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Women and Political Office

Volume 638: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2018

3. What assessment he has made of the nature and extent of barriers to women seeking election to political office. (904620)

The Government Equalities Office has commissioned a review to identify barriers that limit women’s participation in national Government, the aim being to provide political parties with a range of solutions to draw on. We will also launch a consultation this summer on the introduction of a new electoral offence to tackle the intimidation of parliamentary candidates and campaigners.

Can my right hon. Friend suggest what more can be done to counter the often toxic atmosphere on social media that is frequently directed at female candidates?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and he is right. Sadly, it is noticeable that abuse on social media is particularly directed at women. We recently enacted the Digital Economy Act 2017 to help ensure that online abuse is effectively tackled through a robust code; but ultimately, as political parties, we have our bit to do to make sure we give people protection online—robust debate but with respect—and it is very sad that the Labour party has failed to live up to that by bringing forward its own respect pledge.

Meetings held in the evening often create a barrier to women entering politics, particularly local politics. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that women get appropriate time off work and are provided with childcare?

A number of local authorities are looking at how they can vary their meeting times. The Local Government Association, the chairman of which I met just this morning, is looking at how it can advise local authorities on what they can do to encourage more participation. Some local authorities even pay for childcare; but ultimately, we have to make sure that people feel they can conduct themselves in public life with respect and have the space for proper, robust public debate.

Will the Government work with schools and universities to encourage more young women to get involved in standing for political office?

Absolutely. Again, my right hon. Friend makes a good observation. It is important that we encourage people from all backgrounds, including women and young people, to feel that they can get involved and that there are opportunities to get involved, participate and contribute to public life. To do that, they need to feel safe in that environment, and that is largely down to the political parties delivering it.

With local elections taking place in May, it is vital that we have a diverse set of councillors representing our communities. However, only 33% of councillors in England are women, which represents a rise of only 5% in the past 20 years. There is a clear contrast with progress in the House. Does the Minister agree that the progress in improving women’s representation in local government has stalled? What are this Government doing to address that failing?

One of the key things to having more women involved in local government is political parties encouraging more women to get involved. Conservative Members will certainly be doing that, and I hope the hon. Lady will join me in calling for these local elections to have a respect pledge—the Labour party should step up and do that—to make sure that people feel they can have robust debate, but with respect. The Labour party has simply failed to do that.

Clearly, it is important to use the centenary of women’s suffrage this year to encourage participation events across the country, including in my constituency and the north-west. What funding does the Minister have available to ensure that those types of events happen?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is right in this year that we take the opportunity to continue to highlight why it is important that we see more people, particularly women, getting involved in public life. There is £5 million available, and I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), will be happy to liaise with her on that. Again, I have to say that we all need to play a part in encouraging more people from diverse backgrounds to get involved and to feel free to get involved in politics.