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Ministers for Women (Priorities)

Volume 463: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2007

Will Members who are not staying for this Statement please leave as quickly and quietly as possible? Thank you.

I would like to set out to the House how my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) and I intend to take forward our work as Ministers for Women. We are publishing today a paper setting out our priorities. The Women's National Commission has agreed that it will take forward a consultation outside the House on the priorities and I am grateful to it. Our work in government will focus on three issues: first, helping families who care for older and disabled relatives, as well as those bringing up children; secondly, tackling violence against women and improving the way in which we deal with women who commit crimes; and, thirdly, empowering black and Asian women to help them as a force for good in their communities and as they build bridges between communities.

Families need to have enough time and money to care for older and disabled relatives, and to bring up their children in the way they want. They need proper support from good local services for both older relatives and children. As Ministers for Women, we will build on the strong foundation of support for families which the Government have already delivered to ensure that all families have real choices about how they live their lives. On this, we will be working alongside our ministerial colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Treasury, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

This first strand of work will also include pressing forward with the Government’s commitment to tackle the pay gap between men and women—a gap that is not only unfair in principle, but which plays such a large part in the unequal division of labour in the home, preventing fathers from playing a more active role in their children’s early years and preventing women from fulfilling their opportunities at work. As Ministers for Women, we will also work with Ministers in the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Communities and Local Government on how health and other local services can better support families who care for older and disabled relatives.

The second strand of our work will be about women who are victims of violent crime and women who are offenders. Domestic violence still results in two homicides every week. It not only harms women but has a devastating impact on children. Human trafficking takes many forms and blights the lives of men, women and children in many different continents. Britain is a major focus for the global trade in the sexual exploitation of women by traffickers, who trick or abduct young women and force them into prostitution. We have done a great deal to step up action against domestic violence, sexual offences and human trafficking, but there is more to do. We need to ensure that the substantive law is right and make it clear beyond doubt that domestic and sexual violence against women, and human trafficking for prostitution, will not be tolerated. We will be working alongside Ministers in the Home Office and with my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General to tackle this.

On women who commit crimes, my noble Friend Baroness Corston found that many of the women in prison are there for minor, non-violent offences, and that many of them have mental health problems, or problems to do with drug or alcohol abuse. On women offenders, we will work with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice on taking forward the agenda so ably mapped out by Baroness Corston. We can and will do more to ensure that women who have offended are rehabilitated, and that women who are at risk of offending are prevented from doing so. As Baroness Corston outlined, we will do so through ensuring effective services for drug and alcohol addiction, and for mental health problems.

Thirdly, we will work on the issue of empowering women in black and Asian communities. Women play a crucial role working together in their communities, whether they are working to reduce crime in their area, like Mothers Against Guns, or working to improve local services by taking part in tenants and residents associations, school governing bodies and parent teacher associations, or whether they are Asian women, like Southall Black Sisters, working to support other Asian women. We want to do more to support and empower those women as they tackle problems within, and build bridges between, communities.

We will work closely with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to take our agenda forward. We will also work with Ministers from across Government to ensure that black and Asian women have fair opportunities to work and take part in wider public life, including by becoming councillors and Members of the House of Commons. I hope that we can take that work forward with the support of local government, and supported by, and working with, Members of the European Parliament. We will also work alongside voluntary organisations, women’s organisations such as Women’s Aid and the Women’s Institute, trade unions and employers. We want to work not just with our ministerial colleagues, but with hon. Members, both women and men, on both sides of the House.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for coming to the House to make her statement today. I certainly welcome the sentiment behind what she has said, and I look forward to working constructively with her, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) did with the Minister’s predecessor, to improve the lives of women in Britain. However, I am disappointed by the lack of ambition that has been shown in an area where there is still so much to be achieved. Will she confirm that not a single part of today’s statement is a new policy? I have to ask why, after 10 years in power, the Minister is only launching a consultation on the important issues that were mentioned.

We live in a time of rapid social and economic change. Even in the 10 years since 1997, the workplace and the world beyond it have changed remarkably. Government policy relating to women has to keep pace with that change, but it has not always done so. The issues confronting women are diverse and complex, so instead of having a one-size-fits-all idea of how women should lead their lives, Ministers must pursue a policy based on choice for women who are free and empowered to make their own decisions.

The right hon. and learned Lady said that she would focus on helping families, tackling violence against women, and empowering women in black and minority ethnic communities. Those are laudable aims, and when she comes up with new policies, we will support her if she gets them right, but as usual, the rhetoric exceeded the reality by some distance. She said “the Government have already delivered to ensure that all families have real choices”, but what about the 90 per cent. of families who use a relative or neighbour to care for a child? They do not get the support that is available to those who use Government-approved child care. What about women’s pensions? One in four single women pensioners lives in poverty, yet the Minister did not even mention pensions in her statement.

The Minister said that she will be “pressing forward with the Government’s commitment to tackle the pay gap”, but that implies that the Government are already making progress, and they are not: women who work full time earn 17 per cent. less than men. Does she accept that progress on equal pay has stalled? She mentioned violence against women. The Government have indeed acted on the issue of domestic violence, but does she agree that we need further action—and, I suggest, a change to police attitudes—on stalking, an issue on which the Government have so far done little? The Minister said, “We have done a great deal to step up action against…human trafficking”. The Government signed up to the convention on action against trafficking in human beings, but it still has not been ratified. In questions to the Minister for Women on 5 July, I asked when it would be ratified and what specific policy changes have been made as a result of signing the convention. The right hon. and learned Lady did not answer. Will she do so now?

The Minister said that she will work with the Justice Secretary to address problems with women in prisons. We know his answer to problems in prisons—he tends to let people out—but the crisis caused by the lack of prison capacity exacerbates the problems experienced by female prisoners. In the outside world, women are three times less likely than men to commit suicide; in prison, they are twice as likely to do so. Women prisoners are twice as likely as men to be held more than 50 miles from home. How can the right hon. and learned Lady reconcile the hope of improving the lot of female prisoners with the reality of overcrowded jails?

Today’s statement betrays the problem behind the Government’s approach to women’s issues—a problem that goes all the way back to 1997. While some changes are indeed welcome, there is no coherent philosophy or joined-up strategy that underpins that policy. That needs to change. I welcome the fact that the right hon. and learned Lady has set out priorities for women today, but I do not welcome the fact that there is so little substance in her statement. Women of all types and in all circumstances—mothers with children who are juggling their work-life balance, women in pensioner poverty, and vulnerable women—are looking to her for more than fine words. When she returns to the House to make her next statement on women’s issues, we expect substance, not style.

The right hon. Lady appears to agree that these are the right priorities—it is right to focus on families, violence against women, and to support women in their communities. I assume she believes that those are the right priorities, but she criticised us for a lack of ambition. If she wants us to be more ambitious, I would welcome her support for our programme becoming more ambitious. It is important that we will the ends as well as the means. It is not right to say that one supports families who want to balance work and home but then vote against the legal rights necessary to help them. It is not right to say that one supports the fight against human trafficking but will not work with colleagues in Europe to deal with a Europe-wide problem. It is not right to say that one supports women in black and minority ethnic communities if one will not support the financial investment in those poor and deprived communities that the Government have made.

I urge the right hon. Lady to join us in our commitment to do a great deal more, and will the means, not just the ends. Rhetoric—she is absolutely right—does not help a single family, does not protect one single victim of crime, and does not help any minority ethnic woman struggling in her community. We have done a great deal, but we have brought to the House a focus on priorities in areas where we need to do more. I acknowledge that we have not set out a list of new policies. We have said what our three priority areas are so that people in the House and, importantly, people outside it, know what we are focusing on and can work with us to achieve it.

The right hon. Lady talked about choice and people being free to lead their lives how they want. Part of the problem is that the less money someone has and the fewer services available to them, the less choice they have, so I look forward to her support for extra financial support and public services. She talked about the difficulty of families caring for children, and it is true that one of the big demands from families is that people should have more time so that they can care for young children within the family, which is why tax credits and the minimum wage are so important. If someone has to work all hours to make ends meet, they do not have any time with their children, so the minimum wage is not just about money but about time.

The right hon. Lady spoke about pensions. Women in retirement suffering from inequality and having a poor standard of living is a very important issue for the Government, about which my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform will say more when we discuss the Lords amendments to the Pensions Bill in the next item of business.

The right hon. Lady said that action on the pay gap had stalled, and she mentioned some figures. It is true to say that the pay gap between women working full-time and men working full-time is about 12 per cent., but the pay gap between women working part-time and men working full-time is 40 per cent., so I agree with her that much more needs to be done to tackle unequal pay, and I look forward to her wholehearted support for more radical measures. I will pray her in aid when I am talking to my colleagues on the subject.

The right hon. Lady said that we had not done anything about stalking. That is not the case. We introduced the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and we have done a great deal of work with the police, prosecutors and the voluntary sector to deal with the menace of stalking.

On human trafficking, it is not just a question of signing up to and ratifying conventions. It is what we do about the problem, working with the police, prosecutors and the courts. It is what we do about what is happening in our communities. I have a local newspaper, the Ham & High. The whole House should think about this. Here are some extracts from the personal ads:

“New Polish girls”,

“New Japanese & Korean girls”,

“Romanian ladies”,

“New oriental beauty”,

“All girls 18-25”,

“New tropical models”,

“Beautiful girls daily. All nationalities”.

We need to think—

No. We need to think of the demand side of the problem. Who is reading those ads? This is a very difficult issue. There is no consensus about how we deal with the demand side—the men, the fathers, the sons, the brothers, the husbands who are reading those ads and who are fuelling the demand side of global sexual exploitation of women.

I welcome the support of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for our focus on women in prison. I think we can make progress on that. We would welcome working co-operatively with her on it. She says that the problem behind our approach is a lack of—did she say ideology?

A lack of ambition, but the right hon. Lady did say something about a lack of ideology. Our commitment is to making sure that we tackle inequality and empower women. I hope she will work with us on that.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for the courtesy of allowing me prior sight of the statement. I take the opportunity to welcome her to her position. She has an impressive track record of working on women’s issues, and I hope that in government she will be a strong advocate for women on a wide range of issues.

In the statement, the right hon. and learned Lady rightly put support for families up front. One of the biggest challenges facing women is balancing their family responsibilities and their work commitments, although that is an issue for men as well. We should not pigeon-hole it as a women’s issue. Indeed, we will probably be able to conquer the problems only when men, too, are engaged with the changes that are required.

On the pay gap, the figures have already been quoted—12.6 per cent. for full-time work and 40 per cent. for part-time work, and we need to do more to reduce the gap. Will the Minister consider extending equal pay audits to the private sector? On flexible working, the paper published today alongside the statement says that the Government are considering extending flexible working to parents of older children. Does that mean up to the age of 18? Will the Minister go further and accept that extending to all the right to request flexible working would help to change our working culture and reduce some of the resentment that can be created when some colleagues have an opportunity to request flexibility and others cannot?

Clearly, affordable child care is an important part of that, and I welcome the Government’s moves to make child care more affordable. Are new resources being announced to facilitate that? If not, how does the Minister expect that that will be achieved?

I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that the part that was missing from the families section of the statement concerned women’s pensions. Later today we will debate the Pensions Bill. Although there are some welcome improvements for women who have taken time out to care for families, they will be applied only after 6 April 2010. The difference that that will make to women who reach pension age the day before is that they will lose out on £27,000-worth of pension entitlements. I urge the Minister to comment on whether she thinks that is fair. If we are really going to be fair to women on pensions, surely it is time that the Government went one step further and based pensions on residency rather than national insurance contributions, because even under the new plans women with fewer than 30 years of NICs will not be entitled to a full pension.

On violence against women, it is welcome that a lot of cross-Government working is planned. The End Violence Against Women campaign has been scoring the Government in this respect. They got one out of 10 in 2005 and two out of 10 in 2006, so I hope that the trend is on the up. I hope that this will lead to better cross-departmental working, because that is what the campaign says has been missing, although individual strategies have been in place, for example on domestic violence. What steps will the Minister take to create an integrated strategy involving all Departments to tackle violence against women, instead of a piecemeal approach?

The moves on women in prison are welcome. We will of course scrutinise the Government on delivery and the action that is taken. However, given that four out of five women prisoners have a mental illness, it is urgent that the situation is tackled, and we will give the Government support in doing so.

On trafficking, it is welcome that the Government have now signed the European convention against trafficking in human beings and is planning the new legislation that is needed to implement the actions necessary to deal with the problem. The advertisements that the Minister read out from the newspaper will have been shocking and horrific to us all. However, while all these things are being put in place, it would be helpful for the House to have some idea of roughly when we can expect the convention to be ratified.

It is well documented that black and Asian women in communities across the UK suffer more discrimination than white women or black and Asian men, so that is clearly an important issue for the Government to tackle. However, the Commission for Racial Equality recently expressed disappointment about the discrimination law review and is concerned that there may be proposals to wrap the equality duties into one single duty that ends up being weaker. What reassurance can the Minister give that new proposals to simplify existing equality legislation will not result in a rolling back or weakening of the current race and gender equality duties?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position and look forward to working with her. I thank her for her comment about the decades of work that I have done in this area. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage and I do not find ourselves on our own in taking forward this agenda. As well as the many men on the Labour Benches who support it, 97 women Labour Members of Parliament will ensure that it is taken forward.

The hon. Lady rightly says that this is an issue for men as well as women. If a new baby comes along and the father is earning much more than the mother is, he has to work increased hours to bring home more money while she works fewer hours to care for the child. The difficulty is that there is no choice. Because he is earning so much more, she has to be the one who takes more time off—they cannot share the responsibility equally or even decide that he will be the one who stays at home and looks after the child. Unequal pay is not just a matter of principle but a matter of choice within families at home. We have taken forward greater rights to paternity leave. Families are not just about women. Women shoulder most of the responsibility of the work of caring for young children and elderly relatives, but men increasingly want to share that responsibility, and we must ensure that the labour market and pay rates do not prevent them from doing so.

I agree with the hon. Lady that equal pay is important, but it is difficult to make progress in tackling discrimination in pay, or unequal pay, while it remains hidden. That is why I welcome our commitment to ensure that Departments publish gender pay audits, so that we can see what is happening in terms of pay rates.

The hon. Lady spoke about the right to request flexible working and suggested that everyone should have the right to request it. It is argued by many, particularly the Equal Opportunities Commission, that if everybody, not just those with children, or with disabled or older relatives, were entitled to request flexible working, it might reduce the hostility of those without children, or such relatives, towards those who have them. We must recognise that it is a social policy imperative to ensure good family care and support for children, disabled relatives and the elderly. We have to argue that case to people and say, “If you don’t have those responsibilities, you are freer at your work, and can do more work than those who are working on behalf of their own family and society as a whole in supporting and caring for elderly relatives, or bringing up children.” There is not a public policy equivalence between allowing flexible work in order to let someone play a round of golf, and allowing it so that someone can care for an older relative. I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s line of argument on that.

We have made progress on affordable child care, but—heavens above—we are just at the start. Many families are tearing their hair out because affordable, flexible, high-quality child care is still not available to them. We have a long way to go—there is no doubt about that.

The hon. Lady talked about inter-departmental working on violence against women. We are considering merging the inter-ministerial group on domestic violence and the inter-ministerial group on sexual offences in order to take an overall view across Government on violence against women.

The hon. Lady recommended that in order to tackle the problem of the inequality of men’s and women’s incomes in retirement, we should simply use residence in this country as the main criterion, rather than the contributory system. My view is that we must ensure that people can contribute when going out to do paid work, which should be recognised in their national insurance contributions, but when they stay at home, caring for elderly or disabled relatives, or children, that too should be recognised as a contribution, and they should be credited for it. The problem with our system is not that it has been contributory, but that the only contribution, which has been disproportionately recognised, is paid work, not the valuable unpaid work that women do in their families. That is the historic problem.

I agree with the hon. Lady that overcrowding in women’s prisons is a particular problem. It is cruel for women prisoners with mental health problems, who have offended because they were victims of violence and sexual abuse in childhood, or because of those mental health problems. We have a positive programme concerning women offenders, which has been ably mapped out by my noble Friend Baroness Corston.

The hon. Lady spoke about the review of discrimination law. There is no intention to have weaker legal duties; it is a matter of strengthening the role that the law can play in equality.

Finally, on the ratification of the convention on human trafficking, when I was Solicitor-General—a role that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) now has, and she is doing a terrific job—I worked with prosecutors in Brussels and many European countries, and with Interpol, and I can tell the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) that what we sign is very important, but beyond that is what we actually do. It is a question of what we do about the demand side. We are talking about billions of pounds of serious, organised crime.

I am in favour of ratification and implementation of any such treaty, but we need to consider some serious issues. What are we going to do about demand? Why is trafficking a multi-billion pound, lucrative serious organised criminal business? It is because men pay for sex with exploited, trafficked girls. We need to consider what we are going to do about that. We need to work further on whether and how to criminalise such exploitation. In Sweden, the problem has been tackled by making paying for sex a criminal offence. We must examine the way in which other countries try to deal with the problem.

Order. Many Members want to speak. May I make a plea for brief, single questions and short responses?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her statement. It is great to have the priorities laid out at the beginning of her term as a Minister and I welcome the fact that consultation will take place. I especially welcome the section of the statement on carers. What more can we do to help carers who are unable to work outside the home because they look after a disabled or elderly relative and may consequently live in poverty and also be isolated? Has she considered those issues?

My hon. Friend may well be aware that the Prime Minister announced a review of support for carers. We must all acknowledge that the subject will move up the agenda, given that people with disabilities live longer, older people live to a greater age and family care is the choice of the older person and of the family. The question is, as my hon. Friend points out, how we support people to make those choices without their suffering financial destitution and social isolation.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments about me and my work. I pay tribute to her work in setting up Cardiff Women’s Aid, which is an exemplar of tackling violence against women, and in child care in Cardiff, including Chwarae Teg, which was a joint organisation of employers, trade unions and women’s organisations for greater flexibility at work.

I warmly welcome the right hon. and learned Lady’s priorities for women in public policy, but they must be reflected in such priorities in the work of the House. Given that she is both Minister for Women and Leader of the House, will she conduct an urgent conversation with herself and then agree with me that it is monstrous discrimination against her that she is allowed to answer oral questions for only 10 minutes a month, that the time should be at least tripled, and that, given that she is Minister for Women, it is only right and proper that, in 2007, we should have a Select Committee on women’s issues?

The idea of having a conversation with myself and ending up agreeing with the hon. Gentleman is interesting. The point about setting out our priorities is that we will work alongside our ministerial colleagues as they take policies through their Departments, and they will be accountable to the House. Additionally, as women Ministers we are accountable. We must ensure that the priorities and objectives are clear and made mainstream in the work of different Ministers, who are then held to account by Select Committees.

All the time, we need to think about the structures of accountability and how we create a greater focus on the issues that we are considering. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments in that spirit.

I very much welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s emphasis on violence against women and her reference to the impact on children. I know that she is aware of the project that I am currently running with Women’s Aid called Kidspeak, through which we listen to the experiences of children who are affected by domestic violence. Does she realise that some of the evidence already shows that impacts include truancy, self-harm and poor school performance? There is also a terrible lack of resources to support those children. Will she urgently look into that as part of her priorities?

My hon. Friend set up the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence, which made me remember what a long way we have come since the days of Jo Richardson, who was politely ignored if she mentioned domestic violence once in the House and had people muttering behind their hands if she mentioned it twice.

My hon. Friend’s Kidspeak work reminds us that the old view that people should stay together for the sake of the children even while enduring violence misunderstood the effect of domestic violence on children. All the evidence is that even if children are not physically caught in the crossfire—sometimes they are and sometimes they are killed at the same time as their mother—they are always traumatised and damaged by being in a household where there is domestic violence. That is why it is important not just for women, but for children in the family.

I thank the Minister for her statement; we expect great things from both her and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett). The Director of Public Prosecutions gave a rousing and informed address to the all-party group on human trafficking yesterday and admitted that trafficking was on the increase. The Minister will not be surprised to know that the statutory police performance targets do not include trafficking, so there is no pressure on the police to apprehend traffickers.

In her consultation, will the right hon. and learned Lady look at the question of compensation for victims when traffickers are apprehended? At the moment, not one penny piece has been given by traffickers to their victims. One of the most important things that the Minister could do is to make sure that the victims of trafficking receive not only the identity cards that give them the right to stay in this country, but compensation for the awful ordeal they have gone through.

The hon. Gentleman says that he expects great things of myself and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. We will make great progress if we all work together on this. Many of these issues are difficult, but we need to recognise the scale of the problem and to take radical action. We have to build on these agendas or we will not make progress; we cannot be cautious. I hope that we can work with the hon. Gentleman, to whom I pay tribute, along with the other members of the all-party group, which does good work. I will consider and discuss with my colleagues his point about targets.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about compensation. The CPS has been focusing more not just on apprehending, prosecuting and punishing the offenders, but on seizing the assets. There are vast assets involved and the problem is that someone can spend a couple of years in prison, then come out and live like a millionaire. The more assets there are, the more they get reinvested in bringing more women from different parts of the world to be sexually exploited and raped in this country. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the importance of freezing and seizing the assets. He is also right about the importance of the courts using the powers to order compensation. I am interested to hear that he has already had a discussion with the Director of Public Prosecutions and I will discuss this with my ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and with the Solicitor-General to see whether we can encourage further progress in this respect.

Order. May I once again ask Members to ask a single question and for there to be a brief response? Many hon. Members are still hoping to make a contribution.

I very much welcome the priority given to women at work, especially tackling the pay gap. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look at the outstanding work being done by the YWCA, in its “More than one rung” campaign, in getting women apprenticeships in areas of skilled work that attract higher pay, such as building, electrical engineering and car work, so that they can earn more pay when they are training and throughout their working lives?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing to my attention the work that the YWCA is taking forward. She is absolutely right that it helps to tackle the pay gap. However, the additional point is that if young girls can see a future for themselves and have aspirations, that is the best way of avoiding teenage pregnancy and ensuring that they have financial independence. It was said to me a few moments ago by one of the officials with whom we were talking about teenage pregnancy that the best contraception is aspiration.

As my party’s spokesman on health and women’s issues, I welcome genuine attempts by the Government to improve the lot of women generally. However, I have some issues concerning the objectives. The right hon. and learned Lady has said:

“We are creating the Commission for Equality and Human Rights—a single equality body for race, religion and belief, gender, disability and sexual orientation—and we are currently consulting on the Discrimination Law Review.”

What will the Government do to protect the Christian ethos of the United Kingdom, where currently we cannot have nativity plays or send Christmas cards because that is deemed to be offensive to ethnic minorities? Could the right hon. and learned Lady expand on that?

Also, in relation to recognised—

Order. I have stressed the importance of asking just one question, because so many people want to make a contribution.

We have introduced legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of religion. There is of course no prohibition on people sending out Christmas cards; indeed, the House of Commons produces marvellous Christmas cards. We all send out box-loads of those cards and none of us has been prosecuted for doing so. As far as nativity plays are concerned, many hon. Members go to many nativity plays in primary schools, and long may they continue to do so.

Make no mistake: women welcome the Government’s focus on domestic violence and the progress that has been made over the past 10 years. However, those who work with and support victims, particularly women, are frustrated by the plethora of initiatives across Departments. I welcomed the comment about an inter-ministerial group. However, in the spirit of embracing talent, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider bringing on to that body people such as Sandra Horley from Refuge and women who work at Women’s Aid, who are the real experts, to assist that co-ordination?

The initiatives that we have taken forward on domestic violence, such as specialist domestic violence prosecutors, specialist domestic violence courts and extra support for victims, are important and make a difference. The only problem with them is that they are not yet rolled out so that every part of the country is as good as the best. Because of those initiatives and showing that they work, we have been able to make progress.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the important work of Refuge and Women’s Aid. They are the organisations that work on the front line and they are the experts. In every hon. Member’s constituency there are women working to tackle domestic violence. They are the experts. We need to listen to them and ensure that we do more. There is a danger, however, in that we must ensure that, while saying that we will not tolerate domestic violence and are determined to act on it, we back that up with practical action, because there is a such a big need for change.

A visible example of the inequality in society is the unequal provision of toilet and restroom facilities for women. What will the Government do to try to correct that imbalance in public buildings? Will the right hon. and learned Lady join me in condemning Tory-controlled Colchester borough council, which is building a public building worth £14 million, where 75 per cent. of the toilet provision is for males and 25 per cent. is for females?

Toilet facilities are a big issue for women whose young children need to go to the toilet—they often find that shops will not let them use their facilities—and for older people, who are disproportionately women. My own view of how to solve this problem is to have more women local councillors. If, instead of only one in four councillors being women, there were equal numbers of women and men, these issues could move up the agenda and be discussed with purpose and without embarrassment.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement and the Government’s commitment to dealing with issues of concern to women. Will she also press local authorities that are drawing up local social care plans to take into account the needs of women caring for elderly relatives? Those women’s needs often go unrecognised.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. She has a background of expertise in social care based on a great deal of experience, including her work in the House. However good the social services are, it is important that older people and people with disabilities are also supported by their families. However great the health services, social services and voluntary sector may be, family care is essential as well. As part of that, we need to ensure that our planning does not only involve building lots of housing for nuclear families. The infrastructure of the community must include facilities for children—playgrounds, schools and nurseries—and it must also have housing for old people, including granny flats, sheltered housing and day centres. We need to build “family friendly” into the planning infrastructure.

Does the Minister agree that we should be concerned equally about all prisoners with mental health problems, whether they be men or women? And if she really believes in equality between men and women, will she abolish her politically correct position, or at least create a Minister for men?

When the hon. Gentleman’s party was in government, it had a spokesperson for women who was quite often a man—[Interruption.] The Minister for Women in the previous Tory Government was often a man. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that women are still under-represented in the House of Commons. Indeed, there are still only 17 Conservative women Members of Parliament. To the extent that they are ensuring that he enters the 21st century, we will back them up.

I warmly welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement. What steps will be taken to build on the excellent work of the Sure Start schemes, some of whose funding is coming to an end? They have transformed the lives of many vulnerable young children, and their mothers, in my constituency, particularly in Leek and Biddulph. They have done a tremendous amount of valuable outreach work and developed excellent children’s centres, creating a real legacy for the future.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I know that she did a great deal to ensure that those two Sure Start centres were opened in Leek and Biddulph. The Sure Start programme is still being rolled out, and the first centres are in place. We all know from our experience of talking to parents whose children are in Sure Start centres that they are incredibly important for those children. We will be pressing on, irrespective of various bits of research that suggest that they are neither useful nor popular; we believe that they are both.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned the 2010 pension changes, and I congratulate the Government on those changes, which will be of huge benefit to many women. However, although some women will benefit to the tune of £20,000 to £30,000 over the whole of their retirement, it seems unfair to bring in the changes overnight, because that could result in someone who is only one day older suffering poverty throughout their retirement. May I invite the Minister for Women to co-ordinate a meeting between me and my hon. Friends and her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to look at ways of phasing in the provision so that more women can benefit from the Government’s very good scheme?

I know my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions are concerned to work with as wide a group of people as possible, and with both sides of the House, as we work together to tackle the pensions problem. The Minister for Pensions Reform will deal with those issues when he discusses Lords amendments under the next item of business before the House.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement. Last summer, I spent a considerable amount of time with the Wolverhampton police domestic violence unit, which expressed real frustration with the problems it faces in getting women who are domestically abused actually to take legal action against their abusers. Will my right hon. and learned Friend undertake to incorporate the suggestions and ideas of groups such as the police—and, indeed, the voluntary sector, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) mentioned—in the formulation of her cross-ministerial policy?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Those who commit acts of domestic violence should be prosecuted and brought to justice; otherwise, the sense is that someone assaulting a person while walking down the street will be brought to justice, while someone assaulting a wife or girlfriend behind closed doors will get away with it. We need to get the message out that domestic violence is a crime that will be tackled, so it is crucial to bring offenders to justice. The difficulty is that many women fear that if they report domestic violence or give evidence in court, they will be even more at risk. That is why it is so important for support services—Victim Support, voluntary organisations and local authorities—to support women in taking action against perpetrators of domestic violence. I pay tribute to the many women who are prepared to go to court. They know that if they want to walk away from it and get on with their lives, they must ensure that the man does not get on and assault his next girlfriend.

In demonstrating the seriousness with which the right hon. and learned Lady takes her role and acknowledging the importance of fair treatment for women in work, will the Minister for Women liaise with the Financial Secretary and the Minister with responsibility for prisons to stop the proposed closures of the tax offices in Kettering and the Prison Service office at Crown house in Corby? The work force at those places are overwhelmingly female, with women often working part-time and having child care responsibilities. In my view, the proposed closures of those offices are completely discriminatory. If the Minister for Women means what she says, those closures should be stopped.

I am told that a gender impact survey is being carried out on the effect of those changes. I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my ministerial colleagues.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the work as Solicitor-General she did for bereaved families—the Mullane family in my constituency, for example—after women have been killed through domestic violence. Is she aware of the excellent work done by the Wiltshire police, who have made domestic violence a priority, particularly by opening a domestic violence treatment centre in north Swindon? What discussions has she had with ministerial colleagues across Government to enable the lessons from such centres to be learned?

The domestic violence homicide that took place in my hon. Friend’s constituency was a tragic killing of a woman and her young son. Clearly, important lessons must be learned from that experience. I am pleased to hear about my hon. Friend’s support for the work of the Wiltshire police. I would add that one thing that we should do is ensure that the substantive law is right. I am concerned when it is still possible for a man to escape a murder charge if he goes out, buys a knife, comes home and kills his wife as he has planned. If he can convince the court that he killed her only because he loved her and if he can secure the defence of provocation, the charge will drop down to manslaughter. That is why we need to reflect further on the substantive law and the message it sends out. We cannot allow the victim to be blamed after being killed.

Does the Minister agree that the incidence of successfully prosecuted rape is significantly low by comparison with the number of cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service? Is it not time to reconsider the tests used by the CPS, and to determine whether they are appropriate to the prosecution of rape cases?

The test for a prosecution is, and I think must remain, whether there is enough evidence, whether a jury is more likely than not to convict on the basis of the evidence that there is, and whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. It will almost inevitably be in the public interest to prosecute in cases of rape.

I think that the rate of convictions for rape—convictions as a percentage of reported offences—is falling either because reporting is increasing as a result of an increased incidence of rape, or because women are now more likely to be confident enough to report it. Possibly it is a bit of both. However, we must do more to tackle rape. It tends to be a repeat offence, and unless the perpetrators are brought to justice there is a danger that further victims will suffer.

I welcome the statement, and was pleased to hear my right hon. and learned Friend mention the Corston report and the need to implement its recommendations. Can she confirm that it will be a priority for her office to improve the services available to women when they leave prison and that, crucially, they will be available at the point of release to help prevent reoffending and women from falling back into the abusive relationships that often led them to prison in the first place?

I think it extremely important not just for us to do more to prevent women from falling into offending, but for women who are sent to prison to be better prepared for life outside it. The work of the St Giles trust in my constituency involves former women prisoners meeting women as they come out of the prison gates to help them ensure that their lives stay on track.

At my constituency surgeries I regularly receive delegations from ethic minority groups, especially Kashmiri-Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups. They tell me that it is difficult for women to integrate and play a part in the community because they do not speak English, and that they are having terrible problems securing funding streams for the voluntary groups that are trying to help those women to speak English and become part of the community. Will the Minister tell us how that money can reach the front line? If she cannot do so today, will she meet a delegation from my community?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will be examining those issues specifically. We need to ensure that women can work together to support other women in their local communities, and to support women taking up roles at work or in public life.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for highlighting the Swedish model, and that country’s treatment in law of prostitution. It criminalises the buyer, who is usually a man, rather than the seller, who is usually a woman, which is interesting in view of the fact that its Parliament is rather more representative than ours in terms of gender balance. I believe that the balance is almost 50:50, if not more. Does my right hon. and learned Friend see any correlation between those two facts?

I think that women’s representation in the Swedish Parliament means that an equal number of women and men have addressed the question of how to prevent women from being trafficked into Sweden and exploited for sexual purposes. The Swedes take the view that prostitution does not involve a working relationship, that it is not a job but sexual exploitation, and that in the 21st century we should hope for a better relationship between men and women than one based on men paying women for sex. I think that they have a point.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A (Programme motions),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Pensions Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 16th January and 18th April 2007 (Pensions Bill (Programme) and Pensions Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at this day’s sitting.

2. The Lords Amendments shall be considered in the following order, namely 15 to 24, 1, 12 to 14, 28, 2 to 11, 25 to 27, 29 to 73.

Subsequent stages

3. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

4. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

Question agreed to.