Skip to main content

Women’s Suffrage Centenary Fund

Volume 785: debated on Thursday 2 November 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how the £5 million public fund celebrating the centenary of women acquiring the vote has been allocated.

My Lords, the Government’s programme includes a statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, a suite of education projects and a forthcoming small grants scheme. The hope is that the £5 million fund will inspire young people and women to become more involved in democracy.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. Can I ask a little more about the small grants scheme? It seems that a whole raft of organisations, a number of them charities, are asking for money and have not heard anything. We understand when the centenary is; we understood that 100 years ago. Do the Government have any broader ideas, both here in Parliament and outside, about how they will celebrate the role of women over the last 100 years in public life—perhaps to encourage more to come forward?

On the last point, the Government will certainly think about how they can celebrate the role of women both in Parliament and, more broadly, in public life. On the small grants fund, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that people have not heard yet, but they will do very soon.

My Lords, given the quite magnificent array of women artists in this country—painters, sculptors, writers and, of course, composers—might it not be appropriate to commission a memorial to Emily Davison, who took her suffragette protest to the Derby and was killed by the King’s horse, having hid here the previous night in a cupboard in the undercroft?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that Emily Davison is certainly a woman to be celebrated. However, on the funding of statues of some of the great women who have taken part in women’s suffrage over the last 100 years, it should not be a case of either/or. There are too few statues commemorating the women who have helped to shape our nation. We welcome the efforts of all charities and campaigners who are actively involved in this process.

Will my noble friend agree—I think she will, in view of what she said—that it is entirely appropriate that the projected statue in Parliament Square should be of Dame Millicent Fawcett, leader of the law-abiding suffragists for over 50 years, a Liberal and then a Liberal Unionist, whose work helped to create a Commons majority for women’s suffrage in the 1890s?

In view of what I have said, of course I agree with my noble friend. She played such an important part not only in history but in where we are today. When I look across this Chamber and the other place, I know I would not be here had it not been for her.

My Lords, I welcome the fund that the Minister mentioned and I hope it will get lots of publicity. She will be aware that since 1918 only 489 women have been elected to the House of Commons. Much more needs to be done to break down the barriers facing women in all walks of life. Does the Minister agree that, in celebrating the centenary, we should look at the next 100 years and do all we can to improve the lives of women by introducing better legislation to combat sexual and domestic abuse, be it in the workplace or in the home, and to change the culture of our society so that women and girls are treated equally? One measure that the Government can take is to accelerate the ratification of the Istanbul convention. That would be a great step forward into the next century for women and girls.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right about the Istanbul convention. As she knows, that process is imminent. She is right to mention the next 100 years. If we do not think about the women in the pipeline in all sorts of ways—in Parliament, in the workplace and in their public and private lives—we will slow down the progress that we have made in the previous 100 years. Therefore, I totally agree that we can never lose sight of where we want to be.

My Lords, I would like to make a suggestion for commemorating that momentous day, and the cost to the state would be negligible. As we know, Nancy Astor was the first female Member of Parliament. A portrait of her introduction to the House of Commons, sponsored by Lloyd George and Arthur James Balfour, used to hang in the Commons before, scandalously, being removed in the male club atmosphere of the time. I am so glad that male MPs display a much more respectful and enlightened attitude towards women today. The portrait is now displayed in Lady Astor’s American birthplace. Would it be possible to make representations to see whether we can borrow it back to commemorate this date?

I can certainly take that back but I cannot make any undertakings at the Dispatch Box. However, I totally take the point that the noble Baroness has made.

My Lords, I am well aware of the keen interest that the Minister takes in her home-based activities in Manchester. Will she commend the campaign of Councillor Andrew Simcock of Manchester City Council to erect a statue to Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the suffragette movement—the first statue for women in the city—and ensure that Manchester gets a fair share of the fund when the allocation is made, so that the activities around the centenary are properly celebrated in the north of England?

The noble Lord has asked me a question about which I am very enthusiastic. Manchester was not only at the heart of but provided the turning point for women’s suffrage. Manchester provides the turning point for many things, as we know. Not only do I applaud the efforts of Manchester but I wish its people well in this process.

My Lords, might we take the opportunity of the centenary to reflect on the fact that the then Liberal Government refused to give women the vote because they were worried that they would lose the votes of men?

My noble friend is absolutely correct. In fact, turning to the previous question, I think that Emmeline Pankhurst was thrown out of the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and, in true Mancunian style, decided to hold a meeting in the street.

My Lords, will the Minister make sure that working-class women, who played a very large role in this matter, get proper recognition? As a north-west person, is she aware of the campaign in Oldham for a statue for Annie Kenney?

I was not aware of the Oldham campaign but the noble Baroness raises a very important point about working-class women and democracy. Democracy in Parliament and local government should not be the preserve of the elite; it should be open to everybody. I know that parties across the House have made incredible efforts to attract women from all socioeconomic groups to play their part.