Caroline Nokes – 2021 Speech on International Women’s Day

The speech made by Caroline Nokes, the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North, in the House of Commons on 11 March 2021.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who does so much in this place to champion women.

Last year in this debate, we were not learning how to run a Parliament remotely, and none of us had ever considered being able to contribute to a debate while admiring the cobwebs on our own light fittings. In the spirit of celebration, I am going to think of uplifting things to start with, such as the sheer fact that this centuries-old institution has learned to flex and change—to adapt to Zoom and remote voting.

I thank the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), for having driven that agenda forward. We have seen more women contributing more often in Commons debates—more female voices in our Chamber, whether physically present or not—and that I celebrate. We have seen stunning contributions and campaigns from women right across the House and across Parliament, making desperately needed amendments and improvements to the Domestic Abuse Bill. We have seen women outside Parliament, such as Kate Bingham, who ran the vaccine taskforce determinedly, making sure that we got that roll-out.

We have heard from the Secretary of State for International Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), about her support for the normalisation of flexible working. That could mean so much to women, and I look forward to an employment Bill coming forward that champions that.

But it is impossible for me to turn my contribution today into an unabashed celebration. It is not going brilliantly for all women—not here, not anywhere. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) will speak later, and I know that she will have had to update that hideous, depressing list she is going to read out to add the name of Sarah Everard, so tragically killed while just walking home. Overnight, we saw an outpouring of stories from women about keys, headphones, clothes and sticking to lit streets. We all know the reality is you will probably not be attacked by a stranger, but the fear is there and the fear is real.

On this International Women’s Day, let us champion all women—gay women, who do not need conversion therapy; trans women, who want to be treated with respect and fairness. Remember, they are the ones most likely to suffer domestic abuse.

I wish to reference the work of the Women and Equalities Committee and its report on the gendered economic impact of covid. That was reinforced yesterday by the publication from the Office for National Statistics confirming that women have indeed suffered a greater economic impact from the pandemic—more likely to be furloughed than their male colleagues; more likely to be employed on a part-time contract and not entitled to statutory sick pay; less confident that they will not be made redundant.

We no longer have to look at health policy in the round because of the announcement this week of the women’s health strategy and the call for evidence, but apparently we still have to look at economic policy in the round and cannot accept data from the ONS that women have been harder hit economically. We will not get a female employment strategy, and I do not celebrate that.