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We have heard much about people-trafficking and, in particular, about women—literally millions of them—being forced into prostitution. I urge the Minister to
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ensure that Britain ratifies the European convention on trafficking, and that the International Labour Organisation is given real teeth. That has not been a fashionable organisation with all Governments, but it is vital in terms of people trafficking. More effort through international organisations, and particularly the ILO, could make a genuine difference to the blighted lives of millions of people on this planet.

5.40 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I begin by thanking all the speakers across the political divide for their contributions to this debate? I must say, however, that it is regrettable that the Leader of the House gave such a partisan speech in a debate of this sort. She did neither herself nor her cause any good. It was particularly regrettable that, although every Member has the right not to accept interventions, the reason she gave for not accepting an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) was that he is a man. The Leader of the House should reflect on the fact that although he is a man, he was elected to this House by women and men, and he is their spokesman.

It is also regrettable that not one Labour Member could bring themselves to pay tribute to Lady Thatcher.

Fiona Mactaggart rose—

Mr. Vara: There was one exception: the hon. Lady. It is, however, regrettable that no other Labour Members could bring themselves to pay tribute to a woman who fought through a male-dominated society to become not only leader of her party but Prime Minister.

Mr. Newmark: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Vara: I will give way, but let me say at the outset that I am under a very strict time constraint; I am mindful that the Minister also wishes to speak, so my contribution must be very brief.

Mr. Newmark: I wish merely to make an observation: I am surprised that the Leader of the House has not had the courtesy to return for the winding-up speeches, following her diatribe at the beginning of the debate.

Mr. Vara: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and I am afraid that that only adds to the Leader of the House’s demeaning of her office—something she has done from the start of the debate right to the end.

This House has come a long way since Nancy Astor was first elected to it. Of course, we all accept that there is a long way to go yet, and I for my part accept that my party needs to do more on its Benches as well. There has been much comment from the Labour Benches about the lack of women Conservative Members of Parliament, but we hope very much that that will be rectified after the next election—and as far as the Government are concerned, I am sorry to say that that is likely to be at their expense.

John Austin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Vara: No, I will not give way; I am under a time constraint.

Women in Britain continue to suffer inequalities, as we heard. The gender gap continues, and our work climate is still not able fully to accommodate women who have the pressures of looking after their family, such as their children and elderly relatives. Those points were most articulately made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), and the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) expanded on them. Unsurprisingly, pensioner poverty among women remains much higher than among men.

Reference was also made to domestic violence. It is a scandal that there is such a high level of domestic violence in our country. According to the British crime survey, in 2005-06 there were 363,000 incidents of domestic violence, but I agree with the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) that that is very much an underestimate, because the shame and embarrassment that many women feel about that often prevents them from coming forward to make complaints.

Many Members referred to human trafficking. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for his sterling work as chairman of the all-party group on trafficking of women and children—a group of which I am privileged to be joint vice-chairman. I am delighted to see that the Leader of the House is now in the Chamber, but it was regrettable that she could not bring herself to mention him by name, despite the fact that many Ministers regularly pay tribute to him personally.

On the international aspects, I agree that there is much to be done in many of the less developed countries, but some progress is being made. In India, for example, Sonia Gandhi is leader of the Congress party, Pratibha Patil is India’s first ever woman President and Shubha Raul is mayor of Mumbai, which is a major city. On international health, it is regrettable that in countries such as Sierra Leone one in seven women dies in childbirth.

The contribution by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) took us, in a way, into calmer waters following the heat of the opening speeches. It was good to hear her reference to Leonora Cohen, a suffragette; it brought substance to this debate. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) rightly highlighted the fact that the rape crisis centres are closing, and it was also good that somebody from another party was able to pay tribute to Lady Thatcher.

I welcome the pledge by the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) to travel overseas to spread the message of equality for women. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) spoke of the significance of education, and I was reminded of the words of Mahatma Gandhi:

The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) gave a short history of international women’s day and also put matters into perspective. I am sure that no one will disagree with her comment that women throughout the world should have the benefits that women in Britain enjoy.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) made a number of points, rightly saying that we should seriously consider why women do not take up careers in Parliament in order to serve their community and their country. The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) highlighted the impact that women MPs have had in the House, rightly pointing out the influence that they have had in Select Committees, such as the Select Committee on Defence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) spoke with his usual eloquence, and there was universal support for him in mentioning the need for a crèche in the Commons. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) gave a typically thoughtful and compassionate speech. His experiences in Rwanda, particularly as regards women ensuring that there was clean water for themselves and their families, were particularly noted by all of us.

The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) gave a good explanation of what is happening in the Scottish Parliament. As he said, that point has even been made by Hillary Clinton in the US election campaign. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) gave a learned speech. Long may he continue to do sterling work as joint chairman of women2win.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who brought her welcome expertise to this debate. Despite considerable opposition at times, she has stayed firm on issues that are now recognised by others as deserving of serious consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) put matters in perspective when he told us that there are more widows in India than there are women in this country.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) concluded by referring to the continuing theme of the need for a change in culture in the House, and he also rightly pointed out the issue of human trafficking. In my constituency, the Cambridgeshire police have done sterling work in trying to deal with human trafficking and the desperate situation where a woman can be bought in a pub for £1,000 in Peterborough.

Despite the heat of the speech given by the Leader of the House at the start of the proceedings, the debate has been a good one. I hope that in a small way we have played a role in helping to further the cause of women throughout the world.

5.49 pm

The Minister for Equality (Barbara Follett): I am grateful for all the contributions that have been made today. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said that there is no such thing as a women’s issue, and the huge range of topics covered today illustrates the truth of that statement. We have had 30 speakers and I am glad to say that many of them were men. Women cannot do this alone, and I want to work with men in the House and outside to correct the democratic deficit that we face.

The huge range of subjects and number of speakers also mean that in the 10 minutes that I have to reply to the debate I shall not be able to cover all the contributions made and questions asked. I apologise for that, but listening is just as important a part of a
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ministerial role as speaking, and I have done quite a bit of the former today. I shall try to address some of the main points that were raised today.

Only 19.5 per cent. of the Members of this House are women, and that is a shamefully low statistic. Many people have mentioned the 48.8 per cent. of women MPs in Rwanda and the 32.8 per cent. in South Africa. Even Afghanistan has 27 per cent., so we have a long way to go. The same applies at local government level, with only 29 per cent. of local councillors being female, a shamefully tiny fraction of whom are from black and ethnic minority communities. There are no Asian woman MPs. In public life, in the judiciary and the upper echelons of our civil service and financial sector, women remain woefully under-represented. But things are being done to correct that, and I am glad to say that we have made significant advances over the last decade—even getting the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) to join women2win, about which I am very pleased— [ Interruption. ] I am not being sarcastic: I cannot express how much I welcome the change of heart on both sides of the House. We have recognised the part that women have to play in politics and we are acting on it.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for reminding us of the inspiring work done by women inside and outside the House, and for her measured assessment of what I regard as one of our greatest achievements. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and I had the pleasure of serving on the Committee considering the minimum wage legislation, and I well remember the 36-hour filibusters in which he took part. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality stressed, that legislation has virtually eradicated the gender pay gap at lower income levels—and I know that the hon. Gentleman has reviewed his position on the minimum wage.

I also welcome the assurance that my right hon. and learned Friend gave that we will extend the provisions that allow positive action in parliamentary selections. I do not like them—no one likes them or wants positive action—but without them, I fear that we would not achieve for several hundred years the representation in this House that women deserve.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) raised several important points, not least of which was the need for affordable child care. As a mother of five and grandmother of four, I am glad to say that since 1997 the number of child care places in this country has doubled, and the Government are providing a staggering £3 million a day through the working tax credit to help parents meet the cost.

The right hon. Lady also raised the issue of trafficking. Like her, the Government regard trafficking as a modern form of slavery, which is why we have signed the European convention and are taking the necessary steps to ratify it by the end of this year. It is also why we are doing so much to support the victims of this truly horrible trade. As the right hon. Lady knows, the Government are reviewing their prostitution strategy and looking closely at measures to reduce the demand for that service. I pay
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tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on that, and I hope that she continues with it.

I want to clarify the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality about the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. This week, the Government announced that in the summer we will introduce domestic violence homicide reviews. We are considering the timetable for the introduction of restraining orders, as set out in section 9 of the Act, which is one of our priorities.

Like the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), I am saddened by the fact that almost 40 years after the Equal Pay Act 1970 was passed there is still a gender pay gap in this country. I am glad to say that it is slightly less than she said: it is not 17.9 per cent. but 12.6 per cent.

Jo Swinson: It depends on how it is measured.

Barbara Follett: Yes, but there has been a drop and I am glad about it. However, the gap remains unacceptably high for full-time and part-time workers. We hope to address some of the causes in the equality Bill that will be announced in the Queen’s Speech in November. We need transparency and enforcement.

I do not think that any of the measures would have been introduced had it not been for the vastly increased representation of women in this House. I will be happy to work with both Opposition Front Benchers to attract more women into a parliamentary career. My feeling is that the long-hours culture in this place is a disincentive, but I know that that is a highly contentious subject that we could argue about well into the night.

Ms Harman: Let’s not do that.

Barbara Follett: Let us not.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) highlighted the benefits of the university campus that is being built in her constituency, which will bring black, Asian and minority ethnic women into the university arena. As 40 per cent. of women of Bangladeshi origin living in this country have no educational qualifications at all, we have do what we can to ensure that such women access the available opportunities.

As the hon. Member for Epping Forest emphasised, we must also ensure that the 44 million girls in the developing world who will go to bed tonight without having gone to school and with no prospect of going to school get the chance to go. It is pointless investing millions in developing countries if people do not have the skills to make progress.

Health was mentioned several times, and like my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley, I am glad that chlamydia screening has been rolled out in 88 per cent. of all primary care trusts in England. I am also extremely glad that girls of 11 are receiving injections to protect them against the scourge of cervical cancer. One of my daughters is a junior doctor in a London hospital and—believe me—I am all too aware of the failings in the system. I was pleased by the Health Secretary’s
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announcement of £330 million extra funding to ensure that mothers get the best possible care and a fuller range of choices.

Jo Swinson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Barbara Follett: I am sorry; I have to finish. I have two minutes and I must mention violence against women and, in particular, rape crisis centres.

I am pleased that we have 20 new sexual assault referral centres and that we will have 19 more by the end of this year. I am also aware of the vital role played by rape crisis centres and my right hon. and learned Friend and I are working across Government to ensure that they are integrated in and work with the new sexual assault referral centres. Mention was also made of women in prison and the ground-breaking Corston report. I am glad to say that the Government have accepted 40 of its 43 recommendations.

I cannot give carers the time that they deserve in my speech, except to say that the subject is one of the priorities of the Ministers for women, and neither can I do so for forced marriages, cousin marriages and the international situation.

On international women’s day, I want hon. Members to remember what the colours I am wearing stand for: purple for dignity in Parliament—I would like the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) to remember that when he makes pointless points of order—white for purity in public office and green for hope. The hope is that we can stop posturing and work better in here on the issues. We are all here because we care, not because we want to make silly points.

Question put and agreed to.



Post Office Closures (Maidenhead)

6 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I should like to present a petition of 1,384 signatures concerning the closure of the post office in Cookham road, Maidenhead.

The petition states:


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