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International Women’s Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:12 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 3:12 pm, 5th March 2020

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.