Bob Neill, Shadow Minister for London, has posed an intriguing question:
"Robert Neill: To ask the Minister for Women and Equality whether the Equality and Human Rights Commission recognises the Church of Scientology as a religion or faith. 
Maria Eagle: The Equality and Human Rights Commission recognises all religions, faiths and beliefs in terms of its duties to protect people from discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief. It is up to the courts to decide whether Scientology is a religion or faith within the terms of the Equality Act 2006."
That reply suggests that there is no settled answer. What do readers think - should Scientology be treated in a reverent way? Should any religion?
And are any of you Scientologists? Hot on the heels of the Conservative Humanist Association, could a Conservative Scientologist Society be next?
Oral questions on Women and Equality also took place in the Commons yesterday.
Shadow Justice Minister David Burrowes stuck up for the rights of Christians:
"Does the Minister share my concern that equality legislation is in danger of being brought into disrepute by cases such as that of nurse Caroline Petrie, who was disciplined for offering to pray for her patients. Do we not need to tackle the concern of many with religious beliefs, and of Christians in particular, who themselves say that they are facing increased discrimination?
The Solicitor-General: I do not think that that question was about the equality legislation that we are bringing into force. Clearly, everybody has to behave in a balanced and sensible way, and the whole point of the legislation is to promote good cultural relations and good relations among people of all kinds and all faiths. We will drive on with that purpose."
(The Solicitor-General is Vera Baird.)
Worthing West MP Peter Bottomley also had a question about Christian matters:
"As well as doing what the law requires, will the Minister use her good offices to interview any Church of England bishop who says that he will not appoint a suffragan who is prepared to ordain women?
Maria Eagle: I have to be careful about getting too involved in the internal affairs of the established Church, but I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the appropriate people. He will no doubt be aware that the Second Church Estates Commissioner has questions on 19 March."
Norfolk South West MP Christopher Fraser made a very good point about the funding structure for rape crisis centres, which is an ongoing problem:
"What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of funding arrangements for rape crisis centres. 
The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): This financial year—in addition to local authority funding and £1.25 million from the victims fund—the Government have paid out £900,000 from a £1.1 million special fund for rape crisis centres. Since the special fund was announced in March 2008, no rape crisis centre has closed. My officials have been working closely with Rape Crisis England and Wales and the Survivors Trust to shape how this year’s special fund will work. We will announce details of the fund shortly.
Christopher Fraser: Many local authorities do not receive the funding that they need to establish rape crisis centres. Will the Minister commit to instituting a three-year funding cycle for rape crisis centres in all local authorities?
Ms Harman: As I have said, we have increased the funding to local authorities and through special funds. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that it is important that he and all hon. Members look at what their own local authorities are doing and whether they are providing the services for which they have been financed. I would also say that the money and the investment in those much-needed services come from the Department for Communities and Local Government budget and the Home Office budget. Those are two budgets on which his party has not offered to match the funding that we are promising to put in. We want more funds to go in, but Opposition Members express concerns while not even being prepared to match our spending. I think that that lacks conviction."
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and Shadow Minister for Women Theresa May has made the text of her speech available to ConservativeHome. Here it is in full:
"Mr Speaker, this is an important debate, and would have been timely even if it had not coincided with International Women’s Day this Sunday. For all the talk about bailouts and bankers’ bonuses, it is in the homes of millions of families across the country that the effects of the recession are most severely felt, and our thoughts must be with families struggling to pay bills or facing redundancy.
And we must be clear that the recession’s effect on women is not limited to the workplace. For example, women carers who rely on savings have been badly hit financially, not to mention their concern that local authorities will be forced to cut back on vital services that they rely on.
It is appropriate to concentrate particularly on women this afternoon. There is no ‘typical’ woman, and women will be affected by the downturn in different ways: as both employers and employees, as small business owners and entrepreneurs, as mothers, carers, home-owners, pensioners – women in all parts of the country will feel the effects on them and their families. This is the human face of recession, and it is essential that we take the right action to see people through it.
I do not believe that the Government has got to grips with how it is going to get us out of this mess. Whether it’s the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor or the Business Secretary, we have seen a flurry of activity that has grabbed headlines but seems to have had no real effect. This ‘headless chicken’ approach to policy-making is not going to help women and families or businesses.
Conservative MPs posed questions on women and equality yesterday.
Maria Miller, Shadow Minister for the Family, asked about pay equality:
"What steps the Government are taking to reduce the gender pay gap. 
The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): Because there are many things that lie behind unequal pay for women, we are acting across the board to tackle it, particularly by supporting women who are going out to work as well as caring for families with young children or older relatives, and by strengthening the law to tackle discrimination.
May I say how intriguing it is to see that the Conservative Front-Bench team for women and equality consists of 75 per cent. men and 25 per cent. women, but perhaps it is a good sign that the men in the Tory party are applying to join the honorary sisterhood.
Mrs. Miller: The most recent Government statistics show that women are losing their jobs at twice the rate of men in this recession. Beyond exposing illegal discrimination, what are the Minister’s plans to address the problem, which could further entrench the gender pay gap that women still have to endure in this country?
Ms Harman: We are well aware of concerns across the board about job loss during the recession. Because women are employed disproportionately in retail and in financial services, we have to look at the effect of the recession specifically on women. We have to look at the effect of the recession on women because women are still the main managers of the household budget. That is one of the reasons why we will make a focus not only of the work that we do through the National Economic Council and across Government Departments, but of the work on the issues that will be raised in the G20 when it is hosted by this country in April. Everybody is affected by the recession, but women are affected differently, so we need to focus on that."
Someone very cruel has persuaded Harriet Harman that she is a wit.
Mark Harper, Shadow Minister for Disabled People, was unfazed:
"I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her characteristically generous welcome to me.
In the other place on Friday, on the Second Reading of our Equal Pay and Flexible Working Bill, the noble Lady Vadera said that the Bill was unnecessary because the Government are to introduce an equalities Bill, which will contain measures on equal pay. Can the Minister confirm that her equality Bill will contain all the measures that are in our Equal Pay and Flexible Working Bill?
Ms Harman: In our manifesto, we committed to bring forward a new law to strengthen the laws on equal pay that previous Labour Governments had brought into force, and we have consulted since then. It is disappointing that the Conservative party did not put forward proposals for consultation. In the Bill, we will strengthen enforcement and toughen the law. The Opposition should table proposals, if they want to, when we introduce the Bill, or simply support our equality Bill when we introduce it in April."
Once again I feel bound to ask whether Labour ministers ever reflect on their lack of success since 1997 in achieving goals which they profess to be important to them.
"In June 2001, Saira Shah, a British journalist, revealed the horrific lives of many ordinary Afghani women. She was assisted in her efforts by RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. She exposed an Afghanistan where women were excluded from jobs and medical care, where education was denied them and where war widows were forced to beg on the streets of Kabul. This was Afghanistan under Taliban rule. On International Women’s Day in 2007, some six years after our invasion, RAWA said that,
“the world came into motion in the name of liberating Afghan women and our country was invaded, but the sorrows and deprivation of Afghan women has not just failed to reduce but has actually increased the level of oppression and brutality”.
UNIFEM, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have many statistics on Afghanistan, and I will share some of them. Some 86 per cent of Afghani women are illiterate; 87 per cent of the Afghan population still believe that a woman needs male authorisation to vote; every 29 minutes a woman dies in childbirth; and 50,000 war widows live in Kabul alone, and many still beg on the streets. The number of girls in secondary school is decreasing; 80 per cent of women face forced marriages; nearly 60 per cent are married before the legal age of 16, despite the 2005 protocol to,
“eliminate child and forced marriage by 2008”.
Sadly, that honourable aim is unlikely to be met by then or at any time in the near future.
I acknowledge that some progress has been made. As we know, 27 per cent of Members of the National Assembly are women, but only one serves in the Cabinet and, sadly, too many are ineffective and subdued. Indeed, in recent provincial council elections, not enough women came forward to take up the women’s quota, resulting in some of the reserved women’s seats reverting to men. I pay tribute to Malalai Joya, a brave and determined young Afghani parliamentarian who more than deserves the international accolades that follow her, but whose life is under constant threat.
Amnesty International writes that,
“women continue to face severe violence both within and outside the house”.
Theresa May MP: "Has the right hon. and learned Lady assessed the impact on women of the latest £2 billion raid on pensions as a result of the Chancellor’s pre-Budget report? As she said, fair wages and equal pay are important factors if we are to overcome female pensioner poverty. When the Leader of the Opposition and I launched our policy to combat the gender pay gap, the right hon. and learned Lady said that it was “very interesting”. As that pay gap is widening, has not the time come for action rather than just warm words? Given that the Government have taken our lead on inheritance tax, aviation tax and non-doms, will she now take our lead in this area and adopt our policy on equal pay?"
Harriet Harman MP, Minister for Women and Equality: "As someone who has campaigned to push equal pay up the agenda for many years—I have done so for decades—I think that it is important that we all work together to challenge the fact that women are not paid as much as men. The pay gap between women part-time workers and men full-time workers is 40 per cent. None of us can possibly accept that they are worth 40 per cent. less. I will look at any proposals the right hon. Lady brings forward. What is important is not whose idea a proposal is, but whether it is a good proposal that is fair and helps people."
More from Hansard here.