I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Fifth Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, Women in the House of Commons after the 2020 election, Session 2016-17, HC 630, and the Government Response, Cm 9492.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the Liaison Committee for the opportunity to debate this important report, published by the Women and Equalities Committee in the last Session. I also thank my incredible Committee staff and all the witnesses who gave written and oral evidence. In particular, Professor Rosie Campbell, professor of politics at Birkbeck College, Professor Sarah Childs and Lord Hayward all gave a great deal of their time. I also thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Leader of the Opposition, and those other individuals who gave oral evidence.
In the 100 years since women were given the right to vote and stand for election, just 489 women have been elected to this place—I was the 265th, elected in 2005. Record numbers of women are in work and women are achieving record highs when it comes to education, but just a handful have had the opportunity to use their skills and expertise to represent their communities in this place. We have to ask ourselves whether that is a sign of a healthy democracy. Nothing can be more important than making sure that the institutions that are vital to our system of democracy are fit for purpose. They should function in a way that gives the electorate confidence that Parliament can make the laws that we need for a free and fair society.
Society changes, so Parliament has to change too. It is not an institution that can afford to place itself in aspic. It has to evolve to ensure that it truly represents the people we speak for and serve. That must involve recognising the changing role of women in society. Almost 100 years since legislation was passed to give some women the vote, it is timely to be debating this important report, considering what progress has been made, and ensuring that there is a clear pathway forward on the matter of women being elected to the House of Commons.
One point that emerged from the evidence session with senior representatives from the major parties in Westminster was that Parliament would be a better place if 50% of MPs were women. There is a growing understanding that, although MPs represent all people in our communities, regardless of their sex or gender, women view the world through a different lens—the lens of having experienced life as a woman, and the associated differences that that involves. This place was established at a time when only men were allowed to dictate our laws and shape the future of our country. Our political parties were shaped then too. The Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry has set out a number of recommendations that members of the Committee felt would do more than simply try to retro-fit women into Parliament, instead allowing them to play a truly equal role—something that we are still very far away from achieving and can only really achieve through a step change.
The 2016 inquiry focused on what the Government, political parties, the House of Commons and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority could do to ensure better female representation in the House of Commons in 2020 and beyond. It was launched in the context of the Boundary Commission review and the proposed reduction in the number of House of Commons seats. When the inquiry was launched, women held 30% of seats in the Commons, and the UK was ranked 48th globally for representation of women in legislatures. A lot has changed since then, but a great deal of the report remains extremely pertinent.
We found that Parliament should actively encourage women to participate in democracy, and should continue to look at ways to ensure that there are no unnecessary barriers to women coming here to represent the people who voted for them. We found that political parties had the primary responsibility to ensure that women come forward to represent them. Although the political parties have measures in place to help to achieve equality in gender representation, we felt that there was insufficient analysis of how effective those measures actually were, and that in all the parties there was a lack of clear strategy and leadership to achieve gender equality and representation.
The Committee made some quite radical recommendations. We recommended that the Government set a domestic target of 45% representation by women in Parliament by 2030. We recommended that they introduce a statutory minimum proportion of female parliamentary candidates in general elections—that target should be at least 45%, given the current deficit—with sanctions for political parties if it was not achieved. We also recommended bringing into force section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, requiring political parties to publish the data on diversity for general elections, and continuing the measures that allow things like all-women shortlists.
The Committee suggested that political parties take greater ownership of this issue, make gender balance in candidate selection a real priority, and accept that they have primary responsibility for making sure that the House of Commons is a more diverse place. We suggested that they publicly set out the measures that they plan to take to increase the proportion and number of female parliamentary candidates at the next election, and that they adopt, fund and promote training so that women can achieve those goals. We suggested that the parties should provide support for younger women and women entering politics for the first time, and that there should be a clear sense of direction towards increasing female representation in parliamentary parties, ensuring that their leaders work more closely with national decision-making bodies and local associations to deliver that.
The Government’s response was quite startling. They rejected all six of our recommendations. I do not mind if people reject one or two of them, but not all six at a time when we are still nowhere near equality. I am really pleased to have secured today’s debate, and that my colleague from Hampshire—my hon. Friend Caroline Nokes—is the Minister responding on behalf of the Government. In Hampshire, we have actually done an amazing thing: about 40% of our Members of Parliament are women. We know how to do it there; we just need to do it nationally.
The Government did not support the use of legislative quotas or sanctions on parties to achieve gender balance in the Commons. I know that that is a philosophical approach. They emphasised that political parties had the primary responsibility for improving representation in the Commons. Although the Government stated that they were ready to support parties on approaches to improve diversity, they did not detail how. I was struck that they rejected the idea of enacting section 106 of the Equality Act, which would make the number of women from political parties standing for election transparent, at the same time as they were asking businesses to implement gender pay gap reporting mechanisms, which were intended to create transparency about the role of women in business and their ability to progress. I realise that gender pay gap reporting is something done by larger businesses, so perhaps the Minister could explain why we could not just ask the larger parties to report in line with section 106 of the Equality Act. That would be a way of getting started.
Unfortunately, a general election then happened, which meant that our report, which was carefully crafted around the prospect of a 2020 general election, was slightly thrown up into the air. It is good, however, that at the election earlier this year we saw the highest number and proportion of female MPs ever recorded in the UK— 208 out of 650 MPs, making up about 32% of seats.
We need to put this in context. Membership of the House of Commons is not infinite. It is actually quite small—it is just 650 people—so a big change in the proportion of women requires quite a small change in numerical terms. Specifically, to achieve a 50:50 Parliament, we need only 117 more women to be elected at the next general election. Nobody would argue that there are not 117 incredibly capable women in this country who would be able to take over from some of the men who are here at the moment—with the greatest respect to all of my male colleagues. To achieve that, all political parties need a plan, and transparency needs to be at the heart of those plans. It is the responsibility of Parliament as an organisation to evolve into a place that everybody can thrive in. I pay tribute to Mr Speaker’s work in establishing the House of Commons reference group, which I and a number of other Members sit on, to look at the workings of the House and to make it easier for a more diverse group of people—not just women—to come here to work.
We also have to be realistic about the external factors that can dissuade women from seeking public office, including becoming an MP. To that end, the Women and Equalities Committee took some further oral evidence from the political parties on
I am still looking for more encouragement from the Minister that the Government will press forward on transparency and the collection and publication of diversity data. The Conservative party said it hopes to publish more data. The Liberal Democrats, the Labour party and the Scottish National party agreed that it would be helpful for the Government to bring into force section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, although the Labour party raised a number of issues about how the data would be gathered. Again, they said that it was the smaller parties’ fault that it was not being brought into force, so we thought we would write to the smaller parties and ask them whether it would be an enormous burden to enforce section 106 of the 2010 Act. So far, we have not been overwhelmed with negative responses. We will be looking at that issue further, and if the so-called smaller parties that are represented here today want to voice any opinions on that, that would be incredibly helpful. We will analyse how we can overcome some of those apparent problems through the drafting of secondary legislation. It is not beyond the wit or man—or indeed woman—to do that.
The second issue that came out of our further oral evidence was the culture, which still causes many women concerns about coming to work in this place. The witnesses talked about cultural factors blocking women’s aspirations to take on leadership roles and become Members of Parliament. The Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party agreed that late-night voting in Westminster—a topical thing to talk about, given that we were voting at midnight this week for no apparent reason—is a barrier to women’s coming forward. They said that voting could perhaps be organised in a different way. We often call it a family-friendly way, but I call it a human-friendly way, because I am not sure there are many individuals who think it is possible to work in the way we do without it having some impact on their capacity.
I thank the right hon. Lady for bringing this timely and hugely important debate to the Chamber. On the matter of voting, does she agree that there are models in the devolved nations? In the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Parliaments, there is a seat for every Member and electronic voting. It takes two seconds to press a button in Holyrood in Scotland, yet it takes us 15 minutes to walk through the Lobby. A huge amount of time and public money is being wasted.
I am not sure I totally agree with the hon. Lady on that issue. Like in many corporate organisations, we benefit from talking to and interacting with each other, and votes are often the only way we can do that because we are spread out doing many different things. I do not think the mechanism of voting is a bad thing. I just do not understand why we cannot do it on a more regularised basis.
The issues that prevent women from thriving in business—I was at a conference this morning held by the Trades Union Congress talking about that very issue—include irregularity and the lack of certainty about what a business might ask of them. That is not just a problem for women; people generally want more certainty. Everybody would say that there is some latitude when we are debating incredibly important things such as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. On those matters we need to ensure we are all there when we are needed to vote, but that is not necessary on every single piece of legislation and on things that are not so time-specific. I hope the Government and their Whip’s office are considering how they can make the way we operate in this place appear as if we are at least in the 20th century, if not the 21st century. Holding late-night votes on just any business should have gone out with the ark.
The other cultural issue that came up is the representation of women on party decision-making bodies. The Labour party, which gave evidence to us in November, aims to have a gender-balanced party conference and National Executive Committee—I am sure Labour Members understand what that means more than I do—but other parties were more uncertain about that. They all offered to write to us, and we will look carefully at their submissions, but if there is not gender-balanced representation on parties’ decision-making bodies, it is likely that having more women in Parliament will not be seen as such a pressing issue. I hope all parties will write to my Committee with their views on that.
The next issue that was raised—it is important to set this out in my opening speech—is the working environment here in Parliament. Clearly, impropriety in behaviour is still in the headlines this week. All parties have a code of conduct for Members of Parliament. Labour and the Conservative party have recently strengthened theirs, and all parties have been asked to write to the Committee outlining their procedures for reporting inappropriate behaviour. I look very positively at the way the parties reacted to earlier issues that were raised.
The final point, which is very important, is the abuse and harassment of parliamentary candidates. Although my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston is not a candidate, I was shocked at what she experienced this week. A coffin was put outside the parliamentary office in her constituency as part of a “family-friendly” event. People have to think very carefully about the abuse and harassment that parliamentary candidates experience. That sort of behaviour towards elected representatives has to be rejected. We asked the parliamentary parties to write to us to tell us how many party members have been expelled or suspended for abusing or harassing parliamentary candidates. We need a zero-tolerance approach. I applaud Members of all parties who stand up for their colleagues here, regardless of party.
In conclusion, the Select Committee is already working to follow up on the report, which we see as a continuing part of our work. This Parliament does not look like our country, in particular when it comes to women. Ninety-nine years ago this month, the first woman sat as a Member of Parliament. I am incredibly proud that next year we will be celebrating Nancy Astor, a Conservative Member of Parliament, as the first woman here.
It fills me with great pride that my party has given this country the first two female Prime Ministers, both extraordinary women. Margaret Thatcher made me interested in politics at a time when few other people could do so; and my right hon. Friend Mrs May has not shirked from taking our country through the most politically challenging period of modern history—our exit from the European Union. Everyone knows her tenacity as this country’s longest-serving Home Secretary and her commitment to get more women elected to this place by establishing Women2Win. In my parliamentary career, my right hon. Friend has been a friend, a mentor and a champion for thousands of women in the Conservative party, and we all owe her a debt of gratitude.
My point is that each party has a story to tell about women in the party—and we should tell it—but no party has found the holy grail. No party in this place can claim to have equality for women, and each has a different set of problems. This debate needs to be honest about that. Each party needs to explain better how it will ensure equality for women in the future.
Party leaders and most MPs share the objective of achieving equal representation. Almost all of them also accept that there is more to do in order to succeed.
The recent general election put the number of women in the House of Commons up to 208. That is just short of double where we were in 2001, when there were only 118 female MPs. Progress is not as fast as I believe we need it to be, but there is progress to be celebrated nevertheless.
To draw on my own experience, I first interned in the House of Commons 17 years ago—
I thank my hon. Friend. People would stare at me because they were not used to seeing, for a start, women under 5 feet, or loud-mouthed women of colour working in Parliament. I went on to work as a researcher, a press officer and a special adviser, and then left Parliament and came back as an MP.
In every layer of the party that I have described, whether special adviser, press officer or researcher, I always stuck out like a sore thumb. It fills me with a lot of pride and a sense of joy when I walk down the corridors now and see the difference in Parliament. Again, I will emphasise that we have not reached where we need to be, but there is no doubt about the big difference in Parliament now from what I saw 17 years ago.
My worry about the report is that the burden of progress seems to have been entirely assigned to political parties and that certain courses of action that could help, such as quotas and targets, are ruled out entirely out of hand. That concerns me. At a time of such major constitutional upheaval for the country, I feel that this place could show its determination to truly equip Britain for the future by putting women on an equal footing, and at a time when we are led by a female Prime Minister.
The recent oral evidence given before the Women and Equalities Committee revealed that entrusting political parties with that task will produce limited results. The Government should take the matter away from party bureaucracy, with all the delays and compromises that such a route entails, but their response to the report clearly rejects the imposition of targets, so I want to make a few alternative suggestions.
First, the prevailing culture in Westminster deters women from joining. Authorities must be up front about that and willing to take action when required. Secondly, outreach programmes must be considered as an apolitical way of making Westminster more attractive not only to women but to black and minority ethnic communities. Thirdly, Parliament must be proactive about ensuring that equal representation is enshrined in the new democratic contests that take place—that is not only parliamentary elections, but mayoral or police and crime commissioner ones. We need improvement at all levels, in different kinds of elections.
Parliament needs to be proactive in fostering an environment that does not put people off even before they have contemplated a career in public service. I am sure everyone in the Chamber will join me in expressing the horror that we felt about the accounts of harassment. Clearly we must deal with the aspects of this place that create a hostile environment for women. All parties working together on something we all care deeply about will deliver a confidential and independent complaints service and a procedure for victims to have their voices heard and their complaints dealt with properly. I hope that extends to people who visit the parliamentary estate, as well as those who work here.
When dealing with the cultural problems of the Commons, we must also look at the behaviour of Members in debates—Members of all political parties, I accept, not just one—and the bureaucratic structures that discriminate against women. As the Committee’s report notes, a 2015 survey from the Administration Committee explored experiences of working in Parliament, finding that
“the unappealing culture of Westminster…deterred women from standing as parliamentary candidates.”
Whether that is hon. Members barking like dogs at women who are speaking in debates, or the centuries-old voting systems that prevent new mothers from representing their constituents, the authorities must accept the fundamental link between the prevailing culture of the Commons and the continued under-representation of women within it.
As an MP for a London constituency, I often speak at schools, including all-girls schools, where women will ask me whether it is uncomfortable being a young woman in politics. I always hesitate, because I do not know whether to tell them the truth and deter them from joining politics or to say, “Hand on heart, I believe this place is welcoming for young women.” I do not want to feel like that. When I go into a school and am questioned about whether I would encourage young women to come into politics, I want to be able to say with a clear conscience, “Yes, this is a welcoming place. Yes, here you won’t face any discrimination. Yes, it’ll be as easy for you as it is for the male student sitting next to you.” That is the problem I face in schools. We need to talk about this problem but at the same time, if students from Hampstead and Kilburn are listening: I do not want to deter you from coming into politics.
I also want to pick up a little on intersectionality. We are talking about women, but we cannot separate that from the fact that there is more discrimination against women of colour. That must be part of the debate if we want to secure equal representation in Parliament. We now have 51 BME MPs in the Commons, since the 10 who were elected at the 2017 general election. That increase is welcome, not least because it includes my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), the first female Sikh MP, and for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), who is registered blind as well as being a woman and a woman of colour.
We have come far, but I still want to make another point. Especially in the context of this Parliament’s make-up, I want to look at an important part of Parliament: Select Committees. There are 28 departmental and specified Select Committees in total. Only nine of the Chairs are women, and not a single Chair of a Select Committee is from a BME background. To me, in a Parliament like this, that is really shocking.
The number of BME MPs make up 7.8% of the new Parliament, which still does not reflect the population at large, where the figure is 14%. I come back to that Select Committee point, however: it is not just about having MPs in Parliament who are BME, but about what positions they hold. Are they party leaders, or in the Cabinet or shadow Cabinet? Are they the Chairs of Select Committees? The answer to the last question is: no, there are no BME Chairs of Select Committees.
To go back to the report, the rejection of quotas for women was disappointing, and so was the omission of a formal response to the Committee’s recommendation for Parliament to lead outreach initiatives. The Committee provided the Government with an opportunity to think boldly and to deliver an apolitical advocacy programme that could sell the virtues of life in Westminster to under-represented groups. By encouraging the political participation of traditionally marginalised and hard-to-reach groups, we can help to bring that focus to the forefront. In the end, diversifying candidates diversifies policies.
As a fellow colleague on the Select Committee, I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution to the work that we do. The educational outreach that Parliament does is fantastic, so one could argue that we already have an apolitical programme that hopefully is encouraging young people to be MPs in future. What the Committee suggested was really just an extension of that, was it not?
Yes, and I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady as Chair of the Committee. The Committee works very well together and constructively, and its members are from all political backgrounds—people have different viewpoints, but we do a good job. She is absolutely right. What we want is an extension of something that already exists. We do not think it is a huge ask. I fear that, given the progress required, until statutory enforcement is seriously considered even for just an interim period, we will not achieve our goals.
I will not take up too much more time because I know that lots of Members want to contribute to this important debate. Speaking as an ex-councillor, representing constituents at ward level provided me with experience and the belief that I could go on to do that on a constituency-wide basis. As such, the Committee’s recommendation that the Government update the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 to allow all-women shortlists for all elected mayoral and police and crime commissioner posts seems like a sensible proposal. The Government say that the evidence base for taking such a step is as yet under-developed. Since 2002, only two of the Labour party’s 18 elected mayors have been women. The Select Committee report shows that, in every major party, less than 40% of councillors are women. The evidence base seems to be the opposite of underdeveloped.
The Government leave the door open by saying that they will consider the issue further. I hope they will do just that. In all the three areas that I have discussed, I truly hope that the Committee’s report will prompt the Government to take the lasting top-down steps required to deliver the equal representation that we are all hoping for.
I will be a bit cheeky and follow Mrs Miller, who played tribute to the Prime Minister. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Ms Eagle, because if it was not for her encouraging me to stand, and if it was not for the informal networks that are created among women who came to the House before I did, who told me over and over that I could be the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, I would not be standing here today.
It is grossly unfair to have to follow that speech. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller secured this debate. I need to begin with an apology: unfortunately, I need to get to the Education Centre for 2.50 pm, because the only college in my constituency is sending a big group of students down and I need to speak to them to convince them that this is a place they could come to.
I want to begin with a brief explanation of how I ended up on the Women and Equalities Committee and speaking today. I grew up in Birmingham with five brothers and I went to an all-boys school. I grew up in an Irish Catholic community that was constituted almost entirely of men who worked in the construction industry, so it is no surprise that I went on to study civil engineering at university and, after I graduated, I went to work on a building site. I managed to avoid virtually any contact with women—in a professional or other capacity—in college, at university and in the workplace until I was about 25 or 27. Then, I joined an American property company and about 70% of the people who worked there were women. That was a complete revelation. Having been brought up, not through any fault of my own, in a society that had seen women in a slightly subservient role—except of course my mother, who had been ruthless in ruling her six lads—I suddenly found that there were women employed right across the organisation at all levels of seniority, who in many cases were considerably more brilliant than any of the men I had met previously. I realised that there was something strange in the world as I had experienced it.
Up to that point, I had been conditioned in a particular way, and since then I have felt that it is my duty and obligation to speak out for women because the world is unfair and it needs correcting. I do not think that the world is unfair simply in terms of politics. In 1991, 3% of consultant surgeons in the UK were female. There has been a massive, transformational change since then; 25 years later, the figure is 11.1%. The University of Exeter did some work to see why that was the case. It is definitely not that women surgeons are any less committed than their male counterparts or any less dedicated or skilled at their trade; it is simply that they feel that they will pursue the career choice that seems to give them the best opportunity for success. According to the university, what they need is excellent role models, for them to see that it is possible for them to achieve that status.
The situation in the police obviously has to be much better—but no, unfortunately it is not. In 1995, which does not seem very long ago, the first woman chief constable, Pauline Clare, was appointed to Lancashire Police Force. What has happened since then? In 2016, out of 43 forces, there were four women chief constables. How can that be the case? It gets worse: the year before, there were eight. So what happened in the meantime? A few of those women decided to step down. Jane Sawyers, the Staffordshire chief constable, said:
“Either disproportionately female Chief Constables are less competent than their male counterparts, which is simply not the case, or there is something sexist about how female leaders are viewed.”
It is not just about representation in this House; women are unequally represented across several professions, and something has to be done. The butt of my case is that I do not think that quotas are the answer to that. Would hon. Members want to be operated on by a female surgeon who got the job because that hospital needed to achieve its quota of surgeons for that case? No, I do not think so. There are brilliant women surgeons out there; they can be appointed because of their brilliance, their ability and their dedication, but they do not need to be there because of quotas.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful and interesting speech. We may have the debate about the good, the bad and the indifferent, but does he not agree with quotas as a short-term measure to redress the balance? Are we really saying that more than 50% of the population are not able to do exactly the same jobs as men?
Yes and no. I am absolutely not saying that women are not able to do as good a job as men. The clue to my disagreement is in the way the hon. Lady phrased the question, by saying “short term”. I do not want a short-term solution; I want a sustainable, long-term solution. I appreciate that it may seem naive and idealistic of me to view it that way.
I look at the Benches opposite and I am particularly terrified of Dawn Butler, because on Monday I will be on the “Politics Show” with her. I appreciate that she is an experienced, incredibly able Member, and I will look decidedly puny in political terms by comparison, so I am starting my preparation now in earnest and I hope that she has a bad day. I see members of the Women and Equalities Committee who I have grown to know over the past few months who are equally brilliant. I do not feel for one minute that Jess Phillips needed an all-women shortlist to get to that position.
May I say first how much my hon. Friend brings to the Women and Equalities Committee? His passion for these issues is apparent to everyone. He said that there is a cornucopia of women with the ability to do jobs—even in the construction industry. Does he not see that although we may have a large pool of capable women, they are not able to progress because of the way their competencies are judged? Does he agree that there needs to be a focus on removing barriers to women progressing? That might be done in this place through all-women shortlists, which would not allow substandard people to come through, but would create a level playing field of opportunity.
My right hon. Friend makes a very valid point, which I was kind of coming to. I maintain my resistance to quotas, but what can we do to change the situation? Well, I can do my tiny bit. I begin early: when I visit primary schools, I encourage women—young children—by saying, “You can aspire to be whatever you want to be.” Obviously, I represent a working-class constituency and I am a working-class lad. From a social point of view, I say to people, “You can become an MP. I’ve managed it and I’m happy to help you do it.” I can say to the girls in the class, “Look, we’ve had two outstanding woman Prime Ministers, and I can point to several other examples who can be your inspiration and help you with your aspirations.”
We need to reach out to girls and encourage them, but we need to do that with lads as well. We need to say to them, “You need to understand that these girls sitting next to you are your equals.” That conditioning needs start early. We need to destroy the stereotype of men being the breadwinners and women the carers. That needs to be dealt with at an early age. That will lead to a better society, not just by helping us with representation but by helping to reduce sexism and sexual harassment of women, because it will mean that men do not see themselves in the superior role that they may otherwise have been preconditioned to see themselves in.
We should encourage girls, and then we should back campaigns such as the 50:50 #AskHerToStand campaign. We should catch brilliant women early and encourage them to take part, but we must also ensure that men do their bit with regard to child rearing and parental responsibility. The Committee has done brilliant work on that. Imagine a future five or 10 years from now where it is completely normal for parenting duties to be shared equally between men and women. Having that engagement with their kids would be better for men and better for the kids, and it would mean a more equal playing field. In interviews, people would not ask themselves, “Can I recruit this woman? She may become pregnant and then she’ll have childcare responsibilities,” but would see men and women in parity and think, “It makes no difference whether I recruit a man or a woman—their obligations to the family will be the same.”
If we can level the playing field, we will go a long way to making it easy for women not just to become the brilliant parliamentarians of the future, but to run surgeries, to run our police forces and to contribute generally to society. There has to be parity. Women are amazing.
It is a pleasure to follow Eddie Hughes. I agree with much of what he said—not all, but he has given me some good food for thought and debate.
Like other Members, I will start by talking about my background. I was brought up by a single mother. My brother and I had very strong female role models. I often worried that he had few male role models, because my grandad died when he was eight, but he is now a proud father and partner and I can see that the female influence in his life has been hugely important.
It is important that we identify that the success of women and gender equality is as much for and about men as it is for and about women. It will benefit society. I always think about the reports that I read following the banking crisis about the demographics of the people who made the decisions in that sector. We might say they were a very homogeneous group: they were the same race, gender and class, and they all looked at one another and did not see the faults in the system. I am not trying to blame the whole financial crash on men, but had there been more diversity—this is not my view; it is from the reports produced after the crash—there would have been different ideas and people would have challenged one another in different ways.
I think it is fair to say that the same applies very much to government, business and society. Where there is one type of people, they are more likely to agree than disagree. It is much better to have people of different religions, sexualities, genders and abilities around the decision-making table, because that makes for better decision-making processes.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about quotas and long-term solutions, but surely he recognises that structural challenges still exist for women who seek to get into positions of power. He referenced all-female shortlists. I will talk a little about what the Scottish National party has done in that respect, but all-women shortlists have brought us Members such as Jess Phillips. I cannot imagine her not being in this place and not being a vociferous champion of gender equality. I am sure she will be able to comment about this, but I have not seen anyone cast that up to her at any point. She is here and in her place, like many others.
I reflect on a comment by a friend who works high up in the corporate world. We met at an event in Parliament and she said, “Women will have equality when they’re able to get into positions of power in the same way as their average male counterparts have been able to.” This is somewhat derogatory towards men, but she said, “For generations, average men have got into positions of power. Women will have equality when they have the right to be just as average.” Let us not set the bar too low but say, “Actually, we can all be better, but there are structural challenges.”
I worked in the oil industry before I came to this place. Many decisions were made on the golf course, in the pub or in nightclubs. I remember going to an interview to be a sales representative and saying categorically that I was not willing to take clients to strip clubs as part of engagement. The response I got was, “Oh, well that doesn’t really happen any more,” but it was clear that it still happened. It was still common practice in the part of the sector that I was working in, and it was something that I was unwilling to do.
I did not get that job. I do not believe that was because of that comment, and I do not suggest that it was, but there were certain practices, and certain comments were made to me. I remember a sales guy I worked with saying to me about someone who was on maternity leave, “I don’t want that girl back in my team. How long is it going to be before she has another child?” I said, “Hang on a minute. Apart from that being completely illegal, how would you feel if someone said that to your wife and excluded her from the workforce?” He had obviously never considered that. He saw his opinion in a vacuum.
I came to this place largely because I had been involved in politics before. My colleague the former right hon. Member for Gordon, Alex Salmond, who I worked for in a previous capacity, encouraged me to stand. In 2010, my mother stood unsuccessfully in the Livingston constituency for election to the House of Commons, so in 2015 I got the pleasure of beating the man who had beaten my mum five years before. I have to say that was a great experience. He was a really nice chap and we had a very respectful campaign, but beating the person who had beaten my mother was a proud moment, and I am proud to represent the constituency that I grew up in.
West Lothian is split into two Westminster constituencies and two Scottish Parliament constituencies, and 75% of the representatives of those constituencies—three out of the four—are women. Here is another interesting statistic: of the 12 candidates that the SNP has fielded in West Lothian for Holyrood and Westminster elections since 2007, nine have been women and three have been men, and we have not used any gender balancing mechanisms.
Let me summarise what the SNP has done in recent years. Members will all be aware that Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, is a woman and has a gender-balanced Cabinet—one of less than a handful in the world. Scotland has very much led the way on that front.
At the SNP spring conference in March 2015, we passed a new mechanism to encourage more women to stand as candidates at the 2016 Scottish Parliament election: where an incumbent SNP constituency MSP announces their intention to stand down, the national executive committee may direct an all-women shortlist. That resulted in 43% of SNP MSPs being women—an increase from I think just over 20% in 2011. Similarly, we looked at all-women shortlists for local government elections where the party was standing more candidates than sitting councillors, and in a ward where the party had one sitting councillor, it stood two candidates, at least one of whom had to be a woman.
I am not saying that we are perfect by any stretch of the imagination—34% of our parliamentarians here at Westminster are female. It is incumbent on us all not just to look at this from a party structure perspective but, as Mrs Miller said, to look at this place. We look around this place in terms of its family-friendliness or female-friendliness, and we recognise that men and women are different in their approaches to work and atmosphere. I sometimes walk around the Palace and think, “It is not the most friendly place to work.”
I take the right hon. Lady’s point about the Lobby, our voting mechanism and being able to network, but surely we can find a way by which Members can discuss and relate to each other, other than through the voting Lobby. Votes take 15 minutes, and I think we have 10 votes coming up at the end of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill Committee. That will take us more than two hours. We can think about the time, effort and public money spent on drafting and tabling amendments to Bills, and I remember that there were hundreds of amendments to the Scotland Bill, but we are able to press only a handful of them to a vote. I wonder how much public money, time and energy is being wasted because we cannot press amendments to legislation to a vote because votes take so long. We are missing out on opportunities to amend legislation, and by extension our democracy is being affected.
I thank the hon. Lady for her speech. I have long argued for e-voting, because I believe that is the right way for us to go forward. Does she think it quite strange that the reason I was given for not introducing e-voting was that all Members need to be in the Chamber to listen to the debate—even though 650 Members of Parliament do not fit in the Chamber at the same time?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point; I am sure that irony is not lost on anyone here or anyone watching at home. We must look at those structural aspects. When there was a discussion about the refurbishment of the building, we suggested that perhaps it would be more financially efficient to build a new Parliament that was fit for purpose and turn this place into a museum. I know that is a controversial view, but at some point we will have to realise that this place does not reflect modern working practices in terms of the technological advances, e-voting and digital voting, however that comes. Even proxy voting is being considered for maternity and paternity baby leave. I remember seeing a Labour Member in the Tea Room during a vote breastfeeding her child. I thought, “This is absolute madness. This Member has had to travel from her constituency to vote—because it is such an important vote—and she has to bring her child with her.” I do not have any children—I would love to have children—but I think, “How would I manage that logistically?” It would be a huge challenge.
The Government have not accepted any of the report’s recommendations. That is disappointing. Surely they can find it in their heart, as a token of good will and progression, to take at least some of those sensible recommendations. The Fawcett Society said that
“37% of seats at-risk in the Boundary Review are held by women, which is substantially more than the percentage of women in Parliament—only 29.6%”.
Let us not forget that up until the previous Parliament, the number of men in each Parliament was greater than the number of women who had ever been elected. That is staggering.
We are in Westminster Hall, just across from the broom cupboard where Emily Wilding Davison hid on the night of the 1911 census. We can think about the struggle, and I often think about the representation of women and women’s suffrage in Parliament. The new art installation is fantastic, but some of those representations of the women’s movement and women’s suffrage are really subverted and subdued. More could be done in that regard.
I come to some of the most amazing women we have had in Parliament. It is 50 years since Winnie Ewing, our dear friend and colleague, was elected. We stand on her shoulders, and we can read the stories in her biography. Given that we are now sadly leaving the European Union—unless something dramatic happens; who knows?—she will be the only one who will have been a Member of this place, a Member of the European Parliament and a Member of the Scottish Parliament. That is a major achievement. I pay tribute to Winnie, because
“stop the world, Scotland wants to get on” is a line that will live in infamy. I know it inspires many of us, and she has inspired many of us.
We are the architects and the agitators of change. We should stand proud as women, and men who are supporting women to stand for election, but we must not pull up that ladder behind us; we must extend it out for the next generation.
I have the dinner to make when I get home as well. First, I must advise of my CV. My mother was a woman and I married a woman as far back as 1970—that reminds me: it was on
Like my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes, I went to an all-boys’ secondary school, which isolated me from the fairer sex—or the other gender. I also worked for 31 years in a male-dominated organisation: the fire service in Strathclyde. As a senior officer, I had the great privilege of working with a female deputy chief officer. It was a privilege to serve with her—I hope it was a privilege for her—and to improve that service. I welcome the involvement of women in male-dominated services such as the fire service and the police service, to which he referred.
Women in the House of Commons are welcome, but let us not legislate for gender balance, even in the short term. We saw good progress on female representation in the House of Commons in the 2017 election, with record numbers of female MPs elected: 208 in total, accounting for 32%. The Conservative party fielded a record 184 female candidates in the election, 32% of the total, which is an improving record that we are proud of. Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats also had record numbers of female candidates in the election.
Some 51 years ago in 1966, when Harold Wilson won the election, there were just 26 female MPs. Today’s figure of 208 reflects, if my calculation is right, a 700% increase in those years. Some would say that is very good.
The hon. Lady will be glad that I am not on her quiz team, because I do not know the answer. If she wishes to tell us—[Interruption.] I am sure she will. I think she would agree that that is significant progress over 50 years, but it is probably not fast enough.
The Conservatives have a great track record, having secured not one but two excellent female Prime Ministers. I am sure history will treat kindly their contribution to women in politics, both here in the United Kingdom and probably around the world. In Scotland, until recently, three key party leaders were female. That must be applauded, though the hat-trick has changed with the arrival of Labour’s new leader in Scotland, Mr Richard Leonard, with Ms Dugdale testing the water for a future in television. I think her excursion was relatively short-lived, but I wish her well.
I am pleased to advise of the Conservative organisation Women2Win, mentioned by my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, which was co-founded by the Prime Minister, ably supported by Ruth Davidson, my hon. Friend Kirstene Hair and many others. It is good to know that we have a passionate advocate for female representation resident at No. 10.
The way forward in increasing female representation in Parliament has no single solution, but in my view much of the remedy lies with political parties, not legislation. Each party must try to attract the right female candidates, giving them support and encouragement, as was said earlier on. The Conservative Women2Win is but one proud example. We must look, as was also mentioned earlier, to the pool of talent of people involved in politics. We all have phone bankers, leaflet deliverers, staff and door knockers, many of whom are female, who keep many local associations of all parties alive in our communities. They help to secure our seats here in Westminster. Let us encourage them and others from a whole range of backgrounds to come forward.
As elected Members, each of us has a role to play in ensuring that the working environment at Westminster is indeed welcoming and human-friendly, as was said earlier, and safe and secure for all who take on the challenge of public office. We must learn and move on from the recent barrage of allegations that undermine the good work of most parliamentarians of all parties. Part of our role as elected parliamentarians is to be ambassadors for Parliament and to encourage female participation in our rich democracy. Having sat in Parliament for only a few months, I know female Members have a lot to give to democracy. Let us all contribute to a fairer and better Parliament, hang up the old school tie, if I dare say it, and strive for better progress in gender balance. Diversity can only strengthen democracy.
I want to pay tribute to all who have spoken, with some special tribute to my colleague Eddie Hughes. Like him, I grew up in a family in Birmingham, I have only brothers—obviously we make boy babies in Birmingham, because I also have two of those—and I grew up with an Irish heritage. I certainly have the same touch of the Blarney that he has. My experience and my views are different from his, but I know we have the same goal.
In case there is any question whether the Labour party feels that what happened in Totnes with a coffin was appropriate, I will self-appoint myself as spokesman for the Labour party and say that it is totally unacceptable to have political debate that leads to a Member of Parliament having a coffin put outside her office. It is especially unacceptable in regard to that particular Member of Parliament, who works tirelessly—often better than some members of the Labour party—to hold the Government to account. There is no question that she is fighting. If the Labour party had any involvement in that, I can only apologise whole-heartedly. It is totally unacceptable.
Stopping the cross-party love-in, I am disappointed that the Government did not listen to a single one of the recommendations of the Select Committee. If it had been me writing those recommendations, they would have been considerably more radical. I would have asked for the moon on a stick. The Committee’s recommendations were thoughtful, and it was not asking too much to recommend some of the outreach, as has already been pointed out. Some of the tiny changes to the Equality Act 2010, which would mean we could have all-women shortlists for mayoral and police and crime commissioner candidates, are the sweep of a single pen. They would not affect a single person in the Government even slightly, because their party does not recognise all-women shortlists anyway. They do not have to do it. We just want to, and we need the law to reflect that. If the Conservative party, the ruling party, does not think that quotas work, then it can crack on with that point of view. We in the Labour party know that they work. To answer the question asked by Bill Grant, the progress was made as a result of the Labour party and all-women shortlists. They are the single biggest reason for progress.
I pay tribute to the work the hon. Lady does for the Committee, and she knows that I support the recommendations of the report. Is she not a bit disappointed that she feels her party needs all-women shortlists for mayoral elections in order to get female representation?
I feel utterly disappointed, but the triumph of hope over experience tells me that I have to force my party to look at electing women into the position of metro mayors. The Conservatives want it too, but they are not willing to do it, whereas I am willing to say, “Yes, we have a problem. I have a solution. It will work.”
To speak to the point made by my hon. Friend, and I will say friend, the Member for Walsall North—is it north? It is all just the Black country to me—the idea that I would not want a surgeon selected via a quota to operate on me is not something I recognise. I would be delighted to have somebody who had been selected from an all-women shortlist be the surgeon in my hospital and operate on me. I would be less happy to have somebody who had probably got the position because he went to a certain school or was born into a certain family. He would be no better; he would just have been given all the tools to allow him to become a surgeon or even to dream of becoming a surgeon. My hon. Friend will know, just as I do, that kids from Birmingham who have kissed the Blarney stone rarely end up being surgeons in Birmingham’s hospitals. I would be more than happy to be operated on.
To draw out the surgeon analogy, when somebody operates on me I expect evidence to have been taken about how they do that procedure. I want to know how they have come to the conclusion that that procedure is the very best thing for my health. I want to know that it is going to work, and I look for evidence. I want to see more women in Parliament, so I will look at the evidence of what works and I will ask that it is implemented. What works is quotas for women and sanctions when they are not realised. There is no other area of Government where we would just say, “Oh, do you know what really works to stop people being hit by buses? Oh, well, I’m just not sure it’s the one we want to go for,” or, “Do you know what really, really works for making sure that more kids go to school? But I just don’t know whether it’s good enough for choice if we do that.” We would not do that with any other thing, so why do we do it about this?
We look at clear evidence about the heavy lifting and the reason we have more women in Parliament now. In the last election, the Conservative party went backward. The Labour party surged forward. Do not get me wrong: the Labour party is in no way faultless in this area—I have just had to apologise for someone having a coffin left outside their house—but it is willing to do the thing that actually works, and to do it at every single level of the political party. It has to be balanced for every single person who sits on the National Executive Committee and for every person who goes to the conference. That is not because of people who want to claim they are great heroes of the movement. It is because of women in the Labour party fighting and bearing the scars.
I note the comments about the negativity of the Conservative party. Here is a reciprocal quiz question: I wonder if the hon. Lady can explain why the party that seems to be quite restrictive on women is the party that has produced two wonderful female Prime Ministers, and yet no other party is following it?
I will query “wonderful”, in both regards. They are women. As somebody who grew up in the 1980s, I have to say that Mrs Thatcher does not deserve “wonderful”, but she does deserve credit for what she achieved. There are no two ways about it. The jury is out on the current one, because she is the head of the Government who have turned down the exact things that we are asking for.
Of course, there is a problem, and here I will show hon. Members something that I know works: admitting that we have a problem. The Labour party has a problem with having women in leadership positions. That is just a fact, and it is one I can see based on the evidence. There are all sorts of reasons for why that is, and it is partially because women in the Labour party—I feel awful saying this; present company excepted—do not defend the status quo; we are radicals who act for change. The reason our party has fallen short is because we are radicals.
It is very difficult to get people to vote for radicals or for things that would affect the actual status quo, so while it is amazing that the Prime Minister and the late Baroness Thatcher achieved what they have, to me they also very much represent the status quo. They did not challenge an established order. That is one of the reasons I think the Labour party struggles: our women would definitely upset the apple cart, as they always have in our movement.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that, the fact that somebody in power is a woman does not mean that they should be held to different standards from men? That seems to be part of the issue: as women in the positions we hold, we have a right to be good or bad in the same way that men have.
Absolutely. All politicians need to be cut a bit of slack, because we are only human and we will all make mistakes. However, if a woman makes a mistake, she is making a mistake for ever. That mistake could be what she wore on her feet. Everybody knows what shoes the Prime Minister likes, but what shoes did David Cameron like? Probably boring posh ones, but nobody will ever comment on that. We are held to an entirely different standard.
For me, some of the recommendations in the report are really obvious and easy solutions. I understand that there may need to be a bit of give and take; we did not expect all the recommendations to be accepted, but for some to have been considered would have been nice. I will not speak for much longer because I recognise that we are running out of time, but in the Government’s response, the idea that political parties can solve this problem is either naïve or is basically trying to kick the can down the road. Political parties are not good and equal institutions that rely only on fair play. They are places where power, patronage and position mean everything. Nothing more than the past few months has shown me that my political party, as well as every political party in this building, cares more about politics, power and position than it cared about, for example, my friend Bex.
To think that political parties have the will to do this themselves is basically to say that the problem has to go away on its own. They absolutely do not. They care more about by-election results than they will ever care about the problem of sexual harassment, for example. That was felt by everybody on the Committee when every single political party presented to it. Nobody will actually turn on their own in the end. That is why people think we are all the same and why they have no trust in us. I have to say, for the first time, as somebody who believes in this building so deeply, I am kind of with the people on the doorstep who say we are all the same. That is how it has felt for people like me since the sexual harassment scandal started in Westminster.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Mr Sharma. I am not quite sure that that time limit will work for what I have here, but I will do the best that I can. I thank Mrs Miller for her speech and for her Committee’s work on its excellent report, and I thank all those who gave evidence to that Committee.
I share the disappointment of everybody who has spoken about the Government not taking on the recommendations. I hope that, now that we have a new Government, they may wish to revisit this and take another look at the recommendations, because they are good recommendations. I add to those who have talked about quotas, and I share their concerns: I suppose that quotas are not perfect or what we would want in an ideal world. However, we do not have an ideal world. Women are not equal to men in society—or in this building—so there has to be a disruptor to the selection process that starts to make the rules work a little bit more in women’s favour. If we leave it how it is, it will be a very long time before we actually see any change. Action on this is long overdue.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke was right to talk about cultural factors and this building, the way it works and some of the behaviour that happens here. This is not new. My hon. Friend Hannah Bardell referred to Winnie Ewing, who I will also refer to. Hers was one of the first political biographies that I read, and she reported that, in her time in this place, as the single female Scottish National party representative, she was
“interrupted whenever I spoke, I was regularly insulted and I was even defamed once or twice...I was even stalked by a Labour MP”.
She describes that stalking in some detail, although she does not name her stalker. That behaviour continued when she became a representative in the European Parliament as well. It took the chair of the European Parliament to write to the Speaker here to tell off those Members who continued to harass and upset her when she was in the European Parliament, which is completely unacceptable.
We know that that behaviour has not changed in recent years. My former colleague, Dr Eilidh Whiteford, was threatened with “a doing” in 2011 by a then Select Committee chair, which is absolutely inappropriate. She felt that she had to withdraw from that Committee as a result of that. As we have seen from recent news of harassments, that is still a problem. It is still an issue, and we cannot be blind to it—we need to act.
Other Members have talked about their own experiences. My experience is that I have been well supported by men and women both in the SNP and not in the SNP. Like Tulip Siddiq, I started as a local councillor, on Glasgow City Council. When I was first elected in 2007, the council was very male, pale and stale, and there was some very inappropriate behaviour by some of the older male councillors.
I had only been there for, I think, a matter of weeks before one of the male councillors thought it was appropriate to come up to my colleague and pat her on the stomach because he thought she was pregnant. She was not, but he should not have been doing that anyway; there is no need for that kind of behaviour. Some years later, when I was pregnant, a Labour councillor thought it would be appropriate, during meetings with other people present, to offer to deliver my baby. I made it perfectly clear how I felt about those kind of comments, but he persisted in making them because he knew I did not like it. There needs to be more challenging of those types of behaviours, because they are not funny; it is not a joke and it makes women feel uncomfortable.
I am glad to see that there has been progress in women’s representation in this place. In my own seat of Glasgow Central, none of the nine candidates were women in 2010, but three out of nine were women in 2015, and in 2017 it was the only seat in the country with an all-female candidate list. Progress has been made, but it is not enough. We need to think about how we support women when they get to this place. We need to look at maternity leave and support during pregnancy and we need to look at family-friendly hours. We also need to look at even more radical things. I have suggested before that we should have a version of the French suppléant system, in which Members could have somebody to job-share with or fill in for them when they are not here.
We also need to look at the impact of the boundary review and whether we can do more about safe seats and incumbency. To help to address those issues, the SNP has taken the approach that, if a male MSP stands down, there will be an all-women shortlist in that seat to fill that gap. The former Member for Ochil and South Perthshire, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, is our national women and equalities officer. She has done a huge amount of work to encourage women to stand; she runs a women’s academy and is working to get women’s confidence up. That confidence is so important. Men will often put themselves forward for things after looking at the job description and thinking, “Of course I can do that”, when they can only do half of the things on the description. Women will look at the job description and think “I couldn’t possibly do that”.
We need to encourage women to stand. We need to identify good women who have potential and ideas and things that they want to do to change the world. We need to get them to stand up and participate. We have seen a lot more female candidates coming forward in the SNP for council, which is a very important starting ground for people who want to get into politics and a very important part of politics. We need to support women in that. We cannot just encourage them and then take away any sense of structure. We need to keep that going over time and make sure that they continue to be supported.
We have some exceptional women in the SNP who I am very proud of. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston mentioned her mum, Lis Bardell, who is one of the most wonderful and exceptional encouragers in the party, and fearsome with it. We have a responsibility and a duty to make change and to make sure that, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn said, women get here and then get into positions of power where they can help to make change. Select Committee Chairs have huge power to influence, change and set the agenda. Without women in those positions, nothing will change in so many different areas, particularly those where policy hugely affects women. I thank Members for their contributions to the debate.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and to contribute to the debate.
As I have previously stated, 51% of the population are women, and the other 49% would not be here if it was not for the women, so arguing for 50:50 representation in Parliament is really quite reasonable. I am quite disappointed that the Government have not accepted any of the recommendations in the Women and Equalities Committee report. That is the problem with politics—people see that we say one thing and do something else, and it puts people off politics or politicians. If we truly believe in equality of representation, we must accept at least one of the recommendations, and that will make the Committee feel that it is doing a great job.
The report states:
“We are concerned that Parliament is failing to be a world leader on women’s representation.”
That is really important to consider as we debate Brexit and our standing in the world. It is important that we do not fall back. That alone should get people to sit up and listen to the debate we are having on representation in Parliament.
Mrs Miller is an excellent Chair, and her Committee’s report makes reference to the “inflexibility” of Parliament’s working practices. How we vote in this place has been mentioned a number of times. I accept that there is value in us mingling in the Lobby when we vote, but once could be enough, and we could then vote electronically for the remaining 10 votes. There are ways we can improve the current system without losing some of its benefits.
We must also look at gerrymandering and the boundary changes. We will see a substantial loss of women representatives if the Boundary Commission’s recommendations go ahead. The Fawcett Society found that 37% of those at risk are women. If that goes ahead, the loss to this place will be substantial.
I do not want to add a discordant note, but if there were an issue of gerrymandering, surely it is the fact that at the moment constituencies such as mine have 85,000 people in them, while constituencies in other parts of the country have only 50,000. Surely that is the gerrymandering that we are trying to get rid of with the boundary changes, which I fear will not go through because of a lack of cross-party support.