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Mr. Joyce: It was perhaps a bit daft to use the phrase "dumbing down". When tests were introduced to see whether women were suitable for the new occupations within the armed services, some of the men failed the tests that they would need to pass to join the teams, especially in the Royal Artillery, where they would have to lift heavy equipment. It was the teams, not the individuals that did the tasks. It is not a case of dumbing down or lowering standards.

Mr. Swire: In the interests of gender solidarity, I will accept the hon. Gentleman's criticism. I meant no disrespect to women who are in or who want to join the armed forces. In fact, I said exactly the reverse: that no allowances should be made, because both men's and women's lives can be at risk in combat.

I come from a fairly liberal arts background; I genuinely believe that being a woman has never been a hindrance. In fact, the boss at the last company I worked for was a woman. I will not talk about her now—she is involved in a rather high-profile court case in New York.

It is interesting to see how women are emerging in the arts. Historically, the great classical musicians were men, but now the great pop musicians, who are perhaps replacing them—the girl bands and icons for the young such as Madonna and Kylie Minogue—are women. None of the impressionists and very few portraitists in the 18th and 19th centuries were female, but now there is thriving participation of women and some of our best contemporary artists are female. Women occupy many of the most important posts in arts administration, too.

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In literature, we had the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen, and now we have A. S. Byatt, P. D. James, and of course J. K. Rowling—all icons in their own way to women in the workplace.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): My hon. Friend has not mentioned sport. He may be interested to know that the trainer of the winner of the Cheltenham gold cup this afternoon is a woman, Henrietta Knight, who lives quite near my constituency in Oxfordshire. In many such fields, women are beating men at their own game.

Mr. Swire: I have met that trainer and I hope that my hon. Friend has profited personally from his close association with her this afternoon. Let us not forget the women's curling team who had such success at the recent winter Olympics: shining icons to all women who may want to take up that sport.

Our actresses are, I would suggest, way ahead of our actors. Younger women need role models, but not enough women are at the top of their professions, apart from those I have mentioned.

I mentioned earlier the excellent woman leader of the Conservative group on Devon county council, and Conservative-controlled East Devon council also has an excellent woman leader, but there is no doubt that there are not enough women in politics. I recently entertained two Members of the Youth Parliament, both of whom were girls from Exmouth, and they were pretty unimpressed by what they saw here. They thought that we had very little relevance to their everyday lives, particularly, I suspect, because there were very few women role models on whom they could base their ambitions.

I am against all-women shortlists. I recognise that we have a problem in our society and that we must address it. I know that we will address it, and I welcome that. However, there are ways of achieving that other than all-women shortlists. I very much hope to welcome, after the next general election, at least another 150 female Conservative colleagues.

5.54 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I am pleased to contribute to our debate; I am glad that it has been restored after a lapse of a few years. It is important to celebrate women's hard work in countries all over the world; international women's day provides an opportunity to do so, and I am pleased that we are having a debate on women and equality.

The Government have made considerable improvements in the position of women. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women listed many achievements, including the minimum wage, the record rise in child benefit, the extension of maternity leave and the introduction of parental leave. The Government have put the work-life balance on the political agenda for the first time and given it tremendous prominence in their planning; I applaud their achievement. I am particularly glad that they have promoted and encouraged breastfeeding, as it has known health benefits for women and babies, both here and in other countries, where many babies die because they are not breast-fed.

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We have made progress in the House and the country at large in recognising the importance of breastfeeding, but there is still a long way to go before it becomes culturally acceptable, both here and among the wider public, and people are open and relaxed about it. That is essential if we are to encourage young women to breastfeed and not discriminate against working women who breastfeed, as European Union and health and safety regulations recommend. I hope that we can have a fuller debate on the subject in future.

My right hon. Friend referred to the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, the success of which we are all celebrating today. I am sure that it will mean that eventually, on the Labour Benches, there will be equal numbers of men and women MPs. As hon. Members know, the Act is permissive, so it is up to political parties to use the power that it provides. In an intervention, I said that at the Welsh Labour party conference at Llandudno next week, we will vote on whether to introduce all-women shortlists for a number of vacant seats in next year's elections to the Welsh Assembly. My right hon. Friend confirmed that that will be the first action taken by a political party under the Act. I look forward to the conference, where I shall strongly support the motion to introduce all-women shortlists; I am hopeful of its success.

The Assembly has already got a high number of women; 41 per cent. of its Members are women, which is the second highest percentage in European legislatures. It is important to maintain those numbers and the mechanism of all-women shortlists, if approved by the conference, will enable us to do so. I shall therefore support the motion, and the Government should be congratulated on enabling it to be introduced.

It is easy to establish new arrangements in new institutions; when the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were set up, it was easy to introduce good practices such as twinning mechanisms. Those mechanisms are much more difficult to introduce in an establishment such as the Westminster Parliament, which has been in existence for a long time. The Government of Wales Act 1998 includes a section on equal opportunities, which places a statutory duty on the Welsh Assembly to

I should like to pay tribute again to the hard work of Val Feld, an Assembly Member who died last year; she made an enormous effort to ensure, when director of the Equal Opportunities Commission for Wales, that such a section was in the Act.

In the United Kingdom, that clause has a unique scope, covering all the Assembly's functions, including economic development, planning, education and social services. It also applies to everybody in Wales for whom the Assembly provides a service. It is a very important clause. The Assembly's Standing Committee on Equality of Opportunity was set up to ensure that that duty is adhered to. It publishes a report each year, which also deals with how the Assembly runs its business in relation to equal opportunities.

I call on the Government to consider introducing a statutory equality duty. That would help focus our attention on improving equal opportunities in the services that we as a Government provide. We should also create

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an equal opportunities Select Committee, which could monitor the work of the different Departments and press for the advancement of equal opportunities issues in the House. The section in the Government of Wales Act to which I referred is unique, and we would benefit by extending such a duty to this House.

It is probably easier for a body such as the Assembly—it is responsible for only 3 million people and has only 60 Members—to work in the cross-cutting way in which one must work to achieve equal opportunities. It is worth putting on the record some of the things that the Assembly has already achieved. It has introduced mandatory equal opportunities training for all its 3,500 staff, which is a big step forward. As a councillor, I found it extremely difficult to introduce such training for all council staff.

As a result of changes in recruitment practice, internal civil service recruitment will be replaced by open public recruitment for advertised posts. Independent research into the Assembly's achievements in its fairly short life has acknowledged the fact that modest progress has been made. Such progress has been attributed to the statutory duty that informs everything that the Assembly does. I ask the Minister to comment on whether such a statutory duty could be introduced in Westminster, along with an equal opportunities Select Committee.

I want to refer briefly to the pay gap, which has been discussed at length today. The Assembly is trying to tackle the pay gap, together with the Equal Opportunities Commission and the TUC. I worked closely with those organisations on equal opportunity in Wales, and I pay tribute to them. In November last year, the EOC commissioned the first in-depth study of the pay gap in Wales. The study, which was carried out by Swansea university, showed that women's hourly earnings in Wales are 13 per cent. lower than men's. The gap is smaller than the corresponding difference in England because men's pay is lower in Wales.

For part-time workers, the situation in Wales is even worse, although the same can be said of other regions. The difference in average hourly pay between a woman working part-time and a man working full-time is 36 per cent., although the figure does vary across Wales. There are many reasons for that difference, and many proposals could be introduced to improve the situation, particularly in relation to child care. We in Wales have made considerable progress on child care. Many more places are available, but we need to consider the expense. Research has shown that those extra places are perhaps not accessible to families who are less well-off.

We must also consider working with organisations to persuade them to examine their practices and the pay gap. Public organisations in particular should review their pay systems, and in that regard the Assembly has taken a lead. It has reviewed its pay systems and established a three-year plan for closing the pay gap. In taking the lead in Wales, it is encouraging other organisations to do the same.

In Wales, enormous progress has been made and distinct and measurable improvements achieved. There is a long way to go, but with this Government working in collaboration with the Assembly in Wales, we will continue to make tremendous progress and give women their rightful place in society.

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6.5 pm

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