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Instead of part-time study being favoured because of its economic benefits, it is always the poor cousin. I sincerely hope that the demonstration of support for my early-day motion on equivalent and lower qualifications by 204 Members, from both sides of the House, will have provoked a rethink on this issue. Part-time learning
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throughout life will be a necessity in our society. The Open university needs our support in order to grow and flourish, and I, for one, hope that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families can make an appropriate new year’s resolution.

In the time left available to me, I wish to raise a couple of other constituency issues, the first of which relates to trains. It would appear that Milton Keynes is no longer the first stop on the inter-city route, but is now the penultimate stop on the commuter route. Commuters in Milton Keynes simply cannot understand why, when the Government are forcing our city to expand, little extra provision is being made for our services.

Although we are grateful that the platforms in Milton Keynes Central are being upgraded, I asked the Minister what benefit that will bring to the commuters of Milton Keynes. I received an answer to my parliamentary question, which stated:

That is fascinating, but when we looked at the new timetable, we discovered that the number of direct services to Liverpool had been cut—not increased, as the answer says—from seven to two, and the number of services to the north-west and Scotland had fallen from six to just one. People who want to get on that train must do so at 6.26 am. In addition, I should mention the ridiculous situation whereby trains to Euston will stop to let passengers off at Milton Keynes, but nobody can get on. Not a single inter-city train now stops there during peak hours.

The other issue that I wish briefly to cover is our hospital, which was built in 1984—for the population at the time. Milton Keynes general hospital has expanded rapidly over recent years. It is easy for the Prime Minister to say that every hospital will have a deep clean, but that is not that easy to do in hospitals such as the one in Milton Keynes. It has a high occupancy rate, which means that it has no decant area. Some 32 areas in the hospital have been identified as needing to be cleaned, at the cost of some £8,000 per area, but a dedicated decant area has yet to be identified. The hospital is struggling to find somewhere to enable the deep clean to be carried out. While I am on the subject of the hospital, I should like to pay tribute to the work of the midwives. They are working under increasing pressure, because the birth rate has been increasingly rapid in Milton Keynes over the years.

Mr. Hayes: While my hon. Friend is on the subject of health, I wonder whether he would add his voice to the campaign to draw attention to cardiac death among young people. He has shown great leadership on the issue of second degrees. Will he find time to campaign on such an issue, with his typical flair and assiduity, both in Milton Keynes and here? It is estimated that up to eight young people a week die of early cardiac death. I wonder whether we should be paying more attention to the matter in Milton Keynes and elsewhere, and drawing it to the attention of Ministers.

Mr. Lancaster: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point and I know that he has been a champion of that worthy cause. I would be delighted to pick up that issue, alongside him and other hon. Members.

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My final point is on another valuable piece of infrastructure in Milton Keynes, but one that is often overlooked. We are fortunate in having the Grand Union canal flowing through Milton Keynes. There has been much debate in the House recently about the potential cuts for British Waterways that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs proposes. Some say that the figure will be as much as £30 million, but the biggest impact in my constituency will be on the building of the new Milton Keynes to Bedford extension of the canal, for which there is great support. The extension will finally link the two towns and be the first new canal in nearly 100 years. I pay tribute to John Bint who has been one of the key people in pushing that scheme. It will provide a valuable asset for my area, a green lung and a facility that the growing population will be able to use. However, amid the growing uncertainty over funding for British Waterways it looks increasingly unlikely that the project will get off the ground. It enjoys cross-party support in the town and I simply ask the Minister to take note of my concerns and do what she can to push that valuable project ahead.

5.1 pm

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): I wish to talk today about the changing role and status of women, and the role of Government in addressing those changes. When I consider that when my mother was born women were not allowed to vote, let alone stand for Parliament, it brings home to me how far we have come. It would be a brave man indeed who spoke out today in the House of Commons and said that women’s brains were not capable of understanding how Parliament worked and that they should therefore take no part in the political process, but that was common parlance less than 100 years ago.

Despite what women have achieved over the years, there is still a long way to go. Women consistently earn less than men, they lose out when it comes to pensions and they are far more likely to suffer domestic violence and sexual abuse. That is not good enough, not just for women in my constituency, but for those across the country. That is why we need to do more.

I am proud that the Government are working to tackle the gaps in pay, income and assets, and working to break the glass ceiling of opportunity for women. Over the past decade, we have made considerable progress. In my view, one of the most significant measures that the Labour Government have introduced is the national minimum wage. Two thirds of the 1.3 million workers benefiting from the minimum wage are women, and nearly half of those are working part-time. But there are far too many women earning only the minimum wage.

Disadvantaged young women who live in the more deprived parts of my constituency have the potential to achieve so much, but instead they face a lifetime of poorly paid jobs with no prospects. For them, there is only one rung on the career ladder—the bottom rung. Without opportunities to develop skills and get training, the life chances of a girl from a deprived background are massively reduced, as are her aspirations and plans for the future. Young women from deprived communities need new and improved support to develop the knowledge, confidence and skills to get jobs, so that they can work their way off the bottom rung of the career ladder.
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Although I welcome, of course, the massive expansion in apprenticeships, I would like the Minister’s assurance that women will get their fair share of them. Women who have rewarding, well-paid careers will be the best role models for their daughters, so that the next generation can grow up not in poverty, but able to take advantage of the benefits of economic growth instead of left behind.

We also have to consider what happens after work, when women retire. There are more women of pensionable age than men, but only 35 per cent. of women are entitled to a full basic state pension at state pension age, and only 24 per cent. of them are entitled on the basis of their own national insurance contributions. That is the case because when the state pension came into being, the pattern of employment for men and women was very different. During the second world war, women took on many of the jobs that men had done, but after the war, when the state pension was introduced by the Attlee Labour Government, people had reverted, by and large, to the old pattern of a male breadwinner and the woman staying at home to bring up the children. That was the basis of the state pension scheme, with married women being able to opt out even when they were working by paying the married women’s stamp.

Of course, that situation has changed drastically, especially in the past 20-odd years. In 1983, only 55 per cent. of women were employed, but now the figure is well over 70 per cent. Even so, for many women the pattern is one of part-time, low-paid work, with gaps for rearing children or caring for elderly relatives. That does not gel with the current state pension scheme, under which people need to work regularly for more than 40 years, with no gaps, before they qualify for a full state pension.

We need the reforms that are being introduced. We need a system that is fair to women whether they go out to work or take time out to look after children or care for disabled or elderly relatives. I am aware that it is not only women who care for others, but it is overwhelmingly more likely that women rather than men will care for children and older relatives. It is clearly wrong that women should be penalised for taking a caring role as opposed to paid employment. What does it say about us as a society that we value cash contributions so much more than social and caring contributions? I fully support the move towards a more progressive approach to pensions, and one that values everyone’s contribution, whether it be monetary or social.

Progress has been made already. The Pensions Act 2007 introduced reforms to the basic state pension that make it easier for people to qualify. From 2010, a person will have to have only 30 years of national insurance contributions to qualify for a basic state pension. That will help people such as women and carers, who are more likely to have had periods without paid employment during their lives. I also welcome the Government’s intention to introduce a new carer’s credit towards the basic state pension, which will be available to those providing 20 or more hours of care a week for severely disabled people. I hope that we will continue to review pension legislation to ensure that women do not miss out in the future.

I now want to speak briefly about violence against women. Among people subject to four or more incidents of domestic violence from the perpetrator,
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more than 89 per cent. were women. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said:

According to the child and woman abuse studies unit, nearly half of adult women in the UK experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking in their lifetimes. Violence against women is all too often conflated with domestic violence, even though it is actually a much broader problem that includes rape and sexual violence, forced marriage, stalking, sexual exploitation and sexual harassment.

Many women and children display remarkable resilience, but the impact on individuals and entire families can be devastating. In the summer, I was contacted by a brave young woman in my constituency who was the victim of a stalker. He was in prison, from where he threatened her by letter. He was later released—something that has understandably put my constituent and her family under considerable strain. She was forced to relocate, leaving her job and friends, and she has received little or no help. However, she is receiving support from Croydon’s ground-breaking family justice centre, which I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit in September. There are many victims like my constituent—not just of stalking, but of domestic violence, forced marriage and racial abuse—who would benefit if similar centres were set up around the country.

On average, two women die each week at the hands of a current or former partner, so it is clear that we need more centres like the one to which I have referred. Before the centre was opened, there were up to five adult murders a year in Croydon, but that number has fallen to zero. We need to do all we can to tackle what remains a scourge on our society and relationships. We have to break the cycle of violence that has such a devastating effect on the children caught up in violent relationships, and we have to change a culture that uses violence to control women. In my constituency, many agencies work with victims of violence. We have an excellent record of success, and I look forward to increased Government support for those agencies.

In my speech, I have touched on three areas where progress has been made on issues affecting women. None of that progress would have happened if this Labour Government were not committed to equality, but we must not forget that we would not have been able to deliver for women had there not been a massive increase in the number of women MPs. Women MPs have ensured that uncomfortable issues such as domestic violence, rape, prostitution and forced marriage are debated in this place. Labour women MPs have ensured that the minimum wage, flexible working, increased maternity leave, free nursery provision and women’s pensions reform are at the heart of the Government’s legislative programme. Labour was prepared to take positive action to ensure that large numbers of women MPs enter this place. I was selected on an all-women shortlist and I am proud of it. Earlier, I spoke about positive role models for young women. What could be more positive than seeing large numbers of women MPs delivering for women?

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I am sure, however, that when many women MPs first arrived in this place they were, like me, horrified by the schoolboy playground antics and shouting of insults across the Chamber that sometimes pass for serious debate and questioning in the House. Such behaviour is designed to intimidate and it is a form of bullying. It is not only women MPs who dislike it; women voters find things such as the pantomime of Prime Minister’s Questions seriously off-putting. It may provide good fodder for the sketch writers, but it does nothing to endear us to the voters.

During the Christmas recess, I suggest that we all take ourselves off to a real pantomime. We can shout, “Oh no he didn’t” and “It’s behind you” to our heart’s content, and get it out of our system before we return in January. I recommend “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” at Kings theatre, Portsmouth, and I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) that “Snow White” is also playing at Towngate theatre in her constituency.

I do not pretend to be Snow White, but I am certainly not dopey, I hope I am not grumpy and I try to be happy, so in conclusion I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, all the Officers and staff of the House and all hon. Members a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

5.11 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess I want to raise a number of points. A lot has happened since the last Christmas recess when Mr. Blair was still Prime Minister. The new Prime Minister has faced several challenges. He has cancelled a general election. The Home Secretary has admitted that the Government massively underestimated the number of illegal immigrant workers in the UK. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has lost computer discs, and yesterday we heard that some more discs had been lost. We have had the political donations row, the signing of the EU treaty without a referendum and the police difficulties.

Some of us have been sitting in the Chamber joyfully since 1.30 listening carefully to the speeches. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House does her best to get notes from her civil servants about the important points that I and other Members raise on behalf of our constituents, but I should be grateful if she will kindly make sure that Departments respond to our points within a few weeks.

On Sunday I attended a carol service at Fair Havens, which is a wonderful hospice that serves a wide area. It has been announced that Fair Havens has only enough funding for another four weeks—an enormous tragedy for the hospice. Seventy-two per cent. of the funding for Fair Havens comes from the voluntary sector. As a result of the downturn in the economy, the hospice is in dire straits. It costs £2.6 million a year to run and people are desperate because we do not know where the money will come from, so if the Minister can come up with some money from our local primary care trust or find a big donor we shall be absolutely delighted.

The People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran is opposed to the current regime in Iran. In the Chamber two weeks ago, I raised with the Foreign Secretary matters relating to the organisation’s inclusion on the
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proscribed list. He told me the case was sub judice, but that is no longer so. On 30 November, justice prevailed when the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission handed down its judgment that the PMOI is not a terrorist organisation. The judgment found that the Government’s attitude was “flawed,” “perverse” and “must be set aside”. Of course, the Government persisted, but I am delighted to tell the House that last Friday, the POAC refused the Home Secretary’s application for permission to appeal against its judgment. I hope that the Government will welcome the leader of the organisation, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, to the United Kingdom next year, and that, for once in their life, they will do something good and be on the side of the good people.

African horse sickness has not yet arrived in the United Kingdom, but it has reached Europe. The disease is midge-borne and I am advised that there are sufficient midges in this country to support the virus. Apparently, it was originally transmitted to Europe by imported zebras. Following foot and mouth, if African horse sickness arrives in the UK next year, it will have devastating effects. I was at a press conference with a few celebrities this morning. A number of the Minister’s colleagues are interested in the issue. We intend to have deputation next year. It is an important matter. We want the Government to tell us what preventive measures are in place. Vaccines should be prepared by next spring.

I turn to police pay and the state of British policing. All hon. Members will have had faxes and e-mails from serving police officers expressing concern about pay and conditions. I will quote one such officer. I will not name him, but he is a long-serving police officer. He said that the Government are

he has ever encountered. He said that they have

He continued:

If one were to pick a time to have a fight with the police, whose morale is at rock bottom, this would not be it. This is a stupid time to choose. I hope that the Government will do something about the pay settlement for the police, and not continue with their current policy. The police officer also said, “Come on the next general election,” and I would certainly support him in his call.

On the subject of hepatology, a number of hon. Members went to St. Mary’s hospital in Paddington, including the hon. Members for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and Lady Masham. We were taken to see the new facilities and the consultants gave us a wonderful briefing on liver disease. Liver disease is the fifth highest cause of mortality in the United Kingdom and is increasing pretty steadily. Lives could be saved through prevention, early detection and effective management, but the Government do not seem to be taking the issue on board and bringing it to the fore. In 2004, we had the national plan for liver services by the British Liver Trust. We are still waiting for a response. I hope that the Minister will get on to the Department of Health to see what is going to be done about the liver strategy.

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In Southend, we have cliff slippage. It seems a long time ago that I listened to the first speech in this debate, from the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who mentioned the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I am also going to mention the Secretary of State. During an exchange with me a week ago, she talked about the possibility of my not being pushed off a cliff. If the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich had her way, the Secretary of State would be in considerable difficulties, judging by what was said earlier. In Southend, we have a desperate situation whereby the cliffs are slipping. We need joined-up support from Departments.

As the Child Support Agency is being wound up, my constituents face more and more incredible situations. A very nice couple—they have asked me to mention this; it is not a private matter—are being pursued for a figure approaching £20,000. That is absolutely crazy. I wrote a letter in support of their court appearance last week. Apparently, those hearing the evidence did not allow the couple to speak. I wrote in my letter:

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