– in the House of Commons at 12:00 pm on 5th March 2020.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered International Women’s Day.
This year’s theme is “each for equal”, which speaks to the vision that I have as Minister for Women and Equalities. I believe in the dignity and autonomy of the individual, and in giving everyone an equal opportunity to live the life that they choose. People should not be defined by their gender, or, come to that, by their race, their age, or where they come from. So on International Women’s Day this Sunday, we can enjoy and celebrate being women, but we should not be defined or limited by it.
It strikes me that this year’s “each for equal” theme is very much like the Government’s central mission: to level up, to deliver opportunity, and to unleash the potential of everyone across our United Kingdom. “Each for equal” and levelling up mean pushing back against the cult of female exceptionalism—the idea that women are more trustworthy or empathetic, or make better bosses—and pushing back against the lazy stereotypes of male exceptionalism—the idea that men are more decisive, stronger, or better leaders.
The Government’s role is to remove the barriers for women, so that it is their talent, ideas and character that matter and not anything else, and so that, in the words of the brilliant Taylor Swift in her new song, “women aren’t left running as fast as they can, wondering if they’d get there quicker if they were a man”. The rights and safety of women are of the utmost importance to the Government.
Like many others throughout the House, I am anticipating the moment when Jess Phillips will read out the names of all the women killed by male partners since the last International Women’s Day. I commend the hon. Lady—as well as others outside the House, such as Karen Ingala Smith of the Counting Dead Women project—for the heartbreaking reminder that there remain so many women to commemorate in this way. With that in mind, I am particularly pleased that the Government introduced the Domestic Abuse Bill this week, to tackle an injustice that still blights the lives of far too many people, and that this year we have committed £100 million of funding to combat violence against women, including £20 million directed specifically at domestic abuse.
Free enterprise gives people power over their own money, their own ideas and their own lives, and I believe that it has been a particularly liberating force for women. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of people living in extreme poverty globally fell by more than 1 billion, and most of those were women. That is the magnificent achievement of free markets and free trade, and it is through that opportunity and empowerment that women have pioneered the wonderful technological innovations and ideas that improve our lives.
One example is Ada Lovelace, whose picture hangs in the Pillared Room at No. 10 Downing Street. Empowered by a good education and independent finances, Lovelace, a mathematician, conceived of the first computers, sparking an ideas chain reaction via Bletchley Park which led to innovations that shape our modern world, everywhere from Silicon Valley to the mobile phone in your pocket. Another example is Katharine McCormick, a committed feminist who singlehandedly financed the contraceptive pill when the US Government refused to invest in its research.
I wholly support the Secretary of State’s celebration of the work of Ada Lovelace, but does she recognise that the work of women such as Ada Lovelace and Katherine Johnson, who worked on the US space programme, was not known and celebrated? Does the Secretary of State recognise that it is important that we celebrate the work of women, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths, where they have made a great contribution and yet have not been celebrated?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I am sure that she enjoyed the recent film “Hidden Figures”, which celebrated some of those workers—the fantastic female mathematicians who contributed at NASA. I know that she, like me, enjoys Lego, and will celebrate the new women scientist Lego sets. She is absolutely right, and we need to give girls and women the message about the great achievements and inventions of women that unfortunately have not been celebrated as much as they should have.
On celebrating women’s achievements, does my right hon. Friend share my concern that around the country, we have too few sculptures and statues of women? I am proud that Basingstoke has recognised Jane Austen by having the first ever sculpture made of her and put in the centre of our town. Should not more constituencies and Members of Parliament do something similar?
My right hon. Friend is completely correct. In fact, I also recently saw the film “Emma.”, which is based on my favourite Jane Austen novel. She is right that we need more statues of women. Of course, we recently unveiled the Nancy Astor statue in Plymouth. We should have more statues of women in our public places, and we should celebrate the great women who have helped to make our country what it is.
I completely agree with Mrs Miller. Is the Secretary of State aware of the scheme to erect a statue for Betty Campbell, the first black female headteacher in south Wales—a remarkable figure from Butetown in my constituency? She made an incredibly impact not only on young people locally, but on the wider community. I join with all those fighting for more women to be recognised in this way around the country.
I very much commend the work the hon. Member is doing on that; it is fantastic.
As it is International Women’s Day, I was running through in my mind who my most inspirational woman was. It has to be my mother, of course; probably everyone in this House would say it was theirs. She is coming up to 89 years of age, and is still a person who is very much to the fore. Does the Minister not agree that perhaps the most inspirational women are those who have lived a life of duty and service, and of honour and devotion to their community, and that we should shine a light on our Queen, perhaps the most extraordinary woman of our generation, as an example of what we should aspire to?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Women have contributed to our national life in all kinds of ways. Their achievements are not yet fully recognised, and we should do more on that.
Before we had tributes to these great women, I was talking about the contraceptive pill, an incredibly important innovation by a woman, in the face of opposition, which has transformed the ability of women to prevent unwanted pregnancy, enter the workplace, and escape traditional gender roles. As Trade Secretary, I have the privilege of seeing how women continue to seize the opportunities of freedom, kicking open doors that previously only men have walked through. In this job, I have met women at the top of their game—brilliant entrepreneurs setting up their own businesses, leaders of our country’s largest and most successful FTSE 300 companies, and of course our country’s world-class female diplomats across the globe. We now have women heading our missions in the United States and China, and we are making huge progress.
I first got involved with International Women’s Day in 2015, when I was asked to speak at an event; I had not heard of it before. That has prompted me to think about where we were then with women in public life, and where we are now. In 2015, there were 148 women in this House and 104 women in the two Houses of Congress, and a woman was poised to secure the Democrat nomination in the race for the White House—well, that one did not work out; but fast forward to today, and there are 220 women in Parliament, which is a 49% increase in five years.
I thought I might get that. There are 127 women in the two Houses of Congress, which is a 23% increase, and we have had a second woman Prime Minister. Sometimes the pace towards gender equality is glacial, but in the last five years, it has been considerable, and that is something to celebrate this International Women’s Day.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have seen a huge culture change through things like the #MeToo movement. We have also seen a real recognition of the issues and challenges that women face, and they are being dealt with. This Government are very committed to dealing with those challenges.
I should like to back up what my right hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend Laura Farris, have said. I was the leader of Westminster Council, and my predecessor and my successor are both women, which is amazing. As the mother of two teenagers, a daughter and a son, I am obviously empowering my daughter to be the person that she is, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is equally important that we empower our boys to be feminists and to agree that we are all equal? My daughter plays football and cricket, and my son plays football and cricket. He has always been taught that girls are equally as good, if not better, at those sports.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Rigid stereotypes about what girls should do and what boys should do also hold boys back. They do not give them the opportunities they might want in traditionally female professions, for example, and they do not allow them to express themselves in ways that can be helpful and empowering and make their lives better. This is the point that I was making at the start of my remarks. Of course I am proud to be a woman; I love being a woman. I have two daughters, and I encourage them to celebrate being female, with all the great benefits and life experiences that that brings. At the same time, however, they should not in any way feel that that defines them or places on them any expectations about the way in which they live their lives. Equality for everyone—everyone being free from those preconceptions—is good for our society. It unleashes ideas and opportunities that will benefit us all.
I want to talk about my recent experience at the African investment summit that we held here in London. I met a group of fantastic entrepreneurs called the Lionesses. They were from sub-Saharan Africa, where they are leading the way with the highest rate of women entrepreneurs on the planet. They were a fantastic group of women. I do not think it is a coincidence that women are achieving so much in business. Free enterprise and free trade do not care about someone’s gender or sexuality, or the colour of their skin. The first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, once said that
“a widget remains a widget—and it will be bought anywhere if the price and quality are right. The market is a more powerful and more reliable liberating force than government can ever be.”
That is why we are so keen as a Government to champion female entrepreneurs, to champion opportunities for women in business and to champion women in the workplace. We need to ensure that everyone can enter, get back into, and get on in the workplace. I am proud that under this Government the employment rate for women has reached a record high of 72.4%. Almost 2 million more women are in work since 2010. When I talk to women across our country, they are not interested in identity politics. They are interested in how they, their families and their communities can get on in life. That is why we as a Government are focused on tackling the barriers that hold people back and on levelling up our country.
We are investing in our railways, roads and broadband to bring opportunities to every home and business. We have doubled the free childcare available in England to eligible working parents of three and four-year-olds to 30 hours per week. We are supporting families across the UK through tax-free childcare, and we have established a new £1 billion fund to create more high quality, affordable childcare. We will extend entitlement to leave for unpaid carers, the majority of whom are women, to one week. This is the real substance of our national programme, which is inclusive to everybody. Its aim is to unite, to level up and to bring together every region and nation of our country.
As well as tackling these policy challenges, we recognise that ingrained assumptions pose barriers that make it harder for people to fulfil their potential. I vividly remember, as a 12-year-old girl, getting on a flight with KLM. My brothers were presented with junior pilot badges, but I was presented with a junior air hostess badge. That was a revelatory moment for me. I did not like being told what job I was able to do because I was a girl. I do not believe that any girl or boy should be encouraged to pursue a career or study a course because of their gender, yet between the ages of seven and 11, boys are almost twice as likely as girls to want to be scientists and four times more likely than girls to want to be engineers. This is linked to a significant lack of academic attainment for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and to their severe underrepresentation in related fields. That is why this Government have championed maths and science, benefiting girls and boys alike. There has been a 31% increase in girls’ entries to STEM A-levels in England since 2010, and the number of women in the UK accepted on to full-time STEM undergraduate courses increased by 34% between 2010 and 2019.
We recognise that championing women’s rights cannot stop at our borders, and the Government are also taking steps to empower women internationally. I find it appalling that child marriages, female genital mutilation and the denial of access to a quality education still blight our world, keeping women down and damaging the countries they live in. This is depriving us all of the ideas that they could pioneer, the vital jobs that they could be doing and the dreams that they could be pursuing.
The Government recognise that women can contribute positively to the modern world just as much as men. That is why we continue to support targeted development programmes to ensure that all girls, right around the world, receive 12 years of quality education. I strongly agree with the Prime Minister, who speaks so passionately on this subject, that all girls must be allowed to achieve their potential, whether they were born in London, Lagos, Lima or Lahore. The world must stop wilfully neglecting the enormous benefits that accrue for everyone when girls are given an education and job.
We are driving progress towards ending all forms of violence against women and girls internationally, including sexual violence in conflict, and we are promoting women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights and supporting their economic and political empowerment. We are also hosting a conference—chaired by a former Member of this House, Nick Herbert—that will ensure that LGBT people across the world are safe and free to live the lives they wish, including lesbians and bisexual women and the specific challenges that they face.
Before the Minister moves back to the domestic sphere, I want to ask her what her Government are doing on the international front to protect women human rights activists around the world. They are standing up for the human rights of the people they represent, but they also face discrimination because of their gender.
The hon. Lady makes a good point about female human rights activists, and I will certainly take it away to ensure that we are doing all we can, in conjunction with the Foreign Office.
We are celebrating the achievements of women today. This does not mean being defined by being a woman, favouring women over men or being pigeonholed by outdated stereotypes. It is about defending the rights of adults to make choices, to be free to live the lives they choose and to flourish on their own terms. The Government are proud of the steps we are taking to advance the potential of women, both in levelling up opportunities here in the UK in areas such as housing, transport and childcare, and in our efforts to extend those opportunities across the world in areas such as education.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if girls are to have 12 years of education throughout the world, including in this country, we should not allow them to marry under the age of 18, because that limits what they can do? That applies in this country, not just abroad. We should be stopping it in this country too.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the damage of early marriage—it is particularly early in some countries, which I think is appalling. Of course, we will need to have that discussion as a Parliament and as a Government, but I know that she is a strong advocate for that.
We are surrounded by proof that everyone, no matter their sex, is capable of great things, and that advancing equality benefits us all. I encourage everyone here to celebrate the incredible things that women have done, and to truly recognise the intrinsic equality of men and women. Together, let us fight for that brighter future of opportunity and aspiration, where the personal fulfilment, freedom, dignity and liberty of each individual, women and men alike, are respected and defended.
I want to thank the Government for making time available for this debate—looking at the Minister, I am glad that I did not wear my pink jacket today; that would have been a little awkward.
It is important for so many reasons to have this debate on the Floor of the House. We will mark and honour the important contributions that women make, not only in this place but across society. It also gives us a dedicated opportunity in this Chamber to illustrate the structural barriers that still exist for women, and to reflect on the deaths of the women who have been killed since the last International Women’s Day debate, with the names compiled by Karen Ingala Smith and read by my hon. Friend Jess Phillips.
I would also like to thank Mr Speaker for continuing a tradition that I started when I first became shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, by ensuring that the International Women’s Day flag is raised across the parliamentary estate—it will be raised on Sunday and Monday to mark International Women’s Day 2020.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Each for Equal”. An equal world is an enabled world. It is about recognising that collectively we can help to create a more equitable world. We need diverse voices and lived experiences around every decision-making table. That is not only good for society; it is also proven to be good for business.
I acknowledge that we have seen progress here in Parliament, as has been mentioned. At the 2019 general election a record number of women were elected to this House. Women now make up 34% of MPs, up from 32% in 2017. I am particularly proud that the Labour party increased its proportion of women, meaning that women MPs now outnumber male MPs in our party. One of the legacies of my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn will be that the parliamentary Labour Party is now 51% women—which mirrors society—the shadow Cabinet is 50% women, and the most recent intake was a whopping 77% women.
For too long politics has been the preserve of a particular wealthy group in society—the old boys’ club. I am pleased that is slowly beginning to change. We in this place have a duty to lead the way. A good start would be to have a stand-alone women and equalities Department, with a full-time Secretary of State. That way, we would not have to wait a year to have a dedicated debate.
New analysis published this week by the UN reveals that across the world close to 90% of men and women hold some sort of bias against women, which provides new insights into the invisible structural barriers that women face in trying to achieve fairness. That matches recent research done here in the UK by the Fawcett Society, which found that positions of power across public life and the economy are still dominated by men. At 21%, only a fifth of senior civil servants participating in the civil service board are women. At 35%, just over a third of permanent secretaries are women, and there are no women of colour in these roles; black, Asian and minority ethnic women are concentrated in the lower ranked roles.
The Government’s race disparity audit has shown that we need to address the structural barriers that are limiting progress. In the judiciary, women make up around a quarter of those in senior positions, but the proportion falls to 17% in the Supreme Court. In the business sector, women make up just over one in 20 CEOs of FTSE 100 companies. Again, none of those CEOs is a woman of colour.
Yesterday we saw new analysis published by the TUC showing that women work for free for two months each year as a result of the gender pay gap. Fifty years since the Equal Pay Act 1970, that is still the lived reality. It shows that gender pay gap reporting needs to go much further than simply publishing; we need compulsory action plans for what companies will actively do to close the gap. The Fawcett Society’s research shows that eight in 10 men and women support women being able to find out whether they are paid less than a man for equal work. It is time to give all women the right to know. Disabled women continue to face the most significant pay gaps of all; higher than those faced by disabled men and non-disabled women. Employers must take intersectionality seriously when tackling their gender pay gaps.
The Labour party wants a workplace revolution to bring about a step change in how women are treated at work. The Government could start that process by adopting some of our policies, as they have done previously—I do not mind; they are welcome to them. They should start by enacting section 14 of the Equality Act 2010, so that people can bring forward cases on multiple grounds of discrimination. Women are more than just one-dimensional, and it is about time that the law caught up so that we can be recognised for all our intersectionalities.
How about reinstating section 40 of the Equality Act, to protect against third-party harassment? We have had this debate over and over again. It is time that was done. Section 106 would mean that all political parties would have to publish diversity data about their electoral candidates. These simple steps would make a great change in the fight for gender equality. Women deserve better pay, increased flexibility and strengthened protections against harassment and discrimination. Women deserve equal pay and equitable recognition.
Labour not winning the election was tragic for so many reasons. With a Labour Government there would have been a chance to deliver real change. Over 85% of the burden of the Tory-Lib Dem cuts has fallen on the shoulders of women. A Labour Government would have begun to undo the damage and tackle the injustice to women. In power, we would have required employers to devise and implement plans to eradicate the gender pay gap and pay inequalities. With proper enforcement mechanisms, there would have been no place for large employers to hide gender inequality in their organisations. Labour would have created extra protections for pregnant women, those going through the menopause and terminally ill workers.
Labour would have ended zero-hours contracts and strengthened the law, giving all workers the right to flexible working from day one. The Labour party would have extended statutory maternity pay from nine to 12 months, and doubled paternity leave from two to four weeks, and we would have increased statutory paternity pay. The 1950s women would have received compensation for the injustice they have suffered. Unfortunately, Labour is not in government, but what we can do at every opportunity is demand more from this Government.
If Parliament is closed because of coronavirus, that should not be an excuse for the Government to close down. We will expect daily Zoom calls, at the very least, by Ministers and the Prime Minister, to address publicly the people’s priorities, so that they can be acted upon. I hope that the Government will start to listen to people. I hope that they will have the courage to provide for women in a fair way.
The upcoming Budget provides an ideal opportunity to address the imbalance and finally give the necessary resources. I hope the Treasury will publish meaningful equality impact assessments, which have been lacking year after year, and I hope we will finally see the right level of investment in vital social infrastructure, without which we will never make sufficient progress for women.
We must not stop until we eradicate the structural inequalities in society and the violence against women and girls. Thankfully, the Government brought back the Domestic Abuse Bill earlier this week, and I pay tribute to all the campaigners who fought tirelessly to make sure that happened. I welcome the Bill, which includes a new legal obligation on councils to provide secure refuges for victims. That is progress, but we need to be certain that refuges have secure long-term funding. The Government have cut funding, and we have seen the closure of specialist services, which has affected the life chances of very vulnerable women.
I also want to see better protection for children. Although we have seen a shift in how sexual violence and harassment are discussed following the #MeToo movement, we urgently need to consider the experiences of black, Asian and minority ethnic women and girls. That is why the Bill needs to be amended to recognise BAME women and migrant women.
I hosted an event here in Parliament yesterday at which Imkaan launched its new report, “Reclaiming Voice: Minoritised Women and Sexual Violence.” It is the first report of this nature in the UK, and it specifically focuses on survivors of sexual violence and BAME women’s experience of sexual violence. We must look at the evidence in this report, and I will happily provide the Minister with a copy. As well as the report’s findings, we must listen to the voices of all women and groups and make sure that we do not leave any group behind.
Violence against women and girls is unacceptable, as is how women are treated in the criminal justice system. The number of women in prison has more than doubled since 1993. There are around 2,400 more women in prison today than in 1993, which is disturbing. We know women account for a disproportionate number of self-harm incidents in prison, despite making up only 5% of the total prison population. Almost 60% of women in custody or supervised in the community have experienced domestic violence. That figure is too high, and we need to do more to address it. As a former magistrate, I have seen the failures of the justice system towards vulnerable women, and it needs to be looked at.
Last year, the UK fell six places in the global rankings of gender equality. It is simply not acceptable that we dropped from being the 15th most equal nation in the world to the 21st. I want to be up there with the likes of Iceland, Norway and Finland. It is time the Government woke up, fixed up and took on board some of the progressive agenda of those countries.
This year, on International Women’s Day, let us celebrate and unite, let us support each other and let us elevate and empower all women. No more excuses, no more reports, let us get equality done. The time for audits, reviews, roundtables and gender pay gaps is over. What we need now is action. We cannot wait another 50 years to see progress. Let us make 2020 the year that we have the vision to deliver for all women.
I end with a quote from Sojourner Truth, the most powerful advocate for human rights in the 19th century:
“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”
I say that the men better watch out.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak in this debate.
I also thank the Leader of the House for granting Government time for this debate. We are, of course, in quite interesting times. This debate is normally granted by the Backbench Business Committee, but I found myself with no Committee to which to apply for time for this debate, so I appreciate the efforts of my right hon. Friend to find this time today. I extend my thanks to the hon. Members for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who joined me in advocating for having this debate at the right time.
It is also a pleasure to follow the shadow Minister, Dawn Butler. She spoke about intersectionality, and my first contribution in any public forum as, at that time, Chair-elect of the Women and Equalities Committee was at a meeting hosted by the Fawcett Society on how discrimination against women is exacerbated for women from a black or minority ethnic background and for women with a disability. The one point the hon. Lady did not mention is that discrimination is also exacerbated by age. Older women are, of course, among the most invisible in society.
We will hear many powerful contributions to this debate, perhaps particularly from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley. She will again make a powerful, moving and, frankly, horrific contribution. Each year, on International Women’s Day, we reflect again on those women who have been a victim of their partner’s violence during the previous 12 months. It is appalling, and I want the numbers to go down. I want there to be a year when she can stand and celebrate International Women’s Day without a single name to read out. We are not there yet. Indeed, we are a long way from it, and perhaps we will never get there, but we have to keep moving forward with important measures like the Domestic Abuse Bill, which we must pass in this Parliament.
I remember being in the Chamber when the Bill was debated last year, and I remember the frustration that a general election came along and the Bill did not make progress. We have no excuses this time.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her speech. She is right to highlight the appalling incidence of domestic abuse still disproportionately suffered by women. Does she agree that that underlies much of women’s offending behaviour? Will she join me in asking the Government to clearly link their domestic abuse strategy with their female offender strategy so that women who end up in the penal system as a result of having been a victim of abuse have their needs properly addressed in the criminal justice system?
The hon. Lady is, of course, right to point out the link between domestic abuse and women too often ending up in the penal system. I am somewhat surprised and disappointed that Daisy Cooper is not here, because she has frequently raised with me the issue of women in the justice system and what more we have to do to assist them and to avoid them ending up there in the first place.
This debate is a chance to look backwards as well as forwards, and to consider whether the previous 12 months have been good for women. I have supported, promoted and, indeed, celebrated measures in this House but, as Charles Dickens might have said, they have been the best of times and the worst of times. It is odd for somebody from Southampton to quote a man from Portsmouth—those who are not from the south coast will not understand what I mean—but it accurately sums up the progress we have made and the setbacks there have been.
I vividly remember when the Domestic Abuse Bill was first introduced, when we heard the fantastic, powerful and horrendous contribution from the hon. Member for Canterbury. I also remember the powerful contribution from my hon. Friend Mark Garnier—I was sitting directly behind him, and it will forever be seared in my mind—about Natalie Connolly and the horrendous defence we see used increasingly often in domestic abuse and murder trials that rough sex is something women victims enjoy. There should be no place for such a defence.
Last year we did see the introduction of stalking protection orders, which are designed to protect the victims of stalking, the vast majority of whom are women. The crime survey for England and Wales estimates that 4.9 million adults in England and Wales have experienced stalking or harassment in their lifetime, and women are twice as likely to experience stalking, with mixed-race women and those aged 20 to 24 at greatest risk.
The law was changed last year so that upskirting offenders can be arrested and sent to prison. Some of us felt that legislation was unduly delayed, and, of course, there were some interesting lingerie-led protests.
My right hon. Friend the former Member for Richmond Park, now a noble lord, secured a strengthening of the law on female genital mutilation. I know my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister cares deeply about the issue, and I am pleased to hear the Minister for Women and Equalities mention it today. As Immigration Minister, I worked hard to keep out of this country people who advocated FGM. I was appalled when I heard the deployment of the phrase, “It is only a little bit of cutting.” No, it is child abuse, it is illegal and there should be no place in this country for people who are the proponents of FGM.
Outside the world of politics, we saw last October the first all-female spacewalk, and last month Christina Koch returned from the longest single spaceflight by a woman. She spent 328 days in space, an incredible period, and she is one of those fabulous role models that we have for young women everywhere. Dina Asher-Smith, in Doha, scooped silver in the 100 metres, gold in the 200 metres and silver in the relay, becoming the first Brit to win three medals at a major championship, Simone Biles continued being one of the greatest women athletes ever, racking up medal after medal at the world gymnastics championships in Stuttgart, and Jade Jones added her first world taekwondo title to her double Olympic gold. Of course there are those who cannot bear to watch female athletes and make offensive comparisons. To them I say that I would like to see them compete with Sarah Storey, who achieved her 35th world para-cycling title.
On pay, there have been some triumphs, although I would argue that they are not wins—they are merely fairness. Samira Ahmed won her case against the BBC in January this year, but we all know there is a long way to go. Gender pay gap reporting has shone a light on disparity, but we know that some Departments have gone backwards and the disparity is greater today than it was this time last year. Perhaps when the Whip—my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield—responds, she will be able to give us an assurance that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is absolutely committed to closing the gender pay gap. In this place, we have done better—
I absolutely agree with everything that the right hon. Lady is saying in her speech, and I congratulate her on becoming Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. Will she meet me so that we can plot together to use the forthcoming employment Bill as an opportunity to bring in new tougher laws to narrow the gender pay gap? Although in law it is illegal, the yawning pay gap persists. We can use that Bill to toughen up the law. Shall we work together on that?
I believe the right hon. and learned Lady, the Mother of the House, is working on a number of issues on which she and I would find common ground. I am always delighted to meet her to work out how we can continue to do better. The Women and Equalities Committee has only met for the first time this week, but it has a number of priorities it wishes to look at. One of my contentions was that the gender pay gap should be a recurrent issue that we revisit annually, giving Ministers the opportunity to come before the Committee to explain to us how the Government have been making progress, or perhaps otherwise, on closing that yawning gap.
As I was saying, in this place we have done better. The Secretary of State and the shadow Minister both mentioned that there are now more women MPs than ever before; 34% of all MPs are women, and that is a great deal better than the situation was in 2010 when I arrived. I recall that when I joined the House, my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller pointed out to me that when she came in here in 2005 there had been only 17 Conservative women MPs. There was a massive jump in 2010. From last year’s election, this Parliament did do better, but on this side of the House we are still a long way short of 50%. I cannot help but mourn the departure of people such as Amber Rudd, Claire Perry O’Neill, Caroline Spelman, Baroness Morgan, Justine Greening, Anne Milton, Margot James, Sarah Newton and Seema Kennedy, many of whom came in at the same election as me in 2010. But I am delighted to see new Members here, and I know that in time they will rise to the dizzy heights that those female colleagues whom I mentioned rose to. I know that they will come to love this place, be promoted and contribute a great deal.
I believe I am correct in saying that across all Government payroll positions we are now just shy of 50:50. But—and it is a big but—has that percentage been reached by putting women on to the first rung, the unpaid payroll? If so, what on earth has that done to the gender pay gap in government, when 73% of the Cabinet are men and 45% of Parliamentary Private Secretary positions are filled by women who are not paid. So I think we have some things to celebrate and some that I simply cannot. I am saddened that the men in grey suits went after a woman Prime Minister—again. I am genuinely saddened that the Labour party looks unlikely to elect a woman leader—again—although I am the first to acknowledge that polls can be wrong. I wish every female candidate left in that race luck, and indeed those who are in the contest to become deputy leader. Having mentioned a string of Conservative colleagues who have left this House in the past 12 months, I should say that I also miss Luciana Berger, Ruth Smeeth and Angela Smith, to name just a very few. In this place, there has always been, and I hope there always will be, solidarity and sisterhood across the House. Some of the best advice I ever received in this place came from Joan Ruddock, way back in 2010, when I was a newbie and she was something of a grande dame of the Labour party. I refer to her as a grande dame as a term of affection, although I note that Quentin Letts now refers to me as a grande dame and I am not sure it is meant to be complimentary at all.
What we have certainly seen over the past year is an intensification of the harassment, bullying and torment of female politicians on social media. One of my local papers, the Andover Advertiser, asked me this week to provide some commentary ahead of International Women’s Day, and I found myself speaking of resilience. There are days when I hate the fact that I have to be as tough as I am. I always describe myself as having the hide of a rhinoceros, which is sometimes useful when dealing with constituents, particularly the ones who think it is okay to email me to tell me that I am a “tiresome underachieving woman”. I am sure they think they are getting somewhere with their comments, but I always prefer to laugh at them, envisaging a chap of a certain age, undoubtedly as red in the face as he is in the trousers, as he bangs his keyboard with venom. I joke, but it is not a laughing matter, and I know that I get off extremely lightly compared with Ms Abbott. For those new to the House, let me say that the “mute” and “block” buttons are your friends, and that by being here you achieve more every single day than your fiercest keyboard warrior critic ever will.
On press commentary, it was only last week that we had the celebration of 100 years of women journalists in the Press Gallery. Miss Marguerite Cody was the first woman ever to report from Parliament, but today there are still too few women who look down on us from the press seats. The faces we see are still predominantly male, some not in the first flush of youth, and for good reporting we need diverse reporting, even when we might find the commentary uncomfortable. I have no doubt that women do ask the toughest questions but also the fair ones. I use as an example the fact that no woman journalist has ever asked me what my dad thinks.
I turn to the role I now hold as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee—what a great position and opportunity. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, steered the Committee through its first five years, and I am very conscious that I have a difficult pair of shoes to fill. I suspect, however, that with size 8 feet I can more than manage it. She rightly mentioned the lack of statues of inspirational women in our country. There is no shortage of women role models, but there is a shortage of tributes to them through the arts and through culture. It is brilliant that in her constituency we now have a statue of Jane Austen, but I am struck by the fact that my constituency was the home of Florence Nightingale. She was a very modest woman who demanded that there should be no tribute to her when she died. Her grave is in the same village as I live in and it does not even have her name on it—it has her initials only. I look forward to going in a few months’ time to the unveiling of a stained glass window in Romsey abbey, which was deliberately moved away from the church in which she is buried but absolutely reflects the importance she had as a woman, as a scientist and, given the way she worked with government, as a politician—this was someone born 200 years ago.
Although the Women and Equalities Committee met in this Parliament for the first time yesterday, so it is still very fresh, there was no shortage of ideas. There was also a commitment to conclude in this Parliament some of the work started by the predecessor Committee in the last Parliament and curtailed because of the December election. We will in turn form our own priorities and set our own agenda, but some of that will be to return to the gender pay gap to benchmark progress. There is a serious job to do in scrutinising the performance of Government against their own objectives, and we will do that with determination and commitment.
Amuna anga andig wiririria usiku watha. I know it is unlikely anyone here understands what I said—if they do, I hope they will not tell everybody I pronounced it incorrectly —but I will come back to it at the end and explain why I said it.
The 8th of March is International Women’s Day. I hope you will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it is also my birthday.
I am an international woman.
For many years, I had my niece and nephew believing that the day was named in honour of me. They were wide-eyed at the celebrations the world over—all for me. At the same time, I regularly adjusted my age for them, so it was a bit of a running joke that I could not face up to reaching the upper stages of my youth. It all came unstuck for me in 2011, when the world marked 100 years of International Women’s Day. They found it amusing to discover that I was around more than 100 years ago.
There are some lessons in there somewhere, and one of them is about age. As we celebrate women, let us celebrate all women and note those who often face barriers in addition to those presented by their gender. That might be for any number of reasons: race, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, income and, yes, age. Age International reports that nearly a quarter of the world’s women are over the age of 50, yet they are routinely excluded from policy and practice that aims to address gender inequality and violence against women, including sexual violence.
We, and I include myself in this, also need to stop talking about age as if it were a bad thing—it is clearly better than any other alternative. We talk as if women, in particular, are past it once they reach a certain age—a certain age I have yet to reach, obviously. While we are talking about age, let us not forget the regular exclusion of young women from the policy-making process.
International Women’s Day is not just about looking at barriers and inequality. As we have heard, it is also about celebrating successes and the barriers that have been overcome. However, until we have true equality in every walk of life and in every sense of the word, we have to keep talking about why we do not have equal opportunities in this life. So today I want to do three things. I want to read out a roll-call of just some of the women who inspire me. I also want to talk about some fundamental barriers facing women and how our male allies can help break them down, and I will end by asking two things of the Government. That will allow me to explain why I started off speaking in a different language.
On the roll-call, I sometimes think we have our famous women we pay tribute to, and then we have our so-called ordinary women. I am just going to mix them up and read a list of women who inspire me. Some are constituents, but they are by no means the only woman in my constituency who inspire me—I would need the entire debate to mention them all. The women are Mary Seacole, Helen Carroll, Marie Curie, Winnie Ewing, Mags Watson, Gemma Coyle, Rosa Parks, Mary Hunter, Marie Stopes, Janet Connor, Harriet Tubman, Laura Clark, Bessie Watson, Josephine McCusker, Catherine Yuill, Tracy Pender, Donna Henderson and, finally—I am going to say something about the last one—Chief Theresa Kachindamoto, also known in Malawi as the marriage terminator. She became the chief of over 900,000 people and immediately dissolved the child marriages of 3,000 girls. I like the name “the marriage terminator”. I want those on the list who are still with us to know that they inspire me. If they do not know why, I will tell them when I see them.
The second thing I want to talk about is the fundamental barriers facing women. I want to say a bit about how I came rather late in life to understand the barriers that I face because of my gender, in the hope that it will help others who want to understand. I am not going to talk about children and childcare. It is an obvious, although necessary, matter to refer to, but it sometimes allows people to simplify the issue. It allows those who regularly ask, “When’s International Men’s Day?” to argue that women who have full childcare or who have no children are barrier-free, and that is just not the case. I do not have children, so I cannot say that childcare duties prevent me from doing some of the things I want to do, but for my entire life I have experienced the fundamental barriers that almost all women experience—I just did not know that that is what it was.
Many of my peers were elected long before I ever was. I thought that that was because they were better, that I would not be that good anyway and that politics was not for the likes of me. I also did not like the combative and competitive nature of party politics, so if there was an internal battle for selection, I just refused to put myself forward. I remember my friend Shona Robison, who went on to be the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport in the Scottish Government, phoning me and saying, “It’s the first Scottish Parliament, Anne. We need more women. Why don’t you stand?” I just point-blank refused. No matter how much she encouraged me, and no matter how she tried to persuade me, I told her it was not for me.
I believed that the thing holding me back was me and my lack of ability, but I was not lacking in ability, and it was Nicola Sturgeon who opened my eyes to that. We were talking about gender balance mechanisms, and I said what I have heard many women say: “I would only ever want to get somewhere on merit.” She said, “Well, that’s fine—if all the men you see elected are there on merit alone too. Until they are, we need these gender balance mechanisms.” That got me thinking, and it set me on a path where I ended up spending the last two years working in different countries, mainly trying to get more women into politics. I made that argument about merit, and I could see other women’s eyes opening.
I also used something else Nicola pointed out to me that day: ask a man to tell you three things he is really good at, and he will. He is quite right to do that, because you have asked him to do it, but if we ask a woman to do the same, most women—of course, I am generalising, but I think we can use general points here—will start by telling us what they are not good at, and I could list many more than three.
The hon. Lady is making a very powerful argument. One thing we should be doing is giving women the licence to try, fail and come back to something. So many of us will not put our names forward; we are afraid of failing. We are told that if we fail once, that is it. All of us need to be fairer on ourselves and fairer on each other to encourage people to come forward.
I absolutely agree. I was just going on to say that even when we cajole some women and say, “Come on, just tell me something you’re good at,” they will say things like, “Well, my friends think I am quite good at—” It is very difficult to get things out of them.
It is all to do with conditioning. Boys are brought up, on the whole, to be ambitious, bold and confident and to expect to be important in life. Girls are brought up to look after everyone else, including those important men, to be the peacemakers and to look pretty. How many times, when we meet a little girl, is the first thing we say to her that she looks really pretty? How many times do we say to a little boy how clever he is? Clearly that girl will grow up judging herself on how she looks or how she does not look, and the boy will focus on being clever and running the world.
I am not talking just about parents, although they obviously have an influence. I was brought up by two parents who regularly drummed into me that I was as good as anyone else—no better, no worse, but as good as. I was encouraged by them to conquer the world, but not by the society I grew up in. The influences around us, such as the media, teachers and other people involved in a child’s life, can be really powerful, so I was really impressed to read that the Scottish Government last month held the first meeting of a taskforce to tackle gender stereotyping in the classroom. We need a lot more of that.
The other thing we women need is our male allies. I am happy to say that there are many in here. There are many on the SNP Benches, and many in my own life. I want to make one suggestion about how men in politics can be our allies on a practical level, but before I do, I want to go back to the issue of conditioning and to acknowledge that not all the conditioning that boys receive is positive. One area where girls and women fare better is talking about emotions. We are allowed to do that, but boys and men are not. When I talk about conditioning, it is not to suggest that we get it right with boys either.
What can our male allies do to support women in politics? I did quite a bit of work last year in the Gambia to support political parties to get more women, among other groups, involved in politics. Almost every female political activist told me she needed training in public speaking, but I spotted something far more fundamental, which I have spotted in other countries, including our own. Many of the women were not even speaking in the small roundtable party meetings; those who did regularly had their sentences finished for them, and they accepted that. I am not singling out the Gambia, because mansplaining is a worldwide phenomenon, as we all know. I realised that I had work to do with the women on how to make their voices heard on a more fundamental level. I also recognised that I had work to do with the men. It is like all forms of unconscious bias: most people do not intend to practise bias. Most men would likely be horrified if they discovered that they were creating barriers.
The one thing that men can do is to look at their behaviour in meetings. They need to recognise that just because a woman says nothing or little in a meeting does not mean that she has nothing or little to say. It is simply that we often communicate differently. We are also often surrounded by very confident men who have a lot to say, and that is absolutely acceptable, but our voice inside starts to tell us to doubt the validity of what we were going to say. Women MPs may hide it well, but we are not immune to this behaviour. For example, right now, my pages are covered with notes saying, “Cut, if they are bored.” “Cut, if they are bored.” And, “Cut, if they are bored.” I had assumed that people would be bored and that I would have been talking for too long. Perhaps I am, but I am going to force myself not to cut my speech, if that is alright with you, Madam Deputy Speaker—yes, it looks like it is okay.
I am not just talking about women MPs; I am talking about people who come into Parliament for meetings with us. I am talking about our party members. I am talking about support staff. I have lost count of the number of times that I have left a meeting and been approached by a woman who did not speak a single word and who starts talking to me on a one-to-one basis and giving me some really important and interesting information. Therefore, one thing that our male allies, and also other women, can do is invite individuals to speak and not allow their sentences to be finished for them.
I did some training with women MPs—they were, in fact, Deputy Speakers—in Nepal this time last year. I was there to help them get media coverage, because the male MPs were getting it all. I turned up at the conference hall and it was half full of men. They had heard about the training—this is the male MPs—and they felt put out that they had been excluded. The women felt sorry for them and invited them to join the session, but it changed the entire dynamic and had I not found ways to work around it, it would have defeated the purpose of my being there at all.
I think it would be helpful to say how it changed the dynamic. When I was trying to establish what holds women MPs back from engaging with the media, I asked a number of questions. One was, “Hands up if you ever feel that what you have to say to a journalist is probably not that important after all.” Not one woman put her hand up, but I knew from speaking to them privately that most of them did experience that self-doubt; they just did not want to talk about it in a roomful of confident men. Some men put their hands up, but it was to tell me how vitally important their stories were to the media. Therefore, they gave me the opposite of what I was asking. As I have said, I found ways around that and one was to say, “May I take the first three responses from women, please?” That works in a larger setting. It is something that I have seen male allies do. In the more intimate setting of a round-table meeting, I ask men to please just remember that a woman who is saying nothing is not doing so because she has nothing to say.
Finally, I conclude with two asks of the Government. I spent recess in Malawi. As an aside, just because so many women have mentioned this, let me say that I went on a constituency visit with an MP, and her MP colleague gave the most passionate speech to hundreds of people about why they should retain her—there is a campaign called “Retain Her Malawi”. I thought that it was really nice that these two women in the same party were supporting each other. But they were not in the same party at all—it was the equivalent of my going along to a constituency in Scotland with a Conservative or a Labour MP, saying that they must vote for her next time. It was really interesting to watch the way that the women in that caucus supported each other.
Members will see that I have a piece of cloth wrapped around me. It was given to me by Linga, Oxfam’s Malawi director. I was in Malawi, as I have said, for the women’s caucus conference for all 44 women MPs in Malawi—23% of its Parliament is now made up by women. The conference was organised by Oxfam and supported by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. The cloth is printed with the words, “Take action, say no to violence against women.” A lot of good work is going on in Malawi, much of it funded by both the Scottish and the UK Governments, so that is fantastic.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She is speaking passionately about Malawi. I have also visited Malawi and spent time with women’s organisations doing fantastic work. If she has been in Malawi, she will know the impact that HIV/AIDS has had. AIDS is still the leading cause of death for women between 15 and 49 worldwide. UNAIDS has released a report today highlighting the gendered nature of HIV/AIDS for women. Does she agree that we need to do all we can through our aid budget to tackle that?
I could not possibly disagree with that. Yes, I absolutely do agree with that. There was a lot of talk about how the country will tackle HIV/AIDS.
There is a big focus, funded largely by ourselves, on ending violence against women and girls. My ask of the Government is: what has happened to the Istanbul convention? Many will remember former SNP MP Dr Eilidh Whiteford, who served in this House for many years. Her private Member’s Bill was passed by this House, yet here we are almost three years later and nothing has been done. This week the Domestic Abuse Bill was reintroduced, but, I think I am right in saying, without provisions for ratification. Why is that? What is the delay?
I started my speech with these words: Amuna anga andig wiririria usiku watha. I was attempting to speak in Chichewa, one of the official languages of Malawi. The point that I am making is that I have a lot of constituents, mainly women, who cannot speak English, or if they can, it is limited, and when people are in distress, it becomes even more limited. If I were a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I could pick up the phone to the Scottish Parliament interpretation service, put my constituent on the phone and someone would establish what language they were speaking and an interpreter would be made available. Westminster offers no such service that I know of. Often, the issues are Home Office-related. That is further complicated by the fact that the Home Office point-blank refuses to communicate with Members of the Scottish Parliament. If anyone needs that service, it is MPs. Right now, if I need interpretation, I fall back on the fantastic national organisation, Saheliya, led by another inspirational woman, Alison Davis, but that service is by appointment only. May I appeal to the Minister and the Government, to look at setting up that initial telephone service so that people—mainly women, often women in danger—can access support from their Member of Parliament in the same way that any other women can expect to?
It is a great pleasure to follow Anne McLaughlin with her passion and her verve and her ability to speak Malawian—if that indeed is the language that they speak in Malawi.
I wish to start my contribution by thanking the Leader of the House, who has done something very important today. He has allowed us to hold this debate in Government time. I hope that that is a trend for the future, because, while I have huge respect for the Backbench Business Committee and the work that it does, this debate should be held in Government time as it shows a recognition of, and a respect for, the importance of the things that come out of this debate.
I look forward to International Women’s Day every year, but I would like to share with the House that this is not only for the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women, but because as well as being the birthday of the hon. Member for Glasgow North-East, it is the birthday of my youngest child, James. Year after year, that has caused enormous conflict in my household. This year, he is now 18 and an adult. I hope that Members and others can forgive me for not supporting the rally on Sunday, as I will be taking him out for a slap-up meal and perhaps a pint of beer to celebrate the fact that he is now a fully-fledged adult.
When we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is important to acknowledge that many young men, and older ones too, struggle with discrimination—ageism, perhaps because they are also LGBT, or because they may be disabled—but this does not take away the importance of having this opportunity to celebrate women and girls, their contribution and the challenges that they still face, both here and across the globe.
My hon. Friend Philip Davies has demonstrated that International Men’s Day provides a great opportunity for men to talk about the issues that they face. I hope that the respect for this particular event, International Women’s Day, and the debate around it is seen for the opportunity that it is—to debate the achievements of women. And celebrate them we should. My right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, the new Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee —on which I congratulate her—is absolutely right that we should celebrate. We should celebrate the record numbers of women in work, the record numbers of women in Parliament, and now the record number of women who are graduating from our universities with the best degrees. More women than men are actually now graduating with science-based degrees, which is showing some progress, the foundations of which were sown very early on in 2010 when the Conservative Government was first formed. Some of that real progress is due to the very hard work of hon. and right hon. Members sitting in the Chamber today.
But many of the women who we are inspired by as constituency Members of Parliament do not sit on these green Benches and do not fill the history books; they are women who do extraordinary things day in, day out to make our communities better places in which to live. I would like to give the House three examples from my part of Hampshire. Diane Taylor, the mayor of Basingstoke, is an extraordinary woman of compassion and of support for our community. Catherine Waters-Clark set up the fantastic local charity Inspero and has taken it to being an award-winning charity in a handful of years. And most of all—I think other Hampshire Members may agree with me on this—I pay tribute to Olivia Pinkney, who is our chief constable in Hampshire and is one of a very small number of female chief constables in the whole country. On a day like this, we should remember those inspiring women, who have pushed the barriers, gone that extra mile and made our communities even better places in which to live.
Let me touch on the role of Parliament. As a legislative body, we have a duty to scrutinise the effectiveness of Government policy to ensure, as the Minister said in her opening statement, that everybody has the opportunity to live the life they choose—that people are carried by their ideas, character and talent, and not held back by their gender. Of course, she is entirely right. It is right that we now have a Select Committee to scrutinise those policies formally every week of the year, but International Women’s Day gives us another channel of scrutiny and another way in which to throw a sharp light on the issues that women need us to address.
The number of events in Parliament has grown organically every year that I have been here, and this year there has been an opportunity to take part in some extraordinary events, including a fantastic exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall called “Motherworks”, masterminded by Fiona Freund and showcasing the dazzling capabilities of working mums. With the all-party parliamentary group on women, peace and security, I have been able to meet incredible women on the frontline of fighting for women’s rights in countries such as Syria and Nigeria. I have been privileged to be able to launch Birmingham University business school’s fathers in the workplace toolkit—because if we do not get it right for dads, we will never get it right for mums—and last night to have been at the launch of Plan International UK’s call for action for young women living in conflict areas.
Does Parliament actually have an opportunity to do a bit more? There is a strong argument that the parts that make up International Women’s Week, as I think it has become, would be stronger if we tried to knit them together to demonstrate this Parliament’s significant commitment to International Women’s Day. Perhaps we could bring events together in a more coherent programme, and—as we are now no longer members of the EU—use it as an opportunity to be keep in close contact with some of our colleagues across our neighbouring European countries. We have inspiring women in Parliament, in business, in medicine and in teaching, and International Women’s Day is an opportunity for us, as a body, to play our part in showcasing their talents in order to inspire the next generation. I hope that, as parliamentary colleagues, we might think about how we can make this event an even more significant part of the parliamentary diary. We could continue to support the excellent work of 50:50 Parliament, as I know many of us do, and we could involve more young people—and perhaps some old people as well—in thinking about being a Member of Parliament as part of their life work.
So where does the challenge really lie? Today—indeed, this week—is all about celebrating women, but it is also about being honest about the challenges still faced. I agree with the Minister that there should be intrinsic equity for men and women, but there is not because of the attitudes and culture that still prevail in this country and across the globe. It is important that the Government recognise that, because it is the reality of women’s lives. The Minister’s vision is inspiring, but the reality can sometimes be less so. One of the strengths of having a Women and Equalities Committee is the work that we are now able to do to amass the evidence and see what needs to be acted on. I will focus the remainder of my comments on three specific challenges that I passionately feel need addressing.
The first challenge is that although we may have record numbers of women in work, too many still do not reach their full potential. As a country facing challenges with our productivity levels, we have to take that very seriously indeed. I welcome the Government’s commitment to improving childcare—the 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds, and the commitment to more investment in wraparound care, are hugely important—but there are three elements that we have to fix if we are going to enable women really to reach their full potential at work as we need them to do.
First, there is a lack of quality flexible working, despite the Government’s policy to encourage businesses in that area. Secondly, we need to tackle the fact that women are being discriminated against simply because they are pregnant or new mums. Many hundreds of women are being put in a position where they feel they need to leave their work simply because they are pregnant, and that situation has actually worsened over the last 10 years, according to the Government’s figures. The third element that I really want the Government to think about in this respect—unsurprisingly, just a few days after the conviction of Harvey Weinstein—is that women are still today suffering sexual harassment at work, only to see it covered up through the use of pay-offs and non-disclosure agreements to exit them from their workplace, leaving the offending individuals in place to continue to abuse others. This is not right and it has to change. Women trust us to get it right, and at the moment we are not. We need to make all jobs flexible by default unless there are business reasons not to do so; to adopt the same protections that are in place in Germany for pregnant mums and new mums to stop women being forced out of work when they are pregnant; and to outlaw the use of non-disclosure agreements to cover up allegations of sexual harassment.
The jailing of Harvey Weinstein does not solve the problem. We have to change the way in which our employment tribunal systems work for the better in order to remove the disincentives to bring forward strong cases in the first place. We also have to stop NDAs being used to cover up allegations of sexual harassment or discrimination, to put in place standard confidentiality clauses and to strengthen corporate governance. Members of the Select Committee in the last Parliament will remember the importance of insisting on the reporting up of sexual harassment cases to board level, in order to ensure that those leading our companies and institutions are aware of what is going on. I just remind colleagues of the excellent publications that the Select Committee has already produced; those reports are evidence-based, and the Government should be able to get some good ideas from them.
In short, we need to reshape jobs and the workplace because most jobs and most workplaces are still shaped around a model that has existed for hundreds of years and that too often did not fit women; and as a result, it is not working for women. I am mindful of the time, so will briefly mention the other two areas that I wanted to cover, the first of which is digital abuse.
I wholeheartedly applaud the Government’s real commitment to online reform, and the online harms White Paper was a real step in the right direction, but now we need to see the legislation. Yes, it is important to put in place a duty of care on digital platforms, but the legislation also needs to consider sexual abuse images. At the moment, we have a patchwork of legislation in areas such as upskirting and revenge pornography. We need legislation that can stand the test of time and does not need updating every time a digital platform finds a new way of abusing women through the use of sexual images. Deepfake is a very current example, and of course the issue of anonymity cannot be neglected either.
Last, but by no means least, I turn to Parliament itself. Back in 2016, when we took evidence in the Select Committee from party leaders about their aspirations for the role of women in Parliament, I was heartened that all the party leaders agreed that the House of Commons would be a better place if we had as many women here as men. We have a duty to make this place the best legislative body it can be, yet still only one in three parliamentarians is female—and, yes, the problem lies with the Conservative party. We have record numbers of women MPs. I applaud the Labour party for achieving 51% female MPs. Now we really have to examine things on the Conservative Benches as to how we can achieve a similar situation.
How confident are we that Parliament is as appealing a workplace as it can be to women? How can we make sure that it becomes a more appealing workplace for women? These are the issues that we need to think about and have to tackle. Retaining Members of Parliament—this applies to all parliamentary parties—is something we are failing to do at the moment. At the last general election, all parties lost good women who decided that this was not a place where they could work and balance their caring responsibilities. That should concern us all deeply. It is a problem for MPs to solve, not for those on the Treasury Bench to solve. It is our responsibility. With that in mind, it is crucial that this, as a place of work, works for everybody. I am delighted to be a member of the new Administration Committee, and I look forward to seeing how some of these issues can be addressed through the work of that Committee.
The Government have an ambitious policy to eliminate the gender pay gap—to level up our country, giving everybody the opportunity to be the best they can be, regardless of background. I was born in a council house and went to my local comprehensive school in south Wales, and I am proud to be the 265th woman ever to be elected to this place. The Government are right in their ambition to level up. That levelling up goes for women, too, both in work and in this place, to give everybody the opportunity to live the life they choose based on their talents, ideas and characters, and not to be held up or held back simply because they are a woman.
As has been trailed in a number of other speeches, I rise, like I rise every year, to read the names of the women who have been murdered by men since this time last year. I am afraid to say that the statistics released recently show that this is, unfortunately, not a number that goes down but in fact a number that is going up.
So I shall start: Julie Webb, Tracey Lovell, Libby Squire, Antoinette Donnegan, Dorothy Bowyer, Laureline Garcia-Bertaux, Giselle Marimon-Herrera, Allison Marimon-Herrera, Lala Kamara, Alice Morrow, Rachel Evans, Alison McKenzie, Janette Dunbavand, Barbara Heywood, Paula Meadows, Anna Reed, Sarah Fuller, Megan Newton, Leah Fray, Saima Riaz, Sammy-Lee Lodwig, Amy Parsons, Mihrican Mustafa, Henriett Szucs, Emma Faulds, Lauren Griffiths, Ellie Gould, Joanne Hamer, Mavis Long, Julia Rawson, Jayde Hall, Elizabeth McShane, Linda Treeby, Regen Tierney, Paige Gibson, Neomi Smith, Safie Xheta, Valerie Richardson, Lucy Rushton, Kelly Fauvrelle, Joanna Thompson, Ligita Kostiajeviene, Lesley Pearson, Carol Milne, Doreen Virgo, Diane Dyer, Kayleigh Hanks, Kelly-Anne Case, Dorothy Woolmer, Natalie Crichlow, Belinda Rose, Pamela Mellor, Linda Vilika, Lindsay Birbeck, Michelle Pearson, Rebecca Simpson, Alice Farquharson, Laura Rakstelyte, Sandra Samuels, Marlene McCabe, Lana Nemceva, Bethany Fields, Serafima Mashaka, Vera Hudson, Keeley Bunker, Emily Goodman, Cristina Ortiz-Lozano, Margaret Robertson, Arlene Williams, Sarah Hassell, Fatima Burathoki, Lesley Spearing, Niyat Berhane Teklemariam, Zoe Orton, Beatrice Yankson, Levi Ogden, and Tsegereda Gebremariam—who lived on the next street to the street that I live on. I saw the sirens and heard their roar, and knew I would have to read out her name. I go on: Nicola Stevenson, Mandeep Singh, Alison McBlaine, Katy Sprague, Saskia Jones, Lindsay de Feliz, Marion Price, Jolanta Jakubowska, Kayleigh Dunning, Nelly Myers, Angela Tarver, Amy Appleton, Sandra Seagrove, Vivienne Bryan, Stacey Cooper, Helen Almey, Magdalena Pacult, Katherine Bevan, Kelly Price, Beverley Denahy, Gian Kaur Bhandal, Margaret Grant, Kymberli Sweeney, Mary Haley, Cherith Van Der Ploeg, Ann Mowbray, Debbie Zurick, Li Qing Wang, and Janice Woolford.
Since Karen Ingala Smith, the woman who counts these women, sent me this list last Thursday, two further women had to be added this morning: Katrina Fletcher and Bhavini Pravin.
Also on the list are five women who were murdered alongside their friend, husband or partner: Tatiana Koudriavtsev, Layla Arezo, Jasbir Kaur, Premm Monti, and Frances Murray. I separate them from the main list, which Karen had not done when she sent it to me, because in almost all of those cases, aside from one, both the woman and her partner were murdered by their son. I often rise in this debate to talk about violent partner domestic abuse, and the vast majority of the names that I read out will have been that exact thing, but one thing that is very rarely tackled is children’s abuse of their parents. When I worked at Women’s Aid, I saw the horror of a woman dealing with an adolescent son who was abusing her and beating her. You cannot go to a refuge to get away from your child—it is impossible. We must do much more in policy to deal with that.
I could not read that list without Karen Ingala Smith and all those at The Femicide Census. She never allows us to look away from the reality of male violence towards women. In reading the list, and thinking about having to say the same thing every year, I cannot help but reflect that had these women all been murdered in terrorist incidents, had these women all died of coronavirus, or had these women all died—as I have heard my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper say many times—at sports events over the year, there would be a huge inquiry. Had these all been terrorist deaths, the Government—not just this Government, but any Government—would stop at nothing to enact policy quickly and effectively. Cobra meetings would be held if this many people had died of coronavirus, even in that space of time. A far greater response is made to almost every other epidemic than the epidemic of male violence against women.
For every woman who has sat in front of me and has suffered this over the years, I can say that it leaves most of them feeling literally as if they are worth less—their lives are worth less. Women’s bodies—women’s lives—matter less, and the epidemic of violence against them is never considered to be a pattern or a disease in our country or around the world that requires the same will as other issues. I recognise that the Government have brought forward the Domestic Abuse Bill, and we are all pleased to see it back, but until we start hearing that list as if it were a list in another circumstance and acting with the same level of horror, knowing that we would gain the same political benefit from dealing with it as we would were it terrorism, we will never get anywhere.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, as she does every year. She mentioned Helen Almey. My son went to school with her. If we know one of these people, it brings home to us that they are not statistics; they are real people. It is a very powerful thing that she does every year, and I congratulate her on it.
I thank the hon. Lady. Throughout the year, me and Karen often meet people who have been personally affected by one of the names on the list, and that is why we keep doing it—because these women are not statistics. They are the friends of our children. They are our children. They are the woman who lived down the road from me, who I will have walked past a million times. I hope that the list reminds people how serious this is and that, on pretty much every street and in every classroom, there will be somebody who is quietly suffering, who might one day end up on the list.
I am going to mention a lot of women, and most people in this room will not have a clue who they are, but they are important women in my life, my constituency and my community, and I make no apology for mentioning them.
I will start by challenging my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes. I know that Florence Nightingale is buried in Romsey, but she spent most of her time—apart from when she was nursing in the Crimea—living in Derbyshire. This year, we are celebrating 200 years since her birth. I think she would congratulate the current Government on their policy on washing hands, because she was really keen on cleanliness in the Crimea and the other places she served in. She would recognise that that is probably the best thing we can do against the coronavirus. First and foremost, I want to celebrate Florence Nightingale. We have a statue of her in Derby, and there is a lot of controversy about whether it will be moved.
Another important person in Derby and Derbyshire is Alice Wheeldon, a suffragette who was imprisoned wrongly in 1917 because it was claimed that she plotted to kill the then Prime Minister, and there is a big campaign to get that overturned. Recently we celebrated Nancy Astor—who has no connections with Derbyshire, as far as I know—making her maiden speech 100 years ago, which was very important in the progression of this country. It is important that the women in this place today celebrate those women, of whatever party, who were first in their field, because they are trailblazers for the rest of us.
Yesterday I was lucky to go to WE Day, which is one day a year run by a charity, following a whole year of social action for children. We heard inspirational speakers at Wembley arena, and two in particular resonated with many of the young people there. One was a trainee doctor—a girl who is almost deaf and almost blind. Everybody said that she could not get on to a course to become a doctor. Well, she has, and she continues to train as a doctor. She will have tremendous empathy with disabled patients and a lot of sympathy for the people she will be treating. It is brilliant that she has got on that course.
The other speaker was a Syrian refugee, who was told that because of her accent and because she was a refugee, she could not achieve virtually anything. She is training to be a pilot and working with Airbus at the moment. Those two young women were inspirational to the audience of 12,000 young people between the age of nine or 10 and 17.
Derbyshire is touched by some amazing women, not least Severn Trent chief executive Liv Garfield. The Severn Trent water authority goes through the whole of Derbyshire. Severn Trent is now on the London stock exchange. It is one of the FTSE 100, and is led by this amazing woman who goes at 1 million miles an hour. It does not matter what you ask her about her company, she can answer it. She is a pioneer, and there are many other women in the FTSE 100, but not enough. We need more women to get up to the top.
In Derby we have a lot of this country’s rail industry, which is predominantly a male bastion. There is a company in Derby called Resonate, led by Anna Ince, who is a pioneer running an organisation that combines technology and transport to optimise traffic management solutions. That sounds terribly boring, but she can transform the way that our rail works and provide other logistical travel solutions. She has taken that company from being a fairly average company to a really impressive one.
Porterbrook, which specialises in the leasing of trains, is run by a woman called Mary Grant. She is fantastic, because she has come along after a series of men, and she is changing that industry. There is Elaine Clark, who is the CEO of the Rail Forum Midlands. She is doing incredibly well in leading a series of 200 companies in the rail industry, which is male-dominated. Helen Simpson and Chandra Morbey are directors of innovation at Porterbrook, and they are the brains behind the HydroFLEX, which is the UK’s first hydrogen-powered train. Again, those are women in a very male-dominated industry.
Another male-dominated industry is printing, and yet we have Amanda Strong of Mercia Image, who has moved that printing company forward so far and is an incredibly successful chief executive. She does a lot of charity work alongside that—she is not just using it to make a lot of money; she is using some of the money for charity.
In Derby, we have a university that was very poor but is coming on in leaps and bounds. It had men running it for a long time, but it now has a very dynamic woman, Kath Mitchell, who is taking it much higher, much faster than we have ever moved before. We also have Derby College, which goes from GCSEs to hair and beauty and land-based courses, including looking after wallabies and meerkats, tarantulas and other spiders, and snakes and all sorts of things in order to train veterinary nurses in how to handle unusual animals. Mandie Stravino—again, a woman after many men—has moved that college forward so far. I have to congratulate those two women in education, who are brilliant.
In Derby, we also have the first female bishop. She did not start in Derby as the first female bishop, but she has moved to run the Derby bishopric. She is amazing, and again, she is changing the dynamics. She has a lot of women supporting her, including the suffragan bishop, the Bishop of Repton, Jan McFarlane—again, a woman.
We are finding that many women in Derbyshire are coming to the top of their profession and leading from the front, including as high sheriffs. At the moment, we have Lord Burlington, who is a very good high sheriff, but before him we had Lucy Palmer, the late Annie Hall— sadly, she drowned in the floods last year—and Liz Fothergill, who has gone on to develop the Derby book festival, which had not happened before. These people are inspirational leaders within the Derbyshire community.
Another amazing woman is Dionne Reid, who runs Women’s Work, which is trying to help prostitutes get another life so that they do not have to be prostitutes any more. At the end of the day, prostitutes are victims, and we need to give them another opportunity in life so that they can get out of that job and get a different kind of job that will be more fulfilling.
I have something of a beef with Derby because the gender pay gap there is very wide. It is much worse in Derby than in the rest of the country. I think it is about 31%, which is terrible. I would say to Derby businesses, “Listen, we’ve got some brilliant businesses and some amazing leaders, but we’ve got to do better. Get on your bikes and do better for the women in Derby!” For the women coming through to the top, we have to make sure that they have equality.
I have talked before in the Chamber about some very inspirational women who have undertaken fantastic schemes, such as Jacci Woodcock who is running the “Dying to Work” campaign, having been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. She is unwell now, but she is still working hard to try to get as many companies as possible to sign the voluntary charter for women who have been given a terminal diagnosis and want to carry on working—not everybody does but some do, and some have to in order to pay the bills—so that they are not defined by their illness, but are seen as people, because such people are very often defined by the particular illness they have.
There is Siobhan Fennell, who is running Accessible Belper. She is in a wheelchair, and she can only drive it with her head now, but she is an inspirational person. She goes out and does training for businesses, councillors and all sorts of people to get them to recognise that accessibility is not just about wheelchair accessibility, but about how those in a shop should deal with someone with autism or dementia. There is also Fliss Goldsmith, who is another volunteer. She has two very active young children, and she has several illnesses of her own and has had multiple operations. However, she is still highly active in the arts scene, which is very important in Belper, where many other people are working to make it a much more dynamic town.
I am very lucky in that I have five grandchildren, and two of them are girls. The choices that they will have or that they have—Poppy is 16 this year, and she is doing her GCSEs—are much greater than when Nancy Astor made her first speech in this place. I hope that the girls in my family and in everybody’s family have such opportunities, as well as the boys. As the Minister said earlier, it is important that boys can also do things that are not just traditional boys’ jobs; we need to make sure that anybody can do any job whatsoever. I believe that, even in the last 25 years, the opportunities for girls have changed dramatically and they will continue to change.
Poppy has got fantastic opportunities, but the trouble with being at school is that children do not know about all the opportunities that are out there and the jobs that are out there that we see in our everyday lives—with charities, in business or whatever they are. We see an amazing number of different jobs that are never suggested at school, but Poppy has fantastic opportunities for where she is going to go when she has finished school. Whether she goes to university, does an apprenticeship or whatever she chooses to do, the world is her oyster.
For Betty, who is only five, her opportunities, even after Poppy has started work, will be completely different again. There will be many more opportunities that we probably do not even know about at this stage. I look forward to what they can achieve in their lifetimes, and to the opportunities that all girls now in school can look out for, take up, grasp and run with to become leaders in their field. I believe that young people now have such fantastic opportunities, and it is up to us to make sure that as many people as possible know what those opportunities are for young girls. However, let us not forget the boys, because they are very important. They are very important in my life—I have three grandsons—and I want them to have fantastic opportunities as well. Those opportunities are out there, and I think young people should go out and grasp them.
It is a great pleasure to call Apsana Begum to make her maiden speech.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this important debate. I would like to start by paying tribute to my predecessor, Jim Fitzpatrick, for his hard work and for the longevity of his public service. Jim was a firefighter before he was elected to Parliament and such is his legacy that, when I arrived at Westminster, one of the Clerks here mentioned to me that he had lent his expertise in fire safety to this House’s restoration and renewal plans. I suppose you could say, “Once a firefighter, always a firefighter”. I wish him well in his retirement.
My other east end predecessors include Labour party giants such as George Lansbury. As we debate International Women’s Day, the origins of which are rooted in working-class history—it honours the 1908 garment workers’ strike in America—I want to pay tribute to the rich history of women’s struggles for social justice in my constituency, Poplar and Limehouse. Given that George Lansbury resigned to stand for re-election on a “Votes for Women” platform, I like to think he would have approved.
I hail from the great east end, where there is a proud working class tradition and history of standing up for our rights; where low-paid women workers have so often been at the forefront of developing trade unionism; and where Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes were explicit in their socialism, advocating a self-organised movement and demanding much more than just charity: they demanded political rights. This is summed up in the first issue of the East London Federation of Suffragettes newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, published on International Women’s Day in 1914, which stated:
“Some people say that the lives of working women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful voice in winning the vote. Such people have forgotten their history.”
But we are not such people in Poplar and Limehouse. We remember women such as Minnie Lansbury, who was elected to Poplar Council in 1921 and was jailed, along with five other women, for refusing to charge full rates for her poorest constituents. We remember the role of women in the battle of Cable Street, where the local Jewish community, along with so many others, stood up to Oswald Mosley and his fascists. And we honour the women who took command during the second world war air raids, sending for the fire and rescue services and seeing about people being clothed and fed.
From the late 1960s onwards, racism was so prevalent locally that Asian and black people were frequently attacked and women were often unable to walk the streets for fear of their safety. Alliances between different communities and anti-racist organisations were built in resistance. By the 1980s, there were at least two Bengali women’s groups in Tower Hamlets, offering women social, religious and cultural activities that were instrumental in encouraging Bangladeshi women to take an active role in the area.
After a British National party councillor was elected on the Isle of Dogs, a coalition of women from diverse backgrounds formed a group, Women Unite Against Racism, as part of the wider anti-racist and anti-fascist campaign that drove the BNP out of Tower Hamlets in the 1990s. In the words of another of my predecessors, Mildred Gordon:
“Eastenders are proud people;
they are fighters. They fought Mosley in Cable Street. They knew how to unite—community side by side with community—against the people who were attacking them. They stood firm during the war and they will stand firm against attacks on their way of life today.”
It is in this tradition of socialism, community solidarity and action that I address the Chamber today, having been the first British Bangladeshi woman elected as secretary of the Tower Hamlets Labour party and now the first hijab-wearing Member of Parliament.
Like many of my colleagues in Parliament, my personal journey has not been easy, but I am proud of my party’s record on progressing women’s rights and fighting for equality, and I look forward to being a part of taking this even further. The truth is that there is so much more to be done.
Poplar and Limehouse has a high percentage of people from ethnic minority backgrounds, and we know better than most that we must never again embark on illegal wars and imperialism, but should instead adopt a progressive, outward-looking global view driven by social justice, solidarity and human rights.
As someone who has first-hand experience of the rise of Islamophobia over the past decades, it is alarming that racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism in particular are growing. While the Government continue to use divisive politics, which has culminated in the hostile environment for migrants that led to the Windrush scandal, we know that the fight for justice and change is not over. I will always stand with my constituency— diverse, dynamic, multicultural, multiracial and with people of different faiths and none, and from all around the world—against intolerance, violence and division. This includes campaigning for migrant rights, including the rights of EU citizens, in Poplar and Limehouse and beyond.
I wish my father—parent to five daughters, and a forward-thinking community organiser himself—was still here to see me today, but I carry his encouragement, guidance and inspiration with me in everything that I do. Likewise, the support I have received from the people of Poplar and Limehouse, where I am proud to have been born and raised, and the trust they have put in me to be their MP, is truly humbling. I feel the weight of responsibility and duty on my shoulders, and I will fight with all my breath and energy to carry on the legacy of those who have gone before me, opposing at every step of the way the broken, failed economics that have served only to enrich the few at the expense of the many, and which far too often have left so many constituents to bear the brunt of the brutality of austerity.
While Poplar and Limehouse is an amazing place to live, it is on the frontline of the Conservative austerity attack. Local government and the vital public services they provide have been undermined by these cuts that have hit the poorest hardest, leading to the loss of key services. I am angry that we have one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country while being on the doorstep of one of the largest financial centres in the world. It is simply unacceptable that the diverse needs of our children are not being met. I am angry that around a fifth of the residents in my constituency are paid less than the living wage. I am angry that we struggle with a housing crisis and the near-impossible situation of having soaring monthly rents, which all too often mean people, particularly those on low incomes, are faced with an increased risk of homelessness.
The leadership of my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn has achieved so much in shifting the debate on austerity and public ownership towards a vision of a fairer and more equal society. It is, however, heartbreaking that we are now faced with five more years of hardship, which will be devastating for my constituents. But so many new Labour MPs are, like me, working-class, women and from ethnic minority backgrounds, with lived experiences of the reality of people’s day-to-day lives.
The east end has always been a bedrock of diversity, resilience and resistance. It is in this spirit that I will seek to hold this Government to account over the next five years.
It is an honour to speak in this debate, and a particular honour to follow the maiden speech of Apsana Begum. I confess that until now my only insight and knowledge of her constituency was from “Call the Midwife”, so the hon. Lady has brought me up to contemporary times. I am sure she is right that her predecessor would be proud, and her father, too, and I am sure that her constituents have in her a strong defender who will make strong arguments and address the challenges she outlined today with passion. I congratulate her most warmly on her maiden speech.
While we are talking in this debate from the four corners of our United Kingdom, and indeed looking globally, I want to beg Members’ indulgence and narrow down the GPS tracker to BN23 7EA—Langney Primary School, in my wonderful home town of Eastbourne, where last week I joined the children for their equality day. They had all dressed up to match their future career ambitions and job aspirations. The Prime Minister will be pleased to learn that public services were well represented, with perhaps some future police and nurses in their number, and writers and journalists, too. There were one or two children dressed as Spiderman in the mix, so that will take some careful signposting in the years to come, and one princess, so definitely the need for a plan B there. However, at the tender age of seven, eight, nine and 10, they are being taught to believe that they are stepping out into a world of opportunities and that whoever they are—girls or boys, and whatever their background—their future is theirs and they can be whatever they want to be. Their ambitions are high, and I was hugely impressed. They grilled me later, so there were definitely one or two journalists in the mix. That is what progress looks like, and it speaks well for the future.
International Women’s Day has been celebrated for 100 years and more, and in that time tremendous change has been brokered in our nation. Women did not have the vote in the world my grandma was born into, but, in an historical blink of an eye, I have the honour of being Eastbourne’s first woman MP, again—I hope the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse does not drink from the same cup as me by tasting a defeat and then being called back to this place to make a second maiden speech; her first maiden speech was admirable and quite enough.
This is a day to mark just how far we have come since International Women’s Day began. But we are still marking it because its original aim—equality for women the world over—is still to be fulfilled. The World Economic Forum 2017 report predicts it could take another 100 years before the global equality pay gap between men and women is fully closed. That gap is most marked in lifetime pay and in political leadership. Women make up half the world’s population, yet their voices are still not heard in equal numbers in the places where decisions are made. They need to be, and our institutions need to look like the people they represent.
According to the United Nations, only 24% of all national parliamentarians are women. In the UK, 34% of House of Commons Members are women, as has been stated. However, on that front Sussex is leading the way, and East Sussex is practically Amazonian. In Sussex in 2005 a solitary one in 16 seats was represented by a woman; there was a doubling of numbers to two in 2010, and a magnificent seven in 2019. I am delighted to say that today my parliamentary next-door neighbour, my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield, will be closing this important debate.
My own constituency of Eastbourne has women of influence in positions across the sectors—from the chief reporter at the Eastbourne Herald and the chief executive at the chamber of commerce to the police and crime commissioner, Katy Bourne. Those women and so very many more are the important role models we need the next generation to see.
Progress is relative, of course, and problems persist; that is why debates such as this are timely. Domestic abuse in all its forms is a devastating crime that leaves people living in fear. Our PCC Katy Bourne has done tremendous work in this area, and I welcome the fact that this week the Domestic Abuse Bill was reintroduced to the House. That important legislation will protect and empower victims and see perpetrators brought to justice. I hope that it will command the support of the whole House. When Jess Phillips read out those names, I am sure that all of us here felt the full weight of the responsibility to do all we can to turn the tide and change the culture. Every one of those names represents someone’s mum, daughter, sister or cousin.
There is more, too. We know that in the UK women are much more likely to have time out for caring, which then has lasting impacts on pay and progression. Nearly 90% of those not working because of caring for home and family are women. However, more girls are going into STEM subjects, there are more women in employment and leadership, and the pay gap is closing. Despite that, the work is most certainly not done.
Sadly, there is much to do in other countries, too. Even basic access to education or the right to vote is not guaranteed for millions of women. Add to that young girls forced into marriage and female genital mutilation and we all know that there are considerable challenges ahead for too many women globally. International Women’s Day is an important marker in the sands of time. In Britain, we have come far and we can be proud of our progress towards equality. We must continue to use our influence to ensure that that progress is for every woman in every country.
It is a real pleasure to be in the Chamber to hear such powerful and interesting speeches in a debate that we agree across the House is one of the best that we have, every year. My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) call International Women’s Day “feminists’ Christmas”, and one of our presents this year was the brilliant maiden speech by my hon. Friend Apsana Begum.
I am going to lower the tone and mood now by talking about misogyny, I am afraid. The dictionary definition of misogyny is
“hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women”.
It comes in various forms and wears various guises—from the more subtle, everyday acts of sexism that chip away at the fragile, paper-thin walls of equality, to the cruder, more blatant, neanderthal acts that undermine half the world’s human population. Part of our job as women in Parliament is to receive it, filter it, weather it, police it, ignore it, highlight it, talk about it, help other women deal with it, tackle it so that other women do not have to, and fight it constantly with a view to eradicating it completely. But that task is not unlike having to sieve all the little bits of plastic out of our oceans.
At what point should we call it out? Should it be at the point where it starts to niggle and nag at us, something that we can just make out—a harmless little comment, a dismissal or exclusion from the conversation? Should it be in the face of never-ending mansplaining by men who know literally nothing about subjects that we are, in fact, experts in? Or should it be at the point where it stops us in our tracks, takes our breath away and fills our lungs with rage and indignation instead, such as when we see the leaders of nations treating women as second-class citizens, as less than men, as after-thoughts, commodities, arm candy and mere playthings?
Misogyny is not especially choosy. It is not confined to one particular class, specific cultures, institutions or political parties. Some may appear to be more blatantly sexist and some may appear to have made great strides in recent history—that, of course, is something to celebrate. The Labour party now has more female MPs than male ones for the first time in history. But the roots and very culture of so many organisations are so steeped in the history of men—male stories, male voices, male experience and even male portraits. It will take a lot more time and our patience will be tested quite a bit more, before we start to see and really feel meaningful change.
One place where it is not hard to find sexism and misogyny—it takes about a nano-second—is, of course, social media. The vitriol against, and hatred of, women is there for all to see. Rape threats, death threats or casual references to violence should not be commonplace, but we know that they are. It seems that any woman with almost any opinion or thought who dares to be bold enough to express it is in line for a world of fun. Brace yourselves, ladies—speaking your mind online is a bit like wearing a onesie made of raw beef while heading for a paddle in the nearest piranha tank! We do not need to have a blue tick next to our names to bring the hungriest of those piranhas to the tank, but it helps. Female politicians with a mind, some thoughts and the audacity to express them are fair game.
As everyone in the House will know, women have been subjected to horrendous trolling and comments on social media. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government must get serious about online trolling and cyber-security? They should listen to the women in this House who have been subjected to it. I have been, and it is important that women have a voice when these decisions are being made.
Absolutely. I would welcome any such discussion in this House—and we know that the issue goes across the House; it is not just about one particular party. I thank the hon. Lady for raising the point.
Luckily, most of us here are made of pretty tough stuff: we do not usually get to this place by accident. But tough or not, our strength and mental wellbeing can be pushed to breaking point. The sinister side of the kind of serious online abuse that public figures are often subjected to can lead to some pretty dark places—from pile-ons on social media, to nasty, anonymous emails, swastikas daubed on office doors or bricks thrown through windows. But it is not all doom and gloom either. On social media, communities are speaking out for each other more and more—women making sure that those most abused feel supported and safe.
A couple of days ago, a petition with 850,000 signatures was taken to Downing Street, every one of them inspired by the hurt and pain collectively felt by the nation when we heard the terrible news of Caroline Flack’s tragic death. There is now recognition that things need to change—not just for five minutes or five months, but significantly. There can be no more terrible tragedies such as Caroline Flack’s—no more salacious gossip printed as news for our entertainment. There are real consequences. Let us follow leading broadcasters such as Iain Lee, himself so brave and honest when discussing issues such as mental health, and be kind. Kindness costs nothing, and it could actually start to save lives.
It is a great pleasure to follow Rosie Duffield, who, like many speakers today, has given us much food for thought.
We have heard from only one man in this debate so far—other than yourself, Mr Deputy Speaker—Stephen Doughty. I want to make the observation that we are here in the United Kingdom, we pride ourselves on being a modern, civilised country, a democracy, yet too often we turn a blind eye to the kind of discrimination that we should really not tolerate in a civil society. The hon. Member for Canterbury was just sharing her observations about the wild west that is social media—frankly, all we need to do is open a Twitter account to find ourselves the focus of abuse these days. That reminded me of an occasion three or four years ago.
We had a particular problem with car cruising in my constituency. Car cruising is something that, normally, young men do when they soup up their cars. They turned the local road network in my constituency into a motor track, causing immense distress for residents, who were disturbed by the noise. It was dangerous and on numerous occasions, people who turned up as spectators at these races were injured when collisions happened. I was working with the local police to try to tackle this menace. As a result, after issuing a press release with a picture of me and the police officers attending one of these events, the whole story went viral among the male community of car cruisers. There were literally hundreds of thousands of very unpleasant comments towards me.
As we all know, we develop our own ways of managing these situations. It is quite easy to ignore it—just do not look—but these quite unpleasant messages were being circulated. It was actually the local BBC that reported the traffic to the police, because it included death threats and some very unpleasant sexual imagery and messages. In the end, two people were arrested and action was taken. What was interesting to me, however, was that the action was taken against the death threats, whereas the more unpleasant and aggressive content was that which was very misogynist and sexual in nature. When we look at that against the backdrop of Jess Phillips yet again reading out the names of people who have been killed over the last year, we see that we almost seem to have accepted this as normal, and that is why no one is getting upset about it. It really should not be normal and we should use occasions such as this to call it out. I just wish that some of our male colleagues were here to participate and show solidarity with us on this, instead of making smart-arsed comments like, “Ooh, when are we having an International Men’s Day debate?” If I had a pound for every time somebody had said that to me, I would be very rich—I just leave that message on the record.
I want to talk about some of the more practical things that we can do to tackle hidden discrimination against women, in the context of health. I will also make some observations about sexual violence and how it is still commonplace for a blind eye to be turned where sexual violence is used as a tool to oppress women. Notwithstanding the conviction of Harvey Weinstein, which is obviously very welcome, it is still too common and the state needs to do more to tackle it when it arises. I will end with some observations about the debate on gender dysphoria and trans issues, which I fear has become rather ugly in recent weeks.
I had a moment of revelation when I was a Minister for health. Over a period of time, a number of colleagues from across the House would come to share their experiences with me as women accessing healthcare for various reasons. I witnessed quite a lot of distress as colleagues recounted their experiences. I had been through similar experiences and I suddenly had a moment of clarity and thought, “Crikey, we are all assertive, pushy women. We all have voices that we are prepared to use, yet we have all been diminished at the hands of medical professionals when it comes to talking about often very intimate issues.” I took it upon myself to try to do something about that.
Underlying all this is that whenever women’s bodies are being seen as incubators for babies, everything is very straightforward, but too many morbidities come from our bodies being the way they are, which frankly, are seen as an inconvenience by the health establishment, and we often suffer in silence as a result. I am appalled that one in 10 women suffers from the incredibly chronic pain and heavy bleeding associated with endometriosis. They can go for years before that is diagnosed and live incredibly difficult lives as a consequence. There has been virtually no research into the causes and possible treatments for endometriosis. Frankly, if men were suffering from it, that simply would not be the case.
One in three women suffer from fibroids, which, again, lead to heavy bleeding and terrible pain. Yet again, too often women are told to run along, that that is their lot and that that is just the way it is. The result is that we all think that our experience of a period is normal when actually, if someone is spending more than £10 a month on pain relief and sanitary protection, their period is not normal. The more that we can do to make women think about their menstrual health, so that they can take early action and get support earlier, the better, and we will do them a great deal of good. No woman should have to tolerate, or think it is normal to be, bleeding for three weeks of every month, doubled up in chronic pain and having to sit with a hot water bottle every day.
When women do get treatment for these conditions, they are generally told, “Have a baby—it will go away,” “Go on the pill” or “Have a hysterectomy.” Again, there is not enough emotional intelligence or coaxing and there are not enough ways of helping women to help themselves and to live with a condition that can bring incredible stress. We all need to do much more collectively to empower women to have sensible and constructive conversations with medical professionals. Medical professionals need to be encouraged to see the human being in front of them. This is not a criticism—medical professionals are human beings, too, and have to have ways of dealing with people in distressing conditions, but they can do much more to be understanding and have conversations that allow women to take control of their treatment.
I also make the observation that it is not that long since Viagra was licensed to treat male erectile dysfunction. People do not need a prescription now to get Viagra—they can buy it over the counter. I would really like to see such things as the contraceptive pill and hormone-replacement therapy available over the counter, too, so that women can do much more to look after their health.
To turn to the issue of sexual violence, I add my voice to those who welcome the Domestic Abuse Bill, but we also need to take on board the fact that sexual violence is often—more than often—another tool of oppression in the domestic violence context. We must not let that be taboo. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said that, too often, the issue of children committing violence against parents is taboo, and sexual violence within the domestic abuse context is also taboo. We can pass as many laws as we like, but the root of all this is behaviour and the need to challenge those behaviours. Whenever we do not shine a light on them, we are acknowledging that they are normal.
I remember when the issue of the systemic abuse in Rotherham materialised. Sitting underneath the failure to act by the local authority, the police and everyone else was a prejudice—that for this particular class of girls, what more could they expect? That was totally unacceptable. I fear that we are witnessing exactly the same thing again when we talk about gang culture and knife crime, because we are talking about gangs that are not just made up of young black men stabbing each other. There are girls associated with these gangs who are being groomed for sexual purposes, yet none of us is talking about it. It is like the lessons of Rotherham have not been recognised at all, and it is incumbent on all of us in the House to make sure that we properly address these things.
We need to do much more collectively to empower young women to value and protect themselves and not feel that they have to be pressured into sexual relationships that they do not want. It is horrifying to see the increased sexual violence against our young women now and we all need to tackle it collectively. The tabloid culture that values everyone by their appearance, figure and who they are associated with does not help. Rosie Duffield mentioned Caroline Flack, and it is a really good example, but there are other successful women who are abused for their inability to have relationships with men. Jennifer Aniston is one of our best comedy actresses and a worldwide star, but every time we see an article about her, it is about the fact that she could not keep Brad Pitt, or that she has had another failed marriage, or who her boyfriend is this time. It is absolutely outrageous. No woman should be defined by their relationship with a man. The same goes for Kylie Minogue. Crikey, would we not all like to be Kylie Minogue and look like Kylie Minogue? But she also gets vilified with, “How many boyfriends has she had? She can’t keep a man.” So blooming well what? A message to all the men out there—“Do you know what, us women can do very well without you, thank you very much. Think yourself lucky that some of us let you into our lives.”
The issue of Caroline Flack is particularly instructive because her life and her relationships with men were tabloid fodder. Even in her death we had to read about the fact that she went out with Harry Styles, who was however many years younger than her. Caroline Flack’s life story should be a message as to how toxic our culture has become, and how, if we are going to do something more for young women going forwards, we should encourage them to value themselves in their own identity and not through their relationships with men.
I am particularly uncomfortable that the debate around trans rights and gender dysphoria has become pitted against the rights of women. It is surely not beyond the wit of policymakers to devise a set of rules and principles that protect the rights of transsexuals to find a way of living their lives and do not discriminate against women at the same time. Those of us who want to see women-only safe spaces are not guilty of hate crime against trans people—not at all. I think people who are trans want to quietly get on with their lives. It does not help any of them that they are pitted against women in this terrible, horrible toxic debate. The only people who are winning through this debate are those men who use their power to oppress women, and see the opportunity to claim the right to self-identify as a weapon. None of us in this room should collude with that. We have already seen the case of Karen White, who self-identified as a woman, went into prison and committed crimes against fellow inmates. We must be able to devise a law that stops that happening but also supports those who are most vulnerable and need to have their rights defended.
Parliament has failed to give proper oversight of the growing number of transgender interventions for younger people. We have allowed treatments to develop at the Tavistock really unsupervised. This is no criticism of the medical professionals there, who clearly are doing their work with the best of intentions, but we need to look at the ethics of some of this and the practicalities of it. We are seeing more and more girls being referred for gender reassignment treatment. We are talking about girls well below the age of majority. I personally am very uncomfortable—well, I think it is wrong—about putting forward people for treatment that is irreversible when they are not in a position legally to give consent. We really need to be more honest about the challenges of puberty.
Puberty is horrible. I was a tomboy when I was growing up—that probably does not surprise hon. Members. When I got to my teens and suddenly felt my body changing, it was horrible. I hated every minute of it. I cannot believe what might have happened to me now, going through that. I carried on climbing trees and so on, and playing at being “CHiPs” rather than “Charlie’s Angels”, but now I would be on my iPad and I would suddenly find lots of other people who thought like me and then—guess what?—all those people are going to the Tavistock. It scares the hell out of me. I fear we are doing harm to girls when actually this is something that they could just be going through. It is quite a normal thing not to be comfortable with what is happening to our bodies. The fact that so many of the girls who are going for such treatment also have issues with autism frightens me even more.
I was contacted by a parent just this week who thanked me for something that I had said about this issue. She wanted to talk about the experience she had had with her daughter, who is on the spectrum. As she said, one of the classic symptoms of autism is that, as a sort of self-defence tactic, you become a different personality. When we think about that in the context of puberty and unhappiness with the way your body is changing, of course it is a natural response to pretend to be a different gender. I really think we have failed in this House; we have not given sufficient scrutiny and debate to a treatment which, frankly, if it is given out wrong, will do real harm to those girls and boys who go through it. I hope that this is something that we can give more attention to in future.
It was really interesting to listen to Jackie Doyle-Price. It struck me that male interests are unassailable and that misogyny can somehow be dismissed as banter. The knock-on effect of that in society is considerable. I would like to address the assumption that where the male interest lies is the social norm.
A part of me thinks that, in all honesty, we surely must regret the need for International Women’s Day. We can celebrate the fact that we are in this House, but for many women, the fact that we are holding this conversation today shows that society is riven with divisions that affect many women’s lives. To put it very simply, women are more likely than men to be in poverty, more likely to be unable to afford basic resources such as food and heating, and less likely to have savings to fall back on in hard times. The point is not that women’s poverty is worse than men’s; it is not in the quality of the experience. No one here would say that people should be living in poverty. I will couch this in rather grand academic words, and then I will try to describe it in less grand academic words: the key point is that women’s experiences of poverty are shaped by problematic gender and societal norms. I apologise for those terms, and I will try to unpick them.
There are reasons why women are poorer than men, and we here have a duty to ask why. One of the reasons, of course, is that women often still take the primary responsibility for care—we are used to these conversations. Although that is the case, it is simply not feasible for all women to lift themselves out of poverty by earning more through increasing their hours of work or securing a better paid job. The reality for many women is that their work has to fit into their caring responsibilities. Their lives include a range of responsibilities. There is not just more time to squash into the day. Their ability to work and progress is limited by the need to find a balance between working and caring.
Let us just remember some of the simple things. Women are not being paid for their work of caring for their children or their families. They never have been; it is historically women’s work. Our society defines the status of an activity with remuneration. This disregard for the worth of caring for others is echoed in the workplace. It is of course no coincidence that jobs that involve care generally—let’s face it, almost invariably they are lower-paid employment—are traditionally done by women. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the social care sector. Careworkers perform the vital work of looking after our most vulnerable people, yet their reward is to be overworked, underpaid and trapped, often in precarious zero-hours contracts. Covid-19 has thrown our dependency on careworkers into stark profile, and if there proves to be a shortage of careworkers, we might be asking ourselves why.
The immigration proposals that the Government published recently will only make the situation worse for careworkers, because of the sector’s reliance on migrant workers. In placing a greater weight on salaries than on skills, the Government will place a sector that is already overworked and understaffed under increased pressure. We have heard today about the sort of jobs that we should be encouraging women to take—the sort of “good” jobs that are generally celebrated. The Government propose to give
“top priority to those with the highest skills...scientists, engineers, academics”.
Those are sectors in which the under-representation of women is a significant issue, and that tells us all we need to know—and, to be fair, this applies not only to the Government but to society as a whole—about what we count as important jobs.
The truth is that we live in a society that values looking after machines more than looking after people. That, to me, is an extraordinary statement to make. As soon as it has been made, we know that there is something wrong with our values when we value machines more than people. Achieving equality is not about more women looking after machines, or more men being poorly paid in the care sector; it is about tackling the root causes of poverty by shifting our economic priorities towards the wellbeing of people. That is staggeringly obvious when we say it, but it is interesting that it has to be said. We can begin by establishing parity of pay between social care and healthcare staff and creating a fairer welfare system, starting—I would say this, of course—by devolving welfare to Wales so that we can sort out our own problems better, and reforming universal credit.
Let me end by saying that the goal is not simply for women to achieve equality with men, but for us to build a better society for everyone—a society in which the worth of caring for each other is so self-evident that it does not have to be put on record in this place.
I am delighted that we are holding the debate again this year. It is an important opportunity to highlight the severe challenges that are still being faced by women all over the world, but it is also an opportunity to celebrate the amazing work done by women in business, science, healthcare and education.
The speeches that we have heard so far have been very interesting, moving and inspiring, and as varied as one would expect from women MPs. I pay tribute to Jess Phillips, who, every year, has to read out a list of names which is far too long. I agree with my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price that it is disappointing that there are not enough men here to listen to that, and also to contribute to this important debate.
As someone with a keen interest in foreign affairs and development, I also want to commend the excellent work done by, and for, women by international aid charities. Despite the risks, those charities provide women with healthcare, sanitary products, legal defence, food and water, and much more. Perhaps the bravest of all are the female human rights defenders who stand up to oppressive regimes in the face of imprisonment and torture. Those courageous women promote the right to an education, and the right to live and work free from harassment and intimidation. They deserve our complete admiration.
The right to an education is the most important thing that we can extend to women around the world. According to the World Bank, nearly a quarter of girls globally do not complete secondary education, and the number rises to two thirds in low-income countries. One third do not even get a full primary education. That means that 131 million girls worldwide do not go to school. This lack of education has so many disastrous consequences. More than 300,000 women die each year giving birth. UNESCO estimates that if all mothers completed primary education, including lessons about health and hygiene, that number would be reduced by two thirds—by more than 200,000 women each year.
Of course, it is not only the mother but the child who is at risk. If all women had a primary education, infant mortality would be reduced by 15%, and if all women had a secondary education, it would be reduced by 50%. That would save 3 million lives. Those numbers are a shocking illustration of the positive impact of even a basic education. Keeping girls at school drastically reduces the chances of their becoming pregnant as children. In many societies, youth pregnancies cause the girls in question to be forced into marriage. In Tanzania, for example, a third of girls become pregnant and get married before the age of eighteen. Having very young mothers with a limited education has a further impact on infant nutrition: 12 million fewer children would suffer from malnutrition if all women had a secondary education.
There is also the socioeconomic impact. Children whose mothers can read are twice as likely to attend school, creating a new generation of educated women who are more likely to find work and to earn more money for that work—although, as we know, equal pay for women is still some distance away, even in developed countries. The Government estimate that $28 trillion would be added to global GDP if women had the same role in the labour market as men. I am really pleased that last year the Prime Minister committed himself to £515 million of UK funding to help more than 12 million children to go to school. That will improve women’s rights and their health, and will enable them to contribute more to their communities—but of course there is much more to do.
We are aware of the impact that educated women can have. I think of Benazir Bhutto, who had one of the best educations imaginable—some of it in this country—and went on to smash the glass ceiling in Pakistan. I think of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia and the first female democratically elected leader of an African country. Less well known, but close to my heart, is Huda al-Sarari, a Yemeni lawyer who has lived and worked in the country for the last 15 years. Her writing has exposed the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and exposed potential war crimes. All that has been done in the face of aggressive and highly conservative militia groups who try to silence women, often by using violence.
The benefits of educating women are relatively widely known, but I want to speak about an aspect that is rarely discussed: the role of women in bringing about peace. Northern Ireland provides a fantastic example of that. In 1996 two women, Monica McWilliams and May Blood, came together to form the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, which was one of the few groups to bring together Protestants and Catholics. In doing so, they won enough support in the public election of 1996 to earn seats around the negotiating table during the peace talks. Because they represented both communities, they were seen as a reliable channel between the opposing sides. In that role, they facilitated and helped to shape the Good Friday agreement in 1998.
Sadly, however, that model has not been embraced in subsequent peace negotiations. In major peace processes between 1992 and 2018, women made up only 3% of mediators, 4% of signatories and 13% of negotiators, and the majority of peace agreements included no female signatories at all. Astoundingly, only two women in history, Miriam Coronel-Ferer and Tzipi Livni, have served as chief negotiators, and only one has ever signed a final peace accord as chief negotiator. More than 80% of agreements make no reference to women at all.
This is bad, not just for women but for all of us. Research shows that peace treaties are 64% less likely to fail with the participation of women’s groups, and agreements involving women are 35% more likely to last for at least 15 years. The World Bank finds that higher levels of gender equality are associated with a lower tendency towards conflict—well, of course they are. While men are more likely, sometimes unwillingly, to serve as soldiers and to die in fighting, women are made the mourning mothers and widows left at home. A society that values the opinions and votes of those women will always be more averse to warfare, so getting more women involved in peace, whether at grassroots or at negotiations, must be a priority. This is not a new revelation. President Johnson Sirleaf and fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel peace prize in 2011 in part for their struggle for women’s right to full participation in peacebuilding work. Despite their example, we are still a long way off giving women the role they deserve and need in peace efforts.
That said, I am delighted that this is an area where the UK Government are taking a lead. The UK national action plan on women, peace and security was published in 2018, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary. Of the seven strategic outcomes in the plan, the first two are about increasing women’s participation in decision making and peacekeeping. There is much more to do, but I am very glad that the lack of women’s representation in peace making has not only been recognised but rectified. The Government should push ahead with this bold agenda, because all of us will benefit as a result.
I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend Jess Phillips for reading out that list again. Very sadly, one of my constituents, Libby Squire, was on that list. She was a young woman at Hull University, at the very start of her university career. It is an appalling tragedy that she—and all the other women, of course—is on that list.
I was very pleased to hear the maiden speech of my hon. Friend Apsana Begum. I was a councillor in Tower Hamlets for eight years, and I recall very well the rise of the British National party, and the community coming together to crush it back in 1994. She spoke very well about the women’s involvement in Cable Street, and about the suffragettes in the east end. I am sure she will also recall the important role that the matchwomen played as grandmothers of the Labour movement—and, I think, of the Labour party. I notice that a number of us are wearing ribbons to mark the matchwomen’s strike in 1888.
I want to take this opportunity to celebrate the amazing politicians and activists who have been fighting for so long to change the injustice in Northern Ireland around abortion law. In particular, I have to mention my remarkable hon. Friend Stella Creasy. Someone once said to me that MP should stand for “must persevere”, and the perseverance that my hon. Friend has shown is remarkable. I pay great tribute to her, and to my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), and to Baroness Barker in the other place. Those changes, which will be introduced in the next few weeks, will help us in this place to think again about the law that currently applies, the Abortion Act 1967, which I think is due for a review.
We all know that the last few years have been very difficult for all MPs, but particularly women MPs, given the insults, threats and behaviours we have faced—behaviours that, when I came to this place in 2005, I had not really experienced. The last few years have been very difficult, and of course there was the tragic murder of our good friend Jo Cox. However, I know that many women around the world who put themselves forward to be politicians, journalists or human rights defenders face harassment, intimidation and victimisation daily.
Hillary Clinton coined the phrase,
“human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights”.
As it is International Women’s Day, I want to mention a few incredibly brave women around the world, and ask the Government what they are will do to support them. First I want to raise the case of the Saudi right to drive campaigners. Several brave Saudi Arabian women who campaigned for the right to drive have been arbitrarily detained since May 2018, including Samar Badawi and Loujain al-Hathloul. In November 2018, Amnesty International reported that several of those women faced sexual harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation, including electrocution and flogging, leaving some unable to walk or stand properly. In one reported incident, one of the activists was made to hang from the ceiling. Can the Minister say whether the Foreign Secretary, on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, called for the unconditional release of those women activists?
I also wanted to highlight in the Chamber the case of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent lawyer and human rights defender in Iran. She was arrested at her home on
The third case I wanted to highlight was that of Dina Meza from Honduras. She is a celebrated independent journalist committed to defending freedom of expression and information. She spent years investigating and reporting on human rights violations across the country and challenging those breaches. Dina worked at incredible personal risk, and has previously had to flee Honduras for her safety. Because of the threats she faces, she receives protective accompaniment from Peace Brigades International. What steps have the UK Government taken to help promote freedom of expression and protect women journalists in Honduras?
Finally, I want to talk about Rosalinda Dionicio from Mexico. She is the leader of the United Peoples’ Network of the Ocotlán Valley in Defence of Territory, which, since 2009, has been demanding the closure of the San Jose mine, which is owned by a subsidiary of the Canadian company, Fortuna Silver Mines. The group says the mine has caused enormous environmental destruction and water shortages in the community. Rosalinda was attacked by gunmen in 2012, but survived. Despite the attack and the subsequent threats, she continues to struggle for the rights of the indigenous communities affected. What will the Government do to help protect and improve the security of indigenous women human rights defenders in Mexico?
Those are just some examples of incredibly brave women around the world to whom we politicians need to pay tribute. We need to press our Government to stand alongside them and do whatever they can to protect them.
I start by paying tribute to Apsana Begum, who gave us a very powerful and assured maiden speech and much food for thought. On International Women’s Day, we should think about what kind of country we women want to live in. I was reflecting on this when I realised, to my disappointment, that the Domestic Abuse Bill, which was recently reintroduced, will be yet another missed opportunity for the United Kingdom Government to finally do what is necessary to ratify the Istanbul convention. As my hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin, who speaks for my party on women and equalities issues, said, our then colleague in the SNP Dr Eilidh Whiteford led a successful campaign in 2017 to pass a law requiring the UK Government to ratify the Istanbul convention. This was the first time that an SNP MP had managed to get a private Member’s Bill into law, and it is very sad that, three years later, the UK Government have yet to ratify the convention.
The Istanbul convention is based on the understanding that violence against women is a form of gender-based violence that is committed against women because they are women. The convention makes it clear that it is the obligation of the state to address it fully in all its forms, and to take measures to protect all women from violence, to protect victims and to prosecute perpetrators. The convention leaves no doubt that there can be no real equality between women and men if women experience gender-based violence on a large scale and state agencies and institutions do not do enough to stop it.
I raised the issue of the UK’s failure to ratify the Istanbul convention in the House of Commons last week. That was before the Domestic Abuse Bill was reintroduced. I asked whether it was the requirement to support migrant women experiencing domestic abuse that was holding things up. It seems, I am sorry to say, that it is. Migrant women often find it impossible to access emergency protection because of the no recourse to public funds condition, and they are highly vulnerable to domestic abuse, and to coercive control in that situation, as a result of their immigration status. I am pleased to see that the new Domestic Abuse Bill is going to address some of the remaining issues preventing us from ratifying the convention, such as extraterritorial effect, but it will still fall short in the key area of the provision of services for migrant women, and that is simply not good enough.
My colleagues in the Scottish Government have ensured the passage of all the necessary legislation to enable ratification in respect of devolved matters. Does anyone think that the Scottish Government, led by my colleague Nicola Sturgeon, would still be quibbling after all this time about extending services to highly vulnerable migrants? I think we all know that the answer to that question is no. Last year, on International Women’s Day, the Irish Government ratified the Istanbul convention. The UK is now one of only six EU—or, in our case, former EU—countries still to do so. I believe that the best thing the British Government could do to mark this International Women’s Day would be to ratify the convention. When does the Minister think that the Government will deal with the issue in relation to migrant women, and when will we be in a position to ratify?
Just last week, the UN Commissioner on Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet—I hope I have pronounced that correctly—warned against complacency regarding women’s rights. She said that women’s rights
“cannot be an optional policy, subject to the changing winds of politics”.
When we look at the statistics right across the world, we can see that she is absolutely right about that. One in three women across the world experiences violence that is perpetrated by men. Between 60 million and 100 million women who should be alive today are missing, presumed dead, because of male violence. One woman dies every minute across the world due to problems relating to pregnancy, and 15 million adolescent girls have experienced forced sex. I am sure that we can multiply that figure several times for adult women. We also know that 72% of human trafficking victims are female, and that the vast majority, many of whom are children, are trafficked for the purposes of prostitution. Women also work two out of three of all labour hours worldwide, but they earn just 10% of the world’s income.
For all these reasons, women must be allowed to organise themselves to campaign against their oppression. Sometimes, this means excluding the group that has historically been responsible for the oppression of women, and that group is men. One of the things I want to say today, as forcefully as I can, is that it is eminently reasonable for women to organise on the basis of their sex, if they wish to do so. It is also legal for them to do so. It has been central to decades of feminist thought to say that gender is imposed on women in order to uphold their oppression. By gender, feminists mean presentation, modes of dress and the falsehood of masculine and feminine personality traits, about which we heard earlier. So if we say that gender is somehow innate, and that it supersedes sex, the logical conclusion is that women can somehow identify out of our oppression. Many feminists disagree with that, but increasingly, disagreeing with gender ideology has become a dangerous thing to do, as we heard from Jackie Doyle-Price. This brings me to the problem of no-platforming and the attempted silencing of well-respected feminist academics and others simply for asserting women’s rights. I would like this Chamber, on International Women’s Day, to send the really strong message across all the nations of these islands that no-platforming and attempting to silence feminist academics and other women who assert women’s rights is wrong.
Last weekend Selina Todd, a professor of modern history at the University of Oxford, found herself disinvited from making a short speech at a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first women’s liberation movement meeting in the UK. That meeting had taken place at Ruskin College, as did last weekend’s conference. Professor Todd is a feminist and a socialist who has written extensively about women’s history and working-class history. Since 2017 she has been president of the Socialist Educational Association. The decision to silence her was not supported by the women who attended the conference, and thankfully it has been widely condemned, but she is one of a growing number of feminist academics who have been censored for their views that biological sex matters and that women, as a marginalised group, should be allowed to organise themselves according to their own definitions.
Professor Todd now requires security to attend her place of work. Sadly, she is not alone. Professor Rosa Freedman, an expert in human rights law who has worked for the UN and is now at the University of Reading, has suffered similar abuse. Naturally, because she is Jewish, she has also received antisemitic abuse for daring to be a feminist. The door of her office at the university has been vandalised and urinated on, and she has been followed home by individuals threatening rape and violence, simply for asserting women’s right to organise on the basis of their sex.
Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the philosophy professor Kathleen Stock has found herself de-platformed and subjected to a sustained campaign to have her ejected from her job at the University of Sussex. Prominent female politicians and journalists in my own country, Scotland, have been hounded and told that they should lose their jobs, simply for asserting women’s sex-based rights.
I had just a little taste of the treatment that some of those brave feminists have endured last year when, in the course of my duties on the Joint Committee on Human Rights—ironically, it was during an inquiry into freedom of speech—I raised with a Twitter executive Twitter’s one-sided practice of banning women and categorising as hate speech tweets stating biological facts, such as “women don’t have penises”, while tolerating and upholding abusive tweets threatening direct violence towards leading feminists such as Caroline Criado Perez and Helen Lewis. As a result of my intervention—not because I am special, but because I am a Member of Parliament and Twitter has to listen to people like me—those tweets were taken down and Twitter said that it would look again at its policy on hateful conduct, which does not include sex as a protected characteristic, which the Committee’s report commented was problematic.
The response to me doing my job in this House was an outpouring of bile on social media, culminating in a death threat, which Police Scotland and the Metropolitan police took seriously enough to give me police protection. Since then I have endured a daily stream of abuse on Twitter, including allegations that I am a transphobe and, ludicrously, a homophobe—it is quite difficult to be homophobic as a lesbian, but anyway. I am not remotely transphobic; I support the rights of trans people and have very good relationships with trans women in my constituency. I can tell the House that many trans women I speak to are angry that their quiet and dignified lives are being disrupted by malevolent individuals pushing identity politics in a way that is anti-democratic and abusive.
I am very proud of the fact that in Scotland we have very good rights-based protections for trans people. No one wants to change that, but some feminists have legitimate concerns about changing the law on gender recognition to allow self-identification. That is why I, along with a trans woman in my constituency, wrote to a colleague in the Scottish Government last year to suggest that the issue might be considered by a citizen’s assembly, in the way that Ireland has dealt with contentious issues. That is because my constituent and I think that refusing to acknowledge that legitimate concerns exist is not a solution to the current impasse in the debate on gender recognition, and nor is shouting down and targeting women. We must identify the issues, reflect and find ways of addressing them together.
Last year I found myself in the ludicrous situation of having to sue PinkNews for wrongly alleging that I was being investigated for homophobia. I am pleased to say that it settled out of court, and I donated the damages to a well-known lesbian and gay charity. Unfortunately, not all bullies are as easy to tackle. It is over time that every Member from every party in this House stood up to bullies in the gender lobby who want to shut down the right to free speech for those who do not 100% agree with their ideology.
Even if one does not care about this issue, if we allow bullies to triumph over free speech in one area of public discourse, we are giving them free rein to triumph over free speech in other areas of public discourse. I use the word “bullies” advisedly, because men—and it is mostly men—who want to silence women and prevent them from organising as a sex class are bullies and human rights deniers.
The right has a strong tradition of standing up for free speech and freedom of assembly, for which I applaud it, and so once did the left in the United Kingdom. The left must stand up for free speech again where women’s rights are concerned, and it must not give in to intimidation. The left should not let the right have a monopoly on free speech and freedom of assembly. Those rights are fundamental human rights and should matter to all of us as democrats, regardless of whether we sit on the right or, as SNP Members do, on the left of politics.
Women must be allowed to organise to protect their hard won sex-based rights, and, on International Women’s Day, this House should stand up against the bullies who are seeking to prevent them from doing that.
It is a pleasure to follow Joanna Cherry.
International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to celebrate the progress made on women’s rights over the last 100 years, but it is equally important to highlight the progress we are yet to make.
Women face multiple forms of injustice every single day, and the role of this Government in compounding those injustices and preventing progress cannot be ignored. I will particularly focus today on the harm done to women who are denied access to public funds as a result of their immigration status.
As the law currently stands, most people who are subject to immigration control are restricted from accessing welfare benefits or housing through their council. This leads directly to homelessness and poverty, with women being particularly vulnerable to an increased risk of violence and abuse. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on no recourse to public funds, last week I heard first-hand accounts of the devastating impact this policy can have on women who are trying their best to get on in life. I pay tribute to Dami Makinde, co-CEO of We Belong; Isatu, Amina, Suzanne and Titi, members of Brighter Futures; and members of Sin Fronteras. They spoke about having no recourse to public funds and the financial burden of maintaining immigration status in the UK while on the 10-year route to settlement, and the impact that has on young people. As an all-party group, we are determined to make sure that the voices of those affected are heard in this place, whether or not the Government are willing to listen.
One account that sticks in my mind was from a young woman who said that her treatment, as somebody applying for citizenship in this country, has left her feeling dehumanised and unsafe. Having come to the UK as a child eight years ago, this is her home, but she said she feels like a prisoner on parole for a crime she did not commit. That sentiment is shared by many migrant women who have no recourse to public funds. Having fled torture, abuse or danger in another country, many of them find themselves isolated and excluded from the society they choose to call their new home.
This is yet another example of a Government policy that disproportionately harms women. It is a gift to those who wish to perpetrate financial and physical abuse. Women who would otherwise rely on welfare benefits to get themselves on their feet find that they have no access to any kind of safety net. The absence of support, which is often so badly needed, is a powerful weapon of coercion in the hands of those who wish to exploit women, using the fear of imprisonment, deportation or destitution. When the Government deny those women access to basic human rights, such as housing and the means of subsistence, they make that abuse more likely, they make exploitation more likely, and they make it harder for those women to fulfil their potential and start a new life in the UK. So it is time the Government ensured that all survivors of domestic abuse, regardless of immigration status, are given full and equal access to public funds. I hope that the Government will put an end to a policy that unfairly punishes women, and I hope they will listen to those inspirational women whom I heard from last week. Until they do, we will have a lot further to go in our pursuit of justice for all women.
It is a real pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Kate Osamor in a debate that, sadly, in 2020, is still needed more than ever. While preparing for today, I began to reflect on what International Women’s Day means for me. There is so much to celebrate about the progress that has been made for women, both back at home in Wales and across the world. I particularly take inspiration from Governments across the globe, notably those of Finland and New Zealand, who have clearly made promoting women a priority. I, too, am hugely honoured to be doing my bit to improve gender diversity by representing the community I grew up and still live in here in Westminster. Yet I am sure that Members from across the House will agree that there is much work to be done for women outside this bubble too.
Ironically, the primary inspiration for my comments on International Women’s Day comes from a very important man in my life: my son, Sullivan. Sulley will be celebrating his first birthday in just a few short weeks, and I am thrilled to be spending this International Women’s Day with him by my side. I am sure I will face some stern opposition from Members when I say that Sulley really is the most precious child in the world. Before I am hit by comments from aggrieved parents everywhere, let me say that like many people before us, my husband and I knew that the road to pregnancy would be an extremely tough one. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, we were very lucky. After just one round of IVF, and against all the odds, my only surviving embryo, my one in a million arrived. Sadly, he was quickly whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit, where he spent the first two weeks of his life. I can hand on heart say that they truly were the most difficult weeks of my life, and I would not wish the anxiety and sheer dread on anyone. My fertility story has a happy ending, but I know that for many this is not the case.
At the end of this month, I will also be spending my first proper Mothers’ Day with Sulley. This is a day that for the past few years has filled me with sadness and emptiness. Seeing the joy on so many faces on social media of mams up and down the country celebrating their children has always pulled at the part of me that has been desperate for a child while always knowing that, without help, I would not be able to have one. This International Women’s Day, I want to shout out to every woman who has looked at a celebratory social media pregnancy announcement, to every woman who has walked past a glowing bump in the street, to every woman who has been asked, “When are you having children?”, and to every woman who has had to sympathetically listen to a friend moan about how tired she is from looking after her children, all while suppressing the mixed emotions of envy, sadness and self-loathing. I want to say to those women: you are not alone. Sometimes as a woman struggling with fertility issues, you feel like a complete failure. You cannot talk about it with mams without seeming bitter, and without having a stigma surrounding you that your body has let you down and has prevented you from becoming the mother you always dreamed of being but know that potentially you can never be.
I also want to shout out to those women who know that they do not want to have children or that they are nowhere near ready for children but are under pressure from friends, family and society to get on with it before they are supposedly “over the hill” and “past their prime”. So many women are told that they will change their minds and that not wanting children is a “phase” as though it is a reflection on their femininity. Having children for me was a blessing, but it is also really hard work and sacrifices have to be made. Career, mental health, self-care, body image, friendships, opportunities and the choice to be selfish, which there is nothing wrong with, are just a few of the many things that women up and down the country give up.
I have wanted a child for as long as I can remember, and I would not change a thing about Sulley—except maybe his sleeping habits. But nothing can prepare you for the guilt you feel as a working mam who is often away from home; it is truly all-consuming. Before Sulley came along, I felt guilt for depriving my family of a child who would be so welcomed and loved. I internalised guilt for not being able to conceive a child without medical intervention. The guilt does not end once the child arrives, though: it follows you from sunrise to sunset. Whether you are having to stay late at work, are out socialising with friends or are sat in this very Chamber, the guilt carries on.
In a world where social media is infiltrated with images of supposed perfection, I regularly feel the pressure and guilt that come with feeling I am not good enough. I know how lucky I am to have had access to fertility treatment. I also know that most people are aware of the broad science behind IVF, so I will not indulge colleagues with too much of the detail today. I do, however, believe that this International Women’s Day is the perfect opportunity for us all to reflect and to carefully consider our policies around fertility and the rights of both parents on what is clearly a sensitive topic.
Currently, a 10-year limit exists for women when freezing their eggs. If I had been faced with making a decision in my early 20s about the prospect of having children in my 30s, I would not have known what the next decade of life had in store for me. I definitely would have been more focused on perfecting my Céline Dion impression in karaoke bars in Cardiff, which, again, I will not indulge colleagues with today—at least not without some wine. Current legislation is placing unnecessary pressure on women everywhere, and I hope that, with reflection, that can change.
I am sure I am not alone when I say that the pressures on women with children, whether conceived through IVF or not, do not end with childbirth. I chose to breastfeed Sulley, and it was the best decision I could have made. However, it was also the hardest thing I have ever done, and I sympathise with any new parent who is up at ridiculous o’clock with a newborn attached to their nipple, dreaming of a holiday in Hawaii. While I have been extremely lucky that my workplace has generally been very accommodating—I pay tribute to the House staff for the work they do—the same cannot be said by many new parents across the country. We must do all we can to support new parents with better protections for breastfeeding in the workplace, improved paternity leave legislation and a real consideration of our practices on egg freezing.
While I am extremely proud to produce a photo of Sulley as a three-day-old embryo, consisting of just eight cells, at any opportunity, I know that infertility and breastfeeding present real struggles for families across the world. I hope that, one day soon, we will not need a specific day to commemorate women and all the issues I have outlined. I have faith that, instead, in the world Sulley will grow up in, true gender equality will be the norm.
We need to champion new parents and do all we can to remove the guilt and stigma attached to parenthood. It is okay to be selfish every now and then. I hope any parent who is struggling feels able to reach out and speak about the issues I have raised today. Until then, I will do all I can from these green Benches to be a loud voice for all those who feel they have had their voice silenced.
It is a genuine honour to follow Alex Davies-Jones. I thank her for her speech and for her participation in the all-party parliamentary group on infant feeding and inequalities. I look forward to working with her in the months and years ahead. She picked up on a really important point in relation to IVF, which is another of the issues around women’s bodies, and Conservative Members mentioned it as well. It is not taken into consideration in the workplace that IVF is a difficult and sometimes traumatic experience. The Government could do more to consider how women are supported through it and to ensure that it is taken into account in workplaces across the country, regardless of the status of the women in them, so that it is no longer a thing women cannot talk about.
I want to be a tiny bit indulgent today and to thank the women closest to me for the influence they have had on my life. I want first to thank my mum—a teacher, and the first in her family to go to university—who always reassured me that it did not matter how well I did in my exams, because she would still be there for me and still love me. I thank her very much for her support, without which I would really struggle to do this job today.
I also want to thank my Gran White, who was second in her class at school in English and Latin, and third in science, but who was forced to give up school at the age of 14 to take on a cleaning job. The second world war gave her a second chance and saw her take up service in the Wrens. That led to a good job in the telephone exchange when she left service after the war, but, yet again, she ended up being forced to leave when she got married. However, her duty was always to her family, and she pushed on everybody around her. She supported my mum when she had me, so that she could go to work and carry out her role.
I pay tribute to Gran Thewliss, who passed away last September at the age of 99. I miss her very dearly and think of her quite a lot. We built tents together, baked cakes together, and picked out dresses together—[Interruption.] I did not mean to get quite so upset, but I thank her and I miss her.
I also thank my Auntie Carol. She is not an auntie in the biological sense, but we all have those aunties. She was my modern studies teacher at school and got me interested in politics—so a lot of this is her fault, and I thank her very much for it as well. Another woman—a very small woman—who means an awful lot to me is my daughter Kirsty, who is six. Of all the women, she is certainly the most challenging. She is challenging all the time, but she is very much worth the effort.
We talked earlier about gender roles and the things that people see all around them as they grow up, and those things are really pervasive. My daughter is not immune to them and loves those pink and sparkly things, despite my determination to get her to do and to like other things, but she is a rounded individual. She loves to climb, she loves to clamber, and she loves getting herself into all kinds of bother. I was really proud that her school was involved in a recent UEFA and Disney advert, encouraging more girls to get involved in women’s football. It is a great wee advert, showing the strength of the girls, the teamwork, and all those positive aspects that you can get from sport. She proudly tells people that she has seen Scottish girls’ football and Scottish boys’ football, but that the girls were better as they scored more goals. The Scottish national women’s team proved that last night in their 3-0 victory over Ukraine. I wish them all the best of luck in the Pinatar Cup in the coming days.
The world in which I want Kirsty to grow up should be more equal than the world that we see now, and more equal than the world of her great-grandparents, her gran and her nana, who I should mention is a WASPI woman—one of the thousands who have been done out of her pension. Sadly, the world that I see today is not yet that more equal world, and this UK Government continue to pursue policies that push more women into stress, hardship and poverty. The prospects of equality do feel very far away for many women today.
Along with many other women’s organisations and women from across the House, I have campaigned on issues such as the two-child limit and the rape clause because of their disproportionate impact on women, and, in many cases, on ethnic minorities and religious minorities as well.
Last year, 510 women had to fill in a form to prove that they were raped so that they could get additional benefits. Women in abusive and coercive relationships often become trapped because of the two-child limit. They rely on their spouse to provide for those children and they do not have enough money to survive and to break free. Under the terms of universal credit, those payments often go to the man in that relationship.
There is also evidence that women have been forced to terminate healthy pregnancies by a spouse because that child will only cost money and bring none in, which is really disturbing. There was a report in The Times today that 24%—almost a quarter—of pregnancies in England and Wales ended in abortion in 2018. I fully support a woman’s right to choose, but no woman should be forced into that decision through poverty. Clare Murphy of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said:
“In recent years, we’ve seen an increasingly cautious approach to family size, which is likely to be driven by a host of factors ranging from the two-child limit…to uncertainty about Brexit.”
The insidious impact of this two-child limit is its judgment. There is this notion that women are somehow feckless and irresponsible for having children, as if it had nothing to do with men, and the pervasive myth of the welfare queen. All of this at a time when we know that it is an economic necessity to grow our population in the face of the demographic challenges ahead. I call on the Government again to scrap this policy in the Budget. It is forcing hundreds of thousands of families into poverty and into a trap from which they cannot escape. The Government can and should act in the upcoming Budget.
Other policies and practices of this UK Government also have a disproportionate impact on women—from universal credit household payments to policies such as no recourse to public funds, as Kate Osamor mentioned. Such policies cause harm and hardship. A constituent of mine who was given leave to remain—case No. 3 on my books that dates from May 2015—had no recourse to public funds. That means no access to the majority of social security benefits, including housing benefit, income support, tax credits, child benefit and personal independence payments. For a single parent who is in a low-paid job to support her two children who are British citizens, that policy can make life all but impossible. Her solicitors Latta & Co., her friends and supporters, organisations such as Children 1st and my office provided all the support we could to keep her going. We provided her with food bank vouchers, items from the school uniform bank and Christmas presents. Her GP wrote of the marked deleterious effect on her social, psychological and, ultimately, physical wellbeing. Finally, in May 2019, her “no recourse to public funds” status was lifted. But of course, that is not the end of the journey because she then has to go about the process of applying for universal credit, and because she works she is not going to get enough money to survive on at the end of the month. When she was leaving my office with her daughter after coming to pick up some Christmas presents, her daughter came back, tapped on my door, looked up at me and said, “Alison, why have we got no money?” I have no answers for that girl really, other than that Government policy is driving the poverty that they are in and the Government could do something about it, but I could not say that to a child. All she knows is that she cannot get the same opportunities as her friends because of a status that her mum has been given.
I want to talk a bit about the Home Office because it is the source of a great deal of trauma, particularly to women in my constituency. My office was visited by the husband of a woman who had had an incredibly traumatic birth of a premature baby and needed to receive transfusions of 17 litres of blood. He wanted his mother-in-law to come over from Pakistan to support his wife and help look after the couple’s other two children, as he was going to have to return to work after paternity leave. His mother-in-law is a retired housewife with no bank account of her own, as can be the case for older women in Pakistan and here. Of course, the Home Office refused her application, not believing that she would return to her home and extended family in Pakistan. Her son is the only family she has in this country, so other than looking after her grandchildren, she had no reason to stay. All she wanted to do was visit her family, but that was not possible because of the lack of compassion and understanding of the Home Office. There was no appeal process because she was applying for a visitor visa, so the family just have to apply again and hope that the Home Office might look kindly on her application next time, even though her circumstances will not have not changed.
The way in which the Home Office goes about things is extremely troubling. Some time ago, I accompanied a constituent to an immigration tribunal. The woman was gay; she had come here when she was married, and had separated from her husband once she was here and felt safe. She had gone through the immigration system for quite some time, trying to make appeals to claim asylum, because she had absolutely no doubt that she would suffer persecution if she was sent back to the country she was from, given that she had already had extremely traumatic experiences in that country. Here, my constituent was forced to provide a series of witnesses to prove and give testimony to her sexuality. Now, I am not sure that I could provide six different people to testify to my sexuality if I had to, but that is what she was asked to do. She was asked to provide a range of different people, who were asked, “What is your opinion of my client’s sexuality?”
At one stage, the Home Office lawyer in the room questioned her integrity by saying, “She lied to her husband and her family when she came here, so she must be lying to people here today.” The judge at the immigration tribunal, to his absolute credit, intervened on that lawyer and said, “I’m not having that, because this happens in life.” He had friends who had come out in later life, and knew that it was not unusual in society. But the Home Office decided to put that woman through the mill to prove her sexuality so that she could get to stay here. Home Office Ministers should reflect on how that feels, and sit in on some immigration tribunals so that they know what is going on in their Department.
Women’s access to education is also compromised by the way in which the universal credit system works. I have a constituent who was in teacher training and also has a five-year-old child. She is trying to better herself and improve her situation in life, but due to the way in which universal credit interacts with student loans, and the cost of after-school care for her child, she has ended up in rent arrears and has had to suspend her studies. The UK Government need to give much greater consideration as to how women are supported and encouraged, rather than made to feel that life is just far, far too difficult because their lives are seen as too complicated to fit into a system such as universal credit. Mary Beard says:
“You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male;
you have to change the structure.”
Drugs death is an issue that I have campaigned on, but I have not talked very much about its disproportionate impact on women. Last week, I attended the Scottish Government’s and Glasgow City Council’s drugs death summit. I was not permitted to attend to the UK Government’s drugs death summit, despite the fact that it was in my constituency and on an issue I was interested in—but I will leave that just now. In 2018, 327 of the 1,187 people who died were women, the majority of whom were over the age of 35. These are vulnerable women suffering trauma on trauma—abuse of all kinds—in their history as children and as adults. They have had the stigma of having children taken from them, perhaps not once but multiple times. They need particular help and support.
Very powerful testimony was given by Claire Muirhead, who is in sustained recovery after 16 years of heroin addiction. She spoke of the power of whole-family recovery. She is now back in communication with her family and has a good relationship with her child. She said that treatment helped her to stop using drugs, but the recovery community helped her to build the connections afterwards. That is hugely important. We cannot think that people have treatment and then they are done, because we find that that is often not the case. We need to have these recovery communities right around people. They have been incredibly powerful in Scotland.
Claire Muirhead also called on the UK Government to stop criminalising people who use drugs, because that makes it very difficult for them to get the help that they need. That is particularly the case for women who risk losing everything—losing their children and losing their whole lives—because of drugs. The barriers put in place by the criminality of using drugs put women at risk. She also very clearly called on the UK Government to implement drug consumption rooms, because they are an easy way of people getting access to support services, getting into treatment, and getting out of situations where they are using drugs in very dangerous and risky situations. They can get help, support and treatment, and get into recovery.
I pay tribute to FASS—Family Addiction Support Service—in Glasgow, which has some incredibly strong women. Some of them have had multiple traumas in their lives due to drug addiction, but they work incredibly hard to make sure that no other families suffer in the same way as they have.
The hon. Lady is making an incredibly powerful speech. I echo the demands she makes on the Government. I have personally recognised both in my own life and in my constituency that when somebody has a drug addiction, it is almost always the women in the family of that addict who end up taking a huge amount of the burden and pain. Does she agree that we should not simply see these people in isolation, but as part of a much broader community that we should want to help?
The hon. Lady speaks from great experience, and she is absolutely correct. I know from people working in some communities that some women rack up huge debts to try to pay off drug debts. They put themselves at risk by trying to do everything they can do to support their family members. We should think of and pay tribute to all of them as well.
Glasgow Women’s Library in my constituency is a wonderful organisation and an absolute beacon. I thank it for the work that it does in the community, and also for its work around ESOL classes, which help to support women with the English language skills that can often help to bring them into wider society and make wider connections.
Dawn Butler, who spoke for the official Opposition, mentioned that smaller countries in the world have the greatest equality in their populations. I do not see that as an accident. In small, independent countries, people have the closeness to each other, and closeness to their Government, that enables them to tackle inequality because it is not so far away from any of them, and because they have the full powers of such countries. For us in the SNP, that is no coincidence. We would very much like to see Scotland having full powers over our economy so that we can then use those levers to make sure that inequality is ended for good.
It is an honour to follow Alison Thewliss, who made a passionate speech. This is the first time I have closed a debate, and it is an honour to close this debate in particular, because women and the issue of women’s inequality have shaped my life. The room is full of emotion, and it is a privilege to be here. I thank the Government for holding this debate in their time. It is usually a Backbench Business debate, but it is right that this forms part of the mainstream business of the House and that we recognise the contribution of women internationally, nationally and closer to home in our constituencies.
The former Minister for Immigration, Caroline Nokes, talked about intersectionality and highlighted her efforts to end FGM, for which I thank her. It is really important to remember the issues that affect our shores. It was horrifying to hear that somebody described FGM as just a piece of flesh being cut.
I would like to extend an advance “happy birthday” to Anne McLaughlin for Sunday, which is also International Women’s Day. I admire her outfit, which has come all the way from Malawi, and thank her for sharing that with us.
I thank Mrs Miller for all she has done. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North on her appointment as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee—she has a big set of shoes to fill, following the work done in the last five years, for which Members on both sides of the House are grateful.
In the Tea Room earlier, I asked my Labour sister, my hon. Friend Jess Phillips, how many tears I would have to hold back when she reads the names of the women we have lost in the last year. It never fails to move people here and beyond. I thank her and Karen for compiling that list, because I cannot begin to imagine what a task that is. It is right that that has become a tradition in the House, and I am grateful for it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Apsana Begum on her maiden speech. I have learnt a lot more about Poplar and Limehouse—I was not aware that “Call the Midwife” had been filmed there. She is a credit to the people of Poplar and Limehouse, and I am sure that this is the beginning of a long and successful voice here in the House for her constituents. As a fellow Muslim woman, I also congratulate her on being the first woman in a hijab to represent her constituency in this great House.
I thank my hon. Friend Rosie Duffield for her passionate speech. The last time I heard her speak, equally passionately, it was about her own experiences of domestic violence, when we discussed the Domestic Abuse Bill; I recall that like it was yesterday. I do not know about anybody else, but the idea of wearing a onesie made of meat going into a piranha tank is cringeworthy and not something I would like to imagine! But I recognise that that is the case for women in politics, as a woman and a shadow Minister who is often abused on social media and feels like the person wearing that onesie in a piranha tank. That is our reality in politics. As the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North said, we have lost a great deal of good women from this House. I thank her for honouring them; we must do so during this debate.
I thank my hon. Friend Kate Osamor for her passionate speech about the issue of having no recourse to public funds. I attended the inaugural meeting of that all-party parliamentary group, for which I was grateful. I heard at first hand the experiences of those young people, including the one she mentioned, who talked about the impact that the 10-year route to immigration has on a child. As a mother to a teenager, I cannot imagine a 15-year-old having the anxiety of thinking about doing something that will give her a criminal record and put her on the next plane back to where she came from, instead of doing her GCSEs and just being a young person going through life, as our children and every child should be able to. I learnt a great deal from that, and I thank her.
To turn again to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central, it is always heart wrenching when we mention personal stories. I have done it in this House, as have many others, and no matter how much practice we put in, it does choke us up. It takes extra bravery and it really does take it out of us. I thank her for sharing that story, which was so personal to her.
As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Dawn Butler said in her speech, there is an issue about structures in government and in society that we really need to address. The Labour party is a party of equality, committed to achieving a world free from all forms of bigotry and discrimination. Whether campaigning on the streets or passing legislation in government, Labour is the only party consistently to stand with women. I know that today is about women from across the parties coming together, but the truth is that 85% of the burden of 10 years of austerity and cuts has disproportionately fallen on the shoulders of women.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act 1970, yet women still earn 13% less than men. I was proud to march with Samira Ahmed at her tribunal case against the BBC, because when women do the same work as men, why should we be paid any less? That is why a Labour Government would take action to close the gender pay gap by 2030. Our call for equal pay would not just be warm words; we would legislate by making gender pay equality the state’s responsibility.
Women also face life challenges in the workplace, which is why Labour has campaigned and will continue campaigning for flexible working hours, working from home and the introduction of a menopause workplace policy to break the stigma associated with the menopause, as part of our party’s wider plans to transform the workplace for women—and rightly so.
Each International Women’s Day we are reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley of the tragic lives lost to domestic abuse. I thank her for her invitation to join the all-party group on domestic violence and abuse. These women are not statistics—I have said this before—but real people. I absolutely welcome the Domestic Abuse Bill put forward by the Government, but it needs to go so much further by protecting all women. During the all-party group meeting, we had a discussion and were able to show the Minister that migrant women do not fare well in the Domestic Abuse Bill. I encourage Ministers to look at that.
As I speak about the importance of the legislative change that we need to make to improve the lives of women in this country, I do not just say it—I genuinely mean it. There was a time when my life was defined by black bin liners, because that is how I used to move home. I was the daughter of a victim of domestic abuse who served 14 years in prison, and she went to prison because she could no longer handle the abuse and killed the partner who abused her. That was where my real journey into politics started—when I raised my brother and sister, who were teenagers, while moving from home to home. When I talk about my story, I share with people a slide with literally two black bin liners, whether in relation to my forced marriage, having to live in poverty or having experienced homelessness.
My standing here today to make a closing statement on International Women’s Day tells us—this is the message that it really brings home to me—that for my sisters and my daughters, and for women in this country and beyond, there is hope. However, we have made so much progress, but we have so much further to go. Despite all the progress, what I will not do once I have made it out of the struggles that I once faced is close the door on others. Neither will I pull up the ladder behind me when it comes to the fights that are still fought by women who look like me and believe like me.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Each for Equal”. Therefore, today I also say that, although having women Prime Ministers, women in Cabinet and even over 50% of Labour MPs being women —and 51% in our parliamentary Labour party—is a huge achievement that must not be overlooked, the fight must go on, with women showing solidarity to all women, including those from BAME backgrounds.
If recent history has taught us anything it is that you can be Princess Meghan Markle, but if you are a person of colour you will unfairly and disproportionately be targeted for literally being who you are; you can win “The Great British Bake Off”, like the inspirational Nadiya Hussain, but you will also be disproportionately targeted by hatemongers.
Although the Women and Equalities Committee published a report in 2015 highlighting the triple-whammy faced by women who were of colour and Muslim, the reality is that little has changed in that triple penalty of misogyny, xenophobia and Islamophobia faced by these women in their daily lives. In fact, some women now feel their hijab should be removed for their personal safety, and others who choose to wear other garments have had the most powerful man in this country legitimise hate towards them by referring to their personal choices as making them look like letterboxes and bank robbers. I mention this because some women have become more acceptable to target than others, and that is why I say that all women should come together to stand and fight for those most marginalised. There is no hierarchy in misogyny.
However, although I say all women must come together, this fight is not just for women to fight alone. Like many women in this House and outside, I have been inspired to stand up for change and fight for equality because of the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Rosa Parks and Benazir Bhutto, as well as Oprah Winfrey in the modern day. For many across society, the women in this Chamber will be their inspiration. I could go on listing inspirational women leaders who have not only made a positive contribution to society, but have motivated, inspired and enlightened generations of women to do the same. But these women were and are inspirational not only for women but for men, too.
Let me say who also inspires me to stand up as a British Muslim woman. He is the man who in 1935 was honoured by the US Supreme Court as one of the greatest law-givers of the world. His name is Muhammed, and he is the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. Despite what many may attribute or claim, he motivates and inspires—and he inspires me and empowers me to stand up as a British Muslim woman. He came to the world at a time when the most basic right to life of women was being denied, and in a matter of years he transformed a society that degraded, chastised and murdered women to one that empowered them with not only a right to life, but property rights, marital rights, inheritance rights, voting rights and democratic rights, and the rights of honour and of dignity and liberty.
I say that because, in 2020, International Women’s Day must not be an isolated occasion for only women to fight for women. I know there are stories of powerful fathers empowering their daughters, of husbands being the shoulders for their wives, and of sons being guided by the light of their mothers—and I cannot forget brothers, for my sons right now, my eight-year-old and 12-year-old, have to give up their space because my daughter is preparing for her GCSEs and doing her mock exams; they have to sacrifice and support her. We have to fight this fight together. Issues of women’s equality are as much a matter for men as for women, because we all have a moral obligation to tackle injustice. Just as we do not have to be black to get racism, we do not have to be a woman to get misogyny and be a feminist.
I know that the misogynists, xenophobes and Islamophobes will be lurking and waiting to attack another woman of colour for speaking out today, but I also know that standing by my side in this Chamber and outside, I will have the powerful shoulders of sisterhood. So I have decided, on this International Women’s Day: I will say it; we will say it; she will say it.
It is an honour to close this debate, and I thank every Member who has attended to raise issues, highlight successes and reflect how much women have contributed and will continue to contribute to our country and the rest of the world.
There have been some fantastic speeches—too many for me to mention them all, so I will highlight just a few. My hon. Friend Mrs Latham made the local connection with Florence Nightingale—a personal heroine of mine, as a fellow nurse—and her groundbreaking work. Today we find ourselves following the strict hand-washing rules that she set out many years ago. Apsana Begum made a fantastic maiden speech. It is such an honour that she chose this debate to make it in. We can already see that she will be a force to reckon with in this place and will keep the east end firmly on the map.
My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Caroline Ansell, highlighted what a hard-working local MP she is by bringing up Langney Primary School and its equality day. As she pointed out, she is Eastbourne’s first woman MP—again. Rosie Duffield talked about the effect that misogyny can have and the piranha tank of social media, which, to be fair, we have all experienced. My hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price highlighted how few men have come to support this debate; we hope to see more next year. However, as she pointed out in her rather sassy speech, we could do just fine without them. I note, however, that the male members of the Whips Office—who are here to support me, I think—have appeared on the Bench.
Like many hon. Members, my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond highlighted the plight of human rights defenders in other countries who find themselves in prison for doing the simple things that we take for granted in this country. Dame Diana Johnson asked a number of questions, particularly about Iranian prisoners. This morning the Leader of the House announced that there may be some positive news on that, but I hope the hon. Lady does not mind if I speak to the Foreign Secretary and get back to her about the particular Foreign Office issues that she raised.
There are so many great advocates for equality of opportunity and treatment of women in this Chamber, and I thank them all for their excellent work. As the Minister for Women and Equalities said in her opening remarks, the theme for International Women’s Day is “Each for Equal”, through which women want to achieve a gender-equal world. We are making progress right here in Parliament. We all have our own views about the result of the general election a few short months ago, but we have all mentioned how delighted we are to have more women MPs in this place than ever before. There are now 220 women MPs in Parliament—34% of the total, up from 22% in 2010. Although that is not the height of our ambition for the number of female MPs, it shows that we are making progress.
I agree with my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller that although we have made progress in getting more female candidates, we have more work to do in retaining excellent female MPs. We lost far too many from all sides at the last election. As my right hon. Friend rightly said, all MPs have the responsibility to play our part.
I am proud to stand at the Dispatch Box as an example of what the Prime Minister has named “the people’s Government”—a Government more reflective of the people they serve—and the second female in my family to have worked in the House of Commons. My aunt worked as a waitress in the Members’ Dining Room back in the ’60s, when there were just 26 female MPs and someone from my background would never have made it as an MP. I am standing at this Dispatch Box today only because I am covering for the feisty and inspirational Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend Kemi Badenoch, who is on maternity leave. Before entering this place, she worked in engineering, as a financier and in journalism—a really positive role model for our young women of today, demonstrating that this Government come from all walks of life.
International Women’s Day is primarily a day of celebration, and we have heard speeches that offer a huge amount of hope for the future, and demonstrate that in many areas we are making real progress towards a fairer society. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and the shadow Minister, Naz Shah, pointed out, it is right that this is debated in Government time. However, we have also heard appalling details of inequality from a number of speakers and clear evidence of the prejudices that women and girls still face.
We were all moved, as we are every year, by the speech from Jess Phillips, and it is tragic that the number of women killed by domestic violence has increased this year. The Government are serious about tackling this and I am pleased that only this week, we reintroduced our landmark Domestic Abuse Bill, which includes a number of changes to the Bill that was introduced in the last Parliament. Those include a new duty on tier 1 local authorities in England to provide support to domestic abuse victims and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation, and we continue to progress the non-legislative work to support the Bill as it comes forward.
The shadow Minister touched on finance around the Bill. The Government have committed £100 million of funding to combat violence against women and girls, including £20 million for domestic abuse, and are piloting an integrated domestic abuse court to support victims. The Government are also taking seriously the need to help victims of domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and stalking. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes on her work on FGM when she was a Minister. She is right—it is child abuse and it is illegal.
There were questions from a number of Members on the Istanbul convention, and I reassure them that the Government remain committed to ratifying the convention as soon as possible. The Domestic Abuse Bill contains the necessary measures to satisfy the convention’s requirements in respect of ensuring that the criminal courts in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have the required extraterritorial jurisdiction over certain violent and sexual offences, as required by article 44. The Northern Ireland Minister for Justice has also announced her intention to bring before the Assembly legislation that would criminalise psychological violence in Northern Ireland, as required by article 33. Had the general election not come late last year, we would be far further down the line in ratifying the Istanbul convention. I hope that Members will agree that the Government are absolutely committed to making sure that that happens.
I recognise that Members have identified a range of issues that negatively impact on women in the workplace. We are developing further guidance to support employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. I am proud to say that this week the whole Whips Office took part in Parliament’s Valuing Everyone training, which covers sexual harassment in the workplace. If right hon. and hon. Members have not undertaken the training I urge them to do so, as we all have a responsibility to do our part in calling it out and preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. There is a waiting list for the training, so please do put your name forward as soon as possible.
The Government are also serious about tackling the gender pay gap, which a number of Members mentioned. This Conservative Government brought in the regulations back in 2017. The gender pay gap is at a record low of 17.3%. Reporting for this year is due in March and April and I hope that we will see a further improvement. I remind Members, however, that equal pay has been a legal requirement since 1970. Last year, we made a commitment to review the enforcement of the equal pay legislation, and I hope that we see an improvement from companies around the country as the figures on the gender pay gap are published.
My hon. Friend is making a really strong speech and I congratulate her on that. Naz Shah, who spoke for the Opposition, said that equal pay should legally be a matter for the Government, but it already is. We already have that legislation, so does my hon. Friend agree that it is a matter of enforcement? That is the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and it should be doing more of it.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. She is right; it is already law and we need to enforce it to ensure that it absolutely happens.
The Government continue to show leadership in multiple forums such as the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the G7, the G20, the OECD and the Council of Europe, as well as in our bold initiatives such as the international LGBT conference, which we are proud to be running in May.
I personally welcome one of the Prime Minister’s top priorities that girls around the world should receive 12 years of quality education, tackling the obstacles that girls and young women face across the world, which was so eloquently highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley. The Government are also committed to creating a society that works for everyone. The female employment rate is at a near record high of 72.4% and just under 2 million more women are in work since 2010. We continue to support families with childcare costs, and the Government have invested £6.6 million to support carers to remain in or to return to work. The Government will be bringing forward a plan for social care this year to introduce a dedicated entitlement to leave for unpaid carers of one week per year alongside existing employment rights.
I am proud to have been part of the debate that has taken place here today. I thank every Member of the House who has participated. It is evident that there is more to be done at home and abroad, but we know we are going in the right direction. As we mark International Women’s Day this week, it is right that we celebrate our achievements and look at how far we have come. With more women in work than ever before, including more at the very top than ever before, we can be proud of the progress of the past 12 months. Britain has long been a world leader in championing equality of treatment and opportunity, both at home and abroad.
Fifty years ago, the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in the United Kingdom turned on its head outdated ideas of what a woman’s role can be. Today women are competing alongside men in all sorts of arenas that were once considered the sole preserve of men, whether they be engineers, para commanders or, indeed, darts players. Mr Deputy Speaker, as this may be my one and only appearance at the Dispatch Box, I am going to be cheeky and use an excellent example from my own constituency of Lewes. Lewes football club—I declare an interest as a community shareholder—has led the world in being the first ever football club to pay its female footballers the same as its men.
I am proud of all the progress we have seen, and now that the UK has left the European Union I am determined that it will continue to blaze a trail for the empowerment of women and girls and to celebrate their successes all over the world. I strongly believe that greater freedom to pursue our own future as a country will be better for all of us and that when we break down barriers that people face in the workplace, society and different parts of the country will benefit.
It is clear from what we have heard in the House today that we all share the commitment to change and to working together to ensure that no one is held back because of their sex or any other factor. In this country, whoever we are and wherever we come from, we will have the opportunities to challenge outdated ways of doing things, set new records and fulfil our full potential, inspiring the next generation of girls, whose success simply cannot depend on anything other than their skills, ambition and determination.
With that, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish everyone a happy International Women’s Day this Sunday.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered International Women’s Day.