Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1027—continued

Sandra Gidley : As the hon. Lady mentioned, I went to Iran on the same visit. Is she aware that since our visit, the women parliamentarians whom we met have taken a strong public stance against stoning? It is always useful for women parliamentarians to work together.

Julie Morgan: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I noticed that a strong stand was taken very soon after we returned home. I hope that we showed those women our solidarity and our wish to work with them against the human rights abuses that occur in Iran and against stoning in particular.

Several hon. Members have mentioned Iraq and I should like to finish my speech with some brief comments about the situation there. It is very important that we express in this international women's day debate our solidarity with the women of Iraq. We are all aware of our hopes and aspirations as women in this country and we all know that, if there is a war in Iraq, many women and children will be killed and injured and many will be displaced and become refugees, as has been mentioned. Such women will flee to countries such as Iran, which already has the largest number of refugees of any country in the world. Indeed, it already has some 2 million refugees from Afghanistan.

We know that life is grim under sanctions and under Saddam Hussein and we are divided in our views about whether and in what circumstances Iraq should be attacked. It is right to acknowledge those divisions and accept that they exist in the House, but we all have the same end in mind—we all want peace for the people of Iraq and want the women in Iraq to be able to flourish, develop and have all the hopes for the future that we

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1028

have. I cannot see how the humanitarian consequences of an attack allow it to be justified. I align myself with other hon. Members who have expressed such feelings today about an attack on Iraq.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women said that women were consistently more against war than men. All the opinion polls show that that is the case. One recent poll showed that 70 per cent. of women were opposed to the attack on Iraq. I suppose that that is not surprising. All the statistics still show that women are the main carers of children and old people, and the main carers in society. Women bring up children, watch their every step, see all that eagerness for the future and all that hope ahead, and know that bombs from the sky can destroy it all, so I understand completely why so many of them have such strong feelings against war.

Many more women should work as diplomats and in the aid field. Women need to be in positions where they can negotiate and go to the furthest ends for peace. I may be going along with stereotypes, but women tend to work more consensually in terms of looking for solutions and not giving up. They often have the hard grind of bringing up children in a family, having to compromise in all directions, and never being able to do everything that they want to do because they have to look after someone else. That leads to a different attitude and a different way of working.

When we listen to all the people who are talking about war, we do not hear many women's voices raised very loudly. I want to put on the record my solidarity with the women in Iraq and my hope that we can reach a peaceful solution.

5.11 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): I think that all hon. Members agree that a peaceful solution would be desirable, but it is a question of how we get there. Allowing the present regime to continue in Iraq is not the right way, and I say in solidarity with the Prime Minister that I look forward to the day when all the refugees from Iraq can return there, including many women.

In El Salvador, I had the experience of meeting groups of women who had come back over the border when the then ruling regime stopped being quite so nasty. Fighting was still going on—indeed, it broke out around us—and it was the women who were carrying on the discussions.

Around the world, the first duty of people in politics is to try to avoid unnecessary war. There are very few examples of wars in which both sides are reasonably democratic. A second duty is to avoid unnecessary high-level persistent civil war. Similarly, there are relatively few examples of really bad high-level civil wars in countries that are reasonably democratic—by that, I mean those with Governments that stay in power with the consent of the people. We must then address other issues that matter, but not quite as much—because the biggest devastation comes from war—such as health, education and prosperity.

It is a matter of record that in the household I share half the MPs are men—namely, me—and the 100 per cent. that got into the Cabinet was not me. I am the founder member of the Denis Thatcher society, which comprises men who are married to women who are more important than we are.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1029

Unless we understand the causes of unfairness and have a greater sense of ambition about what we want to achieve, the lives of those for whom we care will not be as good as they should be. It has rightly been said that women bear an over-high proportion of caring responsibilities. They do the working, but they also do the caring—for the young, for the old, for the ill, for the bad and for the sad. Who visits you in prison? Who visits you in hospital? Who cares for you in the hospice? It is a great spread of responsibilities. Anyone who thinks that family policy is about saying that we have got it all right is all wrong. Families are there to be strong when things go wrong, whether by chance or because of people's bad behaviour.

What is to be done? Every week, 2,400 people, mostly young men, commit a serious criminal offence for which they could be sent to jail for six months or more. Most of those offences have victims. One third of our young men have a serious criminal conviction by the age of 30. The figures for women are dramatically lower. I commend the prison statistics on page 15 of CM 5743. It gives figures for the past 100 years.

In 1920, a total of 11,000 people were in jail, of which roughly 9,500 were male and 1,400 were female. In 1940, the figure and proportion were not very different. However, in 1960, the prison population had increased to 27,000, of which roughly 26,000 were male and 900 were female. In 1980, there were more than 40,000 male prisoners in a total prison population of 42,000. There is something deeply wrong in our country when the male-female imbalance in offending is so great. Women should not have to solve that. It is a continuing social disaster and, as with all such disasters, one must look to the people who have the power. They tend to be white, middle-class men in work.

We all know about the National Children's Bureau born-to-fail studies. The problems will not be solved if we ask the victims to solve them or tell the mothers who do most of the caring that it is up to them to make things better. The rest of us must share the responsibility.

Some may laugh at international women's day and others may perceive it as a serious way in which to show international solidarity. However, I believe that one of the day's purposes is to ask men what they are doing to help tackle problems of which women are too often the victims.

Let us consider another example. Five thousand people who were smoking last week will never smoke again: 2,000 have died—not all prematurely—and 3,000 have given up. Tobacconists sell roughly the same amount of cigarettes every week. That means that 5,000 people took up smoking last week. Nearly all are teenagers and a growing proportion is female.

We should not tell young people that they are too young to smoke because we thereby imply that they are doing an adult thing. We should tell 15 or 17-year-olds who smoke, "It's a childish thing to do. Bad luck, you're the one in three who does it. It's a habit that costs £30 a week after tax." It is disastrous that smoking is so class based. It may remain true that the people most likely to smoke are lone mothers on income support. That is the worst group of people to smoke because smoking uses up their resources, and their health and that of their children is worst affected.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1030

My third example is sex. Every week in this country, 6,000 people contribute to a conception that ends in a formal termination. There are 170,000 or more abortions a year in this country. It takes two to tango. Let us allow that part of the figure relates to people who come here from other countries. That means that 3,000 home-grown conceptions end in termination. Six thousand people—not all of them hyperactive teenagers, but people in their 20s, 30s and 40s—engage in sexual activity that ends in their saying, "Cripes! What now?" Why we cannot get our figures down to those of the Dutch is beyond me.

Men and women must be able to say that if we are sufficiently grown up to be closer to someone than simply sharing a toothbrush with them, we should be prepared to ask, "What about conception and fertility choice?" We should stop waffling on about family planning or birth control. After a good party, people are not thinking about planning a family or controlling birth when they get around to having it off. [Interruption]. We must be more explicit at all ages. We must get away from the embarrassment that stops people considering such matters. We should let our children and grandchildren learn from our mistakes, so that they do not do as we did but as they can, and have more choice in their lives.

Sandra Gidley: The Health Select Committee is examining teenage pregnancy and sexual health. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that relationship education should start in primary school, to provide a good basis on which to build?

Next Section

IndexHome Page