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4.3 pm

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate. I note that the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) says that we should mark international women’s day rather than celebrate it. She has a point, but we need to celebrate the huge advances that have been made for women in the UK and around the world.

In response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) said that talking about the number of women MPs was a political comment, but it is a good political comment, because it shows that political parties are taking seriously the need to have
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representatives who can reflect the community and society in which we live. As more than 50 per cent. of our citizens are women, it is right that the number of women MPs should be higher than the current 19.8 per cent., well behind countries such as Mozambique, Cuba, Costa Rica, Argentina and Belarus, which is shameful given that ours is the mother of Parliaments.

Justine Greening: Obviously, I do not know why the voters of Putney chose a Conservative female MP over their previous Labour male MP, but the hon. Lady has hit on something: we need better representation of women in the Chamber, which I hope will eventually happen on both sides of the House. It is taking us some time, but we are making efforts to achieve it, as I hope she will acknowledge.

Ms Johnson: I am certainly willing to acknowledge that. As has already been said, if we leave things as they are without taking positive action, it will be generations in the future—our children’s children’s children—before we have a genuinely representative Parliament.

Mrs. Moon: It was suggested that women find working in the House particularly difficult and that because of those difficulties many have chosen to stand down rather than continue working here, but does my hon. Friend agree that many Members—male or female—can find it a difficult place to work? It is not just women who find it difficult: some men, too, have stood down after one term because they have found the rigours and time commitment difficult to manage.

Ms Johnson: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; she is absolutely right. Unfortunately, we have concentrated, as I understand it, on one woman who made a point about standing down particularly because of how the House operates. We all—male and female—have frustrations about how the House operates, and my hon. Friend puts the case very well.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): On the same point, speaking as one who entered the House in 1997, I think that we should put on record the fact that a swathe of women did not give up. Most women who came in at that time have stuck with it—in spite of all the difficulties. As a pamphlet produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) pointed out, those women have made a huge contribution in raising many issues that would otherwise not be on the agenda. We hope that women Members coming forward from other parties will make a similar contribution, as I am sure they will.

Ms Johnson: It is worth stating that all political parties now recognise the need for a more representative group of MPs. I will concede that point, but I think that it is a question of how one goes about achieving that in a reasonable amount of time.

I would like to talk about the skills and abilities of women in this country and to recognise that there is still some way to go in maximising women’s potential and ensuring that they have a full role to play in society. I would particularly like to mention what is happening in my area of Yorkshire and the Humber.

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First, however, I want to pick up on one of the comments made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) during what seemed a rather lengthy debate about the merits of Margaret Thatcher. A key issue for any woman MP is that we must be mindful of how best to assist other women to think about a career in politics, whether at local or national level. One disappointing aspect of the entire period of the first ever woman Prime Minister of this country was that she had only one woman in her Cabinet. That seems a great waste of an opportunity. A woman leader could have recognised other women in the Conservative party and promoted them, and it is a great pity that she did not.

Mrs. Laing: We debated that subject at all only because so many people wanted to talk about it. There is a genuine debate about women and the management of the economy, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right that it is important for women in this place to encourage other women—from all parties, but mainly from our own—to become Members of Parliament. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) will agree with me about that, because I first got her to stand for the town council and now she is a Member.

Ms Johnson: I would like to move on and comment on two particular subjects. The first is the role of local government and how important it is to ensure good representation of women at local level. Secondly, I want to speak about women entrepreneurs and the need to support women in management and senior management and ensure that their voices are heard.

Local government is obviously important because it is the closest government to local communities. It is often a way for women to enter politics. I have found around my constituency that lots of women are involved in the community and voluntary sector. They stand as chairs or treasurers and they have important roles to play. However, there is still quite a lot of work to do in getting them to think about the next step up and about standing for local government. The figures show—the Minister put this on the record earlier—that about 29 per cent. of our councillors are female. That is still too low. It was 27.8 per cent in 1997 and 28.5 per cent. in 2001, and now it is 29.1 per cent. Progress is slow. If we look at the range of women who hold positions on local councils, we can see that they tend to be older and, often, retired women. To have a healthy democracy, we need a range of young, middle-aged and older people. We need to recognise the skills and experience that they bring to the job at various stages in their life.

There is a lot of work to do when it comes to encouraging women to think about standing for the local council. As has already been pointed out, it is a launch pad. If someone gets on to a local council and finds that they enjoy the cut and thrust of politics, they may want to think about standing for a regional assembly or for a national position as a Member of Parliament. It is vital to the health of all political parties that women are encouraged into local government.

However, if we analyse the role that women play in the new structures that many councils have—the cabinet structures—the findings are rather disappointing. In
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my city of Hull, we have a cabinet of 10 and only one member of it is a woman. That is disappointing. In Barnsley, it is one of nine; in Leeds, it is one of 11. York is slightly better with three of nine. Those are disappointing figures and we need to keep under analysis how the cabinet structure is working and whether it is really serving the needs of women councillors.

Barbara Keeley: I cite the example of Trafford council, of which I used to be a member, which benefited from a female leader—who is now my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families—and a female deputy leader. The council got to the point at which it had women as 50 per cent. of the cabinet, and 40 per cent. of the Labour councillors were female. Does my hon. Friend agree that, again, it is a question of role models? We had two excellent role models in the leader and deputy leader of the council.

Ms Johnson: Role models are incredibly important. In Hull, we have had the benefit of Councillor Kath Lavery, who was the portfolio holder for regeneration—a key issue for the city. She led with distinction and came at things from an interesting angle. She was well respected in the business community and the wider community. Unfortunately, she is no longer in the cabinet, but we need role models like that, as my hon. Friend said when talking about her experience in Trafford. In Hull, years ago we took the decision to have a health portfolio holder in the cabinet structure, to address the health needs of the city. That was something new for Hull and it led to some innovative work in relation to the “eat well, do well” scheme, which I have commented on several times and which provides free healthy school meals in the city. That was pioneered and led by a woman cabinet member, Councillor Mary Glew. Having women in the cabinet can often bring a different perspective and a different view, which is welcome.

In 1994 I stood for election in the London borough of Tower Hamlets as a local authority councillor, and I was a member of that authority for eight years. One of the interesting and unusual things about that local authority was the wider range of ages among councillors; we also had councillors who represented all the different ethnic communities in Tower Hamlets. Many also held full-time jobs, so the council had to adapt itself and think about how it should structure meetings and when was the most appropriate time to hold a full council. Flexibility had to be built in. The council worked quite well and has achieved a great deal.

In the forthcoming elections in Hull in May—I think that it is the only place in the United Kingdom where this is the case—we will have three 18-year-olds standing for the Labour party, taking advantage of the changes brought in under the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which moved the age at which people can stand as candidates from 21 to 18. However, they are three young men, and it is a bit of a disappointment that we did not manage to get an 18-year-old woman to stand, because that would have sent a message about good role models. It would have shown that young women have a role to play in making decisions locally, just as young men do.

I want to comment on the NHS Appointments Commission, whose job is to make appointments to primary care trusts and acute trusts. The excellent chair
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of the Hull teaching primary care trust is a woman, but I noticed that recently, all non-executive director posts have gone to white men. I raised the matter with the commission, because there is an issue about non-executive roles being held by a representative group, and not just white men. For too long, white men have dominated the decision-making bodies in this country. The NHS Appointments Commission took my comments seriously, and I think that it understands the need to be a little more proactive in seeking out people—women—who have the skills and ability to work for a primary care trust.

I want to discuss women and enterprise. There is a fairness issue to consider, and we should make sure that women entrepreneurs are properly supported. There is also an economic argument; we should make sure that women use their talents and ability to set themselves up in business and help to regenerate areas such as Yorkshire and the Humber. Women entrepreneurs make up 6.8 per cent. of the UK’s working population. Obviously, that figure is small, and it needs to grow. Yorkshire and the Humber do not fare too badly, but I found that a number of women traders are sole traders working in the service industries, and particularly in hairdressing. There is merit in that, but we need to move women on, so that they grow their businesses and think about diversifying into other areas.

I was interested by the PricewaterhouseCoopers report about senior women managers that was published today. Unfortunately, some of the figures show a reduction in the number of women in senior posts, but an article on the report shows that

That shows that there is good work going on.

I particularly want to talk about the comments of Jackie Brierton, who heads Prowess, an organisation that supports women who want to start up in business. She says that a lot of women get to a certain level in the corporate world but then opt out and try to set up business on their own, because of the lack of flexibility that has already been mentioned today, and because of the focus on having to work long hours in a rigid way, and that is interesting. She says that in the past the evidence for that change has been anecdotal, but the report provides statistical evidence for that view.

Women in Yorkshire and the Humber have benefited greatly from an organisation called Women’s Enterprise in the Humber, which offers mentoring and support. Maureen Foers, the body’s project director, is a fabulous role model for women who want to set themselves up in business. She has had 35 years’ practical experience of running her own businesses, and she has assisted many women in the area who want to develop and grow their businesses. It was interesting to read about her background.

In 1971 Maureen established a business, and she said that it was an extremely isolating experience for a woman. Business networks mainly had male members, and that created a challenge for her, as it was necessary for her to bite the bullet and join them. To date, she has been the only female president of the Hull and Humber chamber of commerce. She was the first woman to be elected to the CBI’s Yorkshire and the Humber regional council,
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and she has been an active member of many local, regional and national partnerships. However, what is really special about Maureen is that she gives her time so freely to women who want to start up businesses. She is incredible. She is a very busy woman. As I said earlier, it is incumbent on all of us in business or politics to encourage and support women wherever we can, and what Maureen does is a fine example of that.

Hull university put together the “Empathy-Edge” project with European money to support women in management positions through e-mentoring, using various new technologies to ensure that women were supported when they took on their first management role. I had the great pleasure of going to one of its conferences and of hearing mentors and those they were mentoring talk about the positive outcome that that relationship had brought about and how both mentors and those they were mentoring had benefited from it.

Therefore, excellent work is being done, but more needs to be done. There are many challenges facing us, but I am very proud to be a part of the current Parliament. Of my intake, 26 of the 40 Labour MPs were women. That is fabulous, but we need to do more. I am sure that all the parties are trying to do more, but it is Labour that has delivered for women, not only in the number of MPs, but in legislation over the past 10 years.

4.21 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): This has been an interesting debate, which has teased out a lot of aspects of the life of women in this country. The title of the debate is “Women, Justice and Gender Equality”. I shall focus my remarks on gender equality, and in particular on the questions of what that really means and, to be provocative, whether it can be achieved.

Women certainly have numerical equality—we form 50 per cent. of the population—and certainly as a society we regard women as of equal value and equal importance. I find gender competition rather tedious, in the workplace in particular. I do not regard myself as a woman MP; I regard myself as an MP who just happens to be a woman. I can vouch that I have never encountered any gender prejudice in my journey through application and campaigning and so forth. [Interruption.] Several female Members do not agree, so clearly I have been fortunate. Perhaps people treat us the way we allow them to treat us.

Meg Munn: I am not sure how the hon. Lady would explain the following anecdote that was included in the Fawcett Society report after the 2001 election. One woman from the hon. Lady’s party described being interviewed by a committee in which she was asked what her husband would do for sex during the week while she was in Parliament.

Angela Watkinson: I know the person involved, and that was just one comment from one other person. The only instance of gender prejudice that I have encountered came from another woman, who asked me in the final meeting before I was elected—the special general meeting—“Because you’re so old and you’re brain isn’t working as
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well as it used to, how will you manage to read Green Papers and White Papers?” My instant reaction was to say to myself, “I must not rise to this bait”, and I assured her that I was like wine in that I was improving as the years passed.

Barbara Keeley: I sympathise with the hon. Lady, and I certainly think that women in my party used to have such problems. It might be useful to her if I mention that members of my party are not allowed to make ageist, sexist or other such comments. Might it be helpful to suggest that course of action for her party?

Angela Watkinson: I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution, but we are not allowed to say such things in our party either. However, once the words are out it is not possible to unsay them; it is not possible to get the genie back into the bottle. If somebody has said something, it has been said.

I wish to refer to a parliamentary trip I went on to Iran in 2001, soon after I was elected to the House. It was a cross-party visit for women MPs on women’s issues. There were 14 committees in the Iranian Parliament, and there was one woman MP on each committee. The trouble was that none of them spoke English, and I could not speak their language. Therefore, we were entirely reliant on interpreters. Every time I met one of those women, I asked the same question: “Are you involved in the whole spectrum of policy formation, or are you just consulted on how a particular policy will affect women?” My question was in my language, her answer was in her language. What happened as the words went back and forth I do not know, but I never did get an answer to that question.

The real challenge is equality of opportunity. It is not an easy matter because of one unavoidable, fundamental difference between men and women—that is, women have children and men do not, and that will never change. All the inequalities for women relate to that basic fact. Babies and children are treated equally, whichever gender they happen to be. In education, girls and boys are treated equally, although that has not always been so.

I will not disclose how long ago this was, but when I was in grammar school—I went to a co-educational grammar school, which was quite advanced for its time—it was not unusual for a male teacher to say to a girl pupil, “It doesn’t really matter if you don’t understand, because you’re only going to get married.” The word “only” made the remark even worse. It was demeaning because it implied that we were second class citizens of less significance than the boys, who would do all the important things in life. Happily, that would not be tolerated in our schools today, and the thought would not even pass through the heads of the teachers or head teachers in my schools.

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