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maternity rights as are given to natural mothers, although it would possibly have added only 0.5 per cent. to the overall maternity bill. When a minor amendment was tabled to the employment legislation last year, it was met with implacable hostility and thrown out, leaving couples in my constituency to live on part-time earnings, incredibly badly off, during the bonding period following the adoption of a small child or a baby.

Then there are measures which cost nothing at all, such as provision for more openness and insisting that all employers produce gender-based employment statistics about who gets the best opportunities for training in their companies and who gets the best opportunities for preferment and career development. Without the collation of such information and statistics, there can be no real and permanent progress; yet it is at that point that we meet implacable political hostility to further progress.

Thirdly, I am concerned about hypocrisy and complacency because I do not believe that the improvements are inevitable: I believe that they could go into reverse. Women's suffrage, achieved in 1928, is only a generation behind us. It is only 50 years since the 1945 Labour Government brought in universal health care, state education for all and a universal pension. The drive behind the undoubted changes that have taken place has nothing whatever to do with the practices, thoughts or policies of the present Government and everything to do with democratic changes stemming from the actions that were taken by the Labour Government in 1945.

I believe that the current retreat from democracy to a quango state--the privatisation of public services and utilities and the emphasis on profit, share options and markets rather than on public service--could reverse the changes that have been made. Questions of public provision and collective accountability expose the need for gender equality and other types of equality between citizens. The national health service is for everyone. A well- funded state education system allows boys and girls to feel that they have equal rights in regard to education. It has taken a generation of children, since comprehensive education became the norm, to bring us to the point at which--as has been rightly pointed out--achievement begins truly to reflect ability. Indeed, girls now outperform boys at every stage from O -levels to university degrees.

Women in their thousands toiled to sign millions of petitions against the increase in value added tax on heating. Women, in particular, feel outraged by the damage caused by the privatisation of our public utilities, and the fact that the bosses are taking the payments for which they have budgeted so carefully. Women who run household budgets know to their cost the difficulties involved in making those payments and they are personally outraged at the knowledge that their money is paying for multi-million pound salaries, share options and dividends.

In the past 10 or 15 years, local democracy--democracy in local government- -has enabled councils to recognise the problem caused in their communities by gender inequality. They have taken the lead in monitoring the position, collecting figures, launching positive action projects and offering women enhanced training facilities. They have opened up the job market to women in local

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democratic institutions, pioneered job sharing schemes, and so on. We welcome the changes in the civil service that the Chancellor has described, but it should be remembered that they were pioneered in the public sector.

Having sat on the board of the Sheffield development corporation and also been a member of Sheffield city council, I observed a startling change between the two. The other members of the board exhibited the utmost complacency and ignorance in relation to anything to do with equal opportunities in jobs and training. They either treated such matters as a joke, or admitted that they knew nothing about them and had not heard of such practices in their private sector institutions.

More recently, I served on the Select Committee on the Environment and noted the obvious surprise when it was pointed out that only three members of the board of the Housing Corporation were women. That did not reflect the interests of housing association tenants. The same applies to many quango appointments: it is commonly felt that a retired business man is an appropriate appointee, because he will know about business and will therefore be more able than a woman to look after quango institutions or privatised utilities. So although changes have been outlined ably this afternoon, the move from open competition for civil service jobs to head hunting and the appointment of Ministers' friends is symptomatic of a return to the old boy network. A drift back to the two-tier education system and the two-tier health service could well take the next generation back to the days before 1945 when the welfare state legislation brought about major improvements which have eventually found their way into our lives.

I fear that the basic instincts of an unchecked society are dominated by hierarchies. There is a tendency towards elitism, establishments and exploitation of the majority by the minority. We can never assume that equality of opportunity will happen automatically in any society. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster's speech was riddled with inconsistency; having claimed that the Government had taken action, he said in the next breath that they were succeeding because they had allowed no action to be taken. He seemed to be saying that they had allowed deregulation to take place so that equality could take its natural course. But that is not the way of the world, or the way of British society.

Opposition Members believe that only through constant vigilance, constant monitoring and--yes--constant intervention by a good, accountable Government can fairness and equality flourish. As soon as they begin to flourish, the development of a sound economic base, a reduction in crime and higher standards of education and skills will follow. On that the House can agree wholeheartedly and, I hope, achieve consensus today.

5.7 pm

Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen): I begin with a quotation which, I believe, sets a background for much of what will be said today:

"Can it be pretended that women who manage a property or conduct a business --who pay rates and taxes often to a large amount, and frequently from their own earnings--many of whom are responsible heads of families and some of whom, in the capacity of schoolmistresses, teach more than a great many of the male electors have ever learnt--are not capable of a function of which every male householder is capable?"

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That was said in the House by John Stuart Mill when he moved the first women's suffrage amendments to the 1867 Reform Bill. I am sure that it was true then, and certain that it is very true today. The topic of today's debate provides an opportunity to speak about the whole spectrum of women's issues. I would like to discuss many of those issues in depth, but time will not allow me to do so. I shall begin by highlighting the aims of the United Kingdom Federation of Business and Professional Women. In the 1940s, that federation of women's clubs had a number of positive objectives: they were to awaken and encourage in business and professional women a realisation of their responsibilities in their own country and in world affairs; to facilitate effective co- operation between business and professional women throughout the world; to raise the standards of education and training for business and professional women; and to work for the removal of sex discrimination in opportunities for employment, promotion and remuneration.

Here we are, 50 years later. What has happened since those aims were first laid down? It is interesting to analyse what has been achieved in the past 50 years; I shall look at that in a moment. What is certain is that, whatever progress has been made, much remains to be done. When women look at women's issues, they must never be satisfied with progress if they are permanently to believe in equality with men.

I believe that we often achieve equality with men, sometimes to the annoyance of the men. We often more than equal them; we out-achieve them. That has been proved by many girls and students in schools, colleges and universities. What do the men do then? I think that they move the goalposts and we then have to start the game all over again. We must never be satisfied with progress.

What have we achieved towards those aims of almost half a century ago and what needs to be done? Have women realised their responsibilities in their own country and in world affairs, perhaps by effective co-operation between women throughout the world? Women have, I suggest, always recognised their responsibilities, both here and throughout the world. The United Kingdom has not always given the lead. Certainly, in terms of women's suffrage we did not. On 28 November 1893, New Zealand women flocked to the polls as they gained the vote, and obviously made good use of it.

I recall that, at the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in New Delhi in 1993, Dr. Najma Heptulla presented a paper entitled "Women, a Saga of Struggle". She spoke about the meeting of women parliamentarians which preceded the IPU conference. The meeting took place on the day of rest for the conference. It was Sunday and all the men had a day off while the women went to work on what they wanted to discuss. Dr. Heptulla also said that, despite the pressures of societies and systems, women had, in different periods of history, emerged at the forefront and had proved their mettle, many in this country and many in other parts of the world. We can look back to Queen Elizabeth I--what a determined woman she was. We can look back to Queen Victoria and to our own Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. We can look at Benazir Bhutto and we can look back to Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Mrs. Bandaranaike, all of whom were leaders in their countries before we had a woman leader. I recall meeting Lucy Mobuelo, who was the

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leader of the South African Garment Workers Union. What that lady told us about the work she did in that country at a very difficult time was most encouraging.

There is, of course, always more that needs to be done. While we debate the position of women, we should also spare a thought for the many women throughout the world who do not have the advantages that we have here. We should try, and we should continue to try through our international women's organisations, to improve their daily lives because many of them do not have the advantages and facilities that we have, even though we believe that we can go further.

We must also look at what steps have been taken to raise the standard of education and training for women. We all recognise that education is vital to enable all people to achieve their full potential. It is widely recognised throughout the world that if one educates a woman, one educates the family; we must not forget that. The number of women in higher education has risen by 100,000 since 1979. The proportion of women to men in the intake to higher education is now almost 50:50. I should like to be able to stand here in a year's time and say that we have passed that 50 per cent. mark. That would truly reflect the proportion of women in this country. At A-level, girls have a higher success rate than boys, not only in English but in mathematics, physics and technology. At GCSE level, almost 46 per cent. of girls gained five or more passes at grades A to C compared with under 30 per cent. of boys in 1993. I suggest that our school students are making their own way towards the end of their education and the start of their careers.

Ms Short: Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the advantages of women asking for the statistics of achievement to be disaggregated--or, if the Daily Mail cannot handle that, broken down by the performance of boys and girls--is that we would see that the performance of boys in school is worryingly bad? Does she agree that equal opportunities mean everyone achieving his or her full potential? Does she agree that it is a priority for education policy to examine why boys seem to be underachieving so badly in school?

Mrs. Peacock: I was going to make that very point. The Government have encouraged choice and diversity in education, allowing parents to choose to send their children to single-sex schools which, on average, produce better academic results for girls. I was going to go on to say that it is, however, worrying, no matter how pleased we are at how well the girls are doing in school, to note that boys are not achieving so much and that we should find out why. Are they giving up because they see the girls doing better? I had sons and not daughters. I think that girls doing well helps to keep boys' noses to the grindstone. One of my sons benefited from that. However, we need to examine seriously why boys appear in some areas to have given up. We need to encourage women who are now working, but who did not have the opportunity to gain qualifications at school, to become part of national vocational qualification training schemes and to take other training opportunities that will give them greater confidence in their future. This is happening to quite an extent in our textile industry where there have been specific schemes to train men and women between the ages of 25 and 35 who left school with no qualifications.

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Through NVQs, those people have been able to achieve a qualification and, often, to move on with promotion through their company and to take a more responsible job. We are all told nowadays that people need a certificate of competence, whatever that might be, to say that they can perform certain tasks. That is one of the great moves forward that we have made with NVQs.

We must consider steps to remove sex discrimination in opportunities for employment, promotion and remuneration. I do not believe that the position is as gloomy as it is always painted. The United Kingdom has the second highest proportion of women in work; Denmark has the highest. Women here account for 45 per cent. of the labour force and 12.1 million women are either working or seeking work.

The number of women in self-employment has risen by almost 80 per cent. since 1981 and women account for one in four of the self-employed. It is sometimes said that women who find that the glass ceiling, or the shutter, whichever one likes to call it, descends on them then decide that they will set up and run their own company. They are extremely successful in doing that and we should encourage more of them. However, we still want the many capable women in businesses to continue to push at the proverbial glass ceiling to ensure that it rises as the women rise throughout their careers. Forty-five per cent. of women work part time. Between spring 1984 and 1994, there was an 18 per cent. increase in part-time employment. Part-time employment is often derided as not being good or sensible employment. However, I must tell the House that many women in my constituency want to work part time because it fits in with their family commitments and with having children at school. In Fox's biscuit factory, women can work twice a year--in the run-up to Christmas, when the company takes on lots of extra staff, and in the other peak period. Those women know that they have regular work each year for so many weeks. They find that that is ideal and that they can cope with that and a family. The work at Fox's is not slave labour: the women pack high-quality biscuits and high-quality goods; they have good training and the company has good working practices. This very good company looks after its workers, as many of us like to see. All part- time employment may not be quite as good; part-time work at Fox's is good. As an employer of more than 2,000 and sometimes 2,500 people in my area, the company is a most important employer. If women and, occasionally, some men could not work part time, the company would have to install machines. Before long, it will be possible to pack high-quality delicate biscuits by machinery. At the moment, that is not quite possible. Certainly, Batley would lose a huge amount of employment if it were decided to put machinery in to do that packing.

Since the Prime Minister launched the Opportunity 2000 initiative in 1991, company membership has more than doubled, and it now covers more than 25 per cent. of the work force. There is still a long way to go. We need to keep pushing such initiatives along and never sit back and think that we have arrived and achieved our goal, because we have not. The public appointments unit, of which many of us have been critical over many years, reported that in 1993 women took 40 per cent. of all new appointments to public bodies. That is certainly an

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improvement, as it was something like 30 per cent. in 1989. We also need to move that forward. I am sure that, by 1996, 50 per cent. of public appointments will be filled by women, which will reflect the number of women in the United Kingdom.

The Government have helped to create a more flexible environment for working women, especially by the provision of workplace nurseries, which attract tax relief, and by introducing a child care allowance worth up to £28 a week for those on family credit. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) said that that allowance was not worth much and did not buy very much. It may not be as much as many of us would like, but it is certainly £28 a week more than was available at one time. It may be that such help has to be given bit by bit to ensure that the country can afford all the schemes that we would like.

Dr. Lynne Jones: May I point out to the hon. Lady that although, in theory, £28 is available, many women are not eligible and many families do not receive that £28 because there is a maximum limit on family credit? As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) mentioned, most receive less than £10 a week. That does not go far enough, realistically, to help women with child care expenses.

Mrs. Peacock: I have been looking at who benefits and by how much in my constituency and, at the end of my inquiries, I shall report to the Minister on how effective I think that the allowance is. We were told that there was an opportunity for those on family credit to receive £28 a week. I am very interested, as always, to see how that works in practice.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I, too, was going to raise the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones). I am delighted to hear that the hon. Lady will look into the matter. The whole House will be interested to hear the results of her inquiry. Was she, too, slightly puzzled when the Chancellor said that the child care allowance disregard was to be gradually introduced? I thought that the House had been told that it was introduced already and was available. I was slightly surprised. I wonder if the hon. Lady was surprised, too.

Mrs. Peacock: My understanding of what my right hon. Friend said was that the disregard had been introduced but it had not been taken up all at once. As I understood it, the take-up would be more gradual as more people entered the system. I shall also look at that aspect. If the hon. Gentleman had been here a little longer, he would know that I am always fairly thorough in looking at how Government policies affect the people whom I represent. The disregard will be the subject of another one of my inquiries. I may not publish my results, but the Minister will certainly get them.

It is a fact that women in Britain enjoy the longest period of maternity absence of any country in the European Union and one of the longest periods of paid maternity leave--18 weeks. Married women have independent tax status and may now choose whether to share the married couples allowance with their husbands, thanks to Conservative tax reforms in 1990 and 1993. Many of us campaigned for many years to have the right to be taxed separately. Although I do not mind my husband paying my tax, I would like to know on what I

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am assessed. As the House may imagine, he does not especially like to pay tax for me, but we have every right to be totally independent if that is what we wish.

Yorkshire, a very fine county, part of which I represent and where I was born and bred, recognises achievement, particularly in women. Each year, the Yorkshire women of achievement awards result in a great gathering. They reward achievement in all walks of life--not only public figures but, often, people who have made great achievements in their own life, perhaps connected to their family. Those awards are a very good way in which to highlight much of the work that is done behind the scenes by women. We also have the Yorkshire woman of the year award. We are not totally biased, however, because there is a Yorkshire man of the year award as well, so we have equality in that respect.

We all need to recognise that women of whatever age or background need to have some choice in what they do. I do not believe that many of the young women whom I see in schools and colleges in my constituency and further afield need quotas. They have many more opportunities now and they are very determined. When I go along to listen to what they have to say, it never fails to amaze me how capable they are. In public-speaking competitions, they stand up, debate and win prizes. I do not believe that they want quotas. They do not want places saved for them. I certainly do not want quotas. I know from my experience over the past 12 years in the House that, if there were quotas and I turned up as a quota woman, my colleagues would say that they did not need to listen to my comments because I was here only because they had saved me a place. That is not the type of position or job that I would ever wish to have. I wish to be present on my own merits and, therefore, to be taken seriously when I contribute to a debate.

It is true, of course, that although we would like women to have choice, some need to work to help the family budget. That is nothing new; it has always been so. Women go to work, not only to occupy themselves and to pursue careers but to help to keep the family and provide some of life's necessities. It would be nice if that did not happen, but it does, it always has and I cannot see a total end to it. The part-time earnings brought into the family budget by many women are most welcome.

Some women will choose to stay at home and look after their small children and we should recognise and applaud their choice. We should not devalue the role of motherhood or the woman who wants to say at home and look after her children. Being with a child in the first few years of his or her life is probably the most important job of a mother. We should, therefore, welcome that choice and put a high value on it.

Of course we need to see more women in Parliament, but I cannot see 300 of our colleagues laying down their arms, as it were, and saying, "Do have my seat." That will not happen. When I first came into the House in 1983, there were just 23 women. It was a very low percentage--I think, the lowest ever. There are now 62 women in the House. In just over a decade, we have almost trebled the number and moved on. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) said, next time, watch this space. We cannot wait. Even this House has moved on from Churchill's comment when Nancy Astor arrived in Parliament. He said it was

"like being found naked in the bathroom with nothing but a sponge to protect you".

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I hope that hon. Members do not take a similar view.

Mr. Ottaway: I do not wish to disagree with my hon. Friend, but will she correct me if I am wrong--perhaps some Labour Members may correct me-- in thinking that when the Labour party put forward positive discrimination in favour of women candidates, a committee was set up to decide what was a woman and it decided that, in fact, it was someone who lived as a woman? That of, course, would include someone who dresses as a woman and did not rule out transvestites. What would the reaction be if a transvestite were to encroach on such matters, as is possibly envisaged by the Labour party?

Mrs. Peacock: I am afraid that I do not know anything at all about that.

Ms Short: Just for the record, I do not know where the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) read that. There was never such a committee.

Mr. Ottaway: In the Observer .

Ms Short: The hon. Gentleman should not believe everything he reads in the newspapers. I can assure him that there was never such a committee or such a judgment.

Mrs. Peacock: We must recognise that women who wish to become Members of Parliament will decide at different times in their lives when it is right to do that. Some young women might decide in school, as men do, that they wish to pursue a career in Parliament. Some will become Members as young women before they are married. Some will come in after they are married. Some may become Members before they have children, while some may come to the House afterwards.

Shortly after the 1983 general election, an article in The Times asked why the average age of the new male Member of the House was 31 or 33 while the average age of women Members was 45. The reason for that age difference is obvious. The majority of the women who became Members then came to the House after having children. They allowed their children to reach a sensible age and then decided that they wanted to do something else.

Mrs. Helen Jackson: Is the hon. Lady aware that all the studies in schools of schoolchildren reveal that the expectations of the jobs that boys and girls will have retain incredible gender imbalances? Virtually no girls at school think that they will become politicians. Most girls leave school thinking that they are going to be nurses, teachers, or part of the caring professions. It is the boys who see themselves as becoming politicians. That position has not changed significantly.

Mrs. Peacock: I hear what the hon. Lady says, but I do not believe most of those surveys. From my experience of talking to young people in schools, and particularly of talking to girls, I have found a totally different approach. Many of those young people are talking about doing quite different things. Although not many of them are talking about becoming Members of Parliament, there is an interest in politics. I am often invited to speak on that subject in schools in my constituency and further afield. I shall visit a school on Friday to talk to girls in a very male-dominated environment in an industrial area. It was felt that those girls have no role models. They wanted

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someone to talk to them about women performing jobs other than those which they might traditionally have performed.

I did not have any hopes or thoughts about becoming a Member of Parliament when I was at school. That desire developed over a much longer period through involvement in other things. Perhaps many young women will become Members as a result of that kind of progression instead of starting off with a desire to become a Member. It is our job as lady Members to encourage girls to think otherwise. We cannot do that through surveys. We must have personal contact and talk to girls in schools. We must listen to what they have to say.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham): Obviously, a fair number of hon. Members become Members at a relatively early age and stay for a long time. There is also a fair amount of turnover. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is just as important that people who may spend two or three Parliaments serving in the House feel that they can become Members for the first time in their 60s, 50s or 40s, just as much as in their 30s? We should not have an agist approach to the effect that it is better to be an ex-Member at 45 than to be one at 65 or 75.

Mrs. Peacock: I could not agree more. My advice to any young man or woman who wants to become a Member is that he or she should go away, get some experience of life, do various jobs outside so that that person has a little more idea about what he or she is talking about, and then become a Member at 40 or 45 because there is still time to bring outside experience to the House. Although many young people are becoming Members, they are single-minded and just want to be Members of Parliament. I am not sure whether we want to see a House full of such Members. We want a variety of interests and ages and also a great variety of backgrounds.

In a debate such as this, it is very easy to stand up and make a great noise about the terrible position of women in Britain. I do not believe that the position is so terrible. Having travelled in one or two countries abroad, I am always pleased to come home to the advantages and the position in the United Kingdom, as opposed to that enjoyed by some of our friends abroad.

The position of most women in Britain today is much better than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago. We now have organisations like the women's network where women get together and discuss professional issues and any other issues that women may wish to get together to discuss. Ten years ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) and I set up an old girls' network. Having become Members of this place, we decided that it ticked on the old boys' network. Over a cup of coffee, we decided that if we wished to survive, we should set up an old girls' network and we unashamedly did just that.

We now have a group of women from all over the United Kingdom--from the north of Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and elsewhere--who meet two or three times a year. It is a non-political organisation. The women welcome the opportunity to get together, to discuss and to hand out business cards. Our old girls' network is very successful. We now have a mailing list of 460 women of all ages and backgrounds throughout the United Kingdom. It is our responsibility to encourage

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others, in particular the younger women and others who may not want to come to Parliament but who want to take a leading role in public life generally.

We must consider women's issues with a more balanced approach. We must compare and contrast the position of women in Britain with that of women elsewhere in the world. Although there is much to be done, we have a pretty good story to tell. We must consider what has been achieved and I have tried to do that today. We must look positively at what needs to be done and I believe that I have highlighted one or two areas in respect of which we could move forward.

As women, we must now decide how to achieve all our aims and objectives, whatever they may be. I am quite sure that we all have different aims and objectives. We must begin by being very constructive. However, if that fails, as some of my colleagues will know, I am not against a little bit of militancy. One of my greatest regrets is that I was not born in a slightly earlier age so that I, too, could have been a suffragette and helped in the fight for votes for women.

I am not sure whether I would have been as brave as some of those suffragettes. Without their bravery and their actions--and although I am sure that we disapprove of bricks being thrown through windows--we would not be where we are today. We have a lot for which to thank the suffragettes.

I have always believed in standing up and fighting for what I believe is the positive way forward. I have been a member of the Business and Professional Women's Club for 30 years. Although the club does not see very much of me, I keep in touch. I believe that the club's aims and objectives will benefit all women, not just one particular branch of women. We are talking about support and education for women.

As I have said, we owe much to many brave women in the past. However, I also believe that women today must march onwards together, as much as possible, in the cause of our own future.

5.37 pm

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston): I join the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) in paying tribute to the suffragettes. I am pleased that she paid that tribute, and I am sure that her feelings are echoed on the Opposition Benches.

In addition to the very well known women like the Pankhursts, women all over the country from various social classes were involved in the suffragette movement. We would do women a service if we did more to preserve their memory and to educate girls--and often ourselves--about the achievements and efforts of the suffragettes. For example, the first suffragette in Preston was Edith Rigby. An excellent book entitled "My Aunt Edith" describes her battles. I use the word "battles" advisedly, because battle is what she did. It is very important to carry forward those memories, but we do not do enough of it.

There are two problems in women's employment. One is that it is too narrowly based. Reference has already been made to the need for women to cast their nets wider. Girls should be encouraged to consider jobs that are not traditionally women's jobs. All hon. Members would endorse that.

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The other problem is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) said, traditional women's jobs such as nursing and teaching--the legitimate ambitions for girls--are undervalued. One thing that we must do to improve the position of women is enhance the value which society places on such jobs. They are honourable callings. I should not like, in our eagerness for girls to go into other jobs and other aspects of decision making, to connive in the undervaluing of teaching, nursing and other caring professions.

Mrs. Helen Jackson indicated assent .

Mrs. Wise: I see my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough nodding vigorously.

I wish to concentrate on the problems of unemployment, under-employment and low pay. Official figures show that, apparently, fewer than a quarter of unemployed people are women. That is a gross misrepresentation of unemployment among women. Women's unemployment is not properly counted. Each of the 20 or so changes in the method of counting unemployment has worked to hide women and their problems in obtaining jobs.

Women are much less likely than men to be able to claim benefit. Therefore, they will not be counted. There are strenuous efforts even to prevent women from registering as available for work. Unreasonable requirements are placed on them to forecast child care arrangements in respect of jobs that they have not been offered, the hours of which they do not know, and the place of which they do not know. It is impossible for women who have not been born with second sight to outline child care arrangements when they have not been offered jobs. They are then deprived of the opportunity of registering as available for work.

Women, as well as being more unemployed than we think, are also very much under-employed. By that, I do not mean underworked; under-employment is different. Official figures do not provide information on the extent of under-employment, but thousands of women experience it. For example, women who go back to work after having a family often return to lower-graded and less-skilled work--and, of course, lower-paid work. That is a type of under -employment. Such women are not permitted to use their skills and experience. There are women who want to work full time but can find only part-time jobs. Women in part-time jobs have found their hours of work being steadily reduced. I endorse the comment of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen that many women want to work part time. I speak as the president and sponsored Member of Parliament for the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. We have many part-time workers in our membership--if we did not, our union would hardly exist. It is not that we are against part-time work.

At one time, women seeking a part-time job might have wanted to work, say, mornings or three days a week. The situation has changed vastly for the worse. Such women find their hours of work being steadily reduced against their will. Whereas, in 1981, 6.5 per cent. of women worked fewer than eight hours a week--they were counted as employed--by 1994 the figure rose to 11.7 per cent. The figure is well on the way to doubling. I do not believe that many of those women prefer to work fewer than eight hours a week. Employers often prefer it,

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because it cuts employees out of entitlement to employment rights, however long they have worked for the firm.

In 1981, 31.7 per cent. of women worked fewer than 16 hours a week. The figure rose to 52.5 per cent. in 1994. We are talking not about part-time work, which can have a useful part to play and be very popular with women, but about women whose hours of work and wages are being steadily squeezed.

There are also women who are on zero-hours or on-call contracts. They are supposed to be available at the end of a telephone when an employer says, "I want you in tomorrow, because somebody has gone sick." If someone says, "I am afraid I cannot get my child looked after at a minute's notice; I need a week or so to plan," that does not suit the employer, so no work is forthcoming.

I do not call that freedom or flexibility for women. I call it women being at the mercy of employers, who fail to plan their labour needs adequately and properly. It is rather like the system by which employers would say to the dockers in a pen, "I want you, you and you today, and the rest of you go home," except that one now has the dignity of not being in a pen but instead has the expense of providing a telephone. That is part of the process of casualisation, which has resulted in a massive increase in insecure, temporary and casual work.

That is a severe problem for women, and it is reflected in their pay. I do not intend to give tedious lists about what women earn, but there are some striking figures. More than 3 million people earn less than the income tax threshold, and 85 per cent. of them are women. On 9 February, in answer to a parliamentary question, I was told that, according to the latest available figures--April 1994--3.1 million employees earned more than the upper earnings limit for national insurance contributions, over which, of course, contributions are not increased, so those people are in the happy position of paying a lower total rate of tax. Half a million of those fortunate people were women--16 per cent.

The mirror image of that can be seen in the fact that 3.1 million employees earned less than the lower earnings limit for national insurance contributions. There are 3.1 million people earning above the upper limit and 3.1 million earning below the lower limit, but 2.3 million of the latter are women. That is three quarters of these very low earners, who earn less than £58 a week. Those women are counted as employed, but the result is that they are not eligible for statutory sick pay, statutory maternity pay or main contributory benefits, including pensions. That is a stark example of what happens in respect of women's pay.

I have already said that my trade union is USDAW, of which I am the president. Retailing has borne the brunt of the Government's policies as they have acted to deregulate it completely. The last remaining thread of protection which existed for shop workers for tea breaks and meal breaks and the controls on excessive weekday opening hours have been wiped away.

There are increasingly complex shift patterns associated with extended hours, and it is usually part-time, temporary and casual workers who face the demands arising from the changes, with all the stresses and strains that those put on the individual worker and the family. Those workers have the least protection, and frequently have no protection, under our employment protection laws.

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Research on low pay conducted by my union has demonstrated that, since the abolition of wages councils, wage rates in former wages councils industries have dropped drastically. USDAW carries out regular surveys of pay rates on offer in jobcentres throughout the country. Recent examples include such jobs as a part-time supermarket cleaner in Hull at £2.05 an hour, a shop assistant in Northampton at £100 for a 40-hour week, and a hairdresser capable of working "to a high standard" in a Rochdale salon at £60 for a 42-hour week. Those examples are not the most stark. There are examples which are worse, but we do not want to be accused of being completely untypical. Those examples could be seen by any hon. Member going into his or her local jobcentre tomorrow. It would be a good idea if some hon. Members did that. The new earnings survey shows that more than half women checkout operators earn less than £3.60 per hour. It is true that there are now improved rights for part-time workers. The Government have been dragged kicking, screaming and resisting every inch of the way--they are squeezed between the European Union and the legal judgment of the House of Lords--and have given part-time workers, most of whom are women, some equal employment rights. But in reality, women workers are treated less favourably than male workers. They are not allowed to make the contribution that they would like to make, for themselves, their families or the economy in general.

I should like to mention with great approval the Carers (Recognition and Services) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North- West (Mr. Wicks), which has received its Second Reading. The Bill aims to give carers some rights to have their needs assessed. That is extremely important to women, because three carers in every five are women. Of course all five carers will benefit--the two men as well. It is fair to say that, every time one improves the situation for women, the situation for men-- often men who are making an unsung contribution--will also be improved.

Following the welter of all-party support given to my hon. Friend's Bill, I wonder whether there will be the resources to match the rights which are being extended to carers. A veil was drawn over that on Friday, and, while I do not like to disturb the equilibrium of the unaccustomed all-party approval, I must say that the thoughts going through my mind were less than charitable. Government support is given at the stage when further responsibilities are placed on local government, but will the resources be available when they are needed by local government? Will there be all-party support then? I hope so, but I have my doubts.

One reason why caring and caring jobs are undervalued is because women are undervalued. The contribution which carers make to the economy was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West, and probably amounts to £30 billion a year. That is a substantial economic contribution, which could be more than matched by the other contributions made by women's unpaid work which is not counted as a part of GNP. I am pleased to associate myself with the campaign by my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) for women's unpaid labour to be counted when we are assessing the production of the economy.

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The undervaluing of women has turned them into cut-price people, and has meant that their caring and economic role is undervalued. I believe that an essential prerequisite for getting real equality for women in the United Kingdom will be for women to cease to be cut-price people in their work, whether inside or outside the home. 5.55 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): First, I apologise, both to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short), for not being here during their opening speeches. I had spoken to Madam Speaker earlier, and I was detained on a matter elsewhere in the House.

I would like to welcome to the Front Bench my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who I am delighted to see will be winding up for the Government. My hon. Friend is a shining example of a mother and business woman who has chosen to change her career to come into this House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ladywood on securing the debate, which seems to be becoming an annual affair. I remember exchanging blows with her last year during a debate on sex discrimination. It is good that she has been able to persuade her right hon. and hon. Friends to set aside a whole day to debate what I believe is an extremely important subject.

I was a little disappointed that, during International Women's Week, we could not have debated the subject of women on a far wider international motion. I believe that we are very fortunate as women in the United Kingdom. That is not to say that there are not still things to be done on our behalf. I would have liked to see the Members of this House turn their faces outwards to look at the plight of women in less privileged countries.

We have made a lot of progress in this country, much of which has been aided by good, sound Conservative Government legislation, but I would like to raise a matter on which progress has not been made. I introduced a ten- minute Bill last year which simply asked for the same employment rights to be conferred upon adoptive mothers as are conferred upon mothers who give birth to their children. Adoptive mothers do not have parity with natural mothers. They do not have a statutory right to return to work after the adoptive period, and they do not receive any statutory payment during such an absence. The condition prevails today, even though an adoptive mother may have paid the same national insurance contributions. I not only introduced a ten-minute Bill on the matter, but raised it on the Adjournment. It is not a party political matter. I would like to thank the hon. Members for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin), for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) and for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), all of whom supported my ten-minute Bill last year, together with members of my own party, who also supported the Bill.

Once again, I would like to ask Government Front-Bench Members to level the playing field for adoptive parents, and to introduce amendments to the employment protection legislation.

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I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson), who today laid a similar Bill on the Table. We have already been in contact on the matter, and I am proud to have added my name to the list of sponsors. I hope that Ministers will take the request seriously. We are talking about a small group of women who are disadvantaged--a group that provides a service to some of our children and to the country as a whole. Those women actually save the Government money, and I think that they should have equal treatment with natural mothers.

As for the Government's record on legislation benefiting women, the impression often left by the debate surrounding women in this country is that the Tory party at best pays only lip service to women, and at worst does not care at all. However, the reverse is true. I should have to speak at great length to cover all the measures introduced since 1979 that have benefited women, but three of the most important such changes, which have benefited women directly, have occurred in the tax system. The introduction of independent taxation in 1990, along with the replacement of the married man's allowance, was welcomed both by me and by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock). It was also welcomed by my husband with some relief, because he no longer had to try to get to grips with my simple --but to him fairly alien--tax affairs. The provision of tax relief for workplace nurseries also took place in 1990. In 1991, no fewer than 20,000 women took advantage of that measure. In 1988, the reform in the taxation of maintenance payments occurred, so that maintenance was taken out of the tax system today. Those are probably the best known reforms; they are certainly those that are mentioned most often during debates on women's matters. However, I shall also remind the House of a couple of other reforms introduced by successive Conservative Governments that are equally important, although often forgotten. It was a Conservative Government who in 1979 abolished the married women's half test. That was an additional contribution condition requiring married women to have paid national insurance contributions in at least half the years between marriage and pensionable age.

In November 1994, we introduced the severe disablement allowance, which, unlike its predecessor, was available to married women for the first time on the same terms as other claimants. In April 1990, we introduced the special payment for pre-1973 war widows, who had long campaigned on the basis that they had not benefited from improvements in the armed forces pension scheme. People often forget that it was a Conservative Government who did that.

In 1981, we introduced the British Nationality Act, which for the first time allowed women who were British citizens, whether married or not, to transmit their citizenship automatically to their children born abroad. Before that Act, citizenship could be transmitted only by the father, and then only to legitimate children. It was a Conservative Government who did that, too.

I could go on to talk about the Equal Pay (Amendment) Regulations 1983, which established the principle of equal pay for work of equal value, and the Sex Discrimination Act 1986, which removed restrictions on women's hours and times of work. That may have been a controversial measure in some areas, but it is not controversial for the members of staff in this place, many of whom are women,

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