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I realise that many Members want to speak, so I shall briefly mention a couple of further points, one of which I raise on behalf of the citizens advice bureau. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) spoke about the benefits of pension credits, but issues have been raised about some of the difficulties people face. The CAB—whose note I will pass to Ministers—has raised questions about the tariffing of income and the impact of falling interest rates on people with savings, where the tariff assumes their income is higher than it really is because of the fall in interest. That is slightly different from the way the issue was presented earlier, but I think it should be looked at. For example, money was deducted from a pensioner because of the assumptions made about her savings, and a lone parent with a young child had to stop working because she was concerned about the reduction in her entitlement to benefits. We need to look again at
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tapers and tariffs and the implicit assumptions about the interest people receive from their savings when deductions are made to benefits.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North made a powerful contribution about child care. I reiterate the importance of Sure Start children’s centres, which the Opposition do not wish to support. I shall be opening another children’s centre in my constituency.

Mrs. May: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Judy Mallaber: I shall not take any more interventions because I have already been speaking for too long and other people wish to speak.

Mrs. May rose—

Judy Mallaber: May I finish my point? I was just going to say that a report on equality and poverty that Professor John Hills and his London School of Economics team are working on has found that Sure Start has helped in improving child development and parenting and in cutting the attainment gap between rich and poor. If the right hon. Lady wishes to say that those centres will continue to exist and to provide those services, I will be absolutely delighted and will take back any suggestion that her party might be seeking to cut them.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, because Labour Members really must stop plying this incorrect statement that a Conservative Government would get rid of all Sure Start centres. That is not our policy. What we will do is make some changes to how the centres operate, and, significantly, we will use money that this Government are setting aside for Sure Start outreach workers to increase the number of health visitors by 4,200, which will give much needed support to women in the home at what is often a very difficult time for them, and when they are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence because that often starts when a baby is born. This will reverse the health visitor cuts under this Government, who have removed that support from women.

Judy Mallaber: One of the problems with that approach, however, is that there will be less targeting on those who need the help the most. That is one of the difficulties in the proposals, but I am sure this will be a continuing, and lively, debate. Powerful points have, however, been made about the potential impact on children, and about the need to ensure child care is available, so that children do not suddenly lose their whole social circle and their environment if their mother is unable to afford it, perhaps because she has lost her job. We need to make progress on that. We need to make sure that we do not go backwards during the recession, but that we keep going forwards with the positive proposals that we have, and that we use them to try to make a fairer society and address some of the issues on which many of us have been campaigning for many years.

In the women’s summit group yesterday, it was made very clear that flexible working could be a positive way to help employers through the downturn, although there are also issues to do with how that affects benefits.
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There is a quote, which I cannot find now, from an article about Women Like Us, which operates at the primary school at the bottom of the road I live in when I am in London, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone). It is a wonderful quote about employers getting the benefit of employing somebody with a full brain at half price if they are working flexibly. What employers need is people with the capacity to work and who feel engaged and able to organise their lives. Flexible working can be of great benefit to employers, although it is, of course, also being used in a way that is not so beneficial to people, when companies are having to introduce short-time working. It is a mechanism for maintaining jobs over such periods, however, and employers should look upon flexibility as a way both of helping them deal with difficulties in the downturn and of making sure they get the most out of their employees. It is, potentially, a positive step for them, and we should not seek to go backwards on this. I hope that all Members present will want to make sure we pursue it.

There are opportunities, therefore, as well as the difficulties we face. I hope we will use action on the skills agenda to try to ensure we come out of the recession with a better skilled and more diversely trained work force who are able to meet the challenges that all of us will face in our daily lives.

2.32 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), and I pay tribute to her especially for the work she has done through the Advisory Committee on Works of Art and the exhibition downstairs to promote awareness of, and education in, the achievements of the suffragettes. It is vital that we do not take for granted the fact that we female Members have the privilege of being Members of this House and taking part in the democratic process, as we have all been able to do since the age of 18, and that we remember that only two or three generations ago our grandmothers had to fight for the right to vote, never mind to sit in this House. Bearing all that in mind, I believe that all political parties are taking every step they possibly can to maximise the number of women representing them in this House, so that the woman’s voice is heard loud and clear in all areas of political activity and the political strata in our country today.

Miss Kirkbride: I am sure my hon. Friend would not want to move on to her next subject without also offering congratulations on this year being the 30th anniversary of a female Prime Minister being elected to this House.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right, and I will certainly not miss that opportunity. We must not forget that Baroness Thatcher— [Interruption.] The Solicitor-General says that we have not forgotten, and I can see that from the expression on her face. We must not forget that Baroness Thatcher broke the mould. When I was a little girl at school, people said, “Oh, girls don’t go into Parliament. Girls don’t do politics; you should think about being a teacher or a doctor or
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something else, dear.” Then came Margaret Thatcher, who broke the mould and showed that a woman with determination, ability and energy, and with her enormous talent and flair, can do anything—that has been proved. The Solicitor-General is getting very exercised now—I do not know what she is saying, but I think it is probably better to ignore it.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): The Solicitor-General is probably thinking about the fact that not only did the Conservatives have the first female MP to take her seat, but the Labour party was the third party to have an Asian Member of Parliament—the Liberals were the first, the Conservatives were second and Labour was only third.

Mrs. Laing: As ever, my hon. Friend makes a very good and utterly relevant point. We are talking about equality, for which we are all striving across all strata of public life.

Miss Kirkbride: Just to tease the Labour party a little more, may I also note its glass ceiling—the party has had two female deputy leaders, but no woman in the top job?

Mrs. Laing: Not yet, o ye of little faith; it looks to me as if it might only be a short time before such an achievement is made by a lady on the other side of the House, and Conservative Members would welcome that strongly.

I greatly welcome the fact that we are having this debate today to mark international women’s day on Sunday. I consider there to be no such thing as a woman’s issue—it is rather old-fashioned to put political matters into the box of being a woman’s issue. However, it must be said—sometimes we are not brave enough to say it—that women do things differently from men. There is no reason why women should conform to the way that men have always done things, including in the running of this place—how we conduct our debates and all other matters in the Houses of Parliament. We should be brave enough to say that women do things differently from men and that if we are looked at by men for doing things differently, that does not mean we are wrong—we are just different. We are no less valid than our male counterparts, nor are they less valid than us in any way.

On most policy areas women have a slightly different aspect and slightly different priorities from men. We look at things from a different angle, so it is right that on this one day a year we should focus on how things such as the recession—we are all concerned about that and we talk about it constantly in here—particularly affect women.

The Minister for Women and Equality was kind enough to allow me to intervene on her speech, and I was pleased that she gave this House an assurance that she will fight the corner of women when her Cabinet colleagues suggest, as they are reported in the press to do, that there should be some reining in on the right to request flexible working—that must not happen. It has been Conservative policy for some years that the right to request flexible working is the very basis on which we can start to achieve a work-life balance, not only for women, but for men and women in all parts of
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this country who have child care and other family responsibilities. If we do not have this, we go nowhere in the right direction on creating any kind of equality in the employment field.

There are those who argue that there is no need for a debate such as this today, and indeed that there is no need for international women’s day—

Philip Davies: Hear, hear.

Mrs. Laing: I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has identified himself as one of those people. I believe in freedom of speech and he is as entitled to his opinion as anyone else, and entitled to express it as vociferously as he likes, but—

John Bercow: He is a troglodyte! [ Laughter. ]

Mrs. Laing: That may well be the case. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, but I defend his right to make those points today, or any other day. However, his objections to this debate are not the usual objections to this debate or to international women’s day. Some people, notably women of a certain generation, argue that feminism is a thing of the past, that the battles that started in the last century have largely been won, and that therefore we no longer need such debates or an international women’s day. However, I think that that is a very narrow and selfish view of the world.

The women who sit in this House, the women in our families and many of the women with whom we work are fortunate and privileged, because we have had the advantage of an equal education and other equal opportunities in our working life. Those of us who sit in the House also have the great privilege of being able to speak out for women. We must therefore remember that the vast majority of women live in countries with no equality, but considerable poverty and enormous health problems. Women in such countries are in no better a position than their predecessors a century ago. We must not forgo the chance—indeed, it is our duty—to stand up for those many millions of women and do what we can to improve their lives, as well as considering the lives of women in this country. I strongly refute the arguments of those who say that debates on women’s issues should be a thing of the past. That is complacent in the extreme, because it is essential that we take the opportunity to speak up for women who need our moral, practical and financial support all over the world.

I wish particularly to address the issue of maternal health. I appreciate that the motion before us concerns the effects of the recession, but if the effect of the current recession is to require the Government to cut public expenditure, I make a plea here and now that overseas aid for international development should not be the subject of cuts. There are many countries, especially in Africa, that utterly depend on the financial, practical and political support that they get from our Government, and it would be a tragedy if this Government’s mismanagement of the economy meant that people in developing countries who desperately need our help were deprived of it.

Anne Main: My hon. Friend is right. The looming problems of the economy led to the situation in my constituency in which there were no midwives to give advice to first-time mums before they had their babies,
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because of a shortage of midwives and of funding to provide antenatal classes—and it has taken a long time to get those classes back. That was an example of cost-cutting that was detrimental to new mums.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I shall come to that point in just a few moments, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will talk about it, too, in her speech.

I recall that in the debate on international women’s day last year, I mentioned that I, along with a couple of other Members, had been the previous week to the annual UN conference on women in New York. I had met a large number of women from Africa and other parts of the third world who very bravely stood up for their rights, for women’s rights and for the welfare of children in their countries against all the odds. I was struck by the enormous contrast between the problems that they faced and the problems that were talked about by women from the privileged part of the world, such as those from our own country.

I noted that a year ago, and last month I was fortunate enough to be in Uganda. I was not on an official trip; I went with the Malaria Consortium, which is an excellent charity founded to combat malaria, as is clear from its name. Indeed, its purpose is to eradicate malaria in the parts of Africa where it can be eradicated, because that would make an enormous difference to the lives of almost all the population in the countries where malaria is endemic. I was in Uganda for just over a week, and while I was there I was taken to see outlying parts of the country districts near Kampala. The poverty, the lack of opportunity and the disease in such places is shocking. It struck me, not for the first time, that of course it is women and children who suffer most.

In observing the effects of malaria and doing the work that I was trying to do with the Malaria Consortium, I also came across the effects of HIV/AIDS and the dreadful dilemma in which millions of women find themselves when they discover only during the birth of a child, when they receive their first medical attention, that they have HIV/AIDS. Of course they would not have known that before, because they have never had access to a doctor. In one of the areas that I went to, the population is estimated to be approximately 300,000. Only six doctors cover that area, four of whom are in the towns. Most of those 300,000 people were spread throughout the countryside where women who desperately need medical attention have no chance of getting it.

The Malaria Consortium is doing terrifically good work in trying to set up a network of small local units, looked after by a local person who will have absolutely no medical training but will be a volunteer who will undergo a few days of training in how to test for malaria, how to advise about HIV/AIDS and how to administer drugs to relieve malaria, to cure it and to stop it.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Let me bring her back to the economic downturn and its impact on such work. Does she agree that the drastic reduction in interest rates and the big fall in the stock market that we have witnessed in recent times will have a big impact, as it will reduce charities’ incomes and therefore their ability to spend money on worthwhile projects such as that which she has described and many others besides?

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Mrs. Laing: Yes, my hon. Friend is correct—and I am glad to have the chance to say that in this debate! In the economic downturn, the effects of Government spending strategies, the reduction in interest rates and the fact that so little money is in circulation are very worrying. As always, the least privileged and those at the bottom of the pile suffer the most. That has happened throughout history, and I do not suppose that it will ever change.

We know that charities are suffering because of what has happened to their investments, but they are also being hit by the fact that companies that are usually generous and which try to be philanthropic in their outlook when they can are not providing investment. A company that cannot pay its shareholders and employees or invest in its own future will not have money left over for philanthropy and charity. That is precisely why I am so concerned about this issue.

Anne Main: Many volunteers who work in charities are women, but the recession is altering their economic situation at home so much that, for instance, it is becoming difficult for them to afford to use their car to deliver meals on wheels or take people to hospital. Does my hon. Friend agree that if such costs become disproportionately high for their family budgets, many women volunteers will be tempted or forced to withdraw the charitable support that they give? I thank and pay tribute to the volunteers in St. Albans, because if they all packed up and went home, the town would cease to function. Most of the people who come to the thank-you party that I hold for my volunteers are women, and I fear for some charities if they cannot give their services free because their family budget will not allow it.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely correct. Charities and good works in this country and around the world will suffer, because people view donations to charities as discretionary giving and of course they feed their children before they put money in the Red Cross box. Both at home and abroad, it is those who most depend on charitable works who will suffer in a recession. It is very sad that the Government’s handling of the economy has brought us to this point, as the United Kingdom could have been in a much stronger position had they managed things differently.

The hon. Member for Amber Valley rightly mentioned the importance of combating domestic violence. I recall that domestic violence rates in the UK are somewhere around 30 per cent.—

The Solicitor-General: What does that mean? Thirty per cent. of what?

Mrs. Laing: The Solicitor-General rightly asks me to clarify my statistics. At some point in their life, approximately 30 per cent. of women have suffered domestic violence of some kind or other. If she disagrees with that statistic, I will of course give way to her, but my recollection is that we are talking about a rate of about 30 per cent. That is enormously high, and we are all well aware of how much has to be done to combat that.

Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point, but does she agree that much domestic violence goes unreported, with the result that it is difficult to estimate its absolute level?

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