Valerie responds to backbench business debate

I responded to the backbench business debate on making Parliament a more modern, family friendly and accessible workplace on Thursday 13 June 2019.

Below is my speech in full:

There are some heavyweight names attached to the motion: that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), who opened the debate with an outstanding, wide-ranging speech. It was right to bring this matter to our attention and to keep it on the agenda.​

Before my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) goes off to do his bit in childcare, I have to say that it is good to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge has dispatched him to do that. It would be interesting to hear from him on what it was like to be the child of an MP. It certainly did not put him off. He was also an older child of another MP—both his father and his mother were Members of Parliament. It is good to see him in his place, but we accept that he has other duties to go and do.

Many Members are probably not aware that the sitting time changes were thanks to Dame Joan Ruddock, who pulled together a group of cross-party Members. We consulted and voted on the various proposed times. It is pleasing that the Health Secretary, a hands-on-dad, was also involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) was part of a group of new MPs, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge, who contributed to an important Fabian Society pamphlet about change. I wrote the introduction. I did not agree with all the suggestions in the pamphlet, but it was good to see that new Members were proposing changes.

A number of reports have been published. Many Members have referred to “The Good Parliament” by Professor Sarah Childs, which was commissioned by the Speaker and published as long ago as 2016. Its 43 recommendations address three parliamentary dimensions. Even before its publication, people were making trivial remarks such as “Oh, it is about everyone using the same toilet.” Professor Childs had to arrange many meetings to try to convince people that hers was a serious and hard-hitting report.

As I have said, the report identified three parliamentary dimensions. The first was “Equality and Participation”, which asked “how a diverse group of MPs might be selected for, and elected to, Parliament”.

The second, “Parliamentary Infrastructure”, “covers everything from the buildings and furniture of Parliament to the official rules and working practices”.

The third, “Commons Culture”, looked beyond the formal rules to examine the parliamentary culture and its effect on diversity.

Who selects parliamentary candidates is a matter for the parties. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who is not present at the moment, has put the responsibility for all-women shortlists squarely on Tony Blair. I would say to him that many members of the Labour party, women and men, fought long and hard to secure all-women shortlists. As a result, 49% of the parliamentary Labour party are women. That movement rose from the grassroots to the higher echelons of the party, and 1997, when so many women were elected to Parliament, was an important milestone.

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I congratulate Sir Simon Woolley on his elevation in the Queen’s birthday honours. It is well deserved. I mentored someone from Operation Black Vote last year. It has an incredibly good set of people who come from different backgrounds; the person whom I mentored worked in social care. That is the kind of organisation that we need to have.
I do not know if you are aware of this, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the Commissions of both Houses have responded to the UK gender-sensitive parliament audit, the first ever such audit produced in the UK. The Commissions are monitoring and publishing annual progress against four of the audit’s priority recommendations. The kind of recommendations that they are prioritising are “Developing a parliamentary policy for children and families”, informed by good practice in other Parliaments; “responding to the Cox report, and…forthcoming inquiries” on bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct; awareness of the support available to MPs, peers and staff “to address abuse and threats via social media”; and making information “more readily available on the different groups or organisations in Parliament with specialist knowledge…and clearly signposted” in order to “support parliamentarians to take account of gender impacts in their work”.

We are pleased that the monitoring will continue.

Many Members have mentioned restoration and renewal, which gives us an opportunity to focus on the physical aspects. We need to make life much easier for people with disabilities or hearing difficulties. In new buildings such as Portcullis House, it is much easier for those with hearing difficulties to hear people. Everything possible has to be done to make Parliament accessible.

The right hon. Member for Basingstoke is right: a number of reports are coming out and we must make sure we do not lose sight of any of them. They need to be pulled together; the House authorities are aware of that, and certainly the Clerk of the House has his eye on how they will all pull together.

I did not mean that they were responsible; ultimately it is a matter for the Commission to pull those reports together. Reports will come to the Commission and will then be disseminated. I do not know whether the right hon. Lady is aware of this, but many of the responses given to the Commission are disseminated; if she checks her inbox and the parliamentary intranet she will see that everything that goes on in the Commission is published, as are any reports that need to be brought to people’s attention.
There is political will on this. It is not just a matter for the Leader of the House and the Opposition parties. We will work together, but certainly the Commission is the governing body at this stage, until things change—if they do; and if people want a more accountable ​Commission, that is what will happen. At present, however, these matters are for the parties nominated to the Commission, and the Clerk of the House. It is not for individual MPs to take it on themselves to do these things, although I have to say that when individual MPs have good ideas and take them to various places such as the Commission, they come to fruition. The right hon. Lady sat on the Speaker’s reference Committee; I know she is not on it currently, but that shows that there are good things that people can pull together. Things can and do happen.

Well, we are all elected, and we are all appointed by our parties; we also have two non-executives who sit—[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady says we are appointed, but the Leader of the House and I are on it by virtue of our parties through the usual channels; that is the way it works. I am sure she is not casting any aspersions on the previous or current Leader of the House. It is an interesting way of working. The Clerks—the House authorities—have to be responsible for the way the House operates, and then things are done through the Commission. the fact that we have a Commission is very good. I sat on the House of Commons Governance Committee; we heard evidence on how things it works, and things changed as a result of that. There is an opportunity, if Members wish, to have another House of Commons Governance Committee—whether the Leader of the House and I would be on it, I do not know. The work is disseminated, however, as the right hon. Lady will see if she checks the intranet.
Of course we also have the Cox report, and Alison Stanley has now reported on whether the independent complaints and grievance scheme works. Her report makes for interesting reading. A unit has been tasked with implementing some work. We have a newly appointed independent director of cultural transformation, Julie Harding, who is doing town hall meetings with staff and trying to understand what goes on in order to get cultural change, and that will continue.

In a previous debate, I said I did not know what was happening to Professor Sarah Childs’ recommendations, and suggested that we do what is normally done to keep track of projects: have a Gantt chart, on which we collect all the recommendations. As the right hon. Lady is Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, I wonder if she might look at the report three years on, and commission a further inquiry on where we are on Professor Sarah Childs’ report and how many recommendations have been actioned. People thought the proxy voting was going to be difficult, but it has been as smooth as possible and works really well.

The right hon. Lady’s Committee produced a report on women in the House in January 2017, and I notice that the Government rejected all six of the recommendations in their response in September. One recommendation was that all the parties should aim for 45% of their Members of Parliament to be women. Her Committee also said that section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 should be implemented. The Government responded that they did not want to do that, and that they would rather just talk to the political parties, but I wonder if ​the Leader of the House could take that away and look at it, and perhaps report back at a later date. Many hon. Members have touched on the fact that we are becoming a diverse Parliament. I have to say that 31 of the 52 minority ethnic Members are from the Labour party; 19 are from the Conservatives, one is from the Lib Dems and one from the Independent Group. Exactly half are women, so we are getting it right on that score.

Another important report, “Race in the workplace” by Baroness McGregor-Smith, was published on 28 February 2017. It found that people are still being held back in the workplace because of the “colour of their skin”, which is costing the UK economy the equivalent of 1.3% of GDP a year. She said that if black and minority ethnic people progressed in the workplace at the same rate as their white counterparts, the UK economy could be boosted by £24 billion. The McGregor-Smith review made 26 recommendations. One urged the Government to create a free online unconscious bias training resource that would be available to everyone in the UK, and to develop a simple guide on how to discuss race in the workplace. Two years on from that review, I ask the Government and the Leader of House to assess where we are on that. As Baroness McGregor-Smith said:

“The time for talking is over. Now is the time to act.”

More importantly, on 28 February2017, the Government launched a business, diversity and inclusion group to bring together business leaders and organisations to develop ways of removing barriers in the workplace and monitoring employees’ progress. The then Business Minister, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), chaired the group. She immediately wrote to the FTSE 350 companies, asking them to drive increased diversity in the workplace and to take up the McGregor-Smith review, but sadly, there are still just six women chief executive officers in the FTSE 100 companies. More needs to be done. According to a recent report by Green Park, there are only five BAME CEOs in FTSE 100 companies, and it found that 48 FTSE 100 companies had no ethnic minority presence on their boards in 2018.

Hon. Members will know that we always talk about the gender pay gap, and that is important because this Parliament not only looks at itself but also looks outside. A key figure shows that in 2018, women worked for free for 51 days of the year because of the gender pay gap. We must close that gap as soon as possible. We Labour Members feel that we have a proud record on progressing women’s rights. We brought in the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Equality Act 2010 and the minimum wage, and we introduced Sure Start. Our shadow Cabinet is nearly 50% women, and we hope that that will continue. The important thing is that many people outside this place perhaps cannot afford the things that we can, such as their own workplace nursery. If we were to implement our policies, the extension of the 30 hours of free childcare would make an important difference to women in the workplace generally, whether or not they ended up in here, and families on the lowest incomes would be eligible for additional subsidised hours on top of the 30 hours.

It is vital that we make this place fit for the 21st century for everyone who works here, who visits and who wants to come here. We all want our Parliament and our democracy to thrive, so we should be continuously looking for opportunities to improve it, and I know that ​all Members, whether new or old, are constantly doing that. As we look for opportunities here, we must recognise that changes can be made through legislation, and that as we change ourselves, we can also change society to make it more equal.