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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In view of the serious allegations made in the Daily Express yesterday about vote rigging by Labour party hopefuls and the exploitation of ethnic minorities, have you received a request from Labour Front-Bench Members to change the business of the House today, so that that fresh example of Labour sleaze can be fully debated by the House?

Madam Speaker: No, I have not.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. I shall take points of order from alternate sides.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Rather than that, I wondered whether there was any chance of getting a statement from the Government about the future of the Consett steel works?

Madam Speaker: I think that the hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it in order for a Member of the House who sits on a Select Committee to be interviewing his own clients? That is happening on a Select Committee of the House at 4.15 this afternoon. It seems wrong that the Chairman of that Select Committee should be interviewing his own clients, because there may be a conflict of interests.

Madam Speaker: I was not aware that the interview was with the Chairman's own clients. I do not know the procedure on such a matter, but as the hon. Member has made a serious allegation, I must obviously look into the situation.

Mr. Shaw rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. I know exactly the point of order, and I shall now deal with it.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you advise me whether there is a conflict of interest in the Chancellor investigating the Barings collapse, when that bank contributed some £700,000 to Tory party funds?

Madam Speaker: I think that we have seen the end of points of order, which are not at all points of order but points of view. Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) rose --

Madam Speaker: The hon. Member raised a point of order with me two days ago. Does he have another one?

Mr. Duncan: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you consider inviting the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) to apologise to the House? He has publicly declared his intention to flout the rules and conventions of the House, which now appears to be Labour party policy.

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In a public statement, he has demanded that the Committee stage of the Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill be packed 100 per cent. with supporters of the Bill. That, if it is anything, is legislative fascism. May I invite you to ask him to apologise to the House?

Madam Speaker: If any hon. Member is flouting the rules and procedures of the House, I will take that seriously. I shall look at what the hon. Gentleman has said. If he made a statement to that effect--

Mr. Duncan rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Member does not need to give me a copy. I have a set of Clerks who will provide me with copies of everything I want, thank you very much.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Order. Points of order are getting totally out of hand. They are no longer points of order. Hon. Members seem to think that we are still on television. That has quite a lot to do with it. Mr. Campbell-Savours rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. I am on my feet.

I know the dodge on Tuesdays. Hon. Members want to get on television when they have not been able to ask a question. I will take only genuine points of order. They had better be genuine points of order from now on.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North): Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), Madam Speaker. As one who will be sitting on--

Madam Speaker: Order. I have dealt with that point. Will the hon. Member resume his seat? The hon. Member for Dover raised an issue with me. It will remain with me, and I will deal with it. Thank you.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Will you confirm that it is the tradition of the House that, when a Bill receives its Second Reading and goes to Committee, the Committee reflects the views of the House when it votes? Given that the Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill on Friday had the unanimous support of the House, it therefore follows that the Committee should contain Members who reflect the views of the House.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is quite correct.

I am able now to respond to the point of order that was raised by the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw). Perhaps I can make it quite clear. I understand that the Chairman of the Employment Committee declared his interest at the outset of the relevant inquiry.

Mr. David Shaw: My point was not that the issue was not declared; it was declared. I was not suggesting that it was not. My point was about the conflict of interest. The Committee is examining whether directors of companies are capable of presenting their case properly. The Chairman of the Committee has an interest in a business

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that deals with the presentation of directors' issues and cases. Therefore, there is a direct conflict of interest between his parliamentary and his business roles.

Madam Speaker: That is for the Committee to determine. The Chairman of the Committee declared his interest. If the Committee was not satisfied, it would have required him to leave the Chair during that period. It did not do so, and the Chairman declared his interest quite properly.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) rose --

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Would you confirm, Madam Speaker--

Madam Speaker: Just a moment.

Mr. Skinner: Would you agree, Madam Speaker, that, if we investigated the Chairmen of all the Select Committees that are chaired by Tory Back Benchers, we would almost certainly find a conflict of interest in nearly every case, and would be without a Chairman in every one of those Committees?

Madam Speaker: I certainly would not agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I think that we have more positive things to do, especially this afternoon.

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North): Have you had a request from a Treasury Minister to make a statement today about the Audit Commission, and whether there will be a full public inquiry into the grants-for-votes scandal which is sweeping Labour councils at the moment?

Madam Speaker: If any Minister had been seeking to make a statement today, it would have been on the Annunciator screen by 1 o'clock.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Would you confirm that it was the Leader of the House of Commons who tabled the resolutions, which we all approved, on the question of conflict of interest in Select Committees, following reports produced in 1992 by the Select Committee on

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Members' Interests, that the report was carried unanimously, and that the Chairman of the Select Committee involved is abiding by the resolution that was carried by the Commons?

Madam Speaker: I have no doubt about that, and I assumed that hon. Members who take an interest in the proceedings and the activities of the House were aware of all that, and should not be raising these issues on points of order.


Rape Victims Compensation

Mr. John Austin-Walker, supported by Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mrs. Audrey Wise, Ms Dawn Primarolo, Ms Jean Corston, Ms Joan Walley and Ms Tessa Jowell, presented a Bill to amend the law in respect of the compensation payable to victims of rape by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon 31 March, and to be printed. [Bill 68.]

Adoptive Mothers (Maternity Rights)

Mrs. Helen Jackson, supported by Ms Tessa Jowell, Mrs. Cheryl Gillan, Ms Liz Lynne, Mrs. Barbara Roche, Ms Glenda Jackson, Ms Joyce Quin, Mr. David Hinchliffe, Mr. John Gunnell, Mr. Kevin Hughes, Mr. Richard Burden and Ms Jean Corston, presented a Bill to amend Part III of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 and Part XII of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 so as to require the Secretary of State by order to confer rights on adoptive mothers in relation to employment similar to those enjoyed by mothers whose children are born to them, including the right of an adoptive mother to paid leave and protection from dismissal during the period following the date on which the child is due to have its home with her with a view to adoption: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon 31 March, and to be printed. [Bill 70.]

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Women and Information Technology

3.38 pm

Ms Judith Church (Dagenham): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide means of increasing women's involvement in information technology. The Bill focuses on measures to address the serious

under-representation of women in information technology at all levels--a result of the IT culture that alienates girls at a very early age, and continues to deny them access throughout their careers. The Bill is not a matter for discussion; it is a mandate for action to deal with the problem, and provides the opportunity for a response to an expanding IT employment market. So far, the response has been slow, incoherent and underfunded, and I demand a change. The Bill recognises that we are at the take-off stage of another IT skills crisis, as reported comprehensively by Philip Virgo in his 1994 IT skills report entitled, forebodingly, "The Gathering Storm". As IT employment figures increased, the tragedy of women's under- representation was acknowledged by the Government in their White Paper, "Realising Our Potential: A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology". To put it simply, there is a sharp and steady increase in demand for IT labour, and a decline in supply. The gap is widening so quickly, when it should be halted by attention to our female population as a resource.

In last year's report on women in science, engineering and technology, "The Rising Tide", a committee--chaired by a man--made powerful recommendations; but I believe that the situation is so serious that only concerted effort and a high priority will dent the already male edifice of information technology. By the year 2006, women will account for 80 per cent. of the growth in the domestic labour market. There are tremendous opportunities for women in IT, but the evidence shows that they are underprepared. That evidence makes depressing reading.

The percentage of girls studying computer science at A-level dropped from 22 per cent. in 1978 to a mere 19 per cent. in 1993. Today, entry to computer science courses in United Kingdom universities is only 17 per cent. female, compared with 22 per cent. in 1980; yet 65 per cent. of employers want to employ someone with a degree qualification. At Southampton university--one of the country's leading research universities- -only nine out of 93 of this year's first-year intake in computer science are women: fewer than 10 per cent. In much study at degree level now, particularly in the Open university, home computing is a critical component.

As for employment, only 4 per cent. of IT managers are women, compared with 9 per cent. of managers generally. IBM recently replaced its outgoing chief executive not with the widely tipped and respected Ellen Hancock, the senior vice-president, but with Lou Gerstner from Nabisco, a cereal company.

What causes the problems? Research in past years suggested that there was little gender difference in attitudes to IT among people aged between six and 10. That has clearly changed: even those aged seven are beginning to see computing as masculine. With the rapid growth in lower-priced, hand- held games, the retail market is making it clear whom its targets really are. Let us take Gameboy, for example. Does anyone seriously

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believe that young boys would play with something called "Gamegirl"? So Gameboy it is: what a perfect example of toys for the boys.

Most computer games are inherently male-friendly, involving football games, space wars and "destroy" and "conqueror" themes. The use of weapons is common, and violence is often portrayed. This is a retail market that targets young males, and reinforces the predominantly male IT culture at a perilously early age.

We cannot afford to ignore the worsening problem. IT will be the most economically critical sector of the 21st century; the advent of the information super-highway will mean that information is power, and unless there is intervention, women will effectively be excluded.

The IT jobs market is portrayed in a grossly male way. One has only to examine the advertisement pages of the main computer journals. They are full of images of would-be male employees playing football or touching the tape first in an athletics competition. The excellent leaflet, "Why Me? Why IT?", produced by the National Council for Educational Technology, addresses 14 to 16-year-old girls. I fear, however, that by that age, the damage has already been done. Compared with other countries, Britain is falling behind, with only 23 per cent. of IT employees being women, compared with 39 per cent. in France, 45 per cent. in the United States and 55 per cent. in Singapore. IT is the key to keeping Britain up to date, to competing with other countries and to making the most of our industrial base. A company's success depends on how it applies and uses IT, and so does Britain's success. Our international competitiveness is at stake here. This can hardly be called a women's issue.

I recently visited John Brown, the engineering construction conglomerate, to see its IT global super-highway in action. We linked up with Australia, Bombay and Texas. It was impressive, but it was so disappointing to see not a single woman in this fast-emerging world of work, in which there is high investment and the need to be constantly ahead.

I also visited British Telecom's research headquarters at Martlesham. It was a fascinating day, but again, I discovered that, in one important section researching the new technology of packet switching, of 65 software engineers, only three were women. It was hard to swallow. Although women represent 45 per cent. of total employment, in IT jobs they represent less than 17 per cent., and they are mostly in the lower-skilled jobs. Even in sectors of the economy that are predominantly female, there are disproportionately few women in senior IT positions.

There is a popular and unfortunate caricature of women as being congenitally incapable of dealing with machines. One has only to witness the jokes about women drivers, although we have been proved to be safer than males. There is no evidence that I know of that women have any problem with washing machines, dishwashers or microwave ovens, unlike a great many men, who seem to be afflicted by sudden blind spots when it comes to technology in the kitchen. So many of the skills necessary in IT employment and especially in senior management, including the ability to adapt and to communicate, are signature characteristics of the female population. The Bill would address many of the problems.

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Henley Centre research shows that women have less experience and confidence in the new technology. Some 70 per cent. of men feel confident in using video recorders, but only 58 per cent. of women feel confident. The research, however, relied on asking men and women whether they could use them. I do not think that it is a gross generalisation to say that there are not many men who admit to not knowing how to work something. The evidence is that it is men who first learn to use the video and the home computer, and that most home computers are bought for boys, by fathers and for fathers. The evidence is that men control their use in the home.

The market cannot solve the IT skills shortage, and it cannot produce well- qualified young women to take up substantial employment opportunities, if they have already turned their backs on a career in IT in the primary schools. The Government have made a few attempts in this area, but those attempts have been fragmented, unco-ordinated and largely ineffective. We have no time to waste. If the situation is allowed to continue, the real losers will be not just women, but Britain's competitiveness in our rapidly changing global economy. 3.48 pm

Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West): I had not intended to speak against the Bill until I heard the terms in which the hon. Member for Dagenham (Ms Church) moved the motion. To establish what I hope are my non- sexist credentials, I point out that I ran a programme called Women into Science and Engineering--WISE--and I am on record as saying in terms of engineering that we cannot afford to turn our back on 50 per cent. of the nation's intellect. We have a shortage of well-trained engineers and scientists; we need them. Wasted human and other resources are not to be tolerated in this country.

As someone who earned his living in the computer industry until I came into the House, I know that opinions are changing on how people are best qualified for entry into the computer and IT industries and how people can be best trained into becoming articulate and well-educated users of those systems. It may sound a heresy to say this today, but there is growing evidence that employers will go a long way to avoid hiring computer scientists. They would far sooner hire analysts and programmers who have not been tainted by that particular discipline.

Therefore, to measure the success of women and girls, at 16 or 18, or as graduates at 21 years old, on whether they populate those computer science courses to an appropriately balanced level is to embark on an area of assessment which may be already discredited in the eyes of those who hire people as analysts, programmers or future electronics engineers.

I oppose the Bill because I adopt what will probably be seen as another heresy, but which we shall come to recognise in due course as having grounds for review. I plead guilty as someone who adopted the IT revolution root and branch, but there is now reason to believe that we have too many computers in our schools and that they are being used by children who are too young. We should welcome computer literacy, but a module which says that there shall be some compulsory introduction into IT keyboard skills for our youngsters in primary schools and even in infant schools may be a grave error. I shall tell the hon. Lady why I believe that to be so.

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One of the strengths of the countries that are now making great headway in IT skills and in developing information technology and electronics industries is the highly traditional education system. Japanese young people or German young people or Singaporeans or Malaysians are not allowed anywhere near a computer keyboard until they have fully developed that muscle in their heads which we call a brain. To turn to the hon. Lady's second point, it therefore need not be a valid measurement to argue that girls who do not populate computer classes as much as boys are therefore at a disadvantage. When one wants a software program, especially a complex program, written in the world today, does the House know where one goes? One goes to India. Software factories there are populated by Indian graduates who did not touch a keyboard until they were 16 years old, but learned multiplication up to the 20 times table ad nauseam at school.

I appreciate that what I am saying may be unorthodox at this stage, but the hon. Lady's speech was more compliant with the culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s than it is with the hiring culture of IT and electronics companies today. I am not arguing against IT skills or against women acquiring IT skills in the appropriate proportion, but other nations are showing us that the fashion of early education, total education and immersion at too early an age is merely that: a fashion. I repeat that I say that as someone who earned my living in the industry for a long period. I oppose the Bill, because the logic and the measurement on which it was asserted may well be flawed. Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Judith Church, Ms Janet Anderson, Mrs. Anne Campbell, Ms Jean Corston, Ms Angela Eagle, Ms Margaret Hodge, Ms Glenda Jackson, Ms Tessa Jowell, Mrs. Jane Kennedy, Ms Estelle Morris, Mrs. Bridget Prentice and Mrs. Barbara Roche.

Women and Information Technology

Ms Judith Church accordingly presented a Bill to provide means of increasing women's involvement in information technology: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 April, and to be printed. [Bill 69.]

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. From my recollection, Speaker Selwyn Lloyd ruled that hon. Members who spoke in opposition to ten-minute Bills were under an obligation to carry through their speech and vote. Could we have some guidance from you, at your convenience, as to what the practice is? It is a bit of an abuse to speak on a subject and then not--

Madam Speaker: Order. I can answer that point of order right away. That has never been the practice. Ten-minute Bills are often opposed. That was the case even in Speaker Selwyn Lloyd's time. The only procedure that we have to carry out is that I have to hear the hon. Member who opposes the Bill say "No" when I put the Question. He or she does not have to name tellers or seek a Division. The hon. Member must call out clearly, "No." That is what the hon. Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher) did. I am perfectly satisfied with those procedures, which I have always seen carried out in this House.

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Opposition Day

[9th Allotted Day]


Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.56 pm

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

That this House deplores the Government's failure to implement its undertakings made at the 1985 UN Conference to promote the progress of women towards equality by the year 2000; in particular notes the damaging effects of labour market deregulation on the position of women, the growing divide between families with two earners and families with none, and the cutbacks in pension entitlement which have had a particularly damaging effect on women; and believes that, taken together with its failure to implement a national childcare strategy, the Government is wasting the talent and diminishing the life opportunities of women in the UK.

This is the second annual debate that the Labour party has organised in order to ensure that, henceforth, at least once a year the House of Commons takes stock of the progress of women towards equality. Last year, in the same week--the week of International Women's Day--we staged the first such debate to take place since a Labour Government passed the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. It is no coincidence that that debate took place when John Smith was the leader of the Labour party. Many tributes have been paid to John, and I would like, if I may, to add a tribute on behalf of British women. John's deep commitment to fairness, social justice and public service is well recognised. His fierce commitment to women's equality has been less widely celebrated. I suspect that John's commitment was particularly strong because he had three daughters. He was immensely proud of his daughters, and he simply wanted the world to be fair for them; he therefore realised that the world had to change.

It was under John's leadership that the Labour party committed itself to the selection of women candidates in half of all the seats that we must and will win in order to form the next Government. The process that was agreed is now working its way through. The consequence will be that, after the next election when we occupy the Government Benches, there will be at least 80 or perhaps 100 women Members among our ranks.

That will constitute only a quarter of the parliamentary Labour party, and there will still be some way to go to reach equality. However, I believe that that number will be sufficiently large to transform the culture of the House of Commons. Women of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicity will be a normal part of public life in Britain.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson (Aberdeen, South): The hon. Lady will know that it is the Labour party's policy in my part of the world to create a directly elected Scottish Assembly of which, by law, half the members will have

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to be women. What does that do for the role of women in Scottish public life? What sort of electoral system will she introduce to ensure that that happens?

Ms Short: I applaud that commitment. Parliaments around the world are moving to require half the candidates to be women--

Mr. Robertson: Members.

Ms Short: They are moving to half women representation in Parliaments. Parliaments around the world recognise--in this regard, our Parliament is very backward--that democracy is incomplete when half the population is so grossly under-represented in the democratic politics of that country. I look forward to the Scottish Parliament being 50 per cent. men and 50 per cent. women. It will be a finer Parliament for that reason.

Once Labour has made the breakthrough which will produce so many women in the next House of Commons, other parties will scrabble to catch up with us. The transformation and improvement that that will bring to British politics and to the House of Commons will stand as a lasting tribute to John Smith.

The second change that will remain as a result of John Smith's commitment to women's equality is this annual House of Commons debate. Following last year's debate, I wrote to the then Secretary of State for Employment and Minister with responsibility for women, now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), to suggest that the Government should facilitate an annual debate to monitor the progress of women towards equality.

The right hon. Gentleman wrote back and said that there were many opportunities to discuss sex equality matters, and that the general principle was that the business of the House was a matter for the business managers, not for him. Well, I must say that my relationship with the Labour business managers must be much better than the right hon. Gentleman's relationship with his business managers. Given his failure, the Opposition decided that, in opposition and in government, we will facilitate an annual debate to monitor Government policies in promoting women's equality.

Weak as the posture of the Secretary of State for Employment was a year ago, it is interesting to compare the Government's response to the 1994 debate with their response in 1995. Last year, the debate was answered, as I have said, by the former Secretary of State for Employment, who was openly willing to admit that he was also the Minister with responsibility for women.

This year, we have a new Secretary of State for Employment. He is notorious for his hatred of all things European, many of which benefit women, and, of course, for being a fanatical advocate of low pay. We could only imagine his embarrassment when he found that his promotion to Employment Secretary also made him Minister with responsibility for women. The consequence seems to be that he has quietly dropped that aspect of his responsibility. The result is that the Government's 1992 reorganisation of the Whitehall machinery to deliver equality for women, centring responsibility on the Department of Employment, has been turned into nonsense.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster now chairs the Cabinet sub- Committee on women's issues. The sex equality branch remains in the Department of

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Employment. The Secretary of State pretends that such issues have nothing to do with him, and he leaves his responsibilities to the Minister of State, who, of course, is responsible for opposing the legal right to abortion in Britain, and who left her Church because it decided to ordain women priests.

We see the Government's commitment from 1994 to 1995 and their commitment to equality for women deteriorate because of the ministerial reshuffle. It is noticeable, however, that, when we refer to the Government's behaviour on the international stage, we find a completely different picture. It seems that the Government are willing to sign up for international agreements that commit them to action to promote women's equality, but that they have no intention of publicising those commitments at home, or of turning them into reality.

It is important to examine the Government's record on this matter in 1995, because the commitments that they made at the United Nations conference in Nairobi in 1985 are to be revised and updated in Beijing in September. I understand that the Minister of State, Department of Employment, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), is to head the British delegation.

Already, Britain has produced a glossy report suggesting that the position of women in Britain is highly advanced and deeply satisfactory. Indeed, the Government boast about that in their amendment. Let us therefore briefly examine some of the commitments that the Government made in 1985 and compare them with their record. On employment, in paragraph 67 of the Nairobi forward-looking strategies, the Government agree that

"Employment legislation should ensure equity and provide benefits for women . . . by providing minimum wage standards, insurance benefits, safe working conditions and the right to organise." We must conclude either that the Government were in favour of minimum wage protection in 1985 and changed their minds by 1995, or that they cynically signed up to those agreements without intending to implement them.

In paragraph 135 of the Nairobi forward-looking strategies, the Government agreed that

"Measures based on legislation and trade union action should be taken to ensure equity in all jobs and avoid exploitative trends in part-time work, as well as the feminisation of part-time, temporary and seasonal work."

In 1985, the Government appeared to be keen to avoid women being trapped in low-paid work. In 1995, 87 per cent. of part-time workers in Britain are women, and they are overwhelmingly low-paid workers. The final part of the forward-looking strategies to which I shall refer concerns governmental machinery to deliver equality for women. Paragraph 57 states:

"Appropriate governmental machinery for monitoring and improving the status of women should be established where it is lacking. To be effective, this machinery should be established at a high level of government and should be ensured adequate resources, commitment and authority to advise on the impact on women of all government policies".

It is fair to say that, in 1992, the Government supported that recommendation; but by 1995, with the new Secretary of State for Employment, it had been ditched.

Did the Government ever really support the agreement that they made in Nairobi in 1985? Did they mean to implement those

commitments--particularly the

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