The audit found that the percentage of female MPs has risen from 18.2% to 32% since 1997 while the percentage of women in the House of Lords has increased from 7.1% to 26.1% in the same period.
The audit was carried out by a panel consisting of four MPs, four members of the House of Lords, and two staff members from each House. The panel identified four barriers that may make it harder for women to become MPs or members of the Lords:
- The culture of Parliament, as highlighted in recent reports of bullying and harassment, and sexual harassment;
- Online threats and threats to physical security, in particular gender-based intimidation, harassment and violence against female parliamentarians and female candidates;
- The challenges that working in Parliament poses for family life, including the unpredictability of business and potentially long hours;
- The financial impact of standing for Parliament.
The report sets out recommendations for addressing these challenges.
On the culture of Parliament, the panel supports concrete action in response to Dame Laura Cox's report on the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff and forthcoming reports on the experiences of Lords' staff, members’ staff and members.
The panel’s report highlights the growing menace of online and physical threats to parliamentary candidates, and in particular the gendered nature of the abuse aimed at women candidates. It expresses concern that this could make it harder to achieve a better gender balance in Parliament. The panel therefore calls for the parliamentary authorities to take steps to ensure that MPs, members of the House of Lords and all staff are aware of the support available from their local police and the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team to address abuse and threats via social media.
On the difficulties many face in balancing parliamentary work with having a family life, the panel recommends that the Commons and the Lords conduct a review of how efficiently the Houses are managing their business and whether there can be more predictable sitting hours and voting times. They also support moves to allow proxy voting for parliamentarians on parental leave and developing a parliamentary policy on children and families, including provision for childcare for children of different ages.
On the financial impact of standing for Parliament, while the issue is not directly within Parliament’s power to address, the panel supports the Government’s efforts to reduce financial barriers for disabled persons via the Access to Elected Office Fund and recommends that the scheme should be extended beyond the summer of 2019.
The report has been welcomed by the House of Commons and House of Lords Commissions. Responding to the report Lord Fowler, the Lord Speaker and Chair of the House of Lords Commission, said:
"As Chairman of the House of Lords Commission, I welcome the excellent and in-depth UK Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit report, which has been published today, and its finding that steady progress has been made in increasing the representation of women in both Houses of Parliament.
In the Lords, there are currently 209 female Members including the Leader of the House of Lords and the Leader of the Opposition. And in the first time in over 650 years, we have a female Black Rod. We are making progress, but we still have work to do.
This audit is the first of this kind to be undertaken by the UK Parliament and reflects that, like many organisations, there are a variety of steps that Parliament might now wish to take to build on our successes and tackle the barriers that remain for women who wish to enter or remain in Parliament, as members, or as staff of the two Houses.
Doing so will require sustained commitment by both Houses, the political parties, and Government. By commissioning the audit, both the House of Lords and House of Commons Commissions have indicated that they are committed to that sustained effort.
In the New Year, both Commissions will consider an action plan in response to the Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit report’s recommendations and conclusions which will be published in the spring."
The House of Commons Commission issued the following statement in response to the report:
"We welcome the UK Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit report, which has been published today, and its finding that steady progress has been made in increasing the representation of women in both Houses of Parliament.
We are firmly committed to ensuring that Parliament represents the people of the UK to the best of its ability, and this self-assessment offers insight into how we are doing, and what more we can do, in terms of gender. The Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit Panel has made a number of recommendations about how we can build on our successes and tackle the barriers that remain for women who wish to enter or remain in Parliament, as members, or as staff of the two Houses."
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