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6 Mar 2008 : Column 1974
3.12 pm

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): I welcome the fact that this debate is taking place in this Chamber today. On previous occasions, it has not always been possible to have the international women’s day debate in the Chamber, and it is a sign of the progress that has been made and the impact that the Leader of the House has had that we are having it here today. We should all welcome that.

I shall be brief, because several hon. Ladies wish to contribute. I do not consider it discriminatory to say that, because international women’s day is about women. It is about the struggles of women and it is a celebration of women’s role. We have the debate in recognition of the fact that women have faced historic and unprecedented discrimination.

International women’s day emerged from two movements. The first was the suffrage movement, which campaigned for women to have a vote and a say in how society was run. The second was made up of campaigns against the exploitation of women in the workplace. The history of international women’s day shows that the two were strongly linked. The first record we can find is of New York women workers in the textile and clothing industry who demonstrated about their low wages and poor working conditions on 8 March 1857. Fifty years later, in 1907, a demonstration was held in New York to commemorate the 1857 demonstration and to call for votes for women and an end to child labour and workshops. It was the movements around May day, in support of votes for women and against exploitation of women in the work force that led to 8 March being regarded as the day on which to celebrate what women were achieving, to recognise their struggles, and to act as a focus on what women wanted to change. Many men played a significant role in many of the victories that women achieved, but on international women’s day it is fitting that we celebrate the women who put so much into fighting not only for themselves but for their sisters.

I welcome the fact that the debate is being held in the Chamber. We have discussed women’s representation in the Chamber, and many Labour Members spoke of the significant advances in women’s representation in the Labour party over recent years. We remember the hugely important events of 1997, when so many women were elected here. The Labour party is justly proud of the fact that in the Scottish Parliament it has always had 50 per cent. representation of women, and it is right that all parties discuss how we ensure the better representation of women. The Labour party in Scotland adopted positive discrimination, women-only shortlists and the twinning of constituencies, whereby some seats were women’s seats. It recognised it had to do something—the other methods that had been tried and for which women had campaigned over so many years had not succeeded.

I was selected on an open shortlist, but the Labour party organises itself to ensure that women enjoy parity on shortlists, and the transferable vote system encourages women who are coming through the process. It is important that we talk about that and about getting more women into this building, but it is even more important that we talk about what women must do to ensure that they have a full say over every aspect of their lives and are represented in every walk
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of life. That is not about women being different or the same, but about women being human beings and having a full say over the way in which they live.

We in Britain are very lucky. We have heard much today about the problems that women still face in Britain, and I agree with what has been said about pay inequality, discrimination in the workplace and the lack of child care not only for Members of Parliament but for women throughout the country, which affects so many women’s lives and their opportunities. Women play a massive role in Britain and are often at the forefront of community organisations, fighting for their communities.

On international women’s day we must celebrate what women have achieved and acknowledge that there is still a long way to go. We must also say that what we in Britain have achieved is what we expect in every country. We are all aware of the discrimination that women still experience and of the fact that they still do not play the full role in society that they should, but when we look around the world we see that we are lucky in the choices that we have. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women have so few rights and hardly any voice. They are not allowed to walk unaccompanied on the street, to drive a car or to join many professions, so it is easy to see that we in this country have come a long way.

International women’s day is about not only celebration but struggle and protest, which is how it came about and why in 1975 the United Nations decided to make it a day to be recognised throughout the world. Today, we should be saying that women should have a far stronger role in the world and a far stronger voice. If we achieve that, the benefit will be felt by not only women but humanity, and the world will be more civilised.

I hope that next year a debate on these issues will again be held in this Chamber, enabling all Members to raise their voices about why we must ensure that women secure more victories.

3.20 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): This debate has reaffirmed the fact that gender equality is still relevant and important throughout the country. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark), and I wish to pick up her point about the central role that women play in many community organisations. I am sure that that is the case in her constituency, as it is in mine, so I am perplexed that it does not translate to more women wanting to stand for Parliament. I shall touch on that point later.

There have been many good contributions to the debate. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) particularly inspired me and reminded me that we share the fact that other individuals put our names forward for candidacy for Parliament. I have my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) to thank for the fact that I am here today, sitting on the green Benches.

The Minister mentioned that she was elected in 1982, when there were 10 Labour women in Parliament and 13 Conservative. I was doing my A-levels at the time, and I remember that election vividly. One of those 13
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Conservative women inspired me to be here today—my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher. We might disagree about what she contributed to this country, but I believe that she contributed hugely to the success that we continue to enjoy in some ways. She certainly served as a role model to me in respect of what women can achieve, and we should not forget that.

This debate is still highly relevant, perhaps because one in three women in our country still feel that there is a long way to go on gender equality. I would never suggest that there is a sense of complacency about it on either side of the House, but we should not forget that a huge number of women still feel that there is much more to do. Parliament has a vital role to play in making women feel that there is working equality. Parliament’s authority and legitimacy is based on representing the nation as it is today, not as it was in the past, so having more women in the House is an important challenge that we should all take on.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said, women and men have different priorities. A stronger, more resilient voice for women in the House of Commons means that women throughout the country can feel that matters of importance to them are being addressed. We do not suffer alone from the under-representation of women in political life. Again, my hon. Friend mentioned that point. I have examined some work by the World Economic Forum, which speaks of a “political power gap” in the ratio of men and women in Parliaments and in Ministerial positions. We have made great progress in this country, and more women are in Parliament, but we still suffer from what the WEF calls an 86 per cent. political power gap, because of the lack of women that we still have in the House. I am not sure whether I find it reassuring that even countries such as Sweden, Norway and Finland, which we hold up all too often as the epitome of what we should be aiming for, still suffer a 50 per cent. power gap according to the WEF. Many women who are elected do not go on to have powerful and influential positions.

I am concerned that we have bypassed some of the fundamental reasons why there are not more women sitting in Parliament. Before I turn to those reasons, we should try to understand why such a large proportion of women feel that we have not gone far enough towards gender equality. Hon. Members have already cited many of the pressing problems that predominantly affect women in this country today. Women in part-time work—the type of work that most often fits in with family life and caring responsibilities—face a gender pay gap that continues at almost 40 per cent. It is little wonder that in the past year alone 28,000 sex discrimination cases have gone to an employment tribunal. That figure, which has doubled in the past 12 months, is unacceptable. We have to look for ways to ensure that women throughout the country have access to good-quality part-time work. Many businesses have already seen the strong business case for that, but there has been a failure to deliver in too many areas.

Others have spoken about flexible working. We have made some progress on that, and it is heartening to hear Ministers say that there is interest in extending the right to flexible working to those with older children, although I share the concern voiced by my right hon.
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Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that mixed messages seem to be emerging from the Government on that point.

Looking at health matters, particularly the treatment of cancer, we find that only three in 10 women aged between 50 and 70 receive breast cancer screening every three years, despite Government policy on that, and the position has worsened since 2001. Staffing levels in maternity services and wards are causing women considerable concern, but are not being dealt with in a way that many women feel is appropriate. We have also touched on the subjects of women in prison, domestic violence, and problems such as the number of reported rapes increasing while cuts are being made to funding for rape crisis centres. Those are many of the reasons why many women feel that the matter of equality has been incompletely addressed by our legislative body.

Nobody who has spoken today advocates sticking with the status quo and not finding new ways to increase female representation in this place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead outlined some of the excellent measures that our party has established, and all the other parties have tackled the issue in ways that are appropriate for them, but I am concerned that we may be dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause.

There was a great influx of women to Parliament in 1997 as a result of the Labour party’s change in its selection criteria, but I was worried to see some figures the Library produced for me on men and women’s average length of service as MPs. In the decade and a half to 2005, the average length of service for women declined from 13.7 years to 11.5 years. That is at odds with the situation for men, whose average length of service remains about 17 years. We should be concerned about the fact that although more women are coming into Parliament, they are not staying as long as men. To pick up on the comments made by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), we need to make sure that age and experience are valued. Parliament benefits from the continuing contributions of those who have been here for several years. When considering how this place operates, we should see whether that problem can be tackled.

Ms Katy Clark: Does the hon. Lady agree that the reason for that phenomenon may be that, generally, in the Labour party, women have been selected in marginal seats? If the Conservative party intends to focus only on marginal seats, the women elected may also not last. What we need are long-term solutions that ensure that we get women into a wide range of seats, including very safe seats.

Mrs. Miller: The hon. Lady makes a good point—that is a factor—but I assure her that in my party women are not being selected only for marginal seats. On the contrary, we have a number of excellent women candidates in seats now held by Conservative MPs who I am sure will join us here in the Commons after the next election. However, I understand how that is a problem. Unfortunately, it will probably be a problem for her party after the next election.

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Lynda Waltho: I asked the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) how many women in the Conservative party have been placed in safe Conservative seats, and she was not able to answer. Can the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) do so?

Mrs. Miller: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We do not place candidates in seats; they are selected for seats. It is difficult for anybody to say what a safe seat is. Nowadays, I do not think that any of us should refer to them in that way. There are well over 50 women who we think will be elected to Parliament at the next election, but really it is down to the electorate to decide, on the day of the election, how many end up here.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as it gives me the opportunity to confirm, as she did, that a number of our women candidates are standing for seats currently held by Conservatives, or new seats that are defined as Conservative seats. Those women include Priti Patel in Witham. I am sure that we are all very pleased that Helen Grant, who has not fought a seat before, and who was at one stage involved with the Labour party, is to succeed my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). That is exactly the sort of seat that the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) is talking about.

Mrs. Miller: I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention, and for giving details; that is most helpful.

I should like to turn the attention of the House to the critical issue of whether there are enough women who use politics and being a Member of Parliament as a way of contributing to their community and to public life. Many women have significant roles in organisations that play a part in supporting our many different communities, but what perception do those women have of the House of Commons? Why are they not choosing it as a way of putting themselves forward? The House needs to give a little more consideration to that issue. Many other organisations have had to deal with the issue of how they get more women to put themselves forward for jobs.

I recently took a look at the medical profession, which was long the domain of men. One could say that there are parallels between the challenges dealt with by women entering medicine and those dealt with by women coming to the House of Commons. In 1963, just 29 per cent. of students applying for medical school were women, but today the figure is two thirds. Indeed, some predict that women will become the dominant force in the medical profession by 2012. That is because the profession has changed the selection process to decrease discrimination against women, and has looked at increasing the number of women applicants. It has also looked into making changes to medicine as a career for women. The change is particularly acute in the general practitioner sector. In 2005, 40 per cent. of GPs were women, compared with 29 per cent. in 1995. The House will be interested to know that the percentage of practitioners working part time has more than doubled in the past 10 years, and
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has reached 27 per cent. That may well be part of the reason why the role of women in GPs’ surgeries has increased so much.

Ms Katy Clark rose—

Mrs. Miller: I will give way to the hon. Lady, but then I really need to make progress.

Ms Clark: Is the hon. Lady aware that until the 1950s and 1960s, many universities had quotas for the maximum number of women whom they would accept as entrants to the medical profession, and does she agree that we have come a tremendous way?

Mrs. Miller: I would probably be straying too far from the subject of today’s debate if I went into the details of that point, but the hon. Lady raises an important issue. We should understand the important role that women can play in professions such as medicine, and try to tackle the barriers that have stopped women from entering such professions. We could use what we learn from that to encourage more women to enter the House of Commons.

I do not mean to underestimate what the Modernisation Committee has already done in trying to identify ways of attracting a broader cross-section of people to the House. Importantly, some of its suggestions have focused on the need to improve the running of this place rather than on the convenience of Members of Parliament. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead said, having more women in this place will make it more effective and, importantly, more representative of the country as a whole.

However, perhaps we should not consider only changes to working hours and holidays when thinking about how to modernise the House. Such changes have made up more or less the bulk of the reforms, but we could do far more important things to send out strong messages to women that they should consider politics as a career. What more can be done to attract women to the House? The issue is not only about changing the working hours or the trappings of Parliament; we need to understand how we can change the culture—or perceived culture—of this place, so that it is more attractive to women.

The Minister’s approach was not a good example of how debates such as these usually run. I have been in Parliament for three years, and in my experience these debates have been a positive experience and had a positive tenor. I was disappointed by the right hon. and learned Lady’s contribution. I hope that, on reflection, she decides that a different approach would be appropriate.

Let us be honest: this place has not caught up with how people expect Parliament to conduct itself today. There is an enormous opportunity for the House to consider that point, particularly in the light of current considerations about pay, pensions and how we present payments for our offices and staff. Perhaps we could consider how we should revise those aspects of how we conduct ourselves, to bring ourselves into a modern-day way of doing business.

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The House could also consider how debates are generally conducted and how they are perceived by people outside, including women who might be considering politics as a career path. Many of my women friends think that I am nuts to have taken this job. One asked me why I would want to put myself through it all when I had such a good job already. I put myself through it because I believe that this is the most rewarding job that anybody can have in this country.

Linda Gilroy: Will the hon. Lady consider something closely related to her last point? Three years ago, I did a survey that showed that one reason why women do not come forward—certainly from my part of the world—is that they do not feel that they can make a difference. How we conduct ourselves here is an important way of showing how we can make a big difference.

Mrs. Miller: The hon. Lady’s excellent point picks up on my next one. I hope that the House does not treat this observation in a party political way, but this week the House has been debating the referendum on the European treaty—a political commitment made by all parties which has not been followed through. Hon. Members will disagree on the issue, but outside this place the perception is that we make pledges and promises but do not carry them through. We should all think about the reactions to that among our constituents and people who are considering becoming MPs. To pick up on the very point that the hon. Lady has just made, I should say that making a difference is about making a promise and carrying it through. I was very disappointed with the Government’s response on that issue.

Linda Gilroy: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Miller: I am sorry, but I have been generous to the hon. Lady.

Linda Gilroy rose—

Mrs. Miller: I am sorry, but I need to make progress.

I believe that many women are deterred from putting themselves forward because they are unsure about whether they would feel comfortable being part of this organisation. However, we have an enormous opportunity to change women’s minds on the issues and make important and radical changes to how we do business—such as our not voting on our own pay, changing our final salary pension scheme and bringing a business approach to how we run our offices and support staff, who are so vital to our constituents and how we serve their needs. We should make sure that we talk about costs, not expenses—the cost of employing staff is important; we should not term it an expense. But it is most important that we are transparent in everything we do. This changing culture could be a big opportunity to show women that this is a career choice that they should be taking seriously.

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