HC Deb 14 March 2002 vol 381 cc1060-115

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

3.4 pm

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

I am delighted that we are having this debate. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for providing us with the time, and to my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, who had the courtesy to tell me that unfortunately she cannot join us.

International women's day was on Friday—hopefully, next year we will have this debate a little closer to it—and I had the enormous pleasure of attending the first major conference in my city of Leicester to bring together hundreds of women aged between 15 and 85 from different backgrounds and Leicester's diverse communities. We heard, as one always does at such events, stories of the extraordinary things that women are doing in their lives.

Freda Hussain was appointed some years ago as the principal of one of Leicester's large community colleges. She was the first Asian woman principal in Leicester and possibly the first Asian principal. She said that on the day of the announcement of her appointment she was approached by a boy who said, "You don't look like a headmaster, miss", and by a group of girls, one of whom said, "Thank you, miss. Now we've got someone to look up to."

We heard from Ann, an extraordinary woman in her 40s, who told us how she had gone through all her school years believing that she was thick because the teachers had told her so and had certainly made her feel like it. She got no qualifications and never had much of a job or, indeed, much of a life. Eventually, it was discovered that, like many people, she was dyslexic and it had not been diagnosed all those years ago when she was in school. She overcame that problem and gained access qualifications. She studied law and got a first-class degree. She then got a good job. Tragically, after all that, her employer could not give her the support that she needed to cope with her disability—she still cannot spell—in order to fulfil the demands of the job. I am afraid that she is unemployed again, although I have no doubt that with her determination she will soon be back in work.

We heard from Karen Wildman, a Leicester woman, who started as a receptionist at one of Leicester's engineering companies and who rose to become the managing director of that firm. She is now an executive member of the board of the parent company. She has achieved extraordinary success in business, but some of the men in grey suits that she typically meets still take her for a secretary and talk to her male colleagues instead. I suspect that many of my hon. Friends—or should I say hon. sisters—have experienced that.

We also heard from community leaders. Rita Patel, who founded Belgrave Behano, is now building a multi-million pound community centre in inner-city Leicester, and Vera Smith is an amazing, battling pensioner who fought to save a community centre in one of the outer-city impoverished council estates that I represent. I was delighted to join her the clay after the conference to open a centre that had been refurbished as a result of funding provided by our neighbourhood renewal programme, but administered by resident leadership. Those were just a few of the women's voices that all of us hear in our constituencies and on whose behalf we have the privilege to speak in the House.

Listening to women at last week's conference reminded me of the question posed by Sigmund Freud nearly 100 years ago. He asked, "What do women really want?" Apparently, it was a puzzle to the father of psychoanalysis, but it is no puzzle to hon. Members in the House today. We all want the chance to use our abilities, to find the strength and potential within us, as Ann did, whatever that potential is. We want to make a contribution at work and in the wider community; we want to earn a living and to enjoy a secure retirement. However, we also want the blessing of loving relationships with our friends and family and the chance to care for other people—our children, our parents as they grow older, and others who need us. We want to be able to balance home and work and the rest of our lives. We want our homes, streets and communities to be safe for ourselves and our children—safe from the scourge of domestic and public violence. We want good health and a good health service, good schools and all those other vital services.

Of course women's aspirations are influenced by different cultural and religious traditions, social class and our parents' experience, but in essence they do not vary or change very much. What has changed is the condition of women's lives, and that has changed radically in recent decades.

I grew up in the 1950s, at a time when there was a very clear division of labour between men and women. The man worked full-time while the woman, after marriage, stayed at home full-time to care for the children, and there were powerful social and legal sanctions against divorce and illegitimacy. Not everyone lived in that way; there has always been a significant number of working-class women, in particular, who earned a living for their family. However, it is fair to say that that traditional two-parent, one male breadwinner family model was society's ideal. It underpinned the way in which employers organised work and occupational pensions; it underpinned the way in which Government organised the national insurance and welfare systems and the rest of public policy.

Just to describe that world of the 1950s is to see how far we have travelled since then. The huge social changes that we are living through were not imposed by any Government or dictated by some wicked feminist plot—they were created by women themselves, making different choices and demanding different opportunities in their lives.

Those changes are continuing. Today I have published new survey figures showing a radical change in the levels of women's employment over the past decade. Over the past 10 years, men's employment rates have stayed relatively constant, but those of women, particularly mothers, have grown rapidly. We have seen a growth rate in employment of nearly 10 per cent. for all women between 1991 and 2001, compared with an increase of only 4 per cent. for men. Most strikingly, the employment rate of women whose youngest child is under five has grown by a third over the same period. That represents the biggest increase in the rate of women's employment in our country since the wartime period. Britain now has one of the highest rates of women's employment in the European Union and across the industrialised world.

It is not the Government's job to tell women, or men, how to lead their life. Our job is to support and enable people to lead the fulfilling life that they want for themselves and their family. We can do that only if we recognise and understand these enormous changes. We must recognise that, despite the enormous increase in the wealth of our country, it is in many ways much tougher to bring up children today than it was when I and many other hon. Members were growing up. It is our job as a Government to support families—all families—in their double responsibility of earning a living and caring for children and other family members. That means that the Government have to support women, and men, in the choices that they want to make.

We will have failed if women still have to go back to work too soon after having a baby because they cannot afford to stay at home any longer. We will have failed if women have to go on working long and inconvenient hours that they believe are damaging to their families and themselves because shorter working hours are simply not available.

I should perhaps declare an interest, as I am the mother of two teenage children. Along with many hon. Members, I know just how difficult it is balancing commitments to our constituents, the House, our families and, in my case, in my role as a Minister. We have the great good fortune to do work that we love and have chosen, and to be well paid for it. How much harder is it for women such as the constituent to whom I was talking recently, who has to juggle, as she put it, not only work and family but her marriage? She is at home during the day caring for young children while her husband is at work. Three nights a week she works late shifts, getting no sleep at all, to bring in extra money while her husband is at home caring for the children.

We will have failed if women are staying at home when they do not want to because they cannot find good quality, affordable child care or a job with the hours that they need or because, as older women who have brought up their children and are ready to embark on the next phase of their life, they come up against employer prejudice against older people. Perhaps I should declare another interest, as I am 53.

When I say that "we" have to do these things, I do not simply mean the Government. I mean employers, in the public and private sectors. I welcome the fact, as I am sure the whole House does, that more and more businesses and public service organisations recognise that if they are to deliver the services that their clients and customers want and if they are to get and keep the good, skilled people they need, they have to pay attention to the needs and abilities of all the potential talent pool, not just half of it. The new figures that I have just given and the increase in women returning to work after having children in many ways represent an improvement, as women have told us, in the conditions available in the workplace.

Unfortunately, not all employers have got there yet. I recently met Michelle Chew, a former police constable with more than 12 years' experience in specialist child protection work. She is also a lone mother who had, at the time the problem arose, two children under five. Not surprisingly, WPC Chew wanted hours that worked for her family as well as the police force. For some time, that is what she had. However, she was then faced with the demand that she move to full-time work on variable shifts that would have destroyed her child care arrangements. Her application to remain in her existing post or move to another part-time post with family-friendly shifts was twice turned down without any serious consideration. What was the result? The police force lost an immensely experienced and valuable officer in a specialist area where it is not always easy to recruit. It also lost the employment tribunal case that Michelle Chew brought against them, reinforcing the fact that there is a need for reform and change as well as investment in the police service and our other great public services.

For years, the work-family balance has been a problem for women, while men have taken it for granted. Indeed, when a man in a top job in business or politics says that he wants to spend more time with his family, most people think that there must be something wrong with him. That, too, is changing; more and more men want to spend time with their family, striking a better balance between work and family. I welcome the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House who understand, from their experience, that changing approach among men.

The Government are already doing a great deal to support women and families in making the choices that will suit them. We have introduced full-time rights for part-time workers, time off for people to deal with family emergencies, the right to parental leave while children are young, and higher maternity pay, which will come into effect from April next year. At the same time, we have introduced longer maternity leave, totalling up to one year off. Furthermore, for the first time ever, there is two weeks' paid paternity leave, to underline our recognition of the crucial role that fathers play in their children's lives.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

indicated assent.

Ms Hewitt

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has an interest in the subject that he would like to declare, in which case I readily congratulate him.

In the Employment Bill, we are also putting in place new legal standards for family-friendly working, to make it much easier for fathers and mothers with children under the age of six, or with older children who have disabilities, and to ensure that every workplace and manager has to consider how to reorganise work to suit their employees as well as their business.

Much has been done to ensure that parents and families have the time that they need. Much has also been done to ensure that they have the money they need: the record increases in child benefit; the working families tax credit, which benefits one and a third million families; the national minimum wage, which has given a pay rise to about 1 million women and 500,000 men: the sure start maternity grant, which is also to be introduced in April 2003 for families on lower incomes and will deliver an increase in the maternity grant to £500, which is five times the level that we inherited in 1997; and, crucially, for older women the increases in pensions and the introduction of the minimum income guarantee. As I well remember from my first job with Age Concern, women are the majority of pensioners and, above all, the majority of pensioners living in poverty. They live longer, they have much less chance of a decent occupational pension and they have fewer savings on which to rely.

We have provided not only time and money but the services that women and families need. I am particularly proud of our Government's achievements in child care, and pay tribute to the work of the Minister for Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who was responsible for child care issues in our first term, and to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my noble Friend Baroness Ashton of Upholland, who has taken over that responsibility. We have already created new child care places for more than 750,000 children. By March 2004, we will have places for about 1 million extra children.

Much has been done, but because we listen to and represent women in our constituencies and our Government listen to women throughout the country, we all know how much more remains to be done, for instance, on the pay gap. When I was campaigning on equal pay and sex discrimination nearly 30 years ago, that gap was 37 per cent. Now, it is down to 18 per cent., but it is still far too high. The penalty paid by women in their lifetimes in forgone earnings is enormous. Research carried out by our women and equality unit found a staggering difference between the lifetime earnings of a woman with medium-level skills and two children and those of a man of similar experience. The gap in her earnings compared with his was about £380,000—a gender gap of £240,000 and a motherhood gap of a further £140,000.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office is doing so much to take forward the pioneering work of Baroness Castle, which will now be recognised again with the introduction shortly of the new Castle awards for employers who are making strides to close that pay gap. I certainly do not want my daughter to be campaigning on that issue in another 20 or 30 years.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

I thoroughly support all that the Secretary of State has just said about equal pay. Does she agree that that is a cross-party issue and that all parties in the House want women to be treated equally as regards pay? Indeed, a Conservative Government introduced the Equal Pay Act in 1983.

Ms Hewitt

I was entirely with the hon. Lady until her last remark, as the Equal Pay Act was introduced by Baroness Castle in 1970 at the end of a Labour Government and was brought into effect in 1975 under the then Labour Government. However, I strongly welcome the hon. Lady's support for the action that we are taking to strengthen equal pay.

One reason why we have already delivered a great deal and will go on to deliver a great deal more—there is much more to be done—is that we have done more than any previous Government to engage women in policy making. If public policy is to deliver for all our people, policy making must be done by women as well as men. This matter concerns not simply individual women or the fate of political parties; it directly concerns the health of our democracy and the legitimacy of our political institutions.

In my constituency and throughout the country, I have been struck by the number of women who are engaged in neighbourhood and community leadership in, for example, tenants associations, community groups, the voluntary sector and faith organisations. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning said in an excellent article this morning, it is wrong to think that women are disengaged from politics. They are not.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

I note with interest what you said about women being at the heart of policy making—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Lady must sit down when I am on my feet and she must use the right parliamentary language. She should address the Minister in the third person as the right hon. Lady.

Sandra Gidley

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Will the right hon. Lady give us an update on the mainstreaming commitment that was announced early in the last Parliament?

Ms Hewitt

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question because it is important. We have combined the appointment of the two Ministers for women and the establishment of the women's unit, now the women and equality unit, with moves to ensure that in every Department real attention is paid to the different lives, circumstances and needs of women and men, and that is working well. Gender analysis is thus taken seriously in policy making in every Department. The fact that we have so many women Ministers helps to ensure that that actually happens.

To return to the wider issue, women throughout the country are engaged locally in politics with a small "p"—in their own neighbourhoods and communities—but too many of them are disengaged from party politics, politics with a big "p", whether in the town hall or Whitehall. It is not surprising that that should be so. Too often when women look at their local council, or, in the past, at this House, or when they look at who is running big business, they see white men in charge, with some honourable exceptions. Women's representation as well as representation from our minority ethnic communities, for both men and women, is not a matter of political correctness; it is about the health of our democracy and the success of our economy.

Our Government and the Labour party are doing their bit. I was proud, as were many of my hon. Friends who are present today, to be part of that historic intake in 1997 when more women Members were elected than ever before. I hope to be around long enough, but not too long, for that record to be broken and for us to be part of it.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we took a backward step at the last general election, especially as regards the representation of women from Scotland in this House?

Ms Hewitt

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Like her and many of my hon. Friends, I am disappointed that slightly fewer women were elected to our Labour Benches in last year's election than in 1997, but I have no doubt that action will be taken to redress that imbalance over the years to come.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

Does my right hon. Friend share my hope that not only the Labour party but other parties will take advantage of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which we introduced, to increase the number of women representatives of all parties in this place?

Ms Hewitt

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I was just about to refer to that measure—I think it should have been called the women's representation Act—which had all-party support. I am sure that we shall hear from the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) about how the Conservative party intends to use its provisions. The Act will enable any political party to take whatever positive action it considers appropriate to redress the imbalance that exists even now in the representation of women and men in this place.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that next week the Welsh Labour party conference in Llandudno will vote on a proposal for all-women shortlists for the Welsh Assembly elections? Does she agree that that is a direct result of the legislation introduced by the Government and a first step towards enacting it?

Ms Hewitt

I entirely agree with the points made by my hon. Friend. I think that the Welsh Labour party is the first political party body to take advantage of the new law that we introduced.

I am proud to be one of the seven women in the Cabinet—more than ever before in our history. I am proud to be part of a Government where one in three Ministers are women. We are doing significantly better than big business. My right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has done pioneering work on that subject. When we consider the FTSE 100, we find that for each woman on a board there are 17 men—not so much "Sex in the City" as sexism in the City.

Joan Ryan (Enfield, North)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that before 1997 more Members were named John than were female. Currently, only one in eight Members of Parliament are women. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only effective mechanisms to address that are quotas and the women's representation legislation?

Ms Hewitt

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend that there are not yet enough women in this place—nor are there enough women or men from our minority ethnic communities. The new law is a real step forward and will allow each political party to make its own decisions about the form of positive action that it wants to use—not to advance the career opportunities of women who are interested in politics but to ensure that our political institutions really reflect and represent all our communities and the whole of our country. That is essential if we are to deal with the problem of political disengagement at the party political or parliamentary level.

We must all address the even larger problem of under-representation on local councils. There are honourable exceptions, but far too often our local councils are run or dominated by male councillors. The Government are already addressing that in the appropriate forums.

Mr. Swire

The right hon. Lady may be right about women's representation on councils. However, later in the debate, I hope to allude to the fact that the leader of the Conservative group on Devon county council is a lady—Christine Channon—who has been active in local politics for a long time. Furthermore, East Devon district council—one of the flagship councils of the land—is also controlled by the Conservatives and led by Sara Randall-Johnson who is also—as her name might suggest—a woman.

Ms Hewitt

I am delighted to hear about both those women council leaders, whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting. As I said, there are many outstanding exceptions to the general pattern that I was describing. Indeed, one of our many Ministers is my noble Friend Baroness Hollis, an excellent and experienced Minister, who was an extremely distinguished leader of Norwich city council for many, many years.

There are many exceptions to the rule, but the general pattern remains that across local councils as a whole the representation of women is even lower—much lower—than it is in our Chamber.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the exceptions are so outstanding because in order for women to reach that level they must themselves be outstanding? There are many women languishing in society who are not quite as outstanding but who could easily contribute to the political process.

Ms Hewitt

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. She makes a central point: if we do not effectively extend opportunities for women—whether in business, public service, government or a range of political and other public institutions—not only will individual women miss out, but society will miss out on the contribution of talent, skills and experience of women whose abilities are not being properly recognised.

As we move towards next year's local council elections, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office and I will be leading a drive in the Labour party to ensure that there is an increase in the number of women, drawing especially on the women to whom I was referring—those who are so active in their local communities but who sometimes, unfortunately, see the local council as a hindrance rather than a help. We need to change that and one way of doing so is to get those women into the council making decisions.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I apologise to my right hon. Friend for my late arrival in the Chamber. I have come straight from the women's conference of the Trades Union Congress, where several hundred women gave details of their experience of their working environment and their working lives. We need that experience in this place. Few of those women have ever stood for Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they are the very people who should be enabled, through training and legislation, to have greater opportunities to serve on local councils and in this place?

Ms Hewitt

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am delighted that she was able to attend the TUC women's conference—as my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office did this morning. We shall do our part as a political party to recruit women with that extraordinary range of experience to a variety of more formal political activity—in councils and in this place.

The Government are also playing their part. My hon. Friend and I—with my noble Friend Baroness Morgan, when she had ministerial responsibility for women and equality—initiated a programme of seminars and meetings throughout the country to encourage women from a range of backgrounds, regardless of political opinion, to put themselves forward for public appointments. That will allow us to tap into those women's experience and achieve our target of 50 per cent.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the contribution that women working in science, engineering and technology have made to the quality of all our lives, and to reflect on the difficulties that those disciplines have in recruiting more women, who could only bring greater benefit to our economy if they were suitably used.

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend has enormous expertise and is making an outstanding contribution on the issue. I recently had the pleasure of meeting the Daphne Jackson Trust, which, as she will know, has been pioneering support for women with scientific degrees and other qualifications who want to return to work. There is much more that we can and should do, which is why I recently asked Baroness Susan Greenfield to report to me on precisely how we can get more women into science—both young women and those returning to work. That again underlines the point that we will never overcome our skills shortages if business and science recruit from only half the population.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

A large number of cabinet portfolio holders on Essex county council are women: Iris Pummell runs the schools; Elizabeth Hart runs lifelong learning and early years; Tracey Chapman runs environment; and Mavis Webster is deputy for social services. Those are all women who have achieved that prominence entirely on their own merit. Essex county council is Conservative-controlled and women are doing very well on it. I cannot finish without mentioning my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who won a seat from the Labour party entirely on merit, and who was also a shadow cabinet member of Essex county council.

Ms Hewitt

I am delighted to hear hon. Gentlemen praising their female Conservative colleagues. It is true that my party has not yet produced a woman Prime Minister, although we have certainly had outstanding women Cabinet members. Since the hon. Gentleman decided to introduce a bit of controversy to the debate, it is also fair to say that, despite the fact that the Conservative party and Government were headed for so many years by a woman of extraordinary and outstanding abilities, women in our country are doing far better under our Labour Government and our Prime Minister.

Mrs. Laing

It is very good to have some support on this side from gentlemen colleagues. I see that the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) has just resumed his place, thereby doubling the number of gentlemen on the Labour Benches. It is sad that there is so little support there.

Does the Minister agree that, to encourage more women to come into the House and into politics generally, those of us who are already involved have to be seen to be serious in the undertaking of our duties, and not to trivialise the matter of women's employment rights, mothers' rights and so on, and that there is a danger that, if there are continual press reports about breastfeeding in the Chamber, the outside world will find it hard to take us seriously? Should not we be discussing—as she has done this afternoon—the many millions of women out there who need support?

Ms Hewitt

I have been addressing many of the very serious issues that face women throughout our country, but breastfeeding is also a serious issue to do with the health of our children.

Our Government are working for women and listening to them every day, but it is good to have one day of the year when we debate women's interests and concerns specifically, and I look forward with keen anticipation to hearing further contributions to this debate.

3.45 pm
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

We are here to celebrate international women's day, and it is right to begin by paying tribute to all the organisations that have worked hard to improve the lot of women in society. I listened attentively to the Minister, who seemed to give the impression that all was rosy in the garden and that the Government could take the credit for all the achievements, but it is right to record our thanks to all the organisations who work so hard on our behalf.

In some ways, I find it absolutely astonishing that it is necessary for us to debate the subject of women and equality more than 20 years after the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. The fact that we have to do so takes us far beyond any party political argument and goes to the very nature of British culture. Anyone who might dispute the need for this debate should take account of some very disturbing facts.

Male graduates aged between 20 and 24—that is largely before family responsibilities come along—in full-time employment earn more than their female counterparts even when they have achieved the same class of degree, studied the same subject and work in the same occupations and industries. The pay gap widens as they get older. There is a 25 per cent. pay gap by the time that they get to their late 30s.

Apart from the obvious lack of justice, that has knock-on effects. Women who have left employment constitute the poorest group of people in the country—the most dependent on state benefits. That is partly due to the fact that women take career breaks to have families, during which time they cannot contribute to a pension scheme. Moreover, many of the schemes are geared to the male model of unbroken service from first job to retirement. This is a wake-up call to all those designing new pension products: they must take account of the typical lifetime working model for women.

That is quantifiable. The average net entitlement to a pension is £67.68 per week, but that obscures the contrast in that the male average is £82 per week and the female average £59.29. Recently retired males have higher pension entitlements than females in the same position, because of their more complete contribution record and, on average, higher earned income.

The Fawcett Society, whose work I praise unreservedly, has established that only one in five women have set aside enough provision for their retirement. We should be shouting that from the rooftops, while there is still time for younger women to prepare. The problem is that the old reliance on a husband's earnings to provide enough for a couple to live on in old age has been blown apart by the rising divorce rate and incidence of family breakdown.

Women's capacity to prepare for a dignified retirement is not helped by the fact that many of the jobs open to women are part-time and poorly paid, leaving them little leeway to set aside savings for later life. The pay gap between the genders has remained largely unchanged for part-time women since the late 1970s: a staggering 41 per cent. Those are figures provided by the Equal Opportunities Commission. Inequalities exist even in well-established, female-dominated public sector professions such as nursing. Men are 80 per cent. more likely to be in the top nursing grade H than their female counterparts. Last year, 77 per cent. of all hospital consultants were men, and only 6 per cent. of consultant surgeons were women. I know only one female consultant who has managed to negotiate part-time working, but invariably her male colleagues unhelpfully arrange administration meetings on her day off.

The Employment Bill, which is currently going through the Lords, tries to address some areas of inequality, but we want to alert the Government to some health warnings. In February, women bosses at the Institute of Directors expressed concern about increasing employment rights for women and the possibly damaging effects of the Bill on their employability. Small businesses in particular are already groaning under the burden of red tape introduced by the Government. They favour voluntary arrangements between employers and their staff, not more legislation. Maternity leave legislation can be difficult to manage, especially for small companies. Employers currently have to keep a woman's job open when she is on maternity leave, but the woman has no obligation to return. Many women choose not to do so, and for small businesses that can lead to difficulties.

The evidence is that many women decide not to return to work because of the lack of affordable child care. The Government should concentrate their resources on that problem. What is being done to encourage employers to increase child care provision without placing extra burdens on employers? The depletion in the number of child minders, who feel that they are being pushed out by the Government's preference for institutional early-years education, has been a serious blow to working women, who need the flexible, domestic-based service that child minders can provide and which institutions find difficult to match.

Sandra Osborne

Is the hon. Lady aware that under successive Conservative Governments people could not get child care for love nor money?

Mrs. Spelman

I am not here for historical debate; I was not a Member of Parliament under a Conservative Government. We are talking about women and equality today, and the Minister set out for the House the good things that, in her view, the Government have done. I urge the Minister to focus the Government's attention on things that need to be done; many working women and many child minders have beaten a path to my door over the reduction in the number of child minders.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—[Laughter.] I am sorry, I am stuck in a rut; in this place, it is usually one of them. I accept the hon. Lady's desire to make things better, but it is difficult to accept her lack of historical awareness. Under the Conservative Government, there was no financial help for women seeking child care, whether from a child minder or an institution. The working families tax credit, which has a child care element, is increasing the number of child minders in my constituency. In addition, the child care strategy is making more places available.

I like the tone of this debate, which suggests that both Government and Opposition could do better. However, we have to accept the record of the past.

Mrs. Spelman

One must be careful with the expression about who wears the trousers, but I should like to make it clear for the record that I am an hon. Lady.

Labour Members have been in power for five years, so they must accept that they have a bit of history. It is not true that there was no help with child care under the Conservative Government; there was help with out-of-school child care. I made a specific point about the demise of child minders. The Minister made an important point about changes in British society concerning women and the workplace. As she said, in the 1950s the typical model involved a delineation of roles; women wanted to stay at home much more and raise their families. Now, there is a rise in the number of women, increasingly with under-fives, wanting to go to work. There is therefore a new demand for the appropriate care of children under school age, which we must meet from the supply of child care services. I certainly want to draw to the attention of the Government the loss of child minders.

The Federation of Small Businesses gave a clear verdict on the Employment Bill, which it described as hefty and a raft of employment legislation too far. Its employment spokesman, Bill Knox, said: This Employment Bill has got to be the final word … our members broadly support family friendly policies but there is no doubt that parental leave is generous to employees and hard on employers —in small businesses— which can only harm productivity. At the very least, the federation wants the Government to deliver on promises to limit the bureaucracy involved in administering those policies. That is important for small businesses; while they welcome family-friendly policies, the burden of administering them is sometimes the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Similar misgivings apply to the European Union's equal treatment directive. In a speech to European Standing Committee B in February, I made a plea for greater clarity and simplicity in the language used to describe proposed legislation in the directive. At the moment, employers may be put off employing women because of the obscurity and complication of legislation surrounding their employment. There is also the question of the cost of regulations in the directive.

Nearer to home, we need more women in Parliament; we supported the change in the Sex Discrimination Act to allow political parties to take positive action to get more women into all areas of public life. I should like to place on the record the fact that our party is doing its bit; we are going to change our selection procedures in the light of that legislative change. For the sake of Parliament's standing in the eyes of the public, we must be seen to be working in ways that do not deter half the population from taking part. I wish to correct a misconception and, in so doing, may cast doubt on the question of paternity leave, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). It is generally unknown in the wider population that there is no maternity leave for women Members of Parliament; leave is discretionary and must be negotiated with the Whips. It is interesting to observe that Members of Parliament have no right to maternity leave.

Joan Ryan

Does the hon. Lady support the extension of paid maternity leave in the Employment Bill from 18 to 26 weeks? I agree that child care is terribly important, and welcome the national child care strategy—the first one we have ever had—and the expansion of child care places. However, paid maternity leave over a reasonable period is vital, and women want it. I was unsure whether the hon. Lady supported that or not.

Mrs. Spelman

I was giving the Government a health warning about the change. Under the changes to maternity leave, after only six months' employment employees become entitled to a full year's maternity leave, at the end of which they can still choose not to return. Small businesses faced with a choice of candidates for a position may start to have misgivings about employing a woman of childbearing age. I was warning the Government about the impact that the change may have on women's employability. We must balance the needs of employers and employees; without doubt, the needs of small businesses are different from those of large corporations.

My own experience is that once one has got into Parliament, being a woman is no bar to getting on; if anything, male colleagues respect one more because they know the hurdles that have had to be overcome to get into Parliament. Women make up more than half the population, but only 18 per cent. of our MPs are female, which is lower than in Turkmenistan, Vietnam, Rwanda and Namibia and an indictment of the mother of Parliaments. We could do more by mentoring candidates and providing role models to prove that it is possible to become an MP. Parliament is making some progress on more family-friendly working practices. The example of the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), comes to mind; she demonstrated that ministerial office and maternity can be combined.

On thinking about the title of this debate, I had an inkling that I would be disappointed in one respect, and I am afraid that my misgivings have been borne out. I suspected that the debate would focus on improved rights for women in the developed world, but they pale in comparison with inequality between the sexes in the developing world. We should remember that our debate is taking place in the context of international women's day.

It is no exaggeration to say that poverty has a female face, and nowhere is that more true than in the developing world. There are many disturbing facts, and I shall highlight just a few that really hit home in preparing for the debate. According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, women are still the poorest of the world's poor, representing 70 per cent. of the 1.3 billion poor in the world. Moreover, the number of women living in poverty has doubled since 1970. In other words, we are going backwards. Rural women—mainly farmers—represent more than a quarter of the total world population. On average, they produce more than half the food that is grown, but they own only 2 per cent. of the land. Women represent two thirds of all illiterate people.

There are terrible inequalities in maternal mortality. According to UNICEF, a woman dies every minute while pregnant or giving birth. A woman who gives birth in a developing country has as high as a one in 13 chance of dying, but in developed countries such as ours the risk is one in 4,100.

On health care for women, the startling fact is that last year, 1.3 million women died of HIV-AIDS. However, In sub-saharan Africa, teenage girls are five times more likely to be infected than boys, because most are infected not by boys of their own age, but by older men. That problem needs to be addressed. Older women in sub-saharan Africa sometimes look after as many as 30 or 40 grandchildren orphaned by HIV-AIDS.

Female genital mutilation is still a problem in east Africa, despite the Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian Parliaments adopting legislation to outlaw it. In Tanzania. it is still performed at an early age by about 20 per cent. of the 130 main ethnic groups.

We have all become much more acquainted with the plight of women in Afghanistan. After 20 years of civil war, a disproportionate number of widows—an estimated 50,000 in Kabul alone—head families. Tajik widows in a refugee camp whom I met complained bitterly that, without men, there is no one to push to the front of the queue to get food for them. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan was the only country in the world to ban women from secondary education. Unsurprisingly, the literacy rate for women is just 13 per cent.

Reconstruction must now partly involve re-establishing women in the country's hierarchy. In living memory—thank goodness—women Ministers have participated in Afghan politics, but there are already bad signs. Initially, the Afghan women's ministry was not funded, and it remains underfunded.

Mr. Swire

Every Member of this House will agree that, in an ideal world, more women should be involved in front-line Afghan politics, but does my hon. Friend not regret the fact that, when our forces were actively engaged in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 11 September, certain Labour Members concentrated on achieving a gender balance in an Afghan government? Perhaps they should have talked more about getting the ethnic balance right.

Mrs. Spelman

We must be very careful about imposing on Afghan people a western view of how they should run their country. Until I visited that region, I did not understand the wearing of the burqa. That seems abhorrent to us in the west, but it was explained to me that women are in purdah—behind the curtain—and if one wants to go out, one must do so behind the curtain. That point had not occurred to me. The western perspective persists that it is an abhorrent custom, but one Afghan woman told me, "You want me to remove the burqa, but you forget that I have to go home to my husband, and he hasn't changed." We must therefore be very careful about imposing a western view, but we support the Interim Administration's appointing two women Ministers.

Fiona Mactaggart

For the avoidance of doubt, will the hon. Lady confirm that she thinks it abhorrent that, in Afghanistan, women were excluded from schools and women doctors were refused the right to practise? Does she agree that that is an abuse of international human rights standards that every democratic politician in the world, western or otherwise, should be concerned about?

Mrs. Spelman

I hope that the hon. Lady was listening when I highlighted the abhorrent fact—let there be no doubt—that Afghanistan is the only country in the world to have banned women from secondary education. What flows from that is the closure to the professions that she describes. I was merely pointing out that it is important not to impose our norms on the culture of another country. Islamic societies do not necessarily discriminate against women, and I do not want anyone to think that I was arguing to the contrary.

In 1977, 15 per cent. of legislators in Afghanistan were women. Until the 1990s, women comprised 70 per cent. of all teachers, 50 per cent. of Government workers and 40 per cent. of medical doctors. Throughout the developing world, women can occupy positions of power and influence.

Helen Jackson

In the context of the disastrous treatment of women in Afghanistan, does the hon. Lady agree that women are often a strong and powerful force in conflict resolution at a community and a national level? If women are excluded in a country that is suffering violence, it is far more difficult to achieve a peaceful and democratic resolution.

Mrs. Spelman

The hon. Lady will know that such an analysis of the peaceful and reconciliatory role that women can play in conflicts applies to many parts of the world, including close to home.

Throughout the developing world, it is vital that women have better access to education, health care and the infrastructures that can help them to build up small businesses. In the most recent session of International Development questions, I called for microcredit to be used in Afghanistan to kick-start or re-direct production, thereby giving women the power to start their own small businesses. Aid agencies have helped immensely in that regard by establishing bakeries run by women.

I commend to the Government Africa's "Send a Cow" charity, with which the Minister is doubtless familiar. It gives women in the third world a cow to provide milk for their village, enabling them to build from that example. Women with a cow are more immediately respected, because they can nourish their children and sell their milk. Other schemes that provide water nearer to villages can also release women from the daily drudgery of walking several miles each day to get water.

There are many human rights abuses around the world and I cannot give a comprehensive list, but in the context of international women's day I want to discuss child trafficking, which is of great concern. It is mainly girls, particularly from west Africa, who are lured to European countries by promises of a better life and education. Some of them end up as virtual slaves, and others end up as prostitutes. In the wake of the Victoria Climbie tragedy, the spotlight is now being turned on private fostering. However, I hope that the Government will heed calls from Conservative Members to devote resources to an education campaign for parents in west Africa, so that we can spell out the inherent dangers of selling their children, simply in order that they can come to this country.

Another abuse against women that has been in the news recently is the issue of Asian girls who have been brought up here being forced into marriages with men in India and Pakistan. In just 18 months, the Foreign Office has dealt with 240 cases of forced marriage, and has repatriated more than 60 young people who were taken abroad to be married against their will. I hope that the Government will tackle that issue.

One of the greatest vehicles of empowerment for women is education, both here and in the developing world. Through education comes better health, and through health and education comes opportunity for change. A report produced by the YWCA on "Poverty: the price of young motherhood in Britain", shows that young women with no educational qualifications are almost twice as likely to report having a child in their teens as those who have GCSEs. Although, nationally, girls outperform boys, among ethnic groups Bangladeshi young women are twice as likely as their white peers to be without educational qualifications at the age of 16. Research by the Policy Studies Institute reveals that Bangladeshi girls are falling behind the boys by 10 per cent., which challenges the received wisdom that girls now do better than boys at school. I support the YWCA recommendation for a special working group on girls' school exclusion and disaffection. That issue is often lost in the generalisation that girls now outperform boys.

It is true that when we compare the fate of women in the developed world with those in the developing world, we find that our lot is much happier, but violence against women by men is no respecter of race, class or colour. In this country we now have refuges for women escaping male violence—one for every 200,000 of the population—but in the third world such luxuries do not exist. In some cultures, it is practically the norm for men to mistreat their women. According to the secretary general of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, Violence against women is one of the most pervasive yet hidden forms of human rights abuse throughout the world. So, where does that lead us? In this country, we need to temper legislation with consensus, to teach by example, to produce role models for women to imitate, and to encourage the practice of mentoring.

We need to be sensitive to the rights of women in work to encourage them to break through the infamous glass ceiling. I often speak at girls' sixth form colleges on the subject of juggling work and family life. I advise the girls to work out their priorities in advance, to be bold in asking for what they need to balance their lives and, above all, to retain a sense of humour. However, if we fail to teach the boys at the same time that women expect to be treated as equals, we simply create a deeper gulf of misunderstanding, resentment and even violence.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

The hon. Lady mentioned domestic violence and refuges. Will she acknowledge that the Home Office has done a lot of work with police authorities to try to ensure that women do not have to leave their homes and flee to refuges with their children, which is what they have had to do in the past?

Mrs. Spelman

We could have a separate debate on domestic violence, and I might commend that to hon. Members, because it is an unspoken but important issue. As a new Member of Parliament, I was struck by what the police told me about domestic violence. When a case occurs, the problem is that they all too often have to send the woman back home. While the Home Office is beginning to address the issue in the domestic setting, it is vital that women have somewhere safe to go while the wider ramifications of the domestic dispute at the heart of the violence are investigated. I have learned from my surgeries that there are two sides to a story, and that an initial interview with one person does not always reveal all the aspects. If a woman has a safe place to go with her children, it can create the breathing space to consider the extent and nature of the problem.

All that we do to help women achieve the equality for which they strive must be done in the certain knowledge that it is no mere concession to political correctness. By not treating women as equals, we are missing out on a lot of talent, skills and knowledge. We must carefully scrutinise legislation to achieve our aims. We must not allow red tape protecting women's rights at work to become another tool to beat women with, or an excuse not to employ them.

Not for the first time since taking up my brief as shadow Secretary of State for International Development I have been struck by the huge gulf between what are seen as major problems in this country compared with what is happening in the developing world. That is never more true than in this debate on women and equality. As I hope I have been able to show, the lot of women in the developing world is a difficult, dangerous one. Yes, we must work to right our own inequalities, but let us not lose sight of the women of the third world who are centuries behind us and where the words "equality" and "woman" seem at present on opposite sides of a giant chasm.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has put a time limit of 12 minutes on all Back-Bench speeches, which applies from now on. We have had three statements today, which has taken a lot of time out of this debate and many hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If Members can limit their remarks to less than 12 minutes, fewer of them will be disappointed.

4.16 pm
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I welcome this debate. It is too rare that we discuss the issue of equality and women, and we need to acknowledge that those two words still do not mesh together as well as they should. Equality for women is still a long way off. However, many of the formal barriers that women used to have to jump over have gone. The higher pass marks for those girls trying to get into grammar schools have gone. Lower pay for women teachers has theoretically gone, although in practice we know that women in the public services are not paid as well as men. I also wish the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) luck in his attempt to get rid of another formal barrier to women in private clubs.

We know, however, that women still face constant and chronic disadvantages that make our society less effective. Like the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), I looked at the issue in an international context. As a supporter of an organisation called Womankind Worldwide, I wish to focus on four areas of literacy that it has described as important for women in developing countries and that are also important for women in Britain today. Those are literacies of the word, of money, of the body and of civic society.

The obvious literacy that we all know about is the right to read. Indeed, my maiden speech was about the human right to read. I celebrate wholeheartedly the improvements in children's literacy achieved through the literacy strategy. When I first stood for election, less than half of 11-year-olds in my constituency reached the expected literacy standards, but that figure is now up to three quarters. That is good work, but an important job remains. We must give women in the poorest countries access to the right to read, but we must also give it to women in this country. Women who did not succeed in school or benefit from developed literacy strategies often work in jobs with less access to learning and training on the job than men have. We need to focus directly on women's education.

We could make a difference in two specific areas. The first is those jobs where women help other women and other professionals to do their job better—nursing auxiliaries and teaching assistants are the two that come to mind. Fantastic, talented women who missed out in their first education do those jobs for terrible pay—teaching assistants, for example, are often only paid in term-time—and have the capacity to achieve more but cannot afford to take time out of those poorly paid jobs to go on full-time training courses. There are still not enough opportunities for teaching assistants to become teachers. I used to teach people to be teachers, and I know what it takes to be a good primary teacher.

First, it takes the ability to talk to children. I used to work at one of the most high-powered education institutes in this country, and I taught many clever young men who did not know how to talk to children—it was as though they were talking to Martians. The wonderful thing about teaching assistants is that they know how to talk to children, so they have the first thing that they need.

We must do a better job for nursing auxiliaries and teaching assistants to give them a ladder on which they can progress from their present situation to gain professional qualifications. For the most dynamic among them, those ladders exist. However, we need to give them leg-ups and more help. That would not only give women more opportunities but help to solve the teaching and nursing shortages in constituencies such as mine.

The second area of education that is important to women is English for speakers of other languages. Many women who come to this country operate in their first language all the time. They do not get access to learning English, which cuts them off from access to the economy in many ways. We must ensure that women migrants get an early chance to learn English when they come here. I welcome those elements of the Home Secretary's proposals that will make that more possible, but I urge the Minister for Women to give him more power to his elbow, particularly in relation to women.

On money, the Government have made a big difference for women in our Budgets. For the first time, we know how much better women have done than men from them. I am glad to say that, and it is right. Unless the Budget deals with some of the income inequalities that chronically disadvantage women, they will continue. We are still miles behind on equal pay. Britain is still 12th out of 15 in the EU in the width of the pay gap, and we must make more of a difference. I urge Ministers to lead the way in the public sector by using pay audits and by publicising schemes—having learned from the pay audit about levels of inequality—to tackle it.

As a corollary of what I was saying about teaching assistants and nursing auxiliaries, we also need to provide more opportunities and support for women to get to the top of the professions and the jobs that they do. We all know that in almost every area, the largest number of men are at the top, and the largest number of women are at the bottom of almost any career structure, whether it is university lecturers and vice-chancellors, or, as the hon. Member for Meriden said, nurses at H-grade or the bottom grade. A particular task for the Government is to challenge institutions in the public sector and companies in the private sector not just to promote women but to give them opportunities for training and learning.

The other times when we can make a big difference to the money situation of women is at the youngest age of life and at the oldest. Ensuring that women have access to affordable child care is a high priority. Nursery vouchers were the beginning of a mistake that in some ways the Government have made worse by introducing an earlier start for children's formal schooling. Too many children at just four years of age are going into primary schools. That is not the best place for a four-year-old. The learning that they need when they are rising five and just over three is about how to share their toys, how to queue up, how to listen and how to play nicely. Those things are not best taught in a reception class; they are much better taught in a playgroup or nursery. I worry that in our charge for high standards, we have sometimes forgotten that we start formal education earlier in this country than in any other in the world. There may be a price to pay for that. Research in America on the High/Scope Perry pre-school project found that children who had an early experience of constructive play were more likely to go to university and less likely to go to prison than children who had no pre-school experience or children who had a formal educational experience too early.

The third literacy is that of the body. We urgently need to ensure that women's health is taken more seriously. Until very recently, all drugs were tested on men, and decisions on giving those drugs to women were based on men's test results. Women's bodies are less predictable because our hormone levels change from month to month, so it was thought that we were not such good subjects for testing. Nobody thought that it was not a good idea to assume that our bodies would react in the same way to drugs as men's bodies. Although drug testing is beginning to change, the same mindset determines which drugs to test. Therefore, the sorts of drugs being developed to deal with heart attacks and strokes relate to the heart attack patterns of men—who have their heart attacks at 40—and not to the heart attack patterns of women, who have their heart attacks after the menopause. We need to ensure that the Department of Health considers that issue, and that we consider the other issue that affects people's health—housing. In my constituency, women who live in disgusting housing keep telling me about how it is damaging the health of their children.

I shall now deal with civic society and women's role in it. The hon. Member for Meriden said that men in her party recognise that it has been a struggle for women to become Members, so they do not discriminate against them. However, I was in the Lobby with a man from her party the other day who was surprised by the number of women there. He said, "How nice it is to see all these pretty fillies here." I thought to myself, "What century are we living in?" He was certainly living in a different one from me. Women achieve positions of power on merit, even if we are helped by positive action programmes. Let us look at what women who are here through the women-only shortlist process have achieved. Putting women into these positions means that thought is given to the consequences of policy—the school-run rather than just roads and trains, and about how women live their lives. Unless policy addresses things such as the dog poo in the lift or the man exposing himself—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady has had her 12 minutes.

4.29 pm
Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

I welcome this debate and hope that it will become an annual event.

It was interesting to hear the Minister reflect on how far we have come in 50 years. It gave me pause to reflect that, even 27 years ago, when I first went to university, all my parents' relatives were saying, "Why are you encouraging her to go to university? Education is wasted on a girl." That was not so long ago. We have taken great strides since.

Helen Jackson

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; I am sure that she will be given injury time. I want to congratulate her wholeheartedly on her presence in the Chamber for this debate, but does she feel that she could do more to encourage more Liberal Democrat Members to take part? Members of her party occupy positions of responsibility in major cities such as Sheffield. Could she do more to encourage them to put the needs of women with regard to public transport and buses, for example, before the needs of the men who drive the private cars? Liberal Democrats are rapidly gaining a reputation for dismissing that policy area.

Sandra Gidley

I could give a typical male-type answer and bluff, but I will not. I am a female politician and we have a good reputation for honesty. I admit that I am disappointed that not a single other Liberal Democrat Member is present. I am so ashamed of that that I have no qualms about having my disappointment recorded in Hansard. I will take up the matter with my hon. Friends, and deliver a kick to the appropriate part of certain colleagues' anatomies.

I must add that some Liberal Democrat Members had constituency engagements—some of them involving women—that prevented them from attending, even though they wanted to. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish".] It is not rubbish. I am not in the habit of making false statements. The evidence speaks for itself, however, and I am disappointed.

I know that one of you is going to stand up and say, "Why didn't your party approve all-women shortlists?" You may well ask that question. As I was disappointed at that. I was on the other side of the argument, the side that lost.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Come and join us.

Sandra Gidley

It is not all about women.

My party has made a huge commitment both financially and in encouraging and mentoring women in ways not entirely dissimilar to the seminars that the Government are arranging around the country to attract more women into public life. Mentoring is important for women, and we are doing a lot of that behind the scenes. My party is doing more than that, however.

My party had 50-50 shortlists in the last European elections. That proved an effective way of ensuring that half our party's representatives in Europe are women. No one can say that those women did not get there on merit. They would probably have got there anyway.

I back the findings of the recent Equal Opportunities Commission survey. It pointed out that, in the absence of proportional representation—a subject that I am sorry to have to bring up—only positive discrimination will get more women into Parliament. That happened for the Labour party in 1997. I was disappointed that you went backwards—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Lady, but she must remember to use the correct parliamentary language. She keeps using the word "you", and she must not when she is making her remarks.

Sandra Gidley

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We have to find ways to use the measures that the Government have introduced. We have tried 50-50 shortlists in the past, but they have not always worked. I look forward with interest to finding out what all parties are going to do to deal with what will be a severe problem. Today is exceptional, in that there are more women than men in the Chamber. Normally, the opposite is true, and that is a barrier for women who want to enter the House. Unless the women's agenda is at the forefront of what we do, there will be no change.

I do not want to be completely carping today. The Government have achieved some success. Some Bills, such as the Employment Bill, have significantly enhanced the conditions of working parents. That must be a good thing, and it is a perfect example of putting women at the forefront of any legislation.

We must also try to make it easier for fathers to play an active part in raising their young. When we as a society speak of the women's agenda, we sometimes forget that many men would prefer to take a more active role in child care.

I also warmly welcome the Government's commitment to the national minimum wage and to increasing the number of child care places. The target for the latter is 1.6 million by 2004, but nearly half those places remain to be found in the next two years. When the Minister replies, I hope that we will learn what measures have been put in place to ensure that the target is met.

The Minister mentioned part-time working, and the return of women to work after childbirth. Problems can still arise and, although things are getting better, we must continue to find ways to ensure that we take up the skills that are on offer. We must not offer women what many will consider to be an unacceptable, take-it-or-leave-it option.

I want to spend most of my time talking about women in the public services. Unfortunately, there is much evidence that institutionalised sexism persists in the NHS. Reports of more explicit discrimination at the more traditional level, especially among surgeons, are widespread. For reasons that may include lower career expectations, family breaks and inherent discrimination, reports indicate that women are paid less than men in the same profession.

Men are less likely to have as much academic training or as many qualifications as women, yet they are twice as likely to be boosted into the higher echelons of the NHS. Earlier, we heard figures that showed the discrepancies that exist in the NHS. Work by the Fawcett Society shows that 75 per cent. of NHS staff are women, and that 88 per cent. of nurses are female. However, women doctors on average earn £180 a week less than men, and they are reported to work longer hours. We cannot say that we do not get value for money.

One reason for the persistent pay gap is that women are generally under-represented in senior and management grades. Even in the female-dominated nursing profession, only 77 per cent. of staff at managerial level are women. The Fawcett Society figures show that 63 per cent. of psychiatric nurses are female, but that only 47 per cent. of managers are female.

Women make up just over half the total number of house officers and senior house officers, but, at about 21 per cent. according to the latest figures, they are still under-represented among consultants. Even then, variations persist, with women accounting for 5 per cent. of surgeons, and for fewer than 20 per cent. of consultants in accident and emergency and general medicine. However, women account for a dizzy 37.6 per cent. of paediatricians.

More women than men in the NHS choose to take advantage of flexible working contracts. That option allows workers to enjoy the equivalent of part-time posts, but there are no job shares at consultant level. The Government have made no long-term commitment to providing adequate funding for junior flexible working contracts, although a two-year funding sticking plaster has been applied. I hope that the Government will commit to dealing with some of the more long-term problems.

More women are entering medicine. Many will want a break, for family reasons. We have to accept that women have babies and leave work for a while. That is what we do—not best, but certainly better than men. I hope that the Minister will say what assessment has been made of the extra numbers of doctors who will have to be trained, in addition to what is set out in the NHS plan. A severe gender crisis is quickly coming down the tracks in the NHS, but I have not seen that acknowledged.

In higher education, the pay gap is supposed to have narrowed by 10 per cent. over the past decade, but if one analyses it, one finds that the gap has increased in the past five years and is now about 17 per cent. On average, men earn £113 more a week. The gravest example is in St. George's hospital medical school, where the pay gap is 45 per cent., which we should all be ashamed of.

The Government have some control over the NHS and the education service, but it appears that it is still just jobs for the boys. Will the Government commit to undertaking pay audits in those sectors so that the process is more transparent and we can see more readily whether there is any deliberate, institutional or accidental discrimination?

We have touched on the election, and I shall not dwell on private grief, so I shall turn to public bodies. In 2001, of those serving on public bodies, 34 per cent. were women. That has risen by less than 2 per cent. since 1997. The target seems to have slipped: it was for 50-50 representation, but the latest figure is between 45 and 50 per cent. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the target for all Government bodies, and the date by which it will be achieved? There seems to be confusion about that.

In non-departmental public bodies, only 27 per cent. of women are at executive level, and even fewer, 25 per cent., are at advisory level. In the Prison Service, only 17 per cent. of the members of boards of visitors are women. As has been said, nationalised industries hit the bottom of the scale at 14 per cent. female representation, and only the NHS is approaching respectability at 43 per cent., but that must be set in the context of the overall gender balance of the work force.

I admit that there are problems similar to those faced by political parties. The boys do not want to give up their jobs, and they make it very difficult for women to progress in their careers. For many roles there is a still a man-shaped hole to fill, and we have to get past that. Chairmen, or chairpersons, of the board do not have to be men, and MPs do not have to be men, but if one asks somebody to describe an MP or a chairperson, they will come up with a male figure. We must challenge some of those perceptions and smash those stereotypes.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)

Does the hon. Lady think that it would be a good idea for the Liberal Democrats' spokesperson for women to be a woman, rather than a man?

Sandra Gidley

I am the spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, and the last time I looked, I was still female.

While preparing for the debate, I accessed the Women's National Commission website. The personal experience section was well meant, but I am not sure that it had the right image. If I had been accessing the site as a woman looking for a job, or a way into a public body, I would have been slightly put off by the fact that at the top of the list was a dame, closely followed by a baroness. What should have been at the top was everyday stories of female folk, so that a woman looking at the site thinks, "Yes, I can do that too. I can take part." The perception that we have even of the women in public life can be somewhat skewed by the images that are portrayed.

Women have had the vote for over 70 years, but unfortunately we still have a long way to go before we achieve equality. I hope that all of us here today are committed to working towards that and, as much as possible, to working together.

4.44 pm
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Those who are of a certain age—my age or a bit younger—may remember the weekly article that used to be written in a lovely style by Jill Tweedie. It was called "Diary of a Faint-Hearted Feminist". At that time, I regarded myself as being in that category. I have changed a bit, and I am a little less faint-hearted—although I would still not call myself a militant feminist—probably as a result of being in this place for five years and enduring the gentleman's club-like attitudes and atmosphere of the Chamber and the Smoking Rooms.

In addition, I have had to do a great deal of work, which is a great pleasure but upsets me at times, to help my young Asian women and girls. That has pushed me a little towards militant feminism because I do get a bit angry with the attitude of some of the so-called, self-styled Asian leaders in the Bradford area. I think that it is a Bradford thing, and perhaps someone will inform me whether it has spread to other parts.

In February 1999, I secured an Adjournment debate, which I called "Human Rights (Women)", so that it did not seem too controversial. I was petrified of calling it "Forced Marriages", although it was about the forced marriages of Asian women and girls. We have four men here today. On that morning, I think that only one man was present. He was from Bradford, and he nodded in all the right places but he did not participate in the debate, so not a single man spoke from the Labour Benches on that important issue. That was the first time that forced marriages had been mentioned in Parliament, and I regarded the debate with some trepidation. In fact, I was terrified.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), who has left her seat, was present that day and, to give her credit, she spoke well on the subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) also spoke in the debate. It was a good debate, but it was a pity that we did not have more men participating. I wonder to this day why that was the case. Why do men move away from confronting this particularly terrible situation that so many Asian girls find themselves in? I am not moving away from it; I am sticking with it.

I am delighted with many of the measures that the Government have introduced. This is not a party political broadcast, and I rarely make such comments. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) mentioned that 420 young women and girls have been repatriated, some from India and many from Bangladesh and Pakistan. That happened not with the wave of a magic wand but because the Government focused on the matter. Since I raised the subject three years ago, they have been working assiduously to stop that practice. They started with a Home Office working group, and then both the Home Office and the Foreign Office set up action plans. All that sounds terribly trendy, and in some cases it may not mean anything, but in this case it did.

The Foreign Office set up a consular desk simply to look after girls who had been whisked away. As the hon. Lady said, 420 have been repatriated in the last 18 months. The consular division of the Foreign Office also launched a video last Monday, and I do not know whether it is an accident but that seemed to coincide with international women's day. The video explains what marriage is all about. One would not think that it was necessary, but it is. It explains the value of marriage in all sections of the community, including arranged marriage. It stated specifically what an arranged marriage can be, and I would not knock arranged marriages because they can be vastly superior to some of our own methods. The video went on to talk about forced marriages, and three people spoke about their experience of those.

That is excellent stuff, and the Government have done very well. The Home Office has at last recognised the need for English to be spoken. The White Paper suggests that young men and women who come here as husbands and wives ought to be learning English. That is already a vague requirement for citizenship, but the requirement will be more precise, and a good knowledge of English will be needed, as will a knowledge of institutions, rights and responsibilities. All that is very good, and it will improve the lot of many of my Asian women and young girls.

The indigenous community should not be too smug. We are not all that good when it comes to gender equality. If we were, there would he equal numbers of men and women in this place and in many other institutions. There would not be a glass ceiling for executive women in business.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

I join the hon. Lady in congratulating the Home Office on the excellent work that it has done in promoting marriage among her ethnic minority constituents. Will she join me in regretting the Government's decision this week to withdraw funding from national marriage week?

Mrs. Cryer

I was not aware of that. I am not sure how much difference that will make. I am in favour of marriage, as I think are most of us on the Government Benches. We cannot all get married for various reasons but, by and large, the Government are in favour of marriage. A great deal has been done. The video to which I have referred explains clearly that marriage is a good thing. It does not knock marriage. It deals with the issue of forced marriage.

If we had followed the Scandinavian example. We would by now have equal numbers of men and women in this place and in the other place. That would be good. It would send out a message to the Asian community that we are concerned about gender equality.

Unfortunately, the only way that we could start to move towards gender equality in this place was to have all-women shortlists. That is not a perfect system, and I do not think that any of us consider it to be so. However, I think that it is as good as we shall get. The Scandinavians can have equal numbers because they have list systems, but I do not particularly like such systems because they give too much power to the leadership, and I am opposed to that. I prefer to stick with the first-past-the-post system, so the only way in which we can bring about improvement is to have all-women shortlists. I am pleased that the Conservative party will be adopting that system. I wish that the Liberal Democrats would do so, and all power to the elbow of the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley).

Shortly after being elected to this place, I joined the Council of Europe and became a member of its equal opportunities committee. International women's day took place recently, and we passed a letter that was to be sent to the Nigerian ambassador in Paris. We meet in Paris. The letter reads: Your Excellency, I hope that this request does not arrive too late. I have just heard that on 12 January last, a young 35-year-old Nigerian woman, Ms Safya Husseini Tungar Fudu, was to be buried alive up to the chest and then lapidated to death for having born a child without being married. The President of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the State of Sokoto has adjourned the case to 18 March. That is next Tuesday. I am reading the letter so that all Members may make representations to the Nigerian embassy in London. The letter continues: We ask you to take the necessary steps to ensure that this barbaric and unworthy judgment is swiftly set aside in compliance with the principles of international law and the principles governing human dignity. The case is horrific. I hope that everyone will write to the Nigerian embassy to make it clear that what is happening is entirely unacceptable. Whether it is labelled Sharia or whatever, it is unacceptable.

There is a less than satisfactory state of affairs within the indigenous population. For example, there is the Church of England. I tabled early-day motion 755 about a month ago, which is headed "Gender Equality in the Church of England". I will skip through it quickly. It reads: That this House notes the Church of England is exempted from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 due to the attitudes and activities of a minority who are in disagreement with the ordination of women; affirms the need to strengthen and forward the movement against discrimination on grounds of gender; trusts the Church will thus be encouraged to catch up speedily with the vast majority of institutions; and believes that the appointment of an Archbishop of Canterbury could provide the perfect opportunity to forge leadership which would unite the Church of England behind justice for women and end the unfortunate and embarrassing need for 'flying' bishops'. I do not have time to go into what flying bishops are, but I am sure that some Members know what I am talking about.

A young lady went to a selection conference for ordination. She was questioned closely about her child care arrangements. Were the young men at that selection conference questioned equally closely about their child care arrangements? Even if they were, it would be unfair if selection conferences were to come down against young women on that ground. She was not selected, and she felt strongly that those conducting the conference were assuming that she could not cope with child care and being a Church of England vicar.

Many women Members cope well—I am amazed by them—with young children and a job in this place. Some of them are Ministers.

Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) tabled early-day motion 927, which is headed, "Military Action against Iraq". By and large, wars are waged by men. I know that this is a generality, but wars are suffered mainly by women and their children. I supported the Government on the need for intervention in Afghanistan because I loathed and detested the Taliban because of their attitude to and cruelty to women. However, I would have grave reservations about any attack on Iraq.


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady has had her 12 minutes.

4.56 pm
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

I am delighted to participate in the debate. I shall deal briefly with two issues that are covered by legislation that the House has been or will be considering this Session. These issues are the selection of election candidates and the situation in private members' clubs.

Currently, Britain has one of the lowest levels of political representation of women in Europe. It has been argued that the best way to counter the trend is for parties to use positive action mechanisms. Encouragement, coercion and shame seem not to have worked. Where positive action has been used it has dramatically increased women's representation.

During the passage of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill, I highlighted that at the previous election we saw 118 women elected to Parliament, which was a smaller number than in 1997. That represents progress at a rate of about 1.5 women a year in the 82 years since women have been eligible to sit in this place. We seem to have gone into reverse, and only Ireland and France have lower levels of female representation.

Positive action is needed, and not only because women are not able to succeed on merit. It is needed because discrimination in the selection process means that they are rarely given the opportunity to try to become elected. Opaque discrimination is inherent in the selection process of all political parties. I suggested on Second Reading of the Bill relating to election candidates that they are predominantly elderly selectors, and in some Tory constituencies might be looking for a married man who is about 40, with a reasonable career in the City, the law or the Army, with some experience of local government. The real clincher would be the attractive wife, two smashing kids and a labrador. The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 is not a patronising measure; it is permissive. Political parties may take advantage of it if they wish, but it does not force any party to adopt all-women shortlists if it does not want to do so. I believe that the measure is essential and will be temporary, although it is very timely.

I turn now to two other measures: the Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Bill, which was introduced in this House in my name and those of several other hon. Members, and the identical Sex Discrimination (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, which received its Second Reading last night in the House of Lords. The measure is simple: it is about dignity and simply provides that if a club offers membership and facilities to men and women, it must do so on equal terms.

When I introduced a similar Bill three years ago, I did not foresee its far-reaching implications. I had had personal experience of the injustice of a club that offered membership to both men and women, but gave women only second-class membership. I refer to the Carlton club, in respect of which I had been part of campaign to try to remedy that injustice. There have now been three separate occasions on which the club has narrowly missed the opportunity to move itself into the modern world. Although others have resigned from the Carlton club both before and after me, the club seems not to want to budge on the issue. I give great credit to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for being the first leader of the Conservative party in 150 years to decline to become a member of the Carlton club because of this very issue. I also congratulate other Conservative Members who have resigned from it in the past few years. Of course, when I introduced my Bill three years ago, it failed, as do many private Members' Bills.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

While my hon. Friend is on the subject of the Carlton club, it may interest him to know that a few years ago, I became the second woman chairman of the Bow group. I was taken aside by a Carlton club member—we used to hold our meetings there regularly—and told that it would probably be all right, as long as I did not make myself too obvious.

Mr. Walter

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

In December last year, I reintroduced my original Bill under the ten-minute rule. It is due to be considered on Second Reading tomorrow, but alas, it lies at No. 5 on the Order Paper, and I fear that it is unlikely to make progress. I was therefore delighted when Lord Faulkner of Worcester introduced the identical Bill in the other place. As I said, it received its Second Reading last night almost without opposition; I fear that the only slight hint of opposition came from a Labour Member, Lord Borne, who felt that the measure was ahead of its time. I am sure that that Bill will make progress; in fact, I know that it will do so. If all goes well, their lordships will complete all stages of consideration in May and then send it down the Corridor to us.

I am extremely grateful for the cross-party support for my Bill and its sister Bill in the other place. I am encouraged by the support from Conservative Members, including Front Benchers. I hope that the actions of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition with regard to the Carlton speak for themselves.

I should also like to express my thanks and admiration to the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, who has made it absolutely clear to me that she now supports the measure. I thank her for that support and for her generosity in meeting me with her officials to discuss how we might take the matter forward. However, I should like unreservedly to apologise to her if the detail of our recent meeting was misrepresented in the press and set the record straight. On the basis that the Government would support the Lords' version of the Bill, she reasonably asked me whether I would withdraw my Bill in this House. I have said—this is a critical indication of the Government's support for the measure—that I shall withdraw my Bill if she can either directly or through the Leader of the House assure me and all the Bill's supporters in this House that Government time will be made available for consideration of the Lords' version when it comes to this place. The Government have to bite the bullet.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

This afternoon, the hon. Gentleman told me on the telephone that the letter in today's edition of The Daily Telegraph was wrong. He has not confirmed that in his speech. For clarity, will he now repeat what he told me on the telephone this afternoon?

Mr. Walter

I do not want to delay the House, but I will happily satisfy the hon. Lady. I repeat what I just said. The hon. Lady did not, as the letter in The Daily Telegraph said, suggest to me that if I withdrew my Bill, the Government would support the Lord's measure, which I think is the crux of what she asked me to say. What I said, and what I repeated, is that I will withdraw my Bill if the Government make time available in this place. I think that that is reasonable on my part, and I am sure that the hon. Lady would agree.

Mrs. Roche

indicated dissent.

Mr. Walter

Perhaps we can discuss that on another occasion.

The Government must bite the bullet. Conservative Members may be embarrassed by one club—the Carlton—but Labour clubs have an appalling record on this issue. The Clubs and Institutes Union, to which Labour clubs are affiliated, has 2,700 member institutions, eight of which are single sex, 1,080, 40 per cent., offer full membership rights to women, and 1,612, 60 per cent., give second-class status to women.

Mr. Joyce

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he is referring to Labour party clubs or is using the word labour in a generic form?

Mr. Walter

They are clubs in the CIU, which is the union to which all Labour clubs are affiliated. I think that that is clear. These are Labour social clubs, sometimes called working men's clubs.

Mr. Joyce

They are nothing to do with the Labour party.

Mr. Walter

In the same way, there are Conservative clubs that are associated to the Association of Conservative Clubs.

I have no doubt of hon. Members abhorrence of that situation, even if some are in denial. Right hon. and hon. Members would abhor the practice, and I have no doubt that they support the Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Bill. But I am looking for a clear commitment that time will be made available in the House to deal with this outdated form of sex discrimination. Such a measure is long overdue. What I want to know now is whether the Government have the commitment to tell the House that they too feel that it is long overdue and will make time available for its debate.

5.8 pm

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley)

As chair of the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health, hon. Members will not be surprised that I want to speak about reproductive rights and sexual violence against women and their impact on gender equality.

Gender-based violence has been the subject of considerable discussion with regard to population matters since the concept of reproductive rights gained currency. The main focus of those discussions has been around domestic violence, honour killings and female genital mutilation. The United Nations declaration on the elimination of violence against women defines violence against women as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women.

Gender-based violence often begins at an early age. Female infanticide has long been practised in societies where male children are still valued, economically and socially, above girls. During childhood, preferential allocation of family resources to male children often impacts negatively on the health of girls.

Domestic violence is the most common form of gender-based violence and, as women enter marriage, often as adolescents and in some instances without their consent, it can become a problem. That is especially true where the husband is considerably older than his wife and where local custom recognises the husband as the dominant partner.

Violence against women occurs in other situations where they are unable to exercise their right to fair treatment. They include the sexual exploitation of women refugees, rape as a weapon of war and trafficking in women for sex work. Trafficking in women has become a global problem and is one of the world's greatest violations of human rights. Up to 1,500 girls and young women are traded into the United Kingdom every year, and those affected are getting younger and younger—many are as young as 15.

To eliminate the trafficking of women into the UK, we must work on three main areas: prosecution, protection and prevention. The crime is cash-rich and traffickers have little to lose. The maximum penalty for human trafficking is only 18 months to two years, so the Government's proposal to increase it is welcome and necessary.

Shelters or refuges for women who are able to escape from traffickers are equally important. Because violence against women is frequently rooted in the unequal balance of power between men and women, the most effective counter-measure over the long term must remain continual progress towards the empowerment of women—equal educational opportunities for girls and, for adult women, greater control over their resources and greater decision-making powers. Those are prerequisites in the drive to eliminate the trafficking of human beings.

The most extreme form of gender-based violence is honour killing, which is used mainly to control women's sexuality and occurs in many countries of western and south Asia. A woman who is raped or voluntarily engages in sex outside marriage is considered to have defiled the family name. In some cases, the woman or girl may be suspected only of shameful or dishonourable behaviour, but the allegation is enough to dishonour her family.

In some countries, the law allows honour killing, but even where it is not explicitly permitted, the crime may not be prosecuted. For example, the penal code of Jordan exempts from any penalty a man who kills, wounds or injures a female relative who has committed adultery. A similar exemption exists in Syrian law. In Pakistan, hundreds of women are killed every year for crimes such as adultery, breaking an arranged marriage or simply attempting to obtain a divorce. A recent study of female homicide in Alexandria, Egypt found that 47 per cent. of all women killed had been murdered by a relative after they had been raped.

Honour killing should and must be tackled. It is an outrage that those who commit such crimes are often openly admired in their communities and subjected only to token prosecution. For too long, some men have been getting away with murder. It is time for Governments and local communities to acknowledge that such actions are crimes and to act decisively. Honour crimes are not confined to developing countries. Whatever they are called, such crimes are committed worldwide. They occur whenever a man regards a woman as his property and seeks to uphold that false assumption by cruel and abusive force.

One of the most complex areas of gender violence is female genital mutilation, or FGM—the name given to several different practices that involve cutting female genitals. Worldwide, an estimated 130 million girls and women have undergone FGM and at least 2 million girls a year are at risk of undergoing some form of the practice. It is usually performed on young girls between the ages of four and 13. The World Health Organisation has stated that FGM doubles the risk of a mother's death in childbirth and increases the risk of her child being born dead by up to three or four times.

Most of the women and girls affected live in Africa, but those who have undergone or who are at risk of FGM are increasingly found in countries of western Europe and other developed countries, primarily among immigrant and refugee communities. Four main justifications are cited for this harmful practice: custom or tradition, religion, social pressure and women's sexuality. It should be remembered that, although FGM is practised by Jews, Christians and Muslims, none of those religions requires it. Although there are such justifications for maintaining the practice, FGM appears to be linked primarily to a desire to subordinate women.

FGM violates the reproductive and human rights of women and girls because it interferes with their right to bodily integrity by removing healthy sexual organs without medical necessity. Although FGM is not undertaken with the intention of inflicting harm, its damaging physical, sexual and psychological effects make it an act of violence against women and girls.

Mrs. Gillan

I agree with the hon. Lady that female genital mutilation is appalling. Does she agree that even legislation does not seem to be the route to banishing this horrible mutilation in certain countries and that only fundamental and continuous education among men and women will lead to good progress being made in outlawing it?

Chris McCafferty

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. We need a bottom-up education of women, as well as of men and children. An education network would ensure that, as groups, they learned about human rights, so that people from countries where FGM is still common realise that the practice is not helpful and must change. However, countries such as Britain must do more through legislation.

Enabling women to choose to abandon FGM requires an improvement in women's status. Governments need to reform all laws that serve as barriers to women's equality. Women must not stand alone in their demand for social justice; other sectors of society must be involved. Women need allies among politicians, religious leaders and health professionals.

Last year, the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health held hearings on this difficult subject. The aim was to raise awareness of the subject in the UK and abroad, and to generate support for FGM prevention and eradication programmes. The UK has a law on FGM: the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe). Despite that Act, there has never been a prosecution in this country, although there is a lot of evidence that FGM is taking place here. An estimated 15,000 girls in the UK are at risk every year, so it is vital that the law is fully implemented.

The hearings panel recommended that the Act be amended to ensure that UK residents who take girls abroad for the purpose of FGM can be prosecuted under UK law when they return, regardless of the legal status of FGM in the country where the mutilation took place. We would also like the name of the Act to be changed to incorporate the term "female genital mutilation". We want health professionals and other relevant authorities to report incidents of FGM so that accurate statistics can be obtained.

Since the UN declaration on the elimination of violence against women in 1993, much progress has been made in establishing reproductive rights. There is, however, a lot more to be accomplished in translating those rights into policies and programmes. Honour killings, human trafficking and female genital mutilation are all gender-based violations that attempt to subordinate women, and it is a fact that gender-based violence causes more disability and deaths in women between the ages of 15 and 44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war put together.

I am sure that all hon. Members condemn the centuries-old practices of slavery and torture, and racial and ethnic prejudice, and rightly so. We certainly condemn them when they involve people of colour, political dissidents or ethnic groups. The violation of women's human rights must be met by the same pressure in the House and internationally. Discrimination against girls is a persistent barrier to achievement. It is a violation of human rights and a threat to development—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady has had her time. I call Angela Watkinson.

5.21 pm
Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

Most inequalities for women spring either directly or indirectly from the fact that women have children and men do not. That fact is never going to change, and we have to face up to it. The holy grail of total equality for women is, therefore, unachievable, but enormous progress has been made over the past decades, and I hope that that will continue.

In the home, both parents now share responsibility for the children in a way that never happened when my children were young. That is not a personal criticism of my husband, I hasten to add. Nowadays, with property prices as they are, most mortgages are two-salary mortgages, so even women who would choose to stay at home and look after their children are unable to do so. The logistics of everyday life in a family—child care, school runs, travel, and going to Brownies, music and swimming lessons—are at least shared by two parents. In my day, women took full responsibility for the running of the entire household and looking after the family, and had a job outside the home only if they could fit it in. Progress has therefore been made in terms of women's ability to choose a career, if they wish to do so.

In the 1950s, all women in the workplace were regarded as temporary employees. It was assumed that, as soon as a woman got married, she would leave fairly shortly afterwards to have children. Even single women who stayed in their jobs all their lives were still regarded as temporary employees, and put on a separate pay scale, on which they were paid less than men for doing exactly the same job. Thank heavens that those days are over. Executive positions for women were extremely rare in those days and, even in 2002, there is a predominance of women in junior posts in most large organisations.

I received a card recently from PCS—the Public and Commercial Services union—about pay in the civil service. I phoned the union, but, unfortunately, it was unable to get back to me to clarify the statistic at the bottom of the card, which states: According to Civil Service Statistics, the median gross salary of women is £14,130 (on a full-time equivalent basis) 72 per cent. that of men. The civil service is supposed to be an enlightened body, so it is very disappointing to know that that disparity still prevails. I wanted to clarify whether that figure involves there being a rate for the job. I hope that it does not mean that women are doing the same job as men for less money. I am sure that it does not, and that it means that there is a rate for the job. The conclusion, however, is that there is a barrier to women receiving promotion, and that a lot of women are undervalued and under-promoted. One wonders whether that is related to the basic fact that they have family commitments. I hope that the organisation will come back to me on that.

Nowadays, there is much heightened awareness of sexism and sexual harassment, which were almost unheard of years ago. It would be a brave colleague on the Conservative Benches who made comments about a "pretty filly" within my earshot, and I do not know who the gentleman referred to earlier was. However, there have been some notable setbacks involving a few well publicised cases in which false accusations have been made. They have done enormous harm to society as a whole, and its perception of gender equality.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) mentioned Sweden. I visit Sweden regularly, because my son lives there. I was interested by the hon. Lady's comments about the list system used in elections. There are 101 seats on Stockholm city council, 51 of which are occupied by women. On my last visit, I asked what the women had done to achieve that, and they protested that they had done nothing. Sweden probably has a more advanced attitude than us to gender equality.

New legislation will enable our own political parties to do what they think is right and fair to encourage more women and members of ethnic minorities to come to this place. I have grave reservations about all-women lists. I wonder how much credibility will be given to women who arrive here by that means, and what status will be afforded to them if it is thought that they might not have managed it otherwise.

Sandra Gidley

As a new Member, can the hon. Lady tell which female Labour Members are products of all-women lists and which are products of the standard selection procedure? I certainly cannot.

Angela Watkinson

I can do so only because it was well publicised at the time. I assure the hon. Lady that I cannot differentiate between them on performance grounds. What concerns me is the perception among the public that those on all-women lists have gained an unfair advantage. Perhaps it would be better if the names, gender and even ages of women applying to become candidates were obscured on their application forms, so that they would be chosen entirely on the basis of merit and experience.

It is particularly important for women to be treated on equal terms in the armed forces, the police and the fire service, where they must serve alongside men. At present, serving men must be confident that women will provide the same service, and will be able to do the job. Diluting entry qualifications is dangerous if standards of service are to be maintained.

The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who is no longer present, spoke of the importance of education. I remember being given career advice at my co-educational grammar school—in 1958, I must confess. Girls were given separate advice. We were taken into the hall and asked to form two orderly groups, teachers on one side and nurses on the other, because those were seen as the only two respectable occupations for women. We are light years away from that now.

Sandra Gidley

Which group did the hon. Lady choose?

Angela Watkinson

Neither, and I was damned from that moment.

There is, 1 believe, a correlation between the amount of sex education and sex information in schools and the alarming number of teenage pregnancies. Sex education for girls should be far more robust. A girl needs to be told in no uncertain terms that if she has sex with a young man with no job, no desire to get married, no desire to settle down, no interest in becoming a parent and no intention of taking responsibility for the outcome—a young man who, unlike the girl, is quite able to walk away from the situation—she will, literally, be left holding the baby. She will be dependent on family or benefits not just for nine months but for a very long time indeed, and will be taking on a 24-hour-a-day responsibility for perhaps 20 years.

Life in a council flat alone with a baby is not half as exciting as that woman might think. Her education will be curtailed, her career prospects ruined, at least for the foreseeable future, and she will have many years of lonely struggle while her personal ambitions are shelved. The skills that she learns during those years are highly transferable to the workplace. Unfortunately, they are not recognised as such, and we can do much more to explain to employers that the survival skills that women learn in those years are of enormous benefit to an organisation. The best service that we can do for girls and boys in school is to encourage them to defer sexual activity until they are physically, emotionally and financially mature, and to plan parenthood. That is the single strategy in sex education that will help both genders.

I look forward to when I am looked on not as a woman MP, but simply as an MP who happens to be a woman, and to when that is reflected throughout the employment spectrum and society.

5.31 pm
Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

I, too, welcome the debate because I have always regarded international women's day as a time of celebration. Indeed, I used to work for Women's Aid in Scotland, and our celebration lasted a whole week, so I am comfortable with carrying it on as long as possible.

Legislation on equal treatment and the promotion of policies to ensure the participation of all citizens in our society—women and men alike—so that they are represented equally in the economy, in decision making and in social, cultural and civil life as part of their human rights, have made a great deal of progress domestically, at a European level and on an international basis through the United Nations. The Scottish Parliament, although in its infancy, is making significant progress on new ways of working that are more relevant to women in the community.

There is still a gap, however. Not all the progress has been translated on a daily basis to produce equal rights between men and women. Women often do not enjoy equal rights in various spheres. Structural gender inequalities remain in place, fundamentally for the same reasons as always—the issue of power, where it lies, and how it is exercised in society in the private and public sectors.

Many of the struggles for equality that women have pursued, as the Minister said, until recently led to an extension of rights and responsibilities to women as if they were the same as men. Other hon. Members alluded to the fact that that created the burden of the dual role of women being left largely unquestioned and taken for granted. Ironically, that approach recently created the image of the emancipated woman who can work, look after a home and children and participate in the public world all at the same time. Many of us can do that, but is the situation ideal and what pressures does it bring?

The Minister also mentioned the sexual division of labour. She suggested that more progress has been made than I would perhaps recognise. I do not see in my daily life or in the lives of many of my female constituents men doing anything like their fair share of caring or domestic responsibilities. Although things have improved, there is a long way to go.

I welcome gender mainstreaming, an approach by the Government to acknowledge that women's concerns, needs and aspirations are taken into account and assume the same importance as men's concerns in the design and implementation of policies. In parallel with bringing issues that have a direct and indirect impact on the lives of women into the heart of policy making, we also need to take specific actions in favour of women to address the particular problems that the Minister and others mentioned. They include low pay, the national child care strategy, equal pay, women's representation and violence against women. I spent 16 years working in the field of domestic violence before I was elected, and the subject is very close to my heart. Violence against women is at the extreme of a continuum of oppression of women that is world wide and no respecter of class, colour or creed, as the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who is not in her place, has said. It has its roots in the male abuse of power.

It is welcome that the Government have played such a prominent part in addressing domestic violence. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) highlighted the possibility of keeping women in the home where they had been subjected to domestic violence. From my many years of experience, I believe that there is still a need, which will continue in the long term, for refuge provision as well. We cannot say that we are making real progress until we make sure that every woman and child escaping domestic violence has a refuge space to go to if that is required. We still have a long way to go in that respect.

It is not all down to Government or to mainstream political activity. Meaningful changes in women's lives are also dependent on social movements within civil society. Historically, women have relied on movements such as the women's movement—of which I am proud to regard myself as a member—to make advances and pressurise the Government to make advances for women, and I believe that that is still the case today.

There can be no more stark reminder of the difficulties that women have faced in trying to seek equality than in the lack, historically, of decent, affordable child care. The dearth of child care in this country, which was almost bottom of the European Union league table for many years, was an outrage and a disgrace. Cuts in public services over the years meant that nursery places were like gold and, when my children were young, people could not get a nursery place for love or money. At that stage, like many other women, I did not have the money.

The hon. Member for Meriden did not like to go over the history of her party in this regard, and who can blame her? However, I am old enough to remember the Tories' so-called "back to basics" campaign, which sought to dismantle the welfare state and create a welfare society based on women's unpaid labour. When we think of the effects of that policy on poor women and lone parents during that horrible time in our history, we may be cynical now about the Tories' new-found concerns about public services.

In those days, as the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) said, many women had to rely on state benefits or on partners who could be unreliable in supporting their partners and children. That is one of the reasons for the introduction of the Child Support Agency, although it turned out to be a disaster for a long time.

Child care has always been key to women's economic independence. That is why I particularly welcome the national child care strategy and the working families tax credit, which have benefited many in my constituency.

On low pay, again we have the worst record in the EU. I recognise that the Government are making progress and have plans to improve the situation. I do not think that a gender gap of 18 per cent. is good enough. There has been tremendous progress, but in this day and age such a gap should not exist.

I support the recommendations of the equal pay taskforce in its report "Just Pay", commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission, for legislation to ensure that pay reviews are carried out. We will not get equal pay with voluntary arrangements. All the evidence shows that these things never happen in that way. I ask the Minister to comment on that.

I have strong views about women's representation and very much welcome the legislation that the Government have introduced with all-party support. I hope that, as the Minister stated, we will see real progress and specific measures to improve the situation. I have absolute disdain for the lost opportunity at the 2001 election in Scotland, when many former male Members of this House went to the Scottish Parliament and, with two exceptions, were replaced by men, when there was an ideal opportunity to make places for women.

I get frustrated about the amount of time that we must spend campaigning on this issue. I do not think that every woman wants to be a Member of Parliament. They are concerned about other issues and it would be good if we did not have to spend so much time dealing with it.

In conclusion, I mentioned the superwoman that we are all supposed to be in society now. I will treat the House to a part of my speech to the Scottish Labour group's Burns supper, which concerns the superwoman. whose typical day goes like this: She wakes up to her 2.6 children. They go downstairs and she gives them a nutritional breakfast which they eat, and they go off to school without once forgetting their lunch money. She goes upstairs and gets dressed in her £300 suit and goes off to her £100,000 job, which is both creative and socially useful. After work, she comes home and spends a wonderful hour relating to her children—because after all it's not the quantity but the quality of time that's important. She then prepares a gourmet dinner for her husband. They spend some time working on their meaningful relationship, after which they go upstairs where she has multiple orgasms until midnight. I did not make that up—it was written by an American woman writer.

I prefer the words of Elaine C. Smith, a famous Scottish actress. Referring to the women curlers' success recently in winning a gold medal, she said: only Scottish women could be expert At brushing round a dead weight.

5.43 pm
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

All I can say after the speech of the hon. Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne) is, in the words of the film, "I'll have what she's having!"

I am almost uniquely unqualified to take part in this debate on women and equality, according to my wife. She says that she will read the debate in Hansard, so I must mind what I say. For years, she has been trying to get me to read "The Female Eunuch" by Germaine Greer, and a book that is apparently called, "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus". I have read neither of those books, so I cannot argue about what they might contribute to my greater understanding of the problem.

We have heard some interesting things in the debate, although I will temper what I am about to say by pointing out that when men speak on a matter that is so predominantly a woman's issue we can occasionally stray between humbug, cliché, condescension and being politically correct. There has been a fair amount of those in equal measure this afternoon.

I am mindful of the time and that others wish to speak, but must refer to what my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), who is no longer present, said about his Bill. I understood—it was a misunderstanding—that the legislation would mean that male-only private clubs would have to admit women, and vice versa. I understand now that that is not the case. The Bill deals with clubs that allow in both sexes and would ensure that they were treated equally. That came as something of a disappointment to me, as for quite a while I have been trying to gain access to Sanctuary—the all-women health club and spa. Joking apart, as the new president of the council of western Conservative clubs, which consists of 160 affiliated Conservative clubs in the west country, I assure my hon. Friend—or I would if he were in his place—that I shall ensure that there is equal treatment of both genders in those clubs, if that is within my remit.

Recently, I served with great interest on the Tax Credits Bill Standing Committee. Many of the arguments that we have heard this afternoon were rehearsed during the passage of that Bill—the working families tax credit, the replacement value of women and so on. As we know, many women are trapped at home with their children—as my wife is. The other day a poll showed men's assessment of the replacement value of their wives. It was a pathetically small amount—about £6,000 a year—although we all know that the real amount is well in excess of £60,000. For too long, some men—I hope I am not of their number—have taken for granted the enormous amount of work that women undertake in the home, bringing up children.

The Secretary of State referred to the work-family balance, which will be of increasing importance as we have more leisure time, greater flexibility in the workplace and more job sharing. However, I am concerned that the measures that are slowly being introduced will increase the general burden on small businesses through additional costs. We should bear that in mind.

I shall talk later about retirement and pensions, but I want briefly to refer to women in senior executive positions, where their numbers are woefully inadequate. Women in such positions are held up as the exception when they should be the norm.

I am surprised that we have not spent more time talking about education this afternoon, although if there is inequality in education, it affects males rather than females. Given that a larger proportion of women enter the teaching profession. the educational results are interesting. For example, in their last year of compulsory education, 55 per cent. of girls but only 44 per cent. of boys gain five or more A to C grades, or standard grades I to 3 at SCE—Scottish Certificate of Education.

We should debate the shortage of men in the teaching profession. It is argued that males underperform, especially in primary school, owing to the lack of men in the profession. I do not know whether that is true. I prefer the view of Chris Woodhead, the former head of Ofsted: What we need are teachers in primary schools who can teach, which means … keeping order. I can remember some women teachers who are remarkably good at keeping order … and there are plenty of men who aren't. I wholeheartedly agree with that: teachers can be good or bad—regardless of sex. We should consider what we can learn from the fact that girls perform better in school.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) pointed out that we fail girls as regards sex education in schools. We should teach them about the loneliness of being single mothers—so that they do not end up feeling as lonely as the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who is the lone representative of her party here this afternoon.

As we have heard, women often suffer because they have to dip in and out of work. They need greater flexibility so that they can re-enter the work force after they have children. There is no doubt that, in the past, they were penalised for that. I hope that current and future legislation will recognise that. To some extent it has done so already.

We should also consider the type of work that women actually get. Too often, they are trapped in traditionally low-paid jobs in care homes—that is especially true in my constituency—or as shelf stackers. We have already heard about nurses. Women work as social workers, cleaners and so on. That is a very real problem.

I want to touch on a subject that I know my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) wants to speak about later: the equality of women in the armed forces. I was in the armed forces, and I think that women play an increasingly important role in them. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster that they should be there on their own merit, and there should be no dumbing down. We should certainly have extremely strong reservations about allowing women to operate on the front line in some areas of combat.

Mr. Joyce

It was perhaps a bit daft to use the phrase "dumbing down". When tests were introduced to see whether women were suitable for the new occupations within the armed services, some of the men failed the tests that they would need to pass to join the teams, especially in the Royal Artillery, where they would have to lift heavy equipment. It was the teams, not the individuals that did the tasks. It is not a case of dumbing down or lowering standards.

Mr. Swire

In the interests of gender solidarity, I will accept the hon. Gentleman's criticism. I meant no disrespect to women who are in or who want to join the armed forces. In fact, I said exactly the reverse: that no allowances should be made, because both men's and women's lives can be at risk in combat.

I come from a fairly liberal arts background; I genuinely believe that being a woman has never been a hindrance. In fact, the boss at the last company I worked for was a woman. I will not talk about her now—she is involved in a rather high-profile court case in New York.

It is interesting to see how women are emerging in the arts. Historically, the great classical musicians were men, but now the great pop musicians, who are perhaps replacing them—the girl bands and icons for the young such as Madonna and Kylie Minogue—are women. None of the impressionists and very few portraitists in the 18th and 19th centuries were female, but now there is thriving participation of women and some of our best contemporary artists are female. Women occupy many of the most important posts in arts administration, too.

In literature, we had the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen, and now we have A. S. Byatt, P. D. James, and of course J. K. Rowling—all icons in their own way to women in the workplace.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

My hon. Friend has not mentioned sport. He may be interested to know that the trainer of the winner of the Cheltenham gold cup this afternoon is a woman, Henrietta Knight, who lives quite near my constituency in Oxfordshire. In many such fields, women are beating men at their own game.

Mr. Swire

I have met that trainer and I hope that my hon. Friend has profited personally from his close association with her this afternoon. Let us not forget the women's curling team who had such success at the recent winter Olympics: shining icons to all women who may want to take up that sport.

Our actresses are, I would suggest, way ahead of our actors. Younger women need role models, but not enough women are at the top of their professions, apart from those I have mentioned.

I mentioned earlier the excellent woman leader of the Conservative group on Devon county council, and Conservative-controlled East Devon council also has an excellent woman leader, but there is no doubt that there are not enough women in politics. I recently entertained two Members of the Youth Parliament, both of whom were girls from Exmouth, and they were pretty unimpressed by what they saw here. They thought that we had very little relevance to their everyday lives, particularly, I suspect, because there were very few women role models on whom they could base their ambitions.

I am against all-women shortlists. I recognise that we have a problem in our society and that we must address it. I know that we will address it, and I welcome that. However, there are ways of achieving that other than all-women shortlists. I very much hope to welcome, after the next general election, at least another 150 female Conservative colleagues.

5.54 pm
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I am pleased to contribute to our debate; I am glad that it has been restored after a lapse of a few years. It is important to celebrate women's hard work in countries all over the world; international women's day provides an opportunity to do so, and I am pleased that we are having a debate on women and equality.

The Government have made considerable improvements in the position of women. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women listed many achievements, including the minimum wage, the record rise in child benefit, the extension of maternity leave and the introduction of parental leave. The Government have put the work-life balance on the political agenda for the first time and given it tremendous prominence in their planning; I applaud their achievement. I am particularly glad that they have promoted and encouraged breastfeeding, as it has known health benefits for women and babies, both here and in other countries, where many babies die because they are not breast-fed.

We have made progress in the House and the country at large in recognising the importance of breastfeeding, but there is still a long way to go before it becomes culturally acceptable, both here and among the wider public, and people are open and relaxed about it. That is essential if we are to encourage young women to breastfeed and not discriminate against working women who breastfeed, as European Union and health and safety regulations recommend. I hope that we can have a fuller debate on the subject in future.

My right hon. Friend referred to the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002. the success of which we are all celebrating today. I am sure that it will mean that eventually, on the Labour Benches, there will be equal numbers of men and women MPs. As hon. Members know, the Act is permissive, so it is up to political parties to use the power that it provides. In an intervention, I said that at the Welsh Labour party conference at Llandudno next week, we will vote on whether to introduce all-women shortlists for a number of vacant seats in next year's elections to the Welsh Assembly. My right hon. Friend confirmed that that will be the first action taken by a political party under the Act. I look forward to the conference, where I shall strongly support the motion to introduce all-women shortlists; I am hopeful of its success.

The Assembly has already got a high number of women; 41 per cent. of its Members are women, which is the second highest percentage in European legislatures. It is important to maintain those numbers and the mechanism of all-women shortlists, if approved by the conference, will enable us to do so. I shall therefore support the motion, and the Government should be congratulated on enabling it to be introduced.

It is easy to establish new arrangements in new institutions; when the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were set up, it was easy to introduce good practices such as twinning mechanisms. Those mechanisms are much more difficult to introduce in an establishment such as the Westminster Parliament, which has been in existence for a long time. The Government of Wales Act 1998 includes a section on equal opportunities, which places a statutory duty on the Welsh Assembly to make appropriate arrangements with a view to securing that its business is conducted with due regard to the principle that there should be equality of opportunity for all people. I should like to pay tribute again to the hard work of Val Feld, an Assembly Member who died last year; she made an enormous effort to ensure, when director of the Equal Opportunities Commission for Wales, that such a section was in the Act.

In the United Kingdom, that clause has a unique scope, covering all the Assembly's functions, including economic development, planning, education and social services. It also applies to everybody in Wales for whom the Assembly provides a service. It is a very important clause. The Assembly's Standing Committee on Equality of Opportunity was set up to ensure that that duty is adhered to. It publishes a report each year, which also deals with how the Assembly runs its business in relation to equal opportunities.

I call on the Government to consider introducing a statutory equality duty. That would help focus our attention on improving equal opportunities in the services that we as a Government provide. We should also create an equal opportunities Select Committee, which could monitor the work of the different Departments and press for the advancement of equal opportunities issues in the House. The section in the Government of Wales Act to which I referred is unique, and we would benefit by extending such a duty to this House.

It is probably easier for a body such as the Assembly—it is responsible for only 3 million people and has only 60 Members—to work in the cross-cutting way in which one must work to achieve equal opportunities. It is worth putting on the record some of the things that the Assembly has already achieved. It has introduced mandatory equal opportunities training for all its 3,500 staff, which is a big step forward. As a councillor, I found it extremely difficult to introduce such training for all council staff.

As a result of changes in recruitment practice, internal civil service recruitment will be replaced by open public recruitment for advertised posts. Independent research into the Assembly's achievements in its fairly short life has acknowledged the fact that modest progress has been made. Such progress has been attributed to the statutory duty that informs everything that the Assembly does. I ask the Minister to comment on whether such a statutory duty could be introduced in Westminster, along with an equal opportunities Select Committee.

I want to refer briefly to the pay gap, which has been discussed at length today. The Assembly is trying to tackle the pay gap, together with the Equal Opportunities Commission and the TUC. I worked closely with those organisations on equal opportunity in Wales, and I pay tribute to them. In November last year, the EOC commissioned the first in-depth study of the pay gap in Wales. The study, which was carried out by Swansea university. showed that women's hourly earnings in Wales are 13 per cent. lower than men's. The gap is smaller than the corresponding difference in England because men's pay is lower in Wales.

For part-time workers, the situation in Wales is even worse, although the same can be said of other regions. The difference in average hourly pay between a woman working part-time and a man working full-time is 36 per cent., although the figure does vary across Wales. There are many reasons for that difference, and many proposals could be introduced to improve the situation, particularly in relation to child care. We in Wales have made considerable progress on child care. Many more places are available, but we need to consider the expense. Research has shown that those extra places are perhaps not accessible to families who are less well-off.

We must also consider working with organisations to persuade them to examine their practices and the pay gap. Public organisations in particular should review their pay systems, and in that regard the Assembly has taken a lead. It has reviewed its pay systems and established a three-year plan for closing the pay gap. In taking the lead in Wales, it is encouraging other organisations to do the same.

In Wales, enormous progress has been made and distinct and measurable improvements achieved. There is a long way to go, but with this Government working in collaboration with the Assembly in Wales, we will continue to make tremendous progress and give women their rightful place in society.

6.5 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

I hope that the hon. Ladies on the Government Benches will forgive the voters of Newark and Retford for taking an equal opportunities approach at the general election and reducing their number by one. I hope that that will not be held against me.

The other day I was in the village of Elkesley, which is one of the more remote villages between Newark and Retford. I spoke to a young lady who was finishing school and about to take her A-levels. I asked her what she intended to go on to do. She said that she was going to university, where she would be sponsored by her employers. That struck me as very sensible and I asked her who they were. She said they were the Royal Navy. I asked what she intended to do in the Royal Navy. She said that she was hoping to go to Dartford to be commissioned and then to become a seaman officer. I thought that that was marvellous. My service experience started at a time when a very different approach was taken to women. I hope that Miss Shani Dyer has a successful and rewarding career on a completely equal footing with the men of the Royal Navy.

I was surprised to read this morning in The Times an article entitled "Army gets 'bitch TV' treatment". Hon. Members may not know what bitch television is, but I shall enlighten them. The article states: The team behind both the football drama and Bad Girls, set in a women's prison, are working on Bombshell, a racy spin on life in uniform … Shed Productions … has secured the co-operation of the MoD for the series, which will make Soldier, Soldier appear staid. Bombshell will show women fighting for equality on the front line and recruits who want their share of sex and drugs. Life has changed. What I saw in the armed forces was very different and I hope and trust that things remain the same.

I was at Sandhurst in 1974 and 1975, with no ladies present at all. They were trained elsewhere—at their own college just up the road. We frequently tried to invade it, without much success. I then joined an infantry battalion on operations in Northern Ireland, again with no women present. By the time I left the Army, female naval ratings were serving at sea on board warships and some 70 per cent. of the jobs in the Army were available to women. The Women's Royal Army Corps had ceased to exist and women were being badged to combat arms, and to all arms of the service, in one of the most sensible, pragmatic and reasonable approaches to equality of employment across the spectrum.

My first introduction to that approach was when I was picked to be my battalion's intelligence officer in Belfast in 1982. I inherited, much to the envy of my colleagues, a platoon of the Women's Royal Navy Service. Much ribald comment was made about those women, but in the difficult, cramped and dangerous conditions of Belfast in the 1980s they proved to be more than equal to the task. I hope that it will not sound patronising—it is not meant to—if I say that those women had a particular gift for picking up intelligence matter, processing it and coming up with conclusions that men would not have the eye for detail to produce. It was also reassuring to be driven in plain clothes in a civilian car by an armed and dangerous Wren, who—I hope—gave the opposition every impression of normal life. I am not sure that that was always the case.

Let us consider the example of foreign armies. The Israelis have long had an integrated policy for their women soldiers, sailors and airmen. It has not worked in their combat arms. The Serbs, whom I have seen at close quarters several times in the past few years, had women soldiers in the front line, acting as signallers, drivers and couriers. They often worked behind enemy lines but not actually in the firing line. I suppose that female suicide bombers are an example of total equal opportunities. There is no form of more dangerous combat activity and, mercifully, it is unlikely to happen in this country.

It is interesting to see how women have been absorbed into the Army. Most of the combat arms accept women—the Royal Signallers, the Royal Engineers and the Royal Artillery. I come back to a point made by the hon. and gallant Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce)—that the Royal Artillery has been particularly successful. No soldiers are further forward on the battle line than the Royal Artillery. Women in the Royal Artillery serve right up at the front in forward observation units, but not necessarily on the gun line. I shall return to that in a moment, and some Labour Members may want to comment on that point. Women are also in the Army Air Corps flying combat helicopters.

I draw the House's attention to one category of women who give the lie to many of the armed forces' policies. Although to the best of my knowledge there are no women in the Special Air Service, there are certainly women serving on special duties. Without going into details, those special duties are restricted entirely to operations in Northern Ireland and in similar theatres elsewhere. A very small number of those women, who are committed on a daily basis to combat duties, have been in action and have been decorated for their gallantry by the Queen. However, I emphasise that they are a very small number of women and a very special group. It is therefore probably right that units such as the infantry and the Royal Armoured Corps do not accept women into their ranks.

I was visited by representatives of the Equal Opportunities Commission when I was serving with a Warrior battalion—an armoured personnel carrier-equipped battalion. The commission representatives were allowed to sit in the back of a Warrior during nuclear, biological and chemical warfare training. The vehicle was closed down in total darkness and there was no movement outside the vehicle for as long as the attack lasted. After a couple of hours, two of the lady members of the team said, "We'd like to go to the loo, please." The answer was, "Please carry on." The ladies reached to get out of the vehicle, which, clearly, they could not do in those conditions. They replied, "Sorry, we don't understand." They were then told, "There's a chemical lavatory in the back of the vehicle." There were seven bodies in the back of that vehicle, two of whom were women. One can imagine that seven hairy infantrymen carrying out nature's functions would be unpleasant enough—I dare say that if the whole crew had been female it would have been pleasant enough—but those ladies blanched and never returned to the question of women trying to serve in infantry units. I would make exactly the same points about tank crews and other armoured vehicle crews. There are simple, straightforward limits.

I was involved in gender-free testing while I was still serving, and I think that a Labour Member was also involved. There is a tendency in the Army to be concerned that women will work their wiles and end up in the Parachute Regiment, in the Royal Marines or manning a general purpose machine gun. We heard earlier about the test to lift a Royal Artillery shell for an AS90 self-propelled gun. That test is almost impossible to achieve—possible but difficult—for a very fit and well-trained man. It was designed to keep women away from the gun line.

The Army employs a full colonel on a salary of more than £60,000 a year to make sure that these issues are properly considered and properly treated. My experience—and possibly that of other hon. Members—is that women do not want to serve in those capacities. Very few women wish to be in the infantry, although some do. Very few women want to become paratroopers, although some do. The armed forces are guilty of being terribly narrow minded about an issue that is not an issue.

We have seen women taking their right and proper place in the armed forces—well forward, doing tremendous jobs and bearing the brunt of operations at home and abroad. I suggest that we should honour them for that, treat them with total equality and understand that they serve just as properly and just as gallantly as men.

6.14 pm
Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

It always shocks me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to realise that only 252 of the 4,500 Members of Parliament elected since 1918 have been women.

I have listened with interest to the debate and to the comments made by my sisters and colleagues on the Labour Benches, and by other hon. Members. I am never ashamed of using the word "sisters", because that is what we are. We celebrate the fact that we are women taking part in a process that we hope makes a difference for women outside the House.

The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said that the Conservative party would support all-women shortlists in an attempt to get more women into Parliament, but I could see the expressions on the faces of her—mostly male—colleagues behind her. I have a strange feeling that some of them will not share my celebrations at the announcement.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

I think that the hon. Lady may be mistaken. I understood my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) to say that the Conservative party would look carefully at its selection process, to ensure that women have the best possible chances. I do not believe that we have endorsed all-women shortlists.

Laura Moffatt

What a surprise. I think that we will let that statement lie on the Floor of the House.

Last weekend, many hon. Members will, like me, have celebrated international women's day and mothering Sunday with women in their communities. We got into the roots of our communities, and found out the difficulties and needs of women there. I attended my community centre to enjoy the celebrations, to send cards and chocolate, and to talk about what it means to be a women under a Labour Government. The women to whom I spoke were very pleased about much of what has been done. For example, the working families tax credit has transformed my neighbourhood, and the child care element of the credit has done an enormous amount for women in the south-east.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will raise the lower limit to allow more women access to child care. That will get them where they want to be—out in the work place, where they can make their way in the world, while their children get the first-class care that they enjoy so much. Women Members of Parliament must represent women and ensure that women's needs are brought to the fore. I have no doubt that lots of male hon. Members will co-operate and support us.

I have never been ashamed of the fact that I was selected through an all-women shortlist. I am proud of that because men dominate my constituency Labour party, and they were the ones who voted for an all-women shortlist. They wanted to be part of what happened in 1997 in this House, and to be able to say that they had assisted women to increase female representation here. I salute them for that, and for the fact that they stuck by the decision. People must not think that women feel like second-class Members of Parliament, because we certainly do not.

Women continue to face problems, such as with the Child Support Agency. We are beginning to put things right, but the list of difficulties remains long. Many of them have been dealt with well in today's debate, but I want to turn to international matters. It is easy to talk about great international affairs, such as the catastrophe in Afghanistan, but we must remember that, in recent history, women used to be able to be elected to the Parliament there. Such women are supported by women in this Parliament, particularly on this side of the House. It is important that we bring those issues to the fore.

We have talked about a woman in Nigeria who is to undergo a stoning. We hope that the practice is in abeyance, but as an international issue, it is still much to the fore. Women's greatest difficulties arise when there is no news for them, and when things are happening off the radar screen of Members of Parliament. That is why I want to say something about the work of the National Council of the Resistance of Iran. Its women's committee has worked tirelessly, and many hon. Members will have been approached by it. Its work is difficult because there is never anything different to say; they just have to keep ploughing on, trying to get our support and bringing to our attention all the difficulties that women experience in Iran today.

We have talked about one Nigerian woman, and that is bad enough, but since that case, four women in Iran have died from stoning. We have said and done nothing about that. That is why it is so important that the women's committee works tirelessly with us. Today, a very successful event in the House of Commons tried to bring those issues to the fore on the front burner. We must understand that in Iran executions continue in their thousands, as do public floggings, which can be meted out just because a woman is not wearing her head-dress properly or behaving as a good Muslim woman should.

We have been talking about equality. Let us take an example of inequality in Iran. Men who have been condemned to death by stoning are buried up to their waist first, and there is a small chance of them escaping. When women are stoned to death, they are buried up to their armpits so that their breasts are not damaged, but of course they have no chance of escaping that terrible death. These are the issues that we need to bring to the attention of all Parliaments in the world.

Suicide is an enormous issue in Iran. Many women kill themselves because they have few or no opportunities. Many are educated, and some can take advantage of their education, but 64 per cent. of women with a degree cannot use it in any way to assist their country. Ensuring that women can play their part is not simply about soft, equality issues; it is about hard economics, health and educating our children.

This is probably the most important thing that we will ever discuss, and I sincerely hope that we continue to hold this debate in future years. It is important that we are able to raise these issues and take them forward. I am glad that we can celebrate improvements for women and press for further gains. We must make sure that we make life better for women around the world.

6.23 pm
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate, not only on behalf of all my women constituents but, from a personal point of view, because I have three young daughters. I want them to grow up in a world where they have every possible opportunity to fulfil all their potential in whatever way they choose. It is absolutely right that they should have equal opportunities in employment, and it is worrying to learn of the gender gap in pay.

I was particularly struck by the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) of new graduates entering employment. Even at that early stage, before female graduates have taken on any family responsibilities, there is already a gender pay gap. That is unacceptable. I hope that it will increasingly be phased out as employers realise that it is not acceptable at the start of the 21st century.

I pay tribute to various prominent female members of my community. There are notably three who have an especially distinguished record in local government. Councillor Mary Biswell is the mayor of Dunstable. She has a distinguished record, notably in raising money for charity, for many good causes.

Councillor Pat Staples is the chairman of South Bedfordshire district council. She, too, is an extremely hard-working community councillor, and well loved throughout the district. Finally, there is Councillor Angela Roberts, the deputy leader of Bedfordshire county council. She is an inspiration to all her colleagues on the council. These women are valued and prominent members of my local community who contribute wholeheartedly to local government throughout Bedfordshire.

I listened carefully to the way in which the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry introduced the debate. I am pleased that I largely agreed with many of her points. I listened carefully when she talked about what women wanted. I am pleased that she said that it was not for the Government to dictate to or impose a particular lifestyle on women, or men.

It is important that we have a genuine respect for the choices that women make at different stages of their lives and careers. I want a level playing field, so that there is real choice for women when they consider having children in terms of going to work and returning to work.

I commend to the House the considerable work of Dir. Catherine Hakim, who is a senior research fellow in sociology at the London school of economics. Her conclusions are that women split into three broad categories, which are roughly as follows.

About 20 per cent. of women prefer to have a largely home-centred lifestyle. That is where they are fulfilled. They choose to do that, and should be supported and encouraged in that important work.

About another 20 per cent. of women wish to have an entirely work-centred lifestyle. They will commit themselves entirely to a career. Often they will stay with one employer for a long time and not enter into responsibilities as a parent.

The vast majority of women—the remaining 60 per cent.—are what Dr. Hakim described as having an "adaptive preference". They will want to go between the worlds of home and work at various stages in their career. It is important that we bear that in mind. We should not think that there is only one model for women in the work force.

These findings from the academic world were born out by a survey in 2001 that was undertaken by the magazine Top Sante, which consulted many young women which I shall quote briefly. It found that only 4 per cent. of working women with a baby or young child would choose, if they had the choice, to work full-time. Thirty-one per cent. of respondents said that they would prefer to have a part-time career job share. Twenty-two per cent. said that they would prefer to work from home or set up their own business.

Significantly, 43 per cent. of respondents said that they would like to be full-time mums, if they had the opportunity. Commenting on the survey, Juliette Kellow, the editor of Top Sante, said: The Government wants to encourage as many women as possible into full-time work, but this is blatantly not what most women want, especially those with families. Working full time for most women with families is a major problem, physically, emotionally and mentally. This survey shows that it is also extremely damaging to family life and relationships. I do not think that it is up to Members of Parliament or the Government to be prescriptive about how women choose to balance their responsibilities, but it is important that we bear in mind the vast range of choices and personal preferences.

I have a worry with regard to the European dimension. I am concerned that the European Commission is concentrating only on the full-time employment model in respect of women. There is evidence that Allan Larsson, a former director general of Directorate-General V, has pushed the European Commission in that direction. On a recent visit to Brussels with the Select Committee on. Work and Pensions, I was concerned that the overwhelming preference seemed to be to increase women's participation in the work force. Various targets were set out in that regard, but it did not seem that sufficient account was taken of different choices.

Returning to the situation at home, I have a concern about the child care tax credit, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt). Although I welcome the introduction of the tax credit and the Government's underlying intention, two specific concerns have still not been addressed. First, two-parent single-earner families are excluded, so there is an implied reduction of the significance of parents who choose to stay at home and look after their children. Secondly, the credit is awarded only for registered child care outside the home, but we know that vast numbers of people prefer informal child care arrangements. About 44 per cent. of manual workers with children have some grandparent involvement and many others are happy for friends or family—often sisters and aunts—to be involved in looking after their children in their own homes, but such care is outside the scope of the child care tax credit. I ask the Minister to consider again whether something could be done to extend the scope of a measure that is generally good.

Internationally, it is interesting to see how different European countries have handled such measures. For example, Finland has a home care allowance that is paid to some 75 per cent. of women who have children under three, paying up to 40 per cent. of the average wage. The allowance gives women real choice in the early years of their children's lives about whether they want to stay at home to look after them or go out to work. In Norway, the same system is in place for all women with children under two. France has the allocation parental d'education, which is paid after the birth of the second child until that child is three. So three major European industrial countries are taking an approach that is significantly different from that of the UK to the care of children in their early years in terms of giving women a choice.

When we consider the difference between tax systems in Europe, we see that in Germany, there is a much greater emphasis on transferable tax allowances. There is evidence that many women appreciate that approach as it gives them a greater choice when children come along. The additional tax allowances in Germany provide support for families in the early years of children's lives, which is much appreciated. France has income splitting—a recognition of how many mouths one salary has to feed. Evidence from France shows that that scheme is viewed by women as a significant recognition of their right to have a choice.

We have heard much about how child care is important in giving women the ability to enter the work force. I should like women who do not choose to use child care to have the benefit of longer career breaks so that when they return to work after having looked after their children for a number of years they can get back into the stride of their careers. Retraining will obviously be an important part of that. I was particularly pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) introduced the family scholarship scheme in the last Parliament to help with the retraining of women coming back into the labour force after having taken time out to look after children or elderly or dependent relatives.

We have heard that the poorest pensioners are often the oldest ones—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

6.36 pm
Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

I realised what a long way women still had to go to achieve equality during the year that I was the first woman Labour mayor of my borough of Redbridge. Not only was it often assumed that I was the mayoress, but at a function arranged by a national charity, the president asked me what a housewife like me was doing being a mayor. I spluttered something about being a professional person, to which he asked what a professional housewife like me was doing being a mayor.

That leads me to the outstanding work of women in their local communities, particularly in local government, which formed part of my route to this place. Women are high achievers on their local councils and good examples in their local communities. I particularly want to pay tribute to Councillor Liz Pearce, who, regrettably, is standing down in May. She was the first woman leader of the Labour group and of the council, at a time when her sons were two and four years old, so she had a lot to cope with. I pay tribute to her tireless work for the people of the borough during her time on the council.

We need more women councillors. My own authority has managed to achieve only a fifth of its membership being female as far back as I can remember and we need to bring more women into local government.

The contribution of women to the wider community through voluntary organisations is also worthy of recognition and celebration. Through work that I did on behalf of the National Childbirth Trust I became a member of the Redbridge community health council, where I met Eileen Gordon, the former Member of Parliament for Romford, who represented her CHC in Havering. She did outstanding work on health issues, which she continued through her work on the Select Committee on Health.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Linda Perham

I am sorry, but I do not have time.

During my involvement with local community issues I have never ceased to support the work of women locally as magistrates, school governors and chairs of strategic health authorities. They make up about half their appointees, but that is not enough.

I want briefly to mention the Women's library which took over from the Fawcett library. I worked there for many years. It has just moved into splendid premises opened by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport at the end of January. I recommend a visit to see the exhibition "Cooks and Campaigners", which has items selected by prominent women in public life, including Cherie Booth, Kate Adie, Mary Quant and others.

I am pleased that the Government support the aim of 45 to 50 per cent. of public appointments made by central Government being filled by women by the end of 2005.

Others have spoken about the Government's achievements. In particular I pay tribute to the Government for introducing the national minimum wage. I also commend my union, Unison, on its campaign on equal pay for women and its championing of public services. However, I am disappointed that the Government will not introduce the EU directive on equal treatment in employment until 2006. My hon. Friend the Minister knows my views on that, and she has addressed the all-party group on ageing and older people.

I should like briefly to mention Redbridge women's day, which took place last Saturday and was addressed by the Minister for Lifelong Learning. Last year, we were addressed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. It was an interesting day, with a laughter therapy session and a tea bar run by men, and it was attended by more than 100 women.

I finish where I started—by praising the work of women in local communities. Some want to remain as carers; some want to go on to local, national and international politics. Much work is needed to improve women's lives. The debate is well timed in the week following international women's day, but it is not only on that day, or during this week, that we should acknowledge, celebrate and shout about women's achievements—we should do it every day.

6.40 pm
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) was able to speak in this excellent debate, to which 12 Members, apart from the Front-Bench spokesmen, contributed. For the Minister for Women and me the debate is a case of deja vu—certainly, I feel as if I have been here before.

Many good things were said in the debate, but sadly many good things were unsaid because we did not have enough time. I hope that the Minister agrees that next time the debate should take place not only in Government time, but on a day when there are not three statements and we can do justice to the contributions of all hon. Members who wish to take part. I know that that is beyond the right hon. Lady's remit, but she will appreciate that I am making the point on her behalf through the usual channels and to the powers that be that we should, at least on one day of the year, have a decent chance of a proper debate.

The Minister opened the debate extremely well with some fine examples from her constituency. If I had the luxury of more time, I would do the same. She took us on a trip down memory lane to the 1950s. I cannot say that I can join her there, but I knew what she meant.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who had to leave the Chamber to look after her child before attending functions tonight, would have wanted, like me, to say that the Minister was uncharitable in failing to acknowledge anything that the Conservative party did for women when it was in government. A Conservative Government introduced equal pay legislation in 1983 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1986, and I am proud that a Conservative Government introduced independent taxation. I hoped that the Minister would be charitable enough to acknowledge that the Conservative party is as eager as she is to attain equality—certainly, equality of opportunity—for women, even if we do not always go about it in the same way.

I am disappointed that in the 45 minutes that the Minister took to make her speech, much of which I agreed with, she spent so much time on the domestic situation and did not deal more with the position of women in other countries. There is a commonality of feeling in the House that although there are furrows to plough as regards equality in this country, true inequality exists in other countries, and we as women must pay attention to that. That is why I was delighted when my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) praised the non-governmental organisations and women's organisations that help us in our work here and assist women throughout the world. She gave a well rounded speech that concentrated on issues in the United Kingdom and the problems of women in the developing world.

My hon. Friend was followed by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who spoke up well for women auxiliary workers. I agree with her on that subject. She asked for more help from the Government—I hope that the Minister will respond to her request—and made some good points on encouraging companies to give women opportunities for training and promotion. She also made some interesting points on drug testing and women's health. I was surprised to hear what she was saying and I hope that the Minister will have time to comment on it. I shall understand if she does not have time to comment on all the points that have been made, in which case I hope that she will respond in writing.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) gave a solo performance from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. She was disappointed in the lack of support from her party—as were we. We were not fooled by the stage-managed appearance of a supporting cast throughout her speech.

I am sorry that I left the Chamber momentarily and did not hear the full speech of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). I have great admiration for the work that she has done on arranged marriages. Her views on that are shared across the House. I have discussed the matter with my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, and if the hon. Lady introduces an early-day motion on the Nigerian case that she mentioned, we would be pleased to look at it and join her in signing it if it is suitable.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) discussed his Bill and a Bill in another place. He raised the subject of labour clubs, which seem to be a source of annoyance to some Labour Members. The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) brought up the heady issue of trafficking of women and children and the sobering facts on violence against women. She looked al. the subject of reproductive health in a way that we should not forget affects all of us. Female genital mutilation is still one of the most abhorrent practices in the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made a refreshing contribution. She talked realistically and highlighted the fundamental difference between men and women. She had a useful gender-blind suggestion for our problem of all-women shortlists and brought to the forefront the issues on unmarried pregnancies. We share views on that subject across the Chamber, as we all see in our surgeries single mothers who are left literally holding the baby. My hon. Friend talks common sense and echoes the feelings of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne) was a brief voice from Scotland in this international women's day debate. She is a superwoman, and she apologised for having to leave for a flight to Scotland. Her speech was followed by that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). We appreciated his undertakings to look into the operation of the Conservative clubs that are within his bailiwick. He made some interesting points on education and bemoaned the shortage of men in the teaching profession and the underperformance of boys in the education system. That, too, concerns us all.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) was our voice from Wales. She spoke about the advantages of equal opportunities in Wales. I was interested to hear her suggestion about an equal opportunities Select Committee and I hope that the Minister will have time to touch on that. I am not entirely sure whether I agree with the hon. Lady, but it is certainly an interesting idea which we can explore.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) gave us a brief insight into the benefits of women in the armed services. I have seen at first hand the benefits of women in the armed services, in both Kosovo and Kuwait. When I was in Kuwait looking at our Tornado squadron, it was with great happiness, pride and surprise that I saw that the head of engineering was a blonde—and a blonde woman at that. She had the men firmly under control but, more importantly, she was the best engineer for that job. We can all be proud of that.

I am afraid that the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) got the views of Conservative Front-Bench Members wrong, but it was nice to hear her being so supportive of those who elected her. We are all supportive of our constituents who send us here; it is a great privilege to be in this place.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) picked out some distinguished local women and made some key points on taxation. I make no apology for reminding the House that independent taxation was introduced by a Conservative Government.

I really do not have time to go through my speech because I want to give the Minister time to reply. Let me return briefly to our domestic scene. I remind the Government that they have no reason for complacency or satisfaction from any achievements that they may have made to date, because where the public services are letting people down, women are being disproportionately affected.

Women do most of the caring in this country, and when care homes close and the health service underperforms, it is the women who are affected. Today, when the teachers are striking, it will be the women who have had to look after the children. Our police were out on the street yesterday, and it is the women who are worried about the safety of their communities. As women live longer, there is no doubt that the disaster in the pension fund will affect them disproportionately. The failure of this Government on public services will affect us all, and deliver enduring inequality, unless the Government put these things right.

I shall close by agreeing with a Labour Minister, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, who said recently: Voters felt that the quality of their lives was awful and nothing had changed since Labour came to office. I certainly agree with the hon. Lady when she said that voters—traditional supporters of the Labour party—felt let down and ignored. We agree that we want equal opportunities for women, and that we want to see women succeed. I agree with the Minister for Lifelong Learning that this Labour Government should, and must, do better.

6.51 pm
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). We have crossed swords on a number of occasions, and it is good to be opposite her again today. I want to say to her—in the gentlest possible way, of course—that I do not remember there being any debates on these issues in Government time during the Conservative years.

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Lady is mistaken. I led a debate held on international women's day, in Government time, when I was the Minister for Women.

Mrs. Roche

Very many congratulations to the hon. Lady. Of course, if that is the case, I can only congratulate her on holding such a debate once in 18 years. Absolutely fantastic! What a wonderful achievement.

A number of themes have run through the debate today, and I shall try to deal with them as quickly as I can. I apologise if I do not get to every point that was raised. The gender pay gap was mentioned by a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), and the hon. Members for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). As part of my research, I have been looking to the past to see how far back the gender pay gap goes. In fact, I turned to Leviticus—the Old Testament is compulsory reading for me—in which Moses was told that a man of working age was worth 50 silver shekels, while a woman was worth only 30. So the gap goes right back to the beginning.

The hon. Member for Meriden was right to concentrate on the international issues. She put them into context well; it is important to talk about the work that has been undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Meriden and for East Devon (Mr. Swire), spoke about the dangers of placing new burdens on employers as a result of the Employment Bill. Our economy needs an increasingly high level of labour participation, involving both men and women. About one third of new mothers do not return to work. If just 10 per cent. of those mothers changed their mind as a result of the provisions in the Employment Bill, the total benefit to employers, through reduced recruitment costs, could be as much as £30 million. Of course, these measures are about social justice, but they are also about productivity and the health of our economy.

The hon. Member for Meriden and my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) rightly spoke of the evils of trafficking, particularly trafficking of women and children. I take a great interest in that subject, and the United Kingdom is at the forefront of efforts to tackle the problem. We were one of the first countries to sign the United Nations protocol on the prevention and suppression of trafficking. Indeed, I had the great pleasure of signing it myself. We ought to encourage as many countries as possible to sign, and to act against this evil trade.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham rightly paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) for all her work in relation to forced marriages. What the Government are now doing reflects the strength of her campaign.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) spoke of the international dimension, referring to Afghanistan and other countries. We are very encouraged by the involvement of women in the Afghan Interim Administration. Many Members mentioned the past role of women in the highest ranks of Government in Afghanistan, and we should bear that in mind.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough referred to career opportunities in public service for such people as teaching assistants and auxiliaries. We are committed to considering how we can further such opportunities. My excellent officials in the women and equality unit have produced a document called "Better Services, Better Working Lives", which gives practical advice in that regard.

The hon. Member for Romsey mentioned public appointments, which were also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham). I am conducting a series of regional seminars on the subject. We are working towards 50:50, and we expect women to hold 45 to 50 per cent. of jobs sponsored by most Departments by 2005. We have a great deal of work to do, but the House should be left in no doubt about our commitment to the eventual achievement of 50:50—and I should like to achieve it sooner rather than later.

Mr. Joyce

Do not women from ethnic minority backgrounds suffer from double discrimination? When considering the position of women in public life, should we not take account of both those dimensions?

Mrs. Roche

Absolutely. That is why we have been directing some of our efforts towards black and other ethnic minority women. I have had an excellent meeting with a number of such women, who hold some local public appointments but would like national careers.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

Will the Minister say something about blue collar work? Women in blue collar employment, including middle class women, often feel very excluded.

Mrs. Roche

I agree. We should ensure that there is a cross-section.

I accept the apology given by the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), but may I correct him in one respect? I did not ask him to withdraw his Bill. We discussed together how it might be handled, as he had said that a member of his party might object to it. We support the Bill in principle, and I was delighted that the House of Lords gave the legislation a Second Reading. I am sure that the business managers will have noted the strength of feeling.

We have had a very good debate covering a number of issues. I strongly believe that equality is not merely an add-on. It is time for it to become mainstream, as was said by the hon. Member for Romsey. Effective legislation to prevent discrimination on grounds of race, age, sexual orientation or belief is absolutely necessary, and we will therefore be implementing directives on race and employment.

If we want a modern Britain that is inclusive, we must have diversity. That is why equality is so important for social justice and productivity.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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