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5.15 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I will do my best, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am delighted to contribute to today’s debate to mark international women’s day on Saturday. Hon. Members may know by now that I was born in the United States, but they might not know that the predecessor to international women’s day was also born across the pond in February 1909. It had far more dubious parentage than mine—the Socialist party of America. Early socialist credentials stood the movement in good stead when the observance of international women’s day in Russia on 8 March 1917 coincided with the downfall of the tsarist regime. However, the story of women's rights has much more to do with evolution than revolution.

Women won the vote not because Emily Davison shocked race-goers at the Derby but because those who survived her proved themselves indispensable during the great war. If Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Davison and Millicent Fawcett were the figureheads in the fight for women’s rights in the 20th century, J. S. Mill provided much of the early impetus for that fight during the 19th century.

Mill represented Westminster as a Member of Parliament, but his constituency was far broader, and the debt that is owed to him is correspondingly deeper. Gladstone described him as the “the saint of Rationalism”, and he was certainly more rational than his electorate, who failed to return him to Parliament after he had been a Member for only three years.

It is striking that Mill’s contribution to the debates of his day continues to be relevant to the debates of ours. Although we have made tremendous advances in some matters, there is clearly ground to be made up in others. When Mill spoke out on the admission of women to the electoral franchise, for example, he believed that it would address the practical grievance of the lack of property rights then given to women. He told the House simply that

The fight for property rights for married women now seems like something out of the dark ages. However, that one moral right, which Mill explicitly identified as a justification for extending the franchise to women, had a long and painful gestation. Between 1857 and
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1882, 18 married women’s property Bills were introduced in Parliament and an Act finally appeared on the statute book only in 1882, by which time Mill had said goodbye to the world along with Westminster.

The substance of the inequality is perhaps less important than the lesson that there will always be those who say that change takes time and that it must be allowed to run its course. Our answer to them should be that sometimes the pace of change needs to be given as much encouragement as possible. I am therefore proud to be co-chair of the Conservative party’s women2win campaign with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I am also proud to claim Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, as both a Conservative and a fellow Anglo-American. The campaign women2win is making great strides to secure better representation among women, without the party needing to resort to the expedient of all-women shortlists, proving that positive action does not necessarily mean affirmative action.

Helping to encourage the right women to be selected for winnable seats is a challenge that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has set us. It is a challenge that we are undoubtedly meeting, with one third of the prospective candidates whom we have so far selected being women, as we heard earlier. All the women selected have shown not only what can be achieved on merit alone, but that the Conservative party is doing what it must to improve representation of women among its candidates. Notwithstanding all that, the figure of one third is only a start. I am confident that, in the spirit of 1997, things can only get better.

I want to return briefly to another of Mill’s observations during the 1867 franchise debate, in the spirit of continuity rather than anachronism. He said:

The issue is no longer the values set by a male legislature or a male judiciary, because we have made great advances in those respects. Nevertheless, as we heard earlier, violence against women, the practice of forced marriage, human trafficking, female genital mutilation and that most unpleasant misnomer, “honour killing”, are all alive and well in 21st century Britain. Thankfully, there is no need for us to argue that those things are wrong. We all know far better than that. However, the culture may have changed in Westminster, but it has not always changed out in the real world, and that is still the challenge to us in all parts of the House.

Added to the category of practices that are morally repugnant are those to which many people will turn a blind eye, notably inequality in pay and pensions. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) pointed out, the median pay gap between male and female full-time workers fell from 17.4 per cent. in 1997 to 12.6 per cent. in 2007, while the mean figure fell from 20.7 to 17.2 per cent. in the same period. In the words of the women and equality unit, the median gap between male and female part-time
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workers has “remained fairly static,” at around 40 per cent. Although there has been some progress, clearly we can all do better. Some 28,000 sexual discrimination cases were taken to employment tribunals last year, which is double the figure of the previous year. Since I am an optimist, I interpret that as evidence of a greater awareness among women of their rights, rather than of a greater incidence of discrimination, but the figures should nevertheless give us pause.

I want to conclude with some final “grist to the Mill” from 1867, by noting his warning that

One woman has, of course, proved him utterly correct. I doubt that my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher would have enjoyed being called “manly” but she certainly revelled in her Soviet sobriquet as the Iron Lady and showed her formidable strength over many years. As a member of Mr. Speaker’s advisory panel on works of art, I know how delighted hon. Members in all parts of the House are that the Iron Lady was recast in bronze by Antony Dufort and placed in the Members Lobby just over a year ago.

Lady Thatcher was a towering figure in British politics and it is more than fitting that her statue should be larger than life. As the United States focuses its electoral debate on the merits of two very different Democratic presidential candidates, let us all be proud in this country of the distance that we have already travelled and of our shared commitment to continuing that journey.

5.24 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I have cut my speech down a great deal, and I shall start very near the end.

Since February 1999, there has been a campaign for changes to the customs and practices of some of our ethnic communities, in order to improve the lot of young women born here or brought in from the sub-continent as a spouse. My friend, Alice Mahon, then the MP for Halifax, and I had an Adjournment debate on the subject of forced marriages. We did so not because we woke up one morning and searched around for an Adjournment debate topic, but because we were becoming aware of, and alarmed by, the increasing number of young ladies of Asian descent coming to us for help. They usually wanted us to ask a high commission, often the one in Islamabad, to put a stop on the provision of an entry clearance visa for their so-called husband.

In the past nine years, things have moved on enormously. Forced marriage is no longer a taboo subject, and police forces such as that in West Yorkshire have developed excellent practices for helping victims. I should like to mention Philip Balmforth, who is employed jointly by the West Yorkshire police authority and Bradford social services. He must now be a world authority on rescuing victims and ensuring their safety. The consular section of the Islamabad high commission, with the help of the
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local Pakistani police, has developed some very good methods for rescuing victims and getting them to safety. The forced marriage unit here in London, funded jointly by the Foreign Office and the Home Office, is doing sterling work in giving advice. The Home Affairs Committee is looking into how further improvements can be made.

However, all our work is with victims and potential victims. The ideas that I started off with, of winning the hearts and minds of community and religious leaders—and, through them, those of the families and wider biradaris—have not reached anything like fruition. Communities are still in denial, and those practices continue apace. I therefore hope and trust that the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which comes into force in September, and the changes to immigration regulations that are now out for consultation, will eventually stop these mediaeval practices, or at least reduce their numbers.

On a vaguely related subject—again, I am treading on eggshells—I will continue to encourage primary care trusts to advise communities to move away from the practice of cousin marriages. Yes, many children born to such marriages are perfectly healthy, and some children born to parents who are not related suffer from birth defects. However, Bradford has the second highest number of infant deaths in England. A study by the paediatrics department at Bradford royal infirmary, led by Dr. Peter Corry, has so far identified 148 different autosomal recessive genetic conditions in child patients over recent years. Dr. Corry estimates that a typical British health district might see between 20 and 30 such conditions. There is a growing recognition of such problems by the younger generation, but that is not the case with older people and those brought in from the sub-continent for marriage. The Bradford and Airedale Teaching Primary Care Trust should be supporting a younger, enlightened generation by encouraging community elders, and parents arranging marriages, to move away from cousin marriages.

I wanted to mention the Church of England, and the fact that 50 per cent. of its vicars are women. I look forward to seeing women bishops, and I have spoken at one or two meetings about that. However, I shall have to give up now, as someone else wants to speak.

5.28 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), for her perceptiveness, persistence and courage and for the clever way in which she raises important issues. She is respected not only in the country but in the House.

There are more widows in India than there are females in this country. There are between 33 million and 35 million widows there, many of whom are very poor. I want to pay tribute to Raj Loomba who, in memory of his mother, Shrimati Pushpa Wati Loomba, created a foundation with the initial aim of helping the children of 100 widows in each of the 29 Indian states. The foundation was founded 10 years ago, and I pay tribute to its success in exceeding its targets. I should also like to say how much I enjoyed listening to a speech by its patron, Cherie Blair, who spoke at a lunch for the Three Faiths Forum at the House of Lords this
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afternoon. Such achievements give us an indication of what can be done for people facing far greater challenges than those that we face in this country.

In this country, there is absolutely no doubt that the position of women is getting better, but it is still wrong. Part-time working women earn less than part-time working men. There is the paradox, of course, that while part-time working women in manual jobs earn less than men and part-time working women in white-collar jobs earn less than men, if we take part-time working women as a whole, they earn more per hour than men. That is because more of them are in white-collar jobs, which means they are more qualified, and also because working-class jobs were traditionally for men.

That will change, and I hope we will see changes in the sort of things I observed when I first became a Member of Parliament. When I was an MP representing a south-east London constituency, I visited a girls’ school—a dame’s school, meaning that the headmistress had become a dame, but she had actually left—and found that not a single school leaver from that school of 1,200 girls had an A-level in maths, physics or chemistry. We cannot claim that we are providing opportunity for all in comprehensive schools if children get no A-levels in maths, physics or chemistry. I am not saying that they are not capable of doing it, but those who are capable—there should be a spread of them in schools—should be able to do it. It is often a want of ambition, a want of expectation or a want of something—whatever it is, it needs changing.

When I went to a secondary school in Westminster and asked when a pupil last got an A grade in mathematics, the school did not know. I hope that that sort of thing is changing. I will do all I can to support the achievement of good results in the so-called hard subjects—in fact, I think maths, physics and other such subjects are easier, because there are right and wrong answers. We will make a change and raise expectations so that more people can go into the professions and educational lines of work—qualifications matter.

It is odd to think back to when I was a junior Minister in the Department of Employment. I discovered—or rather, I was told, as I did not discover it myself—that 80 per cent. of our first-line managers were female, and within two promotion grades 60 per cent. were male. Part of that was due to the fact that one had to apply for promotion rather than be given it; and part of it was a conspiracy between the management and the unions that one could not get a second promotion until a certain number of years had passed. Many women were mothers, but the fact that many male workers were fathers did not seem to matter, as they did not take time off work.

In some ways, we expect women to take on the responsibilities and opportunities of their fathers while maintaining the responsibilities of their mothers. We should stop saying that women who are not in paid employment are not working. I have not yet met a woman with family responsibilities who was not working—or probably not doing even more work than most of their men would willingly put up with for long. They certainly carry the burden of looking after many of the older generation who need help.

Incidentally, may I say in passing that to regard our present parliamentary hours, particularly when we
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start early, as “family friendly” is absolute nonsense? One cannot take a child to primary school if one needs to be at work at 9 o’clock in the morning and one cannot look after an elderly parent during the day if one has to be here. In fact, the older hours were far more compatible with family responsibilities than the present ones, but that is a side issue.

There is not enough time to go into a number of other issues that I would have liked to cover at some length. I believe that those who make appointments should always ask themselves who are the women who can be considered on merit as well as who are the men who come naturally to mind.

Let me provide another anecdote. When I was appointing a street works advisory committee to look into services under the roads—telephone, computer, electricity, gas and the like—11 names were put forward. I asked those who provided the advice to come and have a chat as I had noticed that all 11 were male. They said that that was due to chance. I asked what categories were being filled. They said they wanted to have someone who had been head of transportation for a major highway authority. When I said that a woman retiring from the Greater London council would also qualify, they said that they had forgotten about her. When I suggested a professor of electronics or engineering, they said, “Name one”, so I named one from the university of Surrey. I said that I did not know all the universities around the country. It was suggested that we met again a week or so later. We came back with 11 names and appointed all 11: six were women and no one raised an eyebrow, because they were all clearly qualified to fill the categories for which advice was sought. Those sorts of things matter.

Let me end, if I may, by paying tribute to my wife, who was one of those women who had not really thought of coming to the House of Commons. She once thought that the only time she would come here would be if I got run over by a bus and she would be the grieving widow, gently smiling and dabbing her eyes. In fact, she was approached and told that she was on most people’s lists. She would not have come here if the suggestion had not been made to her. I think that just as we suggest to people that they should consider becoming nurses, doctors or teachers, or becoming involved in some enterprise, we ought to encourage more talented people to stand for election. We know that women can perform their roles in the Cabinet, as Members of Parliament and as councillors, and I think we should try to ensure that we do not just wait for the volunteers.

I will end my speech there, because I know that the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) wants to speak as well.

5.35 pm

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) for his courtesy.

Let me explain, in the few minutes available to me, why I consider this day important. Various Members have pointed out that it is the 90th anniversary of the first votes for women. On that occasion my grandmother did not get the vote, because she had no property. She had three children and no husband, and
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she lost her job because men were returning from the first world war and she was told that she was doing men’s work, so perhaps that 90th anniversary is not such a great symbol after all.

If we want a real symbol of the change in attitudes we should think of 1997, when the culture of the House of Commons changed radically and inevitably. Those of us who were here before 1997 will know how much it changed. I do not mean just the way in which we dealt with each other outside the Chamber. Anyone who glances at a 15-year-old Order Paper will observe a very different set of priorities and preoccupations, and that is a result of the arrival of so many female Members. Most of them are on the Labour Benches—my sisters—but I think that attitudes have changed in all parts of the House, and for the better.

When we take stock of what this Government have done, we see that there have been tremendous achievements. I do not have time to list them all. Instead, I shall mention an area in which we need to make more progress: equal pay. While I agree that we will need the pay audits that were mentioned earlier if we are to see the pay revolution that we want, we should also recognise that many women’s roles as carers or mothers mean that their careers do not operate on the same basis as men’s. That is at least part of the reason for the fact that the pay gap is still so wide.

Probably more than half the work force have worked flexibly in the past 12 months, but some of that flexibility may not be good for employees’ families. Perhaps we need a different kind of flexibility. We should ask what flexibility really means in our society, and we should extend the concept of how we offer it to members of the work force. As Members in all parts of the House have pointed out, because of the type of career that women pursue they often undersell themselves in the labour market relative to their qualifications, and as a result drift into less secure occupations. Very different patterns of employment now exist. Women are often temporary and agency workers—there is a continuing debate about that—and the fact that they occupy such positions makes them more vulnerable. It leads to a continuing cycle of low pay, which will also affect women’s pensions at the end of their working lives.

As this is international women’s day, let me say something about the international situation. Two thirds of the 1.3 billion people living in desperate poverty on the planet are women, as are some three quarters of the nearly 900 million who are functionally illiterate. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said that the need for water was one of the great needs of our planet, but education is another. The task of liberating a generation of women globally through the power of education is a challenge that is enormous but achievable. I am proud of the Government’s record on international development, and the specific investment in education programmes. Such measures are fundamentally important if we are to change the way in which the world operates.

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