Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Cook: I would point out that the hon. Member who obtained and spoke in the debate, who is one of my colleagues, has made no complaint. The only complaints have come from the Conservatives. I did not suggest that the practice should be a general rule or generally applied; nor do I think that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport, can be fairly accused of not taking his role in the House seriously. He has probably responded to more than double the number of debates than any other Minister bar one. Westminster Hall has allowed us to provide hon. Members with a much greater opportunity to raise issues. In those circumstances, we should recognise that occasionally—not as a general rule—it may be appropriate for a Whip, who is a member of the Government, to answer on behalf of a Minister.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Will the Leader of the House tell the House which candidates for city status have been successful in Northern Ireland?

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1059

In addition, according to the Order Paper, my ten-minute Bill—Trespassers on Land (Liability for Damage and Eviction) Bill—will be introduced on Tuesday 26 March. It is an important measure that will address the problem of damage caused by travellers who arrive in communities and cause damage to their neighbours' property, which is a cause for concern in Surrey. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that I will still have an opportunity to introduce that Bill even though the business for that day has changed slightly?

Mr. Cook: I do not anticipate a problem with the ten-minute Bill proceeding on Tuesday 26 March. We will have Question Time as normal. I guarantee that the normal procedures for that day will stand, if only because it is Health Question Time and I will insist that we have it then.

On Northern Ireland, the two towns that have been successful in applying for city status are Lisburn and Newry.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): May I remind the Leader of the House of his Government's manifesto commitment of 1997 to ban tobacco advertising? Smoking costs at least 120,000 lives, and a ban on advertising would save thousands of those. Is he aware that the private Member's Bill promoted by my colleague, Lord Clement-Jones, is likely to receive its Third Reading and clear the House of Lords tomorrow? If that is the case, and given that an almost identical Government Bill went through this House before running out of time in the Lords in the previous Parliament, will the Government give the Bill time? Have they any excuse not to give such an important measure Government time to finish its passage and provide the public health initiative that the country so desperately needs?

Mr. Cook: I am well aware that the Bill has its final stage tomorrow. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are following the debate with close interest and will reflect on our position in the light of that.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1060

Women and Equality

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

3.4 pm

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I am delighted that we are having this debate. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for providing us with the time, and to my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, who had the courtesy to tell me that unfortunately she cannot join us.

International women's day was on Friday—hopefully, next year we will have this debate a little closer to it—and I had the enormous pleasure of attending the first major conference in my city of Leicester to bring together hundreds of women aged between 15 and 85 from different backgrounds and Leicester's diverse communities. We heard, as one always does at such events, stories of the extraordinary things that women are doing in their lives.

Freda Hussain was appointed some years ago as the principal of one of Leicester's large community colleges. She was the first Asian woman principal in Leicester and possibly the first Asian principal. She said that on the day of the announcement of her appointment she was approached by a boy who said, "You don't look like a headmaster, miss", and by a group of girls, one of whom said, "Thank you,miss. Now we've got someone to look up to."

We heard from Ann, an extraordinary woman in her 40s, who told us how she had gone through all her school years believing that she was thick because the teachers had told her so and had certainly made her feel like it. She got no qualifications and never had much of a job or, indeed, much of a life. Eventually, it was discovered that, like many people, she was dyslexic and it had not been diagnosed all those years ago when she was in school. She overcame that problem and gained access qualifications. She studied law and got a first-class degree. She then got a good job. Tragically, after all that, her employer could not give her the support that she needed to cope with her disability—she still cannot spell—in order to fulfil the demands of the job. I am afraid that she is unemployed again, although I have no doubt that with her determination she will soon be back in work.

We heard from Karen Wildman, a Leicester woman, who started as a receptionist at one of Leicester's engineering companies and who rose to become the managing director of that firm. She is now an executive member of the board of the parent company. She has achieved extraordinary success in business, but some of the men in grey suits that she typically meets still take her for a secretary and talk to her male colleagues instead. I suspect that many of my hon. Friends—or should I say hon. sisters—have experienced that.

We also heard from community leaders. Rita Patel, who founded Belgrave Behano, is now building a multi-million pound community centre in inner-city Leicester, and Vera Smith is an amazing, battling pensioner who fought to save a community centre in one of the outer-city impoverished council estates that I represent. I was delighted to join her the day after the conference to open a centre that had been refurbished as a result of funding provided by our neighbourhood renewal programme, but

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1061

administered by resident leadership. Those were just a few of the women's voices that all of us hear in our constituencies and on whose behalf we have the privilege to speak in the House.

Listening to women at last week's conference reminded me of the question posed by Sigmund Freud nearly 100 years ago. He asked, "What do women really want?" Apparently, it was a puzzle to the father of psychoanalysis, but it is no puzzle to hon. Members in the House today. We all want the chance to use our abilities, to find the strength and potential within us, as Ann did, whatever that potential is. We want to make a contribution at work and in the wider community; we want to earn a living and to enjoy a secure retirement. However, we also want the blessing of loving relationships with our friends and family and the chance to care for other people—our children, our parents as they grow older, and others who need us. We want to be able to balance home and work and the rest of our lives. We want our homes, streets and communities to be safe for ourselves and our children—safe from the scourge of domestic and public violence. We want good health and a good health service, good schools and all those other vital services.

Of course women's aspirations are influenced by different cultural and religious traditions, social class and our parents' experience, but in essence they do not vary or change very much. What has changed is the condition of women's lives, and that has changed radically in recent decades.

I grew up in the 1950s, at a time when there was a very clear division of labour between men and women. The man worked full-time while the woman, after marriage, stayed at home full-time to care for the children, and there were powerful social and legal sanctions against divorce and illegitimacy. Not everyone lived in that way; there has always been a significant number of working-class women, in particular, who earned a living for their family. However, it is fair to say that that traditional two-parent, one male breadwinner family model was society's ideal. It underpinned the way in which employers organised work and occupational pensions; it underpinned the way in which Government organised the national insurance and welfare systems and the rest of public policy.

Just to describe that world of the 1950s is to see how far we have travelled since then. The huge social changes that we are living through were not imposed by any Government or dictated by some wicked feminist plot—they were created by women themselves, making different choices and demanding different opportunities in their lives.

Those changes are continuing. Today I have published new survey figures showing a radical change in the levels of women's employment over the past decade. Over the past 10 years, men's employment rates have stayed relatively constant, but those of women, particularly mothers, have grown rapidly. We have seen a growth rate in employment of nearly 10 per cent. for all women between 1991 and 2001, compared with an increase of only 4 per cent. for men. Most strikingly, the employment rate of women whose youngest child is under five has grown by a third over the same period. That represents the biggest increase in the rate of women's employment in our country since the wartime period. Britain now has one of the highest rates of women's employment in the European Union and across the industrialised world.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1062

It is not the Government's job to tell women, or men, how to lead their life. Our job is to support and enable people to lead the fulfilling life that they want for themselves and their family. We can do that only if we recognise and understand these enormous changes. We must recognise that, despite the enormous increase in the wealth of our country, it is in many ways much tougher to bring up children today than it was when I and many other hon. Members were growing up. It is our job as a Government to support families—all families—in their double responsibility of earning a living and caring for children and other family members. That means that the Government have to support women, and men, in the choices that they want to make.

We will have failed if women still have to go back to work too soon after having a baby because they cannot afford to stay at home any longer. We will have failed if women have to go on working long and inconvenient hours that they believe are damaging to their families and themselves because shorter working hours are simply not available.

I should perhaps declare an interest, as I am the mother of two teenage children. Along with many hon. Members, I know just how difficult it is balancing commitments to our constituents, the House, our families and, in my case, in my role as a Minister. We have the great good fortune to do work that we love and have chosen, and to be well paid for it. How much harder is it for women such as the constituent to whom I was talking recently, who has to juggle, as she put it, not only work and family but her marriage? She is at home during the day caring for young children while her husband is at work. Three nights a week she works late shifts, getting no sleep at all, to bring in extra money while her husband is at home caring for the children.

We will have failed if women are staying at home when they do not want to because they cannot find good quality, affordable child care or a job with the hours that they need or because, as older women who have brought up their children and are ready to embark on the next phase of their life, they come up against employer prejudice against older people. Perhaps I should declare another interest, as I am 53.

When I say that "we" have to do these things, I do not simply mean the Government. I mean employers, in the public and private sectors. I welcome the fact, as I am sure the whole House does, that more and more businesses and public service organisations recognise that if they are to deliver the services that their clients and customers want and if they are to get and keep the good, skilled people they need, they have to pay attention to the needs and abilities of all the potential talent pool, not just half of it. The new figures that I have just given and the increase in women returning to work after having children in many ways represent an improvement, as women have told us, in the conditions available in the workplace.

Unfortunately, not all employers have got there yet. I recently met Michelle Chew, a former police constable with more than 12 years' experience in specialist child protection work. She is also a lone mother who had, at the time the problem arose, two children under five. Not surprisingly, WPC Chew wanted hours that worked for her family as well as the police force. For some time, that is what she had. However, she was then faced with the demand that she move to full-time work on variable shifts that would have destroyed her child care arrangements.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1063

Her application to remain in her existing post or move to another part-time post with family-friendly shifts was twice turned down without any serious consideration. What was the result? The police force lost an immensely experienced and valuable officer in a specialist area where it is not always easy to recruit. It also lost the employment tribunal case that Michelle Chew brought against them, reinforcing the fact that there is a need for reform and change as well as investment in the police service and our other great public services.

For years, the work-family balance has been a problem for women, while men have taken it for granted. Indeed, when a man in a top job in business or politics says that he wants to spend more time with his family, most people think that there must be something wrong with him. That, too, is changing; more and more men want to spend time with their family, striking a better balance between work and family. I welcome the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House who understand, from their experience, that changing approach among men.

The Government are already doing a great deal to support women and families in making the choices that will suit them. We have introduced full-time rights for part-time workers, time off for people to deal with family emergencies, the right to parental leave while children are young, and higher maternity pay, which will come into effect from April next year. At the same time, we have introduced longer maternity leave, totalling up to one year off. Furthermore, for the first time ever, there is two weeks' paid paternity leave, to underline our recognition of the crucial role that fathers play in their children's lives.

Next Section

IndexHome Page