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International Women’s Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:34 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 12:34 pm, 5th March 2020

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.