I beg to move,
That this House has considered International Women’s Day.
There is a dreadful poignancy in opening this debate today. The bombing of a Ukrainian women and children’s hospital yesterday has left pregnant women on stretchers, covered in blood from shrapnel wounds, and I would hope that the message that we send from this place to every woman in Ukraine during this week of events to mark International Women’s Day is that we stand with those women against those who wage war on their country. We stand alongside those women in their battle for a free and independent Ukraine. We stand with the people of Belarus and Russia who do not want war. I was delighted to meet the Belarusian opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, in Parliament today to reinforce that message.
In Ukraine, International Women’s Day is usually a public holiday—an opportunity to mark the unique role that women play in the culture of their nation—but this year has been very different indeed, because it is the women of Ukraine who make up the vast majority of refugees. The Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), will share my horror at seeing those women fleeing their homeland. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is right to be redoubling the Government’s efforts to cut unnecessary bureaucracy, so that we can offer women who seek sanctuary in our country swift passage.
Acts of war and aggression disproportionately affect women. In Afghanistan, just 12 months ago on International Women’s Day, that nation celebrated the remarkable contribution made by Afghan women against the challenges of the covid pandemic. Now, the hard-won progress made on women’s rights over the past two decades has been all but reversed, with a new Taliban Government having no place for the 67 women elected to the Afghan Parliament. We know that the best way we can fight dictatorships and autocracies around the world is through support for democratic capacity for effective democratic institutions.
The truth is that every democracy is fragile; it has to be nurtured. As we mark International Women’s Day as parliamentarians, we should focus every fibre of our body on how we can strengthen democracies around the world, because democracy is under threat like never before. Strong parliamentarians are representative of their people. Women playing their proper role in Parliament is not an optional extra; it is essential for our legitimacy. This year’s theme of “Break the Bias” could not be more appropriate, because there are few democracies around the world where women have an equal role in policy making and policy scrutiny—not even our own. Some 27 years on from the 1995 UN Beijing platform for action, which demanded worldwide equal participation for women in political decision making, we have seen slow progress, with just one in four elected representatives around the world being a woman.
For International Women’s Day 2022, let us call for a renewed commitment to women’s equal role in policy making and policy scrutiny to ensure progress on securing women’s roles in democratic institutions. Internationally, both our Parliament and our Government actively support the rights of women and girls. The Government, through their work on education for girls and their support for organisations such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, work hard to help build women’s political participation. Here in Parliament, many of us are members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians, and we work with legislative bodies around the world to share our expertise and knowledge. Gender-sensitive Parliament audits are a practical support that the CPA has put in place for jurisdictions to address their institutionalised gender inequality. Over the past year, the CPA has trained women parliamentarians around the world to deal with online abuse, helping to find a way forward on one of the issues that holds so many women back from wanting to seek election in the first place.
We want strong democracies around the world, but it has never been more important for our own Parliament to be an exemplar. In Westminster, there are still twice as many men as women elected to this place, demonstrating the challenges even embedded democracies have. I stand here as a Conservative Member of Parliament to say that there are three men for every one woman in my party, which is the Government party. That has to change.
Each party takes this problem extremely seriously. I know that the Conservative party does, and we are acting. It is right that we press Government and political parties to do more, but Parliament itself has to act, too, as the custodian of one of the most important parts of our democracy is our legislature. As Sue Maguire high- lighted in her report to Government in 2018, while quotas for women to come into Parliament have a place—the Labour party has made good use of them—they do not
“address the cultural and working practices in Parliament and local Government that remain significant barriers”.
We can and must challenge the Government to do more, and parties to act, but if we simply say it is the fault of political parties, we are not listening to the mountain of evidence to the contrary.
I applaud Mr Speaker for creating real momentum for change here, even before he became Speaker, by addressing for the first time issues such as the personal security of Members. We also now have a behaviour code and grievance procedures, thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom).We have proxy voting for new parents and effective procedures to deal with bullying, as we saw earlier this week, but where is the progress on the other measures that have been put forward?
Effecting change in this place can feel almost impossible. Although we have Select Committees to hold the Government to account, where is the mechanism to hold ourselves to account? There is no structure in Parliament for Members to identify a programme of co-ordinated change—coherent, transparent and accountable change—that would make this place somewhere that more women want to come to and stay in.
As the Women and Equalities Committee’s report that was published last week by my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said, five years on from the Childs “The Good Parliament” report and 10 more reports like it, many of the recommendations that have been put forward remain unanswered. Some of the actions can be delivered by Parliament and some need Parliament to work with the Government, but above all we need a co-ordinated plan of action for the House of Commons to get our House in order and to get equal representation of women as a top priority.
I will give a couple of examples. We need to ensure that the Government implement section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, which is already in place, to require parties to publish data on the diversity of their candidates and appointments to the House of Lords, a recommendation made more than five years ago. We need to focus our House service public engagement on women’s participation in democracy and reach out to women across the United Kingdom to encourage them to consider standing for election, as we did at the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament’s event on Tuesday evening, which was attended by more than 100 women. Those events should not be held by Members; they should be held by the House of Commons to encourage more women to stand for election.
We need to focus the House communications team on talking about the positive changes that we have already made to our culture here as a result of the new behaviour code and the grievance process. We need to work with the Government to ensure that there is legislation and enforcement against online threats, which disproportionately affect women Members. We need to embed a programme of training for Members who are using social media. We know that those actions need to happen, but we need to have a plan and there needs to be accountability for swift progress.
We are the custodians of our legislative body. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for securing the time for this debate and the APPG officers and members for their support in it. A representative and inclusive House of Commons is essential for the fully effective functioning of a parliamentary democracy. The House itself has a unique responsibility to take steps to ensure that we are representative of the population. Recruiting good people is a matter for political parties, but parties cannot change what people think of Parliament or how they feel about working in the House of Commons. I want today’s debate marking International Women’s Day to be a call to action for our own Parliament. As Members, we need to ensure that the House of Commons is a place that everyone aspires to be part of, including women.
Hon. Members will see that there are a good number of people wishing to speak in today’s debate. I do not want to impose a time limit, so my advice would be to speak for within six to seven minutes. That way, we will get everybody in.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and I associate myself with her comments, especially those regarding the women and children of Ukraine.
Disagreements are par for the course in this place. We are often divided, yet occasionally there are issues that bring us together, unify our sense of purpose and drive us towards collective goals that can deliver a brighter, fairer and more equal future. This is one such issue and the tenor and tone of today’s debate is testament to that unanimity.
Ensuring that we can debate International Women’s Day is so important. It gives us a chance to reflect on where we are as a society and on the progress we have made to date on gender equality. Equally, however, it helps to highlight how much further we still must go to achieve true equality and it marks a call to collective action and shared responsibility for delivering and accelerating gender balance.
Although it is clear that we have come a long way and made significant progress in recent decades, we still have a mammoth task ahead of us to achieve full gender equality. The gender pay gap still exists, women continue to face workplace discrimination, misogynistic abuse is rife, violence against women and girls persists, and women still fall behind men in healthcare and education. While those inequalities remain, the need to mark International Women’s Day is stronger than ever.
Of course, that is particularly true given the impact of covid-19, which hit women disproportionally hard and which analysis suggests could have put gender equality back decades. At the height of the pandemic, a report looked at the impact of covid-19 on women in my city of Coventry. It found that pre-existing inequalities in debt, violence, healthcare, employment and childcare had been exacerbated. It warned that unless a gender-sensitive approach was taken to rebuilding the country and economy, decades of progress towards achieving gender equality could be reversed, so I call on the Government to review the impact of their policies on women and to ensure that the recovery from the pandemic is an equal recovery with women at its heart.
Although International Women's Day provides an opportunity to shine a light on such inequalities, it is also a time to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. In Coventry, one initiative from the Godiva Trust will see residents pay tribute to women who are special to them by helping to decorate some trees placed around the city. People are being invited to attach messages to the trees’ branches to celebrate the lives of inspiring women. That made me think about the inspirational women who have touched my life and who my message would be about. I am privileged to say that there have been many influential women in my life but I pay special tribute to my mum and my two sisters.
My mum was my single biggest inspiration. Without her influence, without her leading the way and showing me that the only thing that limits people in this world is their imagination, and most of all, without her love and support, I would not be where I am today. When she entered politics some 50 years ago—I think that is actually when I entered it too—little did I know that it would become such a large part of my life and would lead me to be right here, the 414th woman ever elected to this place.
While my two sisters did not follow the same path, politics none the less plays a part in their lives. They support me, share my concerns and experience my highs and lows. They give me my sense of resilience and we share a mutual trust and an unconditional love. They are my biggest critics and my staunchest defenders. I know that they are proud of me, as I am of them.
As we mark International Women’s Day, let us pay tribute to those closest to us: our carers, mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts. They are the often-unsung heroes who nurture and guide us, who shape our futures through their sacrifices and selfless actions, and whose very presence contributes to who and what we are today, even if we do not always recognise it. Let us pay tribute to the women whose achievements are so great, yet so often and so easily overlooked—the women whose achievements epitomise the spirit of International Women’s Day.
It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate and, this year, I have doggedly looked for things to celebrate, perhaps with a grim sense of determination. I will start by focusing on a few positive things, such as a young boy who, in his school assembly on Monday, said to me, “Tomorrow’s International Women’s Day. What are you doing to celebrate?”. That is how far we have come—even 12-year-old boys wish to celebrate alongside us. I thank Hugo for asking me what I was going to do. I told him that I would speak in today’s debate and celebrate international women.
I want to celebrate female entrepreneurship in this country. This morning I have been at No. 11 Downing Street to hear the brilliant women of the British Beauty Council talking about their new project to launch jobs in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—and beauty, focusing on the fact that science and beauty go hand in hand. We have to make sure that brilliant women in this country study science subjects and go on to fabulous careers in scientific areas. We heard from an amazing woman, Tumi Siwoku, who spoke about her journey into the beauty industry via science-based A-levels. She was meant to study medicine and become a doctor, but her act of rebellion was to make sure that she went into beauty—and, my goodness, I love rebellious women. They are the ones who push boundaries, break down barriers and do the unexpected.
I also want to talk about the female entrepreneurs I met this week at somewhere far more traditional—Goldman Sachs. They are absolute leaders in their fields, and I want to talk specifically about a very young woman, Thuria Wenbar. She is the chief executive officer of e-Pharmacy, and she talked about her excitement at launching menopause products over the counter. She is still in her 20s, but she was talking about the menopause, and that shows how far we have come. It also pays tribute to the work of my hon. Friend—and she is my hon. Friend—the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who has done so much to break down the taboo and stigma around the menopause. Thuria spoke absolutely unashamedly of her determination to create prosperity and jobs for other women. She spoke about bias—her personal bias—in employing more women in her organisation, and that is one bias we do not wish to break.
I would like to pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who has done so much work on the menopause and women’s health. We can look forward in a few short weeks to the female health strategy coming forward, and I would like to say that, in her role as the Minister for patient safety and primary care, she has been a breath of fresh air. Staying on that theme, I also look forward to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport making a real difference with her forthcoming online safety legislation. That could be a real game changer for young women, and indeed men, for whom the online harms they currently face every single day can spill over into real life. I have no doubt about her mission and determination to bring forward a fiercely effective piece of law.
There are other colleagues I want to celebrate. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), who is here, has done so much brilliant work on botox. It seemed really trivial this morning to be talking about the beauty industry, lipstick and botox, but her private Member’s legislation—the Botulinum Toxin and Cosmetic Fillers (Children) Act 2021—makes it illegal to give botox to under-18s. We need to be protecting young women from the dangers of injectables and cosmetic procedures that can go horribly wrong and alter their looks forever, and we need to be protecting young women from that “Love Island” identical face, which actually looks pretty awful. I would also like to celebrate the brilliant female scientists who made vaccines for covid possible.
But, actually, today I do not want to celebrate at all; I want to talk about International Women’s Day and the women we have seen in war who have been impacted by the Putin invasion of Ukraine. There are those killed by the war, those reporting on the war whether as a journalist or a citizen journalist via social media, and the doctors in the hospitals tending to the sick and the wounded, including the maternity hospitals that we have seen bombed.
I want to talk about one specific woman, Yaroslava Antipina. I do not know her—I had never heard of her before the war started—but she is keeping a daily diary of her life in war, and I know from what she has written that she wants to have her life back. She wants to be able to drink coffee in peace with the people she has met on Twitter. She has fled her home, and I wonder what it would feel like for all of us if we had been forced out of our homes and made to live again with our mothers in a different part of the country. She has taught me that, in Ukraine, International Women’s Day is a holiday—there is a great idea, and perhaps we could introduce that here—but it is not a holiday from war. She wears a sweatshirt that says “Superwoman”, and she genuinely is one.
Yaroslava wants to be able to buy jeans, but she does not know whether the shops will be open, or whether the small shop she has gone to today will be open between 12 noon and 3 pm, so she has launched “operation jeans”, because she just wants to have a spare pair of trousers to wear. She has established her regular no make-up war look, and she posts photographs of it. I want to imagine what that would be like for each and every one of us coming into this Chamber with no make-up. That is why I referenced cosmetic procedures and the British Beauty Council, because we take all that for granted, and if we were her, we might have to accept that, for the conceivable future, everything will look different and our faces will look different.
Yaroslava talks of “this” life and “that” life. This life is the present, her reality; and that life was what she had before—freedom, and her coffee with friends, her jeans, her lipstick and her life in Kyiv. While we celebrate International Women’s Day here, we have to recognise that, just as Yaroslava has a “this” and a “that” life, there is a life here and a life there: here there are no bombs, there are jeans in the shops and we can drink coffee whenever we want; and there they have none of those things. There are little girls in bomb shelters singing the song from “Frozen”, female doctors dodging bombs to treat the sick, female MPs staying defiantly in Kyiv—their capital—and a former Miss Ukraine brandishing her assault weapon in army uniform. There are women on the borders of Ukraine with their children, having left their husbands, their fathers and theirs son behind to fight. So on International Women’s Day this year, I cannot celebrate, but I have to have hope that, as the women of influence in this country, we can make sure that we do better.
It is now two years since I delivered my maiden speech in Parliament during a similar debate on International Women’s Day. In it, I paid tribute to our local history of women’s struggle for social justice, which continues to be a daily source of inspiration. To quote the amazing Greta Thunberg, International Women’s Day
“is for protesting against and raising awareness about the fact that people are still being oppressed or treated differently because of their gender”,
and we do still have so much to protest against.
Today’s debate comes as the cost of living crisis is fostering a sense of injustice, uncertainty and anxiety across the UK, set against the brutal backdrop of the pandemic and a decade of Conservative austerity. We know that the covid-19 pandemic means women have been more likely than men to lose their jobs or to reduce their paid work, given that they are more frequently employed in sectors that have been directly disrupted by lockdown and social distancing measures.
Women—particularly black, Asian and minority ethnic women—continue to account for about two thirds of low earners and are more likely to be working on zero-hour or part-time contracts. The increased overlap of working and caring responsibilities has added to the ongoing reality that caring continues to be a major factor in women’s ability to participate on equal terms. To put it simply, women still face structural economic inequality throughout their lives, and this intersects with other structures of inequality, including race and disability.
We also know that violence against women, including trans women, continues to blight our society. Women die—and they are dying—every day while support services continue to be cut. I know personally that the impact of domestic abuse on the mental health of survivors can be truly devastating, yet there continue to be many barriers and many challenges facing survivors when they try to access help. We know that ethnic minority survivors of domestic abuse suffer for one and a half times longer before seeking help. As such, we urgently need funding for services, particularly specialist community services and specialist refuges.
As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and abuse, I am delighted to be working with Women’s Aid and others on their campaign #DeserveToBeHeard and to argue for domestic abuse to be recognised as a public health priority. Yet while the Government invariably use the language of protecting women, their programme of austerity, real-terms cuts to benefits and pensions, and assaults on civil liberties explicitly target those of us most at risk—migrants, as well as black, Asian and minority ethnic women, and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
The cruel “no recourse to public funds” condition prevents women from accessing help when most at need, and the hostile and racist immigration system tightens around women facing deportation, imprisons women in unacceptable conditions and even sees women drown at sea when they try to seek safety. I plead with the Government today: please scrap the inhumane Nationality and Borders Bill, which risks criminalising refugees, including Ukrainian refugees, who arrive in the UK through an irregular route. Instead, the Government should ensure that there are always safe routes for those seeking sanctuary and asylum.
Too often, under this Government the very institutions that are meant to protect us are in fact failing us, over and over again. Women are told we must forget that only a year ago, Sarah Everard was killed by a serving police officer. We are expected to ignore that there is clearly a problem within the police regarding racism and misogyny which needs urgently to be addressed. Structural racism has long been identified in the police, with the 2017 Lammy review finding that arrest rates are twice as high for ethnic minority women compared with white women. That has been found to lead to increased distrust of the official support services among ethnic minority communities, leading ethnic minority women to be less likely to report experiences of violence and receive support.
International Women’s Day must be about highlighting those ongoing injustices, but more than that it is about pointing the way to overcoming such wrongs. Although International Women’s Day has a historical association with recognising women’s oppression and exploitation, it is also a time when we highlight victories that have been won. Whether that is standing up against violence and austerity, struggling for better working conditions or demanding equal pay, women have always played a vital role in the struggle for social justice, by rallying, organising, protesting, inspiring millions of us, and winning against the odds. That includes industrial action by match workers at the Bryant and May factory in 1888, the historic strike action by female sewing machinists at the Dagenham Ford motor company in 1968, Jayaben Desai leading a walk-out at the Grunwick film processing laboratory in 1976, and Southall Black Sisters being at the forefront of challenging domestic and gender-related violence locally and nationally for decades. Yes, today is about inspiring us to overcome, and there is lots to inspire us.
I will finish by highlighting the victory secured by Unite the Union members working for Barts Health NHS Trust this month, after strike action in which black, Asian and minority ethnic women in particular played a crucial role. I applaud their bravery and determination in fighting exploitation, standing together day in, day out, in the cold and rain, demanding the change that they deserved. That landmark win sends a message to all that pay gaps and low pay are utterly unacceptable. It shows how to challenge injustice and inequality. The message is clearer than ever before: a woman’s place is in the political struggle, in her union and, yes, on the picket lines.
I am No. 529—the 529th woman to be sworn into this great Parliament—of only 559 women ever sworn into this place, and, while improving, the statistics still have a way to go. We are ranked as the 45th country in the world for the proportion of women in Parliament, and only 36% of our councillors are women. Against that backdrop, this International Women’s Day, I was delighted to join—unfortunately by Zoom—a meeting of businesswomen back home at the launch of Women in Business North Devon, many of whom are interested in stepping into public life. The event was organised by the fabulous Roshni Mahajan, sales and marketing director of Aramis Rugby, a British sports manufacturing brand that supplies top-flight rugby teams in the UK and abroad.
Roshni is just one great example of women in leadership roles that we have in North Devon, as are business leaders such as Kate Cox, CEO of Bray Leino, which is one of the largest digital marketing businesses in the UK outside London, and Paula Byers, founder and director of Lime Cloud Ltd, and chair of Digital North Devon, who also sits on multiple steering committees such as Tech South West. We have leaders in the social sector such as Sue Wallis, chief executive of the vital North Devon Against Domestic Abuse, and Rosie Bracher, a leading lawyer who specialises in complex child and family matters.
Michaela Willis came out of retirement during the first lockdown and set up the National Bereavement Partnership, which has worked tirelessly ever since, providing a support helpline, counselling referral, and a befriending service for all those suffering from bereavement, grief, living loss, mental health issues, and those affected by the global covid-19 pandemic. The amazing Suzanne Tracey leads the Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust and the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust, through a crucial integration of the trusts and investment in our healthcare system. I very much hope that by highlighting those women, many of whom will be unknown in their local community, their achievements may encourage others to step up, undeterred by whatever they believe is holding them back. I send my apologies to the other brilliant women in North Devon who are not in my speech today.
As women we are wired a bit differently. We often think things through so far that we have talked ourselves out of them before even considering that we could do them. In my mind that is no wonder because there are still pockets of resistance that we need to tackle, including something as fundamental as violence against women and girls. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) will no doubt jerk tears as she recalls those so tragically taken from this life by men around them, yet on the first anniversary of the dreadful murder of Sarah Everard, I received this letter from a constituent in a position of authority. The letter was, in his words, about the,
“extensive media coverage of the Home Secretary’s statement on the Government’s directive to the police about keeping women and girls safe in public places and Government money being supplied for that purpose…Of course it is important that women and girls are kept safe, but this programme shows discrimination of the worst kind in that young men and boys who suffer three times the number of murders and over four times the number of violent attacks, are totally excluded. It has been compared to a campaign to keep white people safe that excludes people of colour, and it has been brought about by well-organised campaigns by feminist extremists who see females as being superior to males, even under the law.”
I know that misogyny is alive and well in North Devon from the comments thrown, or even shouted at me as MP. When that has crossed from what might be considered “banter” to becoming abuse, I have taken steps to ensure that those responsible have seen the full force of the law. I hope other women will follow my lead and call out what is simply unacceptable, and I look forward to working with our fabulous police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez, as we work towards securing safer streets in North Devon.
As women in this place we all know the abuse that comes with the territory, and as I explained to those women on the business call this week who are thinking about stepping into public life, it is bad on social media as an MP, and somewhat less so as a councillor. However, as women we know that we are stronger when we work together, including the support that we all give to each other here when dealing with such matters, and I hope such issues never deter more women in North Devon from stepping into public life. I may be the first female MP for North Devon, but I very much hope I am not the last.
This International Women’s Day is particularly poignant given the situation in Ukraine, with today’s horrific scenes, and women and children leaving husbands, fathers and sons behind to fight. Many Ukrainian women have done so much, and even taken up arms themselves. In a week when we heard the President of Ukraine quote Churchill, walking down Whitehall, seeing the statue, and remembering the contribution of 7 million women in world war two, has taken on a whole new significance, with so many inspiring women on the frontline in Ukraine. Slava Ukraini—we all stand with Ukraine.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “break the bias”, and its website describes that as working towards a “gender equal world”, free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. It is a world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive, and where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality. Collectively, we can all break the bias.
I thank the Speaker’s Office for its understanding every year in making time for me to read these names, and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for always securing the debate. This year, we are joined in the Gallery by Carole and Matt Gould and their son Zeb, and by Julie Devey. They are the families of Ellie Gould and Poppy Devey Waterhouse, whose names I read out in previous years. Both were brutally killed and taken from their families.
The act of remembrance that we undertake here every year is completely down to the work of Karen Ingala Smith and the Counting Dead Women project. She is the only person keeping this data, but her painstaking work over many years has meant that, unlike seven years ago when I first read the list, we are all more aware of the peril of femicide. That was not the Government’s doing, and they did not do the work; it was women, giving their labour away for free.
This week, I invited the families of the women I have listed over the years to come here to Parliament. I and the Labour party will be working with them to build a families manifesto for change. Each one of them had stories to tell: their daughters being murdered while their perpetrators were on bail; how their mother’s killer went away only for six years because he had taken drugs before he killed her; or killings that went un-investigated because the woman had taken drugs. Today, we live in a society where the excuse used by a perpetrator who kills, to get a lighter sentence, is used to victim-blame and diminish the innocence of a woman who has been killed, in the trial of her own death.
For every name that I am about to read, there will be a story about how better mental health services, even the slightest suggestion of offender management or the availability of quick specialist victim support, would have saved their lives. The perpetrators killed, but it is on us if we keep allowing a system where women live under the requirement of giving away their labour for free in the pursuit of their own safety.
The final name on the list when I stood here last year was one that we all know. Here are the names of the women killed since that supposedly watershed moment: Karen McClean; Stacey Knell; Smita Mistry; Samantha Mills; Dyanne Mansfield; Patricia Audsley; Phyllis Nelson; Klaudia Soltys; Simone Ambler; Emma McArthur; Sherrie Teresa Milnes; Constanta Bunea; Jacqueline Grant; Loretta Herman; Sally Metcalf; Sarah Keith; Peggy Wright; Charmaine O’Donnell; Michelle Cooper; Kerry Bradford; Julia James; Beth Aspey; Susan Booth; Mayra Zulfiqar; Maria Rawlings; Chenise Gregory; Agnes Akom; Wendy Cole; Caroline Crouch; Svetlana Mihalachi; Nicola Kirk; an unnamed woman; Agita Geslere; Alison Stevenson; Lauren Wilson; Peninah Kabeba; Jill Hickery; Bethany Vincent, who was killed alongside her nine-year-old son; Leah Ware; Esther Brown; Michaela Hall; Mildred Whitmore; Stacey Clay; Linda Hood; Marlene Coleman; Sophie Cartlidge; Gracie Spinks; Kim Dearden; Michelle Hibbert, who was killed alongside her husband; Sally Poynton; Catherine Wardleworth; Sukhjit Badial; Elsie Pinder; Catherine Stewart; Ishrat Ahmed; Tamara Padi; Katie Brankin; Sandra See; Beatrice Cenusa; Patricia Holland; Louise Kam; Yordanos Brhane; Amanda Selby; Malgorzata Lechanska; Megan Newborough; Diane Nichol; Maxine Davison; Kate Shepherd; Bella Nicandro; Eileen Barrott; Sharron Pickles; Helen Anderson; Jade Ward; Maddie Durdant-Hollamby; Fawziyah Javed; Ingrid Matthew; another unnamed woman; Sabina Nessa; Terri Harris, who was killed alongside her two children John and Lacey Bennett, and Lacey’s friend Connie Gent, who was there for a sleepover; Sukhjeet Uppal; Norma Girolami; Jekouki Jaboa; Nicole Hurley; Bonnie Harwood; Katrina Rainey; Marta Chmielecka; Ruth Dent; Josephine Smith; Dawn Walker; Yvonne Barr; Sarah Ashwell; Tamby Dowling; Pauline Quinn; Ilona Golabek; Alexandra Morgan; Tricia Livesey and her partner Anthony Tipping; Bobbi-Anne McLeod; Bori Benko; Jennifer Chapple and her husband Stephen; June Fox-Roberts; Malak Adabzadeh; Fernanda; Amber Gibson; Lily Sullivan; Caoimhe Morgan; Julia Howse; Beverley Taylor and John Taylor; Mary Fell and her husband; Kirsty Ashley; Brenda Blainey; Judith Armstrong; Freda Walker; Marlene Doyle; Yasmin Chkaifi; Lucy Powell, my constituent, who was killed at the age of 21; Marena Shaban; Lesma Jackson; Ashley Wadsworth; Charissa Brown; Katy Harris; Nicola Shaba; Dawn Trusler; and Valerie Warrington, alongside her husband.
I want to mention the names of four other women. Three women have been killed in the last month where no suspect has yet been charged. They are: Clair Ablewhite; Valerie Freer; and Naomi Hunte. Finally, a mention for Jomaa Jerrare, whose body was dumped and set on fire in a layby last August. Nobody has been charged with her murder.
Many women like Jomaa do not appear on our lists because no one is ever charged with their killing or because they die by staged homicide in a sudden death by falling from a building, overdose or suicide and we never look into the history of domestic abuse in their cases. The list is painfully long, but in reality it is much longer. We can make it shorter. Let us act faster.
The quality of the silence that accompanies the reading out of those names is always moving and compels us to change. I commend the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for her work. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on opening the debate and leading on this important issue. Sadly, we need to keep leading, following and working to change the world. Seeing the televised images of the bombing of a maternity hospital speaks of such unimaginable evil, and surely that must compel the world to see things differently.
I am pleased to speak today as the 448th woman in Parliament. I did endeavour to find out from the House of Commons Library the number of men elected thus far so that we could see how much ground we must cover to begin to catch up, but that figure is still being sought. I am pleased none the less to be No. 448. I echo the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) in paying tribute to my mum, who was born into poverty in 1930s Glasgow and outperformed her start in life by dint of her fierce personality. She changed the world for me, and she is my staunchest supporter, too.
I would like to pay tribute today to some of the amazing women in my constituency, who all, in their own way, are showing a better world and inspiring younger women to take their place. I will speak a little about the political scene. Although I see women excelling and coming forward in strong numbers across all sorts of different sectors—not least during the pandemic, when behind the amazing Pfizer and AstraZeneca success, women were very much leading the way—the issue of role models still exists, and that includes, in politics, how difficult it sometimes is to inspire other women to stand. The comments from my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) underpin why that challenge has become so difficult.
A few years ago, in my first term, I experienced a death threat and a court case. Women in my constituency have seen and still see what I go through—I am facing exactly the same situation again—and I reach out to them because their contribution to local government could be immense. They would bring tremendous experience and insight and they would be a power of good, but can I persuade them to stand? No. Even though we have really powerful role models, there is work to be done. I welcome the work on the online harms Bill, which I know will start to make a real difference in that sphere. Until then, it is for women to show the way.
I recently met Dr Amal, who was the first Speaker in the United Arab Emirates—indeed, the first Speaker in the Arab world. What an incredible role model she is. With her dignity, grace and courage, she is truly world-changing. Interestingly, in terms of her position and contribution, she paid tribute to the men in her life, and I would like to echo that. She paid tribute to her husband, her father and her sons, who have been her staunchest supporters. She said—there is some relevance here today—that behind many good women, there are often good men, and I offer the example of my colleagues today. Although women are showing a strong lead, we need to move together and it will take all of us to do that.
Let me turn to the women in my constituency who have all been honoured in the past year. First, there is Dorit Oliver-Wolff—an octogenarian now, but unstoppable. She is a holocaust survivor who has dedicated all her years to education and to reaching younger generations to inspire in them a message about how they can play their part in making the world a better place. She speaks even now and led on our Holocaust Memorial Day event. She is a published author and was a pop star in her younger years. Her defiance and commitment to a better world are unparalleled.
I will also profile Laura Murphy at The WayfinderWoman Trust. Run by women for women, it helps those who are feeling anxious and uncertain about themselves or their future. By building self-confidence and skills, it enables them to challenge the barriers that are facing them and to break the bias. It has been hugely impactful for women right across my constituency and beyond.
I will also mention the award winners Lucy Butt and Hollin Preston, who launched Bramber Bakehouse, which, again, was award-winning this year. Bramber—this is a very nice connection for us here in Parliament—was the constituency of William Wilberforce, who is one of my personal heroes for his work around slavery. Bramber Bakehouse provides baking, wellbeing and employability programmes for female survivors of human trafficking, equipping and empowering them.
With such women leading in all sorts of ways, I feel confident that the world can be a better place. Eastbourne is a better place for their work and we will hear more and more examples today of how women are really taking the lead and making the difference. We wish them all every success.
This is the fifth International Women’s Day debate since I was elected in 2017, the fifth time that I have sat here to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) read out the names of women killed in the last year, and the seventh time that she has read that horrific list compiled by our friend Karen Ingala Smith as part of her Counting Dead Women project. This year’s list is even longer than the last, but with several cases yet unsolved and many yet to go through court, that vile list and those grim statistics will sadly only increase.
It seems that those 125 men clearly have not been listening. They clearly did not hear as women around the world said, “Enough.” They did not see or hear those women at the vigils for Sarah and were not listening as we debated in this place and spoke about women’s rage and pain and what it is like to live in fear. We can add those men to the many whose victims were included in the work of artist Wilma Woolf, who visited Parliament this week. Her decorated dinner plates show women killed by men, listed by year and with a symbol to indicate how they met their deaths. Those symbols show a grim range of causes, from strangulation to being burnt, poisoned, drowned, shot, pushed from a balcony, decapitated and so on.
Wilma says of her work, made in conjunction with the Femicide Census, that it is designed to remember the women who have needlessly lost their lives and to highlight the institutionalised and systemic acceptance of this human rights abuse, which is often regarded as an inevitable part of men and women co-existing. The Femicide Census states that
“there is little suggestion that any intervention over the past ten years has had a significant impact or even any impact at all on the number of women being killed by men.”
This, then, is surely now an absolute emergency.
In the last couple of weeks alone, we have talked about this crisis of violence against women and girls—violence, rape, murder, whether at home or in a war zone. This violence affects 51% of the population—women who work, women who vote, women watching as we fail to do anything at all to reduce these horrific statistics.
Does the hon. Member agree that in some walks of life, such as the armed forces, women face even greater barriers to receiving support for domestic violence and harassment, and that the Government should work to ensure that there is parity so that the right support is offered to all women?
I thank the hon. Member for that point; I absolutely agree.
What do women have to do? Should we collectively go on strike, stand still, lay down, leave our workplaces and homes or stand in the road or the motorway, silently disengaging with the systems and society that refuse to see or hear our rage? This is not a political hot potato; it is about society. Our representatives here have to lead, demand change and show change. It is our duty. Men need to know that without question or exception, this will not be tolerated and that nothing at all awaits them if they hurt or kill women apart from a prison cell.
Families of victims visited us here this week, again, thanks to my heroic hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley. Their pain at the loss of their loved ones has been made worse by layers of injustice, keeping those wounds as raw as when they first heard that devastating news. These injustices would shock most people, such as the killer of their daughter, sister or mother still having control of her money or access to her children; or the fact that he raped her not being included in the charge sheet or factored into the sentencing decision. We have to do better, and this all has to change urgently through drastic action, changes to our courts, police and legal systems—whatever it takes. We should demand this on behalf of women in the UK, and I am demanding this as someone whose name could once have been read out by my hon. Friend.
Let us show that we are listening and making these lists shorter every year. I pray that next International Women’s Day, we do not have to be as angry, that we are celebrating change, hope and, above all, freedom for the incredibly brave women of Ukraine.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on initiating this important debate. As ever, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and the many hon. Members who have spoken so movingly about the women in Ukraine and women facing the most severe violence in this country.
In the spirit of this year’s theme “Break the Bias”, I want to focus my remarks on girls and women in science, maths and tech careers. I want to start by telling two stories. Born in 1815, Ada Lovelace was the child of poet Lord Byron and mathematician Lady Byron, and had a passion for mathematics from an early age. Despite childhood illness, Ada let nothing hold her back. Aged 12, she decided she wanted to fly. She examined the anatomy of birds and explored the best materials to create herself a set of wings. As a teenager—at just 18—she was working with mathematician Charles Babbage on one of the very first computers, almost 200 years ago. Despite later marrying and becoming a countess, Ada did not give up her passion for a life of leisure, and her work on the analytical engine means that she is widely recognised as one of the world’s first computer programmers.
Half a century after Ada was born, Agnes Pockels was born in Germany. She could not study at university like her brother because women were not allowed to at the time, and she had sick parents at home and therefore a lot of caring responsibilities. Stuck at home carrying out all the household chores, which I am sure we will all recognise, Agnes noticed soap building on the surface of her washing water. Aged 18, she began conducting experiments at home to understand more, and although she was locked out of accessing scientific literature, this did not stop Agnes. In 1891 she published her first scientific paper “Surface Tension” and she is now recognised as a pioneer in the field of surface science.
If we ask ourselves why we are here today, it is because women have historically been disenfranchised, disempowered and devoiced.
The hon. Lady is bringing to our attention a very interesting woman who made a lot of scientific progress. Does she know about Caroline Herschel? Together with her brother, she was an astronomer. She did more work than him, but her work was not recognised. Does she agree that we need to sing the praises of women from the past as much as possible?
I agree. There are so many we could mention today—including Rosalind Franklin—whose work was not properly recognised at the time and whom we should recognise now.
Women have been shut out of the room where decisions are made and locked out of the jobs with the highest returns. I am glad that today we can celebrate much progress since the time of Ada and Agnes, but the fact is that women are still playing catch-up after centuries and centuries of inequality. PhD computer and data scientists are powering the economy, creating new billion-dollar companies in life sciences, artificial intelligence, fintech, health tech and beyond. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg—three of the richest people on the planet—were all STEM students and they now lead companies that are shaping the world around us, with arguably more power and certainly more wealth than our political leaders. In the years ahead the new Wall Street is going to be a wet lab.
We know that STEM subjects are some of the highest value added courses for future earnings. We also know that demand is surging for people to fill new high-quality tech and data science jobs. This field is now where the decisions are being taken and where the high-return jobs are being created. I want women to get their fair slice of the economic pie so that we are not playing catch- up in the decades to come.
Since 2010, under successive Conservative Governments, the number of women accepted on full-time STEM undergraduate courses in the UK has increased by almost 50%, but women still remain deeply under-represented in STEM subjects. Girls are only half as likely as boys to say that their strongest subject is science or maths, despite the fact that we know that they now regularly outperform boys in these subjects. A Girlguiding survey last year showed that over half of 11 to 21-year-old girls and women said that they felt that STEM subjects were more for the boys. Only 14.5% of engineers are women, and only 13% of STEM workers at management level are women. This is bias at work, and for the future of equality in this country we need to break it. There could not be a better time.
The success of the covid vaccine roll-out is an inspiration to so many young women in this country, who want to be the next Kate Bingham, Professor Sarah Gilbert or Dr Emily Lawson—or perhaps the next Ada Lovelace or Agnes Pockels. Luckily, today we live in an open society where women can access the world of academia, science and enterprise. However, we are still fighting centuries of bias. That is why I am delighted to be working with our fantastic Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza to encourage more women into advanced mathematical courses in particular. We will be hosting a roundtable later this month, so if any fellow Members are interested, please do get in touch. It is of the utmost importance to ensure that in the centuries ahead women are not playing catch-up once again.
It is always a privilege to speak in this debate, and I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for bringing it forward year on year.
Despite the great progress made by the women who have come before us, women today are still subject to huge economic, social and political inequalities right across the world. Intersectional inequalities in particular should be highlighted here today. In its 2020 report and recommendations, the First Minister’s national advisory council on women and girls defined intersectionality as
“a framework for understanding how multiple categories of identity, such as gender, race and class, interact in ways that create complex systems in terms of oppression and power.”
How must it feel to be a woman who is disabled or of colour in the world today, even here in the UK? We know that disabled women are often disproportionately impacted by many of the inequalities experienced here.
The Glasgow Disability Alliance has spoken of the triple whammy facing disabled women today—from being disabled, being a woman and dealing with the impact of covid-19. An estimated 19% of women over 18 have a disability, compared with 12% of men. It is astonishing, and difficult to comprehend. Women, and disabled women in particular, face great bias and disadvantage in the workplace. Measures such as the right to call for flexible working from the start of employment would benefit those people, and benefit women generally, because women—let us be honest here—have a hugely disproportionate share of caring responsibilities, making it difficult for some of them to maintain or even take on work.
Women are also more likely to miss out on things like statutory sick pay. The UK, as we all know, has one of the lowest sick pay rates in the OECD, and this means that many women are not eligible for it—even women on maternity pay. So this might be a good place and time to call for an urgent overhaul of the wholly inadequate SSP system.
Crucial and long-awaited reforms to employment law are needed to keep caregivers—mainly women—and disabled women in the workplace and ensure that they get the support that they need to stay in work should they choose to do so. Disabled women are also disproportionately impacted by gender-based violence, and I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips)—but I do not want to thank her; I want her not to have to do this year on year. We know that domestic violence and abuse are often under-reported. The World Health Organisation has estimated that around a third of women globally will be subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.
In 2017 the UN cited research estimating that disabled women experience domestic violence at twice the rate of other women and experience violence specifically because they are disabled. This has to stop. In Scotland there is a programme called “Equally Safe”, which is our strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls, focused on the need for prevention of violence. We need to make their priorities—achieving greater gender equality, intervening early and effectively and tackling perpetrators—things that happen as a matter of course right across the UK. We must continue to press for legislation to tackle gender-based violence, especially against women—it does happen to men as well, and we should never forget that.
Today we are all thinking of Ukraine, and showing solidarity with the women there. How many of us will ever forget the sight of a pregnant women being stretchered out of a hospital? This has to stop. There are many things that we can do, and I am going to make a personal plea to the Minister at this point, although I know it is not her responsibility. We cannot have people sitting at borders waiting to cross them. We have all acknowledged that the majority of refugees in Ukraine are women and girls; we have seen pictures of them at borders saying farewell to their men who are going back to fight. We should not be making people wait to come here. I would also call for article 11 of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities to be taken into account as part of someone’s refugee status to help them to come here sooner.
All of us here, especially the women, have often been asked to give advice to young women who want to enter public life. I have been asked—and I had to think about it—how I got started. Well, I got started because a man stood down as a branch convenor and no one else would do it. I thought, “Here I go”, and I put myself forward, because I had been badly treated in a previous employment. The way I did it was this: I had to think of myself putting on a hat which would make me a different Marion; a Marion who could say and do things that I would normally not be able to say and do. I have given that advice to young women, but what I would really like to be able to say is “Ditch the hat; just cut the bias.” Let us do this on equal terms without having to build ourselves up to do it.
I thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for that inspiring close to her speech. I do not wish to disabuse her in any way, but I think she will find that quite a lot of men do quite a lot of pretending too. We may cover it up better, but the hon. Lady gave the right advice: everyone is better if they are just themselves, and we are better if we feel empowered to be ourselves.
This should be a debate in which we celebrate the re-empowerment of women. I say “re-empowerment” because there is now some evidence suggesting that in prehistoric societies women were not disempowered or subjected to male patriarchy. However, recent progress is being thrown into reverse, and not just by terrible wars and by that terrible list that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) reads out every year. In particular, the rights of women to women-only safe spaces are threatened—safe spaces such as public toilets, women’s hospital wards and women’s prisons.
Nearly all violence against women is committed by men, but there is a new and growing category of violence against women committed by people who call themselves women but are biologically male. We should always respond positively to people with genuine gender dysphoria, and I deliver this speech with kindness in my heart, but the Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines rape as when a person
“intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person…with his penis”
without consent. The Crown Prosecution Service reports that between 2012 and 2018 more than 436 cases of rape were recorded as being committed by women. The penis is a male organ, so these rapes are committed by men presenting themselves as women.
Bastions of feminism—and I hear one on the other side of the House—who highlight this risk, and others such as Germaine Greer, Professor Kathleen Stock and Professor Jo Phoenix, and journalists such as Suzanne Moore, are bullied online and even hounded out of their jobs because they talk about this. But we, as legislators, must be clear and courageous about what a man is and what a woman is.
Today’s interim report from the independent review of gender identity services for children and young people by Dr Hilary Cass notes the rapid increase in the number of adolescent girls presenting with gender distress. It states:
“At present we have the least information for the largest group of patients—birth registered females first presenting in early teen years”.
It is essential that we understand why we are witnessing this historically unprecedented number of young girls who are finding puberty so difficult to navigate. The Government’s proposed conversion therapy Bill must be reviewed in the light of this, and we must wait until the full report comes out before we present the Bill for Second Reading.
It is a scientific fact that our biological sex is immutable. Professor Lord Winston said on the BBC’s “Question Time”:
“I will say this categorically—that you cannot change your sex. Your sex actually is there in every single cell in the body.”
The responsibility for clarity starts with us as legislators. We have to be clear about what words mean in our legislation—but, astonishingly, some of us are reluctant to be clear. A woman is an adult female human. Only this week, the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) was asked to define a woman on the media, and she was unable, or unwilling, to give a clear answer.
I would like to ask the hon. Member for evidence for the statement he has just made. I would like him to provide a transcript of my comments—any quotes that he can find anywhere that would indicate that at any point I have not been clear about what a woman is. It is quite easy for me, given that I am a woman.
I have just looked up the quote from the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds). It may well be that she can clarify this. She was trying to explain the Labour party’s official definition of a woman, but she was asked for her own definition of a woman. She said:
“with respect…I think it does depend what the context is surely.”
She was not giving a clear personal definition, but perhaps she is able to do so now.
There have been others representing the Opposition Front Bench, Mr Deputy Speaker, who have said things like “I am not going to go down that rabbit hole.” Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition said on “Marr” that the phrase “only women have a cervix”
“is something that shouldn’t be said. It is not right.”
This is a strange way to stand up for women’s rights.
The Government must reply to this debate with clear definitions of “man” and “woman”, as enshrined in the Equality Act 2010. They must commit to preventing biological men, whatever identity they claim and with whatever sincerity they claim that identity, from gaining access to women-only safe spaces. If they do not, the Government are failing to protect women.
Is the hon. Member aware that I referred in my remarks to the Equality Act, which makes that provision for single-sex spaces, and that I have done so repeatedly? It appears that he was not aware of that. I have no problem with criticism when it is on the basis of what I have done, but with respect, I do have a problem with criticism on the basis of things I have not done, particularly during this debate.
I was not actually talking about the hon. Lady at that particular point, but she has put on record what she feels, and maybe when she replies to the debate she will give us a definition of what she thinks a woman is.
The Government must also challenge the Scottish Parliament’s proposed Gender Recognition Reform Bill, because it intends to endow all UK citizens with new controversial rights that have not been approved by this Parliament. That was never the intention of the devolution settlement. Anyone from any part of the UK would be able to acquire a gender recognition certificate in Scotland with no medical diagnosis. They could then change the sex on their birth certificate and so gain the right to use women-only safe spaces. That is completely unacceptable.
I absolutely respect my hon. Friend’s right to make the speech that he is making, but he refers to safety in women-only spaces. Can he be clear in his remarks that for more than 10 years under the Equality Act, organisations such as Women’s Aid and Refuge have been ensuring that those spaces are absolutely safe by using risk assessments on everybody who uses them, whether they are men or women or indeed people who may be trans. This issue, while important, is already being practically dealt with by those organisations.
Following on from that point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there has been some confusion in the past about the extent to which single-sex services can be provided under the Equality Act, and that the planned updated guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission will be very welcome?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for that intervention, and I note what she says.
The SNP Minister Shona Robison said when she was introducing the Bill:
“There is no evidence that predatory and abusive men have ever had to pretend to be anything else to carry out abusive and predatory behaviour.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 3 March 2022; c. 65.]
That comment really misses the point. The point is that the Bill does create new opportunities for predatory men and I am afraid that my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) has to accept that there are plenty of instances where biological men have taken advantage of this new freedom being granted them, to the detriment of the safety of women.
I do not follow what the hon. Lady is saying. I am in favour of protecting the trans community in this country. What I am not in favour of is allowing biological men into women’s spaces where they can threaten women as a matter of right, however risk-assessed they might be. I do not know how you risk-assess somebody going into a public toilet or into other women-only safe spaces. The fact is that women are taking flight from the political parties that are supporting this kind of agenda. At least the Conservative party can be a safe haven for them if we stand up and speak for women.
I would like to say that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), but actually it is not. It is unfortunate that he chose today to make his views known to us. I found them most unhelpful and out of step with today’s debate. It is a real pity that he did not use this opportunity to celebrate women, rather than take more time than any woman has taken today to make his speech.
I would like to start my contribution by reflecting on the shared and collective experiences of working class women in the Jarrow constituency over the last 90 years. As this country recovers from the covid-19 pandemic, I am reminded of the history of struggle that my constituency has faced in the past, and of how, despite being generations apart, the struggles of unemployment in the 1930s are difficult to separate from the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic. It is important to note—and relevant to this debate—how both of those struggles have predominantly impacted working-class women.
For women in my constituency, the covid-19 pandemic has brought back economic and social circumstances that would not look out of place in the 1930s. Throughout the 1930s, it was women who suffered socially as a result of endemic unemployment and it was they who had to face the landlord, the butcher and the greengrocer as they had to manage a home on a significantly lower income. Ninety years later, throughout the coronavirus pandemic, when I look at the livelihoods of some in my constituency and the withdrawal of vital support and rising food and energy prices, it feels like history is beginning to repeat itself.
During the pandemic, support schemes such as the job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme overlooked the existing inequalities that women face in the labour market at a time when women took on the majority of home schooling and childcare, regardless of whether they were in paid employment or not. The Office for National Statistics has reported that since the start of, and at every point during, the pandemic, women reported significantly higher anxiety than men, with women being 1.3 times lonelier. A report from the Institute for Public Policy Research from April 2021 shockingly reported a 62% increase in the number of women disclosing that they had experienced sexual violence in the first four months of the pandemic. In the north-east alone, there was a 179% increase in reports from women of abuse.
When society grappled with the issues faced by 1930s unemployment, which peaked at 80% in Jarrow, the national Government targeted the poor through the means test. When this country faced the unprecedented economic effects of the covid-19 pandemic, this Tory Government made the choice to withdraw the £20 increase to universal credit. All those actions, past and present, have one common dominator: for the people in my constituency, they have had a disproportionate effect on working class and marginalised women. As we rightly reflect on the great successes and the battles that have been won by generations gone by in the fight for women’s and girls’ rights, I would like to remind the House of how critical it is as we mark International Women’s Day that we remember the responsibility we have in this House for how our actions here impact on all the women in our constituencies, and of the battle to get women into this place. On this, the late, great socialist Ellen Wilkinson said:
“Women have worked hard; starved in prison; given of their time and lives that we might sit in the House of Commons and take part in the legislating of this country.”
I would like to personally say how fantastic it is that, in my local area, the leader and deputy leader of South Tyneside local authority, the Member for a neighbouring constituency—my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck)—and the local police and crime commissioner are positions all represented by women. I was proud to stand on Labour’s 2019 manifesto, which sought to address some of the imbalances in our society that I have referred to, particularly with the commitment to close the gender pay gap by 2030, the demand that all workplaces have a menopause policy and the policy that survivors of domestic abuse would be entitled to 10 days of paid leave. Those much-needed policies have unfortunately been largely ignored and have faded away as we enter the current post-pandemic political world. They are policies that have never been more needed.
My constituency is full of outstanding, brave and inspirational women, from doctors and nurses in our NHS to volunteers in our food banks, from teachers in our schools to workers in our shops, and in so many other positions both voluntary and paid. Women contribute so much to our communities, and they are often on low pay and in insecure work. On International Women’s Day, I say thank you to them.
I commit to all the women in my constituency and beyond to continue holding this Government to account on all issues, but none more so than those issues that so often have a disproportionate impact on women and girls.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this debate. She is a leader among women, and I thank her personally for all the help and support she has given to me since I was elected in 2019. Thank you very much.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) made an extremely moving speech in which she read out a very long list of women who have been murdered over the last year. I would add the name of a women from my Loughborough constituency who was not murdered but suffered life-changing injuries at the age of 19 that mean she will never again live a normal life. Her name is Angel Lynn, and hon. Members will perhaps have seen the CCTV video of her being picked up by her boyfriend and physically carried into the back of a van. She was kidnapped and, to use the words of the court, “fell out” of the van at high speed on the A6 in Loughborough.
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Since it was first observed in 1911, International Women’s Day has been a driving force for change. It is a day not only to empower women and celebrate their achievements but to raise awareness of equality issues and the very real injustices that women still face today. This year is no exception, with the theme of “Break the Bias” encouraging us all to call out gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping to ensure greater female participation and progression in our communities, our workplaces and our schools, colleges and universities.
As an MP, I am incredibly fortunate to be able to use my experiences as a woman in the workplace and as a mother, as well as the experiences of the thousands of women in my constituency, to help influence the change that is needed. Sadly, however, I am in a very small minority of women who have had this opportunity, being the 499th female of only 559 to have ever been sworn into the House of Commons—this is, of course, fewer than the number of MPs elected at any one election.
Thankfully, we are seeing the number of female MPs increase, with 220 women elected at the last election, which is the most ever. That said, it means that only 34% of MPs are women, despite the 2011 census finding that 51% of the population are women. There is clearly a lot more work still to do to ensure women are properly represented.
Does the hon. Lady agree that we all have a part to play, men included, in getting women elected? Former councillor Gordon Clark encouraged me to stand for election, and I will be forever grateful that he did. Men can use their platform and voice to further equality in these spaces, too.
I absolutely agree. Councillor Richard Shepherd of Charnwood Borough Council encouraged me to stand as a candidate for the Conservative party.
If we want to increase the number of women in public life generally, we must ensure we are leading from the front. I know this is of particular importance to the Government, the Opposition and the House, and I welcome that, over the last decade, there has been a real focus on removing the barriers faced by women who want to become an MP and enter government, most recently with the introduction of the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act 2021, which will ensure that women are not forced to choose between becoming a mother and progressing in their career.
The importance of having more women in Parliament cannot be overstated; not only do women have a unique perspective on society and the workplace, but they have been responsible for, and instrumental in, some incredibly important pieces of legislation, such as those banning female genital mutilation, criminalising domestic violence and ensuring that women can build up pension entitlement in their own right. They also help to inspire the next generation of female politicians and women in public life. I was inspired to get into politics after hearing that our first female Prime Minister had taken office, causing me to investigate what that meant for our country and understanding that politics is a profession for women— I was 13 at the time.
As well as in Parliament, it is crucial that we have female representation in all walks of life, particularly in the workplace and the boardroom. I am delighted that progress has been made in that area, with the UK having the highest women in work index score in the G7 and being second in the international rankings for female board representation. However, there are still more barriers to remove if we are to create an environment where women can really progress, such as bias around pay and promotion, unacceptable workplace cultures, and issues with the ability to balance work and caring responsibilities, which all too often fall disproportionately on women. I know that the Government are committed to tackling those issues and I am fully supportive of the action we are already taking, for it is vital that we support women in the workplace.
I am talking about women such as the impressive managers and leaders I met last year at Tarmac, in my constituency, who were incredibly skilled experts, leading the way in their respective fields. Whether they are nurturing, shaping business or developing projects and goals, women have a great contribution to make and I urge us all to work together to ensure that women have the opportunity to put their stamp on local communities, businesses and the future of this country.
This week, I attended a meeting with the brave Ukrainian women politicians at the British Inter-Parliamentary Union to discuss the humanitarian impact that war has on women and girls. News last night that the war criminal Putin now bombs maternity hospitals fills us all with disgust—this is clearly a war crime. Yesterday, I chaired an event with six brave Afghan women to discuss the regressive impact the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has had on women’s and girls’ rights. One told me:
“Before the Taliban takeover I was someone. The day after the Taliban took over I was no one.”
It was clear from the meeting that any engagement with the Taliban must be done on the basis of strict conditionality in support of women’s and girls’ rights in public services, employment and civil society. I wish to take this opportunity to express my solidarity with those and other women in the world living in war zones or under repressive regimes.
Today, however, I wish to talk about access to reproductive healthcare, which has been crucial in the improvement of women’s rights globally. The development of the contraceptive pill in the middle of the 20th century is considered one of the most crucial developments in the women’s rights movement; reproductive rights are fundamental to the physical, psychological and social wellbeing of women. I am chair of the all-party group on sexual and reproductive health in the UK, and we know that there are still too many obstacles facing women in accessing this vital healthcare. One woman recently said:
“I find it very difficult to find a clinic that’s accessible and has appointments out of office hours.”
Figures from University College London, published last year, show that the proportion of unplanned pregnancies in the UK has almost doubled during the pandemic. There is still much work to do to ensure that women and girls have full control over their reproductive health. In 2020, the all-party group published the findings of our inquiry into access to contraception. We found that women are finding it increasingly difficult to access contraception that suits them, and this is a situation made much worse by the pandemic. Even in today’s The Guardian there is an article by Nell Frizzell entitled
“A 10-week wait for a coil? British women are facing a quiet crisis in contraceptive care”.
I want to put on record that one reason why women are finding it increasingly difficult to access contraception easily is that we have a number of commissioning funding streams in the NHS, which is leading to under-commissioning of this vital resource. At a time when perhaps one in three pregnancies are unplanned, which is leading to more abortions, which are themselves a less safe method of dealing with reproductive health than contraception, will the right hon. Lady join me in encouraging the Government to look properly at how contraception is commissioned?
Absolutely. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for all the work she has done; she took a particular interest in this issue when she was a Health Minister. That brings me to my next point: despite practitioners’ best efforts, covid-19 exacerbated existing problems—including long-standing funding cuts and the fragmentation in commissioning structures to which the hon. Lady just referred—leading to further restrictions to access.
The public health grant has faced serious cuts over the past decade. Evidence presented to our inquiry suggested that sexual and reproductive health budgets were cut by £81.2 million—12%—between 2015 and 2017-18. It is estimated that during the same period contraceptive budgets were cut by £25.9 million, or 13%. In Hull, where my constituency is, spending on contraception has fallen by 38% since 2013-14, and almost half of councils have reduced the number of sites that deliver contraceptive services in at least one of the years since 2015.
Our inquiry heard that long-acting reversible contraception fittings have been most severely impacted. In 2018-19, 11% of councils reduced the number of contracts with GPs to fit LARCs, and GPs are not adequately funded to provide LARC, which disincentivises their provision. The disparity among regions is stark. In my city, the rate for GPs prescribing LARC is only 2.1 women per 100,000; whereas in other parts of the country it is 51.5 women per 100,000. Access issues have particularly hit marginalised groups, with services reporting a drop in the number of young, black, Asian and minority ethnic people requesting the services.
As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to reshape contraceptive services according to the needs of women. For example, we should offer contraception as part of maternity services. If we integrated care around the needs of individuals, women would be able to have all their reproductive health needs met at a single point of care. I hope that those points, and the recommendations from our report, are reflected in the Government’s upcoming sexual and reproductive health strategy.
I wish to finish by talking about telemedicine for early medical abortion. I am absolutely furious at the Government’s decision to end telemedicine for early medical abortions after 30 August, ignoring the clinical evidence and advice of many royal colleges and clinicians. I am sorry that the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), who was in her place earlier, has left the Chamber, because I wanted her in particular to hear my comments on this issue.
I agree entirely with the right hon. Lady. Like me, she will welcome the fact that Wales is continuing the arrangement that I understand is to be drawn to an end in England in September. That leads to questions in Wales as to why it is being permitted. There are really serious questions, particularly on this day, about why the Government here are bringing the arrangement to an end at the end of covid.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady. Let me clear, so we are all aware in the Chamber, that telemedicine for early medical abortion services has enabled thousands of women to access care at home via both pills being posted to them following a telephone consultation with a qualified nurse or midwife. The evidence from the medical community is absolutely crystal clear. A study of more than 50,000 abortions before and after the change in England and Wales, published by the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in February 2021, concluded that telemedical abortion provision is
“effective, safe, acceptable, and improves access to care”.
Evidence also shows that telemedicine means women can access an abortion much earlier in their pregnancy, with 40% of abortions provided at less than six weeks.
As well as the consensus in the medical community, women—including the influential Mumsnet—also support the continuation of telemedicine for abortion services. An independent poll of more than 1,100 women throughout the UK, commissioned by the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, shows that a clear majority want telemedicine for early medical abortion to remain.
As the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) said, the Welsh Government have announced that they will make the pathway permanently available in Wales. I therefore struggle to see how the decision to end this service in August is in line with the Government’s commitment to put women at the centre of their own healthcare, as set out in the vision for the women’s health strategy. It is simply based on the Health Minister’s own prejudice. It is deeply disappointing and it flies in the face of all the other measures that have been taken within the NHS around virtual appointments and to use digital technology.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments on this matter; she is making a really powerful point. Does she feel, as I do, that this is sending a message that the Government do not trust women to make their own decisions about their own reproductive health?
The Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee puts that very well. That is exactly the message that is being sent out. I notice that time is going by, so I will conclude.
I, alongside many parliamentary colleagues across the House and in the other place, medical bodies and women’s groups, such as the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners and Women’s Aid, are calling on the Government now to explain exactly how they will review this decision, as they have promised to do. Where access to reproductive healthcare is limited, there is a ripple effect on the health and social wellbeing of women and girls. We must continue to stand up for the rights of women to have full control over our own health and our own bodies. We still, apparently, have some way to go to achieve that.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing this debate, which is always moving, inspiring and wide-ranging.
We have quite rightly reflected on the horror that Putin’s war in Ukraine is inflicting on women there, which was demonstrated in last night’s barbaric bombing of a maternity hospital. The haunting speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) reminds us—as it does every year—of the many women who are not with us to celebrate International Women’s Day today. Among them this year is my constituent Clair Abelwhite whose murder has shocked the rural community of Colston Bassett in Rushcliffe. The case is ongoing and an arrest has just been made, so I will not be discussing it any further today, but I did want to put it on record that my thoughts and prayers are with her friends and family, especially with her small children.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) also brought up the achievements of women in STEM, and I will be asking her to feature in my campaign for British Science Week next week, when we are profiling some of the brilliant women who have STEM careers, and I hope to encourage more women and girls into those.
Today, I want to celebrate the achievements of an incredible group of women—female entrepreneurs—whose energy, dynamism, creativity and sheer bloody hard work create new jobs and grow our economy. The UK set a new record last year: 140,000 women started their own businesses. In total, 20% of new firms are now led by women, but—and there is a but—it is estimated that only 1% of venture capital goes to female entrepreneurs.
I want to call out two brilliant women in Rushcliffe—Sarah King and Claire Dunn of “we are radikl”. They decided that this had gone on for far too long and are trying to do something about it. As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) proved in her speech, if you want something done, get a woman to do it. They have started their “Over Being Underfunded” campaign to increase access to investment for female entrepreneurs. I went to see them last week—they have an office just down the road from mine. My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said that she loved a rebel. Well, they have a brilliant piece of artwork on their wall, which is called, “Rebels get results”. It is a fabulous print and I am looking at purchasing a copy for the Chief Whip, who, I am sure, will be delighted with it.
Their campaign has three main asks. The first is to extend the current timeframe from two years to three to secure the investment that is offered to entrepreneurs via the Government’s seed enterprise investment scheme. That extension would reflect, on average, the greater amount of time that women spend on caring responsibilities —it was twice as much as men during the pandemic—which obviously gives them less time to spend on their businesses, meaning that, sometimes, they take longer to scale. Women are also less likely than men to have access to investor networks, so it takes them longer to build those relationships.
The campaign is also asking for gender, race and ethnicity reporting to be introduced on the seed enterprise investment scheme, in terms of both the entrepreneurs it works with and the investors. Finally, it wants to see more support, mentoring and awareness campaigns targeting early-stage women entrepreneurs, because they know women are less likely to know about schemes such as SEIS and more likely to be up for mentoring and other similar types of support.
The “we are radikl” team hope that Ministers in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury will engage with the campaign, and that BEIS’s enterprise strategy, to be published later this year, will reflect its asks. They are doing so much to address the problem, building their own network of investors, Halo, and breaking down myths and perceived bias in the investor community. The Government commissioned the Alison Rose review in 2019, which identified a £250 billion boost to the UK economy through breaking down barriers to female entrepreneurs. However, we will not get very far if 99% of venture capital is passing female-led firms by. That is something the Government must turn their attention to now.
I welcome the huge amount of work the Government have done to get women into senior positions in business, and I am delighted that we are now second in the world for female representation on boards. That has increased by 50% in the past six years—as it should. We must now focus our attention on doing more to empower our female entrepreneurs. If we are to take advantage of the record number of female-led businesses founded last year, that must be a priority for us.
I wish a happy International Women’s Day to Sarah, Claire and all the brilliant women they work with. I look forward to working with them and seeing the jobs and innovation that their businesses will bring to the UK. I hope Ministers will agree to meet us to learn more about the experience of the female entrepreneurs in the “we are radikl” network and that those experiences can be better reflected in the Government’s approach to supporting female entrepreneurs.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards), and I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing the debate.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women, to reflect on the progress we have made in fighting for gender equality, and to campaign for the change we still need to see in our society. I will come on to each of those points shortly, but I will begin my speech by focusing on the international part of International Women’s Day—in particular, the women around the world whose lives are being torn apart by conflict and violence.
Women in Ukraine face unimaginable hardship as they watch their home towns being attacked, as they make the heart-wrenching decision whether to leave their family and their country behind in search of safety and as they are forced to defend their country against Russian aggression. Women in Afghanistan see years of progress in educating girls being rolled back overnight, face a crisis of hunger and economic collapse and remain separated from their families as they too try to reach safety.
We know that war has a devastating impact on the lives of women. It increases incidents of gender-based violence and the appalling use of sexual violence. It disrupts essentials services such as health and education that so many women and girls rely on, and it leads to the displacement of millions of people.
I hope the Government can commit to specific and practical support to women in Ukraine and Afghanistan. For example, there are often shortages of sanitary and period products as conflicts unfold, so could the Minister ensure that they form part of the UK’s aid to Ukraine? In Afghanistan, there is still a need for the Government to do more to help the women left behind, for example by supporting efforts to restart girls’ education in the country. I also urge the Government to do more to support women in Afghanistan who want to rejoin their families in this country, including many of my constituents.
Turning to some issues closer to home, I raise once again the proposal for Valerie’s law, which would introduce mandatory cultural competency training for the police and other agencies dealing with black victims of domestic violence. According to the domestic violence charity Sistah Space, 86% of women of African or Caribbean heritage in the UK have either been a victim of domestic abuse or know a family member who has been assaulted. Yet despite this alarming number, the police still too often ignore the nuances that complicate black survivors’ experience with trying to get support. For example, some black women are told by the police that they cannot see any bruises, leading them to dismiss dangerous and life-threatening situations. Bruises are not always as visible on black women’s skin as on women with lighter complexions.
The UK’s largest single provider of domestic abuse services, Refuge, recently published data showing that black women were 14% less likely to be referred by police to use its services than white survivors. Valerie’s law is named after Valerie Forde, who, along with her baby daughter, was murdered by Valerie’s ex-partner in 2014 despite reporting threats that were overlooked by the police. I am working with Sistah Space to help to campaign for this important change, and I am looking forward to an upcoming petitions debate on the issue.
Secondly, I am proud to chair the Labour Women’s Network, which supports women standing for election and advocates for greater representation within our party and beyond. Over the last year, we have been leading a campaign, Keep the Good Stuff, which recognises that some of the innovations during the pandemic have been beneficial to women in in balancing their work and family lives. I firmly believe that employers, political parties and indeed the Government must look closely at how flexible working and other pandemic-related measures can continue in the years to come. Another part of LWN’s work is training women to stand for public office—for example, through the Jo Cox Women in Leadership scheme. Sadly, we now have to dedicate half our programme to resilience and self-care given the levels of online abuse that women standing for office can expect to face. Women from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds, members of our LGBT+ community and disabled people experience more online abuse than other people. We must see more action from both the Government and the social media platforms on this issue. We will be watching closely to ensure that the online safety Bill lives up to the promises on this issue.
I end my speech on a positive note by recognising some of the inspirational women whose work and activism in my constituency too often goes unnoticed. They are women such as Charlotte Blades and Gwen Fayemi, who help to run Bexley food bank; Jattinder Rai, CEO of Bexley Voluntary Service Council; Ruth Russell, volunteer chair of Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice; Sarah Batten, co-director of The Exchange Erith; and Kavita Trevena, who runs a support network and community investment organisation for women suffering from post-natal depression. I also thank the female councillors in my constituency for all their hard work, and send my best wishes to the excellent female local candidates standing in the local elections in May. Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the brilliant women in my office without whom I could not do my job: Abby, Yinka, Grace, and Alice.
It is a great pleasure to join in this debate. Like other Members, my thoughts this afternoon are with the women of Ukraine. I particularly thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for her speech, which frankly had me filling up, so I am glad I have had some time to deal with my emotions.
Thinking of war situations where women are leaving or seeing their sons, husbands and fathers being involved in fighting, 30 years ago last week the independent state of Bosnia was founded, having itself been subjected to significant wars. I am reminded of my regular visits to Srebrenica and the memorial at Potočari, which is lovingly maintained by bereaved women who lost their sons, fathers, brothers and uncles. We all know the story of what happened with the genocides in Bosnia. Many of those women do not have a body, or even a body part, but they are dealing with their grief by maintaining the memorials to other victims as well as their own. At this time, there will inevitably be bereaved women who have left their husbands and sons behind and do not know what their ultimate fate is going to be. For me as a Member of Parliament in this fantastic first-world country of Great Britain, I feel hopelessly inadequate watching these events unfold. We must do everything we can to support all those victims, and particularly to give safe havens to those refugees who are fleeing.
I would like to reflect on some of the other contributions made today, particularly that of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson). I say to the Government that as the right hon. Lady has shown, we are making lots of noise about women’s health and breaking lots of taboos in that space, but fundamentally, the biggest source of our oppression is our biology—our reproductive biology. The ability of women to control their fertility and manage their reproductive rights in a safe way depends on adequate contraception services, and also on a safe abortion law. I will repeat what I have said many times in this place: the abortion law is more than 50 years old. It was written before we had medical abortion, when abortion was a surgical procedure and was much more dangerous for that reason. If we are really going to look at women’s reproductive rights from the perspective of safety, may I helpfully suggest that we need a review that does not rely on individual Members of Parliament tackling this as a matter of conscience? This is about how we deliver a safe environment for women to be able to manage their reproductive rights and their fertility. Until we properly bring that law up to date and into the 21st century, any semblance of a positive women’s health strategy is for the birds. I leave that as a challenge for the Government.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on bravely stepping into the debate about sex and gender, and the conflict of rights that arises from conflating the two—a conflict of rights that has not been adequately tackled by either of the Front-Bench teams in this place. Frankly, that is a disgrace; it is not fair to transgender people or to women, and it is high time that we did so. I am glad that my hon. Friend has done it, and the fact that he is a man doing it on International Women’s Day is a matter not for criticism, but for celebration. I am also pleased to see my hon. Friends the Members for Devizes (Danny Kruger) and for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) present, because on the last two occasions I attended this debate, there were no men. This is a way forward, because we need men to value and celebrate women too; this should not be a women-only party.
I had planned to listen rather than speak, but can I say two things to my hon. Friend? The first is to ask whether in winding up this debate, the Minister can say what harm was done by, and what benefits there were from, early, easy and safe contraception by telephone. There is a responsibility on Government to give that information in the open so that we can challenge it if necessary, or agree with it if they say it was safe, easy and convenient—that it had benefits.
Secondly, on the issue of sex and gender, I agree with my hon. Friend that people need to speak much more openly, and that those who call people like Professor Kathleen Stock a dangerous extremist for her book “Material Girls” clearly have not read it. She, Jo Phoenix and others have written very plainly and sympathetically about trans people, but have also written determinedly that sex matters, and that women should be safe and feel protected.
I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. The fact remains that women are entitled to single-sex spaces for their own sake; this should not just be about risk assessment and danger. We should be able to make choices about when we want to enter spaces without men present, and that should be as important as any potential risk that any man might pose.
I will focus the substance of my comments this afternoon on the criminal justice system, though, as we are talking about breaking the bias. I do so in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in the penal system. Without reiterating points made by my hon. Friends, this comes back to the point that men and women are different, and our laws and—in particular—our criminal justice system need to reflect that.
We have had a real move towards gender neutrality in how we approach public service delivery and how we produce law, but standing here in a debate to commemorate International Women’s Day, I tend to view gender neutrality as just another way of centring men, because it is making us all the same, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the criminal justice system. We have a penal system built on prisons and based on the principle that we incarcerate violent, dangerous men, and that has been the approach to women. We have seen study after study that has shown that prison is not the best place for women offenders, because more often than not, women offenders are more vulnerable than their male counterparts.
Call me a pink-hearted liberal, but I tend to view our prison population as being full of people who have been failed by the state, and that is a matter of shame for me. It is particularly the case when it comes to women. We know that there are high rates of illiteracy and innumeracy among our prisoners, so how are they going to get on in life? We know that there are a huge number of people who have been through the care system and then been left on the scrapheap. In the case of women, we know that many of them are victims of sexual abuse, and in that context, prison is not the best place for them, and study after study has shown that.
Every time we make progress in this area and we start to say, “This is an opportunity for a first intervention to support women and address that vulnerability”, we then seem to go backwards. I highlight the fact that this Government have a female offenders strategy but equally are investing in 500 more prison places for women, and we need to properly join the dots and use the opportunities to make interventions to support women and break the cycle of offending. We all know that once someone has been incarcerated, the chance that they then embark on a lifetime of reoffending and re-entering prison is very high. That is not good for them, but nor is it good for society or the taxpayer. We need to get this right.
We know also that many women do not belong in prison in the first place. One issue I have been taking up with the Ministry of Justice is the extent to which women are remanded in prison for their own protection. We have a mental health policy that has been removing police cells and prisons as places of safety—recognising that they are not good environments for people who are mentally unwell—but we are still remanding women in prison for their own safety. I thought it would be only a small number of women, probably no more than a dozen a year. Having raised the issue with the Government, I could not get any data on it. However, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons visited three prisons last year and in total found 68 women who had been remanded in prison for their own protection. They were not people who had committed an offence, and it was not a punishment. It is totally inappropriate for a country such as this to be remanding women in prison for that purpose, and that was in just three prisons. Across the whole system, we know that women being remanded for their own protection are a significant proportion of the prison establishment, and frankly that is not good enough. I am ashamed of it, and I call on the Government to do better.
My criticism is not with the Ministry of Justice. One of the issues is that the Ministry of Justice is sweeping up the failings of other organisations within the public sector. It is sweeping up the ability of local authorities to offer safe spaces for women to be sent to when they are at risk. Mental health services are sweeping up that failure by the Department of Health and Social Care, and I encourage the Ministry of Justice to be rather more robust in its dealings with other Departments and say, “You know what? These are not our problems, they are yours.” We should not be dealing with vulnerable people within our estate.
The other side of the criminal justice system where women are particularly negatively impacted is as victims, and we have had a number of debates in recent weeks about the poor prosecution rates for sexual violence crimes and rape in particular. Having spoken to victims, I understand that one of the reasons for that is that they are treated as a piece of evidence in that prosecution. If someone has gone through trauma, constantly reliving that in a dehumanising way is not the best way to ensure that we bring people to punishment. We really have to look at that.
There has been a lot of investment in services, but we have still not got it right. My biggest challenge on that point is that the likelihood of a victim getting justice depends on who they are. Victim-blaming, which we heard reference to earlier in the debate, is at the heart of that. Over and over again, assumptions are made about victims that impede their ability to get justice. White working-class girls in northern towns and cities were victims of abuse for many years before public authorities would pay proper attention to it, because they were not prepared to make that challenge.
I also highlight what we loosely describe as “honour killings”. What kind of a phrase is that to describe people being murdered? They are murdered by their families, who should love them and keep them safe, and we call that an honour killing—“honour”, which is a positive word, and “killing” for murder. That very phrase is an illustration of the discrimination against those victims; I am getting emotional just thinking about it.
In the context of the list that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) read out, we do not have to do much of a study to realise the socio-economic background of most of those victims. The only ones that we ever read about in the papers—the ones who the media get excited about—are nice white middle-class people with professional backgrounds. People who engage in prostitution disappear every week and do not get a column inch, but they are victims. They are women who are victims of male violence against women and girls.
Let us not pussyfoot around it: this is a gendered crime. My hon. Friends who are present—my hon. Friends the Members for Boston and Skegness, for Devizes, for Harwich and North Essex, for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Worthing West—will not take offence when I point out that those crimes are committed by men, which is exactly what we need to face up to. We will not tackle that issue unless we tackle it as a society, which means men stepping up too.
I welcome that comment from my hon. Friend and I am not surprised to hear it from him. I would go further than that, however: we will not fix the problem until men become part of the solution. I am afraid that the Government need to stop pussyfooting around by talking about violence against women and girls and call it what it is—male violence against women and girls.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow my friend on the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). As a former Health Minister, her comments about the importance of Health Ministers paying heed to experts and patient safety are incredibly well made. What we are seeing now is an absolute disgrace and I know that we will get it overturned.
As I look around this Chamber, I am honoured to be surrounded by many brilliant and inspirational women. We often focus, as we have done in this debate—it is important—on the way in which women’s lives could be improved, but I want to give a clear message to women, particularly young women, about how great it is to be a woman.
I love being a woman and I love being an woman MP—number 430. I worry that we are sending some bad messages to young women. Once they have navigated adolescence, which is hard for everyone, we talk about pay gaps, glass ceilings, judgment about whether they will have a child, worry about whether they can have a child, constantly having to refight the battle that, “It is my body and I control it,” and the violence. Then there is the menopause, osteoporosis and the pensions gap, and then they might find themselves in an inadequate care system that employs low-paid women to support older women facing social isolation. It is not a happy picture, is it?
There are many issues that, of course, blight women’s lives in my constituency and beyond, but today I want to challenge that narrative and celebrate how great it is to be a woman. Young women going into the new workforce in the future have so much to look forward to. There are huge opportunities in the workforce of the future, with improved research on women’s health issues, a longer healthy life expectancy, and a culture that is changing how we think about family roles and recognising the key care-giving role that men are starting to play.
I learned my politics, as a young woman in the 1970s and 1980s, from watching and learning from the women around me—my mother, my aunties, my grandmother—and they formed me. However, I learned that what went on in the home and the discussions women had around the table were often not actually the same as what was talked about in public. I think that is particularly true of those of us from a working class Irish population in this country. I learned that women as individuals have power, and we can influence things and do remarkable things, but I also learned as I grew up that unless we have economic and political power to change the structures in which we live, we can never be equal in that society. I have seen such a change, and I have been part of that remarkable change. Thanks to the women in the Labour party that I joined in the 1980s, we have changed structures, forced through all-women shortlists and changed the face of Parliament in 1997.
In Bristol, I am very proud to have worked for women MPs at that time—we had women MPs leading that charge—and I am really proud to work with my hon. Friends in Bristol at the moment, the Members for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). I commend the positive celebration by Bristol Live of 137 women from across Bristol this week. If we look just at the vaccination effort, I would like to highlight my long-time friend and colleague, Bristol’s director of public health, Christina Gray. The vaccination effort was led by the head nurse, Anne Morris, and the clinical commissioning group was led by its chief executive, Julia Ross. I would also like to welcome Sarah Crew as our new police chief constable. There are more amazing women involved in community action than I can mention today, but I really want to pay tribute to those women in my constituency who are leading and inspiring in fields as diverse as tackling food poverty, the charitable sector, music and the arts.
In my lifetime, the opportunities for women have expanded exponentially, and I am so proud of all those women here and across the country—I am proud to be one of them here—who are continuing to push the boundaries so that everywhere we can lead our lives to the full, because it is really fun being a women. I love how we form friendships, share experiences, swap tips for getting through life, trade secrets, organise, challenge, do politics and make change. I love our creativity and our variety, and I love how we always remember what we can achieve if we put our minds to it. I want to celebrate that joy.
We can achieve so much individually, but we do need structures to support women’s efforts, and the Labour party has consistently taken action to ensure that we get the structural change that women need. Labour Governments have shown what can be achieved, and Labour Governments introduced legislation on equal pay, sex discrimination, equalities, the minimum wage and maternity rights. The next Labour Government will do the same, I hope with my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds). There can be no levelling up anywhere unless women’s work, inside and outside employment, is at the heart of all plans, and currently it is not—not just on pay, but on good terms and conditions. There was so much during the pandemic that we can learn about for the future that was led by women. Companies with women at the top perform better and women-led businesses contribute billions to the economy, and we will be at the heart of the next Government and the next rise in the economy.
I am the mother of three boys, who are growing into fantastic young men. I am so proud of them, and I am so conscious of how important women are as role models for everyone, not just other women. We need to ensure that conversations and education focus not only on what women can achieve, but on how important our male allies are, and that tackling many of the challenges mentioned today requires a change in the dominant culture surrounding male behaviour. Following the very sad loss recently of our colleague Jack Dromey, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) said, when she spoke about Jack, that he thought his role in life was to lift her up. I am so honoured to have my husband Rob to do the same for me, and I would not be here without him.
It is a century since the first women Labour MPs were elected. I am privileged not only to be the MP for the great constituency of Bristol South, but to be surrounded by so many others, and I pay tribute to them all. In my time here, we have had Brexit, covid and now war. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) highlighted the other day that over 90% of the Brexit debates were dominated by men. We will not let that happen when we talk about the war, the future and the horrific things happening to women right now in Ukraine. Men do often dominate the public face of such debates, but we will not let them do so. Our message to women is, “We are here, we are staying, we are growing and we are pulling you up with us”.
It is a privilege to speak again in the debate on International Woman’s Day. It has become something of a cliché for men speaking in this debate to talk about themselves as having suddenly awakened to feminism when they become fathers of daughters, and to me that has always rather prompted a question about what sort of world those fathers thought that the mothers of their daughters lived in. None the less, it is perhaps not a wholly useless lens through which to look at some of this debate.
I sent my daughter, Eleanor, to school on World Book Day dressed as Rosie Revere, Engineer, a character from a book by the American author Andrea Beaty. It is a series called “The Questioneers”, which includes a character called Sofia Valdez, Future Prez. For five-year-old Eleanor, the idea of a female Prime Minister is very much already on the table, and that is an idea we can all get behind, be we fans of Margaret Thatcher, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) or indeed the Deputy Leader of the Labour party. Perhaps the fact that I made Eleanor’s dress for World Book Day myself is also a glass ceiling smashed, although it reminded me that there is no word for “seamstress” that does not imply that only women can sew. We still swim in a soup of linguistic everyday sexism, and the fact remains that engineering and other male dominated professions have a long way to go.
When I was a Minister at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, I was able to foster massive growth in the diversity of people working in AI and cyber only because we started from such incredibly low numbers. Strategies are in place. They start at school, and we cannot go fast enough. However, there is something that I would like to go slower, which is time. The vast majority of young women and girls report that they have been harassed or groped at some point. YouGov reports that more than two-thirds of women have felt unsafe walking at night, and only slightly fewer report feeling unsafe in taxis, with a tradesperson in their home, or even walking alone in the daytime. Those experiences are wholly alien to the vast majority of men, and that total disconnect is a huge part of the problem.
To put that another way, today Eleanor is five. How long have I got before she comes home to tell me that she was harassed, or worse, on the school bus? How long has she got until I worry when she has to call the plumber to a student house? How long has she got before she fears the route she takes walking home? What can we, from this privileged platform in Parliament, do in the meantime to try to address some of those fairly sickening thoughts? The answer, of course, will never be enough.
I commend the Government’s approach to putting more resources into the police and—crucially—into prosecution, to tackle the worst of violence against women and girls, as well as into education and beyond, to tackle the culture that will, in due course, see more women doing supposedly male jobs, and more men doing traditionally female jobs. We must all show, rather than simply say, that it can be done, although I am sure my dressmaking skills will be left to myself. This is society’s problem, not solely that of Parliament. This debate must be about equity as much as it is about equality, and providing everyone with the same opportunities to live, work and play safely means providing different people with the different tools they need to get over the same obstacles. I wholly endorse the approach of the Welsh Government to the telemedicine that was referred to earlier in the debate, and I hope that this Government will come to the same conclusion when they review that.
If I could pick just one area in which to urge the Government to go even further than they currently do, it would be tackling the multiplicity of factors that mean childcare still falls disproportionately on women—something exacerbated hugely by covid. In everything from the design of our towns and cities and the attitude of employers to the average time spent commuting, we can do so much more to give men and women equal opportunities to succeed. By tackling childcare we can perhaps unleash the productivity of half the population even further.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Dirprwy Lywydd. Many of us like to think that history is a series of incremental improvements, but recent events show that to be naive. I am afraid that I begin with the sad observation that many of the inequalities and barriers facing women today have remained stubbornly obstinate. We should be alert to the fact that history is not a one-way route to nirvana.
The covid-19 pandemic underscored gender divisions in our society, and it has proved them to be long standing and structural. They include poverty and job insecurity, with global management firm McKinsey noting that women’s jobs were nearly twice as vulnerable as those of men during the initial months of the pandemic. It also found that women made up 39% of global employment but accounted for 54% of overall job losses during the period. One explanation for the disproportionate effect on women is that covid-19 increased the burden of unpaid care, which women are expected to perform as part of the gender role assigned to them—to us—by society.
Even in the chaos of war, such gender roles endure. For example, we have seen, from afar—we are lucky, are we not—how many Ukrainian women have stepped up to care for family, friends and neighbours, as men are conscripted to fight against Putin’s oppressive invasion. Of course, women also make up the majority of adult refugees from Ukraine, and many thousands of them are, to our shame, being delayed in seeking sanctuary in the UK due to the painfully slow and limited Home Office visa system.
Women have a unique perspective on war because of the expectation on them to be care givers. They hold families together as they are battered by events beyond their control. We see that in this war, and the nature of digital images being transferred to us almost instantaneously has brought home to us the sheer shock of the changes that can be wrought upon families by events completely beyond their control. We see that playing out tragically.
Closer to home, in Wales, gender equality charity Chwarae Teg has shown that inequality is often driven by the burden of caring responsibilities falling disproportionately on women. It demonstrates that such responsibilities account for 24.1% of economically inactive women in Wales, compared with 5.8% of men. That is why Plaid Cymru, in our co-operation agreement with the Welsh Government, is expanding free childcare to all two-year-olds in Wales to provide greater support for women to pursue their own careers and life goals.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) raised another area where progress is slow: political representation. In the Senedd, 43% of Members are female. The figure for Welsh MPs is lower, at 35%, and only 29% of Welsh councillors are women. Without a vibrant and diverse political culture that ensures that women are represented in all positions of power and values their contribution, how can we ever hope to end gender inequality?
Plaid Cymru plans to address that glaring democratic deficit by backing Senedd reform. I am excited about this. It would include expanding the number of Senedd Members, which we desperately need for effective government and effective scrutiny—60 Members is not enough to carry out those roles—as well as introducing a voting system that is as proportional as possible and establishing gender quotas in law. I am excited about that. That in itself would help to break the bias.
I turn to women’s safety. We have witnessed the murder of Wenjing Lin in Wales and, of course, Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa as well as all the names tragically listed earlier. Hundreds of women have been murdered at the hands of men in recent years. That reminds us of the shockingly high levels of abuse, violence and predatory behaviour that women face in Wales and across the UK. For example, 71% of women say that they have experienced sexual harassment in public places. Such a situation cannot continue to be tolerated, and change is needed. One positive proposal is for the justice and policing system to be devolved to Wales, so that we can align the support that we have from our Parliament more effectively. Devolving justice would enable us to tackle structural inequalities such as gender-based violence. It would allow us to integrate the Welsh Government’s Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 with policing, courts, prisons and other services that are currently run from Westminster.
Let us bear in mind that we still do not have a women’s prison. Many of us do not want one, but we have no residential provision in Wales at present. It was last mooted three years ago that this would be changed, but we are yet to have that, and we should place education, health and housing at the heart of prevention and rehabilitation for offenders. A high proportion of women who enter prison are themselves victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. By devolving justice, we could expand community alternatives to prison so that women in Wales are closer to their families and their children as part of their rehabilitation. We could shift the obsession with incarceration and look at supporting vulnerable women and tackling the underlying issues that lead to offending. The time to act is now.
The First Minister of Wales said this week that it is not a matter of “when”—rather, he said that it is a matter of “when” and not “if” justice is devolved; if only I could express myself more effectively when I am enthusiastic about something. I am pleased that that is now the Welsh Government’s position and I would very much like a similar position to be iterated from Opposition Front Benchers here. That commitment runs alongside our co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru.
There is far more that I could say on the topic of International Women’s Day, but I believe that the points I have outlined represent some of the most pressing issues. I am proud that my party, Plaid Cymru, is calling for positive change for women and girls in Wales and the wider world.
It has been humbling and very disquieting to listen to the accounts that we have heard of abuse, hatred and discrimination, and, of course, violence and murder. I pay particular tribute to the family of Ellie Gould and to their friends, the family of Poppy Devey Waterhouse, who have been in the Public Gallery this afternoon—Ellie was a girl from a family of Wiltshire people who was murdered very young, as was Poppy. I pay tribute to their campaign for the law to change and I look forward to the conclusion of the Wade review, which is looking into the circumstances of those murders.
I want to speak, first, about the economy in which women find themselves and, secondly, about the politics of gender. We have heard that behind every great woman is a great man, and I am proud to stand behind so many great women on the Government Benches, and opposite so many great women as well. I am the son and grandson of full-time working women, who are also mothers—very good mothers, I emphasise—and I spent 10 years working with my wife for the charity that we founded together. We worked in prisons, including in Holloway prison before it was thankfully sold off, disbanded, closed down, and I am very glad that my children have such role models in their mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
I echo the point that the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) made about the way that opportunities have opened up for girls and young women in our time. Of course, women have all the legal rights that they need and, increasingly, equality is becoming a reality, but there is so much more to be done, as we have heard. Perhaps just as worrying is that the idea that women can have it all often just means that women must do it all —that they must continue to do all the work that they were doing before. That presents very difficult choices, not just for women. I also made the World Book Day costume for my daughter; I advise my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) just to use cardboard boxes. That is what I did; it is so much simpler than sewing something together. My daughter wanted to go as the “Boy in the Tower”, which was a very easy costume to put together—I recommend it.
My simple policy point is that we need a more balanced economy. We need work to be closer to home. We need men and women to be able to mix the work that they do for pay in the commercial economy with work that they do with their children and elderly parents and work in the community. That would be better for everyone—for children, older people, our neighbours and ourselves.
Let me move on to the difficult topic. I regret the suggestion from Opposition Members that International Women’s Day is somehow not a moment in which it is appropriate to discuss what actually a woman is. I wish that this was not a controversial topic, but the fact is that it is, and surely this is a time and a place in which that topic can be discussed. I notice that the leader of the Scottish Government has today announced an official apology to the victims of the Witchcraft Act—the victims of the hunt for witches back in the early modern period in Scotland. I hope she would also extend some sympathy to the victims of today’s witch hunts. Women—mostly women, but also men—are vilified, cancelled, professionally destroyed or physically threatened for their beliefs. They are people who simply believe in a biological difference between men and women. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) for their courage on this topic. I call attention to the interim report from Dr Hilary Cass, which is just out, which highlights the vertiginous increase in young teenage girls presenting as trans. I am afraid I do not believe that we have suddenly discovered a whole new population of trans people who were repressed or denied. I fear that, by telling people that they can change sex, we are further confusing a lot of very confused young people at the most confusing time of their life.
Just as great a concern is the biological males deciding in adulthood that they want access to women-only spaces. I echo the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) and for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). I hope there is some value in a man saying that. I think that trans activism is a new form of misogyny. It involves the essential denial of reality. I think we need a legal definition of what a woman is. A woman is an adult female. It is a biological and immutable reality and it is time to recognise that in the law.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger). There are many things about which we disagree, but there are some things about which we agree, and I thank him for his kind comments. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this debate, and the many hon. Members who have made interesting and valuable contributions, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who is such a doughty campaigner for disability rights and the rights of disabled women in particular.
During this International Women’s Day debate, it is the women of Ukraine who should be uppermost in our minds. This morning I and other female MPs—a cross-party group—met the Ukrainian ambassador’s wife. She impressed on us the terrible burden that Ukrainian women face as they flee their country with their children, often leaving their male relatives behind and uncertain of their destination. The majority of the now millions of refugees fleeing Ukraine are women and children, and they need visa-free access to the United Kingdom with their children. We must match the European Union on this, no ifs and no buts. Let’s get on with it.
Women are particularly vulnerable in war because of their sex. This is because women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of men. That violence is sex-based and directed at women because of our biology and the fact that we are weaker than men. Sex matters. I do not know why we call it gender-based violence, because it is not gender-based violence; it is sex-based violence. Gender is a social construct. Sex is a material reality. I would like to hear us talk more about sex. I would like to hear us talk about the sex-based pay gap. I would like to hear us talk about the fact that, as Professor Alice Sullivan has said so powerfully in The Guardian today, it is mothers and not fathers who bear the burden of parenthood. Research shows that men often get a pay premium as a result of parenthood, but women’s pay goes down.
I would also like us to be able to say, as is the case in law, that lesbians like myself are same-sex attracted women, not same-gender attracted. What you cannot define you cannot protect, and what you cannot name cannot be properly discussed and debated. That is why the stealthy erasure of sex-based language from our statute book and public and private policy making should be resisted.
It is also why politicians and policy makers should be precise in their language, and should not conflate sex and gender.
Last month, one of Scotland’s Supreme Courts reminded lawmakers that reference to the protected characteristic of sex in the Equality Act 2010 is a reference to a man or a woman for which purpose
“a woman is a female of any age.”
The court said:
“Provisions in favour of women”
based on the protected characteristic of sex
“by definition exclude those who are biologically male.”
That is the law. I am quoting from paragraph 36 of the judgment by the highest court in Scotland in the case of For Women Scotland Limited against the Lord Advocate and the Scottish Ministers. So I defy anyone to claim that what I have just said is transphobic. It is not; it is the law, and it is based on the Equality Act, which also protects trans people from discrimination by means of the very widely drawn protected characteristic of gender reassignment.
The Equality Act was passed by the Labour party; all credit to them for doing so. I know that the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman)—who is not in the Chamber, but for whom I have the highest regard—was instrumental in the passing of that Act. It is also hugely valued by my party, so much so that when our current First Minister was drafting the constitution for an independent Scotland in 2014, she decided to enshrine in that constitution the protections afforded to women and the other protected characteristics in the Equality Act. It was going to be part of the fundamental law of Scotland. I think it would be good if more Scottish politicians remembered that and celebrated it.
I want to quote from an excellent column in today’s Telegraph. I am not in the habit of buying or reading the Telegraph, although a very dear friend of mine—who is now dead—used to say that she bought it every day so that she would have something reliable with which to disagree. However, this is a very good column by Suzanne Moore, who says:
“Words matter, because women naming ourselves and our experience matters. As the American social reformer and women’s rights activist Susan B Anthony had it: ‘No self-respecting woman should wish or work for the success of a party who ignores her sex.’”
And, in my view, no self-respecting woman should wish or work for the success of a political party that makes her rights as a woman or a lesbian conditional on her acceptance of gender identity politics. My rights as a woman and a lesbian are not conditional on my accepting gender identity politics. Nevertheless, as a member of the advisory group of the organisation Sex Matters—and I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in this respect—I am aware of many cases across the United Kingdom of women being harassed and investigated at work for expressing gender-critical views.
Now, however, we can fight back. Thanks to the courage and resilience of a woman called Maya Forstater and her legal team, we have an Employment Appeal Tribunal ruling that gender-critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act. That was a major victory for freedom of belief and freedom of speech across these islands. Professor Jo Phoenix of the Open University and postgraduate student Raquel Rosaria Sanchez of Bristol University are just two of the brave women who are taking their universities to court for failing to defend them from harassment because of their gender-critical views. Across the United Kingdom, many women, and indeed men, are now taking their employees, and membership organisations such as the Green party of England and Wales, to court for discriminating against them on the grounds of their belief that sex is real and immutable.
I say to all the gender-critical women who are watching this debate today that we are starting to win this debate, and people like me will not give up no matter what is thrown in our road. Maya Forstater’s win is not the only significant one since the last International Women’s Day. I have already mentioned For Women Scotland’s win in Scotland’s Supreme Courts; Fair Play for Women also achieved a major court victory in a case about the meaning of “sex” in the census in England and Wales, although it was not so successful in Scotland.
The hon. and learned Lady is making a terrific speech. Would she agree that men have to stand up for women’s rights, too? There are too many men who stand back from this debate and say, “Oh well, this is a women’s issue. I’m not going to get involved.” I think that is a shame, and that is why I spoke in today’s debate.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Even worse, there are many men—young men—involved in this debate who have embraced a new form of misogyny. I know that to my cost, and I hope that that will start to change.
But I am trying to be positive, and I want to list a couple of the other successes there have been in the last year for gender-critical women such as myself. My friends at the LGB Alliance are registered as a charity now, and they held a major conference that was attended by many parliamentarians. I see some of them here today. Sadly, however, a straight, married Member of this House saw fit to protest outside the conference, which was organised by lesbians to discuss the rights of same-sex-attracted people. I thought I had seen the last of that sort of lesbophobia in the ’90s, but it turns out I was wrong. I repeat that lesbian rights are not conditional on our accepting gender identity theory.
Another positive development has been the Equality and Human Rights Commission entering the debate on self-identification and on how to frame the quite appropriate ban on conversion therapy. The commission entered the debate with a voice of calm common sense, reminding us that human rights are universal and that all protected characteristics under the Equality Act deserve protection. Others have mentioned the very welcome interim report on the Cass review today, and I hope the Minister will be able to assure us that the Government will look carefully at that report and look into the alarming phenomenon of so many young women feeling so uncomfortable with their identity as women as they go through puberty in our society that they feel they have to change their identity to cope with those pressures.
Can I make two points to, and through, the hon. and learned Lady? First, Suzanne Moore ought to have been able to write her column for The Guardian, and I hope that The Guardian will report the hon. and learned Lady’s speech in full tomorrow and explain why Suzanne Moore cannot publish her thoughts in her own newspaper, as it once was. Secondly, on the LGB Alliance conference, which I attended, I went up to some of the people protesting outside and asked if they had read the book “Trans” or the book “Material Girls”. They said no. I invited them to join me in asking Liam Hackett, the chief executive of the anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label, if he would withdraw his words describing Kathleen Stock as a dangerous extremist for giving her plain views on women’s rights.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, and I am proud to call Professor Kathleen Stock a friend. She is an admirable scholar, a feminist and a lesbian who has written carefully about these issues, and the way she has been traduced by students at her university and, sadly, by some politicians in one of my favourite cities, Brighton, is absolutely disgraceful. I want to be positive today, however, and I think that on this issue the tide is turning. I am living proof that cancellation does not always work.
Just before I sit down, I have a couple of questions for the Minister. Will she back the Equality and Human Rights Commission to produce solid guidance on the definitions of protected characteristics and single-sex services? A lot of the harassment I have described stems from women setting out the case for single-sex services and then facing wrongful accusations of transphobia. Secondly, will she push for Government Departments to end the use of external human resource benchmarking schemes for legal compliance with the Equality Act? As we saw in the Akua Reindorf report from Essex University, some external benchmarks—sadly, some from Stonewall, of which I used to be, but no longer am, a supporter—have been wrong in law. Finally, once the EHRC has published some decent guidance, will she review civil service HR policies to ensure that they are in line with the law of the land under the Equality Act, rather than in line with prejudiced lobbying groups?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), and I salute her courage in talking about these issues. They are not always easy, but they must be discussed.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this important debate. Many important topics have been discussed today, not least early access to telemedicine for early-stage abortion, which merits much further discussion in this House, but I will concentrate on a topic that my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) so movingly covered: women and girls in Ukraine.
Images from war are often characterised by tanks, physical destruction and the loss of life in combat, but conflict is as much about those on the sidelines as about those on the frontline. We know from history that, in war, rape is routinely used as a weapon—a barbaric weapon. It causes incomprehensible damage to victims, it subjugates women through fear and stigma, and children born as a result of these violent acts often struggle with issues of identity.
Sexual violence in conflict has rightly been recognised as a war crime by the International Criminal Court. Such violence has been a stain on our history, and I am appalled that we are already hearing reports of history repeating itself in Ukraine. Speaking at an online event hosted by Chatham House, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister reportedly shared details of how Russian soldiers are raping Ukrainian women in the occupied territories. Julie Bindel, the investigative journalist, has reported that well-known porn sites have had new videos uploaded by Russian soldiers documenting disgustingly brutal crimes. We cannot let these atrocities go unpunished.
Under the leadership of this Government, and following an initiative spearheaded by the noble Lord Hague, there has been a great deal of progress to end sexual violence in conflict. The integrated review set out clearly the mission to “strengthen justice for survivors”, the G7 communiqué set out plans to prevent and end sexual violence against women and girls in conflict, and last year the UK, alongside its allies, issued a strong statement that the use of sexual violence as a weapon in conflict is a red line akin to the use of chemical weapons. The Prime Minister has spoken strongly in this place to say that sexual violence in conflict will not be tolerated and that those who are found to have committed it will be punished.
The challenge for all of us in this place is that, to achieve this, survivors in Ukraine must come forward and we must have a co-ordinated international approach to collect the evidence. We all know that we have challenges domestically in encouraging women to come forward to be heard, but imagine the fear of coming forward for a woman who has not only been abused but whose country has been invaded—by Russia, which effectively decriminalised domestic violence in 2017.
We must now send a clear message to the women of Ukraine that they will be supported. Our actions must be stronger than just words: we must collate the evidence; we must engage with the International Criminal Court; and we must prosecute. None of us can allow this to pass us by. We all have a responsibility. On this International Women’s Day we must say that sexual violence in conflict is not inevitable, and we must never allow it to be inevitable.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate and to celebrate the trailblazers who made it possible for so many women to come through these doors and sit on these Benches: the women who fought, protested, sacrificed and put their lives on the line in their effort to secure gender equality and to grant women the right to go to school, to work, to vote, to open a bank account in our own name, which is such a simple thing, and so many other rights that we could not bear to live without. I argue those women would want us not just to celebrate but to continue agitating, because there is still a long way to go and more to be done if we are to get to a state where women can truly be considered equal to men.
This year, as on every International Women’s Day, organisations have taken to social media to share their commitment to gender equality and to breaking the bias, which is this year’s theme. In response, the “Gender Pay Gap Bot” Twitter account tweeted the pay gap of those organisations. Some organisations could hold their head high, such as Contact Company, Abbeycroft Leisure, St John Ambulance and a few others, but unfortunately these organisations were in the minority.
In 2022, we still live in a society in which 83% of the UK’s most popular jobs have a gender pay gap. Recent Labour party analysis shows that, at the current rate of progression, the gender pay gap will not close until 2059. We need urgent action to change the system and address pay inequality, which is not just plain wrong but leaves so many women vulnerable to abuse.
The representation of women in senior positions, right across society, is still woefully low. I am proud to be part of a parliamentary Labour party that is 51% women. I will not pretend that that happened overnight, but when the time came, we did not wait for attitudes to change and we did not rest on platitudes. We took action to increase representation, and the result is someone like myself, who is the product of an all-women shortlist. This is a parliamentary party that reflects society not only in its make-up, but in the quality of debate and in the policies that are put forward.
So to all those in organisations across the country who are wringing their hands and saying, “Oh, it’s so hard. What do we do on women’s equality?”, I say, “You are just making excuses”. Change does not come just because time goes on; it is something that people have to make happen. Because of the work of women in this House and across society, enforcing equality has never been easier, as we have best practice, policy and legislation—all these different things—at our disposal.
In 2022 the under-representation of women in senior roles and a gender pay gap is a choice. So I will not applaud all the colourful social media bits that have been put up by different organisations, and the events and seminars for women that have gone by in past days. I will not applaud those organisations for saying that they are trying, because they are just failing. The ones that continue to preside over these situations have made a choice. Their choice has been to discriminate against women every single day, and they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
It is right that we have discussed domestic gender inequality, as that is obviously extremely important, but we must remember that we are celebrating International Women’s Day, which is a day for all women, wherever they are in the world. Our minds rightfully turn to the plight of women in Ukraine who are facing Putin’s aggression: those women we all saw this morning in the maternity hospital; those left behind in the country, as so many women often are in this situation; and those who have fled and are currently being denied asylum by countries such as ours, alongside refugees from other countries who are also fleeing war and persecution. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) was right to say that no one could claim to support standing up for all women if we allow a heinous piece of legislation such as the Nationality and Borders Bill to go ahead, which will only worsen the situation for some of the most vulnerable women in the world.
Finally, I worry about a movement for women’s equality and a feminism that does not represent all women, of all classes, nationalities and races. I was sad to hear black women speak of being feminists but not being able to call themselves such because they do not believe that movements for women’s equality typically represent their experiences as black women. When the majority of women in the world are of colour, a women’s movement that does not recognise the impact that racism plays, and the fundamental role it has in increasing inequality among women, is not truly a movement that represents all women, and it is not worth what it says it is worth. That is not acceptable. The idea that we should fight for women’s equality but make concessions for a certain group of women first, and then later we can get to this other group of women, has been the bane of the women’s equality movement, and that absolutely has to change. We have to demand equality for all women and we have to do it right now.
In this country at the moment the equality we seek for women does not have to be so hard. In 2022, if your organisation continues to preside over under-representation and a gender pay gap, it is simply just trash. If you are not actively a part of the solution to end gender inequality, you are simply just another part of the problem.
I want to echo the opening remarks of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). She is absolutely right: today we stand in solidarity with the women of Ukraine. Our hearts go out to them in their suffering, and we stand in awe of their bravery and resilience. Women are all too often the most vulnerable, and they are the real victims of war and conflict. The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) has just made a passionate speech about that. Globally, an estimated 736 million women have experienced sexual violence—that is one in three of us. More than 80,000 women were murdered in 2020, most at the hands of a close relation. Violence extends to children, too; 60 million girls are being sexually assaulted on their way to school every year. Those are not just numbers—they are human beings who feel pain and fear, and are being traumatised throughout their lives.
UN Women notes that violence disproportionately affects low-income countries, but our country is no beacon when it comes to women’s safety. Last week was the very sad first anniversary of Sarah Everard’s horrific murder by a Metropolitan police officer. The police response to the Clapham Common vigil was violent, too. Today, we are still waiting to hear of serious steps to stamp out misogyny in the Met once and for all, but it is not just about police forces. Misogyny is deeply ingrained in our culture, being present everywhere from schools to nightclubs to the courts.
Drink spiking has received a lot of public attention recently. It is a particularly vile form of violence against women and girls. One third of women have been spiked or know someone who has been.
The Government’s end-to-end rape review laid bare the failures of the criminal justice system. Last year, less than 2% of rape cases ended in conviction, adding insult to injury for survivors who find the strength to come forward and report rape—which only one in six women actually do, because they mistrust the system. No wonder they do.
What has been done in the past year to break the bias and to ensure that nobody is disadvantaged by their gender? Well, not enough. While racism and homophobia are considered hate crimes, misogyny is not, despite nearly every woman having experienced gender-based harassment. We have discussed it in the House, but I am still convinced that misogyny must become a hate crime. Although such a measure would not be a silver bullet, there are many reasons why it would mean progress: it would allow for the more accurate collection of data on harassment and make the collection of such data mandatory; it would set a precedent that such behaviour is unacceptable; it would curb the street harassment that 68% of all women experience on a near daily basis; and it would stamp out low-level behaviour based on misogyny so that it would not lead to much more serious offences based on misogyny.
Misogyny needs to be tackled in all settings. I have previously talked about the provision of age-appropriate education on consent in schools. The delivery of age-appropriate relationship education by experts in every school would be a very good start. It cannot be left to a postcode lottery. Some schools do it very well but, as I have said before, it cannot be for maths or language teachers to do such important work. It has to be delivered by experts.
As the crisis in Ukraine continues to unfold, many women will become displaced and especially vulnerable. We cannot allow refugees from Ukraine or elsewhere to fall into the arms of traffickers or abusers.
Finally, the Government must listen to and champion women’s voices. They are the agents of change. We women have made progress—often painful and slow—and we still have a long way to go, but I wish to echo the words of the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) in saying that it is fun to be a woman. It is important to be here. To everybody who listens to today’s debate I say: come forward. We need you.
It is a privilege to close the debate for my party. It has been a pleasure to listen to many eloquent and important speeches from Members of all parties. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing this debate.
I found it difficult to know what I wanted to say this year. I felt there was so much that I might want to cover, particularly given the situation in Ukraine—I will try to touch on some of that—but I also felt a bit deflated, if I am honest, because in other ways I could easily have given the same speech today as I gave last year.
I am grateful for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. We will see how we get on.
It does sometimes feel a wee bit like groundhog day in these debates, because women still have to strain every sinew and despite that, not so much changes. But there are bright spots, as the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) put it well, and I want to acknowledge and celebrate them as well.
Nobody here will be anything other than deeply concerned about the women and girls in Ukraine as they walk away from what were their perfectly normal lives in this unimaginably terrible situation, leaving everything that they have known behind them—and, as an aside, for goodness’ sake let us waive the visas and let these women in. All of us will have seen the footage of the women who had gone into hospital to give birth, but instead were being carried out, heavily pregnant and injured, on stretchers. They were under fire at the very time in their lives when they were at their most vulnerable. It is almost too much to comprehend. We will probably, and hopefully, never know what it is to walk in those women’s shoes, but we absolutely stand with them in the face of this wickedness.
There are so many shocking tales from Ukraine, no doubt familiar to women and girls in war zones across the world, as the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) set out so clearly. I also saw footage of a whole bunch of pushchairs and prams parked up outside a railway station in Poland by mums who must have known that the mums who were fleeing Ukraine with their wee ones would need them. I thought that that was amazing and it was a chink of light in the darkness there.
I know that the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “breaking the bias”, which is a welcome focus. At home and further afield, the lens through which everything is seen, including the decisions that affect our lives across the world, is still a male one. That applies whether we look at work, at health—we have talked about the recovery from covid—or at politics. Too often that bias, those barriers, or that ingrained misogyny remain.
I was very pleased to see Baroness Helena Kennedy’s report on misogyny and criminal justice in Scotland. It is a welcome step forward. As the report highlights, not all men are misogynists, but all women experience misogyny. I am heartened, too, by the continued laser focus on this by our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and her gender-balanced Cabinet. The Scottish Parliament continues to become more diverse, slowly but surely changing—to be honest it has been far too slow—to reflect the Scotland that we know, and we are the better for that, because we need our representation to reflect all of us. Making sure that we actively support marginalised communities in all of that is important.
Regardless of that, politics might not always be a comfortable space to inhabit. I take the point of the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) that we should enjoy it as much as we can, but there is often a nasty undercurrent—online in particular—which is wearing. None the less, we do need women in politics. A woman’s place is in politics. A woman’s place is in decision making. We can see that, where that is true, there are better ways to do things. In Scotland, for instance, we have seen world-leading legislation to provide free period products; legislation developed directly with women’s organisations that acknowledges domestic abuse as much more than just physical violence; and a determination to incorporate into Scots law the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.
We also have a fantastic women’s health plan in Scotland, which is so important. The focus on the menopause, which, for far too long, has not been spoken about, is profoundly helpful. I have been very pleased to hear a number of hon. Members mention the menopause today.
I really welcome that focus on women’s health. I am a woman with polycystic ovary syndrome, and I am not alone in that: 10% of women worldwide experience either PCOS or endometriosis, yet less than 3% of UK research funding goes into researching women-specific conditions—that is women-specific conditions as a whole, not the condition that I am referring to. PCOS is little understood. Basically, there is a black hole where research should be. If Members want to know how it might impact on the menopause or on becoming an older woman, they can forget it. The information does not exist, but I have no doubt that, if that condition affected men, the research would have been done. Moreover, if men experienced the levels of sexual violence that women do, we would not have seen the disgraceful pantomime of Raith Rovers and Clyde football clubs transferring, retransferring, and then trying to untransfer a man who had been ruled in a civil case to be a rapist. I must say that I felt that Raith Rovers’ International Women’s Day tweet, waxing lyrical about forging women’s equality together, was somewhat bold, or just extremely offensive, given the circumstances.
I have seen some people—men, actually—ask why that had never seemed to be a problem before. “Why now?”, they ask, suggesting, and some actually saying, that those of us who are unhappy about it are jumping on a bandwagon. I will tell them why: we are ground down by this kind of thing day in, day out, and thank goodness we have made enough progress over the past few years that women feel able to say “Enough.”
I take my hat off to the incredibly brave woman who found herself at the heart of that situation, and these strong, principled female players, coaches and teams who were not willing to stand for it any longer. To the men who stood up with them, I say thank you. We all need to stand up if we want to break that bias at every level, but it is not easy, and that sorry episode should never have happened.
I will close by reflecting on the difference that individual women make, going about their lives but improving the lives of others as they do so. We all know those women. They are all around us—our families, our friends—and they are absolutely worth celebrating in this debate. They are women such as my three East Renfrewshire councillor colleagues Angela Convery, Annette Ireland and Caroline Bamforth, who work tirelessly day in, day out to improve the lives of others. They are women such as the three young East Renfrewshire women named in the YWCA Scotland “30 under 30” list, Marissa Roxburgh, Elise Kelly and Kira Hendry. They are women such as Rena McGuire, Ashley McIlvenney, Annmarie Strain and Oonagh McKinnon, who work tirelessly to deliver transformational change in our community—I am sure hon. Members will wish them all well; they are up against one another for a community award, but they probably all deserve to win.
I could go on adding the names of amazing women in my community; I could stand here all day and do that, and I am confident that all hon. Members here could do the same for their constituencies. There are also women such as Carolyn, Nix, Tracey, Katie and Freya, who support me as I support constituents. These women, and women the world over going about their business, stepping up, stepping forward, making things better for others and for those coming after them—they are the women who inspire me daily. Let us all try to be more like these women. Let us always stretch a hand out to others as we continue to push forward, and maybe then we will see real and sustained equality.
It is such a pleasure to speak in this debate as we mark International Women’s Day. I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for proposing the debate and the Backbench Business Committee for securing it.
Has it not been wonderful to hear so many examples of incredible women this afternoon in fields from science to business, health, education, the arts, politics, trade unions and more? Has it not also been important to celebrate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) rightly said, how wonderful it is to be a woman?
As we celebrate those examples, however, that celebration is tempered, as was mentioned earlier, by the realisation of the dreadful situation so many other women are in. The International Development Committee statement before this debate drew attention to the appalling circumstances of so many women and girls in Afghanistan, which was rightly underlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) in her remarks. Many speakers have also expressed sympathy for and solidarity with the women and girls of Ukraine.
As so many have said, it is hard for us here to imagine the horror and anguish those women and girls have faced over the past few weeks, whether they are still in Ukraine under Russian bombardment or have fled for safety, leaving brothers, fathers, partners and sons behind. Many have referred to what took place yesterday, with the Russian army bombing a maternity hospital in Mariupol—almost too appalling to contemplate. For many of us, it is also horrendous to contemplate the circumstances for those women now having to give birth in bomb shelters in those areas under attack. Putin’s invasion is an attack on sovereignty, democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and women. Yesterday, Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska, offered her testimony from Ukraine. In it she named some of the child casualties of the war such as Alice, Polina and Arseniy. In their name, we fully support—I am sure I speak for the whole House—providing the people of Ukraine with all possible political, economic and practical support to repel Putin’s forces.
This afternoon we have heard another awful list of names—that read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). Her testimony, delivered every year in this debate, highlights the shocking scale of the epidemic of violence against women in this country, without losing sight of the individual tragedy that lies behind every statistic. As she said, the perpetrators killed, but we in power can and must do better. My colleagues here and in the other place have time and again brought pressure to bear, not least during the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. We argued for the inclusion of domestic abuse and sexual offences in the definition of “serious violence”; for violence against women and girls to be a strategic policing requirement, giving it the same prominence as terrorism and organised crime; for safeguards on the extraction of data from victims’ phones; for a lifting of the limit on the prosecution of common assault or battery in domestic abuse cases; and for a review, finally, into spiking so that we can get to the bottom of this appalling practice. None of those measures was included in the original Bill; they were all the result of campaigning with powerful women’s organisations beyond this House, and they were all achieved, I am sorry to say, in the teeth of Government opposition. Outside that specific legislation, it was also pressure from those organisation and from the Opposition that resulted in violence against women and girls becoming a strategic policing requirement, giving it the same prominence as terrorism and organised crime.
But there is so much more to do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) said, we need drastic action that recognises that this is an emergency. Will the Government now introduce the other measures contained in Labour’s comprehensive Green Paper? Will they ensure that there will be a specialist rape unit in every police force area? Will they bring in minimum sentences for rape and for stalking? Will they make misogyny a hate crime, as has rightly been called for? Will they publish a perpetrators strategy, as the Domestic Abuse Bill requires this to happen before the end of next month?
Violence against women and girls—male violence, as was rightly said—is not just a criminal justice issue; it is also a public health one. More than 60% of women accessing mental health services have experienced domestic abuse—an appalling statistic at the heart of the Women’s Aid campaign, #DeserveToBeHeard, rightly promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum). That is one of many reasons why we have committed to guarantee mental health treatment within a month for all who need it and enable 1 million more people to access treatment.
We had high hopes that the Government would be similarly ambitious when, this time last year, they announced that we would have a new women’s health strategy by the end of 2021. Well, it is now March 2022 and we are still waiting. In fact, we are waiting longer and longer—for cervical screening appointments, for breast cancer appointments, and for routine gynaecological treatment. We are seeing services cut, or in line to be cut, such as the access to telemedicine for early abortion that has rightly been referred to by so many Members today, and we are seeing areas of extreme need, such as PCOS—polycystic ovary syndrome—and endometriosis, still not being dealt with properly.
Life expectancy and outcomes for many women are actually worsening. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) has repeatedly emphasised, black women are now 40% more likely than white women to experience miscarriage and four times more likely to die while pregnant, yet we still lack any hard targets for improvement. Waiting lists were already at record highs even before covid-19 hit, but we can do something about it: previous Labour Governments reduced waiting times from 18 months to 18 weeks. We have to learn from that change, act on it, and secure the future of our NHS, providing the staff, equipment and modern technology it needs to treat women on time.
As so many have said, we also need change for women in our economy, now more than ever. My party introduced the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equality Act 2010, rightly referred to by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) as a Labour achievement. Those advances were often delivered hand in hand with the trade union movement. We understand that our society, our economy and our country are poorer if women cannot play their part. Women hold the key to a stronger economy. Women-led small and medium-sized enterprises contribute about £85 billion to economic output, and companies in which women are more prominent are ultimately more successful, yet women are still less likely to be able to access as much finance as men when they try to set up companies, and only eight of the FTSE 100’s chief executive officers are women.
Backing women in business is not just the right thing to do, but makes hard-headed economic sense, yet we are still dragging our feet. We cannot do so any longer. That is why we have committed to 100,000 new businesses, many of them run by women, in the first term of a Labour Government. It is also why we would act to boost family-friendly employment rights. Last year, the gender pay gap actually increased—one of the few statistics that has not been mentioned in this debate—but that followed a decade of slower reductions than under the Labour Government, as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy).
As my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) and for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) said, much of this precarity for women has been accelerated during the pandemic. We need gender pay comparisons across companies as well as ethnicity pay reporting in order to tackle compound inequalities. We need to tackle workplace harassment, including third-party harassment. We need to implement the International Labour Organisation’s convention against workplace harassment, and we need to ensure that flexibility is in the hands of women workers, not just their employers, as is currently so often the case. We must recognise childcare as the fundamental economic infrastructure that it is, not the afterthought it so often seems to be for too many women and families in our country. Finally, we need to measure the impact of policies on women, as the Government legally should do.
International Women’s Day is always a bittersweet moment—a chance to celebrate how far we have come, to note with regret how far we still have to go, and to recommit ourselves to the struggle for women and girls today and for our daughters and granddaughters tomorrow. My party now has as many women MPs as the proportion of women in the country, aiding us in this struggle, but there is still so much more to do—particularly in local government, as the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) said. It is also critical that we prevent the abuse of women on social media. The hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) spoke powerfully about the impact of this abuse on women politicians, and I commend her on her honesty. To reflect on some of the discussion that took place previously, it always makes sense to check what a woman has actually said, rather than what a man suggests she has said on social media.
Women across our country deserve security, prosperity and respect. That is what a Labour Government will seek to ensure, and as long as we are on these Benches, it is what we will deliver as we seek to break the bias.
I start by commending, as others have, the work that Mr Speaker has undertaken in this House to protect women, to encourage more women parliamentarians and to support all parliamentarians, but I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, provide that advice to us most nights in the Tea Room and throughout the House. It is certainly appreciated by me, and everybody in this House.
I start with my number. I have heard many numbers today, and I am proudly No. 456. I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who has brought this debate to the House. I know that she has worked tirelessly as a parliamentarian in this place in the interests of women, and I am so pleased to be able to support such staunch advocates of gender equality in this year’s International Women’s Day debate.
I will start by briefly running through some—hopefully all—of the speeches in brief to reflect on those comments. My right hon. Friend started with the need to encourage more parliamentarians, which is critical, to represent society. That is a particularly important thing for me, as a mum of four daughters who I talk about so often. I am afraid to say that none of my daughters want to go into politics, and at a recent event I spoke at, I asked all the women to put their hands if they had daughters. I then asked whether any of those daughters would consider a career in politics. I am sad to say that none of those hands stayed up, so we have much work to do.
The hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) referred to the Godiva Trust celebrating lives, and she talked about her mum and two sisters. So many of us talk about the support systems, who are often men. I was delighted to hear about the dress-making and costume creations that have been going on in the House.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) spoke so powerfully, as ever. I thank her for the work she does on the Select Committee. It may have been her son, but she referred to the 12-year-old Hugo. [Interruption.] Okay, he is not her son. He was questioning how she would celebrate International Women’s Day, and she spoke about female entrepreneurs. It is important that we never take for granted our freedoms and conveniences, as she spoke about so powerfully.
I am grateful to have this chance to speak about some of the issues raised already today and to share some of the work that the Government are doing to support women and girls in the UK and around the world. I begin by saying, as many Members have also said, that my thoughts are with all those affected by the events in Ukraine at this very difficult time. So many Members have referred to the atrocities that have been going on in that country.
We strongly condemn the reported Russian attack on a maternity and children’s hospital in Mariupol. An attack on a hospital constitutes a breach of international humanitarian law. The loss of innocent human lives is deplorable, and we call for this attack to be documented and investigated. Putin’s directive to bomb a baby hospital is beyond barbaric. There can be no one more helpless than a new-born baby, and Putin’s decision to hurt and kill women, babies, children and medical staff has outraged Members in this House, and people in this country and across the world.
We continue to stand united with our international partners in supporting the Government in Ukraine. International Women’s Day provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our role in the international community, especially in supporting women and children affected by conflict around the world. I have been so inspired by the women MPs in Ukraine, who no longer have their children in their arms, but instead hold an AK-47 assault weapon.
The issue of gender-based violence has featured heavily today. As some Members have pointed out, we are also reeling from the tragic deaths of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and many of the women that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) so poignantly listed. That painfully long list of women killed by men is such a poignant and powerful, if not utterly tragic, reminder that more work must be done. I put on record my thanks to Karen Ingala Smith for compiling that record.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said, we do not accept that violence against women and girls is inevitable. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) referred to the inevitability of sexual violence in conflict, but other hon. Members have said that they do not accept that. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said that it is not inevitable and she is making it her top priority.
In October, the UK began the £67.5 million “What Works to Prevent Violence: Impact at Scale” programme in this country, which is the first global effort to scale up proven violence-prevention approaches. Earlier this week, the Government strengthened their world-leading efforts to end violence and harassment in the workplace by becoming the 11th country to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s violence and harassment convention.
The safety of everyone in our country, wherever they are, is our priority, but we know that crimes such as domestic abuse and stalking disproportionately affect women and girls. Tackling such crimes remains a top priority for the Government. The tackling violence against women and girls strategy sets out areas of activity that are already under way and more than 50 new commitments to help to ensure that women and girls are safe everywhere—at home, online and on the streets.
We have made good progress on those commitments, including supporting the introduction of Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth as the national police lead for violence against women and girls. We introduced our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 to fundamentally transform our response to tackling that crime. As soon as parliamentary time allows, we will introduce a new duty on employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
In my role in the Department for Transport, I have responsibility for the safety of women and girls on the transport network. I am fortunate to work alongside many inspirational women, particularly the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton); Diane Gilpin, CEO of the Smart Green Shipping Alliance, who has worked in technology and design across Formula 1, banking and telecoms; and Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who is one of Britain’s most famous mechanical engineers and space scientists, and who is currently using satellite technology to predict weather flows.
No one should ever have to face the risk of violence when travelling. This International Women’s Day, I was proud to be in Birmingham to join our transport champions for tackling violence against women and girls to launch their 13 recommendations for making our transport networks safer in the short, medium and long term. Those proposals are a crucial step in the Government’s long-term commitment to ensure that women and girls can travel alone, safely and without fear. I look forward to collaborating across Government with police forces, local transport authorities and transport operators to respond to those recommendations.
Many hon. Members have referred to health. We are committed to improving women’s health outcomes and reducing disparities. The Government are making women’s voices heard and placing women’s voices at the centre of that work. This week also marks LBT Women’s Health Week. The Government recognise that, as part of that, we need to improve the current access to NHS fertility services in England for all couples, including those in same-sex partnerships.
I have certainly heard those calls and I am sure that they have also been heard by Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care. I understand that a review will take place, but I will ask my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to write to the right hon. Lady with a response.
To add to the point of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), I watched the faces of the many brilliant women MPs present when that was mentioned and I think that Conservative Members are not aware of what their Government are doing against all the expert advice and against all the policy advice of the Department of Health and Social Care because of the individual conscience issues of some Ministers. I hope that the Minister does take those calls back, because that is clearly not the will of the House today.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I just repeat what I have already said about liaising with Health Ministers. The wellbeing and safety of women requiring access to abortion services has been and will continue to be our first and foremost priority. The Department of Health is developing a new sexual and reproductive health strategy that will set out the ambitions to improve reproductive health outcomes and wellbeing. The strategy will include a focus on improving information and access to contraception to support women to make more informed choices, but on the specific point that she and the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) made, I will endeavour to liaise with colleagues.
The House will be reassured by what the Minister has just said about liaising with colleagues. Can I say through her to the Whips that if there is a clear vote in this House, I would vote to extend the telemedicine service and I would encourage my hon. Friends to do the same? I suggest that the Chief Whip asks his colleagues to consult each of us what our views are.
I am sure my hon. Friend’s comment has been heard.
There has been much talk about the economic empowerment for women, and this leads me on to some of the other steps we are taking to address the barriers that women face in the workforce. I myself was paid off when I was pregnant with our first child. We know that the pandemic has been one of the greatest challenges this country has faced in decades. Women’s economic empowerment is pivotal to our post-pandemic recovery, in the wake of even greater potential for wage inequalities for women, although of course it is not just women who face these difficulties. We need to make it easier for all employees to understand if they are being paid fairly and how decisions about their pay are made, and I am really pleased that we are going to stop asking about pay history during recruitment.
There has also been much talk about STEM, which has been so wonderful to hear about. In 2022, education remains a top priority for our Prime Minister. Earlier this week, he launched a new girls’ education skills partnership programme on private sector investment in girls’ education, which supports adolescent girls overseas. We have made great progress in increasing the number of girls studying STEM subjects, but at present women make up only 24% of the STEM workforce.
I am afraid that I cannot give way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) referenced the importance of language, and it is so important that, as he says, we protect the language of females—of women, adult human females, girls, mothers, women who breastfeed and mothers who work. I think that is so important. It has been a pleasure to speak in this important debate.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair. I thank the 27 right hon. and hon. Members across the House for taking part, and the Minister who spoke in response to the debate for her advocacy for women on so many issues. I hope she is able to discuss the content of the issues raised today with the Minister for Women and other colleagues. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald)—I hope I have pronounced that correctly—said it was groundhog day, and I am afraid I tend to agree with her on so many of these issues. When it comes to women in the House of Commons, we need to make sure that the Government, Parliament and the parties are working together to get more women into this place after the next election. I hope that the positive energy coming from today’s debate goes out to the women around the world who live in areas of war, because it is those women who need our help and support the most.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have given notice to the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) that I would raise this point of order. She challenged me to clarify exactly what she had said, and to correct the record if I was wrong in suggesting that she had not answered a question clearly. The question she was asked by Emma Barnett on “Woman’s Hour” was very simple. She was asked:
“And Labour’s definition of a woman?”
and she answered:
“Well, I have to say that there are different definitions legally around what a woman actually is. I mean, you look at the definition within the Equality Act, and I think it just says someone who is adult and female, I think, but then doesn’t see how you define either of those things. I mean, obviously, that’s then you’ve got the biological definition, legal definition.”
I suggested that that answer was unclear. I think I am correct in my representation of that answer.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He said that he would endeavour to correct the record, and he has sought to do so. Would the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) like to follow that point of order?
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for giving me notice that he was going to make a point of order, but he actually stated that I was unable to define what a woman was. That is not true. I am a woman, obviously. Okay, we all occasionally might use the odd “um” or “ah” in an interview, but if he listened to what I said, I said “adult female, under the Equality Act.” Also in that interview, which he did not quote, I said that the Equality Act protects on the basis of sex, although some of his comments and those of others intimated that I did not. I stated that there is a biological definition and also a legal definition. If he wants to dispute whether any of those definitions are extant, I am happy to have that discussion. I do not think that his argument would hold water, because it would not be a correct one. I feel that he should still withdraw those original remarks, but I accept that, at least from his point of view, he has attempted to set out his view. I do, however, think it is a mistaken one.
I thank the hon. Lady for answering that point of order. There is clearly a difference of opinion, and that is not a matter on which the Chair can adjudicate, and nor should the Chair try to. The facts have been satisfactorily put on the record, and I am grateful to everyone concerned for doing so.
Question put and agreed to.
That this house has considered International Women’s Day.