Violence against Women and Girls

Part of Contamination of Beef Products – in the House of Commons at 3:01 pm on 14th February 2013.

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Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 3:01 pm, 14th February 2013

Today we are seeing what is being called a “feminist tsunami” around the world. Philip Davies looks a bit worried; I think he should be, judging by the tone of some of his remarks. There are 160 events across the UK alone, and 203 countries around the world are joining in to say, “Enough. It is time. One Billion Rising.” Whether here in the UK in Sheffield, Liverpool, Ipswich, Corby, Bute, Norwich, Manchester or Kirklees, or whether in Manila, South Africa, San Francisco, Tel Aviv, the Lebanon or Afghanistan, women and men are coming together to say that they do not want to live in a world where one in three women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. They are turning those billion women who would be assaulted into a billion people calling for change.

The question for us today is whether the British Parliament has done justice to that call. Having listened to the debate, I think we have. A fantastic range of contributions have reflected the number of issues that affect women’s safety in British society and, indeed, internationally. I briefly want to reference some of them.

Many Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) and for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), have discussed the prevalence of domestic violence in our society and how we can tackle it. Dr Wollaston made a fantastic and personal contribution about how we might deal with that. Others have highlighted the issues in some of our minority communities, addressing in particular the idea that this is a cultural issue when gender violence is gender violence. In that sense, I pay tribute to Jane Ellison and my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Luton South (Gavin Shuker).

We have also discussed the need to express international solidarity. Heather Wheeler talked strongly not only about forced marriage, but about how we need to tackle such issues across the world, as did Mary Macleod and my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz, who both spoke out for Jyoti Singh. Let us say her name and that we in the British Parliament stand on her side.

We have also heard many examples of how we could improve the way in which our criminal justice system works. Dr Whiteford mentioned Lindsay Anderson and the tragic case of Frances Andrade. I put on record my personal support for the work that the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, has done in challenging and calling for a change to how we deal with victims of sexual violence in our court system.

Mr Llwyd talked about his fantastic work on stalking. My hon. Friend Ann Coffey highlighted what the child protection system could do and the problems with the probation service’s lack of awareness of sexual violence among young people. My hon. Friend Luciana Berger gave the sobering statistic that one in five calls to our police is to report domestic violence. Something has to change in British society.

We have also covered broader cultural issues. My hon. Friend Helen Goodman spoke about the impact of body image. Caroline Lucas talked about the objectification of women in society. I will extend the hand of co-operation across the House to the hon. Member for Totnes if she wants to run the “No more page 3 in the Tea Room” campaign. She is absolutely right.

Claire Perry, who unfortunately is not here, made a fantastic point this morning when she told the police that when so many women from the UK Parliament are standing up to say that they want change, they should not move them on. She has been a fantastic champion of tackling the changes that are allowed by online technology.

All of the points that have been raised are examples of a broader issue that we need to deal with. The fundamental problem is not technology or the practice of female genital mutilation; it is that we live in a society that is unequal. That impacts on the safety of women in our society. Even if the internet did not exist, women would still face the same scale of violence. That will continue unless we tackle the root cause of inequality, unless we tackle those attitudes and unless we take the stand that we are taking today every day to say that something has to change.

That is what the motion speaks to. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart, who has been a fantastic champion for this issue with the Backbench Business Committee. I also pay tribute to Members across the House who have supported the motion, including the hon. Members for Erewash (Jessica Lee) and for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), who cannot be here. I want to say why the Opposition think that the motion matters. We want to help the Minister if he is brave enough to listen to the arguments that have been made today about why compulsory sex and relationship education for both boys and girls is intrinsic to changing the culture in which we see violence against women in our communities.

Many Members have talked about the impact that is made by high-quality sex and relationship education. I accept the point that was made by the hon. Member for Battersea. The Brook advisory service has demonstrated the impact of poor-quality teaching. That is an argument for the use of expert guidance within schools rather than for having no guidance at all. I commend the work of Women’s Aid in that regard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North put her finger on it succinctly when she said that the Department for Education was the villain of the piece. I agree with her. As somebody who has campaigned for financial education be a key part of tackling debt within our society, I do not understand why we can teach our children about compound interest but not about consent. That must be a critical part of the process.

My hon. Friend Julie Hilling talked about the importance of youth work. She is right that we must deal with this issue not only in schools, but throughout our culture.

The hon. Members for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) and for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) made well-meant contributions in which they seemed suggest that this was a debate for women. Let me tell them very clearly that it is not the responsibility of women to avoid violence; it is the responsibility of society to stamp it out. We welcome them here to take part in the debate not because they care about women, but because it is for everyone in society to tackle these issues and to say that violence against women must not happen any more. With that in mind, I hope that they will help us to challenge those who suggest that this issue is about what women wear. I urge the Foreign Secretary, as he is in his place, to look again at the advice on the Foreign Office website and to consider what message it sends out about rape in our world.

It is not acceptable to offer a caution as a penalty for rape in our society. We have to tackle the way in which we deal with rape. When only one in 30 rape victims in our society sees justice, it is an argument not for cautions, but for changing the criminal justice system. [Interruption.] That was actually the suggestion of the Secretary of State for Justice, so I hope that the Government Members who are heckling will take it up with him.

My hon. Friends the Members for Slough, for Kingston upon Hull North and for Bolton West and the hon. Member for Battersea have spoken about the importance of sex and relationship education. We know that children will get their advice from somewhere. We know that they will go to Google if they do not go to a quality-assured source. We know what impact that has not only on their sexual behaviour, but on how they deal with relationships and whether they have respectful relationships. I am mindful of the comments of the hon. Member for Luton South about the importance of respect in relationships.

That is why we cannot avoid this question any more. That is why we must challenge those who are trying to stop us. That is why I challenge the Secretary of State for Education when he suggests that all we need to do is to raise educational attainment, as though sexual violence is not happening in the highest performing schools in our country. Let me tell Government Members that we know that sexting takes place in the poshest and most expensive boarding schools that children can go to. So this is not about—[Interruption.]Members are barracking me, but the Secretary of State told the Education Committee that one of the best ways to get children not to indulge in risky behaviours was to educate them so well that they had hope in the future. He seemed to be suggesting that it was about improving standards in schools—we all agree with that—but not about taking on the cultural aspects of what sexual behaviour people think is acceptable.

I actually agree with the Prime Minister on the issue. He said that

“I believe that sex education, when taught properly, is extremely important. It should not be values-free. That must mean teaching young people about consent: that ‘no’ means ‘no’. At the moment, this is not even compulsory in the sex education curriculum. This has to change – and it will change with a Conservative government. This will be an important step towards encouraging greater responsibility and helping tackle one of the root causes of rape and sexual violence.”

The Prime Minister said that to the Conservative Women’s Organisation in 2007. We all know that in 2010, Labour’s efforts to change the situation were a victim of the wash-up, and that the other coalition partners supported putting compulsory sex and relationship education on the curriculum. Since then, there has been a vote about academies, and the Government voted against the motion.

Today, we have heard the support in the country for sex and relationship education in schools through the One Billion Rising Campaign, including from Government Members, and particularly the concern that if 50% of our schools become academies, they will be able to avoid sex and relationship education altogether. I hope that there will therefore be cross-party consensus that the situation has to change, and cross-party support for the Minister if he chooses to say here and now that he will take on the Ministers from the Department for Education who could not even be bothered to come here today to talk about the issue and are not willing to support it.

That is key to tackling the root causes of these problems—we need to say that it is enough. It is time. We must not let those people get in the way of changing attitudes. One Billion Rising is because one is too many. The hon. Member for Battersea talked about solidarity and standing together. Let us stand up to the people in the Government who still do not take that line. I say to the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister that to tweet about One Billion Rising is fantastic and sends a message, but we will hold them to account every single day if these issues are still not resolved.

I ask Members to vote for the motion, to give Home Office Ministers the clear support that they need. I ask Members to give the Home Office the evidence it needs to show that the situation has to change, so that Ministers can go to the Department for Education and say that they want to see sex and relationship education on the curriculum. Anyone who heard Jahmene Douglas talking today about the impact that it had on his sister and his family, and who saw such a brave young man come forward, will know that we cannot leave it to chance that schools will provide it. We have to ensure that it is a standard across British society.

I hope that Government Members will put their money where their mouth is, vote for the motion and support us in this effort. I hope we will say that One Billion Rising is not just for one day but is the start of something different in British society.