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Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) : I beg to move,

That this House, in the week of International Women's Day, notes that women in Britain face discrimination in all aspects of their lives ; deplores the Government's failure fully to implement European equality legislation or the recommendations of the Equal Opportunities Commission ; and calls on the Government to introduce legislation to simplify, strengthen and extend the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts.

When the Leader of the House announced at Business Questions last Thursday that the Opposition had chosen this subject for debate, there were jeers and catcalls from hon. Members on the Tory Benches

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : No, there were not.

Ms Short : There were. If the hon. Lady was not here or did not hear them, she is simply not reflecting the truth.

It is still the case that many--not all--Conservative Members think that the issues of women's rights, views and demands for equality are a joke, at the margin of politics, not real politics, not serious politics. That attitude is deeply insulting to half the population and shows how out of tune they are with the reality in our society and across the world. There is no doubt that women's demands for equality in the workplace, the family and public life is a major force for social change, which will continue to force the pace of social progress and reform in this country and across the world. When Tory Members jeer at any mention of a debate on women in politics, they show how out of touch they are with the main stream of life in Britain and across the world.

I am sure that the Secretary of State would want to distance himself from such behaviour, but one of the pleasures of this debate is that we have at last "outed" him and forced him to admit that he is also the Minister for women. "Outing", if I understand it correctly, is forcing someone to admit publicly something that they have been trying to keep secret. Today, he is forced to admit that he is not just the Secretary of State for Employment, but is also the Minister for women.

It is noticeable that, over the past few months, the Secretary of State has appeared to have a personality change. He used to present himself as fairly mild-mannered and posed as a reasonable man. Over the past few months he has started to hector and sneer and jeer as though he is in competition with the Home Secretary. The general view of the Opposition is that he must be yet another Member of the Cabinet looking for an invitation to go on the radio and assure those listening that he has no intention of standing against the Prime Minister for the leadership of the Tory party. I also suspect that he likes to

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keep it quiet that he is the Minister for women because he fears that that might not impress the jeering Tories, whose votes in the future he might wish to try to get.

As the Secretary of State might tell us later, his role as Minister for women, with a unit in his Department responsible for policy on women, a Cabinet sub-committee to co-ordinate policy and lead responsibility for the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which was transferred to his Department from the Home Office, is all the accomplishment of my predecessor and great friend Jo Richardson who, sadly, died on 1 February. Jo was, as everyone in the House knows, an enormous champion of the rights of women. For many years she was shadow Minister for women. She was determined to put into Whitehall, among many other things, a Minister for women to correct the bias in the upper levels of Whitehall and in politics, where a woman's perspective is still not fully taken into account.

Jo studied examples from around the world and made preparations for the establishment of a Ministry for women when--as she hoped--we would win the election and she would take office. Thus, in the period just before the election when, as is customary, shadow Cabinet Ministers meet civil servants to make preparations for the implementation of our policy she met Sir Robin Butler. He outlined his plans to establish Jo's Ministry for women, and they are the arrangements that we now have in the Department of Employment. Sadly, we did not win the election. Even more sadly, Jo did not become the Minister for women. But her work bore fruit and the present machinery in Whitehall to co-ordinate policy for women is a result of her work.

We intend to monitor closely the work of the Minister for women and his Department. This debate is part of that effort.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Is the hon. Lady aware that 40 per cent. of appointments made by the Public Appointments Unit are of women ? Four years ago, the figure was only 30 per cent. That is a substantial increase, over quite a short time.

Ms Short : I agree that that is something of an improvement. However, I am describing something far more important--the new machinery in Whitehall to co-ordinate policy for the benefit of women. As I have explained, that is largely a product of the work of Jo Richardson, who was deeply admired and loved in the House. I assume that the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) does not wish to take anything away from Jo Richardson's accomplishment in achieving the arrangements that now exist.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South) : Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short), I do not wish to take anything away from the work of a grand lady. Is she aware, however, that there has long been a ministerial group on women's issues in Whitehall ? It used to be chaired by the Minister of State, Home Office : I recall that, because I was a member. The role of chairman has been upgraded by being moved to Cabinet level.

Ms Short : I am indeed aware of that--and the machinery that existed when the hon. Lady was a Minister has been massively strengthened because of the work of Jo Richardson. I do not want to keep repeating that point, but Conservative Members do not seem capable of taking it on board.

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As I was saying, we intend to monitor the Minister's work carefully and this debate is part of that effort. On behalf of all the major women's organisations in Britain, I wish to ask the Secretary of State for an annual debate on the work of his Ministry and the Government's strategy in advancing the position of women. I have received letters and messages from a wide range of women's organisations : the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Fawcett Society, the townswomen's guilds and the National Alliance of Women's Organisations, for instance. They are delighted that the debate is taking place ; they point out that it is the first debate on the Sex Discrimination Act since it was passed 20 years ago --by a Labour Government, of course. They are also irritated that they were given such short notice of the debate and they ask for an annual debate of the sort that I have mentioned.

I shall be happy to give way to the Secretary of State if he wishes to respond immediately. If he does not--he is shaking his head--I hope that in his speech he will make a commitment that the Government will arrange an annual debate, in Government time, to monitor the progress of women's equality in Britain.

As I have said, women's demand for equality is a major force for social change. If we stand back for a moment, we can see how powerful it has been historically. We have just celebrated the 75th anniversary of women's getting the vote. What a struggle that was ; what an insult it was that, as the franchise was widened, women were left out. But they fought and struggled and ensured that they were given the vote. That was one part of our great progress.

On and on it went. Women had to struggle for the right to be educated and the right to own property after they were married. They continue to struggle against the ugly problem of domestic violence, which still represents a quarter of all reported violent crime in Britain : it is a massive and often hidden problem, which reflects the inequality of power between men and women and demeans a civilised society.

It was announced today that the Secretary of State for Health is to take responsibility for co-ordinating policy on the family. I strongly suggest that she and the Minister for women agree to prepare a national strategy to deal with the problem of domestic violence. I congratulate the National Society of Local Government Women's Committees on its current "zero tolerance" campaign and on the startling and powerful posters and postcards that it has produced to challenge the widespread acceptance that violence against women in their homes is a normal part of our culture and society.

When we examine the historical record--women's struggle for the vote and for the rights to be educated and to own property--we see that women have advanced considerably over the years ; but we also see that they still face major discrimination and disadvantage in society. It was the Prime Minister himself who said, at the launch of Opportunity 2000 :

"Why should half our population go through life like a hobbled horse in a steeplechase ?"

That is the question before us today.

More than 20 years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970--by a Labour Government, of course--women still earn only 79 per cent. of men's full- time hourly earnings. They cluster in jobs that are seen as women's

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jobs, often undervalued and underpaid. Women also form the bulk of part-time workers, with low pay and few opportunities for overtime or bonus earnings.

This reality--that the overwhelming majority of women are stuck in low-paid jobs, with little opportunity for training, promotion or access to pension entitlements, so that the overwhelming majority of those who are poor in old age are women--is currently the major barrier to women's advance. This is the issue that must be tackled if they are to cease to be what the Prime Minister called "a hobbled horse".

Despite what the Prime Minister said, the position of women in Britain has deteriorated since the Government came to power 15 years ago. In 1991--the latest year for which figures are available--the United Kingdom was at the bottom of the league in terms of pay differentials between male and female manual workers in Europe. In terms of women's earnings as a percentage of men's, the top country is Denmark, with 84.7 per cent ; the bottom country is the United Kingdom, with 67.1 per cent. In 1980, just after Labour lost power, we were fourth from the bottom. The position has deteriorated. We are also bottom of the European nursery education table, with just 35 to 40 per cent. of three to five-year-olds in nursery education, compared with over 95 per cent. in Belgium and France and over 85 per cent. in Denmark and Italy. Yet research undertaken by the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Government's own agency, and published in December 1992 shows that the cost to the Government of a phased expansion of subsidised child care-- including out-of-school care, as well as nursery places--would be more than outweighed by savings in social security payments and increased tax revenue. The strategy is available ; the savings are clear. Such action would lead to a big improvement in the lives of women and children : the research makes it plain that nursery education causes children to do better when they go to school. Yet the Government have failed to implement the strategy.

We are also at the bottom of the European maternity pay tables, even after the Government's reluctant improvement this week--which was forced on them by the European Union. They resisted an improvement in maternity provision for all the women of Europe, but they have now grudgingly been forced to make an improvement. We welcome any improvement, but we know that we are still the worst off in Europe and that 20 per cent. of the poorest and lowest-income women in Britain will receive absolutely no maternity entitlement from the scheme announced by the Government.

Moreover, we are among just four European countries that fail to offer any parental leave provision, entitling parents to take time off work when their children are sick. It is, of course, Britain--of all the countries in Europe--that is blocking a proposed European directive that would give the father or mother the right to take time off to care for children.

The truth is that the British Government refuse to make the changes that are needed in our sex discrimination and equal pay laws so that women can cease to be "a hobbled horse" and try to resist the improvements coming from the European Union. When forced by the European Union to make changes, they do so grudgingly and with bad grace. An example that is central to this debate is the law on equal pay for work of equal value, which the Government were forced to introduce as a result of a European directive.

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I well remember that night. The speech was the first to be made by Alan Clark, the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment. He was horrified to learn that his first action as a Minister would be to introduce a measure intended to advance the equality of women, a cause for which he did not stand. What he did that night--as he has since admitted--was have quite a few drinks and then read his script for jokes. He introduced the measure in a way that showed the House that he did not believe in it--that he derided it. Since leaving this place, he has had the grace to admit in his memoirs that that is exactly what he did and that perhaps he should not have behaved in that way.

The law provides a right, but it had to be passed to meet the requirements of the European Union. Mr. Clark made it clear to the House that he intended the law to be unenforceable in practice. Lord Denning described it as

"tortuosity and complexity beyond compare".

It needs to be changed, simplified and made enforceable. That is one of the changes for which we are calling today and which the Government refuse to make.

The Equal Opportunities Commission is required by law--passed, of course, by a Labour Government--to keep the Equal Pay Act 1970 under review. The former Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, made it clear when he introduced the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 that we saw it as only a beginning on which we would have to build to produce real equality for women. In 1988 and 1989, the Equal Opportunities Commission proposed to bring together, simplify and strengthen the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts.

On Tuesday--International Women's Day--I visited the Equal Opportunities Commission. In discussions, we agreed that if the Government wanted the rights that exist in theory and in law to be enforceable in practice, they would implement the changes for which the Equal Opportunities Commission has called. The Government will not do so, however. In public, they appear to be in favour of women's equality and women's employment, but in practice they are not. The Government's behaviour in response to the proposals of the Equal Opportunities Commission shows their attitude. It took them five years to bother to reply ; even then, their reply was almost completely negative. The Equal Opportunities Commission has made it clear that it deeply regrets that. It has asked the Government to think again. I also understand that the Government have not yet had the decency to respond to the changes proposed by the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland. As we examine the record, it becomes clearer why the hobbled horse continues to hobble.

The position now is that the Equal Opportunities Commission has made a submission to the European Commission to argue that the United Kingdom is in breach of its obligations under the treaty of Rome and the equal pay directive. The Trades Union Congress has also made an official complaint arguing that the abolition of the wages councils is a breach of European law. If the Commission finds in favour of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the TUC--it is difficult to see how it could do anything else--it is likely to take Britain to the European Court for breaching its obligations on equality for women.

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The picture is clear. The Government's policy on women's equality is out of line with those of all the other Governments in Europe, and with European parties that share their political tradition. The other European Conservative parties understand that the agenda has to be taken forward and that women are entitled to equality. Only the British Conservative party cannot tolerate the agenda and tries to hold it back for women in Britain and the European Community. We have made progress only when the European Union has dragged a few concessions out of the Government, which they have always made grudgingly and half-heartedly.

The Opposition were absolutely delighted by the House of Lords' decision last Thursday--in response to a judicial review brought by the Equal Opportunities Commission--that it was illegal because of our obligations under our treaty of accession to the European Community for the Government to provide fewer employment protection rights for part-time workers than for full-time workers. I hope that the Secretary of State will tell us when he will introduce legislation and how he will implement that decision. We do not want any more dragging of feet, but urgent action.

The position of women and their rights in the labour market are at the core of the Government's economic policy. Since 1979, the strategy of the Government has been to deregulate the labour market, to remove all protection from low-paid workers, to reduce social protection in general and to compete by making British labour cheap. Women have borne the brunt of that policy and are the battering ram of that strategy.

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North) : As the hon. Lady knows, the Conservative argument is that deregulation means more jobs. [Interruption.] Let me finish my argument. Between 1984 and 1991, there was a massive increase of 19 per cent. in the number of women in the work force. Should not she pay tribute to the achievement of those women, who now have new opportunities ? Does not it show that what the Government say is right ?

Ms Short : The hon. Gentleman should listen to my speech. The first great recession created by the Thatcher Government destroyed 2 million jobs in manufacturing industry and much of our manufacturing capacity. The jobs that were lost were overwhelmingly male. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) chooses his dates selectively. In the boom that was created to get the Government through one of their election contests, part- time, low-paid jobs in the service sector were generated and taken up by women. Labour market projections suggest that that trend will continue. More and more full-time jobs for men are being destroyed, low-paid jobs for women are being created, and the labour market is being dragged down.

The fact that women are cheap labour is bad for them and is being used to push men out of the labour market. That is not an economic strategy for our country. It drags down standards for everyone. It is not in the interests of women and men, or of the long-term health of the British economy.

Mr. Richard Spring (Bury St. Edmunds) : The Labour party has said that it is in favour of minimum wage legislation. Will the hon. Lady speculate on the disastrous effects that that policy would have on employment

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generally and female employment in particular, as is shown in Spain, Portugal and France ? The Labour party's policy would enormously increase unemployment, and that would affect women directly.

Ms Short : The hon. Gentleman shows the funny, strange and isolated world in which the Tory party lives. Every Government in the European Union has minimum wage protection. The United States has minimum wage protection. Every other developed country understands that the way to compete in the modern world is to have a highly skilled work force and a high-investment, high-technology economy.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) rose

Ms Short : I have not finished dealing with the intervention by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring). Only the British Government believe that the way forward is to compete with poorer countries by cutting wages. That strategy is a disaster for our economy. We need a minimum wage, which will pay for itself through the tax take and savings in family credit, to create a healthy economy of high skills and high investment. The Tory party is on its own. It is hobbling women and the British economy through its dedication to using women as low-paid workers and to cutting wages and conditions. It is damaging our future and the interests of everyone.

Mrs. Gillan rose

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam) rose

Ms Short : I want to make some progress, if I may.

Mrs. Gillan rose

Ms Short : Will the hon. Lady please sit down ? I shall give way after I have made some progress in my speech [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : Order. The House must settle down. I am finding it difficult to hear the hon. Lady.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : The hon. Lady gave way to a man and not to a woman. That is sexist.

Ms Short : It is clear that some of my comments are stinging Conservative Members. They are making so much noise that they are not allowing the debate to continue.

Mrs. Gillan rose

Ms Short : I said that I shall give way in a minute. The hon. Lady should sit down and then I shall give way.

This week, Britain is again isolated in Europe. It has blocked the accession of the European Free Trade Association countries because it is terrified of losing the right to veto any proposals that the other Governments of Europe might agree on social protection for workers. Britain alone is isolated and increasingly in conflict with all her other European partners, including those led by Conservative Governments.

Similarly, the British Government have today made it clear that they alone of all the Governments in Europe will seek to block protection for children at work. It is suggested that there should be a limit to the number of hours that school children can work, but the British

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Government cannot bear it. We will be the only country in Europe that does not believe that children should have some protection.

Mrs. Gillan : I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, although it took her long enough to do so. If the minimum wage is such a terrific idea, can she explain why France has now passed a law allowing workers aged under 25 to be paid only 60 per cent. of the minimum wage ?

Ms Short : The hon. Lady was so anxious to intervene to make that devastating point. If she really believes that the fact that there has been an adjustment to, but not a sweeping away of, the minimum wage by a Conservative Government in France is a devastating point, she will really have to try harder.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman rose

Ms Short : I have already given way once to the hon. Lady. May I please continue with my speech ?

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Lady has made it quite clear that she is not giving way.

Ms Short : The Tories do not like to hear the truth about their isolation from the main stream of economic development, so they are trying to barrack and make a lot of noise.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman rose

Ms Short : I have already given way to the hon. Lady. She knows that she should not stand and shout like that.

Britain is the only country in the European Union incapable of signing the social chapter. That is part and parcel of the problem. Britain's backwardness

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman rose

Ms Short : I have made it absolutely clear that I am not giving way.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Lady has made it clear that she is not giving way.

Ms Short : The Government are isolated, trying to compete by social devaluation. They cannot succeed. They are causing ever more conflict with our partners, who are angry that Britain tries to attract investment by advertising the fact that British workers are cheaper than other European workers. What a prospect to offer to the country-- "We'll make you the cheapest workers in Europe, give you the poorest protection and the worst conditions." What kind of quality of life is that to offer the people of Britain ?

The European Commission's Green Paper on social policy stated : "It is important to underline that high standards of social protection have been a contributory factor in Europe's economic success in the past."

Tory Members should read this paper--they might learn something. The report continues :

"Many would argue that high social standards should not be seen as an optional extra, or a luxury that can be done without once times get hard, but rather as an integral part of a competitive economic model. The debate between this view and those who argue that Europe's present level of social standards are becoming unaffordable goes to the heart of the issue"--

and it does.

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The Tory party thinks that it can compete with the Pacific rim tigers who have massively lower wage levels, or with China, whose economic performance is rising, by bringing down British wages. How low does the Tory party think that the workers of Britain are willing to go ? There is only one way forward for this country : high investment and high levels of training and skills. It is the opposite of the trajectory that the Government have given to the country.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North) : Whatever the merits of the hon. Lady's comments, she must at least admit that they are arguable. Does not she think that it would be more democratic for her and her colleagues to get elected before her policies are inflicted on the country ? Does she think that it would be democratic if her policies were imposed on us by court rulings and arbitrary judgments of the European Court ?

Ms Short : It is my intention that I and my colleagues shall be elected to implement these policies and, to judge from the Government's performance, it will happen fairly soon. We are bound to test the Government in the local and European elections and there will then be a general election. The Government have lost the support of the British people who agree with us, not with the hon. Gentleman. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to make that clear.

Lady Olga Maitland rose

Ms Short : I must make some progress because time is short. The issue before the House and the British people and which goes to the heart of the British economy is that the Government claim to be concerned about the needs of women in Britain, but, in practice, they will not strengthen the sex discrimination and equal pay legislation, as advocated by the Labour party, the Equal Opportunities Commission and all the major women's organisations in Britain. The reason is that the Government's economic strategy depends on using women as cheap labour. The Government therefore need women in this role and cannot implement the legislation that women need to enable them to cross the barrier in the labour market. The consequences for the future of this country are very serious.

As I said in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring), 2 million male jobs have been destroyed since 1979. The new jobs that came in the late 1980s were low-paid jobs in the service sector taken by women. The projection for the next 10 years is that the pattern will continue--more and more full-time jobs for men will be destroyed and the only new jobs will be low-paid, part-time jobs, the overwhelming majority of which will be taken by women.

Lady Olga Maitland : Will the hon. Lady give way ?

Ms Short : I shall give way in a moment when I have finished this point.

That pattern is imposing great strains on family life in Britain. I shall tell the House a story of a man in his fifties who came to my advice bureau a little while ago. He handed me a brown envelope and asked me to open it and read its contents. I took out a reference which said that he

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was a fine worker--he was a draughtsman. I told him that it was a lovely reference and that he was clearly extremely good at his job. He started to cry and said that he wanted someone to know that he used to be some good. He told me that he had been made unemployed in his fifties, had not obtained another job and had exhausted his entitlement to unemployment benefit. His wife had a relatively low-paid job, but did not want to give it up and his marriage of 25 years was about to break up. This will be the picture if the Government continue their strategy of using women as low-paid labour against men and destroying full- time jobs.

A group of academics has today produced a report which concludes :

"The flexible' labour market championed by the Government is creating a new tier of insecure labour--of which unemployment is the most acute form-- which is damaging health, sinking people into depression, increasing the chances of marriage break-ups and leading to social isolation . . . the stress generated by job insecurity was also sufficiently intense to destabilise relations in the family and to precipitate marriage break-up".

The Conservatives claim to be the party of the family, yet they run an economy that is ripping the heart out of many families by using women against men to drag us all down in the labour market. The issues that we are debating lie at the centre of the major political and economic choices facing the country. Since 1979 Lady Olga Maitland rose

Ms Short : I promised to give way, so I shall.

Lady Olga Maitland : If the market in Europe is so marvellous for women, why is it that this country is second only to Denmark in respect of having the most women in work ? Does the hon. Lady accept that women who take part-time work do so from choice to fit in with their family commitments ?

Ms Short : I have heard that point made before and I have already told the hon. Lady that women in Denmark are the best off in terms of earnings as a proportion of male earnings in any European country. Many Tory Members make that point. I shall say only that virtually every woman in Bangladesh from the age of six onwards works. Very high participation rate in the labour market is not a measure of economic development. If there is a high-skill economy, people train and are educated and enter the labour market later. To boast about high participation shows how ignorant the hon. Lady is, as are all her colleagues, about how one achieves a high- quality, high-tech economy.

Since 1979, the Government have adopted an economic strategy of competing through driving down the costs of employment in Britain. Unemployment has grown massively. When the present Government came to power, unemployment was 1.2 million ; using the method of counting which was then in force, there are now 4 million unemployed people. All protection for low-paid workers has been stripped away and the European Commission may soon say that that is illegal.

Inequality is much greater in our country, and the gap between rich and poor has grown greatly. Crime has grown, inevitably, in those conditions. Conservative Members should worry about the fate of young, working-class men who cannot gain employment. One in four are unemployed and, on current projections, an even higher proportion will be unemployed in the future.

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The strain on families

Mr. Rod Richards (Clwyd, North-West) rose

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