It is a great pleasure to be here this morning, with women Members on both sides of the House, taking part in such an important debate. There are few men present, but those who are here seem a bit embarrassed during part of the speech by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). I am particularly sorry that the Secretary of State is not present to hear us all speak.
Women's health is not important only to us. It is equally important to our partners, our families, our children and all the people we care for. We must get that point across. I, too, regret that the debate is not taking place in prime time, and that this is not a parliamentary occasion with the Benches packed with the male Members who are in the majority here. Nevertheless, I welcome the debate, and I should like to expand on what was said earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson). We are discussing not merely health but stress, poverty, work and, in particular, the environment—all the issues that promote good health, not just the way in which the National Health Service is used to treat ill health.
The hon. Member for Billericay expressed regret that not enough doctors were prepared to specialise in women's issues. I particularly regret the closure five or six years ago of the South London hospital for women, which was one of the major training grounds for women. We are now beginning to experience the bad effects of that closure. Not many female consultants and medics specialise in the different kinds of women's health care, and that is reflected up and down the country. A report produced last week clearly showed that proportionately very few women make it to the top in medicine.
The Minister said that our health was in our hands. I take issue with that. Some of our health is indeed in our hands, but so many other aspects are in the Government's hands. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) asked where the money would come from to fund a clinic to help menopausal women, and perhaps to extend the provision to set up well woman clinics all over the country. I do not think that it is enough to say that we do not care where the money comes from. The Government should be providing a lead. An integral part of NHS funding should be the provision of well woman clinics, where women can simply walk in without fear or embarrassment. The reason for a visit may be a means of uncovering all kinds of other illnesses or conditions for which the woman could receive support. That would benefit not only her but her family and her employer.
A range of issues affect women as women. First, family planning services have been cut dramatically. Two thousand unwanted and regretted pregnancies have been occurring every year because clinics are closing down. Women who are no longer able to walk into a clinic and obtain advice have no choice but to go to the local GP, who is often very busy and often male. He may not even be fully trained in contraception, and is more than likely to prescribe the pill as a matter of course—which is the best thing that a doctor can do when he is busy and far too many people are coming to his surgery every morning. There is a clear need for much more direction from the NHS to provide family planning clinics.
Secondly, a woman is likely to have babies at some stage in her life, which brings us to the subject of maternity services. My constituency contains one of the largest maternity hospitals in the country. Recently, I met the midwives who work there, and heard at first hand that, although they have a very good centralised unit—one of the largest in the country—the shortages mean that it is being run on the basis of midwives' good will. There are not enough resources to enable them to provide the full and comprehensive service that they would like to provide.
I did indeed smile when the Minister mentioned her initiatives to encourage more women to breast-feed. But hard-pressed midwives will not be available to advise all the patients who come into the hospital. They cannot tell all the new mothers how important breast feeding is. Short staffing means that it is impossible to provide a continuous service, from the time when a woman first knows of her pregnancy until the time when she gives birth. As the mother of two children, I know that it makes a world of difference for the midwife to be there from the beginning, to be present at the birth and to visit the woman at home afterwards. That gives a new mother the best possible start.