe that if we can share information, more people will learn that they have a choice and will exercise their freedom of choice. Therefore, they will he likely to make fewer mistakes and less likely to get into undesirable situations. I agree that recognising home and work responsibilities is an important aspect that has been well covered by others.

I return to Parliament. At the risk of pre-empting my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), I increasingly believe that she was right to say that we should halve the number of constituencies and have a man and woman representing each constituency. It would save a lot of bother and provide a great deal of encouragement for people to believe that it should be relatively easy to take the chance of being elected to Parliament.

Not everybody who volunteers gets selected and not everybody who gets selected gets elected, but it is worth giving my hon. Friend's proposal serious consideration over the months and years. However, that is only one part of Parliament.

Most life peers appointed on the Prime Minister's recommendation are male, and all the judges who attend the House of Lords Appeal Court are male. At the moment, all the bishops are male, yet it should he quite easy and a matter of consensus to try to increase the number of women in the House of Lords.

At the risk of embarrassing them, it is not difficult to think of a whole range of women who would make a good contribution. I do not know the politics of any of them, hut, for example, the deputy chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, June Bridgeman, who was a distinguished civil servant experienced in family responsibilities, could serve there well.

Ros Howells, who has been running the Council for Racial Equality in Greenwich, has immense experience, talent and street experience of young people, including those from ethnic minority backgrounds. She helped to reduce the avoidable distress that followed some terrible incidents in my constituency and my borough.

Hazel Treadgold is the central president of the Mothers' Union, a large voluntary organisation, which, if it were a male one, would have had its central president, or the equivalent, on the candidates' list for public appointments to places such as the House of Lords or for appearances on "Any Questions" or "Question Time", but she is invisible because women in general do not push themselves forward.

One generalisation I can make is that most men who are half qualified for a job think that they are overqualified, and most women who think they are half qualified for a job think they are disqualified, and that needs to be changed.

Margaret Harrison started Home Start, the organisation which gives support to families and helps trained volunteers to support six families with great changes in outcome. I do not see why we should not have as many such people in the House of Lords as we have people in business and employment.

Anne Frye is a current civil servant who runs the mobility unit in the Department of Transport and has declined to move from her job in the past 10 or 14 years because her contribution goes beyond statute and public provision, but knits together the mobility improvements.

Dame Sue Tinson, editor of ITN for many years, was omitted from Ginny Dougary's book on women in the media, perhaps because she was successful and had done so well. Diane Warwick of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Sheila Masters, the former financial director of the health service and Gareth Pierce, the lawyer who has shown by her competence and her willingness to take up unpopular causes that she has a contribution to make, would all be excellent candidates. We should be asking such people to come forward.

I admit to one minor disappointment: that when Emily's list promised to make awards to women in public prominence, I thought it would give one to my wife. I discovered later that only Labour women would get such recognition. If Labour Members would drop the idea to promote only women in their own party, a cross-party approach would encourage those with no politics and all kinds of politics to come forward.

Having said that, I believe that we should change the Women's National Commission into a family commission. I do not think it has done enough. There are ways to put together family policy issues and women's issues on the public agenda and keep them there.

9.2 pm

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

When I think of equality for women, I always think of that splendid Chinese revolutionary poster of the 1950s showing a woman up a telegraph pole fixing telephone wires against a beautiful sunrise, with the slogan, "Women hold up half the sky." Women hold up more than half of our society and our economy, but they certainly do not get their fair share of pay, property, jobs and positions of power and influence or life chances. The Government's attitude is often akin to a cartoon of Andy and Florrie Capp. Andy Capp has a pint of beer and Florrie has a half pint and Andy says, "Florrie always gets her full half of what I get." It sounds reasonable, but it is not.

I want to put sex discrimination into context with class discrimination and race discrimination, as that point has been absent from the debate. They are all severe in their own right, but they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They impact on each other and compound discrimination and inequality. Nearly all women are likely to face some discrimination during their lives, for example, the burden and cost of child care with the glass ceilings and stereotypes which have been mentioned. Working-class women face economic as well as sex discrimination and are likely to spend much of their lives in poverty; working-class black women are even more likely to do so. Cases arise in my work load, as in that of other hon. Members, of immigrant women brought over to be with men who either beat them up or desert them. Those women, instead of being allowed to remain here in their own right, are picked on by the state and threatened with deportation or deported. Such women are victims of sex, class and race discrimination. Specific measures are needed to overcome class and race inequality, which also holds hack many women.

Low pay cuts across all forms of discrimination. The Equal Opportunities Commission estimates that 4 million women are on low pay, and the Council of Europe reported that 6.5 million women in this country fall below its decency threshold. Part-time workers are among the low-paid, because they receive only the hourly rate equivalent of 59 per cent. of male full-time earnings. The increase in the number of part-time jobs is welcome, but not the appalling pay that goes with them.

The proliferation of low-paid part-time jobs contrasts with the collapse of job sharing in better-paid work throughout the country, and the Government should explain why. A statutory minimum wage is needed, which would benefit four out of five women; otherwise, we will repeat the experience in the United States of the working poor—women employed but still in poverty and dependent on state benefits. Decently paid jobs are the key to cutting the benefits bill and to helping women.

Nine out of 10 lone pensioners forced to rely on income support are women. Only one woman in six retires on a lull state pension, compared with two out of three men. The Government's proposal to raise the retirement age for women to 65 is unfair and represents indirect discrimination. Many women do not have private pensions, whereas some men do.

Mrs. Peacock

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cohen

No. I apologise to the hon. Lady, but time is short.

Many women without private pensions will he compelled to go the full distance and work until they are 65, whereas many men will not. The situation surrounding occupational pensions in cases of divorce is also unfair but, as I have presented a private Member's Bill on that subject—the Pensions (Divorce) Bill—I shall not discuss it now.

Many women are damaged by Government cuts in health, public transport and education. Only yesterday, a radio programme reported that teenage pregnancies in Holland number just seven in every 1,000. The figure for England is 33 in every 1,000—five times higher. What a failure of education, which can be blamed on the Government's prudishness and cuts in family planning services.

Inadequate child care holds hack many women. This country has the lowest level of publicly funded child care in the European Union. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that nine out of 10 women have access to some form of child care, but that is not true in my constituency or in the constituencies of many other hon. Members. I do not know where he gets those figures from. Child care provision is patchy to the point of being threadbare. Lack of child care is a major obstacle to a woman's ability to work and to enhance her life.

The Chancellor said that child care needs to be targeted, but it is not targeted in the poorest areas. In my area, there is a shortage of child care provision and the cost of a child minder is way beyond the means of working-class women. That means that child care provision is unequally distributed among working-class, middle-class and richer areas. I wish that it were targeted. It should be universal so that all women have access to child care.

If nine out of 10 women have access to child care, as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said, it should be easy for him to make it 10 out of 10. In those circumstances, why have the Government been dragging their feet over universal nursery provision for three and four-year-olds? There should be a public sector boost to nursery provision, with local authorities providing nurseries. There should be an employment boost with businessplace nurseries and crèches. There should be a tax incentive for businesses to provide such facilities and there should be an increase in parental leave as well. That would provide a real choice for women.

Many women experience crime and a fear of crime. The Government have reduced the compensation available for women who are the victims of crime. Early-day motion 730 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) draws attention to the case of a woman who was the victim of a brutal rape and left for dead, who received compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board amounting to £76,000 because of the horrendous injuries that she suffered.

Under the tariff that the Government are introducing, a woman would receive a maximum of £7,500 if she had been raped by a single person, a maximum of £10,000 if she had been raped by two or more people and a maximum of only £20,000 if she had suffered multiple injuries and permanent disability. It is a disgrace that such a tariff should be introduced, worsening conditions for women who are the victims of such crime.

There should be improved police practice for cases of domestic violence and a major zero violence campaign. The Government should co-ordinate a network of safe refuges for women throughout the country. They have been tardy in not doing that.

Inequality under the law should also be tackled. I draw the attention of the House to homicide cases and the law of provocation. At the moment, the defence of a sudden and temporary loss of self-control applies more to men. They can plead provocation and get off with a light sentence. That often does not apply to women. The law takes no account of sustained domestic violence against women. Therefore, women often receive a life sentence for a similar offence. That is unfair; women such as Sara Thornton should not be imprisoned for life.

When I raised the case of Sara Thornton with a Home Office Minister, his attitude was, "Well, she's only a crazy woman killing a slob of a husband." His attitude was that the Government therefore need not do anything. He betrayed other traits in his thinking, but that was his general attitude. That is most unfair. Women's institutes, the townswomen's guilds and other organisations representing millions of women have said that the law is unfair and should be changed. The Government should listen to them and change that unfair law.

In conclusion, to return to the Andy Capp analogy, I am in favour of lifting the cap of inequality on women. I want to see Andy and Florrie both with full pints and full rights, too.

9.14 pm
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Much has been said in the debate and I commend the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short), who opened the debate for the Opposition, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who pointed out the wonderful things that the Conservative party has done for women. I commend the Labour party in particular for introducing a debate on the lives of women in the UK.

The tenor of the debate has been one of gloom and doom and we have talked about all the negative things, it seems to me. I am awfully sorry if I missed some of the marvellous contributions from my colleagues and, of course, from Opposition Members. Personally, I think that the lives of women in the United Kingdom today are infinitely better than anything that has gone before even within the lifetime of my mother and my grandparents. My mother would probably have been trapped in an unhappy marriage and would not have been able to get a divorce, because that was difficult in those days. In my grandparents' day, women had no property rights if they married; they were chattels. Barely more than two generations ago, women who were pregnant were locked up in mental institutions and the babies were taken away and put in orphanages, where they often died, conveniently, of starvation.

If one looks at parish records, one will find that as many children were horn out of wedlock, as it was then known, or soon after the marriage took place, as today. I personally think that society today, with its more liberal attitude to women, and their right to a sexual life of their own, is liberating. I am not here to make a big fuss about the way in which women arc victimised. I do not want to repeat the material about putting more women in this place. Of course we could get more women in this place if we had the will, as I pointed out—and I pinched the idea from Bernard Shaw. We simply need to have a man and a woman elected in each constituency. With a little adjustment of the Representation of the People Act 1985, that could quite easily he achieved, hut, of course, the will does not exist in this place.

I want to say once again, as many of my colleagues were not here, that we regard this place as though it were an Olympic race, where only the best can get to the starting post, and they are the ones who get in, or some big company, where the best people rise to the top. This place is not like that. It is a jury of the nation. We are meant to he representative of the whole nation. Therefore, there should he more women here, and all sorts of other people as well. We are not—nor should we be—the crème de la crème. The women should he able to he as lazy, idle and good for nothing as many of the men in this place. Then we would know that we have real equality. That, in my view, would he success in this place.

I reject the idea of women as victims. I do not know how many hon. Members are old enough to remember that wonderful serial "The Prisoner", in which the hero said, "I am not a number. I am a person." I think of that whenever I hear these debates. I am not a victim. I am a woman. I just happen to be a woman, but that does not make me a victim. Yet so much of what has been said in the debate implies that women should be, that somehow we have to he helped, because we are underdogs. I disagree with that.

When I was being brought up, my mother always said to me, "The one thing you must be is independent." That is what we should aim for in society, to create the opportunities for independence, both in the way in which we educate our daughters and in the legislation that we enact. We could do a great deal more to help women to independence.

When I read the blurb that was put out by the Labour party on the debate, I wondered what kind of an image it has of women. It is all about women being victimised and ground down, and about part-time workers being badly treated, as though women going out to work, particularly those who choose part-time work, are all being exploited for doing so. There is another aspect to work. Wages are important, but so, too, is work satisfaction, to which, I think, women give a higher priority than men, and also the ability to contribute towards a family income. They do not necessarily put as their top priority the wage level, but rather the opportunity either to contribute, or sometimes just to get out of the home for a break, so that they can get away from their domestic routine. Jobs provide that opportunity.

I often recall, from the days when I used to battle for small businesses, the story of a firm that employed women to sew buttons on cards in the cast end. I see that Opposition Members' faces are beginning to screw up in distaste. Each week, those women used to turn up to collect a bag of buttons; they would socialise, have a cup of tea and a couple of buns, then go off to stitch the buttons on to cards. They earned a few shillings an hour, and I am sure that the trade union movement would have called it gross exploitation.

In the end, the trade union had its way. The company was caught by one of the wages councils, which jacked up the pay rate—and, lo and behold, the button-carding concern went out of business. Eventually it went over to Malta. Something was achieved—a certain level of wages for those women—but the jobs were no longer there for them to do.

We keep going on about employment for low pay. I sometimes think that we imagine that the alternative is automatically high or better pay, but it is often no pay at all. Let me commend to the Labour party a more positive attitude to working women. We should hear it in mind that we are actually damaging many of those whom we are supposedly trying to help by making it more difficult for employers to take them on. That may give the Labour party something to be a little more cheerful about.

I am being heavily leaned on by the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), but I am sure that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) will grant me a couple of minutes more. The French have begun to allow tax relief on the whole cost of employing domestic assistance, which has been an enormous success, providing many low-skill women with jobs. More than a million jobs have been created in France. The scheme has enabled many highly skilled women who want to work to afford the home help that allows them to do so; it has taken many people off social benefits; and the sum of human happiness has increased.

If there is one tiny contribution that I can make to the debate, it is this. Instead of um-ing and ah-ing about giving small amounts to women to enable them to pay for child care, we should decide that domestic jobs are respectable and decent employment to which women in particular may well be drawn, as they have been in the past. It is not all about little boys being sent up chimneys, or "Upstairs, Downstairs"; it is about people becoming nannies or home helps. That is a respectable way of employing women, which gives them a variety of opportunities.

I now bow to the interests of my hon. Friend the Minister and sit down, but I hope that we shall continue this debate in the future.

9.22 pm
Ms Harriet Harman (Peckham)

I welcome the Minister to the debate, and look forward to her speech. Let me make a comment that is directed not at her, but at the Government. It is curious that the Minister responsible for animal welfare should have been given responsibility for women's welfare; I hope that the Minister is more successful in championing the cause of women than in championing that of calves in veal crates.

As the debate has made clear, nothing less than a revolution has taken place in women's lives—a social and economic revolution. It has been caused by many different factors, some of which have been touched on today; but everyone seems to agree that women's lives now are very different from those of their mothers.

Change in women's lives inevitably affects men and children. The question is whether the Government will shape public policy to take account of the effect of that revolution, or persist with policies that relate to how the world was 50 years ago. Let me list some of the changes that constitute what I have described as a revolution. The fact that women are leaving full-time education with qualifications equal to those of men, for instance, constitutes an enormous difference from the position only a generation ago.

Women are getting married later and having children later. They are having fewer children. That change in women's fertility rate is enormous. Many women are bringing up children on their own in one-parent families. With the growing number of people living to very old age, women are spending longer looking after elderly relatives. At the same time as all these changes, they are working more than they infer have. They are now about half the work force. In particular, mothers are working and the mothers of very young children are working. That means that the family has changed and that the world of work has changed. Women's role is now vital not only in the family, hut in the world of work.

The present Tory Government are incapable of a sensible public policy response to this huge change for two reasons. They are divided, first, because the Tory squires—who have not put in an appearance in this debate, but who are out there and who will vote against the motion—think that women should he at home doing the cooking. That view used to be called "hack to basics" and it is still a strong belief within the Conservative party. Secondly, the Conservatives are divided because the new right, in which I include the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), thinks that if the labour market wants women it should be able to have them, that it is no business of the Government's to ensure that women at work have proper protection and that everything should be left to the free market. The result is that while women are making a growing contribution to their family budget and to our economy, and are taking the lion's share of responsibilities for children and the elderly, the Government are doing nothing to acknowledge or assist women's growing role.

We know that women have a passionate commitment to their children. We take responsibility for our children and we would not have it otherwise, but women also want to ensure that their children have a decent standard of living. The family wage defined as a man's wage has all but disappeared. That has given rise to what my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) described as the dual worker household.

For many families, the mother's work is vital to the household income. That is especially the case for single mothers. Circumstances have changed, so motherhood has changed. Women are redefining what it is to be a mother, and motherhood is now about providing for one's children as well as caring for them. Over the past 10 years, the greatest increase in women working has been among women with young children. Some 64 per cent. of mothers with children under 16 are now economically active. The greatest increase in labour market participation has been among women with children under five.

The Government's response has been simply to deregulate, to remove protection, to abolish the wages councils and to leave everyone else to struggle with the mess that they have created.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one way in which opportunities for women at work could be improved would be for creche facilities to be provided by employers, including this place?

Ms Harman

I welcome my hon. Friend's point about child care. I am sure that we shall find that his involvement in the debate on and pressure for child care shows renewed enthusiasm. I congratulate him and his wife on the birth of their baby on Thursday. We shall have a new recruit to the campaign for child care.

Women have their responsibilities and they recognise them. Men are playing a growing part in caring for their children, but progress in that respect is still slow. When it comes to looking after the children, it is still mostly down to women. Women have their responsibilities and they recognise them, but Governments also have responsibilities although the present Government refuse to recognise them. They are excellent at pointing out everyone else's responsibilities, but they seem to find it hard to identify their own. We believe that it is clear that the Government have a role in enabling working mothers to fulfil all their responsibilities. One of the Government's responsibilities is to enable working mothers to meet theirs.

That brings me to the two questions with which I should like to deal: intervention in the labour market and the role of public services. With regard to the labour market, the International Labour Organisation concluded in its recent world employment report, which rejected the recent British model of labour market deregulation:

The most meaningful debate is not that between deregulation versus regulation"— that is a blind alley—

but on the sort of regulatory reforms in the labour market that changes in the economic landscape will require. It is the role of regulation to hold the ring, especially in the balance between work and family and to prevent exploitation at work.

Half the work force are women and most of those women are someone's mother. They do not stop being mothers when they go to work, nor should we want them to stop. Many of them bring to their work the skills that they develop when taking care of young children. Most mothers develop a number of skills, such as staying calm in a crisis, sorting out petty squabbles, doing five things at once and thinking about other people and not just themselves. I suggest that those skills would be very useful in the Cabinet at the moment. Those qualities and skills enrich the world of work, but all too often they are totally overlooked and undervalued. They are not recognised in women's pay or in their curricula vitae.

The ("act of today's working life, understood only too well by women in and out of work, is that the Government make it clear that they certainly do not care and that they do not feel as a Government that they have a role to play. One of the things that Labour Members think is important is bringing fairness to the world of work. That is why we are m favour of a minimum wage.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

At what level?

Ms Harman

Women are—quite unjustly——more likely than men to be on low wages. The hon. Gentleman asks at what level. The difference between me and the hon. Gentleman is not that he wants a minimum wage at one level and I want it at another. The difference between Labour Members and the Government is that they want a spiralling down of wages and a bottomless pit while we think that there should he a floor under wages.

Women are quite unjustly more likely than men to be on low wages. Here the argument from the Government is familiar. They say that a minimum wage will cost jobs; yet the Government have admitted that Britain's unemployment growth is the third highest among other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Of those other countries, 11 out of 12 have minimum wage protection. Indeed, Britain's rate of unemployment growth was the third highest among those countries between 1980 and 1990 and the seventh highest from 1990 to 1993. If the minimum wage were a brake on employment and caused unemployment, we could have expected Britain to have the lowest unemployment in the league and the highest employment, which is simply not the case.

After those figures were revealed in answer to parliamentary questions tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), the Minister wrote to the Financial Times saying that the United States minimum wage was rubbish and that it did not count because it was only $4.25 per hour and thus extremely low. That figure is the equivalent of £2.70 an hour in Britain and 500,000 women who work part time get less than that extremely low rate. Does the Parliamentary Secretary think that it is acceptable that 500,000 women working part time get less than £2.70 an hour? Is she prepared to justify the fact that 75,000 people in this country—most of them women—earn less than £1.50 for an hour's work?

How low will the Tory Government go? They have abolished the wages councils, which put a floor under wages in many industries and services in which women worked. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) said, women pay the price with lower wages. Something which should particularly concern the right wingers and the new right of the Conservative party is that the taxpayer pays the price, too, in more than £2 billion in benefits such as family credit, income support, council tax benefit and housing benefit to top up the low pay of people working for employers who will not pay decent wages.

We have been here before as far as those arguments are concerned. The arguments against a minimum wage come from exactly the same quarter as the arguments used against the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and we remember them well. At that time, the Confederation of British Industry said that there would be enormous inflation as a result of that Act. That certainly did not happen. The CBI said that women would be driven out of the labour market and back into the home if employers were forced to pay them the same as men. That also did not happen. The statistics show a completely different story and there are now more women at work than ever before.

We hear the same scaremongering in relation to the national minimum wage. The next Labour Government will introduce a national minimum wage in a sensible way. We will not pluck figures out of the air in response to interventions from Conservative Members who are against a minimum wage in principle. We will introduce a minimum wage in consultation with employers and trade unions and in the light of economic circumstances. The Government are arguing against a national minimum wage, not because it will cut jobs but because they are in favour of low pay. They always excuse it; they never condemn it.

I want to refer briefly to trade unions because several Conservative Members said that there arc not enough women general secretaries in the trade union movement. I agree with that. However, I believe that the trade unions have a new and important relevance for women at work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) said, women are now being asked to work on zero hours contracts. How does one organise one's household budget on a zero hours contract'? How does one organise one's child care on a zero hours contract? How does one organise one's family relationships on a zero hours contract when one is at the beck and call of an employer at the end of a telephone? One cannot do those things.

The Government may say, "The world has changed—who needs trade unions?" We say that the world has changed and the two women working in a dry cleaning shop now need trade unions as much as the 200 men in a large factory need trade unions. Forty-four per cent. of women work part time and 63 per cent. of working mothers work part time. Yet the Government refused to give equal rights to part-time workers. They have been forced to act only by a judgment from the European Court. They have been dragged kicking and screaming to make that change. With a growing number of part-time jobs, and a growing number of men who, having lost full-time jobs, cannot find full-time work and have to work part time, part-time work is now a very important issue.

I want briefly to consider child care. When a mother is at work, someone has to look after her children. In the past, that person was her mother or her mother-in-law. However, as the extended family is becoming rarer, that is becoming less frequent. We must take account of the disappearance of the family wage and, to a large extent, the disappearance of the extended family. With women at work, and less extended family around to help—including mothers and grandmothers—it is very important that the Government should introduce a choice of high-quality, affordable child care.

That is why Labour is committed to a national child care strategy. We would like to go further. When we are in government, in addition to a national child care strategy building on the work of Labour councils, we will develop a childnet system where women will be able to use the information super-highways and the new technology to find their way through the interlocking maze of benefits, training and job availability and child care to help them get hack to work after they have had their children. A pilot project has already been set up in that respect by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), and I wish her work well.

It is not only the care of children which must be newly reconciled with the world of work. We must also consider the care of the growing number of elderly people. Women are working, people are living longer, and most people want to take as much responsibility as possible for the older people in their families. In that respect, as with children, most people feel that responsibility lies first and foremost with the family, but it should also rest on the employer and the community as a whole to recognise the number of roles that women are playing.

An aging mother is a responsibility for her daughter, and the should he for her son, too. It is right also that there should he a framework of rights at work which recognise the need for leave for family reasons. It is right that the local community, through the council and voluntary organisations, should ensure that there is help in the form of respite care or domiciliary services.

A Social Security Minister put his head above the parapet and appeared to criticise British companies which demand the longest full-time working hours in Europe. He said:

Too many companies and businesses demand outrageous time commitments from those who work for them. without thought of the damage to family structure or for the strength their employees would get from a sound family life if they are allowed to foster it I totally agree with those words, but I fear that they will get nowhere, because they contradict the fundamental Tory principle that there is no such thing as society, that the market is always right, and that it is no business of Government to intervene in the labour market or to provide public services.

The Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot at one and the same time tell women to be good daughters, good mothers, good employees and good providers for their children and yet refuse to provide child care and care for the elderly, and deny legal rights for women at work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) said, women can be and are being at one and the same time good mothers, good daughters and good employees, but the Government and employers need to recognise that women are doing all those things and to make the necessary changes to take that into account.

The Government should understand what women are actually doing, look at how our role has changed, and make sure that public policy, both in employment and in our public services, takes that into account. The evidence is clear: the Government are not agonising about how to improve the conditions of women at work; they are deliberately pushing them down. For example, a minimum wage would benefit women; the Government say no. A right to union representation would benefit women; the Government say no. Proper employment rights for part-time workers would benefit women; the Government say no. Proper child care provision would benefit women; the Government say no. Above all, the Government are saying no to recognising women's changing and growing role and responsibility. In so doing, the Government are denying and abdicating their own proper role and responsibilities to women in this country.

I urge hon. Members to support our motion.

9.42 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Angela Browning)

I am delighted to take part in the debate. I shall refer in a moment to contributions that have been made this evening—I have listened to all of them—but I start by mentioning my new appointment as Government co-chairman of the Women's National Commission.

The Women's National Commission exists to ensure, by all possible means, that the informed views of women are given due weight in the deliberations of Government. It was established in 1969, in line with the request of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to member Governments, to consider setting up national commissions on the status of women.

The founders of the WNC rightly recognised the huge diversity of women's interests. They are represented today by more than 60 member organisations throughout the country. They include not only a cross-section of political parties, voluntary and religious groups hut a geographical spread across the United Kingdom.

Over the past 25 years, the WNC has provided a forum for a wide range of women to voice their views. It has produced a number of stimulating and forward-looking reports and guides, and I look forward very much to my involvement with the WNC. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Baroness Denton, who has worked very hard and closely with the WNC. I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the enormous amount of work done by the present co-chairman. Maureen Rooney, from the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union. She will shortly he replaced by Liz Bavidge, a former president of the National Council of Women. I very much look forward to working with both in the months to come.

This has been an interesting debate. We have discussed politics, sex and religion, and it has been quite stimulating. We kicked off with a comment on religion from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short), who drew attention—in an unnecessarily disparaging way—to the religious preference of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Employment. I was also disappointed that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) found it necessary in her opening remarks to make some personal comment about my progress on veal crates.

Ms Harman

It was a joke.

Mrs. Browning

I am sorry. We have not had much humour from Labour Members this evening. When it came, it was rather late and I did not recognise it. Perhaps when I finish with the veal crates, I shall start on pussy cats.

The debate started off with the usual complaints and whingeing about what the Government were not doing. There was a somewhat negative and disappointing tone in most of the speeches—with one or two exceptions—by Labour Members. They had nothing new to say, and simply criticised the Government. Labour Members were unable to put forward any new policies, and they were certainly unable to address the future role of women. We heard one or two history lessons about the first world war and the state of women at that time, but nobody put forward any ideas on how women had progressed or on the way in which equality for women could be addressed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock), who is a member of the Federation of Business and Professional Women—a member of the WNC—made a wide-ranging and interesting speech, and we look forward to her study of family credit disregard operations in her constituency. I agree with my hon. Friend's opposition to quotas for women's representation in the House of Commons. I shall come to that matter later, as it was mentioned this evening by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Female Opposition Members, of course, supported the quota plan, but very few male Opposition Members supported it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen referred to education and the need for women to use their qualifications to access the many opportunities which exist. She also mentioned the glass ceiling in relation to women in management, and that was touched on by other lion. Members. Many people recognise that that ceiling has been raised, but it is still there. Hon. Members pointed out that one of the ways in which women can overcome the ceiling is to take their qualifications and experience and set up their own businesses. There is a very strong sign of an increase in the number of women running their own businesses and in the number of self-employed women. Some 25 per cent. of self-employed people are women.

It has been interesting to see how women have managed their businesses during the difficult years of the recession. In the main, women have come through rather well, and that shows some of the qualities of women which have been mentioned in the Chamber tonight. Women do tend to cut their cloth accordingly, and they bring into business, political and professional life a range of qualities which many people very often associate with the skills of running a home. Those skills can he very valuable when used in a business or professional situation.

It is for that reason that a woman running a business in difficult economic circumstances will very often wait until she is making a profit before deciding to buy an expensive car. Occasionally, a man decides that he needs the expensive car up front for his image. Women are running their businesses well, and are contributing to the economy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen said that she had set up an old girls' network. I am not a member of that; perhaps I am too old even for the old girls' network. None the less, such networking and interrelationships between women can give them encouragement.

We have heard tonight how women often lack confidence, and that is why there are now many schemes, often run by training and enterprise councils and local enterprise councils, to help women who have been out of the employment market for a long time to get back into employment. Those women may be out of work, not because they lack the skills or the ability to get a job but because all too often they lack the confidence to decide where they are going, so they are given practical help to get them back into employment.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) mentioned local democracy, and outlined to the House the way in which local authorities could use their money to promote gender equality. However, I must suggest to her that her colleagues on Avon county council might have been better advised to spend their money on the boy scouts, whose budget they have just cut, rather than giving additional funding to a group of lesbians in Avon. That is not the sort of gender discrimination that we would like to see in the Chamber.

Mrs. Helen Jackson

My understanding is that what the Minister says about Avon county council is incorrect, but in any case, is she aware that Avon is 300 miles from my Sheffield constituency?

Mrs. Browning

If the hon. Lady is saying that, uncharacteristically, Avon county council is putting boy scouts before lesbians, all Conservative Members will welcome that. Of course I do not hold her personally responsible for Avon's decision if she lives 300 miles away, but that decision was typical of the way in which the Labour party prioritises gender and the way in which it uses public money.

Ms Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)

As a Member who represents a Bristol constituency in the county of Avon, I must tell the Minister that her assertion is entirely wrong. I am sure that she would not want to mislead the House by what she says about the county council, so I hope that she will withdraw her comments until she has checked her facts. Furthermore, Avon county council is a hung authority, so I do not know how even she can blame the Labour party for what happens in such an authority.

Mrs. Browning

I hope that the hon. Lady is proved right; I shall certainly check the facts. But as someone who does not live 300 miles away from Avon—indeed, as someone who has lived very close to it—I hope that what she says means that the authority is not, as in previous years, spending money on gym mats for lesbians.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) made a considered speech, including a moving appeal on an issue that she has brought to the Chamber more than once—the rights of adoptive mothers. She will be disappointed that I cannot give her a positive response this evening, but I know that her words will have been heard, and I also know how strongly she feels on that subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) also raised an important issue. It was interesting to hear that my hon. Friend will attend the conference in Beijing in September. He has a reputation in the House for taking a great interest in the question of world population and for having a great knowledge of that subject, and his determination to ensure that the agenda in Beijing addresses the issue of choices in childbearing for women was most encouraging.

The conference is to be held in a place where the human rights record, especially for women and even more so on the difficult issue of choices in childbearing, is likely to make the subject matter sensitive for the host country. I was most encouraged to find that my hon. Friend has been working hard to ensure that the matter is not swept under the table simply because of the venue for the conference.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) mentioned home workers and related her information and concern to days gone by. Of course we are concerned. I am sure that she will be aware that the number of home workers has doubled, but they are not all doing the grindingly difficult jobs for low wages, as she described. However, for those working at home the health and safety legislation still applies. If there are cases in her constituency which give her cause for concern and which should perhaps be brought to the Health and Safety Executive, she is welcome to write to us and we shall take the cases further.

Ms Harman

The Minister mentioned grindingly low pay. Will she answer the question that I asked in my speech? Does she think it acceptable that at least 75,000 people in this country, most of them women, are working for £1.50 an hour?

Mrs. Browning

I can assure the hon. Lady that the Government will not shop jobs for women by introducing a minimum wage which, as the deputy leader of the Labour party explained some time ago, would mean a shake-out or loss of jobs, especially jobs for women. I hope the hon. Lady will accept that there is nothing so grindingly impoverishing as having no job at all.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who made an important contribution, especially with reference to crime. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait), for Erewash (Mrs. Knight), for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), who all made considered contributions, distinguished by the fact that they contained ideas for future policies for women. They gave upbeat messages outlining the way in which equality and opportunities for women could be accessed. Their message was in stark contrast to that of the Labour party.

The main theme throughout the debate has been the issue of more women Members of Parliament. Those of us who have put ourselves before a party selection committee know that getting here can be a very long-term plan. It took me nine years to get to the House. Very few people get here having decided to try overnight; one has to he dedicated to the idea and hang on in there, even when the chances look slim.

However, I would still rather follow that route than be the token woman when a selection committee has had to choose between three different women. In those circumstances, one is chosen on the basis not of ability but of gender.

Ms Short

Does the Minister think that all the men who sit in this place and who were selected from all-men short-lists are token men?

Mrs. Browning

If men put themselves up for selection against women and other men, I am sure that some of them will find themselves on an all-men short-list. However, it should not be a question of tokenism or bringing women forward artificially. If such women come to the House, they will be pointed out as having got here not on their merit but simply because of how they were born.

The Labour party believes in tokenism but, during its leadership elections, some women Labour Members wrote to The Guardian to explain that they were backing not the woman candidate—a very able woman—but the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who is now deputy leader, because they felt that he represented women better. One has to question the value of that sort of tokenism.

We have had an interesting and lively debate, but I would say to the House that, if that is the best that the Labour party can do for women, the country will look elsewhere, as it did at the last general election—to the Conservative party.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 267, Noes 294.

Division No. 96] [9.59 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Adams, Mrs Irene Burden, Richard
Ainger, Nick Byers, Stephen
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Caborn, Richard
Allen, Graham Callaghan, Jim
Alton, David Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Armstrong, Hilary Campbell-Savours, D N
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Canavan, Dennis
Ashton, Joe Cann, Jamie
Austin-Walker, John Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Chidgey, David
Barnes, Harry Chisholm, Malcolm
Barron, Kevin Church, Judith
Battle, John Clapham, Michael
Bayley, Hugh Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Bell, Stuart Clelland, David
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Coffey, Ann
Bennett, Andrew F Cohen, Harry
Benton, Joe Connarty, Michael
Bermingham, Gerald Corbett, Robin
Berry, Roger Corbyn, Jeremy
Betts, Clive Corston, Jean
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Cousins, Jim
Blunkett, David Cox, Tom
Boateng, Paul Cunliffe, Lawrence
Boyes, Roland Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Bradley, Keith Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John
Bray, Dr Jeremy Dafis, Cynog
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E) Dalyell, Tam
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Darling, Alistair
Davidson, Ian Keen, Alan
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Khabra, Piara S
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l) Kilfoyle, Peter
Denham, John Kirkwood, Archy
Dewar, Donald Lewis, Terry
Dixon, Don Liddell, Mrs Helen
Dobson, Frank Litherland, Robert
Donohoe, Brian H Livingstone, Ken
Dowd, Jim Llwyd, Elfyn
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Lynne, Ms Liz
Eagle, Ms Angela McAllion, John
Eastham, Ken McAvoy, Thomas
Enright, Derek McCartney, Ian
Etherington, Bill Macdonald, Calum
Evans, John (St Helens N) McFall, John
Fatchett, Derek McKelvey, William
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Mackinlay, Andrew
Fisher, Mark McLeish, Henry
Flynn, Paul McMaster, Gordon
Foster, Rt Hon Derek McNamara, Kevin
Foster, Don (Bath) MacShane, Denis
Foulkes, George McWilliam, John
Fraser, John Madden, Max
Fyfe, Maria Maddock, Diana
Galbraith, Sam Mandelson, Peter
Galloway, George Marek, Dr John
Gapes, Mike Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Garrett, John Martin, Michael J (Springburn)
Gerrard, Neil Martlew, Eric
Godman, Dr Norman A Maxton, John
Godsiff, Roger Meacher, Michael
Golding, Mrs Llin Meale, Alan
Gordon, Mildred Michael, Alun
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Milburn, Alan
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Miller, Andrew
Grocott, Bruce Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Gunnell, John Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hain, Peter Morgan, Rhodri
Hanson, David Morley, Elliot
Hardy, Peter Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe)
Harman, Ms Harriet Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Harvey, Nick Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Mowlam, Marjorie
Henderson, Doug Mudie, George
Heppell, John Mullin, Chris
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Murphy, Paul
Hinchliffe, David Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Hodge, Margaret O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)
Hoey, Kate O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld) O'Hara, Edward
Hood, Jimmy O'Neill, Martin
Hoon, Geoffrey Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Howarth, George (Knowsley North) Parry, Robert
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd) Patchett, Terry
Hoyle, Doug Pearson, Ian
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Pendry, Tom
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Pickthall, Colin
Hughes, Roy (Newport E) Pike, Peter L
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Pope, Greg
Hutton, John Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Illsley, Eric Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)
Ingram, Adam Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead) Primarolo, Dawn
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H) Purchase, Ken
Jamieson, David Randall, Stuart
Janner, Greville Raynsford, Nick
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side) Redmond, Martin
Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Mon) Reid, Dr John
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Rendel, David
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O) Robertson, George (Hamilton)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW) Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Rogers, Allan
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Rooker, Jeff
Rooney, Terry Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee E) Timms, Stephen
Rowlands, Ted Tipping, Paddy
Ruddock, Joan Touhig, Don
Sedgemore, Brian Turner, Dennis
Sheerman, Barry Tyler, Paul
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Vaz, Keith
Short, Clare Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Simpson, Alan Wallace, James
Skinner, Dennis Walley, Joan
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E) Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S&F'sbury) Wareing, Robert N
Smyth, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Watson, Mike
Smyth, The Reverend Martin Wicks, Malcolm
Snape, Peter Wigley, Dafydd
Soley, Clive Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Spearing, Nigel Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Spellar, John Wilson, Brian
Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W) Wise, Audrey
Steinberg, Gerry Worthington, Tony
Stevenson, George Wray, Jimmy
Stott, Roger Wright, Dr Tony
Strang, Dr. Gavin Young, David (Bolton SE)
Straw, Jack Tellers for the Ayes:
Sutcliffe, Gerry Mrs. Barbara Roche and
Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strgfd) Ms Tessa Jowell.
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Clappison, James
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)
Amess, David Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Ancram, Michael Coe, Sebastian
Arbuthnot, James Congdon, David
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Conway, Derek
Ashby, David Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Atkins, Robert Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Couchman, James
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Cran, James
Baldry, Tony Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Bates, Michael Davis, David (Boothferry)
Batiste, Spencer Day, Stephen
Bellingham, Henry Deva, Nirj Joseph
Bendall, Vivian Devlin, Tim
Beresford, Sir Paul Dicks, Terry
Biffen, Rt Hon John Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Body, Sir Richard Dover, Den
Booth, Hartley Duncan, Alan
Boswell, Tim Duncan-Smith, Iain
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Dunn, Bob
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Durant, Sir Anthony
Bowden, Sir Andrew Dykes, Hugh
Bowis, John Eggar, Rt Hon Tim
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Elletson, Harold
Brandreth, Gyles Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Brazier, Julian Evans, David (Welwyn Hstfield)
Bright, Sir Graham Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Browning, Mrs Angela Evennett, David
Bruce, Ian (Dorset) Faber, David
Budgen, Nicholas Fabricant, Michael
Burns, Simon Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Butcher, John Fishburn, Dudley
Butler, Peter Forman, Nigel
Butterfill, John Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling)
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Forth, Eric
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Carrington, Matthew Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Carttiss, Michael Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)
Cash, William Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Channon, Rt Hon Paul French, Douglas
Gale, Roger MacKay, Andrew
Gallie, Phil Maclean, David
Gardiner, Sir George McLoughlin, Patrick
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Garnier, Edward Madel, Sir David
Gill, Christopher Maitland, Lady Olga
Gillan, Cheryl Major, Rt Hon John
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Malone, Gerald
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Mans, Keith
Gorst, Sir John Marland, Paul
Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs) Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Mates, Michael
Grylls, Sir Michael Mellor, Rt Hon David
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Merchant, Piers
Hague, William Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Moate, Sir Roger
Hampson, Dr Keith Monro, Sir Hector
Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hannam, Sir John Moss, Malcolm
Hargreaves, Andrew Needham, Rt Hon Richard
Harris, David Nelson, Anthony
Haselhurst, Alan Neubert, Sir Michael
Hawkins, Nick Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Hawksley, Warren Nicholls, Patrick
Hayes, Jerry Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Heald, Oliver Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward Norris, Steve
Heathcoat-Amory, David Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Hendry, Charles Ottaway, Richard
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Page, Richard
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence Paice, James
Hill, James (Southampton Test) Patnick, Sir Irvine
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham) Patten, Rt Hon John
Horam, John Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter Pawsey, James
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A) Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Pickles, Eric
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Porter, David (Waveney)
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Hunter, Andrew Powell, William (Corby)
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Rathbone, Tim
Jack, Michael Redwood, Rt Hon John
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Richards, Rod
Jenkin, Bernard Riddick, Graham
Jessel, Toby Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Robathan, Andrew
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr) Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Key, Robert Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
King, Rt Hon Tom Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Kirkhope, Timothy Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Knapman, Roger Sackville, Tom
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash) Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Shaw,
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Shaw, David (Dover)
Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n) Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Knox, Sir David Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Lang, Rt Hon Ian Shersby, Michael
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Sims, Roger
Legg, Barry Skeet, Sir Trevor
Leigh, Edward Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe) Soames, Nicholas
Lidington, David Spencer, Sir Derek
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Lord, Michael Spink, Dr Robert
Luff, Peter Spring, Richard
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Sproat, Iain
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Steen, Anthony Walden, George
Stephen, Michael Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Stem, Michael Waller, Gary
Stewart, Allan Ward, John
Streeter, Gary Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Sumberg, David Waterson, Nigel
Sweeney, Walter Watts, John
Sykes, John Wells, Bowen
Tapsell, Sir Peter Whitney, Ray
Taylor, Ian (Esher) Whittingdale, John
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Widdecombe, Ann
Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E) Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Temple-Morris, Peter Wilkinson, John
Thomason, Roy Willetts, David
Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V) Wilshire, David
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Thornton, Sir Malcolm Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Thurnham, Peter Wolfson, Mark
Townend, John (Bridlington) Wood, Timothy
Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th) Yeo, Tim
Tracey, Richard Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tredinnick, David
Trend, Michael Tellers for the Noes:
Twinn, Dr Ian Mr. David Lightbown and
Vaughan, Sir Gerard Mr. Sidney Chapman.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House notes with approval the progress made in the United Kingdom towards equality and increasing opportunities for women, as described in the United Kingdom National Report for the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women; and calls on the Government to continue the policies which have made this possible.