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6 Mar 2003 : Column 973—continued

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): May we have a debate in due course on the compulsory funding of the BBC as a public service broadcaster, given that such a debate would enable us to explore the mentality of the official BBC spokesman? That spokesman said that the BBC's new series on Cambridge spies was

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and made this statement:

What possible relationship can there be between the concept of compulsory levies, public service broadcasting and such an utter perversion of liberal values and the historical record?

Mr. Cook: One of the commendable ingenuities of the hon. Gentleman is that he always manages to find a way of making his point without my having to arrange a debate. He has just done so again. I fully concur with him in the sentiment behind his point—there is nothing heroic in being a traitor. I think that the whole House would agree.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): In reply to questions asked by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman said that the dodgy dossier did not matter. I can tell him a reason why it does matter. Hundreds of aircrew and ground crew personnel are being deployed from RAF Marham in west Norfolk to the Gulf. Surely they need to trust the Government and believe them when they are making their case for the war. Will he now answer my right hon. Friend's question?

Mr. Cook: I would be very surprised if a single airman or serviceman who is preparing for what may be military conflict in the Gulf is currently sitting over his cocoa debating which Minister cleared the Government dossier. If the hon. Gentleman would like to find me a single person who has written to him expressing concern about that point, I would be interested to hear about it. Of course, what servicemen want to know is where the Opposition stand on the major question as to whether military conflict would be correct.


Mr. Speaker: I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and Measures:

Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003

London Development Agency Act 2003

Synodical Government (Amendment) Measure 2003

Church of England (Pensions) Measure 2003

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Point of Order

1.25 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance and assistance concerning the performance of the Home Office. I have with me three files, on two of which a response has been outstanding from the Home Office since 5 November last year. More importantly, I wrote on 21 January 2002 to the Home Office on behalf of a constituent who was concerned about the time that it was taking her to obtain her British passport. I received an acknowledgement card some three days later. I have since written three further letters, on 7 May and 3 September last year and 17 January this year, and I still have not received a substantive answer from the Home Office, which means that I do not know the present status of the case. More importantly, my constituent expects to be able to travel and does not have her British passport.

How can hon. Members in this place fulfil their duties to their constituents if a Department is taking so long to reply to correspondence? I appeal to you in desperation, Mr. Speaker: what can a Member in this place do, and how can we stop people's lives being disrupted by the lack of performance of Home Office Ministers?

Mr. Speaker: Ministers should answer hon. Members timeously.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): But they do not.

Mr. Speaker: Order. If the hon. Lady sends the details of the cases to me, I shall investigate the matter. I also point out that there is a Select Committee on Public Administration and that she should also take her complaint there.

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International Women's Day

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

1.27 pm

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt) : I am delighted that international women's day has been selected as the topic for today's debate.

It is 100 years since Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women's Social and Political Union. Earlier today, I launched the Royal Mint's new 50 pence coin commemorating that anniversary. Emmeline once said:

Since women won the vote, only 252 women law makers have been elected to this House and only 18 women have served in Cabinet in all those years. I am proud to be one of those women and grateful for this opportunity to pay tribute to Emmeline Pankhurst and all her fellow suffragettes who fought outside this House for political, economic and social justice. I am glad that the whole House will join me in honouring her achievements.

This Saturday, millions of people around the world will take part in events to mark international women's day. I have no doubt that many of them will again take the opportunity to express their deep concerns about the possibility of war in Iraq. All of us hate the idea of war. As we know from every test of public opinion, women are even more likely when faced with the horrors that war inevitably brings to prefer a peaceful route, but I have no doubt that it is only the threat of war that has persuaded Saddam Hussein after 12 years of defying the United Nations to allow the inspectors back in and offer a few inadequate gestures of co-operation. Even now, Saddam can put a stop to the possibility of war by co-operating fully with resolution 1441, which was passed unanimously by the Security Council.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): In endorsing what the right hon. Lady says, may I remind her that there is also a long and very honourable tradition of women playing heroic parts in the wars that have had to be fought throughout the 20th century in order to preserve the freedoms that they were fighting to win when they fought for the vote?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Many of us have female, as well as male relatives who played their part in both world wars in particular.

We know, from every test of public opinion, that women are even more likely to prefer that peaceful route. Even now, Saddam can put a stop to the possibility of war. Of course conciliation would be better than war, but let us not confuse conciliation with appeasement, or muddle our rational fear of war with irrational trust in Saddam after all that 12 years' bitter experience has taught. That experience has been bitter indeed for millions of Iraqi women who have watched their children die in poverty. Their sons and husbands have been tortured and executed. Women themselves have been brutalised by professional rapists. In last week's debate in this House, my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) gave her own moving account of the sufferings of the families whom she met on her recent visit to northern Iraq.

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Our armed forces fought in Kosovo to end the horror of ethnic cleansing and a conflict in which rape was deployed as a deliberate weapon of war. Millions of women and men are now rebuilding their lives and their country. We fought in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and international terrorism, and, with the removal of the Taliban that followed, girls are now back in school for the first time in more than a decade. I recently had the privilege of meeting Habiba Sorabi, the Minister for Women in the new Afghan Administration, who, with her colleagues, is helping to rebuild that country. If we do fight in Iraq, it will be to uphold international law and to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, but the defeat of Saddam will also be the liberation of the women of Iraq.

Just as we work internationally against genocide, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, so we work internationally to combat poverty and disease. Today, at a time of immense political uncertainty and of economic slowdown, it is doubly important that we renew our efforts for trade and development. If we are to build a lasting international coalition for disarmament and security, we must build an equally powerful international economic coalition, because we will never deal with terrorism and other threats to world peace if we do not also deal with the hunger, misery and frustration across the developing world and in refugee camps. More than 1 billion men, women and children in our world are without adequate food, water, sanitation, health care or education; 70 per cent. of them are women. Forty-two million people in the world have HIV/AIDS, 60 per cent. of whom are women, and women are the fastest growing group of sufferers. More than 0.5 million women die in pregnancy and childbirth every year, half of them in sub-Saharan Africa. No wonder Kofi Annan said

I have no doubt at all that if we can create a system of world trade that is fair as well as free, we will empower some of the poorest women in the poorest countries of the world. That is the experience of women in Bangladeshi villages who are supported by the Brahmin bank and by their Government in creating new enterprises. That is the experience of the women whom I met earlier this year in Nong Ta Kai village in north-east Thailand. Years ago, they worked in rice fields, their only hope of escape from poverty to flee to the city, where they were vulnerable to exploitation and to prostitution. Now, they have come together, like so many other women in Thailand, to create their own silk-weaving co-operative. They used to live in old wooden shacks—I saw some that were still there. Today, they are used for storage, because next to them are the modern two-storey houses that those women have paid for with the earnings from their own work and from their ownership of that co-operative.

So the opportunity is there—above all, because in November 2001 we launched the Doha development round. We—the 142 countries in the World Trade Organisation—launched it because we know that if we could just halve protectionism around the world against agricultural and industrial goods and services, we would boost developing country incomes by about $150 billion a year: three times the value of all the aid budgets put

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together. Substantial trade liberalisation could reduce the number of people living in poverty by more than 300 million by 2015—a big contribution to reaching the millennium development goals. But progress on the Doha negotiations is far too slow. That is why I appeal again to President Bush and the American Administration to join with the developing countries and the European Union in the compromise agreement on access to medicines that we came so close to finalising just before Christmas. And it is why I yesterday met my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for International Development to ensure that we redouble our efforts to secure reform of the common agricultural policy, to open our markets and to end the agricultural subsidies that lock poor world farmers into poverty, and thus to move forward on the WTO negotiations.

We will continue to work internationally on human rights and women's empowerment. My officials are currently attending the 47th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. I am delighted, too, that the Government are supporting UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, an organisation dedicated to strengthening women's economic security and political participation, and that that organisation, with our financial support, will now be launched in London.

We know that the struggle of women in the developing world is on a wholly different scale from the challenges that we face in our own country. We have come a very long way in the past century, but there is still a long way to go before we can say that we live in a truly just and equal society. When the first international women's day was held in 1911, women in Britain were fewer than three in 10 of the work force; today, we are nearly half. However, only one in four managers is a woman, only one in 10 directors is a woman and there is only one woman chief executive in the FTSE 100. In 1911, the pay gap between British men and women was around 55 per cent.; today it is 19 per cent., but that is still 19 per cent. higher than it should be. In 1911, Oxford and Cambridge would not even grant degrees to women; today, women are more than half our full-time undergraduates. However, 50,000 women with science, engineering and technology degrees—women whose skills are urgently needed in our economy, particularly in manufacturing industry—are not in employment at all.

We know what the problems are and we know what needs to be done. We know, for instance, that we need to make it far easier for women and for men to balance work and family life. Look at the changes that have taken place. Families have been transformed. In place of the family based on the male breadwinner and the woman at home that so many of us grew up with, there are many more two-job families and many more lone parents. The workplace is changing, as well—it is no longer based on nine-to-five, five days a week. New consumer demands and growing competitive pressures require ever more organisations to be far more flexible in how they employ their people.

The best employers know that working time reform is not a burden forced on them by Government, but an opportunity to be far more successful. Last week, I presented the awards for the Sunday Times-DTI 100 best companies to work for, including Microsoft,

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Honda UK, Asda, Tesco, the Scotch whisky company Glenmorangie, Kimberly-Clark, Richer Sounds and many others. Those are companies that consistently outperform the FTSE index and have found that the more choice they give their people about working hours, the more satisfied are their staff and the less problem they have with recruitment and retention, so they are all the more productive, profitable and successful.

Not only women but men want that choice in their working hours. According to a recent survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission, men are responsible for one in three child-care hours. The younger generation of fathers wants the chance to spend more time with the children. Younger fathers want to be more active in their children's lives than perhaps their fathers were in theirs. Given the opportunity, half of all men would work flexitime. The demand and the challenge therefore exist. However, if we left such changes to voluntary action and the pace of cultural change, unsupported by Government, the process would take too long. Parents cannot afford to wait.

In April we will introduce a new package of support—the largest ever—for parents. It includes not only the new child tax credit but rights for people in employment. They are: providing better maternity pay up to £100 a week; increasing the amount of maternity leave that a new mother can take up to a year; giving fathers the right for the first time to two weeks' paid paternity leave, which will benefit more than a third of a million fathers every year; giving adoptive parents, who have been left out in the past, equivalent rights, and granting all parents who work and have a child under six, or a child with disabilities under 18, the right to negotiate flexible working arrangements with their employers.

The new package of rights was agreed with the TUC, the Confederation of British Industry and many small businesses. We have great confidence that it will work. With the help of trade unions, business organisations and women and family groups throughout the country, we can ensure that every parent knows about the support that is available. We do not provide it out of sentimentality or because we are trying to tell parents how to do their job. We know that parents need and deserve far greater support from Government in balancing the two great responsibilities of earning a living and bringing up children.

Of course, there is far more to do to ensure that women can play their full role in the economy. Earlier, I referred to women in science, and I am especially grateful to Baroness Greenfield for her excellent review of women's participation in science, engineering and technology. I am delighted by our success in recruiting women and men, but especially women, to the science and engineering ambassadors programme. It will put more people into schools to inspire girls and young women to follow a scientific and engineering path. As we celebrate the anniversary this year of the discovery of DNA, the Rosalind Franklin award honours the achievements of a woman whose contribution to cracking the DNA code has been overlooked too often.

We need to do more to improve opportunities for women not only at the bottom but at the top of business. The report by Derek Higgs that I published recently shows that more than half of all directors of listed companies are appointed through personal contacts and friendships. That old boys' network is not an adequate

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way in which to ensure the highest standards of corporate governance and the best available talent. Derek Higgs suggested several methods of making the process more meritocratic through an open, fair and rigorous appointments procedure. I am delighted that Laura Tyson is considering the way in which we can progress on that. I look forward to receiving her recommendations.

In our global economy, the war for talent is real. Our businesses, public services and our country will not succeed unless we use all the talent of all our people—women as well as men from every part and community of our country.

We need to do far more to ensure that women play a full part in public life. We have changed the law to make it much easier for women to stand for election. I look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the way in which she will overcome the problem of male resistance in the Conservative party. I do not say that in a partisan spirit because, as many of my hon. Friends know, we have been through the same battles in the Labour party.

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