Women in the House of Commons after the 2020 election Contents

2The role of Parliament in women’s inclusion and representation

The benefits of a more representative Parliament

14.Women make up more than half of the population in the UK,8 but represent less than a third of the House of Commons.9 Why does this matter? The Good Parliament report argues that “there is a link, albeit not a straightforward one, between ‘who’ is present in our political institutions and the quality and legitimacy of our democratic processes and outcomes”.10

15.The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), a body comprising parliaments around the world, has set out five key characteristics that every democratic parliament should have: transparency, accessibility, accountability, effectiveness and representativeness. The IPU has defined ‘representative’ as “socially and politically representative of the diversity of the people, and ensuring equal opportunities and protections for all its members”.11

16.Engender, a feminist membership organisation, argued that Parliament is more effective in its function when a heterogeneity of ideas and experiences are brought to the table, and that improving the representation of women is a key part of achieving this:

Global evidence shows that increased representation for women in politics has a positive impact on both gender equality and social policy more broadly.12 Gender balance around decision-making tables influences both the focus and outcomes of discussion. The House of Commons provides critical oversight of challenges to gender inequality and discrimination, including development of laws, structures, policies, and programmes. Given that women and men experience life differently as a result of gender inequality and cultural gender roles, women have particular perspectives that must be heard in our representative bodies.13

Campaign group 50:50 Parliament stated in its evidence that gender balance in the Commons is a means of utilising the widest pool of talent to build a better informed Parliament.14

17.Increasing women’s visibility in politics is also beneficial for democratic participation. Engender cited evidence that increased numbers of women standing for election is correlated with stronger female participation in politics and higher voter turnout by women.15 Research conducted by Girlguiding, a charity for girls and young women in the UK, found that having more female MPs would increase political interest among young women:

More female MPs would have an important impact on girls’ and young women’s lives—63 per cent think that girls’ voices would be listened to more if there were more female MPs [ … ]. 56 per cent of young women aged 13 to 21 say more diversity (of gender, age, ethnicity and disability and sexual orientation) among politicians would encourage them to be more interested in politics.16

18.The Social Democratic and Labour Party told us that the participation of women in politics as elected representatives is “a matter of not only equality but of improving the performance of government”.17 It added that this has been demonstrated by research findings which include:

19.Improving the representation of women in the Commons would allow women to have a proportionate level of participation into the laws and decision-making processes that will ultimately affect their lives and in some cases, the lives of women globally. The evidence shows that diversity helps to improve the effectiveness of decision-making bodies and increasing women’s representation is a key part of achieving this.

Sustainable Development Goal 5

20.The UK also has an international commitment to improving women’s representation. UN Member States have committed to achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the targets sitting underneath them by 2030. Sustainable Development Goal 5 aims to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’. Target 5.5 elaborates on this and aims to:

Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.18

The UN Economic and Social Council has identified the indicator for Suitable Development Goal 5.5 as the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments and local governments.19 Member States have committed to systematically reviewing the implementation of the goals at a national level.20 They have also agreed that each Government will set its own national targets which are guided by the global level of ambition but also taking into account national circumstances.21

21.The Office for National Statistics will be assisting the Government in reporting its progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and will launch a public consultation on the national indicators in 2017. We recognise that, although there is a symbolic value in aiming for 50 per cent women in Parliament, targets for gender balance need as a matter of practicality to allow for fluctuations in numbers and results at the ballot box. We recommend that the Government set a domestic target of 45 per cent representation of women in Parliament and local government by 2030 in response to the United Nations indicators for Sustainable Development Goal 5.5. The Government should also set out how it plans to achieve this target, working with political parties.

Parliament’s institutional responsibility to be representative and inclusive

22.The Good Parliament report argued that, historically, the House of Commons has “lacked the institutional will” to address issues of representation and inclusion. It observed that:

Members of Parliament are often regarded as individual office-holders. This can obscure a wider institutional responsibility to act. Hence, parliamentary reform is too often the result of individual MPs expending significant time and political capital. This is no longer a satisfactory state.22

The report recommended that a coalition of cross-party MPs form a Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion to provide willingness and institutional leadership to help deliver a representative Parliament. This group was established in November 2016, with membership drawn from 11 MPs across different political parties, and is chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons.

23.Professor Sarah Childs told us that Parliament has an institutional responsibility to encourage political participation:

I would go one stage back and ask what Parliament is doing and more Parliament can do to reach the non-party member [ … ] I think it is about parliamentary outreach [ … ] Parliament as an institution has a responsibility to make the non-political citizen more interested in politics so they can expand who is already a member of a political party.23

24.Evidence from the SNP suggested that the UK the House of Commons could learn lessons from the Scottish Parliament:

[The Scottish Parliament’s] Corporate Body has set out a number of inclusive work practices, which include a clear leadership commitment to diversity and inclusion and a focus on creating a diverse workforce which reflects the population of Scotland.24

25.Parliament itself has in the past debated, recommended and in some cases passed laws to call on other institutions to promote gender diversity.25 It is then in the House’s best interests to set an example of good practice in being representative and inclusive of all under-represented groups, including women.

26.A representative and inclusive House of Commons is essential for the fully effective functioning of a parliamentary democracy. The laws that are passed in the Commons affect the lives of all those living in the UK; in this respect, the House itself holds a unique responsibility to take steps towards being representative of the population.

27.It has in the past been difficult to identify a vehicle for the House to act on this institutional responsibility. We welcome the introduction of the Commons Reference Group on Parliamentary Representation and Inclusion, and we look forward to the group making the inclusion and representation of women in the House a key priority for Parliament.

28.A key action Parliament could take is to consider using its established resources to encourage women who are interested in democratic participation and, ultimately, standing for election. The work of the UK Parliamentary Outreach and Engagement Service has been an important step in encouraging diversity of participation, and it already offers valuable Career Progression and Development (CPD) training for teachers wishing to learn more about Parliament. A similar model of training could be delivered to prospective women parliamentary candidates of all political parties and of none.

29.The House Service should adopt a core stream of work in its public engagement and educational activities focusing on women’s participation in democracy and standing for election. This core work should be set up to function before the 2020 General Election. The House authorities should consider working in conjunction with political parties and organisations that encourage political involvement from under-represented groups to identify prospective women parliamentary candidates who could benefit from parliamentary outreach initiatives.

Experiences of women in Parliament

30.There have been extensive studies into the experiences of women as Members of Parliament. We will not attempt in this report to replicate the well-documented findings of previous studies, but note the importance of Parliament and the Government being aware that more needs to be done to make Parliament a better workplace environment for women.

31.The Improving Parliament report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Women in Parliament looked into the supply, selection and retention of women MPs. Some of its key recommendations aimed to make the House a more family-friendly working environment, especially for MPs that have caring responsibilities, by improving the predictability of the parliamentary calendar and helping MPs balance parliamentary and constituency priorities fairly.26 Professor Rosie Campbell told us that her research in 2012 found that a significant ‘motherhood gap’ exists in the Commons:

We found that 45 per cent of women MPs, compared to 28 per cent of men had no children [ … ]. The issue of people with caring responsibilities, be that older dependants or children, and access to a political career is a big one, and Parliament should consider how it encourages and supports people.27

32.The Conservative Party Chairman, Rt Hon Sir Patrick McLoughlin MP, told us that late sitting hours in the House were, in the past, deterring women from becoming parliamentarians:

If you go back to the very early days when we would be sitting every night until 10 o’clock, 12 o’clock or quite often 2am, that was certainly something that put a lot of women off wanting to be in Parliament.28

However, he also added that the parliamentary year is now “better structured” and this may have helped make a positive difference for women MPs.29

33.The final report of the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation touched on the working environment of the House and argued that

The inflexibility of Parliament’s working practices (which are partly institutional and partly the result of the way that political parties work), together with the increasingly heavy workload of constituency demands, combine to create a lifestyle which is detrimental to Members with caring responsibilities, both of children and other dependants.30

34.A study published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in October 2016 noted the global prevalence of sexism, harassment and violence faced by women parliamentarians, and concluded that such factors have “a dissuading effect on women’s political engagement in general”.31 The UK is far from immune to this tendency, as shown by the murder of Jo Cox in June 2016. Online harassment and abuse of politicians appears disproportionately to be directed at women. Successful prosecutions for threats and abuse are welcome, but the incidence of such abuse is not a neutral factor for women weighing up whether to pursue a career in public life.

35.We asked the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, why it is the case that female MPs are more likely to receive abuse than male MPs. He told us:

The society in which we live is unfortunately still quite sexist, in many cases quite misogynist. Read the style of writing of an awful lot of popular newspapers that I am sure you do not read and you can begin to see where a lot of this stuff comes from. The too-ready acceptance of casual sexism and casual racism in our society is something we all have to challenge.32

Mr Corbyn also said that in some cases “young women are not treated with the respect they deserve in Labour groups and councils. This probably applies across the board in other parties as well”.33

36.The House itself, under the auspices of its Administration Committee, conducted an interview study with MPs and their staff to explore women’s perceptions and experiences of working in Parliament in 2015. The survey found a number of common concerns regarding the provision of services for MPs with dependants and families, the unappealing culture of Westminster for women and people from minority backgrounds, and the safety and well-being of MPs and their staff.34 The study found some evidence that perceptions of the culture in Parliament deterred women from standing as parliamentary candidates.35 The Administration Committee report also found that many MPs would like to see greater flexibility from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), specifically on:

Flexibility for Members with caring responsibilities, especially where their constituency was not within easy reach of London. Some felt that IPSA, much like Parliament itself, ran on the model of a male MP with a supportive partner in the constituency [ … ]. Participants called for clearer and more specific guidance—as well as more flexibility around travel in particular, but also accommodation.36

37.IPSA was created as a result of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, which gave it powers to independently oversee and regulate MPs’ business costs and expenses. Some studies on diversity in Parliament have found that the provision IPSA makes for MPs could be improved to facilitate women’s involvement in Parliament.37 For example, the APPG on Women in Parliament found that ‘reforming IPSA financial support for families’ was the third most popular suggestion in their survey for encouraging more people to become MPs.38

38.IPSA conducts public consultations when reviewing the expenses scheme for MPs. The most recent public consultation into the review of MPs’ Scheme of Business Costs and Expenses (the Scheme) took place from May to October 2016. We wrote to the Chair of IPSA, who told us that the Authority intends to carry out an Equality Impact Assessment on any new policies introduced as a result.39 Two previous Equality Impact Assessments on the Scheme as it then was were published for 2010–11 and 2011–12, though these exercises have not been repeated in the interim. We note that IPSA’s new fundamental principles, which will take effect from April 2017, include a commitment that the Scheme should:

Take account of MPs’ diverse working arrangements and should not unduly deter people from any part of society from seeking to become a Member of Parliament.40

39.We welcome IPSA’s intention to conduct an Equality Impact Assessment subsequent to its most recent consultation on the MPs’ Scheme of Business Costs and Expenses. We also welcome the introduction of IPSA’s new fundamental principle that the expenses scheme should take into account MPs’ diverse working arrangements and should not unduly deter people from any part of society from seeking to become a Member of Parliament. We recommend that IPSA explicitly describe in its future Equality Impact Assessments how it is upholding this principle in relation not only to new elements of the Scheme, but to elements carried over from the previous Schemes.


9 House of Commons Library Women in Parliament and Government p.4

10 The Good Parliament, p. 6, July 2016

12 International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (2005) Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers; UN Division for the Advancement of Women (2005) Equal participation of women and men in decision-making processes, with particular emphasis on political participation and leadership; OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (2011) Gender equality in elected office: A six-step action plan

13 Engender (WHC0081)

14 50:50 Parliament Campaign (WHC0067)

15 Engender (WHC0081)

16 Girlguiding (WHC0027), para.6

17 The Social Democratic and Labour Party (WHC0080)

22 The Good Parliament report Executive Summary

23 Q15 [Professor Childs]

24 SNP Westminster Group (WHC0079)

25 See, for example, Companies Act 2006 (gender reporting requirements) and Equality Act 2010 (Sex discrimination and public sector equality duty)

27 Q20 [Professor Campbell]

28 Q23 [Sir Patrick McLoughlin]

29 Q23 [Sir Patrick McLoughlin]

30 Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation, Final Report, para.45, January 2010

32 Q55 [Jeremy Corbyn]

33 Q48 [Jeremy Corbyn]

38 APPG on Women in Parliament, Improving Parliament: Creating a better and more representative House, p.41, July 2014

22 December 2016