March 6, 2008

International Women’s Day debate

John Bercow outlines measures to increase the representation of women in Parliament including the introduction of all-women shortlists.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who made a trenchant, candid and persuasive speech. For me, it was no more persuasive than when she reminded the House of the effect of more women in this place on both the communities that they represent and the country as a whole. I was casting my mind back to some of the people to whose past contributions and effectiveness she referred and I did not disagree with any of the examples that she adumbrated.

In an earlier, wide-ranging and similarly powerful speech, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) made the fair point that parties must have the space in which to determine their approach to increasing the number of female Members of Parliament. With that I do not disagree.

Nevertheless, I suppose that my starting point is that I am an empiricist. I tend to follow Edmund Burke in thinking that one should not wallow in the realms of metaphysical abstraction, but look at the evidence. What does it tell us? What happened? What was the outcome? The reason why, a little over five years ago, I came to the conclusion that my party ought to adopt all-women shortlists was simply that when we look at the evidence from across the world, we see that no other instrument has been remotely comparably effective in ratcheting up the level of female representation. We do not have to look into the crystal ball when we can read the book.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire was absolutely right to stress that there are all sorts of other elements in the equation. There must be a family-friendly environment and people who are willing to entertain the prospect of a woman, and we have to rule out sexist language, sexist lines of questioning, sexist and intimidatory behaviour, and so on. But I simply think that all-women shortlists can make a decisive difference. The governing party has demonstrated that to its benefit and doubtless to the benefit of the country, too.

The other step that we could take—it is frankly lamentable that after all these years of discussion we have failed to do this—is to institute a proper, fully functioning and adequate crèche facility in the House. I know that I made that point in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), but I am surprised that that has not happened, because the Modernisation Committee has done a good job in many respects and it seems extraordinary that that idea should keep slipping through the net.

Lynda Waltho: I would like to add my support for that demand. One of the reasons my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House saw so many babies in the Whips Office the other night is that so many of my colleagues brought their babies in when they came for the vote, but are not allowed to take them through the Lobby, even though all the babies were being breast fed‚Äîalthough not at the time, obviously. That is an example of the inflexibility of this place and one of the reasons why the hon. Gentleman’ suggestion would receive my full support.

John Bercow: I understand the hon. Lady’ irritation at that. I have encountered a similar situation in chairing a Public Bill Committee. I felt very sorry for the hon. Member concerned, who kept having to go in and out of the room. As a humble and rather junior member of the Chairmen’ Panel, I simply was not empowered to do anything about the situation, but I thought that that level of rigidity and resistance must be wrong.

Jo Swinson: I believe that the hon. Gentleman has co-sponsored an early-day motion about a cr√®che, which is an issue that I, too, have raised in the House. However, although those hon. Members who have turned up for today’ debate on international women’ day are supportive almost by default, does he not lament the fact that the issue, whenever it is raised, is often met with load groans from certain hon. Members who are perhaps living in a previous century?

John Bercow: I think that the hon. Lady is referring to those antediluvian souls who can still periodically be found in the House. She is right and makes a fair point, but the number of such people is in marked decline and the situation is improving all the time.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con) rose—

John Bercow: I have a feeling that my hon. Friend, the distinguished representative of Her Majesty’ Opposition Whips Office, wants to underline that point via an intervention. I am happy for him to do so.

Mr. Burns: What the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said really struck a chord, because back in 1987, which was a generation ago, in my naiveté, I, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) and the late Mo Mowlam tabled an early-day motion calling for a cr√®che here, because more and more hon. Members had children of school and pre-school age. The reaction from our colleagues was indeed antediluvian and archaic.

John Bercow: I am not surprised, but I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend. He knows that I have had my differences with him. I start from a position of almost instinctive prejudice against him, because he is a member of the Whips Office and I am not very enthusiastic about Whips. However, my hon. Friend is something of a progressive and he is not even very secret about it. I have watched some of the things he has done in recent times and heard some of the statements that he has made. He is very sound and he ought to be quite explicit, in front of hon. Members who have referred to her today, about the fact that there is no more cogent and enthusiastic champion of Hillary Clinton than him. On that point we are in agreement. It is nice to have a bit of amity in the debate, and I urge hon. Members to note it while it lasts, because I do not agree with Whips very often.

I am conscious that we have been exhorted by Mr. Deputy Speaker to keep our contributions brief, and lots of other people want to speak, so I shall try, very briefly, to highlight some other points that I think are of interest. First, quite a lot has been said about pay today, and rightly so. I politely put it to right hon. and hon. Members that there are several issues of particular importance involved. One is the national minimum wage. A lot has been said about its benefits, and that is absolutely right. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) knows, I long ago conceded that the Opposition were wrong to oppose it. If it had been introduced at a very high rate, it would have done damage, but it was not, so it did not. It is now very much part of the mosaic of this country that has redounded to the advantage not only of its recipients but of the economy as a whole.

Let us not be complacent, however. Yes, 660,000 women will benefit from the uprating of the national minimum wage, and that is to the credit of the Government, but as we speak, 175,000 women in this country are being paid below the minimum wage. I accept that the Government cannot do it all, as the hon. Member for Slough pointed out, and that it is not all about this House, about Ministers or about new legislation. We have a responsibility, however, to take account of, and try to serve, those who are operating in the twilight zone—perhaps in the informal economy—and are being consistently exploited. Such people are deeply vulnerable. I am not sure whether we should address that through transparency, publicity or public education campaigns—or a judicious combination of all three—but we must not forget those who are simply not getting their just entitlements.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I apologise to my hon. Friend for taking issue with his comment that the minimum wage has not had an impact. Women earning the minimum wage also have to apply for working family tax credit because, unfortunately, the minimum wage does not suffice for people bringing up a family. The minimum wage has therefore had an impact, in that it has hidden the true cost of bringing up a family and the true cost of living for women. If we did not have the minimum wage, perhaps the wages paid to single women would be considerably higher.

John Bercow: I confess that I find that a rather curious line of argument. If my hon. Friend believes that the national minimum wage ought to be significantly higher, we can have that debate, but to blame the minimum wage for contorting the labour market or disguising the costs of bringing up a family seems to be a rather individualistic line of argument.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The sector in which women work most is part-time work, and the real tragedy is that, over the past 10 years, we have seen almost no movement in the differential between what women and men get paid. I believe that that differential is still about 40 per cent.

John Bercow: The differential is enormous, and it is especially great among part-time employees. Ironically, the gender pay gap among part-time workers is even more pronounced in the public sector than in the private sector. Of course, there are all sorts of factors to explain the desperate disparities in pay that continue to exist. There are differences in capacity and skills, for example, resulting from historic under-recognition of the importance of training, career progression, qualifications and educational provision for women. Furthermore, a lot of women are, for understandable reasons, going into part-time work, where the gap is greater. Another factor is that women are often unable to travel as far as men—perhaps because of their other responsibilities—and therefore have a more limited set of jobs from which to choose. We know that 60 per cent. of women work in a very restricted set of occupations, so the opportunities for them are not as great. There is also the problem of occupational segregation—and of segregation within the workplace, to boot. All those things have to be tackled.

My proposition is that, as far as the Government, Parliament and the Equality and Human Rights Commission are concerned, a distinctive mindset is needed. I suggest to right hon. and hon. Members that where we are dealing with the private sector, our attitude should be that we are the friend of the well-meaning but uninitiated employer, but the foe of the wilfully non-compliant and incorrigibly discriminatory employer. If we operate on that basis, we will understand the sort of approach that we need to take to improve the situation.

I would like, if I may, to make two other brief points. Rape crisis centres have been mentioned and I feel very strongly that we could be in danger of kicking out the baby with the bathwater. This is an incredibly important service, operational across the entire country, and it is estimated that something in the order of half of the 32 centres could be lost altogether if the funding cuts that have been decided upon are not reconsidered. Organisations need sustainable funding.

Let me be unfashionable, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by saying that for my own part, I think that all the political parties have been poisoned to an excessive degree by the religion of localism. It is all very well to talk about local innovation, local variation and local social entrepreneurship, but where we are talking about relatively vulnerable categories of people, among whom I include women and children with special educational needs—a subject in which Members will know I am particularly interested—we often need to have protective mechanisms in place, including ring-fenced funding to ensure that the people at whom the resources need to be directed are able to access them.

My last point might be of interest to the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), if she were still in her place, as I know she has been a passionate champion of women who have suffered from, or are at risk of, domestic violence. The Government have done excellent work on that front, but I have just one caveat. I know that there is talk of changing the rule of no recourse to public funds, and I welcome what I understand the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), is reported to have said earlier this week to the Home Affairs Committee on that matter.

That said, I am bothered about women of uncertain immigration status who do not qualify for public funds, because those people are extraordinarily vulnerable. They are scared witless and dare not walk out on their sadistic, bestial and, in some cases, homicidal partners or husbands unless they know that there is a safe refuge to which they can go. If the Government could turn their mind to that matter—while recognising concern about the pull factor in immigration terms of simply opening the floodgates—and devise a practical, workable and equitable solution to the problem, I think that Amnesty International, End Violence Against Women, the Fawcett Society and a plethora of other organisations committed to the interests of women, and particularly vulnerable women, would applaud the Government, and they would be right to do so.

4.13 pm

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