I beg to move,
That this House has considered Vote 100 and International Women’s Day.
This House welcomes International Women’s Day as an occasion to come together to celebrate the achievements of women, while also recognising the inequalities that still exist. Around the world, International Women’s Day is being marked with arts performances, talks, rallies, conferences, marches and debates like this one. It is a great honour to lead today’s debate.
This year, 2018, is a particularly significant year to be having this discussion in the UK, as we mark 100 years since some women won the right to vote after a long and arduous struggle. In 1919, Nancy Astor became the first woman to take her seat in this House. Can Members imagine walking into this Chamber as the lone woman among a crowd of men? It would not be until 1979 that we would get our first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
I am pleased to say that the Parliament that I joined in 2010 was a place very different from the Parliament of Nancy Astor’s day. There were 142 other female MPs on these Benches, and we had a female Home Secretary—a trend that I am proud to continue. We now have a more diverse Parliament than ever, with 208 female MPs. A third of the Cabinet are now women and, of course, we also have our second female Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, getting women into Parliament is not simply about changing the faces on these Benches; at its heart, it is about how we use our positions here to make meaningful change to women’s lives throughout the UK and the world, because from here we can bring about real change.
I join the Minister in welcoming International Women’s Day. Does she also welcome the fact that the UN Commission on the Status of Women is meeting again in New York next week? Does she agree that it is really important that it comes up with strong policies so that women in rural communities are adequately supported?
I am delighted to agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of that meeting of the commission. Her emphasis on making sure that we get real policies for women in rural communities is essential.
I am proud to be part of a Government who are wholeheartedly committed to improving the lives of women and girls. Since 2010, we have made significant progress in accelerating gender equality at home and abroad, whether by empowering women in the workplace, tackling violence against women and girls or improving girls’ education around the globe.
We all know, though, that there is more to do, with sexual harassment scandals, stories of debauched dinners, one third of women worldwide experiencing physical or sexual violence, and the fact that it will take an estimated 118 years to close the global gender pay gap. As the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day makes clear, we must continue to “press for progress”. This effort must span countries and continents, policy areas and political allegiances.
I wish to kick off today’s debate by talking about three areas in which I think women are still losing out to men globally, and what we are going to do about it. The first is violence: too many women and girls face harm and abuse. The second is money: many women still earn less than their male counterparts. The third is influence: around the world, men still occupy the majority of the top jobs.
Let me start on the first point, violence. A truly equal society is one in which everyone is free from the threat of gendered violence. Today, I am proud to announce the launch of the Government’s consultation on tackling domestic abuse, which will help to inform the introduction of the domestic abuse Bill. Domestic abuse affects approximately 2 million people in England and Wales every year, and the majority of the victims are women. The Government are determined to do all we can to confront the devastating impact that such abuse has on victims and their families, and in doing so to address a key cause and consequence of gender inequality.
Our consultation seeks to transform our approach to domestic abuse, addressing the issue at every stage from prevention to early intervention to bringing more perpetrators to justice. It reinforces our determination to make domestic abuse everyone’s business. This comprehensive consultation will last for 12 weeks, and I encourage every Member of the House to engage with it and share it with those in their networks who have, or who should have, an interest in this area. This is a critical opportunity to bring these crimes out of the shadows.
The Minister will know that, last week, the United Nations convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women said that the way we treat women in Northern Ireland, denying them access to abortion in their home nation, is a form of violence against women. Today, 135 parliamentarians from throughout the House have written to her asking her to commit to providing an opportunity to put that right in the legislation she is talking about. Will she give us a right to vote to give women in Northern Ireland equal access to abortion rights?
The hon. Lady will know about the limitations on my announcing any such statement, but may I nevertheless take the opportunity to thank her for the good work that she has done in this area, including in ensuring that, for the first time, the women of Northern Ireland have access to abortions? We now have a new system—a centralised system—for those women so that they find it much easier than ever before to access the health support that she, like me, thinks is so vital.
The consultation will last 12 weeks, and I urge every Member of the House to engage with it. Domestic violence is not the only type of violence that demands our urgent attention, though. Internationally, too, we must continue to combat violence against women and girls. Globally, one in three women are beaten or sexually abused in their lifetime. We are generating world-leading evidence through our £25 million “What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls” programme. This year, results from 15 innovative interventions being evaluated across Africa and Asia will provide new global evidence about what works to stop violence before it starts. We want this evidence to be a game-changer in supporting more effective UK and international support for ending violence against women and girls globally, and it is essential that we put what we learn into practice.
I welcome the announcement that the Minister is making about the international dimension to protecting women against violence. Will she assure the House, as part of the consultation on tackling violence against women here at home, that refuges will be properly resourced? Many have closed down in recent years, including in my constituency. Women need proper support when they have to go to refuges because they face violence. Can she assure the House that she will make sure that happens?
Quite simply, I can assure the House that ensuring that women have the right support at refuges is an essential part of the support that we will provide women when they become victims of domestic abuse. I know that there are concerns in the sector about funding, and there is a consultation ongoing, but we will not oversee a reduction in beds. We are looking for the most efficient, effective way of delivering that support, and nothing is off the table.
Probably all of us in the House were shocked when we heard the reports of sexual harassment and abuse in the aid sector. When we are looking at what happens to women internationally, it is important that we hold our charitable organisations’ feet to the fire to tackle the abuse that has been reported. How does my right hon. Friend propose that we can ensure that those organisations will deal with the allegations of sexual exploitation in the aid sector?
My right hon. Friend will have heard, as I did, the absolute conviction and determination of the Secretary of State for International Development to make sure that, as my right hon. Friend says, she holds the charitable sector’s feet to the fire. It is wholly unacceptable that anybody going abroad for a charity should take advantage of vulnerable girls and women. I am confident in the activity of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in this area.
The second area that I wish to discuss is money. A truly equal society is also one where women and men are equally economically empowered. Globally, women earn less than men, have fewer assets, and still do 60% to 80% of unpaid domestic work. One in 10 married women in developing countries are not consulted by their husbands on how their income is spent, and although in the UK we are enjoying record female employment, we are also grappling with a national gender pay gap of 18%. Therefore, although as women we might think we have equality in the workplace, our pay cheques tell a different story. That is why this Government have introduced world-leading legislation.
Does the Secretary of State agree that this is a matter not just of social equality, but of economic equality, bearing in mind the estimate this week that, if we closed the gender pay gap, it would mean an extra £90 billion going into women’s income? That is a staggering figure when we reflect on what that means about women being kept poorer as a result of the pay gap.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is bad not just for the economics of the individual woman and the individual family, but for the country as a whole. As she says, if we can raise pay in a fair way, it would be good for the economy of the country. That is why we have introduced world leading legislation requiring organisations with more than 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap by the end of the tax year. I want businesses to have their pay gap laid bare and then do something about it.
On that point, my right hon. Friend will have read in the press some speculation that organisations may be flouting the gender pay gap reporting regulations that the Government have rightly brought in. Can she outline to the House what action the Government will take to ensure that businesses take this requirement very seriously indeed?
I thank my right hon. Friend, who has done such important work in this area. She will know that it was a manifesto commitment to bring this requirement forward. It is the law, and we will make sure that companies stick to it, abide by it, deliver on it and then, hopefully, make changes on it.
Equality is not just about getting women the same pay as men, but about getting women the same jobs as men. I have lost track of the number of meetings that I have sat in where I am the only woman at the table— I expect that I am not the only one to have found that. Women are still under-represented in a whole range of fields from politics to business, and we are particularly under-represented at the top.
We have made good progress since 2010, and have eliminated all-male boards in the FTSE 100, but only a quarter of directors in the FTSE 350 and only 4% of FTSE 350 chief executive officers are women. That is simply not good enough, and it is bad economics, too. We know that organisations with the highest levels of gender diversity in their leadership teams are 15% more likely to outperform their industry rivals, so we must think long and hard about what we need to do to improve those statistics.
I endorse what the Minister says about being the only woman in meetings; that still happens. Does she agree that when women reach senior levels in business and in work, they must be paid equally to men? Sadly, today, there are still many women doing the same work of equal value and not achieving equal pay.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Women must be paid the same as men. It has been illegal, for many, many years not to give equal pay for equal work, but we are trying to take that one step further with reporting on the gender pay gap. Hon. Members will know that there has been quite a lot of reporting on substantial banking and media companies, which has shown the scale of the gender pay gap. Managing directors and senior directors are having to take action as a result, which is very welcome.
I am pleased to support the Hampton-Alexander review’s targets of achieving 33% of women on boards and 33% in executive committees. It is not just about getting in; it is about getting on, and women deserve to get to the top of all the professions and to get as far as their aspirations will take them.
I end by reminding the House of the aspirations of Emmeline Pankhurst, who famously said of the campaign for suffrage that the suffragettes had to
“make more noise than anybody else”
for their cause to be heard and to enact the change that they wanted. Man or woman, we must continue the legacy of the suffragettes, suffragists and their supporters. We must all make enough noise so that the agenda that I have talked about continues to be realised. This is an important debate, and I urge everyone here to continue to “press for progress”, as the International Women’s Day slogan suggests, to finally achieve the true gender equality for which women have been fighting for so long.
I am so pleased that we are making time available today to continue the important tradition of marking International Women’s Day. I thank Mr Speaker, because he has done it again—he has made history. He helped me to raise the International Women’s Day flag over the Parliament buildings for the first time in history, and for that, I salute him.
This year’s International Women’s Day has been a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions for me. Reading about the struggle that led to some women gaining the right to vote in a general election 100 years ago has highlighted how far we have come, but also just how far we still have to go. It led me to reflect on the persistent inequalities that relate to class and ethnicity, as well as to gender. Working-class men were denied the vote until 1918, and their enfranchisement paved the way for working-class women. But our demand for equality goes beyond the vote, vital though it is. We are interested in the advancement of equality, on a broad front, and we cannot ignore the fact that class and race often go hand in hand in the struggle for equality.
There is little doubt that 2018 is turning out to be a landmark year for women. The decades of campaigning that led to women’s suffrage a century ago highlights what women can achieve when we unite and organise. If all women had been granted the vote in 1918, we women would have been the majority, but it was another 10 years before full electoral equality for women was enshrined in the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928. That legislation was the result of decades of struggle by famous and not-so-famous people.
I remember hearing the saying, “If you hold the pen, you write the history.” That is hard to understand until we start reading history and realise that there are bits missing. My theme today is taken from the writer Virginia Woolf, who said that for most of history, Anonymous was a woman. At the march on Sunday, I was asked who I was marching for. I said that I was marching for the hidden history of women—for the women whose campaigning zeal did not make them famous, and for the women who suffered, and still suffer, in silence.
The role of women of colour in the suffragette movement has often been overlooked. I am so grateful to the Commons Library for unearthing the case of Sarah Parker Remond, the only known woman of colour to have signed the first petition for women’s suffrage in 1866. She was a prominent African American lecturer, abolitionist and agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Sarah was an educated, independent woman of wealth. Why would she be hidden from the history of the suffragette movement? There can only really be one answer: the colour of her skin. Today, I salute Sarah Parker Remond in Parliament so that her name will live on in perpetuity in Hansard. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you.
A better-known woman of colour and suffragette is Sophia Duleep Singh. She is rightly celebrated even though she was born after the original suffrage petition. She campaigned for women nationally as well as locally. She has been the subject of a BBC documentary and a Royal Mail commemorative stamp. I treasure the photograph of me with a poster-sized version of that stamp—a small one would not have been very good, would it? The part played by the vast majority of black, Asian and minority ethnic women in the suffrage movement has been lost. They are basically a hidden history—a story that might never be told.
I am proud of the Opposition’s 50:50 shadow Cabinet, and I am truly proud of the fact that 45% of Labour MPs are women. One more heave, and we will have parity. All we need is a general election in the next couple of months. It is also notable that across the House, the number of women MPs is at a record high of 32%. We welcome women MPs from all parties in this place. If we could clap, I would say that we should give ourselves a round of applause—but not too loudly, because we still have persistent problems that will not go away unless we take a radical approach. We should applaud the Conservatives for electing a woman leader—
Twice, as the hon. Gentleman says. We should, however, note that for eight years the right hon. Lady has sat at the table of a Cabinet that has sanctioned £80 billion of tax and benefit changes, as a result of which more than 86% of cuts fall on the shoulders of women. So I say this: a round of applause, but not too loudly.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her speech and the way in which she is reflecting on International Women’s Day. Will she join me in recognising the fact that for the past 66 years we have had a female Head of State? Will she send congratulations to Her Majesty the Queen, who has presided so well over this country through smooth times and rough?
I will congratulate the Queen on the dignity and poise with which she has held her position over the years. I hope that we might see the new generation coming in and taking that place in the future. [Interruption.] Long may she reign—absolutely. We do not want to see the end of her reign, but I understand that she is scaling back her duties to make way for the next generation. I am in no way advocating her quick demise.
Let me offer a cautionary tale from 100 years ago. Just as women were getting the vote, male misogyny struck a blow at women’s sport. Teams of women were playing football in front of large crowds and making big money, but the Football Association banned women from its grounds. The FA said that
“the game of football”—
this was probably said in a more pompous voice—
“is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”
At a stroke, the FA destroyed women’s football. I bet that if Eniola Aluko is watching, she is probably thinking that not much has changed.
Women football players have been making up for lost time, however. Sadly, the England team lost narrowly last night to the world champions, the United States, but I wish them well on their continued journey. I would like to acknowledge the first real international women’s football star, Michelle Akers. In the 1991 women’s world championship, she was the winner of the golden boot, and she even appeared on a cereal box.
I want to highlight the work that Lewes football club does in the world of women’s football. It was the first club in this country to give equal pay to the men’s and women’s teams.
That is excellent news, and I hope that it will be reflected nationally as we encourage the game of women’s football. I would also like to note Briana Scurry, a goalkeeper who was the first black woman to be elected to the US hall of fame.
As women, we know that we have to break down structural barriers, but sometimes we forget just how deep the roots of those structural barriers are. We have to break down centuries-old traditions to get into places such as Parliament, which were designed to keep us out. Today, too many groups still face discrimination and disadvantage. We must look forward and tackle the structural barriers facing all women and those with protected characteristics so that we can achieve true equality for all.
The official theme of International Women’s Day is “Press for Progress”. I want to set out Labour’s priorities in the areas where the need for change is most pressing. There is a long list, and it includes tackling violence against women and girls, tackling domestic violence and abuse in the workplace, and, of course, tackling the enduring gender pay gap. I am proud of the role that Labour has played in ensuring progress in the UK by breaking down structural barriers that have long held women back. Labour brought in the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equality Act 2010. We introduced the minimum wage and Sure Start. We extended maternity leave and doubled maternity pay, thus valuing women.
Now, Labour believes that we will make a real difference in closing the gender pay gap only with a combination of sticks and carrots. We will mandate all companies with over 250 employees to produce action plans to close the gender pay gap. Companies would be accredited for their progress and issued with certification, and only companies with certification would be able to bid for lucrative Government contracts. This is a win-win situation—it is the right thing to do. The workforce will be loyal, and companies will make more profit, as the Minister mentioned, and will be rewarded for good practice. We will also benefit as a country. According to a study by PwC, the closure of the gender pay gap would give a £90 billion boost to the UK. Globally, the boost would be trillions of dollars—trillions! In the developing world, it is widely recognised that empowering women is an important step in driving economic growth, and that should be part of our sustainable development goals.
Between 2015 and 2016, the UK fell from 14th to 15th place in a ranking of 33 OECD countries based on five key indicators of female economic empowerment. Our country deserves better. Our country needs a Labour Government and our policies to put people and progress at the heart—
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being incredibly generous with her time. I hear with interest the proposals that the Labour party has on the table. Does she see a time when there will be a female leader of the Labour party, and if so, why has that not happened so far?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. This policy, whether introduced by a male or a female, is important to address pay inequality for women and to ensure that the gender pay gap is not just audited but closed. That is the important factor.
The near parity between women and men in the parliamentary Labour party has not come about by chance. The introduction of all-women shortlists promoted a change of culture. When the election was called at short notice and we had no time for all-women shortlists, we still selected and elected more women than any other party.
The test for any party is, “Are you helping or hindering?” I am afraid that many current Government policies fail that test. We in the Labour party are determined that we will be a help, not a hindrance, to women. I do not have time to go into all the elements of our key policy strands, but they form an acronym—AHELP. That covers access to justice; health and wellbeing; economic equality; leadership and representation; and protections for women. With this, we will see a real transformation.
Women make up 51% of the population, and without that 51%, the other 49% would not be here. So let this be the year that change happens. I will not wait another 110 years for real equality.
This is the first time in many years that the International Women’s Day debate has been held in Government time. I thank those on the Front Bench who made that happen—we know who they are—and hope that this is a trend for the future as well.
Today is a very special day indeed: International Women’s Day in the year that we celebrate 100 years since women first won not only the right to vote, but the right to stand for election to this place. It has also been, for a long time, a day of celebration in my household, because today is my youngest son James’s 16th birthday. I think there might be other Members on the Front Bench who also have children who were born on International Women’s Day. This is a day when men and women can and should come together to celebrate, whether it is for their children or for other reasons.
Equality affects us all, and persistent inequality disadvantages us all. That is why, in the work of the Women and Equalities Committee, we look at all strands of equality. We have a particular interest in women’s equality, but we are not frightened to look at the issues that face men too. Our latest inquiry has been into dads in the workplace. I thank all my colleagues who are here today—the hon. Members for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), and others who serve on the Committee—for their dedication to the work of the inquiry. We will be publishing the final report in the next two weeks.
The Government have, as outlined by the Minister, shown their huge commitment to gender equality in this country, but also abroad. Today’s announcement on the proposed tough new laws on domestic abuse indicates that that commitment is showing no sign of diminishing. The Government’s record needs to be put on record, because it is so striking: the criminalisation of forced marriage, two new stalking laws, the roll-out of domestic violence protection orders, new offences on domestic abuse relating to coercive control, shared parental leave, equal marriage, making revenge pornography a crime, and making sex and relationship education compulsory for all children. All those things show that this Government understand the very wide nature of the policies that they need to put in place to address equality issues for women.
Today’s theme is about pressing for change. The role of the Women and Equalities Committee, which I chair, is to make sure that we continue to hold the Government’s feet to the fire, not just on their existing legislative work but on that for the future. I will talk about three areas of our work in the Committee that I gently suggest require further work in future. Maternity discrimination, despite some of the strongest laws and a clear determination by the Government to outlaw it, continues to blight the lives of too many women. The use of non-disclosure agreements in many of the arrangements that are put forward to encourage women to leave the workplace means that it is difficult for us to see the full scale of the problem. That is why the Committee will be looking carefully at how we should reform non-disclosure agreements for issues not just like sexual harassment, but maternity discrimination as well.
Another area that I am sure the Committee will want to continue to scrutinise is the role of women in this place. We produced a very important report shortly before the last general election calling for the implementation of aspects of the Equality Act to make it transparent how many women are standing for election at various points in the parliamentary calendar. It was disappointing that the Government did not agree to go forward with the part of the Act that would require all political parties to be transparent about the data on their gender split of candidates at that time. I hope that I can encourage those on the Front Bench to continue to look at how we might be able to use that legislation to throw transparency on to this issue.
As our previous leader David Cameron said, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that is still the case today, particularly when it comes to the work of parties in the selection of their candidates. While there may be more women sitting on the Labour Benches today than on the Conservative Benches, I am sure they would agree that the selection procedure can stand in the way of women coming into this place. We need to ensure there is transparency of the data.
I praise the work that my right hon. Friend does as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. I loved the list she gave of what we have done in government; that is an important message, because both parties have something to contribute. Does she agree that we must put forward a very positive view of women’s role in this House? The most important thing is to encourage young women to look at being an MP as a potential career. If we are always complaining and pointing out the downsides of this job, that will not be very encouraging. I encourage her Committee to look at those positives, so that young women know that this could be a job for them, and that it is one of the most fantastic jobs they could ever do.
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The best thing that we are doing at the moment to encourage young women to be interested in politics is having a female Prime Minister. It was when I saw Margaret Thatcher become leader of the party and then Prime Minister of our country that politics became relevant for me. It turned politics from, frankly, a lot of old men in grey raincoats to something technicolour and relevant to me as a 14-year-old girl living in south Wales, where there were not too many Tories around. I could see an amazing role model on the television who was not only a fantastic female politician but was turning our country round from the crisis of the ’70s, when we were—
The sick man of Europe.
Does the right hon. Lady agree with me about the value of teachers and the role they can play in encouraging young girls to come forward? I want to tell a slightly different story that I have not often shared. One of the reasons I got involved in politics was that, for our homework one day at school, we were asked to go and work ourselves up about something, and I managed to work myself up about Margaret Thatcher. I can honestly say that the rest is history.
I want to acknowledge the work done by teachers in my schools, such as Cranford school, which has started Cranford Parliament and will be holding International Women’s Day events today and tomorrow. Those initiatives have an impact by making people feel involved in political debate and are important in connecting Parliament with education.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Inspiring people to get involved in politics is such an important part of our job.
I want to talk about inspiring women. I might have been the first woman to be elected to Parliament in North Hampshire, but I am now joined by five other female Conservative Members of Parliament in Hampshire, including my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies). Where one woman treads, others will follow. I am very proud indeed that 60% of my borough councillors in Basingstoke are female, led by the incredibly impressive Councillor Terri Reid. It is important to recognise that as Members of Parliament, we can inspire others to become involved in politics through our work.
On that point about inspiring women, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that as Members of Parliament, we get into our schools to speak to young women and show them that being an MP is exactly the sort of job they should be aspiring to do, as is being the leader of a company? As a male MP with two female bosses, I know that women are at least as good at this job and probably better. Does she agree that a woman’s place is not, as some old-fashioned people might say, in the kitchen, but on the Front Bench?
What we are trying to say is that a woman’s place is in the House, which is a similar thing. I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. He is absolutely right that we need to recognise the importance of encouraging more young women into politics.
It is important that we in this House take responsibility for inspiring other women, including our daughters, but we should also remember on this day that many of us owe our inspiration to our mothers, our grandmothers and important women in our lives. My own grandmother did not have the right to vote when she was born. I wear her wedding ring to this Chamber every day, and occasionally it serves as a reminder of what we owe to generations past.
The hon. Lady makes such a poignant point, and I am sure all of us will reflect on the role of women in our own families in getting us here today.
There are other women in our communities whom we need to celebrate. We are incredibly privileged in Hampshire to have one of only four female chief constables in the country, Olivia Pinkney, who is doing an incredible job of running one of the largest police forces in the country. The chief executive of my local hospital in Basingstoke, Alex Whitfield, succeeded another female chief executive, to make sure we have some of the best health services in the area.
The right hon. Lady is right to point out the need to have more women in senior policing positions and to encourage more women police officers to rise up through the ranks. Will she join me in paying tribute to the woman Met Commissioner, the woman head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the woman head of the National Crime Agency? To have Cressida Dick, Sara Thornton and Lynne Owens all in those top positions is a huge tribute to them and the work they have done to rise through the profession.
Coupled with a female Home Secretary, they make a formidable team.
I also want to point out the role of women in business. I represent one of the top 10 centres of business in the south-east, and it is local businesswomen in smaller businesses who I find incredibly inspiring—people like Beryl Huntingdon in my constituency, who runs a business to support other businesses. When I look at my local charities, I see it is often women who are not just helping to run existing charities—people like Evelyn Vincent, who was a founder member of Headway Basingstoke—but setting up new charities. I think of women like Charlie Porter, who set up the Muffin’s Dream Foundation to support families with disabled children, Catherine Waters-Clark, who founded Inspero to help children understand where their food comes from and how they can cook it, and Mary Swan, who is the artistic director of my local producing theatre company.
It does not stop there. If it was not for the women, I do not know what the Church of England would be doing. It is people like Jo Stoker of St Michael’s Church who keep our churches running. We were talking earlier about football teams. Basingstoke Town ladies football team plays in the FA women’s premier league south-west division, and I am hugely proud of the fact that they are doing extremely well—in fact, better than the men’s team.
May I add to my right hon. Friend’s list someone I am going to see tomorrow in my own constituency? Sally Preston runs a company called Kiddylicious, which she has started from scratch. It is producing fantastically healthy children’s food and is now a multimillion-pound international business.
By recognising women who are doing things in other roles and walks of life, we can help to ensure that young women in our schools realise that the only thing that limits them in this world is their imagination and the support they get from their families and their schools to realise their ambitions.
In talking about women in my constituency, I could not fail to refer to the most famous daughter of Basingstoke, Jane Austen. Until very recently, almost nobody in Basingstoke knew that she was born and bred in our borough—the most famous novelist in the world, and we had failed to recognise her. I do not know whether that was because she was a woman, or maybe it was just that people did not like reading her books—I love them, but some people do not; it is an acquired taste. When we commemorated the 200th anniversary of her death, I was immensely proud to be part of a programme to make sure she was better remembered, which culminated in the first ever sculpture of her being put in place in the centre of my town. I would like to put on record my immense thanks to the sculptor, Adam Roud, and Amanda Aldous MBE, who made that project possible. I want to celebrate women now, but also the women who have made my town a great place to live.
Women in Basingstoke are no different from those in the rest of the country—there is prodigious talent—so why are women still paid less than men? In my constituency, women are paid 25% less than men, and we are in the bottom 4% in the UK. Despite the fact that there is no difference in the levels of education of men and women in my constituency, women are consistently being paid 25% less than men, because they cannot find the sorts of jobs they need to use their experience and talent.
Organisations are working hard to try to reverse this worrying trend of our not using the skills of our people in the way we should. The local borough council has focused on this, and it now has a positive gender pay gap of 2.16%. Of local employers, AWE has a programme to increase female apprentices and clear targets for increasing female management, and Fujitsu has a programme to attract female apprentices. Companies are waking up and realising that they are not using female talent in the way they should.
I very much support the Government’s work on gender pay gap reporting. Such reporting provides the sort of transparency that companies in my constituency need if they are to focus more on this problem. There are about 900 businesses in Basingstoke with more than 250 employees, and I will be looking very closely at gender pay gap reporting to ensure that we capitalise on the skills and talents of women that are otherwise lost to the economy.
I particularly want Ministers to reflect on the availability of flexible working. I was very pleased that the Prime Minister has pointed out the need for flexible working right at the start of somebody’s time in employment. Research by Timewise has shown that at the moment just 6% of job vacancies pay the annualised equivalent of £20,000 a year or more, leaving many women with no option but to take low-paid jobs—often poorly paid jobs with little progression—if they need the flexibility that many require to balance work and family life. I hope that the Prime Minister’s announcement on flexible working last year will be just the start of a much broader set of work that the Government will do to make flexible working a reality from day one for everybody in this country.
As was asked earlier, is this a turning point and a landmark year? I am sure that people at the time of the first and second world wars and in the 1960s and 1970s, when so much of the legislation we enjoy today was put in place, felt that those were landmark years. The reason why we may do better in calling this a landmark year, following all the revelations of sexual harassment in Hollywood and Westminster, is that we have record numbers of women in work, and economic empowerment is such an important part of cementing the changed attitudes that we are all looking for in the debate today.
I hope that the establishment of the Women and Equalities Committee has helped to keep equality issues, particularly those that relate to women, at the top of the agenda, and that it has added to the momentum for change. We started our series of sexual harassment reports in 2016 with one on the sexual harassment of schoolgirls. At the time, I was told that we were expecting children to accept something that had been outlawed in the workplace, but how wrong we were about that. Sexual harassment blights the lives of 50% of women in this country, and we must tackle it. I am pleased that the Select Committee is doing two reports on it at the moment: on sexual harassment in the public realm, and on sexual harassment at work.
There really is more that unites us than divides us when it comes to issues of women. I think that the women—and the men—sitting in the House and taking part in this debate today can make sure that if we work together, this turning point does create the lasting change we want.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). She is of course the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee—the first of its kind—on which I have had the honour of serving for the past almost three years. It is a great honour that we have the whole afternoon to debate International Women’s Day. It is also an honour to follow the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), who rightly put it on the record that many women are not recognised in history. It is great that that will be corrected today.
As we mark 100 years since women first secured the vote, we have an opportunity in this place on International Women’s Day to put on the record some of the great successes. However, we must not forget that the reason why we still need an event such as International Women’s Day is that we have had to fight for so long for much of what we have achieved, and we still have a long way to go. Today, as we mark Vote 100 and the progress made by women on the centenary of women’s suffrage, we must also note that this year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Press for Progress”.
In the past 100 years, we have seen incremental advances in women’s rights. In 1928, women were granted universal suffrage. In 1945, the Family Allowances Act introduced child benefits. In 1967, the Abortion Act was enacted in the UK, but this has still not been extended to Northern Ireland. In 1975, the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against women. In 1985, the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act made female genital mutilation a crime. In 1986, statutory maternity pay was introduced. In 1994, rape in marriage was made a crime. In 2014, shared parental leave was introduced, and that year also marked the introduction of equal marriage. The year 2015 witnessed the introduction of coercive control as a crime. In 2017, thanks to my hon. Friend the former Member for Banff and Buchan, we witnessed the ratification of the Istanbul convention, and I thank the former and the present Home Secretaries for their work in that regard.
This year, the Government will introduce a Bill on domestic violence and abuse. Yet this year, on average, 40% of women will report that they have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. In Scotland, 58,810 incidents of domestic abuse were reported last year. Rape and attempted rape account for 17% of sexual crimes, and 35% of women have experienced either physical or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. An estimated 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation, and the majority of them were cut before they were five. One in five girls in the world are said to be married before the age of 18. One in five lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender women have said that they have experienced a hate crime or incident due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, of whom one in four have not reported this to the police.
While we recognise that there is still a long way to go, today is an opportunity to celebrate the fact that women have achieved a great deal in the past 100 years. I want to turn around the rather bleak view I have presented and celebrate some of those whom Sky News recently called “Britain’s most influential women”—marking those who have made achievements historically as well as the trailblazing women of today. The list rightly includes suffragettes, to whom we owe a debt, such as Emily Wilding Davison and Emmeline Pankhurst. It also includes great writers such Virginia Woolf and Zadie Smith, and women in the public eye who rightly use their voice to advocate political activism, such as Annie Lennox, Vivienne Westwood and M.I.A.
The list covers prominent female politicians, including of course my own First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and my colleague and friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black). I might add that my hon. Friend made a brilliant speech yesterday on misogyny, only to be met by further online abuse, which exactly proves the point. I should say that she did get some support, but the point is well made.
While we rightly recognise these extraordinary women and acknowledge the struggles they face in striving to make the world a better place, it is worth recognising the extraordinary women who live otherwise ordinary lives. I therefore wish to pay tribute to some of the truly inspiring women in my constituency of Lanark and Hamilton East. I pay tribute to Carol Clarke, Mary McGowan and Christine Emmet, who have been passionate in promoting Fairtrade and making Hamilton a Fairtrade town. I pay tribute to Donna Barrowman who established the Hope Cafe in Lanark—a charity that supports mental health. I also pay tribute to each member of staff, past and present, of Women’s Aid South Lanarkshire, who do incredible work each day to support women who have suffered from domestic violence, abuse or sexual violence. I also take the opportunity, as always, to put on record the plight of WASPI women, including my constituents Nancy Rea and Lorraine McColl. They continue to fight for the right to a fair pension, although they feel that their voices are largely unheard.
I pay tribute to Loraine Swan, chair of the Lanimer Committee, who plays a key role in keeping the traditions of Lanark alive, and to Liz Wilson, chair of Uddingston Pride, who ensures that the environment and community lie at the heart of her local area. Sheena Campbell, chair of Larkhall Community Council, fights to make her community a better place, and Mavis Daniels of Sivam Hair and Beauty in Hamilton is a pioneering businesswoman who was recently shortlisted for the Black Beauty and Fashion Awards 2018.
Those women are all exceptional, as indeed are women such as Anne Barrett, Josephine McVey, Paula Sullivan, and Margaret McAllister. These women are administrators, teachers, and kitchen staff and have worked hard throughout their adult life, supporting their families, caring for children and aging parents, while also fighting for pension justice, equality, and equal pay. Their voices deserve to be heard just as much as those of every woman on Sky’s list of influential women.
The recent “Time’s Up” movement against sexual harassment, as well as the scandal in this place regarding sexual harassment and the established patriarchy, served to highlight that women in all sectors experience patriarchy, misogyny and bullying in their workplace every day. However, not all women have a voice. We have a long way to go, and we in this place have an opportunity to make a change. Let us make a real change over the next 100 years in closing the gender pay gap, tackling maternity and pregnancy discrimination, and encouraging more fathers to take shared parental leave. We must continue to tackle systemic inequality in institutions such as this place, and we must lead by example to create the change we want.
Today, I launched a petition calling on the Government to scrap the 4% tax on claimants of child maintenance for those who have experienced domestic violence in their relationship and who rely on that vital service. Parents should not be penalised for protecting their families, and the Government should not seek to balance the books on the backs of the most vulnerable in our society. Once more I call on the Government to consider using the opportunity presented by the domestic violence and abuse Bill to address that inequity. It is not fair to ask women to pay tax on a service that they ultimately rely on and have no other choice but to take.
I will end with a quote from a truly inspirational woman, Maya Angelou, who said:
“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
Let us make our voices heard this afternoon. It is International Women’s Day, and all of those women’s voices deserve to be heard.
It is a privilege to contribute to this hugely important debate. Gender inequality represents the biggest waste of talent on our planet right now, and closing that gap is not only a moral imperative but an economic imperative for us all. The figures on gender inequality are striking. Evidence produced by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2015 estimated that tackling gender inequality, and achieving gender parity across the global economy, would be worth $28 trillion to global GDP. Put in context, that is essentially the economies of China and the US combined. That is probably the biggest economic lever that could be pulled to support jobs and prosperity in our global economy.
I am proud of the work done by the UK internationally, and following the sustainable development goals agreed in 2015, for the first time the world has a to-do list that includes achieving gender equality. Not only is it a long list, it is a comprehensive list that specifically covers areas such as FGM and health inequality. Achieving gender equality is mainstreamed through all the sustainable development goals in a way that is vital if we are to have real change.
The impact that gender equality could have on countries around the world is stark. That impact would be positive not only for economic performance, but for underlying stability and outcomes in society more generally. Gender equality is a good, positive thing that all countries should be striving for, not because it is a nice thing to do, but because it is crucial for us all. Some of the most inspiring people that I met in my time at the Department for International Development were amazing women who were fighting for women’s rights in places like Afghanistan, fighting against child marriage in places like Zambia, or tackling Ebola. Frankly, nurses on the frontline often gave their lives to save others and help to treat those suffering from Ebola. They were absolutely inspiring, and achieving gender equality is a shared responsibility. If it is shared, however, we must take collective action, not just as individuals but in the organisations and institutions of which we are part.
I would like to speak briefly about what such collective action really means. First, it means working in our communities. We can all think of amazing groups in our communities that are leading the way. I remember some of the young people I have met during my time in politics, such as the girls in Bristol who set up Integrate Bristol, which has shaken up that city and drawn attention more broadly to tackling FGM. There was wonderful work by long-standing institutions such as the Girl Guides, and there are fantastic international development charities, such as Restless Development, that focus on gender equality.
I say a huge thank you to teachers around our country who are in our classrooms right now inspiring and educating a brand new generation of girls and young women to aim high and have high expectations for themselves. They must also have a sense of how they need and deserve to be treated by others, and what relationships—including stable relationships—look like. The reforms that the Government are introducing on relationships and sex education are long overdue and crucial to ensuring that this is not just about women aiming high, but that men and boys understand the positive role that they can play in helping to deliver gender equality in our country. The work happening in our classrooms, especially in encouraging girls to study science, technology, engineering and maths, and to go into industries and sectors that they have not perhaps entered traditionally, is important if we are to crack some of the statistics that we all mention, such as the gender pay gap.
That brings me to the world of business, and how important it is for the change in the workplace that has steadily begun across our country over recent years to continue. Hon. Members have mentioned the gender pay gap, and the transparency that the new regulations, simple as they are, have brought to the reporting of the pay gap is hugely powerful. We are at the beginning of a journey, and when I spoke to companies that were considering the reporting that lay ahead of them, I found that many wanted to make progress in advance of reporting their statistics. Focusing on those numbers for the first time simply told them what they needed to know, which was that they needed to make a change.
There are three to four weeks left before eligible companies must submit a report on their gender pay gap, and my advice to them is: don’t be late. People will spot who is missing, and if a company is missing it will never be able to go back and correct the fact that it had a year to get its house in order and ensure that its reporting was on time, but it failed. All companies and employers must understand that young people growing up in the United Kingdom now have different expectations and attitudes on gender, culture and diversity. They expect those attitudes and values to be shown in the organisations they interact with on a daily basis, particularly organisations that want to sell them goods and services. The sooner businesses understand that and see the opportunities in responding to it, the better not only for them but for our broader society.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) mentioned the broader workplace reforms that all Governments, including this one, have brought forward to make flexible working a reality. In the end, if we really are to see a difference we have to go beyond laws: attitudes need to change in companies. We all saw what happened at the Presidents Club dinner. I think that is symptomatic of a clear point, which is that change needs to be led from the top. All leaders in all the many companies and organisations that employ people need to realise that they, individually, have to show leadership. They have to drive it through their senior management teams and evidence it not just through their people but in their processes, their systems and the data they collect to ensure they are moving in the right direction.
Would my right hon. Friend like to give credit to Northern Power Women, who this week have been winning awards in Manchester for the great change they have been making in driving forward engagement as role models and agents of change to transform the culture of organisations?
I very much welcome all the work they are doing, and I hope the awards ceremony goes well. Achieving gender equality is down to all of us. It is a million-piece jigsaw. It is about millions of people around our country and around the world all doing things that add up to something big. “Don’t wait” is my advice to people who want to see things change—get involved and be a part of the change yourself.
We know that gender diversity is good for business. Research from McKinsey showed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform others on profitability and 27% more likely to have superior value creation. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. Equally, there is a penalty for dropping out. In other words, it is not just that the companies doing this are better performing, but companies not doing this are poor performing. The clear steer is that if someone cares about their business’s growth, they should do it simply for the economics, even if they have not, for some obscure reason, already bought into why this is the right thing to do.
This issue applies to our institution of Parliament. Everything we talk about being good for businesses and employers applies to all of us too. I know that all Members in the Chamber, and many colleagues who are not here, feel as strongly as I do about that. It is up to us to continue to ask ourselves the difficult questions about how our own parties need to change. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke that transparency is crucial. The Conservative party should leave no stone unturned in continuing to play a role—indeed, a stronger role going forward—as one of the parties in this House helping to make sure that we have a 50:50 Parliament. We should be out there working with other parliamentarians on the 50:50 Parliament campaign #AskHerToStand. That is absolutely crucial. It is 100 years since some women first got the vote. Frankly, although we have made a lot of progress, it has not been enough. We have to recognise that unless we work together there is a real danger that the House of Commons will flatline on about a third of us being women parliamentarians. We need to go above and beyond that.
We should never lose sight of the culture and diversity element of everything I have spoken about today. We should recognise that too many women growing up in our country, often black and minority ethnic women, face a double challenge in being able to make their way. None of us should be prepared to accept that. Whenever we talk about gender equality we should be explicitly clear that there are groups of women who face even greater challenges, dare I say, than some of the rest of us. Fixing this for every woman is our challenge, and we should not stop until we have achieved it.
Finally, it is 100 years since we got the vote, but the suffragette movement actually began back in the 1860s. I am so pleased they did not give up after 40 years. If there is one message we can all take from that, it is that this is long-term. But I do not want it to be long-term—I want change to happen faster. I do not want to be looking at what we can achieve over the next 100 years; I want us to be looking at what we can achieve in a generation, or in the next five years, 10 years or 15 years. We need to do that, because lives are ticking by. I had the chance to meet too many girls in too many countries with bags of talent but no opportunity. Their clock is ticking. Every single day that we do not see change fast enough, for them and for the rest of us, is a day of opportunity lost and a day of talent wasted.
I do not accept that our world needs to be like this. I do not accept that our country needs to be like this. We have made a lot of progress, but we have to go further and we have to go faster. I am really proud that all of us here can be a strong voice for women, not just in our country but around the world, to articulate the challenges they often face when they have no way of talking about them themselves. We know, looking back over recent years and over the last century, that things can be different. We also know, however, that we have to choose to make them different. If nothing else, this debate is showing that as far as the UK Parliament is concerned, we are making that choice for things to be different. All I can say is that I am going to be part of that change and part of the effort to see the next 100 years deliver much, much more than the last 100 years did.
I rise today to keep my promise to every year remember the women killed by male violence since the previous International Women’s Day. As always, I owe the research of this list to Karen Ingala Smith and the Counting Dead Women project, which works in partnership with the Women’s Aid “Femicide Census” report. Women like Karen face a backlash for undertaking such research. After today, I will to be told that I do not care about men who have died, which is obviously ridiculous. Such a thing is never said to those who stand up and honour the men of this country. I am grateful that Karen Ingala Smith ignores this and remains on the side of the women who died, not the forces who want to ignore them.
All these stories are in the public domain. As always, the women are of all ages and were killed in violent episodes at the hands of men. Violence against women and girls is an epidemic. If as many people died every week at a sporting event, or because they had a specific job, there would be a national outcry. These women deserve the same. We must all do better to hear their stories and to end the culture of male violence that killed them.
The names are: Anne-Marie James; Sabrina Mullings; Sheila Morgan; Tracey Wilkinson; Kanwal Williams; Vicki Hull; Hannah Bladon; Carolyn Hill; Katrina Evemy; Megan Bills; Karolina Chwiluk; Jane Sherrat; Tracy Kearns; Concepta Leonard; Gemma Leeming; Emma Day; Mohanna Abdhua; Marjorie Cawdery; Sobhia Khan; Romina Kalachi; Arena Saeed; Alyson Watt; Sarah Jeffrey; Karen Young; Jean Chapman; Janice Griffiths; Joanne Rand; Ellen Higginbottom; Julie Parkin; Molly McLaren; Vera Savage; Celine Dookhran; Vanessa James; Florina Pastina; Olivia Kray; Farnaz Ali; Elizabeth Jordan; Leanne Collopy; Rikki Lander; Alex Stuart; Leah Cohen; Hannah Cohen; Beryl Hammond; Quyen Ngoc Nguyen; Karen Jacquet; Asiyah Harris; Jessica King; Tyler Denton; Emma Kelty; Jane Hings; Linda Parker; Nasima Noorzia; Katherine Smith; Leanne McKie; Jane Sergeant; Moira Gilbertson; Shaeen Akthar; Teresa Wishart; Anne O’Neill; Elizabeth Merriman; Janet Northmore; Jillian Howell; Mary Steel; Chloe Miazek; Simone Grainger; Michele Anison; Patricia McIntosh; Lisa Chadderton; Monika Lasek; Susan Westwood; Ella Parker; Janine Bowater; Suzanne Brown; Rebecca Dykes; Jodie Willsher; Beverley Bliss; Nicole Campbell; Iuliana Tudos; Jayne Reat; Jillian Grant; Pauline Cockburn; Julie Fox; Anne Searle; Melanie Clark; Elizabeta Lacatusu; Terrie-Ann Jones; Claire Tavener; Julie Clark; Amelia Blake; Cassie Hayes; Claire Harris; Cheryl Gabriel-Hooper; Ruksana Begum; Saeeda Hussain; Danielle Richardson; Jill Sadler; Lynn McNally; Charlotte Teeling; Crystal Gossett, who was killed with her son, who was 16, and her baby daughter; Diane Gossett; and Laura Huteson. Karen texted me this morning, after she had sent that list, to add three more women to the list from over the weekend: Laura Figueira de Farida; Angela Rider; and Fiona Scourfield.
I also want to read the names of the women murdered at the hands of terrorism in the UK in the last year. It may seem to some that this pattern of violence is different from violence against women and girls, but we in this place must recognise that the patterns of violent behaviour and the perpetration of violence against women and girls have been seen in the history of many of those who go on to commit terrorist atrocities. Their names are: Aysha Frade; Christine Archibald; Kirsty Boden; Sara Zelenak; Angelika Klis; Georgina Callandar; Saffie Roussos; Kelly Brewster; Olivia Campbell; Alison Howe; Lisa Lees; Jane Tweddle-Taylor; Megan Hurley; Nell Jones; Michelle Kiss; Sorrell Leczkowski; Chloe Rutherford; Eilidh MacLeod; Wendy Fawell; Courtney Boyle; Elaine McIver; and Andreea Cristea.
I want to finish my remarks by saying that all of these women mattered. So many people want to use their political persuasion to assume that perpetrators of this violence look and think in a certain way. I care about all women and want to pay tribute to the All Women Count lobby that is taking place in Parliament to recognise the advanced barriers to support and, if I am honest, our national sympathy—
I thank the hon. Lady for the passion and experience with which she speaks in the House about domestic violence and, sadly in this case, murder. She spoke of Alyson Watt, a constituent of mine who was murdered by Gary Brown, who pleaded guilty just a few weeks ago. That horrific crime was compounded by the fact that Alyson’s son was caught up in the act and was critically ill in hospital. He has huge, life-changing injuries. In a bitter irony, Alyson was a senior domestic abuse project worker with Barnardo’s. Her friends said that she dedicated her life and work to helping others. Politicians like us are here today and gone tomorrow, but does the hon. Lady agree that we owe it to Alyson and everyone else she just listed to be much more proactive in our schools and communities to try to end male entitlement and violence?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I thank him for coming here to listen to the name of his constituent and for recognising that just because someone is in the know about domestic violence, as his constituent was, that does not protect them from male violence. I have met women who, on the face of it, people would never think would be victims. We want to cast victims as being one way and it is simply not the case.
We in this place need to recognise our commitment to ending the barriers faced by every woman in this country. We must never, ever forget that that includes refugee women, who face multiple disadvantage in our country and have often suffered before they arrive here—and suffer while they are here—multiple forms of violence, both sexual and domestic. Our test should always be: did we do everything that we could to protect all women? For too many women in this country, the answer to this is still simply no. We must do better.
It is a huge privilege to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), whom I served with on the Women and Equalities Committee. People say, “Do we still need an International Women’s Day?”, and I think that her speech sets out exactly the reasons why we do.
It is a huge honour to speak on International Women’s Day, which is a huge opportunity for us all to share in the achievements, particularly in this anniversary year of suffrage. One hundred years ago, some women were first given the vote, but this is also an opportunity to set out our ambitions for the next 10 years, as we come to celebrate the centenary of all women getting the vote, and for the next 100 years, so that the women who will be sitting in this place then can look back and list what our generation has achieved for women. I take the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening): it is important to get on with that, so that they have a long list of achievements to read out in the years to come.
There is still so much to do in this country. We have heard many hon. and right hon. Members set out the issues that women in this country still face around equal pay and the gender pay gap. We just heard the list of names of women who have died by domestic violence. We still have to get 50:50 representation in Parliament, and we also have the ongoing issue of sexual harassment.
Women across the world still face burning injustices. Women in this world are still living in absolute poverty. Women experience rape as a weapon of war on a daily basis. Women still cannot access education, even just to learn to read and write, and as a result, it is not just them but their families who suffer. Women are still being used as sex slaves and trafficked across the world. There is also the issue of female feticide—female babies are valued less than male babies and are often dumped, abandoned or even murdered in some parts of the world because men and male children are valued so much more. We have a huge amount of work to do.
In this anniversary year, to tackle the issue of getting more women into this place, Conservative Members of Parliament have set up a series of “Her Stories,” where we highlight our personal history and how we got into this place. In my new role, when I ask women, “Why don’t you stand for Parliament, for local government, for your local assembly or as a police and crime commissioner?” one of the most common comments I hear is that they do not think that they have what it takes to make a difference. Highlighting our individual stories shows that we have such a diverse mix of people in this place from all parties—people have done different jobs, come from different backgrounds and are of different classes or faiths—and we all have a right to be here.
Listening to the individual personal stories of how women got into this place will hopefully encourage other women out there to think, “Yes, I can do that.” I say this to women: “If you are coming here because you want to be the third female Prime Minister of this country, you are probably coming here for the wrong reason. If you are coming here because you care passionately about an issue and you will not stop until you have achieved your aim, you are exactly the right person to come here, regardless of your background or experience.”
I want put on record the extraordinary work that my hon. Friend does, the experience as a former nurse that she brought to the Women and Equalities Committee, and the experience that she brings to the House as a whole, which provides an example for us all. She is absolutely right to highlight the importance of those stories in inspiring other women to come here.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her kind comments. She herself is an absolute inspiration to women throughout the House as a result of the work that she has done as the first Chairwoman of that Select Committee in not only highlighting issues that are important to women, but pushing those issues.
I want to reflect on my personal and family story. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) mentioned her grandmother. A hundred years ago, my own grandmother did not have the right to vote. My family were Irish Catholics, and it was not until 1922 that women in southern Ireland—and men—were given the vote. In Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, many Catholic women and men could not vote in local elections until the Electoral Law Amendment Act 1968 came into force, mainly because the Irish Catholic community were neither home owners nor ratepayers and were therefore disqualified. I welcome our celebration of what happened 100 years ago, and I shall welcome our celebration in 10 years’ time, but I think it was a travesty that there were women in the United Kingdom who could not vote simply because of the community from which they came.
In the next generation of the family is my aunt, who came over from Ireland to work in this country. She actually worked in this place—in the dining rooms, serving Members of both this House and the other place. She has many a tale to tell about her time working here, although you will pleased to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I will not reveal any of them today. One of her abiding memories is of being able to pay tribute to Winston Churchill when he was lying in state. I am honoured to follow in her footsteps by also working in this place, although in a different role.
We all have family stories to tell that would make a difference, and we should be loud and proud about our history. It concerns me, however, that although we are achieving equality for women, we are not achieving it for all women, in this country or in the world. It is important that when we fight for equality for women, we do so for all women, and those in the most vulnerable communities often need our help the most.
I am also slightly nervous about the discord in this country that makes some women more equal than others, and gives some a greater right than others to speak out on women’s issues. We are a broad church of women in this place, and within our own political parties there is a broad church of women who have come here with different experiences and values, and different issues on which they want to campaign. My message is that there is no right or wrong issue on which to campaign. We all have different views about the NHS, education and the economy, and we all have a right to express those views. It is important for us, as a group of sisters, to respect each other’s views: we may debate them and, perhaps, argue against them, but we must respect the fact that we all have the right to express them.
Let me pursue that point by highlighting the person from whom I take inspiration on the political scene. You would of course, Madam Deputy Speaker, expect Margaret Thatcher to be one of my political heroines. I grew up in a working-class area of south London where there was little or no aspiration for a working-class kid like me, but on television I saw a woman who—although she had a posh accent, often wore a string of pearls, and carried a handbag at all times—told me from that television screen that it did not matter where I came from; it was what I wanted to do and how hard I was prepared to work for it that was going to make the difference.
You would expect Florence Nightingale to be high on my heroine list, Madam Deputy Speaker. As a nurse I worked at St Thomas’ hospital, and did courses at the Nightingale training school. She transformed not just nursing but healthcare in this country. You would also expect Marie Curie to be high on the list, Madam Deputy Speaker. As someone who worked in cancer care, I know that she put her life on the line to increase scientific advances and make a difference to cancer treatment. My greatest respect, however, goes to someone in a political sphere very different from mine. She sat on the Opposition Benches, but she is my absolute political heroine. She has, I believe, been underrated and underestimated in the history of women in politics.
We often talk about Northern Ireland nowadays. We talk about issues related to Brexit and a frictionless border; about the lack of an Executive and the lack of an Assembly; and about the Good Friday agreement. We highlight the work of John Major, Tony Blair and George Mitchell, but we have airbrushed the work of Mo Mowlam. I think that if she were still here, we would completely disagree on issues of health, education and economics, but I hold her absolutely in respect for the work that she did in bringing the nationalist and Protestant communities together in one room. At a time when there was not a female leader of the Democratic Unionist party or a female leader of Sinn Féin, she was in a room full of men and had to knock heads together. She was a straight-talking woman, she was a feisty and funny woman, and she got things done that other people could not do. She was the first female Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I think that her efforts should be recognised.
I absolutely take on board the advice that we should never meet our heroes in life because we will only be disappointed, but I had an opportunity to meet Mo Mowlam when I was working as a nurse in Brighton and she was giving a talk at Sussex University. I had never been to the university before, and I did not really “do” political talks. I was not into politics; I just voted in elections. I went to see Mo Mowlam and hear her talk because I was so inspired by the work that she was doing for the Irish Catholic community in Northern Ireland and, indeed, for all communities by bringing them together. Her talk was funny and witty, and she was everything that I had expected her to be. I went up to her and asked her to sign a copy of her autobiography for my other half, who was working overseas at the time. She refused to do it. She said, “I am not going to sign a book and dedicate it to him if he could not make the effort to be here. I will sign it to you, as a woman—and you must keep up the good work of being interested in becoming politically aware.”
I think that Mo Mowlam was one of the great politicians of our time. She was a fantastic woman, and we must remember her and all the work that she did. She was a woman you could do business with, whichever side of the political divide you came from.
This is a an opportunity and a time for us to recognise that equality is not about everyone being the same. We can have differences and still strive together for equality for all. Calling someone less of a sister because she is on a different side of the argument does not really promote our cause of achieving equality for all women. We have fought so hard to get freedom for women, and we have fought so hard to get freedom of speech and freedom to vote, but we still have so much more to do. So let us celebrate our differences and embrace them. One of my favourite sayings from Mo Mowlam was, “You are never terrified when you say what you mean,” which is something to which I still aspire. With that in mind, let us celebrate today. Let us remember the women who have made this country great, and let us work together to tackle the issues that still exist.
I am very proud to be sitting on these famous green Benches on International Women’s Day, surrounded by other women representing constituencies in all four corners of the United Kingdom.
Since the Representation of the People Act 1918 and the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, both of which celebrate their 100th anniversary this year, significant advances have been made in ensuring that Parliament represents more accurately the country that it serves. Since those Acts, 489 women have been elected as Members of this House— a milestone that must have seemed so distant to women such as Mary Smith, who delivered the first women’s suffrage petition to Parliament in 1832. Currently, there are 208 female MPs, and I am honoured to be the first female MP for Coventry North East.
Alongside those Acts, great changes—including the industrial revolution and both world wars—successfully challenged the notion that a woman’s role was solely domestic, and opened up possibilities for women economically, politically and socially. Despite this progress, the battle is far from won. Yes, it is fantastic that we have 208 female MPs in the House, but that equates to only 32%. At the last general election, only an additional 12 women were elected; at the current rate it will take 50 years to achieve gender equality in Parliament. One hundred years after some women won the right to vote, and some were afforded the opportunity to stand for election as an MP, the fight for political equality must continue.
I am proud to come from a party that has such an impressive record on striving to achieve these things. Labour has more female MPs than all other parties put together and is the only party to advocate the use of all-women shortlists to address the inequalities still present in the current system.
I have seen many, many changes from when I first started work—in a job where I did not get equal pay. I was happy to see the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Work and Families Act 2006, which extended the right to statutory maternity leave for a full year. When I had my children, I was back at work after six weeks and 12 weeks respectively. I needed the money, and I needed to keep my job.
As we have heard in previous contributions, there have been many other advances in the cause of women’s equality. However, more still needs to be done, especially regarding maternity rights and the gender pay gap. In Coventry—the city I represent—a recent survey found that fewer than 20% of female respondents felt they are treated equally to men. A further 42% believed they have experienced gender discrimination in the workplace, and nearly 60% felt that women are under pressure to look good at all times.
It is clear that significant advances have been made since the Representation of the People Act and the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act. However, the results of that survey are alarming and remind us how far we have yet to go. Women are still paid less than men in many fields, and gender stereotypes surrounding certain degree subjects and industries still exist. Women are still objectified in the media, and for many, politics remains a man’s world, with many women feeling this glass ceiling will never, ever shatter. We have come so far, but the fight for gender equality is not over. With cuts, especially to tax credits, the NHS and social care budgets, it is often women who are hit the hardest.
Before I conclude, I would like to pay tribute on this special day to a great, strong and formidable woman, who was elected and who swept to power on 3 May 1979. She was to inspire a young woman who watched her every move—a young woman who, because of that woman’s inspiration and very presence, would become the 414th woman ever to be elected to this place. She is probably not the person Members are thinking of: this great woman lived in Coventry, and in her kitchen there was a plaque that said, “A woman’s place is in her trade union”. Her name was Dorothy Dalton; she was my mother, and she was elected to Coventry City Council on that very night—a night when the Labour party swept to power in Coventry.
Great women inspire other women. Women of influence give other women confidence. Thinking about all women around the world, I hope the Minister will join me in honouring International Women’s Day with not only a reflection on what we have achieved so far, but an acknowledgment that more can and must be done for gender equality.
It is a great delight to follow the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher). As other Members have said, we may disagree when we are in this Chamber, but there are occasions when we agree. The hon. Lady and I have had some good conversations and discussions in all-party parliamentary groups, and we agree on many other issues, so I thank her for her words in support of ladies in Coventry.
I am delighted to be able to speak in this important debate, partly because the issue, as so many other hon. Members have said, is very important, but also because, even in 2018, too many women are not allowed a voice.
What are we celebrating? We are celebrating 100 years of the Representation of the People Act 1918. We are celebrating 60 years of the Life Peerages Act 1958, under which life peers of both sexes can be Members of the Lords—that was not possible before that Act. We are celebrating 90 years since the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 was passed, which gave women electoral equality with men—in 10 years’ time, we will have even more celebrations, which is fantastic. It is 100 years since the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918. Later this year, on 14 December, it will also be 100 years since the 1918 general election, when finally women over 30 and virtually all men over 21 could vote in a general election for the first time.
In Erewash, we have had female representation since 1992, when Angela Knight was elected. She was followed, in 1997, by Liz Blackman; in 2010, by Jessica Lee; and, in 2015, by me. That is 26 years of Erewash being represented by women. I know for definite that, for half of those years, women were selected to fight the seat because they were the best, not because they were women. It is important that women feel able to put themselves forward for positions as Members of Parliament or on boards of directors, or for whatever role they want.
Let me talk about what else is happening in Erewash. Our current mayor is Councillor Mary Hopkinson, and the leader of Erewash Borough Council is Carol Hart. No one can doubt the excellent reputation Erewash has for female representation.
In previous debates on International Women’s Day, I have highlighted the great women in my constituency who are active today. I am always fearful that I will miss someone out, so today I recognise them in general for all the work they do. I also want to look back 100 years, because that is really what we are celebrating. I want to extol the virtues of another Erewash lady, who was alive 100 years ago. Dame Laura Knight was born in 1877, and she passed away in 1970. She was a highly acclaimed artist, who really embraced English impressionism. In her long career, Dame Laura was among the most successful and popular painters in Britain. She was created a Dame in 1929, and in 1936 she became the first woman elected to full membership of the Royal Academy—the Royal Academy was established in 1768, so it took a long time for the first woman to become a member.
During the first world war, Dame Laura was prohibited from painting her beloved coastal scenes, in case the artwork posed a security risk when it was displayed. Her husband Harold was a conscientious objector during the war and was required to work as a farm labourer as a result. They lived through a time when women were not represented and many men did not have representation either.
When we got to the second world war, Dame Laura was asked to produce a recruitment poster for the Women’s Land Army—once again, she played an important role in getting women involved and playing their part. In the aftermath of the war, Dame Laura was famous for her oil painting “The Nuremberg Trial”, which was reportedly greatly praised by those who had witnessed the trials, but not by those in the art world.
Dame Laura Knight—no doubt without realising it—broke many of the rules and the barriers put up by men. I am sure she has been a great role model to many people since, particularly in the art world. I am known in this House for pushing science, technology engineering and maths— STEM—subjects, yet I have just extolled the virtues of an artist. To me, however, this is all about breaking down barriers wherever they might be.
Growing up, I was an active girl guide, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to that organisation and all other youth organisations, whether for girls or boys, for the work that they do in our communities and for the real difference that they make. Each year, Girlguiding puts out an attitude survey, and the 2017 girls attitude survey shows some disturbing data. It shows that 64% of 13 to 21-year-olds have experienced sexual harassment in school in the past year. Sadly, that figure has gone up by 5% since 2014. The survey also shows that 55% of girls aged seven to 21 say that gender stereotypes affect their ability to say what they think, and that 30% of girls aged 11 to 16 think that computing is more for boys. In addition, 76% of girls aged 11 to 21 feel confident in their IT skills, but just 37% would consider a job in technology. There is a huge mismatch in that information, and it is really worrying. The survey shows that we have much more to do, and I hope that debates such as today’s will play a part in breaking down those barriers and letting girls know that they can do whatever they want.
We all want equality, and we all want the barriers to whatever we do to be removed, but it is also important that we have choices. It is important that we recognise the contribution made by those women who take the decision to dedicate many years to raising our future generations. My mum was one of those women who stayed at home to bring up her family, and I want to finish by repeating something that she said to me as I was approaching 18. Her words have stayed in my mind, and I remember them every time we get near to an election. Her words were more of an instruction. She said: “Women died for us to have the vote. Always vote.”
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) and to hear so many inspirational speeches across the House today. In particular, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for her moving tribute to the victims of violence in our country.
It is fitting that we should mark International Women’s Day alongside the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918. My constituency has a proud history of women being pioneers and fighting for women’s rights and workers’ rights, going back to the matchwomen’s strike of 1888 and to the establishment of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, led by Sylvia Pankhurst, which was based in Bow and had branches all over the east end. The suffragettes grounded their campaign in the everyday reality of working women’s lives and fought for a living wage, decent housing, equal pay, food price controls, adequate pensions and much else. They saw the vote as just one aspect of the struggle for equality, and while it was an important step towards equality, it represented a partial victory rather than a complete one. We owe a huge amount to them for giving us the opportunity to stand here today and speak in this debate, and to make a contribution to public life in our country and internationally. Much progress has been made since then, but we have so much more to do in relation to women’s status, safety, rights, pay and representation.
I am incredibly proud of the fact that I am one of the three Muslim women elected to Parliament in 2010, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood). I am also proud of the fact that many other Muslim women and women from other faith backgrounds and from black and minority ethnic backgrounds have entered Parliament, but there is much more to be done to increase the number of women and those from other backgrounds in our Parliament. I want to pay tribute to the women in Parliament who enabled us to get here. They were the pioneers who first arrived here, and I want to single out two in particular.
The first is my Labour predecessor, Oona King, who is now a member of the House of Lords. She was only the second black woman to be elected to this House. The other is the former deputy leader of our party, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who has done so much for us and for our country, and who commands the support of women across the House. I certainly would not be here were it not for the encouragement and support from her and from many other women in public life.
I hope that we can continue to build on that by ensuring that women have the confidence, the encouragement, the support, the networks and the back-up to enable them to charge ahead and to stand for positions in public life. That is why I took the step of setting up the UpRising leadership charity, which has cross-party support. It supports women and men—particularly women—from white working class and ethnic minority backgrounds to enter public life in the professions and, particularly, in politics. We work in different constituencies so that the next generation can have the support it needs and does not have to struggle in the way that previous generations have done.
I have heard many stories of people deciding to stand for Parliament and being told, “You can’t do that because people won’t support a woman.” Having the audacity to stand is still a challenge for many women. Too often, they are told that they cannot make it because they will not have the support of the people in their communities or that they will not have the support of the men. It is when women push forward and stand, as I and many others have done, that those preconceptions and prejudices are shown to be wrong. That is why we must continue to encourage young women to stand for public life and for positions in politics locally and nationally, despite all the online abuse and all the stories of abuse and injustice that we have heard in the past year. I hope that we can all continue to work together on that effort.
We have achieved a great deal, as we have heard today, but the focus on progress must continue. Progress comes with pressure. Over the past year, we have seen the #MeToo campaign and other campaigns relating to the plight of women emerging in countries where we do not expect women to suffer in this way, and that tells us that we still have much to do. Around the world, women continue to bear the brunt of poverty, of war, of sexual violence and of climate change. There are 130 million girls not in education, and 15 million girls of primary school age who will never get the chance to learn to read or write in primary school. Globally, more than a third of women are subject to violence, and 750 million women and girls are married before the age of 18. Far too often, women still bear the brunt of the conflicts around the world. They are exposed to brutal attacks, often as deliberate tools of political and ethnic violence. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, women are far more likely than soldiers to be victims of violence. In Sudan, rape has been used as a weapon of war by Government and opposition forces. A report published by the International Rescue Committee last year stated that the scale of violence against women and girls in South Sudan was double the global average.
The hon. Lady is making an important point. A longer-term consequence of children in those communities growing up with violence around them is that domestic violence rates, even after peace is secured, are way higher than in other countries. It is vital that she makes that point, and she is quite right to do so.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention and for her work when she was International Development Secretary. As a former shadow International Development Minister, I cannot stop being affected by the experience of women in conflict zones and other parts of the world. The ongoing crisis in Syria has forced the displacement of women, who have fled to other countries in the hope of finding safety. However, as the right hon. Lady points out, women continue to experience violence long after they have fled the instability in their own countries. The women living in temporary refugee settlements in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere have limited access to support and live in constant fear of further violence and forced marriage.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful point. Does she agree that much more should be done to encourage more women to take part in making peace? There should be greater recognition of the valuable role that women can play in creating peace agreements and trying to end conflict. In Northern Ireland, very many women helped to bring about the peace that we enjoy today.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady. We have seen the important contribution that women can make, but they are too often left out of the negotiations. Our Government must continue to push forward and ensure that women have a strong voice in peace negotiations.
Many girls whose lives have already been devastated by conflict in their own countries are being forced into situations that no child should have to face. They are living cycles of abuse, exploitation and trauma. Some 70% of the Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh from conflict in Myanmar are women and children, and the United Nations has identified what has happened in Myanmar as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing and that genocide cannot be ruled out. It is increasingly apparent that the Burmese military has systematically used rape and violence against Rohingya women as part of their campaign of terror. They have torched villages and tortured civilians, particularly women. According to a UN report, girls aged as young as five or seven were raped, often in front of their relatives and sometimes by three to five men taking turns, all dressed in army uniforms. The report goes on to detail accounts of summary executions, torture and disappearances. I have visited the region several times in recent years and have spoken to refugees who have fled violence and who have shared stories of rape and violence against them. As the world watches on, our Government must ensure that those who have perpetrated the violence—the Burmese military—are held to account and that a referral is made to the International Criminal Court.
Violence against women is a violation of human rights, and we have a collective responsibility to protect women here in this country and around the world from the appalling suffering that they face and to address the implications of that suffering for their children. Britain has a proud history as a leader in international development, and we must continue to press for progress. As other hon. Members have pointed out, the millennium development goals galvanised efforts from countries around the world to meet the needs of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, particularly women. We must also continue to support the sustainable development goals and encourage other countries to do the same. The 2030 agenda for sustainable development, which has gender equality and women’s empowerment at its heart and which was adopted by world leaders in 2015, offers a significant opportunity for progress. The first SDG aims to end poverty in all its forms everywhere, and the fifth seeks to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. I urge Ministers across Government to champion the need to achieve those goals and to continue to support our aid effort.
In conclusion, I want to share a personal story. I was born in a country, Bangladesh, that was born out of a conflict in which millions of people lost their lives. Rape and violence were used as weapons of war, and that continues to be the case in many other countries today. We must all continue to work hard to ensure that we bring an end to sexual violence in conflict.
It is an honour to follow a moving speech by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). One of my faults is usually overconfidence, but I confess that I begin to speak in this debate with a degree of nervousness. So much often goes wrong when men try to talk about issues related to women and their rights, and I could too easily end up saying that women need to step up when the truth is that grotesque imbalances at a senior level often mean that it is men who need to step up and work with women to deconstruct the obstacles that stand in the path of female progress. We need more men from all sides of the political debate to step up and speak up about that in this place.
I could also easily end up being one of those men who says that simply because we have a female Prime Minister, a female Home Secretary and more female MPs than ever, this debate should be over. However, just because suicide is a disproportionately young, male problem that does not mean that a gender pay gap, whereby women effectively work for free for 63 days a year, is okay. We need to work on both those issues, not pretend that one cancels out the other. Worse still, the deeper one goes into such issues, the more likely it is that one will be accused of mansplaining, and then one will hear from the Prime Minister. I hope to avoid most of that, and I want instead to make three points.
I could not go on the women’s march on Sunday, but I was sorry to miss it, so I tweeted as much, saying:
“A better gender balance will make parliament stronger for everyone.”
For just a few hours, I subsequently received if not the torrent of abuse that women often receive on Twitter, then a small flood of abuse. Twitter is not an equal opportunities abuser, but users were certainly keen to tell me what equal opportunities would look like. Users told me that a meritocracy would produce the best Parliament, never mind if it was a balanced Parliament. The more I explained that I am not in favour of positive discrimination—I had not said that I was—the more I realised that Twitter was showing me what being mansplained to feels like. While it seems self-evident that, in an equal society, a balance in Parliament or the workplace is an obvious consequence of equality of opportunity, to too many it is not. Likewise, it seems obvious that if an equal Parliament better reflects the population it serves, it better represents that population and acts more instinctively in the whole country’s interests.
In saying all that, I cannot help thinking that I am preaching to the converted here, but I was shocked to see that what felt obvious to me was interpreted as an attack on men, and that is the second thing that I want to talk about. Too many people still seem to think that men have to lose for feminism to succeed. The reality is surely that a society that draws without discrimination on the talents of all its members is better for all its members. When women are treated better, men and women are the winners. A fairer division of labour both in how people bear the burdens of childcare and in the pressure of earning the money that pays the mortgage would benefit everyone. Men have nothing to fear from the shards of glass that fall after the shattering of the glass ceiling.
Finally, I want to talk about what men might do to create a society that is so equal that nobody would bat an eyelid at the idea of a man having the same aspirations to equality as a woman. Here are a few tiny ideas: should men—still more often the senior people at work—do more to promote the flexible working that might promote equality? Should the Government incentivise that? Should teacher training include more on the casual use of language, which shapes children, whereby boys are good if they are strong, and girls are praised for being pretty, but somehow “pretty boy” doesn’t always ring true as a compliment? Should toy manufacturers think more carefully, as they increasingly do, about whether blue is always for boys? Should we not consider that if we make catcalling a hate crime, we are treating the symptom, when all of us here should be committed to treating the causes of sexist behaviour wherever it starts? Should we not all do all of that, because when the country is better for all women, it will be better for all men, too?
I wanted to speak not because I am some paragon of right-on virtue—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
On the point of my virtue, I give way.
I have no knowledge of the hon. Gentleman’s virtue, but I thank him for giving way. I praise him for a good speech so far. May I add to his list? He should join the white ribbon campaign and the all-party parliamentary group for the white ribbon campaign UK, so that we can try to end violence against women and girls. He is most welcome at our meeting next Tuesday.
Not least because the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is nodding vigorously on the Front Bench, I take it that the white ribbon is a good campaign to join. It is obviously a weakness that I do not know a huge amount about it. I will do my best to join the hon. Gentleman on Tuesday.
I am not pretending that I am a paragon of virtue on this matter, or indeed on any other; I wanted to speak because I know that I am not. The more we are conscious, across this House, of where we are weak, the stronger we can be. I know how often I have failed to step up, at home, at work and in this Chamber—it is not always possible to do so, for a whole host of very real reasons—but personally and professionally, inequality is the loss of all of us. Now more than ever, we need men to stand up with women for fairness, because we will all be better off for it.
I feel immensely privileged to speak in this debate to mark International Women’s Day, 100 years after some women first got the vote. I represent the borough of Lewisham, where, I am proud to say, 100 years after women got the right to be Members of Parliament, we have three female MPs. I am delighted to serve alongside my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), and for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who have given me immeasurable support before and after my election to this place. The borough of Lewisham has been pioneering in gender equality. In the 1970s, the council set up the Lewisham women’s rights working party. I am proud to say that we have no gender pay gap on Lewisham Council, and we have more women in senior council roles than men.
So much has been done over the last 100 years to promote gender equality—the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999, and the Equality Act 2010 to name but a few—but there is still a great deal more to be done. Having worked as an employment rights lawyer for many years, I all too often saw women demoted or dismissed after returning from maternity leave, and employers putting up unnecessary barriers to flexible working. I saw women being paid less than men for work of equal value, and women who were too afraid to speak out when they were discriminated against, for fear of losing their job.
Those experiences motivated me to try to make a difference. Two years ago, on International Women’s Day, after I had become a mum, I launched my business providing affordable legal advice to women who faced maternity and sex discrimination at work, which I ran until I was elected to this place. I wish there was no demand for such a business, but there was, and that is borne out by the statistics.
In 2016, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission undertook a major piece of research on the prevalence and nature of maternity discrimination at work. The results, based on survey interviews with more than 3,000 mothers and 3,000 employers, are quite shocking. More than three in four mothers—77%—said that they had a negative or discriminatory experience before, during or after their maternity leave. One in five mums reported experiencing harassment or negative comments from colleagues or their employer relating to pregnancy or flexible working. Ten per cent. of mums said that their employer discouraged them from attending antenatal appointments, and 11% said that they felt forced to leave their job after having a child. Scaled up, that amounts to 54,000 women a year being forced to leave their job simply for becoming a mum.
According to the Fawcett Society, the mean aggregate gender pay gap for part-time and full-time workers stands at 18.4%. At the current rate of progress, it will take more than 100 years to close the gap, which is just not acceptable. There is a huge amount more that should and can be done to end gender inequality at work. The Select Committee on Women and Equalities has made strong recommendations in this area that have yet to be enacted by the Government.
To start with, all jobs should be advertised as flexible by default, unless there is a strong business case for them not to be. In the age of technology, being sat behind a desk in an office from 9 am until 6 pm, five days a week, is rarely necessary, yet the culture of presenteeism—of staying late in the office but not necessarily being productive—persists. A cultural shift is needed in the way that we work, with compressed hours, home working, staggered hours or term-time working becoming the norm, so that families—both men and women—can better strike a work-life balance, and so that having children does not diminish prospects at work.
We urgently need proper paid paternity leave to be introduced. Shared parental leave has been a step in the right direction, but take-up has been low—it is only at an estimated 2%—and the statutory rates of pay mean that it is only really an option for those in high-income families or those with savings. In addition, the model of transferring leave from mum to dad does not work for all families. Instead, non-transferable paternity leave, paid at a rate closer to actual earnings, should be implemented. Only then will we get the cultural shift at work needed to end stereotypes about women being a burden on business, and the assumption that they alone will be responsible for childcare duties. That would go a long way towards ending the gender pay gap sooner rather than later.
Laws on maternity discrimination and enforcement of breaches also need toughening up. To start with, it should be made harder for women to be made redundant after their maternity leave. Regulation 10 of the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999 gives women some protection against being made redundant while pregnant or on maternity leave, but the protected period ends when the woman returns to work. That does not make sense, given that very often it is exactly when a new mum comes back to work that they begin to feel pushed out. To strengthen our discrimination laws, the period of protection against redundancy should be extended to 12 months after a women returns to work following her maternity leave.
We also need stricter sanctions against employers who breach discrimination laws or fail to publish details of their gender pay gap. I welcome the Labour policy launched today by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler). It would help to close the gender pay gap by ensuring that all private and public employers with more than 250 staff had to audit their gender pay gaps—and, furthermore, prove that they were taking action to close the gap—or face strict penalties. If employers risk losing money, they are more likely to comply with their legal obligations.
Finally, rights are often far too difficult to enforce. According to the charity Maternity Action, the introduction of employment tribunal fees led to a reduction of 40% in maternity discrimination claims. I am alarmed that there have been suggestions by Conservative Members that fees might be reintroduced, albeit at a lower level. Tribunal fees are a clear barrier to access to justice for women who have been discriminated against at work.
The time limit for bringing a claim for maternity discrimination in the employment tribunal is three months from the act complained of. Both the Women and Equalities Committee and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have said that this is not long enough. Those with a newborn baby at home are likely to be having sleepless nights, not to mention feeding round the clock and endless nappy changes. New mums also often go through a huge period of readjustment, physically and mentally, so the notion that they will engage with a complex legal process is simply unrealistic in many cases. It is likely that far more women would assert their rights if the time limit was increased from three months to six.
Later today, I will be proud to mark International Women’s Day by speaking at an event in Lewisham alongside some of the original members of the Lewisham women’s rights working party. We will reflect not only on how much has been achieved over the past few decades, but on how much more we still have to do: ending the gender pay gap once and for all; making flexible working the norm rather than the exception; and promoting shared caring responsibilities. Only then will we achieve true gender equality at work.
It is huge honour to be called to speak as the first woman Member of Parliament for Chelmsford on this, the International Women’s Day in the 100th year since women won the vote. Yesterday I became a member of the Women and Equalities Committee and attended my first meeting. There are a number of mothers on that Committee, and we were looking at the challenges faced by the parents of a newborn baby. We came up with a long list of recommendations, every one of which is to help fathers, because it is only by working together that we will achieve equality. I want to thank the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and, especially, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for their contributions in this debate.
I am also a member of the Science and Technology Committee. As this is also the Year of Engineering, I want to focus my words on issues that affect women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. EngineeringUK estimates that the demand for graduate engineers outstripped supply by 20,000 people last year. We aspire to be a world-leading, 21st-century, innovative economy, but to achieve that we will need to double the number of engineering students at our universities. We will succeed only if we inspire the next generation of young women in our schools to take up the opportunities of science and tech.
Before coming to the House today, I attended an assembly at Barnes Farm Junior School in Chelmsford. I met Ada Barnes, who is in year 3. Ada told me that she is named after Ada Lovelace, who was the pioneer of computing. She invented the first algorithm that was run on a computer. She was the world’s first computer programmer and the mother of the digital revolution. We all know about Charles Babbage. He invented the machine, but she discovered what the machine could do. Ada Barnes asked me which woman in history had inspired me, so who do I choose? Do I choose my own daughter’s namesake, Elizabeth, our great Queen today? Do I choose Elizabeth I, who stood at the dockside at Tilbury as the Spanish armada was approaching and explained that she had
“the body of a weak, feeble woman; but…the heart and stomach of a king”?
She defended our country. Do I choose my namesake, Queen Victoria, who not only ran the huge British empire, but was mother to nine children? Or, at a time when I said I want to focus on women in science, do I focus on Margaret Thatcher, not only our first woman Prime Minister, but a scientist, too?
In areas of science we are doing really well, as 50% of those studying to become doctors at our medical schools are women.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that Margaret Thatcher was also the scientist behind the Mr Whippy ice cream?
Absolutely, which goes to show how interesting science is. Women in science make great leaders, and women doctors have already broken though the glass ceiling in so many ways. Last year, the chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges brought together the presidents of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, of Physicians, of Pathologists, of Radiologists, of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, of General Practitioners and of Paediatrics and Child Health. They were joined by the outgoing president of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists for a photo call. Every one of the nine people present was a woman. Our chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, is a phenomenal woman, leading the world with her campaigns on antimicrobial resistance and now focusing on air quality. Those who are interested in technology, tech ethics and artificial intelligence should go and meet our Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, as she is inspirational. She has degree in history and a masters in informational science.
However, there are other areas of science in which we are not doing at all well. Fewer than one in 10 of the engineers in this country are women, and we have the lowest level of female engineering professionals anywhere in Europe. Not only are we behind Germany and France, but we are way behind countries such as Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus. We must do better. Increasing the number of pupils taking maths at A-level is key. In November, the Government announced that schools would get an additional £600 for every additional pupil taking A-level maths. That has the potential to be transformational, so I thank Ministers for that. I hope that it will dramatically increase the number of pupils studying maths, but it will not necessarily solve the problem. That is because already nearly four out of 10 of the people doing maths A-level are girls, so that is not where the issue lies. The problem is in physics.
To become an engineer, one needs to do not only maths but physics. Girls are really good at physics. At GCSE, the classes are 50:50; some 64,000 girls passed physics GCSE last year, with nearly half of them receiving a top grade—an A or A*.That is brilliant, but at A-level the level drops from 50:50 to girls making up just one in five students. That ratio has not changed in 20 years, so we must encourage young women to do more in physics.
I need to declare an interest: I did physics A-level and I did win a prize. I won a silver medal in the physics Olympiad. I still have the book I was awarded, and inside the front cover is an inscription that is addressed to “Mr Victoria” and congratulates “him” on “his achievement”. I gave up physics—let us just say that I did not think that this was a career that valued me. That is ancient history, and a generation later much has changed, but we do need to encourage girls and to give them the evidence of why that career wants them.
I told the primary school assembly at Barnes Farm today three reasons why the girls might wish to consider a career in engineering. The first was that they are wanted. One third of companies say that they cannot find the STEM skills they need, so if girls do science and technology, they will find jobs. The second was that they will make money, because those jobs will be well paid. The evidence shows us that girls who have studied maths and one other science at A-level earn, on average, 30% more than their peers—an extra 30p for every pound. The third was that they will be happy. A recent study of more than 300 women engineers found that more than 80% of them said they were happy or very happy with their career choice. How many people can say that?
Taking a degree in engineering is a passport to work all across the world. Engineering gave us flight and helped to break through the frontier of space. Just last month, I was at CERN in Switzerland, where our engineers are uncovering the secrets of the universe. Taking up a career in engineering does not mean giving up all the glitz and the glamour. Just 10 days ago, at the catwalks in Milan, they had got rid of the models and instead the handbags were flown down the catwalks and paraded by a squadron of drones.
Today is International Women’s Day. It is a century since women got the vote. It is also the Year of Engineering. May I ask that we encourage all the women and men in this House to use that opportunity to go out and inspire the young women in our schools and classrooms to consider a career in engineering?
It is an honour and a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), with whom I shared that memorable trip to CERN last month—it was a joy. I was particularly moved to come across not one but two of my old school friends, both female, working on the large hadron collider—I very nearly understood what they were doing.
In the 21st century, is it not time to say, “Job done. We don’t need International Women’s Day any more”? I say that we need it as much as ever, as many others have today, and not because I look backwards, refusing to accept progress. In fact I celebrate our progress, which is one reason why International Women’s Day is so important: we get to celebrate our achievements. I say that we still need it not because I want women in the role of victims—quite the opposite—and not because the job is done, because it is not. International Women’s Day has the power to focus women’s and men’s minds not just in this place, but across the country and the world, in really productive ways, and there are benefits for men and women of doing so.
One of those ways is the domestic stocktake—others have already mentioned some of this, but I will give a few more examples. The date of 8 March gives us a nudge to ask how we are doing on different dimensions of gender equality. We can look at the affordability and availability of childcare, at gender pay gaps, as others have mentioned, and at the impact of public sector finance cuts on women’s lives. All those give us a sieve for sifting out the stubborn aspects of economic and other inequalities.
Another value of today is that it nudges us to lift our gaze to the rest of the world. We should be asking how the millennium development goals and now the sustainable development goals have benefited women and girls. How might women’s lives be improved by better, more inclusive and more transparent processes for trade negotiations, for example? Those things matter, yet women get left out of those questions and processes. What is the availability—or otherwise—of water, sanitation, healthcare, education, finance and technology doing to limit or assist women’s and girls’ routes to learning and employment across the world?
A third value—the one I want to focus on—is that of imagining. What would a world free from gender inequality look like? How would we recognise it, how would it be better for women and for men, what more do we need to do to get there, and how will women’s liberation truly change the world? Well, it would be a world in which no woman would ever be fearful or uncomfortable walking down a city centre street or into an office, whatever the time of day or night, wherever they are and whatever they are wearing. It would be a world in which it was unthinkable that my nieces would ever be sexually harassed, or even have to think about the possibility. It would be a world in which it was impossible that my mother could be made nervous by big groups of loud men shouting stuff.
It would be a world in which no one would even dream of paying to have someone else’s body at their disposal for sexual gratification, objectification or abuse, whether in a so-called sexual entertainment venue, in prostitution or pornography, or in an intimate relationship. In a world of gender inequality, or even equality—see; it is difficult to imagine, but we are getting there—in which there was women’s liberation, no man would even want to do any of those things. They would choose. They would know the benefits of and how to have intimate relationships, professional relationships, and social and wider public relationships with women based on respect and, in the case of intimate relationships, shared mutual enjoyment, rather than something that is enforced. In that regard, I pay tribute to Bristol Fawcett Society, Bristol Women’s Voice and the many other women in Bristol who are working and campaigning specifically on changing the landscape of sexual objectification and gratification, and on challenging our rules and processes for making decisions about so-called sexual entertainment venues.
It would be a world in which young girls were just as likely as young boys to consider jobs in technology, engineering, particle physics or business management; as likely to take up apprenticeships in building trades or in catering; and as likely to get those jobs as their male peers—and, most of all, without any comment, nudging, eyebrow raising or sexual harassment at work when they did. It would be a world in which all employers, not just the really good ones—they do definitely exist—saw all men, not just women, as potentially needing time off to care for babies, children or vulnerable older relatives; and then, as some employers already do, worked with employees and trade unions to value those qualities in men and women, instead of discriminating against them, and worked out how to manage the employment structures needed. That is a big job for all of us in the 21st century.
It would be a world in which rape was not used as a war crime. In fact, in my head—this is a big imagine—it would be world in which rape was not a part of any woman’s life. Just saying that out loud, I am struck that that seems really difficult to imagine, which is a marker of why International Women’s Day is still so important. To me, it should be unimaginable that any man would ever think it was an option or something they would want to do. It would be a world in which rape was a part of history. It would be a world in which refugee women were not trafficked, abused or imprisoned, with their talents refused to be recognised. It would also be a world in which the end of violence against women and girls meant that not only the use of rape as a war crime, but the abuse of women in other areas of conflict, was over. It would be a world in which women and girls were not forced to flee their homelands in the first place, but in which, if they were, we would welcome them and make them safe.
So how do we get there? Government, business, education and so on all have their roles, as we do in this place, but I want us—men and women—to start right here in this room. We can all help to bring about, and benefit from, true gender equality. Women in this place and beyond, I ask you a series of questions. Can you advise, guide, support and encourage other women and girls? Can you be the person who spots a woman’s potential and tells them, because they might not have realised it? Can you take part in any of the many schemes to give women a chance to shadow or be mentored by you? Can you speak out against injustices that are holding women back and keeping women fearful, and stand by your sisters who are affected by those injustices even if you are not—in fact, especially if you are not? Can you recruit male allies and talk to them about why it matters that we live in a world of gender equality and how they, too, can speak out?
Will you always thank those women who have mentored and helped you? Will you let them know, years later, how their advice worked out for you? I want to say thank you to my maths teacher, Mrs Morley, who years and years ago helped me to see that maths was for girls. I also want to thank the many women MPs—too many to mention—particularly my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who I am delighted and slightly nervous to say is just in front of me, and Baroness Jean Corston, the former Member for Bristol East, both of whom showed me just how much women MPs can do for women, and in ways that many of those women will never know about. They showed me that that does not matter, because we should not expect a “thank you” note from all the women we might benefit—we should just be glad to have the chance.
While I am at the thanking stage of my speech, I might as well thank all the women in my family, particularly the young women, who challenge me so much, inspire me and make me question my beliefs and think again about my particular form of feminism. I thank all the sisters in the violence against women movement who have helped us to make so much progress from where we were when I started out as a teenager, to where we are now.
I ask all Members to look around our constituencies to see whether we can spot where we are making progress towards that truly great, gender-equal world, and where progress is still stalling—and we need to be honest about that.
The hon. Lady is my near neighbour—her constituency is almost in Somerset—and she is making such a passionate case. May I say in the spirit of cross-party relations that one of women’s great strengths is that they are very good at working together. I know that we have our differences, but when we get together—for example, on the Jo Cox campaign—we do great work. Perhaps we should highlight that more. On a day like today, we should give particular credit to the women who work together in so many areas and who can indeed do so much great work.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She almost predicted what I was about to say next, which was to ask us all in this place whether we can do more to work across party lines. For example, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) and I have worked together on an issue that is very dear to, as well as physically close to, both our hearts. That is a really good example for me, and a personal one. In our different ways, everyone in this place finds their route to cross-party working.
As Members, can we visit more schools, youth clubs and businesses, and show more women and men that women are capable of political leadership, and that it is for us, too? Can we speak out, ask questions, use our positions for good, expect—nay, demand—answers, and hold others and ourselves to account, while always providing for improvement rather than just blankly assuming that things will never get better? Can we show women and girls that there is potentially another #MeToo—one that says, “Me too, I can be politically active, I can take a leadership role, I can study maths, I can work on whatever it is that matters to me, not held back by my gender but perhaps even helped by it”? Can we always give out that hope? My hope is that everyone present today can take forward some of the suggestions that have come from Members from all parties, and those yet to come. Can we take with us some of the spirit of International Women’s Day, here in this place, and help us all to get ever closer to a world in which gender equality and women’s liberation are a reality for us all?
It is a great pleasure to follow that wonderful speech by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), for which I thank her.
On International Women’s Day, there is certainly cause to celebrate women who have achieved great things, as well as remembering the women who are still striving to change the world. For example, there is cause to celebrate the career of Anne Glover, a biologist who was Scotland’s first chief scientific adviser and later became chief scientific adviser to the President of the European Commission, again being the first to hold the position. Professor Glover is about to become the next president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) would be interested to hear about Victoria Drummond, who was the first woman marine engineer, the first woman to serve as a merchant navy chief engineer, the first woman to hold a Board of Trade certificate as a ship’s engineer, the first woman member of the Institute of Marine Engineers, and the first woman to receive the Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea for her courage under fire in world war two.
Or, we can talk about Roza Salih, Amal Azzudin, Ewelina Siwak, Emma Clifford, Jennifer McCarron, Toni Henderson and Agnesa Murselaj. As schoolgirls, they shook the country, demanding better treatment for child asylum seekers and an end to dawn raids on families. They got movement—the UK Government stopped the policy of detaining children for immigration removal purposes in 2010—but none of them would claim total victory, I think. Those “Glasgow Girls” are all young women now, and it is to be hoped that they will continue to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others. They are already impressive and I hope we hear much, much more about them.
There are legions of women who have proven their ability in many, many fields, and there are many more who are proving that now. Being a woman is not a design error; nor is it a blessing without measure. Women are, quite simply, human beings. All around the world, though, there are examples of women being treated unfairly for the simple crime of being a woman, and we have heard some examples today. I think, though, that we can be too smug in suggesting that that is something that thrives elsewhere and has no foundation here. The “Time’s Up” and #MeToo revelations have shown that sexism is deeply embedded in our culture—that it is seen as simply a part of life and that women are expected just to deal with it.
We see it in this House: a juvenile, grinning idiocy that is sometimes so offensive; the smugness of a minority of men who think that supposedly clever point scoring proves something; an anti-intellectual nonsense that makes this continuing debate so tiring. There are men in this House who have a record of opposing progressive politics, without substantive argument but with plenty of bluster and filibuster, opposing equality as a playground joke. Like others, I am sure, I am tired of engaging with men with so little—so very little—to offer and am pleased that they represent a tiny percentage of the men I encounter.
I encourage all Members to watch the video of the debate on misogyny as a hate crime in Westminster Hall yesterday. If they do, they will see an intervention that illustrates very well what I have just described, but they will also see several excellent and important contributions that are really worth digesting. In particular, I recommend the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black). The direct manner of her speech added a clarity that makes a harsh point so much more effective.
As the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said in that debate, we seem to have come to a point where very often it is women, rather than men, who are expected to address misogyny. I hope that this year turns that around. I do have hope for Scotland’s politics in that regard. We have a woman First Minister, who is an extremely effective politician, a woman leader of the Opposition in Holyrood and a woman head of our civil service. We have a gender-balanced Cabinet in the Scottish Government already, and a large number of very good women in local government. It is not so much a case that change is coming, more that change is already happening, and Scottish politics is being rebalanced.
In this world where the President of the United States excuses juvenile offensiveness by claiming that it is just the talk in which men indulge in the changing room at the gym, and where Members of this House are falling short of decency, leaving the staff of this place feeling unable to raise complaints, it is surely time to clean the stables. I ask all Members to take that on board, as I know that they will.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock).
It is an honour to speak today in this extremely important debate on International Women’s Day. I hope to raise awareness in this House of the significant challenges that still face women in politics in this significant year celebrating 100 years since some women got the vote.
On arriving in Westminster last June, it was quite extraordinary how a group of us became friendly, having realised that we were all in very similar situations. Just one of the common denominators was that we were single parents, elected to Parliament; and the other was that we were women. At least five of us found ourselves thrust from being working single parents to Members of Parliament, practically overnight, but, every day, we are proud to be working-class women standing up for our communities.
I am very proud to be a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, and to be part of the all-party group on single parent families, which will be officially launched on International Single Parents Day on 21 March. In one of my very first conversations with the chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), she said that she had never discussed being a single mother before. It seemed that, in our company, she felt comfortable enough to speak about it. Being a single parent is not a status that people necessarily want to share, as it brings with it a stigma. It would be interesting to know, across this House, how many Members are single parents. It is imperative that we stand together to recognise the challenges that lone parents face every day. In the media, Stacey Solomon has championed being a single mother and taken a lot of criticism for it, but she speaks plainly and openly about the “mummy guilt” that goes with working away from home and with being in the public eye.
There are many challenges that I have experienced since becoming an MP. Balancing family life is not easy. It can be impossible to maintain a relationship and, unfortunately, that is one of the sacrifices that I have had to make. Throughout my working life, I have seen at first hand how many women are juggling balls—I have always been proud of the fact that that is something that I can do, but I have always known that even the most talented jugglers drop a ball. When someone is on their own, when they are the provider, the organiser, the mother, the daughter, the person who people depend on, where do they turn when that ball drops? Sadly, many women return to abusive relationships, go further into debt, or turn to alcohol, drugs or anti-depressants.
A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in July last year shows how single parents on low incomes are being hit so hard by rising living costs and the benefits freeze. How they cope with the impact of low pay and insecurity is of great concern to me and my colleagues, because, although we have been working in relatively well-paid jobs, we know at first hand that the cost of a divorce or separation is not only financial, but emotional. Only last night, when I should have been preparing this speech, I had chats with two friends who I studied A-levels with—unfortunately, not maths. They are both ambitious and talented women—we have shared a life journey—and both are happily married with three children. One battles daily in her place of work to have her hard work and dedication recognised, and she is too scared to ring her union because she fears a backlash and being seen as a troublemaker. That is not the sort of working environment that we want for women, or for anybody in society, in 2018.
I was telling my friend, in contrast, about our other friend, who lives in Melbourne, Australia. The friend I was speaking to said, “Please don’t tell me about her perfect beach life down under.” Unfortunately, I had to tell her that our friend suffered something similar to a stroke two months ago and has been told that even after intensive physiotherapy, a full recovery is unlikely. Regardless of that, I said to her, “I am sending you strength and love on International Women’s Day.” She told me that her 15-year-old daughter is doing a presentation today to 600 students in her middle school about inspiring women, and that she was going to talk about this famous woman—a teacher, a single mother and a family friend—who followed her dreams so that she could influence change.
On International Women’s Day, I can tell Members that women from all walks of life are fighting a daily battle and desperately trying to hold it together. It is great that the dynamics of this House are changing. Being a female Member of Parliament is incredible, and I am still, and always will be, full of awe and wonder at the privilege. Every woman faces a challenge every day, and the challenges that we face reflect the challenge that our society puts on women every day, from harassment in all its forms to putting food on the table and providing a home for our children.
We have many challenges in getting more women into politics, and we need to identify the barriers in order to make careers in politics more accessible to women. It is at the grassroots of politics that we need to look. I read in The Guardian yesterday that Sarah Childs from Birkbeck, University of London argues that political parties need to think again about how they assess women’s contributions. If long service is a condition of selection, for example, it automatically discriminates against women with caring responsibilities. She called for a rethink of what constitutes a good party member, because the way that is viewed often excludes women. It is well known that I am a latecomer to politics—a relative newbie in the party—and I am glad to say that in my short time in politics, my potential and talent have been recognised in my selection by Welsh Labour.
I often draw comparisons from my time playing rugby. Obviously, I believe that rugby is the best team sport in the world. Rugby union provides a platform for a wide range of players, and that, for me, is the key to a successful team. A successful political team has its forwards and its backs. It draws from a wide range of skills, but, more importantly, it represents society. We have to strive to be a political team that reflects our communities—50:50. The new Labour intake and the new intake across the House in 2017 have brought a new dynamic not just to the Labour party, but to this Parliament. I look forward to us continuing to make a difference to the lives of women in the United Kingdom and across the world.
We have had an excellent debate so far, with some very inspiring speeches about International Women’s Day. I want to spend the time available to me doing some womansplaining. I want to take stock of how far we have come in gender equality and look back at some amazing ordinary women who have achieved extraordinary changes in our society, but who have often been ignored or written out of history.
I want to tell Members three stories. The first is from July 1888, when 1,400 women at the Bryant and May east end factory went on strike against bullying, low pay and dangerous working conditions, which resulted in many of them developing phossy jaw. The second story is about the June 1968 equal pay dispute by 187 women machinists at Ford in Dagenham. My third story, which is also from 1968, is about the campaign by the Hessle Road women’s committee in Hull, which was led by four great local women: Lily Bilocca, Yvonne Blenkinsop, Mary Denness and Christine Jensen. They campaigned to improve safety at sea for trawlermen.
In 1968, Hull was one of the world’s largest fishing ports, but there was a dark side to the industry. A trawlerman was 17 times more likely to die in an industrial accident at sea than the average worker. It was the most dangerous occupation on earth. Six thousand men had died at sea in the years before 1968. When a further 58 trawlermen were lost on the St Romanus, Kingston Peridot and Ross Cleveland trawlers between January and February 1968, it became known as the triple trawler disaster. Those lost were the husbands, the sons, the brothers, the uncles and the nephews of the women in Hull. After the triple trawler disaster, Lily Bilocca said, “Enough is enough”, and started a campaign to improve safety for their menfolk.
All three of those stories of determined working women getting organised and taking a stand share three similar characteristics. First, all these women took action that shocked the society of their time and offended some. Each went against the view that women should not have views of their own or the will to take action. At this point, I am thinking of the maxim, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” In 1888, in late Victorian England, matchwomen were dismissed as little more than ignorant young women, largely of Irish immigrant stock, who were easily led astray by outside militant forces.
The 1968 Dagenham women machinists fought as much against the TGWU establishment of the time, tepid at best in any support for equal pay, as much as they fought against the Detroit bosses of Ford. Hull’s headscarf revolutionaries shocked the nation and knocked the Vietnam war off the front pages of newspapers with their 10,000-name petition, their local marches, and their picketing of the dockside. They took the fight to Westminster and met Harold Wilson. They threatened to picket his private home if their demands to improve safety were not met. They did this in the face of death threats, actual violence, and insults from trawler owners and others. They were described as “hysterical women” and told that they should not get involved in men’s business. This was, of course, all before social media. We know now how threats and insults are used to try to put women down and stop them standing up for the issues that they care about.
Secondly, all these women achieved far more in a very short period of time than men, supposedly campaigning for the same causes, achieved over decades. The 1888 Bow strike lasted only about 14 days, but it resulted in more progress than the men had achieved in decades before. The ripple of change throughout the wider labour movement was even more profound from the matchwomen’s strike, because in the following year we had the 1889 dock strike in east London, spawning more politically active new unionism. As such, I believe that the matchwomen can be described as the founding mothers of the Labour party.
The 1968 Ford Dagenham strike lasted just 21 days. Like the matchwomen and the headscarf revolutionaries in Hull, the women brought their case to Westminster and won. As a result of this strike, Labour’s Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity—the wonderful, the marvellous Barbara Castle—introduced the Equal Pay Act 1970. Although we all know in this House that the battle for equal pay goes on, the Dagenham women overturned decades of stalling on pay equality.
In Hull, as one of the headscarf revolutionaries, Mary Denness, said, they had
“achieved more in six weeks than the politicians and trade unions have in years.”
Their campaign persuaded the Government to adopt their demands in the fishermen’s charter, which meant full crewing of ships, radio operators on board every ship, improved weather forecasting, better training, more safety equipment, and a mother ship with medical facilities to accompany the fleet. Those ordinary yet extraordinary Hull women, led by Lily Bilocca, a cod skinner on the docks, saved thousands of men’s lives by their short campaign of direct action.
Thirdly, all the victories won by those women were then obscured in the history books for decades and even written out. The 1888 Bow matchwomen, though recognised by leading trade unionists at the time, were soon written out of history for the entire 20th century. Bow 1888 was downplayed in its significance. Many claim the strike was led by a more establishment figure, Annie Besant, who I think people would describe as the Polly Toynbee of her day.
The real names of the strike leaders—Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Eliza Martin—were finally published in Louise Raw’s brilliant book published in 2009, “Striking a Light”. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) first read those names out in Parliament in 2013. The story of the 1968 Dagenham Ford women slipped from view for decades, until the 2010 film “Made in Dagenham” raised its profile again. It is a delight that some of those original women have now had the recognition they deserve in their lifetime.
I want to conclude by returning to the story of the headscarf revolutionaries. Events in 1968 in Hull faded from popular culture, partly due to the post cod war decline of the local fishing industry, but also because of some frankly very outdated views about women in the city. Lily Bilocca, who led the headscarf revolutionaries, was sacked after the campaign, blacklisted and told she would never work in the fishing industry again. She was out of work for two years, eventually finding work in a nightclub cloakroom. She died at the age of 59 in 1988, and there was no public recognition by the people or the city of Hull of the pivotal role she had played in helping to protect the lives and improve the safety of trawlermen.
Despite that huge victory for safer working conditions, before today Lily Bilocca’s name has only ever been mentioned in this House once, on 25 March 1969 by a local Hull MP, James Johnson—no relation—and, sadly, just in passing. There was no proper recognition of or tribute to what she and those other women did, so it was great to see the story of the headscarf revolutionaries brought back to life in Brian Lavery’s 2015 book “The Headscarf Revolutionaries” and more recently the excellent BBC 4 programme based on his book, as we this year mark the 50th anniversary of the triple trawler disaster.
Interestingly, Hull has granted freedom of the city to many notable citizens over the years, but I have discovered that since 1885, when that honour could first be bestowed, of 47 recipients only two have been women—that is 45 men and only two women. Regrettably for the pioneering city of Hull, one of our most famous daughters, Amy Johnson, did not make that list and did not receive freedom of the city. In fact, we waited more than 100 years for the first woman to receive the freedom of the city of Hull. Janet Suzman, a wonderful anti-apartheid campaigner, received the award in 1987, and then we waited another 30 years before Jean Bishop, a lady in her 90s who has raised more than £100,000 for Age UK, was given the honour of freedom of the city at the end of last year.
Today, along with the other two Hull MPs, I am calling on Hull City Council to honour the leading women of the Hessle Road women’s committee by making them all freewomen of Hull. Fifty years after the triple trawler disaster, Hull needs to properly recognise these women. We have had wonderful theatre plays and murals for the women in the city, but we need to make sure that they get the tribute they really deserve.
As the headscarf revolutionaries achieved change both locally in the fishing industry and nationally in health and safety practices, they should be recognised nationally too. That is why all three Hull MPs are backing Ian Cuthbert’s campaign for Yvonne Blenkinsop, who is sadly the only surviving member of the headscarf revolutionaries, to receive an honour. It is just not on for these wonderful heroines from Hull to be overlooked any longer. In Lily Bilocca’s own words, “Enough is enough.” It is time to act now.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), and to have heard about the work that very ordinary woman can do in changing the world. It is a privilege to join right hon. and hon. Members in celebrating International Women’s Day, the first of which was celebrated in 1911. I want to start by reflecting on the progress in rights and opportunities for women across the United Kingdom since then.
I was delighted to join Members from across the House to mark the centenary last month of the Representation of the People Act 1918. Not only did the legislation give some women the vote in parliamentary elections for the first time, but it enabled Nancy Astor to become the first woman to take her seat in this House 18 months later. This goes to show that, even 100 years ago, when opportunities are opened up to women, they take them and succeed. From then on, a whole range of possibilities opened up for women—from the first female Cabinet Minister in 1929 to our first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1979 and the first female Speaker in 1992. Although such achievements are to be celebrated, the fact is that there are still Cabinet positions that have never been held by a woman, and this shows that progress is still needed.
When I was elected as the MP for Cheadle in 2015, I became the 445th woman to take my seat in this House. I welcome the fact that, since we celebrated International Women’s Day last year, the number of female MPs has risen yet further—to a record 208, or almost one third of this place. The ratio of female representation here is often compared with that of Parliaments around the world, but it is worthy of note that last year’s general election saw this House overtake Germany’s Parliament in the representation of women. I am honoured to be the second woman to represent Cheadle, and I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the role of Patsy Calton, who in 2001 became the first woman to represent Cheadle. Even though it is 13 years since she passed away, she is still mentioned on the doorstep and remembered for her hard work.
At a local level, women in councils up and down the country do a great job and are inspirational role models for others. I particularly want to note the wonderful example set by the Mayor of Stockport, Councillor Linda Holt. Linda has represented the community of Bramhall for 10 years, and has used her time this year as Mayor to support a variety of causes, such as local animal welfare charities, as well as the historic Plaza theatre, of which she is a board member. Indeed, she began serving as a board member of the Plaza before even becoming a local councillor, and was delighted last year when the Prime Minister was able to visit the theatre and meet some of the dedicated volunteers who support and sustain this vital community asset. I am sure Councillor Holt would be the first to acknowledge that she is privileged to enjoy the support of brilliant female councillors in her area, such as Lisa Walker and Alanna Vine; all three of them are Bramhall councillors.
As a former local councillor and as a member of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, I know how important it is to have such strong representation in local councils across the country. I warmly welcome the progress of recent years that has resulted in almost one third of local councillors across the UK being women. Sadly, however, there remains much more to be done. To achieve equal numbers of male and female councillors, 3,028 more women will need to be elected—an increase of over 50%—and, at the present rate of progress, that will take 68 years.
Unfortunately, we face an even greater task with respect to council leadership. Just 17% of council leaders are women, and of the new mayoral combined authority boards only 4% of constituent members are women and all six are led by men. Indeed, in Greater Manchester, all 11 cabinet members of the combined authority board are men. That is particularly disappointing when I reflect that 62 Nelson Street, Manchester, was the birthplace of the suffragette movement. Today it houses the Pankhurst Centre, and it was the home of Emmeline Pankhurst and her family, who led the suffragette campaign for votes for women. It was also the place where the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union was held.
During last year’s debate, Members rightly highlighted the perennial problem of male dominance in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—at A-level and university, and subsequently in the jobs market. Right hon. and hon. Members will therefore be delighted to note that the number of women graduating in a core STEM subject has grown for another year. These women are talented individuals who are qualified to take up the exciting opportunities available in STEM subjects, and they help to address persistent skills gaps across the UK. However, owing to more rapid growth in the number of men graduating in those subject areas, the percentage of female graduates dropped slightly from 25% to 24%, so there is still work to do.
Not only do we need more girls studying STEM subjects, but we need more women with STEM qualifications to become teachers and inspire the next generation of girls. We need women such as Jo Lowe, headteacher of the Kingsway School in my constituency. She went into education from engineering and she inspires her students. As a result of that inspiration, I was delighted to present Kingsway School with an award for engineering excellence last year—one of only a handful of schools in the country to receive such an award. I strongly agree with Alun Jones, head of the Girls’ School Association, that girls can be encouraged to “think like a scientist” in the right environment and through exposure to scientific roles. As he said:
“We’re dealing with centuries of gender bias and what people and parents think and say, often without realising it, does influence children’s expectations of themselves.”
However, although progress is undoubtedly needed in many areas, we have a huge amount to be proud of from the past 12 months alone. Since last year’s International Women’s Day, we have witnessed the appointment of the first ever female President of the Supreme Court, Baroness Hale, and the first female Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick. Women have enjoyed similar progress in our armed forces in the past 12 months: last April the first female Army officer was commissioned into a close combat regiment, and last September the RAF lifted its ban on women serving in close combat roles. Those are a few key examples of women flourishing in roles that were once the preserve of men, and that bodes extremely well for the future.
Before I conclude I wish to mention an initiative in Stockport, where the 100th anniversary of women gaining the vote is being marked by naming the town’s newest public area Suffragette Square. The council asked the people of Stockport to come up with a name for a new square, and after reviewing more than 1,500 entries from the public, the panel decided on Suffragette Square to celebrate the achievements of four Stockport women. Elizabeth Raffald, Gertrude Powicke, Elsie Plant and Hannah Winbolt were all Stopfordian women who were active in the suffrage movement, and they were nominated by members of the public in the light of this year’s commemoration. I firmly believe that although progress is still needed, we must move on and welcome the achievements of all women, and help them come forward and be recognised for the work they do.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) and to take part in this debate. As a proud member of the Labour party in a Parliament where 32% of MPs are women—the majority of them, 57%, from my party—I know that we still have work to do to achieve true equality in gender representation, but the Labour party is heading the right direction. I am pleased that some male MPs have been, and still are, in the Chamber. I have enjoyed their contributions, particularly that of the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), who regrettably is no longer in his place.
International Women’s Day is for everyone to celebrate, and it is important that men have an understanding of inequality in our society. I welcome their thoughts, and most certainly would not dream of accusing any one of them of mansplaining.
On that point—[Laughter.] I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. Does she not agree that it is the collective responsibility of all of us—not just women, but men too—to ensure that we have equality in all senses of the word? With regard to Parliament, she rightly says that the Labour party has managed to get 45% of the parliamentary Labour party as women. For the House of Commons as a whole to have only 32% of Members as women is just not good enough.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which he has made very well. He is absolutely right: this is our collectively responsibility, and 32% is not good enough. We also need to look at equality in other representations in addition to gender balance. He makes a very good point, which I would in no way ever describe as mansplaining.
It was heartbreaking today to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) recite the names of all those women who have died at the hands of men. Sadly, one of them, Linda Parker, was from my constituency. My heart goes out to her friends, family, children and grandchildren. I dream of a future International Women’s Day when my hon. Friend no longer has a list of the names of murdered women to recite, and when the figure of two women murdered every week by a current or former partner has become history due to better investment in women’s refuges, women’s safety and a complete change in attitudes.
Today is International Women’s Day. It was my pleasure yesterday to attend the launch of a report commissioned by the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health, of which I am an active member. The report is entitled, “Who Decides? We Trust Women” and concerns abortion in the developing world and the UK. I pay tribute to the chair of the all-party group, Baroness Jenny Tonge, for her tireless work. As a retired GP, she really knows her subject and demonstrates the value that can be brought to the other place by experts in their field. The report makes the important point that from 2010 to 2014, one in four pregnancies worldwide ended in an abortion. Abortion rates have been declining in the developed world since 1990, but the rate in developing countries has remained fairly constant.
An estimated 56 million abortions occur worldwide each year, with three quarters taking place among married women. Significantly, abortion rates are roughly the same in countries where abortion is legally restricted and those where it is liberally available. Restrictive abortion laws do not prevent women from seeking abortion; they only endanger women’s health and lives as women seek unsafe procedures. There is a clear correlation between restrictive abortion laws and higher rates of maternal morbidity and mortality. In the group of countries where abortion is completely banned or allowed in very narrow circumstances, three out of four abortions are unsafe. Lack of money prevents women and girls from accessing safe abortions in the private sector. In addition, fear of being reported to the police prevents women and girls from seeking medical attention when they are faced with life-threatening complications due to unsafe abortions.
The report makes the important point that more family planning will reduce abortion worldwide. Family planning is one of the most cost-effective strategies to prevent maternal deaths and suffering from unsafe abortion. Indeed, the lowest rates of abortion in the world can be found in Germany and Switzerland, where family planning is widely and easily available. Yet only last week I heard from Marie Stopes International that due to President Trump’s global gag, which blocks US funds going to any organisation involved in abortion advice and care overseas, its funding has been cut drastically, severely restricting its ability to provide contraceptive services to women and girls in the developing world. The international campaign SheDecides says that every girl and every woman has the right to do what she chooses with her body. She must have access to education and information about her body and her options, modern contraception and safe abortion. Only when women are in control of their own fertility will they have control over their own lives.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her very thoughtful speech, and she is absolutely right. Those of us who, many years ago, marched and took to the streets to protect the Abortion Act 1967 and ensure that it was not in any way interfered with did so because we knew about the extremely important point that she is making. It was not because we wanted people to have terminations of pregnancies; it was all about women having a right of control over their bodies. That is about empowerment, a lack of prejudice, their freedom and a lack of discrimination.
The right hon. Lady makes an excellent point. We have to allow women the world over to control their own bodies and therefore their own lives. However, there is still much work to be done, both nationally and internationally. Today, on International Women’s Day, I call upon our female Prime Minister to call on President Trump to reverse the global gagging order. A woman Prime Minister who is prepared to stand up for women around the world would do that.
I call Dr Stella Creasy.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker—it is wonderful to see the number of men who are in the Chamber for this debate growing exponentially as we continue, in whatever role.
So many Members have made fantastic speeches, talking about the past and what we have achieved, but I want to honour International Women’s Day in the way that I feel is best. I consider International Women’s Day to be feminist Christmas; it is about what goodies and actions are coming. I want to talk about that because we need to learn from what the suffragettes drummed into all of us: deeds, not words, make a difference. Even when there were men who claimed to care for women’s rights and for the future of women, they knew that it was not enough to have them speak for them. The true deed was to have true and equal representation.
We must learn that lesson today as we continue to look at the inequalities in our world. It is simply not enough to pay lip service to equality. It is not enough to march and to use the hashtag. I am struck when I go in to shops such as Hennes that people can now buy plenty of t-shirts that say, “Female Equals Future”. But we will only have a more equal future when we have deeds, and when we actually tackle the barriers to discrimination and the inequality that holds 51% of our population back.
In perhaps being the Grinch of feminist Christmas, I am inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, who said:
“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”
When we view the world as it is and are rational creatures, we see that if the call is to push for progress, we are not making the progress that we think we are and its pace is agonisingly slow. We are celebrating 100 years since some women got the vote, and we have talked about the fact that we have now achieved a 30% share of this Parliament for women. A whole 12 extra women were elected at the last general election. If we carry on at that trajectory, we will need another 14 general elections to achieve parity. I know that we have been having elections more frequently than we used to, but we need more appropriate action.
It is not just national Government where we fail to make the progress that we want. The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) rightly pointed out the progress in local government. I am proud that we have one of the few female leaders in local government in my borough, Clare Coghill, the new leader of Waltham Forest Council—the first woman to be elected there. Only 17% of council leaders in this country are women. We would need 12,000 women to stand for election if we were to achieve the extra 3,000 who would give us parity in local government.
We know that this country continues to fail what I shall now call the Piers Morgan test. This morning, Piers Morgan tweeted that the fact that there were six women in positions of responsibility in the country meant that the country was run by women. Job done: we can all go home. The point is that such women are still too often the exception rather the rule. That is why we can name them. True equality will come when there are so many women from so many backgrounds in those positions that it is simply the norm, and the fact is that we are nowhere near the norm. Only 11% of surgeons in this country are women—it will take 100 years to achieve parity—and only 24% of judges are women. Why do we never hear about all this? I would wager that it is because only 34% of people in senior roles in our press are women.
Too often we tell ourselves that because we have seen one woman, there must be more behind her, but the truth is that this country is still agonisingly behind where it needs to be to realise the potential of all its people. We see that not least in the arguments that we are having about equal and, indeed, fair pay. The equal pay legislation is older than I am, but we still have to explain to the young women coming into our workforce that there is a 14% gap—and, yes, it is growing for their generation. This is not just about women having children. Women ask for pay rises just as often as men, but men are four times as likely to get them. We are starting at lower salaries, and that inequality is continuing and is not being reduced.
Companies facing gender pay gap reporting are now hiding behind each other. I welcome the legislation: we all fought for it, and we can see the cleansing effect that it is starting to have. However, we know that only 1,200 of 9,000 companies have declared their data so far, and we know that the deadline is fast approaching. That tells us that plenty of companies are waiting until the very end, hoping that they can find cover in each other. Let us send a strong message today, on International Women’s Day: “ It does not matter whether you publish today, or whether you all publish together. We will look at every single set of data, and we will hold to account every single company that does not offer equal pay.”
We must also, as a House, speak up for the right to talk about equal pay. As we have seen at the BBC, when women start asking questions, they get shut down. Freedom of speech in the workplace is a fundamental human right, and the legislation relies on the principle that we can start to have such conversations. We must not give an inch on the idea that it is acceptable for managers to tell employees that if they start asking those questions, they will be labelled difficult and it might harm their chances of promotion. It is what we might call the John Humphrys test.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems is the fact that we do not have as many trade unions operating in as many workplaces? I used to be the mother of the chapel when I worked at Central Television, which was obviously a very long time ago. One of the things that shop stewards do is to act on behalf of all their members when, as sometimes happens, they are fearful of stepping up to say the sort of things that the hon. Lady rightly identifies. If we had better, more democratic, more open trade unions, that would go a long way towards advancing the cause of women.
I completely agree. Let me put on record that if I were ever to face problems in my workplace, I would certainly hope that the hon. Lady would act as shop steward.
And vice versa—[Laughter.]
I know that the hon. Lady would fight the good fight. She is absolutely right: this is about representation and voice, and we see the impact of women not having that voice.
This is not just about gender; it is also about ethnicity. We know when we talk about inequalities in pay that our sisters from the black and ethnic minority communities face even higher differentials, and we, as a country, are a long way from knowing how to tackle that. I welcome the initiative from my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), who said, “It is not enough to have data—we need to see what you are going to do about it.” It is clear from the data that we have already seen from only 1,200 companies how far we have to go.
This is also not just about the major companies. We know that 62% of people earning less than the living wage are women. It is about persistent poverty pay, and what it does to families around the country. It is little wonder that one of the themes of the debate that we have started to have in 2018 is period poverty. All too often, women are trying to pick up the pieces of a failing economy in an institutionally unequal society. What does that mean? It means that women are often the ones trying to make the difference, and it is the men who, like Piers Morgan, simply say, “I’ve seen one of you do it. If one of you can do it, all of you can do it.”
We see that nowhere more than when we try to tackle violence against women. The writer Margaret Atwood said:
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) set out so clearly, that is still a challenge for us in our society. Violence against women is endemic; the #MeToo movement has started a conversation about something that has been part of our society for generations. It is just a conversation, and we have not yet seen the real change—the real progress—we know we need to make. When 85,000 women report being raped, and 400,000 report sexual assaults, we know that that is just the tip of the iceberg. Then there are the 12,000 honour-based violence crimes and the 135,000 women and girls living with female genital mutilation. That only 15% of these crimes get reported is not about the women, but about the society we are right now; and about our failure to understand these crimes and prosecute them, and to support the people affected by them.
As part of dealing with that, I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to ratifying the Istanbul convention, but one of the things I want to do today is to hold the Government to account for deeds not words. If we are going to ratify the Istanbul convention, we have to right a long-standing wrong. I pay tribute to the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), who made a powerful speech about the importance of women’s reproductive rights, because women’s reproductive rights are human rights. I want to put on record my gratitude to every one of the parliamentarians who has signed the letter to the Minister for Women and Equalities calling for us to give equal access to abortion for women in Northern Ireland.
Members may say, “A year ago, we decided to provide funding to help women from Northern Ireland to travel to England to have an abortion.” The figures we have today show that 600 women have taken part in that scheme—clearly, there is a demand. But it is little wonder that the United Nations says very clearly that the way we treat Northern Irish women—by making them travel, and by putting that restriction on their access to a basic human right—is degrading and inhuman. We cannot ratify the Istanbul convention unless we right that wrong. That treatment is inhuman. Not everybody can travel. We are treating women in one part of the United Kingdom differently—the women who cannot travel, the women in coercive relationships, the women who have small children and the women who are undocumented.
We cannot leave this to chance. We cannot say, “Because we can give you some ability to travel, that means you have equal access.” We cannot let whatever deal the Government may have needed to do with the DUP allow us to get away with arguing that women’s rights are devolved, especially when the Government have committed to giving us a vote on same-sex marriage. Equality cannot be selective. It is right that people should be able to love who they love and to record that in the way they want to, and it is right that women should be given control over their bodies and not be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy.
I say to Ministers that these things are there in the Istanbul convention. We are treating citizens of this nation with contempt and in a way that the UN called degrading. If we are not going to have a free vote on the domestic violence Bill, which is supposed to ratify the convention, when will we have parity? When will we treat equality as what it truly is—about solidarity? If we want to show solidarity with our Northern Irish friends and their right to marry who they want, we should show solidarity with our Northern Irish sisters in giving them back control over their bodies.
I also want to echo the call by my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton on the global gag rule, but I would go further. On International Women’s Day, the deed that we need is for this Government to commit to contribute to the SheDecides fund. It is one thing to face Donald Trump and his decision to withdraw funding—we know that women have died in the last year because they have not been able to access maternal healthcare following the funding cut he made to stop abortion services—but it is another thing when other countries step up to the plate and say, “We will bridge the gap.” However, this country shies away from being part of that fund.
This is not just about the money; it is about the message of solidarity it sends when we are part of the SheDecides fund. I call on the Government not simply to tell Donald Trump that he is wrong to cut this funding, but to put our money where our mouth is and to stand with our sisters around the world who need the services that his withdrawal of money has cut.
We have also today had the wonderful Women for Refugee Women organisation in Committee Room 10. I am sure that they are still up there singing, and I hope that Members will go up and join them. They are singing for their sisters who are in Yarl’s Wood. In 2018, we in this country are not making the progress we think we are if we are still locking up women who have been the victims of violence, sexual abuse and torture in conflict, yet that is exactly what we are doing in Yarl’s Wood. The fact that 75% of the women in Yarl’s Wood are set free, sometimes to be detained again and then set free again, tells us that the system is broken. This expensive system enshrines inequality in the way in which we treat the most vulnerable women in our society, and I urge Ministers to rethink their determination that this is the only way to manage our immigration system.
Like many of us, the lessons that I take on International Women’s Day are from my constituents, and I want to share two quick stories. In 1962, Beryl Swain was the first woman to compete in motorbike racing on the Isle of Man. The men were so horrified that they changed the weight categories to prevent women from taking part, and that continued until 1978. Karpal Kaur Sandhu was the first Asian female police officer in the world, and she proudly served Walthamstow. She was murdered by her husband in 1973 because he disapproved of her job. What that tells us is that the backlash, the power, the abuse and the violence will always mutate.
We have to keep fighting the patriarchy, and in that sense, that is why I am proud to see so many men here today, including the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman). In creating these deeds, men have a vital role to play. As we have all tried to remind Piers Morgan, we do not think that all men are violent. This is about standing up for the reputation of men and for the better world that men and women working together as equals can create, and we ask men now to be our allies and to show solidarity. This is also about cold, hard economic logic. More equal societies are more prosperous, more resilient and more diverse. The right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who is no longer in the Chamber, said that the equal employment of men and women would create $28 trillion in growth, from which we could all benefit.
That is why I say to the men in this Chamber and the men in Britain: do not leave it to the women of Britain to resolve these problems. Do not expect us to lead this fight on our own and to come up with all the solutions and the deeds. Do not tell us that you do not think that quotas work or that you do not think that turning misogyny into a hate crime is a good thing. Tell us what you will do to create an equal society. We all have a responsibility to come up with deeds, not words. I will end with the words of Millicent Fawcett, who said:
“What draws men and women together is stronger than the brutality and tyranny which drive them apart.”
I will champion the contribution that every one of my constituents, male and female, makes to this country, but I know that only a truly equal society will realise that for all of them. On International Women’s Day, I call on every man and woman in this country to ensure that we have not just one day of fighting for that better world, but 365 days of fighting for it. Truly, it is worth it for all of us.
It is a real honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who has a fantastic record in this place of standing up for women. I particularly thank her for her comments on Mary Wollstonecraft. I understand that as a result of her campaigning and that of other Members on both sides of the House, there is now a plan to have a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft. Well done to my hon. Friend for putting on record the proud history of that woman in our tradition of freedom and equality.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. May I draw the attention of the House to another great hero? Eleanor Rathbone was probably the most important Back-Bench Member of this House since William Wilberforce. She was a towering figure on all fronts, and an early-day motion has been tabled proposing that we should name a Committee Room of the House after her. That motion also bears the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). In the light of the speech that we have just heard, naming a Committee Room is perhaps a small thing, but this is about keeping alive the memory of people who, in their own lifetime, made a real mega-difference.
I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), whose name appears on that EDM, has done such amazing work in this place, and I read her fantastic book when it was hot off the press. I also enjoyed the book of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who somehow found time to write a book while being an MP. Both of those stories, histories or records remind us about the struggles. So much in politics just appears to happen, but we understand just how hard the struggles are.
As I mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, I want to thank her for mentioning Iuliana Tudos, who tragically lost her life in Finsbury Park, which is on the borders of Hackney, Haringey and Islington. She was my constituent and lost her life in a terrible way, and we think of her family, because things must be terrible for her parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and so on. Not only do they live abroad, but they know that that young woman lost her life in a violent way.
The seat of Hornsey and Wood Green has been held by women since 1992. Many Members here will remember Lynne Featherstone, who is now in the other House and continues her campaigning for women. Barbara Roche, who I am sure Mr Deputy Speaker remembers, represented my constituency from 1992 until 2005. She won the seat from a Tory Member, Hugh Rossi, and is therefore very famous in Hornsey and Wood Green. She is a barrister and a great advocate for newly arrived communities. When chair of Metropolitan, the housing association, she was a great advocate of affordable housing, and that goes to the heart of the housing crisis, which has worsened since her time as a Member.
It is of course fantastic to be giving this speech with the lovely plaque that the House put up for Jo Cox MP just behind me, and we must not forget our dear friend on a day like today. She would have been hopping up and making an important speech, and we would all have been listening because she was extremely eloquent.
Not wanting to make this a counsel of despair—I have certainly talked about many sad things in the past couple of minutes—I want to note that it has been 100 years since the vote was given to certain women, and suffrage for women was so beautifully depicted in the film directed by Sarah Gavron, whose family is famous in Hornsey and Wood Green. Nicky Gavron is a former deputy Mayor of London and is still on the London Assembly, and she and her daughter are both great feminists.
I want to refer to the recent work in the creative arts sector following the terrible Weinstein scandal and the lurid tales that have emerged since the extent of the sexual abuse within that industry was uncovered. I am wearing a badge that was given to me by my great-aunt, who ran the Italia Conti Academy in London for many years and passed away at the age 101 two years ago. She knew some suffragettes in her time, and the badge has “AFL” on it, which stands for the Actresses’ Franchise League. At drama schools in those days, many talented youngsters—this is not just about women, but young people as well—were put on the stage, but their welfare was not particularly considered and they were not particularly well looked after. Young children who loved dancing, acting and so on would often end up on stage in the west end, and my great-aunt noted that they needed much better welfare and protection. Italia Conti and others introduced several positive schemes for the welfare of children in the arts, and I wonder whether we should have stuck a little closer to some of the schemes that forward-thinking women introduced around 1900 to 1930, and even on into the ’60s and ’70s. The creative industries seem to have lost their way slightly, and that needs to be looked at again in the light of the Weinstein tragedies.
The wonderful thing about speaking at the end of the debate is that one can enjoy listening to others. I was so pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) talk about her experience, and how Bangladesh was born out of conflict. She managed to get across the feelings of all of us in the House about the terrible sexual violence in the Rohingya community, and the importance of highlighting subjects that it is difficult to discuss in this House.
Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) talked about the women in Yarl’s Wood. I am very aware of the issue, having spoken with Baroness Corston in the other House about the experience of women who are not subject to immigration detention, but are detained in our prisons, which are often not up to scratch; they face very difficult conditions. On International Women’s Day, it is fitting that we remember those women and what they go through.
Before I came to the House this morning, I was at Woodside High School, which has given me badges to pass on to the Speaker’s Office. The school is run by two fantastic women, who job-share the post of headteacher. It is a miracle school; it was, once upon a time, famous for not being so great, and now it is one of those fantastic schools. I will give the badges to you shortly, Mr Deputy Speaker. My favourite one says: “I run like a girl—try to keep up”. I thought you might like that one. It was fantastic to see so many young women asking about politics, being interested and wanting to get involved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) talked about the trade union culture. When I was a council leader, it was always easier to protect the rights of the bin men than to promote the rights of our dinner ladies and others who worked in traditionally female roles. I could not get away with not mentioning Mary Turner, whose memorial service was held in no less a place than St Paul’s cathedral. She broke every single glass ceiling, and she was a huge inspiration to many of us here. Her first battle in the workplace was to get Marigold gloves, so that women did not have to do the washing up without them. She said that that was one of the hardest battles; after that, she became quite battle-hardened. She went on to be president of a union and to play an extremely important role in promoting equality in the trade union movement, and of course in Parliament; that is one of the fantastic ways in which people come into Parliament.
It is so important for young women to have inspirational role models, particularly women from ethnic minority backgrounds—people such as Sophia Duleep Singh, one of the original suffragettes and, in my Slough constituency, Lydia Simmons, who was the first ever lady mayor of African-Caribbean origin. It is important that we in Parliament celebrate those individuals, so that they can continue to inspire others. Would my hon. Friend agree?
I would indeed. I should also like to mention the important contribution that so many women from all over the Commonwealth in particular have made to our NHS over the years. Even now, we see the importance of that workplace. One of the debates that we are having about Brexit is, of course, about the workforce. I was in the Whittington hospital this morning, talking to staff there about their important roles, not just as obstetricians or specialists, but even at the level of our cleaning staff. The NHS does such a fantastic job of promoting women and bringing them through; it is a truly equal workplace where many women from different backgrounds manage to get to the top.
I will conclude, as time is short and people are keen to get back to their constituencies. We heard about equality in sport. It was a fantastic occasion when the Arsenal ladies won and were given the freedom of the borough back in 2008. That was a favourite speech that I got to make at borough level. I will hand those badges over to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, so that the girls at Woodside High School know that you have those for the Speaker’s Office; you can pass them around.
This has been a fantastic debate. There has been nobody sat at the back moaning. On previous occasions, we have had to make the case for a debate—on, for example, the Istanbul convention. It is lovely that this time, it has been in Government time, and that we have got to an accepted level of equality.
I am delighted and proud to be making my debut at this Dispatch Box to close this debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. We have heard today about how we have record female employment in this country, but, as the Secretary of State rightly said, this is not just about getting in—it is about getting on. I could not agree more, which is why I am so pleased to see Labour’s announcement that we will ask business to take a more proactive approach. Under a Labour Government, the onus would be on employers to close the gender pay gap, and provide action plans or face fines. We have heard agreement from Members from across the House that while we all celebrate the centenary of women gaining the vote, there remains plenty more to be done. It is reassuring to hear the Secretary of State’s pledges to tackle the gender pay gap and to make sure that funding for women’s refuges is protected.
The first Back-Bench speaker, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who chairs the Women and Equalities Committee, is a determined, passionate advocate for equality. She has worked extremely hard to open doors and discuss issues that have never been tackled head on. I was inspired by her as a member of that Committee and continue to follow its work closely. The right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) said that gender inequality represents the biggest waste of talent. She also mentioned the sustainable development goals—as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali)—and our need to help stop FGM and health inequality, reminding us of the ”International” in International Women’s Day. We have to help our sisters across the globe, while continuing to ask ourselves difficult questions about our own gender balance in this place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) spoke powerfully and moved the House with her list of murdered women. Every one of those women should be here today and it is our absolute duty to make sure they are never forgotten. The hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow talked of the horrors of war, and women facing rape or being trafficked and sold as sex slaves. The first female Member for Coventry, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher), told us that although we now have 208 women in Parliament, that is still only 32% of the House. It was also lovely to hear about her mother, who inspired her to enter politics.
Other Members spoke about the girl guide movement. We heard further great contributions from the hon. Members for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), for Erewash (Maggie Throup) and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), and from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire). My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) talked about maternity leave, and we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Mother of the House, who has tirelessly battled for our rights in this area for decades.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi)—my good friend—spoke about the new all-party group on single parent families, which a few of us have set up. I am a proud founder member. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) told us of those amazing working women who helped to forge the union movement and the Labour party. We also heard further contributions from the hon. Members for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) and for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), and my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) who spoke of the dangers of restricted abortion laws leading to serious and life-threatening harm to women.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) called International Women’s Day “feminist Christmas”, but called for “deeds” not “words”. She said that the course of progress is agonisingly slow. She also mentioned period poverty, a cause on which we are fighting on this side of the House. We finished by hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who were calling for us to commemorate those women who gave so much to our fight for equality.
What a year it has been for women! We have seen the #MeToo movement, the fabulous Megan Markle, the inspiring Jacinda Ardern and more recently—last week—Maisie Sly showing us that being deaf does not stop someone winning an Oscar. As we know from even those few examples, women young and old continue to push boundaries, challenge expectations and work hard, not because they are women, but simply because they are brilliant.
As my friend, the shadow Minister mentioned earlier, the International Women’s Day flag is now flying proudly as the sun begins to set over Westminster. However, events celebrating the day are continuing, and this evening I will be speaking at an event with the incredible Frances Scott, championing her campaign to get a 50:50 Parliament: equality in representation on these very Benches.
I commend the hon. Lady on her first outing at the Dispatch Box, and I will be joining her to speak at that event. Will she say a word about the importance of campaigns such as the 50:50 Parliament and, in particular, its #AskHerToStand campaign, which I understand is partly what led us to having the hon. Lady in this place? It is a brilliant campaign, and everyone in this House and outside it can do this, in order to improve the representation of women. When they see women who are doing a brilliant job in the community and who would be amazing elected representatives, they should ask them to stand.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I know that she is also an ambassador for that campaign. I would not be in this place without the encouragement of Frances and the #AskHerToStand campaign, which encourages women from all walks of life to stand for local politics and positions of leadership in all sorts of areas. We know that there is just not enough representation, as she said. Every time I retweet a 50:50 tweet, at least one or two men—I am afraid to say—always ask why we need equal representation. The answer is simple: women make up 51% of the country’s population, and we need to see that here on these Benches. It is that simple as far as I am concerned. I will be attending that event later on, and I am an ambassador for that campaign.
We need women in the home and in the house—this House. We need to stand up and say, “I am proud of my gender, I am proud of my mother, I am proud of my daughter, I am proud.” With that, I will say a very simple happy International Women’s Day to men and women.
It is a genuine pleasure to be here for today’s debate, and may I follow in the excellent footsteps of my shadow number by wishing everybody a very happy International Women’s Day? If I may say so, that was a very good speech from the Dispatch Box, and I am now worried that she is my shadow—that’s all I’m saying! I would like to thank everyone who has attended the debate and contributed. We are fortunate to have so many great advocates for gender equality in the Chamber. They have all done so much, in their own ways, to improve the lives of women and girls.
This debate has, of course, had its serious—indeed, its heartbreaking—moments, and I will address those in due course, but before I do let us reflect on the reasons to celebrate. Many Members highlighted the notable women and women’s charities in their constituencies both today and in history. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) gave a fascinating and detailed speech on the history of women protesting to improve working conditions and mentioned Lily Bilocca as someone who had been named only once before in this House—well, I have now named her at the Dispatch Box, which I hope goes some way to addressing that inequality.
This year being the centenary of women’s suffrage, many Members focused on the women in the House before them and on other political role models. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) told us that her political hero was Mo Mowlam because of the valuable work that great lady did to bring Protestants and Catholics together in the cause of peace. The hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) told us about her mother, who swept to power on Coventry Council in 1979. Then we had a little competition. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) told us that her constituency had been represented by women for 21 years, but I am sorry to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) was able to boast that her constituency had been represented by women for 26 years. The more of these competitions that go on, the better.
We have also heard from many Members about the role that the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) has played in inspiring so many women to stand for Parliament. In her role as the Mother of the House, she will this year be celebrating many moments in the history of women’s suffrage. It will be a joy to celebrate those with her.
I would also like to add to the list, however, because I am not the first female Member of Parliament for Louth and Horncastle. I was preceded by a lady called Margaret Wintringham, who was elected in 1921. She was the second-ever female Member of Parliament and the first-ever female MP born in this country. I feel privileged to follow her, albeit many, many decades later. In 1921, she was talking about equal pay, and of course, depressingly, several decades later we are still talking about equal pay. There is, though, one way in which we have moved forward since Mrs Wintringham campaigned to become a Member of Parliament, and that is in the way we conduct general election campaigns: apparently, Mrs Wintringham did not utter a word on the election trail in 1921. I must say that I have taken a very different approach to running my campaigns.
I have been really impressed by the determination in all parts of the House of Commons to encourage women to stand for Parliament and in local council elections. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) highlighted the fact that only 17% of council leaders are female. We must improve that figure, because we know how valuable female councillors can be throughout the country.
The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) used a phrase that very much caught my attention when she talked about “having the audacity to stand”. We should all be more audacious in that regard.
This morning, I was asked by a journalist about challenges I have faced in politics. I had to tell him about one occasion in 2015 when I was canvassing on the doorstep. I knocked on the door and said to the lady, “May I count on your support?”, and she said, “No.” I said, “Why’s that?”, and she said, “Because you’re a woman.” I did not really know what I could do to change that, so quickly moved on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes set out her ambitions for the next 100 years; they are ambitions to which I am sure we can all subscribe.
Of course, no discussion of a determination to improve equality in this place could pass without my mentioning the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). Not only as a Member of Parliament, but as a Cabinet Minister and now as Chairman of the Women and Equalities Committee, she has done an incredible amount to ensure equality, and not just for women but for same-sex couples, too. I hope I am correct in paraphrasing her speech as, “Being a Member of Parliament is the best job in the world.” I hope that this year we will all encourage women to think about standing for Parliament.
The award for avoiding mansplaining must go to the only man who made a speech in this debate, as opposed to intervening: my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman). I must say, echoing the comments made by others from all parties, that we are lucky to have male colleagues like him in the House, supporting our cause.
Let me turn to the serious aspects of the debate. Of course, I must start with the contribution of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who, as she has in years past, read out the names of women who have been killed since last year’s International Women’s Day. I join others in wishing fervently that we will be able to have a day of celebrating women when the hon. Lady does not have to read out that list.
Home should of course be a place of love, support and safety. No one should have to suffer violence or abuse, which is why we have today launched the consultation on domestic abuse. We are seeking to transform the country’s approach to domestic abuse. We are widening the definition so that we understand that abuse is not confined to physical violence, but can include psychological violence and economic abuse. We are addressing at every stage, where we can, the fact that we need to intervene earlier, to support the women and children who are victims of this terrible abuse and, where possible, to break the cycle of violence with the offender. In short, we want the question to change from, “Why doesn’t she leave him?” to “Why doesn’t he stop?”
I very much hope that Members from all parties will contribute to the consultation and use their networks to encourage others to contribute, too, so that we can ensure that the Bill that follows, and all the non-legislative measures, are as ambitious and brave as we can make them.
We have heard much discussion about women in work. The stand-out statistic for me today was the one put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) who, with all her considerable experience in the Cabinet, has done so much to further the cause of equality, not least as the preceding Minister for Women and Equalities. The fact is that, if we were to encourage gender equality and achieve it across the world, it would add £28 trillion to our global GDP, which is a startling fact.
We, the United Kingdom, are doing our bit, because we have the highest rate of employment of women ever, and we are working hard to support women in work so that they can fulfil their potential and achieve their ambition. We are taking strong action in this area. I hope that 4 April is ingrained in every chief executive’s mind, because that is the deadline when every large employer will have to tell us their gender pay gap. Contrary to the suggestions that may have been made, we are doing that not just because we like collecting figures, but because we want to establish where there are pay gaps and then work towards closing them down.
We have also heard about flexible working, and we are very much working towards normalising that practice. Indeed, 97% of UK workplaces now offer flexible working, but of course there is more to do. We know that there are schemes for shared parental leave and for encouraging people who have taken time out for caring to return to work. In fact, we are investing a great deal of money to increase opportunities and support for those who are returning to work, but we cannot do this alone. We need employers to take bold action to ensure that women are just as able as men to fulfil their potential and use their talents and skills. This country cannot succeed fully if one half of its population is held back.
Flowing from work is, of course, education. Several colleagues have emphasised the importance that education plays in setting up girls to flourish in the workplace and to having equal access with their male counterparts to more productive and higher paying sectors. We have invested in programmes to encourage take-up in STEM-related subjects and courses, including maths and computer science. We are also raising awareness of the range of careers that STEM qualifications offer, through initiatives such as STEM ambassadors, and we continue to deliver high-quality apprenticeships, which provide choice for young women and men as they consider their future careers. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) about Ada Lovelace, which was absolutely fascinating. We even heard about the scientist behind Mr Whippy ice cream—a certain Margaret Thatcher. I have to say that I have learned something new today.
We must of course reflect on the fact that this is not national women’s day, but International Women’s Day. Several Members spoke about that, mentioning the Rohingya and Bangladesh in particular. It is not only at home where this Government have made real progress to improve the lives of women and girls. We are respected globally for our world-leading legislation and policy, and we continue to play a key role on the international stage to press for change. We are committed to ensuring that all women have the same opportunities and choices, no matter where they live.
UK aid has a huge impact on the lives of millions. It has supported more than 6,000 communities across 16 countries and made public commitments to end female genital mutilation. That represents 18 million people—more than twice the population of London—and it has enabled 8.5 million women to access modern methods of family planning over five years, empowering women to make choices about their own bodies.
We want to build on those achievements. As we have heard, the Secretary of State for International Development launched her strategic vision for gender equality yesterday. This recognises that gender equality cannot be treated as an isolated issue, but must be embedded in everything that we do. It sets out how we plan to continue our global leadership role. I am proud of this Government’s ambition to improve the rights of women and girls globally; we need to be ambitious if we are to continue making progress in areas such as education, economic empowerment and violence, and if we are to create a world in which all women and girls can have equal rights, opportunities and freedoms, as described by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire).
In conclusion, today’s debate has highlighted what we all already knew: that we have achieved some things, but there is still a way to go. There is much more to be done before we achieve gender equality in the UK and around the world. I want to end the debate on a positive note, because this is the one day of the year on which we get to celebrate women. I want to highlight brilliant women and the social, economic, political and cultural contributions that they make.
We have heard from the Home Secretary that the United Kingdom has its second female Prime Minister—that is particularly apt given that we are celebrating the centenary of suffrage—and that we sit in the most diverse Parliament that we have ever had. In the past year, we have seen women breaking barriers in public life and industry. Last year, Cressida Dick became the first ever female Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and Dany Cotton became the first ever female commissioner of the London fire brigade. Already this year, Sarah Clarke has made history as the first female Black Rod, and the Royal Mint has appointed Anne Jessopp, who is its first female chief executive in its more than 1,000 years of existence. I have no doubt that the first female President of the Supreme Court, Baroness Hale, will be doing all she can to improve equality in the judiciary.
We must not forget that three of the four medals that team GB took home from the winter Olympics were won by women. Lizzy Yarnold became Britain’s most decorated winter Olympian, taking a second gold in the women’s skeleton. Anyone who hurtles down ice chutes at 80 miles an hour on what I can only describe as a tea tray deserves all our respect.
We want the celebration to continue beyond International Women’s Day. This year, we are celebrating our history, but I hope that we also see this year as the start of the century of women. I urge every Member of this House to take part in any way they can, whether it is by supporting women’s organisations, speaking at events, going into schools to speak, or asking women whether they will stand. We will have a whole package of celebrations during the year, and they will be revealed as the year goes on. One example of how we are going to celebrate is with the holding of EqualiTeas in June and July across the country, to share, debate and celebrate our right to vote over a cup of tea and a slice of cake. They are often the answer to many problems in life, and I am delighted that we are celebrating our suffrage in that way.
When my grandmother was born, no woman had the right to vote. Fast forward two generations, and I am here at the Dispatch Box and a female Prime Minister is leading the celebrations. I leave the House with this question: what more can we achieve in another two generations? That is our challenge.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Vote 100 and International Women’s Day.