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The entire atmosphere of this place is very women-unfriendly. Let us consider what happens if a Member stands up at Prime Minister’s Question Time to ask a question of the Prime Minister. A wall of noise suddenly comes towards them if Labour Members get the feeling that it will be a hostile question, which can be very intimidating for men and women Members. The behaviour often resembles what I imagine public schoolboys’ bad
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behaviour to be, with pointing, shouting, catcalling and repeating remarks. It is not edifying. The hon. Lady made a good intervention.

At least the Labour party has been brave enough to take radical action to redress the situation. To its credit, women make up 27 per cent. of Labour Members. The Liberal Democrats trail with 14 per cent., and the Conservatives, as I mentioned, have only 9 per cent.

Five years ago the Liberal Democrats had a passionate debate on positive discrimination. Major figures in the party exhorted the members to vote for positive discrimination, including the revered Baroness Williams and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), but all to no avail. The vote was lost because a number of equally passionate young women spoke up to say that they did not want to be token women.

When those women have been through the mill of competing for jobs with the men—who give their undivided attention to their careers, while the women are bringing up a family, arranging child care, deciding what is for tea, and ensuring that there is something to cook—and then having to take jobs below their ability, or taking time off and coming back to find that they have lost out on the career stakes, that they will get less pension, that they will have a disproportionate share of the burden of caring for older and infirm members of the family, and that they have been failed by the system because we do not have a critical mass of women in Parliament to focus on family-friendly policies, let them come back and tell me that they do not want to be token women. I am sorry about that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I had to get that off my chest.

Ms Dari Taylor: I am very pleased to listen to the hon. Lady. There is an honesty and integrity about all she says, which is typical of a woman, if I may say so. Does she agree that we should say loud and clear that we have 100 years of all-men short-lists? Is it not time that we were allowed to have all-women short-lists? What is their problem?

Lorely Burt: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention and her kind remarks. All I can say in reply is that’s democracy for you. We Liberal Democrats must do a better selling job to get party members to agree. The inequality strikes at the heart of fairness. Unless people look beyond the value of the greater number, it is difficult for many Members to accept the principle that we should positively encourage some people over and above others.

Angela Watkinson: Discriminate, the hon. Lady means.

Lorely Burt: I will settle for “encourage”.

It is clear that until we have women in the most senior decision-making positions in this country, the only progress that we ever make will be incremental. It is a chicken and egg situation. While the laws are made predominantly by men in a place that cannot even provide crèche facilities for Members, we are on a hiding to nothing.

Please do not get me wrong. I would not want any hon. Member to think that I dislike or disparage men. There are many men in the House and everywhere who
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care passionately about equality and justice for women and for men. I acknowledge that in many areas of life, such as the one that was mentioned by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns)—access to children after a relationship break-up—men can get an extremely raw deal. But just for today, let us speak up for the girls.

We need more women-friendly policies coming out of the House. We also need more access to flexible working. I was delighted to hear the comments by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), and I hope that she will support my ten-minute Bill to extend the right to request flexible working to the parents of children up to the age of 18 and to encourage more companies to extend flexible working, if it is economically advisable.

Ms Dari Taylor: Is the hon. Lady surprised that there are job shares in parts of Africa, something we do not even countenance here?

Lorely Burt: The hon. Lady has made a good point. We have the concept of job share, and enlightened companies that use the concept of flexible working, including job share, have found—there is Equal Opportunities Commission evidence to this effect—that staff turnover and absenteeism are reduced and that productivity is increased.

Ms Taylor: Obviously I have not been clear enough. I was describing parliamentarians who job-share.

Lorely Burt: I think that that is absolutely delightful, and we can learn from that excellent example.

Companies all over the UK are beginning to wake up to the idea of flexible working. In that situation, men and women can share in caring for children, instead of one partner having to make an economic sacrifice, which, in most cases, reinforces the gender divide.

We need more support for women victims of crime and of sexual and physical violence. Most of all, we need to give women a hand-up into decision-making and leadership roles, so that we can take our rightful place in British society today, standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and not trailing behind.

3.11 pm

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). I pay tribute to the obvious research that has gone into her presentation today. She has shown commitment to bringing forward the issues that face women today on international women’s day, and I thank her for the high level of her contribution. In this House, we need women to set an example, so that there can be no suggestion that women come into this Chamber ill-prepared and unable to argue on behalf of their constituents and on behalf of their sex. I recognise her performance and her contribution.

The United Nations has designated this international women’s day as a day when one should look at, in particular, violence against women. I do not want to
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look at the failures of the past; I want to look at how we can move forward and address the problems that we face.

This morning, I stood in front of the statue of Mrs. Pankhurst as we laid flowers and paid tribute to her contribution in raising the status of women and obtaining the right to participate in democracy for women. The right to participate in democracy has allowed women in this Chamber, in local authority council chambers and across the world to fight for justice and equality for women. Mrs. Pankhurst set the stone that allowed women to move forward in society. However, Mrs. Pankhurst and her women faced the great consequence of stepping forward, which so many women face across the world. They faced male dominance, male opposition and imprisonment.

I want to discuss women as an exemplar of best practice, but Britain is falling behind as an exemplar of best practice. I joined my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) on the recent visit of women parliamentarians to Pakistan, and I saw how a country that we would often regard as falling behind in the democracy stakes has moved forward on several issues. As she noted, 33 per cent. of the seats in its legislature—the National Assembly and the Senate—have been allocated to women. I hope that when we further consider the reform of our upper House, appropriate steps will be taken to ensure that a good percentage of women are there as of right.

Ms Dari Taylor: Fifty per cent.

Mrs. Moon: I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s suggestion of the figures that we should aim for.

In one of the meetings that we went to, Minister Ehsan, the Minister for women and youth, said that the first step that she took when she became a Minister was to recognise that when women are suspected of committing a crime, that affects their families, their status, their children, and their relationships within their communities. She decided that all women should be automatically granted bail pending trial unless they were held on suspicion of crimes of terrorism or manslaughter, because, as she said, when we imprison women and take them away from their families, we are building additional problems for their communities, their families, their villages, and especially for their children. I feel particularly passionate about this, perhaps because we have no prisons for women in Wales. As a result, Welsh women face 100 per cent. of their sentence away from their community, their family, their children and, sometimes, their language—the language in which they prefer to communicate. That cannot be acceptable.

I was pleased to hear the recognition from my hon. and learned Friend the Minister that the women’s prison population has gone up by 126 per cent. in recent decades. The best strategy to reduce female offending is to improve women’s access to work, to improve their mental health services, to tackle drug abuse among women, to improve their family ties, and to improve the life chances of young women through our schools and in our communities. I have to acknowledge that the Government have achieved a lot on all five of those methods. However, every time we move forward—it is the great challenge for politicians—our communities
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say, “Well done, we expected you to do that, now what are you going to do?” That is what we have to face in relation to women and offending.

We have improved on the services and facilities that are out there in our communities, but there is still much more to do. We have to acknowledge that 71 per cent. of female prisoners have no qualifications. Our schools must not fail women in terms of the opportunities that they have when they are young, and our employers must encourage them to obtain those qualifications; otherwise, they will make it more likely that women will fail and face a life that could eventually lead into crime. We know that 65 per cent. of women reoffend on release. Our prisons must reduce that number by offering opportunities in terms of skills, education and family links.

We know that nearly 40 per cent. of women prisoners lose their homes. When people leave prison without a home to go to, they will almost certainly reoffend. It is a tribute to women that the figure is as low as 40 per cent. It is a tribute to their creativity, energy and determination, but it is a disgrace that we do not campaign more effectively and rigorously to enable women and men to have a settled and secure future on leaving prison.

If we want to stop reoffending, we must get rid of the constantly swinging door of choosing between sleeping on a friend’s sofa until the friend is driven crazy and reoffending to get back to some sort of security and a home. We must give people something to fight for. That can be a home.

Lorely Burt: The hon. Lady referred to 40 per cent. of women who lose their homes getting reconvicted. The overall reconviction rate for women in prison is 64 per cent., but only 47 per cent. are reconvicted following community service. Given her comments about the increase in the number of women in prison, does she agree that we should consider more appropriate methods of punishment? I do not say that women should not be punished. If they have done wrong, they must be punished. However, if the effect of the punishment is disproportionate when they leave prison, does she agree that we should consider alternative forms of punishment?

Mrs. Moon: To clarify, I said that 40 per cent. of women lost their home while imprisoned. I shall deal with community service and community punishment later. I hope that we can continue the dialogue then.

The average reading age of prisoners in this country is 11. That is a national disgrace. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South said, when we were in Pakistan, we saw women who were desperate for education. They wanted to learn English and increase their educational opportunities. They recognised that that was the gateway to a future for their families. Women in this country feel the same way. We must focus on people who are struggling with their education, including their literacy, and put more effort into ensuring that no one leaves school with a reading age of 11.

Ms Dari Taylor: Does my hon. Friend accept that the changes that we have witnessed in women’s lives, whether we are considering literacy or confidence, have recently been clearly attached to the introduction of
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Sure Start in our communities? Does she perceive Sure Start as another way in which to ensure, through expanding its activities, that the women about whom she speaks so passionately and appropriately benefit?

Mrs. Moon: I endorse my hon. Friend’s comments 100 per cent. I visited my local Sure Start centre in north Cornelly recently to discuss child trust funds. I met very young women, who were first-time, single mothers. They were deeply committed to their child trust funds and their children’s futures. All were contributing additional funds to the trust funds because they wanted their children to have a future. They were determined to work hard to provide it for them. All the women were developing a life plan and making a commitment to what they would do and how they would move away from staying at home with their children, find work and develop their skills base while their children were still young and they had the opportunity of child care and support from the Sure Start centre. They wanted to improve their chances of work once their children were in full-time education. I therefore thank my hon. Friend for her helpful intervention.

We must accept, however, that one of the problems faced by women today is the incredible level of pressure. In trying to fight to move away from our past, and to enter the world as full partners alongside men, many women face a struggle. Rising numbers have mental health problems, especially in the prison population. Seventy per cent. of women prisoners suffer from two or more mental health problems, which is a disgrace. How can we accept that and not pour money into mental health and into diversions that will take women away from a situation that cannot help but exacerbate their mental health problems? Women are five times more likely to self-harm while in prison than men, and women do not self-harm unless they are driven to deep despair. This is a national disgrace: 55 per cent. of all self-harm in prisons is by women, and yet women are only 6 per cent. of the prison population. That is an epidemic, and we must do something about it.

Thirty-seven per cent. of women who are in prison will have made a suicide attempt before they were admitted to prison. We therefore know that a large proportion of women in our prisons are extremely vulnerable and fragile. Prison is not the way to deal with people who have mental health problems and who are fragile and vulnerable. Fifty-five per cent. of women who arrive at prison will test positive for class A drugs. With treatment, we can successfully help women deal with their drug abuse. All too often, however, that treatment is not available.

Prison is particularly damaging for women when it breaks their ties with their families, and especially if it breaks their ties with their children. The relatively small number of women’s prisons and their geographical location mean that the majority of women will serve their sentence away from their family, children and partners, on whom they may have to rely to look after their children. That is not acceptable.

Why are women in prison? Twenty per cent. of women’s prisoners have been through the child care system. Fifty per cent. have reported being victims of childhood abuse or domestic violence. Their lives before entering prison have therefore been chaotic. Are
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we helping to make their lives less chaotic by taking them into prison? Historically, our prison system has been designed to contain potentially violent male offenders. The system is unsuitable to deal with the problems of vulnerable women, many of whom had lives of abuse before entering the prison system. Half of those women have suffered from domestic violence and one third have suffered from gender and sexual abuse. Our most vulnerable women have therefore spent their lives being neglected as children, beaten as wives and imprisoned as women. The majority are not in prison because they are a danger to others; many are there as a result of petty crime. The commonest offences for which women are sent to prison are theft and handling stolen goods. Sixty-four per cent. of women offenders serve sentences of six months or less, and one third of that 64 per cent. have been sexually abused.

How are we to tackle the emotional, sexual and drug abuse that those women have experienced in their lives? How are we to tackle the illiteracy and restructure the employment opportunities of those serving sentences of six months or less? Would it not be better for us to concentrate on providing the community-based support, punishment and rehabilitation that non-violent offenders who pose very little threat to the wider community are best placed to receive? That would ensure that taxpayers’ money was better spent, it would provide more room in our prisons for those who are a danger to others, and it would enable officers in women’s prisons to focus on high-risk and repeat offenders. Crucially, the vicious circle of drugs, crime and dependency could be squared before those women’s children also become caught up in it.

I know a prison in western Australia called the Boronia Pre-release Centre for Women. Women are given just one opportunity to go to Boronia. Before they go, they are told “If you fail here, you will not be given this opportunity again.” They are allowed to keep their children with them until they reach the age of four, and with their children they live in small units of bungalows. They are offered education, jobs and skills. Hon. Members who visited the prison with me were shocked to discover that one of those skills was the preparation and serving of food, and that so proficient were the women that they provided all the catering facilities for judges on the western Australian circuit. I thought it particularly apt that the judges should be served by women whom they might have sentenced.

At the time when I visited the prison only one woman had reoffended, and I think we should look to it as an exemplar for the service that we could provide. Certainly, if Wales is to have a women’s prison, I hope that it will be based on Boronia.

This is an important debate. It enables us to think carefully about the needs of women in our world, and about how we can improve their lives and equality of opportunity still further. I am proud to be a member of a Labour Government, and I am pleased that the hon. Member for Solihull recognised the steps that the Government have taken to move the agenda forward. I hope the opportunities that we offer in future will mean that fewer vulnerable women take the road of offending and more follow a different path, the path towards
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secure families and secure jobs. I hope they will be helped to produce a generation that will continue to raise the status of women, and will allow their opportunities to grow and develop even more.

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