Skip to main content


Volume 690: debated on Thursday 8 March 2007

rose to call attention to the Government’s plans for advancing women’s equality throughout the United Kingdom and internationally; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it gives me enormous pleasure to open this debate on International Women’s Day on the advancement of women’s equality. I start by thanking the Peers’ Labour group for agreeing that this should be the subject of the Labour debate. I am overwhelmed but extremely heartened by the number of Members who are taking part and who have stayed to speak on this important subject. The debate will cover a wide range of subjects as they affect women—far more subjects, I suspect, than my noble friend Lady Andrews can cover in detail, but I am sure that we all await her remarks with interest.

International Women’s Day is the story of ordinary women as makers of history. It is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men. That struggle goes back to the ancient Greeks, when Lysistrata initiated a sexual strike against men to prevent war; it goes back to the French Revolution, when Parisian women calling for liberty, equality and fraternity marched on Versailles to demand women’s suffrage; and it goes back to 1857, when women working in the clothing and textile factories in New York staged a protest against inhumane working conditions and low wages. The struggle for women’s rights continued for the next half-century until 49 years later when, on 8 March 1908, International Women’s Day was born. It was the day when 15,000 women once again marched through New York city demanding shorter working hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour. They accepted the slogan “bread and roses”, with bread symbolising economic security and roses a better way of life.

Since those early years, International Women’s Day has assumed a global dimension for women in developed and developing countries. On International Women’s Day, women’s achievements across the globe are celebrated. It is also a day for reflection on advancements made by women in their ability to play a full and active role, politically, socially and economically. It is a time to reflect on the burdens that remain and how they might be overcome—a reflection that must take place against the changing nature of women’s lives. Many of us remember when—it is only 25 or 30 years ago—we accepted that man was the breadwinner, women’s expectations were low and difference was greater. Women hoped for more, expected little and choice was not on the agenda.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the EOC produced an entertaining document, So, You Think You Had a Bad Day, citing a day in the life of a woman 30 years ago. It imagined a time when a woman could not get a loan for a mortgage or get credit in her own right; she could not follow her dream to be an engineer—the careers teacher looked rather aghast at the idea—and did not dare to get pregnant if she wanted promotion, which was very unlikely anyway.

Today, life is different. Women live in a different world. Women’s lives have gone through a period not of revolution, but of dramatic transformation. Family structures have changed: divorce has trebled, marriage rates have declined and more than a third of parents with children are cohabiting and/or lone parents. This development of new partnerships and the growth in the number of stepfamilies and more intricate family arrangements now shapes the income, working patterns and living standards of families. Life, for both men and women, is now more complex.

Women are professional jugglers; they multi-task. In one day, they may not only do a full-time job, but also be a carer, a mother, a grandmother and a partner. That is something that all women have in common, regardless of background, ethnicity or religious belief. But women also legitimately want to feel personally fulfilled; they want to have good physical, mental and emotional health and an opportunity to take part in wider community life. That is the role that I want to discuss: a women as her own person, and how the Government can support that. I want to pose the question whether women’s equality has advanced—be it women at work, women as carers, women as decision makers or women as victims—and to look at the barriers that remain.

We are an ageing population, with nearly 10 million adults over the age of 65. By 2020, it is estimated that that figure may be 12 million, many of whom will be cared for by working women over the age of 50. More than 301,000 people are taking on a caring role each year, and one in five carers—mainly women—are leaving or turning down a job in order to do so. Over the next 30 years, the number of carers could increase to 9 million. The extension next month of the right to request flexible working will benefit 2.6 million carers, but while the care burden continues to fall disproportionately on older women, it serves to perpetuate the cycle of disadvantage, with those providing care being unable to assure themselves of decent income in retirement and so falling into the trap of underfunding in their turn and the possibility of poverty in old age. The new carer’s credit for those who care for at least 20 hours a week will benefit 85,000 women from 2010, but society is still far too dependent on women’s unpaid labour—work that all too often goes unrecognised.

Between 1971 and today, the number of women in employment has risen from 42 per cent to 70 per cent, and the Women and Work Commission, so ably chaired by my noble friend Lady Prosser, has identified that 1.3 million new jobs are likely to be created over the next decade, a million of which are expected to be taken by women. The Government have produced a package of practical measures to support those working families. I shall illustrate some of the changes that have been made.

Since 1997, the number of registered childcare places has doubled to 1.29 million. All three and four year-olds are now entitled to free, Government-funded early education and from next month they will be entitled to a minimum of 38 weeks of early education a year. Working tax credit helps working parents to cover up to 80 per cent of the cost of childcare. The 1,051 Sure Start centres that have opened are a major support providing services to more than 840,000 children and their families. Mothers have received the single biggest financial boost since child benefit with the introduction of child tax credits. Maternity and paternity pay and leave have increased. There is a right to time off for family emergencies and to three months’ parental leave, as well as a right to flexible working. These measures are available to full-time and part-time workers and have provided greater parental choice and opportunity, which is crucial when one considers that half the mothers who work have children under the age of five.

The Government’s New Deal for Lone Parents and the changes to the tax and benefits system have given real assistance to enable 300,000 lone parents to move from welfare to work and have contributed to help 700,000 children out of poverty. There are now 1 million lone parents in work. I believe that the majority of lone parents want to work, but need more support, encouragement and opportunity.

The recent equality review found that the group that suffers the most discrimination in the workplace is mothers. To overcome that discrimination, the labour market has to change to suit the needs of families, not the other way round. There has to be a dramatic shift and real adjustment to the pattern of work. The DTI’s second work-life balance survey showed that the majority of employers who provide work-life balance practices believe that doing so has made a positive impact on employee/employer relations with greater employee commitment and motivation, a positive effect on recruitment and a decline in absenteeism. The beneficial outcomes to employers are clearly positive, as they are to the employee.

Almost a quarter of parents with children under six have requested flexible working since the law was introduced in April 2005. Flexible working not only benefits and eases the lives of mothers, but also allows fathers to spend more time with their children. It is estimated that 63 per cent of full-time working fathers want to be more involved in bringing up their children, particularly in the early years. However, comprehensive family-friendly policies are still confined to the public sector and large private sector employers. They remain beyond the capacity of most small and medium-sized enterprises, although an increasing number provides job shares.

However, far too many workplaces follow a long-hours, inflexible model of work, and that inflexibility is creating a massive waste of talent and potential. At a time when graduate skills shortages have been increasing, the proportion of women graduates in low-level jobs has trebled. It is tragic that, according to estimates, one woman in 10 with a degree will work in a low-level job throughout her working life. At all levels, women’s jobs are still profoundly affected by gender and occupational segregation. Irrespective of the fact that girls beat boys at every academic level at school, women still remain concentrated in the five lowest-paid employment sectors and 60 per cent of women work in just 10 occupational groups—for example, in personal services, administrative and secretarial jobs or sales and customer services. There are few women in skilled trades and few women are managers or senior officials. Fewer than 14 per cent of non-executive directors are women; in FTSE 100 firms, that figure falls to 10.4 per cent. Greater availability of flexible working without consequent career penalties is absolutely essential.

Introducing the national minimum wage played a fundamental part in narrowing the pay gap and, while that gap is shrinking slowly, it stubbornly refuses to go away. The mean full-time pay gap is now 17.2 per cent, which is a reduction of 20 per cent since 1975, but for part-time workers it disgracefully still stands at 41 per cent. The causes are the unequal impact of women’s family responsibilities, the exclusion of women from bonus schemes and lower starting salaries. There is also the secrecy that surrounds pay, although it is estimated that 34 per cent of large organisations have now completed a pay review and another 10 per cent are expected to carry out a review over the next year.

A fundamental change happened last year with the introduction of the gender equality duty, which comes into force on 6 April 2007. This is the most radical change to sex discrimination law in 30 years. It is a major step in the elimination of discrimination and reducing the pay gap. The duty will mean that, for the first time, public bodies must show that they are taking active steps to eliminate unlawful sex discrimination and harassment and to promote equality between women and men.

Many public bodies, including government departments, local councils, NHS trusts, police forces and schools, will also have specific duties such as assessing the different impact of policies on women and men. They will also have to publish gender equality schemes by the end of April this year. The schemes must set out objectives, focusing on the most serious forms of gender inequality, and say what action will be taken to meet those objectives.

The gender duty has the further important element of putting violence against women on the agenda. Public bodies will need to set objectives for addressing violence in consultation with stakeholders such as rape crisis centres, women’s refuges and women’s organisations.

Violence against women cuts across boundaries of culture, ethnic background, age, wealth and geography; it affects women of all ages and backgrounds. It includes rape and sexual violence, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, sexual exploitation including trafficking, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

Despite the biggest ever overhaul of domestic violence legislation, domestic violence still accounts for over 15 per cent of all violent crime and more than 100 fatalities a year. Conviction rates for domestic violence have shot up from 46 per cent in 2003 to 65 per cent today—and those conviction rates should increase further with the setting up of the 64 specialist domestic violence courts. Other milestones to reduce the level of violence against women have been the FGM Act 2003, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the good news that the UK is to sign the European convention against human trafficking, although we look to its being speedily ratified. It is also very encouraging that the Government have given their support to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on forced marriages.

I have a final word on the role of women as decision makers. What leaders do has dramatic effects on all our lives and what they do is strongly influenced by who they are. On browsing through a book of great speeches recently, I came across a speech made in 1908 by Emmeline Pankhurst, which illustrates that point. She said:

“Men politicians are in the habit of talking to women as if there were no laws that affect women. The fact is they say the home is the place for women, their interests are the rearing and training of children. Those are the things that interest women, but politics have nothing to do with those things and therefore politics do not concern women”.

Some of us went to celebrate today at Emmeline Pankhurst’s statue. I felt like standing there and quoting those words as we were celebrating. That statement was made 99 years ago, but the heart of our democracy—the UK Parliament—is still unrepresentative. It is improving but still has only 20 per cent women MPs. There is a long way to go to achieve parity.

This year is the centenary of the Qualification of Women (County and Borough Councils) Act 1907, which provided that women should not be disqualified by sex or marriage from election as a councillor. After 100 years, women councillors still only amount to 29 per cent of all councillors and, in the past year, the number of women council leaders dropped from 16 per cent to 14 per cent. The Government are therefore right to set up a councillors commission to increase the diversity of local government councillors. I hope that the commission will look at the provision made by councils to meet the special needs of women with caring responsibilities.

Today’s debate, celebrating International Women’s Day, concentrates on the achievements, the opportunities and the challenges for women, but establishing genuine equality is relevant to every citizen—men and women—regardless of their background, their ethnicity or their sexuality. The new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, the discrimination law review and the single equalities Act are all steps in solving the persistent inequality within our society. We have to continue to break down the barriers to and remove the burdens on full participation in society. Only then can we say that women are playing a full part politically, socially and economically; only then can the concept envisaged of bread and roses become a reality. I beg to move for Papers.

My Lords, it is truly a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and to be able to be the first to congratulate her on the inspiring and comprehensive way in which she introduced the debate.

In considering the Government's plans for advancing women's equality throughout the United Kingdom and internationally on International Women's Day, I congratulate Ministers on their achievements so far in this field. There is always more to be done; the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has pointed out some areas that will undoubtedly be mentioned in speeches later. It is probably not guessing to predict that some of them will cover pensions, carers, which the noble Baroness herself mentioned, the pay gap and, of course, international concerns, but none of that should blind us to the progress that has been made.

I was Britain's first Minister with responsibility for women's issues. I was appointed in 1992 when I became Employment Secretary. The appointment was regarded as groundbreaking at the time, not least by some of my political colleagues. I was a little startled to find yesterday that that appointment had been expunged not only from the House of Commons Library brief but also from the “Woman’s Hour” website, matters that are being corrected as I speak. I must say that it was a bit much to be expunged from history in the morning and abolished in the evening.

Be that as it may, many of my preoccupations then, 15 years ago, despite all our efforts, remain the same for Ministers today. Like today's Ministers, I was greatly supported by the dedication and persistence of the many organisations and individuals devoted to advancing the cause of women in public life and the workforce, organisations such as Fawcett, the Women's National Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the 300 Group, the Women in Public Life campaign and many others too numerous to list in this short debate.

Some of my early priorities in the post were influenced by the work of a Hansard Society commission on which I served under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, which led directly to the launch of Opportunity 2000. The report identified the barriers which blocked women's careers in politics and public life and recommended vigorous measures to deal with inequalities in both Houses of Parliament, the honours system, public appointments and the professions.

It seemed to me then almost too obvious to state that a country which was serious about its progress, economic and cultural, could not afford to ignore the interests of slightly more than half the population, but we are still making the same point. Indeed, much the same point was made by the distinguished Women and Work Commission in its report last year. Although I thought that the problem at the top could be tackled, it would be futile without action at grassroots level. Within a week of taking up that post in 1992, I set up an ad hoc women’s committee which identified affordable childcare, an aspirations gap and an attitude problem in the professions as the issues to tackle first. We provided 64,000 after-school childcare places. We enhanced that with a nursery initiative when, later, I was Secretary of State for Education. We organised New Horizons for Women road shows involving local training and enterprise councils and the Employment Service in cities across the country with follow-up work, which was so important having raised enthusiasm in the first instance. We asked professional bodies such as the Bar Council and the Medical Royal Colleges to explain to us just how they were advancing the cause of women. That was an entertaining period. The 13 months I spent in that post as Britain’s first Minister for Women were busy. They were also productive but, my goodness me, they were a very modest beginning. I left the post very aware of just how much more needed to be done. Since then, a Minister for Women has been a routine appointment in the Government. Joan Ruddock was made a full-time, although I think unpaid, Minister for Women when Labour came to power in 1997.

In 1989, the Hansard Society report Women at the Top found that the representation of British women in national politics had hardly increased since women got the vote. The 1987 election returned just 41 women MPs. Accordingly, the number of women in senior political posts was abysmally low, although it did include a Prime Minister. The real ground-breaker for women’s representation occurred at the 1997 election, when 120 women MPs were elected. This achievement was rightly hailed in the media as a breakthrough; and so it was, especially for the Labour Party, which saw 64 new women MPs taking their place in the Commons. Sadly, the subsequent media coverage diminished the achievement by the relentless trivialisation of these women, with their demeaning appellation “Blair Babes” and extensive coverage of their makeovers and private lives. Worse, however—this really could have been avoided—were their criticisms of the world they had entered. I do not want to sound a sour note in this debate—certainly not so early in it—but it is a pity that some of those newly elected women MPs gave the impression anyway, as conveyed by the press, that they were more concerned with their working conditions in the House of Commons than with the working conditions of the women whom they had been elected to represent. The very best advocates of women in political and public life should be women themselves. If we give the impression that political life is too uncomfortable, it is hardly encouraging for those who aspire to join us. We all bear a responsibility in that regard.

Thirty years on from the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts, where are we? In the words of the excellent Fawcett Society,

“while there are many successes to celebrate, there is still a great deal further to go to close the inequality gap between women and men”.

This is true, but given the commitment and energy demonstrated by the present Government, and indeed by those who aspire to form the next one, as well as by the figure that will no doubt be demonstrated in this debate, we will get there. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, if you want a speech made, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.

My Lords, cometh the hour, cometh the man. Even without that warm-up, I would have started my speech with due humility, following two such pioneers and pathfinders in women’s rights as the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, and particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. Forty years ago, I was a junior Labour Party official at Transport House. All junior officials were in complete awe and terror of the women’s officers of the Labour Party—I see the noble Baronesses, Lady Gould and Lady Lockwood, in their places today. They were doing an important job, and I know that others on the Benches of all parties have trod a similar path in getting women to be active in politics. I will not name the party that I attended recently, although it was obviously a Liberal Democrat party, at which I met a very bright 22 year-old woman who had ambitions for one of the council seats for which the party was challenging. Her biggest problem was two older women councillors who did not think that this flibbertigibbet was ready for such heavy responsibility. All three parties could quite often recount that part of the problem for women in politics is women in politics who, on management committees, are very harsh judges of their own sex, but progress has been made.

On thinking about what I could contribute to this debate, I decided to speak about two women whom I know very well. My mother was born in 1900 in Old Swan, Liverpool, the daughter of a railway worker. She left school at 13 years old because her mother died in childbirth, aged 35. She went into service as a lady’s maid, where she remained until at the age of 25 she married my father. They were married for 57 years and died within 12 weeks of each other. My mother never worked again in her life except for a brief time during the war. Even that was interrupted by my arrival. I have never quite worked out whether I was part of the war effort or caused by the blackout. I came 14 years after my brothers and sisters, so noble Lords can imagine what a happy surprise I was.

I do not say that my mother suffered any hardship that other women did not, but her life was very typical of working-class women born at that time and during the 20th century. She saw women get the vote. Making this speech from these Benches, I have to record that we did not make the most glorious of contributions to the struggle. It is perhaps poetic that the Pankhursts get the statue and that the Liberal Party has to apologise for its war on the suffragettes. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, pointed out, at least the 1907 Act was a step forward in women’s suffrage.

The other woman I know well is my daughter. She was born at the end of the 1990s, and I hope she will have as long a life in the 21st century as my mother had in the 20th. Her circumstances have been transformed. I was at two universities this week which confirmed that far more women than men now enter our universities. They do not study just social disciplines, but also engineering and sciences, which will have a big impact on the labour market and the career choices open to my daughter. As we also know well, other things that blighted my mother’s life, such as the danger of childbirth, are much reduced. Infant mortality and the death of the mother in childbirth are vastly reduced because of advances in medical knowledge. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has rightly said, we are celebrating a century of real progress for women.

Last Saturday, the Liberal Democrats had their spring conference in Harrogate. I took the trouble to go to a fringe meeting of the Women Liberal Democrats, at which an address was made by Lynne Ravenscroft on “Fundamentalism and Women’s Rights”. Listening to that, and to an address yesterday at our party meeting by my noble friend Lady Nicholson about a recent visit to Yemen, I realised that for the vast majority of women in many parts of the world, it is not a matter of getting from the 20th to the 21st century, it is a matter of getting out of the 14th century, which poses a problem at home and abroad. How do we respect social and religious differences while having absolute standards for the treatment of women?

As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said, forced marriages, genital mutilation and violence in marriage are included in a whole list of abuses of women. These cannot be tolerated, no matter how pious the perpetrators. It is going to prove difficult, and there is a challenge to face. However, some are getting agitated and I know that many noble Lords are far more expert than I am on this. As I say when I address sixth-form students, particularly girls, they are standing on the shoulders of giants. I make sure that they and my daughter appreciate that.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for the opportunity to speak in this unique and special debate. Before I move on to the topic of women in public life, I should like to say that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has reminded me of a four-line poem:

“My grandmother was a lady,

My mother was one of the girls,

I am a woman

And my daughter is a doctor”.

How far have we come? The noble Lord’s description of his mother and daughter illustrates that very well.

I shall talk about women in public life—the history, the successes and the job that remains to be done. As a former Commissioner for Public Appointments for almost seven years, I must declare that I have a particular interest in this area. We have a tradition in this country of public bodies and agencies that oversee or run things at arm’s-length from government departments rather than being administered by central government. These public bodies have lay people at their heart, on their boards, responsible through their independent chairmen to Ministers and so to Parliament. They cover every aspect of our lives and include, for example, the BBC, health trusts, the Food Standards Agency, the Audit Commission and, one of my special favourites, the British Potato Council.

Traditionally these independent, non-executive roles were filled by men who had achieved in business, commerce or came from the military and civil services. They were often recommended by word of mouth or by being known to those who did the selecting—“the tap on the shoulder” as it was known. Over time, when demand exceeded the roles available, a list of worthy interested parties grew. It was housed in the Cabinet Office and was known as “The List of the Great and the Good”. In the late 1980s, two things happened. One was that Ministers were keen to see a wider range of candidates and a more regularised process following the Nolan report. The other was that the lack of women on the list was challenged, most particularly by members of the 300 Group. When they were told that there just were not any women available, the group decided to seek out suitably qualified women to enrich the list of names. A great many women were approached and this strengthened and diversified the list. I was one myself, first chairing a health service board and then an NHS region.

When the first Commissioner for Public Appointments took up his post, approximately 12,000 appointments were covered by his office. That number fluctuates as new bodies are created, some are merged and others cease to exist. Currently, just over 9,500 appointees are serving on public bodies in England and Wales. Statistics have been kept for a decade now, and therefore we can begin to detect patterns and themes and to develop strategies continuously to improve the process. In 1996—far better than the quote given by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, on the number of women in the FTSE 100 companies—women made up 34 per cent of all appointments to boards in that year and 20 per cent of appointments as chairs of boards. The most recent figures, published in 2006, show that the overall total of women appointees was nearly 37 per cent, with 32 per cent appointed to the chairing role. There has been real success but the job is not finished. If a measure of equal opportunities is equal outcomes, then much still remains to be done.

What has contributed to the change? First, it has been the clear desire and intention of Ministers to make a difference. Without that leadership the picture would be very different. The Nolan principles and the OCPA process have ensured a much more open, transparent and fair process. The dissolution of the “List of the Great and Good” in March 2003 led the Cabinet Office, with the help of the Department for Work and Pensions, to set up a public bodies vacancy website. That means that all forthcoming vacancies in all government departments are publicised in one place and can be easily accessed by anyone interested in being considered for such a role. The NHS, which has traditionally had more boards, and therefore more appointments, pioneered the way to analyse the difficulties and develop plans to counter them. In the NHS, women currently make up almost 35 per cent of board chairs.

So, what remains to be done? In my view, unrealistic targets, however well intentioned, can be as much a deterrent as an encouragement. We must analyse things much more systematically. For example, there are women who have the skills and experience to fulfil these roles but do not know about them. We must publicise more widely. There are able women who know of these roles but do not come forward because they think they do not have a chance; they do not trust the system. We must convince them otherwise. There are women who are suitable but lack the confidence to apply, or are diffident and over-modest at interviews. We must encourage more shadowing schemes so that they gain the confidence to apply, and we must encourage them to speak up during the interview process. A favourite American verse of mine says:

“If we whisper down a well about the goods we have to sell,

We will not make as many dollars as the one who climbs a tree and hollers”.

Therefore we must encourage more women to speak up and speak out.

There are women who have most of the technical expertise but lack crucial experience to be appointed on merit. Rather like actors and the Equity card, without a card they cannot get a job; without a job they cannot get a card. So it can be with public appointments—without the practical experience they do not get selected. We should consider an apprentice scheme for all those who were previously disadvantaged or under-represented. In that way almost every board could have an extra co-opted member for a year. That would not give the new members a permanent place on a board but it would give them the experience needed to compete equally for new appointments. It would also give those boards the opportunity to experience the real benefits of diversity.

We should also assess and remunerate these posts appropriately. I believe that remuneration is a diversity issue. Some appointments are paid, some are not, with no rhyme or reason to support which category they fall into. Those who can afford to do pro bono work have an unfair advantage. We need to consider these things and much more if we want to have women’s voices and policies at the boardroom table.

As today’s debate is about women, I have focused on them. However, there are two further areas worthy of attention: people from ethnic minorities and people with a disability. In 1996, people from an ethnic minority constituted 4 per cent of appointments, and there were no appointments of ethnic minority chairs. The most recent figures show that the total percentage appointed was 8.6 per cent, and 6.1 per cent chairmen. No figures were collected for the proportion of people with disabilities in 1996, but today it is 4.4 per cent of the total and over 3 per cent of chairs.

Much has been done, but there is a great deal more we can do. I end with the words of one of my favourite poets, who said that we are still not where we are going, but we are not where we were.

I am sorry, my Lords, we have absolutely no margin in this debate. The speakers will have to stick to seven minutes. As soon as “0:07” appears on the clock, the time is up.

My Lords, we all hugely admire the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for ensuring that we mark 8 March with a debate on women’s issues and for so clearly setting out women’s achievements as well as those of the Government.

As this year we mark the 200th anniversary of the Act of Parliament abolishing slavery, I have chosen to introduce the story of Phyllis Wheatley. She was born in Senegal in 1753. She was abducted and sold into slavery at the age of seven. She was bought by the Wheatley family, who soon discovered that she was no ordinary young woman. The precocious genius of the child they had bought was obvious to the family, so, besides the duties of her enslaved status, they encouraged her to fulfil her ambition to become literate.

Under their kind guardianship, Phyllis, by the age of 13, was not only highly proficient in English but studied Greek, Latin and the Bible and had written her first poem. Slave girl that she was, Phyllis was out of step with the time, and when the Wheatleys tried to expose her poems to the Americans, she became the subject of racist jibes. It was difficult for them to overcome the stereotyping that in theory black people could never attain literary skills. They accused her of plagiarism and worse.

Phyllis continued to write despite the fact that this irrepressible young black woman could not find a publisher. In those days, white women who wrote were treated as pariahs by the Aryan white publishing houses. History tells us that a Boston newspaper took the plunge and began publishing her work. George Washington became one of the greatest admirers of her work and referred to Phyllis as,

“God's own image in ebony”.

Benjamin Franklin was another admirer and often quoted from Phyllis’s poems.

Such accolades from two of the greatest statesmen of the day did little to mitigate Phyllis’s publishing problems. She continued to be subjected to tests by those who hoped to prove that she was a fraud. She acceded to their demands, but, beside her best efforts and those of the Wheatleys, the US neanderthals could not make a case against her. She was tried in court. Although it proved impossible to prove plagiarism, she was never really accepted.

Hoping for better things, the Wheatleys brought Phyllis to Britain. But here, too, they were bitterly disappointed. However, Phyllis stood stoically by her work. The story goes that never in the entire history of universal liberalism was a writer subjected to such abusive treatment on racist and sexist grounds. Phyllis died early but her story was brought to light by Vidya Anand in his book From slavery to freedom.

Two hundred years after the successful Act of Parliament initiated by William Wilberforce, we would not want to believe that such treatment could again be meted out to black women—but that is not entirely so. Black women writers will tell you that they still get the third degree when they try to publish and that they have to do much more to get known publishers to accept their work. But there is much hope. We note that the roles of women overall—black and white—have been greatly enhanced by the part of the Queen's Speech dealing with women’s overall direction and equality. It included measures to improve the labour market to enable women's participation, improvements in the pension and benefit system and more vigorous measures against those who use violence against women. That will benefit all women in no small measure.

The Minister for Women issued a government action plan to implement the recommendations of the Women and Work Commission, from which black women will admit they have benefited. Although they still confront racism in their day-to-day work, they are able, at great sacrifice to themselves, to make their own way. They will readily agree that their lives have been enhanced by the Government’s action on women in general, but think that there is still a long way to go. They feel they are being blamed for gun crime. They fear that control may be lost for ever if government rulings insist that they join the workforce when their children reach the age of 12, which they see as the most dangerous age, puberty. They contend that government action could give children more rights than their parents and that the result could be another lost generation. Perhaps the Minister will allay some of those fears in her summing up.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, on initiating the debate and on her outstanding speech, as well as her outstanding work outside this Chamber. I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Shephard on her speech; I agreed with it until almost the end, when she quoted Margaret Thatcher’s highly dubious and, dare I say it, discriminatory comment. Apart from that, I thought that it was perfectly acceptable.

Time in this debate is very short. I should dearly like to have talked about opportunities for women, the huge pool of talent that there is and the need for flexible working and childcare facilities. I would dearly like to have talked about the enormous advantage—not disadvantage—that employers get from organising job-sharing and the undoubted job discrimination against women with small children. I agreed with what the noble Baroness said on that. As the father of two daughters and now, for the past six weeks, a first grand-daughter, I have not only an interest to declare but a real interest in making progress.

Instead, I should like to concentrate for the few minutes that I have on one issue that receives far too little attention in this House or the other place: the tragedy of HIV/AIDS. I suppose that by now the scale of the scourge is reasonably well known, with 25 million people already dead and 40 million people around the world living with HIV/AIDS. There is still no cure and no vaccine. That is the stark picture too often ignored by policy makers around the world, but in the context of the debate what is also often brushed aside is that so many victims of HIV/AIDS are women.

I remember, when I carried out my AIDS campaign 20 years ago, being told that it was a disease that affected only gay men, the unpleasant implication too often being that they could be left to their fate. It certainly does affect gay men but it is also transmitted through heterosexual sex, to such an extent that 48 per cent of people now living with HIV/AIDS are women. In sub-Saharan Africa, 59 per cent of adults living with HIV are women, while among young people of 15 to 24 years old the percentage is even higher, at 74 per cent. In the Caribbean, 51 per cent of those living with HIV are women while in Ukraine, which is sadly the centre of Europe’s fastest growing epidemic, 46 per cent of adults living with HIV are women. In the UK, the absolute figures may be smaller but, even so, 16,000 with HIV access to healthcare in 2005 are women and 35 per cent of all new diagnoses of HIV were among women.

There is no doubt about the number of women who are affected or about the discrimination that women with AIDS so often encounter. In parts of the world women suffer abandonment, violence and even loss of their homes. The stigma means that women may feel reluctant even to access treatment. The penalty is therefore often very high, and we would be mistaken if we thought that that penalty somehow did not exist in this country.

What can be done? Clearly, access to drugs is essential for those living with HIV and also the means to deliver it. We need resources—and here I pay particular tribute to the Global Fund and its director, Sir Richard Feachem, who is soon to retire—but it is not just treatment we should be concerned about but prevention, and the tragedy here is that we know what works but we just do not do it.

We know that condoms are effective, for example, but even today we find the Roman Catholic Church failing to support this simple disease prevention policy that preserves life. I have never understood why the church is so good—outstanding, magnificent—in providing care for those who are infected, and so woeful in working to prevent the infection. We also know that the provision of clean needles can have a dramatic effect on HIV among drug users. We established that in this country in the 1980s; but, even so, many countries still ignore that lesson.

There is perhaps a temptation to think of HIV/AIDS as a global issue: big but over there and out of sight. We need to recognise that we have a major problem in this country, with 70,000 people, increasingly women, living with HIV, and an even bigger problem when other sexual diseases such as chlamydia are taken into account. I believe that our aim in this country should be to demonstrate just how prevention and treatment policies should be carried out—to be something of a model of how it should be done. Sadly, I fear it cannot be said that we are doing this today. Too many of our sexual diseases clinics are rundown and overcrowded; too often the waiting times for appointments are long, making a mockery of the First World War ambition that these should be walk-in, anonymous clinics. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, knows only too well, over the past months we have received evidence that primary care trusts are cutting back their sexual health services to meet the overall health service budget for the year. That applies not just to local health trusts. The Government promised a major sexual health campaign and to devote £50 million to a new national advertising campaign. They announced the finance at the end of last year: it was not £50 million, it was not £40 million, it was £3.6 million, with no guarantee of more money to come.

This is one of the most acute problems of our time. My concern is that we are not doing enough, either internationally or nationally, to tackle it. What is beyond any doubt is that this failure is to the disadvantage of women in this country and all over the world.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for once again setting down this vital subject for debate. I am delighted by the number of speakers today. When I was chair of Women Liberal Democrats it often seemed a thankless task. It is very heart-warming to see so many involved today, both women and men. My noble friend Lord Lester will make the winding-up speech for these Benches. His steely determination now looks set to deliver some freedom and protection for those abused through forced marriages.

So many of us have battled to increase the parliamentary representation of women, to ensure that we do not remain in 52nd place in the international listings—below even Pakistan. If indeed we have Lords reform, we must secure gender balance here. We know of the gender gap in so many areas in Britain. We have made progress but social changes are adding new challenges.

As I look at my 13 year-old daughter, I feel enormous trepidation as well as optimism about what the future will bring her—more so than for my sons. It is okay now, as she can compete with the boys, but I know that she would rather like a wedding in a castle, like Liz Hurley, and that she is very keen to have children, especially girls. It is when they arrive that the challenges to her future and security will enter.

The better educated girls are, the more likely they will be buffered if things go wrong with their marriages and partnerships. Given that around half of all marriages end in divorce, this is vital.

Working hours are also key. I remember, when my kids were small, filling in the census in 1991 which asked about working hours. I was working 40 hours a week as an academic at University College London. My male colleagues looked down their noses at me, as I left at 5.25 pm each day, but I had to pick up my children from the UCL nursery and those were the nursery’s hours. Meanwhile, my husband, a surgeon, was working 80 hours a week—not a recipe for shared responsibility with children or an equal partnership.

The EOC reports that working men wish to be more involved with their families. That has to be welcome, but as you get older and your children begin to grow up, you suddenly find new dependants to look after: ailing parents. That responsibility, too, continues to fall disproportionately on women. How can they hope to hold together marriages, homes, children, parents and work? No wonder mental illness is on the rapid rise in the United Kingdom.

Through education and economic power we have to do what we can to ensure that our daughters can best look after themselves and their families. The more economically powerful the woman, the better she is able to do that. Not surprisingly, when we look beyond our shores to desperately poor countries, we see that it is women who usually have the worst deal. Even in seemingly rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, women are very much second-class citizens. Visit the King Saud University in Riyadh, as I have done, and you will find splendid facilities for men. Visit the so-called parallel women’s section and it is a different matter: no free access to the library, no wandering up and down picking up and flicking through the journals; that is just for the men.

In many parts of the world it is not simply a matter of injustice but of life and death, such as female infanticide in India; the killing of a woman politician simply for being such in Pakistan; violence and degradation; human trafficking, which exploits poverty and the low status of women; and rape used as a tool of control and war in Sudan.

As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, AIDS is increasingly an epidemic among women. In parts of Africa, 75 per cent of young people with HIV are women. It is the legacy of gender inequality. Women often lack the power to determine with whom, how or when they have sex. Girls, not boys, are expected to be faithful. A married woman is not in a position to demand that her husband, having had unsafe sex elsewhere, uses a condom—and he does not. In India, more than 90 per cent of HIV positive women are married and monogamous. The UN rightly calls marriage a risk factor in contracting AIDS. If anything positive can come out of this epidemic, it has to be that gender inequalities must be narrowed.

However, recent research suggests that, just as education helps to protect girls in the UK in other ways, education in Africa helps to protect girls against contracting AIDS. They are better informed but, crucially, better empowered within their relationships. Yet the vast majority of girls in Africa will not complete primary education, let alone secondary school. It is the girls who nurse sick parents and who are the first to be withdrawn from school. Supporting the education of girls has to be a huge step towards turning around the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Mary Robinson is surely right when she says that rights for women are human rights. They are absolute and brook no cultural interpretation.

There is so much we need to do both in the UK and the wider world. I am glad that International Women’s Day is beginning to gain greater prominence in the UK. Maybe we are slowly beginning to roll this boulder up the hill. For the sake of our daughters and our sons, this is surely what we have to do.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, for securing this debate. I was honoured to be invited by her to speak in it.

In 1871, George Eliot wrote:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die in the roar that lies on the other side of silence”.

If the equality of women is to continue to be advanced, we must value better the choice that many women make to care for others. Caring for vulnerable adults or children inevitably exposes social workers, early years workers or residential childcare workers to the,

“roar … on the other side of silence”,

and they must be protected as they make that commitment to care.

Angela, a foster carer, spoke to the British Association for Adoption & Fostering. She said, of foster caring:

“Your life will never be the same again. Your friends may change, your lifestyle will certainly change and you are never responsibility free. But the rewards for me far outweigh these changes. To make a difference in someone's life, to give someone a chance to be happy—whether short-term or long-term—that's surely got to be the biggest job satisfaction going”.

The satisfaction that carers take in making a difference for children is a recurring theme. Yet so often, care professionals have to work without support, in particular without someone to listen when things are difficult.

I urge the Government to sustain the momentum that they have developed in improving support for the social care and early years workforce, even in these times of financial constraint. In particular, I ask them to ensure that the newly qualified social workers that they have been so successful in recruiting receive the special support that they need.

Eighty per cent—four-fifths—of the social care workforce are women. The White Paper Options for Excellence: Building the Social Care Workforce for the Future notes that the vacancy rate in the social care sector is double that of all other types of industrial, commercial and public employment. It points out that the highest vacancy rate in social care in 2005 was for care staff in children’s homes, at 15.1 per cent. The vacancy rate for occupational therapists was 13.6 per cent and the rate for care staff in homes for adults with physical disabilities, mental health problems or learning disabilities was 12.3 per cent. It reports that those who leave the sector often refer to stress, related to poor management and high caseloads.

According to UNISON, women make up 98 per cent of the early years workforce. In 2004, only half of nurseries had a training budget. Eighty per cent of care staff in England had no qualifications. Hourly pay rates for employees aged 18 and over in the residential care sector in 2004 ranged from £3.50 to a maximum of £6.90.

Perhaps I may give an illustration. On a visit to a hostel for young drug users in Kings Cross I met a community psychiatric nurse, Gabriella Cameirras. Ten months previously she had been installed there with three other nurses; she was the last of those women standing. The experience of listening to her speak about her work was excoriating. She described the immense neediness of the young people and how no thought had been given to the support that she and her colleagues would need to endure in that environment. Her experience is an extreme example of a typical phenomenon, one which makes many of us furious. The most needy adults and children in this country are frequently cared for by our poorest educated, supported and paid carers, generally women.

Consider women working in children’s homes. Often it is the most traumatised children who are cared for in these settings. The Office for National Statistics found that 68 per cent of those children had mental disorders and 56 per cent had conduct disorders. Children with conduct disorders might steal from or attack one another, they might choose to set fire to their home. Research commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, undertaken by Drs Cameron, Petrie and others at the Thomas Coram research unit, examined practice in a sample of homes in England, Germany and Denmark. In their sample, 20 per cent of English staff had a degree-level qualification, compared to 51 per cent of German staff and 94 per cent of the Danish. Eighty-eight per cent of English managers reported much difficulty in retaining and recruiting staff, 46 per cent of the German managers reported such difficulty and none of the Danish did so. Staff in Denmark are paid no more than their English counterparts. Pedagogy is the specialist training for work with vulnerable children adopted in some continental countries. Pedagogic training is one of the most popular professional training courses in Denmark, described as more popular than teaching or medicine. It is true that the English children tend to have been far more traumatised, but that surely is an argument for empowering the women in our children’s homes with at least as much expertise as their counterparts in Denmark.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, in his letter of 16 February on newly qualified social worker status—this was a proposal in the Government’s White Paper—wrote:

“Many newly qualified social workers are thrown in the deep end with difficult cases from the start of their employment, and where this happens the rate of burn out can be high”.

He speaks of the need for more detailed scoping of the newly qualified social work status proposal. Will the Minister say how that scoping inquiry is proceeding, when it is likely to conclude and whether she could provide any further information on progress towards this status? I recognise that the resolution of this matter may require additional effort from social service departments as well as improved guidance and additional funds from Her Majesty’s Government.

Many newly qualified social workers are thrown in at the deep end, with difficult cases from the start of their employment, and many will burn out as a consequence. That cannot be allowed and must be addressed with the urgency that the Government are giving it. If the equality of women is to be advanced we must better value the choice that many women make to care, recognise their difficulties and support them.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend, Baroness Gould, on securing this debate. I believe that this is the second time that she has secured a debate on this subject in five years. I have heard about her awesome amount of work. Like others, I have been a great admirer of her as a Labour activist for a long time. I listened to her with awe; she has inspired us all. I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Baronesses, Lady Flather and Lady Howells, for their dedication and outstanding work as minority members of the community and this House. They have set a great precedent. We welcome their presence and long may their contribution continue—with as much glory, if not more.

There is so much to say on this issue. I speak as someone who has worked relentlessly on advancing women and their place in every corner of wherever I go. I want to share the premise that I started with at the age of 16, when I got married—not forcibly, I might add, as I have said on a number of occasions. I found a card that said, “I would change the world if I could find a babysitter”. Of course I did not know then that I was going to have five children, but things happen for a reason. On the same stall I came across the saying, “If injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty”. Those two comments have framed my thinking in many ways.

I have been thinking about what the noble Baroness, Lady Fritchie, said about those who holler. They have to be a particular kind of person; some of us who have hollered have been given other names. Hollering is not always conducive to getting attention from the Government. I hope that we are all learning lessons as each day goes by.

The debate’s ambition is huge. If we look at Britain and across the world, we see that we have so much to do. That is not to put down every mark of achievement. Every day I thank God; I wake up and think that this is a better day. That is not to say that I do not want to struggle more; I do not like it, but I have to to make greater advances.

I want to bring to the attention of your Lordships the particular difficulties faced by Muslim women. It would be remiss of me not to bring that to the debate. I was asked by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary about 18 months ago to chair something on preventing terrorism and working with women. We went around the country talking to Muslim women; all the potential successes, as reflected in the statistics that have been shared here, had barely touched the lives of many of those whom we talked to. This is something that I hope that we will continue to look at, not just in terms of veils, whether we are still eating samosas or being forced into marriage and suffering domestic violence, but in relation to the emancipation of women, political, social and economic changes and where we are in our achievements and advances.

Many Muslim women living in the UK cannot be defined simply or be seen as a homogeneous group. That is a problem for us. We are looking at particular issues of domestic violence and forced marriages, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on the work that he has done. The initial report, undertaken by people such as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and me, on forced marriage may finally be coming to fruition. We did not want to treat forced marriage as being one subject in a little corner, and felt that it needed to be dealt with within mainstream legislation—that on family law and child protection. I am really pleased that things are progressing that way.

Of course we need to deal with the 300 or 400 women who seek our advice and guidance, but also with the half a million women who are not in the labour market in sufficient number and are not achieving the kind of higher education status or results that they rightly should. The ones who are in the labour market do not succeed and advance. The political arena has a lot of responsibility. Without hollering, I want to say that I am aghast at how little attention is given to filling the terrible gap in political representation. That is a must.

In the couple of minutes that remain, I want to draw attention to some points that have been made about the plight of Muslim women abroad. I acknowledge that countries such as Saudi Arabia have a long way to go. None the less, even among the hidden parts of Saudi society, great talents are working and progressing their own agenda in their own way. We have to recognise that. I have just come back from Bangladesh, where we looked at the work of BRAC, an organisation that I have brought to the attention of the House before. It is systematically enabling women to participate in socio-economic and political aspects of Bangladeshi life.

We need to look at that, and to look at international role models when we here explore terrorism and other issues—what is happening outside. Thus far, we have failed to utilise role models of the Islamic world for the benefit of Muslim women, particularly in this country. If we do not address the two issues separately—role modelling and mentoring, as well as the lack of economic participation of Muslim women in societies—we will not be able to prevent terrorism. They have a significant role to play.

My Lords, on such occasions, I always start with my mantra:

“Women are half the world’s population, working two thirds of the world’s working hours, receiving 10% of the world’s income, owning less than 1% of the world’s property”.

If that does not focus our attention on the subject, I do not know what will.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, on her speech and on the way she presented the picture. I am not allowed to call her my noble friend in this House because she sits on the Benches opposite, but I have thought of her as my friend from the time that she came into the House. I feel very happy to say that. I also enjoyed the speech of my noble friend Lady Shephard, who is not here at the moment. The first two speeches really set the standard for the debate.

We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, about how things had improved in this country for women and how opportunities have been provided and taken. Of course, there will never be a time when we do not need to do any more—that is not possible. However, in other parts of the world there are no opportunities for women to take. Nothing is even thought of as being an opportunity. There is not even thinking that women should have opportunities.

It is those women I want to focus on. They are the poorest of the poor in the world, and form 70 per cent of the world’s female population. They are not being focused on by all of us who should think about them. Whether it is a question of aid or raising funds, money goes into some kind of general pool. How much money that Bob Geldof has raised, or that was saved from debt reduction, do we know has gone to women in Africa?

It is the women who bear the brunt of everything. My noble friend Lord Fowler talked about HIV/AIDS; he knows how terribly affected I am by the facts. The UN has already said that over 70 per cent of the world’s infected are women. All they have is a condom, which the man will or will not wear. As the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, clearly stated, where is the power of the poor women in developing countries to make anyone use a condom? If they ask their husbands, they will probably get slapped around. My noble friend, and perhaps the noble Baroness as well, suggested that many women were not allowed to go to clinics. Women—not some women, but nearly all those poor monogamous women who are infected—are not allowed to go to clinics, because the men and the family say that it would bring shame on the family, and that that is far more important than a women’s life or her suffering. Those are the things that we have to bear in mind. Alongside what we have been able to do, we have to think about what large numbers of women are suffering from.

Let us look at some of the myths—I always like to do so—such as that of education, which is that if women get educated everything will change. How will they get educated? What will make them be educated when they get up at five o’clock in the morning, work all day—maybe in fields, maybe with children, maybe feeding and looking after the husbands—and go to bed after everybody else has? It does not fit with their lifestyle, but you can teach them about healthcare and family planning, and make accessible to them what they need to know. They learn what they need to know very quickly, but education has wasted a huge amount of time. We say that we need a perfect model; there is no such thing. You try whatever is possible in whatever place.

People say, “Population growth does not matter among the poor, because they do not use many of the resources of the world. America uses those resources”. That is wrong; it matters, because whatever little resources the poor have, they are devastating those resources. That is extremely important. Millennium development goals become nonsense if you do not look at family planning. You cannot chase your tail for ever. Every time that you produce something, you increase something; you have a far greater increase in population. It is time to lose the myth. We need family planning.

A lot more effort needs to be put into microbicides. We know at the moment that there are only condoms, but bear in mind that microbicides are probably only two years away. They are being trialled in Africa and India. People say that they are only 60 to 70 per cent effective, but that is a huge leap forward from zero. Look at the AIDS orphans. Do we not need family planning to avoid women with AIDS having children who are orphaned and perhaps carry HIV? Family planning is fundamental for us.

Religion is not good for women. It is a manmade institution—every religion is man-made and man-led—and it is a very good way to keep women in their place. Let us fight that as well.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, for initiating this debate. There is a rich list of contributors here today from almost all sides of your Lordships’ House. Without being controversial, perhaps I may say how much I look forward to the day when women are also represented on the Bishops’ Benches.

Today is a day to celebrate women's achievements around the world. However, it is also an opportunity to remind ourselves of the work that still needs to be done to improve the lives of women in this country. One important issue that I wish to address—I make no apology for it—is rape. Home Office figures show that at least 47,000 adult women are raped every year in the United Kingdom, while 5 per cent of women in the UK have been raped since the age of 16. If anything, these figures are likely to be an underestimate. Given the scale of the problem, this must be a priority for us all. I want to address two key issues: improvements to the criminal justice system and improvements to the services available to victims of rape in the community.

First, we need to ensure that everything possible is being done by the criminal justice system to make certain that perpetrators of rape are caught and convicted. At present, only 5.3 per cent of cases reported to the police lead to a conviction—one of the lowest conviction rates for rape in Europe. Thirty years ago, that figure was more than 33 per cent.

Furthermore, there is a postcode lottery for rape victims regarding the likelihood of their attackers being convicted. Figures published last year by the Fawcett Society's Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System, of which I am a member, revealed that, while the national average is 5.3 per cent, the conviction rate varies widely by area from 13.8 per cent in Northamptonshire tojust 1.6 per cent in Suffolk and 0.86 per cent in Gloucestershire. Moreover, those are only the conviction rates for alleged assaults that are reported to the police. Research suggests that between 75 per cent and 95 per cent of rapes are never even reported. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of rapes do not lead to a conviction.

Without Consent, a comprehensive report published earlier this year by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service on the investigation and prosecution of rape offences, demonstrated that the criminal justice system is not working as it should be when dealing with rape complaints. The report found that front-line police officers often have little training for responding to rape and that they overestimate the number of false allegations, feeding a culture of disbelieving victims. Moreover, too many allegations of rape are recorded as “no crimes” by the police, distorting the official figures, and many victims still say that they are treated with ignorance and scepticism by the police.

Some police forces have undoubtedly made real improvements in this area in recent years, and they must be commended for that. Despite this, however, the treatment of victims still varies significantly both between and within police forces. We now need to see the police taking all rape complaints seriously from the outset. All police forces should also develop policies on rape that include specially trained investigation officers, the allocation of a specially trained police officer to the complainant right from the start, and training on rape and sexual offences for all front-line staff so that they are able to respond appropriately.

In addition to the police, the Crown Prosecution Service plays a crucial role in securing rape convictions. Many improvements have been made by the CPS in recent years—in particular, the introduction of area rape co-ordinators and specialist rape prosecutors. However, concerns remain about the skill and expertise of barristers instructed by the CPS to prosecute rape cases. Therefore, the CPS should ensure that these specialists are sufficiently trained so that they have the necessary skills to prosecute often complex cases; in cases of rape and serious sexual offences, it should instruct only advocates who have undergone suitable training. Police and CPS training and good practice that encourages criminal justice professionals to take a positive approach to building rape cases are crucial to achieving higher levels of convictions, without compromising the rights of defendants, and to reducing the number of victims who choose not to pursue cases as a result of their experiences of the criminal justice system.

Secondly, alongside these criminal justice reforms, it is essential that support services for victims of rape are improved in all areas so that women receive the help and support that they need at a time of crisis. Sexual assault referral centres provide specialist medical treatment and counselling to victims of rape, and victims are less likely to drop out of an investigation in an area where there is a SARC. However, there are only 15 such centres across England and Wales. Six more are in development, and funding is promised to bring the total to 30 by April 2008, but progress has been very slow.

In addition, rape crisis centres offer long-term support to survivors of sexual violence, including women dealing with experiences such as child or early adulthood sexual abuse. However, due to decreases in funding, the number of rape crisis centres has been declining. In 1984, there were 68 women-only rape crisis centres or helplines, compared with 37 in England and Wales today. Furthermore, out of these 37 remaining centres, none has stable statutory finding, and six have closed in the past three years due to funding problems.

We need to take this matter seriously. Once this infrastructure of support is in place, it should be linked to a 24-hour rape helpline to allow victims of rape access to support and information, whenever it is needed.

While these measures will not solve the problem of rape, and broader prevention and public information work is also required, they would go some way towards improving victims’ experiences of the criminal justice system, boosting the conviction rate and ensuring that rape victims have access to appropriate support services.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Gould not only on this debate but on her eloquent introduction to it. I have no problem with accentuating the “friend” part of “noble friend” because, since I joined this House, she has given me the benefit of her awesome wisdom on its organisational procedures, so I am very grateful to her.

The whiff of change is in the air. We saw that in the House of Commons yesterday and it is true of this debate. I think that we last had this debate a year ago, although it does not seem that long, and I was the only man to speak then. This year, I am pleased to see that a litter of noble Lords is contributing, and there seem to be three or four times as many people speaking in this debate, even though most of them are not in the Chamber while most of the debate is taking place.

I have my agenda here. I picked it up from the back of yesterday’s Guardian—I do not know whether noble Lords can see it. There is a picture of two women and it says:

“We are super-confident, smart, young, scarily ambitious. We can achieve everything. We are the Generation Y women”.

My Lords, at least I made the point, which is that we have to discuss two agendas when we debate the position of women in rich countries today. Of course, I accept the points that have been made about the high levels of oppression to which women are subjected in probably four-fifths of the circumstances in which they live today. However, in societies in industrial countries, something different is going on.

There is still the old-style agenda, if I can call it that. As the Women and Work Commission showed, women get substantially less pay for doing the same jobs as men. Women tend to be concentrated in low-level service jobs, and there are major problems for older women who do not get full pensions. A much lower proportion of women receive full pensions compared with men: only 37 per cent of older women are in receipt of a full state pension, compared with 80 per cent of men. There is probably still a glass ceiling, so all these problems still exist.

However, the story of the past 20 years, let alone the past 100 years, is the success of women in western countries and the massive advances that have been made in equivalent participation in the labour force, large-scale improvement in the economic circumstances of women, and the freedom of women from the traditional constraints that were so ably described by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. The latest data from the most advanced countries show that, in Denmark, for example, women now contribute about 43 to 44 per cent of total household revenue. They are not far short of parity in their contribution to household revenue. I cannot overstress how large these changes are.

We still have the old-style agenda, but we also have to consider a new-style agenda, which has to do with the stresses and strains of success. What is it like to be a woman and have to live up to the expectations in this thing, which, according to my noble friend, I am not allowed to show you any more? In the debate last year, I talked about the prevalence of anorexia and mentioned the case of Jennifer Hendricks, who died aged 25 after an 11-year struggle with anorexia. About 25 per cent of young women suffer from serious eating disorders. There is a rise in self-harm among young girls in schools. I talked about those things last time, so I shall not speak directly about them again. This is a new agenda and I shall be tracing out—if I can in seven minutes—some of its implications. That is my first point. There are two, overlapping agendas for women today, including the new-style agenda, which we must pick up.

Secondly, it is wrong to speak just of women. It is International Women’s Day, so I can see why we are having a debate about women, but whenever we talk about women, we should really be talking about gender, because all changes that affect women also affect men. As was mentioned earlier, although not perhaps forcefully stressed, unless I missed it, some of the major problems in our society concern boys and men rather than women.

The changing nature of recruitment to education is amazing. Girls first started overtaking boys in primary school; they then did it in secondary school and university; and now they are doing it in postgraduate work. More women than men are now studying to become doctors and lawyers and for media jobs. It is still true that there are not many women at the top, but it takes 20 or 30 years to get to the top, so the situation might look very different down the line.

We must give attention to poor boys especially, who tend to suffer in the school system and who suffer more generally from the decline in unskilled work in our society—the kind of work that those boys would have done will no longer exist as they grow up. Gender relations must always be considered. In England and Wales, 72 per cent of claimants for special needs are boys, compared with only 28 per cent who are girls. That is part of the second agenda, I think, not the old-style agenda.

I shall quickly suggest two implications to close. First, a whole new political agenda is emerging, which centres round lifestyle and identity. Many of our big emotional problems centre round identity and are not easily catered for by traditional economic arrangements. Eating and food are the new front line of the lifestyle agenda. Secondly, there is a rise in addictive behaviour, which is associated with the special strains to which successful women are subject. Binge drinking is a quasi-male activity, but it looks heavily addictive. Anorexia is obviously an addictive, compulsive phenomenon. It is the same with self-harm and the other pathologies of a high-achieving society.

Finally, before I get kicked off the stage—I am allowed only seven minutes—Mrs Pankhurst was mentioned. I shall repeat the slogan that she gave to Keir Hardie, which shows that there is some progress. She advised,

“votes for women, chastity for men and prohibition for all”.

My Lords, the first activists for equality for women and the early feminist movement concentrated on young women. Those who were older were largely ignored. Thankfully, that situation has improved, and in some ways the life of older women is better than ever. We have better health, more longevity, better choices in employment and leisure time, and we are often able to retire before the default age of 65. Many from the current generation enjoy final-salary pension schemes, though sadly this is a fast-disappearing benefit. Demographic change means that some of those changes will not be sustainable in the longer term unless we radically rethink our approach, and I shall concentrate on older women and work.

This year—2007—is the year when the number of people over 65 in the UK is expected to exceed the number under 16. Two-thirds of the workforce increase by 2020 will be people over 50, and the rise in state pension age for women in the decade 2010-20 will bring another 2 million within the definition of “working age”. Last year, more than 11 per cent of women over state pension age were employed—the highest rate yet, according to the Office for National Statistics. Sadly, there still seems to be a deeply ambivalent attitude towards the potential of older workers to contribute to the economy. Most of the arrivals from eastern Europe and outside the EU entering on work permits are now under the age of 40. At the same time, 5 million people are on benefits in this country, with 2.5 million claiming incapacity benefit, almost half of whom are over 50. It has been estimated that the under-employment of this group costs the UK economy £29 billion every year.

Clearly someone in their 20s or 30s engaged on a working gap for a year or two in this country is likely to have different motivations from those of a working woman in her 50s who may well still have a mortgage payment to meet, have children at university, or perhaps younger children from a second marriage, and care responsibilities for older parents at the same time. On top of that, there is now the official expectation that such women will work as long as possible to meet pension costs. Realistically, we must also expect to start planning for care needs during our working life and to maintain our independence for as long as possible.

It is vital that employers and the Government recognise the diversity and complex demands of older women's working lives. The Government have, for instance, brought the contribution of many carers within the scope of the state pension, which is welcome, but merely rewarding people at the ultimate stage with a pension is not enough. Workplace culture and practice must adapt and provide a more flexible and, I would argue, realistic framework.

Women, as we know, are the major carers both within the residential care sector and in informal caring. We have often in this House debated these problems and are well aware of the overall position—low income, inadequate respite services, and cumulative health problems, all of which can lead to the permanent exclusion of the carer from the workforce. We know that that makes no sense.

Approximately one in eight workers in the UK currently combine work with care responsibilities, and we can expect these numbers to increase because, by 2025, half of the UK population will be over 50. That age group can expect to live for another 30 to 35 years.

This is not merely about cost to the UK economy. The recent UNICEF report made sobering reading for anyone concerned about how these issues impact on family life and children in particular. Parenting and other care responsibilities may be among the chief reasons why flexible working is sought, but there are others, including study, improving skills, winding down towards retirement, and volunteering.

It is obvious that older workers are the great untapped resource. The Leitch Review of Skills interim report stated that,

“relying on the flow of better qualified young people to drive change by 2020”,

would not help the UK to meet its goals in international competitiveness and productivity. Innovation flourishes when knowledge, skills, energy and experience interact. How often do we hear that people in their 50s have been turned down as “too well qualified”—that phrase is in inverted commas in my brief—while there is a skill shortage in older workers? The Government must do more to facilitate training and education in later life—real life-long learning.

Last year's Budget announced free further education learning up to the age of 25, the same as the age ceiling on funding for apprenticeships. This is of course welcome, but why is there an arbitrary age limit? Is that acceptable from the point of view of equality provisions?

Briefly, on the pensions gap, in 2002-03, 55 per cent of men and 73 per cent of women had personal and stakeholder funds with a total fund value of less than £10,000. For men of 50-54, the median estimate of personal and occupational wealth was £75,000; for women it was £6,000. These figures show the depth of the crisis for older women, and addressing it will require bold thinking. The new age discrimination provisions, while welcome, do not go far enough. Workers should have the right to continue working past state pension age, not merely to request it. It is wholly illogical to retain a mandatory retirement age. Should we not also consider scrapping income tax on employed income, up to a sensible ceiling, for those beyond the state pension age? It would act as an incentive to save towards care services, for instance.

To support individual choice, I would also ensure that everyone received a state pension forecast at 55 to encourage financial planning for the future, taking into account the increasing work options at 60 and beyond. Included with this forecast would be information on how to maintain good health through the entire life course. We ignore the value of older women as a key part of the workforce at our peril. It is more than an insult to them, it is a denial of equality and human rights and a huge and growing cost to our national economy.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Gould on setting up this debate, giving us the opportunity of hearing from noble Lords around the House with so much expertise. Today’s debate is both a celebration and a wake-up call for women everywhere. Equality is still a distant dream.

I agonised about my topic today. Should I highlight perhaps the most important current debate in which women must be engaged, climate change? Would my time be well spent talking about urban regeneration? What about my beloved Lighter Evenings Bill? At the back of my mind, however, I wondered whether my annual review of sport and women would be more appropriate. By coincidence, at my breakfast table yesterday, I, too, was reading the Guardian. The Guardian made up my mind. I turned to the sports section; 12 excellent pages, splendid journalists, marvellous action photographs. But there was not a single mention of a woman in any shape or role—no journalists, no feature writers, no sporting performers: nothing. I could not even find a woman jockey at the listed Catterick meeting. But, no, wait; here on page 12, is a whole sentence:

“England badminton world No. 1 Gail Emms’s mother played as centre forward for England in the 1971 women’s football world cup”.

So today I am back on the rampage.

I thank the Women’s Sport Foundation, from which I have plenty of statistics. I tell your Lordships in advance that they do not make good reading; this in the year when the nation has woken up to childhood obesity, and with the prospect of the 2012 Olympic Games, which should inspire all our youngsters. Two-thirds of boys and girls between two and 11 take part in about one hour’s moderate activity a day. Boys continue to 15; girls have by that time dropped by half. More than a third of girls quit all sport on leaving school; two-thirds of boys continue. Only 10 per cent of women express any interest or participate in sport, although they count “watching football” as an activity; the osmosis theory clearly persists.

Social class has a huge impact. Only one in 10 women designated “unskilled”, as opposed to one in three designated “professional”, take part in sport. Only 10 per cent of women over 55 do any regular exercise at all. Damagingly, 70 per cent of Asian women of any age do not exercise at all.

What is to be done? No one can deny the efforts across government ministries and agencies. Sport in schools tops the agenda; more time in the school day, and much more after it; better facilities, better teachers and more coaches, particularly in primary schools where it is especially important. The national governing bodies are playing their part in clubs, schools and parks all over Britain: mini-tennis, mini-cricket, mini-golf, rugby; the list is endless. Their programmes are excellent. Sport has taken on many new guises for women, and all of them are welcome: health and fitness clubs, dance and Pilates—new opportunities to be more active.

With school sport in renewal, prospects are certainly better. I am particularly keen for Sport England and the CCPR to take a lead, not only in schools but in clubs and parks. That brings me to local authorities, which are crucial in providing facilities, coaches and programmes. I long for local authorities to be given mandatory provision for our neglected areas, so that they can all be brought up to standard. They should also be encouraged to uphold planning applications for clubs which seek to upgrade their facilities, usually in the teeth of objections from nimbys. Let us work for the greater good, not for the mean minorities. Individual clubs are improving. Community amateur sports clubs are gaining in numbers, and opening their doors to everyone. But we must still overcome those clubs that regard junior members with the same enthusiasm as a dose of Asian flu.

We saw the renaissance of British athletics last week, and hip-hip-hoorayed in a very British way when the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club announced equal prize money for men and women—a small step for mankind. But I return briefly to my Guardian grouse; in fact, to all media and sports financing. The USA has Title IX, introduced in the face of huge opposition but guaranteeing equal funding in schools, sports colleges and national events for men, women, girls and boys—and for equal publicity and reporting. You can turn on your television in America at any time, day or night, and see women’s sport.

Should we look at a similar provision here? Perhaps we should look at a new clause in the BBC charter, or via the Equal Opportunities Commission and Women’s National Commission. I am sure it can be done, and it must if we are going to show girls and women role models across the piece—new heroines and aspirations. Unless being active is linked to success and attractiveness, girls will continue to turn away from sport in droves.

On International Women’s Day, I highlight another facet of sport. It can and does offer a way out of poverty. In poor areas, in developing countries, it can be the chance of a lifetime. Look at the apparently endless stream of young Russian tennis players. It is not a coincidence but a deliberate policy. Just as the USSR produced outstanding gymnasts in the 1970s and 1980s, tennis became the preferred vehicle in the 1990s. President Yeltsin, himself a huge tennis fan, funded the setting up of the Moscow academy. The rest is history. Some, like Maria Sharapova, chose Florida; others stayed and drilled eight hours a day, and now make a fortune on the tennis circuit. There will be others. China is putting down more tennis courts in Beijing than are currently in the entire UK; do not be surprised to see a medal winner on the rostrum at the 2008 Olympics in China. Whatever the pain, there will be girls willing to sacrifice their childhood for the chance of a glittering prize. Global sport is here, and the internet has revealed all. Let us hope that young women are given their chance.

Finally, success should not only be judged in sport by medals and trophies. Our objective must be to break down barriers, create new opportunities and empower our sports supremos to motivate and energise the whole nation. So, my sporting sisters, if the sky is the limit, let us reach for it.

My Lords, I wish to add my tribute to the pile mounting up around the feet of my noble friend Lady Gould, who has been formidable in keeping this topic before us year after year. She has stimulated an interesting debate, and there is much more to come. One or two previous speakers mentioned the Equalities Review report published last week, which pointed to the discrimination still experienced at work by women with young children. I find that particularly depressing. I first took maternity leave in 1975, and the organisation I worked for at that time had never previously had to accommodate a request for a job to be kept open in that way. However, we worked it out together, and I went on to take maternity leave a second time. Looking back, particularly inthe light of the recent research, I realise that I was extraordinarily fortunate. My organisation, which was dominated by men, supported me through two periods of leave, the inevitable tribulations of managing a full-time job and a family and the crisis of a painful divorce while my children were quite young. It not only supported me, but encouraged me, developed me and, crucially, promoted me until I eventually reached the most senior tier of the organisation—I have to say I was alone up there, but it was a start.

It is therefore pretty dispiriting to realise that 30 years later, when women are in the workplace in much larger numbers—55 per cent of women with children under five now work outside the home, compared with 25 per cent in 1975—the struggle for equal treatment still goes on. I believe my experience—which I am ashamed to say I took for granted at the time—was possible largely because of the way the organisation was led. It felt a bit chaotic at the time, but I now see that I was led in a way that helped me, so I shall talk a little about leadership.

The recently published Equal Opportunities Commission report Sex and Power: Who Runs Britain? makes some cogent observations about the distribution of women in senior positions in the workplace and about the obstacles and stresses they face when attempting to develop their leadership potential. My noble friend Lord Giddens mentioned some of them. I am sorry that he is no longer in his place, and I wish we had been able to hear more from him on that subject. The research states:

“Far too many workplaces still follow a long hours, inflexible model of work. This has never worked well for women and is increasingly out of date for the ever-growing number of men who say they want to be more involved at home”.

Research commissioned by PricewaterhouseCoopers shows a 40 per cent fall in the number of women in senior management positions between 2002 and 2007. Among the likely reasons for that, it cites the rising cost of childcare.

Notwithstanding what I said earlier about the generous support that I received from men as I progressed through my career, my view is that we shall not make inroads into the problems of inequality to which PwC and the EOC report have drawn our attention until we get and keep a significantly higher number of women in visible leadership roles. A great deal has been said and written about leadership over the past 50 years. Lately, a lot of it has concentrated on the necessity to move on from command and control models towards methods that are more focused on building effective relationships in the workplace through flexible, responsive management practices, encouraging autonomy and creativity in workforces large and small, and developing leadership skills at all levels of an organisation. Leaders who successfully embrace these challenges often see increased productivity and improved morale evidenced in things such as diminished sickness absences and better retention rates; in other words, enlightened leadership is good for business. I know I stray into dangerous territory when I suggest that the characteristics needed to lead in this way come more naturally to women, but other speakers have said that, so I am not going to be too risk-averse. I am going to take the risk in order to make my point, which is that we need a wider range of strategies to address the deficits indicated in the Equal Opportunities Commission report if we are not to continue wasting a huge percentage of our nation’s human capital.

There are some reasons to be cheerful; for instance, one result of the difficulties women face in making progress in the workplace appears to be that they are increasingly driven towards setting up their own businesses, as the PwC research confirms. The EOC tells us that just over 1 million women in the UK are now self-employed, which is an increase of 18 per cent over the past five years. It is therefore encouraging to note that my right honourable friend Margaret Hodge, Minister of State for Industry and the Regions, recently launched a women’s enterprise initiative, co-ordinated jointly by the Make Your Mark campaign and Enterprise Insight, within which a national network of 1,000 female entrepreneurs will be recruited to help and inspire more women to set up in business. The initiative will concentrate its efforts particularly on engaging the interest of young women. Perhaps the Minister, when she comes to reply, will say whether the Government have similar initiatives in the pipeline.

There is also an increasing number of leadership programmes specifically directed towards women and at least one women-only MBA—at the University of Bedfordshire. In the area I know best, the cultural sector, excellent work is being done by the Clore Leadership Programme, of which my noble friend Lord Smith of Finsbury is the inspirational director. More than 50 per cent of the highly sought-after places on its programmes are taken by women. There are also, of course, many organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors all around the country where good practice is quietly being developed and implemented without any great fuss being made. However, despite all this, we are left with the disconcerting reality that for many, probably most, women, the route into leadership is fraught with difficulty and life when they get there is often uncomfortable, as we may discover from one or two contributions still to come. This Government have done a lot for women, as my noble friend Lady Gould pointed out, and we should celebrate that, but the job now is to build on those achievements.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, on securing this debate. On a day that celebrates and highlights the role women play across the world, it is easy to feel that we have come a long way. In some ways, we have, but much more needs to be done. I shall concentrate on two aspects of that in Great Britain: young women and girls from low-income families and females from the south Asian communities in Great Britain, particularly those from the Muslim and Sikh communities.

Before I start, I would like to inform your Lordships’ House that Leicester, the city in which I live, is celebrating its sixth LeicestHerday, an all-day event with workshops and events to celebrate International Women’s Day. It is well supported and offers a great opportunity to revisit some of the issues that we are discussing today, such as female infanticide, domestic violence, poor education and poor employment prospects.

For many women, education is the ladder to better employment, better job opportunities, better life choices and better health outcomes. However, recent reports have again highlighted that Great Britain has the highest number of teenage pregnancies, drug problems and alcohol problems in Europe, yet we are economically better off. So how do the statistics stack up?

It is hard to imagine why a 13 or 14 year-old girl would think that having a baby is a means to live independently in her own property. In households where education has little or no value, being dependent on the state has become a matter of course; sometimes the only way to break the cycle is to intervene and show young girls that staying in education is a good way into employment. Where community life as we once knew it has also disappeared, it is difficult to believe that hope can exist. It is little wonder that in 21st-century Great Britain it is reported that, although girls are doing better in schools and colleges, when they get to university that evens out and girls going into employment still have disparity in pay. A large section of our society remains in a vacuum of little improvement. Single-parent households, especially low-income families with little or no input from fathers, have a huge vacuum of aspiration, and it is sometimes an impossible task to get out of that.

An area of great concern is girls and women in the south Asian communities, whose lack of access to education greatly worries me. If families do not wish or allow their young girls to go into employment, those girls will never break the cycle of being unable to make their own life choices. They remain the silent citizens in Great Britain; they have little or no say in how their lives are shaped.

I was a young girl with an Indian background growing up in Great Britain and I know how difficult it is to run parallel lives: an existence in the greater world in which one has to live and one’s home life. Coming from a background where there was no encouragement to go on to university and where marriage was the only option, I feel that 40 years on the situation should have changed. I am horrified to find that there are still young women fighting those parallel lives. I hope that the Government will think about ways of trying to give these young women access to, at least, a helpline or something of that sort so that they can articulate the great worries and concerns they sometimes have. These often bright, young and articulate women have no choices, either in education or employment. We have made huge advances in technology and medicine, with the impact that that has had on our lives, but the curtain of hope or ambition seems still drawn among these young people just because of the culture or religion they are born into.

Domestic violence still affects one in four households in Great Britain. It is not socially bound to any particular group. In some communities this abhorrent use of violence is not always directed just by husbands and partners but by other female members of those families. The victims then find difficulties in going out and trying to find support, and their own families are very reluctant to support them. We have an increasing rate of suicide among those groups.

I do not want to paint a completely miserable picture, and of course many advances have been made, but much more needs to be done. While we look across the waters to other countries, we sometimes forget that we need to look closer to home at some of these issues. If we really want equality, we need sometimes to be brave enough to do what the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has done with the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill and get Governments to look at how we can intervene to make life slightly easier for these young people.

I spent much of my 20s and 30s supporting projects that have empowered women and girls to make their own decisions, and I am lucky to see that many more projects and schemes are running now. I want to finish on a really positive note. I visited Amritsar University in January this year and was told by the vice-chancellor that currently there are more female students than boys. For me, that was great news. I was born in Amritsar, and it gave me even greater pleasure to inform the university that I became the first woman of Indian origin to sit on the Front Benches of your Lordships’ House and made some history. I hope that I will be a good role model for others. Perhaps it is something in the water of Amritsar, I don’t know.

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, for allowing us to have this absolutely fascinating and wide-ranging debate, with some splendid speeches from all sides and a particularly splendid one from the noble Baroness herself. I shall confine my remarks to two areas: women scientists and women and grass-roots campaigning.

We need to do everything we can to encourage bright young girls to study science, to pursue scientific careers and to progress in them as far as possible. We need to do it both for their sakes and for the sake of the country. To do that they need information and role models. That is where SETNET ambassadors come in. These are young scientists, many of them women, working under the umbrella of the Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics Network, who go into schools to talk about careers in science. When I met some of them last week, I asked one young engineer about her work. She said that she talked to a lot of girls and really felt that meeting a real live woman engineer helped them to see themselves in that role later in life. SETNET is funded by the DTI and is a very good thing. We need more such programmes.

In order to help women scientists in their careers after they have qualified, we need awareness of possible barriers and discrimination and, more positively, we need mentors. Your Lordships may wonder whether there is a problem here. According to a University of East Anglia study, carried out just two years ago, men still occupy the lion’s share of key positions in UK academic science. Although women are more successful than men in gaining their first posts, they feel that winning promotion is more problematic and, after taking a career break to have a family, it is often hard to get back because science moves on so rapidly.

Many women felt undervalued and were discouraged from making progress in their careers. Most said that active encouragement to go for a post or to take on a new responsibility was a major factor in seeking promotion. That is where mentoring by another more experienced woman scientist is so valuable. In the United States an organisation called MentorNet, which specialises in one-to-one mentoring, works brilliantly. Here, the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET is one of a number of organisations running similar programmes especially to help women returnees.

Returning to work after a period surrounded by babies and toddlers can be a daunting experience, as I well remember. One begins to feel that one’s brain has become addled. You may lack confidence and really need the boost and encouragement that a well trained mentor can offer, and it is important that these mentors have training. By the way, I believe that all political parities also offer mentors to women seeking elected office. We need to do more of this since, in Parliament in particular, we have a democratic deficit as regards women. That point has already been made.

To return to my theme, on UKRC’s website I read about a paper for a forthcoming conference which quoted research from Norgaard and York that found that:

“Nation states with a higher proportion of women in Parliament are more prone to ratify environmental treaties than other nations”.

The paper said that sustainability is not just about energy, transport and waste, but also about sustainable working practices. It pointed out that, if by 2011 only 20 per cent of the UK workforce will be white, male, able-bodied and under 45, current working practices and the cultures on which they are based clearly will have to change. I agree, as clearly, do many noble Lords. If we do not do more about flexible working opportunities, we will never get enough well qualified women scientists and engineers back into the workforce, into the jobs of which they are capable, after they have had children.

Women, I believe, are more concerned about the quality of the environment than men. They are also more willing to do something about it. Indeed, millions of women are willing to volunteer their time for all sorts of good causes. Look, for example, at the number of unpaid carers, the WRVS serving tea in hospitals, the women who volunteer to do unpaid fundraising for charities, especially the children’s charities with which I am connected—UNICEF, the NSPCC and the Infant Trust—the environmental and other campaigns of the Women’s Institute, the Townswomen’s Guild and the National Women’s Register, to mention just a few.

Women make good campaigners and are not afraid of grassroots action. One woman who brings together all my themes rather nicely is someone I had the privilege of meeting recently when she came to speak in your Lordships’ House for a charity which I chair, the Botanic Gardens Conservation International. She is Professor Wangari Maathai, from Kenya. She is a scientist, a role model, a grassroots campaigner and an inspiration to me and many thousands of other women. Indeed, she is living proof that we can all do something in our little way and that our little contributions add up to an awful lot.

During the 1970s Wangari became aware that the indigenous trees in her native land were being dug up and monocultures of pines and eucalyptus were being planted commercially in their place. That changed the whole ecosystem, since the native flora would not grow under these trees. The local women could not gather the traditional vegetables and herbs or collect firewood. Worse, the rivers ran dry as the change in the flora in the mountainous catchment area meant that the water drained away instead of into the rivers. Even today, commercial flower growers are taking vast amounts of water from the rivers so that poor people living downstream lack drinking water.

What did Wangari do? She mobilised the women and founded the Green Belt Movement, which linked the environment with women's rights and civic empowerment. They planted hundreds of thousands of trees to replace those that had gone. By that small but significant action, women changed things. They made their objections to the despoliation of their environment known to their politicians and put on the pressure.

Wangari realised that she must work from the inside and became a politician too. She was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She told me a little story, with which I should like to end. There was a fire in the forest and all the animals were standing at the edge wondering what to do. The tiny little hummingbird started flying to a nearby stream, picking up the tiny drop of water in its peak and dropping it on the fire. Back and forth it flew over and over again, dropping its tiny load of water on to the fire. “What are you doing?” said the other animals. “You will never make any difference to that great blaze”. “I am doing my best”, said the little hummingbird, and she carried on doing it.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Gould for initiating this debate today to mark International Women's Day. I think that this is the fourth time that she has been successful in getting this debate for us, enabling us to air the topics in which we are interested.

In October 2004, I held a debate in your Lordships’ Chamber on women in prison. Then, there were 4,420 women in prison. Today, there are 4,329. This week, a unique UK-wide ICM survey for SmartJustice was published. It showed that most people do not agree with sending women to prison for non-violent offences. The poll showed that more than two in three people said that prison was not likely to reduce offending and almost three-quarters did not think that mothers of young children should be locked up for committing non-violent crime. There is much support for community alternatives to prison. The majority also thought that it would be more effective for female drug addicts who commit non-violent crime,such as shoplifting, to undergo drug rehabilitation treatments, as well as doing compulsory work, rather than being sent to jail.

That is a very interesting survey showing that the public recognise that sending these women to prison is, in most cases, not the best way to deal with them. Women in prison today are among the most vulnerable people in our society. It is estimated that 70 per cent of all women offenders suffer from two or more mental disorders. Fifty-five per cent of all self-harm incidents in prison are committed by women, even though they comprise only 6 per cent of the total prison population. Approximately half of the women in prison report that they have been abused and one-third that they have been sexually abused. Thirty-seven per cent of women offenders attempt suicide before being imprisoned.

Imprisoning women punishes not only them, but their family. The impact on their children is considerable. Today, there are 15 prisons for women in the UK. In 2006, two women's prisons were re-roled—Bullwood Hall and Brockhill—to meet the needs of the overcrowding in male prisons. As a result of that policy, some very good programmes carried out in those prisons, such as the Carousel programme dealing with self-harming and the counselling service, have been lost. The Howard League for Penal Reform has called for all women's prisons to be closed. Its director, Frances Crook, said:

“The Howard League for Penal Reform is calling for a properly planned closure programme for women’s prisons and the transfer of resources to community programmes and projects that meet women’s needs and, unlike prison, do successfully reduce re-offending”.

Some may think that that is impossible, as a minority of women commit violent crimes and they need to have a jail sentence, but, for the majority who commit non-violent crimes, that is what we should aim at.

The Government have brought forward some very good plans to reduce the number of women in prison, such as the Women's Offending Reduction Programme, which was planned to run for three years from 2004. The Home Office document of March 2004 outlining the aim of the programme stated:

“Its purpose is to reduce women's offending and the number of women in custody, by providing a better-tailored and more appropriate response to the particular factors which have an impact on why women offend”.

It will involve a greater use of community service for lower-risk offenders, reserving custody for serious, dangerous and highly persistent offenders. All would applaud the idea behind the programme. Other programmes such as the 218 project in Glasgow and the ASHA centre in Worcester have been regarded as very successful. Unfortunately, there are not enough of these programmes throughout the country and there has not been a reduction in the number of women in prison.

Does the Minister agree that in order to have many more projects such as the 218 project and the ASHA centre, and for the Women's Offending Reduction Programme to attain its aim of having fewer women in prison, there needs to be a champion in government who would oversee the programme and be the driving force to ensure that things happen?

In the past few days I have been reading about the review that my noble friend Lady Corston has been carrying out. As I understand it, it will be published very soon. I look forward to reading her review and to the Government's response. From the media reports that I have read about the review, it has shown that the prison system is not suited to caring for vulnerable women and that there is a need for a fundamental policy shift, with emphasis on community-based rehabilitation programmes—removing, we hope, the need to send women to prison.

In conclusion, there have been so many reports and so many studies and projects on women in prison. All say that there is a need to have a community programme and that women should not be sent to prison. I believe that the Government are well intentioned and that the policy programmes that they have instigated have been right, but, in practice, they have not always brought about the results that we would hope for. I hope that there will soon be an occasion to debate the review of my noble friend Lady Corston together with the Government's response, and that, as a result of the review, there will be a fundamental change in the way that women in prison are looked after.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Gould not only on initiating the debate but on achieving its taking place on International Women's Day.

Plans for the advancement of women? Advancement is not a word that can realistically be associated with the condition of women in danger of female genital mutilation. The Government are strongly opposed to it, finding it altogether repugnant, as evinced by the support that they gave to the Private Member’s Bill that came into being as the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. I believe that they will give all assistance that they can to abolishing the practice in this country.

It is hard to think of a worse outrage perpetrated against women. It must be the last widespread and generally sanctioned assault on women's bodies that many societies passively accept. It maims women. It destroys their sexuality, except in their most basic animal functions. It causes lifelong suffering. There is no sign that its practice is diminishing. In Africa, it is on the increase. We learn more about how widespread it is as more books are published by women from Kenya and Somalia. Mukhta Mai, who grew up in a Kikuyu community in Kenya, described in her autobiography how she was mutilated at the age of five and the sound of the circumciser was like,

“a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat”.

A Somali woman has written of the three days of sorrow in a woman’s life: the day she is circumcised, her wedding day and the day she gives birth. All these writers tell of their circumcision with resigned acceptance, yet as an outrage done to them. This is Africa, where FGM is widespread in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Kenya, as well as in Somalia and the Sudan. Where it is illegal, the law is flouted.

At present, I believe there is little to be done in this country about a custom that has prevailed in parts of Africa since time immemorial, perhaps even before faiths as we know them came into being. Here, it may be worth saying that, although most of these women are Muslims, FGM is a cultural practice. It is not Islamic; it is older than that. Most people in these countries simply happen to be Muslim. It is important to remember that, at a recent Cairo conference on FGM, leading Muslim clerics condemned the practice as non-Islamic. The Prophet did not circumcise his four daughters.

We have our own problems with FGM in the United Kingdom. Traditionally, there has been a conspiracy of silence in this area. In immigrant communities, it is never talked about. Strange as it may sound to those who know that women who have been genitally mutilated have lived here for 30 years or more, we still do not know how many there are. For all the claims that are made and all the statistics that are talked about, we neither know how many such women there are, nor how many babies, infants, children and teenagers are in danger of being mutilated. We would know if we were in Africa. We know, for example, that this affects at least 90 per cent of women in Somalia.

Apart from the silence that is maintained, there are two great stumbling blocks to our finding out: one is the disgust and squeamishness that hearing about the practice evokes in most people; the other is the fear of appearing to be racist. Eight year-old white girls are not going to be mutilated by an old woman with a sharpened stone in her hand. To judge vulnerable women from a racial standpoint would be the most cruel punishment and would add insult to injury; not metaphorically, but in the real sense of those words. There are other things that we can do apart from campaigning vigorously against FGM. A proposal from the newly formed FGM National Clinical Group, a body composed mainly of obstetricians, nurses, midwives and nursing consultants, is to conduct a census to estimate the number of women affected in England and Wales. Each time a health professional came across a woman, for instance in pregnancy or childbirth, who had had FGM, they would be obliged to notify the Department of Health. This is only an idea at the moment but, if put into practice, it would be one way of calculating the numbers of women who had been mutilated and give some clue to the likelihood of the same fate befalling their daughters. We hope for government encouragement.

Sadly, a lot of women who have arrived here from the Horn of Africa are unaware that FGM, as well as taking their daughters back to the country of origin for that purpose, is against the law and punishable by a long prison sentence. Other suggestions, such as that children should be medically examined before leaving this country and re-examined on their return, would be construed as racist. Indeed, it would be unless all children were so examined—a statistical impossibility.

Despite the two Acts of Parliament aimed at putting an end to FGM, there have been no prosecutions. Of course, it is not prosecutions that we want, although a single prosecution would set an example and a precedent. What is desirable is that women and men should know the law and know that their age-old tradition is repugnant to everyone in this country. Recent proposals that immigrants to the United Kingdom should learn English would be useful here. Too many women from Somalia, for instance, have very little English. One mother of five daughters living in east London, who is intending to take these girls home to Somalia for FGM, was surprised to learn that she would be committing a serious offence. She spoke no English.

At one time, foot-binding was the norm for most women in China, and in parts of south-east Asia it is still the custom to fix metal rings around women’s necks to lengthen them, resulting in spinal injury. Most people who know what the reality of FGM is would categorise it as worse than either of these gross abuses of women. Few women who have been subjected to Pharaonic circumcision, the most stringent kind, can subsequently lead pain-free lives or give birth without complications. Babies die during delivery. Their mothers develop cysts and fistulas. Whatever may happen in Africa, troubling and wretched though it is, we should do everything we can to put an end to the practice here. There is no room for crippling abuse, with its subsequent trauma, to be perpetrated against women in the 21st century.

My Lords, once again, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, on securing this women’s day debate. It is another excellent opportunity to assess the progress made since the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. We are making real headway in some fields, and perhaps it is true that the fact that a third of the speakers today are male, compared with the one male speaker a couple of years ago, is an indication of that.

I am not going to be as gloomy as some noble Lords who have spoken, as we see new evidence daily of an increasing number of talented women who are rising to the top of their careers and professions, including in politics, although the numbers are nothing like enough. In the corporate sector, however, despite the accumulating critical mass of qualified and experienced women just below board level, the blatant imbalance at board level—especially on the boards of the FTSE 100 companies—is clear evidence of the continuing need for a more positive change in attitudes. I would like some answers from the Government on that.

It has been the same with Governments in that there has been uneven progress. I gladly acknowledge the actions of successive Governments, especially this one, in helping to give women the choice of combining employment, including their contribution to their own future pension, with bringing up a family. Two-thirds of women want to combine work and family life, and many government initiatives in this field, such as Sure Start, have rightly been targeted initially towards the most deprived areas and families. These are now expanding throughout the UK, theoretically at least giving more choice to all women. I will return to that topic in a moment.

First, I shall say a word about the other key objective: equal pay for work of equal value. That is still a much less satisfactory story. As the EOC and other noble Lords today have pointed out, women working full time can still earn as much as 17 per cent less than men. One reason for this is continuing job segregation, which our education system clearly needs to address more forcefully. Yes, more women are going to university, which is splendid news, but this area still needs to be addressed. As the Women and Work Commission has estimated, tackling these aspects of sex discrimination more effectively could generate an additional £23 billion a year to the economy.

Secondly, I have a comment to make about the concerns currently being voiced by public sector employers, who predict overall job losses and other dark consequences, which they say will be a result of the implementation of the new gender equality duties. I have little sympathy with this; it all sounds remarkably like the doom and gloom expressed to the EOC when the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 first came into force, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, will remember. Yet we see today, if not yet quite perfection, the remarkable contribution that those Acts have made to giving women the opportunity to contribute to their own families’ well-being as well as to the whole economy. These issues are now to be addressed by the new Equality Commission. I confess to remaining uneasy that each separate strand will lose the independence that it currently has to spend its own budget on its own priorities, but we must hope that real partnership will prevail.

Let me return to my other point: the importance for both sexes of being able to combine work and family life. We are all troubled, are we not, by ominous signals on the streets of Peckham, for example, of young people increasingly out of control. That is obviously not unconnected with the fact that the UK currently has the most unhappy children and a very high, if not the highest, family break-up rate, which does not augur well for the future. There is increasing evidence that children brought up by parents who stay together, whether married or not—I stress that marriage remains the most successful partnership—are far more likely to grow up as stable and productive next-generation citizens. The good news today is that more fathers want to share and enjoy practical parenting, if working patterns will accommodate it. The children of a family undoubtedly benefit from that. It is time that the importance of bringing up the next generation to be responsible and well adjusted members of society is placed far higher on the nation’s agenda. It is in all our interests.

The question is whether that thinking is widely enough spread that all families and not just middle-class families, as the EOC recently reported, will benefit, and whether government policies to reduce poverty and get women back to work are attracting the most deprived and difficult families; that is, the families who most need the support if their children’s lives are to reach their full potential and they are to break a cycle of deprivation. I hope the Minister will address that point.

I end by citing an example of successful innovation which I hope offers another pointer to the future. Thirty-five years ago, the Diplomatic Service was almost the last organisation to give up the practice of requiring women, on marriage, to retire from the service. Let us contrast that with what is happening today. At our embassy in Slovakia, the role of deputy head of mission is being successfully shared between a husband and wife on four-monthly stints which they cover in turn The husband is currently on home duty doing the school run, the shopping, the cooking—the lot. While their boys are at school, he is also studying for an OU MBA and improving his language skills. At the end of April, father and mother reverse their roles. It is good to know that one of our most respected, even if in some ways most conservative, departments of state is blazing the trail of progress in such a constructive way. That way lies the future.

My Lords, in the western world women’s capacity to control their own fertility is one of the most important factors on women’s route to equality, as the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, demonstrated. Sadly, this is not so in many other parts of the world. Although in this debate we are mainly concentrating on the obstacles and achievements in this country, we must not lose sight of the fact that in some countries women have not even reached the starting line. I shall concentrate on that because, as long as the situation exists, it is our problem as well as that of those who are denied all opportunities. The denigration of women anywhere is the denigration of women everywhere.

It is a matter of real concern that in some parts of the world, especially in the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the population is increasing, not decreasing, with its subsequent consequential effects on women. An excellent report, “Return of the Population Growth Factor”, from the All-Party Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, fears that the focus on population growth has been lost in the wider struggle to promote women’s equality generally.

Another report states that,

“high birth rates in sub-Saharan Africa have helped increase the number living in extreme poverty from 231 million in 1990 to 318 million in 2001. In Ethiopia, 8 million people already live on permanent food aid, and the projected population growth from 75 million today to 145 million in 2050 presents an insurmountable challenge. Rapid population growth has a detrimental effect on the hope of achieving universal primary education [for women]. … Girls in large families are less likely to begin school and more likely to drop out early”.

Those are not just figures: they are the reality of the women’s lives in those countries. It has been shown that, given the same circumstances, a child born less than 18 months after an older sibling is three times more likely to die than one born after an interval of 36 months. An estimated 35 per cent of all maternal deaths could be avoided by preventing unintended pregnancies. There is also an unmet need for family planning commodities among an estimated 125 million to 200 million women around the world who would like to limit or better space their child bearing.

This situation exists in spite of the programme of action agreed at the international conference in Cairo in 1994 on population and development. Eight millennium goals were set, five of which directly affected the position of women. To the fifth goal—to reduce by 75 per cent the maternal mortality rate by 2015—has now been added a new target; that is, to achieve universal access to reproductive healthcare by 2015. This is a most important new element, but unless it is realised the other targets cannot be achieved. Although, as has been said, there are some deep social and cultural barriers in some communities, it is still unacceptable that a big obstacle to women’s empowerment is the shortage of family planning commodities—a problem that must be tackled urgently.

Since Cairo, the emphasis has been on strategies to empower women through expanded access to education, health services and promoting skills and employment, which are all critical. But that should not be at the expense of achieving the demographic targets. Access to contraception and population control is the first essential. To achieve this, donor countries need to increase their funding, specifically for family planning. National plans for poverty reduction and development need to have specific strategies to achieve that. The UK is to be congratulated on its outstanding support for sexual and reproductive health, but it too should increase its tangible target for increased access to family planning. Unless that is done, the universal empowerment of women will still founder.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Gould mentioned, 100 years ago almost to the month, John Burns, president of the Board of Trade, sent a two-clause Bill to your Lordships’ House on local government, allowing women ratepayers to be elected to the glittering prizes of city and county councils. Women had already sat on more modest authorities, such as school boards, poor law boards and rural district councils since 1870.

Their Lordships were somewhat startled as Bills seldom started in the Lords, but they manfully debated it. The Earl of Halsbury pointed out that,

“women were too hysterical … guided by feeling and not cold reason”.—[Official Report, 12/6/1907; col. 1355.]

Another argument against it suggested that women were best suited for,

“bland lives of blamelessness and barley water rather than the rowdiness of politics”.

But above all, and against the background of Mrs Pankhurst’s militancy, it was argued that to be elected on to city councils would lead disastrously to women’s suffrage. However, by mid-August, and at 1.30 in the middle of the night, John Burns pushed the Second Reading of the Bill through and it became law by the end of the month, in August 1907—100 years ago.

By 1900, Norfolk already had more women holding elected office than in 1980. As local government developed, women had taken their conventional charitable work for women, children, the sick and the elderly into the town hall. They called it “administrative philanthropy” or “municipal housekeeping”. Their work was demanding, dirty and even dangerous. They went into filthy workhouse wards where epileptics, dying children, imbeciles—as they were known then—lying-in mothers, the elderly with senile dementia and the highly infectious all shared wards, beds, stained sheets and chamber pots which doubled up as wash basins. As Councillor Edith Sutton of Reading noted rather sourly,

“Married men would not do this sort of work because their wives did fear that they would bring infection home”.

It was left to the women to do it. Rosamund Davenport Hill inspected industrial truant schools in the City to find young boys flogged, chained and, with a nice touch of sadism, doused with cold water and made to stand in courtyards in midwinter. She sacked the senior teachers, paid the boys’ medical bills, fed them sausages and mash, and took them off to the zoo.

The women brought tea, red cushions and canaries into the bleak workhouses for the elderly; devised sheltered housing and special schools for disabled children; foster care for orphaned children; and fought to bring down rates of infant mortality which in 1899 were 160 per 1,000, worse than most famine-stricken sub-Saharan countries today. They really made a difference. The local government they confronted was that of Chamberlain’s vision of “Town Hall Inc.”, based on utilities, transport, grants and fees, clearance and construction. Women added another dimension, what we would call social services, for those who were marginalised—the prostitute with syphilis, the alcoholic tramp, the foul-smelling beggar, the deformed child—and reclaimed those down-and-outs back into moral citizenship.

Women believed that such local government work would win them the vote. However, the Liberals feared that propertied women, as they would have been, would vote Tory, while the Tories feared that female suffrage would challenge male authority. Gladstone, in his own inimical way, added that if married women got the vote, husbands would either have two votes or there would be marital strife. However, to give votes to single women, spinsters or widows—the failures of their sex—would be to reward those who had failed to find or hold a husband. Clearly no one should be enfranchised, and the Lords found the argument very fetching.

Indeed, far from local government being, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, suggested, a stepping-stone to the suffrage in the years from the 1870s through to 1914, as women had hoped, instead it blocked it. Men now decided that there were two sorts of politics: the domestic politics for the spheres of education, poor law and hospital work which women could and should do; then there was the imperial sort covering commerce, trade, industry, war and defence, empire and money, which women clearly could not. Precisely because women had found their appropriate service in local government, they were not needed or wanted in Westminster. The Archbishop of Canterbury of the day said—trying, but failing, to be helpful—that this was not about women’s rights, but about women’s service. He supported women going into town councils, but he was vehemently opposed to them having the parliamentary franchise.

It was not until 1918 that propertied and older women got the vote, not because of their local government work or the suffragettes, or even because of their war work, but because the war took everyone off the hook of militancy and, above all, a limited women’s property suffrage would be usefully swamped by the left-leaning franchise of the men coming back from the front. It was therefore safe to give women the vote in 1918.

For the past 25 years or so, around 30 per cent of councillors have been women, but at times only 5 to 10 per cent of MPs were, until Labour pushed through their women-only shortlists, bringing the figure up to around 20 per cent. I hope very much that the Conservative strategies of women2win and the affirmative action now being practised by the Liberal Democrats will prove equally successful. Why have women done so much better in local government? The work is part-time, local, and it makes sense in the narrative of women’s lives as parents, carers, volunteers, neighbours, tenants and workers. It builds on their own experience and expertise; it is accessible, and given the number of seats, not particularly competitive. Unlike Westminster with its long hours and lengthy absences, women can build local government work around their family and working lives in a way that Westminster politics makes it difficult to do.

If more women are to enter politics, surely we should seek to take power to where they are, to their locality, rather than seek to bring women to where power currently resides, in Westminster, although I want that to happen as well. Devolving more power to local government would strengthen it and reinforce women’s daily participation in politics. The Bill of 100 years ago was pressed on to John Burns by the Women’s Local Government Society, a stoutly feminist group of women progressives. We are re-founding that women’s local government society in Sheffield this Saturday to strengthen women’s presence in and contribution to local government. That is not a bad way, I suggest to your Lordships, of celebrating International Women’s Day.

My Lords, I rise with a certain degree of trepidation at my temerity to want to speak in this debate. I decided not to contribute to a similar debate last year because the subject was women in sport and attitudes towards it. I felt that a man talking about that was not something I was comfortable with, but I have now plucked up courage. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, who is now back in her place, that when she delivered that devastating quote basically straight at my noble friend Lord McNally, the concussion was felt beside him. Also, those who had the name “Liberal” in their political title did not have the world’s best record 100 years ago. I have to say mea culpa for what happened then. But times have moved on and I do not think that even we have a Member who is still around and active in the party from those days; best to carry on in that vein, I think.

The reason why the issue of women in sport needs to be considered by itself at times is because, when we look at the broad sporting picture, it is easy to ignore the fact that slightly over half the population is under-represented in what is probably the greatest combined leisure and social activity carried out in our society. The noble Baroness, Lady Billingham, pointed out that, when she read through the sports section of the Guardian, she found that women’s sport simply is not reported; it does not come on to the radar. That might be thought a criticism of the journalists involved, but let us look at the fact that in our society women do not participate in sporting activity. I always define sport and exercise slightly differently. Sport is what happens when you engage in a contest with clearly defined rules, and where you have a winner and a loser. When people refer to female activity, they often mention things like going to the gym and doing aerobics. Indeed, the list of the most popular female activities puts those way up at the top.

What is so different about the female of the species that apparently women do not get involved in competitive sport—the contest that uses physical skill? I do not know, but other societies tell a different story. The only statistics that I shall quote today come from Australia. There, some 41 per cent of females participate in organised sport. The percentage is highest among 15 to 24 year-olds, but some 29.4 per cent of women over the age of 65 still participate. Using different criteria, we find that in the UK only 17 per cent of 16 to 24 year-olds engage in organised sport, and the figure drops to 10 per cent after the age of 25. Culturally and in the make-up of its population, Australia is not that different from Great Britain even today. It may be changing all the time, but we have a common basis. Surely something is very wrong here.

The media have an incredibly important role to play for good and for ill in this. There is a great debate in this country at the moment over the presentation of physical style and shape, especially with regard to obesity. I remember a 15 year-old girl of 25 stone paraded in one of the tabloids like some sort of walking freak show. Then there are the size zero models. On all occasions, the female of the species is seen almost totally as something to look at. There is criticism of this from both sides. By the same token, in some of the research that I have, girls say that they do not like the way they look when they are taken to play sport. When I was discussing this with my wife, she turned round to me and said, “I bet you don’t have the nerve to say they should be told to get a good sports bra in puberty”. I have now won a bet with my wife.

Somehow we have to get into the heads of this young group the idea that physical activity and sport are important. The advantage of sport over going to the gym is that, first, if you are in a competitive situation, you have a reason to carry on doing what you are doing, as you have to back up your colleagues. Whether it is an individually based sport and you are in a team—tennis, for instance—or you are actually working within a team, you have a greater reason to be competitive, as you have a responsibility to be supportive of your colleagues. That also means that you will probably stay fit and have a habit of fitness ingrained in you, because you are not going to let yourself down in front of your friends and associates.

I see that time is creeping up on us today. My major question for the Government is: what pressure are they putting on public, free-to-air broadcasters to ensure that women’s sport—particularly its growth areas, such as football—gets a better chance of being seen? Seen, that is, not just by chasing down the channels or hitting the red button three times, but when you flick on a TV set and say, “Oh, there’s a football match that happens to have women playing in it”. This is one of the great challenges in the culture of sports reporting.

Other sports do better, such as athletics. Is Dame Kelly Holmes the greatest track and field Olympian we have, with that double at the last Olympics? The noble Lord, Lord Coe, might be able to challenge her for that title, but at least she is up there. However, in the main growth areas of sport, such as football, we are still undervaluing the women’s game. Hockey is another sport that is badly served. My noble friend Lord McNally is not in his place, but he said that he would forgive me for praising Sky in saying that netball will become a much bigger part of its output.

Other cultures manage to get female sport on their broadcasting media and taken seriously by men who are not just ogling. They may be ogling as well, but not just ogling. We have to try to get our media to take females in these activities seriously, because if we do not we will be working against much of our own health agenda.

My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble and very good friend Lady Gould for giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject today, which is a very important day for women.

As many noble Lords will know, I am currently president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, better known as RoSPA. The society’s mission is to save lives and reduce injuries, and its vision is to lead the way on accident prevention in important areas of our lives. I have spoken in this Chamber on a number of occasions on RoSPA’s behalf. My speeches have mostly related to road safety, an area of work in which RoSPA is, rightly, highly regarded. Today, however, I want to speak about another aspect of RoSPA’s work, that of home safety.

Safety in the home is a challenging and increasingly important area for RoSPA to focus on. It is particularly relevant for women, because, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out, women remain the predominant carers in our society, for the young, the elderly and the most vulnerable, as well as carers for all their family. Avoiding injuries and promoting safety in the home is vital for all these groups.

It may come as a surprise to many that the most dangerous place that they can be is in their own home. More accidents happen at home than anywhere else, a fact that is often overlooked, or possibly not even known. Unfortunately, home accidents are the hidden problem of the safety world. Every year in the UK, there are around 4,000 deaths as a result of a home accident—32 per cent of all fatal incidents. Each year, 2.7 million people will need hospital attention and a similar number of cases will be treated by a local GP because of accidents in the home. Additionally, millions of minor cases are treated at home.

The most likely people to have home accidents are those under the age of five and those over 65, most particularly those over 75. Some 55 per cent of home accidents involve falls. Indeed, approximately 1,500 people over the age of 75 die annually as a result of a fall. Every year, over 4,200 children are involved in falls on staircases and an additional 4,000 under the age of 15 are injured falling from windows.

There are other causes of home accidents. Each year, around 25,000 under-fives attend accident and emergency departments after being accidentally poisoned and 26,000 under-fives are burned or scalded in the home. We must remember that a hot drink can still scald a small child up to 15 minutes after it has been made. Fires in the home create accidents and deaths through burns and smoke inhalation.

Human error is a key factor in a high percentage of accidents. Accidents can occur at times of stress or when a routine is changed, or they may be the result of unsafe practices in the home. Many of the accidents are permanently disfiguring and disabling, causing pain, suffering and stress to the victims and their families. Again, so many results of home accidents rest heavily on the shoulders of women: mums, grans, aunts, sisters, friends.

Of course safety in the home cannot be considered in isolation, as so often what happens at home affects people at work. There are powerful humanitarian and business reasons for organisations to focus on the safety of their staff and their families outside the workplace. It has been estimated that home accidents cost the country about £25 billion annually. That figure takes into account long-term treatment, loss of salary and so on. There is also a health cost for those involved. The psychological effects of accidents can be very debilitating. Anxiety, disfigurement and disability can cause lack of confidence, isolation and depression. Employees with injured relatives and dependants experience damage to their morale and performance, which in turn decreases effectiveness.

RoSPA estimates that, in a company employing 100 people, 10 of those people are likely to visit an A&E department for treatment for accidents in the home or while using leisure facilities. That is why, increasingly, better employers are working with organisations such as RoSPA, providing education for their employees—especially their women employees. Talks are given by child safety experts, local fire service personnel and carers’ organisations on such matters as choosing safe products and maintaining and using them wisely. It is important for businesses to take a more proactive approach to safeguarding their employees from accidents when they are not at work. The value of the workplace to promote rehabilitation and healthier lifestyles should not be underestimated. I hope that the Government will agree and encourage employers to emulate best practice in this area.

At this point, I draw your Lordships’ attention to a report published jointly in February by the Audit Commission and the Healthcare Commission, Better Safe Than Sorry: Preventing Unintentional Injury to Children. In the report, the need for high-quality and relevant data about home accidents is stressed as a vital part of any strategy for reducing accidents. Unfortunately, since 2003, with the exception of the fire and rescue services, national data on rates of home accidents have not been collected. RoSPA has some statistics but is not in a position to collect the overall statistics that are so necessary. This gap at a national level, coupled with a lack of data at a local level, causes difficulties for organisations in identifying the needs in their areas and hence targeting resources appropriately. Moreover, organisations are unable to monitor and evaluate any preventive strategies. I know that this issue has been looked at again and I hope that the Government will decide to restore the collection and management of the home accidents surveillance system, affectionately known as HASS. Otherwise, potentially high levels of incidents can be masked.

I know that I am placing yet more responsibility on the shoulders of hard-pressed women. Women, as others have said, have to juggle so many other aspects of their lives, but, as my noble friend Lady Gould said, women are good at juggling and they recognise the necessity of keeping the home safe and secure for their loved ones. I hope that the Government will continue to support women's efforts in the home safety field; I can assure the House that RoSPA will.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Gould for stimulating such an excellent, informed and powerful debate and for introducing it with her usual vigour. I want to celebrate the achievements of women in education and of one woman in particular. I have two questions for the Minister. First, how are the Government encouraging more women to take up senior positions in schools and what measures are in place to support them once appointed to that very demanding role?

Today, I paid tribute to a great friend who recently died of cancer aged 63 having been head teacher of two comprehensive schools for 24 years. Her dedication, selflessness and commitment to educating young people illustrate what so many women do, often unrecognised. They do difficult work in difficult circumstances, a recurring theme in today's debate.

My friend Alessandra—Sandra—Wilson was appointed at the age of 34 to the school where I was teaching in south London. She was London's youngest head. The chair of governors, when interviewing her for the post, said, “You would be a very young head teacher”. She said, “I shall get older”. Sadly, she did not live long enough to enjoy her well deserved retirement with her husband, Simon, her beloved cats and her home.

Sandra was totally dedicated to the principles and practice of comprehensive education and community schools. She passionately believed that children, from whatever background, could achieve, given good teaching and the best possible environment. To create that in her schools, she worked tirelessly, getting to work at around 7 am and often, due to meetings, not getting home until after 10 pm. She fought to get the best for her schools, and for their staff, parents and, most of all, children, despite sometimes having to battle local politics. She once said, “I have worked for the ghastly right, the soggy centre and the loony left and they are all the same”. She had no time for cant and bureaucracy, like so many women. This fight took a lot of energy and determination and, when she retired, she was exhausted and contracted non-smoking-related lung cancer two years later.

My friend was beautiful, tall and elegant and dressed exquisitely, including six-inch high-heeled shoes and what she called her warpaint. At her second school, one of the governors, the local vicar, once commented on her strikingly attractive appearance. She replied, “The children deserve the best”. He never spoke of the incident again except in the eulogy he gave at her funeral. How many women have had to struggle to be respected beyond their immediate façade? She knew how to handle that.

The school where we were both employed was a girls’ school, and my friend was particularly concerned that the girls should achieve their potential. It gave her great pleasure when, a few years ago, I told her of my meeting, by accident, one of the girls who had been in a class that I taught. This girl was known for being difficult, naughty and argumentative. I asked her what she was doing now. She replied, “I’m a merchant banker”. We both laughed. That is what teaching is about: encouraging potential beyond what seems likely, which is something my friend did superbly.

As a head teacher, Sandra was very keen on pupils having their say and she established a school council. Pupils made recommendations on discipline, school facilities, systems and policies. This encouraged them to work collaboratively, make decisions and negotiate with teachers. Many suggestions of the school council were taken on board, but not the one for better ventilation in the toilets so that they weren't so smoke-filled. Good teaching practice has a sense of humour and a light touch. Many women are very good at that, as well as giving others their say and being prepared to listen and to learn.

Like many women I know, including myself, my friend was brought up in modest circumstances, she in south Wales. Her father was an Italian immigrant. She was the only girl in her street to pass the 11-plus. She went on to university and to teach science. She believed and demonstrated in her teaching that young minds should be stimulated and questioned, and that teachers should have the inspiration to be creative and dynamic and not bogged down by pettiness. As an example to her staff, she always taught the difficult class and always did playground and dinner duties. Many of those she worked with wept at her funeral. As with many talented women, she balanced a demanding career with a life outside. She loved art, music, literature, gardening, cooking and needlework. She was a great quilter and, in her obituary, I wrote that she could take unpromising scraps and make them into a dynamic and useful whole, just as she did with people.

When her cancer moved to the brain a few months ago, she said to me, “I am not unhappy. I have had a rich life and have no regrets”. One regret might have been giving herself so wholeheartedly to education and the well-being of pupils, possibly at the expense of her own health and well-being. Not a bit of it. Her mantra, “The children deserve the best”, still stood.

We all know women who have given themselves to improving the lot of others and women in education who have striven to give children the best. They deserve support and recognition, and I want today to celebrate them.

My Lords, it is difficult to follow my noble friend’s moving speech, but it is indeed a privilege to hear her as it has been a privilege to hear many of the inspirational and moving speeches today, led of course, by the most inspirational speech of my noble friend Lady Gould.

It has also been heart-warming for me to hear how many times the word “carer” has been used in this debate. That is a great change from a few years ago, when it was often misspelt “career” because nobody knew what it meant. I am delighted that we have given it so much attention, but it is not before time. Noble Lords will know that there are 6 million carers and that in 20 years’ time we will need another 3 million to cope with just the current level of increase in disability and frailty in the community. Noble Lords will also know that, if disability and frailty increase, pressure on families will grow, and if care provision does not increase in line with that increase in disability and need, care from families will have to grow too.

A lot of assumptions are made about caring; for example, that families are less likely to do it currently because they are living further away and are more spread out. The experience of Carers UK—I declare an interest as its vice president—is that it gets more complicated when families are spread out but that families do not feel any less obligated. I always say that the motorways of this country are so busy at the weekend because people are rushing from Yorkshire to Cornwall to see that their mothers are all right for the next week.

We also assume that people will be less likely to provide care because of weaker family ties, but the evidence is that people are actually providing more rather than fewer hours of care at the heavier end compared with 15 years ago. We hear, too, that families will be less likely to do it because of divorce, serial monogamy and changes in family structure, but the evidence so far is that divorce makes things more complicated but does not necessarily mean that you do not do it. I spoke yesterday to a woman who is caring for four parents—her parents and her husband’s parents—but, because those two pairs of parents both got divorced late in life, she is caring for four people in four different locations. Of course, we know that those caring for more than 50 hours a week are twice as likely to suffer ill health. One in five carers gives up paid work to care.

We often fear engaging with carers and asking them what they want because we are terrified of opening the floodgates. Again, the statistics disprove this. Carers UK did a survey among 3,000 carers. What they wanted was to be listened to and have their views taken seriously by all professionals, to be involved in decision-making, to be in control of aspects of care and not to be taken for granted. How much does that cost? Those are modest expectations indeed.

Under this Government, huge progress has been made for carers, and we must recognise that. The Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995 was passed under the previous Government, but it has been followed by two more Acts of Parliament for carers. Only two weeks ago the Government announced another package of support for carers in the New Deal, with £25 million to be spent on providing short-term home-based respite care for carers in crisis or emergency, £3 million towards a national helpline for carers, a review of the 1999 National Carers Strategy and £5 million to support the development of an expert carers programme.

Recognition of what our Government have done for carers is spread throughout the world. I shall shortly speak in New Zealand, Brussels and Canada about the fact that this Government lead the world in recognition of carers, although that is far from saying that we have got it right and got it all done.

Another stereotype that we have of carers is that they give up paid work to become carers. As we have heard today, 2.5 million people combine paid work and unpaid caring for a partner, relative or friend, and 1.5 million carers work full time. Of those, 140,000 care for 50-plus hours a week. Two recent improvements will help carers in the workplace. The first is the Work and Families Act 2006, which comes into operation very soon, which gives carers the right to ask for flexible working patterns. That could mean flexible starting and finishing times, compressed working hours, annualised working hours, job sharing or part-time working, home working or teleworking and, perhaps, term-time working. The new provision recognises that carers need to be supported in balancing the demands of work and care and that if they cannot return to work or stay in work the economy will potentially lose a valuable recruitment pool—over the next 20 years we will need more workers not fewer. If carers chose not to care, society could lose an invaluable health and social care resource. The business case for supporting carers is strong, since lower staff turnover, reduced recruitment and retraining costs are all things that we would have to bear if we did not keep carers in work.

Time does not permit me to recognise how important the new pensions provision will be for carers, except to quote from John Hutton, who said:

“For the first time, a life of social contributions will be properly recognised and rewarded on an equal footing with work”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/1/07; col. 662.]

There are still some problems with the pension provisions in the Bill, but I am sure that we will work on those when it comes to your Lordships' House, and I know that many colleagues feel the same.

I end by reminding noble Lords that caring is ubiquitous: it will happen to almost everyone. If it has not happened to you yet, believe me: it will. Care is part of the social contract; over the life course we are all likely to give and receive care. Since carers contribute £57 billion to our nation, it makes very sound economic and moral good sense to support them.

My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to speak on women’s issues, for which I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. Many issues have been touched upon already but, as time is short, I shall go straight into the one that I wish to address. I would like to talk about Rwanda to emphasise how women have suffered and are continuing to suffer there.

I pay tribute to the work that is going on, in particular by SURF, the survivors’ charity, of which I am patron. It works for survivors, which in this case means for women. I can attest to the superhuman work carried out by Mary Blewitt, the founder, and her team of workers and supporters, but the challenges are enormous. In 1994, Rwanda experienced a genocide with probably more than a million deaths, but it is well documented also that rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence happened and were encouraged. It is estimated that 250,000 women were raped and 30,000 pregnancies occurred from rape, as well as the passing on of AIDS.

It is clear that rape was used as a weapon of war. This surely is the greatest of crimes, yet only a handful of genocide perpetrators have been charged. Rape has been used to destroy women's souls and bodies, to humiliate and to decimate families and the family structure. This has to be the worst of the worst, a crime that requires us all to condemn it as a crime against humanity that destroys victim and reduces the perpetrators as dehumanised, particularly when, as happened in Rwanda, it is used as a weapon of war.

I hope that this message will get through on this special day, both in Rwanda and in other parts of the world. In many places, even Rwanda, despite legalisation women and girls are still seen as second-class citizens. Customary law, which often overrides written law, remains biased against women.

A great deal more could be said that applies to Rwanda and throughout the world, but I take this opportunity to say that, despite so many expressions made after the genocide, when the world failed to act, that this slaughter “Must never happen and will never happen again”, the storm clouds are gathering once again in Rwanda, In particular, perpetrators are being released in great numbers, many without the remorse they should feel—but, more than that, still applauding the genocide itself.

Well meant as it is, we are seeing the implementation of the Gacaca system, which allows prisoners supposedly showing remorse for their crimes back into society. However, the consequences of this quick reconciliation solution are disastrous: reports that need to be taken seriously—I have many instances—include the killing of survivors and witnesses, currently happening up to today, when people are in fear of their lives. There is also the further intimidation of survivors through physical and verbal assaults and the celebration of the genocide itself. Importantly, the Gacaca system is failing to serve justice to the survivors.

Gacaca is based on a traditional village-based court system; unfortunately, though, in the interest of finding a quick reconciliation solution, no regard has been given justice for survivors, nor have structures been put in place to support them through Gacaca proceedings. There has been no study or research into understanding how prisoners would react to seeing and living with the survivors they wanted killed, or how they would treat the survivors who bear witness to their crimes.

However, what is clear is that a local system of justice is just not transferable to deal with a crisis of this nature and size. In 1994 the genocide happened because many people kept silent although warning signs were evident many months previously.

Over the past few years the British Government have played one of the most creditable roles of any Government in the money and support they have given to Rwanda, which means that our voice can be heard and that we have influence. I urge that this influence is brought to bear before it is too late. Rwanda is fracturing. The stability of the country is once again at risk. A further tragedy must be avoided.

My Lords, that was truly a worrying speech from the noble Lord, Lord Cotter. I should like to speak about women in business and management, which seems relatively unimportant after hearing what the noble Lord had to say.

My qualification for speaking about this is that I spent 30 years working in the textile industry, where women managers make a special contribution. One thing that business requires now more than ever is brains, not brawn. My noble friend Lord Giddens and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, reminded us that if school and university results are anything to go by, brains are an area in which women are certainly not inferior to men.

In her report in 2003, my noble friend Lady Kingsmill said that there would be an ever increasing premium on intellectual capital in business, and that by placing barriers in the way of 50 per cent of the population making their full contribution in providing this intellectual capital, we were damaging our economic prospects. She was right then and she is right now.

What is standing in the way of this economic logic? I am afraid that the answer is still the pram in the hall, and this in spite of all the progress that other speakers have told us about. Part of this progress is thanks to the EU social chapter, under which women have been great beneficiaries. Amazingly, many Tories still talk of withdrawing from it. I suspect that those who do are not part of the growing number of new men who share the burden of childcare more equally and an understanding of the need for work/life balance. I wonder, too, whether they understand and appreciate the special qualities that women bring to business management. I do not want to be patronising but when I was running a business I certainly valued these qualities—the interpersonal skills and especially the empathy that women managers have. As my noble friend Lady McIntosh explained, this is absolutely invaluable for team work, involvement and business success.

Business needs women, not only for their brain power but for their special managerial qualities, yet they are very unrepresented in management. I am not quite as optimistic as the noble Baroness, Lady Fritchie. In the FTSE 100 there are only three female chief executives—at Drax, Pearson and Anglo-American. The reason seems to be that board selection committees like uninterrupted experience, and women who have taken a maternity break are thought to be not quite ready. People with 30 years’ uninterrupted experience are a much safer bet. Quite simply, women need somebody to give them a break. Indeed, this is why many women set up in business on their own. The Government are right to support that.

It is equally important that women should progress in middle management. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fritchie, that many more small firms are now led by females and there are more and more women entrepreneurs, but women are still underrepresented on the boards of medium and large companies. My noble friend Lady McIntosh mentioned the report in the paper today which says that this representation is decreasing in spite of evidence of rising pay equality in these companies—and all this in spite of the hard work being done by organisations such as the Chartered Management Institute, 27 per cent of whose members are women, and this number is rising. Its Women in Management Network helps with mentoring and coaching, which is such a powerful tool for confidence and motivation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said. She also spoke about Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, which makes an excellent case for introducing flexible working—which many speakers have mentioned—to enable some 50,000 well qualified women scientists and engineers to get back into work. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will tell us what the Government are doing.

The business schools are trying to do their part. An MBA is perhaps more important for a woman than a man to help compensate for a maternity break. Some schools now try to target women students. It seems to me that things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. Could we be moving towards achieving critical mass and lift off? That happened in the United States. That is why there is a lot of women’s sport on US television, about which my noble friend Lady Billingham and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, spoke. Once critical mass was achieved, the number of women in business increased much more quickly. I have every hope that this will be the case here.

I finish with a word of warning. All this effort to increase the tempo of women getting into business and management should not pressure them to conform. Women, especially young women, seem very vulnerable to stereotyping—a vulnerability we often see so cruelly exploited by commerce as my noble friend Lord Giddens demonstrated.

There are sound reasons why some women should not go into business and management and these have to be respected. Beyond that, for the good of our economy there should be no barriers.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, on arranging this debate and for reminding us of our history, which so many people take for granted. Today we are celebrating International Women’s Day—invest in women to improve the world. I applaud the Prime Minster and the Chancellor for leading the Cabinet to implement legislation in the United Kingdom and encourage legislation in Europe. I also applaud further education and skills, which enable women to work, providing job satisfaction and enhancing family life.

The Government have rightly encouraged us to look further afield than this country and Europe. In many parts of the world there is a long struggle still ahead, but progress has been made. In May 2005, the Kuwaiti National Assembly voted 35 to 23 to give women the right to vote and run for Parliament.

I am sorry, my Lords, I thought I had turned off my phone.

In the Iraqi elections in December of the same year, women won 31 per cent of the core vote in parliament; one of the highest levels of women’s political participation in the world.

Women in Africa are the greatest untapped resource of Africa. They are the future and more and more are educated to an increasingly high standard. They are running small entrepreneurial companies and paying school fees for their daughters and sons. School fees of £68 a term in many African countries are extremely high. Those families cannot afford these fees. Young people can continue their education only by relying on grants from charities, foundations and individuals. We must continue to assist in every way.

Evil sex traffickers are widening their net to Africa and South America in search of victims. They will betray young people and their families with promises and let them down. Only yesterday, it was reported that London is a major centre for human trafficking. This is a shameful state of affairs. We must struggle to combat this evil in our midst. I ask the Minister to ensure that the Council of Europe’s treaty on trafficking is signed by the end of the month and that the timetable for ratification is in place. If legislation is to be enacted, it must be in the next Queen’s Speech. For the treaty to come into operation, 10 countries out of the 40 that make up the Council of Europe must have signed and ratified it; to date, four countries have signed and ratified. I call on the Government to take a lead in this matter.

On this International Women’s Day we should further ask the Government to instruct our ambassador at the United Nations to constantly lobby the illegal military regime in Burma to free Aung San Suu Kyi, who was elected president of Burma and for her to perform the role which she was elected to do.

I would like to mention four women in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, who is well known to this House; Avila Kilmurray, Director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland; Melanne Verveer, chair of Vital Voices Global Partnership; and Mary Yerrick, its vice-chair. These four women have given leadership across the world, working for peace to strengthen democracy, increase economic opportunity and fight human rights abuses around the world. Women throughout the world are making a contribution to peace and the end of corruption. We all have a responsibility to support those in these fields.

My Lords, as many noble Lords have reflected during this debate, we have demonstrated the changes that government policies have brought to advance women, even those who remain marginalised for reasons of education, poverty or social circumstances. That has been particularly so in the area of domestic violence, with new legislation and programmes. While congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, on initiating this debate I also salute her for the work she has undertaken in this area. Despite progress, the fact remains that although definitions and estimates of the prevalence of domestic violence vary, it continues to blight the lives of many women, as well as having a traumatic effect on their children. I would like to concentrate my few minutes on that area and in particular on the work of CAFCASS in the family courts.

In 2004, the Inter-Ministerial Government Group agreed a working definition of domestic violence as:

“Any incident of threatened behaviour, violence or abuse between adults who are or who have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality”.

Whatever the definition, the statistics show that this is primarily—but not, I accept, exclusively—a crime by men against women. The definition that the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—CAFCASS—uses is a wider definition strengthened by the specific inclusion of children. We know that domestic violence will have a devastating effect, not only on the victim but on the children who witness and directly suffer its consequences. It will affect their development, capacity to learn, behaviour and relationships, so by ensuring the protection of mothers we will ensure the proper protection of children.

In April 2005, Her Majesty's Courts Service undertook a thematic review about how well the family court service and CAFCASS dealt with cases. I declare an interest as deputy chair of CAFCASS. It is a non-departmental public body which, in its early years, experienced considerable problems. As an arm of government it had not met expectations generally, so the outcome of the thematic review was a disappointment but certainly not a surprise. The report of the inspection concluded that, in cases where there were,

“allegations of domestic violence … ensuring the safety of both children and adults receives insufficient consideration”.

It also considered that:

“Arrangements for assessing the risks associated with allegations of domestic violence need markedly strengthening”.

That was a strong and consistent message from the women survivors of domestic violence who were consulted by Her Majesty’s inspectorate.

We have to remember that the review took place against the backdrop of publicity by militant fathers’ groups. There are men whose partners have prevented them seeing their children, and who have proper cause for complaint, and I have seen positive work where CAFCASS officers have turned that round. But the intimidation of women and CAFCASS staff by some militant fathers was a factor in not enough attention being paid to listening to women whose cases involved domestic violence. In the absence of systematic risk assessment, CAFCASS officers focused on seeking agreement between parties rather than first paying proportionate attention to safety issues.

The report came at a significant time, when CAFCASS, with its new board, chair, chief executive and team, was determined to deliver better outcomes for families, and when awareness had grown within the organisation that domestic violence should be transparently and firmly addressed. It led to the development of the domestic violence policy and toolkit; and recognised that staff had to develop skills in understanding, assessing levels of risk, and ensuring safety planning at each stage so that, where women and children are seen separately, they are offered separate waiting areas. Previously, women had felt unheard and part of a bureaucratic process that they did not understand. Now the service has devised information packs about family proceedings.

Policy alliances have been formed—active partnerships that will promote further policy shifts and changes in practice as we learn from other partners. One of these has been Women's Aid, particularly in the training of its workers for children. It was a focus group with Women's Aid, set up by Her Majesty’s Courts Service, that first captured the views and feelings of women coming to court in family proceedings, terrified that they would be unable to protect themselves and their children from abuse. As one woman put it:

“After the contact sessions at CAFCASS and at the contact centre, he followed us and came into contact with me twice and tried to run me over”,

but that was never shown in the report. Contrast that with what has changed—with a woman who went to court three years ago and tried to share the experience of domestic violence, including sexual violence over a long period, and found that the issue was never addressed. Recently, the father applied for an extension of contact, and at court the mother was desperately distressed. A CAFCASS officer took her to one side, helped her to tell her story and informed the judge. The judge responded very sensitively and arranged a finding-of-fact hearing. The mother phoned CAFCASS and said, “So much has changed. I am immensely grateful”.

As we celebrate the advancement of women today, will the Minister join me in congratulating the staff of the courts and CAFCASS on how the service has been rapidly changed round in many areas, particularly in relation to domestic violence, although we all recognise that there is much to do? Will she say something on implementation of the national plan for domestic violence, as well as on progress in implementing the Children and Adoption Act 2006? Freedom from violence in the home will truly advance the cause of women, and therefore their children.

My Lords, I join others in this House in thanking my noble friend Lady Gould for introducing this debate today. Her opening speech set the scene in admirable style.

Thirteen months ago, the report of the Women and Work Commission, Shaping a Fairer Future, was launched. I was immensely proud to be asked by the Prime Minister to chair the commission and even more pleased at the way in which its report was received and, indeed, is being implemented. The report contained 40 recommendations, all but two of which have been accepted by the Government.

In September last year, the Department for Communities and Local Government produced an action plan, which sets out how it intends to follow up on those recommendations, and the Women and Equality Unit has established an implementation team, tasked with making it all happen. I will give noble Lords a flavour of how matters are proceeding, but first I shall remind the House of the commission’s major findings.

We concluded that there were four main areas of social policy which needed attention: the provision of education and how that relates to, and follows through to, the world of work; job segregation in the labour market and in the workplace itself; the serious lack of quality part-time employment opportunities; and workplace organisation. In order to address some of our recommendations, the Chancellor, in March 2006, allocated £40 million to be spent over two years on sector-specific skills designed to enable women to move out of some of the lowest-paid areas of employment and, indeed, to move into management roles. I shall speak more on that in a moment.

I return to the proposals contained in the action plan and how they are progressing. First, a fund to support part-time quality work, to the value of £0.5 million, has been established to enable employers to develop ways in which senior positions can be redesigned, making them available on a part-time basis. A bank, for example, employs many women in its branches and few are prepared to apply for the promotional opportunity of regional manager—a job which currently requires long and sometimes unpredictable hours. Reconfiguring this job to take account of the need for reduced and defined attendance requirements would open up a whole new field for many women. The fund is open for applications as we speak.

Secondly, the money allocated for sector-specific training is coming through, and a number of initiatives are already in operation in construction, where the fund is designed to assist women graduates to enter the industry and for 650 women to obtain NVQs and 100 women to become assessors, and food manufacturing, where 500 women will receive management training, with a target of 300 to progress to management or supervisory roles before the end of 2007-08. Other initiatives are taking place in the textile industry and in agriculture, and there is also an initiative which will enable 500 women to set themselves up as motor traders. Some 1,000 women will be helped with career planning and training needs in the fields of science and engineering.

More than 100 companies have joined the Exemplar Employer scheme. They have committed to identify ways in which women can be enabled to progress—by job redesign, the provision of specific training programmes or whatever means are deemed suitable or helpful within that workplace. An event will shortly be held at which participating employers can exchange ideas on good practice.

Workplace organisation is of course central to the question of women’s participation and progress, and there was consensus around the Women and Work Commission table that a positive role is to be played by trade union equality representatives. Applications from trade unions for financial assistance from the Union Modernisation Fund have been sought, and some projects by the TGWU, the National Union of Journalists and the Wales TUC are already in progress. So, much is being done but much is still needed. Two events are lined up which will help to take the debate forward and, importantly, will ensure that the Government continue positively to promote the Women and Work Commission’s recommendations.

The Trade and Industry Select Committee has established a sub-committee to undertake an inquiry into the implementation of the Women and Work Commission’s recommendations. I shall appear in front of the committee next week to report to it. Secondly, as promised at the start of our work, the Women and Work Commission will meet formally next month to assess progress and to consider what actions may be necessary to ensure that there is no slippage on the Government’s part between talk and walk.

Once again, I am indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for raising the debate. It is in the interests of our whole society that women should be able to participate on an equal footing. I believe that in our different ways, each Bench is making a contribution towards this goal.

My Lords, I, too, join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lady Gould on securing the debate. She must feel very pleased that we have come a long way from a one-hour supper break debate to a five-hour prime business debate in the House of Lords. It is particularly positive to have male Members of the House joining in. They are extremely welcome. I do not know why the noble Lord, Lord Addington, felt intimidated, as he made an extremely welcome contribution to the debate.

The debate is timely not only because it is International Women’s Day, but it follows the publication of the Equalities Review which shows how far we still have to travel to achieve equality here in Britain. One still hears the canard that if women gain, men lose. That is simply not true. When women prosper, we all prosper in our communities.

The Government’s record is good for women. The past decade has seen change and improvement for women on a whole range of things, such as an extension of maternity leave, paternity leave, and a huge increase in childcare places. Bread-and-butter issues make a real difference to women’s lives, and those are doing so. For example, the number of mothers changing their employer following maternity leave has halved from 41 per cent in 2002 to 20 per cent in 2005. That is an enormous step forward. The pay gap is closing, but at an abysmal rate and we must tackle that.

In the past few decades, as my noble friend Lord Haskel said, too few women have achieved at the highest level, but there are still too few to be real role models for young women in our community. In boardrooms and in new businesses, some women have succeeded, and their success has been an engine for growth in the economy. For example, Dame Steve Shirley came to the UK alone as a young refugee in 1939. She founded one of the UK's most successful computer businesses, which is predominantly run by women and women employees. She succeeded in recruiting qualified women whose career potential was limited by family responsibilities. Yet she had to call herself Steve because if her customers thought she was a man she would get business. If they thought she was a woman, they would not even answer the letter.

The company she founded—Xansa—now employs more than 6,000 people here and in India. But there are still too few women in top management positions, as my noble friend said, and there are fewer than three in the FTSE 100 companies. There are 15 women executive directors out of 400 in total, which is an abysmal record. Too many women say, “If I can’t break that ceiling, I’ll create my own working environment”. One of the positive impacts is that the number of women entrepreneurs in Britain has increased, providing jobs and substantial gains for our economy. Yet there is still no level playing field when they want to set up their businesses.

There are entrepreneurs like Dame Steve Shirley, Michelle Mone of Ultimo bras—I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that it is a great successful business—and Yvonne Thompson of ASAP Communications, yet still today only 46 women start businesses for every 100 men. They are succeeding, despite that glass ceiling, but more needs to be done. We need to remove the barriers to funding, for example. Different rules apply to women; they may not be overt but they are there and they discourage women from setting up their businesses.

The struggle for women’s equality is not limited to the workplace. One in four women in Britain will be assaulted. My noble friend Lady Howarth was so right on this; we have both worked in this area. A third of those attacked will tell no-one. Imagine the isolation and loneliness of being attacked and telling absolutely no-one. On average, a woman will be assaulted 35 times before she goes to the police. Of half a million calls to the police, only 7,000 prosecutions result. The Government’s Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 was a very good start indeed. The recent announcement of another £2 million is welcome, but I suggest that if those domestic assaults took place on our streets, we would not be getting £2 million but £2 billion. The issue needs to be higher on the agenda.

My reason for raising this is the issue of the home and home tenancy, particularly in social housing. If the man is the tenant and the woman is suffering domestic violence, what does she do? Does she stay where she is and put up with it, exposing her children? Or does she go off with the children? If she does, she must go to a refuge or temporary accommodation. We must speed up the law to determine the primary carer who needs the home, and get that tenancy into the hands of the woman to ensure that the children have a stable life. She can then be in a place that is secure and safe for them.

Today is rightly a celebration. There will be another celebration next year: 50 years since the creation of the first women Peers. Until then, only one woman in our country could speak in this House: Her Majesty. It is almost impossible to believe, but it is true. So 50 years on, we should honour women whose brilliance has brought our society to where it is today. One of my role models is Octavia Hill, who developed management in social housing, co-founded the National Trust and did many other things. Florence Nightingale we all know. Do we all know about Mary Seacole? She was a wonderful woman, today receiving long overdue recognition. There are also Josephine Butler and one of my other idols, Sylvia Pankhurst. We have all heard about Emmeline in this debate; for me, Sylvia is the real heroine. At the end of her book The Suffragette Movement, she said:

“Great is the work which remains to be accomplished”.

It was true then, and it is as true today.

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow what looks like the female former general council of the trade union caucus. They were good friends on the general council, and remain so. I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Gould for persuading me to take part in this debate—my arm was not too far up my back—and for her superb introduction, and I commend the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, and the lively response from the noble Lord, Lord McNally.

My noble friend paid tribute to a group of American women strikers, and I cite two seminal strikes in British trade union history. The match workers in 1888 were mainly teenage girls who, helped by Annie Besant—another great suffragette—took on the corporate might of Bryant and May. I cannot resist this for the noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches: one of the match workers’ complaints was that they were required to contribute to the Gladstone statue by Theodore Bryant; he deducted a shilling from their wages as a contribution to its erection. We cannot blame the noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches for all those past sins—we probably have a few of our own—but I thought it an interesting nugget. The young women were incredibly brave. Their working conditions were appalling and they were on about 20 to 40 pence a week. They were out for three weeks and won the strike, helping to create the great British trade union movement.

It is appropriate that I am sitting next to my noble friend Lady Prosser, because I want also to mention the Ford women machinists at Dagenham who, in 1968, struck a huge blow by bringing to the attention of the country the fact that women were doing skilled work and being paid a darn sight less than men. It is interesting to note the intervention of the late Barbara Castle in bringing that dispute to a successful conclusion.

I am a regular listener to “Woman’s Hour”. I do not apologise for that; it is a great programme in the fine tradition of Radio 4 and one of the signs of British civilisation. This morning, there was an inspirational interview with a woman I had not heard of, Dr Noerine Kaleeba, who almost single-handedly founded an AIDS charity. She is a Ugandan whose husband was diagnosed with AIDS. She has made a huge contribution to dealing with an enormous problem in Africa. She is an outstanding woman.

As this is International Women’s Day, we ought to pay tribute to an outstandingly brave woman, Aung San Suu Kyi—I am sure that I got the pronunciation wrong. She is languishing under house arrest in Burma and has sacrificed a huge amount of her life. Her husband died while she was under house arrest. With that level of bravery, she is the female equivalent of Nelson Mandela. There is no sign of release for her at the moment. Anything that the Government can do to relieve her plight would be a great tribute on International Women’s Day.

As the vice-chair of the Ethical Trading Initiative, I would like to point out the position of women in global supply chains. They make up a huge proportion of the workforce in global supply chains in the manufacturing sector. Think about that as you wander through department stores and see jeans for £4 and shirts for £3. More often than not, at the end of that global supply chain there is a woman slaving away at a machine. We are trying to do something to improve the conditions of workers in those supply chains. For example, in Bangladesh 70 to 80 per cent of those employed in the industry are young women. ETI member companies have been heavily involved in helping the Bangladeshi garment industry to survive the post-quota period, and corporate members have lobbied the Bangladeshi Government to increase the minimum wage from £7 a month to £13 a month. That is not a living wage, but it is much needed progress. I could quote other examples, but time does not permit.

I also pay tribute to the Government’s record on improving the situation of women in Britain today—not because I feel that everything in the garden is rosy, as we all know that that is not the case. However, yesterday there was a welcome announcement of an increase in the minimum wage. Just think back to before the minimum wage when women were working as, for example, hairdressers on £1 an hour. Think of the gloomy predictions that the minimum wage would cost us 2 million jobs. It did not. It brought much needed relief, especially to women. I looked at the statistics on the national minimum wage. About 660,000 women workers will benefit from an increase in the minimum wage. That is not a contribution to be sniffed at. There is a host of other things that this Government have done—childcare, working families tax credit, improvements in the pension scheme—and they make a real contribution to improving the lot of women.

I walked to the station last night and was confronted with a blizzard of free newspapers—the carbon footprint of the newspaper industry and free newspapers is clearly impacting these days. I normally ignore them, but I could not resist picking up the londonpaper with its headline:

“London is ‘Capital of Sex Slave Trade’”.

It is ironic that 200 years after the abolition of the slave trade we can see a headline like that about the human misery of women being trafficked across Europe and the world. We made a significant contribution to the abolition of the slave trade. I welcome the fact that the Government recently signed the European agreement on human trafficking, but I would welcome some comments from the Minister on what specific actions will be taken to exterminate this appalling example of 21st-century slavery. We need to remember the motto of the suffragettes, which is one of the great mottos of our time: “Deeds, not words”.

My Lords, I hope the fact that I am the 33rd person to congratulate my noble friend Lady Gould on securing this debate will not diminish my message, because it is heartfelt. I also congratulate her on her speech, which so effectively set the tone for this debate.

I understand that this is the 99th International Women’s Day. For some years, it has been sponsored by the United Nations. No doubt like other noble Lords, earlier this week I received a copy of the International Women’s Day message from the new UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. In it, he said:

“In almost all countries, women continue to be under-represented in decision-making positions. Women’s work continues to be undervalued, underpaid, or not paid at all. That is why International Women’s Day is so important. It spells out our responsibility to work for enduring change in values and attitudes”.

I believe that that last sentence accentuates what is needed to advance women’s equality.

One of the issues mentioned by my noble friend Lady Gould was the pay gap between men and women. I have been involved in that issue for some considerable time. Indeed, I confess that my university thesis in 1974 was on the implementation of the Equal Pay Act. It may be remembered that, although that Act got on to the statute book in 1970, there was a five-year lead-in period for employers to accommodate it as necessary. I do not think that anybody then would have thought that, 30 years later, only half the pay gender gap would have been filled. In 1975, the gap for women was 36 per cent of mean male earnings; it is now 17 per cent and, for part-time women against full-time men, it is 40 per cent.

So only half that journey has been completed and a “massive amount of work” remains to be done. That is not only my view but also that of the Prime Minister. He used those words a year ago following publication of the report of the Women and Work Commission, which was ably led by my noble friend Lady Prosser, from whom we have just heard. That report demonstrated that the gender gap in pay in Britain is one of the worst in Europe. Noble Lords will share my pleasure in the positive progress report that the noble Baroness was able to give us a few moments ago.

There has been much publicity recently over public sector jobs where pay discrimination has been tolerated for years. Now, local authorities and some health authorities are faced with massive bills to give women the back pay due to them. That is a difficult situation for them as employers, but it is not the women’s fault that the discrimination has been allowed to persist for so long. It is totally unfair that they should be made to feel guilty for seeking what is rightfully theirs. Public sector bodies should have seen this coming and acted accordingly. Some are now claiming that it is a choice between their legal commitments and maintaining services. They should face up to their responsibilities and ensure that women do not lose out and need to go to court to receive the fair settlement due to them. One means of dealing with this may be to offer an immediate lump sum, with staged future payments which would have the effect of enhancing women’s pensions over the years.

There are different issues in the private sector, where there is often much less transparency. I have spoken to people who say that they have been told by employers that disclosing their pay to work colleagues constitutes a disciplinary offence. That is surely unacceptable because it is simply a device to enable employers to pay less, not more than a fair rate, and it hits female workers disproportionately. It also highlights the need not just for collective bargaining, but for trade unions to enforce it and to continue campaigning for equality of treatment for all in the workplace.

Today’s debate has also had an international dimension. The House has on several occasions, most recently yesterday, registered its concern at the level of activity of criminal gangs engaged in the revolting practice of human trafficking. This includes vulnerable women from many parts of the world being duped into coming to the UK and then having their passport taken away while they are forced, often by threats or the actual use of physical violence, to work as prostitutes.

Of course that nefarious practice could not flourish without the demand for it from men in this country, but it has to be tackled from the perspective of detaining those who control such women and subject them to an unimaginable life of hell. For too long, this country has not been able to work effectively with other EU member states because the Government were unwilling to sign the European convention against trafficking—as other noble Lords have mentioned, that position is now about to change.

Just before International Women’s Day last year, the Department for International Development announced that it was to provide funding for safe abortion services in developing countries to organisations that had had their funding for such services cut off by the US Government. The NGO Interact Worldwide estimates that this support has already begun to save some of the 60,000-plus women who die each year in these countries as a result of illegal abortions.

That was last year. If there is a need to identify one government action that might be associated with International Women’s Day 2007, I suggest that it should be the announcement by the Prime Minister last month that the Government are now going to sign up to the European convention on human trafficking. No doubt they will want to take further advice from those with experience in providing support for the victims of trafficking, when it comes to preparing for implementation. I mention here those involved in the Poppy Project, which was the only dedicated safe house in London providing specialist support for female victims of trafficking, although it has a mere 35 places available. In 2003, the Home Office estimated that there were at least 4,000 such trafficked women in the UK. That figure can only have increased since then, so more such projects are needed.

For the Prime Minister to make his announcement at a reception to mark the bicentennial of the slave trade Act was apposite, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, said. I was much encouraged to hear my noble friend Lady Scotland of Asthal say during yesterday's debate on the Serious Crime Bill that signing the convention will happen as expeditiously as possible. To that end, I strongly endorse the call by my noble friend Lady Goudie that the convention should be signed by the end of the month. I very much hope that the Minister will give us positive news in that regard. Taken together with the Government’s consultation on tackling human trafficking last year, the opening last year of the ACPO-led human trafficking centre in Sheffield and yesterday’s announcement by the Metropolitan Police of their dedicated team to tackle trafficking, this demonstrates that this major issue is being taken seriously on a number of fronts.

Amnesty International UK has recently published a series of recommendations on how the Government can use the convention to provide effective protection for the victims of trafficking. One suggests that the Government should adopt a UK-wide system of mandatory procedures for the identification and referral of victims, in line with OSCE recommendations. Time prevents me from mentioning the others, but if the Minister or her officials have not yet examined Amnesty's recommendations, I very much hope that they will do so, because they highlight the means by which women caught up in that awful trade could be helped to escape from it and perhaps even recover to build something akin to a normal life.

My Lords, the importance of this debate is shown by the number of participants and the remarkable quality of their contributions. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has championed women's rights for many years; it is altogether fitting that it is she who has initiated so powerfully this great, wide-ranging, moving, witty and learned debate to celebrate International Women's Day. Her Motion for Papers calls attention to the Government’s plans for advancing women's equality. That will be my focus.

The Government’s support for my Bill to give civil protection for victims or potential victims of forced marriages is most welcome; but the Bill is not owned by me, it is owned by the many women's organisations and children's organisations that support it. Yesterday evening, I was a guest at a meeting of 400 British Asian women and their daughters in Southall under the auspices of the drug and alcohol abuse project. I wish that noble Lords could have been there to witness their joyful support for that overdue reform.

The Bill would not have won the Prime Minister's personal support without crucial backing from all sides of this House. I am especially grateful for the encouragement given by the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, and much look forward to working with her and her ministerial colleagues. If, without blushing, she will allow me to say so, she commands the widest possible confidence. We share the Prime Minister’s wish to have the legislation enacted before the year's end. Everyone in both Houses will need to co-operate to make that come to pass—if necessary, at the expense of some other measure. The Bill is designed to empower women and to tackle oppression, especially of girls and young women but also of men, forced into marriages against their will and subjected to cruel punishment if they resist. The problem is to be tackled effectively not only here but overseas. There is great interest in what we are doing in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

On 14 November 1972, I gave evidence to a Select Committee of this House on a Private Member's Bill on sex discrimination, side by side with the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, on behalf of the Labour Party. I was taken to task by the redoubtable and truly intimidating feminist, Baroness Summerskill, for being naively unpolitical in advocating legislation to combat sex discrimination in employment, housing, education and the provision of goods and services to the public. Edith Summerskill was too pessimistic. Just two years later, I worked with Roy Jenkins to make the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 come to pass. We set a standard that has, regrettably, not been matched by the present Government. We published the White Paper Equality for Women within six months after the February 1974 election. We also secured the Bill’s passage only 15 months later and the Race Relations Act within another year.

Ever since the election of the new Labour Government a decade ago, we have pressed for the reform of the tangled and incoherent mass of anti-discrimination legislation and for an equality commission able and willing to enforce the law strategically, using its powers to tackle discriminatory practices, procedures and rules effectively. It was because of the Government’s failure to introduce much needed reforms that I introduced a single Equality Bill, which was modelled on the seminal report by Professor Sir Robert Hepple QC and passed by the House in 2003. However, the Government put the cart before the horse by creating an equality and human rights commission before reforming the tangled mass of laws that the new commission will have to administer from this October. Even now, there are still no published government proposals in any paper, whether green or white. We were promised that proposals would be published last summer, and we are still waiting—not for Godot, but for the right honourable Ruth Kelly and her department. Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the Government will produce more patchwork legislation from poverty of ambition or a lack of skill or will to do as my Private Member’s Bill sought to do and create comprehensive, coherent and user-friendly legislation that is stronger and more effective than the present regime.

When I worked for Roy Jenkins, we were not permitted to remake the narrowly restrictive Equal Pay Act, negotiated by Barbara Castle in 1970. It was a done deal with employers and trade unions, and Barbara Castle deliberately excluded from the Act the vital principle of equal pay for work of equal value required by European law. Because of that serious omission, the European Court of Justice required the United Kingdom to strengthen the equal pay legislation. The Administration of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, did so but made it completely unworkable—I am sorry to say, deliberately. We all remember the late Alan Clark’s unfortunate performance when that was being done and the House of Lords’ condemnation of the measure as incompatible with European law. The courts and the EOC have repeatedly drawn attention to the tortuous and unworkable procedures embedded in the legislation and the rules and regulations.

Thirty years after the Act came into force, women continue to earn significantly less than men, not least because of indirectly discriminatory pay and employment practices. The Women and Work Commission found that full-time women workers earn 13 per cent less than men on median hourly earnings and 17 per cent less on mean hourly earnings. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has said, women are still crowded into a narrow range of lower-paying occupations, which are mainly available part time, that do not make the best use of their skills. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, has just reminded us, local authorities with financial problems caused by their past failure to eliminate sex discrimination from pay agreements are now blaming discrimination lawyers for seeking to obtain compensation for women workers denied equal pay for their equal work.

I am sorry to say that the Government have not been willing since their inception to face down CBI opposition to much needed legislative reform. Women face substantial penalties for doing part-time work and, in terms of pay and progression, for taking time out of the labour market or reducing their hours to care for children or other relatives—carrying, as many noble Lords have said, a double burden. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, will forgive my saying that her commission was plainly split, as it records, and so could not advocate the effective reform of the Equal Pay Act, despite clear evidence that the voluntary approach to equal pay reviews had little impact on British employers; indeed, only one-third of large organisations have completed an equal pay review in the past four years. The noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, had an impossible task in seeking to achieve consensus, and I have no doubt that she was and is on the right side of law reform.

My Lords, may I say for the record that it was not part of the terms of reference of the Women and Work Commission to recommend legislative change?

My Lords, I am very grateful for that; it explains one of the problems. If the new commission is to be effective on sex equality and equal pay, the tangled and incoherent mess of existing equality laws has to be replaced by clear, consistent, easily intelligible legislation that, as far as possible, states the whole of the law in a single Bill. We must not level down existing protection, which the Government have promised they will not do, but we need to create an effective framework for enforcement and individual remedies with less emphasis on procedures and more emphasis on outcomes.

The Hepple report contains new ideas that need to be followed. It said that there should be effective action to tackle pay inequity, including a duty on employers, as the commission chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, indicated, to conduct workforce reviews using government contracts and state aid. Where there is persistent non-compliance with tribunal orders, companies should not be eligible for government contracts. The report also focused on positive action and positive duties, and considered the merits of a general duty to promote equality of opportunity on all public bodies. Of course, we now have the gender duty.

It is also essential for the new commission to pursue strategic law enforcement energetically and wisely as a high priority. The existing equality agencies have tended to be reluctant to use their investigative enforcement powers effectively in accordance with their statutory mandate. If the new commission is, as we all hope, well led, professionally staffed and well resourced, it should provide much needed institutional support to promote a culture of respect for equality and human rights in this country, and much greater progress towards the elimination of discrimination and promotion of equality of opportunity for all, monitoring compliance with the new gender duty.

We now have the chair, most of the commissioners and the chief executive in place. A second round of appointments of up to five further commissioners is expected shortly. I am delighted that the panel of commissioners includes some distinguished and powerful women, including the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, Professor Francesca Klug, and Jeannie Drake and Kay Carberry from the TUC and trade union movement.

The commission will need a strong presence in London and Westminster to exert real influence on government policy and decision-making. To give reality to genuine equality for women, we need energetic, imaginative and bold leadership from government to tackle the persistent patterns of inequality and injustice. We hope that the Minister, who is of course not responsible for a great deal of what I have said, will be able to tell the House about the timetable for the Government’s plans to reform the equal pay and sex discrimination legislation as part and parcel of their plans for a single Equality Act. This is the wake-up call of the noble Baroness, Lady Billingham. Great indeed is the work that remains to be accomplished.

My Lords, I share the gratitude of the House and wish to add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, on securing her important annual debate on the status of women at home and abroad. Last year, the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, made a brilliant contribution and brought to the debate a most welcome male perspective. It is good to see that he has company today. I should like to pay special tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. On International Women’s Day, he truly can be afforded the status of a heroine for his persistent championing of women and children who are forced into unwilling marriages.

My Lords, that is even better.

In last year’s debate, the Conservative Party was also somewhat chided for not fully participating. As I explained then, my noble friends were at a memorial service. Today we again had a memorial service, for Lord Mowbray and Stourton. However, the Conservative Party—the party for which Emmeline Pankhurst stood as a candidate, which had the first woman MP to take her seat in the Commons, and which produced Margaret Thatcher, one of the world’s greatest leaders—has a proud record of commitment to women. I should add that we are also the party that appointed the first Minister with responsibility for women. Anyone who tries to airbrush my noble friend Lady Shephard of Northwold from the history books had better beware! She is a formidable operator and, as she demonstrated today, a passionate advocate for women.

Today’s debate has, as always, been wide-ranging, thought-provoking and moving. All the contributions from noble Lords deserve comment but, unfortunately, time simply will not permit me such a luxury. However, I must mention the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, which should be required reading, and the touching speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen. There can be no doubt when we look at advancement in the equality of women that there has been a generation of revolutionary change. Who would have thought that we would see the All England Lawn Tennis Club announce equal prize money for the women’s and men’s Wimbledon championships, as it did last month; or that the Financial Times would be reporting on Wall Street’s “gender agenda” where:

“Former bastions of macho culture, trading floors, are now going out of their way to retain female competencies”?

Access to good education, innovations in health and childcare and better working practices have all played their part in transforming life for many women both here and abroad. Greater recognition of and a willingness to confront challenging and taboo issues such as those raised today on domestic violence, rape, honour crimes, female genital mutilation and trafficking have enabled women to tackle these issues head on.

Last weekend, I watched a programme on Channel 4 called the “50 Greatest TV Dramas”, one of which was a harrowing and moving drama entitled “Sex Traffic”. I remembered how shocked I was when I first saw that drama. It depicts a truly dreadful trade which, as many noble Lords said, is made all the worse because trafficked women and children are brought to the UK with such high hopes for a better life, with promises of good, honest work in the hospitality or domestic service industries. We know how cruelly they are deceived. Once here, their documents are confiscated and they are forced into bonded labour, including prostitution. But in addressing this issue we must not overlook a scandal much closer to home whereby children who leave care are trafficked internally. These are vulnerable young people and those who violate them in this way are truly despicable.

I am therefore proud that that has been such an important issue for the Conservative Party. My noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns has been focusing on it in this House since 2004. In January of last year we announced a major package of proposals and, since then, trafficking has been a topic discussed at the centre of many of our conferences. And so it should be. There are now as many people trafficked as once there were slaves, and it must stop. I should like to take this opportunity to thank the Government for responding to calls to sign, although yet to ratify, the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. I hope the Minister will be able to update us on the progress of the consultation paper on this issue.

Part of any solution must be to ensure confidence and economic and social security in the home countries. Providing women with the means to set up and run their own enterprises to strengthen their communities can go a long way to preventing them being taken in by promises of work abroad. Microfinance loans have helped enormously in this area. In 2006, Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to create economic and social development from the grassroots up through microfinance loans. Their work shows how empowering people at the bottom of society can really help women.

Women are increasingly taking part in the formal economy. They currently hold eight out of 10 jobs in Asia’s booming export business and account for 55 per cent of the developed economies’ GDP. In the UK, 55 per cent of women with children under five now work outside the home, compared with 25 per cent in 1975. Women form a large proportion of the public sector workforce, making up half of the roles available as school governors, NHS trust board members, magistrates and board of prison visitors. We need only to look around the Chamber today to see the significant contribution made by women to our public life. Research undertaken by the World Bank suggests that the greater the representation of women in parliament, the lower the level of corruption. That is just one of the very good reasons why we must fight for female equality as a precursor to good governance in developing countries, and we still have to fight for it here at home.

In our debate last year I explained how the Conservative Party had transformed the way we selected candidates. My noble friends Lady Shephard of Northwold and Lord Taylor and I were charged with encouraging, and ultimately selecting, a more diverse list of candidates. David Cameron built on this and introduced the priority list, with the explicit aim of securing the selection of more women. For the last year I have served on the priority list committee. It has been a challenge, and has certainly not been without its detractors. It has, however, also been a privilege. I am so impressed with the calibre of all our candidates in winnable seats, men and women, but the women in particular are going to make such a difference to the Conservative Party, and therefore to British democracy. I am delighted to announce that almost half of our winnable seats have selected women. That initiative, however, would not have been possible without the Government’s introduction of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which allowed us to adopt these positive measures to reduce the inequality between the number of men and women elected, and I say a very big thank you.

While we on these Benches recognise and welcome the steps that have been taken by all sides to advance women, this debate has highlighted that there is still much to do. Although things are looking better, as my noble friend Lady Flather reminded us, women still do two-thirds of the world’s work but earn only 10 per cent of the world’s income. Transparency International reports that women are disproportionately affected by today’s global challenges, such as the impacts of corruption. Climate change and health problems like HIV/AIDS are two other examples, with UN figures showing that in sub-Saharan Africa women are three times more likely to be infected than young men, as so graphically illustrated by my noble friend Lord Fowler.

As your Lordships have often highlighted in international development debates, there is much research to show that educating girls and empowering women boosts a country’s economy and is good for business. Indeed, women are considered the key to solving many of the challenges faced predominantly in the developing world.

I take this opportunity to share with your Lordships the work that one of the UK’s leading companies is undertaking in this area. Standard Chartered is involved in promoting the advancement of women’s economic, political and social status throughout the world, a wonderful example of the private sector taking this agenda forward where it is most needed. One of its current projects in India is a sport-based social inclusion model called “Goal”. The project draws women in to play netball, but around that it provides a unique modular leadership course, teaching them skills and confidence, telling them about health issues and acting as a vehicle for women’s empowerment. Because the programme is based on a sport, it helps to overcome some of the objections that some members of the community might have had if it had just been a straightforward education course for wives and daughters. My noble friend Lady Verma made a passionate plea for us to remember that these problems are also close to home.

Equality in the workplace is not just an international issue. The gap between male and female entrepreneurship is wider in the UK than it is in the US, Germany and Italy. As has already been mentioned, the number of female directors in FTSE directorships has fallen. Fairness and Freedom: The Final Report of the Equalities Review, published last week, stated that simply encouraging more women into employment has not solved all the problems. In fact, it suggests that this has created a new type of inequality: a tiered workforce in which mothers often find themselves close to the bottom, let alone those who are full-time carers and cannot enter the system at all. It suggests that sidelined, overlooked and squeezed-out mothers of young children are more discriminated against than anyone else in the workplace, and are often forced to choose between children and a career.

That is not helping the gender pay gap, which for full-time work, as we have already heard, is 7.2 per cent, and for part-time work a whopping 37.6 per cent. The request for flexible work may have hugely opened up the opportunities for part-time and flexible work, but it has failed to improve the quality of that part-time work. Not only do women fail to get true recognition while they work; they still face real unfairness in pensions. I am sure that many of your Lordships are looking forward to engaging actively on that issue in the forthcoming Pensions Bill when it reaches this House. We onthese Benches welcomed the recommendations of the Women and Work Commission which tackle so many of these issues.

Over the decades we have seen the ever-increasing advancement of female equality in so many spheres of life. It is up to us to ensure that we continue to lead the way as an example to societies where local cultures continue to seek to hold women back. Last year, I quoted Annette Lu, the vice-president of Taiwan. As her words so graphically describe everything that we have been talking about, I shall unashamedly quote them again. She told us that we must never forget that,

“Women hold up half the sky”.

My Lords, it is an enormous privilege to be part of this debate and to reply on behalf of the Government. It is terrific to be able to claim our very own heroine, who has rightly received so much praise today for her attempt to secure this debate on International Women's Day for the fourth time. She has lost none of her skills as a labour organiser. Having expanded the sisterhood to include so many noble Lords, we should think again about bringing her back into service in all sorts of ways.

My noble friend spoke of the fact that women had to be their own person, facing worlds of change. The debate has ranged brilliantly and movingly across time and space in so many different ways. It has been a genuine celebration. It has been a celebration of all the best that women can do within the context of all that we are doing to remove the causes of persistent discrimination and inequality.

The debate has been very personal and passionate as noble Lords have talked about their individual heroines and their experiences but that great eloquence is overtaken by the greater eloquence expressed in the lives of noble Lords who have spoken in this Chamber and in what has been done with women and for the community of women. Those who overlook the fact that this is a House of campaigners should think very seriously about the campaigns evident in the lives of the women and men in this House—everything from women's rights in work and public life, for better pensions, the rights of carers and children, better treatment of women in prison, excellence and opportunity in the arts and sports, greater access to educational opportunity and our very own and not at all ephemeral first Minister for Women. That contribution has been part of the transformation that we have seen in women's lives, and therefore children's futures, over the past decade.

I begin by saying how proud I am of a Government who, since 1997, have made a reality of so many of our aspirations for better childcare, working conditions and more support for families—the things that those of us who were bringing up children 10 years ago could only dream of. The priority that this Government have given to the rights of women is measured not only in policies dedicated to women but in the whole range of policies that have had such a massive and beneficial effect on them. That has been one of the great changes in our approach to this issue.

However, as every noble Lord has said, celebration is not complacency, because the work must go on. It is a significant year. Later this year the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights will open for business. Public authorities will be required to demonstrate for the first time how they can promote gender equality. The recent Equalities Review by Trevor Phillips rightly challenges us to look harder at the causes and go further, and we will do so. Not only is it the right thing to do; if we do not do it we will simply bankrupt the future. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, established in her extremely important commission, the economic cost alone of the under-employment of women runs to about £23 billion.

I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who has been rightly praised in this House for his outstanding contribution to human rights, that there is no poverty of ambition in our Green Paper, which will be published this spring after the discrimination law review. The task ahead of us is very tangled and complex, and I am sure that the noble Lord will assist us in getting it right.

My sense of urgency comes from the challenge of building truly sustainable, cohesive and kind communities. As our communities become more diverse and as we come to terms with a world that suddenly seems more fragile, more interdependent and more competitive, the qualities that women bring to making communities, business or politics work have never been more essential. In the context of regeneration and meeting people from our deprived communities, I meet my own heroines daily. There are some women who make an individual and unique contribution; for example, Silla Caron, who leads the residents’ association for the Clarence Way Estate in Camden, has taken on single-handedly drug dealers and drug users and won, at no small risk to herself; and Hanan Ibrahmim, who came to the UK in 2000 as a refugee from Somalia, has set up the Somali Family Support Group to work not just for the Somali community, but far beyond it, for the whole community. I meet countless women working on the boards of New Deal for Communities, in housing renewal or as neighbourhood wardens, who are striving to make their communities places that they can all be proud to call home. These women think of themselves as unremarkable, but they are far from that.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Fritchie, said, it is extremely important for those women’s voices to be louder and for them to be more visible. That is why we are promoting the work of projects like the ReGender project, run by Oxfam, to help women to grow in self-confidence and to press for the sort of regeneration that will see great differences in their lives. Alongside these women is the great collective of women, represented by the strength of the 30,000 voluntary and community women’s organisations in England and Wales, from Refuge and Women’s Aid to the Fatima Women’s Network in Leicester.

It is incredibly heartening to see the increasing number of women coming into public and political life, as so many noble Lords have said. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in her wonderful tour de force, described the heroic tradition of women in municipal life, which I hope will be revived by Dame Jane Roberts, who is looking at ways to increase the diversity of local government councillors. My word, we can do better, and we can do it with feeling and reason. Those two things are not opposed.

Nothing gives me more pleasure than to know that around the world female leaders are now playing such a key role in rebuilding civil societies. The noble Lord, Lord Cotter, graphically described the plight of women in Rwanda, but even there and in Uganda there is hope because there is such a high representation of women—almost 50 per cent—in the lower Houses, helping to build peace and prosperity. Pioneering projects such as the Iraqi Women’s Internship Programme, led by the Women’s National Commission, aim at building the capacity of Iraqi women to rebuild civil society. Some 12 Iraqi women have been trained here, and they have gone back to train 600 women.

I am proud that it is a woman, Anna Tibaijuka, who is leading a global drive through UN-Habitat to transform the slums that are suffocating women in cities worldwide by providing access to loans and grants for slum dwellers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, microfinance is such a key way in which to build up women’s power from the bottom in these communities. It does not matter whether you live in Manchester or Mumbai; if you do not have a home you cannot play any part in society, and if you do not have decent health you cannot do it either. There are still many barriers to remove, and the barriers are the highest for those least equipped to tear them down themselves.

We have done much to help the most vulnerable women over the past decade. We have provided one of the strongest statutory safety nets in the world for people facing homelessness—14 per cent of women in that position are victims of domestic violence. We are switching resources to prevent homelessness but we also need to invest in more refuges. We have invested £32 million in that recently. As my noble friend Lady Dean emphasised, we have to look at security of tenure in the home as well. That is why we are looking at setting up sanctuary schemes which allow those who have experienced domestic violence to stay at home when it is safe for them to do so, when it is their choice and when the perpetrator no longer lives in the accommodation. Noble Lords were right to devote so much time to domestic violence and the shocking statistics which demonstrate that the home is sometimes the least safe place of all. Domestic violence still accounts for 15 per cent of all violence. Two women a week are likely to be killed by a partner. The Government have made tackling that culture of violence and the tolerance of domestic violence against women a priority. That includes forced marriage, which I shall speak about briefly.

I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Scotland, who has brought consistent leadership and experience to protecting women and families. Let me be brutal: before this Government came to power in 1997, the previous interventions on this heinous crime were in the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976 and the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. For 20 years the law stood still. It is very different today. Departments are working together through the national delivery plan for domestic violence. The sexual violence action plan will be published later this month and we have a prostitution strategy. Since 1999, we have launched Living Without Fear, we have set up the Inter-Ministerial Group on Domestic Violence and passed the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act, already described as one of the most important pieces of legislation for the protection of women, which provides very tough new powers.

The work is going on where it really counts because every police force in England and Wales now has a domestic violence co-ordinator. Every new police recruit has mandatory training on domestic violence. We have 64 specialist domestic violence courts, which will be operational by this month across England and Wales. This week the Home Secretary made the timely announcement of £1.85 million to support the roll-out of multi-agency risk assessment conferences for high-risk domestic violence victims. All these actions are having an effect. For example, in Cardiff repeat victimisation has gone down from 32 per cent to less than 10 per cent; in Salford it is down by 50 per cent; and in Peterborough it is down by 45 per cent. These are where the changes count: in the lives and prospects of women being safe.

Noble Lords addressed other grotesque forms of violence against women. Female genital mutilation is a horrific and horrendous form of mutilation. Not least thanks to the work of my noble friend Lady Rendell, who has been such a consistent opponent of female genital mutilation, the 2003 Act made it an offence for UK nationals or permanent residents to carry out FGM abroad; but 2 million girls and women are mutilated every year. Worldwide, efforts to eradicate FGM are now focusing on cultural change, helping men to understand the implications of what is happening. Last week FGM was discussed at a UN conference on the status of women. A film was shown which described the FGM ritual graphically to male parliamentarians, most of whom fainted. Being frank and talking about the realities of FGM with boys encourages more young men to say that they do not want to marry girls who have been cut. It is all about a cultural and communications change, but there is a long way to go. I am so pleased to confirm—as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, did—that the Government fully support the aim of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill. We wish to see provisions along these lines in statute as soon as possible and to work with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and other backers of the Bill. The noble Lord has a formidable ally in my noble friend Lady Ashton.

Many speakers, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Goudie, Lady Morris and Lady Howells, and the noble Lord, Lord Young, referred in this most appropriate year to the grotesque crime of trafficking in girls and women. The Prime Minister has announced our intention to sign the Council of Europe human trafficking convention; it will be done as soon as possible. It will build on existing measures by providing minimum standards of protection and support for victims of all forms of trafficking. We have also opened the UK Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield, as has been mentioned, the first dedicated centre in Europe for victims of trafficking.

We must also remember those women who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Gale for her powerful speech about women in prison. We are looking forward to the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, on this matter. In the mean time, we have been developing different responses. The Together Women programme, for example, is the first time that the Government have dedicated funds specifically to tackling women’s offending and to exploring alternative approaches to custody. To keep women out of prison one of the crucial things is housing advice. That is why the work of housing advisers is so important in prison today as a source of support, ensuring that women have a place of safety to go to when they leave prison.

Many noble Lords spoke on women’s health issues. Before I move on to that, I want to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, how important I thought her contribution on domestic violence and the way it affects children was. We will be making a Written Ministerial Statement shortly, outlining the timetable for implementation of the Children and Adoption Act. The question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, on women and families affected by activity such as gun crime was also important. Those women’s organisations—Mothers Against Violence, Mothers Against Guns and Mothers against Murder and Aggression—that are working to support family life and to protect children and families in these communities are very important.

Health is a basic human right without which women cannot contribute to their community. Women from all parts of the community are learning to take charge of their health. Yesterday I presented an award to men and women working in very deprived communities who were part of our Skilled for Health programme—learning programmes which enable older women to stay healthy through activity, or young mothers to care for themselves and their children. This is where everything that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Billingham, said about sport fits in perfectly to the notion of a healthier life and a healthier community. The noble Lord may not know that the Minister for Women in the other place, Meg Munn, is a footballer and a tap dancer. She is formidable and is very happy to train anybody who is interested. I will be taking names at the end of the debate.

It is particularly in relation to our BME communities that we really need to tackle bad health, such as diabetes and heart disease. The Apnee Sehat project in Warwickshire, for example, is making a real impact in stemming the high instances of diabetes, strokes and heart attacks within the south Asian community. There have been many tremendous breakthroughs in health over the past 10 years. Our investment in cancer services is making a major difference to survival rates. As we tackle old and traditional diseases, new ones come to our attention. That is why it is a great pleasure to say that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, made it absolutely inevitable that sexual health would be one of the top six priorities for the NHS in 2006-07—yet another of her achievements.

Our target is to make sure that our GUM services respond faster and deal with the problems of women on a preventative basis. It needs to be a priority because, although there are some real improvements—teenage pregnancy rates are at their lowest for 20 years—there are also new challenges. Chlamydia rates continue to increase. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Northover, Lady Flather and Lady Lockwood, who made the link between sexual health and power, not just in relation to AIDS but in relation to the population and reproduction. The statistics that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, gave us are shocking. Under the millennium development goal 6, he knows that the UK Government through DfID are on the front line, pushing the plight of women affected by HIV/AIDS. DfID has given £23.8 million in support of microbicide research. We are doing what we can; no doubt there is more to do, but the issue remains at the forefront of our mind as a global tragedy for women.

We must not overlook one community of women in particular: elderly women. Two-thirds of the poorest pensioners are women. The past casts a long shadow over women. Even today, only 30 per cent are entitled to a full basic state pension. Much of that will be addressed in the Pensions Bill, and I sense a terrific appetite in this House to engage with that Bill as soon as possible. I can only say that I am rather pleased that I am at the DCLG. I want to see in future the right to a decent home for women pensioners. Our department is developing strategies that ensure not only that older women can remain independent and safe at home, but that when they go into residential care, because they have become more dependent, there are other and better quality choices. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, and what she said about the importance of safety. Much of the work done by home improvement agencies is about safety in the home, and we must not forget that that is cheaper. A grab rail costs £50 and a hip operation costs £6,500, so it is obviously sensible to invest in the former.

I pay brief tribute to the work of the women who care for the elderly, not just the carers, who were brilliantly described by the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley. I do not need to say much about the Government’s record, as she said it for me. A number of women work in twilight care and residential care, and give loving kindness to people who are most vulnerable. They are invisible carers more often than not. Without them, all those of us who have made the trip down the M4 more often than we care to remember would never have survived. I am sure that that experience is reflected all over the House.

I say to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that the Options for Excellence review looked at the status of newly qualified workers. We will consider that alongside what we are doing to try to improve the skills base. I will write to him in more detail about that, if I may.

I am getting short of time, but I want to say a few things about lower income families and work because it is so important. We are the sandwich generation; it is our joy as well as our duty to care for both an elder generation and our children, but many more of us work as well. I am pleased to say that the culture of expectation and aspiration has changed. Flexible working will be extended to carers of adults soon. Paid maternity and adoption leave has gone up from 18 weeks in 1997 to 26 weeks. We provide well over £2 million a day to help working families with up to 80 per cent of their childcare costs. We have doubled the number of registered childcare places.

Are we reaching the poorest? I hope so, because we are doing more than ever to make good-quality childcare and early education accessible. That includes, for example, £11 million funding for a three-year pilot to provide 10,000 affordable childcare places in London, and the Sure Start centres that reach out and help women to help themselves—to create the networks, to access training, to access literacy and language programmes—to get to the bottom of the ladder; sometimes the first rung is too high. The Women and Work Commission has charted the way, and we have had the progress report today from my noble friend Lady Prosser.

There is a persistent gap in equal pay, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, was right to be stern with us about it. We are looking at the complex interplay of factors that maintains that. Closing the pay gap essentially means transforming the lives of women through education. I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, who spoke so movingly about women who inspire other women, that we are promoting leadership development programmes. We must get women out of occupational and educational segregation. That can be achieved through gender equality, as well as changes in our curriculum. We must do that particularly in relation to BME people.

It has been a magnificent debate, and I am extremely proud to have been able to take part in it. When she started the debate, my noble friend Lady Gould said that she had charted the history of what had happened to women. What came across to me was that, when women fight for their rights, they fight for the whole of humanity.

My Lords, I said in my introduction that I was heartened by the number of speakers who were to take part in the debate. I am more than heartened—indeed, I am inspired—having listened to the wide-ranging, powerful, moving and important speeches, of which there have been far too many to refer to them all.

One of the main features of your Lordships’ House is how much unity there can be across the Chamber when we talk about important issues. That is of real credit to the House of Lords. The speeches from noble Lords—referred to as “a litter” of noble Lords; that will go down in history—shows that discussion based on examining the role of women in society is not merely a women’s issue; it affects us all.

I should like to make two other references. First, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on becoming a grandfather. I am sure that we will both continue to campaign across the Chamber for sexual health rights in this country. Secondly, the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, was right to refer to the part played by the many women’s organisations in this country. I know that representatives from women’s organisations have been sitting in the Gallery today. I hope that they feel that their day has been worth while.

I close by agreeing with my noble friend Lady McIntosh that our job is now to build on the achievements that we have already gained. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.