Parliamentary Representation

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 4:39 pm on 12th January 2012.

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Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough 4:39 pm, 12th January 2012

I was proud to serve as a member of the Speaker’s Conference. I apologise to the House for the fact that I will not be here at the end of the debate, because I shall be chairing a charity function.

All hon. Members have agreed that a more representative Parliament is better for politics, above all because of the issue of justice and so that everybody has an equal chance of being elected. It builds people’s confidence in democracy to see people such as me in Parliament. It also, and I do not think that we have talked enough about this, leads to better decisions. That is at the heart of the matter.

Ms Harman told me that when she was first elected child care was not regarded as a political issue and Parliament never debated it. She and my right hon. Friend Dame Joan Ruddock were among those who made sure that the issue was normalised in politics.

Shortly after I was elected in 1997, I telephoned the Clerk of the Select Committee on Defence to research how much of a difference women had made in politics. In its 17-year life, that Committee had never had a woman member. There were two women members after the 1997 election. The Clerk said, “Fiona, of course there is a difference. We always used to talk just about weapons and ammunition, and now we talk about the families of the soldiers.” We know now how critical the family members of those who are fighting in battles overseas are to their success. Having different voices in Parliament changes the terms of the debate.

In the 1997 Parliament, which recorded the biggest difference in the number of women, we saw our effect in the Budgets. In the Budgets of ’97, ’98 and ’99, the amount of money in women’s purses increased by £5.30 a week, compared with an increase of £2.30 in men’s wallets. Having more women does not automatically bring that result. We can see, depressingly, that the cost of recent Budgets and the last comprehensive spending review to women has been £8.80 a week, compared with a cost of £4.20 for men.

This issue is not just about representation but about power. Women can have power, but we need to ensure that we have it. One thing that I admired the Prime Minister for saying in opposition was that he aimed for 30% of his Cabinet to be women. There is not enough progress on that aim. In Parliament, one has much more power when one is a Minister. I am shocked that 11 out of 24 Departments have no women Ministers. I urge the Minister for Equalities, who will respond to the debate, to take action on that. Many of the women Ministers are in the other place. There is a shortage of women’s voices in Departments, and not just in the little Departments. In the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office there are no women Ministers. I urge the women on the Government Benches to do whatever they can to change that. If they do not, we will carry on having stupid decisions.

This debate has been partly about the problem of women-only shortlists. I do not regard them as a problem. The only person who has ever called me a quota woman is the woman who stood for the party that held the seat before I took it. Nobody has called me that since. Women shortlists are a tactic, but that does not mean that people who have got here in that way are diminished. There are other tactics that can work, but I do not share the optimism of the women on the Government Benches about the progress that their parties have made.

Adam Afriyie has something to be proud of in the representation of ethnic minorities on the Conservative Benches, which has changed enormously. I respect the Conservative party for that change. It did not happen through quotas or anything like that, but through a psychological change in the Conservative party, which I genuinely welcome.

I thank my right hon. Friend Hazel Blears for her work on the internship programme. We need to consider the fact that, as The Daily Telegraph put it, the main qualifications of people in this House are having gone to public school, having gone to Oxbridge and having been in a profession. Two of the three apply to me, although the representation of my profession, school teaching, has reduced. We need more progress on getting more people from manual occupations into the House.

In that regard, I would say that Conservative Members tend to disrespect not only women-only shortlists but the trade union movement. The working-class members of the House have overwhelmingly been able to come here because of the work of the trade unions, and we need to respect the ability of the movement to bring people into politics. It will be one of the ways in which we can get change in the future.