[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the barriers for women in standing for Parliament.
Sir Roger, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and lead this debate this afternoon. Last week, I was in this Chamber discussing transparency at the BBC and expressing my disappointment at the large gender pay gap. I hope today that we can have a similarly productive conversation about the barriers facing women coming into politics.
As the 380th woman ever to be elected to this place and as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, I am grateful to have secured this important debate and I am also very grateful to all the hon. Members who are here today for attending this debate, on a subject that I know we are all passionate about—getting more women into politics and interested in politics, and encouraging women to put themselves forward for election to become a Member of this House or, as importantly, to get involved at a local level.
I recognise that that is not a simple task. Let me sell the job: “It has long hours. You will be open to abuse, sexism and jeering. The pressures and responsibilities of doing the job for constituents are immense. You won’t see your family as much as you’d like. In fact,”—as has been the case this week—“you might see your sleeping bag or sofa a little bit more, because the hours for this role can run rather late. Indeed, you don’t know how pregnancy, maternity or even caring responsibilities will fit around the job—you can’t find that on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority website.”
The hon. Lady is making a great speech and I congratulate her on bringing this issue to the House. Does she agree that, in some respects, it was great to see no fewer than three babies in the Lobby last night? However, whether it is men or women who have had babies in recent weeks, they should not have to come into this place with their children and be breastfeeding or going through the Lobby. We should have a system, either proxy or digital, whereby people can vote remotely.
I absolutely agree that it was most wonderful to see those children, because my children—several other MPs have said the same to me—would never have been that well-behaved. Clearly those children have had some experience of this place. If the demographics are changing, we must consider how we can work differently.
On paper, and in reality, the job that I have described does not sound all that appealing. However, we know the pros that come with our position: the wonderful opportunities to stand up for what is right, on issues that matter to us and to our constituents, and the fact that we are able to do something about what we care about. There is a platform to speak in this historic place. Nobody here, among all these talented colleagues, could fail to want to engage and use this opportunity for their constituents. We have a wonderful responsibility to marry the good and the bad, to demonstrate why what we do is worthwhile and to encourage fresh talent to join us—even if they are only seven months or even seven weeks old.
I am delighted to have served on the Women and Equalities Committee previously, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who is here today. I hope to join the Welsh Affairs Committee, having lived and worked in Wales for a number of years, and that is the magic of this place. Members can use their position and experience to do something that will really make a difference—luckily, I might, apparently, be making up the female numbers, although that was of course not my intention.
My hon. Friend is making a great case on an issue that I know she is very passionate about; I have worked with her on it before. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women and enterprise, and it is a big, big privilege for me to work with a really inspirational group of female entrepreneurs from across a range of businesses. Interestingly, however, virtually none of them see politics as a route forward for them. Does she agree that it is critical that we provide more role models and mentors to allow this huge untapped pool of talent to make their faces known in this place?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, I will come to that later in my speech, when I talk about the joint work of the all-party group on women in Parliament and the all-party group on women and enterprise. Unless we show that this is a worthwhile career for the other side of the country—male and female, north and south—we will absolutely be doing down the opportunities for everybody.
My hon. Friend is making her case very passionately. She is number 380, so I beat her by one—I am the 379th woman elected to Parliament, which is something I am very proud of. Does she agree that we want to encourage women from all walks of life? We talk very much about how things fit in for young women with children or babies, but I am particularly aware that women who have had a career and brought up their children have an awful lot of expertise to offer as they get older. I do not know if I have a lot of expertise, but I put myself in that category: my youngest was 16 when I came here and has just left school. I feel that many women do not use all the knowledge and experience they have gained through their career; indeed, some of them start to wind down when they hit their 50s. Does my hon. Friend think there might be a way to encourage those women in particular to get involved?
Coming from a woman returner who freely admitted last night that she never reveals her age—I totally agree. It is my experience that has brought me here. I do not quite know where I fit in when it comes to maturity, but it does not matter; it is the mix that matters and the fact that we are all welcome here. Indeed, confidence in returning to work at any level, in any job, is so key for females.
We need to talk about the measures that the Women and Equalities Committee came up with, which address how the Government and political parties must and can increase female representation. I am sure that we all look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments later, but the paper that we have seen outlines the opportunities that the Government and political parties have—and, frankly, should be taking—to increase the number of women being put forward for election. That is the starting point; indeed, they are more likely to be elected if they are on the ballot. What is the old adage? “If you’re not on the ballot, you can’t win”—but just be careful: if you are on the ballot, you do not know who you are going to get. Funny, that. I look forward to hearing Members’ thoughts on that issue during the debate.
All of us, whether male or female Members of Parliament, have our individual stories about how we came to be here. For us, it was a little luck, or indeed a lot of luck; for others, it is a matter of “Try, try, try and try again”. Being an MP, of course, is a job like no other, in terms of the challenge in pursuing the goal of reaching Parliament. At the same time, it is really important for political parties, MPs, the Government and for us all as individuals to look at why so few women MPs overall have been elected. What can we do to improve the situation overall?
In 1918, the first woman, Constance Markievicz of Sinn Féin, was elected to this place, and we look forward to celebrating the centenary of that event in 2018. The following year, Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons Chamber. Since then, 487 women in total have been elected to Parliament. That is something to celebrate, but it is also worth remembering that we have only just exceeded the number of men who were elected to the Commons in just one election in 2015.
I was elected in 2015, as one of the 191 women elected in that year. That was hailed at the time as a momentous step forward for the representation of women in our Parliament, given that there was a jump of almost a third compared with the number of women MPs in 2010. In June, we witnessed a further leap forward, with that number increasing to 208—sadly, on our side we lost some of our fantastic female colleagues, which was a disappointment to us all.
Our progress must be welcomed, and I am grateful to all of those who have put so much effort into supporting women in politics, certainly in our party. Some of our male colleagues have been active in movements such as Women2Win—I see some of them here in the Chamber today—as well as the Conservative Women’s Organisation, which offers a kind of soft landing within the party. I applaud the female and male Conservative MPs who are mentoring and supporting our future Conservative MPs and councillors. Their work is absolutely making a difference; we see that in the numbers.
In the light of that progress, I remain mindful—it is easy to lose sight of this—that although women make up half the population, they make up less than a third of the MPs in this place. We must not rest on our laurels, because there is so much more to be done. As MPs, we need to challenge and change the public perception of our role as MPs to make it more attractive for women to join us.
Coming from a family with no political links and no political passion, there was a time when the thought of becoming an MP would have seemed somewhat out of reach or rather unsuitable, but after two years in this place, I have realised that my assumptions of what makes an appropriate parliamentarian have changed. Actually, women are very much suited to decision-making processes. We urgently need to reach out into our communities and tear down the perceived barriers to this and other jobs. Where women can rise to the top, we need to ensure that our would-be colleagues feel that that is achievable for them.
Sadly, it takes a huge amount of courage these days for women to stand to be MPs, because we are often scrutinised through a different lens from our male colleagues. Interest in our personal lives, how we raise our children and how we look—what we wear, what our shoes look like and so on—is still interesting to people. We have not quite gone beyond that. Over the pond, a presidential candidate and former Secretary of State—we know who we are talking about—was branded a “nasty woman” during the presidential election. When a boy or a man asserts himself and considers himself a leader, that is okay, but we are still in the realm of women being seen as bossy when they want to be leaders. That issue was bravely addressed by the shadow Home Secretary when she spoke out about the sexist and racist abuse she received through social media. Sadly, we know that she is not an isolated example. As was revealed back in January this year, almost two thirds of respondents to a BBC survey on the mistreatment of female MPs said that they had received sexist comments from fellow workers and fellow MPs.
I chose to cut my hair and have a political haircut to look more like a politician. I got here and decided to throw that book out the window. I have certainly looked at parliamentary procedures and processes and how we actually do things, and I know, having spoken to former trailblazing women MPs, that there was a certain look and style that we were supposed to conform to in order to fit in. I am delighted that we all know that we do not have to do that anymore. When we put ourselves out there to stand up for our communities, we feel incredibly vulnerable about how we look and what we do. New MPs enter a whole new world where inflection and inference is under a level of public scrutiny that cannot be believed. Every single word we utter—I have already been speaking for some time—will never go away. Hansard has a lot to answer for. We have to be ready for that scrutiny, whether we are male or female.
Not only is there pressure for women to be here, but we need to be extraordinarily effective, both at home and at work. We all have to be superwomen now. It is not only that we as MPs have to look perfect and be perfect; there is a danger in all society that those participating and putting themselves in the public eye have to do everything brilliantly. I have heard that from some of our new female MPs. They have the pressure of not mucking up, not drawing attention to themselves once they get here—it is really difficult—and matching our experienced male colleagues. It is about justifying our female presence here and messing up the status quo in Westminster. All parliamentarians have the responsibility to demonstrate that the Westminster bubble is broader, more welcoming and better than it is perceived to be. It is more inclusive and the outdated notions are on their way out, and we have a part to play in that.
Dare I point out the obvious? We have a female Prime Minister. We also have a female Home Secretary. The Leader of the House is female. The Secretaries of State for Education, for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and for International Development are all of the so-called fairer sex, but frankly they are just powerful women. In my party, we acknowledge that diversity in the Opposition and other parties is extremely strong. We should not be navel-gazing about whether we are getting things right; public perception of what it is to be a woman making a decision must be tackled, whether it is here or in any top job. Through that, we can ensure that hidden female talent, whether it is political or in any other role, is found, supported, mentored and encouraged, so that we all feel that we can stand for election.
I am really proud of the women in Parliament all-party parliamentary group and in particular the mentoring scheme we are developing with Lloyds Banking Group. That scheme gives insights into getting those top jobs to young women across the country. That includes not only the realities of being an MP, but the opportunities that exist in the workplace, and I am delighted to be bringing the scheme forward. There are so many all-party parliamentary groups focused on female, family, health and community issues, and I am proud of all the work that has been done by men and women on those groups.
The women and enterprise all-party group, led by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), is to be applauded, as is the work on baby loss done by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach). We are working on a cross-party basis—male and female—championing heart-breaking and difficult causes. Having more women here in Parliament gives us the opportunity as parliamentarians to champion and tackle those difficult and often unspoken challenges. It was shocking and poignant to hear that, until International Men’s Day last year, this House had simply not discussed or understood male suicide. We should be out in our communities highlighting and explaining that work to our constituents. I applaud the fact I have been given the opportunity to have this debate.
There should be a focus on specifically promoting this job to women who have never considered standing for election, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire. As the Women and Equalities Committee report made clear, we cannot take it for granted that the number of women MPs will just carry on increasing. We are meant to push to be world leaders in women’s representation, so we need to be working closer to home. If we do not agree on targets, why are we so afraid of setting goals?
I started my journey into politics as a non-political local parish councillor, co-opted in after complaining about the local play facilities. Then I was elected on to a town and district council. Now I have the honour of serving the constituency of Eastleigh as its first female MP; some of the previous male incumbents had some complications, so my constituents turned to a woman.
Given my personal experience, I am so delighted to be here as an advocate for local government and an access point to politics and to Parliament, but efforts must be made to develop the pipeline of female councillors so that they can learn the challenges of local government and be able to enter a political career at a less intimidating point. Councils are less political and are community-led—surely a more attractive place for someone to be, if they find they have time on their hands. Women must be welcomed into parties. They must be given the opportunity to stand for winnable seats and have a realistic route to political success. I welcome the fact that in 2017, my party actively looked to field women as candidates in 50% of the retirement seats, which were winnable.
If we cannot set targets or goals, how on earth can we get people to fill out the application forms? I spent four years toying with the opportunity to become a candidate to be a Member of Parliament. The timing was not right for my career; I felt I needed time to gather my experiences and personal confidence before taking the plunge. Carers and women returners will know that—this resonates beyond politics—as men and women we must support our loved ones on their next employment step. We all have a lot to give.
Incidentally, one of the recommendations in the Women and Equalities Committee report called on the Government to take action by supporting all-women shortlists. I must say I am not massively in favour of such shortlists, even though I ended up on one myself. I must admit that the last man standing stepped down due to life-changing issues, so I was called in. On reflection, I am not totally certain that I would have wished to have been the token female candidate, added to the list for diversity’s sake. After all that dithering on my application form, I was finally there to be counted.
Does the hon. Lady agree that all-female shortlists should be a temporary measure, until we strike the right gender balance? Of course, nobody wants to be on an all-female shortlist, but has anybody in this House who has been elected from one ever had that thrown back at them? To be fair to the media, I do not believe that they have.
I absolutely agree—once someone is here and doing the job, how the heck does it matter how they got here? Perhaps we do need to have a good look at that. I am not a fan of all-female shortlists, but if we want to make change happen, perhaps we have to be bold. We do not want to fill the Chamber with women just because they are women; we want all our Members of Parliament, from whatever party, to bring experience and ability to the table.
My speaking notes are telling me to move on to motherhood—I was going to call that “the elephant in the room”, but I am not sure that is terribly flattering. I want to talk about balancing politics with motherhood. I am really grateful to those, both in the room and elsewhere on the parliamentary estate, who help me juggle my commitments. I know that everyone here with caring responsibilities feels exactly the same. Our duties in Westminster and to our constituents are very much helped by the support that we get from our families. None of us takes that at all for granted. I have had a wealth of support from colleagues, staff and my team. In fact, when I stopped bringing out my baby buggy when leafleting, people were really upset—they had nothing to put their bags on.
I am also really proud, now that I have got here, to think about how we make it easier for those with caring responsibilities. I am delighted to be on Mr Speaker’s exciting diversity committee, which seeks to make a parliamentary career more appealing for everybody, not just the typical parliamentary stock. I thank Mr Speaker for his attention to making this House more accessible. Incidentally, I look forward to chairing the upcoming roundtable with the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament on flexible working practices and the impact of technology on women in the workplace. All our colleagues are benefiting from technology and we need to look at how it works in this place.
My experience of being a mum and juggling many metaphorical and literal balls comes in very handy as we dash around speaking and, more importantly, listening on behalf of our constituents, on issues from education to animal welfare. An ability to flip and change is really useful in this place, not to mention the practice that we, as parents, have at diplomacy. There is nothing wrong with using the constructive, supportive attitude that can come from caring for small children or loved ones to help us participate in parliamentary life. I am still very much on a learning curve, but I hope that those diplomatic skills will continue to hold me in good stead.
Those qualities and experiences are what make Members of Parliament returning to the House from maternity or parental leave really important. I hope that many women will take the advantage that motherhood can give them career-wise, both in and outside politics. A male friend of mine once said to me, “Do you know what? Don’t take it for granted. You’ve got a chance to reassess your life and look at what suits you. Many men don’t often feel that they’ve got that opportunity.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and commend her for what she has done—prior to being elected here, and since—for women in politics. She has done a wonderful job. I am in awe of all my colleagues across the House who have young children. I have not got a family, and every day I am amazed at how well my female colleagues on both sides of the House are able to juggle the challenges.
Does my hon. Friend agree that having this debate and talking about so many women in politics having families shows women outside the House that having a family never stops a woman from achieving what she wants as an individual—whether in politics or in big jobs in any industry? There is no limit to what she can achieve.
I wholeheartedly agree. The problem is often the job market: what job can be worked 30 weeks a year from 9 until 3, to cater for the children? What pays enough for someone not to spend that time with their children? We are really lucky here; when I say to my children, “I am so excited and busy and it’s worth doing,” they understand. It is not just me taking time away from them.
As many parliamentarians can see, the barriers that we have just heard about really do stop people coming to this place. The “Improving Parliament” report in 2014, which assessed the selection, retention and supply of women to this House, looked closely at the issue. It flagged up the unpredictable parliamentary calendar, the challenges of managing two geographical workplaces and a lack of clarification for MPs with primary caring responsibilities about the impact that has on their work as major factors that influence a prospective Member of Parliament—or somebody who wants to become a parent.
Such a person might say, “I want to become a Member of Parliament, but I actually do not know what that means for my parental responsibilities, let alone my parental leave.” We have a debate tomorrow about abuse of candidates—particularly abuse received by women. That is also a major player in people’s lives and life decisions now. As we well know, when we are elected we are often asked, “What on earth have you done? You’re putting yourself out there for major scrutiny.”
There is no formal parental leave for Members of Parliament, despite the fact that since 2010, 17 babies have been born to 12 women MPs. It is bordering on ironic that we as MPs are doing so much for the wider workforce, yet are unable to look at our own working arrangements. There is currently no formal pairing and that makes options difficult for both male and female Members of Parliament. There is no voting by proxy and no flexible crèche that can cater for ad hoc childcare arrangements. In short, there are no real practicalities to assist with parenthood because, frankly, at the moment Parliament fails to set a proper example as an employer. As a result, prospective candidates commit themselves to the demands of the job, which requires a huge amount of attention, but are not officially able to look at the flexibility that a parent needs.
I have touched on the support that we all luckily receive. Frankly, if we are looking to achieve true diversity in the long term, informal arrangements are not enough to combat the huge amount of guilt, let alone the practicalities, attached to being a working parent. I am not alone in this room in saying that my priorities lie with being a parent. Given that the role of the MP is so attractive and important, I might also often not be alone in saying, why on earth would we need a requirement for maternity leave? We run our own diaries and have some level of flexibility, but we all know that this job comes first. Luckily, our families and children have thick skins and, it seems, boundless patience.
It is notable that the Danish Parliament allows an MP, male or female, up to 12 months’ paid leave which, in practice, is always granted. In Sweden, the same rules for parental leave applicable to the general public apply to MPs—in fact, it is possible for them to take 480 days’ parental allowance. I think we would all miss our constituencies quite a lot if we took all that off—I do not know where we would be—but it is time for us to be bold and look to update our parliamentary practices, so that we can keep up with our goal of achieving parity.
We need to recognise that this is an unstable career path. If we want people to stand, take their seat, relocate and balance their homes—the norm for an MP—we need to ask whether ordinary people can afford to become an MP and whether the current Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is fit for purpose when it comes to facilitating a parliamentary career and a growing family. Considering the issues of disability and diversity, which come to the fore when looking at our careers, is IPSA really fit for purpose for everybody who would wish, or is able, to pursue such a career? Can we honestly say to anyone—anywhere, regardless of gender, marital status, family commitments or caring responsibilities—that they can afford to be here and are able to be here? We are looking for a big commitment from any MP, male or female, in taking on an insecure, non-guaranteed career.
We must not, of course, use such scrutiny to stop the public being able to elect and vote out their representatives in Parliament, but it is fundamental to our democracy that we ensure that we look properly at diversity. I have no desire to challenge who the electorate choose, but I want to ensure that a wide range of the most able candidates can get on the ballot paper.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does she agree that having more women in Parliament is not simply the right thing to do? Diverse company boards are more successful on every single measure, so it stands to reason that we will get even better results from a diverse Parliament.
I absolutely agree. My experiences as a local councillor, before I became a Member of Parliament, were so important. Drawing people into politics with that sort of background and professionalism—not necessarily solely driven by ideology—is really important. We need to address the issue, and I hope that this debate will go some way towards that.
As politicians, we have to decide whether there is a point at which we should stand down, allowing our fresh talent to take up new issues, ideas and opportunities. Perhaps we should be prepared to give way to those whom we are mentoring, as well as offering leadership. It is all very well encouraging people in, but are we allowing space for them? How do we sell the role of MP at Westminster and get myriad applications? A lot of things come to mind, such as coming through as a police and crime commissioner or in the councillor role. Indeed, having the chance to stand as an MP should not be a leap of faith for anyone. People’s families being dependent on that is a real concern, so there is juggling to do.
Many Members are waiting to speak, so I will move to my final remarks and reiterate and elaborate on exactly why this debate is so important. There is not only a shortfall in our democracy, but a crucial aspect is involved. To be here is to have a special chance—to do what matters, to be in the Chamber, to take part in the decision-making process, to tackle issues of inequality and discrimination and to develop laws, policies and programmes. It is vital to hear women’s voices on women’s issues, and for Parliament’s perspective to benefit fully from the diverse country that we have been elected to represent.
What is more, it cannot be a coincidence that five out of the nine Select Committees chaired by women have equal or better representation of women, but only one out of the 18 Committees chaired by men has equal or better representation. I sincerely believe that when in power women should continue to empower other people in this place.
Staying on this theme of having more women leading the political charge and encouraging participation, we cannot expect young girls simply to want to engage in the modern political environment if we do not show them what they can relate to. Men are key role models in that, as we have heard, and vice versa. I admire so many male colleagues who have done and do so much to empower all generations in politics. We must reconnect with our voters and demonstrate that Westminster does not have to be out of touch. I urge voters and the media to look more deeply at who we are: dig, and we are more interested and more diverse—honestly.
The idea that the UK can enjoy more from the “feminine touch” is faintly ridiculous. The phrase is outmoded, but the fact is that women are more linked into public office, have lower levels of corruption, are more keen on peace and reconciliation, and find it more important to promote policies that address the challenges facing disadvantaged groups. Everything is to be gained by encouraging women and breaking down the barriers: working across party, for me, is one of the most important parts of the job.
I used to work in radio, where we had a saying that provides an analogy for what I want to say today. Sometimes, radio DJs love a hit record before anyone else has heard it, and they play it incessantly—to death; they then hate it, but by that point everyone else has caught up and loves it. I have the responsibility today of playing the tune with the goal of encouraging more equality, diversity and women in Parliament. It is the responsibility of all of us in this place to ensure that others have the opportunity to follow. There have been trailblazers such as the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), my right hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), and my hon. Friends the Members for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and for Devizes (Claire Perry). So many people have warmly welcomed us and given huge amounts of advice to all of us here. Without those women trailblazers, where would we all be?
We have an opportunity to achieve parity of attitudes inside and outside Parliament. If we can reflect the outside world in this House, we will be in absolutely the right place. I ask the Minister for action to be led sincerely by the Government and all political parties, so that we can increase women’s representation in this place. Along with many other colleagues in the Chamber, I will welcome all the Minister’s comments and action to ensure that that happens.
Order. Seven Members have written in asking to speak and some others are standing who have not, but if you do the maths it does not work. I will set a time limit on speeches of three minutes, but I request a self-denying ordinance—even at three minutes, not everyone will get in. I apologise for that, but that is the way it is.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing the debate and on everything she said. She told us that she dithered about filling in her application form to be the Member of Parliament for Eastleigh but, my goodness me, since she arrived here she has not dithered at all. I pay tribute to her. It is baffling to me when I hear Conservative women Members of Parliament making a speech that I myself might have made, but I guess that shows that daughters of the women’s movement are in all parts of the House. I warmly appreciate what the hon. Lady said.
The Minister for Women is now a woman; the first Minister for Women was a man, so that is progress. We have a Select Committee, a Women and Equalities Committee, which is ably chaired and pushing things forward. My goodness me, we even have women MPs from Scotland, and that is incredibly important. There used to be only two women MPs in the whole of the north, and I remember complaining to my Labour colleagues, who said, “Women in the north do not want to be MPs”—but oh yes, they did. One of my colleagues even said, “There are no women in the north,” which was obviously not true.
In particular, I support what the hon. Member for Eastleigh said about having baby leave for Members of Parliament; we are not doing women any favours by letting them be in the House of Commons. It is a democratic imperative that our Parliament is representative, which means of women as well as men, and it is a fact of life that women have babies. As she said, 17 babies have been born to women MPs since 2010, and more will be on the way. We set the rules for maternity and paternity leave outside this place, but we have none for ourselves. Although Whips are much more civilised than they used to be—not entirely civilised, but more civilised—what woman or man should be beholden or grateful to the Whip for letting them have time off? We need it to be on the table, transparent and as of right.
Also, the vote of such MPs should be recorded, which is why we should have proxy votes. The constituency is entitled to have its Member voting, even one who has just had a baby. That is why I suggest a system of proxy votes, so that when we go past our wonderful Clerks with their iPad, we give not only our own name but the name of someone on whose behalf we are casting a proxy vote. The constituency will then be represented.
I agree with what the hon. Lady said about IPSA. It is chaired by someone who formerly chaired the Maternity Alliance, and I hope that IPSA will look at maternity cover, so that we can have six months’ leave, as people do in the civil service. That should apply as much to men as women. Nowadays men aspire to be more involved with their children than they did in the past.
I will finish with an anecdote. I remember sitting in a Committee when one of my colleagues jumped up and said, “On a point of order, Mr Chair.” He looked at his pager and said, “My wife’s just had a baby.” Everybody said, “Hear, hear!” and I thought, “Why on earth are you here?” That is not a good example of fatherhood or motherhood. We expect fathers to be involved with their children; women need to be with their babies; babies need to be with their mothers for the early months; and the constituency needs to be represented, but we can square that circle, not least because everyone here supports it and because we have a Speaker who, despite having arrived in the House of Commons as a Tory and still being a man, is an honorary sister on these issues. I hope that this broad-ranging debate will bring about progress, and I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh for securing it.
I am tempted to simply say I agree with Mims and Harriet and sit down, given the quality of the debate so far. However, I will congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing this debate. It is an honour to be able to participate.
When I first entered the House in 2015, somebody told me a shocking statistic. They said that there were more men in the 2015 Parliament than there had ever been female MPs. I am glad to say we have moved on from that, although not far. It was a really shocking statistic to find out, and still only 32% of Members of Parliament are women.
There is no doubt that a more diverse Parliament is beneficial. It is not only morally correct, but in my experience of Parliament the female MPs adopt a different tone and initiate a more diverse range of debates, whether we are in Westminster Hall, on the Backbench Business Committee or in all sorts of debates in this House. It is also my observation that they are more willing and able to participate in cross-party work than their male counterparts are, so there is a lot to be said for having more female MPs.
As somebody who comes from a background from which people do not normally go on to become Conservative MPs, I struggled and was intimidated by the process to become a Member of Parliament, but it is even worse for women. The abuse that MPs currently get in the digital age, particularly for some reason the female MPs, is something we really need to address, so I am glad there will be a debate tomorrow on that. In that area, the public have a role. I will state very clearly: if they want more female MPs, it is probably a good idea to stop abusing the ones they have already. It is important we consider that. We need to do our job, but the public have a responsibility as well.
Many ideas and suggestions have been put forward. In most circumstances I am the kind of person who agrees not to take anything off the table. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh mentioned that our party is often a little worried, not so much about targets and goals, but about quotas, which is the one area I am a little queasy about. All-women shortlists concern me and many people. I do not quite get the moral superiority of replacing one form of discrimination with another when it comes to positive discrimination. No matter how well intended it may be, on the basis of gender it prevents a capable and qualified person from having the opportunity to take a role, so we need to be careful about that. All sorts of things need to be considered, and I would support many of the options.
It is the role of all MPs, male and female, to do everything we can to encourage a more diverse Parliament. I will play my role in encouraging as many female candidates as possible, because Parliament would be a better place and our politics would be better. I call on all colleagues to do the same.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing the debate today. She gave a fantastic speech. It is great to be in a debate where there is so much consensus on women’s role in this place and in society.
In the words of Emmeline Pankhurst,
“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”
Emmeline Pankhurst made those comments when she was tried for trying to break into Parliament. We are lucky that none of us here today, women or men, had to break in. We are just across the Hall from the cupboard where Emily Wilding Davison hid on the night of the census. Unfortunately, there is no public face to that memorial; you have to be a Member to get in there. Something about this building and our surroundings are in some ways exclusionary and difficult to penetrate. We have to think about the kind of Parliament and the kind of building we are in. In more modern Parliaments, in places such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a seat for every Member and they can vote by simply pushing a button. The fact that they do not have to queue up for 20 minutes makes it more modern, open and attractive.
I am proud of what Scotland has achieved in terms of gender balance. We have one of only a handful of gender-balanced Cabinets in Scotland and we have our first female First Minister. We also had up until recently three female leaders leading the Scottish National party, the Conservatives and Labour, although sadly Kezia Dugdale has recently moved on. There is a huge amount to be said also for our predecessors and the giants on whose shoulders I and my SNP colleagues stand. Winnie Ewing was elected to this place 50 years ago and she is the only parliamentarian to have sat in the European Parliament, the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament.
I was inspired to stand by my mother, who stood in 2010 in my Livingston constituency. Sadly, she was defeated by a man, but I got the pleasure of standing against him five years later and beating him, so I succeeded where she had failed. My opposite numbers in my constituency, Fiona Hyslop MSP and Angela Constance MSP, are both women. Neither of them came from shortlists. West Lothian and Livingston have had a proud tradition of producing female parliamentarians. I will not give away all of our secrets, but it has been about having an open and inclusive process, encouraging women from the grassroots up, and particularly encouraging young women.
What we see now in the Scottish Youth Parliament and in the UK Youth Parliament is many more young people and many more women engaged in politics and interested in standing. That is something we should all be proud of, but we have a duty in how we speak to each other in the Chamber and how we conduct our public discourse. It is very important to remember that and to do all we can to encourage more women into Parliament.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for securing such an important debate today. As a 28 year-old female Scottish Conservative elected to this House, I bucked many trends on 8 June. I am one of the youngest MPs, I am a Scottish Conservative MP and, of course, I am female. As the other speakers have mentioned, there has been considerable progress made to encourage females into parliamentary careers. The recent election statistics are incredibly encouraging and show the highest number of female MPs to date, at 208.
The Conservative party has an incredibly proud record on promoting women in Government. The first woman to sit in the House of Commons, Nancy Astor, was a Conservative. We were the first party in the western world to elect a female leader and Prime Minister. We have now had two female Prime Ministers and are continuing to work hard to attract female candidates in local and national elections and to participate in our party through the Women2Win movement. Back home in Scotland we have a female leader who we hope by 2021 will be the second female First Minister of Scotland.
I absolutely agree that more could be done to encourage females into a parliamentary career. Our 32% ratio of women in the House of Commons puts us at 46th in the world rankings. Of course, having fewer females in the House has an effect on our Committees, our Cabinet and other roles. Perhaps I am in a minority, but I strongly believe that I have never been disadvantaged or advantaged in life because of gender. What I have achieved in whatever area has been down to my strong will, determination and merit. In order to deliver a promising future for women in politics, we must seek to break the barriers as opposed to seeking to reach targeted quotas. Success has to be based on merit. What are those barriers and how do we break them?
Women often take on a greater support role within the home, even in days of increasing equality and less of his and hers tasks. They regularly take on the majority of tasks in the home, acting as a support for partners and their children. Careers in politics seem to have a stigma of male dominance and a public perception of an aggressive environment. The demands of the role of a Member of Parliament split the week into two locations—in my case, six hours apart. With a constantly changing diary there is little certainty and routine, which is what families and young children need.
For me, this is one of the largest obstacles in the way of a female parliamentary career: the difficulty of integrating family life into Parliament with long hours, late-night sittings and often working seven days a week with little down time. Those aspects of the role of a parliamentarian make it impossible to spend as much time at home as one might wish to. Perhaps it is therefore the responsibility of us as females in politics to reach out to the public, further promote what the role involves and remove the uncertainty and fear that surrounds it. It is demanding and it is not easy to juggle life, but it is hugely rewarding. Not one of us would deny that. We must explore in more depth further family-friendly measures, including some of those mentioned today. Studies show that the early years of a child’s life are of the utmost importance in their development. The roles of a Member and a parent are not mutually exclusive.
The public perception of the role must also be addressed. Throughout—
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on her excellent speech and on raising an important issue. I am my party’s spokesperson on women and equalities, and I can remember buying my parliamentary aide a fridge magnet with a quotation from the late, great Margaret Thatcher, which said:
“If you want something talked about, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
My wife, incidentally, has one on her fridge, as a constant reminder of who is in charge in my house, but that is by the way.
I took the quote to heart, and that is why five out of six of my full-time and part-time staff are female. I like to get work done. I say that tongue in cheek, but I am happy to state that I am pleased about the number of women taking their place in this Parliament, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly). She was once an intern in my office, many years ago when I was a Member of the Legislative Assembly, and it is a pleasure to see her in this place, working alongside me and all of us.
More than 60% of my party’s membership are women, which suggests that women are politically aware and interested. I believe in hiring people for the right reason, and for their fitness for the purpose. I believe that 50:50 recruiting in the Police Service of Northern Ireland was wrong—it was not fairness or equality. My party is led by Arlene Foster, a capable and intelligent lady who is formidable and caring. My colleague Michelle McIlveen MLA also works very hard. They are both role models for young aspiring politicians.
My parliamentary aide would say that the first step in shattering the glass ceiling needs to be taken by women themselves, who feel they cannot have it all and excel in their jobs and their home life, and that they must choose. She had tremendous difficulty in leaving her two children under the age of two—Essie and Lily—in care while she worked 12-hour days for me. That had been no problem in her drive to have a career before she had the children. A year down the line she has managed to ensure that she excels in her job, with her children no worse off. The hon. Member for Eastleigh showed in her introductory remarks that she knows about that. I like to think that I facilitated some of the flexibility that was needed; my aide says that the first step was when she realised she could do both.
I am a man who believes that every one of us is different and brings something different to the table—not because of our gender but because of our life experience. That means encouraging those who are fit for this job to stand up and put themselves forward for it, knowing that they will be supported by people who judge not by gender but by ability, heart and capability.
I am glad to be able to speak in this debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for proposing it. The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) does not know this, but she played a large part in my coming to this place, partly because of difficulties encountered in practice at the Bar—she was the Solicitor General at the time—and chambers rent. A percentage of rent based on a three-year average was taken from women, so if someone had to take time off for maternity leave, that had a direct impact. That caused me to explore other avenues to vent my frustrations, and it ended up with my coming here.
I wanted to speak because of my experience as a single mother. Parties need to do much more to tackle the particular struggles faced by candidates to get elected, and to give them support. I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), and, indeed, the Prime Minister, for setting up Women2Win, and for the support that they gave me when I stood in 2010. Baroness Jenkin also played a vital role. That level of mentoring and support was key.
It is not just a question of getting the gender balance right; it is about the diversity of backgrounds and voices in Parliament. We come here with our life experience, which proves invaluable when we consider legislation. I am grateful to the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament. I have offered to mentor a single parent in my constituency and would very much like to get her involved. I say to other women, “It doesn’t matter whether you are a Conservative; please get involved in politics and what you believe in. Realise that you can make changes.” It is possible to make changes in this place, as we all know, as a Back Bencher. It is not necessary to be a Minister. There are myriad ways of doing it. People who are not elected can influence their MPs and get involved. I see many wonderful women in the Public Gallery: they should get involved and come into this place, because we have fantastic opportunities here.
There is a struggle over childcare and balancing family life. I urge the House authorities to consider the simple step of making recess dates fit school holidays and half terms. It is not a difficult thing to do, but such small steps would allow us to spend a bit of time with our children. I was elected to the Welsh Assembly, which is very gender-balanced, but I could not see my daughter and she had to board, aged eight. That is the difficult choice that women have to make.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing this important debate. I support all-women shortlists for a simple reason, which is that in 2001, when I was first elected to Parliament, 10 Labour MPs in safe seats stood down in Wales. Did we select five men and five women, or six men and four women? No, we selected 10 men to replace them. Before the Conservatives say that they do better, there has never been a Conservative woman MP in Wales. [Interruption.] There have been Conservative women in the Assembly, but not a single one elected to Parliament. All-women shortlists have made a difference to my party and it is a delight. The fact that there are more Labour women MPs has made it easier for women to get selected in other political parties as well, so the issue applies to all of us.
The biggest barrier is still financial. It is very costly to start the process of trying to get selected, and women are still paid less than men, so inevitably the barrier is worse for them than for men. Incidentally, many of the early women MPs were, of course, very posh and wealthy. Countess Markievicz was elected and Nancy Astor was no pauper. Others included Lady Vera Terrington and Gwendolen Guinness, who was a member of the Guinness family. Even on the Labour side quite a lot came from wealthy families, such as the Daltons.
The second barrier is the vitriol and abuse that have already been mentioned. It goes mostly to women. Some goes to gay men and ethnic minority MPs. If someone fits into several of those categories, it is even worse. The treatment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is often racist and misogynist and we can surely conduct ourselves better. I should like Facebook, Twitter and so on to end anonymity so that people are not hiding all the time. Police also need to take incidents far more seriously in relation to politicians, because we are vulnerable, and it is not long ago that one of our kin—our family—was murdered: Jo Cox, last year.
The words of George Osborne about the Prime Minister are disgraceful. He cannot say that he wants her chopped up in bags in the freezer, as he is today reported to have said. He should apologise and withdraw that statement. That kind of language is misogynist in its basis and it needs to be done away with.
I wholeheartedly agree with all the things that have been said about maternity. We need more mothers in Parliament. One of the most shocking elements here is that some nights can go on for ever.
I was honoured when I was asked to be co-chairman of Women2Win—and pleased, because I recognise that gender equality in this place is the responsibility of men as much as women.
I have three points to make. First, I am conscious that role models matter. I know because I am the proud owner, with my wife, of a pair of five-year-old twins, a girl and a boy. Pleasingly, our young daughter has been given all sorts of role models by books such as “Winnie Finn, Worm Farmer”, “Rosie Revere, Engineer”, “Ada Twist, Scientist” and “Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World”. One day, while describing a picture with a spacecraft in it, I referred to the spaceman being inside. I realised that we were making progress when she said to me, “Daddy, how do you know it’s a man?”
On the flip side, the responsibility of men was made clear to me when my son argued with my wife about whether there could be female bus drivers, because he had never seen one. These things matter. That is why the education programme in this place—getting schoolchildren in to talk to them about what MPs do and who they are—is so important.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; there is certainly not enough literature and so on for young people, but the situation is better than it used to be. I recommend “Princess Smartypants” for young girls who want a good combination.
It was a real shock to come here after 16 years in London government, where politicians do not actually get a lot of abuse, and realise how much abuse female MPs take compared with male MPs. I am with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) about getting rid of anonymity online. Women generally—not just female MPs or female journalists—get enormous amounts of abuse online compared with men, and we need to think carefully about anonymity.
I also want to mention what we project in this building. It is often said that women are put off coming here by the atmosphere: the aggression, the confrontation—all the stuff that appears in the media. In fact, 90% of our work in this place is not like that. The real picture, in Committee, in debates such as this one and elsewhere, is much more consensual and less aggressive.
I thank my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour for giving way. It is important to say that not just political parties but the Government and Parliament need to think about ways of encouraging more women to come here. Too often we say that it is down to women themselves and the parties, but this place and the Government need to work with us to make that happen.
I completely agree. It is incumbent on everyone—women, the Government, men and society—to present the real picture of what happens here, so that women who are put off by the principal atmosphere projected in the media realise that there are other aspects of the work beyond the yah-boo politics in the Chamber.
I am with those who suggest that we should have a proxy system. Frankly, that should be not just for Members who are on maternity leave but for those with serious illnesses. It is strange that the maths of the House can be changed—often significantly, as we might find—by someone happening to suffer an illness or by someone having a baby. I think a sensible proxy system for use in particular circumstances would be widely supported in the House and in the country as a sensible measure to enhance our democracy, as the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) said.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for calling this debate. While we wrangle over Brexit and other serious matters, we often forget to highlight and address the systemic and obvious barriers in society.
I came to this place because I was inspired to create change and I wanted to tackle the everyday inequality that I saw in the houses that surrounded me on the streets that I grew up on—the everyday challenges that real people face, such as struggling to heat their homes and to eat. We are privileged to sit in this House and to have the opportunities that are afforded to us, and it is absolutely incumbent upon us to address those issues and tackle the big systemic problems in society.
I was first elected to local government when I was 24 years old. I remember at the time asking my colleagues and friends, “How did you get into politics?” Each and every one of the women I asked told me, “Well, someone asked me.” Each of the men who answered that question said, “Well, I just thought I’d be good at the job.” That probably sounds like quite a lot of my colleagues. The fact is that women often have to be encouraged and inspired, and I suspect that most of us are here only because someone encouraged and inspired us. We have a responsibility to make sure that we tackle those issues and change the gender balance of this place at the next election—whenever that may be.
We can start right here and now. The Government can address some of the barriers in the House and we can start to challenge ourselves. I watched a Member in last night’s debate look across the Chamber, gesticulate to the men—we women are invisible, of course—and ask when any of them had last been home to put their child to bed, and suggest that they should talk all night. That language just reinforces the idea that men are not responsible for their children. Some people are not privileged enough to have nannies, and some people—men and women—would love to go home and put their children to bed at night. That kind of attitude reminds us that we have so much work to do to get where we need to be.
I was in that debate as well. In fairness to that Member, he was saying that the so-called family-friendly hours are not in fact family friendly. I do not know whether his messaging was correct, but I think he was making precisely the same point as the hon. Lady—that they are not family friendly.
I agree that that Member’s point may have been misconstrued, but the point is this: we can stand here in our privileged position and talk all day and all night, but there are not enough women in this House. We do not fully represent society. Women have to be able to afford to get here, have childcare, sit in hustings where men ask them, “What are you going to do about your children?” and experience the silly things that happen to us every day—if it has not happened to us, I am sure that we have heard about it happening to someone else. There are systemic barriers in society, barriers in this building and barriers in the fact that we did not get home until whatever time last night or the night before but we are here today.
Parenting or caring for another person often requires predictable timing, and the worst thing about Parliament is that it is so unpredictable. Whips engaging in shenanigans, like they did yesterday, makes it much more difficult for many women—in particular mothers—to see how they could possibly operate here.
I wholeheartedly agree. I am sure that everyone agrees that this place has a negative impact on many people’s family life and work-life balance. I do not intend to cry and play a tiny fiddle on behalf of MPs, but if we cannot get it right here, how do we expect anyone to get it right elsewhere? Whether the lack of women is due to family, childcare, caring responsibilities, society, the media, our parties and their structures or our inability to challenge, we need mechanisms to get women here. I am sorry, but that is just where we are. Until we do not need them, that is what we will do. We should push for more.
I am inspired by the hon. Member for Eastleigh. I have the privilege of sitting on the Women and Equalities Committee with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and it is a privilege to work with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who has inspired me for a great many years, and with my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), to name but a few, but this place must change and action must happen. If we are to inspire the next generation of daughters and women to get here, we need to change the structure of this place, through proxy votes and by tackling attitudes and changing its unpredictability. The ridiculous need to grandstand, act macho, hold the Floor, filibuster, waste everyone’s time and ruin a lot of people’s lives is not the way to operate a business and it is not efficient.
How will the Minister ensure that this Government tackle the barriers to women standing for Parliament? Will she ensure that making this Parliament more family friendly is her priority? Will she ensure that there is a way to tackle party structures and the attitudes of this place so that women can get here in the first place and that opportunity is not just our privilege?
I am coming to a close, so I will continue. Will the Government commit to rise to the challenge and be world leaders? Will they make that happen? Will they take on this issue as their responsibility? Will the Minister lead and ensure that this place has the representation that we all want?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) for securing this important debate.
Women make up 51% of the UK population—and if it were not for them, the other 49% would not be here. It is no big ask for Parliament to be represented 50:50. I am proud that Labour has more women than all the other political parties put together, and I am really proud that Labour’s shadow Cabinet is 50:50. That is in line with our support for “50:50”, the cross-party campaign that aims to encourage and inspire support for political engagement.
I agree with almost everything that has been said in the debate. However, it is our duty in this House to ask difficult questions and highlight the uncomfortable truths on barriers to women entering Parliament. Some of the solutions have been spoken about today, such as proxy votes and baby leave, and I agree with all of those things. We have also touched on abuse of women—especially on the internet; there is a debate on that tomorrow.
My hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) penned a letter to the chair of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin). I want to highlight some of its points. It said:
“We are writing to express our dismay and deep concern at the vitriolic personal attacks that defined the Conservative Party’s election campaign. The Conservatives ran a negative, nasty campaign, propagating personal attacks, smears and untruths, particularly aimed at one of the most prominent women MPs, and indeed the first black woman MP, Diane Abbott.”
That campaign contributed to the awful, horrific abuse that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) was subjected to. The Conservative party spent millions of pounds on abusive Facebook campaigns, and we in this House have a responsibility to lead by example—not just with our words, but with our actions.
What has characterised the debate so far has been consensus and the notion that this is a shared problem. I hope the hon. Lady agrees on the importance of that consensus continuing. Does she agree that what we really need is a plan, not a series of tactics, undertaken by Parliament, the Government or political parties? At the moment, we have no plan.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke is right. I will come to some more solutions and ways to ensure that we make this place more acceptable and accessible to women, to which I hope the Government will respond.
Sometimes, the issue is not with women standing. Women often stand for positions but find that other barriers stop them from being selected or elected. Some of that is racism, discrimination, sexism and misogyny. As uncomfortable as it is to listen to, I am afraid we have to talk about these issues, because they are barriers to women entering Parliament.
I want to highlight something that I came across today. This is not a party political point, but it is another example. It came to my attention that one of our newly elected Members of Parliament, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Jared O'Mara), personally wrote a song, the title of which is, “I wish I were a misogynist, I’d smash her in the face”. Attitudes like that really do not help us in this place. Forgive me, but if that is an example of an MP we have in this place, I would like us to do more to tackle that behaviour. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to do more to challenge our colleagues?
Absolutely. It can be difficult and uncomfortable, but we do have to challenge our colleagues. The other day, I challenged a Member who used a racist slur while speaking on a panel at the East India Club a few weeks ago. I found that deeply offensive—and there were other Members of Parliament on that panel who did not challenge that language. That kind of attitude is a barrier to women entering politics. It shows that certain people think they can get away with it.
I have been very generous. Would the hon. Lady mind if I continued a little longer?
We can come to some of the solutions; I hope that when the Minister responds she will tackle some of them. In February 2016, the Law Commission published its interim report, which urged the Government to redraft electoral offences in a more modern and simple way so that they can be more readily understood and enforced by campaigners, the public and the police. It would be good to know when the Government will respond to that interim report, because I think that will go some way towards projecting what is acceptable and not acceptable and how political campaigns should be run, which would make for a friendlier environment for women entering this arena.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh asked a question about the Government’s internet strategy. I wonder when the Green Paper for that strategy will be published. According to the records of the House of Commons Library, it was due to be published in September but, as we have only a day to go before the conference recess, it is probably not going to be published this month.
The other thing that would be really good and help women, other Members of Parliament and others who are subject to internet abuse that stops them from taking public office is the creation of an internet ombudsman. When will the Minister create that? The Government have been talking about it for quite a while. Again, I am looking at the House of Commons Library paper and I cannot find any official announcements regarding the creation of such a position, but that would be extremely important in ensuring that we tackle some of the bullying that goes on, especially of female MPs and of those who, because of intersectionality, suffer horrendous additional abuse on top of that suffered by others because they are a woman, a black woman, disabled or gay.
As a woman of colour, a black woman, and as a working-class trade unionist, a career in politics was not an obvious choice for me. It was not something people encouraged by saying, “You must do that—you’ll be a great politician.” In fact, they often thought that I was just too mouthy to do anything. It has been an extremely hard journey, and I want to ensure that, when I leave this place, the journey for other Members of Parliament coming through is smoother. The Government are in a position to do an awful lot to tackle the barriers for women entering Parliament and to ensure that we have a 50:50 Parliament. If I might be so bold, the Labour party still has a long way to go, but the all-women shortlist has done a lot in terms of ensuring that this House is more representative than it ever has been.
Will the hon. Lady please ask her Whips Office to pair mums of newborn babies so that they can be slipped from this place? I understand that Labour Whips are refusing to pair mums who should be on maternity leave; they are being dragged back to the Chamber. Please can she encourage her Whips Office to do that?
That is an important point. We have already spoken about pairing and having people subbing for others, but it does not help when the Government act in such an irresponsible manner when conducting the business of the House—threatening to keep MPs here until three o’clock in the morning, with mothers and fathers having to bring their babies through the Lobby. When the Government do not say when we can have Opposition day debates or when they are going to have certain discussions, that does not help with the pairing of Members of Parliament. However, I will try to adopt a consensual tone by saying that anything that can be introduced to ensure that Parliament is fairer and more family-friendly should be supported by all parts of the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) on securing the debate. I was tempted to say “Stop squabbling,” and it is very likely that I will forget the speech I have in front of me: my one point is that if we want to change things, we have to take down the party political barriers. There is fault on every side, but all political parties have done what they can and what they feel is appropriate to make sure that some of the barriers come down.
I go to women’s forums where people stand up and say, particularly in business, “We have done so well.” I get a bit tired of hearing how well we have done; the truth is that we have not done well enough. I am absolutely clear about one thing: as women, we have to take down those barriers. Only then can we get change.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to do more. We need the data to understand exactly how much more we need to do. As she knows, the Government could enact section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, so that parties publish the data on candidates who are standing. The Government have rejected that proposal from my Committee.
That was a compliment, Sir Roger. It is the tenacity of people such as my right hon. Friend that will change things. It is almost 100 years since the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed, which made it possible for women to stand as parliamentary candidates. Next year is the centenary, which is an opportunity for us, as women in Parliament, to do something to make sure that we remember the message. It is extraordinary to think that that Act received Royal Assent on 21 November 1918, just 10 days after the end of the first world war. Even while Europe was reeling from four years of devastating conflict, Parliament recognised the necessity for equality by introducing and passing a Bill.
The question we need to take away is whether we still recognise that necessity for equality today. Those of us in this chamber do, but we need to make sure that we never let that ball drop. The 1918 Act came after years of protest and debate for women’s suffrage. Brave women fought and died, and were imprisoned and demonised by Government and the police. Thousands petitioned and marched throughout Britain. The struggle was bruising. Nancy Astor has been mentioned already. In her maiden speech, she said:
“it was very difficult for some hon. Members to receive the first lady M.P. into the House. It was almost as difficult for some of them as it was for the lady M.P. herself to come in.”—[Official Report, 24 February 1920; Vol. 125, c. 1623.]
This is the most diverse Parliament in British history, with 208 female MPs: 32% of the House. Some 45 MPs identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and 52 MPs are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background—interestingly, they are 26 women and 26 men. However, that progress has been painfully slow, and 100 years on the House does not reflect the public it serves. One hon. Member referred to there having been only 489 women MPs, with 33 of those first elected in 2017. In 2015, we finally exceeded the existing number of sitting male MPs. Women make up 51% of the population and, as the shadow spokesperson rightly pointed out, the men would not be here if it was not for us.
It would be ridiculous to believe that, in a population of 66 million, there are not 124 women who are capable and absolutely willing to take on the job of MP. Women made up a record 29% of candidates in 2017, but it is a stark fact that in 104 constituencies there were no women candidates at all. That equates to about 7.5 million people who had no option to vote for a woman.
The problem is twofold. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh talked about barriers and the problems of women who have children, and we looked at a number of those, but there are also the social and structural limits that we systematically place on women and girls. Women are less likely to consider themselves knowledgeable about subjects than men, despite growing evidence that proves there is no difference. Many women feel excluded or uninformed, because time and again they are shown that the opinions and authority of men are valued over theirs. The overwhelming majority of expert opinion and commentary in all public spheres is given by men.
Much work has been done in recent years to improve the diversity of experts called on by the news media. The 30% Club, which was launched by women, created a database of women experts for the media to contact on a range of topics. However, we need to see sustained efforts. I was recently told a story by a member of the Government who was phoned up by a mainstream radio news outlet in the past couple of years but who was stood down at the last minute and told, “It’s alright; we’ve already got a woman.” It is shocking that, in this day and age, mainstream media still feel it acceptable to say something like that.
It absolutely must, and I take the opportunity to praise Mr Speaker for his chairing of the diversity and inclusion group. We have looked at exactly that—opportunities for crèche facilities for expert witnesses and so on.
There is no doubt that parenthood remains a structural and practical barrier for many women. Of those not in work due to caring responsibilities, 89% are women; I am not denying that men perform some of those roles, but 89% are women. Mothers have been underrepresented in Parliament. Interestingly, a 2013 survey of MPs found that 55% of the women had children, which is low, compared with 72% of the men. Women juggle their dual lives as parent and a parliamentarian, working against long and unpredictable working weeks—an issue that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) rightly raised.
I will pick up on a couple of points. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) mentioned gender stereotyping. It is a critical issue and I am pleased that the Advertising Standards Authority has recently taken action on it. All-women shortlists also came up. I also struggle with them; they ensure compliance but not a change in culture, and as women in this place we need to aim for a change in culture. I went into politics with absolutely no political background at all. Somebody once described me as an “accidental Member of Parliament”, which I feel I was. I did not feel as though people like me were well represented—a woman with a background in the public sector—and that was one of the driving forces behind why I came here.
I would like to feel as though I will leave something behind me. The shadow Front-Bench spokesperson talked about things the Government can do, and that plays its part, but we have to change the culture. We have to leave women feeling that they have an equal chance of getting here. It is critical that they come, so that we have the benefit of their skills, life experience and the unique contribution that they make, and to make sure that the voice of 50% of the population is equally represented in this place.
I thank all Members from across the House for the spirit and tone of the debate. It would be remiss of me not to mention the candidates department, which I hope is being swamped with applications from females as we speak. I will use and adapt two Madeleine Albright quotes to end the debate: there is a special place in hell for women and men who do not support other women; and we should use the debate to form our opinions, and use those opinions to create discussions, so that we can all work to break and end barriers.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).