Tommy Sheppard

MP for Edinburgh East

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Women need a better deal ... we can't ease off the gas in our fight for equality

Women need a better deal ... we can't ease off the gas in our fight for equality

The contest for depute leader of the SNP is at the half-way mark. And it’s been an exemplar in how a democratic organisation should conduct itself. Able, thoughtful candidates have treated each other with respect and engaged with hundreds of party activists at dozens of hustings throughout the country. There’s just one thing that could have been better – it’s a shame this has ended up as a blokefest

The absence of any female candidates is a great disappointment and the contest would have been a richer one had there been some. We ought to ask ourselves why this happened. And we ought to make sure that it doesn’t mean that the position of women in Scotland and in our party gets less attention. I’ve heard a number of people remark that whilst it a shame there’s not a woman standing it’s okay since the party already has a strong female leader, and indeed is one of very few governing parties with a gender-balanced cabinet.

But achievements made so far cannot be used to justify easing off the gas in the drive for women’s equality. There’s still a long way to go. I have campaigned for women’s equality since I was a teenager and I’ll not stop now. The Women’s Liberation Movement began in 1971 with a list of seven demands for equality – not one has yet been fully implemented.

Women working full-time still earn 13 per cent less than men. That rises to 32 per cent for part-time work. Women still have less chance to get into top jobs. Only 15 per cent of senior police officers are female and only eight per cent of company directors. Women still do the bulk of caring, paid and unpaid. Women are more susceptible to welfare cuts and held back by inadequate childcare.

As a party we need to intensify our efforts to improve things with women in Scotland. The recognition of childcare as a component of social infrastructure, every bit as important as communications and transport, is a huge step forward. Vastly improved services, which should include support outwith the school day, will not only allow mothers the chance to fulfil their potential but it will assist in our determination to close the attainment gap between kids of different class backgrounds.

The new powers that will come to the Scottish Parliament next year will allow us to take further action. Consultation is underway on the creation of a new social security system. I’m confident that those involved will ensure that the character of the new system is fundamentally different from that in the UK, and in particular that it seeks to empower women.

The Scottish Parliament will also take control of legislation on abortion. In theory this could allow Scotland to do what the 1967 Act never did – make abortion a legal option which women can choose. In reality, I fear we may be in a position of having to defend the limited abortion rights Scottish women already have. There’s a very great worry as campaigners motivated by religion rather than improving healthcare seek to restrict choices and shape the law according to their own beliefs. If that happens the SNP must defend a woman’s right to choose.

Every 13 minutes a woman in Scotland experiences violence. Violence against women is the scourge of our age and we must redouble our efforts to outlaw and eradicate it. SNP members of parliament have been putting pressure on the UK Government to ratify the Europe Convention on Violence against Women. Ratification will mean that women and girls will be guaranteed the right to live free from violence and the fear of violence. My colleague Eilidh Whiteford’s Bill demands the UK Government act now.

As the council elections approach we will also need to ensure in difficult financial circumstances services which help women facing violence are given priority. Women’s Aid and specialist services like Shakti are a lifeline for many women and SNP-led councils must support them.

As a party we also need to look at how we get more women into positions of responsibility. But maybe we should also look at changes specially designed to make it easier for women members too. Given that 93 per cent of single parents are women, holding meetings when they’re getting the kids ready for bed doesn’t help.

If elected I would want to listen and consult on improving structures to allow women’s voices to be heard. Female colleagues tell me of their concerns about the current women’s conference which is bolted on to our annual conference. Maybe our women’s conference could be a stand-alone event comprising women’s officers and delegates from each branch. The women’s conference could elect a national committee and convenor – perhaps as an annual sabbatical with a salary based on the living wage.

A revamped regional structure could establish women’s forums each with a convenor sitting on the national women’s committee. I don’t kid anyone that new structures themselves will change things. They won’t. It’s attitudes that need to change. But we know structures can help in the short term to drive political change.

This column was written for The National - 3rd September 2016

SNP depute contest is decidedly dignified
West of Scotland Hustings - 25th Sept

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