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In 2001, only 39 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds voted; in 2005, the year I was elected, that figure had gone down to 37 per cent. We are told that young people
11 Mar 2010 : Column 485
engage in different ways, and we need to show them that there are different ways in which they can engage in politics. I turned to an organisation that many do not see as the radical organisation that it is-the Girl Guides movement. That organisation, in which I was involved as a young woman, can empower women and show them a different way of being and acting in the world. In 2008, it did some research entitled "Political Outsiders: we care but will we vote?"; I suggest that hon. Members take a look at it. We are talking about active citizens-girls who are committed volunteers and who care deeply but are largely sceptical about politics and getting involved in it. They felt that there was little information; they did not think that the issues we address were important to them; and they did not feel that younger people had prominence in this House.

Ninety-six per cent. of the girls who were questioned were engaged in some sort of volunteering, but only 45 per cent. had any involvement with politics. They gave the following reasons for non-engagement: that it was not worth the effort, that there were more important things to do, and that it would not make any difference. Well, I can promise those young girls that sitting at home and not voting is the way to not make a difference, but how do we get that message out to them? They do desire to see change, and in fact the issues that the respondents were concerned about are ones about which every woman in the House has shown concern, such as making a difference to the lives of girls, women and young people and stopping domestic violence. Is there a woman in the House who is not engaged in that?

More than half the respondents were also concerned about young people in gangs and people who carry knives. Standing up to bullying was an issue of concern for 39 per cent., and career opportunities for women were mentioned. Interestingly, so was people not being forced into having sex before they are ready. I particularly liked the fact that 27 per cent. felt there was a need for a ban on the airbrushing of models-I have written in my notes "and political poster boys", but perhaps that is just my view, not theirs.

We need fresh policies to engage young people, and I honestly believe that it is the responsibility of every Member of the House, particularly the women, to get into our schools, engage with our young women and ensure that they understand that women offer role models and exemplars for how to achieve the change that they want for their lives with their children.

One thing the respondents mentioned was the need to offer work experience placements to 14 to 20-year-olds to give young people access to our world. That is a critical issue that we need to address. The criticism about unpaid interns is stretching employment budgets, which is a difficulty that we need to talk about. It is important that the House address the needs of young people.

2.36 pm

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): I wholeheartedly welcome this debate taking place in the House. It is a sign of the progress that we as a nation have made and a testament to the unwavering commitment of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to achieving equality, particularly for women.

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I am sure the whole House will agree that women have made, and are making, tremendous contributions in all fields, both in this country and abroad. For example, in the United Kingdom we have had a woman Prime Minister and a woman Speaker of this House, Ladies Thatcher and Boothroyd respectively, in honour of whom we have named two Committee Rooms. Although I did not take part myself, in the debate back in 2008 Opposition Members complained that no one on the Labour Benches had mentioned Lady Thatcher. I therefore wish to make a point of recognising her contribution as the first woman to become Prime Minister of the UK, despite our political and ideological differences.

In my native country of Pakistan, we have had the late Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, who rose to become the first Muslim woman Prime Minister of her country. She was a great leader whose tragic death was a great loss to the people of Pakistan and the international community, and a personal loss to me as she was a very close friend of mine. Elsewhere abroad, in Kuwait we have seen for the very first time four women elected as Members of Parliament. I am vice-chair of the all-party group on Kuwait, and my office regularly takes on interns from Kuwait, the last two of whom have been talented young Kuwaiti women.

I have always campaigned vigorously for, and sought to encourage, women from minority groups, particularly Muslim women, to come forward and run in both local and national elections, so that there is better representation in the House. I am pleased and proud that the Labour party has selected four Muslim women in winnable seats, and I am sure that after the general election we will have Muslim woman Members of Parliament in this House.

At home, there is the completely unacceptable issue of the trafficking of women for domestic servitude and/or sexual exploitation. In today's global age, we rightly take great pride in our ability to work with other countries in tackling common problems. I therefore believe that we must do all we can to bring that shocking criminal activity to an end by working with other countries and establishing greater cross-border co-operation. I pay tribute to the work of the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children, and its chair, the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) who, like me, will be leaving this House at the next general election.

I must also mention her excellency, Her Royal Highness Princess Lalla Jamala Aloui, who was recently appointed as the ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco in London. Her excellency has been doing a wonderful job, not only as head of the Moroccan mission in London, but as an ideal role model to all Arab women. I will be working closely with her to bring the famous Fès festival of sacred music to London.

The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) raised the issue of the burqa and the hijab. I must tell him that some Muslim women in this country wear the hijab and some do not-I have taken the opportunity to visit many Muslim countries-but very few wear the burqa or the niqab. However, I believe that today's debate is about empowering women, and what a woman wants to do in life is her choice. Action should be taken against those who force women to wear the niqab, but it is not a big issue in this country, and there is no need for the matter to be debated here.

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Finally, one issue that is very close to my heart-my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) raised it-is forced marriages. That must be addressed. In 1996, three young Muslim women, who were at school, were taken for holidays to my native country, Pakistan, and forced into marriages and detained against their will. When that was brought to my attention by the school and social workers-those were very powerful people-I flew to Pakistan and intervened with the police authorities and the judiciary. I was glad and proud to bring the women back. That sent a very clear and strong message that that type of behaviour is unacceptable in our country. We should all work together to ensure that such cases do not happen here.

2.42 pm

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): It is a privilege to have the opportunity to contribute to what has been a short but healthy debate on women's representation. I strongly welcome the fact that it is taking place in the week of international women's day.

We have spoken about some of the physical barriers to women getting into Parliament, including the problem of child care and the other caring responsibilities that women in our society disproportionately have. We have also spoken about how to enable women who are interested in coming here to do so. As someone who is involved in the Labour party, I know that women in the party have been wanting to get to this place for a very long time, but it has been more difficult for them to do so. Only as a result of that experience did the party decide to go to women-only shortlists. Although they are controversial, they have been the most effective way of getting more women on to the Labour Benches, which is why they are now being considered by other political parties.

The other question is this: why do we bring up girls in our society in such a way that they do not feel that coming to Parliament is an option for them? Every political party-the Primrose League in the Conservative party has been referred to-has many women who are actively involved, and women also play prominent and active roles in other political organisations, be it third-world campaigning organisations or voluntary or charitable organisations. Many of them, however, never consider coming here to be one of the options available to them, so we have to ask some serious questions about why women do not put themselves forward for these positions and why they need so much encouragement to do so.

The points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) about education are central to the debate. The education of women has been their liberation and will continue to be so, so I pay tribute to organisations such as the British Youth Parliament and the Scottish Youth Parliament, which are going into schools and actively trying to get young people involved in political issues, the issues affecting them and the big issues of the day. I believe that, through getting involved in such organisations and actually starting to believe it is possible to do things such as become a councillor-or stand for the Scottish, Welsh or European Parliaments, or this Parliament-more women will get into this place.

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Our young people, especially our young women, are our hope and future. The fact that we have more women in this place, and prominent women in all the political parties, is vital to presenting role models for women. Many of us, when we were young, saw very few women politicians, and it seemed a daunting prospect to come to this place. All of us-of all political parties-have a role to play in deciding how we move forward and make people feel that it is a real option for them.

This place is important not only because of the legislation it passes. Many of us are frustrated about the lack of legislative progress and would like far more ambitious legislation passed, especially in the equality arena. We want the equal pay legislation that has been in place in this country for more than 30 years actually to become a reality, because women here do not have the same kind of economic independence as men.

In my view, women's economic independence will be a foundation stone in our efforts to give women the confidence to take on all aspects of life, and I consider the benefits system to have been an incredibly important factor over the past century in giving women more options. It meant that they did not need to stay with a man for financial reasons. At the end of the day, if they felt unable to continue with such a situation, the state would provide some assistance-even if it was not as generous or adequate as it could be. In many ways, it has enabled women to have some kind of independence.

There are practical issues to consider. The nursery issue is a concern for the moment, and if we get some form of child care in this place, it will be a step forward. We also need to look at the expenses system. At the moment, there is some help for Members with dependent children, but it has been proposed that that be taken away and that there should be no transport assistance for them. We need to consider those issues, but we also need to look at why we are bringing up young women who do not aspire to be here. We all have a role in ensuring that we try to connect with those people and make them believe that if they get involved in politics, they can change things and deliver on the issues that are important to them.

2.48 pm

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): I want to take a minute or two to thank everyone who has participated in the debate, male and female. It is good to welcome our brothers, whether or not we agree with them-I do not agree with the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). None the less, it is good to see them participate fully in a debate that centres on women's issues. Once they are raised, everyone sees them as human issues and carries them forward.

There have been contributions thoughtful, spirited and provocative. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) was sensitive, in a way that was second to none, to the attitudinal barriers in this place to women's arrival here in greater numbers. I agree with her that it is very easy to pick up some of those attitudinal ways-I am guilty of doing that myself.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) has built an international reputation, most particularly in Sierra Leone, to which she referred, and we will miss her greatly.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) is much praised by all, and rightly so. She has taken steps to celebrate and champion the rights of women that could have made her extremely unpopular, but she did not hesitate to take them.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and I have a tradition of growling at each other across the Chamber and slapping each other on the back outside it, so let me slap her on the back inside the Chamber for a change. She was brave and right to say what she did, which is that the allowances system for MPs must ensure that MP parents spend time with their children, and it will be women who will lead that drive forward.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and I simply growl at each other all the time, but that is the way it goes, I am afraid. I want to- [ Interruption. ] That was not a growl; it was a mistake. Let me tell her that the National Equality Panel has made it clear, if one reads what it said closely, that all our equality measures have moved things in the right direction, even though there is still a long way to go, and that what we picked up was a huge legacy of inequality brought about by an earlier era, which was of course a Tory era. That is clear.

The right hon. Lady asserted her support for the Equality Bill, and I am glad to hear it. However, what she said is extraordinary, because she led the debate in trying to vote it down on Second Reading. Funky as her pink boots are, to be true to herself, she probably ought to be wearing flip-flops today.

I want to pay tribute to the Government Equalities Office and to the dynamic and strong leadership of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the chief executive, Jonathan Rees. I also want to make special mention of the Equality Bill team, Wally Ford and Melanie Field, and the other members of their excellent team. The GEO was only set up in 2007, and it is a tiny department. However, people think it must be huge because of the great work it does across government, and because of its impact in government and across the country for disabled people and people of whatever gender. The GEO drives through a great swathe of equality initiatives from a tiny base. It is a very good department indeed, one we should be devoutly grateful for.

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Labour women MPs have been here long enough to have made a significant impact, and they have done just that. We have fought, and will fight, for an equal chance for women at work; for employers to acknowledge caring and family responsibilities; and-this is particularly close to my heart-for domestic violence, violence against women and rape to be taken very seriously indeed: in fact, to be taken deadly seriously. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) for the role she has played in the Speaker's Conference in emphasising that, as we have all said, this House needs to represent the women of this country as well as the men. All of us on the Government side of the House have worked, with intermittent support from the Opposition, for all those aims, and we will work further for women to have an equal say in every area of life.

The poll to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham referred indicates that we are succeeding in changing public opinion in the direction of equality. That is an outcome devoutly to be wished for, and for which we will continue to persevere. Labour people live by the ethic of equality, and we will go onward-and in government, too-to ever greater achievements towards equality, working hard for a future fair for all.

Question put and agreed to.


Business without Debate

Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 56), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Question put forthwith, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [ Lords]

Second Reading

2.54 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

After the long negotiations at Hillsborough Castle and the drama of Tuesday's vote in the Assembly, we now come to what I expect-or perhaps I should say "I hope"-will be a rather more low-key debate on the setting of salaries and allowances for Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I want to begin by congratulating Northern Ireland's politicians on taking the decision on Tuesday to transfer policing and justice powers on 12 April. I also want to thank again all those who have an interest in Northern Ireland affairs, wherever they sit in the House, for their support for the devolution process. I particularly want to thank colleagues who speak for the Opposition parties on these matters; whenever we can, we try to work towards a consensus. Putting power into the hands of local people is the answer and the way forward. As we debate the orders that were laid yesterday to facilitate the completion of devolution, I am confident that we will continue to see cross-party consensus here at Westminster.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): From my Back-Bench position, may I reciprocate by offering my praise to the Government for what is probably their most successful Department? Twelve or 13 years ago, many people did not think that it was possible to secure a lasting peace, but I am sure the Minister would agree that the transfer of policing powers pretty much guarantees that we will never go back to the dark days of the troubles.

Paul Goggins: We have just over three hours for this debate, and in that time, it would not be possible for me to give a full list of all Labour's achievements in government. However, I am happy to accept the comments of the hon. Gentleman, who played a considerable part when he spoke from his Front Bench on Northern Ireland matters.

The Bill before the House today will enable the Northern Ireland Assembly to delegate control of its salaries and allowances to an independent body. At present, the Assembly is explicitly prevented from delegating such functions under section 47(7) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Bill will remove that restriction and enable the Assembly to confer the functions of setting salaries and allowances for Assembly Members on an independent body. In keeping with the spirit of devolution, the Bill does not place a duty on the Assembly to change its system of determining salaries and allowances; rather, it leaves it up to the Assembly to decide what type of system to adopt. Presenting the Assembly with the power of delegation is not as straightforward as merely removing section 47(7) of the 1998 Act. The Bill therefore expressly provides that the Assembly may delegate control of its salaries and allowances, and also makes a number of important technical consequential amendments.

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