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Mrs. Fyfe : Will my hon. Friend note the fact this month marks the 25th anniversary of the Church of Scotland

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ordaining its first women minister ? There are now more than 100 such ministers and not a single thunderbolt has hit any kirk in those 25 years.

Mrs. Clwyd : I congratulate the Church of Scotland and hope that the Minister takes note.

To the question, "Are women breaking into the top jobs in a big way ?", the answer must be no. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) seems to believe that people become Members of Parliament on merit alone. If that were the case, I assure her that there would be more women here now. The Cabinet contains two women, and there are only 60 female Members of Parliament. A survey in The Economist of the 100 top establishment posts showed that the number held by women had increased from two in 1972 to-- wait for it--four in 1992. Men still rule the roost in Whitehall, despite a campaign launched by the Prime Minister two years ago to open up opportunities for women civil servants. New figures show that 90 per cent. of the highest-paid mandarins are men. Of course, Whitehall's huge female work force outnumbers its male work force, but women are confined mainly to typing, catering and cleaning.

The Employment Secretary, who is, as we know, also the Minister for women, recently admitted that he did not know how the drive for equal opportunities was progressing. That is not surprising, since he spent only one hour in the Chamber today. In an interview in The Guardian last year, headed "Our Man in the Cabinet", he was asked what his priorities would be. He said :

"taking up the cudgels on behalf of women in the workforce." The article goes on say :

"When asked what his priorities will be, Hunt studies some typed notes on his desk on which several key paragraphs have been etched in yellow highlighter pen. We want to develop childcare and out-of-school and holiday childcare. I want a wide range of opportunities for women,' how near is the Government to achieving this ? I haven't been able to make a full assessment of the position yet, come back and ask me in a month."

Nine months later, we are still waiting for him to tell us. He certainly did not tell us this afternoon. Again, we know why and we are grateful to The Guardian for the information. He has gone to Detroit. It says that the Employment Secretary and the Chancellor "are preparing to descend on the Detroit job summit next week to lecture the world on the best way to provide quality employment opportunities . . . In readiness, they have produced a glossy, 16-page book titled The UK Approach."

We know all about the UK approach. In the Employment Secretary's own Department, only two of its top civil servants are women, while only three of its 719 typists are men. I collected data from 15 Ministries which show that there are 69 women among 686 civil servants in the top four grades. At the Education Department, no women who have jobs in the top four grades, yet nearly half its staff are women. At the Foreign Office, all but three of the 819 secretaries and typists are women, but there is only one woman employed in the 31 top jobs.

What happened to Opportunity 2000 ? The truth is that, despite so many of the Government's claims, women are still in the low-paid, comparatively menial jobs in the civil service, yet the Government continue to pat themselves on the back and say that they are encouraging women to reach their true potential.

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The Tory record on promoting equal opportunity has not exactly been impressive. As we have heard today, they have done nothing to plug the loopholes in the Sex Discrimination Act or in the Equal Pay Act. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) noted, Britain, much to our shame, has been brought before the European Court of Justice for its failures on equality more often than any other country in the European Union.

The Government seem to have gone out of their way to block or to scupper every EU directive which improves the position of women in the work force. They have blocked directives on parental leave, on part-time workers and on working time. They have gone out of their way to block any progressive social legislation. British maternity rights are still the worst in the European Union. The Government have removed the right of women to return to work after childbirth, and although they have been forced to agree the minimum 14 weeks of maternity leave, perhaps the Minister could explain the absurdity of a system which gives women 18 weeks maternity pay, but only 14 weeks maternity leave. The Government have removed the right of women who work in small firms to return to work after childbirth. They have removed the right of women to have child care costs taken into account when claiming income support.

Despite the fact that the European courts and the House of Lords have forced the Government to concede some of the more blatant aspects of their continuing discrimination against women, the Government have fought tooth and nail all the way to resist. Unlike Conservative Members, we want a Europe that sets high social standards. The social chapter represents a set of basic standards to which civilised industrial nations should aspire.

In opting out of the social chapter the Government have sought to deprive the workers of Britain of the rights and protection that workers in other European Union countries take for granted. The Government's double whammy in the workplace, through privatisation and deregulation, has robbed women of health and safety provision and of protection against unfair dismissal and exploitation, and has given them poverty wages.

Three quarters of those protected by wages councils were women, so scrapping the councils has given yet more opportunities to cut wages in jobs heavily dominated by women workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) told us that the poor in this country are largely women. She also mentioned the isolation and poverty wages of home workers, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax. If the Government do not tackle low pay and unequal pay and provide help with child care, women cannot in any sense be equal or have equal rights. There is no point in asking industry to promote equal opportunities policies when many have to be enshrined in a legal framework, or employers will take not a blind bit of notice. As even the Secretary of State conceded, the Government have presided over the most dramatic change in the role of women. In the past 20 years, there has been an increase of 2 million in the number of women in the work force and a fall of 2.8 million in the number of men. As everybody has said during the debate, those positions are mainly part time, and part- time work brings with it fewer employment rights and lower rates of pay.

Last September, there were 10.6 million men and 10.3 million women at work. In 11 counties in Britain, women already form the majority of the work force. Even

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Essex working man may be a thing of the past, because in Essex there are more women working than men. It may already be true that in Britain the typical worker is a woman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) mentioned the conflict that can occur between home and work. The Health and Safety Executive reckons that 40 million working days a year are lost because of stress-related illness. What better argument could there be for the Government to agree to the parental leave directive ?

The rapid growth of the number of women in the work force needs new thinking, new policies, new attitudes and new expectations. The Government must face up to that by supporting the parental leave directive, providing adequate child care facilities, offering part-time workers more of the same rights as full-time workers have, bringing Britain into line with the rest of the European Union and providing a statutory minimum wage.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax and many others have said today, a minimum wage would reduce the large and growing pay gap between men and women, thereby reducing the need for many people at work to claim benefits that in the end are funded by the taxpayer.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Should not the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon), who has taken part in the debate, be here for the wind-up ?

Madam Speaker : Order. I cannot hear the hon. Lady. She is speaking much too quickly.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : I was asking, Madam Speaker, whether it was a matter of courtesy to the House for those who have taken part in the debate, such as the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar, to be here for the wind -up ?

Madam Speaker : It is certainly a custom of the House for those who have taken part in a debate to be present for the wind-up.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) : Where is the Secretary of State ?

Madam Speaker : Order. Not only this evening but on other evenings I have made a note of those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have taken part in the debate yet are not usually here for the wind-up. I have noted tonight, as on every other occasion, those who are not present for the wind-up.

Mrs. Clwyd : Of course, Madam Speaker, we understand that the Secretary of State--our Minister for women--is in Detroit giving the people there the benefit of his experience of how to destroy 3 million jobs during a Government's period in office. Instead of the Government's nauseating hypocrisy about "back to basics", why do they not give a genuine political commitment to support men, women and families in the ways that we have suggested ?

In the end, equality of opportunity is determined by the attitudes, self- confidence and persistence of women. Generally speaking, whenever women have pushed on the door, they have usually found that it was not really locked. Sometimes, it has needed a good hard shove and thousands of women with intelligence and talent have lived tragically wasted lives because it opened too late for them. As the

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Government cannot or will not help to open the door, it is Labour who will gladly tackle the deprivation and discrimination that the majority of women suffer. Women's voices will be heard, but not by the deaf ears of this corrupt, incompetent and uncaring Government. 9.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe) : I join the tributes that were paid by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and the two Opposition spokesmen to the late Jo Richardson. It is a sad event that we are having this debate and she is not able to be present. She was always an extremely good proponent of women's rights. As one who sometimes opposed her--not on women's rights but various other issues--I have to say that she was always a very straight fighter. She is a major loss to the House, and I am delighted to join the tributes that have so far been paid.

Having begun on a friendly note, I regret that I must now turn to the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short). That speech was a wasted opportunity. The hon. Lady thoroughly trivialised a very serious subject. She carefully avoided acknowledging any advances that had been made. She found every European comparison statistic that was bad, and carefully avoided any that were good. She raised a number of issues on which she said Britain lagged behind the rest of Europe, and then utterly failed to address areas where we are ahead.

The hon. Lady even had the audacity to suggest that this Government are interested in exploiting working children. She failed completely to point out that British law is stronger than the proposed directive in terms of the hours that children may work early and late, and in terms of the limits for hours of work during school holidays. Of course, she did not say that.

The hon. Lady rightly called for investment in skills. But did she then welcome general and national vocational qualifications ? Did she then welcome national vocational qualifications ? Did she then welcome investment in people ? Did she then welcome the national training targets ? Did she then welcome the education and business partnerships ? She did not. She merely called for investment in training, and then ignored the fact that it has been going on while Labour has been asleep.

The hon. Lady raised what is admittedly an extremely sad case : that of a man in his fifties who was finding it difficult to get a job. As a result of that, did she welcome the Government's "getting on" campaign ? Did she welcome the raising of the training age ? She did not. She blamed the Government for an increase in crime, and comfortably ignored the fact that crime is increasing in every western country. Presumably the Government are to blame for that as well.

The hon. Lady concentrated on what she saw as Britain's disadvantage in maternity pay. She quietly forgot to acknowledge that we have the longest period of absence, with 40 weeks, or that 18 weeks is one of the longest periods of pay. What a speech. What a wasted opportunity. What a trivialisation of a serious subject. I come then to the speech of the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon). Normally, I would not comment on the fact that she is absent. The reason I do comment on it is that she had the crying impudence to criticise my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for being absent. My

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right hon. Friend is preparing for a jobs summit. I do not know what the hon. Lady is doing, but I somehow doubt that it is entirely comparable.

The hon. Lady's statistics were selective. She talked about women being disadvantaged in pensions, but she utterly neglected to mention that this is the only country in Europe where a woman who has never contributed a penny piece can nevertheless draw a pension in her own right when both she and her husband reach retirement age. She omitted to mention that there has been a growth in the numbers of women taking out occupational pensions, and she did not appear to understand the proposals for home responsibility protection. Once again, she called for skills during career breaks to be recognised, but she did not even mention accredited prior learning, an initiative of my right hon. Friend.

The hon. Lady's speech was not exactly impressive, but that of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) was. My hon. Friend spoke about the participation of women in sport, a serious point which was echoed on both sides of the House. He talked about surveys which show that there has been an increase of 1 million in the number of women taking part in sport from 1987 to 1990. The Government support the Women's Sports Foundation, which was founded in 1984 to raise the profile of women in sport. A nationwide award scheme for girls and young women was launched only last year. Therefore, I must say that that area has not exactly been entirely neglected.

My hon. Friend welcomed Opportunity 2000, and I am sorry that that welcome was not echoed by Opposition Members.

Mr. Maxton : Will the hon. Lady give way ?

Miss Widdecombe : No, I am terribly sorry. The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) was not interrupted, and time is extremely pressing. My hon. Friend welcomed Opportunity 2000.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East) : Get to the serious bit.

Miss Widdecombe : I am going to get to the serious bit. I will demonstrate how the hon. Gentleman, the shadow spokesman for employment, gets the facts wrong time and time again. I hope that he is looking forward to that part of my speech.

Before I come to that, I will mention the reasoned speech of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie). She raised the matter of the Law Lords' judgment, as did some of my hon. Friends. This is where I come to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and his statements, and indeed those of the hon. Member for Ladywood. On different occasions, both hon. Members have said that they were delighted by the Law Lords' judgment, because it had driven a coach and horses through the Government's employment policy. That is interesting, because the maintenance of thresholds of difference between part-time and full-time workers was the policy of both our parties in government since 1963, when the Conservative party first introduced employment rights. Why were we the first to introduce employment rights if the labour party is so concerned about them ?

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The difference between part-time and full- time work was maintained by the Labour Government in its Redundancy Payments Act 1965, and again in a further Act in 1975. It is nonsense for the Opposition to try to pretend that the Law Lords' judgment drives a coach and horses through a specific piece of Conservative policy. Until recently--when the Labour party saw the chance for a cheap piece of political comment--the Opposition held exactly the same views as we did. We heard from Opposition Members that there were so few women in top posts. I ask them--can we hear the answer loud and clear ?--how many general secretaries of trade unions are women ? To save them the embarrassment, I will give the House the answer. There are three, out of 73. That is a great achievement for the Labour party.

Mr. Prescott : What about the Church ?

Miss Widdecombe : Opposition Members are no better at theology than they are at politics.

Then we heard an endless list of demands backed up by what appeared to be an equally endless list of spending pledges on child care. It is worth looking at what has happened to child care. If one listened to the Opposition, one would be forgiven for believing that there had been no increase in child care during the Government's term of office. Yet there have been substantial increases. The number of places in registered day nurseries, which are mainly used by working women, grew by 153 per cent. between 1988 and 1992.

Ms Short : In Labour areas.

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Lady suggests that the increases have taken place in Labour areas. In fact, today there are only 23,000 places in 580 local authority-run day nurseries, compared to 29,000 in 1988. So the number of places in local authority nurseries has fallen. In 1992, there were 109,000 registered child minders with places for 254,000 children aged under five. That is an increase of 40 per cent. since 1988.

Why are Opposition Members not welcoming all that ? Why are they not cheering ? Why are they not delighted at what those increases represent for freeing women to go to work ? Why do they sit there with long faces ? Why is it that, every time something goes right and someone in Britain benefits, Opposition Members do not like it ? It is because they think that we might get some of the credit. One thing we know for a certainty. They certainly do not appear to get credit for their long spending lists. They have not managed to convince the electorate for a long time. I do not believe that they will be able to convince the electorate for an even longer time to come.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) referred to positive discrimination. I know that the issue embarrasses the Labour party. It must be especially embarrassing to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley, who replied to the debate for the Labour party. Positive discrimination did not work for Labour Members who contested shadow Cabinet places. Positive discrimination does not work. All it does is result in is a thoroughly patronising attitude to women.

At present, every woman who sits in this House--I sincerely hope that the numbers are set to multiply--knows that she got here on her own merits. She was not

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handed it as a patronising gift from men. It is my ambition that every woman who sits in the House in future will also be able to sit here on her own merits.

The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) suggested that to choose a man as Minister for women was rather odd and an insult to women. But if we seriously believe that only women can represent women, there must be an argument that only men can represent men. It does not take us much further forward. It is a remarkably silly argument. We all represent all our electorate. We would do well to remember that 50 per cent. of our electorate are men.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) mentioned of private clubs. I entirely understand the difficulties that face women over private clubs. I understand the sort of case that the hon. Gentleman made, and I would not seek to minimise it. Nevertheless, if we are to have freedom of association and people are to be able to get together and form private clubs which they fund, it is right that they should have the freedom to do so.

Mr. Maxton : I might accept that that might just be justifiable where clubs are funded entirely by their members' own means. However, I have grave reservations about that, when clubs take large amounts of land which is designated for use for leisure activities, and use it exclusively for men. When they then expect to receive rates relief and grants from the Sports Council for their activities, it is time that the Government put their foot down and said enough was enough.

Miss Widdecombe : That is not an argument for amending the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which we are considering today, although it might be an argument for considering means of encouraging, rather than compelling, such clubs to consider their rules.

The Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) was very critical of the fact that this is the first time that we have debated the Act since its inception, and the hon. Lady said that it was the Government's fault. Have there been no other Opposition Supply days in the past 20 years ? If it was so overwhelmingly important, why have not only the Government but the Opposition not put the subject forward for debate ? The hon. Lady criticised us for abolishing wages councils. I do not remember her uttering any criticism of the abolition of 11 wages councils by the previous Labour Government. In fact, there was no criticism at all.

What proves the Government's commitment is not the words we have heard from the Opposition, but what has been happening. Let me tell the House what has happened. We now have more women in full-time work ; more women in part- time work ; more women receiving and contributing to occupational pensions ; more women rising higher in their place of work. Women are better able to choose their patterns of work. More women are breaking through in sport. There are more women in education--the Opposition did not mention that--and more women in public organisations. Real wages are 50 per cent. higher. We have managed to achieve all that without patronising women through positive discrimination. We have managed

Mr. Prescott : More women in the Church.

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Miss Widdecombe : The Conservative party had the first woman Prime Minister, and the Labour party has never got over that. [Hon. Members :- - "Hear, hear."]

Last but not least, what about the poor men ? Sex discrimination means that there should not be discrimination against either sex. Quite honestly, the poor old men have had it quite hard too. [Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] Until recently, they had to work five years longer than women for their pensions, in spite of living five years shorter. Until recently, they were expected to bear the sole responsibility for being a breadwinner and the sole responsibility for fighting the nation's battles.

They also had the horrible prospect of being regarded with unremitting hostility by the massed ranks of the Labour sisterhood. To them are not the opportunities of part-time work ; to them are not the same opportunities of flexible work. Where are the career breaks for men ? Why have those things for so long been regarded as the prerogative of women ? The Government's initiatives in relation to part-time work and flexible work, and encouraging new ways to work, are bringing liberation to workers of both sexes.

I suppose that it is possible--I admit that I would be rather satisfied if it happened--that in 20 years' time men will be sitting here, earnestly claiming their rights in the face of 600 women Members of Parliament. In fact, I have never really understood why the 300 Group limits itself so much. I have never understood either why those limits also seem to apply to what Opposition Members have to say.

Mr. Prescott : There is no need to shout ; you only have two minutes.

Miss Widdecombe : I have no need to shout to the hon. Gentleman--for the very simple reason that, no matter how loudly anyone speaks, the hon. Gentleman somehow never appears to hear. Even when he hears, he does not understand.

Had they been here, the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor would have been interested in Labour Members' spending pledges--universal child care, vast extensions to maternity pay, all the costs that would go with a long series of amendments. Is it still the Labour party's attitude that it can promise anything and cost nothing ? If so, the result will be just what it was last time. Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland) rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to. Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question :

The House divided : Ayes 257, Noes 303.

Division No. 160] [10.00 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Adams, Mrs Irene

Ainger, Nick

Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)

Allen, Graham

Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)

Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)

Armstrong, Hilary

Ashton, Joe

Austin-Walker, John

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)

Barnes, Harry

Barron, Kevin

Battle, John

Bayley, Hugh

Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret

Beggs, Roy

Bell, Stuart

Benn, Rt Hon Tony

Bennett, Andrew F.

Benton, Joe

Bermingham, Gerald

Berry, Roger

Betts, Clive

Boateng, Paul

Boyes, Roland

Bradley, Keith

Bray, Dr Jeremy

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