I beg to move,
That this House has considered International Women’s Day.
This motion in support of international women’s day also stands in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee). I should say that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash did the heavy lifting on all this but was detained elsewhere and unable to go to the Backbench Business Committee on the day we put our bid in. I thank her, and all the right hon. and hon. Members across the House who supported our application for this important debate. It is one of the rare parliamentary moments in our calendar when, across the Chamber, there is more that unites us than divides us. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for its support in making the debate possible.
It is an enormous privilege to open this debate. It is not only here that international women’s day will be marked—more than 300 events will be held in the UK to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women across our globe. Our enduring thanks have to go to organisations such as the United Nations, Oxfam, Women for Women International, CARE International and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, which bring this event alive for thousands of people across the United Kingdom.
Each international women’s day gives us an opportunity to pause and take stock of the progress that we are making throughout the world in gaining a fundamental right: the right to be treated equally, regardless of our gender. The breadth of today’s debate is daunting, and I do not think that any one speaker can hope to cover every aspect of the important work that many Members are doing in the House, whether it is connected with domestic violence towards women, female genital mutilation, or a host of other issues that are equally important. I want to focus on two issues: the role of women in the workplace and their role in this place.
I think we have made important progress in that regard, particularly under the present Government but previously as well. For women under the age of 40, the gender pay gap has all but disappeared, and when we disaggregate the overall data, we see that progress has been made. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is worrying that the gap has not disappeared completely, but, as I am sure he knows, that has much to do with some of the choices that women are making about how they want to lead their lives, which they have an absolute right to do, and also with some of the choices that they are making early in their educational careers. We need to ensure that they are fully aware of the implications of those choices.
The right hon. Lady said that the pay gap for women aged 50 and over had increased, and suggested that that might be partly to do with choices that women make. Is the enormous increase in unemployment among members of that group, compared with the decrease in unemployment in every other cohort, a result of choices that they have made?
I think the hon. Lady misheard me. I referred to women over the age of 40, and I did not say that the gap had increased. However, she is right in one respect. I am sure that there are many reasons for the pay gap to continue, and I think that she and I share a desire for the position to change. I shall say more about that later.
As my right hon. Friend says, the Government have made real progress in not only giving more women access to child care, but helping women on lower incomes, as well as women of pensionable age. I am not suggesting to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) that all the problems have been solved, but I think she would want to join me in ensuring that praise is given when it is due.
As I said at the beginning, I want to focus on both the workplace and this place. On a day like this, we should never forget what our forebears did to ensure that we would all be here as women Members of Parliament. There is also much to celebrate in the country more widely in respect of the role of women in our society. Over the past year, we have seen the appointment of the first woman bishop, the first female president of the Royal College of Surgeons, and—this is of particular interest to me—the first female Formula 1 driver, Susie Wolff. Many more women are breaking through and providing role models for us all, which can help to change attitudes and, importantly, raise aspirations.
Let me add one more name to that list: Fiona Woolf. I think that she deserves a particular mention. Although she was not the first female Lord Mayor of London, I believe that she did more than any other Lord Mayor to tackle the issue of gender equality in business, championing women and their contribution to the City of London, and taking that further with the City’s first Pride dinner in celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender City workers. I think we should put on record our thanks to her for all she did in that role.
I shall now focus on the role of work in women’s lives, knowing full well that other colleagues will pick up the other vital threads. Last week the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, wrote:
“In too many countries, too many legal restrictions conspire against women to be economically active”,
yet we know that the right to work is fundamental to the story of women’s equality. Christine Lagarde was prompted to say that by an IMF report which found that, despite the progress made on gender, almost 90% of countries surveyed still had legal restrictions based on gender that can stop women having the same opportunities to work as men.
While progress has been made, we should start this debate in the full knowledge that for many of our sisters around the world progress can be almost impossible to see. That is why the work of my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary is so critical in supporting our aims.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her speech and on this debate. Will she commend the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) in bringing forward his gender equality Bill for international development? It is absolutely critical that our international development programme, which our right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary so ably leads, ensures that gender equality is embedded in everything it does.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to remind me of that important Bill, because through such legislation we can ensure that Britain continues to lead the way, as we are doing in our Government policy, prioritising women and girls in overseas work, helping more than 2 million women overseas to get jobs and over 5 million girls to attend school. That sort of leadership can make a real difference.
Absolutely, and I pay tribute not only to the Mayor of London for the excellent work he does in his office, but to my hon. Friend, who has shown real leadership on this issue not only in her constituency, but across London. With women like her on our green Benches, we can make real progress in these areas.
The theme of this year’s international women’s day is “Make it happen”, and it is incumbent on all of us to make sure we are making it happen for women not only in the UK, but around the world. The Commission on the Status of Women, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the team of dedicated people at the Government Equalities Office led by Helene Reardon-Bond work tirelessly to support change around the globe, to take the experience of our country abroad, and to advocate and deliver the change that is needed. They and the ministerial team ably led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, and the Ministers on the Front Bench today as well, play a critical role and I applaud them for their enduring hard work and urge them on.
What the IMF report to which I have referred underlines is that laws, however apparently benign, can affect the true opportunities women have, and I would like to draw the attention of the House to a problem raised by one of my constituents: the posting of revenge pornography online, an act that I believe was designed specifically to intimidate and undermine the women who were the victims. It is a very female-based crime, yet I was advised by the police that it was not necessarily a crime at all at that point. All the victims I have met are women, although I am sure there are some men who are affected, too. These women endured enormous trauma, and some even blackmail, and almost all cited a direct effect on their work and family life as a result of being the victims of this appalling and despicable behaviour. It is a testament to the commitment of the Lord Chancellor on these issues that when I raised this with him directly, he acted at once. We must ensure that we are responsive to the new crimes that the internet can create, and I believe this Government have done just that. It is now, after one short year, a crime to post nude or sexually explicit images online without consent, and I applaud my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor for taking that swift action.
The British workplace was designed by men for men, and so were many of the laws that are assigned to it. That is why the task of workplace modernisation is so important. There is now a record number of women in work—more than 14 million—and 80% of the growth in female employment in the past four years has been in managerial, professional and technical sectors. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), was instrumental in pressing for extending the right to request flexible working and in introducing a system of shared parental leave. Increasing early-years education for three and four-year-olds and the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, and making tax-free child care available to all for the first time, are also clear ways in which this Government have taken action to modernise the workplace for women in the past five years.
We have removed some of the most entrenched barriers, helping women to gain greater financial security through work and also in retirement. Our state pension reforms will improve the lives of the more than 600,000 women who will benefit from the single tier pension and receive an average of £8 a week more as a result of this Government’s actions. There are now more women-led businesses than ever before. One in five small and medium-sized enterprises is now led by a woman. There are more women on FTSE boards than ever before, and there are now, for the first time ever, no all-male FTSE 100 boards. These are significant achievements, and the Government should be recognised for what they have done. I believe that we shall see this legacy come to maturity in the next 10 years.
When it comes to promoting gender equality, one of the key indicators alongside work is the proportion of seats held by women in a national Parliament. I should like to pay particular tribute to the work of the all-party parliamentary group for women in Parliament, which is ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod). She has worked assiduously to ensure that female representation in this House remains firmly on every party’s agenda. Her report published last summer rightly made a number of recommendations of which every Member of the House should be aware.
One recommendation, which has already been mentioned, is that we should not miss the opportunity to ensure that matters relating to women and equality are properly scrutinised. The establishment of a women and equalities Select Committee, to ensure proper scrutiny both for Government and for those outside Government on equality issues, is one of the report’s most powerful recommendations. Lord Davies’s work on women’s representation on boards has demonstrated how effective it can be to establish an expectation when it comes to gender. Through his work, he has almost doubled the number of female company directors in FTSE 100 firms by putting in place a target and monitoring it, and by generating a great deal of good will behind the issue.
It is almost unbelievable that we do not have a scrutiny body on women and equality led by the House of Commons. As a former Minister for Women and Equalities, I can tell the House that I would see such a body as a very effective tool indeed. I was pleased to hear the personal commitment from the Leader of the House earlier today. Putting in place such a Select Committee and ensuring that people would be held to account would have just the kind of nudge effect that is so popular among modern-day economists. That would be an important way we could improve the processes of this place.
The all-party parliamentary group also recommended changes to the working practices of the House as an important way of encouraging more women to stand for elected office. Clearly, we have to create an environment that women want to work in—one where they feel their face will fit. When I was asked to consider becoming an MP in 2000, my reply was, “People like me don’t become MPs.” I was born in a council house, I went to my local comprehensive school in Bridgend in south Wales and I had been working for 15 years in business, where I was a working mum, with two small children at the time. But my party never saw any of those things as an obstacle. I believe it is less about those things being obstacles and more about the perception people have about this place—that is what we need to overcome.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that all parties need to do a lot more outreach to women right across this country to say that their country needs them? They need to take a role in public life, participate in our debates and really make a difference to the future of this country.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. I hope I am able to say this without betraying any confidences from the evidence sessions held in her Select Committee, but I certainly had the overwhelming impression that recruiting women was not a problem in any individual political party; the problem was more to do with encouraging women to be interested in this as part of their career or part of how they could contribute something to the society in which they live.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and she has been a rich addition to the House. What has alarmed me is that the experience she reports in 2000 is the same as my experience back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I came into this place in 1992 and am now the longest serving woman on the Conservative Benches. How are we going to make sure that our message goes out beyond this place that this is a very good place for women to represent their constituencies and a very good place for women to do business?
My right hon. Friend asks one of the biggest questions to be answered in this debate today. It is not only incumbent on us in this place to deal with it—I know you take a deep interest in this too, Mr Speaker—but we also have to look at the way in which women who hold these jobs are represented. I know that one of the biggest concerns many women have about coming into Parliament is the problems that they can encounter in terms of the scrutiny of themselves and their personal lives. There are a great many questions to be answered in that regard, too.
I know that we have crèche facilities, although I am not sure that my 12-year-old would be too excited about going there. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which is that at the beginning of the next Parliament, when we start to think about the working hours of this place—I know that there are many different competing demands, with people living in various parts of the country—we have to ask ourselves the questions. If, as the Conservatives will, we have many young women coming into Parliament who may have not yet started their families, and if we are to encourage them to stay here for as long as possible, we have to address the sort of issue he is talking about. I want to encourage more women who have families into Parliament. At the moment, 40% of women MPs do not have children and that is not representative of our population as a whole. In addition, women tend to have shorter parliamentary careers than their male counterparts and tend to have older children, too, so there are some forces at play that he is right to pick up on.
The right hon. Lady is making an interesting speech. I wonder whether she shares my experience, which is that at surgeries or even when knocking on doors it tends to be the women who come forward to discuss things. I have had surgeries where the man has been brought along but does not open his mouth and the woman speaks on his behalf. I wonder whether it is a shared experience among women MPs that the level of engagement by women is very high indeed.
The hon. Lady is making an important point. I wish to pay tribute to my local Basingstoke and Deane borough council, particularly its Conservative group, because more than a third of our councillors are women and that is well in excess of any other party. I think there is something else at play in what she says; perhaps as she and I are women MPs, women feel more empowered to take a more assertive position with us because they see women in their community taking a role that they can follow.
I believe that each party is doing good work to encourage more women to stand. I pay particular tribute to the work of Women2Win for my party, under the careful guidance of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the noble Baroness Jenkin in the other place, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton)—an extraordinarily dedicated group of colleagues, who have ensured that an extraordinary group of talented women are set to join us on these green Benches in May. More than a third of our candidates in winnable seats are women. I pay particular tribute to Suella Fernandes, who was selected for Fareham, in my home county of Hampshire, just a few weeks ago. With all her experience, I know that she will be an excellent addition to this place.
My right hon. and hon. Friends here today, many of whom have been MPs for longer than me, have noted many things about this place, but one thing that I was concerned about when I came here was the lack of visibility of the contribution made by the women who had already been in Parliament before me. Since that point, we have seen some progress, but we need to continue under your careful guidance, Mr Speaker, to make progress on that. We have seen the unveiling of the statue of Margaret Thatcher in Members’ Lobby and just this week we have seen an inspiring exhibition of photography and portraiture, which has really started to crystallise the contribution of the extraordinary women we have already seen in this place.
I know that you are one of our great supporters, Mr Speaker, but let us make sure, perhaps as a testament to this international women’s day, not only that we have an exhibition of women’s portraiture and photography in Portcullis House, but that those images creep their way down the corridors to the Palace of Westminster itself and on to the walls of our Committee Rooms, so that the next time I sit on a Delegated Legislation Committee, I do not have to endure two or three hours of simply looking at previous male colleagues on our walls. I think that is perhaps what would be expected, all these years on from the first woman having sat in the House of Commons.
I will close there, because I know that many hon. and right hon. Friends want to contribute to this debate. I look forward to an excellent discussion of the issues that really matter to women in Britain today.
Order. Colleagues might wish to produce a list of the distinguished female parliamentarians of whom they would like to have portraits in prominent positions in the Palace in the course of the next Parliament. If that choice is made known, I would be very happy to be a cheerleader for it. Far too few prominent female parliamentarians have portraits in this House.
May I begin by saying that a statue of Emily Wilding Davison would be at the top of my list? She was not a parliamentarian, but she was certainly someone who made a huge impact in this place, not least by breaking into the House on a number of occasions, locking herself in and making a complete menace of herself, furthering the place of women hugely. The very fact that she was not a parliamentarian should not continue to exclude her from recognition in this place. You know my very strong views on this issue, Mr Speaker, and as the first and only Emily ever to be elected to this place I will continue to press for that.
I congratulate the right hon. Members for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) and for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and the hon. Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) on their work in securing today’s debate. International women’s day has a distinguished history. The first formal observance of a women’s day was in the United States in 1909, to mark the first anniversary of the women garment workers’ strike in New York in 1908, when 15,000 women went on strike to demand their economic and political rights. It is right in many ways that international women’s day is founded in the movement for more justice in the workplace.
I have some young girls coming into Parliament today from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school, which is based in my constituency. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was a distinguished woman who fought her way into becoming a medical doctor despite the rules and managed to slip through some loopholes, which the medical profession then closed after her, so that she was alone as a woman doctor for many years. She established a women’s hospital in my area, was the first woman mayor in the country and her sister was Millicent Fawcett—quite a history, and these are quite some girls I will be seeing. They are 11 and 12-year-olds. As a woman in my mid-50s, it is difficult for me to give them advice. They have had advice from many people, including from Michelle Obama who visited. I do not think that my advice will rival that of the President’s wife.
When speaking to girls who are just beginning their lives and looking forward to womanhood, one has to be realistic about the difficulties that they will face. The truth is that no matter what decision they make, they will feel that it is the wrong one. If they remain at home, they will feel that they have not been ambitious enough. If they go to work, they will feel that they have let their families down. If they try to work part-time, they will not do sufficiently well professionally and their children will still resent the time that they are out. They will find that, even if they are at home looking after their children, the demands of the older generation will be put on them. It does not matter which way we turn, we are always wrong. Women’s liberation was not supposed to look like this.
We have more that we should do, that we must do and that we can do, but fundamentally, as long as women continue to do two thirds of the unpaid work—work at home is important—we will not get equality. The younger generation of men have changed their attitudes in many ways. It is good to see that they are prepared to change nappies, and that they are prepared to be involved in child care.
Do they sort out the shopping? If there is no breakfast cereal, is it my hon. Friend or his partner who ensures that there is breakfast cereal on the table the next morning? The reality is that many of us have partners who are enlightened and wonderful and we love them greatly, but in the end they believe that they are helping us. Why are they helping us? Why are we not helping them? Until we begin to re-establish the relationship between men and women and unpaid work, we will not get far, because that is the biggest problem we have.
In the meantime, while we are waiting for the halcyon day when men clean the loo, we need to be working much harder at ensuring that we have proper flexible working. Some changes made by the Conservatives have been positive, but there have been restrictions in what they have introduced, which have been counter-productive. It is certainly to the benefit of all of us that people, no matter what their circumstances, can apply for flexible working and that that request is taken seriously. The difficulty is that the employer can be completely within their rights to insist that they will take three months to consider it. If someone’s mum has fallen down and has gone into hospital and they need to visit her, see that she is okay, help her out of hospital afterwards, and ensure that she is back in the community and properly supported, and their employer is taking three months to decide whether they can work flexibly, what do they do? They are likely to take demotion, leave, or work part-time. It is not a feasible system for the real lives that real people live today. We should be looking further at flexible working. It is to be greatly applauded that we encourage men and women—men particularly—to take time off when children are born, but the needs of children continue throughout their teenage years and, in my experience, into early adult life. The continuing caring responsibilities that people have for an older generation remain and should be shared by men. We have a long way to go in relation to that. I put that down as my first marker.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the long-hours culture in this country is counter-productive for everybody? It is particularly so for women, because if they want to get into a profession and are expected to work all hours, as indeed are men, that puts them off. This place is not an exception.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. We have got ourselves into an odd place in which it is accepted that women have to limit the hours they work—that full time may mean just full time and not all the hours of overtime. In many workplaces, if a man wants to be able to get home at six o’clock to see the children there is in some ways more prejudice against him than there might be against a woman, as it would be accepted that she would need to get home. It would be to the benefit and liberation of us all if we looked again at our equal and shared responsibility for unpaid and paid work and allowed people to make choices that are appropriate for them and not based simply on gender. It happens too often and it continues to happen.
My stepmother was a great feminist in the 1970s who translated “The Little Red Schoolbook”, which was a great call to arms at that time. I remember her saying that she was doing that work not for herself—she did not expect it to work for her—but for me. I continue to work, not necessarily for me but for the girls at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and for my daughters. We go down the generations, but although things improve we still have such a long way to go. We must not be complacent.
There is an area in which there is an element of complacency, with the greatest respect to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke, and that is equal pay. Work still needs to be done. The Equal Pay Act 1970, passed some 45 years ago, has run into the sand and we have a number of difficulties with it. First, it was based on the idea of individual women taking out individual complaints about their individual circumstances. They cannot be representative of a class of women or of an entire employment establishment; they do it on their own behalf. They can of course be bought off and there can be a gagging clause in any agreement that is made instead of their going to court, so there is therefore no end to it.
Increasing numbers of cases have taken years and years. The idea of the Dagenham work force going along to a tribunal, representing themselves and it not taking very long is long gone. It can take five years for the preliminary issue in the case to be decided. This process has become counter-productive. As we have established our law on the basis of a form of contract law, the European Court of Justice has said that women should not just get two years’ compensation but six years’ compensation for not being paid equally with men. That has had a chilling effect on employers, who will fight every single case.
In increasing numbers of cases, trade unions and employers come to a negotiated deal on equal pay between men and women only for the trade unions to be sued. We are getting mired in difficulties, but the gender pay gap remains stubbornly at about 10% for women on full pay and at 17% for women who work part time. We should not turn our backs on that.
I reassure the hon. Lady that in no way should she sense any complacency from me on that issue. I was simply pointing out that disaggregating the data uncovers a slightly different issue. I recognise the problems with equal pay and other pay complaints that she has cited, but if we disaggregate the data we can see that the challenge for women over 40 is not focused on enough.
There are other problems with the Equal Pay Act. The fact that there are fees has put women off taking cases; there has been a decline of 70% or 80% in the number of women taking cases on equal pay.
I have talked about settlements and about the need for six years’ compensation and its chilling effect, but in addition the Equal Pay Act was based on another way of working in another world. It does not comprehend outsourcing, agency working, bogus self-employment and all the things that have, in my view, often been used to circumvent equal pay. We need a new pay Act that would ensure that such difficulties are directly addressed.
All sorts of increasingly bizarre loopholes have developed in the law. For example, if a woman is replaced by a man and the man gets paid more, it would seem that she is not allowed to compare him with herself and to compare his level of pay to show that she has been discriminated against. In my view, that is nonsense. If a man is paid more than a woman it is a defence for the employer to say that that is not discrimination because it is owing to some other material factor—historical or mistaken. Obviously, that is also nonsense. There is even an argument, which has been upheld in some court cases although not all, that if a woman compares herself with a man who is employed by the same employer but works in a different building, it is not a fair comparison. That is obviously another piece of nonsense that needs to be swept away in a new equal pay Act.
The fundamental problem with the Equal Pay Act is that it is based on individual women taking complaints about their individual circumstances. We should accept, in clause 1 of a new Bill, that it is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that there is equal pay between the genders, so we need to work together to do something about it. A new Act should have a code of practice with some legal standing attached to it so that employers know that they will not be sued so long as the agreements negotiated with the trade unions are made within the code. Employers could volunteer to have proper pay audits, job evaluations and skills audits. If they out sourced that to recognised experts and acted on the basis of their recommendations, that would be a complete defence against any equal pay claim.
Does the hon. Lady agree that some of the “Think, Act, Report” work, in which the Government have pushed organisations to be transparent on diversity issues, for example by revealing the number of employees at each level within the organisation and the gender pay gap, is the first step to making life fairer within a business?
Section 78 of the Equality Act 2010 was introduced by the previous Government and has not been implemented by the current Government, which is a great shame. Section 78 orders all businesses with more than 250 employees to have a proper pay audit. The devil is in the detail, and it could well be a modest change, even if it was implemented. The requirement to make available proper pay information so that pay can be compared across different stratums of equivalent work is an important call to arms to which the Labour party has committed itself as a first step, but a new equal pay Act would give substance to that.
I was talking earlier about the idea of collective responsibility and of businesses volunteering to have a proper root-and-branch look at how they pay people. If the agreements reached are a complete defence so that they are not scared about changing the way in which they pay men and women or about paying six years’ compensation, we may well find that more businesses come forward. If we have a code of practice under which the trade unions can negotiate equality between the sexes and eradicate the gender pay gap, we can all move together towards the sort of world that we want, in which there is not discrimination between men and women.
We need to look again at the powers of employment tribunals and the way in which they act. In serious and complicated cases, senior judges—High Court judges or whoever—should be brought in to make sure that the cases get through the system quickly and efficiently and there is no time wasting. We should bring back the questionnaire. Why the Government got rid of it, I do not understand. It should be two pages that a woman can send to her employer and say, “Could you give me information on this?” Let us keep it short and punchy, but let us enable women to get some information so that they know whether they have a case.
Perhaps the most important thing is to treat women not as individuals taking individual cases but as whistleblowers. If they go before an employment tribunal and explain that in the culture of a company or organisation they and their sisters are being discriminated against, the tribunal should have the power to step in and order a proper pay audit and skills evaluation. Then there should be a plan. I appreciate that the Government have introduced the power for tribunals to order an audit if a case is lost, but the law is silent on implementation. So let us implement it. Let us not just have a little bit of window-dressing. Let us make sure that there is a proper study of the cultures within organisations where there has been discrimination, and let us make sure that there is a plan for change. I respectfully suggest that that plan for change should be overseen by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and that the commission should make sure that the plan is implemented. Failure to implement it should be treated as a form of contempt of court. The organisation can then be brought back and a penalty imposed.
We need new legislation which is fit for the 21st century, which is based not on individuals, but on collective responsibility, which in the end ought to be the responsibility of our whole society. This seems to me the sort of thing that we could do. There could be particular powers over a short period of five years—for example, compensation of just two years instead of six years for a period of five years; no tribunal fees for a period of five years; a business not needing to pay compensation for five years if it conducts a root-and-branch audit of the way in which it pays people. Such steps could push matters forward, and at long last we could address at least that part of what holds women back. Unless we do something about it, it may hold back the girls from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. We will deal with flexible working and unpaid work at another stage. Let us take one step at a time. That is what I propose for a new equal pay Act.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who is passionate on these matters. I thank my right hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) and for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) for bringing the debate to the Floor of the House. It is important that we celebrate international women’s day and show that in Parliament we put women at the top of our agenda and make sure that everything we do is about maximising the potential and abilities of everyone across this country, including women.
International women’s day is a day for celebrating the contribution of women, as well as for reflecting on what more we can do to support women and young girls across the world and what we can do to inspire the next generation. It was great to hear the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury talk about the school pupils who are coming to visit today. Many girls from schools in the constituencies of Members across the House are coming to Parliament next Thursday to celebrate international women’s day. That will be a chance for them to hear about the work that is being done in this place and out in our communities. We hope they may be inspired to make some contribution in their own communities.
I shall focus on how we make it happen—the theme of international women’s day this year—for women and enterprise. I spent about 20 years in business, and I still do what I can to support women in business. I am a patron of the London Women’s Forum and speak often in the City to encourage women at all levels in many organisations to continue to use the support available to them, to encourage each other to fulfil their potential, each and every one of them, and to be part of UK plc. The contribution that they can make is incredibly important.
The number of women in the UK choosing to set up their own business has doubled in the past six years. That is not just in traditional sectors, but in areas such as software development and website design. However, we still have a long way to go. We would probably have more than 1 million more entrepreneurs if women were setting up businesses in the UK at the same rate as men. That would be worth billions of pounds to the UK economy.
Does my hon. Friend share with me a very positive response to the fact that 37% of candidates for start-up loans provided by the Government are women, and 35% of successful candidates for the new enterprise allowance provided by the Government are women?
I could not have put it better myself. I absolutely agree that the statistics show that progress has been made, and hopefully that will inspire more women to go and get the start-up loans required, which is really important.
We also have some great role models. If we look across the country, we see women such as J. K. Rowling, who came up with the idea for Harry Potter in 1990—it just popped into her head on a crowded train to Manchester. Michelle Mone left school at age 15 without a single qualification, and she had the idea for Ultimo lingerie when she wore a particularly uncomfortable bra and thought that she could produce something better. Linda Bennett, of L.K. Bennett, worked as a shop-floor assistant in north London branches of Whistles and Joseph before going on to establish her own massively successful fashion line.
Specsavers co-founder Dame Mary Perkins is the UK’s first female billionaire. She was born and raised in a Bristol council house before studying optometry at Cardiff university. Friends Sophie Cornish and Holly Tucker established the retail site notonthehighstreet.com in 2006. It has since turned over £100 million in trade. Rita Sharma is the UK’s richest Asian female entrepreneur. She dropped law after one term at Sussex university to begin Worldwide Journeys, a travel agency that now has a net worth of £7 million.
Business Dragon and the founder of Weststar Holidays, Deborah Meaden, began her first company, a glass and ceramics business, aged just 19. Hilary Devey was continually refused support by bankers she approached about her proposed venture for the freight network Pall-Ex. It now has a combined turnover approaching £100 million. We have great examples out there, with the likes of Jo Malone and The White Company. There are so many female entrepreneurs who have made a real difference.
Does the hon. Lady agree that that is often a particularly good way for women with young children to branch out and set up their own business? We had an event earlier this week with the National Childbirth Trust on the cost of child care, and there were a number of women there with lots of small children—always refreshing in Parliament—who had changed career because of the cost of child care and were setting up their own businesses, which in years to come will have huge potential to contribute to the economy.
I completely agree. Only recently the Exchequer Secretary visited Chiswick to meet female entrepreneurs and women who were thinking about setting up a business, and they said exactly the same. They needed something more flexible and perhaps part time, but something they could establish for themselves in that way.
In my west London constituency, in Chiswick, Brentford, Isleworth and Hounslow, one of the most well-known female entrepreneurs is Cath Kidston, who opened her first shop in 1993 and now has 59 stores in the UK and 54 across Spain, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. She started making wash bags and aprons because she had over-ordered fabric.
Another entrepreneur from Hounslow is Shavata Singh, who is now famous for doing the eyebrows of the stars. Almost every department store now has a Shavata concession doing eyebrows—if you ever need them done, Mr Deputy Speaker. She has now established her flagship store in Knightsbridge and is doing amazing work. Angela Lyons-Redman, of My Plumber, is based in Brentford and Chiswick. She left her job as a solicitor because she thought she could offer a better, faster service in the plumbing world—initially working from her bedroom, with a plumber on a motorbike—and now employs 38 people and several apprentices. She is doing a great job with that company.
Lorraine Angliss created Annie’s, a lovely, quirky and comfy restaurant in Chiswick and Barnes, and now has a sister restaurant in Richmond, and they are much loved by locals. Julia Quilliam set up a property business in Brentford, an independent family-run estate agent. Anila Vaghela, of Anila’s Sauces, which is also based in Hounslow, makes curry sauces. She set up the business in her 50s after being made redundant. She has won many Great Taste awards, and her sauces are all about love and harmony.
I have a range of other examples of great local female entrepreneurs, such as Charlotte who set up Badger & Earl, Maggie who set up Maggie & Rose, Anette who set up Chateau Dessert, Esther Gibbs who set up LondonMummy.com, Sarah who set up Sprinkled Magic, and Martha Keith. They have all made their mark by setting up their own business.
Martha Keith has an interesting story. When I entered this place, I wanted to encourage more women to set up businesses. I feel that in many sectors we just need to encourage more women. I attended a Commonwealth meeting of female parliamentarians in Edinburgh. We were a group of 15 women all standing together, and we all said that we got into Parliament because someone had tapped us on the shoulder and said, “Why don’t you do it? You’d be great.” It strikes me that we need to encourage women constantly. We know that they have the ability and the skills, but we need to encourage them to take that step.
Does my hon. Friend agree that alarm bells should be ringing for the large corporations in this country that for whatever reason seem unable to retain the talented women she has just talked about? They should be looking at that very carefully, because in future they might see a real haemorrhaging of talent from their training programmes into self-employment.
Absolutely, and it is a real loss to their business when they cannot retain that talent. There is a simple and proven business case that shows that they need to keep hold of that talent. They have to look at every single part of the pipeline to ensure that women stay in their organisations. If they have a short time away from work because they are on maternity leave or have to look after young children, those companies need to encourage them and support them back into the workplace.
I met Martha Keith when I decided to conduct an experiment in west London by setting up three entrepreneurship workshops—I called it the start-up challenge—in Hounslow, Brentford and Chiswick. I leafleted the whole area, going from door to door to hand out a really positive flyer that said, “I believe you can do it, so please come and find out how. Let’s work together to make this happen.” We were inundated with women who wanted to find out more and see if they could do it. The inspirational part of those events was hearing the entrepreneur’s story; a women standing up and telling her story, explaining what she had done in her business—the good, the bad, the challenges and the obstacles—and how she eventually succeeded. The women listening realised that maybe they could do that too.
Martha Keith came along to one of those events. She had left a good job in GlaxoSmithKline to set up her own business, Love Give Ink, which makes brilliant stationary. I also introduced her to the Prime Minister when he visited Brentford, and he then used her as an example in his speech to the Federation of Small Businesses last year. She now employs several people, is doing a great job and has never looked back. People like Martha can make a difference not only by changing their own lives and contributing to the economy, but by doing something new and different or better than anyone else.
Creating opportunities for women and encouraging them to do something that will make a real difference to their lives is so important. The Government have helped with that, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), by clearly signposting businesses on the Great Business website, because we have so many great women in this country that we want to promote what they do by building on the Great brand; handing out 25,000 start-up loans, a third of which have gone to women; changing the tax code so that home businesses do not typically have to pay business taxes; introducing growth vouchers to help small businesses access specialist advice; and opening up the banking industry to challenger banks, encouraging crowdfunding and hopefully doing more on alternative finance.
It is great to hear that more women than ever before are starting up businesses. Some 20% of small and medium-sized enterprises are run either by women or by a team that is over 50% female, which is an increase of 140,000 since 2010. There are other things that we are doing to support women in their roles. For example, 2 million families will benefit from the new tax-free child care scheme. The increase in the number of free hours of early education for three and four-year-olds will make a difference, as will extending free early learning places to 40% of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds.
I urge the Government to continue doing all they can to support small businesses; to consider the contribution women can make to enterprise; to celebrate the contribution that women who have set up their own businesses make to the workplace; and to promote role models. If we talk more about role models, perhaps more women will get involved. It would inspire not just our generation, but the next generation of girls to feel that they can take the same route. By talking about all the great people who have succeeded in the world of enterprise and the women who have made a contribution to this country, I believe we can make that happen locally, nationally and across the world.
I have been reflecting on the function of Back-Bench debates. It is important that we get things out of them rather than just listen to ourselves. This is a debate about an issue on which there is not an enormous difference between parties. The first task of such debates is to move culture on; the second is to do things and get allies to change things; and the third is to advance policy.
On shifting our culture in relation to the role of women, I want to give the media some faint praise. It is great that the BBC has aired the documentary about the rape and murder of a woman in India. It is deeply shocking that the documentary has been banned in India and utterly horrifying that Mukesh Singh, who was responsible for the murder, suggests that women are more responsible for rape because they go out late at night and look pretty, as though men are helpless in the face of how women look. We can use this Chamber to make it clear to each other, the UK media and India that that attitude to women is unacceptable, that it damages the reputation of India internationally, that we are standing up against it and that we are proud that we have shown the documentary in the UK.
The media have done another helpful thing in relation to women and politics. Michael Cockerell’s recent programme about this House started with two young women MPs. It was very important to be able to see that the activists and Members in this House who represent constituencies are not just fusty old guys in suits—I speak as a fusty old woman in a suit—but represent some of the different parts of our society. It is a failure in democracy that people are becoming less committed to believing that it is the best way to run a country or, as Churchill put it, the worst form of Government except for all the others. People feel less comfortable about it and I think that one of the ways in which we can make them feel more comfortable is by letting them see people like them in this Chamber. It is a big challenge for all of us to make sure that the diversity of all our communities is represented in Parliament.
When Mr Speaker was in the Chair, he challenged us to name women whose portraits should be in this place. I nominate Baroness Ros Howells from the other place, who did so much, following the fire that killed so many teenagers in Deptford, to bring that evil murder to light and get justice for the community. Perhaps Mr Speaker will read Hansard and commission a portrait of her.
I started by talking about the rape and murder in India. We have to focus on how many women are murdered, because it is a terrible problem across the world and in the UK. The recent Femicide Census showed that 694 women had been killed by men over four years and that 46% of them were killed by men they loved.
Yes, I do—that is absolutely horrifying—and I am really worried that the reduction in quality refuge provision for women who are at risk means that more women will be murdered.
As I have said, we should not just shift our culture and understanding, but change things. I invite every Member to vote on Tuesday week for a real change for a very vulnerable group of women: domestic workers who are grossly exploited by their employers. The other place has tabled an amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill and we have an opportunity to support it when it comes back to this House. I am absolutely certain that the Government have no intention of doing that, but following this debate we could decide that our commitment to those women—bold, brave women who have their passport taken away and are expected to sleep on the kitchen floor and, in some cases, to work for 24 hours for no money—is more important than our commitment to our party Whip. If we did that, we would demonstrate that this debate expresses solidarity among women—because, overwhelmingly, domestic workers are women and they are enslaved here in Britain—that we will not put up with it and that we will be prepared to stick out our sharp elbows and make a difference for that group of women.
As I have said, the third role of Back-Bench debates is to advance policy. Over the past few years I have been banging on about older women—a category that I never particularly expected to get into, but it crept up on me and bit me on the bum. It is a real issue that the peak earning point for men comes when they are in their 50s, while the peak earning point for women comes when they are about 40. The narrowing of the pay gap is being achieved not by Government policy, but by history, because, although it has narrowed for younger women, it is enormously wider for older women.
It is great for Government Members to say, as the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) has, “Look at all these people we’ve taken out of tax,” but if we look at women’s income, we will see that the majority of them have not benefited from that. The average pay of women entrepreneurs—lone, self-employed women—is £9,600, according to the Office for National Statistics. That group of women has not benefited one jot from the increase in personal allowance.
Absolutely—my hon. Friend is quite right.
After the election of 101 Labour women in 1997, I did a piece of work about how much difference was made by having a lot of women in Parliament. One of the most obvious differences was a shift from the wallet to the purse. Fiscal decisions made by that Government hugely increased the income of women and, to a lesser extent, benefited men. The problem is that precisely the opposite has happened under the present Government. I am really sad about that. I do not believe that that was intended by Government women and I want them to be allies in trying to remedy the problem.
I want to talk specifically about older women and work, because there is a real crisis about keeping women in work. One statistic that is burnt on my brain is the fact that two thirds of the people who work beyond retirement age are women. Two thirds of those women earn entry-level wages, while two thirds of the men, who are the other third of people who work beyond retirement age, are on top-level wages. The story is that the guys keep going because they are enjoying themselves—they have chauffeurs, and there are all the nice things about being on the board—but women continue to work because their families need the money.
In public services, we do not have an intelligent way of keeping women in touch with the workplace. I praise the Government for appointing Dr Ros Altmann to look at the needs of older workers. I am very glad that she is about to produce a report that, for example, will look at women and the menopause. From talking to organisations such as the Royal College of Nursing and the National Union of Teachers, I know that the people for whom they are taking employment cases are women in their 50s and 60s who have been managed or pressed out of their careers. As one woman in my constituency said, “What happens is that you are always first in the queue for redundancy and last in the queue for a new job.” It is very striking that our jobcentres do not make enough of a difference for such women. The Work programme has found sustained employment for just over 10% of the women over 50 referred to it, which is much lower than the level for men of the same age group and lower than the level for every other group. We do not have an intelligent strategy to help to keep older women in the work force.
What is worse is that one reason why older women come out of the work force is that we are the default carers, as other Members have said. We not only make sure that there is breakfast cereal on the table, but we look after the children, the grandchildren, the elderly relatives and our husbands when they have a sudden illness. Yet we do not have proper policies to ensure that a women who suddenly has to do unexpected caring can have a period of adjustment in her employment to work out whether the person she is caring for is going to die, which means that she could go back to work at that point, or whether they will have long-term caring needs. We do not have a policy on adjustment leave in the UK—some individual employers do, but the majority do not—and it seems to me a no-brainer that the Government should legislate to provide for such leave.
The Government should also legislate to enable women who take time out to stay in touch with the workplace. When they have to leave to look after someone, they lose contact with the workplace and cannot find help to get back into it. In a recent e-mail to me, Ms Altmann wrote:
“I would like to see special programmes introduced to help women carers (and male carers…) back into the workplace after they have taken time out, or more flexible working to allow them to combine work with caring.”
The Government may have to incentivise employers to do that, but it is a no-brainer: if we want to use all the talent that exists in our community, we need to let women make such adjustments.
The problem with policies made when women are not in the room is that women are regarded as “not men”—as though their lives were the same as men’s lives when actually they just are not. For example, women’s prisons are very ineffectual at helping women to rehabilitate themselves. Why? Because they think that work is the best form of rehabilitation. That is absolutely true for men, but the best form of rehabilitation to prevent women from reoffending is being able to look after their children. If a woman is given the chance to be reunited with her kids and to look after them, she is enormously less likely to offend. Yet despite all the insights of the Corston report, we do not have a national programme to ensure that that happens for every woman, which is just sad.
That is an outcome of not ensuring that women can think through every bit of policy. In Back-Bench debates, we can criticise policy and say that we have better ideas, but we need to be on the Cabinet Committees and in on every decision. If we were, instead of women being treated as men who menstruate, we could treat them in accordance with the reality of their lives, and we could devise policies to ensure that we employ women’s talents in the work force, use women’s ability to care for our families and have a society in which women play the role of which they are absolutely capable, but which they cannot currently play.
Through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate in the Chamber of the House of Commons? When I went with my right hon. and hon. Friends to ask for it, the Committee listening to our petition was entirely made up of hon. Gentlemen, so we particularly appreciate the courtesy they have afforded us in allowing this debate to take place in the Chamber. Last year, the debate I had secured was held in Westminster Hall, and that was noticed by people outside Parliament.
Indeed. My hon. Friend nudges me to make, for the record, an observation about the choreography in the Chamber. I believe that nine women on the Government Benches and three women on the Opposition Benches are going to speak—from time to time, an hon. Gentleman has entered the Chamber, and we are very grateful to those who have intervened—which is incredibly important. I never know whether we should refer to this, but I want to record that a lady is sitting in the chair of the Serjeant at Arms. All that is incredibly important to the outside world, but there are not enough of us in the Chamber for a debate of this importance about more than half the population.
When I was reading through some of the debates from the 1992 to 1997 Parliament, I noticed that in one such debate—I will talk about it if I catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker—nine or 10 men spoke or intervened. I regret that there are not more Members in the Chamber for this debate, particularly those who are not of the fairer sex.
I hope that today’s Hansard will be read, and that more hon. Gentlemen will be in the Chamber in subsequent debates on international women’s day. We sought this debate to mark that day, of which this year’s theme is entitled, “Make it happen”. It is important for us in Parliament to mark the day, and in doing so we are standing with women all around the world who will mark it in their own forums and in their own way.
The year 2015 is an auspicious one for international women’s rights, because it is precisely 20 years since the Beijing declaration and platform for action, on which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) led the UK delegation. That occasion really moved forward the world’s understanding, with an agenda for women’s empowerment which particularly focused on health care, education and violence against women.
2015 is an auspicious year for a debate on international women’s day because the millennium development goals come to fruition and the post-2015 framework that will follow them is in the throes of being decided. It is important to ensure that the concerns of women are at the heart of that debate because, as is often said, globally, poverty has a woman’s face. In 2015 the World Bank will also announce its social safeguards, including gender equality throughout its work.
Let me mention the important work of the United Nations Women organisation, which was established in 2010, and its head and executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. It works on several key areas: leadership and political participation, as well as ending violence against women. I wish to focus on its work on economic empowerment, and what it is doing to make that happen. It is important to increase gender equality, reduce poverty and encourage growth, but empowering women to work and empowering women economically is necessary to break down the disadvantage they suffer from. When more women work, economies grow. If women’s paid employment rates were raised to the same level as men’s, the United States’ gross domestic product would be an estimated 9% higher, that of the eurozone would climb by 13%, and Japan’s would be boosted by 16%. Therefore, in 15 major developing economies, per capita income would rise by 14%. That is the evidence produced by UN Women.
I am listening intently to the right hon. Lady, and she is making a good argument that I have heard in many places. It is essentially an argument for equality—gender equality, but also social equality across the income bands in our country. In Sweden and other Nordic countries, we see the benefits of the argument she is making to all in society, compared with more unequal societies and the disadvantages that follow on from that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and he has cited the Scandinavian countries that demonstrate best practice. Sadly, so much of the riskiest, lowest paid work in the world is performed by women, compounding the disadvantages they suffer from, and that is what UN Women has sought to tackle. Evidence from a range of countries shows that increasing the share of household income controlled by women changes spending in ways that benefit their children disproportionately. There are wide-ranging benefits for societies in empowering women economically. In the global economic context, women are still seriously disadvantaged in the workplace, and they have lower participation rates and higher rates of unemployment. They also have a greater propensity to be in vulnerable types of work. A wage gap still exists and women are over-represented in lower-paid jobs. The situation is bleakest of all in the developing world, where poverty is still rife.
I pay tribute to the work of the Department for International Development and its recognition that we must help the needs of women more. The UK has made a significant achievement in reaching the target of 0.7% of gross national income for aid. That money is spent on a wide range of areas, but one of DFID’s key priorities is to improve the lives of girls and women in the world’s poorest countries. Before you entered the Chamber, Mr Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker invited us to make a few suggestions about how we might dilute the preponderance of male portraiture in politics that adorns the walls of the Houses of Parliament at both ends. To add to the gradually increasing list, I suggest that we consider former International Development Secretaries such as Baroness Chalker, who became so well known for what she had done for the world’s poorest people that she enjoyed the lovely nickname of “Mama Africa”. No doubt in due course the Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), will find her place among the political portraits.
Let me return to the serious subject of what DFID is doing to address the needs of girls and women, which it states clearly lies at the heart of everything it does. We must stop poverty before it starts, because a girl starts at a disadvantage even before she is born. Much has already been achieved. DFID’s actions have helped 2.3 million women to get jobs and 18 million women to use financial services such as bank accounts and insurance. It has helped 4.5 million women to own and use land by supporting reforms to land and inheritance rights. Those things begin to reduce the serious disadvantages from which women suffer. The work of UN Women on economic empowerment includes improving access to jobs for women, reducing wage disparities, and helping women to accumulate economic assets and increase their influence on institutions that govern their lives.
The first director of UN Women was Michelle Bachelet, now President of Chile for the second time. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one great thing that could be done to advance this cause would be for the next Secretary-General of the United Nations to be its first female head?
My hon. Friend makes an important suggestion, and no doubt there are candidates preparing for that. Let us hope that a sufficient number of women come forward as candidates, as that is always the difficulty with top jobs such as that. I hope they will heed his encouragement.
UN Women has noted with particular concern the marginalised groups of women, which include
“rural women, domestic workers, some migrants and low-skilled women”,
and it is right to focus on those categories. As well as practical action to empower women and increase their economic independence, we must also tackle prevailing social norms that act against women in their economies. In many countries, social norms mean that some jobs are seen as unsuitable for women, or that female labour is always seen as low-skilled. Social norms can also mean that women’s income is seen as “additional pocket money” rather than essential income for their households. It is good to mention men who have advocated on behalf of women, so let me mention the well-deserved accolade that the central banker for Bangladesh, Dr Atiur Rahman, received for his initiative to enable mobile phone banking for garment workers in Bangladeshi factories. Such practical initiatives make a big difference.
The United Nations’ HeForShe campaign, which invites men to advocate for women, was launched by our very own Emma Watson last year. More than 227,000 men have signed up so far globally, including 28,000 in the UK—we might encourage hon. Gentlemen in this House to sign up. It is about recognising that equality and empowerment is not just a women’s issue—hence the need to involve men in the process to achieve it. In her speech launching the campaign, Emma Watson said:
“We all benefit socially, politically and economically from gender equality in our everyday lives. When women are empowered, the whole of humanity benefits. Gender equality liberates not only women but also men, from prescribed social roles and gender stereotypes.”
A very astute observation. It is also good to applaud the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), who has taken up the cause of women, including difficult subjects, all of which helps the status and standing of women.
Some progress on the economic empowerment of women has been achieved through the millennium development goals, in particular goal 3, which is to
“promote gender equality and empower women”.
As Ban Ki-moon pointed out:
“The Millennium Development Goals recognised that gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential to tackling poverty, hunger and other global problems”.
As we look to the post-2015 development agenda, we need to ensure that women are at its very heart.
The year 2015 also provides an opportunity to review the Beijing platform for action, as this year’s commission begins next week. It takes place from 9 to 20 March, and will be attended by representatives of all member states, UN entities and non-governmental organisations from around the world. Where men and women have equal rights, societies prosper.
“Equality for women means progress for all”.
Those are not my words, but those of the Secretary-General.
I attended the UN Commission on the Status of Women during both the last two years, but last year I was disturbed by the lack of media coverage in the UK during the event and afterwards. Does my right hon. Friend have any thoughts on how we could raise the profile of the commission and what it discusses, given that it is so important for women around the world?
Order. We need to speed up the debate a little because we are running out of time. There are still a number of speakers waiting to contribute. I ask subsequent speakers to aim for speeches of 10 to 14 minutes, which would be very helpful.
I thank you for your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), who has done outstanding work on the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, leading to the report “Improving Parliament”. I hope it will be taken up and that the changes it calls for will be made.
Let me deal briefly with economic empowerment in the United Kingdom, without repeating what others have said. I want to take up a theme about FTSE 100 companies. It is true that significant progress has been made in ensuring that every single FTSE 100 company now has a female on the board, yet still only 6.9% of their directors are female. I throw out a challenge to a female figure in the City—Fiona Woolf, for example—to invite all the chief executives from the FTSE 100 companies to come and present their female board members and two mentees from their own organisations whom they seek to promote to senior leadership roles. There are examples of good practice. Antony Jenkins, the chief executive officer at Barclays, set a target of 26% of senior leadership positions being held by women, and Barclays is on track to meet it. There are other such examples.
The Government have taken important action to empower women in our country economically, looking at issues such as the pay gap, recruitment, retention and promotion. I agree with the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) that we should work together across the House to deal with anomalies such as women, particularly older women, being seriously left behind on wage differentials. We should take action on a cross-party basis.
There are still many areas for improvement. Research produced by Cambridge university’s Murray Edwards college, entitled “Women Today, Women Tomorrow”, clearly showed that the most difficult challenge its respondents faced in their careers was still the non-supportive culture of their workplaces.
The workplace of Parliament is a difficult workplace for women. I call on you, Mr Deputy Speaker, as well as the Front Benchers, to take forward the recommendations in “Improving Parliament”, particularly that calling for the creation of a new Select Committee on equalities to consider departmental policies and programmes and scrutinise Government performance on equality. It is significant that the House’s own workplace equality network, principally a staff network, strongly supports the call for such a Select Committee to be created—the conditions in which women work affect our staff just as much as female Members of Parliament.
Let me finish with the simple observation that we need more women in this place—and, in the spirit of this year’s theme, we need to make it happen.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate. I had not originally intended to participate, because I have taken part in similar debates in the Chamber as well as Westminster Hall many times over the past 30 years, and in those debates a variety of Members, male and female, have joined in the call for greater equality for women in this place and elsewhere.
To strike a consensual note at the beginning, I agree with the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) about Lynda Chalker. I shadowed Lynda Chalker for a number of years, and always thought she should have been in the Cabinet—Margaret Thatcher should have put her there. I am therefore pleased to support the idea of having a portrait of Lynda Chalker somewhere on the parliamentary estate. She was an excellent Minister and she continues her work elsewhere.
I am here because I was listening to the debate and realised that no one was going to mention female genital mutilation. I introduced legislation to amend the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, yet there have been no successful prosecutions. I view prosecutions as essential, because they will provide a real warning to the people who continue to carry out this practice. Unfortunately, I doubt whether it will be stopped without prosecutions. An attempt at a prosecution was mounted a few months ago. A piece I read about it was headed: “FGM Trial. Why has no one ever been convicted in Britain despite the practice being illegal for 30 years?”
Everybody knows that “female genital mutilation” is a collective term for a number of procedures, including the removal of parts, or all, the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM has no health benefits, and its dangers include severe bleeding, problems with urinating, infections, infertility, complications in childbirth and increased risk of death for the new-born. It is internationally recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 125 million girls and women world wide are currently living with the consequences of FGM. The UK Government estimate that up to 24,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM in the UK. A report from City university London, undertaken in collaboration with Equality Now, estimates that approximately 60,000 girls up to the age of 14 were born in England and Wales to mothers who had undergone FGM.
There is a large minority Somali community in some areas, particularly in Wales. I recently attended a talk by an assistant police commissioner who failed even to mention the subject of FGM. I wonder whether the efforts made in education, medical circles and so forth are enough to contribute to stopping this practice in those communities. The legislation that I pushed through Parliament in 2003 raised the maximum penalty for FGM from five to 14 years in prison, and made it an offence for UK nationals or permanent UK residents to carry out FGM abroad, even in countries where it is legal. I hope there will be lots of campaigns. One led by Fahma Mohamed and supported by The Guardian and change.org. called on the Government to require all schools to teach about FGM and raise awareness of its associated dangers. A related e-petition, “Stop FGM in the UK Now”, has been signed by more than 200,000 people. As a result, the Education Secretary wrote to all schools and issued new guidance on the teaching of FGM.
I have been listening carefully to my right hon. Friend’s contribution to this very important debate. I am sure she will be pleased to hear that I shall be joining an assembly at Frederick Gough school tomorrow at which an outside organisation will be giving a presentation on the very matter she is talking about. Education is going on today in our schools.
Just to emphasise the right hon. Lady’s point, last year in my constituency in West Middlesex hospital there were 50 cases of FGM. They were noted only because those women happened to be giving birth. I think this is far more widespread than we can imagine.
I thank the hon. Lady and agree with her on that point. I think a lot is going on under cover and has not yet been exposed. There is a real need for proactive and determined enforcement and prevention, including sex and relationship education in all schools.
I believe wider action is needed to prevent young girls from becoming victims, and to prosecute those who practise FGM. This should be a key part of any strategy to tackle violence against women and girls. It is simply wrong for there to have been no successful prosecutions for FGM in all this time. If they can do it in France, why can we not do it in the United Kingdom?
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and I pay tribute to her. She was first elected to this House in 1984, and I think it was in 1985 that she had the opportunity in the private Members’ Bill ballot to introduce legislation. Having been in that position myself, I know how inundated with suggestions Members are when they strike it lucky in the ballot, but she chose the banning of female circumcision. It is a tribute to her and her work that it became law in 1985. I think it was amended in 2003. Like her, I cannot believe that we have not had a single successful prosecution to date in the UK. I hope that is something that those listening to this debate outwith this Chamber will take on board, and make sure that this absolutely abhorrent practice is stamped out in the UK, if not in the whole world.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government’s recent announcements and the placing of responsibilities on the health service and schools for reporting suspicions of FGM should help to bring about a prosecution, and hopefully many more prosecutions in the future?
I very much hope so. We need to pay more attention to this. My hon. Friend may know that I have been a great supporter of mandatory reporting of sexual abuse for a long time, because of the efforts of my constituent Tom Perry. I think this falls into a similar category, and I hope we make good progress.
The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley entered the House in 1984. I think she is the longest-serving Member in the Chamber at the moment, and I am probably the second-longest-serving Member. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) makes a comment from a sedentary position. I am certainly the Mother of the Government Benches in this debate, although I am not sure how much good that does. In the 23 years I have been in Parliament, I have seen an awful lot of changes: changes that have been good and changes that I am surprised have not happened. Sadly, we still have an awfully long way to go at home and abroad before women truly have equal roles and responsibilities in politics, public life and business, and have true equality. I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) in calling for the implementation of the report she referred to in her contribution.
I hope we can build on what I and colleagues in the 90s originally called the “mainstreaming” of equality issues in legislation and in this House. It is sad that today, all these years later, we are having to contemplate setting up a Select Committee to deal with this. But as we have not mainstreamed gender issues in our legislation and in the activities of this House and in the wider world, I add my voice in support of a Select Committee of this nature, as I would support the calls for Baroness Chalker to be immortalised in bronze, in oils or something else entirely. It is important to remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, that in my time in this House I saw the first female Speaker, in the form of Betty Boothroyd. I am second to none in my admiration for the contribution that that woman made in the Chair. Our two female Deputy Speakers also make an excellent contribution to this place. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
May I just bang the drum a little bit for my party? I am pleased to say that Baroness Shepherd was in fact the first Minister with specific responsibilities for women’s issues in Government. Time moves on and we seem to forget that both the Labour party and the Conservative party—with other parties, I would admit—have tried to forge the way forward for women. When I was looking at some background papers for this debate, I was particularly pleased to see that under this Government all the FTSE 100 companies have at least one female board member. There are more women in work—they now number some 14.4 million—than ever before. Colleagues have mentioned other firsts, but I would like to mention one close to my heart, which is the Right Rev. Libby Lane becoming our first Church of England bishop. That is a milestone. Wing Commander Nikki Thomas this year became the first woman to command an RAF fast jet squadron. I remember when I was doing my armed forces and parliamentary fellowship with the RAF that much was made of Jo Salter, who was our first RAF fast jet pilot. It is good to see women taking their place in the front line, quite rightly, and we should continue to allow that to happen.
I am proud to have been the first female Secretary of State for Wales, and I am pleased to be joined on these Benches by two other colleagues who have served as full Cabinet Members. It is right that we need to have more women progressing up the political ladder and that they have the opportunity to make a contribution to this country, particularly at Cabinet level. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) and for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) who both made very valuable contributions to the government of this country.
These debates are not new to me. In fact, on 7 March 1996, as the Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education and Employment with responsibility for women’s issues under Baroness Shepherd—what a long title that was!—I was able to introduce the debate on international women’s day. It was, I believe, for a Conservative the first debate on the Floor of the House in Government time. It is sad that we have gone backwards, having to apply to the Backbench Business Committee to have this debate, and that it had been relegated to Westminster Hall. Mainstreaming of this matter should mean that the Government of the day, of whatever complexion, secure this debate on or around international women’s day on the Floor of the House every year. It should enter the political lexicon.
When I introduced that debate, I had recently returned from Beijing where I had led the UK delegation at the UN conference on women. Baroness Chalker was alongside me, again fighting the good fight, as was Baroness Browning, who was then the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. I have to say that I greatly miss Baroness Browning in this House. Among her other nicknames from male colleagues she was often referred to, in a friendly fashion, as Boudicca. At least Boudicca is immortalised in public art in a bronze not far from here. Perhaps we could do with a few more women outside among the bronzes that decorate our city.
We were in Beijing to consider the progress made on women’s issues since 1985 and negotiate the very large document on the global Platform for Action. We had taken 18 months to prepare for the conference, working with the most amazing women’s organisations and non-governmental organisations, including the Equal Opportunities Commission, which was headed that year by Kamlesh Bahl, and the Women’s National Commission. They put in the most tremendous work.
I think, as with everything, time moves on. Not least, devolution has broken up what used to be the Equal Opportunities Commission of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the days when I was responsible for it. However, there is still a requirement for organisations that represent equal opportunities, and so perhaps in that sense I do join the hon. Lady in regretting it.
The Beijing conference was inspirational. There were 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists. The NGOs were based some way out of Beijing, and there was inclement weather. Many of these women and champions of women attended the conference in some of the most amazingly awful conditions of mud and deprivation because they were so desperate to pursue their single purpose of gender equality and the empowerment of women.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden mentioned, this is the 20th anniversary of the Beijing conference. The UN has given its main campaign the title “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It!” with “Make it happen” as the subtitle. The platform for action was the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights. UN Women says that even 20 years later, the Beijing declaration and Platform for Action remain a powerful source of guidance and inspiration. With no fewer than 189 Governments involved in its drafting, one can imagine what was involved. The civil servants on my team spent many hours, including through the night, fine-tuning the document so that we could all sign up to it. In many countries, the tenets it set out have proved to be a platform for improvements for women. Around the world, UN Women says that more women and girls than at any previous point in time now serve in political office, are protected by laws against gender-based violence, and live under constitutions guaranteeing gender equality. I would say, however, that no country has yet finished the agenda. I really hope that in this 20th year since the declaration we can give more impetus to progressing the critical areas of concern that were set out. I hope that in winding up this debate or in any declarations that are made on 8 March the Minister will ensure that the Government set out what they are going to do to build on the platform for action.
In the mission statement of the declaration, we stated that one of the objectives was the
“full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of all women”
and was essential for the empowerment of women. I want to explore this a little further in the light of propositions that are being made to change our own human rights legislation and our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. I declare an interest in that I am a member of the Council of Europe and serve as vice-president of the Political Affairs and Democracy Committee in that capacity. I am today seeking assurances that we will not be taking any action that would weaken the protections afforded to British citizens and, in the context of this debate, particularly women.
For example, one of the proposals is to limit the reach of human rights cases in the UK so that British armed forces overseas are not subject to persistent human rights claims that undermine their ability to do their job and keep us safe. That sounds very sensible and something we could all agree with. However, this change could prevent, for example, a case that was brought recently under article 2 of the European convention on human rights, which enabled the tragic death by suicide of a female Royal Military Police officer after reporting that she had been raped in Germany by two colleagues to be re-examined in a fresh inquest. That re-examination allowed the full circumstances of the background to her suicide to be taken into account, and the Army has now introduced a special code of practice exclusively to deal with blue-on-blue rape and sexual assaults. We have to ask whether, if we limited the reach of human rights cases to the UK, it would be possible to pursue that case.
The current situation on human rights has afforded much needed justice in many cases involving women. The tragic case of my namesake, Cheryl James, who was found dead at the Princess Royal barracks in Deepcut, has taken a long path since her death in 1995 to July 2014 when Liberty successfully used article 2 of the ECHR—the right to life, which includes the right to an effective and independent investigation when there is a state involvement in the death—to gain the High Court order for the original verdict to be quashed and a fresh inquest to take place.
Let us consider modern problems. Liberty persuaded Dorset police not to return intimate photographs of sexual abuse victims to their abuser by using article 8 of the ECHR, which provides for a right to private life. If any proposal is going to restrict the use of human rights laws to the most serious cases, this sort of action and protection may be prevented and may be unable to be brought. The photographs of the abused children were just family photographs—they were in swimsuits enjoying themselves—but their potential return to their abuser on his mobile phone after he came out of prison added to their feelings of exploitation and powerlessness. I would be very concerned if this sort of protection, and the means whereby it could be invoked, were to disappear. I hope that no changes that we make to human rights law would prevent what I consider to be an important plank in the protection of women and children in this country.
As we celebrate women and their achievements here and throughout the world, I hope we can use the 20th anniversary of Beijing to refresh our efforts to achieve the vision we aspired to for a world where women and girls can exercise their freedoms and choices, and realise all their rights. I hope that we would not contemplate a narrower set of laws that may be regressive and may not allow future generations of women either here or abroad to be fully protected from the sorts of circumstances that I outlined in the latter part of my speech.
I, too, thank the Backbench Business Committee for its support for this debate. I particularly thank my right hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) and for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and others for leading the application, holding the fort before the Committee, and securing a debate in the main Chamber. I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden in saying how important it is that we take every opportunity to hold this debate in the main Chamber. I think we are all very pleased to be here today.
International women’s day unites us all across the planet and gives us an opportunity not only to discuss issues where there has been significant progress on supporting women but to highlight issues where there is still much more to be done. The theme this year, as we have heard, is “Make it happen”, and I know that we are all united in trying to achieve everything we can.
One of the huge privileges of having the role of Member of Parliament is the chance to visit businesses and local organisations in our constituencies. Over the past five years, I have had the chance to meet many inspirational women leaders in my constituency. They probably do not realise it, but they are true role models for many others, particularly young women in the area. Let me give a few examples. Furniture making and upholstery is a long-standing traditional industry in my constituency. We are still world leaders in that field. For example, we have Steed Upholstery. Caroline Steed is one of the family members leading that business extremely successfully. She is a very knowledgeable, intelligent business woman who is very calm in her approach and has always been extremely helpful, particularly to a new Member of Parliament who had not previously seen how a sofa is made from scratch but is now, I can assure all Members, quite in tune with it.
I think of our local head teachers. Women are leading many of our junior schools in Erewash. I think of the voluntary sector as well. I am a big fan of the girl guides. We had a summit in Erewash, and girl guides, rainbows and brownies from all over Derbyshire descended on it, along with their leaders, who are wonderful women. They give up so much time to support girls and young women, and theirs is such a brilliant organisation.
Many people have been praised by other Members for their contributions to business and society, and indeed politics, in Britain. I want to mention Julie Bentley, who leads the girl guides movement. She is a fantastic leader, and has described the girl guides as “the ultimate feminist organisation”. I have had the pleasure of sharing a platform and a debate with her. She was truly remarkable: a very impressive woman. I do not know whether any Members had an opportunity to hear her being interviewed on “Desert Island Discs” in the last few months, but it was a fascinating programme. You will be relieved to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that one of her choices was Eminem—I shall not repeat the lyrics of any of his songs—but she also chose Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin singing “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”, which, perhaps, makes our point.
The Erewash Partnership provides support for businesses, networking and leadership. This year, to mark its 25 years of success, it moved to new premises, which were opened by another local woman, Saira Khan. As some Members may recall, she appeared in the first series of the television programme “The Apprentice”, and she has gone on to have a successful career in business and the media. We were very lucky that she came to the constituency to support the partnership.
The role of women who have gone before us, particularly those in public life, has already been mentioned. Members have cited, for instance, suffragettes and politicians. I want to tell a story which, although it may be sad, is very important. It concerns a young woman who has made a huge impact, which she probably never realised would happen. That young woman was also called Jessica—Jessica Gauntley. I had the privilege of meeting her family, but, sadly, I never met Jessica. She lived in my constituency, but at the age of 15 she fell very ill, and she lost her battle against a brain tumour.
I have no doubt that that young woman has left not only a deep void among her loved ones, but a huge legacy which has had an impact on a great many people in my constituency. She was such a vibrant, intelligent, energetic young woman. She inspired a campaign, the Jessica Hope Foundation, which has raised a huge amount of awareness of brain cancers, and has done a huge amount of fundraising.
As I said earlier, that is a very sad story about a young woman, but I think it important that her legacy lives on. She is one of many women who have been able to achieve such a thing, and we thank her for it. I also thank her family for their kindness, and for involving me in their campaign when it has been possible for them to do so.
Members have referred to the founding of international women’s day. It was originally concerned with justice in the workplace, but has expanded to include many other important matters that are relevant to women. As others have said, when it comes to women in business and the workplace there is always much more to do, but we have made progress in this country. There are now 14.4 million women in work—more than ever before—and more women lead businesses than ever before. In the 12 months to September 2014, 80.1% of women aged between 16 and 64 were employed in Erewash, compared with 71.5% of men. Historically, when a number of traditional industries in my constituency have declined, women have taken the lead in acquiring senior managerial roles in local businesses.
Near my constituency is a branch of Roll-Royce International, which does a huge amount to promote women, particularly as apprentices, and to promote their careers in science, technology and engineering. Bombardier plays a similar role. We are lucky to have those companies, because they set a great example. There has been a big campaign to attract more women to science and engineering, and those businesses are doing just that.
My hon. Friend has given the excellent examples of Rolls-Royce and Bombardier, which have been encouraging women to take up careers in engineering. Such careers require scientific qualifications. Does she agree that it is imperative for us to encourage girls to stick with the sciences when they are very young and have the necessary aptitude? Is that not crucial to their potential career choices when they become adults?
I entirely agree. We must ensure that, from an early age, girls are interested and motivated, that they are aware of the variety of jobs that they can obtain through science and engineering, and that they understand why those important subjects are relevant and can create a fascinating career path.
Does the hon. Lady agree that we should also think about the toys that children play with when they are extremely young, and ensure that they have a variety of experiences? Should we not encourage girls to play with science and engineering kits, rather than confining those exciting toys to the boys’ aisles in supermarkets so that girls think that they can only dress up, play with dolls and so on?
I am all for that. As a child, I was never happier than when I was playing with Lego. [Interruption.] No, I do not still play with Lego. I focus entirely on my work.
As I was saying, more women are taking managerial and other senior roles in companies in my constituency. In many households, they are the main breadwinners. I grew up near my constituency, and I need look no further than my own family for strong female role models. My mother was our main breadwinner. She was a paediatric nurse in the NHS for more than 40 years. Looking back, I have no idea how she managed to run a household, to bring up three children, some of whom were more trouble than others—I was no trouble at all, of course—and to work full time for very long hours, doing night shifts at Queen’s medical centre in Nottingham.
My interest in current affairs was sparked by my maternal grandmother. I remember clearly being shown the newspapers by her as a child. We were not a political family—there was no party politics—but she used to show me the international pages, saying, “You need to learn about the world around you. You need to know about current affairs, and what is happening all over the globe.” She also said, “Politics is not just for the boys at school, you know.” That is what sparked my interest in politics, and I am happy to have the chance to mention my grandmother in the House today.
We need to encourage women to enter public service and all the professions. I must say that, although I might not have succeeded for many other reasons, it never occurred to me that because I was a woman I could not, would not or should not go into politics. That never even crossed my mind. My basic motivation—I think that the same applies to many women in the House—was to get things done. We may disagree across the House about exactly how we are to achieve that, but surely we all agree that we go into politics to get things done.
When I talk to young women in my constituency, particularly sixth-formers, I tell them that although the 30 minutes of theatre that is Prime Minister’s Question Time has its place and its tradition in the House, it is during the week that the valuable cross-party work is done, in Select Committees and all-party parliamentary groups—and, of course, there is the Backbench Business Committee. The list goes on and on. Those rewarding projects, involving cross-party work and themes on which people are united, are extremely satisfying, and that is often the way in which things get done.
I always felt that I could do anything in life. That was partly due to my mother—I have that in common with my hon. Friend—but there was also the example of people such as Baroness Thatcher, who was Prime Minister when we were growing up. She was an incredible woman, and she showed us that anyone could achieve anything.
I entirely agree. One of my earliest memories of watching current affairs programmes is of watching programmes about the miners’ strike and, before that, the Falklands war. I remember asking at home, “Who is this person?”, and being amazed and impressed that we had a woman Prime Minister.
As for the message that we should convey, it is true that we need longevity in the House, but I think it a great idea to tell women who may be thinking about becoming Members of Parliament but do not want to be in the House of Commons for ever, that that is fabulous too. We need to support the choices that women make, or want to make, so that they can achieve the goals that they want to achieve, while juggling all their other responsibilities.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Both it and today’s debate are about closing the gaps in society. At the root of these gaps are economic gaps between men and women. That is part of the equality agenda, too, as I mentioned earlier. The gaps between the richest and the poorest are reflected in male-female issues, and she is highlighting very well the role models who are helping to change the situation, particularly in her own constituency. These are the people who lead, and others do follow. I congratulate her on her speech.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. There has been progress. This is not a party political speech, and we have made huge steps in this Parliament towards having more women in the workplace and closing that gap, and taking more women out of tax entirely. A high proportion of the millions of people who are now out of tax are women. These things are important in giving women choices about their lives and they help them to make decisions for themselves and their family.
Today is international women’s day and others have spoken with far more insight and experience than I have about the issues on the international agenda. For my part, in the course of this Parliament I have had the opportunity, through the Conservative party, to go to Kenya and work with women politicians there, to deliver training on democracy and modern social media campaigning skills for elections, although I am sure I learned far more from them than they ever learned from me. That group of motivated, intelligent, dedicated women politicians was extremely formidable and capable. I felt very united with women in another part of the world who felt the same way: they wanted to get on and get things done. That is the key to being passionate about public service.
I am looking forward to celebrating international women’s day and I feel that my service as an MP has enriched me in celebrating it. I believe I have more knowledge and am far better informed, motivated and committed to fighting the corner for women across the globe as we celebrate this very important day.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I thank the right hon. Members for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) and for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and the hon. Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) for securing the debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee, too.
We have had an extremely wide-ranging debate and important issues have been raised on both sides of the House. Indeed, Parliament has an important tradition of marking international women’s day at a time when we must recognise the challenges we face in achieving gender equality in Britain and around the world, as well as celebrating the achievements of women. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke was right to focus on Formula 1 female driver Susie Wolff and on the first female bishop, as well as on important issues about equality in the workplace and in politics, and securing a commitment from the Speaker to put up a new set of women’s portraits based on the recommendations of Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) made some very passionate remarks, not least on the need for men to do more housework, but also on the importance of equal pay and checking that our law is still fit for purpose.
The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) called for a new Select Committee, and I congratulate her on the important work she has done in the all-party group for women in Parliament. She also talked about women and entrepreneurship, and as a fellow Hounslow Member of Parliament I certainly recognise the importance of supporting women in business across our borough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made a passionate speech and raised some sensitive and important issues about making sure that there is no cultural excuse for violence against women and girls. She also talked about the documentary “India’s Daughter”, which was shown on BBC 4 last night, and the issues it raised about cultural attitudes to gender and the place of women in society and the rights of women as equals not just in one nation but across the world. She also raised some important issues around older women and access to work and equal pay, and also women in prison and how their rehabilitation differs from that of men.
The right hon. Member for Meriden raised some important issues about the empowerment of women economically. The HeForShe campaign makes clear the important principle that gender equality is not just a matter for women; it is also a matter for men to engage with.
I also recognise the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has done an incredible amount of work to move forward legislation around female genital mutilation, and who remains a passionate campaigner on that cause and on ending FGM within a generation.
The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) talked about gender-based violence as well as child abuse and the protection of young girls at risk. She also referred to the importance of ensuring that the Beijing Platform for Action continues to be recognised and built on for future generations, until we realise its goals.
The hon. Member for Erewash talked of Girlguiding and its work, as well as the representation of women in business and science and representation more generally.
I would like to make a few general points recognising the importance of international women’s day across the nation. It will be marked by a range of events, not least in Hounslow on Saturday where up to 1,000 women from all faiths and communities are expected to come together, recognising the role women play in working together to build strong networks in society and sharing that common goal of tackling inequality.
The “women of the world” festival at the South Bank is also holding a range of events connecting politics and civic society, and this year’s global theme of “Make it happen” is incredibly important in continuing to inspire the work done by so many organisations. We have heard mention of Plan UK, Women for Women, Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse, and the violence against women and girls campaigners across the country, including on FGM, RISE UK, Women’s Aid, Refuge, the Hollie Gazzard Trust and the White Ribbon Campaign.
Two weeks ago I joined my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and the tireless campaigner Lynne Franks for “one billion rising”, a campaign that recognises that over the course of their lifetime one in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten; staggeringly, that is 1 billion women. We also know that one in 20 children under 18 is sexually abused in the UK, 90% by people they know. We have also heard mention of the fact that two women are killed each week by their partner or their ex here in the UK, and that a staggering 1.2 million women reported incidents of domestic violence last year.
Some of us have been in Committee during this debate, but some of us have very powerful women in their family; I have three daughters and a wife, and also a lot of women constituents. Those of us who served on the anti-stalking campaign know that there are many challenges still to meet. Does my hon. Friend agree that, looking at the recent cases of abuse against young women and girls, we need to think seriously about changing the age of consent—moving it up a year, just as a signal—and doing something about the way the police take things for granted and become very casual about whether it is proper to prosecute for statutory rape after the age of 12?
My hon. Friend makes some important points. I will be touching on a couple of issues around girls’ safety and recognising that we have a particular role in making sure that the world is safer for young women growing up today.
I have been undertaking a series of girls’ safety summits around the country, and what I have found staggering is the commonality of experience, whether among young girls in Rotherham, in Croydon or in Hounslow. They have a sense that society is not on their side as they go about their ordinary lives, even going to and from school. They do not always feel safe, and to some extent, adults have buried their heads in the sand when it comes to the reality of young people’s lives today.
I want to make a couple of points about equal pay. Women today still earn only about 80p for every male-earned pound, 45 years after Labour’s Barbara Castle passed the Equal Pay Act 1970. That is why I am proud that Labour has backed the ten-minute rule Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), which demands that large companies show their commitment to equal pay for men and women by publishing their gender pay gap. Parliament voted in favour of her Bill, but the Government have so far refused to implement it.
I am also proud of the role that successive Labour Governments have played in ensuring progress by breaking down barriers and enabling women to smash the glass ceiling. Labour introduced the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, as well as introducing the national minimum wage—which we are committed to raising to £8 an hour—which helps around 1 million people a year, the vast majority of whom are women. We extended maternity leave and doubled maternity pay. We also introduced paternity leave, which I believe has shifted our national culture and indeed the debate about the role of men in the home—the other side of the coin as we also debate the role and progress of women in the workplace.
I want to move on to political representation. I think there will be agreement on both sides of the House that it is a matter of shame for our nation that only 23% of Members of Parliament are women. Internationally, we rank either 57th or 74th—depending on the measure used—out of 190 countries for the number of women in Parliament. That is hardly a record of which we can be proud, given that we are referred to as the mother of Parliaments. Political representation matters, because it is through diversity in decision making that we get the best decisions. We bring the reality of women’s lives into our parliamentary debates. We have 650 MPs today, yet only 370 women have ever been elected to Parliament, in total. I am told that I was the 366th.
However, although the number of women MPs in Westminster has increased, representation at the most senior level has decreased. Five women currently hold Cabinet positions—around 14%—but what matters is not only representation but women’s access to positions of power. It is significant that around 45% of Labour’s shadow Cabinet are women. Should Labour win in May, we will form the most gender-balanced Government that Britain has ever seen.
Positive action has been taken in the Labour party to increase women’s representation in Parliament, but positive action is not enough on its own. We need to see more women from all backgrounds coming forward to stand for election—women of different ages, from different ethnic minorities and from different parts of the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to the groups that campaign for and encourage women to come forward in politics, including the 50:50 Parliament campaign, EMILY’s List, the Labour Women’s Network, the Fabian Women’s Network and the equivalent Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups. Women’s political rights can be meaningless unless they are matched by social and economic rights. A woman with the vote is not equal if she is subject to violence, poverty and exclusion from society. Politics has to be connected with our campaigns for social and economic progress, and the representation of women in Parliament is vital to achieving all those goals.
This has been an excellent debate. The gender agenda needs to stay on Parliament’s agenda. We should be confident and proud of our role in the world. We must ensure that we make progress on the rights of women and girls, progress on their need for education, safety and clean water, and progress in the workplace. These arguments must be heard at every level of Government and of the international political decision making bodies. We must do our job of keeping the law up to date in support of equal rights, and this place needs to lead the fight to empower, encourage and inspire girls and women in Britain and across the world to achieve their dreams. In doing that, we will make progress for future generations.
It is a great pleasure to respond to this important and enjoyable debate and to follow the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra). I join her in congratulating the wide range of groups and organisations that do so much to campaign for the rights of women and girls, particularly on the subject of representation, which is key to this whole agenda.
We have heard excellent speeches today from Members on both sides of the House, although not quite enough men have contributed to the debate. I hope that in future years more of our male colleagues will be tempted to take part, and I offer my sincere thanks to those hon. Gentlemen who have taken part today.
One of the reasons I came to listen to the debate today was that I want to applaud women. In my experience—I am talking about my military experience—they are not just equal; they are sometimes at a higher level. Women are fantastic at running operations rooms, for example. They are better than men at doing that. Also, I often used to choose a woman, rather than a man, to run a negotiation or a mediation. On international women’s day, we should not only applaud women for being equal but emphasise the fact that they can be much better than men at doing some things.
My hon. Friend makes the case for having diversity within teams so that a wide range of skills can be brought to any given task.
We need to strike the right balance in these debates between celebrating progress and harnessing energy for change. It is right that we should celebrate the great progress we have seen in the past five years. We have seen a huge increase in the number of women on company boards, for example, and the first woman bishop. Also, the First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), has done excellent work to propel up the international agenda the issue of preventing sexual violence in conflict. We have seen changes in employment law to extend the right to request flexible working and to introduce shared parental leave. Tax threshold changes have taken 3 million people out of taxation, 58% of whom are women, and there has been new legislation to criminalise forced marriage, to expand the definition of domestic abuse and to introduce new stalking offences. And of course, there are more women in work than ever before.
However, we should not kid ourselves that it is all fine, because it is not. It is not okay that three quarters of company directors in the FTSE 100 are male. It is not okay that girls and women face a continual stream of sexist insults and abuse, as documented by the Everyday Sexism project. It is not okay that there is still a 19% gender pay gap. It is not okay that two women a week are killed as a result of domestic violence. It is not okay that 40% of teenage girls report being coerced into having sex. It is not okay that a pregnant MP who dares to aspire to a Cabinet role should be subjected to a sexist diatribe by various sections of the media. And it is not okay that three quarters of MPs are men. So we still have a lot more to do.
In the debate today we have heard not only celebration but a call to arms for the tasks and battles ahead. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), the former Minister for Women and Equalities, has undertaken excellent work to ensure that revenge porn is properly criminalised and that action is taken in that regard. She made the case for a House of Commons Select Committee on women and equality, as has the all-party parliamentary group for women in Parliament. That is long overdue. There seems to be an obvious gap in our Select Committee structure and, although this is not a matter for the Government, I hope that the powers that be in the House will give the matter serious consideration when the new Parliament convenes in a few weeks’ time.
We have also heard that more progress is needed on finding ways of celebrating women around Parliament, including perhaps through portraits. We heard many good suggestions from various contributors, and I am sure that Mr Speaker and others will look at them with interest in Hansard.
We heard from the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) about a range of issues. She talked movingly about how women, whatever they decide, will always feel that they have made the wrong decision. It reminded me of a piece I heard on Radio 4’s “The News Quiz”, where Sandi Toksvig, in an answer, said, “Of course women cannot get it right, can they? If they have no kids, they are heartless. If they have children and stay at home, they are lazy. And if they have children and go out to work, they are selfish.” In response to silence from the other panellists she then said, “It’s not a joke. It’s just a rant.” I very much enjoyed that rant, and she was just stating a point of fact: women are judged for whatever they decide to do. We should be much more accommodating in recognising that people make different decisions.
The hon. Lady also talked about how women are still doing two thirds of the unpaid work, and I wholeheartedly agree that that is one of the major barriers to equality. It is one of the reasons why I am so enthusiastic about the changes we have made to introduce shared parental leave, because I do not believe we will be able to get equality in the workplace until we get more equality at home. Interestingly, Sheryl Sandberg points out in her excellent book “Lean In” that one of the important choices a woman makes for her career if she wishes to have a family is what the partner she chooses to do so with is like, because the attitudes he takes will have a massive impact on how she is able to juggle career and family responsibilities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) talked about women in business, giving a huge range of examples of successful business women, many of whose websites and shops I have to confess to using. I appreciate what they do from both a business perspective and a consumer perspective. I also pay tribute to the work my hon. Friend has done for business women in her constituency and more widely, particularly with the all-party group.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott) talked about the importance of many women with young children setting up businesses, and using that as a catalyst to make the change, and that of course can lead to great success. She also mentioned the important issue of how we set expectations early as to what girls and boys should be interested in, and whether they take on scientific or more domestic roles. She discussed how the toys they use at an early age can have an impact. That is so important because, as the recent Department for Work and Pensions campaign “Not just for boys” shows, we have a massive shortage of women in many sectors such as science, engineering and technology, and it is important that we address that. I have to say that #notjustforboys is a pretty good hashtag, but it does not compete with one of the best hashtags ever, #dinosaursforall. That is about a campaign set up by women who are very frustrated that Marks & Spencer has launched a new range of clothing, in conjunction with the Natural History museum, that has dinosaurs all over it and, surprise, surprise, it is marketed only at boys, because girls could not possibly be interested in dinosaurs. Tell that to my niece Charlotte—she would certainly disagree. Although these sometimes appear to be more light-hearted examples, the messages we send to children are very important in terms of what they grow up thinking they can and cannot do.
The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) spoke movingly about the recent documentary on the rape in India, and I agree with her that it is to the credit of the media in this country that they do showcase these issues and highlight these problems. She is absolutely right to say that we must demolish these rape myths—the victim is never to blame. She also talked about older workers and said that she is looking forward to the report from Ros Altmann, as am I. We are recognising some of the specific challenges that older women might face, particularly carers. That goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury, who said that women tend to do two thirds of the unpaid work, because older women often have those caring responsibilities. That is why we have recently launched a £1.6 million project to run pilots with local authorities on how we can get carers into employment and make sure they are properly supported. I hope the results of those pilots can show us some good evidence about how we might take further projects forward. The hon. Member for Slough is also absolutely right to say that women need to be around the Cabinet Committee tables and in those positions of power. This is about power, and much as I dearly love my male colleagues, who do a fantastic job in standing up for their women constituents, we need diversity of representation if we are truly to get the action we need on this wide range of issues.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) talked a lot about the international elements of international women’s day and highlighted the HeForShe campaign, which I agree is hugely important; men do have a vital role to play in this. Like her, I found the way Emma Watson kicked off that campaign absolutely amazing. Listening to the power of the speech given by that young woman, I thought she was a credit to the entire country in setting out the case so brilliantly.
The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) talked about FGM and was absolutely right to highlight this abhorrent crime. We are taking strong action on that. We have set up a specialist unit to deal with FGM—we held the girl summit last year—and to take global leadership. However, in no way do we think that this is not a problem in the UK—it is, as well as in other countries. That is why we are introducing a mandatory requirement for all health care and social care professionals and teachers to report FGM to the police. The lack of prosecutions is a problem, but that mandatory reporting will enable the evidence to be gathered. I hope and believe that situation will change in the future.
It was wonderful to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) about the original Beijing conference and Platform for Action that she attended, along with the drafting process of 189 Governments having to agree the text. That sounded interesting and it showed that Members of the House have obviously been working on this for a long time. [Interruption.] It is 20 years since that Beijing conference, but there is much more to do.
Indeed. Interestingly, my right hon. Friend said that the text prepared then is still incredibly relevant. That is not only a testament to excellent drafting, but, in a sense, it is slightly depressing. She raised a specific issue about human rights protection, its extension and the armed forces case, and I will endeavour to write to her with more detail on that specific legal point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) spoke movingly about her constituent, and the legacy that young Jessica has left from her campaigning. My hon. Friend also spoke about support for Girlguiding UK, which I agree is a fantastic organisation, and its campaign to get girls’ voices heard in the forthcoming election is to be commended. I believe my hon. Friend is the only contributor today who has announced that she is standing down, so may I say that it should be noted that in just five years she has made an excellent contribution to this House? It is sad that she has decided to stand down. She will be missed, but I am sure she will continue with her contribution and campaigning in other guises.
In conclusion, I have certainly found it a huge privilege to serve as Minister for Women and Equalities. I have been supported by some wonderfully passionate and dedicated officials at the Government Equalities Office, and I wish to put my thanks to them on the record. It is absolutely right that we celebrate progress, but whatever the outcome of the election, whatever the colour of the Government in office and whoever is the Minister for Women and Equalities—I dearly hope to be able to continue this work—there is still a huge amount to do. We must continue to be impatient and create that change.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have supported and contributed to today’s wide-ranging debate. I particularly thank the Leader of the House, who earlier gave his personal support for the idea of establishing a women and equalities Select Committee, and Mr Speaker, for agreeing to consider the need to put women front and centre in this place through the portraiture that is on display. Those are practical changes, but the improved scrutiny can make a real difference. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for its support and its understanding of the importance of holding today’s debate in this Chamber. As the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said, it is our responsibility through debates such as this to shift culture, forge alliances and achieve policy changes. This debate, in some small way, will have contributed to the objectives she set, particularly in highlighting the issues that still need to be addressed. The debate has also demonstrated that women are here at the table participating, not observing, and determining the future of our country.
Rarely have I found it as difficult to sit in this Chair and say nothing as it has been this afternoon. I have achieved that, but I think I can preserve my impartiality while congratulating all those who have taken part in an excellent and essential debate—it is essential that it should take place in this Chamber.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered International Women’s Day.