Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Following yesterday’s successful fair fuel lobby day when hundreds of motorists lobbied their MPs, may we have a statement on fuel

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prices? Although we acknowledge that, thanks to the Chancellor’s tax cuts, fuel prices are 10p lower than they would otherwise have been, lower earners are still paying a tenth of their income to fill up their family car and small businesses are spending a third of their income on such costs.

Sir George Young: Matters of taxation are matters for the Chancellor, who will shortly be making his Budget statement. I applaud the work that my hon. Friend has done through his e-petition at the end of last year. No doubt because of his eloquence, the increase that was scheduled to be introduced in January has been postponed and the one for August has been cancelled. I am sure that motorists up and down the country are grateful to him for his campaigning zeal, and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have heard the representations that he has just made.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): There is growing concern in my constituency about the impact of high energy prices on the fuel poor and on business competitiveness. Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the impact of onshore wind subsidies for developers on the poorest people in our society and on the competitiveness of British industry?

Sir George Young: We have just had questions to Department of Energy and Climate Change Ministers, where I understand these issues may have been raised. My hon. Friend will know that the subsidy to the wind farms is being reduced. I will pass on to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer the points that he has raised, which may be relevant to his Budget statement.

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): Could the Leader of the House find time for a debate on reforming our rotten system for European elections? On three occasions, it has left my constituents, who voted on a closed party list, with an MEP who switched parties halfway through a Parliament and was still allowed to retain the seat—that is a disgraceful situation.

Sir George Young: I hate to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I cannot promise an early debate on the electoral system for the European Parliament. Speaking from memory, I believe that once we had opted out of the old system, whereby we had MEPs for seven or eight constituencies, into the new one, there was no going back. The issue that he has raised is one more for party management than for the House of Commons.

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Rail Reform

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Justine Greening): With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the railways. Our rail network matters—to our quality of our life, our national well-being and our country’s future prosperity. For this Government, it is a simple equation: good transport equals good economics. But, too often, we find ourselves frustrated and disappointed when the cost, punctuality or comfort of rail travel do not come up to scratch. I believe that the Government and the rail industry can and must do more for passengers and taxpayers. Of course, investment has a huge part to play, too. That is why we have been investing in our transport infrastructure, which is one of the best ways to support business, generate growth and create jobs. For rail, that has meant the biggest modernisation programme since the Victorian age, with £18 billion invested in this spending review alone.

However, it is not enough only to invest in the railways; it is also vital to make sure that they are set up for success. So, today, I am setting out our plans to do precisely that, with the publication of our rail Command Paper, “Reforming our Railways: Putting the Customer First”. I have taken the “Ronseal” approach to the name, as the strategy will do what it says on the tin: put the customer first. The hallmarks of our railway must be high standards and low costs. It must be a railway that offers the best services and the best value. That means a rail network that is efficient, effective and affordable. Nevertheless, in his rail value-for-money study, Sir Roy McNulty concluded that our railways are among the most expensive in Europe, despite the strong and steady growth in the number of passengers using them. Sir Roy identified inefficiencies worth £2.5 billion to £3.5 billion a year—of course, the people picking up the tab for that costly inefficiency are passengers and taxpayers, so reform is long overdue.

Passengers rightly want to know that we have a plan to end the era of the inflation-busting fares seen over recent years, and taxpayers rightly want to see railway subsidies reduced to help us to tackle the fiscal deficit. My message to everyone today is clear: the days of spiralling and unjustified rail costs are coming to an end. Under this Government, the rail industry will be able to compete for future investment only if its long-term cost issues are addressed and if it can earn the right to grow. I am pleased to say that Network Rail is already due to deliver £1.2 billion of efficiency savings by 2014, with at least a further £600 million expected by 2019. But, as Sir Roy so clearly set out, we need to go further. The railway as a whole needs to become less dependent on Government subsidies, which is why we want the industry fully to close the efficiency gap of £3.5 billion per year identified by Sir Roy by 2019. We are about managing and reducing costs, balancing budgets, targeting investment where it can drive long-term growth and jobs, and delivering more capacity and better service for the investment that goes in.

The time is right for reform. I believe that we are in a good position to build on recent efficiency gains to improve the performance of the industry further and to improve the passenger experience. The programme of work that will decide rail outcomes and funding for the five-year period from 2014 is now well under way, and that sits alongside a period when we will see the biggest

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round of re-franchising since the privatisation of the industry. Both represent a further opportunity to change our railways for the long-term better.

Today’s Command Paper sets out our ambitions for Britain’s railways, and the agenda for change that both the Government and industry will follow in the months and years ahead. By reforming the industry, we will achieve substantial savings. Those savings will allow us to cut and then abolish above-inflation rises in average regulated fares, and they will ease the burden of the railway on the broader public purse. I believe that, taken together with my decision to limit the most recent increase in regulated fares, that will have a positive long-term impact on household budgets.

For reform to be really effective, there needs to be closer collaboration between the infrastructure managers—in other words, Network Rail—and those who provide passenger services, which are generally the train operating companies. Only through better joint working will we reduce costs and improve the customer experience. The industry is already pushing for better alignment between track and train. We look forward to the industry bringing forward partnerships that are equipped and incentivised to deliver not just better services, but better value. The rail industry, led by the Rail Delivery Group, has also declared itself willing and able to respond to the strategic and operational challenges that the railway faces. Such leadership across the industry will be essential if we are to get the most out of our reforms.

Rail franchises will be reformed, with greater transparency on costs and efficiency—again, that is to ensure the best value for fare payers and taxpayers. Franchises will be longer, giving train operators the flexibility they have been asking for—more time to make the biggest investments—to deliver what passengers want, within a sustainable budget. We will also move to a more transparent, modern and flexible approach to fares and ticketing. We are launching a consultation today to take views on how those key aims can be achieved; it is time to bring fares out of the 1970s and into the 21st century. We will expand smart ticketing to give more passengers the kinds of benefits that travellers in the capital already enjoy with Oyster cards. Working with industry, we will roll out smart ticketing across England and Wales, and across different operators, thus increasing convenience for passengers. Smart ticketing is also pivotal to introducing a more flexible system tailored to customers, with a wider choice of tickets and season cards, as we recognise the reality that not all journeys take place five days a week during rush hour.

If we duck the reform challenge, it will not just be rail users and the public purse that pay the price; ultimately, the rail industry and the wider economy will suffer, too. So we want everyone working in rail, be it management or front-line staff, to help to make these reforms work. By reducing costs and increasing demand—set alongside this Government’s huge investment in railways—there is genuine potential to boost jobs across the industry.

Of course, it is important to reform governance, too. Network Rail is giving greater decision-making powers to its regional route directors, making it more responsive to local conditions and increasingly focused on day-to-day train operations at the local level. We welcome Network Rail’s efforts to find new and more efficient ways of

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managing its assets, including long-term concessions to third parties for the management of parts of the network. Network Rail is also rightly taking steps to reform corporate governance, including its management incentives package, so that it is more accountable to passengers and freight customers. I would also like to welcome its sensible decision, to be announced shortly, voluntarily to appoint a public interest director, who will ensure that the concerns of taxpayers are fully reflected at board level and help to strengthen the role of members.

It is time to give communities more control over local services, so today we are also consulting on devolving decisions about the railway to sub-national bodies. Our joint consultation with the Office of Rail Regulation on a greater role for the ORR in regulating passenger franchises closed recently. With a smarter regulatory approach, our aim is to remove Government from day-to-day industry involvement by adopting a more unified regulatory structure for the railways and we will publish our conclusions in due course.

Facing up to reality, saving fare payers and taxpayers £3.5 billion a year, reforming our railways and putting the customer first: that is what the Command Paper is all about. By working together on this package of reform, I believe that industry, the regulator and Government can generate the savings and the change we need. Lower costs, better services and ticketing that offers greater choice and flexibility, as well as a rail industry built to last because it is efficient, effective and affordable: that is what the Command Paper will deliver and I commend it to the House.

12.41 pm

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement and repeat our thanks to Sir Roy McNulty and his team for their work. We did not agree with all his conclusions and, if we had been in government, we would not have accepted all his recommendations. It was a valuable piece of work, however, that is helping to drive a number of reforms in the industry that we welcome.

Passengers have every reason to be concerned about the direction that the Secretary of State has just set for the rail industry, with year after year of inflation-busting fare rises, ticket offices closed, fewer staff on trains and at stations and cuts in investment in the rail network. In each case, the interests of private train companies are being put before those of passengers and the principle that we established in government of a clear separation of infrastructure and maintenance from private profit is being abandoned, for the first time giving private train companies the whip hand over Network Rail. That is a dangerous experiment that takes the industry on the road to breaking up and selling off Britain’s railway infrastructure, all because this is a Government who are simply unwilling or unable to stand up to vested interests on behalf of passengers. [ Interruption. ] The question that the Government have yet to answer is this: if we are all in this together, why is the burden yet again to fall on the fare payer and not on those who are already making huge profits—[ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. The Secretary of State was listened to politely without Front-Bench heckling and I expect the shadow Secretary of State to be heard without heckling from those on the Front Bench or anywhere else.

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Maria Eagle: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The question that the Government have yet to answer is this: if we are all in this together, why is the burden yet again to fall on the fare payer and not on those who are already making huge profits that are lost to the industry and that help to drive up the cost to the taxpayer of running our railway?

We cannot support these reforms. In the coming weeks we will set out our own alternative approach to reforming the rail industry, but for today I would be grateful if the Secretary of State answered a number of specific questions of concern to passengers and commuters about her proposals.

On fares, the National Audit Office has warned that the Government’s fare rises, which are adding to the cost of living crises facing households, are just as likely to increase the profits of train operators as reduce costs for the taxpayer. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the entire cost of holding fare rises at just 1% above inflation for the rest of this Parliament and strictly enforcing that cap would be less than the £543 million her Department handed back to the Treasury as a result of an underspend last year? Will she therefore abandon plans to increase fares by 3% above inflation in 2013 and 2014?

The Secretary of State said today that the days of above-inflation fare rises are coming to an end, so will she explain why the tender documents for the new franchises assure bidders that they can increase fares by up to 6% above inflation every single year of those 15-year franchises? Will she confirm that, under the plans she has set out today, train companies will be given even more freedoms on fares, including the right to introduce a super-peak ticket, which will hit hard-pressed commuters in particular?

I welcome the commitment to extend smart integrated ticketing that can be used on trains and buses, enabling the rest of the country to catch up with London. The fact that that will enable part-time workers to benefit from new flexible season tickets is particularly welcome, but will the Secretary of State explain how that will work outside London if she remains unwilling to take steps to regulate the bus network outside the capital as we proposed?

On the level of services, will the Secretary of State explain why the inter-city west coast franchise tender document allows daily service reductions of up to 10%? Will that not lead to even greater overcrowding than passengers already face? Will she explain why the final tender documents for the new franchises have also watered down the performance obligations since the earlier draft? The requirement to improve performance over the life of the franchise has been replaced by a requirement to do so unless

“good evidence can be provided as to why this is not achievable.”

Surely passengers expect the Government to insist on improvements, not simply to police the excuses that the train operating companies come up with.

Does the Secretary of State understand the concerns about the train companies’ new freedoms to close ticket offices and cut the number of staff on trains and platforms? Will she explain why the new franchises ask bidders only to consider maintaining the same level of CCTV on trains?

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The structural reforms to the industry are also deeply worrying. Does the Secretary of State understand the concerns that the restructuring she proposes has a massive accountability gap at its heart? Genuine backing for devolution, which the Government have ducked today, would see transport authorities deciding the best way to deliver rail services in each region. Should that not permit alternatives to the existing franchise model to be explored, including not-for-profit and mutual options? Does she agree that for devolution to work those authorities need a fair deal on costs, subsidies and risks? This cannot be—as is suspected—about devolving responsibility for cuts.

Will the Secretary of State explain how the decision to allow deep alliances between train companies and Network Rail, with private train companies having the whip hand, fits with the need for democratic accountability? I know the Conservative party is determined to complete the job it started with its botched rail privatisation, but does she not accept that the decision we took to create Network Rail as a not-for-dividend body has served the industry well? Why is she willing to turn back the clock and take us back to the bad old days by creating what are effectively a series of mini-Railtracks? Where is the accountability to passengers, taxpayers and Parliament? How can there possibly be a level playing field in future franchise competitions if the incumbent is part of a single management team? Does she not see the clear conflicts of interest that are evident throughout her proposals?

How will Network Rail continue to support the interests of freight operators and their need to access the network in a system where private train operators manage the network in each region? Will the Secretary of State explain why long-term concessions will not simply add to the costly fragmentation of the industry? Why does she believe that breaking up and selling track piece by piece will improve performance and safety?

This long-awaited rail strategy is a wasted opportunity to address the structural issues left from the botched rail privatisation. Instead of tackling the fragmented structure of the industry that was the legacy of privatisation, the Government are instead creating an even more fragmented and costly structure with more interfaces, more need for lawyers and consultants, less accountability, and, at the same time, more freedoms for train companies to hike fares and cut services, booking offices and front-line staff. Even at this late stage, I hope that the Secretary of State will think again and instead seek to build consensus on the future of the rail industry, based on devolution and genuine local control with communities and passengers in the driving seat, stand up to private companies, not cave in to vested interests, and put passengers before profits. It is not too late for her to do that. I hope that she will think about it.

Justine Greening: Obviously, I listened with interest to what the hon. Lady said and I hope that she will at least accept that the current situation, with a rail industry that Roy McNulty says costs £3.5 billion more than it needs to owing to inefficiency, is something that we should tackle. I note that she says she is going to come forward with an alternative and it is important that she does that because if she is turning her face against this approach, she is saying that it is okay for fare payers and taxpayers to pay that £3.5 billion in perpetuity. I

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think that is broadly what she was saying, but I shall await with interest her alternative proposal, which she needs now to provide.

The hon. Lady talks about the burden falling on the fare payer, but that is exactly what happens now. That is one reason why there has been so much pressure for fares to go up year on year. Let me remind her that her party also recognised that problem, which is why it commissioned Sir Roy McNulty to do that work and why it struggled with the issue too, itself overseeing years of above-inflation rail fare rises. What all of us in the House should be looking towards, with the strategy we have produced, is how to tackle these issues. We want fares to remain affordable. I have stressed on a number of occasions and at several points in the documents we have released today that it is absolutely key that we make sure that fares remain affordable. The underlying objective we are trying to achieve is the end of inflation-busting fares. We also want to cut down on the level of public subsidy, as we would prefer that money to go towards reducing the deficit or into investment in other areas.

I am pleased that the hon. Lady welcomes the flexible season tickets. If we are able to push forward on smart ticketing across the country, people will be able to use that sort of ticketing not only on the railways but potentially on buses too. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who has responsibility for buses, will be producing a strategy that includes all those opportunities in the coming weeks.

The hon. Lady mentioned ticket offices. I understand that many passengers strongly value the face-to-face channel that a ticket office provides, as can be seen in the documents. However, I remind her that when her party was in office there were large-scale reductions in ticket office opening hours. In 2009, Labour Ministers approved cuts to opening hours at 70% of South West Trains ticket offices. The Command Paper has a section on how we want stations to improve, including by having crèches at stations where that is a sensible idea. Face-to-face channels are important for people buying tickets, which is why one of the ideas in the paper is to investigate whether people could buy tickets at their local post office, library or shop, as people can with Oyster in London. All those things should mean that people have more, rather than fewer, opportunities to buy tickets face to face.

In the rest of the fares and ticketing consultation—and I stress that it is a consultation—there are some really good ideas for moving ticketing into the 21st century, including on how we can make sure that the approach to ticketing reflects working practices today and the fact that people work flexibly and part-time, rather than expecting them to fit into a ticketing approach that would be better placed in the 1980s.

I am pleased that the hon. Lady asked about devolution and decentralisation because that is possibly one of the most exciting parts of all this in the long term for local communities. It opens up an important debate about how franchises might be more spec’d up in the long term and controlled by local communities. I assure her that this is about giving local communities opportunities, not about passing on some underlying problem. Indeed, the Government are absolutely clear that we need to

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tackle the underlying problem of inefficiency in our railways. That is what the document is all about.

The hon. Lady raised concerns about alliancing. I think that getting the industry to work together is a common-sense approach to tackling some of the inefficiencies that exist, which are directly funded in the end by fare payers and taxpayers. Today, when asked, she was not able to rule out her party wanting to renationalise the railways, but I think that we need to make the pieces of the jigsaw fit together better. Simply throwing them up in the air again would only waste time and make it harder for the industry to take the responsibility that we want it to, and I do not think that that would be the right way forward.

Finally, I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns about freight and we are absolutely committed to making sure it is a core part of the network going forward. One of the underlying reasons for high-speed rail is to make sure we have capacity on the core network for freight. We need to make sure there are safeguards in place regarding any of these changes so that the freight industry can continue to do what we want it to, which is to re-mode on to trains.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure the whole House is very grateful for the Secretary of State’s comprehensive reply to all those points. I hope therefore that there will now be short questions and brief answers, so that we can get all Members in.

Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con): I welcome the thrust of my right hon. Friend’s statement, but can she offer me some encouragement that the West Anglia line, which has lacked capacity improvements since its third and fourth tracks were torn up in the wake of the Beeching report, now has a better chance of having its track capacity enhanced?

Justine Greening: I believe that the performance on that line is starting to improve, but the document we are issuing today is all about making sure that train operating companies are in a position to deliver, and are working with Network Rail to deliver, better services for passengers in a more efficient way.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Secretary of State’s willingness to look at the rail sector overall, but how much funding do the Government intend to remove from supporting the rail service? Will she explain exactly how the spiralling cost of rail fares will be addressed, overcrowding will be reduced and extra capacity can be produced where it is required, such as across the north?

Justine Greening: We recognise that we need to tackle the underlying inefficiencies in the railways, which Sir Roy McNulty identified as totalling around £3.5 billion. I also recognise that some of the network provides a broader public good and that there will therefore be a need for public subsidy. However, we need to make sure that that represents good value for taxpayer money. We are concerned about overcrowding. That is why we are investing in 2,700 new carriages, which will provide extra capacity. That is why the overall £18 billion of

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investment going into the industry is so crucial; that is one way in which we can improve performance. Of course, making sure the industry is financially sustainable is absolutely critical too.

Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD): Can the Secretary of State confirm that plans are progressing for the electrification of 800 miles of rail track? How does that scale of ambition compare with the achievements of the previous Government?

Justine Greening: That is an interesting question. I think we all understand that electrification can bring a broad set of benefits. The previous Government electrified 39 miles of line in 13 years—that is about 3 miles a year—and we have already announced that 800 miles of line are to be electrified. I hope that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Mr Alistair Darling (Edinburgh South West) (Lab): Does the right hon. Lady accept that in this industry successive Secretaries of State have found that announcing efficiencies is much easier than actually achieving them? If we do not achieve them, fares will go up or investment will suffer. Does she accept that it is absolutely essential to continue the investment that started 10 years ago, which included upgrading the west coast main line—something that had not been done for 30 years—because the east coast main line and commuter services will need to be upgraded? We must not forget the lessons of the 1990s, when 10 years of no investment had absolutely catastrophic consequences for the industry.

Justine Greening: I think that the right hon. Gentleman is right. One problem in the past has been that, every time a Government have wanted to drive efficiencies in the rail sector, they have rearranged the whole railway structure, whereas what we need to do is get the pieces that are there working better.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the west coast main line, which is a good example of how things can go wrong. It was pencilled in to cost £2 billion; it ended up costing £9 billion and took significantly longer than was anticipated. It is a good example of why we cannot go on like that and why we have to work with the industry and challenge it to work better itself.

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Exactly. Does the Secretary of State agree that politicians are useless in any industry at picking winners, and will she reassure us that this Conservative Government remain committed to a privatised industry in which competition and a market-driven approach have driven record growth in numbers, and that there will be no return to the bad old days of British Rail with stultifying ministerial control?

Justine Greening: The Labour party may not be prepared to rule out nationalisation, but I am.

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): I am disappointed in the statement. In the time I have been in the House, I have never heard a ministerial statement so lacking in substance. This is not a statement; it is a coincidence of ink patterns on a bit of paper. The Secretary of State says that she wants £3.5 billion of efficiency

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savings by 2019, but she has not given us a single way of saving one penny. Was she even in the House yesterday when the Prime Minister told the nation that government was about making tough decisions? Where is a single tough decision in this statement? She does not have any solutions; all she has come up with is a series of clichés and warm words put together by civil servants not wanting to offend anyone.

Justine Greening: I recommend that the hon. Gentleman read the documents that we have published, which have a lot more of the detail that he wants. I am not going to take any lectures on tough decisions from someone who, when asked about Network Rail bonuses, said:

“Bonuses … are a matter for the company’s remuneration committee, not for Ministers.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2008; Vol. 478, c. 174W.]

I do not think that showed any backbone whatsoever.

Mr David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today and the approach to our railways. Does she agree that we need more reliable journeys and better passenger experiences on all our trains, but particularly on our commuter routes? May I urge her to help to enhance access to stations and to improve the resilience of the network in winter weather?

Justine Greening: The industry has put substantial investment into improving winter resilience, and of course, having done that, as we could have guessed, we have had one of the mildest winters in recent years. We are much better prepared to keep the trains running in snow and bad weather than we were in the past. Reliability and punctuality are incredibly important. Today’s statement is as much about that as anything else, because a more efficiently run railway will be able to perform better.

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): The Scottish Government have just closed their consultation with similar proposals that will involve station closures, reductions in staffing and higher fares. What implications will the announcement today have on Scotland, especially in relation to the block grant, with Barnett consequentials, and on cross-border services?

Justine Greening: I was up in Scotland only last week, having some helpful discussions about high-speed rail and improving connectivity with Scotland on the railway network. Scotland has a devolved settlement for transport, but I have no doubt that the Scottish Government will look carefully at my proposals today. I am always happy to talk to the Scottish Government about how we can work together to get better value out of those cross-border services.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): Is it not curious that Labour Members always choose to gloss over their responsibilities when we debate these issues? It is their report that we are debating—the McNulty report—which says that there are £3 billion of efficiencies to be had. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the leadership that she is showing in bringing together the Government and the rail networks to achieve better service for our customers.

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Justine Greening: I appreciate my hon. Friend’s kind words. As the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) set out, we have no mean challenge ahead of us, but we know the direction that we want to travel and how we are going to get there. The key now is to make sure that we implement that and that I work with the industry as it gets on with this.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): I think I am the only Member in the Chamber today who served on the Bill Committee that considered the Railways Bill that privatised the railways almost 20 years ago. We were told at the time by Conservative Ministers that privatisation would drive down costs and increase efficiency, but we know now that that was not at all the case. Privatisation cost thousands of railway jobs. I still have hundreds of railway jobs in my constituency, but what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the number of jobs on the railways that will be lost as a result of her statement, nationally and in my constituency?

Justine Greening: There has never been a better time to be working in the railway industry. We have record investment going into the industry; it is unprecedented since Victorian times. I have spoken to both Network Rail and the TUC about how we can work harder to develop careers in the railway industry and get more women working in the industry—only 13% of Network Rail’s employees are women. There is a huge opportunity ahead of us, not just for passengers and taxpayers but for staff. I hope that everyone can work together to deliver efficiency improvements from which everyone benefits.

Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend and warmly welcome the statement, which shows a clear commitment to improving the existing rail network. However, we cannot completely separate the high-speed rail project from rail reform. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the colossal sums of money being invested in high-speed rail will not in any way minimise the investment going into the existing railway system?

Justine Greening: They will not. We have an ambitious programme, as I have said to the House, and high-speed rail sits alongside that. It is complementary, and it is critical that we do not just improve the existing system but look ahead to the capacity that we will need on a new network.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Is not one of the reasons why train fares in Europe are much lower than here that many countries still have public ownership of their railways? Does the Secretary of State accept that the statement is just a green light for the mostly foreign-owned train operators in this country to have a feeding frenzy on raising fares so that they can keep the fares down in their own countries?

Justine Greening: I do not accept that at all. I have a huge amount of respect for the hon. Lady, but this is not the time to rearrange the industry in the way that she suggests. We need to look at the pieces and then make sure that they work more effectively together. Sir Roy talked in his report about the different levels of working that the industry could do, and we are keen to

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see the industry work more closely together. I am sure that when the hon. Lady reads the report she will see some of the potential routes that that could take. I do not agree with her; I think the key to success now is getting the industry to collaborate more and for us to support it in doing that.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): McNulty suggested that rail company franchises should be less prescriptive and allow more freedom to respond to the market. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that will bring more investment into services such as the east coast main line, which was left in limbo by the previous Government, and more certainty to my constituents in York, who rely heavily on it?

Justine Greening: We need to strike that balance between granting longer franchises so that it is worth train operating companies improving services for passengers and putting in investment even when that takes a bit longer to come through because it is a bigger improvement and a bigger investment. That is absolutely right. My hon. Friend’s other point is well made; things change and we need a flexible franchising approach because, as we have seen, growth in demand and passenger numbers in the past decade has been substantial, so we need to make sure that our franchising can reflect and adapt to that.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): Perhaps the Secretary of State will agree that one of the best ways to improve efficiency on the railways is to make better use of under-used track? One of the best ways to do that in urban areas is to develop tram trains, which has been done successfully in other countries while we are still considering the possible introduction of a pilot. Can she say when the pilot for the tram train in South Yorkshire is due to start?

Justine Greening: I cannot, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman to set that out very soon. I know exactly the project that he refers to and I know that it is in plan. I will tell him exactly when he can expect it to happen.

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, alongside the action that she is taking with the rail industry to reduce the cost base of running our railways, the £18 billion investment programme of upgrades and improvement, including the Nuneaton to Coventry upgrade announced last year, will go ahead?

Justine Greening: Yes, it will. That is one of the reasons why it is such an exciting time to be involved in the industry, because this unprecedented investment is being made. It is a huge opportunity for people working in the industry and for passengers. We will hopefully get the benefits of all those investments and people will really see the difference it can make to their commute and their travel when they get on the train.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I worry about the right hon. Lady using the Ronseal method, because painting over the cracks in the industry might come back to haunt her. One of the implications of the statement is that 12,000 jobs are at risk, mainly those of station staff. In addition, it reintroduces the profit motive to the provision of the infrastructure,

8 Mar 2012 : Column 1039

which caused the Potters Bar, Hatfield, Paddington and Southall rail crashes. Has there been an independent safety assessment of today’s proposals?

Justine Greening: Safety will always be of paramount importance as we consider any of these changes. We are currently spending £3.5 billion, money that is coming out of the pockets of fare payers or taxpayers, and that is pure inefficiency. I think that not being prepared to tackle that is irresponsible. I understand that the hon. Gentleman might have some concerns about my proposal, but is he is saying that passengers should pick up the tab for £3.5 billion? If he does not like the proposal, it is incumbent on him to come up with an alternative.

Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): The response of the unions to the McNulty report was to make some wild claims in my constituency about the closure of the ticket office. Does the Secretary of State agree with me, and with commuters on the Thameslink line in my constituency, that what they want is increased technology that allows them to buy tickets more quickly, simply and easily? They would also like to see staff brought out from behind glass panels in order to increase the personal security for people on the platforms, as we have seen on the tube.

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is right. A variety of people now use the railways, and the ticketing system needs to keep up with that, but I will take this opportunity to stress again that we understand the importance of face-to-face contact, which many customers value when buying tickets. We will ensure that we bear that in mind as we approach any decisions on ticket offices.

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Sir Roy McNulty identified fragmentation in the industry as one of the major reasons why costs in the UK are so high. What will her plans to further fragment the industry do to those costs? Will they improve outcomes for passengers or increase the amount we pay in subsidy for the railways?

Justine Greening: We are not further fragmenting the industry; we are encouraging it to work collaboratively and more effectively. If by talking about fragmentation the hon. Gentleman is criticising our proposals to decentralise some decision making, I think that he is wrong.

Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): The ticket office at Codsall station was closed a number of years ago and has been replaced by the fantastic Codsall station pub. My right hon. Friend has talked about allowing post offices the opportunity to sell tickets, but will she look at letting the Codsall station pub sell tickets?

Justine Greening: That sounds like a good idea that my hon. Friend’s local community might like to take forward. I encourage him to look through the document, which contains a section on how we want to see stations improve more generally.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): I had the pleasure of meeting Sir Roy McNulty on two occasions after his early conclusion that our railways are up to 40% more

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expensive to run than continental railways. I suggested to him that the simple and obvious difference between them is that they are publicly owned and integrated and ours are privatised and fragmented. I suggest to the Secretary of State that we will not overcome our problems or reduce costs until our railways, too, are publicly owned and integrated.

Justine Greening: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Realistically, his approach would simply involve throwing the jigsaw pieces back up in the air, which would mean years of delay and uncertainty, and of course passengers and taxpayers would continue to have to foot the bill for that, which I think would be unacceptable. We have today set out a proposal on how we will get a grip on the £3.5 billion of inefficiency. Until the Labour party has an alternative, fare payers and taxpayers would prefer it to get behind our proposals and help to make them happen.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and what she said about smartcards. Will she consider extending Oysterisation to outer London towns, such as Harlow, which would benefit commuters? May I also ask her to increase investment in rolling stock, when financial conditions allow, so that we can have more trains at peak times running from London to Harlow and vice versa?

Justine Greening: I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that we earmarked £45 million in the autumn statement to enable us to extend the use of smartcards and Oysterisation further in the south-east. With regard to capacity, we are making a substantial investment with 2,700 new carriages. I would be happy to sit down with him and get his views on how his local area could benefit from that.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Fortuitously, this afternoon I am to meet representatives of Network Rail and Abellio to discuss the deterioration of the service between Colchester and London. Does the Secretary of State agree that the reality and the rhetoric are on different tracks and that if we are to reform our railways and put customers first, the fragmentation of the industry post-privatisation must be addressed? They need to talk to each other more than they do at the moment.

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the whole point of what we are talking about today: greater collaborative working and formal alliancing where we think that could drive better performance and better value for taxpayers’ money. It is time for the industry to step up to the plate and work together to ensure that our railway system is more efficient than it has been in the past.

Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. She mentioned the section in the report on train stations—paragraph 4.39. Great Yarmouth, like many towns across the country, has a station that is much in need of repair. May we take it from the report that in future we can look to some new, out-of-the-box thinking on innovative ways to improve our stations for passengers in future?

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Justine Greening: It is time to think more innovatively. We should look at how train-operating companies can work more effectively alongside Network Rail than they have previously been able to do in order to improve the stations that their passengers use every day.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): The Transport Committee in the previous Parliament accused the previous Government of breathtaking complacency. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that the significant savings that will be made as a result of the proposals she has set out today will lead to lower fares, greater reliability and more investment in rail services in general?

Justine Greening: We will be moving in that direction. Our aim is first to reduce the above-inflation fares and then to get rid of them. Of course, a huge amount of investment is being made in all the other key things my hon. Friend talked about, which I am very supportive of and, indeed, excited about. I think that it is a great time for the railways. The sort of investment that is being made to improve passenger capacity and experience is unprecedented, and we will ensure that we get every bang for the buck out of it that we can for the public.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State, as I think the whole House will, for making copies of the report available before the statement, which was very much appreciated.

Is it not wonderful that we have heard socialist ideas from the Opposition Benches? They suggest that we should renationalise the railways and everything will be wonderful. Have they forgotten that under British Rail they were managing decline and putting prices up? Under privatisation far more people have wanted to get on the trains, so the solution is to find more capacity, not renationalise.

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Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is right. We have seen huge increases in passenger demand. What we have heard today is really a battle between the Government Members representing common sense and the Opposition Members, representing the past.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State’s determination to put the customer first. Does she agree that for too long the railway industry has been imprisoned by provider interest, whether greedy, bank-owned train leasing companies, bonus-hungry managers or dinosaurs and luddites from the trade unions, while the previous Government walked on by? Is it any wonder that our railways are among the most expensive in Europe?

Justine Greening: In many respects it has been an impossible situation, and certainly one that cannot continue. We cannot allow £3.5 billion of inefficiency a year to go unchecked and always to be paid for by taxpayers and fare payers. That is what this document and this strategy are all about tackling.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the RMT has threatened a national campaign of resistance, including industrial action if necessary. What message does she have for those trade union dinosaurs and for the hard-working staff in the rail industry about the potential benefits?

Justine Greening: I urge everybody to work with us to improve the railways for the sake of passengers and taxpayers. That is the decision that we all have to take. It is simply unacceptable that every year £3.5 billion of inefficiency is paid for by people across the country who cannot afford it. We have to get a grip on that, and we will do so by working together. I hope that the unions will see that there is a huge opportunity to work with us on this. There is massive investment and there is room for jobs and growth. We just need an industry that is financially sustainable so that that can take place.

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Point of Order

1.20 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Yesterday, a number of people who came here to lobby their MPs about the Save the NHS rally were prohibited by House of Commons security from wearing T-shirts saying “Save the NHS”. People were told to put them on inside out and, in one case, T-shirts were removed from someone’s bag, presumably on the grounds that there is no place for politics in Parliament. Will you clarify the position on this matter? My understanding is that Mr Speaker has said that people should not be prohibited from wearing such T-shirts. It is a ridiculous curb on free expression.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I am aware that Mr Speaker has expressed a view on the wearing of T-shirts and the types of slogans that may be on them. If she will forgive me, I need to consult Mr Speaker to ensure that there is a clear ruling on the wearing of T-shirts with slogans, which would be of help to Members, the public and the security staff who enforce such undertakings. I hope that she will bear with us for a little longer.

8 Mar 2012 : Column 1044

Backbench Business

[Un-allotted Day]

International Women’s Day

Topical debate

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Greetings to all Members of the House on international women’s day. This is such a popular debate that it is necessary to have a five-minute time limit on speeches. If there are interventions, I am afraid that the time limit will have to go lower than five minutes. However, I am sure that we can all co-operate and ensure that everybody who wishes to participate in the debate manages to speak.

1.23 pm

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

That this House has considered the matter of International Women’s Day.

Each year, the United Nations declares an overall international theme for women’s day. This year’s theme is “Empower Rural Women—End Hunger and Poverty”. It is right to recognise that giving power to women is one of the most effective ways of ending poverty, but it must be real economic and political power, because when women get close to power, men too often take it back. We saw that in the Arab spring, when brave women who led the early protests were subjected to sexual assault.

Giving power to women ends hunger, because women’s money gets spent on children. Although we expect 1 million more children to be born in Britain over the next decade than in the last, this Government have targeted children. Children are due to pay more than bankers towards dealing with the deficit. Welfare reform, which is trumpeted as a plan to make work pay, is hitting the poorest working families with children, many of whom will lose tax credits worth £3,800 because they are unable to find more working hours. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that one in five companies has cut down on hours, whereas only one in 17 has increased them. The Government have not even exempted families where one parent is caring full time for a disabled child from the demand that at least 24 hours are worked to qualify for such tax credits.

At the other end of the pay scale, mothers are due to lose their child benefit. Child benefit replaced the tax allowance because it was recognised that delivering child support to a mother is the best way of reaching children. Soon, Britain will be one of the only countries in the developed world that lacks a universal mechanism whereby people who do not have children contribute to the costs of child rearing through the tax and benefits system.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. I am a bit disappointed that this is becoming a political rant, when there is so much to celebrate about women in this country. Does she think it is right that I receive child benefit when I earn £65,000 a year? Will it be in her party’s manifesto at the next election to bring it back?

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Fiona Mactaggart: I am old enough to remember the invention of child benefit. It ended a child tax allowance system that advantaged the richest more. The great thing about child benefit is that it says that all of us are responsible for children. It ought to be universal. It is, in effect, a tax allowance for children. It is quite wrong to suggest that it is a benefit from which richer people should be exempted. Everyone who has children should be responsible for them.

Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Fiona Mactaggart: I want to give everyone the opportunity to get in. Although I am happy to take interventions, I think that I should resist so that more Members have a chance to—

Elizabeth Truss: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Fiona Mactaggart: I have just explained why I am not giving way.

We are told that the proposed universal benefit will make work pay, but for whom? It will end the tradition, built up in the Labour years, of paying family benefits to the main carer in the household, who is usually a woman. Men will be the default recipient. As a result, women and children will get less.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Fiona Mactaggart: I have explained why I am resisting. I want to give more people a chance to make the contribution that they want to make. I think that that is right in this debate. I am talking about the real situation for women today. I would like to be able to celebrate the progress that women have made; I am explaining why I fear the situation is going backwards.

As I was saying, women are paying 70% of the cost of deficit reduction, with £13.2 billion coming from women and £5.7 billion from men. Women are being squeezed out of the labour market. Record numbers of women are jobless. The biggest jump in unemployment has been among older women aged 50 to 64—up by 20,000 in the last quarter. At the same time, unemployment among younger women went down.

We are facing a crisis for this group of older women. They have faced the shock that their pensions are to be deferred and they need to use these crucial years to build up their pensions. However, they will find it hard to find a new job. Often, women are losing jobs in the public sector, where there is a better record on equal pay than in the private sector. That means that women’s snail-like progress towards equal pay risks sliding backwards. Older women are sandwiched between supporting their children, who are staying at home longer, saddled with university debt, because they cannot afford their own housing, and supporting their elderly parents, who are being failed by a health service made increasingly chaotic by Government reform. The next debate will focus on carers, so all I will say is that this Government’s failure to grasp the challenge of care has delegated responsibility for it to the nation’s women, which just is not fair.

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If the prospects for women at work and for women’s income are gloomy, what about elsewhere? Everywoman Safe Everywhere, a commission chaired by the former Member of Parliament for Redcar, shows how women have become less safe. There has been a 31% cut in refuges and services that tackle domestic violence. Some 230 women are turned away from a refuge on a typical day. The suggestion that housing benefit will no longer cover the service provision in refuges is a further threat to refuge provision. When women move on, they will be entitled only to the single room rate of housing benefit.

I will never forget the Iraqi woman refugee in Slough, a qualified radiographer, who was slowly being made mad because she was so scared by living in a house, and sharing a kitchen and bathroom, with young men who had no respect for her religion or her privacy. We are about to do that to women who are leaving refuges.

Removing from the DNA database the samples of men who have been accused but not convicted of rape, when we know both that convictions are hard to secure and—

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Fiona Mactaggart: I will, but the hon. Lady must understand that by intervening, she is reducing the time for other speakers.

Andrea Leadsom: I will be very quick. Does the hon. Lady welcome the Government’s determination to open more rape crisis centres for women?

Fiona Mactaggart: Absolutely. In order to make more time for other speakers, I cut the bit of my speech that I had written in which I welcomed that, and I cut other things as well. I have frequently praised the Government for putting on a secure basis the funding for rape crisis centres, which used to arrive under the previous Government but was utterly unpredictable. That is the one thing that the Government have done that will make women safer, and I welcome it.

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Does the hon. Lady welcome Clare’s law?

Fiona Mactaggart: I do, and I welcome the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) in championing it on behalf of her constituent who was a victim. I am glad that it will be brought in. In a way, I would have liked the announcements that were made today at some reception in Downing street to be made in this debate. The Government should have told us here what they were going to do, which would have provided an opportunity to debate their plans in the international women’s day debate.

As I was saying, removing from the DNA database the samples of men who have been accused but not convicted of rape, when we know both that convictions are hard to secure and that rape is a serial crime, is irresponsible. Other public sector cuts, from railway stations to street lights, will make neighbourhoods more frightening for women.

Here in Britain, a separate theme has been identified for international women’s day—“Connecting girls, inspiring futures”. I really wish that we offered girls here in

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Britain a more inspiring future, but I am afraid that this generation of young women will probably be the first to do less well than their mothers.

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the least inspiring things that we could do would be to leave a giant deficit for those girls to pay off with their future taxes?

Fiona Mactaggart: There are other ways to tackle the deficit than to target women and children. I do not think it right, on this day, to argue that it is right to do that. If we make the world more unequal, we make a sad future for our daughters. I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s work on, for example, pornography. I have been proud to support her campaign to enable mothers to protect their daughters and sons from pornography on the internet. There are things that we agree on, and we should celebrate them, but we should not use that celebration to paper over the risk that pay is becoming more unequal, opportunities are becoming fewer and women are becoming less safe. That is not a reason to celebrate on this international women’s day.

1.33 pm

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Since the introduction of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, there have been 257 forced marriage protection orders, five recorded breaches and one person sent to prison, and in 2010 alone 1,735 people were supported by the Government’s forced marriage unit. The youngest victim was 12 and the oldest 73. In just a few short years, that legislation has made a positive impact, and demand for orders continues to rise. However, there are still major problems with education, discovery and implementation. Not enough is being done on prevention, and ongoing scepticism greets women and children when they report forced marriage.

Consideration is now being given to how to make the breach of a forced marriage protection order a criminal offence, and, going even further, to whether forced marriage should be a criminal offence. Criminalisation might seem to colleagues a popular and reasonable option, showing the public a tough approach against an alien and wicked practice, but I urge caution.

My 23 years as a family lawyer leave me with some doubt that criminalisation would improve matters for victims. Indeed, it could be a backward step. The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 criminalised the breaching of a non-molestation injunction order. There were very good intentions behind that, but there were many unforeseen consequences. Important comparisons can be made between that legislation and what is being contemplated now in relation to forced marriage.

I was a busy domestic violence practitioner at the time, and I made three principal observations. First, the police were often slow and reluctant to pursue breaches because of perceived more serious crimes such as robbery and burglary. The Crown Prosecution Service was also slow or reluctant to do so because of the need to satisfy the high criminal burden of proof, namely “beyond reasonable doubt”, and because of the evidential difficulties of crimes that often happen behind closed doors.

Charlie Elphicke rose

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Mrs Grant: I will take a very quick intervention.

Charlie Elphicke: I thank my hon. Friend for—

Hon. Members: Sit down, Helen.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Would the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) like to sit down? I think it is best for Members to leave the chairing of the debates to the Deputy Speaker, but if the hon. Lady is giving way to Charlie Elphicke, she needs to sit down while he is speaking.

Charlie Elphicke: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. There are many loving relationships, and there has been a revolution meaning that there are more women in the workplace than ever before, and also in relationships in which the children are cared for and deeply loved. Men even change nappies, as I did. Should we not celebrate the good things about men and women, and about women in the workplace?

Mrs Grant: Of course we should. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

In consequence of the authorities’ reluctance to pursue breaches of injunction orders, victims were again and again left thinking, “Why did I bother getting my injunction order?” Perpetrators were left thinking, “I got away with it”.

My second observation was that pursuing a civil action required the victim to be in the driving seat, which could be a completely empowering experience. She made the decisions and provided the instructions, supported by her own legal team. In contrast, in criminal cases the victim is merely a witness for the prosecution. She has no control over the proceedings, she is given very little information and she has no legal team to support her. In fact, being a prime witness for the prosecution is an isolating experience and frequently leads to the withdrawal of evidence and the collapse of prosecution cases.

My third observation was that domestic violence, like forced marriage, could involve close family members—mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts. Whereas victims were prepared to obtain civil orders to protect themselves, they were often reluctant to pursue a breach, because it would lead to a criminal conviction for the perpetrator and far-reaching consequences for the victim, her family and sometimes the community. Indeed, in a survey in 2011, Dr Aisha Gill of Roehampton university found that 57% of respondents said that victims would be less likely to seek help if forcing someone to marry became a criminal offence. Advocates also argue that victims stand more chance of reconciling with their families if a protection order is invoked rather than a criminal prosecution.

Those three observations, together with anecdotal evidence from professional colleagues and the judiciary, suggest that criminalisation of non-molestation injunction orders has left far too many victims without redress and with a real sense of injustice. I remain unconvinced, too, that there is a gap in the law that needs to be filled. In forcing someone to marry against their will, numerous other criminal offences may be committed—assault, abduction, aiding and abetting a criminal offence, cruelty, failure to secure attendance at school, false imprisonment,

8 Mar 2012 : Column 1049

theft, rape, kidnapping, threats to kill, harassment, blackmail and murder. That list shows that we already have a range of criminal laws that can be used to prosecute in a forced marriage context.

For all the reasons that I have stated, I am concerned that criminalisation of forced marriage could lead to under-reporting, the export of the crime abroad and the practice being driven substantially underground. There is no quick fix.

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs Grant: I am sorry, I will not.

We need to deal with cultural expectations of duty and honour and work with communities, schools and agencies to change attitudes and behaviour towards women and their right to choose their own partner.

Good progress has been made in the past three years using the civil law. It would be a travesty if such work were undone. The criminal law may punish the perpetrator, but it does little to protect the victim and can often cause no end of collateral damage. In Scotland, recent forced marriage legislation already criminalises breach of an order. We therefore have a prime opportunity to pause, observe and review, and avoid creating yet another criminal offence, which could so easily defeat the object of our very best intentions.

1.39 pm

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): On this day of celebration across the world, I would like to speak about an organisation known to us all, which now plays an important part in the lives of thousands of young women in this country: the Scout Association.

Girls and young women have been able to join the scouts for more than 20 years and last year, more girls than boys became scouts. That rise in young women’s membership has been highest in the Explorer section, which takes its members from among 14 to 18-year-olds. Nationally, half the adult scout leaders are women.

Although as a child I was only in the Brownies for a short while and never made it to the girl guides, I am a strong supporter of scouts and guides. I have seen at first hand the work that scouts have done in my constituency, particularly in deprived areas. I recently visited a new unit at St Stephen’s RC primary school in Longbenton, where the head teacher, Stephen Fallon, had discovered that some of his pupils had been responsible for antisocial behaviour in the local community. Working with Northumberland scout association, he has set up a new unit, which provides both girls and boys with opportunities in their young lives that would not otherwise be afforded them. Those opportunities are helping make those children good young citizens in North Tyneside.

As a result of that visit, I agreed to become an ambassador for Northumberland scout association and have learnt about Lookwide, the association’s development project, which specialises in working with disaffected young people aged between nine and 25 by providing them with a personal development programme. Those young people are not expected to join the scouts, but they gain a wide range of valuable life skills, combined

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with accredited and non-accredited qualifications, which put them on the right track for a fulfilling adult life. Many are progressing to employment, training and apprenticeships, which they would not have thought possible before joining the programme.

The scouting movement believes

“that young people develop most when they are ‘learning by doing’, when they are given responsibility, work in teams, take acceptable risks and think for themselves.”

I am glad that a movement with such a positive agenda to help young people reach their full potential decided to open its membership to girls and young women 20 years ago.

On international women’s day, I believe it is right to acknowledge and celebrate the Scout Association, which, across 261 countries worldwide, is giving so much to millions of young people, including more than 60,000 girls and young women in the UK who can have a better life and future because of it.

1.43 pm

Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon). I share her enthusiasm for the scouts and the guides.

Why is there no international men’s day? I cannot be the only Member to have been asked that, not just by acquaintances but by one or two Members. Let me say that it made me wonder why they think like that, before hon. Members hazard a guess about what side of the argument I might take. Why do they think that? The answer is that there is much to celebrate. If we look at ourselves professionally in the country, 42% of all doctors are women, although the figure for consultants is only 31%; in the law, 60% of current trainees are women, but only 21% of partners and only 22% of judges are women. If we consider the FTSE, only 15% of directors are women—that has already been much trailed and debated in Parliament. However, the figure was 5.8% in 2001—again, we must celebrate the progress that has been made. We are making a tremendous effort in all parties with the team led by Lord Davies on the 30% aim. Of civil servants, 53% are women, although that figure is only 35% at senior level. We have much to celebrate, but major problems remain.

We have much to celebrate when we consider the young people in our education system. Every year, when GCSE and A-level results are announced, we hear about the segmentation of the genders and how well the young women have done. In 2011, the girls outperformed by the boys at A-level by 78% to 74%. That is encouraging. In exams and at entry level, women are doing well, but in senior positions, they are not doing so well. For me, that is one of the main reasons why we need an international women’s day. We still have the problem of getting women into senior positions. The Suffragettes thought that the answer was to get the vote, but 100 years later we find that that is not the case. We have not achieved that equality, which they would be amazed to see still eludes us.

The media seem to think that the debate is about whether feminism means wearing high-heeled shoes or pole dancing. In my view, it does not. We must not let that mask the seriousness of what is going on and the economic difference that persists between men and women. Women earn 75p in the pound to every man.

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Claire Perry: Does my hon. Friend accept that when we consider a group of women in their 20s who are childless graduates, the gender pay gap has reversed, and that they now out-earn their male counterparts? Something sinister is happening as women go up the career chain—perhaps it is child care. Perhaps we should all focus our efforts on sorting that out.

Amber Rudd: Some people say that we do not need an international women’s day or quotas and so on because they see younger women doing so well at A-level and at entry levels. However, they fall down at more senior levels.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Does the hon. Lady agree that gender segregation in the workplace is one of the major reasons why women do not make career progress?

Amber Rudd: I think that the main reason why women do not make real progress is child care. We often debate on the Floor of the House who has better answers to that, but we know that child care went up by 50% under the previous Government. I am longing for more initiatives from the Government to build on those we have because I believe that child care is the big problem that prevents women from getting on.

This afternoon, we will hear about individual campaigns and particular issues championed by hon. Members. It will be an exciting afternoon. Many women Members of Parliament have got young women from their constituencies shadowing them. I have Amy Gibbons and Alice Williams from Parkwood in Hastings shadowing me today. I know that they are most welcome here.

We need today to reinforce the message that Members must continually champion women’s lives. Tremendous progress has been made, but the position is still unfair nationally and internationally; the world is still lop-sided. We have an important role to play in highlighting that.

Internationally, 19% of parliamentary seats are held by women, and only 16 of the world’s directly elected 188 leaders are female. Does it matter? You bet it matters. When colleagues here say, “We don’t necessarily need more women MPs—I can speak for the women”, one might tactfully suggest that they look around the Chamber today to see who is speaking up for the women. From whom will we hear this afternoon about individual issues that matter to women and their communities? The answer is, of course, women.

What key issues do I hope will be discussed this afternoon? We will hear about pay, child care and opportunity. We heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) about safety, which is another key issue for women. So many women are not safe in their houses. The United Nations has said that one in three is likely to be a victim of sexual assault. Violence against women causes more deaths and disabilities in women aged 15 to 54 than cancer, malaria, road accidents and war. Tremendous progress has been made, but we must never let that make us complacent.

We need international women’s day, not to be just like those countries, such as China, Russia and Vietnam, that make today a national holiday—would not that be

8 Mar 2012 : Column 1052

a nice idea? Some countries make it a national holiday for women. Perhaps that would get the attention of some of our colleagues.

The serious point is that the personal is political. We need to do more to help women, not just in the workplace, although it is important, not just in schools, but in their homes. We must never take our eyes off the ball.

1.49 pm

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd). Her two constituents will be extremely embarrassed by that name check. It is international women’s day and it is good to see women on both sides of the House. There is cause for celebration, because the Secretary of State for Transport is here, despite her previous duties, and it is good to see her.

I did not get a chance to speak on the motion in the House yesterday to present an humble Address to Her Majesty the Queen on the occasion of her diamond jubilee, but it is fitting, as we celebrate international women’s day, that she is a woman and she has been—[ Laughter. ] I was going on to say that she has been our figurehead for all that time. The last monarch to celebrate a diamond jubilee was also a woman: Queen Victoria. I add my good wishes to those given yesterday.

We are here today to praise and celebrate good women—not only those who are well known, whom I will come to, but those who are unknown, such as the single mothers who bring up children against all the odds, and who through no fault of their own must hold two important jobs: as main earners and as home workers keeping a household together. They are an inspiration, just like Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under arrest. We must keep raising her case to ensure that whatever happens to her in the elections, she is there to ensure change in Burma.

I am also inspired by some of the young women I have met who are involved in the “Because I am a Girl” campaign. There are 75 million girls who are not in school. Girls are still denied a basic education. They need to be in school, not carrying water. As Gandhi said, if we educate mothers, we educate the nation.

What about economic justice? The use of microfinance is important because it empowers women in a financial setting. It is a force for good only when it is properly regulated and women are supported, so that they are not burdened by the debt. We need to do more—the figures are there for all to see—because women’s unemployment is at its highest since 1988 at 1.1 million.

We must follow Sweden and Norway by getting more women on to boards; I echo what the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye said on that. Following the report by Lord Davies of Abersoch, only 21 women have been appointed to board positions out of a possible 93 posts. The Cranfield institute of management found that 89% of the FTSE 350 companies have no women executives. Widening the pool of talent from which to draw is an engine for growth that will benefit this country.

There is more to do for women in science. As someone who did a science degree, I am concerned because only 5.3%, or one in 20, of all working women are employed in science, engineering and technology compared with 31.3% of all working men. The most recent figures show that women are only 12.3% of the work force in SET occupations. I am sure that you, Madam Deputy

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Speaker, and other hon. Members will know, because I have raised this in Prime Minister’s Question Time, that the UK Resource Centre for women will lose its funding by 2012. I have taken that up with the Prime Minister and he is going to be looking at it.

I am confident that all of us across the House will ensure that we support women in future. I was pleased to meet 11 Tanzanian women MPs as part of a cross-party Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation. They were excited to meet and shadow us. Of Tanzania’s MPs, 36% are women, and they were laughing at us because we have only 22%. They want to increase the figure to 50%. Who cares if there are quotas so long as women get the posts and the experience in position? That is all that matters.

I pay tribute to other women, such as Caroline Adams, who is working across parties to help women MPs in the new and emerging democracies such as Tunisia following the Arab spring, because they need support too.

Finally, not for nothing are the scales of justice held by a woman. It is our right to be treated as equal and to ensure that the next generation continues to make strides in equality. It is not only our right, but our duty, to get justice and equality for the next generation.

1.54 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz).

I always find these debates a challenge, because we have 90 minutes to discuss the topic of international women’s day—“Half the world. Discuss” in an hour and a half. There is far too much to say, so I wanted to share three stories of three international women whom I have had the pleasure to meet in the past three years.

In 2010, I went to Grozny with the esteemed Labour peer Lord Judd to investigate the human rights situation in Chechnya. Of all the meetings we had—we met high-profile people, human rights ombudsmen and so on—the most memorable was with a mother who came to see us wearing a thick black woollen coat and a dark pink patterned head scarf. She sat down and placed into our hands photographs of her brother, her son and her daughter, who had all been “disappeared”. She was not sure whether they were rotting in a Siberian jail on trumped-up charges or whether they had been assassinated or executed. What struck me was her bravery. At great personal risk, she came to tell that story to visiting parliamentarians, because she wanted to make sure that others did not have the same experience. That culture of impunity and the human rights abuses in Chechnya are still a source of great distress, but such women are courageously making sure that they tell the story.

Last year, at an event attended by various hon. Members and organised by the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), I met Selay Ghaffar, who is the Afghan executive director of Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan. She spoke movingly about the battles she is facing to get justice for women and girls who are married off at the age of 12 or 13 and effectively treated as slaves. For the slightest offence, as it were, they can suffer horrendous violence, for which there is no justice or redress. Her work is done at great

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risk. She was on her way to the Bonn conference, which my hon. Friend the Minister attended, to ensure that the voice of women in Afghanistan was heard.

Just last month, along with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), I went to Kurdistan in Iraq, where we spoke with women parliamentarians. The Kurdish MP Shawnem Barznji was absolutely inspirational when she spoke about the battle she had fought. She brought together women MPs in Kurdistan, and increasingly the clerics—she ultimately got the support of the President—to tackle violence against women and to get a law passed that would ban female genital mutilation. That was not an easy alliance to build, but it was inspirational to see what was being done. From chatting to women MPs in Kurdistan, I can tell hon. Members that we share many of their frustrations as parliamentarians—they also face confidence issues, which I often hear from women in politics here in the UK.

Those are just three of the 3 billion or so women in the world, but they are representative. In every country around the world, whether they are journalists, mothers, campaigners, representatives, activists, carers, entrepreneurs or friends, women make that difference. We know that women are suffering. Women bear the brunt of many of the world’s problems, whether from climate change, poverty, conflict or the impact of violence. However, there is cause for optimism. The women whose stories I have described; the women we see every day in our constituencies who make such a fantastic difference in our communities; and the many women who inspired the Arab spring give us cause for hope for the future. Women are making a difference, and it is right that we take the opportunity of international women’s day to celebrate those women and redouble our commitment to equality at home and abroad.

1.59 pm

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): Today is the 101st international women’s day, and I am pleased to join hon. Members in speaking up for the needs of women and our aspirations for the progress of women all over the world. I pay tribute to the many women in my constituency for all their work—I know that women are doing the same work in other constituencies too—in holding together families, businesses and communities.

We have made progress since the first international women’s day in 1911, which was a time when women in Britain did not even have the right to vote. The third of the millennium development goals, which were adopted as part of the UN millennium declaration in 2000, promotes gender equality and empowerment of women, with three main areas of focus: the ratio of boys to girls in education; the share of women in waged employment; and the seats held by women in national Parliaments. I wish to speak briefly about the third focus and its relationship to the former.

I am delighted that we can have this debate, because women’s progress in society is also linked to women’s progress in political life. Equality will not be achieved without a focus on increasing female representation in politics. Despite growing numbers of female parliamentarians, equal participation remains far off. At the end of January 2011, the UN estimated that worldwide women held 19% of seats in single or lower Houses of Parliament. This poor statistic is mirrored in Britain, where we make up 51% of the population but,

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as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) mentioned, only 22.3% of the House of Commons—I think that I might be responsible for that 0.3%.

Since 1918, only 366 women have been elected to the House. In 1997, 101 Labour women were elected, and they changed the game in the UK, leading to a renewed focus on women in Parliament on both sides of the House. They helped to lead the debate and bring a fresh and distinct voice to our politics. Women’s voices helped Labour to increase the length and pay of maternity leave, and introduce paternity leave; to create more than 3,000 Sure Start centres, such as the one in Southville run by the amazing Noveen Phillips in my constituency, making it easier for mothers to return to work following pregnancy; to introduce equality legislation ensuring that the public sector proactively promoted equality; and to introduce the national minimum wage, which was an outstanding gain for nearly 1 million women.

It is of serious concern, therefore, that under current Government policies women across Britain are being hardest hit and will bear two thirds of the deficit cuts, which will impact on women’s employment. Indeed, women’s unemployment in Britain is now at its highest level for two decades and has passed the 1.1 million mark.

I pay tribute to the work of the Fawcett Society and others in keeping the fight for women at the forefront of society. However, if we are to ensure that women’s voices are strong in political debate and decision making, political education and engagement of women are also vital. I am proud of the work of the Fabian Women’s Network and Young Fabian Women in running new programmes for political education and mentoring to develop understanding and the influencing skills of women in all walks of life. I also pay tribute to other organisations, such as Operation Black Vote, dedicated to increasing representation in politics.

Without a continued focus on investment by the next generation of politicians, national Parliaments will be all the poorer, and we will have less representation of women’s voices, which is vital if women are to progress in all areas of society. We know that when women thrive, all of society benefits and succeeding generations are given a better start in life. On international women’s day, we are reminded of the imperative and our responsibility to act with renewed urgency to address gender imbalances and women’s access to power across the world in order to see greater economic and social progress.

2.4 pm

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): It is nice to welcome some members of the brotherhood into the House. I hope that they do not get too bad a headache from all the oestrogen circulating.

I imagine that my colleagues are waiting to hear me rubbish the Opposition claims that the Government are unfriendly towards women. Although I wholeheartedly believe that that is complete and utter nonsense, I will take these short minutes to do something else. We live in the seventh richest country in the world. Today, most of us travelled here freely, can speak freely, chose this career freely, and can choose how to educate our daughters and access world-class health care throughout our lives. Millions of women around the world do not have those freedoms, and I think, as leading parliamentarians, we should be debating that today.

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I want to focus on Afghanistan. Of course, we cannot mention that country without thinking about the awful tragedy that took place yesterday. As an MP for a constituency with many military personnel, I know how devastating this news will be to the friends, families and communities of those lost. All of us will join in sending our thoughts and prayers to those families. As we heard, however, the mission will continue as planned, and in the process the forces will continue to change unimaginably the lives of people in that country, especially women.

It is hard to imagine what life was like before the current international security assistance force campaign began. It was illegal to educate women—hence Afghanistan still has only a 13% literacy rate for girls, compared with 43% for men—and there is endemic sexual and domestic violence, with 87% of girls and women having suffered domestic violence. I do not need to remind Members of the appalling age at which many young girls are forced to marry. Afghanistan has the highest lifetime risk of dying in child birth in the world—women have a one in 11 chance of dying in child birth. It is truly unimaginable, stone-age care.

Progress has not been perfect, of course, but now, after the intervention, 40% of children at school are girls, one quarter of teachers are women, 27% of MPs are female—as mentioned, they are doing better than us on female representation in Parliament—and 72% of women believe that their lives are better now than before.

I have a personal interest in the matter. Joining me in the Gallery today is Farahnaz Afaq from Afghanistan, along with her school mates and headmaster from Dauntsey’s school. She is an 18-year-old girl from Kabul whose parents left the country when it was clear that they could no longer secure an education for their children. I met her recently in my constituency, and I was gobsmacked. For such a young person to have seen so much, learned so much and acquired such wisdom while travelling the world trying to get an education is absolutely extraordinary. She tells me that she is desperate to return to Afghanistan so that she can take back her learning to the girls and women of that country.

I will share with the House what Farahnaz said when I asked her what was the most extraordinary thing she has seen since coming to Britain. She said, “I saw a woman driving a bus, and I could not believe that such a thing was possible.” It is that kind of perception that we must always focus on when we talk about women’s rights and progress. We must remember what it is like for so many millions of women around the world.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that the Department for International Development and all our Government agencies do everything possible to sustain some of these improvements in Afghanistan after the troops withdraw in 2014?

Claire Perry: My hon. Friend, as always, presciently anticipates what I was coming to. May I put on the record, though, how proud I am of the Government’s commitment to maintaining the 0.7% level of international aid spending?

We are at a turning point in Afghanistan. Some 86% of Afghan women now fear the Taliban returning. We have a set draw-down plan for coalition forces, with combat operations ceasing in 2014, and there is a widespread

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fear that this will be an open door for lawlessness and a return to stone-age beliefs when it comes to womankind. What matters even more, then, is political leadership in the peace process, and this is where we can make a difference. Last night, I attended the launch of the parliamentary network on women’s rights in Afghanistan and heard how critical it was that at the upcoming summits in Chicago and Tokyo women’s voices were heard and listened to in establishing the long-term peace and security process in Afghanistan.

On this day, when we celebrate the progress that women in Afghanistan have made, I want to make a plea to the Government. Will Ministers please take the lead in asking that women are fully represented on the Afghan delegations to the summit? ActionAid has called for 30% representation, but I would like it even higher. Will the Government please work with other international partners to take every opportunity to make reference to the importance that women can and must play in securing a long-term peaceful solution for Afghanistan? I would also please ask all colleagues across the House to put aside their differences and join me in sending a message to the women of that country: we recognise you, we admire you and we will support you.

2.10 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): I am sure that I speak for women on this side of the House when I say that we support the sentiments expressed by the previous speaker.

I want to talk about women in sport. Sport is an important part of life for many people, but it is something in which girls and women do not participate as much as boys and men. Many people might be unaware of that. Women’s sport accounts for only 5% of the total media coverage of all sport. It is that absence of coverage that perhaps led to the BBC’s “Sports Personality of the Year” programme producing an all-male shortlist for this year’s final, which quite rightly caused a wave of outrage. I hope that the BBC will not make that mistake again, particularly now that many of its sports programmes are made in Salford.

I am undertaking a Sport England sports fellowship with the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation, a great organisation that is helping me to understand the issues of women in sport, so that they can be raised more often—indeed, it is great to raise them here today. We are keen to launch, if we can, an all-party parliamentary group on women in sport. I am pleased that the Cross Bencher Baroness Grey-Thompson has agreed to act as co-chair of the group, because she is a great icon for women’s sport. I hope that many of the Members here today will join the group—I have a form with me, if anyone wants to sign up.

I hope that the woefully small amount of media coverage received by women’s sport will be rebalanced somewhat during the London Olympics, but we also need a long-term change, because despite the focus on the Olympic legacy, the number of women taking part in sport or physical activity has been declining over the past four years. This is an important issue, because sport can improve health and fitness, while inactivity can lead to obesity and heart disease, and affect quality of life. The latest Sport England survey shows that just 29% of women take part in sport once a week, compared

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with 41% of men. Indeed, the figure for women’s participation has fallen by 2%, from over 31%. That amounts to 6.3 million women, compared with 8.5 million men. The figures also show that 9 million women take part in sport only once a month, compared with 11.5 million men.

We can therefore say that there is indeed a significant gender gap, and research has shown that it is caused by many different barriers. They include practical barriers, such as lack of time, child care, money or transport, but we know that there are also many personal barriers to participation, such as worrying about what one looks like, not having the right clothing or equipment to play sport, or lacking self-confidence. We know, too, that there are social and cultural barriers. Sport in this country tends to be dominated by a male culture, and there are also restrictions based on gender. In football, for example, girls are not allowed to play in mixed teams after the age of 13 in this country, whereas in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Northern Ireland, there are no age restrictions. Indeed, it took a campaign and many petitions on behalf of girl footballers to get the Football Association to raise the age limit from 11, which it did recently.

It is significant that of the 12 million women who want to play more sport, 6 million currently play no sport at all. The latent demand for sport is higher among young women than young men. It seems that the current delivery of sport is not meeting women’s preferences. Perhaps that should not surprise us, when we know that 78% of the positions on the boards of sports national governing bodies are held by men; only 22% are held by women. That affects the ability of those sports bodies to understand and meet the needs and preferences of women.

As for girls, by the age of 15 they are only half as likely as boys to meet recommended activity levels in sport and fitness. I therefore want to talk about the Us Girls project, which is an investment being made by Sport England, as part of the “Active Women” campaign to tackle the gender gap in sport. Us Girls projects will offer young women aged 16 to 25 innovative and engaging ways to become more active in sport and fitness more often. Some 62 organisations will work together to get 30,000 girls and young women across the country participating in sport. That is a great initiative. I hope that Members here today will support Us Girls projects in their constituencies, because more needs to be done to break down the barriers to sport for women, make it more appealing, make women aware of the importance of being active, and develop more healthy and fit role models.

Let me conclude by mentioning some of those role models: Rebecca Adlington, who won gold in the swimming; Sarah Stevenson, the world tae kwon do champion; Keri-Anne Payne, who won the 10 km open water event; Chrissie Wellington, who last year won her fourth Ironman world championship; and the England women’s cricket team and Charlotte Edwards, who just completed a 3-0 whitewash against New Zealand in the one-day international series. May they never be ignored in competitions ever again.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. We have to start the wind-ups shortly. I am keen to ensure that everybody gets in, and I hope that the Front Benchers might co-operate. If they could take eight

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minutes each, and if I now cut the time limit for Back-Bench speeches to four minutes, we will just about fit everybody in.

2.15 pm

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), whose interesting speech about women in sport has prompted me to remind the House that Saudi Arabia is bringing a team of athletes to the Olympics that contains no women. We should reflect on the terrible situation that women in that country face in trying to pursue their sporting aspirations.

Staying with the international theme, I attended a conference on women’s rights in the developing world some 20 years ago. It opened my eyes to the fact that, even in the most abject poverty, women are still not equal to men. The position of women and girls—in terms of their rights and basic needs that are not met —is far worse than that of the men and boys in the same, poor communities. A chance encounter at that conference enriched my life and opened my eyes. Wanjiru Kihoro, the leader of a group of exiled women from Kenya living in London, spoke on behalf of a women’s empowerment group called Abantu, and asked if anyone could provide the group with office space in London. We had some spare space, so a month later they all moved in, and they stayed for about six or seven years.

Amber Rudd: Fantastic.

Margot James: It was. It was absolutely marvellous, and it gave me the opportunity to work directly with those women on their work in Africa. They worked through a network of women’s organisations across the continent, and I went with them to South Africa and Uganda. They wanted me to train women in media skills, lobbying skills and business skills. I was humbled, because what did I know of their situation? Indeed, I always feel that I learned so much more than the women whom I trained.

I am pleased that the UN has named the theme of this women’s day as “Empower rural women: end hunger and poverty”. Rural women and girls make up a quarter of the world’s population, and rural girls are twice as likely to be forced into child marriage and experience teenage pregnancy as girls in urban areas. Despite the efforts of many laudable NGOs and charities, the problems of women struggling in poverty have not gone away, and the gains made are often fragile to say the least, although there have been improvements, about which we have heard this afternoon. Some 20 years ago, there was little understanding of the way in which development policies impacted on women and men, and boys and girls differently. Our capacity to make a difference has been hugely improved by the understanding that unless we tackle the cultural and legal obstacles to the education of girls—their health status, the age at which they marry and bear children, their access to land and resources, which should be on an equal basis to men—poverty and discrimination will persist, and persist for entire communities, not just for the women and girls in those communities.

Microfinance has been successful at providing women with access to the basic raw materials that will enable them to become more independent, and I hope that later in the debate we hear more on those matters, but my time is up.

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2.19 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): What a pleasure it is to see you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in the Chair during this international women’s day debate.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) made some excellent points about the issues in the countries of the south, and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made some excellent points about the way in which the coalition Government are trying to turn the clock back to the 1950s in this country. I do not need to repeat what she said, but the policy is backfiring spectacularly, because it is inspiring a whole new generation of feminists to fight for their rights, and I shall tell the House about three of them.

The first is Lucy O’Sullivan, who has researched women’s representation in government and concluded that women Ministers make a real difference to the effectiveness with which women’s interests are represented in practice. She has also tracked the number of women Ministers whom we have had. During the 1980s and 1990s we were bumping along at 5%; then in 1997 we jumped up almost to 20%; and by April 2010 we had seen a steady increase to the point where 30% of Ministers were women. However, after the May 2010 election that figure crashed by 50%, and now it is at a 14-year low, as a result of this coalition Government.

The second example of the new feminism is the campaign to increase the number of women in the media. I am sure many hon. Members will have seen the research demonstrating that only 22% of newspaper articles are written by women. Broadcast magazine has a good campaign, called “Expert Women”, to get more women into the media, and the one trade union with a woman general secretary, Michelle Stanistreet of the National Union of Journalists, is holding a meeting next week to organise the fightback to improve women’s representation in the media.

Colleagues on both sides of the House will know of my concern about the issues of body image—I was pleased to join the all-party body image group that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) established—and about the urgent need to close down “ano” websites, which encourage young women to starve themselves, so they may be surprised at my third example of the new generation of feminism. It is Cosmopolitan magazine—a collective made up entirely of female journalists. Alongside its “We use the F word—do you?” campaign, it has now set up a petition for equal pay, and I advise all hon. Members to go to its website and sign it. It states that

“it’s scandalous that the pay gap still exists. Laws on equal pay have existed for more than 40 years yet women working full-time…are still paid on average 14.9% less… At the current rate of change a baby will not achieve equal pay until she is 97 years old. Enough is enough.”

So will the Government take up its challenge to make equal pay auditing compulsory next year?

2.23 pm

Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): I do rather worry that today has been a missed opportunity to strike a more bipartisan note. I myself shall not be tribal, although some previous contributors have been.

I shall make three practical suggestions, loosely linked by the idea of asking awkward questions, which I like to think we are all quite good at. My first theme, which

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Members will not be surprised about, is female genital mutilation, and I thank many Members in the House today and others for their support over the past year, because a lot has happened since I spoke about FGM in last year’s international women’s day debate. I feel that we have a sense of momentum, and I thank Members for that.

I want to ask for something practical, because we have to keep the issue high on the agenda. The all-party group on genital mutilation has drafted a template letter, which Members can send to health and wellbeing boards or to other commissioning groups, and it asks lots of practical questions about the strategies that have been put in place on safeguarding, commissioning and dealing with women and girls who might be threatened with, or have suffered, FGM. May I urge hon. Members to send that template letter, or their variation on it, to their local groups and boards?

Even in London, I am amazed at the number of times that people look at me blankly when I raise the issue. Sometimes they do not even know what I am talking about, despite being senior health professionals and so on, so we have to keep pushing; we cannot assume that it is on everyone’s agenda.

My second practical point is a bit of leap, but one thing that I worry about when I look at the Arab spring, which other hon. Members have touched on, is how women’s rights are not on an upward trajectory but are potentially going in the other direction. There is evidence of that in Egypt, with many clerical groups pushing for the further institutionalisation of FGM there.

I therefore have a very practical suggestion, which I put into practice when I attended a briefing with one of our ambassadors recently—slightly I suspect to his surprise. We should tell all our ambassadors and high commissioners—wherever they are but particularly those in key countries—to ask why they are not seeing delegations of men and women. If they are seeing only delegations of men, they should politely and nicely—diplomats are very good at being polite and nice—ask why; and if they are not seeing women they should seek out the authentic voice of women. If they see only male delegations and talk only to male politicians, they will not hear the views of the people; they will hear the views of men in those countries. So it is important that the Foreign Office asks those questions of its diplomats.

My final point is about the way in which we do politics here in the UK, because we can take a lead. We should agree cross-party, and begin a discussion before the next general election, on how we do our politics and with whom we interact, because too often we see community leaders who say that they speak for their community but speak only for men. We female politicians, in particular, should demand to hear the authentic voice of male and female community leaders. There is no point demanding equality in the boardroom if we accept inequality in our community centres.

2.27 pm

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who has done an incredible amount of work on FGM, for which I applaud her.

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This is a day for celebrating the contribution of women, as well as for reflecting on what more we can do to support women and girls throughout the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) spoke eloquently about Afghanistan. Only recently there was pressure from Muslim clerics in that country for the adoption of a strict code of conduct, stating that

“men are fundamental and women are secondary”,

which underlines the fact that we have much work still to do to protect women’s rights there. I shall focus my few remarks, however, on two areas: first, on building aspiration, whether in schools, business or politics; and, secondly, on protecting women.

It is important that we build aspiration from a young age. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) said, we, as part of the all-party women in Parliament group, have welcomed many girls to Parliament today, and that has been lovely. From my constituency, I have girls here from The Heathland, Brentford, Chiswick, Isleworth and Syon, Hounslow Manor and Gumley schools, and I hope that between us we can inspire a few of them to become Members.

It is so important that girls are aware of the full range of opportunities available to them and how they can make best use of their talents. I would like us to do more to encourage girls, especially in science, engineering and technology. Whether it is through setting up more work experience or shadowing events, we can try to build their aspirations and open up a whole world of opportunity to them. The new careers service that will be fully operational by April 2012 will provide high-quality advice to those of all ages online, by phone and in the community, and much work needs to be done there.

As for women in business, we have already heard about the Lord Davies report. We need to keep up the momentum in focusing on companies, especially regarding the critical lack of women executive directors in the pipeline. Another way to increase the role of women is to support them in setting up their own businesses. The Government have done good work with mentors and the Women’s Business Council, but I would like us to do more to promote and celebrate role models, extend child care support for the self-employed, and continue to work on entrepreneurial skills in schools. As regards the number of women in Parliament, this country is still ranked 49th in the world, and much work needs to be done to change that.

My final point is about protecting women. That is largely to do with domestic violence, which is totally unacceptable in our society. The Government are committed to tackling this through their document “Call to end violence against women and girls: action plan”, but a lot still needs to be done. There have been recent campaigns to highlight abuse in teenage relationships, as well as the consultation on stalking and the piloting of Clare’s law. We need to help victims of domestic violence to rebuild their lives.

Earlier today I was at an event organised by Hestia, which has just produced a report, “From victim to survivor”, highlighting some of the key things that can be done for domestic violence victims. For example, those who are in refuges should be given priority for housing in the local area. Bed and breakfast is not suitable for them; they need to get into longer-term, stable housing. Perhaps councils need to appoint housing officers who have been given training in dealing with

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domestic abuse. There is much that we can do collectively to help to support victims of domestic violence so that they can rebuild their lives and this country can be a better place.

2.30 pm

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): I am delighted to be the last Back-Bench speaker in this debate.

Today is a day for celebrating women in all their multiple roles across the world. I want to highlight three women in particular: one who is a carer, one who is a worker, and one who is a leader. Julie Jones, who has just become Tesco Mum of the Year, has adopted five children from her best friend, who sadly died shortly after her own husband. This single mum with three teenage boys of her own has adopted another woman’s five children—what a fantastic thing to do. Congratulations and good luck to her.

A woman who is a worker is successful 22-year-old Habiba Mentane, who lives in Somalia. Thanks to micro-finance, she has taken her entire family from being nomadic, poverty-stricken people looking for food wherever they go to being farmers who are now able to grow their own vegetables, sell the surplus, and create some kind of a life for themselves. Congratulations to her and to the many thousands of other women like her who support their own family in that way.

The third person I would like very sincerely to congratulate is Her Majesty the Queen on the occasion of her diamond jubilee. She is a woman who has faithfully served the country for 60 years and presided over a Commonwealth of nations. May she live for another 60 years! I am sure that she will not share that wish, but we would love to keep her for as long as possible.

There is so much more that could be done for women, and I want to focus on three areas: equal representation, equal pay, and equal status. Worldwide, women hold 19% of parliamentary seats. In Saudi Arabia, a woman cannot vote. Not only that, but they may not drive—we can imagine what that would mean for us in this country. We think that it is pretty tough here because only 22.3% of parliamentarians are women, but at least we can drive, and at least there is a good smattering of sisters in this Chamber; it is wonderful to be part of that. I have so many friends in all parts of the Chamber, and it is truly delightful to be in that position, particularly after 25 years in finance, which unfortunately remains very much a man’s world. So thank you for that, colleagues and friends!

On pay, 70% of the world’s unpaid labour is performed by women. That is shocking—what on earth is going on? In the UK, we think it is tough because the median income of a full-time working woman is 91% of that of a full-time working man, but that is not as bad as other women in the world have it. There is more to do, but things are not so bad here, and we should celebrate that.

Status is absolutely key. Other Members have mentioned Afghanistan. I was very shocked to hear about the proposal by the Afghan Council that a man should be allowed to have sex with his wife on every fourth night. In other words, if she says no, he can rape her, and that is official. That is an absolute shocker; it should not be permitted in this day and age or at any time in any country. Rape is all too often a weapon of war, and human trafficking is all too often targeted at women and girls—the most vulnerable in our society.

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The United Nations predicts that teaching girls in Africa to farm would lead to a 20% increase in agricultural yields. This is not just about the rights of girls; it is also about the potential for feeding the world and doing better in the world. There is a very long way to go from where we are right now, but we have made progress. We are extremely fortunate in this country, and I feel extremely fortunate to be part of a very engaged and active parliamentary group.

2.34 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I start by echoing the remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) that it is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair for this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), on their efforts to secure the debate. I also want to thank the Backbench Business Committee for making time for it to take place on international women’s day. It is absolutely right that we should allocate time in the parliamentary calendar to mark this special day each year.

Hon. Members have rightly drawn our attention this afternoon to a whole range of national and global issues that affect women. It has been clear that common themes and experiences unite all women, here and around the world. They include women’s democratic representation, their economic independence, their access to health and maternity care, their choice of when and whether to form a family, and their right to freedom from fear and violence. Those concerns unite women right across the world, yet still, here at home, there are shortcomings that the Government have an obligation to address.

Ministers have taken the opportunity today to publish an update to the violence against women action plan, and I welcome the attention and priority that the Government continue to give to this issue. I hope that Ministers will also take the opportunity to read the Labour women’s safety commission report entitled “Everywoman Safe Everywhere”, which has also been published to mark international women’s day. The report was published following the establishment of a commission by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) last November, after we had identified concerns that the criminal law was not strong enough to protect women and punish perpetrators, and in response to reports that vital services on which women rely were being closed.

We were shocked at what we discovered. We identified significant cuts to provisions that keep women safe, and chaos in commissioning resulting in the loss of specialist services and expertise. We found that preventive work in schools, and with perpetrators, was under threat. It is also ironic that, on international women’s day, there should be an announcement of further cuts in the number of railway station staff, which will make women feel more vulnerable when they are out and about. Furthermore, 500,000 street lights are being turned off at night to reduce costs. In identifying those concerns, our commission has been able only to scratch surface. We are therefore calling on the Minister to carry out an audit across the country to assess exactly what is happening in every local community so that she can fulfil her responsibility as a Minister to keep every woman safe.

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I welcome the Government’s announcement today of their intention to sign the European convention. I am concerned, however, that 10 months down the line, they are still only working towards signing it, but it is none the less good to hear that intention confirmed today. In the past, they have tried to water down the convention—for example, by limiting its provisions so that they would apply only in peacetime. There is also a lack of clarity on the Government’s stance on forced marriage. The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) highlighted some of these issues in her speech. It would be useful if the Minister could clarify the Government’s intentions in relation to signing the convention. When can we expect that to happen and, importantly, when do Ministers intend to give effect to its provisions?

Ministers have also today announced new provisions on stalking, but campaigners might feel disappointed because it is not clear that the new measures will be any stronger in practice than the terms of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Will the new offence, which is to carry a six-month sentence, be heard only in magistrates courts, or will it be triable either way? Will she explain how the new offence relating to “fear of violence” is different from that covered in section 4 of the existing Act, which the police have confirmed they have had difficulty using to prove the existence of fear of violence? Will the Minister tell us how many convictions occurred last year under that Act and how much more effective she expects the new legislation to be?

There is still much that we need to do to protect, improve and promote the interests and well-being of women in this country and around the world.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Does the hon. Lady realise that the issue of women in prison has not been raised in the debate? It is an area on which the Corston report was making good progress—and I hope that this Government will make good progress on it, too.

Kate Green: As I am sure all hon. Members do, I greatly admire the work of the noble Baroness Corston on women in prison. One suggestion she made, which would have drawn this whole agenda together, was the appointment of a champion for women within the penal system. It would be very encouraging—I hope the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) would agree—if Ministers adopted that suggestion, ensuring that an individual was charged with giving priority attention to women in custody and within the penal system.

Although I welcome today’s debate and the many powerful contributions from hon. Members, I say that women should not have to wait—not even until the 102nd international women’s day—for measures to secure their safety, economic position and well-being. When we come to celebrate next year’s international women’s day, I hope we will celebrate far greater progress for women’s equality—both here at home and right across the world.

2.41 pm

The Minister for Equalities (Lynne Featherstone): May I say first that the Home Secretary is very sorry not to be here to celebrate international women’s day? She is just back from Jordan and has to attend the JHA—justice and home affairs—meeting.

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I thank my hon. Friends and hon. Members for all their contributions; I hope they will forgive me if I do not enumerate them one by one. International women’s day is a day for celebration, and I want to set out and celebrate what the Government are doing. We have heard many good contributions today and, sadly, some negative ones from Labour Members. Indeed, they have chosen to be very negative about the impacts of decisions that this Government have been forced to take to reduce the record deficit left to us by them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) pointed out, if we do not take action, it will be our daughters who have to pay for it.

Let me say that we are lifting 1.1 million of the lowest paid workers, more than half of whom are women, out of income tax altogether—and with more to come. We are increasing overall NHS spending by £11.5 billion in real terms. As part of that, we are recruiting over 4,000 new health visitors and doubling the number of places on the family nurse partnership programme by 2015. We are protecting key support for older women—with winter fuel payments, free eye tests, free prescriptions, free bus passes and free TV licences for the over-75s—and permanently increasing cold weather payments to £25.

Furthermore, we have re-linked earnings with pensions —something called for for years, which did not happen under the Labour Government. We are providing an extra £300 million for child care support under universal credit. Labour Members mentioned child care, yet against this terrible economic background we have maintained the entitlement to 15 hours a week of free education and care for three and four-year-olds. We are also extending the entitlement to 15 hours a week of free education and care for 260,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. We are funding online and telephone support services for families, and are providing over £28 million for specialist local, domestic and sexual violence support services. [Interruption.] As the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said—[Hon. Members: “Give way.”] I will not give way; I have very little time. I am sorry, but everyone else has had their say and I am going to have mine.

We are spending £900,000 on helplines and providing £10.5 million over the next three years for rape support centres. Today, my right hon. and learned. Friend the Justice Secretary announced the locations of five new centres. As the shadow Minister mentioned, we are also creating two new specific criminal offences of stalking. We are tabling amendments to the Protection of Freedoms Bill for Lords Third Reading so that those new offences can be enacted as soon as possible.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady confirm that there will be two separate offences, and that the first offence will have a maximum sentence of only six months, and that in order for the second offence to carry a sentence of more than six months the police will be required to prove that someone is in fear of violence—which was objected to by the all-party parliamentary group, which said that that approach would not work?

Lynne Featherstone: This measure will be effective. It was welcomed by women and women’s groups across the board at No. 10 Downing street this morning. There will be two offences. One will carry a sentence of up to

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six months, and the other a maximum sentence of five years. This is good news—and it is a great shame that the Opposition do not have the grace to welcome it.

We are also working on gangs and girls, teenage abuse and forced marriage. We are putting women at the heart of the economy, too, through the Work programme, the new universal credit and the new national careers service, in order to give women the help and support they need.

The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) is no longer in her place, but I take issue with her statement that there has been an increase in women’s unemployment. There are 50,000 more women in work now than a year ago.

In November, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced that the Government will provide resources for 5,000 volunteer mentors.

Helen Goodman: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lynne Featherstone: No, I will not.

Those mentors will help new business start-ups, and there will be help for women in rural areas, too, where we have provided a £2 million fund over the next three years to support women setting up and expanding their businesses. We are establishing a women’s business council as well.

We are going further. We are extending the right to request flexible working to all, establishing a new system of shared parental leave, and promoting equal pay and good practice in the workplace. With the help of Lord Davies, we are increasing the number of women on company boards.

Because disadvantage and the stereotyping of women do not start and end in the workplace, we are also tackling how women are portrayed in the media. The Government’s body confidence campaign—for which I know there is support on both sides of the House—is gaining momentum and is now receiving global recognition following an event I hosted on the issue at last week’s UN commission on the status of women. We are also tackling the commercialisation and sexualisation of children, working with a wide range of stakeholders to bring the use of sexualised images in line with what parents find acceptable. I am sure Members on both sides of the House are as sick as I am of women being portrayed either as sexual or servile.

The coalition Government recognise that investing in girls and women in the poorest countries is transformational both for economic growth and in meeting all the millennium development goals.

Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Lynne Featherstone: I will give way, but only briefly.

Mrs Laing: I simply want to ask my hon. Friend to pay tribute to the work of the UN Women agency, whose inception we celebrated last year, on the 100th anniversary of international women’s day?

Lynne Featherstone: I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me to pay tribute to UN Women. Our country is one of the biggest sponsors and supporters of that organisation.