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5.31 pm

Sandra Osborne (Ayr): I, too, welcome the debate because I have always regarded international women's day as a time of celebration. Indeed, I used to work for Women's Aid in Scotland, and our celebration lasted a whole week, so I am comfortable with carrying it on as long as possible.

Legislation on equal treatment and the promotion of policies to ensure the participation of all citizens in our society—women and men alike—so that they are represented equally in the economy, in decision making and in social, cultural and civil life as part of their human rights, have made a great deal of progress domestically, at a European level and on an international basis through the United Nations. The Scottish Parliament, although in its infancy, is making significant progress on new ways of working that are more relevant to women in the community.

There is still a gap, however. Not all the progress has been translated on a daily basis to produce equal rights between men and women. Women often do not enjoy equal rights in various spheres. Structural gender inequalities remain in place, fundamentally for the same reasons as always—the issue of power, where it lies, and how it is exercised in society in the private and public sectors.

Many of the struggles for equality that women have pursued, as the Minister said, until recently led to an extension of rights and responsibilities to women as if they were the same as men. Other hon. Members alluded to the fact that that created the burden of the dual role of women being left largely unquestioned and taken for granted. Ironically, that approach recently created the image of the emancipated woman who can work, look after a home and children and participate in the public world all at the same time. Many of us can do that, but is the situation ideal and what pressures does it bring?

The Minister also mentioned the sexual division of labour. She suggested that more progress has been made than I would perhaps recognise. I do not see in my daily life or in the lives of many of my female constituents men doing anything like their fair share of caring or domestic responsibilities. Although things have improved, there is a long way to go.

I welcome gender mainstreaming, an approach by the Government to acknowledge that women's concerns, needs and aspirations are taken into account and assume the same importance as men's concerns in the design and implementation of policies. In parallel with bringing issues that have a direct and indirect impact on the lives of women into the heart of policy making, we also need to take specific actions in favour of women to address the particular problems that the Minister and others mentioned. They include low pay, the national child care strategy, equal pay, women's representation and violence against women. I spent 16 years working in the field of

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domestic violence before I was elected, and the subject is very close to my heart. Violence against women is at the extreme of a continuum of oppression of women that is world wide and no respecter of class, colour or creed, as the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who is not in her place, has said. It has its roots in the male abuse of power.

It is welcome that the Government have played such a prominent part in addressing domestic violence. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) highlighted the possibility of keeping women in the home where they had been subjected to domestic violence. From my many years of experience, I believe that there is still a need, which will continue in the long term, for refuge provision as well. We cannot say that we are making real progress until we make sure that every woman and child escaping domestic violence has a refuge space to go to if that is required. We still have a long way to go in that respect.

It is not all down to Government or to mainstream political activity. Meaningful changes in women's lives are also dependent on social movements within civil society. Historically, women have relied on movements such as the women's movement—of which I am proud to regard myself as a member—to make advances and pressurise the Government to make advances for women, and I believe that that is still the case today.

There can be no more stark reminder of the difficulties that women have faced in trying to seek equality than in the lack, historically, of decent, affordable child care. The dearth of child care in this country, which was almost bottom of the European Union league table for many years, was an outrage and a disgrace. Cuts in public services over the years meant that nursery places were like gold and, when my children were young, people could not get a nursery place for love or money. At that stage, like many other women, I did not have the money.

The hon. Member for Meriden did not like to go over the history of her party in this regard, and who can blame her? However, I am old enough to remember the Tories' so-called "back to basics" campaign, which sought to dismantle the welfare state and create a welfare society based on women's unpaid labour. When we think of the effects of that policy on poor women and lone parents during that horrible time in our history, we may be cynical now about the Tories' new-found concerns about public services.

In those days, as the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) said, many women had to rely on state benefits or on partners who could be unreliable in supporting their partners and children. That is one of the reasons for the introduction of the Child Support Agency, although it turned out to be a disaster for a long time.

Child care has always been key to women's economic independence. That is why I particularly welcome the national child care strategy and the working families tax credit, which have benefited many in my constituency.

On low pay, again we have the worst record in the EU. I recognise that the Government are making progress and have plans to improve the situation. I do not think that a gender gap of 18 per cent. is good enough. There has been tremendous progress, but in this day and age such a gap should not exist.

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I support the recommendations of the equal pay taskforce in its report "Just Pay", commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission, for legislation to ensure that pay reviews are carried out. We will not get equal pay with voluntary arrangements. All the evidence shows that these things never happen in that way. I ask the Minister to comment on that.

I have strong views about women's representation and very much welcome the legislation that the Government have introduced with all-party support. I hope that, as the Minister stated, we will see real progress and specific measures to improve the situation. I have absolute disdain for the lost opportunity at the 2001 election in Scotland, when many former male Members of this House went to the Scottish Parliament and, with two exceptions, were replaced by men, when there was an ideal opportunity to make places for women.

I get frustrated about the amount of time that we must spend campaigning on this issue. I do not think that every woman wants to be a Member of Parliament. They are concerned about other issues and it would be good if we did not have to spend so much time dealing with it.

In conclusion, I mentioned the superwoman that we are all supposed to be in society now. I will treat the House to a part of my speech to the Scottish Labour group's Burns supper, which concerns the superwoman, whose typical day goes like this:

I did not make that up—it was written by an American woman writer.

I prefer the words of Elaine C. Smith, a famous Scottish actress. Referring to the women curlers' success recently in winning a gold medal, she said:

5.43 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): All I can say after the speech of the hon. Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne) is, in the words of the film, "I'll have what she's having!"

I am almost uniquely unqualified to take part in this debate on women and equality, according to my wife. She says that she will read the debate in Hansard, so I must mind what I say. For years, she has been trying to get me to read "The Female Eunuch" by Germaine Greer, and a book that is apparently called, "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus". I have read neither of those books, so I cannot argue about what they might contribute to my greater understanding of the problem.

We have heard some interesting things in the debate, although I will temper what I am about to say by pointing out that when men speak on a matter that is so predominantly a woman's issue we can occasionally stray between humbug, cliché, condescension and being politically correct. There has been a fair amount of those in equal measure this afternoon.

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I am mindful of the time and that others wish to speak, but must refer to what my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), who is no longer present, said about his Bill. I understood—it was a misunderstanding—that the legislation would mean that male-only private clubs would have to admit women, and vice versa. I understand now that that is not the case. The Bill deals with clubs that allow in both sexes and would ensure that they were treated equally. That came as something of a disappointment to me, as for quite a while I have been trying to gain access to Sanctuary—the all-women health club and spa. Joking apart, as the new president of the council of western Conservative clubs, which consists of 160 affiliated Conservative clubs in the west country, I assure my hon. Friend—or I would if he were in his place—that I shall ensure that there is equal treatment of both genders in those clubs, if that is within my remit.

Recently, I served with great interest on the Tax Credits Bill Standing Committee. Many of the arguments that we have heard this afternoon were rehearsed during the passage of that Bill—the working families tax credit, the replacement value of women and so on. As we know, many women are trapped at home with their children—as my wife is. The other day a poll showed men's assessment of the replacement value of their wives. It was a pathetically small amount—about £6,000 a year—although we all know that the real amount is well in excess of £60,000. For too long, some men—I hope I am not of their number—have taken for granted the enormous amount of work that women undertake in the home, bringing up children.

The Secretary of State referred to the work-family balance, which will be of increasing importance as we have more leisure time, greater flexibility in the workplace and more job sharing. However, I am concerned that the measures that are slowly being introduced will increase the general burden on small businesses through additional costs. We should bear that in mind.

I shall talk later about retirement and pensions, but I want briefly to refer to women in senior executive positions, where their numbers are woefully inadequate. Women in such positions are held up as the exception when they should be the norm.

I am surprised that we have not spent more time talking about education this afternoon, although if there is inequality in education, it affects males rather than females. Given that a larger proportion of women enter the teaching profession, the educational results are interesting. For example, in their last year of compulsory education, 55 per cent. of girls but only 44 per cent. of boys gain five or more A to C grades, or standard grades 1 to 3 at SCE—Scottish Certificate of Education.

We should debate the shortage of men in the teaching profession. It is argued that males underperform, especially in primary school, owing to the lack of men in the profession. I do not know whether that is true. I prefer the view of Chris Woodhead, the former head of Ofsted:

I wholeheartedly agree with that: teachers can be good or bad—regardless of sex. We should consider what we can learn from the fact that girls perform better in school.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) pointed out that we fail girls as regards sex education in schools. We should teach them about the loneliness of being single mothers—so that they do not end up feeling as lonely as the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who is the lone representative of her party here this afternoon.

As we have heard, women often suffer because they have to dip in and out of work. They need greater flexibility so that they can re-enter the work force after they have children. There is no doubt that, in the past, they were penalised for that. I hope that current and future legislation will recognise that. To some extent it has done so already.

We should also consider the type of work that women actually get. Too often, they are trapped in traditionally low-paid jobs in care homes—that is especially true in my constituency—or as shelf stackers. We have already heard about nurses. Women work as social workers, cleaners and so on. That is a very real problem.

I want to touch on a subject that I know my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) wants to speak about later: the equality of women in the armed forces. I was in the armed forces, and I think that women play an increasingly important role in them. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster that they should be there on their own merit, and there should be no dumbing down. We should certainly have extremely strong reservations about allowing women to operate on the front line in some areas of combat.

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