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House of Commons Hansard

Gender Equality in Overseas Parliaments

25 June 2014
Volume 583

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

    Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

  • On resuming

  • The current debate may continue until 4.45 pm and the final debate may continue until 5.15 pm.

  • I am delighted to have secured this debate on the link between gender equality in Parliaments and political corruption, not least because I have been trying to secure it for some time now, in my capacity as the co-chair and co-founder of the all-party group on corruption. As the Minister will be well aware, female politicians can be very persistent and do not tend to let an issue go without achieving some sort of resolution. As a result, I am pleased that we finally have an opportunity, albeit a brief one, to discuss the issue today.

    Before I turn to the specific subject of the debate, I want to remind us of the position in which women around the world continue to find themselves in relation to influence and power. An excellent paper published by the international development charity VSO—Voluntary Service Overseas—highlights that women are estimated to account for almost two thirds of the people globally who live in extreme poverty. Women perform two thirds of the world’s work and produce 50% of the food, but earn only 10% of the income and own only 1% of the property.

    At the same time, around the world, including here in the UK, women are not participating in public and political life on equal terms and in equal measure to men. As the VSO paper goes on to highlight, all the evidence suggests that we are still very far from solving the problem. Only one in five parliamentarians worldwide is a woman—the figure is 22% for the House of Commons and 23% for the House of Lords. Women hold only 17% of ministerial positions around the world and just three of the 22 full Cabinet positions in the UK. At the highest level, women account for only 13 of 193 Heads of Government, although of course the UK has had a very highly respected female Head of State for the past 62 years.

    In local government, women make up only 20% of elected councillors and hold mayoral positions in only 10 of the world’s capital cities; only 32% of councillors in England are women and London is yet to have a female elected Mayor. On the basis of those current trends in representation, women will not be equally represented in Parliaments until 2065—in more than 50 years’ time—and will not make up half the world’s leaders until the quite staggering date of 2134, an achievement not a single person alive on this planet will get to see.

    In its paper, “Women in Power: Beyond Access to Influence in a post-2015 World”, VSO makes an incredibly persuasive—indeed, inarguable—case for putting women’s rights at the heart of the international development agenda as the United Nations considers a new international development framework for after the millennium development goals expire in 2015. As VSO argues, a new post-2015 goal of empowering women and girls to achieve gender equality needs to take account of the obstacles to that and how and why they are being perpetuated, as well as evidence of measures that have proved successful in addressing them.

  • Am I right in saying that the hon. Lady will be 100% behind my International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014? She is quoting from and drawing on the same VSO paper as I quoted on Third Reading before my Bill was enacted, and so her explanation has been almost word for word the same as mine—she is not copying me, of course. She is absolutely right. I commend her for taking such a strong line and wish her well.

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support and very much agree with the sentiments he has expressed. He clearly sees the urgent need to take action on the problem rather than simply talking about it.

    Indeed, we are not alone: the former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, once said:

    “Data not only measures progress, it inspires it…what gets measured gets done…nobody wants to end up at the bottom of a list of rankings.”

    I know that the Prime Minister is co-chairing the high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, and developing countries are being asked to identify their priorities for 2015 and beyond. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thinking on whether gender equality will form one of the post-2015 goals.

  • I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Through the all-party group on Egypt a short while ago, we met new President Sisi, for whom 33 million people voted. He told us that there had been so much change because of the women of Egypt. In recognition, he has set aside some seats in Parliament for women to be represented. Is that an indication of what the hon. Lady wants to see—not just in Egypt, but throughout the whole middle east?

  • Indeed. No one in this Chamber thinks that we should not be making greater strides on gender equality and political representation here in the UK and around the world, and I will give some examples. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Egypt, but I will focus on Rwanda where a remarkable transformation has taken place on gender representation.

    What does the issue have to do with corruption? The Minister may be aware that earlier this year, to mark international women’s day, the Global Organisation of Parliamentarians Against Corruption published a position paper on gender equality in Parliaments and political corruption. The all-party group on corruption, which I co-chair, is a member of GOPAC, which based its research on a 10-year analysis of trends in the proportion of women elected to national Parliaments, correlated to trends in levels of national corruption.

    The research found that an increase in the number of women in Parliament will tend to reduce corruption but, crucially, the GOPAC paper also made it clear that women politicians cannot be expected to tackle this issue on their own. It concluded that increasing the number of female parliamentarians must take place in tandem with steps to increase institutional political transparency, to strengthen parliamentary oversight, and to enforce strong penalties for corruption. In other words, an increase in the number of women in Parliaments will tend to reduce corruption if the country in question has a reasonably robust system to uphold democracy and to enforce anti-corruption laws.

    On publication of the paper, the vice-chair of GOPAC’s women in Parliament network, Dr Donya Aziz, commented:

    “'The status of women has come a long way since the first International Women’s Day in the early 1900’s, but our participation in the political sphere is still far too low in most countries across the world. Our paper demonstrates that the strongest fight against corruption is one that includes and embraces the female perspective as a critical part of strengthening parliamentary oversight and parliamentary democracy.”

    The GOPAC paper illustrated its findings with the fascinating case study of Rwanda, a country that has made significant strides since the appalling genocide of 1994. As the Minister will know, Rwanda is the only country in the world where an outright majority of parliamentarians are female. Indeed, as of 2013, an unbelievable 63.8% of Rwanda’s Members of Parliament are women. The paper explains that that is partly the result of concerted efforts by Rwandans to increase female participation in politics, such as the introduction of a gender quota system, employing seats reserved for women and the establishment of legislated candidate quotas.

    Such measures have seen the number of female parliamentarians in Rwanda increase from 17.1% in 1997 to 25.7% in 2002 and 48.8% in 2003 when the gender quota was established. The rate increased again to 56% in 2008 and then to the staggering 63.8% that Rwanda enjoys today. While this rapid change in gender representation has taken place, Rwanda has also strengthened its parliamentary oversight mechanisms. For example, in April 2011, the Rwandan Parliament established a new public accounts committee to examine financial misconduct in public institutions and to report misuse of public funds. Previously, despite evidence of continuous theft of public monies, no parliamentary body had that responsibility.

    Subsequently, in 2012, the Rwandan public accounts committee released its examination of state finances, which reported that 9.7 billion Rwandan francs—$16.3 million —was lost in 2009-10 as a result of failings in Government operations. The Rwandan PAC went on to present recommendations for Government reforms and established the requirement for Parliament to act to remedy gaps in the management of public funds.

    During the same period, Rwanda consistently improved its score on the corruption perceptions index, which has been published every year since 1995 by Transparency International. Over the past nine years, Rwanda has improved its CPI rating by 23 points, well above the eight-point global average improvement between 2003 and 2013. It scored 53 on the CPI in 2013 and was ranked 49th least corrupt country of the 177 countries surveyed. To put that in context, the UK scored 76 and was ranked 14th least corrupt country.

    GOPAC’s paper concluded:

    “Although Rwanda’s CPI score leaves room for improvement, it has experienced a significant reduction in corruption, clearly correlated with an increase in female political participation, in the context of improving systems of parliamentary oversight.”

    GOPAC draws the link between a fall in levels of public corruption and an increased number of female parliamentarians, combined with improved parliamentary oversight mechanisms, while making it clear that that first step of having more women in Parliament is insufficient to reduce the problem.

  • I am deeply interested in what the hon. Lady is saying. The connection with corruption is in many senses new to many of us. A few years ago, I introduced the International Development (Anti-corruption Audit) Bill with the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) and one or two other hon. Members. We are learning a great deal from what the hon. Lady is saying, which is very helpful.

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support and for his work on the issue. I look forward to us working together to take the matter forward. I also look forward to the Minister’s response and to hearing what the Government can do to take the issue forward as part of the millennium development goals.

    I have asked myself whether it is entirely coincidental that Rwanda happened to see such significant improvements in its oversight of public funds and financial misconduct at exactly the same time as a significant increase in the number of female parliamentarians. The two developments may not be linked, but I contend otherwise. I would be interested to hear the assessment of the Minister and her Department.

    Earlier this month, I had the privilege of meeting a delegation of Kenyan women parliamentarians during their week-long visit to the UK and Westminster, which was organised by the CPA. As the Minister knows, Kenya is often held up as another African country leading the way in female representation following its 2010 constitutional reforms, which stipulate that no more than two thirds of any appointed or elected body can be of the same gender.

    The delegation was keen to hear more about the work of the all-party group on corruption. We spoke for over an hour about their experiences as female politicians in a very male dominated culture. They highlighted the fact that although there are now six women in Cabinet posts, including in defence and foreign affairs, there is a motion before the Kenyan Senate—their upper house—calling for the number of parliamentary seats for women to be scrapped and citing cost as the reason. Clearly, any progress made on gender equality and therefore on corruption cannot be taken for granted.

    I have considered at length the link between increased female representation and reduced levels of corruption, but what about the female experience of corruption, which is often termed “graft”? Everyone knows that corruption is wrong. It keeps poor people poor and allows rich people to capture power and money. It stops development aid from countries such as the UK reaching the right people in the right places at the right time. Perhaps most importantly, it prevents developing countries from being able to develop their own tax base in order ultimately to reduce their dependence on aid.

    We know from the statistics that I outlined at the beginning of my speech that the majority of people living in extreme poverty in the world are female and therefore at risk of being kept poor by this pernicious problem. Various research projects have looked at the different ways in which corruption has an impact on women, as opposed to men, in developing countries. Women remain the primary care-givers around the world, so they tend to face more corruption because of their increased interaction with public services, whether they are trying to obtain a school place for their child, support a relative through the health system or obtain legal documents for their family.

    Recent reports suggest that the experience of many women facing corruption goes beyond the traditional gender spheres. One study found that the major problems were about starting a business. There have also been suggestions that, as more women access higher education, there is an increasing convergence of sexual harassment and academic corruption. When I visited Kenya earlier this year with CAFOD, I saw and heard about the damaging impact that corruption can have on many women’s lives.

    In addition to the top-down approach of ensuring that there are more female elected representatives at decision-making level, a report from October 2012 by the UN Development Programme suggested that those who face corrupt officials most often develop the most efficient techniques for dealing with them. Such a bottom-up approach, in which relatively simple projects brought together groups of women who faced that problem, resulted in a marked success.

    Simply by joining together, women empower each other by sharing experiences, comparing success stories and training their peers to deal with corrupt officials. Such projects are vital to enable women to break free from a culture—the norm in many parts of the world—that prevents women and girls from reporting corrupt practices, most notably practices such as sexual extortion, which carry a huge stigma.

    I have attempted to cover in a relatively short time a significant and wide-ranging issue that affects many millions of women around the world. I am keen to emphasise the context of the debate. Almost two thirds of people globally who live in extreme poverty are women. Women perform two thirds of the world’s work and produce 50% of the world’s food, but they earn only 10% of the world’s income and own only 1% of the world’s property.

    Given such pitiful levels of female representation, is it any wonder that we still find ourselves in a situation where today alone, 800 women will die unnecessarily in childbirth, 29,000 under-fives will die from preventable causes, 67 million children are not in school when they should be and almost 1 billion people will go to bed hungry? The money required to remedy that totally unacceptable situation is entirely available, but all too often corruption means that it is stolen for private gain instead. I strongly believe that empowering more women and girls around the world, from the top down and from the bottom up, will prove to be one of our strongest weapons in tackling this appalling injustice.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for and congratulate her on her persistence in getting a debate on this topic. I do not think I disagreed with a single word of what she said. Her speech was powerful and she put the case forcefully.

    The participation of women in political life is absolutely crucial for gender equality and poverty reduction around the world. We are in an appropriate venue for debating it—and I thank the hon. Lady for her attempts to get me promoted to the Cabinet. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) on the work he has done on gender equality. The Department for International Development has a woman as Secretary of State and a woman as Under-Secretary of State. Although that may not be the case in perpetuity, we are now required in perpetuity by law to consider gender in international development, which is a welcome move forward.

    I will not repeat all the relevant statistics; otherwise, the hon. Lady and I will end up making the same speech. I agree that around the world, it is not adequate for only 22% of elected representatives in national Parliaments to be women. The hon. Lady mentioned that Rwanda leads the world in that respect because 64% of its parliamentarians are women. I visited Rwanda two weeks ago, and the country’s story is remarkable—perhaps all the more remarkable when we think where it has come from. Perhaps because of where it has come from, there was a recognition, in Rwanda’s desire for change, of the need to have no differences. I think that is one of the motivating factors.

    Rwanda also ranks second in the world for ease of doing business, which the country has made a priority. I am not sure how strong the evidence is on lack of corruption, because it seems to be conditional on institutions and the application of law, as well as female representation. Rwanda is an exemplary development partner and a beautiful country that has seen amazing progress over the past 20 years. At the same time, as I am sure the hon. Lady acknowledges, there has been a lack of political space and there are concerns about human rights. Rwanda is, however, certainly an exemplar in terms of development and women’s participation.

    What difference does it make to have more women in political roles? Helping more women into power improves inclusiveness; it creates female role models, which are incredibly important; and it leads to legislative changes to tackle gender inequalities that might not happen if women were not in a position to take them forward. I am sure, like me, the hon. Lady occasionally wishes that we did not have to fly the flag on those issues, and I am sure she longs for the day when women do not have to fly the flag, which is why it is so nice to have the flag raised by a gentleman.

  • I thought my hon. Friend might come in at that point.

  • I commend the Minister and the Secretary of State for what they have done. Mariella Frostrup, the GREAT Initiative, WaterAid and others have been enormously helpful over the past year.

  • I thank my hon. Friend. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North asked that we put women at the heart of international development, and we have lived up to that. I have not attended an occasion or met a Government anywhere in the world without raising that as a primary issue.

    The hon. Lady also asked about the post-2015 agenda. The high-level panel report was excellent and, amazingly, it was applauded by people across the spectrum, and from all sides of the political debate, across the world. I assure her that the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and I are focused on the stand-alone goal for gender in the post-2015 agenda.

    I was talking about legislative changes that come from having women in elected positions. In India, for example, greater representation of women in local government, which is an important level of government, resulted in greater budget allocations for women and children’s services. I have always said to women colleagues that we need to get into decision-making positions on budgets, because budgets ultimately make the difference.

    If we want to get more women elected, we have to get more women involved and active in political processes. We also need to get more women voting. In the run-up to the 2013 election in Pakistan, it was discovered that 8 million women were missing from the voter roll. Thanks to support from the UK and other donors, the register was updated and millions of women were able to vote for the first time. Women candidates also need support. The UK provides considerable support to elections across the world, and we have supported 11 freer and fairer elections since 2010. That includes helping election organisers to meet the needs of women candidates and voters.

    Changes to national constitutions and legislation can also be powerful tools to signal change. The hon. Lady mentioned Kenya, which adopted a new constitution in 2010 that guarantees gender equality and the use of affirmative action. I have met women parliamentarians, and in Kenya I met equally powerful women parliamentarians. I very much hope that Kenya does not change its decision. I am wildly off message in my party on quotas, of which I have always been a great supporter.

  • I welcome the Minister’s supportive response, but it is somewhat embarrassing for the UK to be pronouncing on these issues when we have a very poor record on female representation. I hope we can seek to make advances both across the world and here in the UK, too.

  • Winning seats is the issue for my part of the coalition, because if we do not win seats, we cannot get women or men into them. I totally agree, however, and I think we are working in that direction. The hon. Lady’s party, with its all-women shortlists, and my coalition partners with their A list or B list—I am not sure which—have made advances, and the face of Parliament has definitely changed. We would like further changes, but our issues are different from the issues facing the other two parties. We are moving in that direction. I will address corruption in a minute, but having a balanced gender mix is good, whether it is in the boardroom or on the Floor of Parliament. Wherever it is, groupthink is dangerous when making decisions. I might say the same if it was all women.

    At the heart of what DFID does is unlocking the potential of girls and women by empowering them to have a voice in decision making, so we support women parliamentarians in many countries. Our work with MPs in Ethiopia helped to improve the gender balance and oversight functions of many Standing Committees. We promised £4.5 million to help to train female politicians in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the Aawaz—which, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows, means “voice”—programme, funded by DFID, aims to increase women’s representation and voice in political organisations by 20% at local and 10% at national level.

    It is interesting that it is a mix of everything, because women’s representation is incredibly important but it is not the only answer. That the pace of advance in all ways and at all levels and at every stratum of our society and the developing world is so slow is one of the most frustrating things. I am the international violence against women champion and I have been to Africa, where one sees appalling levels of violence against women, but there is a continuum across the world. In the UK, two women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner and one in four women experience domestic violence their lifetime. The other end of the spectrum is rape as a weapon of war and levels of brutality dictated by social norms, because women are suppressed and oppressed and have how they should live their lives dictated to them. They are not given voice, choice or control over their own existence.

    We support women’s involvement in all areas of public life by building leadership skills. Girl Hub, our collaboration with the Nike Foundation, for example, uses the power of brands and media to drive change in attitudes towards girls and build their self-esteem.

    I turn to corruption, because that was the other thrust of the hon. Lady’s speech. I have always thought that development has three enemies: conflict, corruption and climate change—the three C’s. The hon. Lady is right that corruption robs many of the wealth that lies beneath Africa. The UK Government’s stance on corruption is clear. Corruption corrodes the fabric of society and public institutions. It is often at the root of conflict and instability. It diverts and wastes precious resources. There is clear evidence that poor people—it is always poor people—feel the effects more harshly than the better-off. The uncertainties of bribery stifle business development and inward investment. Corruption is therefore bad for development, bad for poor people and bad for business.

    The evidence is less clear when it comes to whether having more women in politics is the answer, because, as shown in the Global Organisation of Parliamentarians Against Corruption report, progress is conditional on other things, such as the rule of law, institutions, the application of law and so on. The correlation is difficult, but it is a work in progress. Sadly, I believe that I have met corrupt politicians of both genders—I would love to think that women were completely innocent. Nevertheless, the more women that help in decision making, the more likely we are to move forward. Findings such as those in the GOPAC report support our approach, which I have described. We work with countries to strengthen their institutions of government and their enforcement of anti-corruption law.

    On DFID’s overall approach, we have published specific plans for each country with whom we have a bilateral programme, explaining how we will help to tackle corruption and to insure against the misuse of aid funds, because I have to stand at the Dispatch Box and answer to the British taxpayer for every penny spent. When addressing fraud and corruption, we must be able to follow the money and to defend how it is used. To tackle corruption, we need to address the three conditions that allow it to thrive: opportunities for corruption, incentives for corruption and reduced chances of being caught.

    We aim to prevent corruption by strengthening the integrity and accountability of public services, particularly the management of the civil service, of public finances and of public procurement. We aim also to ensure the efficient functioning of oversight mechanisms, such as auditors general and parliamentary public accounts committees. We focus on helping partner countries ensure both an impartial, effective and reliable judiciary and a properly regulated private or corporate sector. Supporting civil society to use transparency and information to demand accountability of Governments is also important and is a key component of the UK Government’s transparency and accountability initiatives.

    The UK Government are deeply committed to improving the lives of women and girls around the world, empowering them to have a voice and to participate in politics and decision making. Getting more women involved in politics and elected to Parliaments will be an important part of this work. I thank all hon. Members for their interest in the matter and the hon. Lady for raising such an important issue.

  • I thank hon. Members for that important debate.

    We were about to go on to an important debate about Anglo-Libyan relations, but the lead Member is unfortunately not very well.

    Question put and agreed to.

  • Sitting adjourned.