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Harriet Harman (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of international women's day-women's representation.

[Relevant documents: The Final Report from the Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation), Session 2009-10, HC 239-I, the Government response, Cm 7824, and the First Spe cial Report from the Conference, HC 449.]

I am pleased to open the debate and want to raise two issues: the Equality Bill and the massive change in public attitudes to equality. For decades, those of us who believe strongly in women's equality and representation have been told that we are on an eccentric fringe-that we suffer from "political correctness gone mad". But all of the things that we have fought for so hard over the years-for women to have an equal say in all areas of life-are now in the mainstream of public opinion.

We carried out a poll last week in the run up to international women's day. It showed that the public have turned decisively against men-only decision making. They think it is important that men and women have an equal say over business decisions that affect the British economy. They think that should be the case even when men have more experience. They think that men and women should have an equal say over the political decisions that affect the way Britain is run. That is strongly our point of view and why we have increased the number of Labour women MPs up to 95.

People think that international political decisions should be taken by men and women having an equal say. That is strongly our point of view and why we are pressing for the establishment of the new UN women's agency this year. It is the same for decisions about the workplace and local services. That view backs up our commitment to new rights at work, a strong role for trade union equality reps and more women councillors, particularly black and Asian women councillors. We do not have a benchmark for public opinion on an equal say for women 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.

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Theresa May (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Also Shadow Minister for Women), Work and Pensions; Maidenhead, Conservative)

The Minister refers to the need for women to have representation at an international level and to the setting up of a new United Nations committee. Why have the Government chosen not to nominate UK representatives to CEDAW, the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women?

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Harriet Harman (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)

It is a question not of British women being nominated and standing in all posts, but of British women being part of an international network of women that is working to deliver for women in our own country, while also backing up the women who are struggling for development internationally and in their own countries.

There has been a sea change in public attitudes. I do not think that we would have got anything like those answers to the survey 10 or 15 years ago. This change of public attitudes to women is matched by changed opinion about gay and lesbian partnerships-controversial at the outset and now accepted and celebrated in civil partnerships. The change in public attitudes is matched by changed opinion about older people. There is real annoyance about how older people-especially older women-are written off. The change of attitude is reflected in changed opinion on representation-that, in a multicultural society, we should not have, as we used to, an all-white Parliament. There is a big, and long overdue, change in attitudes to disabled people.

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Ann Cryer (Keighley, Labour)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that had it not been for the vast number of Labour women Members, we would not now have the forced marriage unit or the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007? I do not think that my predecessor, a Conservative male MP, was aware that there were such things as forced marriages.

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Harriet Harman (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)

That would not have been possible without Labour MPs, including my hon. Friend, raising the issue. She has boldly raised issues that were swept under the carpet and particularly affected women, but also men. I pay tribute to the work that she has done, and all the women on the Labour Benches backed her strongly in making such changes.

People see how equality is important for each and every individual. They know that equality is critical for a thriving and prosperous economy and meritocracy. They recognise that fairness and equality is the basis for peaceful and cohesive communities. That shift in public opinion poses a challenge for everyone, including all the political parties, the captains of industry and the public sector, but it is a helpful challenge and a mandate for yet further progressive change. This is essentially an argument about modernity and a future that is fair for all, in which all are fully represented and have an equal say.

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Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North, Labour)

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the negative comments in the press and elsewhere about the appointment of Baroness Ashton, mainly because it is claimed that she is an inexperienced woman. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there would not be such negative comments if the person in question were a man?

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Harriet Harman (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)

I think Baroness Ashton will prove them wrong. We have all got full confidence in her. She will ignore all the sneering and detrimental remarks, and she will get on with her job and do it brilliantly.

Our Equality Bill provides the platform to make equality a reality. It is nearing its Royal Assent.

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Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, Labour)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that that Bill will complete its passage through the House before the general election?

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Harriet Harman (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)

We expect the Equality Bill to continue its progress and finish its stages in the House of Lords, and I do not anticipate there will be any amendments that this House will have any difficulty with, in which case we should be able to approve it. It will be a landmark Act when it receives Royal Assent; when it reaches the statute book, it will mark a major step forward on all the issues my hon. Friend has campaigned for over the years.

The Equality Bill is not just the consolidation of a maze of existing laws; it also contains a great range of new powers and obligations to help the drive towards equality. On equal pay, it will make large employers publish their pay gap. Good employers will have nothing to fear, but bad employers will have nowhere to hide. To tackle men-only decision making in businesses and the public sector, there will be a new opportunity to take positive action at the point of recruitment or promotion. It will be possible to say, "We want you for this job because you're a woman."

The lesson from the progress of the Equality Bill is that that was only possible because of the strong Labour women in this House. Women in the House of Commons have not only changed the face of Parliament; they have also changed the agenda of politics. Because of women in this House, tackling domestic violence and rape, extending maternity pay and introducing flexible working are all on the political agenda and part of the mainstream of our political debates.

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William Cash (Stone, Conservative)

While celebrating the work of women in politics, will the right hon. and learned Lady also accept that Conservative organisations such as the Primrose League in the 19th century provided the initial spur to women's suffrage? By 1905 that organisation had as many as 1.5 million members. They went out into the political arena and did all the hard work on the ground that was needed for women, and they were Conservatives.

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Harriet Harman (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)

I think it is very important for women not only to have the right to vote, but to be able to vote for women and men to sit in this House of Commons. Therefore, I warmly welcome the proposals from the Speaker's Conference, and I thank the Speaker and his deputy on the conference, my hon. Friend Miss Begg, who is present in the Chamber. The Speaker's Conference proposals will help us make further progress towards equality of representation in this House.

The Equality Bill already extended the power for political parties to have all-women shortlists. We are carrying on with that in Labour's selections in advance of the general election, and 58 per cent. of our newly selected candidates are women. We have accepted the Speaker's Conference recommendation that political parties should be required to report on the diversity of their candidate selection. We need to expose under-representation, so that it can be clearly seen where action needs to be taken. This is not just a matter for our political parties; it is a question of the legitimacy of our democracy through this House.

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Eleanor Laing (Shadow Minister, Justice; Epping Forest, Conservative)

In this debate a year ago, the right hon. and learned Lady agreed with me that if we are to encourage more women to enter the House, which is what we all want, it is essential to address the financial background of how a Member of Parliament can conduct their life, office and work, and the practicalities of how women who are also mothers can combine the jobs of mother and MP. Will she undertake to stand up for women and ensure it is possible for them to be both mothers and Members of Parliament, as she did a year ago?

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Harriet Harman (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)

One of the different perspectives women have brought to the House is an understanding of the importance of family life, and of the issues facing people who have the major responsibility for caring for children or older relatives. We want that kind of experience in this House, and it is therefore very important that the allowance system ensures that we can continue to make progress in having more women in the House of Commons, balancing their work and family responsibilities in the same way as do women throughout the rest of the country.

Many of the women who first entered the House in 1997, and who have, therefore, served for 13 years, are standing down at the next election. Each and every one of them has blazed a trail and made a difference in their constituency, and has paved the way for the dynamic new women candidates who will be taking their place. They have their place in history, and it will be remembered, and I pay tribute to them. They are not "Blair's babes"; they are their own women, and I am proud of what they have done.

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Patricia Hewitt (Leicester West, Labour)

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for what she has just said about the '97 intake of women MPs, of which I was one, of course-and I am delighted to be succeeded in my constituency by another Labour woman candidate.

My right hon. and learned Friend has referred several times to the problem of all-male decision making. Does she agree that much more needs to be done to ensure that women are properly represented at the top of all organisations, private as well as public sector, and that the experience of Norway in particular has shown that getting more women on to the boards of private companies improves the quality of decision making and the performance of those companies?

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Harriet Harman (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)

I entirely agree, and I pay tribute to the work my right hon. Friend has done, especially when she was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, when she drove through the right to request flexible working for family members. That was a very important contribution, among many others she has made.

Looking to the future, there are three key areas for further action. First, we will have to ensure that we implement and enforce the Equality Bill. It is a framework, but we must put it into practice. Secondly, we will make even more progress in helping families balance work and family responsibilities. Women still do the lion's share of family caring.

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Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton, Labour)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that especially applies to the women in families of deployed service personnel? Does she think that the Equality Bill or any other Government measures will assist in ensuring that the families of service personnel have equal access to dental, health and education services, and to life opportunities as well?

Photo of Harriet Harman

Harriet Harman (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)

My hon. Friend has been a great champion of service families, as she represents the naval city of Plymouth. She also serves on the Select Committee on Defence, of course. She has precipitated a lot of work in respect of the Ministry of Defence, and we and the Government Equalities Office have joined in to ensure that the wives of military men do not miss out on all the things on which progress has been made for women in this country, such as more child care and training and employment opportunities. As she knows, we have produced a Command Paper looking at these issues, and a further announcement was made yesterday. The wives of military families have been very much part of the agenda that I, my team of Ministers and the GEO have been working on.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough, Labour)

I conducted some research on the difference that women had made in Parliament. One of the responses that struck me was a comment by a Clerk on the Defence Committee, who said that it was not until there were women on that Committee that the families of service personnel were ever discussed. In the old days, when it was an all-male Committee, it discussed the size of the weapons the Army used, not the families who kept the soldiers brave and able to do their job.

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Harriet Harman (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember her research. There was a great deal of criticism of the women who came into Parliament in 1997. It was immediately asserted that they had made no difference. Her research shows the massive difference that women have made in the House of Commons: Sure Start children's services, child tax credits, the minimum wage, which has done so much to help women, flexibility for families, the new laws on domestic violence and the work on human trafficking, in which she played a massive part. All those issues show the difference women have made in Parliament, but we are still a small minority and we need to make further progress.

Women still do the lion's share of family caring. Since 1997, we have doubled maternity pay and leave, and there are twice as many nursery places in my constituency as there were in 1997. That is the same in all parts of the country. There is flexible work for carers and more respite care, but we still have further to go.

Thirdly, I think we shall see a new era in international relations. In every continent and in most countries, there are now women in senior positions in government and in their Parliaments as never before. Last September, the United Nations agreed to bring together the four parts of its work on women into one single, coherent and effective UN women's agency. The new UN women's agency will help to ensure that international relations can be women working together across continents and countries, rather than just men. Together, we might just be able to help solve some of the problems that male diplomacy has yet to crack.

At the next election, the country will face a big choice. If women and men want a party that will fight for greater equality, and if they want a party that believes, and has always believed, in taking the controversial decisions to cut through inequality and to empower women as equal, there is only one choice-the Labour party.

1:41 pm
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Theresa May (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Also Shadow Minister for Women), Work and Pensions; Maidenhead, Conservative)

I am pleased once again to speak in a debate to mark international women's day. It is an important debate, which we should be having even were it not for the fact that earlier this week we celebrated the 100th anniversary of international women's day. However, I am deeply disappointed that the Government have chosen to make this not a full day's debate but an hour and a half topical debate. Last year, for the third year in a row, we saw the UK slip further down the World Economic Forum's gender gap list. We now find ourselves behind countries such as Latvia and the Philippines, yet sadly the Government have not only decided that our debate should last only for an hour and a half, but perforce-perhaps-they have restricted its scope, which means that there are limits to the number of very real issues that affect women internationally that we can raise. I am particularly sorry about that because as Leader of the House, the Minister for Women and Equality is in the very position to ensure that once again we have a full day's debate. I hope that is not a sign of her waning dedication to equality, as we saw recently in her lack of commitment to all-women shortlists-at least when it came to the selection for Birmingham, Erdington. I am not quite sure what led the right hon. and learned Lady to suggest that a man might have been better for that seat.

The Minister spoke about the Equality Bill, which we have broadly supported. I am happy to make it absolutely clear to the House that we want it on the statute book. It is not only an important measure in its consolidation of equality legislation, guidance and regulations, where there is multiplicity at present; it also raises and brings together a number of new issues. We do not support the Government's approach in some aspects of the Bill-for example, we think that our approach is preferable on issues such as the gender pay gap. None the less, we want to see the Bill on the statute book and we hope that it will be an Act before the general election.

It is important for Government and the public sector to set a good example. Businesses are told by the Government that they must tackle the gender pay gap, or face measures being taken by the Government; yet average earnings for full-time male employees in the civil service are still 14 per cent. higher than for women. Businesses are told that they must address the glass ceiling in law firms, the City and the professions, yet the Government have failed to meet all their equality and diversity targets for the senior civil service, with women filling just 32 per cent. of senior positions.

Employers are told by the right hon. and learned Lady and the Government Equalities Office that they must offer employees more part-time work, yet only 5 per cent. of people in her Department work part time. Those are areas where the public sector should lead, not lecture.

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Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North, Labour)

On gender pay, I assure the right hon. Lady that it was never an issue until women in the trade union movement got involved, and not just on gender pay-women in the trade union movement pushed for maternity pay, paternity pay and the minimum wage.

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Theresa May (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Also Shadow Minister for Women), Work and Pensions; Maidenhead, Conservative)

I am happy to record the fact that many women in areas of public life generally have taken up the issue of gender pay, but sadly, despite the fact that we have had legislation on the statute book for more than 30 years and that for the past 13 years we have had a Government who said they wanted to do something about the gender pay gap, we still have one. We still need to find the right way to resolve it. It is partly about legislation, but other issues are involved too-for example, the advice given to girls and young women about the sort of careers they should be pursuing. A multifaceted approach is needed.

It is a sign of our commitment to equality and diversity that the issue of women's representation in politics and public life lies at its heart.

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Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge, Labour)

The right hon. Lady talks much about leading by example. Can she tell us how many women there are in the shadow Cabinet?

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Theresa May (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Also Shadow Minister for Women), Work and Pensions; Maidenhead, Conservative)

Yes indeed. There are six, and the proportion is higher than in the Government's Cabinet.

The issue of women in politics has been at the heart of the fight for equality since the beginning and I believe that the Conservative party has a proud history of getting women into Parliament. A number- [ Interruption. ] The Leader of the House says there are 17 of them. I remind her that courtesy of the by-election in Norwich, North last year, when I seem to recall that the Labour party was defeated, the Conservatives not only have another woman in the House, but the youngest woman in the House.

I was about to remind the House that the first female MP to take her seat in the House was a Conservative. The first female Prime Minister of this country was a Conservative and the first female chairman of a major political party was a Conservative-I ought to know, because it was me.

In 2005, in his first speech as Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron made clear his determination to bring more Conservative women into Parliament. Since then we have been making significant progress in the selection of women candidates to fight the next general election. I am very happy to acknowledge that we want to go beyond our current 18 women MPs. Today, about 30 per cent. of our candidates are women- [ Interruption. ] From the Treasury Bench, the Solicitor-General is muttering something that may indicate that she thinks we will not get many women into the House of Commons at the next election- [ Interruption. ] She says they are all in hopeless seats. No, they are not all in hopeless seats. What is crucially different this time is that we have a better proportion of women in winnable seats. If the Conservatives win the next general election, even by one seat, we will go from 18 women MPs to about 60 women MPs.

The problem for the House is that a significant number of Labour women MPs represent marginal seats, so whatever happens at the next election the overall number of women in the House may not change much. We will increase the number of women on the Conservative Benches, but the number of women on the Labour Benches may decrease.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough, Labour)

In many ways, the right hon. Lady has made the point I wanted to make. Does she accept that even though 60 is historically a huge number for her party, it would not be for the governing party, because it is less than the number of women in the current governing party? There will, therefore, be a disappointing result if-as I do not expect-her party wins, because fewer women's voices will be heard in Parliament and the number of women here will be reduced from its current 20 per cent. or so.

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Theresa May (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Also Shadow Minister for Women), Work and Pensions; Maidenhead, Conservative)

I assure the hon. Lady that the women's voices heard from the Conservative Benches after the election will make a first-class contribution to the House and to decisions taken by the Government. As she said, I have made the point that, for Parliament as a whole, there is still an issue about getting more women represented in the House. That lay at the heart of the Speaker's Conference, at which a number of matters were highlighted as needing to be addressed. This issue still needs to be addressed by all parties in the House. It is not simply a question for the Conservative party, as the Leader of the House sometimes tries to pretend.

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Eleanor Laing (Shadow Minister, Justice; Epping Forest, Conservative)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is sad-I really mean that-that so many women on the Labour Benches who have made a great contribution to the House in the past 13 years are deciding voluntarily not to stand at the next election? That is one reason why the number of women in the House is likely to diminish, and it is sad that they are choosing to leave. That is testimony to the fact that it is still much more difficult for a woman to carry out the duties of a Member of Parliament than it is for a man.

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Theresa May (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Also Shadow Minister for Women), Work and Pensions; Maidenhead, Conservative)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution. She raises a very important point, which she also raised as a challenge to the Leader of the House.

The House is starting to consider this important issue, which will remain an issue for hon. Members, particularly after the next election when I think there will be an increased number of MPs with young families who will need to juggle family considerations and their work in the House. That is an issue for both women and young fathers.

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Ann Cryer (Keighley, Labour)

I know that Mrs. Laing punches above her weight, but I want to correct the record. I am 70 and that is why I am retiring, not because I am disillusioned by anything in the House or with my party. I want to clarify that.

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Theresa May (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Also Shadow Minister for Women), Work and Pensions; Maidenhead, Conservative)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for clarifying her position, and I am happy to echo the tribute that the Minister for Women and Equality paid to her for her work on a number of important issues that relate particularly to women, such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation. We need to keep a focus on those issues because, sadly, there are still too many such cases in the UK. We need to keep taking strong action if we are really to make a change to those young women's lives.

The need to elect more women MPs does not arise from some politically correct desire for equality. It is necessary because Parliament will make better decisions if it has a greater diversity of people within its ranks. Debates will be better informed if a wider group of people with different experiences take part in them. That relates not only to having more women in Parliament, but to having more black and minority ethnic MPs and more disabled people in Parliament. Women tend to approach challenges and conflict in different ways to men. We also bring a fresh perspective to problems, and identify new and alternative priorities. Having more women would bring a more rounded approach to the big issues of the day and would put new issues on the agenda that have previously been neglected. That has to happen, not just for the sake of fairness and progress, but for the sake of Parliament itself. Having more women in Parliament could help to overcome the alienation that people now feel between themselves and Parliament and between themselves and politicians, which has been exacerbated by the expenses scandal of last year. If we were to have a true cross-sectional representation of society in the House, rather the domination by white, middle-class men that still exists, that would help to increase people's feeling of connection to politics and Parliament.

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Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran, Labour)

The right hon. Lady spoke about the difficulties for women in particular of juggling the role of an MP with family life. Has it made her hang her head in shame in the past few days when she has heard some MPs' interventions about the proposal for a nursery in this place? Most women MPs who have had young children recognise how difficult it is to be an MP and to juggle the hours of the work and the constant last-minute requests made on one's time. It might be impossible to get child care that meets those requirements. Will she put on the record her support for having child care in this place and her party's commitment to ensuring that that happens as quickly as possible?

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Alan Haselhurst (Deputy Speaker)

Order. With no disrespect to the hon. Lady, I hope that the right hon. Lady will forgive me for pointing out that there is an elasticity in Front-Bench speeches in these debates and that hon. Members who make interventions should realise that they might be taking precious moments from the opportunity for them to contribute later in the debate.

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Theresa May (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Also Shadow Minister for Women), Work and Pensions; Maidenhead, Conservative)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is important to have child care facilities in the House, but there is also a genuine issue about removing staff facilities without consulting staff. It is a question of balance and how the matter has been approached, but it is, of course, important that child care facilities are available to staff and Members of the House.

A report by the Electoral Commission in 2004 found that women are significantly more likely to turn out and vote for a woman candidate, and that if women are represented by women they are more likely to feel connected to the Government and to politics in general. The opportunities that an increase in the number of women Members of the House would present us with are huge, because that could be part of reconnecting with a disillusioned and apathetic electorate and convincing them that we are here to listen to and represent them.

The narrowing of the debate to one about women's representation-

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Harriet Harman (Lord Privy Seal, House of Commons; Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)

That is not a narrow issue.

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Theresa May (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Also Shadow Minister for Women), Work and Pensions; Maidenhead, Conservative)

The Leader of the House may say that, but we are not able to have a full debate exploring issues such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Neither can we debate the Conservatives' flexible parental leave proposals, which would give much greater flexibility to parents in dealing with bringing up their children than would the Labour party's proposals. Our intention to extend to the parents of children up to the age of 18 the right to request flexible working would be an important move, as would our proposals to tighten up legislation on the gender pay gap, and other proposals that I mentioned, such as having greater provision of careers advice for young women.

I conclude by picking up a comment that the Leader of the House made about the work that the Government have done on removing inequality. The National Equality Panel, which was set up by this Government, reported in January and has shown that inequality is higher now than at any time since the second world war. That is not a record of which any Government could be proud and it certainly is not a record of which this Labour Government should be proud. They have decreased social mobility and have presided over a period of increased inequality. The Conservative party is committed to increasing women's representation in the House so that women can take their full part in the life of the Government, this Parliament and public life generally.

Several hon. Members:

rose -

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Alan Haselhurst (Deputy Speaker)

Order. Let me explain the dilemma of the Chair to the House. I am going to call Lynne Featherstone next. After her speech, we shall know how much time there is left. It is quite apparent, given the number of hon. Members who wish to contribute to the debate, that 10 minutes is too generous a limit, so I give notice that I am going to reduce it to six minutes so that we can get the widest possible participation in a time-limited debate and so that we can be fair to Back Benchers, for whom such debates are principally intended.

1:58 pm
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Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green, Liberal Democrat)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall endeavour to be as succinct as possible. I am pleased to take part in this debate on international women's day. The reasons for the lack of women in the House are manifold, and I am sure that most of us in this place understand perfectly what they are.

I give credit to the Labour Government for having so many women on their Benches. It is a shame that a forcing mechanism was needed to make that sort of step change, but that is the reality. For liberals, there is a contradiction in terms between forcing mechanisms, localism and liberalism. However, my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats has said that my party expects to increase the number of women in this House after the election. Should that fail to be the case, he has said that he will consider an appropriate mechanism, because there does come a point when one will be needed.

A few years ago, at Christmas time, I was listening to the radio and I heard Bob Geldof say that he could not wait to get home to his wife who was doing womanly things in the kitchen. I do not know whether she was cooking or making curtains, but that was the sort of remark that usually makes me feel a bit ill. However, on thinking about it, I decided that he was merely saying that women make the world a better place, wherever they are. Obviously, that goes for Parliament too.

As we have heard, the importance of women in decision making cannot be underestimated. I was chair of transport at the London Assembly before I came to the House, and I was struck very forcibly by where and how decisions were made. I determined then that, as a woman, I should look hard at getting my hands on the levers and at being present when decisions about budgets and so on were being made.

I wanted to be able to move the agenda forward. Too often, women are pigeonholed as wanting some softer option. I noticed that there was a lot of argument in the London Assembly about who had the longest train or the biggest airport. The debate was all about setting and using budgets, and I was determined to be part of it. I am a great supporter of infrastructure projects such as Crossrail, but a great deal of decision making is about "home to work" and "work to home". When women are absent from those debates, too little representation is given to the wider issues of "school to home" and "home to school".

Domestic work patterns are important. It is not that men cannot speak for women, or that women cannot speak from a male perspective: the problem is that the absence of the female voice on issues means that half of the agenda remains almost entirely unexpressed.

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Christopher Fraser (South West Norfolk, Conservative)

Given what the hon. Lady has just said, is she as disappointed as the rest of us that not one female Liberal Democrat Back Bencher is present for this afternoon's debate?

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Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green, Liberal Democrat)

I am not going to criticise colleagues for not being here-

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Christopher Fraser (South West Norfolk, Conservative)

We have got some on our Benches, and so have the Government.

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Alan Haselhurst (Deputy Speaker)

Order. May I appeal to the hon. Member to desist from sedentary comments, which are not helping?

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Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green, Liberal Democrat)

That goes to the heart of some of what is wrong in this House, and of why there are so few women in it. One gets ridiculous point-scoring like that, for absolutely no reason.

If the Leader of the House were still in her place, I would have shocked her by saying that I totally agree with her: if there had been women in the boardrooms of all the banks we might not be in the financial crisis that we are in today. The lack of women in the decision-making and the power-broker positions is partly why we are in the state that we are in.

I want to move on to speak about the atmosphere in this House. It is a very hostile environment. We all learn to play the game, because there is no alternative, but women who are thinking of entering the House find it very off-putting. For instance, in my view Prime Minister's Question Time is too often adversarial nonsense that is more about testosterone than rational decision making.

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John Barrett (Edinburgh West, Liberal Democrat)

When I was a member of a council group, 50 per cent. of it was male and 50 per cent. female. However, almost none of the women wanted to stand for Parliament, for the reason that my hon. Friend gave.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green, Liberal Democrat)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. How do we begin to change the atmosphere? That is the question. When I rise in the House, I try not to follow the practice of scoring points just for the sake of it. The adversarial, jeering, bullying, public-school atmosphere is very off-putting.

I turn now to the problem of getting a seat, which is not necessarily the easiest thing for all women-or all men, for that matter. I am a single parent, and I faced a Labour majority of 26,000 because I could not go anywhere else. I have no parents and no support network, so I had to fight where I live and where my children were at school. There was no alternative.

How just is the Conservative proposal for a married couples tax allowance? It drives me mad. I was left alone to raise children and get on with my career to the best of my ability, so why should the tax allowance be given to my ex-husband? I might say that I am very friendly with him, as our split was amicable, but he has remarried. Why should he have the tax allowance, when I am doing my best to bring up my children on my own? It seems so unfair.

There is no level playing field in getting a seat. Obviously, Liberal Democrat policies on parental leave are very far-reaching but I want to talk about a problem in the Equality Bill to do with equal pay. Women's financial position holds them back terribly from taking part in the parliamentary process, and I am deeply concerned about the proposal for four years of only voluntary equality in pay.

When one asks a group of students in a classroom who wants to be Prime Minister, the boys will mostly put up their hands and say that they do, but the girls just sit on their hands, even though they know that they could do a better job. There are issues with how women are educated and trained, and how they approach learning to debate and make an argument.

As I said, my party expects there to be more women in Parliament after the election, but we have many women in councils, in the London Assembly, and in Scotland and Wales. The problem is with Parliament, and perhaps the electoral system. That is what leaves us so short on these Benches at the moment-although I am sure that it is just for the moment.

2:06 pm
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Anne Begg (Aberdeen South, Labour)

I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate. I am vice-chair of the Speaker's Conference, and the debate gives me my first opportunity to say thank you to all the people who came to give evidence. I also want to thank the Clerks who arranged the details that allowed the conference to travel around the country, which meant that we were not just taking evidence in the bubble that is Parliament and Westminster.

The remit of the Speaker's Conference went much wider than the representation of women, as we also looked at the under-representation of people from ethnic minorities, and of disabled people and people from the lesbian, gay and transsexual communities. However, I shall confine my remarks this afternoon to our examination of women's under-representation in Parliament.

We did not think that there should be more women in Parliament just because that seemed like nice idea, or because it might make the Chamber look more colourful. We came to that conclusion because if Parliament is to reflect society outside and do its job of scrutinising the Government-and if the Government are to do their job of making good laws-there is an imperative to get more women into the House. That goes without saying, but I felt that I had to reiterate it today, given some of the comments that have been made about the recommendations of the Speakers Conference report. Some of those comments suggest that some people still do not "get it"-they do not understand why it is important to have more women in Parliament.

I also want to thank the three main political parties-it is a pity that none of the others are represented here this afternoon-for submitting their responses in time for the debate. I am also grateful to the Government for their response to our recommendations in the Speaker's Conference report. I should also like to thank the House authorities, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Senior Salaries Review Body for their comments on our report. I admit that I thought my work would be finished once the report was published, but that has not proved to be the case.

At the moment, just under 20 per cent. of the House of Commons are women. That is a lot better than the 9 per cent. that we had in 1997, but it still means that this Parliament is only 69th in the inter-parliamentary league table of women's representation.

In the report, we identified that there were a many supply-side barriers to women's entering Parliament. Some have been mentioned today, and the report discusses many of those barriers in a lot of detail; there are restrictions on the time that I have to speak, so I cannot go into them in detail. However, we know that we need to do a lot more in respect of the education of girls and the role that they can play in political activism.

We also need to do a lot more encouraging; women, perhaps, need more encouragement than men to put themselves forward for election, not just to this place but to any of our levels of government. Furthermore, there are barriers in this place, to do with the way in which we do business, the hours and the difficulties for those-both fathers and mothers-with young families, if they are to operate effectively in this place.

There is also a problem on the demand side. Perhaps political parties are not putting enough emphasis on the importance of and need for women. As Lynne Featherstone said, there is no doubt that the all-women shortlist is the only proven mechanism for improving the representation of women in this place. It has worked effectively.

The mechanism was controversial when the Labour party introduced it ahead of the 1997 election; I think that I was one of the last to be selected under it before two male Labour party members took the party to an industrial tribunal. If my selection had been ruled out of order and I had had to go through the process again, I would by that time have had the courage and confidence to take on anyone, but I certainly did not have that courage or confidence when I started the process; at that time, I needed encouragement even to think of throwing my hat into the ring. I think many women would fall into that category.

I thank the party leaders for appearing before the Speaker's Conference. That was brave of them; it was a precursor to the debates that we are about to see, although they were not together at the same table. At least, however, they were willing to give evidence. All three party leaders said the right things about women's representation. Despite their warm words, however, they have not perhaps been able to persuade their own parties that all-women shortlists work. In 2005, 300 of the 646 constituencies had only male candidates. That was ridiculous, and the situation may not be any better next time, although one constituency, Brighton Pavilion, will have an all-women shortlist-

2:13 pm
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Eleanor Laing (Shadow Minister, Justice; Epping Forest, Conservative)

It is a genuine pleasure to speak after Miss Begg. From time to time we all complain about the obstacles that we have to overcome in looking after our children, caring for elderly relatives and so on while carrying out our duties as Members of Parliament. The hon. Lady is an icon to us all, given the amazing way in which she overcomes practical obstacles. Sometimes we should remind ourselves not to complain; the hon. Lady has set a wonderful example, not just to women but to everybody who wants to come to the House for genuine and good reasons and who will not let any obstacles stand in their way. I hope she does not mind my saying that.

I thoroughly support what the Leader of the House said earlier. It is a great pity that she is not here for the rest of the debate. We all realise that she has a great many titles and a great many jobs to do, but this debate lasts only an hour and a half. I echo the words of my right hon. Friend Mrs. May in saying that in previous years we have had long debates on international women's day, which allowed us to explore all sorts of different aspects of women's lives and representation. It is a great pity that we have only an hour and a half today and that the Leader of the House could not be here for the whole debate.

The fact is that women do things differently from men. We should not be afraid to say that. The nature of female representation changes this place, and Parliament should reflect the society that it purports to represent. We have made considerable progress in recent years but we all know that we have a lot further to go. Most of us are working day in, day out to try to enable us to do so.

This debate is in recognition of international women's day, so I want to say a quick word about the international aspects. Last year, I attended a United Nations conference on women in New York. Many countries were represented, most of which had very good percentage representations of women-many of them better than what prevails here. But everybody at the conference agreed that in many countries no real difference will be made until women get to positions of power-until they are Finance Ministers and hold the purse-strings. I am sure that is the situation here in the UK.

I shall now discuss women's representation in the House. I believe that a woman without family responsibilities is in just the same position as a man without family responsibilities as far as being able to be a Member of Parliament is concerned. The difficulties arise when one tries to balance being a mother-or a father, or someone who looks after elderly relatives, for example-with the responsibilities of a Member of Parliament.

I make an appeal to those who are at present deciding the new financial regime for the remuneration of Members of Parliament. Whatever happens, we must make it possible for someone to be a mother and a Member of Parliament and do both those jobs properly and to the best of her ability. I make no apology for making a distinction between mothers and fathers on this point; we all know that fathers have responsibilities as well, but given the very short time that I have left and for the sake of brevity, I shall leave out that bit of my speech and make one thing absolutely clear. A mother can properly be a mother and an MP only if she has her children here with her in London.

People say that it is all right if the children are 25 miles or 10 miles away, but they might as well be 100 miles away. I challenge anyone who has not tried to do it to prove the opposite. The only way that the system can work is if a mother can be in this place for most of the day but be able to pop out for half an hour here and there. She could go to her child's school for an hour or go home at bedtime, before the 7 o'clock vote or just afterwards. She should be able to juggle her time, and that is possible only if her children are here. Those who say that Members of Parliament should live in one-bedroom flats and that it is not for the House authorities or the taxpayer to take any responsibility whatever for women Members' family responsibilities are simply wrong. They would make things impossible for us. That would not be fair on the children of Members of Parliament, and this place should not be based on an unfair system.

I shall run out of time. The day nursery is a good idea but it does not go nearly far enough; it only papers over the cracks. We need to see the reality of what it is to balance families with representational duties. At present, it looks as though that is not being done. I beg those who make these decisions on our behalf to take real and brave steps to make sure that women can balance their responsibilities to the House and to their families.

2:19 pm
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Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby, Labour)

I, too, regret the fact that we have such a short time today for this very important discussion.

I wonder whether my colleagues have been to Prague. I went there last year, and it really is a beautiful city. I visited the Jewish sector and was immediately struck by the written legacy of the survivors of the Prague scouring of Jews, which took place during the war. Women had written about their experiences, and about just how awful their lives had been. Then I thought about all the women on the continent of Africa who have been involved in terrible wars and the most appalling atrocities over the past 20 years, and how little exists of their experience. What is left for their families and societies to learn? If individuals read about what has happened to women on that continent, they read accounts by people living in America or members of the diaspora living in the UK, but very few from the women in Africa themselves. The reason is obvious: those women are illiterate.

I regularly visit Sierra Leone, the poorest country in the world, where only 25 per cent. of women can read. During the rebel war that gripped that country in the 1990s, there was barely a woman who escaped some form of rape or torture, yet little remains as a record of those experiences. There is very little for their children to learn about, and there is very little for us to embrace, reflect on and base our policies on in order to ensure that it does not happen again. So many women's lives have been left unaccounted for, and because there is no account they appear to be valueless.

I am retiring at the next general election, but I appeal to everyone whom I leave behind in the House to remember the importance of illiteracy and its profound effect on women when they think about the funding of countries and provide Department for International Development funding or intervention. Illiteracy in Sierra Leone means that women there experience the highest incidence of maternal mortality, and one quarter of their children die under the age of five, because the country's limited medical resources cannot stretch to providing any written guidance, and even if it were available nobody would be able to read and understand it anyway. Women who have been given notices on how to prepare dysentery medication leave them to one side and their children die of dysentery.

Women cannot represent themselves in any sphere. They cannot go to the police with complaints or create their own bank accounts, because they simply cannot read. That paucity of written material means that many women never enter Parliament or become a part of their local democracy, so it is difficult for them to call on resources in order to escape that position. DFID funds Sierra Leone, but it funds the army and police. Although that is important for ensuring the security of individuals, it will not liberate women or their potential, and we have a duty to those women, who cannot speak for themselves.

There are wonderful organisations in this country which are trying to do something about that problem. I chair an organisation called the Construction and Development Partnership, and I know of others, such as Build on Books, which are dramatically trying to change the face of literacy in poor countries. The private sector is not interested. No great opportunity exists to make a lot of money in such countries; they are poor, so there is no great return on any investment, and it is left to charities in our country and throughout the world to pick up the cudgels and move forward.

Those charities in this country are essentially managed by women, directed by women and for women. So, when decisions are made about intervention in those countries, I hope that colleagues will reflect on the support that women in this country provide to women in other parts of the world, and remember the illiterate women of the world, who depend on our voices and days such as this. They depend on us to promote their cause of concern-advocate women who are more literate than they and ensure that there is funding to make them so, so that they can advocate on their own behalf and write their own histories. That is really important.

2:24 pm
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Philip Hollobone (Kettering, Conservative)

It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful contribution by Mrs. Curtis-Thomas. I believe she has more academic qualifications than any other Member of the House, and certainly more letters after her name. Her informed contributions to debates such as this will be missed.

On this occasion of international women's day, I want to raise the difficult subject of Islamic full-face veils-specifically, the niqab and the burqa. I am sure we can all agree with the Leader of the House's remarks-we all want to empower women in being equal. In my view and that of my constituents, the niqab and the burqa are oppressive dress codes that are regressive as regards the advancement of women in our society. I want to make it clear that I am talking about the niqab and the burqa, not the hijab, the khimar or the chador.

I have been concerned for some time about the niqab and the burqa, but it was not until I took my children to the play area in my local park recently and saw a woman wearing a full burqa that it came home to me how inappropriate and, frankly, offensive it is for people to wear that apparel in the 21st century and especially in Britain. In my view and that of my constituents, the burqa is not an acceptable form of dress and banning it should be seriously considered.

As I was sitting on the bench in the playground watching my children play on the slides, I thought to myself, "Here I am, in the middle of Kettering in the middle of England-a country that has been involved for centuries with spreading freedom and democracy throughout the world-and here's a woman who, through her dress, is effectively saying that she does not want to have any normal human dialogue or interaction with anyone else. By covering her entire face, she is effectively saying that our society is so objectionable, even in the friendly, happy environment of a children's playground, that we are not even allowed to cast a glance on her." I find that offensive and I think it is time that the country did something about it.

We will never have a country in which we can all rub along together and in which people of different backgrounds, different ethnicities and different religions all get along nicely if one section of our society refuses even to be looked on by anyone else. As I thought more about it, it struck me that the issue is not the clothes that someone wears but the fact that the face is covered. Lots of people wear what others might feel is inappropriate clothing. That is, of course, everyone's choice. The issue with the niqab and the burqa, however, is not that they are just another piece of clothing but that they involve covering the face either in its entirety or with just the eyes showing.

The simple truth is that when a woman wears the burqa, she is unable to engage in normal, everyday visual interaction with everyone else. That is indeed the point of it. It is deliberately designed to prevent others from gazing on that person's face. The problem with that is that it goes against the British way of life. Part of the joy of living in our country is that we pass people every day in the street, exchange a friendly greeting, wave, smile and say hello. Whether we recognise someone as a person we know or whether we are talking to someone for the first time, we can all see who the other person is and we interact both verbally and through those little visual facial signals that are all part of interacting with each other as human beings.

If we all went round wearing burqas, our country would be a sad place indeed. Indeed, if we were all to be wearing burqas in this Chamber, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how would you know who to call? I also feel very sorry for women who wear the burqa, as it cannot be very nice to go around all day with only a limited view of the outside world. Of course, many of these women are forced to wear the burqa by their husband or their family. The resulting lack of interaction with everyone else means that many are unable to speak or learn English and so will never have any chance of becoming integrated into the British way of life.

The other issue with the burqa is security. Of course, that problem arises with some other forms of face covering and I do not see why those wearing the burqa should be treated any differently. Bikers wear crash helmets for their own safety, but they are required to take them off in banks and shops. If one were to travel on the tube wearing a balaclava, a police officer would ask one to take it off.

Many of my constituents have contacted me to say that when they visit Muslim countries they respect the dress codes in those countries and wear appropriate headgear. The phrase that has been given to me time and again is, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." This is Britain; we are not a Muslim country. Covering one's face in public is strange, and to many people it is intimidating and offensive. I seriously think that a ban on wearing the niqab or the burka in public should be considered.

2:30 pm
Photo of Madeleine Moon

Madeleine Moon (Bridgend, Labour)

I am pleased to follow the thoughtful contribution by Mr. Hollobone. I suggest that he look at one of the most socially progressive countries in the Muslim world-Morocco, where, thanks to the personal intervention of King Mohammed VI and his insistence on increasing the status of women in that Muslim country, women's political representation, in just one year, went from two members of its Parliament in 2001 to 35 in 2002. He also ensured that in 2006 the first class of women imams graduated. There are Muslim countries that are moving forward, and it is important that we acknowledge that.

It is also important that we acknowledge how little progress, in some respects, we have made in this country. My mother is 96; she was four before women got the vote. So in my mother's lifetime, women have been empowered. In 1945, there were 24 women Members of this Parliament, yet by the 1980s there were only 23. We have not progressed and moved on as we should. I have been particularly concerned by the fact that when I talk to young women they have a negative view of politics and are disengaged from politics. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how a woman can be disengaged from politics, but then I would not be here if I did not feel like that; I appreciate that fact.

In 2001, only 39 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds voted; in 2005, the year I was elected, that figure had gone down to 37 per cent. We are told that young people engage in different ways, and we need to show them that there are different ways in which they can engage in politics. I turned to an organisation that many do not see as the radical organisation that it is-the Girl Guides movement. That organisation, in which I was involved as a young woman, can empower women and show them a different way of being and acting in the world. In 2008, it did some research entitled "Political Outsiders: we care but will we vote?"; I suggest that hon. Members take a look at it. We are talking about active citizens-girls who are committed volunteers and who care deeply but are largely sceptical about politics and getting involved in it. They felt that there was little information; they did not think that the issues we address were important to them; and they did not feel that younger people had prominence in this House.

Ninety-six per cent. of the girls who were questioned were engaged in some sort of volunteering, but only 45 per cent. had any involvement with politics. They gave the following reasons for non-engagement: that it was not worth the effort, that there were more important things to do, and that it would not make any difference. Well, I can promise those young girls that sitting at home and not voting is the way to not make a difference, but how do we get that message out to them? They do desire to see change, and in fact the issues that the respondents were concerned about are ones about which every woman in the House has shown concern, such as making a difference to the lives of girls, women and young people and stopping domestic violence. Is there a woman in the House who is not engaged in that?

More than half the respondents were also concerned about young people in gangs and people who carry knives. Standing up to bullying was an issue of concern for 39 per cent., and career opportunities for women were mentioned. Interestingly, so was people not being forced into having sex before they are ready. I particularly liked the fact that 27 per cent. felt there was a need for a ban on the airbrushing of models-I have written in my notes "and political poster boys", but perhaps that is just my view, not theirs.

We need fresh policies to engage young people, and I honestly believe that it is the responsibility of every Member of the House, particularly the women, to get into our schools, engage with our young women and ensure that they understand that women offer role models and exemplars for how to achieve the change that they want for their lives with their children.

One thing the respondents mentioned was the need to offer work experience placements to 14 to 20-year-olds to give young people access to our world. That is a critical issue that we need to address. The criticism about unpaid interns is stretching employment budgets, which is a difficulty that we need to talk about. It is important that the House address the needs of young people.

2:36 pm
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Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow Central, Labour)

I wholeheartedly welcome this debate taking place in the House. It is a sign of the progress that we as a nation have made and a testament to the unwavering commitment of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to achieving equality, particularly for women.

I am sure the whole House will agree that women have made, and are making, tremendous contributions in all fields, both in this country and abroad. For example, in the United Kingdom we have had a woman Prime Minister and a woman Speaker of this House, Ladies Thatcher and Boothroyd respectively, in honour of whom we have named two Committee Rooms. Although I did not take part myself, in the debate back in 2008 Opposition Members complained that no one on the Labour Benches had mentioned Lady Thatcher. I therefore wish to make a point of recognising her contribution as the first woman to become Prime Minister of the UK, despite our political and ideological differences.

In my native country of Pakistan, we have had the late Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, who rose to become the first Muslim woman Prime Minister of her country. She was a great leader whose tragic death was a great loss to the people of Pakistan and the international community, and a personal loss to me as she was a very close friend of mine. Elsewhere abroad, in Kuwait we have seen for the very first time four women elected as Members of Parliament. I am vice-chair of the all-party group on Kuwait, and my office regularly takes on interns from Kuwait, the last two of whom have been talented young Kuwaiti women.

I have always campaigned vigorously for, and sought to encourage, women from minority groups, particularly Muslim women, to come forward and run in both local and national elections, so that there is better representation in the House. I am pleased and proud that the Labour party has selected four Muslim women in winnable seats, and I am sure that after the general election we will have Muslim woman Members of Parliament in this House.

At home, there is the completely unacceptable issue of the trafficking of women for domestic servitude and/or sexual exploitation. In today's global age, we rightly take great pride in our ability to work with other countries in tackling common problems. I therefore believe that we must do all we can to bring that shocking criminal activity to an end by working with other countries and establishing greater cross-border co-operation. I pay tribute to the work of the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children, and its chair, Mr. Steen who, like me, will be leaving this House at the next general election.

I must also mention her excellency, Her Royal Highness Princess Lalla Jamala Aloui, who was recently appointed as the ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco in London. Her excellency has been doing a wonderful job, not only as head of the Moroccan mission in London, but as an ideal role model to all Arab women. I will be working closely with her to bring the famous Fès festival of sacred music to London.

Mr. Hollobone raised the issue of the burqa and the hijab. I must tell him that some Muslim women in this country wear the hijab and some do not-I have taken the opportunity to visit many Muslim countries-but very few wear the burqa or the niqab. However, I believe that today's debate is about empowering women, and what a woman wants to do in life is her choice. Action should be taken against those who force women to wear the niqab, but it is not a big issue in this country, and there is no need for the matter to be debated here.

Finally, one issue that is very close to my heart-my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer raised it-is forced marriages. That must be addressed. In 1996, three young Muslim women, who were at school, were taken for holidays to my native country, Pakistan, and forced into marriages and detained against their will. When that was brought to my attention by the school and social workers-those were very powerful people-I flew to Pakistan and intervened with the police authorities and the judiciary. I was glad and proud to bring the women back. That sent a very clear and strong message that that type of behaviour is unacceptable in our country. We should all work together to ensure that such cases do not happen here.

2:42 pm
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Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran, Labour)

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to contribute to what has been a short but healthy debate on women's representation. I strongly welcome the fact that it is taking place in the week of international women's day.

We have spoken about some of the physical barriers to women getting into Parliament, including the problem of child care and the other caring responsibilities that women in our society disproportionately have. We have also spoken about how to enable women who are interested in coming here to do so. As someone who is involved in the Labour party, I know that women in the party have been wanting to get to this place for a very long time, but it has been more difficult for them to do so. Only as a result of that experience did the party decide to go to women-only shortlists. Although they are controversial, they have been the most effective way of getting more women on to the Labour Benches, which is why they are now being considered by other political parties.

The other question is this: why do we bring up girls in our society in such a way that they do not feel that coming to Parliament is an option for them? Every political party-the Primrose league in the Conservative party has been referred to-has many women who are actively involved, and women also play prominent and active roles in other political organisations, be it third-world campaigning organisations or voluntary or charitable organisations. Many of them, however, never consider coming here to be one of the options available to them, so we have to ask some serious questions about why women do not put themselves forward for these positions and why they need so much encouragement to do so.

The points made by my hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas about education are central to the debate. The education of women has been their liberation and will continue to be so, so I pay tribute to organisations such as the British Youth Parliament and the Scottish Youth Parliament, which are going into schools and actively trying to get young people involved in political issues, the issues affecting them and the big issues of the day. I believe that, through getting involved in such organisations and actually starting to believe it is possible to do things such as become a councillor-or stand for the Scottish, Welsh or European Parliaments, or this Parliament-more women will get into this place.

Our young people, especially our young women, are our hope and future. The fact that we have more women in this place, and prominent women in all the political parties, is vital to presenting role models for women. For many of us, when we were young, we saw very few women politicians, and it seemed a daunting prospect to come to this place. All of us-of all political parties-have a role to play in deciding how we move forward and make people feel that it is a real option for them.

This place is important not only because of the legislation it passes. Many of us are frustrated about the lack of legislative progress and would like far more ambitious legislation passed, especially in the equality arena. We want the equal pay legislation that has been in place in this country for more than 30 years actually to become a reality, because women here do not have the same kind of economic independence as men.

In my view, women's economic independence will be a foundation stone in our efforts to give women the confidence to take on all aspects of life, and I consider the benefits system to have been an incredibly important factor over the past century in giving women more options. It meant that they did not need to stay with a man for financial reasons. At the end of the day, if they felt unable to continue with such a situation, the state would provide some assistance-even if it was not as generous or adequate as it could be. In many ways, it has enabled women to have some kind of independence.

There are practical issues to consider. The nursery issue is a concern for the moment, and if we get some form of child care in this place, it will be a step forward. We also need to look at the expenses system. At the moment, there is some help for Members with dependent children, but it has been proposed that that be taken away and that there should be no transport assistance for them. We need to consider those issues, but we also need to look at why we are bringing up young women who do not aspire to be here. We all have a role in ensuring that we try to connect with those people and make them believe that if they get involved in politics, they can change things and deliver on the issues that are important to them.

2:48 pm
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Vera Baird (Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office; Redcar, Labour)

I want to take a minute or two to thank everyone who has participated in the debate, male and female. It is good to welcome our brothers, whether or not we agree with them-I do not agree with Mr. Hollobone. None the less, it is good to see them participate fully in a debate that centres on women's issues. Once they are raised, everyone sees them as human issues and carries them forward.

There have been contributions thoughtful, spirited and provocative. Lynne Featherstone was sensitive, in a way that was second to none, to the attitudinal barriers in this place to women's arrival here in greater numbers. I agree with her that it is very easy to pick up some of those attitudinal ways-I am guilty of doing that myself.

My hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas has built an international reputation, most particularly in Sierra Leone, to which she referred, and we will miss her greatly.

My hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer is much praised by all, and rightly so. She has taken steps to celebrate and champion the rights of women that could have made her extremely unpopular, but she did not hesitate to take them.

Mrs. Laing and I have a tradition of growling at each other across the Chamber and slapping each other on the back outside it, so let me slap her on the back inside the Chamber for a change. She was brave and right to say what she did, which is that the allowances system for MPs must ensure that MP parents spend time with their children, and it will be women who will lead that drive forward.

Mrs. May and I simply growl at each other all the time, but that is the way it goes, I am afraid. I want to- [ Interruption. ] That was not a growl; it was a mistake. Let me tell her that the National Equality Panel has made it clear, if one reads what it said closely, that all our equality measures have moved things in the right direction, even though there is still a long way to go, and that what we picked up was a huge legacy of inequality brought about by an earlier era, which was of course a Tory era. That is clear.

The right hon. Lady asserted her support for the Equality Bill, and I am glad to hear it. However, what she said is extraordinary, because she led the debate in trying to vote it down on Second Reading. Funky as her pink boots are, to be true to herself, she probably ought to be wearing flip-flops today.

I want to pay tribute to the Government Equalities Office and to the dynamic and strong leadership of my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman and the chief executive, Jonathan Rees. I also want to make special mention of the Equality Bill team, Wally Ford and Melanie Field, and the other members of their excellent team. The GEO was only set up in 2007, and it is a tiny department. However, people think it must be huge because of the great work it does across government, and because of its impact in government and across the country for disabled people and people of whatever gender. The GEO drives through a great swathe of equality initiatives from a tiny base. It is a very good department indeed, one we should be devoutly grateful for.

Labour women MPs have been here long enough to have made a significant impact, and they have done just that. We have fought, and will fight, for an equal chance for women at work; for employers to acknowledge caring and family responsibilities; and-this is particularly close to my heart-for domestic violence, violence against women and rape to be taken very seriously indeed: in fact, to be taken deadly seriously. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Miss Begg for the role she has played in the Speaker's Conference in emphasising that, as we have all said, this House needs to represent the women of this country as well as the men. All of us on the Government side of the House have worked, with intermittent support from the Opposition, for all those aims, and we will work further for women to have an equal say in every area of life.

The poll to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham referred indicates that we are succeeding in changing public opinion in the direction of equality. That is an outcome devoutly to be wished for, and for which we will continue to persevere. Labour people live by the ethic of equality, and we will go onward-and in government, too-to ever greater achievements towards equality, working hard for a future fair for all.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of international women's day-women's representation.