International Women’s Day: Language in Politics

– in the House of Commons at 1:41 pm on 29 February 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 1:41, 29 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the use of language in politics in light of International Women’s Day;
agrees that the respectful use of language is an important feature of a strong and inclusive democracy;
and calls on all parliamentary candidates to pledge that respectful language will be used at all times in the upcoming General Election campaigning period.

I would like to start the debate, on behalf of members of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, by saying thank you. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate, which we should never take for granted given the pressure to hold debates in the Chamber, and I thank the Fawcett Society, which provides the secretariat to the APPG. Like all APPGs, ours is open to all Members and is cross-party. There is more that unites us than divides us when it comes to women in politics and particularly to women who stand for elected office.

Let us start the debate to mark International Women’s Day, which I have to remember is a national holiday around Europe, by celebrating the women who make our communities great. Like everybody else I have a long list I could recite, but I would just like to highlight Dr Avideah Nejad, a consultant gynaecologist at Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, who took the time last Friday, along with Dr Dominic Kelly, to speak to students at my local sixth-form college about our brand new hospital and the work she does to inspire another generation of young people to take up medicine. We need more people like that in our communities.

The APPG want this debate to be more than a celebration. We want to continue our work to ensure that the amazing women on these Benches and in our communities see elected office as a way they can contribute to the future of our country. Women are now more likely than their male counterparts to come out of the best universities with the best degrees. They make up the majority of solicitors and the majority of students studying medicine, so why has the House of Commons not seen the same leaps as other sectors when it comes to attracting women into our midst? There are still two men elected to this place for every one woman. There are many reasons for that and I remind colleagues of the excellent research the APPG launched in September, but today’s debate invites us to focus on one element.

At the moment, as we heard in the statements today, too many women reject the idea of standing for election because of the abuse they face, in particular the abusive language used on social media. Abuse affects all of us, but it is disproportionately aimed at women and is more likely to put women off from standing for election. That is not to say that abusive language is acceptable to anyone. There is far more that online media platforms could and should be doing to stop online bullying and abuse among all their users, but the evidence is that it disproportionately negatively impacts women. That poses a huge risk to the retention of women in this place and, in turn, to democratic representation.

Over nine in 10 women MPs who took part in the research reported that online abuse or harassment negatively impacts how they feel about being an MP, compared with seven in 10 men—still not a great figure. Similarly, all the black and minoritised MPs who took part in the survey reported that they were negatively impacted by online abuse. The nature of the abuse was described as misogynistic and racist, with it taking a considerable toll not only on them but their families.

Lots has been done to recognise the problem. I pay particular tribute to Mr Speaker and his team in Parliament for the work they do in monitoring and acting on online abuse against Members, and ensuring increased levels of support are in place, as we heard in the statement by the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat a few moments ago, so that MPs have support to live their day-to-day lives as they want to, and not in an isolated ivory tower. Abusive and threatening language is spilling over into real-life behaviour. This is something I and others raised in the debates on the Online Safety Bill.

Politicians are not delicate flowers, but there can be few people who would be unaffected by having two work colleagues murdered in the last eight years. David and Jo were just going about their work as constituency MPs. We have seen the shift to protesters feeling a legitimate right to camp outside MPs’ homes, and maybe not just outside, and to attempt to intimidate MPs through their children, partners, husbands or wives—something I have experienced myself. The additional security is essential, but it will not solve the problem. We have to challenge and change the culture of online abuse, and the online abuse that is now spilling offline, too.

Free speech and its protection is often cited as a reason why we should not be regulating the online environment. Free speech is a crucial part of our democracy. The passing of the Online Safety Act 2023 into law demonstrates that the Government understand there is a line to tread between free speech and protections. But free speech is not the only thing we must safeguard. Speaking freely is just as important. Too many women in particular fear organised attacks if they speak up and speak freely on the issues that matter to them. In research, three quarters of women MPs said they do not speak up on certain issues because of the abusive environment online. The same goes for men; the numbers who are impacted are much smaller—around half—but that is still something we should be concerned about. The ability of this place to speak freely is being curtailed.

There is another aspect to this. Parliamentary privilege and the parliamentary language we use in this place means we have an obligation to choose our words carefully. People who watch our debates note that every time. But are we as careful outside the Chamber? Is political campaigning being shaped to fit the medium of social media: polarised, binary, simplistic, and chasing the algorithm first and foremost at the expense of nuanced debate? There are serious implications for our democracy if we allow our politics to be shaped by—I am afraid—a mob mentality that can thrive in the online world. The Online Safety Act can only be the start. I reiterate my call, which I mentioned in earlier proceedings, for a Select Committee for online safety to keep the issue under constant review.

In advance of the debate, I received a note from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who is contacted by thousands of members of the public every year with their views on parliamentary standards. The language we choose to use matters in maintaining a culture of respect in political debate. Robust debate is not the same as personal intimidation and abuse. Is referring to your opponent as “scum” part of free speech and a robust debate, or is it abusive political campaigning? We all need to think carefully about that.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

The right hon. Lady has mentioned online platforms and a form of responsibility, but does she believe that Parliament itself should take more responsibility for the barriers that women are facing, or citing as their reasons for not entering Parliament, and for the language that we use here? What might that responsibility look like?

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and for her support for the all-party parliamentary group. Trying to make this a place that people want to come to should be a cross-party effort, along with tackling social media abuse and not only holding online platforms to account, but ensuring that they take down abusive images and messages inciting violence against Members of Parliament. That should be done much more quickly than it has been in the experience of many Members. There is so much more, over and above social media, that we need to change if we want more women to be willing to come here. Although half the population of our country is female, very few women want to stand for election, for reasons including some that I have mentioned.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

This debate is important for a number of reasons. The language that we use in everyday life can be very careless, and is becoming increasingly so in this place. I wonder whether the right hon. Lady worries, as I do, about the fact that during the current Parliament in particular there has been more focus on parliamentarians’ behaviour, and while some of it has to be called out, there have been occasions when an issue has been raised and then—if I may use a football phrase—Members have tackled the player rather than the ball: it has been about the person rather than the issue. Should we not be much more aware of not just the language that we use but how we direct that language? Should we not maintain a direction towards issues rather than people?

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

The hon. Lady is entirely right. In fact, I had included that analogy in my speech, but I took it out for the sake of time. I see that you are looking at me intently, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I know that a great many Members want to take part in the debate.

As the hon. Lady says, there is a discussion to be had about language versus behaviour. We have tools such as a code of conduct and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, but not all of them enable us to examine everything we do as Members of Parliament. Perhaps it is time for us to look at the language that Members use outside as well as inside the Chamber.

It is our job to identify problems and then find the solutions. As well as calling again for the monitoring of the effectiveness of the online safety laws, today I am pleased to be launching, along with colleagues in the all-party parliamentary group, a women in Parliament pledge, which all MPs and candidates can support, to take a zero-tolerance approach to misogyny, including racist misogyny, and all other forms of hate and discrimination in campaigning and in conduct. Back Benchers are taking this initiative to drive a change in culture, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will sign up to it. Our APPG is also calling on the Electoral Commission to make a public statement that homes are not a campaign destination, and calling on social media platforms to take immediate action on reported hate and misogynistic content and malinformation, misinformation and disinformation.

We, as elected Members, must act to defend our democracy and our democratic values. To mark International Women’s Day in 2024 we can show that we, too, accept our personal responsibility to lead that positive culture change—online and offline—in the words that we choose and the way in which we campaign, and I call on Back Benchers, Ministers and party leaders to join us. It is the responsibility of us all to safeguard our democracy, and the best way we can do that is by ensuring that we have a representative Parliament, welcoming everyone to be part of a respectful debate.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Perhaps I should explain how we need to proceed this afternoon. About 20 Back Benchers all together wish to speak in this afternoon’s two debates, and about an hour of the available time will be taken up by the Front-Bench speakers in the next debate. I therefore urge Members to try to speak for six or seven minutes, which will guarantee fairness.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley 1:53, 29 February 2024

I rise, as I do at this time of the year, to remember the women killed by men in the last year. This is the ninth year that I have read out the names of women murdered by men. I did it originally in partnership with Karen Ingala Smith, because we were desperate to highlight the patterns of these killings; the epidemic of men’s violence against women and girls has not abated.

I pay credit to Karen, who scours the pages of local papers trying to find the details in each case. I think that, in the last nine years, this act of memorial has raised the profile of killed women. Today we are more likely to see such cases reported in the national media, and over the years the country has grown more activist in this space. The Femicide Census has been born—where the results of Karen’s diligent volunteering, alongside that of Clarrie O’Callaghan, have turned into a growing resource for academics, journalists and policymakers. Karen and Clarrie deserve all the praise in the world for holding the line, never faltering wearily on the path, to give these women and their stories the elevation that they deserve.

I, however, have grown weary of this task. While it is an honour to do it, and every year when I meet the families—many of whom are with us today—I am reminded of why I do it, I am weary and tired of this list. The first year I did it, I felt overwhelmed, and then I grew used to it; but now I have grown so sad that every year there are the same cases of systems failures, prison recalls not followed up, and children’s services and family court decisions leaving women at risk, and of the fact that not every single police force in our country has a specific women’s safety unit, let alone the fact that none of them does.

I am tired of the sticking plasters, of flee funds instead of welfare reforms that would stop victims ending up destitute in the first place. I am sick of this review of some harm or other, and that review of sexual exploitation, being placed on a shelf and never driven forward. I am tired of hearing, on this one day each year, Ministers announcing a little bit of this or a little bit of that. I am tired of the fact that women’s safety matters so much less in this place than small boats. I am tired of fighting for systemic change and being given table scraps. Never again do I want to hear a politician say that lessons will be learned from abject failure, because it is not true. This list is no longer just a testament to these women’s lives; it is a testament to our collective failure. At least half the names I am about to read out are of women who could have been saved.

Here is this year’s list: Alesia Nazarova; Beryl Purdy; Holly Bramley; Susan Turner; Bernadette Rosario; Sara Bateman; an unnamed woman; Lucy Dee; Maia Dee; Rina Dee; Elise Mason; Marelle Sturrock; Suma Begum; Johanita Kossiwa Dogbey; Maya Devi; Suzanne Henry; Georgina Dowey; Holly Sanchez; Hayley Burke; Katie Higton; Kelly Pitt; Christine Sargent; Danielle Davidson; Stephanie Hodgkinson; Sandra Harriott; Fiona Robinson; Debra Cantrell; Emily Sanderson; Michelle Hodgkinson; Chloe Mitchell; Chloe Bashford; Tejaswini Kontham; Grace O’Malley-Kumar; Monika Wlodarczyk; Kinga Roskinska; Natasha Morais; Felicia Cadore; Nelly Akomah; Sarah Henshaw; Elizabeth Richings; Lynette Nash; Elizabeth Watson; Carol Baxter; Fiona Holm; Colette Law; Rose Jobson; Ann Blackwood; Hazel Huggins; Sharon Gordon; Claire Orrey; Christine Emmerson; Kelli Bothwell; Liwam Bereket; Chintzia McIntyre; Amy-Rose Wilson; Gabriela Kosilko; Claire Knights; Nhi Muoi Wai; Carrie Slater; Susanne Galvin; Helen Clarke; Ruth Hufton; Elianne Andam; Charlene Mills; Alison Dodds; Deborah Boulter; Celia Geyer; Mandy Barnett; Denise Steeves; Mehak Sharma; Caroline Gore; Sian Hammond; Michele Faiers; Christie Eugene; Perseverance Ncube; Sharon Butler; Dawn Robertson; Victoria Greenwood; Salam Alshara; Kiesha Donaghy; Alison Bowen; Taiwo Abodunde; Milica Zilic; Lianne Gordon; Kamaljeet Mahey; Glenna Siviter; Kacey Clarke; Keotshepile Isaacs; Tia Simmonds; Maya Bracken; Alison McLaughlin; Tara Kershaw; Kanticha Sukpengpanao; Claudia Kambanza; Michele Romano; Claire Leveque; Sam Varley; and an unnamed woman, who was 40 years old, from Beaconsfield.

As has now become customary, the families of women killed by men’s abuse who would not have appeared on this list, or who died before I started the custom of the listing, have begun to get in touch with me to ask for those women’s names to be read. I want to remember Melissa Mathieson, murdered in 2014, who was housed in allegedly supportive accommodation for people with autism together with a man who was a known risk to women; she had complained about him, but was not protected against him. We remember Melissa, and know that it brings shame on this House that, across the country, we are turning a blind eye to safety issues around women in state-funded accommodation. There will be another Melissa in dangerous accommodation as we speak. We must not mourn; we must act.

We also remember Eileen Mary Thomson, who died in 2017. At the age of 70, she was killed by her husband in a sheltered housing complex.

I was approached by my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan, who asked me to remember Rita Roberts, whose family—his constituents—were recently told of her murder in Belgium 32 years ago, in 1992. Her body had gone unidentified until last year. We remember Rita Roberts and cases like hers, which is why every year we include on the list women whose names we do not know. They matter.

All of these women mattered. They need to matter much more to politics, and I urge the Government again, as I have done for years, to have a strategy for reducing femicide. Warm words, with no political priority, will never make this list shorter.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 2:03, 29 February 2024

Every year, Jess Phillips, reads out that list. I do not think that I have ever had to follow her directly, and it is not an easy job to do. We are here to celebrate as well as commemorate, and as International Women’s Day is coming up next week, it is important that we reflect on what improvements there have been, but also on the failures.

My right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller has brought forward a motion about the language of politics and the language that we use. I apologise if, following that horrendous list, the language that I use is a bit flippant. I want to celebrate some of the achievements. I look at the fantastic, joyful experience we had last summer with the “Barbie” movie—a film directed by a woman. It was the biggest ever debut, and it was a wonderful celebration of all that is frivolous and pink, but had an important underlying message. But what did we learn? That the Oscar nominations would go to a man.

Over the last 12 months, my Select Committee has worked with some incredible women who have come to the Committee and told their stories. I particularly reflect on Vicky Pattison and Naga Munchetty, who came and spoke so emotionally and importantly about the experiences they had gone through with adenomyosis and a particular type of premenstrual tension that had caused Vicki to go, in her own words, “really quite mad”. I remember the language of politics immediately after they left. I remember the email I got from a man—surprisingly—who told me that he was not interested in hearing from my “celebrity mates”. I pointed out to him that they are not celebrities; one woman is a broadcast journalist and the other, Vicky Pattison, is a very successful broadcaster in her own right. I send a message to Vicky today: you are not just the woman from “Geordie Shore”. He criticised the fact that we had them in front of the Committee and not other, “serious” women. That afternoon, I sent him an email asking whether he had sent the same email to the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, my hon. Friend Dame Caroline Dinenage, who had had George Osborne in front of her Committee. Did Mr Osborne count as a celebrity friend? The man admitted that he did not.

I would like to reflect on women’s achievements in sport, particularly the achievements of the Lionesses, who did such an incredible job to get to the final of the World cup. I would like to celebrate Spain—I really would—but a man spoilt that for us, didn’t he? I look at that individual, who made sure that the story of female triumph in sport was, once more, all about the bad behaviour of men. I will not name him.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke said that we need a world where women not only have free speech, but can speak freely. I reflect on the sports commentators who came in front of my Committee and said that when they make identical comments to those of male commentators, they are attacked on social media for being stupid or for being female, yet the men get away with their comments with no remark whatsoever. I commend my right hon. Friend for her pledge, and for the APPG’s work to make sure that, in the coming general election, we are careful with our language and think about the words we use. It really ought not to be necessary. I would like to think that I can get through this entire election campaign without being racist, sexist or homophobic—it really is not that high a bar to have set. Let us see what actually happens.

Sticking with sport, I would like to reflect on Mary Earps—Mary Queen of Saves—but all we got to talk about was her shirt, not her brilliant prowess on the field in making all those saves that got England to the final. We had to talk about the fact that Nike did not think that her shirt was important enough to have bothered to print one. Of course, when she won sports personality of the year, The Sun was the first one out there to talk not about her brilliant prowess, but about the fact that we could see her knickers through her dress.

I would like to talk about Taylor Swift, who was Time magazine’s “person of the year” for a second time, and who has a monthly reach of 100 million people on Spotify. It is an absolutely incredible achievement. We cannot talk about Taylor Swift without also having to talk about Kanye West and his efforts to silence her, criticise her and, indeed, use her in his music.

I would like to talk about Claudia Goldin, the solo female winner of the Nobel prize for economics—the first time there has been a solo female winner. Of course, she was studying the obstacles that women face in obtaining equal pay, because we are still there. We are still struggling to obtain equal pay and to see the gender pension gap shrink.

On today of all days, when we have heard about horrific abuse and the measures that have had to be put in place to protect Members of this place, what has been really striking is that colleagues have spoken not about the abuse they face, but about the abuse their family faces. Our families feel it. I know that the abuse is bad on social media, despite “block”, “mute” and “delete” being my best friends. My daughter will send me a text message that just says, “Are you okay?”. That is how I know that it is bad out there.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

It absolutely includes our staff. My staff are criticised for working for me, when all they have done is apply for a job that they thought might be quite interesting and rewarding, and that might give them an opportunity to contribute.

There are many challenges, and we have to use our role in this place to do better. I always say that we can all do better. It is important to emphasise that none of us is perfect, and we should always strive to improve and be the very best Members of Parliament we can be.

Journalists the world over ask me whether the job of a Member of Parliament is worth doing, whether I feel safe and whether I would recommend it to any young woman, and I leave them with these important words: do it, because it is the best job in the world. The job means that you can make a difference for your community, and it means that our democracy is not dominated by white, 45-year-old men. I apologise to my hon. Friend Paul Holmes, my constituency neighbour. He is not 45.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East 2:10, 29 February 2024

I also thank Dame Maria Miller for securing today’s debate. It is always an honour to be here to mark International Women’s Day.

Today’s debate calls for respectful language to be used in this place and in the upcoming general election, as the public look to us for leadership and example. It is crucial that we respect each other and those who elected us to be their representative.

I reflect on my nine years of serving the people of Swansea East in Parliament, and I am confident that I have built mutually respectful relationships both across the House and throughout the communities that I work with. Like many colleagues, I have had my fair share of abuse, particularly online. It saddens me that it is generally nothing to do with my politics or the causes that I champion; it is always because of my gender or my appearance—my hair colour, my choice of outfits, my size, or my glasses.

Just this week, following a debate in Westminster Hall, I was subject to some very interesting abuse from people who purport to disagree with my stance on an issue. However, their comments on X, formerly known as Twitter, had little to do with what I said. To give a flavour:

“I wouldn't let that thing decide what boxer shorts I was wearing in the morning.”

That says more about them than me, I think.

“It is of my opinion that you are obese. See a doctor immediately. Bring in affordability checks for all the” stuff—I have used another word instead of theirs—

“you must eat to make you that fat.”

Another wrote:

“F these blue hair fat ugly freaks.”

And another:

“Shouldn’t this buffoon be serving jelly and custard to five year olds or on lolly pop duty?”

As a former dinner lady, I do not find that at all insulting.

That is just a snapshot of the disrespectful, misogynistic rhetoric that these bullies—that is what they are—feel that they are entitled to post, just because we are MPs. I agree that the language we use in this place is important, but there is a bigger issue that needs to be addressed.

Members would be disappointed if I did not talk about the menopause. Earlier this month, Avanti showcased its menopause toolkit for staff. It contained, among other things: a fan “for hot sweats”; tissues for “if you’re feeling a bit emotional”; a paperclip “to help you keep it all together”; a jelly baby “in case you feel like biting someone’s head off”; and a pencil “to write down things you might forget.” That is hardly the kind of language we should use about anyone, let alone women who are perimenopausal or menopausal. It is insulting, and it belittles symptoms that are so debilitating for many. I am sure it was done with the best intention and was perhaps meant to bring a bit of humour to the situation, but the choice of language is so important. I know from the communications I have received that it was deeply offensive, not only to a lot of women but to men, too. People working for the company were disappointed that this was Avanti’s response.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

We are hearing terrible things in this discussion about banter. People say things are just banter, but banter can be very offensive. We should not be intimidated by people who say that we cannot take banter. It is important that people realise that some banter is offensive.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

I agree. Before I was elected, my husband always told me that I would need to have a thick skin. Well, it has gone past having a thick skin. At the end of the day, I am a human being. People would not speak to a person on the street like that, so why should I or anyone else have to experience it online? It is not banter; it is degrading.

My mission is to ensure that our conversations and the language we use normalises the menopause in communities locally, nationally and even globally. I have had some exciting opportunities to do this, but none more exciting than the opportunity I had last week to join a team of wonderful friends and colleagues, with good knowledge and expertise, in going to Eastwood Park women’s prison in the constituency of Luke Hall. Menopause has over 40 symptoms, ranging from anxiety and brain fog to urinary tract infection and vaginal dryness. Many women struggle to navigate this time of their life, and they suffer as a result. Imagine not being able to pop out for fresh air during a hot flush; having night sweats while sleeping on a plastic mattress; or suffering crippling anxiety while locked up alone. That is the reality for women in prison. The difference I saw in the women between the Monday and the Friday was mind-blowing. We delivered a message that made a difference. I am hugely grateful to Davina McCall, Hazel Hayden and the Bristol menopause clinic, Kate Rowe-Ham, Lavina Mehta, Michelle Griffith Robinson and Kate Muir, who came with me to do this work. I am even more grateful to Eastwood Park’s governor, Zoë Short, and her team—Abbie Garrett and Alison Rivers—not only for trusting us to share the message with the women, but for being so proactive in supporting them.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Lady is making a terrific point. She reminds me of something I read by Mariella Frostrup in The Times this week, referencing the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidance on the workplace treatment of women with menopause. The guidance said that it should be treated as a disability. Does the hon. Lady share my frustration that that completely misunderstands and denigrates what the menopause is?

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

I totally agree. The menopause is not a disability and should not be regarded as such, but any focus on it—and the EHRC brought focus to the menopause —makes a huge difference to the messaging, how women feel and how employers take notice of what they should be doing.

I will cut my remarks short, as I have taken up more than enough time. As we look to the general election, can we reflect on how we speak, and the choices we make when we address others? Respect earns respect in this place, in our communities, in the country and beyond.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills 2:17, 29 February 2024

I thank my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller for securing this important debate on language in politics, which gives us an opportunity to mark International Women’s Day.

As the 431st female Member of Parliament, the first female MP for my Aldridge-Brownhills constituency and the first female Conservative Chief Whip, I start by stressing the importance of increasing female participation in politics. Sadly, women face many barriers to entering a career in politics. One of those barriers is the often unpleasant and abusive language to which they are subjected. This is totally unacceptable and it cannot, and must not, be tolerated. We have to work constantly to change that.

This is a cross-party debate and, to set the scene for my speech, I start with this quote:

“elect me for what I am and not for what I was born.”—[Official Report, 27 April 1992;
Vol. 207, c. 15.]

Those are the notable words of the late Betty Boothroyd when she became the first female Speaker of the House of Commons. Her initial entry into politics was not easy. It took her five attempts to be elected as an MP, which is something with which many of us will be familiar. It took me three attempts to make it to Parliament.

Historically, the House of Commons has often been seen as a man’s world. It has often been compared to a private gentlemen’s club, and it was only with the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 after world war one, underpinned by the suffragette movement, that women were allowed to stand as candidates and be elected as MPs. As we know, the first sitting female MP was Nancy Astor, who was elected as a Conservative MP in 1919. Since then, we have undoubtedly made progress, and by the 1960s no one doubted that women should be part of the political process. Yet here we are in February 2024 with 226 female MPs in the House of Commons, which is 35% of all MPs—that is hardly reflective of our country. The Conservative party currently has 88 female MPs. Although that is a triumphant leap from the days when Nancy Astor was the sole female MP, it is still only 25% of all Conservative MPs.

With women clearly under-represented in Parliament, we have to ask the question: why? One decisive factor as to why many women choose not to enter politics at all is its aggressive and intimidating nature. Sadly, Parliament and politics all too often remain overwhelmingly masculine in culture, language and space. Even after 100 years in politics, many female politicians continue to suffer from bullying, harassment, misogyny and sexism, both in this place and beyond. To see that, we can just take a look at the toxic nature of Prime Minister’s questions some weeks, where women have been known to be called “stupid woman” and have even been told to “Calm down, dear”, in an insulting and often patronising tone. Surprisingly, when we look in the guidance on “Rules of behaviour and courtesies in the House of Commons”, we see that although it contains a section titled “Parliamentary language”, there is not a single mention of sexist language being inappropriate. I know that Mr Speaker is doing a huge amount of work to change the culture and behaviour in this place, but perhaps that is something else we could seek to look at a little further.

This language issue extends beyond the Chamber and to all forms of communications and settings, be it social media, mobile phones, tweets or WhatsApp messages. This abusive language has to be unacceptable, and I urge all Members of Parliament, on both sides, to report it and call it out. Many female MPs have been subjected to hate messages on their Twitter posts—we have heard some examples of that this afternoon—and, sadly, some have even received death threats. That is why I very much welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement of a £31 million package to counter threats to MPs’ security, which includes cyber-security advice and a dedicated named police contact. That is fundamental to protecting and upholding our democracy. As the Home Secretary recently said, no MP should have to accept threats or harassment as “part of the job”. That applies to all MPs, but it applies to female MPs in particular.

Some people may perceive politics to be centred around assertiveness and power, but I believe that it is slightly different; empathy, compassion and our respect must also be at the very core of it too. We see that just by looking at the role of women in the peace and security agenda. I believe that if we all remembered why we entered politics in the first place, which is to strive to make a positive change for society, we would all be treated with more respect. Most importantly, more women would be encouraged to enter politics.

Like everyone else here today, I hope that in the near future not just 50% of all MPs will be women, but that at least 50% of all MPs will be female. When my party has an organisation called “Men2Win”, I know we will have succeeded. Fairly representing our population is where we need to get to; we need everyone to be treated with dignity and respect at all times. I still pinch myself when I come into this place. I remember how I felt the first day I sat on the green Benches. It was then, and still is, the biggest privilege and honour of my life to be a Member of Parliament and to serve the community that elected me, Aldridge-Brownhills.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central 2:24, 29 February 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Wendy Morton. I always say that we will know we have reached true equality in this place when we have as many rubbish women as we do rubbish men. [Laughter.]

The Home Office Minister should be ashamed of how he attacked an Opposition Member of Parliament during the previous statement. I hope that she raises a point of order, because we are talking about the language in this place and we should all be setting an example. We saw at the weekend the language used by Lee Anderson, Suella Braverman and Elizabeth Truss

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I just remind the hon. Lady that if she is referring to Members, I hope she has notified them that she intended to do so.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central

I have not notified them, Madam Deputy Speaker; I have just been so angry about this. I will withdraw naming them. I thank Caroline Nokes for calling out the language used by those on both sides of the House.

My hon. Friend Jess Phillips is no longer in her place. When she read out her list, it was heartbreaking, and when we saw the family members stand, it broke all of our hearts. The media are failing women and, as legislators, we are too, because that list should be getting shorter every year and it is not getting shorter.

In the short time I have today, I wish to mention three things that we can do as legislators to help stop the killing and abuse of women. I wish to thank Level Up and Glamour magazine for their tireless campaigning in this area. I also thank the Minister for Women, Maria Caulfield, for the productive discussions we have had on language changes to the Independent Press Standards Organisation code. It is important that we have cross-party discussions on that, because we are talking about the safety of women. It is a shame that those changes have not happened yet. I feel that the Minister understands their importance, but I sometimes think there is a barrier stopping her from making them happen. I do not know who or what the barrier is, but I feel that she understands the importance of the changes. The second thing we need to do is put in place 10 days’ paid domestic violence leave. The third thing we need to do is ensure funding for refuges.

Let me start by discussing the IPSO code. The way the press reports is often inaccurate and undignified, and prioritises sensationalist headlines over responsible reporting. That approach needs to be replaced with responsible reporting that tackles the root of domestic abuse and the dynamics of power and control. We need to end victim blaming. By doing that, we will save lives. We need to improve and strengthen clause 4 of the code. As Level Up has said, clause 4 deals with:

“Intrusion into grief or shock”.

The clause states:

“In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.”

Level Up says:

“Given the academic research on the negative impact of romantic framings and the known damage caused to victims’ families, Level Up recommends the Editors’ Code Committee introduce a subclause to the effect of:

‘In cases where a person has been killed by a partner or former partner, care should be taken not to use language which could frame the killing as an act of ‘love’, or which could be construed to blame the victim for their death.’”

That amendment needs to be made to the code with urgent effect. We cannot say that this is voluntary; it has to be enshrined in the code.

One in four women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. I am sure that all the women in the Chamber today have suffered some kind of domestic abuse or unwanted attention in their lifetime. Every three days a woman is killed by a partner or ex-partner. None of those deaths have come out of the blue. Criminologists have established that when a woman is murdered by a partner, it marks the end of a sustained period of coercive control. Abuse does not end when the relationship ends. In fact, the time when women are most vulnerable is when they leave a relationship. The moment someone leaves an abusive relationship is the moment of greatest risk. I urge the Minister to urge the Government to look into a domestic abuse policy requiring employers to provide up to 10 days’ paid leave, as enacted in the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. By granting victims paid leave, those 10 days will save lives. As legislators, there is no greater honour than passing legislation that saves lives.

To conclude, the third of my asks is for extra money for refuges. The Women’s Aid “Domestic Abuse Report 2024” states that £189 million should be ringfenced for women’s refuge services. Almost 50% of organisations have said that they are operating without funding, so they are saving lives but they are not being paid for it. Some 79% of people using refuges use food banks and 62.5% of survivors are unable to leave their abusers because they cannot afford to.

Level Up has an acronym: AIDA. A is for accountability: murder is not a loss of control, but the responsibility of the perpetrator. I is for image: centre images of victims, not perpetrators, and do not place their images side by side; and use official photos that have been provided by the police or the family, not social media. D is for dignity: a victim’s children, family and friends will read the coverage many times. They will be in grief and shock. Avoid sensationalising language, invasive or graphic details. Dead women cannot protect their families. Finally, A is for accuracy: name the crime for what it is—fatal domestic abuse, not a horror or a tragedy perpetrated by a monster or unknown evil. Use statistics from the Office for National Statistics for context on how many other women have been killed. Gender-based violence is a national and not a personal problem. It is not an isolated incident and many women are being killed each year.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy) 2:32, 29 February 2024

I place it on the record how disappointed I am that not a single man is speaking in the debate today. We all have a role to play to empower, inspire and enthuse the next generation of women, and to face down, and ultimately defeat and silence, toxic misogyny and abuse. That should not be the responsibility of only the women in this place.

Specific moments deserve attention. We must celebrate when important glass ceilings are smashed. I stand here as a very proud first female MP elected to represent the people of Pontypridd. My party has driven a coach and horses through the idea that to be a parliamentarian means one has to be a white, privately educated, independently wealthy man. Young women can look to our parliamentary party and see people that look and sound just like them.

Yet there is still not enough progress. Just being here in Parliament is not enough. Equality is not about being 50% of everything; it is about winning hearts and minds. It is the drip, drip of education and the embedding of a culture in which women are genuinely valued, respected and championed. I am talking about a world in which online and real-world misogynists are rejected outright because young people and others see them for what they are. That culture, education and example is often set by influencers and in society by the words used in this House and beyond by Members of Parliament, and others elected or appointed to public service. Those words matter.

Sometimes those words are subtly, even unconsciously, biased. They seem harmless and no doubt the intention is not always sinister. However, those words feed a narrative that has played out for many years across society. Today, it is playing out daily in both broadcast media and in fringe spaces online. People are rapidly being radicalised thanks to self-affirming filter bubbles amid a culture that is openly targeting women. As Hope Not Hate has pointed out, feminists, left-wing women and women of colour are a common focus.

Ironically, it might be easy for some to roll their eyes at my words. When a woman uses the word “radicalisation” in the context of feminism that is often dismissed and ignored, and at worse she is labelled “a mad feminist”. But what starts in fringe spaces does not end there. It leeches on to larger social platforms and then moves into everyday discourse, as radicalised individuals feel more comfortable expressing their hatred in real terms.

What starts with throwing a drink over a woman can become, and has become, a murderous attack. Such attacks can be, have been and are the consequences of language, which is why we need to tackle the widespread harm. That is important and, as shadow tech Minister, I fought hard to ensure Ofcom will have a code of practice for tech companies focused on violence against women and girls. In addition, those calling us “love” need to think more carefully about their contribution to the problem.

To take this idea further, we have what the global pop sensation Taylor Swift called “a different vocabulary” for men and women. She said:

“A man does something, it’s strategic. A woman does the same thing, it’s calculated.”

We do not have to look far for other ways in which that coded differentiation plays out. How many times in this place have hon. Members spoken passionately, only to have been characterised as “emotional” or even “hysterical”? How many times have we been patronised or told to “watch our tone”? The deputy leader of our party, the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner, has been repeatedly objectified and targeted in mainstream media for her appearance or conduct, described by what she is wearing rather than what she is saying, faced with failed attempts to undermine her authority. Sadly, she is not alone. How often was that the case for Lord Prescott, for example? Why have Ministers, Back-Bench Members and others in this place have felt perfectly comfortable personally disrespecting me in text messages, conversations or speeches, reducing my value to that of my appearance, effectively devaluing important conversations on policy?

Particular words can cause particular harm to particular groups. When a former Member of this House—a former Prime Minister, no less—compared Muslim women wearing the burqa with letterboxes, not only was it mocking, cruel and Islamophobic, it led to a rise in attacks on Muslim women, according to Tell Mama. Jewish Women’s Aid told me, as shadow Minister for Domestic Violence, that the omission of words, the failure to believe, and the accusations levelled at Israeli women that they were lying about the brutal rapes and sexual violence which took place on 7 October have served to undermine confidence in the services offered by Jewish Women’s Aid to women in this country. Once again, words had an impact.

As I have said, I have had words used to try and intimidate or threaten me. I know colleagues have had similar experiences. These words undermine and threaten our democracy. When women in Parliament are under threat, our democracy suffers. When young women see these threats, it deters them from standing. So let the call go from this Chamber today that we will not be silenced—we will not shut up.

Thankfully, words can also be used for good. Above the entrance to St Stephen’s is an installation that includes a representation of the various Acts of Parliament that have paved the way for women. History shows that words have the potential to change the world for good, and if we want an example, we do not have far to look. Inside the cupboard at the back of the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, on this very parliamentary estate, words mark the efforts of Emily Wilding Davison to ensure women had the right to vote. They serve as a true reminder of the potential for good and for change.

I am heartened by the fact that in the face of all the hatred and disgusting words I have had sent to me over the last four years, I have been lucky to have constituents, colleagues and members of the public share words of kindness. Supportive words have flooded in from allies, friends and family. I am sure we all can agree that those are the only words that matter.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:37, 29 February 2024

It is a pleasure to follow my good friend. my hon. Friend Alex Davies-Jones, and her powerful and passionate speech.

I am delighted to speak in this important debate as we approach International Women’s Day 2024. I do so as a daughter, mother and sister, the first woman to represent Newport West in Parliament, and a champion of the role women play in all and every part of our national life. I am grateful to Dame Maria Miller, for her opening remarks and for ensuring we could all be here today. I acknowledge and pay tribute to the speeches of all those colleagues who have spoken before me. The focus of the debate is important. We gather in the shadow of the plaque to our late friend, Jo Cox. We should all be a bit kinder, do a bit more and go a bit further in making our political discourse healthier, safer and more decent.

More than 100 years have passed since the first women won the right to vote and in 2028, we will mark the centenary of the equal franchise Act, the most basic but important Bill that gave equal voting rights to women and men. Since then, and particularly over the last 20 years, women’s representation in our politics has been transformed, and we have seen the positive impact that women in elected office can make. I pay particular tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman, the Mother of the House. She has made it her life’s work to empower women, to get many more of us here. As she leaves these Benches at this year’s general election, I thank her for all that she has done for more than 40 years as a Member of this House. I know that I speak for many others in doing so. I also thank some of the wonderful women on the Labour Benches who are standing down at the next election. My hon. Friend Colleen Fletcher, my indefatigable right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Beckett, and my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge will all be missed by Labour Members, and I believe by Conservative Members too.

I acknowledge the strong women I work with to serve the people of Newport West: Jayne Bryant, our local Member of the Senedd, who is a very good colleague, and the leader of Newport City Council, Councillor Jane Mudd, who is standing to be the first woman police and crime commissioner in Gwent in May. I also acknowledge the women members of Newport City Council, and of course my very good friend, my hon. Friend Jessica Morden. With our United Kingdom in mind, I send my best wishes to Michelle O’Neill, the new First Minister of Northern Ireland, and to Emma Little-Pengelly, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. It is not a surprise that two women are leading the way in getting the Northern Ireland institutions back on track. I know that we all wish them every success.

We all know that the presence of women MPs in the rooms, chambers, corridors and dining halls of power where decisions are made has undoubtedly transformed our laws and policies. Yet while women have been leading the charge on these significant reforms, they have also faced significant challenges, as the Fawcett Society noted in its brilliant briefing, especially black and minority ethnic women, disabled women and women with long-term health conditions. We need more women in elected office, but we will not get more women to put themselves forward if they know that they will be constantly attacked on the basis that they are a woman, a black or minority ethnic woman, or a disabled woman. We all have a responsibility to use temperate and respectful language, and must all regulate the language that we use and ensure that we do not use language that would incite hate, harm people or simply engage in the age-old race to the bottom.

How this place represents itself to the people will have an impact on the engagement of women, and the public more broadly, in politics. The last few weeks have shown that some people in this place have little regard for the impact that their words have on people outside in the real world, and we must not forget that. We can start by getting our own house in order. It is important to ensure that those working in this place, as in any other workplace, can do so without fearing for their safety, free from abuse and harassment, and that the overall culture is welcoming of people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse needs. That cannot be a difficult thing for each of us to work towards every day. We expect it of people in our constituencies, so we should lead by example.

The abuse that we get online merely adds to the deep-seated issues in Parliament regarding bullying, harassment and sexual abuse. I know that they are being addressed with urgency by Mr Speaker, but we must keep going.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy)

My hon. Friend mentions some of the issues being tackled by Mr Speaker, but they are also being tackled by you, Madam Deputy Speaker. You are also standing down at the next election. We should also pay tribute to you for leading the way for women in our own party, and across the House.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank my hon. Friend for that positive and opportune intervention. I did not want to embarrass you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I thank you for your calm nature last week when you took on the issues that arose. The calm and peaceful way in which you dealt with it all was an inspiration to us all.

Online abuse affects when women in public office speak and what they speak about. Online abuse, particularly abuse that is misogynistic and racist, has a detrimental impact on the mental health and wellbeing of women in public life, particularly ethnic women MPs, reflecting on the emotional toll that it takes on them, their families and their staff. It is deeply unfortunate that online abuse spills out into reality, causing real concerns about physical safety, with such abuse often including threats of violence. Even though women make up over half of the United Kingdom’s population, as the right hon. Member for Basingstoke said, we make up only 35% of the House of Commons. There is so much more to do.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

We are talking about the importance of language in debate, but does she agree that we also need to start thinking about images, especially with changing technology? Several Members present were with me last night at a debate about deepfakes and artificial intelligence, hosted on the Committee corridor by Glamour and my right hon. Friend Greg Clark, the Chair of the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee. It strikes me that a lot of the themes of today’s debate around the use of language, and how off-putting it can be, can also be applied to stuff that is generated very realistically and very quickly. Does the hon. Lady agree that we should not forget that while we debate language, and women in politics?

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I absolutely agree. Being a luddite, I may not be as familiar as lots of other people in the Chamber with AI and other online issues, but deepfakes are deeply troubling. I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting that really important issue.

I acknowledge that the Conservative party has had three women leaders. Although the last two did not last very long, the Conservatives have done more than we have, and in due course I hope that Labour will elect its first woman leader. In August 2022, just 36% of the 19,212 elected councillors across the UK were women. Fewer than 5% of councils have achieved gender parity, so the need to empower and support women is clear to all of us. The issue will not be solved overnight, but we need to start making progress. It will not be addressed by one party, but by all of us working together, and it will not work unless every man in this place, and in our country, recognises the role that they have to play too.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:46, 29 February 2024

I pay tribute to Dame Maria Miller for securing the debate, and to my hon. Friend Jess Phillips, who is no longer in her place. I think that we can all agree that it was very hard to listen to the names that she mentioned. I will cite just two of them. One was Johanita Dogbey, who was my constituent. She was killed on 1 May last year in broad daylight. Following on from the earlier statement by the Home Secretary on police resourcing and the need to ensure that the police respond to things locally, what was really tragic and sad about that killing was that apparently the gentleman responsible made an attempt two days earlier in the local area—so could that death have been prevented? Nothing will ever prepare us for having to sit with a grieving family who have lost a child. As we know, no parent should have to bury their child. Every so often, I still remember the embrace that I gave to Johanita’s mum, and the pain that she felt—she asked me why her daughter was taken.

I also wanted to mention Elianne Andam, one of the other names that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley mentioned. Again, that senseless killing shocked so many people. People will remember that on 27 September, at 8.30 in the morning, a young 15-year-old was tragically stabbed in her school uniform, on her way to school in Croydon. Again, I think about when my hon. Friends the Members for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) and for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) and I attended the vigil in Croydon a week after, and we embraced Elianne’s mum, Dorcas. We felt that raw pain of yet another woman’s life being taken and asked ourselves, “Why? Why has this been allowed to happen again?” It is for all those women that we, as female politicians—and also male politicians—need to do better in addressing how we conduct ourselves; we cannot let those deaths be in vain.

Today, we are debating a motion on language and politics. It is right that we do so, because language does matter. The words that we use really matter. As politicians, we all have a responsibility to conduct ourselves in a manner that ensures that we can all be treated with dignity and respect; yes, there can be passion and even sometimes a bit of anger when we are trying to get our points across, but—going back to the statement and to some of the earlier speeches—if we as parliamentarians are not conducting ourselves in that way, we should not wonder why our constituents and the general public then fuel that abuse and hate towards us. We have to be respectful towards each other.

It is important that we do not put off further women from standing for election. I am proud that, in 2019, I was part of the most diverse intake ever. A small group of 26 of us were elected for Labour for the first time in 2019, yet we were majority female—19 of us. Of those 19, 10 of us were BME women, including the first hijab-wearing MP. We should be celebrating that, but if the language coming out from politics and from politicians is not respectful, we will not see those types of women standing for election. It is important that we look at that. All parties, including my own, have a duty to consider how we treat female politicians—not just when they are candidates, but after they are elected. It is about that duty of care and ensuring that we are providing a support network for our colleagues, and looking at how the House authorities can help us.

Delivering women’s equality in this place is vital if we are to have a healthy democracy. It is important that all parties consider how best to ensure that more women can come into politics, but we have to be honest about some of the barriers that are still in place. For a number of those women, campaigning, and time off for public duties, can be expensive. A number of these women bear the burden of caring responsibilities, and it is important that we look at what support is in place.

As we approach International Women’s Day, we should work together to redouble our efforts to support women who are thinking about standing for election, and those who are already here to make sure that our politics—not just the language that we use, but the actions that we take —continues to be strong and inclusive for everyone.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities) 2:51, 29 February 2024

I am pleased to follow all these excellent speeches. It has been a worthwhile debate, and I am grateful to Dame Maria Miller for bringing it here today.

Debating the language that is used in politics is important, particularly as we approach an election. As we have heard, we cannot debate that without speaking about the reality of the impact of the language that is used about us and to us. The language in the political sphere has a profound impact on women in politics now and on those who may or may not want to jump into what is sometimes just a swamp. That sounds a bit dramatic, but it is not really. Although it is the biggest privilege to represent our communities—I am sure we all feel that very sincerely—the challenge is the discourse, including in here, the language and the abuse. To hear her talking, I think Carolyn Harris the Member for Swansea must be using my social media. Unfortunately, we all also recognise the targeted harassment and security concerns that go along with some of this.

Important research by the Fawcett Society points out that the safety and security of elected representatives, and the issues around that, are highly gendered. The fact is that we are not representative. Women make up more than half the population, but only 34% of MPs. We need to do better there. I applaud the new Scottish Government Cabinet. It has been gender balanced for many years now, but the new Cabinet is, I think, 70% female. That is a significant and important step. It is welcome to see all these capable women taking their places.

It is telling that the debate today follows on from statements on the security of elected representatives and on the Angiolini inquiry into the circumstances around the murder of Sarah Everard. Although I have been glad to participate in the last few International Women’s Day debates, there is an undercurrent, which was brought into stark focus again today by the Angiolini inquiry report. We need to reflect on the awful reality of where the normalisation of behaviours, and the amplification of language and attitudes, can lead to. My very deep sympathies are with the family of Sarah Everard. They are also with the family of Emma Caldwell, whose killer was sentenced yesterday to 36 years’ imprisonment for her murder in 2005. Their ordeal has been so awful. They have waited so long for answers, but those answers, while very important, will not bring their much-loved Emma back. Emma was reportedly someone with many friends, who, despite having a very difficult time in life, was appreciated, valued and loved. I appreciate any and all headlines that manage something that should not be so difficult: when talking about Emma, to use her name and not just describe her as “sex worker”—Sky News, you must do better. I do hope that Emma’s very brave family can now find peace.

Every hon. Member who has spoken today has, unsurprisingly, noted the impact of online abuse on their participation in democracy. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke eloquently pointed out that robust debate is not the same as abuse. We could be here all day—probably all week or more—if we started down the road of giving examples that are far from even pretending to be debate. Alex Davies-Jones was right to say that what starts in fringe spaces does not end there.

Florence Eshalomi spoke well about language. There is our language here— I am thinking of the recent remarks by Lee Anderson, not made in this Chamber, but the context was that of an MP speaking. That was a powerful and unfortunate example of the power of language. What we say and how we say it does not just reflect on or influence us, but enables people—men, mainly—to abuse women, including not only politicians, but other women who have the audacity to have opinions and to want to express them. That is regrettable, because of the likely impact of turning women off politics and the democratic process. Glimmer of light and all that, though: I was at the St Ninian’s High School careers fair a couple of weeks ago, and the number of powerful, articulate and smart young women interested in careers in democracy, politics, research and so on was heart- warming. I wish them all every success.

There is space to welcome some positives, but I will touch on some other women we need to mention before I close, not least the women in the middle east. We know about the awful and disproportionate impact on women, and that is horribly clear as we watch with horror what is unfolding there: the Israeli women caught up in the Hamas terror attack, the hostages and their families—it is impossible to imagine how they are coping; and the women in Gaza dealing with unimaginable things—with the death, destruction, privations that we cannot begin to imagine, and childbirth without hospitals or medical facilities, these women are suffering beyond belief.

I would like to end on a more upbeat note and to speak about the women of East Renfrewshire who do so much good. I do not have time to speak about many of these brilliant women, but I would like mention the women in my office team, Carolyn, Nix, Freya, Katie and Sampurna, who all deliver every day for our community—I am fortunate to work with them—and my East Renfrewshire councillor colleagues, Councillors Angela Convery, Caroline Bamforth and Annette Ireland, who are all women of substance and hugely committed to improving their communities.

I must also mention two special women commemorated just last week at the 20th anniversary event of the Auchenback Resource Centre. They are memorialised on lovely benches that sit outside the front of the centre. I think that the House would want to join me in reflecting on the great work that Rita Connelly and Irene Simpson did for the people of Auchenback and on how much of a difference those powerful women made to the people who lived in their area. That is a useful point at which to conclude. We all understand that this is a challenging time, but we must ensure that as well as pointing out the difficulties and challenges, we celebrate powerful women like these, who make a real difference.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before I call the shadow Secretary of State, I remind Members again that if they are going to refer to other Members, they should notify them. Criticism of other hon. Members should only be on a substantive motion.

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Party Chair, Labour Party, Chair of Labour Policy Review, Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities 2:58, 29 February 2024

I commend Dame Maria Miller for securing this important debate. I thank everyone who has participated in it. The issue of language in politics is vital in relation to International Women’s Day. It is possible to celebrate this important occasion, as we rightly do every year, while acknowledging the wider issues for women in politics and in society.

Many Members have already reflected on the frankly caustic nature of political campaigning. As the shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, I too have sadly become accustomed to what I can only describe as an often toxic discourse, including on equalities issues. Complex and sensitive matters get boiled down to simplistic, overly oppositional narratives, such that substance is overshadowed or even completely disregarded. Well, I want that to change. I want the issues that we debate in this House always to be centred on the facts of the matter and the merits of policy. The debate is important because the language that parliamentarians use has an impact on the world outside this place. We Members all have a responsibility to use respectful language while we debate. Members are of course rightly passionate about issues, but passion cannot justify intemperance of the nature that we have seen too often lately. My hon. Friend Ruth Jones was right to refer to the words of the late Jo Cox, who so powerfully reminded us all of what we have in common, despite any points of division. As the representatives of our constituents, we need to take responsibility for the words we use.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Will she join me in regretting ever hearing a Member of this House refer to their opponent as “scum”?

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Party Chair, Labour Party, Chair of Labour Policy Review, Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities

I think it absolutely right, when any Member makes a mistake, as was the case in that instance, that they apologise. That was unacceptable, and it is right that the Member concerned apologised. I would like all Members to apologise when they use divisive language, whether it is of the type that the right hon. Lady just described, or racist or sexist language of all types. It does us no favours when the House tries to tiptoe around these matters, as we have seen over recent days and previously. We need to face up to them, because language matters, words matter, and the language and words used by Members matter, so I appeal to all sides of the House to ensure that the language that we use is respectful. We are not at war with each other, and the language we use should reflect politics as a battle of ideas, not insults.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central

Is my hon. Friend as disappointed as I am about the failure of some Members of Parliament to call out Islamophobia?

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Party Chair, Labour Party, Chair of Labour Policy Review, Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I have been very disappointed by that, as I would have been about any case of prejudiced or racist language that does not consider what a Member or politician has said or done but instead suggests that their appearance, faith, ethnicity or gender is what should be focused on. We surely need to move beyond that as Members of this House.

We also need to move beyond that in the online world, about which we have heard a number of powerful speeches. We need a more powerful regime than that in the Online Safety Act 2023. My hon. Friend Alex Davies-Jones set out powerfully why change is needed there and how it can be achieved. I think that everyone in the Chamber was disgusted to hear the misogynistic abuse that has been directed towards one of the most formidable campaigners in the House, my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris. Wendy Morton also set out clearly the need to prevent abuse from becoming the norm in online political debate and discussion.

Of course, in ensuring that the language we use does not prevent women’s participation in our politics, we also need to ensure, as we look towards International Women’s Day next week, that our politics delivers on the representation of women more broadly, and on the issues of concern to women. It is possible to achieve parity between men and women on these green Benches; it is possible to have a gender-balanced parliamentary party and a gender-balanced shadow Cabinet and Front-Bench team. My party has achieved that, and I hope that other parties will seek to achieve it in future, because, sadly, we are far from that. [Interruption.] Mark Jenkinson mentions leadership from a sedentary position, quite rightly. I believe that leadership was mentioned earlier in the debate, but he was not there for it. The debate has shown that women’s leadership is alive and kicking on all sides of the House, and I am very pleased to see that, but we need more action. That is why we believe that we should enact section 106 of the Equality Act 2010—so that all political parties publish data on the diversity of their candidates, including how many women they have standing for office.

Perhaps because the motion before us today focuses particularly on the issue of language, there has been less reference to incredible women in our society, but we did have a focus on some of them. We heard from the right hon. Member for Basingstoke about those involved in medicine, particularly gynaecology, and from Caroline Nokes about the absolute legend who is Mary Earps, who has inspired so many girls and women in sport. Those advances should not be forgotten, but neither should the need for more action to deliver greater women’s equality in society. Unfortunately, we are moving backwards in some areas—we have heard about a number of them this afternoon. Reference has been made to the gender pay gap; at the current rate, it will take 41 years to completely close that gap. I do not know how many Members in the Chamber today expect to still be in the House in 2064. I hope everyone has a long and healthy career ahead, but that is surely too long for women to wait to get the equal pay we desperately need.

Of course, we have also discussed the appalling epidemic of violence against women and girls in our country. This debate follows the discussion about part 1 of the Angiolini review of the truly appalling events leading up to the murder of Sarah Everard. As she has done eight times previously, my hon. Friend Jess Phillips, read out the names of the many women who have been murdered, and of course spoke about unnamed women as well. We heard some appalling examples from my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi, who spoke about her constituents. There is surely a very clear need for action when we see, for example, that only 1.5% of recorded rapes lead to a charge, and that rates of prosecution for domestic violence are falling, and also the kind of press treatment of victims that my hon. Friend Dawn Butler set out so clearly.

We also see the desperate need for action on women’s health—we have not had time to discuss that issue today —and action for women in the workplace. We need to deliver that change. There is a need for legislative alterations, and as we have heard today, there is a need for a change in the tenor of debate, so that we are always promoting women in our politics and they are never put off it because of divisive language.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Women) 3:07, 29 February 2024

I start by thanking my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller for securing this important debate, and all hon. Members for their contributions. The use of language, particularly in politics, is such an important topic. Members have shared very personal experiences, including Alex Davies-Jones, my right hon. Friend Wendy Morton, Ruth Jones, and Carolyn Harris, who has been criticised for her hair colouring. My criticism is that my hair looks like it was borrowed from my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant, so I share her frustration at that abuse.

Why does this abuse matter? My right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes put it very eloquently: it stops women from speaking freely, not just women in this place but women in our communities. At the moment, we have very toxic debates around issues such as biological sex, with people losing their jobs and facing prosecution just for wanting to have an honest debate. I am pleased that Members on all sides of the House have said this afternoon that it is important to have a sophisticated level of debate on very sensitive issues, but also about the general level of abuse that women face up and down this country. As Wera Hobhouse said, what is classed as banter by some people is very much abuse for others.

Dawn Butler always campaigns very hard on the issue of how abuse of women is reported in the media. We have met to discuss this, and I am frustrated that progress has been slow. I can assure her that I have met ministerial colleagues, but also the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, and I will follow up after this debate. It is really important that when women are murdered in our communities, it is not reported as a crime of passion. It has to be reported as it is: it is murder and abuse. That language makes a difference to how those crimes are then treated.

It is true—this was the focus of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke set out—that the situation has an effect on our democratic accountability and who stands for election. We want more women, and more women from the real world, standing for election. However, the Fawcett Society found that 93% of women MPs said that online abuse or harassment has had a negative effect on how they act as Members of Parliament. It stops talented women coming forward for all parties, and we are losing good hon. Members. My hon. Friend Tracey Crouch is one example of a woman leaving this place. We heard earlier in this parliamentary term from Rosie Cooper that the reason she stood down early was the abuse and threats she received. We have lost good Members such as her, which is very sad for Parliament.

We are potentially in an election year, so it is as important as ever that our language is measured—in this place, and in our political parties. Every single political party can play a role, and nobody standing for election should suffer intimidation for holding or aspiring to hold elective office. We have introduced measures to try to make the experience fairer. Since 2022, anyone who intimidates a candidate, campaigner or elected representative can be barred from elective office for five years. It is great that we are passing legislation like that in this place, but it needs to be enforced, because abuse is too often seen as something that just goes with the job. No one—not my hon. Friend Mike Freer, nor my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood—should have their office burned or people protesting outside their home simply for representing their constituents.

The debate reflects the wider debate in society about violence against women and girls. Sadly, Jess Phillips, had to read out her list again this year, and one of the women she mentioned was my constituent Chloe Bashford, who was murdered in horrific circumstances in Newhaven. Florence Eshalomi commented on two tragic deaths in her constituency of women who were also on that list. We have made significant progress, having published the tackling violence against women and girls strategy and the tackling domestic abuse plan, but that is not going fast enough. We all have a role to play, not just the Government; it is the role of all agencies, from the police to the courts, to absolutely make sure that femicide is taken seriously and dealt with when people come forward to give evidence and share their stories.

Our Domestic Abuse Act became law in 2021. That legislation is making a difference. Abusers are no longer allowed to directly cross-examine their victims in the family and civil courts, and victims have better access to special measures in courtrooms. However, conviction rates are still too low. We also supported the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Act 2023, and the hon. Member for Bath brought in the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023, which addresses harassment in the workplace. That is for everyone, but we know that women are affected by that in more ways than most.

The final piece I want to address is the role of the media, given the upcoming election. It is really important that debates and votes in this place are reflected fairly. One example is the sewage vote, which was an attempt to end the use of sewage outflows in this country. We Conservative Members voted to dismantle our sewage system and have a long-term plan to end sewage discharges, but that was often portrayed in the media as voting against stopping any restrictions on sewage, which has resulted in multiple death threats and abuse for Conservative Members. When journalists ask why MPs are abused so much, I would say that journalists’ language, and the way that they portray what happens in this place, is as important.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

I will not get the Minister to say this, but I will say it for her. Can we also look at those who write Commons sketches? I am particularly thinking of Quentin Letts, who is a bit prone to going after people like me for being too pony club posh, and my hon. Friend Dame Caroline Dinenage for having pink nail varnish. The list is endless, and it is never about what we say, but about what we look like.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Women)

Absolutely. We need to remind each other that we all have a role to play—not just MPs but wider society. The fundamental issue is that if female MPs are being targeted and harassed, that will be reflected for women up and down this country; if it is seen as okay to target elected representatives for what they look like or what they say or how they vote, that will be reflected in wider society. There is a democratic system in this country: if people are not happy with who represents them, they go to the ballot box and they decide. What is not acceptable is for Members of Parliament, local councillors, police and crime commissioners, Members of the Senedd, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and others, even down to school governors, who are taking difficult decisions, which would have been taken long before if they were easy, to be intimidated in how they vote. If that is tolerated, violence against women and girls will be tolerated, perpetuated and accepted too.

I thank everyone for such a positive debate. We have got to speak up, we have got to stand up and we have got to take part and not let the haters win.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 3:15, 29 February 2024

First, I should point out that I think every debate should end with two Marias.

I thank all Members who have spoken for their contributions today. Words matter, and the words we use matter even more because they are often repeated by people outside. That point has been clearly made by a number of Members today and I thank them for doing so. I thank everybody for their contributions and remind everybody that next Friday is International Women’s Day. It is an opportunity to remember all the women in our lives, and I will be remembering my daughter, Georgia, who is the most formidable daughter anyone could ever have.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House
has considered the use of language in politics in light of International Women’s Day;
agrees that the respectful use of language is an important feature of a strong and inclusive democracy;
and calls on all parliamentary candidates to pledge that respectful language will be used at all times in the upcoming General Election campaigning period.