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5 Mar 2009 : Column 1044

Mrs. Laing: Yes, I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, and that is exactly the point. Although Home Office or police statistics on the reporting of domestic violence and the number of resulting convictions do not suggest that one in four—or even as many as one in three—women in the UK suffer domestic violence at some point in her life, the excellent work done by organisations such as Refuge shows that the proportion is in fact somewhere around 30 per cent.

The Solicitor-General: The figure usually quoted is one in four, or 25 per cent., and I have no reason to think that it has gone up. Indeed, before the slightly disturbing figure for the Met area came out—my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) mentioned that figure—domestic violence was going down. It had reduced by about 58 per cent. in the past five years, which is a real tribute not only to our policies but, I think, to changed attitudes. We look at the British crime survey and at helplines, and domestic violence organisations give us lists of how many complaints they get. That is probably the best that anybody can do to estimate the figure.

Mrs. Laing: I will happily concede that point, especially if, as the hon. and learned Lady indicates, the figures suggest that rates of domestic violence have reduced. I hope that that is so. I will happily concede that we are talking about 25 per cent. rather than 30 per cent., but 30 per cent. is still far too high. The point that I really wanted to make is that just two weeks ago I met the First Lady of Uganda—the wife of the President, who has just been made a member of the Ugandan Cabinet herself—and she told me that rates of domestic violence in Uganda are about 70 per cent. My point is that where there is poverty, deprivation, lack of education, hunger and disease, women, and of course children, suffer the most. I was shocked to find, during my work on malaria, that those who are most susceptible to malaria are babies, young children and pregnant women. Once again, we see that women are disproportionately those who suffer in society. In this case, they are already in a weak position, as pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to disease, including malaria.

I realise that I must not stray from the subject just because I was so moved by what I saw in Uganda and want to take action to combat it. However, I commend the Government on the work being done through the Department for International Development in countries such as Uganda. To refer to the exact wording of the debate title, if, due to the economic downturn and the Government’s mishandling of the economy, there are to be cuts to public expenditure—as, indeed, there must be—I sincerely hope that those cuts do not fall on the DFID budget, where they would lead to catastrophic effects; I make that plea to the Government. At present, 320 children in Uganda die every day of malaria; if we were not doing a lot to help, think how much worse the situation would be.

I come back to the home front and the subject of maternal health, which is extremely important, not just for women but for society as a whole. The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society, or SANDS, held an excellent meeting in the Palace of Westminster yesterday. It produced a report entitled “Saving Babies’ Lives”. Hon. Members may not be aware that every day in the United Kingdom,
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17 babies die just before, during or just after birth. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) made a powerful point about the need for more midwives and maternity services. There is certainly such a need. Many of the 17 deaths a day are preventable. Here in the United Kingdom, we have the great advantage of being well-educated about matters concerning pregnancy, maternity and birth. Every woman in this country has, or should have, access to the medical care that she needs, yet on 17 occasions every day, babies are dying. Something has to be done about that.

My main point is that when we consider the effects of the recession and the Government’s mishandling of the economy on our society and, for the purposes of this debate, on women particularly, we must remember that as a society, we require many, many women to do two jobs. We require them to bear, produce and take care of the next generation in its childhood and adolescence, and at the same time to be economically active in the general economy.

It might be the choice of the individual woman to have a child at a particular time, and it might be her choice how many children to have, or not to have children at all. That might be a matter of personal choice at an individual time for an individual person, but we need to populate our country for the future, and we need women in general to produce children. That is not a matter of personal choice, and it is a fact that is often forgotten. If we allow the attitude to prevail which tells women, “You’ve chosen to have a child, so you make your own child care provisions. You’ve chosen to have a child, so you give up your job,” and if every woman who was doing an important job and was economically active chose not to have a child, society as a whole and the economy would be in a dreadful mess and in a state of imbalance.

It is not a matter of individual choice that women who are already doing a job should also become mothers and carers for their children. Given that we as a society have to accept responsibility for the next generation, we as a Parliament must support women in their double role in life.

Anne Main: My hon. Friend is making a hugely powerful point and I am reluctant to interrupt, but it could be said that women have a triple role. Many women are carers, and as a result of delaying having children, for whatever reason, many women find themselves in a dual role of looking after elderly parents as well as children, and also being economic contributors. That is not to say that men do not have a caring role; many do, but the expectation is that women, often with a young child, will take on caring roles, should the need arise at that time.

Mrs. Laing: As ever, my hon. Friend is correct. Whenever we talk about parents as carers, we do not mean only mothers of small children, although that has become common parlance. We mean men and women who have family responsibilities, as I said earlier in a different context. Often, the responsibility of caring for elderly relatives is far more difficult, emotionally draining and time-consuming than the responsibility of caring for small children.

Miss Kirkbride: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. Will she reflect on the fact that despite what she says and despite all the rhetoric on the issue, we
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spend more time in the House talking about whether we should breastfeed our children in the Chamber than providing child care facilities for Members and Members’ staff here in the House of Commons.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is entirely correct. We are often sidetracked on to the issues that do not matter, and we have never come near resolving the issue that does matter. We all go out there and say that we want more women in Parliament, more people from different and varied backgrounds, more people who do not have great economic advantages, and people from different parts of the country. We get the people here and they are told, “Oh well, that’s your responsibility. Too bad. If you have a child, you can’t vote, and you can’t speak. You’re not getting to play in the first team like the rest of us, because you have a child and you’ve got to go and look after it.” The attitude is still that it is one’s own responsibility—as of course it is. If I suggest that it is not the responsibility of a parent to look after his or her children, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley will rightly pick me up on that.

However, we need to have a shared responsibility for the work-life balance that this place requires if we are to succeed in having a truly representative House of Commons where there are men and women in almost equal numbers and people from all over the country representing different parts of it. I can easily see that it is far more difficult for someone to represent a seat that is three hours’ travel away than to represent a seat in London. There is much talk about the representation of ethnic minorities and of people who are not from a professional background, but often what we really mean is “people who don’t have private means”. The systems in this House make it very difficult for someone who is surviving entirely on the salary of the House of Commons to look after their children, and indeed other members of their family, properly. No attempt has been made to offer proper child care facilities in this House. Personally speaking, although I do not extrapolate from that, it takes two thirds of my net salary to pay for my child’s child care; I will not go into the arithmetic any further. That means that we are a hypocritical establishment in saying, “Yes, we want you to come here, but when you get here we won’t support you or pay you properly, and make it difficult for you”—which it is.

Let me conclude on the point of the motion: the effects of the economic downturn. I appreciate that the Minister for Women and Equality, who introduced the debate, and her hon. Friends have meant to do so much for women; I entirely concede that their intentions are good. It is sad that because of the mismanagement of the economy by some of their colleagues—notably the Prime Minister, as he is now, and when he was Chancellor—there might not be the economic resources to do all that they would have wished to do. Baroness Thatcher was mentioned a little while ago; I had meant to do so at this point because it is not reasonable to have this debate without her being mentioned at all. When she was Prime Minister, she pointed out that the Good Samaritan, great example though he was and great intentions though he had, could not have done what he did unless he had also had money. Her point then, which I echo now, is that there is much to be done in increasing equality, improving welfare, and enhancing family life, work-life balance and opportunities for women
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in our country, and in an economic downturn it will be far more difficult to do everything that we would all wish to do.

This Government, given their mismanagement of the economy and the state that it has got this country into, will bear a heavy burden if things go wrong, the equality agenda is derailed, and we find in five years’ time that we are standing here looking at statistics showing that the position of women and families has got worse—as I fear that it might but hope that it will not.

3.9 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate to celebrate international women’s day both in this country and internationally. I am glad we have had some mention of the achievements of women internationally and the plight that such women find themselves in. I was pleased yesterday to meet the youngest woman Member of Parliament from Afghanistan—I do not know whether other Members had the opportunity to meet her—and to hear about the huge efforts that women are making in that Parliament to make their agenda succeed. They do, of course, have a 25 per cent. quota for women’s representation in Parliament, so they have more women Members of Parliament than we do. That was an inspiring meeting, and it is important that on international women’s day, we remember women all over the world.

This international women’s day has had more attention than normal. I have been invited to many more meetings and there seem to be lots of things going on. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality for holding the women’s summit yesterday. I was able to attend for a short time, and it highlighted women’s issues. I believe that international women’s day should be marked by a bank holiday. That would be an important thing to do. In this country, we have eight public holidays a year, while the European average is 11—even the United States has 10. It would be a great boost to women in this country if we had a bank holiday in honour of them. Bank holidays are a great time to stop and to take stock, and for families to get together. I would look to other hon. Members for support on that.

Anne Main: I would like to speak up on behalf of small businesses. I urge the hon. Lady to ensure that, when she is advocating more days off and more this, that and the other, she does not lose sight of the fact that businesses are struggling. We do not want to give another reason for them to say, “We don’t want to employ women, or consider them, because it will mean giving them even more time off with a bank holiday.” I suggest that we can commemorate the day in many ways, but more days off and fewer days work is probably not the way to do it.

Julie Morgan: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Any bank holiday that celebrated women would also, obviously, benefit men as well. I draw her attention to the fact that we have so few bank holidays in this country, and they are important. In Wales, we have failed to make St. David’s day a public holiday—so
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far—but perhaps the Government might consider a public holiday that celebrated more than half the population.

Today, we are looking at supporting women and families through the downturn in the economy, and looking to the future, and it is appropriate that we do so on international women’s day. When we look at the history of international women’s day, we are aware of the strikes by women garment workers in New York in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when they demanded better working conditions and rights. It is important that we use this day to debate this subject, and again, I would like to congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady and her team on making this such an important, high-profile issue this week.

Why should the economic difficulties we are experiencing be different for women now than at other times in the past? As other Members have said, there are now more women employed in the workplace. In Wales, there is a small difference in the employment rates of men and women. There are 679,000 men in employment, compared with 589,000 women—a difference of only 90,000 people. We can see how the trends have been going; the employment rates of men and women are becoming more equal. It is hard to say how that will continue to develop, given the economic downturn, but there is no doubt that the pattern of employment in this country has radically changed. When we get over the downturn, I think it very likely that more women will end up being employed than men, and the implications of that for our pattern of family life are important to consider.

The figures show that 8.3 per cent. of men in Wales are out of work, compared with 5.2 per cent. of women. We have to be very sceptical about those statistics, of course, because many women are not registered for work and do not claim jobseeker’s allowance, so we do not know exactly how many women are out of work.

Many women are in vulnerable jobs. As so many more women are now in employment, and so many more families therefore depend on their income, women are much more vulnerable during the current problems than they have been in the past. Some 40 per cent. of women in Wales are in part-time work, compared with fewer than one in 10 men, and 29 per cent. of women are in low-paid work, compared with 16 per cent. of men. The fear is that part-time and low-paid staff will be disproportionately affected, as they might be seen as the easiest to get rid of. As was mentioned earlier, the last in may be the first out. Of course, women’s employment tends to be focused on certain sectors. The catering, retail and service sectors have all been mentioned. It has also been said that all parts of the economy are being hit in the current recession, including the parts in which women in particular tend to work.

The Government have made an admirable response to the difficult situation so far. They have gone out of their way to think of ways to help struggling families, and that is true of the Welsh Assembly Government as well as the Government here in Westminster. It is important that we shift the focus and consider the fact that the recession is affecting women as well as men. In my constituency, the Quality hotel in Tongwynlais suddenly closed, virtually overnight, after the chain that owned it collapsed, and many women were thrown out of work immediately.

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In Wales, we have set up a scheme called the ProAct scheme. It has been set up with great swiftness and is designed to provide funding for employers who are facing difficulties during the recession. The support is intended to help businesses to prepare for economic recovery by upskilling their work force while they are on short-time working and by retaining skilled staff who might otherwise be made redundant. The good thing about it is that it offers people the opportunity to gain skills while they are on short-time working or out of work altogether, instead of sitting at home. Importantly, it gives people the opportunity to take advantage of that time to train and improve their opportunities for employment when the inevitable upturn comes.

However, ProAct is a pilot scheme, and it appears initially to have been aimed at the automotive industry. Its initial recipients will therefore probably be men. I urge the Government to ensure that any such schemes are equally available to women and spread over all sectors. I went to a meeting of the Federation of Small Businesses last night, and it said that it hoped that the scheme would be taken up in England as well. I know that the Prime Minister is considering doing that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) said, now is the opportunity to prepare for the inevitable upturn by providing women with skills. That is why apprenticeships are important, and I feel strongly that we should try to make them less segregated. As I have said, we should encourage part-time apprenticeships to encourage older women and those with children to get involved. We all know that apprenticeships can be in various sectors, and the pay might be very high in one sector and pretty low in another. That dictates the pay gap that exists for the rest of people’s lives. Apprenticeships are vital, and we must ensure that they are more equally divided. That can be done through work experience, which can make certain that girls and boys have experience of work that is non-traditional to their sex. That applies to boys and young men as well, as there are sectors in which it would be a huge advantage to have men involved. An example would be child care, as this would provide male role models for children from an early age. These are among the important things that we can do at this difficult time.

The gender pay gap has been mentioned several times. It is difficult to bridge that gap, for reasons that I have already given. It is deeply embedded, and it will take a long time and a great deal of effort to do so. In Wales, it has got slightly worse, which is a matter of concern. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is working with Swansea university to investigate why the pay gap has worsened in Wales, and to determine whether it is just a blip or whether something fundamental is happening that would require an even greater effort to narrow the gap.

It is also a matter of concern that there are more women than men on short-term, flexible contracts. It has already been pointed out that that might mean that employers are more willing to use such contracts during difficult times. There is also a great fear, however, that people employed on such contracts will be the first to go. The TUC is worried that women might be prepared to take jobs at almost any price, because they are so concerned about their families and children. The number
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of women who hold jobs that pay below the minimum wage is significantly higher than the number of men in such jobs.

Women’s jobs are vulnerable. We all know about the discrimination that pregnant women have suffered in the workplace, even before the economic downturn. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has given many examples over the years of pregnant women being discriminated against. This week, I heard a story about a woman in Cardiff who told her employer that she was pregnant. His response was, “I don’t think you’re meeting your targets at work.” My fear is that such incidents will continue to happen, and we must do all that we possibly can to prevent them.

It is also a fact that 90 per cent. of single-parent households are headed by women. We know that the way out of poverty is to enable people to work, and the Government have worked very hard to achieve that. The tax credit system has been targeted to help people, particularly low-income families in work, but if those jobs go, the families will be very vulnerable. We have made efforts to give more opportunities to lone parents, and it is important to ensure that those opportunities remain.

Another area of concern is that of child care, which has already been raised today. There is no doubt that a number of child care businesses, where many women work, are vulnerable in these circumstances. In Wales, we have introduced the foundation phase, an early-years programme in which children learn through play until they reach six years of age. That programme has resulted in a big increase in the number of women being employed, because a lot of support workers have been taken on to work in small groups with children in the programme. That is an example of an increase in women workers, and I have no doubt that those people will stay in jobs.

I mentioned informal child care in an earlier intervention. I do not know what the answer is, but I believe that the issue should be addressed. In Wales, two thirds of child care is done on an informal basis, by friends, grandparents or other relatives. That is often the most suitable kind of care, if people can get it, because it is flexible. The children know the family and families can be trusted; such care can be provided around people’s work. How people arrange finances, work and benefits around that is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) said earlier, something that we should look at. I believe that there would be huge benefits for the country as a whole if we enabled more women to be free to work as a result of their children being taken care of. That is an important issue.

Wales has developed a number of policies that will stand up well during this recession. I particularly draw the House’s attention to the fact that schools in Wales have free breakfasts available in their breakfast clubs, which are taken up in a significant number of cases. They run from early in the morning and the parents face no additional costs for the breakfasts; they provide another aspect of child care in difficult situations.

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