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Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): Does the hon. Lady think that it would be a good idea for the Liberal Democrats' spokesperson for women to be a woman, rather than a man?

Sandra Gidley: I am the spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, and the last time I looked, I was still female.

While preparing for the debate, I accessed the Women's National Commission website. The personal experience section was well meant, but I am not sure that it had the right image. If I had been accessing the site as a woman looking for a job, or a way into a public body, I would have been slightly put off by the fact that at the top of the list was a dame, closely followed by a baroness. What should have been at the top was everyday stories of female folk, so that a woman looking at the site thinks, "Yes, I can do that too. I can take part." The perception that we have even of the women in public life can be somewhat skewed by the images that are portrayed.

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Women have had the vote for over 70 years, but unfortunately we still have a long way to go before we achieve equality. I hope that all of us here today are committed to working towards that and, as much as possible, to working together.

4.44 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): Those who are of a certain age—my age or a bit younger—may remember the weekly article that used to be written in a lovely style by Jill Tweedie. It was called "Diary of a Faint-Hearted Feminist". At that time, I regarded myself as being in that category. I have changed a bit, and I am a little less faint-hearted—although I would still not call myself a militant feminist—probably as a result of being in this place for five years and enduring the gentleman's club-like attitudes and atmosphere of the Chamber and the Smoking Rooms.

In addition, I have had to do a great deal of work, which is a great pleasure but upsets me at times, to help my young Asian women and girls. That has pushed me a little towards militant feminism because I do get a bit angry with the attitude of some of the so-called, self-styled Asian leaders in the Bradford area. I think that it is a Bradford thing, and perhaps someone will inform me whether it has spread to other parts.

In February 1999, I secured an Adjournment debate, which I called "Human Rights (Women)", so that it did not seem too controversial. I was petrified of calling it "Forced Marriages", although it was about the forced marriages of Asian women and girls. We have four men here today. On that morning, I think that only one man was present. He was from Bradford, and he nodded in all the right places but he did not participate in the debate, so not a single man spoke from the Labour Benches on that important issue. That was the first time that forced marriages had been mentioned in Parliament, and I regarded the debate with some trepidation. In fact, I was terrified.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), who has left her seat, was present that day and, to give her credit, she spoke well on the subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) also spoke in the debate. It was a good debate, but it was a pity that we did not have more men participating. I wonder to this day why that was the case. Why do men move away from confronting this particularly terrible situation that so many Asian girls find themselves in? I am not moving away from it; I am sticking with it.

I am delighted with many of the measures that the Government have introduced. This is not a party political broadcast, and I rarely make such comments. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) mentioned that 420 young women and girls have been repatriated, some from India and many from Bangladesh and Pakistan. That happened not with the wave of a magic wand but because the Government focused on the matter. Since I raised the subject three years ago, they have been working assiduously to stop that practice. They started with a Home Office working group, and then both the Home Office and the Foreign Office set up action plans. All that sounds terribly trendy, and in some cases it may not mean anything, but in this case it did.

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The Foreign Office set up a consular desk simply to look after girls who had been whisked away. As the hon. Lady said, 420 have been repatriated in the last 18 months. The consular division of the Foreign Office also launched a video last Monday, and I do not know whether it is an accident but that seemed to coincide with international women's day. The video explains what marriage is all about. One would not think that it was necessary, but it is. It explains the value of marriage in all sections of the community, including arranged marriage. It stated specifically what an arranged marriage can be, and I would not knock arranged marriages because they can be vastly superior to some of our own methods. The video went on to talk about forced marriages, and three people spoke about their experience of those.

That is excellent stuff, and the Government have done very well. The Home Office has at last recognised the need for English to be spoken. The White Paper suggests that young men and women who come here as husbands and wives ought to be learning English. That is already a vague requirement for citizenship, but the requirement will be more precise, and a good knowledge of English will be needed, as will a knowledge of institutions, rights and responsibilities. All that is very good, and it will improve the lot of many of my Asian women and young girls.

The indigenous community should not be too smug. We are not all that good when it comes to gender equality. If we were, there would be equal numbers of men and women in this place and in many other institutions. There would not be a glass ceiling for executive women in business.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I join the hon. Lady in congratulating the Home Office on the excellent work that it has done in promoting marriage among her ethnic minority constituents. Will she join me in regretting the Government's decision this week to withdraw funding from national marriage week?

Mrs. Cryer: I was not aware of that. I am not sure how much difference that will make. I am in favour of marriage, as I think are most of us on the Government Benches. We cannot all get married for various reasons but, by and large, the Government are in favour of marriage. A great deal has been done. The video to which I have referred explains clearly that marriage is a good thing. It does not knock marriage. It deals with the issue of forced marriage.

If we had followed the Scandinavian example, we would by now have equal numbers of men and women in this place and in the other place. That would be good. It would send out a message to the Asian community that we are concerned about gender equality.

Unfortunately, the only way that we could start to move towards gender equality in this place was to have all-women shortlists. That is not a perfect system, and I do not think that any of us consider it to be so. However, I think that it is as good as we shall get. The Scandinavians can have equal numbers because they have list systems, but I do not particularly like such systems because they give too much power to the leadership, and I am opposed to that. I prefer to stick with the first-past-the-post system, so the only way in which we can bring about improvement is to have all-women

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shortlists. I am pleased that the Conservative party will be adopting that system. I wish that the Liberal Democrats would do so, and all power to the elbow of the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley).

Shortly after being elected to this place, I joined the Council of Europe and became a member of its equal opportunities committee. International women's day took place recently, and we passed a letter that was to be sent to the Nigerian ambassador in Paris. We meet in Paris. The letter reads:

That is next Tuesday. I am reading the letter so that all Members may make representations to the Nigerian embassy in London. The letter continues:

The case is horrific. I hope that everyone will write to the Nigerian embassy to make it clear that what is happening is entirely unacceptable. Whether it is labelled Sharia or whatever, it is unacceptable.

There is a less than satisfactory state of affairs within the indigenous population. For example, there is the Church of England. I tabled early-day motion 755 about a month ago, which is headed "Gender Equality in the Church of England". I will skip through it quickly. It reads:

I do not have time to go into what flying bishops are, but I am sure that some Members know what I am talking about.

A young lady went to a selection conference for ordination. She was questioned closely about her child care arrangements. Were the young men at that selection conference questioned equally closely about their child care arrangements? Even if they were, it would be unfair if selection conferences were to come down against young women on that ground. She was not selected, and she felt strongly that those conducting the conference were assuming that she could not cope with child care and being a Church of England vicar.

Many women Members cope well—I am amazed by them—with young children and a job in this place. Some of them are Ministers.

Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) tabled early-day motion 927, which is headed, "Military Action against Iraq". By and large, wars are waged by men. I know that this is a generality, but wars are suffered mainly by women and their children. I supported the Government on the need for intervention

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in Afghanistan because I loathed and detested the Taliban because of their attitude to and cruelty to women. However, I would have grave reservations about any attack on Iraq.


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