Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I hope that the hon. Ladies on the Government Benches will forgive the voters of Newark and Retford for taking an equal opportunities approach at the general election and reducing their number by one. I hope that that will not be held against me.

The other day I was in the village of Elkesley, which is one of the more remote villages between Newark and Retford. I spoke to a young lady who was finishing school and about to take her A-levels. I asked her what she intended to go on to do. She said that she was going to university, where she would be sponsored by her employers. That struck me as very sensible and I asked her who they were. She said they were the Royal Navy. I asked what she intended to do in the Royal Navy. She said that she was hoping to go to Dartford to be commissioned and then to become a seaman officer. I thought that that was marvellous. My service experience started at a time when a very different approach was taken to women. I hope that Miss Shani Dyer has a successful and rewarding career on a completely equal footing with the men of the Royal Navy.

I was surprised to read this morning in The Times an article entitled "Army gets 'bitch TV' treatment". Hon. Members may not know what bitch television is, but I shall enlighten them. The article states:

Life has changed. What I saw in the armed forces was very different and I hope and trust that things remain the same.

I was at Sandhurst in 1974 and 1975, with no ladies present at all. They were trained elsewhere—at their own college just up the road. We frequently tried to invade it, without much success. I then joined an infantry battalion on operations in Northern Ireland, again with no women present. By the time I left the Army, female naval ratings were serving at sea on board warships and some 70 per cent. of the jobs in the Army were available to women. The Women's Royal Army Corps had ceased to exist and women were being badged to combat arms, and to all arms of the service, in one of the most sensible, pragmatic and reasonable approaches to equality of employment across the spectrum.

My first introduction to that approach was when I was picked to be my battalion's intelligence officer in Belfast in 1982. I inherited, much to the envy of my colleagues, a platoon of the Women's Royal Navy Service. Much ribald comment was made about those women, but in the difficult, cramped and dangerous conditions of Belfast in the 1980s they proved to be more than equal to the task. I hope that it will not sound patronising—it is not meant to—if I say that those women had a particular gift for picking up intelligence matter, processing it and coming up with conclusions that men would not have the eye for detail to produce. It was also reassuring to be driven in plain clothes in a civilian car by an armed and dangerous Wren, who—I hope—gave the opposition every impression of normal life. I am not sure that that was always the case.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1103

Let us consider the example of foreign armies. The Israelis have long had an integrated policy for their women soldiers, sailors and airmen. It has not worked in their combat arms. The Serbs, whom I have seen at close quarters several times in the past few years, had women soldiers in the front line, acting as signallers, drivers and couriers. They often worked behind enemy lines but not actually in the firing line. I suppose that female suicide bombers are an example of total equal opportunities. There is no form of more dangerous combat activity and, mercifully, it is unlikely to happen in this country.

It is interesting to see how women have been absorbed into the Army. Most of the combat arms accept women—the Royal Signallers, the Royal Engineers and the Royal Artillery. I come back to a point made by the hon. and gallant Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce)—that the Royal Artillery has been particularly successful. No soldiers are further forward on the battle line than the Royal Artillery. Women in the Royal Artillery serve right up at the front in forward observation units, but not necessarily on the gun line. I shall return to that in a moment, and some Labour Members may want to comment on that point. Women are also in the Army Air Corps flying combat helicopters.

I draw the House's attention to one category of women who give the lie to many of the armed forces' policies. Although to the best of my knowledge there are no women in the Special Air Service, there are certainly women serving on special duties. Without going into details, those special duties are restricted entirely to operations in Northern Ireland and in similar theatres elsewhere. A very small number of those women, who are committed on a daily basis to combat duties, have been in action and have been decorated for their gallantry by the Queen. However, I emphasise that they are a very small number of women and a very special group. It is therefore probably right that units such as the infantry and the Royal Armoured Corps do not accept women into their ranks.

I was visited by representatives of the Equal Opportunities Commission when I was serving with a Warrior battalion—an armoured personnel carrier- equipped battalion. The commission representatives were allowed to sit in the back of a Warrior during nuclear, biological and chemical warfare training. The vehicle was closed down in total darkness and there was no movement outside the vehicle for as long as the attack lasted. After a couple of hours, two of the lady members of the team said, "We'd like to go to the loo, please." The answer was, "Please carry on." The ladies reached to get out of the vehicle, which, clearly, they could not do in those conditions. They replied, "Sorry, we don't understand." They were then told, "There's a chemical lavatory in the back of the vehicle." There were seven bodies in the back of that vehicle, two of whom were women. One can imagine that seven hairy infantrymen carrying out nature's functions would be unpleasant enough—I dare say that if the whole crew had been female it would have been pleasant enough—but those ladies blanched and never returned to the question of women trying to serve in infantry units. I would make exactly the same points about tank crews and other armoured vehicle crews. There are simple, straightforward limits.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1104

I was involved in gender-free testing while I was still serving, and I think that a Labour Member was also involved. There is a tendency in the Army to be concerned that women will work their wiles and end up in the Parachute Regiment, in the Royal Marines or manning a general purpose machine gun. We heard earlier about the test to lift a Royal Artillery shell for an AS90 self-propelled gun. That test is almost impossible to achieve—possible but difficult—for a very fit and well-trained man. It was designed to keep women away from the gun line.

The Army employs a full colonel on a salary of more than £60,000 a year to make sure that these issues are properly considered and properly treated. My experience—and possibly that of other hon. Members—is that women do not want to serve in those capacities. Very few women wish to be in the infantry, although some do. Very few women want to become paratroopers, although some do. The armed forces are guilty of being terribly narrow minded about an issue that is not an issue.

We have seen women taking their right and proper place in the armed forces—well forward, doing tremendous jobs and bearing the brunt of operations at home and abroad. I suggest that we should honour them for that, treat them with total equality and understand that they serve just as properly and just as gallantly as men.

6.14 pm

Laura Moffatt (Crawley): It always shocks me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to realise that only 252 of the 4,500 Members of Parliament elected since 1918 have been women.

I have listened with interest to the debate and to the comments made by my sisters and colleagues on the Labour Benches, and by other hon. Members. I am never ashamed of using the word "sisters", because that is what we are. We celebrate the fact that we are women taking part in a process that we hope makes a difference for women outside the House.

The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said that the Conservative party would support all-women shortlists in an attempt to get more women into Parliament, but I could see the expressions on the faces of her—mostly male—colleagues behind her. I have a strange feeling that some of them will not share my celebrations at the announcement.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I think that the hon. Lady may be mistaken. I understood my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) to say that the Conservative party would look carefully at its selection process, to ensure that women have the best possible chances. I do not believe that we have endorsed all-women shortlists.

Laura Moffatt: What a surprise. I think that we will let that statement lie on the Floor of the House.

Last weekend, many hon. Members will, like me, have celebrated international women's day and mothering Sunday with women in their communities. We got into the roots of our communities, and found out the difficulties and needs of women there. I attended my community centre to enjoy the celebrations, to send cards and chocolate, and to talk about what it means to be a women under a Labour Government. The women to

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1105

whom I spoke were very pleased about much of what has been done. For example, the working families tax credit has transformed my neighbourhood, and the child care element of the credit has done an enormous amount for women in the south-east.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will raise the lower limit to allow more women access to child care. That will get them where they want to be—out in the work place, where they can make their way in the world, while their children get the first-class care that they enjoy so much. Women Members of Parliament must represent women and ensure that women's needs are brought to the fore. I have no doubt that lots of male hon. Members will co-operate and support us.

I have never been ashamed of the fact that I was selected through an all-women shortlist. I am proud of that because men dominate my constituency Labour party, and they were the ones who voted for an all-women shortlist. They wanted to be part of what happened in 1997 in this House, and to be able to say that they had assisted women to increase female representation here. I salute them for that, and for the fact that they stuck by the decision. People must not think that women feel like second-class Members of Parliament, because we certainly do not.

Women continue to face problems, such as with the Child Support Agency. We are beginning to put things right, but the list of difficulties remains long. Many of them have been dealt with well in today's debate, but I want to turn to international matters. It is easy to talk about great international affairs, such as the catastrophe in Afghanistan, but we must remember that, in recent history, women used to be able to be elected to the Parliament there. Such women are supported by women in this Parliament, particularly on this side of the House. It is important that we bring those issues to the fore.

We have talked about a woman in Nigeria who is to undergo a stoning. We hope that the practice is in abeyance, but as an international issue, it is still much to the fore. Women's greatest difficulties arise when there is no news for them, and when things are happening off the radar screen of Members of Parliament. That is why I want to say something about the work of the National Council of the Resistance of Iran. Its women's committee has worked tirelessly, and many hon. Members will have been approached by it. Its work is difficult because there is never anything different to say; they just have to keep ploughing on, trying to get our support and bringing to our attention all the difficulties that women experience in Iran today.

We have talked about one Nigerian woman, and that is bad enough, but since that case, four women in Iran have died from stoning. We have said and done nothing about that. That is why it is so important that the women's committee works tirelessly with us. Today, a very successful event in the House of Commons tried to bring those issues to the fore on the front burner. We must understand that in Iran executions continue in their thousands, as do public floggings, which can be meted out just because a woman is not wearing her head-dress properly or behaving as a good Muslim woman should.

We have been talking about equality. Let us take an example of inequality in Iran. Men who have been condemned to death by stoning are buried up to their waist

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1106

first, and there is a small chance of them escaping. When women are stoned to death, they are buried up to their armpits so that their breasts are not damaged, but of course they have no chance of escaping that terrible death. These are the issues that we need to bring to the attention of all Parliaments in the world.

Suicide is an enormous issue in Iran. Many women kill themselves because they have few or no opportunities. Many are educated, and some can take advantage of their education, but 64 per cent. of women with a degree cannot use it in any way to assist their country. Ensuring that women can play their part is not simply about soft, equality issues; it is about hard economics, health and educating our children.

This is probably the most important thing that we will ever discuss, and I sincerely hope that we continue to hold this debate in future years. It is important that we are able to raise these issues and take them forward. I am glad that we can celebrate improvements for women and press for further gains. We must make sure that we make life better for women around the world.

Next Section

IndexHome Page