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Women in the Commonwealth: Trade and Investment

Volume 673: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered trade and investment opportunities for women in the Commonwealth.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I should refer colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and let them know that I am the acting co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on trade out of poverty.

As we celebrated International Women’s Day and Commonwealth Day just a few days ago, I felt it was timely to call for this debate on how the UK can promote trade and investment opportunities that empower women across the Commonwealth, especially in anticipation of the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda in June 2020.

Since the first International Women’s Day in 1909, we have seen great social and economic progress in many parts of the world. Across Commonwealth countries, women increasingly drive economic activity and engage in trade and entrepreneurship. According to some estimates, women lead a third of all small and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries. In Kenya, 24% of SMEs are owned by women, while the figure stands at 26% in Rwanda. There is still much work to do, though. The gender gap means that women still face disproportionate barriers to access to trade and markets because of discriminatory attitudes, poor conditions and harassment, as well as unequal access to inputs such as credit and land.

Despite the values and commitments enshrined in the Commonwealth’s charter, which recognises that gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are essential components of human development, progress towards more equitable inclusion of women in Commonwealth economies has been too slow. Only one in five exporting companies is led by women. Women-led enterprises are concentrated in less dynamic sectors than male-led ones, and few are involved in import and export. In employment, job segregation means that women work in lower paid jobs.

Promoting gender equality is a moral and economic imperative. Helping to tackle the many challenges that women face in the economic sphere can trigger tremendous positive social and economic change. A recent McKinsey Global Institute study found that closing the gender wage and participation gap could add nearly $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025. Astonishingly, that is equivalent to the GDPs of Japan, Germany and the UK combined.

On that point, although there have been really significant improvements in the employment of women, particularly in the developing countries of the Commonwealth, the fact remains that they lag behind significantly—as my hon. Friend’s statistics demonstrate—primarily because of poor literacy. In sub-Saharan Africa, 70% of women are illiterate whether they live in urban or rural settings, and that is usually linked to the size of their families and burdens at home. Does my hon. Friend agree about the imperative to improve girls’ education in developing countries as the critical determinant of whether they will be able to participate in trade in an equal way?

I apologise for getting your surname wrong, Ms Farris—it will not happen again. That was a very long intervention; I am sure that they will get slightly shorter. I call Theo Clarke.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I was very pleased that our Prime Minister made a commitment to support 12 years of quality education for girls around the world. Later in my speech, I will tackle some of the barriers that women face in developing countries.

Empowering women in the economy and closing gender gaps in the world of work is key to achieving the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and the sustainable development goals, particularly goal 5 on gender equality. The Commonwealth is an especially unique forum that the UK can leverage to further promote gender equality and bolster women’s economic empowerment in developing countries. With 54 countries and more than 2.4 billion people, the Commonwealth offers a more unified and structured network, sharing historical ties, values and language, and allows the UK to amplify its commitment to gender equality.

Commonwealth countries are more likely to trade and invest with each other than with the rest of the world. Collectively, Commonwealth members are less protectionist than other countries. Reduced trade costs and similarities in business, regulatory and administrative systems underpin the “Commonwealth advantage”. According to the International Monetary Fund’s forecasts, nine out of the top 25 fastest-growing economies are members of the Commonwealth, which demonstrates the trade potential of the group.

The UK chocolate industry is worth at least £4 billion each year, yet most cocoa farmers live in abject poverty. A typical farmer, such as those in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which account for 60% of the world’s cocoa production, earns less than 75p a day. That is well below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of approximately £1.40 per day. When visiting farmers in west Africa, I was struck to learn that only 25% of women cocoa farmers own their land, and and that on average they work about a third more than men when childcare and domestic chores are taken into account.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about how we can help people in extreme poverty in those countries. A problem, however, is that if we create new tariffs across the world for things such as cocoa, we may unwittingly allow greater competition against the farmers she describes, inadvertently undercutting their salaries rather than helping them into prosperity through trade.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Now that we have left the European Union, we have an opportunity to look at global Britain and our standing in the world. As he says, it is important that we do not undercut farmers in developing countries.

This year, the Fairtrade Foundation launched a campaign called “She Deserves” to achieve living incomes for cocoa farmers in west Africa, particularly women. I was very pleased to see people in Parliament, in Stafford and across Britain supporting Fairtrade fortnight earlier this month.

I will share with colleagues an example of a Fairtrade project that has made a real difference to people’s lives. The ABOCFA co-operative, which I visited last year, is the only organic Fairtrade-certified cocoa co-operative in Ghana. It has a total membership of 924 and produces more than 1,000 megatonnes of raw organic cocoa beans. The co-operative has signed a five-year memorandum of understanding with its current buyer, Tony’s Chocolonely—its products are stocked in British supermarkets—to supply it with Fairtrade-certified raw beans from last year’s season. As a nation of chocolate lovers, particularly in the west midlands, which of course is the home of Cadbury’s, the UK consumes more chocolate per person than any other European country. The UK could play a very powerful role in bringing about change to ensure that those farmers have a dignified life and receive a proper living income.

During the 2018 CHOGM in the UK, Commonwealth countries launched the Commonwealth connectivity agenda for trade and investment, which was a commitment to increase opportunities for women to trade internationally and to break down gender barriers in all sectors. The UK Government should be congratulated on the great work that they have already done on trade and investment and gender equality. I am thinking specifically of the SheTrades Commonwealth initiative, which was announced at CHOGM in 2018. I urge the Government to set out a five-step action plan as part of global Britain to scale up our efforts to promote the economic empowerment of women through trade and investment in the Commonwealth.

First, on female economic empowerment, I urge the Government to increase their investment in the SheTrades Commonwealth initiative. Following the successful UK-Africa investment summit, the Government have already announced £3.5 million of UK aid to support SheTrades, on top of the initial £7 million pledged in 2018 by the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I very much welcome the commitment, but the Government should go further to build on success and should increase their commitment. SheTrades has shown how investing in women has a clear multiplier effect. Results show that women entrepreneurs, on average, employ more women and invest more in community projects.

How do women do in international trade? The International Trade Centre’s large-scale survey looked at the extent of the challenge, and estimated that only one out of five exporting companies is women-led. That disparity occurs not only in developing countries but across Europe. Women-led enterprises are generally concentrated in less dynamic sectors than male-led ones, and women-led enterprises are involved in both import and export. In employment, job segregation means that women tend to work in lower paid jobs.

What are the reasons for that disadvantage? Women face unequal access to finance, skills, property and business networks, and some of those disadvantages can be explained by the fact that women often run smaller businesses and have other gender-specific barriers to entry. I have seen at first hand in numerous developing countries how financial innovation can be used to make credit facilities more accessible to women living in poor and rural communities. Lack of access to reliable and feasible loans is one of the major barriers to entry for women wanting to become economically independent.

Village savings and loan associations harness the existing social structure in villages to bring together people to make a financial contribution and save money as a community. That is a good example of funds being used as credit facilities and of a way for female entrepreneurs to get funding in locations where there are no traditional banking facilities. In Uganda, for example, more than 15,000 such savings groups have been established, and local people have now benefited from financial training. That is a good example of why savings groups are a key tool to promote female economic empowerment, so I hope the Government look at supporting such initiatives throughout the Commonwealth.

We need to reform the business, policy and legal ecosystem to ensure that it is not stifling female entrepreneurship and participation in trade. We need much better data to understand the barriers that prevent women from trading in the first place—what it is that is holding them back. We need to ensure that women have a voice when policies are being designed and implemented. It is also critical to acknowledge the work of the private sector, which has an important role to play in mentoring and training women to supply chain diversity programmes. All companies must be encouraged to create concrete opportunities for female entrepreneurs.

Secondly, the UK should champion an MBA scholarship initiative for 500 young women entrepreneurs and business leaders of the future from Commonwealth developing countries. That would give an opportunity for young female entrepreneurs to further their skills and to grow their businesses.

Thirdly, I congratulate CDC on its excellent commitment to close the economic gap between men and women. Forums such as the gender-smart investing summit in London have been successful in promoting collaboration between development finance institutions and encouraging them to work together. CDC is also encouraging women to be more economically active.

To give a specific example, the Chemi & Cotex company in Tanzania manufactures the leading brand of toothpaste in east Africa. I was impressed to learn that women now make up nearly 50% of its workforce. All the women who head up the sales branches join the company in junior roles and develop their skills within the business. That type of outreach programme is vital to help women to participate fully in the local economy. We must leverage the power of female entrepreneurship and continue to promote gender equality.

Fourthly, the UK should organise a business forum that brings together women entrepreneurs from across the Commonwealth. It would be a great opportunity for women entrepreneurs to share best practice and to forge networks, but also a chance to reflect on and take stock of the progress that we have made with different trade and gender initiatives, to determine the next steps for the future, and to reflect on the 2017 WTO Buenos Aires declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment.

Finally, the UK should appoint a new special envoy on women’s economic empowerment in the Commonwealth to work at international level across the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade. That would be an extremely powerful way to champion gender equality further. The new envoy could work with the new WTO working group on women and trade, which is expected to be agreed at the upcoming WTO ministerial conference in June of this year. It would allow an opportunity for a co-ordinated and harmonised UK approach truly to unleash the potential of women entrepreneurship in Commonwealth developing countries.

I believe that 2020 is an important year for women’s economic empowerment. It marks 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing declaration and platform for action, while little more than two years has passed since 127 countries launched the 2017 WTO Buenos Aires declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment. Ahead of the June CHOGM in Rwanda, the issue must continue to be high on the agenda of the various economic groupings in the Commonwealth, from the G20 and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement to APEC, or Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation. The UK has made a strong commitment to the trade and gender equality agenda, and I hope that in 2020 the UK Government will continue to build on the success of the African investment summit, scaling up that ambition even further.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing this debate. I am impressed at how the topic manages to combine both Commonwealth Day and International Women’s Day.

This year, 2020, marks the start of the decade of delivery of the sustainable development goals, which affect the whole of the Commonwealth and beyond. I am sporting my SDG badge to highlight that important commitment, and I hope that colleagues across the House support it too. Recently, I found another way to support the global goals: having them as a screensaver on my mobile phone. By doing so, I earn money that I can donate to my chosen goal. I urge other Members to do likewise—to literally be the small change that we want to see in the world. The two goals that are particularly appropriate for this debate are SDG 5, on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and SDG 8, on full and productive employment and decent work for all.

As we approach the Commonwealth meeting in Rwanda, including that of the Commonwealth Business Forum, it is important to ensure that women’s voices are heard in those important debates. Too often, such discussions are dominated by men. As a result, not only is no action taken on issues that affect women, but those issues are not even on the agenda. Open trading arrangements and the reduction of border barriers between countries can be of particular benefit to small women traders. They can promote women’s economic empowerment, as well as fit with our commitment to SDG 5.

I want to focus on the topic of period poverty. First, there is an issue of opportunity. Someone who does not have access to sanitary products will miss out on opportunities to participate in school or work. According to ActionAid, one in 10 girls in Africa misses school because they do not have access to sanitary products, or because there are not safe, private toilets to use at school. Every time a girl misses school owing to period poverty, an opportunity is denied, resulting in lower educational attainment and fewer chances to make an economic contribution through future employment. It is important not to underestimate the scale of that problem in the Commonwealth. According to ActionAid, in Kenya alone 50% of school-age girls do not have access to sanitary products, and 12% of India’s 355 million menstruating women cannot afford period products.

Despite those challenges, alleviating period poverty can in itself create business opportunities for women across the Commonwealth. Lilypads is a social enterprise that works domestically and internationally. It has developed a reusable pad, which it manufactures in Nairobi, Kenya. Part of its mission is to develop low-cost pads, which can be supplied individually. Crucially, Lilypads helps to train women, who can sell the sanitary items in their communities as a way of generating income. It is in the business of creating opportunities for women. Culturally, it supports conversations that prevent menstruation from being a topic that simply cannot be discussed. Period poverty is experienced by women all over the world. I am pleased that steps are being taken both domestically and globally to eradicate it. Whether in Cupar or Kenya, Berwick or Botswana, no woman should be prevented from participating fully in her community by her inability to access sanitary products.

We must reflect on our domestic approach and adjust our international approach, and the same is true in reverse. Our commitment to the global goals does not just mean changing how we look at development work; it means changing our perspective and our policies at home too. The goals apply here. That is particularly relevant to SDG 5. This is not just about looking at what we do domestically and expanding it internationally; it is about looking at what we do internationally and replicating that domestically where appropriate.

Last year, the right hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) committed the Government to helping to eradicate period poverty worldwide by 2030. I am sure Members across the House will agree that that is a laudable aim, but a year is a long time in politics—especially this last year, in which we have had, as of today, one Budget, two Prime Ministers, three Chancellors and four Secretaries of State for International Development. Last week, I presented a Bill on period poverty, the purpose of which is to require the new Secretary of State to report to the House on progress on the 2030 commitments, to ensure that they do not drop off her agenda. I am pleased that my Bill was sponsored by hon. Members from across the House, including the hon. Members for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), alongside my six female Liberal Democrat colleagues.

I urge the Minister to update us on the progress that is being made towards the achievement of the goals and the UK’s involvement in that. There is a clear and obvious case that eradicating period poverty is, in and of itself, a worthy end towards which the UK should continue to make an important contribution. Women who are currently excluded from trade and investment opportunities in the Commonwealth will surely benefit.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing this debate. She is clearly very experienced and committed to the issues she has raised, and it is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I also enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain). There is interesting work going on around the world. There are lots of challenges and lots of ideas, and it is good to know that so many of us are so committed.

Fundamental to all this is education. Unless the UK Government seriously address inequalities in work and education in their role as Commonwealth chair-in-office, little progress will be made on business and investment. There is little time to make the impact we should be making. The UK has been Commonwealth chair-in-office for a year and a half; it has only six months left. The UK Government have been fairly slow in pushing for positive social change in the Commonwealth, and I hope we do not waste those precious final months. That is not to say that there are not positives or that the UK does not play any part in that positive progress—it would be wrong to claim that—but are we doing enough?

Let me start with the positives. From 2017, when I lost my seat, to 2019, I spent quite a bit of time working overseas. I did a lot of work in the Gambia, which is a Commonwealth member, on behalf of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID. I therefore know from first-hand experience that there is truly meaningful work going on that is funded by the UK. I would love to say more about my experience, particularly in the Gambia, but that is perhaps for another day.

Let me also acknowledge some of the progress that women have made in the Commonwealth. First, a girl is as likely as a boy—in some countries more likely—to attend primary school. That is an improvement. Secondly, in the Parliaments of 13 Commonwealth countries, 30% or more of members are women. Thirdly, in most countries, women can now expect to outlive men.

However, it remains the case—I do not put this at the door of the UK Government; it is for all of us across the world to resolve—that only one in five Commonwealth parliamentarians is a woman. That means four in five are men. Only seven of every 10 girls attend secondary school. Thirty-two countries do not mandate equal pay for work of equal value, 19 do not have laws prohibiting early marriage, and 89% of Commonwealth countries have at least one piece of legislation on the books that holds women back economically in terms of starting or growing a business. That is unacceptable, and it must be addressed before any real economic progress can be made.

On early marriage, as it is the week of International Women’s Day, I want to pay tribute to a truly inspirational woman, who is a tribal chief in Malawi. Since being appointed a few years ago, Chief Theresa Kachindamoto has annulled more than 1,000 child marriages and sent all the girls back to school. She is in charge of 551 village head men—they are all men. If one of them allows a child to be married, she dismisses him immediately—zero tolerance. That is why she is known in Malawi as the marriage terminator.

I spent some time in Malawi during recess. I went with Oxfam to two villages, where we met girls who had been married and had babies as children, and had dropped out of school. When they were encouraged to return, they said they could not because they had to breastfeed their babies and school was too far away. Oxfam gave them bicycles so they could go to school, cycle home at lunch time to feed their babies, and return to school. They no longer have to choose between their children and the education they need to create better lives for themselves.

Even if every country sorted out the inequality in education, the well-documented relationship between trade and gender would remain. Women are disproportionately affected by trade policy decisions, particularly in developing countries, as we have heard. As the UK leaves the European Union and forms its own independent trade policy, the Government have an opportunity to show leadership and develop a truly gender-responsive approach to trade policy. I hope they make the most of that opportunity.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for securing this important debate and for the way she approached the topic. I think she will find there is a great deal of overlap between us; perhaps some cross-party collaboration beckons. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for her remarks about period poverty and the potential of trade for tackling it. I also enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). Her description of the marriage terminator was an education, but I also welcome her emphasis on the value of education in bringing about gender equality.

As others said, it is timely that we have International Women’s Day and Commonwealth Day together this week. It is right that we should use this opportunity, as the hon. Member for Stafford said, to discuss how we use the tools and policy measures at our disposal to advance our efforts to ensure equality for women, including through our trade agreements with Commonwealth partners.

Trade has the potential to bring great economic empowerment to the world’s poorest countries, and specifically to women and others in more vulnerable groups. However, not all trade and investment policy measures are economically empowering for women. A careful balance must therefore be struck for trade policy to be effective. The World Trade Organisation and the World Bank have found that although women play a vital role in the economy, they face additional obstacles to participating in international trade. We should seek to overcome those barriers if we want women’s potential to be fulfilled.

We welcome trade agreements that elevate rights and standards and that are at the forefront of global initiatives to secure the economic empowerment of women. However, as the WTO and the World Bank have identified, gender-biased laws and procurement processes, and difficulties in accessing finance, are challenges to women’s ability to benefit from international trade. Those two institutions also point out that gender-biased environments generally mean that women face a variety of extra challenges, such as in acquiring necessary knowledge, or being in charge of or involved with companies large enough for the extra costs of trade to be incorporated at scale.

In countries where women’s socioeconomic positions are particularly precarious, trade can of course offer important routes to their social and economic empowerment, and trade agreements can create decent work opportunities for women. However, far too often they have been a source of further exploitation. Some trade agreements result in women finding themselves trapped in low-wage jobs and dangerous working environments, which we all wish to avoid.

Well-regulated, unionised jobs for men and women in one country being lost as they are relocated overseas, often to markets without those protections, is a potential downside of a trade agreement that is not well thought through. Poorly designed trade policy can therefore fail to deliver coherent ways of improving women’s rights and economic status. At worst, it can harm the rights of women—particularly those from poor and marginalised communities.

Civil society campaign groups in the Commonwealth have highlighted that bad trade policy can lead to jobs with low wages and poor working conditions for women—effectively a race to the bottom rather than, to use the Government’s favourite phrase, the levelling up that we all wish to see. Bad trade policy may result in women’s livelihoods being put at risk, and the interests of private companies and investors being prioritised over commitments to women’s rights. It can also lead to inadequate provision of quality public services and infrastructure, such as education, which are vital to give women an equal chance to participate in the market, redress their unpaid care work and tackle violence against women and girls.

But there is good news: there are ways of making this work. The joint declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment at the 11th World Trade Organisation ministerial conference helpfully identified some things for future discussion. I hope that the Minister is aware of those things and has taken them to heart, but I will remind him of them anyway. There were five key recommendations: sharing respective experiences relating to policies and programmes that encourage women’s participation in national and international economies; sharing best practice for conducting gender-based analysis of trade policies and monitoring; sharing methods and procedures for the collection of gender-disaggregated data—so often in gender equality work, just having the data makes for a huge step forward—and the use of indicators, monitoring and evaluation methodologies so we can analyse gender-focused trade statistics and work out whether we are doing anything good; working together in the WTO to remove barriers to women’s economic empowerment and increase their participation; and ensuring that aid for trade really supports the tools and know-how to analyse, design and implement gender-responsive trade policies. Future discussions alone are not enough. If trade agreements proceed as usual and lock in liberalisation measures, they set back efforts to improve labour standards and workplace rights, and they disadvantage women. I am sure that none of us wants that.

Not enough is being done to determine the gender impacts of trade agreements at the outset, let alone any subsequent review post ratification. Will the Minister set out what representations the UK intends to make at the upcoming 12th ministerial conference on gender and trade?

The SheTrades Commonwealth scheme, which was launched by the former Prime Minister at the Commonwealth Business Forum in London in 2018, has been cautiously welcomed by campaign groups and civil society organisations. There is caution, however, because such initiatives invariably focus on channelling support to women entrepreneurs in developing countries. That is good, but they are often target-driven, and much of the funding is ultimately directed towards well-connected and wealthy figures in developing countries, without any measurement of or focus on the benefits for other women. Those schemes may well have the noble intention of ensuring that women are better represented in global trade, and that is a good thing, but it is not enough if they fail to address the wider structural issues that are often reinforced by trade policy architecture.

Similarly, the Commonwealth connectivity agenda has been heralded as an additional tool to address how digital solutions can be used to empower women and unlock economic opportunities for them. Of course, that is worthwhile, but we have to tackle the underlying structural issues. The outcome statement of the 2018 Commonwealth Women’s Forum, which took place alongside the business forum, should be commended for recognising that trade policy could be used to leverage economic empowerment for women and encourage ratification of the International Labour Organisation conventions. Those involved in the forum call on the Commonwealth Heads of Government to

“create an enabling macroeconomic environment…Call on Heads to lead global action on developing and implementing gender responsive trade policies and economic development in collaboration with women…Call on Heads to address the systematic barriers to women’s full and equal participation in the economy…Commit to extending employment regulations and social and legal protection to cover women workers in the formal and informal economy…Call on Heads to recognise the economic value of unpaid care work”,

without which women will continue to be doubly disadvantaged. Even that does not go far enough to identify the negative potential impact of trade liberalisation measures that are drawn up without due attention to gender; nor does it include recommendations for how to proceed with binding obligations on all parties.

Echoing what the hon. Member for Stafford said, I ask the Minister to set out the Government’s priorities for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. In 2018, the International Trade Committee heard much evidence on how trade policy unfairly affects women and what measures might be considered a step forward—the Minister might want to refer to that at CHOGM. The woman from the Gender and Development Network gave evidence about significant economic and social disadvantage, including unemployment, low pay and poor working conditions. She also highlighted how poorly thought-through free trade agreements can drive down labour standards. Again, that is not what we want. ActionAid noted in its evidence that women face economic discrimination at every level, and women in developing countries could be at least $9 trillion better off if their pay and access to paid work were equal to men’s.

The introduction of specific gender chapters in free trade agreements, such as that in the Canada-Chile free trade agreement, has been commended as breaking positive new ground. Such agreements have the potential to build on existing global commitments, such as the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, and to provide for the establishment of trade and gender committees to oversee the application of aspects of a free trade agreement. However, such chapters often do not contain binding obligations or enforcement measures, so they have been described by the UN conference on trade and development as “light touch.”

The Labour party committed in its manifesto to ensuring that trade policy respects workers’ rights, not just domestically but abroad. That includes accountability for global supply chains. It also involves ensuring that women workers in the Commonwealth who produce goods for our market are in decent jobs with decent wages, safe working conditions and union rights, and that they are safe from sexual harassment and violence. We should not be in the business of offshoring exploitative conditions.

Many UK companies source goods from the global south and the Commonwealth, which has created many jobs in sectors that employ women, such as garments and agriculture. However, it is important to ensure that the jobs that are created have safe working conditions and pay a living wage. If we are to design a trade policy that genuinely promotes women’s rights and encourages women’s greater representation and participation in trade and investment across the Commonwealth, we must address the structural challenges. To ensure that trade policy in the Commonwealth is in line with women’s rights, the Government must carry out gender and social impact assessments prior to all new trade agreements—and I mean all of them. The debate is about the Commonwealth, but we should do the same for all trade agreements.

The Government’s response to the International Trade Committee report, in which they which committed to publishing gender-specific reviews and scoping assessments with trade agreements, is welcome. However, if Parliament does not have a properly defined role in scrutinising and debating those agreements, I worry that we will not be able to hold the Government to account on them.

Trade agreements can affect the public services that women rely on for their social protection, displace local jobs through surges of cheap imports and undermine working conditions. They can also do the opposite, and we could decide that we want to do the opposite. In the discussion about women’s economic empowerment, if we get it wrong and continue to overlook the aspects of trade agreements that stand to do the most damage, we risk making women’s lives worse. If we get it right, there is a good possibility that we can make women’s lives much better and assist with women’s economic empowerment in the Commonwealth. I hope that the Minister will address some of what Members have said.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and to have heard powerful speeches from Members across the House. While only one in five exporting businesses are led by women, I am pleased to say that that ratio has been reversed in this debate. I am the first male to speak while the four women, who spoke so powerfully, went ahead of me.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke), who has great expertise in this area, having previously worked for the Bill Gates Foundation. As she showed in her speech, she cares deeply and knows a great deal about this topic. She founded the Coalition for Global Prosperity and is the vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on trade out of poverty, both of which do so much to increase our understanding of these subjects.

Having recently celebrated Commonwealth Day, and International Women’s Day last Sunday, this is a great chance to reflect on the huge benefits for women and society in this country and throughout the Commonwealth from having the freedom and opportunities to trade and invest. The Government put this issue right at the heart of our international agenda.

As the Minister for Women and Equalities said in the Commons last week, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day “each for equal” has echoes of the Government’s central domestic mission to level up, deliver opportunity to and unleash the potential of everyone in the United Kingdom. As was suggested in various speeches, we would like that to happen for everyone everywhere, not least for the women who are so often left behind. Women’s economic empowerment is a goal that we in the Department for International Trade and people across Government are pulling out all the stops to drive forward, not just here in Britain but across the Commonwealth and beyond.

The Commonwealth is rapidly becoming one of the economic powerhouses of global growth, with joint GDP expected to reach $13 trillion this year. While progress has been made in unleashing the full economic potential of women across the Commonwealth, their access to the benefits of trade remains startlingly unbalanced, as we have heard from a succession of speakers today. This issue is important for developed and developing countries alike. From barriers to technology and start-up capital to land ownership restrictions, all too often women are unable to fully exploit their business talents and realise their trading ambitions.

Women do not lack ability or ambition, yet we know that only one in three UK entrepreneurs is female, which is a gender gap equivalent to approximately 1.1 million missing businesses. Globally it is estimated that female-led SMEs face a credit gap of around $300 billion, with businesses run by women collecting less than 3% of global venture capital in 2017. The World Bank estimates that of 173 countries worldwide, 90% had at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities, hence our determination to help women in the UK to export to or invest in our Commonwealth partners and other global markets, and to enable women in Commonwealth nations to trade with us. After all, supporting women-owned businesses to trade internationally is a proven way to boost broader economic transformation.

In recognition of that, at the London Commonwealth summit in 2018 all member states agreed to address systemic barriers to women’s full and equal participation in the economy and increase opportunities for women in trade internationally. The UK is playing a key role in championing those goals. Our 2018 UK export strategy commits us to harnessing trade’s potential for boosting economic growth, creating jobs and supporting greater participation by women in the economy. In the UK-US negotiation objectives announced earlier this month, we made clear that we are seeking an agreement with the US that advances women’s economic empowerment.

As an independent member of the World Trade Organisation, the UK is now working with other members to use the joint declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and others mentioned, was adopted at the 11th ministerial conference of the WTO in 2017 as a road map for progress on this vital agenda. We will seek to build on that momentum and drive forward our existing commitments at the 12th ministerial conference in June. As we also look ahead to the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali, Rwanda this summer, I am encouraged that strategies for women in business and trade are expected to form part of the discussions.

I was pleased to spend several months working with colleagues in the FCO and DFID to deliver the Africa investment summit on 20 January this year. During the summit, we announced an additional £6.1 million of funding for the extension of the work and opportunities for women programme, known as the WOW programme. That will support a further 100,000 women in Africa to access safer and better paid employment. A memorable part of the event was when I attended a reception in the margins of the summit hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering, where I met female entrepreneurs from African countries who received the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa prize. It is dynamic young entrepreneurs like them who will supercharge economic growth across the developing world in the decades ahead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford asked whether we should establish Commonwealth MBA scholarships. Since 2018, the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission has focused its new awards under six key development themes. It supports high-calibre female postgraduates from 23 Commonwealth countries in master’s subjects relating to the theme of business and industry. In 2018, some 48% of new awards were for women. As for the investment strategy of the CDC, that body is working hard to help promote women’s economic empowerment through their own investments. The CDC sponsored the first global gender-smart investing summit in London in 2018 and is a founder member of the 2XChallenge, which seeks to mobilise $3 billion-worth of investments into developing countries by the end of this year in support of women’s businesses.

My hon. Friend asked if we could appoint a special envoy on women’s economic empowerment for the Commonwealth. The UK’s special envoy for gender equality already represents the breadth of work that the UK Government do on this issue, and a key part of their role is to promote best practice in gender equality overseas.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of women entrepreneurs forging bonds across the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Business Women’s Network is currently a route to do that and a vocal participant in Commonwealth events. Indeed, it is co-hosting a conference this month on collaboration, trade and education across the Commonwealth. It will also be active in the Commonwealth Business Forum, which is taking place immediately before the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali, where we expect encouraging women entrepreneurs to be on the agenda set by the incoming chair-in-office, Rwanda.

My hon. Friend asked me about the SheTrades Commonwealth initiative, which we launched at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, in London. As she observed, that innovative project has been doing great work in supporting women entrepreneurs in four Commonwealth countries—Bangladesh, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria—by helping to enhance their business competitiveness and connecting them with international markets. Building on the success of SheTrades, the Secretary of State for International Development announced a further £3.5 million, as my hon. Friend mentioned, towards a programme extension at the UK-Africa investment summit in January.

In today’s debate, we heard speeches from across the House. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) championed the issue of period poverty and the way it blocks women from accessing the economy, and thus trade. She spoke powerfully about that. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), with her memorable reference to the marriage terminator, and others, also spoke with great knowledge, based not least on the interregnum before her return to the House, when she worked abroad to understand the issues at a deep level.

The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) also spoke powerfully, although it is worth mentioning that, notwithstanding the barriers that women face, which across the House we are all committed to doing everything we can to address, it is trade liberalisation that has led to the greatest and fastest improvement in human welfare in history in past decades. It is a shame that the Opposition party has been taken hold of by a fundamentally Marxist view, which has led them to oppose trade agreements with the most benign of allies, leads to an attitude that regards liberalisation as fundamentally against the best interest, and talks as if we can impose our standards on every country—least appropriately of all on a developing country.

To impose such standards on them would effectively mean that the women—business people and others—in those countries would be barred from access to our markets by what comes together as a coherent view that opposes liberalisation and that puts up artificial barriers to those who cannot match the standards we take for granted. Thus, it does the exact opposite of what the hon. Lady would wish to do, which is to empower and strengthen the economic role of women in the developing world. I have to say that I fundamentally and totally reject that attitude, which unfortunately has infected the whole of the Labour party since the current leadership has been in place. I happily give way to the hon. Lady.

Order. Before the hon. Lady makes her point, it has been a very good debate and I am sure after this wonderful point of order the Minister will return to his normal good-hearted self and come swiftly to a close.

I am not going to make a point of order, Mr Hosie. I am going to ask the Minister if he would reconsider that uncharacteristically ungenerous characterisation of what I said. I absolutely said that we welcome trade agreements. I said that I welcome trade agreements. I also quoted from NGOs in the developing world—not my view but the views of those from the developing world themselves, from Commonwealth organisations, whom I have met in my work—who have themselves talked about some of the problems that emerge from some trade agreements. I was very careful in my choice of words and I was most definitely not opposing all trade agreements—very far from it. I do hope he will reconsider.

Hansard will show the record of expressing opposition to trade liberalisation. People will be able to see that for themselves. As I say, the failure to support trade agreements that should have been uncontroversial suggests a certain extremism in the economic outlook of Her Majesty’s Opposition as it stands. However, the Labour party is having a leadership election, and I hope and expect that some form of sanity will return to its economic strategy.

As Minister for exports, it gives me great pleasure to see the crucial role our trade policy can play in breaking down barriers to global commerce for women across the globe. Free trade and trade liberalisation bring the benefits of global commerce to all nations and regions of the UK, just as they are helping to level up economic opportunities for people of all genders and backgrounds across the world. As a truly global Britain, we will use our new role as an independent, outward-looking, free-trading nation to champion the cause of empowering women across the Commonwealth and beyond.

I thank the Minister and all hon. Members for their contributions today. I was very pleased to hear from the Minister that the special envoy on gender equality is doing a huge amount to champion this agenda. I have previously met with the envoy and I am pleased to see that she is continuing this important role. I will also look more into the CDC’s work on supporting gender equality. I was particularly interested in the 2X Challenge, which I will look into after the debate.

I thank hon. Members for their contributions, particularly the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for her work on period poverty. She has been a strong champion on this issue. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) for sharing with us some very interesting statistics on how girls are more likely to attend school than boys; I was very pleased and heartened to hear the progress that we have made over the past few years. The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) made a very important point about how important is that we have the correct data on gender. That will enable us to make progress on this agenda.

For me, it is vital to remember that more than half of our global population is female. Women play a crucial role in societies across the world, and it is important that the UK Government continue to ensure that all women have the ability to fulfil their true potential. I think we can do that in the Commonwealth.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered trade and investment opportunities for women in the Commonwealth.

Sitting adjourned.