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International Women's Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:13 pm on 11th March 2010.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:13 pm, 11th March 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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