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Joan Ryan (Enfield, North): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that before 1997 more Members were named John than were female. Currently, only one in eight Members of Parliament are women. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only effective mechanisms to address that are quotas and the women's representation legislation?

Ms Hewitt: Of course I agree with my hon. Friend that there are not yet enough women in this place—nor are there enough women or men from our minority ethnic communities. The new law is a real step forward and will allow each political party to make its own decisions about the form of positive action that it wants to use—not to advance the career opportunities of women who are interested in politics but to ensure that our political institutions really reflect and represent all our communities and the whole of our country. That is essential if we are to deal with the problem of political disengagement at the party political or parliamentary level.

We must all address the even larger problem of under-representation on local councils. There are honourable exceptions, but far too often our local councils are run or dominated by male councillors. The Government are already addressing that in the appropriate forums.

Mr. Swire: The right hon. Lady may be right about women's representation on councils. However, later in the

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debate, I hope to allude to the fact that the leader of the Conservative group on Devon county council is a lady—Christine Channon—who has been active in local politics for a long time. Furthermore, East Devon district council—one of the flagship councils of the land—is also controlled by the Conservatives and led by Sara Randall-Johnson who is also—as her name might suggest—a woman.

Ms Hewitt: I am delighted to hear about both those women council leaders, whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting. As I said, there are many outstanding exceptions to the general pattern that I was describing. Indeed, one of our many Ministers is my noble Friend Baroness Hollis, an excellent and experienced Minister, who was an extremely distinguished leader of Norwich city council for many, many years.

There are many exceptions to the rule, but the general pattern remains that across local councils as a whole the representation of women is even lower—much lower—than it is in our Chamber.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the exceptions are so outstanding because in order for women to reach that level they must themselves be outstanding? There are many women languishing in society who are not quite as outstanding but who could easily contribute to the political process.

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. She makes a central point: if we do not effectively extend opportunities for women—whether in business, public service, government or a range of political and other public institutions—not only will individual women miss out, but society will miss out on the contribution of talent, skills and experience of women whose abilities are not being properly recognised.

As we move towards next year's local council elections, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office and I will be leading a drive in the Labour party to ensure that there is an increase in the number of women, drawing especially on the women to whom I was referring—those who are so active in their local communities but who sometimes, unfortunately, see the local council as a hindrance rather than a help. We need to change that and one way of doing so is to get those women into the council making decisions.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): I apologise to my right hon. Friend for my late arrival in the Chamber. I have come straight from the women's conference of the Trades Union Congress, where several hundred women gave details of their experience of their working environment and their working lives. We need that experience in this place. Few of those women have ever stood for Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they are the very people who should be enabled, through training and legislation, to have greater opportunities to serve on local councils and in this place?

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am delighted that she was able to attend the TUC women's conference—as my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office did this morning. We shall do our part as

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a political party to recruit women with that extraordinary range of experience to a variety of more formal political activity—in councils and in this place.

The Government are also playing their part. My hon. Friend and I—with my noble Friend Baroness Morgan, when she had ministerial responsibility for women and equality—initiated a programme of seminars and meetings throughout the country to encourage women from a range of backgrounds, regardless of political opinion, to put themselves forward for public appointments. That will allow us to tap into those women's experience and achieve our target of 50 per cent.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the contribution that women working in science, engineering and technology have made to the quality of all our lives, and to reflect on the difficulties that those disciplines have in recruiting more women, who could only bring greater benefit to our economy if they were suitably used.

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend has enormous expertise and is making an outstanding contribution on the issue. I recently had the pleasure of meeting the Daphne Jackson Trust, which, as she will know, has been pioneering support for women with scientific degrees and other qualifications who want to return to work. There is much more that we can and should do, which is why I recently asked Baroness Susan Greenfield to report to me on precisely how we can get more women into science—both young women and those returning to work. That again underlines the point that we will never overcome our skills shortages if business and science recruit from only half the population.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): A large number of cabinet portfolio holders on Essex county council are women: Iris Pummell runs the schools; Elizabeth Hart runs lifelong learning and early years; Tracey Chapman runs environment; and Mavis Webster is deputy for social services. Those are all women who have achieved that prominence entirely on their own merit. Essex county council is Conservative-controlled and women are doing very well on it. I cannot finish without mentioning my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who won a seat from the Labour party entirely on merit, and who was also a shadow cabinet member of Essex county council.

Ms Hewitt: I am delighted to hear hon. Gentlemen praising their female Conservative colleagues. It is true that my party has not yet produced a woman Prime Minister, although we have certainly had outstanding women Cabinet members. Since the hon. Gentleman decided to introduce a bit of controversy to the debate, it is also fair to say that, despite the fact that the Conservative party and Government were headed for so many years by a woman of extraordinary and outstanding abilities, women in our country are doing far better under our Labour Government and our Prime Minister.

Mrs. Laing: It is very good to have some support on this side from gentlemen colleagues. I see that the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) has just resumed his

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place, thereby doubling the number of gentlemen on the Labour Benches. It is sad that there is so little support there.

Does the Minister agree that, to encourage more women to come into the House and into politics generally, those of us who are already involved have to be seen to be serious in the undertaking of our duties, and not to trivialise the matter of women's employment rights, mothers' rights and so on; and that there is a danger that, if there are continual press reports about breastfeeding in the Chamber, the outside world will find it hard to take us seriously? Should not we be discussing—as she has done this afternoon—the many millions of women out there who need support?

Ms Hewitt: I have been addressing many of the very serious issues that face women throughout our country, but breastfeeding is also a serious issue to do with the health of our children.

Our Government are working for women and listening to them every day, but it is good to have one day of the year when we debate women's interests and concerns specifically, and I look forward with keen anticipation to hearing further contributions to this debate.

3.45 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): We are here to celebrate international women's day, and it is right to begin by paying tribute to all the organisations that have worked hard to improve the lot of women in society. I listened attentively to the Minister, who seemed to give the impression that all was rosy in the garden and that the Government could take the credit for all the achievements, but it is right to record our thanks to all the organisations who work so hard on our behalf.

In some ways, I find it absolutely astonishing that it is necessary for us to debate the subject of women and equality more than 20 years after the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. The fact that we have to do so takes us far beyond any party political argument and goes to the very nature of British culture. Anyone who might dispute the need for this debate should take account of some very disturbing facts.

Male graduates aged between 20 and 24—that is largely before family responsibilities come along—in full-time employment earn more than their female counterparts even when they have achieved the same class of degree, studied the same subject and work in the same occupations and industries. The pay gap widens as they get older. There is a 25 per cent. pay gap by the time that they get to their late 30s.

Apart from the obvious lack of justice, that has knock-on effects. Women who have left employment constitute the poorest group of people in the country—the most dependent on state benefits. That is partly due to the fact that women take career breaks to have families, during which time they cannot contribute to a pension scheme. Moreover, many of the schemes are geared to the male model of unbroken service from first job to retirement. This is a wake-up call to all those designing new pension products: they must take account of the typical lifetime working model for women.

That is quantifiable. The average net entitlement to a pension is £67.68 per week, but that obscures the contrast in that the male average is £82 per week and the female

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average £59.29. Recently retired males have higher pension entitlements than females in the same position, because of their more complete contribution record and, on average, higher earned income.

The Fawcett Society, whose work I praise unreservedly, has established that only one in five women have set aside enough provision for their retirement. We should be shouting that from the rooftops, while there is still time for younger women to prepare. The problem is that the old reliance on a husband's earnings to provide enough for a couple to live on in old age has been blown apart by the rising divorce rate and incidence of family breakdown.

Women's capacity to prepare for a dignified retirement is not helped by the fact that many of the jobs open to women are part-time and poorly paid, leaving them little leeway to set aside savings for later life. The pay gap between the genders has remained largely unchanged for part-time women since the late 1970s: a staggering 41 per cent. Those are figures provided by the Equal Opportunities Commission. Inequalities exist even in well-established, female-dominated public sector professions such as nursing. Men are 80 per cent. more likely to be in the top nursing grade H than their female counterparts. Last year, 77 per cent. of all hospital consultants were men, and only 6 per cent. of consultant surgeons were women. I know only one female consultant who has managed to negotiate part-time working, but invariably her male colleagues unhelpfully arrange administration meetings on her day off.

The Employment Bill, which is currently going through the Lords, tries to address some areas of inequality, but we want to alert the Government to some health warnings. In February, women bosses at the Institute of Directors expressed concern about increasing employment rights for women and the possibly damaging effects of the Bill on their employability. Small businesses in particular are already groaning under the burden of red tape introduced by the Government. They favour voluntary arrangements between employers and their staff, not more legislation. Maternity leave legislation can be difficult to manage, especially for small companies. Employers currently have to keep a woman's job open when she is on maternity leave, but the woman has no obligation to return. Many women choose not to do so, and for small businesses that can lead to difficulties.

The evidence is that many women decide not to return to work because of the lack of affordable child care. The Government should concentrate their resources on that problem. What is being done to encourage employers to increase child care provision without placing extra burdens on employers? The depletion in the number of child minders, who feel that they are being pushed out by the Government's preference for institutional early-years education, has been a serious blow to working women, who need the flexible, domestic-based service that child minders can provide and which institutions find difficult to match.

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