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6 Mar 2003 : Column 1014—continued

Sue Doughty: The hon. Lady referred to the tragedy of women who experience abuse and have to leave home with their children. Does she agree that women who want to leave hostels find it especially difficult to get back into work and to find affordable child care? That does not apply only to parts of the country where there is economic deprivation; women in that situation face economic deprivation no matter where they live. They need as much help as possible to get back into work so that they can look after their families as they want to do.

Glenda Jackson: I wholly agree. Often the problem is exacerbated and such women face additional burdens.

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Even if they manage to find work and affordable child care, their children have often been traumatised. They have had not only to leave home but to move to a different school, and have lost touch with friends and relations. Women may clear the initial hurdle by getting away from the immediate danger and then find a job and a decent place to live, but the problems remain. We are sometimes too ready to think that the problems have been solved, but often such women need proper support for much longer from the people who provide those maintaining services—if they exist. In many instances, the services may not be provided or may not be linked as they should be and that can create particular difficulties.

I have always argued that if one has anything worth saying in this place one should be able to say it in 10 minutes. I realise that I have been on my feet for far longer than my self-imposed cut-off point, so I shall draw my remarks to a close.

As I said earlier, women can be enormously capable if they are given even the smallest opportunity to help. We are more than willing to take our proper place in the world, so it would be nice if there was slightly more acknowledgement of what that place is. Sometimes sentimental lip service is paid to women as though they were automatically and naturally members of the most caring professions. Women have enormous talent and ability that could help to improve the world, especially in all those areas that cause us so much disquiet at present. We are immensely capable of doing so.

4.13 pm

Vera Baird (Redcar): International women's day, which we are celebrating, was started in 1908 in the United States by women socialists. Internationalised by 1911, it was undoubtedly born at a time of great social turbulence and change. I am pleased that it took on and maintained a tradition of protest and political activism. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women pointed out, part of that contemporary activism was that women all over the globe from all social strata started to campaign for the vote.

On this special day, I, too, pay tribute to Mrs. Pankhurst, but I want to make ample mention of the other wing of the suffrage movement. There were divisions in the English movement as to how the vote should be obtained: between the suffragettes, who proposed militancy, and the constitutionalists who, for many years, pursued lobbying channels and were led for more than 40 years by the lifelong constitutionalist, Millicent Fawcett, to whom I want to pay equal tribute.

I shall return to Mrs. Fawcett later, but I wonder whether we politically active women now sufficiently appreciate the privations that those women underwent to obtain the vote and the right to be candidates, which we readily accept is our right today. Of course we still have to work hard. We still collide against gender brick walls, which have to be breached. None the less, we are reasonably equipped for the job. We have reasonable salaries. We are part of a generally respectable cause, and we are pursuing our aims by nothing more personally demanding than argument and lobbying. Do we sufficiently appreciate the personal privation that early women campaigners underwent to get us here?

The first parliamentary seat that I fought—Redcar is the second—was a little further north than Redcar: it was Berwick-upon-Tweed and that was in 1983. As hon.

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Members can imagine, I was a very child-like candidate. I lived a few miles from the town of Morpeth, where lay the grave of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who died under the King's horse at the Derby in June 1913. During my first general election campaign, almost 70 years to the day after her death, it was reported that her grave was badly neglected and very broken down.I attribute the success of the women's suffrage campaign to both wings of the suffrage movement and I appreciate that I would not have the right to vote, let alone the right to stand as a candidate, if it were not for such women, so I started to read more about her and the militants.

The militant campaign started in about 1908 in Manchester—I am proud to say that I come from there originally—when Mrs. Pankhurst attended a meeting at the Free Trade hall, addressed by Asquith, and shouted from the back, "Will you give votes to women?" She was arrested, and that was her first period of imprisonment. She seemed to have encouraged that outcome to an extent. The biography of her in which I mostly recently read of that account describes her, after being seized to be removed by a constable, gently spitting into the officer's eye.

Thereafter, for almost every event, demonstration and gesture, as well as for some lawless conduct, the militants were always imprisoned. Some women were frequently and repeatedly imprisoned in extremely harsh conditions. Of course they resisted by going on hunger strike until they almost starved to death, when they were force-fed. Of course force-feeding just stops death by starvation—it does not ensure nourishment—so malnourished women would again go on hunger strike until they started to starve and, again, they would be force-fed.

One can imagine the agonies that such women underwent, and when Mrs. Pankhurst was perceived as almost certain to die if that happened again, the enlightened Government introduced the cat and mouse Act, which allowed women to be released into the community when they got to a very worrying state of ill health, so that they could feed themselves, but, as soon as they were well, they were rearrested and brought back to serve the rest of their sentence. So they went on hunger strike, and they were force-fed and on it went.

Emily Wilding Davison went into custody 12 times for stone throwing, window breaking and setting fire to pillar boxes and, on each occasion, she went on hunger strike and was force-fed—12 times between 1908 and 1913, when she died. I do not think that we take enough cognisance of the extent to which the force-feeding itself was a kind of state torture against those women.

I wish to read a brief paragraph of Emily Wilding Davison's own words, describing the first time that she was force-fed:

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One may appreciate the contribution that repeatedly being put through such torture played in Emily Wilding Davison's decision that, if necessary, her life should be lost for the women's cause.

As is well known, on 4 June she ran out with two Women's Social and Political Union flags in purple, white and green wrapped around her body under a jacket, seized the reins of Anmer, the King's horse, and caused it to stumble. The jockey fell off and the horse kicked her. A small fragment of very grainy Pathe News shows her hat landing on the far side of the course and her lying prone, never to move again of her own volition. She died four days later in Epsom cottage hospital. At the time, her action was seen as an immature and hysterical gesture. It has never been universally approved of. It was a perplexing death. She was not an hysteric and she was not immature. She was 41, religious and a double graduate.

I did not win the 1983 general election campaign in the constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed and in the days that followed I started to look up more about Emily. In those days, before archive material was as well protected as it is now, I held in my hand the return half of her ticket back from Epsom. Do we really remember such women enough? Emily's grave is still untended and abandoned in the north of England. Three weeks ago, I was asked to give the first Emily Wilding Davison memorial lecture in county hall, Morpeth and a move is being made to fundraise to protect her grave.

We women parliamentarians should take more responsibility for keeping the awareness of such courage alive and passing that word on to the next generation. I will not make any simplistic connections, but it was the next generation of young women who formed the largest group of people who did not vote at the last general election.

I pay tribute to the constitutionalist Mrs. Fawcett, but I also pay tribute to the Fawcett Society, which since her death in 1926 has continued to campaign for women's equality with men. I have expressed concern about the way the criminal justice system treated suffragettes all those years ago. The Fawcett Society has recently become concerned with the way our contemporary criminal justice system deals with women. It has established a year-long commission to look into questions of women and that system and find out whether, and if so how, the system is unfair to women. The commission has a distinguished band of 15 to 16 commissioners, including the experienced criminal High Court judge Mrs. Justice Hallett, Baroness Prashar, First Civil Service Commissioner, and Lord Dholakia, President of the Liberal Democrats and their spokesman on home affairs in the Lords.

I have been privileged to chair that year-long commission. We have only just started and we have come to no conclusions. Why was it even necessary to set up such a commission to look into whether and if so how our criminal justice system is unfair to women? The Fawcett Society has noticed a series of problems in recent years. The problems are not confined to domestic violence, although colleagues here have rightly raised that issue many times today. I shall give three short examples.

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A few years ago, the Government intended to abolish the right to elect for trial by jury. That is the right for someone who is on trial for one of a broad range of middle-ranking offences to say, "I want a jury trial. I don't want to be tried by the magistrates court." The notion was to put discretion in the hands of the magistracy and the question was what criteria should be used.

A series of criteria relating to the gravity of the offence were obvious, but others started to be added. However grave or minor the offence, there could be a reason to allow trial by jury if a person were in public life and the conviction was likely to damage their public standing, or if a person had a job, and the conviction, however small, was likely to affect that job. One need only look at those two criteria to appreciate readily that, by all modern definitions, they were indirectly sexually discriminatory: far fewer women, proportionately, are in public life, and far fewer women, proportionately, are in jobs at any one time, as more women are in training, caring for older people and caring for children at any given time. If those criteria were therefore applied to allow the fairer trial of jury trial, because the conviction rate is higher in the magistrates court, it would be done on a sexually discriminatory basis.

For different reasons, that did not happen at all, but in a later legislative mood, in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill, a sort of "One strike and you're out," application to probation was proposed. Anyone who was on probation would be warned once, and if they broke their probation order again, they would automatically get three months imprisonment. Proportionately, far more women defendants are put on probation than men. Although men are the bulk of defendants, proportionately more women are seen as offending out of need. Women who shoplift, abuse cheque cards and steal are frequently seen sympathetically by magistrates in particular as not needing punishment but help and support. They are therefore put on probation proportionately far more often than men. For similar offences, men will be fined or will get some other sentence. While men who do not pay their fines would be subject to a whole range of penalties backing that up—perhaps realigning the repayments, a suspended sentence or whatever—women who broke their probation would have an automatic three-month prison sentence. Again, although no one saw it, that policy was, on a closer look, indirectly sexually discriminatory.

In the current Criminal Justice Bill, too, there is a right to elect trial by judge alone. On the face of it, that is an extra right for defendants. Let us consider the position in a rape case in which a female complainant brings to court an allegation that has highly-gendered aspects in relation to the admissibility of previous sexual history and general considerations. The House of Lords has readily accepted in a recent appeal that those are highly-gendered issues, and it is well known that rape complainants are reluctant to come to court and need support anyway. Now, a male defendant facing a rape charge will be able to elect for trial by judge alone: inevitably, by a male judge, as almost 95 per cent. of them are male. Consequently, a female complainant will come to court hoping to have highly-gendered issues heard, and she will have them heard by a man who was,

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as it were, chosen by the male defendant, and chosen from a body of men who are not known for high levels of gender awareness.

Judges in recent years—not old fuddy-duddy judges, but relatively young and highly intelligent ones—have none the less been guilty of making immensely sexist remarks in rape trials. For instance, in 2000, in the case of A at the Old Bailey, a judge dealing with an issue of previous sexual history remarked that he thought that previous sexual history should be admitted in the particular case, although he could not do it, because if it were not generally admitted, the jury in a rape trial would never know whether the woman was a whore or a nun. The matter went to the Court of Appeal to see if he had been right about not admitting previous sexual history, and the matter did not get any better. The Court of Appeal said that it was a matter of common sense that if a woman had had sex with a man before—this was an issue of previous sexual history with the defendant—it made it far more likely that she would have consented on the occasion in question. Any woman, any judge who had had some gender awareness training, or any woman judge, if there were any, would have told him that it might have made it infinitely less likely that she would have had sex consensually with the same man again. She might have moved on to a different man and have no interest in the accused any more. He might have been too keen on her and she might not have wanted to engage with him again. Any number of things might influence whether a woman who has had sex with a man once consents or does not again, but it is not common sense that the fact that it is the same man points in one direction only—that she is more likely to have consented.

So male defendants will pick their tribunal—one may think against the interests of women complainants—from a bunch of men, the leaders of whom have spoken out in recent times in the manner I have described. Of course, there are two views; judges can be trained in gender awareness, whereas old-fashioned attitudes in juries are perhaps harder to stamp out. But the real problem in all the cases was that no one had seen that there was any problem of gender at all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) mentioned provocation. The defence of provocation is currently used mostly in domestic violence murder cases in which men rely on their wives having said that they intend to leave or having confessed to committing adultery. They say, "A red mist descended, I lost my self-control, and I killed her." One has to ask oneself whether—although no doubt consequences follow if one disrupts a marriage in that way—the woman was simply doing what she was entitled to do. One has to ask whether in this day and age it is appropriate to give credit to a man for losing his temper and killing a woman and to reduce his conviction from murder to manslaughter.

More than 100 men a year kill their partners and about 14 women kill theirs. Women who kill their partners almost invariably do so because they have been the victims of domestic violence again and again and, in a situation in which it is about to befall them once more, they retaliate. Sometimes they react too strongly in what is truly self-defence. If it is proportionate, it is a complete defence and the woman is not guilty. If he is coming at her with fists and feet only and she, as is

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commonly the case, seizes a knife and stabs him to death, that is probably disproportionate. The fact is of course that she would never have reacted like that were it not for the history or the threat, yet disproportionate self-defence produces a conviction for murder, not manslaughter. There is therefore an imbalance in the way in which the law deals with murder, and it needs to be looked at. It is something that the Government have picked up very recently, but the issue is that such imbalances are not being seen.

I have given just samples, but in looking at a range of similar imbalances, the commission appreciated that what we might be spotting were scattered tips of a rather sexist series of criminal justice icebergs that needed a systematic and comprehensive examination to establish how far and how deep such sexism goes.

It is right to say that historically about 95 per cent. of all defendants have been men. Unfortunately, the percentage of women defendants has increased enormously quickly. The number of women in jail has increased by 143 per cent. since 1993, so a lot more women are coming into the system. So it is important to look at the imbalances. It is intended that the results of the commission should be published on international women's day next year. I hope that the Government will consider the recommendations with great care and, if there is a need, provide further tools for mainstreaming. This Government, more than any previous Government, are very apprised of the need to work hard towards gender equality and to understand the issues. However, in some areas, genderism is hard to detect. It can be even harder, once it has been detected, to breach it. We suspect that the male-dominated criminal justice system is one of those areas.

I want to describe some suffragette rough justice from 1910. In those days, the suffragettes had got the Government in such a state that most Members of the Cabinet, when away from home, went in disguise. If they did not go in disguise, wherever they went their cars would be attacked and their tyres slashed. Stones would be thrown. On one occasion, Emily Wilding Davison knew that Lloyd George was going to speak in Aberdeen. She went there and, with a horsewhip, lay in wait in the shadows of Aberdeen station for him to come back from his meeting to catch the train. He arrived in the middle of a group of other men, dressed up as a highland clergyman, wearing a dog-collar, deerstalker and tweed cape. She emerged from her sheltered spot, ran at Lloyd George and horsewhipped him. Of course, she was quickly seized and taken away.

It was not Lloyd George. It was a highland clergyman, wearing his ordinary clothes. More imprisonment, more force-feeding, more hunger strikes—ah well, nothing is straightforward. We must match—although perhaps moderate—Emily Wilding Davison's imagination in the way in which we continue to whip up support for women's issues.

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