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6 Mar 2008 : Column 1988

Let us not be complacent, however. Yes, 660,000 women will benefit from the uprating of the national minimum wage, and that is to the credit of the Government, but as we speak, 175,000 women in this country are being paid below the minimum wage. I accept that the Government cannot do it all, as the hon. Member for Slough pointed out, and that it is not all about this House, about Ministers or about new legislation. We have a responsibility, however, to take account of, and try to serve, those who are operating in the twilight zone—perhaps in the informal economy—and are being consistently exploited. Such people are deeply vulnerable. I am not sure whether we should address that through transparency, publicity or public education campaigns—or a judicious combination of all three—but we must not forget those who are simply not getting their just entitlements.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I apologise to my hon. Friend for taking issue with his comment that the minimum wage has not had an impact. Women earning the minimum wage also have to apply for working family tax credit because, unfortunately, the minimum wage does not suffice for people bringing up a family. The minimum wage has therefore had an impact, in that it has hidden the true cost of bringing up a family and the true cost of living for women. If we did not have the minimum wage, perhaps the wages paid to single women would be considerably higher.

John Bercow: I confess that I find that a rather curious line of argument. If my hon. Friend believes that the national minimum wage ought to be significantly higher, we can have that debate, but to blame the minimum wage for contorting the labour market or disguising the costs of bringing up a family seems to be a rather individualistic line of argument.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The sector in which women work most is part-time work, and the real tragedy is that, over the past 10 years, we have seen almost no movement in the differential between what women and men get paid. I believe that that differential is still about 40 per cent.

John Bercow: The differential is enormous, and it is especially great among part-time employees. Ironically, the gender pay gap among part-time workers is even more pronounced in the public sector than in the private sector. Of course, there are all sorts of factors to explain the desperate disparities in pay that continue to exist. There are differences in capacity and skills, for example, resulting from historic under-recognition of the importance of training, career progression, qualifications and educational provision for women. Furthermore, a lot of women are, for understandable reasons, going into part-time work, where the gap is greater. Another factor is that women are often unable to travel as far as men—perhaps because of their other responsibilities—and therefore have a more limited set of jobs from which to choose. We know that 60 per cent. of women work in a very restricted set of occupations, so the opportunities for them are not as great. There is also the problem of occupational segregation—and of segregation within the workplace, to boot. All those things have to be tackled.

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My proposition is that, as far as the Government, Parliament and the Equality and Human Rights Commission are concerned, a distinctive mindset is needed. I suggest to right hon. and hon. Members that where we are dealing with the private sector, our attitude should be that we are the friend of the well-meaning but uninitiated employer, but the foe of the wilfully non-compliant and incorrigibly discriminatory employer. If we operate on that basis, we will understand the sort of approach that we need to take to improve the situation.

I would like, if I may, to make two other brief points. Rape crisis centres have been mentioned and I feel very strongly that we could be in danger of kicking out the baby with the bathwater. This is an incredibly important service, operational across the entire country, and it is estimated that something in the order of half of the 32 centres could be lost altogether if the funding cuts that have been decided upon are not reconsidered. Organisations need sustainable funding.

Let me be unfashionable, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by saying that for my own part, I think that all the political parties have been poisoned to an excessive degree by the religion of localism. It is all very well to talk about local innovation, local variation and local social entrepreneurship, but where we are talking about relatively vulnerable categories of people, among whom I include women and children with special educational needs—a subject in which Members will know I am particularly interested—we often need to have protective mechanisms in place, including ring-fenced funding to ensure that the people at whom the resources need to be directed are able to access them.

My last point might be of interest to the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), if she were still in her place, as I know she has been a passionate champion of women who have suffered from, or are at risk of, domestic violence. The Government have done excellent work on that front, but I have just one caveat. I know that there is talk of changing the rule of no recourse to public funds, and I welcome what I understand the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), is reported to have said earlier this week to the Home Affairs Committee on that matter.

That said, I am bothered about women of uncertain immigration status who do not qualify for public funds, because those people are extraordinarily vulnerable. They are scared witless and dare not walk out on their sadistic, bestial and, in some cases, homicidal partners or husbands unless they know that there is a safe refuge to which they can go. If the Government could turn their mind to that matter—while recognising concern about the pull factor in immigration terms of simply opening the floodgates—and devise a practical, workable and equitable solution to the problem, I think that Amnesty International, End Violence Against Women, the Fawcett Society and a plethora of other organisations committed to the interests of women, and particularly vulnerable women, would applaud the Government, and they would be right to do so.

4.13 pm

John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): I would like to comment on a couple of points raised by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson).
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First, she referred to her favourite spots in touring the House, mentioning Earl Falkland’s statue and the broken sword. When I take constituents around the House, my favourite part is the broom cupboard in the crypt chapel, where Emily Wilding Davison spent census night in 1911. A comment was made earlier about Emmeline Pankhurst’s statue not being in the precincts of the House but outside; Emily Wilding Davison actually spent her time here, but it has never been officially acknowledged by the House. The plaque in the broom cupboard was placed there by my old friend Tony Benn, who made it himself. It is time that the House authorities acknowledged the direct action that women took to establish their right to be in this place.

Secondly, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to relationships and sex education and I think that she was absolutely right. I served on the Health Committee of the previous Parliament, which produced the report on sexual health. I think that we have got it the wrong way round when we talk about “sex and relationship education”, as we should be talking about “relationship and sex education”—and the relationship education should start at the earliest possible opportunity.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said that nothing much on the equality front was going on in this place or in government during the 1980s. At that time, my hon. Friends the Members for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) and for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) and I were actively engaged in local government. There has been some criticism of local government, and I accept what the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said about the need for uniformity, but during the 1980s it was pioneering local authorities that pressed forward the agenda of women’s rights and racial equality. We were pilloried when we set up women’s equality units in our local authorities, but I am pleased to say that our work—not only in supporting and empowering women in the community, but in examining our own procedures and practices to ensure that we were not discriminating and that access was possible within authorities—has now been taken on board as mainstream, and is no longer seen as something rather loony and politically correct.

Moreover, local authorities were in the vanguard of identifying and campaigning on domestic violence. Edinburgh, for instance, launched the first campaign for zero tolerance of domestic violence, closely followed by the Association of London Authorities, long before the Home Office had taken up the issue. Although there is some rightful criticism of local authorities’ failings, I think we should pay tribute to their work in this sphere.

I will not repeat the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and others relating to the prevalence of domestic violence, or go into the question of whether one woman in four is affected or whether the rate is higher. I will, however, repeat what my hon. Friend said about the number of occasions on which women are victims of violence before reporting it. Some, of course, do not report it at all. Domestic violence involves a higher rate of repeat victimisation than any other crime.

It is not just in the United Kingdom that domestic violence is a problem. As some Members will know, I
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am a member of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men. We have launched a Europe-wide awareness campaign, which the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn)—who was here earlier—helped to launch in Madrid.

It is estimated that in Europe overall, one in six women over the age of 16 has been in a relationship involving domestic violence. In Belgium, between April and December 2006 nearly 40,000 attacks were recorded by the courts—140 cases a day. According to Amnesty International, in Belgium 70 women die every year. In Portugal, 39 women died as a result of domestic violence in 2006. In Spain, which has some of the most advanced legislation on violence against women in the world, 71 women were killed last year. In France, one woman is beaten to death every four days. According to the United Nations, in Russia one woman is killed by her partner every 35 minutes—that is 14,000 women a year. We need to tackle the issue on a Europe-wide basis, and I am glad that the Government have supported the Europe-wide campaign.

The majority of victims of domestic violence are women, and the majority of perpetrators are men. Statistically, is must be a fact not only that a substantial number of women in the House have been victims of domestic violence, but that a large proportion of men in the House have been perpetrators of it. The issue is important for men as well as women, because it must involve the perpetrators. I welcome the support given in this country to the white ribbon campaign, which started in north America. A conference organised by the campaign will take place next week. It will deal with the importance of engaging young men directly to challenge the stereotypes involved in violence, sexism, images and roles. Valuable work of that kind is necessary if we are to tackle domestic violence properly.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) mentioned gender budgeting. Until recently I was chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s gender partnership working group. The hon. Lady mentioned the conference held in New York last week, which was also attended by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong). The Budget is next week, and it would be very helpful if in introducing it the Chancellor were to tell us what will be the likely gender impacts of the measures. The Government have, of course, introduced new laws. As the Budget rolls forward, Departments come forward with their policies and there is an obligation on them to produce equality impact assessments, as there also now is on local authorities. It is important that we start looking at budgets—not only at the ways they perpetuate gender inequalities, but at how they might be used to address them. I commend to Members the Inter-Parliamentary Union handbook “Parliament, the Budget and Gender”.

In this regard, one thing did happen in this House during the ’80s: the Conservative Government signed the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—CEDAW. There is an obligation on the Government to produce a report every four years to the United Nations. There is much to be commended in the 2007 report, and therefore
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much on which to congratulate the Government. A lot has been done during that four-year period, including the measures to tackle domestic violence, so the Government have a very good record indeed. I have a question for the Minister, however: what is the parliamentary input into that report that goes to the United Nations? I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong, but I cannot recall there having been a debate in the House about that report on our activities in compliance with CEDAW.

As Members have said, we should have more frequent debates on some of the issues raised today, including prostitution. I do not necessarily agree with everything my hon. Friend the Member for Slough said about that subject, but she made some powerful points and we must have an open and honest debate about how to tackle prostitutionand the exploitation of women. We should also, however, have a debate on the Government’s reporton CEDAW.

I agree with the Government that for many people the best way out of poverty is to get into employment, but I get worried sometimes about women with family responsibilities being pressured into taking employment. There should be facilities, support and child care for those who wish to do so, but I do not think we should devalue those women who choose to stay at home and bring up their children and devote their time to their household; nor should we devalue what they do. We should not see that as non-productive.

The United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women undertook some research into the productivity of such work. It is not negative; it is productive work. Some years ago I was one of the signatories to a campaign called Wages for Housework. We should get away from the idea that it is all very well for women to take a job looking after somebody else’s children and getting paid for that, but it is not good for them to stay at home and look after their own children.

My final point is on representation. The hon. Member for Epping Forest mentioned the proportion of women in various Parliaments. The IPU produces an annual report on the progress—or otherwise—that countries have made on the number of women in Parliament. Worldwide, the rate is about 17.7 per cent. but at Government ministerial level it is about 16 per cent. There are 144 nations in the league table, and the UK is about 60th, so there is clearly room for improvement. In New York last week, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham talked about the UK experience, and in particular the positive action the Labour party has taken.

I accept the point made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that there may be many different ways of getting women into Parliament, but I agree with the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that the best and most proven way in a first-past-the-post system is the all-women shortlist, which the Labour party has adopted. I hope that the Minister for Equality will give an assurance that that selection process will be allowed to continue.

I hope that we will have a debate about how we will influence the monitoring procedures that are to be set up if we do not ratify the trafficking convention soon. When I was chair of the gender partnership group, the IPU authorised a survey of Members of Parliament. A
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number of survey forms were completed by Members of this House, including both men and women. A report is to be published, which will discuss how men and women parliamentarians work together to advance gender equality. It will examine some of the barriers to women’s participation in the political process—it will be a long report. I ask the Minister to have a word with the powers that be so that we can have a debate on it when it is published in April.

4.26 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow another thoughtful contribution. I enjoyed a number of the earlier ones, particularly those of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing). I echo a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) to the Minister for Women and Equality. Tomorrow, when the Minister compares her contribution with the rather measured and generous spirited speeches in the rest of the debate, she might feel that she slightly let herself down at the beginning of it.

I wish to highlight three areas where, in my experience, the role of women has been, and is, particularly significant. One is unpopular, one is very popular and a third touches on the international dimension. Hon. Members may be aware that the Yarl’s Wood detention and removal centre is based in my constituency. Since the fire of 2002, that centre has been used almost exclusively for women detainees and their children. It is designed on the basis that they should be there for a brief period before being returned in most cases to their country of origin.

Failed women asylum seekers are not necessarily at the top of everyone’s care agenda, and I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) mentioned the issue. How a country treats those who, for one reason or another, are on the margins of society is very much a measure of its humanity. The failed asylum seekers in the Yarl’s Wood centre are a mixture. Some have been convicted of crimes, notably those who have been used as drug mules for gangs, whereas others have committed no crime save for wanting to come to this country to have a better life. As the House knows well—it is the common policy of all parts of the House—that in itself is not enough reason for someone to be allowed to remain in the United Kingdom. Virtually all the women in Yarl’s Wood have been through some form of judicial or other procedure that has determined that they have no right to remain here.

Behind those legalities are issues of human tragedy. It is difficult to be certain in every case as to whether the story being told is true, but there are enough similarities in stories told to non-governmental organisations and representatives across the world to feel that some of them resonate perfectly accurately. They are stories of war, rape, oppression and escape, which are mixed in with the other stories of wanting to flee poor economic circumstances and sometimes the threat of violence from families or others.

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Once the judicial processes have been exhausted, the departure from the UK is not always a quick one. For a number of reasons, a detainee may be at Yarl’s Wood for much longer than originally anticipated. They may be there for months rather than weeks—sometimes for more than 12 months. The uncertainty of the departure date considerably increases the mental anguish that these women suffer. Accordingly, my first thought in this debate is for all at Yarl’s Wood, both those detained and those who care for them, for they, too, are my constituents.

It may help the House if I make some quick points about the situation. First, I visited Yarl’s Wood recently, after the change from Group 4 to Serco. My impression is that the regime is rather easier than it used to be: formerly closed doors have been opened; the ratio of officers to detainees has decreased; and detainees have much more access to each other and to all parts of the building. The atmosphere is sad, because of the circumstances, but it is not always oppressive. It is only fair that that is recognised by those who are concerned for detainees.

Secondly, when forced removals have to be carried out, they are always filmed. That is done to protect both the officers involved and the women themselves. Occasionally stories circulate on the internet about a forced removal, which suggest unlawful or unnecessary action on the part of those carrying out that admittedly unpleasant procedure. I have asked the independent monitoring board at Yarl’s Wood, which is mostly made up of constituents who are unconnected with the authorities, always to be involved if there is a dispute about a forced removal, so that it can see precisely what has happened and to act as an extra safeguard. I am grateful that the Home Office has agreed to that procedure.

Thirdly, it is important that the Healthcare Commission has some responsibility for the medical facilities inside Yarl’s Wood. We have requested that for some time, but it is still being considered. It is important because the health care provided has not always been appropriate and an extra safeguard would be helpful. Fourthly, I am still not sure that children should be at Yarl’s Wood at all. I am keen that the Government and Conservative Front Benchers continue to monitor that.

Finally, I wish to pay tribute to the befrienders, a group mostly consisting of women, who out of pure charity and kindness have made it their business to visit those who are detained and offer them what support they can while they are at Yarl’s Wood. Some detainees have no one to visit them. Some have no idea about how long they will be held and some are very fearful about returning. The befrienders listen, only very rarely making an intervention in a case, because no one can be truly involved with a revolving population of some 300 or so. They provide a necessary lifeline of sanity to those in a very difficult place. All of us who make decisions about the law and through our own actions place others, after due process, behind bars and locked doors owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who visit and care for those who are thereby detained.

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