Given that the previous business concluded earlier than expected, will the Minister please clarify, for the benefit of the House, whether it is her intention for the present debate to continue beyond 7.30?
It is not our intention to keep the House beyond 7.30.
I beg to move,
That this House expresses its solidarity with International Women’s Day; notes with concern that, despite women making up 51 per cent of society as a whole, more progress needs to be made in electing women to Parliament, as well as in establishing equal pay and parity between men and women in positions of leadership; and calls for greater action against FGM and other practices that are harmful to women.
It is a great honour to open this debate. I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate and the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who lobbied the Leader of the House—
Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady. For the benefit of the House, colleagues should be clear that this debate will not continue beyond 7 pm. There is, of course, an Adjournment debate to follow. What the hon. Lady meant was clear to me and it is important that it is clear to the rest of the House. There is, in effect, a provision of three hours for this debate. I hope that is helpful to colleagues. I admit that on this occasion I was tipped off by the Whip on duty who felt the need for clarification, and I think his tip-off was a shrewd one.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I thank the Leader of the House for the time allocated for this debate, which I hope will be as full as possible.
There are many areas in which inequality still exists for women. This debate will range, I hope, across complex and varied parts of our society and across the world. In the run-up to International Women’s Day, I have engaged with many colleagues across the House and in the other place, talking about the importance of this day and the issues facing women at home and abroad, and I have discussed with many gentlemen the importance of International Men’s Day. Today’s debate will perhaps boil down to this question: in the age in which we cherish equality of opportunity, why do women not actually get the same chances as men, and what is this Parliament doing to see that happen here and around this wonderful planet of ours?
Women have the chance to run or lead a business, to contribute properly to their community, to influence the world around them, to be paid the same, to be treated the same, to speak in this cherished Chamber and to be heard. Women do not want to be under threat or in danger just from walking home alone, or because of the dangerous or threatening nature of our personal relationships, or because of our religion or perceived position in our community or society.
On this day we have the opportunity to talk about and celebrate the achievements of women across the world, but also on this day we must highlight all the inequalities that still exist. I have two daughters and I want to see them grow up in a society where their gender has no relevance to their opportunities and what they can achieve. Today is my second daughter’s birthday. [Hon. Members: “Happy birthday!”] She is six, and International Women’s Day has real meaning in my house. I hope she is a truly international woman in the making.
There are invisible barriers to my daughters’ futures and to those of other girls. Today I hope we will go some way to confronting them. Equality is about choice. It makes me very proud to know that here, in the mother of Parliaments, we can act as a beacon of equality for women across the world. Today sixth-form girls from across the country are joining us. They have taken part in a series of events throughout the day and I know that some are watching us now from the Public Gallery.
As the chair of the all-party women in Parliament group, it fell to me and my team to make sure that we mark this day appropriately. We open Parliament today to students from across the UK. I want to thank my team and all those supporting me, including other MPs, for their help in making this important event happen, because almost 70 girls, from Aberavon to Ayrshire, and from Eastleigh to Ealing, have come here to be part of this day, to take this opportunity to contribute and to hear our democracy in action. I want to welcome two local students, in particular, from Barton Peveril Sixth-Form College and Eastleigh College.
Yet it was only in this parliamentary Session that we finally got a Women and Equalities Select Committee, which looks at the key issues that this Parliament is involved in. I am very proud to serve on the Committee, under the brilliant chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller)—her son also has a birthday today, so many happy returns to him.
It is very easy today to think that the challenges of equality are in the past, but it took until 1995 for us to have the first woman chief constable, until 2009 for us to have the first woman poet laureate, and until 2011 for us to have the first woman commander of a Royal Navy warship. Of course, this country has been led by only one mighty female Prime Minister, and this House has been led by only one female Speaker. Rapid progress for women is absolutely not a subject for historical study; it is an urgent, continuing and pressing need now.
In our panel debate earlier today we listened to students discussing whether successful women are still seen as pushy, bossy or tokens, and indeed whether we do not actually get the opportunities we want because it is just about confidence. Thinking about successful women, it is worth noting that one in seven chefs hired in Michelin-starred restaurants in London are women— I wonder what Mary Berry has to say about that.
Are stay-at-home mums currently given the opportunity to make the choices that are right for them, or are they still being judged? I chose to stay at home and be with my children when they were very little, but I wonder whether I would still feel that that was a safe decision to make. Are we still judging our women? Are we really offering them answers to all these questions and allowing them to be part of the community in any way they choose? In order to get true parity, that is what we need to strive for.
All too often it is these set-piece debates in the Chamber that draw the focus of political commentators, so we perhaps see women in only one way. The press will focus on the high politics of our nation, rather than the huge contribution that many people make every day. We need more women councillors, school governors, magistrates, mayors, MEPs, Assembly Members and police and crime commissioners. Often women step forward for those roles but move on too quickly. Why is that? Is it because women take on those roles to deal with single issues, or do they still see barriers to the top?
In business, we need more women on boards and in senior roles. Of course, this Government have taken action to get more women into science, technology, engineering and maths and to get the next generation into leadership roles, but progress remains too slow. In 2013, 33% of local councillors in England were women, compared with 28% in 1997. We need to step up the pace.
I congratulate the hon. Lady and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this really important debate. On the question of progress, when I went to study electrical engineering at Imperial College in 1984, 12% of those studying engineering were women. Today the figure is exactly the same. A quarter of a century has passed, yet we seem to have made no progress in ensuring that science, engineering and maths represent the half of the world who need them as well. Does she agree that that is absolutely unacceptable?
Exactly that issue was highlighted in our panel debate this afternoon. I absolutely agree that we need to encourage more women into this area. There are 40,000 jobs available in the construction industry, and 45,000 in the agricultural industry. We are perhaps barring women from future opportunities. It absolutely worries me that we have not changed since the 1980s.
We in this House must be reminded that women’s power is at the ballot box. Women should be registered to vote, and we should make sure that all women feel it is important for them to make their own decisions.
Everyone knows that women were given the vote at the end of the 1914-18 war, but that cloaked the fact that working-class men were also given the vote. Does the hon. Lady, like me, celebrate the fact that women, through their campaigning, also led to those men accessing the vote? That should never be forgotten.
I always think that women campaigning do make things generally better for men.
We must be reminded of the power that women have at the ballot box. It was women voting in higher numbers for the Conservatives in May last year who returned a Conservative majority Government. It will also be women who decide whether we are in or out of the EU and who is the Mayor of London. We need women to come together to vote and to be active in politics, because their effect is always extraordinary, as we have just heard.
Hon. Members around the House will be thinking of the brilliant work of women campaigners. That includes the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaigners, who have come together and had a real impact. I watch with interest to see what results they will achieve. Those women will not stay quiet, and I salute them in their cause. It is a genuine challenge to this Parliament that we get the best outcome for those and all our women.
I am pleased the Government are taking the necessary action to bring about further equality. There are now more than 1 million more women in work than in 2010. The Government have also introduced legislation that deals with stalking, and I welcome that. We are not afraid to tackle issues that Parliament has left unaddressed for many years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate from the Backbench Business Committee. Does she also welcome the Government’s action on outlawing revenge pornography, which for too long has blighted the lives of many women in this country?
I absolutely concur. Just on Thursday, we had action on people posing behind aliases—the Crown Prosecution Service is carrying out a consultation on the issue—and using bullying and threatening behaviour on social media. It is absolutely right that the Government continue to lead the way in dealing with bullying, stalking and using personal relationships to affect people’s futures. We will be in a dangerous place if we do not tackle that.
The Government’s recent announcement on the gender pay gap should continue to shine a light on those companies that do not do enough to ensure parity in their workforces. We need more women on company boards, and work on that continues. There has been a huge leap forward, but we can expect to wait for 70 years for full parity at executive level, and that is not right.
On the gender pay gap, a lot of women in my constituency are in part-time work, and they are typically three times more likely than men to be paid below the living wage. These women are often not well off, and I ask the hon. Lady to join me in calling on the Government and Opposition Front Benchers to do all they can to address that pay gap, which affects the low paid so badly.
On the Women and Equalities Committee, we are shining a light on that issue. On part-time work—I will touch on this shortly in my speech, which the right hon. Lady may have been reading—it is interesting that, when it comes to men, we talk about agile working, while women appear, sadly, to be the downtrodden part-timers in some places. That needs to be corrected.
We need to put a better structure in place for our carers. I was a carer to my mother, and I am a mother myself. For many people in my shoes, there continue to be too many obstacles to being at home and a part-time worker. This country needs a true carers revolution that does not penalise women or, indeed, men who choose to stay at home with their children or to look after their loved ones. I spent time with my parents at that age, and I would never, ever change that, but I had the choice.
Does the hon. Lady agree that flexible working allows parents and carers to look after their loved ones while they continue to work, and that it is imperative that employers take that into account?
I absolutely agree that flexible working is really important for people to be able to attend doctor’s appointments and to know what is going on at home without being worried about work. Many people who work part-time open their laptops of an evening to make sure that they are up to date, because they have had to go home to care for their children or loved ones.
Part-time work is valuable. It is important and useful both to workers and to employers, yet part-timers are often seen as a stopgap. They are not taken seriously enough and are viewed as expendable employees. It is time to view part-timers as agile, capable multi-skillers who are flexible and come in and make a real difference. They look after families, homes and communities, and hold down equally important part-time roles. I challenge anyone in business who does not believe such workers to be as valuable and helpful and just as useful as their full-time members of staff. Perhaps it is time for such employers to reassess and listen harder to those vital and often more nimble workers.
I want to make it clear that it is not my intention to exclude men from this debate. Many male colleagues will want to contribute their own ideas about how men, as fathers, grandfathers and proud dads of daughters, can make a more just and equal society. International Men’s Day on 19 November highlighted some serious concerns about men’s mental health, male suicide and the modern pressures on men. This changing society will have a bigger impact if we do not bring men fully on this equality journey with us.
I am the 380th women to be elected to Parliament. Women have not played anywhere near an equal role in the history of this House, but we are getting there. I welcome the fact that we are moving towards better representation both in this Chamber and in all the issues on which we focus. However, there is much left to be done. Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State, has said:
“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”.
Many hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen have come to the Chamber to mark this important day. There is a unified view in this House that our work can bring true equality on International Women’s Day. I am delighted to have wide and broad support from men.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. As well as women’s representation in this Parliament, we should also consider what happens around the world. For example, Benazir Bhutto was the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan—indeed, she was the first female Prime Minister is the Islamic world—and she lost her life to an act of terror as she returned democracy to her country. We should pay tribute to women around the world. By way of declaration, I served as an adviser to Benazir Bhutto from 1999 to 2007.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Parliaments across the world will be looking at themselves today and rightly asking whether they are doing enough to make equality a reality. This debate on International Women’s Day is our chance to do just that.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) for securing the debate. Members will not be surprised by what I rise to speak about.
In 2015, a woman was murdered in the UK every three days—women murdered by men who they should have been able to trust. Commonly, women are murdered by their partners, husbands or boyfriends, but also in some cases by their fathers, sons or brothers. We wish to give voice to honour the women who died.
Today, I stand to honour every victim in the fight to end violence against women. Here are the names of the women who have died since International Women’s Day last year: Lucy Ayris, aged 25; Alison Wilson, 36; Janet Muller, 21; Sarah Pollock, 41; Jill Goldsmith, 49; Zaneta Balazova, 23; Cecilia Powell, 95; Marian Smith, 74; Violet Price, 80; Karen Buckley, 24; Susan Davenport, 63; Sandra Thomas, 57; Sarah Fox, 27; Bernadette Fox, 57; Aileen Bell, 60; Frances Cleary-Senior, 49; Tracey Woodford, 47; Mariola Cudworth, 36; Anna Rosenberg, 43; Wendy Milligan, 46; Gloria Perring, 76; Mahala Rhodes, 42; Marta Ligman, 23; Emma Crowhurst, 36; Joanna Doman, 55; Shigi Rethishkumar, 35; Neha Rethishkumar, 13; Niya Rethishkumar, 13; Grace Kissell, 33; Jan Jordon, 48; Ramute Butkiene, 42; Anne Dunkley, 67; Phyllis Hayes, 65; Nazia Akhtar, 31; Nadia Khan, 24; Jennifer Edwards, 45; Stacey Henderson, 35; Rita Stephens, 67; Jennifer Williams, 25; Amy Smith, 17; Anita Kapoor, 34; Linda Norcup, 46; Lisa Anthony, 47; Ava Anthony, 14; Lorraine Barwell, 54; Laura Davies, 21; Tracey Baker, 42; Florisse Corette, 81; Jill Moon, 62; Isobel “Becky” Parker, 23; Gillian Phillips, 54; Amal Abdi, 21; Jenny Foote, 38; Miriam Nyazema, 35; Denisa Silman, 25; Jennifer Dornan, 30; Jan Bennett, 67; Laura Holden, 36; Elife Bequ, 34; Katelyn Parker, 24; Elizabeth Nnyanzi, 31; Wendy Mann, 26; Lauren Masters, 20; Sam Ho, 39; Natalia Strelchenko, 38; Julie Collier, 55; Karen Reid, 53; Petra Atkinson, 42; Anne-Marie Cropper, 47; Nicola Cross, 37; Shelley Saxton-Cooper, 45; Sarrah Garba, 27; Jourdain John-Baptiste, 22; Maxine Showers, 42; Helen Lancaster, 54; Malgorzata Marczak, 29; Usha Patel, 44; Leighanne Cameron, 29; Imelda Molina, 49; Kerry Reeves, 26; Christine Tunnicliffe-Massey, 57; Bianca Shepherd, 58; Barbara Barniecka, 43; Kayleigh Haywood, 15; Susan Mitchelson, 45; Kelly Pearce, 36; Jean Robertson, 85; Wendy Goodman, 48; Josephine Williamson, 83; Sian Roberts, 36; Hilda Mary Oakland, 71; Ravinder Jutla, 43; Jackie Abbott, 54; Lija Aroustamova, 52; Mumtaz Member, 56; Sian Blake, 43; Kathleen Griffin, 57; Mambero Ghebreflafie, 22; Daria Pionko, 21; Katie Locke, 23; Rita King, 81; Marjorie Elphick, 83; Katy Rourke, 25; Katrina O’Hara, 44; Georgina Symonds, 25; Lisa Lyttle, 49; Andrea Lewis, 51; India Chipchase, 20; Guida Rufino, 38; Elidona Demiraj, 25; Geraldine Newman, 51; Caroline Andrews, 52; Sheila Jefferson, 73; Leanne Wall, 36; Jessica McGraa, 37; Maria Byrne, 35; Lisa Reynolds, 31; Natasha Bradbury, 28; Julie Hill, 51; and Rose Hill, 75.
I want to thank Karen Ingala Smith and the Counting Dead Women project. She does not allow these women to be forgotten; she shouts their names so we can do better. I want to note that as I read each and every woman’s story, the variety of the women struck me. These were not all poor women. They were women of every age. They were teachers, dinner ladies, doctors, dancers and daughters. Their perpetrators were not feckless drunks, but respected fathers, City bankers and eminent lawyers. Violence against women has no one face. We must do better. These women are gone. Here, in this place, we must not let them die in vain. We owe them that much. We owe them much more than what they got. [Applause.]
I call Maria Miller.
Order. Sorry; moved by the significance of what we have just heard, I have neglected my duties. I should tell the House that, on account of the very large number of Members wishing to contribute, there will be a four-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches with immediate effect. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for what she has said.
It is difficult to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). I call her my hon. Friend because we are fellow members of the Women and Equalities Committee, and we have a shared passion for making sure that the voices of women are heard loud and clear in this House. What she has done has helped to make sure that the stories of those women are remembered and that their voices are heard, even if they are now departed.
International Women’s Day comes around every year, but since we last celebrated it we have had something else to celebrate, which is the establishment of the first ever Select Committee for women and equalities. Everybody in this House who was involved, and those no longer in the House, should be congratulated on the work they did to establish the Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing. Today, we have turned the tables in the Committee: young women have taken evidence from Members of Parliament. I particularly welcome my constituent, Aheng Negargar. She has been able to be with me today, and I know she has enjoyed it immeasurably.
Congratulations must go to my fellow Hampshire MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), and to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler). Both ladies were a formidable force in front of the Backbench Business Committee. I had no doubt that they would secure a debate on the Floor of the House, and they did so at once. I should add that we thought about adding an extra criterion for being a member of the Women and Equalities Committee—having a child born on International Women’s Day. However, looking at the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who was a member of our Committee, I hope that she does not feel that it is necessary to give birth today, although I am sure many people would be on hand to help out.
I will make two very brief points in my contribution today. As you know, Mr Speaker, there are more men in the House of Commons today than there are women who have ever been elected to Parliament. I was elected in 2005, as the 265th woman to be elected to this House, which is a shocking fact. I was not aware of that when I was elected. Since women were given the vote in this country in February 1918, 34 million women have been born, but just 450 have ever sat on the green Benches. No other position has been worse at attracting women than that of MP. How can we hope to change ingrained prejudice in our society if we fail to hold a mirror up to ourselves and realise that, as an institution, we are not making the progress that we need to make to encourage more women to take their position on the green Benches?
It is not rocket science. Working in two places, a lack of certainty, a culture of long hours and presenteeism are not conditions that will encourage more women to join us on the green Benches. I ask Members to think long and hard when they consider the way that we organise the business of the House, and I ask them to make us more representative in the future and a place of work that people want to join.
My second point is about leadership. I have no doubt about the Government’s commitment to putting equality at the heart of their policy, or their desire to see more women in leadership positions. The symbolic importance of Lord Davies’s work in getting 25% of women in non-executive positions is important, but we must go further than that. We have no shortfall in talent in this country; we have an underperformance of that talent because of ingrained prejudice.
When we organised the photo that is now in the Admission Order Office for all visitors and Members to see, there had been only 370 women MPs. There have now been 450 female MPs over 98 years, but there are currently 459 male MPs in this House alone. The right hon. Lady and I are privileged and happy to be among those female MPs in the House today, but does she agree that those figures are not good enough?
I could not agree more, and we need to hear from the leaders of every political party represented in this House a complete commitment to increase the number of women MPs at the next election. That will be a challenge with the boundary changes, but it a challenge that we should take on. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to increase significantly the proportion of women on the green Benches representing the people who live in our country.
The workplace, whether in Parliament, the City, or other institutions, was designed by men for men, and it has not changed fast enough to retain women in day-to-day positions or leadership positions. We must ensure that jobs, whether in Parliament or beyond, are designed for people who are living lives today, not as they were lived 20 years ago. I know that Ministers understand that from the policies that they are implementing, and I urge them to continue that work. The Women and Equalities Committee will always hold their feet to the fire.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and I congratulate everyone who is taking part in the debate. I apologise for squeezing a nine-minute speech into four minutes.
This debate takes place against the background of the recent murder of Berta Cáceres, a feminist activist who was shot in her home in western Honduras because of her defence of the rights of indigenous people. I hope that many women will continue her work. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has said that when he took office there were nine Parliaments in the world without women. That figure is now down to four, but that is four too many, and there has still been no female UN Secretary-General. Hon. Members are right to mention the percentage of women in this Parliament, which now stands at 29%. Her Majesty’s Opposition, the Labour party, has 43% female MPs, which is nearing equality.
My hon. Friend remarks that we have not had a female UN Secretary-General, but will she join me in congratulating the current secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland?
I will, and I am delighted that she was selected. However, the statistics are still damning. In law, one Supreme Court judge is a woman, and only 13% of QCs are women; in science, women make up only 14.4% of the science, technology, engineering and maths workforce in the UK; in business, only 5.5% of chief executive officers in FTSE 100 companies are women. What about the gender pay gap? In 2014, according to the Office for National Statistics, it was 14.2%, which means that in effect, women work from about 9 November to the end of the year without any pay.
I want to raise two issues about women in my constituency. Locally, there was an equal pay judgment in 2008, and the poor women who worked for Birmingham City Council are still waiting for a pay-out. The men who did the same sort of work picked up extra pay through routine overtime and other bonuses. Mary Ashby and Josephine Haynes are retired, and they have a right to their pay-out. The Government can find £375 billion for quantitative easing, so will they please find the money to make sure that all the women get their pay-out?
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point about women’s pay. According to the OECD, the Scandinavian countries of Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland score highly in where women are most equal. Those countries also lead the UN human development index and a number of other indicators. When women are doing well in a society, everybody does well. That helps the hon. Lady’s argument.
I absolutely agree.
The second issue I want to raise is the closure of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs offices in Walsall South. Some 90% of the 60 jobs that will be lost are done by women. They have been offered jobs in Birmingham, but they have caring responsibilities, so they need to stay local. There is also the issue of higher travel costs. The Public and Commercial Services Union has worked out that when 50 jobs are lost, it costs a local economy £1.5 million. That is too much for Walsall to take. If the Government are serious about tax evasion and tax avoidance, they need local staff who have the institutional memory to help people with their tax affairs. The staff build up the skills over the years, which helps them to get promotion through the civil service.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Would my hon. Friend mind if I do not? I am running out of time.
On Saturday morning, more than 500 people in Walsall town centre signed a petition to ask the Minister to look again at this dislocation of women’s lives and stop the relocation to Birmingham.
Internationally, there may have been a fantastic victory in Burma for the National League for Democracy, but the Burmese army has used rape and sexual violence against women for decades as part of its warfare against ethnic minority groups in the country. Many victims were gang-raped and many were killed, and United Nations reports have described rape and sexual violence as “widespread and systematic”. The Burmese army accounts for 25% of the Burmese Parliament. We must keep up the pressure to get rid of the army from the Parliament in Burma.
In Delhi, there was an outcry following the gang rape, assault and murder of Jyoti Singh on a bus. Leslee Udwin’s film “India’s Daughter” showed the devastating impact of Jyoti’s murder. Who can forget the late Sue Lloyd-Roberts’ interview with the cleric from Gambia in which she challenged him about female genital mutilation, or the Nigerian girls who were kidnapped almost two years ago this April?
We need to do more than just have a hashtag, and that is where Governments come in. Almost every major piece of legislation that has improved the lives of working women has been introduced by a Labour Government: the Work and Families Act 2006, which extended the right to statutory maternity leave to a full year for all employed women, regardless of length of service; the introduction of paternity leave in 2003; and legislative protections for women and mothers under the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equality Act 2010. Everybody knows how brilliant Sure Start centres are in helping local children, mothers and fathers in our communities. We need to save them.
Education is the key. As Gandhi said, if we educate mothers we educate society. Women cannot wait for the trickle-up to promotion—there needs to be positive action. Marin Alsop, who in 2013 was the first female conductor of the last night of the Proms, admitted to being
“quite shocked that it can be 2013 and there can still be firsts for women”.
Let us hope that by this time next year, women’s place at the highest levels will be commonplace. We owe it to future generations.
Last week, when I was in Nigeria, I had the honour of meeting a very small team of dedicated and passionate campaigners. On arrival at the hot, dusty open-air venue, I could hear them chanting and singing, and a lot of them were wearing red. Every day, this small group—mainly of women, but with some men—meet at Unity Fountain in Abuja. They campaign for the return of 276 girls taken by Boko Haram from their school on 14 April 2014. Fifty-seven of the girls escaped shortly after their abduction, but 219 remain missing. These young girls from Chibok were just like our girls. They were daughters, they were granddaughters, they were sisters, they were cousins and they were nieces. They were loved. They had been encouraged to embrace education—and they had, and their families had—and they were preparing for their final school certificate. They had hopes, dreams and aspirations, and then disaster struck.
Notwithstanding world condemnation and the support from Michelle Obama, our Prime Minister and others, the girls have not been returned. It is likely that many are still being held by Boko Haram, probably in smaller groups. Many will be pregnant as a result of rape, often by different men, over prolonged periods, and many will have been forced into marriage. Some will have been used as suicide bombers, and some will have died as a result of physical and mental abuse.
The Chibok girls are a small proportion of an estimated 2,500 women and girls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014. As they return, many face discrimination and rejection by their families and communities. Some fear that the girls have been radicalised. Others believe that the children conceived, carrying the violent characteristics of their biological fathers, will be the next generation of fighters. As a result, children, new-born babies and mothers are facing stigma and rejection, and risk further violence.
The hon. Lady is making an incredibly powerful speech about her experiences last week. Is she not as saddened as me that this is a situation not just in Nigeria, but in many countries around the world? I met today representatives of the Yazidi community that is still missing hundreds of women captured by Daesh and taken into sexual slavery. Does she agree that we have to put the protection of women and girls at the heart of all our international policies to stop these tragedies happening?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and I wholeheartedly agree with him.
These children, babies and mothers are victims—they have done nothing wrong—and should be getting all the help and support they deserve and need to move on in their lives and reintegrate. As I stand in the Chamber today, I can still hear the chants of those Nigerian women, and I can still see their round and pained faces. They said, “Bring back our girls now and alive. Bring them back now.” Rarely have I witnessed such strength and determination.
Now these brave, strong women need our support, as we approach the second anniversary of the girls’ abduction. From 7 April to 14 April, there will be an international week of action to raise further awareness and to keep the issue in the spotlight. We want people everywhere to write, email, and tweet #BBOG; and to hold rallies, vigils, talks and Google chats. We need Governments and agencies around the world to share credible evidence and intelligence, and we need to keep these innocent girls in our thoughts and prayers. Just one tweet or one post can make a difference and bring our girls home.
I want to structure my speech around the motion, which starts by expressing solidarity with International Women’s Day, as I have done today by dressing in the suffragette colours—just one symbol of that solidarity. Underneath, I am wearing a Fawcett Society feminist T-shirt.
The second part of the motion
“notes with concern that, despite women making up 51 per cent of society as a whole, more progress needs to be made in electing women to Parliament”.
Like you, Mr Speaker, I was a member of the Speaker’s Conference on representation in this place. We have made progress. I am proud of the Labour party, which still provides more than half the women in this place, for taking the decision, which was not an easy one within the party, to use women-only shortlists. I was originally called a “quota woman”, but everyone has forgotten that now because they realise that I am quite an effective Member of Parliament.
We need to go further. I welcome the new Conservative women to the House. In some ways, I am glad that they were beneficiaries of the collapse of the Liberal party which, in my view, has done less than any other party on this issue. Let us remind ourselves why it is so important to have women here. At the moment, democracy fails if people cannot hear their voices in Parliament. Do women make a difference? Absolutely, they do.
I remember asking the Clerk of the Defence Committee at the turn of the century what difference having women on that Committee for the first time had made. I was not sure what the answer would be but, “Of course it has made an enormous difference, Fiona,” was what this rather stuffy Clerk said. I said, “What?” He said, “Well, we just used to talk about how big the bombs were, but now we talk about the families of the people who fight.” I just know that what would make me brave is knowing that my family is safe.
Women bring something additional to Parliament. One thing we achieved under a previous Prime Minister was the first ever stealth tax cut, when he could not bring himself to mention during his Budget that the level of VAT on sanitary protection had gone down. I am disappointed when we get patted on the head on some of these issues, in that the most recent san pro tax cut turned into a way of making this a kind of voluntary tax—“Guess what? We’ll give it to the Eve appeal.” I am glad that the Eve appeal is getting the money—I am a survivor of ovarian cancer myself—but if san pro is being taxed, the money should go into strategic support from the Government.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government should look at some of their big strategic wins on women’s issues, such as human trafficking legislation and the Modern Slavery Act 2015? Should they not focus the money on something like that?
My hon. Friend anticipates where my speech is going next.
The next part of the motion refers to equal pay. We have made some progress on that, but I am glad that the Women and Equalities Committee is looking at the fact that older women are being left behind when it comes to equal pay. They are being left behind in many other ways, too, so we need to try to sort that out.
The final part of the motion
“calls for greater action against FGM and other practices that are harmful to women.”
I commend the Government for setting up the National FGM Centre, which helps women and communities to fight against this barbaric act. It is run, as hon. Members may know, by Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association, and a funding decision on the centre is due at the end of this month. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on the Government to continue this funding that keeps our daughters safe?
It is essential that we have a strategic response to violence against women and girls. We have all been moved by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), and we know that women—internationally and in the UK—are particularly likely to be victims of violence, which might be through so-called cultural practices such as FGM, or victims of human trafficking.
I am glad that the Government have introduced the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and are focusing on the issue. We know that, internationally, the biggest reason for trafficking in human beings is trafficking for sexual exploitation. With women who are murdered, we know that if they have been in prostitution, their perpetrator is much less likely to be caught and convicted. Our average murder conviction rate is 75%, but at the moment we convict only 23% of the murderers of prostitutes. That is a shocking figure. We fail to have an intelligent, strategic response to the existence of prostitution, recognising that it is, as it is actually practised, a mechanism for violence towards women, for the sexual exploitation of children and for turning women into commodities, thus making all women’s lives less safe.
I am glad that the Home Affairs Committee is looking at this issue, but until we follow Sweden’s lead by targeting the men who create this problem and saying that it is an offence to pay for women’s sexual services, I do not think we will end the horror that is the reality for most women and girls involved in prostitution—the horror of drug addiction; the horror of pimping; and the horror of exploitation and trafficking. That is something that we really need to focus on. When I first came to this House, we were reluctant to discuss the word “prostitution”, and I am glad that we now have a Chamber that is prepared to talk about it. However, we now have to do things to end this form of exploitation.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). Let me also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing the debate.
It was 20 years ago yesterday that I, as Women’s Minister, opened a debate on International Women’s Day that was taking place in Government time. I hope that Ministers will consider allowing a full day’s debate on this subject in Government time, because I think that that would be appreciated by Members on both sides of the House.
Twenty years ago, we had a lady Speaker—and very formidable she was—but only 60 MPs were female, and even today we have only 191. Although the percentage figures have increased, I think—as, I believe, do many other Members who are present today—that that is still not good enough. We are still not doing enough to inspire more women to take up political careers. That, of course, is little wonder, given that—notwithstanding what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller)—the way in which our parliamentary system operates is viewed through the prism of Prime Minister’s Question Time which, on a good day, often seems little better than a primary school playgroup. Indeed, I have seen primary school playgroups whose behaviour has been better.
On that occasion 20 years ago, I had recently returned from Beijing where, at a United Nations conference, a group of us had negotiated a platform for action. I was supported by Baroness Chalker and the then Member of Parliament for Tiverton and Honiton, Angela—now Baroness—Browning. More than 36,000 women attended that conference. I think that women’s lives have improved since then but, as I have just four minutes in which to speak, I can give only two brief examples of how.
Back in the 1990s, the global average number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births was 338. The highest level was in sub-Saharan Africa, where it rose to an appalling 510. By 2015, the figure had fallen to 169. I welcome the fact that a further target of 70 has been set as part of the sustainable development agenda. Meanwhile, the percentage of women parliamentarians worldwide has doubled in those 20 years—from 11.3 in 1995 to 22.7 now.
A crime that particularly affects women is cybercrime. As we have heard, there is new technology that can assist women, but can also be used as a weapon. According to UN Women, one in 10 women in the European Union has experienced cyber-harassment since the age of 15, including unwanted, offensive, sexually explicit e-mails or SMS messages, or offensive, inappropriate advances on a social networking site. The risk is highest among young women between the ages of 18 and 29.
Tomorrow I shall be very pleased to be supporting the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), who will introduce a ten-minute rule Bill covering cybercrime of that kind. It has cross-party support, and has been prepared through the all-party parliamentary group on digital crime, with the able assistance of Harry Fletcher and the Digital Trust. As an officer of the group, I hope that it will initiate some more updated laws to deal with technology-enabled offences, as well as consolidating areas of the law that relate to cybercrime. While we know how helpful technology can be, we need to ensure that our Government act so that it is not used as yet another weapon with which to beat women.
It is a pleasure to be taking part in the debate. However, notwithstanding all the good will and consensus, we should not forget the long and bitter struggle in which women in this country had to engage in order to ensure that their voices were heard and the issues that affected them were debated and addressed. It goes without saying that we should take a moment to reflect on the thousands of women across the world who are still fighting that good fight today—in some cases, in very desperate circumstances.
I hope that the House will forgive me if I briefly break the lovely consensus to score one quick political point. The position of Minister for Women, as it was then, was created by Labour back in 1997. Women have played key roles in Labour from our earliest days, and of all the sweeping changes to Government introduced in 1997, I am glad to say that the creation of a ministerial position dedicated to women’s issues has been one of the most quietly enduring.
I would like to mention two issues. The first is the issue of gender pricing. We are all familiar with the issues of unequal pay and discriminatory employment practices, but the often larger price tag associated with items marketed specifically at women is the reverse side of the same coin. I shall give the House a couple of examples. In research undertaken recently by The Times, it was found that razors for women cost, on average, nearly 50% more than the equivalent products for men. At Tesco, a pack of 10 pink disposable razors is twice the price of a standard pack, whose only difference is the colour. At Argos, a child’s scooter is £5 more expensive in pink than in blue. And—this is something I still cannot quite get my head around—Bic sell “For Her” ballpoint pens that cost more than the standard model.
Overall, it has been estimated that women’s products cost more 42% of the time, whereas men’s products cost more just 18% of the time. In some cases, it may well be that items aimed at women genuinely cost more to produce than those aimed at men, and that retailers pass that cost on to consumers. But in far too many cases, women are being told that they should buy a specific product because it is the only version suitable for women, when in reality there is no real difference in the product. In those cases, it can be argued that they are being misled. I urge the Minister to ensure that independent analysis and further study is carried out to identify the extent of unfair gender pricing and marketing practices in the UK. We need to quantify the full cumulative impact of gender differentials in pricing for women, so that we can start to get to grips with this issue.
I am trying to resist the temptation to intervene, but is the hon. Lady as surprised as I was to discover that, despite the fact that the Select Committee has written to a number of the companies involved in this investigation, we have not yet had a response from all of them?
Yes, that is pretty shocking. The right hon. Lady has pre-empted my next point. I was about to ask the Minister to meet the major retailers to identify what steps they are taking to rectify the situation.
My second point is related. Colleagues will know that over the last few months, along with many other Members, I have been banging the drum for the abolition of VAT on female sanitary products. Periods are a fact of human biology, not a leisure activity that women choose to indulge in. Tampons and other sanitary products are an absolute necessity, and certainly not the luxury that they are absurdly taxed as. More than 300,000 people have now signed a petition calling for a change to this ludicrous state of affairs, and it is about time that decision makers in Westminster and Brussels sat up and took notice.
We have heard time and again from the Government that this is all in the hands of the European Commission, and that the UK is keen to press this issue in conjunction with our European partners, but the apparent lack of progress has left many of us wondering how committed the Government really are on this issue. I ask the Minister—as I asked her colleague, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin)—to guarantee that the Prime Minister or the Chancellor will come to the House and make a statement once the Commission has responded to our request, so that the public can know exactly where we stand before the referendum. The official United Nations theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Make it Happen”, and that is precisely what I urge the Government to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing this debate. For many years, it was impossible to hold such a debate in the main Chamber, so the fact that we are here today is a mark of progress in itself. Today, as we observe International Women’s Day, the charity Women for Refugee Women is launching a new campaign in which 99 women stand in solidarity with refugee women. I have the privilege of supporting this campaign along with many notable women including Mary Beard, Charlotte Church and Romola Garai, who recently appeared in the excellent film “Suffragette”, which I commend to any hon. Members who have not yet seen it.
The campaign was created to reflect the 99 pregnant women who were detained in the Yarl’s Wood detention centre in 2014. Of those 99 women, only nine left detention to be removed from the UK. Indeed, the figures I have seen suggest that only a very small minority of detained women are removed while pregnant, suggesting that the practice is somewhat obsolete. I recently had confirmation from the chief executive of Serco that the total number of pregnant women held at Yarl’s Wood last year was 69; fewer than the year before, but still too many. I strongly urge the Government to do all that they can in 2016 to stop the holding of pregnant women in detention centres once and for all. There are better places for the detention of a woman who is expecting a baby. Sarah—not her real name—was detained while pregnant and said:
“When I was in Yarl’s Wood I found it hard to believe that I was in the UK. I seemed to be in a place where human rights don’t exist. I saw so much misery and depression and mental illness while I was in there. There is constant crying and self-harm because the women don’t know why they are there or for how long.”
Some 2,000 asylum-seeking women are locked up in Yarl’s Wood each year. The majority are survivors of sexual violence and rape. Up to 93% of the women detained at Yarl’s Wood claim to have suffered sexual violence of some form. The most vulnerable women we can think of are being kept in far from ideal circumstances. The new “adults at risk” policy should reduce the detention of vulnerable women and stress the need to move away from detention overall, and I commend the Home Office for those important steps. The recent report by Stephen Shaw also made strong recommendations in that area and I believe that Home Office Ministers have recognised the need for reform. Along with Women for Refugee Women, I hope that discussions will soon bear fruit, so that pregnant women seeking protection in this country as refugees will no longer face detention. The cost for individual women is so great that we cannot afford to wait any longer.
I also met the Yazidi women who are here today and was reminded of what drives women to seek safety in a country such as ours. Some 3,000 Yazidis are still in captivity in northern Iraq and Syria under Daesh occupation. Their children aged 11 to 16 are pressed into military service for Daesh and children as young as seven are being trained for action. These women are abused and raped. They are not in the UNHCR camps from which we have promised to take refugees, so a separate programme is clearly needed. Those two issues remind us of the drivers that bring pregnant women here and why we must ensure that we welcome them appropriately to our country.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is gender parity, and I want to focus on the plight of low-paid women. We like to think that we live in an enlightened age of women’s rights, but, shockingly, the World Economic Forum has calculated that the gender gap in health, education, politics and the economy will not close until 2133. It will therefore take another five generations before women are on an equal footing with men.
Turning to women’s economic parity with men in the UK, a quarter of women now earn below the real living wage, which is £9.40 an hour in London. Our so-called economic recovery and increasing employment are being achieved off the backs of low-paid women. A staggering 60% of new jobs for women created since 2010 have been in the lowest-paid industries. Women make up three quarters of those in part-time work, earning on average 25% less an hour than their full-time colleagues. They dominate the lowest-paid sectors, where 62% of workers paid below the living wage are women. Some 90% of nurses are women and 84% of carers are women. Over 70% of hospitality waiting staff are women. In all those professions, women perform important work, but they are hugely undervalued.
Even in higher-paid jobs, women earn significantly less. The figure for median gross earnings for men is almost £30,000, but it is just over £24,000 for women—a 25% gap. While women make up half of all apprentices, they are being short-changed because of implicit gendered occupational segregation. Women dominate the lowest-paid apprenticeships, making up 83% of health and social care apprentices and 91% of childcare apprentices. Meanwhile, men dominate the highest-paid apprenticeships, where only 3% of engineering apprentices, 2% of construction apprentices and 10% of IT apprentices are women. The outcome is a gender pay gap in apprenticeships that is now at 21%. That means that a woman apprentice will earn just £4.82 an hour on average, which compares with £5.85 an hour for her male colleague. There are, however, a few promising developments for future generations, and I would like to take the opportunity to celebrate Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s sponsorship of TechFuture Girls, which I welcomed to Parliament last week. This is a remarkable network of clubs inspiring young girls into tech, where they are currently hugely under-represented, and it is available free to all schools in the UK.
We also know that the Government’s gendered policies have seen benefits cuts that have hit women disproportionately, in favour of tax cuts for high earners, disproportionately benefiting men. Since 2010, £26 billion-worth of cuts have been made in benefits, tax credits, pay and pensions, and a staggering 85% of that total has been taken solely from women. At the same time, the Government have watered down the Treasury’s gender impact assessments, meaning that the true extent of these changes and their real impact on women is being disguised.
We might think that the introduction of the so-called “national living wage” would make the situation a lot better for women. I ask every woman in the House, when she listens to the Budget next week, just to consider that many women will take home less next month because of the national living wage, as a result of the stripping out of benefits, London weighting and double time on a Sunday. Let us then, as women, all stand together and say that those women deserve more, not less.
When Eleanor Rathbone was elected to this House, one of her first speeches in the 1920s was about female genital mutilation.
She then went on to talk about the need for family endowment, saying that it was ludicrous to think that the earnings, generally of a man, at paid work can support a family of varying size. That is why she argued for family allowances, which were opposed by all parties, for their own reasons, until the wash-up session before the 1945 elections, when that measure went through this House and the House of Lords with nobody opposing it. That shows the endurance needed to push good ideas to their eventual adoption. After that, we moved on to child benefit.
When I was first elected, a Chancellor of the Exchequer —a Labour one, but that is not terribly important—argued that there was no need to bring in family allowance for the first child because the married couple’s allowance made up for that, not realising that half the married men had no dependent children and half the married men had a working wife. It was therefore one of the least directed ways of trying to support the needs of children while they are necessarily dependent—they are not allowed to work, so they cannot work and cannot earn.
I wish to make two brief additional points. The first is that we need to equalise work, by taking paid and unpaid work together. We ought to have an indicator that comes out every two or three years showing how much of the unpaid work in a household is done by the men and how much is done by the women. Until we start getting that more consciously becoming more equal, the opportunities for equality in paid work will remain distant.
The second point I wish to make is about expectations, hopes and opportunities. Anybody who went to see the exhibition in the Attlee Room in Portcullis House yesterday, where scientists, mathematicians and technologists were showing what they were doing, would not have been able to tell by the posters, except by looking at the name, whether the work and research had been done by a woman or by a man. One that particularly struck me was about the woman who had found a marker for prostate cancer. It was very important, low cost and effective, and it had no false positives. This was the kind of work that one would have expected to get a Nobel prize for if it had been done 30 years ago and if it had been shown to be working.
When we can get every child in primary school to feel at ease with maths and when everyone with talent can move on, we will find that all our children can reach forward. Whether they end up as mathematicians, engineers or scientists does not really matter, but they need to be as familiar with those subjects as they are with the arts, literature, drama, sport and the like. Let us therefore have the same expectations, opportunities and hopes here.
Tied to that, may I suggest that we also try to get more attention paid to an article in today’s ConservativeHome about the Marmot curve and how we can try to get it into a flat line? No matter what the deprivation of the household we are born into, no matter whether we are Asian or black, in a lone parent family or not, we have the opportunity that education gives us, and that the hopes and expectations of our parents can give us, and we do not have our life chances determined by who are parents were, but more by what our parents do and what we can do ourselves.
We are just less than one month short of the 105th anniversary of Emily Wilding Davison’s night in the Undercroft here. In and of itself, that action was not a turning point, but it was part of a larger movement and societal change that have at least made strides in the right direction.
Emily Davison is a fine example of how it often takes straightforward thinking and direct action to make the changes that later generations come to see as normal. Changing the normal view of things is what drives society forward and it is very seldom easy, especially for women. I suggest then that it is the responsibility of every decent Government in every civilised nation on this earth to help advance the rights of women.
Less than two weeks ago, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom told us how his Government had helped arms manufacturers from the UK sell arms to Saudi Arabia. That is a country where women cannot open a bank account without their husband’s permission, or try on clothes in a shop—the thought of an undressed woman behind a door, it seems, would be too much for Saudi men. It is a place where a woman cannot drive a car. I think that I am right in saying that it is the only country in the world where it is illegal for a woman to drive.
When a teenage girl was gang raped in 2006, the courts sentenced her to corporal punishment for being out of the house without a chaperone. She received 90 lashes for getting raped. Just last year, Suad al-Shamari, a Saudi women’s rights activist and the first female lawyer to appear before a Saudi court, was released from prison where she had been detained for three months without trial for advocating women’s issues. She was released when she promised to reduce her activism. This is the nation that the UK Prime Minister feels it is appropriate to celebrate doing business with.
Human rights are women’s rights and the rights of the women of Saudi Arabia should be at the top of the agenda for inter-Governmental relations. International Women’s Day has to be about promoting the rights and freedoms of women across the world. It has to be about ending repression, about engendering respect, and about parity of esteem between women and men.
The Government of the UK should be crowing when they make advances in those areas rather than providing more weapons to what is, essentially, a repressive regime for women. In the face of all that, women in Saudi Arabia are changing the face of their country. Despite the roadblocks put in their way, we see ground-breaking women such as Haifaa al-Mansour who wrote and directed the first feature film to be shot there, and Samira Ibrahim Islam and Hayat Sindi, who are Saudi scientists who proved that Saudi women can match men in science. Using humour to chip away at the patriarchy is female Saudi comedian Amy Roko. They are transforming their lives and making the changes that will create a new normal for future generations of Saudi women, but they need the help and support of the international community if they are to succeed.
A Foreign Secretary stood in this Chamber once and promised an ethical foreign policy. He has gone and so has any semblance of an ethical foreign policy—it left here before he did—but the civilisation that we so readily pretend or aspire to demands that just such a policy be the guiding light of our international relations. On International Women’s Day, please let each Member here pledge that the rights and protection of women should be uppermost in their thinking about international relations.
Like many women sitting at home watching this debate today, I remember catching a glimpse of a female MP on telly and wondering what kind of woman one had to be to enter politics. What kind of woman is she, I thought. Now, working alongside them, I have encountered strong women, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) who have brought this debate to the Chamber today. Their strength comes from knowing who they are. They are tenacious and determined women who have gained respect in this male-dominated field of politics. There are 191 of these pioneers in this House, and we on the Government Benches should be proud to claim 68 of them, 27 of whom were newly elected last year. However, while being proud, we must also be ambitious for more. We who are lucky enough to be here must take seriously our responsibility to those who are not.
I would like to ask the House to join me in saluting all women and especially all female parliamentarians. It is often suggested that we are pioneers, and that we must buck trends, refashion the system and upset the milk cart. Yes, in a way we must—we are all pioneers and have shared experiences of the fight and struggle for the privilege of sitting on these green Benches. It is our duty to raise issues that have previously gone unspoken. The collective female membership of this House is a powerful forum for change, and I want to raise three brief points.
First, how do we as a collective compel legislators, parliaments, the United Nations and all the decision brokers to better represent the lives and aspirations of women? Here today we have a groundswell of energy to represent women from all walks of life, and we need to hold national and international organisations to account to perform for women and not just for men.
Secondly, how do we harness technology to promote and support women? We heard earlier about online stalking, bullying and cybercrime. We are all on social media and all of us female parliamentarians must have been trolled at some point. Imagine the response there would be if we women who are targeted by misogynistic trolls all supported each other in shouting them down. Let us challenge Facebook and Twitter to support women to get online and shame the bullying tactics of anonymous people, mostly men, who dare to put us in our place. We must come together not just for one day, but use our collective voice to shout more loudly every day. We must take over those social media spaces and make them our own.
Finally, as an MP in this Parliament I do not have to justify my gender to represent one of my constituents, nor do I have to justify the way in which I represent someone because of my gender. That is how it must be in society too, and in every community, every family and every organisation, but that, unfortunately, is not the case throughout the country. In my constituency, Wealden, men earn 20.8% more than women. We must champion those women in this House.
In sharia courts in this very country, the testimonies of women are worth half as much as those of men. We must represent those women in this House. In communities where gangs groom and abuse children, their victims’ testimonies are often ignored by the authorities. We must speak up for those women.
We still have a long way to go to ensure that the testimonies of women are taken as seriously as those of men. When all of society accepts that our daughters, our sisters and our mothers are not owned by any man—are not owned by anybody but themselves—and have something to offer because of, rather than in spite of, their gender, only then will we have succeeded.
It is an honour to speak in today’s debate and to follow the hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani).
My constituency is not short of formidable, tenacious, and inspiring women. It is a great privilege for me to be the first woman to represent Neath in the House, and to have the responsibility of carrying on the legacy of all the women who have made contributions to public life in Neath. I am, in more ways than one, standing on the shoulders of giantesses.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Gwenda Thomas, the first and only woman Welsh Assembly Member for Neath, who is retiring at the end of the month after 17 years of service to both her constituency and Wales’s devolved Administration. Winifred Coombe Tennant, a British suffragette and philanthropist, made her home at Cadoxton Lodge, in my constituency. She was a leading figure in the campaign for women’s suffrage in south Wales. Katherine Jenkins, the globally recognised soprano, was born and grew up in Neath, and her mother remains a committed activist. The recently ennobled Dame Siân Phillips, a world renowned actress and singer, is from Gwaun Cae Gurwen. Another of Neath’s famous singing women, Bonnie Tyler, needs no introduction, nor does her song, “Lost in France”.
During the miners’ strike of 1984, women led from the front of the picket lines, organised valley support groups, and kept spirits alive in homes and heartlands across south Wales. The story of the 1984 miners’ strike was most recently told in the triumphant film “Pride”, which tells how the lesbian and gay community supported miners in the Dulais valley, and the story of the tireless and fearless Hefina Headon, a woman who was as much a leader during those times as any lodge chairman.
Out of that story of pride, adversity, camaraderie and success grew an innovative community organisation called the Dove Workshop, set up by women for women. Its founders include Hefina Headon and Mair Francis. The organisation has been held up across Europe as a model for community adult education. Established to offer women opportunities to retrain during the years that followed the miners strike, it was the birthplace of the Community University of the Valleys and has subsequently supported thousands of women to gain qualifications, including undergraduate degrees.
The Dulais valley is also home to Bethan Howell, Welsh rugby international, founding member of Seven Sisters RFC ladies’ rugby team and champion of equality. I must also pay tribute to two exceptional women who have had a profound impact on sport in Wales, Professor Laura McAlister and Sarah Powell, both of whom have had outstanding sporting careers and are now leading the way as the first female chair and CEO of Sport Wales respectively. Of course, one of Great Britain’s greatest Olympians of all time is Baroness “Tanni” Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliffe. In my sport of squash we have Welsh international Tesni Evans, who has recently reached a career-high world ranking of 24. Of course there is also Margaret Coleman, wife of Donald Coleman, one of my predecessors, one of the most tenacious women I have ever met, and one of the busiest octogenarians I know.
My hon. Friend is offering an impressive list of powerful Welsh women, and obviously she is one of them. Will she join me in paying tribute to Baroness Gale of Blaenrhondda in the other place, who has done so much in the Welsh Labour party to stand up for the rights of women, and who continues to do so to this day?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it would be remiss of me not to mention Baroness Gale.
I am proud to be taking through a private Member’s Bill—it is scheduled to have its Second Reading next Friday—that would bind in law the need to include mothers’ names on marriage certificates, something that does not currently happen, and an inequality that is yet to be set right.
It was a Labour Government who passed the Equal Pay Act 1970, a monumental occasion in women’s history, but one that, unfortunately, did not mark the end of inequality. Forty-six years on, women still earn only, on average, 81p for every £1 earned by a man. There is much more to be done.
I hope that you will not think it boastful of me, Mr Speaker, if I declare that my constituency of Louth and Horncastle in Lincolnshire leads where others follow, particularly when it comes to electing female MPs, for I am not the first female MP to represent the seat. In 1921 the good people of Louth elected Margaret Wintringham. She has an important place in history; she was the first English-born female MP in this place, and the third ever female MP elected to this place. Fast-forward to 2015, and I am the 428th female MP, because since 1918 only 450 women have been elected to this place. That total is lower than the number of men in the House of Commons just in this Parliament. Therefore, when people ask why we need campaigns such as International Women’s Day, I have to say that sadly we do not need to look too far.
We need more women in politics, not just in the House of Commons but across the board. We need more women, of every party, standing up for local communities in councils. We need more women reporting on national and local politics. We need more women shaping policies in think-tanks and universities across the country. We need more women in Whitehall advising Ministers on implementing policies. We need that not because women’s experiences are in any way better or worse than men’s, but because they are different. We must reflect the experiences of women and men across the country.
Does my hon. Friend think that we perhaps do not have so many women in higher positions because women are not so good at putting themselves forward in the systems that are in place, which they have to go through to get to those positions? Men—I obviously have massive admiration for our colleagues—are very good at that, but women are not so good. I have two daughters going through the process now.
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s daughters. A lot of women are perhaps used to being the power behind the throne, to use a well-worn phrase. I hope that one of the things we have done today, in celebrating International Women’s Day and inviting young women from our constituencies into the House of Commons, is to give those young women a little more confidence and courage in putting themselves forward when they want to achieve something.
Let me return to 1921 for a moment. My predecessor Mrs Wintringham campaigned on an issue that, sadly, is familiar to us in 2016: equal pay. After 95 years, there is still inequality of pay. We know that the situation is getting better, and the Government are doing a great deal to tackle it, but I welcome the promise of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) to hold them to account so that we can do even better.
Why does any of this matter? It matters because it is the right thing to do. It matters when we meet young women in our constituencies. Today, I have had the pleasure of being visited by two young constituents, Jessica and Ellie—they made the trip down from Louth and Horncastle, which is three hours’ drive at best. They have seen Downing Street, they have seen this place in action and they have listened to the 50:50 panel. That is all important stuff, which I hope will really energise and enthuse them in their careers in the future. For Jessica and Ellie, and for the millions of women across our constituencies, this debate is so important. However, this is not just about today; it is about what we do from now until the next International Women’s Day and beyond.
I am pleased that the Chamber has been so busy this afternoon. May I say thank you to all the male Members of Parliament who have come to support the campaign? Although women may form 51% of the population, we must not forget that men form the other 49%. I may just have been terribly controversial there without meaning it, but anyway, I thank everyone who has supported the debate.
This is the second debate I have spoken in on international women’s issues recently. At an event last week, the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) commented on the fact that it was much harder for women to get elected to Parliament than it was for many of the mediocre men who are here. I am therefore happy to speak on behalf of mediocre men.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting two young women, Alalea and Liza, who came here as part of the SET for BRITAIN event. They are both PhD students from Imperial College—my old college. Alalea is working on the subject of concrete, and Liza is working on wear particles. Although neither subject might sound totally stimulating, I can assure Members that the two young women’s presentations were absolutely brilliant.
However, we cannot deduce too much from what those young women are doing. Clearly, at an international level, a huge amount of work still needs to be done on women’s rights. Many Members will have received the email from Amnesty International setting out the six reasons why it thinks we still need an International Women’s Day. One of the examples it provides is that in Ireland, for instance,
“women with fatal health conditions are often refused life-saving treatment because of the risk it poses to the foetus.”
Clearly, therefore, we still need to make major advances on women’s rights abroad.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid I will not, because many Members want to speak, and if I give way, that will mean less time for others.
There are still strong international challenges that need to be addressed, and there is certainly no room for complacency at a local level. The domestic violence statistics from my own borough show that domestic abuse forms 40% of all violent crime in Sutton, in the south-west London suburbs, which is relatively affluent. Of course, domestic violence is also severely under-reported, so perhaps only 50% of incidents are reported to the police.
The right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made a rather ungenerous comment about the Liberal Democrats as a party. She and I have discussed gender issues, and she could have asked me what the Lib Dems have been doing. I would have explained to her that our five most winnable Westminster seats in Scotland have been allocated to women candidates, so barring a dreadful election result in 2020—which I know some will wish on us—there should be a significant improvement. The same will be true in England, because our party conference is going to agree, I hope, to something for which I have been pushing, namely an all-women shortlist for every English seat from which a man is standing down. Barring unforeseen bad results, there should be a significant improvement.
I want to finish on the subject of female genital mutilation. My colleague Lynne Featherstone, who is now in the House of Lords, pushed very hard on the issue when she was a Minister. I want to leave the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, who will respond to the debate, with one point, which is that if we are serious about doing something about FGM, there needs to be mandatory personal, social, health and economic education, because otherwise the issues will not be addressed in some schools. I hope she will respond positively to that point.
Order. I am sorry to have to reduce the time limit for Back-Bench speeches with immediate effect to three minutes, but I am trying to get as many people in as possible.
It is a delight to speak in this debate and to follow on from the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) about the male contribution. Anybody who reads the Hansard of last year’s debate will see that no male MPs made speeches, but some made interventions, so it is great to see so many men taking part in today’s debate, because this issue affects all of us. It affects our wives, sisters, daughters and grandmothers. None of us in this House would accept it if our daughters were prevented from reaching their true potential, if our wives were paid less than a man doing the same job, or if our mothers were discriminated against. We must all work together to ensure that we bring fairness and equality to Britain, and this debate is an important part of that.
It is important to consider the aims of International Women’s Day, one of which is to root out bias in the workplace. Of course, this place is a workplace, and I am delighted that there are now 191 female MPs, which is a big improvement on the 141 in the last Parliament, but we have much more to do. It is fantastic that almost 30% of Members are women. That is the highest number ever and a fantastic step forward, but we cannot be complacent and take our foot off the gas.
I am incredibly delighted that 68 women are part of this Conservative Government. One of the reasons for that was the work of Women2Win. I want to pay tribute to some formidable women, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, who, along with the late Baroness Ritchie of Brompton, did a huge amount to develop Women2Win, which brought in new women, gave them confidence and helped them to deliver. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who did a great deal to continue that work.
Does my hon. Friend agree that having more women in Parliament is in the national interest and that it will improve the tone and tenor of debate and, dare I say it, the quality of our legislation?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is no surprise that when we widen the gene pool and get more women and diversity around the table, we make better decisions.
In the time I have left, I want to talk about something close to my heart. Engineering has a turnover of more than £1 trillion, which is a quarter of all UK enterprises, yet 64% of employers say that there is a shortage of engineers. That shortfall will lead to there being 55,000 fewer engineers by 2015 than the UK economy needs. Women make up only 9% of the engineering workforce. That is a scandal, and we need to do more to address it.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, if the right hon. Lady does not mind, because I have only a few seconds left.
A paper by EngineeringUK shows that UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the EU. The figure is 9% in the UK, but 30% in Latvia. Girls outperform boys in STEM subjects but fail to continue those studies to A-level and beyond. In the past five years, 12,000 STEM A-levels were taken by women, but in 2013-14 only 3.8% of engineering apprenticeships were taken up by women. That represents a huge missed opportunity. We need to make sure that the girls who are coming through schools now become the engineers, designers and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. That is how women will take their place in the UK economy.
I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for securing the debate along with my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler). I am pleased that we are here in Parliament to recognise and celebrate International Women’s Day, along with women and Parliaments across the world. I am also happy to be the third consecutive woman to represent Brentford and Isleworth. We must remember that although women have guaranteed rights in law in the UK, there are still cultures, attitudes and practices that hold women back, subject them to violence and deprive the economy of the benefit of their full involvement.
So many issues that disproportionately affect women are worthy of debate, but I will focus on women’s status in the workplace. In the past 30 to 40 years, there has been a significant increase in female employment. As a consequence, there has been positive Government policy change on matters including workplace rights, childcare and anti-discrimination law. One of the big issues now is flexible working. Employees can have flexible working, but they have to have been in post for six months. Many employers are beginning to realise the value of flexible working. An employer in my constituency, Debbie Leon, who represents a successful and growing company called Fashionizer, recognises that having flexible working practices enables her to get the best employees in the field.
Unfortunately, such practices are not always to be found in traditional workplaces, and I hope that Ministers will review the position. In fact, the Minister for Skills, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), told the Women and Equalities Committee that he used flexible working arrangements at the point of recruitment in the organisation that he ran to get the best staff for the job. If a Minister could do that in a previous workplace, I hope that Ministers will be encouraged to introduce a right for employees to request flexible working from the outset. I want women at all stages of their caring responsibilities to feel free to apply for jobs and not to be constrained by fixed work times and work days.
We cannot talk about flexible working hours and workers’ rights without talking about the European Union. Britain’s membership of the EU gave British workers the right to minimum paid maternity and paternity leave, and to equal pay and anti-discrimination laws. That is why I will be voting to stay in the EU.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing this important debate. I am delighted to speak today as chair of the all-party group on women and enterprise. I really enjoy that role, although I have to admit that when I was first asked whether I would carry it out, I was worried that someone had misread my name and put it back to front. Thankfully, that was not the case and it is now my pleasure, through the APPG, to work with a talented group of inspiring female entrepreneurs from across a range of different backgrounds and business sectors. I want to focus on one of the key aims of our APPG, which is to encourage aspiration and entrepreneurship among women of all ages, but particularly young women.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Young Enterprise represents an excellent way of inspiring teenage girls to consider becoming entrepreneurs and business women in the future?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was good that she raised that point in Prime Minister’s Question Time last week.
There is overwhelming evidence that harnessing female entrepreneurship can only be positive for our economy. Indeed, a report that was published in 2013 calculated that boosting female entrepreneurship could deliver approximately £60 billion extra to the UK economy. We also know that women bring a diversity dividend, whereby gender-balanced boards are more successful on every measure, according to a study by McKinsey & Co.
We are making good progress, but we still lag someway behind the USA, where women are twice as likely to be entrepreneurially active as UK women, although the rates for men in both countries are the same. In 1988, the USA put in place a women’s business Act, which introduced long-term infrastructure measures, such as the women’s business centre programme, and created the National Women’s Business Council. It is no coincidence that since those initiatives went live, over 30% of US enterprises have been female-owned. I ask Ministers to look carefully at such models to determine what lessons can be learned.
Evidence suggests that one of the biggest barriers to women starting their own business is a fear of failure. Studies often say that female entrepreneurs are held back by risk aversion and low confidence. In fact, it is not necessarily a lack of self-confidence, but an informed assessment of how prepared they feel to embark on the all-important first step. That is backed up by the fact that women who have undergone some form of enterprise training are twice as likely to be engaged in entrepreneurial activity, with specific female-focused business support being vital to greatly encouraging participation.
With that in mind, it is imperative that we offer our potential female entrepreneurs the best possible chance to achieve by giving them effective information, advice and guidance in schools. Schemes such as the Careers & Enterprise Company are a welcome addition and provide an excellent opportunity to plug an all-too-evident hole in our current careers advisory process. That alone is not enough, however, so we need to encourage more female role models and entrepreneurs into our schools, colleges and universities. A big step forward in that respect would be for senior women in business and politics to engage practically with their local students—to tell them their story, which would undoubtedly not have been all plain sailing, and, in essence, to inspire and support a new generation of female entrepreneurs.
We are in an exciting place in our history. We understand more than ever what we can do to support, nurture and encourage female enterprise. With the right long-term strategy from the Government, in partnership with our current entrepreneurs, the goal of equality and parity in business is a lot closer than we might think. I look forward to playing my part, through the all-party group, to help to make that happen.
I am delighted to speak in this important debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies)—before this debate started, she chaired an excellent cross-party panel with young women about International Women’s Day—and, indeed, to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for her excellent contribution to the debate.
There is no doubt that huge progress has been made for women around the world in the 97 years that have passed since Nancy Astor took her seat on the green Benches. Many hon. Members will recall the story of how, when the first female MP tried to reach her usual place in the middle of a row, other MPs moved closer together to leave no space for her to get through, and then laughed and jeered as she forced past them. The braying some of us still hear in the Chamber seems a tired relic of those distant days—it is time to move on. Perhaps we should move on from the outdated “Hear, hear” to modern applause. That would be a welcome change, but it is probably best described as work in progress.
I should say that while 17 of us on the SNP Benches are women, the 54 of us are 100% feminists. I am very glad that my party has led the way, with Nicola Sturgeon’s gender-balanced Cabinet. More than two thirds of our new candidates in the elections to the Scottish Parliament are women.
My hon. Friend mentions our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who has received plaudits internationally for having a gender-balanced Cabinet. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Winnie Ewing, our first female SNP MP, who came up against some of the outdated practices that my hon. Friend mentions?
Absolutely. We stand on the broad shoulders of the giants who came before us and had to deal with so much in this Chamber and beyond. Huge strides have been made to improve the representation of women in Parliament at Westminster and Holyrood, but there is much more to do. I pay particular tribute to the significant work of the Women 50:50 campaign in Scotland.
Is it the case that advances in female representation came about from positive action, and that more positive action is required?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and until we believe that there is a level playing field in how people are chosen, positive action is welcome.
It is as important to seek to modernise practices and attitudes towards women in public and political life now as it was 100 years ago. We cannot stand still. It is vital for democracy that those who make laws across the world are representative of their countries at large, and that is important in the fight against Daesh and in the debate on our continuing membership of the European Union. Last year, I was privileged to chair an event that aimed to give a platform to the female perspective in Syria. Women are so often the forgotten victims of conflicts, and the forms of terrorism that we see today greatly impact on them.
Women have been at the forefront of action in Syria to combat child recruitment to armed groups, and they have led and co-ordinated the disarmament of men in public places in some refugee camps so that children do not have to walk around and see armed men. Those initiatives also disguise the names of their community projects to keep their work hidden from Daesh networks. Only by taking such action can we prepare Syrian society for a future beyond the current conflict. Women have so much to offer, and to date the debate on the European Union seems largely to have been led by men in grey suits jockeying for position. It is time for women’s voices to be heard. We must not underestimate the part that the EU has played in protecting and promoting equality and the rights of women across our continent.
I wonder what the world might look like if more women were at the top table, heading campaigns in EU institutions, peace talks and diplomacy. I respectfully suggest that it would be a more equal world, and a better place for us all. The Scottish Government are committed to working towards gender equality, and I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), who will speak further on that matter. Everybody appears to believe in gender equality, but simply believing in it is not enough. The WASPI women, the female workforce and victims of domestic violence are waiting. We must get on with the job.
Here is to those women who championed equality before us, against greater odds and much higher obstacles. To all the girls who will follow us, we are here to support you; to the men who support us, we welcome you. Women and girls hold the key to change and progress, so let us not waste a minute in unlocking these doors and creating opportunities across the world. Equality is a fundamental human right.
I am honoured to speak in this important debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for securing it. I am one of 68 female Conservative MPs, and one of 191 female MPs who have the privilege of representing their constituents and their gender in Parliament. In what remains a male-dominated environment, we have illustrated that not only can we compete with our male counterparts, but our input plays an essential part in good, balanced decision making.
When considering the impact made by women in positions of leadership, particularly in business, we should be proud that there are more women-led businesses than ever before. Historically, this country’s business culture has hindered women, who are just as accomplished as men when it comes to work. When I started in the retail sector, very few women held management positions and they were kept predominantly on the shop floor. Women often lack confidence and the belief that they can do any job as well as any man. I believe that we must instil a girl’s belief in herself at an early age.
My city of Derby has a rich history in the engineering and manufacturing sector, and STEM subjects are often at the core of that. There is an ever-increasing demand for skilled workers in these areas. I want to encourage more women to get involved in STEM, if they wish to, and to eliminate the ongoing perception that that is a male-dominated area.
I want to ensure that women and girls have choices and that all doors are open so that should a young woman wish to become a chef, she can; so that if she wants to become a doctor, she can; and so that if she wants to be an engineer, she can. For me, this is about supporting girls in their careers of choice and encouraging aspiration, something to which this Government are undoubtedly committed. Along with the great strides made in tackling the root cause of the gender pay gap, it is clear we are heading in the right direction.
I could, of course, continue at length, but I would like to finish by highlighting a very special woman: my grandmother who, at the age of 97, had an amazingly full life. She worked all her working life and was as fiery at 97 as she was when she was 27. She is proof positive that all women, whatever they do, should be proud of themselves and their achievements. I am proud to be an MP, a mum and a wife, but most of all I am proud to be a woman.
I speak today as my party’s first female MP and the first woman to represent to Dwyfor Meirionnydd—and proudly so. I am a member of a party that elected its first female leader, Leanne Wood, four years ago almost to the day. I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for securing this debate, and hon. Members for all the extraordinary speeches we have heard so far—I am very much enjoying them.
The hon. Lady notes that her party is now led by a woman. As has probably been said, the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland are led by women. Will she accept the hopes of SNP Members that that will also be true of Wales come the elections in May?
I do, of course, agree with the hon. Gentleman very sincerely.
I speak as a Member of an institution that is still heavily male-dominated, in a profession that is still male-dominated. As others have said, although men are still in a minority in the Chamber today, it is easy to see why women might feel excluded from politics. A woman watching recent debates about increasing the state pension age for women would have seen a Chamber dominated by men arguing that women did not need to be given more notice that they would need to work longer before retirement, and that that somehow did not count as discrimination.
It is with this awareness that I firmly support means to propel us towards a fairer society and a fairer economy. We still live in a society where the important workplaces—the boardrooms, the debating chambers, the engineering consoles and the fighter jets—are dominated by men. It is in those places that are considered insignificant to society—the nurseries and the nursing homes—where we find that poorly paid women make up the great majority of the workforce doing the things that do not really matter, such as looking after their fellow human beings. Surely the time has come for us as a society to adjust our values. Why is it that those spheres of activities that are traditionally women’s work are so undervalued? Why should maintaining machinery and playing tricks with money have such high status, and thus be better paid, than caring for people in their old age?
While girls have traditionally been directed towards certain careers, equally boys have grown up thinking that caring for their fellow human beings is not for them. In activities such as politics, taking risks is valued and respected, but girls are still conditioned to tread carefully and live carefully—not causing offence, not drawing attention to their intelligence and not being adversarial. To describe a man as ambitious is complimentary, but to describe a woman as ambitious implies criticism. That is why we must lead by example.
The National Assembly for Wales became in 2003 the first gender-balanced national legislature in the world, helped in part by positive discrimination towards women. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood became a Member of the National Assembly in 2003 under Plaid Cymru’s positive discrimination policy for regional list nomination. At my party’s spring conference this weekend, four years after she was made leader, Leanne was introduced to the stage by 17-year-old Lucie Wiltshire, who got involved in politics after meeting Leanne.
I think that we would all agree that no young person should ever be prevented from reaching their goals because of their gender. What is equally important, however, is how society enables girls to imagine their goals. As a former teacher, I urge us to encourage others —girls and women—to take risks, to be fearless and to embrace ambition. As always, we are limited only by our imaginations.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in this important annual debate. In the time left, I wish to focus on the gender pay gap and the lack of women in senior professional roles in this country.
The gender pay gap is stubbornly persistent, despite the Equal Pay Act 1970 having been passed more than 40 years ago, and women are still woefully under-represented in the higher levels of British industry. We are aware of the depressing statistic that more men called John serve as chief executive officers in FTSE 100 companies than women. We can laugh at the statistics, but they reveal a depressing truth: our major industries are still not reflecting our society and are therefore not drawing on as wide a gene pool as they could.
The causes often begin early. I believe that schools need to play a significant role in overturning stereotypes, both in what they teach and what careers advice they offer, given that the gender pay gap is, in part, driven by the types of job women do. We all know that attitudes can change. Nearly 40 years ago, my own sister was a straight-As pupil and informed her school that she wanted to go into medicine. The reaction of those at her school was to suggest that, as a girl, she might prefer to consider nursing. Characteristically, she totally ignored that advice, and fortunately the world was spared a first-rate but horrendously bossy nurse. Instead, we got a superb doctor.
Nearly 40 years later, the majority of applicants to medical school are women, and something similar is occurring in law, so we know that we can change attitudes. We need to make the same changes in other careers for women, especially in engineering, where we have a desperate need for more talent, but we need to do it faster than we have changed attitudes towards other careers. I welcome the progress the Government have made over the past five years and the huge improvement in the number of girls taking STEM A-levels, but we need to keep pushing the case to get more into engineering.
The problem does not end when girls leave schools. Women still face unconscious discrimination in the workplace, and too many women feel they must choose between motherhood and building a career. I therefore welcome the Government’s move to achieve shared parental leave. Anecdotally, we know that when women have families, their managers often feel they are less committed to the organisation, especially if they choose to take part-time work. Conversely, it seems, anecdotally, that when men become fathers, their managers sometimes feel they must require a pay rise and a promotion.
Shared parental leave, even if men do not take it up, will at least force men to face the dilemma and think through what effect it might have on their career prospects, which, if they become mangers of women in the future, could be of enormous benefit. As we have said, we want both men and women fighting to make sure this annual debate becomes something for the history curriculum in the future.
When we miss out women from our legislatures, we make grave errors that seriously affect women and their families: we do not give the attention we should to maternal health and breastfeeding; we do not consider the impact of legislation on women; we leave women destitute without recourse to public funds; we get a Chancellor who believes that women paying the tampon tax for their own domestic abuse services is appropriate; and we see the introduction of welfare reforms such as the household payment in universal credit, the two-child tax credits policy and the rape clause.
In the brief time I have, I would like to concentrate on the two-child policy and the rape clause. It is a vindictive piece of policy that passes judgment and says the Government consider only the first two children worthy of support. To ask a woman to prove that her third child has been born as the result of rape to gain eligibility for child tax credits is utterly abhorrent. It stigmatises that woman and her child and is inconsistent with our obligations to treat children equally under the UN convention on the rights of the child.
There seems to be an assumption by some that rape just happens somehow. It is not acknowledged that it is most likely to happen to women already in coercive, abusive relationships. These women are in a particularly vulnerable place.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the additional funding announced by Scotland’s First Minister today to help abused women get back into work. Does she agree that we need more of these initiatives across all Governments to help women in such positions?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
Members will be aware that I have been questioning the rape clause since last July’s Budget, but I have still not had a satisfactory answer to explain why this policy is required and how it will work. Lord Freud suggested on 27 January in the other place that proof that a woman’s third child was born of rape might not come via the criminal justice system, but instead come from a third-party official such as a GP or a social worker. This does not, however, resolve the problem. For many reasons, these women may not be able to tell their GPs about their circumstances, and there may be no social work involvement.
I am not sure how many women will end up claiming under this policy. If a woman is in a relationship and suffering domestic abuse, she might be putting herself at serious risk by making the claim in the first place. A similar issue arises in the household payments system and universal credit—if a woman requests a split payment, her partner will almost certainly know about it. She may well be doubly damned by this Government, because Lord Freud has also refused to allow an exemption to the two-child policy for women escaping abusive, controlling relationships, which is what the Scottish Government are trying to counteract.
There is still a distinct possibility that a woman could tell her story to the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and not be believed. Those organisations are not known, after all, for taking people at their word. There is not yet guidance, and the Government will not say who they are consulting.
The two-child policy also fails completely to recognise the complex nature of families in 2016. A couple who have children from previous relationships will, under the two-child policy, lose their child tax credit eligibility when they come together. There is no detail yet on exactly how multiple births will be protected. There is no acknowledgement of the impact on those who, for religious reasons, may traditionally have larger families. That is hardly fitting for a Government who vaunt their “family test”.
I have heard it said that families should have only the children they can afford, but that point of view does not acknowledge the challenges that life presents. A family may have three children and be well able to afford them, but what if one parent loses their job, takes ill or dies? There is no safety net whatever in the two-child policy to cover that eventuality, particularly if the remaining parent is required to work less to care for the family.
The two-child policy is rigid, ineffectual and unnecessary. The rape clause stigmatises vulnerable women and their families. This is a policy made on the hoof for the sake of a Daily Mail headline and a Tory conference press release. It is tantamount to social engineering. My plea on International Women’s Day 2016 is that we reject this kind of policy—the two-child policy and the rape clause—and we support every woman and every child equally.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for securing this hugely important debate. Today, on International Women’s Day, I want to draw Members’ attention to an international crime that is now being perpetrated against young girls and women here in our country today. I refer to breast ironing. For the benefit of any Members who might not have heard of it, this is a ritualised form of child abuse that originated in Cameroon but is now happening in the UK whereby hot objects heated on a stove are placed on a girl’s breasts during puberty to retard the growth of the breast in the bizarre and wrong belief that this in some way makes them less sexually attractive to men.
This is a hidden crime in the same way that female genital mutilation was a hidden crime just a few years ago. It is hidden because it is carried out by a very close family member, normally a mother, sister, aunt or grandmother. A charity called CAME, which is run by lady called Margaret Nyuydzewira, estimates that 1,000 girls and young women in this country are having their breasts mutilated today because of this cultural activity. Because it is so hidden, I decided to do a freedom of information request to all police forces in the UK to try to find out what they are doing about this abhorrent practice. I am devastated to say that 15% of all police forces did not even know that this practice existed, and 38% of those that responded said that they had no information about it and could not tackle it.
Having revealed those shocking figures, I want to talk briefly about what action we can take. On International Women’s Day we must send out a clear message that this is a crime and that the perpetrators, whoever they may be, must and should be prosecuted. I know of one case reported to the police in 2013; they had an existing pool of offences to choose from, but there is considerable confusion in this area of the law. I hope that I can call on the Government today to create a stand-alone offence of breast ironing to protect young girls and women in our country.
We are a Government who have taken fantastic action on female genital mutilation. In the Serious Crime Act 2015, we provided anonymity for victims and created an offence of failing to protect someone from FGM. We also issued statutory guidance. I hope that we can raise the profile of breast ironing, and that it can be treated in the same way. It is a crime that is secret in nature, it has a long-term and irreversible effect on women’s breasts, and people will not report a family member. Unless we do something about it, this hidden crime will remain just that: hidden.
I started today by being interviewed by a researcher from Brunel University about the subject of women as leaders. One of the questions that she asked me was, “What qualities make a woman a good leader?” I do not actually think that leadership skills are gender-specific, but what women do need are more female leaders to act as role models, and for it to be seen as commonplace for women to take the lead in business, politics, sport, and other areas that tend to be male-dominated, such as science and engineering.
The motion refers to the need to get more women into Parliament. As many Members have pointed out, we currently have 191 female MPs. I am proud to say that 99 of them are Labour MPs, and I am proud to be a member of that group. In respect of female representation in Parliament, we are getting better, but we clearly have a long way to go. I believe that one of the issues is that this place is still perceived as being very male-oriented. However, improvements have been made in sitting times, and I do not want any retrograde steps to be taken in that regard.
Women often have to dance to men’s tunes. I am reminded of Ginger Rogers, who, when she was asked about dancing with Fred Astaire, replied, “It’s simple: I just follow what Fred does.” Then she added, “But backwards, and in high heels.” For me, that sums up many situations in which women find themselves today. We need to find new ways of working that suit us, our families, and our responsibilities and commitments.
A few Members—including the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), in her excellent opening speech—have referred to the raising of the women’s state pension age. The WASPI women have shown themselves to be committed campaigners against that injustice. These are women who have been excluded from occupational pension schemes because they work part-time. These are women who took long periods out of work to bring up children, childcare not being available to many. These are women who have suffered ill health: many of those who have contacted me have had to leave work because of health issues, and are surviving on minimal incomes. These are women who are caring for elderly relatives. One of my constituents told me that she had had to give up work to care for five elderly relatives, and she also provides respite foster care.
These are hard-working, committed, caring women, who have given much to their communities, families and workplaces, yet it appears that their reward is to have to wait longer for the state pension on which they were relying. Would it not be a wonderful gesture if, on International Women’s Day, the Government were to commit themselves to proper transitional arrangements for the WASPI women? Let them walk not backwards in high heels, but forwards, and in sensible shoes.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for securing the debate. In the short time is available to me, I wish to focus particularly on female genital mutilation. On this one day of the year, we have a chance to audit where we have come from and where we wish to go. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) that we have some good legislation, notably the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 and the Serious Crime Act 2015. As has already been mentioned, it is now a crime to fail to protect a woman or a girl from female genital mutilation, which is very important.
I believe that good training is available. I myself have just completed the Home Office’s free online training. However, improvements can be made. It is excellent that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has a free 0800 telephone number, and the Government are doing brilliant work with The Girl Generation, an African-led movement to end female genital mutilation. I applaud every African woman, and every African girl, who is part of that incredibly important movement. However, more than 120 million women and girls in the world have suffered from FGM, including 100,000 in our community, and we can do more. There have been no successful prosecutions in this country.
Does my hon. Friend agree that raising issues such as FGM and breast ironing in this place raises awareness of the issues and ensures that more action can be taken against these horrendous crimes?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
What more can we do? Having read the motion, I believe that we should not hide behind letters and acronyms; we should call it female genital mutilation. The Home Office online training has clinical diagrams, but they hide the absolute barbarity of the crime. The training should include images of it, however appalling they might be. In fairness to the Home Office training, however, it pointed out that the equivalent of female genital mutilation in a man would be the removal of the head of the penis and of a third of the shaft. That is what we are dealing with, and this practice has to be abolished.
We can do more. The most vulnerable people in this country are isolated migrant populations. We are not reaching out to them, and they are not reaching out to us. Speaking as a doctor, I know that if a woman comes to my clinical practice but cannot communicate with me in the same language, it is difficult for me to ask very personal questions through an interpreter. It is even harder if that interpreter is a male friend or relative. We have to do more.
I shall finish by quoting Gloria Steinem, because we cannot have International Women’s Day without her. She has said:
“The human race is like a bird with two wings, and if one wing is broken, no one can fly.”
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank the hon. Members for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) for setting the scene so vividly and efficiently and for focusing our attention on the issues.
I look forward to the day when there are no longer issues that adversely affect women more than men, but still in 2016 we have a long way to go. Each year more than 100,000 people in the UK are at imminent risk of being murdered or seriously injured as a result of domestic abuse. Women are much more likely than men to be the victims of severe domestic abuse. Nearly one in three women who suffer from domestic abuse report that the first incidence of violence happened while they were pregnant and at their most vulnerable. Victims of abuse have a higher rate of drug and/or alcohol misuse. At least 20% of high-risk victims of abuse report using drugs and/or alcohol, and 40% of victims at high risk of abuse report mental health difficulties. More than 90% of these victims are female; only 5% to 10% are male. There is of course a plethora of other issues still facing women, but I found those statistics most disturbing and worrying.
Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. We see women across the world breaking the glass ceiling each and every day. As we approach our centenary in Northern Ireland, we usher in a new era under our new First Minister, Arlene Foster. She has been in post for 10 weeks, and she is securing Northern Ireland’s future and leadership in a way that is unrivalled. As First Minister, she is truly exceptional. She has been through the worst of what Northern Ireland was associated with in the past and she is now at the helm, building what we in Northern Ireland hope to be associated with in the future.
When Arlene entered politics, she was directly affected by the troubles. Her school bus was blown up when she was a child, and her father, who served in the police, was shot. Arlene is no stranger to our dark days. With one eye looking to the past to learn and one eye firmly focused on the future, we have a real opportunity to make Northern Ireland better than ever. Arlene is living proof that gender is irrelevant and that equality in the workplace should be based on merit. She has merit in abundance.
This is International Women’s Day, and there are many parts of the world in which women, ladies and girls do not have the necessary opportunities, whether in education or health, and in which they are often abused and raped, and end up being married at an early age. We need to be a voice for those people who are voiceless. We have two female First Ministers in the United Kingdom, as well as other female party leaders, and it is important to remember these advancements today and to resolve to build on them in the years ahead. We need to continue to harness such role models, whether in politics, business, academia or any other field, so that the glass ceiling can be firmly broken and we can live in a world that rewards solely on merit. It has been a pleasure to participate in this debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing this debate. It is a day not only to celebrate women and their achievements, but to highlight what still needs to be done. I praise the Government for bringing forward policies that are helping to bring about balance and fairness for women.
I will not reiterate everything that has been covered today and will cut to the chase and get to one of my main points, which is rather cosmetic, but it affects all women none the less. It is the thorny issue of ageing. I was tempted to don a grey wig to make this point today, but I believe that props are not allowed in this place. [Interruption.] Perhaps some are! Earlier in my career, I spent a lot of time as a television presenter and every day, like many women, I faced the reality of whether to show that I was growing older. The question was, “To grey or not to grey?” A woman showing signs of growing older, wrinkles and grey hair, is still perceived differently; not always, but it does happen, especially in the media.
Yesterday, out of interest, I googled many of my colleagues in the House to see what questions were most asked about them on the internet. For all the women I googled, many of whom are here, the most-asked questions by the public were, “What is their age? What is their marital status? Do they have children?” I tried the same for male colleagues and—guess what?—not one of those questions was asked about any male MP. Is that not shocking? It seems that we are not rated on experience, wisdom, knowledge or achievements, which brings me to rather a grey note to finish on. A fine head of hair of that particular hue seems to be revered among the male fraternity. I give you the names of the silver fox, Mr Clooney, and Paul Hollywood and even our own Speaker. While a few revered women, such as our Home Secretary, have adopted the style, they are few and far between.
To sum up, like it or not, admit it or not, there is huge pressure on women to conform to youthful ideals. I want to change that view and this House can help. That is what this day is all about. Let us speak up for the experience and wisdom that women bring to the table through work and, if they choose to do so, through bringing up children. Give them the reverence that they deserve. We should get away from the value judgments that are often made on the basis of our hair colour. Let us continue with the many policies that my party is putting in place to empower women and young girls, of which I have two, and let us continue to tackle all taboos.
On around 22 June this year, I am due to become a father for the first time. While it is not yet clear whether this baby girl’s middle name would best be Europa or Brexit, she will in due course become an international woman. Being born in Britain, she will over the course of her school and working life encounter opportunities that remain almost unimaginable for many born elsewhere. She will have a mother whose science and medical background will inspire her, or put her off, careers where women have traditionally been desperately under-represented, but her father’s jobs as a journalist and a politician may make her wonder why men are drawn to jobs in which the public do not believe a word that we say.
However, girls born in Britain do not only face first-world problems. While it is sometimes unhelpful to talk about a sex war in which a strain of feminism aggressively alienates men, arguments about language and presentation should not obscure the facts: seven out of 10 women say that they have experienced harassment in the street; childcare still falls predominantly on women; and men who take advantage of the Government’s hugely positive changes to parental leave are likely to be a tiny percentage of the majority. Even in this place, while we talk about paternity leave, it is apparently beyond the wit of man or woman to sort out a system that works. I hope my naked self-interest does not invalidate the fact that as long as Parliament says that businesses must do as we say, not as we do, we will deserve to make little progress nationwide.
International Women’s Day must surely be about one thing above all else: equality. It is about equality of opportunity for girls to study any subject they like and not those whose culture persists in saying that boys or girls specialise in certain subjects. It is about equality of access to their parents because society does not pretend that men have to go to work and women look after children. And it is about equality of access to the workplace, because it is time that we all acknowledged that men and women, Britain and the world benefit if we jointly celebrate diversity and difference, while acknowledging that each of us has strengths and that some of those may derive from gender as much as they do from background.
I do not think that the pay gap will have closed by the time my daughter is born or even before she is working, nor do I pretend that we can have so much equality that men and women will ever be equal in bearing children, but I know that unless we all—men and women—have this inequality in mind, in this place and everywhere, we will not be able to lead by example or to ask those who think they have something to lose from equality to see what, in fact, they have to gain.
As the token man on the Women and Equalities Committee until very recently, it has been very nice to be in a minority in some parts of this place, and I feel as though I have lit my own bra many a time in support of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips).
It is an absolute privilege to be called in this debate on this really important International Women’s Day. May I join in all the congratulatory comments to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) on securing this debate? I have also had the pleasure of serving a superb mentor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. No one has championed the equality of women more than her in this place.
I want to take this opportunity to concentrate on science, technology, engineering and maths—the STEM subjects—which have been a focus of my attention since I started in this place. The statistics are staggering and speak for themselves: a 2012 survey by Girlguiding of girls between the ages of seven and 21 found that the top three careers they would choose for themselves were teacher, hairdresser and beautician; only 3% of engineering degree applicants are girls and just 6% of the UK engineering workforce are female, according to the Women’s Engineering Society; and physics is the third most popular A-level for boys but only the 19th for girls. That simply has to change if we are to work towards a more gender equal society, and International Women’s Day is a perfect time to highlight this issue. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) has spoken many a time about her passion for championing this case and the need today to end up reducing the silos within government. I pay tribute to her work and I hope that in her summing up she will be able to make that case a lot clearer.
As a man, and as someone on the Select Committee, it is an absolute privilege to be able to call to arms every single man in this country to say that standing up and championing equal rights is not just a job for women, but a job for every single one of us—it is a job for every man in our country, too. That is why I am absolutely privileged to end up speaking in today’s International Women’s Day debate.
I am delighted to be able to speak in this very important debate, partly because the issue is such an important one, but also because too many women do not have a voice. We have heard some moving speeches today, but I want to spend my time highlighting some great women in my constituency, who are all great role models.
First, I wish to highlight three businesswomen: Caroline Steed, who exports her sofas across the world, including to China and Russia; Sheila Mason at Cluny Lace, which made the lace for the Duchess of Cambridgeshire’s wedding dress; and Sandra Lee, who just last Friday quadrupled the size of her gift shop. When it comes to educators, Joan McCarthy exudes enthusiasm to all her students in her role as head at Saint John Houghton Catholic Voluntary Academy. There are many more women teachers I could name as being outstanding, but I wish to mention a lady who plays an important part at one of my local schools, Chaucer Junior School—dinner lady Kerry Wheatley. Kerry does far more than just be a dinner lady; she runs the school’s gardening club and even takes students to the Chelsea flower show. But Kerry’s enthusiasm stretches even further than the dinner table or the garden; just last Friday she was instrumental in getting the students to clean for the Queen—another great lady.
When we turn to charities and the voluntary sector, the list gets even longer. We have Holly Saunders who set up the Erewash Valley Gymnastics Club, which recently featured on the BBC’s “East Midlands Today” to raise awareness of the impact of obesity on young lives. Brenda Davies is chief executive of Community Concern Erewash. Stella Scott and Linda Brown play key roles at Erewash Voluntary Action and Joe and Bren are dedicated to Home-Start Erewash. They all deserve recognition. However, we must never forget the women who dedicate many years to raising our future generations, so often sacrificing their careers in support of their children.
We do not know what challenges those women had to overcome to play their roles in Erewash, but I can guarantee that they will have had to overcome some. By recognising and celebrating International Women’s Day here in this place, I believe that, in a small way, we are playing our part.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing the debate.
Raped, beaten and destitute, Sarah had nowhere to go. Aged 28, and with her young son, she faced no option other than to leave her own home. Tom, her partner, had become increasingly violent over the past year, stripping her of her self-esteem. On one occasion, he had tried to push her out of an upstairs window. On another, she awoke at night to find that he had poured methylated spirits all over her, trying to set her alight. It stopped only when their young son saw what was happening and called the police. She had tried to leave over the years, but on every occasion Tom had persuaded her that he was a changed man and that he could not cope without her. One night, though, everything changed and she realised that she could not take any more. This is not a storyline in a soap opera; this was one of my clients when I was a barrister. I was instructed late one evening to apply to the court for an emergency order to get a judge to provide her with accommodation. The move was designed to provide her with a safe place and support for her son and to keep her away from the very real threat posed by Tom.
Two women die at the hands of domestic abusers each week in England and Wales. On average, a woman will be assaulted 35 times before seeking help. In 2009, the cost to the UK economy was estimated to be £15.7 million a year. Although we need to celebrate the achievements of women, we also need to pause and reflect on the areas in which, as those statistics show, women and girls are still being failed. Although words are important, it is action that will make a real difference.
In March 2014, the Government introduced Clare’s law, which is named after Clare Wood, who was tragically murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2009. The law allows people to ask the police whether their partner has a history of domestic abuse, and it has already helped more than 1,000 people. We have introduced new domestic violence protection orders that protect victims in the immediate aftermath of domestic violence, when they are at their most vulnerable. Domestic violence is not always physical. It can be psychological and emotional, which is why we have introduced a new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour. Of course, all those numbers mean nothing to women and girls who are still suffering abuse, and it is for them that I speak today. No one in this country should live with the threat of violence or in fear of harm.
I look forward to the day when there is no longer any need for International Women’s Day; when “Woman tipped to become next M&S boss announces she is taking maternity leave” is no longer a newsworthy headline for the Daily Mail; when we have 50%, not 22%, of parliamentarians across the world being women, and we no longer feel any need to measure or report the statistic; and when we do not need to discuss how to encourage more young women into science and maths.
Yes, we have come a long way. Government after Government have brought in legislation to ensure that we have equal treatment, but we are still striving for parity. Why is that? I do not profess to have the answers, but I recently read an article about a transgender person who had therefore experienced life as both a woman and a man. Ben Barres is a biologist at Stanford who lived and worked as Barbara Barres until he was in his 40s. He said that, as a woman, he often experienced bias, but when he became Ben he noticed a difference in his everyday experiences. He said that as a man, people treated him with much more respect. He noticed that he was more carefully listened to and his authority less frequently questioned. He wrote:
“The reasons why women are not breaking into academic jobs at any appreciable rate is not childcare, not family responsibilities.”
He went on to say:
“I have had the thought a million times: I am now taken more seriously”.
So I welcome International Women’s Day, but I would welcome more a time when there is no need to celebrate it, when women are recognised and lauded for what we have done as individuals, not for our achievements as women.
Today we celebrate International Women’s Day, an opportunity to celebrate great women and also to reflect on what more we can do as parliamentarians. It is true that there are more women in Parliament today than ever before, which is primarily why it is incumbent on us to take this opportunity to ensure equality across the board.
Women’s rights are human rights, yet when it comes to employment, women repeatedly suffer discrimination. We have seen Women Against State Pension Inequality campaigning vigorously for transitional arrangements.
Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a compelling need for the Government to resolve the WASPI issue through transitional protection, perhaps with an announcement in the Budget next week?
Absolutely. I would wholeheartedly welcome an announcement in the Budget next week that the Government will make transitional arrangements for those women.
We have heard about the issues of pensions, employment and domestic violence. I recognise the powerful contribution of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), which highlighted the fact that too many women lose their life to violence every day.
On welfare, more women than men are lone parents and carers, a fact that must be recognised. The Government must ensure support for those women. There are many gaps that need to be addressed before we have full gender parity. I have called on the Prime Minister to take five key actions for International Women’s Day. First, the rape clause in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill must be scrapped. A woman who has a third child as a result of rape will be required to justify her position to a Government official in order to claim tax credits. That proposal is abhorrent. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who has campaigned tirelessly against it, and I support her efforts unequivocally. I hope the Government will remove that barbaric proposal.
I have urged the Prime Minister to ratify the Istanbul convention and to take serious action to tackle violence against women. Every day in the UK, women lose their life to physical violence. Ratification of the treaty would not only co-ordinate the policies of Government, local authorities and charities, but would send a clear message that the UK is committed to tackling all forms of violence.
The tampon tax must be scrapped. Labelling women’s sanitary products a luxury item is ridiculous. Those items are a necessity, so an additional VAT charge is wrong. Instead of the Government forcing the European Commission’s hand to lift the unfair tax, women will continue to pay that charge, and as a result continue to pay for their own services. We must remove that unfair tax, and the UK Government must use the money to support services.
We must also take firm action on the gender pay gap. The Scottish Government have committed to 50:50 by 2020, to encourage public sector, third sector and private sector companies to ensure equality on boards. The Scottish Government plan to legislate to ensure that public authorities with more than 20 employees will publish information on that. I hope the UK Government will consider that, as the current threshold of 250 employees is not good enough to tackle the gender pay gap in the way that they hope it will.
Unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination is more common in Britain’s workplaces than ever before, with many women being forced out of their employment. The Government are trying to help people into work, yet they are introducing employment tribunal fees that may be a barrier to many women tackling rogue employers. The Government must look at those fees and challenge discrimination in all its forms.
I have presented those five points to the Prime Minister. We need deeds, not words, and I urge the Government to take those recommendations on board. As parliamentarians, let us be bold in delivering the kind of society we want to achieve—a more equal future for everyone. Let us deliver it—it is possible.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) on securing today’s debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for making time available for it and all the Members who have participated, women and men, for their contributions.
The debate has been an important opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements and share in an ambition that exists around the world to achiever gender equality, not only as a matter of justice to women but as a prerequisite for a successful, prosperous and peaceful future for our world. Equality for women is not a zero-sum game that means men must lose out if women do well. Whenever women are poor, insecure and unsafe or disempowered, everyone suffers—families, children and communities. When women do well, by contrast, society thrives; health, educational attainment and economic performance all improve. That is why our ambition of gender equality in every country is so important.
Of course, we have made great strides forward, especially here in the UK. Women are achieving educationally, professionally and in public life in ways that our grandmothers could not have dreamed of. More women occupy senior positions in business, in the professions and in sport, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees). We have choices that were denied to previous generations of women.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, because I am very short of time.
As we have heard today, there is still a long way to go. There is a long way to go on economic equality, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), who talked about gender pricing, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), who talked about the importance of our membership of the European Union in protecting women’s economic position, and many other hon. Members. We heard about the gender pay gap, which is nearly 20% higher in this country than the European average, and about the average apprenticeship wage for young women being more than £1 lower than it is for young men. We heard about women being trapped in low-paid sectors such as catering, caring and retail. We heard from many hon. Members about the disproportionate representation of men in STEM jobs, and we heard that the disadvantage that women experience in the labour market feeds into their poverty in retirement.
No one who was in the Chamber this afternoon can have failed to be moved and appalled by the names read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) of women who are among the two killed every week in this country by a partner or former partner. We heard from hon. Members throughout the House of many other appalling examples of gender-based violence. We heard from the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes), my right hon. Friend the Member for Slough, who talked about the violence endemic in prostitution, and the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), who talked about breast ironing, a new and horrific form of abuse that has arrived in this country. We also heard about female genital mutilation. Although we did not hear much about this today, we should also remember the special circumstances of lesbian and transgender women who suffer appalling gender-based violence.
The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and the hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) rightly talked about cyber-abuse. I join the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) in urging the Government once again to consider introducing compulsory sex and relationships education.
May I make a special mention of the contribution of the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), who spoke up for detained refugee women? Their plight in a civilised country is something that shames all of us. I was proud to sit in this Chamber this afternoon and hear her speak out on behalf of those women. It is a cause that we must continue to champion together.
We also heard that this Parliament has, pleasingly, seen the highest level of representation of women that we have ever had. However, as many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Eastleigh, my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) and the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), said, we still have some way to go. When just 29% of our MPs are women, it is clear that our Parliament continues to fall a long way short of reflecting the population of our country.
Given the contributions that we have heard this afternoon, I am pleased that the sustainable development goals, to which we, along with all other countries, are signatories, include a goal dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment. The sustainable development goals are not just for developing economies but apply to every country, including the UK. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we recognise that the challenges women face here at home are the same as those faced by our sisters everywhere. For sure, there are differences of degree, but not differences of kind. We have heard some shocking examples—the plight of the Yazidi women, women in Saudi Arabia and the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram—but the pattern of poverty, inequality, inadequate representation and gender-based violence exists in every country. As the challenges are the same worldwide, we can learn from and support each other to achieve solutions. We can work together to ensure that we embed gender equality into every aspect of our policy and practice.
I know that the Minister shares my passion for gender equality, and I am sure she will take the opportunity today to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to systematically addressing gender inequality, wherever and whenever it arises. As we sign up to the vital sustainable development goals, I hope she will say that they will shape and underpin policy right across Government —both domestic policy and the way we use our influence and share learning with others internationally.
I also hope that Members will today affirm our determination that this debate will take place every International Women’s Day—in this Chamber and in Government time, as the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham suggested, in solidarity with our sisters around the world and as a measure of our resolve to place gender equality at the heart of our politics.
In conclusion, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I take this opportunity to wish you, all right hon. and hon. Members, and our sisters and brothers around the world a happy International Women’s Day?
May I, too, start by congratulating the right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who secured the debate? I congratulate everybody who has taken part. We have had outstanding and excellent speeches from male and female Members from across the House.
I am pleased to be able to chart the significant progress that has been made under the Government. There are now more women in work than ever before. There are more women on boards than ever before. There are no all-male FTSE 100 boards. There are more women- led businesses than ever before—about 1 million small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK are women-led. The gender pay gap is the lowest on record and has virtually been eliminated among full-time workers under the age of 40. While it is important to celebrate how much progress we have made, we must be clear that, in today’s society, there is no place for any pay gap. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is the pledge for parity, and I am delighted the Prime Minister has pledged to close the gender pay gap within a generation.
It is vital to the Government that our economy benefits from the talents of everyone, and that everyone is able to fulfil their potential in the workplace, regardless of gender or background, so this year the Government are taking a bold step. We will redouble our efforts to complete the fight for equality, starting with the introduction of regulations to require large employers to publish their gender pay gaps. By working with businesses and employees, with a focus on transparency, I am confident that we will begin to see results.
The gender pay gap usually starts in the type of work that women do in the sectors in which they typically end up. As we have heard in some of today’s excellent speeches, occupational segregation is particularly apparent in the science, technology, engineering and maths sectors, where jobs carry a significant wage premium, but a shortage of girls and women are entering them and working their way to the top. We are working closely with schools and businesses to deliver initiatives such as the STEM diversity programme to address that.
Crucially, our work on girls’ aspirations is about dispelling the myth that there are girls’ jobs and boys’ jobs. There are, simply, just jobs. Last year we published guidance entitled “Your Daughter's Future”, which empowers parents and teachers to support girls in making decisions about subject and career choices, free from gender stereotypes.
There is also much more that we can do to support women in their careers and in achieving their potential. Women now lead about 20% of UK small businesses, which are the lifeblood of our economy, yet they are still setting up businesses at about half the rate of their male counterparts. The Women’s Business Council estimates that if women started businesses at the same rate as men, there would be 1 million extra businesses, yet research tells us that many women say that they lack the confidence, or perceive themselves to lack the necessary skills, to be able to do that.
We must not let the fear of failure hold back talented female budding entrepreneurs from achieving their full potential. That is why we continue to fund the £1 million women and broadband programme, which has been incredibly successful. In fact, many of our women and broadband projects across the country, from Durham to Devon, are themselves celebrating International Women’s Day.
We have also endeavoured to address the issues that are most pertinent to women in work. From the introduction of the right to request flexible working, to shared parental leave, we are helping women to achieve a better balance between work and motherhood. Realistically, however, women’s caring responsibilities rarely end when their own children fly the nest. The challenge of balancing care with a fulfilling career can often become most acute in the later stages of a woman’s working life, whether they are caring for an elderly relative or for grandchildren. Let us not forget the remarkable sandwich generation, either, who are somehow doing both. We need to find ways to support them all. That is why the Women’s Business Council has established a working group on older workers and will consider what business can do to support them. We have also invested money in nine pilots across England to explore ways to support carers to balance work and caring responsibilities. When we talk to women—and men—it is clear that, on work-life balance, childcare is the most important issue. That is why we are investing more than £1 billion more a year on free childcare places.
Turning to parity of representation in politics and public life, we come full circle. We know just how valuable female role models can be to young girls and women—raising aspiration is vital to the talent pipeline. We all take great pride in being part of the most gender diverse Parliament in British history. The Government are committed to improving the public appointments process and have set an aspiration that 50% of new appointments should go to women.
Equality, however, is about more than just economic parity—protecting women and girls from violence, and supporting victims, are also key priorities. The list of murdered women at the hands of domestic violence that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) read out earlier makes that argument more powerfully than any speech. I wholeheartedly agree with her that the voices of those murdered women must remain at the forefront of effective Government policy making. Our new violence against women and girls strategy, which was published today, will focus on service transformation and prevention.
We are also working with partners such as the PSHE Association to ensure that schools have access to safe, effective and high-quality resources. We have launched the next phase of our teen relationship abuse campaign, Disrespect NoBody, which encourages young people to think about their views on violence. We have funded the revenge porn helpline and the Freedom charity, which educates schoolchildren and their teachers about forced marriage.
We have made significant progress since 2010, including by criminalising forced marriage and revenge porn, as well as strengthening the law on domestic violence. We have strengthened the law on female genital mutilation so that it includes mandatory reporting and introducing FGM protection orders.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not. I am desperate to give the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) an opportunity to conclude the debate, because she did so well to secure it in the first place.
Let us celebrate today how far we have come and the achievements of past years, but at the same time we need to redouble our efforts to do more to close the gender pay gap and to ensure that no woman is deterred from achieving her aspirations and realising her potential. No woman should feel that she has to live her life in fear because of her gender.
I thank all the participants in the debate and the Backbench Business Committee for the time that it allocated. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) touched on the battle—it was a bit of battle, I must say—that we had to ensure that the debate was held in the Chamber. I took a deep breath when it was suggested that we hold the debate in Westminster Hall, although the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) was a little more generous than me—subtlety was never one of my strong points. The number of Members from both sides of the House who have spoken today, on International Women’s Day 2016, in this passionate debate showed that we were right to hold the debate here in the Chamber.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) highlighted the women who have been killed by men since International Women’s Day 2015, reading out 121 names. Internationally, five women are killed every hour, so during this debate 15 women have been murdered. That is a sobering thought. The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) talked about Boko Haram and the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign, and said that there would be a renewed emphasis on that issue. We must never forget the women and girls who have been murdered, killed or kidnapped, or who are still missing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) highlighted the gender differentials. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) mentioned the Yazidi women who have been captured and raped. My right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) mentioned prostitution and trafficked women, and she talked about the motion. The motion took a while to write, because so many issues could have been included that it was difficult to know what to focus on. A common theme that has come out of the debate is that the abuse of women is always used as a weapon of war. Whether it be in gangs, wars or other violence, women and young girls are always used and raped. We must never, ever forget that.
I have a little bit of a confession to make. Last night, I was thinking about the Chancellor in bed—[Laughter.] It is true. I was thinking that he has a deleterious effect on women, and I am fearful about next week’s Budget.
On that subject, surely the Chancellor could take a step in the right direction on International Women’s Day by looking at transitional arrangements for women who were born after 1951.
Absolutely. We have to do more on the transitional arrangements for women. The situation is not fair and it is just not right.
As I say, I worry about the Budget next week. It sometimes seems as though revenge is being taken against women, because 81% of the cuts made in this Parliament will affect women. In UK households, 744,000 individuals are on zero-hours contracts, and the majority of those people are women. In 2007, 62,700 equal pay claims were made. We all know, as has been said in the debate, that women are not being treated better at work, but only 9,621 equal pay claims were made in 2014-15, because of the changes that have been made to the law.
Twenty per cent. of small and medium-sized enterprises are led by women. Women often start their own businesses to ensure that their worth is acknowledged, and the number who do so increases every single year. Forty-nine per cent. of lone parents are on prepayment meters, which means that they pay more, and that contributes to household debt. Guess what? The majority of lone parents are women. As I have said, 744,000 people are on zero-hours contracts, and the majority of them are women. Would it not be great if we could outlaw zero-hours contracts in this Parliament?
We in this House have a duty to ensure that we make laws that are not harmful to women. We have to empower women in this place; that is our duty. As has been mentioned, PSHE is an important part of education. It sets the foundation in schools, from a very early age, for constructive relationships. In my opinion, it should be compulsory.
I thank the House for the way in which the debate has been conducted, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee again for granting it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House expresses its solidarity with International Women’s Day; notes with concern that, despite women making up 51 per cent of society as a whole, more progress needs to be made in electing women to Parliament, as well as in establishing equal pay and parity between men and women in positions of leadership; and calls for greater action against FGM and other practices that are harmful to women.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have just had a very powerful, thought-provoking and emotional debate, thanks to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and many other Members who have contributed this afternoon. By my reckoning, 38 right hon. and hon. Members contributed to the debate, and not everybody was able to get in. What advice can you give me about talking to the relevant authorities to ensure that, in the future, we are able to secure an even longer debate? We are grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for supporting today’s debate, but I think that there is a great case to be made for having even longer to discuss an issue that is relevant to every single Member of the House.
I think that the right hon. Lady has just made that point to the relevant authorities, and I think they have heard it. Just for confirmation, 38 Members spoke, and everybody who wanted to get in did get in. It was very tight at the end, and I am grateful to hon. Members for keeping to such a tight limit, but everybody did get in. I thank you all very much, and I thank the right hon. Lady for her point of order.