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Orders of the Day — Sex Discrimination Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:09 pm on 22nd May 1986.

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Photo of Mrs Elizabeth Shields Mrs Elizabeth Shields , Ryedale 7:09 pm, 22nd May 1986

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech.

I should like first to pay tribute to the former hon. Member for Ryedale, the late Mr. John Spence. He was a modest, conscientious and well-known constituency Member. His sudden death came as a great shock to us all. I met him on several civic occasions, when he was unfailingly pleasant and courteous. He will be greatly missed in the constituency and I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in extending deepest sympathy to his wife and family. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

A fortnight ago the electorate of Ryedale bestowed on me the great honour of representing them here. For my part I have promised to do my utmost for all my constituents and to ensure that their major problems, which derive directly or indirectly from Government policies, are raised in Parliament.

This Mother of Parliaments has seen many fine sons of all shades of political opinion grace this hallowed Chamber, not least, of course, those who have sat on the Liberal Benches. But the number of her daughters is far too few for the continuing health of the nation. A balance between the sexes is both desirable and necessary. I trust that in the not-too-distant future there will be a greater representation on all Benches of the House of the nationwide majority. I take special pride in being the first Liberal lady Member elected since 1951 and only the fifth in the history of my party, the last being the daughter of David Lloyd George. I believe that some of the values and sensitivity that women can bring to public life are unfortunately absent from politics today.

By tradition new Members may say something about their own constituencies. Ryedale, stretching 60 miles from the market town of Easingwold in the west to Filey on the coast in the east, and 50 miles from the northern suburbs of York to the breathtaking beauty of our Yorkshire moors and dales, is one of the largest constituencies in England. However, many people, including members of the press, have found Ryedale something of an enigma because there is no specific town or village of that name, although we have a river Rye. Ryedale's exact geographical location has therefore caused not a little puzzlement to the many interested parties who, for one reason or another, found it compelling to visit us in recent weeks. I should like to clear up one misconception: Ryedale, like Wensleydale, is a very attractive tourist area of north Yorkshire, but unlike Wensleydale, Ryedale is not a variety of cheese.

Ryedale's greatest asset is its people who, with their genuine, innate warmth and friendliness, combined with the straightforward, outspoken way of calling a spade a spade, make this part of north Yorkshire the best place in which to live or take a holiday. Beautiful it certainly is, but many people of all ages throughout Ryedale have a housing problem. The Government's right-to-buy legislation has enabled council tenants in all three districts within the constituency to purchase their property, a measure with which I agree.

However, Ryedale district council has a statutory responsibility to provide rented accommodation for specific groups of people. More than 2,000 are at present on the waiting list, of whom some 900 are in real need. Therefore, when housing stock is being sold off there is a need for new build to cope with the demand. The embargo on the spending of the district's own capital receipts—except for one fifth—hits unnecessarily hard at a council one of whose priorities is to provide decent, adequate housing for the elderly and indigent.

Our rural communities will also suffer from the results of the Transport Act 1985 on bus services, in that village routes through Sheriff Hutton and Foston, Coxwold, Wass, Byland, Duggleby and the Barughs have not been tendered for. These sound rather quaint but the quaintness of the names belies the fact that real people live there. Even the main service from York through Malton to the coast will be severely curtailed in the evenings and on Sundays. I hope that before October, when the Act comes into force, more routes will be registered and the anticipated competition for less popular areas will materialise, but even the subsidies to be provided by the North Yorkshire county council will have disappeared by 1990. Many villages could then be totally cut off.

I should like to draw attention to the fact that great concern is being expressed by residents at Filey, where the threatened removal of the local coastguard next year is causing considerable alarm. The population of Filey and its hinterland is increased many times to about 100,000 during the summer months as tourists flock into this popular resort. The great bay of Filey, eight miles round, is watched over by a special lookout at the coastguard station. As soon as any swimmer, or a boat or any of its occupants is in difficulty, takes very little time to go to the rescue.

But if, as has been suggested, Filey's deceptively beautiful bay is deprived of its watchman, and the responsibility for the safety of the many children and adults who use it is delegated to Scarborough and Bridlington, each with its own stretch of coastline, I shall share with the people of Filey the fear of many tragic consequences. I feel sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House, especially those whose constituencies include part of our coastline or its innumerable islands situated offshore, will sympathise in this matter, which is not political, but a question of human safety, and one in which monetary considerations must not be the overriding factor.

But many people in my constituency are really worried —not so much for themselves and the present as for their children and their future. Ryedale has extensive rural areas with some 200 village communities, many of which support a local school. Sadly, several of these first-class village schools, such as Ganton, Reighton with Speeton and Flaxton, are under threat of closure. This is due to cuts in staff by 0·4 or 0·6 of a teacher, which effectively leaves the head teacher as the only responsible adult on the premises for two or even three days a week. Apart from the obvious safety risks, dedicated, well-qualified and trained primary teachers are thus being deprived of employment. This is a waste of a human resource—the most important resource that any country can have.

As an educationist, I obviously have a special interest in all aspects of the system. The confusion over the introduction of the GCSE examination, the enforced early retirement of university teachers, the reduction by 20 per cent. in the real value of student grants since 1979 and the generally low ebb at which morale in the teaching profession is standing, show that a major reassessment of education policies is urgently required. Although a new Minister has now been appointed—I wish him well and hope that one of his priorities will be the GCSE—I remind hon. Members that it was a Liberal Government who introduced free education in 1870. It may take another Liberal Government to restore morale in the primary and secondary sectors and maintain standards in further and higher education.

The Sex Discrimination Bill which is the subject of today's debate aims to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 so that it comes into line with the European Community directives on the equal treatment of men and women. I hope that equality of opportunity will, as a result of the Bill, enable more women in the teaching profession to reach positions of seniority as deputies or heads of school. Too often, their inability to gain success in that way is not due to lack of qualifications, training, or experience, but simply to the fact of their sex.

The Equal Opportunities Commission has argued that conditions of work should be good for men and women. The protection that has been afforded to men in the baking industry through the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1954 should now be afforded to women. Good conditions for all should be the objective. The Labour party amendment is addressed to that point, but my hon. Friends and I believe that it does not go far enough. In spite of the Bill's inadequacies in that respect, we believe that it is a useful measure. We intend to vote for it tonight and I hope to have the chance to amend the Bill in Committee.

On 8 May, the people of Ryedale gave me the opportunity to become their voice in Parliament. Today, I have had the opportunity to make my first contribution. I thank the House for its attention and look forward to playing an active part in the debates that lie before us.