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5 Mar 2009 : Column 1057

Miss Kirkbride: Indeed. Those who earn loads of money in the dealing rooms and the high-value investment banking sector are men, with perhaps a smattering of women, but the people who will be feeling the cuts in the banking sector, in the struggle to find cost efficiencies and savings to rescue the industry, are presumably bank clerks on much lower salaries, which creates that huge discrepancy as females are made unemployed. A precious other income in the family budget is thus taken away, with the subsequent impact on the whole household. It is a very depressing picture.

The Leader of the House was keen to tell us in her opening remarks that “fairness” was “at the very heart of what we do”. I broadly accept that women’s issues are close to the right hon. and learned Lady’s heart, but I therefore simply do not understand why, given that there is much progress to be made on the gender pay gap, she has set her face against our pay audit proposal. It would not apply to all companies, because we have to be worried about the bureaucratic burden at present, given all the other worries about earning money that individual companies currently have. However, although there would not be an overall requirement for companies to conduct pay audits because that would be asking too much in the current economic climate and I would not want to have to justify it, I do not see why companies that have been taken to an employment tribunal and found guilty of an offence on equal pay grounds should not be obliged to do one, because I think that would be pretty reasonable punishment for what they have done, and it might encourage better practice in general. Perhaps we will further debate this when—and if—the famous equality Bill actually reaches the Floor of the House. We would be optimistic that we could persuade the Government on that measure.

I want to talk about a group of people who have not been much mentioned yet, because we are rightly concerned about families and the vulnerability of children and the responsibility for them—which rests mainly on the shoulders of women, although men take their responsibilities in that regard as well. This other group of people is being really clobbered by the recession, and might be clobbered for a considerable period. This group is women pensioners. I am not talking about those who are poor enough to be eligible for the pension credit, which applies very low down the income scale, but those just above that. They are often now widowed and relying on the money they made as a family. They might hold a few shares in the banks—which are now almost worthless if invested in the wrong bank, but what a solid investment they used to be! So, savings that were held as bank shares have gone, although I am sure they were bought with the thought, “Well, it is the one sector that will be okay and that we can trust to buy shares in.” If they are lucky enough to have put their savings into non-banking shares, their dividends will have decreased, along with the value of the investment; even if they have invested in blue-chip shares such as the supermarkets, they will be suffering.

A lot of these people will, of course, simply have their savings in cash, and almost no interest at all is being paid on such investments. Added to the insult of pretty much no interest being paid on them, someone sitting at home with not a lot to do will be worried stiff about whether the cash that they hold in the bank is now safe. Indeed, there have been moments in the past few months
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when that was a legitimate worry, and I would certainly urge any of my constituents to make sure they are cognisant of the Financial Services Authority guarantees on cash deposits, so they can be absolutely reassured that their savings are safe.

This category of people was relying on dividend income and the interest on their bank savings to top up their pension and not only to pay for the holiday, or running the car, or for other things that are considered a luxury by many retired people, but in many cases to pay the council tax or their regular food or fuel bills. That income has disappeared. As a Labour Member pointed out earlier, the Government currently assume the interest received on savings held in banks at a ridiculous level—some 10 per cent. That rate simply cannot be found for any investment vehicle anywhere in the country, or the world.

So these people are really suffering. They cannot fall back on pension credit if they are within those parameters, because their savings are deemed to earn more interest than they can ever possibly secure. There are those who are just above that level but who are still finding it very hard. These people did not have it so good even when it was so good, because they were not in the market earning better salaries; they were living on fixed incomes. They had been clobbered over the past 10 years by whacking great increases in council tax—in my area it has more than doubled. They struggled to find that money and now they will struggle even more, and I feel greatly for them.

It is only a modest measure because interest rates are so low—0.5 per cent. as of midday today, when the Bank of England made its announcement—but it is at least a sign that we are concerned, so I very much hope that the Government introduce in their Budget our idea that for basic rate taxpayers the interest on savings should be tax-free. We have to do something to increase the savings ratio. The recession will help that, because people are scared and they want to save money to pay the bills. If I look at that little list of culpabilities, which I mentioned earlier—

Mrs. Laing: Long list.

Miss Kirkbride: My hon. Friend rightly corrects me, because it is a long list of culpabilities of the then Chancellor—now the Prime Minister. He absolutely did not care about the collapse of the savings ratio over the past decade. All these things are coming back to haunt not only him—it is right that they should—but, much more worryingly, the people whom I represent and the people of my country, who are really hurting. I worry for them because another announcement made today— disgracefully, it was not made on the Floor of the House—was that there will be quantitative easing in the UK economy. Back when I was learning economics, that used to be called the Government printing money, and that is what it amounts to. We have to hope that it works—it is a desperate measure brought on by desperate times, and thus we desperately need it to have an impact and to work.

Mrs. Laing: I am probably the only Member of the House who welcomes that announcement, because it is good for jobs in my constituency—the Bank of England printing works are situated there.

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Miss Kirkbride: It always gives me pleasure to see my hon. Friend take pleasure in something, so to that extent I welcome her welcome. For the rest of us, however, it is not such great news that we have come to this state of affairs.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Does this not bring us on to another area where the then Chancellor has been to blame: spending money like a drunken sailor in the good years so that there was nothing left in the cupboard when we got to the bad times?

Miss Kirkbride: I thought that my hon. Friend’s contribution would be something on which I could disagree and show what a broad church the Conservative party is, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham might even have agreed with that particular sentence.

John Bercow: It is, of course, a very sad state of affairs that we have reached a position in which we have to contemplate and, indeed, give the go-ahead to quantitative easing, but does my hon. Friend accept that it might now be the least worst option? Is it not significant that no lesser a monetarist economist than the distinguished Patrick Minford, from the University of Liverpool, has said that it is the right thing to do in the circumstances?

Miss Kirkbride: With a hugely heavy heart, I agree with both of the contributions that my hon. Friends just made. We have reached the point where we have no choice. The point that I was going to make was that, in all likelihood, this measure will, over time, lead to inflation—the thing that we used to dread. At the moment, a bit of inflation in the UK economy would be very welcome, because we face the diametric opposite. But over time, unless it is dealt with very skilfully, we will have inflation, which hits the people on a fixed income in retirement, whose savings are decimated. We remember the 1970s only too well, when exactly that scenario was played out, and people will worry that that will happen again as a result of this announcement.

Because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said, we spent so much, both recklessly in the past when we should not have increased public expenditure by so much, and more recently when we have had no choice but to increase public expenditure by so much to rescue the banks and other important sectors of the economy, even the Government—although getting them to talk about tax rises is like extracting teeth—have had to admit, to reassure the financial markets, that national insurance contributions will rise for both employers and employees in just two years’ time. What will that do to help women’s employment—or men’s employment—at the time? Employers will be reluctant to take people on. We are in a recession now, and climbing out of it will be made much harder by the Government’s unwillingness to consider the impact of their public expenditure plans, including the £12 billion that we have wasted on the VAT cut.

The Government should be a little more respectful of the taxpayer’s purse, because all that money will have to be paid back in the end. Some of it will be paid back through inflation, but some will have to be paid back in
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hard-earned cash that will have to be raised through taxation. We should also look at the other side of the balance sheet, or what we can save to prevent such tax rises in the future, because tax rises will slow up the recovery and make it much harder, especially for women—whose employment is more marginal, as we have all said today—to obtain jobs. The job opportunities will not be available as we come out of the recession because of the mistakes made in the economic management of this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest talked about her visit in February, and I want to tell the House about my trip as part of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Zambia. While I do not wish to diminish the problems experienced in the UK, it is sobering—as my hon. Friend most eloquently explained—to go to other countries to see how much worse things could be. Zambia is a beautiful country with very talented people—I was pleased to see, in the interesting and important meetings that we had, that women were in very senior positions—but it is a very poor country, and many of its citizens struggle to survive. I echo my hon. Friend’s remarks about the aid budget, and DFID does an important job giving straightforward financial support to Zambia to be spent by the Government.

I congratulate Zambia on understanding that the AIDS epidemic is taking out its most resourceful citizens, so controlling the disease is the right way forward. Zambia now has a programme of voluntary testing and if someone receives a positive diagnosis, there is a fully funded antiretroviral drug programme available. That is a great achievement for such a poor country, where even the cheapest drug—needed in the earlier stages of HIV infection—costs $200 a year per person. That is a large expenditure for the Government to sustain, and sadly the number of cases continues to rise. I hope that it will start to stabilise, but the programme is only just starting and therefore identifying more sufferers. The Government of Zambia are right to introduce that programme, because it is an investment in their own people.

The thing that really struck me, which is where the issue of women particularly came into play, became clear on a visit to the border post of Chirundu on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. Of course, if we think that we have economic problems then Zimbabwe is in a different league. The Zambians are generous in that they have pretty lax border controls when it comes to allowing people to cross their borders. Traditionally, of course, people have come to market by crossing the border every day. They cross the lovely bridge across the Zambezi that was paid for by the Japanese, as it turned out—we have done other things. Traditionally, people would have gone across on market day to sell their goods, but nowadays many people want to come out of Zimbabwe for economic reasons—to earn some money so that they can go back and help their families—but because they cannot afford a passport, which they need to travel legally, they travel illegally. The minute they are illegally in Zambia that creates a problem, because they are much more vulnerable to the police and other authorities, who do not always respect their rights.

The economic position of many of those women is absolutely dire. They have walked—or taken a lift—hundreds of miles out of Zimbabwe to come to Zambia. They have tried to find work in the agricultural sector to
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earn some money to take back and while they are in Zambia they are illegal and therefore very vulnerable. Of course, some of them do not find work picking crops in the fields. As the town is a major crossing point for many of the trucks coming down from the copper belts in Congo and Zambia, there is one trade that is always available to a female who is desperate to feed her family. That trade is prostitution. Inevitably, many of those women find themselves in what I would call voluntary prostitution, although of course it is not voluntary as it is driven entirely by economics. For example, it might be a case of a driver saying, “If you want me to give you a lift, darling, how about it?” Those women have no choice but to offer that service.

It was a very sobering experience for those of us who were lucky enough to be born in the UK to see that, for many women, that is what the economic choices boil down to. I have praised DFID for its work, and it is supporting an international organisation’s migration project on the border. It is sympathetic to the local population, which is not very wealthy either. It provides somewhere where anyone—women or men—can take a shower, go to the toilet, which normally has to be paid for in Zambia when people are on the street, and sort themselves out with advice before doing whatever they have to do to try to raise funds so that they can take them home and feed their families.

I pay tribute to those women, some of whom I met at the market, who were very stoic in the face of the disadvantages in their lives. For them, worldwide economic recession can only be pretty poor news. It makes their difficult predicament even worse. We all do what we can to support our families, and on international women’s day I pay tribute to all women across the world for what they do.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Perhaps this might be the moment to remind hon. Members that the average length of Back-Bench speeches has been about 30 minutes. If that average is maintained, only three more hon. Members would be allowed to participate. Perhaps there could be a slight quantitative easing.

4.8 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to be in the Chamber again for what has been an excellent debate. This might be my last debate celebrating international women’s day and I admire the fortitude of the three male Opposition Members who have been present for much of the time. However, I must remind the Opposition that their party has a much larger proportion of male Members than ours has. I appreciate the presence of the hon. Gentlemen, particularly since one of them is my own MP. However, my own party has a couple of male Members present now.

It is also excellent to hear from other hon. Members who have been to Africa. We have heard about visits to Uganda and Zambia: I visited Kenya in October, and I think that our experiences of the position of women are very similar. I was deeply concerned to learn that female genital mutilation is still a problem in Kenya. The men
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do not like to talk about it, but I managed to extract some information on what is a pretty awful practice. Anything that we in this House—and especially the women here—can do to discourage such activity in African countries will be appreciated by women there.

We may also achieve greater diversity. At least two of my colleagues from the Speaker’s Conference on diversity are present in the Chamber. We will all work together to achieve greater diversity and, although I am not sure how that will happen, I certainly hope that it will.

This debate is about supporting women through the economic downturn and into the future. Women are now getting support from Sure Start, extended school hours, the minimum wage, tax credits and the availability of flexible working. Many of those things are likely to disappear or wither on the vine if the Opposition get elected.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has said that women must know their rights, but many do not. In that regard, I want to ask a question that many people consider to be something of a taboo subject—although that has never stopped me before. How many women from various ethnic communities where cousin marriages are the norm are aware of the availability, free through the NHS, of genetic counselling and screening prior to marriage? I have been unable to persuade the Bradford and Airedale teaching primary care trust of the need to make the availability of those services known through advertising in medical and community centres, hospital out-patient and accident and emergency departments, or even in schools. It just will not do so, believing that the subject is too politically incorrect.

As always, my concern is for the very young women who have entered this country as young wives. They have no English and are very vulnerable. In some families, they go on producing children even after having given birth to children with severe problems. Often, they get little help from the in-laws who arranged the marriage. Those young women, most of whom come from Mirpur in Pakistan, are the victims of a rural culture. I want to emphasise that this problem has nothing to do with religion or the fact that they are Muslims, but that it is just what happens in the rural culture whence they come.

Some so-called community leaders—all of them men—argue that consanguinity has no impact on the number of children born with severe disabilities, and I agree that such children are born to couples who are not related and that many perfectly healthy children are born to cousins. However, the statistics reveal that, although 2 per cent. of children from all communities are born with genetically transmitted disorders, the percentage doubles to 4 per cent. in the communities that favour first-cousin marriages.

I am absolutely not asking that cousin marriages be outlawed. I simply want us to discuss the matter and to encourage PCTs to make known the availability of genetic counselling and screening. That could be an enormous help for these young women who, as I said, are not aware that such services are available.

I shall try to be brief, but I should like to pay tribute to the paediatricians of Bradford and Keighley, who are so expert in diagnosing and caring for children with
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diseases that are often very rare. I should also like to put on record my appreciation of the introduction by my Government of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007.

Philip Davies: I am proud to be the hon. Lady’s Member of Parliament; she is incredibly courageous and has done an awful lot on such issues, speaking out when other people would not have done, and she deserves huge praise. On first-cousin marriages and the health problems that flow from it, does she agree that we hope that the Born in Bradford scheme, which is being run in hospitals in Bradford, will lead to more information being known on the subject, so that the problem can be tackled better?

Mrs. Cryer: I do agree, but the Born in Bradford scheme is not that up-front about what it is there for. It is careful not to say that it is about consanguinity and cousin marriages. I can understand why that is; it does not want to put off women from informing it of the nature of their family.

I was talking about the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act, which the Government introduced. I recognise that it was the party of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone)—

Lynne Featherstone: Lord Lester.

Mrs. Cryer: Yes, it was Lord Lester, in the other place, who introduced the measure as a private Member’s Bill. The measures are up and running, and certainly helped to return a very young doctor from Bangladesh a few weeks ago. I appreciate the fact that the Government are changing immigration regulations, which will greatly help young women to refuse to go into forced marriages. I also appreciate the fact that the Forced Marriage Unit, which is funded partly by the Home Office and the Foreign Office, has been up and running for many years. It is doing an extremely useful job in areas such as mine.

Talking about this subject today will not do me any favours with many of my community leaders in Keighley and Bradford. It is a difficult subject to broach, but then again, 10 years and a few weeks ago, it was the anniversary of a very important Adjournment debate, which Alice Mahon, then the Member for Halifax, and I requested. We decided that we had to go public on the issue of forced marriages. The debate was supported by Members—mainly women—from all parts of the House. We moved from that situation to the current situation, in which we have the Forced Marriage Unit, and great recognition, across the country, of the fact that forced marriages do happen, and of the idea that we should be talking families out of adopting that sort of attitude to their daughters and sons. I think that we achieved that, so I hope that it does not take 10 years to talk families out of going on with consanguinity—that is, first-cousin marriages.

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