HC Deb 03 July 1987 vol 118 cc184-6W
Ms. Richardson

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what are the main needs of women in the policy areas within the sphere of his Department's activities; what has been done to identify and quantify these needs and to monitor services delivery; what consultation is carried out with women to ensure their views are adequately represented; and what training is given to his staff to raise their appreciation of the needs of women.

Mrs. Currie

Our policies on health, personal social services and social security are designed to benefit both men and women.

The particular needs of women are recognised and there have been many specific initiatives designed to benefit them. The maternity services advisory committee, established in 1981, produced three reports on aspects of maternity care, which have been distributed widely within the health service and to interested professional and lay organisations. The committee's advice is taken into account when authorities plan, monitor and review their maternity services. The Asian mother and baby project was launched in 1984 and involved the appointment of link workers to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers and so improve ante and post-natal care for women from the Indian sub-continent.

Health authorities have been required to install computerised call and recall schemes for cervical cancer and we are introducing the first nation-wide breast cancer screening system in the world.

Particular attention has been paid to women smokers. In 1985 £4½ million was made available to the Health Education Council for a television campaign to discourage smoking among women. The Health Education Council also produced a booklet on women and smoking in late 1986. The latest voluntary agreement on tobacco advertising and promotion prohibits cigarette advertising in magazines where a third or more of the readers are young women, and one of the six new health warnings draws attention to the damage smoking during pregnancy can do to an unborn baby. Although there is considerable work still to be done, smoking amongst women has fallen from 37 per cent. in 1978 to 32 per cent. in 1984.

The Health Education Authority, which succeeded the HEC in April 1987 and is largely funded by Government, produces a range of publications aimed specifically at women. The "Pregnancy Book," first published in 1984 by the Health Education Council, received a particularly warm welcome. The Government expect that the Health Education Authority will continue and develop this work.

In the social security field, the Department is conscious both of the need to ensure equal treatment between men and women and of the special needs and problems of many women. Equal treatment for men and women in claiming benefits has been extended to almost all aspects of the social security system: where differences remain, they are largely favourable to women. In respect of special needs, a major recent initiative has been the introduction of statutory maternity pay from April 1987 to combine maternity allowance and maternity pay. In addition, those women who do not qualify for SMP may still continue to receive maternity allowance under new conditions designed to target help more closely on those with recent work records. The new arrangements in both cases give pregnant women greater choice about when to give up work without affecting benefit entitlement. Among the reforms of income related benefits which come into effect in April 1988 the introduction of a lone parent premium in income support will be one of the changes of particular benefit to many women. Like other aspects of the social security reforms affecting both men and women the new arrangements will be carefully monitored.

Since October last year I have held a special responsibility for women's health. I have called together a small group of officials to look at the range of issues covered by the Department that affect women's health and to gather information on such issues.

My ministerial colleagues and I meet many women's groups and organisations, with interests across the whole spectrum of departmental responsibilities, during the course of our duties. Where issues or policy developments of specific interest to women are under consideration we consult a wide range of interested organisations. The Department also gives funding to a number of voluntary bodies dealing with issues of specific interest to women such as the women's national cancer control campaign and the women's therapy centre, and contact with these groups helps to keep us informed of women's needs.

I am the departmental representative on the ministerial group on women's issues, which provides a formal channel for contact with the Women's National Commission. This Department contributed fully to the recently published review of the United Nations forward looking strategies for women, which was co-ordinated by the ministerial group.

The Department is an equal opportunities employer and has adopted a programme of action in support of this policy. Included in these provisions is a wide range of equal opportunities awareness training which emphasises an appreciation of the needs of women employed within the DHSS.