International Women’S Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:07 pm on 2nd March 2017.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 1:07 pm, 2nd March 2017

It is an enormous pleasure to follow Jess Phillips. She is right to say that we are here to raise our voices. Another hon. Member who is particularly good at raising her voice is Dr Whiteford, to whom we should all pay tribute for the way she works on behalf of women, not only in her constituency but throughout the country. It is a particular pleasure to see you in the Chair for this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I should also like to thank the members of the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to hold this debate, and to hold it here on the Floor of the House. I hope that it will become entrenched as part of the parliamentary calendar from now on. I also want to thank the numerous organisations that have so carefully prepared briefings for us today. They include the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, Women’s Aid, the Young Women’s Trust and Relate—the list goes on. Without their experience and frontline work, our debate would not be as rich as it is.

We are here on a daily basis, and we are reminded daily of the challenge that we still face in achieving equality. The job is far from done. When I tell people that I was only the 265th woman MP ever to be elected in this country, they cannot believe it. Indeed, I was the first ever female MP in north Hampshire, though I am proud to be joined on these green Benches by at least two other female MPs representing Hampshire and leading the way on women’s issues. I think that there was another in our midst earlier.

I sat in the Chamber yesterday to see the swearing in of the newest Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend Trudy Harrison. It was heartening to hear that she is the 456th woman MP. Things are changing, but there is still a steep hill to climb. To mark International Women’s Day, it is right to applaud the work of organisations such as Women2Win, led by my noble Friend Baroness Jenkin, and 50:50 Parliament and also individuals such as Professor Sarah Childs and our very own Mr Speaker. All are absolutely committed to ensuring that there are more women in this place after the next general election.

Women’s lives have changed for the better over the 100 years since we were given the right to sit in this place. We have a record number of women here and record numbers of women are in work. The right to request flexible working benefits thousands of women, and the gender pay gap has been all but eliminated for younger women. There are no more all-male boards in the FTSE 100, which the Government felt was a significant milestone that demonstrates the importance of female representation at the heart of decision making. I am therefore somewhat surprised that a third of Government Departments—eight out of 25—have all-male ministerial teams, so we may also need some targets there.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Be Bold For Change” and we must all be bold. There can be no hiding places. Women’s Institute research shows that 70% of women still feel that they are not equal to the men in this country, that women are judged by different standards, that women who stay at home to raise children are not valued in today’s society, and that despite record numbers of women in work the way that our workplaces are structured means it is still difficult to balance work and home life. We understand all that. Those problems have not gone away. We must continue to modernise our country’s approach to reflect how women’s roles have changed, not simply try to retrofit women into a workplace designed for a different age.

Men are also central to any change. Working Families’ “Modern Families Index” shows that men want change, too. So many families now have two full-time working parents—one in three—and 47% of dads want to downshift to a job in which they can better balance work and family life. A third of dads would even take a pay cut. The sorts of false choices that women have been forced to take for generations are now being forced on men. One of the many reasons why the Women and Equalities Committee is looking carefully into the role of fathers in the workplace is so that we can solve such problems for them as well.

The establishment of the Women and Equalities Committee has given hon. Members the opportunity to drive forward the scrutiny of Government equalities policies and particularly of how those policies affect women. I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to update the House on the Government’s support for making the Women and Equalities Committee a permanent feature. The value of the Committee’s work is clear to see. In our report on sexual harassment in schools, which was published last September, we uncovered disturbing levels of sexual violence against girls in schools. Indeed, it was the third Select Committee report to call for sex and relationship education to be made compulsory for all children in all schools.

With the support of more than 40 other Members, my hon. Friend Mr Burrowes and I tabled an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill that was due to be debated next week. The amendment, which also had the support of the Chairs of the Health and Education Committees, was intended to make relationship education compulsory. I am delighted that the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, my hon. Friend Edward Timpson, did so much work on this and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has been able to take the idea forward and will put it in the Bill for the Government to press on with next week. That is the sort of change that cross-party working can achieve. I also put on the record my thanks to Sarah Champion for her support in ensuring that that work was truly cross-party. Organisations such as Barnardo’s and Girlguiding worked hard on making sex and relationship education a top priority for politicians. We should thank them for that hard work and their assiduous campaigning.

I want to highlight the work done and progress made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. This week, she announced a review of online abuse, which will be of benefit to women in particular, and sits well alongside making relationship and sex education compulsory. I urge the Government to support a Law Commission review of online law, particularly the need for anonymity for adults who are subject to online abuse through images in what is commonly known as revenge pornography. The revenge pornography helpline was put in place by this Government and provides victims with invaluable help. Is the Minister able to update the House on its future?

All of us will acknowledge that the Government have made great progress on several issues that particularly affect women. I acknowledge the personal role of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in championing the cause of stronger legislation around domestic violence. The Government recognise the complex nature of domestic abuse and coercive and trolling behaviour. I pay tribute to the campaigning work of Women’s Aid in this area, which demonstrates that domestic abuse is not simply about physical violence. Training for police officers is critical if the legislation is to work as intended, so is the Minister able to tell the House how many police officers have received approved training on domestic abuse issues?

Time is short today, but there a few more issues that I want to shed light on. It is right that Parliament scrutinises issues, including how they might affect vulnerable groups, and the Government are to be applauded for recognising that an exemption is needed around new child tax credit limits, which will come in next month, for women who have children conceived by non-consensual conception or rape. We must ensure that our policies do not penalise women who live in an abusive relationship, perhaps in fear of what might happen if they leave. They are perhaps one of the most vulnerable groups of women. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that that group are not penalised as a result of the actions of the men they live with?

Our country has done so much on the world stage to champion women’s rights, and we should proud of our international reputation. I am sure that Home Office Ministers carefully followed the national refugee women’s conference in London this week. We need to look at how to ensure that women refugees in this country are properly supported. However, the sustainable development goals that the Government signed up to begin at home. In advance of the Commission on the Status of Women meeting in New York later this month, I hope that the Minister is able to reaffirm this Government’s specific commitment to implement sustainable development goal 5 in this country. How do the Government plan to ensure that the devolved Administrations are compliant with SDG5? Is there a plan for the harmonisation of women’s rights across the UK? Universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and to reproductive rights is central to the sustainable development goals. My right hon. Friend Justine Greening and the then Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard for that goal. We must fight hard for women’s rights internationally, but we also must fight hard for every woman in this United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, and not hide behind the fact that such matters are devolved.

We will not make the necessary progress unless we lead by example. We need to address the lack of women in this place, the fact that some Departments have no female Ministers, and the need for the permanent scrutiny of equality issues. We must be bold for change, and we must advocate that that change is as strong at home as it is abroad.