[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:50 pm on 7th December 2017.

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Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities 2:50 pm, 7th December 2017

The whole system is substantially flawed in how it counts the number of constituents, because it takes into consideration only people who are registered to vote, and not everybody who actually lives in the constituency. The right hon. Lady will find that constituencies such as mine—a London constituency—have a substantial number of constituents who are not registered. The whole system is flawed in terms of how the number is calculated, but it is not only that. The Labour party is set to lose more seats under the boundary changes than any other party, and we would therefore lose more women. That is where some of the gerrymandering comes into effect.

The report states:

“Our focus on women in this report should not be taken as a lack of interest in diversity more generally”.

I accept that. When we look at achieving gender equality, we need to look at all kinds of women. My hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq referred to intersectionality in women of colour, who often get ignored or brushed out of the feminist argument. Even though we are looking at women, we need to look at the diversity of women. This is not confined to women of colour; it is also working-class women, disabled women, LGBT+ women, single women, single mums and so on. It is important that when we talk about women, we are not focusing on one particular group of women who are then the acceptable face of women generally.

On the theme of thanking women, I would like to thank my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali, who replaced an awful misogynistic male. She was fundamental in my journey to get here.

Eddie Hughes, who is no longer in his place, made quite a powerful speech, some of which I agreed with. I am sorry that he is a little bit scared of me, but I am also quite pleased. I hope that his time on the Committee has brought him on a journey to understand that it is not that women are not capable of doing certain jobs or being in certain positions. It is often that barriers are put in women’s way that are not put in men’s way. It could be the old boys’ club, the secret handshake or what you drink down the pub. Certain barriers are put in women’s way, and that stops them more than their ability to do a job, which is often not the case. I said this at the Committee, but I will repeat it for those who were not there: I will know when we have reached real equality, especially in this place, when we have as many rubbish women as rubbish men. Then I will know that equality has really hit its peak.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about conditioning people, and especially males, from a young age. That is all well and good, but the process of conditioning takes time—decades—and therefore we sometimes have to force that thought process. The way to force it is to have quotas or all-women shortlists or to make the decision makers more accountable. That is how we force conditioning or undo the conditioning that has happened.

More than 57% of women who have ever sat in the House of Commons have been Labour Members. All-women shortlists played a fundamental role in making sure we took that step forwards. To ignore the importance of all-women shortlists or the difference they make is to ignore the progress we often talk about in Parliament. It should not be ignored.

There has been a lot of talk about women in power. It is not just about women being in power; it is about women in power empowering other women. That is vital. We talk about the ladder of success. I like to think that when women are on that ladder, we lay the foundations for an escalator. If we are on that escalator of success, we lay the foundations for a lift, so that we make the journey of the woman coming behind us faster, smoother and easier, and we celebrate that fact. The fact that 86% of the cuts that our Prime Minister has presided over have affected women is a real disappointment for a woman in power.

Labour is seeking gender equality by 2020 or whenever the next general election is. It might be next year—who knows? The last general election was called quite quickly, so we did not have time to enforce all-women shortlists, but even then, the Labour party still achieved 45% of its Members being women. Of the 262 MPs, 119 are female. Labour has more female MPs than all the other political parties added together. That is something to celebrate and talk about. We cannot have this debate without acknowledging how far the Labour party has come.

In regard to black, Asian and minority ethnic representation, 32 out of the 52 are Labour MPs. Again, the fact that that journey has come about is fundamental to who we are as a party in regard to equality, but there is also a thought process and the measures that we have put in place.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

The hon. Lady says that this is fundamental to what her party is about. It has had all-women shortlists for 20 years, yet her hon. Friend Jess Phillips advocates—as my report advocates—that we should perhaps look at extending all-women shortlists, because, as her hon. Friend tells me, the Labour party is still finding it difficult to get women elected to mayoralties and as police and crime commissioners. Why has that not caused a culture change in the hon. Lady’s party if she says that it is part of its culture in the first place?

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities

It is a fact that we have two police and crime commissioners who are women in the Labour party. We could do better in regard to elected Mayors, but the need to do better does not negate the fact that we are doing better than the Conservative party, the Lib Dems or any other party. I concede that we need to do better, can do better and must do better, but that does not in any way negate what we have done or mean that we should not celebrate the fact that the Labour party has done so well. As much as that might grate, it is a fact.

The game changer was all-women shortlists. What I often hear, especially from the Conservative party, is, “We want the best person for the job,” or, “We want the best man for the job.” Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman. The best person could be a woman. I find quite irritating the assumption that a woman getting the job is not the best person for the role.

On the whole, I commend the report. It insists that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority conduct an equality impact assessment, which I think is fundamentally important. I hope the Minister will talk about equality impact assessments and how important they are for analysing what happens and who is affected. I hope that the Government will take equality impact assessments on board in all their policies because, at the end of the day, all the women who are in this place stand on the shoulders of other women who fought really hard, who died and who shed blood, sweat and tears—literally. It is important that we ensure that whatever we produce from this House emboldens and empowers society as a whole, but in particular women.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office) 3:03 pm, 7th December 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and, indeed, to be back in this Chamber after a gap of a considerable number of months. I apologise if I am somewhat rusty. I have often said—and I believe that the Chairman of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, shares the view—that sometimes Parliament is at its best in Westminster Hall, when we are speaking in a consensual and cross-party manner. I think that I recently followed my right hon. Friend, in successive weeks, on “The Politics Show South”. I heard her say one week that she felt that Parliament was at its best when it worked on a cross-party basis in Westminster Hall, and I repeated that the following week. I am sure that the viewers of the BBC’s “Politics South” programme found us slightly tedious, but never mind. We have seen elements of that consensus today. Right hon. and hon. Members, including those who may have spoken and then had to leave, raised a number of really important points, many of which I will struggle to disagree with.

Of course, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate, and all the members of the Select Committee on an excellent report. Unsurprisingly, I have had the opportunity to read and reflect on it and, indeed, the Government response this week.

The issue of diverse representation in Parliament was last discussed in this Chamber just three months ago, in a debate led by my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour Mims Davies. I am sorry that she was unable to be here today, because I also had the opportunity to read the record of that debate and the many important and pertinent comments that both female and male Members of the House made about their struggles to get here and, indeed, some of the challenges that we all face when we are here.

I echo the comment that my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke made about how well Hampshire has done in securing female representation. I believe that we lead the way on diversity, in terms of both gender and BAME representation. We are doing brilliantly on that, but I cannot necessarily point to the reasons why. Back in September, Hannah Bardell made a similar comment about why she could not necessarily share all the secrets of why Livingston and West Lothian had done better than other parts of the country in securing both female representation and female candidates. I was struck by the comment about the constituency that was, I think, the only one in the country with an all-female line-up at the last election.

I was talking about Hampshire. When my right hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt, my hon. Friend Caroline Dinenage and I arrived here in 2010, I was struck by the tales from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke about how miserable this place had been when there were only 17 female Conservative Members. That increased to nearly 50 in 2010, and today it is nearly 70. We now have my hon. Friends the Members for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) and for Eastleigh. Between 2015 and 2017, we also had my former hon. Friend Flick Drummond, then Member for Portsmouth South, whom we all very much miss and would like to see back here.

As my ministerial colleagues have made clear in their response to the report and, indeed, in various debates in the House, we want more progress, and that means a gender-balanced and therefore representative House of Commons. I was struck by the comments, which none of us would disagree with, that this would be a better place if we had better gender representation. There is certainly real aspiration—we have heard some today—on both sides of the House to find talent in the broadest cross-section of society. That should also be the case in our local councils, where women are represented similarly to how they are here: they hold only one third of elected positions and comprise only 17% of council leaders.

Local government is often seen as, and indeed is, a pipeline for talented people who might aspire to come to this place. Looking around the Chamber, I can see people who have been representatives on local authorities, as I was, and who, either by accident or design, found themselves on a trajectory that brought them to Westminster, but I argue that there are woefully low numbers of female council leaders and councillors. If we are to look at local government as our pipeline, we simply cannot take it for granted.

Earlier this week, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke hosted an event entitled “Ask Her to Stand”. That is such a crucial part of this. Whether we are male or female Members of the House and whether we are members of large parties or small ones, we all have a responsibility to find women who are interested and active, to encourage them to develop and to foster their talent, so that they have the confidence to come and occupy the same positions as we do. It is a real privilege to be here, and we have to find constructive and positive solutions to some of the more challenging aspects of the job.

I often spend time encouraging women I meet to think about standing, but I was really struck by the comments of Tulip Siddiq when she was asking what she should say to young girls in her constituency: should she look them in the eye and tell them that this is the greatest place to work, or should she be honest? It is a really difficult question. I had some young girls from St JamesPrimary School in Bermondsey come in here a few weeks ago as part of the “I Can Be” project, and they asked me whether this was a great place to work and whether I loved every minute of my job. I was honest, but I said that the same is true of any job: you will love bits of it and hate bits of it. That is very true in Parliament, but there are some environmental factors. Many Members have referred to both the environment and the culture. I told those six-year-old girls that we have to modernise, and if modernisation can bring with it the removal of the mice, I for one will be a very happy Member of Parliament.

Virtually every Member has spoken about the cultural issues in this place, and I can argue with none of the comments made, especially on voting at midnight. I was going to describe an impromptu surgery, but it was not a surgery. I sat in the Lady Members’ Room between 10 and midnight on Monday and the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn was there for part of the time. I confess I was asleep for some of the time. I talked to some senior Members from her party about what we could do to make this place more attractive. I will give credit to Lyn Brown, who was particularly honest in some of her views. She was right: it is a nonsense that we are here voting at midnight on occasion. Although the issues are serious and important, can any of us attest to being at our best at midnight? I certainly am not, and the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn can attest to the fact that about two minutes before the vote I was fast asleep, and probably snoring.

We have a long way to go and I am conscious that I have many words that I want to say but will probably not get through all of them.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade and Investment)

I thank the Minister for giving way, and for her comments. One of the cultural issues that we touched on in our report was the representation of women and female parliamentarians in the media— the abuse and attention that we often receive. Speaking for myself, I have not received a huge amount of that, but some of my colleagues have. When we look up at the members of the Lobby during Prime Minister’s Question Time, which is about the only time the Press Gallery is ever full, we see how scarce women are among them. Some of the challenge is in the Lobby and in those who report on our parliamentary work. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must do more to ensure that there are more women—and greater diversity—in the media?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office)

Do you know, I really thank the hon. Lady for those comments. The hon. Member for West Ham told me that I would be a coward if I did not stand up in Westminster Hall today and say that part of the problem was the media. The hon. Member for Livingston makes an absolutely valid point about the pale, male and stale nature of those that we see in the Lobby during PMQs. Other hon. Members have mentioned shoes. I cannot appear on the media without being told that I need to lose weight and wear longer skirts. Whose business is that other than mine?

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn made a highly relevant point about Select Committee Chairs. We have a brilliant female Select Committee Chair sitting with us today. However, across the other Select Committees there are too few women Chairs. I remember receiving one of those round-robin emails that we all receive when it is Select Committee election time, from Rachel Reeves when she was standing to be Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. I cannot pretend that she is one of my friends—I barely know her. She sent me an email asking me to support her in that election and I simply replied, “There is one thing that is absolutely certain in an election. If there is not a woman on the ballot paper, a woman will not get elected. By the way, that means I will of course for vote you.” That is an important point. Even when women get to this place, they appear to be somewhat reluctant, for whatever reason, to put themselves forward.

Two of my hon. Friends have left the Chamber. My hon. Friend Eddie Hughes told us a fantastic tale about his all-male upbringing and his background in the construction industry. Even in the construction industry, one can sporadically meet really inspirational women. I attended a reception a couple of months ago, which gives me a brilliant opportunity to mention two female directors of the company Saint-Gobain, who talked to me about the challenges that they face in the construction industry. They looked around this place and said, “It’s not as bad as here, though.” They made a really valid argument.

The hon. Member for Livingston gave us a fantastic insight into Livingston’s proud tradition. She made a valuable point about the banking crash and the evidence that, had there been more women, there would have been different experiences and different challenges, and we all know that that leads to different decision-making processes. I was delighted to hear her reference to “New Dawn”. I was the Chair of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art when we unveiled “New Dawn”. I wish I could say I had been the Chair when it was commissioned, but I cannot claim that. It was brilliant to have a modern 21st-century piece of art in the Palace itself. Too often the modern art is shunted over into Portcullis House, but we and the artist Mary Branson found a great space where we could celebrate and commemorate the journey that so many women have been on to bring us here today.

The hon. Lady mentioned ladders, and Dawn Butler mentioned ladders, escalators and lifts. She is right. Too often there have been examples that we can all point to of women who have pulled up ladders behind them, which is not the way we should go. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has taken a bit of stick today, but I want to share with Members just one tale of a woman who was prepared to get up a ladder in 2010 to launch my general election campaign in the Romsey and Southampton North constituency. I did not think she would go up the ladder to unveil the poster that we had stuck 10 feet up a wall, but she did. She has been an inspiration to many of us and has been prepared to knuckle down and do some pretty heavy lifting when it has been called for.

I am going to destroy the career of Jess Phillips by telling the House how much I love her and her outspokenness and the fact that she has been determined to keep banging the drum through some difficult and trying times. She was right to mention that we have to be prepared to admit when there is a problem. Former Prime Minister David Cameron was quite candid. When he was leader of the Conservative party before he became Prime Minister in 2009, he confessed that the underrepresentation of women and ethnic minorities was,

“a real problem for Parliament and it’s been an even greater problem for my party”.

I know that is 100% accurate because I lifted that out of the report and scribbled it down diligently. We have to be more open and candid. I do not pretend that I have all the solutions—I certainly do not—but the message that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women wanted me to convey is that she is listening to opinions and wants to do more.

I appreciate the disappointment that Members have expressed today about the response to the report. I do not pretend that I am on the easiest pitch trying to defend that—I am clearly not. As I said at the beginning, we approach this in a determined, cross-party and consensual way. The Government Equalities Office has taken a robust approach with business, encouraging organisations to think differently about what they can offer employees, developing strategies to retain and encourage women. The same must apply to the political parties who have to tackle the issue of workplace gender diversity with the same vigour that we are asking of the civil service. As the Minister with responsibility for the civil service in the Cabinet Office, I am conscious that we have some great strategies on returnships and retaining women in the workforce, but that is very much about a variety of solutions in a variety of different places.

I am not sure how much more tolerance people will have for me rambling on. There was a determination that we would speak for only an hour and a half, which I have clearly bust through badly. We have to focus on what the individual parties can do to address the problems. I think that focus is absolutely right. Today has been quite positive and constructive. Just as individual businesses require innovative and niche solutions to their own workforces, so do political parties, and they are best placed to know how to leverage the change within them. Different parties take different approaches to encouraging women’s participation and selecting candidates because they are largely starting from different points.

I was struck by the intervention of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley on my hon. Friend Bill Grant, who has now gone. I knew the answer to the question was women-only shortlists. I knew that they had a massive impact in 1997 and I know it was the Labour party that achieved that. I am clear on that. I am also clear that in most political parties individual constituency associations are autonomous bodies that are absolutely determined to retain control over the selection of candidates, in the same way as I know that Romsey in 2002 was absolutely determined to pick somebody of its own choosing. The same is true for Basingstoke, for Brent Central and for Birmingham, Yardley. We have to allow the parties to have structures that allow those associations to have autonomy. A one-size-fits-all solution will not give us the answer.

I want us to remain open and collaborative, and to talk about successes and what has and has not worked. There is clearly much that we can learn from each other. That is why the Government Equalities Office is commissioning an evidence review, which will encompass the range of approaches taken here and internationally to increase women’s representation. The aim is to provide political parties with a range of possible solutions on which they can draw. That will be supplemented by some qualitative research with women and men in Parliament, to demonstrate the range of experiences, career paths and skills that Members bring to their role. I want it to be clear to prospective candidates that it is just such diversity of experience that makes this place truly democratic.

Turning to the future, next year there will be a great opportunity, when we celebrate the centenary of women’s inclusion in the electorate and in Parliament, to set a marker in the sand from which we cannot roll back. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women will be convening expert academics and colleagues throughout 2018 to establish our aspirations as shared action. I know that she has already approached a number of colleagues here, and will continue to work with them and with peers in the other place. In the light of the new challenges that we face, such as online abuse, which has been mentioned this afternoon, and the constantly evolving role of parliamentarians, we must look towards next year as an opportunity both for an exciting celebration and for addressing some of the difficult aspects of 21st-century politics.

I thank hon. Members for their contributions. I believe we are all working towards the same aim, and I hope that they will continue to use the privilege of their position here, as I shall, to sustain momentum. Those of us with a deep commitment to diversity will champion the issues in our parties. We must do so with vigour and determination. Each of us is a role model for young people who are thinking about what they want to be when they grow up. That is a privileged and special position to be in. I suspect that the majority of our constituents do not know what brought us to this place, or where we worked before. Perhaps we have a responsibility to explain that journey to them, to tell them about the privilege of being part of what I would argue is the world’s greatest democracy, and to encourage more of them to come forward and stand.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 3:22 pm, 7th December 2017

It is wonderful to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Robertson. I thank everyone who has taken the opportunity to come and contribute to the debate, and particularly the Minister for giving such a positive response. It is heartening to hear that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women is undertaking an evidence review. We will all welcome that, and we will welcome her involvement, and that of the Minister, in finding a way forward. It is not a choice; it is a necessity. We need better gender representation and diversity in Parliament. It is the responsibility of us all, and such debates help to move the issue forward. I assure all the Members present for the debate that the Women and Equalities Committee will continue to look at the issue in detail.

Question put and agreed to.


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.

Sitting adjourned.