HC Deb 06 March 2003 vol 400 cc976-1040

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

1.27 pm
The Minister for Women(Ms Patricia Hewitt)

I am delighted that international women's day has been selected as the topic for today's debate.

It is 100 years since Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women's Social and Political Union. Earlier today, I launched the Royal Mint's new 50 pence coin commemorating that anniversary. Emmeline once said: We are here not because we are law breakers, we are here in our efforts to become law makers. Since women won the vote, only 252 women law makers have been elected to this House and only 18 women have served in Cabinet in all those years. I am proud to be one of those women and grateful for this opportunity to pay tribute to Emmeline Pankhurst and all her fellow suffragettes who fought outside this House for political, economic and social justice. I am glad that the whole House will join me in honouring her achievements.

This Saturday, millions of people around the world will take part in events to mark international women's day. I have no doubt that many of them will again take the opportunity to express their deep concerns about the possibility of war in Iraq. All of us hate the idea of war. As we know from every test of public opinion, women are even more likely when faced with the horrors that war inevitably brings to prefer a peaceful route, but I have no doubt that it is only the threat of war that has persuaded Saddam Hussein after 12 years of defying the United Nations to allow the inspectors back in and offer a few inadequate gestures of co-operation. Even now, Saddam can put a stop to the possibility of war by cooperating fully with resolution 1441, which was passed unanimously by the Security Council.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

In endorsing what the right hon. Lady says, may I remind her that there is also a long and very honourable tradition of women playing heroic parts in the wars that have had to be fought throughout the 20th century in order to preserve the freedoms that they were fighting to win when they fought for the vote?

Ms Hewitt

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Many of us have female, as well as male relatives who played their part in both world wars in particular.

We know, from every test of public opinion, that women are even more likely to prefer that peaceful route. Even now, Saddam can put a stop to the possibility of war. Of course conciliation would be better than war, but let us not confuse conciliation with appeasement, or muddle our rational fear of war with irrational trust in Saddam after all that 12 years' bitter experience has taught. That experience has been bitter indeed for millions of Iraqi women who have watched their children die in poverty. Their sons and husbands have been tortured and executed. Women themselves have been brutalised by professional rapists. In last week's debate in this House, my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) gave her own moving account of the sufferings of the families whom she met on her recent visit to northern Iraq.

Our armed forces fought in Kosovo to end the horror of ethnic cleansing and a conflict in which rape was deployed as a deliberate weapon of war. Millions of women and men are now rebuilding their lives and their country. We fought in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and international terrorism, and, with the removal of the Taliban that followed, girls are now back in school for the first time in more than a decade. I recently had the privilege of meeting Habiba Sorabi, the Minister for Women in the new Afghan Administration, who, with her colleagues, is helping to rebuild that country. If we do fight in Iraq, it will be to uphold international law and to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, but the defeat of Saddam will also be the liberation of the women of Iraq.

Just as we work internationally against genocide, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, so we work internationally to combat poverty and disease. Today, at a time of immense political uncertainty and of economic slowdown, it is doubly important that we renew our efforts for trade and development. If we are to build a lasting international coalition for disarmament and security, we must build an equally powerful international economic coalition, because we will never deal with terrorism and other threats to world peace if we do not also deal with the hunger, misery and frustration across the developing world and in refugee camps. More than 1 billion men, women and children in our world are without adequate food, water, sanitation, health care or education; 70 per cent. of them are women. Forty-two million people in the world have HIV/AIDS, 60 per cent. of whom are women, and women are the fastest growing group of sufferers. More than 0.5 million women die in pregnancy and childbirth every year, half of them in sub-Saharan Africa. No wonder Kofi Annan said Poverty has a woman's face". I have no doubt at all that if we can create a system of world trade that is fair as well as free, we will empower some of the poorest women in the poorest countries of the world. That is the experience of women in Bangladeshi villages who are supported by the Brahmin bank and by their Government in creating new enterprises. That is the experience of the women whom I met earlier this year in Nong Ta Kai village in northeast Thailand. Years ago, they worked in rice fields, their only hope of escape from poverty to flee to the city, where they were vulnerable to exploitation and to prostitution. Now, they have come together, like so many other women in Thailand, to create their own silk-weaving co-operative. They used to live in old wooden shacks—I saw some that were still there. Today, they are used for storage, because next to them are the modern two-storey houses that those women have paid for with the earnings from their own work and from their ownership of that co-operative.

So the opportunity is there—above all, because in November 2001 we launched the Doha development round. We—the 142 countries in the World Trade Organisation—launched it because we know that if we could just halve protectionism around the world against agricultural and industrial goods and services, we would boost developing country incomes by about $150 billion a year: three times the value of all the aid budgets put together. Substantial trade liberalisation could reduce the number of people living in poverty by more than 300 million by 2015—a big contribution to reaching the millennium development goals. But progress on the Doha negotiations is far too slow. That is why I appeal again to President Bush and the American Administration to join with the developing countries and the European Union in the compromise agreement on access to medicines that we came so close to finalising just before Christmas. And it is why I yesterday met my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for International Development to ensure that we redouble our efforts to secure reform of the common agricultural policy, to open our markets and to end the agricultural subsidies that lock poor world farmers into poverty, and thus to move forward on the WTO negotiations.

We will continue to work internationally on human rights and women's empowerment. My officials are currently attending the 47th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. I am delighted, too, that the Government are supporting UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, an organisation dedicated to strengthening women's economic security and political participation, and that that organisation, with our financial support, will now be launched in London.

We know that the struggle of women in the developing world is on a wholly different scale from the challenges that we face in our own country. We have come a very long way in the past century, but there is still a long way to go before we can say that we live in a truly just and equal society. When the first international women's day was held in 1911, women in Britain were fewer than three in 10 of the work force; today, we are nearly half. However, only one in four managers is a woman, only one in 10 directors is a woman and there is only one woman chief executive in the FTSE 100. In 1911, the pay gap between British men and women was around 55 per cent.; today it is 19 per cent., but that is still 19 per cent. higher than it should be. In 1911, Oxford and Cambridge would not even grant degrees to women; today, women are more than half our full-time undergraduates. However, 50,000 women with science, engineering and technology degrees—women whose skills are urgently needed in our economy, particularly in manufacturing industry—are not in employment at all.

We know what the problems are and we know what needs to be done. We know, for instance, that we need to make it far easier for women and for men to balance work and family life. Look at the changes that have taken place. Families have been transformed. In place of the family based on the male breadwinner and the woman at home that so many of us grew up with, there are many more two-job families and many more lone parents. The workplace is changing, as well—it is no longer based on nine-to-five, five days a week. New consumer demands and growing competitive pressures require ever more organisations to be far more flexible in how they employ their people.

The best employers know that working time reform is not a burden forced on them by Government, but an opportunity to be far more successful. Last week, I presented the awards for theSunday Times-DTI 100 best companies to work for, including Microsoft, Honda UK, Asda, Tesco, the Scotch whisky company Glenmorangie, Kimberly-Clark, Richer Sounds and many others. Those are companies that consistently outperform the FTSE index and have found that the more choice they give their people about working hours, the more satisfied are their staff and the less problem they have with recruitment and retention, so they are all the more productive, profitable and successful.

Not only women but men want that choice in their working hours. According to a recent survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission, men are responsible for one in three child-care hours. The younger generation of fathers wants the chance to spend more time with the children. Younger fathers want to be more active in their children's lives than perhaps their fathers were in theirs. Given the opportunity, half of all men would work flexitime. The demand and the challenge therefore exist. However, if we left such changes to voluntary action and the pace of cultural change, unsupported by Government, the process would take too long. Parents cannot afford to wait.

In April we will introduce a new package of support—the largest ever—for parents. It includes not only the new child tax credit but rights for people in employment. They are: providing better maternity pay up to £100 a week; increasing the amount of maternity leave that a new mother can take up to a year; giving fathers the right for the first time to two weeks' paid paternity leave, which will benefit more than a third of a million fathers every year; giving adoptive parents, who have been left out in the past, equivalent rights, and granting all parents who work and have a child under six, or a child with disabilities under 18, the right to negotiate flexible working arrangements with their employers.

The new package of rights was agreed with the TUC, the Confederation of British Industry and many small businesses. We have great confidence that it will work. With the help of trade unions, business organisations and women and family groups throughout the country, we can ensure that every parent knows about the support that is available. We do not provide it out of sentimentality or because we are trying to tell parents how to do their job. We know that parents need and deserve far greater support from Government in balancing the two great responsibilities of earning a living and bringing up children.

Of course, there is far more to do to ensure that women can play their full role in the economy. Earlier, I referred to women in science, and I am especially grateful to Baroness Greenfield for her excellent review of women's participation in science, engineering and technology. I am delighted by our success in recruiting women and men, but especially women, to the science and engineering ambassadors programme. It will put more people into schools to inspire girls and young women to follow a scientific and engineering path. As we celebrate the anniversary this year of the discovery of DNA, the Rosalind Franklin award honours the achievements of a woman whose contribution to cracking the DNA code has been overlooked too often.

We need to do more to improve opportunities for women not only at the bottom but at the top of business. The report by Derek Higgs that I published recently shows that more than half of all directors of listed companies are appointed through personal contacts and friendships. That old boys' network is not an adequate way in which to ensure the highest standards of corporate governance and the best available talent. Derek Higgs suggested several methods of making the process more meritocratic through an open, fair and rigorous appointments procedure. I am delighted that Laura Tyson is considering the way in which we can progress on that. I look forward to receiving her recommendations.

In our global economy, the war for talent is real. Our businesses, public services and our country will not succeed unless we use all the talent of all our people—women as well as men from every part and community of our country.

We need to do far more to ensure that women play a full part in public life. We have changed the law to make it much easier for women to stand for election. I look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the way in which she will overcome the problem of male resistance in the Conservative party. I do not say that in a partisan spirit because, as many of my hon. Friends know, we have been through the same battles in the Labour party.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

The right hon. Lady's challenge is fair and I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) will respond to it with characteristic vigour and precision. However, the evidence that I have adduced from the Equal Opportunities Commission shows that the phenomenon of prejudice against selecting female candidates is principally a matter not of male opposition but of older people. There is an age factor and older people, both men and women, are prejudiced whether they know it or not. We must all counter that.

Ms Hewitt

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I believe that he regrets his party's difficulty in recruiting younger members. However, we all face such challenges; we have set ourselves a challenge in government of recruiting 50 per cent. women for all public appointments by 2005.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

I listened to my right hon. Friend's response to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) with interest. However, there are also structural problems of image, tradition and belief. It is not simply a problem of age or gender. Many young women simply do not believe that any of us take them seriously and they are therefore not prepared to take us seriously.

Ms Hewitt

I agree with my hon. Friend. There is a serious problem of political disengagement and a sense that party politics and parliamentary democracy do not speak for most people. That is precisely why I am so passionately committed to ensuring that we have more women, more younger Members and more Members from our black and Asian British communities. We need to ensure that Parliament looks like our country and can therefore speak for our country.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

It is simply not enough for Parliament to look like this country; we must also listen to the country. Yesterday provided a marked example of not only Parliament's but the Government's failure to listen. A mass lobby of school children who deeply opposed war against Iraq took place. They were remarkably well informed and they did not simply treat the event as a day off school. They made a clear political comment. Until we begin to take such matters seriously, it does not matter how much we look like the country. If we do not listen to it, we take no step forward.

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend is right that we must listen. We must engage in all seriousness, as we have done in the House, with people who are passionately committed to peace. We need to argue our case, as I did earlier this afternoon. I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has done so much to make the case in person, on television, through meeting young people at No. 10 and so on. He has done that precisely in order to listen, engage with the argument and lead.

Mr. Bercow

The right hon. Lady's passion is visibly overflowing. We hear her mellifluous tones and the content of her speech with interest and respect—but I am desperate that she should move on to the subject of child care. What assessment has she made of the effect of the rigidities of the planning process and the nature of the Ofsted inspection regime on the availability of high-quality and affordable child care?

Ms Hewitt

We have made real improvements over the past five years but not enough. When I met women members of regional development agency boards yesterday, planning was specifically raised. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is already taking steps to reform and speed up the planning regime. As to Ofsted, in my own discussions with child care providers and in the review published recently by my noble Friend Lady Ashton, setting quality standards was not found to be a particular barrier to the development of child care services. There are undoubtedly other barriers. I welcome that direct provision and child care tax credit have begun to make a real difference but I am the first to say that a good deal more needs to be done.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

Only this week I learnt that a child care club in my constituency, which has been running for 16 years and has experienced staff, is in severe difficulties because of the requirement that staff who have been doing the job a long time must pass an examination. Such individuals do not want to sit an exam, when they probably know better than most of us in the Chamber how to look after small children. Will the right hon. Lady use her good offices to address that issue?

Ms Hewitt

I shall be happy to look at that point. There is a balance to be struck between offering existing child care workers good opportunities to improve and formalise their skills—and in doing so, providing them with further opportunities to progress in employment—and using common sense to make sure that we do not undermine the excellent work already being done. If the hon. Lady will write to me with the details of the play group concerned, I shall be happy to consider them. When I met women RDA board members yesterday, I was struck by the fact that almost all of them would never have thought of putting themselves forward simply from reading a press advertisement. One after another said that she had applied because somebody had specifically asked her to do so. Over the past year, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) and I have led a programme of visits and meetings around the country, bringing together thousands of women who might be tempted to enter public life. After hearing from women who had made that step, almost all the others said that they would put their names forward. An inspiring black woman speaker at one of the seminars said that her motto was "Lift as you rise". For those of us who have been honoured by election to this House, that is a good motto to remember as we encourage other women to step into public life.

A little more support from the media than is sometimes the case would be welcome. In the 1970s, when I was working on a campaign for a sex discrimination Bill, the BBC and ITN would not employ women newscasters on the ground that women's voices were too high and nobody could possibly take news bulletins seriously if they were read by women. That was changed but even today, as a recent survey showed, there is only one woman newscaster for every three men—so there is still more to be done.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West)

My right hon. Friend has been speaking about women in public life but perhaps she will outline the Government's proposals to tackle the fundamental scourge of domestic violence, which by its nature is usually hidden behind closed doors—and tends to repeat from generation unto generation, particularly among boys who grow up in that unacceptable environment.

Ms Hewitt

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green is working closely with other colleagues in the Government—including my right hon. Friend the Solicitor-General—to ensure that far more is done to end the scourge of domestic violence. As my hon. Friend says, that crime mainly takes place in private but leads to the death of one woman every three days. That is the scale of the problem faced in Britain. By getting the police and prosecution services working more closely and effectively together, supporting a help line and investing in refuges, we are doing a great deal to help women and their children to escape abuse.

We have come a long way since the Women's Social and Political Union was formed but as Emmeline Pankhurst said, "deeds not words" count. Our deeds include the minimum wage, which has helped 1 million or so women on low pay; new rights for mothers and fathers; children's tax credit; and the national child care strategy. But as all right hon. and hon. Members readily recognise, there is a great deal more to do. All of us, whatever our differences over the means that should be employed, share the same vision and a commitment to making Britain and the world a better, safer and fairer place for us all.

1.57 pm
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

I apologise to the House for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), the shadow Minister for Women, who is on a fact-finding mission in Sudan, Kenya and Malawi. Her absence gives me the opportunity to participate in this valuable debate and I look forward to contributions on many issues concerning the position and role of women in the world today.

What is international women's day and what should it represent—an opportunity to celebrate all that is good and unique about the female sex and its achievements or a chance to highlight the inequalities that hamper women around the world? Superficially, nearly 100 years after the establishment of international women's day, many of the movement's original aims have been achieved, including the vote; equal education; equal pay and conditions—at any rate, in the eyes of the law; and acceptance that a woman is an independent soul who does not have to be the shackled property of her family or husband. Such advances should not be forgotten or belittled.

In far too many parts of the world, those rights are still denied to women. International women's day still has an important campaigning role, but if it is to remain relevant in a new century with new challenges, perhaps a less narrowly focused raison d'etre is required. Women today think more about the security of their streets; the quality of education; the robustness of their pension; the effectiveness of medical care; and local transport. Such issues are uppermost in the minds of women and cannot be confronted or resolved by statistical targets and equality legislation alone.

The Minister set great store by the changes that the Government have introduced, but the approach is all too often based on targets and regulation. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) was right to raise the issue of child care. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) pointed out, the Government's regulatory approach often reduces rather than encourages opportunities for child care provision. Some 59 per cent. of women do not feel that there is adequate child care provision in England. Improving access to child care would help many women to return to work much more quickly, and fewer might be passed over for senior posts that should have been theirs by right.

What is needed is a coherent strategy to make it easier for women to obtain employment, to secure good, affordable child care, and to resume work if they have chosen to take time off to look after children. That would enable women's participation at higher levels of society to continue rather than stagnating, as it sadly shows every sign of doing. Before 1997, just over 25 per cent. of self-employed workers were women—an 88 per cent. increase since 1981—but the rate of increase has now slowed to a crawl. Between 1991 and 1995 the proportion of public appointments held by women rose from 23 per cent. to 30 per cent., but it has not risen since. During the years of the Conservative Government the pay gap narrowed to 20 per cent.—the best result among the major European economies—but over the last five years it has narrowed by only a further 2 per cent.

The Minister made a number of references to the role of women in the House of Commons. I agree that we need more diversity in the House, and that we all have a role in encouraging women—and indeed others—to come here. As the Minister said, women in particular often seek encouragement to stand for Parliament, and to adopt other senior roles, rather than assuming—as do all too many young men—that such roles are theirs by right.

The Government say that they want to improve women's status. The cause of women, however, is helped not by targets and rhetoric but by a stable economy, growing employment, business deregulation and the availability of choice and quality in our public services. One does not need to be a rocket scientist, even a female one, to work that out.

The things I have mentioned sound basic and they are basic, but let us not forget the difference that such basic things can mean. When 70 per cent. of those in the world who live on less than $1 a day are women, and when as many as one in 13 die in childbirth in some countries, what count are what we consider to be basic rights.

The Minister mentioned Afghanistan. We all know of the appalling treatment of women under the Taliban, and of the improvements now being made. It is crucial that the Government can send the girls to school, equalise access to health care and encourage female participation in the political process, but we know that beyond Kabul the burqa must still be worn, and that education and health care are still strictly limited. These are not western cultures and we must be wary of applying western attitudes, but international women's day and the many agencies that support it can make a difference. What is needed as much as a legislative shift is a cultural, or perhaps more accurately an emotional, shift in attitudes. That is needed from women as well as men, by which I mean that we must encourage women to believe in their own equality. Only such a shift in attitudes can ensure lasting and widespread change.

Ms Dari Taylor

The hon. Lady speaks with passion about attitude change, and I think that what has been said so far is absolutely right. The current view in the criminal justice system is that street crime is the most grievous crime that it must handle. There are 160,000 street crimes a year, but there are 290,000 crimes of domestic violence a year. We must tell those in the criminal justice system that they are wrong. It is high time there were more women, or at least more balanced people, acknowledging that problematic attitudes often arise within the system that constantly churns out such decisions.

Mrs. May

I agree that attitudes within a system often produce barriers preventing the progress that we want to make. Domestic violence is an important issue, and if the hon. Lady will bear with me I will deal with it specifically later.

Education is the key to the necessary change in attitudes. It teaches women about good health care, which in turn reduces the rate of infant mortality. Literate mothers are 50 per cent. more likely to immunise their children, and the risk of premature child death is reduced by 8 per cent. for each year that a mother has spent in primary school. Britain is committed to the United Nations millennium goal of equal access to education for the sexes by 2005, but we are a long way short of that. In early April the Global Campaign for Education's week of action will highlight the problem, and try to energise Governments into making fresh efforts to reach that important target.

It is not just at primary level, however, that education can make a difference. Training and education at all levels can transform the futures of women in developing countries. The Minister gave a number of examples of the way in which working with women could improve their conditions and employability in various countries. Last year I visited a charity called Feed the Children, based in my constituency, which has had a significant success with its micro-finance strategy, teaching women's groups and helping them to found small businesses and reinvest the profits in the community. It gives small loans to the co-operatives, enabling them to expand their businesses. The loans are repaid at very low interest rates, and an extra amount is put into a savings account to which access is allowed at the end of the loan period. If a loan has been repaid, the group can apply for a larger loan, and the virtuous cycle continues.

That model has been running for more than 10 years, and operates on three continents. The key to its success lies in the training given to women to enable them to succeed. Rather than giving them money and expecting them to go away and make it work, Feed the Children offers support at every step along the road, training, teaching and encouraging. It believes in the women. As a result, repayment rates are outstanding. For example, in Sierra Leone, where Feed the Children has worked with a fishing business, the rate stands at 98 per cent. after three loan cycles. That is a country that was believed to be beyond such assistance. It is women who make the system work, because they understand the importance of reinvesting the savings in their children and the community.

The model has worked from Uganda to Guatemala, and has transcended cultural and economic differences of every hue. I am sad to report, however, that attempts to encourage a similar scheme in Afghanistan have come to nothing, because the eyes of the world no longer look on that country. The promises of aid given so fulsomely by world Governments have not yet borne fruit. We must not let the opportunity given to us by the bold action of the coalition against terror slip away in bureaucratic wrangling. We have a responsibility to the women of Afghanistan not to let that happen. The nations that promised aid should deliver it quickly, or a final chance to rescue Afghanistan will have been lost. Charities such as Feed the Children show that with the right training and with adequate, well-targeted funds, women can lead the way in rebuilding shattered communities and societies.

It is through education that the barriers to female inequality can be challenged throughout the world. The lack of education to prevent the spread of sexual disease, for example, is possibly the most pressing problem in sub-Saharan Africa—the Minister mentioned this—where teenage girls are five times more likely than boys to be infected. Last year 1.3 million women died of HIV/AIDS, and some older women are looking after as many as 40 orphaned grandchildren. Education is also vital to the prevention of violence against women—not just abroad, as I shall explain shortly. Genital mutilation, human trafficking and prostitution are just some of the horrors facing girls and women in developing countries. They cannot be dealt with only through aid, although aid is needed; they cannot be dealt with by legislation, although legislation can help. It is through a programme of education—education of both sexes—that women's freedom will be attained.

For too long we have concentrated on pure statistics as a barometer of progress, perhaps at the expense of the wider role that women fulfil as workers, carers, mothers and volunteers. Is that incredible diversity to be denigrated because it does not improve official statistics on equality? Might that narrow focus be preventing us from tackling more important issues, such as the crisis in pension provision or the shocking statistics on domestic violence, to which the hon. Members for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) and for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) referred? One in four women suffers from domestic violence. On average, a woman suffers 35 attacks before she goes to the police; 50,000 women and children seek sanctuary from domestic abuse every week. Most worrying of all, two women and two children die every week at the hands of a partner or former partner.

We welcome the forthcoming Green Paper on domestic violence and look forward to working constructively with the Government on the issue. However, although we welcome legislation, it must be recognised that domestic violence will be truly defeated only when attitudes are changed. Sadly, 20 per cent. of young men, and even 10 per cent. of young women, still think that abuse or violence against a partner is acceptable. The campaign to end drink driving shows that legislation alone does not produce results. Only when a younger generation of drivers came through, who believed that drink driving was unacceptable, did the problem begin to be rolled back.

Indeed, the drink driving campaign inspired my party's domestic violence posters last Christmas, which were supported by the Police Federation and Women's Aid and endorsed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We wholeheartedly welcomed the recent BBC "Hitting Home" project, which really brought home to people the nature of the problem of domestic violence and its prevalence, sadly, for all too many women. Many women in this country live in dangerous and vulnerable situations and we must help them.

It is also true that what might be described as the "machinery of government"—the system—is still not always as responsive as it should be to the needs of women. The benefits system remains too complicated; women are often unsure about what they are entitled to and for what they can claim. Pensions, too, are complicated and make no allowance for the many women who are carers. Women live longer than men; the majority of pensioners are female, yet too many women do not have enough on which to live comfortably.

The efforts of the past 100 years to improve female equality have achieved notable success—indeed, I should not be standing here if they had not. To continue our progress, however, we need to find a new language and a new mindset or understanding of what constitutes equality" in the 21st century. We need a modernisation of our intellectual response to old arguments about equality and progress.

I pose this question for everybody. Let us say that we all woke up tomorrow and found that women had equal representation in all walks of life and that all pay differentials had genuinely disappeared: would that remove the need for an international women's day? I suggest that it would not.

Equality under the law, equality in business and politics, and equality of opportunity are all important and vital; but it is in equality of the mind that the changes really matter. We need equalities of attitude and the acceptance that everyone's choice is equal and that statistics alone do not produce an equal society. That is the challenge facing the future of international women's day; it is a challenge that faces us all.

2.13 pm
Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

I welcome this debate and the opening contribution to it by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women. On this day and in this year, I want to pay tribute to the courage, professionalism and sheer hard work of women Members of Parliament in Tanzania, whom I had the privilege of meeting last month. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Muleba, North, Ruth Msafiri, who took me to her constituency and showed me the work that she had been doing. Last week, evenThe Guardian referred to me as a hard-working constituency MP, so that must be right. I would have agreed until I experienced the work of the honourable Ruthie, as she is known in her constituency, and realised that I actually have time to sleep. I cannot believe that the honourable Ruthie can get through as much as she does and find enough time to sleep.

Since 1999, the British Council in east and central Africa has run a programme to support and encourage women in politics. I pay tribute to the council for its incredibly good work in increasing the number of women in effective leadership. The project, which is entitled "Just Big Cars and Leaky Roofs?", involves a work-shadowing exchange in which 14 women from seven east and central African countries and 14 women from throughout the United Kingdom took part. The aim is to ensure that more women are involved in politics, and that they begin to appreciate the nature of the role of a Member of Parliament and how they can encourage more women to enter politics in order to improve the lifestyle of women in those countries.

The programme's title arose from research in east and central Africa which concluded that most electors thought of their MPs only in terms of big cars and that MPs visiting their constituencies felt that the only demand made of them was to improve leaky roofs. The title thus encapsulates the results of the British Council survey.

It was a salutary experience for me to sit in the Gallery of the Parliament in Dodoma. Looking down, I was enthralled to see a wonderful red semicircle. People addressed the Speaker, who sat high above them—even higher than you, Madam Deputy Speaker—well above contradiction. Three clerks sat below the Speaker. The mace may not have been as lavish as ours, but it was carried in with as much dignity. I was delighted to find that there was no second Chamber. Of the 282 Members of Parliament, 61—or 21 per cent.—are women. However, unlike our system, only 12 of those women Members, including the honourable Ruthie, are elected. The others hold special seats and two are presidential appointees. The British Council is anxious, as I am, that more women should be elected, but before we criticise that system we should understand the situation in which it developed.

The Tanzanian Government are committed to getting more women into Parliament and, because they realise that there is hostility to women who put themselves forward, they have ensured that there are appointed places for women. Those women are now looking for elected seats so that they will be fully accountable, as they see it, to their electorates.

The work undertaken by those women is impressive. Although I was not able to follow in Swahili the debates and question time that I was privileged to watch, their body language—their great dignity and confidence—was evident. A woman Minister answered questions and a woman deputy Minister and other women contributed to the debate.

An all-party women's group invited me to a question and answer session. They wanted to know how we planned to meet the 30 per cent. Beijing target for women on elected bodies, especially Parliament, by 2005. They know how they will do so. They will have as many elected women as possible, topped up with appointed Members, so that at the 2005 election they will have reached the 30 per cent. target.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Is that Labour party policy?

Valerie Davey

It is an increasingly interesting prospect. I could give the all-party group no clear answer on how we would reach 30 per cent. I explained the Labour party's approach, which is that there will be all-women shortlists as seats become available. They were impressed, but the question came back: "Will that get you to 30 per cent?"

Ms Dari Taylor


Valerie Davey

I had to admit that it probably would not do so.

Those appointed women are doing some remarkable things. We have already talked about HIV/AIDS, and one of them chairs a huge committee on the subject that is in touch with our all-party group on AIDS and has other international links. Another Tanzanian woman MP was in the UK last week, taking part in the Red Crescent and Red Cross meeting at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre. These women are impressive and their work is distinguished. They have no offices and the Assembly is bereft of equipment, although the British Council has provided a suite of computers and the training to go with it, and is servicing those women—giving them the confidence and support to continue in a very professional manner.

That was just the beginning; I then made the five-hour drive back to Dar es Salaam, and I had to take two flights and a Land-Rover trip to get to Muleba, North—and a boat trip to get to some of the 19 islands in Lake Victoria that the honourable Ruthie represents. Meeting the community groups was absolutely fascinating. When the honourable Ruthie turns up, people suddenly emerge from everywhere; they want to know about the next stage of the project that they are undertaking. Local community groups, often with strong women leaders, come forward and tell her, "We have done this. Here is part of the primary school. Here is a whole load of rocks—it is the beginning of our dispensary. What is going to happen next?" All the community leaders, including schoolteachers, come forward to present their reports. They read them out very respectfully, and ceremoniously put them into envelopes and hand them over. All the people and the crowds are very—respectful I have not seen a political meeting like it. Even in the evening in the pitch dark, 600 or 700 people gradually came round to listen respectfully.

The most moving thing was the pile of stones for the dispensary, and the leader of community coming forward to say, "A boy died in this village yesterday, but we decided that we should not postpone this meeting with our MP coming and our distinguished white visitor because our community has never had such a visit from a white visitor, and it is some time since the honourable Ruthie came. We decided that this would be a blessing, a turning point, and we look forward with you to establishing this dispensary." We left after a long meeting with music, dance and festivity and visited the home of the boy who had died. That was one of the most moving parts of an incredible visit.

We packed into three or four days more constituency work than many Members would get through in a month or even three months. People came to listen and to share, and they were not always given the answer that Members might expect to be given. We went to a road and were told, "Yes, thank you very much. We bought the materials, but they have all been stolen." Whereupon, with complete calm and dignity, the honourable Ruthie faced a crowd of 200 to 300 people and said, "Then you will not get another Tanzanian shilling until those people have been brought to court and the materials are returned." I wonder how many of us, on the spur of the moment and given such a difficult situation, would have had the courage to stand up in front of all those older people and, with complete aplomb, give that verdict—but she did.

One of the issues that arose from the British Council's survey was that women Members of Parliament are recognised in east and central Africa as no more or less efficient than men, but they are less likely to be corrupt and are more concerned for their local communities. Again, I pay tribute to the British Council for all the work that it is doing.

Hon. Members will realise that I could go on speaking for the rest of the debate, but I hesitate to do so because I know how many more want to contribute. Let me just say that I recognised something from that hands-on experience that I would never have found out without going on that return visit: Ruth Msafiri had been sitting in the Gallery last year.

We talk about the need for infrastructure, and of course those people need roads. Just as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women said earlier, those women's groups need markets for their craftwork and ways to get their work to them, but what I found to be essential to civil society—perhaps we do not highlight it as much—is training for magistrates. Yes, they will get the police officer to arrest the people who stole the materials, but they have not got enough magistrates to sit in local communities.

There are not enough people to teach book-keeping. In fact, some of the projects go wrong because of lack of basic book-keeping skills. Hon. Members may find this hard to believe, but librarians are also needed. I went to a small teacher-training college that runs two-year courses entirely to underpin the millennium project of providing universal primary school education in Tanzania. Those at the college have not got computers. I was not expecting that; I was hoping that I might make the link between Africa and computers.

What did I find? I was told, "We had a brilliant librarian. He was wonderful, but he died in 1977, and we haven't had another one since." I went into the library. The reading room was empty and the books on the shelves were not classified. The only people who take out books are the lecturers. Having looked along the shelves, I would not want many of the books to be taken out because they date back to the 1970s. A librarian is what that college actually needs. A VSO librarian, as opposed to a teacher or a lecturer, would send that college forward by leaps and bounds.

Legislation is being introduced thick and fast in the Tanzanian Parliament, but it needs people to draft it—I do not know whether we have any to spare. I returned determined that Bristol, West would make its contribution. I am sure that the education department at Bristol university will be able to offer some help. I do not believe that the people of Tanzania will spurn Bristol university; it will be only too welcome.

I shall also ensure that the women of the Bristol Labour party and any others willing to join us will set up, with the help of the honourable Ruthie, a credit union for the women in their many different local groups, just as the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has suggested. The honourable Ruthie is determined to set up an umbrella group—we will help her to do so—so that women's groups are empowered through their community. I am sure that those links will be maintained with my right honourable friend, Ruth Msafiri.

I want to end with a word to another Tanzanian woman, whom I met for the first time earlier. Her name is Elly Macha. She is now Dr. Elly Macha; she has just received a PhD at Leeds university. What is unique? Well, at the age of three, disease made her blind and her immediate family rejected her. She has come through a Lutheran school in Tanzania, and now through Leeds university. It is so appropriate that she heard my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women open this debate, as her thesis was on gender, disability and access to education in Tanzania.

2.27 pm
Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

I, too, welcome the fact that the Government have devoted parliamentary time to this subject, and I associate myself with the remarks about Emmeline Pankhurst. The moot point is whether she would have been a Conservative today and joined the modern Conservative party, but perhaps I shall leave that for the summing up. We should use today's debate to discuss the range of subjects that are important to women.

The Minister for Women will forgive me if I say again that the regular 10- minute Question Time on women's issues offers too narrow a focus. I am sure that the right hon. Lady would agree that women's lives are about much more than public life, the pay gap, domestic violence and child care, important as those subjects are. Although I intend to start by talking about those subjects, I shall move on to the international picture because it is only right and proper that most of the debate should be about that.

Without further ado, I shall begin by examining the role of the Minister for Women. Sadly, it is a part-time role. I hope to make the case today that it should be full-time, and we need only to look at the record to see that that is necessary. Let us consider women in public life. I am sure that the Minister for Women is as disappointed as the rest of us that, sadly, the number of women in public life has increased by only 2 per cent. since 1997.

Some 1,328 women attended the seminars aimed at getting more women into public life—quite a lot—and I had hoped that that might have some impact by now, but I had not realised that January 2003 figures were based on the situation in March 2002, so the seminars have not had time to have an effect.

That prompts a number of questions. First, in this technological age I am not sure why it should take 10 months to compile a report. Secondly, it would be interesting if the Minister informed the House about any follow-up. Of those who attended the courses, 91 per cent. claimed that they would be more likely to apply for a public post. That would be brilliant if it were followed through. The Minister said that women need to be encouraged to do specific things. Since the seminars, has there been any follow-up with the women who attended to ensure that they are still keen and to direct them to bodies in which they could usefully have an input?

I have noticed that women do not want to be part of an organisation just for the sake of it—for a title and a CV. They want to feel that they are making a real input. Sometimes, they need a little persuading that their contribution is worthwhile.

The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

I am following the hon. Lady's argument closely, in particular her words about positive action. What is the Liberal Democrat party's policy on positive action in its selection of women candidates?

Sandra Gidley

I knew that that question would come up, although I did not think that the Minister would ask it. My party debated the issue two years ago at conference, when it decided—conference decided, which is unusual in political parties these days, but our conference makes decisions that the party follows through—that it was important not to go down the route of positive discrimination. I disagreed and argued the opposite at the time. It would be foolish if I did not admit that. However, we decided to invest a lot of time in supporting, encouraging and mentoring women. That is a long-term strategy. I do not think that it will deliver many more women Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament at the next election, as I have said on record, but the rewards will be reaped in the election after that. I will not go into detail about the strategy, but many women are being encouraged and will be poised to get those target seats in that subsequent election. As we are gaining all the time, I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that we will perhaps get more women MPs in that way.

I have put my efforts behind that strategy. Unless we are seen to follow it wholeheartedly, we will not know whether it works. However, there is another issue. Unfortunately, we find that we are trying to train women to perform like men, which is the wrong way to go about it. As one Labour Member said—I cannot remember which one—when we ask people to picture an MP, the image they perceive is male, middle-aged and middle-class. We have to break that mould. I welcome the Labour party's efforts in that regard, but they have not been enough to change hearts and minds. It is not that people are innately prejudiced, but they have to get over that hurdle. We need to make people more aware that more than one type of person can become a Member of Parliament.

On the report "Public Bodies 2002", in a recent parliamentary answer the Minister for Women stated We are determined to deliver on our aim that women should hold 45–50 per cent. of public appointments… by the end of 2005".—[Official Report, 31 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 946W.] In a more recent answer, she said that she had no effective control over the matter and stated categorically that the responsibility for making those appointments lay with individual Ministers supported by their Departments, and that each Department set its own targets. Perhaps that explains the complete inconsistency between Departments and why some have targets that are less than aspirational.

The Department for International Development target for 2004 was to ensure that the percentage of appointments held by women currently 23.8% does not fall below 23% in subsequent years". I think that the Minister will agree that that is a little disappointing, but it is even worse when one realises that in 2000 it had placed 27 per cent. of women in public appointments. Clearly, the Department is happy to go backwards.

On current trends only two Departments, the Scotland Office and the Cabinet Office, should reach the target of 50 per cent. of public appointments being women in time for a general election in 2005. Fewer women are now serving on a number of bodies than was the case in 2001. I could list them, but I will not.

Will the Minister look into that matter and encourage ministerial colleagues to set targets that are realistic but that have some element of ambition, and to have some sort of plan as to how they will achieve their goal, rather than merely laudable ambition? On the subject of ministerial colleagues, I must mention mainstreaming. There is little evidence that it is happening in any shape or form, which suggests that a radical overhaul of the women and equality unit is needed.

In the past year, I have asked a number of questions of Government Departments on the implementation of the Government's "better practice" agenda to mainstream gender equality throughout Departments. I hate using such terms—they are such a management-speak mouthful but they are what we are lumbered with. Simply put, the responses highlight incompetence and shortcomings in a significant number of Departments, ranging from total failure to embrace gender mainstreaming to inadequate acceptance of its importance.

I asked each Department four questions, which were designed to test whether gender equality was being mainstreamed throughout government. I asked what new data series, broken down by gender, race, disability and age, had been commissioned by each Department since August 1997. I asked Departments to list the women's organisations that had been consulted over proposed legislation in various years and whether the responses had been published. I also asked if Departments had established a baseline for policy appraisal against which to measure progress on equal treatment and what progress had been achieved. Finally, I asked them to list the subject of each gender impact assessment drawn up since June 1997, indicating in each case whether the outcome had been put out to consultation or published.

I was surprised and disappointed by the results. Nine out of 15 Departments had failed to implement a gender-aware policy agenda to date. The Ministry of Defence, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Scotland Office and the Northern Ireland Office had neglected to conduct any gender impact assessments. The Wales Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had not seen the need to conduct any analyses of gender mainstreaming. Five Departments would not answer one or more of the questions. A number of them had not defined any baselines for policy appraisal so far.

The Minister will be pleased to hear that it is not all doom and gloom. The Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Trade and Industry are the top-ranking Departments in demonstrating concrete evidence of mainstreaming equality. If gender awareness is not seen as a significant priority by the women and equality unit, it is difficult to imagine who will take up the initiative. Despite vast increases in resource allocation, the unit is clearly not doing its job properly and has let fall by the wayside the very object of its existence.

Finally, on the Minister's specific area of responsibility, more than two weeks ago I tabled a parliamentary question asking what percentage of her time was devoted to her role as Minister for Women. Unfortunately, to date I have not received an answer. It would be useful and nice to receive one today, but I hope that she realises that I asked the question out of frustration rather than pure mischief.

Earlier, I mentioned the large number of female Members of Parliament elected at the 1997 election. Yes, they were Labour MPs and some of them have come in for some flak, much of which is undeserved. I am convinced that having a large body of women in this place has resulted in many of the Government's policies being more women friendly and taking into account aspects of family life that were not previously so much to the fore. For example, I am convinced that the paper on domestic violence that is due to be published soon—it is the first paper on the subject to be published in the history of Parliament—would not have been produced had there not been so many women MPs willing and able to do their bit. I want a full-time Minister for Women to do more of that sort of thing and to ensure that other Departments come up with more policies that take the lives of women into account.

I place on record my congratulations to the Home Secretary. Last summer, I was invited to visit Cambodia to look into the problem of sex tourism, which involves many under-age girls. I was really shocked and horrified by what I saw. It was bad enough seeing young girls in brothel areas, but the extent of the problem was really brought home to me when I visited a shelter that tried to rehabilitate girls who had been rescued from brothels. One of those girls was eight years old, which is shocking by anybody's standards. At that stage, I decided that I would like to do something about it.

I mention the problem because, at the moment, people on the sex offenders register can travel abroad for less than eight days without registering with anybody. Police forces in those foreign countries are therefore completely unaware of the presence of such people. To me, that seemed completely wrong. I was pleasantly surprised by the Home Secretary's response: he said that he had been unaware of the problem, but that such people should not be allowed to go abroad at all. The statement published yesterday showed that he has taken the matter very seriously, and I want to put my thanks for that on the record.

It struck me when I was in Cambodia that the problems of women in other parts of the world are on a completely different scale to those that we perceive as problems in this country. Among the examples quoted by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) were micro-finance initiatives. I visited a World Vision initiative, and the people running it were clear that they much preferred giving money to women because women saw the necessity of re-investing in families. One particular woman to whom I talked wanted to buy a motorbike and a plank of wood, so that she could take chickens to market. That might not sound much, but it would make a big difference to her particular community. I welcome all those initiatives, and we should launch more of them.

I am a little disappointed, although I understand the need for it, that there is a move towards money being given to Governments on the basis of good governance. If that money is given to non-governmental organisations, however, it is often spent on the heart of the problem; if it is given to Governments, they may divert it for other purposes. Again, so many things are taken for granted in the UK. Among the other truly horrific things that I saw were families foraging for food on a rubbish dump. We understand that we should not eat food covered with flies, but such a basic understanding is lost on generations of children who do not have education or role models. Another project is designed to educate those children. Such initiatives are small but very worthy, and I hope that we will support them.

I was going to talk about public health but I have digressed on Cambodia. In a similar way to the Tanzania story, when one sees such things one is very affected by them. Although MPs sometimes come in for criticism for visiting countries abroad, it is sometimes one of the best things that we can do to realise what a long way we have come, how lucky we are, and what we need to do to improve things in other countries, too.

I want to finish by talking about the important role that women play in post-conflict reconstruction in war-torn countries, and about war generally. The impact of war on women, and women's role in peacekeeping, are subjects that, sadly, have fairly recently come to notice on the international agenda, having traditionally been a non-subject. In October 2000, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. It underlines the vital role of women in conflict solution, and mandated a review of both the impact of conflict on women and their role in peace building. The resolution emphasises the importance of taking a gender perspective throughout, especially because of the adverse impact of conflict on women and girls.

The UN Secretary-General noted in his report on women, peace and security: Women and children are disproportionately targeted in contemporary armed conflicts and constitute the majority of all victims. He noted that they also constitute the majority of the world's refugees and internally displaced persons. On a global scale, the figures are huge, as women and children constitute some 80 per cent. of the world's estimated 34 million refugees and other displaced persons. Although generalisations should be made only tentatively, it is widely documented that women's experiences of conflict are striking similar around the world, despite the huge differences in cultures and the character of conflicts. Women are more vulnerable, less mobile and the first to feel the effects.

One of the most unpleasant aspects of that is sexual violence. Reports from armed conflicts around the globe document how soldiers and paramilitaries terrorise women with rape, sexual and other physical violence and harassment. Combatants and sympathisers have used rape as a weapon of war, pulling communities apart and forcing women and girls to flee their homes.

I want to digress slightly and pay tribute to the V-day campaign, which has done much to highlight this and many other aspects of violence against women. Anyone who has ever heard a performance of "My vagina was my village" cannot fail to have been forced to recognise the brutality of war and its effect on women. It is a worldwide problem, which has affected women from different areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina—the list goes on. Women in those countries have reported mutilation and all sorts of other horrors. In many cases, perpetrators first raped, and then killed their victims. In other cases, those who survive suffer psychological trauma, permanent physical injury, and frequently are left with a long- term health reminder in the form of a sexually transmitted disease such as HIV/AIDS.

Until recently, however, many viewed violence against women as an inevitable, if regrettable, consequence of war. That attitude effectively guaranteed immunity for perpetrators and silenced women who suffered gruesome sexual and physical abuses. Indeed, it surprised me to learn that the recognition of rape as a war crime resulted from the war in Bosnia and was not officially internationally recognised until as recently as 1998. Since 1998, some success has been achieved, with a number of trials that have convicted certain individuals of rape, used as an instrument of genocide.

It is also pertinent to examine the post-conflict situations that face many women. Sadly, the end of war rarely signals the end of violations against women. In the post-conflict period, many women confront discrimination in reconstruction programmes. They also experience sexual and domestic violence in refugee camps, and violence when they attempt to return to their homes. It has recently been documented that, one year after the Taliban's fall, women and girls in Afghanistan still face severe restrictions and violations of their human rights. In many areas, Taliban officials have been replaced by warlords, police officers and local officials with similarly oppressive attitudes toward women. The Taliban's collapse at the end of 2001 gave hope that Afghan women and girls would soon enjoy greater rights and freedoms. Indeed, in November 2001, US Secretary of State Colin Powell stated: The recovery of Afghanistan must entail a restoration of the rights of Afghan women… The rights of women in Afghanistan will not be negotiable". A year later, however, many in Afghanistan, particularly outside Kabul, believe life has not dramatically improved. I quote one woman from the Herat province: The leadership here is very bad for us. It is not much different than under the Taliban. Women of all ethnicities in Afghanistan are still being restricted in their participation in public life. They continue to face serious threats to their physical safety, denying them the opportunity to exercise basic human rights and to participate fully and effectively in rebuilding their country. I quote from a recent Human Rights Watch report: Women and girls enjoy little freedom of movement in? Herat… They may not walk or ride in a car alone with a man who is not a close relative, even a taxi driver. A police task force now patrols Herat city, arresting men and women who are seen together and suspected of being unrelated or unmarried. Men are taken to jail; women and girls are taken to a hospital to undergo forced medical examinations to determine whether they have recently had sexual intercourse. According to the same report: In Kabul, a reconfigured Vice and Virtue Squad (renamed 'Islamic Teaching') is now operating. One of the problems is that, sometimes, things are done in the name of religion that are not necessarily in line with religious edicts. The report continues: A team of some ninety women under the Ministry of Religious Affairs harasses women in Kabul's streets for 'un-islamic' behaviour, such as wearing makeup, and, in some instances, follows them home to castigate their parents or spouses. I find it bizarre that in a country that needs to rebuild its infrastructure people worry about whether women wear make-up or not. The report also says: There have been reports of Schools for girls being attacked with rockets or set on fire in at least five provinces. These examples of violent, oppressive and restrictive behaviour severely undermine the most fundamental rights of women and girls in many areas of Agfhanistan.

Women's participation in the reconstruction of their country is severely constrained, leaving little hope for their broader political participation in the future. The humanitarian aid and development programmes depend on women to determine what aid is needed and ensure that the aid reaches women and children and is not diverted. If women are involved in administering programmes, aid will reach the people for whom it is intended.

As of December 2002, the US and coalition military forces in Afghanistan are continuing to pursue a strategy of entrusting general security and policing to local forces. We need to have some input into that if we are to improve things. The international community has still to offer adequate resources to expand peacekeeping or even to provide decent police training throughout the country, even though most Afghans and diplomatic officials admit that those steps are a necessary precursor to reconstruction efforts. The recent decision by the British and US Governments to deploy additional troops outside Kabul to work on security and disarmament issues is welcome, but much more needs to be done to ensure that the stranglehold on power enjoyed by the warlords who rule most parts of Afghanistan is weakened.

In Iraq, the Gulf war a decade ago resulted in the destruction of a large number of public facilities such as electricity generation stations and water purification plant and sewage treatment works. The damage has led to a rapid decrease in the health of the nation. That has affected women particularly because they are the main domestic workers and they are responsible for collecting water. In a water shortage, their workload doubles and if they collect poor water, the incidence of diseases such as typhoid fever increases. That has a severe effect on life in the country.

In 10 years, child mortality in Iraq has gone from one of the lowest in the world to the highest. The rate for under-fives is now two and a half times what it was in 1989. Maternal mortality has doubled because women are not receiving obstetric care for complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

I have cited Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of the impact that conflict has on women. I do not know what situation we will find ourselves in in the next few weeks, but I urge the Minister to do all that she can to ensure that women in post-conflict situations are empowered because they provide a vital linchpin in the rehabilitation of a war-torn country.

2.53 pm
Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

I am delighted to take part in the debate today in celebration of international women's day, the central theme of which, as has been admirably demonstrated, is achieving equal rights. Extending equality, tackling barriers to participation and allowing everyone to play their full part in the social and economic life of the nation have to be the central tenets of the Government's vision of a truly inclusive society in this country and in others. Naturally, I commend the Government on their efforts in that direction and welcome the forthcoming gender equality action plan and disability bill, which will be aimed at fashioning just such an inclusive society based on respect and opportunity for all.

In striving to achieve equality between the sexes, it is important that we should remember those members of society for whom legislation does not adequately cater. I welcome the Government's promised legislation on the rights of transsexuals. I commend all that has been said before, but perhaps particularly the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) about women in Tanzania. I worked there myself for four years, and I recognise the accuracy of all that she has said. So I think I can say, if I remember it rightly, "Asante sana ndugu", for raising that subject so tellingly.

I also endorse what has been said about domestic violence and the importance of addressing it. It was effectively addressed a couple of weeks ago in my constituency by a federation of women's organisations which held a conference on the subject in Heswall halls. The conference also dealt with what should be done about it, and an action plan is being proceeded with.

The first person who raised with me the problems of transsexuals is now a woman, so I am taking the opportunity of raising the issue in a debate on women, although, with the necessary changes, my comments also apply to the plight of transsexuals who are now men. The problems are different, but there is much read-across. The rights of transsexuals lag far behind those of any other minority group in this country. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 secured the legal basis of equality for women, but while similar rights for transsexuals were secured just four years ago there are still crucial gaps. It is sufficiently frustrating that three decades after achieving de jure equality, women do not enjoy in all aspects de facto equality. I sincerely hope that that precedent is not followed in the case of transsexuals. I hope that we can save our successors from having to debate these issues in a similar vein in 30 years.

Most of us are comfortable with our gender. It is not something that we think about on a daily or hourly basis, but a small minority in our society experience unending anxiety and prejudice as a result of their gender identity. Legal ambiguity and the inability to alter official documents can have a pervasive effect on the lives of transsexuals and restrain their freedom in the absence of any legal protection of their privacy. For example, a birth certificate is required when one obtains a driving licence, a passport, insurance or even a bus pass. I understand that full disclosure of one's history is also integral to the process of finding employment. Transsexuals are at present even prevented from maintaining their discretion and dignity in death, as death certificates use official gender records. In addition to such personal difficulties, transsexuals cannot marry, which brings with it the concomitant denial of rights to a partner's pension and property. I am open to correction, but I do not think transsexuals can foster or adopt. They can even have their parenthood of a child denied.

If a transsexual commits a criminal offence, the legal ambiguities surrounding them can result in their being sent to prison according to their official, rather than their assumed, identity and gender. Medication can be stopped during such incarceration, with potentially devastating physical and psychological side effects. It is perhaps, sadly, for this reason that transsexuals are one of the most law-abiding groups in society.

Sue Doughty (Guildford)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that transsexuals are often discouraged from seeking basic rights such as benefits or from dealing with officialdom in any way because the people with whom they have to deal often have a dreadful habit of starting with "he" then changing to "she", perhaps giggling on the telephone and saying, "I don't know what to do now." The huge humiliation that people have to endure who have gone through such emotional pain to get to where they are now means that they often give up rather than obtain the rights to which they are entitled.

Mr. Chapman

I agree entirely. Not only legislative change but societal change is needed to address the rights of transsexuals. We need to define those rights and to define how transsexuals' privacy can be protected so that they can participate and contribute to society in a normal way. I hope that that will be achieved in the forthcoming Bill from the Lord Chancellor's Department, which I hope will be introduced quickly.

To illustrate the plight of transsexuals, I want to discuss the plight of a brave constituent of mine, Miss Janie Kirkby—who not only gave her consent to being mentioned in this debate but actively encouraged it. She regards my outlining of her plight as a way of helping other transsexuals of both sexes.

Miss Kirkby was born a man and has been uncomfortable with her gender identity for most of her life. Having made the transition and become a woman, she has found that the discrimination that she suffers substantially inhibits a normal existence. She has been unable to find gainful employment and has had to fight for her benefits—an issue that the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) raised. Being loth to subject herself to further prejudice, she has not been able to secure a passport or even a bus pass. Had she pressed the point on the bus pass, she would have found that, at least in Merseyside, we have equalised the age for bus pass issue. At 60, she could have got a bus pass, but she does not wish to go through the indignity of all that is necessary to secure it.

She has had experience of employment in cleaning and nursing and has repeatedly applied for jobs in both those areas. She has been rejected from approximately 300 posts in two years for various given reasons—often as spurious as, for example, "The people here wouldn't like you." What has happened cannot be attributed solely to malfeasance of the part of the employers. In nursing, it is legally necessary to be either a man or a woman. As a transsexual, Miss Kirkby's acquired gender is not legally recognised. She is therefore wholly unable, legally, to be employed in that area. For other positions, there is no legal basis to prevent her employment, but she is still consistently rejected. In frustration, she has pursued employment tribunals. However, it is always difficult to prove the specific reason for which one failed to get a job. Needless to say, it is not made explicit.

Miss Kirkby is a classic example of someone who has not passively accepted her fate. She got on her bike and went searching endlessly for work. However, she has consistently been rejected because of her gender identity. As she rightly says: If I wasn't a transsexual, I would be employed now. That is true.

Now of pensionable age, rightly, as a woman, she still experiences many daily problems. She had to fight for a pension, although, thanks to the change in the rules, she received one at age 60. However, that sort of hardship is typical of the experience of the majority of transsexuals in this country. I urge the Government to fast-track legislation on this issue. I welcome proposals that would make possible marriage for transsexuals and formal recognition of their acquired gender—including the issuing of papers that are indistinguishable from birth certificates and that mention only the present gender. I would welcome any statement on the progress of such legislation. Legal precedent has been set in the cases of Iv. UK, Goodwinv. UK and Bellingerv. Bellinger. I urge the Government to act in accordance with those rulings in codifying transsexuals' rights and in recognising acquired gender roles as legally valid.

To feel that one has been born in the wrong gender is difficult for me to comprehend but it must be disturbing in the extreme. I cannot imagine the kind of emotional turmoil that would be necessary to persuade someone that they had been born in the wrong body and that they must change their sex. The liberation and joy of achieving one's right gender must be great—but perhaps not as great as the trauma that one will have suffered in the past and, to some extent for some people, will continue to suffer in future.

It behoves all of us to reduce the burden on transsexuals. As I said earlier, this issue must be addressed not only in legislation but in perceptions. Societal attitudes must change. When walking down the street can be dangerous and humiliating, it is not surprising that transsexuals become dysphoric and despondent. Transgender behaviour is a normal variation of the human condition and should be seen as such. It is not a disorder. A civilised society has a fundamental responsibility to adapt to the needs of all its members. Let us hope that the needs of transsexuals can be fully met, and soon.

3.5 pm

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) on his explanation of the problems faced by transsexuals. I had not intended to discuss that matter today, as there are a number of other issues that I wish to raise.

As a Conservative M P, I ought to tackle one issue face on—my party's lamentable performance in attracting more Conservative female MPs to these Benches. I would dearly like to see that change. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has many engagements and duties, and sadly she is not here to listen to what I have to say. She had to leave a few moments ago but I am sure that she will read theOfficial Report and so be fully aware of my views. As party chairman, she will be interested in these matters. I congratulate her on being the first lady in the Conservative party to reach the position of party chairman. That is an achievement. It is sad that the Secretary of State is not here to hear me say that it was a shame that, in listing the achievements of women in politics, she failed to mention that we have had a lady Prime Minister—the Conservative Margaret Thatcher. That proves that there is not really a glass ceiling in politics if one is good enough.

Nevertheless, my party's performance in attracting more women is not good enough. I suspect that I may not be among the majority on the Conservative Benches in saying this, but although my party has made some progress in attracting female candidates to seats that we hope to win from the Government at the next election, that progress has not been enough and I hope that we will embrace measures that the Government have put in place to require the selection of female candidates. I say that not because, as MP for Bromsgrove, I am here to represent women. That is not so. I am a woman but, as well as in women's issues, I am interested in men's issues and issues regarding elderly people, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities. Of course, we all are. I am also interested in people who did not vote for me; it is my constitutional duty to represent my constituents.

We are all aware that, as times change, Parliament must reflect the general public. If we look at these Benches, we should see the same eclectic group of people as we might see in work places, the pub, or while walking down the street. The public have to believe that we can understand their problems, having had some experience of them. They should not feel that we all come from one group in society and therefore ignore other groups. I hope that my party will make progress on this issue. I thought that some hon. Members might challenge me on this, so I wanted to make my position clear on the record and in front of my Whips.

I pay tribute to the British Council. I was interested in what the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) had to say. I had the honour and pleasure of having a young MP from Kenya shadow me here in the House of Commons. Sadly, I have not yet been able to go to Kenya, although I would dearly love to do so and share some of the profound experiences that the hon. Member for Bristol, West has had in Tanzania and Malawi. That may be possible in future.

It was a pleasure to welcome Cecily Mbarire to the House of Commons, where she shared her experiences with me. Her experiences are particularly relevant to the debate, because Kenya is about to hold a constitutional conference in March. I hope that it will profoundly change the role of women in that country. I very much hope that the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women will pass on to the Foreign Office a message about the need to support changes that will bolster the position of women in Kenya.

Cecily was a complete delight and a tremendous advocate for her sex and her country. I hope that she does as well in Kenyan politics as her undoubted talents deserve. She has been formidable in representing the interests of women in Kenya. She had been a Member of Parliament for only a matter of months when she visited me a few weeks ago. She was the President's nominee for one of the few positions that he is allowed to fill in the Kenyan Parliament. She is determined that she will be elected in her own right as time progresses, and she hopes that the conference will lead to several changes being made to the constitution.

The first change that Cecily hopes will be made is to provide for a gradual progression to bolster the number of female Members of Parliament in Kenya. She takes a sensible approach that is modelled on the systems that are already in place in other African countries. A position in Parliament for a female MP is ring-fenced, in that certain seats must go to women. In a sense, they are appointed. After five years, the women are no longer allowed to stand for those seats but must stand for a fully elected post against whatever competition—it is usually a man—they might face. That is a good way of encouraging a natural process of increasing the representation of women. It gives them the chance to show that they add value and are linked to their constituents. Perhaps they work harder, and the evidence suggests that they are less corrupt than some of their male colleagues. Guaranteeing women a place in Parliament and then making them fight for it on an equal basis is an exciting and progressive approach. It is important that the Kenyan constitution be amended to allow this gradual process of change to the make-up of the Parliament to take place.

The next issue that Cecily would like addressed is domestic violence. We have heard much about the problems of domestic violence in the United Kingdom, where the figures are truly shocking. I do not know the figures for Kenya, but I fear that they are much worse. Cecily told me that a male Member of the Kenyan Parliament said in that Chamber that it was a man's right to chastise his wife in the same way as it was his right to chastise his child. Because women have the vote in Kenya, this shocking statement was related to the MP's constituents. Such were the efforts of Cecily and her female counterparts that I am delighted to say that he was not re-elected at the subsequent election. It is nice to see that, on occasions, people are suitably punished for their totally unacceptable views. Domestic violence is an enormously important issue to the women of Kenya. Their rights do not begin to match the rights of women in this country. I hope that the Minister will encourage the Foreign Office to press for the inclusion of that important issue in the forthcoming constitutional conference.

As the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) pointed out, we have come so far in this country that we can lose sight of the unfortunate position of women in other countries. It is truly shocking to realise that women in Kenya do not have property rights. They do not inherit the joint wealth of husband and wife when the husband dies. They are entitled to the kitchen implements—the pots, pans and spoons—but the rest does not go to them or to their daughters. It goes to their sons. Unless their sons are prepared to look after them, they face destitution in old age.

I hope that the Kenyan constitution will be rewritten to recognise the existence of female property rights. Cecily believes that that might create a sticking point, but it is important that women should be able to have a stake in society. As we have heard in other contributions, women are often much better at using property to bolster the family income. They invest it so as to secure a proper livelihood for the family. I very much wish Cecily, her colleagues and the male colleagues who agree with them about future progress well in the future negotiations. The conference will take place quite soon and, if I get the chance to meet her and her constituents, I hope that I will be able to join in the celebrations to mark the success of her agenda.

Cecily also raised with me the issue of female genital mutilation. We have all heard about that, but she described what it really entails as we were driving to Bromsgrove. Although the practice is outlawed in Kenya, it is not outlawed across Africa. Sadly, it still continues. I should remind the House what the practice involves. Sometimes it involves force but, for cultural reasons, many pre-pubescent girls of nine or 10 are resigned to their fate. Although it is difficult to imagine, a razor is used to cut away the female sexual organs without the use of anaesthetic. There is a profound impact in terms of pain—some girls bleed to death in the process because their wounds do not heal—and other health issues ensue. For example, women who have had such wounds inflicted on them suffer sheer agony in childbirth. It is a horrible process.

I know that progress has been made, but having more women represented in the Parliaments of sub-Saharan Africa is important in beginning to change attitudes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead pointed out, it does not matter if we change the law if we do not also change attitudes. For example, Cecily told me of a young lady who had run away from home because she feared what would happen to her. Cecily's mother harboured her, but the young lady had to return to her village when she became pregnant. She had her baby but, after that, she was frogmarched out of the village and circumcised.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)


Miss Kirkbride

"Tortured" is the right word. The young lady was tortured because such practices are considered appropriate in that society and village. I asked Cecily why mothers could allow that to happen to their children and she said, "Because that's what happened to them and that's what they expect to happen." Hence the culture does not change. It is important that women's rights be represented in Parliaments in Kenya and in the other countries in Africa where such practices occur.

Mr. Key

I salute my hon. Friend for her courage in raising that issue. Is she aware that although female genital mutilation is illegal in this country, it is happening to hundreds of children from ethnic minority groups because it is not illegal for their parents to take them abroad to a country where it is legal, have the beastly process carried out and then bring them back to this country? Does she agree that it would be a travesty if any hon. Member were to oppose the private Member's Bill on Friday 21 March, promoted by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), which would make it illegal for anyone who does that to escape prosecution?

Miss Kirkbride

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to my attention. I am shocked that that could occur without the full body of the law being applied. I would welcome any measure to prevent that from happening to children who expect the British law to protect them. However, I should like that protection to be extended across Africa to other children who will be mutilated in that way and whose life chances will be diminished as a result

3.20 pm
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

I praise the Government, with all my heart, for their determined efforts to tackle domestic violence against women. Much has been said about that, but it is worth repeating because the subject is so important.

Just after the election of the Labour Government, the Home Office published a document, which I think was a White Paper, called "Living Without Fear—an integrated approach to tackling violence against women". It impressed me and showed the direction that the Government intended to take to address the problem of domestic violence. That work is carried out by various Departments: the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Solicitor-General's office.

The Lord Chancellor's Department is organising a series of conferences on domestic violence in the Asian community, not because that community experiences more domestic violence than others, but because it is a taboo subject that is not to be talked about in the community.

During the half-term break, I went to the second meeting in Brentford. The first had taken place in Bolton. I spent most of the day there listening to submissions by specialist groups and women. I was impressed by the serious way in which the subject is being addressed. Keighley domestic violence service in my constituency has a specific section to deal with violence against Asian women. The women who help those people are fluent in the various Asian languages and bring them to me for help, which I willingly give. The Brentford meeting coincided with the BBC's excellent "Hitting Home" campaign, which took place over one or two weeks.

At the conference, I met an old acquaintance from Southall Black Sisters who raised one or two difficulties with me. I talked to her about being a member of the Council of Europe, a little-known body—in fact, the best kept secret in Europe. It has 44 member countries and is the parent body of the European convention on human rights. I am a member of its equal opportunities committee and last summer I was asked to produce a report on honour killings in Europe. It was a stressful occupation. However, the report is ready and I shall probably present it next month.

I told the member of Southall Black Sisters about my work on honour killings and she said that people had forgotten about Zoora Shah, but I had not forgotten about her. She came from Bradford and I have an account of her trial and the terrible time that she had. It is written by Southall Black Sisters and begins: On 30th April 1998, Zoora Shah lost her appeal to overturn her conviction for the murder and attempted murder of Mohammed Azam on the grounds of diminished responsibility. As is the case with many women in the Bradford district, including Keighley, Zoora had been brought to the area as a wife. She already had two daughters when she arrived and subsequently had a son. Shortly after arriving in Bradford, her husband left her without money or any form of support. She was homeless and a man called Mohammed Azam offered her a home, but he expected certain favours in return. He also introduced some of his friends to Zoora and she was expected to have sex with them, too. She had three children and it would have been difficult for her to leave because she would have had nowhere to live and no funds. The support from the local Asian community was thin on the ground to say the least.

Eventually, Mohammed Azam started to show an interest in her two daughters who were about 14 and 15. Zoora decided that there was no other remedy but to obtain poison and feed it to him. Over a few days, she poisoned him to death. I would not for one minute suggest that she did the right thing, but she was under a great deal of strain. When she snapped, she did the only thing that she thought she could do to control that man and to stop him doing to her daughters what he had already done to her. In the summary of her case, the organisation, Southall Black Sisters, says: The Courts have been rather more willing to accept cultural and religious factors used by Asian men to excuse the killings of wives and daughters, on the basis that 'their' wives/daughter's behaviour transgresses cultural norms". Although I do not want to draw comparisons, I want to mention a second case, and I hope that hon. Members reach their own conclusions. A young Bradford woman, Tasleem Saddique, was murdered on 15 June 1995 by a young man called Shabir Hussain. Shabir was the husband of Tasleem's sister. In common with many women in Bradford, Tasleem had been taken to Pakistan when she was 16 for the purpose of marriage. She had a problem—I should say, her family had a problem; I do not think she was terribly worried about bringing the man in—her family had a problem in getting entry for the young man whom she had married in Pakistan. I am not quite sure what happened at that time, as Tasleem cannot tell her own story. On her return to the United Kingdom, she was unable to get entry for her husband, and she sought refuge in one of the Asian women's refuges in Bradford.

As I say, I do not know the story behind that. Because of the primary purpose rule, Tasleem was unable to bring her husband in. I am not knocking the primary purpose rule; I am merely relating what happened. Four years on, when she was about 20, she took up with another Asian man in Bradford. Her sister and her family opposed the relationship and felt that she was bringing shame on the family. One morning her brotherin-law—her sister's husband—Shabir Hussain took a car out. As Tasleem was standing at a bus stop waiting for a bus, he knocked her down with the car, and drove forward and reversed over her several times till she was dead.

Shabir Hussain was charged with murder. The case was protracted, but eventually the charge was replaced by a charge of manslaughter. I do not know the case, but I suggest that he could well have used the defence that the balance of his mind was upset due to the fact that the honour of the family had been undermined by the behaviour of Tasleem. He therefore thought that he was doing the right thing by killing her to preserve the honour of the family.

Shabir Hussain was sentenced to three years' imprisonment, but served only 18 months. Zoora Shah is still in prison. I shall not try to draw comparisons, but I hope that I am right in saying that were those two cases to come to court now, perhaps different conclusions would be reached, because there is a different climate.

Cultural practices and differences, including female genital mutilation, cannot be accepted as an excuse for the violation of the human rights of women.

So that it is not thought that I always go on about Asian women and never speak about white women, I shall mention that a couple of weeks ago, at the time of the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury on 25 February I submitted an early-day motion entitled "Gender Equality in the Church of England". It states that this House recognises and pays tribute to the life and achievements of Monica Furlong, author and journalist, who died on 14th January; celebrates her commitment to gender equality in the Church of England; calls on the Government to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to remove the exemption of religious bodies from the provision of the Act; and calls on the established church to cease forthwith its present discrimination against women priests and accept the need for women bishops.

Mr. Key

I have only one quarrel with that otherwise excellent early-day motion. I would sign it if it were not for the fact that the Church of England Synod currently has a working party on that very issue. It is the constitutional position that the recommendation should come from the Synod through the Ecclesiastical Committee to the House, which I hope would then approve what the hon. Lady says. I wholly agree with her about the importance of having not only women priests, but women bishops.

Mrs. Cryer

I thank the hon. Gentleman. An early-day motion does no harm in this case; it gives a shove in the right direction.

Glenda Jackson

Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Gentleman's intervention constitutes a fairly strong argument for disestablishment?

Mrs. Cryer

If we start talking about that, I shall be on my feet for another hour. There are good arguments for disestablishment. I have been in touch with Monica Furlong and other women who are involved in those arguments in the Church of England. Some of the stories that they tell me compare with stories that I can tell about imams in Bradford, in respect of the treatment of women priests in the Church of England and how they are regarded as substandard. Since I tabled that early-day motion, I have had one or two letters and one or two conversations with hon. Members. One of them—I shall not reveal who it was—said to me, "You know, Ann, a woman can no more be a priest than she can be a father." That is going a bit too far. It bears comparison with the views of imams in Bradford. I am trying to be fair and even-handed in my discussion of religions.

This afternoon, we have discussed this country's position and the likelihood of war with Iraq. I believe that we should not go to war, and that it will not help the women of Iraq one jot if we do so. As has been mentioned, we ought to look at the position of women in Afghanistan. Agencies and groups that have returned from Afghanistan say that sharia law is being reimposed in some parts of Afghanistan. I did not oppose the war in Afghanistan because I felt strongly about the Taliban and women's human rights in the country. There is a lot of unfinished business there which needs to be tidied up before we even think of attacking another country such as Iraq. I am not confident that the women of Iraq would benefit from our intervention. While we are looking at the area, the human rights position of women in Iran is probably far worse than that of women in Iraq. What are we going to do about Iranian women or women in Saudi Arabia, where there are very strange views about women?

Finally, everything that I have said has been pretty miserable, so I shall end on a high note. Government Members ought to celebrate legislative changes made in the past year that will again allow constituency Labour parties, where they so wish, to adopt an all-women shortlist when selecting a parliamentary candidate. I wish Opposition Members well in their determination to follow that example.

3.37 pm
Sue Doughty (Guildford)

I, too, congratulate the Government on selecting this important topic for debate.

Progress on dealing with some of the worst injustices to women is still slow, but it is important that at least once a year we have an opportunity for a debate such as this one to take stock not only of what we are doing in this country but of what is happening internationally. We need to reinforce Government intentions and turn them into deeds to secure important improvements. Whatever we say today, our words must be followed with appropriate action.

Last summer, I was a representative of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit at the earth summit in Johannesburg. Having gone there to see what our Government and other Governments were doing to bring about environmental improvements and improved social justice, it was clear that many changes involved social justice for women. It is common sense that women, who make up half the population, should have reproductive health and education rights, and should also participate in the economy and other areas. For the poorest countries, that is the key to economic development, and will bring about change from dire poverty to a much more viable economy.

I was particularly interested to hear some of the arguments in Johannesburg, including an important one about access to clean drinking water. In areas without easy access to water, the people who go and get water are largely women and girls. If girls are fetching water, they are not in school, which is relevant to the argument about universal education. In discussing how we will proceed after the earth summit and the commitment to improve access to drinking water, we must consider how we will liberate women and girls to do things other than just fetching water.

I, too, have been involved in the British Council scheme, and it is worth talking about some of my experiences because the experiences of Tanzania and Kenya are different from each other and also different from those of the country with which I have become involved, which is Eritrea. Eritrea is a desperately poor mountainous country which has only recently gained independence, having been run initially by Italy, then by Britain and more recently by Ethiopia. It has, therefore, been trying to develop its own economy only in the last few years.

There is good news about Eritrea and not-so-good news. I have been over there to help with work on developing political and economic capacity for women. It has a developing Parliament. I cannot match the good news that the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) was able to give us about Ruthie. My "twin", Tsegereda, has a full-time job, and is a Member of Parliament only one week in four. The Eritrean Parliament is much more like a council, from which its Members can claim allowances, rather than providing full-time jobs to enable them to do the kind of things that we do. It is a challenge for them to learn how to develop their Parliament and their democracy, such as it is.

Eritrea is a one-party state, and there are major issues about human rights there. It now has only one media source—the state media source—as all the others have been shut down, and several journalists have disappeared. It has a problem relating to the lack of elections, and when elections do take place, the current set of MPs will stand as independents to separate them from the one party, which will, in fact, be backing them. There is no true democracy. National service seems to be open-ended, and this affects women greatly. People go into national service and do not come out. They do not get paid, and are effectively used as slave labour to build roads and to carry out various other activities.

One of the unusual things about the Eritrean Parliament is that, although some people say that the importance that the Government accord to equality for women is, perhaps, lip service, it has recognised that women played a strong role in the liberation army and have therefore earned their right to become Members of Parliament. There is a strange situation in that some of the women MPs physically bear the scars of fighting alongside their male partners in the war. Women undertook a strong role in achieving the liberation of Eritrea. The problem now relates to their successors. There are women Ministers who were fighters, but we must now start to think about developing the successor generation of women who will come along and become representatives, whether in their local village council, a regional assembly or the national assembly. Tsegereda, my "partner", attended university and had a job. She is a role model for the kind of people that women should be bringing on as future leaders. It is important that people should see different kinds of women coming forward as leaders.

Interestingly, we commented to the women's assembly that there are fewer women Members of Parliament here than in the imperfect Parliament over there in Eritrea, 22 per cent. of whose Members are women. It also has a quota of 30 per cent., which will increase the total. Getting there has been achieved very differently from here, but it, too, has problems with getting women to come forward. The role played by Ruthie was wonderfully described, with people going to her with their problems and asking for instant decisions. Things are very different in Eritrea, where people are asking themselves what a Member of Parliament does and what power she has. One of the issues that we discussed was how to develop surgeries and to get people to come forward to comment on what the Government are doing. In some villages that is done by using a suggestion box, either because the surgeries are not yet open or because people do not want to come and discuss their problems. In those circumstances, they can put a note into the suggestion box—assuming that they can write, of course. So there are a lot of problems there.

I was impressed by the fact that it is recognised that if Eritrea is to build its economy and build on the fact that 45 per cent. of households are run by women because their men are away at war, doing national service or in exile—all factors that exist in a post-conflict situation—it also needs to build women into economic units. If we do not invest in the women, we will have one arm tied behind our backs. Many Eritrean women live in villages and are tied to their homes, where they are bringing up children and seem to cook all day using very primitive stoves. The stoves that they use are health hazards, as children fall over them and burn themselves. Often, they do not have any fuel or have trouble gathering it. The burning of dung is common, but it causes serious respiratory problems. Such work seems an all-day activity.

The women also have no economic independence. If a woman's husband dies, widow inheritance means that another male member of her husband's family can take her as his wife. That leads to problems in terms of the spread of HIV/AIDS, sometimes because the infection caused the husband's death.

There is also very little understanding of nutrition and the need for a balanced diet. There is not only poverty—of course, Eritrea is a very poor country—but lack of knowledge about the fact that feeding a maize porridge to children every day may itself lead to infant mortality.

On the other hand, the assemblies have been building up action plans and considering how they can quickly bring about the intermediate change that is needed to work towards greater change. Some developments have been very exciting. The National Union of Eritrean Women has been working closely with a network of people throughout the country. The trade unions are also very active. I attended a one-day course on which women discussed how they might return to their villages and influence behaviour that can lead to HIV/AIDS.

Eritrea has been a little more fortunate than some countries because it has very strong family structures. Almost everybody is religious; most people are either Muslim, Coptic Christian, Catholic or Protestant. Those structures are in place, but in any post-war situation, people will be on the move. Any development brings about more movement of people. Even the building of essential roads can mean that people have to work away from home on construction projects.

Some of the proposals that are being considered involve very low-technology ideas with which we in the more prosperous economies can help. Eritrea has some electricity, but women who are learning to grow crops so that they have a food source when the men are away can face problems in watering them. People from VSO are helping by providing teaching and a lot of things are happening, but if water is not available, crops do not grow. One solution is the use of solar energy to pump underground water. There is very little infrastructure in some areas, but such solutions are achievable and can help people to make viable arrangements for growing their own food.

There is also some discussion about setting up insurance schemes for animals, as people whose animals are insured might take more interest in their welfare, and other developments are occurring in association with better care of animals. We have also been hearing about credit unions.

On learning to weave, Eritrea has been importing cotton from Ethiopia and India, but if women can learn to weave they can get out of their cottages and start earning as well. People who are teaching women to weave can also talk to them about nutrition. Simple schemes are often very effective. One involves giving donkeys, which can carry enough water for two days. That frees up women to do other things.

One of the most interesting developments could be called an African village Aga saga. The dreadful stoves that the women have to use fill up their rooms with smoke. That is a problem, as they cook all day to prepare bread and the meat that is eaten with it, but they designed a better stove made out of clay. It has a little damper that allows them to burn less fuel, which means that there is less smoke and wood can be used in combination with dung. Such stoves could be sold to women from other villages, who could sell back grain for brewing beer and so on. Such basic trade would be significant. We worry about money, but in some areas of Eritrea, people do not even trade. The women developed that further. They said, "Why are we working on one burner? Why don't we have three, so that we can cook our stew and treat the grain we use for beer as well as bake the bread?". So they ended up with a mini-Aga. They have a model that they take round to other women's houses to show them how they can cook while doing other things, which gets them away from doing nothing but eternal cooking and wood gathering. The British Council is considering tying the latter to a national tree day, because ripping branches off trees does not do them much good. Planting more trees would be a low-cost investment that is very effective in terms of payback.

Another project is based on giving women 25 chickens, which arrive as chicks, so one starts to see chickens running around in the yards outside the houses. That is aimed at developing mixed nutrition, getting protein into people and helping them to bring up their children to do better.

Eritrea is a one-party state and only limited information comes out. Women need to know what is happening in relation to other women. If one of us goes out there, we may be their only source of information about what is happening in other Parliaments. They do not have a lot of written material about that, so the British Council libraries and access to the internet are important ways of providing such information.

The British Council has been strong in teaching English. In Africa, English is often the language of further and higher education. It is not only important in terms of encouraging people to go beyond basic literacy; in a country with nine different languages, it is helpful to have a lingua franca for learning about veterinary skills, horticultural skills and other skills that are needed.

Good work is being done by the aid agencies, but one cannot overestimate the value of the work that is being done by the British Council, with a small level of investment yielding a disproportionate amount of benefit. It is there not just for the bad times and crises—it is there year after year, understanding how people work and, especially through its scheme in Eritrea, facilitating the development of women in terms of their own economy, their own rights and their own justice. I ask the Government to ensure that investment in such schemes continues and is built on, because the development of women that that encourages will lead to improved economies in those countries.

3.52 pm
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

In following the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), I should say that I have never visited Eritrea, but in 1985 I was in Ethiopia at the behest of Oxfam. We went as far north as it was possible to go at that time owing to the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which was still raging. We visited one of Oxfam's long-term projects, which had to do with the development of corn that could survive drought-hit regions. The Oxfam officials told me that a few weeks earlier they had had a visit from a small group of people from the local Eritrean People's Liberation Front, who had, with great courtesy, albeit at gun point, requested that the Oxfam people lend them their van, which, being sensible people, they did. The van was driven to the centre of the small town, the bank was blown open, the money was extracted, and the van was returned immediately with many thanks from the Eritrean People's Liberation Front.

I found the contribution to the debate by the hon. Member for Guildford, like those of all hon. Members, intensely interesting. Essentially, what has come out of the debate so far is the enormous capacity of women to develop—to expand and to build on, by virtue of their imagination, creativity, intelligence and ability to work hard, the very small amounts of investment that are made in them as individuals or in groups.

I have also been struck by the fact that many speeches depicting the life of women—in Eritrea, in the contribution of the hon. Member for Guildford—perhaps reflect the position in this country 50 years ago. One hon. Member suggested that women should be in charge of disseminating aid, especially food aid, to countries that need it. Fifty years ago in my family, it did not matter how much or how little food was on the table, the men got it first. If there were second helpings, men were asked first whether they wanted them.

A recurring theme of the debate has been that equality of opportunity requires genuine equality of human rights. That programme must be based not only on internationally defined law and justice but the infinitely harder process of transforming hearts and minds. Female genital mutilation has been mentioned, and the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said that a private Member's Bill on the subject has been introduced, which I am sure all hon. Members will endorse.

However, the most proactive people in insisting on female genital mutilation are women. Their history is that their capacity to function in their societies and cultures depends on their desirability. I do not use that word in a sexual context, given that female genital mutilation removes the possibility of a woman experiencing sexual pleasure. I mean that women's desirability in their society, culture and, often, religious framework, depends on a man's appreciation. That is hard to change. We have failed to change it in our country.

Since my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) became a Member of Parliament, she has, to her great credit, detailed the terrible experiences of women in this country whose antecedents and partners are from another part of the world, where cultural traditions are different. She spoke of the horror of honour killing. In a recent case in this part of the world, a father killed his daughter because he did not approve of the young man whom she was seeing. It also happens in our society, although it may be called something else. Under our legal system, if a woman kills her partner, provocation has to be proven. If the charge is a lesser crime than murder, she has to plead that the balance of her mind was disturbed.

I should like to consider another aspect that most speakers have mentioned: the inevitable link between women and their children. I wish that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley had given us the name of the hon. Member who argued that women cannot be priests because they cannot be fathers. The obvious rejoinder is that fathers cannot be mothers. Many women in this country have to be mother and father to their children.

I hope that everyone is appalled by acts of violence against children. Such acts are often presented as perpetrated by a stranger who must be a monster, but the greatest damage is visited on children by members of their families. Acts of violence that strangers commit against children almost invariably receive massive coverage. A few months ago, newspapers gave intensive coverage to one such incident when two children were killed. That same week, six other children died but at the hands of their fathers. There was no question of who was guilty or of a trial. Whole families have been eradicated in that way, yet still there is a double standard that has to do with the domestic situation.

Many hon. Members have made telling contributions about domestic violence. I should not want anyone to imagine that I do not appreciate what has been done by the Government and the changes introduced by the police to stop the approach, "This is a domestic and nothing to do with us." I attended the launch, with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), of the Metropolitan police scheme whereby every constable carries a card bearing telephone numbers and addresses that can be used by the young PC encountering domestic violence for the first time in order to obtain assistance.

Ms Oona King

They should make those cards available to MPs too.

Glenda Jackson

Yes. I appreciate the Government's actions and the work of my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women. However, the resources to assist women who find the courage to flee domestic violence and take their children with them are neither adequate nor available in a sufficiently linked-up way. Only this week I have received letters from Women Against Rape—an organisation in my constituency, part of whose funding is being taken away because the Association of London Government grants committee decided that WAP does not warrant its past level of funding, but it does because the violence goes on.

There are occasional flurries of newspaper stories and BBC programmes about domestic violence, then the topic slides from public view. There are still huge imbalances in our legal system and every other aspect of our national life that impacts against the equality and protection of women and their children.

Women and their children inevitably suffer the biggest brunt of conflict and post-conflict situations. When my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women paid tribute to the armed forces, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) intervened to ask whether women had not made their contribution to tackling aggression. Neither my right hon. Friend nor the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that this was an oversight, not a deliberate insult—acknowledged the women who did not serve in the armed forces but who certainly kept this country running during the first and second world wars. In many instances, they paid with their lives. That was the pattern of warfare in the second half of the 20th century, and it is certainly the case now. Modern warfare inevitably means that civilians die in the greatest numbers.

I strongly endorse the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley about women's human rights in Iran, and I share her opposition to war against Iraq. Death is a form of liberation but I do not acknowledge the concept that war is a form of mass mercy killing in the way that it has been represented—as moral justification for war in Iraq. There is no moral reason for a pre-emptive strike against a nation state that affords no immediate and direct threat to ourselves or our allies.

We have seen the results of modern warfare in that part of the world. I am thinking of the first Gulf war—the Kuwaiti war. The killing was not all immediate. I have seen photographs of real horror: the war also killed, much more slowly, generations that had to be conceived at the end of it. Genetic defects were caused by the use of 21st-century weapons. The extraordinary environmental degradation, and the horrendous cocktail released by the use of those weapons, has marked generations of Iraqi children.

I regret to say that that will happen again. It seems to me almost monstrous that it should still be argued that we are defending the will of, and respect for, the United Nations in our wish to launch a pre-emptive strike against another nation state. The United Nations' reason for being was surely to prevent war. It did not come into being to serve as the world's international army; it came into being to work for, maintain and help to produce peace.

We, as a world and particularly as a country—during what seems to be an almost inevitable countdown to war—are in a situation that I find incomprehensible in many ways. Almost as incomprehensible to me are the arguments that we have been hearing. It is suggested that if we do not go to war, we shall see the destruction of the United Nations. It is said that, just as the League of Nations died because it failed to act against potential dictators, the UN will be sidelined because the present situation will be seen in a similar way.

I have my own theories on what will constitute a genuine sidelining of the UN. It has nothing to do with the League of Nations, and nothing to do with what in many instances seems to be a rewriting of the historical precursors to the second world war. We hear much about Abyssinia, but I think a much closer analogy is that of Guernica. There we saw an open city being blown to smithereens; here we see the possibility of a virtually open country, with little ability to defend itself, being blown to smithereens. If we, as a Parliament, as a nation and, I hope, as a Government, are genuine in acknowledging that women have not always had equal rights and, in many respects, still do not have them—and I believe that we are—we should bear in mind that their human rights are certainly one of the first things that any society will discard when it is under pressure.

In a funny way, we speak as though we had established absolute human rights for women in this country, but we know that we have not. Women's human rights play a much more practical part in other democratic societies, and in some that wish to become democratic. A major movement is taking off in the United States, attempting to overturn a woman's right to choose. It is simply not the case that once we have such rights, they are ours for ever. Here I speak entirely from a gender perspective. There is constant pressure not only for the obtaining of equal and human rights for women, but for the maintaining of those rights once they have been secured.

I was particularly touched by what my right hon. Friend the Minister said about a charismatic black woman who, at a conference, used the words "Lift when you rise". It concerns me very much that young women in this country seem to think that it has all been done, and that nothing will block their advancement, wherever they want that advancement to take them. I must tell those young women that they will have a rude awakening further down the line, because it just ain't so. And we in Parliament delude ourselves if we think that we have got it made here—although I pay tribute to the Government for beginning to prioritise the basic bread-and-butter issues that are so important to women. Almost inevitably, they involve proper, affordable child care, and proper support for women who bear most of the responsibilities at the other end of the age range.

Regional difficulties sometimes work against what the Government want. For example, child care in London is desperately expensive and there are huge variations in its provision. Reference was made to the effects of the planning system on the proper provision of child care. That is certainly true in London. Property prices are astronomical and land is not available, so the physical structural changes that are needed for the provision of child care are extremely difficult to achieve.

Sue Doughty

The hon. Lady referred to the tragedy of women who experience abuse and have to leave home with their children. Does she agree that women who want to leave hostels find it especially difficult to get back into work and to find affordable child care? That does not apply only to parts of the country where there is economic deprivation; women in that situation face economic deprivation no matter where they live. They need as much help as possible to get back into work so that they can look after their families as they want to do.

Glenda Jackson

I wholly agree. Often the problem is exacerbated and such women face additional burdens. Even if they manage to find work and affordable child care, their children have often been traumatised. They have had not only to leave home but to move to a different school, and have lost touch with friends and relations. Women may clear the initial hurdle by getting away from the immediate danger and then find a job and a decent place to live, but the problems remain. We are sometimes too ready to think that the problems have been solved, but often such women need proper support for much longer from the people who provide those maintaining services—if they exist. In many instances, the services may not be provided or may not be linked as they should be and that can create particular difficulties.

I have always argued that if one has anything worth saying in this place one should be able to say it in 10 minutes. I realise that I have been on my feet for far longer than my self-imposed cut-off point, so I shall draw my remarks to a close.

As I said earlier, women can be enormously capable if they are given even the smallest opportunity to help. We are more than willing to take our proper place in the world, so it would be nice if there was slightly more acknowledgement of what that place is. Sometimes sentimental lip service is paid to women as though they were automatically and naturally members of the most caring professions. Women have enormous talent and ability that could help to improve the world, especially in all those areas that cause us so much disquiet at present. We are immensely capable of doing so.

4.13 pm
Vera Baird (Redcar)

International women's day, which we are celebrating, was started in 1908 in the United States by women socialists. Internationalised by 1911, it was undoubtedly born at a time of great social turbulence and change. I am pleased that it took on and maintained a tradition of protest and political activism. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women pointed out, part of that contemporary activism was that women all over the globe from all social strata started to campaign for the vote.

On this special day, I, too, pay tribute to Mrs. Pankhurst, but I want to make ample mention of the other wing of the suffrage movement. There were divisions in the English movement as to how the vote should be obtained: between the suffragettes, who proposed militancy, and the constitutionalists who, for many years, pursued lobbying channels and were led for more than 40 years by the lifelong constitutionalist, Millicent Fawcett, to whom I want to pay equal tribute.

I shall return to Mrs. Fawcett later, but I wonder whether we politically active women now sufficiently appreciate the privations that those women underwent to obtain the vote and the right to be candidates, which we readily accept is our right today. Of course we still have to work hard. We still collide against gender brick walls, which have to be breached. None the less, we are reasonably equipped for the job. We have reasonable salaries. We are part of a generally respectable cause, and we are pursuing our aims by nothing more personally demanding than argument and lobbying. Do we sufficiently appreciate the personal privation that early women campaigners underwent to get us here?

The first parliamentary seat that I fought—Redcar is the second—was a little further north than Redcar: it was Berwick-upon-Tweed and that was in 1983. As hon. Members can imagine, I was a very child-like candidate. I lived a few miles from the town of Morpeth, where lay the grave of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who died under the King's horse at the Derby in June 1913. During my first general election campaign, almost 70 years to the day after her death, it was reported that her grave was badly neglected and very broken down.I attribute the success of the women's suffrage campaign to both wings of the suffrage movement and I appreciate that I would not have the right to vote, let alone the right to stand as a candidate, if it were not for such women, so I started to read more about her and the militants.

The militant campaign started in about 1908 in Manchester—I am proud to say that I come from there originally—when Mrs. Pankhurst attended a meeting at the Free Trade hall, addressed by Asquith, and shouted from the back, "Will you give votes to women?" She was arrested, and that was her first period of imprisonment. She seemed to have encouraged that outcome to an extent. The biography of her in which I mostly recently read of that account describes her, after being seized to be removed by a constable, gently spitting into the officer's eye.

Thereafter, for almost every event, demonstration and gesture, as well as for some lawless conduct, the militants were always imprisoned. Some women were frequently and repeatedly imprisoned in extremely harsh conditions. Of course they resisted by going on hunger strike until they almost starved to death, when they were force-fed. Of course force-feeding just stops death by starvation—it does not ensure nourishment—so malnourished women would again go on hunger strike until they started to starve and, again, they would be force-fed.

One can imagine the agonies that such women underwent, and when Mrs. Pankhurst was perceived as almost certain to die if that happened again, the enlightened Government introduced the cat and mouse Act, which allowed women to be released into the community when they got to a very worrying state of ill health, so that they could feed themselves, but, as soon as they were well, they were rearrested and brought back to serve the rest of their sentence. So they went on hunger strike, and they were force-fed and on it went.

Emily Wilding Davison went into custody 12 times for stone throwing, window breaking and setting fire to pillar boxes and, on each occasion, she went on hunger strike and was force-fed—12 times between 1908 and 1913, when she died. I do not think that we take enough cognisance of the extent to which the force-feeding itself was a kind of state torture against those women.

I wish to read a brief paragraph of Emily Wilding Davison's own words, describing the first time that she was force-fed: In the evening the matron, two doctors, and five or six wardresses entered the cell. The doctor said "I am going to feed you by force." The scene, which followed, will haunt me with its horror all my life, and is almost indescribable. While they held me flat, the elder doctor tried all round my mouth with a steel gag to find an opening. On the right side of my mouth two teeth are missing; this gap he found, pushed in the horrid instrument, and prised open my mouth to its widest extent. Then a wardress poured liquid down my throat out of a tin enamelled cup. What it was I cannot say, but there was some medicament, which was foul to the last degree. As I would not swallow the stuff and jerked it out with my tongue, the doctor pinched my nose and somehow gripped my tongue with the gag. The torture was barbaric. One may appreciate the contribution that repeatedly being put through such torture played in Emily Wilding Davison's decision that, if necessary, her life should be lost for the women's cause.

As is well known, on 4 June she ran out with two Women's Social and Political Union flags in purple, white and green wrapped around her body under a jacket, seized the reins of Anmer, the King's horse, and caused it to stumble. The jockey fell off and the horse kicked her. A small fragment of very grainy Pathe News shows her hat landing on the far side of the course and her lying prone, never to move again of her own volition. She died four days later in Epsom cottage hospital. At the time, her action was seen as an immature and hysterical gesture. It has never been universally approved of. It was a perplexing death. She was not an hysteric and she was not immature. She was 41, religious and a double graduate.

I did not win the 1983 general election campaign in the constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed and in the days that followed I started to look up more about Emily. In those days, before archive material was as well protected as it is now, I held in my hand the return half of her ticket back from Epsom. Do we really remember such women enough? Emily's grave is still untended and abandoned in the north of England. Three weeks ago, I was asked to give the first Emily Wilding Davison memorial lecture in county hall, Morpeth and a move is being made to fundraise to protect her grave.

We women parliamentarians should take more responsibility for keeping the awareness of such courage alive and passing that word on to the next generation. I will not make any simplistic connections, but it was the next generation of young women who formed the largest group of people who did not vote at the last general election.

I pay tribute to the constitutionalist Mrs. Fawcett, but I also pay tribute to the Fawcett Society, which since her death in 1926 has continued to campaign for women's equality with men. I have expressed concern about the way the criminal justice system treated suffragettes all those years ago. The Fawcett Society has recently become concerned with the way our contemporary criminal justice system deals with women. It has established a year-long commission to look into questions of women and that system and find out whether, and if so how, the system is unfair to women. The commission has a distinguished band of 15 to 16 commissioners, including the experienced criminal High Court judge Mrs. Justice Hallett, Baroness Prashar, First Civil Service Commissioner, and Lord Dholakia, President of the Liberal Democrats and their spokesman on home affairs in the Lords.

I have been privileged to chair that year-long commission. We have only just started and we have come to no conclusions. Why was it even necessary to set up such a commission to look into whether and if so how our criminal justice system is unfair to women? The Fawcett Society has noticed a series of problems in recent years. The problems are not confined to domestic violence, although colleagues here have rightly raised that issue many times today. I shall give three short examples.

A few years ago, the Government intended to abolish the right to elect for trial by jury. That is the right for someone who is on trial for one of a broad range of middle-ranking offences to say, "I want a jury trial. I don't want to be tried by the magistrates court." The notion was to put discretion in the hands of the magistracy and the question was what criteria should be used.

A series of criteria relating to the gravity of the offence were obvious, but others started to be added. However grave or minor the offence, there could be a reason to allow trial by jury if a person were in public life and the conviction was likely to damage their public standing, or if a person had a job, and the conviction, however small, was likely to affect that job. One need only look at those two criteria to appreciate readily that, by all modern definitions, they were indirectly sexually discriminatory: far fewer women, proportionately, are in public life, and far fewer women, proportionately, are in jobs at any one time, as more women are in training, caring for older people and caring for children at any given time. If those criteria were therefore applied to allow the fairer trial of jury trial, because the conviction rate is higher in the magistrates court, it would be done on a sexually discriminatory basis.

For different reasons, that did not happen at all, but in a later legislative mood, in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill, a sort of "One strike and you're out," application to probation was proposed. Anyone who was on probation would be warned once, and if they broke their probation order again, they would automatically get three months imprisonment. Proportionately, far more women defendants are put on probation than men. Although men are the bulk of defendants, proportionately more women are seen as offending out of need. Women who shoplift, abuse cheque cards and steal are frequently seen sympathetically by magistrates in particular as not needing punishment but help and support. They are therefore put on probation proportionately far more often than men. For similar offences, men will be fined or will get some other sentence. While men who do not pay their fines would be subject to a whole range of penalties backing that up—perhaps realigning the repayments, a suspended sentence or whatever—women who broke their probation would have an automatic three-month prison sentence. Again, although no one saw it, that policy was, on a closer look, indirectly sexually discriminatory.

In the current Criminal Justice Bill, too, there is a right to elect trial by judge alone. On the face of it, that is an extra right for defendants. Let us consider the position in a rape case in which a female complainant brings to court an allegation that has highly-gendered aspects in relation to the admissibility of previous sexual history and general considerations. The House of Lords has readily accepted in a recent appeal that those are highly-gendered issues, and it is well known that rape complainants are reluctant to come to court and need support anyway. Now, a male defendant facing a rape charge will be able to elect for trial by judge alone: inevitably, by a male judge, as almost 95 per cent. of them are male. Consequently, a female complainant will come to court hoping to have highly-gendered issues heard, and she will have them heard by a man who was, as it were, chosen by the male defendant, and chosen from a body of men who are not known for high levels of gender awareness.

Judges in recent years—not old fuddy-duddy judges, but relatively young and highly intelligent ones—have none the less been guilty of making immensely sexist remarks in rape trials. For instance, in 2000, in the case of A at the Old Bailey, a judge dealing with an issue of previous sexual history remarked that he thought that previous sexual history should be admitted in the particular case, although he could not do it, because if it were not generally admitted, the jury in a rape trial would never know whether the woman was a whore or a nun. The matter went to the Court of Appeal to see if he had been right about not admitting previous sexual history, and the matter did not get any better. The Court of Appeal said that it was a matter of common sense that if a woman had had sex with a man before—this was an issue of previous sexual history with the defendant—it made it far more likely that she would have consented on the occasion in question. Any woman, any judge who had had some gender awareness training, or any woman judge, if there were any, would have told him that it might have made it infinitely less likely that she would have had sex consensually with the same man again. She might have moved on to a different man and have no interest in the accused any more. He might have been too keen on her and she might not have wanted to engage with him again. Any number of things might influence whether a woman who has had sex with a man once consents or does not again, but it is not common sense that the fact that it is the same man points in one direction only—that she is more likely to have consented.

So male defendants will pick their tribunal—one may think against the interests of women complainants—from a bunch of men, the leaders of whom have spoken out in recent times in the manner I have described. Of course, there are two views; judges can be trained in gender awareness, whereas old-fashioned attitudes in juries are perhaps harder to stamp out. But the real problem in all the cases was that no one had seen that there was any problem of gender at all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) mentioned provocation. The defence of provocation is currently used mostly in domestic violence murder cases in which men rely on their wives having said that they intend to leave or having confessed to committing adultery. They say, "A red mist descended, I lost my self-control, and I killed her." One has to ask oneself whether—although no doubt consequences follow if one disrupts a marriage in that way—the woman was simply doing what she was entitled to do. One has to ask whether in this day and age it is appropriate to give credit to a man for losing his temper and killing a woman and to reduce his conviction from murder to manslaughter.

More than 100 men a year kill their partners and about 14 women kill theirs. Women who kill their partners almost invariably do so because they have been the victims of domestic violence again and again and, in a situation in which it is about to befall them once more, they retaliate. Sometimes they react too strongly in what is truly self-defence. If it is proportionate, it is a complete defence and the woman is not guilty. If he is coming at her with fists and feet only and she, as is commonly the case, seizes a knife and stabs him to death, that is probably disproportionate. The fact is of course that she would never have reacted like that were it not for the history or the threat, yet disproportionate self-defence produces a conviction for murder, not manslaughter. There is therefore an imbalance in the way in which the law deals with murder, and it needs to be looked at. It is something that the Government have picked up very recently, but the issue is that such imbalances are not being seen.

I have given just samples, but in looking at a range of similar imbalances, the commission appreciated that what we might be spotting were scattered tips of a rather sexist series of criminal justice icebergs that needed a systematic and comprehensive examination to establish how far and how deep such sexism goes.

It is right to say that historically about 95 per cent. of all defendants have been men. Unfortunately, the percentage of women defendants has increased enormously quickly. The number of women in jail has increased by 143 per cent. since 1993, so a lot more women are coming into the system. So it is important to look at the imbalances. It is intended that the results of the commission should be published on international women's day next year. I hope that the Government will consider the recommendations with great care and, if there is a need, provide further tools for mainstreaming. This Government, more than any previous Government, are very apprised of the need to work hard towards gender equality and to understand the issues. However, in some areas, genderism is hard to detect. It can be even harder, once it has been detected, to breach it. We suspect that the male-dominated criminal justice system is one of those areas.

I want to describe some suffragette rough justice from 1910. In those days, the suffragettes had got the Government in such a state that most Members of the Cabinet, when away from home, went in disguise. If they did not go in disguise, wherever they went their cars would be attacked and their tyres slashed. Stones would be thrown. On one occasion, Emily Wilding Davison knew that Lloyd George was going to speak in Aberdeen. She went there and, with a horsewhip, lay in wait in the shadows of Aberdeen station for him to come back from his meeting to catch the train. He arrived in the middle of a group of other men, dressed up as a highland clergyman, wearing a dog-collar, deerstalker and tweed cape. She emerged from her sheltered spot, ran at Lloyd George and horsewhipped him. Of course, she was quickly seized and taken away.

It was not Lloyd George. It was a highland clergyman, wearing his ordinary clothes. More imprisonment, more force-feeding, more hunger strikes—ah well, nothing is straightforward. We must match—although perhaps moderate—Emily Wilding Davison's imagination in the way in which we continue to whip up support for women's issues.

4.36 pm
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

It is a great pleasure, as it always is, to participate in a debate that is dominated by women. I want to start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women, who is a great role model for us—not just in her role as Minister for Women, to which she has brought a great deal of enthusiasm and energy, but by being the head of a substantial Government Department. As she said, only 18 women have found themselves in that position.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who spoke for the Conservatives, is also a role model, for her party, although her role may not be as appreciated as that of the Minister. All the women here today have, undoubtedly, been important in our society by becoming MPs and contributing as they have done.

The international dimension to this debate has been striking and appropriate—it is, after all, international women's day. In the past year, I have spoken on international issues more frequently than on other issues. I will therefore touch on them only briefly today. My right hon. Friend on the Front Bench referred to the Minister in Afghanistan who is responsible for women's affairs, Habiba Sorabi. I too have spent quite some time with Habiba and her colleagues. I was in Kabul but a few months ago. I urge my right hon. Friend that she and her colleagues should fund directly some of the projects that the women's ministry in Afghanistan has identified as essential if there is to be income generation for the women of Afghanistan, and the reconstruction of the country.

I can confirm all that was said by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) about continuing injustices and the way in which women are constantly discriminated against and harassed. Outside the capital Kabul, there is no security for women or men, although women are especially affected—Afghan women and the many international aid workers who strive to serve them. In the past year, funds from the international community for the reconstruction of Afghanistan have been equivalent to but two thirds of the funds that this country alone has set aside for the war in Iraq. Much more needs to be done, particularly if we are to use Afghanistan's reconstruction as a model for the post-conflict situation in Iraq. My sympathies and sentiments on Iraq are very much like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), so I shall say no more about that.

I wish to speak about the wider equality agenda in this country, about the legal structures and about the way in which our laws are supervised by the existing equality commissions. The Government have a long list of achievements in extending equalities. I will not list them all, but they include the equalisation of the age of consent, the setting up of the Disability Rights Commission, the extension of the scope of the Race Relations Act 1976 to introduce a duty on public bodies to promote race equality, the extended protection against discrimination in employment on the ground of sexual orientation, religion, belief and age, on which consultation is currently taking place, the consultation on the future of the statutory equality commissions, and much more.

All these issues significantly affect women. It would be churlish to suggest that we want much more, but this is a case of where more is less. At present, the equality commissions are made up of the Equal Opportunities Commission that deals with women, the Commission for Racial Equality which covers race, and the Disability Rights Commission, which is rather new. In considering how we supervise the new equality provisions that will be introduced for faith and other issues, we should examine the strong case for having a single equality Act rather than building on the diverse provisions that exist today.

The Government have recognised that, in needing to comply with the European Union directive on sexuality, age and religion by 2006, they have to consider whether they should set up three new commissions that would act in parallel with the existing three commissions or whether they should create a new single equality body. The consultation undertaken by my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women has resulted in many contributions, not least those from the Women's National Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission and other bodies.

My initial position was one of concern at—indeed, probable opposition to—the idea of a single commission. Like many women and the partner organisations of the WNC, I believed that there was a real danger that a single equality body might result in the position of women not being recognised in the way that it is through the EOC. The EOC has done fantastic work over the years but, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women pointed out, huge gaps remain despite the fact that we have had equality laws for 30 years. The pay gap itself is testament to the fact that, even with the EOC, we have not been able to achieve all that we might. It is not as though we have got it and can therefore move on. We still have an enormous amount to do.

Women form a majority in this country. Minority groups face specific and different types of discrimination, but women suffer systemic discrimination arising from gendered roles, a gendered labour market and gendered wealth. A different approach is therefore needed to dealing with a majority and such conditions from one dealing with minority discriminations. I have always found it odd that the budget of the CRE is two and a half times that of the EOC.

There is concern that, in a single equality body, women might be marginalised and that there would be a hierarchy of disadvantage, to the detriment of women. That is of particular concern because the EOC recently became reinvigorated and more visible. The consultation undertaken by the WNC, a body charged with bringing women's views to the attention of the Government, has not been concluded, but I know from its discussions with women's groups that there is great concern among women's organisations that a single equality body may not be the way forward. However, the EOC is now on record as supporting a single equality body, and I have to remain open to persuasion; but as I said at the outset, only with a single equality Act can we properly underpin the work of a single equality body.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is not persuaded that a single equality Act is necessary, but if there is a logic in bringing together in a single body the existing work of the commissions and adding to it the new discriminations that have to be addressed, there must be a similar logic in bringing together the body of existing law and the new laws that have to be put in place. I stress that I do not argue simply for consolidation, however. At present, equal rights are stronger for some groups than for others. Devolution has created additional anomalies. The Scottish Parliament and Executive have a power to promote equality. In Wales, as part of the Government of Wales Act 1998, equality is represented as an absolute duty. A single equality body already exists in Northern Ireland. While the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended, UK Ministers are developing a single equality Bill for Northern Ireland.

Any planned legislation on religion, sexual orientation or age is only linked to employment. The protection against discrimination in goods and services will not be extended to those groups. To do so would require the Government to introduce primary legislation, but the plan is to create the new rights in regulation. That is unsatisfactory, and I urge my hon. Friend and her colleagues to consider what Lord Lester has proposed in the other place. In introducing his Equality Bill last Friday, he set out the consequences of not having primary legislation in the form of a single equality Act. Lord Lester said: Without primary legislation, women will continue to face a heavier burden of proof in discrimination cases outside the employment field; a homosexual or a Muslim denied a service because of sexuality or religion will still be unable to obtain legal redress; and an elderly person, denied essential services by a health authority or local council on the ground of age"— those people will mostly be women— will be denied legal redress. Except in the field of race relations, there will be no positive duty on public authorities or large employers to make progress towards equality of opportunity."— [Official Report, House of Lords, 28 February 2003; Vol. 645, c. 527.] I appreciate that my hon. Friend has been considering those matters for much longer than I have, and I am sure that she will get a consensus on developing a single equality body, but I will be surprised if that consensus does not also call for an underpinning of a single equality body with a single equality Act.

The Equal Opportunities Commission issued a press release in which it welcomed various aspects of Lord Lester's Equality Bill, including the fact that it is a single bill bringing together all the equality legislation". The EOC went on to welcome the introduction of a public sector duty to promote equality; the introduction of protection against discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services across all the equality grounds; the establishment of a single equality body; the inclusion of pregnancy as a recognised ground on which discrimination is not permitted and the inclusion of a duty to promote good community relations. I wholeheartedly endorse the view of the EOC. Again, I ask my hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women to follow matters in the other place with care. We will need to adopt such a single equality Bill, and it would be appropriate for the Government to introduce it, rather than a private Member.

Between 1997 and 1998 my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham, now the Solicitor-General, and I served in the Government as Ministers for Women. We put in place much of the machinery that has underpinned the equalities work of the Government. I take this opportunity to seek from my hon. Friend the assurance that whatever development there is in terms of a single equality body, the women and equality unit of Government will remain in place. It will undoubtedly need to be further funded in order to cope with an increased work load. I also seek her assurance that the Women's National Commission, which has gained vigour and a louder voice than ever under our Government, and which is so valued by women's organisations in this country, will have a certain future.

One of the proposals that we were unable to get accepted six years ago was the idea that there should be a Select Committee on gender. I hope that Ministers will now accept that a Select Committee on equalities is an idea whose time has come. I hope that Ministers will consider the proposal carefully and in doing so will study the excellent work undertaken by the Scottish Equal Opportunities Committee and the Equality of Opportunity Committee of the Welsh Assembly.

If a single equality body is to be put in place as a means of rightly providing joined-up thinking and operation for equalities right across the agenda, and if that body is to oversee real equality for all groups in this country for the first time, a single equality Act, in which existing legislation is levelled up and equalised and new provisions made, will be essential to future equality, particularly the equality of women in this country.

4.53 pm
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I am pleased to speak in the debate, which has been interesting, enjoyable and stimulating. I am particularly pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) and add my support to the views that she expressed about a single equality Act.

The debate is an opportunity to take stock of the present situation in the United Kingdom, in Wales and internationally. I shall start by considering briefly the position in Wales, where we have made much progress. International women's day is a useful opportunity to spell out the good things that have happened. In introducing the debate, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women said that there had only ever been 18 women Cabinet members in the House. I am pleased to say that we have already had seven women Cabinet members in the Assembly Cabinet in Wales during the four short years of its life. At present, there is a majority of women in the Cabinet in Wales, which is probably unique in the world. Forty-two per cent. of Assembly Members are women. There are 16 Labour women Assembly Members, compared with 12 Labour Assembly men.

It is now common in Wales for women to take the lead on major policy issues, which is a huge change. The Assembly operates family-friendly hours, and I am pleased that here in Westminster we have taken a step forward on such hours—that is a huge improvement.

In Wales, the Assembly operates in an inclusive, consultative way, which is partly due to the country's small size—it is much smaller than England, for example—but also to the Government of Wales Act 1998, which gives it the duty of working closely with the voluntary sector, with which it has a compact and in which many women are involved. Women have been able to prosper in the atmosphere fostered by the Assembly. Nevertheless, there are still problems in Wales, including the pay gap between men and women. The introduction of the minimum wage has increased the wages of thousands of low-paid women in Wales.

Keir Hardie had three great aims—the introduction of the minimum wage; devolution; and reform of the House of Lords. I am pleased that we have been able to introduce the minimum wage and have got devolution. Unfortunately, we have so far failed on the House of Lords, but I hope that one day we will get a democratic upper House.

The introduction of the minimum wage has had a huge impact on women in Wales and reduced the pay gap there by 3 per cent.—the biggest ever reduction in one year. The Assembly's introduction of learning grants, amounting to up to?1,500 for less well-off students in higher and further education, was important. The availability of such grants for students in further education is significant for women, as many of them take access courses as mature students and need that money to help them manage. I hope that similar grants will be introduced in England, as proposed in a recent White Paper, because it is important that we give financial support to women so that they can have access to education later in life.

Money is now available for students for child-care, separate from a hardship fund, which is a big boost. For older women in Wales, there have been many developments, but I would single out the bus passes that entitle pensioners, disabled people and their carers to free bus travel anywhere in Wales, and across local authority boundaries. The scheme is unique, and many women have told me that there has been a huge improvement in their quality of life because they can now go and see people whom they have not been able to see for years. The scheme is of benefit to both men and women, but it has a tremendous effect on women's lives in Wales because they make up the majority of pensioners.

A mixture of measures from Westminster and the Assembly has resulted in a big improvement in women's lives in Wales. It is important to make a strong statement about that on international women's day, but we must also acknowledge that there is still a long way to go and that poverty is still a serious issue in Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford mentioned the Assembly's duty to promote equality, which has been important in mainstreaming gender issues in its work. The Equal Opportunities Commission has done research in Wales demonstrating the significant impact of that duty. I strongly support my hon. Friend's plea for an equality Act and a duty on Westminster to promote equality. I hope that the Minister will give her views on that in her response.

Much progress has been made in acknowledging the seriousness of domestic abuse. I pay tribute to the women Ministers on the ministerial committee promoting that issue, and look forward to the Green Paper to be published in spring. I hope that one result of that consultation will be a proposal for anonymity for the victims of domestic violence—this has already been mentioned in the criminal justice White Paper—because that would represent a big step forward in encouraging women to get to grips with these difficult problems.

I have worked closely with the unions on this issue. I am working with Unison at the moment, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Pat McCarthy, Unison's regional officer in Wales, who has already organised two conferences on domestic violence this year, and who is preparing to respond to the Green Paper when it is published and wants to lobby Ministers and take an active role. It is important that we should involve women from the unions and from the grass roots, as well as the victims of domestic abuse, to try to get their voice into this consultation paper. It is brilliant that we are going to have this Green Paper. It is the first ever of its kind, as was mentioned earlier, and it is also significant that a Labour Government are producing it.

In a Welsh context, I am also pleased to say that Jane Hutt, the Minister with responsibility for social services and health in the Welsh Assembly Government, will today announce the future of the women's safety unit in Cardiff. I chair the Cardiff domestic violence forum, so I have been very involved in setting up the unit. It is a unique project which supports women and children who are victims of domestic abuse. It consists of a small staff group, with people seconded from the police, Women's Aid, the probation service, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Black Association of Women Step Out—BAWSO—and, in a very short time, it has had a significant impact on domestic abuse in Cardiff.

Independent research has shown that, during its time of operation—not much more than a year—the number of women reporting domestic violence has gone up, the number of repeat incidents has gone down, the number of women withdrawing from cases has gone down and the number of reports to social services expressing concern about children has gone up. There is, therefore, objective statistical evidence to show that we can alleviate the situation if we put a bit of investment into a multi-agency project that does not necessarily take women and their families and put them into refuges, but rather works with them so that they can stay in their homes by supporting them, going to court with them, working with the solicitors and the police and working in a tremendously supportive way. That is what has happened in Cardiff and it has made a significant difference.

I refer many women to the women's safety unit. Like many other Members, I have a lot of women coming to my surgeries who are frightened and do not know where to turn. It is a huge step for them to come to an MP's surgery. I often see women—I am sure we all do—who are weeping, who do not know what to do and who are in a desperate situation. Now, in Cardiff, all that I have to do is phone someone at the women's safety unit and tell them that there is a woman in a difficult situation. They will see the woman that day, go to her house, go to the police with her, work with her to contact the housing department, and go to the children's schools. The unit provides a total package of support, and I am so pleased that the future of the project is being confirmed today. Jane Hutt is announcing today that the funding will continue, with a mixture of funding from the Welsh Assembly and the Home Office. Such a project would never have been started without the total commitment of Ministers here to tackle this horrendous issue, which has remained behind closed doors for many years. I want to congratulate everyone involved on the fact that we now have the project up and running so effectively, that it has been evaluated objectively, and that this announcement is being made today. It is great that we can say this today.

I want to turn now to international issues. International women's day is a day on which we celebrate the achievements of women all over the world. The contributions that have been made about women's experiences and what women have seen in other countries have been humbling and have put what we are doing in this country into an international context. Such contributions make us realise not only how fortunate we are in many ways, but how much we have to learn from what women Members have seen in other countries.

It is a great privilege for us that as women parliamentarians, we can make links with women throughout the world. Last year, I visited Iran with a group of women parliamentarians, including the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman. I thought that I would mention the visit as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) also referred to problems in Iran. Human rights abuses in that country have been well documented. They especially affect women and there is no doubt that they continue. However, I wanted to put it on record that those on the visit were very cheered by the confidence and optimism of the women whom we met in Iran. We felt that they had a great deal of hope for the future. We were very impressed by the fact that 60 per cent. of university students were women and that there had been a huge increase in the number of voluntary bodies, which seemed to be springing up all over the place. Although we must use every opportunity that we can to condemn the human rights abuses that still take place in Iran, it is important that we keep up the dialogue and continue to engage with Iran and particularly with the women politicians whom we met.

Sandra Gidley

As the hon. Lady mentioned, I went to Iran on the same visit. Is she aware that since our visit, the women parliamentarians whom we met have taken a strong public stance against stoning? It is always useful for women parliamentarians to work together.

Julie Morgan

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I noticed that a strong stand was taken very soon after we returned home. I hope that we showed those women our solidarity and our wish to work with them against the human rights abuses that occur in Iran and against stoning in particular.

Several hon. Members have mentioned Iraq and I should like to finish my speech with some brief comments about the situation there. It is very important that we express in this international women's day debate our solidarity with the women of Iraq. We are all aware of our hopes and aspirations as women in this country and we all know that, if there is a war in Iraq, many women and children will be killed and injured and many will be displaced and become refugees, as has been mentioned. Such women will flee to countries such as Iran, which already has the largest number of refugees of any country in the world. Indeed, it already has some 2 million refugees from Afghanistan.

We know that life is grim under sanctions and under Saddam Hussein and we are divided in our views about whether and in what circumstances Iraq should be attacked. It is right to acknowledge those divisions and accept that they exist in the House, but we all have the same end in mind—we all want peace for the people of Iraq and want the women in Iraq to be able to flourish, develop and have all the hopes for the future that we have. I cannot see how the humanitarian consequences of an attack allow it to be justified. I align myself with other hon. Members who have expressed such feelings today about an attack on Iraq.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women said that women were consistently more against war than men. All the opinion polls show that that is the case. One recent poll showed that 70 per cent. of women were opposed to the attack on Iraq. I suppose that that is not surprising. All the statistics still show that women are the main carers of children and old people, and the main carers in society. Women bring up children, watch their every step, see all that eagerness for the future and all that hope ahead, and know that bombs from the sky can destroy it all, so I understand completely why so many of them have such strong feelings against war.

Many more women should work as diplomats and in the aid field. Women need to be in positions where they can negotiate and go to the furthest ends for peace. I may be going along with stereotypes, but women tend to work more consensually in terms of looking for solutions and not giving up. They often have the hard grind of bringing up children in a family, having to compromise in all directions, and never being able to do everything that they want to do because they have to look after someone else. That leads to a different attitude and a different way of working.

When we listen to all the people who are talking about war, we do not hear many women's voices raised very loudly. I want to put on the record my solidarity with the women in Iraq and my hope that we can reach a peaceful solution.

5.11 pm
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I think that all hon. Members agree that a peaceful solution would be desirable, but it is a question of how we get there. Allowing the present regime to continue in Iraq is not the right way, and I say in solidarity with the Prime Minister that I look forward to the day when all the refugees from Iraq can return there, including many women.

In El Salvador, I had the experience of meeting groups of women who had come back over the border when the then ruling regime stopped being quite so nasty. Fighting was still going on—indeed, it broke out around us—and it was the women who were carrying on the discussions.

Around the world, the first duty of people in politics is to try to avoid unnecessary war. There are very few examples of wars in which both sides are reasonably democratic. A second duty is to avoid unnecessary high-level persistent civil war. Similarly, there are relatively few examples of really bad high-level civil wars in countries that are reasonably democratic—by that, I mean those with Governments that stay in power with the consent of the people. We must then address other issues that matter, but not quite as much—because the biggest devastation comes from war—such as health, education and prosperity.

It is a matter of record that in the household I share half the MPs are men—namely, me—and the 100 per cent. that got into the Cabinet was not me. I am the founder member of the Denis Thatcher society, which comprises men who are married to women who are more important than we are.

Unless we understand the causes of unfairness and have a greater sense of ambition about what we want to achieve, the lives of those for whom we care will not be as good as they should be. It has rightly been said that women bear an over-high proportion of caring responsibilities. They do the working, but they also do the caring—for the young, for the old, for the ill, for the bad and for the sad. Who visits you in prison? Who visits you in hospital? Who cares for you in the hospice? It is a great spread of responsibilities. Anyone who thinks that family policy is about saying that we have got it all right is all wrong. Families are there to be strong when things go wrong, whether by chance or because of people's bad behaviour.

What is to be done? Every week, 2,400 people, mostly young men, commit a serious criminal offence for which they could be sent to jail for six months or more. Most of those offences have victims. One third of our young men have a serious criminal conviction by the age of 30. The figures for women are dramatically lower. I commend the prison statistics on page 15 of CM 5743. It gives figures for the past 100 years.

In 1920, a total of 11,000 people were in jail, of which roughly 9,500 were male and 1,400 were female. In 1940, the figure and proportion were not very different. However, in 1960, the prison population had increased to 27,000, of which roughly 26,000 were male and 900 were female. In 1980, there were more than 40,000 male prisoners in a total prison population of 42,000. There is something deeply wrong in our country when the male-female imbalance in offending is so great. Women should not have to solve that. It is a continuing social disaster and, as with all such disasters, one must look to the people who have the power. They tend to be white, middle-class men in work.

We all know about the National Children's Bureau born-to-fail studies. The problems will not be solved if we ask the victims to solve them or tell the mothers who do most of the caring that it is up to them to make things better. The rest of us must share the responsibility.

Some may laugh at international women's day and others may perceive it as a serious way in which to show international solidarity. However, I believe that one of the day's purposes is to ask men what they are doing to help tackle problems of which women are too often the victims.

Let us consider another example. Five thousand people who were smoking last week will never smoke again: 2,000 have died—not all prematurely—and 3,000 have given up. Tobacconists sell roughly the same amount of cigarettes every week. That means that 5,000 people took up smoking last week. Nearly all are teenagers and a growing proportion is female.

We should not tell young people that they are too young to smoke because we thereby imply that they are doing an adult thing. We should tell 15 or 17-year-olds who smoke, "It's a childish thing to do. Bad luck, you're the one in three who does it. It's a habit that costs?30 a week after tax." It is disastrous that smoking is so class based. It may remain true that the people most likely to smoke are lone mothers on income support. That is the worst group of people to smoke because smoking uses up their resources, and their health and that of their children is worst affected.

My third example is sex. Every week in this country, 6,000 people contribute to a conception that ends in a formal termination. There are 170,000 or more abortions a year in this country. It takes two to tango. Let us allow that part of the figure relates to people who come here from other countries. That means that 3,000 home-grown conceptions end in termination. Six thousand people—not all of them hyperactive teenagers, but people in their 20s, 30s and 40s—engage in sexual activity that ends in their saying, "Cripes! What now?" Why we cannot get our figures down to those of the Dutch is beyond me.

Men and women must be able to say that if we are sufficiently grown up to be closer to someone than simply sharing a toothbrush with them, we should be prepared to ask, "What about conception and fertility choice?" We should stop waffling on about family planning or birth control. After a good party, people are not thinking about planning a family or controlling birth when they get around to having it off.[Interruption]. We must be more explicit at all ages. We must get away from the embarrassment that stops people considering such matters. We should let our children and grandchildren learn from our mistakes, so that they do not do as we did but as they can, and have more choice in their lives.

Sandra Gidley

The Health Select Committee is examining teenage pregnancy and sexual health. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that relationship education should start in primary school, to provide a good basis on which to build?

Peter Bottomley

Such education should probably start in the home. The chief rabbi said recently that many people first experience unconditional love given by adults around them too late in life; and that adults need to love young people enough to say "no" at times. I do not say that I have been a particularly good parent. I have spent too much time at weekend family policy conferences, talking about why parents should be at home with their children.

It is clear from surveys in my constituency that young people need care, control, support and love. I may be better at caring, others at controlling. It is a mixture of the two that matters. I refer to social assets and cultural strengthening—the American sociologist the late Robert Merton used the term social capital. Individuals who do not come from extended families need communities that will incorporate the child of a lone caring parent who comes to or moves around this country, just as they would the child from a large family with many cousins who regularly get together. There is a strength in intermediate groups—an expression used by Archbishop William Temple.

I am sorry that I was not present for the start of the debate. I was involved in a good cause elsewhere. It has covered what has been called everything from the womb to the tomb.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

My hon. Friend means, from the womb to the afterlife.

Peter Bottomley

I must be modest in my aspirations.

I do not want to extend my contribution but will comment on the possible merger of equal opportunities bodies. If that must happen, I hope that the result is called something like the "Fairness Commission". Equality comes from fairness and equality. Equality by itself is just a word that does not add up to treating people fairly. When will the colour of a person's skin mean the same as the colour of their eyes or hair—something that is noticed but which says no more about them? When will the stage be reached when being a woman or man—although there may be many overlapping roles and some differences—does not dictate one's role in life, outside some essential differences in caring? When will someone who has physical or mental handicaps find that their abilities matter more than their disabilities? When will the stage be reached when we no longer generalise and say that a man who thinks that he is half-qualified for a job imagines that he is over-qualified, whereas a woman who thinks that she is half-qualified believes that she is disqualified?

Too often we tell people that they must push themselves forward. Men and women do so but in general, the man wins the opportunity, opens the door and goes through while others wonder what is on the other side. We can make progress partly by example, partly by exhortation, partly by experience and partly by education. The progress that we make in this country is nothing compared with the progress needed in places such as Iraq, Zimbabwe and the Great Lakes region. We have achieved much, but there is still so much more to do, to make people's lives better.

5.23 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I am answering this debate as a representative of the majority population of the world—as I learnt from the excellent Department of Trade and Industry brochure, "Does sex make a difference?", published to mark international women's day. It clearly does. I was interested to discover that there are fewer women than men in the world. For every 100 men, there are 98.6 women.

I may not look like a shadow. I may not even look like a deputy shadow. But I am the deputy shadow Minister for Women. My boss—my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman)—is elsewhere, pursuing her responsibilities in international development.

I was extremely interested by what the Minister for Women said. What struck a particular chord with me was her mention, in the section of her speech on women at war, of the important contribution from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the Pacific countries generally during the second world war—indeed, from wherever women were contributing to the war effort, not just in Britain. As an admirer of Australia who has many family members there, I too feel that we should recognise the contribution made by the countries I have mentioned, and, of course, the huge contribution made by those back at home—the women.

I was delighted when the Minister spoke of the millennium goals at Doha. She referred to the importance of access to markets and to medicines, and the need for reform of the common agricultural policy. In fact I found it hard to disagree with much of what she said, which was deeply worrying. She did, however, prompt me to point out that a huge effort is being made to help people who do not work here to understand Parliament, and also to promote understanding of the scientific community. Some of that is due to Government initiatives, but much of it is not. I commend the Royal Society for its pairing scheme. I was lucky enough to be paired with Dr. Lisa McNeill of the Southampton Oceanography centre. I learnt a great deal about the world of science and about Dr. McNeill's specialist subject, marine geology. I hope that she began to understand the political process here.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) pointed out that there was no substitute for Members of Parliament actually going to see how the rest of the world lives. The more we live in an ivory tower here, the more we will deserve to be ignored. We should not blush when we go and see what is happening elsewhere. Indeed, today's debate has been characterised by contributions from those who have travelled, and gained enormous insight and experience as a result.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) told us a good deal about her own experience. I know that the Deputy Minister for Women will have a lot to say about that speech, because much of it was directed at her.

The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) made a brave speech about transsexuals. He is, of course, entirely right. One of the guiding lights that led to my interest in politics was the importance of treating minorities properly in a democracy. Was it Ben Whitaker, who once represented Hampstead, who founded the Minority Rights Group in the 1960s? I subscribed to it during my years as a teacher, and learnt a huge amount. That undoubtedly coloured my appreciation of the importance of protecting minority rights in a democracy—including the rights of those who wish to hunt foxes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) made an important speech about the role of women in Parliament, and the difficulty women experience in entering the House, whatever their party. She challenged us to think about how members of all parties, but particularly mine, can encourage more women to go into politics. She touched on positive discrimination. I thought that I was the last person in the world who would allow those words to pass my lips, but I see no alternative to some form of that if the barriers are to be breached. Fortunately, however, that is a problem not for me, but for my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). Of course, we must also learn to respect the autonomy of associations.

Ms Dari Taylor

The hon. Gentleman says we must now rely on the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I can tell him, as a long-term member of the Boilermakers Union—which sees me, most definitely, as an honorary boilermaker—that I could never have achieved equality or equal treatment without the men in my union. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he has a very big role to play.

Mr. Key

My role may be big, but the hon. Lady's charm is deceitful. I suspect that charm as well as ability has got her where she is today.

We learned much from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris) when she courageously decided that she had had enough. I was very interested in one of her comments. The House may remember that she called for politics to be conducted differently. She said: I was not prepared to play the game… I could have played it like a man to further my career but in the end I said sod it. We should all remember that in future. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) also has things to teach us. She said: Women are not stupid and they can see what sort of game politics is and it is not one at the moment that numbers of them identify with. When Mo Mowlam left the Government and Parliament, she said of the comments that were made about her: Some of it was very cruel… There's a boys' club in politics—I think women get a tougher time. But it's not just sexism, it's about power politics, it's about who they want where.

The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for the rights of women, was referred to earlier and has produced a report on women in politics. Its briefing paper concluded: The style is confrontational with an emphasis on scoring points… Many women are put off politics altogether by the way they see politicians behave. No one could take exception to our behaviour this afternoon. The debate has been very constructive and interesting.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove contrasted the problems in this country with those in Kenya and described how women there are treated like cattle and beaten by their husbands. A similar situation existed in this country not so long ago. I am sure that many people know that the origin of the everyday phrase "a rule of thumb" is that a man could not use a stick to beat his wife that was thicker than his thumb. The term is not that old.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) has a deep knowledge of the people whom she represents. When I hear her speak, perhaps on "Today" after some especially appalling tension or incident in her constituency, I often think that she talks a lot of common sense. That is good for politicians. We did not agree on signing up to her early-day motion on gender equality in the Church of England, but I was really making the point that the House should not initiate change in the Church of England. Change must come if the Church wills it—we will not get on to disestablishment for the time being. [HON. MEMBERS: "Go on."] Do not tempt me!

The hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) spoke of her personal experience in Eritrea. She talked about water, VSO, solar energy and the British Council. I am grateful to her for sharing her experiences.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) was, as ever, an example to us all. She spoke with no notes and much passion. What a refreshing change that is in this Chamber. We are all guilty of not living up to her standards. She seeks always to change hearts and minds; I wish I could change hers on Iraq.

The hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) spoke with huge authority. We have come to respect what she says. She talked of gender awareness and spoke about Mrs. Fawcett. The hon. Lady is no longer present, but when she reads the report of the debate, she may be interested to learn that my first act as a Minister in the newly created Department of National Heritage in 1992 was to list the Fawcett hall, which is only 10 minutes from this building. That was the first occasion on which the criterion of historical importance was used to list a public building—my little footnote to her history.

Ms Hewitt

Well done.

Mr. Key

The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) spoke with passion about the single equality Act that she envisages. We await the Minister's response to that.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) spoke about the Welsh experience and I am glad that we had the benefit of her contribution. It is interesting that no Members of Parliament who represent Scottish constituencies are in the Chamber. Scottish women have thus been wholly unrepresented in our debate, which is a great pity. The hon. Lady also talked about experience overseas and the need to understand what makes people tick all over the world.

Many of us have travelled to difficult parts of the world. I have certainly done so. I visited a refugee camp in Mozambique in the pre-Mandela era, and I have also seen repression in Nicaragua. The thing that continues to distress me most about Africa is the situation in Zimbabwe. I last visited Zimbabwe when it was still a prosperous, happy place, and I feel for the women of all races in that sad land.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) made a number of important points, but I should like to back up what he said in response to an intervention: sex education starts in the home, but too often—this is a purely personal view—homes fail children when it comes to looking after the sexual maturity of girls in particular. That is why the biggest single health problem in my constituency is chlamydia, which spreads like wildfire and is to do with clubbing, spiked drinks and unconscious gang rapes and the need for the morning-after pill. It is not fair to blame the child for that; the parents have a lot of responsibility too. We all have a responsibility in setting a good example to our children, and sex education has a role to play from an early age.

I shall move on quickly. Women's day is important and relevant today. That was brought home to me by a member of my staff who has been covering for my secretary, who is on maternity leave. She has been seeking a new job. She told me only yesterday that she had applied for one or two jobs and that she had been contacted by prospective employers and asked whether she is married or single, what is her age, whether she has children and, if so, what are their ages. She said, "I don't suppose a man would be asked those questions, would they?" I pointed out to her that that was against the law, but most women do not seem to know that. I would not want to work for anyone who asked such questions, and we need to send out that message.

There are all sorts of other problems in the wide range of state provision for women and men in this country. There are all sorts of voluntary organisations, but they do not always succeed in getting long-term funding. That was brought home to me only a couple of weeks ago by a letter from the centre manager of the Salisbury district well woman centre. I simply make the point that, for?75,000 a year, it provides a magnificent service and. as the centre puts it, enables and empowers women to help themselves and their families by providing information, support and practical advice. It says that, in an area such as south Wiltshire, which is very prosperous, it is the wealth and rural composition of Wiltshire that further isolates those socially excluded"— the position is made worse for those people— through disadvantage and helps keep pockets of rural poverty hidden. That is just the sort of small hole that can be plugged by such organisations, and I wish it well as we try to find funding.

Of course not all women take a similar point of view. A remarkable national organisation, called Full Time Mothers, which is based in London, has a member in my constituency. Under the title, "Equal not identical", the leader article in its spring newsletter says: You read it here first: men and women are not the same! It seems ridiculous that it should be un-p.c. to say so. FTM has long adopted the role of challenging the 'Emperor's new clothes' mentality of a society that has confused 'equality' with an insistence that men and women should be interchangeable. Whilst the Government tries to organise the tax system so as to `encourage' mothers to go out to work, it is also attempting to persuade more men into the burgeoning childcare industry which is the inevitable consequence. Fathers are to become the new mothers—and vice versa. Help! That point of view needs to be listened to, on behalf of Full Time Mothers.

I wish to touch on a couple of issues that are very important at the moment, the first of which is women in the armed forces. I congratulate all three services on the way in which they have adapted to the 21st century, particularly in the past decade or so. We have seen a truly remarkable improvement in the way in which women have had increasing access to more parts of all three services.

I always took the view that it was important that the decision on whether women should operate in the front line should be a military judgment. It is not only a question of physiological or psychological arguments; it is about the fighting spirit and what happens when one is on the front line and things go wrong. The military are the best people to make that judgment and the Government were right to conclude that it must be a judgment for them. The military concluded that women should not be in the front line for the time being.

Women have an extraordinary record of success in the armed forces. They have a long way to go, but they have made huge progress nevertheless and have my support in continuing with that. It is significant that a large number of women are serving in the forces and have been deployed to the Gulf region. They will find irreplaceable roles there.

We should also remember the families that follow the flag—the people who are left behind at times of great anxiety such as these. Only yesterday, because my constituency is very military, I was talking to the Army Families Federation about the present situation, and the assistance that it can give to forces families. The same is true of the organisation for Navy wives. The Royal Air Force has the Airwaves communication channel, and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association also has a lot of work to do. They are all in our minds at the moment. We should never forget that behind a man or a woman in the forces is a spouse or partner on whom they depend. The relationship is completely interdependent.

Will the Minister ensure that her colleagues in the Ministry of Defence in their planning at interdepartmental level for a response to the present humanitarian crisis in Iraq, but more particularly if there is conflict afterwards, take most careful note of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325? That resolution expresses concern that civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict". I draw the Minister's attention to paragraphs 4, 5, 11 and 12 of that resolution. Paragraph 4 urges the Secretary-General to seek to expand the role and contribution of women in United Nations field-based operations, and especially among military observers, civilian police, human rights and humanitarian personnel". Paragraph 5 urges a "gender component", to use the jargon, in peacekeeping operations. Women should be properly considered. Paragraph 11 emphasises the importance of putting an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes including those relating to sexual… violence against women and girls". We should ensure that those crimes are excluded from amnesty provisions. Paragraph 12 calls on all parties to armed conflict to include in the design of refugee camps and settlements appropriate care for women.

This has been a remarkable debate. We have heard a wide range of views and we have all made a positive contribution. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in reply. There is a continuing need for an international women's day to remind us all of our duty to the other half of the population in a world that is still dominated by men.

5.43 pm
The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

I greatly appreciated the tone and content of the speech of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). He has summed up our debate admirably and I will attempt to follow in his footsteps.

This has been an extremely good debate—a very good day. From the beginning, I was struck by the fact that the debate lived up to its name and was truly international, with speeches from the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) about Eritrea and from the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) about Kenya.

If I had to single out a speech—it is always invidious to do so—that captured the mood of the House and the international flavour of today, it would be the wonderful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) about Tanzania. Although I have visited that part of Africa, I have not had the privilege of going to Tanzania. I would certainly like to go there and her speech brought it alive. It was a truly remarkable speech.

Today gives us an opportunity to remember a time when women across the world were still demanding the right to vote and the right to hold public office. In some parts of the world, of course, that fight continues. We have the opportunity today to take stock of where we are, to look forward, and to remember from where the fight came. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) spoke about the contribution of Emily Wilding Davison. While she was speaking, I remembered that when I started to read the history of the period, what shocked me most of all was the cat and mouse Act to which she referred, perhaps one of the most iniquitous pieces of legislation ever passed by this House.

On a slightly happier note—unfortunately, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar cannot be with us now, for which she apologised in advance, as she had an engagement—we should also remember the special connection between Emily Wilding Davison and this place. On the night of the 1911 census, Emily Wilding Davison, who had come to visit the House during the day, stayed in a broom cupboard attached to the wonderful crypt here. She stayed the whole night—I have looked at that broom cupboard, and it takes some courage to stay in it, even today—so that, the next morning, in the census, she could say that her address was the House of Commons. There is a wonderful plaque commemorating her. I always take visitors to see it, and I urge other hon. Members to do so.

We have come a long way since then, but I recognise that we still have a long way to go. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) put that very well: young women think that it has all been achieved, and it is true that enormous strides have been made, but we must never underestimate the size of the task. Today, most women's work is still underpaid and taken for granted. Women generate more than half of all economic activity in developing countries, but only about a third of their work is currently measured and acknowledged in national accounts.

We also know that there is still a struggle in the UK. Here, women make up nearly half the work force—double the numbers of 25 years ago—and projections still show that, in 10 years' time, there will be 2 million more jobs in the economy, 80 per cent. of which will be filled by women. Of course, the pay gap, although it is much reduced—it was 37 per cent. in 1970—still stands stubbornly at 19 per cent. In every women's debate, when we talk about equal pay and the gender pay gap, we should remember, particularly this year, the enormous contribution of Barbara Castle, who was such an inspirational figure to all of us, and, I would suggest, to women on both sides of the House.

The causes of the pay gap are many: occupational, segregation, the time that women take out to look after children, and even travel patterns. It is not an issue that the Government can tackle alone, and we need to work in partnership with employers, trade unions and other organisations to do it. Last year, we launched the Castle awards to give recognition to employers who are working to address equal pay. We are trying, as a Government, to put our own house in order. We told Departments and agencies to conduct an equal pay audit and prepare action plans to close the gaps. I know that many in the private sector are doing the same. In April, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women will introduce an equal pay questionnaire to help applicants get the information that they need before they decide whether to take a claim to a tribunal. We are also looking at ourselves as an employer and trying to increase the number of women in the senior civil service. As a result, women now occupy 25 per cent. of the senior posts, compared to 17 per cent. five years ago. We are well on the way to our target of 35 per cent. by 2005. We have also set up schemes in which senior women civil servants mentor more junior women in post. That is important.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) mentioned mainstreaming, which is an important issue. For the very first time, we have agreed gender targets as part of the annual public service agreements that Departments reach with the Treasury.

The extremely important issue of child care was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). It is right to say that if we want to create equality in the workplace, we must look at some of the barriers that stand in the way of women returning to work. We have a Government strategy to expand child care, especially in the most disadvantaged areas. There is a tremendous disparity in the provision of child care in the prosperous and the most deprived areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate was right to talk about the expense of child care in London. Our aim is to create places to accommodate 1.6 million children by 2004, and so far more than 1 million children have benefited. Of course, I do not underestimate the size of the task. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove mentioned Ofsted inspections and registration. We will look at inspection arrangements and, where possible, streamline procedures so that we can make them the best that we possibly can.

We also need to make flexible working more possible—as politicians, we are the worst exponents of it. That point was raised by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley). We need to think about the balance between our work and our domestic and family life. We are good at preaching about it as politicians, but not so good at doing something about it. We have a terrible culture in this country of presenteeism. People think that we are not doing our job properly if we are not working all the hours of the day and night. In some other European Union countries people think that if their colleagues are at work for all those hours, they must not be very good at their job. But if we are not there with the jacket behind the chair, people think that we are no good. Flexible working is important and therefore we have legislated so that from April this year employers will have to consider seriously requests to work flexibly from employees—fathers as well as mothers—with children under six or disabled children under 18. That is an achievement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has championed.

So we have to look at the way in which we balance work with our family life. This is not just an agenda for women; it is an agenda for men. Many men in our society want to be active parents and to play a part in their children's lives. It is an agenda that will be increasingly popular.

The importance of women in political life was also raised by the hon. Member for Bromsgrove and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). We have made progress in the House, but there is still a great deal to do. There are currently 118 women Members of Parliament—a slight drop from 1997, when there were 120. I am pleased that hon. Members today recognise the Government's steps to legislate in this direction. I look forward to seeing what other political parties will do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) mentioned the achievements of the National Assembly for Wales. She was right: it is remarkable what has been achieved and it is a tribute to devolution. The emphasis on working hours and family-friendly policies is something that we in this place could try to emulate.

The hon. Member for Romsey mentioned women in public life. We have driven that campaign forward, and we are already seeing the fruits of that. I know of some women who have come forward for public appointment. The hon. Lady asked what follow-up work would be done. Research work is being done by officials in the women and equality unit, and practical work is being done in partnership with the Women's National Commission. I hope that the hon. Lady will applaud that sustained effort.

In today's debate, there has been a great deal of discussion of domestic violence. The issue was raised in speeches and interventions by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), the hon. Member for Maidenhead, my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), for Keighley, for Cardiff, North and the hon. Member for Bromsgrove.

Domestic violence is a major blot on our society. The figures are shocking. Each time one looks at them, they are striking. Every three days, a woman is killed as a result of domestic violence. Violence against women accounts for nearly a quarter of all violent crime in this country. If there were statistics showing that men were dying in such numbers, there would be a national outcry and it would be on the front pages. It would not be seen as a men's issue; it would be seen as a national outrage—which is what the present situation is.

Sandra Gidley

It has recently come to my attention that statistics for domestic violence are not collected separately by police forces. Will the hon. Lady do all that she can to ensure that we can have a more accurate picture from police force to police force?

Mrs. Roche

Some thought is being given to that issue. More than we do at present, we have to disaggregate the figures for grievous bodily harm or actual bodily harm, for example.

A great deal of work is being done. I have recently announced help to set up a national refuge helpline, and extra money is going into refuges. We are also getting people to speak out against domestic violence. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North spoke about the good work that is being done with trade unions. It was important that the Prime Minister launched the initiative on refuges, and that Digby Jones of the CBI and John Monks of the TUC have spoken out on the importance of dealing with domestic violence. We need prominent men to talk about the horror of domestic violence. That has to happen more and more.

I welcome the support that there has been for further proposals that the Government may introduce. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar spoke about women and the criminal justice system; and the hon. Member for Worthing, West spoke about gender in the criminal justice system. The hon. Lady spoke about rape and we have published a joint report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service. There are real concerns about falling conviction rates and high attrition rates.

Excellent points were made about the important and serious issue of female genital mutilation; and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South made an important speech about transsexuals.

It is difficult to do justice to all the contributions that have been made this afternoon. This is one of the best debates that we have had on international women's day. I congratulate everybody and look forward to next year's debate, hoping that we have the same incredibly high standard.

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