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6.23 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate, not only on behalf of all my women constituents but, from a personal point of view, because I have three young daughters. I want them to grow up in a world where they have every possible opportunity to fulfil all their potential in whatever way they choose. It is absolutely right that they should have equal opportunities in employment, and it is worrying to learn of the gender gap in pay.

I was particularly struck by the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) of new graduates entering employment. Even at that early stage, before female graduates have taken on any family responsibilities, there is already a gender pay gap. That is unacceptable. I hope that it will increasingly be phased out as employers realise that it is not acceptable at the start of the 21st century.

I pay tribute to various prominent female members of my community. There are notably three who have an especially distinguished record in local government. Councillor Mary Biswell is the mayor of Dunstable. She has a distinguished record, notably in raising money for charity, for many good causes.

Councillor Pat Staples is the chairman of South Bedfordshire district council. She, too, is an extremely hard-working community councillor, and well loved throughout the district. Finally, there is Councillor Angela Roberts, the deputy leader of Bedfordshire county council. She is an inspiration to all her colleagues on the council. These women are valued and prominent members of my local community who contribute wholeheartedly to local government throughout Bedfordshire.

I listened carefully to the way in which the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry introduced the debate. I am pleased that I largely agreed with many of her points. I listened carefully when she talked about what women wanted. I am pleased that she said that it was not for the Government to dictate to or impose a particular lifestyle on women, or men.

It is important that we have a genuine respect for the choices that women make at different stages of their lives and careers. I want a level playing field, so that there is real choice for women when they consider having children in terms of going to work and returning to work.

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I commend to the House the considerable work of Dr. Catherine Hakim, who is a senior research fellow in sociology at the London school of economics. Her conclusions are that women split into three broad categories, which are roughly as follows.

About 20 per cent. of women prefer to have a largely home-centred lifestyle. That is where they are fulfilled. They choose to do that, and should be supported and encouraged in that important work.

About another 20 per cent. of women wish to have an entirely work-centred lifestyle. They will commit themselves entirely to a career. Often they will stay with one employer for a long time and not enter into responsibilities as a parent.

The vast majority of women—the remaining 60 per cent.—are what Dr. Hakim described as having an "adaptive preference". They will want to go between the worlds of home and work at various stages in their career. It is important that we bear that in mind. We should not think that there is only one model for women in the work force.

These findings from the academic world were born out by a survey in 2001 that was undertaken by the magazine Top Sante, which consulted many young women which I shall quote briefly. It found that only 4 per cent. of working women with a baby or young child would choose, if they had the choice, to work full-time. Thirty-one per cent. of respondents said that they would prefer to have a part-time career job share. Twenty-two per cent. said that they would prefer to work from home or set up their own business.

Significantly, 43 per cent. of respondents said that they would like to be full-time mums, if they had the opportunity. Commenting on the survey, Juliette Kellow, the editor of Top Sante, said:

I do not think that it is up to Members of Parliament or the Government to be prescriptive about how women choose to balance their responsibilities, but it is important that we bear in mind the vast range of choices and personal preferences.

I have a worry with regard to the European dimension. I am concerned that the European Commission is concentrating only on the full-time employment model in respect of women. There is evidence that Allan Larsson, a former director general of Directorate-General V, has pushed the European Commission in that direction. On a recent visit to Brussels with the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, I was concerned that the overwhelming preference seemed to be to increase women's participation in the work force. Various targets were set out in that regard, but it did not seem that sufficient account was taken of different choices.

Returning to the situation at home, I have a concern about the child care tax credit, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt). Although I welcome the introduction of the tax credit and the Government's underlying intention, two specific concerns

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have still not been addressed. First, two-parent single-earner families are excluded, so there is an implied reduction of the significance of parents who choose to stay at home and look after their children. Secondly, the credit is awarded only for registered child care outside the home, but we know that vast numbers of people prefer informal child care arrangements. About 44 per cent. of manual workers with children have some grandparent involvement and many others are happy for friends or family—often sisters and aunts—to be involved in looking after their children in their own homes, but such care is outside the scope of the child care tax credit. I ask the Minister to consider again whether something could be done to extend the scope of a measure that is generally good.

Internationally, it is interesting to see how different European countries have handled such measures. For example, Finland has a home care allowance that is paid to some 75 per cent. of women who have children under three, paying up to 40 per cent. of the average wage. The allowance gives women real choice in the early years of their children's lives about whether they want to stay at home to look after them or go out to work. In Norway, the same system is in place for all women with children under two. France has the allocation parental d'education, which is paid after the birth of the second child until that child is three. So three major European industrial countries are taking an approach that is significantly different from that of the UK to the care of children in their early years in terms of giving women a choice.

When we consider the difference between tax systems in Europe, we see that in Germany, there is a much greater emphasis on transferable tax allowances. There is evidence that many women appreciate that approach as it gives them a greater choice when children come along. The additional tax allowances in Germany provide support for families in the early years of children's lives, which is much appreciated. France has income splitting—a recognition of how many mouths one salary has to feed. Evidence from France shows that that scheme is viewed by women as a significant recognition of their right to have a choice.

We have heard much about how child care is important in giving women the ability to enter the work force. I should like women who do not choose to use child care to have the benefit of longer career breaks so that when they return to work after having looked after their children for a number of years they can get back into the stride of their careers. Retraining will obviously be an important part of that. I was particularly pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) introduced the family scholarship scheme in the last Parliament to help with the retraining of women coming back into the labour force after having taken time out to look after children or elderly or dependent relatives.

We have heard that the poorest pensioners are often the oldest ones—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

6.36 pm

Linda Perham (Ilford, North): I realised what a long way women still had to go to achieve equality during the year that I was the first woman Labour mayor of my

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borough of Redbridge. Not only was it often assumed that I was the mayoress, but at a function arranged by a national charity, the president asked me what a housewife like me was doing being a mayor. I spluttered something about being a professional person, to which he asked what a professional housewife like me was doing being a mayor.

That leads me to the outstanding work of women in their local communities, particularly in local government, which formed part of my route to this place. Women are high achievers on their local councils and good examples in their local communities. I particularly want to pay tribute to Councillor Liz Pearce, who, regrettably, is standing down in May. She was the first woman leader of the Labour group and of the council, at a time when her sons were two and four years old, so she had a lot to cope with. I pay tribute to her tireless work for the people of the borough during her time on the council.

We need more women councillors. My own authority has managed to achieve only a fifth of its membership being female as far back as I can remember and we need to bring more women into local government.

The contribution of women to the wider community through voluntary organisations is also worthy of recognition and celebration. Through work that I did on behalf of the National Childbirth Trust I became a member of the Redbridge community health council, where I met Eileen Gordon, the former Member of Parliament for Romford, who represented her CHC in Havering. She did outstanding work on health issues, which she continued through her work on the Select Committee on Health.

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