Maria Miller – 2022 Speech on International Women’s Day

The speech made by Maria Miller, the Conservative MP for Basingstoke, in the House of Commons on 10 March 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered International Women’s Day.

There is a dreadful poignancy in opening this debate today. The bombing of a Ukrainian women and children’s hospital yesterday has left pregnant women on stretchers, covered in blood from shrapnel wounds, and I would hope that the message that we send from this place to every woman in Ukraine during this week of events to mark International Women’s Day is that we stand with those women against those who wage war on their country. We stand alongside those women in their battle for a free and independent Ukraine. We stand with the people of Belarus and Russia who do not want war. I was delighted to meet the Belarusian opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, in Parliament today to reinforce that message.

In Ukraine, International Women’s Day is usually a public holiday—an opportunity to mark the unique role that women play in the culture of their nation—but this year has been very different indeed, because it is the women of Ukraine who make up the vast majority of refugees. The Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), will share my horror at seeing those women fleeing their homeland. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is right to be redoubling the Government’s efforts to cut unnecessary bureaucracy, so that we can offer women who seek sanctuary in our country swift passage.

Acts of war and aggression disproportionately affect women. In Afghanistan, just 12 months ago on International Women’s Day, that nation celebrated the remarkable contribution made by Afghan women against the challenges of the covid pandemic. Now, the hard-won progress made on women’s rights over the past two decades has been all but reversed, with a new Taliban Government having no place for the 67 women elected to the Afghan Parliament. We know that the best way we can fight dictatorships and autocracies around the world is through support for democratic capacity for effective democratic institutions.

The truth is that every democracy is fragile; it has to be nurtured. As we mark International Women’s Day as parliamentarians, we should focus every fibre of our body on how we can strengthen democracies around the world, because democracy is under threat like never before. Strong parliamentarians are representative of their people. Women playing their proper role in Parliament is not an optional extra; it is essential for our legitimacy. This year’s theme of “Break the Bias” could not be more appropriate, because there are few democracies around the world where women have an equal role in policy making and policy scrutiny—not even our own. Some 27 years on from the 1995 UN Beijing platform for action, which demanded worldwide equal participation for women in political decision making, we have seen slow progress, with just one in four elected representatives around the world being a woman.

For International Women’s Day 2022, let us call for a renewed commitment to women’s equal role in policy making and policy scrutiny to ensure progress on securing women’s roles in democratic institutions. Internationally, both our Parliament and our Government actively support the rights of women and girls. The Government, through their work on education for girls and their support for organisations such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, work hard to help build women’s political participation. Here in Parliament, many of us are members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians, and we work with legislative bodies around the world to share our expertise and knowledge. Gender-sensitive Parliament audits are a practical support that the CPA has put in place for jurisdictions to address their institutionalised gender inequality. Over the past year, the CPA has trained women parliamentarians around the world to deal with online abuse, helping to find a way forward on one of the issues that holds so many women back from wanting to seek election in the first place.

We want strong democracies around the world, but it has never been more important for our own Parliament to be an exemplar. In Westminster, there are still twice as many men as women elected to this place, demonstrating the challenges even embedded democracies have. I stand here as a Conservative Member of Parliament to say that there are three men for every one woman in my party, which is the Government party. That has to change.

Each party takes this problem extremely seriously. I know that the Conservative party does, and we are acting. It is right that we press Government and political parties to do more, but Parliament itself has to act, too, as the custodian of one of the most important parts of our democracy is our legislature. As Sue Maguire high- lighted in her report to Government in 2018, while quotas for women to come into Parliament have a place—the Labour party has made good use of them—they do not

“address the cultural and working practices in Parliament and local Government that remain significant barriers”.

We can and must challenge the Government to do more, and parties to act, but if we simply say it is the fault of political parties, we are not listening to the mountain of evidence to the contrary.

I applaud Mr Speaker for creating real momentum for change here, even before he became Speaker, by addressing for the first time issues such as the personal security of Members. We also now have a behaviour code and grievance procedures, thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom).We have proxy voting for new parents and effective procedures to deal with bullying, as we saw earlier this week, but where is the progress on the other measures that have been put forward?

Effecting change in this place can feel almost impossible. Although we have Select Committees to hold the Government to account, where is the mechanism to hold ourselves to account? There is no structure in Parliament for Members to identify a programme of co-ordinated change—coherent, transparent and accountable change—that would make this place somewhere that more women want to come to and stay in.

As the Women and Equalities Committee’s report that was published last week by my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said, five years on from the Childs “The Good Parliament” report and 10 more reports like it, many of the recommendations that have been put forward remain unanswered. Some of the actions can be delivered by Parliament and some need Parliament to work with the Government, but above all we need a co-ordinated plan of action for the House of Commons to get our House in order and to get equal representation of women as a top priority.

I will give a couple of examples. We need to ensure that the Government implement section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, which is already in place, to require parties to publish data on the diversity of their candidates and appointments to the House of Lords, a recommendation made more than five years ago. We need to focus our House service public engagement on women’s participation in democracy and reach out to women across the United Kingdom to encourage them to consider standing for election, as we did at the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament’s event on Tuesday evening, which was attended by more than 100 women. Those events should not be held by Members; they should be held by the House of Commons to encourage more women to stand for election.

We need to focus the House communications team on talking about the positive changes that we have already made to our culture here as a result of the new behaviour code and the grievance process. We need to work with the Government to ensure that there is legislation and enforcement against online threats, which disproportionately affect women Members. We need to embed a programme of training for Members who are using social media. We know that those actions need to happen, but we need to have a plan and there needs to be accountability for swift progress.

We are the custodians of our legislative body. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for securing the time for this debate and the APPG officers and members for their support in it. A representative and inclusive House of Commons is essential for the fully effective functioning of a parliamentary democracy. The House itself has a unique responsibility to take steps to ensure that we are representative of the population. Recruiting good people is a matter for political parties, but parties cannot change what people think of Parliament or how they feel about working in the House of Commons. I want today’s debate marking International Women’s Day to be a call to action for our own Parliament. As Members, we need to ensure that the House of Commons is a place that everyone aspires to be part of, including women.