§ Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)
I beg to move,That leave be given to bring in a Bill to eliminate sexism in the language of future Acts of Parliament and other instruments.All legislation passed by Parliament is drafted in a form that assumes that the male gender defines humanity. We are all referred to as "he" or "him". No doubt I shall be told that the masculine imports the feminine, or that "he embraces she". That statement is often referred to as a joke; a joke which wears a little thin.
It is bad enough that legislation routinely excludes half of the human race, but sometimes it makes us appear ridiculous. For example, the Charities Act 1993 describes the powers and duties of the official custodian for charities. Section 2, sub-section 3 of that Act reads:The official custodian shall perform his duties in accordance with such general or special directions as may be given him by the Commissioners, and his expenses (accept those re-imbursed to him or recovered by him as trustee for any charity) shall be defrayed by the Commissioners.That section, which was produced—I repeat—in 1993, contains five references to the official custodian in the male gender, yet when the Bill was going through Parliament, the official custodian was a woman.
The effect of my Bill would be that "he" and "she" would be used only when specific reference were made to a man or a woman—for example, when referring to the rights and duties of mothers and fathers in family legislation. All other legislation would be drafted in gender-neutral language, with the word "person" used where appropriate. That would not be impossible. It would not even be difficult. In February 1993, I introduced a private Member's Bill on miscarriages of justice. It was drafted in gender-neutral language, for which I received invaluable assistance from staff in the Public Bill Office, it does not reek of political correctness and it reads as perfectly acceptable English. All that is required is a different mind-set.
I am not the only person in Parliament who thinks that the language that we use is important. Baroness Castle started her maiden speech in the other place in November 1990 with the words "Fellow Peers" instead of the customary "My Lords". I first became conscious of sexist language about 20 years ago, during the setting up of the Equal Opportunities Commission by the then Labour Government. Certain sections of the media had a field day with jokes—which no doubt Ministers on the Front Bench are sharing at the moment—such as person hole cover for manhole cover and fire person for fireman. Now we routinely refer to inspection covers and firefighters. The use of the words "chair" and "chairperson" have been derided, yet when I look back to meetings where nominations for chairmen were sought, I remember that I always used to look around the room at the men present, and would go on to consider a woman if none of the men seemed suitable. Language frames our unconscious thoughts.
On 18 March, Madam Speaker, my determination to pursue this issue came to a head when I went to Birmingham for your installation as the chancellor of the Open university. During his address, the vice-chancellor confirmed that advice had been given that it was in order for you to become Chancellor. That was necessary 581 because the university charter, which was approved by Parliament, referred to the chancellor as "he". I cannot think of anyone more suitable than you, Madam Speaker, to be chancellor of the Open university, and although you and everyone present treated it as a matter of wry humour, I could not help thinking that it was ludicrous. The very idea that the drafting of that document should have excluded you and half the human race is simply unacceptable.
Women have never been given any rights by this place; rights have always been hard-won. Only in the middle of the previous century did the courts decide that the word "person" included married women. Until then, women had ceased to be persons in their own right once they married. The Council of Europe, of which Britain is a member, recommended on 21 February 1990 that member states should encourage the use of non-sexist language and bring the terminology used in legal drafting into line with the principle of sex equality. It acknowledged that the sexism characterising current western usage in most member states, whereby the masculine prevails over the feminine, is hindering the establishment of equality between women and men, since it obscures the existence of women as half of humanity.
We cannot have actions that are equitable without language that is equitable. Language is the mirror of society. Women must be able to see themselves in that mirror.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Jean Corston, Ms Clare Short, Ms Harriet Harman, Ms Dawn Primarolo, Ms Tessa Jowell, Mr. Peter Hain, Mrs. Barbara Roche, Mrs. Helen Jackson, Mr. Clive Betts, Mr. Win Griffiths and Ms Angela Eagle.