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Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Linda Perham: I am sorry, but I do not have time.

During my involvement with local community issues I have never ceased to support the work of women locally as magistrates, school governors and chairs of strategic health authorities. They make up about half their appointees, but that is not enough.

I want briefly to mention the Women's library which took over from the Fawcett library. I worked there for many years. It has just moved into splendid premises opened by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport at the end of January. I recommend a visit to see the exhibition "Cooks and Campaigners", which has items selected by prominent women in public life, including Cherie Booth, Kate Adie, Mary Quant and others.

I am pleased that the Government support the aim of 45 to 50 per cent. of public appointments made by central Government being filled by women by the end of 2005.

Others have spoken about the Government's achievements. In particular I pay tribute to the Government for introducing the national minimum wage. I also commend my union, Unison, on its campaign on equal pay for women and its championing of public services. However, I am disappointed that the Government will not introduce the EU directive on equal treatment in employment until 2006. My hon. Friend the Minister knows my views on that, and she has addressed the all-party group on ageing and older people.

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I should like briefly to mention Redbridge women's day, which took place last Saturday and was addressed by the Minister for Lifelong Learning. Last year, we were addressed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. It was an interesting day, with a laughter therapy session and a tea bar run by men, and it was attended by more than 100 women.

I finish where I started—by praising the work of women in local communities. Some want to remain as carers; some want to go on to local, national and international politics. Much work is needed to improve women's lives. The debate is well timed in the week following international women's day, but it is not only on that day, or during this week, that we should acknowledge, celebrate and shout about women's achievements—we should do it every day.

6.40 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I am glad that the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) was able to speak in this excellent debate, to which 12 Members, apart from the Front-Bench spokesmen, contributed. For the Minister for Women and me the debate is a case of deja vu—certainly, I feel as if I have been here before.

Many good things were said in the debate, but sadly many good things were unsaid because we did not have enough time. I hope that the Minister agrees that next time the debate should take place not only in Government time, but on a day when there are not three statements and we can do justice to the contributions of all hon. Members who wish to take part. I know that that is beyond the right hon. Lady's remit, but she will appreciate that I am making the point on her behalf through the usual channels and to the powers that be that we should, at least on one day of the year, have a decent chance of a proper debate.

The Minister opened the debate extremely well with some fine examples from her constituency. If I had the luxury of more time, I would do the same. She took us on a trip down memory lane to the 1950s. I cannot say that I can join her there, but I knew what she meant.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who had to leave the Chamber to look after her child before attending functions tonight, would have wanted, like me, to say that the Minister was uncharitable in failing to acknowledge anything that the Conservative party did for women when it was in government. A Conservative Government introduced equal pay legislation in 1983 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1986, and I am proud that a Conservative Government introduced independent taxation. I hoped that the Minister would be charitable enough to acknowledge that the Conservative party is as eager as she is to attain equality—certainly, equality of opportunity—for women, even if we do not always go about it in the same way.

I am disappointed that in the 45 minutes that the Minister took to make her speech, much of which I agreed with, she spent so much time on the domestic situation and did not deal more with the position of women in other countries. There is a commonality of feeling in the House that although there are furrows to plough as regards equality in this country, true inequality exists in other countries, and we as women must pay attention to that. That is why I was delighted when my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) praised the non-governmental

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organisations and women's organisations that help us in our work here and assist women throughout the world. She gave a well rounded speech that concentrated on issues in the United Kingdom and the problems of women in the developing world.

My hon. Friend was followed by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who spoke up well for women auxiliary workers. I agree with her on that subject. She asked for more help from the Government—I hope that the Minister will respond to her request—and made some good points on encouraging companies to give women opportunities for training and promotion. She also made some interesting points on drug testing and women's health. I was surprised to hear what she was saying and I hope that the Minister will have time to comment on it. I shall understand if she does not have time to comment on all the points that have been made, in which case I hope that she will respond in writing.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) gave a solo performance from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. She was disappointed in the lack of support from her party—as were we. We were not fooled by the stage-managed appearance of a supporting cast throughout her speech.

I am sorry that I left the Chamber momentarily and did not hear the full speech of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). I have great admiration for the work that she has done on arranged marriages. Her views on that are shared across the House. I have discussed the matter with my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, and if the hon. Lady introduces an early-day motion on the Nigerian case that she mentioned, we would be pleased to look at it and join her in signing it if it is suitable.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) discussed his Bill and a Bill in another place. He raised the subject of labour clubs, which seem to be a source of annoyance to some Labour Members. The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) brought up the heady issue of trafficking of women and children and the sobering facts on violence against women. She looked at the subject of reproductive health in a way that we should not forget affects all of us. Female genital mutilation is still one of the most abhorrent practices in the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made a refreshing contribution. She talked realistically and highlighted the fundamental difference between men and women. She had a useful gender-blind suggestion for our problem of all-women shortlists and brought to the forefront the issues on unmarried pregnancies. We share views on that subject across the Chamber, as we all see in our surgeries single mothers who are left literally holding the baby. My hon. Friend talks common sense and echoes the feelings of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne) was a brief voice from Scotland in this international women's day debate. She is a superwoman, and she apologised for having to leave for a flight to Scotland. Her speech was followed by that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). We appreciated his undertakings to look into the operation of the Conservative clubs that are

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within his bailiwick. He made some interesting points on education and bemoaned the shortage of men in the teaching profession and the underperformance of boys in the education system. That, too, concerns us all.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) was our voice from Wales. She spoke about the advantages of equal opportunities in Wales. I was interested to hear her suggestion about an equal opportunities Select Committee and I hope that the Minister will have time to touch on that. I am not entirely sure whether I agree with the hon. Lady, but it is certainly an interesting idea which we can explore.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) gave us a brief insight into the benefits of women in the armed services. I have seen at first hand the benefits of women in the armed services, in both Kosovo and Kuwait. When I was in Kuwait looking at our Tornado squadron, it was with great happiness, pride and surprise that I saw that the head of engineering was a blonde—and a blonde woman at that. She had the men firmly under control but, more importantly, she was the best engineer for that job. We can all be proud of that.

I am afraid that the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) got the views of Conservative Front-Bench Members wrong, but it was nice to hear her being so supportive of those who elected her. We are all supportive of our constituents who send us here; it is a great privilege to be in this place.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) picked out some distinguished local women and made some key points on taxation. I make no apology for reminding the House that independent taxation was introduced by a Conservative Government.

I really do not have time to go through my speech because I want to give the Minister time to reply. Let me return briefly to our domestic scene. I remind the Government that they have no reason for complacency or satisfaction from any achievements that they may have made to date, because where the public services are letting people down, women are being disproportionately affected.

Women do most of the caring in this country, and when care homes close and the health service underperforms, it is the women who are affected. Today, when the teachers are striking, it will be the women who have had to look after the children. Our police were out on the street yesterday, and it is the women who are worried about the safety of their communities. As women live longer, there is no doubt that the disaster in the pension fund will affect them disproportionately. The failure of this Government on public services will affect us all, and deliver enduring inequality, unless the Government put these things right.

I shall close by agreeing with a Labour Minister, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, who said recently:

I certainly agree with the hon. Lady when she said that voters—traditional supporters of the Labour party—felt let down and ignored. We agree that we want equal opportunities for women, and that we want to see women succeed. I agree with the Minister for Lifelong Learning that this Labour Government should, and must, do better.

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6.51 pm

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