HC Deb 04 March 2004 vol 418 cc1080-139

[Relevant documents: the Sixth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2002–03, HC 489–1, on the Case for a Human Rights Commission, and the Minutes of Evidence taken before the Committee on 8th December 2003, HC 106–i, Session 2003–04.] Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. — [Charlotte Atkins.]

2.5 pm

Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

This weekend, millions of women throughout the world will take part in events to mark international women's day. I am delighted that, once again, we are holding this special debate in the House. The fact that we hold such an annual debate and have not one, but two, Ministers for women, and have many more women Ministers in the Government than previously marks quite a change in the culture of politics and government in our country.

I recently had the opportunity to glance at the riveting diaries of Alan Clark, which are being broadcast at the moment. They give us a gem of an insight into what was going on in the Department of Trade and Industry a little under 20 years ago. Alan Clark was speaking to Peter Morrison, the newly appointed Minister of State for Industry, and perhaps I may quote from the diaries. They say: Peter was full of how, already, he was sorting out his civil servants. They were trying to put upon him 'a female' as head of his private office. `I couldn't possibly have that', he said. 'Really?"'— said Alan— "I've had nothing but women in charge of mine … I find it rather congenial.' I am sure he did. The diaries continue: 'But you see', replied Peter, 'she couldn't carry my guns.' These days, I am glad to say, we have not the first but the second woman Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and the majority of officials who are promoted to the senior civil service in the DTI are women. That represents quite a change in the culture.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con)

Just to protect Alan Clark's reputation, the right hon. Lady might have noticed that he treated men and women the same. For example, when my wife, the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley), was elected, he said that she immediately lost her looks, just as he had when he was elected.

Ms Hewitt

I am sure that the whole House and. indeed, the hon. Gentleman's wife will be grateful to him for that reminiscence. I think that there were some respects, at least, in which the late Alan Clark did not treat men and women the same, but we shall go no further down that track today.

It is impossible to separate national and international issues. We live in an increasingly interdependent world in which one country's war becomes many other countries' refugee and migration challenges, and one country's pollution or oil spillage becomes many other countries' environmental disasters. Our belief in equality and respect for the equal worth of every individual is not confined to Britain any more than our commitment to the values of opportunity, security and democracy.

The point about the interdependence of our world is constantly brought home to me—I am sure that this is true of many hon. Members—in my constituency surgery. Last Friday, a constituent from Sierra Leone visited my surgery. Some years ago, he was forced to flee the appalling violence that has plagued that country and now lives here. He first came to see me some time ago during his desperate search to bring his wife here, and I am glad to say that, with the help of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, she has now arrived. Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend. She holds one of the toughest jobs in government and is always measured, fair and helpful.

Last Friday, my constituent brought his wife to meet me. She told me how she had been driven apart from her husband and how she had spent five weeks walking along bush roads through Sierra Leone to escape and come here. She showed me the knife scars on her face and arms that were left by the soldier who raped her and who then used the same knife to force upon her genital circumcision. For that lovely, gentle woman and for millions of others throughout the world, human rights and equality are a distant dream. When so many of our newspapers and journalists have nothing good to say about asylum seekers, let us remember, in honouring international women's day, the purpose of the Geneva convention on refugees and the need today, just as much as in the aftermath of 1945, to protect people who have been persecuted.

Of course, we cannot offer refuge to everybody who needs it and seeks it: no one country can do that. We must work with our European partners and with the wider international community to try to deal with the causes—the conflicts, the tyranny and the desperate poverty—that force millions of people to flee their homes. I am proud—I think we all are—of what our Government and our armed forces have done to help restore peace to Sierra Leone and to start rebuilding its shattered society, economy and system of government. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is ensuring order and integrity within our asylum system, so that decisions can he made swiftly and fairly and the legitimate claim of a refugee is not held up or compromised by those who think that claiming asylum might be a quick route to economic migration.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con)

A piece of good news is that on Wednesday the Secretary-General will open the War Crimes Court in Sierra Leone—a special court. Should not the message go out throughout the world that those most responsible for war crimes will, in due course, be brought to justice, whether in Rwanda, Sierra Leone or elsewhere?

Ms Hewitt

The hon. Gentleman is right. His point will be endorsed by the whole House. I am delighted to say that we have played a role in helping to create that war crimes tribunal and the new constitutional court. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will travel to Sierra Leone in a couple of days to attend the opening of the court.

Last year, the conflict in Iraq was a major theme of this annual debate, and this week has seen more terrible acts of terrorism in the country. We know from our bitter experience of terrorism in Northern Ireland that, on their own, the police and security services can never defeat terrorism, essential and heroic though their efforts are. The only way to achieve peace and security is through the difficult and painstaking process of politics, of building political institutions that can start to bring people together, to reconcile conflict without violence and to create legitimate government. That is what we are supporting the people of Iraq to achieve.

It was surely no coincidence that this week carnage followed almost immediately upon the Iraqi governing council agreeing proposals for the transitional constitution. Any prospect of a free and democratic Iraq is what the extremists hate and fear most.

I have spoken previously in the House about the efforts that we are making as a Government to support women in Iraq. I hope that the whole House will welcome the fact—largely unreported—that the transitional law that was agreed by the governing council this week acknowledges the vital role of women in Iraq, and asks for the electoral system to be designed so that one quarter of seats in the new national assembly will go to women. This is not western feminists imposing their agenda on Iraq, as the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), in the magazine that he edits, would have us believe. Iraq has a long tradition of women's education and leadership. Most of its doctors, teachers and university lecturers are women. Without their strength and the contribution of other Iraqi women, economic and social development will be impossible.

No doubt the governing council has in mind the examples of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have quotas within their constitutions for women's political representation. Indeed, Pakistan is well ahead of the United Kingdom when it comes to women's representation in Parliament. However, I know that the women in Iraq who have been arguing the case for quotas in electoral law were delighted and grateful for the support that they received from the British Government, both on the issue of representation and in the work that we have been doing in supporting Iraqi women's groups and centres in different parts of Iraq, including the new shelter for Baghdad that has opened recently for women who have suffered violence.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the example that has been set in Iraq would be strengthened if perhaps it moved across the boundaries to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where no women are represented in the majiis? Does the right hon. Lady share my aspiration that the example that we have set in Iraq might set an example for other Arab countries in the area?

Ms Hewitt

The hon. Lady makes an important point. While each country has to deal with these issues in its own way, I think that the women of Iraq and the Iraqi governing council have shown the importance that they place on women's representation in creating a secure and democratic Iraq. We in Britain have appreciated the importance of positive action to ensure that political parties and political institutions represent the entire community and not just half of it.

I began by referring to migration, which is as old as human history. Today, when transport and communications have been revolutionised, far more men and women are moving throughout the world in unprecedented numbers, from south Asia to Saudi Arabia, from the former Soviet states to western Europe, from south to north America, from north Africa to Europe and so on. Some of them, like the constituents to whom I have referred, are fleeing intolerable conflicts; others—often educated women— are seeking better lives. They are drawn by the prospects of jobs and opportunities that are lacking at home.

In many ways, women's experience of migration is very much the same as men's. However, because in almost every culture and country it is women who are primarily responsible for children and the work of families, and because women have different life experiences and less economic power, their experience of migration is in important ways different from men's. They are more likely to migrate as the dependants of husbands or partners. They are more likely to end up in marginal employment. They are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Girls and young women are kidnapped and sold or duped into brothels, waking in pain and spending their days being humiliated, threatened and beaten.

Only last year, in London, seven women from Moldova and Romania were found who had been forced into prostitution. They were sex slaves in the modern economy. They thought that they were coming to Britain to get a job and a better life. They ended up on a journey of rape and beatings, and in one case forced marriage. The man at the centre of that monstrous crime ring, Luan Plakici, was convicted and sentenced recently to 10 years' imprisonment. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, to the Crown Prosecution Service, to the Home Office and to the Metropolitan police for their work on that case and on other cases to expose and bring to justice those involved in the appalling crime of global trafficking. All the Government Departments involved are working together, and as a result arrests and prosecutions have increased. We are trying to prevent trafficking by spreading awareness of the problem among vulnerable groups not only here but throughout the world.

That is one side—the dark side—of global migration. For millions of women, it is not like that at all. They and many others have chosen to migrate in search of better lives, to make themselves better off and, as centuries of migration have shown, to make the countries to which they migrate better off as well. The long history of migration from Britain to the rest of the world and back to Britain has created today's multicultural country, and the growing diversity of our country, particularly our cities, is a great source of cultural, social and economic strength. In the global economy, we are increasingly competing not just for investment but for skilled people. The fact that we are one of the most open trading nations in the world and are an increasingly diverse and generally welcoming country is a huge source of strength. Many of our public services, particularly the national health service, have long depended on the work of migrants, especially migrant women, going back to health professionals from Jamaica and other parts of the West Indies who were recruited in the 1950s—ironically, at the behest of Enoch Powell, who was then Minister of Health. As I have recently said in the House, migrants from central Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union are already making, and will continue to make, an enormous contribution to our economy.

We need to be sure, however, that our gain is not made at the expense of the countries of origin, which is why the NHS, for instance, has an agreement that it will not recruit nurses or other staff from vulnerable countries, including South Africa, which needs every skilled health worker that it can train. I recently discussed that with Beverley Malone of the Royal College of Nurses, who is profoundly aware of the problem, but there is a danger that agencies operating in other parts of the health and caring services will recruit nurses from countries where they are desperately needed—indeed, they are already doing so—and that those nurses will find their way into employment here.

We have benefited enormously from the entrepreneurs, both women and men, who have come to our country from overseas, particularly south Asia and the Caribbean. Those entrepreneurs and the new generation of British-born Asians and Afro-Caribbeans provide us with great competitive advantage, as they move into the professions and set up their own businesses. They can use their long ties of family, culture and language with many other parts of the globe, both for their own benefit and that of the whole country. Parween Warsi, for example, moved to Britain from north India in 1975 and started to make samosas for local restaurants. She is now chief executive of S and A Food and is one of Britain's most successful business women. She employs 1,300 people, and has a turnover of more than £100 million a year. She and many others like her are helping to transform and strengthen our economy.

Members on both sides of the House should embrace and celebrate our diversity and the contribution that women make to it. However, there are strains and difficulties in our changing communities, and many hon. Members are worried about the way in which our Muslim communities have become the target of prejudice. We must remember that Islam, the fastest growing religion in the world, has conferred enormous benefits on the globe. The scholar Bernard Lewis reminds us that at the peak of Islamic power only China had a civilisation comparable in its level, quality and variety of achievement. In the west we use Arabic numerals, which, in fact, are the fruit of the great mathematical learning of India, but they were brought to the west by the Islamic scholars of the middle east. Our values in Britain include respect for different beliefs and faiths, so it is possible to be both Jewish and Muslim, or Jewish and Christian, or Sikh and secular, and be proud of both traditions. Anyone who says that it is not possible to be a good Muslim and a good British citizen is simply talking nonsense.

Having talked to young British Muslim women in my own city of Leicester, I know how frightened many of them are that intolerance will win. They fear that we might follow the path taken in France and ban in schools the expression of religious belief and identity. We all understand the tradition of secular public space and republicanism in France, but it is a different tradition from Britain's. We will not follow that example, and I do not think that anyone on either side of the House would want us to do so. The Government continue to allow girls to wear the hijab in schools, just as we allow Muslim women police officers to wear the hijab or male Sikh officers to wear the turban. I welcome the decision by the governors of a school in Luton to overturn an initial decision to try to ban the expression of religion in the school.

There should be no conflict at all between equal rights for women and respect for different cultures and beliefs, but sometimes there is. I wish to make it clear that we will not accept excuses for violating the rights of girls and women. Domestic violence is a crime. As a society, we are no longer prepared to accept the excuse that prevailed for years that the man was entitled to hit his partner or that she provoked it. Indeed, in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill we are initiating the biggest overhaul of the law in this area for more than 30 years. Murder is murder. One in four murders committed in Britain are the result of domestic violence, and they take place in all communities and cultures. However, they cannot be excused or the charge of murder diminished by calling them, in any culture, an "honour killing". We will condemn them and prosecute those who commit them in all our communities. Equally, genital mutilation, for whatever reason, is a violent criminal assault. I welcome the fact, as will all hon. Members, that the new law that came into force yesterday will make it a criminal offence for anyone in Britain to take a girl abroad for that purpose, even if the practice remains lawful in the country to which she is taken.

In the past seven years, we have secured genuine advances for women in our country. The national minimum wage benefits nearly 1 million low-paid women workers. The pension credit entitles every single pensioner to £102, and there is more for couples. Of particular benefit for women, who have always formed the majority of the poorest older people in our community, is the state second pension, which will do much to reduce the risk of women falling into poverty when they retire because of the caring responsibilities that they currently have. The new child tax credit already benefits 6 million families. As a result of improvements that we have made in the NHS, Britain has experienced the biggest fall in deaths from breast cancer anywhere in the world, which is a remarkable achievement.

We have introduced the biggest-ever package to support working parents, with increases in child care places, new maternity pay and leave, and new legal standards on family friendly working. After less than a year, those initiatives are already helping parents to choose how they balance work and family responsibilities. There is a new push to deal with unequal pay. Those of us who campaigned for the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 feel intensely frustrated that despite the advances that have been made there is a persistent gap in the earnings of men and women, particularly in part-time employment. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and I have been taking steps to strengthen the law in this area, in particular with the new equal pay questionnaire. It is also why we are now taking steps to speed up and simplify enforcement of equal pay cases, particularly in those large actions—almost class actions—brought on behalf of groups of workers. We shall simplify the procedures, after consulting in the spring. I hope that we can bring new regulations on how the employment tribunals deal with equal pay cases into effect on 1 October this year, at the same time as the new employment tribunal regulations.

As we have discussed on several occasions in the House, we have been taking steps across the public sector to undertake equal pay reviews and ensure that the Equal Opportunities Commission has resources to promote equal pay reviews in the private sector.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend has done so much for women that I feel anxious about putting another request to her and asking for more. There is already a public sector duty to promote racial equality, and one is planned for disability. Can she yet respond positively to the campaign by the Equal Opportunities Commission for a public sector duty of gender equality?

Ms Hewitt

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the enormous work she has done, both as one of the first Ministers with responsibility for women and more recently with women in Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am glad to say that we are clear in principle that we shall extend the duty to promote equality within the public sector to the issue of gender equality. We need to see when we can make parliamentary time to put that into legislative effect, but we have accepted the principle.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

Given that the right hon. Lady told the House on 1 May last year that, as a result of the important equal pay reviews that the Government had conducted, serious problems of unequal pay had been unearthed, will she update the House on progress in the implementation of action plans submitted to the Cabinet Office on this matter? While she is about it, will she be good enough also to address the issue of whether the Government intend to extend the search for equal pay reviews to contractors and subcontractors to government, a subject in which her deputy took a great interest in Westminster Hall on 25 June last year, but which she acknowledged to be tricky? I would welcome an update.

Ms Hewitt

As the hon. Gentleman will know, because we have published summaries both of the equal pay reviews and the action plans, we are now taking steps within every Government Department. For instance, in this year's pay negotiations, some of which will cover more than one year, we are taking steps to deal with the equal pay problems that have been unearthed. Some, which are in a sense easiest to remedy, occur within particular grades. They will be dealt with through pay restructuring and the pay increases now being put in place. Others are more difficult to tackle, because they arise in part from job segregation, a point that I shall come to.

We are considering whether equal pay reviews should be extended to contractors and subcontractors. Many different organisations make a strong case for using what used to be called contract compliance to ensure not just better pay and equal pay, but compliance with environmental standards and so on. As the hon. Gentleman will readily acknowledge, we need to balance the benefits that could arise from that action with the possible costs to the businesses involved. I hope that he will acknowledge the need to do a proper regulatory impact assessment before contemplating going down that route.

One of the biggest underlying problems of the persistent equal pay gap, particularly as it affects part-time workers, is job segregation.

Mr. Bercow

I genuinely appreciate the right hon. Lady's giving way again. I am not seeking to be difficult. Her point about the regulatory burden is important, and it would be very curious if I, who have often challenged her on it, were to dissent from what she says. May I, on a more modest level, put the matter to the right hon. Lady in the following terms? Recognising that the process of government is difficult, we nevertheless want to make progress. Does she accept that, as a matter of principle, any contractor or subcontractor discovered to have breached the existing law would manifestly be unsuitable for continued work for the Government?

Ms Hewitt

That is a very modest proposition, with which I would certainly assent, as I am sure my colleagues in the Treasury would. We shall continue to look at this and see how we can spread the good practice that we have initiated in central Government departments much more widely.

I turn to the problem of job segregation. Six out of 10 women in paid work are working in just 10 occupations—typically, those that pay the least. Within the pay grades and structures of those occupations, women also tend to be concentrated at the bottom, so we need to look at the choices that girls and women are making about the subjects they pursue at schools and the careers and jobs that they then go into, as well as at what we can do about the pay levels within those occupations where women are already concentrated.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

In the most senior ranks of the judiciary women are largely absent. Of the 12 Law Lords, just one is a woman; of the five heads of division, one is a woman; of the 37 Lords Justices of Appeal, two are women; and of the 107 High Court judges, only eight are women. Would it not have been useful if last night Lord Woolf had dealt with that matter instead of making his outburst? On one point, of course, he was right, and I voted against the Government accordingly on Monday. Is it not unfortunate that, despite all the progress that has been made, there are so few women among the most senior judges? Whatever progress has been made—and it is very limited—it has been made only since 1997.

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point about the paucity of women in the senior ranks of the judiciary. We could say exactly the same about the virtual absence of women within the boardrooms of our top companies, although I am glad to say that there are finally more than 100 women directorships within the FTSE 100. But there are still far too many companies with very few women in senior positions. My noble and learned Friend Lord Irvine, the former Lord Chancellor, and my noble and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs have taken and are taking steps to encourage and promote women within the judiciary.

Just as we are concerned about the underachievement of boys in school, we have to remain concerned about the lack of girls going into non-traditional areas of work, such as engineering and technology. Indeed, 95 per cent. of those graduating in engineering are men, while 90 per cent. of students taking a health and social care vocational qualification are women. We know very well the utterly different pay paths and career and training opportunities that will follow from those two facts.

Therefore, I welcome the fact that the Equal Opportunities Commission is now undertaking a general formal investigation to see how women and men continue to end up in these traditional gender roles and to probe some of the barriers to change. I also welcome the fact that over the last 10 years, remarkably, the percentage of women graduates in science, engineering and technology subjects has increased from well below 5 per cent. to nearly 30 per cent. Over the same 10-year period, the number of girls taking technology at A-level has increased by just over a third. We need to go on encouraging girls and young women to choose those harder but none the less intensely interesting and human subjects.

I had the opportunity this morning to hear Professor Sir Harry Kroto, one of our Nobel prize winners and an extraordinary chemist, speaking about the dramatic improvements that breakthrough discoveries in his field of chemistry and nanotechnology, and more widely in science, can make to human well-being and to conquering disease, improving our environment and feeding starving people around the world. If we could create that sense of excitement and human possibility among young women and girls, we would see far more of them choosing to go into those subjects. It is important that they do, and that we continue our efforts to bring women who already have those qualifications back into science and technology-based employment, because as we look ahead in this increasingly competitive global economy we need to increase the number of businesses and the number of jobs based on science and technology. That is how we will raise, in the jargon, the value-added of our economy, create better-paid jobs and keep ourselves competitive in a competitive world. We will struggle to do that if we are recruiting from only half the human talent pool.

The work we are doing on equal pay and family friendly working, and the improvements we are making in child care, are all about ensuring that women can fulfil their potential and make the contribution they want to make, earning a living for themselves and their families but contributing to broader economic success. Those improvements are also about ensuring that women and men have much greater choice in how they balance earning that living with bringing up their children.

Much has been done—and despite having spoken for a considerable time. I am conscious that there is much else I could have said, which other hon. Members will no doubt cover this afternoon—but much more needs to be done. Before closing, I want to acknowledge and pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality has done as she leads the creation of our new commission on equality and human rights. She will have more to say about that later. That new body, which will bring together all the strands of our work on equality and put it in the much broader context of human rights, is the result of the most significant review of our work on equality in a quarter of a century. I am very grateful not only to my right hon. Friend, but to the chairs of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the newer Disability Rights Commission and other members of the taskforce for the enormous amount of work that they are putting into creating the new single commission.

Finally, this is a wonderful opportunity to pay our own tribute to the women who, in each of our constituencies all over the country, work day in, day out to improve the lives of their families, friends, communities and wider neighbourhoods. We heard just before this debate a little about the so often unacknowledged work that women do as carers of elderly or disabled relatives. Millions of women work in voluntary organisations, faith groups, tenants and residents' associations, as women councillors—too few of them—and as governors of schools, on the boards of hospital trusts and so on.

I am thinking in my own constituency of Councillor Manjula Paul Sood, who is the only Asian woman councillor in one of the most multiracial and diverse cities in our country, and who has played a leading role in the interfaith forum that has helped to ensure that Leicester continues to enjoy strong and good community relations. I am thinking of Dr. Angela Lennox, who founded a pioneering health and community centre in one of the most disadvantaged wards of our city in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) and who is now a director of the urban regeneration company that is helping to rebuild the city.

In my own city we will be celebrating tomorrow and on Saturday through LeicestHER day, which is now in its third year and brings together 1,000 women from all walks of life across the city and the county—groups such as Turning Point in my constituency in Braunstone, which is one of the most disadvantaged wards in the entire country, the Bhagini centre, also in my constituency, the Sharma women's centre and many others. It is a great pity that the new city council in Leicester, which is a coalition of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, has decided, despite all the representations and pleas, to cut the funding to those and many other groups and within a month force their closure.

Mr. Bercow

It must be the Liberals' fault!

Ms Hewitt

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the two groups are working hand in glove and the responsibility is equally shared. I hope hon. Ladies on the Opposition Benches will urge the council, which has received a very generous above-inflation settlement, even at this late stage to rethink funding cuts that will devastate some of our most vulnerable communities.

All of us know the wonderful women and organisations in our own constituencies. Today is a day to honour and celebrate the contribution of women and to dedicate ourselves anew to spreading prosperity and opportunity, justice and security to women all over our country and all over the world.

2.46 pm
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con)

We welcome the opportunity to discuss the position of women, close as the debate is to the date of international women's day on Monday and the women's world day of prayer tomorrow. There has been some role reversal today between the Minister and myself. In previous years, when I was responsible for the international development brief, I focused primarily on international aspects, whereas the Minister focused on domestic aspects. Because we had a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday on the international role of women, I shall focus on the domestic aspects today. I am well supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who will no doubt draw on his experience of handling the international development brief, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), the Chairman of the International Development Committee, who will provide an international perspective.

Fairness and equality are surely two of the most fundamental human rights, yet the very fact that we are having the debate underlines the fact that there is still some way to go in delivering those rights. There are so many sections of society where it could be said that equality has yet to take full effect. Although the issues that I shall raise today concern discrimination experienced by women in the workplace, it is important to acknowledge that the pursuit of equality applies to a broad spectrum of people disadvantaged in society, from those with physical disabilities through to those discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion or gender.

Discrimination in all those guises is a symptom of a society that is ill at ease with itself. The example given by the Minister of only one Asian woman in local government representation is one indication that, as a society, we are not yet at ease with ourselves in this area. The continuation of gender discrimination when over half the UK population is female should trouble all of us in the House, men and women.

One of the totem issues is the gender pay gap, which literally short-changes so many women. Speaking of the gender pay gap often brings to mind examples of women in senior professional roles being paid significantly less than their male counterparts. That is an enduring problem that provides stark examples. In the financial services industry there is a pay gap of more than 40 per cent. between men and women. There are industries where, even at the top of their professions, women have not succeeded in closing the gap, as we would hope. It is an enduring problem that has still to be satisfactorily addressed. It is right to focus on it today. One need only look at the statistics from the Equal Opportunities Commission, which found that example of the pay gap in the City.

Women have struggled for decades successfully to enter professions that have been traditionally male dominated, yet have often found that once they have done so they face a battle to be paid the same as men. Similarly, as regards women at the start of their careers, it should be a source of shame to us all that in the world's fourth largest economy a gender pay gap develops within just four years of an evenly matched male and female graduate joining the work force.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)

Is my hon. Friend concerned about the propensity of women graduates automatically to go into secretarial and clerical jobs straight from university, which they do in much higher proportions than do men? Does she agree that more effort could be made to help women when they consider career options as they approach graduation?

Mrs. Spelman

I thank my hon. Friend. I am sure that she will recall that when were considering our career options at university we had the famous careers advisory service. It is not so much legislation that is required as giving women advice to encourage them to aim high with the qualifications that they have. I am afraid that that problem has not been solved since she and I graduated.

Mrs. Browning

I have to tell my hon. Friend that I have the advantage of not having had a university education. I went into further education, which stood me in good stead through the years.

Mrs. Spelman

There may be a lesson in that for us all.

Before I entered the House, I spent many years in business, notably in a sector that is definitely regarded as male dominated—agriculture. I was particularly lucky, because I had a good education and what my husband described as an in-built determination, both of which helped me to hold my own in a male dominated working environment. That proved a particularly useful grounding in view of my later transition into politics. Although I was fortunate enough not to experience real discrimination, I always knew what my rights were and the avenues that were open to me to secure them if they were not being afforded to me.

The women whom I want to spend most of my time discussing are not so well placed The Minister singled out the example of women in low-paid, part-time employment. Those women tend to fall into the category not of high fliers in the City or in the legal profession, which is now attracting more women than men—an interesting transition—but of employment in what are sometimes regarded as low-skill jobs where there is a high degree of occupational segregation. In other words, high concentrations of women are employed in the same professions. The Minister identified that as one of the main contributory factors in the gender pay gap—I am glad that we agree on that.

Occupational segregation has been singled out by the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fawcett Society. I pay tribute to them for their work on trying to expose and overcome the issue, with which hon. Members on both sides of the House will be familiar. It has come to represent one of the major obstacles to eradicating low levels of pay for women because the absence of men from a particular profession makes the comparison of salaries between genders impracticable. That creates a type of professional inertia, whereby shortfalls in women's wages are masked because they are not apparent in the context of a female dominated payroll.

A case in point is the social care sector. Last month, I had the privilege of addressing the annual Topss conference in Nottingham, where I heard many people discussing the problems facing women employed in social care. More than 92 per cent. of the social care work force are women, and 50 per cent. work on a part-time basis. The average salary for women employed in social care is £5 an hour. That offers an interesting comparison with a woman working in a bar in a town centre, who could be expected to earn approximately twice that amount. That leads me to ask what value we as a society attach to the roles carried out by women. The social care sector is in crisis, and the additional costs imposed on the profession through regulation have not helped the situation. Striking a balance between closing the pay gap and carrying out an impact assessment of the sector's capacity to afford it will be difficult, but not insurmountable.

At the conference, I was given to understand that many women who are employed in social care are required by the provisions of the Care Standards Act 2000 to undergo checks with the Criminal Records Bureau. That is understandable because they are dealing with vulnerable people, but in many cases they are required to pay for their own checks—I learned that that can cost them as much as a day and half's salary. That is a significant cost for a group of women who are not well paid as it is.

Twenty years after my party introduced the equal pay for equal work amendment to the Equal Pay Act 1970, there are still appalling examples of women being underpaid for the work that they do because occupational segregation by gender has led to a failure in the benchmarking process.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab)

Does the hon. Lady agree that the advent of the minimum wage dramatically improved the lot of women working in the care sector? Prior to its introduction, they earned approximately half their current income, so it has made an enormous difference to them.

Mrs. Spelman

Of course I acknowledge the help that the minimum wage has brought to low-paid women, and I shall talk about its impact later. In the social care sector it has had a ratchet effect, so the lot of the lower paid may not have improved in relation to others further up the career ladder because the salary base has been raised across the sector. However, I acknowledge that in absolute terms their pay has increased.

It is an uncomfortable irony that in professions that remain male dominated, and which women have to overcome great odds to penetrate, it is far easier to identify and resolve gender pay inequalities than it is in professions that have traditionally been the natural territory for female employment.

Occupational segregation is particularly acute in the field of part-time employment. As 44 per cent. of the female population are employed in a part-time capacity, the number of people affected by the phenomenon could hardly be described as small. The current differential in hourly pay between men working full-time and women working part-time is an astonishing 40 per cent. In practical terms, that means that for every £1 that a man earns each hour when he is working full-time, a woman working part-time can expect to earn 60p. According to figures produced by the Equal Opportunities Commission, the divergence between men and women working full-time stands at £559 per month. That is not only a dispiriting statistic, but the model by which progress towards equality of pay is judged. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House agree that we have to do much more to address that.

I share the concerns of Incomes Data Services, which stated in its report of December last year: The earnings opportunities for part-time women and their relative position in the labour market should not be overlooked as attention is focused on the narrowing of the full-time gender pay gap. I accept that this year there has been an improvement on last year in terms of the overall gender pay gap, but we cannot afford to be complacent about that group of part-time workers. I am glad that the Minister raised that issue.

There are various reasons why women choose to enter part-time work. It is often because they have to balance work with the needs of raising a family and are best able to do so by working part-time rather than full-time. Another reason is that for many families, the woman's income is the secondary household income and consequently the reduced salary is more readily accepted as the dividend for a greater work-life balance. That acceptance is a terrible betrayal of all those families in which, for whatever reason—bereavement, separation or injury—the mother's job is the sole or primary household income.

For others, part-time employment is not always a result of lifestyle choice, but of necessity and limited alternatives. That applies especially to lower-skilled part-time jobs, which enable women with a limited educational background to enter the workplace without always requiring specialist skills and experience. Women with limited employment opportunities and education are often badly disadvantaged in a predominantly single-sex working environment. Some women are prepared to take jobs with skills demands that are significantly below their professional abilities solely because it is the only way in which to secure the flexibility in working patterns that their family life demands.

The impact of occupational segregation in the part-time sphere would be significantly reduced by an expansion in the range of part-time jobs. That would not only give women workers more options to choose employment best suited to their abilities, but help to dilute the female concentration in part-time work and enable greater scrutiny of the part-time gender pay gap. A greater range might lead to an increase in male part-time employment.

Occupational segregation in full-time and part-time employment does not only present problems with pay scales in the immediate term but fosters longer-term difficulties in training and professional development, which create barriers to salary advancement. Eighty per cent. of care staff in England have no qualification for their work and only one fifth of those who embark on modern apprenticeships in social care complete the course. Last month, research by the Learning and Skills Council found that of unfilled positions, 20 per cent. were due to lack of applicants with the requisite skills. That is not uniquely applicable to women, but it is worth being aware that the current occupational segregation of men and women perpetuates the skills shortage.

Let us consider two examples. The construction industry has a 99 per cent. male work force. In engineering, only 8 per cent. of the work force are women. In both industries, more than 30 per cent. of the vacancies are due to a lack of available candidates with the relevant skills. Clearly, the continuing gender domination in those professions means that more than half the population is excluded from such opportunities.

Society has not progressed a great deal from 20 years ago, when Kylie Minogue's debut character Charlene in "Neighbours" caused widespread consternation by wanting to pursue a career as a mechanic. Sadly, the concept of women entering those professions remains something of an anathema, to the detriment of our work force as a whole.

Occupational segregation is a large factor, but not the only factor in denying many women the salary that they deserve. I should like to consider another important element. Many women are simply not aware of their statutory entitlements and even more do not know how to engage grievance procedures to rectify the position. Again, the problem is not exclusive to women in low-paid, less vocationally skilled professions, but it is more common among them. I am worried that we are still not doing enough to reach out to a section of working women who, for various reasons, cannot secure their rights in the workplace.

There has been much debate recently about the role of immigration in fulfilling the United Kingdom's work force needs. Let us try to consider the matter without digressing into the entirely different issues of asylum seekers and refugees. It is clear that there are many low-paid, low-skilled, often manual jobs in this country that our indigenous population is simply not prepared or is reluctant to do. Consequently, the incoming migrant populations fill the labour gap, but they are the least likely to be aware of their salary entitlements and are unlikely to comprehend the logistics of taking their position to a tribunal. Language is an obvious factor in perpetuating such disadvantages.

However, even among indigenous female employees, many women, such as those who joined the work force later in life, do not feel sufficiently empowered to challenge the position. Empowerment is important because it relates to the broader issue of women often being insufficiently assertive in the workplace. That applies across the board and is part of the explanation of the overall gender gap. It often stems from the different priorities that women attach to their working conditions and a more general reticence to discuss, let alone compare, wage packets and ask for more.

As I acknowledged earlier, the minimum wage has raised the most basic salary levels for many women. However, we must also acknowledge that the minimum wage for some women in some low-paid sectors is in danger of becoming a de facto standard industry wage. That is undesirable. It would be disappointing if the minimum wage became a device whereby employers could abrogate all responsibility for paying their staff anything more than £4.50 an hour.

It might be helpful to identify the sort of women who are most vulnerable to salary discrimination. Often, they include those with limited academic education and those who are returning to work alter taking time out to bring up a family. I am sure that many women would identify with me when I say that often, when one takes time out of the workplace, there is a loss of self-confidence, which makes it difficult for a woman to assert herself early on to secure better terms of pay.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend is making a typically thoughtful speech. Will she say something further about crude pay discrimination: unequal pay for exactly comparable work—a phenomenon hat she has recently helped to highlight—in the public domain? Will she also comment on the related problem of historical anomalies in the way in which posts are graded in organisations? That should concern us all.

Mrs. Spelman

Those important questions warrant lengthy exploration. Although I am conscious of the time, I shall dwell on them for a moment. Legislation can do so much for comparable pay. Conservative and Labour Governments have introduced such legislation but, clearly, it has not proved sufficient. As I was in the throes of explaining, we must also overcome cultural factors, such as reticence to push for comparable terms of pay and a reluctance to ask what a man in the same job is being paid. I have the advantage of being a woman whereas my hon. Friend is a man so only I can look inside my soul and begin to answer why women generally tend to be less assertive

I shall risk saying that perhaps women regard work somewhat differently from men. Perhaps they are generally less concerned about status, and about status being measured by pay. Their job satisfaction comes from a range of factors. Perhaps it is important for men to have status that is measured in terms of pay. However, one factor is common to both sexes. If one does not know what one's colleague is paid, one does not have the information to conduct the necessary negotiations to ask for a fair return. Information is power. However, I would not go so far as to say that the problem would be immediately solved by some mandatory rule about publishing all rates of pay. In some organisations with best practice, such as management consultancy, where there is a great deal more transparency in the standard salaries and bonuses paid, it can become difficult to justify, in a rote way, variation at the bonus level. It is often linked to the company's profits. It is difficult to apportion how well the company is doing to the different amounts of effort that employees put in. That often cannot be resolved by a simple number.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op)

Does the hon. Lady agree that aspiration is also crucial? The Government are seeking to do more to encourage the aspiration to go to university of many young people from poorer backgrounds, but traditionally many women and girls, when at school, have not had their aspirations raised in relation to the sort of employment that they could achieve. They have therefore entered and continued in, perhaps for life, jobs that have not stretched their abilities, so this country has not fully benefited from their skills and talents.

Mrs. Spelman

The hon. Lady is in complete agreement, in essence, with my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), whose point was exactly the same. We need to empower women, when they are young by raising their aspirations in relation to equal opportunities, and in later life by helping them to become more assertive in asking for a fair wage. If low-paid women knew that, for every hour that they work, they earn only 60p for every ¤1 that a man earns for doing exactly the same full-time job, they would be quite angry. That would be a healthy reaction, which could spur on the assertiveness that they need to ask to be paid on equal terms. That would be quite justifiable.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)


Mrs. Spelman

We have already had quite an extensive digression on how culture interacts with legislation. Our society's culture, and the question of why women are in their current position—which we all acknowledge is unacceptable—is an important debate, but it is open-ended because we all know that it is not easy to change culture. That is not as simple as passing legislation, and it will take many different effects to bring it about. If the hon. and learned Lady's point is separate from that, I shall give way, but otherwise I would prefer to proceed.

Vera Baird

I want to comment on the point about asking for better pay.

Mrs. Spelman

I shall give way.

Vera Baird

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Does she agree that one of the best ways of facilitating a more aggressive search for better pay for women is to encourage them to join trade unions? Will she congratulate the Government on their recent allocation of substantial money to the trade union movement to enable it to modernise and to cope adequately with the demands that we must encourage in women?

Mrs. Spelman

I anticipated that intervention when I was writing my speech, as hon. Members might expect. I do not think that trade union membership is a panacea. The trade union movement has been around for a long time, but we still have a pay gap between all men and women of 18 per cent., and a significantly larger one at the lower end of the pay scale. I learned from the Topss conference that average annual membership of a trade union costs about £200 a year. That is a factor for low-paid women. I acknowledge that Labour Members are likely to make that point, but I invite them to recognise that trade union membership is not a magic answer. Just becoming a member of a trade union will not necessarily change the culture in our society.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas


Mrs. Spelman

I should like to proceed, if the hon. Lady does not mind.

Sometimes, for whatever reason—such as a different ethnic, linguistic or cultural background—women are not aware of their entitlements. I have mentioned migrant workers, who are in a particularly weak position and in need of much help. Perhaps one of the saddest examples is of older women who, for historical reasons, belong to an age of deference. Although as people in public life we might feel that that age of deference is long gone, those women's upbringing in that period means that their whole attitude towards employers is of an unquestioning approach to authority. Such women are often subject to discrimination. It is right to acknowledge that that exists in our society. Those women are often further prevented from speaking up because they were denied the learning opportunities that men of their generation were offered. To put it in stark terms, some of those women are afraid of making waves with employers because they fear redundancy and recognise that their prospects of securing alternative employment, as they near retirement age, are increasingly limited.

Retirement itself presents no quick release from the injustices experienced by many women because, as we all well know, the pension system in the United Kingdom discriminates significantly against women. It is increasingly clear from the demographic pattern in this country that we will have to take more urgent action to remedy that. Women live between seven and 10 years longer than men on average, yet pension provision for women—who will have to depend on it more—falls short of what men receive. More than twice as many women as men of pensionable age rely on means-tested benefit, and the Age Concern survey that I mentioned last week during questions to the Minister for Women and Equality shows that the average income of retired women consists of just 32p for every £l that men receive. Again, that is a powerful piece of information that could spur on many older women, if they were aware of it, to more assertive action. Incidentally, I pay tribute to the female members of the pensioners convention in my constituency, who very definitely are assertive.

Perhaps the most alarming statistics of all are that 91 per cent. of all those without a full basic state pension are women, and that one in four single women pensioners now live in poverty. The reasons for that are numerous and complicated—complicated enough to warrant a debate of their own—but inflexibility in the eligibility criteria for state pension provision is clearly a major factor. One problem with the pension credit is that it assumes that everyone is entitled to the full contributory pension, but sadly that is not the case for many women, who have not met the qualifying criteria. Unless I am very much mistaken, the Pensions Bill that has just received its Second Reading, which I have scanned, does not specifically address the problem of the underprovision of pensions for women.

Gender discrimination clearly permeates the lives of women throughout the working and retirement periods, and it is the challenge for us all, not least women such as me who are involved in the legislative process, to try to arrest that. Should we fail, we will be condemning future generations of women to levels of pensioner poverty that are completely at odds with the advantaged position of a wealthy western power.

As with all the biggest problems that society has to overcome, there is no simple solution to this one, and it would be erroneous to suggest that the problems that I have mentioned can he overcome solely by legislation. The reality is that we need to complete the cultural changes that were initiated 86 years ago when women were first given the Note. Our country's mindset still has some way to move forward from the preconception that women somehow justify their inferior salary, or in some way deserve the disadvantages that they often experience in the workplace.

Legislation can in many ways precipitate and advance such changes, but it cannot be the sole driver. Attitudes are changing and inequalities are becoming increasingly unacceptable, but it' we consider that, more than 30 years after the Equal Pay Act 1970 was introduced, women are still being paid on average 18 per cent. less than men in a full-time context, and 40 per cent. less than men in a part-time context, it behoves all of us in the House to strive for a better deal for women.

3.18 pm
Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op)

I welcome this debate on women, equality and human rights. It is very timely, and there are important issues to be discussed in this field.

I shall focus my speech on specific issues relating to women with learning disabilities. It is estimated that, every year, 1,400 people with learning disabilities are victims of sexual abuse. Most of those are women. Furthermore, all too often in such cases, the abusers of women with a learning disability are not brought to justice. I welcome the Government's measures, introduced in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, to protect people with learning disabilities from sexual abuse. Those will come into effect this May. Wherever possible, the rights of such women should be protected along with the rights of other people through mainstream legislation, as in the 2003 Act, but there should also be specific measures that recognise those women's specific needs, where that is appropriate.

The criminal law should not intrude unnecessarily on the private lives of adults, and people with a learning disability should have the same right to engage in sexual activities as others. We must recognise, however, that some people, especially those with a severe learning disability, may be particularly vulnerable to abuse because of their circumstances. That could affect their ability to consent to sexual activity in the same way as other adults. Our law must provide full and robust protection when sexual activity is not consensual.

It is important that women with a learning disability have the right to engage in sexual activity, but we must also ensure that they have protection against abuse and rape. In providing such protection we must recognise their particular vulnerability. They are twice as likely as other people to be victims of crime and it is estimated that they are four times as likely as people without a learning disability to be the victim of a sexual offence.

Every woman with a learning disability is an individual. Every woman has different needs and different abilities, which should be recognised. However, we should also acknowledge that people with a severe learning disability might not be able freely to consent to sex because they do not understand the nature and consequences of sexual activity. They might also have limited choices and a limited understanding of relationships. That is what makes them so vulnerable, because they could be viewed as an easy target. They could be easily influenced, bribed, intimidated or threatened by others.

People in a position of power or who are caring for women with a severe learning disability could use that position to coerce or deceive them. Such people could, for example, use threats such as, "I will tell your parents" or "I will tell your friends " That might worry the woman in that situation, whereas an adult without a learning disability might just ignore it. Such actions can take on much greater significance for a person with a learning disability. They are particularly vulnerable to people in a position of authority v, ho care for them. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) mentioned some of the measures in the Care Standards Act 2000 that have been put in place to protect not only adults with a learning disability but children and older people, and such measures are important for the reasons that I have just outlined.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very difficult to balance the acknowledgement of the needs of women with learning disabilities with the need to protect those women?

Ms Munn

Yes, that is a difficult balancing act. However, the fundamental idea—the human right, indeed—that underpins everything I am saying is that people with learning disabilities are people first, and that they should have the same rights as everyone else. It is our responsibility to ensure that our legislation does all that it can to enable people to achieve that equality, however difficult that may be. We recognise the difficulties encountered by people trying to achieve that, and we must therefore take the issue seriously. It is high time that we highlighted it to a greater extent.

Before the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the law was clearly unsatisfactory, and terminology such as "mental defective" was demeaning to vulnerable adults. I am pleased that progress has been made in this area. By making provision on specific offences in relation to the sexual abuse of people with a learning disability, the legislation gives protection while maintaining the right of people to engage in consensual sexual activity.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the remarkably sensitive approach that she is taking to the very real problems experienced by many people with learning difficulties. Does she agree that there have been very few Acts passed by this Government that are as important as the Sexual Offences Act in terms of ensuring that such people—particularly women—are protected and afforded the same rights under the law as everyone else in this country can expect?

Ms Munn

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. I shall say something in a moment about how forthcoming legislation will be able to do more for people in this situation.

Although the new offences have been created and there is now greater protection, we must be ever-vigilant, because there are still cases in which the Crown Prosecution Service or judges might decide not to proceed. For example, they might take the view that a person's word cannot be relied on. The woman or man involved might not have very good communication skills, and extra help and support might be needed to enable them to express what has happened to them. These important issues must be considered if justice is to be done.

When that does not happen, the legal system fails to protect people with a learning disability. It not only fails to achieve justice for someone who has experienced an awful offence, but it could leave the person who has committed the offence free to reoffend elsewhere.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is still a grey area in the legislation, in that if a young woman aged over 18 were to fall victim to a very influential male friend, her parents—who might be very close to her, having looked after her until she attained the age of 18—would have very little power to intervene? There are cases in which young women find themselves in court in serious circumstances because they have fallen victim to an influential male friend.

Ms Munn

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting those circumstances. I am about to move on to talk about the experiences of adults with special needs—be they learning disabilities or other needs—who go to court following an offence being committed and a charge being brought. The all-party parliamentary Voice group—which is supported by the organisation Voice UK, of which I am the chair—met earlier this week. We discussed court processes and heard from Dame Helen Reeves, who heads Victim Support, about the work that that organisation has done to provide a witness support service. She explained the process by which any person who has to give evidence in a trial—especially a trial of a difficult or sensitive nature—can be helped to prepare for their appearance in court. She also highlighted the difficulties involved in providing that service to people with learning disabilities.

A woman who has been subjected to a sexual offence, or her carers, might not have realised that support was available, or the witness support service run by Victim Support might not have been notified that the woman had special needs. A woman could arrive at the court without anyone having done any preparation or put in place support services to enable her to do her best to give evidence in difficult circumstances.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

I agree with so much of what my hon. Friend is saying. I also acknowledge that, without the legislation passed by this Government, we would not even be discussing this issue today. The machinations and detail of what happens pre-court would simply not be an issue. It is an issue now, however, and the desperate shortage of people with a detailed understanding of the wide continuum of learning difficulties is exacerbating the problems involved in getting many cases to court. Does my hon. Friend have any idea how we can solve that problem? Perhaps we could work towards the inclusion of people involved in education and the criminal justice system—I do not know. Does she have any ideas?

Ms Munn

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. That was precisely the issue discussed at the Voice group meeting earlier this week. Some money has been invested in a programme to try to support the development of better services for people with learning disabilities. I understand, however, that Victim Support is still not able to access that funding to train volunteers in that special work. It has volunteers who are experienced in the court process and in preparing people to give evidence in court, but they do not have experience of working with people with learning disabilities. The organisation sees a real opportunity to begin to work in partnership with the organisations that are experienced in working with adults with learning disabilities, to develop those services and move the situation forward.

What we see at present are poor assessment of people's needs, uneven availability of services and lengthy delays in cases coming to court. As we know, delay in a case coming to court is stressful for anybody. For a person with a learning disability, however, understanding why that delay is taking place and having to give evidence perhaps a year on from when the offence took place is not only clearly traumatic but, in their particular circumstances, may cause more difficulties in terms of their ability to give evidence.

As we have discussed, protecting women from abuse cannot he done only through changing the law. Once the law is implemented and used by the police, the provision of support and counselling services alongside that is crucial for people with learning disabilities who have been abused. I want to move on to discuss further opportunities in the legislative programme to improve the situation of those with learning disabilities who have suffered abuse.

The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill is particularly welcome for all sorts of reasons. One of the issues that it addresses is common assault, which is not currently an arrestable offence. In effect, that prolongs the amount of time before the police can take action in relation to specific offences of violence that are deemed to be common assault. That can extend the amount of time in which the person who is subject to assault is susceptible to further offences or victimisation. It is therefore welcome that the Bill proposes that common assault be made an arrestable offence, which would give the police immediate powers to act when a person believes that immediate and unlawful violence will be used against them.

The Bill also includes as possible offenders people who have frequent contact with the victim. In that regard, I suggest that further protection could be given to people with learning disabilities who suffer this kind of violence, of whom the majority, as I have said, are women. If that were extended to include "paid and volunteer carers"—an amendment of four words—it would offer greater protection. People with learning disabilities these days live in a range of settings. It is welcome that developments over many years mean that people are able to live in settings that maximise their independence, rather than our assuming that they should live in a setting in which everything is provided and in which they are not encouraged to do as much as they can. That is in line with the Government's expectations set out in the White Paper, "Valuing People". Many people with learning disabilities will therefore be living at home with their parents, with other relatives, or in small group homes—environments that would not necessarily be deemed to be part of the regulated residential sector. Adding an amendment to include paid and volunteer carers would therefore provide much greater protection across the range of residential facilities in which people with learning disabilities live.

Secondly, I suggest a further amendment to the part of the Bill that deals with the offence of causing or allowing the death of a vulnerable adult. There should also be an arrestable offence of causing or allowing the mistreatment or neglect of a vulnerable adult. I argued that there are benefits to having this offence in the new legislation rather than seeking to deal with it through mental health or mental capacity legislation, as that recognises that people with learning disabilities are people first, who have specific needs that arise from their disability. I also urge that those offences be deemed serious enough to have sentences that reflect such seriousness. The same offence against children has a maximum sentence of 10 years, which is what we should expect. In addition to not only providing more justice in such circumstances, that should also empower the police to do their job of providing greater protection to adults with learning disabilities.

Violence, neglect and ill treatment of women and men with learning difficulties in their own homes are horrifyingly widespread. Perpetrators are not brought to justice, which is a scandal that we must do more to tackle. I want to pay tribute to the organisations that have been campaigning hard in this area, such as Voice UK, VIA—Values In Action—Respond, and Turning Point. I also congratulate the Government on the work that they did to bring in the Sexual Offences Act, and urge them to consider the suggested amendments for the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. The Government take seriously the issues of women, equality and human rights, and this legislation will move forward the rights of women and people with learning disabilities, giving them a stronger voice and strengthening their human rights.

3.36 pm
Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

I welcome this debate, which now seems to be an annual fixture, which is a very good thing. In past years the debate has focused a little more on national issues, whereas the slightly different title of the debate this year prompted more thoughts on international issues. I will therefore cover some of those issues. My speech will be shorter than I intended because we now have a debate on Tuesday on women in the world, to which some of the material may be easily transferred. I therefore hope that more Members will be able to speak.

We cannot ignore the United Kingdom completely, because, sadly, we have not yet got it completely right. I therefore make no apologies for starting with matters close to home. I want to acknowledge particularly the work of the Equal Opportunities Commission, which seems to be going from strength to strength. Hon. Members have already alluded to some of the work. I was going to talk at some length about the pay gap, but much of the material has been covered. Clearly, it is not right that the gap is still 18 per cent. although it is narrowing, as has been acknowledged. In relation to full-time work of a man and part-time work of a woman, however, the gap is still 40 per cent. I want to place it on the record that I appreciate that the Government can do only so much.

Even more alarming, the pay gap on graduation is 15 per cent. That is exercising my mind considerably at the moment, as my daughter is due to graduate. I was interested by the comments or the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) about the psychological and social pressures on women to choose certain types of work. When I consider my daughter and her peer group, it is apparent to me that the men are much more interested in career paths that value money and status, while the women tend to look for careers that will give them personal satisfaction. I do not know whether that is a throwback to the old-fashioned attitude that women can afford to adopt such careers because a man will keep them eventually. I sincerely hope not, and I think that such attitudes are probably a thing of the past. Nevertheless, there is evidently a bias towards a particular type of work in each group. Schools could do something about that. I am not suggesting that they should raise aspirations, for it is admirable to aspire to a job that contributes to society in some way, but it might be an idea to consider how we value certain roles.

I am keen on the idea of pay audits. Not all my colleagues agree with me, so I am not exactly spouting a party line. I think it is quite healthy not to spout a party mantra all the time, as it happens. in my opinion, if there is more transparency in the way in which men and women are paid, women will vote with their feet. They will prefer to work for companies in which they see that women are valued equally and given equal bonuses, with no covert discrimination. Companies will eventually realise that if they cannot take their pick of the best women out there—who are often the best people out there—they will lose out.

Much has been said about occupational segregation. The child care industry, for instance, is predominantly female. It is also very poorly paid, which, sadly, demonstrates the value that is attached to it. It seems perverse that we should pay so little for a service that involves our handing over something as precious to us as responsibility for our children. The fact that women on low pay want to be able to afford child care so that they can go on working does not mean that it too should be a low-paid profession.

How can we encourage more women to take up science? I think things have improved over the years, although the figures may not suggest that. I remember getting into a strop as a 14-year-old schoolgirl because I could not study physics. I did not particularly want to study physics, but it was anathema to me to be told that I could not. I studied a range of other science subjects. Only when I took my books off to the library and refused to take part in geography or Latin lessons did the teachers decide to provide a physics teacher. That would not happen in a school today. We have made some progress in developing the curriculum.

I made a stand about something else as well. I did not want to do cooking; I wanted to do woodwork. In fact, I did not especially want to do woodwork either, but I thought that we would have a session with the boys. The plan backfired, because all the boys were made to do cookery, and the impetus behind the little campaign that I had initiated as a 13-year-old—at a different school, I hasten to add—was lost. Nowadays the curriculum is designed much more evenly.

Mrs. Betty Williams

We have made great strides with the help of WISE—Women into Science and Engineering. The school curriculum, among other things, has improved greatly over the last five years. We have people such as Marie-Noelle Barker to thank for that.

Sandra Gidley

I was about to mention WISE. Before I became an MP, I had the pleasure of spending half days on a bus with girls from the local school whom I was encouraging to study science—although I myself became a politician, which seems perverse. Sadly, however, that brilliant initiative has not reached enough girls. That school would often select a higher stream of girls to go on to the bus, and I think schools should think about providing equal access.

IBM launched another welcome initiative. It is in the Winchester constituency, just across the border from mine. It invited a number of young women aged 13 and 14 on to its premises for a week to engage in various science-based activities. The aim was to encourage them to work for a science-based company in the future—not necessarily as scientists, but in a science-based environment. They chose some girly ways of getting science messages across, but it was an excellent initiative and it would be helpful if the Government could encourage more companies to follow that example. All the girls I spoke to at the end of the week were very enthusiastic about the scheme. It opened their eyes to an area of work that they had previously thought was completely closed off to them.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

I presume that the hon. Lady is aware of specialist school status, specifically schools that have been awarded technology status. That was done, more often than not, in conjunction with local industrialists who really want an industry-based or industry-supported education system because there is a desperate need for more young men and women to enter the professions of science, technology and engineering.

Sandra Gidley

I am aware of specialist colleges, but I was not aware that they had any particular success at recruiting females, so I shall examine the matter further. The hon. Lady certainly makes an interesting observation.

I shudder to mention Parliament, but I have to acknowledge the fact that we now have more female MPs. Hand on heart, they are not mainly in my or the other Opposition party, which is a disappointment. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that the greater presence of women has had a positive influence on policy so far. The number of women in the Cabinet was mentioned, but it is too easy to take one's eye off the ball. Recently, when the Chairs of Select Committees stood in front of the Prime Minister, I was struck by how few females were present; little attention seems to have been paid to that. I hope that the position will improve.

A recent Equal Opportunities Commission campaign focused on discrimination against women in pregnancy. Last year, more than 1,000 women took legal action because they felt that they had been dismissed simply because of their pregnancies, but the Equal Opportunities Commission described it as the tip of the iceberg. That is probably a realistic comment on the position. Some women who are thinking of becoming pregnant restrict their career choices because they are worried about the real incidence of discrimination.

I believe that the fines are nowhere near adequate. In a recent fairly high-profile case, a woman who worked for a law firm won, but the fine imposed on the company was a fraction of her annual salary water off a duck's back for the company concerned. That makes it easy for companies to dismiss such women. The woman thought that she had a reasonable settlement until she discovered that, in the same week, a young girl who had worked for a firm for only two weeks had received a much greater financial pay-off because she had suffered some form of sexual harassment. It did not, however, involve touching—only talking and making observations about the young woman concerned. I do not want to diminish the seriousness of sexual harassment in any way, but it does seem odd that we place less weight on discrimination in pregnancy than on a relatively minor case of sexual harassment. The scales of justice do not seem equally balanced in respect of the fines.

I welcome the plans to form a single equality body. There is considerable evidence to show that other inequalities such as race and disability are often exacerbated for women.

I also want to mention domestic violence. That is not just a women's issue, but I make no apology for mentioning it today, because the reality is that far more victims are women. The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill is welcome, but it does not address all the problems. One possible improvement to the proposals has already been mentioned.

The thematic shadow report of the committee on the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women on violence against women in the UK may be a bit of a mouthful but it is interesting and timely. The authors state: Given that a number of the issues highlighted in the report have been recognised for at least five years, there is an argument that the UK Government is consistently and knowingly failing to meet due diligence standards of human rights protection with respect to its female population. I shall highlight only some of the various concerns that the authors express. The report asserts that violence is not just a matter of gender, but that there appears to be little involvement by Departments responsible for constitutional affairs, health, housing and education. It also says that there is an inadequate understanding of links between violence against women and their economic, social and cultural rights.

Most important, the report states that there is no strategic plan of action in England and Wales in respect of violence against women, although Scotland and Northern Ireland have done better. The result is an overemphasis on domestic violence when it comes to policy, research and provision, but a failure to make connections between forms of violence, in terms of consequences and underlying causes. Very often, there is either a lack of knowledge in a particular area, or a duplication of effort. The Government must make an effort to join all the bits up.

The report also found that there was minimal resourcing in the specialist non-governmental organisation sector, and a consistent lack of sanctions against violent and abusive men. I appreciate that the Domestic Violence. Crime and Victims Bill seeks to address some of those problems, but it is probably not enough.

The emphasis on domestic violence means that other forms of violence and exploitation are in danger of being ignored. For example, the conviction rate for rape is very low, at about 5 per cent. It is also difficult to secure convictions in offences such as the sexual abuse, exploitation or trafficking of children, and the questions of prostitution and pornography are also thorny.

The CEDAW report also deals with trafficking. Mention was made earlier of people's increased mobility. That exacerbates the trafficking problem. People can legitimately move around more easily, but there are many more opportunities for trafficking, and women's inequality and vulnerability mean that they are much more likely to be recruited to or entrapped in it. That again is linked to gender aspects of conflict and poverty, and life experiences such as childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence and poor status.

In this area, the Government's attention has been poor. They funded a small exploratory study called "Stopping Traffic", but little progress has been made on its recommendations. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 was a missed opportunity I was a member of the Committee that considered the Bill, and many attempts were made to amend it. Proposals included providing a period of reflection for trafficked victims, with financial support and possibly even temporary residence. I point out to the House that the temporary residence proposal was supported by an EU directive, and that the 2003 Act does not comply with the definition of trafficking contained in the UN convention against transnational organised crime protocol.

I visited Italy last year, where provision in respect of trafficking is streets ahead of ours. Trafficking is a bigger problem there, but a number of safe havens are provided for victims. They can stay at those places in safety for a while, and are not immediately deported back to their country of origin. That has resulted in a much higher conviction rate of traffickers. We in this country lag behind in that. Sweden, too, thinks it important to provide for this period of reflection. As a consequence it has a higher conviction rate of traffickers and is stamping down on the problem.

There seems to be an unwritten, almost unsaid, feeling that people will automatically want to stay here and will use this as an excuse to press for staying. That has not necessarily been the experience of other countries. It is necessary to separate trafficking from immigration; they are two very different problems. If a very right-wing Government in Italy can manage that, it is not beyond the capabilities of this Government. When will the United Kingdom Government ratify the UN convention against transnational organised crime and the protocol on trafficking in women and children?

Finally, I turn to post-conflict problems. The Minister mentioned Sierra Leone. I sincerely hope that work is done there. Examples from Afghanistan and Iraq do not augur well for the future. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). She was in her place earlier and I was hoping that she would speak. She has done much work to highlight the plight of Afghan women. In a recent magazine article she tellingly made the point that in the past Afghan women were educated and were not the helpless, burqa-clad figures portrayed by the media. She went on to say, and I hoped she might expand on this, that she feared that we were breaking our promises to Afghan women and that the continuing abuse of human rights of women was on a grand scale: widespread forced and under-age marriage of girls aged 10 to 16, a defence for honour killings still in place, and increased violence in the home. A new threat is the ever-present throat of rape or sexual assault by members of armed groups. The lack of physical security has had a huge impact and prevents women from participating in the political reconstruction process. I do not believe the picture is much better in Iraq. The Minister poke of extremists, but I am not sure that extremism can be blamed for all the problems that are emerging and need to be dealt with. We have to face some of the attitudes of society head on. The telling point was made earlier that we have to make it clear that human rights and the wishes of a religion are not incompatible. There should be some way of accommodating both. That is difficult to achieve, but the most difficult things are often the most worth doing.

Despite an agreement that women should make up 25 per cent. of the Iraqi national assembly—that is welcome and better than here—the 18-member committee that is drafting the constitution does not include a single woman. There is evidence that women who have tried to run for local office have been told by men at candidate registration offices that women cannot be candidates. On the streets of Iraq more women and girls—

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

May I express my sorrow to the hon. Lady that in this important debate she stands alone, with none of her colleagues present? That is a sad reflection of the commitment of her party to this issue.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Lady has made a number of interventions. We are fairly short of time in this debate and that was one of the least helpful.

Sandra Gidley

That was an appalling intervention, and untrue. I am discussing a very real problem facing women in post-conflict Iraq, yet the hon. Lady seeks to trivialise it in this way. She should be ashamed of herself.

Many Iraqi women genuinely believed that they would gain more rights after the war. It is a huge disappointment to many of us that the opposite appears to be the case. Suspicions have arisen lately about the efforts of religious parties in the governing council to push through resolution 137, which would abolish a 1959 law that, according to the Justice Minister, Mr. al-Shibli, drew on the most generous protections for women and children from different schools of sharia. The resolution would stipulate that, for example, a Shi'ite woman should have her divorce adjudicated by Shi'ite law, while adjudication for a Sunni woman would be under Sunni law.

In effect, one law would become many, according to religious adherence, but such a move would strip every woman of some of her current rights. For example, Shi'ite inheritance law is more generous to women than Sunni, but divorce protection is better under Sunni law. There are many similar examples. The Americans who run Iraq have frozen the legal system for now, but many supporters of the proposal have indicated that they want to reintroduce it when Iraq regains its sovereignty, as they believe that it respects religious diversity in Iraq. As women, we should pay particular attention to that situation.

In Iraq, the same problems of gender-based violence are emerging as are occurring in Afghanistan. Many women have lost their job, especially in the public sector. In September 2003, it was announced that subsidies to farmers in Iraq—many of whom are women—would be reduced, which could drive many of them out of business. An Iraqi madam, quoted in The Daily Telegraph on 26 October 2003, said: Most of my girls are from the countryside. They are not well educated, so the money is good for them. It is not difficult to work out that if farming collapses, owing to the withdrawal of subsidies, there will be thousands—possibly tens of thousands—of young women crowding into cities and thus vulnerable to recruitment to brothels. None of us would support that consequence of the war but it will be a reality if alternative employment is not made available for those women, so any support for Iraqi farming communities will be helpful.

The Minister may not be able to respond to all the points that I have made, but I hope that she will discuss them with the Secretary of State for International Development. I hope that he is paying more attention to UN resolution 1325 than his predecessor, who could not even remember what it was about when asked during DFID questions. I have yet to see a focus on that resolution, which would include women in post-conflict resolution and peace-building. Much evidence shows that when women distribute resources, they ensure that those resources go to the most needy—women and children—but if resources are distributed by men, there is a greater likelihood of the chain being corrupted in some way. That is not new information; most nongovernmental organisations working in the field acknowledge it, although women do not appear very much in that aspect of post-conflict work.

This subject is so wide-ranging that it is difficult to choose a focus. I look forward to the other contributions to the debate.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. May I suggest that a guide time of about 10 minutes might enable all those Members who seek to catch my eye to do so?

4.4 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

I am pleased that women have the opportunity to hold this annual debate, and it is a pleasure to be called to speak.

International women's day is a good time to assess where we are as women, especially as this year we are mid-way through the second term of the Labour Government. It is important to establish how women have fared under Labour and where we go from here—a point already addressed in some of the speeches made from the Front Benches.

I want to start by discussing women in Wales. In Wales, the first resounding success for women that springs to mind is the almost incredible achievement of a 50:50 gender balance in the Welsh Assembly. Who would have believed that that would happen in Wales, a country where iron and steel industries predominated, where mainly male-dominated unions held power and where politics was, as likely as not, sorted out between men in the pub? All that has changed.

In other political spheres—local authorities and this place—all parties have failed to ensure that women have a completely equal say. Labour has done better than the other parties in Westminster with our 94 women MPs. The Welsh Assembly is the only law-making body in the world where half the Members are women, and the credit for that must be given to the Labour party. Its determination to battle with the thorny issues of all-women shortlists and twinning for the Welsh Assembly constituencies has resulted in 18 Labour women Members in the Welsh Assembly, compared with 12 Labour men. All the other parties have women Members, including, for the first time since the last election, the Conservative party, but it is a fact that nearly two thirds of the women Assembly Members are Labour. I did not realise that the split was 50:50 until the Fawcett Society rang up on the day after polling day in May 2003 to point out that unique achievement.

Over the past couple of years, I have had the privilege of talking to women in many other countries, including the United States, Iran, Ethiopia and, more recently, India. They expressed astonishment at that achievement and asked how we managed to do it. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality discussed equality and human rights all over the world, because one of the great privileges of being a Member of Parliament is meeting women internationally.

Many hon. Members will remember the moving stories told in last year's women's day debate. When we meet women in other countries and discuss issues such as equality and human rights, we usually find that we are trying to tackle the same problems. Women's representation is raised as a major issue all over the world. One must implement a mechanism to ensure that women have a say, and the women to whom I have spoken in countries all over the world seem to draw that conclusion.

I recently visited India with a group of women Members, some of whom are in the House today, on the first all-women MPs visit to India. Everywhere we went, women at all levels discussed the 33 per cent. representation of women in Parliament that all political parties in India seem to support, but which has never actually appeared on the statute book, and I want to put down a marker in the House that we support them in that aspiration. It will be interesting to see whether in the current elections any party commits itself in its manifesto to one third of representatives being women. The law applies at local authority level, and 33 per cent. of local authority councillors in India are women, which is a tremendous achievement—in Wales, only 21 per cent. of councillors are women.

Wherever we went in India, we were struck by the strength and enthusiasm of women. We visited a project funded by the Department for International Development, where money had been invested to pave the streets and put in taps and toilets. Women in the community had formed the committees, made the decisions and worked hard to make sure that the project really answered people's needs. We were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm that those women showed.

There is no doubt that having so many women in visible, high profile positions in the Welsh Assembly Government has changed politics in Wales. As other hon. Members have said, women do politics differently. It was easier to do that in Wales because we were starting up a new institution, and the same was true in Scotland. It is much more difficult to change an established institution such as Westminster, but we can change things here as well following the enactment of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002.

On this first international women's day since the Welsh Assembly elections, the Labour party and the Government should take enormous pride in what we have achieved in Wales and in this place, but things are far from perfect in Wales. We have no black or ethnic minority female—or male—members of the Assembly and statistics are bleak for other areas of life in Wales. For example, only 16 per cent. of secondary school head teachers are women; only 27 per cent. of senior civil servants are women; only 18 per cent. of local authority chief executives are women; and only 20 per cent of hospital consultants are women. We are not complacent: although we have achieved much in terms of elected representation, we have a long way to go in many other areas.

I shall now consider briefly—as many of the issues have already been mentioned today—what the Labour Government have achieved for women since 1997. Labour has improved conditions for women who work outside the home and the lives of women at home. More women are in employment than ever before, and the minimum wage has had a huge impact in Wales, bringing thousands of women out of poverty pay. Maternity pay has increased and the child care tax credit and child tax credit have been introduced. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has allocated millions of pounds to child care. Women have more rights in the workplace and are better able to balance work and life.

I heard only yesterday from the Public and Commercial Services Union about the Inland Revenue in Llanishen in my constituency, which no longer has a core time for working. That means that women and men can clock in and out of work three or four times a day and go home as needed to care for children or—more likely—for elderly people, or to have the washing machine mended. That is a huge change that the Inland Revenue is operating in Cardiff and probably throughout the UK, and it especially important for women, who always have to juggle responsibilities at home and work.

It is now politically acceptable to speak up for women in this Chamber in a way that it may not have been some years ago. Every month we can table questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, and she is one of five women in the Cabinet. We still have no day nursery at Westminster, and that is a disgrace, given the thousands of women employed here. I hope that we will be able to do something about that. At least the House of Commons now sits at more family friendly hours. For me, they are not family friendly because my family is in Wales, but at least the hours are more normal and the working day sets a better example. It may encourage other women to stand as Members of Parliament, because it is now more like a normal job. It is very important that we try to make this place more modern, so that it appeals to women and makes them want to come here and join us in trying to change things.

In the home, the scourge of domestic violence has finally been recognised and we have had some discussion of the issue today. This year, the Labour Government introduced the first legislation in 30 years on the issue. It is a worldwide problem. Last year I visited Ethiopia as part of the British Council's pairing scheme for African and Westminster women representatives. When I was there, I was asked to give a lecture on how we deal with domestic violence. I gave the horrific statistics, and at the end the first questioner could not believe that we still had to deal with the problem as such an affluent country. They could not believe that domestic violence was still an issue. However, we all know that domestic violence occurs in all societies, at all levels.

I shall not take much longer, as I know that other women wish to speak, but I wonder why—despite the undoubted major advances for women—things still seem precarious and hard for many women in this country. Those who have spoken, from both sides of the House, have indicated some of the difficulties. As Anna Coote said, in the second Val Feld memorial lecture in Swansea last year: As a woman, you can feel politically, socially and economically marginal. I often feel that, as I am sure many of us do. In many ways, women are still on the edges of political life and discussion. All the leaders of all the parties in the UK are men. The international discussions that dominate the news are usually between men. We hope that women will get a toe in through the new constitutions in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the guarantee of 25 per cent. representation will be very fragile—although it is better than we have here.

The pay gap has already been discussed, and the Fawcett Society has given us ammunition to campaign even more strongly for equal pay. Women pensioners often live in poverty—statistics showing that have been cited today.

Despite the progress that women have made and the fact that the Government have led the way on making things better for women in this country—the situation has been transformed since 1997—there is an enormous amount left to do. That is not a reason to get depressed, feel down or feel we have not got enough. It is time to do all the things that women are often accused of doing in any case. We are accused of being awkward, of being interested in only one thing, of being a pain in the neck or of being hell raisers—such expressions are often used to describe women. I quote again Anna Coote from the lecture in honour of Val Feld, the wonderful feminist from Wales. She said that it is perhaps time not to take 'no' or 'maybe' or 'later' for an answer. I am sure that all women present, supported by the men, will use their places in the House of Commons as creatively and assertively as possible to make things better for women. I hope that we will continue to build on the progress that we have made, and continue our journey to put women in the centre of politics in the UK. Our aim is not to become like the men or to do politics like the men, but to work in the unique way in which women do—getting on with the job.

4.16 pm
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con)

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Minister for Women about the barbaric practice of genital mutilation, which I am sure everyone in the House would deplore? I served on the Committee that considered the Female Genital Mutilation Bill, and although it had only one sitting I had the opportunity to meet some of the women who came to listen to our deliberations. I heard personal accounts that were quite horrifying.

I want to ask a fundamental question: what does equality really mean? Can it, or does it, mean equal rights with men, and, if so, in what way? It can mean equal treatment in law and education. It can mean equal access to employment, but equal access to all employment opportunities for all women—or, in some cases, any opportunities at all—is probably unattainable for a variety of reasons. Being equal in the eyes of the law will never make women the same as men because of the simple biological reasons of pregnancy and childbirth, and that is never going to change.

For women with children, family responsibilities are probably the main reason, but not the only reason, for occupational segregation and the gender pay gap. Women with children are far more likely than others to work locally, where rates of pay are lower, so that they can avoid lengthening their working day by having to travel to work. They are far more likely to have to limit their availability for work to fit in with their children's nursery or school hours, thus limiting further their earning potential.

Of course, some jobs simply do not appeal to women, especially those that require the physical strength and stamina commonly associated with men. There is nothing wrong with that. It is why the fire service, for example, is unlikely ever to increase significantly the number of women whom it employs as firefighters, despite having an open recruitment policy. Women simply do not apply in large numbers, but it is the policy that is important because it makes that area of employment available to women if they choose it and, importantly, if they are able to carry out the job; whether they choose to apply is less important.

Employment legislation has made enormous strides since the Equal Pay Act 1970 almost half a century ago. Before that Act, women were paid at a lower rate for doing exactly the same work as their male colleagues— I know because I was one of them. I was dismayed to discover how extensive that practice still is from comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the House; I had hoped that it was largely a thing of the past.

In many organisations, women employees were treated as only temporary staff because it was assumed that in due course they would marry and leave. Men with working wives were often derided by their colleagues as not being able to support their wives. Women were regarded as dependent per se. Those who did not marry were regaled with the delightful title of spinster. Even those who remained in post until they retired were still considered to be temporary staff. There was no personnel mechanism to ensure that they received equal treatment with their male colleagues, who were on the permanent payroll.

Maternity leave and pay now make it possible for women to return to their employment if they want or need to do so. It is fair to comment on behalf of employers that whereas large organisations are able to cope with the complications of staff cover for maternity leave, it can cause real difficulties for small firms that employ only a few people. For that reason, women's prospects may be affected in those organisations.

The only career advice that I ever received at the co-educational grammar school that I attended would be unthinkable today. It would probably be illegal. All the girls were assembled in the hall and told by the headmistress that there were only two respectable occupations for women—teaching and nursing. It was teachers on one side and nurses on the other. The subject was never mentioned again. I think that girls who chose neither occupation were deemed to be lost causes.

Nowadays, no doors are closed to any pupil and career choices are driven by interests and abilities. I have been surprised by some of the comments of hon. Members on both sides of the House this afternoon that some girls have limited aspirations. That is not my experience. I am a governor of two secondary schools; one is a girls' school and one is a mixed comprehensive. My experience from those two schools is that career advice is the same and that there are no restrictions. Girls' horizons are not limited and they are expected to reach for the sky and attain whatever they wish to in their coming careers. Given that approach, I hope that the traditional occupational segregation and gender pay gap will become a thing of the past quite naturally within a very few years.

It is important that the status of motherhood is not eroded in the drive to provide equal employment opportunities for women. The choice of staying at home to bring up children is not open to many women for financial reasons. However, those who exercise that choice are doing an important and demanding job that is of huge benefit to their children. I acknowledge and pay tribute to them.

Women who bring up their children single-handed have a particularly difficult role. They often face financial pressure in addition to all the practical difficulties with which they have to cope. Single motherhood arises for a range of different reasons. The rate of unplanned teenage pregnancies is alarmingly high and should be a cause of great concern to us all.

Sex education in schools has a crucial role to play. Since 1947, there has been more and more sex education for younger and younger children. Yet, at the same time, the rates of pregnancy, abortion and disease have grown. I wonder whether a complete rethink of the style of sex education, especially for girls, would be advisable. This is one area where clearly girls and boys are not equal. That is because the outcomes are so different. Girls must be warned about the likely outcome of engaging in sexual activity with boys who have no desire to become a parent, no desire to get married and have no income with which to support a child.

Life alone in a council flat for a single mother, with sole responsibility for a baby, while her friends are out either completing their education or simply enjoying themselves, is neither glamorous nor exciting. This is a real-life situation where equality flies out of the window. The woman takes full responsibility for the action of both people.

I do not know whether hon. Members have been receiving a lot of questionnaires lately from women students. I have received about five in the past fortnight from women who are taking political courses. It worries me that none of my male colleagues seems to have received any. It is clear that women Members are being targeted. It worries me also that positive discrimination, which to me is unnecessary and patronising, seems to be implicit in the style of so many of the questions. There is an assumption that gender prejudice exists, which I for one have never experienced. I always respond by stating that I did not become a woman MP. I became an MP and just happened to be a woman. We cannot demand equality on the one hand and expect special or different treatment on the other.

Last year, there was a demand to allow breastfeeding in the Chamber, which was based more on political correctness than on common sense. It probably had a negative effect on the way in which we are perceived by the world outside Westminster and was unhelpful. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) spoke about the proportion of women in the Welsh Assembly, and I pay tribute to Stockholm city council—I visit Stockholm regularly—which has 50 women members. When I asked what it did to achieve that figure, the answer, encouragingly, was nothing at all, which tells us something about the community and the status of women in Sweden.

The historical reasons for the concentration of women in low-paid jobs are gradually being overcome by equal access to education and careers guidance. Equality of income will in due course overcome the problem of inadequate pensions for women, but nothing will ever change the fact that women produce children and men do not. Women will continue to have to make choices, and balance family and work commitments, which will be made easier by employment legislation. I was disappointed by some of the comments this afternoon about quotas and percentages, which suggest that women are a race apart or are different. I do not think that we do things differently, and there are few cases in which one can say, "All women do this". If we are to have true equality, we must treat everyone as an individual rather than as a member of a group, however large, which means that gender will become irrelevant.

4.26 pm
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab)

I shall confine my remarks to the role of women in science, engineering and technology.

Colleagues may know that I am a chartered engineer, and that I started my engineering career as an apprentice for a machine tool company in Portsmouth. I was a race apart, as there were no other women. It is rewarding to work in engineering, and it is a fantastic career. It is enormously creative and diverse—there is something for everyone, regardless of their intellectual ability. I enjoyed the practical aspects of my work, but I did not enjoy my employment conditions. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, but its effects were not apparent in my workplace. I was subject to sexual harassment every day of my apprenticeship, which I was desperate to finish as it gave me a passport to employment and, more importantly, money. Many women in the workplace, even today, will put up with a great deal because they need money. I was told in no uncertain terms that if I made a complaint my apprenticeship deeds would be torn up. There was no requirement for an employer to justify his actions towards an apprentice so, for four years, I endured workplace harassment, but finally I collected my deeds. Mercifully, the situation has changed, and that change was brought about by this Government, who have taken important steps to protect individuals in the workplace, whatever their status.

Having left the dockyard, I was desperate to remain on the docks and become a foreman. I fancied managing a lot of men—there were still no women—but I was told that advancement was almost impossible because it was a question of dead men's shoes. I was also told, in no uncertain terms, that every man in the docks would have to die before I got the job. Faced with such a daunting prospect, even I had to give up and go to university, which I was told was far more liberal. It was not. I had not been there a day to do my mechanical engineering degree when a lecturer took me aside and asked, "Why is a married woman like you not at home looking after her husband?" So there was no change there.

At university, I was one of the only 5 per cent. of women doing an engineering degree in 1980. I met remarkable women in the science faculties. I want to spend some time talking about the remarkable women in this country who have given the greatest part of their lives to trying to get more women into science, engineering and technology. I certainly would not be the woman I am today without their mentoring support and huge enthusiasm for our world.

Twenty years ago I was introduced to Women into Science and Engineering, which has been mentioned today. WISE is celebrating its 20th year this year. I am proud to say that I was part of the team that launched it in Wales. That team was led by a remarkable scientist, Professor Gillian Powell. Gillian was a small, dark-haired woman. I have been afraid of such women ever since, because she possessed great power and great enthusiasm to get the job done. But that came at a cost—she attained her position only by never marrying and never having a family. She never left the workplace and she died of a work-related illnesses. She worked in biochemistry, with very aggressive, hazardous products, and those products killed her.

Before she died, Gillian launched WISE, and together we did a great deal in Wales on the buses, out there, going to schools, trying to get young girls involved. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) is quite right: in the early days it was about very clever girls. Subsequently, we tried to draw in the mass of young women who are today turning to plumbing courses, plastering courses and all those other skilled work courses where we have a huge, desperate shortage of recruits.

WISE was a great innovation, and it is still going. If hon. Members have not met the WISE team, headed by a magnificent French woman, Marie Noelle-Barton, I ask them to do so now and join in and support its activities, because it needs our help.

Julie Morgan

Is my hon. Friend aware that a memorial lecture was given for Professor Gillian Shephard in the south Glamorgan county council, where I was a member, and that her name lived on for many years in the title of that lecture?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

I presume that my hon. Friend is referring to Gillian Powell.

Julie Morgan

My apologies.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

Gillian Shephard is a remarkable woman, but I did not think she doubled as a professor of biochemistry in Cardiff, let alone that she was dead. I am delighted to hear about the lecture.

I am not at all surprised, given the generosity of my colleagues in Wales and their ability to recognise the values that women bring to the workplace.

WISE has been supported by another very important organisation, the Women in Engineering Society. What a fantastic group of women that is. It is 78 years old now—not the women, of course, though many members are of that sort of age. The organisation has been there for 78 years to support women and, crucially, to provide mentoring in the workplace. We have talked today about the fact that many women involved in science, engineering and technology careers find it difficult to stay in the workplace when they become parents. In conjunction with employers, WES has launched a scheme that brings those women—many of them with not one, two, but three degrees—back into the workplace after a period of leave that may sometimes be 10 or 15 years. Those women have extraordinary ability, and we lose a huge amount when they are lost indefinitely to the workplace. I commend WES and the excellent work that it has done.

The Government have done a great deal, as I know because I use the services that they provide. They support an organisation called SEAs—Science and Engineering Ambassadors, a group of 1,000 or more people around the country who are prepared to give up their time and go into schools to help with school projects. I hope hon. Members who do not know about SEAs will find out about them. Those people are waiting, enthusiastic and eager to help promote science, engineering and technology.

Another organisation, Set-up, was founded by two women in Cheshire, working hand in hand with SEAs. It was founded by Shirley King and Dr. Violet Pritchard. Dr. Pritchard was one of the first women in Britain to study medicine. Fifty years ago, women who were good at science subjects did not have the option of studying medicine. They could study veterinary science as that did not involve bodies—it was not considered appropriate for women to mess with bodies. Vi was delighted that she was one of the first women in the country to undertake a medical degree. Shirley was one of the first women to head a technical college in Britain. Both of them founded Set-up well after their retirement in order to address an issue about which they felt passionately—the lack of women in science, engineering and technology.

Careers in science, engineering and technology are remarkably creative, as I said, and extremely important in economic terms. Careers in science, engineering and technology pay more. For women who may find themselves on their own looking after a family, that is immensely important. We have failed to realise the potential of half the people living in this country. Until we do so, we will not reap the economic benefit to which we have a right.

Much has been said about the role of legislation. What the Labour Government have done has been enormously important. I have worked for many, many employers who resisted any change to employment practice in order to retain people like me. I have left employers because they would not adapt their leave policy to accommodate my caring requirements. I have left employers who would not allow me a flexible working day. In this place and outside, I have never worked less than 60 hours a week, but I would like to have worked those 60 hours when it suited my family requirements.

We have not lost anything by introducing legislation. We have freed up more people to go into the workplace. Not one of my employers was prepared to make that concession, not because they did not recognise the value of it, but because if they did and their competitors did not, they might lose competitive advantage. Although we may appeal to them and say, "Look, chaps, this makes huge sense. It's good for you and will help you with your recruitment and retention policy", ultimately they will refuse if it will cause a marketplace differential and add initially to their cost structure.

Legislation has been important in promoting women into work and retaining them in work. However, legislation alone will not tackle the problem of discrimination at its source. How do we encourage young girls from poorer backgrounds to aspire to go to university and undertake professional lives thereafter? We can do that only by providing good pre-school and primary education. If I had to name one step that the Government have taken since 1997 that has done more for women than anything else, it must be the Sure Start programme in deprived areas. It is a fantastic programme. If we do not get education right at pre-school level, what chance will those children ever have of going to university?

In this important debate on this special day, I stand here proud of the achievements that the Government have delivered in a relatively short period. I lived and worked in a world where that legislation did not exist, and it was extremely hard for women who wanted to participate and work in the environment of science, engineering and technology to do so. I commend to hon. Members the work of all the partnering organisations that are helping us to deliver a better future for women in the United Kingdom.

4.40 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)

It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas).

I intend to focus on older women—that is, those who have reached their 50s, pensionable age and beyond. There are still huge gaps in the system for that group, and the Government, among others, must be flexible in addressing their needs and concerns.

I want to flag up two lessons from the past. The first will be familiar to many Members who have dealt with relevant constituency casework: it involves the generation of women who, back in the 1970s, opted to pay the lower rate of national insurance. In the past couple of years, many of them have reached state retirement age, only to discover that they do not have the amount of pension that they anticipated because they elected to take that option. One of the most frustrating aspects of such cases is that when one tries on their behalf to find proof that they did so, it is difficult to find any tangible evidence. One is told by the responsible body—it used to be the Contributions Agency, then it was the Benefits Agency, and now it is the Department for Work and Pensions—that the information is on its records but there is no paper evidence. That shows us that whenever the state, whoever is in government, asks people to make such a choice, there should be a requirement to take a signature and to keep it on the record.

Angela Watkinson

I speak from personal experience, because I was one of those women. I remember having the situation explained to me in great detail, going to the social security office, or whatever it was called at the time, and signing.

Mrs. Browning

My hon. Friend must be the exception to the rule. In the constituency cases that I have taken up, people are very confused because they cannot quite recall what they did. They may have done the same as my hon. Friend or followed advice that they received in a workplace. When we are dealing with something as important as a person's future income in retirement, there must be a requirement to ensure that their decision is recorded so that if, for example, their Member of Parliament asks for evidence of it, they can at least fax us a signature. We simply have to take their word that that is what they elected to do 20 or 25 years ago.

We need to take much more seriously the whole issue of women's finance, especially pensions. Nowadays, much is done in schools to encourage young people better to understand their personal finances, budgeting, and the workings of the tax and benefits system. However, there is much more to do. It is horrifying that even people whom one would expect to have a good grasp of what they were doing sign up in later life to products such as equity release mortgages—a subject that I have raised in Adjournment debates—only to find that they have signed away their future financial security without realising it.

Cases of women who rely on their husbands' national insurance contributions for their state pension also need to be tackled. Although it is not a generational matter, it is becoming more so. I recently raised with the Minister a case of a constituent who received a pension based on her husband's contributions. However, when her husband retired, the then Benefits Agency wrote to him and not to her. It was not until he died that she had to start making inquiries about her entitlement. Even if her entitlement was due to his contribution, it is rather old-fashioned to regard her in the same way as in the days of goods and chattels. Nobody thought that it would be correct to write to her about her position. That is wrong because we all know of cases of bereavement in which women are suddenly faced with having to sort out their finances, in addition to grief and distress. That is even harder if they are genuinely not aware of their entitlements, based on their husbands' contributions.

We could easily make helpful adjustments for the future based on those two lessons from the past. However, women's working lives, and patterns are different from those of men. The pay gap is closing, although we are not there yet, and there is more equality year after year. None the less, a gap continues to exist and it translates in old age and retirement into one in four pensioners, of whom women form the largest portion, living at the poverty level. We need to take some practical measures to deal with that.

I am appalled that a woman who has paid national insurance contributions for fewer than 10 years is not entitled to the state pension. If one took out a private pension and contributed for only seven or eight years, it would be illegal for the pension provider not to recognise that and pay out, albeit a smaller portion, when the person reached pensionable age. It is wrong that the state adopts a different set of rules. The problem has existed for many years, so it does not apply only to the current Government. A contribution that is small because of so few years' input is likely to be even more important to the person in retirement. It is therefore fair and just that there should be some sort of pay-out to someone who has paid in, regardless of the number of years.

We should also consider the lower earnings limit of £77 a week. We have all received representations on that because of the Pensions Bill. For those who earn low amounts of money for a large portion of their lives—for some people, that means all their working lives—it is even more critical that we use as much flexibility as possible and acknowledge that, when possible, they must be allowed to make some pension input. A woman's working life plan cannot always be defined.

Although I appreciate that my next point, about carers, does not apply exclusively to women and that men, too, play a caring role, older women often take on the caring role for an increasingly older generation of parents and relatives. There is a great difference between caring for older people and looking after children. I speak as someone who has worked since the age of 18 without a gap—when my children were pre-school, I worked only part-time—and I am now 57. There are times when one earns more and others when one can give more time, but although child care is hard and demanding, it is at least possible to plan in some ways. When children are 10, their needs are different from when they are pre-school, and when they reach the shrugging-shoulders age of 16, they do not want anyone to look after them. At least a parent can plan.

However, people who, in middle age, take on the care of older relatives do not know how long that will last. Those women do not know whether that will take them beyond the state retirement age, so the planning of that care and of their finances is so much more complex and difficult. I was listening to "Woman's Hour" as I was driving in this morning, and a range of women phoned in with contributions. The subject was the many women who, for all sorts of reasons—including many reasons mentioned in today's debate, and including the caring role that some women have taken on in later life—have found themselves having to enter paid employment beyond the state retirement age.

Like many people, I imagine that when I retire from this place—which I hope will not be for a few years yet—I will undertake some other form of paid employment. I hope that that will not be for the 60 or 80-hour week that we work here, but I should be quite happy to go and work for Tesco—or whoever will take the golden oldies then. I want to do that because I want to keep active, and we all have similar personal reasons or plans. However, I would find it quite stressful if I thought that I really had to work well into old age—perhaps into my 70s or even longer—for long hours, and not knowing for how long I would have to continue in work. Many people are now doing that. As was reflected in the "Woman's Hour" contributions today, there is a vast difference between people who take a job in retirement to keep their hand in, to keep their brain active and to give them social contact, and people who, because of lack of pension provision, have to work for more hours than are tolerable given their age and perhaps their state of health.

We need flexibility if we are going to take pre-emptive action to try to help that group of people. I realise that it includes men as well as women, but we are predominantly looking at a population of women with many of those problems in retirement, because women live that much longer. The Pensions Bill is currently going through the House, and I know that the Government have been lobbied on it by the Equal Opportunities Commission, Age Concern, the Fawcett Society and a range of other groups, which have practical recommendations on how to introduce more flexibility, particularly for lower earners and for women with huge gaps in their working lives. I hope that as the Bill goes through and more details are discussed, the Government will be receptive to arguments about those groups of people.

We know from the statistics that have been mentioned this afternoon that women live longer than men. I have to say that I have never been able to understand that. We women work so hard that I cannot imagine why we should live longer than men, but somehow, for some reason, we grit our teeth and do. I see that the hon. Gentlemen around the Chamber are grinning in agreement. In practice, that means that more women face old age for more years alone, and those women need to have more money because they have to provide for themselves for longer, often when they are frail and less able to do so much for themselves.

I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that such women need particular attention. This is not simply a generational problem that will go away. We cannot just assume that because women have depended on their husbands' pensions in the past, that will happen again. We are now seeing a generation of women in middle and older age who are increasingly having to take on a caring role at the end of their lives. Very often, such women find that as soon as the kids are off their hands, the golden oldies start to need them, and sometimes there is not even a gap in between. It is quite worrying to think that the ability of those women to plan their finances, and to plan for their financial security, is much less favourable than that of many men.

4.53 pm
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab)

Just five years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and I approached the then Home Secretary to ask him whether he would have a problem if we had a debate on forced marriages in our Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities. He answered that he would not have a problem with that, but that we would—and he spoke a very true word. However, we had that Adjournment debate, which was excellent, and the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) led for her party. That was the first time that the question of forced marriages in our Asian communities had been raised in this House. From then on, I have been working assiduously with various Government Departments and, more particularly, with my young Asian women. I say "Asian", but I mean Pakistani and Bangladeshi; the Indian community does not seem to get too involved in this sort of thing.

I was extremely impressed by the response to the Adjournment debate by the then Minister of State at the Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien). I had expected a very bland assurance that the Department would do what it could, but that the matter was very sensitive. I did not think that we would get anything. However, it was not like that at all. The Minister made promises about doing all sorts of things, and very shortly afterwards, during that summer, a working group was set up under the joint chairmanship of Baroness Pola Uddin of Bethnal Green and Lord Nazir Ahmed of Rotherham. The working group went all round the country, and it came up to Bradford and talked to women who had been subjected to forced marriages. As a result, it came up with various action plans, and the Government came forward with various initiatives.

I am proud to say that one of the initiatives that was handed down to West Yorkshire police was designed to help women in these tragic circumstances. Inspector Martin Baines was the chief man; he led the way. A certain Phillip Balmforth, who is a knight in shining armour, is the man who goes in when a woman is under threat and gets her out of that very frightening situation. It is sometimes a frightening situation for him as well.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office eventually set up the community liaison unit, which now has a helpline headed by a couple of very good women. They are very well informed on these issues, and are helping the Government to formulate policy all the time. I should like, therefore, to pay tribute to Heather Harvey and Fozia Hussein, who have also been very helpful to me.

The Home Office has subsequently introduced the domestic violence concession. Hon. Members on the Labour Benches will know precisely what I am talking about here; I am not sure about those on the Opposition Benches. The concession means that a woman who has been thrown out of her home or physically abused by her husband or her in-laws before she has been granted indefinite leave to remain can apply to get that leave to remain. She is then able to get money and go into a refuge, although that is not a perfect solution. I have had six successes using the domestic violence concession. Those of us who deal with these situations have to be a bit careful because we do not want the concession to be abused in any way. I have had one or two cases in which women have tried to abuse it, by telling me less than the truth. However, I got to the bottom of those cases and refused to use the concession.

Despite the fact that the Government have done all that they can to prevent this dreadful abuse of the human rights of these young women, the abuse continues in all sorts of ways. At the moment, I am dealing with at least one case of forced marriage each week. We have achieved a measure of success, however, as have my colleagues in Bradford, but the problem still exists in most northern towns and cities. We are working hard to tackle it, but at the end of the day, it is up to the communities themselves to stop these practices, either through the mosques or through the secular groups in the community centres. They ought to be working hard to persuade parents that this is not the way to behave towards their daughters—it is nearly always daughters who are at the sharp end of a forced marriage.

I have already made one or two suggestions to the Ministers involved, but I think that I have time to go through them briefly again here. They are proposals that might allow the Government to help matters, although, as I have said, it must ultimately be the communities that advise parents against acting in such an un-Islamic way as to force their daughters to marry.

We could increase the lower age limit of 18 to 21, for the purpose of acting as a sponsor for a spouse from outside the EU, and introduce a lower age limit of 21—no age limit exists at present—for applicants for entry clearance for permanent settlement as spouse. In both cases, were we able to delay until 21 the age at which women were being forced to marry and act as a sponsor, they would have a much better chance of taking on their parents, arguing against them and succeeding in getting their own way and having some say in their choice of spouse. Many of them would be happy to go along not with a forced marriage but with an arranged marriage—they simply want to do it in their own time, possibly when they have done A-levels or even a university degree.

If I had a choice, I would introduce a requirement for citizenship for anyone wishing to act as a sponsor for a spouse from outside the EU. The reason for that is that I, and other Members representing northern cities and towns, are encountering an increasing number of problems whereby a young woman has gone along with her family, has done her best, arid has brought in her husband; and her husband says, two years down the line, at the end of the probationary period, "Thanks for that, I'm going. I didn't really want to marry you in the first place, I just wanted my indefinite leave to remain." The day he gets his indefinite leave to remain, he is off.

I have many angry young women in my constituency who hate this situation. They feel that they have been used, and their parents are also angry. If citizenship were required before people could act as a sponsor, those young men—it is nearly always young men—would have to be here for five years before they were able to act as a sponsor for another wife to come in. Consequently, they would be a little more circumspect about kidding a girl that they really wanted to marry her, and after two years leaving her and bringing in another woman from Pakistan or Bangladesh.

If I had my way, I would also introduce a new criminal offence related specifically to aiding and abetting and/or coercing someone into a forced marriage. We have existing remedies in criminal law in relation to forcing a person to marry, such as bringing charges of abduction, false imprisonment, assault or rape. That does not seem to be working terribly well, however, and forced marriages are continuing apace. Sadly, we are getting not a high number but perhaps eight to 10 cases a year of honour killings, which are nearly always associated with a forced marriage. Were we to introduce a criminal offence of aiding and abetting a forced marriage, it might alert parents to the fact that they are committing a criminal offence—they are doing so already, but because it is not written out in those terms, they do not seem to recognise it. By doing so, we would be slapping them across the face with it or spraying it on their eyeballs—whichever expression one wants to use. It would really help if we were to go along that path.

I have been asked to keep my speech to 10 minutes, so I shall wind up quickly. The silver lining is that many of the young women in my constituency are now going on to do A-levels and go to university. Mums and dads do not like them to go far away, so they are doing degrees at Huddersfield, Leeds or Bradford, but that really is a step in the right direction. An increasing number are doing that every year, but unfortunately, there are still the backwoodspeople who are forcing their daughters to do other than they would wish.

I shall tell the House one story —I do not want to speak much longer. I met the other day a young lady whom I had helped to resist all her family's pressures to bring in a husband whom she never wanted to marry in the first place. We managed to get his visa stopped. She came to tell me that the visa had been stopped, and that her mum and dad had said to her. "You're behind this, aren't you?" She said, "Yes, so what?" That was wonderful, and a real step in the right direction. I have never had a young Asian woman tell me before that she had faced her parents and told them that she was behind such a refusal.

5.4 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab)

I take great pleasure in celebrating women's lives, and that definitely applies to today's debate. I also take great pleasure in the fact that my party has done so much in government to challenge all the factors that hinder the achievement of equality. I shall not mention them, as I have not the time, but my sisters on the Labour Benches have done so quite adequately.

There is still a strong cultural assumption that family responsibilities should continue to fall on women. That is exacerbated by employers' resistance to the idea of measures that would persuade women, and men, to accept their family responsibilities but also to use their talents in employment. One such measure is the introduction of flexible hours. Last year the 100 best companies outlined their employment policies. I think when they do so again this year their policies will include flexibility, engaging with family responsibilities, and giving women as well as men an opportunity to use their talents. I wish that other employers would follow their lead.

The cultural assumptions that still persist, although they are weakening, tend to turn on the almost universal expectation that women will undertake most unpaid child care, and the belief that men's work is more important than women's. Such assumptions may stem from poverty of aspiration, or indeed from financial poverty. Women may be desperate to keep their families going on whatever is available.

We do, however, see the weakening of those assumptions. Mothers now work in 55 per cent. of families with children under the age of five. Shift patterns are beginning to develop in family life: family and work responsibilities are being combined. In dual-earner families, fathers undertake a third of parental care, and increasingly they are becoming the "second main carers" for their children: they tend not to opt for professional care. That shows that men and women want to do things together in the family, and to share both family responsibilities and work opportunities.

I am delighted that the Secretary of State has returned to the Chamber. I suggest to her that flexible working patterns should be at the core of the next tranche of reforms relating to women and the achievement of equality. We must bear in mind the choices and opportunities that they can provide, along with the possibility of maximising family income. In 96 per cent. of cases, men are prepared to be present for the birth of their children. They are there for their children; they do not want not to be there. We must capture that, and utilise it. It is a baseline for equality. It tells us that men, like women, want to be involved in both family and work.

Last but not least in what is an inordinate gallop, let me say how much I enjoyed my last visit to India. My sister for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) spoke with passion and clarity about the value of meeting other women throughout the world. I should like to persuade the Indian Government to do what the Labour party has done in this country, and to accept that we must provide special mechanisms if we are to convince women that politics and politicians are taking them seriously, and that politics is where they could and should be. I think that women do politics differently. I say that unashamedly. I am not putting the men down; I simply think we are different. We do not play games, and we are most definitely determined to achieve in the realm of politics.

Having met ordinary women who are members of SEWA, the Self-Employed Women's Association, I can say that women from semi-literate or illiterate rural communities have achieved so much despite having so little. Their tenacity, their guts, their determination to do better for their children, their sense of location with their communities all show that women can deliver. Women are delivering. I recommend that the House never underestimate that fact and that we should encourage—in whatever way, with whatever mechanisms we can—the greater involvement of women in our political life.

5.10 pm
Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to follow my sister who was our leader in India and did a fantastic job. She is absolutely right that we did differently as women. My hon. Friend shared the responsibility of having the leadership role on that trip. It really showed how we could work together as sisters. It was a truly fantastic experience, which I shall never forget.

I proudly possess at home a badge that says, "Labour women make policy and not tea". I love that badge, because it reminds me daily of the driver that got me into the House. On Saturday, however, I will be making tea with the Crawley Labour women's forum in the town centre for all the shoppers. We are doing it to promote the whole issue of free trade and to ensure that Fairtrade is made prominent. That group of women understands that securing more Fairtrade products in the UK will improve the lives of women around the world. That is why we have linked the two celebrations of Fairtrade and international women's day. We understand how important it is to improve the lives of women all over the world. Day by day, we are increasingly achieving that.

Work remains to be done at home—the Government have made enormous strides—particularly on low pay. It is easy to say that we have improved the position by only 1 per cent. in a couple of years, but it was a hard-won 1 per cent., because it is extremely difficult to overcome all the social and cultural problems that reinforce prejudice. I pay tribute not only to the Government, but to the trade union movement, which is doing so much to help women. For example, Unison has helped health workers throughout the NHS. It has helped people with responsible jobs who are proud to be Unison members right down to cleaners who also contribute to the well-being of our hospitals.

I should like to recount one story that affected me deeply. It is about a woman in my local hospital who, sadly, was attacked in the basement of the hospital while doing her job. The person who attacked her was unwell and had managed to get away from the accident and emergency unit. He knocked her to the ground and it was later discovered that he fractured her cheekbone. That woman was one of the lowest-paid workers, but the way in which she was treated was the important thing for her. She wanted to feel valued.

In fact, the trust's response was very good. She was counselled through her difficulties and given extra support. She was allowed to carry an alarm when she eventually returned to work. However, the police response was not good: it did not value her. The police eventually rang her to say that, because the boy who attacked her came from a good home, they had decided only to caution him. She asked the question, "What sort of home do I come from?" She had worked hard and done the job that she was employed to do. I am pleased to say that we have managed to get the case reopened, which has given the woman a further sense of value and worth. I cannot resist leaving the House with the passing comment that I doubt whether the response would have been the same if a male doctor had been attacked.

Plenty of important work is going on. It was disappointing, however, to hear an hon. Member argue in the House that women were all offered the same opportunities and that the careers service could go into a school and tell all the young women that they could be astronauts, so what was the problem? Of course, there is a huge problem. If we do not value women and work with them when they are young girls and begin to have career aspirations, they will not consider themselves able to do jobs throughout our community and society.

That is why we need to be afraid of the attacks being mounted against Sure Start and the new deal for lone parents. It is no good just to talk the talk; we have to be able to put money into services and support women. Women who have taken advantage of the Sure Start services have been empowered and now have aspirations for their baby daughters. They know that that service has made them feel better about themselves and their children.

Lone parents at the further education college in my constituency get their children looked after. They are able to do the things that they always wanted to do. Careers officers used to suggest things like nursing as suitable careers, but young women now are being enabled to get the education that they need for other jobs. It is incredibly important that we safeguard the services that help women, and that we ensure that women have the power to do all the things that we know that they can do.

We must also help women to reach out to other women around the world. The beauty of our trip to India was that we had that sense of sisterhood. Whether we were with Sheila Dixshit, who runs Delhi, or two women working to improve conditions in a slum, we shared that lovely sisterhood. Today's debate is a celebration of that. I congratulate the Government on making sure that we come back every year to celebrate us as women. I hope that we will continue to do so always.

5.17 pm
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)

I am delighted to follow my sister and hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), who made a dynamic speech. When I picked up the parliamentary Labour party briefing for this debate—which I am sure it is de rigueur not to mention in this Chamber—I was shocked to see how long it was. It details what Labour has done for women since 1997, and I do not jest when I say that my printer ran out of ink as I tried to download it. It was so heavy that I could not carry it, so I have not brought it with me today. I sat down to read it last night, but the task was so substantial that I considered being sponsored for charity. That would have let me hope that I could finish it in time.

Seriously, however, there is not an aspect of women's lives that has not been improved immeasurably by this Government's policies. In that context, it was simply inspirational to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality assert again today her commitment to do yet more. I have little time, so I will not dwell on how that contrasts with the miserable 20 years that women tolerated under the previous Conservative Government. I shall use the example of domestic violence, which is an issue close to my heart. This Government are introducing a Bill on a matter that was last the subject of legislation when Jo Richardson did the same more than 20 years ago—before the Tories came to power.

The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) is not in her place at the moment, although I know that she will soon return. It is a tribute to her that she should have raised—albeit somewhat tangentially—the issue of domestic violence at the last-but-one Conservative party conference in 2002. The House will deduce that I am an avid reader of the Conservative party website, but the hon. Lady made the point that that was the first time that domestic violence had ever been raised at the Tory party conference.

I was going to talk about the proposed commission for equality and human rights, and say that I welcome it but want more. However, I shall abandon my legal lecture to echo the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) that a public sector duty to promote gender equality be established in the near future.

The work of Fawcett has been much praised already. For the past year, I have had the privilege of chairing its commission on women and criminal justice. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) is a commissioner, as is the Liberal Democrat leader in the other place, Lord Dholakia. Our final report will come out in about a month. In it, we shall make it clear that there is systemic sex discrimination in the criminal justice system.

The system is made up of many sectors. The Crown Prosecution Service—I apologise to my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General for that usage: in future, I shall call it the public prosecution service—is quite good for women. The judiciary and the prisons sector are not so good. We conclude that the criminal justice system, where almost all the multiple sources of input are public sector, has gender discrimination steeped within it. That will have to be tackled. It is argued that it will be tackled across such multiple sources of input only if there is a public sector duty to tackle it.

When I was reading my way laboriously through the long PLP briefing on how women have benefited from the Labour party, I was so wearied by the long read that when I came across a section that I now see is clearly headed "Diversity in the boardroom", I misread it as "Diversity in the bedroom". However, I want to talk briefly now about diversity in the snooker room—in other words, how strongly I will support the Sex Discrimination (Clubs and Other Private Associations) Bill, which is to be introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright).

At the cost, I dare say, of a few Redcar male votes and perhaps not being bought a drink on Saturday night in the Eston and California club, I shall tell a brief story about the snooker room. It is not right that women cannot go into the snooker room there; what we cannot do is play snooker. I asked why and expected to hear that women were such idiots that they would smash the baize with the cue, but no, no, it is much more complicated than that. If a woman leans across to do a long shot and her skirt comes up, somebody looks at her legs and her boyfriend hits him, there will be a fight and it will be the woman who has caused it by playing snooker. I do not know how long it took the club committee to dream up that excuse to avoid being pasted by good women snooker players, but truly I almost resolved to go to snooker classes. Then I calmed down. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford on his intention to introduce a Bill to put an end to this stupidity once and for all. Truly the Eston and Cali club is a pleasant place. It looks after its members and pensioners, male and female, extraordinarily well, but it is at the price of women having to acknowledge their second-class status. I think that the Government intend to support the Bill and I welcome that.

Finally on the occasion of this momentous day for women which we celebrate as women Members of Parliament, I shall briefly mention earlier women who had to contend with much more than being excluded from a game of snooker and who fought, argued and, in at least one case, died so that we could have our equal rights and, of particular resonance to us, the right to vote. There is a current issue about Sylvia Pankhurst. She was a socialist feminist who, during the campaign for women's suffrage at the turn of the century, not only braved the horrors of hunger striking and forced feeding, but founded and built a remarkable women's organisation in the east end of London. The group, the East London Federation of Suffragettes, was composed of working-class women. The suffragette movement was almost exclusively middle class apart from this. They campaigned for the vote and for social change until 1920, sticking with it long after the Women's Social and Political Union run by Sylvia's mother Emmeline and her sister Christabel had pulled out of the fight.

There is much more to be said about Sylvia Pankhurst—not least, harking back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) said, that she went to live in Ethiopia. She worked hard there and championed Ethiopia when it was conquered by fascist Italy. She was invited to live there and when she died she was given a state funeral. I had the privilege of visiting her grave twice last year and the year before when I went to Ethiopia to talk to the judiciary about how to deal with domestic violence—the Ethiopian judiciary know a lot more than the Conservative party about that—and then to talk to the police about domestic violence. What wonderful women I met there, and how they all remember what Sylvia Pankhurst did for them.

Returning home, I believe that Sylvia's strategy, based as it was on an alliance between class and gender, did far more to win the vote for all women than the more elitist and, ultimately, probably diversionary politics of her mother and sister. It is thus richly ironic that the British state has chosen to honour Emmeline and Christabel for their contribution to women's suffrage with a statue to the former and a plaque to the latter outside Parliament while completely ignoring Sylvia's role. She would not especially have liked such a memorial but, as a symbol of the unsung heroism of thousands of working-class women who fought for the franchise and for socialism, some kind of recognition in the form of a statue is long overdue and would at long last help to correct the historical record.

I alert women to the position of the campaign for a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst on College green. Westminster city council has given planning permission for that wonderful statue, and Members may know that the Accommodation and Works Committee of the House of Commons, which has some responsibility in such matters, has agreed. However, the Administration and Works Committee of the House of Lords has turned down the proposal, saying that if a statue were to be put in such a key position there would have to be a competition. However, the site has been empty for a long time and no one has applied. The Committee also claimed that the statue does not have artistic stature, yet its members have never seen the statue.

Apparently, the decision falls to the House of Commons Commission. What better tribute could there be than for our debate to galvanise the Commission into allowing that long overdue memorial to be raised? I hope that all Members will do everything that they can to press and lobby the Commission to ensure that the campaign comes to a successful conclusion. I venture to say to my sisters that if history has to repeat itself and we are obliged to chain ourselves to railings, I hope they will all be there.

5.26 pm
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)

In winding up this excellent debate, I preface my remarks by congratulating everyone who made a contribution, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who is not in the Chamber at present. Owing to the brevity of the contributions during the past hour or so, we have started the winding-up speeches slightly earlier than anticipated, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will soon join us. As old protagonists in the Chamber realise, we hold this debate on women's issues annually. Sadly, such debates are inevitable while the inequalities at home and abroad—many of which have been highlighted today—continue to exist.

The Minister for Women and Equality, who opened the debate, talked in a slightly smug fashion about the late Member for Kensington and Chelsea in a way that was not worthy of the remainder of her contribution. I knew Alan Clark as a colleague; he was always thoroughly charming to me and to all my colleagues—[Interruption.] The Solicitor-General says that Alan Clark was never a woman—that is indeed the one thing of which we could never accuse him.

The Minister told us a harrowing tale about a Sierra Leonean woman. There was consensus, reflected by the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), on the victims of conflict and the horrors of war. In her remarks on Iraq, the Minister reminded the House of the disproportionate effects of war on women and children.

The Minister spoke of the positive effects of migration, which are undeniable. However, I felt that she did not emphasise strongly enough the fact that when we recruit skilled workers from other parts of the world we often deprive their systems of valuable workers, such as nurses. When I talked to Members of the New Zealand Parliament, they reminded me that they pay for the education and training of their nurses and doctors but, sadly, cannot meet the salaries that we offer in the UK, so they lose many of their skilled people abroad. I know that the Minister is aware of that problem, so I hope that she will reflect on it and try to find a way in which we can achieve a better balance.

I share the Minister's views on honour killing and the mutilation of women. I share, too, her views on job segregation and pay levels. I am particularly keen to see women in science and engineering and I shall refer later to the speech by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). I look forward to receiving the results of the review to which the Minister referred.

I look forward to hearing more details about the commission. It will be an exciting step forward, and I hope that when the Minister for Industry and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), concludes the debate she can give us some more information. We look forward to the development of the commission as time passes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden eloquently outlined the problems presented by the pay gap, and it seems extraordinary to me—and I am sure to all hon. Members in the Chamber—that in this country in 2004, despite the strides that we have made in so many areas over the past century, people of equal ability are rewarded with effectively unequal pay. Perhaps we should send copies of this debate to all City institutions to put pressure on companies to address the pay gap as a priority. My hon. Friend has managed to achieve headlines in the Evening Standard on the subject this evening, which I am sure that the Minister will agree is a commendable piece of publicity on behalf of women. I hope that those City institutions will read what she says in the Evening Standard.

My hon. Friend went on to cover the cases of women employed in less-skilled areas of work who, by anyone's terms of reference, are often exploited, not least because they juggle family responsibilities and the need to bring an income into the household. The points that she made on pensions were telling, and I shall refer to them when I consider the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning).

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) kicked off the debate. and her speech about people with learning disabilities and the sensitive issues of sexual abuse and rape was very good. As a former social worker, she obviously brings her skill and experience to the debate, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden and I are leading for the Opposition on the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, we will certainly undertake to examine her suggestions, as I hope will others involved with the Bill such as the Attorney-General.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) made a general speech covering areas such as education, domestic violence and trafficking, but I was a little surprised—as were Government Front Benchers—to find that she is not entirely in agreement with the rest of her party. I hope that she finds consensus with her party's policies soon. We look forward to hearing her develop her own independent theories, because it is so rewarding when the Liberals are independently minded.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) focused on women in Wales, which is the land of my birth. There is 50:50 gender representation in the Welsh Assembly, and she asked who will commit to 30 per cent. of Members in Westminster being women. I will refer to that point later, because it is a good, international target that is recognised by many women around the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uprninster (Angela Watkinson) gave us a balanced, realistic view of equality in unemployment, family life and sex education. I hope that her headmistress, who suggested that she become a teacher or a nurse, can see her now. Her experience informs her work in her role as a school governor, and I am sure that she will ensure that no female children in our modern, updated education system get the same advice that she got.

The hon. Member for Crosby struck a chord with me. When I first entered the House, I was a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology for three years and as a result of what I learned I am as enthusiastic as her about WISE. I thought that her speech was a long and formidable advert for science and engineering and, if she will forgive the pun, she is a "WISE" woman. My family is doing its bit for WISE: I am proud to report that my step-granddaughter, Diana Leeming, has got her first real job as a research scientist in Denmark after spending many years at university working on a PhD. She started her job yesterday, and there were great celebrations in my house—at least one member of my family is a woman going into science and engineering.

I entered the House at the same time as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, and we are veterans of these debates. Her well-informed contribution on older women and women's finance and pensions will be welcome on both sides of the House. She used practical examples of cases that she is dealing with, and she admirably raised the problem of women's pensions poverty in the UK today

There is an awful lot of agreement in the House on these issues, and I must pay tribute to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who has done tremendous work on forced marriages. I remember debating the issue from the Dispatch Box, and she has been a tireless champion. I do not think that any of us, men or women, have the entire answer to that terrible problem. I see it in my constituency and she sees it in her constituency. I welcome her practical suggestions and I hope that there is some chance of a positive response. Perhaps an amendment could be tabled to the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, because forced marriage is domestic violence against women. We would be willing to consider an amendment that could make a difference to the environment in which those women live.

The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) brought to her contribution the energy that she brings to her singing. I was very pleased to hear from her, as I was to hear from the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), who will be out making coffee. I am tempted to come along, but I will be running a surgery in my constituency that morning. The issue of fair trade is very important, because women are disproportionately affected by some of the decisions taken on trade—as we all know. She obviously enjoyed her visit to India.

The hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and I are working on the same commission, as she acknowledged. I was sorry that she chose to take so many side-swipes at the Conservative party, because we are no less passionate about the equality of women and I assure her that when we are sitting on the Government Benches with a larger number of MPs, we too will increase the number of women in the House. I was interested in her fight over the statue; it was the first time that I had heard of the problem. I cannot speak for my hon. Friends, but I can speak for myself and I agree that it is about time that Sylvia Pankhurst was recognised. It is appalling that we have hit the buffers on the issue, so if there is any cross-party action that I can take with my sisters—I cannot believe that I said that—on the other side of the House, I am willing to join in, in the spirit of us against the rest of them.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gillan

No, I do not have enough time.

It will be 10 years ago next year since one of the first things that I did as a newly promoted Minister in the Department for Education and Employment was to travel to Beijing on behalf of the Government to sign up to the platform for action. It was the occasion of the fourth UN world conference on women and marked a turning point in the commitments that Governments made to make progress across a broad range of issues affecting women throughout the world. We believed that the conference was so significant that we sent three Ministers to represent the UK—myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, and Baroness Chalker, whom you know well, Mr. Deputy Speaker, from her days in this House. The declaration and the platform for action stated that the human rights of women are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal rights". Nine years on, that is still relevant but is as yet uncompleted and there remains much to do.

Governments and the United Nations still need to prioritise women's full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and ensure that strategies are in place not only to prevent gender-based discrimination and violence, but to provide protection and to investigate and punish human rights abuses against women. Governments and the UN still need to ensure that countries ensure the protection and promotion of human rights and take effective action whether the abuse of such rights is carried out by a private person or a state official. We have made progress in the UK, but I hope that our contributions from this Parliament will continue to promote closure on the aims of the platform for action internationally.

On the international front, Amnesty International, whose work we all respect, will launch a global campaign tomorrow entitled, "Stop The Violence Against Women", and we can support that campaign from the House, irrespective of our position or our politics. In its briefing, it reminds us of Kofi Annan's words in 1999 to mark the last international women's day of the last century.

Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation, and it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development, and peace. Amnesty International also reminds us of some of the horrifying statistics on violence against women, and it takes my breath away to recount them. At least one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. The Russian Government estimate that 14,000 women were killed by their partners or relatives in 1999 alone. The World Heath Organisation reported that up to 70 per cent. of female murder victims were killed by their male partners. I hope that we will all support Amnesty International's campaign.

We think that we must be doing better in the UK, but since the beginning of our debate, police forces throughout the country will have taken in excess of 240 calls about domestic violence, because every minute of the day a domestic violence incident is reported to the police somewhere in the UK. Approximately 240 women—it is mostly women on the receiving end—will have been assaulted or put in fear to such an extent that they or a concerned neighbour will have called the police. In fact, 25 per cent. of all recorded violent crime in England and Wales is accounted for by domestic violence, and on average two women a week are killed by their husband, boyfriend or ex-boyfriend.

We have a long way to go, but I hope that the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, which will shortly come before this House, will give us all the opportunity to improve the protections and safeguards available to women. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden and I look forward to working with the Government on taking the agenda forward positively. It will give me great personal satisfaction, even from the relatively impotent position of opposition, to help to fulfil one of the commitments that we made at Beijing: to develop a comprehensive national strategy to eliminate violence against women in all its forms. The Bill is one more step along the road.

As a society, we should acknowledge the pervasiveness of violence against women and confront the attitudes and discrimination that give rise to it and marginalise it. As politicians, our challenge is to ensure that the Government have well resourced strategies in place both at home and abroad, through our foreign and development policy.

I want to mention briefly the situation of another group of women. which has not been mentioned today, yet is extremely important: women in prison. The women's prison population has more than doubled over the past 10 years, and as the Government are increasing the capacity of the system it is clear that they expect more women to be sent to prison. However, of the women sent to prison, more than 70 per cent. have never been in custody before and almost half have been abused. More than 40 per cent. self-harm or attempt suicide, and more than 60 per cent. have children. Imprisonment has a disruptive affect on family units irrespective of sex, but when a woman with family responsibilities goes to prison it has a disproportionate effect. Inevitably, in many cases their children go into care, and in more than 85 per cent. of cases it will be the first time that the children have been separated from their mother. On release, the women do not automatically repair their family unit. Many women who lived with their children prior to imprisonment do not expect to have their children returned on their release.

The cycle of deprivation is almost inevitable, with girls again disproportionately affected. The London school of economics research centre for the analysis of social exclusion has shown that girls who had been in care or been fostered were especially likely to have extra-marital births, to have had three or more live-in partners, to become teenage mothers, and to experience several other negative adult outcomes—homelessness, lack of qualifications and low household income. Boys seem to be less vulnerable to the negative consequences of care and fostering than girls. That gender difference in the effect of care as an antecedent to social exclusion is dramatic. A third of women prisoners currently lose their home while they are in prison and typically the loss of home also results in the loss of possessions, which are often just thrown away.

The Prison Reform Trust has done some tremendous research on women's imprisonment, and it shows how so many of the problems facing prisoners on release are almost insoluble in the current climate. That issue must be examined carefully so that we prevent not only a conveyor belt to crime, but a revolving door of exclusion through inadequate responses to women's needs. I hope that the Minister can comment briefly on the Government's attitude to women offenders, and especially on the dramatic rise in the number of women who are being incarcerated in the UK.

The debate has once again raised the complex issues surrounding the situation of women in all areas of the world and all walks of life. I am delighted that the Government continue to follow the precedent that we set when in government of calling a debate in Government time, but I will finish on the same note as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. My greatest regret is that in 2004, we are still fighting for equality and human rights for women, wherever they are. I want to play my part in helping to make these debates redundant by reaching a stage at which there are no longer injustices or inequalities. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how she and I can contribute to that goal together.

5.44 pm
The Deputy Minister for Women and Equality (Jacqui Smith)

I thoroughly agree with the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) about the high quality of the debate. I thank everyone for their thoughtful contributions. I also thank the many organisations that are working with women throughout the United Kingdom and internationally, especially the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Women's National Commission. Similarly, I thank my officials in the women and equality unit and the many women throughout our constituencies who are caring for their children and older relatives and keeping our schools and hospitals running, as volunteers or paid employees, breaking down barriers at work and forming the backbone of many of our voluntary organisations.

The debate gives us the chance to remember the ongoing struggle of women throughout the world for basic human rights: the right to vote, the right to have personal freedom and safety to play their role in public life and the right to better education, pay and working conditions.

In its international element, the debate reminds us of the interests that we share throughout the world. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women outlined vividly the challenges and responsibilities that we face: to update John Donne for the day, no man or woman is an island. We share responsibilities for fellow women throughout the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) rightly said that as the global economy and trade brings opportunities to us in the UK, so it brings a responsibility to ensure that those benefits are not gained at the expense of others, particularly poorer women elsewhere in the world. As democratically elected politicians, we share a responsibility to ensure that women throughout the world benefit from political representation and have political voices. As we demand and implement action to tackle rape and domestic violence in the UK, we must also challenge violence against women throughout the world.

The original international women's day slogan—bread and roses—symbolises the demands for economic security and a better quality of life. Those aspirations still form the basis of our actions today. I am pleased to say that we have come a long way since then thanks to the determination and courage of women in the past. Women in the UK have had the vote for almost 80 years, although I have to say that I agree with everything that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) said about Sylvia Pankhurst.

We need to do more to ensure that women's voices are heard at all levels of public life. As more and more girls throughout the world are going to school and gaining qualifications, we need to ensure that they are able to use their qualifications to get the reward that they deserve from the work that they go into. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), using her experience, identified the important task of breaking down occupational segregation in science and engineering. I congratulate her on her contribution to Women in Science and Engineering. I am pleased that it is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. In the UK, the number of girls graduating in male-dominated subjects such as science, engineering and technology has increased by more than half. However, we need to do more to ensure that that expertise builds our engineering and manufacturing.

I am fortunate to be Deputy Minister for Women and Equality and Minister for Industry and the Regions; with responsibility for manufacturing. Some people ask, "What are the links between those two parts of your job?" When I go to manufacturing companies, their representatives tell me, understandably, that they are concerned to ensure that they get the best people with the highest level of skills. I look around and find that there are hardly any female faces I think that the link between the two parts of my job is obvious.

The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) talked about the choices that women might want to make. She said several times that women have children and that that influences their choices. Yes, it does, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) rightly said, fathers want increasingly and rightly to take their place in caring for their children. Nowadays, women have more opportunities to work, and fathers play a greater role at home. However, the challenge is to ensure that they have genuine choices about whether to work or stay at home, and to support them in balancing work and family life. Those choices did not come about by accident—the Government acted to support workers who requested the right to work flexibly and gave extra support, including financial support, to families and children.

It was welcome that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) concentrated on equal pay. She is right about the challenge in the financial services sector, which is why we support the initiative by the Equal Opportunities Commission. She was also right about social care. Having had ministerial responsibility for social care, I am aware of the investment that the Government are making in training, the changes that the General Social Care Council are making to the status of such workers and the overall investment that is being made in personal social services, which will feed through to achieve the pay that women deserve. Under the plans of the shadow Chancellor, cuts would of course be implemented. The hon. Lady made an important point about information, particularly for low-paid women seeking equal pay. Given the need for more information, we have introduced an equal pay questionnaire, and I support my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar in her advice that low-paid women would do well to join a union. Thanks to the Government, they can join a union that is recognised in the workplace.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Meriden and for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) spoke about pensions and older women. Many of the poorest and most vulnerable pensioners in our society are women, which is why the Government have introduced a range of policies that benefit women directly, including the state second pension, stakeholder pensions and the pension credit, all of which aim to ensure that women who lose out because of caring responsibilities or lower levels of pay or pensioner income are supported. Without descending into party political point scoring, we should be in no doubt that given the Conservatives' determination to cut public spending, their proposals for an earnings link could be achieved only by cutting support for the poorest pensioners, which would result in a redistribution of resources from the poorest women pensioners. Another important issue for older women is access to cheap public transport, and the ability to get around independently. I hope that the hon. Member for Meriden will urge her Conservative colleagues in Redditch borough council, including their prospective parliamentary candidate, to rescind their decision to cut free bus transport for older people, including women.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) ably identified the need to ensure that women with learning disabilities have adequate protection and to enable them to make their own decisions wherever possible. She acknowledged that progress had been made in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and her reasoned arguments for changes to the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill will doubtless receive a further hearing.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) commented on the importance of ensuring that girls and women are offered opportunities in science and can progress in such work. Like other hon. Members, she rightly highlighted the issue of domestic violence, and called for more equal pay audits. As the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) pointed out, that may not be in line with Liberal Democrat policy. I, too, was surprised, because I understood that the Liberal Democrat manifesto had already been written and e-mailed around the Welsh Assembly. In the spirit of sisterhood, perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) could help the hon. Member for Romsey out with her party's plans.

The hon. Member for Romsey made some important observations about post-conflict situations, particularly the need for both political and economic development to safeguard the position of women. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women acknowledged, there are considerable problems, but there has also been considerable progress. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for her commitment and action in ensuring that this matter is kept at the front of our minds for Government action.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North very ably outlined the difference that women have made in public life from India to Wales. She rightly pointed out the situation in Wales. We should congratulate the Welsh Assembly on the fact that 50 per cent. of its Members are women. In Wales the Government changed the law to enable action to support women getting into the Assembly. The Labour party there— and now in the United Kingdom as a whole—has made use of it, and we have seen the difference that that has made.

I strongly endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham about the considerable efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer)—and, I must say, her considerable bravery—in tackling the issue of forced marriages. My hon. Friend made an informed and considered, but also impassioned, contribution on the subject. As I think she recognised, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in particular now has considerable resources devoted to the issue, as well as a unit devoted to it, which I know has already produced guidance for police forces and social services. I have no doubt that it will listen to my hon. Friend's concerns, expressed in a measured way, with a view to improving the situation even further.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar pushed again on the issue of the public duty for gender equality. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women made clear our commitment to and support for that public duty. I also assure my hon. and learned Friend that we shall support the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright). I look forward to her playing snooker in the very near future.

One of the ways to guarantee the progress demanded by hon. Members today is to ensure that there is a strong institutional framework to tackle discrimination and promote equality. It was to ensure this that we carried out the first review of our equality institutions for 25 years, and, last October, announced the creation of a Commission for Equality and Human Rights. It will champion equality and human rights, give better support and advice to individuals, businesses and public authorities and crack down on discrimination.

A single body will have a stronger impact, and, in its ability to work across strands, will fit better with how we see ourselves and what factors lead to disadvantage. People do not see themselves as categories, but we know that a woman from a particular ethnic or religious background may face different challenges in getting a fair deal from those faced by a disabled woman.

We are not only drawing together the existing equality commissions along with the new equality legislation, but are adding the promotion of human rights to the mix. In fact, we are putting human rights at the heart of the new politics of equality.

We brought home the rights in the European convention on human rights in the Human Rights Act 1998. What really interests me about human rights legislation is the practical difference it makes to the lives of ordinary people. The Act enables us to tackle issues that are mainstream not marginal. For example, how should our public services treat us? What do we do when one person's basic rights conflict with another's?

The new body will be able to work to embed a culture of respect for human rights in public services and help public bodies to understand their obligations under the Human Rights Act. It will help to improve public service delivery by supporting the move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to public services, and human rights values will help the new body to balance one person's rights against another's.

In conclusion, I again thank hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. The message must go out loud and clear that pursuing equality is not a minority pursuit. It is about ensuring opportunity for all, making full use of the talent that lies within our economy and society, with gains to the whole economy and all of us. I want to live, and I want my sons to grow up, in a society and a country where prejudice and discrimination are challenged, where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential, where people's talents, skills and differences are recognised, acknowledged and valued, and where we can all feel safe and live in communities built on respect for each other. We value international solidarity, so we recognise our responsibility to ensure that across the world as well. As a Government we will continue to work to that end.

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

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