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The remit of the Speaker's Conference went much wider than the representation of women, as we also looked at the under-representation of people from ethnic minorities, and of disabled people and people from the
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lesbian, gay and transsexual communities. However, I shall confine my remarks this afternoon to our examination of women's under-representation in Parliament.

We did not think that there should be more women in Parliament just because that seemed like nice idea, or because it might make the Chamber look more colourful. We came to that conclusion because if Parliament is to reflect society outside and do its job of scrutinising the Government-and if the Government are to do their job of making good laws-there is an imperative to get more women into the House. That goes without saying, but I felt that I had to reiterate it today, given some of the comments that have been made about the recommendations of the Speakers Conference report. Some of those comments suggest that some people still do not "get it"-they do not understand why it is important to have more women in Parliament.

I also want to thank the three main political parties-it is a pity that none of the others are represented here this afternoon-for submitting their responses in time for the debate. I am also grateful to the Government for their response to our recommendations in the Speaker's Conference report. I should also like to thank the House authorities, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Senior Salaries Review Body for their comments on our report. I admit that I thought my work would be finished once the report was published, but that has not proved to be the case.

At the moment, just under 20 per cent. of the House of Commons are women. That is a lot better than the 9 per cent. that we had in 1997, but it still means that this Parliament is only 69th in the inter-parliamentary league table of women's representation.

In the report, we identified that there were a many supply-side barriers to women's entering Parliament. Some have been mentioned today, and the report discusses many of those barriers in a lot of detail; there are restrictions on the time that I have to speak, so I cannot go into them in detail. However, we know that we need to do a lot more in respect of the education of girls and the role that they can play in political activism.

We also need to do a lot more encouraging; women, perhaps, need more encouragement than men to put themselves forward for election, not just to this place but to any of our levels of government. Furthermore, there are barriers in this place, to do with the way in which we do business, the hours and the difficulties for those-both fathers and mothers-with young families, if they are to operate effectively in this place.

There is also a problem on the demand side. Perhaps political parties are not putting enough emphasis on the importance of and need for women. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) said, there is no doubt that the all-women shortlist is the only proven mechanism for improving the representation of women in this place. It has worked effectively.

The mechanism was controversial when the Labour party introduced it ahead of the 1997 election; I think that I was one of the last to be selected under it before two male Labour party members took the party to an industrial tribunal. If my selection had been ruled out of order and I had had to go through the process again, I would by that time have had the courage and confidence
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to take on anyone, but I certainly did not have that courage or confidence when I started the process; at that time, I needed encouragement even to think of throwing my hat into the ring. I think many women would fall into that category.

I thank the party leaders for appearing before the Speaker's Conference. That was brave of them; it was a precursor to the debates that we are about to see, although they were not together at the same table. At least, however, they were willing to give evidence. All three party leaders said the right things about women's representation. Despite their warm words, however, they have not perhaps been able to persuade their own parties that all-women shortlists work. In 2005, 300 of the 646 constituencies had only male candidates. That was ridiculous, and the situation may not be any better next time, although one constituency, Brighton Pavilion, will have an all-women shortlist-

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

2.13 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): It is a genuine pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg). From time to time we all complain about the obstacles that we have to overcome in looking after our children, caring for elderly relatives and so on while carrying out our duties as Members of Parliament. The hon. Lady is an icon to us all, given the amazing way in which she overcomes practical obstacles. Sometimes we should remind ourselves not to complain; the hon. Lady has set a wonderful example, not just to women but to everybody who wants to come to the House for genuine and good reasons and who will not let any obstacles stand in their way. I hope she does not mind my saying that.

I thoroughly support what the Leader of the House said earlier. It is a great pity that she is not here for the rest of the debate. We all realise that she has a great many titles and a great many jobs to do, but this debate lasts only an hour and a half. I echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in saying that in previous years we have had long debates on international women's day, which allowed us to explore all sorts of different aspects of women's lives and representation. It is a great pity that we have only an hour and a half today and that the Leader of the House could not be here for the whole debate.

The fact is that women do things differently from men. We should not be afraid to say that. The nature of female representation changes this place, and Parliament should reflect the society that it purports to represent. We have made considerable progress in recent years but we all know that we have a lot further to go. Most of us are working day in, day out to try to enable us to do so.

This debate is in recognition of international women's day, so I want to say a quick word about the international aspects. Last year, I attended a United Nations conference on women in New York. Many countries were represented, most of which had very good percentage representations of women-many of them better than what prevails here. But everybody at the conference agreed that in many countries no real difference will be made until women get to positions of power-until they are Finance Ministers and hold the purse-strings. I am sure that is the situation here in the UK.

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I shall now discuss women's representation in the House. I believe that a woman without family responsibilities is in just the same position as a man without family responsibilities as far as being able to be a Member of Parliament is concerned. The difficulties arise when one tries to balance being a mother-or a father, or someone who looks after elderly relatives, for example-with the responsibilities of a Member of Parliament.

I make an appeal to those who are at present deciding the new financial regime for the remuneration of Members of Parliament. Whatever happens, we must make it possible for someone to be a mother and a Member of Parliament and do both those jobs properly and to the best of her ability. I make no apology for making a distinction between mothers and fathers on this point; we all know that fathers have responsibilities as well, but given the very short time that I have left and for the sake of brevity, I shall leave out that bit of my speech and make one thing absolutely clear. A mother can properly be a mother and an MP only if she has her children here with her in London.

People say that it is all right if the children are 25 miles or 10 miles away, but they might as well be 100 miles away. I challenge anyone who has not tried to do it to prove the opposite. The only way that the system can work is if a mother can be in this place for most of the day but be able to pop out for half an hour here and there. She could go to her child's school for an hour or go home at bedtime, before the 7 o'clock vote or just afterwards. She should be able to juggle her time, and that is possible only if her children are here. Those who say that Members of Parliament should live in one-bedroom flats and that it is not for the House authorities or the taxpayer to take any responsibility whatever for women Members' family responsibilities are simply wrong. They would make things impossible for us. That would not be fair on the children of Members of Parliament, and this place should not be based on an unfair system.

I shall run out of time. The day nursery is a good idea but it does not go nearly far enough; it only papers over the cracks. We need to see the reality of what it is to balance families with representational duties. At present, it looks as though that is not being done. I beg those who make these decisions on our behalf to take real and brave steps to make sure that women can balance their responsibilities to the House and to their families.

2.19 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I, too, regret the fact that we have such a short time today for this very important discussion.

I wonder whether my colleagues have been to Prague. I went there last year, and it really is a beautiful city. I visited the Jewish sector and was immediately struck by the written legacy of the survivors of the Prague scouring of Jews, which took place during the war. Women had written about their experiences, and about just how awful their lives had been. Then I thought about all the women on the continent of Africa who have been involved in terrible wars and the most appalling atrocities over the past 20 years, and how little exists of their experience. What is left for their families and societies to learn? If individuals read about what has happened to
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women on that continent, they read accounts by people living in America or members of the diaspora living in the UK, but very few from the women in Africa themselves. The reason is obvious: those women are illiterate.

I regularly visit Sierra Leone, the poorest country in the world, where only 25 per cent. of women can read. During the rebel war that gripped that country in the 1990s, there was barely a woman who escaped some form of rape or torture, yet little remains as a record of those experiences. There is very little for their children to learn about, and there is very little for us to embrace, reflect on and base our policies on in order to ensure that it does not happen again. So many women's lives have been left unaccounted for, and because there is no account they appear to be valueless.

I am retiring at the next general election, but I appeal to everyone whom I leave behind in the House to remember the importance of illiteracy and its profound effect on women when they think about the funding of countries and provide Department for International Development funding or intervention. Illiteracy in Sierra Leone means that women there experience the highest incidence of maternal mortality, and one quarter of their children die under the age of five, because the country's limited medical resources cannot stretch to providing any written guidance, and even if it were available nobody would be able to read and understand it anyway. Women who have been given notices on how to prepare dysentery medication leave them to one side and their children die of dysentery.

Women there cannot represent themselves in any sphere. They cannot go to the police with complaints or create their own bank accounts, because they simply cannot read. That paucity of written material means that many women never enter Parliament or become a part of their local democracy, so it is difficult for them to call on resources in order to escape that position. DFID funds Sierra Leone, but it funds the army and police. Although that is important for ensuring the security of individuals, it will not liberate women or their potential, and we have a duty to those women, who cannot speak for themselves.

There are wonderful organisations in this country which are trying to do something about that problem. I chair an organisation called the Construction and Development Partnership, and I know of others, such as Build on Books, which are dramatically trying to change the face of literacy in poor countries. The private sector is not interested. No great opportunity exists to make a lot of money in such countries; they are poor, so there is no great return on any investment, and it is left to charities in our country and throughout the world to pick up the cudgels and move forward.

Those charities in this country are essentially managed by women, directed by women and for women. So, when decisions are made about intervention in those countries, I hope that colleagues will reflect on the support that women in this country provide to women in other parts of the world, and remember the illiterate women of the world, who depend on our voices and days such as this. They depend on us to promote their cause of concern-advocate women who are more literate than they and ensure that there is funding to make them so, so that they can advocate on their own behalf and write their own histories. That is really important.

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2.24 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful contribution by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). I believe she has more academic qualifications than any other Member of the House, and certainly more letters after her name. Her informed contributions to debates such as this will be missed.

On this occasion of international women's day, I want to raise the difficult subject of Islamic full-face veils-specifically, the niqab and the burqa. I am sure we can all agree with the Leader of the House's remarks-we all want to empower women in being equal. In my view and that of my constituents, the niqab and the burqa are oppressive dress codes that are regressive as regards the advancement of women in our society. I want to make it clear that I am talking about the niqab and the burqa, not the hijab, the khimar or the chador.

I have been concerned for some time about the niqab and the burqa, but it was not until I took my children to the play area in my local park recently and saw a woman wearing a full burqa that it came home to me how inappropriate and, frankly, offensive it is for people to wear that apparel in the 21st century and especially in Britain. In my view and that of my constituents, the burqa is not an acceptable form of dress and banning it should be seriously considered.

As I was sitting on the bench in the playground watching my children play on the slides, I thought to myself, "Here I am, in the middle of Kettering in the middle of England-a country that has been involved for centuries with spreading freedom and democracy throughout the world-and here's a woman who, through her dress, is effectively saying that she does not want to have any normal human dialogue or interaction with anyone else. By covering her entire face, she is effectively saying that our society is so objectionable, even in the friendly, happy environment of a children's playground, that we are not even allowed to cast a glance on her." I find that offensive and I think it is time that the country did something about it.

We will never have a country in which we can all rub along together and in which people of different backgrounds, different ethnicities and different religions all get along nicely if one section of our society refuses even to be looked on by anyone else. As I thought more about it, it struck me that the issue is not the clothes that someone wears but the fact that the face is covered. Lots of people wear what others might feel is inappropriate clothing. That is, of course, everyone's choice. The issue with the niqab and the burqa, however, is not that they are just another piece of clothing but that they involve covering the face either in its entirety or with just the eyes showing.

The simple truth is that when a woman wears the burqa, she is unable to engage in normal, everyday visual interaction with everyone else. That is indeed the point of it. It is deliberately designed to prevent others from gazing on that person's face. The problem with that is that it goes against the British way of life. Part of the joy of living in our country is that we pass people every day in the street, exchange a friendly greeting, wave, smile and say hello. Whether we recognise someone as a person we know or whether we are talking to
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someone for the first time, we can all see who the other person is and we interact both verbally and through those little visual facial signals that are all part of interacting with each other as human beings.

If we all went round wearing burqas, our country would be a sad place indeed. Indeed, if we were all to be wearing burqas in this Chamber, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how would you know who to call? I also feel very sorry for women who wear the burqa, as it cannot be very nice to go around all day with only a limited view of the outside world. Of course, many of these women are forced to wear the burqa by their husband or their family. The resulting lack of interaction with everyone else means that many are unable to speak or learn English and so will never have any chance of becoming integrated into the British way of life.

The other issue with the burqa is security. Of course, that problem arises with some other forms of face covering and I do not see why those wearing the burqa should be treated any differently. Bikers wear crash helmets for their own safety, but they are required to take them off in banks and shops. If one were to travel on the tube wearing a balaclava, a police officer would ask one to take it off.

Many of my constituents have contacted me to say that when they visit Muslim countries they respect the dress codes in those countries and wear appropriate headgear. The phrase that has been given to me time and again is, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." This is Britain; we are not a Muslim country. Covering one's face in public is strange, and to many people it is intimidating and offensive. I seriously think that a ban on wearing the niqab or the burka in public should be considered.

2.30 pm

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the thoughtful contribution by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). I suggest that he look at one of the most socially progressive countries in the Muslim world-Morocco, where, thanks to the personal intervention of King Mohammed VI and his insistence on increasing the status of women in that Muslim country, women's political representation, in just one year, went from two members of its Parliament in 2001 to 35 in 2002. He also ensured that in 2006 the first class of women imams graduated. There are Muslim countries that are moving forward, and it is important that we acknowledge that.

It is also important that we acknowledge how little progress, in some respects, we have made in this country. My mother is 96; she was four before women got the vote. So in my mother's lifetime, women have been empowered. In 1945, there were 24 women Members of this Parliament, yet by the 1980s there were only 23. We have not progressed and moved on as we should. I have been particularly concerned by the fact that when I talk to young women they have a negative view of politics and are disengaged from politics. I cannot for the life of me understand how a woman can be disengaged from politics but then I would not be here if I did not feel like that; I appreciate that fact.

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