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Mr. Hunt : First, I thank the hon. Lady for her graciousness in accepting that I have to talk to the American Administration at the jobs summit in Detroit. I apologise to the House for having to leave.

Does the hon. Lady accept that the real growth in the hourly rate for the female working population has been 55.9 per cent. since 1979, against 40.4 per cent. for the male population ? Does she acknowledge that the rate has risen considerably faster ?

Ms Gordon : I do not know how the Secretary of State arrived at those figures, but we must take into account the lowering of the value of money.

The fact is that the average wage for women is still half that for men. The gap is still enormous. If there has been some increase, that is all to the good. That does not mean that the situation is satisfactory--it means that there has been some improvement, but there is still a long way to go.

The vast numbers of women who have young children and who cannot leave their children have not been taken into account. They can neither find nor afford child care and they must do work at home, such as threading beads and painting toys for a pittance. It is disgusting pay, and there is no regulation of it and no help for such women. What is happening to them is largely hidden from sight. There are 6 million women in this country who are on poverty wages. Most of the poor people in this country are women-- women on low pay, single mothers, women who have been divorced and women pensioners. We must do something about that because we are not content to go on being at the bottom of the pile, regardless of the work we do, the hours we put in and our efforts and abilities.

The Government want women to be low-waged. They see their value as a pool of low-waged workers and they think that that will make the country more competitive. That is false reasoning, and other countries do not feel that way. When the Government passed the iniquitous Child Support Act, they said that they would give a £15 disregard of maintenance to women on low wages and family credit. This would encourage women to accept work at lower wages than they otherwise would take. What kind of distorted thinking is that ? The Government do not want to improve the status, lifestyle and income of women. They want to force women to accept lower wages than they otherwise would do--in other words, a little bit above starvation starvation level.

Women are discriminated against not only in wages but in pensions. It was announced in the Budget that the pensionable age for women would be raised to 65 by 2020. The Government want to equalise pensions, but instead of allowing men to retire early if they wish or perhaps having a flexible retirement age, which both men and women might want, women are again penalised.

It is true that women had an advantage, but if we look at pensions in total we find that only 15 per cent. of women earn the full state pension in their own right. The average occupational pension earned by women is £30 a week, whereas for men it is £61. Again, we see that it is almost half--women get half the hourly wage and half the occupational pension. It seems that women often receive only half of what men get. That does not mean that men should get less--it means that women should get more.

What happens when a woman is divorced by her husband, as often happens ? It may be that her husband had a low-paid job when they got married. The woman stayed at home, brought up the children, put meals on the table,

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washed his clothes and ensured that her husband was well-dressed. She helped him to work well and to improve his position at work. By the time they get divorced--he may be after a younger woman--the husband may be earning a great deal, and he would be entitled to a good occupational pension.

If they get divorced, the wife gets nothing at all for the work that she did in their partnership. That needs to be addressed. In cases of divorce, women should be entitled to half the value of the occupational pension until the time of the divorce. I have had many bitter letters from women about that, and the law must address it. The carers of severely disabled people get some pension credits, but women get no pension credits for the years that they spend at home rearing children. Those years, apparently, are considered to be of no value to society. If we want older women to have proper pensions and not be the poorest in society, they should be given pension credits for the years of unpaid work in the home. Those years are just as important to society as the years spent in paid work. That brings me to the whole matter of women's unpaid work, which is unrecognised, unvalued and considered to be almost invisible. However, it is the basis of the economy of the country. If one considers the economy of any country as a pyramid, it is based on the great pedestal of unpaid work which is done by women in the home and voluntary work.

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

Ms Gordon : I am not going to give way. The Secretary of State did not give way, and Mr. Deputy Speaker has asked that we make our speeches short because 22 women--or, at least, 22 people--have asked to speak. I hope that the hon. Lady will have a chance to speak. The economy of the country is based on the pedestal of the unpaid work that women do. I have introduced a Bill on the matter, and I shall continue to press that women's unpaid work be counted in the economic statistics and the GNP of this country. The value of all the work that women do in the home and in the voluntary sector would then become evident to everybody.

Mrs. Gillan rose

Ms Gordon : I said that I was not going to give way.

Until women's unpaid work is properly valued, their work outside the home will not be valued and employers will continue to offer them low wages.

That brings me to the matter of increments. When I was a teacher, the National Union of Teachers negotiated for women the right to one increment for every three years spent raising a family when she returned to work. I always felt that it should have been one increment for every year. I believe that some banking organisations have a similar scheme.

The years that women spend at home bringing up families, the organisational skills which they learn and the value of rearing the new generation should be recognised. Women should not be considered to have wasted those years when they return to work, but to have enriched their value to any future employer. They should get incremental increases and not go back to work on lower pay than when they left to raise their families.

In other words, women should be enabled to take a full part in the life of this country, to live decently and to have decent pay. We feel our inequality in every way. A woman

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has only to want to go to the toilet in a public building ; she will see men whizzing by while she is queuing. The women's toilet is always the most inaccessible. Then we know that we are second-class citizens.

We have only to consider agism in Britain, which is always directed first and foremost at women, to know that we are second-class citizens. Studies have proved that, when children go to school, teachers give more minutes of attention per day to boys than to girls. In training, we get a worse deal. All down the line, women are treated as second-class citizens.

It is time that the debt that this country owes to women was recognised. It is time that the Government were forced to recognise it. Women demand a better deal. History has shown us that we do not get any improvement unless we fight for it--and fight for it we will. We want a better life, we want better recognition, we want equality and we want better pay.

6 pm

Mr. Sebastian Coe (Falmouth and Camborne) : I hope that the House will not mind if I indulge myself by falling back on my previous occupation for a few moments at the opening of my remarks. I hope to do so briefly, and for the only time in my speech.

In 1948, the incomparable Fanny Blankers Koen, who won four Olympic gold medals at the 1948 Olympic games, confronted a newspaper headline in a Dutch newspaper after winning her second medal. It simply read "Fastest women in the world is an expert cook". The report said :

"This amazing Dutch athlete who holds the world record for the high jump, the long jump and the hundred metres has gained an Olympic double--the first women ever to achieve that feat. But at home she is just an ordinary housewife. She is an expert cook and darns socks with artistry. Her greatest love next to racing is housework." We have travelled far, thank goodness, in the past 46 years, although it is still not uncommon to switch on the television and listen to a sporting event in which the commentators witter on about the hairstyles of the women competing rather than about the ability of the women competitors.

The history of female involvement in a raft of sports such as track and field has been one of attrition and determination, and of women forcing their way to the table. When they have got there, their contribution to those sports has been enormous. It has often transcended sport, set the trends in other socio-economic activities and done much to flatten misconceptions and prejudices about female work, status and physical ability.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart) : I presume that the hon. Gentleman is moving towards suggesting that women in sport are more equal now. Can he explain to the House why Sally Gunnell is paid considerably less than Linford Christie for taking part in exactly the same athletic meetings ?

Mr. Coe : I have been away from the sport since 1989. I could not tell the hon. Gentleman what the pay structure of British sport and British athletics is. If what he says is the case, I certainly do not condone it.

My wife is an equestrienne. She is a three-day eventer--a discipline which was originally designed as a test of

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the gentleman soldier, but which is now firmly in female hands. Men and women compete on equal terms even though women were barred until 1968 from any British equestrian Olympic team. It was believed that the event was simply too taxing for female riders.

In 1990, my wife won the sport's most prestigious event--the Badminton horse trials--fending off the world's best male riders. She took her place in the record book alongside the likes of Lucinda Green, who has a record six victories, Virginia Leng, arguably our greatest rider, Mark Phillips and Mark Todd. It is important not to fall into the trap of over- legislation or over-regulation in the pursuit of equal access. It is important for women to continue to make progress in sport, if they want to, free from ignorance about physical status. However, that is a cultural process.

Physiologists and practitioners of other disciplines in sport science recognise that women are better suited than men to many sports and have built-in physiological advantages, certainly in ultra-distance events. The modern sport of triathlon--the amalgam of swimming, cycling and running--is an event at which women compete on equal terms with men, and even surpass them. It is also known that under conditions of severe cold or heat women will outlast men. That is probably best summed up by saying that, if Captain Scott had been a woman, he would probably have made it.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) : The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue in women's equality. I certainly agree with him that women have had a terrible time attempting to break into sport. Does he agree that the current practice of sex testing for female athletes--which gives the impression that, if a female athlete has competed and won, she might be a man so she must be tested to check that she is not--is extremely demeaning to women and ought to be abolished forthwith ?

Mr. Coe : The hon. Lady has raised an important point. I should declare an interest here. I am a member of the medical commission of the International Olympic Committee. The issue she raises has exercised better medical brains than mine for many years. The hon. Lady is right. It is a major problem. We are considering ways of determining sex. Sex is important in competition, not simply in terms of making sure that a female who wins an event is a female, but the reverse. It is important to make sure that men are not competing in female events, which would discriminate against the final result simply on arguments of ability.

That is quite enough sporting parallel. I am having far too much fun. Suffice it to say that sport provides, and will continue to provide, an interesting sociological model of female achievement, often against the odds and almost always against the historical tide of perception.

However, let us be wary of the way in which, in recent years, the equal opportunities agenda has often been so grotesquely--and, in terms of women, so damagingly--hijacked. For many years, I was a member of a weightlifting club in the London borough of Hackney. It was an excellent club, funded by a very good adult education programme.

One night, a group of women from the local authority came into the gymnasium. They simply wanted to close it. The women did not want to close the club because we prevented women from joining. We could not have done that. They did not want to close it because we would have

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been unpleasant or antagonistic to women if they had wanted to join the club. They tried to close it simply because women chose not to use the club.

I also use the example of a constituent who applied for a job in an adjoining London borough. She was told that she had not got the job. That did not come as a major shock, but she found out later that the person who had got the job not only did not have the right qualifications but did not have qualifications at all. On appeal, my constituent was told in no uncertain terms that, if the woman in question had had the same opportunities as my constituent and had obtained the qualifications in the first place, she would almost certainly have got the job.

I also fall back to my time as vice-chairman of the Sports Council. I was visited by a group of distressed parents from a south London school. They came to me to raise their concerns that the school in question had decided to put all competing school teams together as mixed events. The first time that the mixed football team played the local school, it lost 26-nil. The team that subsequently won had no significant sporting or educational gratification from that. The team that lost felt significantly dismayed. When that matter was raised--in the darker, sadder days of the old Greater London council and ILEA--an inquiry took place, and the headmaster and the PE staff were all congratulated on upholding ILEA's equal opportunities policy. In identifying those excesses, however, we should not pretend that all in the garden of equal opportunity is rosy. Although it is fair to point out that, in the professions, remuneration is normally related to the job irrespective of gender, it is certainly more difficult for women to reach board level, for instance, in the average company.

Ms Short : Never!

Mr. Coe : Recent studies show that only 1 per cent. of women reach positions of top management, only 4 per cent. reach positions of senior management, and only 27 per cent. of women work in any management capacity. Whether that is due to institutional prejudice, to the discontinuity in women's careers or to the reluctance of many women to assume positions of responsibility because their families come first in their order of priorities, is not a question that I choose to explore any further in the confines of the debate. Much has been done by the Government to promote equality of opportunity in the workplace. Women should be able to pursue their chosen path without obstacle to achievement and to success. There are effective ways in which women can pursue grievances. The complaints system is accessible, and generally more comprehensive than those in most parts of the European Community, through industrial tribunals. There is, as recent cases have shown, a remedy in law for those people who have suffered sexual harrassment, and a protection against subsequent victimisation.

There are more training opportunities for women--more special schemes to help women back into the workplace or to take up jobs that have not normally been associated with women. There are now more than 100,000 more women in higher education than there were in 1979. They now account for a higher proportion of all people attending universities--46 per cent. today, compared with 42 per cent. 15 years ago. Cornwall college, an excellent

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college of higher education in my constituency, has even better statistics : nearly 51 per cent. of students in the college are women.

The Government have strengthened the United Kingdom's traditional legal framework, which combats discrimination. In employment, it provides equal rights for men and women in recruitment, training and promotion. The law also ensures equality in pay and contracts of employment. Since the mid- 1980s, the law in relation to the latter has been significantly strengthened to allow equal pay for work of equal value.

Women now make up nearly 50 per cent. of the UK labour force. More than 2 million more women have entered jobs since 1983, and the number of women who work full time in the work force has increased by nearly a fifth--all much to do with the supply-side changes to the labour market.

There are aspects in which the Government can do more. I should like some of the Department of Employment's excellent work in promoting conditions for women to return to work to be widened to embrace the advantages for providing flexible conditions and practices, and the greater provision of child care facilities. In that respect, the civil service should be singled out and commended for its range of options, including flexible work patterns and child care help, and for cutting the distinction between part- time and full-time work.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : As to child care, does my hon. Friend agree that flexibility is the key ? It is no good having workplace nurseries if that involves taking a child a long way on a tube train at a busy time. It is much better to give the woman the choice of what she may have by some method such as coupons, but not to insist on workplace nurseries.

Mr. Coe : My hon. Friend is right, and I doubt whether any reasonable person would argue with that. That is why, when the scheme Opportunity 2000 was launched by the Prime Minister in 1991, from its very inception flexible patterns of work, which increase the quality and quantity of employment opportunities for women, were at the centre of its aims. When the campaign was launched in 1991, 61 organisations pledged increased opportunities to women. Employers covering 25 per cent. of the work force now belong to the scheme--a remarkable transformation in only three years.

Opportunities in employment are dependent on opportunities in education, but enhancing education is not simply about equipping or reskilling a work force to underpin our manufacturing base. Enhancing the role of education is inextricably linked to a more embracing issue--the position of women in society. Overwhelming evidence shows that when education is widely available to women, average family size drops sharply and many women marry later, start families later and have better career structures. The evidence linking the lowly status of women to population explosion and acute poverty and

under-developed economies is overwhelming.

The United Nations Population Fund statistics show clearly that there is a strong reverse correlation between the literacy rates of adult women and total fertility rates. I recognise that that is straying into an international perspective that is not within the scope of the debate or the framework of the motion, but there have been few

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empirical studies of the effect of legislation on discrimination, and those that have been conducted are less than conclusive.

Mrs. Gillan : It may help my hon. Friend to feel more comfortable with the areas into which he is straying to know that it is International Women's Day.

Hon. Members : It was on Tuesday.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : It is in the motion.

Mrs. Gillan : It was on Tuesday.

Mr. Coe : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend.

In the present climate of opinion, it seems reasonable to assume that, as the number of women acquitting themselves with distinction in high office and in other fields of activity continues to increase as it has in recent years, the prospects will improve for all women with ability. I do not believe that women either want or need positive discrimination. [Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] They are quite capable of succeeding on their own merits.

6.17 pm

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute) : When the then Home Secretary, now Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, moved the Second Reading of the Sex Discrimination Bill in the House of Commons on 26 March 1975, one year short of 20 years ago, he said

Mrs. Currie : Nineteen years ago.

Mrs. Michie : One year short of 20 years ago.

Lord Jenkins said :

"The unequal status of women in our society is a social evil of great antiquity. Its causes are complex and rooted deeply in tradition, custom and prejudice. Its effects create individual injustice and waste the potential talents of half our population at a time when more than ever before we need to mobilise the skills and abilities of all our citizens."-- [ Official Report , 26 March 1975 ; Vol. 889, c. 511.]

Much of that still pertains today.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975, together with the Equal Opportunities Commission, sought to secure equality of opportunity, equal pay and equal status for men and women. In the 19 years since it was set up, the Equal Opportunities Commission can claim a number of achievements, including independent taxation for married women, recognition at law that sexual harrassment and pregnancy are sex discrimination, and so on.

One of the EOC's priorities--I agree with it--is a fair deal and equal treatment at work for part-timers. According to evidence submitted to the Select Committee on Employment by the Equal Opportunities Commission--I refer to the Committee's report of 7 July 1993

"Research shows that at a number of points in the life-cycle, many women would prefer to work part-time in order to cope with caring responsibilities, and many women and some men continue to prefer part-time work for part of their working lives. Their dilemma is that, in order to do so, many will have to accept work which disadvantages them in comparison with full-time employees."

That is the point that we want to stress. Despite the House of Lords' ruling on redundancy and unfair dismissal rights, there is still a great deal to be done.

Ms Short : Does the hon. Lady agree that it is astonishing that the Secretary of State's speech included no

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reference to the Law Lords' ruling, and that the right hon. Gentleman said nothing at all about what he intends to do to embody that ruling in legislation ?

Mrs. Michie : It is indeed astonishing. It was as though the right hon. Gentleman did not know about the ruling, or wanted to run away from it. Perhaps we shall get an answer from the Under-Secretary of State.

Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich) : Does the hon. Lady think it astonishing also that the Secretary of State made no mention of the contribution to the economy that women make by way of their unpaid employment ?

Mrs. Michie : We were all astonished by the Secretary of State's failure to mention a number of matters.

I should like to draw the attention of the House to one or two facts. Why, for example, in United Kingdom primary schools, 81 per cent. of whose teachers are women, are only 49 per cent. of heads female ? In the case of my own country, Scotland

Mrs. Fyfe rose

Mrs. Michie : I give way to my compatriot.

Mrs. Fyfe : As the representative of another Scottish constituency, I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. The hon. Lady's figures are slightly wrong. In fact, 46 per cent. of secondary school teachers in Scotland are women, but only 3 per cent. are head teachers.

Mrs. Michie : I am grateful for those figures. I was referring to United Kingdom numbers.

In Scotland, women make up 45 per cent. of the work force, yet they are concentrated in a very narrow range of activities, and are absent from all but a handful of Scotland's top jobs. Why are there so few woman surgeons in the national health service, for example--only about 3.2 per cent. ? Of approximately 16 cardiologists in Glasgow, only one is a woman.

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

Mrs. Michie : Yes, but for the last time, as I must proceed.

Lady Olga Maitland : On the question of female consultant surgeons, does the hon. Lady agree that the situation will change in the future ? Women applying for consultancies today started their medical training long ago, when there were far fewer in the profession and there was therefore a smaller number available for these jobs.

Mrs. Michie : I do not accept that. There has been an enormous improvement in the number of women going to university to study medicine. In fact, the proportion is now 50 per cent., and those people are qualifying. I know of women who try for consultant surgical jobs but cannot get them. If hon. Members will bear with me, I shall try to show why this is happening.

I believe that this pattern of employment prevails because of the inability in the health service, as in other areas of employment, to cater for women who have children and family commitments. Women who take time out for maternity leave lose their place on the training and promotion ladder. That is what happens in the case of positions for consultant surgeons. Female doctors often have to find their own locums to cover maternity and annual leave, and, with minimum staffing levels in many

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hospitals now, there is a reluctance to pay for locum cover. This is happening more and more in the new trust hospitals, and it is very worrying for women.

Many female graduates in medicine opt for sessional work in, say, cytology screening, for day sessions in anaesthetics, or for general practice part- time work that does not involve on-call night duty. I am not denigrating those sections of the profession ; I am simply saying that many women have to go into such areas although they would rather pursue another aspect of the medical world.

The situation in the legal profession is similar. In Scotland women now make up 30 per cent. of the total membership of the Law Society, compared with only 2 per cent. in 1957. That is a considerable improvement. In the past two years, approximately 55 per cent. of those admitted as solicitors were women. That is good. But only four of the 50 members of the council of the Law Society of Scotland are women. Of the 91 full-time sheriffs, only six are women. There are no female High Court judges, although, happily, there is one temporary--I do not know how long she will be temporary. There are only five female QCs out of approximately 75 practising seniors.

Until very recently, a female partner in a law firm who decided to have a family was out. She could not be a part-time partner. Fortunately, that is slowly changing. There is now such a thing as a part-time female partner in a law firm.

I have used those examples to reinforce the need for far greater job market flexibility for women, for part-time working with proper pay and for job sharing for both men and women in all kinds of work. Unless this matter is addressed, the economy in particular will be denied access to the vast range of intelligence, abilities and skills represented by the female work force. I am convinced that the country will end up with a stressed-out female population who try to juggle all their commitments in terms of family care, home care and jobs. It was never thought that sex discrimination legislation would be the whole answer. It had to be accepted by all institutions, employers and trade unions, and, at the same time, there had to be a profound change in attitudes and actions. Of course there is room for the voluntary approach, which has been referred to, but, inevitably, that approach has its limitations.

As we have heard, the Government support initiatives such as Opportunity 2000, whose aim is to improve the position of women at work in the United Kingdom and to promote good practice among employers. I understand that 61 organisations are now members of Opportunity 2000, but they represent only a quarter of the work force. What about the rest ? What about the vast majority of women who work, particularly in the service industries ?

We need enlightened employment practices and women-friendly terms and conditions of service. The Government need to encourage the role of the Equal Opportunities Commission in promoting good practice among employers. To do that together with all its other tasks, it must be well resourced.

Although child care is not strictly part of the sex discrimination legislation, and may be more appropriate to a debate on family law, it is extremely important. Good employers, whether large or small, should offer employees who are due to return to work after maternity leave various types of help.

I commend some good employers for helping their employees, before they return to work, to find and choose

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child care that will best suit the circumstances of the mother and the child. They are helped to decide between a child minder, nanny or nursery ; if it is to be a nursery, they help her to choose whether it should be a private, council-run or workplace nursery. The best companies send in someone with expert knowledge on what is available for the returner to work.

Everybody should be offered a short returning-to-work course that advises on balancing home commitments and work, and builds up a support network for working mothers. We all know that mothers have lost the support network of their families. The course should also identify strategies to make better use of mothers' time and, above all, help them to deal with feelings of guilt and anxiety, which often overwhelm a mother returning to work. She is returning to work because she either wants to or has to, and we should make it as easy as possible for her to do so.

Being a working mother can have positive benefits for a woman, as it gives her greater independence and access to adult stimulation, and she is often better company for her children and their father. She can also bring positive benefits to the workplace, where she shows an increased sense of responsibility, sensitivity and maturity. Many working mothers become good managers, good negotiators and good counsellors.

What can the Government do for the returning-to-work mother ? First, they can ensure that good quality, affordable child care is available, including pre-school and after-school care. Without that, "equal opportunity" becomes a meaningless phrase. Affordability is a key component, because the average woman's earnings are still nearly 30 per cent. lower than the average male wage. I therefore endorse the Equal Opportunities Commission's call for a family policy to complement legislation on equal treatment.

In supporting this motion, I make a special plea for part-time workers, proper conditions, good child care and a new single statute to bring together the law, which is spread over a number of Acts of Parliament, statutory instruments and legal decisions. It is a nightmare. That would help employers and individuals to recognise and understand their rights and obligations.

6.33 pm

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