Bow Match Women’s Strike

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 8th October 2013.

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Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 11:00 am, 8th October 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and to welcome the colleagues who are here to support the debate. I am delighted at the opportunity to talk about and commemorate the strike and consequent achievements of the match women of the Bow Bryant & May factory in July 1888, 125 years ago. I grew up with their story, living, as I did, in a working-class home within walking distance of the factory in east London.

In my research in preparation for the debate, and in thinking about why we should mark that defining event in the history of the women’s and trade union movements, I was interested to note a recent publication by Kate Adie, the former BBC chief news correspondent, “Fighting on the Home Front”. It is a challenge to what has been conventional and acceptable in the recording of women’s roles in wartime, and it represents Ms Adie’s determination that women should not be written out of the history of the first world war. She records that the munitions industry depended on nearly 1 million women workers, and that others toiled as welders, locomotive engine cleaners, policewomen and taxi drivers, and in many other roles traditionally reserved for men. Those women and the jobs they did were visible then, but they are invisible now. Their stories have faded from the chronicles and histories of that most terrible of wars, the centenary of the start of which will be marked next year. My purpose in seeking today’s debate is to help to ensure that the role of the match women will not be similarly overlooked when we recount the history of the fight for women’s rights, the struggle to establish trade unions, and the story of the communities in east London.

I want first to deal with a matter of language. Much of the telling of events at Bryant & May’s factory has referred to match “girls” and has presented a sentimentalised vision of young, helpless souls, dependent on the protection of others—who are, of course, older, wiser and “better” men, as, in the main, are the historians who tell their stories. So today let us tell it as it was. Those workers were women with a fight on their hands to determine their own fate. Yes, some were young; all were working-class; many were, like my family, of Irish extraction; but they were women, not girls, and that is how we should see them and talk about them.

Secondly, I want to talk about leadership. Many versions of the match women’s story attribute leadership of the strike to Annie Besant, whose name is inextricably linked to it. Indeed, the memorial plaque on the former Bryant & May factory—now converted to housing known as the Bow quarter—confidently

“commemorates the role of social pioneer and feminist Annie Besant in leading the demands for better pay and conditions”.

Annie Besant was a controversial character and a writer, journalist and social activist in a variety of causes including women’s rights and secularism. It is true that her journalism and political activity played a pivotal role in the tale of the match women and the events that they precipitated. However, to present her role as one of leadership of the strike is to fall into the trap of seeing history solely from the perspective of the middle-class storyteller, and it frankly does not reflect the reality of the events as they unfolded. The women went against the advice of Annie Besant, who felt that they should not strike.

I am most grateful to Louise Raw, whose outstanding work first published in 2009 documents in fine detail the strike and the events leading up to it. In “Striking a Light: the Bryant & May Matchwomen and their Place in History”, she meticulously describes the life and times of the women who worked at the match factory, and the events that led 1,400 women to walk out on strike in July 1888 and stay on strike for more than two weeks, until their demands were met. Ms Raw shows not only that Annie Besant was not the strike leader, but that she favoured a boycott by match purchasers rather than direct action. It was the women themselves who were in charge and who determined that a strike was necessary. Ms Raw’s work demonstrates clearly that the women were the leaders of the strike, and her research in the Bryant & May archive suggests that the names of the strike leaders were Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Eliza Martin.

At the time of the strike, Bryant & May was a household name. It had become the largest British employer of match workers. The factory was the largest employer of female casual labour in the east end. Bryant & May had established a powerful monopoly, taking over rival factories, so that by 1888 it could pay its workers less than it had 12 years earlier. It claimed to be paying 10 to 12 shillings a week to “steady” workers in 1876, but in 1888 the strike register showed women earning just 2 shillings a week, or about £12 in today’s money.

Before considering the strike itself I will remind the House of the inhumane and dangerous working conditions prevalent at the time, which were experienced in extreme form by the women working for Bryant & May. The women worked with white phosphorus, which was known to be extremely toxic and the cause of phosphorus necrosis or “phossy jaw”. It caused the development of abscesses filled with stinking pus in the lower jaw, gums and cheeks with affected tissue fluorescing with a whitish-green glow. White phosphorus was banned in Finland in 1872 and in Denmark in 1874. It was still in use in Britain until it was banned following the Berne convention of 1906, despite the existence of a safer alternative—red phosphorus.

One of the key but relatively small demands of the match women, which the management would not sanction, was that they should not be required to eat their food in the factory, in rooms made toxic by the white phosphorus fumes. However, the injury caused to health through the dangerous conditions of the factory was compounded by the insult of the management’s behaviour towards the workers. Low pay, very long hours, dangerous machinery, arbitrary fines and even physical abuse were commonplace. Hearing the grim news of the conditions, Annie Besant investigated and published a story about them in her weekly newspaper The Link, headlined “White Slavery in London”, prompting Bryant & May to threaten her with libel. The company instigated a witch hunt among the work force and tried to pressure workers to reveal who had spoken to Besant. It bullied them, depriving them of work and wages. It was the sacking of one of the workers who the company believed had spoken to Annie Besant that provoked the women and led to a mass walkout, with 1,400 women on strike.

Bryant & May had not expected that. It immediately offered to reinstate the women it had fired, but it was too late. By the morning of 3 July, the workers had formed a picket line, which continued for two weeks, along with mass meetings, marches in the east end, a lobby of Parliament, pressure from shareholders and much coverage in the local and national press. Bryant & May was finally under pressure.

Let us remember that the decision to strike would not have been taken lightly, as a strike must have been extraordinarily difficult to sustain. The women and their families would have experienced considerable hardship. Without their pittance wages or any savings on which to fall back for rent and food, they would have been destitute. Contemporary observers record that exceptionally high levels of mutual support among the women kept the strike going.

The company was forced to settle the dispute. Arbitrary fines were abolished, a grievance process was established for working disputes and a separate room was made available where the women could eat their meals away from phosphorus fumes. TheStar newspaper reported:

“The victory of the girls…is complete. It was won without preparation—without organisation—without funds. It is a turning point in the history of our industrial development”,

and truly it was. Crucially, the women were allowed to form a trade union so that future disputes, if any, might be laid officially in front of the firm: the Union of Women Match Workers, the largest union of women and girls in the country, with Annie Besant as secretary.

Unarguably, those match women did something amazing: they brought to account a great power of industry, established greater control over their working lives and made a huge contribution to the development of the organised labour movement and the Labour party. Yet their proper place in the beginning of the labour movement seems to have been ceded to the great dock strike of 1889, which took place just down the road. Why is that? Is it because they were girls, women, majority Irish, unskilled or working- class?

It was not always thus. At the time of the great dock strike, its leader, John Burns, urged a mass meeting of tens of thousands of strikers to

“stand shoulder to shoulder. Remember the match women who won their fight and formed a union”.

The women’s victory was a touchstone—a landmark in the history of the labour movement—and it should be recognised as such in our conversations, our considerations and our curriculum. We should give thought to the relevance of the match women’s achievements to industrial relations and community organisation today.

Let us take a little time to reflect on the role of women in the modern trade union movement in this country. The Government’s labour force survey tells us that in 2012, 6.5 million workers were trade union members, up by 59,000 from 2011, and that 55% of trade union members are women, forming a clear majority of the country’s trade union membership. Women employees are more likely to be in a union—29% of women, compared with 23% of men, a trend seen in each of the last 11 years of the survey.

Women are as pivotal to the modern trade union movement as they were in the fight for rights in the 1880s. The year 2013 marks the first time that two women have led the TUC at the same time: Frances O’Grady as general secretary and Lesley Mercer as president. I commend them, as I commend the TUC for its role in co-ordinating the trade unions and promoting the work that they do collectively to protect the interests of workers and the communities in which they live.

There are modern parallels to the match women’s organisation and mutual support against oppressive behaviour by employers. In the contract cleaning sector, porters, cleaners and domestic staff went on strike in 2012 at Swindon’s Great Western hospital over allegations of bullying and harassment by their employer, Carillion, followed by allegations that non-white employees had been asked by their white managers to hand over gifts, including jewellery, in order to get time off work. Strike action, supported by the GMB, was successful in exposing such practices and ensuring that Carillion, a massive outsourcing company, took its workers’ concerns seriously. The spirit of the match women was alive and well on the Swindon picket lines as the workers cooked and brought food for each other, showing mutual support and solidarity in the face of alleged dubious employment practices.

For me, the story involves deep personal memories. My late mother was a working-class woman from a very poor family in east London, within walking distance of the Bryant & May factory in Bow. Her education was disrupted by the second world war, and she left school at 14. When I was seven, she went to work stacking sugar at the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery at Silvertown. She joined the union in her first days there as a matter of course; it was what workers did to protect themselves and each other. There was never any doubt about it. She was the daughter of a man who had had to stand on cobblestones begging for work day after day, week after week and month after month. She understood what trade unions did to protect workers.

Later in her working life, my mother became a shop steward and fought hard for the rights of her sisters and fellow workers. I am told that she is remembered by Tate’s management for her audacity and strength of purpose. It was she who told me of the inspiration of the Bow match women. She used their story in her own way to make the point that leadership in working communities comes from within, which is as true now as it was then.

I hope that I have helped in some small way to preserve the place that those women’s story should have in our collective history. I pay tribute to the bravery of the women who fought so bravely and so well 125 years ago. We owe them so much.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Equalities) 11:17 am, 8th October 2013

I congratulate my hon. Friend Lyn Brown on her excellent and moving speech. I am feeling emotional after her final words. This is an important debate on the history of women in the trade union movement and politics more generally. My hon. Friend’s case for greater recognition of such trailblazers by the Government was extremely well argued.

The story of the match girls and women played a formative part in the development of my political beliefs and eventual political engagement, both as a trade unionist and later as a politician. At school, during my history O-level, I remember learning about the terrible conditions endured by the young women of the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, some of whom were a lot younger than I was at the time. Those conditions involved 14-hour days and harsh fines for missed work days, and there were the terrible health implications of working with white phosphorus, which led to phossy jaw and blindness, as we heard from my hon. Friend.

While learning about those extraordinary women and girls and relating their struggle to my own experience as a working-class girl living and working in north-east England, I began to understand and appreciate the necessity for collective action and a strong trade union movement. I felt that it was a case of “There but for the grace of God go I”, and I appreciated what they and others had achieved for people like me. I was poor, but I could still get a good education and a good job with safe working conditions. My first job was in the office at a Tyneside glass factory, so the comparison is not so far-fetched.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should recognise the significant help of Fabian socialists such as Annie Besant. Ultimately, however, as my hon. Friend said, that event in our labour history was one of ordinary working class women collectively organising and acting to change their pay and working conditions. History is written by the victors, so working class women have been written out of it regularly, but this was a momentous victory, although it is still not featured as a significant moment in our industrial and political history. The match women and girls simply do not receive the recognition that they deserve.

The late 19th century was a period of fervent political action by workers: there was the rebirth of the trade union movement that we know today, following the actions of the Tolpuddle martyrs; the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement; and the formation of the British Labour party. Yet the match women of the east end of London are regularly overlooked in the history of the period, and their significance is ignored. Trade unions were not decriminalised in Britain until 1871, after decades of repression by the political and industrial elites, but it was the match women and their collective action in Bow that encouraged other workers in the east end and the wider country to collectivise and to create trade unions.

Working class women standing up to powerful factory owners during a period when women were largely excluded from public life, and reigniting an appetite for collective action and trade unionism, is such a significant and extraordinary feat that we should certainly recognise it. Henry Snell, a supporter of the match girls and former MP for Woolwich, said:

“The number affected was quite small, but the matchgirls’ strike had an influence upon the minds of the workers which entitles it to be regarded as one of the most important events in the history of labour organisation in any country”.

It certainly had a huge influence on me, and is definitely one of the reasons why I am standing here today. As we all know, it is important to understand and recognise our history so that it does not repeat itself, and the story of the match girls is a part of that tradition. It is a story that reverberates with us today, both here and abroad.

We hear regular jokes and stories, some emanating from Government, about health and safety regulations “gone mad”, or the need to cut the “red tape” put in place to improve and protect the working conditions of British workers, but that prompts the question: where would we be without that much-maligned red tape, the vast majority of which has been so hard fought for over the past 100 years? The answer can be seen in developing countries such as Bangladesh, where, earlier this year, we saw thousands of women and men dragged, dead and injured, from the rubble of a collapsed factory used by well-known high street retailers. A report commissioned by the Bangladesh Government found that there had been more than 400 violations of work practices and safety standards. It is not too much of a stretch to say that, were it not for the trade union movement in this country, the health and safety of British workers would be similarly ignored.

Factory life in Britain during the industrial revolution was arduous and back-breaking, but for the men and women working in the coal mines of the north-east, the cotton mills of Yorkshire, or the matchstick factories of Bow, trade unions and collective action gave them a voice when previously they had been voiceless, and that voice won them better working conditions and a fairer share of the wealth that they were creating. Whether workers and trade unions in Britain who continue to fight to improve and maintain those conditions in this country, or those abroad who are struggling to improve conditions, everyone can glean inspiration from the match women and girls, who taught us about the positive impact that collective action, a little tenacity and a lot of bravery can have. I for one honour their memory, and thank them for being my inspiration. It is only right that the Government should also recognise their contribution, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 11:24 am, 8th October 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend Lyn Brown on securing the debate and on setting out with great passion the facts about the match women’s strike. She also set the record straight on a number of issues. Furthermore, I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson on her personal account of how important the match women’s strike was for the trade union movement, not only in this country, but because of its wider ramifications abroad.

Most of my time is spent grappling with present-day issues in my constituency, and focusing on the future for that area. Occasionally, however, we are reminded of how key moments in our history can shine a bright light on the present and on the future. Pausing to think about the past does not mean that we are living in it; it helps us to understand where we come from, as well as the road ahead.

How did I become interested in a strike that happened in east London 125 years ago, involving mostly women, many of whom were from the Irish immigrant community? Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, I am not a native of the east end of London. Originally, I am from the north-west, and I represent a constituency in east Yorkshire—all up north—but in 1985 I came to east London to study at Queen Mary and Westfield college in Mile End, at the other end of Bow road from the Bryant & May factory site. In addition, I served as a Poplar councillor, for Lansbury ward, its name another echo of the proud Labour history of the east end of London.

Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of reading historian Louise Raw’s book on the match women, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham has already mentioned. Louise spent 15 years studying the events of the 1880s and their historical significance. Her book, “Striking a Light”, sets the record straight on what really happened, what it led to and why the strike is so relevant today. I was also honoured to attend the first match women’s festival, on 6 July this year.

The match women’s strike has never been given the prominence that it deserves. Their self-organisation has been overlooked and their bravery has never been properly recognised, but if it had not been for them winning their strike in 1888, it is possible that many of us here today, especially the Labour women MPs, would not be Members of Parliament and speaking in the House of Commons.

In 1888, the match women had few rights at work and even weaker rights as citizens—the right to vote was still 30 years away for the first women, and parliamentary democracy as a means of improving the lot of working people was at a far less advanced stage. As women, the match women were frowned on for working at all, even though doing so was a matter of survival. I understand that there was even a sense of shame about working for Bryant & May, which is ironic and poignant, considering how proud of those workers many of us are today. The material poverty and exploitation experienced in everyday life by the match women was truly shocking. Bryant & May in the late 19th century was a prime example of what today would be called a flexible labour market, taken to its ultimate extreme. Today, I am sure that Bryant & May would be misusing zero-hours contracts to the hilt, and the concept of a living wage would be utterly alien to it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said, Fabian journalist Annie Besant, whom I like to describe as the Polly Toynbee of her day, supported a consumer boycott of Bryant & May, not a strike. As has been asked in this debate, how therefore can she be said to have led the strike? Annie Besant, however, did write in The Link on 23 June 1888 some of the most moving words about the match women—words that led to the strike, if only by accident:

“But who cares for the fate of these white wage slaves? Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because under-fed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on to the streets provided only that Bryant & May shareholders get their 23 per cent and Mr. Theodore Bryant can erect statutes and buy parks?”

The words written by one of the match women in response to management bullying, which my hon. Friend mentioned, received by Annie Besant on 4 July 1888, were similarly moving:

“Dear Lady they have been trying to get the poor girls to say that it is all lies that has been printed and trying to make us sign papers that it is all lies; dear Lady nobody knows what it is we have put up with and we will not sign them. We thank you very much for the kindness you have shown to us. My dear Lady we hope you will not get into any trouble on our behalf as what you have spoken is quite true.”

A number of Lib Dem MPs signed my recent early-day motion 337 about the match women. I wondered at the time whether any of them had studied their own party’s history, considering how badly the match women were treated in the years leading up to the 1888 strike at the hands of a company owned and run by prominent supporters of the Liberal party. Those Liberals imposed low and falling pay, dangerous working conditions, covered up the horrendous phossy jaw disease, and had a draconian system of fines. Their bullying led to the 1888 strike, after they tried to force workers to denounce Annie Besant’s article. Those were the employers who docked 1 shilling from the pay of the match women to fund the statue of Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone that still stands today in Bow road.

This episode is heavy with irony. The director running Bryant & May when the statue was commissioned by Theodore Bryant was one Wilberforce Bryant, who took over from his Quaker father. As a Hull MP, I am proud of Hull’s William Wilberforce and his anti-slavery campaign. The irony of this worst of employers carrying the name Wilberforce is not lost on me.

It is even more ironic that the poverty pay of the match women was docked to put up a statute in tribute to William Gladstone. After all, the Gladstones could easily have financed the statue from the £93,526 compensation that they received for losing their 2,039 slaves when slavery was abolished. Annie Besant’s famous “White slavery in London” article in The Link reported that the match women, given half a day’s unpaid holiday to attend the unveiling, threw blood on the statue, protesting, “We paid for it!” If people go down Bow road this morning, they will see that the hands of that statute are still red—a great tradition that has been kept up.

These events go some way to explaining the political climate in which the Labour party was created a little more than a decade later, and why the Liberal party could not and would not stand up for ordinary people, especially women. During the suffragette campaign of 100 years ago, the Liberal Government introduced the “cat and mouse” Act to force-feed suffragette political prisoners, including Emily Wilding Davison. I cannot help but notice that the Liberal Democrats still seem to have a problem with women. There are still no women Lib Dems in the coalition Cabinet, and there are more male Lib Dem MPs with knighthoods and similar titles than Lib Dem women MPs.

The victory of the match women inspired the growth of trade union recruitment among the lowest paid unskilled workers, many of them women, who had been ignored by trade union leaders throughout the 19th century. Until then, unions were largely only interested in organising skilled male workers, who were regarded as more respectable. At the recent match women’s festival, I was delighted that Frances O’Grady, the first woman general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, spoke—someone who represents a positive image of trade unions now, just as the match women did in 1888.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham mentioned, by inspiring the 1889 dock strike by male dock workers from the same east end households, streets and communities, the match women changed trade union history. Of course, this was acknowledged by dockers’ leaders at the time, such as John Burns, but then faded from history textbooks until Louise Raw’s recent research. This new unionism led to historic political developments, too, as growing working class alienation from the Liberal establishment set the scene for the creation of the Labour party in 1900. Anyone who understands

Labour’s origins is better equipped to answer the current slur about our being the welfare party, because we are the party of work.

Many men and women who have had such an influence on our history have great monuments to them. Winston Churchill stands outside the Palace of Westminster; Emmeline Pankhurst stands next to the House of Lords; and William Wilberforce looks down from a column 90 feet high in Hull. The match women are marked only by an inaccurate blue plaque outside the Bow Quarter in Fairfield road, at the Bryant & May site. Worse still, round the corner on Bow road stands that statue to the Liberal politician admired by their employer and paid for by docking the match women’s pay. Perhaps the Minister for blue plaques, who is here today, will consider what else he can do to ensure that there is an appropriate plaque and appropriate recognition of the role played by these women.

Anyone studying the achievements of the Labour party, such as our National Health Service, rightly thinks of Nye Bevan and Clement Attlee, but they should also remember those 1,400 brave match women in Bow, especially those at the forefront of organising that strike campaign: Alice Francis, Kate Slater, Mary Driscoll, Jane Wakeling and Eliza Martin. For the Labour party, this is where it all began: with the founding mothers of the party.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

To demonstrate gender balance, I call Nic Dakin.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons) 11:35 am, 8th October 2013

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Lyn Brown on setting out the case for these women workers so well and for placing it in context, then and now. My hon. Friend said that this was a story that she grew up with. My hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson reminded us that she was taught this story in O-level history lessons. I, too, first met this story doing O-level history in rural Leicestershire. A young woman teacher taught us for just one period a week about the social history of struggle and endeavour across the ages, and the one bit that I really remember is the match girls’ strike. It was taught as the match girls’ strike, and there was a romanticism to it. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham told us the story through the eyes of the people struggling at the time, thanks to the excellent work of Louise Raw, in “Striking a Light”, and others.

It is interesting that the way we view history changes over time. None the less, that story made an impact on me, as a 14-year-old, because it related to my experiences of visiting my aunties and my father, working in the densely populated boot and shoe factories in the village of Sileby, where they all worked and strived to earn the money to bring us all up—me and my cousins—in our family. The story of struggle and endeavour in the 1880s struck a chord in respect of the working conditions of the 1960s.

My hon. Friend Diana Johnson reminded us that often we hear pleas for flexible working, but that that can, at its worst, be as it was at Bryant & May in the 1880s. Currently, there are zero hour contracts and the minimum wage, for example. We have come a long way, but there is still further to go. Visiting factories—steelworks and distribution centres—in my constituency, I see a different working environment enjoyed by workers today, compared with workers of yesteryear.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour, Ilford South

I, too, have memories to do with the match girls issue, although I will not go into them.

I agree with my hon. Friend that working standards and health and safety in this country have improved, but we have outsourced our manufacturing, through globalisation, to people in Vietnam, Indonesia, China, India and Bangladesh, for example, which my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West mentioned. Women and men are working in appalling conditions, often in authoritarian countries that claim to be communist but actually do not allow free, independent trade unionism.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank my hon. Friend for his reminder that, as we make progress in the United Kingdom, some of these difficulties are exported to other parts of the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West reminded us about the recent tragic circumstances in the garment industry in Bangladesh, which had an immediate influence and an impact on the morale and feelings of people locally in my constituency, which has a large Bangladeshi population. We live in a global world and we need to show leadership and take action, as my hon. Friend has indicated, to get better living and working conditions for everybody.

It is worth looking at how the newspapers reported the case at the time; it is a reminder of how what is written in the press is sometimes not altogether accurate. In an interview with Bartholomew Bryant in The Star newspaper in July 1888, he was asked,

“What is the cause of the strike?”

He responded,

“Why, a girl was dismissed yesterday; it had nothing to do with Mrs Besant. She refused to follow the instructions of the foreman, and as she was irregular anyway, she was dismissed.”

He was then asked,

“Is it not very unusual that all the girls should strike because of one?”

He replied,

“Yes, but I've no doubt they have been influenced by the twaddle of one.”

The Times of June 1888 had a slightly different perspective:

“The pity is that the matchgirls have not been suffered to take their own course but have been egged on to strike by irresponsible advisers. No effort has been spared by those pests of the modern industrialized world to bring this quarrel to a head.”

Ms Raw’s work, “Striking a Light”, shows how wrong such judgments were, and we are reminded that the press does not always report things accurately. Sadly, that even relates to some of the things we read today.

It is important to recognise the role that the match women played in establishing better health and safety and trade union rights. They achieved so much in so little time, but left such a large legacy. I am sure the Minister will recognise that when he speaks today.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East 11:42 am, 8th October 2013

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend Lyn Brown on securing the debate and remembering the match girls’ strike. What the ladies went through and what the strike represented is still pertinent. The issues that affected people then are still relevant in today’s workplace; very many people still suffer bad terms and conditions and work in appalling conditions.

In July, the Daily Mirror had an excellent headline. It claimed that the repercussions of what happened 125 years ago changed workers’ rights across the world. The significance of those young women’s bravery and determination goes far beyond the shores of this country. Their actions echoed across the world, so it is right that they are being honoured and that we are paying tribute to them.

In July this year, the Government passed legislation to abolish a lot of health and safety laws, which was an appalling thing to do. We have already heard about the phosphorus and the health issues that arose, and we still have hazardous workplaces. Abolishing health and safety laws so that employers can have an easy ride is deplorable. The Government’s vilification of the trade unions continues. Again, that is deplorable. Government Members talk about trade unions as though they are ogres fighting for themselves and getting millions of pounds in salaries. I am proud of the Labour party’s historical link with the trade union movement. When I get letters from various trade unions on issues in Parliament, I am proud to represent their views.

For example, I had letters and e-mails about the suggested change in Sunday working hours. What is wrong with a trade union writing to tell us that that is not good, because Sunday is sometimes the only day that their members have a chance to rest and their families to spend time together? There is nothing sinister or murky in such an approach. We have had letters about pay and pensions and employment rights. There is nothing wrong in their writing to us about things that people still need. Pay inequality still massively exists and we still have health and safety issues. With the advent of zero-hours contracts—more and more are being used—workers have no rights whatever. If trade unions write to Labour or other Members of Parliament to ask for provisions to be changed, Members do not need to feel ashamed of raising the issues. There is nothing wrong with trade unions arguing for rights.

If the Government really believe that they govern on behalf of the whole country, they should fight for the trade union movement. Instead of repeatedly condemning, ridiculing and demonising it, they should recognise the fact that the trade union movement is a force for good. It represents millions of people: the people who wash our plates, clean the houses and the streets, and provide the food on our tables. They are the hard-working people who are members of trade unions and we should be proud to represent them. They should not be portrayed —as the Government do, aided by the right-wing media—as bogeymen and an evil influence in this country. They are not; they are a force for good. A democratic society needs them. The Labour party is proud of its historical links with the trade union movement. The party started from that movement, and we will continue to have that wonderful relationship.

I am very proud to mention in Parliament and elsewhere the issues that the trade unions write to me about. All they are asking for is better terms and conditions for their members, who are often paid the minimum wage and have to work long hours. The unions often represent the poorest and most disadvantaged people in our society. We should all be proud of representing them and proud to raise the work of the trade union movement. The Government’s continual removal of workers’ rights and health and safety legislation is doing a disservice. It shows that they are concerned with only one group of people in this country, which is not the poor ordinary working people.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour, Ilford South 11:48 am, 8th October 2013

May I begin with a personal reflection, which I find quite difficult? In 2007, my late daughter played the character Louie in “The Matchgirls” play that was put on by a community association. She had to have stitched to her head a piece of cloth to give the impression of an 11-year-old girl whose hair had fallen out because of the work that she was doing in the Bryant & May factory. I have always been struck by that image and the passion in the performance that was put on by those young people. That image has come back to me during this debate. I did not want to refer to it, but I feel I have to.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour, Ilford South

No, I want to carry on. Anyone who has an image of what that factory was like, whether from photographs or from their imagination from reading the stories, will know about the working conditions of women not just in the Bryant & May factories, but throughout the Victorian era during the industrial revolution. Anyone who reads Friedrich Engels’s work about the conditions of workers in Manchester—it was published not when it was written in 1844, but about 40 years later—will know about the conditions of millions of people in this country who built our great cities and our industrial revolution, which made us the workshop of the world, as was demonstrated in the great exhibition of 1851. Britain grew economically and prospered on the backs of those giants—the men and women who built the industrial revolution—but they did not benefit from it. Their work was casual, erratic and not permanent. They did not have pensions or benefit from health and safety legislation and there was no sick pay. They were on what are now called zero-hours contracts, but in most cases they had no contracts. They were dismissed at will, abused, exploited, sexually harassed and treated appallingly by some more senior workers and their employers.

If we are honest—this is topical—we face today a race to the bottom. The ideology of the Government, including the Liberal Democrats who are in up to their necks, is based on a view that we must compete globally by reducing working conditions in this country so that we can be more competitive with our European neighbours, and that Europe must reduce working and living standards to be competitive with the Asian economies that are rapidly industrialising and taking on manufacturing for the world.

Yesterday, I watched an interesting programme on television about the largest container vessel ever built. It is so large that things must be removed so that it is not too high in the water and can go under bridges. It cannot dock in many places. It comes from China fully laden and goes back three quarters empty because we are exporting only our waste products and some specialised equipment, and I am talking not just about Britain. The programme highlighted our massive trade deficit of billions of pounds every month. We import from countries where men, women and children are exploited. In China today and many of its cities the treatment of workers is comparable with the treatment that men and women in this country experienced in the 19th century.

When we talk about health and safety, and the protection of workers, it is important to take a global perspective. I am an internationalist and a socialist, and I believe in internationalist and universalist values. It is time that we left the parochial debate about the situation in this country and raised issues relating to the rights and duties of global companies that do not pay tax in this country and manufacture goods in other countries. They work cleverly so that certain large global corporations have far more power and influence than individual states, even the most powerful states.

I will not digress, but that is why we need international co-operation and a strong European Union that can defend the European social model, stand up against the global multinationals, and work within the International Labour Organisation, the World Trade Organisation and the treaties that we signed with Korea, the United States and other parts of the world for trade and international co-operation. That should be not a race to the bottom, which is the agenda of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, but a race to protect and raise the living standards of people in the countries that we trade with around the world. That is an argument not for protectionism, but for modern, effective regulation and globalisation. In this century, we cannot live on the basis of total deregulation and a race to the bottom. The values of the women in Bryant & May’s factory 125 years ago are exactly the same that we should argue for today to protect the women in factories in China and elsewhere who are working in conditions that are comparable with what those women were working in.

We have talked about trade unionism in Britain. Trade Unions do not organise enough people in this country. Millions of women work as cleaners and carers in low-paid, casual jobs. On the radio this morning, a lady said that if there is a traffic jam she cannot do her job when she visits the elderly people she cares for because she runs late with resulting pressure. That applies particularly in the care industry. We can do something about that in this country because contractualisation, privatisation, deregulation and zero-hours contracts are a race to the bottom. We must do better, and we must all recognise that that will involve a change in our attitude to the lowest paid people in our country.

We have a national minimum wage. It was a great achievement of the last Labour Government, but it is not high enough. It is impossible to live on the minimum wage in London. We need a London living wage and we need it to be enforced. Let people be prosecuted for failing to pay the minimum wage. Let the Daily Mail and the Daily Express show pictures of those who are guilty of not standing up for British values of fairness, justice and fair pay for men and women. That is what we need in this country today, not the poison that comes from our tabloid press.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 11:58 am, 8th October 2013

It is a great pleasure, Mr Dobbin, to serve under your chairmanship this morning. I congratulate my hon. Friend Lyn Brown, who gave us the opportunity to hold what has been an excellent debate. The contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), and the passionate and beautiful speech from my hon. Friend Mike Gapes were fantastic. They have shown why oral history matters and how looking back illuminates the past and the present.

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham began with a thorough exposition of the history, and was absolutely right to say that this was an extremely important episode in the history of women and the trade union movement in this country. It is easy to think that 125 years ago is a long time, but it is not so long ago. My father took some nice film of me when I was a little baby with my great grandmother, who was an exact contemporary of the women who worked in the Bryant & May factory. She was sent to work at the age of nine, and she worked in a Nottingham lace factory. It really is not so long ago that people were working in those horrendous conditions in this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South is right that the subject was written about very clearly by Engels, and in fact, the Nottingham lace factories are described very well in volume I of “Das Kapital”. I was absolutely delighted when I came across that, because I knew the truth from my family history. My tutor was also delighted that he had set a text that resonated so strongly with his student—the irony was that he was Andrew Glyn from the Glyn banking family.

What could the Government do to recognise the strike? We have heard that we could have a revision of the blue plaque in the east end, and perhaps the Minister will say something about that. Perhaps we could have something in the curriculum. Another cultural artefact that many of us would like to be covered in the curriculum and that recognises women’s contributions to the trade union movement is the excellent film, “Made in Dagenham”. All these feisty women come from the east end—it is absolutely clear that the heart of radical feminism is down in the east end.

In the north-east, as everybody knows, we have a big Durham miners’ gala, and this year, one of the primary schools in Spennymoor made a banner to go alongside the banners carried by the former miners. The banner referred to all the progress in the Factory Acts and in children’s legislation. Enabling children to understand those important episodes in British history really makes a significant difference. I hope that the Minister will say something about the conversations he will have with his colleagues in the Department for Education about the curriculum, because that would be another way in which the Government could recognise the match workers’ strike of 125 years ago.

A further thing that the Minister could do in recognition is take a different stance on the conditions of workers in the south. As several of my hon. Friends have mentioned, the horrific collapse of the garment factory in Dhaka, in Bangladesh, is not something about which we can say, “We are not connected. We are not responsible.” We are completely connected and bound up with what is going on in other parts of the world. As a matter of fact, one thing that the European Union has done is put conditions on Bangladesh that it has to meet if it is to maintain its duty-free access to our clothing markets. One of the conditions is that there should be better trade union recognition rights. The International Labour Organisation is currently working on that to raise standards in Bangladesh, so that is another thing that the Minister could take on. He may say, “Well, that is a matter for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; it is not my responsibility”, but let me bring him to his Department and to another area where labour conditions are on the agenda.

The World cup will be held in Qatar, and as the Minister knows, there is a huge scandal about the workers who will die in the construction of the football stadia there. It would be great if we could hear today what his Department will do about that. What representations has it made to FIFA on labour conditions in Qatar? This is another episode in which we can address the issue squarely. We can ask whether it is acceptable for the World cup to be in Qatar and, if it is to be there, what standards have to be maintained, or we can pretend that it has nothing to do with us. We can turn and walk away.

The Minister is not only the Minister for blue plaques, but the Minister for mobile phones. I do not know whether he has seen the documentary, “Blood in the Mobile”, but we all have these little mobile phones. We all tweet, text and have them in our hands all the time, but many minerals that are used in mobile phones come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mining of those minerals is fuelling the conflict in the Congo, and, of course, the labour conditions are terrible. What transparency is the Minister demanding from mobile phone companies? What will he do to raise standards in the new technology sector? Of course, it is great that we have new technology—

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

Order. I understand that this has been a wide-ranging debate, but it may well be ranging rather too far from the Minister’s brief for him to be able to give the answers today. I would be grateful if you could get slightly further back towards the topic.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I was trying to give examples of the sorts of things that the Minister could do to demonstrate to us that he has truly taken on board the lessons and understood the importance of the strike in Bow. I was looking for things that were in the bailiwick of his Department, and indeed, in his bailiwick.

I went to see the people who made that documentary last week, and while I was there, I saw the ship to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South referred. He is absolutely right: instead of addressing the issues, Ministers are engaging in a race to the bottom. That is why the struggles of the women whom we are talking about—for free trade unions, for better health and safety, for better maternity rights, and all those things—are absolutely relevant, because in this country today, it is women’s unemployment that has gone up the most. We now have 1 million women unemployed in this country. We have a massive gender pay gap. In the private sector, the gap between men’s and women’s pay is 14%, and in the public sector it is 25%. However, if there is one thing I would like the Minister to do to recognise this strike—one thing that I think would make a massive difference and bring us bang up to date—it would be to ensure that the Government do not go ahead with the 70% cut to funding for the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Without the proper resources, we cannot enable women to defend their rights at work as they should be able to.

I would like to end as I began: by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham. This has been an excellent, quite extraordinary, debate. I am grateful to her for bringing the issue to the attention of the House, and I am pleased that I have personally been able to contribute. The lessons of the strike are extremely important, and I salute the women of Bow.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 12:07 pm, 8th October 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I was preparing to stand up and thank Mr Dobbin for chairing the debate excellently, but I noticed that a change had taken place while I was in thrall to the speech by the shadow Minister, Helen Goodman. It was a seamless transfer, but I thank you and Mr Dobbin for your excellent co-chairmanship of this passionate and important debate.

I thank Lyn Brown for securing the debate and for expounding on the match girls’ strike in such detail. I also pay tribute to the excellent speeches that we heard from the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Ilford South (Mike Gapes)—I noted the mention of his late daughter, Rebecca, and I found his speech to be particularly moving in that regard—and, of course, from the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, who expounded in her usual, passionate fashion.

It is also important to note, Mrs Main—I am not sure whether you were in the room—the brief presence of the new shadow Education Secretary, who entered the Chamber, stood, and gazed around him—it seemed to be a laying-on of hands on this debate by him. I would like to take this moment to congratulate him on his appointment and to note the perspicacious tweet that was put out yesterday, saying that when the Labour party

“is ready to be led by a man called Tristram”

, it is ready for government.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I thank the Minister, certainly for the beginning of his speech, which, as always, is entertaining. No one was more delighted than I was when I saw that the new shadow Secretary of State for Education had been elevated to such a position, but then I realised that he would no longer be able to speak in this morning’s debate, in which he had promised me a good 20 minutes. It was for that reason, I believe, that he popped in—to ensure that I was not without friends.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I very much hope that the shadow Education Secretary will publish the speech that he was due to make. There is no reason, in my view, why he could not have spoken in the debate, but that would be a matter for the parliamentary authorities. I remember speaking with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he was Leader of the Opposition and chose to lead a Westminster Hall debate. I hope, therefore, that we will have an opportunity to read the hon. Gentleman’s words of wisdom, because he is a most excellent historian, as of course is Louise Raw, who I think may be in the Chamber watching this debate and to whose excellent book there has been much reference.

Of course, the match girls’ strike was a seminal moment in trade union history and the history of industrial disputes. It was a cause célèbre at the time. It was supported by celebrities on the left. The strike fund was donated to by the Fabian Society and by luminaries such as George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and Graham Wallas. It was also supported by the Richard Dawkins of his day, Charles Bradlaugh, the overtly atheist Member of Parliament, who fought so hard for his atheist beliefs—if I can put it that way—that he was imprisoned in the cell in the Houses of Parliament when he tried, time and again, to affirm rather than to take the oath. Of course, he was an avowed trade unionist and an avowed anti-socialist, but I do not think that those two beliefs are necessarily connected. It is interesting that in the same year in which he supported the match girls’ strike, he achieved his own victory by securing the passing of the Oaths Act 1888, which allows some Members of Parliament to affirm the oath if they so choose.

The hon. Member for Ilford South referred to the performance of “The Match Girls”. Of course, the match girls’ strike was commemorated in a musical produced by Bill Owen and Tony Russell in 1966. I am sad to hear that it has not been put on since. I hope that all hon. Members will unite in sending a message to the musical theatre community that “The Match Girls” perhaps could be performed again. Perhaps there could be one gala performance to raise money for our hard-pressed trade unions, which we have heard about, this year to coincide with the 125th anniversary.

A number of points were raised about what I should do as a Minister. I have really come to this debate wearing my heritage hat rather than my health and safety hat, my equal pay hat or any of the many other hats that I might wear at a particular moment, so let me just deal with the heritage aspect. Certainly if there is the problem of an inaccurate blue plaque commemorating the match girls’ strike, that should be remedied as swiftly as possible. I am very happy to contact English Heritage if indeed it is one of its plaques. I am not sure that it is, but I am certainly happy to discuss with English Heritage in what ways the strike could be commemorated. Of course, English Heritage runs the blue plaque scheme independently of Government—it would be wrong of politicians to dictate which of their particular heroes should be commemorated in a blue plaque—but certainly this is a matter that I could bring to its attention.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland talked about ensuring that the match girls’ strike is properly portrayed in the school curriculum. As she knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is trying to simplify the curriculum, but he is trying to do so to give teachers more freedom to teach in the ways they see fit. Certainly, teaching about the match girls’ strike in schools is not banned. Any school and, in particular, local schools—schools in the area in which the strike took place—should feel free to educate their pupils on this important event.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to the Minister for being so generous with his time. I am not one to malign the Secretary of State for Education, but during one discourse he was holding forth about the nature of history and I believe that he may have inadvertently got a reference to the match women’s strike wrong himself by mentioning Annie Besant as the leader of the strike. The Minister, when he is having lunch with the right hon. Gentleman at some point, might want to point that out to him to rectify any future possible transgressions.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I hope that the hon. Lady will supply me with the appropriate quote so that I can make that point to my right hon. Friend. He is obviously extremely busy, because he is trying to put forward very important reforms to our education system to help, funnily enough, the very poorest in our society, which is his passion. The fact that too many children are written off at a very young age and told that they cannot achieve is what he wants to change. It may not be possible for me to have a meeting with him, but certainly I might write to him and perhaps the official history of the match girls’ strike, written by Louise Raw, could be made available to him. He is an assiduous reader. Even in a digital age, if someone stops my right hon. Friend in the street—as I am sure you know, Mrs Main—they will find at least 10 and possibly 20 books in his satchel. He is also a keen historian, although perhaps not in the same league as his new shadow.

Let me talk more generally about some of the issues to do with heritage, because this is a timely debate in terms of what the Government want to do to recognise heritage. I have been given a list of some of the small grants that have been made to relevant projects by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Interestingly, we increased the share of the national lottery money going to the Heritage Lottery Fund from 16% to 20%, so there is now substantially more funding available for these schemes. Last year, almost £10,000 was given to Maximal Learning for a seven-month project to explore the history of the Bryant & May building in Bow, east London. That project, as I say, will explore the history of the building. We have also got a huge sum of money—up to £28 million—for projects to commemorate the first world war. We have recently given some money to the Charles Dickens museum, the author’s former Bloomsbury home, as well.

Most importantly of all, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced earlier this month the creation of an anniversaries fund. That is a fund of £10 million, to which people who wish to commemorate a significant anniversary can apply. That is something that is very close to my heart and that I have long wanted to see come about. Obviously, I was thinking about some of the big anniversaries that are coming up, such as the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, but there is a general point that is relevant to this commemoration in Parliament of the match girls’ strike, which is that, as part of our society and as part of community cohesion, it is important that as many people as possible know our history and know the significance of great events. That includes Magna Carta. It includes the match girls’ strike. These are events that have shaped our history and continue to have a resonance.

Perhaps it is too late for a group to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding to commemorate the match girls’ strike, but it may be possible to find a suitable anniversary further down the line to which that would apply. Obviously, the anniversaries fund should certainly not exclude anything that commemorates the important industrial and labour history of our nation.

Let me move on to the subject of health and safety. There were impassioned speeches from Opposition Members about the importance of maintaining heath and safety legislation. Again, this subject is close to my heart. I was struck when I went round the Olympic village before the opening of the Olympics and was told that it was the first such stadium to be built without a single fatality. I certainly do not and nor, I hasten to add, do any of my fellow Ministers come from the school that sees health and safety as a burden and that does not understand the importance of health and safety in keeping people safe. However, it is important that we review regulations and that we strike a balance between the need to protect people at work and the need not to burden business unduly.

We have conducted some key reviews. Professor Löfstedt carried out an independent review, and of course Lord Young of Graffham carried out his own review. They found that there was an over-implementation of health and safety regulation, driven by a fear of the civil law—a fear of lawyers, who can see an opportunity presenting itself. There was an opportunity to simplify health and safety legislation, and by doing so we can improve health and safety. We are, for example, introducing a register of occupational safety and health specialists, which will mean that small employers no longer have to waste time searching for the right person; they will be able to consult the register to find a specialist. A teacher now has to fill out only one form when they organise a school trip, so the process is much easier. We hope that that will encourage more schools to take school trips. We have also made it easier to make a personal injury claim through a simplified three-stage process.

Although it sounds contradictory, the simplification of health and safety legislation can improve health and safety by encouraging small businesses to apply health and safety law. We have also made it absolutely clear that we will not stint on health and safety inspections of dangerous occupations or workplaces. We will name and shame those who breach health and safety law, and we will make them pay for follow-up inspections if they are found to be in breach of the law.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is also the Minister for Women and Equalities, and equality in the workplace was mentioned with some vigour.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The Minister mentioned, rightly, the excellent health and safety record in the Olympic stadium. Has his Department made—and if not, does it intend to make—representations to FIFA and to Qatar about the health and safety standards surrounding construction for the World cup?

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I thank the hon. Lady for presenting me with the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Grant, whom the Prime Minister yesterday appointed Minister for Sport. With your indulgence, Mrs Main, I thank Hugh Robertson for his extraordinary service in that role—service that, if we include his time as Opposition spokesman, spans almost a decade. He will be a sad loss to the Department. Our new Minister for Sport will read what the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland has said and will respond appropriately regarding the Government’s position.

I return to the question of equality in the workplace. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland referred to “Made in Dagenham”, a film about equal pay by the brilliant British producer Stephen Woolley, which I would commend to anyone. The soundtrack to the film was sung by Sandie Shaw, who was a Dagenham Ford clerk but has moved on to greater things and is now my constituent. [Laughter.] It does not get any better than that. The hon. Lady mentioned that a period of more than a century did not seem like a long time, and it is interesting to note that 80 years after the match girls’ strike, it was still perfectly legal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same work. The Equal Pay Act 1970 was introduced to tackle that discrepancy, but such inequalities still exist. Women now make up half of the work force in Britain, but they are under-represented in senior positions. If we want to harness the country’s full potential, we must remedy that imbalance and waste of talent. That is why the Government are committed to making Britain fairer.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

On that point, does the Minister agree with the statements made in the past few days by Ministers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about the lack of transparency in pay structures? Does he agree that we need to do far more to tackle the problem, and that we should consider, for example, mandatory equal pay audits and mandatory publication of information about pay scales so that we can see where people are still not being paid equally?

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I have not read those statements in detail; I have only read about them in the newspapers, and I hesitate to stray on to another Department’s policy area by expressing an opinion about whether new regulations should be introduced concerning transparency and mandatory reporting. As the hon. Lady knows, the Consumer Affairs Minister, Jo Swinson is passionately committed to tackling the problem, which is why she spoke so vociferously about it. That goes to the heart of the point that I was making. The Government are committed to making Britain fairer and tackling the barriers to equal opportunities that hold so many people back.

We have launched a voluntary initiative on gender equality transparency called “Think, Act, Report”, which asks private sector and voluntary sector employers to make workplaces fairer for women through greater transparency on pay and other workplace issues. More than 120 leading businesses have signed up, and the initiative covers nearly 2 million employees, which is 16% of the targeted work force. We are also using a voluntary approach to increase the number of women on boards. Women now account for almost one in five of FTSE 100 board directorships, which is a significant increase from 12.5% in February 2011. Only six FTSE 100 companies still have all-male boards.

We want to strengthen the economy, so we are supporting more businesses to start up and employ more people. That is why we have set up the Work programme, announced 24 new enterprise zones and introduced the regional growth fund. The Government have created 1.4 million jobs in the private sector during the past three years. We have established the Women’s Business Council, which published its recommendations in June. We responded to the recommendations by welcoming them and announcing a series of actions. We have announced funding of £1.6 million over the next three years to support rural women’s enterprise, the introduction of 15,000 new mentors to support those setting up and growing their businesses—including 5,000 specifically targeted to women—and a new scheme that will make £2 million available in small grants of up to £500 to those who wish to set up new child care businesses.

The debate has been important and memorable, and it has commemorated an important event in our history. The quality of the speeches from Opposition Members demonstrates that that event raises many important issues on which people feel passionately—equal pay, employment rights and health and safety—and teaches us that events in our history still resonate today.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Before the Minister sits down, will he undertake to ensure that in the first world war commemorations that begin next year, women will not be hidden from that history and that herstory will be told as well?

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I was about to say that I hesitated to give any undertaking, but the hon. Lady has raised an important point. I am not responsible for running the first world war celebrations—the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport takes the lead on that, along with the new Minister for Sport—but I feel strongly that we must ensure that the role of women in the first world war is suitably recognised throughout the four years of our first world war commemorations. I conclude on a positive note by agreeing with the hon. Lady and thanking her for calling this important debate.