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Women and the Vote

Volume 611: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Guy Opperman.)

I requested this Adjournment debate as yesterday marked exactly 150 years since the philosopher and Member of this House, John Stuart Mill, moved the first mass petition to the House of Commons on behalf of women claiming their right to vote. The largest paper petition ever received by this House was, I believe, the petition to end the transatlantic slave trade. That victory made it clear that public petitioning was then, as it is today, a means to take this House by storm, to grab our attention and to bang on the Government’s door requiring change.

In 1866, Mill believed that the time was right. Change in this House resulted in the recognition of the right to vote of men who rented property as well as of those who owned it. Mill had already written, though not published, his great work, “On the Subjugation of Women”. The first petition from an individual woman was submitted to this House in 1832, but the petition in 1866 represented the first organised campaign. It was the beginning of the movement that was to change our country.

Those Victorian times, despite the presence of a woman monarch, held mixed fortunes for women. One of the signatories to the petition, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, was refused access to medical training, and even when a Paris university granted her a qualification, the British medical authorities would not ratify it and allow her to practise. Women were told at the time that education itself was damaging to their health. Education, Mr Speaker! How could any of us be sitting on these Benches now without education in one form or another? Yet in 1866, it was considered perfectly reasonable to oppose women voting because of their supposed lack of education and their unfitness to receive it. Other signatories, Barbara Bodichon and Emily Davies, were the driving forces behind opening up higher education for women. Those women were fighting to have their voices heard, their interests recognised and their opinions weighed with the exact same scales that were used for men.

Today we have debated the right to vote in the upcoming EU referendum—perhaps the most extensive and significant exercise of democracy in the history of this country. Millions of women will be voting, in the same numbers as men. In fact, at the last election there was a 66% turnout among women, which was almost identical to the male turnout. The future direction of this country, our collective potential and our future successes will be down to women as well as men. That is the lesson that I believe we should take from the 1866 petition. Ludicrous though it seems to have to say it, there never was any lack of intelligence, aptitude or desire on the part of women to be involved in politics, and there is not now.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She is right to point out that we have made progress— 192 women now sit in this Parliament—but we need to see more progress at the next election. Does she, like me, feel that we need the sort of progress that we made in 2015, when we saw a 30% increase in female representation in this place? Should we not be striving for the same progress next time?

I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for that intervention. I know how hard she has worked in her own party to bring forward advances for women. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) has also just mentioned the advances made in 1997.

Women did not just have to fight for the right to vote; they had to fight for the right truly to be themselves, whatever that means. They had to fight, as we have to fight, for the right to exist as others do, and to make choices about how to realise our ambition and serve our country. So what holds us back? Well, for a start, let us look at this EU referendum. It is a decision that will affect us all, but the debate has too often been dominated by male voices. It has been a debate in which the ever-changing opinion of one male Tory Back Bencher seems to take precedence over the views of a whole host of women in the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet. I am not going to make many friends among Tory Back Benchers this evening—at least not on the male side.

On representation, we may have parity of votes, but we certainly do not have parity of voice. Public debate too often excludes women or shouts them down. The point is that we may have made huge progress over the last few decades on the number of women MPs, on women in the Cabinet and on all sorts measures, but there is so much still to do, because not everyone is able to realise their true value and—even worse—there is still violence.

I asked the hon. Lady beforehand if she would give way, and I congratulate her on bringing this matter to the House for consideration. There were suffragette groups and movements across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Starting in the 1860s, there were 20 suffrage groups in Northern Ireland before the first world war. Does the hon. Lady feel, like many inside and outside this House, that there is a need to remember historical importance? Tonight is an example of getting the historical importance right. Is there not a need to remember each and every year and to do the same in education in schools as well?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind intervention. It is certainly true that there is progress to be made for women across the whole United Kingdom, definitely including Northern Ireland.

I believe that the reading by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) of the names of the women killed by men this year will be a significant moment for this House that few who heard it will forget. As Women’s Aid has highlighted, however, women who have fled to refuges to escape domestic violence remain disfranchised because they are unable to register anonymously. Thousands of women, whose voices are crying out to be heard, are silenced because of arcane regulations.

Mr Speaker, you were present last night at the lighting of “New Dawn”, a work of art which was commissioned to mark the anniversary of the 1866 petition. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), my colleague on and Chair of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, who led the project brilliantly. The artist, Mary Branson, has created a beautiful installation, lit in the colours of the votes for women movement. It is a special work of art, representing not just an individual, but an idea, and not just an idea, but a force of change. Any number of worthy people could have been represented—any number of the signatories to the petition, the anniversary of which I am marking this evening—but I am unsure that that would have been right, because political change is never down to an individual. Political change happens because all of us change our minds. It happens when we stand up for that terribly simple idea, one which we know in our heart to be true but which is often forgotten, that every one of us is equal. The many discs, lit up by the tide of the Thames, represent the sweeping power of change and the light of hope.

I thank my hon. Friend for agreeing to give way when I approached her earlier today, because the anniversary is important from an Oldham perspective. I am leading the fundraising campaign for a statue of Annie Kenney, who was a working-class suffragette leader and an inspiration to many. I also want to reflect on the fact that although there is no doubt that men can be part of the problem, that does not mean that men cannot be part of the solution. It is important that we work together to remind people of the sacrifices that were made by so many.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I commend his efforts to remember a working-class member of the fight for women’s votes.

The new work that we lit up last night is bold, daring, and imaginative. It is a tribute, yes, but it will also serve, just as the archway leading from Members’ Lobby to the Chamber does, as a reminder.

You may know, Mr Speaker, that there were protests outside this building last night, in part against the violence that I mentioned that too many women still face. I say to those who protested last night outside St Stephen’s entrance and shouted with furious anger, “Dead women can’t vote,” that they are right to be angry. They are right be angry with violent men, but all of us must choose how we use that anger: whether to hold our placard and do no more or whether to take up the right that our sisters fought for not just to vote, but to hold office and seek the real power to take decisions on behalf of women and men.

In 1866, women hammered on the door of this place because they had no other choice. Hammering on the door was the only way to make their voices heard, to stand proud and to say, “Here we are. These are our numbers. We have the right to be valued and we count.” This is the real point about 1866: it was never about equal votes for women; it was always about equal worth for women. A new dawn, Mr Speaker, but a very old fight —a fight that is as alive in 2016 as it was 150 years ago.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this important debate and on an outstanding speech. In fact, she has made a lot of friends on this side of the House.

The 150th anniversary of the Kensington Society petition is an excellent opportunity to take stock of how far women have come in social, economic, cultural and political life. As the hon. Lady rightly said, it is also a time to consider how very far we still have to go. I also congratulate her on the digital debate she led this afternoon on this very issue. That is another new way of engaging with people and hearing their views. I followed it with great interest. As MPs, we must take on this mantle, take on these views and concerns, and work to end sexism and discrimination in every part of our lives.

The petition back in 1866 called for women to be given the same political rights as men. Shocking though it seems now, that was a very radical thought back then. Every woman in this country owes a massive debt of gratitude to those early suffrage campaigners, who did so much to advance the cause not only of women’s political rights, but other rights too. As the 310th woman to have been elected to Parliament, this subject resonates with me, as I am sure it does with all 190 of my female colleagues around the House.

I thank the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for raising this subject for debate. I am listening to what the Minister is saying about representations of the suffragettes. Does she agree that while the new artwork is fantastic and must be welcomed, anyone who walks around this building realises how hugely influenced it is by men and how many men and statues of men there are? Anybody who goes to the cupboard of Emily Wilding Davison will realise how poor a tribute it is to what she and others did. Perhaps there is more that we can do across these Benches to promote the work of the suffragettes and other women in this Parliament.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right; we need to take every opportunity we can to promote the fantastic work of those who came before us and those who fought and died before us to secure the privileges that we enjoy today.

I am delighted that Parliament commissioned the new permanent work of art to commemorate women’s suffrage. I know that the hon. Member for Wirral South was on the Committee led by my hon. Friend—and real life friend—the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). I pay tribute to the Committee for its work.

I could not resist intervening. The hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) made a really serious point. The thing that strikes me is that we have a parliamentary art collection of 8,000 works of art, fewer than 200 of which represent women in any shape or form. Although my Committee works hard to improve on that, we are sometimes stymied by the media. I was struck by the article in “The Sun” online that criticised the new artwork. Is it not incumbent on all of us to try in some small way to make this place feel more relevant and warmer for women?

Yes, it is incumbent on all of us to make this place look a lot more like the people we represent out there in society. The new artwork, “New Dawn”, will be seen not only by MPs and peers, but by many members of the public. I spoke last night to one of the gentlemen who was involved in the creation of it and he told me that it will last for up to 300 years, so long after we have all shuffled off, many people will appreciate the work and be as inspired by it as I am.

Does the Minister agree that the cause of women is international, and that it is truly wonderful that, today, a woman is the presumptive Democratic party nominee for President of the United States? That will mean so much to our daughters and our granddaughters right across the globe.

Yes, absolutely. Hillary Clinton has talked about a massive glass ceiling being broken. Previously, she has spoken about women’s issues being the pet rock in the backpack of some of our politicians. No longer will women’s issues be that pet rock; they will be front and centre of all political parties’ intentions in the future.

One hundred and fifty years on, the world is a radically different place. I am sure that those early campaigners would be pleased to see that we now have not only the vote, but women in Parliament as well. I am sure that, like me, they would feel that 191 female MPs at the moment is still not enough.

May I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for her excellent speech? Reference was made to the choices that women can make in terms of how they use their voices. I ask the Minister if she would take this opportunity, off the back of this debate, to remind some of her male colleagues who seem to think that women need to “understand” what they are saying that perhaps our way of understanding is that we have a different viewpoint on things, and that sometimes our opinions are worthy of listening to and may actually be right.

It is our different viewpoint on things that makes us most valuable.

I am very proud to be a member of a party that had the first woman to take her seat in Parliament. I am very proud to be a member of a party that had the first female Prime Minister, and to be part of a Government where a third of the people attending Cabinet are now women.

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work of Baroness Jenkin, whom many of us who have recently joined this place have to thank for the enormous amount of support she has given women candidates in trying to become MPs?

Well, yes. We all want to see more women here. In that quest, mentoring is one of the most important things that we can do, and the noble Baroness has been an absolutely outstanding mentor for so many of the women who are among us today. In the other place, there are now 210 female peers, the highest ever number. Two of the three devolved Administrations are now headed by women—

I will in a moment, but first let me say this. I am delighted that, in my local council of Gosport, nearly 40% of our councillors are female, and I pay tribute to every single one of them.

I thank the Minister for giving way. Will she join me in appreciating the fact that, in Scotland, the three leaders of our main political parties are women, and that we have a gender-balanced Cabinet and gender-balanced nominations for our convenerships to the Parliament?

I hope the Minister will join me in paying tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). She has been a remarkable leader of this party at times and has almost got to the role. She certainly played her role in Prime Minister’s questions. I hope we can think of her as we applaud these other remarkable women.

Absolutely. The right hon. and learned Lady is also very much to be celebrated. It is a shame that she is not here so that I can thank her personally.

May I make a bit of progress? I really want to talk about the lasting change that starts with education. Girls are now outperforming boys at school and outnumbering boys at university. We really need to ensure that success in school translates into career success. To do that, we need to free women and girls from the pressure to conform to restricted choices in aspirations. There are no longer such things as boys’ jobs and girls’ jobs; there are just jobs. That is why the Government are working so hard to broaden girls’ career choices by encouraging more of them to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. Those are the skills that our economy needs and those are the career choices that will narrow the gender pay gap, which, I am proud to say, is now narrower than it has ever been, and it is the Prime Minister’s ambition to eliminate it altogether within a generation.

I will make a little bit more progress. We have published regulations that will increase transparency around the gender pay gap, and we expect employers to start publishing the required information from next April. We have been working closely with business on these regulations at every stage, and we will provide a package of support to help employers calculate, understand and address their gender pay gap areas.

It is also vital that we continue to gain positions of leadership and influence in business. I am delighted that Lord Davies’s target of 25% of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies has been met and exceeded. Across the whole FTSE 350, the proportion of women is more than double what it was in 2011. Backed by the Government, this business-led approach is working. The work is not over. We need to promote the business-led 33% target for FTSE 350 boards. I am delighted that Sir Philip Hampton and Dame Helen Alexander will be bringing their wealth of business experience to a new review into the executive pipeline.

Many of the initiatives I have mentioned have been led by the Government Equalities Office. I am immensely proud to be a GEO Minister alongside my colleague the Secretary of State for Education, and to continue the work that has been done by making sure that in everything we do we make the UK a better place for women to live and work.

I am also proud of how the Government lead the way internationally on promoting women’s rights. I was honoured to lead the UK delegation to the convention on the status of women in New York earlier this year, which involved delegates from across the world. It was striking how many common issues were raised that affect women globally. Economic empowerment, the violence against women and girls mentioned by the hon. Member for Wirral South, and political representation are all issues for women across the world.

The progress we have made on these issues has not simply been given to us. It has been fought for every single step of the way and there is still such a long way to go to achieve the genuine equality we all want to see. The hon. Member for Wirral South spoke powerfully about the speech made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) earlier in the year. Two women a week still die at the hands of an ex-husband or partner, and although we have made so much progress in increasing the number of convictions and prosecutions for domestic violence, every single one of those women is a woman too many.

I speak as the 380th woman elected to Parliament; we all have our number. We heard about American politics, and, as we heard from Madeleine Albright, there is a special place in hell for women who do not support other women. In this wonderful debate, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) made a point about the safety of women in the context of refuge, of homes and of having a voice. Will my hon. Friend, as women’s Minister, ensure that we as a Government will take that very seriously?

Absolutely. Protecting those who are vulnerable or under threat is fundamentally one of the most important things we can do as a Government, but it is not just about women. As the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) said earlier, men are powerful agents for change in gender equality. It was a man who presented the petition to Parliament 150 years ago and men can still be part of the solution.

Great progress has been made and it is touching and amazing to hear the list of achievements, but does my hon. Friend agree that many women are still being put off engaging in politics and leadership, mainly by the negative and nasty mudslinging style of politics and campaigning that we are sadly seeing in the course of the referendum debate? We need, together with our men, to do something about that.

Yes, and we have already heard about the parity of voice that is so important in this and many other campaigns. We all have a role to play in inspiring the next generation of women to take these seats and we can do that only if we present a face of Parliament and of Government that women aspire to be part of.

We have referred to the number of women currently in Parliament, but there are still more men in Parliament than there have ever been women in Parliament. We need to point that out on the record. Many hon. Members know that I am a surgeon. I started training as a surgeon in 1982. In 1978, as a medical student, I was told that I could not be a surgeon because I was a woman. At an interview I was asked about monthly mood swings as a problem for a surgeon. I replied that I had worked for consultants with daily mood swings, and that monthly mood swings would be an improvement. Hopefully, we have come a long way, but there are still probably fewer women surgeons than women politicians, so we still have a long way to go.

We have all met men like that. The hon. Lady is right. We need to keep up the fight, we need to talk about the issues that matter to us, we need to encourage the women around us to get politically engaged, and above all we must encourage them to go out and vote. That is the right that those early suffragettes fought for and we must all use it. As the next big decision facing the UK is put to the vote shortly, I am sure hon. Members on the Opposition Benches share my desire to ensure that women are at the forefront of that, and that their votes count.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.