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6 Mar 2008 : Column 1961

I hope that in her summing up the Minister will be able to report further on the issue. I raised it again on 17 July 2007 following a statement from the Minister for Women, who said:

That would be welcome. I should like to know, some months on, whether that has happened or the status of the proposal.

With reference to violence against women, I tabled early-day motion 765 on the campaign for justice for victims of rape, which 84 hon. Members have already signed. The conviction rate for rape, as we all know, is appallingly low—around 5 per cent., which is down from 33 per cent. in the 1970s. That is not the conviction rate for cases that get to court. More than four out of five cases do not get to court, so the problem is not necessarily at the jury stage. The difficulty tends to arise at an earlier stage, with cases being dropped because insufficient evidence has been collected.

I know that the Government have been consulting on the issue, which is to be welcomed. We need to know how we can improve criminal practices to ensure that more cases get to court and are successful, but it is also important that the support services receive stable funding. That can be an important factor in determining whether a woman will pursue a case, decide to drop it or not report it at all.

We need to address the myths about rape. There have been some shocking reports about the perception out there. In 2005, an ICM poll found that a third of British people thought that in some circumstances a woman could be held partly responsible if she was raped. That must be scotched. It is not a woman’s fault if she is raped. It is not her fault if she has been drinking. It is not her fault depending on what she is wearing. If somebody was murdered or mugged, we would not say that it was their fault because of the way they had acted, and we should not say that in the case of rape.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead mentioned a horrifying statistic about the number of young girls being pressurised into sex. A recent Amnesty study showed that 40 per cent. of young people know girls whose boyfriends have coerced or pressurised them into sex. In one sense, that is shocking, but it is not all that surprising when one considers the education that is currently provided and the different views about sex that are allowed to develop between boys and girls. We must tackle the matter from an education point of view so that it is clear what is and is not acceptable behaviour.

I questioned the Minister for Schools and Learners about that in December. The point that I was making was that it was not just sex education that was important—relationships education must be an integral part of that. When young people are learning about how to have safe sex, about the biology of sex, about what happens, they also need to understand the context of the relationships in which that can happen and the issues of consent, love
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and confidence that go with that. I do not see how the two aspects can be separated, so I was extremely disappointed when I asked the Minister if he would consider making such education a statutory requirement, and he replied:

He went on to say that he wanted better sex and relationships education, but would not make a commitment to make that a statutory requirement. If the Government are serious, they need to look carefully at that issue.

On women’s pensions, the Government, to give them their due, have made some progress, particularly for women with caring responsibilities who do not have a complete national insurance record. However, the way that changes are being introduced means that there will be a cliff edge where the difference in entitlement between women who are eligible after 6 April 2010 and women who are not eligible the day before will be £27,000 over their lifetime.

The Government should have considered introducing the new scheme in a more staggered way to avoid such a cliff edge. They should also consider a citizen’s pension. It will still be a requirement to have 30 years of national insurance contributions for a full pension. Even with that change from 39 years, some women will still not achieve a full pension because of their caring responsibilities. That needs to be taken into account.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) has drawn attention to the problem of women who have gaps in their contribution record, which they could pay to have filled. There was a six-year period when the Government did not inform women that that was possible. Women can do that retrospectively and in some cases be eligible for a lump sum of a couple of thousand pounds or more, plus an enhanced pension going forward. I have tried to raise awareness of the matter in my constituency and help women in individual cases, but the Government should take responsibility for being proactive and making sure that women get what is rightfully theirs.

On the international agenda—after all, we are celebrating international women’s day—it is important to consider the issues that women face around the world. There are countries where female infanticide is common. As has been mentioned, 2 million girls every year go through the appalling practice of female genital mutilation. Rape is used as a weapon of terror. We saw that in Rwanda, yet the same is happening again in Darfur. Women are oppressed in societies and countries across the world, unable to access education and denied equal rights in judicial procedures. Poverty tends to hit women the hardest. This week there is an excellent exhibition in the House, in the Upper Waiting Area, about the impact of climate change on women. In the developing world women will be hardest hit by the effects of climate change.

Interestingly, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead said, women can often be part of the solution, even though they suffer the worst elements of the problem. There is a high correlation between the education of women in a country and that country’s level of development. We see micro-finance initiatives run by women throughout the world to make their
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communities better, and this Government, through their international development work, should rightly ensure that the involvement of women in the solution to many of those problems is a priority.

That brings me to women’s representation, which brings all of those issues together. There are 126 women Members of Parliament at the moment—fewer than one in five—which is clearly not enough. The figures are slightly better in some of the other authorities and Parliaments. A third of the Members in the Scottish Parliament are women, but I am sad to say that that is a decrease from 40 per cent. previously. The Welsh Assembly has an excellent record, with 47 per cent. of its Members being women—I congratulate the Assembly on achieving that. In the European Parliament, 31 per cent. of Members are women. Although representation in local authorities is better than it is in this House, with 29 per cent. of councillors being women—and I am delighted that the Liberal Democrats have the highest percentage of women councillors, at 32 per cent.— we have no reason to be complacent.

Sometimes in meetings, I have raised that problem, and men will turn round and go, “Oh, a third are women. That’s quite good.”, and I say, “Hang on a second—it might be quite good compared to the really awful representation in other areas, but there is no way that a third of representatives being women is good.” We can probably say that a figure of 47 per cent. is quite good—it is not always going to be exactly 50:50—but we cannot be complacent about a proportion such as a third. The Labour Benches are made up of many more women, and I hope that there is no complacency there, because even on their Benches, there is still a long way to go.

We need to look at the variety of reasons why representation is so low. Is sexism the reason? It probably is partly sexism, but I do not think that it is the only one. The reason is less likely to be sexism now than it was 30 years ago. We certainly know that the electorate are no less likely to vote for a woman. In fact, I have seen research showing that not only does turnout go up when women stand, but that women are marginally more likely to be elected than men—so it is an advantage to have women candidates. If the electorate are no longer sexist, it would be slightly strange to suggest that political parties have a higher degree of sexism. Although sexism is probably still a factor in some cases, it is not the only one.

Is it a matter of lifestyle? Is it that women look at us debating until 11 o’clock—on at least two nights so far this week—and at the sometimes strange procedures and practices of this House, and say, perhaps entirely sensibly, “Hang on a second, that’s not for me. I can make an impact in another career in business or in one of the professions, or through working in my local community.” I suspect that that sentiment has a role to play. However, it would not explain the low percentage of councillors. Combining the lifestyle of a councillor with the other sensible things that one might want to do is easier than combining them with the lifestyle of a Member of Parliament, which involves two lives and two homes.

Cash is certainly part of the problem. The pay gap exacerbates the representation problem. Let us be honest about it—standing for Parliament and being
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involved in politics leads to additional costs. Like it or not, as the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley said, women get judged on their appearances more, so there are wardrobe costs. There are certainly child care costs. But there is also the cost of going to party conferences and accommodation, and the little things that happen all the time when one is a candidate, such as taking volunteers out for a drink after a hard day’s work. A lot of incidental costs are involved, and because there is a pay gap, the financial implications are even worse for women.

Another real problem is confidence. One of my favourite things about the job is speaking to school groups. Rather than being deferential, they will always tell it exactly like it is, and they are inquisitive and enthusiastic. I have noticed with interest that when I meet a school group and ask for questions, nine times out of 10 the first question is from one of the boys, and very often the second question is, too. There have even been occasions when I have had to turn to the class and say, “Come on girls, you must be thinking interesting things, too. Why don’t you put your hands up?” Then, fair enough, some of them do. I have noticed that; I do not know whether other women, or male Members, in the Chamber have done so.

I remember the feeling of sitting in a political meeting or a classroom and thinking of something, then thinking, “Shall I say that? No, I might look stupid.” I have a sort of internal conversation, and decide that it is safer not to put my hand up, or not to contribute. Then, of course, some bloke says the same thing far less eloquently, and everyone lauds them for it. It is only through making myself speak, and through others helping me to have the confidence to do it, that I got to a position where I felt happy to stand for Parliament. I did not wake up one morning and think, “I want to be an MP”—other people suggested the idea to me.

I did a straw poll of my female colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, and about half of them were asked to stand by someone else. I have not done a scientific poll with the male Members of Parliament, but I suggest that there might be a different result. I would urge all hon. Members who want to see more women in politics to ensure that they say to someone, “Why don’t you put your name forward and do it?” rather than just expect women magically to think that they will do it. Even if they do not want to, they will be flattered to be asked.

Lynda Waltho: I am inspired by the hon. Lady’s comments and I am sure that many young women will be inspired by the way in which she is making her point. Most of my colleagues will have attended meetings where they felt exactly the same. A Labour politician advised me that I should “feel the fear” and do it anyway. If the hon. Lady tells that to the women to whom she speaks, it will go a long way.

Jo Swinson: That is good advice and a tactic that I urge others to employ.

I acknowledge the progress that the Labour party has made on electing many more women to Parliament—it would be churlish not to do so. I disagree that all-women shortlists are the solution for every party, but I would support an extension of the
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sunset clause in the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 till 2030 or until the issue is no longer a problem. Parties should have the opportunity to use that as a tool to tackle the problem, but it is not the only tool. If the problem is sexism in the selection process, I can think of few other things that would change the outcome. However, if that is not the main problem, all-women shortlists are not necessarily the right solution.

I speak from several years’ experience of dealing with the matter in my party. We examined the figures, did the research and found that women were as likely to get selected in seats—winnable and otherwise—as men, but five times as many men came forward as candidates. When working with such numbers, ending up with a gender balance would be a statistical anomaly.

We have been working on the matter since the conference debated how to tackle the problem in 2001, and I chair the Liberal Democrats’ campaign for gender balance, which is the approach that we have taken. We have encouraged more women to come forward. About three times as many men as women want to become candidates, but we have made some progress.

Julie Morgan: I have enjoyed listening to the hon. Lady’s analysis. However, I disagree with her last point because our experience in the Labour party is that, when we had shortlists that were half men and half women, the men still won.

Jo Swinson: That may well have been the case in the Labour party. I have not conducted research on the Labour party, only on my party. We found that, when shortlists were half men and half women, men won half the time and women won half the time. I will not say that there was never an instance of sexism, or that a sexist comment was never made, in Liberal Democrat selection contests, although in my experience, for everyone who said, “What would you do if you had children?” or, “Are you sure you can do this?” someone else said, “It’s great to have more women in Parliament and I’ll vote for you because of that.” Things can even out, but I cannot speak for other parties—obviously, I do not know their internal procedures and cultures as well as those of mine.

Each party should be entitled to find its own method of dealing with the problem. Our approach is to encourage more women to become candidates, and we have good support mechanisms to help them with that and to get selected. Given that we still have many more male than female candidates, we must ensure that those women punch above their weight and are more likely to get selected. We undertake intensive mentoring and training. Two weekends ago, we held our now annual event, “Calling all Future Women MPs!” Fifteen women attended and it was inspiring—I hope to see many of them on our Benches in future.

Many firsts have happened in the past few decades. An important first was the election of the first UK female Prime Minister in 1979. I was surprised and disappointed that Labour Members could not recognise that achievement. I share many of their concerns about
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what Baroness Thatcher did in office—I am also speaking as a Scot, and I do not believe that she was necessarily good for the country—but I can still acknowledge that important achievement, which deserves to be recognised, as do many achievements more recently by Labour women. They include the first woman Speaker, Baroness Boothroyd, the first woman Foreign Secretary, who is still a Member of Parliament, and the first female Home Secretary. As was mentioned earlier, we now have the first female Serjeant at Arms—I was delighted when that appointment was made, and it is a shame that she is not here today.

Miss Kirkbride: At the risk of appearing rude about some of my hon. Friends, Lady Thatcher was voted leader of the Conservative party almost exclusively by men, and that is an even greater achievement than the hon. Lady implied.

Jo Swinson: Absolutely. The hon. Lady is quite right.

I intend to draw my remarks to a close shortly, because there are many hon. Members present who want to make contributions and I am keen to hear them. We have made a lot of progress, but there is still so much more to do. One problem is that although we have debates and discussions about equality, I suspect that we can sometimes put women off. There is a feeling out there that this place is an old boys’ club that is full of sexism and that the job is really difficult for women, but a lot of that is not true. Women Members in all parts of the House will say that being an MP is a wonderful job and very suited to the skill sets of women. It is not all about standing up and making speeches. So much of the job is about listening, dealing with constituents’ problems and finding ways to work with those from different parties or other agencies in our constituencies to find solutions, and even in this place there is nothing like the sexism that there used to be. Indeed, this job is very enjoyable.

I sometimes think that we need to make that case more strongly. In December I had an exchange with the Minister for Women and Equality in which I made that suggestion, following it up with a letter to ask whether she thought that a cross-party initiative would be a good idea. She responded in January—I should apologise for not replying yet; my time has been monopolised somewhat by the European Union (Amendment) Bill over the past month—by saying:

the Minister for Equality

I very much welcome that sentiment. However, rather than having the right hon. and learned Lady or the Minister meet just me, I would hope that we could involve Conservative Members and launch a cross-party initiative looking at how, collectively, we can sell the job of being a Member of Parliament and ensure that we get the message out there and in the media that this is a very enjoyable job to do.

Richard Younger-Ross: Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is the image that the House projects of the standard MP? The image that the media give is of a white, middle-class man who looks a bit like a stuffed suit. If my hon. Friend’s grouping can
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persuade hon. Members to change the rules of the House, to make men look slightly less stuffed and starched, there might be a different image of an MP.

Jo Swinson: I would never say that my hon. Friend looked like a stuffed suit.

A lot can be done. It would be wonderful if the message that went out from this debate was that being an MP is something that women throughout the country with talents to offer should consider and if we used the debate as a starting point to work together on the issue. We should celebrate very much all the achievements and work of women in the past, but look forward to much better representation of women in the future.

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