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Gender equality must be at the top of the agenda

My article for the Ham&High.

When I was born 21 female MPs sat in Westminster. We now have the most diverse Parliament ever, with 208 women having been elected.

Nearly 100 years after the law changed to allow women to become MPs and 104 years after Emily Davison, who who sacrificed her life to bring the issue of women suffrage to the top of the agenda, we now make up 32 per cent of the House of Commons, up nine per cent since 2015.

Labour has the most with 119 women MPs, 45 per cent of the total number, and our shadow cabinet is 50 per cent female. Clearly we still have some distance to go until there is parity, but the shift in the Labour party, at least, is encouraging.

Yet, unfortunately, it comes against a backdrop of a Conservative minority government set on doing a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, who have blocked the extension of key rights including equal marriage in Northern Ireland and the 1967 Abortion Act (Labour’s 2017 manifesto clearly sets out a determination to work with the Northern Ireland Assembly to extend safe, legal abortion there.)

Already I have heard from a huge number of constituents concerned about the DUP suppressing the rights of women and the LGBT community (as well as on many occasions having been outright deniers of climate change).

I have written to Prime Minister Theresa May to ask her to provide assurances that rights will be protected and that she emplore DUP leader Arlene Foster to address her party’s poor record. But that notwithstanding, a coalition between the DUP and the Tories poses many more risks.

For one Conservative austerity has hit women the hardest. Figures show that women bear 86 per cent of the burden. That is why any future government must carry out a gender audit of its tax and spending policies in order to show how we can reverse these policies.

Labour has a proud history of delivering on gender legislation, having brought in the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, the Equality Act, the Minimum Wage and introduced Sure Start.

Yet, despite the Equal Pay Act being signed 47 years ago, women are still paid, on average, 18.1 per cent less than men. Meanwhile a slew of data consistently shows how women are underrepresented in boardrooms or as chief executives of top firms – despite evidence showing the benefits of diversity.

All workers must have access to employment and promotion opportunities, so a Labour government will ensure gender pay auditing, while supporting childcare to help women return to work, estimated to give the economy a long-term boost.

More than that, this government should create protections against unfair redundancy for women. Labour would do this by reversing the unfair employment tribunal fees which quite literally price people out of justice.

And Labour wants to see the the time period for applying for maternity discrimination to the employment tribunal extended from three to six months.

There's still an enormous amount to do to achieve women's equality. As your MP, I will continue to pursue women's equality in Parliament and in our community.

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Catherine West MP

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