Previous Section Index Home Page

On Monday, I listened to a piece on “Woman’s Hour” while I was driving to Westminster. There was a discussion of why Hillary was not doing as well as she might have done—this was before the most recent results—and it was suggested that it was because she was too like a man. It was said that she was too manly in her presentation, whereas Obama had shown a feminine streak, which was more appealing than Hillary’s macho streak. Of course, women are always in a no-win situation. I found it particularly ironic that that point should be made.

I also want to talk about ageism. There is the matter of maturity and experience. I welcome the many young people in the House, but there is also a place for people who have been here longer than they have; I say that with some feeling. I do not like the ageism that I sometimes see in the House. I did not like what happened to the previous leader of the Liberal Democrat party, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). People should be judged not on their age but on their ability to do a job. I am not making the case for McCain, although on some issues, particularly Iraq, I agree with him, and not with the Democrat candidates. Hillary is 61, and people say that she may be too old. The point is made in The Times today that

we know that there is such a propensity in this country, too—

An older candidate can attract older people to vote.

As I said earlier, women are never thought to be just right; it is always thought that there is something
6 Mar 2008 : Column 1955
wrong with them. That is true of their appearance, too. They are judged to be too fat, too thin or too old, but they are never just right. I got involved in the issue of cosmetic surgery some years ago; the trend is of long-running concern to me. A constituent came to me who had had silicone implants, which were all the rage at one time. The silicone implants exploded inside her. They had both ruptured, and she had to have a double mastectomy. As a result of that case and the fact that such implants were fashionable at the time, we set up a group called Survivors of Silicone. I was contacted by many women who had had experiences similar to my constituent’s. When the Labour Government came in 10 years ago, we managed to introduce a regulation to ensure that whenever there was a silicone intervention, people had to register it, so that there was some tracking of those who had had such implants.

I am worried about the growth of cosmetic surgery. Last year alone, 32,453 surgical cosmetic procedures were carried out, compared with just 28,000 the previous year; that represents a 12 per cent. rise in cosmetic operations. Some 91 per cent. of the patients were women, and the rest were men; the trend is growing among men as well. Research from various groups has pointed out some of the dangers. More and more women and men are opting for non-surgical treatments. By the way, if something goes wrong during private cosmetic surgery—and many people still contact me about things that have—the national health service very often has to pick up the problem; unfortunately, the patients cannot get it put right in the private sector.

Some time ago, surgeons from Moorfields eye hospital told me that they were worried about the growth of eye operations on the high street. It is suggested that people can walk in and walk out for such procedures, and that because of that they must be okay and safe. However, most of us know that that is just not right. Things very often go wrong, particularly with laser eye surgery, which has not yet reached perfection. Things go wrong with it and, again, the NHS has to pick up the problem.

I am working with Which? at the moment. We are pushing for the recommendations in the chief medical officer’s expert group report on the regulation of cosmetic surgery to be adopted by the Government. They are that there should be an end to self-regulation and that there should be greater enforcement of existing legislation. Self-regulation, I am afraid, does not work and the regulation of the huge growth in cosmetic surgery cannot be done by the industry alone. I hope that our campaign will succeed so that men and women who opt for cosmetic treatments are not fooled into their decision by advertising gimmicks and pushy salespeople, only to regret their decisions after receiving substandard treatments.

Richard Younger-Ross: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Ann Clwyd: I am just about to finish, but yes I will.

Richard Younger-Ross: Does the right hon. Lady accept that part of the problem is the celebrity culture, which is promoted through fashion and weekend magazines? The stars are seen to be having all these
6 Mar 2008 : Column 1956
operations and they appear to have size-zero bodies, to which people aspire. Those magazines have a social responsibility not to feature an article on bulimia once every blue moon, but to change the size and the sort of women that they feature.

Ann Clwyd: I agree, as I tighten my jacket. The pressures on women to conform to certain shapes, sizes and looks are extraordinary. The Advertising Standards Authority has a real role to play, but I believe that it is not carrying out the role for which it was set up in respect of regulating adverts of the type that appear in magazines and newspapers. There are pages and pages of such adverts. The things that appear in such media put pressure on young women in particular to get a nose job or some other kind of job done, and that should be regulated by the ASA. As the hon. Gentleman said, there should also be lengthier magazine articles and television items that give a fairer idea of what is going on.

All the women whom I see in this Chamber are just right—they are not too fat, too thin or too whatever; they are just women. I am pleased to have spoken on international women’s day.

2.5 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I particularly enjoyed her remarks about the American elections, which I have also been following with much interest. My overriding concern is that either Obama or Clinton should be in the White House next time; I shall be pleased to see the back of its current occupant. However, I confess that, faced with the choice between the two Democrat candidates, I would be a Hillary supporter. I share the right hon. Lady’s abhorrence of ageism, but as the youngest Member of the House, I should point out that the issue works both ways.

I must apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), who would normally speak for my party on women’s issues; she has a prior constituency commitment. I am delighted to speak in her place in this debate to mark international women’s day. Yesterday, there was a wonderful cross-party event just outside Parliament to pay tribute to Emmeline Pankhurst of the suffragette movement. It was a bit of a shame that the nearest she has got to having a statue in Parliament is having one outside it in Victoria Tower gardens. None the less, the event was very enjoyable and it was good to see so many men there as well—one of whom, the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark), is in the Chamber now.

This debate is particularly appropriate, not only because it is international women’s day but because 2008 is a year of many anniversaries. It is 90 years since women achieved the right to vote and 80 years since they achieved the right to do so on the same basis as men. On the subject of history, I should like to share what I tell constituents is my favourite part of the tour of the House of Commons. It is the marble statue in the approach to Central Lobby. I do not know the background to its subject, but he was clearly deemed to have been worthy of a statue in the House of Commons when Emmeline Pankhurst was not. He
6 Mar 2008 : Column 1957
was, apparently, the second Viscount Falkland, who obviously had some importance. What attracts me to that part of the tour is not the subject of the statue, but the little crack along the sword that he holds; both his hands are clasped on the sword, which goes down to the statue’s marble base.

That crack is there because on 27 April 1909, one Marjory Hume, also a suffragette, handcuffed herself to the statue and the only way to remove her was to break the sword. It is my favourite part of the tour because when I stand by the statue, I think about how nearly 100 years ago, a piece of history took place by it.

Judy Mallaber: I understand that the statue had to be broken because there was no blowtorch. After the incident, there was a worry about further demonstrations, so the order went out to buy a blowtorch so that the chains, rather than the valuable statues, could be broken.

Jo Swinson: I thank the hon. Lady for that further information about the event.

I would argue that the representation of women is important in itself—for equality and fairness in a 21st-century society. It is also important for the credibility of this Chamber in the eyes of our constituents. When they turn on the television to watch the goings-on here, as they may occasionally do, it does politics no service when they see such a lack of diversity in the House; that applies not only to gender, but to age, background, ethnicity and many other elements of diversity.

It is also important to note that better representation of women changes the issues that are discussed. I highly recommend an excellent book called “Women in Parliament” by Boni Sones and the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), which chronicles interviews with many women MPs. I read it a few months after my election and found it contained a few tips. I also found, pleasingly, that some of the experiences of women elected in 1997 of extreme and awful cases of sexism, even in the Chamber, did not relate to my experience eight years later in 2005. I am pleased that there has been good progress in the House. The book also found that there has been a noticeable change in the issues discussed as a result of having more women in the Chamber.

We have heard many issues raised today—trafficking, women in prisons, armed forces, child poverty, carers, forced marriage, black and minority ethnic women—all of which are important. But time is limited for the debate and it is impossible for me to cover everything. If more speakers can contribute, it will make for more interesting debate. I intend to confine my remarks to a few areas that particularly affect women; equal pay, violence against women, pensions, the international dimension and women’s representation.

Margaret Moran: I thank the hon. Lady for that unanticipated plug and for her support for the follow-on project that Boni Sones and I have been involved in—women’s parliamentary radio—through which we can provide unmediated information about women in Parliament and about what we are doing,
6 Mar 2008 : Column 1958
rather than the stereotypes about women in this place that are often promulgated in the media.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Lady is absolutely right; the project is an excellent one that deserves support and its website is I would certainly encourage hon. Members to become involved with that excellent project.

The Minister mentioned the pay gap and accepted that it was still a problem. It is simply shocking that, more than 30 years after the equal pay and the sex discrimination legislation, we still have a significant pay gap between men and women—17 per cent. of the mean average for full-time workers and as high as 35 per cent. among part-time workers. That latter figure is particularly worrying because so many more women as a percentage work part-time than men.

The current mechanism to deal with equal pay claims is not working. In the year to 1 April 2007, some 130,000 claims were made under the legislation. Before it was wound up, the Equal Opportunities Commission pointed out the great problems that it had and the time taken for cases to be heard, an understandable delay given their volume. Effectively, the legislation is not managing to tackle the issue.

Pay audits are a good, proactive way of dealing with the pay gap and are now common practice in the public sector. I would like that arrangement to be extended to the private sector. We have the gender equality duty but we should require private companies to undertake pay audits and, as a quid pro quo, say to them that if problems are uncovered during the audit, claims cannot be made against them as long as they put right those problems.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): Does my hon. Friend accept that it is in the best interests of companies to provide the information? All the evidence from those companies that provide such information is that they get better women applying for jobs as a result. It is a win-win situation for women and for the companies.

Jo Swinson: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) pointed out that businesses are increasingly recognising the different skills sets that women bring to an organisation and the complementarity of having mixed teams of men and women.

Ms Katy Clark: I agree with the hon. Lady on mandatory pay audits. She mentioned the number of equal pay claims that are currently being brought, many of them by the public sector. Does she agree that one of the problems was that equal pay legislation was effectively ignored and that it is only within the past 10 years that the issue has been addressed?

Jo Swinson: I read a shocking report about the team that is set up to deal with claims from the NHS. Even within the public services, the issue is not being addressed and the thought that Government services are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, is very concerning.

On equal pay, we have to look at the issue of child care and I would propose that we allow maternity leave to be shared between fathers and mothers as they see
6 Mar 2008 : Column 1959
fit. Currently, it could be said that fathers get quite a raw deal, in getting only a short period of paternal leave, and that helps to reinforce discrimination against women. An employer interviewing a woman of child-bearing age might perhaps wonder whether this person, whom they might employ, will end up taking maternity leave, but would not necessarily think the same about a man. By sharing the parental leave, more choice would be given to parents about managing child care, and it would help to tackle some of the indirect discrimination that is difficult to prove and to deal with through legislation.

Miss Kirkbride: There is broad agreement in the House about equalising pay, but I want to mention one of the things that shocked the Select Committee when we looked at the findings of the Women and Work Commission. The commission studied women graduates and compared them with male graduates five years out of university. One would have thought that there was a reasonable expectation that the pay gap would not even exist, let alone be very big, but it was still 15 per cent. I worry how intractable the problem of the pay gap is.

Jo Swinson: Indeed. The issue is very concerning. In my experience of working in the private sector, one got a pay rise only if one asked for and negotiated it.

Miss Kirkbride: And the boys do.

Jo Swinson: As the hon. Lady says, “The boys do.” From an early age, boys, through social conditioning, are encouraged to speak out and to shout out in class; boys are less likely to be disciplined for that. It is “Be a good girl,” but “Boys will be boys.” There is an in-built discrimination of which, to a certain extent, we are all guilty. Partly this could be addressed through education, which is why pay audits and the requirement on companies to be proactive in that respect is so important.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to extend flexible working to parents of older children, but I would go further and say that we need to change the mindset and culture of work in this country. Businesses need to be able to make decisions based on business reasons, but why should not everybody have the right to request, not demand, flexible working? If everybody had that right, we might start to change the working culture. That can be in the interests of business; if one member of staff wants to start and leave early and another wants to start and leave later, a customer-facing business might be able to open for longer.

On violence against women—a scourge on our country and the world—I pay tribute to the great work of the End Violence Against Women coalition, which has done great things to highlight the issue. The shocking statistic that almost half of all women in the UK will, at some point in their lives, face domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking is frankly unacceptable. In the past few years, much progress has been made to counter such violence, and the Labour Government have introduced specialist domestic violence courts, sexual assault referral centres and so on to deal with certain aspects of it. But there is still a huge amount that needs to be done. Recently the End Violence Against Women coalition found that one third of local authorities have no specialist
6 Mar 2008 : Column 1960
violence against women services. Rape crisis centres are closing in increasing numbers; surely we need to be going in the other direction.

The recent report “Map of Gaps” highlighted Scotland as a good example to be followed, as Scotland had ring-fenced the funding for support for women’s services. As a Scottish MP, I was particularly pleased to read about that. That is why it is with great disappointment that I have to inform the House that the recently elected Scottish National party Government in Holyrood have reversed that pioneering and forward-thinking move and, in the recent local funding round, have ceased ring-fencing the money for women’s aid services and for work to counter violence against women. The money will now be rolled up into the general local government settlement. When budgets come under pressure, I have a fear that some of those services for women will be cut.

Stewart Hosie: The hon. Lady, I am sure, will confirm, for the sake of completeness, that the local government settlement is much bigger and there is every intention that every one of those services will continue to be provided.

Jo Swinson: There is no guarantee. When the funding was ring-fenced, it had to be spent on those services. It will now be subject to decision making and there is great pressure on local authority funding in Scotland. Councils must make difficult decisions because they have effectively been blackmailed into providing a zero per cent. council tax rise. I have great concerns that some important services will be cut.

Ms Katy Clark: In my constituency there is a 3 per cent. cut in local government funding, and Women’s Aid is one of the organisations whose funding is being cut. That is the experience in many parts of Scotland. The hon. Lady makes a valid point.

Jo Swinson: I welcome the additional information that the hon. Lady provides about her area. I know that she will be concerned about the cuts to those services.

What is missing, and what the End Violence against Women coalition is calling for, is a cross-departmental approach to the issue. We need to recognise that violence against women is not just about the often excellent Department responsible for women and equality matters. It is not just about the health service providing support when women have been victims of violence, or the justice system dealing with such cases. It is not just about safe transport for women or education to prevent such violence. All the relevant Departments need to work together.

On 25 January 2006 at column 1435 of Hansard I questioned the then Prime Minister about that. I asked him if he would commit to developing an integrated strategy. I was somewhat disappointed by his answer, which related solely to victims of domestic violence. The point that I was making was that violence against women is much wider than just domestic violence. The Government were given one out of 10 in the first year by the coalition in its report on those services, and two out of 10 the following year. I hope that there will be continued progress.

Next Section Index Home Page