A spotlight on Dr Shirley Summerskill
Dr Shirley Catherine Wynne Summerskill, Labour politician for Halifax (1964–1983), was born on the 9th September 1931 to Edith Summerskill MP and Dr E Jeffrey Samuel.
Before her entrance into Westminster in October 1964 (succeeding Conservative Maurice Macmillan MP in Halifax) Summerskill worked as a General Practitioner, which was reflected in her consistent contributions on the health service when in politics. Summerskill used her medical authority to challenge Conservative politicians who voted against the NHS, condemning how such men ‘make health a very gentlemanly subject about which one does not have a great deal of argument’. The removal of prescription charges formed a key part of her maiden speech and ongoing contributions in the House in 1964. Also in her maiden speech, Summerskill followed in her mother’s footsteps in advancing the causes of women. She particularly supported the 1964 budget in relation to widows’ pensions, but called on the government to equalise the state’s wider treatment of widows. In this vein, she also encouraged the House to give greater support to single women with dependants: ‘a vast unsung army with no trade union to represent them’. Summerskill repeatedly brought the issue of equal pay to the House, such as in June 1965 (much to the Speaker’s frustration), arguing that it was the ‘basic right of every woman who is working’ and ‘should not be regarded as a privilege or as something which has to be requested or asked for’.
Throughout her parliamentary career, Summerskill continued campaigning for women’s equal pay, alongside increasing employment opportunities available to married women. Subsequently, Summerskill supported the Anti-Discrimination Bill (1971–1972) and the Sex-Discrimination Bill (1974–5). After the passage of legislation, Summerskill was quick to call out sexist questions in the House, such as in 1965 when Andrew MacKay MP questioned the 25 per cent recruitment of female police officers as undermining the strength of the police force. More broadly, Summerskill also had a keen interest in animal welfare, as reflected in her support of the Amendment to the Pet Animal Act (1951), Protection of Deer Bill, (1964), Protection of Animals Bill (1968), the Hare Coursing Bill (1974) and an Amendment to the Cruelty to Animals Act (1976).
Summerskill sat on multiple Standing and Select committees, some of which included: Science and Technology; Expenditure Committee; and the House of Commons Services. In 1969, she also served as a member of the UK delegation to the Consultative of the Council of Europe, before becoming a substitute member. From 1974 to 1979, Summerskill became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. Summerskill contributed to debates on immigration, reflecting the positive experiences from her own constituency, where Halifax saw the successful integration of the immigrant population ‘without trouble, with friendliness and success’. As Parliamentary Under-Secretary, she dealt with a range of issues: licensing laws; the regulations concerning Parole Boards and the management of fire departments and broadcasting, to name but a few.
Summerskill lost her seat in 1983 and was succeeded by Conservative MP Roy Galley.
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