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Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) : The hon. Lady has suggested that young women seem to want it all. An increasing number of cases have been cited of women who deliberately plan their first pregnancies much later in life to accommodate their careers. Society's response generally is abhorrence of that choice : enormous pressure is still being exerted on women to have children in what were formerly regarded as their child-bearing years. I take the hon. Lady's point, but much more than the biological processes needs to be changed.

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Mrs. Peacock : I hear what the hon. Lady says, but I believe that people choose to have children at different stages. Some still choose to have families when they are very young, while others choose to build up their careers before starting a family. I do not think that many of us would criticise those who want to wait until later in life, when they may find it easier to adapt to a full-time career. As I have said, we all have the opportunity to make that choice. The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms. Anderson) mentioned the United Kingdom Federation of Business and Professional Women. I pay tribute to that organisation, which has worked assiduously for women's equality since the early 1930s--not only in encouraging Governments to act, but in encouraging younger people. I have been a member for 30 years, during which I have admired many other members who have played leading roles.

Next month, I shall be a judge in the organisation's national public speaking competition, whose finals will be held in Brighton. The organisation arranges heats throughout the country, encouraging schoolgirls to participate. I consider it a very good project : it gives confidence to many young people. Having judged heats before, I know that many young girls are much more confident as a result, and have many more opportunities.

The United Kingdom needs equal opportunities--and it needs women as well. We make up more than 50 per cent. of the population, and I consider it vital to harness our talents. That, indeed, will harness all society's talents, while allowing individuals to fulfil their potential.

Ms Eagle : Does the hon. Lady agree that there is still a long way to go ? Four per cent. of the judiciary are women ; 3 per cent. of university professors are women ; 4 per cent. of the current Government are women. A very low percentage of women seem to be rising to the top of their professions.

Mrs. Peacock : I shall come to that point shortly.

The public appointments unit records that, in 1993, women took 40 per cent. of all new appointments : that is a great improvement. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold)--who has been mentioned, but is not present this evening--is taking a great interest in encouraging women to stand for Parliament, and in recent years has recommended an increasing number of capable women to the public appointments unit. I welcome that.

Since 1979, the number of women in higher education has risen by 100,000. I am sure that we all wish that the figure were greater, but it is increasing. Since the 1992 general election, 40 per cent. of those selected for the Conservative candidates list have been women--and that has happened without any need for quotas. Between 1987 and 1991, the proportion of women in practice at the Bar rose by 8 per cent. ; more and more women are taking law degrees, and going straight through to the Bar. In 1983-84, there were 5,000 female solicitors ; now there are more than 14,000--20 per cent. of the total.

No party political issue is involved, but I discovered within a short time of arriving here that this place--like many others--ticks on the old boys' network. I think that we need an old girls' network. Some of us began to set up such a network some time ago. When John Timpson introduced me on a radio programme as the Member of

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Parliament with a subversive network of women in the House of Commons, I took it as a compliment--although I am not sure that he meant it as one.

Most of the women with whom I come into contact--women of all ages--want equality of opportunity : there is no doubt about that. Most, however, do not want quotas. Women supporters of the Conservative party and of the other political parties do not want more women candidate short lists. They do not want a Ministry for women.

Ms Short : We have got one.

Mrs. Peacock : If we had a Ministry and a Minister for women, everything would go to that one Department at the end of a corridor and would get lost. Every Minister and Ministry should take into account women's needs. Of course it is right to have a lead Minister and a lead Department, but we should not have a Department with responsibility solely for women, which would do much more harm than good. I would not want to be shunted to the end of a corridor to discuss what I want. I would want to be in the midst of things and to hear what is going on in each Department. We would lose that capability if we had a special Ministry.

Women want to be taken seriously. If quotas and places were saved for us on committees or groups, the finger would be pointed at us, and someone would say, "We don't need to take notice of you. You're only here because we saved you a space." We would lose much of the credibilty that we have worked for many years to gain. I do not want that to happen.

A serious challenge faces my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government. Fifty per cent. of medical students are female, but only 15 per cent. of consultants are women, so there is need for improvement. Although 46 per cent. of students at universities and polytechnics are female, as the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) said, only 3 per cent. are principal lecturers or professors. Only 5 per cent. of circuit judges are women, and we certainly need improvements in that sector. Only 8 per cent. of the 144,000 managers of large companies are women.

Those figures represent our challenge for the future. I do not believe that we or the Government will meet that challenge by setting quotas. Women want to gain those jobs on merit, not through positive discrimination. If there were positive discrimination, we would not be taken seriously and it would undermine much of the work that has been done in Parliament and throughout the country in the past 20 to 30 years.

7.21 pm

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart) : It is with some trepidation that I rise to speak as the token Opposition male. I shall not follow the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) in her arguments, although her speech was thoughtful and dealt with the issues--unlike that of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), which was trivial, petty and condescending. If she came here on merit, then by God the Tory party must be desperately short of good candidates. Equally, I do not want to follow some of my hon. Friends, who rightly concentrated on discrimination against women in employment. Women are discriminated against in other sectors of life. I want to pick up from the

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comments of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) about women's leisure activities and women in sport.

The hon. Member started his speech by quoting from a Dutch newspaper that in 1948 described the athlete Fanny Blankers Koen as a housewife. He said that we have moved on some way since then. He obviously did not see "The Club," a Channel 4 programme about a golf club in the "Cutting Edge" series. When asked why women were not allowed to play at 9 o'clock in the morning, a member of that club said that they were all at home making the beds and clearing up the breakfast dishes. How could they play at 9 o'clock in the morning, he asked.

Many women face great discrimination in sport. It starts at the top. For the good of the nation's health, women are actively encouraged to take part in physical activity. Television provides the biggest encouragement to people to take part in sport, because, after they watch it on television, they want to take part.

When do we see women taking part in sports on television ? There are hours of coverage of men playing golf, bowls and tennis, but the women who take part in those sports are rarely seen, so there is no encouragement for women to take them up. As has already been mentioned, the men who win Wimbledon get paid more than the women who win it. Poor old Sally Gunnell is paid less than Linford Christie when she takes part in the same meeting.

There is also discrimination against women in sport at lower levels. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne referred to the fact that his wife is a top three-day eventer. That is one of the few sports where women compete equally with men and are not discriminated against. His wife is extremely lucky.

My wife is a good golfer, athough she is not of an international standard. Last October, she played two rounds with a fellow female member of her golf club and qualified to take part in the Lady Golf Union's centenary two-ball foursome tournament on the old course at St. Andrew's. Many hon. Members will have seen the old course, with its magnificent Victorian building by the 18th green. That building houses the headquarters of the Royal and Ancient golf club, the managing organisation for golf in Britain and almost throughout the world.

My wife and her golfing partner arrived with 250 women from all over the United Kingdom to take part in that prestigious golf tournament. For the practice round, they had to get changed in their cars in the car park, and they had to use public toilets because no women are allowed in the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient golf course.

Ms Eagle : Does my hon. Friend agree that a similar position exists in cricket ? This year, the British women's cricket team enjoyed the spectacular success of winning the world cup, but they had to be presented with the trophy on the pitch, because women are not allowed in the long room at Lord's.

Mr. Maxton : I know that my hon. Friend is a good cricketer. Prejudice also exists in that sport.

Some time ago, I raised the issue of discrimination against women in golf. I was accosted by a male member of a golf club in my constituency. He said, "But we don't discriminate against women in our club." I said, "You are quite right. You don't have any women members." That

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golf club is in the middle of Glasgow and takes up an enormous amount of space for leisure activity, but its members refuse to allow women members. They do not even allow women into their clubhouse. Even if they are members, many women are discriminated against because they are not allowed to become full members or to take a full part in running a club. They feel that they are discriminated against at all levels.

The annual general meeting of my wife's golf club decided to place an extra levy on all members except juniors--on top of their subscription--to pay for a new roof for the men's changing room. The women have to pay a levy towards the cost, proportionate to their subscription.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) : Quite right.

Mr. Maxton : The hon. Gentleman may say that that is right, but those women did not have a vote at the AGM when it was decided that a levy should be imposed on them. Does he still believe that it is right that such discrimination should take place ? Of course it should not. There is still widespread discrimination against women in sport, and it could and should be stopped.

It may be too draconian to decide at this stage that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 should be extended to cover leisure activities, but the Government and the Sports Councils should make it clear that no grants, and certainly no money from the national lottery, will be given to any club or sport that discriminates on the grounds of gender, whether against its members or by refusing to have women as members in the first place.

Local authorities should certainly consider carefully whether to give rates relief to sports clubs that practise discrimination and perhaps licensing courts should consider whether they are prepared to grant a licence to a club that practises discrimination by refusing to accept women members, or by refusing to allow women to drink there.

Those are some actions which could be taken to solve the problem of discrimination, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), will give a sympathetic hearing to what I have said.

7.30 pm

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam) : In case my later remarks should somehow be misinterpreted, may I first say that I appreciate the commitment of the hon. Lady for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) and the enormous amount of work that she has put in to help the cause of women. I know that she is sincere and has been working in this area for a long time. In many ways, we share common goals, but we differ in the means by which we want to achieve the fairest and best possible deal for women.

I admit that there has been prejudice over the centuries and even nowadays, but, in attempting to right a wrong, there is always an enormous danger of lurching so far in the other direction that one make things worse. The Conservatives are trying to keep common sense and a sense of proportion to the fore. Having listened hard and long to the debate, and having read many articles and features about the Labour party's position and its attitude towards women, I must take exception to the way in which

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it lectures us about the promotion of equal opportunities. I take particular exception to its attempts to remedy the problem by what I would call artificial social engineering.

Positive discrimination is very degrading to women. I do not understand how Labour's proposals could possibly help us. The Labour party proposes a mountain of regulations and controls which would make it almost impossible for an employer to be able to afford to take on more women, let alone keep those whom he already employs. Its call for the minimum wage and its support for the European Community's social chapter would mean fewer jobs available to women, not more. How can that possibly be regarded as a fair deal ? I see things differently and more clearly. I believe that there is a very strong socialist streak in the so-called reasonableness of the Labour party. That socialist streak is an attempt to control our lives rather than allow us women to make our own decisions. We should be carefully examining Labour's proposals and seeking examples of what it is doing so that we can make our own judgment.

I was a little surprised that the hon. Member for Ladywood omitted to mention a vote at the Labour party's annual conference last year in which more than 80 per cent. decided to accept women's quotas. In short, it was decided :

"This conference notes the Party's commitment to achieving 40 per cent. of women as MPs for Labour by 1999 or two elections time". I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) for drawing that to the House's attention, but the fact that she did so does not mean that I should not reinforce her remarks.

It is extraordinary that the Labour party believes that the only realistic way of achieving its aims is to implement the women-only shortlist in 50 per cent. of seats where a sitting Labour Member of Parliament is not standing for re-election. Not surprisingly, the move has been scorned by some Labour Members. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) was reported in the Evening Standard of 23 November as saying that the plan was "wrong in principle and probably unworkable in practice". How right he is.

Mrs. Currie : Should not my hon. Friend be a little more charitable to the Labour party ? Derbyshire has 10 constituencies, six of which are held by the Conservatives. However, there are three women Members of Parliament--two are Tories and one is a Labour Member. In other words, 30 per cent. of the seats there are held by women without the operation of quotas. I offer my hon. Friend the contrast with Scotland, where the majority of seats are held by the Labour party--indeed, only a handful are not--but the number of women Labour Members is minuscule.

Lady Olga Maitland : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It shows that the Conservative party believes in women progressing on merit alone and, my goodness, that is what they do.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West) : As Scotland has been mentioned, will the hon. Lady explain why there is no Conservative woman Member of Parliament there ? Might I suggest that it is either because women in Scotland have more sense than to join the Conservative party, or because the Conservative party operates an all-male shortlist in Scotland ?

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Lady Olga Maitland : The hon. Lady completely misses the point. The women in the Conservative party in Scotland would be insulted if they were artificially promoted to a seat because of their sex--the Conservative party prizes merit.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) rose

Lady Olga Maitland : I am sorry, but I cannot give way again ; I have already done so a couple of times.

Ann Carlton, the co-convener of "Labour Supporters for Real Equality", was quoted in Tribune no less on 17 November last year as saying :

"Such measures are totally irrelevant to the abolition of the gender gap."

Indeed, Labour Back Benchers have shown little enthusiasm for the obligation to vote for the four women in the shadow Cabinet elections.

I shall tell a wee story almost out of school. I overheard a conversation between two male Labour Members. The first said robustly, "I think it is a load of nonsense. I have never heard such rubbish." The second said, "Well, I don't know ; we have to be very careful about upsetting our sisters." One should never underestimate a man--indeed, one should never underestimate a woman--but the result was the Tea Room revolt.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : They got fewer women, not more.

Lady Olga Maitland : As my hon. Friend rightly says, the men got their own back and it became an electoral farce. Indeed, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was reported in the Daily Mail on 21 October as saying :

"There was resentment among some MPs who didn't want to be told who they should vote for in a sexual way."

Labour Members spread their votes as widely as possible and to the most unlikely women candidates, with the result that has already been outlined more than once this evening. We should re-emphasise the point because it reveals the triviality of the Labour party. Only two of the required four women collected sufficient votes and even the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) was voted off.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : She was still put on the Front Bench. Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) rose

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order.

Lady Olga Maitland : I do not choose to give way to the hon. Member. It was interesting that The Times headed its leader column with the words "nonsensical election". When the Thunderer delivers an opinion such as that, perhaps it has a point. The affair did nothing to enhance the Labour party's standing, as The Guardian made clear on 26 October. After all, it trumpets the cause of the Opposition, not us, so Opposition Members should take heed. The article said : "This week's Shadow Cabinet election results . . . tells us a lot of things about the state of the Labour Party--and all of them are bad. The Labour Party aspires to govern the country. But these were not the results of a serious Party . . . Labour goes about the task like a natural party of opposition."

Mrs. Anne Campbell rose

Lady Olga Maitland : I think that I shall have to give way, because the dear lady is getting very upset.

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Mrs. Campbell : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way at last. Is she aware that, in the previous shadow Cabinet elections, there were far more votes for women than ever before ?

[Interruption.] The average number of votes cast for women candidates was five per person instead of the compulsory four. Is not that an indication that Labour is voting for women as many candidates came near the top of the list--quite the reverse of what is happening in the Conservative party, where there are so few female Members of Parliament ?

Lady Olga Maitland : The hon. Lady made a good attempt to try to portray that disastrous position. The truth was that the men cooked their goose for them.

I was also somewhat surprised that the hon. Member for Ladywood did not mention her party's commitment to the proposal for a women's ministry with full representation in the Cabinet. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) raised the matter first this evening.

Ms Short : I am sorry. The hon. Lady is being polite in the way in which she is rude, at least in relation to me. She was not listening. I mentioned the ministry clearly. I said that the existing arrangements are a product of Jo Richardson's work. We have been watching it closely and we shall build on it when we take power.

Lady Olga Maitland : I stand corrected if that was what the hon. Lady was trying to say. It was not at all clear. The brief for the so- called women's ministry, which seems to be designed to take on every male bastion in the establishment, will not do well for women and probably rebound badly. For a start, I do not think that women want to be put into a ghetto and I certainly do not think that we want to be marginalised. We see ourselves as members of mainstream society and we shall remain there.

In short, it should be recognised that, try as it may, the Labour party will always fail to attract the female vote. It certainly did at the previous election, when it secured only 34 per cent. of the female vote, compared with 37 per cent. of the male vote. The women went elsewhere, largely to the Conservative party. In a misconceived attempt to rectify matters, the Labour party has backed positive discrimination and special treatment for women, which is falling on deaf ears. They almost sound like desperate measures to try to cling on to a disastrous situation.

Labour Members are concerned about part-time workers as if they are trying to put across the impression that, if one works part time, it is somehow degrading, wrong or insulting. If one works part time, one inevitably receives less salary at the end of the week than if one works full time. The women who work part time do so entirely of their own free choice. They choose to do it so as to fit in with their family commitments and many of them do it in the children's early years when they cannot work full time. It is insulting to suggest somehow that they have become second-class citizens--far from it. If that was the case, why has the number of part- time workers escalated beyond all measure in the past decade ?

The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) referred to unpaid workers and implied that somehow it was insulting to be working in a voluntary sector. The wonderful charitable work that men and women have done has been enormously appreciated. The role of women in the charitable sector should never be undermined and should never be in any way regarded as derogatory to their

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status. Those women would be insulted to think that, if they were raising money for Cancer Relief or Oxfam, they would need to be paid to do it.

I am also absolutely astonished that the hon. Lady should suggest that housewives should be paid for looking after their families. She is probably referring to the "Wages for Housework" campaign. It strikes me that any woman wants to look after her family for all the hours that God sends. That means getting up in the middle of night, once, twice, three or four times. She does it out of the love for her family. The reward that I get from my family is their support and my sense of well-being means that we all become a much more united family. The mother who refuses to comply with her duties would be a rare animal. I do not think that it happens. It is the way we are made. It goes back to the real essence of "vive la difference". We cannot be changed.

We are perfectly capable, thank you, of making our own way. We only ask that we are judged on our own merits and that we have a fair chance. The ideals of Emmeline Pankhurst, who campaigned vigorously for the vote, have not been upheld by what I call the angry feminist brigade. The difficulty is that the women of that brigade have clouded the real issues. Emmeline Pankhurst would turn in her grave if she could see the way in which they have brought the issue of sexism into the whole subject and their personal style of sexuality into the workplace, which has become offensive.

We want straightforward, down to earth common sense and we want to get on with it. I am grateful for the practical approaches of the Government over the years to facilitate that chance. As a result of their commitment, a higher proportion of women work in Britain than in any other country in the European Community apart from Denmark. It is interesting that women work in Britain because the working community is available to provide the work. We are moving out of recession and there will be more opportunities for everyone. There are certainly plenty of achievements of which to be proud. In the past decade, between 1983 and 1992, there was an 11 per cent. increase in the female work force in full-time employment and a 29 per cent. increase in those choosing to work part time. In all, as the Secretary of State pointed out, 46 per cent. of the work force are now women. The greatest shift has been in the number of self-employed women, which has doubled to one woman in four. The best barometer of progress is in my constituency. Angry feminism has never entered their heads, but women play a key role in our society. Not one has ever mentioned to me that she has been a victim of sex discrimination. They all reflect the progress that has been greatly helped by the Government's down-to-earth, practical approaches. [ Laughter .] Let me give some examples. [ Laughter .] It is easy for the Opposition to chatter and jeer, but it may be worth while addressing what we have managed to accomplish.

The chief executive of our council is a woman. There are women editors of all the local newspapers. There are women-only GP practices. As has already been pointed out, women now make up more than half the number of medical students. I accept that the number of women consultants is not yet nearly high enough, but bearing in mind the fact that half the medical student population are

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now women I have no doubt that they will take their rightful place at the consultancy level once they have worked their way through the system.

The women head teachers in my constituency are of the highest calibre. Their achievements in their schools are interesting, too. More girls than boys have passed their A-levels and in general girls achieve better results than boys at GCSE. The number of lawyers in Sutton reflects the rapidly growing proportion of women solicitors and women at the Bar. Women now constitute at least one third of the profession.

Women in business have made a particular mark in Sutton. Indeed, in the past couple of years they have been slightly more successful than men in sustaining progress after starting up new companies. The Sutton Enterprise Agency tells me that that is because they are natural housekeepers and well disciplined. After handling a domestic budget with caution, women adapt well to handling a business budget without over-committing themselves. If they have one weakness, it is more to do with their initial lack of self- confidence than with discrimination by others.

Sutton did not need the Labour party to tell it how to select a woman Member of Parliament. I was chosen by an association that genuinely had no strong feelings on the subject--so much so that one third of the candidates that it chose to interview in the first instance were women. There is only one job still outstanding in Sutton and I hear that that lack may soon be remedied when we get a woman chief of police.

As something of a sideline to my speech, I pay a special tribute to the role of women in the police force, not only at WPC level, where women's contribution has been very professional, but as they work their way up through the system. The women assistant chief constables whom I have met have been most impressive.

There is only one development about which I must admit to a touch of regret, and that is the creation of women priests. We shall have our fair share of them in Sutton, but I object on religious grounds, not on grounds of equal opportunity, to their elevation to the priesthood.

If anything, the debate should be retitled "In Praise of Women's Progress". We should not allow ourselves to become complacent about what we have achieved. I believe that I have benefited enormously from the facilities that were put into my path when I was building my career. When I started in Fleet street 25 years ago, women made up only 10 per cent. of the work force on the Sunday Express . In those days the attitude was, "Oh, she can work in the fashion department, or the women's pages." Only because I had worked for a hard news agency could I manage to persuade people that I wanted to work in other areas.

To tell an anecdote slightly against myself, there was once severe competition for a job as head of department. Having been given that post, I turned up to work to find a man seated at my desk opening my letters, dictating to my secretary and using my telephone. I said, "I hope that you'll step into my grave as quickly as you've stepped into my shoes." He said, "I have a right to be here ; you are only a housewife."

Ms Short : What happened next ?

Lady Olga Maitland : I won ; I tipped him out. By the end of the week he was gone.

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Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Without a quota.

Lady Olga Maitland : Yes, without a quota.

Women in Fleet street have now well and truly made their mark. Now we find many women in all the top positions, whether as news editors or even as editors of newspapers. Eve Pollard now edits the Sunday Express , where I used to work, and I rejoice in her success. We must examine the changes in our society and ask why they have come about. They have happened not only because of better education, and the fact that women are going into further and higher education, but because women now have higher aspirations. They will not settle for less. Moreover, society is more sympathetic to the idea that women can combine families with careers--something that our grandmothers could never do.

On the whole, I believe that the reason why women are so popular and successful in the workplace is their excellent track record. They are reliable ; they work hard ; they do not drink heavily ; they manage their domestic lives efficiently ; they do not build up the sort of criminal records that men do, or become involved in many squalid business deals. It is not surprising that women are in demand.

We must keep a sense of proportion about what we seek to achieve. We should not be in any way complacent. I should be grossly insulted if I were employed in any capacity because of positive

discrimination. I believe that such a move would rebound disastrously on us all. However, there is one factor to which we must pay attention--child care provision.

I know what that involves, because I have three children, I have been a working mother and I have had to worry about them. I was fortunate, because having worked my way through Fleet street, I had what was described as an executive salary and could pay for my own child care, with someone resident in my home. But if one happens to be a woman who does not command such a salary--a teacher or a receptionist

Ms Short : A cleaner.

Lady Olga Maitland : Yes, a full-time cleaner, or whatever--we should look seriously at the best ways to help to increase child care provision.

Ms Short : Good.

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