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Column 207an issue for action and debate in the United Kingdom. However, I became aware of it as an even more potentially difficult problem as a result of a conversation that I had recently with a retired professor of international law from the United States.
The professor told me about the realities of life in an academic faculty where the politics of sexual harassment were such that men and women found that the level and quality of teaching was being affected purely because, in any one-to-one relationship between the sexes, neither could react in an academic but at the same time friendly way.
It usually takes 10 years for ideas from America to cross the pond. I would hate it if we were to over-react to allegations of sexual harassment in future and put in place techniques and controls to deal with sexual harassment which reduced the level of academic teaching. If we did that, we would be doing ourselves a profound disservice in terms of the ability of men and women to contribute to our economic and cultural success in the United Kingdom. We must be aware that we could over-react and penalise ourselves--for all the right reasons, but taken to excess.
I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for posing questions rather than offering answers. However, I should be grateful if she would consider whether she can say that work will be done on some of the difficult questions that I have posed.
Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar): At the moment, the world summit for social development is meeting in Copenhagen, and the United Nations is using the summit to highlight the problem of poverty and to discuss solutions. In Britain, as in the rest of the world, the poorest section of the population are women and their children. The UN has said that women do two thirds of the world's work for 5 per cent. of the income and only 1 per cent. of the assets.
I apologise to the House for missing a good deal of the debate, because I was chairing a meeting on the Child Support Act 1991. Representatives of the single parent action network and the Child Poverty Action Group came to tell us of their reaction to the latest statement by the Government on alterations to the Child Support Act. They told us a story of the increased poverty of women; that the Act, which was supposed to help children, has in many ways made things worse. They told us of single mothers who at lunchtime went out and bought their children a bag of chips and had nothing to eat themselves. When members of those organisations went to visit those mothers, they found their cupboards and fridges empty of food. Increasing numbers were having water and electricity supplies disconnected, and even more were self-disconnecting because they did not have the money to charge the key or card meters which they are now forced to use and through which they pay even more for electricity than those who can afford to pay a quarterly bill. I was shocked to find that 10,000 women have already suffered the benefit penalty because they were denied the right to refuse authorisation for their husbands to be pursued for maintenance, and that 17,000 more have been denied that right. They will also suffer a benefit penalty.
Column 208That means that their benefit is cut by nearly £9 a week, so that, although they are already on the poverty line, there will be even less money to feed the children. There will not even be money for the bag of chips. That is a terrible situation.
There is great pressure on those women to go out to work, but the only jobs they can find are low-paid, part-time, insecure jobs. They cannot take insecure jobs. If they do, they go on to family credit. The family credit system sets the amount that they will receive for six months, and then, if the maintenance does not come through or the job is lost, because the jobs are not secure, the women are in serious financial trouble.
It is not a victory for women to be forced to go out to work for low wages, because they then have less time for their children. Child care is very lacking in some areas. There are not enough nursery schools, there are not enough qualified child carers, and good child care is usually not affordable. Mothers who work all day have less time to go to schools for parents' day. There are all kinds of problems. It is not all hay when they go out to work, especially when they cannot earn much money.
There is an increasing stigma on single mothers on benefits and on women who stay home to look after their children. They have been attacked by many Ministers, and they are beginning to feel the stigma, because society picks it up. Teachers begin to say, "That child is a nuisance; no wonder, he comes from a single-parent family," and the women themselves are affected by it. I say here and now that there is no disgrace in a woman wanting to stay home to look after her children.
Every mother is a working mother. Every woman works, whether she works for wages or she works in the home and does unpaid work. It is high time that the unpaid work that women do was counted and valued. It is counted on, but not counted by society.
It was recently disclosed that £30 billion had been saved for the state by the work of carers. That is probably an underestimate. If we counted women's work, we would begin to see just how much money has been cut from social services, because women have picked up the pieces of the shattered welfare state.
In addition to looking after their own sick and elderly relatives, women look after neighbours when the meals on wheels fail to roll up. They do a great deal of voluntary work for churches, schools and hospitals. That work is essential for the good of the community and for the happiness of the community, but it is not valued by society. Society has very strange values, because it values the work of soldiers as productive, but it does not value the work of mothers. The EC social charter, which is anathema to Conservative Members, asks that the maximum working week be 48 hours, but nothing is said of the maximum working week for women, which can be as much as 80 hours if they go out to full-time work, and do the shopping, cooking, cleaning, caring for children and the myriad other tasks that women have to undertake for the family. Women would be rich if they were paid for the importance to society of the work that they do, but it is not women who are rich: it is the company directors who get the fabulous salaries and the tax -free share options.
It is not only single mothers who are poor: it is children, their mothers and their grandmothers--especially their grandmothers, because most pensioners, who are mostly
Column 209women, are very poor. I am sick and tired of seeing in my constituency elderly women hovering outside the window of a butcher's shop, trying to make up their minds whether to go in, and whether there is anything that they can afford to cook.
After a lifetime of work, after living through the war, after living through the depression and after bringing up their families, women should not have to suffer that. They should not be unable to heat their homes properly, they should not have to stick to one room or sit in the kitchen, by the open gas oven as the cheapest way of heating, after a lifetime of work of value to the community. The Government's statistics distort the reality of women and their pensions. It has been said that men retire but women tire. When women finish their paid work and finish bringing up their families, they often help to bring up their grandchildren, so that their daughters can go out and earn a bit of money. The Government are worsening the position for older women. The change of pension age from 60 to 65 will mean that women will lose £14,500 each, based on 1992 prices. It will probably be £15,000 if we base that on today's prices, and it will be even more when the change comes about.
The Government's statistics also give a false impression of occupational pensions. Only 28 per cent. of women over 65 have ccupational pensions, and 72 per cent. do not. Only 12 per cent. in a recent survey had their own pensions. When my first husband died, I received half his occupational pension. It is not true that one person can live half as cheaply as two, because the bills come in for telephone, heat and light, and they are the same as those for two people who live in a home. My position was worsened, and the position of many women is far worse than mine was.
There is also the inequity of the occupational pension going to the husband when there is a divorce, and the wife who helped him to build his career and his pension receiving nothing. I hope that that matter will be addressed, and that changes will be enacted to give women a fair deal in receiving a share of the occupational pension when there is a divorce.
Middle-class feminists have a strategy for equality, and their strategy is to get more women to the top and to hope that power will trickle down. If women have talent, it is great if they can get to the top--if they can break through the glass ceiling--but that is not the way to help the majority of women. Women in politics were not lifted up by having a woman Prime Minister, despite what some Conservative Members think.
The facts speak for themselves. Having more women at the top will not lift up the majority of women. What will address the needs of women at the bottom of the scale will be to value and to count their work in the gross domestic product and in satellite accounts. We must stop considering the work of women to be of no value to society and allowing it to be invisible. When women's unwaged work is ignored, their waged work is badly paid. It is a reflection of the value placed upon their unpaid work. The unpaid work of women is like the base of a pyramid on which the whole economy is built, and that should be recognised by society.
More women in organisations such as the Women Count network are demanding that women's work be counted. The Counting Women's Unremunerated Work Bill, which I presented to this House in 1989, has been
Column 210replicated and passed in the European Parliament, and measures based on that Bill are now passing through the United States Congress and through Parliaments in the Philippines, Trinidad, and Germany. People in many countries who have read my Bill and have come to see me are now trying to get similar Bills through their legislatures. I shall end by quoting Juan Somavia, the chairperson of the world summit on social development which is now taking place. I shall read two quotes. First, talking in February about the unpaid work of women, he said:
"The devaluing of this work runs parallel to the subordinate status of women, since it is women who do most of this `caring and sustaining'. To link productivity only with paid employment continues to render invisible the enormous amount of unwaged work that women do that undergirds and subsidizes all other kinds of work".
In his opening speech to the conference on 4 March, he said: "The contribution made to society by voluntary work, artists, the elderly, and most especially, by women through unpaid household work, together with cost -free use of the environment, are in fact subsidising the economy. The women's movement is rightfully demanding that this contribution be measured, if not remunerated, to at least factor in the invisible components of an economic system that ignores the actors which indirectly deserve a share of the benefits". It is time that society changed its values. If we value the work of soldiers more than the work of mothers, it will have an effect on how we spend our resources. Instead of money going to help the welfare of children and future generations, it will be blown up and spent on Trident and more obsolete arms for the military.
Mrs. Angela Knight (Erewash): I apologise to hon. Members on both sides of the House for not being present for much of the earlier debate. Like other hon. Members, I was in Committee. It may be of interest to the House to know that the Committee on which I was sitting was the Finance Bill, on which six women are sitting. I believe that that is more women than have ever sat on the Finance Bill Committee before. I also had a wry smile at a note which was sent to me a few days ago, which stated that an Opposition Member was hosting the launch of a new beer in honour of International Women's Week this week. The new beer was to be called Femme Fatale. I have some concerns about this debate in general, and they are related to two aspects. First, it is too general a debate. We could easily have done a better job had we discussed specific issues; for example the issues of health, which was raised by the hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley), single parents, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait), education, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), or pensions and the Child Support Agency, which was raised by the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon). The issues could have been dealt with better if we had had a series of separate debates, rather than the general one that we have had today.
My second concern is that today's debate seems to be hugely negative. Many of the speeches that I have heard and the Opposition motion have been negative. I do not think that women's issues are negative--I think that they are hugely positive--and I am sorry that they have been
Column 211put in such a negative way. Some of the speeches have also denigrated to a considerable extent women's role in society, in this country and elsewhere.
One of the matters touched upon in the opening speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) was the number of women in the House of Commons. In many respects, I agree with her. Clearly, when about 52 per cent. of the population--and only 10 per cent. of Members--are women, there is something very much out of balance. I would like to see more women in the House of Commons, but I do not agree that a quota system is the way in which to achieve that. In any job--whatever it might be--one must have the best person for that job. I do not think that that can be achieved by all- female lists or by all-male lists.
Mr. Peter Bottomley: But if it turns out that, in 80 per cent. of cases the list is all-male and that there are very few cases where it is all-female, what positive action can we take that is not positive discrimination, to get more people into the recruitment pool from which lists can be selected?
Mrs. Knight: I shall come to the issue of bringing more women into the recruitment pool after I have dealt with quotas. The Labour party has decided to designate my constituency as one where an all-women list will apply for selection purposes. There has been an outcry, and not just from the men. A number of well-known female Labour politicians who are local councillors believe that it is wrong to have women-only lists for my constituency. It has caused disruption in my area and division within the Labour party. I am not sure what conclusion the party will come to. Male and female members of the Labour party must feel that, by forcing upon them a selection from just one gender, the party is not giving people a true choice to select the person whom they want to represent them.
The real issue has been brought up by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley). We need to get more women on to the candidates' lists for all parties. There will always be restrictions, because clearly it is always difficult to be mum and to work. If one is a mum and doing this job with all its peculiarities a long way from home--in my case it is about 160 miles away--it adds to the normal complications that we all have in trying to combine bringing up children with a career.
It is likely that we shall get far more women to sit for constituencies in the south and the south-east. It is not so likely that women--and especially mothers--will represent seats a long way north of London. When I was checking some of the facts related to the debate, I noticed--Opposition Members may correct me if I am wrong--that only two female Opposition Members represent seats a long way north of London and have small children. On Conservative Benches, there is only me. Being a mother and a Member of Parliament is one of the hardest combinations to put together.
More can be done though in bringing women into public life, by encouraging them to take part in local councils. To serve on a local council is not only very interesting, but it gives one a good taste of public life. It can be done more easily because a local council is close to home. That, in my view, is the best stepping stone, and
Column 212is a way of bringing people forward into this type of role. I have noticed that the number of women on local councils has increased substantially during the past 10 years. On average, more than 25 per cent. of councillors are women and, in some councils, the proportion is considerably higher than that. That is a positive step, and I would like to see it pursued with a view to increasing the representation of women in the House.
In general, I believe that there are four ways which, put together, constitute the greatest steps that can be taken to encourage women along the way, whatever job they seek to do. Encouragement is certainly one, but education, a range of employment opportunities and creating true equality by treating men and women fairly, especially in job opportunities, are the others. Put together, those are the four ways in which true promotion of women can take place. I do not believe that people's lives are suddenly changed because a handful of people go and do something extraordinary. People's lives change because thousands of ordinary people start to do their ordinary things in a slightly different way. That is the way in which we have seen great changes take place over time in this country, and that is how great changes will take place steadily in the future. Let us consider the key achievements of the past decade. We have more women in work than ever before. The fact that we have managed to get so many women into jobs shows that we must be getting quite a lot right in this country. Indeed, we have more women wanting to work than almost any other country in Europe. Moreover, women take up about 50 per cent. of all further and higher education places--and education is the key.
If we educate women, we give them the skills so that they can take the opportunities that become available. It is important to note how girls are now starting to outperform boys at school. I read an interesting article in the summer, which asked whether we should consider taking boys out of mixed classes and teaching them separately, to enable them to achieve what girls of the same age can achieve. That outperformance by girls is especially noticeable in science.
Another key change has been caused by more equality in the pensions system. We can now contribute to pensions in a way that was not open to us as women as few years ago. I know that the new national targets for health have created some concern for the hon. Member for York, but the fact remains that those targets are there: in screening for breast cancer and cervical cancer. The opportunities are there to be taken up. The difficulty, as so often, is getting women to take up the opportunities available. That brings me to one of the unknown questions and quandaries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye asked earlier, "What can we do about it?"
None the less, some of those key improvements sound good to me. They do not sound anything like the negative motion on the Order Paper. The trend in choice for women is moving upwards, too. When I went to university in 1968 I read chemistry because it never crossed my mind that I, as a woman, could take an engineering degree. Only when I arrived at university did I realise that I should have been doing an engineering degree. When I entered the House, I asked the Library to tell me how many women entered university or other forms of higher education to read engineering in
Column 2131968. The answer was 500--only 500 in the whole country. So I feel that there was some excuse for my ignorance at the age of 18, when I did not quite know that I could have had that opportunity. However, at the beginning of the 1990s, 30,000 women a year were taking engineering degrees at university or in other forms of higher education. That is a good example of how opportunities have broadened for women.
Pursuing that line further, I asked the Library to compare the current figures for women employed in engineering and science with those from 10, 20 and 30 years ago. Again, the answers were extraordinary. The increases have been immense. In 1971, about 84,000 women in all were employed in science and engineering. In the early 1990s, the figure was five times that.
The proportion of women members of science and engineering professional institutions has increased, too, from 2.5 per cent. to 22.5 per cent. Again, dramatic improvements have taken place, because hundreds of thousands of people have gone about their ordinary jobs in slightly different ways.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): It is certainly encouraging if that is what is happening with professional institutions, but does the hon. Lady agree that it is rather appalling that the Royal Society, whose proportion of women members increased to 3 per cent. in the 1960s, still has only 3 per cent. of women members today?
Mrs. Knight: There is always a last bastion for us to break down. The proportion may be 3 per cent. now, but one wonders what it will be in 10 years' time. Just as changes have taken place in other areas, they can take place there, too. None of us can expect to win every battle on the first day that we open fire.
Let us consider some of the wider career opportunities, because we are now getting away from the traditional jobs that women were expected to do. Yes, there are still far more women then men in secretarial and clerical jobs, and in some of the caring professions, but nearly one third of the 3 million general managers in the United Kingdom are women. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere mentioned the percentage of women barristers, and indeed about one third of all lawyers are now women.
Furthermore, 29 per cent. of dentists, 29 per cent. of general practitioners, 40 per cent. of pharmacists, 26 per cent. of vets, 24 per cent. of chartered accountants and 42 per cent. of people in the media are women. The numbers are rising steadily both because of education and because of the wider job opportunities available to them.
Ms Short: Of course those figures are right, but does the hon. Lady appreciate that every woman has only one working life, so if the odds are still stacked enormously unfairly for the women who have not had the opportunities, those opportunities have gone for the whole of their lives? To say that things are changing slowly will sound a bit complacent to those who have missed out on some of their life opportunities.
Mrs. Knight: Again, that is an extraordinarily negative approach. It is not as if we were debating a situation that is much the same as it was 10 years ago. We have seen substantial changes--most of which have taken place within my lifetime, since the early 1950s--and women now have far more opportunities available to them.
Column 214One of the conclusions that ultimately emerged from what the hon. Member for York said was that the health care opportunities available for women were simply not being taken up. That also applies to the jobs market. There are considerable opportunities available that, sadly, are not taken up. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye made that point, and it is partly related to the education system in this country.
It is true that not everything in the garden is rosy, but there are far more blooms than there were a few years ago, and there will be a lot more in a few years' time.
We tend to talk about the employment situation in a fairly superficial way. We often seem to imply, "Full-time jobs good, part-time jobs bad." Yet the reality of bringing up a family means that a part-time job is often the best opportunity for a woman. It not only brings extra money into the household, but it gives her as an individual that bit of independence and freedom and the knowledge that she is earning her own way in the world, which she would not otherwise be able to do. The part-time sector in the present job market is of considerable benefit, especially to women in my constituency, who still tend to work in the textile trades. The greatest limiter of women's participation in the work force is having children--by which I mean the presence of young children in the family. Although one can work out the logistics, it is often difficult to work out the other aspects, and to deal with the feeling that as an individual, as a mum, one ought to be there. I have not yet learnt to come to grips with the guilt and I suspect that I shall not find out how to do so until my children are grown up. The provision of adequate and affordable child care, which is often discussed in the House, is vital to working women. Participation in nursery education has increased substantially, but there is always a doubt in my mind when it is discussed. One of my children enjoyed nursery and one did not, and even the one who went to nursery attended no more than three mornings a week. Both liked playgroup and going to Grandma's--the alternative forms of child care that are available--and I believe that to opt for nursery care alone would ultimately be detrimental to many children, especially those who, like one of mine, did not like nursery at all.
Child care and nursery education with part-time working are necessities. But another problem arises because women tend to look after not only the children but the aging population as well. It is something that women have traditionally done and managed to combine with their careers. As the population ages, the demands on women to assist the elderly will undoubtedly increase. There is no getting away from it and there is no solution, but it means that more women will be able to say categorically that for most of their lives they did not one but two jobs at the same time.
I now deal with the encouragement given to pupils at school. The encouragement given to girls will colour their view of the types of jobs that they can take when they leave school. I am greatly concerned about the careers advice given at school. Too often, it is given by teachers who left school, went to teacher training college and then went straight back to school to teach. Consequently, their careers advice tends to be limited. The expectations of teachers and parents, especially when girls are involved, are the most fundamental moving force when it comes to girls choosing the career to follow.
Column 215When my teachers asked me at the age of 14 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said that I wanted to go into industry. The school had a fit and provided me with a series of career novelettes that had wonderful titles such as "Susan Becomes a Secretary", "Nora Becomes a Nurse" and the wonderfully named "Angela becomes an Air Hostess". That was their idea of careers advice for a 14-year-old girl in the 1960s, when going into industry was not one of the things that nice girls did. There has been a considerable improvement since then, but the encouragement given to children at school and the advice from teachers can enable children to have a wider vision of the jobs available to them when they leave.
The very fact that women now make up half the young people going into further and higher education is an example of how careers advice has improved, but also of how girls are improving their skills so that they have more opportunities available to them.
The Institute of Management recently produced a report enticingly called "The Key to the Men's Club" and subtitled "Opening the doors to women in management". The recommendations set out clearly the type of policies that we should perhaps consider. It is in employers' interests to keep women in the work force and to attract women back to a company if they have left for the traditional career break. The reason why employers are especially interested to keep women is that women are reliable, responsible and accurate and, dare I say it, to a greater extent than the equivalent male work force.
The institute makes three recommendations in particular. The first is that employers should remove age limits or any unnecessary criteria to ensure that women who have taken career breaks or who are late entrants into the work force are eligible for all management schemes. The second is to ensure that women on a career break do not suffer downward mobility. The institute urges employers to keep in touch and to provide training and updating and scope for flexible working.
The third recommendation is that employers should recognise, accept and be positive about caring responsibilities and make clear their view that caring is the responsibility of all employees, not just women, and that child care support or provision should not be targeted only at women.
The companies that have signed up to those recommendations include the Midland bank, British Gas, the Bank of Scotland and Marks and Spencer, all of which are organisations that employ women extensively in a wide range of jobs. I believe that they are the sorts of policies that the House should pursue.
Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): The House has been discussing the need to ensure that women participate at all levels in our society. It is gratifying that, with the exception of a few dinosaurs on the Conservative Benches, hon. Members have been united in recognising the waste of our nation's talents because so many women fail to reach positions of influence. The difference between the two main parties is that we have practical policies to redress the imbalance.
Column 216It was interesting to hear that the Minister who chairs the Cabinet Committee on women was not even aware of how few women have been able to take advantage--if that is the correct word--of the opportunities that the Government have made available through their child care disregard. The fact is that many of the Government's policies on women are tokenist and do not meet women's practical needs, such as the need for child care that enables them to go back to work. As for getting more women into Parliament, again the Labour party will show the way. We will have more women in Parliament. We have learnt from the practical experience of other countries, especially the Scandinavian countries, where more than 30 per cent. of parliamentarians are women, thanks to the means that the Labour party has been advocating to get more women sitting on these green Benches.
Most of my remarks relate to the participation of women in a sphere in which increasing numbers are a matter of concern, not something to be applauded. I am referring to the large increase in the number of women going to prison. As of last Friday, there were 1,982 women in our prisons, which have a capacity of 1,858. The figure is up about 40 per cent. on two years ago. The increase is not a result of more women committing offences. In fact, the peak of offences occurred in 1992 before this increase in the prison population. Instead, there seems to have been a change in sentencing policy rather than an increase in crime.
More than a third of women who go to prison do so because they have been unable to pay fines for offences that would not usually warrant a prison sentence. For example, in 1993, 292 women were sent to prison because they could not afford to pay their fine for being unable to pay for a television licence.
The Home Office thinks that those figures are trivial, but hundreds of women who are not a danger to society are being put away for several weeks at a time. For those women and for their families, it is a devastating experience. Half the women in prison are mothers. Poverty is resulting in women being sent to prison, but men too are being sent to prison for non- payment of fines. A recent study by Rona Epstein, a law student at Coventry university, showed that, of 116 people who were imprisoned for not paying the poll tax, 53 per cent. were on benefit and 14 per cent. had no income. The National Association of Probation Officers reckoned that about 80 per cent. of people gaoled for non-payment of fines are on benefit and already in multiple debt.
Some examples of people sent to prison have been highlighted by those studies, and I shall mention a few of them. An asthmatic woman with learning difficulties spent 10 days in prison for non-payment of poll tax before she was released on bail following the intervention of our very own Madam Speaker. A part-time cleaner, earning £42 a week, with five children, the youngest under five, was sent to prison for 20 days for being unable to pay her fine.
Many women who are being sent to prison are first-time offenders who have committed petty offences. Those have been highlighted by the National Association of Probation Officers.
Column 217A pregnant mother was gaoled for 21 days for stealing £380 from the place where she worked, after she had already repaid it. She had borrowed it to try to keep a roof over her children's head. A 20-year-old mother served 56 days in Holloway prison for obtaining goods worth £91 by deception; she had no previous convictions. It would be much better to give such people non-custodial sentences than to send them to prison, where they meet other people and are likely to be exposed to a culture of drug taking. Judge Tumim has noted that, in Styal women's prison, eight out of 10 of the women take drugs. It is an offence to our society that such women are being sent to prison.
My interest in the matter was first raised by recognising that we were sending women to prison because they could not afford to pay for their television licences. A 39-year-old woman with two children was fined £200. She had a history of psychiatric treatment and no previous convictions. Her income was income support, and she had a catalogue of other multiple debts. She was sent to prison for seven days.
A 25-year-old west midlands mother of two children, one of whom has learning difficulties, was sent to gaol for 14 days. On the day that she was in court, no one was available to take care of her children. It was only after the intervention of social services that a relative in Liverpool was found to look after the children.
One can imagine the devastation that that must cause to those families, who are already living with the stress that results from poverty. That stress appears to have been growing during the past 16 years of Conservative government, as has been well documented. Conservative Governments have allowed benefits to lag behind the general standard of living in society. The Conservative Government condone low pay, as evidenced by their abolition of the wages councils and the spurious defence of those policies by Ministers in the Department of Employment when they issue misleading statistics. Since the abolition of the wages councils, wages have decreased and are continuing to do so. Women especially find that the opportunities that are available to them offer poverty pay and mean continual stress in their lives, which means that they are unable to meet the basic needs of their families, which results in perhaps some of them being unable to pay for their television licences.
What is society's remedy? We send such people to prison. We should not tolerate that. I understand that the population in our women's prisons has become so great that crisis proposals have been made to send some female prisoners to male institutions. The Government should consider that growing problem, and should act to make it impossible for the courts to send people to prison because they are poor and cannot afford to pay their fines. In any case, it costs £15 million to send such people to prison, and in the end their fines are not paid. There are other means of making them contribute to society, and there are ways of making them contribute, to the extent that they can afford to do so, towards those fines.
I ask the Minister to consider that issue, and I ask the Government to take seriously their responsibility for the growing alienation of that section of our society that lives in poverty. Sending those people to prison is not the answer.
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Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham): The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) made some good arguments in the middle of her speech, but I think that the House would believe that she would be more effective if she dropped the idea of blaming everything on 16 years of Conservative government.
It is true that we should be moving past the time when people are sent to gaol because of pure poverty. If people are thought wilfully not to be paying who would otherwise be able to pay, some alternative, cheaper deterrent or way of recognising that they had done something wrong would be advisable.
The hon. Member for Selly Oak spoke about civil debts. It is worth noting that, 19 times out of 20, crime is a male offence. Drink-driving is, 19 times out of 20, a male thing. Male misbehaviour is the other side of the caring and conscientiousness that women show in fulfilling most family responsibilities.
I shall speak primarily about poverty and about Parliament. I hope that ordinary, middle-class people will forgive me for not concentrating on their problems, which have been well illustrated by others who have spoken.
One of the factors associated with caring for children and for elderly parents is that a woman tends to know more about her residential area and its problems than does the man who, if in work, tends to leave the area in the morning and return at night, and probably has a social life away from the home.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation "Inquiry into Income and Wealth" discusses the local authority areas that were the poorest in 1981 and those that were the poorest in 1991. It is interesting that, of the 15 poorest areas, five are common to the list at both ends of the decade but 10 of them make some dramatic changes. Corby was the poorest local authority area in 1981 and was a long way from the danger zone 10 years later.
Some of those changes are interesting. If we change our focus to ward level or estate level, we begin to notice a constellation of factors of failure-- not purely as a result of inadequate money having been put into the estate, but because one tends to find pockets of high unemployment and some of the other problems that were well illustrated in the Rowntree report.
I quote now from volume 1 of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation "Inquiry into Income and Wealth". Among other things, it mentions "A cycle of `poor parenting' resulting not necessarily from poverty, but from lack of experience of `good parenting' themselves, inexperience because of youth, lack of understanding of the needs of children, lack of support networks and facilities, and isolation which can lead to depression and health problems."
Those who have gained most from trying to spread a checklist of good facilities, good practice and good community approaches tend to be women. When I occasionally compare parts of my constituency with parts of my wife's constituency, I begin to see a complete contrast of opportunity between a town or village of 2,000 people in south-west Surrey and 5,000 people in an estate built in the London borough of Greenwich.
On an estate on an old goods yard, which was in my constituency and is now just outside it, 5,000 people lived for five years with no pub, no post office, no church or chapel, no police officer, no bus stop and no place at which anyone could work within a mile and a half. That
Column 219is pulling out of people's lives many of the things that matter to them--things which lead to the natural growth of a community. I believe that, in many of our residential areas, if we brought four or five people together--whether current parents or streetwise grannies--who would start saying what they wanted to happen, what type of activity they wanted that would be part of worthwhile activities for young people--the organised chaos of the scouts, the Boys' Brigade, the Woodcraft Folk or a junior band, or some amateur dramatics or some sports involvement --we would begin to receive a positive answer to the question that I have posed to groups throughout the country, "What do you, aged 12 or 14, do after school or after homework?" There is nothing to do in too many inner- city areas. Many of the programmes that I have talked about are run at virtually no cost, and communal fund raising could provide more and better activities. That would create a sense of hope, which may translate into better take-up of educational opportunities for women.
My borough of Greenwich comes 99th out of 109 education authorities around the country in terms of the proportion of pupils who get five GCSEs at A to C grade--the equivalent of the old O-levels. Someone must come 99th, but it need not be Greenwich. The local council should make headlines and the local press should carry headlines about that result. Parents in Greenwich should organise themselves in the way that workers would if they discovered that they came 99th out of 109 in a survey of wage levels. But we tolerate such things, and too often it is the women who carry the burden of inadequate performance by our public facilities, such as education authorities. I praise the Evening Standard for its continuing in-depth study of the east end of London. It has highlighted the absence of good community facilities and the need to develop good general practitioner services. If the newspapers could spend more time examining those issues as well as education results, I think that we would see a general improvement in the situation.
More women in their teens and older must learn to appreciate the value of having higher expectations. We should look to remove barriers and embrace positive action, not discrimination. We must build competence and confidence, raise expectations and give encouragement.
One of the reasons why birth rates in countries such as Italy, Spain, France and Ireland are decreasing faster than in this country is that young women in those countries do not allow themselves to drift into a life of poverty. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) said about people who have babies too early.
We do not inherit celibacy from our parents. However, I believe that we must overcome the embarrassment--such as that caused by a 44-year-old male Member of Parliament talking about the need for sexually active people to worry about birth control or family planning--and discuss those issues. Family planning or birth control is the last thing on the minds of most sexually active young people. If they have the option, they may consider conception control. However, this week 6,000 people will contribute to a conception which will end in abortion--6,000 did so last week and there will be another 6,000
Column 220next week. Some 300,000 people contribute to conceptions that end in abortions every year in this country.
About 45 per cent. of sexually active people in this country will contribute at some stage to a conception that ends in abortion. In a relatively open country where information is readily available and we have the opportunity to learn from our own behaviour and that of others, we should be able to halve that figure in six weeks. Our abortion record may be 10 times higher than that of the Netherlands, but it should be lower.
We must achieve some openness in this area. I believe that the approach adopted by the headmistress of a girls' school in west London could be useful. Instead of saying, "We are now going to talk about contraception," the headmistress says to her girls--who come from mixed backgrounds--"Let's first discuss for whom contraception is not relevant." The girls then discuss the matter and they decide that it is not relevant for many pensioners, everyone below the age of puberty, those who are celibate, infertile or pregnant or those who want to be pregnant. She does not suggest that it is compulsory for everyone else; she simply points out that it has some relevance. That approach signals a move away from the idea that society is looking down on a bunch of hyperactive teenagers, and it makes contraception a part of normal life.
I agree strongly that males should be part of the decision-making process as well--it takes two to tango. We need to be more open about the contraception issue. Instead of a 44-year-old talking about it on Radio 4, those matters should be discussed on radio stations, such as Radio 1, Kiss FM and Virgin, to which young people listen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight) said, if we can get hundreds of thousands of ordinary people to do ordinary things often it will help to transform outcomes for society.
While we must try to reduce the number of people who fall into circumstances not of their own choosing, which they do not enjoy and which may affect their lives for the next 30 or 40 years, we should have sufficiently broad shoulders, big enough hearts and enough common sense to help people in whatever situations they face. It is often women who visit people in gaol. Some 2,000 people--mainly male--commit their first serious crime every week, which makes a total of 100,000 people per year. Some 34 per cent. of men have already been convicted of a serious criminal offence by the age of 30. They may have been sentenced to gaol for six months or more. It is women who often perform a caring role when health--mental or physical--breaks down.
Sadly, the emancipation of women has seen an increase in the smoking habit among women. If women account for half the smoking in our society, they will account for half the 100,000 who will die prematurely every year as a result of smoking.
The hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley) said that we must be aware of health inequalities. Part of that problem is due to inequality of behaviour, which is probably a cultural issue. We cut the incidence of drink-driving among young men by 1.5 million per week over a year and a half with no changes to the law or to sentencing or enforcement procedures. We must try to do the same thing in other areas of avoidable disadvantage, distress and handicap in our efforts to promote general well-being.
Column 221I think that we should adopt the key message in the first chapter of the Pope's new book, which essentially says: "Be not afraid." We must try to work out what we want to achieve and go for it. I turn to the question of outcomes for children of mothers in different types of relationships. I hope that research will show whether I am correct in my belief that children are most likely to be brought up successfully-- if that is defined broadly, without detail--if they are reared by widows. I think that is in part because widows know that they need to care, and in part because society is more willing to share the burdens that widows bear. I suspect that married parents are the next most successful at child rearing and that that group is followed by a mixture of those who have never married, those who are divorced and those who are separated.
That analysis is not really helpful in practice; we cannot say to children, "You will be all right," or "You are born to fail." However, it gives some guidance to people who believe that they have a choice. No one should be told nowadays that they should live with someone, marry or have children-- that is a matter of individual circumstance and individual choice. I believe that if we can share information, more people will learn that they have a choice and will exercise their freedom of choice. Therefore, they will be likely to make fewer mistakes and less likely to get into undesirable situations. I agree that recognising home and work responsibilities is an important aspect that has been well covered by others. I return to Parliament. At the risk of pre-empting my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), I increasingly believe that she was right to say that we should halve the number of constituencies and have a man and woman representing each constituency. It would save a lot of bother and provide a great deal of encouragement for people to believe that it should be relatively easy to take the chance of being elected to Parliament.
Not everybody who volunteers gets selected and not everybody who gets selected gets elected, but it is worth giving my hon. Friend's proposal serious consideration over the months and years. However, that is only one part of Parliament.
Most life peers appointed on the Prime Minister's recommendation are male, and all the judges who attend the House of Lords Appeal Court are male. At the moment, all the bishops are male, yet it should be quite easy and a matter of consensus to try to increase the number of women in the House of Lords.
At the risk of embarrassing them, it is not difficult to think of a whole range of women who would make a good contribution. I do not know the politics of any of them, but, for example, the deputy chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, June Bridgeman, who was a distinguished civil servant experienced in family responsibilities, could serve there well.
Ros Howells, who has been running the Council for Racial Equality in Greenwich, has immense experience, talent and street experience of young people, including those from ethnic minority backgrounds. She helped to reduce the avoidable distress that followed some terrible incidents in my constituency and my borough.
Hazel Treadgold is the central president of the Mothers' Union, a large voluntary organisation, which, if it were a male one, would have had its central president, or the equivalent, on the candidates' list for public appointments