HC Deb 27 February 1998 vol 307 cc607-80

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

9.37 am
The Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women (Ms Harriet Harman)

The debate marks an important moment for the Government and for women. We are determined to achieve a real alignment between what women want and what the Government intend. We have a Prime Minister, a Chancellor and a Cabinet who are all committed to putting the concerns of women at the heart of government. That has happened because this Administration understand the central message that women have been trying to get across for years: that, although women and men share the same values and objectives, women's lives are different. They have a different pattern, so we have a different perspective and a different range of needs and interests. Those are not a side issue, but are fundamental to our society and our Government.

These are the things that women say matter to them, or to us, I should say: a better education for our children; better health services; freedom from the fear of crime and violence; security in old age; and the opportunity to work and to go out to work, balancing the responsibilities of work and of the home. This Government are delivering on all those issues, laying the foundations for a better Britain.

In the hearts of all mothers is a burning desire to ensure a good education for their children, and at the heart of the Government is a commitment to a good education for all children. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is driving down class sizes and driving up school standards.

Women want to be certain that the national health service will be there for their families, and that it will give the care and attention they need, when they need it. Moreover, when women fall ill, they need prompt treatment, but not in mixed-sex wards. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and his team are modernising and investing in the NHS to ensure that it delivers those services.

Women want safety for their families and for themselves; they do not want to fear crime. Violence against women—even in their own homes—remains a blot on our society. It is still largely a hidden crime, which is swept under the carpet. Too many women are afraid of what might happen if they speak up; they are not sure that they will receive the protection that they need. It is estimated that one in three cases of domestic violence go unreported.

The Government will not tolerate a culture of fear, which leaves women unsupported and the men who abuse them unpunished. That is why, with my colleagues across Government, I have made tackling all forms of violence against women one of my key priorities. That includes violence in public spaces—including buses and trains—and in the home. The Government will work with local government to combat violence, creating a national strategy to tackle violence against women.

The Government's concern is for women throughout their lives, particularly as they grow older. The whole House will agree that it is a scandal that, after a lifetime of work or caring for their families, women in retirement— particularly the very old who live on their own—are some of the poorest people in Britain today. When they were of working age, even those who worked were probably low paid and may not have paid national insurance contributions for a pension in their own right. They probably have no savings, no state earnings-related pension and no occupational pension from their employer—nothing. Often, they do not receive the benefits to which they are entitled, because they are too proud to claim them.

We will tackle the poverty of today's women pensioners. We have already given extra help for fuel costs, and are ensuring that they receive the benefits to which they are entitled. To ensure that today's women do not become tomorrow's poorest pensioners, we have set as one of the 10 key targets of the pensions review the narrowing of the pension gap between men and women in retirement.

We will ensure that, on top of the basic state pension, women have access to a good second pension—either an occupational pension or a new stakeholder pension. We will introduce for carers a citizenship pension, which will recognise that, although they may not go out to work, they make a valuable contribution to society through their caring responsibilities, and so should have a second pension in their own right.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

What advice has the right hon. Lady received from the actuaries about the effect on pensions of the difference in life expectancy between men and women? How will pensions be funded equally?

Ms Harman

The hon. Lady raises an important issue, about which the pensions review is liaising with actuaries.

After fewer than 10 months in government, we are already delivering on a range of issues that are of concern to women. One of the most important of those is women's desire to combine their family responsibilities and paid employment on a fair and manageable footing.

Women's lives have changed profoundly. The days are gone when women were as rare a sight in the workplace as men are, even today, in the kitchen. [Interruption.] Not all men, I hasten to add; there are some honourable exceptions on the Labour Back Benches.

Over the past 50 years, the number of women going out to work has greatly increased. They go out to work because they want to and need to, and because we need them to. The nurse, the teacher, the factory worker, is probably someone's mother. Seven out of 10 women now have paid jobs. Two thirds of married mothers go out to work—whether full time or part time, their work is vital to the family income. Britain now depends on women's work as well as men's; our economy depends on women, but so, still, do their families.

Women are redefining their role as mothers. Nowadays, they provide for their children as well as care for them. Women increasingly expect men to redefine their role as fathers in caring for their children, as well as providing for them. Many of us, including many of my hon. Friends who are present today, have campaigned for years for public policy to support women's choices and to recognise that women's lives are changing. We are now in government and doing just that.

The Government believe that parents should decide what is best for their children. The best thing that we can do is to support parents, by offering them choice backed up with opportunities, and opportunities backed up with real investment. We want to make it easier for all parents to meet their responsibilities in the workplace and in the home.

The previous Government took no action to help women balance the changing demands in their lives. Women have been left to manage their extra responsibilities without access to child care that they can trust and afford, or that matches their working hours. Let us make no mistake: in child care, Britain's children are Europe's poor relation—in most other European countries, high-quality child care is taken for granted. Parents in Britain must have a choice of accessible, affordable and high-quality child care.

That is important for children, for their parents and for the economy. It is important for children, because good child care can give children a head start by offering educational and social opportunities before they start school. There is strong evidence that it improves their chances of doing well as they grow older. It is important for parents, because it is what they want—the waiting lists for nurseries, after-school clubs and child minders are endless—as it helps them to support their families by working, so that they can bring up their children on income from work, not benefits, and so break the cycle of joblessness and social exclusion.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Ms Harman

Yes. I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the debate, and I look forward to his intervention.

Mr. Fabricant

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her courtesy. She said—I think that the whole House will agree—that parents are best able to look after their children when they can go to work and find good carers. Will she confirm, however, that, under the new deal, only 6.2 per cent. of parents have been able to return to work? I understand that the figure is even lower for single mothers under 25. What percentage does she think would show that the new deal was a success? What targets will she set?

Ms Harman

The new deal for lone parents, which I shall speak about later, is the subject of an academic evaluation that will cost the best part of £1 million. We shall set targets on the basis of that evaluation. The new deal is a pioneering project—it has never been tried before—so we cannot set targets before we have evaluated what works and how it works.

Child care is also important because Britain's economy depends on women's work, as does the welfare of their families. Ensuring the right child care is crucial to building strong families and communities, and to running a sound and stable economy. The Government will, therefore, as we promised in our manifesto, implement a national child care strategy, which will be set out in a Green Paper to be published after Easter.

The key words of our strategy will be quality, accessibility and affordability. We want to improve the range and choice of child care, but that child care must, first and foremost, be of high quality. Parents want to be sure that their children receive the very best child care. That means more and better-trained child care workers, an improved system of regulation and inspection, and a seamless service of education and child care that has the interests of children at heart. To underpin quality—indeed, it is essential for quality—child care must not be a poor service only for poor families, but an excellent service for all families. It must be universal.

Our second watchword is accessibility. Child care must be accessible to all. At the moment, access to child care is a lottery, depending on where one lives. Parents in rural areas especially have little chance of obtaining the type of child care that they want. The 1997 rural services survey—carried out as part of the excellent decade-long attempt by the Rural Development Commission to ensure child care in the country—shows that 93 per cent. of rural parishes have no public nursery, and 92 per cent. have no out-of-school child care groups. Families in rural areas are losing out.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ms Harman

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the debate, and I look forward to his intervention.

Mr. Green

I endorse the Secretary of State's tribute to the Rural Development Commission's important work on child care in rural communities. Will she tell the House why the Government propose to abolish the Rural Development Commission?

Ms Harman

The excellent work of the Rural Development Commission will be developed as part of the regional development agencies. We want to see that work developed and strengthened; that is why I have raised the subject today. It is wrong that families in rural areas should lose out.

To provide choice for all families, we are investing £300 million to expand out-of-school child care provision over the next five years. That will provide places for up to 1 million children. Some £40 million will be available for the first year, starting from April, and we are also developing early excellence centres in all regions.

Our third watchword is affordability. We are already providing extra help to low-income families with the cost of child care, but we want to be certain that more help with the cost of child care is available to those people who need it. The new working families tax credit and extra help through the tax system for the cost of child care will offer the opportunity to ensure that all working parents on low incomes get the help they need with the costs of child care. Help with the cost of child care also helps to underpin the quality of child care, because child care on the cheap is not good child care. Therefore, help for parents to afford child care will help to ensure the right standard of child care.

To give parents a real choice, we will foster a range of different kinds of child care, for non-working mothers as well as working mothers. That means playgroups, mother and toddler clubs and one o'clock clubs, as well as child minders and nurseries; it means breakfast clubs as well as after-school clubs; and it means holiday play schemes during half term and holidays.

The national child care strategy will build on the effective partnerships that exist between local government and other child care providers in the voluntary, public and private sectors. As we put child care at the centre of the Government's social and economic policies, I pay a warm tribute to all those child care providers and campaigners who, in the long years when child care was not a Government priority, struggled to make the argument and take the issue forward. They have played and will play a crucial role in taking forward our national child care strategy. Local authorities, often without the backing and help of Government, have pioneered excellence on the ground. We look forward to a vibrant partnership with them to deliver the national child care strategy.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)


Ms Harman

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, so I shall not do so again. [Interruption.] I am sorry, he looks exactly like the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green).

Mr. St. Aubyn

I hesitate to accuse the Secretary of State of sexism in her attitude to men. In view of the importance of child benefit in helping families to pay for child care, will she give an absolute assurance that she will not make it harder for women to go out to work and earn a salary by introducing any forms of means testing of the child benefit that is paid to women?

Ms Harman

The Government have already extended help with the cost of child care by extending the child care disregard in family credit. As the Chancellor said in his Green Budget statement in November, we will provide extra help with the cost of child care. Child benefit is the subject of a manifesto promise that we shall keep.

I have mentioned the important and pioneering work of local authorities. I pay tribute also to the voluntary organisations—both local providers and the excellent national organisations such as Kids Club Network and the Daycare Trust—and to those employers who have led the way, such as Midland bank, working through organisations such as Opportunity 2000. I pay tribute also to the women in unions who have pressed for child care to be on the collective bargaining agenda for their members. All those organisations and individuals have struggled to build child care, and now they will have a Government who will back them.

Child care is not the only important aspect. What happens at work is also important. Although women are crucial to today's workplace, there is little recognition of their responsibilities at home. We must have family-friendly working, so that patterns of work reflect the needs of families to a much greater extent. At present, it is too often the other way round.

Last year, we agreed to implement the European Union directive on parental leave and, this year, we are working towards an early extension of the EU directive. We also wish to make work pay for women. Women still lag behind men in the pay stakes.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)


Ms Harman

I shall give way to the hon. Lady.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

She looks just like the others.

Miss Kirkbride

But I am still wearing blue. I am curious about something that the Secretary of State said a few moments ago. She claimed that, under the Government's new scheme, non-working mothers would be given state money—up to three quarters of the cost—to help to pay for child care. I can understand why the Government might wish to help mothers go out to work so that the benefit bill is cut, but why should non-working mothers be eligible for state help with child care?

Ms Harman

Because non-working mothers want quality playgroups, mother and toddler groups and one o'clock clubs. The fact that they care for their children at home should not mean that their children should be denied the opportunity of good pre-school education. Those mothers and children will be helped by the development, from the local level, of the national child care strategy.

Women are more likely to be in low-paid or part-time employment than men, and the gap is getting bigger. We are determined to tackle low pay. We shall do it by introducing, for the first time, a national minimum wage. Among the first to benefit will be more than 500,000 women who now—disgracefully—earn less than £2.50 an hour. We shall help make work pay by giving help to low-income families through the tax system—as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out in his Green Budget in November.

The Government are helping women when they are in work, and we are making work pay. The third part of our three-track strategy is to provide active help in getting women into work. Until now, many women—especially lone parents—have wanted to work, but have been denied the opportunity to do so. The facts speak for themselves—more than 1 million lone mothers are bringing up 2 million children on benefits.

Our new deal for lone parents is already showing what can be done. For the first time, specially trained personal advisers are offering help and advice so that lone parents can overcome the barriers to moving into work to make themselves and their children better off. In eight months' time, that service will start to be available to all lone parents across Britain.

Mr. Jenkin

May we take it that, if the figures of 1 million mothers and 2 million children on benefit do not fall, the Secretary of State's policy will have failed?

Ms Harman

I want to see the numbers of lone parents on income support fall. If we get right child care, family-friendly employment and good advice and information to help lone mothers into work, we will see the steady rise in lone mothers on income support start to fall. I am sure that that will be welcomed by the whole House, because those women and children will be better off, and the mounting burden on the taxpayer will start to reduce.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I am listening with great interest to the right hon. Lady. Her remarks have dealt with women at the bottom of the pay and opportunity scale. Before she finishes, I hope that she will refer to the child care needs of all those outstanding women who make tremendous intellectual contributions to our society, not a few of whom are represented here. They also go to work and have to leave their children. They do not want the state to look after them; they want to use private facilities, for which they need tax relief on the gross cost. Will she consider that, because such women make an important contribution to our modern economy?

Ms Harman

The development of our national child care strategy will help all women, working or not working, by providing a good choice of child care facilities for their children. Of course high-earning women use and need child care. They will benefit from the availability of well-regulated, properly inspected nursery and child care facilities in all areas. They will benefit from the extension of child care and out-of-school clubs through our national child care strategy.

I am sure that the hon. Lady agrees that, in helping to make child care affordable, the Government's priority must be to help those who have the greatest difficulty in paying for it rather than spreading it evenly across the range. Some women can afford child care, but find that it is still a headache because they do not have the right choice or quality. They will benefit from our national child care strategy. Women on lower incomes will be helped in respect of quality and accessibility but also of cost.

The developments are set against a sea change in British politics. There are now 121 women Members. Still too few, I would say, but almost double the number returned at the previous general election. There are five women Cabinet Ministers and 15 women Ministers outside the Cabinet. Still too few, I would say, but still more than at any other time in history. We have a new Cabinet Sub-Committee that draws Ministers from all Departments together to co-ordinate and drive forward policies that will improve the lives of women. We shall soon have a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh assembly that will genuinely represent women as well as men in Scotland and Wales.

Throughout the United Kingdom, we are committed to building a new bond of trust between women and Government, to replace cynicism and detachment by developing and sustaining a genuine dialogue with women, so that women's many voices are heard and heeded. We are strengthening our links with women's organisations and reviewing the Women's National Commission.

At the same time, we will reach out to women who do not join organisations to hear the views of those who do not normally take part in consultative exercises. They are the people who most often feel cut off and alienated from the world of politics and government.

I am pleased to announce today a new initiative that signals our determination into enter a new dialogue with women. We have commissioned two pilot women's juries to be held later this spring. They build on the model of citizens' juries, which have been used successfully by several health authorities and local authorities. In a citizens' jury, a small group of ordinary citizens from the population at large is asked to take part in an informed and extended discussion on a policy question. Unlike a focus group—

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

It sounds like a focus group.

Ms Harman

The hon. Lady clearly does not understand. This is not about focus groups but about drawing people together and asking them to go through policy issues. It is a deliberative process. It is not like a focus group, which researches public opinion. The jury model is intended to improve and enrich our democratic practice. [Interruption.] Conservative Members laugh, partly because they have never heard of it and do not understand it; but, in a few years, they will be trying to imply that they invented it.

The proceedings of the jury and the report of its findings will be in the public domain. The jurors must approve the report before its submission to Government. It complements the normal channels of consultation and decision making, adding a distinctive voice that is not usually heard, especially in the House.

For the first time in two decades, Britain has a Government who are listening to women, giving priority to what they say about their lives and families, and bringing their perspectives into all work across all Departments, building it into the routine mechanisms of policy making, not as an add-on but as an essential part of the policy process. We are committed to building and sustaining a new habit of governance that has women's voices and interests at its heart. We are proud to be part of that Government and proud to be part of that change.

10.4 am

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I apologise to the House because constituency commitments made 12 months ago mean that I cannot remain until the end of the debate. I have been in touch with the Minister who is to reply and written to the Speaker. It is not because the Leader of the House did not give us enough notice—she gave us three full weeks—but because my commitments concern an annual general meeting.

I am delighted that the Government have found time for a debate on priorities for women. Some of us were in the Chamber for the very first such debate, which was initiated by the then Member for Derbyshire, South and junior Health Minister on 10 June 1988. It should give pleasure to all, regardless of party affiliation, to see what our predecessors would have rejoiced to behold: a House in which one Member in five is a woman.

I take pleasure in congratulating all the new women Members, all those women who have taken up ministerial office for the first time and those in opposition in positions of authority. Britain has a woman Head of State and has had an outstanding woman Prime Minister. We have a woman Speaker who is known and respected throughout the world. Women in senior positions run the affairs of Whitehall and Parliament. Although there is always more to do, more mountains to scale, this is a day of minor celebration.

I regret that, although this is a good day, the Secretary of State went into her usual tone of carp and scold. I take great encouragement from the words of the Secretary of State for International Development, who, in a 1994 publication, "Uphill all the Way", said of the election of more women to this House: The quality of debate will be altered … The topics and tone of debates will be changed". Let us hope that it might be. I am not sure that we could have guessed it from the first contribution, but we have the rest of the day.

The Secretary of State had some interesting things to say. They were leaked, as is the Government's practice, to The Guardian. There were suggestions elsewhere in the press that she leaked them herself ahead of the Budget. One wonders whether The Guardian could become a sort of Hansard in advance; it would save time.

Barbara Follett (Stevenage)

I thank the right hon. Lady for her courtesy in giving way. I note that she hopes that the tone of debate will change and that we will move away from carp and scold, but she has almost immediately started carping and scolding.

Mrs. Shephard

Dear, dear; I stand reprimanded.

I have some frank things to say, and I think that Labour Members share my concerns. The Government's handling of benefits for less well-off families and lone parents has been a catalogue of disaster. There have been claims and counter-claims. The Prime Minister gave a straight denial of a change of plan on Wednesday. The Chancellor of the Exchequer's people have been briefing furiously that he intended to announce the proposals as the centrepiece of his Budget. The Secretary of State, sadly, walked out of an interview yesterday. It has been a sorry saga. It is no wonder that the proposals have been slammed by the Government's own supporters, in the meetings that they have held around the country, and by the interest groups.

The Secretary of State has announced a Green Paper. There are some good ideas in what she has outlined. We await it with interest. We also await the plans to be announced in the Budget, which we are told about on another page of The Guardian this morning. We hope that all those things will combine to do what the Secretary of State hopes.

There are a number of issues on which I can agree with the Secretary of State. I certainly wish that we had more women Members on the Conservative Benches. Those we have are deeply committed and very much in demand, which is why not all of them could be here today, much to their regret. We do not have the luxury of one week off in four, which I understand is the arrangement for Labour Members, but, of course, I understand that, too.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

You had better not believe that.

Mrs. Shephard

Well, we know that the hon. Gentleman is always on duty.

The Conservative party wants to see women succeed in traditional roles, in business and in public life. In government, we pioneered many practical measures that have helped women to succeed. I shall detail a few of them later. We created flexible labour markets which have successfully created jobs. We built on education reforms to provide opportunity. However, we recognise as Conservatives that we have to do more to help women to succeed in politics. Our party reforms are changing the way in which we do business to encourage more women to take part in the main stream of the party, and there is certainly much to be done.

There is another matter on which I hope that the Secretary of State and Labour Members, and hon. Members of all parties, agree with me. It is a matter of regret that the arrival of so many new women Members in the House has been given less than serious media coverage. This is not an envious snipe, although perhaps it is; hon. Members can judge for themselves. It is true that publicised makeovers in which some women have indulged—perhaps I could have done with one—make for trivial coverage. It is sad that some journalists—some of the worst offenders have been women journalists—have been so gratuitously offensive about women in the House.

The Secretary of State told us of her Government's new deal for women. She has—correctly, I am sure—said little about all that has gone before, but I should like to take a few minutes to set the record straight. The previous Government established women's issues as a Cabinet responsibility and set up a Cabinet Committee chaired by a Minister to deal with women's issues across government. We established a women's issues working group which, among other things, oversaw "New horizons for women"—a series of seminars up and down the country in which we listened to women's views. We also developed the after-school child care initiative, creating 67,000 places at a cost of almost £60 million. A nationwide child care strategy called "Work and family" was developed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan).

It was the previous Government who established a ministerial responsibility for women's health, screening programmes, well woman clinics and other health care initiatives especially for women. The previous Government, through the economic success that they passed on as a golden legacy to the Labour Government, saw record numbers of women in the workplace, the narrowing of pay differentials to a record low, and a record rise in the number of self-employed women. The previous Government gave help with child care costs, family credit and other benefits. We guaranteed the future of child benefit untaxed and launched fair play for women with the Equal Opportunities Commission. We saw the fastest ever rise in the number of women graduates and we saw girls outstrip boys in almost every measure of academic achievement, although we all know that that creates another problem in its own right.

Mrs. Gorman


Mrs. Shephard

Did I hear the word "why"? Well, one has to be logical about this. I will explain to my hon. Friend. It is a problem. If, in the past, we regarded it as a problem that girls under-achieved, we must now regard the fact that boys are under-achieving as something which has looked at and solved. Obviously, we want girls and boys to achieve well across the board.

Mrs. Gorman

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with the modern development of our economy thanks to the excellent policies of the Conservative Government, the growth in the labour market will require more highly skilled and highly educated people? The only increasing source of labour will be women and young girls coming into the labour market, so it is essential that our girls achieve more than they ever did, and certainly perhaps more than some of the boys.

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend is, as ever, refreshing. She is not wrong. As I said, we want girls and boys, and men and women, to be equipped to compete in an increasingly competitive and global marketplace.

The previous Government ensured an increase in the number of public appointments of women. It was previously 23 per cent. We edged it up to 30 per cent., and we want to see it pushed further still. I hope that the Secretary of State will work on it. We also signed up to the Beijing platform for action. All those are real and measurable achievements. I hope that the Secretary of State will feel that she can accept that we established a good foundation on which she and her colleagues can now build.

Mrs. Lait

In that long catalogue of achievements, which I am grateful that my right hon. Friend has listed, does she include independent taxation of married women?

Mrs. Shephard

I certainly do. I have some questions for the Minister for women, who will reply to the debate, and I shall put them to her at the end of my remarks. Independent taxation was an achievement, and we certainly do not want to see it threatened.

The Secretary of State made some announcements this morning. I welcome them and congratulate her on them, and I wish her well. However, what has been achieved for women in the first nine months of this new Government is not a great deal. Labour promised before the election that there would be a Minister for women with full Cabinet status. What happened? There was rather a long delay and then a rushed announcement, following protests from women's groups, of the appointment of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), for whom I have great respect. However, she was appointed without Cabinet status and forced to take the job on low pay and now half pay. That is not a good message for women around the country. I understand that she sits on just two Cabinet Sub-Committees. I am sorry to say—I am sure that she will be expecting me to say this—that her sole parliamentary activity since her appointment last June has consisted of giving just five oral answers from the Dispatch Box and 18 written answers.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

Does the right hon. Lady consider that it was a good message for women under the previous Government to have a man representing women's issues in the Cabinet?

Mrs. Shephard

I think that the record of the previous Government stands for itself. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] For several of the years in which I had these responsibilities, I chaired that Cabinet Sub-Committee. I am sorry to say that we have yet to see any achievement as a result of the hon. Lady's appointment.

Mr. Jenkin

Would we not be going backwards if, while we were trying to abolish woman-free zones in public life, we started to create man-free zones?

Mrs. Shephard

I do not think that that is the Government's intention—it certainly would not have been the previous Government's intention.

However, it was a considerable disappointment to women's groups around the country that we did not hear from the Minister for women when they protested about the cuts in lone parent benefit; nor, for that matter, did we hear from the majority of women Labour Members. Their curious post-election silence on the matter led to an accusation from their own side that they resembled the Stepford wives. Indeed, the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), who is in her place, revealed to the Reading Chronicle of 13 January that she and others have formed a club poetically named—in contradistinction to the Stepford wives, I believe—"the Stroppy Cows". I should make it clear to the House that I am quoting the hon. Lady. Neither description is helpful to the cause of women in the House, and it is a matter of regret that both descriptions originated on the Government Benches.

There have been other broken promises. What about national health service waiting lists? Labour promised women that waiting lists would be cut by treating an extra 100,000 patients, using £100 million saved from NHS red tape. However, recently published figures show that waiting lists had increased by 50,000 at the end of last year.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the extra £10 million for breast cancer services is a welcome initiative for women in this country who are worried about breast cancer?

Mrs. Shephard

Any initiative of that sort is very helpful to women, but Government Members have to get it into their heads that, on average, health spending when we were in power rose by more than 3 per cent. each and every year, whereas so far the increase in spending under Labour has amounted to 1 per cent.

The Government's commitment to education, education, education, does not square with the cuts in council funding, mostly in rural areas, which they did not need to make and which, coupled with the huge hikes in petrol prices that have already been imposed, with more to come, mean that rural women and rural families have had their choices appallingly reduced. The Secretary of State's announcement has done little to clear up the muddle that the Government have created in her policy area. I hope that the Minister for women will take the opportunity to clear up some of those points, once and for all.

Does the Minister believe, as did her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before the election, that lone parents are financially at a disadvantage compared with married couples; or does she agree with the Prime Minister that abolishing lone parent benefit was necessary to stop unfair treatment of married couples? Does she, like her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, refuse to rule out taxing or means-testing child benefit? How would taxing it square with the Government's so-called principles of achieving greater equality or, for that matter, of preserving independent taxation of women?

Will the Minister make the new deal for lone parents compulsory during the life of this Parliament? How does she intend to deal with the unemployment among women that the introduction of a national minimum wage will certainly create? How will she give women a meaningful choice between working and staying at home?

There is a lot to do, and a lot of confidence for the Government to regain, because—regrettably—there is nothing to show for nine months of work. We have an underpaid Minister whose parliamentary record so far has been well-nigh invisible. We have a string of broken promises. We have utter confusion on the lone parent benefit front. We have real hardship for rural women and their families. We have seen the sort of hostile reaction from the public that one would expect when expectations have been dashed by the reality of Labour in power. They have made a bad beginning; that fact cannot be dispelled by press leaks and a few announcements on a Friday morning.

Labour made many promises before the election, and women deserve more than they have so far received from the Government. Successive Conservative Governments have strengthened the position of women in British society. We and the women of Britain will judge the Labour Government by what they achieve, not by what they tell us they intend to achieve. We want real improvements, real opportunities and real choices for the women of Britain.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. There are many hon. Ladies—and Gentlemen—who want to speak and, obviously, if speeches are kept short, more people will be able to do so. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind.

10.24 am
Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

I warmly welcome the announcements made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the first momentous debate under our Government celebrating the achievements of women, both inside and outside the House. The £40 million, the Green Paper and women juries are all welcome.

I was going to welcome the statements of the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), having had dealings with her previously when she was a Cabinet Minister. However, I revised that intention after hearing her say that she wanted debate to take a different course now that there were lots of women in the House, but then practise the Conservative historical revisionism we know so well. The reality is that there are millions of women who will benefit from the minimum wage, and the question to be asked is: do the Conservatives support poverty pay and keeping women and therefore children in poverty? Do they support it or not? Over the past nine months, and for the first time in this country's history, women have been taken seriously at the heart of Government, not only in economic policy, but in every other policy area.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

May I correct the hon. Lady? My right hon. Friend was quoting the words of the present Secretary of State for International Development. I hope that that puts both the hon. Lady and the record straight.

Lorna Fitzsimons

In terms of the debate, perhaps it would be more healthy for us to go through the achievements announced in a thorough manner by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We should be debating what we have managed to achieve for women in a real and meaningful sense, whether our child care strategy, our family-friendly employment policies—policies which were sadly lacking under the previous Government—or our taking seriously the issue of violence against women, one of the most insidious crimes, which the previous Government failed to take seriously.

The Conservatives had 18 years in which to take all those issues seriously and to implement strategies, so their saying that we have done little in nine months will not wash with my constituents. Many women working in their communities suffered as a result of the Conservative Government's policies, from poverty and from the rundown in local services. They had to ensure that, in their work in the communities, they bridged the gap between resources and the reality of their lives.

I am glad that the Labour Government, in the most senior Departments, are taking seriously the issues of women and of children. Those issues are a true economic issue and I welcome the recognition of that fact in our economic policies. We are starting to treat child care as an economic issue— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There are lots of conversations going on in the Chamber. I want to hear what the hon. Lady has to say.

Lorna Fitzsimons

Child care is not only about nurturing children, but about enabling women to participate in society. We have to start at the top and one of the first things we discovered on coming into government was how women were not taken seriously in a systematic fashion across government. Would the House believe that there is no ability to do modelling in terms of the gender impact analysis of Government policies, because the previous Government did not collect statistics that would make it possible to determine the effect of policies on women's lives? That is how much attention the previous Government paid to women.

Mrs. Gillan

Is the hon. Lady aware that I was the Minister who produced the first set of disaggregated statistics based on gender? Has she even bothered to look at them?

Lorna Fitzsimons

Yes, I have. However, does the hon. Lady agree that, although the Fawcett Society and several senior academics have tried to conduct gender impact analysis throughout Government, the previous Government did not set up the necessary data collection procedures to make that possible? That places the Treasury and other Departments in a difficult position; we must start from scratch. One can disaggregate some statistics but, in the absence of the basic information to disaggregate, it is impossible to do so.

We are finding that, to a great extent and in many areas, women have not been taken seriously. The opening remarks of the shadow Leader of the House disappointed me, because I believe that, if we do not put women at the centre of government, throughout Whitehall, we shall be cutting off our nose to spite our face. Some of the least known work of the women's unit and the Ministers for women will have the longest-term impact on the lives of women in this country.

During the short period of nine months in which I have been a Member of Parliament, I have come to understand that often it is very hard to wade through the bureaucracy of Whitehall and the House to make things transparent to the outside world. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to use this debate to flag up some of the differences between this Government and the previous Government. I hope that women will come to trust and value the features that make us different—not only the fact that we have 101 Labour women Members of Parliament, but the fact that we as a Government, to a man and woman, take women's interests seriously.

On pensions and citizenship pensions, it is important that we are talking about pension sharing. It is important that we are talking about our responsibility for carers, and for women—like my mother—who have been unable to participate in the world of work for any reason, whether it is because they have had child care responsibilities, because they have always done intermittent part-time work or low-paid work or because they carry the burden of looking after families, older people or relatives. It is our responsibility as a Government to cherish them and to ensure that the pension system does not discriminate against them, because they have been doing some of the most crucial and under-acknowledged work, in the unpaid economy.

I very much welcome the work that is being done by the National Audit Office, post-Beijing, to collect data about the value and importance of unpaid work—and paid work—to the economy. These vital planks will allow us to build a far more sophisticated picture of the true economic value of the participation of women in the economy, because there are knock-on costs to women staying at home looking after relatives.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Is my hon. Friend aware of studies by economists at the university of York, which suggest that it can cost as much as £100,000 to bring up a child to university age, and does she agree that that shows the immense contribution that women, mothers and families make to the economy, which should be recognised?

Lorna Fitzsimons

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He notes one study. Non-governmental organisations and women academics are doing a myriad of studies, enabling the new Government to build a picture based on empirical research, instead of starting from scratch. That is of great value to us.

Mr. Jenkin

Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that the work that the previous Government did on that issue was reflected, not only in our manifesto commitment to introduce transferable tax allowances, so that women bringing up children and not working could bring the benefit of their tax allowances into their family earnings, but in the introduction of basic pension-plus? That would have meant that the Government would pay amounts from the national insurance fund into the personal pension funds of women who were carers and not working, so that they would benefit from a proper funded pension, instead of depending on the basic state pension, which increases only with the rate of inflation.

Lorna Fitzsimons

The majority of my women and pensioner constituents do not recognise the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints of the past 18 years. They feel sadly betrayed. They feel—

Mr. Jenkin

You do not understand it.

Lorna Fitzsimons

I do understand it. Does the hon. Gentleman support the pension package that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced regarding pension sharing and the stakeholder pension?

Mr. Jenkin

What pension?

Lorna Fitzsimons

The stakeholder pension, as I have patiently outlined and as my right hon. Friend patiently outlined, is a vital plank to help ensure that women who do the unpaid work in society or who cannot, for any reason, participate regularly in the workplace, are not cheated in their pension years. It is a very simple point, but it seems to bypass the hon. Gentleman.

In my constituency of Rochdale, several groups of women work tirelessly in parent-teacher associations, child care groups or housing associations to ensure that the community in which they live and work runs smoothly. I pay tribute to them. Throughout my education as a candidate and as a Member of Parliament, many of them have given me valuable insight into the daily impact on their lives of local government, regional government and national government. Without their work, we should be the poorer, and on this day, when we are celebrating women and the work of women, it is important to recognise that rich tapestry of unacknowledged work.

Many women are involved in mainstream politics—I am glad to see that on 1 May their number hugely increased—but many women's significant political work goes unacknowledged and unaccredited. It is important that, on this day, we acknowledge that from the House. They are fellow politicians. Many Asian women's groups are breaking down the barriers of language and culture in my constituency, tirelessly working against all odds.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

Will the hon. Lady give way? Lorna Fitzsimons: I am sorry; I should like to, but I must make progress because many hon. Members want to speak.

I welcome the new initiatives that the Ministers for women have put together in only nine months and pay tribute to all the work that non-governmental organisations do, internationally and internationally. Specifically, I pay tribute to the women's organisations, the unsung heroes of our communities; we should be better off if we listened to them. I do not consider that the issue of a women's jury is a laughable commodity. I believe that ensuring that we give a positive platform to a myriad of the rich tapestry of women makes us richer as a Government.

10.36 am
Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful to you for calling me early in the debate. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), I should like to apologise to you, to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) for the fact that I cannot be in the Chamber during the winding-up speeches. I have written to Madam Speaker, explaining that, unfortunately, I was unable to cancel engagements to which I was already committed this afternoon, but I shall, of course, read the Hansard report so that I am aware of the Front-Bench responses to the issues that are raised.

I welcome the debate. Women's role in society has become increasingly complicated. Until recently, the female's role was to produce and care for children. Now, with the greater automation of society and the advances in health, contraception and education, there are choices to be taken in women's life styles. Do women work outside the home? Do they have to have children? Do they look after their children themselves or do they choose another to fulfil that function? Those choices are highly personal and private, and they depend on circumstances—inherited attitudes as well as inclinations. What can be said is that we have arrived at the point where we can no longer stereotype women into convenient packages.

There has been an inclination to label women crudely as either "high fliers" or the "little woman at home". No longer: different women want different things at different times in their lives. In our journey through life, we all fall into various groupings. The movement is greatest among the under-45-year-olds. A woman can be single, childless, a step-parent, a high flier, a mother, a worker, divorced, a lone parent, a young mother or even a grandmother. At each stage of her life, she needs different support. The challenge for us as commentators, legislators and opinion formers is to cater for the greater fluidity in society and respond to it accordingly.

One of the most fundamental changes in the British labour market this century has been the increasing participation of women. We hear a great deal about that, but without much detail. Women make up 45 per cent. of the working population. In 1996, 61 per cent. of mothers worked outside the home, compared with 47 per cent. in 1973. The figures mask some interesting trends. I should like them to be broken down further. I should be interested to know the ages of the children of employed mothers. We know that most women with pre-school-age children work part time, but as children grow older, mothers' participation in the employment market becomes more committed.

There was a significant increase in the number of women in employment between 1973 and 1989, after which participation rates steadied. Although we have to be wary of reading too much into what could be blips, some commentators have detected a shift in attitudes. A recent British social attitudes survey revealed that the absence of good child care provision is not the only factor that prevents mothers from working outside the home. Their outlook is also important. There is a growing belief that mothers question the value of paid employment above child raising when their children are young.

The Office for National Statistics general household survey shows that, rather than women's self-esteem being rooted in the workplace, many found a new sense of confidence from being at home. Some 35 per cent. Of mothers with children under 16 care for them at home without external paid employment, while 37 per cent. combine part-time employment with caring at home.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

We have heard a great deal of academic evidence. I should like to add to my hon. Friend's thinking in exploring the reasons for the attitudinal shift. Recent research by a professor of economics at Cambridge university shows that only one woman in 20 with children under 10 wants child care to release her for paid work. The great concern of many of my constituents at the bottom of the pay scale is that, if the new deal is made compulsory, they will be denied the choice of staying at home with their children.

Mrs. Roe

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention.

Women can have a different approach from men to the value of work. The argument is that women's employment patterns are guided by their home responsibilities, not because they are victims of family ties, but because that is what they choose. Women have their own life goals and are prepared to make positive choices about them.

The issue of working mothers raises important questions. It would be inappropriate to put pressure on them to seek employment if attitude surveys show that mothers do not necessarily want to leave their young children. The proportion of lone mothers in employment has fallen. As the Government progress with their welfare-to-work new deal for lone parents, I advise them to be aware that some women feel that looking after their children is a life goal. A woman staying at home looking after her young children or acting as a carer is working. There is no such thing as being just a housewife. That role should never be undermined or underestimated. To take up a point made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons), such women certainly participate in society. Having done the job, I assure the hon. Lady that there is no finer career for a woman than to mould a future generation.

If we accept that women have a variable employment pattern to suit their child-rearing role, we must ensure that our taxation, welfare and employment arrangements respond to today's looser and less formalised working and living patterns. Women who choose to give priority to domestic responsibility should not be discriminated against.

During my time in public life, I have been concerned to ensure a fair tax system. It is not right that tax and benefit arrangements have hit families harder than others. I applaud my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for saying that the Conservatives were wrong to start phasing out the married couple's allowance without seeking some compensation for married families with children. It takes courage to admit mistakes. I am pleased that we can plan afresh.

The Conservatives had positive policies for women, including the introduction of independent taxation for wives. I was pleased that our manifesto pledged to take that reforming spirit further. The tax system should not discriminate against those whose work is equal to formal employment.

Mr. Rendel

Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a further point on the separate taxation of men and women? Women who are abused in the household sometimes find it difficult to get away from the home. Separate taxation helps women to have the courage to move out of an abusive household.

Mrs. Roe

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point.

I looked forward to the introduction of transferable tax allowances. Our manifesto proposal would have given considerable help to 2 million couples who look after dependent children or relatives. I do not know of any indication that the present Government are considering the introduction of transferable tax allowances. I suspect that their hands will be full with their ideas for merging the tax and benefits systems. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk has said, those proposals will be difficult to administer.

For women who work outside the family home, our concern should be how to reconcile paid work with family life. If access to employment provides the means of lifting the poor out of a cycle of dependency, it is illogical to adopt policies that stifle the availability of the jobs that people need. The adoption of the social chapter and the introduction of the minimum wage will stifle enterprise and the creation of fresh opportunities.

Even more important, without further restrictions and conditions on employment, we have been freer to develop working patterns that people want. People want to be able to combine family and work more easily. That freedom is threatened. The main casualties will be women who depend on less formalised working arrangements. We need to encourage greater flexibility and imagination in employment. Employers must put more effort into providing family-friendly working patterns.

Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)

Does the hon. Lady accept that, as a majority of women work part time to combine work with child care, the implementation of the part-time workers directive in the social chapter and moves to strengthen the security of part-time workers at work are beneficial to women? Does she agree that increasing flexibility for the employer creates job insecurity for many women, making it difficult for them to combine child care and work?

Mrs. Roe

I am worried that there will be no part-time jobs for women. I shall explain why. I believe that employers may decide to offer full-time jobs and not provide the employment opportunities that allow women to balance work and family life. That is why I am most concerned about the points that the hon. Lady has raised.

Flexible time, term working and annualised working hours should be more commonplace. I commend the system that will be introduced for nurses, which will allow them family-friendly rotas so that they may choose when to be off duty. Job sharing and part-time work are increasing in popularity. Some 44 per cent. of the total female work force work part time. That provides a window of opportunity for many gifted and capable people who want to mix some employment with their family responsibilities. More women and men are becoming self-employed so that they may work from home more easily and choose the hours that suit them. With the help of modern technology, that is becoming a more realistic option.

Entry to the employment market or re-entry after a break for domestic responsibilities can be frightening. I have not had the opportunity to learn about the Government's proposals for lifetime learning, but I hope that they will encourage women to learn the necessary skills to help them go back into work. That will be a valuable component of the scheme.

Many women take a break from employment when their children are under school age but return to work when their children start school. For those women, school hours and school holidays present a problem. The previous Government offered assistance through the out-of-school child care initiative, and I am pleased that this Government have expanded the initiative.

If we are to help vast masses of women in this country, we must stop thinking of them in the convenient categories of "economically active" or "inactive". We must acknowledge in our tax, welfare and employment systems that their life cycles are fluid and flexible. In that way, we can help women to fulfil their expectations, both in their careers and within and for their families.

10.51 am
Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

I welcome today's statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security about child care, nursery education, employment, health and domestic violence. I was wondering what the Conservative party was afraid of, until I heard the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who has now left the Chamber, mutter from a sedentary position, "Man-free zones." That is really sad.

For me, this debate is about equality and justice—social justice, equality of opportunity, economic equality and equality under the law. After 18 years of rule by a party that has not the slightest notion of what equality means, there is much to be done. I have the honour of serving on the Council of Europe. The United Kingdom delegation to that body is 25 per cent. women—and they are all from the Labour party. There is not a single female delegate from any other political party. How far out of touch the Opposition are with the 40-nation Council was clearly demonstrated when the British Conservative delegates blocked the establishment of a full standing committee on equality.

Mrs. Roe

I assure the hon. Lady that, before she arrived in this place, Conservative women served on the Council of Europe: I was one of them.

Ms Shipley

That is past tense. There are now more women in the United Kingdom delegation to the Council of Europe than ever before.

A month or so ago, the issue of equality was raised again in the Council of Europe and the Tory all-male delegation was almost alone among delegates in voting against the motion to establish a committee. That motion was carried overwhelmingly. The Tories are as out of touch in Europe as they are in Britain. As male and female delegates from eastern and western Europe voted overwhelmingly for equality, many of the Tory delegates—who are led by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson)—kept the company of the extreme right-wing Russian nationalist Zhirinovsky, whose rantings were a disgrace to the Council chamber.

I turn now to legal justice. I have referred previously in this Chamber to the sufferings of rape victims. Instances of victims' sexual histories being circulated in our prisons as pornography are shaming to us all. It is also highly debatable whether victims' sexual histories should be used in court—I condemn that practice. It is a disgrace that personal information, including a victim's medical history, should be available to a convicted attacker.

Some issues affecting rape victims were debated in another place during consideration of the Crime and Disorder Bill. Some of our most experienced barristers and judges are intent on maintaining the status quo. They argue that the protection of defendants' rights is paramount. I believe that victims' rights must also be protected. We should be able to look to our finest legal minds not simply to identify legal problems but to use their well-honed skills to find solutions. There is clearly a need for change among those who practice in our legal profession. I hope that many more women will rise to the most senior positions in that profession.

I have heard some Opposition Members comment that there is no such thing as "women's issues"—to be fair, not every Conservative Member who has spoken this morning has said that. They claim that all issues are relevant to everyone, and I agree. However, the fact remains that, after 18 years of Tory rule, women still do not have economic equality, social justice or equality under the law. My Government have demonstrated that they are ready to take up the challenge for change; the Conservatives wish to maintain the status quo. Last year, the people voted to elect more than 100 women Labour Members of Parliament. They demonstrated that they want to see change, and today my right hon. Friend has shown that we are delivering it.

10.56 am
Mrs. Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

I also welcome the opportunity that this debate provides to consider the Government's attitudes and policies towards women. I have read some of the debates on this subject from the last Parliament, and I realise that times have changed for the better in many ways. There have been some welcome announcements today. However, I have several regrets about what the Government have not done—although, to be fair, they have not had much time in which to implement many changes—and a few regrets about the things they have done.

We have heard about the priorities of the Minister for women upon which the Government will take action. They are very welcome. Women do not have an equal place in society, as we have seen from a number of examples, including differentials in wages for men and women and the low female participation in some areas of the work force. I share the views of the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) about the judiciary.

We all agree that the Government should take positive steps to address those inequalities, as society cannot be considered healthy when women still earn, on average, 20 per cent. less than men for doing the same job. We have also heard about women part-time workers, who are in an even worse position. I welcome the provisions in the social chapter that will help to address that problem.

Women are still under-represented in many areas of public life. Although the gender balance in Parliament has improved, it is still 80 per cent. men. All political parties must continue to address that issue. I freely acknowledge that the Opposition parties have the biggest problem in that regard. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches—perhaps today I should say "I"—have not found it easy to get female candidates elected, despite the fact that we fielded a high proportion of good women candidates at the last election.

Mrs. Lait

The hon. Lady has fought on the hustings on several occasions. Does she agree that electors do not differentiate between male and female candidates: they vote for a party? The problem is with selection.

Mrs. Ballard

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. Voters were probably more willing to elect women than men at the last election because they believed that female candidates were free from some of the sleaze that was attached to the previous Government. There is a problem with the selection procedures.

I return to what the Liberal Democrats are doing to increase our female representation. We have adopted zipped lists for the European and Scottish Parliament elections, and we are taking practical measures to help women to gain confidence and experience, such as our recent work-shadowing scheme. However, the problem of women's representation in public life is not just about the number of women Members of Parliament. There are many other areas where women are under-represented.

Those who wield power in Britain are still overwhelmingly male. We have only to look, as has been mentioned, at the number of High Court judges, heads of large companies, newspaper editors and members of powerful quangos to see how far we have yet to go before the glass ceiling is broken; but the ceiling is being cracked, and progress is being made towards equality.

The fact that those who wield power are, by and large, men conditions the way in which decisions are made that affect the lives of all of us. Any decision by Government or anyone who holds power will affect men and women differently. I am pleased that the Government recognise that, and I hope that the Cabinet Sub-Committee is successful in ensuring that the impact of all legislation on women is considered. It is vital that mainstreaming, to use the jargon, goes through all Departments.

Men have been the legislators for centuries, and whatever the Conservative Government thought, legislation is not gender-neutral. However, the claim that the new Government are listening to women's concerns has been contradicted by some of the Government's behaviour. The public have high expectations of the increased number of women Members of Parliament. They hope that that will change the way in which the Government conduct their business.

I thought at the start of this Parliament that the increased number of women Members of Parliament would prevent some of the phenomena which we saw were prejudicial to women in the previous Government, such as the setting up of the Child Support Agency or the campaigns that demonised single mothers. I never thought that I would see women Members of Parliament voting for the Government's cuts in single parent benefit. If the Government want to improve the lives of women, as I believe they genuinely do, that was not a good start.

That cut was defended on the grounds that it was part of a wider welfare reform programme that includes welfare to work. The Government have made clear their aim to get people into work.

Will the Secretary of State consider the case of a constituent who came to see me recently? She is a single parent on income support, with a six-year-old child. She desperately wants paid work. She found herself a job earning £200 a week, and she has decided to take it because she believes that it has prospects. However, from day one of starting work, she loses her income support, yet she still has housing costs, food costs and all the other expenses, and she now has travel-to-work costs to add, plus child care. How can she exist for a month until she gets her first pay cheque?

The DSS told my constituent to ask her employer for an advance on her salary. It is obviously very difficult for someone starting a new job and feeling vulnerable as a woman and a single parent to go in and ask for an advance on her salary. I hope that the Government will consider back-to-work benefits for the many people in that situation. Those of us who have been single parents on income support know that people do not have savings to fall back on in such situations.

Any welfare system with paid work as its primary goal has serious implications for women and for society. I do not believe that it is in our best interests as a society to force carers out to work. The majority of carers are still, and probably will continue to be, women. The philosophy behind that aim does not value the role of parenting. It rejects the idea, as has been said, that every mother is a working mother, and ignores the role of those carers, predominantly women, who look after elderly relatives.

The belief in welfare to work as a panacea fails to recognise the contribution that women make as members of the unpaid economy, which we heard about earlier from the hon. Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons). I share her view that women are predominant in the unpaid economy, and that the economic value of their work has not been recognised. The paid and the unpaid economies are interdependent. To remove labour from the unpaid economy will have economic consequences that the experts have probably not fully estimated.

I am worried that Ministers believe that there should be only one role for women to follow. There is a real danger that the only woman who will be respected is the woman who goes out to paid work. Although Labour in opposition rightly rejected the Tories' attacks on single mothers, it could end up condemning those same single mothers not for their morality, but for their failure to follow a new Labour model for women.

Perhaps single parents would be better off if they and their children started a rock band and persuaded the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to allow them to stay on benefit to develop their creativity.

Ms Drown

I want to correct the impression that we are presenting one option to women. We are not doing that. We value the role of women who work at home in unpaid work. Nothing is more valuable, and often more satisfying, than bringing up children. That is important not only to those children, but to society. When we speak to women, many of them say that they want choice. At present there is not enough choice and not enough facilities to enable women to take up those opportunities. We value women working at home, but we also want to give them opportunities for education, training and paid work outside the home, if they want it.

Mrs. Ballard

I am pleased to hear that. I do not want the House to think that I am promoting only one option for parents—to stay at home rather than going out to work. I want what the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) says she wants—genuine options for women. Many women cannot have meaningful choices unless the Government take action to remove the barriers to those choices. The barriers are economic, social, political and cultural.

I therefore welcome the Government's national child care strategy. It is a step in the right direction, and long overdue. I recognise that building such a strategy is a difficult task. There are difficult choices about priorities—whether pre-school nursery provision for under-five-year-olds, or after-school care for children who are at school, and so on. Any national child care strategy must address four concerns—I notice that the Secretary of State had three.

Accessibility is certainly one of those concerns, especially in rural areas; the others are affordability, and the quality of child care, to which I shall return; and diversity and choice of provision. For example, some people who work erratic hours would prefer a live-in nanny. It may be the only sensible form of child care available for them. Others who work more settled hours or who have smaller houses would prefer to use a child minder or out-of-school care, or some other arrangement outside their own home.

I welcome the proposals for tax credits for 75 per cent. of child care costs. I hope that the credit will go to the parent who actually pays for child care, not to the higher earner. I do not understand why it is limited to the cost of caring for two children. Many of the women currently in the benefits poverty trap are those with larger families, for whom the economics of paid work simply do not add up.

Single parents with, say, three or four more children may still not find it financially advantageous to go back to work and get the tax credits, if the credits apply only to two children. As the number of children in the family increases, not only does the actual cost of child care increase, but it is more difficult to find free child care from family or friends.

I was fortunate when I went back to work, as I had only one child, who could easily be slipped in unnoticed to a friend's family; but my personal assistant has three children. I do not think that anyone would look after them for nothing. That is a slur on her three children, one of whom is my godson. They are delightful children, but it is much more difficult to incorporate three of someone else's children into one's family, so paid child care is usually the only option for a larger family.

I hope that the problems of accessibility and choice in rural areas will be seriously addressed. The right hon. Lady spoke about that, but she did not suggest that extra funds might be directed at rural areas. This week, I received a letter from Ruishton Rascals, an out-of-school club in my constituency. It is experiencing difficulty in managing the numbers who use the club, and needs funds to enable it to continue providing high quality care in a rural area. It is not enough just to provide start-up costs—there must be continuing financial support, particularly in rural areas, where the numbers may not be as high as they would be in an urban area.

I am concerned about the quality of child care. Many child care workers have had no specialist training. The Government's promotion of paid child care over that of the parent seems highly dubious if they cannot guarantee that it will be of a high standard. I recently had an Adjournment debate in which I called for a registration scheme for child care workers. I was disappointed with the Minister's response. He did not recognise the vital need to protect parents and children through a national register of nannies and child minders.

Child care should be available in conjunction with family-friendly policies in employment—I welcome the Government's recognition of that. I hope that businesses will recognise that both fathers and mothers are parents. Mothers will not have freedom until fatherhood is taken seriously by employers.

Families in all forms are the basic structure of society. A healthy and peaceful society needs support from government and from business. I am sure that hon. Members with families will agree that long working hours put a great deal of pressure on families. Functional families need functional parents, who are not tied to the desk or production line. We must get away from the idea that people must prove their commitment to their job by being in the office at 7 am and not leaving until 11 pm.

Mrs. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

It sounds like us.

Mrs. Ballard

It sounds very like our job. We must get away from those hours.

Family-friendly policies are also about more adaptable working practices, including part-time work, job sharing and flexible hours. Such policies will help women to return to the work force and parents to accommodate the timetables of their children with their timetables of work.

Ministers have signalled many good intentions, but good intentions alone do not help women in the real world. Women should be able to make choices about how they want to live their lives, and Government should enable and empower them.

There is not time for me to talk about pension provision. We have already heard that many of today's pensioners are among the poorest people in society. I hope that the Government will not only address the problems of tomorrow's pensioners but take on board the problems of women pensioners who are living in poverty now.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State talked about citizenship pensions, which would not be based on contributions—at least, I hope that is what she was talking about. Such pensions will relate especially to carers, who will have a break in their contribution records.

I hope that the Government will tackle also the problems faced by divorced women over their husbands' private pension provision, and the need to split it on divorce. I hope also that they will consider the idea of uni-sex annuities, as proposed by Legal and General, which do not discriminate according to gender.

What all women want is equality, not special treatment. Our daughters are beginning to expect equality as the norm. But equality should be extended to older women as well—those who are on pensions now or are about to retire, those doing the same job as men but still earning less than men, and those who make the choice to look after their children or an elderly relative. They should not have to pay the price of Government cuts in spending or the history of a male-dominated political culture.

11.12 am
Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate on women's priorities, certainly as recognised by the Government. However, I feel ghastly. I feel terrible because I travelled overnight from Washington. As many right hon. and hon. Members will know, it is not a pleasant experience. My eyes are burning, I feel tired, and my legs are like lead. This has reminded me how I felt most of the time when I was bringing up my children.

I had three sons. When they were small children, I did a night duty job as a nurse, and I was a busy borough councillor for 12 years. If I am honest, I felt as I have just described for most of the time. The feeling is nothing new: it has merely served as a slight reminder for me.

With the help of my family, I muddled through. I did not have to make child care arrangements, because I had my family around me to help, in the same way as I helped my sister, who is a lone parent. I helped with her child after she returned to work after six weeks away from it, as a trained nurse.

I survived, and so did my sons—just. It was a valuable experience, because it brought to me, and brings to the House, a new experience. I believe that we as women should share the experience with everyone else.

I travelled to Washington as a member of the Select Committee on Defence. We were discussing issues such as NATO enlargement, the procurement of materials for our armed forces, and many other issues relating to our armed forces. This gave me the opportunity to speak to some interesting people, one of whom was General Lesley Kenne of the United States air force. General Kenne is the highest ranking woman officer in the US armed forces. She is a fantastic women, who is running the joint strike fighter programme that will replace our F16 and F18 aircraft. General Kenne flies those aircraft, too.

I sat next to General Kenne during lunch, and she told me that she had made definite choices about what she wanted. She felt that she should not have had to do that, and she added that it was very difficult.

I met other women, who were also doing valuable work. It is—[Interruption.] It is shame that we giggle about women who are making their way in the world and are an example, such as the two women ships' captains who have recently been promoted. I am sure that the House will join with me in celebrating their success. Those are women who have helped to forge the way ahead.

We know that we are all very different women. I met a woman called Sue, who was a corporal. She joined the marine corps several years ago. Incidentally, I say to the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), the shadow Leader of the House, that, in the passing-out exam for women marines—the right hon. Lady was speaking in a derisory manner about women who involved themselves in life-style articles in the press—they are asked, if they were to have four articles of make-up, what they would be. They are asked what they should wear on the basis that they should always be properly presented. It is not right and proper to make comments of the sort that we heard from the right hon. Lady.

Mrs. Shephard

I shall set the record straight. I think that the hon. Lady will find when she reads Hansard that I was getting agreement—from the body language of those on the Government Front Bench and Labour Back Benchers, I believe I got it—that, since new women Members have come into the House, there have been unprecedentedly vicious attacks on them, because they are women, from some members of the press. I think that that is deplorable. I made a light-hearted remark about make-overs, and said that I could do with one. From what the hon. Lady has said this morning, although she does not look as if she needs a make-over, she sounds as if she feels that she could do with one.

Laura Moffatt

I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention. I am glad to have her explanation. It is wrong to start pinpointing women and making remarks about the way in which they like to conduct their business. That is not right and proper.

I return to Sue, because her position is crucial to what we, the Labour Government, are trying to do. Sue is able to do the job that she wants to do, and we must ensure that that is made possible for women in this country. Sue is a corporal, and she has decided to have a baby. She will return to the marine corps, and she will have child care when she returns, from six weeks if she so chooses. That child care provision will be commensurate with her wages. The US armed forces ensure that those serving in them do not pay too much for their child care. Sue feels secure as a result.

I was interested to hear the comment that only one in 20 women, if given the choice, would go out to work. I suspect that women will always choose the best for their children. If they believe that child care will not be permanent, not of good quality and not available at a reasonable cost, they will choose to keep them at home. That is what the Government's thrust is all about, and that offers choices to women—in other words, allows them to make an informed choice in deciding what they want.

These are down-to-earth policies. They have not been adopted because they are sexy or interesting. They are designed to elicit the best out of our society, to ensure that everybody is able to play her or his part and to grow and expand, offering all they want in our community.

I joined the Labour party, the day after I gave birth to my second son. Incidentally, it was the day after the Labour party lost the election in 1979. I went to my first meeting when my baby was two weeks old. I now have the great honour to be a Member of this place, and able to share experiences with colleagues. It is crucial to me that we forge ahead with all these issues, including child care.

I have heard it said that we are not taking the issue seriously, but Labour is listening to women. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State held a conference in Southwark on this very issue—getting women to participate and tell us what they want, so that we can respond as we should. There is so much happening on women's issues. People know that. That is why they elected us. We will not let them down. When I went to my first Labour party meeting, I knew that one day we would be here, in power, putting forward the policies that will make a real difference to women's lives.

11.20 am
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

I feel privileged to be the first man to take part in the debate on the Government's priorities for women. Although I am patently not a woman, some of my best friends are. I tried that out on the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) in the Tea Room, and she thought that it would go down well. Clearly some Members on the Government Benches do not share her sense of humour.

Although I fully support any Government initiative to give equal opportunities, I will never support—I do not think that any Opposition Member will—positive discrimination for women, or, indeed, for any other section of the community. It leads to a lowering of overall standards rather than offering equal opportunities to women, which is what I hope hon. Members on both sides of the House will support.

Mrs. Lait

I have a problem with my hon. Friend's use of the words "positive discrimination". There is enormous confusion in people's minds about positive discrimination, which puts in place systems to help women, and quotas, which are positively not helpful to women. Does he agree with me?

Mr. Fabricant

That was a helpful intervention. The point I was making is that I support—as I believe we all support—equal opportunities. What we do not support is positive discrimination and quotas, which tend to lower standards.

Barbara Follett

Positive discrimination is illegal in this country. Positive action is legal, and quotas come under positive action. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman, whom I thank for his courtesy in giving way, that positive discrimination and positive action have acted in favour of men for centuries, and I agree with him that it has lowered standards.

Mr. Fabricant

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She knows everything about positive discrimination being illegal, as her own party was ruled illegal in positively discriminating for women when it tried to introduce women-only shortlists for Parliamentary candidates.

Lorna Fitzsimons

It has shown to be a success.

Mr. Fabricant

We shall judge from the hon. Lady's speech whether it has, if she catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Ms Drown

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fabricant

I should like to move on, as I want to give hon. Ladies on the Government Benches a chance to contribute.

I shall first present some of the background to the current position regarding women, and then make a positive—if I can use that word after what I have just said—suggestion about what the Government should be doing, as an additional tranche of their activities, to help women.

The Secretary of State for Social Security, who is no longer present, said that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are committed to women. We observe that neither the Prime Minister nor the Chancellor is a woman. Of course, the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was Mrs. Thatcher, in the 1980s. Unlike Mrs. Thatcher in the 1980s, the Secretary of State for Social Security is known for turning. She has done one U-turn after another, which is an unfortunate precedent for the Labour Government.

We were told that women are factory workers and teachers. I would add that they are also bank managers, scientists, engineers and doctors. Women are achievers. I remind the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), who has just returned from Washington, that one of the finest Secretaries of State in the United States since the second world war is Madeleine Albright.

I shall now speak about the current position of women, because all is not doom and gloom, although I am the first to admit that women still do not have equal opportunities, for all the reasons that have been discussed.

Women now have more job opportunities than ever before. That is a direct consequence of the Conservative Government's policies on flexible labour markets. [Interruption.] It is true. There are 12.3 million women in our work force. They account for 30 per cent. of the work force, compared with only 8 per cent. in 1984. A study by the Institute of Employment Research shows that, by 2001, 40 per cent. of corporate management jobs—I made the point earlier that we should not say that women work just in blue-collar areas—will be held by women. More than 50 per cent. of employees in the United Kingdom will be women by 2001.

The number of women who are self-employed has risen by 88 per cent. since 1981. Women account for well over one in four of the self-employed. The Government cannot say on the one hand, "We've been in office for only nine months, so don't blame us," and on the other say, "We've been in government for nine months, and look how good we've been at getting women into the work force."

We are talking about positive discrimination for women. I could argue that women have shown themselves superior to men in certain circumstances.

Mrs. Shephard

You should not sound so surprised.

Mr. Fabricant

There are so few men on these Benches—quite rightly, I guess—that I feel that I have to stand up for the minority in the Chamber today.

In 1995–96, 49 per cent. of girls achieved five or more GCSE grades at A starred to C, compared with only 40 per cent. of boys. Girls are doing better than boys at GCSE. Thirty-two per cent. of 17-year-old girls achieved two or more GCE A-levels or AS-levels, compared with 27 per cent. of boys. That is an lead of 5 percentage points over boys.

In higher education, the number of female entrants has risen. Both sexes are virtually equal. I am sure that the whole House will welcome that.

Mrs. May

I apologise to my hon. Friend and to the House that I will not be able to listen to the whole debate, because I have a lunchtime speaking engagement addressing, as it happens, a women's group.

The figures that my hon. Friend just gave were alluded to by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). Does he agree that the paradox is that, now that we have taken positive action—this relates to his point about positive discrimination—to improve the achievement of girls in our education system, what is now of concern in the education system is the under-achievement of boys? Equality means enabling both sexes to achieve their best potential.

Mr. Fabricant

I agree. I would go further, and say that equality means that, next Friday, we ought to have a debate on the Government's initiatives for men. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk, who, for a long time, was Secretary of State for Education.

Over the past 10 years, the number of female first-degree graduates has improved: it has risen by 129 per cent., compared with 81 per cent. for men. There is no question that, in education, the better half of society is achieving over men.

Before I make positive suggestions, which I hope the Government will take up, I shall make two points about which the Government have been wrong, in my experience as an employer, before I became a Member of Parliament, and now representing the rural constituency of Lichfield.

First, the Government have been hasty in abolishing nursery vouchers. The vouchers had only just come into existence, and there can be no doubt that the way in which they operated caused some difficulties in the first few months. Nobody would deny that, but we could always have refined the system, and we intended to do so.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fabricant

In a moment.

The abolition has meant that women living in rural areas with no local schools cannot place their children in nursery classes. Previously, private organisations in the rural areas had been getting nursery vouchers and could offer nursery services. Now those mothers have to take their children—often using their own cars, which means paying a lot more for petrol because the Government's green policies have penalised rural areas—into towns to nursery schools or classes that are part of the state education system.

Now I shall give way to the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond)—I was also talking to him in the Tea Room.

Mr. Pond

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that one of the effects of nursery vouchers, especially in rural areas such as that represented by the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), was to destroy many local playgroups? Will he also confirm that the right hon. Lady, to whom he has just paid tribute, was the Minister responsible for the abolition of the wages councils, which both the Equal Opportunities Commission and the TUC considered a discriminatory measure, because the great majority of people covered by the wages councils were women? As a result, many women had their pay cut in absolute terms. Did that assist women?

Mr. Fabricant

The abolition of wages councils meant that fewer women were employed. [Interruption.] At the end of the day, the hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members—

Mrs. Shephard

More, not fewer.

Mr. Fabricant

More people were employed. I am sorry; that was a slip of the tongue.

The hon. Gentleman must ask himself whether he wants to see fewer women employed earning a particular wage while the others earn nothing at all. The whole thrust of his Government's policy is to get people back to work, not to put them on benefit.

Let us move to my second point, which the hon. Gentleman almost anticipated. Personally, I do not oppose the minimum wage. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Personally I do not, because I recognise that some people are employed at very low wages in sweatshops, and that is wrong.

However, I certainly oppose the Labour Government's policy on the national minimum wage. Time and time again, the Prime Minister has defended his policy by saying, "Well, they have it in the United States of America." The Prime Minister is mistaken, or is misleading the House. They do not have it in the United States of America.

Barbara Follett

Yes, they do.

Mr. Fabricant

There is no national minimum wage in the United States. The minimum wage there varies from state to state, and there are huge exemptions, such as those for youth and for people working in certain types of employment. If we suggested sensible legislation of that nature, I would be tempted to vote for it, I must tell the Conservative Whip sitting in front of me.

Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green)

The fact that the hon. Gentleman is using the word "exemptions" means that there is a minimum wage. Otherwise, there could not be exemptions from it.

Mr. Fabricant

The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. I am saying that there is no national minimum wage in the United States, for the very reason—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Although the national minimum wage would affect women's rights and employment, we should not dwell on the case for or against a national minimum wage.

Mr. Fabricant

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your guidance.

My precise point is that the Government's national minimum wage legislation, which, unlike that in the United States, does not have exemptions or regional variations and is not likely to be set at £3.05—the level in the United States—will result in greater unemployment for women. There is an analogy with what the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) was saying about the result of the abolition of wages councils. The abolition meant that more women were employed. The direct consequence of the Labour Government's introduction of a national minimum wage with no exemptions will be greater unemployment for women.

Now I shall make some brief comments about what I think the Government should be doing for women—issues that I believe are not being addressed at present. I look forward to being corrected if I am wrong.

At the moment, there is a thrust towards saying that women should be encouraged to get out and work and use carers for their children. The hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) rightly said that we should also encourage women, if they wish, to stay at home and look after their children. It should be their choice.

However, there can be a third choice; the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There are opportunities for women to look after their children and work at home as well. We are approaching the millennium, a time when teleworking will become more popular and practical.

As a Member of Parliament, I employ a former secretary from my previous job in Brighton. She left my employment and married my business partner while I was on business in Nairobi and Botswana. I came back to a nasty shock. Not only was she getting married, but she was marrying my business partner.

Christine Bowden—I think that I may mention her name—now has two gorgeous children whom she looks after. However, she is now able to look after me and, more importantly, some of my constituents, as well, because she teleworks from home, using her computer to write sensible and sometimes critical letters to Ministers about what they are not doing to help women in my constituency.

Women often want that opportunity to work at home. When children are ill, they often do not want them to be looked after by carers, no matter how caring the carers may be. Modern technology allows that. Using British Telecom's star services, calls can easily be diverted from one building to another. Much can be dealt with from home.

The Government should be looking into all that. Have they considered giving partial grants to provide computer systems for people who have gone on courses and learnt to use computers, but cannot afford to buy their own to work at home? There could be pump-priming opportunities for women, so that they could look after their children and work at home, too. The Government should be addressing that possibility.

The problem with the Government—we have seen it again today—is that they are all soundbites and reviews. Every time anyone asked the Secretary of State a question, she said, "It is under review." I believe that the Government have betrayed the electorate. Indeed, the hon. Member for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard), representing the Liberals, poignantly described how the Government, including some of the ladies in the Government, had done that. I suspect that they have betrayed their own principles too, which is far worse.

We have a Minister for women who has appeared in the House even less than the Minister without Portfolio—and that is saying something. We have a Government—

Ms Drown


Mr. Fabricant

I am sorry: I am reaching my peroration now.

We have a Government who have abolished nursery vouchers to put up petrol prices, so putting rural mothers at an even greater disadvantage. We have a Government who have given £10 million for a breast screening programme, but who in nine short months have put up hospital waiting lists by 50,000. We have witnessed the total fiasco of the changes to single parent benefit. As I said, Baroness Thatcher was a lady who was not for turning. The Secretary of State for Social Security has turned, turned and turned again. No doubt we shall witness more U-turns.

I said at the outset that girls are outperforming boys in their GCSEs. The Government have so far failed their GCSEs. I look forward to them doing better in their re-sits.

11.39 am
Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

Many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall briefly counter the Opposition charge that the Government have been inactive on women's issues.

My greatest privilege in government was to be a member of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on women. I know from the inside that both Ministers for women have done a massive amount of work on women's issues, much of it behind the scenes. It is a tragedy, I hope a temporary one, that that work has been overshadowed by the lone parents controversy, but if the stories that I have heard this week are true, great progress has been made, which I welcome.

I shall not become involved in the controversy over how we arrived at this situation, but shall look forward. I particularly want to mention the rapidly evolving national child care strategy. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. More than any hon. Member, she is responsible for the new salience given to child care in the affairs of this country. It has been one of her concerns since the first day she was elected to the House. Although I was not a Member of Parliament at the time, I am reminded that one of her first interventions at Prime Minister's questions was to ask Baroness Thatcher whether she was concerned about the lack of child care in this country. Baroness Thatcher gave the brief and penetrating reply: "No."

Since being elected in 1992, I have observed my right hon. Friend's work on child care. When she was shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, child care became a matter of economic policy for a major political party for the first time in this country's history. The national child care strategy will be a lasting monument to her. I hope that those who have their knives out for my right hon. Friend will put them back in their pockets or, better still, throw them away.

Looking forward, I am not without worries. I await the details and timing of the lone parent proposals in the Budget, and while the working family tax credit has many attractions, I hope that there will be a presumption that it goes to the woman in a couple, as with family credit. The Government have many other exciting initiatives, spearheaded by the women's unit, such as the new deal for lone parents, which has already achieved much. Although training is separate, I hope that it will be given greater salience, because lone parents would benefit from the training options in the mainstream new deal.

Like other hon. Members, I have learnt from constituents that women—lone parents and others—want to work, and education and training are key parts of that aspiration. On a constituency point, I regret that one of the best projects I have come across that gives opportunities to women, called women and new directions, is closing. I hope that the Government will examine such projects, because they are fundamental to the new deal.

The work of the Ministers for Women has many other aspects, such as the major task of mainstreaming women's issues. We are beginning to do that in the Scottish Office on issues such as transport and best value. I note the answer to a parliamentary question this week given by the Minister for women, who indicated that progress is being made on the issue of family-friendly work practices. There are also initiatives on public appointments: the representation of women is a key policy priority for the Government.

The setting up of the Scottish Parliament is an exciting prospect, and the Scottish Labour party is committed to gender equality. We introduced the mechanism of twinning and believe that through it we shall be able to achieve for the first time in any legislature an equal number of men and women representatives. That may be subject to challenge, like all-women shortlists. I regret that we did not appeal on that, but that is a matter of history. The debate on how to avoid the intentions of the Labour party, and of other parties, being sabotaged by challenge will begin when the Committee further considers the Government of Wales Bill on Monday.

The other priority for the Ministers for women is the development of a strategy against violence against women, which was flagged up earlier. I am an Edinburgh Member of Parliament and was first drawn to this matter because the zero tolerance campaign began in the city. When I spoke about it for the first time five years ago, the Minister for women was on the Opposition Front Bench. She and others value and admire the zero tolerance campaign. I hope that we can liaise with the campaign, particularly on publicity material, which will be part of the general strategy on dealing with violence against women. I also welcome the campaign launched in Scotland involving local authorities that targets young men and boys. Research by the Zero Tolerance Trust has produced disturbing evidence of the tolerance among boys and young men of violence against women.

The strategy for dealing with violence against women depends on three things: prevention, provision and protection. Scottish Office research on the extent of and gaps in current service provision should be published within the next two weeks. It will be the foundation of the strategy in Scotland, which must be cross-cutting, because health, housing and the criminal justice system are all involved.

Referrals to Scottish Women's Aid increased by 16 per cent. in 1996, yet there are threats to the provision of places. There is a shortage of refuge places in Scotland, as, no doubt, there is in England. Rape crisis centres also have funding problems. The Scottish Office must consider central funding for some of those vital services. I hope that the Government will consider the suggestion from the Zero Tolerance Trust that a panel of experts should be set up to advise them on such matters.

I shall speak briefly about protection, the third aspect of the strategy, and mention two controversies in Scotland. First, there has been controversy about the use of pre-court diversion schemes for perpetrators of violence against women. The Government have inherited that situation, and I hope that the Scottish Office will look into it. It seems to send out the wrong signal if some perpetrators of violence are not taken to court, but put on diversion schemes. There is nothing wrong with post-court diversion schemes, but pre-court schemes should be ruled out as part of the strategy.

Finally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) is on the Front Bench and was active in securing legislation against stalking, I must refer to an incident that took place in Scotland yesterday and which the Government must consider. Under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, a sheriff refused to grant a non-harassment order against a man who had been convicted of five breaches of the peace for stalking against the same woman. The Appeal Court judges argued that previous convictions could not be examined to find out whether the offence was of the same kind and indisputably constituted a course of conduct. The judges argued that they were following the letter of the legislation. I hope that the Government will look into that and, if it is the case, make the appropriate changes.

11.50 am
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I must join my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) in welcoming so many new women's faces to the House. I hope that they will acknowledge that the quality of the women on the Conservative side at least makes up for the lack of numbers.

I went to the Library to find out the age and background of many of the new women Members, and I was surprised that none of them have complimented the former Conservative Government for the opportunity to go to university, which so many of them enjoyed. When we took over from the previous Labour Government, only one in eight young people went to university; now it is one in three. Furthermore, the percentage of women has increased—from less than 20 per cent. under the previous Labour Government to 50 per cent. in 20 years. Most of those women, therefore, owe their opportunity of higher education to the former Conservative Government, and I hope that they will accept that and pay credit to that Government.

The debate is to discuss the Government's policies. We have heard much about women as victims. We have heard an awful lot about single mothers with problems and not nearly enough about women as achievers. We have talked about lone parents, which has come to mean a woman on her own with children, but we have not heard what we should do about our daughters who are at school.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to have one baby is a misfortune but to have two looks like carelessness. We should be teaching our daughters that having children on their own is no prize and no great shakes. In the United States, young women who are struggling to bring up their children go round schools to inform pupils of that. Nowadays, young women do not have to be victims of their biology; they have choices. That is one of the great advances that we have made.

Women have choices not merely in education, but in occupation. As has been pointed out, almost half our work force are women, but they are not all in low-paid jobs struggling on a few pounds an hour; there are a great many women of ambition in higher occupations. In the past week, I have visited three institutions in my constituency that prove that. GEC Marconi optics division has an employment roll of 1,200 people and a woman managing director—a highly qualified engineer. Half its work force are women. They have all benefited from the education opportunities provided under the previous Government, which makes one proud of that Government—it certainly makes me proud.

I also visited my local hospital, where the chief executive is a youngish woman, and I went yesterday to the forensic laboratories across the river. I invite every hon. Member to go and see the laboratory, which is astonishing. It carries out all the behind-the-scenes forensic investigations for the police and has several hundred employees—I think that the service as a whole has about 5,000—more than half of whom are young women science graduates and, surprise, surprise, so is the director of the organisation, Janet Thompson.

I point that out because the House often gives the impression that young women are an underclass or an underdog group, who have to be looked after and patronised by their parents. We would do well to teach our young women that a young man in a hurry is likely to leave a young woman with a worry, and to stop patronising them with the idea that having babies out of wedlock or a partnership is all well and good because the state will pick up the bill. We do not do young women any favours by impressing the poverty trap on them. Everyone talks about that and says that we want to get out of it, but the first thing to do is to make our young women realise that they do not have to go down that route.

Laura Moffatt

Does the hon. Lady agree that there has been no suggestion of painting women as victims, as the debate has been wide-ranging—about all sorts of women and the contributions that they make? Does she also agree that many of the women she met were of postgraduate age and that it is a little later, when one has to face child care issues and all that those bring to bear, that women start to run into trouble?

Mrs. Gorman

I hear what the hon. Lady says. I think that women are perfectly capable of making their own arrangements if they want to adopt a dual career. Of course, women are much blessed, as they can have the benefits of both a career in the home and one in the workplace if they so wish. That is a great advance. Our grandmothers did not have much of a choice—it was going out scrubbing or taking in other people's washing. Nowadays, we all enjoy the opportunities we have gained—certainly all the women in the House are enjoying them. I am simply urging that we should look on the bright side.

Bearing in mind a woman's dual opportunities, at home and for a career, I must suggest to the Secretary of State ways in which the Government could help rather than impose the poverty trap on women. First, women in work have told me that they have difficulty with the school system. They have the problem of who will look after the kids during the school holidays—we know that it is likely to be mother and not father. So why can we not have a flexible school timetable? Parents could take their children out of school at different times of the year to tie up with their working lives. Why not? There is no reason why we should all be on holiday at the same time. They could take advantage of all the opportunities for cheap winter holidays that we look forward to in our old age. Why not enjoy them while we are younger? Flexible teaching hours and time at school are entirely possible. If we brought more private sector interest into our education system, I am sure that those would come.

The next thing is to make better use of school premises and to make them available for private sector organisations that are happy to run pre-school and after-school clubs and opportunities. I praise the previous Conservative Government, of which I was a part, for introducing the grant-maintained system, which led to many schools opening their doors at other times of the day—not locking their gates at 3 pm—and allowed school managements to use premises flexibly to increase the school's revenue and its usefulness to the community.

Mrs. Ballard

I cannot allow to go unchallenged the hon. Lady's statement that grant-maintained schools were the first to open their premises to the public. I was a member of the local education authority in Somerset, the county council of which pioneered community schools long before grant-maintained schools existed.

Mrs. Gorman

I accept what the hon. Lady says. My point is that state schools usually empty out at 3 or 4 pm and lock the gates. Under the private funding that the Conservative Government introduced, schools were given the opportunity to decide how their premises and resources were used. School buildings are now opening up in all sorts of ways, not least for wedding receptions on Saturdays. They have also taken the opportunity—especially that provided by the voucher scheme, which the Government are foolishly doing away with—to lay on other facilities at other times. The Government can at least recommend that local authorities encourage such activities.

The Secretary of State should have a word with the Chancellor about the taxation system. The women I talk to do not want the state to provide nurseries. Moreover, they usually do not want workplace nurseries, as they do not want to take their children to work. They want to be able to offset the cost of child care, not against their net earnings—when they have already paid their taxes—but against their gross earnings.

That also applies to other care costs, such as those incurred in caring for the elderly. Many women help to support older parents, and if they want to go out to work as well, why should not the costs be offset against tax? If I require a secretary to assist me in my work, the expenses can be tax deductible. If I need care or help with people in my household, however, I have to pay it out of my net income.

The Government can change that. The system that was introduced in France has allegedly created some 40,000 additional jobs, because people can afford to pay for care. In this country, many highly qualified women have to give up work because of the cost of child care. They do not want the state to provide child care; they want to be able to afford to pay for whatever system they require—probably private care. The costs of that care must be treated as part of women's legitimate work expenses.

We must congratulate the previous Conservative Government on freeing the market, which has provided the jobs at the upper end of the economy that are increasingly available to women.

Mrs. McKenna

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gorman

Not at the moment; the hon. Lady will have time to make her own speech if I sit down soon.

In the future, women are likely to be our most important economic resource. Short of mass immigration, only those women who are as yet unemployed can be brought back into the labour force to fill the jobs in the new industries. The free market, not the state, provides those jobs. The Government can, at best, ensure that businesses are not overtaxed, that their pension funds are not raided—as they have been by the Government in the short time that they have been in office—and that capital remains in the private sector to be invested in creating opportunities in information technology, science and many other new industries that will undoubtedly emerge.

The Government can adopt policies to help women. The ones that I have suggested would help educated, intelligent and high-achieving women. I urge the Government to stop referring to a large proportion of women as unthinking robots, who are unable to control their instincts and who have to have all sorts of services laid on for them—especially child care.

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

I very much admire the hon. Lady, but can she cite any instance of any member of the Government making such a statement?

Mrs. Gorman

I am asking the Government to think about the ways in which they can continue to implement Conservative policies to assist high-achieving women, who do not expect the state to do everything for them. The Government should ask them what they want. I am telling the Minister some of the things that such women have told me. I do not have focus groups or juries, but I have talked to women in the workplace.

When the Minister consults her focus groups, I would like her to remember that a role should be opened up for older women, of whom I am, of course, a perfect example. I did not enter the House until I was over 50. The Government have a huge opportunity to make use of older women coming back into the work force. I want the Government to consider what they can do to assist women, who have had the experience of raising a family and who are wise in the ways of children and men, to adapt those talents to contribute to society.

It concerns me enormously—as I am sure it does every woman and man in the House—that we keep hearing terrible stories of child abuse in state-run homes, although I make no issue of the fact that they are state-run. Most of the abusers are men and I am sure that the men in the House deplore that as much as we all do. I suggest to the Minister that mature women would make excellent directors of those homes and would not be bamboozled in the same way that some of the male directors of such homes seem easily to be. In that way, the children who have the misfortune not to have a stable family, and who have to live in such institutions, would have a woman—a motherly figure—to turn to. That would make good use of the background and talents that such women have to offer to our communities, and that is just one example of an imaginative approach to utilising the attributes of older women.

Thanks to improvements in health—the previous Government made a large contribution to improving the services available to women—we all now have the chance of living into our 80s. By the time many women are 50, their families have left home and the women do not want to sit at home making cabbage soups to keep slim on. We should therefore think carefully about the opportunities that the late development of women offers to our society and go out of our way to welcome such women into our ranks, whether in the House, the other professions or other areas of work. In that way, the Government—through their management of many of the services provided in our communities—could make a positive contribution.

12.7 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

I apologise in advance for the fact that I will have to leave before the conclusion of the debate. Although I am not speaking at a women's lunch, I have a very appropriate reason for leaving. My three-year-old grandson, Robert, tells me that he is very poorly with chicken pox and I shall have to go home to pick up his two brothers from kids club and nursery. It is also appropriate that I should follow the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), because I entered the House at the age of 57. It gives me great pleasure to follow the hon. Lady.

I am proud to be here today, with so many women, contributing to our debate on women. We can celebrate in advance international women's day, which takes place next week, when I shall speak at a Wirral trades council women's event. I know that many of my hon. Friends will attend similar meetings.

I wish to start my celebration of international women's day now, by talking about women I have known and admired and what I have learnt from them. I hope that other hon. Members will also learn from them. Yesterday, as I was rapidly going through the mountain of unsolicited mail that we all receive daily, I came across India Perspectives. I always look through it and read bits, and then post it to my daughter-in-law, whose parents were born in India—in fact, they are there now. Yesterday, the journal was celebrating the half century of Indian independence with some potted histories of people who fought and worked for it, including the late Mahatma Gandhi. On the next page, to my amazement, was Annie Besant, a name from my past. I first heard of her as a social reformer and heroine of women's rights in many feminist publications of the 1960s and 1970s when I was taking O-level economic history. Until yesterday, I never knew of her Indian connections.

I have brought the journal and I shall quote some relevant parts of the article, which is headed "Annie Besant The Irish Woman Who Fought for India". Her epitaph was She tried to follow Truth". She fought throughout her life for justice and free thought, from her early days in England when with Charles Bradlaugh, a Bradfordian, she published a pamphlet on family planning to test the right of free discussion on the population question—for which she was arrested—down to her work for home rule for India. On her work for India, the article says: The women of India owe a special debt of gratitude to her. In 1917, she laid the foundation of the Indian Women's Association. This Association spread its network throughout the country for furthering the progress of women in education, industry, politics and general uplift. Thus the women were banded together for the service of the country. This made it possible for her and Mrs. Sarajini Naidu and others to present a memorandum in favour of women's franchise to Mr. Montague, Secretary of State for India. It is because of the efforts of persons like Annie Besant that on attaining independence, Indian women obtained the right to vote automatically and without further struggle. I want to talk about another women, who post-dated Annie Besant by 20 or so years. Her name was Dinah Place, known to friends and family as Dainty Dinah. No one here will know of her, but she was one of those brave working-class champions of the women's suffrage movement. She was my grandma, a socialist and a pacifist; but she never allowed fear to get in the way of her convictions, tiny though she was. In 1918, when women over the age of 30 were allowed to vote, she threw her small weight behind the Independent Labour party. She had lost two brothers on the Somme; a third came home physically and mentally broken from gassing, later to take his own life; her husband Tom, with his badly injured leg, was lucky to be alive. Hence her conversion to pacifism.

Without hesitation, Dinah made her terraced house in Waterfoot, in the Rossendale valley, available as a committee room for the ILP, whose candidate was a man aged beyond his years by having spent three years in solitary confinement in Durham gaol for his stand as a conscientious objector. For her trouble, she was left with not a window intact. Despite her loss, the crowd could see her only as the enemy. As with her, my beliefs, my politics, come from the people I have known and my experiences of life—not from student politics, because I left school at 15, or from Marx or Millbank. If experience is the best educator, my education was second to none.

Some hon. Members may think that I am living in a time warp, so I will talk about some of my more recent experiences. For nine years, I served as a member of the social security appeal tribunal. I heard many cases involving women who had worked all their lives in the textile industry. Bradford and Keighley have a long history of wool and, more recently, synthetic textiles. Many women there have suffered much from industrial deafness and should be entitled to industrial injury benefit. To my horror, I found that they were not entitled to it because of the narrow qualifying conditions. Only two descriptions qualify: weaving and high-speed false twisting. Almost every woman who appealed to my tribunal for the benefit was told that her case was outside the rules because of those descriptions.

I started to ask the women questions. I would say, "So you have not been a weaver?" If they said no, I would ask what they did, and they would tell me. I would say, "So you never did anything by the way of high-speed false twisting?" They would say, "I have never heard of it." I think that there is something wrong with the regulation. Perhaps this is not the place to raise it, but I keep asking questions about it and I am not getting anywhere so I thought I would have a go today. Something needs doing to make the regulation wider. Women are suffering and are not getting what they should be getting.

one of my constituents, Kathleen Waddington, has been arguing her case for four years through tribunals and is now in the process of appealing to the social security commissioners. I wish her well, but, as the law stands, I do not think that she will have a great deal of success.

I should like to tell the House about another aspect of my life before I came to this place. When, in 1983, I was out of a job, I decided to work with Keighley technical college in its scheme to improve the lot of Asian women living at home with small children. Many of them did not have any English at all. They had come here as spouses and, because they had small children, they could not go to the local centre to learn English. The only way in which they could learn it was for those with a bit of spare time to go to their homes and teach them.

I joined the scheme and went to teach three women, Ruqia, Asiya and Ghanimat Jan. As often happens in this sort of case, I learned a great deal more from them. They are my constituents now. There is another message for the Government here. If we are to improve the lot of Asian women, many of whom do not have any English, we shall have to put more money, perhaps through technical colleges or wherever, into teaching them English so that they can be aware of their rights and of what benefits they should have.

It is fair to say that some of my Asian women constituents are the most deprived. That is largely because they do not have English so they do not know where to turn for help or what help is due to them. I appeal to our Government to look into that.

I am in touch with my constituents week after week in my advice surgeries. I shall refer briefly to a number of concerns that I believe are being tackled by the Government. Many of my women constituents live in rural areas and are appreciative of what we are trying to do for them. We are already starting to address the need for first-class education for our children; for good quality health care, free at point of use, through our national health service; for safety for women and families within and without their homes and freedom from the fear of violence; for a good quality of life for women into retirement with decent pensions and help with fuel costs; for good-quality child care at affordable fees—I know that we are already well on with that—for a good, reliable, safe and cheap public transport system, which can be such an enabling feature in women's lives; for a national minimum wage along with the working time directive and the social contract.

I look forward to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's Budget. I really do not care who leaks what to whom or for any sort of point scoring. I simply look forward to measures that will ensure that the poorest of our poor children are not penalised by our Government but are given financial help. I should like to put on record my appreciation of any part that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has played in that decision.

12.19 pm
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

I much appreciate the opportunity to take part in this wide-ranging debate, in which a huge number of issues have been raised. When we look back and read Hansard, we will see that there has been great agreement on the analysis of the problems. Even though the language in which we have discussed them may have differed and our solutions to them will differ, there is a great degree of accord on the issues that face women. I hope that Opposition Members recognise that the Conservatives went a considerable way in successfully tackling the issues that faced us during our 18 years in government; but there will always be other problems that need to be solved, and I am sure that there will be as many contributions toward those solutions from Conservative Members as from Labour Members.

One of the achievements of our 18 years in government of which I am particularly proud is the introduction of independent married women's taxation, which, although hardly mentioned today, freed married women from many of the constraints facing them. I took part in the battle for it for many years: year after year, I turned up to see the assistant secretary to the Treasury and demanded, and put on record the views and arguments for, the independent taxation of married women. Needless to say, given the way in which the Treasury works, every two years there was a different assistant secretary, so often we had to start from the beginning and educate them all over again.

With me in that battle was the Conservative women's national committee, which did a great deal of work in encouraging our Government finally to give us independent taxation, and Women In Media—an organisation with which I was associated for many years—did much of the intellectual analysis of the need for independent taxation. It was not until an occasion at the Conservative women's conference in 1987, when I was able to suggest that it was not the best thing that the most powerful Prime Minister in the world had to have her tax form signed by her husband, that we got the Chancellor of the Exchequer to move. It saddens me that the question has raised its head again and that the Prime Minister may have to be asked whether he would be happy to sign his wife's tax form. The many women Labour Members here today should also consider whether they would be happy to have their husbands sign their tax form.

The issue has raised its head again because of the rumour, which will not go away, that the Government are preparing to tax child benefit. Today, the Secretary of State said that she had no intention whatsoever of taxing child benefit. However, we read in this week's newspapers the conclusions drawn by journalists from the fact that, when the Minister for Welfare Reform appeared before the Select Committee on Social Security, he did not rule out taxing child benefit. Because there is conflicting information coming out of the same Department, we are unable to say that the possibility of taxing child benefit has gone away.

I am sure that there are Labour Members here who, like Conservative Members, fought for a long time to get child benefit. Child benefit is, in effect, a tax relief recognising the cost of raising children that is paid in cash to the carer. It is all too easy to forget that it was and still is, in effect, a tax relief. In the 1970s battle to get child benefit, one of the biggest obstacles was the attitude of the trade unions, which did not want money to be transferred from the wallet to the purse, but I do not think that the trade unions are the problem this time. The problem is that, because we have recognised the cost of raising children—something that any civilised society should do—through the tax relief of child benefit, it appears to cost a huge sum of money, and when the Treasury sees a huge sum of money, its first and instinctive reaction is to ask, "How can we reduce it?"

One reason why we wanted child benefit to be a cash benefit was that poorer families could not benefit from the tax relief: by and large, they did not have sufficient income. I suspect that that may still be true. Therefore, if we, a civilised society, intend to recognise through the tax system the cost of raising children, we must maintain child benefit as a benefit to the carer, who should get the money.

None the less, it is argued that the cost of child benefit is so high that the benefit should be taxed. There is logical nonsense in taxing what is, in effect, a tax relief. However, if the Government intend to take that route, I have some questions for them. I should be grateful for answers from the Minister, when she replies to the debate, or the Chancellor, in the Budget. If child benefit is to be taxed, at what level of income will it be taxed, and on whose income will the tax fall? In the case of a married couple, will it fall on the higher of two incomes, or on the joint income? Or will it fall on the carer of the child, who would be taxed with one hand and given benefit with the other?

Those questions must be asked, but there is an overriding question: why tax child benefit? If it costs too much, perhaps it should be reduced; the Government might like to consider that. Perhaps child benefit should go only to poorer people, in which case the Government would introduce a means test and live with the resulting opprobrium.

Perhaps it is the age-old Labour problem of envy; perhaps the Labour Government do not like rich people, in which case, let me help them. If they really want to tax rich people and take their child benefit away, the easiest way to approach the matter may be to stop calling it child benefit, call it "child's benefit" and give every child the benefit. It could be paid to the carer; he or she could pick it up at the post office, if they wish. Children without other income would not need to fill in a tax form, so there would be no extra bureaucracy, but children from families that were rich enough to allow the child to have trust income—investment income—who pay tax, could pay tax on their child benefit. That would be the way to tax child benefit. The Government may wish to consider that.

Child care costs are also a problem. I understand that, following a briefing by the Secretary of State for Social Security, information is starting to emerge from the Government on how the Budget will help with child care costs—many hon. Members have mentioned that. The newspapers tell us how generous the Government are thinking of being.

There will be up to £100 a week tax relief for child care costs for each of the first two children for couples earning under £20,000. That interested me, because in April 1997 average gross earnings were £19,120, so the Government are planning to help couples who have a joint income above national average earnings. If that couple have two children, and they are able to claim child care costs up to £100 each, that gives that couple an untaxed income of £10,400. If that couple are earning between £19,500 and £20,000, that untaxed tax relief will take them into the 40 per cent. tax bracket. That is not quite right; it feels wrong.

Is that the Government's intention? If it is, what will happen to people who earn slightly more than £20,000 or to those who earn just below that figure and are offered overtime or promotion to take them over the limit? Will they lose the £10,400 immediately? I can think of no bigger poverty trap. The Government must be considering a taper. Will it taper up to the 40 per cent. income tax bracket? Perhaps the Chancellor will increase the level at which the 40 per cent. band kicks in.

Will the £100 a week child care costs be met by the Treasury on the basis of receipts from the carers, as I read in the newspapers, or, as I understand from the pressure groups to which the Government have already spoken, will no proof of payment be needed? If the latter is the case, that £100 a week could be used for child care, granny care or anything else. It would be useful to know whether the Government are planning to give £10,400 to couples earning less than £20,000 with no controls, putting them into the super-tax bracket.

The system will be a disincentive for anyone earning more than £20,000.

Barbara Follett

May I suggest that the hon. Lady's questions might better be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor at Treasury questions? They are based on speculation, and might better be asked after 17 March.

Mrs. Lait

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I have every intention of making a speech on the Budget. I am sorry if I am boring her. However, the subject has come up this week. According to today's newspapers, it was the Secretary of State for Social Security who briefed the papers. As the issue affects women directly, I thought that it might be of interest. The Chancellor may wish to address the fundamental questions about the £10,400 tax-free allowance in his Budget.

Mrs. Gillan

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be surprising if the Minister for women, who has no responsibilities other than for women, had no knowledge of the issues and was unable to respond today?

Mrs. Lait

I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend's point. I have every intention of being here to listen closely to the response. I suspect that we shall be told to wait for the Budget, but at least we are pointing out that such questions will need to be answered then. I see the Minister for women nodding in agreement that they will be. I look forward to hearing the Chancellor going into the issue in great detail in the Budget, because he will be pursued to the bitter end on it.

Anyone earning more than £20,000 will be so "disincentivised"—if I may use the word—that the enterprise economy will never move again. In a sense, I hope that the Chancellor goes ahead, just to show that such a major redistribution of national income may buy short-term popularity, but at the expense of stifling enterprise and enraging married women—all that just to give a few people an unsustainable tax allowance.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. The issues are crucial to the economic well-being of this country and of women. If she cannot answer my questions—I suspect that she cannot—I hope very much that the Chancellor will do so in detail in his Budget.

12.34 pm
Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)

I join other hon. Members in welcoming the opportunity to participate in this debate. It is a particularly important occasion, as no such debate took place last year when the Conservatives were in government, despite many requests from Labour Members.

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Lady is not correct. The last women's debate in this place was held in Government time and was called by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and me.

Ms Hughes

I shall certainly return to the Official Report to check that. My research this week found that there was no debate on women last year and that the previous two debates occurred in Opposition time. If the hon. Lady is right, I stand corrected.

I shall be brief, as I am aware that many of my colleagues wish to speak in this important debate. I want to focus on one priority that the Secretary of State highlighted this morning: the importance of family-friendly employment policies. In so doing, I shall address the needs of children—which my right hon. Friend also stressed—and the contribution that men can make to the issues facing women and to the well-being of children. I make no apology for placing at the heart of my contribution the needs of children and the contributions of both parents to children's lives.

We have heard about the changed and changing role of women in terms of economic activity in the past 10 years. Female participation in the work force has risen. However, the overall figures disguise the fact that the greatest increase has occurred in the activity of women with children, and particularly among women with children under five, whose participation has risen from about 40 per cent. to 54 per cent. in the past 10 years. That shows that the majority of women with children now work, including the majority of women with very young children.

The fact that that increase occurred at a time when the previous Government were bent on destroying rights at work, increasing job insecurity, abolishing wage councils and encouraging a low-pay, short-term contract culture in employment is testimony to both the need and the wishes of many women to work. The previous Government talked much about family values, but did very little to help parents meet their family responsibilities. I am glad that this Government recognise that fairness and security at work are a woman's issue, and have introduced measures to strike a better balance between flexibility in the workplace on the one hand and security in work on the other.

Despite the fact that many women have had to work for low wages in poor conditions, many women still want to work. We shall not return to the time when most women stayed at home. Work gives women benefits other than finance. Work provides other things that women value which, once experienced, they do not wish to relinquish—on that point, I part company with the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe). The problem which defeats many women, and which many others confront at no small cost to themselves, is the difficulty of combining work and child care in the hostile work environment left to us by the previous Government which makes no concessions for children's needs.

As women's economic activities have increased, what has been the pattern for working fathers? It is worth noting that it is very difficult to obtain official statistics about working fathers because, in tabulating data, statisticians have not bothered about whether men are fathers. Some recent secondary analysis of the 1994 labour force survey paints a disturbing picture. It shows that not only are fathers more likely to be in work than other men but they are more likely to be in full-time work and to work longer hours—an average of 47 hours a week. The study concluded: Over all, the increase in mother's employment has not resulted in any compensating change in father's employment: there is no indication of a substantial shift to a more part-time employment or of a reduction in working hours among those employed full-time. The consequence is an increasing workload on parents, as mothers' employment increases and fathers' high employment rates and long hours remain constant. If children and the quality and stability of family life are the prime concerns, what should be the response of Government? Good-quality, flexible, affordable child care, as we have heard from many hon. Members today, is rightly a priority. Equally important, and also one of the Government's top three priorities, is the introduction of family-friendly employment policies, not just for mothers, but for fathers too.

There are several reasons why that is important. First, some parents want to look after their own children. Secondly, it is not so bad looking after one child, but when there are two or three children, the difficulty of getting them to different arrangements at different times and juggling child care with work increases exponentially.

Thirdly, and I believe this to be the most important reason, for many children there are advantages in experiencing daily daytime care from their father. Although in practice it is a women's issue, we must try to redefine the issue of who cares for children as an issue for men and women. In demanding an end to the segregation between work and mothering, we must extend the argument to ending the segregation between work and fathering.

My time is drawing to a close, and I wanted to say a great deal more. I conclude with some features of a family-friendly employment policy. It is extremely important that the Government have taken the step of implementing the parental leave directive, which will give all employees rights to unpaid parental leave. Parental leave at the time of birth or adoption is vital for parents at that important stage when a child enters the family.

I hope that, in the longer term, we can move closer to some of the conditions that employees in Scandinavia and other European countries have. In Sweden, for example, parents have the right to share parental leave of up to a year when a child is born or adopted.

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Lady mentioned adoption. I do not know whether she is aware that, when I was first elected, I tried to introduce a measure in the previous Parliament to ensure that all mothers who were adopting babies could have the same maternity leave as a mother giving birth to a baby. That, unfortunately, is not the case. Will she join me in urging this Government to examine the issue? The matter needs resolving, and I greatly regret the fact that, when my Government were in power, they did not have time in the legislative timetable to fit it in. I would commend any Government who introduced that small equalisation, which would make a great difference to women who adopt babies.

Ms Hughes

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I commiserate with her at the fact that her Government at the time did not support her. The distinction between what parties say and do in relation to women's issues is becoming a defining distinction between the Labour party and the Conservative party. I support what she said, and I expect this Government to take action on the matter.

I return to the flexibility of working patterns. I was disturbed to hear it said earlier that the tensions around work and children could be accommodated by making the school day and the school week more flexible. Clearly, that would have disadvantageous consequences for children. We must make working patterns and work contracts more flexible.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to a wonderful initiative in my constituency by Coats Viyella Clothing Ltd., which in the past week has advertised jobs offering a parent shift. The advertisement referred to a chance to work and put one's kids first. The firm is offering a shift from 9 am to 3 pm, with seven weeks' holiday, covering school patterns. Labour Members will be pushing what employers can do, not what they cannot do.

Ms Hughes

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She has given an example of something that is happening.

I was about to give an example of something that the Government have done in the public sector over the past few months. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has introduced an innovative information technology package as a pilot scheme in hospitals, and it is to be extended. It has allowed nursing staff to create their own working patterns—I do not have time to go into details, but the scheme is extremely innovative—and at the same time it has brought back into nursing women who had to leave, having had expensive training, because previously they could not combine work and child care. The scheme embraces an economic advantage that needs to be taken into account.

I welcome the Government's top priorities. We need to consider how to enable not only mothers but fathers to contribute to resolving some important tensions while retaining the needs of children as a centrepiece of our policy.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. I remind the House that, unless hon. Members shorten their speeches, many other hon. Members will be disappointed.

12.45 pm
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

I shall heed your remarks, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is clear that the debate is being conducted, in a way, on two levels. In many practical, detailed ways, little divides the two sides of the House. For example, I was interested to hear of the initiative of Coats Viyella. I join the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) in commending it, and urging that sort of initiative on other employers. I am pleased that we have a flexible enough labour market to enable employers to take that sort of approach.

As I said, little divides us on detail, but there is a problem at the higher level of rhetoric. The Government's claims about the way in which they are changing the priorities of government towards women are just incredible. The Secretary of State described the problem well. In particular, the specific policies to which she referred do not necessarily have a separate women's dimension. If they are of benefit to women, or to girls in school, they are also of benefit to men, and boys in school. Attempts to create a corpus of policies called women's issues are doomed to failure. At the same time, they are rather patronising.

The main problem that the Government need to address at the higher level, as it were, is the thought that they will replace, if they are not careful, the old-fashioned male chauvinism, which is that some areas of life and public policy are of no interest to women, with a new form of chauvinism—equally regrettable and reactionary—which is that some areas of life are specially reserved for women.

The right hon. Lady showed that in a small way with her prepared responses to interventions in her speech from any man who dared to intervene. She gave the clear impression that it was somehow improper for men to have views and to express them in the House on these issues. She is dead wrong on that. The important policies—especially the ones that she mentioned on health and education—are of the same importance to both men and women.

The Secretary of State made the extraordinary statement that mothers care passionately about their daughters' education. As the father of two daughters, I can tell the right hon. Lady that fathers care passionately about their daughters' education. Both parents care equally about children's education. I dare say that, when the right hon. Lady took the sensible decision to send her child to a grammar school in Kent, her husband was as involved in that decision as she. Artificial distinctions hamper debate on the practical matters that affect both men and women.

The last vestiges of the old male chauvinism that affect parts of our country should be swept away. They are entirely unacceptable. I regret that one practical measure that I tried to implement myself over the past few weeks has temporarily failed. As a member of the MCC, I voted to allow women members. It is ludicrous that the MCC does not allow women members. I am glad that a majority of MCC members agreed with me. I regret that its rules mean that this cannot be implemented without a two-thirds majority. I hope that the rules are changed so that women can become members of the MCC, and of similar institutions. The day of the single-sex institution trying to keep out the other sex has gone, and that applies across the board.

The idea that there are specific women's issues is in many ways an insult to modern women, as several of my hon. Friends have said. It is more than time for women to break out of any ghetto, whether those are old-fashioned male views or a misinterpretation of feminist views. I hope that the feminist debate has moved beyond the era of separatism, and that we can say, particularly in terms of public policy, that there are no longer specific women's issues.

The Secretary of State made the point that we now have a Government who have unique insight into, and unique sympathy with, the needs and aspirations of women. As so often the case with the Government, not only is there a gap between rhetoric and reality, but the truth, as expressed in policy, is the dead opposite of the rhetoric. To illustrate that, I shall deal with issues that are not regarded as traditional women's issues: tax and benefits, which are of importance economically to women as well as men. These are issues that old-fashioned male chauvinists would say women should not discuss, but they are women's issues.

Let us look at the Government's attitude to tax and benefits, and start with the lone-parent premium fiasco. We all know that, when the Secretary of State was in opposition, she said: Perhaps he"— the then Secretary of State for Social Security— does not realise that, when people move from being in a couple to being a lone mother, they become worse, not better, off."—[Official Report, 28 November 1996; Vol. 286, c. 501.] I am sure that the right hon. Lady remembers that quote; it has been quoted back at her a lot over the past few months. She said that she would not introduce a cut in the lone parent premium, but in government she did so. I hope that some hon. Members on the Government Benches voted against the Government on this issue. We thought that the policy was worth implementing for reasons of fairness. Labour opposed it in opposition, but implemented it in government.

The story continues, because the right hon. Lady, or one of her hon. Friends, leaked the decision that compensation would be available for lone parents, and that the cut would in some way be reversed. It was a double U-turn. Having U-turned once, she did so again. Then, last Wednesday, the Prime Minister specifically denied in the House that the second U-turn would take place. Now we read in The Guardian some more details that suggest it will.

That leaves many of us in a great dilemma: do we believe the Prime Minister, or do we believe The Guardian? Many of us were brought up to regard neither as a normally reliable source of information. We are in a genuine quandary as to which contradictory story we are supposed to believe. I hope that the Minister who will reply to the debate can put me out of that quandary. Should I, in this instance, believe the Prime Minister, or The Guardian?

The underlying important message to women in this country from the Government's charade and fiasco on the lone parent premium is that women's and lone parents' priorities are the Government's least important priority. The Secretary of State's priority is to keep her job; the Chancellor's priority is to keep public spending down; and the Prime Minister's priority is to ensure that the presentation is done well, and in this instance he has manifestly failed.

Whatever happens, the discussion about what lone parents need has been entirely lost. That sends a much more powerful signal to women of this country than any of the Government's rhetoric about their concerns.

Another issue of current debate, which was dealt with eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), is the proposal for the working families tax credit. It is a shame that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is not here, because she is involved in some of the detailed and difficult work on the subject.

However the Government try to wrap it up, that will mean an attack on the independent taxation and the separation of benefits allowed to women. I have read all the leaks in the papers—not all of them in The Guardian—suggesting that the Treasury has found a magic solution that will allow it to introduce the tax credit without suffering the "purse or wallet" dilemma that was discussed in great detail when the previous Government were considering social security reform.

The previous Government found that that dilemma was not soluble, so they moved towards the system of family credit, which has been successful in many ways, not least because most family credit is paid direct to the mother, and thus directly benefits women in a practical way.

The problem with any kind of earned income tax credit, as the Americans call it, and thus with the working families tax credit, is that, however we wrap it up, if the main earner in the household is a man—statistically, that is the most likely—he will have to give permission for the tax credit to be passed to the woman. There will be no automatic right. There will have to be a family discussion.

Lorna Fitzsimons

I am interested in the thesis that the hon. Gentleman is advancing. As he is so interested in family credit and the change proposed, or floated, in the working families tax credit, is he aware that family credit is currently assessed on joint income, so there would be no difference and no threat to independent taxation? Secondly, is he aware that, of the 750,000 recipients of family credit, in only about 300,000 cases does the woman receive the benefit, because the man is in low-paid work? Would he therefore support the working families tax credit if the money went to the woman unless the man and the woman jointly elected—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. My earlier remarks about the length of speeches apply to interventions, too.

Mr. Green

My attempt to deal with the intervention will be briefer than the intervention itself, Mr. Lord. Where the man is the main earner, it is practically impossible for the woman to be paid the money without a previous family discussion. I therefore assure the hon. Lady that what she suggests would not achieve the effect she desires, and preserve independent payments to women.

I know how many other people wish to speak in the debate, so I shall draw my individual examples to a conclusion. Both examples I have given provide powerful reasons for rejecting the Secretary of State's opening thesis that the Government have a unique sympathy with the priorities of women. Their actions belie their rhetoric; actually, they are treating the women of this country worse than the previous Government did.

12.57 pm
Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to participate in this important debate. If I heard the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) correctly, it is the first such debate since 1988. Perhaps I misheard; I hope I did, because if that is true, it is a great shame.

We have heard a lot about tax and benefits this morning, and of course economic issues are important to women, as they are to everyone. However, other things should also be a priority for women; I know that they will feature among the Government's priorities for women.

One of those is the fact that a whole generation of young women have grown up under a Tory Government. My daughter, who is 21, does not remember the previous Labour Government, because she was a small child at the time. She and all women of her age have grown up under Tory Governments who treated whole groups in society with contempt, effectively excluding them, and saying, "Jobs, opportunities and prosperity are not for you; they are only for the few."

We now live with the consequences of that attitude, and we must ensure that women have high expectations of themselves.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Does the hon. Lady not consider that the position of women in society today is better than it ever has been, and is improving? It has certainly improved over the past 20 years, especially under Conservative Governments.

Jane Griffiths

If the hon. Gentleman believes that there is reason for complacency about the position of women, I do not agree with him. We have a great deal to do. Many women do well and are prosperous—the number of women in the House is evidence of that—but many others are not, because of economic, child care and housing problems.

Health must be a priority for women. At times, I have agreed with Conservative Members that there is no such thing as women's issues, as health issues are issues for all of us. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) has left. I was flattered by her commenting on me. The Reading Chronicle is an excellent newspaper, and the editor will be delighted that she reads it so carefully.

Health is an issue for everyone, but certain matters—not just pregnancy and childbirth—are particular to women. The Tory manifesto at the last general election said nothing about osteoporosis, which affects many more women than men, especially older women who make up an increasingly large proportion of the population. It would be relatively inexpensive to make the problem of chlamydia and ectopic pregnancy a Government priority, and the good consequences would far exceed the necessary resources.

Ten women a year die from ectopic pregnancy—that number has not changed—and its incidence is increasing: there are about 10,000 cases a year. Those women are admitted to hospital for emergency surgery without which they would die. Ectopic pregnancy could be much reduced, if not eliminated, if screening for chlamydia was routine. Chlamydia has no symptoms, so young women may not know they have it, and infertility, ectopic pregnancy or both can result. Those issues have been ignored in the past, but I believe that the Government will give them the attention they deserve.

1.1 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

The hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) made some interesting remarks. Perhaps it is a symptom of the debate that, although I could not disagree more with her remark about the way in which women live their lives, I agree 100 per cent. with what she said about health issues. I share her hope that the Government will pay attention to what she said.

The hon. Lady will perhaps disagree with some of my remarks. We have dealt with many issues, but the basic fact that has emerged from the debate is that women need freedom—economic freedom, the freedom that comes from good health, and the freedom to choose their own life style. Women generally have more life style choices than men. We are always asking ourselves why there are not more women at the top of the professions or in power in areas of public life. The answer often is that, because women have more choices, they do not choose the same career pattern as men. [Interruption.] Hon. Ladies on the Labour Benches seem to disagree, but that is exactly what they have argued this morning.

Often, a man will start his career in his early twenties and plod up the promotion ladder until, 30 years later, he reaches the top. Women often take a different course, perhaps taking time out to have children or to travel with their husband, which is why they often take longer than men to reach the top. We all know that they can achieve the same as men.

I mentioned freedom, and economic freedom comes from earning power, which often does not depend merely on child care or women's difficulties in having to look after other family members. We have already discussed those problems to a great extent, so let us not get the balance completely wrong. Child care is important, but it is not the only factor affecting a woman's earning power or her ability to continue with a career. Education is every bit as important—indeed, I would argue that it is more important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) mentioned the obvious and unarguable statistic that, when the previous Conservative Government came to power, which was just after I went to university, approximately one in eight 18-year-olds went on to higher education, whereas now one in three do so. That has nothing to do with the policies of the present Government. It is entirely to do with the policies of the previous Conservative Government, who, over 18 years, steadily increased the numbers going into higher education, and therefore increased opportunities for women in particular, as they were the ones who were often left out of higher education in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The first thing that this new Government did, after saying that they wanted to create opportunities especially for women, was introduce tuition fees for universities. If one policy is designed to give women fewer opportunities than men, it is that. There are still families who will decide, when considering the opportunities for their teenage children, that they can afford to help one child through university but not more than one. Who is likely to get the opportunity? The boy.

That happened for decades, even centuries, and, because the previous Conservative Government gave women the chance to go to university on their own merit and funded them through it, more women have come out with higher qualifications. It is sheer hypocrisy on the part of this Government to say that they care about women and talk about all they want to do to help them, when, with that one policy, they have taken away opportunity from women. We will not see the effects for quite a few years, but 1 will not forget what I have said this morning, and I will ask questions about it in years to come.

Mrs. McKenna

Does the hon. Lady agree that, in future, that option will not be available, because all students will be able to apply for properly funded loans, which they will be able to pay back once they are in proper employment? Therefore, they will not have to depend on their families. Only the families of the very well off have that choice at the moment—poor families do not have that choice.

Mrs. Laing

No, I do not agree. I do not want to get off the subject, and I must be brief, but the hon. Lady must recognise the difference between loans for maintenance, which help individual students and which we have supported for many years, and loans for tuition fees. There is no doubt that people will be deterred from going to university if they have to bear the cost of their tuition fees. Also, the policy demonstrates a lack of responsibility on behalf of the Government. Providing university education is good for the whole country, and the country should bear the cost of university tuition.

Mr. Syms

Will my hon. Friend consider the fact that university education is an investment in the future and in people? Through their policies, the Government have diminished opportunities for young people and the future investment in human capital.

Mrs. Laing

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. His remarks are in direct contrast to those of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mrs. McKenna).

This morning, we have heard much about child care and young women's issues, and I am not saying that those are not important—they are very important—but let us not forget our duty also to look after older women. We must give them good pensions. That is especially important in view of the fact that there are more widows than widowers—men tend not to live as long as women. We must make provision for women in their older years. Women who are now of pensionable age had fewer opportunities than our generation has to work, save and build up their own pensions.

We have heard much talk in this debate about what the Government might do about pensions, but they have done nothing. The Conservative Government proposed the excellent basic pension-plus scheme, which was designed precisely to take care of this matter. All that the new Government do, however, is talk and have reviews. People deserve better.

Mrs. Gillan

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have done at least one thing about pensions—they have taken a large amount of money from pension funds, making Robert Maxwell look like an amateur?

Mrs. Laing

I entirely agree. That also affects women more than men, as women retire earlier—their capacity to earn ends earlier. The policy is retrospective and cruel—I use the word advisedly—as it affects people who no longer have the chance to change their economic position.

I am surprised that health matters have not been mentioned more in this long debate. Women need to be free of the fear of health problems. They need the important freedom not to have children, and the freedom to choose when to have children.

I have been disturbed by rumours in the media—although it is now hard to tell whether a rumour in the media has arisen because of a journalist or because the Government are flying another kite to decide whether to do a U-turn before or after they have published their proposals—that, because the Government think that they have to make cuts in the national health service budget, they are considering making women pay for the contraceptive pill on prescription. I am sure that Labour Back Benchers will be just as concerned as Conservative Members about such an extremely dangerous policy.

There is no doubt that the best way to deal with unwanted pregnancies is to prevent them. Along with the automatic washing machine, the free availability of the contraceptive pill is one of the most important factors in gaining freedom for recent generations of women—although I am not suggesting for a moment that the Government should pay for automatic washing machines.

Mrs. Lait

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the rumours are true that people will not need receipts to claim the child care allowance, they could indeed spend the money on washing machines?

Mrs. Laing

Yes: my hon. Friend makes an excellent point.

I hope that the Minister will assure us that, whatever changes are made in the NHS budget, the contraceptive pill will continue to be free to everyone to whom it is prescribed—I believe that that should include those aged under 16, although that is a complicated matter, which I do not have time to explore now.

Many hon. Members have noted that there are fewer women Conservative Members than women Labour Members. I must point out that most of the Conservatives' female Members have been present this morning, because we care about this issue. Although female Labour Members have managed a reasonable representation, they have not matched the proportion of female Conservative Members who have been present.

I must also point out that the number of women who sit as Conservative Members does not reflect the proportion of women who are active in the Conservative party. [Interruption.] Labour Members have no idea just how many women hold important positions in the Conservative party.

Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

Making the tea.

Mrs. Laing

I am happy to give way to the hon. Lady if she wishes to make her point, but it seems she does not. It is only a matter of time before many more of those active Conservative women join us in the House.

It has been interesting to hear Labour Members talk about the past 18 years and how Conservative policies affected women. They seem to have forgotten that Baroness Thatcher was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for 11 years. One would think from listening to Labour Members that she had never existed.

Ms Shipley

Wishful thinking.

Mrs. Laing

Not on my part.

Labour Members like to claim that Baroness Thatcher did nothing for the cause of women, but they completely ignore the fact that, by being Prime Minister, and achieving all that she did in her 11 years in that post, she made it impossible for anyone to say that a woman cannot rise to the top of her profession—and that includes our profession.

Various hon. Members have mentioned positive discrimination and quotas. I am very concerned by the proposals that the Scottish Parliament should be gender-balanced. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm) addressed that point earlier. If that policy becomes part of the operation of the new Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, the women who are elected under it will be damaged in their future political reputations. Women who are selected because men have not been allowed to stand against them are for ever open to the criticism that they would not have succeeded had they been competing against men.

I stress that I intend no personal insult to any hon. Lady opposite who was selected from a woman-only shortlist. My point is that it is the system itself that is insulting—especially to female Labour Members who are of high quality and would have succeeded in any case. However, they will have to go through the rest of their lives—

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing

I shall give way to the hon. Lady, although I must be brief.

Ms Morgan

Does the hon. Lady not agree that we must overcome centuries of discrimination before women can take their rightful place here and in the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly? It is therefore appropriate that efforts are made to ensure that women take their place so that the policies of all those bodies are properly informed and address the needs of the whole community.

Mrs. Laing

I do not agree with the hon. Lady. She suggests that men ignore matters of interest to women. That is nonsense, and is far too great a generalisation. Quotas are dangerous. It is like saying that a man can swim on his own but that a woman always needs to wear water-wings. We know that it is not true, so why have a policy that suggests it is?

We will not improve freedom of choice and opportunity for women by talking about them patronisingly. Women's issues are society's issues. All we have discussed today is important not only to women but to everyone. I hope that, in a few years' time, as we make further progress, there will be no need and no demand for debates such as this.

1.19 pm
Mrs. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate on the Government's proposals for women. I join other hon. Members in welcoming the Secretary of State's announcements on helping women.

Contrary to what the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said, there is no doubt that the arrival of so many women in Parliament on 1 May last year will have a long-term impact on the life of everyone in the United Kingdom. There is no truth in the rumour that we were elected solely to upset our male colleagues, either in the House or in the media. Far from it; we find some of them quite agreeable, especially those who have been house-trained. Some of us are even married to men and have sons as well as daughters. That may surprise Conservative Members. A colleague compared us to the Sedgemore—sorry the Stepford—wives. I recall that the Stepford wives were pretty, young and slim. Our colleague obviously agrees with me that size is not everything.

After 70 years of votes for women, some tremendous advances have been made, and the Government are making more significant advances, but there is still much to be done. The Government take the problems seriously and this debate is welcome. We should be moving towards the day when women are equally represented in all decision making so that decisions truly reflect the concerns of all. There will be no need for debates such as this when women are at the heart of the decision-making process.

Mrs. Laing

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. McKenna


Local authorities have done some good work since the mid-1980s in setting up women's or equal opportunities committees. I welcome the Secretary of State's recognition of the good work of local authorities and the voluntary sector on child care over the past 18 years, when it was difficult for them to get support for it. Other hon. Members have spoken about those problems, but I want to speak about the process.

One of the great lessons that we have learnt is that to tackle equality issues effectively, we need to regard them not separately but as a key element of policy development. That is why I welcome the Government's recognition that mainstreaming is crucial: putting equality at the heart of policy making with equality issues regarded as integral to every Department and aspect of policy, not kept in a separate little box to be brought out every so often and looked at. Only then will we begin to address inequality in all its aspects.

I hope that the Secretary of State and the Minister for women will examine the excellent research being undertaken in Britain under the auspices of the fourth action programme of the European Union. We have learnt from that experience that the most significant impact comes when women are involved in the decision-making process. Women's concerns are the same as those of men: the economy, jobs, health and education. We are not from another planet, but we have not been involved in decisions about our lives, about the life of our country or the lives of our families. We do not want all the power, as the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) suggested. We will settle for half—our fair share. We ask only to be equal partners.

The comment made by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) about men-free zones clearly demonstrates that Conservative Members do not understand the issues. The real issue is democracy. The House prides itself on being the seat of democracy, yet any elected chamber must reflect the society that it represents. When half the population is excluded from the decision-making process, we get different decisions—some would say bad decisions. I refer to decisions made by Government-appointed bodies. When we exclude half of the population from the business world, we lose the tremendous talents, energy and innovation that we need to succeed in the global economy.

History shows that, unless positive steps are taken, there is no improvement in the representation of women. The fact that there are 101 Labour women in the parliamentary Labour party is entirely due to positive action taken by the Labour party. All the political parties must face that reality.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest, who suggested that women elected to the Scottish Parliament would be damaged, is quite wrong. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already referred to the fact that we shall have a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh assembly. We have in Scotland and Wales an opportunity and the prospect of the first gender-balanced Parliaments in the world. What a start to the millennium if we can produce an equal number of men and women Members.

Labour Members are committed to a process by which we will ensure a list of candidates with equal numbers of men and women of equal ability. Any other party that does not recognise that will suffer the wrath of the electorate. We shall never be forgiven if we wake up on the morning of 7 May 1999 and face the prospect of a small group of women in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly.

I do not want to speak any longer, because I know that some of my colleagues want to contribute. In any case, the microchip implanted in my brain is telling me that it is time to sit down.

1.26 pm
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

I have listened carefully to the debate. I have come to the conclusion that the Government are as stuck in their attitudes to women as they have been slow in their actions to improve the position of women. I hope that, as a result of the positive attitudes and approach of the Opposition today, the Government may think again about their whole policy.

We have seen a lack of vision from the Government and a refusal to acknowledge the many powerful and positive outside forces that have shaped the development and greater role of women in our society. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) for mentioning the role of the dishwasher.

Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

He means the washing machine.

Mrs. Laing

And dishwashers.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Indeed, I could carry on. I am bound to say that, compared to the unimpressive efforts of the Government, washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves and, above all, disposable nappies have had a profound effect on the role of women in society, not to mention that of the men who live with them. I have had five children.

Mrs. McKenna

Do the men who live with the wives who have these children not contribute at all to bringing them up?

Mr. St. Aubyn

I was about to go on to explain how the changes that technology has made in family duties and jobs have played an important part in encouraging men in families to take a bigger role, and have made it much easier for them to cross that threshold.

Rather than focus on the rivalries and differences between men and women, we should focus on the dependency between men and women. There has been too little said in the debate about the fact that we are very much dependent on each other. I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) speak about children in care and, having once worked in a children's home, I do not think that we should ignore the important role played by the many excellent men who work in children's homes, including homes for girls. They provide a positive role model for children who have been subjected to abuse and, by doing so, help those children to take an important first step in making their way back to mainstream society.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) attempted to quantify the input of women who do unpaid work. It is important that we should focus on those who do unpaid work, but the hon. Lady was in danger of falling into the same trap as the Government have. They feel that, if they quantify a problem, they somehow solve it, but the truth is that the contribution of women who stay at home is priceless—it cannot be quantified. Oscar Wilde has already been quoted in the debate and I am reminded of his warning against those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We have to recognise that women's domestic role is vital. By doing so, we immediately understand why there will be a natural limit to the participation of women in the work force. There will be those women, however well qualified they are, who decide that they are best qualified in the role of a mother; and, through that role, they will make a tremendous contribution to the development of their children and perhaps as powerful a contribution to society as anyone in a high-powered job.

I went to the House of Commons Library to check my figures and discovered a striking fact about the period of the Conservative Government: as far as I could tell, going back over nearly all of those 18 years, in every year the level of unemployment among women was lower than that among men. I am grateful to the labour force survey for that finding, although I see hon. Members shaking their heads; 1 shall be happy to share the figures with them after the debate.

Those statistics bring us back to the issue of price over value: many of those jobs may be relatively low paid, but the value of having a job goes beyond pay. It contributes to one's sense of independence and pride, and sometimes to the ability to escape an unfortunate family situation.

Having a job is far more important than the precise level of pay for that job. None of us wants to see women or men exploited by being underpaid, but we should be wary of introducing policies that put the principle of price before the value of having a job at all.

The fact that we have debates about women has been remarked on and there has been discussion about when we last had one; but there can be no doubt that we have never had a debate on men. There is clearly a disparity between our attitudes to men and to women. That disparity was displayed in the Select Committee on Education, on which I am glad to serve. A few months ago, we decided to carry out a study into disaffected boys, but, between formulating the study and the start of our hearings, it became a study into disaffected children.

None of us would deny that there are problems with disaffected girls, but disaffection is predominantly a problem among teenage boys. That, too, goes back to the role of the mother and the fact that boys, even more than girls, find that her support plays a vital role in their development. From evidence given to us, our Committee has found that families with disaffected children are often those where parental support is noticeably lacking. In such families, the detrimental effect on boys of the lack of parental support is even more marked than the effect on girls.

Not only should we perhaps pay more tribute to the vital role of mothers—unpaid, unquantified, but invaluable—but perhaps we should pay tribute, and give our good wishes, to the most famous unpaid worker of all: the Minister for women.

We have been told many times that those who are underpaid find that it undermines their motivation. We are told that they tend to lose their self-respect and that some even withdraw from society. In the six months since the Minister for women was put into her post without being paid for it, she has had found it difficult to answer more than a smattering of questions in the House, and to find time to make more than a smattering of contributions.

I believe, as one of those who argued strongly in the House, when the Minister was appointed, that she should be dignified by being paid a decent wage for the job that she was undertaking, that that lack of pay is all the more to be objected to when one contrasts it with the extravagance of the men in the Government. The Lord Chancellor is spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on his furnishings and carpets, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer just throws his carpets away. Given the threadbare treatment of the Minister, Labour men should be hanging their heads in shame.

Today is the Minister's chance. It is her chance to stand at the Dispatch Box—something that we see as often as a male Member of the House standing at an ironing board—

Mr. Syms

Does my hon. Friend consider that, as the excellent results that women are now achieving are a good thing, we should bring men up to their standard?

Mr. St. Aubyn

That is a good point, but I shall finish with my suggestion to the Minister. When she stands at the Dispatch Box, she has a chance to strike a blow for women by resigning her post, explaining why she is doing so and suggesting that no one else should take it until they are paid a decent wage.

1.36 pm
Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I am pleased to have the chance to speak in the first women's debate since the Labour Government came to power in May 1997. I believe that I am the only woman Member of Parliament from Wales who could stay up in London today, although I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) was present earlier.

There are only four woman Members of Parliament from Wales—four out of 40. The fact that there have been only seven woman Members of Parliament for Wales since women gained the vote 80 years ago tells us that there is something wrong with the system. That record stands despite a long history of radical women from Wales. Some hon. Members may have heard of Jemima Nicholas, who, 200 years ago, stopped the French invading Fishguard. More recently, there have been the women in the miners' support groups in the South Wales valleys. I am proud that the Minister for women is from Wales; she is another radical woman from Wales.

I pay tribute to all the women from Wales who work tirelessly, often behind the scenes, keeping everything going and keeping the wheels turning as women have always done—keeping playgroups going, looking after elderly people, rushing to get the kids from school. It is really important that we make certain that those women also have the opportunity to come to the House, or to the Scottish Parliament, or to the National Assembly of Wales, and make their voices heard.

Many more women in Wales work than they did 20 years ago. Then, they made up a third of the work force; now, they make up nearly a half. The increase in women's employment has coincided with a decrease in male employment. That has resulted from savage changes in the patterns of male working in Wales because of the rundown of heavy industry.

Although more women are working in Wales, that increase has come largely from part-time jobs in the service sector. During the 1980s, the number of women in Wales employed full time fell, while part-time employment grew.

Chwarae Teg—which means "fair play" in English—is an organisation which promotes equal opportunities in the work force. Its surveys show that women are more likely to have short-term contracts or no contracts, to be employed part time or to work at home, whereas men are more likely to have full-time jobs with proper contracts, holidays, sick pay, occupational pensions and—importantly—more training opportunities.

Mrs. Gillan

I am pleased that the hon. Lady praises the work of Chwarae Teg, on which the fair play for women exercise was built by the previous Conservative Government. Does she share my hope that the Government will continue to support fair play for women in Wales and the rest of the country? We want a firm commitment from the Minister to back that.

Ms Morgan

The Government have already shown their commitment to Chwarae Teg and increased the range of its work enormously since coming to power last May.

Women in Wales earn three quarters of what men earn—even though men in Wales are among the lowest paid in Britain. Women in Wales are concentrated in certain sectors of employment, such as clerical, secretarial, sales, personal and protective services. There is a lack of women in top jobs. Unlike the Conservatives, I think that that is a great shame. The situation is worse in Wales than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Local government reorganisation made matters worse. There are no women leaders, and fewer women in chief positions. Only 24 per cent. of those on public bodies in Wales are women, compared with 33 per cent. in Britain as a whole. There are very few role models for women and girls in such jobs in Wales.

There is a huge untapped potential of women's skills and abilities in Wales, which the Government will release. The two most important ways to help do so are education and training and child care. There are already more women than men involved in further education in Wales. The same is happening in higher education. Many of those going into higher and further education are mature women with children. At the moment, relatives and friends care and provide for many of those children, but more women would be able to follow courses if there were child care facilities. The national trend for girls to achieve better results than boys at GCSE and A-level also applies in Wales, but the picture is different at NVQ level 3, which 32 per cent. of women are achieving, compared with 43 per cent. of men.

There has been an increase in child care facilities through Government initiatives such as the training and enterprise councils' out-of-school initiative. Such opportunities must be affordable for women to be able to take proper advantage of them. All the research shows that the majority of women who use the facilities—which have increased recently—have qualifications. The opportunities have not reached lower-paid women or lone parents. The funding has been used to pump-prime initiatives, which has meant that they have often not been sustainable. In areas of low income, longer-term funding is essential, going beyond the initial pump priming. I hope that the Government's money for child care will keep some such initiatives going, rather than just concentrating on new places.

Provision of pre-school child care is also important. The lone parents initiative, for which Cardiff is a pilot area, has shown that one of the barriers for women trying to gain work is the lack of child care facilities for pre-school children.

I have to wind up now because there is not much time left. Now is the time to recognise that child care is an integral and essential part of economic activity. We have one of the worst child care records in Europe. It is significant that no country with low child care costs has a low level of lone parent employment. Lone parents want to take advantage of any opportunities that present themselves. I think that we shall tackle these issues in Wales and in Britain as a whole. This is an historic moment, as child care, the family and women form an essential part of the new Government's policies.

1.45 pm
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), who is no longer in the Chamber, that it is important to conduct this debate in broad terms and not turn women's issues into a cul de sac. We can exclude no topic—not defence, foreign affairs or anything else—from a discussion of women's issues. All issues affect women, and it is important that we tackle those issues across Government. The previous Government recognised that fact by ensuring that a range of Ministers understood the needs of women, and I believe that this Government are doing the same. I think that that is a positive step forward.

Women have come a long way this century. As I said in my intervention during the speech of the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), the general material well-being of this nation—and of women within it—has improved considerably in the past 20 years. At the beginning of the century, we debated whether women should have the vote, which was, rightly, conceded. We are now considering what role women should play in terms of combat and the armed services. Mention was made of the fact that women are playing a successful role in the United States armed forces. They have moved up the ranks and enjoy a high level of importance and responsibility within American society. I look forward to seeing more women playing an active role in our armed services in future.

The Conservative party has a good reputation in terms of female representation in this place: the first female Member of Parliament was Lady Astor, and Margaret Thatcher did an excellent job while serving for 11 years as our first woman Prime Minister. When I take tours around this splendid building, I am disappointed that most of the statues are of men.

Mrs. Gorman

All of them.

Mr. Syms

My hon. Friend may be correct, although there are some portraits of royal women. I look forward to the day when there will be statues of women as well and when the plinth in the Members' Lobby has a statue of Margaret Thatcher so that we may polish her foot before entering the Chamber.

Mr. Fabricant

Kiss her foot.

Mr. Syms

That is a good point.

Mrs. Gorman

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time that we erected some memorial in this place to the suffragette movement? It is a disgrace that the only statue honouring that movement is parked in the gardens next door.

Mr. Syms

My hon. Friend makes a good point: I know that she is a doughty fighter for the rights of women. Women have had the vote for many years and I believe that the suffragettes should be honoured with a statue in this building—perhaps it could be erected next to the statue of Baroness Thatcher.

As to economic opportunities, women comprise 30 per cent. of the work force, and 12.3 million women are in work. Those figures are likely to increase substantially in future. In the early years of the next century, it is estimated that more than 50 per cent. of the work force will be women. Some 40 per cent. of corporate managers are likely to be women, as women are moving up the structures of many organisations and bodies. I recently visited Barclays International in Poole, which is a major centre. Although only one of the six managers there is a woman, most of those who will assume future top management posts within that organisation are women.

I believe that the previous Government's policies assisted the general position of women in this nation. However, I shall not provoke Labour Members by pursuing that point any further, as time is restricted. I turn to several key subjects. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) mentioned independent taxation for married women, which was introduced by the previous Government. I hope that the Budget and the benefits review will not alter that important provision. We shall look carefully at the benefits review on 26 March and at the Budget on 17 March to see what changes have been made. It is important that the Government do not interfere with independent taxation for married women.

The Conservative party and many of us as Members with postbags are concerned about child benefit. It should not be means-tested or taxed. I receive many letters from constituents who are worried about what the Government have in mind. I hope that their fears are largely unfounded. The Government would be ill advised to change policy on child benefit.

On pensions, it has always been my view, even when my own Government were in office, that the state's contribution to widows' pensions is paltry. I hope that, in the benefit review, the Government consider a better standard of living to women who are left, sometimes at an early age, to be supported by the state because of inadequate provision.

On the broader issue of pensions, the Government's policies in the last Budget have not been helpful. The change in advance corporation tax regulations that will take £5 billion a year out of pension funds will make a considerable difference.

A matter of great current debate for women is the splitting of pensions on divorce which, as we all know, is all too prevalent. It is inevitable that, if the pool of pensions is diminished by changes to ACT policy, the sum will be smaller, however it is split. The Government's policy will make a substantial difference to people if they are unfortunate enough to get divorced, and pensions can be disaggregated.

University fees are another important aspect which has been mentioned. Many women have found opportunities through education, which has enabled them to find jobs and get on, sometimes better than men. The Government's policy on student fees is ill advised and will reduce the future investment of human capital. In deference to other hon. Members who wish to speak, I shall conclude with that.

1.50 pm
Mrs. Eileen Gordon (Romford)

I am pleased to speak in the debate and to be the first woman Member of Parliament for Romford.

I congratulate the Government on the initiatives that they have already taken to put women at the heart of the Government's agenda. I particularly welcome the child care initiatives.

I went back to part-time teaching when my children went to school, and it was difficult to find facilities for the gap between the time that they finished school and the time that I finished work and could get home. Luckily, I had a good neighbour who helped me out, but the national child care strategy with its £300 million out-of-school initiative should make it much easier to find support of an excellent standard.

One of my other interests is the health service. I welcome the £50 million increase in staff training budgets. Many of the shortages of staff in the health service could be addressed by higher-quality training for nurses, who are quite capable of taking on much more responsibility, but have suffered from the attitude of some doctors and consultants and the "them and us" syndrome: "We are the doctors; you are only the nurses."

I welcome the boost of £2.15 million to nurse and midwife recruitment, and the reform of breast and cervical cancer screening to build and restore confidence in those services.

We are doing so much, and we have achieved a great deal, but there is still a long way to go, not only for the Government, but for society. For example, the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) mentioned the fact that Marylebone cricket club still excludes women from membership. I have been in the Long Room at Lord's. Of course it was a concession and it was on a ladies' cricket day, but one day, women will be there as a right, not as a concession. As one MCC member—not the hon. Gentleman—put it: I can't stand the thought of women putting up curtains in the pavilion and worrying about things like the wallpaper and colour schemes. I am sure that, when women members get there, they will have much more important things on their mind, but I must say that it could do with a lick of paint.

This week, I spoke at a Rotary club meeting in Romford. I agreed to speak there only because the club has recently accepted its first woman member and has assured me that it is actively seeking more women members. Rotary has realised what the MCC has not—that, unless it adapts, it will die.

The constant drip over the centuries of being treated as second-class citizens has knocked women's confidence. In their minds, many women feel unequal and accept the limitations placed on them by men. Their work status has suffered because of the need to fit their activities around their children's lives. They have tended to take part-time, poorly paid, insecure work, and have been penalised for putting their children first. That must change, and it will change under this Government.

My sisters used to take the most awful jobs towards the end of the year because they wanted to buy their children something special for Christmas. One year—quite a while ago—they took a job in a bubble gum factory. The white coating on the bubble gum also coated them. The workers at the factory looked like demented snow women. They worked at a conveyor belt, which moved rather quickly. Their job—especially my sister Vera' s—was to sellotape the tops of the boxes as they came down the conveyor belt.

As I have said, the conveyor belt moved rather quickly. One of the workers fainted. She was dragged outside on to the grass and left there. The boxes were falling all around her and, as an act of protest, she taped herself to her machine, yelling for freedom. She soon got it, by mutual consent, I believe. For too long, women have had to put up with such conditions. Many of them had no choice and no voice.

I believe that women took a giant step forward on 1 May 1997. That is because so many were elected to the House and because the vast majority were Labour. To me, a shared philosophy is even stronger than shared gender. I have not joined cross-party women's groups because, with due respect to women Conservative Members, I have never been interested in seeing more Tory or Liberal Democrat women elected to this place. That is something for their own parties to sort out.

We have our beliefs, and I believe that we can be good role models for women throughout the country. That is a great responsibility. Historically, women have had to fight to achieve equality. However, it is so annoying to most of us to have to make a point that is self-evident.

Mention has been made of the suffragette movement, and I hope that all women Members have made a pilgrimage to the store cupboard in the Chapel, where in 1911 Emily Davison hid away to try to get her name on the electoral register at this place. She later died under the hooves of the King's horse at the Derby, giving her life for her beliefs. We should remember those who went before us, who fought for rights that we now take for granted.

One of the biggest influences on my life was my father, who never patronised his three daughters. He always taught us to think that we were never better than anyone else, or worse. I have always tried to live by that and not make judgments about others because of gender, race or religion. I am saddened when people pass judgments about my views or appearance simply because I am a woman. Those who criticise or patronise because of gender should reflect on their own motivation and insecurity. If they would not make the same remarks about a man, their behaviour is unacceptable.

There is a great deal of hope in the young girls of today. My daughter and her female friends are confident, strong, and leading their own lives and making decisions for themselves. They are not dependent on men in their lives. Partnership, yes, but not patronage. Education, example and support are the ways forward.

The Government are determined to make women feel that they and their views are important. At the same time, the Government want to give women a support network that will enable them to make genuine choices about their lives. I am convinced that, as a result of the debate and the Government's future actions, women will feel that their interests are at the heart of the Government's concerns.

1.57 pm
Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

In the three minutes allowed to me, I shall make a couple of brief points. Some of the male commentators are prone to make head counts of female Members, as did, sadly, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing). That being so, I declare a job share. My colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), is addressing a conference that I was to address, organised by the Doncaster domestic violence working party. Our mutual priorities are the same; we have divided our presence so that we may share the two opportunities to talk about domestic violence.

The Doncaster domestic violence working party plays a vital and largely unseen role, as do many agencies at local level, in supporting and protecting women and children who experience domestic violence. No reasons can excuse the hidden brutality of domestic violence. We know that insecurity at work, debt at home, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse and family histories of abuse all contribute to the risk of abusive behaviour developing and ruining the lives of too many women and their children.

In the past two years, the number of calls to the Doncaster Women's Aid advice line has risen fourfold, to 598 calls last year. The number of women and children who went to the Doncaster refuge is small compared to the number of families who do not manage to reach out and seek help.

It is easy to forget that the impact of violence and abuse on the woman is not just physical and psychological, but damages the children, who may carry the pattern of that abuse into other relationships in adulthood.

I commend the Minister on her bravery in giving priority to this area and on recognising that a cross-departmental approach at national level reflects the multi-agency approach which is required on the ground.

The Family Law Act 1996, which enables the removal of perpetrators of violence in the home, will, I hope, be complemented by greater powers to ensure that the police and the criminal justice system show greater sensitivity in their treatment of victims and vulnerable witnesses. Likewise, opportunities must be seized to identify and provide support to families where parents are experiencing stress.

Domestic violence has not been ignored, but there is much to be done. Too many women suffer in silence. I think that in this respect this Government will achieve what other Governments have not.

2 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I congratulate all the hon. Members who have spoken today. We have, I believe, managed to squeeze in 21 speeches from Back Benchers. The House will be interested to know that, by my reckoning, we have heard from a nurse, an educationist and lecturer, a radio station owner, two social workers, a lobbyist, two lawyers, a public relations consultant, two bankers, three teachers, a university lecturer and two journalists—

Mrs. Gorman

And an entrepreneur!

Mrs. Gillan

I am sorry; would my hon. Friend like to intervene?

We heard from a wide range of experience. I was surprised that, despite the wide-ranging debate, subjects that I thought would be raised were not. I was surprised not to hear comments from Labour Members about personal equity plans and tax-exempt special savings accounts. I am surprised that nobody mentioned the fact that, when the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill was brought before the House the other day—a Bill of particular interest to women—Government Whips had it talked out.

I am surprised that we did not talk about the plight of women in other countries, particularly "Platform for Action"; that there was little, if any, mention of pornography and, indeed, the high rate of teenage pregnancies. However, I am delighted that the Government found time for this debate, even though it has been relegated to a Friday, when some Labour Members were not able to attend. I am truly sorry that we did not hear from them.

Today may be a parliamentary first. While this debate is taking place, Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare is promoting his Bill on succession to the Crown, which seeks to remove any distinction between the sexes in determining succession. This could be the first time that women have been the focus of simultaneous debates in both Houses. I hope that the Government will support my noble Friend's Bill.

I echo the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) when she welcomed hon. Ladies to the House. I, too, am pleased to see the greater participation of women from all walks of life, and all trades and professions, not least in the House. I hope that, despite the political divide that is obvious between the Front Benches, hon. Ladies on the Government Benches will take my welcome in the spirit in which it is meant.

There was a contrast between the Secretary of State's opening speech for the Government—which I thought was trivial, containing only one announcement of yet another talking shop—and the excellent speeches that we heard from the Back Benches.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) is a great campaigner in her own right, but she started badly by completely misunderstanding a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk. I hope that she is now more enlightened about disaggregated statistics.

One of the hon. Lady's own points was totally wrong, too. I should have thought that she would at least acknowledge the fact that my right hon. Friend and I started mainstreaming and had it cleared at Cabinet level. Mainstreaming passed into every Government Department, so that every piece of legislation was scrutinised for gender impact. I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not acknowledge the work that was done, especially by my right hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) made a statesmanlike speech, skilfully outlining the variety of opportunities open to women today. She reminded us of the arrogance that working women sometimes have, and the way in which they sometimes look down on women who just stay at home. I believe, as she does, that women who stay at home provide a valuable service both to their children and families and to life in this country.

My hon. Friend echoed my view—a view held by many of my hon. Friends and also, I believe, by many Labour Members—that flexible working arrangements are essential if women are to get on. Term-time mums, home working, teleworking and part-time work were all part of the theme of her contribution.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) sought to criticise the Conservative party for its record of female participation in Europe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne rightly said in an intervention, she has played a role herself, on the Council of Europe—and the hon. Member for Stourbridge had better not repeat her accusation in the hearing of Dame Jill Knight or Dame Peggy Fenner, lately of this House, both of whom have provided the House and the country with great service.

The hon. Lady also spoke about the problems involved in rape cases, and I am sure that many of her words on that subject would be echoed by my hon. Friends.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard) spoke about mainstreaming. Sadly, I felt that she was another hon. Member who was not entirely familiar with the previous Government's provisions in that area. I hope that, after my speech, people will at least know that mainstreaming was indeed a main theme of the Conservative Government's policies towards women.

The hon. Lady struck a chord with me when she spoke of the plight of women who work from 7 in the morning to 11 at night. She reminded me that we should all take our hats off to those of the women who serve in this place who have young families. I do not have a family myself, but there is no doubt that those people make a valuable contribution, and have an awful lot of work on their hands.

The hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) said that she was jet-lagged, so I am glad to see her still in her place, although we would have understood if she had gone home. She reminded us that being a night nurse, a mother and a councillor is a bit like feeling jet-lagged, and there was great sympathy with what she said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), who was the first Conservative male to make a contribution, made a valiant attempt to strike the gender balance. He drew our attention to the worrying statistics on the performance of boys at school, especially in GCSE and A-level results. Those should concern the Government, as they concerned my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk and me when we were both at the Department for Education and Employment.

My hon. Friend also spoke about teleworking, something on which I am keen, especially since a delegation came to see me. I believe that that form of working will grow dramatically and benefit men and women.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm) spoke about child care and lone parent benefits. He resigned from the Government over the issue of lone parent benefit, and I take my hat off to him for sticking to his principles. It is a pity that his colleagues do not follow his lead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) always talks a great deal of common sense. Not a sound was heard when she gave us her views on education and working women, and there was not a dry eye in the House when she reminded us of the plight of older women. I hope that she will not mind my saying that she is for ever young in this House. When my hon. Friend urged us to consider older women, she was derided by Labour Members. I hope that that was just fun and games, because older women deserve sincere consideration from both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) made an excellent contribution on the problems of her Asian women constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) spoke fluently about independent taxation. The doubts over Government policies that she raised should be carefully examined by the Ministers for women.

When the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes) said that work was perhaps the only way in which a woman could prove herself, I began to listen to her speech more carefully. I advise her to talk to Full Time Mothers, an organisation that believes that the Government are putting tremendous pressure on women to go out to work. It has made valid points that merit examination. However, I am grateful for her support on adoption measures, and I should be happy for them to be pursued.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) made an excellent speech that put the gender balance fairly and squarely back in the middle. He expressed great regret about the MCC decision not to admit women members, but the Royal Automobile Club, of which I am a family member, has just voted to allow women members.

My hon. Friends the Members for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) and for Poole (Mr. Syms) made sterling contributions. We also heard from the hon. Members for Romford (Mrs. Gordon), for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan), for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mrs. McKenna) and for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths). I hope that they will forgive me for not commenting on their speeches in detail. I am sure that the Minister for women will refer to them.

I feel rather sorry for the Minister for women. Like many other hopefuls, on 2 May last year she would have been waiting for the famous call from Downing street asking her to be a junior Minister. But that call did not come until six weeks later, on 11 June, because women were certainly not the Government's priority. The call was an afterthought, made when the Prime Minister remembered, or was reminded, that the Labour party had made so many promises to women that it had better find someone to do the job.

The hon. Lady is doing a ministerial job without ministerial pay. What on earth does that say about the Government's priorities for women? It sends out the wrong signal: a woman can be appointed at a rate below that of her male colleagues. The Government appear willing to spend more on the Lord Chancellor's wallpaper than on a Minister for women.

The hon. Lady has said that her pay is a technical matter. I invite her to take her case to the employment appeals tribunal. If her pay is a technical matter, what signal is going out to women who go to the tribunal over pay discrimination in the workplace? Will they be told that the Prime Minister thinks that pay is a technical matter and that even the Minister for women is paid less than male Ministers?

To say the least, the Government's arrangements for ministerial responsibility got off to a rocky start. For years, the Labour party told us that there would be not only a Minister for women in the Cabinet, but a Ministry for women. That proposal was watered down so much that today we have a Secretary of State with full responsibility and a Minister for women without pay.

The Secretary of State has made much of the fresh approach to women. That is totally inaccurate and I must put the record right. The right hon. Lady says that she has announced a new Cabinet Sub-Committee and a new women's unit and that she is producing a new child care strategy. There is nothing new about child care strategy. I have here the paper, "Work and Family: Ideas and Options for Child Care", which the Conservative Government issued nearly two years ago.

In her reply, will the Minister for women confirm that this Government's child care strategy paper has been delayed from October to November to February and, now, until after the Budget and that it is merely a consultation paper, which will look similar to that produced by the previous Government? Will she also confirm that tax breaks for employers will continue and will not be attacked by the Chancellor in the next Budget? Will she confirm that she has looked into the Kids Club Network and the Child Care Voucher Ltd.'s scheme—the out-of-school voucher? Will she confirm that the Inland Revenue will be taxing that under this Government?

This has been a good debate, but it raises serious doubts over the Government's priorities for women, which they so loudly espouse. Women are not pleased with this Government's performance. Like many hon. Members, in recent months I have been flooded with letters from women concerned about taxes on private pensions, personal equity plans and tax-exempt special savings accounts, mortgage rises, student fees and the rises in hospital waiting lists. Indeed, I have even received a letter from the Women's National Commission, which represents 50 non-governmental organisations. It is deeply disappointed in the Government's performance and says: We looked to this Government to deliver a great deal for women. Our expectations have not yet been fulfilled. That is an indictment of this Government and I hope that, when the Minister stands at the Dispatch Box, she will feel ashamed that the Women's National Commission has already condemned the Government's performance.

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

This has been an excellent debate—I am tempted to add, without the speech we have just heard, but there we are—which has clearly shown that the interests of women are being brought to the heart of Government. We have heard passionate arguments, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons), who made a case for testing all policies against the gender impact and the centrality of women's contributions to our economy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) mentioned the treatment of rape victims. The House should be aware of the work being done in the Home Office on vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, and the concern about the falling conviction rate for those charged with rape.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) mentioned the important question of the difficulties experienced by Asian women, and the need for special awareness. We acknowledge the double disadvantage that comes of both gender and race, and I meet many ethnic minority groups to hear their case.

We have heard strong arguments in support of women's advancement and opportunity. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) mentioned women in the armed forces, particularly in the United States. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has already decided to widen the opportunities for women in our armed forces.

The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), who is always great value in this House, talked of many things, including the serious matter of unwanted teenage pregnancies. My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health has set up a task group and is studying that issue seriously, as it is of great concern to this Government, and we intend to tackle it.

From many women Members we heard the woman's perspective on key areas of Government policy, including a speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes) on the important contribution of family friendly employment strategies to the needs of women. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) gave an example of good practice in her constituency. The Government are taking forward all those concerns about balancing work and parenting in our dialogue with women and, indeed, with employers.

Our male colleagues expressed their concern about continuing inequalities, although the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) seemed to have great difficulty understanding how inequality should be addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm) paid fulsome tribute to the work of the Ministers for women, clearly understanding the way in which we work across Government and, indeed, often behind the scenes. He spoke about violence against women, which we shall tackle in the national strategy that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced. I can assure him that, in putting together that strategy, we shall consult organisations such as the Zero Tolerance Trust.

The fact has clearly come across that, although women and men may share the same values and objectives, women's lives have a different pattern from men's. That was graphically illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan), whom I join in seeking improvements for women in Wales.

In her opening remarks, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for women demonstrated the breadth of Government policy where women's interests are clearly to the fore. From education to health, and from employment to child care, she outlined our strategy for fulfilling the promises that we made to the women of this country. Questions have been raised on a number of those issues, to which I shall respond in due course.

First, I shall give a brief account of how the priorities for women that we have established in our domestic agenda relate to our international obligations. Under Britain's presidency of the European Union, the Government have a unique opportunity to bring women's perspectives to the heart of Europe. Our various initiatives are designed not as one-off meetings, but as a means of driving forward the women's agenda throughout the European Union.

In Glasgow in April, our conference theme will be the organisation of work. Employers, trade unions and Governments will be able to share best practice and consider how they can facilitate and foster a better balance between work and family life. In Belfast in May, the theme will be employability and the importance of child care. Ministers for women across member states will be able to examine progress on this most fundamental issue for women.

Not only are we putting women's priorities on the European agenda, but, for the first time, we will be able to say with pride in Europe that we have a Green Paper on a national child care strategy.

Mrs. Gillan

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Ruddock

No. The hon. Lady took some of my time—she cannot have more.

Although the United Kingdom has lagged behind in the child care league tables, the Government are taking the lead in developing the employment action plans that were discussed in the Luxembourg summit. Here, too, we are ensuring that equal opportunities feature strongly, and we are making up for lost time.

Mrs. Gillan

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask your advice. I believe that I heard the Minister say that, for the first time, there would be a Green Paper on child care. The previous Conservative Government produced a Green Paper—a consultation paper. Is it in order for the hon. Lady to mislead the House in this fashion?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a point of order for the Chair.

Ms Ruddock

It is clearly the first time for us. The Government have a Green Paper, and the difference between the Government and the previous Conservative Government is that we intend to have a national strategy.

By incorporating the social chapter, we are making up for lost time. As many hon. Members have noted, the long-hours culture is endemic in Britain: a quarter of all fathers work more than 50 hours a week. That is why the working time directive will be important to British families and why we are consulting on its implementation.

The part-time work and parental leave directive will also benefit women, by raising the standard of part-time work and encouraging the development of good part-time opportunities. The directive will also give women and their partners the right to three months' unpaid leave when their child is born or adopted. For the first time, women and men will be able to take time off for urgent family reasons without the threat of losing their jobs.

In these and other ways, the Government are ensuring that Europe delivers for the women of Britain. In seeking to improve our lives in this country and throughout the rest of Europe, we must not lose sight of the condition of the majority of the women in the world.

International Women's Day on 8 March has always been a time both to celebrate women's achievements and to mark women's oppression in those countries where women's human rights continue to be violated. This year, the European Parliament has called on the international community to make an appeal on behalf of the women of Afghanistan. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has signed that appeal on behalf of our Government.

Next week, I shall lead, with pride, the United Kingdom delegation to the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and I will speak for the European Union. We will follow up the global platform for action to which the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) referred, and will try to give momentum to the painstaking process of advancing women's rights throughout the world.

One topic to be followed up is violence against women. I shall say that the European Union believes that violence against women is an obstacle to equality and development, and that it should be recognised for the crime it is. Today's debate makes it clear that, in taking that message to New York, I shall have the support of the House. I shall also be able to tell participants that we are using our presidency of the European Union to begin planning for a Europewide consciousness-raising programme on violence against women for the latter part of next year.

I turn now to some of the questions raised in the debate. The hon. Members for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard) and for Billericay, among others, asked about tax reliefs for child care. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already indicated the direction of his thinking, and, through the working family tax credit, he will provide help for all working families on low incomes. The hon. Member for Taunton also asked whether the working family tax credit would be payable to the person who pays for child care rather than the highest wage earner. When the working family tax credit is introduced, families will be able to elect to whom the credit is paid.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), in a serious contribution, raised many taxation issues. I can tell her that there will be no return to the world in which women were treated as men's chattels in tax law. However, she will be aware that most of the other matters she raised are all speculation and she will not seriously expect me to respond to them today. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) raised the question of payment for the contraceptive pill. No such proposal is currently under consideration.

The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) raised questions about accountability and representation. I wish to make it clear that I have answered more questions on women's issues in the nine months that I have been Minister for women than she and her colleagues answered in the whole of the time that they were in government. I note also that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk, who made so much of the point, has never tabled a question on women to myself or to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security.

As for representation, although we acknowledge the previous Government's attempts to improve the representation of women, only one third of public appointments go to women. Therefore, we know that there is much to be done. We intend to do it, and our women's unit is working with the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments to devise a joint strategy. I endorse everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mrs. McKenna) about the representation of women in the Scottish Parliament.

Many of my hon. Friends here today will be disappointed that they have been unable to contribute to the debate. It is a testament to the fact that we consider the issues of such great importance that so many of my hon. Friends have made the time to be here on a Friday and to seek to contribute.

Mrs. Gillan

The Minister has been passed a note to say that she is running out of time.

Ms Ruddock

It says, "Keep going," and I intend to do so.

The richness and variety of this debate are testimony of the importance that the Government and the House give to women.

In the past 10 months, we have come a long way in addressing our priorities. The Green Paper on child care, the national strategy on violence against women and the proposals for women's juries show how much can be done by taking a cross-Government approach to issues of concern to women in a new and innovative way. We plan to do much more, as we continue to tackle women's inequality and develop policies that will improve all our lives.

The shadow Leader of the House said that we should be judged by what we achieve, not what we intend. We are happy to be so judged. That is why we are reaching out to all policy makers through mainstreaming to ensure that they take account of the needs and views of women. Only in that way can we move away from the idea that women's concerns are secondary or separate, as some hon. Members have suggested. As the debate showed, women's concerns are wide-ranging and a part of the mainstream debate and of the policies of this Government. In celebrating international women's day—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.