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Mr Jenkin: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Committee.

Kelvin Hopkins: I am pleased to have signed this report as a member of the hon. Gentleman’s Committee. Does he agree that reducing the number of Ministers and reducing the payroll vote would also improve the operation of our democracy by making Back-Bench Members concentrate more on holding the Government to account and less on lusting after office?

Mr Jenkin: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to remember that right hon. and hon. Members are paid, first and foremost, to be Members of Parliament. I will come to the whole role of the payroll vote in a moment.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Jenkin: I give way to my hon. Friend, who is also a member of the Committee.

Robert Halfon: I congratulate my hon. Friend, having served on his Committee on this report. Does he agree that the big society is all about transferring state power to people power—power to the people—and that we can therefore reduce the number of Ministers because the state will be smaller?

Mr Jenkin: I certainly think that that is an opportunity, and I will come to it later in my remarks.

We must acknowledge that Ministers are busier than ever in Parliament, with more Select Committees, Westminster Hall and other new procedures that bring them before us. However, we believe that Parliament must stop holding Ministers accountable for matters which no longer fall within the remit of Whitehall Departments or, indeed, have never fallen within their remit. The habit of grilling Ministers on every local detail militates against devolution, decentralisation and localism. On the big society, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) mentioned, we ask what the post-bureaucratic age will mean for Whitehall Departments and ministerial responsibilities. Presumably, Ministers will become less directly responsible and have fewer decisions to make about things that happen in this country.

By how much could the number of Ministers be cut? Numbers are currently limited by two statutes: the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which limits to 95 the number of Ministers who can sit and vote in the House of Commons; and the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975, which constrains to 109 the number of ministerial salaries that can be paid.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): It is a privilege to be a member of my hon. Friend’s Committee. Does he agree that there is a case to consider for combining the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland Offices into a Department of the nations?

Mr Jenkin: One of our recommendations is that that should be given serious consideration. I have to say that it is a relatively minor part of the report, and I would not want those particular proposals to overshadow the important points that we make elsewhere.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr Jenkin: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is also a member of the Committee.

Paul Flynn: It was irresistible to conclude in this document that there should be a serious look at the position of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, if this recommendation were to be accepted, there would be the possible consequence of having no representative of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland in the Cabinet, so should we not then look at their changed situation?

Mr Jenkin: Obviously any change in this regard would have to be ameliorated by other arrangements—perhaps a more open and direct negotiation between First Ministers and the Whitehall Government and other means of representation of these interests within Government. As well as the ministerial cadre, the Cabinet is attended by 28 people and it, too, is clearly too large.

Currently, a total of 141 MPs are on the payroll vote as Ministers or Parliamentary Private Secretaries. If this number remains static at the same time as the number of MPs is cut by 8%, the payroll vote as a proportion of MPs will increase from an already staggering 22% to 23.5%.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): It seems to me, and I think there is common consensus, that the country is over-governed. Surely reducing the level of over-government means increasing the proportion of representatives in the House of Commons relative to those numbers. I therefore welcome this report, which makes that point absolutely clear.

Mr Jenkin: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s endorsement.

The Government say that they want to see Parliament strengthened, but this increase in the percentage of the payroll vote as a proportion of the House of Commons would further strengthen the Executive at the expense of Parliament; that seems to be unanswerable. PASC urges three steps on the Government to reduce this power of patronage. First, the current legal cap on the number of paid Ministers should be the absolute limit on the number of Ministers. The increasing number of unpaid Ministers has been described as an abuse by one of our witnesses, the right hon. Peter Riddell. Secondly, the legal limit on the number of Ministers in the Commons should be cut by eight, at the very least, in line with the reduction in the number of MPs just enacted. This is, in fact, a very modest reduction.

Thirdly, the number of PPSs should be limited to one per Department. When he gave evidence to the PASC in the last Parliament, Sir John Major described the size of the payroll vote as a “constitutional outrage”. His view was that only Cabinet Ministers should be entitled to PPSs. That suggestion was endorsed by Lord Norton and others, who argued that doing so would make the post more meaningful. This would lead to 26 fewer Members being on the payroll vote.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend for the report and for his recommendation on PPSs. I am conscious that I am sitting in front of a distinguished Member of this House who is a PPS. Nevertheless, the report says that, with a few notable exceptions, departmental PPSs

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“perform few functions of real value…the Ministerial Code”


“be amended to limit PPSs to one for each department.”

My constituents would applaud that, as, I think, would many Members of this House.

Mr Jenkin: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for reading out that part of the report. The important point is that PPSs are not paid by the Crown to be Ministers, but they are hijacked by the Executive to prevent them from doing the job for which they are paid, which is to be Members of Parliament. We need to be mindful of the fundamental duty of a Member if they are not a Minister of the Crown.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): I, too, am proud of this report and of serving on the Committee. Does my hon. Friend think that as part of this process we also need to formalise the role of PPSs, which we all agree has been over-extended and abused, and not only to restrict them to one per Department?

Mr Jenkin: We looked at that suggestion, but it is rather difficult because there is no legal definition of a PPS. However, they are referred to in the ministerial code. I wonder whether something procedural could be done under Standing Orders to formalise the arrangement, or whether they could be given statutory status. However, that is a step further than our report went.

Mr Bone: Is not one of the problems that we have at the moment that very good Members of Parliament get elected to Select Committees, and then as soon as they are offered a job as a PPS, they disappear from the Select Committee where they are carrying out scrutiny and become a bag carrier?

Mr Jenkin: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, because the large number of PPSs does rob Select Committees of the talent that they need to function effectively. Very often, the most able Members are selected as PPSs and taken away from Select Committees.

To conclude, the academics who appeared before us agreed for the longer term with the suggestion made by Lord Hurd in the previous Parliament that the abolition of

“20 Ministerial posts at different levels would not only be popular but would be followed immediately by an adjustment of workload.”

We therefore repeat the recommendation made in our original report that, over the course of this Parliament, the total number of Ministers should be reduced to 80, shared between the Commons and the Lords. We welcome the fact that the Government’s thinking seems to be moving in that direction. The Deputy Leader of the House said last year that

“it is likely that at some stage in the future we will reduce the number of Ministers.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 129.]

I welcome that. I hope that the report will encourage the Government to move in that direction faster, and to review the number and functions of Ministers in a way that strengthens Parliament and delivers a better quality of government.

Question put and agreed to.

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UN Women

Mr Speaker: I explain for the benefit of the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). I pass on the recommendation of the Backbench Business Committee that the Member opening this debate, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), whom I shall call in a moment, should speak for no more than 15 minutes.

12.31 pm

Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House recognises that around the world women continue to suffer discrimination and injustice simply because of their gender; notes that underlying inequality between men and women is the driving force that results in 70 per cent. of the world’s poor being female; recognises that empowering women will drive progress towards all the Millennium Development Goals; welcomes the launch of UN Women, the UN Agency for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, on 1 January 2011; recognises that the agency is an example of UN reform to improve efficiency and co-ordination; and calls on the Government to provide support to the new agency to ensure it has the resources required to end the discrimination that keeps millions of women in poverty.

May I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee, and in particular its Chair, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), for choosing to hold this debate in the week in which we celebrate not only international women’s day, but the centenary of the first international women’s day? Some Members of this House and people further afield have questioned the need for this debate, and have suggested that there is not much interest in the subject. The fact that you, Mr Speaker, have put a time limit of eight minutes on speeches, and the number of Members I see in the Chamber prove simply and beyond doubt that those people are wrong. We need this debate. I am the first to say that we will not change the world by having a debate in the House of Commons, but it is our duty to ensure that the issues before us are kept high on the political agenda in the United Kingdom and across the world. That is what I hope this debate will achieve.

In 1911, on the first international women’s day, women in Britain were still fighting for basic rights, including the right to vote, as we all know. I like to think that if I were 100 years older, I would have been an ardent suffragette, although I am pretty sure that I would not have been an ardent socialist suffragette. I would have needed my own movement to separate the two. I am sure that every Member in the Chamber this afternoon, and not just the women, would have supported the suffragist movement.

I was privileged in New York three years ago to be one of the UK Parliament’s representatives to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. When I met and listened to the presentations of women from all over the world, it struck me forcefully that the problems that our great-grandmothers struggled with at the time of the first international women’s day a century ago are still faced by most—not some, but most—women across the world today. As the motion states,

“around the world women continue to suffer discrimination and injustice simply because of their gender”.

I welcome the setting up of UN Women, which is properly called the UN Agency for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. I congratulate our

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Government on their support, particularly through transitional funding, for the new organisation. We all know that the United Nations has not always been the most efficient of organisations, but we must recognise that the new agency is an example of UN reform and is intended to improve efficiency and co-ordination. I welcome the Government’s approach to that aspect of the UN. The agency will not be just a talking shop. It is through empowering women that we, as an international community, will drive progress on all the millennium development goals, which everyone in this House supports.

I applaud the appointment of Michelle Bachelet, the former President of Chile, as the first executive director of UN Women. Most Members will agree with what she said when the agency was launched:

“Think of how much more we can do once women are fully empowered as active agents of change and progress within their societies”.

She said:

“My own experience has taught me that there is no limit to what women can do.”

[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I heard a little, “Hear, hear.” [Hon. Members: “Hear! Hear!”] Thank you very much. Every woman, and indeed most men, in this House will agree with that statement—there is no limit to what women can do. To put joking aside, I never say that women can do everything that men can do.

I will be careful in my remarks, Mr Deputy Speaker, to respect the rules on parliamentary language. As I heard Jenni Murray, the excellent presenter of “Woman’s Hour” on the BBC, say earlier this week, “I will be very sparing in my use of the F-word. I will try very hard not to mention feminism.” [ Interruption. ] I am being goaded into mentioning feminism. I will mention it and I will also mention equality. However, although the concepts of feminism and equality are good to talk about, they are not what this debate, the motion and our aims are really about. I prefer to talk about empowerment. The point of empowering women, rather than just helping them or saying that they ought to be equal, is that doing so and giving them the practical skills that they need can make a difference in the societies in which they live and operate. It may come as a surprise to know that women earn only 10% of the world’s income, even though they work two thirds of the world’s working hours—and I bet that does not include looking after the children. Evidence shows that when women earn and manage their own money, they are more likely than men to spend it on educating and feeding their children.

I am not being narrow-minded and concentrating on feminism, and I do not argue that men have got everything wrong and that women can put it all right, but I do argue that wasting the potential skills and abilities of half the world’s population because of discrimination is simply appalling. If we really want to help developing nations, as well as continuing to help our nation, Europe and the western world, we must recognise the role of women.

I do not have time to develop all the details of the work that has to be done, but the House knows them well and many speakers will develop these points this afternoon. We have to tackle violence against women in all its forms, here in our own country and especially across the world and the horror of such violence in war zones. We have to tackle trafficking, forced labour, the fact that women are deprived of education, the fact that

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women need to control their own fertility to have any chance of empowerment or being able to contribute to their society, and the fact that women’s health is ignored in so many parts of the world. There is also, of course, the continued fight for democratic representation. I look forward to hearing what many colleagues will say on those and other subjects this afternoon.

I have been talking about women across the world, but let us not pretend that we have conquered the problems here in Britain. We can look around us, because 22% of MPs are women. I am sure other Members will agree that when we meet people at UN meetings and other international gatherings, they are astounded to hear that in Britain, just over a fifth of Members of our precious and much-respected House of Commons are women.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): My hon. Friend is sounding a bit like a vicar we used to have when I was a child, who constantly used to blame those who were in church for those who were not.

My experience, having sat on a selection committee, is that some of the people who are hardest about not selecting women candidates for Parliament are, perversely, women on selection committees.

Mrs Laing: Absolutely right; my hon. Friend is totally correct. We have all been through it, and I have seen it. I know that it happens in our party, and I hear anecdotally that it does in other parties, too. He is also right to say that those in church are blamed for those who are not there. We need more women to come forward to be part of the democratic process, but we need to make it possible for them to do so. If I were to cover the points that I have made many times before on that subject, I would take far more than the five minutes still left to me, but I hope that other Members will address it this afternoon.

We have a long way to go, but I also say to the House—and I mean it—that the percentage of women in the House is not what really matters. What matters is making our voices heard when we are here. What matters is punching above our weight, and let us face it, our weight is generally much lower than that of our male colleagues. There is now a critical mass of women in this place that there was not when I first came here 14 years ago, and it is up to us to make our voices heard. That is exactly what we are doing this afternoon.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): Does the hon. Lady agree that there is an important, subtle difference between working in an environment that is predominantly male and working in one that is male-dominated?

Mrs Laing: The hon. Lady puts it very well. The environment in which we work is both predominantly male and male-dominated, but we might not be able to change the former as quickly as we can change the latter by making our voices heard. I am pleased to see that so many women and men are here to do so this afternoon.

If our democratic deficit is bad, the deficit is even worse in the business world. I draw the attention of the House to Lord Davies’s excellent recent report, which identifies the loss to our economy because so few women are on the boards of UK companies. Once again, we cannot insist on their being there, but we can create the

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conditions that make it possible for them to live up to their aspirations and the aspirations that we as a society have for women.

At the same time, two thirds of low-paid workers in Britain today are women, and across the country, two women die every week as a result of domestic violence. Throughout the work force, women still earn an average of 16% less than men. It is not by changing the law that we can change those things and the others that are wrong, but by changing the attitudes of society. That is why it is important that we talk about these matters in the Chamber.

The great tragedy of the lack of women’s representation, the lack of women in top places in industry and the lack of women doing the jobs that they could be doing is that it is a waste to our economy and our society. The pursuit of equality is not just a philosophical end. If we take the empowerment of women seriously, then across the world, and especially in developing countries where it is so desperately needed, we must give women the chance of good health and good education, to develop skills and contribute to the work force, and to give their children the health and education that will strengthen future generations. If we empower women, we will let them teach their children that co-operating, living together in peace and respecting other people is a more worthy ideal than the old-fashioned way of fighting for territory and proving oneself the stronger man.

By empowering women, we will be able to instil in future generations the idea that the most important goal is respect for fellow human beings and basic human rights. We have come a long way on basic human rights. We believe—let us take this message to developing countries, too—that people should respect their fellow human beings and accord them the same rights that they would wish to have themselves. No matter what a person’s colour, what country they come from, what their religion is, what they look like or what they sound like, we would wish to accord them equality.

As we celebrate international women’s day, and as we ensure that we keep all those issues high on the political agenda, what chance do we have as a society, and further afield across the world, of according basic human rights and human dignity to the world’s minorities if we cannot start by according those rights and that basic dignity to half the world’s population who happen to be women?

I am pleased that we are able to have this debate, and I look forward to Members examining in greater detail the issues that I have raised. I thank the House for coming together this afternoon to ensure that those of us who are privileged women in a developed society can speak up for our sisters across the world who need our help.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. As has already been indicated, there will be an eight-minute limit on speeches.

12.48 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I can honestly say that it is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), whom I

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congratulate on securing the debate. I wish to speak about two issues: the suggestion in the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) that a women and equalities audit Committee should be established in the House, and what is happening to women in Egypt.

The common thread is CEDAW, the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Its custodian is UN Women, the new body led, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest said, by the remarkable woman who was the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet. CEDAW is a legally binding international agreement, and by ratifying it, states commit themselves to reporting to the CEDAW committee on a periodic basis.

When my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and I were appointed as Labour’s first Ministers for Women in 1997, we found the CEDAW agenda had become invisible. However, over the years, Labour Ministers for Women and women Back Benchers ensured that progress was made, culminating in the Equality Act 2010, which was achieved through the dogged determination of Labour’s deputy leader.

The UK’s last periodic report to CEDAW runs to 164 pages, detailing the groundbreaking changes made by the Labour Government to advance women’s equality, yet we always knew that it was not enough to have progressive ideas and Ministers for Women driving forward legislation. We always argued that all Government Departments must pass the women and equalities test of whether they were discriminating. In the Equality Act 2006, we introduced the gender equality duty on all British public authorities, but there was no specific role for Parliament. It is time that Parliament is given the power to scrutinise the Government on women and equalities.

The current Government’s reckless economic policies deserve particular scrutiny. The Treasury attempted to produce an equalities impact assessment of its spending decisions, but the Women’s Budget Group says:

“The Treasury provides almost no quantitative data on how men and women will be affected…and excludes most aspects of the Spending Review from its analysis”.

The WBG’s analysis finds that the Government’s programmes represent

“an immense reduction in the standard of living and financial independence of millions of women, and a reversal in progress made towards gender equality.”

Most damningly of all, the WBG argues that

“the Coalition is happy to restore an outdated ‘male breadwinner, dependent female carer’ model of family life”.

Surely no women Members came to the House to promote such a return to the 1950s, yet Parliament does not have the tools and resources to test those claims. Only a new Select Committee, in the form of an audit Committee, could hold this and later Governments to account on women and equalities. I hope the House seriously considers this proposal.

Let me turn to events abroad. So often, women are the victims of wars that they never started, and too often excluded from the peace they helped to win. After 9/11, I worked with Afghan women and went to Kabul

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on two occasions. I have never met braver women, and their struggle is far from over. That same struggle now faces the women of the middle east. In Tunisia and Egypt, they have had a phenomenal victory, but they know that it is only the beginning. All too soon, the usual male patterns are emerging. Sharon Otterman, reporting on Egypt in the

International Herald Tribune

, stated:

“The panel of eight legal experts appointed by the military authorities to review the constitution did not include a single woman.”

I saw that again and again in Afghanistan—at every stage efforts were made to exclude women, and to explain that now was not the time for women to demand their rights. However, rights postponed are rights denied.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I share the right hon. Lady’s concern at the lack of women’s voices in the creation of the new structures in Egypt and at the fact that there are no female experts on the constitutional committee. More worryingly, the new draft rules on who can lead the country assume that the President will always be male, by saying that Presidents must not be married to a foreign wife.

Joan Ruddock: The hon. Lady is absolutely right—that is a shocking indictment of what is happening, and as I said, it is all too typical.

The good thing is that women in Egypt are fighting back. A coalition of no fewer than 63 women’s groups started a petition to include a female lawyer on that constitutional review. In the past few days I have been in touch with women activists in Cairo. Mozn Hassan, who runs Nazra, told me that women, especially young women, from all classes and political ideologies were involved in the revolution. Breaking out of their traditional roles, they protested, led human rights groups, helped injured people and protected checkpoints. They succeeded in creating public space for women and a dialogue between women and men.

Nazra is very clear about its future direction. It sees its task as a group of women activists to ensure that its advocacy and grass-roots work is political, and part of the political demands being made in Egypt. Social mobilisation is one of its main tasks, and it is working hard to ensure women’s rights are a priority in the transition. Guaranteeing gender mainstreaming in the constitution, to which the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) referred, is one of its immediate demands.

I want to give the last word today to Nawal El Saadawi, the world renowned writer and feminist, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in the 1980s. Nawal has inspired generations of Egyptians. In 1972 she lost her job in the Egyptian Ministry of Health because of her book, “Women and Sex”, which argued against female genital mutilation. She was later imprisoned and put on trial several times. She spearheaded changes to the law on children and the banning of female genital mutilation in 2008.

Nawal was part of the coalition that organised the women’s protest on international women’s day, and I heard from her that evening. She appealed for our

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support for global and local solidarity for women and men against all types of injustices and inequalities in the world—between countries, races, classes, sexes and religions. She told me that

“Almost half of Egyptians, mainly women, live in extreme poverty”.

Nawal knows better than most of the colonial exploitation and military aggression against women and men in the countries of the middle east. After five decades of personal struggle she is still determined to fight for equality and democracy in Egypt. I hope the House pays tribute to her and all women of the middle east, and indeed the world, who still campaign, on the 100th anniversary of international women’s day, for equality, justice and democracy.

12.57 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I echo the thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for ensuring time in the Chamber for this debate, and particularly thank its Chair, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), and the other hon. Lady on the Committee, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison). I understand that the decision to hold this debate today is seen by some as somewhat controversial, but the decision is nevertheless the right one. I shall speak about the international context, including the new UN agency, UN Women, and the role of women in conflict and foreign affairs, and briefly about the amendment.

The arrival of UN Women represents an historic opportunity to transform the lives of women and girls across the world, who are too often affected by discrimination and injustice. The aims—rightly—are far reaching, ambitious and unprecedented. Transforming attitudes at the highest levels of government that exclude women from the top global decision-making tables is perhaps one of its biggest challenges, and indeed one of the most important. By addressing the previous gaps and inadequacies of the UN system, UN Women has the potential to facilitate much stronger and more systematic engagement with women’s rights. The creation of UN Women is a recognition that gender is as important as any other development issue, and represents a promise to drive progress.

I am pleased that the Government and the Opposition have supported the agency from its inception, because Britain can in that way present a united case internationally. However, it is important that that support is matched with appropriate levels of financial support and practical help. Funding is a huge challenge—it cannot be overestimated—for UN Women: $500 million is needed to run the programme in the first year alone, followed by at least $1 billion a year after that to enable it to have an operational presence on the ground. The Department for International Development’s review of multilateral aid published just last week recognised that UNIFEM had failed owing to constrained resources. With only 230 staff, UN Women has inherited UNIFEM’s under-resourced infrastructure. We do not want to set up an organisation to fail from the start, so ensuring that this issue is addressed is vital.

The UK’s response is very important. Many other countries are deferring their announcements and pledges until the UK has said what we will do.

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Naomi Long: Although on the face of it the UK Government’s position—to defer a decision until the action and strategic plan have been confirmed—seems reasonable, is there not a concern that in order to show leadership, we have to give stronger commitments ahead of that strategic plan to allow this to be developed more coherently?

Jo Swinson: We need to do both. We need to make clear our commitment and offer every possible assistance in the swift development of the strategic plan. One of the challenges facing UN Women is to create a range of indicators that can monitor properly what progress is being made on women, peace and security goals. Under the current structure, that will take two years, but that is too long. I know that DFID Ministers have agreed with that, so anything that the Government can do to assist in driving this forward more quickly would be helpful. This is money well spent. Last year’s World Economic Forum global gender report draws a clear correlation: countries with greater gender equality have more competitive economies that grow faster. We need to be very robust about that.

We have moved away from a situation in which war and conflict were about engagement between two sets of armed forces fighting on a particular location. Wars today are characterised by violence directed against citizens and innocent people, particularly women and girls, who get caught up in fighting and unrest. It is important to recognise the role of women not only as victims within conflict, but in reaching across battle lines to call for peace. Africa’s first female head of state, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, commented:

“Women’s contribution to the search for durable peace is remarkable, unparalleled, but most often overlooked”.

In the past 25 years, only one in 40 peace agreement signatories was a woman. UN Security Council resolution 1325, in 2000, captured the essence of women’s contribution to peace. It calls on the international community to live up to its responsibility to include women in conflict prevention, peacebuilding and reconstruction, while protecting human rights during conflict and preventing gender-based violence. As a result of its sister resolution, 1888, we welcome the appointment of the first special representative on sexual violence in armed conflict, Margot Wallstrom, and I understand that she was recently in Parliament and that many Members were able to meet her. She is now leading the investigation into the shocking sexual violence that took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Widespread violence against women and girls continues to fuel conflict and insecurity. It is often framed as unrelated to gender-based violence during peacetime, as if war happens and suddenly this violence erupts. Actually, however, the only difference is the degree to which perpetrators can act with impunity during war owing to the absence of the rule of law. All too often, this violence has been bubbling under the surface during the apparent peace. A shocking statistic is that 87% of Afghan women experience domestic violence and live with that constant insecurity. That only extends the cycle of conflict, violence and marginalisation, so it is important to deal with violence against women not only in conflict, but in apparent peacetime.

The UK was one of the first countries to develop a national action plan on implementing resolution 1325,

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but we still need to ensure that we have a coherent national plan and policy looking at the issues of women, peace and security.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I am in full agreement with everything that the hon. Lady says. Does she agree that one of the worst forms of violence against women is trafficking, the majority of victims of which are women being trafficked into sex slavery? Does she think that it would be a good idea to sign the EU directive against trafficking?

Jo Swinson: There was an exchange about that during Women and Equalities questions. When in opposition, I was one of those arguing strongly for the previous Government to sign the directive, so I would welcome it if this Government could do so, and I look forward to their announcement on the matter with great interest.

Trafficking is clearly a very important issue. However, I would not say that it is one of the worst examples of violence against women. I think that day-to-day violence against women, particularly by partners and husbands, which affects women not just internationally but in this country, is often ignored or swept under the carpet, so I welcome the Government’s plan to raise, and campaign on, sexual consent issues in order to deal with those problems, particularly among teenagers. The role of the education system cannot be overestimated. In particular, I know that there is a move within the Government not to require schools to adopt as mandatory any parts of the curriculum that are not absolutely necessary. I would argue that sex and relationships education, particularly emphasising the importance of sexual consent, is vital and should be in the education system.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): The hon. Lady is highlighting the significant issues in our country. Between 2009 and 2010, 74,000 cases of domestic violence in this country were prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service. We need to ensure, therefore, that we change people’s attitudes towards prevention, rather than simply looking at the final outcome.

Jo Swinson: I agree wholeheartedly with what my hon. Friend says.

I have heard expressed the view that women’s rights are an add-on or a luxury—something to consider when we have dealt with everything else—and that they are a bit fluffy and a bit like motherhood and apple pie, but that they might not always be possible. I hear that frequently in discussions in the House on issues such as Afghanistan. People say, “Well, we didn’t go in there to sort out equality for women.” I do not think this is a luxury only possible in developed and western societies, however, and I disagree that it is paternalistic or imperialist to impose the UK’s value system on countries with different cultures. It is pragmatic and practical—and, in my view, it also happens to be morally right. However, it is right even if we look only at the pragmatics.

On economics, if a country does not educate half its population, it will lose out on talent and will not have as much economic development. Women are an integral part of building a lasting peace. I welcome what Hillary Clinton has been doing on this as Secretary of State by

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unashamedly putting women and girls back on the foreign policy agenda as a matter of urgent priority, rather than a sideline issue. In her first five months in office, the word “woman” was mentioned 450 times in her speeches. It is refreshing to hear that at such a high level. I know, from speaking to Ministers in this country, of their clear commitment to the issue, and I urge them to continue in that, despite some of the voices trying to suggest that this is a fringe issue. Whether in Afghanistan, Egypt—as we have discussed—Iraq or Tunisia, involving and empowering women is part of creating successful, stable and economically prosperous societies.

I do not have time to deal with the amendment in detail. However, I believe that a women and equalities audit committee would enable us to question Ministers on exactly those things, and produce reports to ensure that the issue is high on the agenda.

1.8 pm

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), with whom I agree about resourcing UN Women. I met recently representatives of Voluntary Service Overseas who discussed UN Women with me. They emphasised how the new agency was created in response to a concern that the UN system was failing women.

Very little is being asked of the UK Government in global economic terms. The UK, which was crucial in establishing the agency, is being asked to commit £21 million in annual core funding—just 0.2% of the UK’s overseas aid budget—to UN Women. UN Women is now in a most precarious and parlous position. The Government have stated that one of the Department for International Development’s six priorities is to lead international action to improve the lives of women and girls. As my friends in VSO say, therefore, the Government should step up to the mark and commit the funds. Without even the most minimal of financial input to keep it going, UN Women will continue to lack not only the staff, but the presence necessary to reach out to, and work with, women across the globe.

We know that many other countries are looking to the UK for leadership on UN Women, owing to our pivotal role in setting it up. In this case, why not make that a cause of great pride, by turning our commitment to gender equality into something concrete? I look forward to hearing the latest from the Minister on that, and I commend the Government on their support for the agency.

When I discussed international women’s day with my senior parliamentary assistant Debbie Fenn recently, she referred me to a book written in the early 1980s, “The Triple Struggle”, a compilation of the experiences of Latin American peasant women in their own words, put together by Audrey Bronstein. The “triple struggle” referred to the three major ways in which those women experienced hardship: they were women in a society dominated by men; they were peasants, and as such lived in a state of collective poverty; and they were inhabitants of the third or developing world. Although the book was written in 1982, the themes remain. It is of paramount importance to record and highlight the ways in which those at the sharp end—those facing the worst oppression and subjugation—battle, learn, develop and refuse to be victims.

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Stemming from the Bangladeshi aspect of my constituency of Poplar and Limehouse, it is Bangladesh that I know best when it comes to aid issues, charitable activities and, in particular, women’s development. I have now visited the country on a number of occasions, including on a VSO placement with my wife Dr Sheila Fitzpatrick. I strongly commend the VSO’s parliamentary scheme, in which a number of colleagues have also participated. Sheila and I have developed a close and ongoing link with Shishu Polli Plus, known as Sreepur Village. I would like to say a few words about how the place has affected me, showing me how our efforts and actions in the UK can translate into something significant and meaningful when we work with others—and in particular with women—in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Part of the theme of this year’s international women’s day is about providing a pathway to decent work for women. This aim or objective is very much what Sreepur is all about. I should declare an interest, in that I am a patron of the charity and my wife Sheila is a trustee. Three of the nine trustees are MBEs, which says a lot about the charity: Rubina Porter from Merseyside, who was most recently honoured; Trisha Silvester, the chair of the charity who runs the UK headquarters; and Pat Kerr, the founder and inspiration behind the village. Pat was a British Airways cabin crew member and set up the orphanage over 21 years ago with the help of friends and colleagues. To its credit, BA has assisted over the years, and Derek Palmer, Pat’s husband, is also a trustee. Colleagues of my generation may remember the Desmond Wilcox documentaries on the BBC that gave publicity to what is a great institution.

Sreepur Village provides a loving environment, food, clothing, education and vocational training for destitute women and their children. Thousands have benefited over the years. Sreepur Village also runs an outreach programme in the local community. Details are available on the Sreepur website. Sreepur Village is quite a place. Words such as “awe-inspiring”—or, more commonly these days, the Americanised “awesome”—are often bandied about without meaning much. However, some places really are awe-inspiring, or simply inspiring, and Sreepur is one of them. I should also mention Khadija Sultana, the executive director in Bangladesh, and Maureen Fox, the administrator here in the UK. Colleagues have probably got the idea that I am talking about a lot of amazing women who are the core movers of the charity.

VSO has also started the Godmothers campaign. What marks out VSO is its core belief. It does not lift people out of poverty; it gives them the tools to climb out of it themselves. What is impressive and moving about the Godmothers campaign is the notion of a group of people watching over UN Women—and, in my view, watching over not just the organisation of that name, but flesh-and-blood women in the world who need our solidarity and support. The aim of the Godmothers campaign is to see UN Women properly funded. The organisation was given that name because it was originally anticipated that it would be women who would wish to watch over UN Women, but there are men, too. There is also an understanding of what has hampered previous UN women’s agencies, and there is a determination that the new agency should not be thwarted in similar ways.

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Together, “u” and “n” are two big letters; “un-” is a small but deadly prefix. Words such as “unworkable”, “unproductive” and “untenable” are all pretty miserable terms. Worst of all, in terms of being of tangible assistance to the women of the world, is “unsuccessful”, because if this kind of work is unsuccessful, it means a failure not only to improve quality of life, but to save lives. The stakes could not be higher. That is not what the Godmothers want to see; they want, and I want—and, I am sure, the whole House wants—UN Women to work to its fullest potential.

The sentiments expressed in the motion and the amendment from my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), which I also support, are laudable. I would probably choose to speak more of nurturing, supporting and encouraging the self-empowerment of women than of “empowering women”, as the motion suggests, but the basic premise is that women in our one, big world matter. There is no point talking about the big society if one half of it is not heard, not reached and not included. I look forward to other contributions to this debate.

1.15 pm

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Ending violence against women is a priority for UN Women, and it is this issue that I would like to speak about today. My first experience of domestic violence came when I was about 10 years old. My mother had been inspired by Erin Pizzey and, with some other women, helped to set up the very first women’s refuge in Carlisle, where we lived at the time. I remember going to the refuge with my mother sometimes. I would sit at a big old brown table, pretending to be getting on with my homework, but really I was watching her work. I would see her surrounded by people who were truly in need.

Before becoming an MP, I was a practising solicitor for 23 years. I should declare an interest, in that my firm looked after around 13,000 clients in the south London, Surrey and west Kent area, many of them needy and vulnerable victims or children. Every year we sought hundreds of non-molestation orders and occupation orders under the Family Law Act 1996. I remain very proud of the work that my staff still do and of the contribution that the practice makes to community safety in the area.

For me, domestic violence is a scourge. It does not discriminate; it permeates age, race, class and gender, although 75% of victims are women. The youngest person for whom I had to obtain an order was a little baby; the oldest person was a 90-year-old woman who was being abused by her alcoholic son. I have had many multi-millionaires in my office seeking protection. I have also had many young girls who had literally nothing to call their own.

Domestic violence crushes self-confidence and self-esteem, which are the prerequisites for aspiration, motivation, success and the ultimate goal of social mobility. One of the most disturbing statistics—one that continues to haunt me, and one that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) also mentioned—is that two women in this country die every week because of domestic violence. From a zero tolerance point of view, I think that things are better now than they were in the ’70s. There is a wide range of laws and support organisations in this country to protect victims,

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but there are still some major problems: problems with implementing our laws and with eligibility for legal aid; no recourse to public funds; not enough done on prevention; and ongoing scepticism greeting women and children when they report violence.

Scepticism in our society is the reason we still hear comments such as “Why didn’t she leave him?”, or “She probably wound him up.” Such comments reveal an underlying suspicion that somehow the woman is to blame or is responsible for the violence inflicted on her. We know that there is no excuse for violence, but society desperately needs to understand that message too. The message needs to start at schools, with our young people. We need to talk to them about respecting themselves and respecting others, and about gender equality and empowerment.

Recent NSPCC research found that one in four girls, some as young as 13, had been hit and slapped by their boyfriends. That is absolutely terrible. It is awful because it is creating a breeding ground for abusers and for the abused. Domestic violence is abhorrent and inexcusable. Every time I hear about a bad incident, it makes me wonder what sort of world we are living in, and how we can improve it. A big part of the answer is that we need a seismic change in attitudes and behaviour, as well as an acceptance that our rules, laws and regulations are not going to fix the problem on their own. I hope that UN Women, with its ability to mobilise, advocate, co-ordinate and champion, will be a global catalyst for much-needed change.

1.20 pm

Margaret Curran (Glasgow East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). Her powerful speech provided evidence of why we need debates such as these. I know that we can create parliamentary consensus around such profound issues, and that we all share many of the views she expressed.

I also echo the comments of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing)—this job does wonders for my geography—and congratulate the members of the Backbench Business Committee on securing the debate. The hon. Lady said that international women’s day gives us a real opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the past and recognise the hard work that many women have put into them. It also gives us pause for thought as we remember the many difficulties that remain and the efforts that we still need to galvanise around as we seek to improve the lot of women. She pointed out that this is a particularly special international women’s day, as it is its 100th anniversary. I am delighted to be the first ever woman to represent the east end of Glasgow in this Chamber and that the city of Glasgow has two women representing it at the same time. That is a great achievement, but I shall keep working until we have more than that.

Of course we want to reflect on international issues on international women’s day, and the choice of UN Women as our subject is particularly helpful. I should like to reflect on the work of the UN in Palestine, and to focus on the issues relating to women there. I undertook a recent visit to Palestine that was sponsored by the Council for Arab-British Understanding. We have discussed

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on many occasions the ways in which to create a peaceful solution in the middle east, and I appreciate that there are different views and perspectives on how we should pursue that agenda. Sometimes I think that, in the grand sweep of the political narrative, women’s voices are not heard and their experiences not understood. Therefore, by definition, a complete political understanding cannot be reached, and complete solutions cannot be reached if we have only a partial understanding of the situation. In our debates on the middle east, the experiences of women, the pressures they face, the desperation they feel and the daily grind of their day-to-day lives have not featured strongly enough.

On my visit to the occupied Palestinian territories, I saw that women’s access to educational institutions, to places of employment and to health care clinics had been severely limited by the restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement. Obviously those issues affect men and women, but my conclusion, following my visit and the reading that I have done since, is that those factors have a disproportionate and particular impact on women. That is what I would like to talk about this afternoon.

The annexation wall, which has been built across 85% of Palestinian land, appropriates land, disconnects communities and restricts access to medical care and workplaces. I saw particular evidence of how the day-to-day management of life has been affected by it. Routes to school have had to be changed, for example, making it difficult for women to get their children safely to and from school. There is evidence of women having had to give birth at checkpoints because they could not get through them in time to get to hospital. There were no guarantees that anyone could get to their medical appointments. Furthermore, young women in particular are now finding it difficult to get to universities. Their families are nervous, rightly or wrongly, about what women might experience going through the checkpoints.

I visited an area just outside Bethlehem called al-Walaja, where I met a mother of young children who was living in very difficult circumstances. Access to the land was severely restricted, as was the family’s income as a result. She was living with the stresses and strains of her family situation, with young children to manage, and with that huge wall right outside her front window. We need to reflect on the daily grind of those people’s lives. The wall restricts freedom of movement, and time and costs are greatly multiplied by its presence. There is a permit regime associated with it, and 500 other obstacles, including road blocks and checkpoints, are now imposed on the day-to-day lives of Palestinian women and their families.

There is a range of other issues involved. Permit regulations have an impact on family life. Couples and families are often effectively prohibited from living together. Many families are separated, particularly when the father is unable to work near his family. That has an enormous social and economic impact. We must also remember the military detention of children, often for throwing stones. Families might not know the location of their child, who can be held for up to eight days without access to the family or a lawyer. These are huge issues that are themselves worthy of a debate.

I want to focus on the impact of all these factors on women. During my visit to the west bank, I was overwhelmed by the unbearable pressure that they face,

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particularly mothers, who might not participate in the political sphere but who have to try to manage the day-to-day consequences of the presence of the wall, the demolitions, the hostility of the settlers, the necessity to manage the permits, the identification rules that do not permit people to live with their families and, most overwhelmingly of all, the poverty and lack of economic opportunity.

I know that Palestinian women are demonstrating on international women’s day, and campaigning to have their interests represented in their own political movements and representative organisations. They have had some success. Recently, a national plan to combat domestic violence has been adopted in the Palestinian territories. I think that it is the first Arab territory to adopt such a plan. I hope that we, as women in this Parliament, can use our influence here, in the United Nations and through other avenues to draw attention to the issues that Palestinian women face. We must show our solidarity with and support for women who are struggling in their own communities and whose day-to-day issues need political attention. I hope that international women’s day will give us the opportunity to focus on not only our own experiences but those of women internationally, especially those living in such desperate circumstances who have rarely been heard.

1.28 pm

Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran), with her powerful advocacy for the women of the middle east and her description of the very difficult lives that they are living out there.

I welcome UN Women’s ambitious and wide-ranging plans for women. Talking about the differences and similarities between men and women can be tricky, but does it counter the strong, rational argument for equality to raise the clear differences that exist? For instance, if we say that women are more likely to fight for peace, do we make it less likely that they will be taken seriously in a military scenario? Can we discuss differences without falling into the trap of stereotyping men and women into caricatures of themselves—the pink team and the blue team? It might be tricky, but it is dishonest to ignore the clear differences between men and women—the positive differences that create better outcomes.

There have been several references this week to the report from Lord Davies on women in the boardroom. I should like to draw the House’s attention to a report that came out this week from the City law firm Eversheds, which carried out a study of 234 listed companies. It showed that corporate governance issues had absolutely no effect on the share price, except in one area. The fact that there were more women on the board of a company had a positive influence on the share price. Let us hope that fund managers will pick up this important news and perhaps make it obligatory for the businesses they invest in to take on this particular aspect of corporate governance.

I am not here to raise the issue of equality on my own behalf or for women like me, as I recognise that I have had many privileges, but the issue is vital for less developed countries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) pointed out, it is perhaps our duty, particularly on international women’s day, to raise this

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issue for other women. It is because of the differences and the vital but different contributions women can make that we need to fight for their opportunities and influence those outcomes when we can.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that so many women in needy countries are taking out micro-finance loans to provide for their children shows how the role of women is absolutely essential to feeding so many children in less developed parts of the world?

Amber Rudd: I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution; in fact, I am about to talk about a similar situation. As she implies, the difference women can make to managing their families in the developed world can create an opportunity for non-governmental organisations and perhaps UN Women to focus on women as providers in their own communities.

The human rights case for equality is, I believe, glaringly simple. Girls and women should not be disadvantaged because of their gender, and where that is the case, we need to remove the barriers in their lives. We know what a lot of those barriers are: they are to do with education, health, and taking action against violence, and the UN Women initiative will focus on those. I feel sure that few would disagree with that.

Naomi Long: As a former civil engineer, one of my passions is the delivery of clean water and sanitation, which is also a gendered issue. Does the hon. Lady agree that if we are to liberate women from the long haul of bringing water to their families, which inhibits their ability to access education and other health services, it is important to deliver clean water to their communities, giving them some free time to spend on other issues?

Amber Rudd: I wholly endorse what the hon. Lady says: clean water is indeed essential for communities and we should work with women to bring it about.

I believe that the differences I mentioned can be seen at two ends of the society—first, in small communities through women’s commitment to their families; and secondly, in government through women gaining significant representation. I do not underestimate the commitment of men to their families; it is just that they often show it in a different way. Let me illustrate that with the example of the Barefoot college at Rajasthan in India.

As some colleagues may know, the Barefoot college is a non-governmental organisation founded in 1972. It is a solar-powered school that teaches illiterate women from impoverished villages to become, among other professions, solar engineers. The college takes women from the poorest villages and teaches them the necessary professional skills without requiring them to read or write. For the past five years, it has focused on women who have come over from Africa in order to take the skills back to their native countries.

The point about focusing on women is that, as this NGO’s experience shows, they go home again and take their skills to their families and communities. The Barefoot college chooses to train for this particular solar energy course only women aged 35 to 60 who will want to keep the skills and the benefits in their community. I am afraid that the college describes the men as “untrainable”! The women, it says, are less likely to use the training as a

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means to move into a city or build up skills to take away from home. A certificate is not required at the end of it. The founders deliberately focus on women to make sure that the skills go home with the trainee.

The college trains women to build, install, maintain and repair solar electrification systems for off-grid electrification. Training takes six months. Once the course is completed, the equipment, along with the women who built it, is sent back to the villages where it is used to electrify the houses and schools. After five years of solar training since 2006, 97 villages in Africa have been electrified by their own trained women—a fantastic result. This initiative provides women with employment, confidence and purpose and it deliberately focuses on women as the natural supporters of their families.

Tony Baldry: I do not know about untrainable men, but my hon. Friend is making a really important point—that countries that fail to invest in the education of girls and women are denying themselves 50%, or half, of their own natural resource. It seems to me crazy that countries such as Afghanistan are not willing to invest more in women’s education. It is just self-defeating for the country as a nation.

Amber Rudd: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution and I thoroughly agree with him. A similar point was made by our colleague, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who argued that this is not a trivial issue to be put at the bottom of the list, but one that should be at the top for the benefit of the whole of society, for the economy and, above all perhaps, for peace.

Trained, empowered women—illiterate or not—are more likely to have the confidence to raise their voices, and getting more women to participate in government is essential. Women such as those I have described at the Barefoot college will have the confidence to make an important contribution and perhaps get into local politics and eventually, we hope, national politics. There are many routes to getting more women involved in the business of government—education, mentoring, and, yes, even quotas—but it is essential to remove the barriers that stop their involvement.

Women may have some different priorities, views and interests from men. As we know, women are more than half the population and they need to be represented in Governments internationally. I welcome the UN Women initiative to promote that. It is essential to achieve it not just for equality as a human rights issue, but to get the best outcomes for everyone and particularly for women. In some countries, if women are not included in the conversation, they can be ignored or worse. As one east African woman politician succinctly put it to me: “We worked out early on that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

1.37 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I beg to move, at end add

‘and that in order to promote equality of women, democratic governments should ensure they have effective mechanisms for

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parliaments to scrutinise policy and performance in tackling inequality and injustice; and to that end calls for a women and equalities audit committee in this House.’.

I want to thank Members of all parties who have at some point signified support for my amendment. Its aim is to ensure that we in the UK have effective scrutiny of the Government on issues that affect women and other groups protected under the Equality Act 2010.

I was privileged recently to attend the United Nations for the 55th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, and I listened directly to Madame Bachelet setting out her priorities for UN Women. The first was the representation of women, expanding women’s voice, their leadership and participation. I believe that this amendment goes directly to that issue.

The second priority was tackling violence against women. Let me say that at a time when, according to the UN, more than 1,000 women a month are being raped in the Congo, I am deeply shocked that my Government have proposed amendments to the draft Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which would mean that it would not take effect in circumstances of armed conflict. I hope that Ministers listening to this debate will think again about that.

The third of Madame Bachelet’s priorities is peace building, and I would like to echo the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) about the important role women can play in building peace. The fourth is enhancing women’s contribution to the economy. The fifth is that gender equality should be central to all planning and budgets. As Madame Bachelet put it:

“Having been a minister and a president, I know that heads of state and heads of government have so many different challenges… Usually women’s issues are not relevant for them…they think that…other ministries…are…dealing with women. But that doesn’t happen. It has to be mainstreamed, pushed in a very specific way. We need to work on showing more clearly—with stronger arguments—how important women are as an economic actor, as a political actor, as a social actor, so that presidents and prime ministers can see how they cannot lose the important contribution that women are in the community.”

We know that we have not achieved that here. Frankly, if we had, we would not have endured a situation in which in recent tax and benefit changes men lost £4.20 a week, whereas women, who are paid less and have less wealth, lost £8.80 a week.

I propose having an audit committee so that we can look specifically at every Department—not just those whose Ministers have a particular responsibility for women’s issues—and ensure that progress is made. We know that, for example, the Home Affairs Committee already does a good job in dealing with issues of inequality relating to race in home affairs, but we need an organisation that can get down to auditing, and we have a model in the Environmental Audit Committee. I spoke to the Chair of the Committee, who recalled a 2006 report that it produced on DFID’s programmes and climate change. At that time it had no way of assessing the impact of those programmes on climate change, but now it has a proper mechanism, and I believe that we could achieve the same in relation to the gender impact of Government policies.

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A research report on the Environmental Audit Committee, produced by Turnpenny, Russel and Rayner, states:

“We find that some of EAC’s recommendations, particularly in relation to making the prospective environmental impacts of the Budget more explicit, have been incrementally absorbed into government thinking and processes. In some cases, the Committee has been highly effective in drawing together evidence to criticise powerfully the government’s performance…A cross-cutting perspective can provide a distinctive take on problems, or help challenge established ‘world views’ of departmental… Committees.”

The EAC provides a powerful model, and we know that many other countries have similar parliamentary committees. Of the 27 European Union states, 10 have specific committees, and other countries such as Australia, Canada, Russia and India have them as well. They represent an important part of Parliament’s role in holding Government to account.

Madame Bachelet’s priorities must be implemented through elected women as well as women in civil society. I believe that as elected representatives we have a particular responsibility to make our Government accountable in this regard. I have a feeling that we may have taken our eye off the ball a little during the Speaker’s Conference on equal representation. It worked like a Select Committee and produced an effective and unanimous report, but we were concentrating on women’s representation in this place rather than the way in which Government policies affected women’s lives beyond it.

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): I should be interested to know whether the hon. Lady proposed the establishment of such a committee during the last Government’s time in office and, if so, what response she received. I think that many of the points that she is making are extremely sensible.

Fiona Mactaggart: The hon. Lady is right to ask why I did not do that. I think that the Speaker’s Conference took up energy that could properly have been directed towards a broader equality impact assessment. I was proud to be a member of the Conference—which, as I have said, worked rather like a Select Committee—but its focus was relatively narrow, and it was not able to give wider consideration to the impact of Government policies on women’s lives.

The committee that I propose could serve as a useful tool for all of us. I know that achieving our aim will be difficult—for instance, Select Committees have limited budgets and we may need to start small—but I believe that the committee could prevent some of the mistakes that Departments currently make because they do not think fully about the impact of all their policies on, for example, women.

I referred earlier to rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I was privileged to hear Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues”, talk about her work in the DRC helping women who had been victims of rape. She said:

“I think of Beatrice, shot in her vagina, who now has tubes instead of organs. Honorata, raped by gangs as she was tied upside down to a wheel. Noella, who is in my heart—an 8-year-old girl who was held for 2 weeks as groups of grown men raped her over and over. Now she has a fistula, causing her to urinate and defecate on herself. Now she lives in humiliation.”

I do not believe that the Foreign Affairs Committee or the Defence Committee discuss matters of that kind—they have plenty of important things to think about—but an

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audit committee of women might be able to persuade them to do so. I know that many Members find such issues hard to talk about in Parliament, and I am glad that there are now more women on both sides of the House than there used to be, because we find it easier to discuss them than men do. We know how much cruelty is involved.

As Eve Ensler pointed out, when rape was used as a weapon of war in Bosnia we intervened and stopped it, but rape is still being used as a weapon of war elsewhere. Our Government need to intervene, and UN Women needs to intervene. That is one of the reasons why it is UN Women’s second highest priority. I believe that the committee I have proposed could enable every Department to ensure that the needs of women and girls are not overlooked, as they so frequently are. I am prepared to admit that they may be overlooked by accident, but that is not a sufficient excuse. We need to ensure that the needs of women and girls cannot be overlooked, even accidentally.

1.45 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The United Nations special war tribunal in Sierra Leone has established that the use of rape as a weapon of war is a war crime, as is the enlisting of child soldiers. I can tell the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)—who made a powerful speech—that Select Committees do discuss these issues, and that over the years the International Development Committee, among others, has pressed for a recognition of the emerging norm of responsibility to protect and to ensure that the international community bears down on those who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. The challenge for Governments and, indeed, for the House of Commons is often how and when to intervene effectively, and I suspect that that challenge will detain the House over the coming weeks in the context of Libya. Tragically, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) pointed out, one of the longest-living UN agencies is the agency for displaced Palestinians. We need to have regard to all these issues.

Those of us who have been privileged to make visits overseas will recall being humbled by the sight of women involving themselves in projects. Listening to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), I was reminded of a visit that I made to Bangladesh. Women had taken over the central reservation of a highway—public land—and planted mahogany trees. They would have to look after the trees for 20 years before they could harvest them, but they were confident that between them they could make the project work, and that it would give them a community asset. All of us, wherever we have been in the world, have seen projects like that, in which women have taken on the burden of looking after communities and leading initiatives at the same time. Whether the projects are agricultural or involve looking after HIV/AIDS orphans or community bakeries, women are often at the forefront.

The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse made all the comments that I wanted to make about UN Women and the need for the Government to support it, so I shall not repeat them. During the most recent session of International Development questions, the Secretary of State said that Ministers wanted UN Women to do for women what UNICEF has done so successfully for children, and it would be fantastic if it could indeed

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do that. We all recognise that DFID’s budget is finite, but I hope that it can find some resources for UN Women.

I echo what the hon. Gentleman said about the work of Voluntary Service Overseas. I too have had the privilege of working with VSO in Nepal, and helping Dalit women to draft amendments to the Nepalese constitution. Dalits are at the bottom of the pile and Dalit women even further down than that, but VSO enabled them to help and empower themselves, which I think is very important. This year, I am due to go to the Thailand-Burma border to help and support some women’s projects there. The Voluntary Service Overseas Volpol scheme is a brilliant initiative, and I urge any Members who have not yet had the opportunity to avail themselves of the opportunity to investigate it, as we learn an enormous amount from such experiences.

Because of the general election, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s report of last year did not get the coverage it perhaps deserved. Although I was chair of the commission at the time, the report team was chaired by Fiona Hodgson and its members included my hon. Friends the Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) and for South Thanet (Laura Sandys). The full report can be found at conservativehumanrights.com. The evidence to the commission about women human rights defenders yielded numerous examples of women who were abducted, tortured, and sexually and physically abused, and whose families had been brutally attacked and threatened. There were also examples of such women being labelled as whores and witches and having been ostracised from, and stigmatised within, their families and communities because they wanted to advance human rights not just for women and children but for the community as a whole.

As Amnesty International has observed, while many human rights defenders endure risks across a spectrum of gravity, because of women human rights defenders’ gender and the particular rights they defend, they confront additional risks that can carry the gravest of consequences. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) made clear in what was an excellent opening to the debate, women make up two thirds of the world’s 1 billion illiterate population, half a million women a year die from pregnancy complications, women make up 70% of the world’s poor and perform 66% of the world’s work, but have 10% of the world’s income and own only 1% of the world’s property.

The commission made 22 recommendations and I will not detain the House by going through them all, but I encourage Members and others who are interested in these issues to visit the website and take a look at them. We suggested that the Government should seek to raise public awareness of the work of human rights defenders and the specific dangers faced by women who fight for human rights, including gender-based violence, family reprisals, cultural stigmatisation, and loss of property rights. There are a number of positive and constructive recommendations, including that the Government should honour and implement the commitments made under international treaties and conventions on the protection and promotion of women’s rights, including those in the universal declaration of human rights, the millennium

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development goals, the Beijing platform for action and the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. We also wanted support to be given to the work of the UN special rapporteur and promoting the new UN agency for women.

1.53 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I apologise in advance for being unable to be present in the Chamber for all of it, as it coincides with a Westminster Hall debate on the Government’s response to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions report into housing benefit reform. As a member of that Committee, I am also keen to spend some time in that debate.

I agree with those Members who have said how pleased they are that the Backbench Business Committee has made time for this debate this afternoon. I and other Members who were present at some of the Committee’s sittings know how hard its Chair and some Committee members, including the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), have worked to achieve that.

It is appropriate that this debate coincides not only with the centenary of international women’s day, but also Fairtrade fortnight and the week of the Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill. Each of those individual events speaks to the issue of women’s economic independence, which is what I want to address this afternoon.

As has been pointed out, women constitute a little over half the world’s population, but we are still the poorer by far. As the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has just pointed out, 70% of the world’s poor citizens are women. Here in the UK, too, women face a greater risk of poverty as a result of a gender pay gap that still stands at 19.9%, and which is much higher if we look only at part-time work. Men’s median pay is 52% higher than women’s, and only 12% of the occupants of our boardrooms are women. Therefore, when we are asked—this question was raised at the Backbench Business Committee—why a specific debate on women’s issues is necessary, I say that the numbers speak for themselves.

This problem is not inevitable; it is not just the way things are. It is not a reflection of innate gender differences; it is a problem of societal structures, and it requires structural solutions. It matters too: it matters not only for women’s own economic independence, but also because when women prosper economically so too do children. When women have money, they spend it on their kids. Because that spending benefits the wider economy and the community, it promotes general economic and social justice.

It is especially appropriate that international women’s day and Fairtrade fortnight should coincide with the date of our discussion, because the changing economic structures of international trade could serve to offer a model of how economic justice can work for women and, by promoting the position of women, can work on a broader frame. Fairtrade products that empower women economically are important for the environment and for the communities and economies in which they are established, and are an important route both for economic growth and social justice.

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Mr MacShane: I am following my hon. Friend’s argument closely. This is not just about fair trade. Some 30 years ago, I was working in Malaysia and visited the factories of multinationals including Bosch and Motorola, all of which were full of women making products such as car radios. Actually, those women were being liberated from the patriarchal oppression of village peasant existence, but many of the liberal and left community around the world say, “Oh no, they’re being exploited.” Does my hon. Friend agree with Joan Robinson of the London School of Economics, who said there’s only one thing worse for a woman than being exploited by a multinational, and that is not being exploited by a multinational?

Kate Green: I am sure my right hon. Friend would not wish to suggest that there is a continuum of exploitation and a point on that continuum at which women—or, indeed, men—ought to be satisfied to find themselves located. He raises an important issue about the relative roles women perform in paid work and the domestic sphere.

The economic justice questions that we are discussing are not just challenges for developing economies; they are a challenge for us here in the UK too. As we know, here in the UK women struggle to balance caring responsibilities with paid employment. The majority of child care is still undertaken by women, and although many men fulfil caring roles, it is women who are most likely to drop out of paid employment when they start to have caring responsibilities. Many male carers perform their caring responsibility alongside paid work however, and as a result do not suffer the same degree of economic disadvantage.

In recent years, the debate about the appropriate balance and recognition we should give to paid work, domestic responsibilities and caring responsibilities has become distorted, and we need to revisit that. That is not in order to trap women back in the domestic sphere, but to open up a debate about the value we should give to the caring role, and to make sure our societal structures properly recognise that role and offer both women and men a genuine choice about participating in paid work and wanting, and needing, to take time to fulfil domestic responsibilities. That is not an argument that, when I was as a young feminist in the 1980s, I would have believed I would have heard myself making. However, as I have watched that choice for women squeezed out by successive male-led Governments of both the left and the right, I have to say that a gender issue is a choice issue, and choice and economic independence go hand in hand.

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that carers play a central and vital role in our society and that without their playing that role our social care system in this country would entirely collapse?

Kate Green: I certainly do and, together with the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys), I am very proud to be a parliamentary ambassador for carers week this year. I hope that we will have the opportunity to highlight exactly the sort of contribution that carers make and to which the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) refers.

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I wish to take a moment to talk specifically about the position of lone parents, which was the subject of hot political debate 10 or 15 years ago. It has rather dropped off the political radar but, regrettably, that is not because their battle is entirely won. It is still the case that more than 90% of lone parents are women—lone mothers—but it is very important to recognise that very few women have set out to bring up their children alone. None the less, one in four children in this country will spend some time in a lone parent family, and those children and families face an exceptionally high risk of poverty. Of course it is right that we should do all we can to sustain sustainable relationships, but it is not the mark of a civilised society that we allow those who are growing up in households where relationships have ended to find that they do so in poverty.

Mrs Laing: May I thank the hon. Lady for her support in obtaining this debate with the Backbench Business Committee and say that she was most eloquent? Would she like to emphasise the need to break the myth that women who are bringing up children alone have been teenage mothers—the vast majority of these women are not? As she said, they do not choose to be in that position and, of course, all women and men in that position deserve our support.

Kate Green: The hon. Lady is absolutely right, because the average age of lone mothers is now 35 and just 3% of them are teenagers. There is a very wide gap between myth and reality, as she rightly said.

In conclusion, we need and must have a debate now on the way in which we secure and sustain the economic independence of women throughout their life course, whatever their family circumstances. That is why I am particularly pleased to support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). Women’s lives have changed dramatically, even in my lifetime. However, despite the progress that women such as me—well-educated, professional women in well-paid employment—have enjoyed over the past five decades, it is still women who bear the brunt of poverty in this country. Inequality on pay and, importantly, on pension protection reflects the fact that there is still too much segregated employment, and that we still have a social security system that fails to provide adequate support and an education system that still too often squeezes down girls’ aspirations. This is still the fifth largest economy in the world, and we cannot tolerate a situation in which women continue to live in poverty. It is unnecessary, wasteful and unjust. It is a scandal and we need to ensure that every one of our economic and social policies thinks women and thinks how it can address that injustice. So in this UK Parliament, which is aptly, if sometimes incorrectly, characterised as the “mother of Parliaments”, I say that we must establish the scrutiny body that the amendment proposes. In the week that marks the centenary of international women’s day, I hope that parliamentarians in this House will commit themselves to doing just that.

2.4 pm

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): It is a pleasure to contribute to today’s debate and to follow Members who have covered so many important gender equality issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) in particular spoke powerfully on the issue of domestic abuse.

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I wish to focus on issues affecting women in conflict zones. As chair of the all-party group on women, peace and security, I, like the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), visited New York in February. I did so not only to celebrate the launch of UN Women, but to try to understand the impact that the new agency will have on women, peace and security policy and to find out where it will fit in the now bewildering architecture of the UN.

Major-General Cammaert, the former UN peacekeeping commander in the Democratic Republic of the Congo said the following in 2008:

“It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern conflict.”

That reflects the exponential growth of conflicts that target civilians, especially women and girls, as a means of intimidation and ethnic cleansing. Last year, 14,591 new cases of sexual violence were reported in the DRC, many of which were described so eloquently by the hon. Lady. The abuses that these women are subjected to are among the most horrific ever imagined. As if the international community’s failure to protect them is not bad enough, these women are then routinely denied justice or any engagement in the peace and reconciliation negotiations that follow.

As most hearing this debate will know, Security Council resolution 1325 finally recognised, in 2000, that sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, and women’s participation in peacebuilding, were the responsibility of the UN Security Council and a security priority. Since then, there has been no shortage of supportive language reaffirming the Security Council’s commitment to the cause. Governments and civil society alike have welcomed this progress, but beneath the rhetorical gloss, cracks in the masonry of international commitment are easy to find.

Although the UK has a good record in this area—it is considered the unofficial Security Council lead on resolution 1325—there are those, both here in the UK, as well as in the international community, who disagree that resolution 1325 is a security issue at all. Others accept that sexual violence should be addressed as a security issue alongside other protection of civilian issues, but believe that women’s participation in peacebuilding is a development issue which can be left until after the peace has been made.

The impact of that inconsistency can be seen in the recent emphasis that has been put on tackling sexual violence as a 1325 priority. Security Council resolutions 1820, 1888 and 1960, and the appointment of the Secretary-General’s special representative, Margot Wallstrom, all represent significant and vital progress on tackling sexual violence, but they also show that in the current geopolitical climate it is easier to get action on the protection of women than on participation of women. The impact on the ground is clear. The DRC has seen the groundbreaking conviction by a mobile court of the senior commander, Lieutenant Colonel Kibibi, and eight other soldiers for their role in a mass rape in the eastern DRC. That is a huge step in ending the impunity of perpetrators of sexual violence, but the DRC is still one of 31 current armed conflicts arising from failed peace processes and not a single one of those peace processes included women at the negotiations.

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Despite all the vocal support for resolution 1325, there has so far been negligible improvement in women’s participation in peacebuilding.

Fiona Mactaggart: The hon. Lady is making a powerful and important case. Does she share my anxiety that if what is happening in Afghanistan at the moment leads to a non-military next stage, unless women are really involved, negotiations with the Taliban could mean that the country reverts to some of the horrors that we have seen there before?

Nicola Blackwood: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I share her deep concern that women’s rights in Afghanistan may be seen as a cost that can be taken on board in order to achieve peace. I also share her belief that such peace would be unsustainable and would lead to a descent back into conflict.

Everything I have been describing means that the fact that the new head of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, has named women, peace and security as one of her focus areas is highly significant. UNIFEM never had the status or the budget to keep the issue effectively on the UN agenda. The role that Michelle Bachelet manages to carve out for UN Women will, therefore, make or break the future of women’s participation in peacebuilding. The challenges she faces are manifold: she has to attract sufficient funding; she must navigate her way through the impenetrable UN bureaucracy; she must negotiate the web of inter-agency allegiances and territorial claims; and, perhaps most importantly, she must prove herself, through sheer force of personality, as a leader to be reckoned with in the constellation of UN actors.

Mr MacShane: Is the hon. Lady aware that, according to a parliamentary answer I received this morning, we will give more than £1 billion to India in the next four years under our development aid heading, despite India having more millionaires and billionaires than we have? I am not against India in any way, but it is rather odd that our allocation of money for international work has so far excluded any UK funding for the very agency that the hon. Lady is so rightly praising.

Nicola Blackwood: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I shall move on to funding issues soon.

If Under-Secretary-General Bachelet and UN Women cannot achieve the formation of the role that is needed for the organisation, and cannot do so quickly, they will have no hope of beginning to challenge the entrenched gender inequalities that are so prevalent in conflict and post-conflict scenarios. Women’s participation in countries that are now hanging in the balance, such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia—to name an obvious few—will fall back off the agenda at the Security Council and elsewhere. UN Women will have proved to be a useful panacea—a rhetorical device that represents the form of action without the power or the outcomes. On the other hand, if UN Women achieves the formation of that role—there is every hope that it will do so—that might prove to be a turning point and a crucial advance in the argument that peacebuilding and conflict-prevention policies that do not involve women at all levels are fatally weakened and undermine the progress on global stability objectives.

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As a historical leader on women, peace and security issues on the international stage, the UK is of course pivotal in whether UN Women sinks or swims. I am glad to see that the coalition Government have signalled in action as well as words their continuing commitment to the resolution 1325 agenda. Central to that commitment are the appointment of the Minister for Equalities as a 1325 champion and the Government’s national action plan to implement 1325, published in November. That plan is a significantly more sophisticated document than its predecessor and includes a robust monitoring mechanism that includes a formal process for reporting to Parliament. That is welcome. I look forward to playing my part in the all-party group in holding the Government to account on their delivery of that plan and its adaptation to developing international situations.

The UK has further opportunities to offer the international leadership necessary to ensure that UN Women lives up to its potential. I shall mention just two. First, the Government’s building stability overseas strategy is being formulated by the FCO and DFID and is intended to set out the Government’s plans for addressing overseas conflict in the future. Given events in Libya, I would say that it is becoming ever more urgent that women, peace and security perspectives should be embedded in that plan, not as an afterthought or box-ticking exercise but as an integral part of the Government’s approach to conflict prevention and resolution.

Secondly, in order for UN Women to achieve its stated aims, which dovetail perfectly with UK foreign and international development policy, it needs UK funding. It is reasonable to wait for the strategic results plan in June before committing a specific amount, but I would like to make a couple of general points on that. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, has said that DFID requires

“a strategic plan that sets out a clear results framework outlining targets and expected impact.”—[Official Report, 3 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 596W.]

Will the Minister tell me whether DFID is working with the team that is developing the strategic results plan at UN Women to ensure that it is aware of DFID’s priorities and the criteria for funding?

The amount needs to be appropriate to UN Women’s remit. The United Nations Development Programme’s 2010 budget was $5 billion; UNICEF’s was $3 billion. To play in that ballpark, UN Women needs a budget of at least $1 billion. This is not just about status, although that does matter in setting UN-wide priorities; it is about capacity. DFID’s review of multilateral aid, published last week, stated explicitly that UNIFEM had failed adequately to address gender inequality issues specifically due to “constrained resources”. If UN Women is to have the impact necessary to challenge entrenched gender abuses and inequalities, it needs a reach similar to that of UNICEF.

The UN has set a minimum funding target of $500 million for UN Women, but so far only $55 million has been pledged. The UK has the opportunity to lead the way in funding UN Women. Given the exact correlation between the coalition Government’s stated foreign and international development policy goals and the strategy set out so far by Under-Secretary-General Bachelet, that seems to me like a win-win situation.

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In the words of the Nigerian permanent representative to the UN and president of the UN Women executive board,

“no one can run fast on one foot.”

A security agenda that thinks it can do without women’s participation has been a limping beast. Let us hope that UN Women can start being part of the remedy. Let us hope that we can begin to meet our commitments on protection and participation of women in conflict. Let us agree once and for all that these women are far from simply passive victims. They are in fact powerful agents of change and no less than the missing link in our peacekeeping policy.

2.15 pm

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Three or four years ago, I was at a NATO parliamentary conference where they had the usual list of speakers. The Foreign Minister from Georgia made a Government speech that was fairly moderate and not very exciting or controversial. The next speaker was the leader of the Russian delegation, who said, “In my country, we have a saying that there are two things you cannot have a discussion or a debate with: a woman and a radio set.” That kind of approach might still be prevalent. In this debate, if I may say so—this is in no way meant to be patronising—the quality of the speeches from all the new Members who were elected in May and who sit on both sides of the House has been absolutely outstanding. I hope that those speeches are career-enhancing interventions, urging former bosses to spend a little more on UN Women’s work. I wish well all the hon. Members who have spoken.

I want to comment briefly on one issue of women’s rights: the question of trafficking. We have focused a lot on what the UN should do and what we might do in Afghanistan and the Congo, and I support all that, but supporting women can also begin at home. There is a major trafficking problem in this country, as there is internationally.

The figures are difficult to get hold of at times. I got into terrible trouble a year or so ago, because in a debate during the last Session I quoted the Daily Mirror, which in turn was quoting a Home Office research study, saying that up to 25,000 women had been trafficked into the UK. That was pounced on by those great defenders of women’s rights, the BBC’s “Newsnight” programme and The Guardian. Articles were run and there were debate sessions on “Newsnight” in which Jeremy Paxman attacked me as if I were some wretched Government Minister, and it was said that all those figures were invented and that there was no problem with trafficked women. A lady from the English Collective of Prostitutes said that all prostituted women were happily working without any obligation. That kind of blind refusal by the liberal left of our community is matched by the fact that too many of our officials—it was as bad under the previous Government as it is under the coalition Government—refuse to accept the need for effective policing and intervention on the issue of trafficking.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): In the light of some of the earlier discussion about domestic violence, does my right hon. Friend agree about the importance of using law and enforcement in trafficking, as we have done in domestic violence? That provides clarity about

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what is right and wrong. When I was first involved in work on domestic violence, I found that people did not treat it as a crime, so there were not many prosecutions.

Mr MacShane: I entirely agree. There was a very good three-part series on trafficking on Channel 4 last autumn, narrated by Helen Mirren. It was interesting to see that not a single male using the services of trafficked sex slaves was held, questioned or even put in front of some minor magistrate’s court by the police. As was the case with domestic violence, we need the moral exemplary publicity provided by convictions or court cases. Until men have to face their responsibilities for the use of trafficked women, we will not make real progress.

Naomi Long: I take heed of the right hon. Gentleman’s warning about statistics, but the Home Office currently estimates that about 4,000 women have been trafficked into the UK and the sex industry. We have talked about wanting the Government to sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking and I add my voice to that call. Does he agree that it would help if the Government, when dealing with the sexual enslavement of women, were willing to tackle demand by criminalising the purchase of sexual services, which would protect trafficked women and others?

Mr MacShane: I agree with the hon. Lady. That figure of 4,000 was produced by one report last autumn and has been fairly comprehensively rubbished by many experts in the field. We do not know the figures. Our former colleague, Anthony Steen, the chairman of the Human Trafficking Centre, has said that he has spoken to senior police officers who know of 2,300 brothels in London. He said:

“They reckoned that 80 per cent of those working there were from abroad, and they estimated that 4,000 were trafficked. And that was just in London. My view is that the national figure is probably in excess of 10,000.”

After a long campaign for which I pay tribute to a collection of women Ministers, including the then Home Secretary and Attorney-General, some of whom are still with us and some of whom are now outside the House, the previous Government made a small amendment to criminal legislation saying that it is a crime to pay for sex with a woman who has been trafficked or coerced. To my knowledge, however, there has not been a single prosecution for that crime so far. We have been able to curtail kerb crawling by taking photographs of kerb crawlers’ cars, publishing their registration numbers and in some cases putting them in front of magistrates. That is the only language that abusers of sex slave trafficked women understand.

Some of our newspapers have adverts in the back for massage parlours and brothels.

Mrs Grant rose

Mr MacShane: I was not going to take another intervention because of this funny rule we have, but the hon. Lady made such a wonderful speech, so how could I refuse?

Mrs Grant: I thank the right hon. Gentleman and will keep my intervention short. Will he say a little more about the fact that many of those who are trafficked are very young children and that young women leaving the care system are also involved—not just immigrants?

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Mr MacShane: Had I more time, I would love to go into those issues. The official body in charge of these issues has noted that a large number of Asian girls and, sadly, a surge of Vietnamese girls are being trafficked into the UK, and that several dozen leave and disappear from care, particularly local authority care. That is one of the themes that I shall be pursuing in my parliamentary work this Session.

I earnestly appeal to Ministers—we have two outstanding Ministers on the Front Bench, who really care about this issue—to send us some hope and allow a little ray of sunshine to penetrate the gloomy clouds of South Yorkshire, whence I must return shortly, and to shine upon the Liberal Democrats’ conference in Sheffield, so that their leader can rise to his feet and say from the platform tomorrow, “I may be known locally as the Sheffield fraudmaster, but I persuaded the Prime Minister to change our policy on the EU trafficking directive and I can announce that Britain will be signing it.” Then some of us might be prepared to forgive the Liberal Democrats for many of their current sins.

I should like to quote the Archbishop of York. In a powerful intervention late last year, he said:

“Sex trafficking is nothing more than modern-day slavery. This is women being exploited, degraded and subjected to horrific risks solely for the gratification and economic greed of others. I am therefore stunned to learn that the Government are opting out of an EU directive designed to tackle sex trafficking.”

I get down on my knees to the Archbishop of York.

In considering the treatment of women around the world, there is a big problem with whether we are prepared to be brave enough to say that some of the classic religions of the world and their political expressions are deeply inimical to women’s rights. I shall put it no more strongly than that, but I refer to practices such as forced marriage and the fact that we have just had a terrible riot in Egypt in which a Christian Coptic church was burned down. Why? It was because a Christian boy fell in love with a Muslim girl, whose parents felt that her honour had been abused and so they had the right to go and kill someone. Then they were killed and the reaction was to burn down a church that had been there for hundreds of years and insist that a mosque be built in its place. Unless we say, within our communities to our Muslim friends in Britain, that we have to consider the role of religion today in oppressing women, we will not make much progress.

Finally, I want us to look again at the degradation of women, their commodification into sex objects and the fact that men and young boys now think it quite normal to fly to Baltic states or to east Europe for a weekend of going from one sex parlour to another. The situation has changed utterly and this kind of new approach from young men has arrived in recent years. There is a notion that legalising prostitution would somehow make things better, but where that exists in Nevada, university students say that one cannot rape a prostitute. These are difficult areas that go to the heart of masculine and male concepts of women and their rights. Unless we are prepared to tackle those concepts—and I strongly welcome the tone of the contributions to the debate—I fear that in three or four years’ time we will not have made the progress that the House wishes to make.

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2.26 pm

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): It is always a real pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), and that is particularly true following the vital points he made about human trafficking. It is a huge privilege to speak in this debate, on this historic day, on this key issue about equality and empowering women. On such an historic day, we need to look at what more has to be done to put women on a par with men in equality terms. Equally, we need to mark today as a celebration of great things that great women have achieved around the world.

I am fortunate and privileged to have worked, before entering Parliament, as a special adviser to such a great international stateswomen as Benazir Bhutto, the twice former Prime Minister of Pakistan, who led with conviction in empowering people and who paid the ultimate price in her fight for democracy and empowering women and citizens in her society. She became the first woman to be elected the Head of an Islamic State in 1988. As Prime Minister, she became a role model for women around the developing world in male-dominated societies. They saw that they too could be future leaders of their country. She had 86,000 primary and secondary schools built in her term because she saw education as a means of empowering citizens in her country, particularly women. Under her government, 100,000 female health workers fanned out across the country, bringing health care, nutrition and pre and post-natal care to millions of the poorest citizens. Under her Government, women were given the basic right to participate in international sports, women’s police departments were established to help women who suffered from domestic violence and women’s banks were established to give micro-loans to women to start small businesses.

Today, we pay tribute to women such as Benazir Bhutto who are great role models for women around the world, and Aung San Suu Kyi, another of the courageous women who fight for democracy. In Brazil, it is great to see another female leader, Dilma Rousseff, as president of her state. However, much more needs to be done to ensure that there are more women in the Parliaments of developing countries.

In Burma, women make up only 4% of the membership of its lower House. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, only 8% of MPs are women. The figure is the same for Ghana. In Kenya, the figure is 9%; it is 7% in Nigeria, 6% in Somalia and in Yemen it is 0.3%. That is completely unacceptable. On that basis, I welcome DFID’s commitment to link international aid to programmes that empower women.

Claire Perry: My hon. Friend described how a female president of Pakistan made such a difference for women locally. Given that example, does he agree that for countries that are not fortunate enough to have women representatives in their political system, the formation of organisations such as UN Women will ensure that women’s issues are not forgotten on the political stage?

Rehman Chishti: My hon. Friend makes a vital point. In 2008, Benazir Bhutto was one of the seven women awarded the UN human rights prize, and as my hon. Friend says, we need to highlight such things.

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Nearly all the countries in the world have signed up to the UN international convention on civil and political rights, but the key issue is implementation. We must ensure that women have the rights enshrined in such conventions.

Nicola Blackwood: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the crucial reforms to ensure that women achieve those rights is reform of the security and justice sector? If that does not happen, women will never have the opportunity in some countries to enforce their rights.

Rehman Chishti: My hon. Friend makes an absolutely vital point. We must ensure that there is security and justice. Those elements are enshrined in agreements such as the universal declaration of human rights and the UN conventions on civil and political rights; the problem is that they are not implemented. It is great that countries sign up to conventions, but unless we put them into practice, nothing will change. It is important that they are implemented.

With more women in boardrooms, greater equality in legislative rights, and an increased critical mass through women’s visibility as impressive role models in every aspect of life, one might think that women had gained true equality. The unfortunate fact is that women are still not paid equally compared with their male counterparts. Women are still not present in equal numbers in business or politics. Globally, women’s education and health are worse than that of men, and there is greater violence against them.

I very much welcome the fact that international women’s day has been marked as an official holiday in 27 countries, such as Afghanistan, China, Moldova, Mongolia and Cuba. I hope in due course that we can move to that position as well.

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned women’s education. Does he agree that it is the key to everything we are discussing? Unless women are educated, they will never become political leaders, surgeons or lawyers and be all that we want them to be. It pains me to think that there could be women who have the potential to cure diseases or to solve world problems, yet that will not happen because those women will never be educated.

Rehman Chishti: I thank my hon. Friend for that point. She is right. If we want to empower people, we have to give them skills, and the basic skill is education. That is why under DFID’s commitment to developing countries, a large part of the money is going to education. My hon. Friend is right; without education, people cannot be master of their own destiny.

Gender equality is not simply a basic human right; its achievement has enormous socio-economic ramifications. Empowering women fuels thriving economies, spurring productivity and growth.

I conclude with a quote from Martin Luther King:

“The time is always right to do the right thing.”

It is always the right time to fight for women’s rights and equality.

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2.33 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): As one of those who made the pitch to the Backbench Business Committee for this debate, I am grateful to the Committee for agreeing to hold it in the Chamber. The fact that there was some resistance to the proposal reminds us that we have to be ever-vigilant and ever alert in fighting for women’s equality. We should not take things for granted. We have won a great deal. Compared with our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, our lives have been transformed. Nevertheless, we need to be careful; we should not sit back and assume that everything will carry on smoothly.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) spoke of the need to encourage women to take up representative roles. It is not always enough simply to set up mechanisms.

Mr MacShane: Is my hon. Friend aware that two weeks ago my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) spoke at the Newcastle university international development conference, where the majority of participants were women? There were fabulous workshops on how we can help women overseas and I am glad to report that all the members of the organising committee were women—I must confess an interest; one of them was my daughter.

Sheila Gilmore: I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. Women have obviously proved that they can organise things and be very effective.

The party organisation in my city recently held a training event for people it wanted to encourage to stand as council candidates. Those who came, both men and women, were given information on what being a councillor involves. At the end of the meeting, a number of women came up to the organiser and said how daunted they were and that they doubted whether they would be able to do the job, but virtually all the men went away thinking that they could do the job easily.

Claire Perry: It is like DIY.

Sheila Gilmore: How true.

Those responses demonstrate that even after all we have won, there is still a need to put in the extra effort to encourage women, give them confidence and bring them forward. It is important that we make every effort to work across the Chamber on many of these issues, and I am heartened by much of what I have heard in the debate. Like the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who made a powerful contribution, much of my early work before being elected to this House related to family law, so I know the difficulties women face.

It is sometimes easier to reach out across the House when talking about things that are not happening in this country, because it is perhaps easier to agree on what needs to happen in places abroad. It is slightly harder when talking about matters closer to home, but what I want to say relates to the UK. That is not intended to detract from the powerful speeches that have been made on the position of women in the developing world and the important work that needs to be done. In fact, it has been very humbling to hear some of the stories that Members have told, which we must

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always remember, but just because we are privileged as women to live in these times, as has been said, that does not mean that we should not fight for further improvements.

I want to speak to the amendment and about why I think it is important to have a committee that can look across the piece and see how things join up. The example I will give is that of the recent changes that have been proposed, are about to be made or have been made that affect the position of women who are separating or divorcing. When looked at departmentally, those changes might seem quite small, but when joined up, they are quite significant. That can be a traumatic time for both men and women, but women, who are often financially weaker in that position, are most affected. All the research still shows that after separation women end up poorer. Slightly oddly, many men end up either no poorer, or richer.

What has been happening that will change women’s experience? One change is the proposed loss of eligibility for legal aid, which in my view will affect women’s ability to get a fair financial settlement. The law can enhance and protect women’s rights, but if it is not there to fight for them, it might not be able to do so. The second change relates to the Welfare Reform Bill. The time that I had to speak on the Bill was reduced to two minutes yesterday, so I did not have the chance to discuss its child maintenance proposals, but they are linked to what I want to say now. More emphasis is to be placed on people reaching their own solutions, but putting up obstacles and charging will make it more difficult for women to try to enforce maintenance.

Claire Perry: I am sure that the hon. Lady has much more experience of these matters than I do, but does she not agree that one key problem, which we see in our surgeries and postbags, is the absolute failure of the Child Support Agency to deliver a fair and equitable solution for both men and women? The welfare reforms could help to make a difference and ensure that women who, as she rightly says are often disadvantaged by separation, get their fair share.

Sheila Gilmore: I am certainly not going to suggest that the CSA, in its long history, has been so wonderful. Indeed, the initial legislation for it was an example of not taking account of the views and opinions of people who know about an issue.

In my experience, it was always hard to enforce maintenance. We could get orders and agreements as solicitors, but enforcement was extremely difficult, especially in respect of those who were quite willing to swap jobs and to evade payment. The self-employed were always particularly difficult to reach, but we could have told the then Government about that. If the views of the experts had been better integrated, we might have had better legislation and better enforcement, and I do not see how putting obstacles in the way of people exercising such powers is going to be helpful.

When there is a power differential between people, many women are wary—even as it is—of pursuing claims in case that rebounds upon them or their children. We can and will, I hope, debate those proposals further. My aim is not necessarily to win support for that point of view at this time, but to say that, when we link up what is happening on legal aid and on child maintenance, we see that there is a cumulative effect, and it is important to look at that across the piece.

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There will also be a more limited choice of housing for women who are separated. Those who deal with housing and homelessness know that one of the biggest reasons why people present as homeless is that their relationship has broken down: two into one house does not go. It does not just happen to women, but women are often given priority for re-housing in the homelessness system because they have to care for children, and the suggested changes in homelessness provision will make it more difficult for women and their children to obtain settled and secure accommodation. It is not right to suggest that short-term private lets are the solution to homelessness. People may want to choose that solution, but it should not be forced upon them.

There are pending changes, which we do not know the details of, to mortgage interest payments for people who currently claim income support and will in future claim the new universal credit. When I worked as a solicitor, I could sometimes obtain for women an ability to stay in the former matrimonial home if we were able to secure an arrangement whereby the mortgage was paid, particularly in the transitional period. They hoped to get employment and to be self-supporting, but at that point they were not, and mortgage interest payments were often an important part of the package, so we need to know what is happening with them. Changes to tax credits will make it more difficult for women after separation and divorce to work, as will changes to how child care is funded.

If we have all those measures, and cumulatively they have an effect that each one might not seem to have in itself, it is important that we audit them. Therefore, I urge people to support the amendment and to put just such an audit committee in place.

2.44 pm

Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): I very much welcome the fact that we are having this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) and others on their tenacity in pressing the case for it with the Backbench Business Committee.

I should like to focus my remarks on one specific aspect of the violence and injustice done to women in our world—I am afraid that it is not a comfortable one for the House—which is the terrible practice of female genital mutilation. This is a practice that the United Nations has stated it wishes to end within a generation. I am sure that UN Women will be taking the lead on this work, but it is a mighty task that Ms Bachelet and her team will take on. The World Health Organisation estimates that between 100 million and 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to such mutilation. The practice is most prevalent in western, eastern and north-eastern regions of Africa, some countries in Asia and the middle east. The cutting is often practised on girls as young as 12 or 13, often precipitating their dropping out of school and not carrying on with their education. Education, as we have all agreed throughout this debate, is one of the essential keys to greater equality, dignity and progress for women.

I am grateful to VSO for its briefing on this issue and for drawing my attention to the Orchid Project, which is run by a former VSO volunteer, Julia Lalla-Maharajh. That organisation has a simple vision—a world free from female genital cutting. Interestingly, one of its key

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findings has been that, difficult though it is, trying to avoid judgment and blame when working alongside communities in the developing world has been more helpful for them in trying to effect change from the grass roots up. Whatever laws are passed against FGM in some countries, in reality they are unenforceable if it is culturally embedded locally and supported by civic and religious leaders. There is a vital need to work from the bottom up. I understand that the Department for International Development has found that this is consistently true locally.

Mrs Grant: Does my hon. Friend agree that the lack of prosecutions under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 is a major and very worrying problem?

Jane Ellison: I certainly do agree, because this is happening not only in the developing world but here in our country—in this city and in my constituency.

In the developing world, trying to ensure that girls are able to take educational and economic opportunities is absolutely vital, and challenging social norms by having locally led solutions is proving more effective. One of the findings has been that more educated and less poor girls will grow up to be women who are less likely to subject their own daughters to this procedure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) drew our attention to the fact that this terrible practice is a problem not just in the developing world, but that it is also a problem for many countries in the developed world. Here in London, the number of reported cases of FGM has risen in recent years. These awful procedures are happening in this city, and in other UK cities as well. A clinic at a major London teaching hospital sees about 350 such women and girls a year, often with horrible complications. The Metropolitan police have intervened in more than 120 cases since 2008, but despite this practice having been illegal for many years, as we have heard, there has been not one prosecution. The police often put this down to the problems of trying to get people to give evidence in very difficult situations and not being sure that they can secure such a prosecution if they bring it to court.

While refraining from judgment may be more likely to effect change in the developing world, we cannot refrain from judgment when such mutilation is happening in our own country. We have to be clear and robust in saying that it is a crime in our country, and that no excuses can be offered. The Met have been very clear about this.

Mr MacShane: May I put it to the hon. Lady, first, that the police are sincere in these investigations, but are hampered by other priorities and other areas where they feel they have to work? Secondly, if the police, the authorities and the doctors know that this crime is happening, perhaps we need to look at the court and evidence system, which prevents any sanction or any message going out into the community, at least in Britain, to say: “You should not be doing this.” I am thinking of a version for sexual crimes, including rape, of the Diplock courts that we set up in Northern Ireland. That may sound illiberal, but we really need to tackle this with convictions that can then be publicised in the newspapers, sending a signal to these communities that it has got to stop.

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Jane Ellison: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I think that we should consider all those things. That the number of cases is rising, not falling away to nothing, tells us that there is a growing problem, not a diminishing one. We should therefore be considering all possible solutions.

I have a good degree of confidence that the police, certainly in London, are taking this matter seriously. Senior local police officers contacted me ahead of this debate to say that if there was an opportunity to raise this issue, they would be grateful. I am convinced that it is on the agenda, although I am sad in a way that it has to be on the agenda of police working in my area and across London. It is part of their strategy to prevent violence against women and girls. The message from the police is clear to all those in positions of trust, whether they be teachers, lecturers, social workers or religious leaders: it is their duty to report these things when they find out that they are going on, and they should know that the police will take them seriously. The consequences of not reporting such abuse are terrible. If abuse against the oldest girl in a family is reported, it might prevent all the younger siblings from suffering the same thing. It is therefore important to tackle it.

There is a big challenge for police and health practitioners in exploring what information they can legitimately share within the bounds of medical confidentiality. That perhaps goes back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) about looking at fresh approaches. Obviously, midwifery services and certain screening services pick up on this abuse more than other parts of the health service do.

I hope that Members across the House can send a signal from this debate that culture is no excuse for violence and the mutilation of girls and women in Britain. It must stop now. I hope that UN Women will take up the cause of ending female genital mutilation within a generation. I hope with all my heart that it is successful, and I hope that it gets generous support from the UK Government.

2.52 pm

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): We are having a good and informed debate, which follows a similar debate last week in the House of Lords. I encourage Members to read the Hansard from that debate, which is very interesting. Among the notable contributions is that of the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) raised her eyebrows when I arrived in the Chamber today. She asked whether I was hoping to speak in the debate and I confirmed that indeed I was. I therefore feel that I should, at the outset, lay out my qualifications to speak. I feel qualified to speak because, after painstaking research, it has been revealed to me that exactly 50% of my ancestors are women. That pattern, believe it or not, has been repeated generation after generation. It is not just through the past that I have an interest, but through the future: I can inform the House that, so far, 100% of my descendants are female.

In this debate, we are really talking about the interconnectivity of people across family, society and nations. We all have an interest in ensuring that all of humanity is empowered, has rights that are respected

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and is allowed to capitalise on opportunities. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) told us that women earn 10% of the world’s income. I did not know that and was genuinely surprised and shocked that it was so low. Unfortunately, too often the chances for a good section of humanity are blighted because of the two similar chromosomes, XX.

Much of the Arab world, specifically across north Africa, is in flux. That situation needs help now, and will need help when it settles. UN Women should be there to give a lead when the opportunity and the need arise. We should commit our £21 million to UN Women now. The fund has a target of $500 million, although I understand that it should have had a target of $1 billion. As it stands, it has only $55 million. There is much energy and enthusiasm behind UN Women. A new world order could be approaching with the changes in the middle east. Surely UN Women should be able to hit the ground running and help societies that are reforming and changing, and where help is wanted and needed.

Baroness Gould said in the other place last week: