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International Women's Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:42 pm on 11th March 2010.

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Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran 2:42 pm, 11th March 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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