A new report from the Women & Equalities Committee looks at the representation of women in Parliament and recommends more action on catering to caring needs, tackled gendered assumptions about care and addressing hate speech.
Women represent just over a third [34%] of MPs in the UK Parliament, a figure that lags behind other comparable European countries and devolved parts of the UK, according to a report by the House of Commons’ Women & Equalities Committee.
The report, Equality in the heart of democracy: A gender sensitive House of Commons, also states that only 5.7% of all 650 MPs are women from minority ethnic backgrounds.
The report, which looks at everything from hate speech against women MPs to support for parents and carers, states that ‘vicious misogynistic abuse must not be accepted as an inevitable facet of a woman‘s life in politics’ and notes the role of such harassment in the poorer retention rate of female MPs compared to their male counterparts. It also acknowledges ‘deeply troubling’ revelations about bullying and harassment within the Houses of Parliament, which has led both Houses to ‘begin to address their cultures and behavioural standards’.
The report is the result of the Committee’s inquiry, launched in February 2021, and states that the House of Commons should ‘revive and maintain’ a focus on gender and wider diversity.
It calls for the Government implement section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, which would require political parties to report on the diversity of their Parliamentary candidates. ‘Greater transparency’, say the Committee, will be key to the selection of candidates who are more representative of the communities they serve.
The Committee also urges the Government to use its Online Safety Bill to strengthen sanctions against those who target female politicians with threatening and harmful online harassment and abuse.
While it welcomes the 2018 introduction of proxy voting for MPs absent from Westminster due to childbirth or adoption, it says there remain anomalous features which must be rectified. The scheme, which enables MPs to vote on behalf of their absent colleagues, does not provide for new fathers beyond two weeks, for example, and cover for specific complications, including premature births, miscarriages and baby loss need to be made explicit in the scheme, says the report.
Although it notes ‘major steps forward’ have been made regarding funding for parental leave for MPs, as well as for wider caring responsibilities, it says these must be extended beyond their current scope to counter gendered assumptions. The report also calls on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority’s (IPSA) to assess the impact of publishing additional costs associated with being a parent. It says doing so could discourage parents and carers from careers as Parliamentarians as their costs – such as transport and childcare – are often higher. It states that these costs should only be published at the aggregate, rather than the individual, level.
Other issues covered include calls for a survey of MPs on the adequacy of facilities across the House of Commons for carers, those with disabilities or health conditions, and of working practices made available during Covid-19, such as hybrid working, which could help to increase accessibility and a review, subject to further legal and procedural advice, of the current approach to the suspension of MPs under investigation for sexual misconduct.
Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said: “As Parliamentarians, we are meant to represent those we serve. At present, we simply don’t- only a third of MPs are women, and just 37 of 650 Parliamentarians are women from ethnic minority backgrounds.
“It is within our power to improve this. Part of encouraging women into any profession is making that workspace inclusive. Women are disproportionately carers in society; catering to the needs of parents and other caregivers is an easy win for the House of Commons and a journey upon which they have already embarked. But they must go further and faster.
“The most glaring problem is the shocking abuse and misogyny which all women in politics, and especially minority ethnic women, suffer. This must not become an accepted part of the job. Viscous abuse, including rape and death threats, is totally unacceptable. Specific action must be taken to protect women MPs and candidates. Without such action, an entire generation of women could be deterred from entering Parliament.”