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Column 222to places such as the House of Lords or for appearances on "Any Questions" or "Question Time", but she is invisible because women in general do not push themselves forward.
One generalisation I can make is that most men who are half qualified for a job think that they are overqualified, and most women who think they are half qualified for a job think they are disqualified, and that needs to be changed.
Margaret Harrison started Home Start, the organisation which gives support to families and helps trained volunteers to support six families with great changes in outcome. I do not see why we should not have as many such people in the House of Lords as we have people in business and employment.
Anne Frye is a current civil servant who runs the mobility unit in the Department of Transport and has declined to move from her job in the past 10 or 14 years because her contribution goes beyond statute and public provision, but knits together the mobility improvements. Dame Sue Tinson, editor of ITN for many years, was omitted from Ginny Dougary's book on women in the media, perhaps because she was successful and had done so well. Diane Warwick of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Sheila Masters, the former financial director of the health service and Gareth Pierce, the lawyer who has shown by her competence and her willingness to take up unpopular causes that she has a contribution to make, would all be excellent candidates. We should be asking such people to come forward. I admit to one minor disappointment: that when Emily's list promised to make awards to women in public prominence, I thought it would give one to my wife. I discovered later that only Labour women would get such recognition. If Labour Members would drop the idea to promote only women in their own party, a cross-party approach would encourage those with no politics and all kinds of politics to come forward.
Having said that, I believe that we should change the Women's National Commission into a family commission. I do not think it has done enough. There are ways to put together family policy issues and women's issues on the public agenda and keep them there.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton): When I think of equality for women, I always think of that splendid Chinese revolutionary poster of the 1950s showing a woman up a telegraph pole fixing telephone wires against a beautiful sunrise, with the slogan, "Women hold up half the sky." Women hold up more than half of our society and our economy, but they certainly do not get their fair share of pay, property, jobs and positions of power and influence or life chances. The Government's attitude is often akin to a cartoon of Andy and Florrie Capp. Andy Capp has a pint of beer and Florrie has a half pint and Andy says, "Florrie always gets her full half of what I get." It sounds reasonable, but it is not.
I want to put sex discrimination into context with class discrimination and race discrimination, as that point has been absent from the debate. They are all severe in their own right, but they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They impact on each other and compound discrimination and inequality.
Column 223Nearly all women are likely to face some discrimination during their lives, for example, the burden and cost of child care with the glass ceilings and stereotypes which have been mentioned. Working-class women face economic as well as sex discrimination and are likely to spend much of their lives in poverty; working-class black women are even more likely to do so. Cases arise in my work load, as in that of other hon. Members, of immigrant women brought over to be with men who either beat them up or desert them. Those women, instead of being allowed to remain here in their own right, are picked on by the state and threatened with deportation or deported. Such women are victims of sex, class and race discrimination. Specific measures are needed to overcome class and race inequality, which also holds back many women.
Low pay cuts across all forms of discrimination. The Equal Opportunities Commission estimates that 4 million women are on low pay, and the Council of Europe reported that 6.5 million women in this country fall below its decency threshold. Part-time workers are among the low-paid, because they receive only the hourly rate equivalent of 59 per cent. of male full-time earnings. The increase in the number of part-time jobs is welcome, but not the appalling pay that goes with them.
The proliferation of low-paid part-time jobs contrasts with the collapse of job sharing in better-paid work throughout the country, and the Government should explain why. A statutory minimum wage is needed, which would benefit four out of five women; otherwise, we will repeat the experience in the United States of the working poor--women employed but still in poverty and dependent on state benefits. Decently paid jobs are the key to cutting the benefits bill and to helping women.
Nine out of 10 lone pensioners forced to rely on income support are women. Only one woman in six retires on a full state pension, compared with two out of three men. The Government's proposal to raise the retirement age for women to 65 is unfair and represents indirect discrimination. Many women do not have private pensions, whereas some men do.
Mr. Cohen: No. I apologise to the hon. Lady, but time is short. Many women without private pensions will be compelled to go the full distance and work until they are 65, whereas many men will not. The situation surrounding occupational pensions in cases of divorce is also unfair but, as I have presented a private Member's Bill on that subject--the Pensions (Divorce) Bill--I shall not discuss it now. Many women are damaged by Government cuts in health, public transport and education. Only yesterday, a radio programme reported that teenage pregnancies in Holland number just seven in every 1,000. The figure for England is 33 in every 1,000--five times higher. What a failure of education, which can be blamed on the Government's prudishness and cuts in family planning services.
Inadequate child care holds back many women. This country has the lowest level of publicly funded child care in the European Union. The Chancellor of the Duchy of
Column 224Lancaster said that nine out of 10 women have access to some form of child care, but that is not true in my constituency or in the constituencies of many other hon. Members. I do not know where he gets those figures from. Child care provision is patchy to the point of being threadbare. Lack of child care is a major obstacle to a woman's ability to work and to enhance her life.
The Chancellor said that child care needs to be targeted, but it is not targeted in the poorest areas. In my area, there is a shortage of child care provision and the cost of a child minder is way beyond the means of working-class women. That means that child care provision is unequally distributed among working-class, middle-class and richer areas. I wish that it were targeted. It should be universal so that all women have access to child care.
If nine out of 10 women have access to child care, as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said, it should be easy for him to make it 10 out of 10. In those circumstances, why have the Government been dragging their feet over universal nursery provision for three and four-year-olds? There should be a public sector boost to nursery provision, with local authorities providing nurseries. There should be an employment boost with businessplace nurseries and cre ches. There should be a tax incentive for businesses to provide such facilities and there should be an increase in parental leave as well. That would provide a real choice for women.
Many women experience crime and a fear of crime. The Government have reduced the compensation available for women who are the victims of crime. Early-day motion 730 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) draws attention to the case of a woman who was the victim of a brutal rape and left for dead, who received compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board amounting to £76,000 because of the horrendous injuries that she suffered.
Under the tariff that the Government are introducing, a woman would receive a maximum of £7,500 if she had been raped by a single person, a maximum of £10,000 if she had been raped by two or more people and a maximum of only £20,000 if she had suffered multiple injuries and permanent disability. It is a disgrace that such a tariff should be introduced, worsening conditions for women who are the victims of such crime.
There should be improved police practice for cases of domestic violence and a major zero violence campaign. The Government should co-ordinate a network of safe refuges for women throughout the country. They have been tardy in not doing that.
Inequality under the law should also be tackled. I draw the attention of the House to homicide cases and the law of provocation. At the moment, the defence of a sudden and temporary loss of self-control applies more to men. They can plead provocation and get off with a light sentence. That often does not apply to women. The law takes no account of sustained domestic violence against women. Therefore, women often receive a life sentence for a similar offence. That is unfair; women such as Sara Thornton should not be imprisoned for life.
When I raised the case of Sara Thornton with a Home Office Minister, his attitude was, "Well, she's only a crazy woman killing a slob of a husband." His attitude was that the Government therefore need not do anything. He betrayed other traits in his thinking, but that was his general attitude. That is most unfair. Women's institutes,
Column 225the townswomen's guilds and other organisations representing millions of women have said that the law is unfair and should be changed. The Government should listen to them and change that unfair law.
In conclusion, to return to the Andy Capp analogy, I am in favour of lifting the cap of inequality on women. I want to see Andy and Florrie both with full pints and full rights, too.
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): Much has been said in the debate and I commend the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short), who opened the debate for the Opposition, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who pointed out the wonderful things that the Conservative party has done for women. I commend the Labour party in particular for introducing a debate on the lives of women in the UK.
The tenor of the debate has been one of gloom and doom and we have talked about all the negative things, it seems to me. I am awfully sorry if I missed some of the marvellous contributions from my colleagues and, of course, from Opposition Members. Personally, I think that the lives of women in the United Kingdom today are infinitely better than anything that has gone before, even within the lifetime of my mother and my grandparents. My mother would probably have been trapped in an unhappy marriage and would not have been able to get a divorce, because that was difficult in those days. In my grandparents' day, women had no property rights if they married; they were chattels. Barely more than two generations ago, women who were pregnant were locked up in mental institutions and the babies were taken away and put in orphanages, where they often died, conveniently, of starvation.
If one looks at parish records, one will find that as many children were born out of wedlock, as it was then known, or soon after the marriage took place, as today. I personally think that society today, with its more liberal attitude to women, and their right to a sexual life of their own, is liberating. I am not here to make a big fuss about the way in which women are victimised. I do not want to repeat the material about putting more women in this place. Of course we could get more women in this place if we had the will, as I pointed out--and I pinched the idea from Bernard Shaw. We simply need to have a man and a woman elected in each constituency. With a little adjustment of the Representation of the People Act 1985, that could quite easily be achieved, but, of course, the will does not exist in this place.
I want to say once again, as many of my colleagues were not here, that we regard this place as though it were an Olympic race, where only the best can get to the starting post, and they are the ones who get in, or some big company, where the best people rise to the top. This place is not like that. It is a jury of the nation. We are meant to be representative of the whole nation. Therefore, there should be more women here, and all sorts of other people as well. We are not--nor should we be--the cre me de la cre me. The women should be able to be as lazy, idle and good for nothing as many of the men in this place. Then we would know that we have real equality. That, in my view, would be success in this place.
I reject the idea of women as victims. I do not know how many hon. Members are old enough to remember that wonderful serial "The Prisoner", in which the hero
Column 226said, "I am not a number. I am a person." I think of that whenever I hear these debates. I am not a victim. I am a woman. I just happen to be a woman, but that does not make me a victim. Yet so much of what has been said in the debate implies that women should be, that somehow we have to be helped, because we are underdogs. I disagree with that.
When I was being brought up, my mother always said to me, "The one thing you must be is independent." That is what we should aim for in society, to create the opportunities for independence, both in the way in which we educate our daughters and in the legislation that we enact. We could do a great deal more to help women to independence. When I read the blurb that was put out by the Labour party on the debate, I wondered what kind of an image it has of women. It is all about women being victimised and ground down, and about part-time workers being badly treated, as though women going out to work, particularly those who choose part-time work, are all being exploited for doing so. There is another aspect to work. Wages are important, but so, too, is work satisfaction, to which, I think, women give a higher priority than men, and also the ability to contribute towards a family income. They do not necessarily put as their top priority the wage level, but rather the opportunity either to contribute, or sometimes just to get out of the home for a break, so that they can get away from their domestic routine. Jobs provide that opportunity.
I often recall, from the days when I used to battle for small businesses, the story of a firm that employed women to sew buttons on cards in the east end. I see that Opposition Members' faces are beginning to screw up in distaste. Each week, those women used to turn up to collect a bag of buttons; they would socialise, have a cup of tea and a couple of buns, then go off to stitch the buttons on to cards. They earned a few shillings an hour, and I am sure that the trade union movement would have called it gross exploitation. In the end, the trade union had its way. The company was caught by one of the wages councils, which jacked up the pay rate--and, lo and behold, the button-carding concern went out of business. Eventually it went over to Malta. Something was achieved--a certain level of wages for those women--but the jobs were no longer there for them to do.
We keep going on about employment for low pay. I sometimes think that we imagine that the alternative is automatically high or better pay, but it is often no pay at all. Let me commend to the Labour party a more positive attitude to working women. We should bear it in mind that we are actually damaging many of those whom we are supposedly trying to help by making it more difficult for employers to take them on. That may give the Labour party something to be a little more cheerful about.
I am being heavily leaned on by the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), but I am sure that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) will grant me a couple of minutes more. The French have begun to allow tax relief on the whole cost of employing domestic assistance, which has been an enormous success, providing many low-skill women with jobs. More than a million jobs have been created in France. The scheme has enabled many highly skilled women who want to work to
Column 227afford the home help that allows them to do so; it has taken many people off social benefits; and the sum of human happiness has increased.
If there is one tiny contribution that I can make to the debate, it is this. Instead of um-ing and ah-ing about giving small amounts to women to enable them to pay for child care, we should decide that domestic jobs are respectable and decent employment to which women in particular may well be drawn, as they have been in the past. It is not all about little boys being sent up chimneys, or "Upstairs, Downstairs"; it is about people becoming nannies or home helps. That is a respectable way of employing women, which gives them a variety of opportunities.
I now bow to the interests of my hon. Friend the Minister and sit down, but I hope that we shall continue this debate in the future. 9.22 pm
Ms Harriet Harman (Peckham): I welcome the Minister to the debate, and look forward to her speech. Let me make a comment that is directed not at her, but at the Government. It is curious that the Minister responsible for animal welfare should have been given responsibility for women's welfare; I hope that the Minister is more successful in championing the cause of women than in championing that of calves in veal crates.
As the debate has made clear, nothing less than a revolution has taken place in women's lives--a social and economic revolution. It has been caused by many different factors, some of which have been touched on today; but everyone seems to agree that women's lives now are very different from those of their mothers.
Change in women's lives inevitably affects men and children. The question is whether the Government will shape public policy to take account of the effect of that revolution, or persist with policies that relate to how the world was 50 years ago. Let me list some of the changes that constitute what I have described as a revolution. The fact that women are leaving full -time education with qualifications equal to those of men, for instance, constitutes an enormous difference from the position only a generation ago. Women are getting married later and having children later. They are having fewer children. That change in women's fertility rate is enormous. Many women are bringing up children on their own in one-parent families. With the growing number of people living to very old age, women are spending longer looking after elderly relatives. At the same time as all these changes, they are working more than they ever have. They are now about half the work force. In particular, mothers are working and the mothers of very young children are working. That means that the family has changed and that the world of work has changed. Women's role is now vital not only in the family, but in the world of work.
The present Tory Government are incapable of a sensible public policy response to this huge change for two reasons. They are divided, first, because the Tory squires--who have not put in an appearance in this debate, but who are out there and who will vote against the motion--think that women should be at home doing the cooking. That view used to be called "back to basics"
Column 228and it is still a strong belief within the Conservative party. Secondly, the Conservatives are divided because the new right, in which I include the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), thinks that if the labour market wants women it should be able to have them, that it is no business of the Government's to ensure that women at work have proper protection and that everything should be left to the free market. The result is that while women are making a growing contribution to their family budget and to our economy, and are taking the lion's share of responsibilities for children and the elderly, the Government are doing nothing to acknowledge or assist women's growing role.
We know that women have a passionate commitment to their children. We take responsibility for our children and we would not have it otherwise, but women also want to ensure that their children have a decent standard of living. The family wage defined as a man's wage has all but disappeared. That has given rise to what my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North- West (Mr. Wicks) described as the dual worker household.
For many families, the mother's work is vital to the household income. That is especially the case for single mothers. Circumstances have changed, so motherhood has changed. Women are redefining what it is to be a mother, and motherhood is now about providing for one's children as well as caring for them. Over the past 10 years, the greatest increase in women working has been among women with young children. Some 64 per cent. of mothers with children under 16 are now economically active. The greatest increase in labour market participation has been among women with children under five. The Government's response has been simply to deregulate, to remove protection, to abolish the wages councils and to leave everyone else to struggle with the mess that they have created.
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): Does my hon. Friend agree that one way in which opportunities for women at work could be improved would be for creche facilities to be provided by employers, including this place?
Ms Harman: I welcome my hon. Friend's point about child care. I am sure that we shall find that his involvement in the debate on and pressure for child care shows renewed enthusiasm. I congratulate him and his wife on the birth of their baby on Thursday. We shall have a new recruit to the campaign for child care.
Women have their responsibilities and they recognise them. Men are playing a growing part in caring for their children, but progress in that respect is still slow. When it comes to looking after the children, it is still mostly down to women. Women have their responsibilities and they recognise them, but Governments also have responsibilities although the present Government refuse to recognise them. They are excellent at pointing out everyone else's responsibilities, but they seem to find it hard to identify their own. We believe that it is clear that the Government have a role in enabling working mothers to fulfil all their responsibilities. One of the Government's responsibilities is to enable working mothers to meet theirs.
That brings me to the two questions with which I should like to deal: intervention in the labour market and the role of public services. With regard to the labour
Column 229market, the International Labour Organisation concluded in its recent world employment report, which rejected the recent British model of labour market deregulation:
"The most meaningful debate is not that between deregulation versus regulation"--
that is a blind alley--
"but on the sort of regulatory reforms in the labour market that changes in the economic landscape will require."
It is the role of regulation to hold the ring, especially in the balance between work and family and to prevent exploitation at work. Half the work force are women and most of those women are someone's mother. They do not stop being mothers when they go to work, nor should we want them to stop. Many of them bring to their work the skills that they develop when taking care of young children. Most mothers develop a number of skills, such as staying calm in a crisis, sorting out petty squabbles, doing five things at once and thinking about other people and not just themselves. I suggest that those skills would be very useful in the Cabinet at the moment. Those qualities and skills enrich the world of work, but all too often they are totally overlooked and undervalued. They are not recognised in women's pay or in their curricula vitae.
The fact of today's working life, understood only too well by women in and out of work, is that the Government make it clear that they certainly do not care and that they do not feel as a Government that they have a role to play. One of the things that Labour Members think is important is bringing fairness to the world of work. That is why we are in favour of a minimum wage.
Ms Harman: Women are--quite unjustly--more likely than men to be on low wages. The hon. Gentleman asks at what level. The difference between me and the hon. Gentleman is not that he wants a minimum wage at one level and I want it at another. The difference between Labour Members and the Government is that they want a spiralling down of wages and a bottomless pit while we think that there should be a floor under wages.
Women are quite unjustly more likely than men to be on low wages. Here the argument from the Government is familiar. They say that a minimum wage will cost jobs; yet the Government have admitted that Britain's unemployment growth is the third highest among other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Of those other countries, 11 out of 12 have minimum wage protection. Indeed, Britain's rate of unemployment growth was the third highest among those countries between 1980 and 1990 and the seventh highest from 1990 to 1993. If the minimum wage were a brake on employment and caused unemployment, we could have expected Britain to have the lowest unemployment in the league and the highest employment, which is simply not the case.
After those figures were revealed in answer to parliamentary questions tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), the Minister wrote to the Financial Times saying that the United States minimum wage was rubbish and that it did not count because it was only $4.25 per hour and thus extremely low. That figure is the equivalent of £2.70 an hour in Britain and 500,000 women who work part time get less than that extremely low rate. Does the Parliamentary
Column 230Secretary think that it is acceptable that 500,000 women working part time get less than £2.70 an hour? Is she prepared to justify the fact that 75,000 people in this country--most of them women--earn less than £1.50 for an hour's work?
How low will the Tory Government go? They have abolished the wages councils, which put a floor under wages in many industries and services in which women worked. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) said, women pay the price with lower wages. Something which should particularly concern the right wingers and the new right of the Conservative party is that the taxpayer pays the price, too, in more than £2 billion in benefits such as family credit, income support, council tax benefit and housing benefit to top up the low pay of people working for employers who will not pay decent wages.
We have been here before as far as those arguments are concerned. The arguments against a minimum wage come from exactly the same quarter as the arguments used against the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and we remember them well. At that time, the Confederation of British Industry said that there would be enormous inflation as a result of that Act. That certainly did not happen. The CBI said that women would be driven out of the labour market and back into the home if employers were forced to pay them the same as men. That also did not happen. The statistics show a completely different story and there are now more women at work than ever before. We hear the same scaremongering in relation to the national minimum wage. The next Labour Government will introduce a national minimum wage in a sensible way. We will not pluck figures out of the air in response to interventions from Conservative Members who are against a minimum wage in principle. We will introduce a minimum wage in consultation with employers and trade unions and in the light of economic circumstances. The Government are arguing against a national minimum wage, not because it will cut jobs but because they are in favour of low pay. They always excuse it; they never condemn it. I want to refer briefly to trade unions because several Conservative Members said that there are not enough women general secretaries in the trade union movement. I agree with that. However, I believe that the trade unions have a new and important relevance for women at work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) said, women are now being asked to work on zero hours contracts. How does one organise one's household budget on a zero hours contract? How does one organise one's child care on a zero hours contract? How does one organise one's family relationships on a zero hours contract when one is at the beck and call of an employer at the end of a telephone? One cannot do those things.
The Government may say, "The world has changed--who needs trade unions?" We say that the world has changed and the two women working in a dry cleaning shop now need trade unions as much as the 200 men in a large factory need trade unions. Forty-four per cent. of women work part time and 63 per cent. of working mothers work part time. Yet the Government refused to give equal rights to part-time workers. They have been forced to act only by a judgment from the European Court. They have been dragged kicking and screaming to make that change. With a growing number of part-time
Column 231jobs, and a growing number of men who, having lost full-time jobs, cannot find full-time work and have to work part time, part-time work is now a very important issue.
I want briefly to consider child care. When a mother is at work, someone has to look after her children. In the past, that person was her mother or her mother-in-law. However, as the extended family is becoming rarer, that is becoming less frequent. We must take account of the disappearance of the family wage and, to a large extent, the disappearance of the extended family. With women at work, and less extended family around to help-- including mothers and grandmothers--it is very important that the Government should introduce a choice of high-quality, affordable child care.
That is why Labour is committed to a national child care strategy. We would like to go further. When we are in government, in addition to a national child care strategy building on the work of Labour councils, we will develop a childnet system where women will be able to use the information super-highways and the new technology to find their way through the interlocking maze of benefits, training and job availability and child care to help them get back to work after they have had their children. A pilot project has already been set up in that respect by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), and I wish her work well.
It is not only the care of children which must be newly reconciled with the world of work. We must also consider the care of the growing number of elderly people. Women are working, people are living longer, and most people want to take as much responsibility as possible for the older people in their families. In that respect, as with children, most people feel that responsibility lies first and foremost with the family, but it should also rest on the employer and the community as a whole to recognise the number of roles that women are playing. An aging mother is a responsibility for her daughter, and she should be for her son, too. It is right also that there should be a framework of rights at work which recognise the need for leave for family reasons. It is right that the local community, through the council and voluntary organisations, should ensure that there is help in the form of respite care or domiciliary services.
A Social Security Minister put his head above the parapet and appeared to criticise British companies which demand the longest full-time working hours in Europe. He said:
"Too many companies and businesses demand outrageous time commitments from those who work for them, without thought of the damage to family structure or for the strength their employees would get from a sound family life if they are allowed to foster it." I totally agree with those words, but I fear that they will get nowhere, because they contradict the fundamental Tory principle that there is no such thing as society, that the market is always right, and that it is no business of Government to intervene in the labour market or to provide public services.
The Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot at one and the same time tell women to be good daughters, good mothers, good employees and good providers for their children and yet refuse to provide child care and care for the elderly, and deny legal rights for women at work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and
Column 232Highgate (Ms Jackson) said, women can be and are being at one and the same time good mothers, good daughters and good employees, but the Government and employers need to recognise that women are doing all those things and to make the necessary changes to take that into account.
The Government should understand what women are actually doing, look at how our role has changed, and make sure that public policy, both in employment and in our public services, takes that into account. The evidence is clear: the Government are not agonising about how to improve the conditions of women at work; they are deliberately pushing them down. For example, a minimum wage would benefit women; the Government say no. A right to union representation would benefit women; the Government say no. Proper employment rights for part-time workers would benefit women; the Government say no. Proper child care provision would benefit women; the Government say no. Above all, the Government are saying no to recognising women's changing and growing role and responsibility. In so doing, the Government are denying and abdicating their own proper role and responsibilities to women in this country.
I urge hon. Members to support our motion.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Angela Browning): I am delighted to take part in the debate. I shall refer in a moment to contributions that have been made this evening--I have listened to all of them--but I start by mentioning my new appointment as Government co-chairman of the Women's National Commission.
The Women's National Commission exists to ensure, by all possible means, that the informed views of women are given due weight in the deliberations of Government. It was established in 1969, in line with the request of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to member Governments, to consider setting up national commissions on the status of women.
The founders of the WNC rightly recognised the huge diversity of women's interests. They are represented today by more than 60 member organisations throughout the country. They include not only a cross-section of political parties, voluntary and religious groups but a geographical spread across the United Kingdom.
Over the past 25 years, the WNC has provided a forum for a wide range of women to voice their views. It has produced a number of stimulating and forward-looking reports and guides, and I look forward very much to my involvement with the WNC. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Baroness Denton, who has worked very hard and closely with the WNC. I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the enormous amount of work done by the present co-chairman, Maureen Rooney, from the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union. She will shortly be replaced by Liz Bavidge, a former president of the National Council of Women. I very much look forward to working with both in the months to come.
This has been an interesting debate. We have discussed politics, sex and religion, and it has been quite stimulating. We kicked off with a comment on religion from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short), who drew attention--in an unnecessarily disparaging way--to the religious preference of my
Column 233hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Employment. I was also disappointed that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) found it necessary in her opening remarks to make some personal comment about my progress on veal crates.
Mrs. Browning: I am sorry. We have not had much humour from Labour Members this evening. When it came, it was rather late and I did not recognise it. Perhaps when I finish with the veal crates, I shall start on pussy cats.
The debate started off with the usual complaints and whingeing about what the Government were not doing. There was a somewhat negative and disappointing tone in most of the speeches--with one or two exceptions--by Labour Members. They had nothing new to say, and simply criticised the Government. Labour Members were unable to put forward any new policies, and they were certainly unable to address the future role of women. We heard one or two history lessons about the first world war and the state of women at that time, but nobody put forward any ideas on how women had progressed or on the way in which equality for women could be addressed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock), who is a member of the Federation of Business and Professional Women--a member of the WNC--made a wide-ranging and interesting speech, and we look forward to her study of family credit disregard operations in her constituency. I agree with my hon. Friend's opposition to quotas for women's representation in the House of Commons. I shall come to that matter later, as it was mentioned this evening by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Female Opposition Members, of course, supported the quota plan, but very few male Opposition Members supported it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen referred to education and the need for women to use their qualifications to access the many opportunities which exist. She also mentioned the glass ceiling in relation to women in management, and that was touched on by other hon. Members. Many people recognise that that ceiling has been raised, but it is still there. Hon. Members pointed out that one of the ways in which women can overcome the ceiling is to take their qualifications and experience and set up their own businesses. There is a very strong sign of an increase in the number of women running their own businesses and in the number of self-employed women. Some 25 per cent. of self-employed people are women.
It has been interesting to see how women have managed their businesses during the difficult years of the recession. In the main, women have come through rather well, and that shows some of the qualities of women which have been mentioned in the Chamber tonight. Women do tend to cut their cloth accordingly, and they bring into business, political and professional life a range of qualities which many people very often associate with the skills of running a home. Those skills can be very valuable when used in a business or professional situation.
It is for that reason that a woman running a business in difficult economic circumstances will very often wait until she is making a profit before deciding to buy an expensive car. Occasionally, a man decides that he needs the
Column 234expensive car up front for his image. Women are running their businesses well, and are contributing to the economy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen said that she had set up an old girls' network. I am not a member of that; perhaps I am too old even for the old girls' network. None the less, such networking and interrelationships between women can give them encouragement. We have heard tonight how women often lack confidence, and that is why there are now many schemes, often run by training and enterprise councils and local enterprise councils, to help women who have been out of the employment market for a long time to get back into employment. Those women may be out of work, not because they lack the skills or the ability to get a job but because all too often they lack the confidence to decide where they are going, so they are given practical help to get them back into employment.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) mentioned local democracy, and outlined to the House the way in which local authorities could use their money to promote gender equality. However, I must suggest to her that her colleagues on Avon county council might have been better advised to spend their money on the boy scouts, whose budget they have just cut, rather than giving additional funding to a group of lesbians in Avon. That is not the sort of gender discrimination that we would like to see in the Chamber.
uncharacteristically, Avon county council is putting boy scouts before lesbians, all Conservative Members will welcome that. Of course I do not hold her personally responsible for Avon's decision if she lives 300 miles away, but that decision was typical of the way in which the Labour party prioritises gender and the way in which it uses public money.
Ms Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South): As a Member who represents a Bristol constituency in the county of Avon, I must tell the Minister that her assertion is entirely wrong. I am sure that she would not want to mislead the House by what she says about the county council, so I hope that she will withdraw her comments until she has checked her facts. Furthermore, Avon county council is a hung authority, so I do not know how even she can blame the Labour party for what happens in such an authority.
Mrs. Browning: I hope that the hon. Lady is proved right; I shall certainly check the facts. But as someone who does not live 300 miles away from Avon--indeed, as someone who has lived very close to it--I hope that what she says means that the authority is not, as in previous years, spending money on gym mats for lesbians.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) made a considered speech, including a moving appeal on an issue that she has brought to the Chamber more than once--the rights of adoptive mothers. She will be disappointed that I cannot give her a positive response this evening, but I know that her words will have been heard, and I also know how strongly she feels on that subject.
Column 235My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) also raised an important issue. It was interesting to hear that my hon. Friend will attend the conference in Beijing in September. He has a reputation in the House for taking a great interest in the question of world population and for having a great knowledge of that subject, and his determination to ensure that the agenda in Beijing addresses the issue of choices in childbearing for women was most encouraging. The conference is to be held in a place where the human rights record, especially for women and even more so on the difficult issue of choices in childbearing, is likely to make the subject matter sensitive for the host country. I was most encouraged to find that my hon. Friend has been working hard to ensure that the matter is not swept under the table simply because of the venue for the conference.
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) mentioned home workers and related her information and concern to days gone by. Of course we are concerned. I am sure that she will be aware that the number of home workers has doubled, but they are not all doing the grindingly difficult jobs for low wages, as she described. However, for those working at home the health and safety legislation still applies. If there are cases in her constituency which give her cause for concern and which should perhaps be brought to the Health and Safety Executive, she is welcome to write to us and we shall take the cases further.
Ms Harman: The Minister mentioned grindingly low pay. Will she answer the question that I asked in my speech? Does she think it acceptable that at least 75,000 people in this country, most of them women, are working for £1.50 an hour?