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Women in the House of Commons

Volume 619: debated on Thursday 12 January 2017

Women and Equalities Committee

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. The Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and, of course, call Mrs Maria Miller to respond to them in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions, and should be brief. Those on the Front Bench may take part in questioning. I remind the House that ordinarily such a statement, and the questioning on it, can be expected to take, in total, approximately 20 minutes.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to make a statement to the House on the fifth report of the Women and Equalities Committee on women in the House of Commons after the next general election, in 2020. The successful preparation of all our reports depends on the hard work of the Committee’s Clerks and staff, the diligence of hon. Members who make up our Committee—I am glad to see my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) and for Bath (Ben Howlett) in the Chamber—and the generosity of our witnesses, who give up their time to prepare for and take part in our sessions. I particularly thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), the right hon. Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Moray (Angus Robertson), and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), all of whom enthusiastically shared their views with the Committee and told us about the work of their respective parties.

If, 100 years ago, the suffragettes who fought for women’s rights—for our right to be elected and to sit in this place—had been told that just 455 women would be elected to this place over the next 10 decades, I am not sure whether they would have laughed or cried. I think they would be proud of the fact that the United Kingdom has had two female Prime Ministers, but the fact is that there are as many men sitting in this place today as there have ever been women elected to be Members of Parliament.

At the moment, we have 195 women MPs and 455 men. I am yet to see any evidence to suggest that women are less qualified than men to represent their communities, or that women do not want the opportunity to be a Member of Parliament and to improve the lives of those who live in their community. Therefore, this startling imbalance should cause us all a great deal of concern. At best we are failing to reach out; at worst the parties, which are, for the most part, responsible for selecting candidates, are failing in their duty. The Committee’s report provides an evidence-based set of recommendations to change that, to help to ensure that Britain does not slip further down the global rankings for female parliamentary participation, to promote a more representative Parliament and to make this place stronger.

Our report has consciously focused on female representation, but our recommendations should, we feel, also open up discussions about how to secure improved diversity in other areas so that we have a Parliament with more black and minority ethnic representation and more disabled members. All that will help to ensure that the debates that we have and the laws that we make are better. Of course, the report builds on significant work that has already been done on representation in Parliament, such as the 2010 report of the Speaker’s Conference on parliamentary representation —convened by you, Mr Speaker—and the comprehensive work done by Professor Sarah Childs, who produced “The Good Parliament”.

The trigger for the Committee’s new report was the Boundary Commission’s initial proposals about reducing the size of Parliament to 600 constituencies. There is no reason why that process should adversely impact women or any particular group, but the proposals mean that the seats of more than 20 women MPs would, to all intents and purposes, disappear. If political parties do not take action, it could mean that there is a smaller proportion of women MPs after the next general election.

The Committee’s recommendations are for the Government, political parties and, indeed, Parliament, because we all have to take responsibility. The first of our key recommendations is for more transparency from parties about the work that they are doing to improve candidate selection. We feel that the Government should immediately bring into force the statutory requirement for political parties to publish their parliamentary candidate diversity data for general elections, as set out in section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, so that we can properly scrutinise parties’ records of selecting a diverse slate of parliamentary candidates.

Secondly, we recommend that the Government should seek to introduce in legislation in this Parliament a statutory minimum proportion of female parliamentary candidates in general elections for each political party. We have proposed a minimum of 45% of women. This measure would be brought into force only if the number and proportion of women MPs failed to increase significantly after the next general election.

Thirdly, we have set out in our recommendations a domestic target of 45% for the representation of women in Parliament and local government by 2030. That is to inform the work being done by the Office for National Statistics to establish domestic indicators for the UN sustainable development goals—particularly goal 5, an indicator for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) and David Cameron fought hard when these goals, which apply to the UK as well as to other members of the UN, were established. To make progress, the measures need to have teeth, so the Committee has recommended the extension of the Electoral Commission’s remit to introduce fines for non-compliance.

In our evidence sessions with the chairman and leaders of the political parties, it was evident that there is enormous support for a more representative Parliament. Indeed, each of them agreed that Parliament would be a better place if 50% of MPs were women. However, we need to turn those warm sentiments into bums on seats—I hope that that is not unparliamentary language. The parties lack clear and comprehensive plans to turn those important warm words into clear action.

This Parliament is the mother of all Parliaments, but at the moment, on our watch, we are letting ourselves down on the global stage. Since 1999, Britain has fallen from 25th to 48th in the world for female representation. Parliament should have a clear aspiration to be the global leader for female representation and diversity more generally. The recommendations in the report can help us to achieve that.

I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the Women and Equalities Committee for this important report. The Labour party is committed to increasing the representation of women in Parliament and at every level of politics. As the report recognises, more than half of women Members of Parliament are Labour Members—women make up 43.7% of the parliamentary Labour party. Much of that is to do with Labour’s commitment to all-women shortlists. Does the right hon. Lady think that other parties should introduce all-women shortlists for their parliamentary selections? Does she agree that parties that are not already taking direct positive action to tackle the under-representation of women in Parliament should do so as a matter of urgency?

The parties should look at the evidence of what works. Our report clearly states that there is a body of evidence that parties can look at. It is not for a Select Committee to dictate to parliamentary parties how they run their selection procedures. That is for them, but they should also consider the evidence.

Recalling that the Labour party lost one of its safest seats—Blaenau Gwent—in 2005 over the imposition of a women-only shortlist, what role does my right hon. Friend see for local associations in choosing the candidate who is best for the area, or for voters in deciding to vote for the person they think is the best to represent that area, irrespective of gender?

I thank my hon. Friend and fellow Select Committee member for that question. He is right that associations or local parties have a huge role to play in ensuring that they get the right person for the job in their area. However, it is surprising that just one in four candidates at the last general election was female. Perhaps we need to ensure that the right training and support are in place so that there is a diversity of candidates for associations and parties to choose from.

The Scottish National party welcomes the publication of the report and we are grateful for being able to contribute in the Select Committee. We firmly believe that all political parties should be held to account for their action to tackle this democratic deficit. It is simply not acceptable in 2017 for women to be discriminated against or under-represented in the boardroom, in politics or anywhere else.

The SNP is committed to increasing the number of female elected representatives. For example, we have increased the number of women Members of Parliament and Members of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government’s gender-balanced Cabinet is one of the few in the world. The SNP Scottish Government are also taking decisive action to ensure that women are represented in senior and decision-making roles, including in the boardroom. Our “Programme for Government” contains many ambitious commitments that support women’s equality. Are the UK Government considering similar measures? When will they bring them to fruition?

The recommendations in our report are for the Government to consider. It is important that significant progress is made at the next general election, at which 45% of candidates should be female. The hon. Lady mentioned equal representation in Cabinets. I was heartened that Justin Trudeau had a gender-balanced Cabinet when he became premier in Canada and that he said, “What do you expect in 2016?” I think that we should ask, “What do we expect in 2017?”

My right hon. Friend mentioned the excellent report by Professor Sarah Childs. Does she agree that some of its recommendations would also help to bring more women into Parliament?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are building on firm foundations. Parliament has to look carefully at its operation to ensure that it is doing everything it can to encourage more women to come forward. Historically, we have looked very closely at childcare and family-friendly working. We should also be looking very carefully at how the dissuading effects—the violence and online abuse that female Members experience—can put people off. They are just as important and the House needs to take them very seriously.

When John Bright first coined the term “the mother of Parliaments” he was saying that even England, the mother of Parliaments, had still not brought full democracy to the country because the vast majority of its people were not able to vote. We are coming up to the 100th anniversary of some women, in 1918, being allowed to vote. Is not one of the biggest problems finance? Many women are still paid less than men, and working-class candidates still find it difficult to get selected, because it is a very expensive business.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This came out in relation to fairer child support. The cost of becoming a Member of Parliament can be very steep indeed and is therefore out of the reach of some people, whether they are male or female. The parties need to think carefully about whether they can lessen the obstacles that they put in the way of candidates, whether through financial support or other measures. I know that my own party, the Conservative party, has looked at that very carefully and provided practical help.

I basically back what my right hon. Friend is aiming for, but with caution on one or two issues. Does she accept that at some stage the number of women MPs had to match the number of men still in Parliament? It was only some 30 years ago, when my wife was elected, that fewer than 5% of MPs were female. To reach nearly 30% is quite some progress, and I am glad we have met the equality my right hon. Friend has spoken about.

It is important not to think that the Government should require parties and Parliament to do things; Parliament and parties should require the Government to do things. One of those things is not putting people into Parliament, but giving people the opportunities and experience so that they can, with the necessary luck, be chosen on merit.

My hon. Friend makes some interesting points. His wife, of course, was one of my role models when I looked at Parliament and saw the effective nature of women and the work they did here. The University of London only started to admit women in 1878, but now more than 50% of its students are female. Other institutions have made the journey more successfully than we have, so it is right that we ask questions about why progress has not been made more quickly.

As national secretary of the Scottish National party until the end of the last year, I saw the successes but also the struggles that come with implementing all-women shortlists. In some cases, despite having the requirement, we struggled to find women candidates. What more does the right hon. Lady think can be done at that formative point at which people might become candidates, for example in terms of work experience with local politicians, standing for a local council or taking on responsibilities at a local party level?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the work needs to go in early. I applaud 50:50 Parliament’s work and its current campaign #AskHerToStand. Many hon. Ladies here today will know that it often takes asking women to stand for Parliament before they do so. Such early work, particularly standing for local government, can be an effective way of building people’s confidence to take this on as a career choice.

Does my right hon. Friend have any concerns that a man from a working-class background could be discriminated against if all the proposals and recommendations contained in her report are accepted?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Speaking as someone who was born in a council house and went to a comprehensive school, I do not want to see this place becoming populated by an unrepresentative group of people, but it is unrepresentative at the moment. We have to take some tough decisions, rather than failing to take action because of the threat that some groups might feel discriminated against, to put right what is a real injustice in terms of female representation.

I commend my right hon. Friend for her statement and the hard work she does in leading our Committee. The UK has signed up to the universal UN sustainable development goals, in which the international community vowed to leave no one behind. While African nations have achieved over 50% female representation, it is embarrassing that in our Parliament that figure is only 30%. Will she join me in calling on the Department for International Development to focus on parliamentary representation as it publishes its SDG implementation plan?

I thank my hon. Friend and fellow Committee member for his comment. As he knows, we heard yesterday in our evidence session on the SDGs that the credibility of our country will be in jeopardy if we do not do more to implement those goals, particularly goal 5, which was fought for so hard by my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney and David Cameron. Part of that is about ensuring that we make significant improvements in parliamentary representation.