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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of International Women's Day.
I am proud to open the debate both as the Minister for Women and Equality and as Leader of the House. I will speak briefly, as many women will be speaking in this debate and I also see a number of men in their places, waiting to speak. There is no doubt that in today's House of Commons, there is not only a band of strong women but even some men who could justifiably be seen as honorary members of the sisterhood—although we will have to wait until we hear them speak before we form a final judgment on that point.
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In this debate, as we mark international women's day, I want us to recognise the transformation that women in the House of Commons have brought about. Women MPs have not only changed the face of British politics, as they—we—have also changed its agenda, which needed to change because women's lives are changing. The world of work is changing and family life is changing, too. If we are to back up families as they bring up children, earn a living and care for older relatives, we need to understand and represent women as well as men.
Today, women regard themselves as equal citizens and expect to share in decisions, both at home and at work. A Parliament or a party that is male-dominated is an outdated relic—and that is certainly what this House of Commons was like when I joined it 25 years ago.
I am extremely grateful. On this day of all days, as the Minister quite rightly tries to attract more women into politics, will she pay tribute to Margaret Thatcher, the first woman Prime Minister of this country, who proved by her actions that the very top job in this country is open to all, irrespective of gender?
As I was about to say, I think that the importance of women in the House of Commons and in government is not that we are here for our own sake, but that we are here to deliver for other women. Margaret Thatcher did not deliver for other women— [Interruption.]
My right hon. and learned Friend is right to say that we are here to deliver for women, but I can tell her one thing that Margaret Thatcher delivered for me. I was selected to fight my first election on the night that Margaret Thatcher resigned—and I am very proud of that fact.
When I first joined this House of Commons 25 years ago, I was one of only 10 Labour women MPs. At that time, there were only 13 Tory women MPs. For the Tories, however, the march towards gender equality has yet to get under way: they have moved from having 13 Tory women MPs 25 years ago to 17 today, while we in the Labour party have made great strides, as Labour women MPs are 96 strong, coming from Scotland, Wales and England.
Labour women MPs range from those with great experience, such as my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody, who is the Chair of the Select Committee on Transport as well as being a mother and grandmother, to the fresh-faced new arrivals who entered in 1997, 2001 and 2005.
When I popped into the Whips Office last night, I noticed that it was considerably improved by the presence of two lovely new babies, so many congratulations to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend Kitty Ussher, and to my hon. Friend Natascha Engel.
My point is not just that it is possible for women to be MPs and Ministers and have children and grandchildren, but that it is necessary for the House to have such women who are mothers and grandmothers if we are to understand, speak up for and deliver for women, as well as men. That is what this Government are striving to do.
I give way to my right hon. Friend.
I am very grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Can she estimate how long it will take, at the current rate of progress, before there is equal representation of women and men in this House generally, but particularly on the Conservative Benches?
Many hundreds of years! I shall come on to that point.
I think that we have made a great deal of progress and while we should be gratified about it, we should not be grateful for it. We are not doing women a favour, but delivering long overdue rights. Although we have made great strides, we have much further to go.
We have introduced a national minimum wage, which has just about ended the pay gap between the lowest paid men and women, but that is not enough. We need to close the gender pay gap altogether and our new equality Bill, which we will bring forward later this year, will help us step up progress towards that.
We now have nurseries and after-school clubs in all areas. In my constituency in the London borough of Southwark, there are double the number of child care places that there were six years ago, but it is still a problem for many women to find good child care that they can trust and afford, so we will continue to improve its accessibility, affordability and quality.
We will increase the number of Sure Start centres and learn from the London child care affordability programme, which will tell us the best way to help low-income families with child care.
We have given parents with children under six new rights to request flexible working. Thanks to my right hon. Friend Ms Hewitt, who was then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, 3.5 million parents, mostly mothers, have been able to adjust their work patterns to suit their family. Children do not stop needing their parents when they get to their sixth birthday; the responsibilities of parents change as children grow, but they do not lessen. The Prime Minister has said that we will extend the law so that parents of older children can also request flexible working.
Yes, I will give way to the right hon. Lady.
I am very interested in the what the right hon. and learned Lady has just said. In fact, that is the policy announced by the Conservative party some considerable time ago, yet it was only about 10 days ago that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform announced that he was against the extension of flexible working to parents of older children and that the Government were not going to adopt that policy. Is there a division in the Cabinet on that issue?
My right hon. Friend made no such announcement— [Interruption.] He did not. The position is as announced by the Prime Minister when he introduced the draft legislative programme and brought the Queen's Speech before the House. He said that we were going to set up a review under Imelda Walsh—not into whether we should increase the age of children whose parents can have flexible working, but into how we will go about doing it. The review is shortly due to report and when it does, we will extend up the age range of children the right for their parents to have flexible working. I hope that I have reassured the right hon. Lady that on this process of extending flexible working, which we have already led on—and I am grateful for the right hon. Lady's support—we are going to make even further progress.
The stay-at-home mother has become the working mother, which means that child care, flexible work and after-school clubs are all mainstream public policy issues. We put a family focus at the heart of government because although it matters most of all to parents, it matters to everyone—to the whole of our society and to our economy, too—that the next generation is properly brought up and able to use their skills and talents to the full.
Family policy is not just about parents and children, but about the older generation. Without the involvement of active grandparents, many families would not be able to cope. Families are multi-generational, which means not just granny helping with grandchildren, but younger families helping the older generation. That is why we have introduced a right for people caring for older relatives to request flexible working, but still too few people know of that right, so we are going to have a campaign to ensure that they do.
The Prime Minister has set up a review to look at the support services and financial support for families caring for older or disabled relatives. It will report later this year, and will help 6 million carers. When we have pressed on with providing nurseries and rights for parents, we have not been afraid to be called the nanny state. Now we shall be proud to be called the granny state.
I see that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is sitting on the Front Bench. Can the Minister assure us that the Department for Communities and Local Government has a policy on local authority and other social housing that allows people who move, perhaps to their first home, to stay near members of their family with caring responsibilities? For far too long people have been allocated homes away from parents or grandparents, or others whom they need and want to look after. If we really want to liberate women, young and older, so that they are able not only to work but to bring in family members to fulfil caring responsibilities, housing policy will be a crucial element in the equation.
Policy on the allocation of council and social housing is very important in enabling families to stay together and support each other; so is the design of individual homes allowing people to remain independent and in their own homes as they age. Just as we have ensured that new housing developments include access to facilities for children such as schools, playgrounds and open spaces, we seek to ensure that sustainable communities include the granny flat, the day centre, the sheltered housing and the community centre. We recognise the importance of families supporting older people in local communities, and being able to live near their relatives.
I give way to my right hon. Friend.
I want to set the record straight, as my right hon. and learned Friend has attempted to do herself. She is right: Margaret Thatcher did nothing for women. I was in the House when Margaret Thatcher was here, and we watched her for a long time. There were huge gaps in the Sexual Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970, and it was a Labour Government who put that right, not Margaret Thatcher.
All the developments that I have been listing, including the national minimum wage and increased provision for child care, were matters that Margaret Thatcher and the Tory Government considered not even worthy of being raised in the House of Commons, let alone desirable. Indeed, in 1982, when I asked my first question to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher—it was about the need for after-school clubs—her only response was to laugh, and to say it was irrelevant and nothing to do with Government. This Government believe that those are mainstream issues.
Let me now deal with the question of tackling violence against women, particularly rape and domestic violence. I pay tribute to the important work of many of my hon. Friends, especially my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and for Luton, South (Margaret Moran). There has been a 26 per cent. increase in the number of men convicted of rape since 1997. We are opening more expert sexual assault referral centres. We have new laws such as the Domestic Violence, Crimes and Victims Act 2004, along with the new specialist domestic violence courts and tougher sentencing.
We know that early intervention can save lives, and that if the issue is swept under the carpet it only gets worse. We need to ensure that every police station treats rape with the seriousness it deserves and that in every court domestic violence is treated with deadly seriousness, because it still claims the lives of two women every week. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice will shortly conclude his review of homicide, which will include consideration of the provocation defence in domestic violence cases. There can be no excuses for domestic violence, least of all when the victim has been killed.
There will be an announcement shortly about the two provisions in the Act that are still to be implemented, and that will be implemented.
Just as we seek to banish the old crimes against women—
—we must seek to tackle new crimes, such as extreme violent pornography on the internet and human trafficking of young women for sex.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in congratulating this Government, who introduced the 2004 Act? In the Home Affairs Committee yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Mr. Coaker, announced that we would be introducing homicide reviews, and that the problem of no recourse to public funds for victims of domestic violence was being fixed. That is welcome news to everyone affected by domestic violence.
Those are indeed welcome announcements. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will make further detailed information available on those announcements shortly.
Just as we are tackling the age-old problems of domestic violence, we are tackling new problems such as human trafficking. It is shameful that women are shipped into the country from abroad, kept as modern-day slaves for sex and advertised for sale in the local newspapers. I welcome the new guidelines issued by the Newspaper Society to try to stop those advertisements.
My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, Home Office Ministers and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for Women and Equality are reviewing the way in which other countries tackle the international sex trade. In this country there are laws to prevent a man from buying a faulty car and to prevent women from working in unsafe workplaces, but apparently it is still okay for men to buy women for sex. Surely, in the 21st century women should not be for sale.
I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart and my right hon. Friend Mr. MacShane, and to the all-party group on trafficking of women and children. We will report later this year on what steps we will take to tackle the demand side of human trafficking.
Our concern to work with and support other women does not stop at our borders. We work to prevent female genital mutilation and forced marriage here and abroad. In developing countries, we work to reduce maternal mortality and AIDS.
We work to ensure that girls are educated, and that micro-credit is provided to enable women to start their own businesses in developing countries.
But I do not think that if our Parliament were still 97 per cent. male, any of those things would have happened. Although we now have more women Members of Parliament—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understand that this is supposed to be a debate. It is on an important issue, and it is sad that the Leader of the House wants to make it so partisan. Is it not right that if there are to be interventions in a debate, those interventions—although they are in the gift of the Leader of the House at this particular point—should be distributed across the House as a whole?
That is not a point of order for the Chair. It is entirely up to whichever Member has the Floor to decide which interventions to take.
Although we now have more women Members of Parliament and we have made a difference, we are still a minority.
That is why we intend, in our new equality Bill, to extend until 2030 the right of political parties to have women-only shortlists for Parliament.
We will consult on the timing shortly. We are determined to increase the proportion of Labour women Members of Parliament from nearly a third to a half.
When it comes to representation in the House of Commons, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we have something to learn from Rwanda, which has suffered so much in recent years but which has female representation of some 48 per cent. in its Parliament?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. We are still lagging behind, which is why we intend to include provisions in the equality Bill to enable us to press on with ensuring that we increase the representation of women in the House of Commons.
In the 21st century—
I am not giving way to one of the 91 per cent. [Interruption.] I suggest that Conservative Members should give way to more women.
In the 21st century, the fact that 91 per cent. of Tory MPs are men is shameful male domination, and male domination cannot be challenged or changed if it is covered up.
No, I will not give way; I have thought better of it.
I invite the Tories and all other parties in this House to say that they will back us when we introduce the equality Bill to extend the right to have all-women shortlists.
I shall give way to my hon. Friend.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way. She is right to identify the valuable job that women do in this House, but does she agree that it is not only the women Members in this Chamber who do a valuable job, but the women who clean and look after our offices, some of them on extremely poor pay? Will she send out a message to unscrupulous employers who are exploiting women—particularly women cleaners in this place—by giving them low pay?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Many of the women who clean the House of Commons are my constituents, and we will look at the new contract for the House of Commons cleaners and make sure that they have a fair deal, which they are entitled to.
Women in this country are no longer prepared to leave all the talking to men, or to leave men to get on with making the decisions. If that had been the case—
The hon. Gentleman is now pushing at the limits of good order himself. The Chair cannot determine how many interventions are taken and from whom they are taken; that is entirely within the gift of the Member who has the Floor.
I shall give way to the right hon. Lady.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way. She has asked us a direct question about our position on the single equality Bill that she will introduce later in the year. It is, of course, possible for the use of all-women shortlists to be extended purely by taking away the sunset clause and extending the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002. Is that what the right hon. and learned Lady intends to do in the Bill?
That certainly is what we will do, and I invite the right hon. Lady to ensure that her party backs us not only over putting that into law, but by using it so that instead of only 8 per cent. of Tory MPs being women, her party can move into the 21st century and towards equality.
This is not about representation for its own sake; it is about representation because of what women in this House do for women outside it. I offer as an example my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer, who has bravely raised, and campaigned on, the issue of forced marriages.
Women in this country expect that women will share the decisions both at work and at home. The days of women accepting being told what to do by men are long gone. As we celebrate 2008 international women's day, we will ensure that we have more women in local government and here in Westminster representing women in this country and fighting for equality here and abroad.
We are in the era of expectation of equality, but the expectation is not yet matched by reality. Let us—women in Parliament and women in the country—work together to make 2008 a year of further progress towards equality.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this 97th international women's day. In the past 97 years, the role of women in politics, business and society has progressed beyond recognition. Women did not even have the vote 97 years ago, but now as many women turn out to vote as men, and we have 126 female representatives sitting in this House. Women were almost non-existent in the business sphere 97 years ago, but today there are about 620,000 majority women-owned businesses in the UK generating about £130 billion in turnover, and at long last businesses have realised that employing a woman is not a hindrance, but an asset to the running of the business—although perhaps they would all like to tell Sir Alan Sugar that. Only a handful of universities admitted women 97 years ago, but there are now more women than men at university in the UK, and that trend is set to continue. Those three examples show that in politics, business and education women have not simply waited for men to give them rights; we have gone out and achieved tremendous progress for ourselves. We must, of course, use international women's day to look ahead to the many complex challenges that women face, but we must also use it to look back and celebrate how far we have come.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I rise with sadness, as all I wanted to say earlier was that I backed the Leader of the House for the deputy leadership of the Labour party—so much for sisterhood, as you never get called. On a serious point, does my right hon. Friend agree that the contribution of women in the judiciary is a very important part of public life? Will she consider endorsing the Filipina candidate for the new International Criminal Court? Is it not a disgrace that there is not one female judge sitting on the ICC, out of 15?
My hon. Friend raises a very serious point, and he is right to remind us of the significant role women play in the judiciary. Some very distinguished women have played a role in the judiciary.
The Leader of the House spoke for 24 minutes, and during that time she did not once mention the women who serve on the front line in our armed forces; I am sure that my right hon. Friend will cover that point. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that women who are serving are probably as aghast as I am that the Government should have scheduled this debate on international women's day, which as it has been running since the early 1900s can hardly be described as topical, when we have had so little time to debate the defence and security aspects of the Lisbon treaty, which is of great relevance to them, and to both men and women in general?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about women who serve in our armed forces, and we should indeed pay tribute to them and the work that they do in putting themselves on the line for the sake of our country. He also made a point about the Lisbon treaty. I suspect that you would look at me somewhat aghast, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I were to comment too much on that. I shall simply say that I would have hoped that it was possible for the Government to find time for both a full debate on international women's day and the extra day's debate that was asked for on those specific aspects of that treaty.
Let me turn now to the challenges that we face. I accept that we must increase the representation of women in our democracy. I find it sad, however, that the Leader of the House and her colleagues line up to attack the Conservative party on our record on women in this House despite the fact that the first woman to take her seat as a Member of Parliament was a Conservative, as was the first woman Prime Minister, and I think I am right in saying that the first woman chairman of a major political party was a Conservative—me, in my appointment as chairman of the Conservative party.
If I may continue a little further, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly.
I am very ready to say that my party accepts the need to do much to improve female representation on the Conservative Benches in this House. That is why the very first issue that my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron spoke about in his acceptance speech as leader of the Conservative party in December 2005 was the need to increase the number of women Conservative Members of Parliament. That is also why I am very pleased that this party has taken the opportunities open to it under the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002—I shall say a little more about them shortly—to take positive steps to improve that situation after the next election.
On the question of women making progress in politics, does the right hon. Lady think that, if we have the first female President of the United States of America, it will be a help or a hindrance?
The hon. Gentleman is trying to tempt me down a road that I do not intend to go down. There is a well-accepted tradition that we do not try to interfere in other countries' elections. Let me say simply that we watch that election with close interest.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that such a partisan introductory speech by the Minister does little to encourage more women to listen to debates in this place and to consider a parliamentary career as one that they would want to pursue?
My hon. Friend has made an extremely important point, which I was going to make later but shall come to now. I often say to people who are talking about women in politics and Parliament that they should listen to debates predominantly involving women, notably debates on days such as international women's day, because they will hear a different quality to them. Sadly, the Minister ruined that by her approach to this subject.
I shall comment on where the Government could do more to improve the quality of life of women in this country. It was shameful that the Minister was unwilling to accept that a single Conservative had done anything to improve the lot of women. Indeed, when she referred to the all-party group on trafficking of women and children, she could not even bring herself to thank its chairman, my hon. Friend Mr. Steen, who has done valiant work to bring that issue to the forefront of the political agenda.
I mentioned the group.
But the Minister could have specifically mentioned my hon. Friend and his work as chairman when she was listing people who had done a lot of work in that area.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and for the gracious way in which she is making her speech. Does she agree that every time the Minister goes on about the percentage of male Conservative Members and how few women sit on these Benches, as she does frequently, she is being personally insulting to those of us who work hard for the cause of women, the Conservative party and general representation in this country, including my right hon. Friend? In the interests of democracy, the Minister ought to stop this utter insult.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is right, because those on both sides of the House could agree on, and work towards, getting more women into this House. Conservative Members accept that we have work to do. I am proud of the fact that my party adopted the priority list route for selecting candidates. It was first proposed in 2001 by my hon. Friend Mr. Lansley and I. I am proud to be a co-founder of women2win. My hon. Friend Mr. Newmark, who was sitting on the Treasury Bench as a Whip, is my co-chairman in that organisation. It has provided support for women, bringing them through and ensuring that more women are selected. I am pleased to say that nearly a third of our selected candidates for the next election are women. The problem for this House is that a significant number of female Labour MPs represent marginal seats, so when we succeed at the next election the overall number of women in this House may not change that much. We will increase the number of women on our Benches, but the number of women on the Labour Benches may decrease.
I am impressed with the right hon. Lady's words, but will she expand on the figures? How many of those selected women will be candidates in winnable Tory seats? How many of them will be normal working-class women who do not have Ashcroft money or are millionaires in their own right?
The hon. Lady must get rid of her stereotyped image of women in the Conservative party. A diverse range of women have been selected as Conservative party candidates. I am pleased to tell her that even if a Conservative Government are elected at the next election with an overall majority of just one, 55 women will be sitting on the Conservative Benches.
There would still be more to be done, but that would be a significant increase on our current number. I shall give way to my hon. Friend.
I well recall the initiative that my right hon. Friend launched in concert with my hon. Friend Mr. Lansley in 2001. Had she been too self-effacing to mention it, I had been intending to do so on her behalf. Nevertheless, may I put it to her that whether or not it is popular in our party, there is a compelling case for the adoption of all-women shortlists as the best and indeed the only proven method by which dramatically to increase representation, as I argued in an article in The Independent as long ago as
My hon. Friend has been a long-standing supporter of the cause of getting more women into Parliament, particularly as Conservative MPs, and of the all-women shortlist. Opinion in the party has been changing on the question of such shortlists. I have always had a concern about them, and I say to members of the Labour party that it may also be a problem for them in using only all-women shortlists as a means of getting women into this House. We need to reach a situation where there is no issue about whether a man or a woman is selected for this House and the attitudes are such that those doing the selecting are examining the individual's skills rather than whether they fit a stereotyped image of a Member of Parliament—
Quite a queue is building up. I am only two pages into my speech, but I am trying to be as generous as possible with interventions. My concern is that all-women shortlists might not change the attitude in the party to the selection of women. We should all want to achieve a situation where selection is genuinely gender-blind and—
I am spoilt for choice. I noted that when reference was made to women candidates who were millionaires Fiona Mactaggart stood up. I wonder whether she still wants to intervene.
As the right hon. Lady noticed, I was not standing up at that point. I did not want to intervene on the issue of millionaires—everybody knows that I am one; it is because I inherited money. I wanted to ask whether she could envisage a situation in which a majority of her party's new Members of Parliament were women, as happened among new Labour MPs elected in 2005.
Indeed, I can envisage such a situation. To ensure that it happens, it is important to continue the work within the party and reach a position where people no longer have a stereotyped image of the sort of person who makes a good Member of Parliament.
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once, and I shall do so again, but then I want to make some progress before taking further interventions.
The right hon. Lady has been generous. On the question of stereotypes and the selection of women, will she join me in congratulating Mr. Speaker on his progressive views in appointing the first female Serjeant at Arms?
Yes. Indeed, I was happy to join others in congratulating the first female Serjeant at Arms when she first took her position in the Chamber after her appointment.
The Minister asked me a specific question about the equality Bill and I intervened to ascertain exactly what the Government were going to propose in it. I hope that she realises that we supported the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002. I was the shadow Front-Bench spokesman who dealt with it, taking the Bill through from my side of the House. We were happy to support that Act, and I would be happy to support its extension and the removal of the sunset clause so that the opportunities it provides continue. However, it is wrong to portray the Act purely as one about all-women shortlists. What it does is enable parties to take positive action to ensure that they have women candidates. That positive action can take a variety of forms. It can take the form that we have adopted for selections for Westminster or the form we have adopted for selections of European parliamentary candidates. It can also take the form of all-women shortlists. A variety of methods can be used, and we support the removal of the sunset clause and the extension of the Act.
It is important to get more women into Parliament. We are not trying to do that to be politically correct, as some people complain, but to be politically effective. Women make good MPs. The business community is developing a strong understanding about the different skills and experiences that women can bring to business and the benefits that they can provide. They include skills of listening, using constructive methods and an approach to collegiality and the delivery of objectives that enable businesses to excel. It is those positives that also mean that we should work to increase the number of women MPs.
I reject the arguments—sadly, one does still hear them—that if we try to get more women Members, we will get second class Members of Parliament. That is absolutely wrong. We may get Members of Parliament who have a different approach to political issues, but we must all recognise that that different approach is equally as valid as the traditional, more male and macho approach that we have seen in this House. I suggest that the big challenge that remains for women in business and in politics is to be able to succeed as themselves and not to feel that they have to behave like, and adopt the attitudes of, the men in those male-dominated environments. That is why we can genuinely make a change by bringing those new skills into the House, but everybody has to recognise that that approach to being a Member of Parliament is as valid as the more traditional macho approach.
I am pleased that the right hon. Lady is saying that those of us selected on all-women shortlists are not second class, because that is what was suggested by the Conservatives when I stood in 1997. Does she agree that there is a demonstrative effect to selecting a woman? It was notable that in the following two elections, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats selected women to stand in my constituency, although unfortunately the Conservatives have selected a male candidate for the next election.
There is a proven demonstrative effect, in that having a woman candidate increases turnout at elections, according to figures from the former Equal Opportunities Commission. At the last election in Maidenhead, the three main political parties were all represented by women.
Another reason for parties to seek more women candidates is that we should be seeking the most talented candidates, so we should not ignore 50 per cent. of the population and their talents. If decisions are taken by a narrow group of people who think the same way and have the same sort of backgrounds and experiences, they will be less good over time than decisions taken by a wider group of people with greater diversity. Women have different experience sets from those of men, and women know first hand about issues that men do not know about. Indeed, the same goes for many under-represented groups in politics. They all possess valuable experiences that are unique to them and of value to our political life.
There is perhaps another reason why having women in politics is important. It is that politics has changed. The issues that matter most to people in Britain today are no longer those that are understood as the traditional male issues, although I did receive an intervention on the issue of defence. By and large, when we go out into the streets to talk to people about the issues that matter to them, they talk not about defence and unemployment, but about health and education. It is vital to be able to draw on the experiences that women have in those areas.
The approach to politics has also changed. In the new politics, we see a feminisation of politics and a less macho approach. We have seen a move away from the yah-boo tone—although that may not have been demonstrated today. A new politics is emerging, characterised by both issues and method, and it means that we are seeing a different, feminised political agenda.
Some of us believe that candidates should be selected entirely on merit, irrespective of their gender. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those men, in particular, who articulate the cause of all-women shortlists should, if they really believe in them, do the decent thing and give up their seats to allow a woman to take their place?
All the candidates who have been selected by the Conservative party, male and female, have been selected on their merits and because they would make first class Members of Parliament.
I am pleased to have recently published a document, "Women in the World Today", which sets out the five priority areas that the Conservative party has for women's issues. Unlike the Leader of the House, who was not willing to accept that anybody in another political party could ever have done anything good in this area, I accept that the Government have made some changes and taken some steps that should be welcomed. For example, the approach taken in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 was important. I visited the domestic violence court in Solihull recently and talked to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service about its operation. Such courts have been a valuable step forward and of benefit.
On the issue of domestic violence, does the right hon. Lady share my concern that women are frequently threatened with the removal of their children if they are victims of such violence? Jean Robinson of the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services is concerned that women sometimes do not report domestic violence because they fear that that will happen.
The hon. Gentleman is right and there are many aspects of the issue that still need to be addressed. Despite the fact that the Government have introduced legislation on this and various other issues that affect women, there are many other issues that need to be addressed. If a woman who is on the receiving end of domestic violence chooses to act, she can still become the victim all over again if she has to leave her home and live in the fear that her children will be taken away.
Margaret Moran intervened earlier on the issue of recourse to public funds for victims of domestic violence. That has been a problem, in relation not only to domestic violence, but to trafficking—
As I pointed out, the Government are addressing the issue of no recourse to public funds, and will put money towards supporting women in that situation. Does the right hon. Lady accept that this Government introduced safeguards for victims of domestic violence who could potentially become homeless? We are also looking to further safeguard women in those situations through the Housing and Regeneration Bill.
The hon. Lady perhaps did not hear me say that I am fully willing to accept that the Government have taken steps to improve the lot of women in several ways. However, in several areas, the Government have not followed through on their legislation, and there are still significant challenges facing women. I am concerned that the Government's approach has tended to look at women as a whole, and failed to take into account the diversity of the 30 million British women. The Government have failed to recognise that women are individuals facing distinct challenges. The Government have also tended to take the view that the answer to everything is legislation—
In a number of areas, we must look much more sensitively at a range of solutions, rather than simply look for the legislative answer.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way; she is being very generous. There is a great difference between arranged marriages and forced marriages. I recognise that some ethnic groups in this country allow and want to continue arranged marriage, but does my right hon. Friend agree that forced marriage is completely unacceptable? If the Government are serious about such issues, they will change the legislation to make forced marriage a criminal offence rather than a civil one.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of forced marriages. I hope he will be patient with me, as I will comment on it later.
The Minister for Women and Equality and I have already debated domestic violence restraining orders. If the Government intend to introduce them, I welcome that. The Minister also mentioned female genital mutilation.
They have only one woman, and she is leaving.
The right hon. and learned Lady might not have heard me say that we are using the facilities available under the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 to ensure that women candidates are selected where they will win seats in the next European parliamentary elections and that we have women in the European Parliament.
I will be honest with Ann Clwyd. I have not looked at the legislation proposed by the EU, although I am happy to do that. We need to consider the question of enforcement. The Government introduced the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, which made FGM an offence, but 74,000 women in the UK are estimated to have undergone the procedure and another 3,000 to 4,000 will do so each year. Despite the prevalence of FGM, not one person has been prosecuted under the Act. We must ensure that we have not merely measures on the statute book but measures on the statute book that change people's lives. That is what it is about.
I agree entirely with the right hon. Lady's point: I introduced the Female Genital Mutilation Bill, and the failure to bring prosecutions for breaching the Act is an absolute disgrace.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her work on that issue.
We know that between 5,000 and 8,000 trafficked women are thought to be working in prostitution in the UK. The Government have signed the convention on action against trafficking in human beings, but so far they have failed to ratify it or to change their policies. I hope that the Minister for Women and Equality will seriously consider adopting the policies that we have proposed. The issues are ensuring the prosecution of more traffickers, increasing the number of places in safe houses for victims of trafficking, allowing 16 to 18-year-olds to be admitted to POPPY project places and setting up a helpline for victims of trafficking. I hope that those suggestions are non-contentious, because they could make a difference to the victims of trafficking, reducing their number and supporting those who fall under this terrible slavery of the 21st century.
As a member of the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children and of the Committee that scrutinised the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, may I say that it is right, for once, to welcome the Government's initiative of visiting other countries to see how they tackle the issue? My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the urgency of the issue, because, to this country's shame, London, our capital, has become Europe's capital for sex trafficking. We must introduce legislation as soon as possible to tackle this scourge.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I pay tribute, again, to the all-party group's work on the issue. He is right to emphasise this country's shame. We must ensure that we act preferably to stop, or at least to reduce, this terrible trade in human beings.
The right hon. Lady makes a valid point about trafficked women being forced into prostitution. Women in prostitution are abused in different cities across the country and are often the target of murderers. Does she agree that the decriminalisation or legalisation of prostitution would end that scourge?
No, I do not. I look forward with interest to the Government's review on prostitution. There is a debate to be had about the measures that can be taken. Again, enforcement is an issue, because the enforcement of kerb-crawling laws varies across the country. We must ask what we can do, even within the existing framework, to ensure that we try to do something for women who all too often, sadly, are drawn into prostitution through no fault of their own and are on the receiving end of abuse as a result.
On women in the workplace, the issue of flexible working has already been raised. Some time ago, we said that we would extend the right to request it to the parents of children under 18. In the workplace, the stubborn pay gap is still an issue. I am disappointed that although the Government say that they will do something about the gender pay gap, they intend to leave it to the single equality Bill, which will not be introduced until the Queen's Speech has been delivered later this year. We have made a simple set of proposals to tighten the legislation, which the Government could, if they chose, adopt today. The Government have followed our agenda in a number of other areas and I would be happy if they followed our agenda on pay. Again, we must not only legislate, but ensure that schoolgirls do not simply go into the lower-paid careers that lead to the gender pay gap.
I said that I would try to make more progress before taking another intervention. I am sure that my hon. Friend will find an opportunity to intervene later.
We must look at child care and the lack of choice. The Government's support for child care is restricted and it restricts choice. The Minister for Women and Equality referred to the number of people who rely on support from family and friends. We must see whether we can ensure that that is recognised. One of my concerns about female carers is that all too often they do not know what support is available to them or often find access bureaucratic. We must tackle those issues.
On vulnerable women and particularly violence against women, I have said in the past to the Minister that the Government need to do more to help the victims of stalking. About 880,000 people in Britain have been the victims of stalking or harassment, but the authorities are all too often ill-equipped to deal with that problem. We must look at police training to support victims of stalking, so that the police can recognise the problems that stalking brings and the damage it does to someone's life.
Also on violence against women, I am pleased to say that we have made a series of proposals relating to rape. The first is to give rape crisis centres a longer, three-year funding package, which would give them greater certainty about their future. Sadly, too many have closed because of funding problems and uncertainty. We also need to consider the low figure of rape convictions, but approaching that subject is not just about legislation or the criminal justice system. A wider, strategic approach is needed, which is why we would make it compulsory for the sex education curriculum to include the teaching of sexual consent. It is shameful that many young people believe that it is okay for a boy to expect to have sex with a girl if she is being flirtatious, or if he has spent a lot of money on taking her out that evening. It is also shameful that many young people think that it is okay for a boy to hit a girl at some point in their relationship. Those problems cannot be dealt with in legislation; they can be dealt with only with a wider, more strategic approach.
I wish to mention matters concerning certain ethnic communities. My hon. Friend Mark Pritchard—I see that he has moved again, so his patience obviously ran out—made it clear that forced marriages are quite different from arranged marriages. We must make it absolutely clear that forced marriages are wrong. They often involve abuse of the girls who are forced into them, who are sadly often very young. Although 300 cases of forced marriage are reported to the Government's forced marriage unit each year and many more come to the attention of the authorities, even more sadly go unreported. We have recently made a number of suggestions on the matter, including making local authority children's services departments registered third parties that could apply for protection orders. We must ensure that information is available in schools to young girls who may find themselves victims of pressure to marry and ultimately victims of a forced marriage.
There is a debate to be had on whether a criminal offence should be introduced, because there are differing opinions. Once the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 is in force, we must see how the civil offence operates. It is valid to argue that fewer people will report forced marriage if it is made a criminal offence, because it will mean reporting members of their family. On the other hand, a group of women in Bradford who support the victims of forced marriages made the point at a recent meeting that they wanted a clear message to be sent that forced marriages were wrong. They said that that would happen by making such marriage a criminal offence. We must consider the matter seriously and then do whatever will reduce the number of young girls forced into marriages against their will.
Another matter on which there are challenges, and on which we can find benefits by working with and through women, is women's role as agents for change in the developing world. Using women as recipients of aid can significantly improve development. The Women's National Commission has argued that
"government institutions are not always best placed to plan, promote and deliver development programmes. Domestic and international civil society, including women's organisations, often have untapped expertise which could be utilised to ensure local contexts are not lost in strategic aims."
Women have an important role to play in international development, aid and post-conflict resolution. We should include them in that as much as possible, because of the benefits that they can bring not just to themselves and their families, but to their community and the whole of society.
I know that a lot of Members wish to speak, many of whom have a fine record of working to improve the rights of women and their representation in the House. There must not be a one-size-fits-all approach to women's policy, and it must not be about preaching to women about how they should lead their lives. The approach taken should be about offering women choice in their lives and giving them opportunities to make choices. It should be about more than simply legislation, because we recognise that there is a social responsibility, and that problems are sometimes about a community attitude and can be solved in ways other than simply reaching for the law.
We have set out five areas in which women still face strong challenges, and we intend to follow up on them and produce policies that will appeal to women and help to resolve their problems. I hope that the Government are willing to examine our policies and take them on board, not because I have mentioned them today or because they are in a Conservative party document, but because they would make the lives of women in this country better.
First, I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality on introducing the debate and on her great efforts over the years. She has been here a few months longer than I have—I came in after a by-election. We all recognise that she has always made women's rights one of her top priorities, which was important at a time when it was difficult to get it on the agenda. In 1983 or 1984, we had to make tremendous efforts to do so. That is why we can speak with feeling about our disappointment in the first woman Prime Minister. Having made it to the top of the ladder herself, she pulled the ladder up behind her very quickly.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that between 1980 and 1990 the proportion of young people going to university in this country increased massively due to the policies of Margaret Thatcher's Government? That made an enormous difference to many thousands of young women, who had an educational opportunity for the first time.
The hon. Lady should not express so much ire. I do not discount everything that that Government did, but there were huge gaps in such legislation as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970, and they needed closing. We continually asked the first woman Prime Minister to do so, but she chose not to.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever legislation was made in those years, there was huge social change in Britain that led to many of the women on these Benches arriving here? The pressure from women, and indeed men, outside is incredibly significant. They expect all of us here to do more to ensure that we achieve equality.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I am pleased to see all the women in the House, because I know from personal experience how difficult it has been for women to be elected. I was the only woman from Wales here for 14 years, so like my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister, I am pleased to see more women in the House. It was a long fight; there had been only three women MPs from Wales before I was elected in 1984, two of whom were daughters of famous men. One was Lloyd George's daughter, and the other was the daughter of the then Deputy Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The third was Dorothy Rees, who was unfortunately defeated after one year. That is why some of us speak with considerable feeling about the difficulties of getting here.
I was elected in competition with a lot of other people, but I know that if it had not been for all-women shortlists, I would probably not have been joined by other women from Wales. There was a culture of women not selecting women, and I am afraid there still is.
I see the hon. Lady nodding. We have all had experience of that problem. Now, however, I think most people see that to increase the representation of women here, it has been necessary to discriminate in favour of women where previously they were discriminated against. A number of people have mentioned merit, but if candidates had been selected on merit there would have been many more women in this House than there have been over the years.
We now have 96 women in the parliamentary Labour party, six of them in the Cabinet and 41 in ministerial positions. The Conservatives know they are lagging behind, with only 17 women Members of Parliament. Mrs. May acknowledged that and talked about ways to bring more women into her party. Looking at the Opposition Benches, I am sorry to see so few women. Only one woman Liberal is here this afternoon; I would have hoped that more of her colleagues would join her for this debate.
Can we get to the nub of the matter and find out how serious the right hon. Lady is about getting more women into Parliament? At the next general election, in those constituencies where a Labour man is standing against a Conservative woman, will she support the Conservative woman to get more women in Parliament, or will she support the Labour man?
I think the hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that. Obviously I want to see more Labour women in Parliament; but after more Labour women, I want to see more women on the Opposition Benches, both in the Conservative party and in the Liberal party. Plaid Cymru has no women, nor does the Scottish National party. We all want to see an improvement.
Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the Labour party's great achievement, in which she and many other Members here today played a role, of ensuring that when the Assembly was set up in Wales, equal numbers of men and women stood for election, which resulted in its being, in the last Session, the only totally balanced legislative Chamber in the world?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that was my next point. Forty-seven per cent. of Assembly Members are women. We had to battle hard for that against a lot of opposition, as my hon. Friend knows, because she and I took a lot of flak at the time when we were making the case. A lot of the flak came from Welsh men—and Welsh men in the Labour party, I am sorry to say—but eventually we got our way, and we are pleased that nearly half of the Labour AMs are women.
I want to mention one or two women who made great efforts to bring more women into Parliament. When I stood for my first election in 1970—a very long time ago now—a woman who spoke for me was one of the first suffragettes. Leonora Cohen lived in retirement in north Wales, although she was originally from Leeds. She was 97 when she stood on a platform in Denbigh town hall; she was ramrod straight, had what must have been an 18 inch waist as well as a mass of white hair, and was dressed in black.
One of Emmeline Pankhurst's suffragettes, Leonora Cohen played a largely supportive role in selling suffragette newspapers and marmalade to raise funds, but in 1911 she was so incensed by Asquith—the Liberal Prime Minister and arch-anti-suffragette—breaking his commitment to women by announcing a manhood suffrage Bill to give all adult males the right to vote, that almost overnight she was seized by a votes-for-women passion. In 1913, she broke the showcase of the Crown jewels in the tower of London. Wrapped around the bar she used to smash the cabinet was a piece of paper stating:
"This is my protest against the Government's treachery to the working women of Great Britain."
She spent time in Armley jail and Holloway for her protests, going on hunger and thirst strike.
In 1918, after the first world war, women over 30 got the vote in Britain, and in 1928 it was granted to women over 21. Leonora Cohen went on to become president of the Yorkshire Federation of Trades Councils and later a justice of the peace. She died in 1978, aged 105. Had she hung on for another year, she would have seen me elected as a Member of the European Parliament in 1979. I am sorry that she did not. Leonora Cohen and people like her were an inspiration to me and many others. I hope that, at the age of 97, I can stand on a platform to support another woman candidate.
I and my hon. Friend Stewart Hosie have been making some back-of-an-envelope calculations—literally—since the right hon. Lady mentioned women's representation in the SNP. We figure that roughly a quarter of SNP parliamentarians over time have been women. I just wanted to inform her of that, given her earlier reference to us.
I remember Winnie Ewing, of course, but my point was that at this moment in time, there are no women SNP Members.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality said, our Government introduced the minimum wage, which the Conservatives opposed. When Labour was in opposition I spoke on employment matters, so I know how much opposition there was from big business to the minimum wage. The same arguments were made then as are being made now in relation to legislation on agency workers—that the measure would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. However, in my Cynon Valley constituency, workers are now guaranteed a fair wage and thousands of women have been lifted out of poverty. The minimum wage was an important step forward, and I welcome the recently announced increase to £5.73 an hour. I am also proud to support the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill, which I hope will ensure fair conditions for thousands of men and women on temporary contracts or working through agencies. It is a scandal that temporary and agency workers work in such poor conditions on such low wages.
For many years, I have been concerned about women prisoners in the UK. There are still no prisons for women in Wales, so women are imprisoned hundreds of miles from their children, their families and their loved ones. This week, a report from the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health shows that short spells in prison, even on remand, damage women's mental health and family life, yet do little or nothing to stop them reoffending. The damage is made much worse when women are imprisoned a long distance from home and they receive inadequate health care during and after their time in prison. There are more than 4,400 women in 17 prisons in England. Four women prisoners in every five have mental health problems, most commonly depression and anxiety, and almost half have been the subject of abuse. I welcome the recent report by Jean Corston, a former Member of this House, and very much hope that the Government will take up its recommendations, including the replacement of women's prisons with smaller local custodial units. We should imprison women only when there is no other option. It is of the utmost importance that female prisoners be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
As a north Wales person and a south Wales MP, I think that we should have the units in north and south Wales, but apart from that I agree with my hon. Friend's point.
I am very interested in what the right hon. Lady is saying, and I agree with large parts of it. I point out for the record that a women's prison in my constituency was closed and changed into a men's prison, as there was so much pressure to incarcerate men. There is only one issue on which I might disagree with the right hon. Lady. Is the implication of what she says that when we make decisions about giving people custodial sentences, we should treat men differently from women? I shall have to part company with her if she does not think that there should be equality on such a big human rights issue.
My point is that women are usually imprisoned for quite low-level crimes. The people who sentence them should think carefully before putting them in already overcrowded prisons. Overcrowded prisons are a problem for both men and women. I should like far fewer people to be put in prison, and alternatives found for dealing with whatever crime they have committed.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that women are often given far harsher sentences than men for the same crime because of society's attitude and how it thinks women should behave?
I entirely agree.
I want to come on to the issue of carers, which the Minister mentioned. The issue is often raised in the House, with good reason. I know that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead has a particular view on carers, which I think we all share. There are 6 million carers in the UK, and they are estimated to save the economy £87 billion a year through their unpaid work. The burden of caring falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, with 58 per cent. of carers being female. The Government have done a lot to support carers and look after their needs, but a lot more needs to be done to protect that growing section of society as the population age.
Does the right hon. Lady accept that there is a particular problem with young carers, who not only give up their time but often sacrifice their education and career to look after someone?
That was my very next point. I am particularly concerned about the eligibility criteria for carer's allowance and the inability of those in full-time education to claim the allowance. The links between disability and poverty are crystal clear, and we must do all that we can to break them. It is hard enough for people who provide care for more than 35 hours a week to continue their education, without having to worry about financial arrangements. If women are being put off education because they cannot afford to go to school or university while caring for friends and family, there is little hope of their ever escaping the cycle of poverty. It is only fair that they, too, be eligible for carer's allowance.
I want to talk about the American elections. Recently, I gave the annual lecture at Wellesley college in Boston, which is of course the college of Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and many other women who have made a real contribution to society. There is an interesting piece in The Times today by Anatole Kaletsky, which gives two reasons why
"They must go for Hillary".
He points out:
"The possibility of a black president has electrified the world—and rightly so. President Obama would become an inspiring role model, not only for black Americans, but for oppressed races around the world, not least in Africa.
But surely this is even truer of a woman becoming the world's most powerful human being. In any rational comparison of frustrated talent, women, who are half the world's population, have suffered far more from disempowerment than Africans, Hispanics, Jews or any other racial group."
On Monday, I listened to a piece on "Woman's Hour" while I was driving to Westminster. There was a discussion of why Hillary was not doing as well as she might have done—this was before the most recent results—and it was suggested that it was because she was too like a man. It was said that she was too manly in her presentation, whereas Obama had shown a feminine streak, which was more appealing than Hillary's macho streak. Of course, women are always in a no-win situation. I found it particularly ironic that that point should be made.
I also want to talk about ageism. There is the matter of maturity and experience. I welcome the many young people in the House, but there is also a place for people who have been here longer than they have; I say that with some feeling. I do not like the ageism that I sometimes see in the House. I did not like what happened to the previous leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Sir Menzies Campbell. People should be judged not on their age but on their ability to do a job. I am not making the case for McCain, although on some issues, particularly Iraq, I agree with him, and not with the Democrat candidates. Hillary is 61, and people say that she may be too old. The point is made in The Times today that
"there is the matter of maturity and experience. This is Mr McCain's biggest gift to the Clinton campaign...Given the high propensity to vote among the elderly"— we know that there is such a propensity in this country, too—
"this election will not be decided by a baby boom but by a senility surge."
An older candidate can attract older people to vote.
As I said earlier, women are never thought to be just right; it is always thought that there is something wrong with them. That is true of their appearance, too. They are judged to be too fat, too thin or too old, but they are never just right. I got involved in the issue of cosmetic surgery some years ago; the trend is of long-running concern to me. A constituent came to me who had had silicone implants, which were all the rage at one time. The silicone implants exploded inside her. They had both ruptured, and she had to have a double mastectomy. As a result of that case and the fact that such implants were fashionable at the time, we set up a group called Survivors of Silicone. I was contacted by many women who had had experiences similar to my constituent's. When the Labour Government came in 10 years ago, we managed to introduce a regulation to ensure that whenever there was a silicone intervention, people had to register it, so that there was some tracking of those who had had such implants.
I am worried about the growth of cosmetic surgery. Last year alone, 32,453 surgical cosmetic procedures were carried out, compared with just 28,000 the previous year; that represents a 12 per cent. rise in cosmetic operations. Some 91 per cent. of the patients were women, and the rest were men; the trend is growing among men as well. Research from various groups has pointed out some of the dangers. More and more women and men are opting for non-surgical treatments. By the way, if something goes wrong during private cosmetic surgery—and many people still contact me about things that have—the national health service very often has to pick up the problem; unfortunately, the patients cannot get it put right in the private sector.
Some time ago, surgeons from Moorfields eye hospital told me that they were worried about the growth of eye operations on the high street. It is suggested that people can walk in and walk out for such procedures, and that because of that they must be okay and safe. However, most of us know that that is just not right. Things very often go wrong, particularly with laser eye surgery, which has not yet reached perfection. Things go wrong with it and, again, the NHS has to pick up the problem.
I am working with Which? at the moment. We are pushing for the recommendations in the chief medical officer's expert group report on the regulation of cosmetic surgery to be adopted by the Government. They are that there should be an end to self-regulation and that there should be greater enforcement of existing legislation. Self-regulation, I am afraid, does not work and the regulation of the huge growth in cosmetic surgery cannot be done by the industry alone. I hope that our campaign will succeed so that men and women who opt for cosmetic treatments are not fooled into their decision by advertising gimmicks and pushy salespeople, only to regret their decisions after receiving substandard treatments.
Does the right hon. Lady accept that part of the problem is the celebrity culture, which is promoted through fashion and weekend magazines? The stars are seen to be having all these operations and they appear to have size-zero bodies, to which people aspire. Those magazines have a social responsibility not to feature an article on bulimia once every blue moon, but to change the size and the sort of women that they feature.
I agree, as I tighten my jacket. The pressures on women to conform to certain shapes, sizes and looks are extraordinary. The Advertising Standards Authority has a real role to play, but I believe that it is not carrying out the role for which it was set up in respect of regulating adverts of the type that appear in magazines and newspapers. There are pages and pages of such adverts. The things that appear in such media put pressure on young women in particular to get a nose job or some other kind of job done, and that should be regulated by the ASA. As the hon. Gentleman said, there should also be lengthier magazine articles and television items that give a fairer idea of what is going on.
All the women whom I see in this Chamber are just right—they are not too fat, too thin or too whatever; they are just women. I am pleased to have spoken on international women's day.
It is a pleasure to follow Ann Clwyd. I particularly enjoyed her remarks about the American elections, which I have also been following with much interest. My overriding concern is that either Obama or Clinton should be in the White House next time; I shall be pleased to see the back of its current occupant. However, I confess that, faced with the choice between the two Democrat candidates, I would be a Hillary supporter. I share the right hon. Lady's abhorrence of ageism, but as the youngest Member of the House, I should point out that the issue works both ways.
I must apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend Lynne Featherstone, who would normally speak for my party on women's issues; she has a prior constituency commitment. I am delighted to speak in her place in this debate to mark international women's day. Yesterday, there was a wonderful cross-party event just outside Parliament to pay tribute to Emmeline Pankhurst of the suffragette movement. It was a bit of a shame that the nearest she has got to having a statue in Parliament is having one outside it in Victoria Tower gardens. None the less, the event was very enjoyable and it was good to see so many men there as well—one of whom, Mr. Newmark, is in the Chamber now.
This debate is particularly appropriate, not only because it is international women's day but because 2008 is a year of many anniversaries. It is 90 years since women achieved the right to vote and 80 years since they achieved the right to do so on the same basis as men. On the subject of history, I should like to share what I tell constituents is my favourite part of the tour of the House of Commons. It is the marble statue in the approach to Central Lobby. I do not know the background to its subject, but he was clearly deemed to have been worthy of a statue in the House of Commons when Emmeline Pankhurst was not. He was, apparently, the second Viscount Falkland, who obviously had some importance. What attracts me to that part of the tour is not the subject of the statue, but the little crack along the sword that he holds; both his hands are clasped on the sword, which goes down to the statue's marble base.
That crack is there because on
I understand that the statue had to be broken because there was no blowtorch. After the incident, there was a worry about further demonstrations, so the order went out to buy a blowtorch so that the chains, rather than the valuable statues, could be broken.
I thank the hon. Lady for that further information about the event.
I would argue that the representation of women is important in itself—for equality and fairness in a 21st-century society. It is also important for the credibility of this Chamber in the eyes of our constituents. When they turn on the television to watch the goings-on here, as they may occasionally do, it does politics no service when they see such a lack of diversity in the House; that applies not only to gender, but to age, background, ethnicity and many other elements of diversity.
It is also important to note that better representation of women changes the issues that are discussed. I highly recommend an excellent book called "Women in Parliament" by Boni Sones and Margaret Moran, which chronicles interviews with many women MPs. I read it a few months after my election and found it contained a few tips. I also found, pleasingly, that some of the experiences of women elected in 1997 of extreme and awful cases of sexism, even in the Chamber, did not relate to my experience eight years later in 2005. I am pleased that there has been good progress in the House. The book also found that there has been a noticeable change in the issues discussed as a result of having more women in the Chamber.
We have heard many issues raised today—trafficking, women in prisons, armed forces, child poverty, carers, forced marriage, black and minority ethnic women—all of which are important. But time is limited for the debate and it is impossible for me to cover everything. If more speakers can contribute, it will make for more interesting debate. I intend to confine my remarks to a few areas that particularly affect women; equal pay, violence against women, pensions, the international dimension and women's representation.
I thank the hon. Lady for that unanticipated plug and for her support for the follow-on project that Boni Sones and I have been involved in—women's parliamentary radio—through which we can provide unmediated information about women in Parliament and about what we are doing, rather than the stereotypes about women in this place that are often promulgated in the media.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; the project is an excellent one that deserves support and its website is www.wpradio.co.uk. I would certainly encourage hon. Members to become involved with that excellent project.
The Minister mentioned the pay gap and accepted that it was still a problem. It is simply shocking that, more than 30 years after the equal pay and the sex discrimination legislation, we still have a significant pay gap between men and women—17 per cent. of the mean average for full-time workers and as high as 35 per cent. among part-time workers. That latter figure is particularly worrying because so many more women as a percentage work part-time than men.
The current mechanism to deal with equal pay claims is not working. In the year to
Pay audits are a good, proactive way of dealing with the pay gap and are now common practice in the public sector. I would like that arrangement to be extended to the private sector. We have the gender equality duty but we should require private companies to undertake pay audits and, as a quid pro quo, say to them that if problems are uncovered during the audit, claims cannot be made against them as long as they put right those problems.
Does my hon. Friend accept that it is in the best interests of companies to provide the information? All the evidence from those companies that provide such information is that they get better women applying for jobs as a result. It is a win-win situation for women and for the companies.
I agree with the hon. Lady on mandatory pay audits. She mentioned the number of equal pay claims that are currently being brought, many of them by the public sector. Does she agree that one of the problems was that equal pay legislation was effectively ignored and that it is only within the past 10 years that the issue has been addressed?
I read a shocking report about the team that is set up to deal with claims from the NHS. Even within the public services, the issue is not being addressed and the thought that Government services are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, is very concerning.
On equal pay, we have to look at the issue of child care and I would propose that we allow maternity leave to be shared between fathers and mothers as they see fit. Currently, it could be said that fathers get quite a raw deal, in getting only a short period of paternal leave, and that helps to reinforce discrimination against women. An employer interviewing a woman of child-bearing age might perhaps wonder whether this person, whom they might employ, will end up taking maternity leave, but would not necessarily think the same about a man. By sharing the parental leave, more choice would be given to parents about managing child care, and it would help to tackle some of the indirect discrimination that is difficult to prove and to deal with through legislation.
There is broad agreement in the House about equalising pay, but I want to mention one of the things that shocked the Select Committee when we looked at the findings of the Women and Work Commission. The commission studied women graduates and compared them with male graduates five years out of university. One would have thought that there was a reasonable expectation that the pay gap would not even exist, let alone be very big, but it was still 15 per cent. I worry how intractable the problem of the pay gap is.
As the hon. Lady says, "The boys do." From an early age, boys, through social conditioning, are encouraged to speak out and to shout out in class; boys are less likely to be disciplined for that. It is "Be a good girl," but "Boys will be boys." There is an in-built discrimination of which, to a certain extent, we are all guilty. Partly this could be addressed through education, which is why pay audits and the requirement on companies to be proactive in that respect is so important.
I welcome the Government's commitment to extend flexible working to parents of older children, but I would go further and say that we need to change the mindset and culture of work in this country. Businesses need to be able to make decisions based on business reasons, but why should not everybody have the right to request, not demand, flexible working? If everybody had that right, we might start to change the working culture. That can be in the interests of business; if one member of staff wants to start and leave early and another wants to start and leave later, a customer-facing business might be able to open for longer.
On violence against women—a scourge on our country and the world—I pay tribute to the great work of the End Violence Against Women coalition, which has done great things to highlight the issue. The shocking statistic that almost half of all women in the UK will, at some point in their lives, face domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking is frankly unacceptable. In the past few years, much progress has been made to counter such violence, and the Labour Government have introduced specialist domestic violence courts, sexual assault referral centres and so on to deal with certain aspects of it. But there is still a huge amount that needs to be done. Recently the End Violence Against Women coalition found that one third of local authorities have no specialist violence against women services. Rape crisis centres are closing in increasing numbers; surely we need to be going in the other direction.
The recent report "Map of Gaps" highlighted Scotland as a good example to be followed, as Scotland had ring-fenced the funding for support for women's services. As a Scottish MP, I was particularly pleased to read about that. That is why it is with great disappointment that I have to inform the House that the recently elected Scottish National party Government in Holyrood have reversed that pioneering and forward-thinking move and, in the recent local funding round, have ceased ring-fencing the money for women's aid services and for work to counter violence against women. The money will now be rolled up into the general local government settlement. When budgets come under pressure, I have a fear that some of those services for women will be cut.
The hon. Lady, I am sure, will confirm, for the sake of completeness, that the local government settlement is much bigger and there is every intention that every one of those services will continue to be provided.
There is no guarantee. When the funding was ring-fenced, it had to be spent on those services. It will now be subject to decision making and there is great pressure on local authority funding in Scotland. Councils must make difficult decisions because they have effectively been blackmailed into providing a zero per cent. council tax rise. I have great concerns that some important services will be cut.
I welcome the additional information that the hon. Lady provides about her area. I know that she will be concerned about the cuts to those services.
What is missing, and what the End Violence against Women coalition is calling for, is a cross-departmental approach to the issue. We need to recognise that violence against women is not just about the often excellent Department responsible for women and equality matters. It is not just about the health service providing support when women have been victims of violence, or the justice system dealing with such cases. It is not just about safe transport for women or education to prevent such violence. All the relevant Departments need to work together.
"We are considering merging the inter-ministerial group on domestic violence and the inter-ministerial group on sexual offences in order to take an overall view across Government on violence against women."—[ Hansard, 17 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 183.]
That would be welcome. I should like to know, some months on, whether that has happened or the status of the proposal.
With reference to violence against women, I tabled early-day motion 765 on the campaign for justice for victims of rape, which 84 hon. Members have already signed. The conviction rate for rape, as we all know, is appallingly low—around 5 per cent., which is down from 33 per cent. in the 1970s. That is not the conviction rate for cases that get to court. More than four out of five cases do not get to court, so the problem is not necessarily at the jury stage. The difficulty tends to arise at an earlier stage, with cases being dropped because insufficient evidence has been collected.
I know that the Government have been consulting on the issue, which is to be welcomed. We need to know how we can improve criminal practices to ensure that more cases get to court and are successful, but it is also important that the support services receive stable funding. That can be an important factor in determining whether a woman will pursue a case, decide to drop it or not report it at all.
We need to address the myths about rape. There have been some shocking reports about the perception out there. In 2005, an ICM poll found that a third of British people thought that in some circumstances a woman could be held partly responsible if she was raped. That must be scotched. It is not a woman's fault if she is raped. It is not her fault if she has been drinking. It is not her fault depending on what she is wearing. If somebody was murdered or mugged, we would not say that it was their fault because of the way they had acted, and we should not say that in the case of rape.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead mentioned a horrifying statistic about the number of young girls being pressurised into sex. A recent Amnesty study showed that 40 per cent. of young people know girls whose boyfriends have coerced or pressurised them into sex. In one sense, that is shocking, but it is not all that surprising when one considers the education that is currently provided and the different views about sex that are allowed to develop between boys and girls. We must tackle the matter from an education point of view so that it is clear what is and is not acceptable behaviour.
I questioned the Minister for Schools and Learners about that in December. The point that I was making was that it was not just sex education that was important—relationships education must be an integral part of that. When young people are learning about how to have safe sex, about the biology of sex, about what happens, they also need to understand the context of the relationships in which that can happen and the issues of consent, love and confidence that go with that. I do not see how the two aspects can be separated, so I was extremely disappointed when I asked the Minister if he would consider making such education a statutory requirement, and he replied:
"Sex education is statutory, but the relationship side is not."—[ Hansard, 17 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 584.]
He went on to say that he wanted better sex and relationships education, but would not make a commitment to make that a statutory requirement. If the Government are serious, they need to look carefully at that issue.
On women's pensions, the Government, to give them their due, have made some progress, particularly for women with caring responsibilities who do not have a complete national insurance record. However, the way that changes are being introduced means that there will be a cliff edge where the difference in entitlement between women who are eligible after
The Government should have considered introducing the new scheme in a more staggered way to avoid such a cliff edge. They should also consider a citizen's pension. It will still be a requirement to have 30 years of national insurance contributions for a full pension. Even with that change from 39 years, some women will still not achieve a full pension because of their caring responsibilities. That needs to be taken into account.
My hon. Friend Steve Webb has drawn attention to the problem of women who have gaps in their contribution record, which they could pay to have filled. There was a six-year period when the Government did not inform women that that was possible. Women can do that retrospectively and in some cases be eligible for a lump sum of a couple of thousand pounds or more, plus an enhanced pension going forward. I have tried to raise awareness of the matter in my constituency and help women in individual cases, but the Government should take responsibility for being proactive and making sure that women get what is rightfully theirs.
On the international agenda—after all, we are celebrating international women's day—it is important to consider the issues that women face around the world. There are countries where female infanticide is common. As has been mentioned, 2 million girls every year go through the appalling practice of female genital mutilation. Rape is used as a weapon of terror. We saw that in Rwanda, yet the same is happening again in Darfur. Women are oppressed in societies and countries across the world, unable to access education and denied equal rights in judicial procedures. Poverty tends to hit women the hardest. This week there is an excellent exhibition in the House, in the Upper Waiting Area, about the impact of climate change on women. In the developing world women will be hardest hit by the effects of climate change.
Interestingly, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead said, women can often be part of the solution, even though they suffer the worst elements of the problem. There is a high correlation between the education of women in a country and that country's level of development. We see micro-finance initiatives run by women throughout the world to make their communities better, and this Government, through their international development work, should rightly ensure that the involvement of women in the solution to many of those problems is a priority.
That brings me to women's representation, which brings all of those issues together. There are 126 women Members of Parliament at the moment—fewer than one in five—which is clearly not enough. The figures are slightly better in some of the other authorities and Parliaments. A third of the Members in the Scottish Parliament are women, but I am sad to say that that is a decrease from 40 per cent. previously. The Welsh Assembly has an excellent record, with 47 per cent. of its Members being women—I congratulate the Assembly on achieving that. In the European Parliament, 31 per cent. of Members are women. Although representation in local authorities is better than it is in this House, with 29 per cent. of councillors being women—and I am delighted that the Liberal Democrats have the highest percentage of women councillors, at 32 per cent.— we have no reason to be complacent.
Sometimes in meetings, I have raised that problem, and men will turn round and go, "Oh, a third are women. That's quite good.", and I say, "Hang on a second—it might be quite good compared to the really awful representation in other areas, but there is no way that a third of representatives being women is good." We can probably say that a figure of 47 per cent. is quite good—it is not always going to be exactly 50:50—but we cannot be complacent about a proportion such as a third. The Labour Benches are made up of many more women, and I hope that there is no complacency there, because even on their Benches, there is still a long way to go.
We need to look at the variety of reasons why representation is so low. Is sexism the reason? It probably is partly sexism, but I do not think that it is the only one. The reason is less likely to be sexism now than it was 30 years ago. We certainly know that the electorate are no less likely to vote for a woman. In fact, I have seen research showing that not only does turnout go up when women stand, but that women are marginally more likely to be elected than men—so it is an advantage to have women candidates. If the electorate are no longer sexist, it would be slightly strange to suggest that political parties have a higher degree of sexism. Although sexism is probably still a factor in some cases, it is not the only one.
Is it a matter of lifestyle? Is it that women look at us debating until 11 o'clock—on at least two nights so far this week—and at the sometimes strange procedures and practices of this House, and say, perhaps entirely sensibly, "Hang on a second, that's not for me. I can make an impact in another career in business or in one of the professions, or through working in my local community." I suspect that that sentiment has a role to play. However, it would not explain the low percentage of councillors. Combining the lifestyle of a councillor with the other sensible things that one might want to do is easier than combining them with the lifestyle of a Member of Parliament, which involves two lives and two homes.
Cash is certainly part of the problem. The pay gap exacerbates the representation problem. Let us be honest about it—standing for Parliament and being involved in politics leads to additional costs. Like it or not, as the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley said, women get judged on their appearances more, so there are wardrobe costs. There are certainly child care costs. But there is also the cost of going to party conferences and accommodation, and the little things that happen all the time when one is a candidate, such as taking volunteers out for a drink after a hard day's work. A lot of incidental costs are involved, and because there is a pay gap, the financial implications are even worse for women.
Another real problem is confidence. One of my favourite things about the job is speaking to school groups. Rather than being deferential, they will always tell it exactly like it is, and they are inquisitive and enthusiastic. I have noticed with interest that when I meet a school group and ask for questions, nine times out of 10 the first question is from one of the boys, and very often the second question is, too. There have even been occasions when I have had to turn to the class and say, "Come on girls, you must be thinking interesting things, too. Why don't you put your hands up?" Then, fair enough, some of them do. I have noticed that; I do not know whether other women, or male Members, in the Chamber have done so.
I remember the feeling of sitting in a political meeting or a classroom and thinking of something, then thinking, "Shall I say that? No, I might look stupid." I have a sort of internal conversation, and decide that it is safer not to put my hand up, or not to contribute. Then, of course, some bloke says the same thing far less eloquently, and everyone lauds them for it. It is only through making myself speak, and through others helping me to have the confidence to do it, that I got to a position where I felt happy to stand for Parliament. I did not wake up one morning and think, "I want to be an MP"—other people suggested the idea to me.
I did a straw poll of my female colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, and about half of them were asked to stand by someone else. I have not done a scientific poll with the male Members of Parliament, but I suggest that there might be a different result. I would urge all hon. Members who want to see more women in politics to ensure that they say to someone, "Why don't you put your name forward and do it?" rather than just expect women magically to think that they will do it. Even if they do not want to, they will be flattered to be asked.
I am inspired by the hon. Lady's comments and I am sure that many young women will be inspired by the way in which she is making her point. Most of my colleagues will have attended meetings where they felt exactly the same. A Labour politician advised me that I should "feel the fear" and do it anyway. If the hon. Lady tells that to the women to whom she speaks, it will go a long way.
That is good advice and a tactic that I urge others to employ.
I acknowledge the progress that the Labour party has made on electing many more women to Parliament—it would be churlish not to do so. I disagree that all-women shortlists are the solution for every party, but I would support an extension of the sunset clause in the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 till 2030 or until the issue is no longer a problem. Parties should have the opportunity to use that as a tool to tackle the problem, but it is not the only tool. If the problem is sexism in the selection process, I can think of few other things that would change the outcome. However, if that is not the main problem, all-women shortlists are not necessarily the right solution.
I speak from several years' experience of dealing with the matter in my party. We examined the figures, did the research and found that women were as likely to get selected in seats—winnable and otherwise—as men, but five times as many men came forward as candidates. When working with such numbers, ending up with a gender balance would be a statistical anomaly.
We have been working on the matter since the conference debated how to tackle the problem in 2001, and I chair the Liberal Democrats' campaign for gender balance, which is the approach that we have taken. We have encouraged more women to come forward. About three times as many men as women want to become candidates, but we have made some progress.
That may well have been the case in the Labour party. I have not conducted research on the Labour party, only on my party. We found that, when shortlists were half men and half women, men won half the time and women won half the time. I will not say that there was never an instance of sexism, or that a sexist comment was never made, in Liberal Democrat selection contests, although in my experience, for everyone who said, "What would you do if you had children?" or, "Are you sure you can do this?" someone else said, "It's great to have more women in Parliament and I'll vote for you because of that." Things can even out, but I cannot speak for other parties—obviously, I do not know their internal procedures and cultures as well as those of mine.
Each party should be entitled to find its own method of dealing with the problem. Our approach is to encourage more women to become candidates, and we have good support mechanisms to help them with that and to get selected. Given that we still have many more male than female candidates, we must ensure that those women punch above their weight and are more likely to get selected. We undertake intensive mentoring and training. Two weekends ago, we held our now annual event, "Calling all Future Women MPs!" Fifteen women attended and it was inspiring—I hope to see many of them on our Benches in future.
Many firsts have happened in the past few decades. An important first was the election of the first UK female Prime Minister in 1979. I was surprised and disappointed that Labour Members could not recognise that achievement. I share many of their concerns about what Baroness Thatcher did in office—I am also speaking as a Scot, and I do not believe that she was necessarily good for the country—but I can still acknowledge that important achievement, which deserves to be recognised, as do many achievements more recently by Labour women. They include the first woman Speaker, Baroness Boothroyd, the first woman Foreign Secretary, who is still a Member of Parliament, and the first female Home Secretary. As was mentioned earlier, we now have the first female Serjeant at Arms—I was delighted when that appointment was made, and it is a shame that she is not here today.
Absolutely. The hon. Lady is quite right.
I intend to draw my remarks to a close shortly, because there are many hon. Members present who want to make contributions and I am keen to hear them. We have made a lot of progress, but there is still so much more to do. One problem is that although we have debates and discussions about equality, I suspect that we can sometimes put women off. There is a feeling out there that this place is an old boys' club that is full of sexism and that the job is really difficult for women, but a lot of that is not true. Women Members in all parts of the House will say that being an MP is a wonderful job and very suited to the skill sets of women. It is not all about standing up and making speeches. So much of the job is about listening, dealing with constituents' problems and finding ways to work with those from different parties or other agencies in our constituencies to find solutions, and even in this place there is nothing like the sexism that there used to be. Indeed, this job is very enjoyable.
I sometimes think that we need to make that case more strongly. In December I had an exchange with the Minister for Women and Equality in which I made that suggestion, following it up with a letter to ask whether she thought that a cross-party initiative would be a good idea. She responded in January—I should apologise for not replying yet; my time has been monopolised somewhat by the European Union (Amendment) Bill over the past month—by saying:
"It would be good if either myself or" the Minister for Equality
"could meet with you to discuss how the parties can work more effectively on this important issue."
I very much welcome that sentiment. However, rather than having the right hon. and learned Lady or the Minister meet just me, I would hope that we could involve Conservative Members and launch a cross-party initiative looking at how, collectively, we can sell the job of being a Member of Parliament and ensure that we get the message out there and in the media that this is a very enjoyable job to do.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is the image that the House projects of the standard MP? The image that the media give is of a white, middle-class man who looks a bit like a stuffed suit. If my hon. Friend's grouping can persuade hon. Members to change the rules of the House, to make men look slightly less stuffed and starched, there might be a different image of an MP.
I would never say that my hon. Friend looked like a stuffed suit.
A lot can be done. It would be wonderful if the message that went out from this debate was that being an MP is something that women throughout the country with talents to offer should consider and if we used the debate as a starting point to work together on the issue. We should celebrate very much all the achievements and work of women in the past, but look forward to much better representation of women in the future.
I am delighted to follow Jo Swinson and I congratulate her on her work to achieve gender balance in her party.
I was interested in the hon. Lady's comments in what were some quite bad-tempered exchanges about Margaret Thatcher. The theme of my short contribution is what those women who have managed to reach representative positions do for other women. The point, which was roundly and soundly made by my sisters on the Labour Benches, is that one would expect a lot of legislation from a woman in a position of such power as Prime Minister that looked at what women in our society need, but that was missing. That is the point that we were making.
I thank Baroness Thatcher greatly, as I am sure many of my colleagues will, because her policies and the damage that they did in my local community made me become politically active and join the party.
I thank my hon. Friend deeply for that. Many of us on the Labour Benches became politicised and active in fighting for our communities, because we knew that they were under attack.
The theme of my speech is the responsibility that we have. I feel thoroughly honoured to be on the Labour Benches, and I will ensure that I stick to just 10 minutes, because there are so many sisters on our Benches who are desperate to make contributions that are crucial to the debate about what we do for women.
The passionate speech that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality made today really got us off to a good start. Talking about women's politics in that passionate way and getting a lot of response is where we want women's politics to be. We still want to have that fire in our bellies that makes us want to go out and fight.
My hon. Friends the Members for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) have been doing fantastic work for women, and it is that kind of work that we should be celebrating today. This debate gives us an opportunity to come together, to take stock and to celebrate the work that has been done. Without doubt, this Government have contributed enormously to women's lives in the UK. We almost always hear the caveat, "Yes, but there's more to be done", but it would be ludicrous if we did not celebrate the very real achievements on domestic violence, on carers and on pensions. It would be utterly ridiculous if we did not acknowledge that work.
I would like my right hon. and learned Friend to assure us that this debate will happen each year. In my heart, I feel that, as long as she is Leader of the House, that will be the case. This is a crucial opportunity for us to come together. It feels like a special day, when we can come together to discuss the women's issues that we do not get the opportunity to discuss in other forums. I certainly hope that we can continue to celebrate international women's day with these debates in the years to come.
Prominent figures have been mentioned, including our first woman Prime Minister, but many of us are now looking across the Atlantic at the fantastic prospect of a woman President of the United States. That is important, and women should have many radical role models, but I want to concentrate on the work of the representatives in our communities who encourage women to make their lives more fulfilling. For me, one of the most moving things is to see women in my community being empowered through programmes such as Sure Start. There are women who have not been out of their houses and who have not had much guidance and help from their families, but I have seen them blossom into people who are able to become representatives within the Sure Start movement and set up groups by themselves. I have seen them learn to cook and pass that skill on to younger mothers. We should be encouraging all that. It is easy to talk about the notable women, but we must be there to ensure that this kind of work is happening as well. It would be a dereliction of our duty as women in this House if we did not keep a close eye on ensuring that such women are able to thrive and survive, and to make the most of their lives.
Interesting things are happening in our communities on issues such as breastfeeding. At one time, it almost became too difficult for women to breastfeed. We were not encouraging them to do so, and we made it difficult in public places. Now, however, we have breastfeeding mentors to encourage new mums to take up breastfeeding. We have the equipment to do it—and I am very pleased that we do—yet we used to discourage it. Now we are giving women the power to encourage it and to increase the numbers of breastfeeding mums. The result will be that our children will be healthier, slimmer and more intelligent. Breastfeeding brings all those benefits to our children. These are the things that truly matter to our communities and that are making a difference to women's lives.
I also want to mention the work of organisations such as Southall Black Sisters, which I understand is facing funding cuts because of the work that it does. I first came across that organisation when I was involved with a case involving the death of a man who had consistently abused a constituent of mine, Karanjit Ahluwalia. She finally just broke, as she could bear it no longer. As a nurse on night duty, I received the man who was admitted to hospital. Distressing as that incident was, the work of the Southall Black Sisters was invaluable. I seriously hope that the responsible local authority will take a large second look at the funding for that organisation, which helps people in their communities.
There are many other ways of improving the ability of women to conduct their lives. We are hoping and fighting for a university campus in Crawley. I have a sizeable community of people from black and ethnic minority groups, and I can see what having a university campus in Crawley will do culturally for those who are not going to be encouraged to go away to university. The women from those communities would be able to study technology and all the sciences that we desperately need them to study while remaining at home. That will be a tremendous advantage not just for the economy as a whole, but for those particular women who will be able to achieve their aims. That is yet another Government initiative that I believe will bring huge and fruitful results.
Let me finish by mentioning the latest life-changing Government decision—to introduce chlamydia screening, which will very quietly reduce the number of women suffering infertility in adulthood as a result of infection in their earlier life. It is a tremendous thing to do. It says a great deal that we Labour Members can stand up and say thank you for what, I think, will be an enormous gift to many women in the future. I hope to see more of that sort of work and as I look around me and see women Members, particularly on the Labour Benches, I know that much more of it will continue into the future.
The great thing about all this is how much we really enjoy campaigning on these issues. It is fantastic to be able to go into communities and make a difference by joining together with women, wherever they come from, and understanding that, no matter who we are, we have common interests with them. It is great for women to help other women.
Later this year, I hope to be able to do some work in the emerging democracies with Voluntary Service Overseas, helping women with advocacy and getting them more involved in the democratic system. That, I believe, is our responsibility. I strongly believe that we have been given the privilege of being in this place, but we must then share that benefit with other women so that we continue to get a flow of good women in places where they are able to influence the next generation.
I am glad to be able to begin by agreeing entirely with the final remarks of Laura Moffatt. We are very privileged women—indeed, very privileged people—in the western world in terms of the freedoms and the standard of living that we and our families enjoy. We are also privileged people to be elected to this House, so I am very pleased to have this opportunity to mark international women's day. It is the international aspects of today's celebration that matter almost more than anything else. It is our duty and responsibility to give moral support and solidarity to women—and, indeed, men—throughout the world who are fighting to make all countries fairer and more equal places for people to live in.
I happily acknowledge the enormous efforts made by women and men on all sides of the House—unlike the hon. Member for Crawley, who originally said that she was very pleased about what the "sisters" on the Labour Benches are doing. I acknowledge what they are doing, but I also acknowledge what everyone throughout the House and throughout our democratic system is doing to make our country—and therefore other places where we can exert influence—a more equal and fair society. It is good that we are having this debate today.
I always insist that there is no such thing as a women's issue. For generations, indeed centuries, men managed to sideline topics with which they did not particularly want to deal, saying "Oh, that's a women's issue; we will appoint so-and-so to deal with it." That applied particularly to such matters as health, child care and families. Those are not women's issues—they are everyone's issues, but men and women often approach things from slightly different directions. I think it is time we had the courage to stand up and dare to say that women do things differently from men.
I am sure that every woman in the Chamber will at some time have had the experience of being the only woman at a meeting or in an organisation. As Jo Swinson explained very graphically, a woman may make a point differently from the way in which it has been made by all the men, and then all the men will sigh in a man-like way because the woman used slightly different language or a slightly different tone of voice. I hope we are reaching a stage where there is less of that, possibly because of the increased representation of women.
I do. On some occasions the realisation is more immediate than it is on others.
I agree with much of what has been said today. For nearly 11 years I have been saying things—as have many of my colleagues, especially my right hon. Friend Mrs. May—and only now are we beginning to be listened to. Better late than never, though, and it is because we have the courage of our convictions that we keep going and will achieve what we set out to do.
I want to put one thing on record. On occasions such as this Lady Thatcher is always mentioned, with great affection and respect by Conservative Members and in different terms by Labour Members—although I must say that Ann Clwyd was generous in pointing out that the Thatcher Government did achieve some things for women. I will always argue that the fact that Lady Thatcher and her Government turned around the country's fortunes in the 1980s inevitably benefited the 52 per cent. of the population who are women just as much as it benefited the rest of the country.
I have already mentioned the expansion of educational opportunities. If there is one thing that makes a difference to a girl approaching womanhood, it is having the opportunity of a good education. That is what makes it possible for a woman to compete with men who have had a good education. If we do not get education right, we can never achieve the equality that we all want. Fiona Mactaggart is shaking her head. She cannot possibly disagree with my view that education is the most important tool that can be given to anyone, male or female, to help them contribute to the society that we all want to build.
The main thing that Margaret Thatcher did, of course, was to be there. She was Prime Minister, and therefore no one can say that a woman cannot be elected to Parliament and cannot be a successful and effective Member of Parliament.
Last week, I was fortunate enough to be the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York. I was sent there with Hilary Armstrong, and we attended the meeting for IPU representatives. It was an important meeting, and it is a very important commission. It has been taking place for some 52 years. I felt honoured to take part, representing the UK Parliament along with the right hon. Lady. It was extremely important to be there.
We in the United Kingdom are in a privileged and important position; I am not being complacent in saying that, as I accept that there is a lot of work yet to do for women in our country, Europe and the wider western world. However, when one attends such a UN meeting and looks around what is an enormous chamber—possibly somewhat bigger than this Chamber—filled with people, mostly women, from countries all over the world, one realises what a fortunate position we are in, because many of the battles have been won here. Some Members have already referred to the work of the suffragettes and the fact that we are celebrating 80 years of women's suffrage. Many countries throughout the world that were represented are far behind our position, as is universally known. I had an opportunity to discuss that with their representatives last week. In attending meetings such as the commission, we can make the important contribution of offering moral support and solidarity to those who still have so much to fight for in their countries.
There were two main themes to the conference: increasing the representation of women and gender budgeting. We have discussed the first of those themes at length and I shall not reiterate the points that have already been made, but something struck me as ironic. Inside the UN building there was much talk of the importance of increasing the representation of women, and many people said— sadly, somewhat naively—"If only we had more women in our Parliament, we could change this and change that, and make such a difference." Meanwhile, outside in the rest of America there are people raising money—$34 million in February alone—to pay for advertisements to try to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming President of the United States of America. If we were to follow the representation argument to its logical conclusion, merely having Hillary Clinton, a woman, as President of the USA—and, therefore, arguably the most important person in the world—would solve many of the ills of the world. I am afraid that I would argue that having Hillary Clinton as President of the USA would cause more problems than it would solve, not only for America but for its position in the rest of the world. I will not go into that in any greater detail, but it is somewhat ironic that those two major debates were going on at the same time.
What bothers me far more, however, is the representation of women in this House of Commons. I absolutely agree with much of what the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said about its being our duty to go out and be evangelical about encouraging other women to enter the House of Commons. Many of us in the Conservative party are doing that; we are encouraging women to stand for election, and to become involved in politics not only at local level, where we have many good women, and not just in other organisations, but here in Parliament itself.
I hope, however, that the Minister for Women and Equality, who is also Leader of the House, will take account of the following point. If we are to encourage more women with children, and men with family responsibilities and who come from different sorts of backgrounds, to enter this House and be devoted as full-time Members, taking care of their constituency duties, their duties to this House, and their duties to their families, we must give them the financial wherewithal and the practical support to be able to balance all of those duties.
I am listening with interest and respect to my hon. Friend's speech. In the light of what she has said, does she share my frustration and disappointment that, notwithstanding the commentary on the subject over at least the past decade, this House still has not got a properly functioning crèche for the benefit of Members and, importantly, of staff?
Yes. As ever, my hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Crèche facilities are part of it, but this is about the whole attitude towards Members of Parliament, and not only women Members. Let us be practical and honest about family responsibilities. The burden of caring for family, whether it be children, elderly relatives or someone who is sick, falls far more often on women than men. I do not like to personalise things, but I feel duty bound to use myself as an example in this case, because I am the example I know best. Two thirds of my net salary as a Member of Parliament is spent on child care costs. People say, "Can't you get grandparents to help? Where is your husband? Haven't you got a sister?" Such questions are nonsense. I am divorced from my husband. It is no wonder that he did not want to spend every weekend doing constituency duties, as I was happy to do. There was no reason why he should have wanted to go to coffee mornings every Saturday—I do not blame him.
My hon. Friend says that his wife does not want to go to them, and I do not blame her either. I am devoted to my constituency, but there is no reason why my ex-husband should have wanted to be devoted to it. Although he is an extremely good father who spends a lot of time with our son, I, like most other mothers, have the prime duty of looking after my son. No grandparents are around, because sadly my mother and father both died, and my brother lives abroad, but in any case why should one seek voluntary family help to carry out one's duties properly?
People never consider what happens every time this House sits past 6 pm. I am very much in favour of this House sitting all the hours there are, because it is only by using time that Members of Parliament can hold the Government to account. I am happy to be here until midnight, but not many Members of this House and not many members of the Executive have to consider how much it costs per hour to pay someone to look after one's child while one is undertaking parliamentary duties.
Dare I say it, but members of the press and media have no idea what they are talking about when they criticise Members of Parliament for being overpaid or for using their allowances one way or another. They have no idea what it costs to keep two houses, look after a family and be diligent in all one's duties in these different areas of life.
We must consider what would happen if we gave in and said that we would not fund Members of Parliament properly for carrying out their work and duties owing to a press campaign that arose because a small minority—a very small percentage—of Members of Parliament did not behave responsibly as far as finances were concerned. Many of us have worked hard over the years to bring more women, more people from ethnic minorities, and more people who are not professional people or lawyers—I am a lawyer; that is the downside—into Parliament. We have worked to bring a much more varied group of people into Parliament to make it truly representative of the people of Britain. That cannot be done unless things are properly resourced. I sincerely hope that the Minister for Women and Equality will take my remarks seriously when she considers the part of this debate for which she has not been present.
The conclusion of the IPU meeting was a very good one. It was that increasing the representation of women is important in bringing about the better conditions for women that we are all seeking, but the economic power of women is far more important. We all know that an increase in women's economic power is what will actually make a difference in the long run. That is why flexibility in employment is so important, so that women can earn a living, stand up for themselves and use their voice, and so that they do not have to be dependent.
The second part of the IPU meeting was about gender budgeting, which is a very good idea and I hope that the Government will consider it. Gender budgeting means that legislation is assessed in terms of its gender impact, just as we have always considered the economic aspect and now look much more carefully at the environmental impact. I suggest that to the Government as a good idea.
I do not wish to take any more of the House's time as many hon. Members wish to speak. I apologise in advance if I cannot be here for the end of the debate. I have mothering duties to undertake, and one small six-year-old simply does not understand why I have to be here for such long hours this week. I would rather be answerable to him than to the Government or my Whips.
I welcome the fact that this debate is taking place in this Chamber today. On previous occasions, it has not always been possible to have the international women's day debate in the Chamber, and it is a sign of the progress that has been made and the impact that the Leader of the House has had that we are having it here today. We should all welcome that.
I shall be brief, because several hon. Ladies wish to contribute. I do not consider it discriminatory to say that, because international women's day is about women. It is about the struggles of women and it is a celebration of women's role. We have the debate in recognition of the fact that women have faced historic and unprecedented discrimination.
International women's day emerged from two movements. The first was the suffrage movement, which campaigned for women to have a vote and a say in how society was run. The second was made up of campaigns against the exploitation of women in the workplace. The history of international women's day shows that the two were strongly linked. The first record we can find is of New York women workers in the textile and clothing industry who demonstrated about their low wages and poor working conditions on
I welcome the fact that the debate is being held in the Chamber. We have discussed women's representation in the Chamber, and many Labour Members spoke of the significant advances in women's representation in the Labour party over recent years. We remember the hugely important events of 1997, when so many women were elected here. The Labour party is justly proud of the fact that in the Scottish Parliament it has always had 50 per cent. representation of women, and it is right that all parties discuss how we ensure the better representation of women. The Labour party in Scotland adopted positive discrimination, women-only shortlists and the twinning of constituencies, whereby some seats were women's seats. It recognised it had to do something—the other methods that had been tried and for which women had campaigned over so many years had not succeeded.
I was selected on an open shortlist, but the Labour party organises itself to ensure that women enjoy parity on shortlists, and the transferable vote system encourages women who are coming through the process. It is important that we talk about that and about getting more women into this building, but it is even more important that we talk about what women must do to ensure that they have a full say over every aspect of their lives and are represented in every walk of life. That is not about women being different or the same, but about women being human beings and having a full say over the way in which they live.
We in Britain are very lucky. We have heard much today about the problems that women still face in Britain, and I agree with what has been said about pay inequality, discrimination in the workplace and the lack of child care not only for Members of Parliament but for women throughout the country, which affects so many women's lives and their opportunities. Women play a massive role in Britain and are often at the forefront of community organisations, fighting for their communities.
On international women's day we must celebrate what women have achieved and acknowledge that there is still a long way to go. We must also say that what we in Britain have achieved is what we expect in every country. We are all aware of the discrimination that women still experience and of the fact that they still do not play the full role in society that they should, but when we look around the world we see that we are lucky in the choices that we have. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women have so few rights and hardly any voice. They are not allowed to walk unaccompanied on the street, to drive a car or to join many professions, so it is easy to see that we in this country have come a long way.
International women's day is about not only celebration but struggle and protest, which is how it came about and why in 1975 the United Nations decided to make it a day to be recognised throughout the world. Today, we should be saying that women should have a far stronger role in the world and a far stronger voice. If we achieve that, the benefit will be felt by not only women but humanity, and the world will be more civilised.
I hope that next year a debate on these issues will again be held in this Chamber, enabling all Members to raise their voices about why we must ensure that women secure more victories.
This debate has reaffirmed the fact that gender equality is still relevant and important throughout the country. It is a pleasure to follow Ms Clark, and I wish to pick up her point about the central role that women play in many community organisations. I am sure that that is the case in her constituency, as it is in mine, so I am perplexed that it does not translate to more women wanting to stand for Parliament. I shall touch on that point later.
There have been many good contributions to the debate. Jo Swinson particularly inspired me and reminded me that we share the fact that other individuals put our names forward for candidacy for Parliament. I have my hon. Friend Mr. Bacon to thank for the fact that I am here today, sitting on the green Benches.
The Minister mentioned that she was elected in 1982, when there were 10 Labour women in Parliament and 13 Conservative. I was doing my A-levels at the time, and I remember that election vividly. One of those 13 Conservative women inspired me to be here today—my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher. We might disagree about what she contributed to this country, but I believe that she contributed hugely to the success that we continue to enjoy in some ways. She certainly served as a role model to me in respect of what women can achieve, and we should not forget that.
This debate is still highly relevant, perhaps because one in three women in our country still feel that there is a long way to go on gender equality. I would never suggest that there is a sense of complacency about it on either side of the House, but we should not forget that a huge number of women still feel that there is much more to do. Parliament has a vital role to play in making women feel that there is working equality. Parliament's authority and legitimacy is based on representing the nation as it is today, not as it was in the past, so having more women in the House is an important challenge that we should all take on.
As my hon. Friend Mrs. Laing said, women and men have different priorities. A stronger, more resilient voice for women in the House of Commons means that women throughout the country can feel that matters of importance to them are being addressed. We do not suffer alone from the under-representation of women in political life. Again, my hon. Friend mentioned that point. I have examined some work by the World Economic Forum, which speaks of a "political power gap" in the ratio of men and women in Parliaments and in Ministerial positions. We have made great progress in this country, and more women are in Parliament, but we still suffer from what the WEF calls an 86 per cent. political power gap, because of the lack of women that we still have in the House. I am not sure whether I find it reassuring that even countries such as Sweden, Norway and Finland, which we hold up all too often as the epitome of what we should be aiming for, still suffer a 50 per cent. power gap according to the WEF. Many women who are elected do not go on to have powerful and influential positions.
I am concerned that we have bypassed some of the fundamental reasons why there are not more women sitting in Parliament. Before I turn to those reasons, we should try to understand why such a large proportion of women feel that we have not gone far enough towards gender equality. Hon. Members have already cited many of the pressing problems that predominantly affect women in this country today. Women in part-time work—the type of work that most often fits in with family life and caring responsibilities—face a gender pay gap that continues at almost 40 per cent. It is little wonder that in the past year alone 28,000 sex discrimination cases have gone to an employment tribunal. That figure, which has doubled in the past 12 months, is unacceptable. We have to look for ways to ensure that women throughout the country have access to good-quality part-time work. Many businesses have already seen the strong business case for that, but there has been a failure to deliver in too many areas.
Others have spoken about flexible working. We have made some progress on that, and it is heartening to hear Ministers say that there is interest in extending the right to flexible working to those with older children, although I share the concern voiced by my right hon. Friend Mrs. May that mixed messages seem to be emerging from the Government on that point.
Looking at health matters, particularly the treatment of cancer, we find that only three in 10 women aged between 50 and 70 receive breast cancer screening every three years, despite Government policy on that, and the position has worsened since 2001. Staffing levels in maternity services and wards are causing women considerable concern, but are not being dealt with in a way that many women feel is appropriate. We have also touched on the subjects of women in prison, domestic violence, and problems such as the number of reported rapes increasing while cuts are being made to funding for rape crisis centres. Those are many of the reasons why many women feel that the matter of equality has been incompletely addressed by our legislative body.
Nobody who has spoken today advocates sticking with the status quo and not finding new ways to increase female representation in this place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead outlined some of the excellent measures that our party has established, and all the other parties have tackled the issue in ways that are appropriate for them, but I am concerned that we may be dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause.
There was a great influx of women to Parliament in 1997 as a result of the Labour party's change in its selection criteria, but I was worried to see some figures the Library produced for me on men and women's average length of service as MPs. In the decade and a half to 2005, the average length of service for women declined from 13.7 years to 11.5 years. That is at odds with the situation for men, whose average length of service remains about 17 years. We should be concerned about the fact that although more women are coming into Parliament, they are not staying as long as men. To pick up on the comments made by Ann Clwyd, we need to make sure that age and experience are valued. Parliament benefits from the continuing contributions of those who have been here for several years. When considering how this place operates, we should see whether that problem can be tackled.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the reason for that phenomenon may be that, generally, in the Labour party, women have been selected in marginal seats? If the Conservative party intends to focus only on marginal seats, the women elected may also not last. What we need are long-term solutions that ensure that we get women into a wide range of seats, including very safe seats.
The hon. Lady makes a good point—that is a factor—but I assure her that in my party women are not being selected only for marginal seats. On the contrary, we have a number of excellent women candidates in seats now held by Conservative MPs who I am sure will join us here in the Commons after the next election. However, I understand how that is a problem. Unfortunately, it will probably be a problem for her party after the next election.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We do not place candidates in seats; they are selected for seats. It is difficult for anybody to say what a safe seat is. Nowadays, I do not think that any of us should refer to them in that way. There are well over 50 women who we think will be elected to Parliament at the next election, but really it is down to the electorate to decide, on the day of the election, how many end up here.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as it gives me the opportunity to confirm, as she did, that a number of our women candidates are standing for seats currently held by Conservatives, or new seats that are defined as Conservative seats. Those women include Priti Patel in Witham. I am sure that we are all very pleased that Helen Grant, who has not fought a seat before, and who was at one stage involved with the Labour party, is to succeed my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe. That is exactly the sort of seat that Lynda Waltho is talking about.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention, and for giving details; that is most helpful.
I should like to turn the attention of the House to the critical issue of whether there are enough women who use politics and being a Member of Parliament as a way of contributing to their community and to public life. Many women have significant roles in organisations that play a part in supporting our many different communities, but what perception do those women have of the House of Commons? Why are they not choosing it as a way of putting themselves forward? The House needs to give a little more consideration to that issue. Many other organisations have had to deal with the issue of how they get more women to put themselves forward for jobs.
I recently took a look at the medical profession, which was long the domain of men. One could say that there are parallels between the challenges dealt with by women entering medicine and those dealt with by women coming to the House of Commons. In 1963, just 29 per cent. of students applying for medical school were women, but today the figure is two thirds. Indeed, some predict that women will become the dominant force in the medical profession by 2012. That is because the profession has changed the selection process to decrease discrimination against women, and has looked at increasing the number of women applicants. It has also looked into making changes to medicine as a career for women. The change is particularly acute in the general practitioner sector. In 2005, 40 per cent. of GPs were women, compared with 29 per cent. in 1995. The House will be interested to know that the percentage of practitioners working part time has more than doubled in the past 10 years, and has reached 27 per cent. That may well be part of the reason why the role of women in GPs' surgeries has increased so much.
I would probably be straying too far from the subject of today's debate if I went into the details of that point, but the hon. Lady raises an important issue. We should understand the important role that women can play in professions such as medicine, and try to tackle the barriers that have stopped women from entering such professions. We could use what we learn from that to encourage more women to enter the House of Commons.
I do not mean to underestimate what the Modernisation Committee has already done in trying to identify ways of attracting a broader cross-section of people to the House. Importantly, some of its suggestions have focused on the need to improve the running of this place rather than on the convenience of Members of Parliament. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead said, having more women in this place will make it more effective and, importantly, more representative of the country as a whole.
However, perhaps we should not consider only changes to working hours and holidays when thinking about how to modernise the House. Such changes have made up more or less the bulk of the reforms, but we could do far more important things to send out strong messages to women that they should consider politics as a career. What more can be done to attract women to the House? The issue is not only about changing the working hours or the trappings of Parliament; we need to understand how we can change the culture—or perceived culture—of this place, so that it is more attractive to women.
The Minister's approach was not a good example of how debates such as these usually run. I have been in Parliament for three years, and in my experience these debates have been a positive experience and had a positive tenor. I was disappointed by the right hon. and learned Lady's contribution. I hope that, on reflection, she decides that a different approach would be appropriate.
Let us be honest: this place has not caught up with how people expect Parliament to conduct itself today. There is an enormous opportunity for the House to consider that point, particularly in the light of current considerations about pay, pensions and how we present payments for our offices and staff. Perhaps we could consider how we should revise those aspects of how we conduct ourselves, to bring ourselves into a modern-day way of doing business.
The House could also consider how debates are generally conducted and how they are perceived by people outside, including women who might be considering politics as a career path. Many of my women friends think that I am nuts to have taken this job. One asked me why I would want to put myself through it all when I had such a good job already. I put myself through it because I believe that this is the most rewarding job that anybody can have in this country.
Will the hon. Lady consider something closely related to her last point? Three years ago, I did a survey that showed that one reason why women do not come forward—certainly from my part of the world—is that they do not feel that they can make a difference. How we conduct ourselves here is an important way of showing how we can make a big difference.
The hon. Lady's excellent point picks up on my next one. I hope that the House does not treat this observation in a party political way, but this week the House has been debating the referendum on the European treaty—a political commitment made by all parties which has not been followed through. Hon. Members will disagree on the issue, but outside this place the perception is that we make pledges and promises but do not carry them through. We should all think about the reactions to that among our constituents and people who are considering becoming MPs. To pick up on the very point that the hon. Lady has just made, I should say that making a difference is about making a promise and carrying it through. I was very disappointed with the Government's response on that issue.
I am sorry, but I need to make progress.
I believe that many women are deterred from putting themselves forward because they are unsure about whether they would feel comfortable being part of this organisation. However, we have an enormous opportunity to change women's minds on the issues and make important and radical changes to how we do business—such as our not voting on our own pay, changing our final salary pension scheme and bringing a business approach to how we run our offices and support staff, who are so vital to our constituents and how we serve their needs. We should make sure that we talk about costs, not expenses—the cost of employing staff is important; we should not term it an expense. But it is most important that we are transparent in everything we do. This changing culture could be a big opportunity to show women that this is a career choice that they should be taking seriously.
Finally, we should all lift our eyes and take note of the world around us. The world does not expect us to continue to conduct ourselves as we do at the moment. We must challenge the way in which we allow the media to portray how we do business here. All of us in the House here today know that we work consensually in our Committees to get the change that is needed. All too often we allow the media to portray us as operating solely in the way we do at Prime Minister's Question Time. That is not the way we do business and we need to change that today.
In a way, I am disappointed that we are celebrating 90 years of women having the vote. We need to remember that, 90 years ago, women did not get the vote on an equal basis with men. A 21-year-old man could vote but the women who could vote had to be 30, property owners and so on. We must recognise that some of these celebrations of equality are about us tolerating things that are half a cup, but not the whole.
If we look at what has happened in the 90 years since then, there have been 290 women elected to this Parliament, 186 of whom were from my party. Despite many years of Conservative government, in only eight years were there more women Conservative MPs than women Labour MPs. I do not say that to be smug; I believe it is partly because of the values of the Labour party that more women have been selected. It is also partly because we grasped the nettle of women-only shortlists, which, let me say, is a nettle in our party, too; do not think it is not.
I would like to praise other parties; having rejected that nettle, they have had a squeeze and, as women know very well, when we cannot get in the front door, we get resourceful and find a way through the back door. It is my judgment that the training programmes for women put on by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats outshine what my party has been able to do. It is a pity that we have not done more and it is great that they have done that. We should now steal their ideas and do more.
When I was elected, I was one of that crowd of 101 women elected to these Benches. It was a strange experience. In January 2000, I wrote a paper that said that my analysis of the problem was that because women in Parliament were the exception to the norm, every woman in Parliament carried the burden of representing women as a class of MP. Every time a woman MP made a mistake, everyone said, "They would, wouldn't they? That is what women MPs are like." One carried the burden of representing the class of women as MPs. I think that that has changed. Jo Swinson reminded us that the sexism that she faced was not as extreme as that faced by many of my colleagues when they were elected in 1997.
We were very excited to be elected. We had that photograph, which caused us to be dubbed "Blair's babes." I have often wondered what the problem was with that. Partly, it was that we looked like pilot fish around the Prime Minister, but it was also that we never told people what electing all these women would achieve. The consequence was that every woman everywhere pinned on us, as though on a dartboard, their hopes of what a new Government could do for women. Although we have doubled child care and made massive strides on issues such as domestic violence, we have inevitably disappointed because we did not name what difference we would make.
One of the things that I have learned from that analysis is that we should be specific about what the change in women's representation will achieve. We should acknowledge, though, that having more women in Parliament has made a difference. We have achieved changes that would not otherwise have been achieved. I think of my hon. Friend Kali Mountford, who has had to leave. It was 4 am, I think, in the debate on the Education Bill when she moved an amendment on beating children. I think of the former Member for Stourbridge and her child protection work. I think of my hon. Friend Mrs. Hodgson who has tabled a Bill on special educational needs. All three examples focus on children, but it is not inevitable that women concentrate on children. Legislation on issues that tend to be overlooked is pushed through by women.
I wonder if my hon. Friend agrees with me. When I am asked what difference we have made, I often say that the difference was made before we ever got into this place, when we put together our manifesto. It is not just the women in Parliament, but the women throughout our party who made a difference to the programme that we have followed for the past 11 years.
My hon. Friend is right. I plan to end my speech by reminding Ministers that it is important to reach out—that that connection between women in the community and women in Parliament, between women in the roots of parties and women in the Chamber, is one of the sources of our strengths.
I remember speaking, not long after we had been elected, to the Clerks of the Defence Committee. I asked whether having women on the Committee—there had been none previously—had made a difference. "Oh yes," they said. "We never used to speak about the wives and children of soldiers. We only talked about how big the bombs were. Now we focus on something that is critical, and it is now a no-brainer. We talk about it often—the fact that looking after the families of soldiers is critical to the effectiveness of our defence forces."
There are many examples. My favourite one is the woman who generated the only ever stealth tax cut, when my hon. Friend Chris McCafferty banged on about VAT on sanitary protection for so long that my right hon. Friend who is now the Prime Minister abolished VAT on sanitary protection in the Budget and managed not to mention it when he did it.
Women have filled the top jobs. Baroness Thatcher has been frequently mentioned by Conservative Members. We hate her politics, but I admire her for having been the first ever woman Prime Minister. Since then we have had, in my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett, the first ever woman Foreign Secretary. My right hon. Friend Jacqui Smith is the first woman Home Secretary, and I am betting on the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, to fill the last of the great offices of state and become the first woman Chancellor.
We have shown that in Parliament women have made a difference, but we have missed some tricks. The Nolan Committee, which changed the way in which public appointments are made, has created a context for public appointments where, in many cases, women are disadvantaged. Let us put it brutally. The kinds of experience that women bring to the table—the experience of the school gate or of queuing at the doctor's surgery—are not valued by Monitor, the body that approves trusteeships on hospital trusts, as a result of which trustees include many very impressive business men, most of whom had private health insurance before they got on to hospital boards, but very few people who have been through the grind of waiting for health care and experiencing it in a community.
That poses real risks. The equality Bill creates an opportunity to do something about public appointments, not merely to ensure gender equality, but to think about the qualification for public appointment. Is it having run a big business, or is it having experienced public services first hand?
I want to discuss briefly an issue raised by other hon. Members on which women's experience is different from that of men, which is violence. Men are more likely to be victims of violent crime than women, but the way in which women experience violence is quite different. The classic example is domestic violence, where 77 per cent. of the victims are women. On average, those victims have been assaulted 35 times before they report it to the police. Women as victims of domestic violence and of rape, and as victims of violence in other areas, face an accusation that men who are victims never face: "She asked for it." I am afraid that although things have changed, that attitude is still much too common. I am glad that John Yates pointed out, in an interview published earlier this week in The Guardian, that the culture in the police—the failure to take early evidence and so on—is one of the contributory factors to our lack of success in securing effective levels of rape convictions.
I strongly urge Ministers to ensure that we get an effective national reporting line for rape. I wonder whether the national telephone number that we use for NHS Direct might be a possible way of dealing with this issue. One of the problems with a local helpline is that most of us would not carry the number around in our pocket, and any woman can be raped. We need a national number that everyone knows about, through which such reporting can be done quickly, and through which women can be supported on the question of whether or not they want to go to the police. Many women are frightened of going to the police in the first place.
As hon. Members know, I have spoken about prostitution previously, and in my usual way, I am running out of time today. I managed to raise the issue in one contribution where I was able to speak for only two minutes, and in another where I managed only 20 seconds. In my view, prostitution is another example of violence against women. Most prostituted women have been abused, and most of them are tricked into prostitution by men who groom them, get them addicted and use their power over them. A terrifying number of them have been trafficked into prostitution, and it is a very difficult thing to talk about.
When I was a Minister and suggested that in cases where two women worked together in a flat, we should stop prosecuting either of them for brothel-keeping—a crime that carries a sentence of 14 years because it often involves so much wicked exploitation of trafficked women—I was called "Madam Minister" by the tabloid newspapers. The Sun even sent five so-called "tarts" round to my flat in Slough, saying, "How would you like to live next door to one of these?" Now that I am arguing that we should prosecute men for demanding that women sleep with them for payment, I am called a prude.
That is better, I suppose, than 20 years ago, when I was a campaigner in the student union against violence against women, and the student newspaper of Oxford university published a photograph of me with the caption, "Would you rape this woman?" Those attitudes have changed to some extent, but there is still a thought that rape is actually—
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Does she agree that it was a disgrace that she was given 20 seconds to put before the House the important issue of how we deal with prostitution and trafficking? I hope that she accepts that many of us in my party greatly commend the work she has been doing. I hope that the Leader of the House will take note of that fact and make time for the House to discuss this important subject, which the Government appear to be afraid to bring to this Chamber.
The hon. Lady is not being fair. My Government have done more on this issue than any Conservative Government ever have. I do not think that they are afraid. They have been courageous about the issue, and one thing that we have succeeded in doing—the Leader of the House has been at the forefront of this process—is changing the terms of debate. Richard Younger-Ross, who is no longer in his place, put forward the canard that we can somehow regulate the trade in women's bodies to make it safe. The evidence from countries where that happens is profound and shows that it increases criminality, exploitation and the number of women who die. Prostituted women are 40 times as likely as any other woman to die a violent death.
Regardless of whether it is right to prosecute men for buying sex, the hon. Lady's proposal as a Minister not to prosecute women who try to work in a safer environment in premises rather than on the street was a good one. Prosecuting women and forcing them on to the streets, where they are less safe and do not have recourse to people who can support and help them if they get into difficulty, is certainly the wrong way round.
Indeed, it is. The police can deal with whether to prosecute. As a result of the prostitution strategy, the police are now targeting men more effectively. It is no longer only the Cleveland police who target kerb crawlers; other police forces do the same, and there is a reduction in, although not an elimination of prosecutions for brothel-keeping when more than one woman who sells herself is in a flat. People realise that that offence is designed to deal with the traffickers and exploiters.
There is a risk for Labour in government of some things ending up in the "too difficult" box. I do not accuse the Women's Ministers of that—they have been brave and bold. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has been an effective cheerleader in, for example, dealing with newspaper advertisements for women. However, it is shocking that the clauses in the Criminal Justice Bill on getting rid of fines for prostitution have quietly been dropped while clauses that were drafted long after them have been pursued in the other place. I understand that the Bill has to get through to tackle a possible problem in the prisons; nevertheless, we should not allow those matters to slip away.
I know from advancing these arguments that it is possible to change public perceptions. I worry that, in government, one can fall into the trap of believing that the only way to change things is through new laws. I believe that our Government can change things by changing the way that people view things. It is inconceivable that a student newspaper would do now what the Oxford newspaper did to me. However, it is still conceivable that a jury would believe that a victim of rape asked for it. We will not change that by legislation. We will help to end it by better prosecution, by the work that we are doing with specialist prosecutors, and by dealing with cases better, but the big challenge for any Government is ensuring that we continue to tackle difficult issues that people do not want to discuss. For example, my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer talks about forced marriages to people who pretend that they do not exist. We must have the courage to keep banging the drum because if we do not, attitudes will remain the same as they were 90 years ago.
Order. Clearly, many hon. Members are trying to catch my eye and we are now running out of time. If hon. Members try to restrict their remarks to 10 minutes or even a little less, we will do our best to get as many speakers in as possible.
It is a privilege to follow Fiona Mactaggart, who made a trenchant, candid and persuasive speech. For me, it was no more persuasive than when she reminded the House of the effect of more women in this place on both the communities that they represent and the country as a whole. I was casting my mind back to some of the people to whose past contributions and effectiveness she referred and I did not disagree with any of the examples that she adumbrated.
In an earlier, wide-ranging and similarly powerful speech, Jo Swinson made the fair point that parties must have the space in which to determine their approach to increasing the number of female Members of Parliament. With that I do not disagree.
Nevertheless, I suppose that my starting point is that I am an empiricist. I tend to follow Edmund Burke in thinking that one should not wallow in the realms of metaphysical abstraction, but look at the evidence. What does it tell us? What happened? What was the outcome? The reason why, a little over five years ago, I came to the conclusion that my party ought to adopt all-women shortlists was simply that when we look at the evidence from across the world, we see that no other instrument has been remotely comparably effective in ratcheting up the level of female representation. We do not have to look into the crystal ball when we can read the book.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire was absolutely right to stress that there are all sorts of other elements in the equation. There must be a family-friendly environment and people who are willing to entertain the prospect of a woman, and we have to rule out sexist language, sexist lines of questioning, sexist and intimidatory behaviour, and so on. But I simply think that all-women shortlists can make a decisive difference. The governing party has demonstrated that to its benefit and doubtless to the benefit of the country, too.
The other step that we could take—it is frankly lamentable that after all these years of discussion we have failed to do this—is to institute a proper, fully functioning and adequate crèche facility in the House. I know that I made that point in an intervention on my hon. Friend Mrs. Laing, but I am surprised that that has not happened, because the Modernisation Committee has done a good job in many respects and it seems extraordinary that that idea should keep slipping through the net.
I would like to add my support for that demand. One of the reasons my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House saw so many babies in the Whips Office the other night is that so many of my colleagues brought their babies in when they came for the vote, but are not allowed to take them through the Lobby, even though all the babies were being breast fed—although not at the time, obviously. That is an example of the inflexibility of this place and one of the reasons why the hon. Gentleman's suggestion would receive my full support.
I understand the hon. Lady's irritation at that. I have encountered a similar situation in chairing a Public Bill Committee. I felt very sorry for the hon. Member concerned, who kept having to go in and out of the room. As a humble and rather junior member of the Chairmen's Panel, I simply was not empowered to do anything about the situation, but I thought that that level of rigidity and resistance must be wrong.
I believe that the hon. Gentleman has co-sponsored an early-day motion about a crèche, which is an issue that I, too, have raised in the House. However, although those hon. Members who have turned up for today's debate on international women's day are supportive almost by default, does he not lament the fact that the issue, whenever it is raised, is often met with load groans from certain hon. Members who are perhaps living in a previous century?