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International Women’s Day

Volume 541: debated on Thursday 8 March 2012

Topical debate

Greetings to all Members of the House on international women’s day. This is such a popular debate that it is necessary to have a five-minute time limit on speeches. If there are interventions, I am afraid that the time limit will have to go lower than five minutes. However, I am sure that we can all co-operate and ensure that everybody who wishes to participate in the debate manages to speak.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of International Women’s Day.

Each year, the United Nations declares an overall international theme for women’s day. This year’s theme is “Empower Rural Women—End Hunger and Poverty”. It is right to recognise that giving power to women is one of the most effective ways of ending poverty, but it must be real economic and political power, because when women get close to power, men too often take it back. We saw that in the Arab spring, when brave women who led the early protests were subjected to sexual assault.

Giving power to women ends hunger, because women’s money gets spent on children. Although we expect 1 million more children to be born in Britain over the next decade than in the last, this Government have targeted children. Children are due to pay more than bankers towards dealing with the deficit. Welfare reform, which is trumpeted as a plan to make work pay, is hitting the poorest working families with children, many of whom will lose tax credits worth £3,800 because they are unable to find more working hours. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that one in five companies has cut down on hours, whereas only one in 17 has increased them. The Government have not even exempted families where one parent is caring full time for a disabled child from the demand that at least 24 hours are worked to qualify for such tax credits.

At the other end of the pay scale, mothers are due to lose their child benefit. Child benefit replaced the tax allowance because it was recognised that delivering child support to a mother is the best way of reaching children. Soon, Britain will be one of the only countries in the developed world that lacks a universal mechanism whereby people who do not have children contribute to the costs of child rearing through the tax and benefits system.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. I am a bit disappointed that this is becoming a political rant, when there is so much to celebrate about women in this country. Does she think it is right that I receive child benefit when I earn £65,000 a year? Will it be in her party’s manifesto at the next election to bring it back?

I am old enough to remember the invention of child benefit. It ended a child tax allowance system that advantaged the richest more. The great thing about child benefit is that it says that all of us are responsible for children. It ought to be universal. It is, in effect, a tax allowance for children. It is quite wrong to suggest that it is a benefit from which richer people should be exempted. Everyone who has children should be responsible for them.

I want to give everyone the opportunity to get in. Although I am happy to take interventions, I think that I should resist so that more Members have a chance to—

I have just explained why I am not giving way.

We are told that the proposed universal benefit will make work pay, but for whom? It will end the tradition, built up in the Labour years, of paying family benefits to the main carer in the household, who is usually a woman. Men will be the default recipient. As a result, women and children will get less.

I have explained why I am resisting. I want to give more people a chance to make the contribution that they want to make. I think that that is right in this debate. I am talking about the real situation for women today. I would like to be able to celebrate the progress that women have made; I am explaining why I fear the situation is going backwards.

As I was saying, women are paying 70% of the cost of deficit reduction, with £13.2 billion coming from women and £5.7 billion from men. Women are being squeezed out of the labour market. Record numbers of women are jobless. The biggest jump in unemployment has been among older women aged 50 to 64—up by 20,000 in the last quarter. At the same time, unemployment among younger women went down.

We are facing a crisis for this group of older women. They have faced the shock that their pensions are to be deferred and they need to use these crucial years to build up their pensions. However, they will find it hard to find a new job. Often, women are losing jobs in the public sector, where there is a better record on equal pay than in the private sector. That means that women’s snail-like progress towards equal pay risks sliding backwards. Older women are sandwiched between supporting their children, who are staying at home longer, saddled with university debt, because they cannot afford their own housing, and supporting their elderly parents, who are being failed by a health service made increasingly chaotic by Government reform. The next debate will focus on carers, so all I will say is that this Government’s failure to grasp the challenge of care has delegated responsibility for it to the nation’s women, which just is not fair.

If the prospects for women at work and for women’s income are gloomy, what about elsewhere? Everywoman Safe Everywhere, a commission chaired by the former Member of Parliament for Redcar, shows how women have become less safe. There has been a 31% cut in refuges and services that tackle domestic violence. Some 230 women are turned away from a refuge on a typical day. The suggestion that housing benefit will no longer cover the service provision in refuges is a further threat to refuge provision. When women move on, they will be entitled only to the single room rate of housing benefit.

I will never forget the Iraqi woman refugee in Slough, a qualified radiographer, who was slowly being made mad because she was so scared by living in a house, and sharing a kitchen and bathroom, with young men who had no respect for her religion or her privacy. We are about to do that to women who are leaving refuges.

Removing from the DNA database the samples of men who have been accused but not convicted of rape, when we know both that convictions are hard to secure and—

I will, but the hon. Lady must understand that by intervening, she is reducing the time for other speakers.

I will be very quick. Does the hon. Lady welcome the Government’s determination to open more rape crisis centres for women?

Absolutely. In order to make more time for other speakers, I cut the bit of my speech that I had written in which I welcomed that, and I cut other things as well. I have frequently praised the Government for putting on a secure basis the funding for rape crisis centres, which used to arrive under the previous Government but was utterly unpredictable. That is the one thing that the Government have done that will make women safer, and I welcome it.

I do, and I welcome the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) in championing it on behalf of her constituent who was a victim. I am glad that it will be brought in. In a way, I would have liked the announcements that were made today at some reception in Downing street to be made in this debate. The Government should have told us here what they were going to do, which would have provided an opportunity to debate their plans in the international women’s day debate.

As I was saying, removing from the DNA database the samples of men who have been accused but not convicted of rape, when we know both that convictions are hard to secure and that rape is a serial crime, is irresponsible. Other public sector cuts, from railway stations to street lights, will make neighbourhoods more frightening for women.

Here in Britain, a separate theme has been identified for international women’s day—“Connecting girls, inspiring futures”. I really wish that we offered girls here in Britain a more inspiring future, but I am afraid that this generation of young women will probably be the first to do less well than their mothers.

Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the least inspiring things that we could do would be to leave a giant deficit for those girls to pay off with their future taxes?

There are other ways to tackle the deficit than to target women and children. I do not think it right, on this day, to argue that it is right to do that. If we make the world more unequal, we make a sad future for our daughters. I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s work on, for example, pornography. I have been proud to support her campaign to enable mothers to protect their daughters and sons from pornography on the internet. There are things that we agree on, and we should celebrate them, but we should not use that celebration to paper over the risk that pay is becoming more unequal, opportunities are becoming fewer and women are becoming less safe. That is not a reason to celebrate on this international women’s day.

Since the introduction of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, there have been 257 forced marriage protection orders, five recorded breaches and one person sent to prison, and in 2010 alone 1,735 people were supported by the Government’s forced marriage unit. The youngest victim was 12 and the oldest 73. In just a few short years, that legislation has made a positive impact, and demand for orders continues to rise. However, there are still major problems with education, discovery and implementation. Not enough is being done on prevention, and ongoing scepticism greets women and children when they report forced marriage.

Consideration is now being given to how to make the breach of a forced marriage protection order a criminal offence, and, going even further, to whether forced marriage should be a criminal offence. Criminalisation might seem to colleagues a popular and reasonable option, showing the public a tough approach against an alien and wicked practice, but I urge caution.

My 23 years as a family lawyer leave me with some doubt that criminalisation would improve matters for victims. Indeed, it could be a backward step. The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 criminalised the breaching of a non-molestation injunction order. There were very good intentions behind that, but there were many unforeseen consequences. Important comparisons can be made between that legislation and what is being contemplated now in relation to forced marriage.

I was a busy domestic violence practitioner at the time, and I made three principal observations. First, the police were often slow and reluctant to pursue breaches because of perceived more serious crimes such as robbery and burglary. The Crown Prosecution Service was also slow or reluctant to do so because of the need to satisfy the high criminal burden of proof, namely “beyond reasonable doubt”, and because of the evidential difficulties of crimes that often happen behind closed doors.

Order. Would the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) like to sit down? I think it is best for Members to leave the chairing of the debates to the Deputy Speaker, but if the hon. Lady is giving way to Charlie Elphicke, she needs to sit down while he is speaking.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. There are many loving relationships, and there has been a revolution meaning that there are more women in the workplace than ever before, and also in relationships in which the children are cared for and deeply loved. Men even change nappies, as I did. Should we not celebrate the good things about men and women, and about women in the workplace?

Of course we should. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

In consequence of the authorities’ reluctance to pursue breaches of injunction orders, victims were again and again left thinking, “Why did I bother getting my injunction order?” Perpetrators were left thinking, “I got away with it”.

My second observation was that pursuing a civil action required the victim to be in the driving seat, which could be a completely empowering experience. She made the decisions and provided the instructions, supported by her own legal team. In contrast, in criminal cases the victim is merely a witness for the prosecution. She has no control over the proceedings, she is given very little information and she has no legal team to support her. In fact, being a prime witness for the prosecution is an isolating experience and frequently leads to the withdrawal of evidence and the collapse of prosecution cases.

My third observation was that domestic violence, like forced marriage, could involve close family members—mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts. Whereas victims were prepared to obtain civil orders to protect themselves, they were often reluctant to pursue a breach, because it would lead to a criminal conviction for the perpetrator and far-reaching consequences for the victim, her family and sometimes the community. Indeed, in a survey in 2011, Dr Aisha Gill of Roehampton university found that 57% of respondents said that victims would be less likely to seek help if forcing someone to marry became a criminal offence. Advocates also argue that victims stand more chance of reconciling with their families if a protection order is invoked rather than a criminal prosecution.

Those three observations, together with anecdotal evidence from professional colleagues and the judiciary, suggest that criminalisation of non-molestation injunction orders has left far too many victims without redress and with a real sense of injustice. I remain unconvinced, too, that there is a gap in the law that needs to be filled. In forcing someone to marry against their will, numerous other criminal offences may be committed—assault, abduction, aiding and abetting a criminal offence, cruelty, failure to secure attendance at school, false imprisonment, theft, rape, kidnapping, threats to kill, harassment, blackmail and murder. That list shows that we already have a range of criminal laws that can be used to prosecute in a forced marriage context.

For all the reasons that I have stated, I am concerned that criminalisation of forced marriage could lead to under-reporting, the export of the crime abroad and the practice being driven substantially underground. There is no quick fix.

I am sorry, I will not.

We need to deal with cultural expectations of duty and honour and work with communities, schools and agencies to change attitudes and behaviour towards women and their right to choose their own partner.

Good progress has been made in the past three years using the civil law. It would be a travesty if such work were undone. The criminal law may punish the perpetrator, but it does little to protect the victim and can often cause no end of collateral damage. In Scotland, recent forced marriage legislation already criminalises breach of an order. We therefore have a prime opportunity to pause, observe and review, and avoid creating yet another criminal offence, which could so easily defeat the object of our very best intentions.

On this day of celebration across the world, I would like to speak about an organisation known to us all, which now plays an important part in the lives of thousands of young women in this country: the Scout Association.

Girls and young women have been able to join the scouts for more than 20 years and last year, more girls than boys became scouts. That rise in young women’s membership has been highest in the Explorer section, which takes its members from among 14 to 18-year-olds. Nationally, half the adult scout leaders are women.

Although as a child I was only in the Brownies for a short while and never made it to the girl guides, I am a strong supporter of scouts and guides. I have seen at first hand the work that scouts have done in my constituency, particularly in deprived areas. I recently visited a new unit at St Stephen’s RC primary school in Longbenton, where the head teacher, Stephen Fallon, had discovered that some of his pupils had been responsible for antisocial behaviour in the local community. Working with Northumberland scout association, he has set up a new unit, which provides both girls and boys with opportunities in their young lives that would not otherwise be afforded them. Those opportunities are helping make those children good young citizens in North Tyneside.

As a result of that visit, I agreed to become an ambassador for Northumberland scout association and have learnt about Lookwide, the association’s development project, which specialises in working with disaffected young people aged between nine and 25 by providing them with a personal development programme. Those young people are not expected to join the scouts, but they gain a wide range of valuable life skills, combined with accredited and non-accredited qualifications, which put them on the right track for a fulfilling adult life. Many are progressing to employment, training and apprenticeships, which they would not have thought possible before joining the programme.

The scouting movement believes

“that young people develop most when they are ‘learning by doing’, when they are given responsibility, work in teams, take acceptable risks and think for themselves.”

I am glad that a movement with such a positive agenda to help young people reach their full potential decided to open its membership to girls and young women 20 years ago.

On international women’s day, I believe it is right to acknowledge and celebrate the Scout Association, which, across 261 countries worldwide, is giving so much to millions of young people, including more than 60,000 girls and young women in the UK who can have a better life and future because of it.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon). I share her enthusiasm for the scouts and the guides.

Why is there no international men’s day? I cannot be the only Member to have been asked that, not just by acquaintances but by one or two Members. Let me say that it made me wonder why they think like that, before hon. Members hazard a guess about what side of the argument I might take. Why do they think that? The answer is that there is much to celebrate. If we look at ourselves professionally in the country, 42% of all doctors are women, although the figure for consultants is only 31%; in the law, 60% of current trainees are women, but only 21% of partners and only 22% of judges are women. If we consider the FTSE, only 15% of directors are women—that has already been much trailed and debated in Parliament. However, the figure was 5.8% in 2001—again, we must celebrate the progress that has been made. We are making a tremendous effort in all parties with the team led by Lord Davies on the 30% aim. Of civil servants, 53% are women, although that figure is only 35% at senior level. We have much to celebrate, but major problems remain.

We have much to celebrate when we consider the young people in our education system. Every year, when GCSE and A-level results are announced, we hear about the segmentation of the genders and how well the young women have done. In 2011, the girls outperformed by the boys at A-level by 78% to 74%. That is encouraging. In exams and at entry level, women are doing well, but in senior positions, they are not doing so well. For me, that is one of the main reasons why we need an international women’s day. We still have the problem of getting women into senior positions. The Suffragettes thought that the answer was to get the vote, but 100 years later we find that that is not the case. We have not achieved that equality, which they would be amazed to see still eludes us.

The media seem to think that the debate is about whether feminism means wearing high-heeled shoes or pole dancing. In my view, it does not. We must not let that mask the seriousness of what is going on and the economic difference that persists between men and women. Women earn 75p in the pound to every man.

Does my hon. Friend accept that when we consider a group of women in their 20s who are childless graduates, the gender pay gap has reversed, and that they now out-earn their male counterparts? Something sinister is happening as women go up the career chain—perhaps it is child care. Perhaps we should all focus our efforts on sorting that out.

Some people say that we do not need an international women’s day or quotas and so on because they see younger women doing so well at A-level and at entry levels. However, they fall down at more senior levels.

Does the hon. Lady agree that gender segregation in the workplace is one of the major reasons why women do not make career progress?

I think that the main reason why women do not make real progress is child care. We often debate on the Floor of the House who has better answers to that, but we know that child care went up by 50% under the previous Government. I am longing for more initiatives from the Government to build on those we have because I believe that child care is the big problem that prevents women from getting on.

This afternoon, we will hear about individual campaigns and particular issues championed by hon. Members. It will be an exciting afternoon. Many women Members of Parliament have got young women from their constituencies shadowing them. I have Amy Gibbons and Alice Williams from Parkwood in Hastings shadowing me today. I know that they are most welcome here.

We need today to reinforce the message that Members must continually champion women’s lives. Tremendous progress has been made, but the position is still unfair nationally and internationally; the world is still lop-sided. We have an important role to play in highlighting that.

Internationally, 19% of parliamentary seats are held by women, and only 16 of the world’s directly elected 188 leaders are female. Does it matter? You bet it matters. When colleagues here say, “We don’t necessarily need more women MPs—I can speak for the women”, one might tactfully suggest that they look around the Chamber today to see who is speaking up for the women. From whom will we hear this afternoon about individual issues that matter to women and their communities? The answer is, of course, women.

What key issues do I hope will be discussed this afternoon? We will hear about pay, child care and opportunity. We heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) about safety, which is another key issue for women. So many women are not safe in their houses. The United Nations has said that one in three is likely to be a victim of sexual assault. Violence against women causes more deaths and disabilities in women aged 15 to 54 than cancer, malaria, road accidents and war. Tremendous progress has been made, but we must never let that make us complacent.

We need international women’s day, not to be just like those countries, such as China, Russia and Vietnam, that make today a national holiday—would not that be a nice idea? Some countries make it a national holiday for women. Perhaps that would get the attention of some of our colleagues.

The serious point is that the personal is political. We need to do more to help women, not just in the workplace, although it is important, not just in schools, but in their homes. We must never take our eyes off the ball.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd). Her two constituents will be extremely embarrassed by that name check. It is international women’s day and it is good to see women on both sides of the House. There is cause for celebration, because the Secretary of State for Transport is here, despite her previous duties, and it is good to see her.

I did not get a chance to speak on the motion in the House yesterday to present an humble Address to Her Majesty the Queen on the occasion of her diamond jubilee, but it is fitting, as we celebrate international women’s day, that she is a woman and she has been—[Laughter.] I was going on to say that she has been our figurehead for all that time. The last monarch to celebrate a diamond jubilee was also a woman: Queen Victoria. I add my good wishes to those given yesterday.

We are here today to praise and celebrate good women—not only those who are well known, whom I will come to, but those who are unknown, such as the single mothers who bring up children against all the odds, and who through no fault of their own must hold two important jobs: as main earners and as home workers keeping a household together. They are an inspiration, just like Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under arrest. We must keep raising her case to ensure that whatever happens to her in the elections, she is there to ensure change in Burma.

I am also inspired by some of the young women I have met who are involved in the “Because I am a Girl” campaign. There are 75 million girls who are not in school. Girls are still denied a basic education. They need to be in school, not carrying water. As Gandhi said, if we educate mothers, we educate the nation.

What about economic justice? The use of microfinance is important because it empowers women in a financial setting. It is a force for good only when it is properly regulated and women are supported, so that they are not burdened by the debt. We need to do more—the figures are there for all to see—because women’s unemployment is at its highest since 1988 at 1.1 million.

We must follow Sweden and Norway by getting more women on to boards; I echo what the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye said on that. Following the report by Lord Davies of Abersoch, only 21 women have been appointed to board positions out of a possible 93 posts. The Cranfield institute of management found that 89% of the FTSE 350 companies have no women executives. Widening the pool of talent from which to draw is an engine for growth that will benefit this country.

There is more to do for women in science. As someone who did a science degree, I am concerned because only 5.3%, or one in 20, of all working women are employed in science, engineering and technology compared with 31.3% of all working men. The most recent figures show that women are only 12.3% of the work force in SET occupations. I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and other hon. Members will know, because I have raised this in Prime Minister’s Question Time, that the UK Resource Centre for women will lose its funding by 2012. I have taken that up with the Prime Minister and he is going to be looking at it.

I am confident that all of us across the House will ensure that we support women in future. I was pleased to meet 11 Tanzanian women MPs as part of a cross-party Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation. They were excited to meet and shadow us. Of Tanzania’s MPs, 36% are women, and they were laughing at us because we have only 22%. They want to increase the figure to 50%. Who cares if there are quotas so long as women get the posts and the experience in position? That is all that matters.

I pay tribute to other women, such as Caroline Adams, who is working across parties to help women MPs in the new and emerging democracies such as Tunisia following the Arab spring, because they need support too.

Finally, not for nothing are the scales of justice held by a woman. It is our right to be treated as equal and to ensure that the next generation continues to make strides in equality. It is not only our right, but our duty, to get justice and equality for the next generation.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz).

I always find these debates a challenge, because we have 90 minutes to discuss the topic of international women’s day—“Half the world. Discuss” in an hour and a half. There is far too much to say, so I wanted to share three stories of three international women whom I have had the pleasure to meet in the past three years.

In 2010, I went to Grozny with the esteemed Labour peer Lord Judd to investigate the human rights situation in Chechnya. Of all the meetings we had—we met high-profile people, human rights ombudsmen and so on—the most memorable was with a mother who came to see us wearing a thick black woollen coat and a dark pink patterned head scarf. She sat down and placed into our hands photographs of her brother, her son and her daughter, who had all been “disappeared”. She was not sure whether they were rotting in a Siberian jail on trumped-up charges or whether they had been assassinated or executed. What struck me was her bravery. At great personal risk, she came to tell that story to visiting parliamentarians, because she wanted to make sure that others did not have the same experience. That culture of impunity and the human rights abuses in Chechnya are still a source of great distress, but such women are courageously making sure that they tell the story.

Last year, at an event attended by various hon. Members and organised by the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), I met Selay Ghaffar, who is the Afghan executive director of Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan. She spoke movingly about the battles she is facing to get justice for women and girls who are married off at the age of 12 or 13 and effectively treated as slaves. For the slightest offence, as it were, they can suffer horrendous violence, for which there is no justice or redress. Her work is done at great risk. She was on her way to the Bonn conference, which my hon. Friend the Minister attended, to ensure that the voice of women in Afghanistan was heard.

Just last month, along with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), I went to Kurdistan in Iraq, where we spoke with women parliamentarians. The Kurdish MP Shawnem Barznji was absolutely inspirational when she spoke about the battle she had fought. She brought together women MPs in Kurdistan, and increasingly the clerics—she ultimately got the support of the President—to tackle violence against women and to get a law passed that would ban female genital mutilation. That was not an easy alliance to build, but it was inspirational to see what was being done. From chatting to women MPs in Kurdistan, I can tell hon. Members that we share many of their frustrations as parliamentarians—they also face confidence issues, which I often hear from women in politics here in the UK.

Those are just three of the 3 billion or so women in the world, but they are representative. In every country around the world, whether they are journalists, mothers, campaigners, representatives, activists, carers, entrepreneurs or friends, women make that difference. We know that women are suffering. Women bear the brunt of many of the world’s problems, whether from climate change, poverty, conflict or the impact of violence. However, there is cause for optimism. The women whose stories I have described; the women we see every day in our constituencies who make such a fantastic difference in our communities; and the many women who inspired the Arab spring give us cause for hope for the future. Women are making a difference, and it is right that we take the opportunity of international women’s day to celebrate those women and redouble our commitment to equality at home and abroad.

Today is the 101st international women’s day, and I am pleased to join hon. Members in speaking up for the needs of women and our aspirations for the progress of women all over the world. I pay tribute to the many women in my constituency for all their work—I know that women are doing the same work in other constituencies too—in holding together families, businesses and communities.

We have made progress since the first international women’s day in 1911, which was a time when women in Britain did not even have the right to vote. The third of the millennium development goals, which were adopted as part of the UN millennium declaration in 2000, promotes gender equality and empowerment of women, with three main areas of focus: the ratio of boys to girls in education; the share of women in waged employment; and the seats held by women in national Parliaments. I wish to speak briefly about the third focus and its relationship to the former.

I am delighted that we can have this debate, because women’s progress in society is also linked to women’s progress in political life. Equality will not be achieved without a focus on increasing female representation in politics. Despite growing numbers of female parliamentarians, equal participation remains far off. At the end of January 2011, the UN estimated that worldwide women held 19% of seats in single or lower Houses of Parliament. This poor statistic is mirrored in Britain, where we make up 51% of the population but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) mentioned, only 22.3% of the House of Commons—I think that I might be responsible for that 0.3%.

Since 1918, only 366 women have been elected to the House. In 1997, 101 Labour women were elected, and they changed the game in the UK, leading to a renewed focus on women in Parliament on both sides of the House. They helped to lead the debate and bring a fresh and distinct voice to our politics. Women’s voices helped Labour to increase the length and pay of maternity leave, and introduce paternity leave; to create more than 3,000 Sure Start centres, such as the one in Southfield run by the amazing Noveen Phillips in my constituency, making it easier for mothers to return to work following pregnancy; to introduce equality legislation ensuring that the public sector proactively promoted equality; and to introduce the national minimum wage, which was an outstanding gain for nearly 1 million women.

It is of serious concern, therefore, that under current Government policies women across Britain are being hardest hit and will bear two thirds of the deficit cuts, which will impact on women’s employment. Indeed, women’s unemployment in Britain is now at its highest level for two decades and has passed the 1.1 million mark.

I pay tribute to the work of the Fawcett Society and others in keeping the fight for women at the forefront of society. However, if we are to ensure that women’s voices are strong in political debate and decision making, political education and engagement of women are also vital. I am proud of the work of the Fabian Women’s Network and Young Fabian Women in running new programmes for political education and mentoring to develop understanding and the influencing skills of women in all walks of life. I also pay tribute to other organisations, such as Operation Black Vote, dedicated to increasing representation in politics.

Without a continued focus on investment by the next generation of politicians, national Parliaments will be all the poorer, and we will have less representation of women’s voices, which is vital if women are to progress in all areas of society. We know that when women thrive, all of society benefits and succeeding generations are given a better start in life. On international women’s day, we are reminded of the imperative and our responsibility to act with renewed urgency to address gender imbalances and women’s access to power across the world in order to see greater economic and social progress.

It is nice to welcome some members of the brotherhood into the House. I hope that they do not get too bad a headache from all the oestrogen circulating.

I imagine that my colleagues are waiting to hear me rubbish the Opposition claims that the Government are unfriendly towards women. Although I wholeheartedly believe that that is complete and utter nonsense, I will take these short minutes to do something else. We live in the seventh richest country in the world. Today, most of us travelled here freely, can speak freely, chose this career freely, and can choose how to educate our daughters and access world-class health care throughout our lives. Millions of women around the world do not have those freedoms, and I think, as leading parliamentarians, we should be debating that today.

I want to focus on Afghanistan. Of course, we cannot mention that country without thinking about the awful tragedy that took place yesterday. As an MP for a constituency with many military personnel, I know how devastating this news will be to the friends, families and communities of those lost. All of us will join in sending our thoughts and prayers to those families. As we heard, however, the mission will continue as planned, and in the process the forces will continue to change unimaginably the lives of people in that country, especially women.

It is hard to imagine what life was like before the current international security assistance force campaign began. It was illegal to educate women—hence Afghanistan still has only a 13% literacy rate for girls, compared with 43% for men—and there is endemic sexual and domestic violence, with 87% of girls and women having suffered domestic violence. I do not need to remind Members of the appalling age at which many young girls are forced to marry. Afghanistan has the highest lifetime risk of dying in child birth in the world—women have a one in 11 chance of dying in child birth. It is truly unimaginable, stone-age care.

Progress has not been perfect, of course, but now, after the intervention, 40% of children at school are girls, one quarter of teachers are women, 27% of MPs are female—as mentioned, they are doing better than us on female representation in Parliament—and 72% of women believe that their lives are better now than before.

I have a personal interest in the matter. Joining me in the Gallery today is Farahnaz Afaq from Afghanistan, along with her school mates and headmaster from Dauntsey’s school. She is an 18-year-old girl from Kabul whose parents left the country when it was clear that they could no longer secure an education for their children. I met her recently in my constituency, and I was gobsmacked. For such a young person to have seen so much, learned so much and acquired such wisdom while travelling the world trying to get an education is absolutely extraordinary. She tells me that she is desperate to return to Afghanistan so that she can take back her learning to the girls and women of that country.

I will share with the House what Farahnaz said when I asked her what was the most extraordinary thing she has seen since coming to Britain. She said, “I saw a woman driving a bus, and I could not believe that such a thing was possible.” It is that kind of perception that we must always focus on when we talk about women’s rights and progress. We must remember what it is like for so many millions of women around the world.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that the Department for International Development and all our Government agencies do everything possible to sustain some of these improvements in Afghanistan after the troops withdraw in 2014?

My hon. Friend, as always, presciently anticipates what I was coming to. May I put on the record, though, how proud I am of the Government’s commitment to maintaining the 0.7% level of international aid spending?

We are at a turning point in Afghanistan. Some 86% of Afghan women now fear the Taliban returning. We have a set draw-down plan for coalition forces, with combat operations ceasing in 2014, and there is a widespread fear that this will be an open door for lawlessness and a return to stone-age beliefs when it comes to womankind. What matters even more, then, is political leadership in the peace process, and this is where we can make a difference. Last night, I attended the launch of the parliamentary network on women’s rights in Afghanistan and heard how critical it was that at the upcoming summits in Chicago and Tokyo women’s voices were heard and listened to in establishing the long-term peace and security process in Afghanistan.

On this day, when we celebrate the progress that women in Afghanistan have made, I want to make a plea to the Government. Will Ministers please take the lead in asking that women are fully represented on the Afghan delegations to the summit? ActionAid has called for 30% representation, but I would like it even higher. Will the Government please work with other international partners to take every opportunity to make reference to the importance that women can and must play in securing a long-term peaceful solution for Afghanistan? I would also please ask all colleagues across the House to put aside their differences and join me in sending a message to the women of that country: we recognise you, we admire you and we will support you.

I am sure that I speak for women on this side of the House when I say that we support the sentiments expressed by the previous speaker.

I want to talk about women in sport. Sport is an important part of life for many people, but it is something in which girls and women do not participate as much as boys and men. Many people might be unaware of that. Women’s sport accounts for only 5% of the total media coverage of all sport. It is that absence of coverage that perhaps led to the BBC’s “Sports Personality of the Year” programme producing an all-male shortlist for this year’s final, which quite rightly caused a wave of outrage. I hope that the BBC will not make that mistake again, particularly now that many of its sports programmes are made in Salford.

I am undertaking a Sport England sports fellowship with the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation, a great organisation that is helping me to understand the issues of women in sport, so that they can be raised more often—indeed, it is great to raise them here today. We are keen to launch, if we can, an all-party parliamentary group on women in sport. I am pleased that the Cross Bencher Baroness Grey-Thompson has agreed to act as co-chair of the group, because she is a great icon for women’s sport. I hope that many of the Members here today will join the group—I have a form with me, if anyone wants to sign up.

I hope that the woefully small amount of media coverage received by women’s sport will be rebalanced somewhat during the London Olympics, but we also need a long-term change, because despite the focus on the Olympic legacy, the number of women taking part in sport or physical activity has been declining over the past four years. This is an important issue, because sport can improve health and fitness, while inactivity can lead to obesity and heart disease, and affect quality of life. The latest Sport England survey shows that just 29% of women take part in sport once a week, compared with 41% of men. Indeed, the figure for women’s participation has fallen by 2%, from over 31%. That amounts to 6.3 million women, compared with 8.5 million men. The figures also show that 9 million women take part in sport only once a month, compared with 11.5 million men.

We can therefore say that there is indeed a significant gender gap, and research has shown that it is caused by many different barriers. They include practical barriers, such as lack of time, child care, money or transport, but we know that there are also many personal barriers to participation, such as worrying about what one looks like, not having the right clothing or equipment to play sport, or lacking self-confidence. We know, too, that there are social and cultural barriers. Sport in this country tends to be dominated by a male culture, and there are also restrictions based on gender. In football, for example, girls are not allowed to play in mixed teams after the age of 13 in this country, whereas in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Northern Ireland, there are no age restrictions. Indeed, it took a campaign and many petitions on behalf of girl footballers to get the Football Association to raise the age limit from 11, which it did recently.

It is significant that of the 12 million women who want to play more sport, 6 million currently play no sport at all. The latent demand for sport is higher among young women than young men. It seems that the current delivery of sport is not meeting women’s preferences. Perhaps that should not surprise us, when we know that 78% of the positions on the boards of sports national governing bodies are held by men; only 22% are held by women. That affects the ability of those sports bodies to understand and meet the needs and preferences of women.

As for girls, by the age of 15 they are only half as likely as boys to meet recommended activity levels in sport and fitness. I therefore want to talk about the Us Girls project, which is an investment being made by Sport England, as part of the “Active Women” campaign to tackle the gender gap in sport. Us Girls projects will offer young women aged 16 to 25 innovative and engaging ways to become more active in sport and fitness more often. Some 62 organisations will work together to get 30,000 girls and young women across the country participating in sport. That is a great initiative. I hope that Members here today will support Us Girls projects in their constituencies, because more needs to be done to break down the barriers to sport for women, make it more appealing, make women aware of the importance of being active, and develop more healthy and fit role models.

Let me conclude by mentioning some of those role models: Rebecca Adlington, who won gold in the swimming; Sarah Stevenson, the world tae kwon do champion; Keri-Anne Payne, who won the 10 km open water event; Chrissie Wellington, who last year won her fourth Ironman world championship; and the England women’s cricket team and Charlotte Edwards, who just completed a 3-0 whitewash against New Zealand in the one-day international series. May they never be ignored in competitions ever again.

Order. We have to start the wind-ups shortly. I am keen to ensure that everybody gets in, and I hope that the Front Benchers might co-operate. If they could take eight minutes each, and if I now cut the time limit for Back-Bench speeches to four minutes, we will just about fit everybody in.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), whose interesting speech about women in sport has prompted me to remind the House that Saudi Arabia is bringing a team of athletes to the Olympics that contains no women. We should reflect on the terrible situation that women in that country face in trying to pursue their sporting aspirations.

Staying with the international theme, I attended a conference on women’s rights in the developing world some 20 years ago. It opened my eyes to the fact that, even in the most abject poverty, women are still not equal to men. The position of women and girls—in terms of their rights and basic needs that are not met —is far worse than that of the men and boys in the same, poor communities. A chance encounter at that conference enriched my life and opened my eyes. Wanjiru Kihoro, the leader of a group of exiled women from Kenya living in London, spoke on behalf of a women’s empowerment group called Abantu, and asked if anyone could provide the group with office space in London. We had some spare space, so a month later they all moved in, and they stayed for about six or seven years.

It was. It was absolutely marvellous, and it gave me the opportunity to work directly with those women on their work in Africa. They worked through a network of women’s organisations across the continent, and I went with them to South Africa and Uganda. They wanted me to train women in media skills, lobbying skills and business skills. I was humbled, because what did I know of their situation? Indeed, I always feel that I learned so much more than the women whom I trained.

I am pleased that the UN has named the theme of this women’s day as “Empower rural women: end hunger and poverty”. Rural women and girls make up a quarter of the world’s population, and rural girls are twice as likely to be forced into child marriage and experience teenage pregnancy as girls in urban areas. Despite the efforts of many laudable NGOs and charities, the problems of women struggling in poverty have not gone away, and the gains made are often fragile to say the least, although there have been improvements, about which we have heard this afternoon. Some 20 years ago, there was little understanding of the way in which development policies impacted on women and men, and boys and girls differently. Our capacity to make a difference has been hugely improved by the understanding that unless we tackle the cultural and legal obstacles to the education of girls—their health status, the age at which they marry and bear children, their access to land and resources, which should be on an equal basis to men—poverty and discrimination will persist, and persist for entire communities, not just for the women and girls in those communities.

Microfinance has been successful at providing women with access to the basic raw materials that will enable them to become more independent, and I hope that later in the debate we hear more on those matters, but my time is up.

What a pleasure it is to see you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in the Chair during this international women’s day debate.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) made some excellent points about the issues in the countries of the south, and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made some excellent points about the way in which the coalition Government are trying to turn the clock back to the 1950s in this country. I do not need to repeat what she said, but the policy is backfiring spectacularly, because it is inspiring a whole new generation of feminists to fight for their rights, and I shall tell the House about three of them.

The first is Lucy O’Sullivan, who has researched women’s representation in government and concluded that women Ministers make a real difference to the effectiveness with which women’s interests are represented in practice. She has also tracked the number of women Ministers whom we have had. During the 1980s and 1990s we were bumping along at 5%; then in 1997 we jumped up almost to 20%; and by April 2010 we had seen a steady increase to the point where 30% of Ministers were women. However, after the May 2010 election that figure crashed by 50%, and now it is at a 14-year low, as a result of this coalition Government.

The second example of the new feminism is the campaign to increase the number of women in the media. I am sure many hon. Members will have seen the research demonstrating that only 22% of newspaper articles are written by women. Broadcast magazine has a good campaign, called “Expert Women”, to get more women into the media, and the one trade union with a woman general secretary, Michelle Stanistreet of the National Union of Journalists, is holding a meeting next week to organise the fightback to improve women’s representation in the media.

Colleagues on both sides of the House will know of my concern about the issues of body image—I was pleased to join the all-party body image group that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) established—and about the urgent need to close down “ano” websites, which encourage young women to starve themselves, so they may be surprised at my third example of the new generation of feminism. It is Cosmopolitan magazine—a collective made up entirely of female journalists. Alongside its “We use the F word—do you?” campaign, it has now set up a petition for equal pay, and I advise all hon. Members to go to its website and sign it. It states that

“it’s scandalous that the pay gap still exists. Laws on equal pay have existed for more than 40 years yet women working full-time…are still paid on average 14.9% less… At the current rate of change a baby will not achieve equal pay until she is 97 years old. Enough is enough.”

So will the Government take up its challenge to make equal pay auditing compulsory next year?

I do rather worry that today has been a missed opportunity to strike a more bipartisan note. I myself shall not be tribal, although some previous contributors have been.

I shall make three practical suggestions, loosely linked by the idea of asking awkward questions, which I like to think we are all quite good at. My first theme, which Members will not be surprised about, is female genital mutilation, and I thank many Members in the House today and others for their support over the past year, because a lot has happened since I spoke about FGM in last year’s international women’s day debate. I feel that we have a sense of momentum, and I thank Members for that.

I want to ask for something practical, because we have to keep the issue high on the agenda. The all-party group on genital mutilation has drafted a template letter, which Members can send to health and wellbeing boards or to other commissioning groups, and it asks lots of practical questions about the strategies that have been put in place on safeguarding, commissioning and dealing with women and girls who might be threatened with, or have suffered, FGM. May I urge hon. Members to send that template letter, or their variation on it, to their local groups and boards?

Even in London, I am amazed at the number of times that people look at me blankly when I raise the issue. Sometimes they do not even know what I am talking about, despite being senior health professionals and so on, so we have to keep pushing; we cannot assume that it is on everyone’s agenda.

My second practical point is a bit of leap, but one thing that I worry about when I look at the Arab spring, which other hon. Members have touched on, is how women’s rights are not on an upward trajectory but are potentially going in the other direction. There is evidence of that in Egypt, with many clerical groups pushing for the further institutionalisation of FGM there.

I therefore have a very practical suggestion, which I put into practice when I attended a briefing with one of our ambassadors recently—slightly I suspect to his surprise. We should tell all our ambassadors and high commissioners—wherever they are but particularly those in key countries—to ask why they are not seeing delegations of men and women. If they are seeing only delegations of men, they should politely and nicely—diplomats are very good at being polite and nice—ask why; and if they are not seeing women they should seek out the authentic voice of women. If they see only male delegations and talk only to male politicians, they will not hear the views of the people; they will hear the views of men in those countries. So it is important that the Foreign Office asks those questions of its diplomats.

My final point is about the way in which we do politics here in the UK, because we can take a lead. We should agree cross-party, and begin a discussion before the next general election, on how we do our politics and with whom we interact, because too often we see community leaders who say that they speak for their community but speak only for men. We female politicians, in particular, should demand to hear the authentic voice of male and female community leaders. There is no point demanding equality in the boardroom if we accept inequality in our community centres.

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who has done an incredible amount of work on FGM, for which I applaud her.

This is a day for celebrating the contribution of women, as well as for reflecting on what more we can do to support women and girls throughout the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) spoke eloquently about Afghanistan. Only recently there was pressure from Muslim clerics in that country for the adoption of a strict code of conduct, stating that

“men are fundamental and women are secondary”,

which underlines the fact that we have much work still to do to protect women’s rights there. I shall focus my few remarks, however, on two areas: first, on building aspiration, whether in schools, business or politics; and, secondly, on protecting women.

It is important that we build aspiration from a young age. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) said, we, as part of the all-party women in Parliament group, have welcomed many girls to Parliament today, and that has been lovely. From my constituency, I have girls here from The Heathland, Brentford, Chiswick, Isleworth and Syon, Hounslow Manor and Gumley schools, and I hope that between us we can inspire a few of them to become Members.

It is so important that girls are aware of the full range of opportunities available to them and how they can make best use of their talents. I would like us to do more to encourage girls, especially in science, engineering and technology. Whether it is through setting up more work experience or shadowing events, we can try to build their aspirations and open up a whole world of opportunity to them. The new careers service that will be fully operational by April 2012 will provide high-quality advice to those of all ages online, by phone and in the community, and much work needs to be done there.

As for women in business, we have already heard about the Lord Davies report. We need to keep up the momentum in focusing on companies, especially regarding the critical lack of women executive directors in the pipeline. Another way to increase the role of women is to support them in setting up their own businesses. The Government have done good work with mentors and the Women’s Business Council, but I would like us to do more to promote and celebrate role models, extend child care support for the self-employed, and continue to work on entrepreneurial skills in schools. As regards the number of women in Parliament, this country is still ranked 49th in the world, and much work needs to be done to change that.

My final point is about protecting women. That is largely to do with domestic violence, which is totally unacceptable in our society. The Government are committed to tackling this through their document “Call to end violence against women and girls: action plan”, but a lot still needs to be done. There have been recent campaigns to highlight abuse in teenage relationships, as well as the consultation on stalking and the piloting of Clare’s law. We need to help victims of domestic violence to rebuild their lives.

Earlier today I was at an event organised by Hestia, which has just produced a report, “From victim to survivor”, highlighting some of the key things that can be done for domestic violence victims. For example, those who are in refuges should be given priority for housing in the local area. Bed and breakfast is not suitable for them; they need to get into longer-term, stable housing. Perhaps councils need to appoint housing officers who have been given training in dealing with domestic abuse. There is much that we can do collectively to help to support victims of domestic violence so that they can rebuild their lives and this country can be a better place.

I am delighted to be the last Back-Bench speaker in this debate.

Today is a day for celebrating women in all their multiple roles across the world. I want to highlight three women in particular: one who is a carer, one who is a worker, and one who is a leader. Julie Jones, who has just become Tesco Mum of the Year, has adopted five children from her best friend, who sadly died shortly after her own husband. This single mum with three teenage boys of her own has adopted another woman’s five children—what a fantastic thing to do. Congratulations and good luck to her.

A woman who is a worker is successful 22-year-old Habiba Mentane, who lives in Somalia. Thanks to micro-finance, she has taken her entire family from being nomadic, poverty-stricken people looking for food wherever they go to being farmers who are now able to grow their own vegetables, sell the surplus, and create some kind of a life for themselves. Congratulations to her and to the many thousands of other women like her who support their own family in that way.

The third person I would like very sincerely to congratulate is Her Majesty the Queen on the occasion of her diamond jubilee. She is a woman who has faithfully served the country for 60 years and presided over a Commonwealth of nations. May she live for another 60 years! I am sure that she will not share that wish, but we would love to keep her for as long as possible.

There is so much more that could be done for women, and I want to focus on three areas: equal representation, equal pay, and equal status. Worldwide, women hold 19% of parliamentary seats. In Saudi Arabia, a woman cannot vote. Not only that, but they may not drive—we can imagine what that would mean for us in this country. We think that it is pretty tough here because only 22.3% of parliamentarians are women, but at least we can drive, and at least there is a good smattering of sisters in this Chamber; it is wonderful to be part of that. I have so many friends in all parts of the Chamber, and it is truly delightful to be in that position, particularly after 25 years in finance, which unfortunately remains very much a man’s world. So thank you for that, colleagues and friends!

On pay, 70% of the world’s unpaid labour is performed by women. That is shocking—what on earth is going on? In the UK, we think it is tough because the median income of a full-time working woman is 91% of that of a full-time working man, but that is not as bad as other women in the world have it. There is more to do, but things are not so bad here, and we should celebrate that.

Status is absolutely key. Other Members have mentioned Afghanistan. I was very shocked to hear about the proposal by the Afghan Council that a man should be allowed to have sex with his wife on every fourth night. In other words, if she says no, he can rape her, and that is official. That is an absolute shocker; it should not be permitted in this day and age or at any time in any country. Rape is all too often a weapon of war, and human trafficking is all too often targeted at women and girls—the most vulnerable in our society.

The United Nations predicts that teaching girls in Africa to farm would lead to a 20% increase in agricultural yields. This is not just about the rights of girls; it is also about the potential for feeding the world and doing better in the world. There is a very long way to go from where we are right now, but we have made progress. We are extremely fortunate in this country, and I feel extremely fortunate to be part of a very engaged and active parliamentary group.

I start by echoing the remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) that it is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair for this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), on their efforts to secure the debate. I also want to thank the Backbench Business Committee for making time for it to take place on international women’s day. It is absolutely right that we should allocate time in the parliamentary calendar to mark this special day each year.

Hon. Members have rightly drawn our attention this afternoon to a whole range of national and global issues that affect women. It has been clear that common themes and experiences unite all women, here and around the world. They include women’s democratic representation, their economic independence, their access to health and maternity care, their choice of when and whether to form a family, and their right to freedom from fear and violence. Those concerns unite women right across the world, yet still, here at home, there are shortcomings that the Government have an obligation to address.

Ministers have taken the opportunity today to publish an update to the violence against women action plan, and I welcome the attention and priority that the Government continue to give to this issue. I hope that Ministers will also take the opportunity to read the Labour women’s safety commission report entitled “Everywoman Safe Everywhere”, which has also been published to mark international women’s day. The report was published following the establishment of a commission by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) last November, after we had identified concerns that the criminal law was not strong enough to protect women and punish perpetrators, and in response to reports that vital services on which women rely were being closed.

We were shocked at what we discovered. We identified significant cuts to provisions that keep women safe, and chaos in commissioning resulting in the loss of specialist services and expertise. We found that preventive work in schools, and with perpetrators, was under threat. It is also ironic that, on international women’s day, there should be an announcement of further cuts in the number of railway station staff, which will make women feel more vulnerable when they are out and about. Furthermore, 500,000 street lights are being turned off at night to reduce costs. In identifying those concerns, our commission has been able only to scratch surface. We are therefore calling on the Minister to carry out an audit across the country to assess exactly what is happening in every local community so that she can fulfil her responsibility as a Minister to keep every woman safe.

I welcome the Government’s announcement today of their intention to sign the European convention. I am concerned, however, that 10 months down the line, they are still only working towards signing it, but it is none the less good to hear that intention confirmed today. In the past, they have tried to water down the convention—for example, by limiting its provisions so that they would apply only in peacetime. There is also a lack of clarity on the Government’s stance on forced marriage. The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) highlighted some of these issues in her speech. It would be useful if the Minister could clarify the Government’s intentions in relation to signing the convention. When can we expect that to happen and, importantly, when do Ministers intend to give effect to its provisions?

Ministers have also today announced new provisions on stalking, but campaigners might feel disappointed because it is not clear that the new measures will be any stronger in practice than the terms of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Will the new offence, which is to carry a six-month sentence, be heard only in magistrates courts, or will it be triable either way? Will she explain how the new offence relating to “fear of violence” is different from that covered in section 4 of the existing Act, which the police have confirmed they have had difficulty using to prove the existence of fear of violence? Will the Minister tell us how many convictions occurred last year under that Act and how much more effective she expects the new legislation to be?

There is still much that we need to do to protect, improve and promote the interests and well-being of women in this country and around the world.

Does the hon. Lady realise that the issue of women in prison has not been raised in the debate? It is an area on which the Corston report was making good progress—and I hope that this Government will make good progress on it, too.

As I am sure all hon. Members do, I greatly admire the work of the noble Baroness Corston on women in prison. One suggestion she made, which would have drawn this whole agenda together, was the appointment of a champion for women within the penal system. It would be very encouraging—I hope the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) would agree—if Ministers adopted that suggestion, ensuring that an individual was charged with giving priority attention to women in custody and within the penal system.

Although I welcome today’s debate and the many powerful contributions from hon. Members, I say that women should not have to wait—not even until the 102nd international women’s day—for measures to secure their safety, economic position and well-being. When we come to celebrate next year’s international women’s day, I hope we will celebrate far greater progress for women’s equality—both here at home and right across the world.

May I say first that the Home Secretary is very sorry not to be here to celebrate international women’s day? She is just back from Jordan and has to attend the JHA—justice and home affairs—meeting.

I thank my hon. Friends and hon. Members for all their contributions; I hope they will forgive me if I do not enumerate them one by one. International women’s day is a day for celebration, and I want to set out and celebrate what the Government are doing. We have heard many good contributions today and, sadly, some negative ones from Labour Members. Indeed, they have chosen to be very negative about the impacts of decisions that this Government have been forced to take to reduce the record deficit left to us by them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) pointed out, if we do not take action, it will be our daughters who have to pay for it.

Let me say that we are lifting 1.1 million of the lowest paid workers, more than half of whom are women, out of income tax altogether—and with more to come. We are increasing overall NHS spending by £11.5 billion in real terms. As part of that, we are recruiting over 4,000 new health visitors and doubling the number of places on the family nurse partnership programme by 2015. We are protecting key support for older women—with winter fuel payments, free eye tests, free prescriptions, free bus passes and free TV licences for the over-75s—and permanently increasing cold weather payments to £25.

Furthermore, we have re-linked earnings with pensions —something called for for years, which did not happen under the Labour Government. We are providing an extra £300 million for child care support under universal credit. Labour Members mentioned child care, yet against this terrible economic background we have maintained the entitlement to 15 hours a week of free education and care for three and four-year-olds. We are also extending the entitlement to 15 hours a week of free education and care for 260,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. We are funding online and telephone support services for families, and are providing over £28 million for specialist local, domestic and sexual violence support services. [Interruption.] As the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said—[Hon. Members: “Give way.”] I will not give way; I have very little time. I am sorry, but everyone else has had their say and I am going to have mine.

We are spending £900,000 on helplines and providing £10.5 million over the next three years for rape support centres. Today, my right hon. and learned. Friend the Justice Secretary announced the locations of five new centres. As the shadow Minister mentioned, we are also creating two new specific criminal offences of stalking. We are tabling amendments to the Protection of Freedoms Bill for Lords Third Reading so that those new offences can be enacted as soon as possible.

Will the hon. Lady confirm that there will be two separate offences, and that the first offence will have a maximum sentence of only six months, and that in order for the second offence to carry a sentence of more than six months the police will be required to prove that someone is in fear of violence—which was objected to by the all-party parliamentary group, which said that that approach would not work?

This measure will be effective. It was welcomed by women and women’s groups across the board at No. 10 Downing street this morning. There will be two offences. One will carry a sentence of up to six months, and the other a maximum sentence of five years. This is good news—and it is a great shame that the Opposition do not have the grace to welcome it.

We are also working on gangs and girls, teenage abuse and forced marriage. We are putting women at the heart of the economy, too, through the Work programme, the new universal credit and the new national careers service, in order to give women the help and support they need.

The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) is no longer in her place, but I take issue with her statement that there has been an increase in women’s unemployment. There are 50,000 more women in work now than a year ago.

In November, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced that the Government will provide resources for 5,000 volunteer mentors.

No, I will not.

Those mentors will help new business start-ups, and there will be help for women in rural areas, too, where we have provided a £2 million fund over the next three years to support women setting up and expanding their businesses. We are establishing a women’s business council as well.

We are going further. We are extending the right to request flexible working to all, establishing a new system of shared parental leave, and promoting equal pay and good practice in the workplace. With the help of Lord Davies, we are increasing the number of women on company boards.

Because disadvantage and the stereotyping of women do not start and end in the workplace, we are also tackling how women are portrayed in the media. The Government’s body confidence campaign—for which I know there is support on both sides of the House—is gaining momentum and is now receiving global recognition following an event I hosted on the issue at last week’s UN commission on the status of women. We are also tackling the commercialisation and sexualisation of children, working with a wide range of stakeholders to bring the use of sexualised images in line with what parents find acceptable. I am sure Members on both sides of the House are as sick as I am of women being portrayed either as sexual or servile.

The coalition Government recognise that investing in girls and women in the poorest countries is transformational both for economic growth and in meeting all the millennium development goals.

I simply want to ask my hon. Friend to pay tribute to the work of the UN Women agency, whose inception we celebrated last year, on the 100th anniversary of international women’s day?

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me to pay tribute to UN Women. Our country is one of the biggest sponsors and supporters of that organisation.

The Secretary of State for International Development has ensured that girls and women are at the heart of the UK’s international development programme. We can all be very proud of that, and I am extremely proud of what I can do through my role as champion for tackling violence against women overseas, whether that involves going to Bonn to raise issues to do with Afghanistan, or raising issues in respect of the Arab uprising. There is still much to do in tackling forced marriage, female genital mutilation and so-called honour crimes, but I know that Members on both sides of the House support taking action against those practices.

We are taking some very difficult decisions, but they are necessary decisions that are required to bring our country back from the brink. We are making sure that the cuts are shared fairly and that the most vulnerable are protected, and we are going further to ensure that women have a voice and are treated with fairness and respect in the workplace and in society so that they can be a vital part of our future economic growth, and we are working internationally with allies across the world so that women can be part of the world’s future.

This has been a powerful debate, and many diverse points have been raised, ranging from sport to Afghanistan to women’s economic power. It will not be possible to address them all. When I introduced the debate, Government Members were provoked by my approach, yet during the debate we have proved that we are indeed tribal, but we are for the tribe of women. The overwhelming majority of contributions have shared a series of values that say that it is not good enough just to assume that a particular policy will meet the needs of women but that we actually need to examine things carefully. Such an approach was demonstrated, for example, in the intelligent analysis by the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) of the possible risks of trying to deal with forced marriage carelessly.

I am, in a way, therefore disappointed by the Minister’s summing up. Hon. Members would have been able to tell from my initial remarks that I profoundly disagreed with it, because she made the easy mistake of saying that when we have done something, we have achieved it—that is not the case, as we all know. We can be proud of some bits; I am glad that the Government have made some announcements—for example, those made today about tackling violence against women, which will include some improvements. That is great, but it is not good enough for us all to be satisfied with minor improvements and small changes, or with a system where, as unfortunately has happened in the argument about dealing with the deficit, women have tended to be the victims. Such a situation has occurred because the voices of women have not been around the table.

There are very many strong, intelligent and powerful women in this Chamber today. I say to all of them, whatever party they support and whatever side they are on, that they should make sure that the voices of women are heard and that they should analyse every policy that is put before them through the lens of the difference it will make to women. If a policy advances the cause of women, it advances the cause of the whole society. If a policy advances the cause of women, it promotes the welfare of children. If a policy advances the cause of women, we actually make a more civilised and better society in Britain today, and with that we will have an international women’s day truly to celebrate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of International Women’s Day.