Previous Section Index Home Page

30 Mar 2010 : Column 165WH—continued

We probably came too late to the game. Our report was published only in January, fairly close to an election,
30 Mar 2010 : Column 166WH
and by that time many prospective parliamentary candidates had been selected, so we were not in a position to influence the political parties from the beginning of the selection process. That is why I am looking to the parties to ensure that this is not a one-election wonder and that, because they have made the right noises this time, they do not put the report on a shelf and forget it. We must start from the beginning of the new Parliament to engage young people, and to educate and develop the skills of the next generation of politicians.

We also have a huge job in restoring trust in politicians and Parliament, and in ensuring that political parties select their candidates for the election after the forthcoming one from a diverse background, so that they represent British society more thoroughly than at the moment, and will be part of the restoration of trust in Parliament. I hope that the political parties and the Front-Bench spokesmen here today will take that message on board. I hope they accept that the work of the Speaker's Conference is as important as we believe it is, and that they will give a commitment today that the report will not sit on a shelf after the next election, but that it will become a working document and they will all take cognisance of it.

10.2 am

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I have not prepared a speech, but I scribbled a few notes while my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) was speaking. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) asked what feedback we received when we travelled around. I did not attend all the out-of-London hearings, but I went to Manchester, Cardiff and Leeds.

It was interesting that many of the people who gave evidence were from the voluntary sector-from the women's institute, Soroptimist, Church organisations and so on. They were interested in what they were doing and saw nothing wrong with that, but we tried to explain that they should consider translating that desire to change society for the good into joining a political party, and trying to become a member of a local, district or parish council or a Member of Parliament. I tried to push the idea of joining a political party-not particularly the Labour party, but any party. Whenever I speak to people from Soroptimist, WIs and so on, as I do fairly frequently, I talk about the work of the Speaker's Conference, and about them transferring their good work into another form. After all, politics is just a group of ideas. We join a political party because, by and large-but not entirely-we agree with what the party stands for.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The hon. Lady is touching on an important subject. Many people throughout the United Kingdom look on political parties and the House of Commons as irrelevant, except when they need a problem resolved or they are campaigning on an issue. They look on this place as being separate and distinct from, and irrelevant to, their ordinary working lives. Is it not part of our collective duty to try to make our activities here more relevant to the day-to-day lives of ordinary people?

Mrs. Cryer: I agree, and that is what we all tried to do when we went out into the sticks and talked to people.

30 Mar 2010 : Column 167WH

The Speaker's Conference was started by Speaker Martin. He has been given some hard knocks over the past year or so, so I want to put in a good word for him. The conference was his idea. Unfortunately for us, Speaker Bercow was already a member of the conference, so we lost a member but gained a sympathetic and understanding Speaker. I also thank Speaker Bercow for supporting us, although my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South, has done all the donkey work throughout the year. It is a pity that we have not had more support from-dare I say it?-Conservative Members. Only one has been an assiduous attendee at our gatherings, and that has been appreciated.

My hon. Friend mentioned my work to oppose and try to stop forced marriages. I argued and argued for nine years, and there were times when that was difficult. I was called a racist and all sorts of things, despite the fact that everything I said was said to protect the most vulnerable members of the Pakistani community and, to some extent, the Bangladeshi community in my constituency. I was tarred with the usual racist brush, but I have three half-Indian grandchildren and one half-African step-grandchild, so I am hardly racist.

The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 went through Parliament because our party had so many women on our Benches-women who were prepared to argue that Government time should be made available for the Bill, although it took only a day and a half to go through all its stages, so time was not a huge problem. If there had not been so many women on the Labour Benches, the Act would not have got anywhere near the statute book, and we would not have made changes to immigration regulations to require people to be 21 or over if they are acting as sponsors, or entering the country as a spouse. In both cases, those changes were made because of women on our side of the House.

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend should be congratulated on ensuring that the Act got on to the statute book. I have no doubt that that would not have happened without her campaigning. Does she agree that it is important not only to have many women on the Back Benches, who can see, from a different perspective, that an issue is more important than men might believe, but to have women Ministers, who can elbow and kick from inside the Government?

Mrs. Cryer: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. My membership of the parliamentary committee of the parliamentary Labour party enabled me to push things in that committee with the able assistance of Cathy Ashton, who spoke on behalf of her colleagues in the House of Lords. We pushed the then Prime Minister and the then Leader of the House to find time to get the measure through.

Another measure that has not been greatly discussed came about because I am a woman MP. Mothers in my constituency had daughters who were being groomed for sex by some young men. As a result of that, and of me making a fuss, those women confronted the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), and pushed him to make changes to the law so that in certain circumstances, hearsay evidence can be heard in court. That helped their case a great deal. Another change was to make the grooming of girls a criminal offence, because until I
30 Mar 2010 : Column 168WH
raised that issue, together with those women, who worked with me in my constituency, the grooming of girls was not an offence.

Bob Spink: It is evident that, by setting that example, the hon. Lady is strengthening parliamentary representation, connecting people with Parliament, and showing people why Parliament needs a diverse set of MPs. That is relevant to the debate. While she was out and about, did she find that people had a desire to cut the size of Parliament from 657 MPs to 400, 450 or 500, depending on which party they support? I would like to cut the number to a smaller level. Did the hon. Lady get any feel for how that might affect the proportion of women in Parliament?

Mrs. Cryer: I am not sure that I follow that argument; the one thing does not necessary follow the other. I cannot remember anything being said at any time about reducing the number of MPs in Parliament, although perhaps my colleagues do. In my experience, we work a large number of hours, although it may be that at 70 I am finding it particularly hard. If we had fewer Members of Parliament, we would presumably have more work, but an MP's job is already stressful with long hours-too long, I think. I would not take us further in that direction by reducing the number of MPs, and I am not sure how such a change would help to get more women into Parliament.

I want to touch on the issue of expenses. The sort of treatment that many of us in the House, particularly women, received from The Daily Telegraph and other newspapers has definitely put women off standing for election. Women know how hard those of us at the sharp end of things found the situation. I was eventually absolved and told that I had not done anything wrong, but I felt guilty for about four months, as if I were some sort of criminal. I think that it is more difficult for women to cope with that sort of situation than it is for men-I am not sure why, but that seems to be the case. I have talked to many young women from my constituency party and local Labour parties who said that although they might once have considered putting their names forward for selection, after what some MPs have been through, they felt that it was more difficult.

Similarly, the rules on how we claim and what we can claim for have become much narrower, as regards what we used to call London living costs. That will make it more difficult for women with families to enter Parliament, because they will need a flat that is big enough to allow children to visit during the school holidays-I am talking about women who have constituencies outside London. When my husband entered Parliament in 1974, John and Jane, my two kids, had to stay in the flagship of seedy hotels, the Stanley House hotel in Belgrave road. We hated it, but there was not enough money to do anything else at that time.

Are we going to go back to that? If we are, Parliament will go back more and more to being a gentlemen's club, which people with money can enter because they can buy themselves out of that difficult situation. For those people, it does not matter that they do not get an allowance or expenses to pay for a decent flat so that their kids can stay at with them. If they have inherited wealth, just happen to have a lot of money in the bank, or are moonlighting and doing other jobs in courtrooms
30 Mar 2010 : Column 169WH
or boardrooms-as many Conservative Members do-and making extra money, their expenses do not matter. However, for most people in our party, particularly women, the sort of accommodation that they can have in London will be crucial.

As I have some money in the bank, I was able to buy a decent flat on Marsham street, which is just over 10 minutes' walk from Parliament. It does not matter what time we finish at night; I can have a safe, comfortable walk back to my flat. I never use taxis; I always walk back home, and always walk to work in the morning, because I have a decent flat. That is partly because I have money in the bank, and partly because the expenses allowed me to claim the interest on my mortgage. That is all going to be stopped, and in the future women will have a real problem with where they are going to live. If they have to live out in Kennington or Lambeth or somewhere, they will have to get taxis. If they cannot get a taxi, perhaps they will have to use the underground late at night. That is a difficult situation for women to face, and if they think along those lines, it will be another deterrent to women entering Parliament.

If we could still claim interest on a mortgage, I would not object at all to the Fees Office claiming back any profits made on the properties. However, we are taking a retrograde step, particularly for women and people with children, and those who cannot afford to subsidise themselves when it comes to getting a decent flat near Parliament.

Just over a year ago, my constituency party started the process of choosing a candidate to replace me. As I am still the only woman MP in the whole of Bradford and Leeds-that is 15 constituencies-it was necessary to have an all-women shortlist. To its credit, the Keighley constituency party agreed, and went along with that. However, it became increasingly clear that another deterrent for women entering Parliament is the expense. One or two of the shortlisted women were coming from London. They had children, so they had the costs of child care and car or rail journeys.

We produce glossy leaflets for members of the Labour party, persuading them to vote for a certain candidate, and all that costs a great deal of money. Two of the shortlisted candidates told me that they could not afford to go for another seat if they did not get Keighley, as it would cost too much, and because of the time and travel difficulties that there are when one has children. I do not know how we resolve that; I have no idea what recommendations to make. Perhaps my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), might have a suggestion on how to get over the problem of the cost of being a candidate.

When I was married to Bob Cryer, who was MP for Keighley and then Bradford, South, he went to about seven or eight selection conferences over 20 years or so to become a councillor, an MP and an MEP. I went along with him to most of those selection conferences because I was interested, and the remarkable thing-no one saw it as being remarkable-was that at every one, there was an all-male shortlist. I do not remember a single woman being on any of those shortlists.

The Labour party has all-women shortlists. That is controversial, but it works. If anyone can think of a
30 Mar 2010 : Column 170WH
better solution to the problem of all-male shortlists, I am more than willing to hear it, but that is how things were, and I know that if we stop having all-women shortlists in the Labour party, we will drift back to the gentlemen's club, and to all-male shortlists. I do not know why that should be. It is very disappointing, but that is how it is.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South wholeheartedly for chairing the conference. It has been a pleasure working with her. I had to divide my time between the conference and the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which made things a little difficult at times, and I therefore did not attend as many meetings as I should have, but it was always good to work with her and my other colleagues. Being a member of the conference has been a very worthwhile and good experience.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mr. Eric Illsley (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind hon. Members that I intend to call the Front Benchers from 10.30 am. I call Fiona Mactaggart.

10.20 am

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Illsley. Let me start by echoing the thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) for her work on the Speaker's Conference. It has been exemplary and rewarding for those of us who have participated.

I thought I would briefly talk about how people are feeling about politics at the moment, because in a way the Speaker's Conference is about making politics and political representation more widely available to more people. As politicians, we have managed to write ourselves into being despised, yet young people say to me more now than they ever have done since I was elected, "I'd like to go into politics. How do I do that?" I always say to them, "Why?", because it seems to me that politics is not in itself an end, but a tool to change the world into a better place. One of my concerns is that we have allowed a view that politics is an end in itself to become widespread. We need to restate that the reason why-I hope-everyone in this room got involved in politics was not to do an interesting job, but because they saw something in society that they felt needed to be done better, done differently, improved or whatever, and therefore politics became the tool they used to address that.

I turned to political representation after having tried to change the world through pressure groups, teaching and being involved in the local council, none of which changed it enough. That is not an unusual experience. One of the very important points about the conference is that it recognised that diverse representation changes society in different ways.

About five years after I was elected, I came out-that is really the only way to describe it-as someone who had a life-limiting condition. I have multiple sclerosis. I spoke about it only in the context of a debate about stem cell research, and the reason why I spoke about it was that it seemed to me grossly ironic-as a woman who had had infertility treatment, and had still in a refrigerator in a fertility centre two embryos-that although those embryos could have been used for research into
30 Mar 2010 : Column 171WH
my fertility, they could not, under the old law, have been used for research into my multiple sclerosis. At that point, knocking on for 50, I had given up on fertility and was much more concerned about dealing with the other condition. It seemed to me relevant to speak about that in the debate in the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend spoke in the same debate. I was very disconcerted by the headline the following day in The Times, which said "Disabled MPs speak up". I thought, "You know what? I am not." There are people with a condition that perhaps affects their life but they do not have to reveal it. I spoke about my condition because it was relevant to the debate, but I had never been called "disabled" before. Many of the issues that the Speaker's Conference is dealing with are ones that people do not necessarily want to share. No one can hide their gender, but people can hide their sexual preference. People can keep private aspects of their caring responsibilities. All these things affect us as politicians, but unless we have in politics people with those diverse effects upon them, politics will have a narrower view.

After there had been 1,000 days of a Labour Government, I did some research on the difference that women MPs had made, and it was absolutely clear that it had been huge, not just in legislation terms but in how the Government were held to account. Defence Ministers were asked about the families of soldiers for the first time by members of the Defence Committee, which had previously never had a woman member. We can change the way in which politics is done. If people see that in the representative body of Parliament, there are life experiences that connect with their life experiences more closely, the chasm that has opened up between us and the general public can be narrowed, which can only be good for democracy. If democracy has the voices of a wider range of people, it does its job better, which is the very important point about the conference.

One issue I want to stress, which was mentioned in the opening speech of my hon. Friend concerns section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983. Mental ill health is a disability that is much more silenced than most others. It is grotesque that someone who has been sectioned is therefore automatically excluded from this place. I am disappointed that an opportunity was not taken to get rid of that section. There was an opportunity to do that; I have to be clear about that. What I heard from Ministers was, "Oh well, we have to find something appropriate to deal with this issue at the same time as getting rid of that section." I do not see why that has to be the case. When I was out of Parliament for months because I had cancer, there was no mechanism to deal with the fact that I was out of Parliament for months. If someone is out of Parliament for weeks because they have been sectioned, a mechanism is not needed to deal with that. It sounded to me as though there was a lack of leadership on the issue. I found that disappointing. I hope it is not allowed to persist and that the recommendation works.

I want finally to come to the issue of expenses. I used to be called a "quota woman" in Slough, but guess what? No one kept saying it, because people recognised that I, like most of the women who were selected from women-only shortlists, was a competent MP and a good representative of the town. I have promoted women in my party putting themselves forward for Parliament, but I have stopped doing that to the degree that I did,
30 Mar 2010 : Column 172WH
because women, who are the default carers, are now having to choose between their caring responsibilities and Parliament. Unless they can find a London seat within commuting distance of Parliament, so that they can have their children at school and do this job, it is impossible, and not just for women with young children-teenagers need their mums, too.

I think we are making a big mistake with the new puritanism, and I speak as someone who was declared a "saint" by The Daily Telegraph. I think that makes it easier for me to say it. The new puritanism will narrow participation in Parliament. It is the wrong thing and I am very disappointed by what the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has done. We cannot afford to narrow participation in Parliament, because if we do, our democracy will be damaged by it.

Next Section Index Home Page