Skip to main content

Women: Political and Public Office

Volume 788: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to encourage women to stand for political and public office.

My Lords, this year marks a century since women have been able to stand as parliamentary candidates and the Government will mark 2018 with grants to initiatives that encourage women to participate in democratic life via the centenary fund. We are also commissioning evidence to understand how to remove the barriers to participation.

I thank the Minister for her reply. As she said, it is the centenary of some women getting the vote. During the past 100 years, 489 women have been elected to the House of Commons as opposed to 4,801 men. The United Kingdom ranks at just 39th globally for women’s representation in Parliament. Does the Minister agree that our elected institutions should look like the people they represent? To achieve this, will she take the advice of the Women and Equalities Committee that the Government should set a domestic target of 45% representation of women in Parliament and in local government by 2030 in response to indicator 5.5 of the United Nations sustainable development goals, because the present situation really needs to be improved?

I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Baroness that Parliament should look like the people it represents and is legislating for, and as she says, a 50:50 Parliament is long overdue. That is why we will be consulting parties and producing evidence on a range of approaches that can help us to increase the number of women who stand as candidates. Initiatives such as #AskHerToStand and Vote 100 are ongoing to improve representation.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the work that the Government are doing. Will she ensure that the spirit of the suffragettes lives on by ensuring that the names of Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison, who spent a night in the cupboard to ensure that she would appear on the census, will be remembered forcefully this year?

My noble friend has asked a pertinent question because certainly in my home city of Manchester there will be a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, and here in Parliament a statue to celebrate Millicent Fawcett. In addition there are all sorts of initiatives and projects going on.

My Lords, 100 years on, 32% of MPs and 33% of councillors are women. If we compare ourselves with comparable OECD countries, such as Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and others, we see that they do far better, but it is no coincidence that they also have cheaper, more affordable and more accessible childcare. The noble Baroness mentioned barriers that will be looked at. Will she say what is being done to address those barriers, to make sure that women will not be prohibited from engaging in public life because they simply cannot afford childcare?

A few years ago, parliamentary hours were made more sociable—not that we can always say that they are terribly sociable—but I agree with the noble Baroness about childcare. We have a nursery here in Parliament, but childcare generally will be looked at to encourage women to come forward and participate in public life.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to accommodate Muslim women, who have particular, very different needs from women in general, to participate?

My Lords, we want to make this Parliament one that is open and accessible to women no matter what their race, religion or background. Muslim women should be no different in that context. I hope that women, no matter what their background, will feel that Parliament is open for them. Of course, in our demographic we represent what people, particularly women, might aspire to.

My Lords, about a century ago the suffragette Hannah Mitchell said that we women fight with one hand tied behind us. We still do, because she was referring not just to childcare but to the care of older people, the responsibility for domestic housework and so forth, responsibilities that do not affect men’s ability to take part in political and public life. What are the Government doing to help make the sharing of care between men and women more equal?

I think that the sharing of care has become more equal, but perhaps not as equal as many would wish it to be. As I said at the beginning, the GEO is commissioning a wide-ranging evidence review that will encompass the range of approaches that will be taken, both internationally—the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, mentioned Sweden—and here at home to provide political parties with a variety of solutions that they can draw on. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, is absolutely right to raise that flag of women being less likely to participate in public life, particularly in Parliament. It is more difficult to get women to stand as candidates in elections and we need to change that.

My Lords, the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recent report highlighted the fact that women candidates, and disproportionately Conservative women candidates, received intimidation and abuse, which is obviously a deterrent to their coming forward. The Conservative Party has now put together a code of conduct based on responsible behaviour and showing respect. Is my noble friend aware of whether any of the other political parties are planning to make the same pledge?

I certainly know that there is a cross-party working group, chaired by the Leader of the House of Commons, which is developing an independent complaints and grievance procedure. I cannot answer for other political parties but I am pleased to say that I have seen and signed the code of conduct. I think it is absolutely right. I cannot believe that standards of conduct on this Estate were not in the Ministerial Code before now but they now are—writ large.

My Lords, will the Government consider extending the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act beyond the present term for which it is enforced to allow political parties to have women-only shortlists?

My Lords, positive discrimination in that sense is something that the Conservative Party has not subscribed to. I hope, though, that political parties will see that if they do not have diverse representation they are far less likely to appeal to the public at large—who elect them.