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5 Mar 2009 : Column 1082

Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. While he was speaking, I started to think of those organisations, such as Age Concern, that concentrate on older people. We should tap into their experience and knowledge, as I am sure that they could be enormously helpful to the younger generation.

For the future, the best support that we can give young women is to ensure that they plan their reproductive lives wisely, so that they do not jeopardise their future earning capacity, education and training. Girls in schools need real-world, real-life sex education that tells them the real risks that they take if they are precociously sexually active and have children when they are too young; sex education should tell them that behaviour would change the course of their entire life. Giving lots of information about contraception clearly is not working, because in 80 per cent. of unplanned teenage pregnancies, the young people claim that they were using contraception.

Anne Main: My hon. Friend makes a hugely valuable point, but I would like her to include young men in what she says, because for every young woman left with a baby, there is a young man who was involved. There could be no sadder case than that of the young 13-year-old who recently featured in the papers as a father with a 15-year-old girlfriend. The sexualisation of our children, which I find incredibly worrying, applies to both sexes.

Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend; she makes a valuable point. The very fact that the boy posed on the front page of a tabloid newspaper shows the difference between attitudes now and several decades ago, when the story would not have been made public. I look forward to a culture in which people are much more careful, and in which there is planning in children’s sexual lives, so that they are wise and think of their economic lives and their education before having children—that is, so that they get their ducks in a row. Most of all, I look forward to the day when gender becomes irrelevant.

5.36 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): This has been a very good debate, and there have been a large number of contributions from both sides of the House; there were six from Conservative colleagues, and six from Labour Back Benchers. I am sorry for the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats; there were no other Liberal Democrat contributions. It is a shame that her colleagues, both men and women, did not feel that the debate was as important as she said it was in her speech.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) mentioned, the title of the debate has changed since it was announced by the Leader of the House last week. Then, it was “supporting women and families through the downturn and building a strong and fair economy for the future”. Mention of families has been expunged from the motion on the Order Paper today, as has mention of a “strong and fair economy”. It is fairly clear from the economic record that the Government are clearly not doing very well in building a strong economy—quite the reverse. [Interruption.] The Leader of the House says that that is a cheap point, but it is a fair one. She changed the motion, so it is fair to point out the words that she left out. It is also fair to
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point out that “fair” is missing. She referred to, and was questioned about, the equality Bill; I will come to the issue of the timing of that Bill later. That Bill seems to be slipping, which is unfortunate.

I am glad that the right hon. and learned Lady has rejoined us in the Chamber. When I was researching for this debate, I noticed that she and I have something in common—well, almost; I do not want to worry her too much. I notice that she gained her BA in politics at the University of York. My researcher also gained a BA in politics, and if he is as successful in blazing a trail in politics on our side as she is on hers, the name Malcolm Morton might be heard in future.

This is an important debate, and the title refers to support for women for the future. After her mauling in the press this morning, I thought that the right hon. and learned Lady would like to know, as we are talking about support for women in the future, that she has a new fan in the Evening Standard. Its columnist Viv Groskop said today that

The headline is, “We need a woman at the top—bring on Hattie now”, so there is some good news for the right hon. and learned Lady.

Yesterday, when the right hon. and learned Lady addressed the House while standing in for the Prime Minister, she was challenged by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) about some important economic measures that the Government should bring forward—measures that will be crucial to whether women are affected seriously by the recession. She did not mention very many of them in her speech. I suspect that that is mainly because, as my right hon. Friend highlighted yesterday, they are yet to happen. He highlighted the Government’s loan guarantee scheme, which was announced in January, was due to be launched on 1 March, and is still not operational. The jobs recruitment scheme has been delayed until April. The mortgage support scheme, which was mentioned by some Labour Members, if not the right hon. and learned Lady, is still being worked out with the banks. The guarantee scheme for asset bank securities is not starting until April, and the deal with Lloyds bank is still to be worked out.

Given the seriousness of the economic situation, which nobody disputes, we need urgent action. Some of those measures need to be implemented more quickly if we are to see economic progress for the future. That is why I was pleased that in her speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead set out some of the key concerns of women and families. Unlike the right hon. and learned Lady, my right hon. Friend mentioned women pensioners, who often rely on savings and will not have welcomed the cut in interest rates today.

My right hon. Friend also set out a number of positive proposals for action—our proposal on the national loan guarantee scheme, proposals for a community learning fund, proposals on compulsory pay audits for companies found guilty of breaking the law, a proposal for increasing flexible working, and some positive proposals to end violence against women.

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I was pleased that my right hon. Friend mentioned the contribution of women to our armed forces. I had the great pleasure last weekend of visiting my local regiment, the 1st Battalion The Rifles in Afghanistan. They are doing an excellent job serving our nation and, sadly, have had some dreadful losses of personnel over the past few weeks. I met some of the women serving in our armed forces in Afghanistan, and I am glad to add my words of support to those of my right hon. Friend for all those who serve Her Majesty in uniform.

As is traditional in winding-up speeches, I shall run through the contributions to the debate. As I said, there were 12, so I shall not be able to dwell on them to the extent that they deserve. Briefly, we heard an important contribution from the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who spoke about child care and the worries that families have about debt. She was drawn into an interesting interchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) about the respective records of different Governments. After that debate, matters were put straight.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, made a comprehensive and wide-ranging speech. She pointed out that when the Government introduce the equality Bill, they may have a tough job persuading people, particularly on the subject of age discrimination. A worrying finding in the report from the Government Equalities Office was that a significant number of people, both men and women, think it right in a recession to get rid of older workers. By “older”, they mean over 55. Attitudes will have to change when we debate the equality Bill.

The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) gave us an historical overview of the suffragette movement. She mentioned the importance of being equipped with skills in the recession, and referred to the problem of domestic violence. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) brought an international dimension to the debate, which was fitting as we approach international women’s day.

I know that the Solicitor-General will not forgive me if I do not remind her of my hon. Friend’s mention of the Baroness Thatcher. As we approach the 30th anniversary of her election, I am sure the Solicitor-General will celebrate the fact of a woman Prime Minister, even if she cannot bring herself to agree with any of her policies. It was a groundbreaking moment when Mrs. Thatcher was elected—the first and still the only female Prime Minister of our country.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) said that yesterday she met the youngest female MP in the Afghan Parliament, again bringing an international dimension to the debate, and mentioned some specific issues near to her constituency and in the Principality of Wales, which was very welcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove noted that the recession will impact on everybody, mentioning pensioners and reminding us of the Prime Minister’s responsibility for the system of financial regulation that has so failed us. However, I would pick her up on one thing. In referring to the tripartite system of financial
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regulation, she said: “If you give a job to three people to do, it will be done badly.” That may be true in general, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it is of course not true in the case of Deputy Speakers, where three people do the job incredibly well.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) referred to different aspects of issues affecting women, particularly the genetic screening of women from areas where first-cousin marriages are common, and mentioned the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which has done so much to protect a number of vulnerable women.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) referred to the national minimum wage and its positive impact on women, especially poorer women at the bottom of the income scale. He then gave what he himself said was a radical and alternative view in advocating a sharp increase in the national minimum wage: a radical and alternative view from a radical and alternative Member of Parliament, if I may say so.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) referred to research by the Government Equalities Office, to child care, and to domestic violence. She was on less certain ground when trying to defend the noble Lord Mandelson, with whom she did not seem to be entirely in agreement as regards his views on not extending maternity leave. I remind her that he speaks for the Government, so if she is supporting the Government, she will of course support the views of Lord Mandelson.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) talked about why women feel particularly vulnerable. She pointed out that they are often expected to be the main carer, urged all parties to take that matter seriously, and emphasised the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition by saying that he takes family-friendly working policies very seriously and has put them at the heart of our economic strategy.

Judy Mallaber: If the Conservative party leader is so concerned about those issues, can the hon. Gentleman explain why Members on his side of the Chamber voted against family-friendly policies on so many occasions?

Mr. Harper: If the hon. Lady checks her facts, she will find that that is not true. I will not go into detail, because I have only a minute left.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) talked about the importance of affordable housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) mentioned the very important matter of young women taking control of their reproductive lives so that they have the best chance in life.

The equality Bill was mentioned once or twice, and it would be helpful if the Solicitor-General confirmed the timing. We were all expecting it by the end of this month, but we were told several times that we would see it in a couple of months or in a few months. Will she confirm whether it will be introduced in March, April, May, June, or even before the summer recess? It is worth remembering that building a fair economy for the future is very important. There is a huge burden of equality legislation on the statute book, and the advantage of a Bill that simplifies and streamlines that legislation will be to make life easier for business in this recession, rather than more difficult.

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5.48 pm

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): Like my hon. Friend, and personal friend, the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), I found the contribution of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) less than constructive. She does, though, care about women’s issues; at least, she does now, after 10 years of Labour party women putting them on the agenda. However, as she made clear today, she has a very hard row to hoe in a party that still has more than a fair sprinkling of neanderthals or, as one of its own members said, troglodytes.

It is also a pity that the right hon. Lady was obviously told from on high, as were the hon. Members for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), not to bother too much about women but to try to blame us throughout the debate for the economic crisis. Barren, too, were her comments on yesterday’s summit; all she said is that it is a pity that it was not at No. 10 and only at No. 11. I agree with the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) that it was a superb experience—a fantastic collection of women talking great common sense and showing massive commitment to this Government’s drive for equality. It is a great pity that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead could not say something better.

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

The Solicitor-General: No. The right hon. Lady could have confined—[Hon. Members: “Give way!”] I will not. I do not have enough time to cover a lot of neanderthal points that have reared their head. It is a pity that the right hon. Lady cannot even be gracious when she must know that she was invited to make a speech at something we could have confined to ourselves.

I move on to the subject of the equality Bill, and perhaps the right hon. Lady might want to listen to what I have to say. She should not buy all the scare stories, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green put it, that have been promulgated about the equality Bill. As I set out in a letter to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead as long ago as October, asking for her support for the Bill—I did not get a reply saying yes—it will have tough additional measures to deal with the pay gap, transparency and using public procurement as leverage. The alternative, three-clause Bill that was introduced by her noble Friend in the Lords, and which was analytically decimated by the noble Lord Lester of Herne Hill, may make her think that equality is more important than political manoeuvring and persuade her that she could support our Bill.

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

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) had a terrible story to tell about the way bailiffs behave when they are let loose by a Tory council. Happily, there is a shift away from the use of bailiffs, as there has been by my own, Labour-controlled council. Of 2 million orders for liability in this past year, only 5,500 were dealt with by bailiffs. Let us hope that the Tories of Kensington get that point soon.

My hon. Friend rightly praised the huge, quantum improvement in child care brought about by this Government, and rightly cautioned, too, that child care
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businesses can suffer in the downturn. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families is watching that impact with care, receiving regular reports from Government offices. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North is right; it is something we must watch and something we must check if it starts to emerge.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green talked about scare tactics, and made the powerful point that not only is there no clash between equality and prosperous business in principle, but that the opposite is true. There is plenty of research to show that businesses with more women at the top are more profitable, but as she points out, the impact assessment demonstrates that the long-term benefits on the figures are also in favour of business.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) made a characteristically powerful speech, showing the range of her interest. She took an intervention from the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) that I want to refer to, because the hon. Lady said that women had to leave if they complained about domestic violence. In fact, the police will arrest and either keep in custody if the court can agree, or bail on condition to keep away, any man whom they arrest for domestic violence. Soon there will be restraining orders to keep them away, but at the moment injunctions can keep them away. I am not saying that that is how it has always worked, but I caution the hon. Lady against suggesting that if a woman complains under the current system, they have to leave—because we want women to complain.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) was lyrical, as ever, about the virtues of Baroness Thatcher. I assume that she supports the flat earth society as well. She made a very good point, though, that we must not allow the downturn to cut overseas aid, particularly with regard to maternity. We support millennium development goals four, on reducing child mortality, and five, on improving maternal health, and we have no intention whatsoever of resiling from our commitment to them.

Working women in my constituency will goggle at the hon. Lady’s notion that she cannot manage to pay for her child on her parliamentary pay. She gets £62,000—the national average wage is £24,000. That foolish utterance, and her adoration for the Prime Minister who showed her womanly qualities by taking milk off kids—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”]—but whom we just call job snatcher—

Mrs. Laing: Will the hon. and learned Lady give way?

The Solicitor-General: I will not. She has made a most mellifluous—

Mrs. Laing: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. and learned Lady has insulted me from the Dispatch Box and will not allow me to defend myself.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. These are matters for debate. I tread very gingerly on a day such as this, but I do think that we can manage our affairs with a little more decorum.

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