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Women’s National Commission

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 5 July 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to create a representative body to replace the Women’s National Commission, which was abolished in 2010.

My Lords, let me start by recognising the many achievements of the Women’s National Commission over 40 years of service. However, the Government feel that it is now both important and appropriate to engage with women more directly and much more widely. It is for that reason that we decided to close the WNC in 2010 and bring its functions into government. I am very pleased to report that our new approach is working well and that the feedback that we have had is very positive.

I thank the Minister for that reply, and I know about her personal commitment to hearing the voices of women, particularly the more marginalised groups of women. However, does she not think that we need some sort of central hub, some replacement organisation, that can bring together the voices of those who tend not to be heard and who are marginalised? Also, could the Government not be in breach of their obligations under the Beijing platform for action, which requires them to have in place a mechanism that will enable women’s organisations to communicate effectively with government at a national level?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her initial kind words, but perhaps I may reassure her and the House that we are, first of all, meeting the obligations under the Beijing platform because, through the Government Equalities Office, which is part of the Home Office, we are able to deliver all the requirements placed on this country to ensure that all voices are heard. However, we took on this programme on the basis of listening to people’s voices through a large consultation called Strengthening Women’s Voices. We found from the feedback that our approach is what women actually want.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former government co-chairman of the Women’s National Commission. Does my noble friend accept that the strength of having a government Minister as co-chairman was that the commission set its own agenda—in other words, its priorities were at the top of the list and were not set by other people or government? Having a government Minister as co-chairman meant that those concerns went directly to the heart of government. That was the WNC’s strength—a strength that is no longer there.

My Lords, I am afraid that I have to disagree with my noble friend because, having spoken to many women through consultation, we found that a lot of women were not being talked to or involved in the sort of decisions that my noble friend would want. Also, because of social media and the internet, we are able to reach out far more to a greater number of women and women’s organisations. The fact that the Government are at the heart of this is the key to addressing those issues.

My Lords, I am not quite sure that I can understand the noble Lord’s question, but I should say that we have a Home Secretary and a Minister, Lynne Featherstone, who lead on this area in the departments.

My Lords, an LSE study calculated the public cost of carers leaving work to be £1.3 billion a year in lost tax revenues. It is well understood that women bear the heavier responsibility than men in this regard. What steps are the Government contemplating to ensure that the voices of women carers are heard, as they would have been through the Women’s National Commission before its demise?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate talks about a group within society who perform an incredibly important role. However, perhaps I may also say to him that when taking on board what carers do, whether they are paid or unpaid, we have looked at flexible working, which will have a greater impact on their lives. We have also taken 2 million people out of tax altogether to ensure that they do not bear the great brunt of the effects of our economy going into a downward spiral because of our previous Administration. We are working very hard to ensure that our tax credits will be utilised for those with the most disadvantage in our society.

My Lords, who is representing this country in the United Nations? I speak having had an interest as being a member of the Women’s National Commission when the United Nations Decade for Women conference was held. It was important that we were represented properly then. I represented many English organisations, including the trade union for English prostitutes.

My Lords, we have an excellent UN ambassador in New York. We also have our own Minister, Lynne Featherstone, who leads on all our international issues overseas, so we have really good representation. In fact, we had the largest contingent at the last CSW session.

My Lords, one of the strengths of the Women’s National Commission as a representative body of over 670 organisations was that it was able to deal with specific issues. As the Olympics are almost upon us, what action have the Government taken to follow up the extremely valuable work done by the Women’s National Commission, along with the Metropolitan Police and the London boroughs, to reduce the level of trafficking in order to reduce the level of prostitution during the Olympics? Will the Minister tell us what action was taken and the outcome of that action?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises concerns that we also have about the trafficking of women, but I reassure her that all these considerations have been taken into account. We are working across government on these issues. Would the noble Baroness allow me to give her and the House a fuller answer by writing to her? There are a number of areas that we are looking at and working on and it would be helpful to the House.