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Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I am delighted to participate in the debate. I shall deal briefly with two issues that are covered by legislation that the House has been or will be considering this Session. These issues are the selection of election candidates and the situation in private members' clubs.
Currently, Britain has one of the lowest levels of political representation of women in Europe. It has been argued that the best way to counter the trend is for parties to use positive action mechanisms. Encouragement, coercion and shame seem not to have worked. Where positive action has been used it has dramatically increased women's representation.
During the passage of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill, I highlighted that at the previous election we saw 118 women elected to Parliament, which was a smaller number than in 1997. That represents progress at a rate of about 1.5 women a year in the 82 years since women have been eligible to sit in this place. We seem to have gone into reverse, and only Ireland and France have lower levels of female representation.
Positive action is needed, and not only because women are not able to succeed on merit. It is needed because discrimination in the selection process means that they are rarely given the opportunity to try to become elected. Opaque discrimination is inherent in the selection process of all political parties. I suggested on Second Reading of the Bill relating to election candidates that they are predominantly elderly selectors, and in some Tory constituencies might be looking for a married man who is about 40, with a reasonable career in the City, the law or the Army, with some experience of local government. The real clincher would be the attractive wife, two smashing kids and a labrador. The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 is not a patronising measure; it is permissive. Political parties may take advantage of it if they wish, but it does not force any party to adopt all-women shortlists if it does not want to do so. I believe that the measure is essential and will be temporary, although it is very timely.
I turn now to two other measures: the Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Bill, which was introduced in this House in my name and those of several other hon. Members, and the identical Sex Discrimination (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, which received its Second Reading last night in the House of Lords. The measure is simple: it is about dignity and simply provides that if a club offers membership and facilities to men and women, it must do so on equal terms.
When I introduced a similar Bill three years ago, I did not foresee its far-reaching implications. I had had personal experience of the injustice of a club that offered membership to both men and women, but gave women only second-class membership. I refer to the Carlton club, in respect of which I had been part of campaign to try to
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): While my hon. Friend is on the subject of the Carlton club, it may interest him to know that a few years ago, I became the second woman chairman of the Bow group. I was taken aside by a Carlton club memberwe used to hold our meetings there regularlyand told that it would probably be all right, as long as I did not make myself too obvious.
In December last year, I reintroduced my original Bill under the ten-minute rule. It is due to be considered on Second Reading tomorrow, but alas, it lies at No. 5 on the Order Paper, and I fear that it is unlikely to make progress. I was therefore delighted when Lord Faulkner of Worcester introduced the identical Bill in the other place. As I said, it received its Second Reading last night almost without opposition; I fear that the only slight hint of opposition came from a Labour Member, Lord Borrie, who felt that the measure was ahead of its time. I am sure that that Bill will make progress; in fact, I know that it will do so. If all goes well, their lordships will complete all stages of consideration in May and then send it down the Corridor to us.
I am extremely grateful for the cross-party support for my Bill and its sister Bill in the other place. I am encouraged by the support from Conservative Members, including Front Benchers. I hope that the actions of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition with regard to the Carlton speak for themselves.
I should also like to express my thanks and admiration to the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, who has made it absolutely clear to me that she now supports the measure. I thank her for that support and for her generosity in meeting me with her officials to discuss how we might take the matter forward. However, I should like unreservedly to apologise to her if the detail of our recent meeting was misrepresented in the press and set the record straight. On the basis that the Government would support the Lords' version of the Bill, she reasonably asked me whether I would withdraw my Bill in this House. I have saidthis is a critical indication of the Government's support for the measurethat I shall withdraw my Bill if she can either directly or through the Leader of the House assure me and all the Bill's supporters in this House that Government time will be made available for consideration of the Lords' version when it comes to this place. The Government have to bite the bullet.
Mr. Walter: I do not want to delay the House, but I will happily satisfy the hon. Lady. I repeat what I just said. The hon. Lady did not, as the letter in The Daily Telegraph said, suggest to me that if I withdrew my Bill, the Government would support the Lord's measure, which I think is the crux of what she asked me to say. What I said, and what I repeated, is that I will withdraw my Bill if the Government make time available in this place. I think that that is reasonable on my part, and I am sure that the hon. Lady would agree.
The Government must bite the bullet. Conservative Members may be embarrassed by one clubthe Carltonbut Labour clubs have an appalling record on this issue. The Clubs and Institutes Union, to which Labour clubs are affiliated, has 2,700 member institutions, eight of which are single sex, 1,080, 40 per cent., offer full membership rights to women, and 1,612, 60 per cent., give second-class status to women.
I have no doubt of hon. Members abhorrence of that situation, even if some are in denial. Right hon. and hon. Members would abhor the practice, and I have no doubt that they support the Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Bill. But I am looking for a clear commitment that time will be made available in the House to deal with this outdated form of sex discrimination. Such a measure is long overdue. What I want to know now is whether the Government have the commitment to tell the House that they too feel that it is long overdue and will make time available for its debate.
Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley): As chair of the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health, hon. Members will not be surprised that I want to speak about reproductive rights and sexual violence against women and their impact on gender equality.
Domestic violence is the most common form of gender-based violence and, as women enter marriage, often as adolescents and in some instances without their consent, it can become a problem. That is especially true where the husband is considerably older than his wife and where local custom recognises the husband as the dominant partner.
Violence against women occurs in other situations where they are unable to exercise their right to fair treatment. They include the sexual exploitation of women refugees, rape as a weapon of war and trafficking in women for sex work. Trafficking in women has become a global problem and is one of the world's greatest violations of human rights. Up to 1,500 girls and young women are traded into the United Kingdom every year, and those affected are getting younger and youngermany are as young as 15.
To eliminate the trafficking of women into the UK, we must work on three main areas: prosecution, protection and prevention. The crime is cash-rich and traffickers have little to lose. The maximum penalty for human trafficking is only 18 months to two years, so the Government's proposal to increase it is welcome and necessary.
Shelters or refuges for women who are able to escape from traffickers are equally important. Because violence against women is frequently rooted in the unequal balance of power between men and women, the most effective counter-measure over the long term must remain continual progress towards the empowerment of womenequal educational opportunities for girls and, for adult women, greater control over their resources and greater decision-making powers. Those are prerequisites in the drive to eliminate the trafficking of human beings.
The most extreme form of gender-based violence is honour killing, which is used mainly to control women's sexuality and occurs in many countries of western and south Asia. A woman who is raped or voluntarily engages in sex outside marriage is considered to have defiled the family name. In some cases, the woman or girl may be suspected only of shameful or dishonourable behaviour, but the allegation is enough to dishonour her family.
In some countries, the law allows honour killing, but even where it is not explicitly permitted, the crime may not be prosecuted. For example, the penal code of Jordan exempts from any penalty a man who kills, wounds or injures a female relative who has committed adultery. A similar exemption exists in Syrian law. In Pakistan, hundreds of women are killed every year for crimes such as adultery, breaking an arranged marriage or simply attempting to obtain a divorce. A recent study of female
Honour killing should and must be tackled. It is an outrage that those who commit such crimes are often openly admired in their communities and subjected only to token prosecution. For too long, some men have been getting away with murder. It is time for Governments and local communities to acknowledge that such actions are crimes and to act decisively. Honour crimes are not confined to developing countries. Whatever they are called, such crimes are committed worldwide. They occur whenever a man regards a woman as his property and seeks to uphold that false assumption by cruel and abusive force.
One of the most complex areas of gender violence is female genital mutilation, or FGMthe name given to several different practices that involve cutting female genitals. Worldwide, an estimated 130 million girls and women have undergone FGM and at least 2 million girls a year are at risk of undergoing some form of the practice. It is usually performed on young girls between the ages of four and 13. The World Health Organisation has stated that FGM doubles the risk of a mother's death in childbirth and increases the risk of her child being born dead by up to three or four times.
Most of the women and girls affected live in Africa, but those who have undergone or who are at risk of FGM are increasingly found in countries of western Europe and other developed countries, primarily among immigrant and refugee communities. Four main justifications are cited for this harmful practice: custom or tradition, religion, social pressure and women's sexuality. It should be remembered that, although FGM is practised by Jews, Christians and Muslims, none of those religions requires it. Although there are such justifications for maintaining the practice, FGM appears to be linked primarily to a desire to subordinate women.
FGM violates the reproductive and human rights of women and girls because it interferes with their right to bodily integrity by removing healthy sexual organs without medical necessity. Although FGM is not undertaken with the intention of inflicting harm, its damaging physical, sexual and psychological effects make it an act of violence against women and girls.