On a lighter note, I wish to extend my thanks to all those women in my constituency who volunteer for some role or other and make the wheels of a largely rural constituency go round. I have had the good fortune over the past 12 months to be a member of the Commission
on the Future Of Volunteering, led by Baroness Julia Neuberger, and I appreciated the opportunity to look at the work of volunteering in modern society. We can be proud of the fact that over the past 12 months some 73 per cent. of all adults have volunteered at least once and that 48 per cent. are regularly involved in volunteering at least once a month, which is a good proportion. Women outnumber men in that respect, and women are also more generous in giving to charity.
Most of us appreciate the work done by volunteers in our constituency. I could pick out many examples, but I shall pick out solely the work of the group Carers in Bedfordshire. It has been established only for a few short years and is energetically run by Yvonne Clark. She has brought together an invaluable advice and information service for those caring for young and old throughout the county. The group goes out looking for those who might be isolated in the rural environment and lack access to facilities, and it is doing a terrific job.
Baroness Neubergers commission made several recommendations, which were presented to the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) in January, and I commend the document to all hon. Members. The recommendations include ensuring that volunteering is genuinely open to all and that the Government set up a working party as soon as possible to seek to remove unnecessary or disproportionate obstacles to volunteeringincluding, for example, repeat criminal Records Bureau checks, entitlement to benefit and the ever present frustrations caused by risk management and health and safety. I hope that the recommendations are considered and accepted as soon as possible.
Last week, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest and the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) mentioned, the 52nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women took place at the United Nations. I commend all the UK groups that took part. The event is dedicated to gender equality and the advancement of women and takes place under the auspices of the United Nations Economic and Social Councils. Among the groups from the UK was the Conservative Womens Organisation, and I pay tribute to its chairman, Fiona Hodgson, to Pauline Lucas and to my wife, Eve, who went to New York at their own expense to represent Conservative women and take part in the various sessions.
As we have been talking about women in politics, I wish to digress slightly and say something about those women who are in politics although they may not have been elected, and about Members spouses, both male and female. In recent weeks, they and the work they do have come under some pressure from external sources. I am immensely proud of my wife, what she does unpaid for the Conservative party and what she does in a paid capacity for my constituents. I could not function without her and she represents many parliamentary spouses who work incredibly hard and without whom none of us would work as effectively as we do.
Mr. Newmark: As well as putting on the record the hard work done by his wife, will my hon. Friend join me in mentioning the splendid work done in the past year by Lady Fiona Hodgson as chairman of the Conservative Womens Organisation?
Mrs. Laing: At the risk of being repetitive, may I say how delighted I am that my hon. Friend took the opportunity to mention the attendance of those three excellent ladies at the UN commission? They put an enormous amount of work into their trip, not only representing the Conservative cause but campaigning on important matters such as domestic violence and trafficking. They deserve to be highly commended for that.
As the House has already heard, subjects such as gender financing for women through microfinance and sexual violence in conflicts were very much a theme of last week. One of the points of such a large-scale conference is what can be learned and brought back. Mens violence against women, violence and oppression in the name of honour and violence in same-sex relationships all need public recognition and to be combated virtually all the time. Women in all countries are fighting violence within relationships daily. In a recent UK survey of 18 to 24-year-olds, one in five boys stated that they saw violence as a normal part of a relationship and one in nine girls said that they would expect violence as part of a relationship; those are depressingly sad statistics.
The event in New York highlighted how far forward Sweden, Denmark and Norway are with this agenda and how user-friendly their documentation is in comparison with ours. The action plans and documents gave sound practical advice and direction, illustrating what could be done in all countries and making a distinctive contribution to the debate that has been brought back to the UK.
Visits overseas to developing nations have many purposes and benefits. Often, they leave visitors profoundly shocked by the different experiences for those who happen to be born and brought up in different parts of what should be one world. In many parts of the developing world, women are bearing the brunt of inequalities. Last summer, Lady Fiona Hodgson went with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and some 40 colleagues to Rwanda for two weeks to take part in a series of projects that were put together with the co-operation of the Rwandan Government and led by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell). The visit was inappropriately criticised at the time, and those who made such criticisms should be ashamed of themselves.
During those two weeks, Fiona Hodgson of the Conservative Womens Organisation spent a lot of time with women from all levels of society in Rwanda. In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of a dreadful genocide, and because that genocide targeted men in particular, there are many widows, orphans and children who are heads of households. Many women lost their children, but they decided that because a new family structure was needed and because every child was special, they would adopt. Some women have adopted 18 or 20 children.
Many people lost their homes. Previously women would never have been involved in such things as house building, but now they are. Many more women had to become breadwinners. Rwanda has the highest proportion of women in its Parliament, at some 48 per cent. In the 14 years since the genocide, the women of Rwanda have achieved their first phase of political empowerment and equality and are now working on their second vision of economic empowerment of women coupled with health provision and social welfare.
Finally, I join the voices in this country and others who pick out the availability of water as the single most important need that the world collectively has the resources to address and that might make the single most important difference to the lives of women throughout the world. Visitors to many parts of Africa come away haunted by the spectre of so many women and children carrying huge cans of water with grace, skill and strength as they try to take the water that they need for just a few hours. More than 1.1 billion people have no access to safe water. Each year, more than 1.5 million children under five die from diarrhoea caused by dirty water. It is estimated that up to 118 million people, mostly children, will die over the next 15 years from water-related diseases, all of which are preventable.
Throughout the world, millions of people have to walk miles to find water, and they often find at the end of the journey that the water is dirty and unhygienic. Accordingly, I support the various organisations in this country that are doing what they can to raise awareness of the problem and seek change by supporting the efforts of NGOs and voluntary and charitable organisations to achieve such change.
I particularly commend the Turn on the Tap Challenge 2008, organised by the Christian group Samaritans Purse. On 10 May, or thereabouts, it will be organising walks all over the country for children, schools, faith groups and others, who will symbolically walk a few miles to raise money and remember those who need to walk and carry heavy loads every day. Much of that burden falls on the women of the world, and if they were relieved of it, the time that they spend doing what takes us only a second would be freed up, and they would be freed from their frustrations. They could learn, train or be in more profitable work.
Occasionally, constituents come to our advice centres and say angrily that we are living in third world conditions in relation to our roads, health service or transport. They have no idea what they are talking about. On international womens day, we should dedicate ourselves to freeing women from the circumstances that they have to endure all too often, about which our population fortunately knows very little.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). I was particularly interested by his thoughtful comments on Yarls Wood. I have
been concerned about constituents who have gone there, and I share his concern about children being there. He made some important points on that.
It is good to speak on international womens day again, when we can remember womens achievements and what happens to women throughout the world. It is important to think internationally, and I was struck by the hon. Gentlemans comments about Rwanda. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned the exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall. A board in the exhibition states that a study has found that in Africa,
on average, women carried more than 80 tonnes of fuel, water and farm water over the course of a year. Thats about the same as eight steamrollers. The average for men was 10 tonnes.
Here in the UK, we mark this day in many ways. It was great yesterday to be in the cross-party group that put flowers at the statue, and it was also good to be with the group of Labour women MPs who sang in the House of Commons Chapel, outside the cupboard where Emily Davison hid. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) mentioned that earlier.
Last Saturday in my constituency, the womens forum put on the 1909 play How the Vote Was Won by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St. John, which was directed by our womens officer, Pam Cartlidge. It was an exciting and vibrant occasion. The author Cicely Hamilton was a remarkable woman who co-founded the women writers suffrage league. During world war one, she worked in nursing care and then joined the Army as an auxiliary. After the war she campaigned on various issues, including birth control. She wrote the words to The March of the Women, the rallying anthem of the Womens Social and Political Union.
How the Vote Was Won was put on last Saturday to celebrate both international womens day and the 90th anniversary of women aged over 30 getting the vote, in 1918. That applied only to women who had property, so it was only one step forward. Women got the vote in 1918, but they did not necessarily get voted in, as has been said frequently in the debate. Emmeline Pankhurst said of the suffragettes:
We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.
We might have expected there to be many more law-makers today, and I think that she would probably have been disappointed by the pace of change. We could have got much further, as the debate has shown. Things have improved, but the statistics have been widely cited today and we know that we still have a long way to go.
We have discussed ways to achieve greater womens representation. In my view, we will achieve it only by taking the direct positive action that we in the Labour party have taken, with all-women shortlists and twinning in Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly constituencies. For many years, we tried all the other ways that one could think of involving training, encouragement and gender-balanced shortlists, but we
got nowhere; only when we had all-women shortlists did we make a big step forward. Although the suffragettes would be disappointed, we have achieved a lot.
As law makers we can make a real difference, and we have done so in many areas. We have heard a lot about those today and I shall not go over all the problems such as domestic abuse and inadequate child care provision. We now have paternity pay, increased maternity pay, flexible working rights and the national minimum wage and many other measures. One of the ways in which women have made a huge difference by being part of the governing party is by changing policy on families and children. Since Labour came into office, we have taken huge steps towards creating a more family-friendly, more equal society. Views have been transformed. When I came into Parliament in 1997, it was still not the done thing to talk about such mattersI remember hearing sniggers in the House when we talked about improving child care, breastfeeding and so on. We have made a lot of progress since then. All the parties are now striving to achieve the things that we want.
It is now much more than the norm for women to work: in Wales in 2007, 67.4 per cent. of working-age women were in employment. Between 1997 and 2007, the womens work force has increased by 12 per cent. Women now expect to be in employment, but of course they still have to look after the children and elderly relatives. The Government have tackled head-on the question of how to balance those competing priorities. The right to request flexible working has been very successful: 90 per cent. of parents of children under six who requested flexible working have been granted it. Two of my daughters have benefited from flexible working, so it has been of great benefit to my family. However, I believe that it should be extended to the parents of children of all ages. I know that the Government are considering that in their review, and I hope that we will soon hear that the right to request flexible working, which is not such a huge thing, will be extended to parents of children of all ages. Whatever age their child, parents have needs and have demands placed upon them during so-called normal working hours, and it is important to acknowledge that.
Another important point that I hope the review will pick up is that it should be possible for parents to request flexible working on a temporary basis. Although 90 per cent. of requests are granted, that results in permanent changes to the contract of employment, whereas often parents need to change their working hours only temporarilyfor example, for the year in which their child attends nursery for half a day only. That it is necessary to change the employment contract back afterwards is a matter of concern. Parents should be able to request a years contract.
The gender pay gap has been discussed a lot today. People who work part-time, who we know are often women, earn far less than full-time male workers in particular. Women who request flexible workingit is mainly women who do soor who work part-time get caught in that trap.
Another issue relating to care for children and families that I want to flag up is the informal care provided by grandparents and friends. It has been calculated that in Wales two thirds of informal care is
provided by friends and grandparents. Families in some parts of Wales are totally dependent on relatives to manage and to cope. In some ways, family members are the people who are most trusted, in any case. The Government should address the issue and see whether there is any way in which the finance available for formal care can be used for informal care. Obviously, that will require some work, but we should consider the issue. Flexible working is good for families and companies, and there is much that the Government can do to improve lives for families. We can move forward by extending flexible working to the parents of children over the age of six, being more flexible about employment contracts, recognising grandparents role, and continuing to address the pay gap.
I have very little time left to speak. I had intended to address the issue of vulnerable women in prison, which I feel strongly about, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) went through the statistics in great detail, so it is not necessary for me to do so. All the facts show that we are not serving women, the community or children well by imprisoning women in the numbers that we do. Many more of them could be doing community sentences. I strongly urge the Government to adopt the recommendations in Baroness Corstons report, and not to leave it too long. I am concerned about parts of the Governments prison policy, and I have doubts about the two titan prisons. We should concentrate on the matter of women in prison who should not be there. I hope that the Government will move ahead on the issue.
I should like to end, as I started, by talking about the suffragettes. The song, The March of the Women by Cicely Hamilton refers to suffragettes overcoming hardships through faith, daring, humour and solidarity. As the song puts it,
Life, strife, these two are one, Nought can ye win but by faith and daring.
March, march, many as one. Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.