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The trouble starts when girls get into their teens. That is when they are extremely vulnerable because they are the ones who will produce the next generation. One of the places we fall down is in sex education in schools, which relies on the provision of a great deal of sex information. What girls need to be told is that if they become sexually active very young, they run the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, which can last for many years and affect their fertility, which the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) referred
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to in her remarks, or it can lead to unwanted teenage pregnancies and abortions, which can have long-term emotional and physical consequences.

What girls need to be told in those lessons is the realities of life; that if they indulge in precocious, under-age sex, often with unsuitable boys who have not the slightest intention of getting married or being a father, and certainly have no means of supporting any resulting child, those girls will bear full responsibility for bringing up a child at a time when they are still children themselves. Their education, training and employment prospects will be severely curtailed for quite a few years.

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is making an interesting point. In my local area there is pressure on closing walk-in centres for family planning and birth control. Does she share my concern that a primary care model centred around GPs is all very well, but teenage girls need access quickly to advice? They are not likely to ring up a GP and wait a couple of days.

Angela Watkinson: I agree. Teenage girls need that advice, and they need proper warnings about all the risks that are involved before they embark on that course. They need to be encouraged to wait and get their education and their career prospects first, so that they and any children they might have in the future have a prospect of a good life in a married, settled family.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Does the hon. Lady agree that it is most important to focus not just on sex education, but on sex and relationship education? One of the big failings in our schools is that it is not delivered by properly qualified people.

Angela Watkinson: The hon. Lady is right. Sex is not just a casual leisure activity, because the outcomes are so long term and serious. The emotional relationships that attach to that are very important and should be stressed. Girls need to know that they are the ones who will have to bear the brunt of the outcome. Boys often disappear into the ether, and women—we multi-tasking women—carry the consequences. Girls need to plan their lives with regard to how, when and with whom they will have children.

A young woman recently attended my advice surgery. She had been in an unsuitable partnership, from which she had a 10-year-old child. Her violent, drug-taking ex-partner had access to her daughter. She had gone to court to ask whether that drug-taking partner could be prevented from taking her daughter in a car when he had access, because she felt that that would be unsafe. The judge took the view that provided that the man undertook not to take drugs for 24 hours before he had access, the child would be perfectly safe. I do not know how that could possibly be monitored—the judge was of the opinion that the man’s mother could monitor him on the day before he had access. A lot more thought needs to go into the decisions that come out of courts. It is certainly important that both parents should have access to children, but in the interests of child welfare, a child should not be driven around in a car by a drug-taking father just so that he can access his right to his child.

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Very early sexual activity can lead to, for example, chlamydia. Girls are often blissfully unaware that they have that infection until much later in life. When they have settled down, married and want to start a family, they find that they cannot do so and that the damage has already been done, and they need to be warned about such things.

The biggest effect on equality of opportunity for girls is proper sex education, because it affects their quality of life, employment opportunities and career development.

Lynda Waltho: The hon. Lady has touched on an important debate that is currently taking place between health professionals, educational professions and parents. Will she enlighten me on what point in the education cycle such education would be suitable? I am talking about not only what one might describe as sexual plumbing, but relationship education. That is certainly a hot issue in my constituency at the moment.

Angela Watkinson: The specific age is best decided by professionals who are specialists in that field in both health and teaching. Girls need to be prepared before they get into difficulties, but they do not need lots of information that encourages experimentation. They are already bombarded with sexual images through the television, DVDs, videos and teen magazines—there is pressure everywhere they look. There has been quite a lot of discussion lately about the style of clothing in shops for very young girls, which makes them look like mini-adults while they are still children. Those ideas need to be drawn together to protect young girls, so that they can get through their teens relatively unscathed before they step into the adult world.

Justine Greening: I am listening to my hon. Friend with interest. She has not mentioned peer-to-peer education. The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) has mentioned relationships, and I think that we do not focus sufficiently in this country on peer-to-peer education. On issues such as drugs, sex and relationships, peer-to-peer education could be vital in getting through to young people as they are growing up, because it might help them to understand such matters from a perspective to which they can perhaps relate more readily.

Angela Watkinson: It is certainly the case that advice is often better digested from a peer when it relates to their personal experience. Sharing best practice and, probably, worst practice in schools through school councils and peer groups is likely to be more effective than advice dispensed by adults.

When women get into the workplace, there are many pitfalls, mostly related to the fact that they have responsibility for children. Women with young children are bound to have to take time off work occasionally when the children become ill or something important is going on at school that they want to be involved in. They are therefore very reliant on child care, and it has to be good child care provided by somebody utterly reliable with whom the child is happy. That is not the easiest thing to find. When working women have child care problems—carers can get ill from time to time—that causes complications. Flexible working is
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needed, especially during school holidays. Often, two parents will need to have separate holidays to try to work in child care for their school age children. That affects the ability of the whole family to have a holiday together, which is extremely important.

All those factors make life very complicated. Of course, women are multi-skilled. They do not work outside the home instead of inside the home, but outside it as well as inside it. They run the nuts and bolts of everyday life in the house, probably doing the garden and the decorating as well; they often do pretty much everything apart from maintaining the car. They take full responsibility for the children and their homework. How many Members have been lying in the bath and had a child knocking on the door saying, “Mum, can you remember how to do quadratic equations?”, or “What’s the French for so and so?” There is not a moment’s peace, and life becomes a bit like a treadmill, but women can do it—we are multi-skilled.

Lynda Waltho: I am slightly confused as to whether the hon. Lady is suggesting that flexible working should be available only for women. Would not many men also like to take care of their children and provide input into their lives?

Angela Watkinson: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I am using the word “women” because the debate is about women, but implied in that is the need for both parents to have access to flexible working. That does, though, produce problems for very small organisations—employers who may have only a handful of employees. It is much more difficult for them to allow an employee to have flexible arrangements or to be away given that the absence of one person can have a serious impact on the running of the organisation, whereas a large organisation can absorb those special arrangements much more easily through job-sharing and flexible times. When we introduce legislation that makes life easier for employees, we must remember the very small employers on whom it has a much more serious impact than larger organisations.

I should like to touch on the interrelated subject of midwifery. In my hospital trust area, I had three district general hospitals, one of which—Harold Wood hospital, where a large amount of midwifery services were provided—recently closed. We are left with a very nice new hospital in Romford called Queen’s hospital and King George hospital in Seven Kings. The new hospital is in the middle of the trust area, but new mums from Upminster and Cranham have to go to the far end of the trust area, to King George hospital in Seven Kings, for midwifery services, unless they are a high-risk case. It is very important that midwifery services are local.

Women also need ante-natal classes, which were stopped almost a year ago because of budgetary difficulties. Those classes not only provide medical treatment but have a social aspect, particularly for first-time mums who can compare notes with one another, and they need to be local. Some mothers have other children at school, and the difficulty of travelling several miles for a class often means that they will not go because it does not fit in with their other commitments. It is extremely worrying that there is a possibility of a second district
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general hospital closure in my trust area. That would leave us with only one. If that happens—it is subject to a “Fit for the Future” consultation—we will have to identify at least one and possibly two local sites for midwife-led centres. If such centres are to deal with most routine midwifery cases, what arrangements will be in place when an emergency occurs and women have to be transported to a hospital?

The Royal College of Midwives says that we have a national shortage of midwives and that we currently need another 10,000. The restructuring and reconfiguration of services to which I alluded will exacerbate that. I am therefore concerned about where the midwives will come from to serve all the pregnant mothers and new mums in my hospital trust area. That will be a high profile element of the “Fit for the Future” consultation.

I want briefly to mention domestic violence. I pay tribute to the Havering women’s refuge and its wonderful work in providing a safe haven for mothers and young children who have suffered domestic violence. It is a travesty of justice that the women and the children have to leave their home when the perpetrators of the violence remain there. The law needs to tackle the matter seriously.

I have already mentioned access to children. Trying to balance the rights of the mother to protect her children with the legal rights of the father, whom the mother regards as unsuitable for her children to be with, is a constant problem. We need to do much more, especially to control fathers and partners who are violent in the home but present a different face in public. Many women who suffer domestic violence are frightened to say what is happening. They think that they will not be believed because the public face that their partners or husbands present is so pleasant and reasonable. They think that no one could possibly believe what is going on behind their closed doors.

To improve status and opportunities for equality, we need first to change the nature of sex education so that girls are forewarned of all the risks of becoming sexually active too young and the possible long-term impact on their lives, education and career prospects. Secondly, we need to ensure that good midwifery services are available in all our hospital trust areas—especially mine—so that child care is given the high status that it requires. It is an important service that should be of high quality. Working mothers should be able to rely on it so that they can go to work confident that their children are happy and safe while they are away. Thirdly, legislation on the employment of women should ensure that small employers as well as employees can have confidence.

4.43 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): Like other hon. Members, I am pleased to speak on international women’s day. I want to talk about women and work, some of the barriers that have already been overcome and those that still need to be overcome if we are to have a more equal society.

I want to begin by describing my political journey to becoming a Member of Parliament. I had a professional career as an engineer and manager with IBM but I also realised the need for women to be involved in politics and in public life. It is interesting in the context of the
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debate to note that I began to feel that I could not pursue my career with IBM properly if I was also involved in politics. It seemed to be one or the other. In the mid-1990s, I was elected into local government in Trafford, and I managed the responsibility of being a councillor by becoming a self-employed consultant and adviser. It is interesting that it was difficult for me to pursue both my previous career and politics. Although Trafford had evening meetings, many councils in Greater Manchester had daytime meetings, which made it difficult for both men and women who worked to be councillors. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, the Labour group on Trafford council at the time provided a good set of role models, as it had a female council leader and, later, a female deputy.

In 2001, I first tried to be selected as an MP. To expand my CV, I thought that it was important to work nationally on health and social care issues. In 2004, I was selected as the candidate for Worsley constituency. In May 2005, I became one of the 26 women Labour MPs in what was, as several of my hon. Friends have mentioned, the first predominantly female new intake.

When I first became involved in politics, when Labour was in opposition, the ideas discussed in meetings were the need for child care, support for families, better maternity leave and pay and even the right to paternity leave. We talked about equal pay a lot, and closing the gaps in pay and opportunities between women and men. Thinking back, I never had equal pay when I worked for IBM: I even trained men who were at a much more junior level than me and then discovered that they earned more than me. Certainly, equal pay was an issue, as was the minimum wage. Matters such as flexible working and support for carers were not even discussed. It seemed unlikely that we would make progress on many of those issues.

Today, however, on international women’s day, it must be said that we have made substantial progress within a decade. In May 1997, very soon after the Labour Government came into office, a national child care strategy was introduced. That was one of the most crucial contributions to the area of women and work. The number of child care places is now double the 1997 level, at 1.3 million. Most importantly, for women with young children, free places in nursery or early education are provided for three and four-year-olds.

In April 1999, the national minimum wage was introduced, and two thirds of women benefited from that legislation. We should pay tribute to women Labour MPs, some of whom are in the Chamber today, who fought and stayed up at night, as did male colleagues, to get that legislation through.

In 1999, the Government also introduced the first ever national carers strategy. In 2002, the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act was introduced, which allowed positive measures to select more women candidates. That is relevant to the earlier debate that we had. The legislation was key, and most or all of the parties in the House will have to embrace such positive action if they want to make progress.

In 2003, the child tax credit and working tax credit were introduced. Importantly, as flexibility is key for women in work, flexible working rights were introduced for parents of young or disabled children.

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The debate has touched on the issue of domestic violence, but I shall not talk about that in depth. However, the introduction of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 was important. Across England and Wales, there are now 64 specialist domestic violence courts, including one in Salford. As a Salford MP, I intend to work with that court, see how it is doing and try to champion it, which is an important thing for women MPs to do.

November 2004 also saw the introduction of the equality standard for sport to reduce inequalities in sport and physical activity. I took part in a debate on young people and sport in Westminster Hall last week—I was the only woman MP who did so, which is perhaps surprising—which explored the falling-off of participation in sport by young people, and particularly by girls and young women. That debate has now been dubbed the hair dryers debate, because we ended up discussing whether leisure facilities had hair dryers, and how off-putting young women found it if they could not dry their hair. Much the same issues are being explored by Dame Kelly Holmes, who is doing excellent work as national school sport champion.

The Childcare Act 2006 was important, in that it was legislation devoted entirely to child care. Also important are the Women and Work Commission, on which there is a Government action plan—we have just had a “one year on” update—and additional work to reduce the gender pay gap. Legislation introduced during the past decade is still going through Parliament: the Pensions Bill, for instance. That Bill is hugely important to women, particularly in reducing the number of years for which they must work to build up a state pension and in providing credits for caring as well as for child care. We should salute Barbara Castle for introducing child care credits, but caring is just as important as child care in women’s lives.

The commitment to sign the European convention on human trafficking is an important step, and we look forward to its ratification. April is a busy time this year: paid maternity leave is to be extended to nine months, the right to request flexible working is to be extended to carers of adults, and there is to be a public-sector gender equality duty.

All that suggests that we have made great progress so far, but as others have said today, we still have much to do to ensure equality. It is now acknowledged that there will be wasted potential in the United Kingdom world of work if women’s pay continues to be lower than men’s and if there is less time for caring, causing more and continued stress for people with child-care or other caring responsibilities. As recent reports have pointed out, that waste of potential will continue unless the world of work changes.

People need flexible working for a variety of purposes. They need it for parenting, or to care for older family members or a disabled child, but they need it for other reasons too. In some wards in my constituency, incomes are very low. We shall be able to help families and lone parents only if they can study, or train and receive skills qualifications, and move on. However, it is difficult for those who are working and have children to undertake courses or training.

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