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2.42 pm

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and I congratulate her on her work to achieve gender balance in her party.

I was interested in the hon. Lady’s comments in what were some quite bad-tempered exchanges about Margaret Thatcher. The theme of my short contribution is what those women who have managed to reach representative positions do for other women. The point, which was roundly and soundly made by my sisters on the Labour Benches, is that one would expect a lot of legislation from a woman in a position of such power as Prime Minister that looked at what women in our society need, but that was missing. That is the point that we were making.

Lynda Waltho: I thank Baroness Thatcher greatly, as I am sure many of my colleagues will, because her policies and the damage that they did in my local community made me become politically active and join the party.

Laura Moffatt: I thank my hon. Friend deeply for that. Many of us on the Labour Benches became politicised and active in fighting for our communities, because we knew that they were under attack.

The theme of my speech is the responsibility that we have. I feel thoroughly honoured to be on the Labour Benches, and I will ensure that I stick to just 10 minutes, because there are so many sisters on our Benches who are desperate to make contributions that are crucial to the debate about what we do for women.

The passionate speech that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality made today really got us off to a good start. Talking about women’s politics in that passionate way and getting a lot of response is where we want women’s politics to be. We still want to have that fire in our bellies that makes us want to go out and fight.

My hon. Friends the Members for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) have been doing fantastic work for women, and it is that kind of work that we should be celebrating today. This debate gives us an opportunity to come together, to take stock and to celebrate the work that has been done. Without doubt, this Government have contributed enormously to women’s lives in the UK.
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We almost always hear the caveat, “Yes, but there’s more to be done”, but it would be ludicrous if we did not celebrate the very real achievements on domestic violence, on carers and on pensions. It would be utterly ridiculous if we did not acknowledge that work.

I would like my right hon. and learned Friend to assure us that this debate will happen each year. In my heart, I feel that, as long as she is Leader of the House, that will be the case. This is a crucial opportunity for us to come together. It feels like a special day, when we can come together to discuss the women’s issues that we do not get the opportunity to discuss in other forums. I certainly hope that we can continue to celebrate international women’s day with these debates in the years to come.

Prominent figures have been mentioned, including our first woman Prime Minister, but many of us are now looking across the Atlantic at the fantastic prospect of a woman President of the United States. That is important, and women should have many radical role models, but I want to concentrate on the work of the representatives in our communities who encourage women to make their lives more fulfilling. For me, one of the most moving things is to see women in my community being empowered through programmes such as Sure Start. There are women who have not been out of their houses and who have not had much guidance and help from their families, but I have seen them blossom into people who are able to become representatives within the Sure Start movement and set up groups by themselves. I have seen them learn to cook and pass that skill on to younger mothers. We should be encouraging all that. It is easy to talk about the notable women, but we must be there to ensure that this kind of work is happening as well. It would be a dereliction of our duty as women in this House if we did not keep a close eye on ensuring that such women are able to thrive and survive, and to make the most of their lives.

Interesting things are happening in our communities on issues such as breastfeeding. At one time, it almost became too difficult for women to breastfeed. We were not encouraging them to do so, and we made it difficult in public places. Now, however, we have breastfeeding mentors to encourage new mums to take up breastfeeding. We have the equipment to do it—and I am very pleased that we do—yet we used to discourage it. Now we are giving women the power to encourage it and to increase the numbers of breastfeeding mums. The result will be that our children will be healthier, slimmer and more intelligent. Breastfeeding brings all those benefits to our children. These are the things that truly matter to our communities and that are making a difference to women’s lives.

I also want to mention the work of organisations such as Southall Black Sisters, which I understand is facing funding cuts because of the work that it does. I first came across that organisation when I was involved with a case involving the death of a man who had consistently abused a constituent of mine, Karanjit Ahluwalia. She finally just broke, as she could bear it no longer. As a nurse on night duty, I received the man who was admitted to hospital. Distressing as that incident was, the work of the Southall Black Sisters was invaluable. I seriously hope that the responsible
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local authority will take a large second look at the funding for that organisation, which helps people in their communities.

There are many other ways of improving the ability of women to conduct their lives. We are hoping and fighting for a university campus in Crawley. I have a sizeable community of people from black and ethnic minority groups, and I can see what having a university campus in Crawley will do culturally for those who are not going to be encouraged to go away to university. The women from those communities would be able to study technology and all the sciences that we desperately need them to study while remaining at home. That will be a tremendous advantage not just for the economy as a whole, but for those particular women who will be able to achieve their aims. That is yet another Government initiative that I believe will bring huge and fruitful results.

Let me finish by mentioning the latest life-changing Government decision—to introduce chlamydia screening, which will very quietly reduce the number of women suffering infertility in adulthood as a result of infection in their earlier life. It is a tremendous thing to do. It says a great deal that we Labour Members can stand up and say thank you for what, I think, will be an enormous gift to many women in the future. I hope to see more of that sort of work and as I look around me and see women Members, particularly on the Labour Benches, I know that much more of it will continue into the future.

The great thing about all this is how much we really enjoy campaigning on these issues. It is fantastic to be able to go into communities and make a difference by joining together with women, wherever they come from, and understanding that, no matter who we are, we have common interests with them. It is great for women to help other women.

Later this year, I hope to be able to do some work in the emerging democracies with Voluntary Service Overseas, helping women with advocacy and getting them more involved in the democratic system. That, I believe, is our responsibility. I strongly believe that we have been given the privilege of being in this place, but we must then share that benefit with other women so that we continue to get a flow of good women in places where they are able to influence the next generation.

2.53 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I am glad to be able to begin by agreeing entirely with the final remarks of the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt). We are very privileged women—indeed, very privileged people—in the western world in terms of the freedoms and the standard of living that we and our families enjoy. We are also privileged people to be elected to this House, so I am very pleased to have this opportunity to mark international women’s day. It is the international aspects of today’s celebration that matter almost more than anything else. It is our duty and responsibility to give moral support and solidarity to women—and, indeed, men—throughout the world who are fighting to make all countries fairer and more equal places for people to live in.

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I happily acknowledge the enormous efforts made by women and men on all sides of the House—unlike the hon. Member for Crawley, who originally said that she was very pleased about what the “sisters” on the Labour Benches are doing. I acknowledge what they are doing, but I also acknowledge what everyone throughout the House and throughout our democratic system is doing to make our country—and therefore other places where we can exert influence—a more equal and fair society. It is good that we are having this debate today.

I always insist that there is no such thing as a women’s issue. For generations, indeed centuries, men managed to sideline topics with which they did not particularly want to deal, saying “Oh, that’s a women’s issue; we will appoint so-and-so to deal with it.” That applied particularly to such matters as health, child care and families. Those are not women’s issues—they are everyone’s issues, but men and women often approach things from slightly different directions. I think it is time we had the courage to stand up and dare to say that women do things differently from men.

I am sure that every woman in the Chamber will at some time have had the experience of being the only woman at a meeting or in an organisation. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) explained very graphically, a woman may make a point differently from the way in which it has been made by all the men, and then all the men will sigh in a man-like way because the woman used slightly different language or a slightly different tone of voice. I hope we are reaching a stage where there is less of that, possibly because of the increased representation of women.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I wonder whether, in those circumstances, the hon. Lady finds that the gentlemen eventually get around to seeing the point.

Mrs. Laing: I do. On some occasions the realisation is more immediate than it is on others.

I agree with much of what has been said today. For nearly 11 years I have been saying things—as have many of my colleagues, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)—and only now are we beginning to be listened to. Better late than never, though, and it is because we have the courage of our convictions that we keep going and will achieve what we set out to do.

I want to put one thing on record. On occasions such as this Lady Thatcher is always mentioned, with great affection and respect by Conservative Members and in different terms by Labour Members—although I must say that the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) was generous in pointing out that the Thatcher Government did achieve some things for women. I will always argue that the fact that Lady Thatcher and her Government turned around the country’s fortunes in the 1980s inevitably benefited the 52 per cent. of the population who are women just as much as it benefited the rest of the country.

I have already mentioned the expansion of educational opportunities. If there is one thing that makes a difference to a girl approaching womanhood, it is having the opportunity of a good education. That is what makes it possible for a woman to compete with
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men who have had a good education. If we do not get education right, we can never achieve the equality that we all want. The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) is shaking her head. She cannot possibly disagree with my view that education is the most important tool that can be given to anyone, male or female, to help them contribute to the society that we all want to build.

The main thing that Margaret Thatcher did, of course, was to be there. She was Prime Minister, and therefore no one can say that a woman cannot be elected to Parliament and cannot be a successful and effective Member of Parliament.

Last week, I was fortunate enough to be the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York. I was sent there with the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), and we attended the meeting for IPU representatives. It was an important meeting, and it is a very important commission. It has been taking place for some 52 years. I felt honoured to take part, representing the UK Parliament along with the right hon. Lady. It was extremely important to be there.

We in the United Kingdom are in a privileged and important position; I am not being complacent in saying that, as I accept that there is a lot of work yet to do for women in our country, Europe and the wider western world. However, when one attends such a UN meeting and looks around what is an enormous chamber—possibly somewhat bigger than this Chamber—filled with people, mostly women, from countries all over the world, one realises what a fortunate position we are in, because many of the battles have been won here. Some Members have already referred to the work of the suffragettes and the fact that we are celebrating 80 years of women’s suffrage. Many countries throughout the world that were represented are far behind our position, as is universally known. I had an opportunity to discuss that with their representatives last week. In attending meetings such as the commission, we can make the important contribution of offering moral support and solidarity to those who still have so much to fight for in their countries.

There were two main themes to the conference: increasing the representation of women and gender budgeting. We have discussed the first of those themes at length and I shall not reiterate the points that have already been made, but something struck me as ironic. Inside the UN building there was much talk of the importance of increasing the representation of women, and many people said— sadly, somewhat naively—“If only we had more women in our Parliament, we could change this and change that, and make such a difference.” Meanwhile, outside in the rest of America there are people raising money—$34 million in February alone—to pay for advertisements to try to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming President of the United States of America. If we were to follow the representation argument to its logical conclusion, merely having Hillary Clinton, a woman, as President of the USA—and, therefore, arguably the most important person in the world—would solve many of the ills of the world. I am afraid that I would argue that having Hillary Clinton as President of the USA would
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cause more problems than it would solve, not only for America but for its position in the rest of the world. I will not go into that in any greater detail, but it is somewhat ironic that those two major debates were going on at the same time.

What bothers me far more, however, is the representation of women in this House of Commons. I absolutely agree with much of what the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said about its being our duty to go out and be evangelical about encouraging other women to enter the House of Commons. Many of us in the Conservative party are doing that; we are encouraging women to stand for election, and to become involved in politics not only at local level, where we have many good women, and not just in other organisations, but here in Parliament itself.

I hope, however, that the Minister for Women and Equality, who is also Leader of the House, will take account of the following point. If we are to encourage more women with children, and men with family responsibilities and who come from different sorts of backgrounds, to enter this House and be devoted as full-time Members, taking care of their constituency duties, their duties to this House, and their duties to their families, we must give them the financial wherewithal and the practical support to be able to balance all of those duties.

John Bercow: I am listening with interest and respect to my hon. Friend’s speech. In the light of what she has said, does she share my frustration and disappointment that, notwithstanding the commentary on the subject over at least the past decade, this House still has not got a properly functioning crèche for the benefit of Members and, importantly, of staff?

Mrs. Laing: Yes. As ever, my hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Crèche facilities are part of it, but this is about the whole attitude towards Members of Parliament, and not only women Members. Let us be practical and honest about family responsibilities. The burden of caring for family, whether it be children, elderly relatives or someone who is sick, falls far more often on women than men. I do not like to personalise things, but I feel duty bound to use myself as an example in this case, because I am the example I know best. Two thirds of my net salary as a Member of Parliament is spent on child care costs. People say, “Can’t you get grandparents to help? Where is your husband? Haven’t you got a sister?” Such questions are nonsense. I am divorced from my husband. It is no wonder that he did not want to spend every weekend doing constituency duties, as I was happy to do. There was no reason why he should have wanted to go to coffee mornings every Saturday—I do not blame him.

John Bercow: My wife does not want to go to them.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend says that his wife does not want to go to them, and I do not blame her either. I am devoted to my constituency, but there is no reason why my ex-husband should have wanted to be devoted to it. Although he is an extremely good father who spends a lot of time with our son, I, like most other mothers, have the prime duty of looking after my son. No grandparents are around, because sadly my mother
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and father both died, and my brother lives abroad, but in any case why should one seek voluntary family help to carry out one’s duties properly?

People never consider what happens every time this House sits past 6 pm. I am very much in favour of this House sitting all the hours there are, because it is only by using time that Members of Parliament can hold the Government to account. I am happy to be here until midnight, but not many Members of this House and not many members of the Executive have to consider how much it costs per hour to pay someone to look after one’s child while one is undertaking parliamentary duties.

Dare I say it, but members of the press and media have no idea what they are talking about when they criticise Members of Parliament for being overpaid or for using their allowances one way or another. They have no idea what it costs to keep two houses, look after a family and be diligent in all one’s duties in these different areas of life.

We must consider what would happen if we gave in and said that we would not fund Members of Parliament properly for carrying out their work and duties owing to a press campaign that arose because a small minority—a very small percentage—of Members of Parliament did not behave responsibly as far as finances were concerned. Many of us have worked hard over the years to bring more women, more people from ethnic minorities, and more people who are not professional people or lawyers—I am a lawyer; that is the downside—into Parliament. We have worked to bring a much more varied group of people into Parliament to make it truly representative of the people of Britain. That cannot be done unless things are properly resourced. I sincerely hope that the Minister for Women and Equality will take my remarks seriously when she considers the part of this debate for which she has not been present.

The conclusion of the IPU meeting was a very good one. It was that increasing the representation of women is important in bringing about the better conditions for women that we are all seeking, but the economic power of women is far more important. We all know that an increase in women’s economic power is what will actually make a difference in the long run. That is why flexibility in employment is so important, so that women can earn a living, stand up for themselves and use their voice, and so that they do not have to be dependent.

The second part of the IPU meeting was about gender budgeting, which is a very good idea and I hope that the Government will consider it. Gender budgeting means that legislation is assessed in terms of its gender impact, just as we have always considered the economic aspect and now look much more carefully at the environmental impact. I suggest that to the Government as a good idea.

I do not wish to take any more of the House’s time as many hon. Members wish to speak. I apologise in advance if I cannot be here for the end of the debate. I have mothering duties to undertake, and one small six-year-old simply does not understand why I have to be here for such long hours this week. I would rather be answerable to him than to the Government or my Whips.

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