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6 Mar 2003 : Column 1024—continued

4.53 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I am pleased to speak in the debate, which has been interesting, enjoyable and stimulating. I am particularly pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) and add my support to the views that she expressed about a single equality Act.

The debate is an opportunity to take stock of the present situation in the United Kingdom, in Wales and internationally. I shall start by considering briefly the position in Wales, where we have made much progress. International women's day is a useful opportunity to spell out the good things that have happened. In introducing the debate, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women said that there had only ever been 18 women Cabinet members in the House. I am pleased to say that we have already had seven women Cabinet members in the Assembly Cabinet in Wales during the four short years of its life. At present, there is a majority of women in the Cabinet in Wales, which is probably unique in the world. Forty-two per cent. of Assembly Members are women. There are 16 Labour women Assembly Members, compared with 12 Labour Assembly men.

It is now common in Wales for women to take the lead on major policy issues, which is a huge change. The Assembly operates family-friendly hours, and I am pleased that here in Westminster we have taken a step forward on such hours—that is a huge improvement.

In Wales, the Assembly operates in an inclusive, consultative way, which is partly due to the country's small size—it is much smaller than England, for example—but also to the Government of Wales Act 1998, which gives it the duty of working closely with the voluntary sector, with which it has a compact and in which many women are involved. Women have been able to prosper in the atmosphere fostered by the Assembly. Nevertheless, there are still problems in Wales, including the pay gap between men and women. The introduction of the minimum wage has increased the wages of thousands of low-paid women in Wales.

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Keir Hardie had three great aims—the introduction of the minimum wage; devolution; and reform of the House of Lords. I am pleased that we have been able to introduce the minimum wage and have got devolution. Unfortunately, we have so far failed on the House of Lords, but I hope that one day we will get a democratic upper House.

The introduction of the minimum wage has had a huge impact on women in Wales and reduced the pay gap there by 3 per cent.—the biggest ever reduction in one year. The Assembly's introduction of learning grants, amounting to up to £1,500 for less well-off students in higher and further education, was important. The availability of such grants for students in further education is significant for women, as many of them take access courses as mature students and need that money to help them manage. I hope that similar grants will be introduced in England, as proposed in a recent White Paper, because it is important that we give financial support to women so that they can have access to education later in life.

Money is now available for students for child-care, separate from a hardship fund, which is a big boost. For older women in Wales, there have been many developments, but I would single out the bus passes that entitle pensioners, disabled people and their carers to free bus travel anywhere in Wales, and across local authority boundaries. The scheme is unique, and many women have told me that there has been a huge improvement in their quality of life because they can now go and see people whom they have not been able to see for years. The scheme is of benefit to both men and women, but it has a tremendous effect on women's lives in Wales because they make up the majority of pensioners.

A mixture of measures from Westminster and the Assembly has resulted in a big improvement in women's lives in Wales. It is important to make a strong statement about that on international women's day, but we must also acknowledge that there is still a long way to go and that poverty is still a serious issue in Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford mentioned the Assembly's duty to promote equality, which has been important in mainstreaming gender issues in its work. The Equal Opportunities Commission has done research in Wales demonstrating the significant impact of that duty. I strongly support my hon. Friend's plea for an equality Act and a duty on Westminster to promote equality. I hope that the Minister will give her views on that in her response.

Much progress has been made in acknowledging the seriousness of domestic abuse. I pay tribute to the women Ministers on the ministerial committee promoting that issue, and look forward to the Green Paper to be published in spring. I hope that one result of that consultation will be a proposal for anonymity for the victims of domestic violence—this has already been mentioned in the criminal justice White Paper—because that would represent a big step forward in encouraging women to get to grips with these difficult problems.

I have worked closely with the unions on this issue. I am working with Unison at the moment, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Pat McCarthy, Unison's regional officer in Wales, who has

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already organised two conferences on domestic violence this year, and who is preparing to respond to the Green Paper when it is published and wants to lobby Ministers and take an active role. It is important that we should involve women from the unions and from the grass roots, as well as the victims of domestic abuse, to try to get their voice into this consultation paper. It is brilliant that we are going to have this Green Paper. It is the first ever of its kind, as was mentioned earlier, and it is also significant that a Labour Government are producing it.

In a Welsh context, I am also pleased to say that Jane Hutt, the Minister with responsibility for social services and health in the Welsh Assembly Government, will today announce the future of the women's safety unit in Cardiff. I chair the Cardiff domestic violence forum, so I have been very involved in setting up the unit. It is a unique project which supports women and children who are victims of domestic abuse. It consists of a small staff group, with people seconded from the police, Women's Aid, the probation service, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Black Association of Women Step Out—BAWSO—and, in a very short time, it has had a significant impact on domestic abuse in Cardiff.

Independent research has shown that, during its time of operation—not much more than a year—the number of women reporting domestic violence has gone up, the number of repeat incidents has gone down, the number of women withdrawing from cases has gone down and the number of reports to social services expressing concern about children has gone up. There is, therefore, objective statistical evidence to show that we can alleviate the situation if we put a bit of investment into a multi-agency project that does not necessarily take women and their families and put them into refuges, but rather works with them so that they can stay in their homes by supporting them, going to court with them, working with the solicitors and the police and working in a tremendously supportive way. That is what has happened in Cardiff and it has made a significant difference.

I refer many women to the women's safety unit. Like many other Members, I have a lot of women coming to my surgeries who are frightened and do not know where to turn. It is a huge step for them to come to an MP's surgery. I often see women—I am sure we all do—who are weeping, who do not know what to do and who are in a desperate situation. Now, in Cardiff, all that I have to do is phone someone at the women's safety unit and tell them that there is a woman in a difficult situation. They will see the woman that day, go to her house, go to the police with her, work with her to contact the housing department, and go to the children's schools. The unit provides a total package of support, and I am so pleased that the future of the project is being confirmed today. Jane Hutt is announcing today that the funding will continue, with a mixture of funding from the Welsh Assembly and the Home Office. Such a project would never have been started without the total commitment of Ministers here to tackle this horrendous issue, which has remained behind closed doors for many years. I want to congratulate everyone involved on the fact that we now have the project up and running so effectively, that it has been evaluated objectively, and that this announcement is being made today. It is great that we can say this today.

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I want to turn now to international issues. International women's day is a day on which we celebrate the achievements of women all over the world. The contributions that have been made about women's experiences and what women have seen in other countries have been humbling and have put what we are doing in this country into an international context. Such contributions make us realise not only how fortunate we are in many ways, but how much we have to learn from what women Members have seen in other countries.

It is a great privilege for us that as women parliamentarians, we can make links with women throughout the world. Last year, I visited Iran with a group of women parliamentarians, including the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman. I thought that I would mention the visit as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) also referred to problems in Iran. Human rights abuses in that country have been well documented. They especially affect women and there is no doubt that they continue. However, I wanted to put it on record that those on the visit were very cheered by the confidence and optimism of the women whom we met in Iran. We felt that they had a great deal of hope for the future. We were very impressed by the fact that 60 per cent. of university students were women and that there had been a huge increase in the number of voluntary bodies, which seemed to be springing up all over the place. Although we must use every opportunity that we can to condemn the human rights abuses that still take place in Iran, it is important that we keep up the dialogue and continue to engage with Iran and particularly with the women politicians whom we met.

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