HC Deb 15 December 1997 vol 303 cc9-10
8. Caroline Flint

What plans she has for considering women's issues during the United Kingdom presidency of the European Union. [19064]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Ms Joan Ruddock)

The theme of the United Kingdom presidency of the European Union is employability. The employability of women will be central to that theme. We, the Ministers for women, know that women want to work, but a major barrier to their aspirations is the lack of affordable child care. That is why the Government are developing the national child care strategy and have accepted, for the first time, that child care is an economic issue.

Caroline Flint

Is the Minister aware that the record of child care in Britain is not the envy of the rest of our partners in Europe? May I give her some figures? I should emphasise that it is the track record of the previous Government that has led us to this dismal time today. Some 95 per cent. of French pre-school children aged three and over—compared to only one third of British children— have access to publicly funded child care, as do 95 per cent. of Belgian children and some 70 per cent. of German and Spanish children. Will my hon. Friend ensure that, during our presidency of the European Union, we learn from our European partners so that women in Britain can benefit from the opportunity to go to work and their family life can be strengthened by access to quality child care?

Ms Ruddock

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I can tell her that the Government have already announced a £300 million investment in child care provision over the next five years, that a conference will take place in January bringing together key players to discuss the strategy and that that strategy will be published during the first part of 1998.

Moreover, I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that, because we shall have made such progress, we shall indeed be sharing best practice with our colleagues in Europe. In the first week of May, a meeting of Ministers for women from European Union member states will take place in Belfast. The topic will be women and employability, and the importance of child care.

Mrs. Gillan

May I—unlike the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)—warmly welcome the Minister on the occasion of her first appearance at the Dispatch Box? Conservative Members are particularly pleased that she has finally come out of the closet. I hope that she will make it a double first by answering my question directly, rather than avoiding questions like her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I am sure that, when all European eyes are focused on the United Kingdom during its presidency of the European Union, the Minister will, like me, be concerned about the status of women in this country. Will she tell me, therefore, whether she supports the proposals now sitting in the Treasury to abolish independent taxation for women—yes or no?

Ms Ruddock

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. It may interest hon. Members that she held a portfolio of this nature in the last Government, but she was entirely invisible: there were no effects of policies for women from that Government. I must tell her that, for the first time, we now have a Government who are committed to putting women's interests at the heart of policy making. As for her direct question, I give her this direct answer: there are no such proposals sitting in the Treasury.