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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:58 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Conservative 3:58 pm, 10th March 2020

My Lords, it is a pleasure to welcome my noble friend Lady Berridge to the women’s brief in government. I thank her for her introduction to this debate and we wish her well. I am also delighted that she is joined for this debate by my noble friend Lady Sugg, who was marching with me and a good number of Conservatives—and thousands of others, obviously—on Sunday, in the rain, in solidarity with women and girls across the globe, especially those impacted by climate change. I also congratulate my male colleagues who are speaking today: my noble friend Lord Bates, a long-standing champion of women across the globe; my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury, who raised the issue of primogeniture, which may not endear him to all our hereditary colleagues; and my noble friend Lord Ranger, who has supported women in the Conservative Party and elsewhere for many years, including his talented daughter, a local councillor and parliamentary candidate.

Like many other women Peers introduced into the House in the flood of Cameron and Clegg appointments in 2010-11, I made my maiden speech in the International Women’s Day debate that year, and I do not think I have missed a year since. It is always an opportunity to look back at highlights and improvements over the previous year—it is often, but not always, two steps forward and one step back. Two years ago, I was able to say that we had a female monarch, Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Leaders of both Houses of Parliament, Scottish First Minister, head of the fire service and head of the Metropolitan Police. As I said then:

“Despite all these great achievements, it feels very fragile, as though it could disappear in a minute.”—[Official Report, 8/3/2018; col. 1267.]

Thankfully most, but not all, of the women in these senior positions are still in place, but the achievements still feel fragile.

For me, International Women’s Day is also an opportunity to count my blessings—to thank my lucky stars that I was born with the golden lottery ticket of living in this free and democratic country, with opportunities and a level of equality that women in developing countries can only dream about. I really welcome the Government’s emphasis on education for girls in developing countries, which not only changes their lives and their communities, but also enriches their countries. I am sure we will hear more about this from the Minister. I too congratulate her on her recent appointment as Special Envoy for Girls’ Education.

As this has been yet another election year, noble Lords will not be surprised that I focus my remarks today to reflect and update the House on where we are with women MPs. When Theresa May and I founded Women2Win in 2005, nearly 15 years ago, she was one of only 17 Conservative women MPs. When she was elected in the Blair landslide of 1997, there were just 13 Conservative women MPs, with 101 women on the Government Benches. That was 9% of the Conservative parliamentary party—or, to put it another way, the Conservative parliamentary party was 91% male. Can we imagine for a moment how that looked? Roll forward two more elections, in 2001 and 2005, and what progress had been made on our side? None. I felt ashamed, embarrassed and annoyed that my party did not seem to think it mattered. We seemed no longer to be the party of women voters, and we certainly were not the party of women MPs. Thankfully, after two strides forward, in 2015 and then again last December, things have improved and we Conservatives are now up to 87 women MPs. The additional 37 are very welcome, especially by the women MPs who until the election were very thinly stretched, resulting, for example, in male Ministers answering debates about the menopause.

Between the 2015 and 2019 elections, there was an increase of 81% in the number of Conservative women MPs. If we can keep that pace up over the next three elections, the job will be done and I can retire and close down Women2Win, which will no longer be needed. Across the House of Commons, numbers are at a record high, with 220 female MPs elected in December, reaching a total of 34%—the highest percentage in either Chamber to date—and moving us up the international rankings. The 50:50 Parliament campaign has played a part, with its #AskHerToStand campaign, as have other stakeholders. However, as we recognise this modest but welcome increase in numbers, we also need to recognise that there is still much to do to normalise women’s participation in political life.

I was delighted to host a new event in the Westminster calendar yesterday, launching the first “Women in Westminster: The 100”, which celebrates the achievements of and valuable role played by women in public life by recognising 100 high-profile women from the world of Westminster. That focuses not just on MPs and Peers, but on inspirational and talented women from across politics and public service, such as Permanent Secretaries, political journalists, campaigners and activists. In choosing the list, all of us judges were struck by the number of women rising up the ranks across Westminster and in related professions. I hope this list will inspire the next generation of women to begin their journeys, and that we will see many of them featured on that list of 100 in years to come.