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Women in Public Life

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 30 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government what measures they will take to encourage the full participation of women in public life.

The noble Baroness said: The Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently published a document entitled Sex and Power 2008, which shows how slow women’s progress is in all fields of political and public life; the document calls it “a snail’s pace”. The House of Commons is a good example of how slow women’s progress is. Since 1918, when women were first able to stand as Members of Parliament, only 291 women have been elected, but during that same period 4,363 men were elected. If it was possible to put all the women who have ever been elected into the House of Commons today, they would still be in the minority. Women have been able to sit in your Lordships’ House since 1958 and, to date, 1,044 men and 198 women have been appointed as Peers: 84 per cent men and 16 per cent women. So whether elected or appointed, women are, and always have been, a minority in both Houses.

In other walks of life have women fared any better? The Sex and Power report talks about the “missing women”. It says:

“If women hope to shatter the glass ceiling and achieve equal representation we would need to find over 5,600 women ‘missing’ from more than 31,000 top positions of power in Britain today”.

This includes all public appointments, business, local authorities, media, civil servants, senior judges and, of course, the missing women in the Commons—198 more women are needed, and in your Lordships’ House we need another 225 to achieve equal numbers. Can the Committee imagine what the House of Lords would look like with those additional 225 women?

However, there are some good stories. In the nine years since the first elections to the Welsh Assembly, there has always been a good number of women elected. In fact, the 2003 elections saw the Welsh Assembly become the first democratically elected legislature in the world to have an equal number of men and women. As far as Wales is concerned, this did not happen by accident. The Labour Party, in readiness for the first elections to the Welsh Assembly in 1999, took a decision to field an equal number of women and men candidates. That was not as easy as it sounds—I know, as I was there—but as a result more Labour women were elected than Labour men, showing that the electorate do not discriminate when it comes to electing women candidates. The problem lies not with the electorate but with the political parties, as their members are reluctant to select women candidates. Unless action is taken, such as through the Labour Party policy of all-women shortlists, this problem will persist.

I have given up believing that over time prejudice against women will be overcome. None of us will be here long enough to see that happen. Today we live in a society in which women are in most cases unable to achieve their full potential. How can this be dealt with? Can government, in bringing in equality laws, change the perceptions, prejudice and culture that exist? I believe that laws can go some way in helping women. I am thinking of laws such as the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which allows all-women shortlists, the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act. Soon we will be debating the new equality Bill. We also have the national minimum wage, two-thirds of the beneficiaries of which are women, and the right to ask for flexible working.

On public appointments, in May this year the Women’s National Commission began working with the Cabinet Office on a new initiative to encourage more women to apply for posts on public bodies. I declare an interest: I serve as the commissioner for Wales. The commission will work with four government departments, as well as the Appointments Commission, publicising the current adverts for posts on the boards of public bodies and encouraging women with the specific skills and experience to apply for these posts. By sharing information on public appointments and engaging with women about the importance of their representation within public appointments, the Women’s National Commission believes that it will be doing all that it can to encourage women to apply for these posts.

I was interested to learn that the Prime Minister has asked the Speaker of the House of Commons to convene a Speaker’s Conference. The conference has been asked to:

“Consider, and make recommendations for rectifying, the disparity between the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large; and to consider such other matters as might, by agreement; be referred for consideration”.

The conference is expected to report its recommendations in 2009. The first such conference, in 1916-17, secured cross-party agreement on the principle that women should have the right to vote. It led to the Representation of the People Act 1918, which extended the right to vote to women over 30 years of age. If the recommendations of this present conference are as powerful as those of the 1916-17 one were, we should expect great things.

In a recent announcement, my right honourable friend Harriet Harman MP, the Minister for Women and Equalities, spoke of the setting-up of a national equality panel, which will gather and examine data from the last 10 years, as well as using current information, and will commission new research where necessary. It aims to provide an analysis of how equality trends have changed over the last 10 years, mapping out exactly where gaps have narrowed or widened in society. When the report is published in late 2009, it should give us a better idea of how equal our society is, and I hope that we may get some solutions.

However much legislation is brought in, government cannot do everything in terms of changing attitudes. It is difficult to deal with the prejudice in some people’s minds against equality for women; they are bound up by their own culture and prejudice. Would it make a difference, I wonder, if boys and girls were from an early age taught mutual respect in a gender-free style? Girls and boys should be taught that they are capable of doing whatever they wish. No doors should be closed because of gender. Does my noble friend the Leader of the House think that this could be achieved?

Many countries now use a quota system to ensure that women are elected and that has proved to be successful in bringing more women into public life. Could we use such a system in the UK? I think that that is worth looking at. We should learn from other countries that have tried to tackle the underrepresentation of women in political life.

There are so many women with the talent, ability and merit to rise to the top, but they are not allowed to get there because of cultural attitudes in organisations and of individuals. Changing attitudes is a lot harder than changing the law. The glass ceiling is there, unseen but obvious. When Hillary Clinton made her speech conceding to Barack Obama, she said:

“Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time”.

That is what it is all about. Each one of us can make a difference in whatever field we work in. We can make a difference and make it easier for the next women who come along. It is a long path that we have to travel, but perhaps, with the help of a sympathetic Government, we can make that road less bumpy for the next generation of women. I look forward to the response from my noble friend the Leader of the House.

I thank my noble friend for securing this debate and for giving us the opportunity to focus on an issue that is dear to the hearts of so many of us, as women and as parliamentarians. We are mostly people who became parliamentarians as a result of participating in public life. I endorse the comments of my noble friend in validating the steps taken by the Labour Government to increase the participation of women. Your Lordships’ House, as only one example, is a very different place in composition and, I venture to suggest, in culture since I first entered in 1997. Much of that change is due to the increased number and participation of our women Peers.

I also acknowledge the commitment of the Civil Service and local authorities to encouraging women. Only last week, the Women in Public Life Awards were launched for this year; the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has been a recipient in the past. I think that there was a series of stamps with women’s heads on them indicating the success of some women in public life. The Cabinet Secretary puts time into this. We have seen some increase in the number of women councillors, while the voluntary sector is famous for its women leaders. And yet, and yet. Any glance at the numbers shows us that progress is painfully slow. There are fewer women as permanent secretaries than there were five years ago and, even in the voluntary sector, where huge numbers of women work, the number at the top, as chief executives or chairs, is very small.

We must conclude, as my noble friend has done, that the problem is more cultural than structural. That is what I will focus on in my brief time today. I shall highlight two aspects of culture, both of which can be found in women themselves and in wider societal attitudes. The first is the reluctance of women to put themselves forward. We all know—do we not?—that an ambitious man is tough, hard and focused on success, whereas an ambitious woman is strident, shrill and unfeminine. Of course that is not true, but those images are firmly embedded. Moreover, women are usually good at negotiation rather than confrontation and are often relaxed about letting someone else take the credit that is rightfully theirs. I see nods from noble Lords. Women know that that is the way to get things done, but it does not always get you noticed by those who can advance and promote you.

Moreover, the media focus on the personal is considerably more off-putting to women than to men. Whatever our personal views of Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin, I doubt that any of us would condone the attention paid to the colour of the one’s trouser suit or the shape of the other’s spectacles. I do not remember the husband of a Prime Minister being pilloried or praised for the cut of his suit or the type of shoes that he wore to hear his wife’s speech to a party conference. Is it any wonder that women may be reluctant to enter politics, when the Home Secretary is judged more by the shape of her neckline than by the quality of her argument?

The other area to which I want to draw your Lordships’ attention is how poor we are at acknowledging the transferability of skills and experience from one field of life into another. Women who have taken time off to bring up a family often report huge difficulty in convincing an employer that their time has been profitably spent and that it has developed, rather than stultified, their skills. Any woman who has run a household, managed a budget and organised after-school activities, while cooking the dinner and setting up a package of care for her elderly mother, has all the skills and more to be an efficient manager. That is leaving aside all the negotiation that she has done as a matter of course with the school, the surgery, the local authority and the Inland Revenue. Yet how often is that acknowledged, not least by women themselves, who do not know how to package up the skills so as to look good on the CV, or how to fill in the application form in a way that is sufficiently economical with the truth to get her an interview, a skill at which most men are adept? Even when you are well established in public life, it is difficult to get anyone to see that skills learnt in one part of life are easily transferable to another. Many of us around this Table have had that experience.

Addressing such entrenched attitudes is the next stage of development in our crusade to get more women into public life. We must start early. I commend the Lord Speaker’s programme and all colleagues who work with schools. We must develop the best possible role models and encourage women who are successful in public life to sponsor others—our daughters, our granddaughters, our younger colleagues. We must be prepared to undertake what can be the most rewarding, as well as the most challenging, of occupations.

We should, of course, challenge sexist attitudes where we find them but, like most women, I have found the carrot rather more effective than the stick when it comes to culture change. The rewards of encouraging women into public service should always be emphasised, using the wealth of talent available and encouraging flexibility in the workforce—I seek assurance from my noble friend the Leader of the House that the current economic situation will not discourage us from doing that. Above all, we must seek to develop the acknowledgement of the strength and relevance for the whole of our population of encouraging more women.

I just make the point that, if noble Lords do not stick to their four minutes, we will lose the remarks at the end of this hour, because it is a timed debate. When the clock clicks to “4”, that is when you need to sit down, not when it goes through the fourth minute.

I shall watch the clock. I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Gale has opened a debate again on women’s issues and delivered such a challenging opening speech.

Today I shall focus on what has been done and is being done to interest girl children—and boy children—and encourage them to have the confidence, inspiration and information to get involved in public life when they are older, points touched on by my noble friends who have just spoken. In doing this I shall refer to two things: first, encouraging young people to visit Parliament and having parliamentarians visit schools; and, secondly, the importance of developing self-esteem in schoolchildren, helped by personal, social and health education.

I was excited last week by the launch of the parliamentary educational website. It is well worth a visit. I have it here in front me here—not the website, the books. The Parliamentary Education Service has expanded enormously and is doing a great job of letting schools and young people know about its services. I was also excited last week by the fact that personal, social and health education is to be a compulsory part of the curriculum for all children at last. The aims of the Parliamentary Education Service are to inform young people about the role, work and history of Parliament; to engage young people in understanding the relevance of Parliament and democracy through active learning; and to empower young people to get involved by equipping them with the knowledge and skills to take part.

The DVD and booklet for schools are called You’ve Got the Power. What a splendid message for young people to receive about involvement in public life. Some of the areas covered are: using your vote; MPs and Lords; debating and voting in a parliamentary way; and influences on the UK Government. There is much more. The Parliamentary Education Service provides resources for schools, encourages visits to Parliament and organises student parliaments where schools can prepare a debate and carry it out in Westminster. There are 10 of these each year. Teacher training workshops in schools, videoconferencing and visits by Peers and MPs are also organised.

Why is all this important? Many young people, not just girls, are simply not aware of, and not interested in, government at a local or national level. Unless that attitude is addressed, they will grow up disaffected and may not participate, either by getting involved in government or public life or by voting. If we catch them early, that cycle may be broken. They, particularly girls, need to feel that Parliament and governance belong to them. When I take school groups around Parliament, which I do fairly frequently, I always stop at the statue of Viscount Falkland in St Stephen’s Hall. That, of course, is where the suffragette, Marjory Hume, chained herself to Falkland’s sword and was dragged off by the police, breaking the sword, which is now repaired but still shows the crack. What better reason for saying that every woman should vote? This always makes a great impression on children.

I move on to personal, social and health education, which will now be compulsory in schools and will have its own curriculum—of course we already have citizenship education. PSHE is not about sex and drugs for five year-olds, as some media imply; rather, it is a serious attempt by the Government to give young people information at the appropriate age about their bodies and about relationships. But it is not just about information; it is also about exploring values and attitudes towards other people and encouraging honest and open relationships. I like what one young person said about sex education:

“I understand the science side pretty well, but it seems a bit like a pencil—I know it’s made from wood and graphite that gets broken off, but does that tell me how to write?”.

The analogy is clear. We have a duty to ensure that every young person is emotionally, socially and politically articulate and educated.

I have spoken briefly about two aspects of education that I think are important in developing the confidence and involvement of young people. Can my noble friend reassure us that the Government will continue to support such education for boys and girls?

It is always challenging to take part in any debate raised by my noble friend Lady Gale and this one is no exception. I join others in thanking her for keeping equality on the agenda. I have used the word “challenging” because such debates encourage the House to look at the progress made in the quest for equality and for me to look especially at black women. How are black women faring in the equality stakes in the two areas highlighted by the debate?

Before repeating the statistics that I have gleaned from the second Sex and Power report, which has already been quoted in the debate, I want to share a brief anecdote. When I was sitting in the Tube with two women colleagues recently, the conversation veered towards the discrimination against women still in existence. My colleagues concluded that women have a long way to go because men have so cleverly constructed a society for their own benefit and comfort. At that point I interjected, “Consider yourselves lucky. You only have to deal with gender discrimination. In my case it is double discrimination, both race and gender”. They looked at me and said, “Well”, and there ended the conversation.

That incident has prompted me to repeat some statistics from the 30-page Sex and Power report. On page 16, 11 lines are devoted to ethnic minority women. The report states:

“The glass ceiling is low for most and lower for some”.

I also gleaned the following statistics. There are only two black women MPs, eight black women Peers, no black women AMs and no black women MSPs. Only eight black women are directors of FTSE 100 companies and we have one black woman High Court judge. Given that Britain is changing, it beggars belief how slowly the wheels are turning. Population statistics show that four-fifths of the growth in the working-age population in the UK comes from ethnic minorities. It appears that the workplace, company boards and Parliament have not kept up with the significant implications for the way in which Britain works. If there are not enough black women around the boardroom table or in Parliament, will there ever be change?

I believe that there has to be change. Britain must wake up and encourage more black women of talent to compete equitably for places in public life. It also begs the question: is Britain failing not only its black women but the whole of the black community? Can Britain afford the luxury of doing this, or is our country losing out?

I know that the Leader of the House is currently encouraging black women to be engaged in the system. Is she engaging the women who can really help? Unlearning racism is an art. Most very nice people are racist and do not even know it. To move the dialogue forward, we need to be careful when choosing the women who will advise—women who have succeeded despite racism in the institutions and who are capable of moving others to realise what is actually happening and how subtle it is.

There is no place for discrimination of any kind in the 21st century. Several changes must take place. Dynamic women and men must embrace this time of recession visibly to encourage women, whatever their colour, to work in areas that seem to be held for men and to say no to the inflexible approach to work.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for raising this important issue once again. I pay tribute to her tireless efforts in this area, but do so with fatigue and anger. Like many people around this Table, I have spent more than 30 years arguing and making precisely the points that are being made today. Progress has been dismally little. It is time for radical action. It is time for us to find the political will to make real and fundamental change, because we are wasting the resources of our country. Because of the innate sexism in our system, we are wasting the money that we spend on girls’ education and we are wasting the opportunities that we provide for them.

We will overcome this only by having a system of quotas that ensures that equal numbers of men and women participate. The Government, who have made all-women shortlists lawful, could quite easily say that there will be all-women shortlists in all public appointments, particularly for leadership positions, until there are equal numbers of men and women holding public appointments.

Our plcs should be required to have equal numbers of men and women on their boards. Until we become accustomed to seeing women in leadership positions, we will never achieve true equality. We have spent years touching around the edges, with training schemes and with opportunities here and opportunities there. It has not worked.

I do not intend to take up my whole four minutes. I simply want to make this point as forcefully as I can: it is time for real action, not simply the sort of thing that makes people feel good and feel as though they are doing something when what they are doing actually changes nothing. I donate my remaining two minutes to my colleagues.

It is a great honour to be here and to support and salute the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and that of my other distinguished noble friends—and sisters, if I may be so bold to say. It feels very comfortable to be here. Yes, we are playing the broken record once more, but it is important to do so.

I shall say something about the work that I am doing with the Government’s task force and something about my own work. Having just come from America, I have become convinced that we need to shout more about the work that we do, because none of us knows enough about the work that many of our colleagues are doing to promote women’s participation in every way.

I have not written a speech. Instead, I Googled “British women” an hour ago. The first thing that came up was about how American women are more attractive than British women. Then it says, “British history”; then it says something about British women and our opinions about Palin. The mind boggles at what £150,000 could have done to my image with a little bit of attention from the British media. I will let you wonder, but I do not think that achieving equality is so simple. Then comes women suffragettes. I stopped there because I thought, “This is going to be really depressing”.

Then I Googled “British Muslim women”. What can I tell you? The results were about how single Muslim women are dating, about how attractive or not the girls are and about preventing extremism. There was nothing about power, representation or participation. Then there was something about Muslim voices. I say this because that is the position of women in the public arena; the position of minority women, in particular, is nowhere.

I am pleased to be able to chair the task force, which is encouraging women. It is a cross-party task force and I urge all my colleagues to support it. I have just come from a women’s event where there were a number of women Ministers, but no reference was made to the work that the Labour Government are undertaking. It is a very successful cross-party effort; I am making my best efforts to ensure that we go beyond party politics and encourage all women.

About a week ago, we were in Birmingham, undertaking a successful event as part of encouraging more women to come forward. Often we hear that not enough ethnic minority women are interested in or capable of coming forward and taking part in public life. I have done work for the Government chairing various task forces and groups on women and women’s position and I know that that is not true. I am really pleased that once again we are proving that there is no shortage of such women. There were more than 200 women saying, “Yes, I want to be this”, “I want to be a magistrate”, “I want to be a Member of Parliament”, and even, “I want to be in the Lords”. Despite the democratic deficit elsewhere, we have done quite a lot to make up for what is lacking in the democratic process.

I was really pleased with the ambition that many of those women demonstrated, but ambition is not enough, because of the lack of opportunities. I echo what my noble friend Lady Kingsmill just said: we must take radical action and acknowledge each other’s work. Only by strengthening what we are doing can we come out of this quagmire, this devastating position. Even the Labour Government have become somewhat complacent, having achieved that remarkable progress back in 1997.

Is my noble friend Lady Royall satisfied with the changes that have been made? Does she recognise that many of us, including me, have been tireless in the campaign? What will she do to ensure that that is acknowledged in the public arena? How will she encourage minority women and make sure that opportunities are real, not just about a task force or profligate comments about how we are doing everything that we can? That is no longer good enough. Every ounce of our effort must be made to show that we mean what we say, which is that we believe in equality. I apologise for going over five minutes.

I, too, begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and congratulating her on securing this debate. I must say that I feel slightly uneasy because I seem to be the only male Peer speaking in the debate and the only one present. That tells us something about how these debates have a tendency to be ghettoised, which precisely illustrates the problem that we are debating this afternoon.

In spite of persistent pressure, anti-discrimination laws and the Labour Party’s commitment, the representation of women in our public life remains deeply disappointing. Let me give the Committee some basic facts about not only politics but other areas of life. In politics, as we have already been told, 20 per cent of MPs are women; women make up 19.7 per cent of the House of Lords, although an outsider may be forgiven for thinking that the proportion is much larger, partly because, I am told, women tend to attend more often and for longer hours than men. Twenty-six per cent of Cabinet Ministers are women, as are 20 per cent of candidates in parliamentary elections. Of public appointments, 36 per cent go to women. Although I do not have exact statistics, I am told that about 30 per cent of higher honours in the honours list go to women. Women make up 9.26 per cent of High Court judges and 26 per cent of senior civil servants. Public life appointments speak for themselves.

In education, 8 per cent of vice-chancellors are women. There should be no discrimination in the appointment of deans and heads of department, but only about 19 per cent are women. In the economy, 11 per cent of directors of FTSE 100 companies are women and, of senior managers and people in high positions, about 18 per cent are women. In the media, women make up 16 per cent of senior editors and programme organisers and 30 per cent of senior columnists and journalists. I can think of hardly any walk of life, other than magistrates, where the proportion of women broadly corresponds to their proportion in the population.

The position is even bleaker in respect of ethnic minorities, who make up 0.3 per cent of MPs, 1.4 per cent of Peers and 0.9 per cent of councillors. This need not be. In other countries the figures are in some respects much better. In Sweden, the Netherlands and even South Africa the figures for the representation of women in Parliament are closer to the proportion in the population. But in universities and the media, the situation is just as disappointing. I cannot think of any country that sets an example to us in all walks of life.

The question is: what do we do? Different factors are responsible in different areas. It is no use trying to think of one answer that will work in all areas of life. Therefore, we will need different strategies for underrepresentation in politics, in academia, in the media and so on.

We need to think more carefully about two or three things. First, women are underrepresented partly because of their conditions of work, such as inflexible working hours, lack of childcare facilities, irregular hours of work and promotion policies that take no account of breaks in service.

Another factor concerns masculine culture and ethos. Just as I almost felt intimidated in the company of only female Peers, I can understand easily how women would feel in an all-male environment, as I can vouchsafe as a vice-chancellor and as a head of department. The ethos tends to be such that people feel intimidated. Thus there is a vicious circle. We need more women—a critical mass—to break the ethos, but we will not be able to do that unless there are more women in the first instance.

Finally, in public life, we need to bear in mind media stereotypes. As one of my colleagues said, the media are far more invasive and more personalised in their comments about women. I can easily understand why women would feel reluctant to expose themselves and their private lives to media scrutiny and allow their personal integrity to be violated by these kinds of aggressively invasive media, which seem to single out women far more than men.

A profound cultural revolution needs to take place. The law can take us only so far. History teaches us one lesson: it is easier to tackle all areas of discrimination in the first instance, when the Government enact the law, but, once law reaches its limits and cultural changes are required, things become more difficult.

I thank my noble friend Lady Gale for securing this debate. I will not go over the statistics or arguments put forward by some of my colleagues. Since 1997, we have had three Labour Governments, with two enlightened Prime Ministers, Prime Minister Blair and Prime Minister Brown, and an enlightened European Commission. Life has changed enormously for women in this country, although perhaps not as much as we would like.

I disagree on one point: the quota system. I have been very lucky never to have had to deal with the quota system. I was elected as a local authority councillor by an all-male union, the Post Office union, as it was then, and then I had other appointments. However, that was in the days when there was change.

People talk about quotas here and in other countries. There are quotas in countries that have been at war or where women have never stood for the parliament. To persuade those countries to have women standing for parliament, you had to have the quota system. The figures that are often quoted about high numbers of women in parliament following wars are for Afghanistan, Rwanda, other African countries and Northern Ireland. Those countries have quota systems because women there sat outside the peace talks—they are doing it now in Darfur—and they sat there until they were allowed to come to the peace table. Part of the deal with the UN and other countries involved in getting peace in those countries was that women became members of parliament there.

Figures are bandied about showing that there are more women in parliament in such countries, as is true, and that is because quotas were put in place to get women in parliament to make sure that peace was brokered and kept. When you have women at the brink of peace, they can stop a lot of what is happening. Women have stopped suicide bombers and women will continue to ensure that we have peace in this world. I feel strongly about quotas.

When you have women in power, as we have today, they can make a difference in three areas. By making a difference, we can bring other women into public life. First, there is the economic situation; secondly, there is the political situation; and, thirdly, there is the human rights situation. We can make a positive difference in those areas if we encourage women by example and through education. We must ensure that teachers in teacher training colleges understand that women have the right to attain any position that they want. Wherever they come from, we should ensure that women are told at school and thereafter, “You have a right”. We have to change the political situation in the political parties. We should be saying to our colleagues in the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats and other parties that they must change their system of how they elect people at every level.

In the same way, we should try to become part of every situation to elect or appoint women. Women are bad to women. Looking at the number of women in public life and at public appointments, we see that women do not select women. The same goes for women headhunters. They ring me up about positions and say, “What about so and so?”. When I ask whom they have on the shortlist, I find that they do not have a woman on it. We should be encouraging headhunters to have women on their shortlists. If they do not know about the women whom we are talking about, we should be saying to them, “These are the women who should be brought to the table”.

Women can also make a change in skills and training. That is why we should be on the skills and training boards and why we should be part of ensuring that women can attain these skills. We need women in engineering and in science, which have the lowest numbers of women training. Women have a right to be there.

If you invest in women, you invest in the rest of the world. The best thing that you can do with such money is to invest in women; they are the best workforce. In countries that invest in women, such as our country, the GDP goes up. When women in the workforce enjoy where they are working, they stay there and you do not have constant change. Working women can educate their sons to respect women and to be on equal terms.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, has a splendid record of promoting women, as is attested by the wonderful balance of men and women achieved in the Welsh Assembly. We all congratulate her on that and we all know of her huge contribution there. At the same time, I recognise that the Government have over the years genuinely tried to promote the cause of women and tried to make things better and easier for them and more available to them.

Years ago, I played a bit part in the then recently founded Liberal Democrats as the person organising the selection process for candidates in the English party, which is, of course, by far the biggest of the three parties making up our joint party. I became increasingly aware that the problem for women is not so much getting elected, because women tend to attract more voters than men overall, but getting selected. I was quite amazed by the number of excuses that could be made by the chairs of committees: “Of course I am absolutely in favour of more women in Parliament, but this constituency is too big, too small, too rich, too poor, too urban, too black, too white”. Any reason that you could think of was a good reason for not promoting the woman who had to be on the shortlist—we have, or we had in those days, a vague quota system.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the current proportion of women in the House of Commons is only 20 per cent, but it is an absolute disgrace after 90 years of voting for women and women being allowed to become Members. Incidentally, in 1906, when Finland escaped from Russian control, it gave women the right to vote and the right to stand in its first parliament, to which women were indeed elected. We have a long way to go in some ways.

I was sad to note that the same sort of poor proportion applies in local government, albeit a little better than in the House of Commons—30 per cent rather than 20 per cent. I have quite long experience in local government of various forms. In my experience, women have been brilliant chairs of committees, excellent leaders of councils and very good at heading hospital committees and school governing bodies. Where would school governing bodies be if there were no women? They would not be filled. Those are all important positions in public life.

Why do we care whether there are more women, fewer women or not enough women in Parliament? There are two reasons. Women are today at least as well educated as men; indeed, they are probably slightly better educated and more successful in the educational process than men. Why are we not profiting from the input that we have made as a society into women’s improvement in education by ensuring that they are promoted in the right way? It is a real sadness that in big companies there are fewer women in the governing bodies than there were a few years ago. Things are not getting better in that field; they are getting worse.

Also, women’s perspective on life is not the same as men’s. They do things in a different way—a way that men find unsympathetic. If you get five women together talking about something, they say, “Oh, that’s a good idea, we’ll do that”. Within 10 or 15 minutes, you have the beginning of a plan to address the problem. It is much less formal; it is much less about, “He’s the boss and I’m his inferior”. We do not think in that way, especially in this House, where, by definition, we are all equal.

Women could contribute to better legislation and better administration by bringing some of those feminine ways of doing things, based on good education, alongside the male way of doing things. If I could give the Government one word of advice—I know that they will not accept it—it would be to introduce proportional representation. Do not laugh. The best way of getting more women into elected bodies is to have proportional representation.

I am aware that I am already eating into the Minister’s time, so forgive me if I try to keep my remarks as short as I can. I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for raising this important issue today. I am especially pleased to speak, as I have spent 40 years championing the promotion of women. I have never been obsessed by equality of numbers. It is a useful tool but, like the noble Baroness, Lady Kingsmill, I have been motivated by thinking of the wealth of talent that the country is missing out on.

As has been said, this year marks the 90th anniversary of some women first being granted suffrage in this country. Like my colleague in another place, the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, Theresa May, I firmly believe that we must use the anniversary of women’s suffrage as an opportunity to promote further discussion on how to improve the role of women in politics in the UK and internationally.

It was not until 1918 that women aged 30 or older were allowed to vote and to stand for Parliament and not until 1928 that women had the vote on the same basis as men. The wheels of change grind slowly indeed and we must maintain our determination to see men and women equally represented in public life. I understand that the UK is ranked 51st equal in the world and 13th in the European Union—not a happy place to be. The picture is only slightly better away from Westminster. The proportion of women in the Scottish Parliament is 33 per cent and the proportion in local government is about 29 per cent. Only in the National Assembly for Wales, as the noble Baroness pointed out, does the proportion of women Members come close to genuine parity—it is just under half.

It is worth saying that the Government may wish to start a little closer to home before they begin preaching to public bodies through the equality Bill. It saddens me to say that they have failed to tackle the significant glass ceiling in the Civil Service. Across all departments, women fill only 31 per cent of senior Civil Service positions. In the worst-offending departments, such as the MoD, they fill as few as 13 per cent of senior positions. On top of this, the gender pay gap in government departments is significantly higher than the national average of 17.2 per cent. In the Treasury, the pay gap is a staggering 26 per cent. In the MoD, it is 22 per cent. Clearly this needs to be rectified. The Government need to get their own house in order to be credible.

We need not heed the words of those who say that there is no need for positive action to redress the balance when eight out of 10 Members of Parliament are men. We should not listen to those who argue that positive action invalidates the achievement of those who benefit from it. We completely disagree with these arguments. As the Leader of the Opposition, who has done so much to begin to usher in the necessary changes in the Conservative Party, has said, it is about political effectiveness. To create effective policy, we must involve those who are affected by it. We should all take notice of those words as we consider what can be done to increase the participation of women in public life. We must continue in our determination to reach our goal.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon, but especially to my noble friend Lady Gale, whom I thank for another inspiring and thought-provoking debate; I am sorry that they have to keep occurring. I pay tribute to her especially for the way in which she changed the gender landscape in politics in Wales, because it is largely thanks to her that we have what we have in the Welsh Assembly.

I am also delighted that my noble friend Lord Parekh has spoken this afternoon; he is right to say that this becomes a ghettoised issue, when it is important for men as well as women in our society. We must deploy the talents of all society, not just 50 per cent of it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, rightly told us that 2008 is a year of anniversaries for women. We have reached other milestones, too. My noble friend Lady Ashton is the first UK female Commissioner and, this year, Manjula Sood became the first Asian woman lord mayor in the UK. We celebrate these achievements, but progress is shamefully slow.

I share the anger and frustration at the fact that the glass ceiling is still there, albeit now cracked as a result in this country of many of the Government’s policies. Women face too many barriers to entering public life and senior positions more generally. These barriers include caring responsibilities, the culture of institutions such as Parliament, and low confidence. However, as many noble Lords have said, changing the culture is critical. It is vital that we all work together to overcome these barriers.

One way to overcome the barriers is through education. Like my noble friend Lady Massey, I pay tribute to the educational outreach of this House. The teaching of citizenship is, of course, important, but the fact that more girls now go on to higher education gives me most hope that my daughter’s generation and those that follow will succeed where we are failing. Education brings confidence and gives girls self-esteem. I wholeheartedly agree with the need for gender-neutral education.

Young people have many opportunities both at school and outside to engage in political activities, such as on school councils and the UK Youth Parliament. It is encouraging that, in 2006, 53 per cent of the UK Youth Parliament’s members were female. My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley rightly said that we have to educate women in packaging their skills. I will write to her, and copy the letter to all noble Lords present, about some excellent examples.

We need women in key decision-making positions. We need them on public boards, in our institutions and on primary care trusts. We need them everywhere. What better way is there to ensure that the health needs of a whole community are met than by having women on PCT boards?

We know that democracy is stronger when it is fully representative. We have heard about the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It is shameful that we have only two black female MPs and that there has never been an Asian female MP. My noble friend Lady Howells was right to cite double discrimination. It is not acceptable. All women, including black and ethnic minority women, want to have a say in decisions made locally and nationally.

Many noble Lords have spoken about the shamefully snail’s-pace progress outlined in the Equality and Human Rights Commission document. This Government are committed to increasing women’s representation in political and public life. The Government have taken action—I will have to circulate a lot of information on the action that they have taken. The equality Bill is coming up, which will be an important means of redressing some of the power balance. But, at this time of economic downturn, it is especially important that we continue to act on these issues. In the past, women have been hit disproportionately in economic downturns. We must not let that happen now.

Democracy must be nourished at its roots. It is vital to consider decision-making at a local level. In December 2007, the Councillors Commission published a report on the barriers and incentives to standing as a local councillor. It highlighted the need for a more diverse pool of people holding these roles. At the moment, women make up 29.3 per cent of local councillors, of whom only 1 per cent are black, Asian or from an ethnic minority. I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Uddin chairs the local task force about which she told us.

The Government are supporting many initiatives, such as the FTSE 100 cross-mentoring scheme, which aims to increase the pool of eligible senior female candidates for board positions. As noble Lords have said, it is good that many women now want to come forward, as seems to be the case in the task force, but we also have to provide the opportunities.

In this House, we have some extraordinary women who have overcome the barriers. In addition to being Peers, they run families and organisations. They are on the boards of companies, charities, voluntary organisations et cetera. Not only should we be proud of these women, but we should use them whenever and wherever possible as role models to nurture and foster change in our society, so that the full participation of women in public life becomes the norm rather than the exception. I believe that that is our duty. The challenge that we have discussed today is an issue not only for the present but also for future generations, who need to see role models in these positions so that they can be inspired to step forward.