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We must look at child care and the lack of choice. The Government’s support for child care is restricted and it restricts choice. The Minister for Women and Equality referred to the number of people who rely on support from family and friends. We must see whether we can ensure that that is recognised. One of my concerns about female carers is that all too often they
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do not know what support is available to them or often find access bureaucratic. We must tackle those issues.

On vulnerable women and particularly violence against women, I have said in the past to the Minister that the Government need to do more to help the victims of stalking. About 880,000 people in Britain have been the victims of stalking or harassment, but the authorities are all too often ill-equipped to deal with that problem. We must look at police training to support victims of stalking, so that the police can recognise the problems that stalking brings and the damage it does to someone’s life.

Also on violence against women, I am pleased to say that we have made a series of proposals relating to rape. The first is to give rape crisis centres a longer, three-year funding package, which would give them greater certainty about their future. Sadly, too many have closed because of funding problems and uncertainty. We also need to consider the low figure of rape convictions, but approaching that subject is not just about legislation or the criminal justice system. A wider, strategic approach is needed, which is why we would make it compulsory for the sex education curriculum to include the teaching of sexual consent. It is shameful that many young people believe that it is okay for a boy to expect to have sex with a girl if she is being flirtatious, or if he has spent a lot of money on taking her out that evening. It is also shameful that many young people think that it is okay for a boy to hit a girl at some point in their relationship. Those problems cannot be dealt with in legislation; they can be dealt with only with a wider, more strategic approach.

I wish to mention matters concerning certain ethnic communities. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard)—I see that he has moved again, so his patience obviously ran out—made it clear that forced marriages are quite different from arranged marriages. We must make it absolutely clear that forced marriages are wrong. They often involve abuse of the girls who are forced into them, who are sadly often very young. Although 300 cases of forced marriage are reported to the Government’s forced marriage unit each year and many more come to the attention of the authorities, even more sadly go unreported. We have recently made a number of suggestions on the matter, including making local authority children’s services departments registered third parties that could apply for protection orders. We must ensure that information is available in schools to young girls who may find themselves victims of pressure to marry and ultimately victims of a forced marriage.

There is a debate to be had on whether a criminal offence should be introduced, because there are differing opinions. Once the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 is in force, we must see how the civil offence operates. It is valid to argue that fewer people will report forced marriage if it is made a criminal offence, because it will mean reporting members of their family. On the other hand, a group of women in Bradford who support the victims of forced marriages made the point at a recent meeting that they wanted a clear message to be sent that forced marriages were wrong. They said that that would happen by making such marriage a criminal offence. We must consider the matter seriously and then do whatever will reduce the number of young girls forced into marriages against their will.

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Another matter on which there are challenges, and on which we can find benefits by working with and through women, is women’s role as agents for change in the developing world. Using women as recipients of aid can significantly improve development. The Women’s National Commission has argued that

Women have an important role to play in international development, aid and post-conflict resolution. We should include them in that as much as possible, because of the benefits that they can bring not just to themselves and their families, but to their community and the whole of society.

I know that a lot of Members wish to speak, many of whom have a fine record of working to improve the rights of women and their representation in the House. There must not be a one-size-fits-all approach to women’s policy, and it must not be about preaching to women about how they should lead their lives. The approach taken should be about offering women choice in their lives and giving them opportunities to make choices. It should be about more than simply legislation, because we recognise that there is a social responsibility, and that problems are sometimes about a community attitude and can be solved in ways other than simply reaching for the law.

We have set out five areas in which women still face strong challenges, and we intend to follow up on them and produce policies that will appeal to women and help to resolve their problems. I hope that the Government are willing to examine our policies and take them on board, not because I have mentioned them today or because they are in a Conservative party document, but because they would make the lives of women in this country better.

1.35 pm

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): First, I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality on introducing the debate and on her great efforts over the years. She has been here a few months longer than I have—I came in after a by-election. We all recognise that she has always made women’s rights one of her top priorities, which was important at a time when it was difficult to get it on the agenda. In 1983 or 1984, we had to make tremendous efforts to do so. That is why we can speak with feeling about our disappointment in the first woman Prime Minister. Having made it to the top of the ladder herself, she pulled the ladder up behind her very quickly.

Mrs. Laing: Does the right hon. Lady agree that between 1980 and 1990 the proportion of young people going to university in this country increased massively due to the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Government? That made an enormous difference to many thousands of young women, who had an educational opportunity for the first time.

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Ann Clwyd: The hon. Lady should not express so much ire. I do not discount everything that that Government did, but there were huge gaps in such legislation as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970, and they needed closing. We continually asked the first woman Prime Minister to do so, but she chose not to.

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever legislation was made in those years, there was huge social change in Britain that led to many of the women on these Benches arriving here? The pressure from women, and indeed men, outside is incredibly significant. They expect all of us here to do more to ensure that we achieve equality.

Ann Clwyd: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I am pleased to see all the women in the House, because I know from personal experience how difficult it has been for women to be elected. I was the only woman from Wales here for 14 years, so like my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister, I am pleased to see more women in the House. It was a long fight; there had been only three women MPs from Wales before I was elected in 1984, two of whom were daughters of famous men. One was Lloyd George’s daughter, and the other was the daughter of the then Deputy Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The third was Dorothy Rees, who was unfortunately defeated after one year. That is why some of us speak with considerable feeling about the difficulties of getting here.

I was elected in competition with a lot of other people, but I know that if it had not been for all-women shortlists, I would probably not have been joined by other women from Wales. There was a culture of women not selecting women, and I am afraid there still is.

Mrs. Laing indicated assent.

Ann Clwyd: I see the hon. Lady nodding. We have all had experience of that problem. Now, however, I think most people see that to increase the representation of women here, it has been necessary to discriminate in favour of women where previously they were discriminated against. A number of people have mentioned merit, but if candidates had been selected on merit there would have been many more women in this House than there have been over the years.

We now have 96 women in the parliamentary Labour party, six of them in the Cabinet and 41 in ministerial positions. The Conservatives know they are lagging behind, with only 17 women Members of Parliament. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) acknowledged that and talked about ways to bring more women into her party. Looking at the Opposition Benches, I am sorry to see so few women. Only one woman Liberal is here this afternoon; I would have hoped that more of her colleagues would join her for this debate.

Philip Davies: Can we get to the nub of the matter and find out how serious the right hon. Lady is about getting more women into Parliament? At the next general election, in those constituencies where a
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Labour man is standing against a Conservative woman, will she support the Conservative woman to get more women in Parliament, or will she support the Labour man?

Ann Clwyd: I think the hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that. Obviously I want to see more Labour women in Parliament; but after more Labour women, I want to see more women on the Opposition Benches, both in the Conservative party and in the Liberal party. Plaid Cymru has no women, nor does the Scottish National party. We all want to see an improvement.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the Labour party’s great achievement, in which she and many other Members here today played a role, of ensuring that when the Assembly was set up in Wales, equal numbers of men and women stood for election, which resulted in its being, in the last Session, the only totally balanced legislative Chamber in the world?

Ann Clwyd: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that was my next point. Forty-seven per cent. of Assembly Members are women. We had to battle hard for that against a lot of opposition, as my hon. Friend knows, because she and I took a lot of flak at the time when we were making the case. A lot of the flak came from Welsh men—and Welsh men in the Labour party, I am sorry to say—but eventually we got our way, and we are pleased that nearly half of the Labour AMs are women.

I want to mention one or two women who made great efforts to bring more women into Parliament. When I stood for my first election in 1970—a very long time ago now—a woman who spoke for me was one of the first suffragettes. Leonora Cohen lived in retirement in north Wales, although she was originally from Leeds. She was 97 when she stood on a platform in Denbigh town hall; she was ramrod straight, had what must have been an 18 inch waist as well as a mass of white hair, and was dressed in black.

One of Emmeline Pankhurst’s suffragettes, Leonora Cohen played a largely supportive role in selling suffragette newspapers and marmalade to raise funds, but in 1911 she was so incensed by Asquith—the Liberal Prime Minister and arch-anti-suffragette—breaking his commitment to women by announcing a manhood suffrage Bill to give all adult males the right to vote, that almost overnight she was seized by a votes-for-women passion. In 1913, she broke the showcase of the Crown jewels in the tower of London. Wrapped around the bar she used to smash the cabinet was a piece of paper stating:

She spent time in Armley jail and Holloway for her protests, going on hunger and thirst strike.

In 1918, after the first world war, women over 30 got the vote in Britain, and in 1928 it was granted to women over 21. Leonora Cohen went on to become president of the Yorkshire Federation of Trades Councils and later a justice of the peace. She died in 1978, aged 105. Had she hung on for another year, she would have seen me elected as a Member of the European Parliament in 1979. I am sorry that she did
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not. Leonora Cohen and people like her were an inspiration to me and many others. I hope that, at the age of 97, I can stand on a platform to support another woman candidate.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I and my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) have been making some back-of-an-envelope calculations—literally—since the right hon. Lady mentioned women’s representation in the SNP. We figure that roughly a quarter of SNP parliamentarians over time have been women. I just wanted to inform her of that, given her earlier reference to us.

Ann Clwyd: But, of course, not at Westminster.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): Yes, including at Westminster.

Mr. MacNeil: Over time.

Ann Clwyd: I remember Winnie Ewing, of course, but my point was that at this moment in time, there are no women SNP Members.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality said, our Government introduced the minimum wage, which the Conservatives opposed. When Labour was in opposition I spoke on employment matters, so I know how much opposition there was from big business to the minimum wage. The same arguments were made then as are being made now in relation to legislation on agency workers—that the measure would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. However, in my Cynon Valley constituency, workers are now guaranteed a fair wage and thousands of women have been lifted out of poverty. The minimum wage was an important step forward, and I welcome the recently announced increase to £5.73 an hour. I am also proud to support the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill, which I hope will ensure fair conditions for thousands of men and women on temporary contracts or working through agencies. It is a scandal that temporary and agency workers work in such poor conditions on such low wages.

For many years, I have been concerned about women prisoners in the UK. There are still no prisons for women in Wales, so women are imprisoned hundreds of miles from their children, their families and their loved ones. This week, a report from the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health shows that short spells in prison, even on remand, damage women’s mental health and family life, yet do little or nothing to stop them reoffending. The damage is made much worse when women are imprisoned a long distance from home and they receive inadequate health care during and after their time in prison. There are more than 4,400 women in 17 prisons in England. Four women prisoners in every five have mental health problems, most commonly depression and anxiety, and almost half have been the subject of abuse. I welcome the recent report by Jean Corston, a former Member of this House, and very much hope that the Government will take up its recommendations, including the replacement of women’s prisons with smaller local
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custodial units. We should imprison women only when there is no other option. It is of the utmost importance that female prisoners be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.

Julie Morgan: In Wales, we have no prison for women. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be ideal if south Wales had one of the small units recommended by Corston?

Ann Clwyd: As a north Wales person and a south Wales MP, I think that we should have the units in north and south Wales, but apart from that I agree with my hon. Friend’s point.

Miss Kirkbride: I am very interested in what the right hon. Lady is saying, and I agree with large parts of it. I point out for the record that a women’s prison in my constituency was closed and changed into a men’s prison, as there was so much pressure to incarcerate men. There is only one issue on which I might disagree with the right hon. Lady. Is the implication of what she says that when we make decisions about giving people custodial sentences, we should treat men differently from women? I shall have to part company with her if she does not think that there should be equality on such a big human rights issue.

Ann Clwyd: My point is that women are usually imprisoned for quite low-level crimes. The people who sentence them should think carefully before putting them in already overcrowded prisons. Overcrowded prisons are a problem for both men and women. I should like far fewer people to be put in prison, and alternatives found for dealing with whatever crime they have committed.

Ms Katy Clark: Does my right hon. Friend agree that women are often given far harsher sentences than men for the same crime because of society’s attitude and how it thinks women should behave?

Ann Clwyd: I entirely agree.

I want to come on to the issue of carers, which the Minister mentioned. The issue is often raised in the House, with good reason. I know that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead has a particular view on carers, which I think we all share. There are 6 million carers in the UK, and they are estimated to save the economy £87 billion a year through their unpaid work. The burden of caring falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, with 58 per cent. of carers being female. The Government have done a lot to support carers and look after their needs, but a lot more needs to be done to protect that growing section of society as the population age.

Richard Younger-Ross: Does the right hon. Lady accept that there is a particular problem with young carers, who not only give up their time but often sacrifice their education and career to look after someone?

Ann Clwyd: That was my very next point. I am particularly concerned about the eligibility criteria for carer’s allowance and the inability of those in full-time
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education to claim the allowance. The links between disability and poverty are crystal clear, and we must do all that we can to break them. It is hard enough for people who provide care for more than 35 hours a week to continue their education, without having to worry about financial arrangements. If women are being put off education because they cannot afford to go to school or university while caring for friends and family, there is little hope of their ever escaping the cycle of poverty. It is only fair that they, too, be eligible for carer’s allowance.

I want to talk about the American elections. Recently, I gave the annual lecture at Wellesley college in Boston, which is of course the college of Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and many other women who have made a real contribution to society. There is an interesting piece in The Times today by Anatole Kaletsky, which gives two reasons why

He points out:

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