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Women in Society

Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2010

Motion to Take Note

Moved By

That this House takes note of the position of women in society in the United Kingdom and overseas and the advancements that can be made for the development of women’s potential.

My Lords, it is a great privilege to introduce this debate, the expansive theme of which will ensure that women remain in the headlines and will continue to challenge the systems that still actively work against them.

I pay tribute to those present for their tireless work in ensuring that the cause of equality for women is enhanced at every opportunity. I am also honoured that we are to hear seven maiden speeches in today’s debate from such eminent Members of the House. Your Lordships’ House will be enormously enhanced by their contributions and I feel privileged that they have chosen to make their maiden speeches in this debate today.

We have made great strides in this country towards gender equality at many levels in society, thanks mostly to the struggles women have fought over the generations. Many of the myths surrounding women have been removed—whether women should vote, work and govern. Our daughters and granddaughters certainly have more choices than many of us would have had in the past. Today in the UK women make up nearly half the workforce. Girls are outperforming their male counterparts at school and graduating with better degrees. Women now contribute throughout the economy and in almost every sphere of life. Women have explored the infinity of space, pioneered cancer-beating therapies, discovered the first radio pulsars and won Olympic gold medals. They have led countries, run their own businesses and served as High Court judges. The list can go on. And often at the same time as managing this, they are managing households and caring for children and sick or elderly relatives. These are achievements we should all be proud of and celebrate. They show that, given opportunities, access, an even playing field, support and the right environment, all things are possible.

But the reason for calling this debate is that, for all the progress that has been made, too many women in this country and around the world are still not being given the chance to fulfil their potential. Too many women still have too few or no rights. Too many women are still refused choices. It is a real tribute to your Lordships’ House that so many noble Lords are taking part today because it shows the importance attached to this area. Noble Lords will share my sentiment, and that of the new coalition Government, that not only is tackling the many challenges women still face fundamental to women and to their rights, but the empowerment of women is linked to economic growth and the development, prosperity, stability and strengths of countries across the world. Women make up half the people available to any country. If they are not channelled into the economy and used as part of the decision-making process, that country will fail to maximise the real potential, value and economic strength that women bring.

As we face these economically turbulent times, we must work to ensure that the worst affected are not women. We must utilise this difficult period to maximise all our capabilities in helping the economy recover. Our first challenge is to ensure that the progress women have made does not take a step backwards during these difficult economic times. The recession affects both men and women, but the nature of women’s work means that it affects them in different ways, not least because the obvious restrictions placed on women with childcare or other care commitments make them more vulnerable in an environment where employers are making redundancies. In an era where women are now key contributors to the family income, particularly in relation to the 90 per cent of single-parent households which women head, this has serious implications for the families involved. That is why the Government have been clear that fairness must be at the heart of all our decisions, to ensure that those most in need are protected during the economic crisis. The Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities is working with colleagues across government departments to ensure that they consider the equality impact of spending reductions in line with their legal obligations under the gender duty.

For those out of work we are providing support through a voluntary employment programme that is encouraging lone parents to improve their employment opportunities, and we are stepping up our support for disadvantaged families—for example, by increasing Sure Start’s focus on the neediest of families by putting in place 4,200 new health visitors to help ensure that families have access to information and advice from the onset. We recognise the importance of early intervention and assisting families to prevent problems rather than intervening after difficulties have set in. These centres also show our plans for a big society at work. Empowering voluntary, community and neighbourhood groups can help initiate change and provide support to women and their families. It is not just about breaking down the barriers preventing women from fulfilling their potential; it is about ensuring they have greater support in all the roles they play, from parenting to employment and from caring to civic involvement.

Some of this requires debate and a legislative programme, but we must ensure that, where possible, legislation does not impose overly bureaucratic and costly processes, particularly on employers and businesses. It is vital that we work with them and not against them to develop policies which are proportionate and effective, so that we can see real changes being delivered on the ground. I am pleased that the main provisions of the Equality Act, legislation which has important simplification benefits, are to be implemented in October. We will work with all partners to ensure that it is implemented effectively.

We are also clear that Parliament cannot on its own get to the root causes of persisting gender inequality. We must find measures that ensure that all are shareholders and willing partners in this ambition. That is why our policy is to include intelligent and targeted solutions. A concerted effort must be made at changing mindsets and culture across the population, from employers to communities. As someone who has supported women who have suffered terrible abuse at the hands of men, often in cases of violence that have been justified under the pretext of tradition and culture within communities right here in the UK, I know how hard it is to change mindsets, but that has to be our ultimate goal if we are to make a real and long-lasting change to our society.

I turn to women in the workplace. It is only right that we look at what competitive global markets demand, knowing that the workplace has changed as flexible working becomes more available. We know that work patterns have greatly changed in response to the 24-hour global clock, but we cannot afford to lose sight of the other demands put predominantly on women. Even after the historic equal pay legislation of 40 years ago, a working woman can still expect to earn an average of 12.2 per cent less than a man. The situation is even worse among some ethnic-minority groups.

I shall highlight three factors which contribute to the slowness of progress towards equal pay. The first is occupational segregation. The second is the fact that women are underrepresented in senior positions; for example, of the directors of FTSE 100 companies, just 12 per cent are women. The third is the effect of women’s caring responsibilities on their working patterns. The Government’s commitment to providing affordable childcare for all parents will help, but this alone is not enough. Workplaces have to become more family friendly.

While there are many examples of excellent practice, there remain large gaps in the form of employers who do not realise the benefits of flexible working opportunities at different levels. This often leads to women working in lower-paid or part-time jobs where they may not reap the full benefits of their training or qualifications.

The current economic crisis, although difficult, may also create an opportunity for change, to rethink the way we do things, and to ensure that we draw on the widest pool of talent and meet the demands of an ever changing environment. The Government face huge economic problems. We have become indebted on an unprecedented scale. Difficult decisions will have to be made. While we have to make cuts in some sectors, we want to open up opportunities in others where there is need and demand. This will involve promoting women in key sectors. In science, for example, one in three graduates is a woman, but only 18.5 per cent of them work in the industry. This is despite the fact that the European Commission has predicted that Europe will suffer a shortfall of 20 million skilled workers in science and technology by 2030. We will work with education providers to ensure that women are able to make broader career choices, and with businesses to support them in recruitment and retention of female employees.

To help to address work-life balance, we are committed to introducing an historic extension to all employees of the right to request flexible working. To make sure that we get more women in decision-making positions, we have pledged to look at the ways in which we can promote gender equality on the boards of listed companies. Alongside all these commitments, we will be working with employers to communicate the enormous benefits that gender equality practices can bring to their organisations.

The issue of the underrepresentation of women in Parliament and senior political positions continues to pose a big challenge. The presence of women in Parliament and their contribution to debate have introduced a whole new set of perspectives to those debates. Issues such as childcare, tackling domestic violence, human trafficking, maternity and paternity leave and after-school clubs have moved up the political agenda as a result. However, Parliament and local government still lack the balance that we need to ensure fairer representation. Thankfully, all three major political parties see the need to broaden the appeal of politics and to encourage more women into the political processes.

Women still account for only 22 per cent of Members of Parliament. In looking to see how we can make further progress, we will be considering the report of the cross-party Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation as we agree our priorities. We have already followed up on one of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference by committing to introduce extra support for disabled people who want to become Members of Parliament, councillors or other elected officials.

One of the more serious challenges that the new Government and our society face is the persistence in various forms of violence against women. More than 1 million women experience violence each year in the UK, through domestic violence, rape, trafficking, honour-based violence and other less obvious forms. We want to increase the level of support offered to victims of violence. That is why we will look to putting funding for existing rape crisis centres on a more stable and longer-term footing. We will establish new rape crisis centres where there are gaps in provision. I look forward to hearing the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, today. I pay tribute to the excellent work that she has done in this area through her review. The Home Secretary recently announced that we will be responding to it shortly.

Another unacceptable form of violence against women is that of forced marriage. That is not something that just happens in far-off lands; it happens here. In 2009, the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with nearly 1,700 calls for help from women who feared for their freedom. I would like to read a short extract from one woman’s testimony. Her name is Farzana. She said:

“I was told that I had to go back to Bangladesh to learn how we behave properly. My Mum came with me and we stayed with my uncle. After a couple of weeks, I started to hear things about a marriage and soon worked out it was my own. I was terrified and one evening grabbed my Mum’s mobile and locked myself in the bathroom. I rang Sam, my best friend, in the UK and begged her to get help. My uncle broke the lock and hit me across the face. From then on, I was watched even more closely and didn’t leave the house at all”.

In the end, Farzana was saved by the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit, but many girls do not escape.

Prevention is as important as protection. During the school holidays, there is often an increase of incidents of young people being taken out of the country. It is important that teachers, police and members of the community are able to identify situations and know what signs to look out for in order to intervene confidently. Guidance issued to schools, colleges and other public bodies must be followed actively and we must not shy away from intervention because of community sensitivities. It is important that the Forced Marriage Unit, through its extensive awareness-raising and outreach programmes, will be speaking at over 80 events a year and working with schools and other organisations to tackle this issue.

Not least of the challenges that we face is that of addressing the poverty and injustice that women face around the world. Some argue that, in the current economic climate, aid should be a casualty as we look for savings in public spending. The Government do not take that view. We are committed to increasing our aid budget to 0.7 per cent by 2013 and enshrining that commitment in law. Surely it cannot be acceptable to see a world where 70 per cent of the world’s poorest are women. We must maintain our commitment to help women around the world, not only because it is right but because women hold the key to development in the world’s poorest countries. In a world where our economies are so dependent on one another, that is something that we must nurture.

However, the privilege of a ring-fenced budget does not mean that we do not have to watch where our money is going. We need to make sure that every penny reaches those who need it most. What matters are tangible results. The Muskoka initiative is a good example. Today, in the UK, the chance of dying in pregnancy and childbirth is one in 8,200. In parts of Africa, it is as high as one in seven. This is something that we can change. That is why the UK Government have made a significant contribution to this initiative, which will help to save the lives of an extra 1.4 million mothers and children over the next five years.

As well as giving our support to important projects, we must clearly be vocal about where we stand on women’s rights. If we are to improve the outcomes for those women who depend on us to be their voice, whether we witness cruelty and abuse here or know of its practice in other countries, we need to challenge those countries to respond. We must do this in partnership with our European partners, members of the Commonwealth and the UN. I am encouraged by the recent agreement to form a powerful UN agency to advocate women’s rights. Until now, there has been a fragmentation of women’s issues in the UN, with no fewer than four separate organisations. We will work closely with the new agency to ensure that it has a strong focus on achieving results and delivering value for money from the outset.

These are just some of the commitments to women that we have announced as part of the new coalition programme for change. In the forthcoming months, we will build on these commitments and outline in more detail how we will carry them forward. I, along with the Government, recognise the great depth and breadth of knowledge and experience in your Lordships’ House. We are keen to listen carefully to noble Lords’ views and advice and I look forward to their valuable contributions. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this debate and for doing so in such a detailed, extremely informative and sensitive way. The debate gives the House the opportunity to hear about the Government’s future strategy for women, which has now been well explained to us. I pick up on one point that is fundamental to all the discussions that we are going to have, which is the question of women’s rights, whether in the UK or abroad. That has to be the basis on which we have all our discussions.

I declare an interest as chair of the Women’s National Commission, a non-departmental government body that is under review. I cannot resist the opportunity to say that I trust that the Government will appreciate and respect the value of the WNC in hearing the voices of women throughout the UK. It is a model that is envied and has been adopted by many other countries. We look forward to seeing what the future brings.

We have had many successful debates in your Lordships’ House, but I do not think that we have ever had the privilege of hearing seven maiden speeches in our debates. We sincerely look forward to hearing them all. I had a dilemma today in thinking of what to speak about. I might have known more had I heard the Minister’s speech in advance. Many subjects come to mind, but I decided to take my theme from a conference that I recently chaired—jointly organised by the health department of Birmingham City University and the National Council of Women—on vulnerability across one’s lifespan.

The conference made me recognise the large number of women who, for very differing reasons, are at some time in their lives in a vulnerable position. It also took me back to 16 and a half years ago when I made my maiden speech, standing somewhere over there, on vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. It was 25 October 1993—never to be forgotten. I asked the Library to find it for me, which it kindly did, so that I could see how much of that speech was relevant today.

One of the findings of the Runciman report, which was what we were debating that day, was that all within the justice system should be treated fairly, reasonably and without discrimination. In spite of that, the report failed to address the position of women within the system, which is primarily geared to men. Nor did it take account of the marked gender differences in the pattern of offending, often resulting in disproportional punishment. That principle has not, I am afraid to say, absolutely disappeared. As the Minister said, sometimes it is hard to change one’s mindset.

Last month, the number of women in prison in England and Wales was 4,302, which is 60 per cent up on the last decade. That sounds like a big increase, but the question has to be asked how many of those prison sentences were justified. For instance, in spite of evidence that women defendants rarely commit offences on bail, half of women entering custody each year do so on remand. These women spend an average of four to six weeks in prison and 60 per cent do not then receive a custodial sentence. Very often, these women in custody for that short period are five times more likely to have a mental health concern than women in the general population. Many self-harm, more than one-third are alcoholics, 58 per cent are on drugs, more than half have experienced domestic violence and one-third have experienced sexual abuse. There is no denying that these women have committed a crime, but do the punishment and its consequences fit that crime? Is a prison sentence always necessary?

At a meeting last month held jointly by the Women’s National Commission and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Penal Affairs, the governor of Styal women’s prison indicated that, in that prison, 107 women were on remand, 50 per cent of whom he believed would not receive a custodial sentence; 72 women were doing six months or less; 34 were doing eight days or less; eight had been sentenced for one day; and there had been one fine defaulter who had been discharged before she had even spent one night in prison. Surely something is wrong with that.

The question has to be asked whether it is right to impose those short sentences. It is, therefore, encouraging to hear the Minister for Justice, Ken Clarke, arguing the case for a more constructive approach to sentencing. However, I hope that in his deliberations he will also have a constructive approach to sentencing women. I hope, too, that he takes into account the findings of the Corston review on women in the criminal justice system who have particular vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, cannot be here to take part in the debate today.

The review was commissioned by my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland after a series of self-inflicted deaths of women prisoners in Styal prison. The review raised the issue of the appropriateness of custody at huge public cost for women who pose no risk to the public. It called for the introduction of small custodial units for serious dangerous offenders and, for most women who come before the courts, a larger network of support and supervisory centres, based on existing successful women’s centres, as alternatives to custody. I am proud to be the patron of one such centre, of which there are now 38.

At the all-party meeting, we heard many examples of the value that the centres have had to women. A woman from Wales, now aged 31, had been in and out of jail since she was 19, all in short sentences. She had been introduced to drugs in prison and needed money to feed the habit. She saw a leaflet about the women’s centre, the Women’s Turnaround Project, in Wales. With its help, she is now clear of drugs and is planning to go to college to train to do a job in which she can give something back to society. We need many more examples of that being possible.

Of course, all those centres require funding. What plans are there to retain this incredibly valuable resource to help vulnerable women to restore their lives, to prevent them from reoffending and to steer them from drugs and alcohol? I do not have the time to go into the consequences of these short-term prison sentences, with the loss of jobs, the risk of losing children and the risk of ending up homeless, adding to the growing number of vulnerable homeless women who are not only ex-prisoners but also survivors of domestic and sexual violence. A report by Crisis identified that 20 per cent of homeless women were escaping domestic violence; many of them then enter into unwanted sexual relationships to secure accommodation and basic necessities, or are housed in mixed accommodation, which, because of their experience of abuse and violence, is seen as threatening and unsafe.

Violence against women, so explicitly described by the Minister, takes many forms, whether it is domestic violence, which affects one in four women in their lifetime, sexual violence—and it is vulnerable young women, normally aged between 16 and 19, who are most likely to experience violence and sexual victimisation—or the examples given by the Minister, such as FGM and honour killings. All too often, it is those women whose voice is difficult to hear who are the subjects of such violence. In order to hear their voices, the Women’s National Commission was commissioned by the Home Office and the Department of Health to organise and facilitate 24 focus groups of particularly vulnerable women, such as women trafficked into the UK, Gypsy and Traveller women, women asylum seekers and refugee women. The results played a big part in the cross-government violence against women strategy that was introduced last year, as I am sure they will in any future proposals to eliminate violence against women.

I could go on, illustrating the incidence of women who, at some time in their lives, are vulnerable. This is an area to which we should give much more consideration, because it often affects those women from whom we hear nothing; they are hidden and unheard. It is clear that improvements can continue to be made to the lives of those vulnerable women by cross-government working on violence against women, by further implementation of the Corston report, by the valuable use of the women’s centres working within the community and by other initiatives which should be maintained and developed. I was pleased to hear the Minister’s remarks on the disadvantaged community—these women are sincerely and severely disadvantaged. I hope that we will hear more from the Minister in the future about this agenda and what the Government plan to do to help those women.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Verma for giving us another of our regular opportunities to talk about the position of women in society. She made a number of very important and welcome announcements, particularly about rape centres, forced marriages, an increase in the right to ask for flexible working and, of course, the very important commitment to international aid.

In the past we have normally been led in our discussions on women by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and I pay tribute to the indefatigable way in which she has returned us to these important matters—we have heard yet another very fine speech from her today. I, too, look forward to the galaxy of maiden speeches that we are about to hear.

I was interested in the wording of the Motion. It mentions not the role of women in society, but the position of women in society. It is a sad fact that the position of women is too often at the bottom of the ladder in employment, on the floor in the home after a violent blow from a violent partner, or on her back, either willingly or unwillingly, but without any contraception or health protection. It is these things that I wish to address today.

There is no doubt that the key to the progression of women to their rightful place in society—equal to men and full partners with them—is education in its widest sense. Education is the route out of poverty, the key to independence, self-respect and self-confidence and the best contraceptive in the world. It is tempting to think that women and girls in this country have no problem with all these things, but that is not true. We still have young girls whose aspirations are limited at an early age because of poor career guidance in the choice of subjects at school and stereotyping in work-experience placements and choice of subjects to study after school. Women are underrepresented in the higher-paid apprenticeship sectors and those which offer level 3, as well as on the boards of big corporations and everything in between, and we all know about the gender pay gap more generally. Poor aspiration appears to be a factor in unwanted teenage pregnancy, since a significant number of young mothers had disengaged from school before they became pregnant.

It is important that we recognise that boys and girls, though equal, are different. Having taught both teenage girls and teenage boys, I would say that is particularly so when the boys are stuffed with testosterone and desperate to show how manly and forceful they are and the girls are showing their feminine side. Interesting work has been done on attainment in science subjects which showed that girls taught in single-sex groups did far better than when they were in with the boys, who tended to take over all the experiments and answer all the questions put by the teacher unless that teacher was very careful. That chimes very much with my experience.

Therefore, I have a lot of sympathy with the view expressed in one of the briefings that came to us before this debate that we need to look carefully at gender-specific services where it has been proved that these work better. However, while young people are in their compulsory schooling years, we have a big opportunity, which we must not squander, to ensure that they have the right knowledge, skills and values as well as the ability to get qualifications and earn a living. Yes, it is important that boys as well as girls have high-quality sex and relationship education—after all, it takes two to tango—but it needs to be in the context of a broad and balanced PSHE curriculum which helps them develop understanding of all kinds of relationships and gain the confidence which will keep them safe in future. In other words, I am not in favour of sex and relationship education on its own. I want the curriculum review that we are about to have to embed SRE within a holistic PSHE programme based on sound principles for all pupils in all schools. No aspect of our lives is an island; all are affected by all others. Learning how to make money and then manage it is as important as contraception to prevent young women feeling that they have to have a baby before anyone will take notice of them.

In so many discussions about women, the elephant in the room is population growth. In 1950, the global population was 2 billion; it now stands at 6.5 billion and is likely—I am told—to rise to 9.2 billion by 2050. The majority of this growth will take place in the poorest countries, where parents cannot guarantee that their children will live long enough to support them in their old age, so it is hardly surprising. Women will take the strain of this growth and continue to be poor and downtrodden unless something is done. The trouble is that once a woman gets into early pregnancy, it tends to become a cycle in her family. Recently, I read a book from Plan International entitled Because I am a Girl, which relates the stories of women and girls around the world to illustrate the need for Plan’s excellent work. One story, by the author Kathy Lette, talks of a woman in Brazil who became pregnant at 12 and had three children by the time she was 16. Her three daughters also became pregnant at 12 and 14 and one had two children by the age of 15. However, the woman’s own mother had also had three children by the age of 16. They were all starving, she said, and at 10 years old she became a prostitute to earn money to buy milk for the baby and food for her siblings. She took drugs, as did her 13 year-old violent boyfriend, who acted as her pimp. Those three generations of women did not stand a chance. All had violent, abusive relationships and all demonstrated that “copulation means population”, in the words of the author. Of course, all these women were deeply poor and at terrible risk of contracting HIV and other STDs. Women must have control over their fertility. In parenthesis, it was wonderful to read this week about the discovery of a new anti-viral gel that halves HIV infections, which women will be able to use to take their sexual health literally into their own hands.

The work that Plan and other charities such as UNICEF are doing to educate girls around the world helps not only this generation but generations to come. Will the Minister say what DfID’s business plan contains to rectify the most off-track millennium development goals; that is, goals four, five and six, on child and maternal health and combating HIV/AIDS? These, along with universal primary education, are the ones which will benefit women and girls the most.

Finally, although we are debating women, we really need to be saying just as much about men. It is time that some men, in some societies, took their responsibilities more seriously. Society should have no patience with the baby-mother and absentee father concept, if it means that the mother and child are unsupported by the father. To quote one famous author, one of the biggest problems these days is men with the three Cs—cash, car and cellphone—but lacking the fourth, a condom. Family planning saves women’s lives, but it goes much wider than that, and it is time that men in all nations and all cultural groups took that to heart. When we are cutting all the things we are forced to cut, I am delighted that we will not be cutting international aid. However, I trust we will also ensure that family planning at home and abroad is not cut also. Other kinds of snips, yes, but not a snip in the budget for family planning, please.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for introducing this debate, and offer my congratulations in advance to all those Peers who will be making their maiden speeches in this debate today. I start with a mantra we all know but too often do not implement—educating girls is development’s magic bullet. We all know this. Wherever you are in the world, if you invest in the education of girls, you will get development—by which I mean later marriage, better family spacing, smaller families, reduction in infant and maternal mortality and morbidity, involvement in and contribution to the economic and political development of the country, commitment to the education of the next generation, and a lessening of inter and intra-societal conflict.

Updated research tells us that women are better at consensus, interaction and complexities. On the whole, women are less aggressive and competitive than men. Given these facts, why do we not put all our aid into educating and promoting women?

We must be thankful that the Government have committed themselves to maintaining and even increasing overseas development aid. Furthermore, there is a strong verbal commitment to include gender parity in each and every DfID programme, and a focus on enabling women to have a choice in family spacing. It is reliably said that only 23 per cent of women in sub-Saharan Africa have access to contraception. The Government are also fierce about measuring outcomes in order to both justify the taxpayers’ contribution to aid, and to learn what works and what does not. To underline this, they are setting up an independent evaluation unit which will look at both outputs and outcomes. All this is more than acceptable.

However, in the light of the most recent announcement by the Government that aid to Afghanistan is to be increased by up to 40 per cent, I would like to give a very short example to illustrate some of the obstacles that might stand in the way of achieving laudable objectives, namely education. Here I would like to register an interest as co-founder and long-time supporter of a high school in Afghanistan, in a district of Kabul which was greatly brutalised by the Taliban, and before that by the civil war and before that by the Soviet occupation.

The school is based on the vision of a single man, called Aziz Royesh, who was himself a refugee in Pakistan during the time of the Soviet occupation. He returned at the end of 2001 and set up a school in a bomb-damaged building with no windows and a mud floor. He divided up the space with a torn sheet, to have two classrooms. He had 30 students, many of them children who provided newly returned families with their only source of income as carpet weavers. He ran three daily shifts. With the first tranche of money he did a very wise thing—he repaired a larger building in this war-torn area of Kabul and put in heating. This drew in the entire community, being the only heated space during a bitter winter. During that time, Aziz took the opportunity to provide adult literacy classes, and gradually the fear of educating daughters—remember this was in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban—began to diminish and parents agreed to send them to school. The community was involved at every stage: parents helped to build the new school, a local businessman provided a bus to bring girls from more outlying districts and others paid for the diesel for the generators. The parent-teacher association grew and grew. In the 2004 elections the school was given over to mock elections so that everyone, but especially the women, knew not only how to vote but what the elections were about.

Children I first saw nine years ago toiling as carpet weavers in the early morning have now graduated from the school following a liberal arts programme and gained entrance to the hugely competitive Kabul University. An indicator of the success of the school, which now has nearly 3,000 pupils, is that of the 16 annual scholarships offered by the prestigious Women’s University based in Bangladesh, 11 were awarded to the school, which began in a mud hut. The total cost of the school, including the countless children who are being educated both academically and vocationally, and the teacher training programme, as well as the adult education programmes, is in the region of $400,000 a year. Perhaps half of this comes from the very modest termly fees, and outside contributions make up the shortfall.

There are many private initiatives of this kind resulting from visits abroad—the right people being in the right place at the right time—and there must be several in your Lordships’ House who contribute directly to the education of girls in particular. The overheads are bypassed but, perhaps more importantly, these initiatives are built on something which already exists. Few of us in the middle of chaos and unfamiliarity believe that we can, for example, build a school for girls that will succeed beyond our expectations. No, what tends to happen is that, with luck, we stumble across some tiny initiative—something which the community has got itself sufficiently co-ordinated to achieve—above all recognising that everything starts with a leader from within the community. These are the projects that succeed and make a real difference.

Perhaps the more usual aid programme route is to assess needs from our own western perspective—whether they be clean water, primary health or whatever—and go about putting them into the society. Too many of these projects fail, and they fail because, however wonderful and however needed, they are not owned by the community, and because therefore the continuity of these projects, by which I mean their flourishing and growth, will continue only in so far as there are funds and external support.

In dealing with a society such as Afghanistan, which due to tradition, religion, tribalism, decades of war and poverty is deeply suspicious of external inputs, the problems of promoting the education of women are quadrupled. It has to start from within the community; it has to be sustained by the community; and it has to be governed and owned by the community. Perhaps here I may remind your Lordships of the contribution by my noble friend Lord Sandwich to the foreign policy debate held at the beginning of the month, in which he pointed out that, however generous and well thought through an assistance programme, you have to involve the local community to build trust. Anyone who has any familiarity with Afghanistan will, as he does, know this.

The announcement of up to 40 per cent more aid to Afghanistan at the same time as the US Congress has ordered the suspension of US aid due to corruption gives cause for concern. Will more aid promote the education of and contribution to the politics of the country by women, or could it simply add to the disillusion and corruption rife in that country, as many Afghans themselves believe will be the case?

If we were to use the considerable funds available within the DfID budget to scour the poorest and most conflict-laden parts of the world for leaders who can demonstrate a vision and a strategy to bring their communities along with them, we would achieve more than anyone thought possible with perhaps a quarter of the funds. Education is essential, as is widely recognised. What we need to do now is follow more imaginative and perhaps smaller and less expensive ways of delivering it.

I end by asking the Government to report on a much wider policy area—namely, the national action plan for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325. Can the Government confirm when they will publish their revised strategy on women, peace and security, and say what indicators and benchmarking might be included? The 10th anniversary of 1325 will be in October this year. Can the Government say what plans they might have to mark this significant milestone? Finally, what arrangements do the Government have to involve additional departments not involved in the previous plan, such as the Northern Ireland Office?

My Lords, if it were not for the helpfulness and kindness of those who work here and of my noble friends, it would in fact be even more overwhelming to speak to your Lordships’ House than it is, but being a new boy—so many here recognise that—is easier at 13 and at 18 than at the age which I will not now refer to. It is a great pleasure and privilege to be here, not least to follow what seems to be an age-old ritual of referring a little to oneself personally although, in my view, there is much in the public world already, and rather too much for most. However, three things have motivated me throughout my political life and I hope that there will be opportunities here in your Lordships’ House to continue that work.

The first is what brought me into politics and what has kept me there: a commitment to the closer unity of Europe and my belief of Britain’s place in the European Union and the importance of the European Union within the world. It is sad that the narrowness of view has not seen this as it should be seen: as the most exciting peacetime achievement of the peoples of these ancient countries, which have so much in common and so much to do together. Secondly, there is the environment, not least the battle against climate change. Europe is of course crucial to achieving that end, but climate change is the biggest challenge to human beings that, in material terms, stands before us. Thirdly, there is a commitment to social justice. We are not going to solve the issues of climate change unless we have a more just world, for there is no reason for poor to join with rich in defending the world if the poor feel that the rich are merely going to gain for themselves the advantages which the better use of our resources will provide.

It is a pleasure, then, to be able to make one’s maiden speech in this debate, which was so fascinatingly introduced by the noble Baroness. Of course, the truth is that that understanding of social justice must lead one to recognise not only the importance of combating the extreme forms of attack on women but the natural, day-to-day damage done to women by poverty. There is the simple matter that women, even where the social mores are more advanced than some of the horrible examples that have been given, bear the burden of poverty more closely and directly in more places: women carrying water for much of the day; women working back-breaking hours in fields; women looking after children in between doing those things. That is part of what we seek to change in the battle to raise standards throughout the world.

I add my voice to those who congratulate the Government on their insistence that the one piece of spending which cannot be cut is our contribution to foreign aid. One of the saddest things about the British and their media is the attack on this objective and wholly laudable decision. I am sad that very well-paid journalists should find it possible constantly to attack this and to talk about charity beginning at home. Those who say that mean that charity should end at home and that there should not be much charity either, so it is necessary for the whole House to say that, in this, the coalition Government have set an example which other nations should follow and which should deserve the support of us all, whatever background we have.

At home, if we are to do more, we ought to recognise first how much has to be done. I declare an interest because I employ quite a number of women, while one of my problems is to employ enough men. That is because in the jobs that we do, in looking after people’s corporate responsibility, dealing with climate change and the issues of bribery and corruption—I mean avoiding rather than encouraging them—and seeking to help people throughout the world, the applicants for jobs among women are almost always significantly better in quality and experience than their male counterparts. I almost need to have a bias towards men. This seems to me to be something that we should be pleased about, because it helps us in trying to improve things in areas where we have, so far, not reached the same kind of result.

I am also pleased to speak in this debate because I come from the county that produced both the first woman doctor and the first woman mayor in Britain, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and indeed, of course, her sister Millicent Fawcett. Suffolk has had a proud part to play in the history of women, as Members of this House from Suffolk, including two diverse but very feisty ladies of crime, remind us what has been done for women from the county from which I come.

I am pleased to speak, too, because I have two daughters. I want to emphasise the points about science education. We in this House should press for universities to provide the ability for girls who have not had access to science education early on, or even had the intention and desire to do science, to catch up much more easily than they can at the moment. Some universities demand that girls should have done physics at A-level when they could perfectly well do their physics in the gap year. They have the other subjects, but not that, and the system has not helped them—and will not help them because a big change needs to take place before it will. I believe that universities should do much more to help girls with that.

I, like my brother, the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, owe a great deal to our mother. Oddly enough, when people say how much our parents would be proud of us, they always say how much our father would be proud. My mother would have been proud of us. She was one of those people who gave her life to bringing up her family and working in the parish. Like my brother, I have a wife who has taken the same view in her own way. In our advanced society, it is crucial to ensure that those women who choose—I agree that it is often a privilege that they are able to choose—that course of bringing up a family should be honoured to at least the same extent as those who have chosen differently.

I end with a simple example. Today one of my colleagues said that his wife had had a telephone call from somebody doing a survey. When she was asked what she did, she replied, “I am a housewife”. “No”, said the person on the end of the phone, “What do you really do?”. My colleague’s wife repeated that she was a housewife and in the end she was rather angry because the woman at the other end of the phone would not take that as a serious profession. I believe that one of the things that we can best do for women is that when they make the choice, we should accept it as their choice and honour them for it.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to have the privilege of thanking and congratulating my noble friend Lord Deben on that outstanding, elegant speech. He is a devout Christian, a true parliamentarian, and many in this House would find it difficult to believe that it is 40 years since he entered the other place where he held very high office.

The Gummer family is becoming quite a political dynasty. My noble friend joins his brother here, as he told us, while the other place will still hear a strong voice of yet another Gummer, his son Ben who was elected just recently as the Member for Ipswich. I know that my noble friend has special concern for the environment, Europe, climate change and, as he said, social justice. We can all look forward to a feast of other major contributions that I know my noble friend will make on these and other subjects.

Last Thursday I celebrated, with other Conservative women, the anniversary of Emmeline Pankhurst’s birth. As we did so, I mused over how far the lot of women in this country has changed in every way since the days when those brave women withstood the establishment to obtain the vote for women.

There are, of course, still issues to be resolved, but today I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I concentrate my few words on women who live in such bleak and distressing circumstances in Africa.

I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on initiating this debate and add my congratulations to the coalition Government for ring-fencing our contribution to developing countries. We in this country have a strange definition of poverty. It is all about financial differentials, and not—as I think it should be—about support for families who would otherwise face intolerable living conditions. I know I could be challenged on this view, but in this country the universal benefit system means that no one in the UK need go without support unless there are very special and unusual situations.

It is because of my fear for the millions of people in Africa that I believe we should all do our bit; so I now turn to overseas aid. It is unacceptable just to fling money at the problem and think that that will do. It will not do. We hear only too often that contributions have gone astray from where intended and instead end up in some dictator’s bank account. Financial aid requires careful research as to how and where it can be used to the greatest advantage for those who are never far from death. The money also needs careful monitoring to ensure that it is bringing much needed help to those for whom it is meant and not just squandered by those whose aims and objectives lie elsewhere.

I have been much impressed by one charity involved in aid, and I know that there are others doing equally good work along the same lines. Send a Cow works on the premise that educated women can lift themselves and their families out of poverty. In Africa, many women raise their families single-handedly. Most of them have had little formal education because their parents lacked the money to send them to school.

Education is much valued in Africa. Where children attend school, they are well turned out, alert and ready to learn and profit from all that it has to offer. Projects run by Send a Cow empower women to take control of their lives while learning a wide variety of skills which give them the knowledge they need to grow food, generate income, and so change the lives of their families and communities.

Many charities do important and necessary work worldwide, and I applaud them. However, there is something special in contributing to a smaller charity knowing that your contribution, however small, is chosen by you. For example, £40 will purchase 10 chickens, £80 will establish an orchard, £125.00 will buy a goat—and if you have a goat, you have the kids—and £250 will provide a dairy cow. All these gifts come with training, livestock and ongoing support.

A recent Send a Cow project in Uganda assessing the impact on participating women and families revealed that basic literacy is a vital ingredient in order for women to truly flourish. The project disclosed positive results with increasing food, income, production, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation all showing improvement, and with a new sense of confidence and self-esteem among the women.

I am confident that the Government’s priority is to ensure that state funds are spent on worthwhile projects only and are seen to be doing so. It is vital that all projects are carefully assessed and then closely followed and scrutinised. After all, it is too easy to allocate funds, but a careful watch on progress can make all the difference between a success or a dismal failure.

I have spent my political life promoting the role of women, but I have never been dedicated or even attracted to numbers, percentages and the feminist cause. However, I wholeheartedly believe that any society which is underrepresented by women loses out on a huge resource. Women are really good at juggling many balls at the same time and are nearly always the family managers, seeing to the family’s needs, so I have a sense of excitement and optimism for the future. I am hopeful that we can succeed in elevating just a few of those women—all too few, I fear—in developing countries who have never had the opportunities that we in this country take for granted and in many ways seem not to appreciate.

I began by referring to Emmeline Pankhurst, and I shall end by quoting one of her whimsical thoughts:

“We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half ”.

My Lords, I begin by thanking your Lordships warmly for the quality and depth of the welcome I have received. I am also most grateful to my sponsors, my noble friends Lord Young and Lady Warwick, for their kindness and their generous support. I wish to thank all the staff who have been so helpful, and for the courtesy extended to my father on the day of my introduction, it being necessary for him to use a wheelchair and his portable oxygen cylinder. It made the day so memorable for him and I extend my heartfelt personal thanks.

I was born in a small Devon village not far from Plymouth, which makes me a Plymouth Drake. As a little girl I gazed in wonder at some of the great ships moored at Devonport dockyard, so it was fitting to see the Armada exhibition in the Royal Gallery. In 1588, the English—including Sir Francis Drake—were the beneficiaries of a kind of stand-off between the Dutch and the Spanish. Unfortunately, in 2010, an almost equally belligerent contest between those countries in the World Cup was final confirmation that the English had already been sunk.

I worked for many years in the trade union movement. I was an equal opportunities commissioner on a commission which, with a small budget and talented staff, was able to punch well above its weight. For the past eight years I have been engaged in pension policy and reform, whether as a member of the Pensions Commission chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Turner, at the Pension Protection Fund, or in the building of the National Employment Savings Trust.

When young, I purchased a copy of the May 1909 edition of the journal Votes for Women, edited by Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. I reread this precious purchase recently and was reminded of the intensity of that campaign. Perhaps I may share with noble Lords an extract from that edition, which refers to the occasion of a visit in that year by Mr Winston Churchill to Manchester:

“Wherever he went he found that he could not get away from the subject of 'Votes for Women' and although the most elaborate precautions had been taken to exclude women from the great meeting in the Free Trade Hall ... when Mr Churchill raised his voice to congratulate himself on the absence of suffragettes … he was immediately interrupted by Miss F Clarkson and Miss Helen Tolson … who had been hiding [there] all night”.

Mr Churchill's arrival at the city was equally disturbed:

“All the way to the Reform Club he was pursued by a Miss Drummond in a taxi-cab, who asked him, THROUGH THE MEGAPHONE, when he intended to deal with the women's grievance”.

In preparing for this debate, I took the opportunity to read the very first maiden speech of a lady Peer. On 4 November 1958, Lady Elliot of Harwood, on the occasion of her maiden speech, remarked:

“I am very conscious that, except for Her Majesty's gracious Opening of Parliament, probably this is the first occasion in 900 years that the voice of a woman has been heard in the deliberations of this House”.

She then added wryly:

“I shall try to set a precedent and be short and to the point”.—[Official Report, 4/11/1958; col. 161.]

We have come a long way since 1909, but 10 years into the 21st century we still see substantial under-representation of women in political and public life. It is not the ability of women but the barriers they face which prevent them from contributing to their full potential and to being effectively represented. This point was recognised by Lady Elliot in that first speech. She acknowledged that she was making history but concluded insightfully that,

“we who are women may be regarded as having come here not because we are women but rather because women are now admitted”.—[Official Report, 4/11/58; col. 166.]

Women are performing strongly in education. The report of the National Equality Panel in 2010, headed by Professor Hills, confirmed that of every 100 pupils, girls have a median achievement ranked between eight and 12 places higher than the median achievement for boys. More women now have higher education qualifications than men in every age group up to the age of 44.

This performance by women, however, contrasts negatively with their wider representation in public life. In 2010, the percentage of women MPs and lady Peers had increased to a little over 20 per cent, but the figures are far fewer, as has been demonstrated, for FTSE 100 directors, editors of national newspapers, senior police officers, high court judges and a long list of so many other professions.

However, underutilising a large proportion of the country’s talent is not good for UK plc. Equality of access should not be seen exclusively as an issue of social policy; it is also a matter of economic importance. To borrow from a UK Treasury Committee report published earlier this year,

“not wasting a large proportion of talent seem more than sufficient to conclude that increased gender diversity is desirable”—

and who ever argues with the Treasury or a Treasury Committee?

There are many causes contributing to the underutilisation of women's potential, but these matters should not be solved by an over-reliance on litigation. There needs to be a collective will to address these issues. With the growing acknowledgement of the basic fairness in representing half the population and enriching decision-making by drawing on a full range of experience and expertise, countries are increasingly considering the merits of positive action on gender representation. The democratic process and business decision-making can only be enhanced by the increase in women's representation.

My Lords, I should like first to congratulate my new noble friend, Lady Drake, on her wonderful maiden speech. Its wisdom and humour showed what an asset she will be to your Lordships’ House. She has worked solidly in the trade union movement and was president of the TUC from 2004 to 2005. She was deputy general secretary in the Communication Workers Union from 1996 to 2008. She has served on many councils and public bodies, including the employment tribunal, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and has worked with distinction on many pensions bodies. I could go on but noble Lords will by now have a flavour of her many abilities.

Now for something of the secret life of my noble friend Lady Drake, but do not get overexcited. She is a collector of first edition children’s books. Inspired by her art teacher at school she bought her first book with the proceeds of her Saturday job, which shows initiative. She also collects suffragette posters and has fine examples of both collections. She says that she has got used to being teased about her short stature. Let me remind noble Lords of the comment made about Hermia in “A Midsummer Night's Dream”:

“though she be but little, she is fierce."

Opposition Benches beware. I am sure that we will hear much more from my noble friend Lady Drake in your Lordships’ House, and I for one look forward to that enormously.

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for introducing this debate on women so passionately and for securing such a wealth of talented speakers. I shall refer first to women as a force for change and then focus on the imperative to help women who find it difficult to fight for change due to being overwhelmed by circumstances which undermine the very structure of their lives. This theme has already been referred to and will no doubt recur during the debate. I shall speak in particular of the need to help trafficked girls and women.

Many women over the years have fought to improve women's potential. Women were not given the vote in this country, they fought for it, and fight is what women have often had to do. Women, and of course many men, have worked for change in politics, the law, social justice, the arts, health, industry, sport and so on. The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, made many other suggestions. Women have often, although not always, worked collaboratively to achieve their aims and supported each other during difficulty. That supportive nature seems to be one of the strengths of women’s activity. In working for change, women are frequently optimistic, thoughtful, empathetic, considerate and brave. The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, has also mentioned other qualities.

Two women poets seem to reflect this spirit. Edith Sodergran, in a poem called “Hope”, speaks of rolling up her sleeves and, before she dies, baking a cathedral. Anise Koltz says:

“Break my branches ...

The birds will still sing

In my roots”.

Those are wonderful ways of expressing both determination and optimism.

I remember, years ago, going to Greenham Common with our daughter, then aged about eight. She was quite excited at the thought of being arrested. Something from the wool around the Greenham Common barrier obviously wore off on her. At the age of 12 she was arrested when leading a protest of schoolgirls against the closure of the South London Hospital for Women.

I tell this story because many girls aged 12 around the world are faced with horrendous treatment and abuse which disables them. Two weeks ago, I met a young woman of 18 who, at the age of 12, had been trafficked for sexual purposes from Africa to London. She had not had the possibility of protest. She had not had support from anyone in her life until she escaped and found help. There are many such girls and women, and many boys too, who need to be identified and helped. Organisations which support trafficked children do amazing work but they are calling for government support. I very much hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, will be able to meet with them to identify some of the problems. I know that she has great sympathy for those affected by this issue. Human trafficking is thought to be the third most profitable organised criminal activity in the world, behind weapons and narcotics. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the average age at which sexual exploitation starts is 12 and that it is mainly girls who suffer. Most children are trafficked from east Asia or Africa. The UK has been identified as a significant transit and destination point for trafficked children.

Earlier this year the Anti-trafficking Monitoring Group published its report Wrong Kind of Victim?, and its findings are chilling. The UK Human Trafficking Centre reported that of 527 potential victims of trafficking, 74 per cent were women or girls being trafficked for sexual exploitation. Of course, thousands of trafficked children are never identified or helped. Barnardo’s alone worked with more than 2,000 children in 2004-05.

In December 2008, the UK ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. This convention is the first international treaty obliging states to adopt minimum standards to assist trafficked persons and protect their rights. The monitoring group states that the UK is not yet meeting its obligations under this convention.

With regard to child victims of trafficking, we need to look again at how trafficking might be prevented, who might best identify these children, who might best represent their interests, and the need for safe accommodation and a key worker for support. Similar conclusions have been drawn by UNICEF—I declare an interest as a board member of UNICEF UK—and the trafficking and sexual exploitation unit at the University of Bedfordshire, of which I am a patron. ECPAT, an organisation working with trafficked and sexually exploited young people, recommends a system of guardianship for child victims of trafficking to give support on legal, health, education and accommodation issues.

The young woman I spoke of earlier had escaped from the family in London who were exploiting her. She was a slave and being abused sexually and otherwise. Now aged 18, she has been living on her own in a room on the outskirts of London. She said that at Christmas that the only person she saw was her key worker who brought her some food. She has been desperately lonely, but she has survived and is now receiving education and support.

Much work needs to be done for victims of trafficking and the Government need to take a lead. The victims cannot be movers for change, at least not initially; they are too depressed and confused. There are many people in your Lordships’ House who have the best interests of children at heart, and many organisations are dedicated to serving the needs of these victims. I hope that we can follow up this debate with more discussions with the Minister to address this important issue.

My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, who is well known for her contribution to children’s welfare.

I start by welcoming the Government’s decision to ring-fence overseas aid at 0.7 per cent of GDP. I suggest that we should see slightly more than half of this devoted to causes which apply to women’s welfare rather than men’s. If someone can get that accounting done, I would be very pleased. It would be a good start to redirect our aid towards problems where real poverty actually bites.

I want to take up my remarks about the position of women at an even earlier stage from that about which most noble Lords have spoken. There are parts of the world in which women have difficulty being born because of female feticide, and if a baby girl is born it is very soon smothered in a variety of ways which I shall not talk about because they are too cruel to contemplate. This is done by mothers, aunts, grannies; very often it is the older women of the family who take up the task of killing the child. There are areas of India—Punjab, Haryana and much of north India—where the gender ratio is now 800 women or below to 1,000 men. The situation is extremely serious.

It has not much at all to do with poverty. Female feticide and the killing of young girls happens in prosperous states—Punjab and Haryana are among the most prosperous states in India—and very often prosperous, middle-class families resort to it. The preference for boys is so high that families are willing to go to incredible lengths. This does not happen just in India—there are families here of Indian origin who take part in abortion tourism or feticide tourism to India. Although it is illegal in India to use amniocentesis and have an abortion based on the sex of the foetus, it is practised and is very prevalent. There is a lot of tourism from here to there.

This is therefore a situation that we all have to take seriously; not only is it bad in itself that there is this killing of baby girls at an early age, it also creates enormous social problems. Some of the motivation for the profits in trafficking arises from the gender imbalance which has been concocted by the society which then imports female children to correct that gender imbalance. There are many things we can do about it; I just point out this is a very serious problem.

So much for the position of women in society. What do we do about their advancement, the second part of the proposition before us? The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, is not in her place but she has written an excellent book, which I recommend. I have entirely forgotten its title although I chaired its launch at the Nehru Centre. It is something to do with the exploitation of women which she, in her own inimitable style, advocates. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Deben, she believes it is only when women are employed in paid jobs that people will value them. It is a very sad thing to say but, as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said, if you say that you are a housewife—an unwaged worker— people conclude you are worth nothing because your value is measured by your income in money terms and no other. Society values paid jobs. The fact that in these paid jobs women are not paid as much as men is another problem that other noble Lords will take up.

We ought somehow to insist that one of the development strategies, not just for the third world but for us also, would be to encourage as much employment of women as possible and, now we have the technology, to employ women who can work from home. We can have flexible hours, we can have flexible locations, we can have jobs that can be done from a distance. People do not have to go to an office to work—there does not have to be a nine to five structure to a paid job.

One of the ways in which we can advance the cause of women is to think of many ways in which women can be employed from whichever location they choose to work in and whatever job they want to do, because there are a lot of jobs to be done—there is no shortage. The problem is that facilities do not exist for women to pursue the jobs they want to do.

From the amount of fuss that was made in another place when women MPs wanted a crèche, you might have thought this was the greatest crisis since William the Conqueror. If people have to work they have to have all the facilities they require; the fact that men do not require crèches is neither here nor there. We ought to build workplaces in which it is possible for women to work when they choose, how they choose, looking after their children, which sadly men will not do.

I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for initiating this debate today. As a new girl, I have much to learn from her and from others in this House who have vast experiences and careers across a vast array of areas. Equally, as a new girl, I would like to thank their Lordships for the warmth of their welcome and also the staff for their unfailing courtesy and kindnesses since I took my seat on Monday.

In taking my seat I was proud to take the name of the town where my family and I live. Godalming is a town with a strong sense of community, situated in some of the loveliest countryside in the south-east of England. It has a proud history. It was the birthplace of General James Oglethorpe, the great social reformer who went on to found the American state of Georgia. It was the first town in the world to have a public electricity supply and it was the home of Gertrude Jekyll, the landscape designer, whose gardens still grace so much of our corner of Surrey today. We have a proud past and I hope to be part of an equally proud future for our town.

This debate, which focuses on gender equality, lies at the heart of what it means to have a fair society, the issue that brought me into politics in my early 20s and which has since taken me into a career in the voluntary sector and also local government. It is disappointing that, in some areas of society, women are still regarded as second-class citizens. As someone who studied theology at Oxford, and a practising Christian, I am heartened that at long last women look likely to take their rightful place in our church. Equally bold measures are required in other parts of our society. To that end, I welcome the recent remarks by my honourable friend the Equalities Minister that there will be no roll back on gender equality on our watch.

In that spirit, I shall focus on three areas where discrimination towards women still persists in our society. First, there is discrimination in politics. Men still vastly outnumber women in our democratic bodies. Part of the reason is that women are still the principal carers in many families. However, other equally demanding and high-profile jobs have been performed successfully through securing flexible work patterns. As a trustee of the think tank IPPR, I have been privileged to see at close quarters a successful model of job sharing between the two female outgoing directors, Carey Oppenheim and Lisa Harker. As we have a Government who are rightly taking a radical look at how we do politics, it might be time to look at the issue of MP job shares.

The second area of discrimination against women is in business. Companies are still choosing far more men than women for senior roles. Clearly more flexible work patterns will help, but we should not be fooled into thinking that the glass ceiling is only for women with children. It is vital that the Government keep acting to ensure that boards address this issue seriously. Further, we need to consider the aspirations of women in society. Mentoring can help and I am pleased to be a mentor to a woman in business. I hope that I can encourage her and others to take the steps forward in society that they need to undertake. Beyond government action and mentoring, we also should look to civil society because—as a former chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England your Lordships might expect me to say this—there are some areas of civil society from which business can learn.

A snapshot of ACEVO—the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations—shows that nearly half of its 1,700 members are women. Admittedly they are from smaller voluntary organisations, but those women are taking vital leadership roles in the many organisations which are the backbone of civic life in our communities. I hope it will not be too long before a number of them rise up to join the distinguished women who are leading some of our larger civic organisations, such as Dame Fiona Reynolds at the National Trust.

The third area of discrimination is in pay. The majority of people on low income are women and I therefore welcome the fact that the Budget raised the level at which income tax is to be paid. However, we should be clear that the gap in pay is not only at that level of the pay sector. Recent figures show that the highest paid female director of a FTSE 100 company received almost 10 per cent less than her highest paid male equivalent. Of course the removal of gagging clauses in City contracts may help, but it remains clear that much more needs to be done 40 years on from the adoption of the Equal Pay Act, not only in the issue of equal pay but in the equally important area of flexible working. I welcome the noble Baroness’s comments about the coalition Government’s intention to extend a historic right for all employees to request flexible working. I look forward to campaigning in this House to ensure that that is introduced as soon as possible.

In addition to speaking out, I hope, as a Member of the House, to play my part in the vital work of outreach to encourage more young women to take up their place in politics. However, I hope I have more success than I did when I accompanied my six year-old daughter to her “take your Mum to school” day recently. Despite the excellent resources from the parliamentary education department, my attempts to persuade her class of the importance of this place in civic society counted for less than whether or not the Queen brought her corgis on her regular visit to our House.

It is a great privilege to speak today and even more of an honour to listen and, it is to be hoped, to learn. In learning over the years I hope that I can play my small part in helping other women to achieve more for themselves, their families, their communities and our country.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for her truly excellent maiden speech. She is clearly a formidable campaigner. As she told us, she is a former chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. She is also a campaigner against animal cruelty and she chaired the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals. We cannot be surprised therefore—and this I learned from the website of a local newspaper in Norfolk—that she chose to be introduced into this House in animal-free ermine. I was glad to hear that animal-free ermine is available. I am sure other noble Lords will also be glad to know this and will be grateful to the noble Baroness for sticking to her principles in this way.

She told us that she studied theology at Oxford—at Lady Margaret Hall, I believe—and it is therefore appropriate that when she joined the House she found herself sitting with the right reverend Prelates the Lord Bishops. I am sure that those who have heard her speech will be very pleased that they will be sitting with her. Her speech was clear, forceful and full of practical points about how policies on women still need to change. I am sure that we all look forward to hearing much more from her in the days and months ahead.

I put my name down for this debate in order to speak about rape, which is a sad and traumatic aspect of women’s lives. It is not much in line with the title of our debate today, which is much more about the good things that can happen in women’s lives. I wish to speak about rape because I carried out a review of how rape complainants are dealt with in England and Wales, which was published in March this year. That gave me some insights and new experiences which I welcome the opportunity to share with your Lordships’ House. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, who gave me considerable support, both personally and through her role as chair of the Women’s National Commission.

Rape, of course, is not only about women; men, too, are raped. We do not know the actual numbers any more than we do with women; we think they are no more than one in 10 of all rapes. However, men, too, are raped and the consequences for them can be very serious and long lasting.

Today, however, I shall concentrate on women. My work in preparing the report brought me into contact with some marvellous people. Not many people know—I certainly did not—that there are two specialist projects in this country, one in Liverpool and one in Bristol, which work with street prostitutes and encourage them to report to the police when they have been attacked, abused and raped by men paying for their services. Both projects work closely with the police and a number of men have been convicted for assaulting and raping women working in street prostitution. In one recent case, according to the BBC report, the prosecution told the court that the defendant would pick up the prostitutes and take them to his home, where he had transformed a bedroom into a “torture chamber”. This is particularly important work because those who attack prostitutes may well do so more than once. The costs of the projects which work with women on the street are very small but their value is very great.

I was also very impressed by the special units set up by many police forces to concentrate on rape. These units include many dedicated men and women who are specially trained to put the victim at the centre of the investigative process. In one area—Gwent in Wales—after the creation of a special unit, the number of those reporting that they had been raped went up by half. Surely we all want more people to feel confident enough to report what has happened to them to the police. I met specialist prosecutors, fiercely determined to get evidence and put together a case that would stand up in court, and I met many independent sexual violence advisers who get alongside victims and support them throughout the process and sometimes for many months afterwards. They are also marvellous people.

Where such work is in place, it is outstanding and as good as anything anywhere in the world. I have mentioned it in the hope that the Minister will ensure that there is some thought given to its cost-effectiveness and importance before the axe falls as budgets are cut. I also want to mention those who sit on juries in rape cases. As part of my review, I sat in a busy urban Crown Court for two days, watching all the rape cases that were being heard. The seriousness with which the juries seemed to be approaching the task was impressive and the outcome of jury trials is reassuring. Excellent research called Are Juries Fair?, carried out for the Ministry of Justice by Professor Cheryl Thomas and published earlier this year, concluded that they do a good job:

“Juries convict defendants more often than they acquit in all rape cases”.

I will end by commenting on two areas that I hope can be kept on the agenda of discussions about how rape is dealt with. The first is the place of the victim in the process. Sara Payne, in her report on the views of rape victims, said:

“Victims frequently expressed anger that their place in the criminal justice system is effectively as a witness in their own case. Many were disappointed that the prosecution represents the Crown, rather than the victim, in contrast to the defendant who has his own legal representation”.

In talking to victims and victims’ organisations, I, too, encountered that anger. In Ireland there is separate legal representation for complainants in rape cases for some parts of the trial. I am aware of the difficulties of importing aspects of other systems but I hope we would not close the door to these ideas and that they can be looked at further. Victims also feel that once their case seems unlikely to proceed, all the agencies lose interest in them. We need to do something about that too.

My second point is the need for a much more intelligence-based approach on the part of the police. Good policing in relation to rape is about much more than being victim-centred, important as that is. We are all aware of the gross mistakes that were made in the cases in London of John Worboys and Kirk Reid, who assaulted many women. The police missed many opportunities to arrest them. Using intelligence properly is key in investigating and prosecuting rape. I was concerned at the large amount of evidence I received that rape is particularly suffered by the very vulnerable, who are the least likely to be believed or seen as possible witnesses able to stand up in court and testify. It became clear to me that there was a group of very vulnerable, very young women who were easy to take advantage of and who may have experienced abuse from childhood, their only and whole experience of sex being that of abuse. They may even think that is the norm. As I learnt more about this whole area, I became more concerned that we have not yet got right the way to deal with this, and we need to become much more organised in trying to protect these young women.

Finally, I am most grateful for all the support I have had in preparing and launching my review and continuing to work on its outcome. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for her comments and for the positive replies I have had across government. I welcome the Government’s commitment to Rape Crisis centres and I hope we can continue to improve the treatment of victims of this particularly horrible crime.

My Lords, I speak for the first time in this noble House with some nervousness and trepidation, although I have been helped and reassured by the warm welcome that I have received from noble Lords on all sides of the House. In my first few days here, I have felt like a new boy at big school in a huge building in which I keep getting lost. Everyone around me seems to know how to get on with their job and where to go, while I am struggling to read the map that I was given and to find the Printed Paper Office. However, I have had wonderful support, advice, guidance and help from the officers and staff of this noble House. Nothing has been too much trouble for them and no question too trivial, no matter how many times I have asked it. I also thank my two sponsors, who introduced me to the House—my noble friends Lady Gould and Lady McDonagh. I was delighted that they did me the great honour of introducing me. They have both, at different times, been my boss in the Labour Party. It was my noble friend Lady Gould who first employed me at the Labour Party 20 years ago.

I was delighted that I was able to get agreement that my title would be Lord Kennedy of Southwark. It is the borough where I lived from the age of two, where I went to school and where I went on to be elected as the youngest member of Southwark Council in 1986. It is an historic borough with a rich and vibrant history. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for putting down the Motion for debate today.

In 1971, 56 per cent of women were employed. In the past 30 years, the figure has risen to 69 per cent, with the numbers of men and women at work being almost equal. However, men and women follow very different career paths. Almost half of all working women work part time and almost a quarter of women in work do admin or secretarial work, while men are more likely to be managers and senior officers or to work in skilled trades. For example, only 31 per cent of managers are women, yet women make up nearly half the workforce. Female managers are also more likely to be childless than male managers. A key reason for this is that women still carry a disproportionate amount of the burden in the home, looking after children, managing the household and maintaining social networks. Women who work often choose jobs that offer flexibility—for example, in care work, hospitality and retail.

With a significant number of women combining their working life with the responsibilities of being a mother or grandmother providing childcare support, it is no surprise that maternity and parental rights are the number one concern. Enormous progress has been made, including the introduction of paid paternity and adoption leave, the extension of paid maternity leave and the introduction and extension of the right to request flexible working to carers and parents of children up to the age of 16. Flexible-working opportunities benefit everyone—employers, employees and their families—with many employers now recognising that it makes good business sense to provide flexible-working opportunities for their staff. We must not forget that our economic recovery depends on women being able to make a significant contribution as active members of the workforce and that working mums need access to rights and support to enable them to combine their working and family lives.

Despite women’s increased participation in the labour market over recent years, they are still more likely than men to be low paid. Women are far more likely to work part time than men, with women making up over three-quarters of all part-time employees. As around two-thirds of jobs paid at the minimum wage are part time, this leads to a higher chance of women being low paid compared with men. Take the example of retail where, out of nearly 3 million people employed in the sector, 40 per cent of women work part time and yet only 17 per cent of part-time employees are male. Retail is one of the largest low-paying occupations, where the introduction of a minimum wage has made a significant difference, as millions of low-paid women workers rely on the national minimum wage to help them to maintain a decent standard of living. The Government must do all that they can to ensure that low-paid workers continue to benefit from this protection.

An additional challenge faced by women workers is often their journey to and from work. Women travel at different times from men. They are more likely to travel off peak, either early in the morning or late at night. Women are far more likely than men to use public transport. Even today, twice as many men as women hold a valid UK driving licence. Women are also far more likely than men to travel shorter distances. Where there is a family car available, men tend on the whole to be the ones who use it. Evidence clearly shows that women feel less safe and more at risk of violence and aggression than men. Of the 6 billion journeys made on public transport each year, the overwhelming majority are safe, but that does not prevent women from feeling vulnerable when using public transport. Women factor issues of personal safety into everyday decision-making in a way that men tend not to do. It is clear that safety while travelling is an issue that concerns many women, particularly low-paid workers.

I wish the coalition Government well in dealing with the issues that I have highlighted today and the many other issues that they have to tackle in the years ahead. I again thank all Members, officers and staff of this noble House for the warm, friendly and helpful way in which I have been welcomed during these past few weeks.

My Lords, it is a privilege but also a personal pleasure to be able to follow my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark. It was not simply because he made such a sensitive and thoughtful speech, nor simply because it is so good to hear from a man on something that I know the women in this House already believe, nor even because he has a long and distinguished record in championing diversity in all its forms—indeed, in the years before it was a more popular cause. It was also a pleasure because, even before I could call him “my noble friend”, I could call him “my friend”. I have witnessed him woo, fall in love with and marry the wonderful Alicia. In June, I saw him fulfil a prediction that he made to his mother when he was eight—this Irish boy from Southwark—that one day he would be in the Lords. His mother used to work in the tea room in the other place but was here last month to witness that prediction come true.

I have had the pleasure and the privilege of working with my noble friend for many a year, in times of triumph and in times of real difficulty. In all these, I have found him to be true to his values and his beliefs, consistent, hard-working and always enormous fun, especially in times of adversity. My noble friend has been a highly successful councillor and deputy leader, but he has also been a rather less successful European parliamentary candidate. However, the European Parliament’s loss has been our gain. What your Lordships have seen today is pure Kennedy: straight, clear thinking and with his heart always in the right place. He is a great asset to the Chamber. Following his words will be difficult for me, but I know that he will now wish me well in his usual spirit of kindness and generosity.

Like other speakers, I welcome enormously this debate and the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, in opening it. Indeed, it is hard to argue with a single word of her good intentions expressed in that speech. I choose my words carefully: I say “indeed”, for it is in deeds that we will judge the Government. Her own record speaks for itself; it is her friends whom I worry about.

There are just four, not 14, women in the Cabinet. Margaret Bondfield, for Labour, was the first ever woman to sit in the Cabinet. That was back in 1929. I have to confess from this side of the House that I am slightly ashamed that only 23 women have ever sat in a Labour Cabinet. We are soon to hear a maiden speech from one of those 23, to which we look forward. While 23 is a very low number, Labour has been in government for rather fewer years than the Conservative Party, so we might look at its record. The number of Conservative women who have sat in the Cabinet is nine. A school report would say, “Must do better”. The issue is not to want to change nor to wait for change, but to work for change. We must will the end and not just want it.

If we look elsewhere, we see that the Government are sadly lacking in their will to make this happen. For the review of health and safety, the Government choose a man. For the review of the school building programme—and women know something about schools—they choose five men. To chair the review of higher education funding and student finance, they get a man. Yet it is government that must take a lead, because, left to themselves, the others will not do it. The universities have managed to get only 14 per cent of their vice-chancellors to be women. Perhaps that is the answer to the noble Lord who asked earlier why universities had not made available physics for women to make up for the year when they had not been able to do it. I am afraid that the legal profession is not much better. Sixty per cent of new recruits to City firms are women, but less than a quarter are partners. We have already heard that only 20 per cent of MPs and one in three councillors, members of public bodies or senior civil servants are women.

It is not simply in appointments that the responsibility must lie with government. As my noble friend Lady Billingham has said elsewhere in relation to her beloved tennis and the lack of good tennis players, if you do not nurture them young, they will not hold aloft the Wimbledon trophy when mature. So it is with women in public life. Unless we enable women to study and flourish and to be supported by nurseries, flexible working—we welcome the commitment made today—and good care provision not simply for their children but also for elderly relatives, today’s generation of bright young things will not occupy high office when their time comes. But what do we see from the Government? Support for children is being cut by £2 billion. There are cuts in Sure Start, maternity grants, health in pregnancy grants, child benefit and tax credits. Who do we think will be harmed by those? It is no way to produce the leaders of the future.

Women are losing out on their chance to serve, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said, society also is losing out on the chance of having women as decision-makers. We cannot just want change; we cannot just wait for change; we must work for it. I applaud the sentiments expressed across the House today, but I urge all who are in positions to be able to take decisions to ensure not only that women are represented on those important bodies but also that, when the next generation of women get to play their part, society can have the benefit of all their good counsel and advice.

My Lords, your Lordships' House is probably unique in the world—it is a repository for so many noble Baronesses of such calibre. Some of their achievements have been so great and we have the benefit of their knowledge and experience. I think of heads of judiciary and MI5, and a former Prime Minister. All those ladies succeeded before there was any move against discrimination against women. I think not only of them, but many before them. The late Lady Frank certainly had a role in plotting the D-day advances. Others were engineers in Royal Navy vessels before the last world war. To be able to say that we have made huge strides since then is something that we can congratulate ourselves on.

In the early 1970s, I was the sponsor of two anti-discrimination Bills with my noble friend Lady Fookes. In those early days, we were concerned with educating attitudes and overcoming prejudices. That was as far as we intended to go. We were not looking for positive discrimination in favour of women. What has happened since then has been a wonderful thing for a great many women. Obviously, there is further to go.

I echo the words of my noble friend Lord Deben in his excellent maiden speech and say that, above all, we must never denigrate those women who find it fulfilling to look after their children and be good wives and mothers. It is not always an easy role. It is often lonely and very demanding. When we talk about the women who are trapped in marriages where there is violence, we must also think of those women who are trapped in unhappy but not violent marriages—those who do not have the personal capital to leave those homes and continue to look after their children without having to leave them in crèches. Those women often remain trapped for their whole lives.

Happily, because things have moved fast in the right direction, by the time their children have grown up, those women are no longer tied to those unhappy marriages. They are able—at those ages, when they never would have been able to before—to look for careers in which they can advance their own lives. It is important that we consider those women, possibly between 40 and 50. Many of them are successful. We must not forget them and we must not forget the sort of plight in which they found themselves during their early married lives.

When one hears some of the more strident, feminist demands, I think of one lady who said to me: “I had no idea there was a glass ceiling until I heard it crunching beneath my feet”. That is a wonderful attitude and something that we should all emulate. We should be careful about describing the pitfalls.

We often hear that women can have it all or cannot have it all—they cannot have a career and a home. As so many noble Baronesses in your Lordships' House have shown, you can. You are fit for purpose but you are not necessarily designed for purpose. It is much more difficult and it is a much greater achievement on the part of those women who are able to rise to these great heights.

On the point of discrimination, and I do not think it breaches the 30-year rule, I remember my noble friend Lady Thatcher saying in Cabinet that she did not care if someone was a man or woman, or if they were black, white or whatever colour. She only wanted to know that they could do the job. Those sentiments would be widely shared. When one is demanding extra seats in the Cabinet or more Members of Parliament, it is important to remember that we want people to be there because they can do the job not because they are women. That is patronising and not in the interests of the advancement of women.

What has been notable in this debate is that there has hardly been a single word from any noble Baroness or noble Lord with which I would quarrel. A lot has been said against a broad spectrum of opinions and experience. In later years, women will benefit from what has been done, what can be done and what we are trying to do, in some cases abroad, where there are horrific examples, particularly those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. It sometimes puzzles me that we talk about cases in Afghanistan and other countries of the world, but we never mention the plight of women in Saudi Arabia. That is something to which we should turn our attention.

I congratulate my noble friend Lady Verma on the way in which she introduced this debate. She did not miss a single thing that I would have wished her to say. Our House and, I hope, the future of women, will have been enhanced by the attitude that she has shown and by the attitude of noble Baronesses who have spoken in this debate.

Finally, I will say a word of caution. I would be very concerned if I were running a small business and faced with employing a woman of an age at which they could have children. It would be very expensive for a small company and difficult. That is a problem that will not go away. There is also often the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. Big companies with big names are involved and big funds of money are being brought in the way of damages. I can only say that throughout my career I never experienced such a thing. Probably, in retrospect, I am slightly offended. Nevertheless, the problem remains. Such things are in people's minds when they employ women, and they go across a number of these problems. They need to be refuted and dealt with, but they do not need to be overdone; that will not be in the interests of women. With caution, on these and other matters, I hope that we will plough on in the next 10 years in getting as far as we have got at the very least in the last 40 years.

My Lords, I am in the difficult position of coming half way through a number of what have so far been excellent maiden speeches. I am daunted at following on from that quality. But your Lordships have been so welcoming of me and my other colleagues that some of that trepidation is removed. Like them, I pay tribute to the staff of the House who have been so helpful, generous and good humoured, particularly on the day of my introduction when the refreshment staff were excellent to my family. For them it was a day out, coming from Scotland with all the pressures that travelling down by train in the 21st century involves. I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

I also owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my two sponsors. In the context of today’s debate, I could not have had more appropriate sponsors. My noble friend Lady Ramsay of Cartvale is one of our most senior foreign servants who, not just because she was a woman—in many cases in spite of the fact that she was a woman—rose to the highest levels of foreign service. Despite having known her for many years, I did not fully know the extent of her achievements until I was privileged to represent Her Majesty’s Government when she received the Order of the White Rose of Finland for what she had done to bring about peace and security to Finland as well as to this country.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, my other sponsor, a very successful serial entrepreneur, who managed to pull off the unbelievable trick—for a Scotswoman—of becoming chairman of English Partnerships and is now in charge of our Olympic legacy.

My journey from the other end of the Palace of Westminster took a four and a half year detour to Australia, which in itself continues the traditions of this House. In 1956, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, was the first British high commissioner to live in the aptly named Westminster House. Immediately before me it was the redoubtable noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, who is still held in great affection throughout Australia. I was succeeded by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos. I am sure your Lordships will join with me in wishing her every success in her new job as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs for the United Nations. It is a tribute to the expertise of this House. I cannot think of a better person to carry out the job.

If someone had told me in 2005 that Australia would have a female Governor-General, a female Prime Minister and, on 15 October, that it would have not just its first saint but that that saint would be a woman as well, I would have believed that they had been—as the Aussies say—“on the grog”. I was very lucky to be in the Parliament of Australia to see Her Excellency, Quentin Bryce, the Governor-General, a human rights lawyer, take her oath of office. I know from the words of the noble Baronesses, Lady Seccombe and Lady Drake, that many members of your Lordships’ House would be delighted to know that she wore the purple of the suffragettes.

Prime Minister Gillard perhaps did not have as easy a journey as some of us, who came into politics by different routes, have had. When she was a new Member of Parliament, she was photographed in the kitchen of her Canberra flat with an empty fruit bowl in front of her. She was excoriated by the Australian press. How could she represent women when her fruit bowl was empty? My fruit bowl is always full but the fruit might be past its sell-by date. Then she became Deputy Prime Minister. One Senator was appalled at the idea of a woman, who was childless and deliberately so, being Deputy Prime Minister. He described her as “deliberately barren”. That is recorded in Hansard in the Australian Parliament. It came as quite a shock to me.

Blessed Mother Mary MacKillop, who, on 15 October, will become Australia’s first saint, set up a series of schools for deprived people, particularly deprived young women. Her feistiness and determination got her excommunicated from the Catholic Church. It was only when a bishop intervened that she was allowed back into the church. She set up her own order to allow her to carry on the education. You will see ferries in Sydney harbour dedicated to Blessed Mother Mary MacKillop.

All three women have one thing in common. Quentin Bryce’s family originally hails from Strachan in Aberdeenshire. Julia Gillard was born in the Welsh valleys, and her mother and father still have a delightful Welsh accent. Blessed Mother Mary MacKillop’s family emigrated from Roy Bridge in Inverness-shire. That, more than anything, points out the links between our two societies.

There are certain disadvantages to being away for four and a half years. I was walking down Buchanan Street in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago and two ladies, who, like me, were in their prime, were walking towards me and I happened to hear one of them say, “I thought she was dead”. I turned around in time to hear her friend say—in an accent that we in the west of Scotland know to be from Kelvinside—“Oh, no, Morag! She’s just in the House of Lords”. I assume she was rebuking Morag for the fact that her knowledge of current affairs was not good enough to notice that I was in the House of Lords.

My journey to the House of Lords came from the place from which I take my title. Coatdyke is not on the edge of a babbling brook where the haggis run free. It is on the banks of the Monklands Canal, a place of some industrial history and some great poverty. In the 1840s, of the 85 iron furnaces in Scotland, 66 of them were on a three-mile stretch from Woodside to Coatdyke. However, I took the name Coatdyke in tribute to my parents, my husband’s parents and the community that brought me up.

I am the only child of an invalid mother and bus driver father. Bus drivers work awkward shifts. There were oftentimes when I was home alone and, if I had had a “nippy sweetie”—as we call them in the west of Scotland—it is not inconceivable that social workers would have been sent to look after me. However, my neighbours, extended family and school all went the distance on my behalf.

The one thing that united everyone was that I was to get an education. Noble Lords have spoken about how education is the way out of poverty. It was for me. One of the unique aspects of the education that I had in this poor, working-class community is that I went to the only state school in the country that has managed to provide two Cabinet Ministers who have served at the same time. When John Reid is introduced in this place tomorrow as Lord Reid of Cardowan, there will be two Members of this House also from that same school.

I thank your Lordships for the welcome that I have received. I thank the noble Baroness for this very worthwhile debate. I never thought I would be here. I am glad to be.

My Lords, it is a great privilege and honour to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, on her introduction, her maiden speech and her commanding performance. She comes to this House with an illustrious career not least in the Cabinet as a Secretary of State for Scotland, where it is stated that she was known as “Attila the Hen” for her campaigns. The noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, referred to some people crushing their glass ceilings beneath their feet. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, sounds as though she has done that and much more. I salute and congratulate her and look forward to hearing from her again and again.

I should also like to express my delight at listening to a number of other maiden speeches, including those of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Drake and Lady Parminter. I was intrigued by the noble Baroness’s suggestions about sharing the role of MPs. Maybe it is something that we will be able to consider in due course. I congratulate those noble Lords and look forward to hearing the remaining maiden speeches.

It is an honour to be speaking in a debate that is led by one of the first two Asian women in a British Government. It is extremely satisfying to know that five Asians, including three Muslim women, have now claimed their seats in the other place, building on Labour’s fantastic record of progressing women and an equality agenda. I warmly congratulate the Minister, who I consider a friend.

It is a fitting moment to express my joy at the entry into the Cabinet of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. As a Muslim woman, I am proud of her achievement. In time, I pray that the presence and leadership of both noble Baronesses in mainstream political office will inspire a strong generation of women into public life.

The wide-ranging nature of the debate before us gives us a unique opportunity to pursue what I regard as the most noble of British values of seeking justice and equality for all. Sadly, half the world’s citizens cannot claim equality. Often the reality is that women suffer most in times of economic crisis, conflict and natural disaster and are most discriminated against both in the workplace and in society at large. Yet despite the barriers to entry, the restrictions and limitations, the stigmas and prohibitions, women have risen to the challenge and continue to excel in industry, medicine, science, academia and, increasingly, in public life.

Last year, a report was published by the Fawcett Society entitled Poverty Pathways: Ethnic Minority Women's Livelihoods, which found that, on average, more than 40 per cent of ethnic-minority women in the UK were living in poverty. More staggering was the recognition that this figure rose to 70 per cent in certain specifics—often Muslim communities and Muslim women. That such levels of poverty should exist in sub-Saharan Africa is a tragedy, but for such levels of poverty and disadvantage to exist here in the UK, one of the most developed nations in the world, is nothing short of an outrage. Why are women not achieving their full potential in the UK and elsewhere in the world? Many noble Lords have contributed eloquently, and I leave it at that for the moment.

Women play a pivotal role in building strong communities where everyone feels valued, yet women all over the world have had the challenge of tackling stereotypes and breaking through the moulds that have been imposed on them. To add to a long list of assertions, Muslim women, in particular, are sympathised with due to perceptions of being oppressed and weak and living in a patriarchal society, as if they were the only ones. Some women do fall into that category and fit the stereotype, but many women in the world can subscribe to that kind of experience. There are rare discussions about Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Muslim women in general with reference to their educational and social advancement, except when it refers to them in the context of forced marriage, honour killings and now the live issue of the veil. For many women, these are tragic experiences, but we must work together to ensure that Muslim women are empowered in the big society so that they can tackle those issues for themselves.

During 2008 and 2009, I chaired the government taskforce looking at ways to increase minority women's participation in public life. It was a cross-party coalition, and perhaps we provided some inspiration for Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron. I have said often that there is no shortage of talented women willing or able to take leadership roles. I spent 30 years of my life working in a professional and personal capacity with disadvantaged women and their families, and I have worked very hard to empower those whose voices were mostly unheard and to put in place mechanisms which would mitigate the harsh limitations imposed by society. Although much of these and other programmes continue to have limited impact on ordinary grass roots, economically inactive women, it is worth pointing out that in our journey with the taskforce across different parts of Britain the numbers of women willing to put themselves forward for office took us by enormous surprise. I am pleased to say that there are a number of success stories as a result of some of that work, including that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece. I believe that this work fundamentally shifted party-political opinions and contributed to the pressure of parties selecting their candidates.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the many male colleagues who have assisted us in our journey while in office to advance the women’s agenda. I pay tribute particularly to Sadiq Khan MP in the other place for his vision and dedication, particularly in reference to the Fabian book that he produced, entitled Fairness not Favours, which looks at the tragic inequality and disadvantages which exist for women in the workplace, especially for minority women. Despite the successes of a few, some of whom I am proud to count as my close friends here in this House, all women, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, continue to be confronted by barriers. The area of employment continues to be of concern, particularly that nearly 80 per cent of Bangladeshi and Pakistani women remain economically inactive. In the case of Bangladeshi women their lives are blighted by all the impact of the making of the financial sector but without the fulsome returns that would otherwise have been granted. Surely it is unacceptable that when they are living at the heart of the financial sector in Docklands, Bishopsgate or trendy Shoreditch, they continue not to have a stake in that success. Survey after survey suggests that more than half of Muslim women would like to be engaged in employment or training. The big society and realisation of their social capital should mean that they should also be able to take the lead and not simply have programmes handed to them. I hope the Minister will review some of the quangos and committees to ensure that its impact is real and positive.

In addition, Muslim women are largely misunderstood and misrepresented—and, with few opportunities to represent themselves, a narrow and closed-minded view of Muslim women prevails. It is important to recognise that there is no fundamental struggle between Islam and “the West”, but a complex interplay of forces relating to issues of social marginalisation and exclusion. These forces impede the right of individuals to live lives of dignity and equality, with the misappropriation of religious beliefs in some instances used to justify deprivation of basic human rights. For women—especially those from minority community and faith groups—to fulfil their individual potential and truly contribute to the community, we must provide them with sufficient educational and recreational opportunities. When all members of society feel included in their community, a real change can occur. Organisations like the Faith Regen Foundation and Jagonari Centre have worked over a decade to encourage constructive dialogue for disadvantaged women to unleash their potential. Faith Regen is about to partner women's organisations in Malaysia and Bangladesh, where women leaders are addressing the impact and advantage for women in a digital age.

We need to be determined to tackle prejudice and Islamophobia as well as the male discrimination and family pressure that women suffer when seeking employment. Despite these challenges and stereotypes, more and more women, increasingly proactive, are interested in participating in ESOL and information technology classes. This willingness is a massive opportunity to engage women's participation. Childcare cost is equally prohibitive; it is no wonder that affordable childcare remains the privilege of a wealthy few women.

Finally, I am intrigued by the big society concept. It is made and lived particularly by minority women. It is the background that developed the ghettos of the dilapidated East End of London into a plush Docklands—but it never bought empowerment of the community or decentralised or shared power for ordinary folks. Elites have never put power down. We need to examine the way in which minority women are able to participate in society and institutions, and rethink our aspirations through their prism in line with their expectation and standards. I believe that real changes are afoot in this House and the other place.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for initiating this most important debate today. I declare an interest as the Government of Ireland’s special envoy for women, peace and security—United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. I congratulate all those who have made their maiden speeches so effectively and with such eloquence today.

There can be no doubt that many statistics indicate that the position and capacity of women in the United Kingdom are being developed and enhanced. However, it cannot be said that they are being developed with sufficient rapidity. Figures from the website of the Women’s National Commission show that in 2009 just 32 per cent of public appointees were women—and we know that 80 per cent of Members of this House are men. We have heard the figure for representation of women of 22 per cent in the other House, while many similar figures indicate the low level of representation of women in political life. The United Kingdom is 50th in the list of Parliaments in its female representation and falls behind a range of other countries, from Denmark and Sweden to Timor-Leste. I declare an interest in Timor-Leste as the Irish Government’s special envoy for conflict resolution there.

We know that in the United Kingdom most recent figures show that fewer than 10 per cent of High Court judges or Court of Appeal judges are women—and how many female Supreme Court judges are there? We know that less than 16 per cent of partners in our largest law firms are women, that less than one-quarter of prison governors are women and that only 12 per cent of chief inspectors in the police were women in 2008. On that point, I was very pleased, as I acted as Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, to see the level of women coming through into the Police Service of Northern Ireland. There was an average representation of about 37 per cent in each class that I met in recent years, so a huge amount is being done, although much remains to be done.

Women clearly do not have a proportionate or equal position in the United Kingdom today. My experience tells me that the situation will change only as a consequence of a multi-faceted strategy aimed at developing women and enhancing their sense of self, their confidence and their capacity to seek opportunities and to apply for and to seek for promotion in all its forms. That has to be combined with really open and transparent appointments processes.

Despite all that has been achieved—and an awful lot has been achieved in the past 30 or 40 years—women in British society are still regarded as the lesser sex. Very often, women’s sense of their value in society has been damaged by their life experience, particularly where it has been one of poverty, marginalisation and deprivation. The Government’s big society proposal will present huge opportunities for women to take an active role in civil society and to go on from that to garner experience and capacity and so to play a role on a greater stage. Coming from a very poor background and as a student working in the Fulham legal advice centre as a volunteer, I learnt an awful lot. One can learn much from that kind of experience.

We meet here at a time of significant economic difficulty and, whatever the politics of the attempts to manage and recover from the recession, it remains a fact that we now face cuts in public funding and public services on a massive scale. It is profoundly important that we take all steps to preserve and indeed enhance the current levels of funding for those who work with women who are the subject of gender-based violence, including domestic violence. The Minister and other noble Lords have already referred to this issue, but we know that, according to the British Crime Survey, 85 per cent of victims of domestic violence are women. The Home Office estimated that in 2009 a million women were victims of domestic violence, which is the equivalent of 20,000 women a week suffering.

Much of the care, protection and refuge for these women is provided by civil society organisations such as Women’s Aid, which are very often run by women and for women. They conduct campaigns to highlight the extent and the cost of the problem. They work in hugely difficult circumstances, often with the very real threat of physical violence to the volunteers. They operate in hugely difficult financial circumstances, too. They often rely on donations and have to compete in the increasingly difficult world of public sector finance. The physical, psychological and social effects of violence against women are well documented in terms of death, injury, loss of confidence, fear, depression, poverty, et cetera. Women who are assisted and facilitated to move out of the cycle of domestic violence can rebuild their lives; they can become again functioning and contributing members of society. It is imperative, therefore, that funding is secured for these critical services.

The Motion refers to the role of women not only here in the United Kingdom but in other countries. October will mark the 10th anniversary of United Nations Resolution 1325, the first UN resolution seriously to address the problems of women in conflict. It provides for action on three fronts: the enhancement of the levels of women’s participation in politics and community life; the prevention of gender-based violence; and the development of the gender perspective in policy-making. It has been followed by three more resolutions—1880, 1888 and 1889—each of them a little more forthright and a little more demanding. However, it remains the case that, almost 10 years on, little has been done internationally to give effect to these resolutions. This has been generally acknowledged and there has been much hand-wringing, but there has been little progress in this area. The United Kingdom has the capacity to make a significant difference in this context.

There are two important issues in respect of which this Parliament and this Government can make a difference. The first is epitomised by the story of Aisha, a 13 year-old Somali girl. She was raped by three men. Her family went to the Islamist militia to report the crime. She was detained and accused of adultery. No attempt was made to apprehend the men who attacked her. She was sentenced to death by stoning. She was driven into a football stadium where a huge crowd had gathered. She begged them not to kill her. She was buried up to her neck and a truck loaded with stones arrived. Fifty men set about stoning her. After 10 minutes, she was dug up to see whether she was still alive. She was, so they buried her again and the stoning started again until she was dead. This Government must use every opportunity afforded by their international relations and their capacity as a donor to press for the abolition of the death penalty in such cases, especially as it was suffered by Aisha and so many others like her. It is not enough, as happened recently, to substitute an alternative way of killing women in such circumstances.

The second issue relates to the United Kingdom’s role in conflict zones. It is most important that the 1325 national action plan is enhanced following the recent consultation. It is a UN requirement that there is no immunity for gender-based crimes in peace negotiations, particularly where rape is used as a tool of war against the civilian population and where little girls and young women are taken as sex slaves by participants in the conflict. This is a difficult provision to give effect to, especially in countries where the warlords are marching triumphantly, acknowledging freely that they have used rape as a tool of war. There is a temptation in peacemaking to value the opportunity to make peace above the need for justice, but peace is based on justice and negotiators must be strong and not hasty in making peace. Even more important, it is essential that women are included in peace processes and that their voice is heard, even in patriarchal societies. Women suffer disproportionately in war and their voice must be heard as peace is made.

There is one female provincial governor in Afghanistan. Her name is Habiba Sarabi. She governs a minority people, hundreds of whom were murdered and thousands of whom were displaced by the Taliban. She could not be at the Kabul peace conference, as she was not invited. The Government, in the execution of their responsibilities under the resolution, should do all that they can to ensure that her voice and the voices of women like her are heard in ongoing and future negotiations. The Government have announced an additional £200 million to promote stability and development in Afghanistan. I hope that, in the process, Her Majesty’s Government will make a distinct and significant contribution for women, to enable them to participate in and stand for elections, to return to and stay safely in their homes, to educate their daughters and to feed their families. As peace is made in the world, it is in part made through developing women’s potential. That makes the world a stronger, more stable place. There are many opportunities, as identified in today’s debate. I hope that we will enhance the position of women, both nationally and internationally, as a consequence of this debate.

My Lords, I express my gratitude to the noble Baroness for initiating the debate and I wish her well with her programme of work in the future. I congratulate those who have made excellent maiden speeches today. I would like to pick up one of the main points that the previous speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, addressed, focusing on the topic of domestic violence within the home and within partnerships. I speak primarily about women, but this in no way understates the violence suffered by men in same-sex relationships or other intimate partnerships or the impact that violence has on the children.

As a society, we know that the cost of domestic violence is high. Violence is not only a human rights violation; it is also a public health issue. Research shows that domestic violence cost the nation £3.4 billion in 2008, but cost is just one factor. The fact remains that, despite all our best endeavours to provide refuges, to legislate to provide protection, to empower women and to educate our children about domestic abuse, women’s safety at home is still a major cause for concern.

Most female victims of domestic violence contact the police only after the 35th attack on them. During these 35 attacks, the women and children are left to deal with the impact of the violence in their homes, while the perpetrators of the violence—in the main, they are men, as has been said—continue to commit atrocities against their partner. Approximately 80 per cent of these men are outside the criminal justice system. However, a substantial number of men among them want to stop their violent, angry and abusive behaviour.

I am pleased to say that I am the patron of the Everyman Project, a charity that provides counselling to men who want to change their abusive behaviour. We also provide advice, counselling and safety planning guidance for the female or male partners of the men undergoing the counselling. The men learn to address their attitudes towards women and to cope with situations without resorting to violence. Their partners in turn learn how to plan for their own and their children’s safety. This process helps partners and family units to break out of the cycle of violence and to move forward and it complements other services available to women.

The work of the Everyman Project and of the Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse charity—especially through its multi-agency risk assessment conferences—shows that we do not need to wait for violence to reach a stage where the victim is forced to seek recourse through the criminal justice system. We can prevent violence at a fraction of the cost that it takes to deal with its impact. It costs £20,000 to support a high-risk victim of violence through key services such as the police, health, housing and associated children’s services. When all that is added together, an extraordinary amount of money is being spent annually after the event and after violence has been committed. Research indicates that it would cost less than a quarter of this sum to try to reduce violence with the aid of counselling services. The added bonus of that approach is that the violence would not reach such extremes and the women and children would be freed from the violence and its severe impact on their physical, emotional and mental health.

If we are to help to make the homes of women and children safe places in which to enjoy life, we need to reach men and women who perpetrate violence and are seeking to change their behaviour. In my opinion, we can reach these individuals only if we recognise the contribution of the voluntary sector in preventing violence in the home and make better funding available to make its services accessible to the wider community. Perpetrator programmes should not be limited to individuals who have been convicted and face imprisonment. They should not be made available after the event; we should take steps earlier, before the perpetrators are sent to prison.

I recently asked the Minister what action the Government were taking to help violent men who wanted to change their behaviour. She kindly told me that the Government were providing information to enable the Respect charity to run its phone line to offer information and advice to people who wanted to break the cycle of violence. The Government said that, in 2009, 1,234 calls had been made to the Respect line from perpetrators who wished to change their behaviour, of which 1,181 came from men—the calls came overwhelmingly from men. This may seem rather a low figure, but I argue that this is only the tip of the iceberg of those who are trying to seek assistance.

Websites offer a far more revealing insight into the numbers seeking assistance. For example, our Everyman Project runs a website. We are only a small charity but in 2009 we had 73,000 hits on our website, of which 12,000 were from regular visitors. Some 5,300 have had formal exchanges with us about their problems and the need to try to find solutions. We have also analysed their backgrounds. Interestingly, 50 per cent are from white backgrounds and 50 per cent are from mixed-race backgrounds.

However, we as a charity get not one penny piece of public money from the state. We constantly struggle, as do all other charities. I support the big society, of which we have heard so much this week, but many charities have great difficulty maintaining their existing programmes. If they are to grow in the way that the Government want, they will need assistance from the public purse. Will the Government continue to pay out the money that is currently being provided? Is there any prospect of that money being increased in the future?

The multi-agency risk-assessment conferences have been championed by the former Attorney-General, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, for a number of years and are extraordinarily successful. They bring together at local level all the participants in the highest-risk cases and all the agencies dealing with women and children who face violence. The local agencies then get together programmes for the men, who are invariably the perpetrators, and provide counselling programmes for all the parties involved. Research indicates that up to 60 per cent of domestic abuse victims have reported that, since participating in these conferences, they have suffered no further violence. There has been a remarkable saving in the costs that normally arise in the police, health and education services associated with tackling violence. For every pound spent on these conferences, we save at least £5 that would have been spent on the public services required to assist people impacted by violence.

Since 2006, we have rolled out these programmes throughout the country. Some 220 are now operating and there are plans for a rollout of a further 80. We are worried about whether that rollout will continue, let alone whether the money will continue to be provided to support the existing 220 programmes. Will the money continue to be provided to maintain this partnership? This is a partnership—the Government are not simply funding the conferences on their own; they are in partnership with the private sector and charities. A whole range of people are involved. Will the Government continue to support the existing 220 programmes? More important, from the long-term planning point of view, are the Government willing to support the rollout of the additional 80 programmes, which would provide national coverage? These conferences have made such extraordinary progress that officials from the Spanish Government have attended them to see how they operate. They are now being rolled out in Spain, with very good results. Therefore, I would be grateful if the Minister would answer those two major points about funding.

My Lords, I am sure that the House shares my sense of indebtedness to the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for tabling this Motion. Not only has it given us the chance to debate an important topic, it has given rise to a series of amazingly powerful, informative, deeply moving and, at times, shocking speeches. I am sure that many noble Lords shared my physical reaction to the story of the stoning of a 13 year-old girl. That will stay with me for a very long time. The debate has also given us the opportunity to hear maiden speeches from seven colleagues; we have heard five and there are two to go. It is wonderful to see the diverse backgrounds of those joining your Lordships' House. We look forward to hearing from them often. I was particularly pleased to hear the speech of my noble friend Lady Parminter. It seems like only yesterday that I introduced her to the House—it was actually the day before yesterday. She is a great friend and supporter. Therefore, it was wonderful to support her in an official capacity earlier this week. It was also good to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Deben, who shares my commitment to, and love of, our home county of Suffolk. I look forward also to working with him.

I wish to address my remarks solely to the representation of women in Parliament, particularly in the other place. Many Members of this House will be aware of the statistic that at the current rate of progress it will take another two centuries before equal numbers of men and women are in the House of Commons. The notion that our granddaughters’ granddaughters’ granddaughters will still be having that debate is profoundly depressing. There has been some progress in the past decade. Certainly, measures such as all-women shortlists had the effect of bringing in a new crop of women to the House of Commons. However, it is sad that so many of those women subsequently stood down, which suggests that while there may well be a place for measures such as all-women shortlists, they are not in themselves the final answer.

Certainly in my party, we have had many debates—very many hotly debated sessions—where we have talked about whether we need some special measures to bring women into Parliament. There is an interesting fault-line between those who see it as patronising to women to introduce such measures, and those who see that this is the only way to make progress—and the fault-line is not gender; it is age. The younger women in particular are very hostile to the notion of special measures, which they see as patronising, whereas older members of the party are frankly tired of waiting for a difference to be made.

The approach we have taken in my party is to encourage people forward through mentoring. We had a certain amount of success in terms of getting women selected in “safe seats”, but sadly it was the choice of the electorate not to elect them. It is a particular issue for my party that we do not have the luxury of safe seats in order to bring in things like all-women shortlists with any confidence of improving the situation. Finding a sustainable solution requires us to think not about treating the symptoms, but to tackle the underlying causes instead. Research in my own party suggests that the lack of female representation in the Commons is to do not with discrimination, but with a combination of an insufficient number of women coming forward and a high rate of attrition among female parliamentary candidates. Put bluntly, not enough women want to do the job. Worse still, many count themselves out once they take a closer look.

The yah-boo culture of the House of Commons is off-putting to a lot of people, not just to women. It certainly put me off ever wanting to be an MP, and it is a pity that the media do not concentrate more on the other aspects of the job—constituency work, Select Committees and so on—that are not so confrontational and that I think would appeal to a broader spectrum of people, women particularly.

The way the House of Commons works in particular is also very difficult to reconcile with caring responsibilities. Even nowadays, in most families women have the brunt of caring responsibilities, whether it is caring for children or for the elderly. The general work-life juggle is inherently stacked against women for that reason. I notice very much in my party that the women coming forward for selection to Parliament are either quite young—in their early 20s—or in their late 40s and early 50s, and we are in effect counting out women over a period of perhaps two decades, at the sort of age where they feel that their responsibilities for children simply preclude them.

A Centre for Policy Studies report last year found that the vast majority of mothers with children at home would like to work. However, only 12 per cent of them want to work full-time. Westminster, with its full-time-plus—all the anti-social hours and everything else that goes with them—is effectively writing off a large section of the female population. We have always been very reluctant to reform parliamentary practices, which is something that I hope will be addressed as the Speaker’s report kicks in. I am also concerned that some of the changes that have been brought about to the expenses regime—particularly the way IPSA is running things—will actually make it more difficult for people with families to become MPs and run their lives in the way they need to.

The good news is that we do not have to reinvent the wheel—what we have to do is to look outside Westminster. Over the last decade, the right to request flexible working has quietly revolutionised the way many businesses work. Enlightened employers have embraced the benefits of retaining talented women who might otherwise have thrown in the towel. That flexibility has empowered women—and men—to be able to construct their own solutions to the career and family dilemma. It strikes me as ironic that while we have legislated to mandate flexible working in other people’s workplaces, we have failed to do it in our own.

I noted with interest the sharp intake of breath when my noble friend Lady Parminter mentioned job-sharing MPs. Well, why not? We have job-sharing chief executives, job-sharing city lawyers, job-sharing head teachers and even job-sharing high commissioners. Why could we not job-share as MPs? We have to get away from the notion that somehow we in Parliament are so different from the rest of the world that these solutions cannot be considered. It is not just about fairness, as important as fairness is; it is actually about good governance. Having a huge number of potential MPs precluded because they cannot manage these sorts of responsibilities—precluding women in that way—is bad governance. I hope that in the other place and in all our deliberations we do what we can to change that.

My Lords, I am honoured to deliver my maiden speech in this important debate. This House is as rich in its extraordinary history as it is in the wisdom and knowledge of its Members, and to be able to take part in its proceedings is a privilege without equal. At this point I will, as other maiden speakers have, mention the great kindness shown to those who are new both by fellow Peers and by our formidable staff. It has been overwhelming and I am profoundly grateful.

I must admit to a few nerves this evening—not perhaps for the obvious reasons, but because I realised sitting here last week quite how many of my ex-bosses are on these Benches. There is my noble friend Lord Wakeham, one of my supporters, for whom I worked not just once but twice. Then there is my noble friend Lord Tebbit, who was my first boss in politics, who is joined by my noble friends Lord Brooke, Lord Bell and Lord Saatchi and, since yesterday, my noble friend Lord Howard. So this feels almost like a job interview.

I have worked for over 20 years in roles dealing with the media, for all those noble friends. As a passionate supporter of press freedom, not just here but throughout the Commonwealth, I hope to be able to contribute to our discussions on the future of the newspaper industry and the wider creative industries. As a trustee of the Imperial War Museum, and a member of the council of the Royal College of Music, our cultural heritage is also of great importance to me. However, today is for another subject. My noble friend Lady Verma is in so many ways the embodiment of the crucial issues we are discussing. She brings such substantial experience to the work of this House, and it is a privilege to take part in the debate in her name.

I was born and brought up in Brentwood in Essex. I went to its fine school, where I learned to play four musical instruments simply in order to dodge sports lessons, and fell in love there—with Virgil and Plato, and our islands' history. I played the organ at Sunday services. I cut my political teeth and became a councillor. It is a great place for a young man to learn. Looking back on my time there I have an overpowering memory—that in all the vital parts of our community's civic fabric, the bedrock of our local civil society was the older women of our town. They ran the local charities, and organised the volunteering. They were crucial in local politics. They kept the churches open and beautiful. They raised money for local hospital services, and our remarkable hospice. They were the often undervalued treasure trove of our town's existence. It is as true now as it was then.

Across the country, older women whose children have left home, or who have recently retired, play a pivotal role in our society. A citizenship survey from the Department for Communities and Local Government published at the end of last year showed how women from 65 to 74 were the most likely to participate in formal volunteering. Another survey, from the Institute for Volunteering Research, found nearly half of all volunteers to be in their 60s, with women playing by far the biggest role in education, social welfare and heritage. It is of real importance that we recognise that today. If, as I believe we can, we are to build the big society, they will help us power it.

It is therefore right that as part of this debate we also consider ways in which we can make sure that this huge potential is fulfilled and cherished, and that means looking very carefully at the special health needs of older women. It is not lack of willingness that makes many of them less active—to the detriment of our society—but the burden of premature ill health and frailty. The citizenship survey that I mentioned identified disability and long-term illness as the major bar to volunteering.

There are many such health issues, whether it be asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or depression, from which twice as many older women suffer as men. However, I want to highlight just one, which is eminently avoidable—the blight of osteoporosis. I have seen at first hand how that dread illness—responsible, if undiagnosed early, for so many debilitating fractures—is often to blame for the lives of those working in the service of others being curtailed. As it progresses, it stops too many older women doing much of what they want to do for our society, as mobility falters, pain increases and their world shrinks. In the case of my own mother—one such lady whose kindly spirit was the catalyst for a great deal in our town’s life—osteoporosis was diagnosed too late. Complicated years later by the appalling condition of polymyalgia, which we still know too little about and which also affects far more older women than men, her potential was, to her great sadness, thwarted too early. This is true of far too many other sufferers. One in two women over the age of 50 will suffer a fracture at some point because of poor bone health. That is one in two lives lived less fully than it could be, with our civil society—the great society—diminished as a result.

It does not have to be like that. So much could be done to deal with this problem simply by ensuring the widespread operation of fracture liaison services at hospitals and groups of GP surgeries. Such services could spot this condition much earlier and allow sufferers to continue doing more for us for longer. I hope that, as part of the Government’s plans for NHS reform, osteoporosis and bone health will now be recognised as a major public health issue and that indicators on fracture prevention will be included in the Quality and Outcomes Framework of the GP contract. Such moves are long overdue.

For so many reasons, I believe that older women should, in Belloc’s phrase, be preserved as our “chiefest treasure”. It has been an honour today to have the opportunity to speak briefly about their role in our civic life and to highlight some of the things that could be done to make sure that they achieve their full potential for longer. It is a subject very dear to my heart and I hope that in future debates we shall be able to track real progress on this issue.

My Lords, we have had six sensitive maiden speeches of remarkable quality, and we look forward with anticipation to that of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I am not quite sure what the collective for seven maiden speakers—unprecedented in this House—is, but I am sure that my noble friend Lord Black and my noble friend Lord Deben, who is not in his place, will forgive me if I suggest a collective of “merry maidens”.

However, it is the speech of my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood of which I am privileged to speak in appreciation. My noble friend brings to this House a long experience of the media, and his intention to contribute to discussions on the future of the newspaper industry will be of great benefit to this House. I am sure that your Lordships will wish him to convey to his colleagues in the industry the message that in their coverage of their Lordships’ proceedings there is always room for improvement.

Noble Lords will recall with admiration—and, I think, gratitude—the work that he did with my noble friend Lord Wakeham on the Press Complaints Commission at a particularly sensitive time. With his interest in museums and music, he will indeed have much to contribute to the workings of this House, and to this we look forward with much anticipation. His speech today on the role of older women was delivered with a passion and commitment which was truly impressive, addressing as it did the core of this most important debate. We are very grateful.

I now wish to speak about a very different aspect of the role of women from that raised by my noble friend in this important debate—and we are all very grateful to my noble friend Lady Verma for her outstanding leadership in initiating it. I refer to the increasingly important role of African women in the life of Africa. Women form 70 per cent of the workforce in Africa as a whole. However, despite major initiatives by the United Nations and the major donor countries—and the United Kingdom can hold its head high, particularly with the recent commitment by the coalition Government to ring-fence funding for overseas development—together with high-powered conferences, little progress has, disappointingly, been made in advancing the rights and welfare of women in Africa. The curse of malnutrition, insufficient medical aid, particularly maternity care, and of course the universal curse of HIV/AIDS, together with the custom which stretches back centuries of requiring of women both hard labour and the procreation of large families, have all placed enormous obstacles in the path of the advancement of women. We were shocked by the story which the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, told us about the stoning of the Somali woman; it was particularly pertinent in the African context.

Among the majority of rural and low-income urban dwellers, women perform all domestic tasks, while for many farming and trade are also included. They are responsible for the care of children, the sick and the elderly in addition to performing essential social functions within the community. Their struggle for survival often results in environmental damage, a simple example being the collection of firewood, which contributes so much to soil erosion in many parts of Africa. In many cases, women are subject to abuse, such as female genital mutilation, and they are especially vulnerable to AIDS because of their lack of power over their sexuality and reproductive functions. As an illustration, about 50 per cent of women in Africa are married by the age of 18, and one in three women is in a polygamous marriage.

Although many countries have ratified UN agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, at the same time many countries have taken very few steps in translating this into better living and working conditions. The simple fact is that in many ways Africa’s development is substantially held back by excluding the perspectives, skills and dynamism of half the population. Examples of initiatives by African women that can be seen in many countries are women-only mutual aid societies, benevolent groups in churches, co-operatives and market women’s groups.

That leads me to the main point that I want to make. Several noble Lords in this debate have spoken about the importance of education, mainly in the United Kingdom context, but in Africa it is absolutely seminal. It is all too common to find that what limited educational facilities are available are still hampered by gender discrimination and unimaginative curricula that do not take into account that the majority of girls will not go beyond primary education, and they are not geared to helping girls to obtain basic life skills. Of course, there is always the temptation for parents to give priority to their sons’ education. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, who is not in his place, mentioned this in the slightly different context of India. Mothers have many complications with their daughters—adolescent pregnancy, early marriage and the burden on girls to shoulder household labour, and, sadly, in many cases their daughters are forced into prostitution for simple economic reasons. However, there are shining exceptions. In Lesotho, for example, largely due to out-migration by the men, females account for 75 per cent of students, even in higher education.

As was put so succinctly by CamFed, an America-based charity in Africa, when you educate a girl in Africa, everything changes. She will be three times less likely to get HIV/AIDS; she will earn 25 per cent more income; and she will have a smaller, healthier family. I am talking not about the giveaway of sacks of flour, which can be siphoned off along the supply chain, but about a tangible permanent investment which can go to the next generation. An educated mother with a small family is in a much better position to fulfil her ambitions for the advancement of her children. In the challenging and often depressing problem of population in Africa, education, as was so well articulated by that charity, leads to a win-win situation.

My Lords, I start by welcoming the Minister’s speech and her obvious commitment to equality and fairness for women throughout their lives. I have had the pleasure of speaking with her and learning from her important experience in the care sector, which I would think is in fact an industry peopled exclusively by women, so that was very relevant to the debate we are having. My brief comments will be made in the light of my role as a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The noble Baroness emphasised the very difficult times that we are living through and the necessity of spending cuts, which I do not dispute at all. In practice, however, it means that decision-makers at all levels, national and local, should look closely at the effects their financial decisions might have on women and, indeed, on other vulnerable groups before going ahead with reorganising or reducing services. Doing that should help public authorities to achieve the Government’s own commitment to,

“limit as far as possible the impact of reductions in spending on the most vulnerable in society”.

Yet a recent House of Commons Library research report assessed the distribution between women and men of the £8 billion raised by the Budget’s changes in direct taxes and benefits. It found that £5.8 billion will be paid by women and only £2.2 billion by men. I do not know whether that could be said to be fair. Also, a report from the UK Women’s Budget Group, published this June, states that low-income mothers are the managers and shock absorbers of poverty and will be the most negatively affected by the recently announced budget cuts. Women from black and minority ethnic groups, it said, will be particularly hard hit as 40 per cent of them live in poor households.

The commission has concerns that women may be harder hit by spending cuts because they use public services more intensively than men to meet their own needs and the needs associated with their caring responsibilities. We have heard today about the differential in pay and we know that women are, on average, paid 20.2 per cent less per hour than men. That gap is higher in the private sector than the public and in certain sectors of employment such as the financial services industry. Going further along the life course, female pensioners currently have lower incomes than male pensioners, so they are at greater risk of poverty and therefore more reliant on means-tested benefits.

The commission’s work on older women in particular is really limited to the workplace. Higher rates of poverty are experienced by many older women, as we know, because of a lifetime of lower pay—what the Hills report called “cumulative disadvantage”. Because of their greater longevity, there is also a greater need to access care, for while women live longer than men they experience more disability and chronic illness or disease in later life, and have a greater need to call on services such as dementia treatment or those for other chronic, and sometimes terminal, diseases. Overall, women have a greater dependence on public services, so they will be more affected by the current cuts. We need, perhaps, to take account of and drive home the message about the human rights obligations of public authorities, which can help care homes and hospitals to treat older women with dignity and respect, and to put into practice the age discrimination provisions in the Equality Act, ensuring that institutions understand how to meet their obligations and that individuals know how to enforce their rights.

I am very pleased that the Minister representing Her Majesty’s Government gave such full support to the Equality Act. It is important that when public authorities make financial decisions, they are equality-impact assessed and that the impact assessment is carried out when the policy is initiated as a central part of the policy development process. Only by doing that can we be sure that women are treated fairly and in a way that conforms to the Government’s own commitment, as stated by the Minister. I hope that she can make it clear to us that she will abide by that.

My Lords, when I indicated that I wished to speak in today’s debate I had not anticipated making the seventh maiden speech of the day in what has been an excellent and really thoughtful debate. I have enjoyed listening to the contributions. May I add my comments to those other noble Lords making a maiden speech today who referred to the warmth of welcome from Members of your Lordships’ House? I genuinely and gratefully echo that sentiment. I have greatly appreciated the welcome, support and advice of noble Lords from across the House—especially from my supporters, my noble friends Lord Dubs and Lady Andrews, who really have been unfailing in their help to me. My noble friend Lord Dubs and I share an interest in and affection for Northern Ireland, where we served as Ministers at different times, while my noble friend Lady Andrews and I worked together extremely well in the Department for Communities and Local Government.

I also place on record my thanks to the attendants and staff of your Lordships’ House, who really have been extremely helpful to us new Members. They have taken pity on us when they find us walking around the corridors, trying to find a room or a desk to work from. I look forward to participating fully in the work of this House and its work as a revising Chamber.

When I was introduced to your Lordships’ House, I did so as the first Baroness of Basildon—possibly the first time that a modern new town has been recognised in this way—but I have to confess to your Lordships that I am not the first Lady Basildon. The first was created in 1895 by the great Irish writer Oscar Wilde in his play “An Ideal Husband”, which was performed first at the Haymarket Theatre. Lady Basildon was described as being of “exquisite fragility”—an attribute which I doubt has ever been used to describe me—but she showed an interest in politics, of a kind. At a political party, she informs one of the leading characters, in typical Wildean style:

“I delight in talking politics. I talk them all day long. But I can’t bear listening to them. I don’t know how the unfortunate men in the House stand these long debates”.

To that she is told that they do so “by never listening” to them. However, they did not have the advantage of listening to today’s debate, and one thing I have already learnt to appreciate in your Lordships’ House is the depth and value that we place on debate. I promise your Lordships that I shall listen more often than I shall speak.

As a child from a very ordinary working-class family, I could not have expected to have the honour of serving your Lordships’ House and the other place. My parents—my mother being from a Scottish mining family and my father from the east end of London—saw, like too many of their generation, their education ended too soon. They were therefore determined that both my sister and I would have the educational opportunities they never had, for which I remain enormously grateful, although I did not perhaps appreciate them at the time. It has also made me a great believer in the value of education and of access to education for all.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for securing this debate because the position of women across the world and in the UK, which we are discussing, depends so much on access to education. I was encouraged both by her choice of debate and by the commitment that she showed in her comments. The first female Prime Minister in the world, Mrs Bandaranaike, took office on this day 50 years ago, in 1960, while during this month in 1928 women over 21 first gained the right to vote on the same basis as men. We are all aware of great women achieving high office in many parts of the world and of the noticeable achievements of women in politics, business, science, the arts and sport—and we all know extraordinary women who inspire us. For many ordinary women across the world life has changed little, despite the great achievements of a few.

Across the world more people than ever say that they believe in gender equality, but when difficult economic times bite, that becomes harder to sustain. There is a gap between the belief that so many articulate and the reality. A recent survey conducted for the International Herald Tribune looked at attitudes to gender across the world and examined the difference between the richer and poorer. Of the European countries the French self-identified the lowest level of gender equality, which was attributed to unequal economic participation. Professor Ibarra from an international business school identified it as being about so few women running large organisations and the business culture remaining resolutely a boys’ club.

While in most countries more than 90 per cent of people said that they supported equal rights, few thought that that had been achieved. If we are looking at the advancement potential for women we must first start with education and employment. In Egypt, for example, 60 per cent of men said that boys were more entitled to education and there was a similar gender gap in Jordan and Pakistan. A strong core in several countries believes that men have more right to a job than women. Even in the UK, 12 per cent hold that view. That is where the economic reality really bites.

Here in the UK the impact of the recent Budget on women assessed by the House of Commons Library found that of the £8.1 billion net personal tax increases or benefit cuts, an estimated 72 per cent is being paid by women and only 28 per cent by men. I hope that this is something that the coalition Government will want to look at again. It is also relevant that women in the UK are still earning 12 per cent less than men. If we are to truly develop the potential of women in society, we have to address the disproportionate impact of our own economic policies and ensure that we provide those educational opportunities and economic equality.

In this country both boys and girls have equal access to education, but across the world so many children are denied that right. Across the world 72 million children are not able to attend school and more than two-thirds are girls. There are 771 million adults world wide who are illiterate, a staggering 64 per cent of whom are women.

Good progress has been made in Afghanistan since 1996 when the Taliban made it illegal for girls to be educated. But so many schools have been destroyed and the lack of female teachers makes it an ongoing battle for so many young girls seeking to be educated. Oxfam regularly organises a campaign that encourages children in this country to understand how difficult it is for other children across the world to gain the education that they rightly take for granted. Over the years I have visited a number of schools in Basildon and Thurrock and the double impact of this campaign is that not only do the children in our schools want to help and support those in other countries, they start to value their own education in a way they had never considered before.

Tremendous advances have been made over the decades in the role and position of women in society. Our challenge now is to build on that progress and to widen the opportunities in education and employment for women and young people from all backgrounds and all countries so that they can fully realise their potential. Society as a whole will benefit from the knowledge and skills that they have.

First, I congratulate all those Members who have given such excellent maiden speeches today. There was a terrific cornucopia of speeches. One might say that it was a bit different from the House of Lords in the past. There is a good story about the Earl of Melrose—in case there is a current Earl of Melrose I shall have to say that this was an earlier one—who said, “I fell asleep and dreamt that I was giving a speech in the House of Lords. Then I woke up and, by God, I was”.

I congratulate, in particular, my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon on her outstanding maiden speech, delivered with great eloquence and good humour. From a part-time shop assistant in Sainsbury’s to your Lordships’ House is quite a journey. She brings a great wealth of experience to this House, and is very well known for her work on the third sector and local communities. One might say that she was a forceful advocate of the big society avant la lettre, and she is very well esteemed for her work in this area. She is quite right to place so much stress on education, which I say as an educator myself, and helping to bring about social equality. It is also important to mention her work in the area of animal rights. It is my great pleasure to welcome her to your Lordships’ House and I am sure that we all look forward to many incisive contributions from her in the future. I hope that noble Lords will join me in giving her a hearty welcome.

The oppression of women in contemporary society is as much psychosexual as it is economic. It focuses on the body, self-identity, sexuality and the swirl of emotions that surround these things, especially in young women. I think we can say that in our society many women suffer from a veritable tyranny of the body. To illustrate this theme I shall discuss the rise in eating disorders in our society, such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and so on. I spoke on this topic about five years ago in a speech in commemoration of women’s day and I take this opportunity to bring what I said then up to date.

I shall say how I became interested in anorexia in particular. One day, for some reason, I bought two Sunday newspapers rather than one and each had a colour supplement. On the front of one of the colour supplements was a photograph of a young black woman who was emaciated and starving to death in Africa. On the front of the other one there was a photograph of a young white American woman who was starving to death in the United States. One of the women was starving because of lack of food—the classical origins of starvation. The other was starving to death in a society where for the first time there is far more food to go around than anybody could possibly consume. Both died but the dynamics of the cases are completely different. I therefore became interested in the history of anorexia and eating disorders.

When we look at the history of traditional cultures we find that what we call eating disorders are rare. There are examples of women who fasted to death but they normally did so for religious reasons—to get closer to God. The rise of eating disorders as a mass phenomenon—I can assure noble Lords that it is a mass phenomenon today—is relatively recent. It dates only from the late 1950s or early 1960s. What explains the massive expansion of eating disorders and the turmoil that they bring? Although about 10 per cent of anorectics are men, the large majority suffering from extreme eating disorders are women.

There are two factors to explain that. One is the rise of supermarket culture. I mentioned Sainsbury’s, but with the advent of supermarkets more generically, diet is severed from locality and becomes severed from tradition. You have to decide what to eat in relation to who to be and what kind of identity to assume. Secondly, it impacts with particular force, especially on young women, partly because of the rise of a new body image and the desirability of slimness in women, but also from something a bit more profound. There is a notion of perfectibility of the female form and a feeling that if you do not get close to that you are almost stigmatised. That is a tremendous secular change in the experience of women in contemporary societies and many other kinds of pathology stem from that.

What has happened since the first time I spoke on these issues? First, in this country the incidence of serious eating disorders has got much worse than it was even five years ago. Today, something like three times as many women suffer from serious eating disorders—not just moderate forms—as suffer from schizophrenia. It is a very significant and indeed growing issue in our society.

Secondly, you have the extension of eating disorders through the lifespan. Previously, most women who suffered from eating disorders were teenagers or early adults. However, now eating disorders extend down to a very early age, so you have young girls of six or seven obsessed with their body image and putting themselves on a rigorous diet. Anorexia and other eating disorders also extend much more through the lifespan.

Thirdly, there is an amazing expansion of eating disorders across the world. This has happened only in the past 10 or 15 years. These are diseases not of poverty but of affluence. They are to do with striving and with possibility. They are not to do directly with deprivation. If you look around the world, you find that China has had a tremendous expansion of eating disorders, almost wholly among young women. The same thing has happened in India in the urban centres and in Africa. In Africa you have the coexistence of the very two things that I found on the front of the colour supplements—classical starvation on the one hand and this very new form of deprivation, especially in the cities and the metropolitan areas, taking root.

What are the practical solutions? This is the tip of the iceberg for women. About 95 per cent of women say that at some point they have been on a diet in order to improve their body image, so we are talking about a tip of an iceberg which affects most women in some sense in our society. What can one do practically about it? First of all, one has to recognise that, although severe forms of eating problems are medical disorders requiring medical treatment, their origins are not medical or biological. They cannot be, primarily, because of the tremendous difference between the existence of this as a mass phenomenon now and its relative absence before. We are dealing with something that is social and structural; therefore the remedies have to be social and structural.

Secondly, traditional mechanisms of attacking sexism and patriarchy are relevant to eating disorders among women. For example, think of cases in the City where women quite rightly have brought legal cases pointing out that they have been discriminated against, have been assessed on the basis of appearance, and have had to face sexist remarks rather than be evaluated in terms of their capabilities. If you improve equal opportunities in those circumstances, it certainly does something. However, my third point is that it does not do a lot. This is not a traditional problem of patriarchy. This is a problem of how we live now. It therefore presumes, in my view, fairly radical intervention, which would have to be to a large degree in the advertising industry, especially in relation to advertising which is targeted at young women. In concluding, I ask the Minister whether she can imagine such radical measures being introduced and, if so, what form they might take.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Giddens, who has brought an unusual perspective to our debate today and showed the subtle and elusive forms that patriarchy takes in our society and how it perpetuates itself. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, on her wonderful maiden speech and the very considerable insights and passions that she has brought to the subject. We look forward to her contribution in years to come.

If one looks at the question of women’s development and representation in Britain, one is struck by the fact that very considerable progress has been made in most areas and some progress in other areas. The number of women MPs, for example, has doubled between 1992 and 2009. The same thing has happened in your Lordships’ House. The number of women Ministers has risen from 18 per cent in 1992 to 30 per cent in 2005. The percentage of women in senior grades in the Civil Service has gone up from 8 per cent in 1990 to 25 per cent in 2010. In 1999, there were no women to be seen in the Lords of Appeal; today they constitute 8.3 per cent of the Lords of Appeal. In the National Health Service, the percentage of women GPs was 29 per cent in 1995 and it has gone up to 42 per cent. As for consultants, the percentage was 18 per cent in 1995 and has gone up to 27 per cent in 2009. In my own profession, in academia, the percentage of female professors has gone up from 7 per cent in 1995 to 14 per cent in 2009. The percentage of female senior lecturers and researchers has gone up from 18 per cent in 1995 to 35 per cent in 2006.

I give these figures to indicate that considerable progress has been made in some areas, but not enough in many others. I want to ask a simple question. How has this progress been possible? What factors have played an important part? I ask this so that we can concentrate on those factors, consolidate them and make sure that this trend continues.

Another point worth bearing in mind is that, in the area of gender equality as in other areas, the progress is never unilineal; it is never inexorable. It goes up to a point and then stabilises itself. That point of stability is quite important. It may not go much further but it also does not tend to go much below, either. Therefore there is a tendency for it to swing around a certain percentage.

In looking at what factors have played a part in achieving this kind of progress during the past 15 or 20 years, I have identified seven, and I want to say something briefly about each of them. The first factor is raising the level of public awareness. All these achievements have been made possible because people have been made to realise that gender inequality is wrong, that it is not natural but manmade in both senses of the term, and that it can be changed by getting people to appreciate the contingency of the inequality that exists in our society.

The second factor that has played an important part has to do with political pressure exerted constantly and relentlessly by women’s groups and others at the local level, at the level of firms, local authorities, universities and others, at the national level and at the international level in terms of all kinds of treaties and covenants. That pressure becomes quite important at another level. Very often, when women get promoted, they tend not to think very much about the constituents they have left behind. It is therefore very important that pressure continues to be exerted on those who have been able to break through the glass ceiling.

The third factor that has played an important part is leadership at the top. In each of the major organisations, it is the leadership that is the driving force. It demands results and wants to know why those results are not achieved.

The fourth factor has to do with the internal audit of the organisation and finding out what the bottlenecks are. Why in some organisations is the proportion of women not as high as it should be? It could be direct discrimination, in which case that should be eliminated. It could be indirect discrimination, in which case one needs to find out how that discrimination articulates itself. It may also have something to do with the culture of the organisation. It may be that women are simply not attracted to that particular organisation or profession or, if attracted, do not stay long. Sometimes the organisational culture is not deliberately intended to keep women out; it simply creeps up within an organisation, almost unwittingly or unthinkingly, so that it has a built-in masculine bias without wanting to exclude women. This is the point that many women MPs have made about the House of Commons: it has a certain macho culture, not because people want to keep women out but because, having been dominated by men for all those centuries, it has acquired a certain ethos or ambiance that alienates and puts off women.

The fifth factor that has played an important part in the progress is education. In the field of primary and secondary education, we have made considerable progress and women achieve more or less the same level as men. However, when it comes to higher education and professional and technological faculties, there is still a long way to go.

The sixth factor that has played an important part is conditions of work. Women often have to maintain a balance between work and family. That requires that they should have flexible hours of work and arrangements at work where children can be looked after, or state-supported nurseries. Unless those conditions of work are congenial, women will not be able to take advantage of whatever qualifications they might have.

The seventh factor that has played a part—not always in all areas, but in some—is the state-induced or state-imposed quota. That has happened in India, where a Women’s Reservation Bill is going through Parliament so that a third of the positions in it will be reserved for women. This has also happened in Norway, an example that has been cited, where 40 per cent of seats in parliament are reserved for women. I gather that in our own country, whenever John Major received a list of nominees for public bodies, he would send it back if half the people on the list were not women. That is not a state-imposed quota, but it was a government-encouraged or government-induced quota.

One needs to be very careful in going down that route. In exceptional circumstances, when no progress of any kind is made, it may become necessary to have a quota of one kind or another but, by and large, it can be counterproductive, because if one group can ask for it so can others. If one were to say that women should be entitled to 50 per cent of seats in different walks of life, one might say the same about ethnic minorities or the disabled, and the problem has no limit. The quota can also be rather rigid and mechanical, and it can work in some areas but cannot conceivably work in others—for example, for admissions to universities or when appointing people as professors. You cannot have a quota here because so much would depend on merit and lots of other considerations. Although this is not the way we want to go, I can nevertheless imagine circumstances where the problem is so acute and the willingness to change is so scarce that we might need to go along that route.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow one of my oldest friends, the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. I congratulate the Minister on introducing this debate, especially as, to my knowledge, it is the first time that a Conservative Peer has initiated discussion on the vital issue of gender equality. That is a most welcome sign of the era of the new politics, but we should not get too carried away. The old politics are still active.

On 2 June, in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Kingsmill, and I drew attention to the gross imbalance in the proportion of women executive directors of FTSE 100 companies. In winding, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, made no reference to our speeches but undertook to reply in writing to those comments that he had not addressed. Three weeks later, he sent out a batch of letters dealing with those issues with which he had not dealt but said nothing in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Kingsmill, or me. That silence speaks volumes.

In reply to the Oral Question put by the indefatigable noble Baroness, Lady Gould, on 15 July, the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, had recourse to such lame phrases as:

“We will engage with all relevant partners in developing our programme”.—[Official Report, 15/5/10; col. 758.]

She used similar words again today. That will get us nowhere. As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, one has to have recourse to quotas in certain situations. I think that women executives on corporations and public bodies is one such situation. The Government must be much more proactive than the Minister’s language suggests.

The general position of women in the UK is dire. Mary Ann Sieghart, writing in last Monday’s Independent, forcefully described how really bad it is. On the particular issue of women on the boards of major companies and public bodies, which I have raised many times in your Lordships’ House, the position in the EU appears to be even worse than it is in the UK. On 16 July, the Guardian reported that the European Commission had given companies one year to redress the gross imbalances voluntarily before legislation would be introduced. The Guardian report stated:

“In the corporate world, men account for nearly 89% of board members in Europe’s biggest listed companies. At the very top, the disparity is even starker: only 3% of firms have a woman in charge”.

The entrenched old boys’ club mentality will take more than exhortation to be exorcised. It is noteworthy that only nine out of the 29 speakers tonight are men; it should have been nearer 14, so that we had a 50:50 balance. As I have said before, other countries have imposed legal quotas: Norway, Spain and France have taken action of this positive kind. The previous Government, despite the noble efforts of Miss Harriet Harman, did little of substance to tackle the problem. In the financial services sector, the inequalities are particularly bad. There are one or two exceptions: the chief executive of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants is a woman, as is the president of the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors. These examples are welcome as far as they go, which is not very far. What is the record of the other professional accountancy bodies and of the big four accountancy firms?

A striking illustration of the difficulties that talented women experience came from that notable entrepreneur Dame Stephanie Shirley in her interview on “Desert Island Discs” on 23 May. She is a remarkably successful entrepreneur who set up her own computer company. She recalled that she started to prosper when she signed her letters as “Steve”, not as “Stephanie”. That says it all.

I trust that the coalition Government will pursue two objectives and I ask the Minister to comment on them in winding. The first is to follow the example of France, Norway and Spain and introduce legislation to speed up parity on company boards and public bodies in the UK. The second is to apply these strictures to themselves and to remove the overwhelming imbalance of men relative to women in their ministerial ranks. Operationalising the big society starts here.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for occasioning this debate and for choosing this subject, not just on the role of women but on women’s position in the modern world. My intention is to speak—not by any means for the first time—on the position of women trapped by a tradition that keeps them in a world closer to the medieval. Some women, perhaps the majority, have never enjoyed such freedom and never so closely approached equality with men as we do today, but that is some of us. They are in the minority, those who suffer a lifetime of discomfort, the curtailment of liberty, daily embarrassment, monthly misery and constant pain, but it is a very large minority, running into millions—perhaps as many as 10 million—for women’s genitalia are mutilated as a matter of course across sub-Saharan Africa from west to east, as well as in parts of Asia.

When on television, on the internet or in our newspapers we see pictures of starving women, women afflicted by flood and famine, refugee women with their children or women as victims of rampaging armies, do we ever think that disaster is not the only burden that they have to bear? In very many cases, they have been genitally mutilated as well. I have no space here to describe the process of the various greater and lesser types of female genital mutilation. I have done so before on many occasions.

This may be the place to explain that FGM or female circumcision, as it used to be called, is in no way analogous to male circumcision. It is never therapeutic, as male circumcision may be, and it always does harm. Very few—a tiny minority in this country— want to talk about it. Very few would be willing to give evidence against perpetrators. It is enough to say now that it is a useless procedure that serves no purpose other than to help to enslave women and to keep them in their place—that place being subservience to men.

We have as many as 200,000 women living in this country who have been mutilated. To “cut” a woman, as the procedure is known, is against the law in the many African countries where it is practised. That law is generally disregarded. FGM is against the law here. It carries a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment, but so far there have been no prosecutions. Silence on the subject prevails in the Somali, Sudanese and Nigerian communities, among many others. The police, who are strongly against FGM, are hampered in their efforts to bring prosecutions against circumcisers who come here to perform FGM and against parents who take their children to the Horn of Africa for it to be carried out there.

The Metropolitan Police is determined to find a way of bringing a prosecution. It knows that such success would be a huge deterrent to those planning mutilations. Sending a circumciser to prison would be the best warning possible to others but, in the absence of prosecution and conviction, the heavy penalty must itself be a deterrent and the police would prefer to deter than to punish.

In the dozen years that have passed since I first began campaigning against this practice, knowledge of it has spread widely. As well as FORWARD, the principal association opposing it, groups small and large have been started all over the United Kingdom. Most of them include in their membership women who have suffered FGM and who are therefore best able to instruct others about the pain suffered by the children on whom it is performed—some as young as four or five years old and a few babies under one year old—and many can number health professionals among their members. Hospitals increasingly incorporate African clinics where women can attend for help and treatment.

I am the patron of the London-based FGM National Clinical Group, where reversals of mutilation are routinely performed by a woman surgeon. Recently, we produced a DVD, which we have circulated across the United Kingdom, showing this reversal being performed. The procedure is carried out under the National Health Service and is available to all women who choose to have it. If it is not the perfect answer, for nothing can restore entirely what has been destroyed, it is of enormous help to women whose destiny seemed a lifetime of pain and fear.

Unfortunately, a large number of health professionals, especially those operating outside the big cities, still remain ignorant of FGM, fail to recognise it and are at a loss to know how to treat a mutilated woman in labour and childbirth. It would be of enormous help in making FGM in the United Kingdom a thing of the past if recognising it and knowing how to remedy its complications were to become part of the training for every doctor and midwife and if that training could include teaching the sensitive approach necessary when in contact with African women immigrants, who will be essentially modest and inhibited.

Women in Horn of Africa countries have a saying. It sounds antiquated to our ears—to us whose ideas of sexual relationships and women’s place in society have been so radically transformed in the past half-century—but it represents a reality to African women. It sheds a new light, or perhaps I should say a new darkness, on what most other women would see as happy occasions in their lives. I have quoted it before, but it may be illuminating to quote it again. They say that the three days of sorrow in a woman’s life are the day she is “cut”, the day she is married and the day she gives birth. There is no need to be more explicit. We have only to give it a moment’s thought to understand its dreadful meaning. I ask the Minister whether the Government’s intention is to keep these women in mind and to do all that they can to help the police and the health professionals in their efforts to end the practice of female genital mutilation.

My Lords, we have had an excellent debate. I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for enabling this debate to take place and for her comprehensive introduction. In the range of superb and powerful contributions today, we have heard seven fine maiden speeches. We are fortunate to have these additions to our Benches with their expertise and their enthusiasm. They espouse many of my own passions. While it might be invidious to single out one speech, I have to say that I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Black, spoke of osteoporosis and the health of older women. My mother suffered from osteoporosis and polymyalgia and I am a proud member of the National Osteoporosis Society.

In recent years, PCTs have worked strategically to raise awareness and to commission services that improve the health of older women—women who contribute so much to our society. Clearly, much more should and must be done, but I do not think that the radical pursuit of GP commissioning is the best way forward to ensure the continued and strategic improvement in the health of older women.

I want to focus my remarks today mainly on economic matters, as well as on a number of other issues, including carers and domestic violence. However, I begin with a quote from Aung San Suu Kyi. In citing her words, I celebrate her contribution to democracy and freedom and I lament the fact that such an inspiring, courageous leader should have to suffer for her belief in universal human rights. She said:

“The democracy process provides for political and social change without violence”.

I celebrate democracy along with all noble Lords in this Chamber.

The election a couple of months ago means we that have just experienced political change. The consequences of the election—the deficit reduction programme on which the coalition Government have embarked—mean that we are about to experience social change. This is the first debate on women in your Lordships’ House since the election. We on these Benches did not win the election and we know the consequences of that. One of the consequences about which I am concerned is the impact of the coalition’s policies on women. That includes the economic impact, the impact on their employment, the impact on the work-life balance, especially for those with children or who are carers and are holding their families together in very difficult circumstances, and the impact on women who suffer domestic violence.

As many inside and outside this Chamber have pointed out, it is women who bear the brunt of the cuts that are a consequence of the recent Budget. Yes, we all agree that there must be cuts in order to reduce the deficit—a deficit that arose because of the global economic crisis—but we do not agree that the cuts should be imposed so early and so savagely. We do not agree that they should be imposed without proper analysis of their impact. The Minister said that fairness must be at the heart of all of our decisions. I agree and I am delighted that she said it. I ask her to confirm whether a robust process for assessing the gender impact of proposals is being put in place before departments make decisions on their cuts and spending. I remind the noble Baroness of the gender equality duty, which, at this time of financial constraint, would not prevent the Government and other public authorities from making difficult and often unpopular decisions on funding and service provision. However, it would enable them to ensure that decisions are made in such a way as to minimise unfairness.

It seems from the evidence to date, including the gender audit of the Budget that was commissioned by my right honourable friend Yvette Cooper, that an analysis of the impact of the Budget on women was not made before the Chancellor made his announcements in June. The coalition tells us in its programme that,

“strong and stable families of all kinds are the bedrock of a strong and stable society”,

and that it wants to,

“make our society more family friendly”.

I welcome that, but I do not think that at present the rhetoric and the reality match. My right honourable friend’s study found that, of the £8 billion net revenue to be raised by the financial year 2014-15, nearly £6 billion will be from women. That can be neither just nor family friendly.

Support is being cut for children, which clearly has a profound impact on women, but, even if those cuts are put aside, women are being affected by cuts in things such as housing benefit, upratings to the additional pension, public sector pensions and attendance allowances, while they benefit less than men from the increases in the income tax allowances. That is without any consideration of the impact of public spending cuts. As women make up more of the public sector workforce, they will be more heavily hit by the public sector pay freeze and the projected 600,000 net public sector job losses.

Just last weekend I happened to have conversations with some women working in the public service—women who are teachers, health workers, teaching assistants, nurses and civil servants. I also spoke to some carers. All of them are worried about their jobs and the consequences for their families. In addition to their feeling of insecurity, they have already tightened the reins on their family spending, which on a larger scale will have an impact on the economic recovery. It is a real concern that the approach taken to deficit reduction is already pushing firms in the private sector, and the economy in general, back towards recession. We will all be losers if that happens, but women will bear the brunt.

Today’s debate asks us to take note of the position of women in society and speaks of the development of women’s potential. I argue that, in order for women to develop their potential, which they must if we are to have a healthy economy and a healthy society, they need security rather than insecurity and they need to be able to manage work and family life. Carers can be essential to that. We all recognise the huge contribution that carers, predominantly women, make to our society and our economy. Carers UK is absolutely clear about what the emergency Budget means for carers. It welcomes some of the plans, but it expresses clear anxiety on behalf of millions of carers and the people for whom they care. It is concerned, for example, about the switch in the system of uprating benefits, tax credits and public service pensions from the retail prices index to the consumer price index. This will hit the incomes of certain families particularly hard, including those families where disability, carers’ and means-tested benefits are the only source of income, single parents—usually women—caring for a disabled child or carers looking after a partner or an elderly parent.

Another aspect of security for women is domestic violence, a key issue for many women. I was glad that the Minister spoke in her opening speech of forced marriage and rape and I certainly welcome the establishment of more rape crisis centres. However, domestic violence goes much further than rape and forced marriage. In the UK, one in four women and one in six men will suffer from domestic abuse in their lives and 750,000 children live in violent households. Domestic violence affects women disproportionately. As my noble friend Lord Brooke said, 90 per cent of repeat victims of domestic violence are women. On average, a woman will be abused 37 times before she tells anyone about it. That is an astounding figure.

I am proud to tell the House that, while in government, my party took steps that reduced domestic violence by more than 60 per cent. I pay tribute to my noble and learned friend the shadow Attorney-General for much of that success. The multi-agency model that we developed to tackle abuse and domestic violence was and is successful. The multi-agency risk assessment conference model got results. In 60 per cent of all cases heard at MARAC, there is no further abuse. For the 120,000 women living in fear of their lives and suffering serious and sustained abuse—for those most at risk of being killed—the MARAC model offers the best ever chance of a safe life free from fear.

While these kinds of results alone ought to be enough to embed the multi-agency approach across our public services, there is a real risk in the approach being taken by the coalition that this type of specialist, intensive support will be seen to be unaffordable. This is short-term thinking, because the opposite is true. In the criminal justice system, health services, children services and police services, proper provision of MARAC nationwide will save this and future Governments well over £700 million each year and will save women from what is still the greatest cause of female morbidity—domestic violence. I would be grateful for confirmation from the Minister that the Government will continue the violence against women strategy.

On broader equality matters, noble Lords will recall the excellent debates that we had in this House on the Equality Bill, now the Equality Act. I am grateful for the contribution made by the Minister and I am immensely proud of that Act. It begins with a new duty on public bodies to reduce socio-economic inequalities—a duty that has assumed greater importance in the current economic climate. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm that this duty, along with other duties, will be implemented in October. It was good to hear from the noble Baroness that the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference are being acted on.

We on this side of the House, when in government, had a record on the issue of women of which we could be proud. The minimum wage alone pulled hundreds of thousands of low-paid people, many of whom were women, out of poverty wages. We hope that the coalition will continue that approach. Naturally, I welcome the proposed extension of the right to request flexible working.

I regret that I do not have time to focus on issues regarding women in the world, but I am delighted that so many noble Lords—including new noble Lords—have referred to it and have spoken of women and development, women and human rights and women and peace and security. I look forward to the Minister’s responses to questions on these matters, especially those concerning progress towards the millennium development goals. Women throughout the world bear the burden of poverty, so the achievement of the MDGs, especially those relating to the education of girls and maternal health, will do much to alleviate that burden.

Christabel Pankhurst said:

“What we suffragettes aspire to be when we are enfranchised is ambassadors of freedom to women in other parts of the world who are not so free as we are”.

As noble Lords have said, suffragettes were brave women who fought for the vote. It was a struggle, but they achieved it and we celebrate that. Today we celebrate women’s contribution to and participation in democracy and the role of this House in our parliamentary system. We are ambassadors of freedom and we must continue in that role until there is no more stoning and no more trafficking and until women enjoy the freedom of human and democratic rights wherever they live in the world. We want the Government to support women properly in this country and through our international development work and our foreign policy. We urge the Government to continue to adopt policies that will do so and, as a responsible Opposition, we will keep the Government under scrutiny on women’s issues to ensure that they do.

My Lords, I have to respond to so many speakers and so many maiden speeches that I will ask for forgiveness in the beginning if I do not answer all the questions but write to noble Lords.

As I said in my opening remarks, the new coalition Government recognise the importance of tackling gender inequality, not only for women and their rights but for the long-term economic growth, development, stability and strength of countries across the world. We are committed to taking action to improve the lives of women and to creating an environment that works with women and not against them. We want to support women in all their roles, in whatever paths they choose or take, whether it is help for vulnerable women, supporting working women, ensuring choice for families or raising the aspirations of women, here in the UK or abroad. We will use legislation where necessary to encourage and bring about change. Above all, it is about providing choice and creating a cultural change, the kind of environment which lends itself to change organically.

On behalf of your Lordships’ House, I congratulate those noble Lords who made their maiden speeches today. I will respond to them first. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, treated this House to an excellent speech. It was no less than I expected of her, and her skills from the House of Commons have transferred over here. I am sure her contribution will ensure that the important work the House of Lords carries out reaches all the corners of our great nation, because noble Lords in this House are often missed when we are responding to important legislation from the other place.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, in his excellent and eloquent speech raised many facts that no one could disagree with and I look forward to many more thoughtful contributions from him. He has made me seriously rethink the fears women feel on public transport. Perhaps I am inclined not to be fearful since travelling on the Tube late at night has not worried me, but I can imagine that it must worry some. The noble Lord also raised flexible working. We are mindful that we need to ensure that flexible working becomes a commonality among businesses and we are working with employers to ensure that all businesses incorporate flexibility in their working practices.

My noble friend Lady Parminter raised some important issues in her maiden contribution about representation. I agree that it is important that we have better representation across all bodies. How we do that is through debate and persuasion. We cannot enforce these changes but we can constantly bring up the subjects and make sure that we have strong women to take on the roles and that we support them in doing so.

My noble friend Lord Deben, I am sure the whole House will agree, made an excellent contribution. He highlighted the important role of women and how they need to be able to choose whether to go out and be part of the workforce or to do the important job of parenting at home. He also raised the question of girls in science. We are committed to increasing the proportion of women in SET sectors and to do this we must look at the subjects girls take at school. It is vital to the economy that girls are part and parcel of the science sectors.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, made an illuminating speech. I agree with her that we need to encourage and ensure that educational opportunities are available to everyone. As someone who was refused the opportunity to go to university, I have battled within my own community to ensure that those opportunities have been available to many more young girls from the sub-Asian continent. There is still a big battle to fight but it is the way forward. We must ensure not only that we get girls to go to university but that the quality of education they receive is excellent.

The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, spoke extensively in her excellent speech about the challenges and obstacles facing women in the workplace. As someone who has been a long-standing campaigner in this area, her contribution was poignant and highlighted how much needs to be done. I hope I conveyed to her in my opening speech the Government’s commitment to tearing down the barriers that working women face and to providing them with more flexibility and choice.

I would like to use this opportunity to raise an additional point about female entrepreneurship. It is a key example of where we must do more to tap and release the potential we have among so many women here in the UK. The Minister for Women and Equalities and the Secretary of State for Business are committed to this area, starting with a coherent and comprehensive strategy led by my noble friend Lady Wilcox, which will consider the best approach to addressing the issues and challenges facing women entrepreneurs.

My noble friend Lord Black raised in his most eloquent maiden speech the role of older women. While I shall touch on the pensions issues raised in the debate, the matters raised by him are a whole debate for another day. However, we must recognise the value of the role that older women continue to play within our communities and society. I am grateful for having been given the opportunity to underline that.

I hope that changes that we are making to the pension system, to deliver improved outcomes for women, will make a difference. I assure my noble friend that we are looking into how we can address the persistent inequalities faced by older women as we take forward a simpler system of financial support. We want to start by providing a more secure foundation from the state from which people can save for their retirement.

It is not only pensions that we have to reform when it comes to older women. Today, changes in the demographics of our society mean that older women’s caring responsibilities are stretched even further. For example, a woman in her 50s could be looking after one generation—sometimes two—above her and two below her. That is a caring role which was unthinkable in the not-too-distant past. The need to be better supported in these demanding roles is paramount. Public policy needs to reflect the changed expectations particularly of older women. Our commitment to extend the right to request flexible working to all will enable those grandparents who support their families more flexibility in the workplace. In the forthcoming months, we will look more closely at what more we can do to support them.

Families of course come in all shapes and sizes. It is vital that we take action to support families who have got into difficulties. It is important to enable parents to get back on track, help children and protect families in the neighbourhood.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, spoke about the various challenges surrounding women offenders. I hope that I am able to give her some comfort. Before doing so, I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, on her far-ranging and thoughtful review of rape reporting. I hope that she was encouraged by the comments that I made earlier. The work done by many voluntary sector organisations to tackle sexual violence is fabulous. However, we work in constrained times, and I am sure that she accepts that we will have to make some difficult choices.

Around 66 per cent of women in prison have dependent children under 18. We know that children whose parents offend are three times more likely to have mental health problems or engage in anti-social behaviour than their peers. We must ensure, for the sake of their children as well as themselves, that women who offend are successfully rehabilitated, whether they serve sentences in custody or in the community, tackling issues such as drug and alcohol addiction, education, poor self-esteem and long histories of abuse. Our approach is to ensure a network of effective community provision, offering robust community options to the courts for women who do not pose a risk of harm to the community. The aim is to meet the distinct and complex needs of women, recognising that women offenders are often victims themselves. We hope that such an approach will reduce the need for custody and the numbers of mothers separated from their children as a result of their offending.

I should like briefly to respond to the comments of my noble friend Lady Walmsley on sex and relationship education. I agree with her that, in an age when opportunities for young women are greater than ever before and the methods of preventing pregnancy are safe, effective and socially accepted, it is wholly unacceptable that we have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he believes that it is vital that all children have high-quality sex and relationship education in order that they are confident to make the right decisions at all stages in their lives. However, I believe that this is not just an area for schools, but one that must be approached in partnership with the family unit. Of course, careers advice and choices are key to raising aspirations.

Many noble Lords today spoke about the persistence of various forms of violence against women. The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, as always, made a most moving contribution on the practice of female genital mutilation. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, explained vividly how young girls are disappearing from our schools—whisked abroad and forced into marriages against their will. She also addressed the horrors of human trafficking—an issue of particular concern as we approach the Olympics, which will be a magnet for people traffickers.

The Home Secretary made it clear in a speech to Women’s Aid last week that the Government’s ambition is nothing less than ending all forms of violence against women and girls. We will be producing a new strategy on violence against women, which will focus not only on the criminal justice system’s response to these crimes, but will deal with those two vital elements— prevention and service provision for victims. We will also ensure that our work is joined up across government and all our key partners by working with teachers, the police and healthcare professionals, and of course the voluntary sector.

In many ways, women’s voluntary organisations are models of the big society that we wish to build. They are able to deliver services to sections of the population that government always find hard to reach. A particularly exciting development is the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday of the creation of a Big Society Bank. This will be financed by using dormant bank and building society money. It will make available hundreds of millions of pounds of new finance to some very dynamic and knowledgeable social organisations, including those in the women’s sector. It will take us away from a situation where the previous Government were pouring money into wasteful, top-down government schemes to programmes where we make a practical difference—where we can change the lives of women who need it most.

I thank my noble friends who spoke about the plight of women in developing countries. Their contributions highlighted the pervasiveness of gender inequality in some parts of the world—where the life of a girl from the womb to adulthood can be burdened with neglect, disadvantage and exploitation. My noble friend Lady Seccombe made important points about ensuring that girls have access to education in Africa and south Asia. Let us not forget those who have been left widowed—millions of mothers, old and young, some still children themselves, who are usually among the poorest, most oppressed, violated and invisible individuals in the world. Often this group of women and young girls does not feature in any programme or plan.

Without really pursuing gender equality, the millennium development goals will not be achieved. In my opening speech, I said that while the Government have ring-fenced the aid budget, we must ensure that they fund projects that produce both value for money and visible outcomes—projects which produce meaningful results. The evidence tells us that investing in women and girls makes good economic sense and can contribute significantly to economic growth and to strengthening accountable governance. We as a Government are determined to put women at the centre of our approach to development.

As I outlined in my opening speech, the Government have just made significant contributions to the Muskoka maternal and child health initiative which will help to save an extra 1.4 million lives of mothers and children over the next five years. The cold hard facts remind us just how important this particular issue is. When a jumbo jet crashes anywhere in the world it makes the headlines. If it were to crash week in week out in the same place, not a person alive would not be talking about it. The international community would set up an inquiry and no money would be spared in making sure that it never happened again. Yet, in Nigeria, the equivalent number of women die each and every week from pregnancy-related causes, and the world stands silent. Research by DfID tells us that if a mother dies in childbirth, there is a high chance that her child will die within a few months too. In the 21st century, where we have the means and the technology to prevent maternal mortality, that is unacceptable.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, asked about the future of the Women’s National Commission. We value the work of the commission. The Government’s review of all public bodies is an opportunity to reflect on the long history of the Women’s National Commission since its inception 40 years ago and how we can build on that success. She also asked what plans we have to retain women’s centres and funding for them. Over £10 million has been provided by the Ministry of Justice until 2011 to establish voluntary sector providers to develop effective community-based alternatives to custody.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, asked about our plans on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. The UK tri-departmental—the FCO, DfID and MoD—action plan on Resolution 1325 provides the framework for our activity in diplomatic, defence and developmental spheres. It is currently being updated in consultation with civil society. She also asked what we will do to promote the eradication of corruption in Afghanistan. I thank her for highlighting the importance of supporting education for girls in Afghanistan and the need to work with the local community in delivering those benefits. Unless we work with local communities, we will find it very difficult for them to respond positively.

The noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwin, asked whether I would be happy to meet with the organisations of which she speaks. I would be very happy to meet with them. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, said that the key priority was to ensure that women were at the centre of our aid activity. I reassure him that they are. I am very pleased to be in departments where I am able to ensure that that agenda is followed positively. He also asked how we encourage more women into employment. It is about being able to raise the expectation, aspiration and ambition of women. That comes from a very early age, whether in this country or across the world. It is also about being able to change mindsets positively.

My noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes has the experience and the wisdom of both Houses. I will look to talk to her about widening my knowledge of how we ensure that women who stay at home and women who go out to work are dealt equal respect in society. It is crucial that we do not undervalue or undermine the important role that mothers at home play.

I agree very much with what the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Scott, said about better representation. We have a long way to go. There is a lot of work to be done. I am sure that, with the presence of both noble Baronesses, we will be able to take that agenda forward. I continue to work in battling with the discriminations that we face within minority communities.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, raised the plight of women suffering violence. It is at the centre of our priorities. We will ensure that, whatever we do, the outcomes for women will be the focus and centre of all that we try to achieve. The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, who is not in her place, raised similar issues.

I am desperately running out of time. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, raised the important issue of people wanting to rehabilitate and to come away from what they have done in the past. It is important that we support them in whatever way we can. The big society is part and parcel of that agenda. We want to empower organisations locally to bring forward that agenda.

My noble friend Lord Bridgeman talked about the importance of maternal health in African countries, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, whose reputation for raising these issues is paramount. I know that she knows that I fully support much of the work that she does. However, we are in difficult times. We will have to reassess and review and then go forward with deciding where we can support the organisations of which she speaks so highly, which will need support even more in these difficult times.

My noble friend Lord Parekh will, I am sure, be pleased to know that we are probably in agreement on at least six of the points that he raised, but there is plenty of work to be done and I look forward to his contribution in future debates.

In response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, within the coalition we agree that there is a commitment to crack down on irresponsible marketing and advertising, especially among children’s magazines, about body image. It is a crucial debate, but one for another day—one completely dedicated to body image.

I hope that my noble friend Lord Smith will feel reassured that we will look at evidence at how to make public and private bodies better represented.

I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, will forgive me but I have run out of time. I shall write to her because she raised many questions and it will take me a long time to respond to them.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 9.21 pm.