I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Good Parliament report.
“The Good Parliament” report was published in July and during my speech I will quote a couple of sections from it. The first is this:
“Parliamentary reform is too often the result of individual MPs expending significant time and political capital.”
For me, that is the key reason why this report is important.
The intention behind the report was to try to ensure that Parliament is a more representative place, so that it is more representative of society, has a better division between the genders, has a better representation across classes, so that it is not quite so middle class, male and of a certain age, and so that it has greater diversity.
Another line from the report is this:
“2018 is a timely reminder of the promise of equality in parliamentary participation and representation in the UK.”
The report comes in the run-up to 2018 and hopes to make changes in advance of both 2018 and the 2020 election. This is absolutely the perfect time for it to come out. I recognise the incredibly hard work that Professor Sarah Childs, who is in the Public Gallery today, put into it, and the good intentions that the House and Mr Speaker in particular had in commissioning it, which are hugely appreciated.
Before I talk about the report’s recommendations, I will talk a bit about who I am, why my circumstances matter and why the report is so relevant to me and people like me in Parliament. I am not from a wealthy background. Nobody in my family has a degree. I am absolutely not from that kind of traditional privileged background that people imagine politicians come from. I am not saying at all that I grew up on the breadline, but my family were certainly not affluent in any way.
I am also an MP from quite far away. My constituency is 500 miles away from here, so I am tackling geographical issues. I am not unique in that. My Scottish National party colleagues are similarly from far away places. We tackle geographical issues that London MPs, for example, cannot even imagine. It is really quite difficult to tackle them.
I am also a female MP. Women are still very much in the minority in the House of Commons and we still face— I do not want to say “discrimination”—barriers because of our gender.
I am also a relatively young MP. I was 29 when I was elected, which in House of Commons terms—we could include the House of Lords in that—is incredibly young. In House of Commons terms, 29 is still pretty young to be elected.
I am also a parent of young children. I have a three-year-old and a five-year-old. When I was elected, they were obviously even younger than that. It is unusual, particularly for female MPs, to be parents of pre-school children, because it is incredibly hard to do this job if you have them, particularly when tackling all the other issues that people like me face. I am so far from home. I also suddenly have to finance this role. Obviously we get paid, but coming into this House without having a salary beforehand and having to pay back all of the money spent during election campaigns is hard to begin with. It is not easy. I feel that there are a lot of barriers in my way. I am from the SNP. I am no big fan of Westminster. I am not about this place being wonderful, but even if Scotland gets its independence, or when Scotland gets its independence, future generations of parliamentarians should not have to face the barriers that I have had to face in becoming an MP and in being an MP.
The hon. Lady is very kind to give way so early on. I commend her for what she is saying and I agree with everything she has said so far. Does she agree that one way to address one of those barriers is to consider the possibility of MPs job sharing? The report does not consider it, but a future one might. One way to keep one foot solidly in our constituency, perhaps to provide the kind of family care that she is talking about, and represent people here is job sharing.
I will come to that. First, I am going to talk about some of the recommendations in the report and the reasons why they are so good. I will also talk about a few things that are not in the recommendations but that I feel would have benefits—job sharing is one of those.
I, too, commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for what she has said about the report. On the point she so strongly made about her being a young person in Parliament, a mother of young children and a woman living miles away from her constituency, does she agree that essentially what is important is that people such as herself can be in Parliament to make it more representative and fundamentally do the job that it is supposed to do? We therefore need her and others to get over those barriers so that Parliament can be the sort of institution that it needs to be for this country.
I absolutely agree and will say why Parliament being representative is so important. Part of it is so that we can inspire people, so that young people who look at Parliament are not as disengaged as some currently are. A lot of young people look at Parliament and think, “There’s nobody there who’s like me”, or, “There are not enough people there who are like me. I can never achieve that.” If young people do not see people like themselves in Parliament, why would they bother to become engaged? Why would they think, “I can become an MP”, if we are not living that and showing that, and if we are not destroying the barriers I have mentioned, so that they can become Members of this Parliament or of others?
The other reason why it is really important that this place is representative is the role that we have as Westminster parliamentarians in a world-leading Parliament. We have not done very well recently at being a world- leading Parliament. I am quite embarrassed to go into Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meetings or Inter-Parliamentary Union meetings to talk to groups of parliamentarians from other countries and tell them about how wonderfully democratic Westminster is, because it is not. There are too many issues with this place, so that I find it really hard to say to people from other Parliaments, “You should follow our rules”, because our rules are not great.
If we were genuinely reforming this place and if we were genuinely a 21st century Parliament, it would be much easier for us to work with other Parliaments, help other Parliaments and trailblaze. If we were such a Parliament, that would be a better place for us to be.
I will go through some of the report’s recommendations and say why they are important. One of the first recommendations is about standards of behaviour. That recommendation is really important, not only because of the farce that is Prime Minister’s questions but because of some of the quieter things that people do not hear so much about. Some of my colleagues have had their outfits commented on by male MPs. That is not appropriate. People should not be making odd comments about outfits. That behaviour is not tackled enough in the House of Commons and there is not enough of an argument made when people face that kind of behaviour. Not enough people are standing up about it.
The next recommendation I will discuss is collecting statistics by gender and other characteristics. Basically, the intention behind that recommendation is that the Speaker should keep account of how many people are speaking, what percentage of women are speaking, what percentage of women are asking questions in debates and what percentage of people from working-class backgrounds are asking questions in debates. It is all well and good to get us elected to Parliament but if we are encountering barriers, or if our Whips Office does not let us talk often enough, for example, or if we are not managing to catch the Speaker’s eye, or if any of those types of things happen, they are issues. If we examine the statistics and try to work out what barriers are in place, we can work out how to overcome those barriers. Such statistics would be really useful information for us to have in the future as a House, so that we can consider tackling those issues.
The biggest section in the report is on procedural and timing changes, which would make the biggest difference. There are a huge number of recommendations. One of them is that the Government should announce recess dates at least one Session in advance, which is about making business in the House of Commons a bit more predictable. We had the ridiculous situation this year when the Whitsun recess in May was not announced until February or March. We did not know when the summer recess would be. People in the House of Lords could not tell their staff when their summer holiday would be.
In some ways, it is all well and good for MPs—we signed up to this—but for the staff, it is not fair and there is no good reason behind it. The only reason it happens is that the Government do not want to cede power. I am not blaming this Government any more than previous Governments. All Governments have been in control of the recess dates. It would be easy for them to announce the recess dates a bit further in advance than they currently do. Even if they said we will definitely be off for the whole of August and then tinkered with the other dates a bit later, that would be helpful. A move towards explaining the recess dates further in advance would be better for everyone.
I have already said my constituency is 500 miles away. I have to fly to get here. I cannot get the train. Some of my colleagues from Glasgow and Edinburgh occasionally get the train, but I am three hours past them. My constituency is really far away. The lack of business predictability means that my flights are more expensive. I am costing the taxpayer more money because I do not know when the Government will have votes far enough in advance to book anything. If I had more predictability —if the Government parted with that information a little further in advance—that would be cheaper for the taxpayer, which surely would be a good thing.
The thing about business predictability is that the Government do not have to go the whole way. They do not have to say, for example, “We will definitely be having Third Reading of the housing Bill on 15 November.” What they could say is, “That day will definitely be Government business, and that day will definitely be Back-Bench business.” That much they could tell us a good month in advance, and it would help with the cost and constituency engagements. If there is a vote on a Wednesday night, I cannot get home, and my constituents lose out on my presence. If I had a better understanding, because the Government told me further in advance, it would be better for my constituents and for taxpayers’ money.
One of the other recommendations is to abolish the party conference recess and sitting Fridays. We have been over the issues with private Members’ Bills in the past few weeks. There has been uproar about the way they work. I understand that some Members are particularly positive about the way private Members’ Bills work because they relish the opportunity to talk them out, but for me, being so far away from London, sitting Fridays mean I have to commit too much of my week to being here. I cannot just pop home of an evening to a constituency engagement. I already have problems representing my constituents as well as I would like, and committing to sitting Fridays makes things even more difficult. It is not just me. I am speaking from my point of view, but many colleagues are affected, whether they are in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. For anywhere without very easy access, sitting Fridays are hard.
There are a couple of other things in the report about procedure and timing changes. It suggests that when the restoration work goes ahead, a couple of things should be trialled. One is remote voting, so that Members on the Parliamentary Estate can vote remotely. I am from Aberdeen. The previous Member for Aberdeen South was Anne Begg, who uses a wheelchair, and she missed a vote because the lift did not come. How was it fair for her constituents that she could not physically be there because the lift was not working? She should not have been in that position, and the ridiculous voting system we have continues to make the situation worse. Remote voting on the Parliamentary Estate would be an interesting thing to trial. I am not sure exactly how it would work, but we should look at trialling it.
Another trial suggested in the report is a new format for PMQs. There is a lot of agreement in all parts of the House that PMQs is not the best way to showcase our Parliament. I do not know how we could do it better—less bad-tempered, less vicious and in a more collegiate manner—while still holding the Government to account, but I am pretty sure that the current system does not work very well.
The last thing on procedure and timing changes is dress codes. We have some bizarre rules about dress codes in “Erskine May”. Women are allowed to wear hats and men have to wear jackets and ties unless the Speaker tells them that they can take them off. In the midst of summer, the Speaker rarely tells Members that they are allowed to take their jackets off. That does not seem all that fair.
The Speaker has never allowed that.
I did not want to say “never” because I was not sure whether there was a precedent. The report suggests that the dress codes should be changed to business dress or national dress. That is much clearer for people than the current oddities in “Erskine May”, which allows me to wear a hat, but not my hon. Friends who are male. If we could improve that, things would be better.
The next section of the report is about gender quotas, and it puts responsibility for that on a number of people. It is not just about political parties needing to have gender quotas. It talks about a number of different areas where there are issues with the under-representation of women. We do not have enough women giving evidence as Select Committee witnesses. We do not have enough women standing for Parliament for political parties. We have so few women among the lobby journalists. The report makes a call for that to change.
On gender quotas, does the hon. Lady agree that it might be a good idea to look at best practice across the United Kingdom? For example, in Northern Ireland, in a short timeframe and against a backdrop that is, for a variety of reasons, difficult in terms of female representation, our only MEP is female, our First Minister is female and almost 50% of all our Ministers and Statutory Committee Chairs are female. I am not saying that is unique, because Scotland and Wales have made similar advances, but does the hon. Lady agree that replicating best practice should be looked at before we move to quotas, which I and my party would not be in favour of?
There are ways that different parties have done it without quotas, but the party that seemed to be most successful in making the biggest change here in Westminster was the Labour party, which had women-only shortlists. I have an automatic dislike of women-only shortlists. I do not like the idea. I just have an issue with it, but it is one of the few things that has been proven to work really well. Despite that gut reaction, if I think about it with my head, I realise that there are positive benefits. Looking at best practice across the UK and the world is an interesting and sensible way to go. Political parties will approach the issue in their own way, and it would be sensible for them to be allowed the leeway to do that. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, in Scotland we have made great changes. We have a gender-balanced Cabinet in the Scottish Parliament, and that is a positive step forward.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this fantastic debate. The points she has made are so relevant. On the matter of gender—she will correct me if I am wrong—is it not still the case that there are more men in Parliament today than there have ever been women since they were allowed to become MPs? As Rabbie Burns said:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”
People look at this Parliament and do not see society reflected back. We need a multi-pronged attack. Making some of the changes that Sarah Childs suggests in her report will encourage women, but we have to look at the issue across the board.
Absolutely. It is pretty dire that the number of women ever elected is less than the number of current male MPs. It does not make sense. Although we have made positive changes, it is not enough. We need to go further. I do not think that is entirely within the gift of political parties; everybody needs to take responsibility. That is one of the really good things about the report: it gives the whole House the responsibility for a lot of its recommendations. Some specific responsibility is given to two political parties, and they will interpret that in their own ways, but the whole House needs to take ownership.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. I also thank Professor Childs for her work, and the Speaker for his long-standing commitment to these issues and on moving the debate forward.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point about the flexibility that political parties should have to take their own measures. I was not elected on an all-women shortlist, but I am a massive advocate for them and the change that they have brought about. I also believe that were they to be removed, we would see a roll backwards. It is very important to find ways to put stakes in the ground so that we do not see a rolling back on the progress that we have achieved. I also support the hon. Lady’s point that we need to see a shift in representation of MPs and elected politicians and around the culture of politics, which includes representation in the staff of the House as well as in the media.
Absolutely. The report recommends looking at the gender balance of the House of Commons Commission, as well as in Select Committees and other Committees across the House, but this is not just about gender. We still do not have enough people from working-class backgrounds, from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, or from minority religions or non-Christian religions in the House of Commons. Political parties can achieve some change in all of those areas, but changing the culture of the House and the barriers to becoming an MP could support change.
The report makes suggestions for changes to the buildings. If the renovation work is going to go ahead, there is a real opportunity to make real changes. One suggestion is that we have more toilets, which seems eminently sensible. I do not think anybody would disagree with that and I am hoping that the Minister will stand up and say, “Yes, we’ll accept that one.” That would be great. There is a recommendation on artwork, which suggests that more women are depicted in the artwork hanging around the House of Commons, and that there is more work from women artists. That would be hugely positive.
On the matter of artwork, I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. She will be aware of the work that I and other colleagues have done on this issue. Walking around the palace, it is full of mainly dead men of a different era, not even of today. The famous cupboard that Emily Wilding Davison hid in is hidden away from the public. There is no public representation of it. My hon. Friend makes a valid point about women being properly represented in all parts of Parliament.
Absolutely. There are only two statues of females that I can remember seeing around here—one of Queen Victoria and one of Margaret Thatcher. If that is it, we are not doing a very good job.
There are more.
Even if there are, they are not in very prominent positions. It would be nice to have more female artwork.
Members probably expect me to talk about the report’s recommendation to look into a crèche. The fact that I took my children to a Select Committee meeting was fairly publicly discussed. There is a real issue with the lack of flexible childcare here. I phoned the House of Commons nursery and asked them if they could take my children for the afternoon, and they said, “We can take your children for six weeks of afternoons.” I said, “Well, they live in Aberdeen. What use is that?” There is a real problem with childcare provision.
There is such a contrast with the Scottish Parliament. Someone who is giving evidence to a Committee of the Scottish Parliament or who has come to see their MSP can leave their children in the Scottish Parliament crèche while they have that difficult conversation for an hour with the MSP, perhaps about problems they are experiencing with housing—conversations that they might not want to have in front of their children. Members of the public can use the crèche for free, and MSPs and passholders pay for its use. That is a really good system and one that we should consider adopting if we are going forward with renovations in the building as it is. I get that the nursery was a massive step forward and everybody was hugely supportive, or was convinced to be supportive, of the nursery taking over a bar, and I understand that a number of MPs still seem quite upset that the nursery took over a bar, but that is only a step on the way forward; it is not the flexible childcare that those of us from further away and those of us who choose not to base our children in London require.
My last point about the recommendations is about the promotion of the role of an MP. I have been really clear that I am not a fan of Westminster, but I think it is incumbent on me and people like me, who are not from that traditional male group of politicians, to say to young people, “You can do this. You can get involved in this place. You can get involved in politics. You can get involved in making a difference in your country.” A number of my colleagues and I have tried to be really honest about what our job involves. It is not just about sitting in PMQs and people shouting at each other and then being on BBC News or wherever. It is not just about those things. It is about all of the casework that we do. It is about all of the everyday things such as about doing five minutes on a bike for the Poppy Appeal and getting comprehensively beaten—I will do better next year. It is about all of those things that we do that are not mentioned in the media, but that are fabulous experiences for someone coming into this who has never experienced anything like it before.
The number of things that we are privileged enough to do is absolutely unbelievable, as is the number of amazing things that we get to do and the amount of change that we get to achieve for people in their everyday lives. If we are better able to promote that and to explain to people how being an MP actually works, people would be more likely to come into this role with a better attitude and intentions.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point about understanding the reality of our lives as Members of Parliament. I have six years’ experience since I set up the Fabian Women’s Network mentoring scheme, which does a lot of political education and mentoring for those who might seek to come forward in political life. Does the hon. Lady think that there might be an opportunity for Members of Parliament to be engaged slightly more formally in ways to promote and help people understand the role of parliamentarians?
Yes, absolutely. One of the report’s recommendations uses the phrase
“a diversity of people are, and can be, MPs”
and recommends having case studies on the House of Commons website about a range of different people and the backgrounds that we come from, so that young people in particular can understand what it is that we do. There is also a suggestion of a residential course, which would be a really good idea because it would give people hands-on experience.
I am going to the Patchwork Foundation awards tonight. The Patchwork Foundation tries to get under-represented groups more involved in politics. It does absolutely fabulous work—again, not in formal structures but more informally, through mentoring and similar things. It is quite difficult for me to get involved in some of those programmes from Aberdeen. I cannot take patchworkers out and about in my constituency, because they are not going to come 500 miles to do that, so there are some issues. It might be better if there were more formal structures.
There are some other points not mentioned in the report that are worth considering. I mentioned the financial barriers to becoming an MP. It is expensive to stand for election and it is difficult to make the change after being elected. As a newly elected MP, it was difficult for me to suddenly be able to finance the five extra dresses that I needed and to pay for things out of my own pocket before being set up properly with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. It is hard to come up against those barriers and to begin that life.
I took a £50,000 pay rise when I became an MP; I had never earned more than £26,000 a year and I had debts to pay off when I was first elected. It was very difficult in that initial period. There is not enough recognition of the circumstances that people find themselves in. I am not saying that MPs’ salaries should be increased—I definitely do not think they should be—but the institutional barriers for people from less affluent backgrounds should be considered more carefully in the future.
I do not think geography is given enough consideration, even though there are quite a few of us from far away—perhaps we just have not shouted loudly enough about it. Five hundred miles is a very long way and I cannot just drop everything to come here for a vote. It is even worse for my colleagues from the highlands who have to get two aeroplanes or drive for four hours and then get an aeroplane down, when there are only two a day. There are something like five or six aeroplanes a day from Aberdeen, so it is not as bad for me as it is for some of my colleagues. Because of the way the business of the House works, there is a lack of understanding about and recognition of the geographical challenges for MPs from further away. The boundary review will compound that, because MPs from the furthest away constituencies will be representing a wider geographical area. In addition to doing a large amount of travelling, they will have to represent a constituency that takes six hours to drive across, or even longer in some cases, so the boundary changes will create some real issues.
Job sharing, which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned, and maternity leave go hand in hand. The Green party has talked about job sharing for MPs, which is a really interesting concept. I do not think it would be possible for a single parent of young children to do this job. I cannot imagine a way in which they could do it, but a job share that enabled two MPs to be elected on half the salary and staff costs, with one office that they run together—the MPs would actually end up working for more than their allotted hours—would make the job more flexible and accessible for single parents and people from caring backgrounds. I do not see how somebody with caring responsibilities for, say, an elderly relative or a disabled family member could be an MP at the same time, but a job-sharing option would make that much more possible.
We do not have maternity leave. I was a local councillor when I had both my children. I had the first one, Harris, at the end of April, I was back in the office within four weeks and I took a promotion in the local authority in June. What was I supposed to do? There was not another option. My constituents would not have been represented if I had not been there. It is not fair for constituents to be disadvantaged because their MP happens to have a baby. If I had a baby right now—it is not going to happen today, obviously, and hopefully not any time soon—I would not have been able to fly for four weeks before having it, and I would not be able to fly for two weeks afterwards because I would have to have a caesarean section. Why would it be fair for my constituents not to have somebody to vote for them when it is not their fault that I had a baby? We need to think better and smarter about this. It could be easily overcome with a bit of sense. I do not think it is fair for constituents to have that issue. I think changes should be made to voting in particular when Members have children.
The attitudes, the misogyny and the abuse that some people from non-traditional backgrounds face are a real barrier. I have spoken to people who have said, “I could never be an MP because you get so much abuse.” I know that those things are an issue for people from all backgrounds—they are an issue for 45-year-old males from a privileged background—but I think they are more of an issue for those of us from less traditional backgrounds. Adopting the recommendations in “The Good Parliament” report would inspire the cultural change that would make the difference. It would make the House of Commons a more positive place to work, with fewer barriers. It would make this a more representative Parliament.
Order. Because of the length of the introductory speech, I am afraid I am going to have to introduce a time limit of five minutes, which may reduce depending on the length of interventions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman). We may not agree on much, but she has made a strong start to her time in Parliament and should be proud of that. She is a very good role model for other people—women, young people and whoever else—who want to enter Parliament, and she is doing an excellent job in representing her constituency, for which I have a great affinity. I think Dyce is in her constituency.
It is further north.
Is it a bit further north? I used to spend a lot of time in Dyce when I worked for Asda. I am sorry it is not in the hon. Lady’s constituency, because it is a fine place.
When I first saw that this debate was taking place, my first question was, what is “The Good Parliament” report? After reading it, I rather wish I had not asked. It could be referred to as the “less accountable Parliament report” or the “dumbed-down Parliament report”, and it would certainly be better titled the “politically correct Parliament report”. There is not time to go into all the things that are wrong in the report, but I will pick out a few points in the limited time that I have.
The hon. Lady made the point that it is absolutely terrible that she cannot get up to her constituency on a Wednesday evening, and said that everything should be changed to allow her to do so. I checked, and in the 2015-16 Session of Parliament this House sat for 158 days out of 365. When people complain to me about Parliament, they say that none of us seems to be here when debates are taking place. I have never heard the complaint from the public that we are spending too much time here or that there are too many of us here during debates. I suggest to the hon. Lady that having 158 days to represent her constituency in Parliament is not too much to expect.
I am completely opposed to all-women shortlists and quotas. I could not care less if every single MP were a woman, if every position in Parliament were held by a woman or if everybody in the Cabinet were a woman. It is of no interest to me. As far as I am concerned, as long as they are there on merit, their gender is irrelevant. We should be gender-blind. I really think that the true sexists are the people who see everything in terms of gender. We should judge people not on the basis of their gender, but on the basis of their ability.
One thing I very much agree with the hon. Lady about is that we need more people from a working-class background in Parliament. One of the points I always made to the Conservative party when we were looking at things such as all-women shortlists—fortunately, we did not go down that route—was that replacing Rupert from Kensington and Chelsea with Jemima from Kensington and Chelsea does not do an awful lot for diversity in the House of Commons. Replacing Rupert from Kensington and Chelsea with Jim from Newcastle would do an awful lot more for diversity in the House of Commons than a tokenistic approach to diversity that sees things only in terms of simplistic diversity—gender or race.
On the issue of gender quotas, we sometimes need to intervene to change things for the next generation. Would the hon. Gentleman concede that, as a short-term measure, in some cases gender quotas are useful?
No, I certainly would not concede that point.
In the Conservative party, we had a female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, decades ago. She managed to get to the very top and stay there for an awful long time, and as far as I am concerned she was the best Prime Minister this country has ever had. I suspect that most people in this Chamber hate the fact that Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. When a woman actually got to be Prime Minister, they all hated it. Today, we have another female Prime Minister on the Conservative Benches without all this tokenistic claptrap, and she is also doing a fantastic job. It is rather patronising to say that women need all these extra things to help them get to the top; they do not. We do not need to be patronising to women. They are more than capable of rising to the top.
I find the idea that people can represent only people who are the same as them completely alien. There will be many women in my constituency who think I do a great job representing them in Parliament, and many women who think I do a terrible job. There will be many men who think I do a good job and many men who think I do a terrible job. What most people are concerned about is their representative’s views on issues: what their opinions are and the things they stand up for.
I can honestly say that, when I have been out canvassing during all my years in politics, people may have argued, agreed or disagreed with me about particular issues, but I have never yet had a person say to me that they would vote for me if I were a woman and that they would not vote for me because I am a man. Gender is irrelevant to the general public. They want their parliamentarians to stand up for the things that matter to them.
Being in Parliament is not a nine to five job. We pass laws that affect the country and we hold the Government to account. If we had nine to five days in Parliament, we would not be able to attend Select Committees if at the same time we wanted to be in the Chamber to attend debates or questions. There is lots to do as a Member of Parliament. It is very responsible work. The report is patronising and mostly full of claptrap. I want to make it clear that there is at least one dissenting voice. One day people might look back at this report and laugh, but for many of us at the moment it is not a laughing matter.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Moon. I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for calling it. I welcome the work of Professor Childs and everyone else who participated in “The Good Parliament” report. I wish to touch on a few recommendations around the way the House operates and the impact that that has on democracy more widely. I want to stress that the report is not about us as MPs, but about democracy and giving people access to Parliament. It is about Parliament showing leadership and about demonstrating that, by deeds not words, we are as representative as we possibly can be.
It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friends that, as chair of the all-party group on infant feeding and inequalities, I want first to mention the issue of breastfeeding. It is a vital public health issue that, despite the efforts of many committed people, does not get the prominence that it should. In the UK, we have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. This is not about the choices of individual mothers, but about society’s attitudes. I would talk at length on the matter if I were not short of time, but I recommend people read Dr Amy Brown’s book, “Breastfeeding Uncovered”, which highlights a lot of the issues.
There has been a lot of talk about breastfeeding in the response to “The Good Parliament” report, but it is a tiny aspect of the report. It is clear that even in the House there are various opinions on breastfeeding in Parliament. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) called it exhibitionism; certain journalists were surprised when I tweeted a picture of myself breastfeeding; and some people said that if women could not breastfeed while driving a tank, they should not be allowed to do it in Parliament. Those are ridiculous arguments. “The Good Parliament” report recognises that
“permitting entry to infants would have symbolic benefits—showcasing the Commons as a role-model parent-friendly institution.”
That is where we wish to be as a Parliament. I think we could all agree on that. In showing that leadership, it would also encourage businesses across the country to consider their own practices.
Yesterday, a friend who works at SNP headquarters in Edinburgh posted a photo of the breast pumps belonging to her and her colleague, both of whom have been supported by the SNP to express milk at work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North said, we both breastfed our babies in council meetings. Councillor Fay Sinclair is doing so in Fife. It is happening in Australia, Iceland and Scotland, and in the European Parliament. There is no reason why we in the mother of Parliaments should not embrace it, too.
I mentioned at the start that “The Good Parliament” report is not just about us, but about how Parliament does its business. The way we do our business excludes women from the life of this building, and that has a negative impact on our decision making. I attended an interesting event yesterday that was organised by Sense About Science. It was called “Evidence matters”, which of course it does, but which evidence and are we getting it from the right source? I am deeply concerned that the evidence we receive as a Parliament is not good enough because it excludes the views and experiences of women.
Dr Marc Geddes has produced interesting research on witnesses at Select Committees, from which it is clear that they are very much male, pale and stale. Out of the 3,228 witnesses who gave evidence to the 1,241 Select Committee sessions in Session 2013-14, only 792 were women. That is just shy of 25%. No Committee came close to calling an equal number of women and men to give evidence, and for some Committees—Defence, Energy and Climate Change, and Communities and Local Government—more than 80% of witnesses called were men. For the Treasury Committee, it was more than 90%.
I do not believe that there are only men with expertise in these areas, and we need to understand why this imbalance exists. Dr Geddes’ research also highlighted that 67% of witnesses are coming from London and the south of England, even when Government witnesses are excluded. “The Good Parliament” report suggests we consider gender thresholds, but I believe Select Committees must also look at when they meet so that people can get to them. We should look at building into the parliamentary timetable a more considered way for when Committees meet. Committees need to recognise it is difficult for people to get here, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North mentioned. For Committees that meet in the morning, such as the Treasury Committee, it is really hard for people to get here to give evidence.
A 10 am meeting means an early flight or train or an overnight stay, rearranging the school run and making arrangements for childcare. Late-night meetings might end up the same way. We should consider building a system that takes into account the needs of people, rather than the needs of London-based Committees. I would encourage Select Committees to get out and travel outside London. The best meeting of the Communities and Local Government Committee was when we took public evidence on devolution in Manchester and actually heard from people in Manchester. It was useful to be able to hold to account other witnesses who came late in the day because we had heard evidence first hand.
I want to briefly mention the crèche issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North mentioned. Joeli Brearley from Pregnant Then Screwed came to listen to a debate in this room and had to sit at the back juggling a wee one and popping in and out because there was no crèche provision for her.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Order. Justin Madders.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) on her superb introduction to this debate. She set out the huge range of issues that we have to consider and will, I hope, act upon. I very much welcome the recommendations in the report. I hope that they are given the opportunity to be implemented faster than we have seen female representation grow in this place.
Having been elected only last year, I still look at some of the goings-on here with a mixture of wonder, bemusement and sadness. My job before I was elected enabled me to peer into many other workplaces and their cultures. I am sorry to say that, if the culture we have here were replicated in an ordinary workplace, the company could expect to be involved in many employment tribunals every year. It would also find it difficult to recruit good people and would have an even harder job retaining good staff.
Although it is a huge privilege to work here, we should not be afraid to challenge archaic practices and cultures where we find them. At how many workplaces does someone’s finish time vary and change at incredibly short notice? How is that in any way family friendly? In which workplaces is it acceptable for colleagues to stop speaking to you because they disapprove of something you have or have not done? Would we expect to start a new job without any feedback or appraisal of progress, but still be promoted or demoted on a set of opaque criteria we are not privy to? In which jobs would it be considered normal to engage in arguments on Twitter with work colleagues? And I am talking about people from the same party; they sometimes come with insults and abuse that would breach any dignity at work policy.
I am chair of the all-party group on social mobility. We are currently conducting an inquiry into access to the professions, which includes law, finance, the arts, media, medicine, the civil service and politics. In terms of Parliament, as we have heard, the stark fact remains that there have been fewer female MPs elected than there are male MPs currently sitting in the House of Commons, and less than 30% of MPs at the moment are female. Although the report looks mainly at gender issues, we cannot isolate that from other factors that influence representation here. According to the Sutton Trust, 32% of MPs were privately educated compared with 7% of the general population. Of those, the research shows, almost one in 10 went to Eton. Nearly 10% of all MPs attended the same school: a school that of course only boys can attend.
The recommendations on sitting days are welcome. Why, for heaven’s sake, do we have a half-term recess next week that starts on a Wednesday? No schools are off then and I am not aware of any school breaks that start on a Wednesday. I certainly welcome the recommendations on producing a statement on maternity, paternity, adoption and caring leave. We would not expect our constituents to forgo those hard-won rights, so I do not think we should, either.
Recommendation 43 places the onus on political parties to increase the diversity of parliamentary candidates. My party has been at the forefront of this, and with the creation of the Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme, I am confident we will continue to be so. The reality is that it is up to the political parties to seriously look at the way they select candidates if we really want to change things.
My party has made great strides towards gender equality. I have a great amount of respect and admiration for my Labour colleagues, but it is still very much the case that someone has to have connections with the centre, the kind of informal networks that we see in all professions, if they want to succeed in politics. We have to recognise that, to be selected as a candidate for a major political party in a winnable seat, someone must first of all win an election that in all likelihood will be just as challenging as the real one, but without the party’s resources, or the finance. They may not have the time to get the nomination, particularly if they are in a full-time job outside politics, or have caring responsibilities, or both. The reality is that, if they are working at the local Tesco, and have three kids under 11, they will struggle to find the time to run a successful election campaign. Some unions are getting better at recognising those challenges, and we need to go further and support them.
There is a huge London focus in most professions, but arguably it is most acute in politics. The Speaker’s parliamentary scheme is helping to open up opportunity, but a number of people do not apply to it at all because the cost of living in London is so high. Those who are on the scheme can struggle because the cost of living is so high, even on the London living wage. That is why people with supportive and well-resourced families have an advantage. We must therefore stress the importance of open and funded internships and placements, which do not rely on self-finance. We hope to present the result of the all-party group’s inquiry next month. It is pretty clear that it will show patterns that restrict opportunity, repeated throughout the various professions— with politics no exception. There are pockets of good practice in all professions, but they are just that—pockets. In Parliament we have a unique role and an opportunity to lead by example, to show that in this country, whatever a person’s background, they will have the same opportunities as everyone else.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Moon. I am delighted to take part in the debate and to support the recommendations in Professor Childs’ report calling on Parliament and the parties to do more to improve the diversity of Parliament and the political system.
When I entered the House of Commons as a new MP last year, one of my first impressions of Westminster was that a large majority of MPs—outwith the SNP, obviously—were white, middle-aged, men. They all looked like slightly older versions of me. I am 36—not quite middle aged. Despite some minor progress on the issue of increased diversity, it is clear—and now confirmed in “The Good Parliament” report— that the UK Parliament remains
“disproportionately white, male and elite.”
Some progress has been made on increasing the level of female representation in Parliament, but it has been slow, and little has been done to try to remove the barriers that prevent so many talented women from pursuing a career in politics. Twenty-nine per cent. of current MPs are female, and that percentage has increased by only 10% in 10 years. Based on that, we shall have to wait another 20 years to have a Parliament with equal representation.
In attempting to address the issue, we should not limit ourselves to Professor Childs’ report, excellent though it is. We should learn from the experiences of other countries to increase diversity. On a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association trip to Canada during the conference recess, I was fortunate enough to have great companions, including the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), and to meet with the Federal Parliament’s standing committee on the status of women, Quebec’s circle of women parliamentarians, the women’s group for policy and democracy, and Equal Voice. They told me that, despite the 2015 election, which represented the most diverse group of parliamentarians that Canada has ever had, Canada still lags behind the UK; only 26% of MPs are women. The experience of that election tells us that it is not just about the number or percentage of women candidates standing; it is about the winnability of the seats. For each party, the Liberals, Conservatives, the New Democratic party and Bloc Québécois, the number of females elected as a percentage of their group was less than the percentage of female candidates on the ballot.
Each group that we spoke to is determined to do something about that. They were all heartened to hear of Scotland’s experience, but in particular I want to mention a new national initiative being launched by Equal Voice. Daughters of the Vote will recognise a significant event in Canadian history: the 100th anniversary of the first voting rights granted to a select number of Canadian women in 1916. Equal Voice is inviting young women aged between 18 and 23 to participate in a national initiative in which 338 women—one from each constituency—will be selected to take their seat in Parliament. The women will meet and hear from outstanding women leaders from every sector. Daughters of the Vote is an initiative to identify and to encourage young women who can lead the country to a fairer and brighter future. That is something that we could and should do here.
Back on this side of the pond, it is clear from “The Good Parliament” report that, if we are serious about tackling the barriers that prevent women, disabled people, people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, and others from pursuing a career in politics, we must have leadership on the issue. We must commit to making a concerted effort to removing barriers, and win over colleagues who adopt the “If you’re good enough, you will be elected” mindset. I welcome statements by the Speaker that he intends to lead on the recommendations from Professor Childs’ report, and I hope that he is supported in his efforts by all our party leaders.
I welcome what the report says about a gender-neutral approach to family life. I have a young family, and I have difficulty in balancing the promises that I made to the electorate and to my family. Anything that Parliament can do, no matter how small, to achieve that balance, is to be welcomed. Pursuing inclusivity is not about ticking boxes or being politically correct. The issue is not just about making the political system fairer, more inclusive and accessible. It is also about creating one that is more effective, which draws on the talents, skills and experience of all citizens. I support “The Good Parliament” report and the Speaker’s efforts to act on it. I may be white, male and in my mid-30s, but I am also an ally who will support any attempt to create a Parliament that is truly representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective in all its functions.
Mrs Moon, I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship—chairwomanship, I should say. It is the first time I have ever done that, and you know how much I love you.
When I saw that the report is called “The Good Parliament” I thought it was a reference to the 1376 Parliament, which was when we first had a Speaker at all, and when we impeached nearly all the Government’s Ministers and imposed a new set of Ministers of our own—maybe we will do that later today. The history of our Parliament has not been very good in relation to women. Sometimes we boast about “the mother of Parliaments”—a terrible phrase, but I will not bore people with how inaccurately it is regularly used. More important, for a long time women were not even allowed to attend the debates of the House of Commons other than by sitting in the room above the Chamber that had been built in the kind of false ceiling above the ventilator. When they were finally allowed in the Gallery, they had to have a grille so that they could not be seen, in case that somehow disturbed the male MPs.
When I arrived at theological college, when I was training to be a priest at Cuddesdon, it was the first year there was more than one woman training there. I know that that was difficult, both for many of the men—including the gay men, bizarrely—but also for many of the women, because for the first time women could not be treated as honorary chaps. I think we are only just beginning to get to the point in parliamentary terms where we no longer treat women as honorary chaps in the way we do business. That is one of the things that must change.
I warmly commend the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for bringing forward the debate. We probably will have to have a debate in the main Chamber at some point and I hope that the Government will enable that to happen, because I think that—notwithstanding the views of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who is a splendid chap but just wrong about everything—we should air the issues.
There are some things that it may be difficult to change. There might be unintended consequences of changes to where and how we vote that make things even more difficult for people post-maternity and paternity; but there are things we can do. On the question of all-women shortlists, I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that before the 2001 general election in Wales, 10 Labour MPs retired, and the Labour party, which prides itself on being a party of equality, selected 10 candidates every one of whom was a man, because we did not have all-women shortlists then. I benefited from that, in one sense, as did the people of Rhondda, no doubt—[Interruption.] Or maybe not. The point is that surely every party needs to find its own mechanism to try to make Parliament more representative, both in this House and, I would argue, in an elected House of Lords.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am not going to, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because we do not have long.
There is a real difficulty for parents. It is shocking how few mums—mothers of young, or actually of adult, children—we have in Parliament. There must be reasons for that, and we need to explore them. As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) has just pointed out, it is very difficult for dads of young children as well. They must decide where their kids will be educated, and it may well end up being in London, because that is the only way they will be able to see them for most of the week. That then poses questions for them in their constituency, if that is some way away. I do not think that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is anywhere near helpful enough about that. I can feel hon. Members agreeing with me—I may even have the hon. Member for Shipley with me on that.
I simply think that IPSA’s role is confused: on the one hand, it is a regulator; and on the other hand, it is meant to be a support mechanism, and those two roles conflict. In this area, it is making things increasingly difficult for people with families to think of becoming Members of Parliament, in particular if they are from ordinary working-class backgrounds. I think that that means IPSA is failing, and we need to address it.
There are more pictures and statues of women around Parliament than one might think, but they are not part of the standard tour, which is all about white dead men. It would not be a bad idea—I would be happy to organise this—to create a tour of women in Parliament, which could easily be done around the building.
Another point was made about restoration and renewal. We have got to get that right—the disability access in the building is shocking. Take eyesight, for example, and being able to see in debates: this Chamber is quite good, but other rooms are shockingly bad. We need to transform that.
Finally, we can see the sexism in politics in how Hillary Clinton is treated. Let us hope she wins.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Moon, and to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for securing the debate, and I welcome the report, which is an important addition to an ongoing debate about the representation of women in politics.
Many of us female parliamentarians—including all the women on the SNP Benches in this Chamber today—are new, serving our constituents in Parliament after being elected for the first time in 2015. A number of shocking experiences, some of which were reflected in the report—comments about how we speak, dress and so on—and all of which were entirely unwelcome, made the difficult situation of entering Parliament as a new MP even more difficult to deal with. The report highlights a number of issues. The question for us is: are we prepared to accept that this is the way it is? That is what we were told when we entered Parliament: this is the way of Westminster. Well, we are not prepared to accept that. We have an opportunity to change and we have to seize that opportunity with both hands.
Women have been fighting for a long time. Mention has been made of women who have achieved great things in Parliament, and yes, they have, but let us never forget that every opportunity that has come to women in every walk of life has come not by accident, but after having had to fight for every single opportunity. We have to continue that fight, and the fight is clearly continuing today in this debate.
Why is it important that Parliament should reflect society? Because we are making decisions about all the people in society every single day of our working lives, whether the members of society are men, women, LGBTI—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex—black, Asian, from a minority ethnic community, or disabled. That is important, and no one knows better about how to make decisions than those people themselves. That is why we have to work hard to increase their representation.
We do so in the knowledge of what we are encouraging people to come into, which is not good enough. We know that we need to make a difference. With the help of colleagues on the SNP Benches, in the Scottish Parliament and in the wider SNP, I am pleased with what we have done to encourage women to come into politics. We have a women’s academy in the SNP; we have worked to give training or opportunities to practise debating skills, or have just encouraged women to come forward. For almost every woman who has come forward in any political party, someone has asked her whether she has ever considered standing for election. It is never something we put ourselves forward for; it is always something that is suggested to us.
As we hold debates in this Chamber or the main House of Commons Chamber, we should remember that people are looking in at us—at how we conduct ourselves, how our colleagues of the opposite sex reflect what Parliament is like, and how they demonstrate respect for us or otherwise, as is sometimes the case. That should always be at the forefront of what we do.
In the short time I have remaining, I will address the issue of quotas, which raises its head so often. If we had a level playing field, we would have a Parliament that represented society. It is a matter of fact that we do not have a level playing field—or is anyone here today brave enough to stand up to intervene on me and say that women are not as good as men in any of the jobs we do throughout Parliament? That is of course not the case—
Will my hon. Friend give way? [Laughter.]
Absolutely, I will give way.
I appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying—I am not intervening to make that point. The SNP introduced our national quota system at the spring 2013 conference. At the start of that conference, I was completely against a quota system, not unlike the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), but a debate on the day changed my mind. I am now a big advocate of quotas.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention—[Interruption.] Other comments have been made from a sedentary position, but I am happy to accept interventions on that point or any other. It is worthy of note, however, that many men in this Parliament and beyond very much support the work being done on equal representation. That is something that should be commended, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his work.
I mentioned the elections and our representation in Parliament. The SNP has gone from having one female Member of Parliament to having 20. At the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections we increased women’s representation in the SNP group at Holyrood from the 25% of 2011 to 43% by adopting positive mechanisms to ensure that women are properly reflected in Parliament, which is the right thing to do.
It is also worthy of note that it is a matter of political will. In any political party, candidates go through a vetting process, and men and women all go through the same process, and at the end of the day it is up to the political party to decide whether it wants representation to be equal, because people have already passed the test—the bar of being effective and capable. I accept no argument that selection is on merit, because if it were we would see more women in Parliament than we have today. Indeed—I am sure many will agree—we women also set ourselves a very high bar to begin with, before we even enter any race or competition, so quality is guaranteed and is never an issue.
We have a lot of work to do, and the fight continues. We all know that nothing will come to us because people gift it to us. Before us, however, is a set of recommendations and, to replicate some of the positive change discussed and certainly seen in my political party—we have also heard from the Labour party over a number of years—we must commit ourselves to implementing them, and now.
Before we move to the Front-Benchers, given the time constraints I suggest that the Scottish National party has five minutes, the Labour party seven minutes and the Minister 10 minutes. With some generosity on everyone’s part, I hope that that leaves us with a minute or two for the formal wind-up from Kirsty Blackman.
With you in the Chair today, Mrs Moon, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) stated, the report, which we are grateful to Professor Sarah Childs for and to Mr Speaker for commissioning, outlines some clearly much-needed change in this place.
I stress at this point that my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen North and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and I were each elected as councillors—young, female councillors, and some of the youngest female councillors in Scotland. There is no shortage of talent in our local authorities, and the job does not end here in this Parliament, because we must continue it in local authorities too.
I was probably the most unlikely candidate ever to find myself in this esteemed institution. I had no desire to be here for a great many years, and in fact it will come as no surprise to Members that I actively campaigned against this institution. None the less, we are here and we are part of the UK for now, so it is worth stating that as a young LGBT woman who was a young carer, getting into an institution such as a university even to get into the door of this place was one of the biggest challenges that I faced. I faced those challenges, so I know that young men and women up and down this country face the same challenges every day. For so many people even to get into this place is inconceivable and unimaginable.
I stress that I am proud to be a member of the Select Committee, the first ever Women and Equalities Committee. It is long overdue for this Parliament to have a discussion about equalities—not only for women, but for every single protected characteristic under the Equalities Act 2010.
I want to take this opportunity to summarise the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North, because there is no better way to make them. Sadly, this place is still full of middle-class white men, 10% of whom are Etonites. That is apparently a good place to go to school. However, there are many children up and down this country who did not have the benefit of such privilege and such an esteemed education and will never enter this place. This is their Parliament, and they deserve to have their voices heard.
It is worth also saying that this place’s job is to be representative. It is hard to believe that when we witness middle-aged white men waste time by filibustering their way through debates in the Chamber. I distinctly remember that happening during a debate on marriage. That sends a message to young people at home that this place is out of touch and has no grip on reality. [Interruption.] The summary of the report sets out standards of behaviour; the Government Members who are chuntering from a sedentary position could learn some decorum. Clearly, whether we deal with standards of behaviour or gather data, we should ensure that new parliamentarians get more than one minute to sum up in a debate after the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has waxed lyrical in his ever-entertaining way about how much he adores a former Prime Minister. Trust me—we know that.
The report has some practical implications. Gathering data to ensure that this place is representative is a start. We must consider how we measure the success of the work that we do. The proposed procedural requirements and changes would be helpful. Remote voting would make a great difference to those who have just had a child and simply cannot make the journey—and why should they? We should modernise the dress code. It’s 2016. Hello—no one wears top hats anymore. There is no cost to enhancing the crèche facility and allowing people to access this institution. This is their Parliament and they should be able to access it. It is not for the privileged few, and it is not only for Etonites.
I am conscious that I am running out of time, so let me say honourably that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central has been an absolute champion on issues such as breastfeeding, the tampon tax and the rape clause. To me, she is an award-winning MP. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) is also a role model and champion for gender equality. He is the father of two daughters, and I would welcome the opportunity to have a Daughters of the Vote style initiative here in Westminster; such women rightly deserve to take a seat in our Chamber. I look forward to the Minister’s comments and would love to see the report take legs, because Professor Sarah Childs’s work deserves to be heard and acknowledged.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for securing this debate. During my first appearance at business questions as shadow Leader of the House, I asked the Leader of the House to consider having a debate on this subject, and he said that he would take it away and look at it.
I know Professor Sarah Childs. We went to the first Commonwealth Heads of Government women’s forum meeting in Malta late last year. I do not know how many women Prime Ministers there have been in the Commonwealth, but it is surprising that that was the first such meeting.
The report is excellent. It synthesises some of the main issues we are all talking about. Cleverly, it has three dimensions and 43 recommendations. It is impossible to do it justice in such a short time, so I hope that we will have more time to debate it. We need to separate out the issues. What struck me from reading it was that there is something for society to do—we need to change society—but the political parties and the House also have roles to play. The report provides a snapshot of where we are. I would not be standing here if many grassroots members of my party had not cajoled it to ensure that I got here. It took me 20 years to get here. I came in on an all-women shortlist, and I challenge the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) to say that I am not good enough.
In the longer term, we have to change behaviour in society, from schools to the workplace and civil society, through education and legislation. When I first came here in 2010, there had been a huge change in the number of Members, and we had an induction day. I suggest that at such induction days, needs assessments should be done of all the MPs—male and female—with families, and then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, IPSA should be asked to ensure that there is enough childcare provision for those Members.
I agree that women should be allowed to breastfeed anywhere, but I am not sure that I would have liked to do it in the Chamber. Children need routine. As a lawyer, I am not sure that I would ever have done it if I went to court. There is a time and a place for it, although it is for an individual to choose. I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), but women should be given time and space. I would actually prefer for them to have their maternity leave in that year.
I am whizzing through the report. Recommendation 3 proposes voting at the door of the Division Lobbies. That could cause confusion, because it is important for the Whips to be able to count votes. We have a family room—that is an easy win—and children could go there, but we need to get either the House or IPSA to pay for proper childcare by someone who can look after children, and we need a service for such emergencies.
On recommendation 25, we have a fantastic Secretary of State for Education, but, as usual, the woman has to do two jobs—she is also the Minister for Women. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, whose job it is to try to prevent discrimination in society, faces huge cuts. Will the Minister look at reversing those cuts if possible? The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) is right that we need a level playing field. Women make up 51% of the population, and we therefore need to be represented.
Recommendation 12 goes to parties’ commitments. It is about paternity, maternity, parental, adoption and caring leave, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) rightly said. Given that we are going to have a great repeal Bill, can the Minister say whether all those rights that were won in Europe and that our party played a part in securing will be secured?
Recommendation 29 is about language. I understand that we are in a situation where the Clerks will decide what can and cannot be said in the Chamber. I am not sure whether “Erskine May” would say that one Member trashing another under parliamentary privilege was good tempered or just someone being thrown to the lions.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and I had the pleasure of going to Canada—it was indeed a pleasure. The Canadian Parliament is going through its own restoration and renewal process and a new Chamber is being built. More importantly, we saw the powerful image of the Canadian Prime Minister surrounded by a diverse group of Members of Parliament—a Parliament in which women have key roles. Women and men of ethnic minorities and even First Nations all have important roles in the Canadian Parliament, and the Prime Minister is sending the message that Canada is a welcoming, tolerant and inclusive society.
The report needs to be looked at carefully, not dismissed or put on the shelf. If the Minister looks at page 2, he will see that a lot of different groups will have to respond to the recommendations. Will he comment on whether one main body, perhaps in the Cabinet Office, could track those recommendations, perhaps using a Gantt chart? It is important that we do not lose sight of them, since they are all very good.
Finally, we should consult Members. Things are sometimes done in committees for which Members feel that they do not have responsibility, but when my right hon. Friend the former Member for Lewisham, Deptford looked at changing the hours of the House, we had a consultation. Members were involved and different motions were tabled. The Youth Parliament will sit next week, which will give us an opportunity to show our young people that they, too, can become Members. Once again, I thank Professor Sarah Childs and hope she understands that we appreciate the hard work that has gone into the report.
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mrs Moon. I very much congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) on securing this important debate. If I may say so, I would like to see more Members like her. She can be proud to be here and we are proud to have her. I thank Professor Sarah Childs for her report. This is a recent report and a significant work. The work she continues to do on the subject of gender and politics is important.
I have listened to the contributions of hon. Members with great interest and I assure them that the Government take this subject seriously. The debate comes at an important time for Parliament as an institution as it considers the recommendations made in “The Good Parliament” report.
In the report, which was published a few months ago in July 2016, Professor Childs outlines a blueprint for a more representative and inclusive House of Commons. It contains 43 recommendations to a variety of stakeholders, including the Government but not just the Government. Also included are the Speaker of the House, the House of Commons Commission and a number of Select Committees in the House among others. The report also recommends the establishment of a Commons reference group on representation and inclusion.
Mention has been made of the Women and Equalities Committee, an important Committee of the House, which is undertaking an inquiry into women in the House of Commons after 2020. It is examining both the impact of the proposed boundary changes and the recommendations made in Professor Childs’ report. The Government have submitted written evidence to the inquiry and very much look forward to reading the Committee’s report.
All sides should acknowledge that progress is being made. This is the most gender-diverse Parliament in British history and we should celebrate our many talented parliamentary colleagues. We have our second female Prime Minister, and women now make up an unprecedented third of the House and a third of our Cabinet. Therefore, the House as an institution has made great strides since 2010. The House of Commons nursery opened on 1 September 2010 to support Members and other passholders with childcare responsibilities. The nursery now provides a post-6 pm service, and of course the children of Members have unrestricted access to the Estate when they are accompanied by a parent.
The House of Commons monitors and reports on the diversity of its staff. The Commons has goals to increase the diversity of its staff and monitors the position carefully and actively. Outreach has greatly improved and grown, including the annual Parliament week, and civil marriages, for example, can now be conducted on the Estate. Improvements have been made and changes have taken place, but there is still a long way to go to reach a representative and inclusive House. That is not just about finding diverse talent. This should be a place where all people want to work. The Government are carefully considering the recommendations contained in Professor Childs’ report and look forward to working with the Commons reference group on representation and inclusion, which is considering the recommendations.
A lot of progress could be made if the main parties worked together to build a more consistent voluntary approach to growing diverse talent. I am glad that only a week or two ago the Women and Equalities Committee took evidence from all the main parties about this important issue. That hearing received media attention, which reflects the good work that the Committee is doing. Indeed, “The Good Parliament” report specifically called on the Leader of the House of Commons to support the permanent establishment of that Select Committee. It is clear that the Committee has a key role in driving forward this agenda, so I am pleased to say that the Government are indeed able to offer that support.
Professor Childs also recommended setting the recess dates for each parliamentary session at least one session in advance. Members and staff of the House, together with their families, want to know that information as far in advance as possible. That is perfectly understandable, so we make every effort, as previous Governments no doubt did, to announce recess dates as soon as is reasonably practicable. However, the setting of recess dates is complex and depends on many varying factors, not least the progress of legislation through this House and the other House. It is difficult to settle a whole session in advance. The consideration of Lords amendments, for example, could never be predicted before a Bill has even begun its passage through both Houses.
I am sorry, but this is nonsense. It is perfectly easy to work out when the recess dates will be next year—I can give the Minister a draft later this evening if he wants. At this stage last year I predicted exactly what the recess dates would be this year, and that was what the Minister ended up announcing. Frankly, I do not know why he cannot get on with doing it for next year now.
Of course, if it were as easy as that, no doubt the Labour Government would have done it between 1997 and 2010. With regards to the recommendation relating to the conference recess, it is important to note that any decision would have to be made some years in advance because things are booked years in advance—large-scale plans are made for conferences by all the parties—and it would require cross-party agreement. As always, such issues are subject to discussions between parties, which should continue to be the case. Only if agreement were reached on that change would it be possible to consider that proposal and the one to abolish sitting Fridays.
On that subject, Members will know that the Procedure Committee has looked in detail at that. Abolishing sitting Fridays, as referred to in Professor Childs’ report, has not formed part of the package of recommendations in the Committee’s latest report on private Members’ Bills. Should the Committee be minded to resume the line of inquiry, the Government would consider the proposals in detail and respond in the appropriate manner.
With regards to political parties providing data relating to parliamentary candidates, also referred to in Professor Childs’ report, there are no plans to introduce legislation at present. Once again, we believe we can make progress if the parties build a more consistent voluntary approach to growing diverse talent. I am glad that the Women and Equalities Committee took evidence from all the parties about that.
One other specific proposal I want to talk about is the aim to increase the voice of disabled people in this place, which is also under consideration. The three-year pilot of the access to elected office fund, which aims to support people with disabilities to stand for election as local councillors or Members of Parliament, is being reviewed. The views of disabled candidates, all political parties and disability charities have been sought as part of this inclusive process. An announcement about the future of the fund will be made in due course.
To conclude, I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate and who continue to contribute to this area of work. We thank Professor Childs for her work and, for that matter, Mr Speaker for his leadership.
I very much appreciate the Front Benchers giving me a little bit of time at the end. I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. I will not name them all because of time constraints, but I thank them for coming along and, in the main, supporting the recommendations in “The Good Parliament” report, or at least the direction of travel in the report.
I want to mention briefly the Procedure Committee, because a number of its members said they were sad that they could not come today because a Committee meeting clashed with the debate. I am sure they would have been keen to see some of the changes to procedures that have been suggested. I am looking forward to the Commons reference group on representation and inclusion, which I understand is due to meet for the first time this month. That is a great thing, and I am really pleased that it is getting off the ground.
I am keen that all the recommendations in the report are considered. As individuals, we might dislike certain recommendations, but the House as a whole and those people who are tasked with taking them on need to consider all of them seriously, and look at evidence for and against adopting each of them.
More widely than that, all of the under-represented groups need to have more of a voice in this place, whether it is people who support gender equality, on which the report mainly focuses, or people who support disabled candidates such as Jamie Szymkowiak in the SNP. The SNP is the gayest parliamentary group, and changes such as that are being made in positive, more inclusive political parties. I have an internship scheme specifically aimed at people from poorer backgrounds who would struggle to come to parliamentary offices in the main. Any such changes are to be welcomed. We need to work together to make them.
On what the Minister talked about, I do not think we can say, “Look at the wonderful things we have done.” We should have been doing all of that before. We cannot in any way rest on our laurels until we have genuine 50:50 representation and remove those barriers to under-represented groups coming into this place. We cannot rest. We need to keep working until we make this place better.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Good Parliament report.
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.