My hon. Friends and I are glad that the Government have chosen the subject of women's health for debate. I do not denigrate the value of Friday debates but in some ways wish that the debate could have been held in prime time during the week, when more hon. Members could have been here; I know that many hon. Members have to get away on Fridays. Nevertheless, I am glad to see that a representative number of hon. Members are present.
Doubtless the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security will recall that we had a debate about cervical cancer screening during our recent proceedings on the Health and Medicines Bill. We now have the opportunity to consider all aspects of women's health and to identify and discuss some of the problems facing women, especially women who have little money and who are hampered in trying to live a healthy life. I am a little disappointed that in the catalogue that the Minister gave us, she took a rather blinkered view in some respects; she confined her remarks to the medical aspects of women's health without considering the social causes that often lead to women's ill health. Nevertheless, the fact that the Government have chosen women's health as the subject of this debate is an acknowledgement of the fact that they have begun to take it much more seriously. In that regard, I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) who did much as shadow Minister for Health and to my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) who is doing much now to push the Minister to accept various schemes.
I begin by firmly dismissing the Minister's oft-expressed contention that many of the problems of women's health are women's own fault. The hon. Lady is very fond of expressing herself in lurid language. She has not done so today, but she would acknowledge that she frequently does. I wonder whether she realises just how hurtful that lurid language is to women struggling in an unjust society to maintain their families and to keep them together, to find and keep a job and to cope with bad working and housing conditions. For women who are home workers the last two often go together. There was an interesting article in last Sunday's edition of The Observer dealing with the problems, including health problems, facing home workers. I shall do no more than quote the remarks of a women whose case was cited in that article:
I used to work a 90-hour week to get the money I needed to live. My daughters used to come in from school, eat and start sewing … We were absolutely desperate for money … I challenge anybody to check, sew and label a dozen sweaters at the rate they set and earn more than 66p an hour.
The Minister may think that that quotation is irrelevant to a debate about women's health. However, poverty is one of the conditions that take a toll on women's health. Judging by her speech, the hon. Lady does not even begin to understand that. I hope that she will not mind my reminding her that on 11 March 1985, before she was a Minister, she made a speech on unemployment and industrial policies. She advocated the employment of part-time women workers as opposed to male full-time workers, who she said had all the protection of employment legislation. She also said that full-time male workers
will probably receive holidays and so on."—[Official Report, 11 March 1985; Vol. 75, c. 87.]
The implication is that women can work without the benefit of a yearly break that might help their health. The Government have removed what minimal protection women had and fulfilled the Minister's hopes as expressed in that speech by decreasing the rights of workers and the
obligations of employers. They have increased the risks to women in terms of stress, which has a profound effect on their health.
I shall deal briefly with women's health in connection with work and I hope that my hon. Friends will discuss the matter at greater length. The 9·5 million women now in work account for 45 per cent. of the work force. At work women often cope with equipment designed specifically for men. They suffer from the same health problems at work as men but they are also subject to specific problems such as tendonitis and to the scandals of VDUs. Those are just two of the problems that predominantly affect women. When shopping, I have often noticed the problems faced by women at the check-out and I have discussed those problems with them. They often have to sit in an awkward position on a swivel stool handing goods from the basket on to the counter with one hand and using the other to check up the price. I have noticed that many of them rub their shoulders and complain of back ache. All such factors cause women stress and strain and bad health.
All too often women's work does not end at the factory gate or the door of the shop. Most women still have the sole or major responsibility for looking after the home and many are carers who care for the old, the sick and the young. In recent years many reports have highlighted the problems arising from those circumstances. It is to their credit that most trade unions—notably, the National Union of Public Employees—are taking up with employers issues such as stress and its effect on women's health.