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Finally, we should all lift our eyes and take note of the world around us. The world does not expect us to continue to conduct ourselves as we do at the moment. We must challenge the way in which we allow the media to portray how we do business here. All of us in the
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House here today know that we work consensually in our Committees to get the change that is needed. All too often we allow the media to portray us as operating solely in the way we do at Prime Minister’s Question Time. That is not the way we do business and we need to change that today.

3.40 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): In a way, I am disappointed that we are celebrating 90 years of women having the vote. We need to remember that, 90 years ago, women did not get the vote on an equal basis with men. A 21-year-old man could vote but the women who could vote had to be 30, property owners and so on. We must recognise that some of these celebrations of equality are about us tolerating things that are half a cup, but not the whole.

If we look at what has happened in the 90 years since then, there have been 290 women elected to this Parliament, 186 of whom were from my party. Despite many years of Conservative government, in only eight years were there more women Conservative MPs than women Labour MPs. I do not say that to be smug; I believe it is partly because of the values of the Labour party that more women have been selected. It is also partly because we grasped the nettle of women-only shortlists, which, let me say, is a nettle in our party, too; do not think it is not.

I would like to praise other parties; having rejected that nettle, they have had a squeeze and, as women know very well, when we cannot get in the front door, we get resourceful and find a way through the back door. It is my judgment that the training programmes for women put on by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats outshine what my party has been able to do. It is a pity that we have not done more and it is great that they have done that. We should now steal their ideas and do more.

When I was elected, I was one of that crowd of 101 women elected to these Benches. It was a strange experience. In January 2000, I wrote a paper that said that my analysis of the problem was that because women in Parliament were the exception to the norm, every woman in Parliament carried the burden of representing women as a class of MP. Every time a woman MP made a mistake, everyone said, “They would, wouldn’t they? That is what women MPs are like.” One carried the burden of representing the class of women as MPs. I think that that has changed. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) reminded us that the sexism that she faced was not as extreme as that faced by many of my colleagues when they were elected in 1997.

We were very excited to be elected. We had that photograph, which caused us to be dubbed “Blair’s babes.” I have often wondered what the problem was with that. Partly, it was that we looked like pilot fish around the Prime Minister, but it was also that we never told people what electing all these women would achieve. The consequence was that every woman everywhere pinned on us, as though on a dartboard, their hopes of what a new Government could do for women. Although we have doubled child care and
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made massive strides on issues such as domestic violence, we have inevitably disappointed because we did not name what difference we would make.

One of the things that I have learned from that analysis is that we should be specific about what the change in women’s representation will achieve. We should acknowledge, though, that having more women in Parliament has made a difference. We have achieved changes that would not otherwise have been achieved. I think of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford), who has had to leave. It was 4 am, I think, in the debate on the Education Bill when she moved an amendment on beating children. I think of the former Member for Stourbridge and her child protection work. I think of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) who has tabled a Bill on special educational needs. All three examples focus on children, but it is not inevitable that women concentrate on children. Legislation on issues that tend to be overlooked is pushed through by women.

Linda Gilroy: I wonder if my hon. Friend agrees with me. When I am asked what difference we have made, I often say that the difference was made before we ever got into this place, when we put together our manifesto. It is not just the women in Parliament, but the women throughout our party who made a difference to the programme that we have followed for the past 11 years.

Fiona Mactaggart: My hon. Friend is right. I plan to end my speech by reminding Ministers that it is important to reach out—that that connection between women in the community and women in Parliament, between women in the roots of parties and women in the Chamber, is one of the sources of our strengths.

I remember speaking, not long after we had been elected, to the Clerks of the Defence Committee. I asked whether having women on the Committee—there had been none previously—had made a difference. “Oh yes,” they said. “We never used to speak about the wives and children of soldiers. We only talked about how big the bombs were. Now we focus on something that is critical, and it is now a no-brainer. We talk about it often—the fact that looking after the families of soldiers is critical to the effectiveness of our defence forces.”

There are many examples. My favourite one is the woman who generated the only ever stealth tax cut, when my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) banged on about VAT on sanitary protection for so long that my right hon. Friend who is now the Prime Minister abolished VAT on sanitary protection in the Budget and managed not to mention it when he did it.

Women have filled the top jobs. Baroness Thatcher has been frequently mentioned by Conservative Members. We hate her politics, but I admire her for having been the first ever woman Prime Minister. Since then we have had, in my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), the first ever woman Foreign Secretary. My right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) is the first woman Home Secretary, and I am betting on the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the
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Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), to fill the last of the great offices of state and become the first woman Chancellor.

We have shown that in Parliament women have made a difference, but we have missed some tricks. The Nolan Committee, which changed the way in which public appointments are made, has created a context for public appointments where, in many cases, women are disadvantaged. Let us put it brutally. The kinds of experience that women bring to the table—the experience of the school gate or of queuing at the doctor’s surgery—are not valued by Monitor, the body that approves trusteeships on hospital trusts, as a result of which trustees include many very impressive business men, most of whom had private health insurance before they got on to hospital boards, but very few people who have been through the grind of waiting for health care and experiencing it in a community.

That poses real risks. The equality Bill creates an opportunity to do something about public appointments, not merely to ensure gender equality, but to think about the qualification for public appointment. Is it having run a big business, or is it having experienced public services first hand?

I want to discuss briefly an issue raised by other hon. Members on which women’s experience is different from that of men, which is violence. Men are more likely to be victims of violent crime than women, but the way in which women experience violence is quite different. The classic example is domestic violence, where 77 per cent. of the victims are women. On average, those victims have been assaulted 35 times before they report it to the police. Women as victims of domestic violence and of rape, and as victims of violence in other areas, face an accusation that men who are victims never face: “She asked for it.” I am afraid that although things have changed, that attitude is still much too common. I am glad that John Yates pointed out, in an interview published earlier this week in The Guardian, that the culture in the police—the failure to take early evidence and so on—is one of the contributory factors to our lack of success in securing effective levels of rape convictions.

I strongly urge Ministers to ensure that we get an effective national reporting line for rape. I wonder whether the national telephone number that we use for NHS Direct might be a possible way of dealing with this issue. One of the problems with a local helpline is that most of us would not carry the number around in our pocket, and any woman can be raped. We need a national number that everyone knows about, through which such reporting can be done quickly, and through which women can be supported on the question of whether or not they want to go to the police. Many women are frightened of going to the police in the first place.

As hon. Members know, I have spoken about prostitution previously, and in my usual way, I am running out of time today. I managed to raise the issue in one contribution where I was able to speak for only two minutes, and in another where I managed only 20 seconds. In my view, prostitution is another example of violence against women. Most prostituted women have been abused, and most of them are tricked into prostitution by men who groom them, get them
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addicted and use their power over them. A terrifying number of them have been trafficked into prostitution, and it is a very difficult thing to talk about.

When I was a Minister and suggested that in cases where two women worked together in a flat, we should stop prosecuting either of them for brothel-keeping—a crime that carries a sentence of 14 years because it often involves so much wicked exploitation of trafficked women—I was called “Madam Minister” by the tabloid newspapers. The Sun even sent five so-called “tarts” round to my flat in Slough, saying, “How would you like to live next door to one of these?” Now that I am arguing that we should prosecute men for demanding that women sleep with them for payment, I am called a prude.

That is better, I suppose, than 20 years ago, when I was a campaigner in the student union against violence against women, and the student newspaper of Oxford university published a photograph of me with the caption, “Would you rape this woman?” Those attitudes have changed to some extent, but there is still a thought that rape is actually—

Mrs. Laing rose—

Fiona Mactaggart: The hon. Lady seems to be trying to intervene.

Mrs. Laing: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Does she agree that it was a disgrace that she was given 20 seconds to put before the House the important issue of how we deal with prostitution and trafficking? I hope that she accepts that many of us in my party greatly commend the work she has been doing. I hope that the Leader of the House will take note of that fact and make time for the House to discuss this important subject, which the Government appear to be afraid to bring to this Chamber.

Fiona Mactaggart: The hon. Lady is not being fair. My Government have done more on this issue than any Conservative Government ever have. I do not think that they are afraid. They have been courageous about the issue, and one thing that we have succeeded in doing—the Leader of the House has been at the forefront of this process—is changing the terms of debate. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), who is no longer in his place, put forward the canard that we can somehow regulate the trade in women’s bodies to make it safe. The evidence from countries where that happens is profound and shows that it increases criminality, exploitation and the number of women who die. Prostituted women are 40 times as likely as any other woman to die a violent death.

Jo Swinson: Regardless of whether it is right to prosecute men for buying sex, the hon. Lady’s proposal as a Minister not to prosecute women who try to work in a safer environment in premises rather than on the street was a good one. Prosecuting women and forcing them on to the streets, where they are less safe and do not have recourse to people who can support and help them if they get into difficulty, is certainly the wrong way round.

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Fiona Mactaggart: Indeed, it is. The police can deal with whether to prosecute. As a result of the prostitution strategy, the police are now targeting men more effectively. It is no longer only the Cleveland police who target kerb crawlers; other police forces do the same, and there is a reduction in, although not an elimination of prosecutions for brothel-keeping when more than one woman who sells herself is in a flat. People realise that that offence is designed to deal with the traffickers and exploiters.

There is a risk for Labour in government of some things ending up in the “too difficult” box. I do not accuse the Women’s Ministers of that—they have been brave and bold. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has been an effective cheerleader in, for example, dealing with newspaper advertisements for women. However, it is shocking that the clauses in the Criminal Justice Bill on getting rid of fines for prostitution have quietly been dropped while clauses that were drafted long after them have been pursued in the other place. I understand that the Bill has to get through to tackle a possible problem in the prisons; nevertheless, we should not allow those matters to slip away.

I know from advancing these arguments that it is possible to change public perceptions. I worry that, in government, one can fall into the trap of believing that the only way to change things is through new laws. I believe that our Government can change things by changing the way that people view things. It is inconceivable that a student newspaper would do now what the Oxford newspaper did to me. However, it is still conceivable that a jury would believe that a victim of rape asked for it. We will not change that by legislation. We will help to end it by better prosecution, by the work that we are doing with specialist prosecutors, and by dealing with cases better, but the big challenge for any Government is ensuring that we continue to tackle difficult issues that people do not want to discuss. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) talks about forced marriages to people who pretend that they do not exist. We must have the courage to keep banging the drum because if we do not, attitudes will remain the same as they were 90 years ago.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Clearly, many hon. Members are trying to catch my eye and we are now running out of time. If hon. Members try to restrict their remarks to 10 minutes or even a little less, we will do our best to get as many speakers in as possible.

3.58 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who made a trenchant, candid and persuasive speech. For me, it was no more persuasive than when she reminded the House of the effect of more women in this place on both the communities that they represent and the country as a whole. I was casting my mind back to some of the people to whose
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past contributions and effectiveness she referred and I did not disagree with any of the examples that she adumbrated.

In an earlier, wide-ranging and similarly powerful speech, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) made the fair point that parties must have the space in which to determine their approach to increasing the number of female Members of Parliament. With that I do not disagree.

Nevertheless, I suppose that my starting point is that I am an empiricist. I tend to follow Edmund Burke in thinking that one should not wallow in the realms of metaphysical abstraction, but look at the evidence. What does it tell us? What happened? What was the outcome? The reason why, a little over five years ago, I came to the conclusion that my party ought to adopt all-women shortlists was simply that when we look at the evidence from across the world, we see that no other instrument has been remotely comparably effective in ratcheting up the level of female representation. We do not have to look into the crystal ball when we can read the book.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire was absolutely right to stress that there are all sorts of other elements in the equation. There must be a family-friendly environment and people who are willing to entertain the prospect of a woman, and we have to rule out sexist language, sexist lines of questioning, sexist and intimidatory behaviour, and so on. But I simply think that all-women shortlists can make a decisive difference. The governing party has demonstrated that to its benefit and doubtless to the benefit of the country, too.

The other step that we could take—it is frankly lamentable that after all these years of discussion we have failed to do this—is to institute a proper, fully functioning and adequate crèche facility in the House. I know that I made that point in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), but I am surprised that that has not happened, because the Modernisation Committee has done a good job in many respects and it seems extraordinary that that idea should keep slipping through the net.

Lynda Waltho: I would like to add my support for that demand. One of the reasons my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House saw so many babies in the Whips Office the other night is that so many of my colleagues brought their babies in when they came for the vote, but are not allowed to take them through the Lobby, even though all the babies were being breast fed—although not at the time, obviously. That is an example of the inflexibility of this place and one of the reasons why the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion would receive my full support.

John Bercow: I understand the hon. Lady’s irritation at that. I have encountered a similar situation in chairing a Public Bill Committee. I felt very sorry for the hon. Member concerned, who kept having to go in and out of the room. As a humble and rather junior member of the Chairmen’s Panel, I simply was not empowered to do anything about the situation, but I thought that that level of rigidity and resistance must be wrong.

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Jo Swinson: I believe that the hon. Gentleman has co-sponsored an early-day motion about a crèche, which is an issue that I, too, have raised in the House. However, although those hon. Members who have turned up for today’s debate on international women’s day are supportive almost by default, does he not lament the fact that the issue, whenever it is raised, is often met with load groans from certain hon. Members who are perhaps living in a previous century?

John Bercow: I think that the hon. Lady is referring to those antediluvian souls who can still periodically be found in the House. She is right and makes a fair point, but the number of such people is in marked decline and the situation is improving all the time.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con) rose—

John Bercow: I have a feeling that my hon. Friend, the distinguished representative of Her Majesty’s Opposition Whips Office, wants to underline that point via an intervention. I am happy for him to do so.

Mr. Burns: What the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said really struck a chord, because back in 1987, which was a generation ago, in my naiveté, I, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) and the late Mo Mowlam tabled an early-day motion calling for a crèche here, because more and more hon. Members had children of school and pre-school age. The reaction from our colleagues was indeed antediluvian and archaic.

John Bercow: I am not surprised, but I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend. He knows that I have had my differences with him. I start from a position of almost instinctive prejudice against him, because he is a member of the Whips Office and I am not very enthusiastic about Whips. However, my hon. Friend is something of a progressive and he is not even very secret about it. I have watched some of the things he has done in recent times and heard some of the statements that he has made. He is very sound and he ought to be quite explicit, in front of hon. Members who have referred to her today, about the fact that there is no more cogent and enthusiastic champion of Hillary Clinton than him. On that point we are in agreement. It is nice to have a bit of amity in the debate, and I urge hon. Members to note it while it lasts, because I do not agree with Whips very often.

I am conscious that we have been exhorted by Mr. Deputy Speaker to keep our contributions brief, and lots of other people want to speak, so I shall try, very briefly, to highlight some other points that I think are of interest. First, quite a lot has been said about pay today, and rightly so. I politely put it to right hon. and hon. Members that there are several issues of particular importance involved. One is the national minimum wage. A lot has been said about its benefits, and that is absolutely right. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) knows, I long ago conceded that the Opposition were wrong to oppose it. If it had been introduced at a very high rate, it would have done damage, but it was not, so it did not. It is now very much part of the mosaic of this country that has redounded to the advantage not only of its recipients but of the economy as a whole.

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