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Mrs. May: I am happy to record the fact that many women in areas of public life generally have taken up the issue of gender pay, but sadly, despite the fact that we have had legislation on the statute book for more than 30 years and that for the past 13 years we have had a Government who said they wanted to do something about the gender pay gap, we still have one. We still need
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to find the right way to resolve it. It is partly about legislation, but other issues are involved too-for example, the advice given to girls and young women about the sort of careers they should be pursuing. A multifaceted approach is needed.

It is a sign of our commitment to equality and diversity that the issue of women's representation in politics and public life lies at its heart.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): The right hon. Lady talks much about leading by example. Can she tell us how many women there are in the shadow Cabinet?

Mrs. May: Yes indeed. There are six, and the proportion is higher than in the Government's Cabinet.

The issue of women in politics has been at the heart of the fight for equality since the beginning and I believe that the Conservative party has a proud history of getting women into Parliament. A number- [ Interruption. ] The Leader of the House says there are 17 of them. I remind her that courtesy of the by-election in Norwich, North last year, when I seem to recall that the Labour party was defeated, the Conservatives not only have another woman in the House, but the youngest woman in the House.

I was about to remind the House that the first female MP to take her seat in the House was a Conservative. The first female Prime Minister of this country was a Conservative and the first female chairman of a major political party was a Conservative-I ought to know, because it was me.

In 2005, in his first speech as Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made clear his determination to bring more Conservative women into Parliament. Since then we have been making significant progress in the selection of women candidates to fight the next general election. I am very happy to acknowledge that we want to go beyond our current 18 women MPs. Today, about 30 per cent. of our candidates are women- [ Interruption. ] From the Treasury Bench, the Solicitor-General is muttering something that may indicate that she thinks we will not get many women into the House of Commons at the next election- [ Interruption. ] She says they are all in hopeless seats. No, they are not all in hopeless seats. What is crucially different this time is that we have a better proportion of women in winnable seats. If the Conservatives win the next general election, even by one seat, we will go from 18 women MPs to about 60 women MPs.

The problem for the House is that a significant number of Labour women MPs represent marginal seats, so whatever happens at the next election the overall number of women in the House may not change much. We will increase the number of women on the Conservative Benches, but the number of women on the Labour Benches may decrease.

Fiona Mactaggart: In many ways, the right hon. Lady has made the point I wanted to make. Does she accept that even though 60 is historically a huge number for her party, it would not be for the governing party, because it is less than the number of women in the current governing party? There will, therefore, be a disappointing result if-as I do not expect-her party wins, because fewer women's voices will be heard in Parliament and the number of women here will be reduced from its current 20 per cent. or so.

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Mrs. May: I assure the hon. Lady that the women's voices heard from the Conservative Benches after the election will make a first-class contribution to the House and to decisions taken by the Government. As she said, I have made the point that, for Parliament as a whole, there is still an issue about getting more women represented in the House. That lay at the heart of the Speaker's Conference, at which a number of matters were highlighted as needing to be addressed. This issue still needs to be addressed by all parties in the House. It is not simply a question for the Conservative party, as the Leader of the House sometimes tries to pretend.

Mrs. Laing: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is sad-I really mean that-that so many women on the Labour Benches who have made a great contribution to the House in the past 13 years are deciding voluntarily not to stand at the next election? That is one reason why the number of women in the House is likely to diminish, and it is sad that they are choosing to leave. That is testimony to the fact that it is still much more difficult for a woman to carry out the duties of a Member of Parliament than it is for a man.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution. She raises a very important point, which she also raised as a challenge to the Leader of the House.

The House is starting to consider this important issue, which will remain an issue for hon. Members, particularly after the next election when I think there will be an increased number of MPs with young families who will need to juggle family considerations and their work in the House. That is an issue for both women and young fathers.

Mrs. Cryer: I know that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) punches above her weight, but I want to correct the record. I am 70 and that is why I am retiring, not because I am disillusioned by anything in the House or with my party. I want to clarify that.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for clarifying her position, and I am happy to echo the tribute that the Minister for Women and Equality paid to her for her work on a number of important issues that relate particularly to women, such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation. We need to keep a focus on those issues because, sadly, there are still too many such cases in the UK. We need to keep taking strong action if we are really to make a change to those young women's lives.

The need to elect more women MPs does not arise from some politically correct desire for equality. It is necessary because Parliament will make better decisions if it has a greater diversity of people within its ranks. Debates will be better informed if a wider group of people with different experiences take part in them. That relates not only to having more women in Parliament, but to having more black and minority ethnic MPs and more disabled people in Parliament. Women tend to approach challenges and conflict in different ways to men. We also bring a fresh perspective to problems, and identify new and alternative priorities. Having more women would bring a more rounded approach to the big issues of the day and would put new issues on the
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agenda that have previously been neglected. That has to happen, not just for the sake of fairness and progress, but for the sake of Parliament itself. Having more women in Parliament could help to overcome the alienation that people now feel between themselves and Parliament and between themselves and politicians, which has been exacerbated by the expenses scandal of last year. If we were to have a true cross-sectional representation of society in the House, rather than the domination by white, middle-class men that still exists, that would help to increase people's feeling of connection to politics and Parliament.

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): The right hon. Lady spoke about the difficulties for women in particular of juggling the role of an MP with family life. Has it made her hang her head in shame in the past few days when she has heard some MPs' interventions about the proposal for a nursery in this place? Most women MPs who have had young children recognise how difficult it is to be an MP and to juggle the hours of the work and the constant last-minute requests made on one's time. It might be impossible to get child care that meets those requirements. Will she put on the record her support for having child care in this place and her party's commitment to ensuring that that happens as quickly as possible?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. With no disrespect to the hon. Lady, I hope that the right hon. Lady will forgive me for pointing out that there is an elasticity in Front-Bench speeches in these debates and that hon. Members who make interventions should realise that they might be taking precious moments from the opportunity for them to contribute later in the debate.

Mrs. May: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is important to have child care facilities in the House, but there is also a genuine issue about removing staff facilities without consulting staff. It is a question of balance and how the matter has been approached, but it is, of course, important that child care facilities are available to staff and Members of the House.

A report by the Electoral Commission in 2004 found that women are significantly more likely to turn out and vote for a woman candidate, and that if women are represented by women they are more likely to feel connected to the Government and to politics in general. The opportunities that an increase in the number of women Members of the House would present us with are huge, because that could be part of reconnecting with a disillusioned and apathetic electorate and convincing them that we are here to listen to and represent them.

The narrowing of the debate to one about women's representation-

Ms Harman: That is not a narrow issue.

Mrs. May: The Leader of the House may say that, but we are not able to have a full debate exploring issues such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Neither can we debate the Conservatives' flexible parental leave proposals, which would give much greater flexibility
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to parents in dealing with bringing up their children than would the Labour party's proposals. Our intention to extend to the parents of children up to the age of 18 the right to request flexible working would be an important move, as would our proposals to tighten up legislation on the gender pay gap, and other proposals that I mentioned, such as having greater provision of careers advice for young women.

I conclude by picking up a comment that the Leader of the House made about the work that the Government have done on removing inequality. The National Equality Panel, which was set up by this Government, reported in January and has shown that inequality is higher now than at any time since the second world war. That is not a record of which any Government could be proud and it certainly is not a record of which this Labour Government should be proud. They have decreased social mobility and have presided over a period of increased inequality. The Conservative party is committed to increasing women's representation in the House so that women can take their full part in the life of the Government, this Parliament and public life generally.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Let me explain the dilemma of the Chair to the House. I am going to call the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) next. After her speech, we shall know how much time there is left. It is quite apparent, given the number of hon. Members who wish to contribute to the debate, that 10 minutes is too generous a limit, so I give notice that I am going to reduce it to six minutes so that we can get the widest possible participation in a time-limited debate and so that we can be fair to Back Benchers, for whom such debates are principally intended.

1.58 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall endeavour to be as succinct as possible. I am pleased to take part in this debate on international women's day. The reasons for the lack of women in the House are manifold, and I am sure that most of us in this place understand perfectly what they are.

I give credit to the Labour Government for having so many women on their Benches. It is a shame that a forcing mechanism was needed to make that sort of step change, but that is the reality. For liberals, there is a contradiction in terms between forcing mechanisms, localism and liberalism. However, my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats has said that my party expects to increase the number of women in this House after the election. Should that fail to be the case, he has said that he will consider an appropriate mechanism, because there does come a point when one will be needed.

A few years ago, at Christmas time, I was listening to the radio and I heard Bob Geldof say that he could not wait to get home to his wife who was doing womanly things in the kitchen. I do not know whether she was cooking or making curtains, but that was the sort of remark that usually makes me feel a bit ill. However, on thinking about it, I decided that he was merely saying that women make the world a better place, wherever they are. Obviously, that goes for Parliament too.

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As we have heard, the importance of women in decision making cannot be underestimated. I was chair of transport at the London Assembly before I came to the House, and I was struck very forcibly by where and how decisions were made. I determined then that, as a woman, I should look hard at getting my hands on the levers and at being present when decisions about budgets and so on were being made.

I wanted to be able to move the agenda forward. Too often, women are pigeonholed as wanting some softer option. I noticed that there was a lot of argument in the London Assembly about who had the longest train or the biggest airport. The debate was all about setting and using budgets, and I was determined to be part of it. I am a great supporter of infrastructure projects such as Crossrail, but a great deal of decision making is about "home to work" and "work to home". When women are absent from those debates, too little representation is given to the wider issues of "school to home" and "home to school".

Domestic work patterns are important. It is not that men cannot speak for women, or that women cannot speak from a male perspective: the problem is that the absence of the female voice on issues means that half of the agenda remains almost entirely unexpressed.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Given what the hon. Lady has just said, is she as disappointed as the rest of us that not one female Liberal Democrat Back Bencher is present for this afternoon's debate?

Lynne Featherstone: I am not going to criticise colleagues for not being here-

Christopher Fraser: We have got some on our Benches, and so have the Government.

Lynne Featherstone: Indeed, and I have my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett)-

Christopher Fraser: He is not a woman!

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I appeal to the hon. Member to desist from sedentary comments, which are not helping?

Lynne Featherstone: That goes to the heart of some of what is wrong in this House, and of why there are so few women in it. One gets ridiculous point-scoring like that, for absolutely no reason.

If the Leader of the House were still in her place, I would have shocked her by saying that I totally agree with her: if there had been women in the boardrooms of all the banks we might not be in the financial crisis that we are in today. The lack of women in the decision-making and the power-broker positions is partly why we are in the state that we are in.

I want to move on to speak about the atmosphere in this House. It is a very hostile environment. We all learn to play the game, because there is no alternative, but women who are thinking of entering the House find it very off-putting. For instance, in my view Prime Minister's Question Time is too often adversarial nonsense that is more about testosterone than rational decision making.

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John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): When I was a member of a council group, 50 per cent. of it was male and 50 per cent. female. However, almost none of the women wanted to stand for Parliament, for the reason that my hon. Friend gave.

Lynne Featherstone: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. How do we begin to change the atmosphere? That is the question. When I rise in the House, I try not to follow the practice of scoring points just for the sake of it. The adversarial, jeering, bullying, public-school atmosphere is very off-putting.

I turn now to the problem of getting a seat, which is not necessarily the easiest thing for all women-or all men, for that matter. I am a single parent, and I faced a Labour majority of 26,000 because I could not go anywhere else. I have no parents and no support network, so I had to fight where I live and where my children were at school. There was no alternative.

How just is the Conservative proposal for a married couples tax allowance? It drives me mad. I was left alone to raise children and get on with my career to the best of my ability, so why should the tax allowance be given to my ex-husband? I might say that I am very friendly with him, as our split was amicable, but he has remarried. Why should he have the tax allowance, when I am doing my best to bring up my children on my own? It seems so unfair.

There is no level playing field in getting a seat. Obviously, Liberal Democrat policies on parental leave are very far-reaching but I want to talk about a problem in the Equality Bill to do with equal pay. Women's financial position holds them back terribly from taking part in the parliamentary process, and I am deeply concerned about the proposal for four years of only voluntary equality in pay.

When one asks a group of students in a classroom who wants to be Prime Minister, the boys will mostly put up their hands and say that they do, but the girls just sit on their hands, even though they know that they could do a better job. There are issues with how women are educated and trained, and how they approach learning to debate and make an argument.

As I said, my party expects there to be more women in Parliament after the election, but we have many women in councils, in the London Assembly, and in Scotland and Wales. The problem is with Parliament, and perhaps the electoral system. That is what leaves us so short on these Benches at the moment-although I am sure that it is just for the moment.

2.6 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate. I am vice-chair of the Speaker's Conference, and the debate gives me my first opportunity to say thank you to all the people who came to give evidence. I also want to thank the Clerks who arranged the details that allowed the conference to travel around the country, which meant that we were not just taking evidence in the bubble that is Parliament and Westminster.

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