Inside Parliament: Challenge to '17th-century mentality': Bill would allow women who kill partners to plead provocation - Minister defends employment conditions of female workers - Beckett offers Prime Minister co-operation on new seat-belt law

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Parliament was urged yesterday to rid the law of a piece of 17th- century thinking and allow a woman who kills her husband after prolonged violent abuse to enter a defence of provocation.

The Townswomen's Guild recently presented a petition with 40,000 signatures to the Home Office calling for a change in the law. The campaign is supported by groups as diverse as the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the TUC women's committee and Southall Black Sisters.

Three Bills have been submitted to the Commons in the last five years. Introducing the latest - the Homicide (Defence of Provocation) Bill - Harry Cohen, Labour MP for Leyton, explained that at issue was the law that a murder conviction carry a mandatory life sentence.

'It is despicable that a woman who has suffered years of persistent violence and then acts out of fear for herself or her children should be treated as a common murderer and put away for life.'

Over the years it had been obvious the law operated differently for men and women, Mr Cohen said. Women were barred from pleading provocation if the killing was not the result of 'an immediate loss of control'. Men more often acted immediately and their greater strength could mean instant death. 'The present law and the judicial system interpreting it seem to work upon the basic expectation that women must be completely obedient, submissive and subservient to their male partners' every whim.'

The same assumption did not apply to men. In February, a man was given a two-year suspended sentence after stabbing his wife 23 times and leaving the knife sticking in her throat. The provocation was her adultery. In 1991, a man killed his partner by kicking her in the stomach while she was drunk. The judge expressed his sympathy with the man, saying: 'This lady would have tried the patience of a saint.'

Time and again the message was clear. Women could be murdered because they were having affairs, because they were drunk or were nags. 'It is the age old message that is used against women whenever men do something violent to them . . . 'She was asking for it'.'

Mr Cohen's Bill stands no chance of becoming law, but introducing it gave the MP 10 minutes of parliamentary prime time to press the case. The Labour peer Lord (Jack) Ashley is due to introduce a similar measure in the Upper House next week.

'This is an issue that will not go away,' Mr Cohen said. The Select Committee on Home Affairs, Lord Lane, the former Lord Chief Justice, and the present incumbent, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, had all recommended a review of the law of homicide. The question was: 'Does this Parliament still have that 17th-century mentality or does it feel the time has come to change this unjust law?'

The truce on party politicking in the wake of John Smith's death more or less held through Question Time, though Ann Widdecombe, Under-Secretary for Employment, admitted to provocation.

Her Labour shadow, Ann Clwyd, said that under the Conservatives women were still treated as 'second-class workers'. Only in Ireland and Luxembourg, among European Union states, were women's average earnings lower as a proportion of men's than in Britain.

But Miss Widdecombe said Britain had the second highest proportion of women in work in the EU. It was also the only country in which female unemployment was lower than that of men. 'Mrs Clwyd should be congratulating the Government. The tone of her question sorely tempts me to be less moderate than I am genuinely trying to be today.'

Employment questions inevitably brought John Prescott, one of the potential candidates for the Labour leadership, to the despatch box. The Labour employment spokesman did not engage in any overt electioneering, but restated the party's commitment to a statutory levy on employers to pay for training. 'The problem of training in Britain has been the lack of adequate finance to produce the skill that is required and industry does not do it voluntarily,' Mr Prescott said.

The acting Labour leader, Margaret Beckett, pressed the Prime Minister over fitting seat belts in coaches and minibuses and promised Opposition assistance to get legislation through the Commons. Urging speedy publication of a Department of Transport report on the technical and cost implications of fitting belts, Mrs Beckett said safety organisations, coach operators and the general public had been calling for them for a considerable time.

John Major said the report had been delivered to ministers, but indicated they would now need to take into account last Sunday's minibus crash in North Yorkshire in which two cub scouts died.

It was open to customers to ask if belts were fitted, the Prime Minister said. However, he added: 'I wish to give no indication of the outcome of this review until we have had time to reach a conclusion based on all the evidence.'

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