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11 Mar 2010 : Column 467

International Women's Day

[Relevant documents: The Final Report from the Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation), Session 2009-10, HC 239-I, the Government response, Cm 7824, and the First Spe cial Report from the Conference, HC 449.]

1.25 pm

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move,

I am pleased to open the debate and want to raise two issues: the Equality Bill and the massive change in public attitudes to equality. For decades, those of us who believe strongly in women's equality and representation have been told that we are on an eccentric fringe-that we suffer from "political correctness gone mad". But all of the things that we have fought for so hard over the years-for women to have an equal say in all areas of life-are now in the mainstream of public opinion.

We carried out a poll last week in the run up to international women's day. It showed that the public have turned decisively against men-only decision making. They think it is important that men and women have an equal say over business decisions that affect the British economy. They think that should be the case even when men have more experience. They think that men and women should have an equal say over the political decisions that affect the way Britain is run. That is strongly our point of view and why we have increased the number of Labour women MPs to 95.

People think that international political decisions should be taken by men and women having an equal say. That is strongly our point of view and why we are pressing for the establishment of the new UN women's agency this year. It is the same for decisions about the workplace and local services. That view backs up our commitment to new rights at work, a strong role for trade union equality reps and more women councillors, particularly black and Asian women councillors. We do not have a benchmark for public opinion on an equal say for women 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): The Minister refers to the need for women to have representation at an international level and to the setting up of a new United Nations committee. Why have the Government chosen not to nominate UK representatives to CEDAW, the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women?

Ms Harman: It is a question not of British women being nominated and standing in all posts, but of British women being part of an international network of women that is working to deliver for women in our own country, while also backing up the women who are struggling for development internationally and in their own countries.

There has been a sea change in public attitudes. I do not think that we would have got anything like those answers to the survey 10 or 15 years ago. This change of public attitudes to women is matched by changed opinion about gay and lesbian partnerships-controversial at the outset and now accepted and celebrated in civil partnerships. The change in public attitudes is matched
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by changed opinion about older people. There is real annoyance about how older people-especially older women-are written off. The change of attitude is reflected in changed opinion on representation-that, in a multicultural society, we should not have, as we used to, an all-white Parliament. There is a big, and long overdue, change in attitudes to disabled people.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that had it not been for the vast number of Labour women Members, we would not now have the forced marriage unit or the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007? I do not think that my predecessor, a Conservative male MP, was aware that there were such things as forced marriages.

Ms Harman: That would not have been possible without Labour MPs, including my hon. Friend, raising the issue. She has boldly raised issues that were swept under the carpet and particularly affected women, but also men. I pay tribute to the work that she has done, and all the women on the Labour Benches backed her strongly in making such changes.

People see how equality is important for each and every individual. They know that equality is critical for a thriving and prosperous economy and meritocracy. They recognise that fairness and equality are the basis for peaceful and cohesive communities. That shift in public opinion poses a challenge for everyone, including all the political parties, the captains of industry and the public sector, but it is a helpful challenge and a mandate for yet further progressive change. This is essentially an argument about modernity and a future that is fair for all, in which all are fully represented and have an equal say.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the negative comments in the press and elsewhere about the appointment of Baroness Ashton, mainly because it is claimed that she is an inexperienced woman. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there would not be such negative comments if the person in question were a man?

Ms Harman: I think Baroness Ashton will prove them wrong. We have all got full confidence in her. She will ignore all the sneering and detrimental remarks, and she will get on with her job and do it brilliantly.

Our Equality Bill provides the platform to make equality a reality. It is nearing its Royal Assent.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that that Bill will complete its passage through the House before the general election?

Ms Harman: We expect the Equality Bill to continue its progress and finish its stages in the House of Lords, and I do not anticipate there will be any amendments that this House will have any difficulty with, in which case we should be able to approve it. It will be a landmark Act when it receives Royal Assent; when it reaches the statute book, it will mark a major step forward on all the issues my hon. Friend has campaigned for over the years.

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The Equality Bill is not just the consolidation of a maze of existing laws; it also contains a great range of new powers and obligations to help the drive towards equality. On equal pay, it will make large employers publish their pay gap. Good employers will have nothing to fear, but bad employers will have nowhere to hide. To tackle men-only decision making in businesses and the public sector, there will be a new opportunity to take positive action at the point of recruitment or promotion. It will be possible to say, "We want you for this job because you're a woman."

The lesson from the progress of the Equality Bill is that that was only possible because of the strong Labour women in this House. Women in the House of Commons have not only changed the face of Parliament; they have also changed the agenda of politics. Because of women in this House, tackling domestic violence and rape, extending maternity pay and introducing flexible working are all on the political agenda and part of the mainstream of our political debates.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): While celebrating the work of women in politics, will the right hon. and learned Lady also accept that Conservative organisations such as the Primrose League in the 19th century provided the initial spur to women's suffrage? By 1905 that organisation had as many as 1.5 million members. They went out into the political arena and did all the hard work on the ground that was needed for women, and they were Conservatives.

Ms Harman: I think it is very important for women not only to have the right to vote, but to be able to vote for women and men to sit in this House of Commons. Therefore, I warmly welcome the proposals from the Speaker's Conference, and I thank the Speaker and his deputy on the conference, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), who is present in the Chamber. The Speaker's Conference proposals will help us make further progress towards equality of representation in this House.

The Equality Bill already extended the power for political parties to have all-women shortlists. We are carrying on with that in Labour's selections in advance of the general election, and 58 per cent. of our newly selected candidates are women. We have accepted the Speaker's Conference recommendation that political parties should be required to report on the diversity of their candidate selection. We need to expose under-representation, so that it can be clearly seen where action needs to be taken. This is not just a matter for our political parties; it is a question of the legitimacy of our democracy through this House.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): In this debate a year ago, the right hon. and learned Lady agreed with me that if we are to encourage more women to enter the House, which is what we all want, it is essential to address the financial background of how a Member of Parliament can conduct their life, office and work, and the practicalities of how women who are also mothers can combine the jobs of mother and MP. Will she undertake to stand up for women and ensure it is possible for them to be both mothers and Members of Parliament, as she did a year ago?

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Ms Harman: One of the different perspectives women have brought to the House is an understanding of the importance of family life, and of the issues facing people who have the major responsibility for caring for children or older relatives. We want that kind of experience in this House, and it is therefore very important that the allowance system ensures that we can continue to make progress in having more women in the House of Commons, balancing their work and family responsibilities in the same way as do women throughout the rest of the country.

Many of the women who first entered the House in 1997, and who have, therefore, served for 13 years, are standing down at the next election. Each and every one of them has blazed a trail and made a difference in their constituency, and has paved the way for the dynamic new women candidates who will be taking their place. They have their place in history, and it will be remembered, and I pay tribute to them. They are not "Blair's babes"; they are their own women, and I am proud of what they have done.

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for what she has just said about the '97 intake of women MPs, of which I was one, of course-and I am delighted to be succeeded in my constituency by another Labour woman candidate.

My right hon. and learned Friend has referred several times to the problem of all-male decision making. Does she agree that much more needs to be done to ensure that women are properly represented at the top of all organisations, private as well as public sector, and that the experience of Norway in particular has shown that getting more women on to the boards of private companies improves the quality of decision making and the performance of those companies?

Ms Harman: I entirely agree, and I pay tribute to the work my right hon. Friend has done, especially when she was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, when she drove through the right to request flexible working for family members. That was a very important contribution, among many others she has made.

Looking to the future, there are three key areas for further action. First, we will have to ensure that we implement and enforce the Equality Bill. It is a framework, but we must put it into practice. Secondly, we will make even more progress in helping families balance work and family responsibilities. Women still do the lion's share of family caring.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that especially applies to the women in families of deployed service personnel? Does she think that the Equality Bill or any other Government measures will assist in ensuring that the families of service personnel have equal access to dental, health and education services, and to life opportunities as well?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has been a great champion of service families, as she represents the naval city of Plymouth. She also serves on the Select Committee on Defence, of course. She has precipitated a lot of work in respect of the Ministry of Defence, and we and the Government Equalities Office have joined in to ensure
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that the wives of military men do not miss out on all the things on which progress has been made for women in this country, such as more child care and training and employment opportunities. As she knows, we have produced a Command Paper looking at these issues, and a further announcement was made yesterday. The wives of military families have been very much part of the agenda that I, my team of Ministers and the GEO have been working on.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I conducted some research on the difference that women had made in Parliament. One of the responses that struck me was a comment by a Clerk on the Defence Committee, who said that it was not until there were women on that Committee that the families of service personnel were ever discussed. In the old days, when it was an all-male Committee, it discussed the size of the weapons the Army used, not the families who kept the soldiers brave and able to do their job.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember her research. There was a great deal of criticism of the women who came into Parliament in 1997. It was immediately asserted that they had made no difference. Her research shows the massive difference that women have made in the House of Commons: Sure Start children's services, child tax credits, the minimum wage, which has done so much to help women, flexibility for families, the new laws on domestic violence and the work on human trafficking, in which she played a massive part. All those issues show the difference women have made in Parliament, but we are still a small minority and we need to make further progress.

Women still do the lion's share of family caring. Since 1997, we have doubled maternity pay and leave, and there are twice as many nursery places in my constituency as there were in 1997. That is the same in all parts of the country. There is flexible work for carers and more respite care, but we still have further to go.

Thirdly, I think we shall see a new era in international relations. In every continent and in most countries, there are now women in senior positions in government and in their Parliaments as never before. Last September, the United Nations agreed to bring together the four parts of its work on women into one single, coherent and effective UN women's agency. The new UN women's agency will help to ensure that international relations can be women working together across continents and countries, rather than just men. Together, we might just be able to help solve some of the problems that male diplomacy has yet to crack.

At the next election, the country will face a big choice. If women and men want a party that will fight for greater equality, and if they want a party that believes, and has always believed, in taking the controversial decisions to cut through inequality and to empower women as equal, there is only one choice-the Labour party.

1.41 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I am pleased once again to speak in a debate to mark international women's day. It is an important debate, which we should
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be having even were it not for the fact that earlier this week we celebrated the 100th anniversary of international women's day. However, I am deeply disappointed that the Government have chosen to make this not a full day's debate but an hour and a half topical debate. Last year, for the third year in a row, we saw the UK slip further down the World Economic Forum's gender gap list. We now find ourselves behind countries such as Latvia and the Philippines, yet sadly the Government have not only decided that our debate should last only for an hour and a half, but perforce-perhaps-they have restricted its scope, which means that there are limits to the number of very real issues that affect women internationally that we can raise. I am particularly sorry about that because as Leader of the House, the Minister for Women and Equality is in the very position to ensure that once again we have a full day's debate. I hope that is not a sign of her waning dedication to equality, as we saw recently in her lack of commitment to all-women shortlists-at least when it came to the selection for Birmingham, Erdington. I am not quite sure what led the right hon. and learned Lady to suggest that a man might have been better for that seat.

The Minister spoke about the Equality Bill, which we have broadly supported. I am happy to make it absolutely clear to the House that we want it on the statute book. It is not only an important measure in its consolidation of equality legislation, guidance and regulations, where there is multiplicity at present; it also raises and brings together a number of new issues. We do not support the Government's approach in some aspects of the Bill-for example, we think that our approach is preferable on issues such as the gender pay gap. None the less, we want to see the Bill on the statute book and we hope that it will be an Act before the general election.

It is important for Government and the public sector to set a good example. Businesses are told by the Government that they must tackle the gender pay gap, or face measures being taken by the Government; yet average earnings for full-time male employees in the civil service are still 14 per cent. higher than for women. Businesses are told that they must address the glass ceiling in law firms, the City and the professions, yet the Government have failed to meet all their equality and diversity targets for the senior civil service, with women filling just 32 per cent. of senior positions.

Employers are told by the right hon. and learned Lady and the Government Equalities Office that they must offer employees more part-time work, yet only 5 per cent. of people in her Department work part time. Those are areas where the public sector should lead, not lecture.

Jim Sheridan: On gender pay, I assure the right hon. Lady that it was never an issue until women in the trade union movement got involved, and not just on gender pay-women in the trade union movement pushed for maternity pay, paternity pay and the minimum wage.

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