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Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the women in Guildford who formed an organisation called Helping Hands? The women all gave birth to children at the Royal Surrey county hospital in Guildford. The maternity unit is now under threat and will possibly be moved away. My hon. Friend stresses the importance to women of access to such services locally.

Mrs. Laing: I congratulate that group of women in my hon. Friend’s constituency. It is gratifying to note that the people who stand up for the services that they need and protest about Government hospital closures are not only members of the Cabinet but those who suffer from the plans. I commend the group for its work.

Let us consider economic activity. I use that phrase rather than “jobs” or “the workplace” because women in the work force are essential to our country’s economy, our society’s structure and, indeed, the economies of family life. Women working is not an add-on or an extra. I therefore use the term “economic activity” because the women who undertake it do so in a wide range of matters. We must recognise that. However, I do not say that legislation should take account of women in the workplace out of altruism or because it is correct, good and encourages equality. It is necessary for the economic success of our country. Without economic success, we do not have the resources for the public services and welfare matters on which we all want to spend public money.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): In recognising the country’s economic success, will my hon. Friend acknowledge the vast contribution of Baroness Thatcher? Does she share my delight in the House’s recognition of her achievement through the unveiling of the magnificent statue? Many Conservative Members especially welcomed Mr. Speaker’s extremely gracious remarks on that occasion.

Mrs. Laing: As ever, I agree 100 per cent. with my hon. Friend and I am glad that he made that point. First, I agree that it is magnificent to have the wonderful statue. I do not detect much enthusiasm on the Labour Benches, but I did not expect it.

Mary Creagh: Does the hon. Lady agree that the contribution that Mrs. Thatcher made to women entering the work force in my constituency of Wakefield was the shutting-down of every coal mine in the district, which caused male unemployment of 25 per cent? In the city where I grew up, Coventry, there was a similar unemployment rate, caused by the closure of the car factories. Because of the unemployment of men in their household, women were forced into low-paid work to support their families, as my mother was.

Mrs. Laing: Oh good, I am so glad that the hon. Lady has opened up the debate on Mrs. Thatcher’s contribution to turning round a country that had suffered from years of Labour misrule—just as now—and to turning round an economy that made not just women but most of the population work in low-paid jobs and industries that were going continually downhill.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

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Mrs. Laing: In a moment.

It was not just women who suffered from the economic mismanagement of most business and industry in the UK in the 1970s; the whole country suffered. Had it not been for Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of a Conservative Government for 18 successful years—or some of those 18 successful years—the country would have continued to slide downhill. We all know that when an economy gets into difficulties, poverty starts to increase and a country is not flourishing, it is those who are least able to stand up for themselves who suffer most, and they are often women.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs. Laing: I will give way in a moment. The short speech that I was going to make is rapidly lengthening.

To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East, we hardly ever say now, because it has been said so often, but it is true, that Margaret Thatcher made a huge difference to the ability of women in the United Kingdom and throughout the western world to achieve to the highest levels. After she became Prime Minister, nobody could say that it cannot be done. When I was a child, I said I was interested in politics, and I suppose that I argued in a childlike way that I wanted to be a Member of Parliament. People said, “You can’t be a Member of Parliament. You’re a girl.” Margaret Thatcher made an enormous difference not only by being there but by being such a success. This country, this place and the women of this country owe her an enormous debt of gratitude.

Lynda Waltho: I, too, have something to thank Baroness Thatcher for: the effect that she had on my life. Because of her, I knew that things had to change. She made me become political, join the Labour party and fight for change. I also remember marching to get my school milk back—one of my first political acts—for which I also have her to thank. The hon. Lady would struggle, however, to think of three things that Baroness Thatcher did to advance the cause of women in this country.

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Lady proves my point. I said that Baroness Thatcher made an enormous difference, and she did. Although this is not the subject of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is not far from it, and three things would not be nearly enough. I made the point a little while ago that there is no such thing as a women’s issue. Women do not live in a different world from men; we all live in one world and one country together. Unless that country is prospering as a strong economy and enough taxes are being raised to fund good public services and help people who need those services, the whole of society suffers. Baroness Thatcher turned around this country and economy to make it successful once more.

Laura Moffatt: Would the hon. Lady consider continuing in this vein? I have a feeling that her speech will be the best thing that Labour Members will use in the next general election.

Mrs. Laing: I could go on, and on and on.

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Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): It is strange how the words “quality public services” trip off the tongue of Opposition Members. One thing that Margaret Thatcher did was the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering, which demoralised people working in the public sector and came close to destroying many services in many areas.

Mrs. Laing: It also improved areas of the economy that needed to be tightened up. If it is so wrong, why have the Labour Government not turned it around in 10 years? The time for Labour Members to blame the previous Conservative Government has passed. Given that they have had 10 years in power with enormous majorities, they should have insisted on their Prime Minister changing anything for which they blame the Conservative Government.

Mr. Burns: In the light of the interventions on my hon. Friend in the past few minutes, is she surprised that one of the first official guests that the current Prime Minister had to No. 10 Downing street in late May 1997 was our noble Friend Baroness Thatcher? She may not be surprised, but perhaps Labour Members are perplexed, that the Prime Minister has done nothing to reverse the landmark policies of the noble Baroness. Ironically, he has gone even further in some sensitive policy areas, particularly in using the private sector in the health service.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Of course, the Prime Minister invited Baroness Thatcher to visit him in Downing street soon after he took office—he was sensible enough to know that he needed good advice from somewhere, and that he was not going to get it from his own Benches. What a pity that he did not pay attention to it.

Mary Creagh: I thank the hon. Lady for her interesting hagiography of Baroness Thatcher. Does she agree, however, that Baroness Thatcher was not the first woman politician to be elected as premier? The elections of both Indira Ghandi and Mrs. Bandaranaike, in India and Sri Lanka respectively, predate Mrs. Thatcher’s— [Interruption.] She was not the first woman to lead a country, although, to listen to the hon. Lady, one would have thought that she was. What does she make of the fact that under Mrs. Thatcher—this great champion of women—child poverty more than trebled? What impact did interest rates of 15 per cent. in 1991—forcing more than 200,000 to lose their homes—have on both the lives of women and their children?

Mrs. Laing: First, the hon. Lady has her facts wrong; Lady Thatcher was no longer Prime Minister when interest rates went that high. [Interruption.] The point is very relevant, but it is not the subject of this debate.

Fiona Mactaggart: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing: Perhaps the hon. Lady will allow me to answer the intervention of the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) first. Of course, I am well aware that some magnificent, powerful, successful women have led other countries, but Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to lead our country. The hon. Member for
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Wakefield may roll her eyes in wonder, but I care about what happens in our country as well as the rest of the world. As for the issue of child poverty, I come back to the same point: it was the overall performance of the economy that mattered, and that is what Lady Thatcher put right.

Angela Watkinson: Was it not Lady Thatcher who released countless women from the feudal tyranny of local authority landlords, and gave them the independence that comes with home ownership?

Mrs. Laing: It certainly was—and that demonstrates that when a policy is introduced that benefits millions of people at the lower end of the income scale, women benefit most of all.

Mr. Russell Brown: Although what the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) said was correct, that policy forced local authorities to sell houses. There is a fundamental difference between that policy and the policy that preceded it, which enabled council tenants to purchase their own homes. Local authorities were forced to sell homes for capital expenditure, and we are reaping the price today.

Mrs. Laing: Actually—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Although I am sure that Lady Thatcher would be greatly flattered that we are conducting a debate all about her, the title of the debate on the Order Paper is somewhat different. Perhaps it would be a good idea if we moved on a little.

Mrs. Laing: I appreciate that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will return to the subject of women, justice and gender equality, but let me first end that part of the debate by making the obvious point that Lady Thatcher did more for women, justice and gender equality in her time—and is capable of doing more yet: she is still very active in the political sphere, and I pay tribute to what she continues to do, not just what she did once upon a time—than almost any other single person whom any Member in the Chamber could mention.

Fiona Mactaggart: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing: As long as we now move on to the subject of the debate, I will give way.

Fiona Mactaggart: I was reluctant to intervene until now, because when I pointed out earlier that only the Labour Government had introduced legislation to promote equality, the hon. Lady said that she was not interested in talking about things that had happened decades ago. However, I want to put the record straight on interest rates. Let me remind the hon. Lady that for only seven months of the time for which Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister, which lasted many years, were interest rates lower than they are today.

Mrs. Laing: That is true, because of the way in which the economic cycle works. As we all know, the present Government inherited a strong economy with low interest rates, and the present Chancellor has been fortunate in being able to keep them low for a long time; but has the
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hon. Lady not observed that they are now edging up and up, and is she not concerned about that? I certainly am.

Anne Milton: May I conclude the remarks about Lady Thatcher? We seem to be incapable of getting away from her.

The shrillness of those on the Labour Benches smacks a little of jealousy to me. Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister on her own merits, unlike many Labour Members who could only be levered into the House by means of all-women shortlists.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right; but I am pleased that the existence of Lady Thatcher as Prime Minister spurred as many Labour as Conservative women to become politically active. If her existence, her policies, her attitudes and her brilliant speeches have brought more women into the House, that is a very good thing, whatever those women say and do when they arrive here.

Dr. Julian Lewis: As the person who, perhaps not quite inadvertently, began this cycle of the debate by referring to the magnificent statue and the wonderful tribute from Mr. Speaker, may I ask whether it is not a measure of what Lady Thatcher achieved for men, women and children in this country that throughout our long disquisition about her record, no one has even mentioned the way in which she managed to democratise the trade unions that had made the country all but ungovernable, or what she contributed to the ending of the cold war? I remember that when we debated Trident, the entire official Opposition wanted us to disarm unilaterally at the height of the cold war threat.

Mrs. Laing rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the House again that the title of the debate is “Women, justice and gender equality in the UK”. I think that we ought to get on with that now.

Mrs. Laing: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The point about women and economic activity is that if the very good policies we are now pursuing—both the Work and Families Act 2006 and the Equality Act 2006, which I mentioned earlier, have the total support of Conservative Members—are to be effective on the ground, those of us who believe in them in principle must take the business community with us. I have asked Ministers before, and I ask again today, whether the Government intend to publish guidance to help small businesses, in particular, to put the terms of those two Acts into practice. I am thinking particularly of the right to request flexible working hours. I fear that that there is a misconception in the business community that flexible working is likely to be detrimental to business. I firmly believe, on the basis of evidence that I have seen, that it is likely to be beneficial to business, which is one of the reasons why I thoroughly support what the Government are doing in that regard.

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We have digressed somewhat from what I was saying about achievements relating to violence, health and economic activity. Let me finish what I was saying about economic achievements. For a long time, we have enjoyed a pretty good standard of equality of opportunity in education for girls and boys, but that is not reflected in the higher echelons of business and the professions. I shall say more about that shortly.

I pay tribute to the many charities and outside bodies that work in the fields we are discussing, such as the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fawcett Society. Let me also mention, in terms of domestic violence, Refuge and Women’s Aid; in respect of encouraging women to be confident and building up their career prospects, the many groups, including the Girl Guides and the scout movement, that are often not given the praise that they deserve; and in the field of trafficking, the POPPY project and Stop the Traffik. I cannot possibly give an exhaustive list and I have omitted far more organisations than I have mentioned, but I want to take this opportunity to commend and thank those who have given their time voluntarily, and have established such excellent outside bodies to enact the agenda that we are discussing. They have improved women’s lives over the years, and I am confident that they will continue to do so.

As I have said, we have achieved a great deal, but there is even more still to be done. The Minister dealt very well with the subject of violence, particularly domestic violence, but let me repeat the statistic that today one woman in three in the United Kingdom is likely to suffer domestic violence at some point in her life. We must not forget that a significant number of men suffer that, too. However, domestic violence against women has always been prevalent. For a long time, we did not talk about it. Now we are and we are doing something about it. I ask the Minister and her colleagues to look in detail at the police’s powers to deal with domestic violence. I am not criticising anything that the Minister has said today, and I accept that a lot of progress has been made, but we hear again and again from police officers who have been dealing with crimes of domestic violence that they do not have the necessary powers to do what they would like to do.

Let us not forget that, if someone is killed as a result of domestic violence, it is still murder. It is not just domestic violence; it is murder. I know that Ministers agree with me on that. I make the point because, in the wider context, people talk about domestic violence as if it is a fringe issue. It is not. It is a very serious crime.

Vera Baird: The police have complained to the hon. Lady that they do not have the required powers. I just wondered whether she wanted to specify what powers she thinks the police should have.

Mrs. Laing: I did not want to take up time by discussing the matter in great detail. I pay tribute to the Minister. In other forums, in discussions in Committees and in other meetings in the House, we often have the opportunity to discuss the matter in great detail. If she were happy to look at some of the written matter that I have, I would be pleased to send it to her. I am conscious that I have been speaking for some time, although lots of other people have been speaking during that time, too.

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