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6 Mar 2003 : Column 1034—continued

Ms Hewitt: Well done.

Mr. Key: The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) spoke with passion about the single equality Act that she envisages. We await the Minister's response to that.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) spoke about the Welsh experience and I am glad that we had the benefit of her contribution. It is interesting that no Members of Parliament who represent Scottish constituencies are in the Chamber. Scottish women have thus been wholly unrepresented in our debate, which is a great pity. The hon. Lady also talked about experience overseas and the need to understand what makes people tick all over the world.

Many of us have travelled to difficult parts of the world. I have certainly done so. I visited a refugee camp in Mozambique in the pre-Mandela era, and I have also seen repression in Nicaragua. The thing that continues to distress me most about Africa is the situation in Zimbabwe. I last visited Zimbabwe when it was still a prosperous, happy place, and I feel for the women of all races in that sad land.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) made a number of important points, but I should like to back up what he said in response to an intervention: sex education starts in the home, but too often—this is a purely personal view—homes fail children when it comes to looking after the sexual maturity of girls in particular. That is why the biggest single health problem in my constituency is chlamydia, which spreads like wildfire and is to do with clubbing, spiked drinks and unconscious gang rapes and the need for the morning-after pill. It is not fair to blame the child for that; the parents have a lot of responsibility too. We all have a responsibility in setting a good example to our children, and sex education has a role to play from an early age.

I shall move on quickly. Women's day is important and relevant today. That was brought home to me by a member of my staff who has been covering for my secretary, who is on maternity leave. She has been seeking a new job. She told me only yesterday that she had applied for one or two jobs and that she had been contacted by prospective employers and asked whether she is married or single, what is her age, whether she has children and, if so, what are their ages. She said, "I don't suppose a man would be asked those questions, would they?" I pointed out to her that that was against the law, but most women do not seem to know that. I would not want to work for anyone who asked such questions, and we need to send out that message.

There are all sorts of other problems in the wide range of state provision for women and men in this country. There are all sorts of voluntary organisations, but they

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do not always succeed in getting long-term funding. That was brought home to me only a couple of weeks ago by a letter from the centre manager of the Salisbury district well woman centre. I simply make the point that, for £75,000 a year, it provides a magnificent service and, as the centre puts it,

It says that, in an area such as south Wiltshire, which is very prosperous,

the position is made worse for those people—

That is just the sort of small hole that can be plugged by such organisations, and I wish it well as we try to find funding.

Of course not all women take a similar point of view. A remarkable national organisation, called Full Time Mothers, which is based in London, has a member in my constituency. Under the title, "Equal not identical", the leader article in its spring newsletter says:

That point of view needs to be listened to, on behalf of Full Time Mothers.

I wish to touch on a couple of issues that are very important at the moment, the first of which is women in the armed forces. I congratulate all three services on the way in which they have adapted to the 21st century, particularly in the past decade or so. We have seen a truly remarkable improvement in the way in which women have had increasing access to more parts of all three services.

I always took the view that it was important that the decision on whether women should operate in the front line should be a military judgment. It is not only a question of physiological or psychological arguments; it is about the fighting spirit and what happens when one is on the front line and things go wrong. The military are the best people to make that judgment and the Government were right to conclude that it must be a judgment for them. The military concluded that women should not be in the front line for the time being.

Women have an extraordinary record of success in the armed forces. They have a long way to go, but they have made huge progress nevertheless and have my support in continuing with that. It is significant that a large number of women are serving in the forces and have been deployed to the Gulf region. They will find irreplaceable roles there.

We should also remember the families that follow the flag—the people who are left behind at times of great anxiety such as these. Only yesterday, because my constituency is very military, I was talking to the Army Families Federation about the present situation, and the

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assistance that it can give to forces families. The same is true of the organisation for Navy wives. The Royal Air Force has the Airwaves communication channel, and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association also has a lot of work to do. They are all in our minds at the moment. We should never forget that behind a man or a woman in the forces is a spouse or partner on whom they depend. The relationship is completely interdependent.

Will the Minister ensure that her colleagues in the Ministry of Defence in their planning at interdepartmental level for a response to the present humanitarian crisis in Iraq, but more particularly if there is conflict afterwards, take most careful note of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325? That resolution expresses

I draw the Minister's attention to paragraphs 4, 5, 11 and 12 of that resolution. Paragraph 4 urges the Secretary-General

Paragraph 5 urges a "gender component", to use the jargon, in peacekeeping operations. Women should be properly considered. Paragraph 11 emphasises the importance of putting

We should ensure that those crimes are excluded from amnesty provisions. Paragraph 12 calls on all parties to armed conflict to include in the design of refugee camps and settlements appropriate care for women.

This has been a remarkable debate. We have heard a wide range of views and we have all made a positive contribution. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in reply. There is a continuing need for an international women's day to remind us all of our duty to the other half of the population in a world that is still dominated by men.

5.43 pm

The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I greatly appreciated the tone and content of the speech of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). He has summed up our debate admirably and I will attempt to follow in his footsteps.

This has been an extremely good debate—a very good day. From the beginning, I was struck by the fact that the debate lived up to its name and was truly international, with speeches from the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) about Eritrea and from the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) about Kenya.

If I had to single out a speech—it is always invidious to do so—that captured the mood of the House and the international flavour of today, it would be the wonderful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) about Tanzania. Although I have visited that part of Africa, I have not had the privilege of going to Tanzania. I would certainly like to go there and her speech brought it alive. It was a truly remarkable speech.

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Today gives us an opportunity to remember a time when women across the world were still demanding the right to vote and the right to hold public office. In some parts of the world, of course, that fight continues. We have the opportunity today to take stock of where we are, to look forward, and to remember from where the fight came. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) spoke about the contribution of Emily Wilding Davison. While she was speaking, I remembered that when I started to read the history of the period, what shocked me most of all was the cat and mouse Act to which she referred, perhaps one of the most iniquitous pieces of legislation ever passed by this House.

On a slightly happier note—unfortunately, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar cannot be with us now, for which she apologised in advance, as she had an engagement—we should also remember the special connection between Emily Wilding Davison and this place. On the night of the 1911 census, Emily Wilding Davison, who had come to visit the House during the day, stayed in a broom cupboard attached to the wonderful crypt here. She stayed the whole night—I have looked at that broom cupboard, and it takes some courage to stay in it, even today—so that, the next morning, in the census, she could say that her address was the House of Commons. There is a wonderful plaque commemorating her. I always take visitors to see it, and I urge other hon. Members to do so.

We have come a long way since then, but I recognise that we still have a long way to go. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) put that very well: young women think that it has all been achieved, and it is true that enormous strides have been made, but we must never underestimate the size of the task. Today, most women's work is still underpaid and taken for granted. Women generate more than half of all economic activity in developing countries, but only about a third of their work is currently measured and acknowledged in national accounts.

We also know that there is still a struggle in the UK. Here, women make up nearly half the work force—double the numbers of 25 years ago—and projections still show that, in 10 years' time, there will be 2 million more jobs in the economy, 80 per cent. of which will be filled by women. Of course, the pay gap, although it is much reduced—it was 37 per cent. in 1970—still stands stubbornly at 19 per cent. In every women's debate, when we talk about equal pay and the gender pay gap, we should remember, particularly this year, the enormous contribution of Barbara Castle, who was such an inspirational figure to all of us, and, I would suggest, to women on both sides of the House.

The causes of the pay gap are many: occupational, segregation, the time that women take out to look after children, and even travel patterns. It is not an issue that the Government can tackle alone, and we need to work in partnership with employers, trade unions and other organisations to do it. Last year, we launched the Castle awards to give recognition to employers who are working to address equal pay. We are trying, as a Government, to put our own house in order. We told Departments and agencies to conduct an equal pay

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audit and prepare action plans to close the gaps. I know that many in the private sector are doing the same. In April, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women will introduce an equal pay questionnaire to help applicants get the information that they need before they decide whether to take a claim to a tribunal. We are also looking at ourselves as an employer and trying to increase the number of women in the senior civil service. As a result, women now occupy 25 per cent. of the senior posts, compared to 17 per cent. five years ago. We are well on the way to our target of 35 per cent. by 2005. We have also set up schemes in which senior women civil servants mentor more junior women in post. That is important.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) mentioned mainstreaming, which is an important issue. For the very first time, we have agreed gender targets as part of the annual public service agreements that Departments reach with the Treasury.

The extremely important issue of child care was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). It is right to say that if we want to create equality in the workplace, we must look at some of the barriers that stand in the way of women returning to work. We have a Government strategy to expand child care, especially in the most disadvantaged areas. There is a tremendous disparity in the provision of child care in the prosperous and the most deprived areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate was right to talk about the expense of child care in London. Our aim is to create places to accommodate 1.6 million children by 2004, and so far more than 1 million children have benefited. Of course, I do not underestimate the size of the task. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove mentioned Ofsted inspections and registration. We will look at inspection arrangements and, where possible, streamline procedures so that we can make them the best that we possibly can.

We also need to make flexible working more possible—as politicians, we are the worst exponents of it. That point was raised by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley). We need to think about the balance between our work and our domestic and family life. We are good at preaching about it as politicians, but not so good at doing something about it. We have a terrible culture in this country of presenteeism. People think that we are not doing our job properly if we are not working all the hours of the day and night. In some other European Union countries people think that if their colleagues are at work for all those hours, they must not be very good at their job. But if we are not there with the jacket behind the chair, people think that we are no good. Flexible working is important and therefore we have legislated so that from April this year employers will have to consider seriously requests to work flexibly from employees—fathers as well as mothers—with children under six or disabled children under 18. That is an achievement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has championed.

So we have to look at the way in which we balance work with our family life. This is not just an agenda for women; it is an agenda for men. Many men in our society want to be active parents and to play a part in their children's lives. It is an agenda that will be increasingly popular.

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The importance of women in political life was also raised by the hon. Member for Bromsgrove and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). We have made progress in the House, but there is still a great deal to do. There are currently 118 women Members of Parliament—a slight drop from 1997, when there were 120. I am pleased that hon. Members today recognise the Government's steps to legislate in this direction. I look forward to seeing what other political parties will do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) mentioned the achievements of the National Assembly for Wales. She was right: it is remarkable what has been achieved and it is a tribute to devolution. The emphasis on working hours and family-friendly policies is something that we in this place could try to emulate.

The hon. Member for Romsey mentioned women in public life. We have driven that campaign forward, and we are already seeing the fruits of that. I know of some women who have come forward for public appointment. The hon. Lady asked what follow-up work would be done. Research work is being done by officials in the women and equality unit, and practical work is being done in partnership with the Women's National Commission. I hope that the hon. Lady will applaud that sustained effort.

In today's debate, there has been a great deal of discussion of domestic violence. The issue was raised in speeches and interventions by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), the hon. Member for Maidenhead, my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), for Keighley, for Cardiff, North and the hon. Member for Bromsgrove.

Domestic violence is a major blot on our society. The figures are shocking. Each time one looks at them, they are striking. Every three days, a woman is killed as a result of domestic violence. Violence against women accounts for nearly a quarter of all violent crime in this country. If there were statistics showing that men were dying in such numbers, there would be a national outcry

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and it would be on the front pages. It would not be seen as a men's issue; it would be seen as a national outrage—which is what the present situation is.

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