HC Deb 07 March 1996 vol 273 cc469-543

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dr. Liam Fox.]

4.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Cheryl Gillan)

I am particularly pleased to open this afternoon's debate to mark International Women's Day tomorrow. It provides an excellent opportunity for the House to debate those issues which affect women—and men, too—and for me to highlight the Government's achievements in promoting the status of women.

May I compliment you, Madam Speaker, on your appearance on the media today? It was a rare appearance to honour International Women's Day, in which you set the tone for our debate this afternoon. It was one of dignity and great assurance, and I hope that it will continue throughout our proceedings.

I am delighted to welcome to the Front Bench my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), who is Government co-chairman of the Women's National Commission. She will be replying to the debate.

I want to examine the progress that has been made for women in Britain and pay tribute to the millions of women who bring up our children, run our homes, protect our nation and contribute to our economy. As the co-chairman of the Women's National Commission is alongside me, it seems fitting for me to begin by acknowledging the work of that organisation.

The WNC is an important source of advice to the Government on women's issues. It comprises representatives of 80 leading national women's organisations. The considerable time put in by WNC members to the work of the commission is entirely voluntary and unpaid. I am sure that the House will join me in thanking them for the high quality of their reports on many important matters.

This year, we witness a particular milestone, because the Equal Opportunities Commissions for Great Britain and Northern Ireland celebrate their 20th anniversaries. The full achievement of equality between men and women might have meant that we could announce the abolition of either commission, but I am afraid that is not the case. Both commissions still have much valuable work to do in promoting the equality of the opportunities for women—and men.

I am pleased to announce that, this year, we are strengthening the commissions. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has today announced the reappointment of Kamlesh Bahl as chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome that announcement. The EOC has undergone significant management changes in the past three years.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

Will the Minister take this opportunity to tell us what the Government's position will be on the vote that took place in the House of Lords last week regarding pension splitting at the time of divorce? It is a good time for her to announce the Government's support for the amendment, thereby making many women who have been adversely affected by divorce settlements very happy.

Mrs. Gillan

I shall not comment specifically on matters in another place, but I shall return to that issue in the course of my speech.

We are strengthening the commission, arid I am delighted to announce the reappointment of Kamlesh Bahl. Mrs. Bahl's appointment will enable her to consolidate the changes within the EOC. Hon. Members will know that in February we appointed Mrs. Elizabeth Hodder as an extra deputy chairwoman. We are also about to appoint a Welsh EOC commissioner, increasing the number of commissioners to 13—more than there have been for some years.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath)

Has there been any consultation in Wales about that appointment? Will it be another Conservative placement that is totally unrepresentative of the Welsh population?

Mrs. Gillan

I hope that the EOC commissioners will note the hon. Gentleman's attack on their position. He knows that consultation takes place, and that those appointments are made according to the strict propriety that governs all public appointments today. I thought that he would welcome the appointment of a commissioner from Wales, but obviously I was wrong.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

As more women are in employment than ever before, women's wages are closer than ever to those of men, and there is significant child care provision, will my hon. Friend tell me what else the EOC has to do?

Mrs. Gillan

The Equal Opportunities Commission has a statutory responsibility to protect the rights of men and women in this country. Hon. Members will be familiar with a recent case in which the EOC advocated equality for men.

The EOC has received Government grants for all 20 years of its existence. I am pleased to announce that, earlier this year, I awarded a grant of more than £250,000 to the EOC to enable it to update its technology. That substantial sum demonstrates in the clearest way possible the importance that the Government attach both to the commission and to equality between the sexes. The Northern Ireland Equal Opportunities Commission has received a 4 per cent. increase in its funding for 1996–97.

In the past 16 years, the Government have achieved much in bringing women's issues to the forefront of national debate, and in pursuing policies that benefit women in all walks of life. 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. In 1984, we introduced the severe disablement allowance, for the first time making it available to married women on the same basis as other claimants.

We introduced the Sex Discrimination Act 1986, which makes it unlawful to force women to retire earlier than men, and also removes restrictions on women's hours and times of work. In 1990, we introduced independent taxation, and replaced the married man's allowance with the married couple's allowance. In the same year, we also introduced the provision of tax relief for workplace nurseries. We have put women's issues at the forefront of Government thinking by establishing a Cabinet sub-committee on women's issues.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

During Treasury questions, I asked the Economic Secretary, the hon. Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight), what fiscal incentives would be introduced for small businesses, and I received a less than satisfactory response.

The Minister will be aware that workplace nurseries are often a benefit of larger companies, which find it viable to provide them, but not of small businesses. Does the Minister have any plans to help small businesses, on which 75 per cent. of the work force are based?

Mrs. Gillan

I had the advantage of observing my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary answer the hon. Lady, and I entirely agreed. My hon. Friend gave an extremely satisfactory reply.

Ms Judith Church (Dagenham)

Does the Minister support the blueprint produced by Employers for Childcare for a proper national child care strategy, which this country desperately needs, and early-day motion 582, which a number of hon. Members signed yesterday?

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Lady should know that the Government have an excellent child care record. A further £12.5 million is going into the out-of-school child care initiative. The hon. Lady was present at a press conference I attended the other day, where we launched a new video on child care provision. I thought that the hon. Lady's presence was in support of the Government's initiative.

Ms Church


Mrs. Gillan

I will refer to child care provision again later, when the hon. Lady will have another opportunity to comment.

Two years ago, the Government took the initiative to increase the number of women in public appointments, from 23 to 30 per cent. This morning, I had the pleasure of seeing the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) speaking on television about that issue. I understand that the Liberal target is for women in 30 per cent. of public appointments. The Government have exceeded that target, so perhaps the hon. Lady will have to rethink her policies. The Government's policy was initiated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Central Government, employer associations and trade unions all realise that there is more to do. Would it not be sensible to bring the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress together, to encourage their respective memberships to do better? I cite as an example, without criticism, the National Union of Journalists, which has only one woman on its executive council.

Mrs. Gillan

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I am always struck by the absence of the fairer sex in the Press Lobby. Perhaps the press will take notice and look to appointing more women journalists to cover the proceedings of the House. If that were done, perhaps our proceedings would be reported more fairly than hon. Members on both sides of the House consider they are.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

What happened to the Conservative party target that was promoted by the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold), for women to account for 50 per cent. of Conservative candidates at the next general election?

Mrs. Gillan

We differ from Opposition Members on that issue, as the hon. Lady knows well. We have 23 new women candidates already, and they were selected on merit. They will be supplemented by the lady Members on this side of the House who will be seeking re-election. We have always made it clear that we expect women to enter the House on merit, not through positive discrimination.

In a previous debate on women's issues, I told the House that, in my view, positive discrimination was an insult to all lady Opposition Members. It is clear to me that all women Members of Parliament entered the House on merit. Positive discrimination does nothing to help the cause of women. The tribunal judged that that approach was discriminatory against men. No right hon. or hon. Member would want to achieve anything by discriminating against men.

Ms Church

Will the Minister confirm to the House today that, of the 23 Conservative candidates in the 658 constituencies that will be fought at the next election, only four have been selected in seats currently held by Conservative Members? Will she also confirm that, after the next general election, there will be fewer women Conservative Members than there are at the moment—and there are not very many now?

Mrs. Gillan

The numbers of lady Members in the House are representative of the population, and make up for their lack of numbers by their abilities. I am sure that the hon. Lady's expectations will not be fulfilled, because there will be another Conservative Government, so, by my calculations, all 23 of those women candidates will be returned here in a landslide victory.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Will my hon. Friend join me in sympathising with women Opposition Members who have labels hung round their necks saying that they got here only by fiddling the rules? It has been demonstrated how much upset they have caused to their male colleagues. Is it not better, as my hon. Friend has said, to get here on our merits, not because we have dodged the rules?

Mrs. Gillan

My hon. Friend is undoubtedly here on her merits, and has provided a fine example for all of us. I agree with her that it is important that women achieve their positions by merit. Positive discrimination is not the way forward, and, despite the cries of protestation from hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, I feel sure that they agree.

Ms Eagle

Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Gillan

I have given way enough, and I wish to make a little progress. I am only on page two, and I have several pages to go.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Gillan

I think I might give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Porter

We should get on to a serious point. I am a most unlikely person to take part in a debate on women's rights, and I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the serried ranks on the Opposition Benches.

I heard on the radio the other morning about an anomaly that relates to working women who have disabled husbands at home. Apparently, the women do not get a care allowance, but, if it is the other way round and a working husband has a disabled wife, he gets an allowance. As that information was on the BBC, it must be true. To put the situation right would cost about £2 million, and that is not a great deal of money. As we will spend more money on strengthening—if we can call it that—the Equal Opportunities Commission, we might have a look at that anomaly. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Mrs. Gillan

My hon. Friend's remarks are most apposite for this debate. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security will take note of my hon. Friend's remarks, and perhaps will come back to him on another occasion.

I mentioned the progress that women have made, and the 30 per cent. of public appointments that are now held by women. We have made other changes that have helped women.

The introduction of the national curriculum in England and Wales has meant that girls learn the same core subjects as boys. In fact, girls have now overtaken boys in GCSE standard grade science and mathematics achievements.

The Government have also put a strategy in place to prevent premature deaths and ill health, including specific priorities and targets for women's health, covering breast and cervical cancer, smoking and alcohol.

Women play a substantial part in our labour market. The Government fully recognise the crucial and increasing role that women play in the economy. Women now make up a larger proportion of the labour force—44 per cent. in 1994, compared with 37 per cent. in 1971. Some 45 per cent. of women in employment worked part-time in 1994, an option that many women with family responsibilities prefer.

Between 1985 and 1995, the economic activity rate for women with at least one child aged under five rose from 42 per cent. to 52 per cent., and the number of self-employed women has risen by 81 per cent. since 1981.

There has also been good news on the pay gap: it has narrowed to 20 per cent., its lowest ever. Since 1979, women's earnings have increased faster than men's, and the pay gap has narrowed in six of the past seven years. I am sure that all hon. Members hope that it will narrow still further as women progress to more senior positions in a wider range of occupations.

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)


Mrs. Gillan

I have already given way quite often, and I should like to make some progress. I shall be revisiting these themes later.

The Government have put in place a number of measures to help women in the marketplace. For instance, family credit now helps more than 600,000 families to be better off in work than out of work and claiming benefit. This help is worth over £50 a week on average, and in the overwhelming majority of cases it is paid directly to the woman—including more than 250,000 lone parents.

We have been building on the success of this measure. In April 1992, we reduced the qualifying hours for family credit to 16, extending help to more part-time workers. That has been of particular help to women.

I mentioned earlier our out-of-school child care initiative. Of course mothers cannot work and contribute to the economy unless they can find suitable care for their children. That is why we are committed to the expansion of child care services—to give parents more choice. We are playing a part where we feel we can achieve most. There has recently been a large increase in the number of pre-school places. Much of that has been achieved without the need for Government intervention. We strongly believe in the importance of diversity, so that parents have a choice of child care to suit their varying needs.

In 1994, there were 147,600 day nursery places—double the number in 1984. There were 411,300 playgroup places, a 4 per cent. increase since 1983, and 102,600 places in holiday schemes. There were also more than 357,000 places with registered child minders in 1994—more than three times the 1984 figure.

The Government will continue to encourage expansion and choice of provision for parents. From October 1994, help with child care charges has been available to families receiving family credit and certain other benefits. The purpose of the child care disregard is to help low-income families to work. Child care charges of up to £40 are offset against earnings when benefit entitlement is calculated.

From April 1996, we are extending this help by increasing the disregard to as much as £60 a week, which should be of particular help to lone parents with more than one child. In the first year, we estimate that 25,000 families benefited from the scheme.

Ms Eagle


Mrs. Gillan

I must make some progress.

Back in 1993, the Secretary of State launched the out-of-school child care initiative. The original aim was to set up 50,000 after-school and holiday places for school-age children in Great Britain. We have exceeded that three-year target, and will have created more than 55,000 places by April 1996 in England alone. Places in Scotland number over 5,000, and that figure is expected to rise to nearly 7,000 by the end of March—significantly higher than the original target of 4,000 places. We have also created more than 3,000 places in Wales.

The initiative has been independently evaluated, and its success is proven. Nearly 90 per cent. of the parents surveyed were in employment, and more than 40 per cent. of them had enjoyed some improvement in their labour market position since they began using the scheme. Satisfaction with the child care provided was expressed by 95 per cent. of parents; and 98 per cent. of the child care places created with the grant are still going strong.

The initiative continues, with the new funding of £12.5 million available in England over three years from April 1996. That means that we will have spent nearly £60 million on that initiative, which will enable training and enterprise councils to create 18,000 further places across England. I hope that TECs will continue to work in local partnership and use Government money to attract further funding from other key stakeholders to create even more places.

The initiative is making it possible for many more women to improve their employment prospects, and I am pleased to confirm that it is being extended to Northern Ireland. Funding of £4 million is to be made available and a target of creating 3,000 places across Northern Ireland in the next three years has been set, which I am sure all hon. Members will welcome.

The Government are committed to women achieving their full potential in society. For example, we are extending opportunities of every kind for women through the "fair play" initiative. "Fair play" is the first partnership between the Government and the Equal Opportunities Commission, and was launched in the English regions in April 1994 with a brief to tackle barriers facing women in economic and social life. The concept began in Wales, and I am pleased to say that it was formally extended to Northern Ireland on 21 February, and will be adopted in Scotland very soon.

Consortia of key local players have been established in each of the 10 regions, and are covered by integrated Government offices. Members include businesses, educational institutions, voluntary organisations and others. At national level, there is support from the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress and the Local Government Management Board.

The Government also fully support the aims of Opportunity 2000, which has gone from strength to strength since its launch in 1991. My Department was among the first employers to join the campaign. Many other employers have followed our example, and Opportunity 2000's membership is three times its original size.

The barriers to girls and women are coming down. Among the 291 organisations in Opportunity 2000, the proportion of women at director level has doubled, from 8 per cent. in 1994 to 16 per cent. in 1995. The proportion of women at senior management levels has increased from 25 to 32 per cent. over the same period. In the past few years, traditional occupational segregation has begun to break down.

I remember that, in my speech on this very topic last year, I referred to our first woman astronaut, Helen Sharman. I am delighted that, since then, the Royal Air Force has employed two women fast jet pilots, and of course, last year, Concord was flown by its first woman pilot.

In government, we are practising what we preach. The civil service tries to be an exemplary employer, and since 1984, women's representation has increased at all levels bar the lowest. Several measures are in place to improve women's representation still further—family-friendly policies, women-only training, inclusion of women on promotion boards and monitoring of appraisal reports, to name but a few.

A wide range of flexible working patterns is available. In October 1995, there were 55 civil service nurseries and about 120 holiday play schemes. In addition, there were 20 nursery ventures with other employers, and 16 schemes through which places were bought in private nurseries.

I have concentrated on domestic matters, and I should like now to turn to what is happening internationally, because last year, I criticised the Opposition, who called the debate, for not looking at the international scene.

A very important event took place last year: the United Nations conference on women in Béjing. I was honoured to lead the UK delegation jointly with my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Chalker and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. More than 36,000 women from all over the world, representing Governments and non-governmental organisations, worked together to consider progress made on women's issues since 1985 and to negotiate a global platform for action.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it was a positive disgrace that the conference was held in China, bearing in mind that country's policies towards women, not least the killing of girl babies or their abandonment, for example? Does my hon. Friend agree that it would have been far better if representatives of countries such as the United Kingdom had stayed away and protested at the grotesque discrimination against women that takes place in China?

Mrs. Gillan

I agree with part of my hon. Friend's intervention. No one could possibly endorse some of the reports of the treatment of female babies in China. I thought, however, that China was a fitting place for the holding of the conference. It became apparent during my time there that the conference enabled the Chinese to focus more clearly on world opinion. We want to bring about change in China, and I thought it right that we should be in that country to bring the focus clearly on to women.

It was an excellent conference. We had 18 months of preparation in the run-up to it. Those months were valuable in enabling us to create and build relationships with women's non-governmental organisations, such as the Women's National Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission. Their assistance, knowledge and expertise were invaluable throughout the entire conference process. The Government are keen to strengthen these links. I thank all the organisations involved.

The outcome document, "Global Platform for Action", forms the basis for future work to achieve equality for women. The Government take their international obligations seriously, and we are fully committed to the global platform. Indeed, we are already implementing many of its recommendations. When I was in Peking, I outlined an implementation strategy, which is now well under way.

My Department is responsible for co-ordinating policy on all issues of concern to women, including implementation of "Global Platform for Action". It would be impossible, of course, to implement such a huge document on our own, not merely because of its size but because of its messages for business and the community as well as government. The document covers 12 critical areas of concern, and I shall take up some of them in more detail.

"Global Platform for Action" gives prominence to education. That is an area in which over recent years we have turned a major corner. That is reflected in the success of girls and women. Many of the inequalities between men and women stem from entrenched attitudes acquired in childhood. The national curriculum is a step forward in challenging stereotype attitudes. Girls and boys must all study mathematics, science, technology, English and physical education from the age of five to 16. Equally, they must study history, geography, music and art from the age of five to 15, as well as a foreign language from 11 to 16.

We have, for example, taken a lead in developing information technology education as part of the curriculum, to ensure that it does not become a male preserve. I can see that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) is smiling at me. She knows my opinion on these matters. We are building on this work to increase teachers' confidence and ability in information technology. Last month, we announced a pilot project designed to give up to 700 teachers portable multi-media computers as a means of developing their abilities in IT, and, in turn, improve their teaching in the classroom.

This month, we are publishing a booklet on highly able girls and boys. Meanwhile, girls now match or even out-perform boys in all first assessment tests. In 1994, 48 per cent. of girls achieved five or more GCSE grades A to C, compared with 39 per cent. of boys. More girls than boys stay on in full-time education after 16, women are in the majority in further education and form an equal proportion of those going on to higher education.

Mrs. Lait

Given the achievements of girls in education, is it not time to focus on the dispossessed young male?

Mrs. Gillan

I often feel sorry for the opposite sex, but I am not going to pursue that train of thought in this debate, which concentrates on women and the progress that we have made. I have made it clear that I do not want discrimination against men in any progress we make. Many of the subjects that we are discussing are equally applicable to men and women.

Ms Eagle

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gillan

We want to raise achievement for everyone, boys and girls, and where performance data show a difference in the performance of boys and girls, schools need to consider how best to tackle it. I was just trying to get to the end of my sentence—I give way to the hon. Lady.

Ms Eagle

Modern apprenticeships were considered by the Employment Select Committee, which heard evidence that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment was worried about. It has emerged that only one in four places on modern apprenticeships go to women, and that they tend to be concentrated in training for caring work rather than in engineering, information technology or any of the laudable things that the Minister talked about. Does that figure worry her? Are the Government taking steps to right the balance?

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Lady knows that modern apprenticeships became available in all training and enterprise council areas in England during September 1995.

The programme has had an excellent start. We went national last autumn, more than 15,000 young people are in training, and we are on course for well over 20,000 by the end of March. It is exactly what employers want. The evaluation last autumn showed that more than 90 per cent. of employers are satisfied with modern apprenticeships, and would recommend them to other employers.

Alongside education, the platform for action stresses the importance of vocational training for women. The network of training and enterprise councils in England and Wales, and the local enterprise companies in Scotland, play a major role in promoting equality of opportunity in training and at work. Their strategic priority is to help those at a disadvantage in the labour market to overcome barriers to finding work and to develop their abilities to the full.

Equal opportunities are built into training programmes for both young people and adults. TECs also play a major role in helping returners to the labour market. On some programmes, women have a better outcome rate than men.

Last December, we announced the "innovation in training" initiative, which will promote awareness and the use of flexible training. It is an attractive route for many women, because it offers choice about the time, place and pace of training. It is a convenient and readily accessible training option for women who want to update their skills, perhaps before returning to the labour market after a break.

Equal opportunities are about tapping women's abilities and educational achievements. Take, for example, the economically vital areas of science, engineering and technology. We recognise that too many top-class women researchers are lost to science and engineering after they complete PhDs.

Last October, my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Technology launched a new booklet called "Making the Most", which was produced in partnership with Opportunity 2000. It provides clear evidence of the business benefits to employers of policies, such as family-friendly working practices, that allow all scientists and engineers to fulfil their potential, and gives case studies from the experience of six leading employers.

Too few of our young, able women choose to study science, engineering and technology beyond GCSE. Many of those who follow such careers make significant contributions to their local communities and to the quality of all our lives. Our young women need to be more aware of that.

The Office of Science and Technology is co-ordinating a special day on Wednesday 20 March. Women scientists, engineers and technologists will appear in most regions of the United Kingdom to demonstrate and explain their work as part of National Science and Engineering Week. I hope that hon. Members will support those women's events in their constituencies.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

We all welcome moves to highlight scientific careers for women. Does the Minister agree that the reasons why many women are not able to continue their scientific careers are short-term contracts, which are prevalent in science, and the lack of child care, which has been commented on in the report, "The Rising Tide", published by the Cabinet Office? What is she going to do about that?

Mrs. Gillan

I hope that the hon. Lady was listening earlier, when I talked about our out-of-school child care initiative. We recognise that that problem is a barrier. That is why the Government have been putting so much behind the scheme. She also knows that it is up to employers, and especially employers of women scientists, to produce schemes that will benefit women.

For example, Amersham International in my constituency has a scheme under which, if a woman wishes to take a career break, provided she returns for a period each year to update herself on her discipline, she can come back to the company after spending some time away having and raising her children.

The Investors in People standard relates to all employees. However, to make that even more explicit, we have accepted the recommendation by Investors in People UK that the guidance to the standard should note that, where the indicators relate to all employees, it should be regardless of age, gender, race and disability.

I mentioned health. The platform for action shows that, across the world, one of the major barriers to women's health is inequality and lack of services to meet their health needs. In Britain, several recent advances have been made in women's health care. The Department of Health has successfully introduced national screening programmes for cervical and breast cancer. We were the first country in the European Union to do so.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Does the Minister consider that £36.80 and one milk token contribute to the health of a baby, because that is all that pregnant women get? That is all that single women on income support get. Is one milk token the Government's contribution to the nation's health?

Mrs. Gillan

Rather than criticising, the hon. Lady should say what she would suggest. I do not hear any policies. I would welcome some policy ideas from the Opposition later in the debate.

Mrs. Gorman

A milk token represents seven pints of milk. People in those circumstances get that each week for each child, and for themselves as well if they are nursing mothers. That puts a different complexion on the matter.

Mrs. Gillan

I thank my hon. Friend for that impressive and helpful intervention.

Britain was the first country in the European Union to introduce national screening programmes for cervical and breast cancer. Our other initiatives include an awareness campaign on cardio-vascular disease in women, implementation of the recommendations of the advisory group on osteoporosis, and efforts to improve mental health treatment.

Another matter that was identified in the platform was violence against women; again, we have taken action. The Government are entirely convinced that domestic violence must be tackled vigorously and treated as a crime. The awareness campaign launched by the Government in 1994 focuses on the criminality of domestic violence, and encourages victims to seek help.

Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch)

Many of us care a great deal about domestic violence. What is the Minister's view of the Government's withdrawal of the last Bill on domestic violence, which had been widely consulted on? Many people involved in the matter had given a lot of time to advising the Government, and felt very aggrieved.

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Lady may find the answer in the Family Law Bill.

As I was saying, the Government are entirely convinced that domestic violence should be treated as a crime. As part of our on-going campaign, an inter-agency circular on domestic violence was published on 17 August last year, to encourage a more co-ordinated and effective inter-agency response to tackling the problem by local agencies.

In particular, the Government recognise the nuisance of stalking. The Home Office is considering all the options to see what scope there is to strengthen the criminal law to deal with stalkers.

I have set out a comprehensive and effective range of measures that we are taking to promote economic competitiveness and equality for women. We have achieved much, and without accepting damaging European Community laws such as the social chapter.

Our position on the opt-out from the draft social chapter is clear. We do not intend to give it up in the 1996 intergovernmental conference. It is clear that employers in Britain and in Europe are deeply concerned about the impact of social legislation on business and jobs. Without the social chapter, we have still been able to advance significantly the role and position of women in our society, and we shall continue to do so.

In its 1992 election manifesto, the Labour party promised to establish a Ministry for women. Now it has abandoned that promise, like so many of its other old policies. It also promised to appoint a Cabinet Minister for women. But that has already been done.

I am sure that we will hear many more promises from the Labour party. However, we will not take lectures from a party whose policy of women-only short-lists amounted to unlawful sex discrimination. It is ironic that the party that introduced the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was found to be in breach of it 20 years later.

I welcomed the decision of the industrial tribunal in Leeds, because I believe that women should be chosen only when they are the best candidates. I do not believe that any woman wants to make progress in politics, public life or employment if that involves discriminating against a man.

Madam Speaker—[Interruption.] I am sorry, I mean Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Laughter.] It is an easy mistake to make. When I spoke in the previous two debates on women's issues, I spoke from the Back Benches. Today I am delighted to have been able to introduce this Adjournment debate in Government time.

Today I have announced the reappointment of the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, and the extra funds to help update the technology at the commission. I have also announced the implementation programme for the platform for action, and I have highlighted the progress we have made.

The way forward to equality lies through education and determination, not through discrimination. It lies in giving women more choices over their lives. The Conservative party and the Government are giving women those choices. The Government's record in promoting women is a proud one, and under their policies, women have moved towards greater equality with men. There is still much to be done, but the House will agree that the policies that we have been following for the past 17 years represent the right way forward for all women throughout the United Kingdom.

4.53 pm
Ms Tessa Jowell (Dulwich)

I begin by welcoming the Government's decision to hold this debate today. We especially welcome the fact that the debate is in Government time, albeit on a Thursday evening. As hon. Members will know, for the past two years the Labour party has arranged for a debate in Opposition time to mark International Women's Day, so we are delighted that, this year, in this as in other aspects of the role of women in Britain today, we lead and the Government follow. It is worth noting that this is the only debate about the position of women that has ever been held by this Government.

The debate is an important mark of International Women's Day tomorrow, when the achievements of women will be celebrated throughout the world. I ask the House to join my hon. Friends and me in congratulating the hundreds of women's organisations that work for, and represent, the aspirations and concerns of women throughout the country.

Many of those organisations have been pursuing for years the issues that now have public prominence. In the early 1930s, the National Federation of Women's Institutes published one of the first reports on domestic violence, and the current newsletter of the Townswomen's Guild reveals its continuing campaign for a review of the law of provocation in cases in which a wife has killed a violent husband. The Townswomen's Guild is also continuing its campaign for an expansion of child care provision, and for proper support for carers.

The nationwide survey undertaken by the Body Shop and the Women's Communication Centre will be published in the summer, but already more than 10,000 women have taken part. What do women want? I shall quote from some of the responses already received. Women want The right to work without people saying that you are taking a man's job and The right to care for children and still have a decent pension". One woman said: I want to be appreciated by society for being a mother. I want families to be society's top priority so that jobs are organised around families and not vice versa". Other things that women have said that they want are: more women only public transport after dark", to walk with my dog in the woods without fear", and 52 per cent. of women in government". Many representatives of those organisations will join my hon. Friends and me later for a reception in the Jubilee Room to celebrate International Women's Day. In a spirit of co-operation and good will, I invite Conservative Members to join us.

In September, as the Minister said, the United Nations conference on women was held in Beijing. The "Global Platform for Action" was the result. That is a set of commitments signed up to by Governments throughout the world, including the British Government.

Mrs. Lait

I am most interested in finding out at what time the hon. Lady will depart for the party. Is it not a bit of an insult to the House if she abandons the debate on women's opportunities?

Ms Jowell

I do not think that that is a serious intervention; it will cause great offence to the many organisations throughout the country whose representatives want to come to the House of Commons today to join my hon. Friends in celebrating International Women's Day.

The Beijing declaration covers a wide range of issues, from women in poverty, access to education and health care, to violence against women, human rights, and the participation of women in public life. I have been enormously impressed by the dedication shown by women's organisations throughout the country in following up that declaration. In the spirit of the suffragettes, what women want from Beijing are deeds, not words.

Women want to see the Beijing declaration being translated into practical improvements in all women's lives. It would be an unforgivable betrayal if no positive action followed the ringing declaration by Baroness Chalker: Progress for women is progress for all, families, the men, our children and our communities. We must respond to the vision, generations depend upon it". Noble words from the noble Lady. Unfortunately, they look as if they will go the same way as so many other Government promises. It is one thing to cut a fine figure abroad, but another to deliver the goods at home.

In Beijing it was agreed that many women encounter specific obstacles related to their family status, particularly as single parents. Governments must provide adequate safety nets and strengthen State-based support systems to enable women living in poverty to preserve their livelihoods. At home, barely six weeks later, the Chancellor of the Exchequer froze the single-parent premium in the Budget.

In Beijing it was agreed to promote the harmonisation of work and family responsibilities for women and men". At home the Government refused to implement the parental leave directive, which would have given up to three months' unpaid leave until children are eight years old.

In Beijing, it was agreed to promote women's economic independence … and eradicate the persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women by addressing the structural causes of poverty through changes in economic structures. At home, British workers and British women are now alone in Europe in having no minimum wage. Truly, China is on the other side of the world.

This annual debate gives the House an opportunity to measure progress in relation to the issues that most concern women. It would be encouraging if the Government used the opportunity to deliver a report—a kind of audit—on their achievements for women. We have an annual Budget speech on financial matters; an annual statement on the current position of women would command widespread interest. Government action for women, however, is a well-kept secret. The spirit of open government is certainly not to be seen in that regard. The Government have a Cabinet committee on women's issues, chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, but we cannot be told when the committee meets, and we certainly cannot be told what it discusses. It is difficult to imagine what can be regarded as top secret.

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Lady is so familiar with the Cabinet sub-committee on women that she has just said that it is chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister. Let me inform her that it is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who apologised to me earlier for not being able to attend the debate.

The hon. Lady has mentioned the social chapter. Perhaps she should talk to the deputy Leader of the Opposition, who said, I believe, that any fool knows that the social chapter would cause a jobs fallout. That jobs fallout could well involve the women whom we are discussing today.

Ms Jowell

I shall have to check the Prime Minister's answer to me very carefully. I was pretty certain that he had said that the Cabinet sub-committee was chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, but if I stand to be corrected, I shall certainly make that clear.

What women want is a Government who recognise that women's lives are changing—who recognise that, while women's lives are mostly organised around a web of private relationships and private arrangements, a Government who understand those changes can be a vital source of strength for women as they discharge family responsibilities and make their varied contributions to their communities.

The biggest change in women's lives is that seven out of 10 women now work, and nearly 50 per cent. of women with children under five work. Most women work because they need the money, and they choose to work part time because that gives them the flexibility both to work and to look after their children. The prospects for women at work vary enormously according to geography and age. The employment prospects of a young female graduate living in the south-east are infinitely better than those of a 50-year-old, unskilled woman living almost anywhere. Although women now have better access to the professions, that does not yet properly extend to promotion: the glass ceiling has still to be cracked. In virtually every profession, women are at the bottom and men at the top.

Women mainly work in the growing sectors of social care, health care, retailing and catering. Those jobs tend to be done by women working part time. About 5.1 million women work part time, but more than 1 million earn less than the national insurance threshold of £59 a week. That represents a threefold increase since 1979. In those sectors, the new jobs, and the new low-paid jobs, are concentrated. Of the 1 million people who earn less than £2.50 an hour, many are doing such jobs. Those are jobs that women take because men could not afford to do so. They are jobs that rely on a second income, because no one could live on what they pay alone. They are jobs that would not be taken by single people, who could not afford to live on such earnings. They are jobs done by women with no employment rights and no protection.

Two letters provide graphic evidence of the extent of low pay. A 16-year-old girl working as a hairdresser and paid £45 for a 40-hour week—£1.12 an hour—writes: I have to borrow money from my mother for my bus fare and lunch … My mother works part time in a supermarket and doesn't earn much herself, but she does not want me to be poor". A 40-year-old care assistant who has worked for the same employer for eight years is paid £1.88 an hour, and works a 30-hour week. She has had no pay increase for the past five years. Her responsibilities include personal caring for the residents of the elderly people's home in which she works, cooking and other kitchen duties, general cleaning in the home and dispensing drugs. Does any hon. Member really believe that work in such conditions represents a move towards equality and opportunity for women of which we can be proud?

In that sector, there has been a rapid rise in the number of zero-hours contracts. The jobs are invisible in employment statistics. They provide no security and no guaranteed weekly pay; according to the Equal Opportunities Commission, workers in such circumstances may even find it difficult to establish that they actually are employees, and are thereby denied any employment rights. Such contracts are anathema to good employers, and a Labour Government will outlaw them.

Mrs. Gorman

I hope that the hon. Lady will tell us exactly what the Labour party intends to do about such problems as the danger of walking in the woods, and that that will include the imposition of real penalties. Will she also put some figures to those proposals, so that the taxpayer knows what it will cost to implement them?

Ms Jowell

I must ask the hon. Lady to be patient and to listen to the rest of my speech. A number of her questions will be answered.

We shall doubtless hear a good deal from Conservative Members about the regulation of the labour market. They will say that any protection for employees is a "burden on business". Let me make clear what Labour wants to see.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Jowell

Perhaps I could follow up the hon. Lady's earlier point, and set out what Labour wants to see. It may pre-empt her intervention.

Mrs. Winterton

I know for a fact that it will not.

Is the hon. Lady aware that, if the social chapter were implemented, it would have a huge impact on the jobs of women in my constituency? Is she further aware that, according to the CBI, 1,300 people in my constituency would lose their jobs as a direct result? Many of those people would be women, as my constituency has a very low unemployment level among women—and men.

Ms Jowell

Conservative Members constantly come out with similar lines about the social chapter, but they are not borne out in practice.

We also know that, under Opportunity 2000, a Government initiative which we welcome, employers are expected to demonstrate their good employment conditions and practices. That is a condition of their membership of the scheme.

Let me make it clear what Labour wants to see. We stand by the right of women and men to decent employment conditions. We shall introduce a minimum wage, along with every other country in the European Union, because we believe that those who work for a living should be paid a living wage. In other countries, a minimum wage has been used to narrow the gender pay gap. Even Winston Churchill supported the idea as long ago as 1909, rightly arguing that decent conditions make for industrial efficiency and increase rather than decrease competitive power". We shall support the standards that have already been introduced by the best employers. Marks and Spencer, for instance, has banned zero-hours contracts, as has the TSB. We are determined to see the kind of regulation that supports, and does not stifle, the standards of our most successful businesses. We shall end the Government subsidy of poverty wages by introducing a minimum wage.

We shall staunch the flow of subsidy from the taxpayer to the sweatshop owner. The Government's obsession with competition under any circumstances means that, as a result of compulsory competitive tendering, every pound saved by the employer costs the taxpayer £2 in benefit paid out and tax not taken in. Those were the findings of an Equal Opportunities Commission survey.

The North Yorkshire dinner ladies had their pay cut and they were no longer paid a retainer. Their sick pay scheme was scrapped and their pension scheme was ended. That is the reality of compulsory competitive tendering for thousands of dedicated and hard-working women. That is not efficiency, but exploitation. It is not progress; it is a hark-back to the days that we should have been proud to have left behind. The Equal Opportunities Commission in Northern Ireland, in a recent report, called on the Government to halt the use of compulsory competitive tendering because of its impact on women's pay—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I have resisted intervening, but there has been no end of chattering, particularly on the Opposition Benches when the Minister was speaking, and now on the Government Benches while the Opposition—[Interruption.] Order. If the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) wants to say anything, he can say it outside. If not, he will remain quiet—I hope for the rest of the sitting.

Ms Jowell

Yesterday, the Government tabled amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1986 and to the Equal Pay Act 1970. The first proposal is to allow compensation for unintended indirect discrimination. It is a bit late, however, because the tribunals are already ahead of the Government on that issue.

The second proposal relates to the Equal Pay Act 1970. It is intended to give tribunals that hear equal pay cases discretion as to whether to seek the evidence of independent job evaluation assessors. We believe that there are risks with that proposal, which may tilt the balance of advantage to the employers, who will still be able to commission their own independent witnesses to assess jobs and their comparators.

What will happen, for example, if the industrial tribunal members decide to dispense with an independent assessor and to do it themselves, and that is challenged by expert witnesses for the claimant or the respondent? Either the industrial tribunal will have to allow for the possibility of its judgment being overridden by someone with greater expertise, or there will be no place for the use of such experts. The EOC opposed that proposal in the Government's consultation document.

Pamela Enderby's case provides compelling evidence of the unworkability of the equal value provisions. The Government were forced to amend the Equal Pay Act 1970 following criticism from the European Commission and the Law Lords. It is worth recollecting the words of Baroness Thatcher, who was fulsome in her support of that Act. She said: So many people have supported the idea of equal pay for so long that one wonders at the continuing inequality between men and women. I believe that the Bill will lead to better pay for many jobs. By his own admission, Alan Clark, the Minister who was responsible for taking through the amendments to the Equal Pay Act 1970, in the early 1980s, was drunk when he proposed the legislation to the House. In that shambles probably lies—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Lady is quoting a former hon. Member, she must provide a Hansard column number. Otherwise, I must ask her to withdraw her statement that an hon. Member at the Dispatch Box was drunk.

Ms Jowell

Mr. Deputy Speaker, the reference I made was to the former Minister's diaries. If you would like me to withdraw the observation, I shall do so. Hon. Members will be able to read the account in his diaries.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is not my wish to direct the hon. Lady to do anything. I have made the position clear. The hon. Lady must make her own judgment.

Ms Jowell

I am happy to withdraw the suggestion, but to commend to hon. Members the relevant pages of the former Minister's book.

Sir Anthony Grant (South-West Cambridgeshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was referred to twice in the diaries which the hon. Lady has quoted. Those references were quite inaccurate, so I do not think that we need take the matter any further.

Ms Jowell

I shall briefly set out the facts of Pamela Enderby's case, as evidence of the impossible obstacles to cases being brought under those provisions. Dr. Enderby first brought her claim in 1986. She claimed that she was employed in work of equal value with men working as principal grade pharmacists and clinical psychologists. The industrial tribunal, nearly 10 years later, is now at the point at which it will examine statistics on pay and gender for speech therapy and clinical psychology and pharmacy. Thirteen hundred other claims were filed by speech therapists, from 1986 to 1987, and those are pending the outcome of Dr. Enderby's case. As I understand it, her case has only now been referred to the independent experts.

What the Government are offering—their gift for International Women's Day—is a make-do-and-mend version of sex equality. What we need is a complete overhaul of our sex equality legislation. We are proud that those Acts were passed by a Labour Government. The Government are as aware as we are of the shortcomings of those Acts, and that their remedies take too long, cases are too expensive and do not allow for representative action. The difference is that Labour will do something about those shortcomings if we win the next election.

We need a new sex equality Bill that simplifies existing procedures, brings UK legislation in line with European law, strengthens the concept of indirect discrimination and creates the responsibility of representative actions so that incidents do not always have to be settled on a case-by-case basis. The advantage of a future Labour Government, with a new sex equality Act, is that fewer costly and time-consuming cases would go to the European Court of Justice.

The Minister paid tribute to the work of the Equal Opportunities Commission, and so do we. The EOC was the creation of a Labour Government, and it will be 20 years old this summer. The Government's birthday present to it was a £300,000 cut in its grant, which represents more than it spends in total on legal cases, and places its entire research department under threat.

The political agenda for women has moved on; it is no longer about narrow sexual politics. The new expectations of sex equality are to be seen in the confidence of so many young women, who take for granted their right to progress and to compete with men. We should celebrate the fact that, for them, the politics of victimhood no longer has any resonance.

The changes in women's lives confront them with a new set of issues. As they increasingly combine the responsibilities of home and work, they have not left behind the responsibilities that most women still discharge. Two thirds of all housework, for example, is still done by women. As a recent survey by Parents at Work revealed, however, three out of five women reported feeling that did not see enough of their children, and most said that they felt constantly exhausted.

The corollary of women taking more responsibility outside home is that men must take more responsibility within it. The long-hours culture was created by men so that they could demonstrate their commitment to their jobs by being there. "Presenteeism" is the new term in popular use. That term essentially means that, most of the time, it is not how much one does that matters: it is being there that counts. That concept needs to be challenged and changed.

In Germany, I am told, if one's car is still in the car park at 6 o'clock, it is assumed that one is not very good at one's job.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Speaking of a job in which, quite clearly, it is more a matter of being here than what we do that matters, would the hon. Lady like to tell us where she stands on this business of women-only short-lists for entry to the House of Commons?

Ms Jowell

I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait for a few moments until I come to that passage in my speech. I shall not sit down without telling him about that.

As women's lives are changing, so families are changing. Despite the fact that, in 1992, one in two marriages ended in divorce, it is worth remembering that four out of every five children grow up living with both their parents until they are 16.

As the pattern of work has changed, so has the divide between the work-rich, two-earner family and the work-poor no-earner family. It is to the Government's shame and a testament to their complacency that one family in five now have no one in work. Again, the Government's flexibility is most families' insecurity, with, as my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor said last week, 8 million people having experienced a period of unemployment since the previous election.

Those changes to the family have different effects over time. One of the reasons for the importance of the cross-party victory last week in the House of Lords on pension-splitting on divorce is that women who now face poverty and hardship on retirement are women who grew up when the expectations of men and women were different. Those women stayed at home and brought up the children while their husbands worked. There was no national debate about the need for child care, because, by and large, the women were at home. There was no great concern about women's pensions because then women were dependent on their husbands.

The Government's failure to anticipate and protect people from the hardship of rapid social change has caused difficulty and distress. Because Labour in 1974 recognised the uncertainties of women's lives in combining family responsibility with work, the state earnings-related pension scheme calculated that the 20 best years, rather than lifetime earnings, would give women the best protection against poverty in old age.

A Government who recognise the changes in women's lives can make a difference to women and their families but if, like this Government, they believe that everything should be left to the market, they cannot provide the necessary framework of support and enablement. When it comes to community care, the Government centralise decisions and then stand clear when things go wrong. So many elderly or disabled people have no family and no community that, when local government—the resource of last resort—pulls out, there is no one left.

Before I was elected to the House, I worked with carers in Birmingham. I vividly recall a conversation with one half of an elderly couple. He looked after her, and there was no support available other than the sporadic visits of the district nurse. I remember him saying, "I put off the moment when I draw the curtains at night because when I have drawn them and it is just me and her, I feel as if I am the last person left on earth."

Child care is the most important means by which women can get back to work. It must be affordable, flexible and reliable, and it must be more than mere minding; it should take proper account of the children's developmental needs. The lack of affordable child care keeps one single mother in three on benefit, denying them the self-sufficiency that they want for themselves and their children. So far, the Government's sole contribution has been to dabble in three or four schemes and pass that off as concerted action on child care.

When mothers become workers, they do not stop being mothers or stop being preoccupied with their children.

Mrs. Gillan

I am interested to hear the hon. Lady say that £60 million is "dabbling". Perhaps she would like to put on the table the money that her party would provide for child care initiatives.

Ms Jowell

I said that because it is the view of organisations beyond the House that the Government are simply not serious about child care. Employers for Childcare, a consortium that represents 40 of the top 100 companies, is among those who do not regard the Government as being serious about child care.

Mothers who work are still full-time mothers. Child care has been a private matter for most. Paid child care is generally available only to mothers in reasonably well-paid jobs, while the children of low-paid mothers are, by and large, looked after by relatives. Publicly provided child care accounts for only 5 per cent. of the care of children in this country, which is the lowest level in Europe. Good child care is also good business, as Employers for Childcare has argued. Child care is the building block for women at work. It is also a partner to economic efficiency. It enables not only mothers, but fathers, to work.

The Government are walking away from any responsibility for making possible the sharing of parenting responsibilities. In June, we shall be the only country in the European Union to have no provision for parental leave. The Government extol family responsibility but deny parents the opportunity to exercise it when it is most important.

Let me deal now with women and Parliament. Since Nancy Astor made her maiden speech in 1920, pledging to speak for women and children up and down the country, only 169 other women have taken their seats, compared with nearly 4,000 men. Our performance in creating a Parliament that speaks for men and women is dismal compared to that of virtually every other country.

The presence of women in our Parliament, as in every other sphere of our public life, is important, but not only as an end in itself. Parliament cannot be as good at its job as it should be precisely because more than half the nation is not properly represented here. When the perceptions of women are missing from the great debates, or even from the daily round of political administration, bad policies will ensue.

I cite by way of recent example the shackling of women in labour. It would have taken only one or two women in the Home Office who had had children to tell the Home Secretary or the Minister of State that a woman in the final stages of labour is not likely to look for a window and shin down a drainpipe.

The introduction of mixed sex wards also causes enormous distress to women, especially in psychiatric hospitals. Some 50 per cent. of women admitted to mental hospitals will at some time in their lives have suffered sexual abuse. At the very time that they feel most vulnerable, they find themselves having to share lavatories and bathroom facilities with men who are also disturbed.

After the next election, we hope to double the number of women sitting on the Labour Benches. We are aiming to achieve the equal representation of men and women within three Parliaments. We are sure that that will bring a change to the nature of politics here and improve the quality of government for the nation.

The effect of the industrial tribunal ruling that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 now applies to parliamentary selections for all parties should be of particular interest to the Minister—if she would care to stop chatting and listen. The selection process in her party is clearly rife with discrimination, and she will not be surprised to learn of a conversation that I had recently with one of her party's frustrated candidates.

The woman to whom I spoke, who is clearly a great improvement on most Conservative Members, complained that, at her most recent attempt to be selected, she had been told that no one over 45 and certainly no women should apply. She went off with a gleam in her eye when I told her of the remedies available to her now that the 1975 Act applies to the selection of parliamentary candidates.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

The hon. Lady has completely misunderstood what democracy is about. First and foremost, the Conservative party is not run by diktat from central office. We believe that constituency associations should choose the potential Member of Parliament who suits them best—in other words, horses for courses. I must also point out that many activists in Conservative constituency parties—perhaps this is also the case in Labour associations—are women, and it is women's prejudice against women that must be defeated. Our parliamentary democracy is based on local associations choosing their own candidates.

Ms Jowell

We know that the Conservative party is absolutely desperate about its dismal performance in selecting women and in contributing to a Parliament that properly speaks for the nation. It is worth reminding the House that there are more Members of Parliament called John than there are hon. Ladies. We intend to change that. There are a number of Johns of whom I am extremely fond, and whom I admire greatly.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

Will the Hon. Lady give way to me, as a John?

Ms Jowell


Our commitment to women—many of whom feel disenchanted with politics and with politicians—is that the issues that matter to them will infuse our public and political debate. As politicians, we must listen and act on what we hear: that is a major part of our commitment to democratic renewal.

Mr. Carlisle

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that it was a custom of the House that when hon. Members were referred to by name, as a matter of courtesy, those who were speaking—either male or female—would normally give way to them. Is that not a custom of the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is an historic custom of this House.

Ms Jowell

Had I notified all the Johns, I would have had to make 90 telephone calls or to have written 90 notes. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am sure that you will understand that no discourtesy was intended to the John who has just come in.

Across the whole range of women's interests, the Government are doing little more than sitting with their hands in their lap, watching the world of women go by. The Government have nothing to say, or only grudging comments to make, when it comes to the Beijing declaration, the changes in women's employment, equality legislation and the new political agenda. The Government do nothing to sponsor the ambitions and optimism of young women, nothing to mitigate the long slog of the part-time worker and the full-time mother, and nothing to ease the burdens of the housebound carer. When we are in government, we shall show what can be done to ease all these different paths, and we shall keep faith with the women of Britain—for their sakes, for the sake of their young families and for the sake of the elderly or ill who depend on them.

5.32 pm
Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

Like the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), I have previously taken part in these sorts of debates and I am beginning to wonder why we bother to have them. Such debates are demeaning and patronising, and it is time that we took them out of the parliamentary calendar. It is a waste of parliamentary time to listen to this sort of claptrap. However, I will take the opportunity to put my points of view forward. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister because I will not be present to hear her wind up the debate, but I shall read very carefully in Hansard what she says.

I believe that there should be no discrimination at all, and that we are currently discriminating against our male colleagues. We are saying that we do not want to suffer discrimination, so perhaps we should not organise debates only for women. The hon. Member for Dulwich (Ms Jowell) mentioned some women's organisations and I regret that she did not mention Business and Professional Women, which started in this country in the early 1930s, and is now an international women's organisation. It has long worked for supporting and promoting equal opportunities for women, and I am proud to say that I have been a member for more than 30 years.

There are more than 12 million women in this country who are economically active—I am never quite sure what that means, but I think it means that they go to work. Women comprise 45 per cent. of the work force, which is an improvement. The United Kingdom has the lowest unemployment rate for women, but for Denmark. Germany has 10 per cent. unemployment for women, France has 13.9 per cent. and Spain has 29 per cent.

Women have always worked—it is not something new. Who ran the country during the 1914–18 war? Women did, because most of the men went to war. That action resulted in a Bill being passed through this male-dominated House that said that women could take part in the running of the country. Women did the same thing in the 1939–45 war. Who ran the munitions factories? Women did, because most men went to war. It can be seen that women in this country have been working for many years.

There has been a huge increase in the number of self-employed women. It is sad that when women reach the glass ceiling they decide that they might as well run their own business. They are extremely successful at doing that. Since 1981, the number of self-employed women has increased by 81 per cent.—one in four women are now self-employed. The Government are extending child care so that more mothers can go to work, and the out-of-school child care grant should have created 50,000 more nursery places in England by the end of this month. That will also help women.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister persuades her colleagues to support the amendment to split pensions at the time of divorce, which was passed by the House of Lords last week. That action is long overdue. There is no reason why women—who put a lot into their family, their home and their husband's career for, say, 10, 15, 20, 30, or 40 years—should not receive part of their husband's pension at the time of divorce. As I see it, it is part of their assets—just like the family home. I hope that the Government support that initiative.

I suggest that many modern young women are well qualified in all sorts of ways—they are full of confidence when they leave school. Young women do not need positive discrimination or all-women short-lists: they are quite happy to make their own way in life. Last year, I chaired the panel of judges for the Business and Professional Women's girls' speaking competition. The standard of the schools from all over the country was extremely high—those girls could come here and teach one or two hon. Members how to stand up and speak, and how to make their points concisely. Such competitions encourage young women to get involved in public life and to take part in debates. That competition runs every year.

I believe that not many of the young women I see when I visit schools—I speak to them and listen to what they have to say—will take too kindly to having reserved places, and they do not need reserved places. If we have reserved places in the House just because we are women, I know what some of our colleagues will say when we sit around a Committee table: "We don't need to listen to you; you're only here because we saved you a place." I do not want to be part of a House, a Committee or a workplace that takes that view.

If we had a Minister for women, the same thing would happen. All the Departments would say, "It has nothing to do with me. Take that file to the end of the corridor—it belongs to the Minister for women." Women want to be in the midst of what is going on; we do not want an office at the end of the corridor—we want to listen to what the guys are saying. If we are sitting by ourselves down the end of the corridor, we will not know what is going on and we will not have any input. This has been tried in other countries—I see that the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) is shaking her head; perhaps she has not had too many opportunities to talk to people where they have had Ministers for women—and it has not always been successful.

The young women leaving schools now are more than well qualified to take their place in a modern society.

Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)

I think I heard the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) say earlier that she could not understand why this debate is being held and that it is a waste of time. I remind her that it is a Government debate. If she thinks it is a waste of time, why is she speaking?

Mrs. Peacock

Of course I appreciate that this is a Government debate. As this debate was called, I felt that I could introduce a little bit of common sense into it. That is why I am here.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning)—will recall the saying that if one educates a woman, one educates a family. That is an extremely important fact, which applies as much in this country as in developing countries. We should bear that in mind when we discuss national curricula, and so on.

We should encourage young women in their school careers and when they leave school. We should encourage them not to start life with a chip on their shoulder, because that is the worst thing they could do. They must start in the belief that they can go out into the big, wide world and that, if they are determined to do something, they will do it. They may have to work a little harder, but so what? We are used to that. It never made any difference before; I do not believe that it will make any difference in future.

Many women run their home, look after children and go to work. There is nothing new in that; women have always done so. Many women want part-time work because it fits their family routine, enabling them to be at home when their children finish school, and it works well.

Many women who run families, run their home and go to work are experts in crisis management. There should be a certificate acknowledging that. Occasionally, people say to me, "I am just a housewife"—many years ago I may have done so—but a woman at home must be an expert in crisis management or she will not survive. We should be aware of that.

Women's average hourly pay is only 79 per cent. of men's. I appreciate that that is the highest percentage ever recorded, but it is not good enough because women should receive equal pay for equal work. My hon. Friend the Minister said that, during the past five years, the proportion of Government public appointments held by women has increased from 23 to 30 per cent. My reaction is to think, "Big deal; why has it not reached 50 per cent?" We could make progress.

There are very many well qualified women in this country. They may not all want to join us in Parliament, and some have asked me why they should swap their secure, sensible, well-paid jobs to become Members of Parliament. We must listen to what they say, but there are plenty of well qualified women who could be available for public appointments.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

The hon. Lady made telling points about women's failure to achieve some of the successes that she highlighted. She has extolled the need for improvements; will she make practical proposals for achieving the targets that she wishes to achieve?

Mrs. Peacock

We can do many things. We can encourage and support, but we should not have all-women short-lists to enable women to enter the House, because they would not help.

Many positive actions are already being taken. When I entered Parliament in 1983, there were only 23 women in the House; there are now slightly more than 60. It is still not nearly enough, but we have heard that the number will increase after the next general election, and we do need to increase it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) said, when selecting for Parliament, in the Conservative party and in other parties, women are often their own worst enemies on selection committees. There have been changes in the Labour party recently and all-women short-lists started to change things, but women must support women in that respect, in which we may not always have been very good.

Mrs. Lait

I wonder whether my hon. Friend has thought that the problem is not only the women but the age of men and women on selection committees. If those people are, shall we say, older, they are not used to working with women in positions of authority.

Mrs. Peacock

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. If we all attracted younger people—as we are doing—into associations, where they would have the responsibility of joining selection committees, that would make a tremendous difference.

There is an old idea that constituencies would not select women, because women in the community would not vote for a woman candidate. That is rubbish. In the years in which I have been a Member of Parliament, each time a woman candidate, of whatever party, has stood in a by-election, she has been elected. That proves that women can attract votes; the old adage is nonsense.

With all due respect, many women in the House of Commons often work much harder than the men.

Mrs. Maddock

The hon. Lady is right to say that women have been very successful in by-elections. The view still exists out there that men will not vote for a woman. On the doorstep in Christchurch, some men said, "I could never vote for a woman," but I am pleased to say that many others did, and I am here.

Mrs. Peacock

It is interesting that the hon. Lady makes those comments, because I am always told that, the further north one goes in the country, the harder men become and the less likely it is that they will vote for a woman. That has been disproved, however, at least in our part of West Yorkshire and, I believe, further north.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Although I represent a constituency not quite as far north as that of my hon. Friend, she may be interested to know that in the next general election the men will have to vote for a woman, because all three candidates selected to date are women.

Mrs. Peacock

That perhaps proves the point, does it not?

I hope that my hon. Friends the Ministers will bear in mind that we should not put pressure on women with small children to go to work. It is worrying that people devalue women who stay at home to look after their children. It is one of the most important jobs that women do, and they should be encouraged. Money spent on helping them stay at home with their children until the children go to school at age five would be well spent, and better spent than in some categories of spending.

Many young women want to stay at home with their children but feel great pressure to return to work. They believe that people will not value them and will believe that they are not making a contribution. That is extremely dangerous.

Sir Anthony Grant

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend in full flow. Is she aware of an organisation called WATCH—the acronym for "What About the Children"—in which one of my constituents plays a leading part? Much academic research has been done in Cambridge and abroad showing how vital it is for women to be with a child in its early stages. I commend that research to my hon. Friend—I will do so to the House if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—because it bears out what she says.

Mrs. Peacock

Yes, I have heard of that organisation, although I have not studied the research. I believe that it is important for women to stay at home with young children. Obviously, not all women have the opportunity to stay at home and there will always be women who need to work, but we should not be patronising and put pressure on those who want to look after their children. Many of those women want to return to work part time. There are part-time jobs in many spheres, but it is not always possible for a highly trained person to return to work part time.

Last week, representatives of the Northern and Yorkshire regional health authority were in the House, talking about the high-risk behaviour of young people. We discussed the possibility of attracting back to work very highly qualified nurses—including intensive care nurses—who are desperately needed. Many cannot return to work after having children, because of the hours of their duties.

A woman told me that the health authority was considering introducing a scheme whereby such people might be brought in on call—some of their work might be planned—but the authority would undertake not to call them in during school holidays. That would mean that they could return to work and do that dedicated, necessary work, yet they would not have the problem of finding child care for a long school holiday, which many of them do not want to do. They want to be at home when their children are there, and we could help; we could encourage mothers to go back to work in all sorts of different sectors. We all recognise that it is much easier for women to have an uninterrupted career if they do not have children.

A few short years ago, there was a high commissioner in London from one of the African countries; she was a large, beautiful, black lady. She had four children and we often discussed equal opportunities. I asked her whether there were equal opportunities for women in her country. She said, "Yes, of course there are—here I am. But you and I must realise that there will never be truly equal opportunities until the men start having the babies." She is right; any woman who has had a child has a certain bond with him or her. However good a father is, I do not believe that he will ever have the same natural bond with that child.

Mr. Rowe

My hon. Friend will have seen today the disturbing—I use that word neutrally—news that it is now possible genetically to engineer babies, both animal and human, without, as far as I understand it, the intervention of either male or female. Does that not put today's debate in an interesting, if challenging, context?

Mr. Sebastian Coe (Falmouth and Camborne)

New labour.

Mrs. Peacock

I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) has to say. I was not suggesting that we should start cloning or that women who want children should dispense with men altogether. I am not in favour of that.

We have heard much about the Beijing conference, which was well attended. It was disgraceful that the conference was held in Beijing. I take issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham—because of its human rights record and everything else happening there, Beijing was not a good place in which to hold the conference. Non-governmental organisations were housed—if one can call it that—many kilometres from the conference centre. What is the point of having a conference for women if half of them are housed so many kilometres away that they cannot attend it?

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton about China's terrible record on female babies. I wonder whether my hon. Friends have had an opportunity to discuss the matter with Kate Blewett—a sensible, level-headed individual, who went to China and made the film "The Dying Rooms". If they have not, I suggest that they do so and listen to her. I saw the film, as did many others; it was almost unbearable to watch. Kate Blewett was in China and, for me, her film was a great lesson in humanity. It was said afterwards that the film makers created the situations, but I do not believe that. I believe that they filmed the situations that they found. It must give us cause for concern that any country should still abandon its female babies. We need not rely merely on Kate Blewett's film; there are gaps in the statistics, and the number of females in China is changing, which seems to be due to the action being taken.

I started by saying that I did not know why we had this debate. However, if it is held, I need to put my views. I hope that we can be much more constructive and not hark back to what should have been done many years ago. Great progress has been made in recent years; that becomes evident when one considers the young women emerging from school. They are much more confident and better qualified and equipped to take their place in the future. I am sure that, within the next decade, the number of women on both sides of the House will have increased, which will be most welcome.

5.53 pm
Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

As other hon. Members have said, last September the United Kingdom signed up to the platform for action at the fourth world conference on women. The signatories to that conference reaffirmed their commitment to Promote women's economic independence, including employment, and eradicate the persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women by addressing the structural causes of poverty through changes in economic structures". But far too many women in this country, and throughout the world, are on low and unequal pay.

In this country, 2.3 million people earn less than £3.50 an hour and three quarters of them are women. Some 800,000 women earn less than £2.50 an hour and women are twice as likely as men to be low paid. Despite the fact that, on average, women are now said to receive 79 per cent. of men's pay, many women's pay is as low as 63 per cent. of men's. A woman hairdresser generally earns about £130 a week; her male counterpart is paid £159. A woman sales assistant takes home £155 a week; a man doing the same job receives £195. In 1994, 559,000 women were doing two jobs and running their homes in order to make ends meet.

As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) rightly said, women are remarkably skilled—and not just in crisis management. If they have run a home, had a job and brought up two or more children—as many of us have—they learn about crisis management, budgeting, long-term planning, dispute resolution, conflict avoidance and critical path analysis. Some big companies spend vast amounts of money on training and instilling those skills in their senior managers. But those skills, as women's skills, are not regarded as particularly valuable—that is a great loss to business and society.

It is not right to say that women work for pin money. When I was first married, most women did not work, but most men earned a wage that allowed them to support their wives and children and pay the mortgage. Increasingly, as wages are driven down, women have to work. Many women say to me, "You were lucky to have that choice. It is not available to me. I had to go back to work as soon as I possibly could simply to help my husband pay the mortgage."

Lone mothers fare particularly badly. The Department of Social Security's research report No. 25, of 1994, is entitled "Lone Parents and Work". That Government report found that nearly all lone parents are women; only 23 per cent. of them are in full-time work and of those with a child under five, only 9 per cent. are in work. The typical net earnings of those women amount to £130 a week and one fifth of them in full-time jobs take home less than £80. It is undoubtedly true that affordable child care is beyond their reach and they use all sorts of informal means to help them look after their children. We would not necessarily approve of all those methods, as they do not provide the sort of stimulation that children require in order to develop. Those women need a minimum wage and decent job training.

Mr. Coe

In the past few minutes, the hon. Lady—like the hon. Member for Dulwich (Ms Jowell)—has laid considerable stress on the importance of a minimum wage. At what level would she introduce it?

Ms Corston

What is important about a minimum wage is that it sets a floor under wages. Will the hon. Gentleman go to Falmouth and Camborne and tell good employers that they are subsidising bad employers through the taxation system by topping up low pay with family credit to the tune of £2 billion, which is an utter disgrace?

A minimum wage would not destroy jobs. There is no evidence of that anywhere. A minimum wage would put a floor under wages. The rate will be announced by the next Labour Government when we take office. The Tories do not tell the British public the truth about the economy. To find out whether that is right or wrong, one has only to remember the mess that Conservative Governments left for Labour Governments to mop up every time they left office.

Mrs. Lait

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Corston

No. I should make progress. I shall give way later.

Poverty dogs women into old age. [Interruption.] The Minister may find that funny, but it is true. Women are much less likely to have occupational pensions. The career breaks that they take to bring up children make it difficult for them to build up entitlement to pensions, and they often pay the reduced rate of national insurance. In many cases, their pay is so low that they cannot take out private pensions.

The 1975 scheme that was introduced by a Labour Government represented a partnership between the state and private sectors. When the scheme matured 25 years later, it would have substantially reduced the risk of poverty, especially for women and one of the blights of our age—the severe impoverishment of older women, especially those over 75—would have been overcome. Women were to be awarded pensions on the basis of paid work and their caring work in the family. Not only does the Pensions Act 1995 phase in an increase in women's pension age, but the withdrawal from SERPS will increase the numbers of women who are forced into poverty. From 1988, the 20-years rule was abandoned, so periods of low earnings because of caring responsibilities can no longer be ignored.

I refer the House to an early-day motion tabled this week by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson). It relates to a woman in her constituency who is 59 years old and has married for the second time having previously been married for 22 years. Her second husband is nine years younger than her, so she will have no entitlement to a pension until she is 75. Had she not married him, she would be entitled to £19 a week on the basis of her first husband's contributions. During 22 years of marriage, she looked after the home and cared for four children while paying a reduced stamp. By the age of 75, she will have lost £14,000. That is a huge sum of money for older women on low pay.

One of the greatest problems is that women are not treated as individuals in their own right for pension purposes, but as adjuncts to their husbands or men with whom they have live-in relationships.

At Beijing the Government reaffirmed a commitment to the equal sharing of responsibilities for the family by men and women", but we are the only European Union country not to have a commitment to parental leave.

The all-party group on parenting, of which I am an officer, heard evidence for four weeks in the summer of 1994. At panel hearings, we consulted a broad spectrum of individuals and organisations representing parents, businesses, banks and the Churches. They all said how important it was to involve men in caring for children.

One of our recommendations was for parental leave. That was endorsed by the Conservative Members on the all-party group who saw evidence of the need for it. The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who was on the panel, was also committed to that statement. It was unfortunate for him that he was appointed a Whip on the day that the report was published. I appreciate that it must have caused him some embarrassment, but he supported the recommendation at the time.

One of the most imaginative documents that I saw was produced in 1985 by the Swedish Government, who stated that they had the responsibility not only to increase the participation of women in the labour market on an equal basis, but to ensure that children were not located in a world of women. They stressed the importance of labour market measures to enable men to discharge their responsibilities as fathers and carers, because that was good for men, children and families.

If the responsibility for children is to be shared more equally, there has to be decent and affordable child care. The Government's nursery vouchers are likely to threaten provision for three-year-olds in the local authority sector. I recently met governors and parents—primarily women—at a nursery school called The Limes in my constituency. It is currently run by Avon county council and from next month it will be run by the Bristol unitary authority. Those people were concerned that the nursery education provided for three-year-olds through the "high scope" scheme, which encourages self-discipline, co-operation and an imaginative approach to learning, may well be threatened by the provision of vouchers for four-year-olds. Those vouchers are likely to help only the better-off. I welcome Labour's commitment to nursery education for three and four-year-olds.

Mrs. Gillan

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Corston

No. The Minister spoke for nearly 50 minutes and the Government will have the opportunity to reply to the debate. I have only a short speech, although I may give way later if the Minister will listen.

The Beijing declaration also stated that we were determined to prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls". However, the fear of crime among women is reaching massive proportions. The 1992 British crime survey showed that 49 per cent. of women feel unsafe walking alone at night, seven out of 10 women lock their car doors when driving alone during the day and at night and two thirds of women are afraid of parking in multistorey car parks. A 1994 MORI poll shows that four out of five women said that their fear of crime had "increased a lot" in recent years.

Women are told to say indoors, but in 1991 almost half of all assaults were classified as domestic incidents. Women are likely to be assaulted at home, but they are frightened of going out, so they are entitled to ask where they are safe. Although we need refuges—we still do not have the number of refuges recommended by the Select Committee on Violence in Marriage in 1975—and sensitive and prompt police procedures, that is only half the solution. We should also underpin local authorities' zero tolerance campaigns.

In a recent debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm) told the House about Edinburgh's zero tolerance campaign, which sounded marvellous. Public information made it absolutely clear that violence against partners and children was utterly unacceptable male behaviour that should stop.

Mrs. Peacock

I agree with the hon. Lady. My local authority has a zero tolerance campaign. As I said in my speech, as women and mothers, we have to educate our very small boys that violence is not acceptable. Only if we start right at the beginning, will we have any hope of preventing them from going out into the world when they are older and beating up their own wives and partners, or perhaps an elderly lady. That supports the view that mothers should stay at home with their children, at least in the early years.

Ms Corston

I could not agree more. It is obviously vital that we teach children as young as possible that they should respect each other and do not have the right to assault other people. It is also important to make it possible for families to function in that way—not all families do. That is one reason why families should be at the heart of Government policy. It is inappropriate that zero tolerance campaigns are left to cash-strapped local authorities. There should be more than a video, a pamphlet or a statement announcing a campaign: national campaign material should be distributed making it clear that the macho culture—which I deplore—must not extend to relationships within the home.

Beijing also agreed that women should have access to power, which involves confronting the institutional nature of sexism and of racism. The Labour party has attempted to do that by increasing the representation of women in Parliament. I welcome that move. After the next election, there will be 80 or 90 women of remarkably high calibre on the Labour side. People will see how they contribute to our parliamentary process, and they will say, "Why weren't women like that elected before? Perhaps it was because it was a male-dominated place with entrenched barriers to women. It was high time that a political party acknowledged that institutionalised sexism."

Mrs. Gillan

Does the hon. Lady agree that the barriers were not in this place but in the Labour constituency parties? They forced the Labour party to select women candidates and to discriminate against men, thereby breaking the very legislation that Labour is so proud of having introduced.

Ms Corston

A resounding majority of Labour party members voted for the measure two years running. More importantly, the Minister cannot preach to us about women Members of Parliament: the Conservatives have only 19 and they will have even fewer after the next election.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

The Conservatives could not even keep the ones they had: one female Member of Parliament crossed the Floor.

Ms Corston


I do not want to suggest that it has been all downhill since women were given the vote and began to have equal access to the professions. My daughter is a doctor and she is the first woman to achieve professional qualifications in my or her father's families. However, isolated instances such as that do not reveal the situation of all women.

In the past few weeks, the Home Affairs Select Committee—of which I have the honour to be a member—has heard evidence from the following organisations: the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the Building Societies Association, the British Bankers Association, the British Retail Consortium, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the National Consumer Council, Justice, Liberty and the Data Protection Registrar. I am pleased to say that all those organisations were represented by women—that would not have been the case 10 or 20 years ago—and it was interesting to note the surprise expressed by my male colleagues on the Committee.

I dare say that some of those women will come up against glass ceilings. We must not reproduce patterns of inequality by pulling up the ladder and saying that, because some women have at long last begun to enter the professions—even if at low levels—everything has been achieved. By doing so, we ignore the reality of the lives of millions of our female constituents: reinforcing inequalities between women is no substitute for providing equal opportunities for all women.

I am very glad that the Government have been shamed into holding a debate on women's issues in their own time during International Women's Week. The Labour party initiated such debates two years ago during International Women's Week and on both occasions Labour Members have done their best to raise issues that concern women. Labour's parliamentary record in that regard cannot be matched on the Government side. I welcome the debate.

6.13 pm
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. My contribution will be brief: I understand that we must not detain the House, as the socialists are giving a party to which we are all invited. Therefore, we obviously do not wish to debate the subject on the Adjournment until 10 pm.

I congratulate the Government on all that they have achieved in enabling women to participate fully in the public, political and the commercial life of this country. We should recognise that great strides have been made in the past few years in creating a climate in which women have benefited from the training and the opportunities that have enabled them to fulfil their potential and to play a part in all aspects of our society.

It is a matter of record that our head of state is a woman and that the head of the established Church is a woman—although obviously it is the same woman. Until relatively recently, a woman was our head of Government, Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party—and what an excellent leader she was. Women are represented in the Cabinet—on the basis of merit and not tokenism, I hasten to add—and in every tier of government.

Within the Conservative party, it is a matter of fact that the overwhelming majority of local activists are women and that women hold key positions in many local associations. The leader of my local council is a woman, although she does not share my political views. Based upon my experience of political life and my career to date, I must confess that I have found doors that are open for women but not for men. The courtesy that gentlemen Members extend to those of my gender is much appreciated—long may it continue. Vive la difference, as our French colleagues might say.

As one who is honoured to serve on Madam Speaker's Chairmen's Panel, I welcome the fact that, for the first time in our history, the Speaker is a woman. That sends a clear message and stands as an excellent example to women that they can, on the basis of their own abilities, rise to the highest office in the land.

I reject entirely the suggestion that we need more women in the House simply to ensure that women's issues receive greater priority. Like all hon. Members, I consider carefully all issues that are brought before the House and all problems that are highlighted in questions on the strength of the arguments and not according to the gender of those who raise them. I think that all hon. Members, irrespective of gender, have a duty and an obligation to represent to the best of their ability all their constituents: male and female, adults and children.

At the same time, I believe that the House should turn its attention to the urgent need to abolish entirely the Equal Opportunities Commission—a divisive and anachronistic body which has no place in a modern, civilised democracy with universal suffrage. My research, conducted through a series of parliamentary questions, has revealed that that quango—which is responsible for ending sexism in employment practices and which professes to have its own equal opportunities policy—numbers among its employees 140 women and only 30 men. That represents 82.4 per cent. and 17.6 per cent. respectively of its work force. Of the commissioners appointed to run the body, eight are women and only three are men.

We do not know yet the gender of the new Welsh commissioner who will be appointed shortly. I thought that Opposition Members would have something to say about those statistics, and I look forward to the winding-up speeches. That deplorable imbalance in the gender profile of employees and the commissioners is totally unacceptable and inconsistent with the statutory principles that the commission is supposed to uphold. As that body receives a staggering £6 million each year from the taxpayer, we have every right to expect better from it.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister with as much courtesy as I can summon that I was dismayed by the manner in which she opened the debate, and appalled by what she had to say. When she winds up, perhaps she will explain how much more the EOC will cost taxpayers through the addition of another commissioner, and how the organisation will be financed in future.

For too long, nostrums from our discredited corporatist past have been allowed to be peddled by persons who have built an entire industry on the back of once genuine concerns about discrimination against women. It is time that the House took the bit between its teeth and acted to abolish such commissions.

In all my research to date, I have found only one other commission with a record as poor as the EOC, and it is the Commission for Racial Equality. Of its staff of 212, 62—or 29 per cent.—are from the main white ethnic group that constitutes more than 94 per cent. of the population, while 150 of the CRE's staff—or 71 per cent.—are from ethnic minorities. That hardly sets a good example to other employers, particularly when closer examination reveals that, even among the ethnic employees, Asians are discriminated against in favour of black employees on a sixfold basis.

The CRE, which consumes a staggering £16 million of taxpayers' money every year, is doing a disservice to women and men from ethnic and indigenous populations alike. If the two commissions were scrapped, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer would immediately have £22 million extra to spend on creating genuine opportunities for women in society through the provision of more nursery places, reviewing child benefit, providing better breast cancer screening and a myriad of other practical and concrete ways. One of them was highlighted in an effective intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter).

Before I was selected as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Congleton and eventually elected, I enjoyed some of the happiest and most fulfilling days of my life as a wife and mother. In our wish to ensure commercial and political success for women, let us never forget the vital role that wives perform in supporting their husbands—and their more vital role in nurturing their children. I am a wife, a mother of three children and a grandmother of six—and I am sure that there is potential for more. I am as proud of those personal achievements and those of my children as I am of the professional achievements that I have had the good fortune to experience.

Young women leaving school and college today are far brighter and more confident, and are better prepared for life, than we were. However, they should never feel pressured into pursuing a career if that is not their wish. In many societies throughout the world, there is no more honoured an individual than a mother. Her role is deeply rewarding and fulfilling, although a little taxing at times. Society should acknowledge the great service done by the mothers of the nation, whose vocation is one to pursue with pride.

6.24 pm
Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch)

I am delighted that the House has the opportunity to debate equal opportunities for women in a week that celebrates International Women's Day. A belief in equality of opportunity for all is a cornerstone of my philosophy as a Liberal Democrat. There is much agreement in all parts of the House on the measures needed to ensure equality of opportunity for women. One area of disagreement is how far that objective has been met.

When I was younger, I was told the riddle about a man and his son who were out driving. Their car was involved in a terrible accident. The father was killed and the son was rushed to hospital for an emergency operation. The surgeon looked at the child and said, "I cannot perform the operation. This boy is my son." My children do not see the point of that story, because they accept that the surgeon could be the boy's mother.

The statistics suggest that equality has not advanced far, because 96 per cent. of top-grade surgeons are men. It is not as if women do not enter the health service. Of 420,000 nurses, 360,000 are women. The traditional dividing line of the sexes can still be seen throughout the national health service. Fifty-eight per cent. of assistant general practitioners are women, but only 24 per cent. are principal GPs. Eighty per cent. of nurses and midwives are women, but only 24 per cent. of dentists are women. Nurses and midwives do not earn as much money as people working in other parts of the NHS.

A similar pattern is found in other professions. Nearly half of university administrative staff are women, but only one quarter are junior lecturers—and only one in 20 is a professor. One sixth of police constables are women, but only one of the 103 chief and deputy chief constables is a woman.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

Does the hon. Lady accept that a person cannot suddenly be appointed to a senior post without working his or her way through the ranks and gaining experience? If one wants an accurate measure of current trends, one should look at progress in lower age groups. For example, among solicitors aged below 30, more are women than men.

Mrs. Maddock

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point, but I was reviewing the current situation, which shows that there is still inequality in some professions.

Last year, I asked a number of parliamentary questions to establish the proportion of women civil servants in various grades. The answers from the different Departments totalled 21,000 deskbound civil servants, but fewer than 3,000 of them were women. When I checked again last summer, I found that, of the 30 permanent secretaries, only two were women and neither was running a Ministry of her own. It is a case of too many Humphreys and not enough dames.

Today, the Hansard Society published a report called "Women at the Top: Progress after Five Years", and the news was not as good as many people would have liked or had hoped. On average—and we have heard some statistics already—women working full time are still paid only 79 per cent. per hour of what their male counterparts earn.

Mrs. Gillan

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Maddock

I shall give way when I have reached the end of this section. I am sure that the Minister's point will still be relevant.

A large majority of those earning less than half the national average wage are women. The majority of pensioners on income support, and 90 per cent. of lone parents, are women. The vast majority of those with primary responsibility for caring for children or the elderly and sick are women, again often on very low incomes.

Mrs. Gillan

I wished to raise a point about the Hansard Society report, which was delivered to my desk this morning, and I was delighted to receive it. The report is not all doom and gloom. The Hansard Society's press release says that women now have a better chance of top jobs and appointments, but there is "no room for relaxation." That is very good news and the hon. Lady should welcome it. Women have a better chance, and that means that the improvements I mentioned are kicking in throughout society.

Mrs. Maddock

I do not dispute that, but the point that I was making was that many of us were disappointed that the figures were not better, because we have tried to improve the situation for some years, and some of us are a little frustrated that improvement is not as fast as we would like.

Ms Glenda Jackson

The Minister has just said that the report said that women now have a better chance. Surely the news is not as good as she would lead us to believe, because women have only a better chance in contrast to what was no chance at all.

Mrs. Maddock

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. It is still the case that, although women constitute 44 per cent. of the United Kingdom work force, they represent only 20 per cent. of managers and 2 per cent. of senior executives. The situation is still not good.

Of course, inequality is not just present in the workplace, but enshrined in law. I wish to raise a problem that was alluded to by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) earlier. In my constituency recently, I came across a lady called Helen MacGregor. Her situation shows how the tax system still works against women. The additional personal tax allowance that is given to married men whose wives are disabled cannot be claimed by married women whose husbands are disabled. The amount involved is £1,720—nearly £2,000. The allowance is to be uprated this year.

Helen MacGregor, my constituent, works as a part-time veterinary assistant. Her husband is severely disabled and confined to a wheelchair. If she were the one in the wheelchair, her husband would be entitled to the additional personal allowance, but as things stand, she is not. That seems to me to be blatant sexual discrimination by the Treasury and the Government.

The legislation dates back to the time when it was assumed that every wife stayed at home looking after the children and the allowance was supposed to compensate husbands of disabled women for the cost of employing a housekeeper. The Secretary of State for Health, when he was the Financial Secretary, admitted that, if we were starting from scratch today, the Government would not have invented any allowance that went only to men. The Secretary of State for Transport, when he was Financial Secretary, said that he agreed that it was anomalous that a married man with children whose wife was totally incapacitated was able to claim the additional personal allowance, whereas a wife in similar circumstances could not.

The present Financial Secretary, in Committee on the Finance Bill last month, told my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) that he recognised that the provision might well be regarded as anachronistic, but the Government did not promise to do anything about it. In correspondence with me, the Government have hinted openly that they will abolish the allowance for men too, if people make too much fuss. That would not encourage carers to go out to work.

If we can obtain some support today from both sides of the House for the extension of the allowance to women—the matter has been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House in the past few years—I hope that we shall push the Government into doing away with such disgraceful and blatant discrimination.

Finance is one of the real drawbacks in equality of opportunity for women, especially in pensions. The lack of pension provision for some women has been mentioned already. Two thirds of those over retirement age and four fifths of those over 85 are women. Women have borne the brunt of the decline in value of the state pension in relation to earnings. Women who spend time at home caring for children or older people often forfeit their full state entitlement, because they forgo the opportunity to make full national insurance contributions. Yet, as I think we all agree, the work they do is no less valid.

Because women sometimes spend years out of employment, or because they are working part time, they have much less chance to make decent pension provision, whether in occupational or in personal pensions. Therefore, women are much more reliant than men on the state pension, but 85 per cent. of women do not receive a full state pension. In fact, half of all women pensioners live on less than £50 a week and the current pension safety net is simply not adequate for many pensioners, who are overwhelmingly women. We need to change the system so that a pension is based not on contributions, but on residency.

I welcome some of the comments that have been made today about splitting pensions when couples divorce. I hope that our debate today will have some force in persuading the Government to support the amendments that were made in another place.

Another real problem for women is part-time work. Women lose out and they get a bad deal, because more than half of the women who go out to work do so on a part-time basis. More than 5 million women work part time in Britain, compared with 1 million men. In the past, many of those jobs have been traditional jobs for women, such as cleaning and waiting, but increasingly part-time work has spread to cover almost every area of work.

Part-time workers lose in a number of ways. On average, they earn less pro rata than their full-time counterparts. They are generally more insecure than full-timers, partly as a result of the rules governing redundancy. Because part-timers are more likely than full-timers to stay in the same job for less than two years, they generally have less recourse to employment law. Part-time workers get less training than full-time workers and they have fewer opportunities to progress up the career ladder. A TUC survey recently found that 41 per cent. of people working fewer than 20 hours a week received no training at all. Overwhelmingly, it is women who are losing in that way.

On Tuesday this week, my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies) introduced a Bill to deal with the lack of any statutory paid holiday entitlement for part-time workers—one of the greatest injustices they face. Britain is unique among European Union countries in offering no legal right to paid annual leave for part-time employees. Women who try to do their best to look after their families have great difficulty when their children are on holiday. Many part-time workers are given a pitiful amount of holiday time, if they get any at all. They often face uncertainty right up to the last minute as to whether they can take any leave. That particularly affects women, with their important caring role.

That problem acts as a deterrent to many women thinking of taking up part-time work or jobs generally. Part of the solution lies in employers learning to value part-time workers more. There is a great deal that the Government can do. Next week, we shall be unveiling our Liberal Democrat guarantee for part-time workers: a set of 11 measures that would result in better-paid, more highly skilled and more contented work forces. That would represent a huge boost for the 5 million women in part-time work and the many more who would like to be, but who are denied the opportunity because of the difficulties associated with current practices.

One reason why so many women take up part-time instead of full-time employment is the difficulty they would face fitting in full-time work with their family responsibilities. An eight-hour day is difficult enough; is it any wonder, therefore, that we find it difficult to persuade women to enter Parliament, where we certainly do more than an eight-hour day? We have heard a great deal about the difficulties of getting women on short-lists, but I think that many women are not attracted here in the first place because they believe that it is a male-dominated society. Having been here for nearly three years, I agree with them. Many women have told me that they are more interested in working for outside bodies or local councils, because the atmosphere there is better and they can get on and do things. They see this place as a talking shop, not a place of action.

Financial affairs remain an area that presents obstacles to equality of opportunity for women; breaking into male-dominated circles is another. During my time here, we have occasionally debated how to get more women into Parliament, and I do not propose to go into detail about that tonight. I must reiterate, however—things have changed in the past year—the Liberal Democrat view that our system of political representation works against more women coming to Parliament.

A much better way to get them here would be to change our voting system in favour of one that encouraged a wider range of candidates generally. Our first-past-the-post system fails to offer political parties any incentive to promote a balanced ticket, in terms of gender, race and so on, of candidates. Systems of proportional representation used by other European countries almost always result in more women being elected, as well as in a fairer division of seats among the political parties.

In Denmark, for instance, 33 per cent. of Members of Parliament are women, and in Germany, 20 per cent. are, but in the United Kingdom, only 9 per cent. are women. To help with the problem of accountability to constituents, a single transferable vote system would encourage political parties to put up more women candidates, and would allow voters a choice between candidates of the same party, thereby allowing people who wanted to vote for a woman candidate to do so. At the same time, they could list their party preferences—

Mrs. Ann Winterton

The hon. Lady is making a very important point. Has she considered its implications? She would succeed only in destroying the single-Member constituency system, which means that, once a Member is elected, he or she is responsible for representing all constituents, irrespective of his or her party. The other result would be that more power would be centralised in the hands of the party hierarchy. Is that really what she wants?

Mrs. Maddock

I do not agree. In my part of the country, Dorset, I am the only Opposition Member and the only woman Member. Some people want to be represented both by a woman and by another party. Multi-Member constituencies would allow the people of Dorset that choice. After all, it is done successfully elsewhere, and a growing number of people here think that it would be a good idea.

Members of my party—a minority party—often get taken to task for speaking too long in these debates, as I fear I did the last time I spoke. I shall therefore draw my remarks to a conclusion. It is important that all our parties develop policies to promote women in our parties and in other organisations, and encourage them to participate. That goes for fair elections, not just to Parliament but to other bodies. My party uses the single transferable vote for elections to all tiers of the party, which results in a fair representation of women running the party at all levels. We need to encourage women to be confident, and we must ensure that they have the training and skills to fulfil themselves and to achieve real equality of opportunity.

There are still many anomalies in our tax and benefits system, of the type that I mentioned earlier. I have heard some encouraging speeches in today's debate, and I hope that a commitment will emerge from it, on both sides of the House and particularly from Ministers, to look again at the case of my constituent, Helen MacGregor, and at all the other problems in our tax and benefits system. We are all in favour of equality of opportunity and against blatant discrimination in legislation. That is why I hope that the Minister who winds up will offer the House a commitment to think again about those problems. That would indeed be a practical achievement to emerge from International Women's Day.

6.48 pm
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

We were told at the beginning of the debate that this is the third time we have debated equal opportunities for women. These debates are beginning to give me the creeps. They seem to suggest that women are a different species, not just people like everyone else. I hope that this is the last time we hold such a debate, and that we can then begin to be treated as equals here. That would be no bad thing.

I do not deny that women do not always get a fair crack of the whip in some aspects of national life. I have introduced at least five 10-minute Bills to try to improve the number of women in the House; to help women who cohabit but are discriminated against in law; and to do something about women who want to earn a bit of money by letting out rooms to lodgers without being done by the tax man or some other inspector. There are many practical, sensible things that we in this House can do to improve the lot of women.

I do not deny that there is chauvinism in the House. Indeed, I sat here this afternoon and heard the deputy leader of the Labour party make some very sexist remarks about me—and agist remarks too—very loudly. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] Yes: he commented on my age. I do not want to repeat it, because I do not want to embarrass the right hon. Gentleman more than I already have. I hope that he will apologise at the Dispatch Box for what he said. I know that the women on the Opposition Benches will give him a hard time for it—and rightly, too.

I should like to deal with some of the clichés, the old canards and—I hate to say—sacred cows that come up every time we have one of these debates. First, there is the 76p an hour point, and how women are always being behind men in the wages struggle. When we talk about hourly rates, we are not comparing like with like. If one examines the statistics for women who have the same career pattern as men, the same professional qualifications and have worked for the same time, one finds that they receive the same rates for the job as men, just as we do in the House.

Although it may be true that the average wage for women is 76p an hour, it does not necessarily mean anything. The balance of pay between a man and a woman in a comparable job is slewed by the number of individuals who work different hours, and so on. We keep on hearing the old chestnut that women are not doing as well, of which we all have to be aware, yet it is not always true.

It is not true either that women work only for money. People do not work just for money—they work because it gets them out of the home as well. Perhaps they are sometimes prepared to work for a little less money because the work is more flexible and they can get time off to look after the children or take them to the dentist. All those factors are taken into account when evaluating a job.

Sometimes, by pressing the business of equal pay, women end up losing out. The Equal Opportunities Commission, which my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) has already mentioned, has greatly damaged women by insisting that absolutely everything in employment is identical for men and women. It has often forced women who had the option to take time off to suit their family needs into exactly the same work pattern as men, including night shifts, handling unpleasant and dirty materials, and other jobs that they do not want to do.

Statistics show that, when equal work conditions for police officers were introduced and women had to work night shifts, the police force lost many women officers because they were not prepared to work the hours. The Equal Opportunities Commission secured that privilege for women, but I do not think that those women thought that it was a privilege at all. When we in this House meddle and try to make everything seem equal, we often do not do women a good turn at all.

When we hear that 12 million women are in work—jolly good job, too—we should remember that the jobs were given to them not by Parliament but by employers. Opposition Members always excoriate employers, as if they are cruel, unkind and beastly to their employees. Employers choose to employ women partly because of their skills. The nature of work has changed. Work used to be in the old smokestack industries, which were not conducive to women. Who wanted to shovel coal into a furnace all day long, bash lumps of metal around or do heavy labour?

Nowadays, the market is coming to women. Women are much better, much more dextrous and more skilled at using modern technological equipment, and are very prominent in assembly industries involving the microtechnology that we all take for granted these days. In fact, one could say that the market, not politicians, and certainly not the Equal Opportunities Commission, is providing women with opportunities to work.

Every time the Equal Opportunities Commission takes some poor employer through a show trial where a woman makes £30,000 or £300,000 out of her employer and it gets all over the papers, believe me, an awful lot of employers say to themselves, "I won't put myself in that position." Employers, especially small employers, cannot afford the sums of money awarded by the tribunal, and think twice before employing women. If a show trial isperhaps—to do with women and pregnancy, employers might think twice about taking on a young woman.

When we crow about new regulations and protection for women, we should realise that, although we may think that they are a good idea, the person giving out the job is not a politician, and has to accommodate his profit and loss accounts. If he cannot afford, as is proposed, to give three months leave in a year to any parent of a child under eight years old—if the parent happens to have four children, compassionate leave could amount to a whole year off—he will think twice about employing women in that relevant age bracket.

Of course, that is good for us older women—there will be more jobs for us—but it does not help women generally. All the do-goodery and self-congratulation in which we indulge in this place often has the opposite effect from that we intend.

I want to say a good word for employers, because they very rarely hear it in the House. We should remind ourselves that we should be a little more humble when we are dictating terms that affect them. Very few of us in this place have had the opportunity to create employment.

Ms Corston

Does the hon. Lady support the Employers for Child Care blueprint?

Mrs. Gorman

The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that I have not yet read the document, but I shall make a great effort to do so, since she has brought it to my attention.

The state is one of the most reactionary of all employers—right from the very bottom in the health service to the top, where, as we recently witnessed in papers, a highly qualified woman who was next in line to be a representative in one of the Ministries abroad, Pauline Neville—

Mrs. Ann Winterton


Mrs. Gorman

What? Jones? Pauline Neville-Jones, that will do. She should have been next in line to work for the Foreign Office in—I think—Paris, and it tried to dump her in Bonn. She has now got a much better job outside the civil service.

I am old enough to remember that women teachers used to be dumped as soon as they were married. A commercial employer, however, looks for the best value for money from the people he employs, who are very often, and increasingly, women.

The people who have given real equal opportunities to women are the men who invented the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner and the contraceptive pill. All those things emancipated women from the drudgery of looking after the family home—scrubbing, cleaning, ironing until the small hours, scraping potatoes, cooking for hours and hours. Thank God for the ready-food industry, oven-ready chips, and Marks and Spencer's meals. They have emancipated me and given me my equal opportunity to add my fourpen'orth to this debate.

The guru of the left, Simone de Beauvoir, a great writer on women's affairs, said in "The Second Sex" that capitalism had done more to emancipate women and grant them equal opportunities than socialism. I thought that Opposition Members would like to know that. Perhaps they would like to pick up a copy from the Library.

Mr. Rowe

In the vein of my hon. Friend's argument, may I suggest that she might like to put another plaque on the well-known statue "the burghers of Calais", which is on the lawn outside the House of Lords, saying "the hamburgers of Westminster"?

Mrs. Gorman

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I deplore the fact that there is not a single statue in the House of any of the women who have contributed to it over the years. Until very recently, the picture of Lady Astor, the first woman to take a seat in the House, hung outside the men's lavatories in the basement, until we kicked up merry hell about it.

It took a little exhibition last year to celebrate 70 years since we had been given the vote, which I helped to stage with hon. Members from all parties, to get a little plaque put up in the Lobby coming up from Westminster Hall to acknowledge the fact that the suffragettes had to hammer on the door of the House before they were allowed in to speak to their Members of Parliament. That is all wonderful stuff. I recognise that the suffragettes did a wonderful job, but they did not get us into this place in great numbers.

Many women are still trying to get into the House. There is the old canard, "How are we to get women into the House of Commons?" Like women Labour Members, I do not believe in positive discrimination. We know that male Labour Members similarly do not agree with that approach. They do not believe in that positive discrimination stuff, as we well know. If we are to have more women in this place, we must change the franchise.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock)—what did she advocate?

Mrs. Maddock

The single transferable vote.

Mrs. Gorman

I do not like the STV. I have, however, advocated the view of Bernard Shaw, who was a socialist, that we should have a male and a female Member for every constituency. That does not mean doubling the number of Members in this place. Instead, it means in each constituency having all-men and all-women lists. That would remove the sexist battle.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Will my hon. Friend recognise that, in south-east Cheshire, we already have that system?

Mrs. Gorman

My hon. Friend's example is one of perfection. I do not say that it is necessary to marry the bloke in the next-door constituency, although he may be a desirable person.

There are ways of bringing desirable ends to fruition instead of whingeing about women as if they are another species to whom we must do good. That is too defensive.

Women are becoming more equal, or getting better deals out of society, partly because of medical advances. I have already mentioned the pill. Everyone in this place, if not soon throughout the world, knows that I advocate hormone replacement treatment for older women. It is something that keeps them firing on all cylinders, as I hope I am doing now.

Women bear the burden of child rearing. But they do not want to become worn out, exhausted and unable to do very much else except go into decline. It is not necessary now to take that course. A woman can enjoy the best years of her life in post-menopausal age. At the same time, HRT will save her from osteoporosis, heart attacks, strokes and all the other horrible things that might happen. Medical developments have done much to help women. I dare say that many of these advances have been brought about by men. I have nothing against men—in fact, I quite like them.

There has been a change in the role of women. We were household drudges. When were we able to come out and do so much stuff in public life? Most of the great women who achieved enormous things in the past as writers, explorers and even as scientists, like Marie Curie, were not married. Even fewer of them had children to raise. As has been said, the raising of children is an immensely important occupation for women, and one that should not be denigrated. We should not belittle women who choose it as their career.

In the past, however, we have been chattels. We were not allowed to inherit. As soon as we married, we were treated as if everything that we owned belonged to our husbands. We did not have proper pensions. By and large, we were tied to the kitchen sink or the typist's chair. The typist's chair, of course, has become one of the most important areas of an office. Being in command of the word processor and the computer gives a woman control over all the men who are working in the office, because they are desperate to obtain information, and it is all tucked up in the computer. In that situation, men had better be nice to women.

A good computer programmer is worth her weight in gold. Salaries for women in that sector are on a par with those for men. We have talked already about education, which in this context has brought up women. We must not forget, however, that the majority of women—this applies to the majority of men—will not have great educational achievements. But let us say something nice about those who do the routine jobs in society, and give them a little praise for what they do.

Are the majority of women not household drudges in some ways? To enhance the role of women, it is time we started considering ways to help women who want to go out to work to offset some of the costs involved. I have advocated more than once in this place that employers, in a domestic context or in any other, should be able to offset the wage or salary paid against their gross income. There should be an offset not against the individual's income, if he or she is spending money for home help, child help or help with elderly relatives, but against family income.

If we treated the family as a small plc, which could employ others and which could offset the ensuing costs against its gross income, we would enhance family life. We would create advantages for those who decide to become a married family. That is a modern way of enhancing that role in society.

We shall never return to the days when women just remained at home looking after the children. I accept, of course, that there are voices in the House who advocate that the clock should be put back. In reality, however, women want to be able to get outside the home and do other things. That means providing opportunities for women to get out of the home, and providing jobs in the home. I note that the Opposition Chief Whip is frowning as he listens to my proposal. It is clear that he considers it a barmy idea. He should reflect that my proposed scheme is being implemented in Denmark and France.

In France, as is made clear in this 'ere article now before me, over 1 million people have taken advantage of the scheme. It is simple. It begins with someone wanting to employ someone. If the job is modest and not well paid, the state pays the insurance stamp.

The scheme has brought enormous numbers of people out of the black economy. If people are employed and paid, there is an advantage in paying tax. I would not like to know how many people in this country employ daily helps and window cleaners, for example, for cash. It is better to put such moneys through the family account. Job opportunities are enhanced for many people who are low in skill level but want an occupation.

Mrs. Lait

Has my hon. Friend calculated the costs in France and in the United Kingdom of employers having to pay a statutory minimum wage, which I believe in France is about £200 a week?

Mrs. Gorman

I take my hon. Friend's point. The cost might frighten the life out of people and lead them to the conclusion that they could not afford it.

I hate the idea that we must denigrate those who work for £2 an hour. If that is all they are worth because they are not highly skilled, or if they are willing to accept that rate of pay because the person offering the job cannot afford to pay any more—that may well be the position of someone employing a domestic help in the home—whose business is it but theirs? In this context, we are not talking about jobs in large organisations, companies that may be able to pay relatively high starting rates because of their profit levels.

Our desire to shove up starting rates of pay often does harm, not only to women who need to take their place on the jobs ladder to recover their skills and move on to other occupations, but to youngsters, who often demand wages that are almost akin to those of adults with experience. The result is unemployment.

When I ran my own company, I employed women as cleaners. They offered their services as cleaners because those were the jobs on offer. As I was able to assess their abilities, some of them ended up working in the office. Many became managers of departments. That happened because they had the opportunity to start. With a vacancy only for a cleaner, it would be no good if some socialist politician said, "You can't pay the woman that rate—you must pay her more." That might mean doing away with the job and making do with one cleaner instead of two.

As soon as we start establishing employment rules, we are interfering in a human relationship that is so dependent on the employer's ability to find money for a job to be done. The Equal Opportunities Commission is a daft organisation. It pretends that it is acting to help women when it should be understood that jobs are provided by the private sector, by the market and by the change in the nature of work that is now taking place.

Ms Glenda Jackson

The hon. Lady was concerned that there should be no interference in relations between employer and employee. Several recent cases have been highlighted in the press of women who have come to Britain, usually with foreign families, who are virtually slaves. They may receive no money; they have no lives of their own, and are often severely maltreated. Surely in such a situation, the hon. Lady would not argue for no interference. Do not such relations between employer and employee cry out for some sort of interference?

Mrs. Gorman

I take the hon. Lady's point. There is an element of good sense in that. If people are being physically maltreated, the law should take its course. People who work in a foreign country and do not speak the language are vulnerable. The sooner such women find their way to the many refuges, which are often run voluntarily and not by the state, that will help them, the better.

Although I have never employed someone in such a capacity—and except those who do not get out of the house—such people usually know others in Britain who come from their countries. Filipinos often come in such capacities. They soon learn the ropes. Many such people end up taking their employers to industrial tribunals. Not all are put upon, although I agree that the situation the hon. Lady described is a disgrace. They should, and I am sure do, make use of the opportunities that exist to protect themselves physically.

Last but not least, the women who serve on the Front Benches are the gatekeepers. Having got there, they have the opportunity to choose from among their colleagues. They can do what women in the past have done for those of us who are here today. They will create equal opportunities among their staff, their parliamentary private secretaries and in their general circle. When the Minister replies, I should like to know how many opportunities my colleagues in the Cabinet, or those who are on their way to it—and I congratulate them—are creating.

It is easy to tell everyone else what to do, but what are we doing? In our own little empire, we have the opportunity to do something. I should like to see equal numbers of women on health service boards and other so-called public bodies. That is something we can we can hand out such opportunities. We do not always live up to the objectives or standards that we set for others. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, whom I congratulate on being such a fine Minister and an example to women, will deal with that.

7.12 pm
Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), not least for the frisson of disagreement that one always experiences.

I question some of the facts that she presented. Her opening remarks suggested that there is equal pay for work of equal value, and that the Opposition were making a great fuss about nothing. I refer to the Fawcett Society breakdown of wages for two jobs that would automatically still be regarded as the particular domain of women. A woman working in a laundry earns, on average, £140; a man £160. Among cleaners and domestics, another career for which we as women are expected to have a natural inborn talent, women earn £140 on average; men earn £200. Other speeches, and not exclusively from the Opposition, have underlined the fact that women are still undervalued and underpaid.

The hon. Member for Billericay argued that we should not denigrate people who accept a wage of £2 an hour. I would not denigrate anyone who was forced to accept £2 an hour for the only work they could obtain. I am very critical of, and would be delighted to be given the opportunity to denigrate to their faces, employers who offer that and have the audacity to call it a wage. Everyone in the Chamber knows of situations where £2 would be regarded as a less than adequate tip.

Very low rates of pay often exist for jobs that are important but are viewed as unimportant by those who pay the wages. The Fawcett Society briefing shows that care assistants often receive very little because their work is deemed unimportant by people who define the value of work almost exclusively in terms of the wages that it can command. That is central to why women are not equal in Britain and in every other country. Such work is deemed not to require any skills, training, energy, application or imagination.

The hon. Member for Billericay will agree about, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) has mentioned, the skills that women develop in life simply by virtue of being women, from having responsibility for running houses, raising children, looking after elderly parents, and from a whole range of other matters to which women have to bring their life skills. If those skills were translated into a commercial enterprise, business, or industry and were given high-sounding titles such as management skills or crisis management, they would command a high salary.

However, such job descriptions do not exist for those essential jobs. Think of the sort of work done by a care assistant in caring for people who are often elderly, frail and confused. It is outrageous that that quality of care should be deemed to be worth only £2 an hour.

Mrs. Gorman

I guess that the great majority of care workers are employed by the state. I said that the state was one of the worst employers in respect of wages. I do not know what the figures are. Nobody makes people work for that sort of money. If they need it badly enough to take it, it is wrong for us to say that those jobs are not valid because they only get paid that amount.

Ms Jackson

To start where the hon. Lady ended, I repeat my point. I do not say that those jobs are not valid; they are vital. My point is that it is a scandal and a disgrace that they are deemed by the people who define wage scales to be worth only £2 an hour. The hon. Lady is wrong to say that most care assistants work in the state sector. As she well knows in respect of care in the community, the Government have decided that 85 per cent. of all they hand to local authorities must be spent in the private sector.

Most residential and nursing homes are outside urban areas. To pick up the hon. Lady's point about why people take such jobs, I know of a residential nursing home in a rural area. It provided the only employment opportunities for 16 to 18-year-olds because they could get to and from it. There was no public transport, and they could not get to the nearest large town. They did not have such facilities. The home offered the only employment opportunities in their area.

I am sorry to bore the House, but I repeat that it is a scandal and disgrace that the care of the elderly and frail at one end of life's time scale, and the very young at the other, should be deemed work of such little value that the people who do it are paid slave wages.

I revert to my main theme. One especially interesting theme of this debate recurs whenever we have such debates, whether they are dubbed debates about women or, as tonight, equal opportunities for women, and when the state of women is the focus of attention for one day in the year. I hope that we manage to make these debates an annual event, and that the hon. Member for Billericay does not fail to participate in them. It is that from Conservative Members we hear that things are infinitely better for women, and that, although things may be moving slowly, they are moving inevitably forward.

I argue, as do my hon. Friends, that that is not the case. Every time we have such debates, what is most grievous about the Government's argument is that they imply that it is, and always has been, an accepted state—indeed, that there is something unusual and unwarranted in saying that it is grossly unfair—that women's place in our society and in every society throughout the world is still one of marked inequity.

The hon. Member for Billericay said that capitalism was one of the motivating and advancing forces for women in the world. All I can say to that is that capitalism has done nothing to advance opportunities for women in, say, Mexico, where they may work growing flowers, and pesticides that would be banned in America, in this country and in the rest of Europe, are flooded over the fields, with all the concomitant health risks.

Capitalism has done virtually nothing for people in countries where tea or coffee, for example, offer the basic economic opportunities. Industrialised nations can dictate a guaranteed price for the crop, and if the market falls, the producer carries the burden. Capitalism has done nothing for the developing nations of the world.

However, there is one area in which women seem to be over-present—an area in which one would like to see them a little less heavily represented—in as much as it is women and their children who suffer most grievously from violence, both in domestic situations and in nation states, because of civil war or warring nation states. Most refugees and displaced people are women and children, and sometimes elderly men and women.

The United Nations report on the world's children, which I believe was published towards the end of last year, said, for the first time in any UN publication, that 75 per cent. of the world's women live on or below the poverty line—not the decency threshold, but the poverty line. The statement is somewhat cloudy and guarded; none the less, the political message is there. That means that 75 per cent. of the world's women—and, of course, their children—live in physical conditions of the most abject and degrading poverty. They have no access to education, to primary health care or even to clean water.

For the first time in any of its publications, to my knowledge, the United Nations said in the report that the world's failure to advance the cause of women could perhaps—I admit that I am paraphrasing here—be traced back to the fact that, in the legislative assemblies of the world, too few women are sitting on Benches such as these.

It has been established that the women of the world do two thirds of the world's work, while earning less than one tenth of the world's income. We also own less than 1 per cent. of the world's property. We, as a gender, make the world go round, and we have far too little voice in the direction that our world should take.

The only way in which that voice can justifiably be heard, and make a real difference, will be when those who come from half the population of the country—the female half—account for half the places on these green Benches. I hope that that day will dawn in this country. There must be more female representation in the legislative assemblies of the world. We are discussing a shift in power.

That shift would bring about genuine equality for women. It would mean that they were not burdened by the idea that they had to have a child every nine months, so that, with its ability to work, each child would represent the family's insurance policy for the future. We can remove such burdens from women and create real equality, which would benefit not only women and their children but their menfolk too, and the world as a whole, only if we ensure that the legislative assemblies of the world reflect a genuine female perspective.

I do not believe that there is such a thing as a "women's issue", and I would not be interested in arguing for it if I did. But undoubtedly there is a female dimension in all of us. For far too long, the world has been governed and ruled by masculine perceptions, and has been presented as being entirely their preserve. There is a whole other area of human experience, imagination and perception that could be dubbed female, although it does not always and exclusively reside in women.

It is time for that balance to begin to percolate through, so that the world can indeed become a better and more equal place, not only for women, but for men too.

7.25 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I do not intend to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), who has just made a fine contribution, in talking about the worldwide situation, although she was right to remind us of it. The Save the Children Fund and others have produced some useful practical statistics, such as the number of hours that it takes for a woman or a family to collect water, to demonstrate the imbalance between the extraordinary prosperity of countries such as ours and the poverty of the vast majority of the population of the world.

I shall confine my remarks to this country, and I begin by asking: what sort of opportunity are we really talking about? Opportunity is too often defined in the narrow terms of finance and career opportunities, as if the goal of equal opportunities were to reproduce for women the conditions that many men are at last beginning to question, and to ask whether they are appropriate priorities.

It would be sad if the achievement of greater equality of women were a one-way street. I do not want to see more women aping the least attractive characteristics of men. For example, there is evidence that young girls are increasingly forming gangs, adopting foul language and drinking to excess. Even in the House we have seen a woman Minister being subjected to abuse of a boorishness that apes the worst kind of male boorishness in this place.

Mrs. Gillan

When was that?

Mr. Rowe

The Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), was subjected to a number of exceedingly offensive remarks, which I would have thought that women seeking equal opportunity would rather have eschewed. We seem to be making rather a poor fist of adapting to our changing world.

The world is indeed changing greatly. In 1900, as my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) pointed out, 154 children in every thousand died before the age of one. The typical woman could expect 10 years between the time that her last child left home and death. Now, only 6.4 children per thousand die as infants, and the average woman will have two pregnancies or fewer and can expect to reach the age of 63 without suffering a limiting long-standing illness. She can expect many years of active life before dying at 80-plus. In those years, she may well pursue her own interests, with relatively little interaction with her children, who may live far away from her.

However, those undoubted gains have led to a host of strains, with which we are still trying to cope. First, there is the rapid increase in household instability. There are some faint signs that the rate of household break-up may be beginning to slow down—I certainly hope so—but one in three, or an even greater proportion, of marriages still end in divorce. In those circumstances, any prudent girl must ensure that she will be able to support herself financially, even if she is one of those girls—they really exist—who would prefer to rely on her spouse.

In a society in which, thanks to Conservative policies, one young person in three now enters higher education, we are confronted by a paradox: those who take such an opportunity may well not arrive in the labour market until they are at least 25. I am prepared to lay quite a good bet that that is true of the children of some hon. Members who are in the Chamber now. The creation of a pension sufficient to support them for the 30 years that could easily follow their early retirement at 50 is a subject for another debate, but it is an important question none the less.

I want to draw attention to the problems of couples who cannot even set up a household until they are 25 or 26, who are unlikely to have their first child until they are about 30 and who are faced with child care obligations just when their employers expect the maximum return on investment in education and training. I am not at all sure that child care is the best solution to the problem, given that in many instances it is provided by a succession of carers who stay for less than a year. It is, however, very difficult for an ambitious couple to know how to secure their future in employment if they take too much time off work to look after their babies.

The crux of the debate should be how we can ensure that parenting is effective without damaging our pursuit of equal opportunities for women. We are certainly not doing very well now: 750,000 children in the United Kingdom have no contact with their natural fathers. How can we possibly accept that? We press on blindly, pursuing a lopsided goal. We expect ever higher take-home pay, although for many people the home to which the pay is taken is falling apart.

As Etzioni put it, The new gender equalised world was supposed to be a combination of all that was sound and ennobling in the traditional roles of women and men. Women were to be free to work any place they wanted, and men would be free to show emotion, care and domestic commitment, not supposed to mean that children would be bereft of dedicated parenting.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

I secured a 90-minute Wednesday morning Adjournment debate on the problems of parental care and working time. I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said so far, but does he accept that nearly every Government policy that he has supported for the past 16 years has led to exactly that pressure—the pressure to maximise take-home pay and working time, and to reduce the time in which parents can be with their children to a minimum, especially through the absence of adequate child care?

Mr. Rowe

I am sorry that I did not take part in that debate. I think, however, that the hon. Gentleman is over-crediting Governments with a capacity to affect human behaviour in that way. It seems to me that each generation, having experienced a higher standard of living in the parental home, sets itself targets that cannot be realised often. People drive themselves to seek higher incomes, larger houses and larger mortgages than is prudent. That is one reason why people find themselves in difficulty.

I accept that men are not facing up to their share of domestic commitments. In 79 per cent. of households, the washing and ironing are always or usually done by the woman alone; in only 2 per cent. of homes do men take charge of those time-consuming tasks. In 41 per cent. of homes, shopping is done exclusively by the woman. In those circumstances, it is not surprising that women are reckoned to have two hours less spare time per day than men.

There is not much point in simply seeking equality of opportunity if we are trying to drive men into the same bind as that suffered by women. Nor is there much point in women simply trying to ape the worst characteristics of male society. So far, I have dealt with the section of the population that is engaged in higher education, but what about the other end of the education ladder?

Today, the chief executive of the Office of Standards in Education drew attention to the hopelessness of young men—especially young white men—who make nothing of their education, leave school without skills or qualifications and have neither hope nor expectation of employment. That is tragedy enough, but it gets much worse. Young men in such circumstances often have a pathetic but destructively chauvinistic view of the male role. Violence, aggression, drunkenness and promiscuity—or even predatory sexuality—attract them. The results are seen partly in foreign football grounds or seaside resorts—to our national shame—and partly, and increasingly, in drug dealing or burglary to gain the cash to fuel their hungers.

In those circumstances, why should a young woman seek to draw such a man into a permanent relationship? He will spend her money and contribute little or nothing to household maintenance, and could easily knock her about. In a society that takes an extraordinarily relaxed view of promiscuity, it is easier than it once was for a woman to satisfy her sexual needs without requiring a long-term commitment. Few young women would choose such a solution, but many prefer it to the alternative. That is a challenge to all of us, and easy solutions do not exist.

Mrs. Gorman

I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that the situation must be kept in perspective. We hear about the bad cases, but four out of five children are brought up in families that stay together, at least until they are 16, and the great majority of young people—even those without skills—manage to find work when they leave school. My hon. Friend is talking about a tiny minority.

Mr. Rowe

I could not agree more, in that we are talking about a tiny minority of hooligans. I take issue with my hon. Friend, however. This is one of those instances in which the national average conceals a serious problem. In several parts of the country, only a few young men are capable of obtaining employment, and that has bred a culture in which they do not even expect to find it. They do not try at school, and in many cases they are taught very badly. As a consequence, they are caught in a spiral that was demonstrated very well in a television programme that I watched two nights ago about drug dealing in areas such as St. Paul's in Bristol.

Let me give my hon. Friend a parallel. In the 19th century, the pressure to construct drains in our municipalities came from two sources. There was the humanitarian desire for the poor to live in better conditions, and there was the perception among the fortunate that cholera killed the fortunate as quickly as the unfortunate.

I fear that, if we do not find ways of breaking into the vicious spiral of downward aspirations, increasing crime and increasing alienation between men and women, the disease will spread. Already, many of my constituents who live in favourable circumstances are being burgled, threatened and harassed by young people whom, in a number of cases, the police recognise. Many of those young people are funding a drug habit which costs £23,000 a year. That is a lot of money to find for young people who have no prospect of employment.

I have no solutions to offer, but I have one or two suggestions. We must take a serious look at work and education patterns. Work in the United Kingdom is increasingly driven by the computer, which never sleeps, and by the global market, which is instantly accessible across every time zone. The concept of normal working hours is out of date, but employers are still clinging to the traditional shape of the working day. As a result, more and more people are staying at work for increasingly longer periods because they are required to work not only the core hours but the additional hours that are foisted upon them by the demands of the global market.

The result is an appalling burden on families, and many parents see far too little of their children. As Rob Parsons rightly put it: I have never heard of anyone who, on their death bed, said: `I wish I had spent more time at the office'.

Mr. MacShane

Does the hon. Gentleman support the European social affairs directive that limits the working week to 48 hours? If he says no, as I expect he will, does he agree that it is no use wishing the end while denying the means?

Mr. Rowe

I should not like to see a directive on the working week. It is possible to get round such directives, particularly in an age when people can take their little portable computers home, where they have faxes and portable telephones. We know that half the time that is denied to children is spent at home; it is spent saying, "Don't disturb Daddy; he's busy." That is the key. I do not believe that a social directive will necessarily make any difference. I should very much like to see a concerted effort to discuss with employers and others whether the way in which working time is organised is sensible. If we can change their attitudes to the working week, we might find that we can achieve considerable advance without a directive.

Mrs. Gorman

What does the hon. Gentleman think of imposing a 40-hour week on this place so that we could get home to see our loved ones a little more often? If imposing a 40-hour week is not right for hon. Members, why do Opposition Members think that they should impose it on everyone else? Some people like working 90 hours a week.

Mr. Rowe

It is certainly true that some people like working 90 hours a week, but very many more people work 90 hours a week because their boss or their competitors work 90 hours a week. One can see that trend throughout society. There are partnerships in the City, for example, in which the partners will not take on sufficient staff because that would cut into their profits, and they expect the young people who work for them to work absurdly long hours. It would be quite salutary for those partners, one day, to ask themselves how much money they are paying out extra in tax and social security benefits to repair the damage that such working hours inflict on society.

Employers should examine more boldly such ideas as job sharing. As I represent a constituency that has many commuters, I believe that many more employers in the City, and in London generally, should consider creating out-stations for their workers. In constituencies such as mine, people could travel three or four miles to work rather than commuting to London, at a huge cost in time and energy. They could do their work perfectly well electronically, and go into London once or twice a week instead of every day. That would not be the same as working from home; most people do not want to work from home. People want the companionship, stimulation and fun of going out and meeting other people at work, but they would give their eye teeth to be able to do their work nearer home. There is a whole culture in this country that says that everybody has to sit side by side before anything gets done.

Similarly, we need seriously to examine school hours. Why do we cling to the current school hours, which chime in the worst possible way with working hours? Why do we not look at having two shifts in our schools, for example, with two groups of teachers and pupils? That might mean a long morning for some and a long afternoon for others, and parents could choose which of the two provisions suited them best.

In some cases, such a practice would lead to a much more intensive use of school premises, which are often unoccupied for a large part of the day, and to much less danger from vandalism, arson and the other problems that afflict our schools. Although such hours would lead to a much larger bill for maintenance because the plant would be used much more often, they would allow for additional resources to enable the schools to have much better equipment and general provision. That idea is worth examining.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

Has the hon. Gentleman considered the pattern of the school year and the long summer holiday? As I understand it, that pattern originated with the need for the children to be released to help get in the harvest. We have moved on, on the whole, from the time when that was a pressing requirement. The traditional pattern, which everyone has to put up with, is extremely inconvenient for families, particularly for women.

Mr. Rowe

That is a very good point, and it starkly raises the question of the periods that hon. Members work. As I understand it, the long summer break was partly occasioned by the desire of many hon. Members to go shooting grouse, which is a desirable occupation but one for which I do not have the time or money. The other reason was that the river smelt so bad that we could not bear it in the summer months. The break, like many of the characteristics of this place, is long overdue for a thorough review. We should examine how we work here.

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know, if he does not already, that, with the Government's policy of choice and diversity in schools, we have schools that operate five-term years. On my visit to Brooke Weston city technology college in Corby, the headmaster boasted to me, "There is only one day that this school closes—Christmas day." Is not that the proof that we are bringing choice and diversity into the education system, in contrast to the policies of the Labour party—which have been described by many organisations as naive?

Mr. Rowe

I am deeply grateful to my hon. Friend, because I had not heard of that project and a five-term school year. She would do well to make that more widely known, because It is the type of development that people would like to discuss.

A debate on equal opportunities that concentrates chiefly on securing for women what men now have is missing the point. We need to ask what sort of society we want and how we can help men and women enhance their lives and their children's lives, emotionally as well as financially. I suspect that we need to change how we teach and what we teach so that, from a much earlier age, boys and girls learn more about one another, how to value one another and how to value the differences between one another—other than in relation to the extraordinary, giggle-behind-the-hand sexual differences. The other differences make such an enormous difference, and we should be much better at learning about them.

The idea has persisted that, if a man is overwhelmed by some kind of emotional tragedy and cries, he is somehow too weak to be trusted. The same sort of nonsense is often thought about women for other reasons. That attitude is out of date. We must try to inculcate in our society a mutual respect for each other, which means that people will lose their fear that if they share equally in the burdens of life, they will somehow lose their sexual identity—they could actually enhance it.

Because I care very much about this, I have taken on the chairmanship of a temporary organisation called Heirs to the Millennium, which is sponsored by the all-party subject group for children and by the all-party subject group for Christian fellowship. It cuts clean across all cultural groups. We intend to put 1,500 people into Coventry cathedral on 22 May to drive to the top of the political agenda the question that underpins the debate about equal opportunities for women: how do we look after the next generation; how do we set the next generation the kinds of role models, standards and opportunities that will make them satisfactory heirs to the next millennium?

7.51 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

The hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) made an interesting contribution to the debate, and I agree with much of what he said, particularly in relation to negative stereotypical attitudes and the roles that young men and women have in our country. However, these behavioural attitudes are not in a vacuum: they are from the culture of our young men and women; they are conditioned by our economic and political values—which have been set by the Government over the past 17 years. Therefore, many of the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred are at the door of the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) intervened on the hon. Member for Mid-Kent and asked, "What about reducing the working week?" The hon. Gentleman was not in favour of that, but he had said earlier that people were working far too many hours and did not have time for their families. There were contradictions in his speech, but I will not pursue them further.

I welcome this debate. When we have these debates, there are inevitably comments about the representation of women in the House. Since 1918, only 167 women have gained seats in the House—and if all those women were to sit in the Chamber today, they would fill only one quarter of it. That is a vivid illustration. In that context, the Labour party's efforts to increase the number of female Members of Parliament are laudable and should be praised.

I believe that scores of issues could be discussed in relation to women. I presented two Bills to the House that got the issue of pensions and divorce up and running. I hope that the Government will agree to pension splitting when the Family Law Bill returns to the House. Other issues include women in prison—there are far too many—women as carers, women in the national health service, women in poverty and the glass ceiling. Less than 3 per cent. of chief executives are women and more than 50 per cent. of company boards do not have a female director on them.

Family planning has been mentioned in passing, and it is an important issue which the Minister should address. Conservative Members like to refer to the stereotype of single mothers. The issue of too-early childbirth should be addressed—it often blights the prospects of the mother and her relationship, and more often than not limits the child's prospects as well. There should be an effective family planning programme for men and women, including education in schools. We could discuss a host of economic issues, including the prospects for women in their teens and 20s.

The Policy Studies Institute recently released a report about part-time workers and stated that equal rights at work would add 0.5 per cent. to the total wage bill—that is less than the perks that company directors pay themselves. We should put the argument for equal rights at work. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has written the following to me: CAB clients and Trade Union members report a levelling down rather than a levelling up of terms and conditions. Whether in full-time, part-time, or flexible work many Londoners are struggling to survive: on poverty wages; working excessively long hours; without proper breaks or holidays; and afraid to challenge their employer for fear of dismissal and the suspension of welfare benefits. Problems at work inevitably spill over into other areas of life and CABx see at first hand the ways in which diminishing job security contributes to homelessness, debt, dependence on supplementary benefits (such as family credit) and strains upon the family and other relationships. We should have a programme for equal rights at work and a minimum wage, as proposed by the Labour party, which would benefit millions of women.

In 1977, 1,015 rapes were reported; in 1987, that number increased to 2,471; and by 1994, the number had shot up to 5,082. However, the conviction rate for rape fell from 32 per cent. of the complaints in 1977, to 18 per cent. in 1987 and to only 10 per cent. in 1994. That is a shocking figure, and the issue must be addressed. It is said that 83 per cent. of rapes are carried out by a man known to the woman concerned, and approximately half of all rapes are carried out by husbands or by partners. When rape is by a partner, it is often a repeated experience for the woman.

The Government should address that issue. There should be a reform of the Crown Prosecution Service and it should be reactivated to deal with rape, and higher priority should be given to increasing the level of rape convictions. The Government must take that issue more seriously—the 10 per cent. figure is appalling. The Government should also take action in relation to rape within marriage, and it should be on the statute book as a crime. I hope that the Minister considers including it in the Family Law Bill when it comes before the House.

The 1982 British crime survey suggested that there was a minimum of half a million domestic violence incidents per year, 87 per cent. of which are against women. In 1991, 120 women were killed by their partners, representing 41 per cent. of all women who were murdered. Domestic violence accounts for one quarter of all reported violent assault, yet research suggests that only 2 per cent. of violent attacks on women are reported to the police. In fact, the Women's Aid Federation estimates that a woman will be assaulted 35 times before she makes a complaint to the police about domestic violence. The problem is extensive, yet the services provided to tackle it are seriously overstretched.

Women's Aid refuges have increased in number but are severely overstretched. In 1992–93, an estimated 45,000 women and children fled to the safety of a refuge house, and more than 100,000 used the services of a local refuge group. In 1975, the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that there be at least one family refuge place per 10,000 of the population. Research by Women's Aid suggests that only a third of that number are available.

Women's Aid reported that, in Glasgow, in 1991–92, 221 women were admitted to its refuge and 1,047 turned away. That was only one area, so very many women and their children continue to be turned away. One in five refuge groups have no full-time staff and the crisis phonelines are sparse and inadequate—far fewer than in the United States, Canada and Australia.

Mrs. Gillan

As the hon. Gentleman is making such a thoughtful speech, I am sad that he is the only Back Bencher on the Labour Benches during this part of the debate. I wonder whether he is aware that rape in marriage is considered a crime in this country following the House of Lords decision in the early part of this decade. Is he aware that, in Germany, rape in marriage is not a criminal offence?

Mr. Cohen

I appreciate that point. Rape in marriage should be a criminal offence in every country, including Germany. Yes, I am aware of the decision; the Law Lords made it after I presented a ten-minute Bill. Nevertheless, there should be such a provision on the statute book. I remind the Government that they accept that it should be on the statute book, provided that there is parliamentary time. The Family Law Bill will give the opportunity for that to happen.

The United Nations "Global Platform for Action" talks about the need for Governments to organise, support and fund community-based educational training campaigns to raise awareness about violence against women as a violation of their human rights".

Mr. Rowe

The hon. Gentleman knows far more about the subject than I do and I am diffident about asking him, but surely we need more than refuges or educational programmes to enable people to understand that there is a lot of violence. Surely we need to break into the cycle of violence, because in marriage many violent men have no way of handling the pressures that are generated between husband and wife, and revert to primitive responses. I cannot help feeling that there must be more scope than is sometimes allowed for breaking into that cycle.

Mr. Cohen

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, with which I agree. People who are violent in marriage have often witnessed violence in their parents' marriage and perpetuate it. That cycle should be broken, and to help do so the Government should formulate an education programme to be adopted in schools and throughout society.

I mentioned what the UN "Global Platform for Action" says about Governments organising, supporting and funding a campaign promoting awareness of violence against women. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture is co-chairman of the Women's National Commission. Many fine organisations have contributed to the view expressed by the Women's National Commission in its response to the UN global platform. It says, in relation to that recommendation, that the key action is for the Government to Organise, support and fund a range of information, education and training campaigns and programmes to raise awareness about violence against women as an unacceptable violation of human rights; and about patterns of media presentation which promote stereotypes and may generate violence. It also speaks about the need to Support, promote and fund positive initiatives in education and training in non-violence, conflict resolution, assertiveness, self-help; and the stimulation of public debate on the causes, effects and elimination of violence against women. That is a good recommendation by the WNC, and I ask the Government to implement it and put their weight behind it.

The WNC talks about organising, supporting and funding those initiatives which have been lacking from the Government until now. I hope that the Government will now put them into action.

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Gentleman is generous to give way twice. Is he aware that, following the meeting in Béjing, I initiated an implementation plan for the platform for action, and that I wished to consult all non-governmental organisations, including the WNC? I wanted to hear their interpretation of the document and what they believed Government and other organisations should do in response to it.

It has been a successful consultation; indeed, the organisations asked for the consultation period to be extended. I look forward to studying the recommendations and advice of those organisations, which did much work before the conference and are making a contribution after it. It is a continuing process.

Mr. Cohen

I appreciate the Minister's comments, but we are getting close to the time when consultation must come to an end and action must start. The Government need to act promptly in response to the WNC's recommendations.

The UN global platform talks about providing well-funded shelters and relief support for girls and women subjected to violence; medical, psychological and other counselling services and free or low-cost legal aid, as well as appropriate assistance to find means of subsistence". The WNC says that that must be implemented and that the Government need to develop healing and counselling programmes to support girls, young women, refugees, disabled and others who are especially vulnerable to abuse in homes, institutions and workplaces and Require all courts to provide accommodation such that the victim(s) neither wait nor attend trial in full view of the aggressor, in particular in cases where children are involved. Obviously, the Government must take action. I return to the shortage of refuge places, which the Government are not tackling. When will they tackle it? I tabled early-day motion 323 after an especially horrific killing of a woman and her children by a violent husband, I believe in Bristol.

My motion called for a national network of battered women's refuges", which has been delayed too long. We need to make up the remaining two thirds of the places recommended by the Home Affairs Select Committee, and the Government must co-ordinate the effort and help to fund it. It is crucial that there is a clear, unambiguous Home Office commitment to a co-ordinated national strategy to respond to domestic violence and establish and support adequate numbers of refuges to cope.

I have a final point to make about domestic violence, which involves immigrant women. Under British immigration law, the one-year rule means that, for someone to be entitled to come and stay in this country on the basis of marriage, that person has to have been married for one year. If, within that year, the person is subjected to violence and leaves the relationship, he or she is effectively punished by being deported from the country, which is unfair. There is a strong case for the Government to abolish that one-year rule, so that women who are subjected to violence by their partner are not thrown out of the country.

It is interesting that, when the Minister intervened in my speech for the second time, she mentioned consulting, as my final comments involve a briefing from the Fawcett Society, which states: A year and a half after Vienna"— which was when the Government signed up to the United Nations platform for action— the Government is still `consulting'. The Cabinet has offered no focus or vision … The token Ministerial Committees on Women's Issues, and on Domestic Violence are invisible, inaudible and unaccountable. Public consultation has been too little and too late and using the too narrow channel of the Women's National Commission. This is in sharp contrast to the actions of advanced modern nations such as Canada and Australia who have advertised the Platform on public TV. They are not my comments but those of the Fawcett Society, which has a place on the Women's National Commission.

There are important issues involving equal opportunities for women on which the Government need to take urgent action—none more so than the violence that too many women in this country face in their everyday lives. The Government should take on board those comments and act.

8.11 pm
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

Despite the fact that the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) said that we have many subjects to discuss this evening, I believe that there is a danger of the debate becoming repetitive. I hope to be brief, but I shall start by repeating the comments of two of my hon. Friends—my hon. Friends the Members for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)—who said that the debate was patronising. I agree, and I hope that in future we shall not have such a debate.

Much to my surprise, I agreed with the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), who, unfortunately, is no longer present and did not have the courtesy to stay to hear the concluding comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). If we are to have such a debate—I am not entirely certain that we need one—it should be on a balanced equal opportunities policy.

I have had 20 to 30 years of active involvement in the women's movement, beginning with Mary Stott's women's page in The Guardian. I was also involved in lobbying for the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and in persuading Inland Revenue officials of the need to have independent taxation for married women. I also played a small part in persuading the present Lord Lawson of Blaby at the party conference of the need for that policy.

Our legislative platform covers the requirements of equality for women. Both before that legislative platform and subsequently, we introduced the support systems that allow women to achieve their ambitions. The long list mentioned in my hon. Friend the Minister's excellent speech showed the variety of support systems that are put in place, not just by the state but by the voluntary and business sectors.

Based on my years of experience in the women's movement, I believe that we now need seriously to consider an infinitely more threatening aspect of the subject which has strong parallels with the problems that women used to face in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That threatening aspect involves the lack of opportunity, lack of vision, demotivation and lack of confidence among the dispossessed young white male population, particularly in schools.

In the late 1960s, we women were able to tackle our problems and create our own solutions; it was a long, hard fight and the House contains many veterans of the battle. There are many veterans outside the House—as many hon. Members have said, they range from the Women's Institute in the 1930s to the Fawcett Society. Many such organisations have come and gone because their job has been completed.

Now, we must ensure that young boys in school tackle the problems and start creating solutions. If they do not do that, we, as a society, will be left with the insoluble problem that was so graphically described by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent. Like him, I have no prescriptions on how we can solve the problem. I was pleased that the chief inspector of schools publicly identified the problems that some of us have been noticing for some time. If we are to have such a debate next year, I would prefer it to be on that subject. We must focus firmly on the problems of those young men.

I suspect that those young men are still brought up in an atmosphere in which they believe that the only real jobs are physical, heavy jobs. Training is often needed for such jobs in the steel and shipbuilding industries and in coal mining. It was often taken for granted that, when boys left school, they would go into such jobs. Now, if they are lucky, they might get a job labouring for a few months, but they are then chucked back on to the unemployment scrap heap precisely because they have no vision of where they want to go and no idea of how to get there.

Schools can help to a certain extent. We are also finding that parents opt out; they often have no vision of what the boys can do. Outside agencies—all the organs of the state—which the boys do not regard as enemies, must intervene. Those who cannot help include social workers, teachers, the police and those involved in social security and any other social services. They are often regarded as the enemy—an authority to be decried, avoided and probably mocked. We must tackle that problem and help those boys to develop the support structures they need, so that society does not have to deal with generations of dispossessed young, rogue males.

I hope that I have reinforced the message of some of my hon. Friends that it would be a pleasure if next year we did not have to debate equal opportunities for women. I look forward to hearing the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary.

8.17 pm
Sir Anthony Grant (South-West Cambridgeshire)

I tiptoe gingerly into this debate, but I am fortified by following my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait), who made a wise and sensible speech—as have nearly all the charming lady Members who have spoken. I was inspired to participate by the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and, to some extent, by the speech by the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), whom I always seem to follow in these debates. I want to talk about violence, particularly the serious problem of juvenile crime. No debate on equal opportunities can take place without some consideration of the children.

One of my constituents is the wife of a don and was a founder member of an organisation called WATCH—What About The Children? It has done a great deal of work and put a lot of thought into the subject. Although my constituent, Mrs. Switzer, is no longer on the executive committee of WATCH, she keeps me in touch with the remarkable amount of research that is being conducted in that sphere.

There is no doubt about it: we must all be desperately concerned about the sad and inexorable rise in juvenile crime—some of it among the very young. It was highlighted particularly by that ghastly Bulger case a couple of years ago. There is overwhelming evidence that the seedbed of juvenile crime is broken homes and an unhappy family relationship, often involving violence, as the hon. Member for Leyton said.

It is clear that the origins of crime are in early childhood experience. We have to apply our minds to that because the prevention of juvenile crime, disorder and misbehaviour is far more important—and cheaper—than its cure. Instead of spending vast sums on prisons, reforms schools, social workers, probation and goodness knows what, it is better to tackle the problem at the root. All the research that I have been given shows that the problem starts much earlier than one would think—in childhood.

I draw the attention of the House to the remarkable work by various learned professors, including David Smith and Michael Rutter. Let me quote a few items from the work of Dr. Elliott Barker, the president of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He writes: The community—that is, all of us—suffers the ill effects of absentee parenting … The closer the mother's supervision of the child, the more intimate the child's communication with the father, and the greater the affection between child and parents, the less the delinquency. I am wholly and absolutely in favour of equal opportunities. Women often do a much better job than men, except in rugby, but in virtually everything else they do an extremely good job. I am therefore entirely in favour of equal opportunity, but women are unique in that they provide the basis, the home and right upbringing for tiny children.

Mr. Merchant

I hesitate to intrude on my hon. Friend, but he mentioned rugby and I would like to draw his attention to the fact that, in 1995, Beverly Davis established that she could stand for election to the national executive committee of the Rugby Football Union. That is proudly reported in the document from the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Sir Anthony Grant

In that case, I bow entirely to my hon. Friend, although I hope that I do not live to see the day when the English ladies' 15 beats the English or Scottish men's 15.

Dr. Elliott Barker continued: We made an extraordinary sobering discovery. An unattached child, even at the age of three and four, cannot easily attach himself, even when he is provided with the most favourable conditions for the formation of a human bonds. The most expert clinical workers and foster parents can testify that to win such a child, to make him care, to become important to him, to be needed by him, and finally to be loved by him is the work of months and years. Yet all of this, including the achievement of a binding love for a partner, normally takes place at home, without psychiatric consultation, in ordinary homes, with ordinary babies during the first year of life. Those are the views of an eminent psychiatrist who has devoted his life to studying that problem.

My other quotation is from my constituency of Cambridge, and comes from a most distinguished person—Professor David Farrington, who is professor of psychological criminology at Cambridge and whose work is funded by the Home Office. He concludes his paper, "The Influence of the Family on Delinquent Development, 1994" as follows: It would be in everyone's interests for some far-sighted politician or civil servant to lay the foundations now in the hope of achieving a decrease in this wide range of associated pathological problems in the next century. Unfortunately, on recent experience, it may need another 100 cases at least as horrific as James Bulger before anything will be done. Something can be done. The new ministerial body on juvenile crime, which met in January, is carrying out some useful work. I hope that it will take on board the findings of recent research that problems of crime, disorder and unhappiness start far earlier than anyone had imagined. It is no good getting children into school and assuming that teachers can do the job. They cannot. It has to happen at home, primarily with the mother. She may be able to manage a job and do other work, but caring for children should come first.

I have never quite understood why, in recent years, caring for children has become rather infra dig and people look down their noses at some poor person who looks after children and say, "She is just a childminder, a nanny or a woman at home." They feel that it is much grander and more superior to work in an office or a factory.

We need a change of culture. We should point out that caring for children is a most exacting, professional and expert job. Therefore, as my constituent suggested, we should teach parenthood in schools. It is just as important as fiddling around with computers. It is absolutely crucial. With those few thoughts, I shall sit down. I am sure that my hon. Friends the charming Ministers on the Front Bench will take them all on board and convey them to the rest of the Government.

8.25 pm
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

I am always genuinely surprised when I encounter prejudice against women, as I find it hard to understand. Having considered the matter in more detail, I have reached the conclusion that the issue of equality of opportunity for women depends to a large extent on the attitude of individuals. Although there should be a correct legal framework, the problems will be solved only when some people change their attitudes. That can be achieved in two ways—first, by reasonable and practical argument rather than ideology as that will convince people far more easily, and secondly, by example.

Many hon. Members have rightly referred to the gender imbalance in House. I would be delighted to see that righted. In my view, the Chamber would change for the better as a result. However, I part company from the hon. Member for Dulwich (Ms Jowell), who implied that about 50 per cent. of hon. Members should be women in order properly to represent women in the country. That is a slur on hon. Members who are in the Chamber today.

I do not believe that, because I am a man, I am any less able to represent my female constituents, any more than hon. Ladies are at a disadvantage in representing male constituents. Although the House would be more reflective of society in general if there were a better balance between the sexes, the hon. Lady's arguments were not valid in respect of the task of each Member in representing his or her constituents.

I also disagreed with the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) who retreated into psycho-babble about feminine issues. She almost invalidated her argument when she said that there were no such things as female issues, but that there was a female perspective. She went on to say that it did not necessarily require a woman to understand the female perspective, and at that point I felt that she had lost sight of her argument.

The discussion of quotas can be dangerous, and no one has suggested that there should be a quota of women in the Chamber. That would be very weak argument. That argument is advanced as a cure for the problem in other parts of society. However, I believe that it would be demeaning to women and would not solve the underlying problems: we must achieve a natural balance in such things.

Why is not the percentage of women in the population reflected in the number of female Members of Parliament? It is not because of any legal restrictions—they have not existed for years—or because of a reluctance on the part of voters to elect women. Except in a few isolated cases, all the psephological evidence is that the electorate does not discriminate between the sexes. The problem clearly lies with selection committees, and it affects all parties. It is not particularly significant that the Labour party is now selecting more female candidates, as that is only a recent decision.

It is true that some selection committees are prejudiced. The Labour party must be introducing a quota system in order to overcome a perceived prejudice—I cannot think of any other logical reason for that practice. However, the central problem—I speak from experience in the Conservative party—is a lack of potential female candidates. That has nothing to do with the present popularity of the Conservative party: the trend has been apparent for many years. We must address that essential problem—how do we encourage more women to come forward and play a role in politics?

The same problem exists in other walks of life. One solution to that problem is to lead by example. Female trendsetters must step forward and show what can be done. They must prove that the perceived barriers can be broken down or that, in some cases, they do not exist at all. We need role models whom other women can follow.

I am not prejudiced against women participating in politics or fulfilling any other role, perhaps because I grew up during a time when women were moving into all areas of society. I studied law at university, when significant numbers of women were entering higher education. At that time, about one third of law students were women—shortly after, the figure increased to 50 per cent. and more. As a young student, I witnessed some of the prejudice that existed among older male staff members. I measured that prejudice against my experience of seeing women students performing as well as their male colleagues—there was no significant difference in ability—which proved to be a shining example of how baseless that prejudice was.

Later, I became a journalist, at a time when women were beginning to enter that profession. There were few women on my training course, but two or three years later 50 per cent. of new trainees were female. I again saw prejudice among older established journalists and staff members which was clearly baseless. Perhaps if I had not seen young female journalists performing to a very high standard, I might have shared that prejudice, but clearly it had no basis in reality.

We had a female Prime Minister when I first entered the House in 1983. She was clearly able to perform that arduous task far better than most of the potential male candidates for the role. When I returned to the House in 1992, Madam Speaker demonstrated that the Speaker's job could be performed effectively by a woman. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will not mind my saying that I would not mind—perhaps I would not even notice—if you were a woman, as I am now used to the idea of men and women occupying the Chair. However, there was a time when many people would have been aghast at that prospect and would have said that a woman could not possibly do the job. That is a vital reason why it is important to set an example: we can break down prejudice by showing what can be done.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Royal Air Force personnel and training command. I am trying to learn a little about the services, as I am not particularly knowledgeable in that area. I was delighted to hear that there are two fast jet women pilots. It was interesting to hear the RAF top brass—whom one might expect to adopt a very traditional or prejudiced attitude towards women—full of pride and praise for the women who are increasingly playing an important role in all areas of the armed services. They are setting an example that I am sure many women will follow in future.

A second solution to the problem of prejudice is reasonable and practical argument. One can advance two principal arguments in that regard. The first is a modern argument concerning meritocracy. We can have a proper, functioning meritocracy only if everyone in society has an equal opportunity to strive for excellence. I support the idea of a meritocracy and that sort of society requires equality of opportunity if it is to function properly.

The second, more traditional argument that can blend with the first is the old-fashioned view—which I hope is still widely held—that common courtesy requires people to be thoughtful and polite to others, whoever they are and whatever their gender and personal characteristics. That should not be a superficial courtesy: we should respect the intrinsic value of human beings and treat all people equally. Blended together, I think that those two approaches are powerful arguments against all forms of prejudice.

One can also view the issue in a moral and pragmatic way. The individual develops best if he or she is allowed to fulfil his or her potential; therefore, society should encourage people to do that. There should be no artificial barriers to prevent it. In conjunction with that is the pragmatic argument that the whole of society benefits if all available talent is harnessed and given a full and a free rein. All people—whatever their origins or gender—should have the opportunity to develop their full potential, because they, and the whole of society, will benefit as a result.

I have concentrated on the argument for setting an example and the reasons why we must convince people that attitudes that foster prejudice are dangerous and undermine a successful society. However, I must refer also to the Government's important role in leading by example and by establishing and maintaining a framework in which we can all operate effectively. I emphasise the importance of organisations such as the Equal Opportunities Commission, which I believe does some very good work. I do not agree with everything it says or does, but I believe that it fulfils an important function as a body that exists to encourage equality of opportunity. Equally important are statutory mechanisms such as the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which enjoyed all-party support.

Quotas and negative discrimination ultimately undermine equality, because they demean women, are patronising and give people who resist equality the opportunity to argue, "Those women have advanced only because they were given a step up." Quotas are also a form of discrimination, so they contradict the purpose of equality of opportunity, which should be based on eliminating discrimination.

The danger that emerges when the topic is addressed, particularly if too enthusiastically by some, is the pressure that some women feel to perform in the professions and other careers while meeting the demands of rearing children. If women choose and want to be full-time mothers or homemakers, as many do, they should not be pressured to give up those roles. In giving women opportunities, we ought to be giving them choice—rather than direct them in one particular direction. I have known women who were under intolerable pressure because it happened to be trendy to establish themselves in a full-time, lasting career when they were not happy in that sort of life. If women do choose it, that is fine—I am all in favour of that choice being available and encouraged.

The emphasis in equality should be on the word "opportunity", which implies choice. Equality should not be about replacing an old-fashioned stereotype with a brave new stereotype. That would be almost as dangerous, if not more dangerous.

8.42 pm
Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

This is the first time that I have spoken from the Dispatch Box, and it is a handy place to put one's notes. I am conscious that I am addressing a Chamber in which few women have stood to speak, in a Parliament in which women are woefully under-represented. That means that my presence in this Chamber, and that of other women Members of Parliament in all parts of the House, is a special privilege—but it also reflects the challenge facing us and the difficulties still to be overcome in increasing the representation of women in Parliament. I shall return to that subject.

I am particularly pleased that my first opportunity to speak from the Dispatch Box is in a debate on equal opportunities during International Women's Week, which gives the House and other Parliaments throughout the world a formal opportunity to examine women's progress towards equality, celebrate women's achievements and set the agenda for our objectives. When the point is reached when every piece of legislation pays particular attention to the structural problems that confront women, quicker progress will be made with achieving equality.

We believe that a Cabinet Minister for women is crucial to that achievement. Responsibility for women's issues should not be tagged on to a long list of duties for an Under-Secretary of State—which reinforces the view that equality is a marginal issue instead of fundamentally central to our social structure.

International Women's Day stems from a demonstration on 8 March 1857 by women in the United States of America against their low wages and appalling working conditions. European women first celebrated International Women's Day in 1911, as an opportunity to demand the right to vote and hold public office. We have achieved those aims, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Ms Jowell) said, poor wages, poor working conditions and poverty are still part of women's lives in 1996.

In contrast to the views of Conservative Members, who feel that this debate is a wasted opportunity, I welcome it. I hope that such debates will continue, because we discovered that every past debate produced an announcement of new initiatives by the Minister. If there is no debate, there will be no more announcements.

The Minister mentioned two positive approach programmes—Opportunity 2000 and Fair Play for Women. We have persuaded the Government to accept the word "positive" in relation to women. They also use the word "action" in relation to programmes—but we cannot get the Government to use the two words together. Opportunity 2000's positive approach to an action programme goes too far for the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, because in Defence questions, the hon. Gentleman referred to it as "politically correct nonsense". That shows the difficulties that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment faces in dealing with her colleagues. I do not envy her task of raising the consciousness of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces.

I welcomed Opportunity 2000 and helped in my constituency when it was launched in 1991. In organisations that are Opportunity 2000 members, 8 per cent. of directors and senior managers are women, compared with 3 per cent. in non-member companies, which demonstrates the value of the positive action that is much decried by the Government when faced with European Union legislation. In last year's debate, the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster welcomed the fact that 71 per cent. of Opportunity 2000 employers offered maternity arrangements above the statutory minimum and 67 per cent. offered maternity leave. He seemed to feel that that was a good thing. It is curious that the Government will not give statutory paternity rights. Opportunity 2000 members do not view such a social contract as detrimental to their businesses or employees.

I welcome also the Fair Play for Women initiative, launched in 1994. Is the Minister aware that it is difficult to obtain a copy of the "Fair Play for Women Newsletter"? I telephoned several businesses and organisations in my constituency, but they were unable to supply one—a pity, as it is rather good. I looked for a reference to funding and found these words: The process of working bottom up and developing activities through consultation has ensured that funds have been identified and secured en route. I believe that that means that there is no funding—a shame, because such a project deserves underpinning in the form of stable resources. Perhaps we have discovered the difference between a positive approach and positive action—the former requires no money.

Women's representation at leadership level is crucial. It is a way of breaking institutionalised attitudes and structural problems that are barriers to achievement. If poor representation continues at that level, attitudes that contribute to the situation will continue. If it is believed that women lack leadership skills, are not tough enough and are not serious about careers, and their management style is not as acceptable as that of men, they will not be appointed. But if women are not appointed, the attitude that they are unsuitable will continue to be reinforced. The organisational difficulties and inflexible working arrangements will continue to discourage women, to the detriment not only of women, but of men and the organisations themselves.

The only way to create change is to challenge attitudes strongly and find mechanisms to appoint more women. Before Conservative Members start getting hot under their collars, I do not mean appointing women for the sake of it: I mean appointing women on merit. The problem is that prevailing attitudes mean that the merit of women is not as easily seen as the merit of men.

The then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in his speech last year, referred to the programme of action for women in the civil service. Notice the absence of the word "positive". In attempts to increase the proportion of women at a senior level, part-time working and the possibility of part-time working have obviously had an important effect, but changing attitudes have also been important. It is not possible that, 10 years ago, women had sufficient merit to fill only 29 per cent. of senior positions, but now have sufficient merit to fill 40 per cent., 10 years later. Attitudes to women have clearly changed, their merits are more easily seen and recognised, and women have become more visible.

Lack of recognition of women's merits is built very deeply into our structures and attitudes to women's contributions at home and at work. Women are the primary carers. We take responsibility for bringing up children as well as for caring for dependent relatives. Some 48 per cent. of women with children under four are at home. They are unfortunately referred to in a Department for Education and Employment report as "economically inactive". That is a curious description, because I remember my years as a parent as one of the most physically arduous times of my life.

In their role as parents, women's—and, indeed, men's—contributions to the health of future generations, and to the general level of welfare and community care, are unquantifiable. Nothing is as fundamentally important as loving care for children, but support for the family is important for women. Women are very committed to their families, often to their cost. One of the saddest aspects of domestic violence is that women often stay in totally unacceptable situations, in which they are beaten and abused, for the sake of their children. Women's commitment to their family is tremendous.

Some 35 per cent. of women gave as their reason for working part time—in a report issued by the Department for Education and Employment—the fact that they wanted to spend more time with their family, and 35 per cent. cited domestic commitments such as household tasks. Women still take major responsibility for making the evening meal and doing the household cleaning, washing and ironing. We should remember that part-time work outside the home is on top of a full-time job inside the home.

An increasing proportion of women are working outside the home in part-time occupations, and 89 per cent. of those women work in services, 50 per cent. in three main groups—clerical and secretarial; sales; and personal services, including catering, nursing and hairdressing. Ethnic minority women are heavily concentrated in cleaning, hotel and catering work. Jobs that women do are undervalued and poorly paid, because they are women's jobs and seen as women's jobs. That reflects the attitude towards women in our society. It contributes to a depressing cycle of disadvantage and discrimination. Those attitudes do not help anybody and they do not help women, their families or men.

Intolerable stress, financial and physical, on families leads to breakdown. Families need support to remain healthy and to survive, and I include in that many different kinds of family organisations. Poor working conditions and wages outside the home are a major cause of stress for both men and women, but especially for women in poorly paid work.

Affordable child care is an important support for families, and quality child care is crucial. For the women who need child care, other women provide it. For the women who need child care, it needs to be affordable. For the women who provide it, they are also entitled to decent levels of income, to allow them to take advantage of training courses, to improve the quality of child care. Unless we have a proper child care strategy, the women who look after children will be as disadvantaged as the women who need child minders.

Time after time, the real difficulties that women face are overlooked in legislation. That brings me back to the subject of Parliament. We in Parliament cannot make credible statements about the importance that we attach to progress towards equality for women while the representation of women here is so low. Parliament is supposed to be representative of people in their political affiliations, but also in their occupations and experiences. Sadly, this Parliament is not. A Parliament that is under-representative is a diminished Parliament, which ultimately will be out of touch.

Currently, there are 63 women Members of Parliament and 38 of them are Labour. We expect, after the next election, that our representation will almost treble. We have done our bit. Whatever comments the Government care to make about that process, as the other major political party, they have not done their bit. At the moment, the Conservatives have 17 women Members of Parliament, but it would seem that only a few women candidates have been chosen in safe seats. I do not understand their problem. It must be difficult to find a safe seat, but as they claim to select on merit, the only conclusion that women out there can draw is that Conservative women have no merit. If they were selected on merit, surely there would be more women Conservative Members of Parliament. If the Conservatives spent less time criticising us and more time on action to increase their female membership of the House, we might see some progress towards proper representation.

The Conservatives should be in no doubt about the message that women will take from the Conservative party, now and after the next election. There will be wall-to-wall men on the Opposition Benches—that is where the Conservatives will have to sit—and on the Government Benches, where we shall be sitting, there will be 80 or 90 Labour women Members of Parliament. That will change the face of Parliament dramatically, and it will be because we have done it. We shall keep our word in government, with a Minister for women who will, through the legislative process of this House and positive action, start to deal with the structural changes that need to be effected to make the lives of women better, today and in the future.

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

It is a great pleasure to welcome the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) to the Dispatch Box and to congratulate her on her first performance there. I could not agree with all she said, but she presented it articulately. As a gesture of good will, I can, however, offer to put her on the mailing list for the "Fair Play" newsletter, which is compiled and funded by the Government. We shall be delighted to put all the hon. Lady's friends on the list as well.

I am pleased to be able to take part in another debate to mark International Women's Day. The debate has been wide-ranging, with numerous speakers testifying to the importance of the subject. It was extremely encouraging to note the gravitas that the Labour party attaches to the debate, in the form of the deputy leader of the Labour party, who attended the opening speeches. One thing that women are good at is reading body language. I watched the right hon. Gentleman carefully, and although he said nothing, except from a sedentary position, his body language said it all.

As Government co-chairman of the Women's National Commission, I have been impressed by the diversity of the women who make up the commission, by the high quality of their work and by the strength of their commitment to our goal of improving the status of women in this country. When the WNC makes recommendations to the Government, it does so with the support of all its member organisations, which, although they all represent women, are fairly diverse.

People are often surprised that women from such a wide variety of backgrounds can reach agreement on what often appear to be controversial issues, but when there are problems and disputes, it is quite common to find that a group of women sitting down to try to sort them out can resolve them much more quickly. I see hon. Members nodding in agreement with that.

In last Sunday's newspapers, journalists devoted several column inches to speculating about what would happen if women ran the country. I have had some minor experience of that. When I was younger, I used to take part in amateur dramatics, and we put on a play called "No Time for Fig Leaves". I do not suppose that it is a play in which the hon. Member for Stockport has ever been invited to take part. Our group found it quite amusing; the whole country was run by women, but it all ended in tears, so perhaps it was not a good example to follow.

As Government co-chairman of the WNC, my task is to convey the commission's views to Government, which I do. I shall continue to urge my colleagues in Government to give the commission the attention that it deserves: it is a worthwhile body.

On this international occasion, I must mention the UN's fourth world conference on women, where I was one of the three Ministers heading the UK delegation. I feel that the hon. Member for Dulwich (Ms Jowell) did a grave disservice earlier today to my right hon. Friend Baroness Chalker. Her reputation around the world has not, to my knowledge, been questioned before. She works very hard, and she is not a person to make commitments that she does not intend to honour. It was rather disgraceful of the hon. Lady to cast such aspersions, when it is clear that the platform for action is being implemented.

The hon. Member for Dulwich should know from her association with the Women's National Commission of the plan that was set out even before the Peking conference. When we returned to the United Kingdom, we already had in place a way of collating feedback about the conference from voluntary organisations, the Equal Opportunities Commission and others, so that my right hon. Friend was provided with a structure plan on which to base proposals as to how the Government would implement the platform for action.

We have kept to the schedule. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment is consulting the relevant bodies to discuss with them how to put it into practice. Baroness Chalker's commitment has therefore been honoured, and will continue to be honoured.

Ms Jowell

What I said was that Baroness Chalker's commitment would be judged by her actions, not by what she said in Beijing. Since the delegation returned, the Government have taken a number of decisions and have introduced a number of policies that are highly damaging to women. They are at complete variance with the commitments to which they signed up in Peking.

Mrs. Browning

I rebut that assertion. The hon. Lady clearly expressed the view that my right hon. Friend says one thing when abroad and does quite another at home. She misrepresents my right hon. Friend. Time will tell. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment will be implementing the platform for action, and will work closely with women's organisations to see how it can be put into practice.

Ms Jowell

We shall see.

Mrs. Browning

The hon. Lady speaks as though nothing is happening. I do not know whether she has read the final document from Peking, but she will almost certainly know the timetable for action, and the fact that consultation is taking place. I hope that the hon. Lady will be reassured that my right hon. and noble Friend is honouring that commitment to the letter.

The Beijing conference has been mentioned by various hon. Members. I was inspired by the energy, determination and tenacity of the UK women's non-governmental organisations, who worked hard not only in Beijing but in Huairou, where many of them put in a great deal of preparation to very good effect.

Hon. Members have questioned why the conference was held in China. It was a UN conference, and it was the turn of the Asian countries to determine the venue. They decided unanimously that it should be held in China. It would have been quite wrong for the United Kingdom not to be represented.

In fact, when we got there, it was very evident that the conference was an excellent opportunity to air in public issues that I suspect have not been aired in public in Beijing ever before—specifically, the girl child issue. The Chinese were certainly not able to suppress the views of 36,000 women. I hope that, in a small way, holding the conference at that venue contributed towards voicing the concerns of many of us about human rights and the girl child in China.

I have expressed before, and I am happy to put on record in the House, my absolute disgust with the way in which the conference was reported in the UK, other European countries and America. Those of us who attended the conference will know that the media, particularly the television companies, focused on what I can describe only as fringe activities, and totally missed the whole point of the constructive work done in Beijing and Huairou. I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to the conference, where the NGOs did some extremely good work.

The Women's National Commission played a major role in providing support and information to NGOs in Beijing. It has planned a major conference called "Beyond Beijing", which will take place in the summer, and it has set up a working group on the theme "Growing up Female in the UK", which takes forward one of the key themes of the "Global Platform for Action" agreed in Beijing.

The world conference has reinforced the spirit of partnership between the Government and other organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors with an interest in women and equal opportunities. Partnership is a vital tool in the advancement of women and equality between the sexes. For example, in developing the highly successful out-of-school child care initiative, the Government have worked closely with the Kids Club Network and other child care organisations. I know from work that is being done in my constituency and in Devon how much that is valued.

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, the Government are providing £60 million. I was very disappointed by how dismissive the hon. Member for Dulwich was of that funding. Naturally, we would be very interested to know what higher bid the Labour party is proposing, but, as usual, wherever it is asked to cost something that it has criticised, answer comes there none. Indeed, the Labour party tries to avoid putting figures to commitments or criticisms of funding whenever it can.

Ms Corston


Mrs. Browning

The hon. Lady says, "Absolutely." I do not think that she should worry that we do not understand. We understand only too well why, in this debate for example, as in others, the Labour party will not put a price on the minimum wage. We know why. Figures have been bandied about by the Labour party and the Trades Union Congress.

The Liberal Democrats should also be concerned, because they intend to rob us of jobs with that awful policy as well. The moment that the Labour party names a figure—whether it is £4.50, £5 or £5.10 an hour—every employer in the country, regardless of whether it is a large company, but especially if it is a small company, will be able to do their sums accurately and say, "What does that mean for the people I employ and the potential to employ people in future?"

The reason why the Labour party has backed off from even saying what the minimum wage would be in today's marketplace is that, the moment it does, its cover is blown. Every company throughout the country would be able to say specifically what that would mean in terms of job losses. We all know that many women would be involved in those job losses, the very people whom Labour Members are purporting to represent.

Ms Corston

The Minister will probably know that, some years ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), when on the Opposition. Front Bench, asked the then Chancellor of the Exchequer about the tax rates that the Government proposed to introduce in the Budget, which was weeks away.

My right hon. Friend was told by the then Chancellor that that was a stupid question. He said, in effect, "How can I possibly know what tax rates will be proposed in a few weeks time?" If that holds true, why do Ministers make themselves so ridiculous by prating on about what we, the Opposition, would do? We are here to oppose the Government and to challenge their policies. Fancy asking what an Opposition will be doing when in government 14 months hence.

Mrs. Browning

Fancy asking the Opposition what they would do. It was only a short while ago that figures were bandied about. I can remember clearly the TUC coming up with a figure—I think that it was £5.10. The moment that the TUC started to pop its head up above the parapet

Ms Eagle


Mrs. Browning

If I am wrong, the hon. Lady must know the right figure. I shall gladly give way to her if she says that I have quoted the wrong figure. She must know the right figure. I shall give way if she will give me the right figure.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Let me do that on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle). We do not give the Government any figures, because they have fiddled every figure we have produced. In the lead-up to the general election, the Government fiddled all the figures. That was done by the Department that I was shadowing before the election. Figures were distorted beyond all recognition. The figure that the Minister has attributed to the TUC is incorrect. It was £4.15, not £5.10.

Mrs. Browning

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for at least exposing a figure. Whatever the figure is, Joe Bloggs in my constituency, perhaps employing 10 or 12 people—

Ms Eagle

Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Browning

No. I will not give way, because I am responding to an intervention.

As I was saying, Joe Bloggs in my constituency may be employing 10 or 12 people. If we were to say what the minimum wage would be—we are not that far away from a general election—he would be able to tell me, if he had to apply that wage to his staff payroll, how many people he would have to sack and how many people he would not employ the following year whom he had planned to employ. He might, of course, say, "That is all right. We can afford to pay that."

Labour Members and the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock), a Liberal Democrat Member—I am a west country Member, representing part of an area where wages are lower than average within the United Kingdom—must understand that a minimum wage would be the kiss of death. I have heard everything that Opposition Members have said about women's wages. We want, of course, to see that people are paid a fair wage, but it is not the Government's role to introduce a minimum wage. Such a requirement would kill jobs, and the potential for more jobs, at a time when unemployment is consistently declining and is comparing favourably with unemployment levels elsewhere.

At present, seven European countries have a minimum wage requirement. Two examples are France and Spain. They have shown us what a minimum wage does for jobs.

There are job losses for both women and men. If we are not to talk about figures in the United Kingdom, let us bear in mind what has happened in the countries where there is a minimum wage. That will enable us to recognise the reality of the policy. We see soaring unemployment, especially in low-wage sectors. That has an effect on young people, who do not command high salaries. They are at the bottom level. Youth unemployment, especially in Spain and France, which have the disgraceful policy of a minimum wage, is soaring.

Mrs. Lait

The minimum wage in France is £200 a week. Is my hon. Friend aware that the French Government are now insisting that British travel firms that employ British chalet girls and tour guides and pay on average £120 a week should pay the French statutory minimum wage? Does she agree that chalet girls and tour guides will lose their jobs, and that British travel companies will go bust?

Mrs. Browning

My hon. Friend has summed the matter up.

Labour talked about larger companies that voluntarily enter into employment packages and agreements with their employees on matters such as paternity rights. The hon. Member for Stockport seemed to be confused about why we should think that that was all right, but not want to introduce it on a statutory basis. It is simple: if companies feel that they can voluntarily put together an employment package covering matters such as paternity rights without jeopardising jobs, of course we support it.

To introduce such a policy on a statutory basis, so that it would hit companies of all sizes in all regions, would not only kill jobs, but would especially penalise women's jobs. It would cause artificial discrimination, which would especially affect women of child-bearing age.

Ms Eagle

The hon. Lady's argument would render wrong the Equal Pay Act 1970. The arguments used against the Act while it was being put on the statute book by Barbara Castle were precisely those that the Minister uses against the minimum wage: that, if women had the right to equal pay, it would destroy their jobs, because their wages would have to rise. Exactly the opposite has happened. More women are in the labour force than ever before. Is there not an inconsistency?

Mrs. Browning

No. There are more jobs, but the hon. Lady is wrong to make that comparison. If men apply for the same jobs as women, we want equal pay, but we do not want jobs to be destroyed by a statutory minimum wage that would hit companies of all sizes. One of our great strengths, and the reason why we have declining unemployment, is that we do not have those non-wage labour costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) gave the example of chalet maids in France.

Other European countries that are in competition with Britain would like us to embrace such a package, because they realise that, having signed up to it, they are uncompetitive with us. They are trying to persuade us to make our companies uncompetitive. The Labour and Liberal parties think that it is a jolly good idea. I do not, and nor do the Government. That is my last word on the minimum wage.

Both at home and abroad, much has been achieved, but nobody is resting on their laurels. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment will talk not only to non-governmental organisations but to Government Departments and Ministers in every Department, to make sure that equality for women is part of the psyche of every Government Minister and Department.

In the "Global Platform for Action", that is called mainstreaming, and its implementation is regarded as desirable. We agree, and we feel that it is far better to mainstream through Government Departments, raise awareness and put it into action, than to have women regarded as a tiny body of people for whom special concessions have to be made, who stand out in the House as a poor Cinderella group.

Much has been said about women in the House; we want more of them in the House. The Labour party has argued that it has got it right by breaking its own rules to get more women on their list. The hon. Member for Christchurch said that proportional representation would help get women in. There are many reasons why women do not come into the House; there is no one simple solution. Many of the views put forward by hon. Members on both sides of the House are relevant.

We have had a good debate, and I would like to mention some speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock), as she usually does in these debates, made a substantial contribution, which represented business women in particular. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) raised, in her inimitable way, several issues. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is she?"] I am not sure where she is. She said that nothing would change until men had babies.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

It will be a long wait.

Mrs. Browning

Yes, I suspect that we will have a very long wait for that. We cannot afford to wait that long, although that would be one of the most equal opportunities that men could have in life. I am sorry that we cannot bring it forward more quickly.

In a somewhat wider area of discussion, some hon. Members not only took the debate along the road of women's equality, but discussed the social effects of women's responsibilities, especially in the home and in child raising. There were thoughtful contributions by my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant), and, in perhaps the one of the most telling equal opportunity contributions of the evening, by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant), who flagged up something that is at the heart of our discussion.

My hon. Friend spoke about women who, for whatever reason, are the subject of prejudice. If, as human beings or, perhaps more particularly, as parents responsible for bringing up children, we can instil into children a sense of respect for other people, regardless of gender, race or anything else that may be the subject of prejudice in daily life—my hon. Friend explained that well, as part of his own philosophy and approach to life—the attitude that he spoke about will be advanced, and we shall not have some of the problems that we have had to discuss tonight, involving prejudice against women not only in Parliament but elsewhere.

This has been a vigorous debate, and I am delighted that we have been able to hold it on the eve of what will be an important day tomorrow.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.