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6 Mar 2003 : Column 980—continued

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): The right hon. Lady's challenge is fair and I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) will respond to it with characteristic vigour and precision. However, the evidence that I have adduced from the Equal Opportunities Commission shows that the phenomenon of prejudice against selecting female candidates is principally a matter not of male opposition but of older people. There is an age factor and older people, both men and women, are prejudiced whether they know it or not. We must all counter that.

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I believe that he regrets his party's difficulty in recruiting younger members. However, we all face such challenges; we have set ourselves a challenge in government of recruiting 50 per cent. women for all public appointments by 2005.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): I listened to my right hon. Friend's response to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) with interest. However, there are also structural problems of image, tradition and belief. It is not simply a problem of age or gender. Many young women simply do not believe that any of us take them seriously and they are therefore not prepared to take us seriously.

Ms Hewitt: I agree with my hon. Friend. There is a serious problem of political disengagement and a sense that party politics and parliamentary democracy do not speak for most people. That is precisely why I am so passionately committed to ensuring that we have more women, more younger Members and more Members from our black and Asian British communities. We need to ensure that Parliament looks like our country and can therefore speak for our country.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): It is simply not enough for Parliament to look like this country; we must also listen to the country. Yesterday provided a marked example of not only Parliament's but the Government's failure to listen. A mass lobby of

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school children who deeply opposed war against Iraq took place. They were remarkably well informed and they did not simply treat the event as a day off school. They made a clear political comment. Until we begin to take such matters seriously, it does not matter how much we look like the country. If we do not listen to it, we take no step forward.

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is right that we must listen. We must engage in all seriousness, as we have done in the House, with people who are passionately committed to peace. We need to argue our case, as I did earlier this afternoon. I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has done so much to make the case in person, on television, through meeting young people at No. 10 and so on. He has done that precisely in order to listen, engage with the argument and lead.

Mr. Bercow : The right hon. Lady's passion is visibly overflowing. We hear her mellifluous tones and the content of her speech with interest and respect—but I am desperate that she should move on to the subject of child care. What assessment has she made of the effect of the rigidities of the planning process and the nature of the Ofsted inspection regime on the availability of high-quality and affordable child care?

Ms Hewitt: We have made real improvements over the past five years but not enough. When I met women members of regional development agency boards yesterday, planning was specifically raised. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is already taking steps to reform and speed up the planning regime. As to Ofsted, in my own discussions with child care providers and in the review published recently by my noble Friend Lady Ashton, setting quality standards was not found to be a particular barrier to the development of child care services. There are undoubtedly other barriers. I welcome that direct provision and child care tax credit have begun to make a real difference but I am the first to say that a good deal more needs to be done.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): Only this week I learnt that a child care club in my constituency, which has been running for 16 years and has experienced staff, is in severe difficulties because of the requirement that staff who have been doing the job a long time must pass an examination. Such individuals do not want to sit an exam, when they probably know better than most of us in the Chamber how to look after small children. Will the right hon. Lady use her good offices to address that issue?

Ms Hewitt: I shall be happy to look at that point. There is a balance to be struck between offering existing child care workers good opportunities to improve and formalise their skills—and in doing so, providing them with further opportunities to progress in employment—and using common sense to make sure that we do not undermine the excellent work already being done. If the hon. Lady will write to me with the details of the play group concerned, I shall be happy to consider them.

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When I met women RDA board members yesterday, I was struck by the fact that almost all of them would never have thought of putting themselves forward simply from reading a press advertisement. One after another said that she had applied because somebody had specifically asked her to do so. Over the past year, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) and I have led a programme of visits and meetings around the country, bringing together thousands of women who might be tempted to enter public life. After hearing from women who had made that step, almost all the others said that they would put their names forward. An inspiring black woman speaker at one of the seminars said that her motto was "Lift as you rise". For those of us who have been honoured by election to this House, that is a good motto to remember as we encourage other women to step into public life.

A little more support from the media than is sometimes the case would be welcome. In the 1970s, when I was working on a campaign for a sex discrimination Bill, the BBC and ITN would not employ women newscasters on the ground that women's voices were too high and nobody could possibly take news bulletins seriously if they were read by women. That was changed but even today, as a recent survey showed, there is only one woman newscaster for every three men—so there is still more to be done.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): My right hon. Friend has been speaking about women in public life but perhaps she will outline the Government's proposals to tackle the fundamental scourge of domestic violence, which by its nature is usually hidden behind closed doors—and tends to repeat from generation unto generation, particularly among boys who grow up in that unacceptable environment.

Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green is working closely with other colleagues in the Government—including my right hon. Friend the Solicitor-General—to ensure that far more is done to end the scourge of domestic violence. As my hon. Friend says, that crime mainly takes place in private but leads to the death of one woman every three days. That is the scale of the problem faced in Britain. By getting the police and prosecution services working more closely and effectively together, supporting a help line and investing in refuges, we are doing a great deal to help women and their children to escape abuse.

We have come a long way since the Women's Social and Political Union was formed but as Emmeline Pankhurst said, "deeds not words" count. Our deeds include the minimum wage, which has helped 1 million or so women on low pay; new rights for mothers and fathers; children's tax credit; and the national child care strategy. But as all right hon. and hon. Members readily recognise, there is a great deal more to do. All of us, whatever our differences over the means that should be employed, share the same vision and a commitment to making Britain and the world a better, safer and fairer place for us all.

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1.57 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I apologise to the House for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), the shadow Minister for Women, who is on a fact-finding mission in Sudan, Kenya and Malawi. Her absence gives me the opportunity to participate in this valuable debate and I look forward to contributions on many issues concerning the position and role of women in the world today.

What is international women's day and what should it represent—an opportunity to celebrate all that is good and unique about the female sex and its achievements or a chance to highlight the inequalities that hamper women around the world? Superficially, nearly 100 years after the establishment of international women's day, many of the movement's original aims have been achieved, including the vote; equal education; equal pay and conditions—at any rate, in the eyes of the law; and acceptance that a woman is an independent soul who does not have to be the shackled property of her family or husband. Such advances should not be forgotten or belittled.

In far too many parts of the world, those rights are still denied to women. International women's day still has an important campaigning role, but if it is to remain relevant in a new century with new challenges, perhaps a less narrowly focused raison d'etre is required. Women today think more about the security of their streets; the quality of education; the robustness of their pension; the effectiveness of medical care; and local transport. Such issues are uppermost in the minds of women and cannot be confronted or resolved by statistical targets and equality legislation alone.

The Minister set great store by the changes that the Government have introduced, but the approach is all too often based on targets and regulation. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) was right to raise the issue of child care. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) pointed out, the Government's regulatory approach often reduces rather than encourages opportunities for child care provision. Some 59 per cent. of women do not feel that there is adequate child care provision in England. Improving access to child care would help many women to return to work much more quickly, and fewer might be passed over for senior posts that should have been theirs by right.

What is needed is a coherent strategy to make it easier for women to obtain employment, to secure good, affordable child care, and to resume work if they have chosen to take time off to look after children. That would enable women's participation at higher levels of society to continue rather than stagnating, as it sadly shows every sign of doing. Before 1997, just over 25 per cent. of self-employed workers were women—an 88 per cent. increase since 1981—but the rate of increase has now slowed to a crawl. Between 1991 and 1995 the proportion of public appointments held by women rose from 23 per cent. to 30 per cent., but it has not risen since. During the years of the Conservative Government the pay gap narrowed to 20 per cent.—the best result among the major European economies—but over the last five years it has narrowed by only a further 2 per cent.

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The Minister made a number of references to the role of women in the House of Commons. I agree that we need more diversity in the House, and that we all have a role in encouraging women—and indeed others—to come here. As the Minister said, women in particular often seek encouragement to stand for Parliament, and to adopt other senior roles, rather than assuming—as do all too many young men—that such roles are theirs by right.

The Government say that they want to improve women's status. The cause of women, however, is helped not by targets and rhetoric but by a stable economy, growing employment, business deregulation and the availability of choice and quality in our public services. One does not need to be a rocket scientist, even a female one, to work that out.

The things I have mentioned sound basic and they are basic, but let us not forget the difference that such basic things can mean. When 70 per cent. of those in the world who live on less than $1 a day are women, and when as many as one in 13 die in childbirth in some countries, what count are what we consider to be basic rights.

The Minister mentioned Afghanistan. We all know of the appalling treatment of women under the Taliban, and of the improvements now being made. It is crucial that the Government can send the girls to school, equalise access to health care and encourage female participation in the political process, but we know that beyond Kabul the burqa must still be worn, and that education and health care are still strictly limited. These are not western cultures and we must be wary of applying western attitudes, but international women's day and the many agencies that support it can make a difference. What is needed as much as a legislative shift is a cultural, or perhaps more accurately an emotional, shift in attitudes. That is needed from women as well as men, by which I mean that we must encourage women to believe in their own equality. Only such a shift in attitudes can ensure lasting and widespread change.

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