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Helen Jackson: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; I am sure that she will be given injury time. I want to congratulate her wholeheartedly on her presence in the Chamber for this debate, but does she feel that she could do more to encourage more Liberal Democrat Members to take part? Members of her party occupy positions of responsibility in major cities such as Sheffield. Could she do more to encourage them to put the needs of women with regard to public transport and buses, for example, before the needs of the men who drive the private cars? Liberal Democrats are rapidly gaining a reputation for dismissing that policy area.

Sandra Gidley: I could give a typical male-type answer and bluff, but I will not. I am a female politician and we have a good reputation for honesty. I admit that I am disappointed that not a single other Liberal Democrat Member is present. I am so ashamed of that that I have no qualms about having my disappointment recorded in

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Hansard. I will take up the matter with my hon. Friends, and deliver a kick to the appropriate part of certain colleagues' anatomies.

I must add that some Liberal Democrat Members had constituency engagements—some of them involving women—that prevented them from attending, even though they wanted to. [Hon. Members: "Rubbish".] It is not rubbish. I am not in the habit of making false statements. The evidence speaks for itself, however, and I am disappointed.

I know that one of you is going to stand up and say, "Why didn't your party approve all-women shortlists?" You may well ask that question, as I was disappointed at that. I was on the other side of the argument, the side that lost.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Come and join us.

Sandra Gidley: It is not all about women.

My party has made a huge commitment both financially and in encouraging and mentoring women in ways not entirely dissimilar to the seminars that the Government are arranging around the country to attract more women into public life. Mentoring is important for women, and we are doing a lot of that behind the scenes. My party is doing more than that, however.

My party had 50-50 shortlists in the last European elections. That proved an effective way of ensuring that half our party's representatives in Europe are women. No one can say that those women did not get there on merit. They would probably have got there anyway.

I back the findings of the recent Equal Opportunities Commission survey. It pointed out that, in the absence of proportional representation—a subject that I am sorry to have to bring up—only positive discrimination will get more women into Parliament. That happened for the Labour party in 1997. I was disappointed that you went backwards—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Lady, but she must remember to use the correct parliamentary language. She keeps using the word "you", and she must not when she is making her remarks.

Sandra Gidley: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We have to find ways to use the measures that the Government have introduced. We have tried 50-50 shortlists in the past, but they have not always worked. I look forward with interest to finding out what all parties are going to do to deal with what will be a severe problem. Today is exceptional, in that there are more women than men in the Chamber. Normally, the opposite is true, and that is a barrier for women who want to enter the House. Unless the women's agenda is at the forefront of what we do, there will be no change.

I do not want to be completely carping today. The Government have achieved some success. Some Bills, such as the Employment Bill, have significantly enhanced the conditions of working parents. That must be a good thing, and it is a perfect example of putting women at the forefront of any legislation.

We must also try to make it easier for fathers to play an active part in raising their young. When we as a society speak of the women's agenda, we sometimes forget that many men would prefer to take a more active role in child care.

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I also warmly welcome the Government's commitment to the national minimum wage and to increasing the number of child care places. The target for the latter is 1.6 million by 2004, but nearly half those places remain to be found in the next two years. When the Minister replies, I hope that we will learn what measures have been put in place to ensure that the target is met.

The Minister mentioned part-time working, and the return of women to work after childbirth. Problems can still arise and, although things are getting better, we must continue to find ways to ensure that we take up the skills that are on offer. We must not offer women what many will consider to be an unacceptable, take-it-or-leave-it option.

I want to spend most of my time talking about women in the public services. Unfortunately, there is much evidence that institutionalised sexism persists in the NHS. Reports of more explicit discrimination at the more traditional level, especially among surgeons, are widespread. For reasons that may include lower career expectations, family breaks and inherent discrimination, reports indicate that women are paid less than men in the same profession.

Men are less likely to have as much academic training or as many qualifications as women, yet they are twice as likely to be boosted into the higher echelons of the NHS. Earlier, we heard figures that showed the discrepancies that exist in the NHS. Work by the Fawcett Society shows that 75 per cent. of NHS staff are women, and that 88 per cent. of nurses are female. However, women doctors on average earn £180 a week less than men, and they are reported to work longer hours. We cannot say that we do not get value for money.

One reason for the persistent pay gap is that women are generally under-represented in senior and management grades. Even in the female-dominated nursing profession, only 77 per cent. of staff at managerial level are women. The Fawcett Society figures show that 63 per cent. of psychiatric nurses are female, but that only 47 per cent. of managers are female.

Women make up just over half the total number of house officers and senior house officers, but, at about 21 per cent. according to the latest figures, they are still under-represented among consultants. Even then, variations persist, with women accounting for 5 per cent. of surgeons, and for fewer than 20 per cent. of consultants in accident and emergency and general medicine. However, women account for a dizzy 37.6 per cent. of paediatricians.

More women than men in the NHS choose to take advantage of flexible working contracts. That option allows workers to enjoy the equivalent of part-time posts, but there are no job shares at consultant level. The Government have made no long-term commitment to providing adequate funding for junior flexible working contracts, although a two-year funding sticking plaster has been applied. I hope that the Government will commit to dealing with some of the more long-term problems.

More women are entering medicine. Many will want a break, for family reasons. We have to accept that women have babies and leave work for a while. That is what we do—not best, but certainly better than men. I hope that the Minister will say what assessment has been made of the extra numbers of doctors who will have to be trained,

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in addition to what is set out in the NHS plan. A severe gender crisis is quickly coming down the tracks in the NHS, but I have not seen that acknowledged.

In higher education, the pay gap is supposed to have narrowed by 10 per cent. over the past decade, but if one analyses it, one finds that the gap has increased in the past five years and is now about 17 per cent. On average, men earn £113 more a week. The gravest example is in St. George's hospital medical school, where the pay gap is 45 per cent., which we should all be ashamed of.

The Government have some control over the NHS and the education service, but it appears that it is still just jobs for the boys. Will the Government commit to undertaking pay audits in those sectors so that the process is more transparent and we can see more readily whether there is any deliberate, institutional or accidental discrimination?

We have touched on the election, and I shall not dwell on private grief, so I shall turn to public bodies. In 2001, of those serving on public bodies, 34 per cent. were women. That has risen by less than 2 per cent. since 1997. The target seems to have slipped: it was for 50-50 representation, but the latest figure is between 45 and 50 per cent. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the target for all Government bodies, and the date by which it will be achieved? There seems to be confusion about that.

In non-departmental public bodies, only 27 per cent. of women are at executive level, and even fewer, 25 per cent., are at advisory level. In the Prison Service, only 17 per cent. of the members of boards of visitors are women. As has been said, nationalised industries hit the bottom of the scale at 14 per cent. female representation, and only the NHS is approaching respectability at 43 per cent., but that must be set in the context of the overall gender balance of the work force.

I admit that there are problems similar to those faced by political parties. The boys do not want to give up their jobs, and they make it very difficult for women to progress in their careers. For many roles there is a still a man-shaped hole to fill, and we have to get past that. Chairmen, or chairpersons, of the board do not have to be men, and MPs do not have to be men, but if one asks somebody to describe an MP or a chairperson, they will come up with a male figure. We must challenge some of those perceptions and smash those stereotypes.

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