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Minister for Women and Equality

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 6 July 2006

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Medical Professions

19. What steps the Government are taking to increase the representation of women in senior positions in the medical professions; and if she will make a statement. (82786)

There are more women working in the medical work force and in undergraduate medicine than ever before. The proportion of female consultants has increased steadily to 26 per cent. from 19 per cent. in 1995. We have a range of schemes in place to encourage women to enter and progress in medicine, including the flexible career scheme.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that reply. I am sure that she shares my pleasure at seeing so many undergraduates coming in, particularly at the Hull York medical school, where a huge proportion—more than 50 per cent.—are women. However, does she share my concern that both in hospital medicine and general practice, many women are choosing to go part- time for the very good reason of wanting to bring up a good family? That effectively means that we almost have to train two lady doctors for each position. The implications for senior positions in hospital medicine are alarming, particularly when the Government have removed the post of senior house officer. What does the Minister see as the way forward in encouraging more women to remain in full-time positions in order to gain the necessary experience to become senior hospital practitioners?

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, but I remind her not only that the numbers of young women training in medical schools are increasing, but that the representation of women in senior positions has steadily improved at all levels and in practically all specialties over the last 10 years. I believe, as do the Government, that it is important to offer real choice to men and women to balance their work and family life. If we can facilitate flexible working, we should do so, and the same applies to flexible training. A year ago, the junior medical committee of the British Medical Association reached an agreement with the Government and other relevant parties on the introduction of a flexible training scheme that would allow the accreditation of flexible training. I believe that that is the right way forward rather than somehow artificially encouraging people to work full time when they would otherwise choose not to do so.

My grandmother was a GP in the Gorbals from the 1940s through to the 1960s—quite early on in respect of women practitioners in this country. There were not too many women GPs then and there are many more now, as my right hon. Friend said. Many women want a greater degree of flexibility in their career than the GP system allows for. Sometimes they are helped through the system by having more salaried GPs. Would my right hon. Friend talk further with her colleagues in Wales about the possibility of developing more salaried GP positions that would be available to women?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point and I will certainly take up his suggestion of having further discussions with colleagues in Wales. It is important to offer flexible careers both in hospital medicine and for GPs. The flexible career initiative was first introduced for hospital medicine, but has since been extended to GPs, who are beginning to find it easier to combine work as a GP with different family responsibilities. That particularly helps women.

Will the Minister promise the House that in her desire to see more women in senior positions in the medical profession, she will not go down the politically correct route of having quotas, targets and positive discrimination? Will she always hold to the fact that jobs should be given on merit, irrespective of people’s gender?

Of course jobs should be given on merit, but if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the majority of female undergraduates who are currently training in medical school should not have the opportunity to have their careers progress at the same rate as men’s, I believe that he is mistaken.

Domestic Abuse

The national domestic violence delivery report outlines a series of initiatives, including the specialist domestic violence court programme, and training packages for independent domestic violence advisers and prosecutors and the police. We also part-fund the national 24-hour freephone helpline to provide information, support and advice.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Unfortunately, in Swansea in 2005-06 there were 3,266 reported incidents of domestic abuse. She may be aware that the city has been invited to express an interest in having a domestic violence court, and I and a number of local agencies support that proposal. Despite that, will she continue to ensure that women who suffer domestic abuse get the assistance, guidance and support that they need and deserve?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She makes the very important point that victims of domestic violence are being properly supported, and she will no doubt be pleased to know that Swansea magistrates court was one of several in Wales visited this week by the national domestic violence group, which is considering its suitability for selection as a specialist court. I wish her well when the successful bids are announced later this year. I am also aware that Swansea police have been recognised for the great deal of innovative work that they do to support victims of domestic abuse. For example, they are targeting perpetrators through the “spotlight on suspects” campaign. That work, together with the Welsh Assembly’s efforts, is making a real difference to victims of domestic abuse, and it is important that it continues.

In my excellent local women’s refuge, which I happen to be visiting tomorrow, there are women who are fleeing domestic violence, often with young children. What can the Minister do, through discussions with her Cabinet colleagues, to ensure that the perpetrator of such violence is removed from the family home, rather than the mother and children?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight that issue, which we are dealing with through our legislative proposals. But it is also important, as I am sure that she will agree, that we invest in domestic refuges, so that those women who want to leave immediately are able to do so. That is why we have invested more than £30 million over three years in new refuge provision, and in the refurbishment of refuges created through existing schemes.

While I welcome the substantial efforts that have been made to protect the victims of domestic violence—advisers, specialist courts and so on—I am concerned that we are not doing enough to prevent such tragedies, which lead to the deaths of two women every week. Does the Minister have any ideas that she can discuss with colleagues, such as working with young people, potential perpetrators and women who might be victims to reduce the likely future incidence of domestic violence, rather than merely helping victims after such incidents have occurred?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I know that the Minister for Women and Equality has been working with colleagues across Government Departments—including in the Department for Education and Skills, for example—to look specifically at the needs of young people and how we can improve education about, and understanding of, these very important issues. It is right that we not only focus on the victims of domestic abuse—important as that is—but that we try at the early stages to prevent domestic abuse from happening in the first place.

Women in Public Life

21. What assessment she has made of the level of representation of women in public life; and if she will make a statement. (82788)

Women are well represented at local level, holding 43 per cent. of appointments to NHS trusts, 49.4 per cent. of magistrates’ appointments and 54 per cent. of school governors’ appointments. Women currently hold 35 per cent. of public appointments overall—an increase from the figure of 32 per cent. in 1997. I look forward to working with Janet Gaymer, the new commissioner for public appointments, to make further progress on this issue.

In this, the week of the Local Government Association conference, does the Minister share my concern at the fact that just 27 per cent. of Conservative councillors, 29 per cent. of Labour councillors and 32 per cent. of Liberal Democrat councillors in the UK are women, with far fewer in some areas, such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? If so, what steps is she taking—and what steps would she encourage others to take—to address this imbalance and to encourage more women into local government?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 to allow political parties to make their own arrangements to encourage more women to stand in local and national elections. Our focus is on all-women shortlists, which we are using in some local elections, and I would be delighted if other parties joined us in that regard. I know that the hon. Lady’s party is struggling to get such a proposal through, and that the Leader of the Opposition is also struggling. In fact, the number of women selected since the introduction of his A-list has gone down, not up.

Last year’s intake of new Labour MPs was historic in that, for the first time, it included more women than men. Most of those women were selected from all-women shortlists. Unfortunately, our sisters in Opposition parties have not fared quite so well—[Hon. Members: “Sisters?] Yes, sisters. What policy does my hon. Friend think would be most helpful in encouraging more women to come forward for election to this place? Would it be all-women shortlists or the employment of bikini-clad women to serve drinks at a £400-a-head summer ball?

The evidence is clear: it is only the Labour party that is making real strides on this issue. We are doing that through all-women shortlists—[Interruption.] I know that the Opposition are not very happy about that, but they are all talk and no action.

The Minister and the Liberal Democrats really must not worry about those of us on the Conservative Benches because in a very short time we will fill the Government side with many Conservative women—[Interruption.] That seems to have produced a reaction.

What guidelines have the Government laid down for the contracts of employment of women in public positions to allow flexible working conditions for high-achieving women, so that those at the very top of their professions, whatever they might be, will have the opportunity to work flexibly and therefore to fulfil their family and caring duties, as well as having the chance to break through the glass ceiling?

My tennis partner calls me sister. The hon. Lady talks a good talk, but she promised before the last election that there would be many more Conservative women MPs. That did not happen because they did not get selected in safe seats. As I said, the proportion being selected for safe seats has fallen since the introduction of the A-list. I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that the proportion of women in the more senior grades in the civil service has continued to increase. On 4 April 2007, it had increased to 34.8 per cent. from 32.7 per cent. Individual Departments are introducing work-life balance champions who can ensure that staff have the opportunity to work flexibly up to the highest levels. We certainly want to see that happen in more Departments.

Does the Minister agree that child care facilities are key for any women who wish to put themselves forward for all aspects of public life and work generally? What message are we sending to women when, in the 21st century, the Westminster estate still lacks a crèche and other appropriate child care facilities for hon. Members and our staff?

The hon. Lady will know that the Government have given a high priority to child care and have invested in much more provision. It is a matter for discussion whether child care provision is most appropriate at a person’s place of work or near their home. That is a real issue for both women and men. I do not oppose considering the issue that the hon. Lady raises and that is something for the House authorities to do, as much for the employees here who have to work the same unsocial hours as we do, as for the Members of Parliament.