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Minister For Women

Volume 401: debated on Thursday 20 March 2003

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The Minister was asked

Entrepreneurship

20.

What measures she is taking to encourage more women to become business entrepreneurs. [103900]

A national strategic framework for business support for women's enterprise is in the final stages of development by the Small Business Service, in conjunction with Prowess—the nationwide network of women entrepreneurs—and a cross-government policy group. This strategy will enable us to support far more women in moving into self-employment and setting up their own businesses.

Is the Minister aware of studies that have taken place in the United States that show that black women, especially, make excellent entrepreneurs when sufficient support is given? Does she believe that the issue could be considered in that context in this country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unfortunately, we are not doing nearly as well as other countries, including the United States, at encouraging women, including black women, into business start-ups. If women in the United Kingdom were starting up businesses at the same rate as men are, we would have about 100,000 more businesses in the United Kingdom every year. That is why we are giving such priority to this issue, and ensuring—both through Prowess and the work of the phoenix fund—that we support women from all our different communities who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

What is the Minister doing to encourage women to become sub—postmistresses? Have the Government implemented recommendation 18 of the performance and innovation unit report that was mentioned earlier? It states:

"The Post Office should develop a role for post offices as Government General Practitioners."
At a time when Haylands, Horsebridge Hill and Parkhurst post offices in my constituency are under threat of closure, the Government appear to have nothing to say on this matter—

Does the Minister recognise that women entrepreneurs have been greatly assisted by the innovation that was a key feature of the existing European structural funds, which has helped women in Merseyside and the north-west by supporting investment funds and training, and by giving encouragement to women to become involved in business? Will she ensure that, in any changes to structural funds, the innovation that allowed women to be supported in this way will be continued?

When I was in Merseyside just last week, I saw an example of precisely that kind of entrepreneurial spirit at Blackburn House—in this case, a social enterprise created and led by women for women. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the consultation document that the Chancellor and I recently published on the future of the structural funds and regional policy sets out a sensible way forward to ensure that the work already being done under the structural funds and under the regional development agencies will continue, following enlargement, in what we believe will be an even more effective and efficient way.

Domestic Violence

21.

What recent measures she has taken to help women victims of domestic violence. [103901]

The Government are currently consulting with a view to legislating to tackle domestic violence. We are funding refuges, and we have funded a new helpline for women fleeing violence. My Department is developing initiatives to raise awareness, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General is working with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to ensure that the police and prosecution services work far more effectively together to deal with the problem.

I should declare a non-pecuniary interest as director of the east Kent refuge.

The domestic violence statistics are staggering. Crimes of domestic violence constitute a quarter of all violent crimes, are responsible for the deaths of 50 per cent. of female murder victims, and continue to claim two lives each week. Is it not time help was given at grass-roots level—to, for instance, the voluntary refuge support groups that must still rely on jumble sales and voluntary exercises for their funds?

I agree that far more needs to be done, especially at local level, to support not just women but children fleeing domestic violence, and to deal with this appalling violent crime. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently announced an additional investment of £14 million to tackle the problem—in particular, through the local crime and disorder reduction partnerships—and my hon. Friend the deputy Minister for Women recently announced an additional £9 million to help women and their children who are fleeing domestic violence.

Following the publication of the Womenspeak survey initiated by the Minister, which found that 70 per cent. of women had experienced problems with the Benefits Agency, what discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that women who refuse to give the names of violent partners are not regarded as fraudsters? [Interruption.]

I am sorry to note that Opposition Members appear to have no interest in this rather important subject.

I agree that more needs to be done to deal with the Benefits Agency problem. My hon. Friend the deputy Minister for Women is taking it up with the Department for Work and Pensions.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the work of the women's safety unit in Cardiff, a unique multidisciplinary project which has, during its short life, had a considerable impact in reducing the amount of domestic violence in the city? Will she join me in congratulating the unit on obtaining long-term funding from the Home Office and the Welsh Assembly to continue its good work? [Interruption.]

Order. Mr. Gummer, there is far too much in the way of loud prolonged conversation. This is an important matter.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I readily congratulate the women's safety unit in Cardiff, which provides an excellent example of what happens when all the agencies in the voluntary sector work together to ensure that women and children are given the support that they need.

The Minister just said that the Government had funded a new helpline, and indeed the Government held a press launch in December last year. But the line will not be up and running until the autumn, with £1 million of Government money and £1 million from Comic Relief. Why was it launched nearly a year before it will become operational, thus raising expectations and making life for the two main charities who will run it—Women's Aid and Refuge—even more difficult?

As the hon. Lady would expect, we agreed with all our partners in the helpline that it was desirable to announce what was being done, so that we would receive the maximum support for this excellent initiative.

22.

If she will make a statement on the forthcoming Green Paper on domestic violence. [103902]

The Home Office will shortly publish a consultation paper setting out proposals to strengthen the law against domestic violence. Those proposals will cover three broad areas, ensuring the safety of domestic violence victims, bringing offenders to justice and strengthening confidence in the criminal justice system.

Does the Minister agree that it is shocking that even now two children a week die from domestic violence? When domestic violence takes place, children are usually in the vicinity. What will the Green Paper do to increase protection for children, and will it address the problem of low levels of supervision in child contact centres?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Ministers and local authorities are considering how to strengthen protection for children in contact centres and situations in which access is disputed. I stress that the Bill on which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will consult will be the first dedicated to the issue of domestic violence since 1976, when Jo Richardson—whom many, at least on the Labour Benches, will remember with deep affection—introduced the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976.

Is my right hon. Friend alarmed to discover from recent surveys that many young men say that if their girlfriends step out of line, it is all right to give them a slap? Does that not mean that we should invest much more in what seems to be an in-bred cultural problem and not just the result of strains and stresses within the family?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Domestic violence is fundamentally about cultural attitudes and power relationships between men and women. The Department for Education and Skills is considering what can be done in schools and the education system to tackle the problem of appalling attitudes towards violence against women that are evidenced among too many young men today.