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8 Mar 2007 : Column 1711

On stalking, there is one particular point that I would like to raise with the Minister. She may want to consider that there is no definition of the crime of stalking or the activity of stalking in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. I am not suggesting, however, that its inclusion in the Act would put the matter right. My colleagues and I have been doing a lot of work on the issue of stalking, and I pay tribute in particular to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who left the Chamber just a few seconds ago. One of her constituents was tragically murdered by a man who had been stalking her for a very long time. Everyone knew about the stalking: the family, the girl and the police. The police officers did everything in their power—they were not criticised, and nor should they be—yet the man in question was still able to make the life of that girl, who was his ex-girlfriend, a misery, to threaten to kill her, to leave the country, to buy a gun illegally somewhere else in Europe, to come back into the country with an illegal gun and to walk into a public place and to shoot her dead. I give that as one example, but we are all aware of many more. I have met the mother of that girl and the courage that she has shown in campaigning on the issue moved me so much that I cannot fail to give that as an example.

I am not criticising the Minister or blaming the Government because that would be empty political rhetoric. I am not blaming anyone for what happened. All I am saying is that, since we are all working together very well on the issue, if the Government were to bring forward legislative change, that may improve the way in which we deal with the awful crime of stalking. Conservative Members would wish to assist as far as we can.

As my colleagues and I have discovered through research that we have done and meetings that we have held, in San Diego in California stalking is recognised as a very prevalent, wicked and difficult crime. The number of stalkers was increasing, so San Diego decided to take a completely new approach to stalking. Police officers were thenceforth trained to treat a stalking incident as a potential murder, because that is what it is. It is not a bit of a nuisance and something that simply has to be endured because of a broken relationship. In taking that different attitude and in training officers to deal with stalking differently, the number of serious incidents and murders that progressed from stalking in San Diego has reduced considerably. If the Minister would like to know more about that, my colleagues and I have a lot more information that we can give her.

Vera Baird: There is a definition of stalking, which is two acts calculated or likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. At least two acts have to be committed. I doubt that definitional problems are the real thrust of the problem. However, there is a problem where a stalker does, not nasty things to the victim, but nice things. It is very hard to bring that within any legislative definition, but such behaviour is very undermining and sinister, and is probably just as dangerous as when a person does nasty things, so we certainly have to reflect on that.

Mrs. Laing: I agree with the Minister entirely. I am not suggesting that the matter can be solved easily or that the definitional point is anything more than that,
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but it is a starting point. The fact that we are having this exchange across the Dispatch Box during an important debate on justice for women brings the matter to the fore. I am pleased that she and her colleagues share our concern about the matter.

Trafficking, which has been mentioned by the Minister and other Members, is another matter that involves violence and where we have so much more to do. Trafficking is tragic. Look at the prevalence of trafficking and at the number of young women and girls involved, because some of them are still legally children, who are brought into this country and other parts of Europe illegally, under duress and under false pretences. They are literally sold as prostitutes, or sometimes as domestic servants—that is obviously less of a problem but it is still a difficult issue. When they are sold as prostitutes they are made to work in appalling conditions, with no freedom. That is akin to slavery. I am sure that neither Minister needs me to convince them on that issue. We are all concerned about it. I want to ensure that, by discussing it in the House, it is given the attention that it deserves.

I suggest that guidance in the health service might help us to identify women and girls who are being forced to work as prostitutes. We often see Daily Mail-type articles about how scandalous it is that some women have three abortions in a year. Has it never occurred to the health professionals dealing with such cases that, if a woman presents herself three times in a year as pregnant and in need of an abortion, there may be something wrong other than just carelessness, and that that is often the case?

I am told by respectable and powerful charities that deal with the issue of trafficking that identification of victims is difficult, but could be made easier if professionals working in front-line services were trained to look for the danger signs. I hope that that is something that the Government will consider doing. We will continue our campaign on trafficking because it is tragic, as I am sure everyone in the House agrees, that women and girls are literally sold into slavery in this way.

The third area in which there is still much to do is health. Taking preventive action is much better for patients and for the economies of the health service in the long run than leaving people to develop diseases and then having to cure them. I want to be quick so I will use just one example. I have worked with the all-party group on osteoporosis for some time, and with the National Osteoporosis Society. It is unfortunate—let me put it no stronger than that—that at present osteoporosis, which is easy to detect, is not diagnosed in hundreds of thousands of women who go on to suffer from it. It is a disease which, if detected early, can be almost completely cured; its worst ill effects can be avoided. Some men suffer from the disease, but the vast majority of sufferers are women, a large number of whom do not know that they have it because it does not manifest itself in any particularly awful way until most women are in their mid-70s.

If an older woman suffers a fracture and is made immobile for six or seven weeks, the complications, which may include other health problems such as pneumonia or much more difficult illnesses to treat, can be very serious. It is a shocking statistic that if a woman in her later years suffers a fracture that would
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be as nothing to a younger person, she is likely to die within six months when she may have been really pretty healthy before the fracture occurred. Usually, such a fracture occurs because she is suffering unknowingly from osteoporosis.

I really ought to declare an interest. The reason why I managed in a fairly moderate little ski-ing accident to break my leg is that I have osteoporosis. I have become more knowledgeable about the subject, although I have known that I have it for many years. Something that is easily shaken off in one’s 40s—I was pleased when my doctors described me as youthful in medical terms—is pretty serious in one’s 70s. Older women’s health is a much-neglected area in health priorities. The Minister would argue that if we have priorities some people win and some people lose, but there is a good economic case as well as an extremely good compassionate case for investing in the prevention of certain diseases, especially among the female population.

I wish to come to a conclusion quickly now, but I have to say a couple more things about women’s economic activity and the great steps that still have to be taken to produce equality in the workplace. PricewaterhouseCoopers has produced statistics today that show that there are 40 per cent. fewer women at the top of the professions today than five years ago. The reasons given are of course that child care costs have increased enormously—by something like 27 per cent. over the past five years—and that there is insufficient flexibility in the workplace. I dealt with that earlier. Ministers will have the support of the Opposition if they take steps under the Work and Families Act 2006 to extend the right to request flexible working that the parents of small children enjoy to parents generally and to people with family responsibilities.

It is time that we faced the truth that we are asking women who have children to do two jobs. We need a new approach to the way in which jobs are done at the highest level in our economy. I do not suggest for a moment that this is something that can be done by the Government or Parliament. It is a matter of change of attitudes. I saw advice to young women entitled “How to succeed in a career” recently, written by someone for whom I have great respect, and who has succeeded enormously in her career. It said that one of the main things that women have to do is to be 100 per cent. dedicated to the work they are doing. Anyone, even the mother of a small child, can be 100 per cent. dedicated to the work that they do from 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, but if someone has family responsibilities, they cannot be 100 per cent. dedicated to the work that they are doing. We see young men 100 per cent. dedicated and they go up and up in the work force; they succeed more and earn more and so the spiral is perpetuated.

The CBI then argues that we should not worry about unequal numbers of women achieving in the professions because there are equal numbers of men and women in the City in well-paid jobs aged 28. Well, that is no surprise to me. When I was 28 I did exactly the same job as my then husband. Of course I did. We all do when it is just a question of being a women without any responsibilities; it is the same as being a man without any responsibilities. But the fact is that we need women to produce children, we need women to look after families and care for elderly relatives so we have to
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accept that we are asking women to do two jobs. Therefore, we have to encourage not just the right to request but the granting of flexibility in the workplace.

The Minister for Women and Equality (Meg Munn): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing: I must not go on more than another minute, but I will certainly give way.

Meg Munn: The hon. Lady is offering support for our policies in this area, but the Conservative Opposition have voted time and time again in the past 10 years against measures that have supported women in the workplace such as the extension of maternity leave and the introduction of two weeks paid paternity leave. When did their views change?

Mrs. Laing: The Minister knows that we supported the Work and Families Act 2006 and the Equality Act 2006. I appreciate the political point that the Minister is making, but we, the Conservative party now—as I said before, it is the Conservative party that I am concerned with, the one I am speaking for today—are very much in favour of increasing the right to request flexibility in the workplace. It leads to better working relationships and allows women and families more flexibility. Given the proper guidance, I am sure that business will accept that flexible working is a benefit, not a detriment.

Women cannot be expected to carry out their duties in paid work properly unless their children are properly cared for. A courageous group of women who are campaigning for better special needs education will begin an all-night vigil this evening in Parliament square. If it is difficult for a woman with children to balance her work and family life, how very much more difficult is it for a parent with a disabled child to do so? The special needs education system needs to be totally and utterly reformed, and I give every support to the vigil taking place this evening.

The equal pay issue was highlighted this week, in that many local authorities throughout the country have still not got their finances in order to enable them to implement guidance that the Government rightly laid down many years ago. I hope that situation will soon be remedied. For too long, employers, including local authority employers, have said, “Well, it doesn’t matter because women will put up with it.”

I have spoken for much longer than I originally anticipated because I wanted to give way as many times as possible to enable a lively debate. I am glad that we have had such a debate. It is important that these issues are discussed not only when we introduce legislation, because legislation does not solve everything. Attitudes need to change, and I believe that they are changing. An enormous amount of progress has been made, but there is still much to do. We have supported much that the Government are doing on the equality agenda. The next Conservative Government, whom we shall see in the not too distant future, along with a massively increased number of women Conservative MPs, will take—

Meg Munn: That is what you said last time.

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Mrs. Laing: It is, and I will say it the next time, as well; indeed, I will go on saying it. It is going to happen, and not just through hope; I am glad to see that the opinion polls also now tell us that it is going to happen. My concern is not just who the personalities are in a given Government, but what a Government do. The next Conservative Government will be very responsive to the equality agenda, recognising that it is essential to the future of our country.

2.22 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I take great pleasure in speaking in debates on women, and I take particular pleasure in speaking in a debate on international women’s day. I want to make it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed the contribution of my very close friend Vera Baird, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar. Her contribution was thoughtful and provocative—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but we do not use the actual names of Members of the House of Commons.

Ms Taylor: I do apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that mistake.

I wish that I could make the same warm comments about the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), whose contribution I found very disappointing, to say the least. In the past, we have had some very good contributions from the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan); she was missed today.

Women have to face many challenges in their professional lives and in other forms of employment, and within politics. I want to concentrate for a moment on some of those challenges. My party has done very well on this issue, and if I were to produce a report, it would say, “Good progress has been made, but there is more to do. Could do better.” Now, nearly 20 per cent. of Labour Back Benchers are women, and it would be appropriate for that figure to rise to 40 per cent. That would constitute excellent progress, and it would be even better if it rose to 50 per cent.

I will not by any means give lectures to the other parties represented here, but I am keen to say to members of my own party that the creative, positive and challenging input of women in this House, in local government, and in the professions and all other forms of employment, has to be recognised. Such input is highly valued. I would be very disappointed if my party moved back into the world of the old boys’ network in which only those who belong to it are supported, and from which those bringing up families, working and performing a number of other tasks—those who are outside that easy operational network—are excluded. My party is still fighting that fight today. We have won so far; the challenge is to keep on winning.

I want to dwell for a moment on a recent visit that I and four other Labour Members paid to Pakistan. Before doing so, I should like to declare an interest, in case it is appropriate to do so. That visit was funded by three business men from my constituency, all of whom are concerned that we should get to know Pakistan better and develop our relations with it. That is what
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we did during our visit. We all most gratefully thank Mr. Javed, who not only provided funding but offered excellent support in all that we did in Pakistan.

I want to tell the House about that visit for one reason if nothing else. We all say with great pride, as do I, that this is the mother of all Parliaments, but in Pakistan today, 33 per cent. of those in the Senate, the National Assembly and local councils are women. Women share power in those institutions. Nobody denies that many of the women in the Senate and the National Assembly have wealthy backgrounds and probably come from political families, but that does not prevent them from clearly defining the various issues and concerns, and producing policies that are greatly to the betterment of women, families and communities.

While we were there, we listened to Senators talk about how they are persuading Balochistan and other places to support girls’ education by paying parents 200 rupees. We examined carefully the legislation that the National Assembly is introducing on outlawing honour killings. The assembly is doing its best to ensure that the law is supported. We also observed and got involved in the many literacy programmes. We saw women learning to read. Over time, they see the value of learning to read and its relevance to their children. Indeed, they are not just learning their own language; they are learning to speak ours, as well. They are women from the villages, ordinary women, but they have tremendous courage and tenacity.

We were impressed by all the groups we met. The women Senators were sparkling—I am sure that the male Senators are just as good, but we were determined to meet the women, and that is what we did—and very focused on, and determined about, what they were doing. The National Assembly representatives also all spoke English as well as we do, and they made us all thoroughly ashamed that we do not speak any other languages.

If one group stood out as seriously pleasing to meet, it was the local councillors, the ordinary women. One said, “I could not read my own language when I was elected to the council, but I can read it now.” We heard the empowerment in their voices and saw that they knew what was required for their communities. Their determination to deliver those policies was extraordinarily powerful.

It was a good visit. It was great to see how micro-credit is giving so many people a better lifestyle. It was superb to see the female literacy centre in Taxila, which was not a college or purpose-built building, but a person’s home. He had provided the space because he knew the importance of the literacy programme. It was great to see how community organisations in the village of Pink Malikan worked and to speak with the woman organising the Nomad arts gallery. I think that I have a lot of tenacity, but those women have serious amounts of tenacity.

Top of the tree for me was going to the Fatima Jinnah women’s university and speaking to 22-year-olds who did not want us to go. We answered their questions for 45 minutes to an hour, but we could have spent a couple of days with them. Those young women are Pakistan’s tomorrow and they are seriously good. They are challenging and determined that they will be part of tomorrow’s Pakistan and deliver a better life for people in that country.

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