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Sandra Osborne: Is the hon. Lady aware that under successive Conservative Governments people could not get child care for love nor money?

Mrs. Spelman: I am not here for historical debate; I was not a Member of Parliament under a Conservative Government. We are talking about women and equality

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today, and the Minister set out for the House the good things that, in her view, the Government have done. I urge the Minister to focus the Government's attention on things that need to be done; many working women and many child minders have beaten a path to my door over the reduction in the number of child minders.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—[Laughter.] I am sorry, I am stuck in a rut; in this place, it is usually one of them. I accept the hon. Lady's desire to make things better, but it is difficult to accept her lack of historical awareness. Under the Conservative Government, there was no financial help for women seeking child care, whether from a child minder or an institution. The working families tax credit, which has a child care element, is increasing the number of child minders in my constituency. In addition, the child care strategy is making more places available.

I like the tone of this debate, which suggests that both Government and Opposition could do better. However, we have to accept the record of the past.

Mrs. Spelman: One must be careful with the expression about who wears the trousers, but I should like to make it clear for the record that I am an hon. Lady.

Labour Members have been in power for five years, so they must accept that they have a bit of history. It is not true that there was no help with child care under the Conservative Government; there was help with out-of-school child care. I made a specific point about the demise of child minders. The Minister made an important point about changes in British society concerning women and the workplace. As she said, in the 1950s the typical model involved a delineation of roles; women wanted to stay at home much more and raise their families. Now, there is a rise in the number of women, increasingly with under-fives, wanting to go to work. There is therefore a new demand for the appropriate care of children under school age, which we must meet from the supply of child care services. I certainly want to draw to the attention of the Government the loss of child minders.

The Federation of Small Businesses gave a clear verdict on the Employment Bill, which it described as hefty and a raft of employment legislation too far. Its employment spokesman, Bill Knox, said:


—in small businesses—


At the very least, the federation wants the Government to deliver on promises to limit the bureaucracy involved in administering those policies. That is important for small businesses; while they welcome family-friendly policies, the burden of administering them is sometimes the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Similar misgivings apply to the European Union's equal treatment directive. In a speech to European Standing Committee B in February, I made a plea for greater clarity and simplicity in the language used to describe proposed legislation in the directive. At the moment, employers may be put off employing women

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because of the obscurity and complication of legislation surrounding their employment. There is also the question of the cost of regulations in the directive.

Nearer to home, we need more women in Parliament; we supported the change in the Sex Discrimination Act to allow political parties to take positive action to get more women into all areas of public life. I should like to place on the record the fact that our party is doing its bit; we are going to change our selection procedures in the light of that legislative change. For the sake of Parliament's standing in the eyes of the public, we must be seen to be working in ways that do not deter half the population from taking part. I wish to correct a misconception and, in so doing, may cast doubt on the question of paternity leave, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). It is generally unknown in the wider population that there is no maternity leave for women Members of Parliament; leave is discretionary and must be negotiated with the Whips. It is interesting to observe that Members of Parliament have no right to maternity leave.

Joan Ryan: Does the hon. Lady support the extension of paid maternity leave in the Employment Bill from 18 to 26 weeks? I agree that child care is terribly important, and welcome the national child care strategy—the first one we have ever had—and the expansion of child care places. However, paid maternity leave over a reasonable period is vital, and women want it. I was unsure whether the hon. Lady supported that or not.

Mrs. Spelman: I was giving the Government a health warning about the change. Under the changes to maternity leave, after only six months' employment employees become entitled to a full year's maternity leave, at the end of which they can still choose not to return. Small businesses faced with a choice of candidates for a position may start to have misgivings about employing a woman of childbearing age. I was warning the Government about the impact that the change may have on women's employability. We must balance the needs of employers and employees; without doubt, the needs of small businesses are different from those of large corporations.

My own experience is that once one has got into Parliament, being a woman is no bar to getting on; if anything, male colleagues respect one more because they know the hurdles that have had to be overcome to get into Parliament. Women make up more than half the population, but only 18 per cent. of our MPs are female, which is lower than in Turkmenistan, Vietnam, Rwanda and Namibia and an indictment of the mother of Parliaments. We could do more by mentoring candidates and providing role models to prove that it is possible to become an MP. Parliament is making some progress on more family-friendly working practices. The example of the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), comes to mind; she demonstrated that ministerial office and maternity can be combined.

On thinking about the title of this debate, I had an inkling that I would be disappointed in one respect, and I am afraid that my misgivings have been borne out. I suspected that the debate would focus on improved rights for women in the developed world, but they pale in comparison with inequality between the sexes in the developing world. We should remember that our debate is taking place in the context of international women's day.

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It is no exaggeration to say that poverty has a female face, and nowhere is that more true than in the developing world. There are many disturbing facts, and I shall highlight just a few that really hit home in preparing for the debate. According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, women are still the poorest of the world's poor, representing 70 per cent. of the 1.3 billion poor in the world. Moreover, the number of women living in poverty has doubled since 1970. In other words, we are going backwards. Rural women—mainly farmers—represent more than a quarter of the total world population. On average, they produce more than half the food that is grown, but they own only 2 per cent. of the land. Women represent two thirds of all illiterate people.

There are terrible inequalities in maternal mortality. According to UNICEF, a woman dies every minute while pregnant or giving birth. A woman who gives birth in a developing country has as high as a one in 13 chance of dying, but in developed countries such as ours the risk is one in 4,100.

On health care for women, the startling fact is that last year, 1.3 million women died of HIV-AIDS. However, In sub-saharan Africa, teenage girls are five times more likely to be infected than boys, because most are infected not by boys of their own age, but by older men. That problem needs to be addressed. Older women in sub-saharan Africa sometimes look after as many as 30 or 40 grandchildren orphaned by HIV-AIDS.

Female genital mutilation is still a problem in east Africa, despite the Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian Parliaments adopting legislation to outlaw it. In Tanzania, it is still performed at an early age by about 20 per cent. of the 130 main ethnic groups.

We have all become much more acquainted with the plight of women in Afghanistan. After 20 years of civil war, a disproportionate number of widows—an estimated 50,000 in Kabul alone—head families. Tajik widows in a refugee camp whom I met complained bitterly that, without men, there is no one to push to the front of the queue to get food for them. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan was the only country in the world to ban women from secondary education. Unsurprisingly, the literacy rate for women is just 13 per cent.

Reconstruction must now partly involve re-establishing women in the country's hierarchy. In living memory—thank goodness—women Ministers have participated in Afghan politics, but there are already bad signs. Initially, the Afghan women's ministry was not funded, and it remains underfunded.


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