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Women in Elected Office

Volume 810: debated on Monday 8 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to increase the number of women holding elected office in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we have more women MPs than ever before, making up 34% of the other place, and 35% of local councillors are women. But we must ensure that women have an equal voice in the decisions that affect them. The Government cannot mandate who political parties select as candidates, and it is for them to ensure that their selection processes are responsive to known barriers and lead the way in improving women’s representation—especially today, on International Women’s Day.

Does the Minister agree with me that the barriers which prevent women seeking elected office include abuse and discrimination, as well as elected institutions being seen as unfriendly to women? Will she commit to doing all she can to ensure that the sunset clause of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, allowing an all-women shortlist, is extended beyond 2030, and that Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 is implemented? This would go some way to ensuring that our elected institutions look like the people they represent.

My Lords, the Government keep all the uncommenced sections of the Equality Act under review, and in the run up to 2030, I am sure that there will be a review of whether to extend that. We all have a role to play when disagreement between elected representatives goes from disagreement to abuse and discrimination. We all have a role to speak out to defend our colleagues of whatever political persuasion.

My Lords, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we acknowledge that progress has been made in this area—but there is still much more to be done. Many women are put off coming forward by the tone of British politics and the hostility that women politicians receive. What more can be done to make national politics less aggressive and more inclusive?

My Lords, I can state only that during this pandemic, when we have used a remote Parliament, it seems that our tone of engagement here—and perhaps in the other place—has changed. But I reiterate that we all have a role to play, as elected or appointed representatives, when we see colleagues being abused or mistreated, whether it is in person or on Twitter. In a way, we must put aside our party-political allegiances and defend each other, otherwise women and others may not come forward for election.

My Lords, for 20 years I had the honour of representing Birmingham Edgbaston, which has an unbroken record of being represented by a woman MP since 1953. I was succeeded by the first woman Sikh MP, Preet Gill. Standing for elected office is a habit that should be encouraged as early as possible. Will the Minister therefore undertake to ensure that every school, including primary schools, is expected to have an elected school council?

My Lords, it has been excellent to see the development of school councils over recent years. It is not something that the Government would mandate but they do want to see it encouraged. Many schools and colleges run mock general elections, and it has been encouraging, in normal times, to see the number of schoolchildren who come to visit Parliament and are subsidised to do so.

Last Friday, the WLGA council recognised the outcomes of the cross-party working group on diversity in democracy that I set up as leader, in 2018. The council agreed to encourage all political parties to commit to proactive and co-ordinated activities to improve diversity in local government democracy. It further agreed a declaration by July 2021 from councils in Wales to become diverse councils, providing a public commitment to improve diversity and agree an action plan ahead of the 2022 local elections. This work by local government in Wales is an excellent example of proactively engaging women to hold elected office. Would the Minister recommend that the LGA take a similar approach in England? I have the full report, which I can send to the Minister.

My Lords, it is pleasing to note that nearly half of the members of the Senedd are women, and we support and encourage the LGA, which is leading a Be a Councillor campaign. During the pandemic, I think that even the parish council in Handforth in Cheshire has inadvertently done its role in encouraging many people to get involved in very local politics.

It is very well documented and has been said that one of the main issues for women when they eventually get to this place is the culture. As the Minister herself just said, challenging it is very important. I welcomed the Valuing Everyone training. I found it eye-opening and very challenging—quite rightly so. But could the Minister tell us what steps are being taken to encourage and enable those who have not yet attended to do so and, indeed, confirm whether it is a breach of the Code of Conduct to refuse to do so?

My Lords, I enjoy standing here at the Dispatch Box answering on behalf of the Government, but I am careful not to tread on the sovereignty of Parliament as it agrees its procedures here. I will say that I personally did the Valuing Everyone training and learned much through it.

I ask the Minister to go to the Prime Minister because, during his tenure, women have been overlooked greatly, including in the Cabinet. We should ask the Prime Minister to have an equal 50:50 Cabinet and for his party to have all-women shortlists—as we have asked for a number of times—as the other two main parties have.

My Lords, with the recent appointment of my noble friend Lord Frost, 22% of Cabinet Ministers are women. The previous Prime Minister, the right honourable Theresa May, holds the record as 40% of her appointments were women. I believe the current Prime Minister is on 32% and I hope that will be a rising trajectory.

I echo what other noble Lords have said about the climate of abuse being one of the main reasons why women do not come forward, particularly to local councillor positions. “I would not do it to my family” is a very common remark. Is there anything the Government can do to help to enable us to know what is going on and to see the abuse that is happening? I think that, if it were more visible, there would be more action against it.

My Lords, as I have mentioned, much of the abuse is online. The Government have committed to introducing the online harms Bill, which will provide the framework around which those platforms will be regulated. There is also a DCMS-led review conducted by the Law Commission looking at how we need to potentially update legislation to tackle abusive behaviours online. The Government have also committed to introducing a new electoral sanction against intimidation. But, as I say, I hope that the legislative framework around online harms will affect the culture of how people engage with one another online.

My Lords, shamefully a recent survey of MSPs revealed that 46% of women had received death threats, 29% threats of sexual violence and 75% threats to themselves, their family or staff. Women disproportionately are targeted and are the sole victims of threats of sexual violence. Social media, the source of much abuse, could deploy algorithms to reduce this content but does not. Last week we heard that operators are frustrating the efforts of police to prosecute racist abuse. Will the online harms Bill include provisions to deal with their failures and provide agents?

My Lords, the online harms Bill is designed to look at those platforms and ensure that they have a duty of care placed on them—that is the current proposal. However, the behaviours that the noble Lord outlined are mostly criminal and therefore can currently be dealt with. We know that many police forces have been more engaged in helping elected representatives, their families and their staff when they receive those kinds of threats.

My Lords, when first elected to local government, I was one of several women with school-age children. We were a tough bunch and needed to be. However, others were not coming on behind us. The times of the meetings, the lack of adequate financial recompense and the cost of child or adult care all militate against women taking part. It is time for positive discrimination to ensure that women have parity of representation at all levels. What are the Government doing to ensure that this happens?

My Lords, the Government recognise that having a diverse group of elected representatives in our country is important, but the political parties have a key role to play here to ensure that candidates who are selected are able to deal with the particular barriers that they face. There has been a particular emphasis on a fund called EnAble, which was announced to allow disabled people to stand. So institutions need to look at their working practices, as the other place has done over the last 10 years or so.

Sitting suspended.