Equal Franchise Act 1928 — [Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:36 pm on 5th July 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Photo of Rosie Duffield Rosie Duffield Labour, Canterbury 3:00 pm, 5th July 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act 1928.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I rise to mark an important date in British history: 90 years ago, on 2 July, this House ratified the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928. For the first time ever, women were afforded equal rights to men in formal political participation; for the first time ever, women over the age of 21 and women who did not meet arbitrary property qualifications were eligible to vote; and for the first time ever, women made up the majority of the British electorate.

According to the Electoral Commission, in 2017 women were four times more likely than men to cite people fighting to win them the right to vote as a motivation for casting their ballot. Three quarters of women say that they always vote in general elections. This year we rightly celebrate that it is 100 years since some women, through tireless sacrifice and struggle, attained suffrage in the UK, but it would be wrong to forget that many other women—around a third—had to wait another decade to participate fully in this country’s democracy.

During that decade, feminists made advances in their campaign for gender equality across different sectors of British society. On 1 December 1919, Lady Astor became the first woman to take her seat in Parliament. On 23 December 1919, women successfully lobbied Parliament to enact the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which prohibited women’s exclusion from most forms of employment and allowed them to obtain professional employment in any civil or judicial office. In 1920, women were finally afforded the privilege of being able to obtain a formal degree from the University of Oxford, despite having already contributed to its structures and studies for decades.

However, most working-class women did not have the opportunity to stand for political office or to seek professional employment in the judiciary or other such posts, and they certainly did not have the resources to study at any university, let alone Oxford. In fact, during the early 20th century the working class had few opportunities indeed. For that reason, the last century saw the intensification and politicisation of workers’ rights and the growth of the trade union and socialist movements whose values form the very foundations of my party.

Even by the time Ramsay MacDonald became, albeit briefly, the first ever Labour Prime Minister in January 1924, working-class women could still not vote. It pains me to imagine how much more could have been permanently achieved if more than one third of our population had not been disenfranchised for so long and at such a crucial time in the history of the British working class. Would we be further along the march to true equality? Would I still have needed to hold this debate?

Because of the hesitant start to the full enfranchisement of women and the working class, even today many of us in this room will have experienced, from a young age, a world that has not always been particularly inclusive or fair to women, minorities, the working class or, broadly speaking, those deemed to be “others” in society.

Photo of Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Labour, Slough

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate to mark the 90th anniversary of women attaining equal voting rights to men. Unfortunately, there are still some women who, because of their circumstances, feel unable to vote. One example is survivors of domestic abuse who feel unable to register because they do not want to risk their safety. They may not be aware that, thanks to the Electoral Commission, they can register anonymously. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should pay tribute to the charities, groups and organisations—including the Dash Charity and Hestia in my constituency—that work for women’s empowerment and support victims of domestic abuse?

Photo of Rosie Duffield Rosie Duffield Labour, Canterbury

Absolutely. I am a champion of Hestia, so I know of its brilliant work. The Electoral Commission is making sure that women know that their vote is theirs alone.

While on this important date we note the lost potential and the pain caused by sexism and injustice, we also celebrate the tenacity, bravery and resolve of those who fought tooth and nail against the status quo to reverse the injustices of patriarchy, classism and all forms of discrimination. We must also look at what more needs to be done in the struggle for equality. Working-class women may have attained the vote, but many barriers remain to equal political participation and representation, and equality in all aspects of modern life.

This year has seen a number of cross-party initiatives launched to combat the gender pay gap, seeking to remedy an age-old economic injustice faced by women, much like the political disenfranchisement faced by the suffragettes. However, similar to the disparity faced by working-class women in the 1920s, working-class women and minority ethnic women are far more affected by the inequality of the gender pay gap than their middle-class counterparts. Recent Library research shows that women as a whole bear 86% of the costs of austerity, with working class, disabled and minority ethnic women disproportionately affected by cuts to public services and welfare.

I do not say that to create a rift among different groups of women or to sour the mood on this landmark date, but to remind us that it is our duty as parliamentarians to ensure that all women are adequately represented, both in this place and across the UK. On that note, I have learned since my arrival here a year ago, which I have really taken to heart, that those of us privileged enough to be in this place really are women first and partisan politicians second. We need—indeed, want—to work together to improve women’s lives and the future for girls growing up in this country.

It would not be right to celebrate without recognising that we still have a long way to go in our fight for equality. For example, we know that almost 52% of the UK population is female, yet we still make up only one third of all Members. As a representative of the excellent campaign group 50:50 Parliament, which was started by my brilliant friend, Frances Scott, I understand only too well how far we still have to go to achieve a true representation—or simply an accurate picture—of our nation’s population.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. The first general election in which women could stand as candidates was in 1918; then, one female stood in Wales. Last year, 66 candidates in Wales were women, but only 11 of Wales’ 40 MPs are women. Does she agree that we still have a long way to go to achieve parity with our male colleagues?

Photo of Rosie Duffield Rosie Duffield Labour, Canterbury

Absolutely. I am sure that the Welsh Government are doing their bit.

When the debate is reported and shared on social media, I know for certain the comments that will be made, because they always are. Men will type, “Why can women only be represented by women?” “Why do we need more women?” or, “What difference does it make?” as well as other rude comments that I cannot say. I will tell them why. Do we really think that debates leading to legislation and policy change that focus on issues only or mostly affecting women would be on the Order Paper at all without the growing number of us here? Issues brought to the House by my colleagues in recent years include period poverty, the provision of affordable childcare, maternity leave, the gender pay gap, abortion rights, domestic violence, stalking and sexual harassment to name just a few. Could we really have left those issues in the hope that hundreds of male Members would one day stumble upon them and take them forward on our behalf? No.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

Does my hon. Friend agree that another example of that is the campaign of the Women Against State Pension Inequality? Without those women having the franchise and being able to raise their voices electorally, and without all the women MPs in Parliament, that issue would not be in the public domain in the way that it is.

Photo of Rosie Duffield Rosie Duffield Labour, Canterbury

Absolutely. I was happy to meet some of my local WASPI activists yesterday on Parliament square.

We know that men would not have taken those issues forward because they did not in the hundreds of years that they had this place to themselves, so we came here and did it ourselves. A recent and important Bill on upskirting was almost totally stopped in its tracks. It was tabled by a female MP, Wera Hobhouse, and was talked out by a male MP, Sir Christopher Chope, who frankly made a mockery of our Parliament and completely shamed himself. A female Minister is now taking the Bill through the House as the Voyeurism (Offences) (No. 2) Bill, in a Bill Committee made up mostly of women.

Sadly, women still often face societal discrimination and sexism in their everyday lives. Misogyny is rife and in full health. Rather than being consigned to history, it sits at the heart of even current legislation. One particularly disgusting example that is never far from my mind is the so-called two child policy: the epitome and very definition of sexist, disempowering, discriminatory and degrading prejudice towards ordinary working women who are, unlike most people here who get to create the policies, struggling to just get by. That particular policy would not have seemed so out of place 90 or 100 years ago before we marched, starved ourselves, chained ourselves to fences, broke the law, fought back and refused to give in until we got the right to vote.

Although many things have changed, and mostly for the better, so many other things really have not. We have to make sure that the change is not simply on the surface. Women must continue to fight for our rights, for equality, for a seat at the table and a voice in the decision-making processes—not only white, wealthy and middle-class women but working women, disabled women, black and minority ethnic women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender women; women from all cultures, all religious faiths and every financial background. We must support each other, encourage one another and keep looking around the table to see if we are all represented.

One way in which we can practically commit to that aim is through cross-party solidarity on enacting and fully implementing section 106 of the Equality Act 2010. Section 106 would ensure that all political parties adequately report on the diversity of their candidates, allowing us to scrutinise discriminatory practices and hold parties to account when they fall short of what is necessary for real and true equality. This is an initiative recommended by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, the Labour party’s shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend Dawn Butler, the Fawcett Society, CARE International and many more.

Today in the Chamber we were due to debate proxy voting. Two weeks ago, a few of our women MPs, one seriously ill and two very heavily pregnant, were forced to go through the crowded voting lobbies, which caused them considerable physical discomfort as well as being an extremely unpleasant experience. My hon. Friend Naz Shah describes it in an article in today’s Guardian as,

“degrading, humiliating and downright horrible.”

I agree with her when she says,

“It should never have happened.”

That practice needs to change as soon as possible, and proxy voting is one option that would put an end to such practices. We need and want to encourage more women to come to this place, and some women have babies.

If we are serious about women’s representation and about celebrating the legacy of those fearless women who so vociferously fought for our right to stand here today, we must do our bit to ensure that those who wish to stand here do not face the barriers that many of us have had to. Ninety years ago, working women like my grandmother and great-aunts and their peers who served, cooked and laundered for the local landowners got to have their say. Our job here is to speak for those who are still not here but need to be, and to hold the doors of Parliament wide open to welcome them in to take their rightful place beside us.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury) 3:12 pm, 5th July 2018

It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Ms Buck, and to speak under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend Rosie Duffield for securing the debate and giving us all the opportunity to talk about this issue today. She treated us to a really excellent contribution, which I look forward to reading in Hansard, because she touched on so many salient and important current political points.

I want to talk about the history of all women in this year of feminist anniversaries. The centenary of partial suffrage for women is important, but the centenary that means most to me will come in 10 years’ time. The women of my family were unable to vote in 1918, 1922, ’23 or ’24 because they were working class—they did not own property and they were not married to a man who owned property. As my hon. Friend has said, more than half the adult women in the UK were denied suffrage for a decade longer.

My family were proud of the right that they won. I was told at a really early age that they did not care who I voted for—as if!—but I had to vote. Only by voting would I respect the fight and the sacrifices made to secure my franchise. We sometimes forget that the story of suffrage is not just middle-class and white. Suffrage fighters were black, Indian, and disabled, like May Billinghurst, who once used her wheelchair as a battering ram to escape a police cordon when she had been trapped by a group of men.

Photo of Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Labour, Slough

Does my hon. Friend agree that individuals such as Princess Sophia Duleep Singh are often left out of history and not celebrated as much as some of their counterparts, and that that is something that we need to remedy in our history?

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Sophia Duleep Singh. She was indeed a doughty fighter, and all too often women like her have been written out of our history. He does us a great service by bringing her name into the debate.

Above all, for me, suffrage fighters were working-class. The first branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union was opened in my constituency in Canning Town, where my family lived. It was opened by Sylvia Pankhurst, but equally by the working-class women Minnie Baldock and Annie Kenney, who was a mill worker. It is fair to say that the Women’s Social and Political Union had become quite autocratic over time and the leadership appeared increasingly intimidated by the strength of the heavily working-class branches of east London, so those branches were expelled, along with Sylvia Pankhurst, and they formed the new East London Federation of Suffragettes.

The success of the group was massive. They organised among workers, including more than 5 million women who worked in factories during the first world war. They fought against deprivation in working-class communities, opening free milk depots for mums with young children and canteens that served affordable, nutritious food. That was so important then—and sadly now. They even opened a co-operative toy factory that paid a living wage. It included a crèche and, unsurprisingly, it recognised the needs of working mothers. At the time, working women were generally on poverty wages in munitions factories or they were sewing uniforms at home. However, the east London suffragettes stepped up their support for working communities and refused to allow the war to stop their campaign, continuing to build momentum for genuinely universal suffrage when others had, frankly, given up.

It is true that Sylvia Pankhurst’s socialist convictions were important to the movement but, as she recognised herself, it was the working-class women who were key. She said that working-class women were:

“not merely the argument of more fortunate people, but...fighters on their own account, despising mere platitudes...and demanding for themselves and their families a full share of the benefits of civilisation and progress.”

She was proved right. After she had been imprisoned and was weak from force-feeding, it was the women of the east of London who offered her protection.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

Does my hon. Friend share my view that although it is brilliant to see the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, it would be as good to see a statue of Sylvia on Clerkenwell Green?

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I certainly do, and perhaps we could do something about the Payne family, who took Sylvia in when she was weak. The Payne family came from Old Ford, which is kind of Hackney, kind of Tower Hamlets, and kind of Stratford—so that makes it mine—and they were shoemakers. Police officers tried to surround the house that Sylvia was in, but they were confronted by really strong women who simply stood firm and resolute and refused to move. Special branch officers attempted to bribe the women to withdraw and to allow them to use their rooms for surveillance. They offered decent money, but every single woman and family, I am proud to say, stood firm and refused to accept the bribes. They refused to move. I believe that, if the East London Federation had not put working-class women first, the anniversary that we are celebrating today would have taken much longer to achieve.

Those women stood on the shoulders of the match women who went on strike. They were from the same area and of the same stock. History is clear: the match women’s success in organising for themselves and fighting for their rights inspired London’s east end dockers to do the same. Those women were the wives, daughters, sister and mothers of the dockers who went on strike the year after. The match women did not plead for inclusion in the labour movement, because they created it. They organised, fought and won against massive odds. They were instrumental in founding a political labour movement that continues to fight for fair pay and conditions for all Britain’s workers today.

I am happy that people know about those events through the wonderful work of the amazing historian Dr Louise Raw, whose sixth successful annual match women’s festival took place last Saturday. Louise and I have been campaigning for a proper memorial for the match women at the Bryant and May factory site in Bow where they worked. Progress is slow, but I am glad to tell the sisters present—and the brothers—that I reckon we will make it within the next 12 months. We have strong support from residents, historians and activists.

We are making some progress with recognition of our history as working-class women. However, Members will agree that we have a way to go, because in the east of London we have a Jack the Ripper museum that glamorises misogynist murders and turns the working-class women victims into mere props. At the same time, one of the victims, Annie Chapman, is buried in a pauper’s grave in Newham, and one of the match women’s leaders, Sarah Chapman—no relation, as it happens—is buried just a few metres away. Those are the stories that we need to tell and remember. Those are the people we need to memorialise—not a sad, sick man.

Why do we have a Jack the Ripper museum? The building was originally supposed to be a celebration of east end women but, according to newspaper reports, the developers lied. The travesty of the Ripper museum in Cable Street, of all places, may have a positive outcome yet, because the campaign for an east end women’s museum is stronger than ever. The campaigners aim to secure a permanent home for their exhibitions, which they expect to open in 2020. They are still talking about putting the museum in Barking—but I still have my dreams.

Learning about our history is important, because unless we know where we come from and who we are, it is hard to know where we can go. The history we talk about today can play a part in inspiring a new generation. Remembering our past helps us to understand our present and imagine our future. If more people knew about the true contribution of working-class women to the suffrage and labour movements, and the rights and prosperity in this society today, they would be less likely to overlook the amazing women who do that same work now. The potential that my working-class sisters have is enormous. They need the recognition and the space to achieve it.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport 3:24 pm, 5th July 2018

I thank my hon. Friend Rosie Duffield for securing the debate. She is a woman I am proud of, as I know many Members are.

It is vital in such a debate not only to celebrate the achievement of the 1928 Act, but to remember the stories of the women and fighters who campaigned for it and who won the battle for electoral reform, suffrage and equality. It is 100 years since some women got the right to vote—not all of them, but some. It was a good step forward. People often get confused between the different Representation of the People Acts. Were it not for the fantastic Voice & Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall, it would be easy for Members of Parliament, too, to be confused about when each piece of legislation was passed, and what it meant.

In 1918 the vote was given to some women—only those at the top of society. The 1928 Act gave the vote to all women over 21, rather than those over 30 who were landowners. That was a huge step forward, and it meant that 52.5% of the electorate in the 1929 general election were women. That was transformative. The fact that it took 10 years—two whole Parliaments—fully to extend the franchise shows just how scared the establishment was of giving proper representation to women and the working class across the UK.

I pay tribute to the incredible campaigners who continued to make the case for the legislation. Many gave up their freedom, faced imprisonment or went on hunger strikes. Many, such as Emily Davison, gave their lives for the cause, but the campaigners never gave up. They are an inspiration to all of us in this House and we pledge ourselves to further their cause. The story is often overlooked.

In Plymouth we are proud to be part of the suffragette story, and of the fact that the suffragette movement there was not just one of rich women campaigning for the vote. The women took things into their own hands. Members may be familiar with the beautiful Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe. That lighthouse still stands proudly, but the suffragettes put a bomb in it and tried to blow it up. They wanted to attract attention to their cause. I am glad that the lighthouse still stands, but the story of how local women in Plymouth resorted to those means to try to gain attention and credibility for their cause should continue to be talked about.

I want to talk now about Nancy Astor. As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury said, the story of how we reached the point where only a third of our Parliament are women started with Nancy Astor taking her seat in 1919. She represented Plymouth Sutton and was introduced to the House of Commons flanked by Balfour and Lloyd George. It will be the 100th anniversary of her election—and of Plymouth’s voting for a woman—in November 2019. She and I would disagree fundamentally on nearly everything. She stood for many things that I could not stomach, countenance or go along with, and I am sure that that would be the case for nearly every Member. We would not share her views on slavery, anti-Semitism, fascism and LGBT equality, but her story, the fact that she was the first woman to take her seat in this place, and the fact that Plymouth was the first place to elect a woman who took her seat means we are intimately entwined in the story, which we must keep telling.

There are far too many girls and young women in schools in Plymouth and across the country who do not know about Nancy Astor. I do not want her political views to be advocated; I want the story of brave women, many of them standing alone, doing brave things and pushing the boundaries for women in general. She was initially known as the Member of Parliament for women, and we should talk about her role. There should be debate about the good and bad sides of all politicians. The first step that she took is important. It may seem odd for me as a Labour MP to speak here about a Conservative MP—especially one I fundamentally disagree with—but we need to tell the story. It frustrates me that the story of women in our politics is not told. We hear about men, and occasionally about the women standing behind them. We need to break that, and we can do so only when we—men in particular—start to tell the story. We cannot leave it to women to tell the story of women in politics. It is for all Members of Parliament, male and female, to talk up the role of women in Parliament.

Photo of Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Labour, Slough

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. As to women pushing boundaries, does he agree that women, and especially those from ethnic minorities, are often not given much credit for their accomplishments? The first black lady mayor in the country, Lydia Simmons, was elected in Slough. She was an inspiration for many, yet often such individuals do not get the credit they deserve.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

My hon. Friend has proved my point precisely that we need male MPs speaking up as well as female MPs, and I thank him for taking the advice so quickly.

I recently visited the superb Voice & Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall. I pay tribute to the House authorities for putting it on. It really is a superb exhibition, and hon. Members who have not visited need to take the time to do so. They will notice that one exhibit is Nancy Astor’s dress, on loan from Plymouth museum. She picked the dress because it looked like a man’s suit; it looks like a double-breasted suit. Beside it is a little plaque explaining that she chose it because she wanted people to judge her by what she said and not for what she wore. It is therefore somewhat ironic that 99 years later I stand here, as one of her successors, talking about her dress and disagreeing with all her words, but perhaps those are the joys of democracy.

Parliament was a very different place when Nancy Astor became a Member. Voice & Vote tells us the story of a system that did not welcome women to Parliament. It did not afford them the equality and credibility that they deserved by virtue of their election. We can see that in the fact that in 1929 there was only one coat hook in the Lady Members’ Room for eight female MPs. That was simply unacceptable. However, there is still far too much that the women at that time, Nancy Astor included, were fighting for that we are still fighting for today.

Nancy Astor was not afraid to stand up for herself as a woman, even in the face of power. She had an incredibly canny sense of humour, and people who have spent time in Plymouth will know many stories about her. I will touch on just a few. In particular, I want to touch on her relationship with Winston Churchill. Many hon. Members will know one story about it, but there were so many glorious clashes between them. Apparently, Churchill once told Nancy Astor that having a woman in Parliament was like having one intrude on him in the bathroom, to which she retorted, “You’re not handsome enough to have such fears.” She is also said to have responded to a question from Churchill about what disguise he should wear to a masquerade ball by saying, “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister?” But perhaps the most famous exchange, which I am sure all hon. Members will know of, is the one in which Nancy Astor said, “Mr. Churchill, if you were my husband, I would poison your tea,” to which Churchill replied, “Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it.”

So many stories are told about Nancy Astor, but so few are told about many of the other fantastic female MPs for Plymouth. I want to single out Lucy Middleton, who was the MP from 1945 to 1951 and a real tower of strength in the trade union movement. She is not remembered enough by my party in Plymouth, or by all of us here. Sadly, she lost her seat, to a male member of the Astor dynasty, Jakie Astor, in 1951, but it is good to see her name on the wall of female MPs in the Voice & Vote exhibition, because there is so much more that needs to be said in that respect.

One thing that frustrates me every time I come to Parliament—and that helps keep alive in me the fire so that I do not become accustomed to or cushioned by this place—is looking around the rooms in which we have our meetings and seeing all the old white men in wigs staring down at me. This place has a problem, because nearly every room—except, perhaps, this one—has too many pictures of men, too many pictures of old men, and too many pictures of old, white, rich men on the walls. Where are the women? Every single one of these rooms should have 50:50 representation. If there are not the paintings of women from our political history, commission them or borrow them and put them up. Take down those images of old white men, so that when young children from Plymouth come to visit Parliament they see pictures of people who look like them. Let us also ensure that there is not just male and female representation. Let us ensure that we have on our walls LGBT heroes, black, Asian and minority ethnic heroes, and disabled heroes. This place looks far too much like the old stale white male club that it sometimes was in the past.

We can change that. We need to do it by speaking up about equality. We need to continue to be restless about it to ensure that we keep fighting the misogyny that we see in our politics, in our parties and in our society. We need to give a voice to the single parents, to the WASPI women and to those people who are standing up for equality and want a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. That is what we all need to do. We can all do our bit to ensure that we get there by telling the story of women in politics, and the 1928 Act is a really important part of that. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury still being in this place in 10 years’ time to lead the debate on the 100th anniversary of that Act.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown 3:34 pm, 5th July 2018

I thank my hon. Friend Rosie Duffield for securing the debate. I will start my contribution by remembering Margaret Bondfield. Margaret was a shop worker and union official from Brighton who was foundational in extending the franchise to working-class women. She was the first woman Minister and the first woman Privy Counsellor, and she was a Labour MP.

As a campaigner for women’s suffrage, Margaret was part of a broader labour movement with other working-class suffragettes, fighting for all women to have equal rights with men. This year, of course, marks 90 years of the equal franchise, but it is also the centenary of the unequal franchise for women—that is probably what we should call it. Ten years previously, the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed to give middle-class and upper-class women the vote. For Margaret and the millions of other working-class women, that meant one rule for the rich and another for the poor. A third of the least well-off women could not vote.

We cannot look at gender separately from class. The fight for suffrage and equality is a difficult journey. Margaret, after years of condemnation and even imprisonment because of trade union activities, understood that the struggles of unionisation and feminism went hand in hand. Let us be clear: it is thanks to the many sacrifices made by Margaret and fellow suffragettes that the struggle for gender equality has been transformed into law. Change can happen only when ordinary people organise together to fight to shape their future. We must remember those women who fought to shape their future, and in doing so helped others. We cannot forget either those who stood in solidarity with the suffragettes. Of course, male Labour MPs such as Keir Hardie and George Lansbury resigned their positions and faced imprisonment on this issue as well.

The struggle for gender equality has not yet been won elsewhere in the world, and sometimes the fight takes place vociferously on the streets as well as in parliamentary chambers. Earlier this year, I went to northern Syria, where I met the People’s Protection Units, the YPG, and the YPJ, the Women’s Protection Units, of the Kurdish fighters. They are not only fighting the Islamic State in the middle east, but building a feminist revolution, in which all positions are held jointly by women and men. Women hold 50% of all the positions in their organisation—that is better than we do in the UK. There is still a lot to learn. We must remember and show solidarity with the YPJ fighters and other feminist fighters around the world. Those women take up not only the torch against persecution and disenfranchisement, but the fight for a global humanity and against the fascism of ISIS. They remind us that each battle takes us a step closer to equality.

This year, of course, we have seen erected in Parliament Square the statue of Millicent Fawcett, who lived in Brighton and whose husband was the first non-Conservative Member of Parliament in Brighton. On the plinth are 58 names, but there are many more names that we must remember. Today, however, some of their greatest achievements of progress are being rolled back—progress not just for women, but for those with disabilities, LGBT people and BAME people. Severe cuts have landed disproportionately on women and ethnic minorities. Since 2010, 86% of the money raised from Conservative tax and social security changes has come straight out of women’s pockets. And of course the introduction of voter ID harms working-class women of colour the most.

The Young Women’s Trust found that young women are especially likely to be on low pay and in insecure jobs. One sixth of young women have been on less than the minimum wage, and almost half are worried about job security. The Office for National Statistics says that half a million young women are workless. Despite most wanting jobs, they cannot afford to work because of lack of childcare, direct discrimination, and lack of support to find jobs.

We cannot stop fighting for women, especially when, I believe, this Government are not doing enough; nor can we ignore the central role of working people in demanding social change. These rights are hard-won not by asking nicely, but by feminists’ and working class people’s continued commitment to equality. A campaign of equality will always find its home in the Labour movement.

When Margaret Bondfield and fellow suffragettes joined the labour movement to fight for equality, they found a home in the Labour party. Sewing machinists such as Rose Boland and Sheila Douglas, who fought for what became the Equal Pay Act 1970, found their home in the Labour party. Today, women make up half of our shadow Cabinet. A third of Labour Members are women—more than any other political party. Labour has always led the way in guaranteeing women’s representation through our party structures, but it still needs to do more internally, and I think other parties do, too.

We will always welcome those demanding social change for what they believe in. Equality fighters will always have a home in the Labour party. In Brighton we have a campaign to commemorate Liberal and Labour party women on blue plaques around our city this year. We hope to have a statue of the first suffragette to die, who was from Brighton, erected in Brighton. I believe every town should have a statue of a woman, because, as my hon. Friend Luke Pollard said, there are far too many representations of men, not only in Parliament, but in our communities. Those struggles and fights will have a home in the Labour party. I hope that local Labour parties and other parties will fight for that across the country.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords) 3:41 pm, 5th July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I thank Rosie Duffield for bringing this debate to the House and giving me the opportunity to speak on the subject today.

We have spent a lot of time this year marking the anniversaries of universal suffrage. Every time I think about this, what I find remarkable is not how long ago it was, but how recent. The beginning of the 20th century was an age of modernity—there were motorcars, aeroplanes, radios and televisions; there were new advances in thinking in science and technology; there was an avant-garde movement in the arts, architecture and music. Yet while all that was happening, half—in fact, more than half—of our population were denied the basic political rights given to the other half. On reflection, that is a monstrous injustice, and the fact that it could have existed for so long while our modern constitution was being shaped is a source of great shame, and a black mark on our collective history.

Universal suffrage had been a long time coming when it happened. I have spent some time recently looking at the political agitation of the late 18th century, from Thomas Muir in Scotland to Thomas Paine here and Wolfe Tone in Ireland. They were agitating for universal suffrage—basic political suffrage—in an age when there was none. The role of women was alive and present in those debates. Since we have time, I want to read for the record the opening lines of a poem by Robert Burns, written in 1792:

“While Europe's eye is fix’d on mighty things,

The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;

While quacks of State must each produce his plan,

And even children lisp the Rights of Man;

Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,

The Rights of Woman merit some attention.”

That shows that in 1792 there was a live discussion about the political rights distributed among men and women.

The exhibition just outside this Chamber in Westminster Hall shows that throughout the 19th century there was agitation, in the Reform Acts of the 1830s and driving on throughout that century. People were asking for reforms for a very long time. It is hard to imagine now the political organisation of men in this country and the degree to which that patriarchy practised misogyny and exclusion. It is quite phenomenal that it took so long—decades and generations—for these most basic of reforms to be achieved.

Having the right to vote is an end in itself, but increasing the franchise and bringing women into the electorate and then into Parliament achieved many other great ends. In particular, it overcame much exclusion, inequality and discrimination that pervaded every aspect of social policy. Even in the period 1918 to 1939, there were many advances in social and economic legislation, to the betterment of women and our society, and the task continues today. It is sad that we have to admit this, but it is a fact that there is a correlation between the involvement of women in the rules that govern our society and the effect those rules have on sexual inequality.

I hope we are nearing the end of this process. I hope we are getting to a situation where we have genuine equality and where our public policy is genuinely equal, but as colleagues have said, we are still at it. Government policy today still has a worse effect on women in our society than on men. The welfare cuts fall mainly on women. The rape clause means that women now have to prove that they have been raped to get child benefit for their third child. The WASPI inequality—I think that all of us would agree that men and women should have equal pension rights—was brought in in a ham-fisted way. The denial and breaking of an obligation and guarantee given to so many born in the 1950s is a monstrous act of Government policy. Those things are still with us today.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

The mistakes made with the WASPI women—not informing people about changes—are still happening today with the change in universal credit. If women transitioning with their families on to universal credit have more than two children, they are not being told that they will lose the benefit after the two-child cut-off. The opportunity of WASPI is to learn the lessons and to help women with three children especially to understand that cuts are coming for them. That is not being done by Government at the moment.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords)

Indeed. It would probably be unfair to expect the Cabinet Office Minister to respond to that point on behalf of the Government, but perhaps she will commit to take it back to discuss with colleagues.

It would be remiss of me to speak on behalf of the Scottish National party without saying something about the many great women who have contributed much to the politics not just of Scotland but of the United Kingdom as a whole. I shall mention only three: in 1967 Winnie Ewing tore the establishment apart by winning the Hamilton by-election, surprising everyone in British politics and beginning 51 years of unbroken representation by my party in this place; in the following decade Margo MacDonald did the same in not one but two by-elections, upturning the political firmament and in many ways creating the conditions that have led to the modern political dynamic in Scotland now; and of course Nicola Sturgeon, our First Minister in Scotland, who has been a beacon, an inspiration and a role model for young women in Scotland and throughout the Europe and the modern world.

Nicola Sturgeon presides over one of the few Cabinets among Governments that is gender-balanced, made up half of women and half of men. It has been praised as a role model by the United Nations. The Scottish Government are also moving forward in many other respects to improve the representation of women in public life, setting targets and quotas for representation in our public board rooms, hoping to encourage the private sector to follow suit.

There has been a big debate about quotas—whether they are a right and proper thing and whether they genuinely advance women or are in some ways unnecessary or patronising to women. My experience is clear: quotas are a way of breaking the inertia and stasis that surround the existing system. It is a way of asking and answering a question about whether women are capable of doing the job. When given the chance, they are not just capable but in my view more capable than their male counterparts. That is the experience of the Scottish Government in action, which the rest of the United Kingdom might choose to learn from.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

The Labour party has the highest proportion of female MPs, which has been achieved through all-women shortlists—a mechanism that was put in place to make that change. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that similar mechanisms should be put in place across all political parties?

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords)

Yes. I am not saying that we should necessarily copy the Labour party rulebook, but a similar objective and similar mechanisms should certainly be put in place. We have something similar in my party, although not for every seat. Many seats that we do not hold are designated as all-women shortlists so a female candidate is selected. In Scotland, that has resulted in 43% of the governing party, my party, being women—still not 50%, but further forward than many other parties can boast of. Those policies have obsolescence built in, because once they have achieved the desired effect, they are no longer necessary.

As we reflect on the 90th anniversary of universal suffrage and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of votes for women, we should also consider what we can do across the globe as an international player. In many countries, the rights of women resemble what they were in this country 90 years or 100 years ago. That needs to be built into our foreign policy much more—again, I do not expect the Cabinet Minister to respond to that—so that our relationship with other countries is conditioned and qualified by the way in which they treat their citizens and particularly women in their societies. We should not have beneficial relations, roll out the red carpet or sign arms deals, or whatever, with countries that manifestly practise discrimination within their own borders. That would bring long-overdue principle into politics and Government policy and, as we look forward on this anniversary, it would be a practical contribution that we could make to celebrate the gains already made and recognise how much still needs to be done throughout the world.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities 3:52 pm, 5th July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Buck. I congratulate my hon. Friend Rosie Duffield on securing this important debate. It has been great to listen to all these names, which are now in Hansard in perpetuity, and know that we have done our bit to recognise working-class women who have been, and are still, often ignored.

In history, working-class women, the poorer suffragettes, were referred to as “women quite unknown”. My hon. Friend mentioned how few opportunities there were for working-class women. She talked about inequality and the gender pay gap, and the way that they are still poorer female citizens. She also mentioned 50:50 Parliament, which we campaign on with Frances Scott, who is here today. We need to ensure that upskirting and revenge porn become sexual offences so that women who suffer do not have to make themselves publicly known.

How can we achieve all that in this day and age? We can all play our part. We can use inclusion riders, like actors who say, “I will not star in a film if it does not involve diversity in its pipeline and creation.” We have also talked about various sections of the Equality Act 2010. I hope that when the Minister responds, she might be tempted to announce that the Government will enact section 1 of the Act, which would force public bodies to take into account socioeconomic disadvantage when making policy decisions. If we had more consideration of that when policies were being developed, we would see fewer policies like the third-child policy, and fewer policies like those under which 86% of cuts fall on the shoulders of women and black, Asian and minority ethnic women suffer more than any other group.

My hon. Friend also mentioned my hon. Friend Naz Shah, who is recovering. The proxy vote debate, which was supposed to be today, has been postponed. I had hoped that all the women MPs who were ready and poised to speak would come to this debate to at least listen or even make their speeches, because then they would not have been wasted.

There were many great contributions to the debate, and I will touch on a few. My hon. Friend Lyn Brown flew the flag for working-class women, the different types of women and the strength of east London women, which I can obviously attest to. She gave a voice to the match women and talked about the leaders of those times, who were buried in paupers’ graves after all their struggles.

My hon. Friend Luke Pollard talked about Nancy Astor and how we have to talk about the journeys of women, even those we disagree with. Of course, I often talk about women I disagree with and the policies they make. Their story deserves to be told, just like everybody else’s. It is important that we stand up for other people’s rights. Let us imagine how quickly we would move towards equality if all men spoke about the rights of women, all white people spoke about the equality of black people, and all straight people spoke about LGBT+ people. We must all play our part in speaking up for equality, because we all play a part in each other’s journey. As Martin Luther King said:

“I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

My hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle spoke about Margaret Bondfield, the first female Minister under Labour, which made me think about all the firsts that Labour has achieved. I would like to read them out, but there are so many that it would take at least an hour, and I do not have that much time. Some of them are to be celebrated: we have had the first black female MP, the first lesbian Minister and the first black female Minister—that is me. There are also some sad firsts, such as Maureen Colquhoun, a Labour MP who was born in 1928, who was gay and outed by the Daily Mail, which still happens today. Newspapers still think that that is okay, which shows how far we have to go.

We also heard some great interventions about 1950s women. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi, who is no longer in his place, for wearing the colours of the suffragettes in his turban. He talked about Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and the hidden histories that have been ignored or forgotten, which this debate has shined a light on.

Poorer women were treated worse than middle-class women. They were treated more brutally by the police, prison wardens and magistrates. As I said, I am pleased that we are recognising them. To remember them and their struggle is to remember our own struggle and to adopt their struggle as our own.

As has been said, alongside the growing women’s suffrage movement was the women’s labour movement, which included groups such as the Women’s Protective and Provident League, the Co-operative Women’s Guild, the Women’s Trade Union Association and women in the young Independent Labour party, which would probably be known as Momentum today. Those women were referred to as “radical suffragists”. I cannot see what was radical about them, apart from wanting equality. However, those “radical suffragists” included people such as Sarah Reddish, Ada Nield Chew, Helen Silcock and Selina Cooper. Those women mobilised other women in the trade union movement—in fact, they mobilised almost 30,000 people to sign a suffrage petition, and that was without the internet, Twitter, Facebook, mobile phones and WhatsApp.

Ada Nield Chew said that if the NUWSS’s request had been granted in 1884,

“the entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised” , but, as she added,

“the great body of working women, married or single, would be voteless still”.

That message rings true with me. The radical suffragists, as they were known, began to move away from the NUWSS, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham spoke about. That reminded me of something that I did recently. I was a member of a women’s WhatsApp group, but I became so frustrated with trying to get members of that group to understand and consider the intersectionality of women that in the end I left the group, and I was not the only one to do so. It did not feel radical to leave that group; it obviously just entailed the click of a button. However, it reminded me of those powerful working-class women and it made me realise that the fight for recognition of, and equality for, all women is a constant struggle. We have to talk about it and fight for it constantly, otherwise we will be dragged backwards. That is really a stark realisation, because I would have hoped that we would have progressed.

I cannot confirm or deny whether I joined a new radical women’s WhatsApp group, but those working-class women broke away and formed “Womanhood Suffrage”, or the Women’s Social and Political Union. The WSPU’s strapline and objective was:

“A vote for every adult woman, regardless of whether she owned property.”

When working-class women fight, they fight for everybody; they do not just fight for a select group. That is a lesson that truly still needs to be learned in some feminist circles. What those women were fighting for sounds really simple now; it does not sound radical to me at all. As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury asked, if all women had received the vote earlier, how far towards equality would we be now? We might not even be having this debate.

As we have heard, the first march was from east London, and it included trade unionists such as Minnie Bladcock, Sylvia Pankhurst and Dora Montefiore, who were working-class women using their non-working day to march. They worked six days a week and on the one day that they were not working they marched to Westminster and back. In a way, it can be said that working-class women committed more, in that they sacrificed more. They had the daily struggles of life. They had no home help; when they left to march on that one day off, they had to go back home afterwards and do everything else that they needed to. They had less time, less money and less formal education than many others, yet still they fought, and fought for everybody. They fought for food, they fought for their rights, they fought for dignity and respect, and they fought for every woman’s rights. And they were known as radical—I really do not get it.

Later, the WSPU was taken over by wealthy women, and it moved away from its roots in the labour movement and the trade union movement. It became ineffective and it was too far removed from its roots; some people would say that has been repeated in some circles. However, Sylvia Pankhurst reclaimed the movement, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury that we should perhaps see a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst. Not all women were up for the fight. Some women described the working-class women’s movement in this way:

“A working women’s movement was of no value—working women were the weakest portion of the sex...their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest.”

That was an insult, but let us hope that we are moving forward.

The fact is that the Representation of the People Act 1918 enabled the representation of less than half the adult women in the UK. However, the Equal Franchise Act 1928 was literally equal. Women fought not only for the right to vote but for economic and social rights, through the labour movement and the trade union movement. We are still fighting for those rights today, as we have heard from many hon. Members.

To forget the place of working-class women, disabled women and black women in history is to be complicit in the misogynistic class war, and to forget the interconnectivity of the Labour party and the labour movement in that is to do a disservice to the truth. In this day and age of fake news, the truth has never been so important, so it is vital that we correct the record and put on the record the names of these working-class women at each and every opportunity that we get.

This year saw the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square, and I am thankful to the Mayor of London for making that happen. There are about 58 or so names of women, mainly those of working-class women, around the plinth. However, I would like to see a statue of Sarah Parker Remond, the only black woman known to have signed the Representation of the People Act 1918. I am pleased to say that the Mayor of London and his team are meeting me to discuss that proposal. While I am there, I might even put in a plug for a little statue of Sylvia Pankhurst, as my hon. Friend Jo Stevens suggested.

Our job here in Parliament is to give a voice to the voiceless.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

When I first got into Parliament, I tabled a question to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, asking what the official figures were for the number of men and the number of women represented in statues and other public art. However, the UK Government do not keep those statistics. I think we should. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should encourage Ministers to start recording equality in our public art, so that we understand the scale of the challenge ahead of us?

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

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I absolutely agree, because only then will we be able to measure how far we have come and what still needs to be done.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury)

While my hon. Friend is advocating on behalf of the statutes that we could build, maybe we could have a statue that had some of the working-class women around it, such as Minnie Bladcock and Annie Kenne; maybe they could stand shoulder to shoulder with the other women she wants on the plinth. Maybe we could have a really big platform with lots of women from the suffrage movement standing tall.

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

How amazing would it be to walk around different parts of London and the country, and see statues of women, and learn about their history, and know that we have made that happen? People always bang on about Britain having had two female Prime Ministers. Well, we have a female Prime Minister—I am not saying that I want statutes of the female Prime Minister going up all around the place, but I am saying that the female Prime Minister can make the decision. She can say, “Right, I will give the money for this to happen, so that we can embrace our rich and colourful and socialist history”, because our job is to give a voice to the voiceless and to uncover the hidden stories. Should I have missed out the word “socialist” there? [Laughter.] Our job is to put a name to “A.N. Other” and to “Anonymous”, to ensure that history becomes herstory, and that herstory paints a true picture of a moment in time.

Working-class women fought for all women, so when women of today fight for the select, privileged few, I find it hard to refer to them as feminists, and when they use their voice to amplify their privilege and ignore the cries of the less fortunate, I find it hard to support the cause wholeheartedly. I hope that in time people will use their power and privilege for progress. People often talk about the legacy that they will leave behind; I think that we need to talk about the foundation that we will leave behind. Women who are on the ladder of success should leave behind them the foundation for an escalator, and the women who are on the escalator of success should leave behind them the foundation for a lift, so that those women who come behind us get to that destination, quicker and more smoothly.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip 4:09 pm, 5th July 2018

May I say how pleased I am to have you presiding over us today, Ms Buck? I will make a few remarks before ensuring that Rosie Duffield can wrap up the debate. I begin by thanking her for bringing forward this debate on the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act 1928. I am delighted to play my part in recognising that milestone. I will set out some of the work that the Government are undertaking to mark the anniversary and our plans for ensuring that all citizens feel empowered to be part of democracy as we enjoy it in this country.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

Perhaps the hon. Lady should give me a chance to get started, but go on—make it good.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

The Minister specifically mentioned allowing people to participate in democracy. Would it not be a wonderful thing on this anniversary to give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

The hon. Lady will need to wait for another 90 minutes in another Westminster Hall debate for the full discussion on that.

I thank the hon. Member for Canterbury for her commitment to equality for all members of our society. I am aware of the work she does with the 50:50 Parliament campaign, and I pay tribute to it. I am glad she shares my view and the Government’s view that no one in our society is more important than anyone else. Every individual, no matter their gender or background, has an equal role and, in relation to my particular brief, an equal right to vote.

As a fellow female parliamentarian, it is important to acknowledge the efforts of the brilliant women who paved the way for us to be here today. I thank Lyn Brown for beginning the Back-Bench contributions with an exposition of the history that is at play here. It is important to think about the past as we consider our present and our future. Without the tireless efforts of those women and the men who championed their cause, perhaps most of us in this room would not have a voice in society, let alone in this place. I am proud to be part of the present, when we have the most diverse Parliament in British history, but there is a lot more to do.

We all welcome such initiatives as the 50:50 campaign, the #AskHerToStand campaign and Parliament’s own Vote 100 project, which make the goal of gender balance a long-needed reality. I thank Tommy Sheppard for reminding us that progress needs to be encouraged and supported internationally.

This week is National Democracy Week, which has been timed to coincide with Monday’s important anniversary. Many of the events happening up and down the country will be highlighting the role played by those who fought for equal voting rights, which included women from a diverse range of backgrounds. Our goal in running National Democracy Week has been to reach out to citizens from all backgrounds, especially those from groups less likely to be registered to vote. I am very passionate about that.

I understand, respect and acknowledge the arguments that have been made today about the difference between 1918 and 1928. In this year of suffrage, which encompasses both those anniversaries, it is valid and important that we test those concepts and have that debate. I would like to acknowledge that in my remarks.

The Equal Franchise Act 1928, which is what we are here to discuss, is as significant today as it was then. It cemented in law that no matter whether someone was a woman or a man, they had the right to vote on equal terms. We are celebrating that 90th anniversary in a number of ways, including the National Democracy Week awards, which were held in Manchester on Monday. They kicked off the week and were a fantastic way of recognising the exceptional work of individuals and organisations helping others to be involved in democracy. Just today, a “Women in Politics Hackathon”, supported by the Leader of the House and run by Shout Out UK, brought girls and young women to Parliament to work on creative ideas to get more women into politics.

This year the Government Equalities Office has provided £1.5 million for the women’s vote centenary grant scheme, which has already provided funds to 140 projects across the country. As a Minister at the Cabinet Office, I am delivering projects under the “Educate” theme of the suffrage centenary programme. The projects are being developed to increase knowledge of UK democracy and its importance among young people in particular, but not exclusively. It includes those from ethnic minorities and under-registered groups, so as to widen democratic participation.

Increasing participation has been facilitated by the Government’s commitment to making registering to vote more straightforward than ever before. In 2014 we introduced individual electoral registration alongside a digital service, and as a result we have seen record numbers on our electoral register, which reached 46.8 million people before the 2017 general election. I wonder what that might have looked like to someone looking ahead from 1928.

We are committed to making the service more accessible. For example, I am pleased to say that we are working with Mencap on an easy-read guide. Historically—I say this as a passing point of interest—figures suggest that women have been more likely to be registered to vote than men, with recent research on completeness of registers suggesting a 2% difference in the rates for women and men.

Last December, the Government published their democratic engagement plan, which sets out the ways in which we will tackle further barriers to democratic inclusion. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Canterbury widened her argument at the start and set the tone for the debate, because in many ways the issue goes beyond just gender. That gives me the chance to note that we have set up an accessibility of elections working group along with Mencap, Scope, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and many others, through which we are working on how we can make our registration and electoral systems and processes as smooth and secure as possible for people with specific conditions or disabilities.

Mr Dhesi, who is no longer in his place, was right to reassure people that our recent changes to the anonymous registration system have made it easier for victims of domestic abuse to register to vote while protecting their right to remain anonymous. Those changes, which of course were welcomed by Women’s Aid and many others, will make it easier for an estimated 12,000 survivors of domestic abuse to register to vote without their name or address appearing on the roll and without the fear of former partners finding their address. I would like the message to go out loud and clear that that has been done, and I hope it is already making victims’ lives easier.

I was struck by some of the words the hon. Member for Canterbury used about the grotesque abuse that may follow her introducing the debate. She was right to draw that point out. I will shortly launch a consultation on intimidation in public life, which, as the Committee on Standards in Public Life noted, is directed disproportionately at female candidates for public service. I hope we can work together to improve the way our electoral law protects debate and welcomes everyone into democracy.

Luke Pollard reminded us in his helpful remarks outlining the life and times of Nancy Astor that we should respect difference. I am delighted that hon. Members spoke so well about their political traditions, and I shall take the licence the hon. Gentleman offered me to speak about mine. I remind hon. Members that the first woman to sit in the House of Commons was indeed that Conservative, Nancy Astor, and we were the first party in the western world to elect a female Prime Minister. Here we are on our second, while the party in opposition is yet to have a female leader.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

Is the hon. Lady the next leader of the Labour party? I hope so.

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

I am not, but let me correct the Minister. We have not had a female Prime Minister, but my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett was a female leader of the Labour party.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I am happy to stand corrected, but I still raise the hon. Lady two Prime Ministers to one Leader of the Opposition. I also raise her the Prime Minister who passed the Equal Franchise Act 1928—the Conservative Stanley Baldwin—and pay credit to Emmeline Pankhurst, who, had she not passed away before the election, would have contested a parliamentary seat for the Conservative party.

Turning to other matters in women’s lives, under this Conservative Government there are more women in work than ever before. The female employment rate is at a record high of 70.9%. Under the last Labour Government, female unemployment rose by 25%. Let us not forget that that represents nearly 1 million women. We are encouraging all companies to do more to eliminate the gender pay gap by publish their data, improving their pipeline to ensure progress on female representation at senior levels, and making flexible working a reality for all employees. We introduced shared parental leave—my husband and I took it ourselves, and we agree that it is extremely important. I would love to see others taking it up as well.

Other political points were made that neglected to give the entire picture, so let me make a few more economic points before concluding. In Government, we have introduced tax-free childcare, providing working families with up to £2,000 per child per year. We have introduced universal credit, and increased support to 85% of childcare costs, 15 hours of free childcare a week for families with disadvantaged two-year-olds, and an additional 15 hours of free childcare every week to working parents of three and four-year-olds. We will be investing around £6 billion in childcare every year by 2020—more than ever before. That is the Conservative reality.

Furthermore, the increase in the national living wage in April from £7.50 to £7.83, with more to come, represents an increase in a full-time minimum wage worker’s annual earnings of more than £600. We all know that a higher proportion of women than men are expected to benefit from that increase, so there is no glass ceiling in the Government’s approach to improving the lives of all women in society. We practise what we preach—improving female representation and creating equal opportunities in the workplace.

I will leave time for the hon. Member for Canterbury to wind up. I thank her again for securing the debate on this important anniversary. We should use such opportunities to promote participation and work together, combining our traditions and interests and coming together to use our powerful positions in this place to deliver a democracy that is more accessible, inclusive and representative.

Photo of Rosie Duffield Rosie Duffield Labour, Canterbury 4:21 pm, 5th July 2018

Thank you, Ms Buck, for allowing me to lead today’s debate and for chairing it so brilliantly. I thank all hon. Members who stayed here on a horrible hot Thursday afternoon instead of going back to their constituencies. It is great to hear the Minister pledge to do so much for democracy, and to hear about the Government’s plans. Obviously Opposition Members will keep a close eye on those things.

I thank all Members who made contributions. I have learned a lot about the east end women. I share the view of my hon. Friend Lyn Brown that the Jack the Ripper museum is abhorrent. I cannot wait for us to find a space where we can celebrate the lives of the east end women permanently, rather than having to shift about all the time. It would be nice to have the money behind that that this horrible other place seems to have.

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

Does my hon. Friend have any comments about women who are on zero-hours contracts, the gig economy and the rise in women among the working poor?

Photo of Rosie Duffield Rosie Duffield Labour, Canterbury

Absolutely. Under the last Labour Government I was able to work and bring up my children as a single mum. Without tax credits, I would have had no hope. I would have been living with my parents, with my children in one room, unable to feed them easily. The last Labour Government made the lives of women a lot easier and a lot better, and introduced childcare and all sorts of things that get forgotten and overlooked. Yes, a lot more people are in work, but a lot of them are working for companies such as Deliveroo and McDonald’s on a very low wage. The childcare issue is a huge and growing problem, and nurseries are having to close.

It is worth saying that there is not equality. Working women are still the working poor, as the shadow Minister just mentioned. Zero-hours contracts do not help anybody, so there is still much to do to get equality. As some Members have said, we also must not forget our sisters around the world. Although we think we have done equality and feminism, we have not. We need to keep going, look around us, and do as much as we can for everyone.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act 1928.

Sitting adjourned.