It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I was a co-signatory of the motion, but by a quirk of parliamentary procedure the fact I am leading in the debate for the Scottish National party means my name had to come off. I pay a huge tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), two women in this place I hold in the highest regard. Today’s debate has been completely consensual, as it should be on this issue, not just in this place, but across society. I am moved to quote the words of Emmeline Pankhurst, who said:
“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”
So getting to speak today and be part of bringing about new regulations and legislation in this place is very important, because, as one London Member said—I have forgotten her constituency—we have to reflect society but we also have to lead it. One hundred years on from women getting the vote, that is hugely important.
When I was thinking about standing for election, I thought carefully about whether I could do this, and there were two reasons for that. First, I knew I needed to come out and deal with my sexuality. Secondly, I wanted to have children. Those two things were somewhat interlinked, and there are some technical challenges that I have as a gay women that my straight counterparts do not. Regardless of that, being able to know that there are Members from across this place who support this process means that, we hope, the next generation of parliamentarians, be they male, female, from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, and whatever their disability or ability, and whatever their sexuality, will look at this place and other Parliaments across the UK and think, “That is something I can and want to be part of.” This has therefore been an incredible debate.
As we look across the world, we see the Prime Minister in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, is about to have a baby with her partner, and she is very open about that. We are taking steps forward. Testimonies have been read out, including by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, who mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins). I wish also to refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who received an interesting email during the 2015 election. I am just going to read out the question and the answer she gave, because this typifies the debate and her excellent response shows how far we still have to go. The email to her read:
I am in favour of many of the SNP’s policies but am a little worried to find that you are mother of a (very) young family.
I can see how this could work with a seat at Holyrood but Westminster membership must pose a harder challenge.
It would help to know your solution before polling day.”
I emphasise the words “your solution”. It is incredible that anybody would write to a potential candidate and see the fact that they have children as a problem. An excellent “Channel 4 News” programme recently had the rapper Professor Green on it, and he spoke about why we need more people in politics who have been the subject of Government policy and are from different backgrounds and have different experiences.
My hon. Friend’s response to the email was as follows:
“Thank you very much for your email. I apologise for the delay in replying, but I wanted to give you a more considered response to your enquiry and give you some background as to why I’m standing.
I am certainly not alone among male and female candidates across the country in this election in being lucky enough to have a family; indeed the male Labour incumbent in this seat also has a young family.
The outgoing House of Commons was 22% female, and the average age of an MP was 50. More than 400 MPs, 62% of the total, are white men aged over 40. I think that Westminster ought to be a good deal more representative of the people it serves, and that can’t be achieved without more women.”
Inequality affects policy and it affects governance. I firmly believe that, with its poor gender balance, Westminster has made deficient policies in areas which affect families such as cuts in areas of child and maternity benefits. By contrast, with a slightly better gender balance Holyrood has taken on a great deal of issues in its remit which disproportionately affect women, such as free personal care, expansion of nursery education, and making law the right to breastfeed in public.”
She then went on to talk about how she had been a councillor over the previous five years and the challenges she had faced. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) was also a councillor in Aberdeen when she had small children. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central finishes her email by saying:
“I will cross whatever other bridges require to be crossed after the votes are cast and counted on the 7th of May.”
That is an excellent response.