Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has put a time limit of 12 minutes on all Back-Bench speeches, which applies from now on. We have had three statements today, which has taken a lot of time out of this debate and many hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If Members can limit their remarks to less than 12 minutes, fewer of them will be disappointed.

4.16 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I welcome this debate. It is too rare that we discuss the issue of equality and women, and we need to acknowledge that those two

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1077

words still do not mesh together as well as they should. Equality for women is still a long way off. However, many of the formal barriers that women used to have to jump over have gone. The higher pass marks for those girls trying to get into grammar schools have gone. Lower pay for women teachers has theoretically gone, although in practice we know that women in the public services are not paid as well as men. I also wish the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) luck in his attempt to get rid of another formal barrier to women in private clubs.

We know, however, that women still face constant and chronic disadvantages that make our society less effective. Like the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), I looked at the issue in an international context. As a supporter of an organisation called Womankind Worldwide, I wish to focus on four areas of literacy that it has described as important for women in developing countries and that are also important for women in Britain today. Those are literacies of the word, of money, of the body and of civic society.

The obvious literacy that we all know about is the right to read. Indeed, my maiden speech was about the human right to read. I celebrate wholeheartedly the improvements in children's literacy achieved through the literacy strategy. When I first stood for election, less than half of 11-year-olds in my constituency reached the expected literacy standards, but that figure is now up to three quarters. That is good work, but an important job remains. We must give women in the poorest countries access to the right to read, but we must also give it to women in this country. Women who did not succeed in school or benefit from developed literacy strategies often work in jobs with less access to learning and training on the job than men have. We need to focus directly on women's education.

We could make a difference in two specific areas. The first is those jobs where women help other women and other professionals to do their job better—nursing auxiliaries and teaching assistants are the two that come to mind. Fantastic, talented women who missed out in their first education do those jobs for terrible pay—teaching assistants, for example, are often only paid in term-time—and have the capacity to achieve more but cannot afford to take time out of those poorly paid jobs to go on full-time training courses. There are still not enough opportunities for teaching assistants to become teachers. I used to teach people to be teachers, and I know what it takes to be a good primary teacher.

First, it takes the ability to talk to children. I used to work at one of the most high-powered education institutes in this country, and I taught many clever young men who did not know how to talk to children—it was as though they were talking to Martians. The wonderful thing about teaching assistants is that they know how to talk to children, so they have the first thing that they need.

We must do a better job for nursing auxiliaries and teaching assistants to give them a ladder on which they can progress from their present situation to gain professional qualifications. For the most dynamic among them, those ladders exist. However, we need to give them leg-ups and more help. That would not only give women more opportunities but help to solve the teaching and nursing shortages in constituencies such as mine.

The second area of education that is important to women is English for speakers of other languages. Many women who come to this country operate in their first

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1078

language all the time. They do not get access to learning English, which cuts them off from access to the economy in many ways. We must ensure that women migrants get an early chance to learn English when they come here. I welcome those elements of the Home Secretary's proposals that will make that more possible, but I urge the Minister for Women to give him more power to his elbow, particularly in relation to women.

On money, the Government have made a big difference for women in our Budgets. For the first time, we know how much better women have done than men from them. I am glad to say that, and it is right. Unless the Budget deals with some of the income inequalities that chronically disadvantage women, they will continue. We are still miles behind on equal pay. Britain is still 12th out of 15 in the EU in the width of the pay gap, and we must make more of a difference. I urge Ministers to lead the way in the public sector by using pay audits and by publicising schemes—having learned from the pay audit about levels of inequality—to tackle it.

As a corollary of what I was saying about teaching assistants and nursing auxiliaries, we also need to provide more opportunities and support for women to get to the top of the professions and the jobs that they do. We all know that in almost every area, the largest number of men are at the top, and the largest number of women are at the bottom of almost any career structure, whether it is university lecturers and vice-chancellors, or, as the hon. Member for Meriden said, nurses at H-grade or the bottom grade. A particular task for the Government is to challenge institutions in the public sector and companies in the private sector not just to promote women but to give them opportunities for training and learning.

The other times when we can make a big difference to the money situation of women is at the youngest age of life and at the oldest. Ensuring that women have access to affordable child care is a high priority. Nursery vouchers were the beginning of a mistake that in some ways the Government have made worse by introducing an earlier start for children's formal schooling. Too many children at just four years of age are going into primary schools. That is not the best place for a four-year-old. The learning that they need when they are rising five and just over three is about how to share their toys, how to queue up, how to listen and how to play nicely. Those things are not best taught in a reception class; they are much better taught in a playgroup or nursery. I worry that in our charge for high standards, we have sometimes forgotten that we start formal education earlier in this country than in any other in the world. There may be a price to pay for that. Research in America on the High/Scope Perry pre-school project found that children who had an early experience of constructive play were more likely to go to university and less likely to go to prison than children who had no pre-school experience or children who had a formal educational experience too early.

The third literacy is that of the body. We urgently need to ensure that women's health is taken more seriously. Until very recently, all drugs were tested on men, and decisions on giving those drugs to women were based on men's test results. Women's bodies are less predictable because our hormone levels change from month to month, so it was thought that we were not such good subjects for testing. Nobody thought that it was not a good idea to assume that our bodies would react in the same way to drugs as men's bodies. Although drug testing is beginning

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1079

to change, the same mindset determines which drugs to test. Therefore, the sorts of drugs being developed to deal with heart attacks and strokes relate to the heart attack patterns of men—who have their heart attacks at 40—and not to the heart attack patterns of women, who have their heart attacks after the menopause. We need to ensure that the Department of Health considers that issue, and that we consider the other issue that affects people's health—housing. In my constituency, women who live in disgusting housing keep telling me about how it is damaging the health of their children.

I shall now deal with civic society and women's role in it. The hon. Member for Meriden said that men in her party recognise that it has been a struggle for women to become Members, so they do not discriminate against them. However, I was in the Lobby with a man from her party the other day who was surprised by the number of women there. He said, "How nice it is to see all these pretty fillies here." I thought to myself, "What century are we living in?" He was certainly living in a different one from me. Women achieve positions of power on merit, even if we are helped by positive action programmes. Let us look at what women who are here through the women-only shortlist process have achieved. Putting women into these positions means that thought is given to the consequences of policy—the school-run rather than just roads and trains, and about how women live their lives. Unless policy addresses things such as the dog poo in the lift or the man exposing himself—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady has had her 12 minutes.

4.29 pm

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I welcome this debate and hope that it will become an annual event.

It was interesting to hear the Minister reflect on how far we have come in 50 years. It gave me pause to reflect that, even 27 years ago, when I first went to university, all my parents' relatives were saying, "Why are you encouraging her to go to university? Education is wasted on a girl." That was not so long ago. We have taken great strides since.

Next Section

IndexHome Page