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6 Mar 2008 : Column 1936

Ms Harman: We will consult on the timing shortly. We are determined to increase the proportion of Labour women Members of Parliament from nearly a third to a half.

Mark Pritchard rose—

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Ms Harman: I will.

Mr. Brown: When it comes to representation in the House of Commons, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we have something to learn from Rwanda, which has suffered so much in recent years but which has female representation of some 48 per cent. in its Parliament?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has made an important point. We are still lagging behind, which is why we intend to include provisions in the equality Bill to enable us to press on with ensuring that we increase the representation of women in the House of Commons.

Mark Pritchard rose—

Ms Harman: There are still areas of British life that remain male-dominated. In our top companies 89 per cent. of the FTSE top 100 directors are men, and in our courts 91 per cent. of High Court judges are men.

Mark Pritchard: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Ms Harman: In our universities 92 per cent. of vice-chancellors are men, and in the Tory party in Parliament 91 per cent. of Members of Parliament are men.

Mark Pritchard rose—[Interruption.]

Ms Harman: In the 21st century—

Mark Pritchard rose—[Interruption.]

Ms Harman: I am not giving way to one of the 91 per cent. [Interruption.] I suggest that Conservative Members should give way to more women.

Mark Pritchard: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are debating a very serious issue, and this is a very serious point of order. I feel discriminated against in this female debate. We need some male representation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The Chair is unable to recognise a point of order in the hon. Gentleman’s comments. All Members are equal in this House.

Ms Harman: In the 21st century, the fact that 91 per cent. of Tory MPs are men is shameful male domination, and male domination cannot be challenged or changed if it is covered up.

Mark Pritchard: Will the Leader of the House give way?

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Ms Harman: No, I will not give way; I have thought better of it.

I invite the Tories and all other parties in this House to say that they will back us when we introduce the equality Bill to extend the right to have all-women shortlists.

Mark Pritchard rose—

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab) rose—

Ms Harman: I shall give way to my hon. Friend.

Jim Sheridan: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way. She is right to identify the valuable job that women do in this House, but does she agree that it is not only the women Members in this Chamber who do a valuable job, but the women who clean and look after our offices, some of them on extremely poor pay? Will she send out a message to unscrupulous employers who are exploiting women—particularly women cleaners in this place—by giving them low pay?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Many of the women who clean the House of Commons are my constituents, and we will look at the new contract for the House of Commons cleaners and make sure that they have a fair deal, which they are entitled to.

Mark Pritchard rose—

Ms Harman: Women in this country are no longer prepared to leave all the talking to men, or to leave men to get on with making the decisions. If that had been the case—

Mark Pritchard: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should not have to join the 350 people in the west midlands who apply for a sex change every year in order to be called in this Chamber.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is now pushing at the limits of good order himself. The Chair cannot determine how many interventions are taken and from whom they are taken; that is entirely within the gift of the Member who has the Floor.

Ms Harman: Women—

Mrs. May: Will the Leader of the House give way?

Ms Harman: I shall give way to the right hon. Lady.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way. She has asked us a direct question about our position on the single equality Bill that she will introduce later in the year. It is, of course, possible for the use of all-women shortlists to be extended purely by taking away the sunset clause and extending the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002. Is that what the right hon. and learned Lady intends to do in the Bill?

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Ms Harman: That certainly is what we will do, and I invite the right hon. Lady to ensure that her party backs us not only over putting that into law, but by using it so that instead of only 8 per cent. of Tory MPs being women, her party can move into the 21st century and towards equality.

Mark Pritchard rose—

Ms Harman: This is not about representation for its own sake; it is about representation because of what women in this House do for women outside it. I offer as an example my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who has bravely raised, and campaigned on, the issue of forced marriages.

Mark Pritchard rose—

Ms Harman: Women in this country expect that women will share the decisions both at work and at home. The days of women accepting being told what to do by men are long gone. As we celebrate 2008 international women’s day, we will ensure that we have more women in local government and here in Westminster representing women in this country and fighting for equality here and abroad.

We are in the era of expectation of equality, but the expectation is not yet matched by reality. Let us—women in Parliament and women in the country—work together to make 2008 a year of further progress towards equality.

12.54 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to speak on this 97th international women’s day. In the past 97 years, the role of women in politics, business and society has progressed beyond recognition. Women did not even have the vote 97 years ago, but now as many women turn out to vote as men, and we have 126 female representatives sitting in this House. Women were almost non-existent in the business sphere 97 years ago, but today there are about 620,000 majority women-owned businesses in the UK generating about £130 billion in turnover, and at long last businesses have realised that employing a woman is not a hindrance, but an asset to the running of the business—although perhaps they would all like to tell Sir Alan Sugar that. Only a handful of universities admitted women 97 years ago, but there are now more women than men at university in the UK, and that trend is set to continue. Those three examples show that in politics, business and education women have not simply waited for men to give them rights; we have gone out and achieved tremendous progress for ourselves. We must, of course, use international women’s day to look ahead to the many complex challenges that women face, but we must also use it to look back and celebrate how far we have come.

Mark Pritchard: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. May: I shall, indeed.

Mark Pritchard: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I rise with sadness, as all I wanted to say earlier was that I backed the Leader of
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the House for the deputy leadership of the Labour party—so much for sisterhood, as you never get called. On a serious point, does my right hon. Friend agree that the contribution of women in the judiciary is a very important part of public life? Will she consider endorsing the Filipina candidate for the new International Criminal Court? Is it not a disgrace that there is not one female judge sitting on the ICC, out of 15?

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend raises a very serious point, and he is right to remind us of the significant role women play in the judiciary. Some very distinguished women have played a role in the judiciary.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The Leader of the House spoke for 24 minutes, and during that time she did not once mention the women who serve on the front line in our armed forces; I am sure that my right hon. Friend will cover that point. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that women who are serving are probably as aghast as I am that the Government should have scheduled this debate on international women’s day, which as it has been running since the early 1900s can hardly be described as topical, when we have had so little time to debate the defence and security aspects of the Lisbon treaty, which is of great relevance to them, and to both men and women in general?

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend makes a valid point about women who serve in our armed forces, and we should indeed pay tribute to them and the work that they do in putting themselves on the line for the sake of our country. He also made a point about the Lisbon treaty. I suspect that you would look at me somewhat aghast, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I were to comment too much on that. I shall simply say that I would have hoped that it was possible for the Government to find time for both a full debate on international women’s day and the extra day’s debate that was asked for on those specific aspects of that treaty.

Let me turn now to the challenges that we face. I accept that we must increase the representation of women in our democracy. I find it sad, however, that the Leader of the House and her colleagues line up to attack the Conservative party on our record on women in this House despite the fact that the first woman to take her seat as a Member of Parliament was a Conservative, as was the first woman Prime Minister, and I think I am right in saying that the first woman chairman of a major political party was a Conservative—me, in my appointment as chairman of the Conservative party.

Jim Sheridan: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: If I may continue a little further, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly.

I am very ready to say that my party accepts the need to do much to improve female representation on the Conservative Benches in this House. That is why the very first issue that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) spoke about in his acceptance speech as leader of the Conservative party in December 2005 was the need to increase the number of women Conservative Members of Parliament. That
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is also why I am very pleased that this party has taken the opportunities open to it under the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002—I shall say a little more about them shortly—to take positive steps to improve that situation after the next election.

Jim Sheridan: On the question of women making progress in politics, does the right hon. Lady think that, if we have the first female President of the United States of America, it will be a help or a hindrance?

Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman is trying to tempt me down a road that I do not intend to go down. There is a well-accepted tradition that we do not try to interfere in other countries’ elections. Let me say simply that we watch that election with close interest.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that such a partisan introductory speech by the Minister does little to encourage more women to listen to debates in this place and to consider a parliamentary career as one that they would want to pursue?

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend has made an extremely important point, which I was going to make later but shall come to now. I often say to people who are talking about women in politics and Parliament that they should listen to debates predominantly involving women, notably debates on days such as international women’s day, because they will hear a different quality to them. Sadly, the Minister ruined that by her approach to this subject.

I shall comment on where the Government could do more to improve the quality of life of women in this country. It was shameful that the Minister was unwilling to accept that a single Conservative had done anything to improve the lot of women. Indeed, when she referred to the all-party group on trafficking of women and children, she could not even bring herself to thank its chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who has done valiant work to bring that issue to the forefront of the political agenda.

Ms Harman: I mentioned the group.

Mrs. May: But the Minister could have specifically mentioned my hon. Friend and his work as chairman when she was listing people who had done a lot of work in that area.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and for the gracious way in which she is making her speech. Does she agree that every time the Minister goes on about the percentage of male Conservative Members and how few women sit on these Benches, as she does frequently, she is being personally insulting to those of us who work hard for the cause of women, the Conservative party and general representation in this country, including my right hon. Friend? In the interests of democracy, the Minister ought to stop this utter insult.

Mrs. May: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is right, because those on both sides of the House
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could agree on, and work towards, getting more women into this House. Conservative Members accept that we have work to do. I am proud of the fact that my party adopted the priority list route for selecting candidates. It was first proposed in 2001 by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and I. I am proud to be a co-founder of women2win. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark), who was sitting on the Treasury Bench as a Whip, is my co-chairman in that organisation. It has provided support for women, bringing them through and ensuring that more women are selected. I am pleased to say that nearly a third of our selected candidates for the next election are women. The problem for this House is that a significant number of female Labour MPs represent marginal seats, so when we succeed at the next election the overall number of women in this House may not change that much. We will increase the number of women on our Benches, but the number of women on the Labour Benches may decrease.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I am impressed with the right hon. Lady’s words, but will she expand on the figures? How many of those selected women will be candidates in winnable Tory seats? How many of them will be normal working-class women who do not have Ashcroft money or are millionaires in their own right?

Mrs. May: The hon. Lady must get rid of her stereotyped image of women in the Conservative party. A diverse range of women have been selected as Conservative party candidates. I am pleased to tell her that even if a Conservative Government are elected at the next election with an overall majority of just one, 55 women will be sitting on the Conservative Benches.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab) rose—

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con) rose—

Mrs. May: There would still be more to be done, but that would be a significant increase on our current number. I shall give way to my hon. Friend.

John Bercow: I well recall the initiative that my right hon. Friend launched in concert with my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) in 2001. Had she been too self-effacing to mention it, I had been intending to do so on her behalf. Nevertheless, may I put it to her that whether or not it is popular in our party, there is a compelling case for the adoption of all-women shortlists as the best and indeed the only proven method by which dramatically to increase representation, as I argued in an article in The Independent as long ago as 27 January 2003?

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