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Women, Justice and Gender Equality

Volume 457: debated on Thursday 8 March 2007

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

I am very proud to be here today with colleagues, male and female, from all parties to open the debate on women, justice and gender equality in the United Kingdom and to celebrate international women’s day 2007. The first international women’s day was observed in 1909 in the United States: it is nearly 100 years old, so we must have a big do in a couple of years’ time. I cannot find any trace in the modern era of international women’s day debates in this, the mother of Parliaments, until 1997, but now we have them. On this day, women all over the world reflect on the role that they play in the world, and they come together—actually, virtually or simply in spirit—to rediscover their aspirations. From Alaska to Zanzibar and from Rotaruha to Redcar, women celebrate a sort of female new year’s day, the resolution being that they will work together again for another year with yet more energy and in solidarity towards an equal future.

I welcome our male colleagues from all parties. I mentioned this event to a male this morning and I told him that I expected some men to be here. He said over breakfast that that was surprising and I told him that it seemed likely to me that, by 2020, women would rule the world. He said to me, “What, still?” I told him that the only difference that I could see between him—a man—and a battery was that batteries usually have a positive side. Those are, of course, reversible jokes and so they are gender neutral.

Does the Minister believe that it is time for a lady to be Deputy Prime Minister of, perhaps not the world, but certainly the United Kingdom?

A lady? I support gender-balanced leadership.

Gender equality should have a good year in the UK in 2007. In October, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights will come on stream. Historically, a lot of our effort in Britain in trying to make things fairer has been geared towards stopping discrimination. We saw, and wanted to stop, race discrimination, gender discrimination and disability discrimination. Later, we realised that age, sexual orientation and religion could make people equally vulnerable to being victimised. Soon, the disadvantages faced by other groups, such as carers, may present those people as in need of fair protection. However, it is difficult to change a whole culture to a culture of equalities with tools that are intended for blocking piecemeal acts of discrimination. Court cases require the coincidence of a person who is wronged also being a person who has the stamina and perhaps the cash to see a case through. The result may be an arcane precedent of which not a lot of shop-floor people see the relevance. More recently, we have moved the law towards promoting equality. Promoting equality will be a major task for the new commission.

Does my hon. and learned Friend—the Minister for Women and Equality is sitting on her left on the Front Bench—share my concern about the appointments that have been made so far to the new commission? There appears to be no ethnic minority woman sitting on that commission, apart from the transition commissioner, who is currently the acting head of the Commission for Racial Equality. There are four more vacancies. Does she hope, as I do, that some of the people who fill those vacancies will be ethnic minority women?

I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. There is another round of recruitment going on at the moment and I hope that we can do as he suggests.

The new commission is buttressed by the introduction of positive duties on public authorities to promote—currently—gender, race and disability rights. I was a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and we helped to get the human rights element put into the commission. The human rights approach deepens the concept of equality to that of equal respect for the dignity of any individual, whoever they are, by setting minimum standards to which all individuals are entitled. The discrimination law review, led by the Department for Communities and Local Government, is looking at simplification and modernisation of the whole of discrimination law. We intend to consult shortly, ahead of a single equality Bill.

We need these measures. Women need these measures. We have made great progress, but our gains are partial and slow-growing. Let us take Parliament: there have been 100 women MPs for 10 years now, the total having shot up thanks to the decisions Labour took about all-women shortlists in the 1990s. However, at the current rate of progress, it will not be my daughter, or my granddaughter, or my great-granddaughter, but my great-great-great-great-granddaughter—at the earliest—who may see a House of Commons with equal numbers of men and women. That is to say, in royal succession terms, it will happen during the reign not of the Queen—or Helen Mirren—Prince Charles, or Prince William, but of Prince William’s children’s children, who will presumably be called something like George IX, Charles VI, or William VII and who might see that equality in their Parliaments. At about the same time, at current rates of progress, there will be equal pay for women.

The hon. and learned Lady will be aware that, last night, the Commons voted for an elected House of Lords. Would she like her Government to ensure that 50 per cent. of those elected are women?

In terms of advancing women, we have a lot to tell the Tories, and they have not got a lot to tell us. We are going to think these proposals through carefully and I know that they are going to be helpful.

My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that the only democracy in the world that has 50 per cent. representation of women is the Welsh Assembly. We led the way in the Welsh Assembly to have a 50:50 House. Is that not the future that we should all be working towards?

I want to stress the point that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) has illustrated, a new legislature offers the opportunity to come forward with a process of selecting—as opposed to electing—candidates on a gender-balanced basis. All women in the House should press for that in the reform of the upper House.

Order. I appreciate that the Minister might not want to reply at length to the intervention, but it is customary to say a little something, for the simple reason that, otherwise, technically we have an intervention on an intervention. It is nice to have something in between.

Let me offer my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) the titbit that I agree with her 100 per cent. I must curb my over-politeness.

I hope that the hon. and learned Lady understands why I hesitated momentarily just now.

The 10-year strategy entitled “Choice for parents”, which addresses the important subject of child care, had pledged, in a sense, a renewed focus on the availability of child care. In that context, are Ministers at the hon. and learned Lady’s Department talking to Ministers in other Departments about the rigidities of the planning process? One of the consequences of those rigidities is that there is often an insufficient supply at local level. That is damaging. The nimbys win and the interests of mothers and children lose. That has to change.

It seems inevitable that consideration for child care must be built in. There is a planning White Paper to come out soon. It does not directly concern my Department, but, in principle, I am 100 per cent. with the hon. Gentleman.

In relation to the intervention that the Minister responded to about gender balance in the political field, will she undertake to discuss with Stockholm city council how it achieved its 50 per cent. gender balance without any discriminatory means at all? The status of women in Sweden is equal to that of men in the field of employment and in all other areas of society.

I am glad that the Tory party visits Stockholm whenever it thinks that it needs to learn—and it does need to learn. We have done what we have done and we will carry on ensuring that women grow in their power and influence.

I am pleased that, under the gender equality duty, public bodies will address the causes of the gender pay gap. That is part of what they have to do. It is right that they should take proactive steps in their roles as employers and service providers positively to promote equality of opportunity, rather than just taking steps to prevent discrimination. When Trevor Phillips launched “Fairness and Freedom”, the equalities review, the headlines were that, notwithstanding the biggest package of rights ever for working mothers—let us imagine what it was like in the Tory days, when there was not any of that—with extended and better-paid maternity leave, new paternity rights, the right to request flexible working to help parents balance their family responsibilities with work, child care provision and child care support, the most discriminated against people in the workplace were still working mothers. That was not a surprise to any of us.

We are about to do a women and work commission one-year-on programme for progress. Privately, it seems to me that all jobs should be available on a part-time basis unless it is impossible. The low status of part-time work, which many mothers in my constituency will choose to do for some part of their lives, will always result in discrimination while it is seen as a subsidiary way of working. It is seen as an employment B road travelled by people—we call them women—who are deemed to have no ambition, no interest in a career, and few training needs. The common view is that their pay need only be low, as it is a second wage to top up the earnings of the standard two-child family, to take them from Asda clothes and pale ale to Benetton and Beaujolais. Part-time work is viewed not as necessary, but as extra. That treatment of, and attitude towards, part-timers is still firmly in place in work situations, and it alone almost justifies a separate strand of positive duty.

What is the Minister doing to help women who have taken a career break to look after children at home, and are looking to return to work? What sort of support and training are the Government giving those women?

Perhaps the hon. Lady missed it—if so, I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, who will sum up, will tell her more about it—but there is a whole strategy to support women through career breaks. This debate is about justice; that is what my Department is concerned with, and we are committed to promoting equality. We must publish a gender equality strategy by the end of April. We already have race and disability strategies, but the Department for Constitutional Affairs intends to go further and produce an overall equality strategy as soon as we can to promote equality in the Department holistically.

Does my hon. and learned Friend think that it advances the cause of women if lone parents who take a positive decision to stay at home and look after their children of ages 11 or 12 face sanctions? Would it not be much better to pursue a voluntary approach that gives women opportunities to enter the workplace, if that is what they choose to do?

I sympathise with my hon. Friend, but it is bad for children to be brought up in workless households. When I had just entered Parliament, I was lucky enough to do a short internship with one-parent families, and it is clear that in most one-parent families the parent wants to go out to work.

Let me come back to the subject of my Department for what will no doubt be a pretty brief interlude. The DCA has a good foundation of supportive networks to help staff achieve their potential, including the DCA’s women’s issues network, which I have just had the terrific pleasure of addressing. Strong staff foundations are important, and we have them, so we can now look outwards and ensure that our services are delivered fairly.

To turn to the justice system, we are making progress in the number of women appointed to judicial office. Year on year, the statistics show that the figures are going up. In 1999, women represented only 24 per cent. of judicial appointments to courts and tribunals. I am pleased to say that figures published by the Department today show that overall, by 2005-06, the figures for the appointment of women had increased to 41 per cent. That is a result of initiatives to encourage greater flexibility and ensure that a wider range of candidates apply. Those initiatives have included a career break scheme for salaried judiciary at below High Court level, and the extension of part-time working to the majority of salaried members of the judiciary.

Interestingly, there is a tradition of part-time working in the courts. Practitioners, from deputy district judges at the bottom of the system to recorders and deputy High Court judges, sit for days or weeks, while continuing to practise the rest of the time. As court lawyers earn reasonable pay, the rates for such part-timers have had to be good to attract people to do work that is in the public interest, instead of otherwise more profitable work. It is ironic that, contrary to its reputation for conservatism, the judiciary might help my Department to lead on, and demonstrate success in, promoting flexible working patterns. My guess is that some of the new women judges are at the junior end of the judiciary, but that might be apt for younger women anyway. There is increasingly a career structure within the judiciary, in which people are promoted from district judge to circuit judge, and from circuit judge to High Court judge. It is important to get women into that career structure, to kindle their ambition for promotion, and to provide flexibility in movement up the chain.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady, who has been generous in giving way. She predicted that the interlude in which she could focus on matters that were exclusively her responsibility might be brief, and I fear that it has been. Given that the gender pay gap among part-time employees is sharply higher in the public sector than in the private sector, does she agree that it is important that the introduction of the new public sector duty is focused on the achievement of an outcome, namely the narrowing and eventual removal of that gap within a relatively short time frame? Can she offer us some information about when that will be achieved?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, who will wind up the debate, is better placed to talk about the time frame, but the hon. Gentleman perceives the issue correctly. An interesting question—again, this is my own private view—is what impact the public gender duty will have on the procurement systems of public authorities.

In April 2006, the independent judicial appointment commission was launched, and it is now responsible for the selection of candidates for judicial appointments in England and Wales. The commission has a statutory duty to encourage a wider range of applicants for judicial office, while maintaining the principle that selection for appointment is on merit. Justice is key in a thriving society and it is important that the public have confidence in our justice system.

How are women treated by our justice system? It seems that women have sometimes been disadvantaged by it. We have looked to improve the experiences of women and vulnerable people in many ways, and we are slowly but surely starting to succeed. There are some cheering figures, which I shall relay in a moment. The greatest victories have had to do with domestic violence, and let me make it clear once, and only once in this essentially non-party political debate, that that is down to Labour. It is down to the impact of 100 Labour women coming into the House. In the 30 years after Jo Richardson’s private Member’s Bill was taken on by the Labour Government of the day, there was no mention of the words “domestic violence” under the superintendence of the Opposition.

Jo Richardson’s Bill was to provide a private law remedy for domestic violence, but now we prosecute it as a crime, and we do so in specialist courts. There are domestic violence advisers and specialist domestic violence courts that aim to make victims and witnesses feel safe and well informed. They drive the case for women who, if they did not have independent advisers supporting them, would feel far too undermined by what they had gone through at the hands of the perpetrator to drive the case themselves. From April 2007 there will be 64 specialist domestic violence courts across England and Wales. Some £1.85 million in funding has been allocated for next year to fund access to training for independent domestic violence advisers who support victims throughout their case.

The IDVAs—it is an unhappy acronym—are key. They provide the support and help that the woman needs. They work virtually hand in hand with her, and help from the time that the complaint is made. The adviser will drive the case and help with benefits changes, the need for a new home, the need to move a child to a different school, child care and so on. She will have her fingers in public authority pies, and that will help her to provide those services for women who are otherwise totally on their own. IDVAs come from the voluntary sector, are independent and can be trusted.

Specialist domestic violence courts, with which IDVAs are linked, provide specialised personnel—prosecutors, officers and magistrates—who have been trained out of the still all-too-prevalent notions about domestic violence. They identify, fast-track and risk-assess domestic violence cases. They group them together, enhance information sharing and provide support.

I said that I would give some cheering figures. Successful prosecutions for domestic violence cases have gone up from 46 to 65.4 per cent. between 2003 and 2006, by which time the specialist courts were on stream. Guilty pleas have increased from 45 to 58 per cent. In domestic violence specialist courts, 71 per cent. of cases have successful outcomes. It is good to add that domestic violence itself seems to have gone down by 60 per cent. in less than 10 years. It remains an appalling statistic that two women a week are killed by their violent partners, but the figure used to be getting on for three, so we are making some progress, albeit incrementally.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), yesterday provided a written answer to a question of mine on domestic violence. I asked him to look into the number of offender programmes; it is important that the probation service gets involved in the area under discussion. My hon. Friend said that there is a national target for the number of offenders being coped with of 1,200, but there is very high demand for the service. Is there not a great need to deal with domestic abuse offenders by ensuring that there is an appropriate programme, because the only way that we can ensure that there is any family co-operation is if it is certain that the offender will serve on such a programme? Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that we need to do more in this area?

I agree. Effective perpetrator programmes can play a role after conviction. They can also play a role before a case ever goes to court. I think that there are now two—and certainly at least one and a half—perpetrator schemes in my constituency. They are aimed at perpetrators—whose partners might have gone to Women’s Aid for help—who indicate a willingness to try to resolve the matter and to try to remedy their ways before things get out of hand. That is a very good model, but there clearly must also be courses available for when people have gone too far and have been imprisoned.

Last September I spent a day with the domestic violence support unit at Wakefield police. It has doubled its arrest rate in a period of about six months, and it has a fantastic domestic violence support co-ordinator. Also, my hon. and learned Friend mentioned independent advisers playing a role, and that was being done in a voluntary capacity by a domestic violence survivor who had been almost killed by her husband on the day that she announced that she was finally going to leave him after 20 years of abuse.

However, in Wakefield the courts have steadfastly resisted introducing a domestic violence court and have organised the court system so that each specific solicitor department has a morning or an afternoon instead of the domestic violence cases being grouped together. I ask my hon. and learned Friend to look carefully into that situation in Wakefield, where we have been pushing for a specialist court for the best part of two years.

First, let me compliment my hon. Friend on her work in the domestic violence arena by serving on the Joint Committee on Human Rights. She obviously also exhibits powerful local leadership and intervenes where that is necessary. If she would like to come to talk to me, we shall try to unblock the jam she describes. It is not right that courts should operate in that way; they should operate around the interests of the victim.

There are now multi-agency risk assessments—they have been operating since 2003—which are triggered by the independent domestic violence advisers. They engage the police, probation services, local authorities, health agencies, housing agencies and the refuges and women’s safety units, and they share information to reduce harm to very high risk victims and children. Audit shows that, 12 months later, four out of 10 former victims suffer no recurrence of domestic violence. They are repeat sufferers, many having suffered for years, they are at high risk, and the most dangerous time is when someone leaves. Therefore, the results are very promising. I am delighted that Redcar and Cleveland Women’s Aid has a trained IDVA. Ingrid Salomonsen, who runs that Women’s Aid, tells me that the multi-agency meetings make agencies sit up and take notice when they hear the reality of a survivor’s experience, and the protection put in place really works.

On increasing awareness, the Stockport Young Women’s Forum has produced a magazine called “Fe-mail” which gives some very useful advice and information, including for people to recognise when they are in an abusive relationship. Many young women consider domestic abuse to be simply physical abuse. They do not realise that they could be in a relationship in which somebody abuses them even though that abuse is not physical in nature. Does my hon. and learned Friend not agree that that initiative by young women in my constituency is excellent? Does she also agree that young women—who might read that magazine—are sometimes more likely to listen to what other young women are saying to them than to the authorities, and that therefore young women should be encouraged to take such steps and that this group is to be congratulated?

I could not agree more. That sounds like a terrific model that we should be trying to roll out. That contrasts positively with some statistics I recall from a couple of years ago, which showed that many 15 to 17-year-old women—even women—think that it is okay for a man to hurt a woman if he is angry, and that twice the number of men of that age thought that that was okay. Clearly, the kind of scheme that has been described must be encouraged; that is a very good story.

There are now independent sexual violence advisers—or ISVAs, which is an even more uncomfortable acronym. They are, of course, the consequence of a read-across from domestic violence to rape, and it is excellent that that work is finally being done. They help with the decision about whether to prosecute and support the individual if they decide to do so. Only about 15 per cent. of people who are raped report it, and there is a 5.2 per cent. conviction rate. Therefore, the conviction rate is minute compared with the incidence. We must do everything that we can in this area, because sexual violence is one of the most serious and personally traumatising and damaging of crimes, and it is a huge cause—and a consequence of—gender inequality. For victims, it can have significant and ongoing impact on their health and well-being.

My hon. and learned Friend is making a clear statement to the House that domestic violence is incredibly traumatising. I ask her to acknowledge that it is also traumatising for a woman to have to move out of her own home with a couple of carrier bags carrying all that she can hold and nothing else, and accompanied by her children who also have to carry what they can in carrier bags and leave so much behind them. When will be the appropriate time for us to request that the person who is perpetrating the violence moves out of the home and leaves the mother and the children there, as they are not only traumatised but dehumanised by the current process?

My hon. Friend is right. There are now sanctuary schemes for those who are able to withdraw within their own environment and lock themselves away from the violence. Also, domestic violence legislation will soon come into force, which will make a breach of an injunction, if the woman has gone to court and the man then returns or hits her again, automatically a crime, so there will be an immediate power of arrest for the police. That puts the responsibility on the public authority to intervene and rescue her. If the case goes to court, a restraining order can be added to the man’s sentence to prevent him from coming back, putting an end to the days when a woman might have the courage to go to court and might attain a conviction but when he has served his sentence—whatever that might be—there is no restraint on him returning and starting again unless she goes to the county court for another injunction. I hope that those measures will improve the situation.

Will my hon. and learned Friend agree to look at an initiative in Tasmania? At the first referral for domestic violence, the perpetrator is removed from the matrimonial home—or the home that they share with the person that they have abused—and they have to undertake a course of anger management. Tasmania has recognised the cycle of violence that is linked to the abuse of children and domestic abuse and which leads into criminality. What it is doing is dramatic and unique. Will my hon. and learned Friend take an interest in that experiment and see how it is progressing?

That resembles something I came across when I went to New Zealand. When there is a domestic violence complaint, the police have the ability to arrest the man and remove him for a fixed period of time—I do not remember for how many days. That is a cooling-off period while the future is better settled. Clearly it is right to remove the perpetrator rather than the victim.

The hon. and learned Lady referred to the low level of conviction for rape in our country, and I share her concern about that. Does she not share my concern about problems that many areas—such as mine in Hampshire—have in respect of levels of policing, which obviously is directly linked to the level of convictions? Recently, there has been an announcement that we in Hampshire will have 200 fewer neighbourhood policemen. Does the hon. and learned Lady not share my concern that that might not help in terms of addressing the problem of the low level of rape convictions?

I think the hon. Lady will find that Hampshire has very good domestic violence results, indicating a sympathetic attitude and a reasonable level of policing. There were 1,000 convictions in the past year in her Hampshire constituency, so perhaps she should visit her local domestic violence court and see what the levels of policing are producing under the new model.

May I bring the hon. and learned Lady back to her response to an earlier intervention about part of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 being brought into force? This is not a criticism, but I should be interested to know why it has taken so long to bring that part of the Act into force. Is there are a system in place for civil injunctions made as a result of a criminal offence to be notified to the local police, so that when someone asks for help, the police are aware that there is an injunction which gives them the power to act immediately to constrain the potential offence?

Yes. That is imperative. It happens now in some cases because injunctions are often backed by a power of arrest, so there is a system in place but it will need firming up before the measures come into force, in June, I think. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the use of restraint orders after conviction, but they have a further advantage even if there is no conviction. Many women are not very strong in the witness box, they do not really want to see the perpetrator sent to prison—he is probably the father of their children—they may not give high calibre evidence and they may be unsure what they want. If, although there is an acquittal, the court none the less has an apprehension that there is a danger from that individual, a restraining order can be imposed. That is a concrete step. In a secondary way, it encourages the police, who would bring the case to court, then find that the complainant was not too sure, and they would get nothing from it, so to speak. It is now their public responsibility. The restraining orders give them some pay-back for persevering, which I hope will encourage them.

We have extended the sexual assault referral centre model. There will be one on Teesside near my constituency soon. That is a very good arrangement between the police and the primary care trust. These SARCs give Rolls-Royce treatment. They believe the complainant from the start. They do not raise the question of her testimony. They treat her as a patient. We have also strengthened the specialist voluntary sector, which can provide longer-term therapeutic services for such victims. Prosecuting people for rape is important, but the recovery of the complainant is vital.

We have made a number of changes to the way that the criminal justice agencies deal with sexual offences. The definition of rape has changed, the terms in which previous sexual history can be admitted have been cut back, we use special measures such as video links, and the defence of Morgan, long a hate word on the lips of the women’s lobby, has disappeared, making the proceedings in rape cases much fairer. In the coming months we will produce a cross-Government action plan on how we intend to address all aspects of sexual violence.

It is clear that there is a strong link between domestic violence and sexual assault, and this year we are looking to merge these two important issues, bringing these two work streams closer together to provide a more strategic framework for addressing gender-based violence. Gender-based violence goes way beyond domestic violence. Forced marriages are also a form of violence, and the Government fully support the aims of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill. We wish to see provision along those lines on the statute book as soon as possible. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on the work that she has done, listening and leading in her constituency on that topic.

Honour killings also affect women disproportionately. Women whose actions, real or suspected, sometimes when they have been the victim of rape, can lead to a drive in their family, who have no socially acceptable alternative but to remove the stain on their honour by attacking the woman. We must tackle that forcefully too.

May I record, at the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), her apologies for not being able to join the debate today because she is attending a pressing constituency event? She is extremely appreciative of the notice that has been taken by the Government of the issues that she has raised repeatedly, and looks forward to the legislation.

I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s answer, not only as a Minister but as a lawyer, to a question about gender inequality. When a family breaks down and the question arises which parent will look after the children, every lawyer will say that the interests of the child are put first. That is right, but why is it that unless the father has a lot of money and can go to court and fight his corner, the courts overwhelmingly interpret the interests of the child as the child or children remaining mostly with the mother, not necessarily the father?

Of course, the best solution is for the parents to agree. The next best solution, if they cannot do so on their own, is mediation. We have a strong drive in that direction. Cases vary and attitudes to the phrase “the interests of the children” are diverse. Some think that it is in the interests of the children to be kept in close contact with a violent father. On other occasions, children are given to mothers when fathers would be all too ready to take them. Is it right that there may often be a preference for them to stay with the mother? I do not know.

Excluding violent fathers, which is a different issue, where the background of the parents is similar—that is, they both work, rather than one of them being at home the whole time, so it is a level playing field in that respect—why is it that if the parents cannot agree and the matter has to be determined by a court, the courts nearly always find in favour of the mother? The only way that that can be counteracted is if the father is extremely rich and is prepared to try and fight his corner in court. Most fathers cannot do that.

I do not know that that outcome is so obvious and necessarily follows as night follows day, as the hon. Gentleman describes it. What is considered is overwhelmingly the interests of the child. That is an individual case-by-case consideration by the judge. The existing pattern of care is always taken into account. The availability of the parent to cover the hours and the parent’s suitability is taken into account. It is obviously a complex balancing exercise that judges have to carry out.

I am sorry to intervene again on the hon. and learned Lady. She referred to the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill in the name of my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, which was so ably supported and largely instigated by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). I asked at business questions what form the Government’s assistance to the Bill would take. Will it have Government time? Will the Government take over the Bill and introduce it as a Government Bill, or does it run the risk of losing out in the normal scramble on private Members’ Bills, which means that whatever the Government’s good intentions, it will not reach the statute book?

We are considering exactly what to do and how appropriately to deal with the Bill. All that I can assure the hon. Gentleman is that there is the political will to see that it comes into force.

Human trafficking is another example of violence against women. We recently announced our intention to sign the convention against human trafficking, which will help us build on our current measures and create a framework for future rights. There is a sense that we are moving forward in that respect.

Half of all women who go to prison have suffered from physical abuse. A third have suffered from gender violence or sexual violence. There is such a fine line in these cases between a victim whose trauma throws her into chaos, and one who descends from chaos into crime. Statistically, women who go to prison are far more likely than men to lose their home and family. Seventy per cent. require detox, and 55 per cent. of the self-harming incidents in prison involve women, though women make up only 6 per cent. of the prison population. Seventy-six per cent. of women in custody are there for less than a year and are largely non-violent, yet the prison population of women increased 126 per cent. between 1995 and 2005, compared with 46 per cent. for men.

It is easy to see that they have been doubly wronged—we are slow in starting to intervene to support them out of their trauma, and when they flounder through that trauma and into crime, we send them to prison.

Is the Minister aware of the fact that more than two thirds of women who enter prison have two or more identifiable mental illnesses? They often go to prison before an assessment is made of their mental state, and putting them in prison often exacerbates their illness. Does the Minister agree that we should get the court system to sharpen up its act, so that more assessments are conducted on women’s mental state using the court diversion system before they are sent to prison, rather than letting them go into a situation that could not be more damaging?

The courts are, as the hon. Lady has put it, sharpening up their act, and arrangements are now in place. Historically, there have been situations in which in order to assess a woman’s mental state, she has been remanded in custody, which, as the hon. Lady has said, can be very damaging. Now there are schemes whereby local mental health trusts and courts work together with the intention that an assessment should be made as quickly as possible, hopefully without detention in the meantime.

By way of reinforcement to the point just made by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), may I mount one of my habitual hobby-horses and alert the Minister to the fact that a significant proportion of prisoners in this country, including female prisoners, suffer from a speech, language or communication disorder of one sort or another? I invite her to try to intensify pressure within the Government to ensure that in the future at prisons and young offender institutions an assessment is carried out as a matter of course of the condition of each individual prisoner as the precursor to providing speech, language and communication assistance. Without that, people cannot access education and training courses, which would otherwise be so beneficial to them.

The hon. Gentleman has made a powerful point, and I am happy to see him riding his hobby-horse in our direction again.

I was about to set out what we are doing to try to prevent women from entering prison, which includes some of the interventions that he has mentioned. Because women are acute examples of the problem, if we can start to get better schemes for women, where women go, men will follow very quickly, which is not an untypical pattern.

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister has briefly mentioned the problem of human trafficking. As part of the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into human trafficking, we met some of the women who are being looked after by the Poppy project in south London. We heard some devastating testimony from survivors of sexual slavery who had co-operated with the police and had been given some leave to remain but not indefinite leave to remain. Their enslavers have been sent to prison, but they will be out before this country settles the immigration status of those women. As soon as the enslavers are released from prison, they will return to their country of origin, where those women’s children still live. Such children will clearly face a high risk of future criminal action by those people. Will the Minister work with the immigration and nationality directorate and the Home Office to look at that urgent situation and to resolve it?

I must compliment the Poppy project, which has led the way in giving support and breathing space to trafficked women. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on pointing out how complex, knotty and interwoven the fates of the abuser and the abused are in such situations. We must move forward carefully but speedily towards a solution to that problem.

There is a Home Office scheme called the women’s offending reduction programme, which has functioned since March 2004. It is intended to improve community interventions and services for women, to support greater use of community sentences and to avoid the use of custody for women, where possible. The previous Home Secretary announced a programme called, “Together women” at the annual meeting of the Fawcett commission on women and criminal justice, which I chaired a year ago. We have invested £9 million in that project since 2005, and there are demonstration projects in four centres. Those one-stop centres allow key workers to support women who are offenders and women who are at risk of offending.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that children suffer disproportionately when women are sent to prison? When a mother is sent to prison, it is far less likely that the child will be able to remain in the family home or be cared for by a parent. In that context, will she look again at the changes introduced in the past year to release on temporary licence, which, while they have assured some consistency in access to release to see children when women are imprisoned and to maintain their contacts with their families, discretion for governors on the length of release on temporary licence and the frequency of its use has been reduced? Surely that is a detrimental step.

My hon. Friend raised that point at a recent private meeting. I do not know why that step has been taken, but I am sure that there is a rationale behind it. I will take up the matter with Home Office Ministers and come back to her. It is germane to mention that Baroness Corston, has been holding an inquiry into vulnerable women and, in particular, vulnerable women in prison, which will be reporting very soon. I expect her report to make recommendations for situations such as the one that my hon. Friend has raised.

I have discussed trying to get women to be sentenced in a different way, and I have talked about the thin line between being thrown into chaos and turning to crime. There must be a situation for intervention between the two, and my Department is working to increase the awareness of available advice and information, which can help people whose lives are becoming chaotic by providing early interventions to solve problems before they escalate, by helping with fair and proportionate dispute resolution and by delivering expeditious justice. When a person is not in the territory of the specific help provided by independent sexual violence advisers, can we none the less catch that person to stop their debt problems by giving them good early advice, to help them to hold on to their house and to prevent them from drifting into crime in order to ensure that they keep their children?

Our legal aid scheme plays a crucial role in that respect. Our current legal aid reform proposals have generated a good deal of debate, but what is lost in that debate far too often is that the whole point of carrying out the reform is to make sure that we can join other funders who can give non-legal advice, and thereby give easy access to our legal advice, so we can help as many vulnerable and socially excluded people as possible. We must do that by focusing legal aid away from criminal legal aid towards civil and family legal aid, and by making both systems as efficient as possible. That is what we are doing, and that is what we will do. Women, justice and gender equality in the UK is a complex subject. I have only just begun to address some specifics in this opening speech, but I hope that I have set out some of the work that we are doing to meet the needs of women in our society. I guess that all hon. Members who are here already understand that it will take a lot more. Let us celebrate ourselves, and let us celebrate the progress that we have made. Other women in the world are, like us, considering these topics on this important day. Let us resolve to commit yet more energy and to work in solidarity for yet another year towards a more equal world for women.

I warmly welcome the fact that we are having this debate. For a long time, we had to argue for the necessity for a debate on women’s issues and for marking international women’s day in this place. I am delighted that we are having a full and thorough debate today.

I do not entirely agree with the Minister that this is like new year’s day. It does not feel like it to me, because I have not been out partying all night and do not have a hangover. No jokes about being legless, please—I do have one leg that is working perfectly well. I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I am a little slow in some things, but I am working under the temporary disability of a broken leg, hence the crutches. However, it is a very good experience for a shadow spokesman on equality to discover, on a day-to-day basis, what it is like to navigate round one’s busy life with a disability. I am fortunate in that mine, I hope, will be overcome soon.

I welcome the fact that there are so many hon. Ladies on the Government Benches—but there is not one single hon. Gentleman. So much for gender equality in the Government. I am not suggesting for a moment that the hon. Ladies on the Government Front Bench, or indeed any other hon. Ladies, need any support from their male colleagues, but their absence is just so starkly obvious. I realise that perhaps they cannot see it from over there, but I can. It is remarkable that male Labour Members of Parliament think that a debate on gender equality and justice on international women’s day is nothing whatsoever to do with them. I like to be optimistic, so perhaps the explanation is that hon. Ladies on the Government Benches are so competent and have achieved so much—as I believe they have—that their male colleagues do not think it necessary to be here.

Be that as it may, I should like to welcome my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), for Buckingham (John Bercow), for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and indeed the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—oh, he has gone. At least he put in an appearance. [Interruption.] I am told that my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) is also here—I am sorry, but my ability to swing around is not terrific. I welcome them and my other hon. Friends, and thank Members in the House generally for their support for this debate.

I give way to the hon. Lady, but she will have to forgive me if it takes me a moment to sit down.

I will stand up slowly, too.

Is the hon. Lady placing so much emphasis on the presence of hon. Gentlemen on the Conservative Benches because it is not possible for the Conservatives to muster as many women Members as the 17 who are sitting on the Labour Benches at present?

The hon. Lady makes a perfectly good arithmetical point with which I cannot disagree, but we are making progress in a fair and equitable way. In any case, I have always said that quality is more important than quantity.

I rise in defence of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who was here earlier on. I would not wish the House to fail to recognise his presence or that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who was also here.

I accept what the hon. Lady says; perhaps I could not see them.

In reality, however, the fact that there are no male Labour Members here does not matter, because the issues that we are discussing today affect everyone in our society. When we discuss equality, it does not matter who is the spokesman putting forward the argument—what matters is the quality of the argument and what is done in this place.

One of the men whom the hon. Lady prayed in aid was popping in to talk to someone else and went out again immediately, and another was a Whip, who has to be present. Unlike the Tories, we have the great advantage of having women Whips.

Having been a woman Whip, I know the advantages only too well. Of course, the hon. and learned Lady is right, but I could not resist the very rare opportunity to make such a point. However, we are getting rather off the subject.

The Minister gave a wide-ranging and thorough speech on matters of great importance, very little of which I disagreed with. All of us, on both sides of the House, have worked together very well these past few years on issues of equality and fairness, and an awful lot has been achieved. However, very many women, in all walks of life, are still at a disadvantage in one way or another, and that is why it is important that we have a full and thorough debate today.

I realise that the motion is specifically about matters in the UK, as is correct, but I should note that the progress that we have made and the lives that we lead today as women in the western world bear no relation whatsoever to what women are having to suffer in many countries around the world. So much still has to be done for them, but that does not diminish what we still have to achieve in our own country.

I would argue that there is no such thing as a women’s issue. People who do not come to debates like this will sometimes say, “Oh, that’s just about women’s issues and I speak on transport,” or “I have an interest in defence,” or “I specifically deal with foreign affairs.” Every issue affects women and men, and women are affected by every issue. What there is, though, is a slightly different women’s point of view on many of the policy areas that we discuss from day to day. It is good that at last we can dare to say that women do things differently from men—not better or worse, or at least not always. I am not making a value judgment but stating a simple, stark, obvious point, which is rarely stated because it is too obvious or because it is disagreed with. Because women do things differently from men, we sometimes find ourselves in this place, and in many institutions around the country, seeing a way in which something could be changed and improved from the point of view of women, but finding that no one will listen because the argument will always be, “We’ve always done it like this—why change it?” Often, a small change would improve the lives and working conditions of many women. The Under-Secretary covered some of those issues today, as did other hon. Members in interventions. I shall not attempt to cover everything that we could discuss, not least because I cannot stand up for that long. I am sure that my colleagues are delighted to hear that.

I should like to welcome, as I have done on every occasion when we have discussed the matter, the great achievements of the Equality Act 2006 and the establishing of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. It is a great step forward that Conservative Members supported all the way. I look forward to further progress on the matter.

Would the hon. Lady like to comment on the fact that every single equality measure in this country has been introduced by a Labour Government?

No, I would not. We have had a Labour Government for the past 10 years. I have been a Member of Parliament for all that time and, when I have had a chance to speak in this place, I have always supported equality. The Government just happen to be Labour—I wish they were not—but the next Conservative Government will continue the march for equality and the work that is being undertaken.

It is rather pathetic to look back to times past and talk about what happened decades ago. I am concerned about the future and the actions of the next Conservative Government, which will be elected soon and be full of women. I am not concerned about the actions of the previous Conservative Government. The hon. Lady’s point is therefore irrelevant but I am glad that she makes political points, otherwise we would have a boring debate. I shall give way any time she would like to make more.

I would like briefly to speak about three matters, with examples. They are: violence, health and economic activity. First, let us consider the great achievements that have been made. The Under-Secretary spoke at length, eloquently and correctly about violence. I especially welcome yesterday’s announcement of more resources for the police to deal with trafficking. I am pleased that the Government have at last, under Conservative pressure, agreed to the terms of the Council of Europe convention on trafficking. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) laughs—I shall give way if she would like to make her point audibly.

The pressure that the hon. Lady describes came from not only Conservative Members, but Members of all parties. I remember a debate in which the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) made the same demands. There has also been considerable pressure from my Labour colleagues—male and female. The hon. Lady should therefore reconsider her comment.

I am glad that I gave the hon. Lady an opportunity to make that point. I am well aware that, in previous discussions, many Labour Members called for the Government to take action. I am pleased that such pressure was brought to bear. I am sure that the Prime Minister listens a little to his Back Benchers.

Much progress has been made with regard to violence, especially domestic violence.

I thought perhaps that the hon. Lady would like to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), who has entered the Chamber and is a bloke.

I am glad that the Under-Secretary has pointed that out. It makes me remember going to teenage school parties when somebody would say, “Oh look, there’s a boy.” I welcome the hon. Gentleman, but since he was not present for the earlier exchange, he may wonder why I am so pleased to see him. Let us leave that aside.

Let us consider how much has been achieved in women’s health and the emphasis that has been placed on it. Choice in maternity services is especially important. However, it is sad that the Government, having achieved considerable progress on the matter, now choose to close maternity hospitals. Services are being taken out of the community at a time when the Government purport to encourage us all not to use cars or travel unnecessary distances. Yet they have a programme of hospital closures. The choice that has been achieved is now being gradually taken away.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the women in Guildford who formed an organisation called Helping Hands? The women all gave birth to children at the Royal Surrey county hospital in Guildford. The maternity unit is now under threat and will possibly be moved away. My hon. Friend stresses the importance to women of access to such services locally.

I congratulate that group of women in my hon. Friend’s constituency. It is gratifying to note that the people who stand up for the services that they need and protest about Government hospital closures are not only members of the Cabinet but those who suffer from the plans. I commend the group for its work.

Let us consider economic activity. I use that phrase rather than “jobs” or “the workplace” because women in the work force are essential to our country’s economy, our society’s structure and, indeed, the economies of family life. Women working is not an add-on or an extra. I therefore use the term “economic activity” because the women who undertake it do so in a wide range of matters. We must recognise that. However, I do not say that legislation should take account of women in the workplace out of altruism or because it is correct, good and encourages equality. It is necessary for the economic success of our country. Without economic success, we do not have the resources for the public services and welfare matters on which we all want to spend public money.

In recognising the country’s economic success, will my hon. Friend acknowledge the vast contribution of Baroness Thatcher? Does she share my delight in the House’s recognition of her achievement through the unveiling of the magnificent statue? Many Conservative Members especially welcomed Mr. Speaker’s extremely gracious remarks on that occasion.

As ever, I agree 100 per cent. with my hon. Friend and I am glad that he made that point. First, I agree that it is magnificent to have the wonderful statue. I do not detect much enthusiasm on the Labour Benches, but I did not expect it.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the contribution that Mrs. Thatcher made to women entering the work force in my constituency of Wakefield was the shutting-down of every coal mine in the district, which caused male unemployment of 25 per cent? In the city where I grew up, Coventry, there was a similar unemployment rate, caused by the closure of the car factories. Because of the unemployment of men in their household, women were forced into low-paid work to support their families, as my mother was.

Oh good, I am so glad that the hon. Lady has opened up the debate on Mrs. Thatcher’s contribution to turning round a country that had suffered from years of Labour misrule—just as now—and to turning round an economy that made not just women but most of the population work in low-paid jobs and industries that were going continually downhill.

In a moment.

It was not just women who suffered from the economic mismanagement of most business and industry in the UK in the 1970s; the whole country suffered. Had it not been for Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of a Conservative Government for 18 successful years—or some of those 18 successful years—the country would have continued to slide downhill. We all know that when an economy gets into difficulties, poverty starts to increase and a country is not flourishing, it is those who are least able to stand up for themselves who suffer most, and they are often women.

I will give way in a moment. The short speech that I was going to make is rapidly lengthening.

To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East, we hardly ever say now, because it has been said so often, but it is true, that Margaret Thatcher made a huge difference to the ability of women in the United Kingdom and throughout the western world to achieve to the highest levels. After she became Prime Minister, nobody could say that it cannot be done. When I was a child, I said I was interested in politics, and I suppose that I argued in a childlike way that I wanted to be a Member of Parliament. People said, “You can’t be a Member of Parliament. You’re a girl.” Margaret Thatcher made an enormous difference not only by being there but by being such a success. This country, this place and the women of this country owe her an enormous debt of gratitude.

I, too, have something to thank Baroness Thatcher for: the effect that she had on my life. Because of her, I knew that things had to change. She made me become political, join the Labour party and fight for change. I also remember marching to get my school milk back—one of my first political acts—for which I also have her to thank. The hon. Lady would struggle, however, to think of three things that Baroness Thatcher did to advance the cause of women in this country.

The hon. Lady proves my point. I said that Baroness Thatcher made an enormous difference, and she did. Although this is not the subject of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is not far from it, and three things would not be nearly enough. I made the point a little while ago that there is no such thing as a women’s issue. Women do not live in a different world from men; we all live in one world and one country together. Unless that country is prospering as a strong economy and enough taxes are being raised to fund good public services and help people who need those services, the whole of society suffers. Baroness Thatcher turned around this country and economy to make it successful once more.

Would the hon. Lady consider continuing in this vein? I have a feeling that her speech will be the best thing that Labour Members will use in the next general election.

It is strange how the words “quality public services” trip off the tongue of Opposition Members. One thing that Margaret Thatcher did was the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering, which demoralised people working in the public sector and came close to destroying many services in many areas.

It also improved areas of the economy that needed to be tightened up. If it is so wrong, why have the Labour Government not turned it around in 10 years? The time for Labour Members to blame the previous Conservative Government has passed. Given that they have had 10 years in power with enormous majorities, they should have insisted on their Prime Minister changing anything for which they blame the Conservative Government.

In the light of the interventions on my hon. Friend in the past few minutes, is she surprised that one of the first official guests that the current Prime Minister had to No. 10 Downing street in late May 1997 was our noble Friend Baroness Thatcher? She may not be surprised, but perhaps Labour Members are perplexed, that the Prime Minister has done nothing to reverse the landmark policies of the noble Baroness. Ironically, he has gone even further in some sensitive policy areas, particularly in using the private sector in the health service.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Of course, the Prime Minister invited Baroness Thatcher to visit him in Downing street soon after he took office—he was sensible enough to know that he needed good advice from somewhere, and that he was not going to get it from his own Benches. What a pity that he did not pay attention to it.

I thank the hon. Lady for her interesting hagiography of Baroness Thatcher. Does she agree, however, that Baroness Thatcher was not the first woman politician to be elected as premier? The elections of both Indira Ghandi and Mrs. Bandaranaike, in India and Sri Lanka respectively, predate Mrs. Thatcher’s— [Interruption.] She was not the first woman to lead a country, although, to listen to the hon. Lady, one would have thought that she was. What does she make of the fact that under Mrs. Thatcher—this great champion of women—child poverty more than trebled? What impact did interest rates of 15 per cent. in 1991—forcing more than 200,000 to lose their homes—have on both the lives of women and their children?

First, the hon. Lady has her facts wrong; Lady Thatcher was no longer Prime Minister when interest rates went that high. [Interruption.] The point is very relevant, but it is not the subject of this debate.

Perhaps the hon. Lady will allow me to answer the intervention of the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) first. Of course, I am well aware that some magnificent, powerful, successful women have led other countries, but Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to lead our country. The hon. Member for Wakefield may roll her eyes in wonder, but I care about what happens in our country as well as the rest of the world. As for the issue of child poverty, I come back to the same point: it was the overall performance of the economy that mattered, and that is what Lady Thatcher put right.

Was it not Lady Thatcher who released countless women from the feudal tyranny of local authority landlords, and gave them the independence that comes with home ownership?

It certainly was—and that demonstrates that when a policy is introduced that benefits millions of people at the lower end of the income scale, women benefit most of all.

Although what the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) said was correct, that policy forced local authorities to sell houses. There is a fundamental difference between that policy and the policy that preceded it, which enabled council tenants to purchase their own homes. Local authorities were forced to sell homes for capital expenditure, and we are reaping the price today.

Order. Although I am sure that Lady Thatcher would be greatly flattered that we are conducting a debate all about her, the title of the debate on the Order Paper is somewhat different. Perhaps it would be a good idea if we moved on a little.

I appreciate that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will return to the subject of women, justice and gender equality, but let me first end that part of the debate by making the obvious point that Lady Thatcher did more for women, justice and gender equality in her time—and is capable of doing more yet: she is still very active in the political sphere, and I pay tribute to what she continues to do, not just what she did once upon a time—than almost any other single person whom any Member in the Chamber could mention.

I was reluctant to intervene until now, because when I pointed out earlier that only the Labour Government had introduced legislation to promote equality, the hon. Lady said that she was not interested in talking about things that had happened decades ago. However, I want to put the record straight on interest rates. Let me remind the hon. Lady that for only seven months of the time for which Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister, which lasted many years, were interest rates lower than they are today.

That is true, because of the way in which the economic cycle works. As we all know, the present Government inherited a strong economy with low interest rates, and the present Chancellor has been fortunate in being able to keep them low for a long time; but has the hon. Lady not observed that they are now edging up and up, and is she not concerned about that? I certainly am.

May I conclude the remarks about Lady Thatcher? We seem to be incapable of getting away from her.

The shrillness of those on the Labour Benches smacks a little of jealousy to me. Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister on her own merits, unlike many Labour Members who could only be levered into the House by means of all-women shortlists.

My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right; but I am pleased that the existence of Lady Thatcher as Prime Minister spurred as many Labour as Conservative women to become politically active. If her existence, her policies, her attitudes and her brilliant speeches have brought more women into the House, that is a very good thing, whatever those women say and do when they arrive here.

As the person who, perhaps not quite inadvertently, began this cycle of the debate by referring to the magnificent statue and the wonderful tribute from Mr. Speaker, may I ask whether it is not a measure of what Lady Thatcher achieved for men, women and children in this country that throughout our long disquisition about her record, no one has even mentioned the way in which she managed to democratise the trade unions that had made the country all but ungovernable, or what she contributed to the ending of the cold war? I remember that when we debated Trident, the entire official Opposition wanted us to disarm unilaterally at the height of the cold war threat.

Order. I remind the House again that the title of the debate is “Women, justice and gender equality in the UK”. I think that we ought to get on with that now.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The point about women and economic activity is that if the very good policies we are now pursuing—both the Work and Families Act 2006 and the Equality Act 2006, which I mentioned earlier, have the total support of Conservative Members—are to be effective on the ground, those of us who believe in them in principle must take the business community with us. I have asked Ministers before, and I ask again today, whether the Government intend to publish guidance to help small businesses, in particular, to put the terms of those two Acts into practice. I am thinking particularly of the right to request flexible working hours. I fear that that there is a misconception in the business community that flexible working is likely to be detrimental to business. I firmly believe, on the basis of evidence that I have seen, that it is likely to be beneficial to business, which is one of the reasons why I thoroughly support what the Government are doing in that regard.

We have digressed somewhat from what I was saying about achievements relating to violence, health and economic activity. Let me finish what I was saying about economic achievements. For a long time, we have enjoyed a pretty good standard of equality of opportunity in education for girls and boys, but that is not reflected in the higher echelons of business and the professions. I shall say more about that shortly.

I pay tribute to the many charities and outside bodies that work in the fields we are discussing, such as the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fawcett Society. Let me also mention, in terms of domestic violence, Refuge and Women’s Aid; in respect of encouraging women to be confident and building up their career prospects, the many groups, including the Girl Guides and the scout movement, that are often not given the praise that they deserve; and in the field of trafficking, the POPPY project and Stop the Traffik. I cannot possibly give an exhaustive list and I have omitted far more organisations than I have mentioned, but I want to take this opportunity to commend and thank those who have given their time voluntarily, and have established such excellent outside bodies to enact the agenda that we are discussing. They have improved women’s lives over the years, and I am confident that they will continue to do so.

As I have said, we have achieved a great deal, but there is even more still to be done. The Minister dealt very well with the subject of violence, particularly domestic violence, but let me repeat the statistic that today one woman in three in the United Kingdom is likely to suffer domestic violence at some point in her life. We must not forget that a significant number of men suffer that, too. However, domestic violence against women has always been prevalent. For a long time, we did not talk about it. Now we are and we are doing something about it. I ask the Minister and her colleagues to look in detail at the police’s powers to deal with domestic violence. I am not criticising anything that the Minister has said today, and I accept that a lot of progress has been made, but we hear again and again from police officers who have been dealing with crimes of domestic violence that they do not have the necessary powers to do what they would like to do.

Let us not forget that, if someone is killed as a result of domestic violence, it is still murder. It is not just domestic violence; it is murder. I know that Ministers agree with me on that. I make the point because, in the wider context, people talk about domestic violence as if it is a fringe issue. It is not. It is a very serious crime.

The police have complained to the hon. Lady that they do not have the required powers. I just wondered whether she wanted to specify what powers she thinks the police should have.

I did not want to take up time by discussing the matter in great detail. I pay tribute to the Minister. In other forums, in discussions in Committees and in other meetings in the House, we often have the opportunity to discuss the matter in great detail. If she were happy to look at some of the written matter that I have, I would be pleased to send it to her. I am conscious that I have been speaking for some time, although lots of other people have been speaking during that time, too.

On stalking, there is one particular point that I would like to raise with the Minister. She may want to consider that there is no definition of the crime of stalking or the activity of stalking in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. I am not suggesting, however, that its inclusion in the Act would put the matter right. My colleagues and I have been doing a lot of work on the issue of stalking, and I pay tribute in particular to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who left the Chamber just a few seconds ago. One of her constituents was tragically murdered by a man who had been stalking her for a very long time. Everyone knew about the stalking: the family, the girl and the police. The police officers did everything in their power—they were not criticised, and nor should they be—yet the man in question was still able to make the life of that girl, who was his ex-girlfriend, a misery, to threaten to kill her, to leave the country, to buy a gun illegally somewhere else in Europe, to come back into the country with an illegal gun and to walk into a public place and to shoot her dead. I give that as one example, but we are all aware of many more. I have met the mother of that girl and the courage that she has shown in campaigning on the issue moved me so much that I cannot fail to give that as an example.

I am not criticising the Minister or blaming the Government because that would be empty political rhetoric. I am not blaming anyone for what happened. All I am saying is that, since we are all working together very well on the issue, if the Government were to bring forward legislative change, that may improve the way in which we deal with the awful crime of stalking. Conservative Members would wish to assist as far as we can.

As my colleagues and I have discovered through research that we have done and meetings that we have held, in San Diego in California stalking is recognised as a very prevalent, wicked and difficult crime. The number of stalkers was increasing, so San Diego decided to take a completely new approach to stalking. Police officers were thenceforth trained to treat a stalking incident as a potential murder, because that is what it is. It is not a bit of a nuisance and something that simply has to be endured because of a broken relationship. In taking that different attitude and in training officers to deal with stalking differently, the number of serious incidents and murders that progressed from stalking in San Diego has reduced considerably. If the Minister would like to know more about that, my colleagues and I have a lot more information that we can give her.

There is a definition of stalking, which is two acts calculated or likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. At least two acts have to be committed. I doubt that definitional problems are the real thrust of the problem. However, there is a problem where a stalker does, not nasty things to the victim, but nice things. It is very hard to bring that within any legislative definition, but such behaviour is very undermining and sinister, and is probably just as dangerous as when a person does nasty things, so we certainly have to reflect on that.

I agree with the Minister entirely. I am not suggesting that the matter can be solved easily or that the definitional point is anything more than that, but it is a starting point. The fact that we are having this exchange across the Dispatch Box during an important debate on justice for women brings the matter to the fore. I am pleased that she and her colleagues share our concern about the matter.

Trafficking, which has been mentioned by the Minister and other Members, is another matter that involves violence and where we have so much more to do. Trafficking is tragic. Look at the prevalence of trafficking and at the number of young women and girls involved, because some of them are still legally children, who are brought into this country and other parts of Europe illegally, under duress and under false pretences. They are literally sold as prostitutes, or sometimes as domestic servants—that is obviously less of a problem but it is still a difficult issue. When they are sold as prostitutes they are made to work in appalling conditions, with no freedom. That is akin to slavery. I am sure that neither Minister needs me to convince them on that issue. We are all concerned about it. I want to ensure that, by discussing it in the House, it is given the attention that it deserves.

I suggest that guidance in the health service might help us to identify women and girls who are being forced to work as prostitutes. We often see Daily Mail-type articles about how scandalous it is that some women have three abortions in a year. Has it never occurred to the health professionals dealing with such cases that, if a woman presents herself three times in a year as pregnant and in need of an abortion, there may be something wrong other than just carelessness, and that that is often the case?

I am told by respectable and powerful charities that deal with the issue of trafficking that identification of victims is difficult, but could be made easier if professionals working in front-line services were trained to look for the danger signs. I hope that that is something that the Government will consider doing. We will continue our campaign on trafficking because it is tragic, as I am sure everyone in the House agrees, that women and girls are literally sold into slavery in this way.

The third area in which there is still much to do is health. Taking preventive action is much better for patients and for the economies of the health service in the long run than leaving people to develop diseases and then having to cure them. I want to be quick so I will use just one example. I have worked with the all-party group on osteoporosis for some time, and with the National Osteoporosis Society. It is unfortunate—let me put it no stronger than that—that at present osteoporosis, which is easy to detect, is not diagnosed in hundreds of thousands of women who go on to suffer from it. It is a disease which, if detected early, can be almost completely cured; its worst ill effects can be avoided. Some men suffer from the disease, but the vast majority of sufferers are women, a large number of whom do not know that they have it because it does not manifest itself in any particularly awful way until most women are in their mid-70s.

If an older woman suffers a fracture and is made immobile for six or seven weeks, the complications, which may include other health problems such as pneumonia or much more difficult illnesses to treat, can be very serious. It is a shocking statistic that if a woman in her later years suffers a fracture that would be as nothing to a younger person, she is likely to die within six months when she may have been really pretty healthy before the fracture occurred. Usually, such a fracture occurs because she is suffering unknowingly from osteoporosis.

I really ought to declare an interest. The reason why I managed in a fairly moderate little ski-ing accident to break my leg is that I have osteoporosis. I have become more knowledgeable about the subject, although I have known that I have it for many years. Something that is easily shaken off in one’s 40s—I was pleased when my doctors described me as youthful in medical terms—is pretty serious in one’s 70s. Older women’s health is a much-neglected area in health priorities. The Minister would argue that if we have priorities some people win and some people lose, but there is a good economic case as well as an extremely good compassionate case for investing in the prevention of certain diseases, especially among the female population.

I wish to come to a conclusion quickly now, but I have to say a couple more things about women’s economic activity and the great steps that still have to be taken to produce equality in the workplace. PricewaterhouseCoopers has produced statistics today that show that there are 40 per cent. fewer women at the top of the professions today than five years ago. The reasons given are of course that child care costs have increased enormously—by something like 27 per cent. over the past five years—and that there is insufficient flexibility in the workplace. I dealt with that earlier. Ministers will have the support of the Opposition if they take steps under the Work and Families Act 2006 to extend the right to request flexible working that the parents of small children enjoy to parents generally and to people with family responsibilities.

It is time that we faced the truth that we are asking women who have children to do two jobs. We need a new approach to the way in which jobs are done at the highest level in our economy. I do not suggest for a moment that this is something that can be done by the Government or Parliament. It is a matter of change of attitudes. I saw advice to young women entitled “How to succeed in a career” recently, written by someone for whom I have great respect, and who has succeeded enormously in her career. It said that one of the main things that women have to do is to be 100 per cent. dedicated to the work they are doing. Anyone, even the mother of a small child, can be 100 per cent. dedicated to the work that they do from 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, but if someone has family responsibilities, they cannot be 100 per cent. dedicated to the work that they are doing. We see young men 100 per cent. dedicated and they go up and up in the work force; they succeed more and earn more and so the spiral is perpetuated.

The CBI then argues that we should not worry about unequal numbers of women achieving in the professions because there are equal numbers of men and women in the City in well-paid jobs aged 28. Well, that is no surprise to me. When I was 28 I did exactly the same job as my then husband. Of course I did. We all do when it is just a question of being a women without any responsibilities; it is the same as being a man without any responsibilities. But the fact is that we need women to produce children, we need women to look after families and care for elderly relatives so we have to accept that we are asking women to do two jobs. Therefore, we have to encourage not just the right to request but the granting of flexibility in the workplace.

The hon. Lady is offering support for our policies in this area, but the Conservative Opposition have voted time and time again in the past 10 years against measures that have supported women in the workplace such as the extension of maternity leave and the introduction of two weeks paid paternity leave. When did their views change?

The Minister knows that we supported the Work and Families Act 2006 and the Equality Act 2006. I appreciate the political point that the Minister is making, but we, the Conservative party now—as I said before, it is the Conservative party that I am concerned with, the one I am speaking for today—are very much in favour of increasing the right to request flexibility in the workplace. It leads to better working relationships and allows women and families more flexibility. Given the proper guidance, I am sure that business will accept that flexible working is a benefit, not a detriment.

Women cannot be expected to carry out their duties in paid work properly unless their children are properly cared for. A courageous group of women who are campaigning for better special needs education will begin an all-night vigil this evening in Parliament square. If it is difficult for a woman with children to balance her work and family life, how very much more difficult is it for a parent with a disabled child to do so? The special needs education system needs to be totally and utterly reformed, and I give every support to the vigil taking place this evening.

The equal pay issue was highlighted this week, in that many local authorities throughout the country have still not got their finances in order to enable them to implement guidance that the Government rightly laid down many years ago. I hope that situation will soon be remedied. For too long, employers, including local authority employers, have said, “Well, it doesn’t matter because women will put up with it.”

I have spoken for much longer than I originally anticipated because I wanted to give way as many times as possible to enable a lively debate. I am glad that we have had such a debate. It is important that these issues are discussed not only when we introduce legislation, because legislation does not solve everything. Attitudes need to change, and I believe that they are changing. An enormous amount of progress has been made, but there is still much to do. We have supported much that the Government are doing on the equality agenda. The next Conservative Government, whom we shall see in the not too distant future, along with a massively increased number of women Conservative MPs, will take—

It is, and I will say it the next time, as well; indeed, I will go on saying it. It is going to happen, and not just through hope; I am glad to see that the opinion polls also now tell us that it is going to happen. My concern is not just who the personalities are in a given Government, but what a Government do. The next Conservative Government will be very responsive to the equality agenda, recognising that it is essential to the future of our country.

I take great pleasure in speaking in debates on women, and I take particular pleasure in speaking in a debate on international women’s day. I want to make it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed the contribution of my very close friend Vera Baird, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar. Her contribution was thoughtful and provocative—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but we do not use the actual names of Members of the House of Commons.

I do apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that mistake.

I wish that I could make the same warm comments about the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), whose contribution I found very disappointing, to say the least. In the past, we have had some very good contributions from the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan); she was missed today.

Women have to face many challenges in their professional lives and in other forms of employment, and within politics. I want to concentrate for a moment on some of those challenges. My party has done very well on this issue, and if I were to produce a report, it would say, “Good progress has been made, but there is more to do. Could do better.” Now, nearly 20 per cent. of Labour Back Benchers are women, and it would be appropriate for that figure to rise to 40 per cent. That would constitute excellent progress, and it would be even better if it rose to 50 per cent.

I will not by any means give lectures to the other parties represented here, but I am keen to say to members of my own party that the creative, positive and challenging input of women in this House, in local government, and in the professions and all other forms of employment, has to be recognised. Such input is highly valued. I would be very disappointed if my party moved back into the world of the old boys’ network in which only those who belong to it are supported, and from which those bringing up families, working and performing a number of other tasks—those who are outside that easy operational network—are excluded. My party is still fighting that fight today. We have won so far; the challenge is to keep on winning.

I want to dwell for a moment on a recent visit that I and four other Labour Members paid to Pakistan. Before doing so, I should like to declare an interest, in case it is appropriate to do so. That visit was funded by three business men from my constituency, all of whom are concerned that we should get to know Pakistan better and develop our relations with it. That is what we did during our visit. We all most gratefully thank Mr. Javed, who not only provided funding but offered excellent support in all that we did in Pakistan.

I want to tell the House about that visit for one reason if nothing else. We all say with great pride, as do I, that this is the mother of all Parliaments, but in Pakistan today, 33 per cent. of those in the Senate, the National Assembly and local councils are women. Women share power in those institutions. Nobody denies that many of the women in the Senate and the National Assembly have wealthy backgrounds and probably come from political families, but that does not prevent them from clearly defining the various issues and concerns, and producing policies that are greatly to the betterment of women, families and communities.

While we were there, we listened to Senators talk about how they are persuading Balochistan and other places to support girls’ education by paying parents 200 rupees. We examined carefully the legislation that the National Assembly is introducing on outlawing honour killings. The assembly is doing its best to ensure that the law is supported. We also observed and got involved in the many literacy programmes. We saw women learning to read. Over time, they see the value of learning to read and its relevance to their children. Indeed, they are not just learning their own language; they are learning to speak ours, as well. They are women from the villages, ordinary women, but they have tremendous courage and tenacity.

We were impressed by all the groups we met. The women Senators were sparkling—I am sure that the male Senators are just as good, but we were determined to meet the women, and that is what we did—and very focused on, and determined about, what they were doing. The National Assembly representatives also all spoke English as well as we do, and they made us all thoroughly ashamed that we do not speak any other languages.

If one group stood out as seriously pleasing to meet, it was the local councillors, the ordinary women. One said, “I could not read my own language when I was elected to the council, but I can read it now.” We heard the empowerment in their voices and saw that they knew what was required for their communities. Their determination to deliver those policies was extraordinarily powerful.

It was a good visit. It was great to see how micro-credit is giving so many people a better lifestyle. It was superb to see the female literacy centre in Taxila, which was not a college or purpose-built building, but a person’s home. He had provided the space because he knew the importance of the literacy programme. It was great to see how community organisations in the village of Pink Malikan worked and to speak with the woman organising the Nomad arts gallery. I think that I have a lot of tenacity, but those women have serious amounts of tenacity.

Top of the tree for me was going to the Fatima Jinnah women’s university and speaking to 22-year-olds who did not want us to go. We answered their questions for 45 minutes to an hour, but we could have spent a couple of days with them. Those young women are Pakistan’s tomorrow and they are seriously good. They are challenging and determined that they will be part of tomorrow’s Pakistan and deliver a better life for people in that country.

Coming from the mother of Parliaments, I was pleased to see affirmative action work in Pakistan and the reality of 33 per cent. representation for women providing a clear image of power and value to other women. I hope that we will see that as valuable and that my party will quickly adopt 33 per cent. as the minimum threshold for affirmative action for women in this House, on councils and in other elected bodies.

I have an equal commitment to the issue of infertility and I have the pleasure of chairing the all-party group on infertility. If any hon. Member has not had the experience of speaking to couples—often in their 20s, sometimes in their 30s and 40s—struggling with this issue, I urge them to do so, although I cannot believe that there is anybody who has not done so. It is an issue in which we all, in different ways, get very involved. Today, one in six couples in Great Britain have problems conceiving. People are often embarrassed by that, and think that their womanhood or manhood is reduced. That is nonsensical, but that is the impact that infertility has. The statistic of one in six is probably wrong, and it is likely to be at least one in five.

The all-party group has had a positive and supportive relationship with the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who has helped to deliver for the group, but the issue needs more than one Minister in one Department. We need the whole House to be very involved in the issue. The Government have put reasonable amounts into that area of health policy and made it clear that each couple should receive three IVF treatments if they are suitable, but that does not happen. The fact that primary care trusts are not obliged to implement National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidance means that they can decide that IVF treatment is not a priority. Perhaps there is a postcode lottery, because we know that many young couples suffer from the fact that some PCTs do not offer IVF treatment.

I have written to the Department of Health on numerous occasions on behalf of constituents of mine who have had problems accessing IVF treatment in the way that the hon. Lady has described. A postcode lottery does exist: women in Hampshire cannot get IVF treatment until they are over 35, and even then they get only one cycle. Does she share the concern of our colleague my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), who undertook a nationwide survey on this matter? His findings show that women throughout the country suffer from the problems that she has set out. The Government should long ago have begun to address that inequity, in what is a sensitive and important matter.

I agree with an awful lot of what the hon. Lady has said. The hon. Gentleman’s survey is excellent, and I shall refer to it again later, but the all-party group has also conducted a survey of PCTs. The shameful fact is that a third of them did not bother to respond. Moreover, two thirds of those that did respond displayed a much less determined approach than we would have wanted. Their casual approach to the problem was totally unacceptable.

We need more than a statement of expectation. Therefore, my first request to the Ministers attending the debate is that they undertake to secure from the Department of Health a directive requiring all health authorities and PCTs to implement NICE guidance in respect of the provision of IVF treatment. Without such a directive, and in the absence of women knocking on their doors and telling them of the difficulties that they face, those bodies will simply assume that no problem exists. I assure the House that the problem does exist, but the sad thing is that it is often invisible.

Researchers and medics involved in infertility tell us that IVF treatment gives women under 35 a one in four chance of becoming pregnant, and that that success rate is even higher for women under 30. The evidence shows that when women of the right age—that is, under 27—are given the right medical treatment, there is a 70 per cent. chance that they will get pregnant. I am sincere when I say that, if cancer treatments could achieve the same success rate, we would all be demanding that they be made available. However, although the figures for all cancer treatments are very blurry, a 5 per cent. cure rate is the usual one cited. Cancer treatments are funded by the NHS, and no one in the House would ever say that they should not be—indeed, we would all call for more funding to be made available. If IVF were to be funded in the same way as cancer treatments, very many more people who need it would be able to benefit.

There is a very generous IVF treatment service in my own hospital trust area, and it has found that it is most effective to offer women two cycles of treatment. In areas with restricted funds, women can receive only one cycle of treatment. Does the hon. Lady agree that that might be a waste, and that it is better to treat 50 women with two cycles of IVF than 100 with one?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point, for which there is statistical proof. I do not think that any of us are fooled by the information that the research has supplied. We are keen to get that research disseminated more widely and, in particular, accepted at PCT level.

If there is a funding problem, we need to know about it. From my experience, I know that there is no such problem, so I want to know why three cycles of IVF treatments are not being made available. Why must a woman wait until she is 35 before she is put on the list? Why must she then wait two years to be seen by a consultant gynaecologist? A woman can reach the age of 40 after 15 years desperately wanting treatment for a disease. Part of her body does not function, so why must she wait 15 years for treatment? We would not dream of such delay in treating any other medical problem, so my second request is clear, although controversial: whenever we talk about infertility in this place, we should accept that it is a disease, not a lifestyle issue. It is a disease—parts of a functioning system do not work—and there are ways to improve the condition and possibly achieve conception. Many women desperately want a family.

One of my constituents who needs IVF treatment is in the unfortunate position of having her hospital in one local authority but living in another, which has a three-year waiting list. She is 32 and has had ectopic pregnancies, so IVF is her only chance. Members have made some useful points, but does my hon. Friend agree that women such as my constituent who have suffered several ectopic pregnancies and for whom IVF is their only chance should be given priority over others in the queue?

I can only agree. People living in the same road can be in different PCTs, so policy differences are completely unacceptable. We need a central Government directive on the issue, otherwise the present situation, in which PCTs make different policy decisions, will never change. Invariably, PCTs are trying to interpret what the Secretary of State said about full treatment, but for many PCTs a full treatment is only one cycle of IVF, not three; yet three treatments were anticipated and that is what we believe was said at the time.

The hon. Lady is generous in taking interventions. I want to pick up on her point about funding. She said that in her PCT area there was no problem with funding for IVF treatment. Unfortunately, I live in an area that suffers severe funding problems for all sorts of health care, because we receive only 80 per cent. of the average. I have been told by my PCT that my constituents cannot have access to IVF treatment because the trust does not receive average funding, which means that tough choices have to be made and unfortunately those women suffer as a result.

It would be appropriate if the hon. Lady wrote to me. I am not making a political statement, because that is not how the all-party group operates, but if she is saying, as I think she is, that there is a money issue, we need to look at it. Information from other PCTs shows that value judgments are made about priorities, so it would be valuable to hear from the hon. Lady. In fact, I definitely invite her to join the all-party group. That would be tremendous.

At present, a review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 is under way, which is appropriate. I have observed the work of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority throughout Great Britain and find its regulatory procedure overwhelmingly controlling and strict. In actual fact, I think they reach a point where they begin to stigmatise infertile couples and stigmatise children who are born through fertility treatments. Let me explain.

If we look at the Government’s detailed central register of all couples who have received infertility treatment, we find that—regardless of whether they have achieved pregnancy or not—all children born through that procedure are included and maintained on it. I view that as intrusive and totally unnecessary. It is my third request this afternoon that they are taken off that register, as they should not have been placed on it by he HFEA in the first place.

My fourth request is to look further into private clinics. We are very aware of how they work. They have a job to do and I am certainly not knocking them, but it would be very valuable if they were brought into line with NHS procedures. Indeed, I would think it appropriate if they became part of the NHS so that they did not exist outside it and could not promise women and young and older couples things that cannot be done. We need to see clearly what their competences are in order to deliver.

Will the Minister reflect on a further request? I have been greatly involved with the Newcastle fertility centre. As well as supporting IVF as a treatment, it is an excellent research establishment. Every year, this excellent research centre, which does work that any infertile person would acknowledge as invaluable, has to pay out £70,000 in licences. For every patient it incurs a cost of £100 and every patient pays £100. It is a tax that the infertile have to pay. It is totally nonsensical and I would hope that Ministers looked further into that problem.

Before finishing, I want to refer to a piece of research that was carried out very thoughtfully by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). His study has proved very valuable. Although his research probably tells us what we already know, sadly, despite the fact that we all know it, it remains an absolutely controlling influence in the delivery of infertility services. The hon. Gentleman points out that in some authorities, one has to be aged 30 or 36 to receive any IVF treatment; in others, the age is 35 and still others 36 to 39. There is not an hon. Member in the House who doubts the research showing that IVF’s capacity to achieve a conception becomes significantly less for women over the age of 35 and that it will work for a singularly very small minority of women over 40.

Let us think about a young couple, perhaps around the age of 22. If the medics have said clearly that the prognosis is that they are not going to conceive naturally, why are we asking couples to wait from the age of 22 until they are 30 to 36, 35 or 39 before treatment kicks in? Clearly, the hon. Gentleman’s research is valuable. He believes that infertility and fertility services are being marginalised and that there could well be a problem with funding. What he is saying, in total, is that the delivery of such services is messy and has no uniformity. I have always believed that any medical intervention should be provided at the point of need. The point of need seems to vary according to where people happen to be living. I suggest to my Front-Bench colleagues that it would be valuable to have a look at the hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful piece of research.

My real request is for the House to accept that we are seeing the development of new procedures and technology in infertility. We are seeing some staggeringly good developments in clinical standards. Slowly, we are seeing a change in public attitudes to infertility and we should encourage that to continue. I accept that there is a need for effective regulation, but I want infertile couples to be treated in the fair and just way that other patients in the national health service are treated, and from which they benefit.

It is a great honour to speak for the Liberal Democrats on this important day. Members will be relieved to learn that I shall not use the occasion to make cheap political points about Baroness Thatcher or anyone else—except to say that she acted as such a role model to her party that it has the lowest percentage of women in Parliament, at 9 per cent. of Members elected. At the rate that the Conservatives are going, it will take 400 years to achieve parity of gender. However, I acknowledge that Baroness Thatcher stimulated women—Labour and Liberal Democrat Members—to go into politics to try to remedy the damage that she did.

I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for signing the early-day motion that I tabled yesterday to mark international women’s day. The word “mark” is more appropriate than “celebrate” because, although we have made some advances, many of which were heralded by the equal opportunities legislation 30 years ago, women in Britain and all over the world are still not treated equally and they are still abused physically, mentally and sexually. On the Order Paper, the title of today’s debate is “Women, justice and gender equality in the UK”, so I will confine most of my remarks to what is happening here at home. Goodness knows, there is enough material for 10 debates, let alone one. However, on international women’s day, it is right to spare a moment to think about our sisters overseas who suffer regular physical abuse, rape and torture. We are debating equality and justice in the UK, but compared with some of our sisters overseas—in Rwanda, Sudan, and many other parts of the world—we do not know that we are born.

The theme for international women’s day this year is ending impunity for violence. According to the UN, violence against women is the most common and least punished crime in the world. One in three women has had violence perpetrated against them. Domestic violence affects women all over the world, irrespective of location, culture, ethnicity, education, class or religion. Violence against women is the bully’s way of demonstrating their power in the most humiliating and—literally—hurtful way. In the UK, behind closed doors, women put up with sexual and physical abuse every day of their lives and say nothing.

The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. Violence is not only physical. It can also encompass the controlling behaviour of partners. It has to be said that men are also subject to that type of violence. We must not forget about the men, but it is most often perpetrated against women.

The women who flee to one of the few refuges in this country are not even the tip of the iceberg—they are the tip of the tip of the iceberg. How do we go about protecting women in Britain? It is a shameful fact that things do not seem to be getting better. As far as rape is concerned, they are certainly getting worse. Ten years ago, 24 per cent. of reported rapes resulted in conviction. Today, the figure is less than a quarter of that, at under 6 per cent. I hope that the Minister for Women and Equality will comment on that in her speech, and will suggest why that is the case.

There are twice as many women in prison as there were 10 years ago, yet 80 per cent.—the same proportion as 10 years ago—are there for minor offences such as shoplifting. Again, I would be grateful if, in her speech, the Minister enlightened me on why that is. We lock those women up, but we close local women’s prisons and make sure that they are sent so far from home that it is almost impossible for their families to get to see them. Every year, 16,000 of their children are left motherless. Of those 16,000, only 5 per cent. are able to remain at home. Families are broken up, and children are the innocent victims of a policy that could not be better designed to destroy lives.

What of the women entering prison? As I said when I intervened on the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), two thirds of women who go to prison have a mental illness, and 55 per cent. test positive for class A drugs. Are we really saying that prison is the best place for many of those people? It makes one want to weep.

I will not even go into the subject of prostitution, except to say that 90 per cent. of prostitutes are addicted to class A drugs. Those women are stigmatised and rarely helped, but there is no social criticism of the men who use and abuse them. Instead, I will move on to the apparently fairer world of work. Economic independence and equality are among the most powerful tools at our disposal for creating a fairer and more just society. Money talks. About 30 years ago, we passed landmark equal opportunities legislation and although the pay gap is not as bad as it was 30 years ago, on average, women still earn 17 per cent. less than men for full-time work and 26 per cent. less for part-time work. The situation for graduates is even worse. Women graduates begin their careers earning an average 15 per cent. less than men, but by the time that they are between 35 and 40 years old, that gap has widened to 40 per cent. The glass ceiling is strong and thick and shows no sign of cracking.

I do not know whether the hon. Lady is aware that the most recent statistics on the gender pay gap show a closing of the gap for women in their twenties, which may herald some progress.

Women in their twenties generally have not had children, and it is when children come on the scene that women start to fall behind. However, I welcome the Minister’s optimism; I wish I could share it, but I have reservations.

Moving on to women in top jobs, only 7 per cent. of top judges and 4 per cent. of directors of the UK’s top 100 companies are women. Fewer than 20 per cent. of Members of this House are women. Of course, ethnic minority women face two glass ceilings, so that wonderful pool of talent is going to waste. Whether one looks through the glass from above or from below, it should be recognised that the talent that we are wasting could be used to create a much more prosperous and equal society.

Talking of a waste of talent, what about women entrepreneurs? Only 14 per cent. of companies in this country are wholly owned by women. Women are also less likely to be offered bank loans. Furthermore, female entrepreneurs are forced to pay on average 14 per cent. more interest than men when banks deign to give them loans.

What should we do? Is it enough to carry on making the right noises and making incremental changes? At the current rate that we in Parliament are going, it will be another 200 years before we get equality, as the Minister said in her opening remarks.

People often quote interesting statistics to do with the different generations—the Minister did so. However, we are not currently making progress at the same rate that progress was made over the past century; we are making far greater progress. That is one of the reasons why the Members who are present are able to have the debate that we are having this afternoon. Do not many of us work on this matter 100 per cent. of the time? Therefore, progress will be far greater. That is not empty optimism; that is determination.

I am glad to hear that the hon. Lady is determined to make progress. However, I think that I am right in saying that the rate of progress is what is happening at the moment; it does not rely on any huge historical background.

May I provide some clarification on that? On current policies—this has been reviewed by the Fawcett society following each general election—Labour Members will achieve parity much more quickly. That will take between 30 and 35 years, which is still far too long, but we are making much more progress than the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats.

The Minister is right that the Labour group is making much more progress, and I shall address that shortly. However, at our current rate of progress it will take too long whichever way we look at it; I am a bit too impatient to accept that it will take potentially eight more generations before we achieve parity.

I should like to ask the hon. Lady a question which perhaps I should have asked of the Minister during her speech earlier. Many women Members who are present in the Chamber have family commitments, myself included. I am not sure whether the following question is about a particular party political issue or just one that the entire House must deal with; how do we make this job more attractive to women who have family responsibilities? It is a difficult job for anyone to do, let alone those with young children. It might be unfair to have asked that question of the hon. Lady but I would be interested to hear her answer.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that excellent point. The Committee stage of the Companies Bill lasted seven weeks last summer—it was arguably the longest and most boring Bill in history. A Labour Member discovered when her child care arrangements broke down that there are no crèche facilities at the House of Commons for Members. Her little daughter learned to walk on the corridor outside the Committee Room, which was one of the few pleasurable and enlightening moments that I experienced during the passage of the Bill. I do not tell that story to belittle what the hon. Lady says, which is hugely important. I have asked the Minister about crèche facilities and she has been generous and kind enough to say that she will look into that.

The entire atmosphere of this place is very women-unfriendly. Let us consider what happens if a Member stands up at Prime Minister’s Question Time to ask a question of the Prime Minister. A wall of noise suddenly comes towards them if Labour Members get the feeling that it will be a hostile question, which can be very intimidating for men and women Members. The behaviour often resembles what I imagine public schoolboys’ bad behaviour to be, with pointing, shouting, catcalling and repeating remarks. It is not edifying. The hon. Lady made a good intervention.

At least the Labour party has been brave enough to take radical action to redress the situation. To its credit, women make up 27 per cent. of Labour Members. The Liberal Democrats trail with 14 per cent., and the Conservatives, as I mentioned, have only 9 per cent.

Five years ago the Liberal Democrats had a passionate debate on positive discrimination. Major figures in the party exhorted the members to vote for positive discrimination, including the revered Baroness Williams and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), but all to no avail. The vote was lost because a number of equally passionate young women spoke up to say that they did not want to be token women.

When those women have been through the mill of competing for jobs with the men—who give their undivided attention to their careers, while the women are bringing up a family, arranging child care, deciding what is for tea, and ensuring that there is something to cook—and then having to take jobs below their ability, or taking time off and coming back to find that they have lost out on the career stakes, that they will get less pension, that they will have a disproportionate share of the burden of caring for older and infirm members of the family, and that they have been failed by the system because we do not have a critical mass of women in Parliament to focus on family-friendly policies, let them come back and tell me that they do not want to be token women. I am sorry about that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I had to get that off my chest.

I am very pleased to listen to the hon. Lady. There is an honesty and integrity about all she says, which is typical of a woman, if I may say so. Does she agree that we should say loud and clear that we have 100 years of all-men short-lists? Is it not time that we were allowed to have all-women short-lists? What is their problem?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention and her kind remarks. All I can say in reply is that’s democracy for you. We Liberal Democrats must do a better selling job to get party members to agree. The inequality strikes at the heart of fairness. Unless people look beyond the value of the greater number, it is difficult for many Members to accept the principle that we should positively encourage some people over and above others.

I will settle for “encourage”.

It is clear that until we have women in the most senior decision-making positions in this country, the only progress that we ever make will be incremental. It is a chicken and egg situation. While the laws are made predominantly by men in a place that cannot even provide crèche facilities for Members, we are on a hiding to nothing.

Please do not get me wrong. I would not want any hon. Member to think that I dislike or disparage men. There are many men in the House and everywhere who care passionately about equality and justice for women and for men. I acknowledge that in many areas of life, such as the one that was mentioned by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns)—access to children after a relationship break-up—men can get an extremely raw deal. But just for today, let us speak up for the girls.

We need more women-friendly policies coming out of the House. We also need more access to flexible working. I was delighted to hear the comments by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), and I hope that she will support my ten-minute Bill to extend the right to request flexible working to the parents of children up to the age of 18 and to encourage more companies to extend flexible working, if it is economically advisable.

Is the hon. Lady surprised that there are job shares in parts of Africa, something we do not even countenance here?

The hon. Lady has made a good point. We have the concept of job share, and enlightened companies that use the concept of flexible working, including job share, have found—there is Equal Opportunities Commission evidence to this effect—that staff turnover and absenteeism are reduced and that productivity is increased.

I think that that is absolutely delightful, and we can learn from that excellent example.

Companies all over the UK are beginning to wake up to the idea of flexible working. In that situation, men and women can share in caring for children, instead of one partner having to make an economic sacrifice, which, in most cases, reinforces the gender divide.

We need more support for women victims of crime and of sexual and physical violence. Most of all, we need to give women a hand-up into decision-making and leadership roles, so that we can take our rightful place in British society today, standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and not trailing behind.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). I pay tribute to the obvious research that has gone into her presentation today. She has shown commitment to bringing forward the issues that face women today on international women’s day, and I thank her for the high level of her contribution. In this House, we need women to set an example, so that there can be no suggestion that women come into this Chamber ill-prepared and unable to argue on behalf of their constituents and on behalf of their sex. I recognise her performance and her contribution.

The United Nations has designated this international women’s day as a day when one should look at, in particular, violence against women. I do not want to look at the failures of the past; I want to look at how we can move forward and address the problems that we face.

This morning, I stood in front of the statue of Mrs. Pankhurst as we laid flowers and paid tribute to her contribution in raising the status of women and obtaining the right to participate in democracy for women. The right to participate in democracy has allowed women in this Chamber, in local authority council chambers and across the world to fight for justice and equality for women. Mrs. Pankhurst set the stone that allowed women to move forward in society. However, Mrs. Pankhurst and her women faced the great consequence of stepping forward, which so many women face across the world. They faced male dominance, male opposition and imprisonment.

I want to discuss women as an exemplar of best practice, but Britain is falling behind as an exemplar of best practice. I joined my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) on the recent visit of women parliamentarians to Pakistan, and I saw how a country that we would often regard as falling behind in the democracy stakes has moved forward on several issues. As she noted, 33 per cent. of the seats in its legislature—the National Assembly and the Senate—have been allocated to women. I hope that when we further consider the reform of our upper House, appropriate steps will be taken to ensure that a good percentage of women are there as of right.

I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s suggestion of the figures that we should aim for.

In one of the meetings that we went to, Minister Ehsan, the Minister for women and youth, said that the first step that she took when she became a Minister was to recognise that when women are suspected of committing a crime, that affects their families, their status, their children, and their relationships within their communities. She decided that all women should be automatically granted bail pending trial unless they were held on suspicion of crimes of terrorism or manslaughter, because, as she said, when we imprison women and take them away from their families, we are building additional problems for their communities, their families, their villages, and especially for their children. I feel particularly passionate about this, perhaps because we have no prisons for women in Wales. As a result, Welsh women face 100 per cent. of their sentence away from their community, their family, their children and, sometimes, their language—the language in which they prefer to communicate. That cannot be acceptable.

I was pleased to hear the recognition from my hon. and learned Friend the Minister that the women’s prison population has gone up by 126 per cent. in recent decades. The best strategy to reduce female offending is to improve women’s access to work, to improve their mental health services, to tackle drug abuse among women, to improve their family ties, and to improve the life chances of young women through our schools and in our communities. I have to acknowledge that the Government have achieved a lot on all five of those methods. However, every time we move forward—it is the great challenge for politicians—our communities say, “Well done, we expected you to do that, now what are you going to do?” That is what we have to face in relation to women and offending.

We have improved on the services and facilities that are out there in our communities, but there is still much more to do. We have to acknowledge that 71 per cent. of female prisoners have no qualifications. Our schools must not fail women in terms of the opportunities that they have when they are young, and our employers must encourage them to obtain those qualifications; otherwise, they will make it more likely that women will fail and face a life that could eventually lead into crime. We know that 65 per cent. of women reoffend on release. Our prisons must reduce that number by offering opportunities in terms of skills, education and family links.

We know that nearly 40 per cent. of women prisoners lose their homes. When people leave prison without a home to go to, they will almost certainly reoffend. It is a tribute to women that the figure is as low as 40 per cent. It is a tribute to their creativity, energy and determination, but it is a disgrace that we do not campaign more effectively and rigorously to enable women and men to have a settled and secure future on leaving prison.

If we want to stop reoffending, we must get rid of the constantly swinging door of choosing between sleeping on a friend’s sofa until the friend is driven crazy and reoffending to get back to some sort of security and a home. We must give people something to fight for. That can be a home.

The hon. Lady referred to 40 per cent. of women who lose their homes getting reconvicted. The overall reconviction rate for women in prison is 64 per cent., but only 47 per cent. are reconvicted following community service. Given her comments about the increase in the number of women in prison, does she agree that we should consider more appropriate methods of punishment? I do not say that women should not be punished. If they have done wrong, they must be punished. However, if the effect of the punishment is disproportionate when they leave prison, does she agree that we should consider alternative forms of punishment?

To clarify, I said that 40 per cent. of women lost their home while imprisoned. I shall deal with community service and community punishment later. I hope that we can continue the dialogue then.

The average reading age of prisoners in this country is 11. That is a national disgrace. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South said, when we were in Pakistan, we saw women who were desperate for education. They wanted to learn English and increase their educational opportunities. They recognised that that was the gateway to a future for their families. Women in this country feel the same way. We must focus on people who are struggling with their education, including their literacy, and put more effort into ensuring that no one leaves school with a reading age of 11.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the changes that we have witnessed in women’s lives, whether we are considering literacy or confidence, have recently been clearly attached to the introduction of Sure Start in our communities? Does she perceive Sure Start as another way in which to ensure, through expanding its activities, that the women about whom she speaks so passionately and appropriately benefit?

I endorse my hon. Friend’s comments 100 per cent. I visited my local Sure Start centre in north Cornelly recently to discuss child trust funds. I met very young women, who were first-time, single mothers. They were deeply committed to their child trust funds and their children’s futures. All were contributing additional funds to the trust funds because they wanted their children to have a future. They were determined to work hard to provide it for them. All the women were developing a life plan and making a commitment to what they would do and how they would move away from staying at home with their children, find work and develop their skills base while their children were still young and they had the opportunity of child care and support from the Sure Start centre. They wanted to improve their chances of work once their children were in full-time education. I therefore thank my hon. Friend for her helpful intervention.

We must accept, however, that one of the problems faced by women today is the incredible level of pressure. In trying to fight to move away from our past, and to enter the world as full partners alongside men, many women face a struggle. Rising numbers have mental health problems, especially in the prison population. Seventy per cent. of women prisoners suffer from two or more mental health problems, which is a disgrace. How can we accept that and not pour money into mental health and into diversions that will take women away from a situation that cannot help but exacerbate their mental health problems? Women are five times more likely to self-harm while in prison than men, and women do not self-harm unless they are driven to deep despair. This is a national disgrace: 55 per cent. of all self-harm in prisons is by women, and yet women are only 6 per cent. of the prison population. That is an epidemic, and we must do something about it.

Thirty-seven per cent. of women who are in prison will have made a suicide attempt before they were admitted to prison. We therefore know that a large proportion of women in our prisons are extremely vulnerable and fragile. Prison is not the way to deal with people who have mental health problems and who are fragile and vulnerable. Fifty-five per cent. of women who arrive at prison will test positive for class A drugs. With treatment, we can successfully help women deal with their drug abuse. All too often, however, that treatment is not available.

Prison is particularly damaging for women when it breaks their ties with their families, and especially if it breaks their ties with their children. The relatively small number of women’s prisons and their geographical location mean that the majority of women will serve their sentence away from their family, children and partners, on whom they may have to rely to look after their children. That is not acceptable.

Why are women in prison? Twenty per cent. of women’s prisoners have been through the child care system. Fifty per cent. have reported being victims of childhood abuse or domestic violence. Their lives before entering prison have therefore been chaotic. Are we helping to make their lives less chaotic by taking them into prison? Historically, our prison system has been designed to contain potentially violent male offenders. The system is unsuitable to deal with the problems of vulnerable women, many of whom had lives of abuse before entering the prison system. Half of those women have suffered from domestic violence and one third have suffered from gender and sexual abuse. Our most vulnerable women have therefore spent their lives being neglected as children, beaten as wives and imprisoned as women. The majority are not in prison because they are a danger to others; many are there as a result of petty crime. The commonest offences for which women are sent to prison are theft and handling stolen goods. Sixty-four per cent. of women offenders serve sentences of six months or less, and one third of that 64 per cent. have been sexually abused.

How are we to tackle the emotional, sexual and drug abuse that those women have experienced in their lives? How are we to tackle the illiteracy and restructure the employment opportunities of those serving sentences of six months or less? Would it not be better for us to concentrate on providing the community-based support, punishment and rehabilitation that non-violent offenders who pose very little threat to the wider community are best placed to receive? That would ensure that taxpayers’ money was better spent, it would provide more room in our prisons for those who are a danger to others, and it would enable officers in women’s prisons to focus on high-risk and repeat offenders. Crucially, the vicious circle of drugs, crime and dependency could be squared before those women’s children also become caught up in it.

I know a prison in western Australia called the Boronia Pre-release Centre for Women. Women are given just one opportunity to go to Boronia. Before they go, they are told “If you fail here, you will not be given this opportunity again.” They are allowed to keep their children with them until they reach the age of four, and with their children they live in small units of bungalows. They are offered education, jobs and skills. Hon. Members who visited the prison with me were shocked to discover that one of those skills was the preparation and serving of food, and that so proficient were the women that they provided all the catering facilities for judges on the western Australian circuit. I thought it particularly apt that the judges should be served by women whom they might have sentenced.

At the time when I visited the prison only one woman had reoffended, and I think we should look to it as an exemplar for the service that we could provide. Certainly, if Wales is to have a women’s prison, I hope that it will be based on Boronia.

This is an important debate. It enables us to think carefully about the needs of women in our world, and about how we can improve their lives and equality of opportunity still further. I am proud to be a member of a Labour Government, and I am pleased that the hon. Member for Solihull recognised the steps that the Government have taken to move the agenda forward. I hope the opportunities that we offer in future will mean that fewer vulnerable women take the road of offending and more follow a different path, the path towards secure families and secure jobs. I hope they will be helped to produce a generation that will continue to raise the status of women, and will allow their opportunities to grow and develop even more.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon). We were standing by the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst this morning in the sunlight, laying down flowers to mark what is an important day—international women's day. I was pleased to be there to lay down flowers on behalf of the Conservative party to mark that day.

Much progress has been made since the suffragette movement called almost 100 years ago for full and equal voting rights for women. Politicians today can celebrate a great number of things. Conservative Members will be celebrating the fact that the first ever female Member of Parliament sat on the Conservative Benches. That lady represented Plymouth, Sutton and has not been mentioned this afternoon, although other ladies have been mentioned at length. At the risk of incurring comments from Madam Deputy Speaker, the first female leader of a political party in this country was a Conservative, Baroness Thatcher, who became the first female Prime Minister. I was inspired by Baroness Thatcher to do what I am doing today. At the time I was inspired, I was living in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bridgend. When it comes to women in this place, it is to do with quality as well as quantity.

We have talked about many issues in the debate, and I should like to focus on one issue in particular but, before I do so, I think that hon. Ladies should reflect on one point. A number of us in the Chamber are new Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening). We joined the House in 2005. When I was sworn in at the desk down there, I was the 277th woman Member of this House. Many of my constituents find it shocking that, in the 90 years that women have been able to be elected to this place and to take their seats, we have yet to reach 300. While we may make party points about how many women there are on the Labour Benches and on the Liberal Democrat Benches, and how many women there are in the Labour party and in the Liberal Democrats, all of us have failed to get 300 women into this place. We should work together to do more to solve that problem.

The hon. Lady may want to reflect on the fact that, in the Labour in-take in 2005, out of the 40 new Labour MPs, 26 were women. That is the first time in our party's history that the majority of new MPs were women.

I think that that is great and I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising that point. We are doing a great deal in our party to increase the number of women in it. I just think that there is a philosophical difference in how we are going to do that. I thoroughly endorse my party's approach. We must ensure that we have women coming forward who want to do this job. I go back to what I said in my earlier intervention: for many women, this is not the ideal job. It is not something that they particularly want to do when they have a young family. For those of us who have young families, we know how difficult it is. I urge the hon. Lady to think about how we could make this more of a place that more women want to come to. That is important.

Before I move on to the main issue that I want to raise, I point out that there are many other women politicians in this country who do not get as much profile as they should. In Hampshire, I am delighted to say that we are just about to have a meeting to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women in local government. I am delighted to represent the county of Hampshire, which has 22 female county councillors. Indeed, my own borough council in Basingstoke has 18 women councillors. At local government level, we have found a way of enabling women to come through. We have heard that that has happened to an even greater extent at regional government level, too. That is to be applauded. I thank all those women in Hampshire who do so well to represent their constituents.

The hon. Lady is making an important point about local government. There are indeed more women actively involved, but it is still only 29 per cent. across all the parties and the age profile is older, suggesting that women still take on those roles when their families have grown up.

The Minister raises the important issue of older women who come into politics. There is much to be said for older women coming into politics when they have perhaps done another career, because they have experience that they can bring to this place or to local government. I appreciate that the Minister drew attention to that age profile to emphasise that such political roles conflict with child care duties, but we should not undermine the contribution that older Members of Parliament and councillors make.

International women’s day is about women seeking equality in society; an equal footing with men. How can they best achieve that? One important way is through the workplace. One of the major changes that has happened in the past few decades is the increased participation of women in the workplace, especially mothers. Now, 80 per cent. of the women who are employed in pregnancy return to work, a fact that I reiterate because I sometimes think that some outside this place can forget it. Those women account for a quarter of our female work force.

As people who are interested in these matters, we all know that two thirds of women with dependent children work. That is not a new phenomenon but has been a fact for a number of years, but that trend is increasing. It is the norm for children to be brought up with two working parents. It is certainly the norm in my constituency of Basingstoke. It is important for us all to remember that. Some say that the increase in female participation in the work force, especially in the past decade, has made a bigger contribution to global economic growth than developments in China. We cannot underestimate how much the increased participation of women has changed the economic focus of this and many other countries.

Why women are staying in the work force for longer is often debated in the media. It is perhaps worth revisiting the facts so that we have them before us. Yes, women are having children later. They first establish their jobs and perhaps have higher income potential as a result and that encourages them to go back into the workplace after having children; there is an economic incentive to do so. However, the majority go back not for career development or to keep their minds stimulated, although I am sure that that is an important factor, but because they need the money. They go back for financial reasons. Some 75 per cent. of women go back to work for financial reasons. It is little wonder when one looks at the facts.

There is an unprecedented level of consumer debt. Credit card debt among British women is now more than £11 billion and unsecured loans to women amount to £20 billion. The average overdraft of a woman in this country is £500. In total, female overdraft debt is £4.6 billion. Perhaps that is the new issue that feminists should be looking at. Debt is an important driving factor in getting women back into the workplace.

Women are already doing an awful lot to ensure that they go back to work on their own terms. Seventy-five per cent. of women change some aspect of their job after they have had a child. The majority of such changes relate to reduced working hours. It is about trying to improve the work-life balance. It is something on which I certainly think people should have more choice. The choice to return to work is important, and clearly there is a financial imperative for many women.

The Government have made great strides in increasing maternity provision, expanding child care provision and creating the right to ask for flexible working in certain sectors of the work force. Those are important and positive developments. I cannot underestimate the amount of additional changes that have been made, usually by large employers to their working practices to encourage more of their female workers back into the workplace after having children. Certainly in my constituency of Basingstoke a number of my larger employers—indeed, employers throughout the constituency—do all that they can to encourage women back into the work force. Why? We have less than 1 per cent. unemployment in Basingstoke. We need to use all our work force to the best degree; otherwise, we will find it difficult to fill jobs.

So progress is being made, but all too often it is still tough to make jobs pay after having children, despite the changes that have been made. The Minister will doubtless have seen the headlines just 10 days ago on the Equalities Review research, which pointed out that mothers face the worst discrimination in the workplace. Mothers with children aged under 11 are 45 per cent. less likely to be employed than men, despite all the work that the Government have done to date in this area. As I have said, many mothers try to change jobs to give themselves more flexibility; indeed, one in five mothers moves employer after having their first child to try to get more flexibility. However, the simple fact is that they all too often move to jobs that are less skilled. They downgrade to a lower-skilled job—this is downward mobility—and as a result their wages fall by approximately 16 per cent. Their wages fall not because they have reduced their hours, but simply because they are doing poorer-skilled jobs.

The simple fact is that this country’s economy is not maximising the full potential of these women. They account for an increasing part of the work force, but we are not maximising the true potential of that growing proportion of our workers. In many ways, we are trying to fight our economic battles with one hand tied behind our backs.

Reports such as the Leitch report are deeply concerning. There is clear evidence that the market in unskilled jobs—the sort of jobs that many women are being forced to take, so that they can have flexible part-time working to fit around their families—is drying up. There are some 6 million unskilled jobs in this country, but the Leitch report reckons that by 2020, there will be just 500,000. So a group of women is being forced to look at an ever-dwindling supply of low-paid, low-quality jobs that are far below the standard of work that they perhaps undertook before the birth of their child.

A lot of concern has been expressed about the impact on children of having a working mother. Everybody has a view on this, but a recent UNICEF report indicated some worrying trends in the outcomes for our young people not just in the past few years, but over a long time. Many Members will appreciate the concerns that exist about the rise in antisocial behaviour. I should be interested to hear whether the Minister feels that the trend for women who have had children to take up lower-paid, lower-skilled jobs sits well with trying to solve some of the problems that such reports have pointed out.

The hon. Lady is making some interesting points and I am listening to her with great care. She is not saying that working mothers are the cause of the increase in antisocial behaviour, is she?

No, I am not saying that at all. What I am saying is that there is deep concern, as evidenced in the UNICEF report, at the fact that there continues to be difficult outcomes for children, and one big change has been that mothers no longer stay at home as much as they used to do. There is a great deal of pressure on parents—be it single-parent or two-parent families—in their working lives. Indeed, there are many different pressures on families. The hon. Lady will agree that the breakdown of families is demonstrably affecting outcomes for children. The blame for these factors cannot be laid at any one person’s feet. However, the problems that we experience in family life in Britain today should be cause for concern in all parts of the House.

Does the hon. Lady accept that the problem is not that women are working, or even that both parents are working, but society’s unwillingness to set boundaries and limits on personal behaviour? That starts with children. Many of the nanny-type programmes on television, in which someone goes into a household where the children are behaving badly, are about helping parents to understand that their role as parents is to set limits and boundaries. That is not to do with working but with taking responsibility as an adult and a parent.

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. The important point to note is that if parents are present in their children’s lives, they are able to do that. If parents are working long hours under pressure and are not able to be there to put in place those boundaries, that is a difficulty. I am sure that she would agree with me about the need for employers to be understanding about the need for parents to be physically around more in their children’s lives so that they can put in place those boundaries.

It is interesting to consider what is happening in other countries, especially the US, where they have implemented many of the family friendly policies that the Government have implemented here. Despite that, the number of hours that women are working in the US has increased and that is a lesson for us to consider. Just implementing such policies is not enough. We need to consider further how we can give women the sort of flexibility that will give them the time at home to undertake the duties that the hon. Lady mentions. Parents need to spend time with their children to help them grow up, form their personalities and be good citizens in the future.

I should say that I am not a parent, but one of the concerns that many parents have is that even if they can fit their normal working hours around school times, school holidays can be a problem. There is a mismatch between parents’ ability to be around and the time that the children are at home.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and those of us who have school-age children can sympathise with it. While many employers are sensible and flexible, and understand the value of having women workers in the work force, they may find it difficult to accommodate that sort of flexible working. Sometimes they find it difficult to accommodate for good reasons—perhaps because they are led by their clients and need to be responsive to them—but sometimes it is because they have not considered the benefits to their company of embracing more flexible working. All too often, companies see flexible working as a way of retaining staff, but it can be useful in recruiting staff.

I can speak from personal experience, as before I became a Member of Parliament I was a director of a company. I found it difficult to recruit high quality, well qualified women. Sometimes the best women to employ were those who had children and needed flexibility in their working patterns, because they were dedicated to their jobs, they were reliable and they wanted to make the job work. Flexible working, even accommodating school holidays, can be one way to attract and retain the best staff.

The hon. Lady talked about learning lessons from the US about the flexibilities that had been introduced there. However, the US is not a good example, because of its culture of very long hours. The majority of workers have two weeks’ holiday a year, so their economy is very different from ours in the UK.

I would like to agree that the US is different, but I am not sure that it is. As a country, we have a reputation for very long working hours. I do not have the figures at my fingertips, but I think that this country’s working hours are among the longest in Europe, if not the longest of all. What problems do women who have had children and who want to re-enter the workplace encounter? How can we remove the pressure on them to downgrade their jobs and take lower pay?

One difficulty has to do with integrating the idea of part-time and flexible working with more senior jobs. For example, just 3.6 per cent. of jobs at the higher occupational and managerial grades are performed by females working part-time. In contrast, well over half of the women in clerical jobs are part-time. That shows the mismatch between the numbers of women able to work part-time in the better paid and more highly skilled jobs and those who can do so in less skilled and lower-paid employment. We need to consider how we can ensure that flexible, part-time working can permeate all levels of the job market.

At the opening of the debate, I listened with great interest to the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). She talked about the great advances that had been made with part-time working in the judiciary. I am not sure that I share her positivity about that, as I believe that much work remains to be done to encourage a more flexible way of working in all areas of professional employment. An idea was floated earlier about part-time working or sharing jobs in this place, but I think that that may be a little further off.

Another problem, according to the statistics, is that women who take up part-time employment on re-entering the work force earn 27 per cent. less per hour than their full-time counterparts. The financial burdens that women face mean that they need to re-enter the workplace—and they may also choose to go back to work—but what can the Government do to support them? Going back to work must be a positive choice for women, and they should not be forced to downgrade and accept lower rates of pay. That will not help us to maximise the potential of women in this country today.

Many statistics show that there are many benefits to be gained from adopting a more flexible approach to work for women. For example, two thirds of the organisations that have implemented part-time and flexible working report reduced absenteeism and staff turnover. However, we must make sure that the part-time jobs that are available are the right ones, and that they fulfil the potential of the women who do them.

The Minister for Women and Equality will wind up the debate, and I hope that she will set out what the Government are doing to help mothers to return to the workplace. Helping mothers on benefits back to work is very important, but so is helping all mothers, regardless of whether six months or six years have passed since they had a baby. Too many women in my constituency feel left behind by the advances in IT, for example, but they have also lost confidence in their ability to participate in the workplace. What are the Government doing to help them go back to work and be economically active in a way that fits in with their family commitments and with the training that they received earlier in their working lives?

Also, what can be done to help small and medium-sized employers, as they are often the ones that find it most difficult to understand the benefits of flexible working for women, both now and in the future? I am not talking about introducing regulation and making them feel that part-time working for women is a burden. Such companies need to be able to understand that flexible working can benefit them—something that I found out when I employed women on a part-time basis in the company that I worked for.

Earlier today, at the event that many Members attended to mark international women’s day, Baroness Boothroyd, the first woman Speaker, reminded me of the words of John Stuart Mill. In his work The Subjection of Women, he said:

“I think that almost everyone, in the existing state of opinion in politics and political economy, would admit the injustice of excluding half the human race from the greater number of lucrative occupations, and from almost all high social functions.”

Those words were read out today as we laid flowers at the memorial to Emmeline Pankhurst, and although they were written 140 years ago they are still highly pertinent, so I urge the Government to consider whether the policies they are pursuing truly address the issues.

Given the sentiments that the hon. Lady has just expressed, does she share my concern that her party’s selection of 14 male candidates in a row indicates that there may be a long way to go before we achieve equality of opportunity?

I thank the hon. Lady for making a relatively political point. All I can say is that we are doing much to encourage women to come forward for jobs in this place. We want highly qualified women with the experience to represent their constituencies here. Yes, it will take us time to fill those places, but we do not want the problems experienced by the hon. Lady’s party after the 1997 election, when far too many women MPs found that it was not the job for them. That does not help anybody. We need to make sure that the women who come to this place know the job and can commit to it for more than just one Session.

We need to make sure that the Government’s policies on women and the workplace truly address the issues that affect the 23 million women in this country, especially the 12 million in the work force, many of whom have families. At present, I am not sure that the policies ensure that they can maximise their potential for the benefit of our economy in the future.

I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate. I note that the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) says that we should mark international women’s day rather than celebrate it. She has a point, but we need to celebrate the huge advances that have been made for women in the UK and around the world.

In response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) said that talking about the number of women MPs was a political comment, but it is a good political comment, because it shows that political parties are taking seriously the need to have representatives who can reflect the community and society in which we live. As more than 50 per cent. of our citizens are women, it is right that the number of women MPs should be higher than the current 19.8 per cent., well behind countries such as Mozambique, Cuba, Costa Rica, Argentina and Belarus, which is shameful given that ours is the mother of Parliaments.

Obviously, I do not know why the voters of Putney chose a Conservative female MP over their previous Labour male MP, but the hon. Lady has hit on something: we need better representation of women in the Chamber, which I hope will eventually happen on both sides of the House. It is taking us some time, but we are making efforts to achieve it, as I hope she will acknowledge.

I am certainly willing to acknowledge that. As has already been said, if we leave things as they are without taking positive action, it will be generations in the future—our children’s children’s children—before we have a genuinely representative Parliament.

It was suggested that women find working in the House particularly difficult and that because of those difficulties many have chosen to stand down rather than continue working here, but does my hon. Friend agree that many Members—male or female—can find it a difficult place to work? It is not just women who find it difficult: some men, too, have stood down after one term because they have found the rigours and time commitment difficult to manage.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; she is absolutely right. Unfortunately, we have concentrated, as I understand it, on one woman who made a point about standing down particularly because of how the House operates. We all—male and female—have frustrations about how the House operates, and my hon. Friend puts the case very well.

On the same point, speaking as one who entered the House in 1997, I think that we should put on record the fact that a swathe of women did not give up. Most women who came in at that time have stuck with it—in spite of all the difficulties. As a pamphlet produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) pointed out, those women have made a huge contribution in raising many issues that would otherwise not be on the agenda. We hope that women Members coming forward from other parties will make a similar contribution, as I am sure they will.

It is worth stating that all political parties now recognise the need for a more representative group of MPs. I will concede that point, but I think that it is a question of how one goes about achieving that in a reasonable amount of time.

I would like to talk about the skills and abilities of women in this country and to recognise that there is still some way to go in maximising women’s potential and ensuring that they have a full role to play in society. I would particularly like to mention what is happening in my area of Yorkshire and the Humber.

First, however, I want to pick up on one of the comments made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) during what seemed a rather lengthy debate about the merits of Margaret Thatcher. A key issue for any woman MP is that we must be mindful of how best to assist other women to think about a career in politics, whether at local or national level. One disappointing aspect of the entire period of the first ever woman Prime Minister of this country was that she had only one woman in her Cabinet. That seems a great waste of an opportunity. A woman leader could have recognised other women in the Conservative party and promoted them, and it is a great pity that she did not.

We debated that subject at all only because so many people wanted to talk about it. There is a genuine debate about women and the management of the economy, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right that it is important for women in this place to encourage other women—from all parties, but mainly from our own—to become Members of Parliament. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) will agree with me about that, because I first got her to stand for the town council and now she is a Member.

I would like to move on and comment on two particular subjects. The first is the role of local government and how important it is to ensure good representation of women at local level. Secondly, I want to speak about women entrepreneurs and the need to support women in management and senior management and ensure that their voices are heard.

Local government is obviously important because it is the closest government to local communities. It is often a way for women to enter politics. I have found around my constituency that lots of women are involved in the community and voluntary sector. They stand as chairs or treasurers and they have important roles to play. However, there is still quite a lot of work to do in getting them to think about the next step up and about standing for local government. The figures show—the Minister put this on the record earlier—that about 29 per cent. of our councillors are female. That is still too low. It was 27.8 per cent in 1997 and 28.5 per cent. in 2001, and now it is 29.1 per cent. Progress is slow. If we look at the range of women who hold positions on local councils, we can see that they tend to be older and, often, retired women. To have a healthy democracy, we need a range of young, middle-aged and older people. We need to recognise the skills and experience that they bring to the job at various stages in their life.

There is a lot of work to do when it comes to encouraging women to think about standing for the local council. As has already been pointed out, it is a launch pad. If someone gets on to a local council and finds that they enjoy the cut and thrust of politics, they may want to think about standing for a regional assembly or for a national position as a Member of Parliament. It is vital to the health of all political parties that women are encouraged into local government.

However, if we analyse the role that women play in the new structures that many councils have—the cabinet structures—the findings are rather disappointing. In my city of Hull, we have a cabinet of 10 and only one member of it is a woman. That is disappointing. In Barnsley, it is one of nine; in Leeds, it is one of 11. York is slightly better with three of nine. Those are disappointing figures and we need to keep under analysis how the cabinet structure is working and whether it is really serving the needs of women councillors.

I cite the example of Trafford council, of which I used to be a member, which benefited from a female leader—who is now my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families—and a female deputy leader. The council got to the point at which it had women as 50 per cent. of the cabinet, and 40 per cent. of the Labour councillors were female. Does my hon. Friend agree that, again, it is a question of role models? We had two excellent role models in the leader and deputy leader of the council.

Role models are incredibly important. In Hull, we have had the benefit of Councillor Kath Lavery, who was the portfolio holder for regeneration—a key issue for the city. She led with distinction and came at things from an interesting angle. She was well respected in the business community and the wider community. Unfortunately, she is no longer in the cabinet, but we need role models like that, as my hon. Friend said when talking about her experience in Trafford. In Hull, years ago we took the decision to have a health portfolio holder in the cabinet structure, to address the health needs of the city. That was something new for Hull and it led to some innovative work in relation to the “eat well, do well” scheme, which I have commented on several times and which provides free healthy school meals in the city. That was pioneered and led by a woman cabinet member, Councillor Mary Glew. Having women in the cabinet can often bring a different perspective and a different view, which is welcome.

In 1994 I stood for election in the London borough of Tower Hamlets as a local authority councillor, and I was a member of that authority for eight years. One of the interesting and unusual things about that local authority was the wider range of ages among councillors; we also had councillors who represented all the different ethnic communities in Tower Hamlets. Many also held full-time jobs, so the council had to adapt itself and think about how it should structure meetings and when was the most appropriate time to hold a full council. Flexibility had to be built in. The council worked quite well and has achieved a great deal.

In the forthcoming elections in Hull in May—I think that it is the only place in the United Kingdom where this is the case—we will have three 18-year-olds standing for the Labour party, taking advantage of the changes brought in under the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which moved the age at which people can stand as candidates from 21 to 18. However, they are three young men, and it is a bit of a disappointment that we did not manage to get an 18-year-old woman to stand, because that would have sent a message about good role models. It would have shown that young women have a role to play in making decisions locally, just as young men do.

I want to comment on the NHS Appointments Commission, whose job is to make appointments to primary care trusts and acute trusts. The excellent chair of the Hull teaching primary care trust is a woman, but I noticed that recently, all non-executive director posts have gone to white men. I raised the matter with the commission, because there is an issue about non-executive roles being held by a representative group, and not just white men. For too long, white men have dominated the decision-making bodies in this country. The NHS Appointments Commission took my comments seriously, and I think that it understands the need to be a little more proactive in seeking out people—women—who have the skills and ability to work for a primary care trust.

I want to discuss women and enterprise. There is a fairness issue to consider, and we should make sure that women entrepreneurs are properly supported. There is also an economic argument; we should make sure that women use their talents and ability to set themselves up in business and help to regenerate areas such as Yorkshire and the Humber. Women entrepreneurs make up 6.8 per cent. of the UK’s working population. Obviously, that figure is small, and it needs to grow. Yorkshire and the Humber do not fare too badly, but I found that a number of women traders are sole traders working in the service industries, and particularly in hairdressing. There is merit in that, but we need to move women on, so that they grow their businesses and think about diversifying into other areas.

I was interested by the PricewaterhouseCoopers report about senior women managers that was published today. Unfortunately, some of the figures show a reduction in the number of women in senior posts, but an article on the report shows that

“among Britain’s top 100 stock market-listed companies there are now more women in “head of function” roles—which means they have someone reporting to them—than there were in 2002. Five years ago 11% of these positions were held by women while this has now increased to 20%.”

That shows that there is good work going on.

I particularly want to talk about the comments of Jackie Brierton, who heads Prowess, an organisation that supports women who want to start up in business. She says that a lot of women get to a certain level in the corporate world but then opt out and try to set up business on their own, because of the lack of flexibility that has already been mentioned today, and because of the focus on having to work long hours in a rigid way, and that is interesting. She says that in the past the evidence for that change has been anecdotal, but the report provides statistical evidence for that view.

Women in Yorkshire and the Humber have benefited greatly from an organisation called Women’s Enterprise in the Humber, which offers mentoring and support. Maureen Foers, the body’s project director, is a fabulous role model for women who want to set themselves up in business. She has had 35 years’ practical experience of running her own businesses, and she has assisted many women in the area who want to develop and grow their businesses. It was interesting to read about her background.

In 1971 Maureen established a business, and she said that it was an extremely isolating experience for a woman. Business networks mainly had male members, and that created a challenge for her, as it was necessary for her to bite the bullet and join them. To date, she has been the only female president of the Hull and Humber chamber of commerce. She was the first woman to be elected to the CBI’s Yorkshire and the Humber regional council, and she has been an active member of many local, regional and national partnerships. However, what is really special about Maureen is that she gives her time so freely to women who want to start up businesses. She is incredible. She is a very busy woman. As I said earlier, it is incumbent on all of us in business or politics to encourage and support women wherever we can, and what Maureen does is a fine example of that.

Hull university put together the “Empathy-Edge” project with European money to support women in management positions through e-mentoring, using various new technologies to ensure that women were supported when they took on their first management role. I had the great pleasure of going to one of its conferences and of hearing mentors and those they were mentoring talk about the positive outcome that that relationship had brought about and how both mentors and those they were mentoring had benefited from it.

Therefore, excellent work is being done, but more needs to be done. There are many challenges facing us, but I am very proud to be a part of the current Parliament. Of my intake, 26 of the 40 Labour MPs were women. That is fabulous, but we need to do more. I am sure that all the parties are trying to do more, but it is Labour that has delivered for women, not only in the number of MPs, but in legislation over the past 10 years.

This has been an interesting debate, which has teased out a lot of aspects of the life of women in this country. The title of the debate is “Women, Justice and Gender Equality”. I shall focus my remarks on gender equality, and in particular on the questions of what that really means and, to be provocative, whether it can be achieved.

Women certainly have numerical equality—we form 50 per cent. of the population—and certainly as a society we regard women as of equal value and equal importance. I find gender competition rather tedious, in the workplace in particular. I do not regard myself as a woman MP; I regard myself as an MP who just happens to be a woman. I can vouch that I have never encountered any gender prejudice in my journey through application and campaigning and so forth. [Interruption.] Several female Members do not agree, so clearly I have been fortunate. Perhaps people treat us the way we allow them to treat us.

I am not sure how the hon. Lady would explain the following anecdote that was included in the Fawcett Society report after the 2001 election. One woman from the hon. Lady’s party described being interviewed by a committee in which she was asked what her husband would do for sex during the week while she was in Parliament.

I know the person involved, and that was just one comment from one other person. The only instance of gender prejudice that I have encountered came from another woman, who asked me in the final meeting before I was elected—the special general meeting—“Because you’re so old and you’re brain isn’t working as well as it used to, how will you manage to read Green Papers and White Papers?” My instant reaction was to say to myself, “I must not rise to this bait”, and I assured her that I was like wine in that I was improving as the years passed.

I sympathise with the hon. Lady, and I certainly think that women in my party used to have such problems. It might be useful to her if I mention that members of my party are not allowed to make ageist, sexist or other such comments. Might it be helpful to suggest that course of action for her party?

I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution, but we are not allowed to say such things in our party either. However, once the words are out it is not possible to unsay them; it is not possible to get the genie back into the bottle. If somebody has said something, it has been said.

I wish to refer to a parliamentary trip I went on to Iran in 2001, soon after I was elected to the House. It was a cross-party visit for women MPs on women’s issues. There were 14 committees in the Iranian Parliament, and there was one woman MP on each committee. The trouble was that none of them spoke English, and I could not speak their language. Therefore, we were entirely reliant on interpreters. Every time I met one of those women, I asked the same question: “Are you involved in the whole spectrum of policy formation, or are you just consulted on how a particular policy will affect women?” My question was in my language, her answer was in her language. What happened as the words went back and forth I do not know, but I never did get an answer to that question.

The real challenge is equality of opportunity. It is not an easy matter because of one unavoidable, fundamental difference between men and women—that is, women have children and men do not, and that will never change. All the inequalities for women relate to that basic fact. Babies and children are treated equally, whichever gender they happen to be. In education, girls and boys are treated equally, although that has not always been so.

I will not disclose how long ago this was, but when I was in grammar school—I went to a co-educational grammar school, which was quite advanced for its time—it was not unusual for a male teacher to say to a girl pupil, “It doesn’t really matter if you don’t understand, because you’re only going to get married.” The word “only” made the remark even worse. It was demeaning because it implied that we were second class citizens of less significance than the boys, who would do all the important things in life. Happily, that would not be tolerated in our schools today, and the thought would not even pass through the heads of the teachers or head teachers in my schools.

The trouble starts when girls get into their teens. That is when they are extremely vulnerable because they are the ones who will produce the next generation. One of the places we fall down is in sex education in schools, which relies on the provision of a great deal of sex information. What girls need to be told is that if they become sexually active very young, they run the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, which can last for many years and affect their fertility, which the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) referred to in her remarks, or it can lead to unwanted teenage pregnancies and abortions, which can have long-term emotional and physical consequences.

What girls need to be told in those lessons is the realities of life; that if they indulge in precocious, under-age sex, often with unsuitable boys who have not the slightest intention of getting married or being a father, and certainly have no means of supporting any resulting child, those girls will bear full responsibility for bringing up a child at a time when they are still children themselves. Their education, training and employment prospects will be severely curtailed for quite a few years.

My hon. Friend is making an interesting point. In my local area there is pressure on closing walk-in centres for family planning and birth control. Does she share my concern that a primary care model centred around GPs is all very well, but teenage girls need access quickly to advice? They are not likely to ring up a GP and wait a couple of days.

I agree. Teenage girls need that advice, and they need proper warnings about all the risks that are involved before they embark on that course. They need to be encouraged to wait and get their education and their career prospects first, so that they and any children they might have in the future have a prospect of a good life in a married, settled family.

Does the hon. Lady agree that it is most important to focus not just on sex education, but on sex and relationship education? One of the big failings in our schools is that it is not delivered by properly qualified people.

The hon. Lady is right. Sex is not just a casual leisure activity, because the outcomes are so long term and serious. The emotional relationships that attach to that are very important and should be stressed. Girls need to know that they are the ones who will have to bear the brunt of the outcome. Boys often disappear into the ether, and women—we multi-tasking women—carry the consequences. Girls need to plan their lives with regard to how, when and with whom they will have children.

A young woman recently attended my advice surgery. She had been in an unsuitable partnership, from which she had a 10-year-old child. Her violent, drug-taking ex-partner had access to her daughter. She had gone to court to ask whether that drug-taking partner could be prevented from taking her daughter in a car when he had access, because she felt that that would be unsafe. The judge took the view that provided that the man undertook not to take drugs for 24 hours before he had access, the child would be perfectly safe. I do not know how that could possibly be monitored—the judge was of the opinion that the man’s mother could monitor him on the day before he had access. A lot more thought needs to go into the decisions that come out of courts. It is certainly important that both parents should have access to children, but in the interests of child welfare, a child should not be driven around in a car by a drug-taking father just so that he can access his right to his child.

Very early sexual activity can lead to, for example, chlamydia. Girls are often blissfully unaware that they have that infection until much later in life. When they have settled down, married and want to start a family, they find that they cannot do so and that the damage has already been done, and they need to be warned about such things.

The biggest effect on equality of opportunity for girls is proper sex education, because it affects their quality of life, employment opportunities and career development.

The hon. Lady has touched on an important debate that is currently taking place between health professionals, educational professions and parents. Will she enlighten me on what point in the education cycle such education would be suitable? I am talking about not only what one might describe as sexual plumbing, but relationship education. That is certainly a hot issue in my constituency at the moment.

The specific age is best decided by professionals who are specialists in that field in both health and teaching. Girls need to be prepared before they get into difficulties, but they do not need lots of information that encourages experimentation. They are already bombarded with sexual images through the television, DVDs, videos and teen magazines—there is pressure everywhere they look. There has been quite a lot of discussion lately about the style of clothing in shops for very young girls, which makes them look like mini-adults while they are still children. Those ideas need to be drawn together to protect young girls, so that they can get through their teens relatively unscathed before they step into the adult world.

I am listening to my hon. Friend with interest. She has not mentioned peer-to-peer education. The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) has mentioned relationships, and I think that we do not focus sufficiently in this country on peer-to-peer education. On issues such as drugs, sex and relationships, peer-to-peer education could be vital in getting through to young people as they are growing up, because it might help them to understand such matters from a perspective to which they can perhaps relate more readily.

It is certainly the case that advice is often better digested from a peer when it relates to their personal experience. Sharing best practice and, probably, worst practice in schools through school councils and peer groups is likely to be more effective than advice dispensed by adults.

When women get into the workplace, there are many pitfalls, mostly related to the fact that they have responsibility for children. Women with young children are bound to have to take time off work occasionally when the children become ill or something important is going on at school that they want to be involved in. They are therefore very reliant on child care, and it has to be good child care provided by somebody utterly reliable with whom the child is happy. That is not the easiest thing to find. When working women have child care problems—carers can get ill from time to time—that causes complications. Flexible working is needed, especially during school holidays. Often, two parents will need to have separate holidays to try to work in child care for their school age children. That affects the ability of the whole family to have a holiday together, which is extremely important.

All those factors make life very complicated. Of course, women are multi-skilled. They do not work outside the home instead of inside the home, but outside it as well as inside it. They run the nuts and bolts of everyday life in the house, probably doing the garden and the decorating as well; they often do pretty much everything apart from maintaining the car. They take full responsibility for the children and their homework. How many Members have been lying in the bath and had a child knocking on the door saying, “Mum, can you remember how to do quadratic equations?”, or “What’s the French for so and so?” There is not a moment’s peace, and life becomes a bit like a treadmill, but women can do it—we are multi-skilled.

I am slightly confused as to whether the hon. Lady is suggesting that flexible working should be available only for women. Would not many men also like to take care of their children and provide input into their lives?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I am using the word “women” because the debate is about women, but implied in that is the need for both parents to have access to flexible working. That does, though, produce problems for very small organisations—employers who may have only a handful of employees. It is much more difficult for them to allow an employee to have flexible arrangements or to be away given that the absence of one person can have a serious impact on the running of the organisation, whereas a large organisation can absorb those special arrangements much more easily through job-sharing and flexible times. When we introduce legislation that makes life easier for employees, we must remember the very small employers on whom it has a much more serious impact than larger organisations.

I should like to touch on the interrelated subject of midwifery. In my hospital trust area, I had three district general hospitals, one of which—Harold Wood hospital, where a large amount of midwifery services were provided—recently closed. We are left with a very nice new hospital in Romford called Queen’s hospital and King George hospital in Seven Kings. The new hospital is in the middle of the trust area, but new mums from Upminster and Cranham have to go to the far end of the trust area, to King George hospital in Seven Kings, for midwifery services, unless they are a high-risk case. It is very important that midwifery services are local.

Women also need ante-natal classes, which were stopped almost a year ago because of budgetary difficulties. Those classes not only provide medical treatment but have a social aspect, particularly for first-time mums who can compare notes with one another, and they need to be local. Some mothers have other children at school, and the difficulty of travelling several miles for a class often means that they will not go because it does not fit in with their other commitments. It is extremely worrying that there is a possibility of a second district general hospital closure in my trust area. That would leave us with only one. If that happens—it is subject to a “Fit for the Future” consultation—we will have to identify at least one and possibly two local sites for midwife-led centres. If such centres are to deal with most routine midwifery cases, what arrangements will be in place when an emergency occurs and women have to be transported to a hospital?

The Royal College of Midwives says that we have a national shortage of midwives and that we currently need another 10,000. The restructuring and reconfiguration of services to which I alluded will exacerbate that. I am therefore concerned about where the midwives will come from to serve all the pregnant mothers and new mums in my hospital trust area. That will be a high profile element of the “Fit for the Future” consultation.

I want briefly to mention domestic violence. I pay tribute to the Havering women’s refuge and its wonderful work in providing a safe haven for mothers and young children who have suffered domestic violence. It is a travesty of justice that the women and the children have to leave their home when the perpetrators of the violence remain there. The law needs to tackle the matter seriously.

I have already mentioned access to children. Trying to balance the rights of the mother to protect her children with the legal rights of the father, whom the mother regards as unsuitable for her children to be with, is a constant problem. We need to do much more, especially to control fathers and partners who are violent in the home but present a different face in public. Many women who suffer domestic violence are frightened to say what is happening. They think that they will not be believed because the public face that their partners or husbands present is so pleasant and reasonable. They think that no one could possibly believe what is going on behind their closed doors.

To improve status and opportunities for equality, we need first to change the nature of sex education so that girls are forewarned of all the risks of becoming sexually active too young and the possible long-term impact on their lives, education and career prospects. Secondly, we need to ensure that good midwifery services are available in all our hospital trust areas—especially mine—so that child care is given the high status that it requires. It is an important service that should be of high quality. Working mothers should be able to rely on it so that they can go to work confident that their children are happy and safe while they are away. Thirdly, legislation on the employment of women should ensure that small employers as well as employees can have confidence.

Like other hon. Members, I am pleased to speak on international women’s day. I want to talk about women and work, some of the barriers that have already been overcome and those that still need to be overcome if we are to have a more equal society.

I want to begin by describing my political journey to becoming a Member of Parliament. I had a professional career as an engineer and manager with IBM but I also realised the need for women to be involved in politics and in public life. It is interesting in the context of the debate to note that I began to feel that I could not pursue my career with IBM properly if I was also involved in politics. It seemed to be one or the other. In the mid-1990s, I was elected into local government in Trafford, and I managed the responsibility of being a councillor by becoming a self-employed consultant and adviser. It is interesting that it was difficult for me to pursue both my previous career and politics. Although Trafford had evening meetings, many councils in Greater Manchester had daytime meetings, which made it difficult for both men and women who worked to be councillors. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, the Labour group on Trafford council at the time provided a good set of role models, as it had a female council leader and, later, a female deputy.

In 2001, I first tried to be selected as an MP. To expand my CV, I thought that it was important to work nationally on health and social care issues. In 2004, I was selected as the candidate for Worsley constituency. In May 2005, I became one of the 26 women Labour MPs in what was, as several of my hon. Friends have mentioned, the first predominantly female new intake.

When I first became involved in politics, when Labour was in opposition, the ideas discussed in meetings were the need for child care, support for families, better maternity leave and pay and even the right to paternity leave. We talked about equal pay a lot, and closing the gaps in pay and opportunities between women and men. Thinking back, I never had equal pay when I worked for IBM: I even trained men who were at a much more junior level than me and then discovered that they earned more than me. Certainly, equal pay was an issue, as was the minimum wage. Matters such as flexible working and support for carers were not even discussed. It seemed unlikely that we would make progress on many of those issues.

Today, however, on international women’s day, it must be said that we have made substantial progress within a decade. In May 1997, very soon after the Labour Government came into office, a national child care strategy was introduced. That was one of the most crucial contributions to the area of women and work. The number of child care places is now double the 1997 level, at 1.3 million. Most importantly, for women with young children, free places in nursery or early education are provided for three and four-year-olds.

In April 1999, the national minimum wage was introduced, and two thirds of women benefited from that legislation. We should pay tribute to women Labour MPs, some of whom are in the Chamber today, who fought and stayed up at night, as did male colleagues, to get that legislation through.

In 1999, the Government also introduced the first ever national carers strategy. In 2002, the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act was introduced, which allowed positive measures to select more women candidates. That is relevant to the earlier debate that we had. The legislation was key, and most or all of the parties in the House will have to embrace such positive action if they want to make progress.

In 2003, the child tax credit and working tax credit were introduced. Importantly, as flexibility is key for women in work, flexible working rights were introduced for parents of young or disabled children.

The debate has touched on the issue of domestic violence, but I shall not talk about that in depth. However, the introduction of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 was important. Across England and Wales, there are now 64 specialist domestic violence courts, including one in Salford. As a Salford MP, I intend to work with that court, see how it is doing and try to champion it, which is an important thing for women MPs to do.

November 2004 also saw the introduction of the equality standard for sport to reduce inequalities in sport and physical activity. I took part in a debate on young people and sport in Westminster Hall last week—I was the only woman MP who did so, which is perhaps surprising—which explored the falling-off of participation in sport by young people, and particularly by girls and young women. That debate has now been dubbed the hair dryers debate, because we ended up discussing whether leisure facilities had hair dryers, and how off-putting young women found it if they could not dry their hair. Much the same issues are being explored by Dame Kelly Holmes, who is doing excellent work as national school sport champion.

The Childcare Act 2006 was important, in that it was legislation devoted entirely to child care. Also important are the Women and Work Commission, on which there is a Government action plan—we have just had a “one year on” update—and additional work to reduce the gender pay gap. Legislation introduced during the past decade is still going through Parliament: the Pensions Bill, for instance. That Bill is hugely important to women, particularly in reducing the number of years for which they must work to build up a state pension and in providing credits for caring as well as for child care. We should salute Barbara Castle for introducing child care credits, but caring is just as important as child care in women’s lives.

The commitment to sign the European convention on human trafficking is an important step, and we look forward to its ratification. April is a busy time this year: paid maternity leave is to be extended to nine months, the right to request flexible working is to be extended to carers of adults, and there is to be a public-sector gender equality duty.

All that suggests that we have made great progress so far, but as others have said today, we still have much to do to ensure equality. It is now acknowledged that there will be wasted potential in the United Kingdom world of work if women’s pay continues to be lower than men’s and if there is less time for caring, causing more and continued stress for people with child-care or other caring responsibilities. As recent reports have pointed out, that waste of potential will continue unless the world of work changes.

People need flexible working for a variety of purposes. They need it for parenting, or to care for older family members or a disabled child, but they need it for other reasons too. In some wards in my constituency, incomes are very low. We shall be able to help families and lone parents only if they can study, or train and receive skills qualifications, and move on. However, it is difficult for those who are working and have children to undertake courses or training.

Women play an important role in volunteering and working in the community. When I was a parliamentary candidate, I noticed that all the tenants’ or community groups to whom I spoke were run by women. I salute the women in my constituency who run community, tenants’ and residents’ groups. The estates in my community would not work as well as they do without the wonderful women who run them.

The Minister said earlier that it should be possible for all jobs to be part-time unless there was a solid reason to the contrary. The demand for part-time and flexible working will continue to grow. Over the next few years and decades more women will be working, and the number of carers, or people with caring responsibilities, will grow as well. It has already reached 6 million, and is expected to reach at least 10 million by 2010 and increase further thereafter. People will work for longer as a result of what we are doing here: changes in the retirement age are already planned for women born in the 1950s, and there will be changes for both men and women as the legislation kicks in. I see all those factors as drivers of change in the demand for flexible working.

Let me identify some other issues that are relevant to the world of women and work. I return to women’s representation, because we ourselves are drivers of change in that women Members of Parliament put these matters on to the agenda. How are we doing? We rank 61st in terms of women’s representation in politics, and when I think of the time I have spent striving to improve the lot of women in public life, I do not consider that very impressive.

I was pleased, as other colleagues will have been, to be one of 40 Labour MPs elected in 2005. There were 26 women in that group. That was the first predominantly female in-take of MPs. My personal experience is that that makes a difference for us. It makes a difference in that we have a grouping. Some of our male colleagues have complained that sometimes they feel out of it and outnumbered. I think, “Fine, I have experienced that for decades. You will develop some sympathy if you know what we experienced.” I was the first woman MP for Worsley and the first woman MP to represent Wigan. Since then, I am happy to say that the two local authorities, Salford and Wigan, have both appointed women chief executives. Barbara Spicer and Joyce Redfearn are excellent women and I hope that their appointment makes a difference in those authorities. They must be exceptional people already because only 21 per cent. of local authority chief executives are women. There are, sadly, very few in the north-west region. We have some way to go in local government.

Fifty-two per cent. of civil servants are women but only 26 per cent. of women in the civil service are in senior management jobs. That is up slightly on last year’s figures. In Labour Members’ meetings with Cabinet Ministers, we ask them to keep reporting back to us. It behoves women MPs to keep asking Cabinet Ministers what the position is on representation in their Departments.

From April, a public sector duty on gender equality will come into force. Public bodies will have to look at ways of improving that. We know that, without action, it would take 20 years to achieve equality in the civil service at senior management level. We have debated the figures. Depressingly, whatever figures we take, it will take over 70 years to get a representative House of Commons. Clearly, we are moving faster on that in the Labour party, for reasons that are obvious, I think.

Since I worked in the private sector, there has developed talk of glass ceilings and sticky floors. The first is defined as women being hindered in their progress to senior levels because of discrimination and/or—this is the important thing and perhaps where the debate is going—conditions of work at senior levels making it impossible for them to progress. I personally think that that is the thing to look at rather more. Sticky floors is defined as women being unable to progress from entry level jobs owing to the same attitudes or to the conditions of work. The Prime Minister visited ASDA recently and was told by a woman who was working part-time that she could not progress to being a manager because she could not take on shift work—she had child care commitments. It is clear that at every level that is an issue.

A couple of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), referred to the PricewaterhouseCoopers audit on women holding senior management positions. I understand that the audit was just of women holding senior management positions in the FTSE 350 companies and not of women in all professions, as was said earlier.

Comment has been made on that audit:

“This is a wake-up call for the FTSE 350 companies in Britain… they are creating problems for the future. Women are exiting corporate life”.

That is an issue. Interestingly, that audit, which is being reported today, is borne out by work done by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which found that thousands of women are missing from senior posts in business. We may need seriously to look at the reasons for that exodus. Lack of flexibility is being cited as one of the reasons. The commission recently said in one of its reports that flexible working is still seen

“as a deviation from the norm”.

That issue must be looked at.

The smaller number of women in senior management positions is significant because those are the women who may reach the boards of their companies in years to come. It may be that they are entrepreneurial and are getting out to start their own businesses, but that is not going to help the boards of those companies in years to come when they are still all male, or predominantly male. In the same way as there is a journey to achieving election here as an MP—in my case, local government and working on national health and social care issues—there is a journey by women on the career ladders in British companies. It should concern us that women appear to be coming off that ladder before they get anywhere near the top.

I have touched on the need for flexible working, and I want to conclude by running through some aspects of the caring role of women, which is also an important factor. Obviously both men and women are carers, but women are much more likely to care at the heavier end of the caring commitment. Women are more likely to care for a child with a disability while men are more likely to care for a spouse and they may do so after they have retired from work.

Importantly, research has been done by the Future Foundation into a generation of women in their 40s and 50s who are now caught between working and the need to care for an elderly relative. It is estimated that that group will grow by 50 per cent. by 2020. Indeed, increased longevity will mean that many more people will have to become supercarers, who look after an elderly relative as well as caring for either children or grandchildren. It is estimated that there are about 2.5 million supercarers, but that with population changes that figure will rise to 3.9 million. Most are aged between 45 and 55, and 80 per cent. of them— 2 million—are women.

Unsurprisingly, supercarers are less likely to work— 38 per cent. as compared to the national average of 45 per cent. of carers who work. So this dual care is a new factor that we have to start to look at. Of course, it is increasingly accepted that caring at the heavier end of commitment has an impact on the health and well-being of the carer. Research has, not surprisingly, shown that dual care has an even heavier impact on the life of the carer physically and mentally. Only 65 per cent. of dual carers are satisfied with their life compared with a national average of 75 per cent., and well-being among such carers is less than 60 per cent. compared with the national average of 65 per cent.

We have made great strides in getting carers on to the Government’s agenda. In 1999 the first national strategy for carers was introduced. Three Bills have been introduced by Labour Members that have given carers right