§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]4.23 pm
§ The Minister for Public Health (Ms Tessa Jowell)
Today is the 73rd international women's day—a day to mark what women do, want and achieve. In Europe, the Commission and Parliament are celebrating international women's day. Commissioner Gradin is launching a campaign to heighten public awareness about violence towards women.
Throughout the world, international women's day is being celebrated. Baroness Jay, the Minister for Women, is today in New York to attend the United Nations Commission for the Status of Women. She will take part in a debate on violence against women and join Commissioner Gradin via a video link.
What women want is a Government whose actions and priorities reflect their lives. For too many women, the political process is remote and irrelevant. That is why it is doubly important that women see evidence that the Government listen, act on what they hear and never break the link with women and families. The Government must respect the boundary between public policy and private lives, but understand that public policy can make the responsibilities of private life so much easier to handle. Governments do not bring up children; families do. Governments are able, however, to provide the framework of hope and opportunity in which families are given the very best chance of success—success for the part-time worker who is the full-time mother, for the full-time mother who is the part-time carer, and for the full-time mother.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)
Will the right hon. Lady acknowledge the valuable work done by local play groups? What would she say to the Bowley Park play group in Lichfield which, because of the introduction of the minimum wage, faces the difficult choice of either packing up altogether or increasing prices considerably to the young mothers who are sending their toddlers to the play group?
§ Ms Jowell
I should first note that about 20 per cent. of Conservative Members are in the Chamber for the debate, and that about 20 per cent. of them has just spoken. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Department for Education and Employment is examining ways in which to span the interim period until the working families tax credit takes effect.
The Government, in making things better for women, are making things better for everyone: better for women is better for all. The issues of concern to women are the issues of concern to everyone: health, education, crime, jobs and the economy. Women benefit when we spend £21 billion to improve our hospitals, spend £19 billion extra to improve our schools, take action to cut youth unemployment by 55 per cent. and enable jobs overall to grow by 400,000. Those actions benefit women, because they benefit everyone.
§ Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)
I am sorry to divert the right hon. Lady from the big subjects, but I should 35 like to pursue the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). If I understood him correctly—I am fairly certain that I did—he said that staff at the pre-school play group he mentioned were currently paid less than £3.60.
§ Mrs. Lait
My hon. Friend acknowledges that that is correct. Therefore, given the Minister's answer to my hon. Friend's question, is she saying that the working families tax credit is a way of supplementing income of less than £3.60? She seemed to be saying that. I should be grateful if she will clarify the matter.
§ Ms Jowell
I should make three points. First, I reiterate that the Department for Education and Employment is closely examining the circumstances in which play groups may find it difficult to manage with the introduction of the minimum wage. Secondly, I make it clear that the working families tax credit will be a benefit available to couples earning up to £23,000 annually. Thirdly, the important point—which is always ignored by Opposition Members—is that the minimum wage, which the Government are introducing, will free from poverty pay about 1.3 million women in the United Kingdom. We are proud of that.
I shall outline the changes that are being made in women's lives, beginning with children. Recent opinion polls have made it clear that more than one third of women think that education is the most important issue facing Britain today. The Government have pledged—in addition to the extra £2.4 billion aimed at raising school standards—£19 billion to education in the next three years. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced last week, by 2002, and probably earlier, class sizes for children under seven will be cut to no more than 30. Already, more than 100,000 children are in smaller infant classes. Those children will be able to learn better because they are in smaller classes.
Since September 1998, every four-year-old in England has had access to free good-quality, part-time, preschool education. Moreover, we have allocated almost £400 million more to increase the proportion of three-year-olds receiving free pre-school education—from one in three to almost two thirds—by January 2002.
§ Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)
The Minister is lauding the Government's action on nursery education. Does she accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), that as a result of the Government's policy on the minimum wage, many pre-schools may have to close? That will reduce opportunities for women and take away the chance of early years education for many children. It is hardly an example of the joined-up government that the Government keep saying that they are so proud of.
§ Ms Jowell
Once again, I assure the hon. Lady that the Government are determined to ensure stability in the provision for very young children. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is making arrangements on that.
36 The aim of our sure start programme is to fill the gaps in local services for children from birth to age four, and to promote opportunity in areas of disadvantage. We recognise that we can improve the health of new babies by improving the health of mothers during pregnancy. Some 250 programmes will be funded by the end of this Parliament. We have invested £452 million in England alone and a total of £540 million will be invested nationwide over the next three years. We are not prepared to allow children's opportunities to be set on the day that they are born. Sure start is about creating opportunities for the poorest families by offering opportunities for all. In a few weeks, we shall see the biggest ever increase in child benefit. That is real delivery, real action and real progress.
Our second area of concern in the life cycle of women is teenage girls. By adolescence, the issues that face girls and boys can be very different. The effects of the choices that girls face during their teens can last for the rest of their lives. The issues that young women face today are significantly different from those of a generation ago. Britain has the highest rate of teenage motherhood in western Europe. By the age of 15, one in three young women smoke regularly, compared with one in four boys. The number of young women drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week, which is more than is good for them, has increased over the past 10 years.
§ Ms Jowell
I should like to make some progress first, but I am prepared to take interventions later.
Girls tend to outperform boys throughout their school years, but many lose confidence and self-esteem in their teenage years. We need changing actions and new ways of thinking to deal with new difficulties and new problems. That means looking across Government for solutions. We must take note of the evidence that the education of mothers is the most important predictor of the educational achievement of their daughters.
The social exclusion unit is studying teenage pregnancies. It has undertaken the largest ever consultation exercise and will report its findings shortly. The women's unit is looking at what happens to girls during their teenage years that, too often, prevents them from meeting earlier aspirations and achievements. It is looking at the extent of gender stereotyping, which drives girls into particular careers. It is also studying the growing concern about the risk behaviour that teenage girls are increasingly engaging in—behaviour that may compromise their health for the rest of their lives.
No one story can be told about the lives of mothers in Britain today, because women's lives are changing faster than ever before. Some 25 years ago, only one in four mothers with children under five were in paid employment. Now the figure is nearly half. Nearly eight out of 10 of all mothers are in paid work. Overwhelmingly, mothers want to work because work brings a sense of value, income and independence. Nearly seven out of 10 women—the same proportion as men— say that they would rather work, even if they could afford not to. However, many would prefer to work for shorter hours.
When children are young and dependent, there must be a choice—a real choice. The Government have made sure that support is there, whichever course the mother 37 chooses. The child care tax credit will fund the first £70 of child care costs for eligible mothers, and £105 for two or more children. The working families tax credit will make it easier for couples on low incomes to cope if one parent—invariably the mother—decides to stay at home when the children are very small. The choice no longer lies between underwork and overwork. Governments can help women to balance their lives, but these are private choices. They can be choices because we have listened to women.
The Government have taken an important step in improving the lot of families, with the biggest-ever increase in child benefit coming up. That will be in addition to the increase for every family with children on income support. Practical action by the Government will transform the lives of women in paid work.
From April, the national minimum wage will take effect. It will tackle exploitation and ensure greater fairness in the workplace. Nearly 2 million workers will benefit from the minimum wage, around two thirds of whom are women—1.3 million women. The working families tax credit—together with the minimum wage— will guarantee low-paid families with a full-time worker a minimum income of £190 a week, with no tax to pay on incomes below £220.
There is still a huge disparity between women's and men's incomes; the earnings gap is still there, and still wide. When men enter employment, their earnings, on average, tend to rise steadily to a peak, suggesting that their earnings reflect their increasing skills and experience—as well as the jobs that they enter. Women's earnings reach only a much lower point, and then gradually taper away.
We will make clear just how stark the gap is when we publish a new document on the gender gap in the pay packet shortly. Further work will provide us with valuable tools to build on existing measures, such as the national minimum wage, to identify correctly the nature and extent of the pay gap, to enable women to better balance taking paid work with family commitments, and to improve women's incomes in retirement.
The most important issue for women at work in terms of being able to balance the responsibilities of home and work is family-friendly employment. The Employment Relations Bill, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, makes a good start at levelling off the unequal playing field by extending maternity leave to 18 weeks, creating a right to parental leave and creating a right to time off to deal with an emergency in the family.
As they grow older, many women become carers; some 60 per cent. of our 6 million carers are women. It is a tough and vital role—a role that has been disgracefully ignored for too many years in this country. Our national carers strategy, published some weeks ago, has three key elements. The strategy will provide information for carers, speaking to the carer who says, "The problem is not just that I do not know what I am entitled to, but that I do not know what question to ask to find out what I am entitled to."
The strategy will speak to carers' need for greater and more flexible support. It will also provide care for carers. Evidence shows clearly that, too often, elderly people are admitted to residential care not because their own health fails, but because the health of their carer has failed.
38 We have listened to carers and acted on what we have heard, providing £140 million over the next three years to ensure that carers get the break that they need. We are also holding consultations on proposals that time spent caring will entitle carers to a second pension: a pension that by 2050—albeit that is some way off—will be worth up to £50 a week in today's terms, payable on top of the basic state retirement pension.
We are also dealing with the issues that affect older people; we should celebrate older people. Longer life expectancy means that the majority of older people are women, but longer life, sadly, does not necessarily mean longer, healthier life. The baby girl born today can expect to live until she is 80, but she can expect only 61 of those years to be free from any chronic illness or life-limiting disability. That is why one of our top priorities for improving people's health is to extend the number of years for which they enjoy fit, active and healthy life.
I was reminded of the consequences of failing to do that by a cartoon that I saw recently, showing two old ladies in the bleak austerity of a home for the elderly. They were wrapped in blankets and there was absolutely no sign of pleasure around them. One was saying to the other, "Just imagine, Mavis. I gave up smoking for this." The challenge is huge. Our better government for older people programme will have an impact on several fronts: for example, by improving the services that older people use and tackling in practical ways the issues of concern to older people.
We already know that pensions are a key concern for older people. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has introduced the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, which contains important proposals for helping women in retirement. For the first time, divorcing women will be able to obtain a share of their former husband's pension rights, recognising the contribution that they have made to the financial well-being of the family. The new stakeholder pensions will help people who, until now, have been unable to make pensions provision through an occupational scheme or personal pension.
There are other issues of concern to women: tough issues such as violence against women. Violence, and the fear of violence, can haunt women throughout their live: year in, year out, thousands of children witness cruelty and violence to their mothers; one in four women experience domestic violence at some time in their lives; every week, two women die as a result of violence in the home; and 46 per cent. of women over 60 hardly ever go out at night, because they feel unsafe.
Those are stark and unpalatable facts. We cannot achieve a fair and equal society as long as women are not safe in their own homes—for too many women, home is the most dangerous place—and as long as women are afraid to go out at night or cannot raise their children in safety. That is why tackling crime is a top priority for the Government.
My noble Friend the Minister for Women and I will publish later in the spring a document setting out good practice in protecting women from all forms of violence, with local initiatives to spur local action to make women safer. My noble Friend and I are travelling the country as part of a process called "Listening to Women". From Bristol to Birmingham and from Newcastle to Norwich, 39 in Scotland, in Wales and in Northern Ireland, we are ensuring that action by this Government is rooted in the real lives of real women.
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I wish to raise with my right hon. Friend a tough issue that I have raised with her several times before. I am sure that she will agree that the most important development in many women's lives is having a child. She knows of my constituent who has been refused in vitro fertilisation treatment by the health authority because her husband has a child by a previous marriage. That decision is an outrage and an intrusion on my constituent's civil rights. In this day and age, it is intolerable that a health authority feels it has the right to act in that way under a Labour Government, whose Ministers do not agree with it. Does my right hon. Friend have any news about that issue, because my constituent's husband came to my surgery in Workington on Saturday and told me that his wife was very distressed? Something must be done, because the situation is intolerable.
§ Ms Jowell
I thank my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to the sheer diligence and commitment that he has shown to his constituent who faces a dreadfully distressing situation, in which I have taken a close personal interest. As he will know, we are considering several aspects of our policy on infertility. We are determined to get rid of what is no more than a geographical lottery and to ensure that treatment for infertility is based on the best available evidence. We are determined to ensure consistency, guided by the best clinical evidence, in the criteria used by health authorities to determine eligibility for fertility treatment. We are also determined that when couples are first referred for fertility treatment, they are given a proper assessment of the likelihood that it will be successful. It is heartbreaking for couples to persevere with fertility treatment, for reasons that every woman in the House will understand, when the clinical likelihood of a pregnancy is remote. I will remain closely in touch with my hon. Friend about the matter, and I am happy to meet him and his constituent to discuss the action that the Government are taking to create greater fairness in access to treatment for infertility.
Earlier today, I spoke to women representing more than 100 non-governmental organisations. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to them and to thank them for their tireless efforts on behalf of thousands of women. My right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell), the Scottish Office Minister with responsibility for women's issues, has responded on behalf of the Government this afternoon to a debate in the Scottish Grand Committee. The Scottish Parliament will be well placed to advance the interests of Scottish women.
Since our election, the Government have been committed to listening to, and acting on what we hear from, women. However, women still feel that their voices are not heard. They still feel under-represented. Let us look at the House of Commons. In the previous Parliament, there were more Members called John than there were women Members. In the current Parliament, we have done much better on my side of the House.
§ Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)
I welcome the contemplated tour to listen to women, but I encourage my 40 right hon. Friend to consider including Liverpool in her round of visits. She may know that that great city is the founding home of the women's refuge movement and the citizens advice bureau. A great collective of people in Liverpool—men and women—have a great vested interest in promoting women.
I should like to draw to my right hon. Friend's attention a sad fact that afflicts many women in my profession of engineering. Recently, the Women's Engineering Society has undergone a survey of the professional women who are its members. We wanted to know what happened to women throughout their careers. It is a sad fact that 30 per cent. of women aged between 30 and—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
Order. The hon. Lady must take her seat while I am on my feet. The earlier intervention by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) was a trifle too long, but the current one is becoming a speech. The hon. Lady should put her question briefly and then resume her seat.
§ Mrs. Curtis-Thomas
What is being done to improve the participation in work of women with a science and engineering background, given that they have to take career breaks to manage their children and for caring duties?
§ Ms Jowell
My hon. Friend's important question goes to the heart of the issues that we are tackling for women in relation to the importance of family-friendly employment that recognises the importance of flexibility and the opportunity to take time off, particularly when children are small. A second question, which will be picked up by the teenage girls project, is why so few women go into careers such as science and engineering. We want more girls to do so.
In the current Parliament, the Government are proud to have achieved a parliamentary Labour party in which 25 per cent. of hon. Members are women. There are 101 women out of 421 Members.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
Does the right hon. Lady accept that Labour broke European Union law by introducing women-only shortlists? Women must reach the House on merit. Equal opportunities are for men and women. Party lists exclusively composed of women broke the rules.
§ Ms Jowell
That is a tired old argument. Let me make it absolutely clear that the industrial tribunal that considered one case decided that all-women shortlists might be in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. No definitive judgment was made, but we decided before the general election not to continue to pursue that course.
The encouraging point is that even after our decision, the glass ceiling had been broken. Many women were selected from mixed lists in what had been safe seats. We are proud of the level of representation of women that we have achieved. I do not wish to intrude into the private grief of the Opposition on that matter, but The Sunday Times yesterday blew the gaff on what goes on in the Conservative party. Before the Opposition raises concerns about Labour, they should perhaps put their own house in order.
41 A quarter of the Labour parliamentary party are women. However, we do not accept that that is enough, and we will continue to build a Parliament that really reflects the balance between men and women throughout the country. We must do much to achieve that.
§ Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that representation is not only an issue in this Parliament, and that in the Northern Ireland Assembly, for example, we need to ensure that there is much wider representation of women? Will she join me in congratulating women throughout the community in Northern Ireland on their work in conflict resolution, especially the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, whose members deserve our highest praise for their work towards reconciliation and peace in Northern Ireland?
§ Ms Jowell
I am delighted to endorse my hon. Friend's remark. I would add that we have certainly put our effort where our mouth is on ensuring equality and gender balance in both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
We need to maintain the drive across Government. We have appointed a Minister for Women at Cabinet level; and we have a Cabinet Committee on women, whose members act as ambassadors for women in their own Departments of State, driving through change. We have had remarkable success: £300 million has been allocated to child care and an extra £30 million to breast, lung and colorectal cancer services, both of which sums will be supplemented by significant lottery funding channelled through the new opportunities fund initiatives on child care, and on cancer prevention, detection, treatment and care. In addition, a further £875 million has been allocated to child benefit. The women's unit, newly set up in the Cabinet Office, acts as a task force to add value and join up the effort across Whitehall.
§ Yvette Cooper (Pontefract and Castleford)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that women benefited five times as much as men from the previous Budget—which was hailed by the Opposition as being sexist—because women are far more likely to look after children and to live in poverty? Will she join me in calling on our right hon. Friend the Chancellor to build on that work to support women and children in poverty in tomorrow's Budget?
§ Jackie Ballard (Taunton)
To follow up on that point, will the right hon. Lady also urge the Chancellor to lift the personal allowance by a considerable amount, which would take millions of low-paid women out of taxation altogether?
§ Ms Jowell
I am sure that many such proposals have been put to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but we shall have to contain our impatience and wait for his Budget speech tomorrow.
We need to increase women's involvement in public life and decision making more generally. We are committed to 50 per cent. representation of women in 42 public appointments, and we have already made important progress by ensuring that nearly half of all national health service trust and health authority chairs and chief executives are women.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I understand the right hon. Lady's motivation, which is laudable, for saying that 50 per cent. of health trusts and various other committees should be made up of women, but will she give an undertaking to the House that women will be chosen according to merit, and not merely because they fill a quota?
§ Ms Jowell
Any such suggestion would be deeply offensive to the excellent women who have been appointed to trusts and health authorities throughout the country. We are lucky to have their services, which will help us to deliver a modern national health service to the people of this country.
We have also delivered stronger simple guidelines to Whitehall policy makers, in which we set out clearly how we expect them to assess the impact of their policies on women, ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups, to ensure that Departments are responsive and act with sensitivity. We need to track our action on our commitment to equality across society.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)
Does my right hon. Friend see it as a testament to the Government's record on putting policies into practice that the Treasury, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and the Foreign Office are all represented on the Treasury Bench, but that only seven Members are here to represent all the Opposition parties in a debate on issues that affect 52 per cent. of the population?
§ Ms Jowell
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The Department for International Development is also represented on the Front Bench.
We must look not just at policy making, but at all Government processes—for example, service delivery— and ensure that we understand the differing impact on men and women. A set of proposals will be developed and printed in the "Modernising Government" White Paper, which will be published shortly by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office.
For many years, the Women's National Commission has given 50 of the United Kingdom's largest women's organisations a direct voice to Government. I am delighted to report that we have extended the commission's remit by scrapping the limit of 50 member organisations and inviting all women's organisations to join the umbrella group. That is important as the group is a formal channel of communication between Government and women up and down the country. We want to ensure that we talk to all women—women from grassroots groups, community groups, tenants associations and other bodies in which many women are active—who, until now, have been excluded from that process.
This is a programme for women. It is a programme of listening, of action and of delivery with women for women. It is about not just what Government can do for women but what women, working with Government and 43 in their communities, can achieve for themselves and their families. It is about delivering on the key issues that count for women—for example, health, education, crime and jobs. It is about making women's voices heard and supporting women in delivering on their responsibilities to their families, at work and in their communities.
That is what the Government are doing: recognising that the personal can be made possible by the political. We are delivering deeds not words—as the suffragettes demanded—and making things better: better for women and better for all.
§ 5.2 pm
§ Mrs.Theresa May (Maidenhead)
I welcome this opportunity to debate the Government's record on delivering for women—a debate that is made all the more important by Labour's emphasis on its approach to women's issues both before and during the last election. I also welcome the Minister with responsibility for women's issues to the Dispatch Box for this debate. I believe that I am correct in saying that this is the first debate on women's issues that the right hon. Lady has opened in the House since her appointment last July. Furthermore, in more than seven months in the job, the Minister has answered only one oral question relating to women—and that was about a health issue. That is hardly an example of placing women's issues firmly at the centre of Government, as the then Minister for Women, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), promised in June 1997.
§ Dr. Lynda Clark (Edinburgh, Pentlands)
Does the hon. Lady accept that questions must be asked before they can be answered? Therefore, I assume that Opposition Members did not ask the Minister any oral questions on that topic.
§ Mrs. May
I remind the hon. and learned Lady that it is the Government who have made much of the fact that there are so many female Labour Members of Parliament who are very interested in women's issues. How much interest did Labour Members show in women's issues? How many questions did they ask of the Minister with responsibility for women's issues? Sadly, there were none. I wonder how many questions on that topic the hon. and learned Lady has tabled for the Minister.
§ Ms Jowell
If the hon. Lady looks at any Order Paper, she will see a long list of questions specifically about matters that concern women. I have made it very clear that we believe women's issues should not be locked in some Whitehall backwater but should be part of the mainstream of Government. Every single Minister is concerned about the position of women and about improving that position and delivering for women.
§ Mrs. May
I am somewhat surprised by the Minister's intervention because it appears that she now agrees with the Conservative party about the importance of mainstreaming, which was certainly not the impression given by the Labour party prior to the election.
What is noticeable about the issue of oral questions is that when her colleagues, the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the hon.
44 Member for Deptford, were responsible for women's issues, they were asked a number of questions specifically relating to women's unit matters. Those questions seem to have dried up since the present Minister for Women came to her position.
§ Helen Jackson
The hon. Lady referred to the previous Parliament. I remember that at that time, the Minister with responsibility for women was the Secretary of State for Employment, David Hunt, followed by Michael Portillo, and it fell to my hon. Friends to engineer any debate on women's issues during women's week. There was not even a glimmer of a suggestion from those Ministers that they wanted to discuss in the Chamber issues of great importance for women in this House.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr.GeorgeFoulkes)
They were men.
§ Mrs. May
The hon. Gentleman says that they were men. My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) is not a man and my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) is not a man. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make sedentary interventions, he should get his facts right beforehand.
The Minister, in opening the debate, referred several times to the Government's programme of action and delivery. She spoke of "deeds, not words" and claimed that the Government were listening to and acting for women. Sadly, the opposite is true. Although the Labour party promised much for women before the last election, it has failed to deliver. Its record owes more to gloss than substance, and this is yet another case of Labour's actions failing to live up to its rhetoric.
I am grateful to the Minister for setting out a number of areas in which she claimed that women's quality of life and role in society had improved. She gave the examples of the number of women in higher education and in the work force. I remind the Minister that those are successes of the previous Conservative Government, who, through flexible labour markets and a healthy economy, ensured that women were able to play a fuller part in the workplace than had previously been the case. The pay differentials between men and women were significantly reduced under the previous Conservative Government, and I am sorry to hear that the pay differential went up last year under new Labour.
§ MsHazel Blears (Salford)
Does the hon. Lady believe that the 1.3 million women who will be helped by the first national minimum wage should not receive that wage and should continue to work in a flexible labour market for poverty pay?
§ Mrs. May
I shall comment on the impact of the minimum wage later in my speech, so perhaps the hon. Lady would like to listen to my remarks. As she heard from the intervention on the Minister by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), problems associated with the minimum wage are affecting organisations and employers throughout the country. Pre-school playgroups will affect women in two ways because people employed in pre-schools are predominantly women and women are benefiting from the opportunity for their children to attend those pre-schools. The hon. Lady should not welcome the news that pre-schools may have to close because of the impact of the minimum wage.
§ Mrs. May
No, I have said that I want to make some progress. I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunities to allow interventions later, which I shall take.
Prior to the election, Labour promised a Minister for Women with full Cabinet status. Many assumed that that meant a Cabinet Minister with responsibility just for women; it certainly seemed to be a promise for a Minister for whom women would be their sole concern. As the Labour party said in "New Labour for Women",The minister for women will ensure that women's interests are taken into account in all policy making, having power to scrutinise all major legislation to examine its impact on women.We even had the somewhat unedifying sight of the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) telling women that they would get more sex under Labour. What happened in reality? After the election, responsibility for women was given to the then Secretary of State for Social Security, the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham, who is in her place—Cabinet responsibility for women, but hardly sole responsibility for women.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, the Prime Minister appointed a separate junior Minister for Women, the hon. Member for Deptford, who is also in her place. It appeared that the Prime Minister had recognised the importance of the job. But wait—he had left it so late that there was not enough money to pay any other Minister a full ministerial salary, so the Minister for Women was unpaid. What message did that send about how the Government viewed the importance of women and issues of importance to them? More significantly, what message did it send to women who are still fighting for equal pay?
After a year in which much continued to be promised to women, but during which the Secretary of State's main claim to fame on women's issues was cutting the lone-parent benefit premium, the two Ministers for Women were sacked. What is in their place? Cabinet responsibility for women has moved to the House of Lords. We all know what the Government think of the House of Lords. What does that say about the importance of women in their policy agenda?
46 The Minister for Public Health now responds to debates on women's issues in this House. Once again, responsibility for women's issues is not a Minister's sole responsibility, as many felt Labour had promised prior to the election, but merely one of the areas in a Minister's portfolio. Indeed, the list of responsibilities of the Minister for Public Health numbers 32. Where do women's issues come on that list? Do they come first, second or, perhaps, third? No, women's issues rank 32nd—bottom of the list.
In November, the Ministers for Women attempted to re-launch the women's unit. In their glossy brochure, "Delivering for women: Progress so far", they listed 18 measures to aid women. Of those 18, there was one strategy, one sub-committee, one initiative, one unit which was not exclusively for women, a new deal which is not working, a minimum wage which will cost jobs, and 12 promises of things to come. That is not about delivering for women; that is still about promising for women. That is not about action rather than words; that is about words and words and no action.
Let us look in a little more detail at the Government's policy actions for women, as they describe them. Once again, they pay lip service to women. Plenty of press releases claim to deliver for women, but actions speak louder than words. The Government have so far failed to deliver across so many areas of policy—be it the scheme to get lone parents back to work, which has been an expensive failure, plans to cut widows' benefit, or centralised employment policies, which, far from being family friendly, can only destroy jobs. In addition, the Deputy Prime Minister has attacked women who drive their children to school, and there has been a refusal to act on genetically modified crops and food.
§ Yvette Cooper
If the hon. Lady is so concerned about delivering for women, why will she not withdraw her opposition to the working families tax credit, which will make 700,000 women better off, and abandon her alternative proposal to introduce a tax hike for those 700,000 women?
§ Mrs. May
I shall talk about the working families tax credit later. Far from delivering for women, that tax credit may put many families in a worse position in terms of wallet versus purse.
The Under-Secretary of State for Internationa] Development made a comment from a sedentary position when I mentioned genetically modified crops and food. He may say "Oh, no" in that tone, but food safety issues strongly influence women when they decide what to feed their families, and beef—
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
Does the hon. Lady accept Labour Members' incredulity at being lectured on the importance of food safety by representatives of a party that presided over the biggest disasters in food health and food safety that any Government in living memory have presided over?
§ Mrs. May
That intervention does not deserve a response.
One message is clear: the Government have not listened to women, and their priorities show more about their own priorities than about women's priorities.
I shall now discuss several specific issues. I shall not touch on all those that the Minister touched on, but I know that my hon. Friends who will be aiming to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, later in the debate will raise other issues.
Let us consider welfare issues. Labour came to power promising to cut the welfare budget by cutting the cost of economic and social failure. Labour adopted as a key policy the welfare-to-work campaign, and within that the aim of returning lone parents to the work force. The Government therefore introduced the new deal for lone parents as part of that welfare-to-work campaign.
The pilot scheme was a dismal failure. Less than a quarter of those lone parents who were invited to participate had an interview. Of those, nearly a quarter did not participate in the scheme and, overall, only 5 per cent. of those invited to participate got a job. We were told that things would get better when the scheme was extended nationwide. The Government are very good at promising that things will get better, but they are not good at delivering better things and better results.
In questions to the Secretary of State for Social Security earlier, it was made absolutely clear that the new deal for lone parents has an overall success rate, not of 5 per cent., as in the pilot scheme—which we were told would get better—but of only 3.8 per cent.
Of course, we welcome anyone finding a job and getting back into the workplace when they want to, but of 163,000 lone parents invited to participate in the new deal so far, only 6,000 have jobs. The scheme has cost £200 million, so each job has cost about £15,000—and it is not even clear that the people who have got jobs under the scheme would not have got them anyway. In each year between 1995 and 1997, about 40,000 lone parents found work—under a Conservative Government. Two years into the Labour Government's new deal for lone parents, only 6,000 have found jobs under the new deal. The new deal is proving to be an expensive failure—failure for Government and failure for women.
§ Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)
Will the hon. Lady visit my local jobcentre, in Alfreton, where the new deal for lone parents has now been rolled out, and where I talked, a couple of weeks ago, to the lone parent adviser? In response to the initial letters that she sent out, 30 people came to a meeting, and she has now obtained jobs for 17 of those lone parents.
§ Mrs. May
What is pathetic is the result that the Government are getting from their new deal for lone parents. It is proving to be an expensive failure. It is failing to deliver for women and failing for the Government.
The problems for women in the area of welfare benefits do not end there. The working families tax credit was lauded by the Government as the answer to a working woman's problems. It is also expensive but, more significantly, it will fail to deliver the freedom that women want to choose what is right for them and their families. It will bring more families into the welfare net and hence into the dependency culture. It will provide benefit for families earning as much as £38,000 and it will cost £1.5 billion per annum.
The WFTC will be paid through employers.
§ Mrs. Lait
I warn my hon. Friend against accepting the Government's estimate of £1.5 billion as the cost of the working families tax credit. That estimate is based on the assumption that no one changes his or her form of child care. If there are large sums available for child care tax credit and people register as child minders, the entire equation changes. The cost could increase to £15 billion if everyone eligible under the WFTC opted for a child minder. If only half of them did so, the cost would be £7 billion.
§ Mrs. May
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for setting out the figures so clearly. She has brought more proof about how expensive the WFTC will be. It is interesting that it was up to my hon. Friend to introduce the figures of £15 billion and £7 billion. Those figures are not coming through from the Government. The Government do not want us to know how much the WFTC will cost.
There are other aspects of the WFTC that cause concern. It will be paid through employers, which means that they will have to know their employees' personal circumstances. There is real concern that the scheme will increase the stigma that is attached to receiving benefit. The point has been raised by independent commentators. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said:As employers and potentially work colleagues would observe the WFTC, it might increase the stigma associated with receiving transfer payments and so decrease take up.Decreased take-up would mean fewer families benefiting than those now doing so under the family credit regime.
We also have the ridiculous situation that the Government's new arrangements for child care may make it more financially advantageous for a woman to pay a neighbour to look after her children and go out to work herself rather than stay at home and look after them.
§ Mrs. May
Not at this moment. I shall make some progress.
49 The Government's new arrangements are an attack on the many informal arrangements that are made by women to ensure that their children are looked after while they go to work. At my surgery the other day, I saw a constituent who helps her daughter and son-in-law by looking after their young children for part of the week. She told me, "With this new benefit system, I'm going to have to register as a child minder to look after my own grandchildren." Where will women stand when they are no longer free to make the arrangements that they want for their children to be looked after, when they will have to comply with the Government's set regulations?
The WFTC makes one very significant change for women, about which we have heard little from Labour Members.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way a second time. Does she understand that there is some confusion, certainly among Labour Members, about the line that the Conservative party is taking? Given that the Conservative party talks so much about choice, surely the hon. Lady accepts that the increase of £17 a week that families in receipt of family credit will receive as a result of the introduction of the working families tax credit will give them choice. At present they have no choice but to work longer hours for poverty pay. They will have the chance to stay at home and spend more time with their children. The WFTC will also give women the choice to send their children to child care, an economic choice that they have not had previously. Therefore, we are empowering women to make real choices when under the previous Government there was no choice.
§ Mrs. May
Of course we are in favour of women being able to make choices. As I have shown, however, the choices available to women may well be reduced rather than increased because of the way in which the WFTC will operate.
The WFTC makes one significant change about which, as I have said, we have heard little from Labour Members. Family credit, which it replaces, was paid predominantly to women. It was introduced by the Conservative Government to help people get back into work, and at the time the Labour party opposed it. As I have said, it has been paid mainly to the mother as a benefit. It will be replaced by the WFTC, which will be paid through the employer. As I said earlier, this will mean that the employer will need to know all the employee's financial circumstances, and the benefit will be paid through the wage packet. That means that the money will predominantly be paid to fathers, particularly in low income families.
§ Mrs. May
No, not at this stage.
In its research paper last year, "Purse or Wallet? Gender Inequalities and Income Distribution within Families on Benefit", the Policy Studies Institute showed that when money is paid to the father, it is less likely to be spent on child care. New Labour said that it would help mothers to balance work and home, but the working families tax credit will take an estimated £900 million away from women and children.
50 How much thought for women and their child care needs was there when the Government signed up to the working time directive? Suddenly, they have realised that it might not be such a good idea to include au pairs in the scope of the legislation, and we see them backtracking on that point. If the women's unit and women's Ministers had had their eye on the ball, the problem would never have arisen.
That is not all. Women now find that their entitlement to widows benefit is to be cut. Their husbands may have paid into national insurance for years, but that means nothing to the Labour Government. It does not matter how much has been contributed. If a woman has no dependent children, after six months she will not get widows benefit. Some 250,000 women will lose out. How is that delivering for women?
There are other examples of the way in which Government policy is failing to take account of the needs of women. Far from mainstreaming women's concerns, too often the Government are marginalising them. In the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, for example, changes are being made to disability benefits. Severe disablement allowance was described by the Disability Benefits Consortium in the following terms:The introduction of SDA was a victory for the women's movement.However, the consortium goes on to state:We view with dismay the abolition of Severe Disablement Allowance to all new claimants over the age of 24. We believe this change will have a particularly harsh impact on severely disabled women—61 per cent. of SDA recipients are women and amongst older women the proportion rises to 70 per cent.Cutting off women's ability to get severe disablement allowance—how is that delivering for women?
Let us consider the changes to incapacity benefit proposed in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill. Those changes mean that to qualify for incapacity benefit, in future a person will have to have paid national insurance contributions for one of the previous two years. Failure to have done so will mean that that person will fail to get benefit. That will impact particularly hard on those who are carers, those in lower paid jobs below the threshold for national insurance contributions, and those who have two part-time jobs that are each below that threshold. It will hit disabled women and many women who are carers, who are unable to build up a record of contributions and who do not claim invalid care allowance. Restricting the benefit opportunities for women—how is that delivering for women?
Pensions issues are further examples. In its response to the pensions Green Paper, the National Council of Women criticised the Government's proposals as complex and confusing. The NCW is concerned that not enough is being done to educate women, young and old, about pensions and the options available to them, especially looking ahead to the new complex and confusing pensions scenario proposed by the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill.
The National Council of Women has described as "regrettable" the fact that the Government have launched the stakeholder pensions part of the Bill before the consultation period on the proposals has ended. That is regrettable, indeed, but perhaps not surprising, given the contempt that the Government so often show for consultation. Pensions are a key area of concern for 51 women, and it is more than regrettable that the Government have not listened to women before embarking on the changes.
It is not just in respect of social security and welfare benefits that the Government have failed to understand the needs of women. Part of the Government's claim to be delivering for women is that they are making it easier for women to get into the workplace by providing family-friendly employment policies. Conservatives support higher standards for workers and more flexible working arrangements to meet the challenges of family and work responsibilities. However, we do not believe that the corporatist attitude of the Government is the right way forward.
Countries with more flexible labour markets are generally better at integrating women into the work force. David Soskice, the director of the Institute for Employment and Economic Change in Berlin, wrote recently:Well educated women do significantly better in the US (and Britain) than in Germany, Japan or Sweden. Upwardly mobile women should be wary of proposals to develop a northern European type labour market".That is just the sort of labour market that the Labour Government are intent on producing in this country.
§ Ms Rosie Winterton
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, because it is important to clarify one or two points. As has been said, 1.3 million women will benefit from the national minimum wage and women will also benefit from the fairness at work proposals. Will the Conservative party go into the next election saying that it would reverse the national minimum wage proposals, which would effectively cut the wages of 1.3 million women? Will it also be saying that it would reduce women's rights at work?
§ Ms Rosie Winterton
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, because it is important to clarify one or two points. As has been said, 1.3 million women will benefit from the national minimum wage and women will also benefit from the fairness at work proposals. Will the Conservative party go into the next election saying that it would reverse the national minimum wage proposals, which would effectively cut the wages of 1.3 million women? Will it also be saying that it would reduce women's rights at work?
§ Mrs. May
The hon. Lady will have to be patient for a little while. I shall refer to the national minimum wage later on—[Interruption.] Just be patient, ladies. There is plenty of time for our manifesto for the next election to be written and for the hon. Lady to find out what our policies will be.
§ Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)
Is not it a fact that more jobs for women have been created in this country over the past 15 to 20 years and that we have a higher percentage of women in the work force than any of those countries in Europe where there are restrictive practices? Is not it the job of a Government to create an economic climate in which more employment opportunities can be created?
§ Mrs. May
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. She is absolutely right: it is the Government's job to create the right economic climate so that jobs can be created, for men and women alike. There are so many women in the work force today precisely because of the policies followed by the Conservative party in government. In her opening speech, the Minister 52 praised the fact that there are so many women in the work force, but she failed to mention that that statistic is due to the policies of the previous Government.
§ Mrs. May
We left a golden legacy, but one job has been lost every 10 minutes under this Government.
The measures being introduced by the Government on the back of the social chapter and under the heading of family-friendly practices are, as yet, somewhat lacking in detail. For example, the Chemical Industries Association recently said:Every employer in the chemical industry will be hit by the proposals on parental leave. It is worrying that with Parental Leave due to be implemented by the end of the year, we have seen no detailed proposals from the Government indicating to employers just what they will have to do…a consultation period of at least three months would be needed to assess the likely impact of the regulations and respond accordingly.Where have the Government thought about the impact of what they describe as family-friendly policies on employers and the extent to which employers can afford them?
§ Caroline Flint (Don Valley)
Is the hon. Lady not aware that the provision for parental leave was put together and negotiated by organisations representing European employers and trade unions?
§ Mrs. May
I am not sure what the hon. Lady expects anyone to say in response to that. Is she saying that the provision should be accepted because it was put together by a group of European organisations? She would do well to listen to the concerns expressed by employers' organisations in this country about the impact of the policy. It will do employees, male or female, no good at all if statutory requirements imposed by the Government mean that small businesses, or any business, cannot afford to keep employing them.
Real concern has been expressed by the Confederation of British Industry and by other organisations about the impact of the parental leave legislation, especially in respect of the way in which the measure may be open to abuse.
In its research paper on fairness at work, the Institute of Directors said:Most fair employers won't mind giving time off for family situations.
§ Mrs. May
No; I am in the middle of a quotation.
The paper continues:However, if it is made a statutory right, some employees will see it as part of their holiday entitlement.In Sweden, the Government have found it necessary to introduce a new law to curtail the problems caused by employees' abuse of emergency family leave rights.
§ Ms Jowell
Has the hon. Lady discussed the issue of family-friendly employment with her hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), who has a long association with Asda? When Asda introduced family-friendly employment policies, the number of staff absences fell by 1 per cent. in the first year, saving the firm £3 million. Labour turnover has fallen by 4 per cent., saving £2.4 million. Some of Asda's stores have halved their labour turnover. More than 95 per cent. of female staff who have been on maternity leave are now returning to work. As a result of Asda's family-friendly policies, the number of customers has risen by 35 per cent., and the firm has experienced growth of 8.9 per cent. Does that not suggest that family-friendly employment is good for business and good for women?
§ Mrs. May
The Minister would not have needed to intervene if she had listened to what I was saying. I said earlier that Conservative Members support higher standards for workers, and support more flexible working arrangements to meet the challenges involved in fulfilling family and work responsibilities. Our concern relates to the way in which the Government are trying to impose their proposals on businesses of all sizes. I note that the laudable measures taken by Asda were taken without intervention from Government.
Good practice will be supported. The Institute of Directors made the position clear when it said:Most fair employers won't mind giving time off for family situations.The problem arises when the Government impose regulations and restrictions on businesses that cannot provide such opportunities. If a company already has problems and must shed employees because of the extra costs, that will not benefit any members of the work force, be they male or female.
§ Judy Mallaber
Does the hon. Lady recall that, during a debate on the Employment Relations Bill, the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry implied that even legislating for paternity leave at the time of birth was legislating too far, too fast? Does she agree with that?
§ Mrs. May
I think that what my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has been stressing is the importance of flexibility and choice for those involved, rather than the Government simply legislating for things to happen at a particular time.
Labour Members should listen to what some parents are saying. In a recent edition of the Evening Standard, a member of the National Childbirth Trust was reported as saying that, in some ways, time-off-work measures were an empty gesture, because many families could not do without the income for three months. That, however, is not the only way in which the Government are potentially attacking the market for jobs, especially jobs held by women. The minimum wage, for instance, is likely to have a strong impact on a number of industries that traditionally employ a large number of women. The textile 54 industry and the retail sector are good examples. Bill Martin, chief economist at Phillips and Drew Fund Management, has said:If one person loses his job because of the minimum wage that is bad news but we expect there to be up to 90,000 job losses in the textile sector and hotel and retail sectorAll those sectors are traditionally high employers of women. How can 90,000 job losses benefit women? How can that be an example of the Government delivering for women?
In his intervention during the opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) made the valid point that, in his experience—he had visited a pre-school this morning that had made exactly the following point—such schools will have problems meeting the requirements.
§ Mrs. May
I answered that question when it was asked, so I suggest that the Minister looks at the answer in Hansard tomorrow. It might help her, if she cares to read it.
The Government are loading £40 billion of extra costs on to British business, which will reduce competitiveness and lead to job losses. Many women will suffer as a result. How is that delivering for women?
§ Jacqui Smith
Is the hon. Lady aware that exactly the same arguments were made about equal pay legislation, and what happened to women's employment after that was introduced?
§ Mrs. May
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. It was, of course, under the previous Government that the differentials between male and female pay reduced significantly. There is more to be done, but it is sad that, last year, under a Labour Government, the differential increased, rather than reduced.
§ Mrs. May
I will not take any more interventions.
55 The Government are loading extra costs on to business, which will affect women's jobs. Many women will suffer as a result. That is not delivering for women.
As if that were not enough, I mention one other area where, somewhat surprisingly, women have found themselves under attack from the Government. The Deputy Prime Minister has attacked people who drive children to school and the increased use of cars. Women make up one of the key user groups that has led to a significant increase in car usage in recent years. He wants to attack and to cut that growth. He wants to stop women from driving their children to school, regardless of whether they do so to meet their working needs, or to exercise choice as to which school their children attend.
Many women would have felt that they were highly unlikely to come under attack from the Deputy Prime Minister. Sadly, that was not the case. There is a complete lack of joined-up thinking in the Government. It is not true that women's issues are firmly at the centre of Government policy, or that the Minister for women looks, as was promised, at every piece of legislation that goes through and ensures that it does not have an adverse effect on women. In many areas of Government policy, the headlines claim that they are helping women. The reality is that women will suffer as a result of those policies.
I could go on. There are many examples from Department to Department where, far from mainstreaming women's issues, putting them firmly at the centre of Government policy and looking at the impact of policy on women, the Government have pushed women to one side. They talk a lot about women and child care, but they do not deliver policies that will help in a practical sense.
Women are being hit through the benefit system and are under attack in transport policy. Their jobs are under threat from the Government's adherence to the social chapter and handling of the economy.
The Government claim to understand women's needs, but they fail to act. They follow their own priorities. Perhaps the best example of that was at the relaunch of the women's unit last November, when the Government came up with the idea of a panel of role models for young women and girls. The panel was to include a former topless model, the former Ginger Spice. However, when those women and girls were asked what they wanted, the panel got the thumbs down.
§ Mrs. May
No; I am sorry. I am coming to the end of my speech, and I shall not give way.
I quote an article from the Daily Mail of Tuesday, 10 November, which stated:Ministers backpedalled furiously yesterday on plans to use celebrities such as Geri Halliwell as role models for teenage girls.The initiative was reconsidered when it emerged that girls admired their own mothers or sisters more than the former Ginger Spice.The Government had planned to invite celebrities—actress Emma Thompson, therapist Susie Orbach and pop starlet Billie were among others—to join an advisory panel to reflect teenagers' views.With overtones of the 'committee for cool', the Foreign Office's panel of hip young things promoting Cool Britannia abroad, it sounded like a classic New Labour solution. But when the new crusade on women's issues was launched yesterday, the scheme had been pushed to one side.56Pupils of North Westminster Community School, who met Baroness Jay, Tessa Jowell, the Commons Minister for Women, and Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Employment and Equal Opportunities yesterday, described the idea of celebrity role models as patronising.Sadly, patronising is what sums up the Government's attitude to women.
Before the general election, the Government promised women so much. Since then, their approach has been more one of, "There, there Dear. We'll tell you we're doing something, but, if we're not, it really won't matter, because you probably won't notice." But women are noticing.
Perhaps the Government should take some notice of the comments made by the teenage girls interviewed, last November, about the issue of the role models panel. The Daily Mail article went on to say:The girls also appeared less than thrilled at being singled out. 'It seems to me boys need support as well', said Terri Roach.On 10 November, The Independent also dealt with the matter:'"Why isn't there a men's unit as well?' said Nepa Chopra. 'I want equality. I don't want women to go round wanting to be better than men.''"I don't want women being given jobs or being made cabinet ministers just because they're women' said Vicky Markham.Emma Blackburn said:'Men have problems as well that should be addressed.'The sad fact is that men and women are now realising that Labour's promises are evaporating. Labour's actions are failing to deliver. The Government are not delivering for women—they are not delivering for any of us. They are certainly not delivering for the United Kingdom.
§ Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health on the work that she is doing, and fully agree with the points that she made in her speech. I shall take the very welcome opportunity of today's debate—which the Government have called to mark the week in which we celebrate international women's day—to raise some issues and ask some questions about the Government's relationship with women.
I believe that this Government have done a great deal for women, yet that is not fully the perception. I do not believe that women feel that this is their Government as strongly as men feel that this is their Government, who are there for them. Before I offer some explanations of why that may be so, and suggest what can be done about it, I should like to spend a few minutes reinforcing my point that the Government, and new Labour, have already met a great many women's concerns. The list is impressive.
The Government are establishing universal, affordable and high-quality child care provision, which has long been a demand of the women's movement and, certainly, a major issue for mothers in my constituency. There has been a massive increase in child benefit—public money paid to women with children. The new deal for lone parents recognises, for the first time, that the billions of pounds that are spent on advice and training for work should go to help not only men but women. The working families tax credit and the minimum wage are, in practice, a massive redistribution towards low-paid women and 57 their families. Moreover, there will be equal representation of women in both the new National Assembly for Wales and the new Parliament for Scotland.
Why are feminists not in the vanguard of support for new Labour, and why are women not the most committed to, rather than the most doubtful of, the Government? I would like to make suggestions as to why that might be the case, and what the Government could do about it. Men in the Government must always remember that they are talking to women as well as to men. Where the Government are making changes that will be important for women, such as policies to help them to balance their home and work responsibilities, they should give them much more attention. Where the Government are making policy that will particularly affect women, such as family policy, men must not do it on their own, but do it jointly with women. There needs to be a genuine sharing of power with women within the Government, not just a sharing of positions.
My first point is that the Government should remember that they are talking to women as well as to men. This is about style, but it is also about content. They must avoid falling back on militaristic, macho, hierarchical language and behaviour. It is a turn-off for women and alienates them from their Government. The Government know the importance of communication and need to remember that they are speaking to women as well as men. I shall give one small example. When the Government, in the wake of the resignation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson)—which I deeply regretted— rightly tried to refocus the media agenda, they did so by announcing that that would be led by the big guns, the big hitters and the big beasts. No women talk about women whom they respect in that way. It was clearly men talking about men to other men. Would women talk about the big hitters in the Government tackling domestic violence? I do not think so. Would women in Northern Ireland talk about their Secretary of State as a big gun? Would women talk about big beasts implementing our child care programme? Of course not.
People can dismiss that as political correctness, but it is a serious point. One can either adopt macho rhetoric or one can talk to women—one cannot do both. I am certain that women do not want a Government of big guns, big hitters or big beasts; they want a Government who understand their changed and changing lives and who deliver for men, but also deliver for them and for their families. The Government are for women, and they should not be afraid to say so.
My second point is that there needs to be a greater focus on those issues that are important to women, which should be moved higher up the political agenda. Take family-friendly employment. In the Employment Relations Bill, as well as a new right to trade union recognition, there is a new right for employees to take family leave. That is of huge importance to women. It recognises for the first time that half the work force are women and that most of those women are someone's mother. The ability of those women to balance their important home and work responsibilities is critical. Until now, the law has not recognised that the economy depends on women's as well as men's work. Employees can get time off if they are sick, but not if their child is sick. Employment law assumes that an employee is a man who has a wife at home to look after a sick child. That will change under the new legislation. That will be a huge 58 relief to women, who will not have to pretend that they are ill when it is their child who is ill, or send a sick child to the childminder rather than risk losing their job.
Yet, there has been hardly a whisper about that new right and the other new rights to time off, such as when elderly relatives need care. In contrast, hours of debate in the House, hours of Ministers' time and acres of newsprint have been taken up with the debate about trade union recognition, and that has squeezed out the debate on family leave, yet that new right should command our time and attention as well.
That right, which I am sure that all would support in principle, could be highly controversial to put into practice. If we get it right, it will be a huge plus for women, but if, through lack of attention, we get it wrong, it will be an embarrassment for the Government. The last thing that we want is for the Government to falter when implementing new and important rights for women.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who has, to his credit, given high priority to the issue, as have Ministers with responsibilities for women. It is high time that everyone else did so as well. I make that point not just to the Government, but to all Members of Parliament—men as well as women—and the representatives of business and trade unions.
Thirdly, men in the Government must avoid doing policy-making on their own. They must do it with women on equal terms. Take policy on the family. I pay a warm tribute to my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary for moving family policy up the political agenda. However, the family is about men and women. Sometimes, that is not an easy relationship. The high divorce rate tells us only about those who have not made it and have resolved to end it. Family life is nearly always a balance between the interests of men and of women. Family policy presented only by men, however right or carefully thought out it may be, will sound and feel like patriarchy. Women will not listen to men telling them about their families, so we need a higher profile for women Ministers on the issue—Ministers such as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health. Policy on domestic violence is currently the responsibility of a male Minister in the Home Office. That responsibility should be shared with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), working in partnership with Ministers with responsibility for women.
My fourth, final and most important point—the one that presents the greatest challenge—is that there needs to be a genuine sharing of power, not just of positions, between men and women at all levels in the Government. There should be more women in the Government. We need to support them more than we do; they need to support each other; and men in the Government need to make space for them.
On that last point, I should like to draw a parallel with devolution. The Government are devolving power away from Westminster to Scotland and Wales because they believe that that is right. Democracy in the centre and in the devolved areas will grow stronger as a result. However, the Government have learned that they are devolving power to Scotland and Wales in a climate of scepticism. People who are used to being powerless remain suspicious even when they are being given power. They suspect the motives and the extent of change.
59 When men offer to share power with women, sometimes the sceptics are partly right. It is not easy for anyone to give away power. Not everyone in government has the same commitment. It is easy for people to give power to those who are the same as they are, but that is pointless. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will be different from Westminster. That is why they are worth setting up. The same goes for men sharing power with women.
Women in government are not the same as men in government. Women and men are shaped by their experience and, because of tradition, history and, above all, the division of labour in the home, women still lead different lives. That difference makes it a challenge for men to share power at the top, but it is worth doing and it is necessary. Our policy will be better and our democracy will be refreshed when we are genuinely a Government of, and for, women and men on equal terms.
I should like to take this opportunity to tell women that the Government are delivering for them, although there is more to be done. My message for the Government is that they have already done a tremendous amount to improve women's lives, but they still have further to go.
§ Jackie Ballard (Taunton)
It is just over a year since we last had an opportunity to debate the Government's priorities and policies for women. The debate a year ago was held on a poorly attended Friday morning. I think that the same cast of players were here then as we have at this slightly better attended debate on a Monday afternoon. I hope that next time the debate will be even better attended.
Sadly, during the past year the two Ministers with responsibilities for women have been moved on without explanation and for no apparent reason, before they had time to get to grips with the challenges in their roles. I am sorry that the Government have not appointed a Minister for Women who has no other major portfolio or responsibility. I agree with the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on that.
The right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) rightly said that the Government do not have the appeal to women that they might think that they should have. That is partly because of their way of communicating. Government communications still use male language. Although there are a number of women in the Cabinet, the main spending Departments are headed by male Secretaries of State.
I acknowledge—graciously, I hope—that the Government have made progress on a number of issues, including child care and the proposals for family-friendly working practices. However, I am a member of an Opposition party, so I am sure that the Minister will understand if I concentrate constructively on areas where the Government could do more.
According to the Equal Opportunities Commission, only 33 per cent. of managers and administrators are women—yet, as the Minister pointed out, 45 per cent. of all workers are women. In 1975, women earned only 71 per cent. of male earnings. Twenty years later, that had increased to 80 per cent—still one fifth less than average male earnings. Our society cannot be judged to be healthy if women still earn that much less on average than men for doing the same job, despite equal pay legislation.
60 Many women work part-time, especially those with caring responsibilities, and part-time workers are in an even worse position. Their hourly wage is less than two thirds that of full-time male workers. Despite legislation against sex discrimination, women are still discriminated against—especially in the work force and in terms of social security. Some 2 million women earn too little to pay national insurance contributions, and will—if the contributory principle remains—become poor pensioners in the years to come.
Around two thirds of widows live on or below the income support level. There can be no equality for women until they are economically independent and economically equal. I hope that the Budget will not take a retrograde step towards ending separate taxation for couples in order to tax the child benefit of high earners.
Each year, the Equal Opportunities Commission presents its report to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. Last year, I sought to get the report debated in Parliament, but I was unsuccessful. I hope that the Government will consider having not only an annual headline debate on their priorities for women, but a wider debate on sex equality, based on the EOC report.
One of the major pieces of work undertaken by the EOC last year was a proposal for a new sex equality law to replace equal pay and sex discrimination legislation. It proposed strengthening the rights of individuals and placing new responsibilities on employers and public authorities. The proposed legislation would provide better regulation and help to reduce the incidence of expensive litigation, which can arise when organisations fail to build gender equality into their plans, programmes and practices. I hope that the Government will make a commitment today to review the current legislation, and to introduce their own equality legislation in the next Session of Parliament. I will be interested to hear the Minister's response.
That would be a real step forward, not just for women who face discrimination on gender grounds, but for men—because equality is not just about women's rights. Women are still under-represented in many areas of life. I will not repeat the arguments that I have made often in this House on the gender balance in Parliament. I am too well aware of the problems in my party in that regard.
Those who wield power in Britain are still overwhelmingly male—just look at High Court judges, heads of large companies, newspaper editors and members of powerful quangos. That shows how far we have to go before the glass ceiling is broken. The Government have a stated aim to achieve parity in appointments to quangos, although I do not think that as much progress has been made as could have been. The Minister referred to health trust appointments, but 50 per cent. has not been achieved in appointing women chairs to the new regional development agencies.
The Government have done nothing to encourage the number of women in the judiciary. Women's organisations across the country say that the judiciary is in desperate need of reform—especially in areas such as domestic violence, rape and other issues. There are still no women in the highest court in the land, and only 7 per cent. in the High Court. I hope that Ministers have the ear of the Lord Chancellor on the issue, and that we will soon have a more transparent system of appointing judges that includes a balance of women. There is no shortage of able 61 women in the legal profession, and I know that during the last round of appointments, the names of a number of able women were proposed by women barrister associations and women lawyer associations as being suitable for appointment.
The fact that those wielding power are men conditions the way in which decisions are made that affect all our lives. Any decision or action by Government, or anyone who holds power, is bound to affect men and women differently. I am pleased that the Government have recognised that fact, and I hope that the Cabinet Sub-Committee examining Government legislation for its impact on women will be listened to by all Departments. For example, some of the Government's welfare reform proposals will have an impact on women, including the abolition of the severe disablement allowance to new claimants aged over 24–61 per cent. of whom are women. However, because the Cabinet Sub-Committee meets in secret, we do not know what it thought about the proposal.
I would like this country to have what many other legislatures have—a Select Committee on equality, to examine all proposed legislation for its impact on equality; not just in gender, but other areas. A pre-legislative Select Committee, made up of Members from all parties, which met in public, could provide proper scrutiny of Government legislation.
I wish to refer to paid work versus caring responsibilities. The belief in paid work as a panacea for all society's ills does not give adequate recognition of the contribution that women make as members of the unpaid economy, both in their role as carers and in holding together thousands of voluntary organisations on which society has come to depend. The Minister talked about work conferring a sense of independence and value, but parenting provides a sense of value also. It is the most difficult job in the world to do, and being a single parent is even more difficult than being part of a couple of parents. However, it is also the most rewarding job in the world.
The economic value of the unpaid economy, in which women are predominant, is not recognised, although both the paid and the unpaid economies are interdependent. To remove labour from the unpaid economy would have dire economic consequences, which even the experts—such as my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb)— have not fully estimated.
§ Jackie Ballard
It is not my hon. Friend's fault. I am saying that my hon. Friend, who is such an expert on these matters, has not fully computed the impact.
If the pool of unpaid labour is not replenished with new volunteers, there will be a cost to society of providing care from the paid sector. The Government's schizophrenic attitude towards unpaid caring is at odds with their desire to promote and subsidise child care provided by the paid economy. The implication seems to be that non-parents provide better care than parents.
Inasmuch as the House has a role in promoting lifestyles for women—it has a very small role—in terms of them staying at home or going out to work, I would like us to give women real options and choices. Many individuals, especially women, cannot have meaningful 62 choices unless the Government take action to remove the barriers to those choices. Those barriers are not just economic—they are social, political and cultural. Otherwise, there can be no progress and the inequalities in society will remain entrenched.
Universal access to child care will not be provided solely by the private sector—the market will not meet all needs. Universal child care has been mentioned, but it is not universal yet, and we have some way to go before it is as accessible in rural constituencies, such as mine, as it may be in inner-city communities. It is not universally easily accessible for those on average or lower incomes.
I welcome the Government's national child care strategy, which is a step in the right direction and something for which we have waited for a long time. It will be difficult to build a properly universal strategy that will give accessible and affordable child care to all those who want it. In the beginning, there are difficult choices. Should the priority be allowing people with children under five to get back on the career ladder quickly, or providing after-school clubs for children of school age?
Like many other women Members, I have in the past juggled with a variety of forms of child care. One cannot simply find one child minder who will do everything. Often one has to find one person for before school, one person for after school and someone else in the holidays; and then what does one do when the child is sick? We have all had that awful guilt feeling when we have sent our children to school because we are sure that they are not really ill, but we are not sure whether we are acting for their convenience or ours.
The women's jury, set up by previous Ministers for Women, concluded that women want genuine choice and help with balancing work and family life. It also felt that child care should be provided in conjunction with family-friendly policies in employment. I welcome the Government's recognition of that.
I hope that business, too, will recognise that both fathers and mothers are parents and that mothers will not have freedom until fatherhood is taken seriously by employers. Fathers should be entitled to paternal leave when a child is born. I read a letter in one of the newspapers this morning from a father who did not understand why he would want leave when a child is born, because his wife would not want him there for a couple of months after having the baby, so that she could bond with the child. What a strange father he must be.
Either parent should have an entitlement to paid leave to cope with the inevitable childhood illnesses; it should not always have to be the mother. No professional carer will look after an ill child for a day, and when children are ill there is no emotional substitute for a parent. If parental leave is not paid, as the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham said, it will in practice be denied to the lower paid. I hope that, at the very least, the Government will consider enabling low-paid women to go on and off income support easily, so that they, too, can take parental leave.
Functional families need functional parents who are not tied to their desks or production line. We must get away from the idea that people need to prove their commitment or ambition by getting into work at 7 am and leaving at 11 pm. Perhaps we should take a lead by working more normal hours, both in Westminster and in our constituencies. So many of us now are parents that we 63 ought to be able to have some influence. I hope that we will take a lead from the Scottish Parliament, which will work normal hours when it sets up later this year.
Sadly, not all families are functional. Violence in the home is experienced by thousands of women—and by men—every year. Domestic violence is one of the Government's stated priorities for action, but the voluntary sector, which provides most of the services for victims of violence, is underfunded and suffers the double blow of withdrawal of grants by local authorities whose budgets are under severe pressure. There is a patchwork of provision of refuges, with availability of help varying from area to area, and many police forces still do not provide all their officers with training in dealing with complaints of domestic violence.
Domestic violence cuts across many departmental responsibilities, with input from the Department of Social Security, the Department of Health, the Home Office and probably other Departments that I have forgotten. The Government say that they are committed to joined-up thinking and have set up many cross-departmental working parties, but joined-up thinking needs joined-up resources, and there is as yet no evidence of that. Instead, there is a multiplicity of sources for bidding for funds. Domestic violence is too serious to be left to a lottery of fund bidding and funding.
All people want equality, not special treatment. Our daughters are beginning to expect equality as the norm, but it should also be the right of women currently on pensions or about to retire; of those doing the same job as a man but getting less pay; and of those whose choice is to look after their children at home or to take care of an elderly relative. Only then will both men and women be liberated to take on whatever roles they choose.
As the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham said, men losing some of their powers in some areas will gain advantages in others, giving them the freedom to take on roles involving caring or staying at home, which in the past they felt were not open to them. Surely that should be our aim.
As the Minister said, better for women is better for all. That is why it is especially disappointing that so few men have chosen to take part in this debate—there are one or two honourable exceptions—which is not only about women but is, and should be, about both genders.
Women should not have to pay the price of cuts in Government spending or suffer because of the history of a male-dominated political culture. The Government are tackling many of the issues, but much remains to be done. I hope that we will not have to wait another full year before we can debate their priorities in this area.
§ Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)
I am delighted to contribute to this debate following a weekend in Bristol during which many groups of women and their families came together to celebrate both the women's world day of prayer and international women's day. Individual women started both those now traditional celebrations.
Perhaps it is ironic that the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) should have spoken of the problems affecting textile workers in connection with 64 the minimum wage, since international women's day stems from demonstrations in 1857 by New York women in the textile and garment industries. Because of low pay and the frustration and concern that they felt, they banded together and probably thereby started international women's day.
We had music, dance and poetry in a celebration hosted by Bristol city council. People came not only to look back but to look forward and to recognise what the Government have begun to do to meet women's needs and give them greater choice. We must remember that the movements were born in the adversity of New York, where new immigrants had to live in slum dwellings, were out of work and lacked health and education facilities. That is the context in which we look forward to improving conditions for women.
Make Votes Count, an all-party organisation that seeks to increase political involvement and accountability, also held a meeting in Bristol.
This year, we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the first woman taking her place in the House, yet only 239 women have ever been elected as Members of Parliament. It is a telling fact that 121 of us—more than half the total—are Members now. There is a long way to go. We are still only 18 per cent., or about one in five. We need more women to be involved.
We need to take a deep look at making women's votes count and allowing women to be more involved in Parliament and local government.
§ Mrs. Ann Winterton
Like the hon. Lady, I believe that we must get as many people as possible to vote in any democratic election. What are the hon. Lady or her party doing to encourage more women to vote in the vital forthcoming local elections? Does she share my concern at the fact that sometimes less than 30 per cent. of the electorate vote—never mind the percentage of women who vote?
§ Valerie Davey
If the hon. Lady had come to Bristol yesterday and seen the stalls, and the women urging people to participate in the city council elections to come, and the way in which the city council opened its doors, she would have been encouraged.
We must seriously consider more radical suggestions, such as everyone being able to vote in the supermarket or by post. That is exactly what Make Votes Count was discussing.
The other group marching through the streets of Bristol was Jubilee 2000. The people were not so much marching as dancing, because they were led by a rumba band. It was a lovely, colourful occasion, but it brought home the fact that poverty around the world has a female face. I was delighted to see a Minister from the Department for International Development on the Front Bench earlier, in recognition of the fact that the issue is of international concern.
I wish to share with the House some facts and figures provided at a seminar organised by the Department for International Development on gender development and poverty. The international facts are reflected in this country. Some 70 per cent. of the world's 1.3 billion poorest people are women. Political participation by women is low. Around the world women hold only 11.7 per cent. of seats in parliaments. We have 18 per 65 cent. here, but that is not enough. Some 60 per cent. of the world's nearly 1 billion illiterate adults are women. Thanks to this Government, more money will be put in to that area; it needs to be because, of the 130 million children who are not in school, two thirds are girls.
Worldwide, women earn 75 per cent. of the pay of men for the same work. The value of women's unpaid housework and community work is now estimated by the United Nations to be 35 per cent. of gross domestic product worldwide. In most countries, women work approximately twice the unpaid time that men do. Up to 50 per cent. of women experience some degree of domestic violence during marriage worldwide, and in this country the figure is 25 per cent. The most poignant and important figure is that 585,000 die every year from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. That is more than 1,600 women every day. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in 13 women will die from pregnancy and childbirth causes, compared to one in 3,300 in the United States of America. There is so much to do to improve women's health and to give women the choice about childbirth. All the neglect of girls and the preference shown for boys causes an unhappy and appalling situation for many women in the world.
I am proud that the Government are concerned about the plight of women in this country and are extending that concern to women worldwide. I assure the Minister that whichever Minister comes to Bristol for the listening to women day, planned for next month, she will hear questions from women in Bristol that will be varied and set in a global context.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)
I am grateful to have caught your eye so early, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I have to attend an engagement in the Speaker's House at 6.45 pm. I also apologise if I Miss the winding-up speeches. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) talked about the role of women in the textile industry and congratulated the Government on what they have done for women. However, Bill Martin, the chief economist at PDFM, has said:If one person loses his job because of the minimum wage that is bad news but we expect there to be up to 90,000 job losses in the textile sector and hotels and retail sector.I do not need to tell the hon. Lady that most of those people will be women.
Looking around the Chamber, I can see more women here as a percentage than usual. The right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) was right when she said that we do not have enough women Members of Parliament. However, we should not condemn ourselves too readily, because although the Westminster Parliament's record is not good, the Assemblée Nationale has an especially bad reputation. Whether its current policy of parité will have any effect, only time will tell. Currently, fewer than 10 per cent. of Members of the Assemblée Nationale are women. As we have heard, the Labour party tried to introduce women-only lists for candidate selection, but that was ruled unlawful and was stopped.
§ Ms Joan Ryan (Enfield, North)
In relation to that point and to the hon. Gentleman's earlier intervention, does he feel that he is here on merit, or as token man?
§ Mr. Fabricant
As the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) said, I took part in the debate on this issue 66 a year ago, so I like to think that I am taking part as a matter of consistency. I am also taking part because I was an employer—and I shall come back to that point.
I am firmly committed to equal opportunities for all, whether for women or ethnic minorities. However, I firmly oppose the introduction of quotas, which serve only to reduce standards. If a woman cannot make it through her ability, she should not do the job in the first place. The role of Government is to break down the barriers of prejudice so that women and the ethnic minorities are given equal opportunities with men.
§ Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
The hon. Gentleman is probably aware that there has not been a Scottish Conservative woman Member of Parliament since Anna McCurley, so his opinion of his female colleagues in Scotland seems to be extremely poor.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I am sad to say that Scotland does not have a Conservative Member of Parliament at all at the moment.
Now I must admit to the House—mea culpa—that when I ran a broadcast finance and engineering group before 1992, almost all our operational employees were men. The head of finance, the head of engineering and the head of marketing were all men. All the research and development team were men. I admit that I am ashamed of that record. We recruited from the BBC, Rediffusion and other organisations, and they, too, were staffed mainly by men in engineering positions. That was wrong. My only claim to fame is that, when I was at university, I went out with a girl who subsequently became the BBC's first female boom operator—although I doubt whether that was because she went out with me.
Nothing in the Minister's speech today would have helped the situation. Nothing that the Government are doing would have helped me or other employers to employ women. The debate is entitled, "The Government's priorities for women: progress on their delivery". Like all Government policies, it is like those blister-wrap packages on sale in supermarkets: it makes a cheap, tacky product look exciting and fresh. A pair of mechanical shears is needed to break into it. When you finally get to look at the product that you have purchased, you realise that you have fallen for the marketing spiel and the bright colours, but the contents are cheap and tacky and—more important—do not work, with or without batteries.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) has already mentioned the problems facing playgroups, such as my local one in Lichfield. They are typical of the problems facing many women in employment.
I have always made it clear that I do not oppose the national minimum wage in principle. However, the Prime Minister defended the minimum wage by saying, "There was such a system in the United States of America, so why isn't good enough for us?" I agree with that, but the minimum wage in the United States has numerous exemptions, including charities and caring organisations. Playgroups would not fall under the ambit of the USA's legislation, and American playgroups would not face the problems that ours do. There are also regional variations for the minimum wage in the United States, and many exemptions depend on the type of job.
67 For the sake of packaging and dogma, however, our Government could not allow any exemptions. The economy will reap the whirlwind, and the first people to suffer will be women—both those who work in playgroups and those who hope to send their children to playgroups while they go out to work.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I give way to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who has never been an employer in her life.
§ Caroline Flint
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that children placed in a care environment should have the staff of the best quality in terms of both training and pay? We must pay for an environment in which our children can be looked after, and decent pay and decent training are part of that.
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Lady shows her own naivety and that of those on the Labour Benches in the way that she puts her question. If playgroups go out of business because of the minimum wage, there will be no environment at all—good or bad. Moreover, parents will be unable to go out to work, so they will not have the equal opportunity that the hon. Lady seeks. She may nod her head at me, but if she had ever worked in industry instead of being a trade union official or whatever she was, she would know better than to ask such a damned stupid question.
There is a similarity with the law of conservation of energy. Energy cannot be created from nothing. In the same way, the mere setting of higher wages means that someone is bound to suffer. Small businesses and young women will suffer most. It will take time for that to show, but the minimum wage and other Bills going through Parliament will harm rather than enhance women's employment prospects.
§ Ms Beverley Hughes
Does the hon. Gentleman think it right that women, whatever job they are in, should earn £1.50 or £2 or £2.50 or £3 an hour? Is that acceptable in today's society?
§ Mr. Fabricant
It is wrong for women—and for men— to be exploited. However, it is better to be employed than to have one's firm go out of business and not employ anyone. We have already heard that many good firms such as Asda, the John Lewis Partnership and Marks and Spencer have women-friendly policies and care about their employees—both men and women. However, those firms can afford it. There are many industries—we have heard already about textiles—that cannot afford it. The Government's legislation—including the minimum wage with its lack of exemptions, unlike the minimum wage in the United States—will create unemployment. The first category of people to become unemployed will be the very people whom we are debating—women. Mark my words on that point.
Since the Government came to power, 25,000 women have lost their jobs in the textile industry. A recent article in The Economist predicted that the textile industry might be forced to shed another 30 per cent. of its work force— around 100,000 jobs.
68 The minimum wage is not the only problem. Let us remind ourselves of the burdens put on businesses during 22 short months of Labour Government: the windfall tax of £5.2 billion in July 1997; the past two Budgets, which added taxes of £19.15 billion; the national minimum wage, which is costing £8.1 billion; the working time directive, which is costing £6.65 billion; the European works councils directive, which is costing £0.085 billion; and parental leave, which is costing £0.11 billion. All that totals £39.3 billion of taxes on business. If a business can afford that, some Labour Members might say, "So be it." However, many businesses cannot afford it, and it will cost people their jobs.
The Prime Minister said that his Government would make a difference. He was right. The difference will be fewer opportunities for women to achieve gainful employment. The Government call themselves new Labour, but they are not new. They have not learned that Governments cannot create jobs: only businesses can do so. The Government's constant interference, ranging from tinkering to hammer blows, has done nothing for opportunities for women.
The Government have offered hope to many. Every new initiative has been trumpeted from every rooftop— though rarely first in Parliament. Every old initiative has been dusted down and regularly relaunched from every rooftop. Never has the Central Office of Information been so busy sending out e-mails, faxes and photocopies. Entire forests have been destroyed to provide the paperwork as each initiative has been announced and reannounced.
Up to 3 pm today, there had been no fewer than four announcements about this debate.Make way for women—Nick Raynsford tells the construction industry",said one news release. Apart from the title, however, and apart from the fact that the Minister for London and Construction was addressing the women in construction conference in London, the release makes no reference at all to women.
Another news release announced:Minister for Women addresses global videoconference".A third states:UK Armed Forces—celebrating International Women's Day".A fourth is entitled, "International Women's Day— delivering for women". No doubt there have been yet more news releases since 3 pm.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I shall not give way, as I promised you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I would be brief, and as I have given way five or six times already.
An elderly gentleman stands every Saturday in the precinct in Lichfield with a sandwich board around his shoulders, teaching the word of the Lord. As he might well say, "The time of reckoning is at hand." Newspapers in the west midlands are fed up with the Government, whose Barbie-doll policies ought to be confined to the playground. The newspapers have seen how few expectations have been met for men, let alone women. The Government are all gloss and no substance, and women are most likely to suffer from that.
§ Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis)
I congratulate Ministers on initiating the debate. Most women are neither "Superwoman" nor the little woman at home who gets the slippers and supper ready. It is sad that so many women underestimate themselves. Many felt increasingly frustrated with a society that demanded black and white choices of them, when they could have chosen from a colourful spectrum of possibilities.
Women have been let down by previous Governments who did not respond to women's changed place in the labour market. Provision of child care has not caught up with working women's changed roles, or with their desire and their need to work. Since their election just over 20 months ago, the Labour Government have produced many policies that will improve the lives of women and benefit their families. They are providing a choice of possibilities for women, and that is what is important.
I want to concentrate on two aspects of the debate— women and employment, and women and violence. More than half the United Kingdom's population are women— 29.9 million. Some 12 million of those women are in employment. Yet, in 1997, the Equal Opportunities Commission gave evidence to the Low Pay Commission stating that 40 per cent. of women earned less than £4.50 an hour—less than £8,775 a year for a 37½-hour week. Some 10 per cent. of women earned less than £3 an hour—under £6,000 a year.
Home workers—nearly always women—are often the most exploited workers. Some are paid as little as 50p an hour, and they are expected to run machines from their homes at their own expense. Most are self-employed, receiving no entitlement to holiday or sick pay, and never being eligible for an occupational pension. They will be among the 1.3 million people who will benefit from the introduction of a national minimum wage. In April, that will be welcomed by many, not least by some people I met recently—for example, a chambermaid in Halesowen in my constituency who works in a Birmingham hotel. She told me that she voted Labour for the first time in 1997 because our party was promoting the national minimum wage. She has a husband and three children but, in that hotel, she earns only £2.50 an hour. She will be one of the many women who will rejoice after 1 April.
In the west midlands region alone, there will be 230,000 workers who are likely to benefit from the national minimum wage. As the Low Pay Commission was told by the National Council for One Parent Families:The advantage of replacing benefit income with earned income is real—it genuinely helps workers move out of the poverty trap.The Government acknowledge that many women have a dual responsibility within the home and as employees. Some of the more forward-looking companies have offered flexible working arrangements and provided child care arrangements, but the majority have made no allowance for the additional responsibilities shouldered by women. Many women have had to make a choice between caring for children or dependent relatives, or pursuing a career of their choice. Many thousands of women have chosen part-time, low-paid and less responsible jobs than they are capable of simply because that enables them to combine domestic responsibilities and work.
That can affect women's income dramatically, both in the present and in the longer term. Women are less likely to have entitlement to a pension. The Employment 70 Relations Bill, currently going through the House, will extend maternity leave to 18 weeks for all women. It proposes that parents should be able to take up to three months parental leave when they have a baby or adopt a child. That will certainly help with the necessary adjustment that has to take place in a family when a new member joins it, whether by birth or adoption. It is an important time for one or both parents to spend with that child. The Bill also provides a right to reasonable time off for family emergencies.
There are 6 million carers in Britain, of whom 60 per cent. are women. They might be caring for a child with a disability or for an elderly or disabled relative; some are caring for both. I hope that the provisions of the Bill will cover carers because, despite the increased participation of women in the work force in the United Kingdom, evidence suggests that the number of carers is increasing—it rose by 800,000 in the five years between 1985 and 1990.
Provision of good-quality and affordable child care is essential for working parents; it is especially important for lone parents. I welcome the attention that the Government are paying to the provision of child care; that is long overdue. In my constituency a ward of almost 13,000 people has no child care provision; there are no registered child minders. Not everyone is able to rely on relatives to provide child care, which is why the Government's national child care strategy is to be welcomed. On Friday, I visited an after-school club in a primary school in Halesowen where there were 16 to 18 children. They were happy, motivated and enjoying themselves participating in a range of different activities, and they were given some sandwiches and fruit towards the end of their stay. I met two or three of the parents when they collected their children at 5.30. I did not have to ask them what they felt; they volunteered to me their gratitude that the possibility of the provision of child care had become a reality. It has made a huge difference to the working lives of some of those women, some of whom told me that they now work full-time for three days a week, compared with five days a week part-time. Clearly, that gives them a better opportunity in their careers.
I met a nurse who has recently graduated after completing her training and now works in the community. Her two daughters attend the after-school club, which has enabled her to take up her post in the community knowing that her children are safe, happy and well cared for. She told me that the club was reasonable and affordable, and means that she can have satisfying and enjoyable work and make a contribution to the community. She also told me that the trust is considering term-time work for staff with children. The Government have given the lead, and employers are taking up the challenge and addressing the issue.
My second point relates to women and violence. Women suffer horribly from violence at men's hands in the home and on the streets. Men still think that that behaviour can be excused by saying, "She asked for it." Of course women ask to be beaten black and blue, and of course they decide to wear a short skirt because they want to be raped. It has taken women's organisations decades of constant and concerted effort to obtain international recognition of the fact that violence against women is a human rights issue. The affirmation that such violence is a human rights problem entails Governments' obligation to recognise that women are entitled to be protected 71 against violence, and that that is their human right. Governments should guarantee that right and provide remedies when it is violated.
Violence against women is not a private, but a public issue. Government action is needed to protect women against violence, no matter who the perpetrators are. The Government accept their responsibility in that field and are committed to tackling all forms of violence against women. I welcome the Government's initiative to work across Departments to develop policies that combat violence against women—whether it be the Home Office developing a national strategy on domestic violence, or the Lord Chancellor's Department with its responsibility for family law.
Legislation against harassment and stalking has been introduced, as have ways in which vulnerable and intimidated witnesses can be helped to give evidence. Under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, local crime audits must be conducted. Those will help to focus on violence against women, whether in the home or in the community in which they live. It will no longer be possible to assume, "It doesn't happen here." The audits will identify the extent of the problem in each area, and help local authorities and voluntary organisations to develop the support services that are so necessary.
I welcome the Government's policies to date, because they are a good foundation on which we shall be able to build throughout this Parliament and the next. We never said that things would change overnight, but we do say that things are improving. I add my voice to those of women in my constituency and throughout the country who are celebrating international women's week, in congratulation and celebration of the Government's start on improving the lives of women.
§ Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)
Each year when I take part in this debate, I am not sure whether to welcome or deprecate it. It is sad that we continue to feel the need for a separate debate on women. I wonder whether we should be debating the excluded young men whom young women do not want to marry and with whom they do not want to have children—or rather, the young women will have the children, but do not want the responsibility of having the young men as husbands or even, dare I say it, partners.
For a long time, many of us have fought to achieve equality for women. Many hon. Members are old hands on that subject, not only through participation in debates in the House, but because we have campaigned for decades—in my case, I am happy to admit that it is since the 1960s—for equality for women. It is sad that the same subjects continue to come up, although the position has improved dramatically since I first started to debate such matters at university in the 1960s.
Let us consider the achievements of women. If one goes into a school and asks the girls what they plan to do, they are organised and clear in their views; they have clear goals and know what they want to achieve. They are pouring into universities and colleges, where they comprise at least 50 per cent. of students; they are gaining degrees and will make a huge impact on the professions. The situation has changed beyond all recognition. Police forces now recognise the problems of domestic violence 72 and have set up domestic violence centres. They know that, if they get a panicked telephone call in the early hours of the morning, they must respond quickly and do what they can to remove the perpetrator of violence against women.
The situation has changed in many ways. I am one of the oldies who remembers what it was like before. I campaigned for sex discrimination legislation and for the establishment of the Equal Opportunities Commission. However, in spite of those changes for the better, I now believe that we should consider long and hard whether the commission is still required.
I welcome the announcement that membership of the Women's National Commission will now include smaller women's groups. I campaigned hard for that inclusion when I was a member of a smaller group. I felt excluded from communicating to Government the clear and positive views of my group. If the Women's National Commission is now to encompass all smaller groups and if we assume—it is possibly a big assumption—that it will receive sufficient funds to service those groups properly, we should look to that body and to the women's unit to do the work of the Equal Opportunities Commission.
I believe that the Government—who claim all sorts of achievements with regard to women's issues—should review sex discrimination legislation and assess what does and does not work in that area. The Government must identify what formats are helpful and those that are past their sell-by date. Organisations such as the Equal Opportunities Commission were crucial in the early days, but I question whether their role remains important today.
The Government trumpet their achievements in the area of women's issues and we have spent hours considering on the Floor of the House and in Committee legislation that they claim will assist women. So why are we spending precious time today talking about women and women's issues when we have done nothing else ever since I returned to this place in November 1997? I have served on the Committee considering the working families tax credit. It contains some huge flaws, only some of which have been identified at this stage. However, that measure is discussed endlessly as a means of helping women.
My hon. Friend the maiden for—[Interruption.] That was an interesting slip of the tongue. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) pointed out that the working families tax credit contains a fundamental flaw which we fought hard to eliminate in the 1960s and 1970s: the transfer of money from the purse to the wallet. We fought for child benefit as opposed to a tax allowance that recognised the cost associated with raising children because we did not want money to go to the wallet. The Government are returning to the bad old days by reinstating that money to the wallet.
§ Mrs. May
I am also concerned about the transfer of funds from the purse to the wallet which will occur under the working families tax credit. Does my hon. Friend share my great concern that the issue has not been raised on the Labour Benches? I am somewhat surprised that Labour Members are entirely silent about the matter. They trumpet the advantages of the WFTC but are unable to see its flaws.
§ Mrs. Lait
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the silence was deafening from Labour Members during discussion of that issue in Committee. We made the point time and again, but it has remained unacknowledged.
I noted with interest that the Minister said that the working families tax credit would benefit families who earned up to £23,000. I was tempted at the time to ask whether she was formulating new policy in that area and reducing the taper—thereby reinforcing the poverty trap—or whether she did not know that the working families tax credit is available to families who earn up to £38,000. That creates the paradox whereby some people who pay 40 per cent. tax—that is, super tax—receive the working families tax credit. The logic behind that calculation is slightly beyond me—and we have received no answers from the Government.
Another interesting issue has arisen as a direct result of the working families tax credit and its interaction with the national minimum wage. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) referred to this matter, and it is one about which I have received several lobbying cards from my constituents on behalf of the Pre-School Learning Alliance. They point out the effect that the national minimum wage will have on pre-school employees and express the fear that it will damage that provision.
We agree that all four-year-olds should receive nursery education, but the previous Government ensured that choice remained. The minute that Labour was elected, it abolished nursery education vouchers and insisted upon free pre-school education for all children from the age of four onwards. The state-maintained sector is now eating into choice and the pre-school sector by reducing the age at which it is prepared to offer children nursery education. Pre-schools must not only deal with the consequences of the national minimum wage, but compete on an unfair basis—we welcome fair competition—with the maintained pre-school education sector.
§ Mrs. Ann Winterton
I have listened to my hon. Friend's remarks with interest, and I agree with her entirely. This morning, I visited a playgroup in Rode Heath in my constituency, and exactly those points were raised with me. The playgroup serves a village and a rural area, and without the support of an extra grant, would not exist this year. Without that playgroup, there would be no provision in the area. It has been hit by provision for four-year-olds in the maintained sector and by the legislation introduced by the Government.
§ Mrs. Lait
I agree completely; my hon. Friend reinforces the point made by pre-schools.
However, there is another twist in the tale. Costs will be forced up by the minimum wage, which will prompt the pre-schools that survive to increase their prices. The working families tax credit and the child care tax credit will meet those costs, but prices will increase in the sector as a whole.
At the risk of being declared out of order—if that is possible in a debate such as this, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I will compare that experience to what has happened in the rest homes sector. As soon as the state declared a minimum price, that was the price charged. Costs increased, the state—for whatever reason—was not prepared to increase prices and the quality of provision 74 fell. In those circumstances, unless county councils were prepared to assist—which is what happened in the maintained rest homes sector—prices increased and were further subsidised by the maintained sector. I suggest that exactly the same thing will occur in the child care sector as a result of the child care tax credit. Prices will increase, as will the cost to the taxpayer.
Another reason why the working families tax credit and the child care tax credit will be so expensive—I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead on precisely this point—is that people will organise their affairs to maximise their income. That is why a poverty trap exists. People will say, "I cannot afford to go back to work because I get more benefit when I am out of work." I am not saying that that is right, but those people are making a clear economic statement. They will organise their child care and working patterns to maximise that tax credit. That means that the £1.5 billion that the Government dream will be the cost of the measure will increase certainly to about £7 billion and potentially to as much as £15 billion. That is an increase of 8p in the pound in the basic rate of income tax.
That leads me to tomorrow's Budget, with which I have potential problems. The Chancellor has already said that he plans to tax child benefit. If he does, he will undermine the basic right of individuals to have control of their tax affairs. I lobbied on that issue throughout the 1970s and 1980s until, in reply to my speech at the Conservative party conference, Nigel Lawson said that women would get independent taxation. If the Chancellor introduces the taxation of child benefit, he will fatally undermine that principle because he will be insisting that couples share their tax information, and confidentiality is one of the basic principles of independent taxation.
The Chancellor will not only penalise a family with one earner who pays 40 per cent. tax, while another family with two earners who do not pay 40 per cent. tax have a combined income that is higher than that of the first family, but he will break the basic principle of independent taxation. I am sure that the Government would not want that accusation made against them because the scales would suddenly fall from the eyes of the legions of women who campaigned, lobbied, wrote and sat in the Gallery, day after day, in their fight for independent taxation.
§ Mrs. Lait
There are many more matters about which I am angry, but I promise that I shall not take up much more time.
I want now to address a subject that does not speak its name—what we should do about young boys who are alienated from society. I raised the subject in this debate four or five years ago, and I hate to be repetitive, but nothing is being done. I should prefer us to spend an Adjournment debate discussing young lads and their problems rather than women, whom we discuss year after year, and about whom we say the same things again and again.
There is a problem that needs to be tackled: women do not want some chaps as fathers because they are useless— in every respect except one—and our education and parenting systems are the cause. We must somehow deal with unskilled young lads who cannot contribute to 75 society and who feel rejected. Nothing that the Government have done so far has addressed that issue. The emphasis on mainstreaming through education is further alienating those lads. More and more of them are excluded from school. Those who are in school refuse to learn. They do not benefit from any measures that have been taken.
We must address those concerns because if we do not create a society in which men feel responsible for a family, we will reinforce the huge problems experienced by lone parents. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead pointed out the sheer costs and difficulties of trying to get single mothers back into work. We are excluding and alienating those young lads from work because they need to be educated to get a decent job, and unskilled jobs have gone. As we know, they are more prone to criminality and to perpetrating acts of violence against women.
We must, as a society, tackle the problems of those alienated young men. I hope that on international women's day next year, the Government will have the guts to hold an Adjournment debate on that subject, not women yet again.
§ 7.5 pm
§ Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)
I, for one, am absolutely delighted to participate in a debate about women to celebrate international women's day.
I am also very proud to be the chair of the parliamentary Labour party Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and in that capacity, I pay tribute to the leading role played by women in the peace movement over the years. Many women who are now in this place established their political credentials through involvement with the peace camp at Greenham Common and in the wider peace movement. Many of them continue to put forward arguments for peace and disarmament in this place whenever possible.
We are well assisted by the many campaigners outside Parliament who continue to focus on arguments against Trident and the non-accountable nature of US spy stations such as Menwith Hill, which is not far from my constituency. The women at the Menwith Hill peace camp have for many years bravely questioned the reason for the existence of the US base, its legality and precisely what goes on there. Helen John, Lindis Percy and Anne Lee are among many women who have continued to oppose the existence and expansion of the base. In the early days, when the existence of the station became known, many of us attended picnics—rallies—in the adjacent fields, where we had excellent speakers such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The picnics have ended, but the arguments continue.
As a member of the Council of Europe committee on equal opportunities for women and men, I have recently been involved in a report on the equal representation of women and men in the Parliaments of the 40 member countries. In a table demonstrating the representation of women in Parliaments, the UK is 12th, Sweden is at the top and Turkey is at the bottom. Albania did not get its act together so we did not receive figures for its Parliament. Should the House need reminding, 76 this Chamber has at present 659 MPs, of whom 121, or 18.4 per cent., are women, and 101 of them are Labour Members. Our position on the list would have been much higher if it had not been for the overwhelming preponderance of men among hereditary peers. Perhaps next year, our position on the list will have improved.
Parliamentary selections will be made by all parties in the next year, and I am not particularly hopeful that the representation of women will be addressed by any party, including my own. Three years ago, when two male no-hopers took three constituency Labour parties, including my own, to an industrial tribunal, I felt confident that the chair would throw out the case because a prospective parliamentary candidate could in no way be described as an employee of a party. There is no wage, no contract of employment and no employer-employee relationship.
Those men would have had no chance of selection, whichever party they had applied to and whatever the shortlist. They would probably not even have made it on to an all-male shortlist, yet the tribunal chair accepted their complaint and the tribunal—amazingly, in my view—decided in the plaintiffs' favour. That decision still stands and therefore, sadly, no party can safely use an all-women shortlist as a vehicle, no matter how imperfect, to move towards equality of representation in Parliament.
The Council of Europe equal opportunities committee suggests that member states introduce a quota system— although that would be effective only where the very undemocratic system of lists operates. There are other carrot-and-stick approaches to encourage political parties to move toward the nomination of equal numbers of men and women in winnable seats too; but without constituency parties being able to opt for all-women short lists, such good intentions may result in little improvement. In fact, unless changes are made, there may be a reduction in the number of women Members of Parliament following the next election.
The Council of Europe equal opportunities committee has also been considering in detail the issue of violence against women. Last week, we decided to hold a press conference to coincide with international women's day. The committee's unanimously adopted declaration on zero tolerance of violence against women and girls reads as follows:Gender violence is a fundamental violation of the right to life, to liberty and security, to personal, mental and physical integrity, equal protection before the law, equality within the family as well as the right not to be subject to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.Violence against women is both a serious obstacle to the achievement of women's equality, and the outcome of the inequality which persists throughout Europe. The most important way to fight violence against women consequently is the fight for equal rights and opportunities for women.We therefore call for equality being one of the issues covered by monitoring compliance with the obligations of Council of Europe member States.I shall finally mention just a few of the Government's measures which will help women. The £40 billion extra for health and education will certainly be greatly welcomed by women with small children who, more than most, must visit their doctor. They will see improvements. The money will also be welcomed by many older women, who also have to use their doctors a great deal more than the average person.
77 There is a commitment to promote family-friendly initiatives through, among other things, the "Fairness at Work" White Paper and implementation of the working time, part-time work and parental leave directives. Anything that makes life easier for women who work and have small children will be of help. There are many stresses and strains on such women. When they are at work, they feel guilty about not being with their children, and when they are with their children, they feel guilty about not being at work. Anything that helps them in any direction should be welcomed. I certainly welcome such measures.
I welcome the new deal for lone parents, to help them move from welfare to work, provided that the final decision on whether a young mother with small children goes to work is the mother's alone. She should not feel pushed into going back to work. I am very much in favour of the introduction of a national minimum wage, too. It will be very popular in Keighley, which is traditionally a very low-wage area. The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) described the policy as one of the Barbie doll proposals or strategies. If that is so, many women on very poor wages in Keighley will say, "Long live Barbie."
There has been much argument about playgroups. The national minimum wage will provide working women with enough money to pay a playgroup an economic rate, which will in turn enable the playgroup to pay those whom it employs an economic and reasonable wage. Even the Conservative party cannot knock increases in child benefit and income-related benefits to help families with children—although I am sure that it will try. As a grandmother with five—going on six—small grandchildren, I can speak with authority on the first ever national child care strategy. Readily available and reasonably priced good quality child care is the greatest enabler of all for women. I for one welcome the measure with very great enthusiasm.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
Here we are debating the Government's priorities for women, and progress—or lack of it—in delivering on them. In welcoming the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) to her post—this is my first opportunity to do so—I wholeheartedly endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who eloquently set out the position of Conservative Members. I want to separate the fact from the fiction in this debate. I shall draw attention to the Government's ultimate failure to set priorities for women, and accuse them of being hopelessly remiss in delivering for women.
I am mildly surprised that no reference has been made to the United Nations action programme for women. My researchers pulled a three-page document from the internet on the programme, which I had imagined would be the core of this debate. It raises real issues for women, not just in this country but throughout the world. As we celebrate international women's day, the programme raises issues such as the contribution of women to all aspects of society, equal opportunities for women, the role of women in developing countries, and Government funding to enable women to perform such a role.
In the light of the remarks of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), I should like to refer to the number of women on the Government Benches. The Minister for 78 Public Health said that all-women lists for parliamentary selection at the general election were not deemed to be in breach of any rules. But as the hon. Member for Keighley said, when the matter was taken to an industrial tribunal, such lists were found to be clearly in breach of the treaty of Rome and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which implemented its provisions. As a result, the Labour party stopped selection from all-women lists.
I should like to share with Labour Members, especially the Minister, the following thought: the Government must learn—I am sure that they will not mind taking lectures from Opposition Members in this regard—that there must be genuinely equal opportunities for men and women. I am wholeheartedly enthusiastic about the fact that I and the other 13 women who represent the Conservative party in this House were selected on merit, and not simply to fulfil the gender quota.
I pay tribute to the previous Government, and especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) for his contribution as Prime Minister to delivering positive policies for women. He introduced and endorsed Opportunity 2000, which has put more women into public life and indirectly resulted in greater numbers of women in the professions, the boardrooms and other walks of life from which politics can draw. More work opportunities for women arise today as a result of the previous Government's commitment to flexible labour markets. As of April 1997, there were 12.3 million women in the work force. By comparison, this Government have failed miserably to deliver positive policies for women.
The Minister for Public Health referred to every stage of a woman's life, from girlhood to womanhood, as well as to those who care for elderly relatives. This Government have failed at every such stage. Women whose aspirations were raised before the election have been let down. To illustrate that point, I shall start with the example of nursery education. Nursery education vouchers were introduced nationwide in April 1997, and would have resulted in the provision of free nursery education for every four-year-old. Many mothers want the provision of such pre-school education, which gives them the opportunity to work. On being elected in May 1997, the Labour Government immediately abolished that scheme.
Equally, it was recognised that the minimum wage for au pairs would have a devastating effect on women returning to work. I understand—perhaps the Minister will put my mind at rest on this score when she winds up the debate—that that category has now been excluded under Government provisions for the minimum wage, first, because it would have led to fewer au pairs working, and secondly, because, as a result, fewer mothers would have entered the workplace.
There are probably more women teachers than men teachers; certainly there are more women heads than men heads. In North Yorkshire, and especially in the Vale of York, teachers and heads have been extremely disappointed by this year's poor standard spending assessment for north Yorkshire. Teachers are being promised a pay increase, but the Government have committed no new money to pay for it. Moreover, the Government are committed to cutting class sizes to 30, yet they have committed no new money to achieving that aim.
79 The Government are going even further, saying that they wish to introduce performance-related pay for teachers in two years' time without considering how that is to be achieved or the administrative burden that the achievement of that aim will impose on teachers and heads. Many of those teachers and many of those heads will be women.
The Minister with responsibility for women's issues briefly mentioned the plight of teenage girls, and especially the increasing number of teenage pregnancies. That is now an extremely pressing problem, in view of the number of teenage girls falling pregnant, many of whom are applying to take the morning-after pill before a pregnancy has been diagnosed, or—in the long term— applying to go on the contraceptive pill. However, the Minister made no mention of the higher incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers. That is an especially worrying development for young teenagers, especially girls, because as they develop and, hopefully, marry, it could have a very negative effect on their fertility and ability to give birth.
I am concerned that intrusive, old-fashioned socialist policies such as the minimum wage and maternity or paternity leave will lead to higher unemployment among women. It is believed that the working time directive and the constraints imposed by it will hit working women hardest.
I shall now discuss those choosing not to work but to stay at home to bring up children or to care for sick or elderly relatives. It has been found that the tax situation imposed by the Government is severely disadvantaging women who choose to stay at home. The only beneficiaries, under the present tax law, are couples living together and choosing not to marry, or one-parent families. That is hardly an incentive to working mothers, or carers choosing to stay at home.
I should like to discuss the equal opportunities provisions under the treaty of Rome and the implementing regulations, especially in relation to woman returners to work. That is a special category which has been recognised, especially under objective 3 training funds. There have been qualifying programmes for women such as "New Opportunities for Women"—the NOW programme. I understand that, in all probability, that programme will lapse under the Agenda 2000 reforms.
I leave the Minister with the following question. What provisions will replace those schemes, enabling woman returners to work to undertake courses to boost their chances of taking up employment, especially after leaving employment to bring up young people—their children— and to ensure that there will be new provision either under a Government programme or a future European programme?
The enduring message that I shall be left with at the end of tonight's debate is that the Government are now adopting Conservative language. They are "seeing women as mainstream" in life and they have adopted a programme of listening to women. Obviously we have coined a phrase with our Listening to Britain campaign, in which we addressed 52 per cent. of the electorate and 45 per cent. of the work force, namely women.
The Labour party's rhetoric has changed. In opposition, it claimed to want to do something to help women; now, in government, it supports the Conservative rhetoric of 80 developing a strategy to make women feel mainstream in society, not a hived-off special category. However, in my view the Government have consistently discriminated against women.
The Government have failed women and disappointed their aspirations—raised before the most recent general election—most in relation to family credit, which is now being paid to the mother. Family credit has been paid through the benefits system to the mother; the working families tax credit will be distributed through the tax system, and in the majority of low-income households the father, as the sole wage earner, will receive that benefit. The money will therefore be paid to him through his pay packet, and the wife and children will lose out, because scientific evidence proves that money given to the father is less likely to be spent on child care. That is a fundamental point, which the Government have failed to address and on which they have failed to deliver for women.
Incapacity benefit is changing, and is now to be available only to those who paid national insurance contributions in only one of the past two tax years—not the past five or six tax years. That will hit women especially hard, and the majority of those penalised will be those with young children who become ill, or carers for elderly relatives.
Finally, bereavement pensions—the new bereavement benefit—will be cut off after only six months for those without dependent children. It is important that we, the Conservatives, take the message to those who will lose out after six months and will no longer receive a bereavement pension until retirement age, as they currently do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead pointed out, 250,000 women will lose out in that category alone.
I conclude that the Government have failed to deliver for women on a catalogue of areas and policies, and that they can hardly be welcomed as having introduced woman-friendly policies.
§ Barbara Follett (Stevenage)
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate on the last international women's day of the 20th century. This has been the century of women, just as the 15th was the century of exploration and the 18th the century of industrial revolution. In this century, the revolution has been in women's lives. A hundred years ago there were no women engineers, no women professors, no women managing directors or women MPs, let alone women Speakers, Chief Whips or Leaders of the House. A hundred years ago, women did not even have the vote. Then, as now, there were many talented and entrepreneurial women, but their abilities were wasted and their ambitions stifled by a seemingly monolithic social order.
Women today still have a number of glass ceilings to break, including that of leader of the Liberal Democrat party; 100 years ago they were still on the floor. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Ms Jowell) said, women's lives have changed beyond recognition. I know that she, like me, is proud that the Labour party, which came into being with the century, has played its part in ensuring that those changes are reflected in the laws of our land.
It was the 1945 Labour Government—who, like the 1997 Labour Government, contained a record number of women—who brought in the maternity allowance in the 81 Beveridge reforms of 1948. It was the 1974 Labour Government who made formal provision for maternity leave in their Employment Protection Act 1975. In 1997, it is the Labour Government who are increasing that maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks and introducing— for the first time in our country—the right to parental leave and time off for family emergencies.
Those new provisions recognise the importance of women in the workplace and the importance of men in the family—better for women and much better for us all. Men—not just retiring Conservative Members—need to spend more time with their families. Research into underperforming boys has shown that the root of the problem is the boys' unwillingness to learn to read because they consider reading too girlie—too unmanly. That is because they are generally read to by their mothers or by their primary school teachers, who on the whole are women. Almost never are they read to by their fathers or by other men. They rarely see men or their fathers reading anything at all except newspapers. Families definitely need fathers and I am proud to be serving on a Committee that is considering a Bill that translates recognition of that fact into law.
We have heard today about how the Government are delivering for women in this country and for women in developing countries throughout the world. The minimum wage, the working families tax credit, the sure start programme and the national child care strategy have all been mentioned. With my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), I am pleased to say how much the national child care strategy means to me personally as a mother of three and a grandmother of two. I was one of those women who in the early 1980s sent a son to school even though he did not look very well because I needed desperately to keep my job. I was called to the school later in the day, and a day later he was diagnosed as having meningitis. He hung between life and death for two days. Fortunately, he is now a man of 23. If he had died, I do not think that I could ever have forgiven myself. We put women in that position every day of their lives in this country.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) so tellingly recounted, the numbers of women elected to the House in the past 80 years have been pitifully small. It was not until 1983 that the number of women in the House exceeded 5 per cent. of the total membership. When Parliament was dissolved in April 1997, that percentage had risen by four, to 9 per cent. On 1 May 1997, it doubled to 18 per cent. Meanwhile the number of women on the Conservative Benches fell from 18 to 13. It was only after the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) came to the House after a by-election that the number rose to 14. Only three Liberal Democrat women Members and two women Scottish Nationalist Members were returned. It is clear that it was the 101 Labour women who made the difference.
In opposition, the Labour party made a huge effort to ensure that women were selected in seats which they had a chance of winning. I find it unbelievable that Opposition Members cannot accept that on both sides of the House we have had hundreds of years of men-only shortlists, which owed much more to Buggin's turn than to merit; few of us have acknowledged that today. I applaud the efforts that the Labour party made to overcome Buggin's turn. I am glad to see that in government we are 82 committed to righting this democratic deficit, not merely to promote equality but to promote women's participation in the political process.
Women throughout the country, especially outside the House but including some of us inside it, find the way in which we debate the issues that we care about—the economy, education and the health service—demeaning. They feel that it involves a lot of shouting but little doing. If we really want to involve more people, including women, in the political process, we shall have to reform it. I am delighted that the Government have made a start. I am glad to say that the new Assemblies in Scotland and Wales will be horseshoe-shaped and will work far more family-friendly hours than we currently enjoy.
Although the same cannot be said for the reformed House of Lords, I am confident that the current number of women in that place—7 per cent. of the total membership—will rise. It is the upper Chamber which keeps the British Parliament so low in the league table of women's representation. Yes, we are above France, but the French are so desperate that they are thinking of amending their constitution to ensure that the law encourages women to participate in public life. However, we are below countries such as Kuwait and Korea, which are not known for their women-friendly policies. The Labour party is committed to encourage the principle of a 50:50 ratio of women and men in public appointments. The number of women appointed to public posts has risen by 7 per cent. in the 20 months that we have been in office.
We do and will select on merit. As the century draws to a close, I look forward to the next, which I hope will be the century of partnership between the Government and the people and between men and women. Only in that way can we guarantee a better future for us all.
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
The hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) said how much she welcomes the 101 women Labour Members who have entered the House following the general election, which she informed us had made the difference in this place. I find it difficult to understand what the difference has been as a result of additional female talent coming into this place. There have been occasions when women Labour Members have all sat on their hands, robotic-like, not even being prepared to support one of their colleagues. I remember witnessing the slaughter of the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who was attacked for her policies that were altering the legislation applying to women, which I thought had been reasonably well thought out. Hardly one of the women Labour Members would do a thing to support the right hon. Lady on the occasions when she sat in her place as lonely as a cloud.
There is no point in looking at the width; it is the quality that matters. If women are to justify their increased numbers in this place, they must try to decide what issues really matter in improving the position of women in our society and then to do something about them. For example, if Labour women Members were collectively to go and sort out the Lord Chancellor on matters such as 83 the number of women judges, I am sure that they could frighten him to death. If that were to happen, we might see some more women judges appointed.
§ Mrs. Gorman
I do not think that that is the point. However, with my colleagues I went and sorted out our own Lord Chancellor. We persuaded him to introduce several changes in legislation bearing on children and matters relating to cohabitation, for example. On those occasions we had an impact. There is no point in calling for more women in the House unless those women will act independently, individually and in support of the issues that they claim are still waiting to be sorted out.
Women want much the same as men want. They want more opportunities, a better standard of living and more independence for themselves. To put it crudely, they want to be better off. The Conservative free-market, free-enterprise policies have introduced a vast new range of industries and opportunities, which have given women the opportunity that they now have, for example, to own motor cars, albeit that they block the roads when collecting their children from school. It is an opportunity that they did not have before. I recall the old, stale Labour policies of keeping alive out-of-date heavy industries which were enormously subsidised. They gobbled up public funds to sustain jobs that were long out of date. Conservative changes over the past 20 years have transformed the free market and made it possible for women to gain opportunities.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
If the hon. Lady is saying that greater financial independence has given women the ability to have their own motor car, I expect her to join me in welcoming the increase in women's incomes as a result of the national minimum wage and the working families tax credit.
§ Mrs. Gorman
I think that both measures are extremely misguided. Once women have taken time out of work and need to get back in it, they usually need the opportunity to get back on the ladder. If we load the employment of women with extraneous costs, of which the minimum wage is sometimes one, but not always, we will encumber women and make employment much more difficult. In making that remark I quote not a rabid right-wing Conservative like myself, but Carmen Callil, who is a well-known supporter of the Labour party and an extremely successful publisher. I believe that recently she was running HarperCollins, one of our major publishers. She said that trying to employ women, as she does—many book editors are women, and it is predominantly a woman's profession—is a nightmare. If a woman is doing a job that is exclusive to that individual and she needs to take time off—there is the old cry about maternity leave—it becomes impossibly difficult to offer such opportunities to other women. I do not believe for one moment that the policy that the Labour party is pursuing on the matter will help women one little bit. It will make small firms in particular, where there is 84 a limited choice of staff, less likely to take a woman on. In that respect, Labour's legislation is extremely backward-looking.
§ Ms Moran
One of the effects of the flexible labour market which the hon. Lady so eloquently espouses has been the fact that more women work for lower pay and longer hours. For example, one in four women works more than 40 hours a week. Does she believe that that is an improvement in the quality of life for women and, more particularly, for their children?
§ Mrs. Gorman
The woman's individual circumstances are paramount. I do not know why an individual woman may be in a particular job. I do know, however, that as most women in their middle years, especially if they have a family, take relatively unskilled work because they do not have the time to devote to a more highly skilled job or even to a higher level of training, they tend to be in the lower-paid percentiles.
The Labour party does women no favours by constantly referring to them as victimised and badly paid. That simply is not true. In the past week I have met women bank managers, women managers of large hotels, a woman who runs one of the largest transport companies in the country, a woman who runs one of the largest Ford car dealerships in the country, women doctors and dentists, and women who work in the stock exchange.
There are many rapidly rising women in Britain. That is largely because of the education reforms that were introduced during the last period of Conservative government, which have made it much easier for women to undertake higher education. The mere fact that their families could afford to support them in that speaks highly of the legislation introduced and implemented over the past 20 years.
It is foolish for Labour to suggest that women have made no progress over that time. They have come from nowhere during my lifetime. Earlier, someone of my age and as intelligent, bright and in every way as attractive to the employment market as I am was unable to find a university place. Less than two in 10 people went to university and of those, the percentage of women was minimal. That position persisted almost until the mid-1980s, when Conservative education policies altered it.
The Labour party does no credit to women by constantly harping on the notion that we are all victims and underdogs and are being ground down by evil employers. That is silly. If a woman does not like her occupation, and if the pay is so poor, under our welfare system she almost has the option of staying at home and not bothering to go out to work at all. I deplore that, but it is a fact of life. Under welfare legislation, a great many women are assisted.
§ Mrs. Gorman
No, I have given way to the hon. Lady once, and I am sure that many other hon. Members want to speak.
There is a further issue to which the Labour party should turn its mind. One the most significant developments in the progress of women in a relatively short time has been the ability to control the size of their 85 families. Legislation has brought that about, but we still have a serious problem of young women becoming pregnant when they are not old enough or mature enough to raise children. That is detrimental to the children, although I know that many of the young mothers do a wonderful job.
We spend most of our time condemning girls for getting themselves into that situation. We talk about giving young women more assistance in such matters and allowing them so-called emergency contraception if they face an unwanted pregnancy. I suggest to Labour women Members, as there are 101 of them, that if they insisted on that—if they went to see the Secretary of State for Health and told him that that should be made easier for women—they could achieve something, but they do not try. They sit on their hands.
As a result, we read newspaper articles such a cutting that I have, which states that hospitals are refusing such assistance to young women who, not knowing where else to turn, go along to the hospital accident and emergency department. Perhaps hon. Members will tell me whether a delegation of Labour women Members has been to see the Secretary of State for Health, to ask what he is doing about the matter.
It is extremely important that young women should be given better information. It is still the case that a woman who decides that she cannot go through with a pregnancy, and wishes to have it terminated, must beg two doctors, and must humiliate herself and often lie, in order to get that assistance—a process that is often dragged out until the middle or even late stages of the pregnancy, when it could have been dealt with earlier. A reform of that situation would give dignity to women's lives and remove some of the carping and criticism from the subject of birth control and abortion.
What have Labour women done? They have a marvellous opportunity to make progress. Bringing into women's lives dignity and control over their fertility would advance the cause of women by giving them control over the way in which their lives progress. I have given two examples of the way in which Labour Members could have done something for women, but have not done so.
Many young women have low expectations. Like many other hon. Members, I taught. It is a great shame that so many girls come from homes where they do not see much future for themselves, even now. I challenge the women on the Labour Benches to tell us what they are doing to raise the expectations of those young women, so that they do not think that the first thing to do, as soon as they are old enough, is to have a baby and live unhappily—or rather, meanly—ever after, trying to raise that child, possibly on their own, or even sink into thinking that they may as well have two or three babies while they are at it, because at least that brings in a little more social security. What sort of ambition in life is that for a young woman?
Although standards have improved enormously, educational opportunities have been opened up by a Conservative Government, and at the top end a huge number of women have benefited from that, we still have a long way to go. In their term of office, which I naturally hope will be short, Labour women Members can start the ball rolling and show us what they are made of, so that when they leave office they can claim to have contributed to women's progress.
86 I shall deal briefly with the informal networks that women often set up to help themselves. The playschool movement is an excellent example. Women get together, they do not want a great deal of money out of it for themselves, they are doing something useful, and along comes the heavy hand of Government and clobbers them. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) and I have corresponded extensively on the subject. She has given me to understand that there is a great dollop of money floating around out there on which such groups can call, but I have read the small print. That dollop of money is to be limited to areas of special need, which precludes many of the schools in my constituency.
Again, that is a challenge for Labour—not necessarily to find more money, but just to leave those women alone so that they can get on with improving their own lot. A similar case is that of women who look after their neighbour's children. Because of perhaps one or two bad cases that went national, all informal arrangements were stopped. Through the Children Act 1989, which otherwise had many good points, licensing was introduced, regulations came in, and the women's houses had to be specially adapted, with low toilets, prefabricated windows and goodness knows what else. Those initiatives were crushed, and women were denied the opportunity of relatively low-cost child care, which they could afford, which they could swap around and through which they could help each other out. We made that an illegal activity and I think that we will go down the same route with playschools, which I would deplore. I challenge the women on the Labour Benches to do something about that because they tell us that they are here to improve the lot of women.
I want to say a word on behalf of older women, who are much underrated and undervalued in this country. Many women prefer to work part-time for relatively modest pay because of their life pattern when they are raising their children, although the policies that the Labour party is introducing will probably squeeze a lot of them out of that market and they will be even worse off than they were before.
I challenge the women on the Labour Benches to think about how more mature women can be helped to become Members of the House. One method, which I have mentioned in the House on more than one occasion, is their health care. In particular, we should think seriously about doing a great deal more to make older women aware that their health can be enormously improved in many ways. I will not go on about hormone replacement, but that is a significant element. For the record, I am told that my skeleton is equivalent to that of a 15-year-old. It will last me, even if I last for a century or more.
I emphasise that there are still elements of health care that make older women less interested in going back into the workplace, even though they probably have 30 years of useful life left, and we should not forget that the average age of mortality for women is their mid-80s. The chaps have still to catch up.
What should we do to make use of mature women? We often read of terrible abuse cases involving children in institutions. Many women have had massive and explicit experience of judging people's characters and weighing up the pros and cons of what is going on in a household. They could make a better fist of that type of work than many councils, who make a mess of it—not 87 least Islington council, on which the Minister sat and whose record on child care and abuse in the homes that it controlled was deplorable.
The issue of how to get more women elected to the House has been raised and we have heard the old saw that we should get here on merit. Well, we all know that the men do not all get here on merit. They get here by pulling strings, phoning up the right person or pushing themselves forward.
§ Mrs. Gorman
Perhaps by having the right wife—that, too. We need women as Members of the House because half the population are women. Most of the legislation passed by the House these days concerns matters of primary interest to women, especially health, education and social welfare. We spend the majority of our budget on those issues—not on war and defence, as we did in the old days. Government was largely about defence and foreign affairs and, even today, the Chamber fills up with the chaps when we are talking about such things. However, that is not where the bulk of the Government's concern lies and we should have more women in the House for that reason.
On two occasions I have introduced Bills calling for an equal number of men and women Members to be achieved through dual lists, with constituencies voting for a man and for a woman. So far as I know, that idea originated with George Bernard Shaw and has been pushed for many years by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). In that respect, we would make progress if the women on the Labour Benches were genuinely interested in more women being elected to the House, not on a temporary basis, which is the basis on which many of the Labour women Members are here, but permanently. Although I share the interest in more women being elected to the House, I do not want them to be sent here artificially.
§ Jackie Ballard
Although a change was made in this House in 1997, is the hon. Lady aware that the legislatures with the highest proportion of women Members are in Scandinavian countries, which have a form of proportional voting? Would she support that form of voting to get more women into Parliament?
§ Mrs. Gorman
I do not want a half-baked system of proportional representation or women's lists, but change, once and for all. I want dual lists so that each constituency can choose a man and a woman—not doubling up on numbers, but twinning of candidates. I have presented such Bills to the House and hon. Members can read the technical details in Hansard.
I challenge the women on the Labour Benches to make a true impact on the ability of women to progress, without forgetting the fact that what happened under the previous Government provided the best role model that women have yet had in politics. We had the first woman Prime Minister, whose achievements were mammoth. She rescued this country from the doldrums of a socialist Government—there was a strike every other day of the week, which is only one example of something that she 88 cured—and brought this country to such a level of prosperity that the women on the Labour Benches have good jobs, women own cars and control industries. Their progress is rapid because of the legislation that the Conservative party introduced. Let us see what the women on the Labour Benches can achieve during their term in office.
§ Caroline Flint (Don Valley)
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. In last year's debate I was the last Back-Bench speaker. I had three minutes, which I devoted to the important issue of domestic violence. That issue has been raised today and I hope to touch on it later.
It is important to say to people in the Gallery and those watching us on cable television that the debate has been initiated because this is international women's day. We are concentrating our minds and our ideas on the issues affecting women throughout the world. That is not to say that contributions on issues affecting women have not been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House in the year since we last celebrated international women's day—and I am sure that such contributions will continue to be made during the next 12 months.
Earlier in the debate, I was called "stupid" by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), who has left the Chamber, although he gave notice that he would have to do so. I was making a point about child care and those who work in that field, which we all have to address. For too long, work involving care has been undervalued and given low status. Correspondingly, that has affected the premium at which the work done by such people is valued and, therefore, the rate at which they are paid.
This country is going through a transition in respect of addressing the needs of parents who require child care. I hope that, during that transition, we reassess the role of the people, predominantly women, who work with children, care for the elderly and work in other areas of care. It is about time that we put a premium on such care and recognised it. We should respect those workers and we should also hope to achieve the best quality of care for children or elderly people who are being looked after.
My satisfaction at being part of the new Labour Administration is that we have tackled a number of issues that predominantly affect women on low incomes. To sum up a proportion of the debate, if there was a general election tomorrow and, for some reason, the Conservative party won, we could be certain that it would get rid of the national minimum wage and part-time workers' rights, say no to statutory holidays and undermine the child care strategy that has been developed. That strategy has been welcomed by every child care organisation in which I have been involved. I was chair of a national child care organisation for four years before I became a Member of Parliament. All those policies would be undone by a Conservative Government.
There is still a barrier, especially in manual work. In certain professions, some of the institutionalised segregation has gone over the years, but in manual work there is still rigid segregation between men and women. I believe that that is why women still earn only 80 per cent. of the hourly pay of men, and 72 per cent. of their average weekly pay.
That economic picture leads me to the more fundamental relationship between family and work, for two reasons. We must ask ourselves why women end up 89 with all the part-time work, with broken working lives and low or non-existent pensions. That is due first to the distribution of family—and parental—responsibility, and secondly to an uneasy partnership between men and women.
I know that I can go out, pick up a magazine from the shelf of any newsagent and, probably, find examples of new men who are parenting, working from home and challenging traditional roles. Those, however, are merely crumbs of comfort. Perhaps there are more choices for middle-class, highly educated women. We should celebrate the fact that some women have broken into different fields, and that such women have more choices—they have financial independence, their own cars and can employ cleaners, hopefully paying at least the national minimum wage. That, however, is just a small segment of the wider picture. Women overwhelmingly perform the household organisation tasks; women overwhelmingly deal with schools and doctors; women take part-time work in order to balance employment with looking after their families.
We all want women to be able to make choices, but pre-set parameters ensure that economic choices favour men, while domestic responsibilities fall on women. That must be challenged. I have referred to an uneasy partnership. Reference has been made to domestic violence, and it is to the credit of all the women's organisations that formed the refuge movement that so much progress has been made in that regard. I am pleased, however, that we now have a Government who are finally producing a national strategy. Although domestic violence is known about, there is little evidence of its eradication from relationships between men and women.
I must now declare an interest I am a parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation. When considering local budgets, the Government must ensure that resources are available to support police stations containing domestic violence suites. Much work has been done over many years to provide a sensitive service in that regard, and we want the police to be able to continue to do the job well.
The uneasy partnership—as I term it—between men and women is partly a product of the sexual revolution. As a feminist, I can say that a fundamental tenet of the sexual revolution was women taking control of their own bodies. The personal became political: it was a case of "our bodies, ourselves". We can learn all the top sex tips from women's magazines, and wherever we look British society is more sexualised, but there are 10 times as many teenage pregnancies in the United Kingdom as there are in Holland, and many young mothers will become young grandmothers. As a feminist, I think we should address that.
The problem is not just young parenthood, but a high rate of failure to establish solid relationships, or even to get men to pay for their pound of flesh. As we enter the 21st century, there is still considerable evidence that men take and leave what they want from women—and the Child Support Agency has failed to scratch the surface. I say that although I have a good deal of case work from men who have been treated badly by the CSA when its administration has gone wrong. The number of such cases does not equal those of women who have been abandoned to look after their children alone, left in poverty by men who should take responsibility for fathering children.
90 Unfortunately, a large number of young women who are engaged in sexual activity—and that is the reality— have not mastered their own fertility or any control in their relationships. For me, the concept of "our bodies, ourselves" was a metaphor for the ability to control all aspects of one's life. By controlling when they became pregnant, women could control their working lives and education, influence their earning power and maximise their happiness by planning their families if and when they wanted them. However, as my right hon. Friend the Minister said earlier, there is a significant vulnerable group of young women. Disaffection at school among boys can manifest itself in low self-esteem, truancy and criminal activity, but among girls such low self-esteem often leads to early sexual relationships and pregnancy.
Members of that vulnerable group are becoming parents before their education is completed, without solid relationships, with poor parental support and facing a possible 10 years or more out of the labour market, dependent on benefits. Such women often become dependent on boy friends to provide occasional luxuries. They are likely to have more children in difficult circumstances, and, crucially, are likely to have daughters who follow the same pattern of young parenthood, low achievement and abusive relationships. There are a number of young women in such circumstances who try their best, are good mothers and go on to succeed; but the evidence shows that a large proportion are left alone and isolated. Certainly, the fact that there are grandparents of 30 and parents of 14—as there are in my constituency— represents not a triumph for feminism, but a challenge.
§ Mrs. Gorman
How does the hon. Lady view the Home Secretary's proposal that such young women should be required to live in hostels collectively, in what could be described as a return to the old workhouses, rather than being supported separately?
§ Caroline Flint
That is an interesting point. In my area, the foyer project is intended to encourage young people to take advantage of training, and to put a roof over their heads. In my experience, one of the problems for teenage mothers is isolation: isolation on run-down estates, and isolation from the resources and opportunities that could be available through training and health care. One way of tackling that is trying to bring together housing, health and education services so that young women have the opportunity to take advantage of them if they wish. It would be voluntary, but it should be offered to young women. There is a sure start initiative in part of my constituency, and I hope that we can look at the way in which resources are put together there to ensure that women have as much access to resources as they need.
If we want young women with children—especially lone parents—to exercise choices, we must ensure that we give them choices. I know that Members on both sides of the House, including Labour Members, have asked why it is necessary to pay someone else to look after a child when one can do it oneself. I think that we sometimes confuse freedom of choice with Hobson's choice. We confuse women who are deciders with women who are victims. These women have never been financially independent. Although we have raised child benefit to record levels, they need much more than that to escape from the poverty trap. Many may find a man to subsidise their lot in life, but I would sooner offer them new doors 91 that they can open to have real choices, with education, employment, child care, taxation and benefits working with them rather than against them. If they then enter new relationships with men, they will be able to do so on more equal terms.
As I have said, I am pleased that Denaby, in my constituency, is to be a trailblazer for the sure start initiative, which will target services on women with pre-school children. New money will be pumped in to support vulnerable families. It will not be top down; success will depend on allowing local partnerships to flourish. It is especially important to listen to what young women think about the matter. I shall quote the words of some young women who became pregnant when they were young and on their own. According to one:The reality of looking after a baby 24 hours a day, 365 days a year is a far cry from the pretty clothes and the pictures that you see in magazines … To this day I still haven't understood why I wanted to have a baby so much. Sometimes I wonder if it was due to my upbringing, as I watched my father walk out of the door when I was about 6 years old and I am forever having arguments with my mother. I have considered the possibility that perhaps I wanted a baby to love in the way that I felt I had not been.Such young women can also give advice on the support that needs to be given. Another of them said:I find now that my friends come to me for advice and I feel that they don't get sex education in normal schools that we get here at the unit.She was referring to a young parents unit. She continued:Normal schools just tend to show you body parts and teach you how they work, and how you can conceive. They don't really teach you anything about feelings and they definitely don't teach you enough about parenthood … more sex education in schools would have been useful to me and that education about feelings is as important as knowledge about body parts.We should involve such young women in the projects that we hope to fund and to support because, possibly more than any other group, they can act as good role models to younger girls.
§ Jackie Ballard
Does the hon. Lady agree that very few young women deliberately get pregnant to live a life of Riley on benefits, which was the impression that the previous Government used to give? It is more because of wanting someone to love, failures of contraception and lack of education. Once that has happened to them, to give them a meaningful choice of what to do with their lives they should have benefits at a level that enables them to stay at home and to bring up their children, if that is what they want, as well the option, to which the hon. Lady referred, of education and training opportunities to go into work, if that is what they want. Does she agree that, if they want to stay at home, the benefit levels need to be adequate so that they do not live in poverty with those children?
§ Caroline Flint
I am dealing with a 13-year-old who has given birth to a child. I am talking about young girls of 12, 13 or 14. The best thing to do is to give them support during their pregnancy. I hope that we can try to do something to raise their self-esteem, so that they do not enter relationships over which they have no control, and to give them support so that they can continue their education, both up to 16 and beyond.
92 Evidence shows that we should try to ensure that young girls of 13, 14 or 15 are aware of the health risks that are associated with early pregnancy, and there is also evidence showing the detrimental effect that it will have on their health in later years.
When I went to my young parents unit—I am pleased that Doncaster has one to sustain young women who want to continue their education and who may find that their school is not the best place to do that—I found that the emphasis was on continuing education. All the women to whom I spoke wanted to continue that post-16. Where we have a problem is that, having been given child care and support when those young women are under 16, and the education environment to support that, the child care is not there to back it up when they want to go on to a further education college or another educational establishment. As one of the workers said to me at the young parents unit, the tendency in that vacuum is to have another child, possibly in a relationship with someone else, so the problem gets worse and worse.
Given the choice, those young women want education and a chance to work and to support their children. I hope that the Government will attend to that and provide the necessary support for them to succeed. That is why the sure start project is so important. It is about not only choices, but empowering those young women to move beyond their circumstances, or relationships that fundamentally leave them powerless.
We will see further changes as women become a majority of the work force. I hope—on the basis more of optimism than experience—that technological change speeds up changes in the labour market, breaking down the traditional gender segregation. It has been predicted that, in 30 years, half of us will be doing jobs that have not even been invented. That suggests a dynamic in society the like of which most people have not experienced before. That being said, women still face difficulties. Women are continuing to gain ground in traditional no-go areas, be they representation in the armed forces or in the professionalisation of women's team sports, but men still run the armed forces, control our major sports and dominate in the political arena.
Representation of women is important. It is important that, in the House, we have women from all walks of life and backgrounds, but representation cannot be allowed to overshadow the need to deliver on outcomes for women. A total of 330 women Members alone will not mean equality. It is economic and social change in wider society that must be the barometer of women's progress.
The goals that have been outlined by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health and by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment give us plenty to think about, campaign on and move forward with. At the heart of the issue is the need to address the relationship between men and women and its emotional and psychological make-up, which, in many ways, defines male and female genders, but can also make us prisoners.
I say that having three prisons in my constituency and having seen the good work at Hatfield young offenders institute, where young men, 60 per cent. of whom are parents, go on parenting courses and do work that is aimed at developing their communication skills. There is something to be said for men being feminised. I have no problems with saying that. We would have a less 93 violent society if people talked, rather than fought out issues. The Government should address the issue of the masculinity of boys at school and men in our society.
I am happy that women have managed to force their agenda into the mainstream—long may it continue—and that the Government are addressing the many concerns of women that were untouched by previous Administrations. I am proud to be here and to represent the whole of Don Valley, but I am also proud of the work and commitment of the many women in my constituency who make community life worth while and who support the initiatives on which the Government have set themselves an agenda.
§ Ms Joan Ryan (Enfield, North)
It is a great pleasure and an honour to be called on international women's day to speak in a debate on delivering priorities for women.
Clearly, there are still those who refuse to recognise the need to ensure that we deliver for women—who claim that all is well; that we do not need to do anything extra or special; and that women today can make it entirely on their own merits. The implication is that, as women form 51 per cent. of the population but do not figure in the numbers that they should in the professions, the House or anywhere else, we can only conclude that women do not have the ability: if they did, they would be there.
I found it distressing to hear the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) put that view, and do so forcefully. Clearly, he believed it. He is entirely wrong. If they hear that contribution, women will despair. I entirely reject that view.
It is as well to remember what my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) said about the number of women who have been elected to the House: about half of all those who have ever been elected are Members now. That is interesting. Presumably, the hon. Member for Lichfield would still maintain that women have not been elected because they do not have the ability, and that we are not here on our merits.
I applaud the measures that the Labour party took to ensure that there was an enormous leap forward in the representation of women among Labour Members. Women Conservative Members should look closely at what happened to their numbers and what they might do to improve that situation.
Thank goodness we have a Labour Government who are not characterised by an approach which says that women do not need to be taken account of in any special sense. Women certainly have great strength, determination and motivation and have succeeded, but that is despite the barriers that they face. It is not true that women do not need to be concentrated on in the way that the Government are doing. It is the job of Government to work in partnership with others to remove the barriers.
It is because the Government acknowledge the need to deliver for women and to tackle the barriers that they face that they are making real progress in delivering for them. We have heard it many time: women make up 51 per cent. of the population. Any Government who deliver for women deliver not only for women, but for men, for communities and for society as a whole. We came into government to deliver for the many, not just the few. It is vital that we do so.
94 It was interesting listening to the contribution of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). She and the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley)—perhaps I am only being kind, but we have to be kind to our sisters—have seemed to be a little uncomfortable during this debate, for most of which they have been in the Chamber. Perhaps they are uncomfortable because the 18 years of Conservative Government were characterised by complacent sentiments such as these: women will make it on their own merit; there is no need to consider the world that women are forced to inhabit or the inequality that women suffer. Perhaps the right hon. and hon. Ladies believe that.
Opposition Front Benchers are uncomfortable because the Labour Government are delivering for women across the board. Although there is much more to do, the Government are making progress in leaps and bounds in delivering for women. Opposition Front Benchers may jump up and say, "No, you're not delivering for women," but their argument is unsustainable because, according to them, there is not a need to deliver for women. They are therefore in a difficult position. I should like to think that they are criticising the Government's fundamental policy changes to support women—so that women may play their full role in society—more as Conservatives than as women.
I am delighted that the Government have adopted the use of mainstreaming. I was also pleased to hear that there seems to be considerable support for mainstreaming among Opposition Members. It is vital that, in all policy areas—as a first thought, not as an afterthought—we meet women's wants and needs. There is no add-on sphere entitled "women's issues", because all issues are women's issues. Women's needs and wants must be dealt with—at the beginning, in the middle and in the outcome.
I should like to consider a few of the matters on which the Government have delivered substantially for women. We know that women make a crucial contribution to the economy, in their roles both as workers and as carers, and that the proportion of women in the labour force has been increasing. That trend is likely to continue. In Great Britain, more than 12 million women—just over half of all women—aged 16 and over are economically active. In 1977, however—as has already been said in the debate— the average weekly earnings of women in full-time employment was still only 72 to 73 per cent. of men's average weekly earnings.
In Enfield, in my own constituency and my own borough, women's earnings have often been among the lowest in London. I therefore face the issue on my own doorstep. As the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) said, although the number of women employed in many managerial professions has increased, women hold only 32 per cent. of managerial and administrative jobs, and fewer than 5 per cent. of company directors are women. Therefore, although I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)—I was very interested to hear of her 15-year-old skeleton—I think that she will agree that the women and jobs she described do not accurately reflect the situation of the vast majority of working women. We have to deliver for the many, not the few.
Some 92 per cent. of all women in employment are employees, and only 7 per cent. of women are self-employed. In my own borough of Enfield, about 20 per cent. of men, but only 5.2 per cent. of women, 95 are self-employed. It is important that we should implement measures to encourage women into self-employment. I am therefore very pleased that the Government are supporting Opportunity 2000.
We have a long way to go before women both are treated equally and are able to compete equally. The Government are introducing policies to make the difference that we seek to achieve. As we have heard already today, the pay gap between men and women is still too great, primarily because many women work in part-time, low-status jobs—often because they have dependent children.
We have heard many speeches today, primarily from Labour Members, on the Government's action to improve women's pay, women's rights at work and women's access to quality affordable child care. The Government's action will make a significant difference in women's working lives, and in determining whether they are able initially to decide to work.
Opposition Members seem to have lost the plot a bit on the working families tax credit. They seem not to realise that the credit will not necessarily go from purse to wallet, and that there will be a choice in deciding to whom it is paid.
The national minimum wage will help over 1 million women. Unfortunately, Opposition Members have made it absolutely clear today that, should they ever again be elected to government, they would reverse the minimum wage.
We should emphasise that family-friendly employment policies are not only good for women but very good for men. Many working men also are fathers, and what is good for working mothers is good also for working fathers.
The Government's action on women's issues makes an impressive list. We have acted in providing better child care, which is vital in giving children the best start in life. The national child care strategy and the £540 million for sure start are not merely words, words, words, as the hon. Member for Maidenhead said, but action, implementation, resources, quality and monitoring. That is what matters; that is what we need; and that is what we are delivering.
The Government are also delivering the child care tax credit, and a 20 per cent. increase in child benefit.
If all those actions are insufficient, or mere drops in the ocean—which is what Opposition Front Benchers seemed to be arguing—why did the Conservatives not do more for women when they were in government, when they had ample opportunity to do so?
The majority of the poorest pensioners are women, and action to help them is extremely important. If one takes the time to speak to a range of women, one learns that it is not only women with small children who have difficulties. We shall have to address the concerns also of women in other age groups.
From April 1999—next month—income support will be uprated by the largest-ever amount, and the pilot schemes that have brought help automatically to the poorest pensioners will go nationwide. As has been said already today, the Government's plans for pension sharing on divorce will also help to narrow the pension gap between men and women. We should acknowledge those significant measures, which are very welcome.
96 I should like specifically to deal with cancer screening. I think that all hon. Members will appreciate how frightening cancer is, and that the guarantee that everyone with suspected cancer will be seen by a specialist within two weeks of an urgent referral by their general practitioner is most important. The action was long overdue and has been most reassuring and welcome to those who are in that position. Many women in my constituency have mentioned to me also the Government's provision of £10 million for breast cancer services.
I was very taken by what my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) said about domestic violence, and the fact that it is a human rights issue. I support that, as does the Enfield women's aid centre. A Government document is due out shortly.
Confidence is of great importance in women's safety. It is important that women feel safe and confident when they are out and about in the community, in parks and public places, going to and from work and using public transport. Women who fear for their safety can be restricted in going about their day-to-day business. Opposition Members smirk at the mention of joined-up thinking, but the measures in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the integrated transport White Paper are important. We are taking action on issues on which women need to feel safe. Those important measures cannot be achieved without cross-departmental working and joined-up thinking, however much some may smirk at the notion.
I have been impressed this year and last year with the number of events held in my constituency around international women's day to raise awareness of the women's groups and organisations in Enfield that support, care for, encourage, motivate and enthuse local women. I should like to mention in particular the Enfield women's centre and its work with the new horizons 50-plus group, Enfield women's aid and the Enfield and Freezywater townswomen's guild.
Finally, I should like to mention two women in my constituency. At this time of year, we hear a lot about the origins of international women's day and the struggle for votes for women. We look back with gratitude and thanks to women such as Emmeline Pankhurst, but we should also remember the unsung heroes of our communities. Molly Sutton, a pensioner, is a community school governor and a member of the Co-operative party and the Labour party. However, this is not a partisan issue. She spends many hours encouraging, supporting and motivating other women to fulfil their potential. We are grateful to her. Doris Nulty, also a pensioner, runs a pensioners' luncheon club with great vigour and energy, providing a lifeline to many elderly women in my constituency. I pay tribute to those unsung heroes—or heroines, perhaps I should say; so much for sexist language—who work day in, day out, week in, week out, year after year, often without being mentioned. It is important to acknowledge the work of the millions of ordinary women who contribute so much to our communities, to their families and to society.
§ Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)
Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate on international women's day, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I should like to speak about the position in politics and society of women in Wales. Women have always been under-represented in politics in Wales. Of the 40 97 Members of Parliament from Wales, only four are women—although Labour has four more than any of the Opposition parties. There have only ever been seven women Members of Parliament from Wales. Before the election, my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) was the only female Member of Parliament from Wales.
We also have few women councillors in Wales. A recent research paper by my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) showed that Wales has the worst record in the UK for the number of women councillors. Again, the majority of them are Labour. Only 27 per cent. of councillors in the UK are women and Wales is bottom of the league, with only 20 per cent. Of the 10 councils with the lowest percentage of women, five are Welsh. Anglesey and Blaenau Gwent have the worst representation of women in the United Kingdom. My local council in Cardiff has the highest percentage of women councillors—35 per cent. From what I know of the women who are coming through to be candidates, it looks as though there will not be much of an increase at the coming elections in May.
Dealing with the under-representation of women on local authorities is a huge task for all political parties. Local authorities deal with bread-and-butter issues. It is sad that such issues are decided by people who represent only 50 per cent. of the population. That is particularly important given that women are so active in other areas, such as school governing bodies and voluntary groups. In Wales, women more or less run the voluntary sector, but they have not taken enough places on local authorities.
The National Assembly for Wales will be elected on 6 May, and half the Labour candidates will be women. That was not an easy achievement, bearing in mind the traditions of the Welsh political parties, where men have totally run the show. Despite the natural problems caused by the introduction of the twinning procedure—there has been concern about constituency autonomy—we now have 30 women and 30 men in place. Many of those women would not have been candidates if we had not had that arrangement. The Labour party should be proud that we have an equal number of men and women standing as candidates. I am sure that the presence of those women will make the National Assembly a very different place from this House.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) said, we hope that power will be shared, and that women will not have to operate like men to achieve power. In Wales, an exciting time is ahead, with a unique body—perhaps the first in the world with an equal number of men and women. If Labour wins every seat, there will be an equal number of men and women.
In Wales, women are under-represented in many positions. When the unitary authorities were created in Wales, the only two chief executives appointed who were women were in those local authorities which followed the equal opportunities guidelines recommended by the Local Government Association. That produced two women chief executives out of 40 in the unitary authorities. Generally, women lost out in the unitary authorities, and we have few women in senior positions.
Outside Wales, the popular image of the Welsh woman fluctuates between the idea of the traditional woman in a tall, black hat and shawl—the traditional costume—and 98 the image of the Welsh "mam"; the home maker, and the indomitable figure, holding the Welsh family together in bad times and good. In Wales, when we talk about opportunities for women outside the home, we should never play down the role that women have played as home makers.
Women's lives in Wales have been hard and, for some, they still are. "Struggle or Strive"—a book describing the lives of women in the south Wales valleys between the two world wars—draws attention to the constant struggle of women to keep their homes, backyards and pavements spotlessly clean. I can remember my own grandmother struggling to keep the house and the backyard clean despite the constant dirt and dust that was coming in from the pits. Miners were working a seven-hour day, but their wives' working day was nearer 17 hours.
Women's work was as well regulated as men's: washing on a Monday; ironing and cleaning on a Tuesday; baking and shopping on a Wednesday; cleaning the upstairs on a Thursday—it was a full-time task. The book tells us that "tidy" was the most important word in "mam's" vocabulary. To be tidy—or "decha" in colloquial Welsh—was to be decent and respectable, and despite the grinding poverty that existed in those valleys, there was many a tidy woman. We should recognise the enormous contribution made to society by women who have worked in the home for many years, and still do.
Most of the mines in Wales have closed now, and women are employed outside the home in smaller numbers than in England, and for less pay. However, there has been a big shift in working patterns in Wales— particularly following the end of the heavy industries. We must continue to develop and deliver policies in Wales that will enable women to take their place in the new Wales.
We are starting to do that in many different areas, two of which are child care and health. A 1996 survey by Chwarae Teg—an organisation promoting equal opportunities in the workplace—showed that 80 per cent. of women in Wales found it difficult to work because of the lack of child care.
The Government launched the Welsh child care strategy last year. For the first time, a Government have seriously taken on board the importance of child care, both to allow parents to be economically active or to train, and for the good of the children. All research shows that it is good for children to go to nurseries and mix and socialise.
It will be up to the National Assembly to ensure that the strategy is developed to suit the individual needs of Wales. There is a thriving Welsh language playgroup movement, which we have tried to protect this year and will continue to protect next year.
We must also consider the needs of rural areas and the particular problems of acute areas of deprivation. Some parts of Wales will never have thriving nurseries, playgroups or after-school facilities unless a permanent subsidy is built in, because the deprivation is too great to rely on one, two or even three-year funding. We need affordable and sustainable provision, and I call on the Assembly, when it starts in two months' time, to continue to invest in child care and to develop the strategy to suit the needs of Wales.
Health is tremendously important for women, with breast and ovarian cancer being an abiding concern. The most recent reliable age-standardised figures for the 99 incidence of breast cancer date from 1992, when the rate for England and Wales together was 107.4 per 100,000, but the rate for Wales alone was significantly higher, at 125.8 per 100,000. That higher incidence is being tackled by the additional funding for breast cancer that the Government have granted and by Breast Test Wales, a regional screening service of very high quality that operates outside the hospital system and delivers a service for healthy women.
One of the biggest issues for the health service is the availability and development of anti-cancer drugs and how to cope with their cost. New drugs to treat ovarian cancer are not universally available in Wales; it is a lottery, with the drugs that women get depending on the area where they live. Each health authority in Wales has been recommended to prescribe and pay for certain drugs—they prolong life for 12 to 14 months—when the doctor thinks it appropriate, but some authorities say that they cannot afford it. The situation is not acceptable and must be tackled. A big breakthrough is being made in anti-cancer drugs but we have yet to work out how to tackle the issue.
I want to end with a tribute to a woman who died of breast cancer in Wales a week ago. Bernice worked hard to support other women with breast cancer, helping them to cope with the upset and strain of the disease as well as campaigning for more research. She lived life to the full until the end.
International women's day is a time to remember all those women, throughout the United Kingdom, who carry on, day after day, looking after children and keeping the wheels of the family turning, coping with many difficulties in addition to paid work or work in the home. This is a day on which to celebrate their achievements and renew our determination to tackle the issues that are their priorities.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)
I warmly welcome the second opportunity that I have had in my 20 months as a Member of Parliament to speak in a women's debate, celebrating not only international women's day, but our Government's record on delivering for women. As yet, we are the only party that has given such days for debate, following our practice when we were allowed to choose subjects for Opposition days. That shows our consistent support for women's issues. We have also paid consistent attention to the fact that women are the majority in the population and it is, therefore, naught but common sense to ensure that we engage women in the political debate. Government and Parliament must be seen to be for women and relevant to women.
We have heard much about the difference that 101 Labour women and 121 women Members of Parliament overall will make. My mother often jokes that women will know that they have true equality when mediocre women are accepted alongside the multitude of mediocre men by whom we have been governed—I know that there are plentiful exceptions—for many a decade.
I wish to pay tribute to the strong women in my life, who have been my role models. I am sad to say that I lost my grandmother this year—Queenie Elizabeth Grimshaw. It is obvious that she was born at the turn of the century 100 with a name like that. She was a socialist before my mother was born and gave me a grand old lecture when I was 16 about not presuming that, just because she spoke properly because she wanted to better herself, she was not a root and branch socialist. She organised women-only speaker engagements, training and choirs just after the second world war and ran a home, looking after a disabled mother—my great-grandmother—and two young boys. She knew exactly what grinding poverty was, but she also knew what pride was about. Her older sister, May Banks, is still with us at 98. She went through two world wars and was still doing meals on wheels at the age of 86. She now faces the indignity of developing breast cancer at 98.
Such women have been the backbone of our society and that is why it is important for us to celebrate international women's day. It is not unfashionable. Other hon. Members have talked about feeling awkward about 70s feminism, but it is common sense to examine how Government policies affect women. I want to put on record the abject difference between the approach of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and that of the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard). Labour Members can appreciate the genuine attempt to make both critical and supportive comments by the hon. Member for Taunton, which are evidence of her commitment to women's issues. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan) pointed out, the hon. Member for Maidenhead gave us false opposition that did not ring true, given the record of the previous Government during 18 years in power.
In contrast, we had the stark honesty of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), who is honourable in her political beliefs to her fingertips. On many occasions before I became a Member of Parliament, I found myself agreeing with the hon. Lady on the issue of female reproductive rights. Her comments struck a chord with the truly international speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) about the correlation—which is so simple that even the International Monetary Fund and the World bank have now cottoned on to it—between educating women and improving the economic circumstances of a country. As the hon. Member for Billericay pointed out, educated women regulate the size of their families. A large group of my constituents come from Bangladesh and that country is having great success in turning around its economy. It is educating women, and thus slowing population growth and increasing prosperity. Neighbouring Pakistan, whose population growth is going through the roof, is only just beginning to realise that if women are educated and given real choices in education and employment, they will regulate the size of their families. That ensures a greater benefit for all the population through growth in the economy.
We need only consider the position of women in the rest of the world to realise how fragile our position is in this country. The programme that this Government have implemented has been much needed for a long time.
As we approach the millennium, I find it sad that Opposition Members, who claim to belong to the party of the family, can say that women, children and families will pay the price for ending bad employment practices and poverty pay. We should be saying that there is no room in a modern society and a prosperous economy for bad business practices, which have probably caused the UK to be the divorce capital of Europe and which have had some impact on our scandalous teenage pregnancy figures.
101 I pay tribute to the thoughtful and honest speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). It is sad that we cannot be honest without being browbeaten by people who do not have everyone's best interests at heart and who refuse to consider the reality of people's lives. Those people try to say that proper sex education in schools will lead to children going off and getting pregnant. They do that already; it makes no sense to argue against education. Around the world, it is clear that there is a downturn in teenage pregnancy and an increase in rates of staying on at school where people are more progressive about sex education,
Young women outstrip men in terms of their educational performance, but they are under-represented in the job market. Why should that be? That is a big question. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, as soon as there is a downturn in their interest in school, there is a stark increase in the chances that they will become a teenage pregnancy statistic. We must stop that.
The Government are introducing a much-needed policy, and the Minister dealt thoughtfully with the life cycle of women. She covered the lives that women live, from the time they are born, through the invaluable sure start project to their final years.
It was rich of the hon. Member for Maidenhead to talk about pensions and women. Who got rid of the earnings link, who means-tested pensions and who put the majority of women pensioners in poverty? The last Government did all that. The previous Labour Administration kept the earnings link, recognising that pension poverty was intolerable. Our Government are having to deal with the problems now.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
We are on a tight timetable and I must go on. Other hon. Members have waited a long time to speak.
I want to put the working families tax credit into context. The lie must be nailed that it is anything other than brilliant news for working women. On the doorsteps in Rochdale before the general election and in every other election in which I have travelled around with a mobile surgery, I saw that the plight of women in poverty who were trapped in social housing on council estates—good though some of it may be, provided as it is by Rochdale council, one of the best social housing providers—arose from the cost of child care and the differential between benefits and low-paid work. They were trapped at home. They did not have choices. For the first time, I can go to them now to tell them that they do have choices. The working families tax credit will make them £17 better off. They will have the choice of being paid the child care costs that they need if they choose to stay in work.
Another myth needs to be nailed on the purse-to-wallet issue. There was a problem, but the Government have solved it to a large degree. The Inland Revenue will administer the working families tax credit, and the man no longer needs to sign the form. The woman can be the main applicant, and the man can be the supporting applicant. Nearly 60 per cent. of recipients are already single parents. In one third of other cases, the woman is the main earner. In the remainder, the family can choose. If the woman receives the form because she is the current recipient of family credit, she can fill it in and receive the working families tax credit.
102 Some vulnerable women could never receive the benefit because him indoors did not want to declare what he earned as he wanted to go down the pub to swill it all down his neck. Now, the Inland Revenue can phone a woman, and if she can give some details of her husband's employment, the Revenue can make sure that she receives the money if the majority of the information provided is correct. Women previously unable to receive family credit will be able to receive working families tax credit. It can be paid to a same-sex couple or a non-married couple; it is good news. People who have had to work extraordinarily long hours, because this country is the long-hours-for-low-pay capital of Europe, can now stay at home and do homework with their kids. To address the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) about men offering positive role models, half the reason that such role models are not available is that men are working slave-labour hours for slave-labour wages. They can offer positive role models for work and the work ethic, but cannot be at home to read to their children.
People can now have real choices. The Opposition's claim that the working families tax credit and the child care tax credit will force women out to work is codswallop. Families will have real choices—for example, one family member stays at home, which previously might not have been possible; or the other main earner can work fewer hours. The measures will give real choices. They will give real choices to the people whom I represent in Rochdale where, sadly, there are large numbers of single parents and teenage pregnancies, and we are over-represented in the poverty stakes.
I pay tribute to the raft of women's organisations which this debate acknowledges, and which have bridged the gap between the reality of women's lives and public legislation that has not talked the talk or walked the walk. Women know now that the Government are prepared to listen to them. We are not saying that we can offer a panacea for all ills and that everything is perfect. However, this morning at my town hall, I had the honour of opening the international women's week celebrations organised by the women's working party of Rochdale—a cross-party, multi-denominational group. That was a wonderful celebration of the richness of all the communities of Rochdale, and those women believed that this Government were starting to put women at the heart of Government. I believe that too, otherwise I should not sit on the Labour Benches.
I congratulate my colleagues on the Treasury Bench and I pay tribute to all the women out there who have made my position a reality, in that I am one of the younger women Members of Parliament. The tribute to their work is the fact that, hopefully, more and more women will enter Parliament so that we attain 51 per cent. representation in the next millennium.
§ Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)
I shall confine my remarks to the issue of part-time workers. The Government's decision to implement, through the Employment Relations Bill, the European Commission directive on part-time work will bring women benefits that are long overdue. Those benefits were denied to women by the previous Conservative Government, who blocked the Commission's proposals. That forced the Commission to introduce the proposals under the social 103 chapter, which of course the Tories had opted out of. There is now an historic package of measures that will bring new employment rights to millions of people; part-time workers will at last achieve the rights enjoyed by full-timers.
As everyone knows, part-time work is not confined to mums of young children who work to pick up pin money—that is an old concept. The contribution of part-time workers is vital to the household budget and to the whole economy. There are 6.6 million part-time jobs in Great Britain, of which more than 80 per cent. are held by women. There are more than 6,000 part-time workers in my constituency. Most people are happy to work part-time, but they should not be exploited merely because their work fits in with their domestic, caring or other responsibilities. What message does that send? It is that we do not value the caring, family responsibilities that many part-timers take on outside their paid work and that we are not a civilised society. The Government have introduced a national strategy for carers which acknowledges the huge contribution made by carers.
There should be a level playing field for full-time and part-time work, so that the economy can find the most efficient distribution between the two. No economic good can come from making part-time workers a cheap alternative to full-time workers. However, the Opposition do not seem to believe that—certainly not if their record in the Standing Committee on the Employment Relations Bill is anything to go by.
For too many women, part-time work has become synonymous with low pay and insecurity. We have seen the women's labour market polarised between a narrow band of women in professional and managerial posts, and the large and increasing number of low-paid, part-time workers. Poverty pay has generated spiralling benefit bills for the taxpayer and business. It is a transfer from the taxpayer to the sweatshop employer.
Labour's national minimum wage—which is about to come into force—will stop this subsidy to bad employers. It will also put an end to the old Burger King ploy of employing staff for a full shift, but paying them only for the time that they spend serving customers. For too long, that has been the attitude of employers to part-time staff. Under the Tory Government, flexibility became a euphemism for insecurity and exploitation. This Government recognise that the world of work is changing: the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday generation is passing and the number of part-time workers has doubled in 25 years. They are the linchpin of the economy; they work in every sector, in industry and commerce.
Part-timers care about their careers as much as full-timers, but many have been denied the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Many are denied access to training and management development. They are viewed as disposable, so companies will not invest in their skills. That is a huge waste of human potential, particularly of women workers. This scandal cannot continue—and it will not under a Labour Government. With equal rights for part-time workers, many more people will take up part-time work. People will be able to move between full-time and part-time work and back again at different stages of their lives without worrying about the impact on 104 their status, seniority, or their pension. It will create a society in which people can broaden their choice between working and engaging in other activities.
I fear that society is becoming increasingly divided. There are families who are work rich and income rich but leisure poor, such as families comprising two parents who work full time—in fact, who work all the hours they can—and have no time for their children. On the other hand, there are families who are not in employment—for example, single parents or couples with children—who are leisure rich, but extremely income poor. Neither side of the divide is ideal: both situations have a devastating impact on family life and both can be helped by the availability of good, well-paid part-time work to relieve the stress of increased costs and the increased time commitment required by family life.
Women's current experiences tell them that they can have a job, but not a career after having a baby. If they want responsible and rewarding work, they must adopt male working hours and employment patterns. With increased rights for part-time workers, we can challenge Britain's long-hours culture and male absenteeism from the home.
§ Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)
In view of the time, I shall be brief and concentrate on only one point. However, in so doing, I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan), who referred to the continuing need for this kind of debate about women's issues. I reject the views expressed by some Opposition Members who seem to think that everything has been achieved.
In the past two years, this Government have done more for the interests of many different kinds of women than the Conservatives achieved in the past 20 years. The contributions of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and her hon. Friends were notable for their complete bankruptcy: they offered nothing by way of ideas or policy to address the real issues facing real women, and proved that they are completely out of touch.
The Government's priorities are to address issues that are important for women, such as work, child care, domestic violence and caring. As we have heard from one or two hon. Members, womanhood and the social experience of women embrace an even wider diversity of issues. Hon. Members have briefly touched on the point that the debate about women must also include issues of older and very old women. I call for the older woman— her past and current experiences—to be central to the debate about women.
Women over 65 are a substantial proportion of the total female population. Women are a substantial majority of the population over 65, and the world of the very old is almost exclusively a woman's world. Despite those facts, older women have been notable for their absence from the debate about the way in which gender shapes experience. As policy makers, we must not tolerate that omission because it will fail not only current but future generations of older women; and as we age, we will find ourselves confined to the rocking-chair that forms part of the stereotype about older women. As we know, such stereotypes hide the truth and mask the diversity and richness in the lives of many older women.
The Conservative party has always had difficulty with the view that people's class, race or gender has an impact on the course of their life. That is surprising when one 105 considers that nowhere is the impact of gender more clearly demonstrated than in this generation of older women. Their earlier lives were ones of enforced inequality and dependency structured by social values and enshrined in law, and it should therefore be no surprise that those characteristics have been carried into old age. Women are much more likely than men to be very old, very poor, single or widowed, living alone, living in poor housing and so on. Older women are among the most socially excluded people in our society.
We must not let those facts colour the whole picture, because the personal histories and testimonies of older women tell us also that if they are, in some senses, victims, they have not been passive victims. We would do well to remember that today's older women are survivors and that their lives have inevitably involved surmounting personal and social challenges throughout this century. As part of our commitment, older women must be given a central place as we develop ideas and policies for women.
Many older women continue to play vital roles for their families and society. They are the cornerstone of many grassroots organisations; they are the activists in residential homes, and it has already been said that political parties could not do without them. I could easily bring to mind women in my constituency who are in their 70s and 80s and who are still active. They have not arrived at that age without any of the consequences of living that long; they simply carry on regardless. They have arthritis and they are living on low incomes, but they continue to contribute, as they have always done.
Government policy can have an enormous impact on older women. The previous Government's policies, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) has outlined, made the lives of many older women even poorer and more restricted than they already were. This Government, particularly through their policies on welfare and community care, have already started to introduce reforms that will help older women, including reducing VAT on fuel, guaranteeing a minimum income that will rise with earnings, and helping with winter fuel.
As well as those important economic and welfare policies, we should do more to bring older women into the mainstream of our thinking on policies for women. We can begin to do so in a number of ways. We must challenge the existing stereotypes of old women and validate the contributions that they continue to make to their families and local communities. We must ensure— this is a particular point for Ministers for Women—that the voices of older women are heard distinctly in the listening to women exercise that is now being conducted. We must ensure that Ministers speak specifically to older women, bringing back the issues that they raise. We must ensure that services for older people are delivered in gender-sensitive ways. We know that the way in which many health and social services are delivered is important.
§ Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)
I am pleased to be able to take part in this debate, and delighted to see so many women Members of Parliament in the Chamber. We do not quite fulfil the definition of girl power; perhaps woman power would be more appropriate.
I welcome the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health—the Minister responsible for women's issues. It was full of positive proposals to 106 improve women's lives, in marked contrast to the speech of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who, apart from an obsession with a flexible labour market, had nothing positive to say on behalf of women. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) is not in her place because I wanted to welcome her to her Front-Bench post. I wonder whether her appointment is part-time, temporary and casual, and she is participating in the Tories' flexible labour market, or whether she is on a full-time contract. Perhaps she will enlighten us later.
This is a serious and very exciting debate, partly because of the policies that the Government are delivering, which will make a real difference to women's lives, and partly because of the tremendous achievements that women in communities throughout Britain and the world have already made. I shall talk about the experiences of women in constituencies such as mine in the inner city, and the way in which the Government's policies are making a practical difference on the ground.
The Tory legacy in areas such as Salford is absolutely horrific. There is mass unemployment, and poverty and ill health are widespread. A woman in Salford is likely to have seven fewer healthy years than a woman in Surrey. A child born in the city today is likely to die five years earlier than one born in a more affluent community. That is the reality for many families in places like my constituency. Tackling the problems of social exclusion is the greatest challenge facing communities such as mine.
Managing money, finding work and trying to improve one's health and make a better life for one's family can sometimes seem like an impossible mountain to climb to many women who struggle every day with all such problems and more, but this Government have brought hope to our cities, and especially women. I pay tribute to the organisations and women in Salford who are so often at the heart of projects which renew and improve our communities.
I have been involved with Salford women's centre since its birth 15 years ago. It is a haven for many women in our city. It provides a range of activities from creative writing and aromatherapy to stress counselling, as well as a mental health drop-in centre, further education classes, high-quality child care and counselling for people with alcohol and drugs problems. Its latest venture, the unity cafe, is very appropriately named. Women work together, funded through the national lottery, involving young people through the new deal, providing training courses, education, cookery classes, health promotion and healthy eating programmes. It is a perfect example of women working in partnership, taking advantage of all the Government's programmes and initiatives, to make a real difference to women's lives in the community.
The women's centre is part of our health action zone. It is a very practical way in which to deliver health promotion and other health services—not in a traditional clinical setting, but in an environment where women feel comfortable and at ease while taking advantage of health services.
Smoking cessation is a key issue to women in inner cities. I make a plea to the Minister to extend the nicotine replacement therapy programme from one week, as it is in health action zones, to three or four weeks, to give women a real chance to give up smoking. Doing so will probably make the biggest single difference possible to their health and that of their families.
107 As well as being in a health action zone, Salford has the benefit of being in an education action zone. We are helping to raise standards and, crucially, the aspirations of our young people, especially young women. The involvement of adults as mentors and role models is helping young people to broaden their horizons and think about careers of which they would never have dreamt. That is vital if we are to expand young women's choices and reduce the number of teenage pregnancies, which is far too high. Such pregnancies blight the lives of women for many years to come. I am delighted that we are also a trailblazer for sure start, which will be fundamental in broadening the horizons and choice of women in my area. That is real joined-up government—health, social services and education acting together for the benefit of women in our communities.
We have made a bid under the single regeneration budget, which will be decided in April. It is about building a sustainable community in our inner city, which has been decimated in recent years. From my experience, women are often at the heart of projects to build sustainable communities. I shall briefly mention two very special Salford women who are an incredible example of the drive, determination and commitment that it takes to make real change.
Mrs. Betty Burton is the driving force behind Apple Tree court, which was recently visited by my right hon. Friend the Minister. It is a grey tower block in the middle of the inner city, once unpopular and hard to let, now a thriving and vibrant community. Working with a dedicated team, Betty Burton has created an oasis in the concrete jungle.
At the foot of the tower block there is a wonderful community garden. The tenants grow flowers and vegetables. I am told that they even grow aubergines—in Salford! Local children learn about nature in the wildflower garden. Pensioners come to the cafe for good quality, affordable meals. There is a conservatory to catch the sun. There is even a duck pond with ducks. That woman has transformed that community almost singlehandedly. It would not have happened without Betty Burton; I believe that she is a woman who can move mountains.
Mrs. Levy is another of our formidable Salford women. She also lives in a tower block—we have rather a lot of them in Salford. She saw that people in the block had nowhere to go, nowhere to make friends, nowhere to do their washing and nowhere to be in touch with one another, so she decided to create a drop-in centre—a place where people could get to know one another, get welfare rights advice and have the benefit of all the services in the community. She raised the funds almost singlehandedly. She managed to get a grant from John Paul Getty Junior to build a community launderette. That is probably the most unusual grant that the John Paul Getty foundation has ever made. That is real initiative; it is get up and go, and in many cases it is women who have that type of energy. We must ensure that we support and encourage those women to make a difference.
Perhaps there is something about Salford that creates strong women. We are proud to be able to claim Emmeline Pankhurst as a Salford woman.
108 Women are achieving, but the Government are helping us enormously to do so. The national minimum wage, which has been so disparaged by Conservative Members, will benefit 2,000 women in Salford—many of whom are low-paid part-time workers in the cleaning, catering and retail trades, who are paid £2 to £2.50 an hour. The Opposition have made it plain that they will repeal that legislation, and 2,000 women in my constituency will be worse off if we ever—heaven forbid—have a Tory Government again.
The massive increase in child benefit—the biggest ever—will help more than 9,000 families in Salford to have a better income and a decent life. The new deal and the national child care strategy will be key to tackling poverty, but I suggest to Ministers that a great deal of extra work will be needed if we are to have a national child care strategy.
In an inner-city ward in my constituency, we have only one registered child minder. We must build capacity, ensuring that we have not only child minders but after-school clubs and the full range of facilities for people to key into. In many districts, that provision does not exist, and we have a long way to go to build it up. I know that the Government have the intention and determination to do so, but I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends that, if we are to give every woman access to high quality child care, we must ensure that that provision is universal. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) said, that provision must be affordable and accessible to people on a very low income.
The new deal is very welcome indeed, but I notice that at first it was limited to people out of work and claiming benefit, which meant that 85 per cent. of the eligible people were men and that it was difficult for women to access the scheme. I am delighted that the scheme has been extended to partners, so that more and more women may access that scheme, which will give them a chance to get back to work.
We must ensure that all the social initiatives that I have talked about tonight are properly integrated—properly joined up—so that people, especially women, do not fall through the net. I know that that is a tremendous task for the Government to take on. I believe that the Government are working across Departments, beginning to deliver opportunities that can transform women's lives, but one of our biggest tasks is to convince women that they can take up those opportunities—to help them to have self-esteem, confidence and a belief in their ability to succeed. That, I believe, will be the real difference that this Labour Government make.
§ Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)
I am pleased to be able to make this contribution on international women's day. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health on introducing the debate on delivering for women. In my constituency this most definitely means choice. It means a range of choice, from universal nursery provision and the national minimum wage to good family-friendly policies and the working families tax credit. These are all incredibly valuable measures, and my constituents are talking about them and have high expectations from them.
My constituency has been celebrating international women's day and I shall talk about that gently while wearing my defence hat. As many in the House 109 know, I have been keenly involved with the armed forces for some time. When I visited Bosnia and Srebrenica I was taken by the fact that our armed forces are not only the stabilising but the building-up force in that torn country. We may find ourselves doing exactly the same thing in Kosovo. I say that because the Labour Government have widened opportunities for women in the armed forces, and I want that to be celebrated as widely as all other measures. When the Labour Government took office, only 47 per cent. of all the positions within the armed forces were available to women. Now, more than 77 per cent. of positions are available to them. That is valuable.
Two of our women are controlling frigates. That is a sign of things to come. I want to join up the way in which I celebrate the involvement of women—the serious development of women within the armed forces and the use of their talent—with a small group of people who are active in my constituency. The group is called Women's Aid and its members too have been in Srebrenica. Four of them described themselves as ordinary women with nothing very special about them to suggest that they could open the doors and get into Srebrenica. On hearing of the hideous happenings that were taking place in that area, however, they decided that they wanted to play a part.
These four women operated an organisation called Hands for Friendship. They managed to get the funds for a lorry and they filled it with medical provisions, blankets, books and anything else that they thought would be valuable. These are four ordinary, everyday women. They drove across Europe and they found themselves at the border with the passport people saying, "No, I am sorry, you can't come in. There is no way we can allow you in." They begged, pleaded, cried and stayed at the border for two nights and two days until eventually they broke down the reserve of those on the border and they were allowed in.
The women went into Bosnia and then they went on into Serbia. They went into areas that were especially dangerous. Nobody would guarantee their safety and nobody would protect them because they could not do so. Such women are to be celebrated.
The four women managed to get to Tuzla. They wanted to be with the women of Tuzla, who were remembering the massacre that had occurred there. Let us remind ourselves that, overnight, 10,000 men disappeared— murdered, and not even buried. They were left strewn on a mountainside. The ordinary women of Tuzla wanted one thing only, and that was to bury their dead. They wanted to find their sons and husbands. These four ordinary women said, "We will help you in any way we can." The women of Tuzla wanted to get to a small place called Dulici where they knew that many of their men were probably buried in mass graves. Again, the four women had to go through terrain that was unknown and isolated. They were threatened with ambush. They were stoned and shot at, but they stuck with the Tuzla women and walked the journey.
The Russians said, "No, there is border control and you cannot go through." The British, too, said that they could not go through. However, they pleaded. The Tuzla women said, "They are our menfolk and we have a right to kneel at their graves. Please let us through." Eventually, the women were let through. Those are women whom we should always celebrate—ordinary women, women who were so poor that they had no shoes and barely more than 110 the clothes that they stood up in. They wanted to do what is only decent—to say a prayer over the graves of their loved ones.
I must tell the House that I am incredibly proud of the women of my constituency, particularly Naseem Akhtar. I am sad to say that ultimately the women were turned back. They did not make it to Dulici and had to go back to Tuzla. They cried, they were heartbroken, but they had done their best.
On international women's day, when the House has remembered so much that is valuable, we know that the women and the families in our communities will value so much of what the Labour Government are doing. It is appropriate that we remember that throughout the world there are women who are not even capable of articulating such an agenda. It is meaningful to them, but it is totally outside their grasp. I hope that in celebrating women's lives and the roles that we play, we will remember the women who are fighting so hard in other countries, in desperate situations, to define rights that we consider inviolable in our own country.
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)
This has been an extremely interesting debate. There has been some selective memory, a great deal of propaganda and a great number of words. I shall try to do justice to some of the contributions that we heard today.
The first speaker from the Back Benches was the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). She spoke about the importance of universal, affordable child care. Many others spoke about universal, affordable child care, as though that was something new and different, which was actually in place. I must tell the House that in my constituency there is absolutely no difference between the affordable child care today and that which existed before 1 May 1997.
Before that, there was a great increase in child care places. A large number of out-of-school children's initiative places were created by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). She introduced nursery vouchers and tax relief on workplace nurseries. As a result of the Children Act 1989, each area had to develop a child care plan. The suggestion that the position was new and totally different on 1 May 1997 is not one with which I entirely identify.
The right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham also spoke about power-sharing and the importance of change within Government. I can understand her doing that. At her time, there was an editorial in The Economist which stated:Bringing more women into Parliament is, of course, an achievement in itself—I pay credit to it. The editorial continueed:But there is not yet much sign that the advent of Blair's babes represents a decisive breakthrough for female politicians… Because Mr. Blair has made it brutally clear that Labour back-benchers are expected to toe the line set by the party leadership, few of the new intake of women have had a chance to make much of an impression in Parliament.111 The document "Delivering for Women—Progress so far" is an extraordinary series of trite comments. We read thatCrime blights the lives of victims"—not too controversial there. We are told thatA decent environment is our legacy to our childrenand thatEfficient transport is vital to our economy and our quality of life".There are many other bland, trite comments. Perhaps more sinister, given the way that the Government do business, is the definition of the Cabinet. The right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham may have some sense of this. The Cabinet is defined asA group of senior Ministers appointed to advise the Prime Minister. A collegiate approach is adopted.That is the new and quaint definition of the Cabinet, which I discovered in "Better for women, better for all". I think that it is despicable for women and appalling for all. I consulted the Library, which provided as one definition of "cabinet":A piece of furniture for display.I could see that it could be for display. Another definition was:A committee formed of the most important members of the Government chosen by the Prime Minister or President to be in charge of the main Government Departments.Women are being flattered, but essentially fobbed off with the Government's publications.
The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) talked about a number of important issues such as separate taxation and the possible adverse effects on women of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill—the comment that paid caring is valued more by the Government than unpaid caring is frequently repeated. She also commented on the use of family-friendly policies in the House of Commons. I would deplore any further reduction in the number of opportunities for Back Benchers to get their points over. We have a tyrannical Executive who will do anything to reduce the number of opportunities for Parliament to scrutinise their actions.
The way in which Parliament has been diminished and insulted during the past couple of years is disgraceful. Thursday afternoons used to be extremely busy, but hon. Members would be lucky to see three cars in Speaker's Court now. The place is deserted by Thursday evening, which is a great sadness and a great disgrace.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
Would the right hon. Lady support any moves towards a more civilised balance of hours— which, I believe, is what the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) was suggesting—rather than a reduction? Does she realise that we are not doing fewer hours because of what I hope is the permanent modification of Thursdays? We have reordered Thursdays to achieve a more civilised working environment.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
The difficulty is that the greater the number of days on which the Government cannot be held to account, the greater the number of opportunities they have to be ruthless and manipulative and to avoid high profile occasions. When the Government came to power 112 they immediately initiated the longest holiday that Parliament has ever known; there was a Government who were longing to get on with their business.
The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) spoke on a subject to which I hope to return at greater length. She talked about the women's day of prayer, international women's day and Jubilee 2000. I hope that she will support the concerns of the Churches in respect of the Government excessively politicising the millennium celebrations and the dome. The Government rubbished those issues when they were in opposition and they have politicised them in government. It is extremely important that Church leaders have the opportunity to register what the millennium celebrations are about and to achieve real changes on the commitments of Jubilee 2000.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) made a splendid speech in which he covered many areas and identified the issue of playgroups, which has been repeatedly raised with me. Playgroups face real problems such as the loss of jobs for women as a result of the minimum wage and the loss of choices for parents. He also mentioned the possible 90,000 job losses in the hotel, retail and textiles sectors as a result of the minimum wage and the £39.3 billion tax on business resulting from the Government's actions.
The key point is that a prosperous, effective and flexible market will create jobs for women. That is why, so spectacularly in the past 20 years, women in Britain have achieved levels that they had never previously achieved and have had opportunities at work that were never previously open to them. There is more to be done, but the dramatic transformation over the past 20 years—at work and particularly in education—has been formidable.
Much of the Government's document is, in effect, a paean of praise to the steps taken by the previous Government. There has been a dramatic transformation involving women in higher education, where there are more women than men, as well as GCSE results, A-level results and achievements at every level. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield said that Labour Members have Barbie doll policies; one could say only that the Under-Secretary of State for International Development would be known as their Ken.
The hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) talked about violence against women. That area is of great importance, but she seemed unaware of the steps that were taken before 1 May 1997 such as the White Paper on protecting the public, changes in respect of sex offenders, the establishment of an interdepartmental group on domestic violence and a public awareness campaign. I looked back at "A Guide to Services for Women", which was produced in 1993 and has a great section on domestic violence. These are difficult and intractable problems, and there is no room for complacency, but the idea that words on their own can deliver change is naive and irresponsible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) made a splendid speech, and I identified with a number of elements in it. My first job was working for the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). At the time, we were fighting bitterly to save family allowances for women. The Labour party has always been dominated by the trade unions and the "man at work", and there was a real battle. I went to the headquarters of the Transport and General Workers Union to try to persuade the union to 113 support the campaign. I am pleased to say that one of the most able advocates at the time was Molly Meacher. Together we campaigned long and hard.
This is a battle that is never finished, and now, with the working families tax credit, we have it again—the move from the purse to the wallet. As we await tomorrow's Budget statement, we are faced with the threat of the taxation of child benefit, which would be a deplorable and retrograde step. It would penalise couples when the wife stayed at home and the husband was earning, say, £35,000 a year, as opposed to couples both of whose members were working, earning perhaps £20,000 or £25,000 each.
More importantly, child benefit is the way in which we register the existence of children in our society. The move away from child tax allowances meant that everyone benefited in the same way. The point about child tax allowances was that the better off were given more advantage in return for their responsibilities. Turning the clock back would be an act that women would never forget, and for which they would never forgive the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham spoke of the increasing irrelevance of some of the debate, given the perhaps more worrying alienated group of young men. As she will know, her concern is shared. In her Green Paper, "Our Healthier Nation"—not to be confused with our White Paper, "The Health of the Nation"—the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Ms Jowell) spoke of anxieties about suicide. I was pleased that her ideas about the priorities for health improvement were so similar to the ideas that she had inherited. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) mentioned all-women shortlists. It would take a great deal to persuade my party of their desirability, although we would certainly all agree that the party should do more to encourage more women to join us.
Given all the discussion of role models that we have heard, and the welcome tributes from many Labour Members to women in their constituencies who have played an important part, I felt that I must quote a recent newspaper headline:Maggie is the boss of all role models".Certainly, the achievements of Margaret Thatcher, as our first woman Prime Minister, and those of the first woman Leader of the House of Lords, Lady Young, are extremely important developments—although, like others, I wish that those developments had been reflected in the presence of more women in Conservative constituencies.
§ Miss McIntosh
Do you agree, Madam Speaker, that a great omission on the part of the Government has been their failure to recognise the role model that you have been to all of us, in Parliament and outside, as a very distinguished lady in politics? Perhaps the Minister will make amends in her winding-up speech.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
I cannot cope with that, Madam Speaker.
Much has been made of the new deal for lone parents. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) dealt with that admirably: there has been a 3.8 per cent. success rate, at a cost of £200 million. I am disappointed 114 that the hon. Member for Keighley did not refer to some of the international human rights issues which I hope to mention, and which have been extraordinarily lacking in today's debate.
My excessively generous hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) stressed the need for a distinction between fact and fiction. How right she was. She went on to identify an issue that I am delighted to hear the Government have supported equally and that was crucial in achieving many changes for women: Opportunity 2000.
I take great pride in having led the national health service into Opportunity 2000: the Department of Health was the first Government Department to enter the initiative. Unlike the Government's documents, on joining Opportunity 2000, the NHS set explicit targets on how many more women consultants, women managers, women accountants and women on health authorities and trusts we were seeking. There was a dramatic increase in the number of women on NHS trusts and health authority boards.
Among those who we were able to use that as a springboard to great career success were Baroness Jay, Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Hayman, Baroness Dean—all people whom I took pleasure in appointing—the Liberal Democrat colleague of the hon. Member for Taunton, Julia Neuberger, and many others.
If there has been widespread shock over the behaviour of the new Government, it has been about their particularly partisan appointments to many of the health authorities and trusts.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
And regional development agencies. Having personally been involved in the selection and appointment of so many people, particularly women who went on to great success in the Labour Government, I am qualified to comment.
I am particularly pleased to hear that Dame Rennie Fritchie has been appointed the commissioner for public appointments. She was a distinguished regional chairman and she was central to the development and unrolling of Opportunity 2000 in the NHS. She is a great advocate of family-friendly and practical employment policies. I want to register her contribution.
The point about Opportunity 2000, which was launched by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), but led by the business community, was that it worked with people. It was about encouragement and setting goals. It was not coercive. It was not bullying.
The hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) was the designer of Emily's list. I am sorry that she did not refer to advice for women through the list. Nor did she refer to her experiences in South Africa. The role of women in South Africa today is something that I want to address.
My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) spoke on the important issues affecting older women. I speak not just from self-interest. I hope that hon. Members will have the opportunity to look at the university of Manchester's Pennell initiative, 115 again chaired by Dame Rennie Fritchie, which examined coronary heart disease, breast cancer, depression, bone disorders and social isolation among older people.
Older people are equally worried about the raiding of social service budgets, the inability to deliver a carer strategy, the fudging on the royal commission on the long-term care of the elderly, the mess and complexity over pension reform and, above all, the loss of the tax credit on dividend share income.
I regret not being able to identify all the others who have spoken admirably during the debate, but I need to speak about international women's day. We celebrate 50 years since the universal declaration of human rights. The Secretary-General's message to us all today is most important. We can look with some pride at the remarkable achievements so far. He said:We entered a century where women had the right to vote in a mere handful of countries; we leave one where the vast majority of countries have universal suffrage. We entered a century where women were practically excluded from decision-making; we leave one where the participation of women at senior levels of leadership, national and international, is no longer questioned.But it is a world where, in Afghanistan, India, east Jerusalem, South Africa, China, Yemen, Peru, Ethiopia, Ghana and places throughout the continents, women have no human rights. There is continued bride burning, female infanticide, genital mutilation, appalling domestic violence, and a lack of participation in the political process.
Today's debate has been unforgivably self-centred. We have focused on issues in which dramatic progress has been made in Britain, as if the rest the world scarcely existed. I especially commend the work of the British Council—of which I am vice-chairman, and honoured to be so—which is doing practical, important and courageous work in all those countries. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee has just reported on human rights and asked the British Council particularly to address its concerns; the concerns of women will be foremost among those.
This has been an important debate. This century, we have made great changes in the United Kingdom. Our task and priority now should be to deal with the plight of women around the world.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge)
This has been a thoughtful and wide-ranging debate. We have reached some agreement across the political divide on the issues of importance to women in Britain today. In a sense, that in itself was telling, for—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) said—women often bring a welcome and different approach to politics. I think that we have demonstrated the truth of that statement in our discourse today. On both sides of the House, the speeches by hon. Members—with one or two less notable exceptions by Opposition Members—have shown that we can identify common needs and priorities without engaging in sterile political banter.
There are, of course, differences in substance between the parties. Conservative Members oppose the minimum wage, whereas Labour Members warmly welcome the 116 impact that it will have, especially on the 1.3 million women who will benefit from it. We differ from Conservative Members on a national child care strategy. They have traditionally believed that child care is a matter of private concern for families, with the state intervening only when the child is at risk, whereas we think that there is a proper role for the Government in creating a child care infrastructure that will better promote the interests of children and families.
We differ also on family-friendly employment. Our new Bill will establish a statutory right to unpaid parental leave, a better package of maternity rights, a right to time off in emergencies and stronger rights for part-time workers. All those measures will not only benefit society overall, but make a real practical difference to women's lives. The Conservative party opposes all those measures.
This has been an excellent debate, in which we have heard some eloquent and emotive arguments. It has also been fascinating to hear right. hon. and hon. Ladies give the female perspective on key aspects of Government policy. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for the contribution that she made during her time in office in addressing many issues of importance to women. I assure her that we shall consider seriously the issues that she raised today.
I welcome the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears), who talked about how our policies, right across Government, have impacted on women in her constituency.
The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) made a constructive speech, mentioning the consideration that we should give to proposals from the Equal Opportunities Commission. We shall be responding to those proposals. However, we shall not—as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) intimated—be suggesting that we should abolish the Equal Opportunities Commission.
Several speeches—including a sincere one by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey), and a passionate one by the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh)—dealt with the international dimension of today's celebration. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) also dealt with the international dimension. I should tell the hon. Member for Vale of York that my noble Friend the Minister for Women is today at the United Nations, speaking on the status of women. We therefore do take our international responsibility seriously.
Hon. Members spoke about the importance of women's representation, both in this place and in other arenas. I particularly welcome the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who described to the House how abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords will help to push us up the European league on representation of women.
I was very struck by the thoughtful and important speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who showed a telling understanding of the problems faced by teenage mothers. I tell the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) that we shall be making proposals on programmes dealing with teenage pregnancies. We think that the issue is so important that it is being addressed, across Government, by the social exclusion unit, with the support of the women's unit.
117 Several hon. Members have talked about the importance of our child care policies and our family-friendly policies. My hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) described the difference that they made to the lives of her constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) stressed the importance of our policies, which were also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage talked about the importance of the child care strategy and how she wanted an end to women being forced to choose between the children whom they love and the jobs that they need.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes) and others raised the crucial issue of older women. That is a central part of the strategy that we shall be delivering. Our ideas and policies for older women will be developed through a listening programme by the women's Ministers and those responsible for the programme of listening to older people. I was also delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) celebrating female role models.
The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) raised concerns about the working families tax credit. The Conservatives do not understand its effects. It will benefit more than 400,000 low-income families, helping many women. Transferring money from the purse to the wallet is not an issue, because those who benefit from the tax credit can choose how it is paid.
The Conservatives' opposition to the minimum wage is nonsense, given its importance to women. The minimum wage is not the cause of the closure of playgroups. Recent pre-school closures have been a direct result of the previous Government's policies on nursery vouchers. The idea that we should have child care on the cheap by exploiting women working in that most important role of giving a good early start to our children is outrageous.
§ Mrs. May
Does the Minister accept that the Pre-School Learning Alliance has said that hundreds of pre-schools have closed as a result of this Government's policy on the provision of early-years education? Does she further accept that if the introduction of the minimum wage means that the cost of child care through pre-schools becomes so great that people cannot afford it, those pre-schools will close?
§ Ms Hodge
The Pre-School Learning Alliance blames the previous Government for the closure of thousands of pre-schools. The working families tax credit and the child care tax credit component will ensure that workers in pre-schools can be paid the decent wage that they deserve.
Some argue that it is unnecessary to focus on an agenda for women and that it is simply a gesture of political correctness. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan), who said in her strong contribution that such people are wrong. Of course, policies that benefit women will benefit everyone—better schools, better health services and better community safety—but if we do not consider the issues facing women in our unequal society, we shall fail to achieve the fair and inclusive society that we want.
The lot of women has massively improved over the past 25 years. Girls now out-perform boys at school. We have also made great strides in higher education. In 1970, 118 twice as many men as women took a degree. Now men and women enrol as students in equal numbers; ever more women now work. In the past 10 years, the proportion of working-age women in the labour market has increased, while the proportion of working-age men has declined. Most dramatic has been the increase in the number of mothers in work whose youngest child is under five. That figure has gone up by 10 per cent. in the past 10 years. More than half the mothers of children under five now work.
Life has become easier in the home. No longer do we have to spend hours at the kitchen sink scrubbing the dirt off the potatoes, and most modern washing machines can cope with woollens without shrinking them. However, those advances have brought new needs that are particular to women and new issues that affect not just women, but all of us. At the same time, old inequalities still persist. Women still earn 20 per cent. less than men—often for doing an equal job. Even at 18, when girls have done better than boys at school, they earn 6 per cent. less.
The glass ceiling persists, with only 4 per cent. of directorships in companies being held by women—and those are mainly in marketing and human resources, not in finance or industrial production. Although we are all delighted that there are more women in the House, the proportion is still only one in five. However, three out of four of those working in clerical or secretarial jobs are women.
One in four women will, at some time in their lives, experience domestic violence—an issue raised by many, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham, the hon. Member for Taunton and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West, for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, for Keighley and for Enfield, North.
A responsible Government, knowing these facts, must address the issues implicit in them. That is just what we are doing—and doing successfully. At the same time, the welcome changes have brought new challenges. More women work, but many are working part-time. In fact, four out of five part-time workers are women, and the rights for part-time workers that we are introducing are crucial for women. With more women at work, affordable, accessible and high-quality child care is vital.
I do not know where the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) has been but, in the first two years of the new Labour Government, we have created more real child care places than the last Government did in 18 years. Our national child care strategy recognises the needs of mothers who choose to stay at home, as well those who need to—or choose to—work.
For many of us, our needs and concerns are the same as they always were. We still bear most of the responsibilities in the home. Even with school-age children, we are the ones to sort out everything from homework to the dentist's appointment; from making sure the children get to their sports activity after school to rushing them to the accident and emergency department when they fall and bang their heads. We are the ones most likely to care for sick, disabled or elderly relatives. We have to juggle our lives and our time to cope with pressures.
That is why the Government's emphasis on encouraging a better balance between work and home is so important. That is why we are committed to ensuring 119 that paid employment is more compatible with family life. It is not corporatist Britain, as suggested by the hon. Member for Maidenhead—it is common sense that brings bottom-line benefits to businesses and to families.
I am proud of our record in government. In a mere 21 months, we have achieved immeasurably more than the Opposition achieved in a miserable and interminable 18 years: a national child care strategy; a minimum wage; the working families tax credit and the child care tax credit; a new deal for lone parents; the biggest ever hike in child benefit; a new minimum income guarantee for pensioners, many of whom are women; the introduction of parental leave; new rights for part-time workers; proposed reforms of the Child Support Agency; £19 billion to improve educational standards; measures to cut crime, reduce the fear of crime and tackle issues of importance to women, such as the giving of evidence in rape trials; a national carers' strategy, with a new £140 million package to help carers take a break; £20 billion for the national health service, with money specifically set aside to speed up both preventive care and the treatment of breast cancer; £40 million announced last week to help phase out mixed wards; and targets to ensure that half the appointments to public bodies are women.
We are listening, responding and doing, and we are addressing those issues which most concern most women. We are not in the business of dictating to women—we are in the business of ensuring that they have a real and effective choice. We know that there is much left to do as we continue to tackle women's inequality and to develop policies to improve all our lives.
As we move towards the new millennium, women's concerns are finally being given the weight and the consideration that they deserve. We may be confident that this Administration will continue to place women at the very heart of Government.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.