House of Lords
Thursday, 7 March 2013.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.
Sport: Women and Girls
My Lords, the Government are committed to encouraging more girls and women to play sport regularly as part of the sporting legacy. Sport England’s £1 billion community and youth sports strategy includes programmes designed to appeal specifically to women and girls. In addition, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has been working closely with the broadcast and print media to encourage them to cover more women’s sport.
I thank the noble Baroness for that encouraging Answer, but can she expand on the consultation that is taking place not only with the media but with sports advisers in schools to encourage girls? In particular, what kind of sports are being identified as problematic for women and girls, and how will the media be asked to deal with that?
The picture here is encouraging but there is a tremendous amount more to do. I was struck by the fact that the latest figures, from December 2012, show that 1 million more women are taking part in sport than was the case when we won the Olympic bid in 2005. On coverage, in 2005 the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation estimated that only about 5% of media coverage was of women’s sport. The BBC has just told us that women’s sport now amounts to 25% of its sports coverage. Clearly, a lot more needs to be done and one of the things that is being taken forward by Sport England is to look at how best to encourage further development of this and encourage more women and girls to take part in sport.
My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that developing a sporting habit for life is something that needs to start in primary school? There is a minimal amount of physical education within that sector and teachers of primary school children receive only a meagre six to 10 hours within a one-year training session. Back in the last century, my physical education training took three years. Would the Minister agree if I suggested that the introduction of physical education to primary school teachers would be a great advantage in developing that habit for life?
My noble friend speaks from a huge amount of experience and she is of course right that it is extremely important that we develop this from the earliest age—getting children out of pushchairs, for example, and onwards. As for primary schools, she is right. I am sure that she will be reassured to know that discussions are happening at the moment about how to strengthen school sport from primary schools upwards. An announcement will be made very shortly.
My Lords, media coverage is very important and I declare an interest as chair of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation’s Commission on the Future of Women’s Sport. However, for elite success and media coverage we also need good participation figures and recent data have shown that mums are much less likely to take their daughters to play sport than their sons because of their own experience of sport in school. Can the Minister say what plans the Government have to insist in changing the culture around women so that they encourage their daughters to play as much sport as their sons?
Again, the noble Baroness speaks with huge amounts of experience and the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation is a crucial body in trying to take this forward. Sport England has awarded a grant to that organisation to try to identify how best to encourage women and girls to be involved in sport. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that mothers who were themselves switched off from sport are less likely to encourage their children to be involved in sport. That is one key area where we welcome insights into how best to tackle this.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that, after the success of women athletes at the Olympics last year, it is a disgrace that two-thirds of boards of sporting organisations do not meet UK Sport’s minimum target of 25% female members and six, including British Cycling, do not have a woman on them at all? Given that public money is involved, do the Government have a strategy to deal with this?
The noble Baroness is right; Sport England and UK Sport are both encouraging national governing bodies of sport to increase the number of women on boards and the Government expect that all publicly funded sports bodies should have at least 25% women on their boards by 2017. That is very important but we also need more women as editors of newspapers, political programmes and so on.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the outstanding work being done in many of the mental health trusts in London to promote sport among psychotic young people? We found that taking part in regular football matches, exercise and so on significantly reduces the readmission rates of these young people. Would the Minister please put pressure on her colleagues in the Department of Health to exert pressure on the commissioning bodies to promote sport among psychotic people? Without it, many of them make very little recovery over decades?
The noble Baroness is right to highlight mental health generally in relation to sport. Public Health England is well aware of the importance of sport in relieving depression and so on. I am very happy to take the points that she makes back but I can assure her that the Department of Health is well aware of the significance of sport in this regard.
My Lords, the Government are determined that competitive sport in schools is the key to greater participation; that view is certainly not shared by the majority of physical education experts, who fear that such a programme will alienate many boys and girls and do nothing to produce a “sport for all” approach and lasting participation. What evidence is there for the Government’s proposed formula? Our evidence suggests the reverse. As for representation in the media, will the Government look at Title IX, the American system which guarantees equal exposure in sport for girls? We cannot reproduce it perfectly here but we could do a modified version, which may well help with the lack of women’s sport seen in our media.
We now have 50% of schools taking part in competitive games. There is mixed evidence as to the interest of girls and boys in that, and the noble Baroness is right to highlight to need to make sure that we analyse it properly. Sport England is looking at how best to encourage girls as well as boys to come forward. Some girls enjoy being part of a team, even if that may seem too competitive for some. I hear what the noble Baroness says on Title IX. We are taking a lot of measures to try to ensure that the media recognise the significance of covering women’s sport and the appeal of it—everybody could see how outstanding the women’s team was in the Olympics.
Women: Board Membership
My Lords, in 2010, the noble Lord, Lord Davies, reviewed the barriers to women reaching the boardrooms of UK plc. Following his report, a voluntary, business-led strategy for the advancement of all women irrespective of their ethnicity was adopted. This is working; for example, the number of FTSE 100 all-male boards has fallen from 21 to six. However, we are not complacent. The most recent figures for women on FTSE 100 boards prove that there is no room for that.
I thank the noble Baroness for her response. She has cited the report from which I was going to quote. It seems absurd that, after more than 30 years of equality legislation, we continue to see only glacial progress in the representation of women on the boards of our 100 most lucrative companies. Women are now successful at university and in their early careers, but attrition rates increase as they progress through those organisations. The companies are missing out. Evidence suggests that companies without strong female representation are less successful because they are unable to draw from the widest possible range. My concern is not women who are European—although I know that they are suffering—but those from black and ethnic minorities who are willing to serve on boards.
The noble Baroness is absolutely right that we want more women on boards. We do so because they make up more than half of the nation’s talent and we cannot afford for the best and brightest not to be there. The statistics on black and minority ethnic women are not available because the statistics for women on boards are not broken down in that way, but I know anecdotally that they are not great. What I can say to the noble Baroness is that, through a range of measures that the Government are taking, we are ensuring that our effort expands to cover all women. She may like to know that the Women’s Business Council, which we set up to make sure that we address the pipeline so that more women come forward, is chaired by Ruby McGregor-Smith, who is chief executive of MITIE and the only Asian woman chief executive in the FTSE 250. She is chairing that council for the Government because she is so committed to diversity in all its forms.
My Lords, 17.5% of FTSE 100 boards are made of up of women. I prefer to use that figure rather than the number of companies that have one token woman on the board. I know that it is below the target set by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, but it is a step forward from the 1990s. Given this very low figure, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that sufficient mentoring and counselling are available to women below board level who have ambitions of rising within companies and breaking through the glass ceiling?
My noble friend is right that mentoring is an important aspect of encouraging more women to put themselves forward for these senior roles. That is an important issue that the Women’s Business Council, which I just referred to, is looking at. I hope that we will see some evidence to help us in its report due out later this year.
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness is aware of the tremendous investigation and work carried out by my noble friend Lord Davies of Abersoch. One fundamental issue that has come through in that research is that role models start very young. Are the Government consciously working to ensure that young women going from schools into colleges and universities—that is, black women and those from ethnic minorities, but also all women—have that aspiration?
We certainly need to make sure that all girls at school have high aspirations and that we encourage them to be ambitious. If the noble Baroness is around for the International Women’s Day debate that follows Questions, that is an area that I hope to expand on in my opening speech.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of Sub-Committee B of your Lordship’s European Union Committee, which was involved in scrutinising a directive provided by the European Commission on this matter. Are Her Majesty’s Government content to accept that directive in view of the fact that both Houses of this Parliament have sent a reasoned opinion raising their concerns about it to the European institutions?
As the noble Lord knows, the Government very much welcomed the reasoned opinion put forward from this House and the other place. Sadly, I am told that not enough member state Parliaments issued a reasoned opinion for that to be successful in raising what is termed a red card or yellow card in Brussels—I am not sure. As far as we are concerned, we are still actively working with other EU members to make sure that whatever arrives finally from the European Commission supports our own approach to this issue.
My Lords, I believe sincerely that there is a general wish and support for more suitably qualified women on boards. Yet surely the role of directors is to oversee the running of a business and that needs people with the appropriate skills. To the extent that they are representative, they are representative of shareholders and not really in a quantitative context of the nation at large.
Okay. I say to my noble friend that we need more women on boards because half the people who spend money in the economy are women, as are half the people who have pensions that are part of the investment into those companies that enjoy that benefit. We just bring so much more that I find it astonishing that he does not feel the same way.
Violence against Women and Girls
My Lords, the Department for Education is committed to making the cross-government action plan on violence against women as effective as possible. The statutory guidance for sex and relationship education makes clear that schools should ensure that young people develop positive values and a moral framework that will guide their decisions, judgments and behaviour, and specifically that all young people should understand how the law applies to sexual relationships.
I thank the Minister for her reply. One part of the Home Office action plan on violence against women and girls commits to work across different government agendas to increase activity to influence children’s attitudes to violence against women and girls. If that is the case, why has the Department for Education not been required to place this within the core curriculum in schools? How do the Government think that girls who are in danger will be given the self-confidence and information they need to enable them to deal with dangerous and threatening situations?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her influential work on women’s and girls’ rights and opportunities. I entirely agree with her that girls should be equipped to deal with threatening situations and act confidently, but this provision should not be limited by a narrow curriculum requirement. The ethos of the school and the attitude of staff in all aspects of school life should play a key part, and all schools should seek to set a strong example for pupils to follow.
My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Minister what is being done following the overwhelming evidence in the British Crime Survey 2009-10 which found that 16 to 19 year-olds are more likely to be at risk of abuse? Studies indicate that in the past year one in four teenage girls have experienced abuse by their partners. What work is being done across schools and further education colleges to prevent relationship abuse and equip young people with an understanding of healthy relationships, consent and non-violence?
My noble friend raises some very important issues. The safeguarding of children in schools is an important part of the training of teachers. They should all have the skills and knowledge to identify and respond to bullying, violence and signs of abuse or neglect. As she points out, if the abuse is happening at home, that is an area where one might hope that children would acquire some moral confidence, strength and values. Teachers have a particularly challenging role if they have to identify that it is the domestic situation that is causing the problem. Of course, schools try to address all these topics within the curriculum.
My Lords, would the Minister not admit that one of the most pernicious and dangerous aspects of violence against women is female genital mutilation? When I was a Minister I became aware of this obscene business and I am afraid that I was not able to stop it as much I would have hoped. Can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to achieve some results in this area? At the moment, what I have seen of it seems rather Autolycus-like, and we know what happened to him.
The noble Lord is right. To ensure that female genital mutilation is tackled, cross-departmental work is going on between the Home Office, the Department for Education and the Department of Health to try to identify the particular cohorts of girls who might be most at risk and to prevent this happening before it takes hold in particular cultural parts of society.
My Lords, does the Minister think that personal, social and health education in the curriculum is essential to cover the aspects that she has discussed today so eloquently? She is right that this should be covered by the ethos of the school, but surely specific issues such as child internet safety and violence in the media should be tackled head on.
I know the noble Baroness’s campaigning skills in this area and we agree that the content of PSHE is important in the school curriculum. However, parts of that are sometimes tackled under other subject areas within a school. All schools must have regard to the Secretary of State’s guidance in this area when they are teaching relationship education. Of course, sex education is already statutory but other aspects of relationships are key across all subject areas in schools.
My Lords, the Minister has just said that all schools must have due regard to guidance on sex and relationship education. Does this include independent schools, such as the Hales Exclusive Brethren schools, that fail to teach any sex and relationship education because they believe that it is completely inappropriate until the age of 20?
My Lords, tomorrow is International Women’s Day. Does the Minister agree that violence against girls in and around schools is a global problem, and that in developing countries girls endure harassment and sexual violence from teachers and face considerable danger as they walk to school? Can the Minister tell the House whether DfID is working with Governments to enforce policies that combat sexual exploitation and abuse by teachers, and whether more is being done to retrain and retain female teachers?
European Convention on Human Rights
I am not going there, my Lords.
The Answer to the Question is no.
Did not the Home Secretary argue recently that the next Tory election manifesto should include a pledge to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, thus reflecting the views of many Conservative MPs? Was that not described by the former Justice Secretary as “laughable and childlike”? Does not this division on a serious issue of policy show evidence of a hopeless split in the Conservative-led Government today?
My Lords, I speak at this Dispatch Box for the coalition Government and the coalition Government’s policy on the European Convention on Human Rights is very clear. The noble Lord asked a specific question, “Is it our policy to withdraw?”, and I gave him a specific Answer: “The Answer is no”.
My Lords, do the Government recognise the link between this Question and the previous three in that the European Court of Human Rights has played a major role over the past 40 or so years in combating arbitrary discrimination on grounds of sex and race and other invidious grounds?
My Lords, I find that a very helpful contribution. When the question, “Are you in favour of the European Convention on Human Rights?” is asked, certain people will see the word Europe and their eyes will start spinning round. As the noble Lord has pointed out, however, if you ask people, “Do you want built into law protection against the power of the state?”, in the way that he has just illustrated, they will invariably say, “Yes, please”.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his clear and concise Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. Does he accept that Britain has an enviable record in promoting human rights and the rule of law throughout the world? What sort of response does he think he would get from people like Mugabe if we were to withdraw at this stage from the provisions of human rights legislation in this country?
My noble friend asks a helpful question in putting this matter into perspective. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has quite rightly made human rights, and Britain’s championing of human rights, part of his soft diplomacy strategy. It has been greatly to his credit and to the credit of the United Kingdom. It is important that we have a record that we can be proud of when we look at other regimes and criticise them about their human rights record.
The Minister gave an unequivocal Answer to the Question about withdrawal. However, can he be equally unequivocal about any plans to dilute the application of the European Convention on Human Rights to things where there is a conflict between the judgment of the court in Strasbourg and the view of a Government in the House of Commons?
My Lords, I think that “dilute” is the wrong word. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, pointed out in his interview the other day, the relationship between our Supreme Court and the Strasbourg court is a healthy one of learning from each other and looking at each other’s jurisprudence as it develops. What we have been doing, and one of the proudest things I have been involved in as a Minister, was the Brighton conference on the workings of the court which looked at how we can build in a subsidiarity to take notice of the importance of national supreme courts while still retaining the strength and the moral authority of the European Convention on Human Rights.
My Lords, whether human rights are best protected by the Supreme Court, by Parliament or by Strasbourg, all noble Lords are anxious to protect them. However, even human rights have a cost. Public authorities are spending a great deal of money trying to make their policies compliant with the convention—rather like with health and safety—when the Strasbourg jurisprudence is extremely uncertain. The diminishing pot of legal aid is being spent on often unmeritorious cases about human rights, rather than on far more meritorious cases. I was one of the commissioners, and we were not allowed to consider questions of cost. I ask the Minister whether the Government, in the whole human rights debate, could tell us how much human rights is costing.
I am not able to put a cost to human rights any more than to anything else. I see in government—and I suppose that we have a lot of experience of local government in this House—how agents of the state, as the noble Lord said, when making decisions have in the back of their mind that they have to clear certain hurdles about respect for the individual citizen. To me, this is a prize beyond cost.
Can the Minister match his welcome, unequivocal statement that there is no intention to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights on the question of repeal of the Human Rights Act? Will he confirm that the Government have no intention to seek to repeal the Act?
Both publicly and privately, I sense that there is no majority in this Parliament in favour of repeal of the Human Rights Act. If an individual party at the next election wants to put repeal in its manifesto, that is its privilege and right, and it will have to take that to the hustings. It will not be in the manifesto of the Liberal Democrats.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a short Statement about business. My noble friend the Leader of the House has today made the usual Written Statement to announce that the Queen will be pleased to open a new Session of Parliament in state on Wednesday 8 May. Parliament will be prorogued in the usual way a few days before the start of that new Session, on a date to be announced once the progress of our remaining business is certain.
I have one further announcement. When I announced last October a set of provisional recess dates up to January 2014, I made it clear that those dates were subject to the progress of business. Business has indeed progressed, and I am therefore today adding a week to the Easter Recess. We will now rise for Easter at the end of Wednesday 27 March, as anticipated, but we will return on 22 April.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion in the name of my noble friend Lord Hill of Oareford. The Motion relates to the debates today, and perhaps I may refer to each debate separately.
I refer first to the debate which celebrates International Women’s Day. I regret that on the notice that has gone round to all Peers, there is a printing error at the very end about speaking times. For Back-Benchers, I promise that it makes no difference whatever. I hope that the House will agree that the changes are all to the good because they give the Front-Benchers more time. My noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston will now have 20 minutes instead of 15 for opening. She may not need to take it all; we will see. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, will now have 12 minutes instead of 10 when she winds for the opposition Front Bench. I am sure that she will need all that time; she is expert on these matters. My noble friend Lady Northover is now permitted 25 minutes instead of 20.
I also have what I hope may be welcome news with regard to the second debate. We tried to give as much notice as possible so that Back-Bench speakers could prepare their speeches to the full, and we gave notice that Back-Benchers would have five minutes. Yesterday, however, there was a sudden flurry of interest and names were added to the list. I now beg the leave of the House to make a manuscript amendment, in a sense, to my own Leader’s Motion, so that the second debate should run for two and a half hours, not two. This means that we can keep our promise to Back-Benchers that all Back-Bench speeches will remain at five minutes per person. It makes no difference to the Front Benches throughout, but it means that we can keep the promise to Back-Benchers of five minutes for their speeches.
Standing Orders (Public Business)
Motion to Agree
Standing Order 72 (Affirmative Instruments)
In Standing Order 72(1)(a), in line 3, leave out “or”; in line 4, leave out “or”; and in line 6, after “2001” insert “, a draft order laid under or by virtue of section 7 or section 19 of the Localism Act 2011, or a draft order laid under or by virtue of section 5E of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004”.
In Standing Order 72(1)(b), in line 2, leave out “or”; and in line 4, after “2001” insert “, a draft order laid under or by virtue of section 7 or section 19 of the Localism Act 2011, or a draft order laid under or by virtue of section 5E of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004”.
International Women’s Day
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it is an enormous privilege to introduce the International Women’s Day debate. In the same debate two years ago I made what was then my second speech in your Lordships’ House. I seem to recall the noble Lords present taking a sharp intake of breath when I said then that I had only very recently become familiar with International Women’s Day. My saying that betrayed two things. The first is that, unlike so many Members of this House, I have no claim to involvement in the fantastic advances that have been made in support of women over the past 100 years. Indeed, I feel a great sense of humility when I look down the list of speakers today.
Of course, many other Members of this House—too many to mention—have campaigned hard and achieved so much for the rights of women over the years. However, I would like to mention two Baronesses by name who we have sadly lost from this House over the past year: my late friend Lady Ritchie of Brompton, who founded Women2Win and helped so many women in my own party become MPs; and the late Lady McFarlane of Llandaff, who was one of nursing’s great pioneers and, indeed, the first nurse to become a life Peer.
Secondly, my rather shocking remark betrayed that, unlike many other countries, we here in the UK have not got into the habit of using International Women’s Day simply to celebrate women. In fact, I was talking to some Italian women the other day, who told me that in Italy the men shower them with mimosas on this day. Now, I am especially pleased that six noble Lords of the male variety have joined us, but I reassure them that we are not expecting flowers; I would not want to overburden them coming so soon after Valentine’s day and just before Mothering Sunday. Seriously, though, I am pleased that this is not a women-only debate. We will be discussing issues that affect women, but we cannot address them without the support and input of men.
Today’s debate is a chance for us to draw attention to the serious challenges that women still face here and around the world. Last night, my noble friend here with me on the Front Bench today responded to a very powerful debate about the ongoing use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. This morning we have already responded to Questions, some of them rather interesting, about a range of inequalities affecting women. I am sure that some of these matters, as well as many others, will be raised again, and my noble friend Lady Northover will be pleased to respond to them.
As the person opening today’s debate, I will focus on women and their careers, or more specifically on what we are doing to ensure that we better utilise the talents and skills of all women, whoever they are, wherever they come from and whatever they do. I want to celebrate the contribution of women and talk about how we can support them in achieving their full potential.
The challenges facing women today are very different from those that women faced in the 20th century. We know that in the past British society did not see much value in educating girls. Indeed, this is sadly still true in some parts of the world, as Malala Yousafzai’s ordeal at the hands of the Taliban has shown all too graphically. Here, girls now outperform boys in nearly every subject at nearly every stage of school, yet too many girls lack confidence, self-esteem and ambition.
In the past, women were banned from universities. Now, more young women than young men go to university, yet there are still too many subjects where a female face is rare. As we all know, it was legal in the past to pay women less than men for the same work. Women were barred from too many professions entirely. Getting married could mean losing your job; I will not even mention having a baby. Now we have some of the most comprehensive anti-gender discrimination legislation in the world, yet the gender pay gap remains and women continue to be underrepresented in positions of power and leadership.
It is clear that the way we respond to these very complex modern-day challenges needs a sophisticated, modern approach. The solutions cannot be found simply in more laws, regulations and targets. Of course, finding the solutions is not easy when there is little money around. I realise that women will wonder how we can make their lives better when we also have to make significant cuts in public spending. The truth is that it is not easy, but there are things we can do and are doing.
I will not go through the whole list, but the kinds of measures I am talking about for those on the lowest incomes and most in need include lifting more than 1 million of the lowest-paid workers out of income tax altogether, the majority of whom are women. We will also increase child tax credit by £180 above inflation for low to middle-income families. Where we can we are spending money in ways that empower women and give them real choice and control over their lives.
The top issue that comes up time and again for women is balancing work and family life. Our current inflexible system of maternity and paternity leave makes it incredibly difficult to break down the stereotypical and intrinsic view that women should stay at home and look after the children and men should go out to work and earn the money when a couple start a family. What if the mother earns more? What if she is in a more senior position than the father? What if the father simply wants to take on more of the caring responsibilities? In our modern world the state should not make it harder for parents to choose the best arrangements for their children.
That is why, after an extensive consultation, we announced last November that from 2015 we will introduce a new system of shared parental leave that will make an enormous difference to working women who want to have children. It will mean that if fathers want to take on more of a role, they can. If mothers want to return to work earlier, they can. If parents want to spend some time at home together around the birth of their child, they can. Parents will have a choice.
Crucially, albeit over time, the new parental leave arrangements and the access to flexible working for all employees—the other initiative that we recently announced—will put men and women on a level playing field in the workplace. Employers will no longer be able to assume that only women take a career break to look after their children. For my part, that was one of the biggest things that sold this policy to me.
Until that time arrives, we are also determined to help working women by boosting childcare wherever and whenever we can, especially to those who need it most. This includes but is not limited to 15 free hours a week in a nursery or with a childminder for all three and four year-olds. From September this year that will be extended to two year-olds from the most disadvantaged homes.
Even in flexible and family-friendly workplaces, women can still hit the glass ceiling, so we are working with employers to ensure that there really is no limit to how far women can go in their careers. We have just been talking about women on boards, and as a result of the fantastic work by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, to increase that number, the number of FTSE 100 all-male boards has now halved, and since last March 40% of new appointments to boards have been women —up from 13% in 2010.
There is, however, a pipeline issue for women in executive roles. Our Think, Act, Report initiative to improve transparency on pay and wider workplace equality is helping to make a difference. Employers who sign up make a commitment to identify any barriers to women in their organisation, to take action to address them, and finally to report publicly on their progress. The transparent reporting bit of the scheme is a particularly powerful tool with which to achieve change.
Since the initiative was launched just over a year ago, 73 organisations have signed up. In total, they employ more than 1 million people and include firms such as Marks & Spencer, Tesco, BT, EDF and BP. As of today, they have been joined by the Chartered Management Institute, which has more than 90,000 members and huge outreach to other employers. However, we are not stopping there. Because we recognise that we do not have all the answers, last year we established a Women’s Business Council, made up of exceptionally high achievers in business, to provide advice to government on what we can do to maximise women’s contribution to our future economic growth. It is comprehensively examining the evidence, from the issues and choices facing girls in school right through to the experiences of older women who need to continue working into their retirement but who face diminishing options in the labour market. That council is due to report to the Government later this year.
We need to encourage all women to aspire to and be ambitious for success, but too many young women still do not have the confidence to follow their dreams and, even more distressingly, too many do not have dreams at all. We are trying to change this through measures such as our pupil premium to help schools better support their disadvantaged pupils and close the attainment gap between them and their peers. We are working with schools, advertising, retail and the media to improve perceptions of body image through our Body Confidence campaign so that more young women realise their future will be defined by their talent, hard work and abilities, not by what they look like.
We are encouraging women to choose more of the STEM subjects at A-level and university that will allow them to flourish in today’s economy, and we are giving them the skills they need to succeed. Noble Lords might be interested to know that last year, for the first time, more women started an apprenticeship than men, but let me say something about aspiration, ambition and success, about which I feel very strongly. There are many definitions of success. It is vital that we have more women in positions of power, whether in business or politics. We want those women on boards. We need more women around the Cabinet table, as the Prime Minister said very recently.
However, we must not forget that many women have no desire for that kind of success. They might want to run their own business instead or be a doctor specialising in a particular field of medicine. Just because people who work in Parliament enjoy power, we must not think that everyone else does. We have to be honest here: there are also many women for whom reaching the top of the tree is not a realistic ambition. By concentrating so much on the high achievers, or telling people to aim for the very top, I worry that sometimes, without meaning to, we diminish other people’s achievements and even discourage them from being ambitious at all.
I would like to recount a story about a friend of mine called Julie. She is an undertaker. She is roughly the same age as me and left school with little in the way of formal qualifications, so was put on what we then called a YOP scheme. I am sure she will not mind my sharing this story with the House. On her first day at work, she thought that the funeral company’s office was a car showroom when she turned up because of all the big black cars outside. After a few false starts and once she had got over the shock that she was working at a funeral director’s, she knuckled down and started to progress up the undertaker ladder.
After a few years, Julie was put in charge of its new Beeston branch, which included arranging funerals. That is a difficult task, as it means talking to people when they are at their most vulnerable. However, she was good at it, so much so that the family of a teenage boy who had been killed in a dreadful accident requested that Julie direct the funeral as well and be the person leading the cortege. She had never done that before and it was a massive step. Because the family insisted that she did this, the firm quickly rustled up a uniform for her and she did it. She was magnificent. She was so proud and walked through Beeston in front of that hearse as if she had been doing it for years. As she had been so successful, she was given that additional responsibility and started to build a strong personal reputation throughout the town. Word got around that she was very dedicated and good at her job. After a further few years, after she had a short maternity break, she tried to return to work but unfortunately was not able to agree mutual terms at her old firm, and that was that; at least, it could have been.
Not many avenues were open to Julie and it would have been easy for her to enter a system that led to nowhere. After a while, however, she spotted some premises which she thought would make an ideal funeral home. With the support of people who knew her reputation and that she was a sound investment, she set up her own funeral directing business. That was five years ago and the business is now thriving, so much so that she keeps six people employed in full-time work and provides regular casual work to another four.
I told you Julie’s story to make this simple point; she is as much a role model to the young women of Beeston as I might like to think I can be. As much as we want all girls to be ambitious at school and aspire to great things, because that is the most secure route to success, those who do not can still achieve their own very worthwhile version of success if they aim to be the best at whatever they find themselves doing.
Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, and the Government are doing a range of things to mark the event. We are, very simply, celebrating all women. I hope all noble Lords will join us, and I look forward to all the contributions that will be made today, especially from the right reverend Prelate, who has chosen a debate about women to make his maiden speech, which I am sure will be very interesting. I beg to move.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, for securing and introducing this debate, which she has done marvellously. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I want to introduce a note of caution. It is quite common to talk about “the woman”, which leads one to think that all societies think of women in more or less the same way. Coming as I do from India and as a student of developing societies, I suggest that it would be a great mistake to homogenise or essentialise the woman. The woman comes in many roles: she comes as a mother, as a daughter, as a wife and also as a companion. In some civilisations, woman as a daughter is not much valued and is disposed of in arranged and other marriages. Woman as a mother, however, is the subject of enormous power and considerable authority. This is what happens in India. So if one looked at women simply from the standpoint of what happens to daughters in arranged marriages, one would be inclined to think that women do not enjoy equality. However, this makes it very difficult to explain why India or Sri Lanka or other developing countries had women Prime Ministers long before we did and long before any western country. If women were treated as inferior or unequal, why should India, for example, have more women in the highest positions, as vice-chancellors in universities or as Cabinet Ministers? The explanation is that, as I said earlier, the woman can be seen in many different roles, and as long as she is seen as the mother figure she wields considerable power and authority. Women, while suffering from inequality at one level, enjoy equality at another and the picture becomes much more complex.
The other point to bear in mind is that, for some reason that I do not have time to explore, the equality of women in our civilisation—certainly after the war—has gone in hand with sexualisation of the woman, and this has created all kinds of problems. On the other hand, in non-western societies it has gone hand in hand with desexualisation because if a woman is seen as the mother then, obviously, she is not seen as an object of sexual desire. In India, a woman in a position of authority has to conceal her sexual charm if she is going to carry any kind of authority, as has happened to every Prime Minister or happens to women in any other position of authority. Here the opposite tends to happen, with the result that cultural historians and sociologists have introduced a new concept called “erotic capital”. The argument is that having charming, good-looking, beautiful women under a certain age in positions of authority generates the business a certain amount of capital and brings good will and customers who are attracted by the ambience. That sort of thing has gone hand in hand with the sexualisation of the body and the woman in the context of equality. This relationship is contingent. It need not have happened but it has happened. It has been a source of considerable worry, and those of us who are extremely anxious to fight for equality for women in all spheres—natural, spontaneous equality in ordinary relations, not just equality of rights—would have to engage in a deeper cultural critique to make sure that a woman is not understood in this way.
Having got rid of this general point, which has been exercising me for some time, I want to concentrate on what happens in our own country. The following percentages of women in positions of power in our society are striking: Members of Parliament, 22%; the House of Lords, 21.7%; the Cabinet, 17.4%, but the figure keeps changing; local authority council leaders, 12%, but local authority chief executives, 23%; senior ranks of the judiciary, 13.6%; heads of professional bodies, 33%; university vice-chancellors, 14%; academics in general, including lecturers, senior lecturers and readers, 35%; professors, 20%; editors of national newspapers, 5%; directors of FTSE 100 companies, 16%; elected mayors, 13%; senior management in the Civil Service, 31%, but Permanent Secretaries, 16%; heads of primary schools, 71%; heads of secondary schools, 38%; and heads of independent schools, 11.9%.
I have given those figures because I want to draw four important conclusions from them. First, if a position happens to be elected, the chances of women being underrepresented are considerable. Secondly, there is no difficulty at the bottom level of a profession because women are represented there in proportion to their presence in the population. As you go higher up to the middle level, there does not seem to be much of a problem either, but there is suddenly a narrow pyramid at the top. Thirdly, there is underrepresentation at the top in the private sector compared to the public sector. Fourthly, women’s representation is very poor and they are only just beginning to break through in new areas such as TV journalism or as editors of national newspapers. This tells us where we need to concentrate. Although it is striking that progress is being made in all those areas, we still have a long way to go.
Why is this the case? Whether in elected bodies or people at the top, why is this kind of inequality persisting after all the attempts? My own study tells me that four or five factors play an important part. First is of course the conscious or unconscious bias of males in positions of power. They, for all the kinds of reasons that I mentioned earlier about the way in which female equality is understood, feel uncomfortable or threatened by female presence. There is also the question of women themselves feeling slightly diffident and therefore not displaying, or playing to, their strengths as well as they could. Thirdly, there is the culture of the organisations, which, being male-dominated, sets certain norms, and women feel intimidated or unwelcome in those organisations. Fourthly, there is the question of family responsibility. In spite of all the talk, it is women who carry the family, with the result that women are not to be seen in many branches of the medical profession, with which I am familiar. For example, women generally tend to avoid those courses in medicine or those areas of employment where they might be required at any time or where there could be an acute emergency. There are therefore a large number of women in ophthalmology, but there are very few in general surgery or acute medicine.
The fifth and final point to bear in mind is that the male historically has been the standard of reference and, therefore, the criterion by which to decide how an organisation should be structured, who should be appointed and who should not be. As a result, for example, in many cases a male on an appointment panel would say: “This particular candidate is not decisive or partisan enough, because that is what an organisation requires”. The result is that women, who are not generally pushy, partisan or aggressive and are more concerned to compromise, tend to be under- appreciated and not appointed.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of Christian Blind Mission. Antoinette Androis, a young woman living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffered the devastating loss of a child a few years ago. Forced out of her home for over six years, pregnant Antoinette was left to give birth on a few banana leaves out in the bush. Shortly after cutting the umbilical cord with a machete, Antoinette's husband and some women from the village watched helplessly as the baby girl died in front of them. Antoinette’s latest pregnancy, in 2011, was completely different from her experience in the bush. Thanks to access to a clean delivery kit, distributed to women in the Ituri and South Kivu provinces by Medair and UNFPA, Antoinette was admitted to a health centre and gave birth in a maternity ward assisted by a trained health worker. This time her child survived.
In 2009, the Liberal Democrats reaffirmed their manifesto commitment, which was subsequently incorporated into the coalition agreement, to guarantee giving 0.7% of our gross domestic product in international aid. This aid will save the lives of 50,000 mothers and 250,000 babies by 2015. It has already saved the lives of women like Antoinette and her child, who directly benefit from UK involvement in international organisations like Medair. I am proud to say that today the UK is on target to meeting its commitment.
In 2000, as a signatory to the UN millennium development goals, we pledged to improve maternal heath and reduce child mortality, among other goals, by 2015. The international community has certainly taken big steps forward in tackling each of these eight goals and it is important to recognise the successes. For example, both the goals of reducing by half extreme poverty and the number of people without proper access to safe drinking water have already been met by these efforts. However, we cannot forget that while progress has certainly been made, data that have been disaggregated by sex tell us a grimmer story of continued inequality for women around the world, most notably in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the poorest households in nearly every country in this region, wage earners are more likely to be women than men. UN Women reports further that even when women have access to work, they are,
“often faced with low income and lack of job security and benefits”.
A lack of access to financial resources can have a direct impact on the likelihood of a mother and child surviving a pregnancy. In many places in sub-Saharan Africa, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo where Antoinette gave birth, overcrowded and underfunded health centres lack sufficient supplies, requiring expectant mothers to provide basic materials like soap, gloves, a razor blade and even a sheet, which are needed to ensure a clean delivery. Women who are unable to afford these supplies or who have not received a clean delivery kit provided by international aid organisations are often turned out to give birth in the bush without assistance because the health centre simply cannot accommodate them or even provide the basic kit.
The three primary causes of maternal death in sub-Saharan Africa—haemorrhage, sepsis and eclampsia —can all be prevented or managed by trained health professionals in a clean environment. However, most clinics are understaffed and overwhelmed by an increasing indigent patient load. The hospital in Boga, where Antoinette gave birth, provides healthcare for over 30,000 internally displaced people who have fled armed conflict. In attempting to treat as many patients as possible, the clinic lacks funding for basic supplies, and thus the burden of the cost of giving birth is transferred to the expectant mothers, who are already struggling with unimaginable poverty.
This cycle can be broken by the continued commitment of the international community, including our Government, to provide funding to programmes that address the two central concerns of women’s health: poverty and training. Through a continued focus on millennium development goal 1 to eradicate extreme poverty, this time for women as well as men, women who would normally be unable to afford even the most basic supplies for a delivery will be able gain access to health clinics.
Secondly, through continued involvement with the UNFPA and Medair to meet millennium development goals 4 and 5, a greater number of health clinic employees and midwives can receive proper training, which will significantly reduce mother and child mortality. Access to training will also provide job opportunities for women in these areas, and through supporting these programmes we can set off a new cycle of training and employment instead of poverty and poor health.
Maternal care must extend beyond the birth of the child. A lack of access to adequate postnatal care can be devastating to women like Dorotea from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Dorotea was a teenager when she became pregnant with her first child. Unable to afford to go to a hospital, she was forced to give birth in her home without assistance from a trained health worker. Neither Dorotea nor her mother realised that the umbilical cord had got wrapped around the baby’s neck, and after four agonising days of labour, her daughter was stillborn.
Dorotea’s heartache continued two days later, when she realised that the stress of the labour had caused her to develop an obstetric fistula—a hole between the bladder and the rectum where the baby’s head had crushed the tissue. Because of her condition she was deserted by her husband, beaten and abused, and she was unable to work or seek help. For 18 years Dorotea suffered the embarrassment and isolation of her condition until one day her sister happened upon an advertisement for Christian Blind Mission services. Her fistula was repaired after 30 minutes of surgery in Dar es Salaam.
Dorotea now has the chance of a normal life, and is even able to have more children, but, thanks to CBM and the services she got, she was given the most important gift of her life: her dignity. CBM and many other organisations continue to set up clinics around the world for women suffering from obstetric fistula, providing them with essential postnatal care unavailable in their local hospitals.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, a woman’s risk of maternal death in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one in 24. In the United Kingdom, the risk of death is one in 47,000. I congratulate this Government on their continued commitment to the pledge of giving 0.7% of GDP in aid, which not only sets an example to our global colleagues that it can be done but, more importantly, will make a real difference and help to reduce maternal deaths.
My Lords, listening to the range of subjects covered already, it is quite clear that there is no shortage of issues to do with achieving equal opportunities for women that we can debate today. I fear the road to achieving equal opportunities is a long one and will continue to provide ample material for speeches on International Women’s Day for many years to come, before the goals that we are all seeking are at last achieved to everyone’s satisfaction. I will confine my remarks to two issues: women at the top, which has been covered already today; and women in the penal system.
I will start with women at the top. Clearly, the 2011 report by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch, Women on Boards, was a major step forward. It reflected what had become, at last, a cross-party agreement; that is, that percentage targets for female company board directors should be set and backed by compulsion if voluntary efforts continued to fail. For the FTSE 300 companies, this involved both targets and a requirement to set out detailed plans of how their percentage of women would be achieved. The aim for the FTSE 100 companies was to achieve a full 25% representation by the same date, 2015—but that is only 25%.
However, there has been significant progress. All-male FTSE 100 boards have fallen from 21% to 7%, as we have already heard. Without doubt, too, the annual published updates of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, on the progress of these companies will certainly keep things moving in the right direction. However, for this debate, it was helpful to hear from the Minister about the plans the Government have to ensure that a satisfactory supply of qualified women candidates are aware of, and trained for, these opportunities at appropriate earlier stages in their life. Education in their school years will of course be vital and relevant careers advice is absolutely essential. Girls’ interests and aptitudes need to be taken into account, but so do national and international employment trends and, more locally, the likelihood of job vacancies and remuneration levels.
It would be useful, too, to know what further action the Government are planning to take to encourage employers to allow men as well as women to work flexibly or part-time, thereby opening up more opportunities for women as well as men to continue their careers while their children are young.
However, we all know that the percentage of women at board level is not the whole story. It is also about those other areas where power exists, whether for good or evil, a subject we have heard rather too much about during the past few weeks. It is here that the Sex and Power 2013: Who Runs Britain? report, which has already been referred to, tells rather a different story about women at the top. We learn from that, as well as the figures we have already been given, that women have slipped from 33rd to 57th place in international power rankings since 2001. So it would be helpful to hear a little more about the plans and priorities the Government will be pursuing to help increase the percentage of women featured in all categories ranked in Sex and Power.
Turning to women in the penal system, I want to draw urgent attention to the continued neglect by our criminal justice system of women held behind bars. In the UK we imprison more women than almost any other western European country. Decades of research and reports testify to the disproportionate harm that this does to women themselves, their children, families and the wider community. Although women comprise just 5% of the prison population, they account for a third of all self-harm incidents in prison, and every year nearly 18,000 children are affected by the imprisonment of their mothers. Just think of the range of the ways in which they and their future lives are affected.
About 13,500 women are sent to prison every year. One in seven of these women are foreign national prisoners, and recent research has shown that many of these women have been trafficked into the country and coerced into offending. Many of them have been subjected to appalling abuse and multiple rapes but are too terrified to report these crimes. They also have little English. However, only a quarter of these women have been identified and are referred through the national mechanism for the help and support to which they are entitled as victims of trafficking.
Seventy per cent of women entering prison every year in the UK are on remand. Most of these women have committed non-violent and petty offences for which they will not ultimately receive a custodial sentence. Many are imprisoned for breach of a community order, meaning they are sent to prison, often for a very short period and often for not turning up to appointments because of childcare responsibilities.
Women’s offending is linked to underlying mental health problems and a history of child abuse and domestic violence. Thirty per cent of women in prison have had a previous psychiatric admission, while more than a third of those who are sent to prison have previously attempted suicide. These women need help to turn their lives around, not imprisonment in conditions that make it impossible for them to take responsibility and address the causes of their offending. I welcome the new programme from the Prison Reform Trust, supported by the Pilgrim Trust, to reduce women’s imprisonment, as well as excellent organisations such as Eden House and the ISIS women’s centre in Gloucester. I want to stress how important it is to bring all these schemes together and publicise them well so that everyone around the country will see them as ways forward.
Alas, I have to end on a less happy note. Your Lordships’ House was able to secure an amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill that would have ensured the necessary statutory requirement to provide community support and supervision services designed with the particular needs of women in mind. Sadly, I have to report that the amendment was struck out in Committee in another place. I only hope and pray that somehow the Government will see sense on this. It is time that all the hard work in this direction by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, which resulted in her report, is put into action. We have put this off for far too long.
My Lords, I am immensely grateful for the kindness that I have received from your Lordships on entering this House, and for the support that I have been given at all levels by its staff. I am delighted to be able to make my maiden speech during this moving debate to mark International Women’s Day. I hope that I may be permitted to say something about my diocese and the interests that it has shaped in me, in ways that relate to the debate.
I begin by paying warm tribute to my excellent women clergy colleagues who give of themselves with extraordinary dedication to the people of Coventry and Warwickshire. Thirty per cent of my priests are women. They work tirelessly and with great skill for the good of their communities. The Church will need their like to guide its life as our bishops in the future, and I assure your Lordships that the present House of Bishops is impatient for the collegiality of women as bishops, including their presence in this House. The absence of women on these Benches today is, of course, particularly noticeable. We are committed to seeing this happen for the good of church and nation. There are also countless lay readers, church wardens—including the indomitable warden of Idlicote, the parish of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—treasurers, youth and children’s workers, and Mothers’ Union members of all ages. That is an army of women who tend their communities through the ministry of the church in innumerable and often hidden ways across our 200 parishes.
The common life of Coventry and Warwickshire depends on the leadership of women in every other sphere—in political and civic life, business activity and public institutions, the arts and sport and in the myriad charities and agencies that care for those in need and raise the quality of our life together. It was notable that at our recent Pride of Coventry and Warwickshire Community Awards, six of the seven prizes were awarded to women, all of them remarkable people.
Noble Lords should know, though, that the recession is biting hard in Coventry and that it is women who are bearing a disproportionate load. The churches in Coventry have fed 18,000 people since our food bank was established in 2011, many of them families with young children. There are regular stories of mothers going without food in order to feed their children; almost one in four of the city’s children are said to be living in poverty.
However, it is the history of Coventry, framed through war and reconciliation, to which I would like to turn, especially the effects of violent conflict on women. Noble Lords will know that although International Women’s Day had its origins in the movement for women’s suffrage, during the First World War its focus shifted to the struggle against war—war waged, through so much of history, by men but suffered by women and their children, as in Syria today. My own grandmother was one of those women who suffered and died in the First World War, running down the steps of a London Underground station fleeing a Zeppelin raid in 1917. She was pregnant, and my father was left motherless, the only child of a single father who was so overwhelmed that he turned to his own mother to care for his son. She did a pretty good job. He died a few years ago, before I was made Bishop of Coventry, and I had no idea of course that I would be speaking today. He would have been 100 years old this coming Sunday.
Two decades later, in 1940, many women died in the Luftwaffe raids in Coventry. Instinctive Christian convictions in Coventry cried out for an end to the spiral of violence, calling not for retaliation but for a reaching out to the enemy, armed only with the words of Christ, “Father, forgive”—words that confess a common complicity in war, that were etched into the east wall of the ruined cathedral and that continue to speak eloquently to the violence of the world. The ruins of the cathedral destroyed in 1940 were redesignated in 2011 as a memorial to all civilians killed, injured or traumatised by war and violent conflict. The Minister will be glad to know that, as one of six themes that guide the reconciliation ministry of Coventry Cathedral, we are working to support those who stand up against the use of sexual violence as a strategic means to demoralise, degrade and control the perceived enemy. It is a shame on our world that such things happen, and I welcome the commitment of the Foreign Secretary and his office to document and hold to account those responsible, as well as recent announcements of the Secretary of State for International Development and her office.
Coventry convictions in 1940 did not save the people of Kiel, Berlin, Dresden and other German cities, where tens of thousands of women suffered and died. Relationships between the cities were restored, though, and it is an enormous privilege as Bishop of Coventry to step into this remarkable story of reconciliation. To be asked as an English bishop to give a blessing in the now rebuilt Frauenkirche in Dresden on the anniversary of its destruction is deeply humbling and healing. In another act of extraordinary generosity, I have been asked to preach at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche in November, when it marks the 70th anniversary of its destruction. While there, I will pay my respects to the German memorial for victims of war and violence—Käthe Kollwitz’s desperately sad statue of the weeping mother holding her dead son.
Through these encounters and the friendships that have developed in Coventry’s international Community of the Cross of Nails, I have learnt the importance of remembering the suffering of war together with those with whom we were once locked in conflict, and of commemorating our dead together. As we approach 2014 with its anniversaries of great and terrible battles 100 years ago, my hope is that our local and national commemorations will remember that the tears of German widows and mothers flowed with the same agony as those of British and Commonwealth women. It is alongside and with our former enemy, who is now our friend, that we reflect with Germany and our European partners on the impact of war on our continent and share a commitment for a reconciled and peaceful future for the world.
My Lords, I extend our warmest welcome to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry to this House. The emotion, eloquence and relevance of his maiden speech certainly captured the attention of his new congregation here in this Chamber. The right reverend Prelate lists on his very worthy CV a plethora of patronages of a wide variety of causes and charities. His parliamentary interests list higher education plus conflict resolution and reconciliation; one hopes that in this Chamber he has little conflict resolution but plenty of reconciliation. As a fellow West Midlander, which is perhaps why I have been asked to do this welcome, I also wish the right reverend Prelate better fortune to his diocese football team. Coventry City struggles on and off the pitch, and may the right reverend Prelate’s inspiration help to return the Sky Blues to a higher place.
I am sure that, like me, the right reverend Prelate has beliefs that women deserve a much higher level of recognition in sport and recreation, which hopefully should then encourage a more active lifestyle among UK females. Let us start at the top. I was intrigued on Monday to read new research by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation that only 22% of board members in 33 out of 57 national governing bodies are female— up 2% from 2010, unchanged from 2011—despite government urging. Six publicly funded NGBs out of those 57 have no women on their boards, as was mentioned earlier in Oral Questions. The largest participant offender was British cycling, despite the impact that British women cyclists made in the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Indeed, only a couple of weeks ago 21 year-old Becky James made a further impact for British cycling when she dashed into the record books when she won her second gold and a total of four medals in the recent track cycling world championships in Belarus—such an impact, no less, that Becky was featured on the front page, in glorious technicolour, of the Daily Telegraph, so perhaps the media are improving their recognition of our sportswomen, but more on that later.
I am talking not from a feminist standpoint but about a practical, common-sense approach, and I am not just saying that because in cricket I happen to serve on the boards of the England and Wales Cricket Board and the MCC. Even though I am there, still the men are not knitting and making teas in the pavilions of England, if that is what the fear is from the chaps. Diverse leadership is a bonus and women’s board representation, as has been mentioned, should help to unlock the potential of women’s sport, thus promoting higher levels of participation, sponsorship and media profile. As the Minister said this morning, Sport England and UK Sport wish that by 2017 every national governing body will have 25% board representation.
The MCC and the ECB have grasped the nettle and now the Football Association also has recently appointed its first female independent director to its board in 150 years, so we are making progress. She is Heather Rabbatts, not a token appointment but a lady well steeped in the business of football knowledge as executive deputy chair of Millwall Football Club, to whom I apologise after they were beaten 2-0 on Tuesday by my beloved football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers.
With a Government committed to breaking down gender equality barriers, how can the Royal and Ancient, the governing body of golf throughout the world, continue to operate a male-only membership of its club at St Andrews when this summer it is hosting the Women’s British Open championships? Such an entrenched attitude reminds me of a historic notice in a car park in an all-male golf club in Kent several years ago that read, “No dogs or women allowed on the course”—and it was true. Another discriminatory establishment drawn to my attention recently is Gathurst club in Lancashire, where the men will not let women on the course at weekends unless they are playing competitions, and the men will not allow women to play such sanctioned competitions.
My right honourable friend the Minister for Sport Hugh Robertson has spoken on the record about the R&A, saying:
“It is increasingly anachronistic not to allow women to become members … The defence of the Royal and Ancient is that it is a private club and so has the right to do what it wants. That is legally correct and I have no quarrel, when it is acting as a private club. However, I believe that when a private club fulfils a public function, such as staging a major event, then there is a different slant”.
Nothing could be more major than the Women’s British Open, so surely this issue should be addressed. I wonder if the participants might even be changing in the car park as a result of this sanction.
We all basked in the triumph of the Olympics and Paralympics; media coverage was brilliant, turning minor sports into major sports and unsung, unknown champions into heroes and heroines. Didn’t the girls do well? The women of Team GB won 10 golds and 22 medals in total, and a woman won the first Team GB medal of 2012—silver for Lizzie Armitstead in the road cycling. Women won the first gold for team GB—rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning. This was the first Olympics where women competed in every sport, with the introduction of women’s boxing, and we all marvelled at the heroics of Great Britain boxer Nicola Adams, who won gold. It was also the first Games where every country sent female athletes; Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei were the last three to do so. That is global progress.
The Government are seeking to encourage all sectors of the media to continue their high level of coverage of women’s sport, not just every four years when we have the Olympics and Paralympics or when Wimbledon comes along annually. We need that consistent coverage to develop role models for young schoolgirls, who I worry nowadays aspire to be footballers’ wives, page three models or “X-Factor” wannabes singing out of tune. I want those young girls to aspire to be Victoria Pendleton, Jessica Ennis, Ellie Simmonds and Katherine Grainger. After the Olympics, 81% of respondents to a Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation survey thought that female athletes were much better role models for young girls than other media “celebrities”.
The right honourable Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Minister for Women and Equalities, believes strongly in the power of the media to raise profile and encourage greater levels of sponsorship for women. After the Olympics she wrote and met with all facets of the media to impress this fact.
There is light at the end of the camera lens that there may be extra coverage. There is to be TV coverage of women’s football this summer, the England appearance in the Euro finals, while Sky gave great coverage to women’s cricket in India, even though England did not quite come up with the goods, as they say. They also have platforms for netball super league, women’s hockey and European and USA women’s golf.
Women’s sport receives less than 5% of total sport print coverage and currently receives less than 1% of TV coverage and 0.5% of total sponsorship income. A recent Sport and Recreation Alliance report revealed only one in 10 14 year-old girls is getting the recommended physical activity levels suggested by health professionals. Sadly, 51% of girls say that their experiences of school sport and physical education put them off being active. Sport does not need to be team games; it can be competitive sport, non-competitive sport, gymnastics, aerobics or Indian dancing—though I am not sure the Prime Minister approves of that. My experiences at school were the other way around: I hated academia and sport was the only thing for my whole life.
Primary school teachers receive only a meagre six to 10 hours’ tuition in their training to teach youngsters in primary schools. Surely more is needed. On Tuesday this week an alarming report published in The Lancet showed that we have dropped from 12th to 14th in the life expectancy tables. I must close now but could my noble friends the Ministers in Government ask whether it is possible to give more recognition to women’s sport and women’s activity? What better, on International Women’s Day?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for her introduction to this debate. I know that she has had a heavy week, and I hope that this will relieve her spirits somewhat. I know that the debate will be, as always, both stimulating and thoughtful. It is a great pleasure to follow my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Heyhoe-Flint. Unfortunately, I cannot call her my noble friend because she is not on the same side as me, but for years she and I have campaigned for girls and women—indeed, young people—to be involved in sport. We were comrades some time ago in batting and bowling, and thereby hang many tales. It was also a great privilege to hear the moving comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry and to listen to his positive support for the role of women in the Anglican Church.
I want today to look at the issue of invisible women and ponder whether they are becoming more visible. This may seem a strange thing to bring up in your Lordships’ House. When I talk about involvement in this House, everyone always assumes that far more than 24% of noble Lords are women because, as we know, women in this House are far from invisible.
However, let me go back to my theme of invisible women. In the 1980s, a feminist called Dale Spender wrote several challenging books about the lack of profile of women in education, literature and business. She maintained that patriarchy served to subdue women and that they thereby became invisible. She reminded us that there were very few women in some professions and very few at the top of most professions. I want to explore whether this is still an issue. An earlier feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, speculated on why women always seemed to be wrong, why men were more representative and more authoritative and why women’s differences were seen as deficiencies. Is this still the case?
Dale Spender maintained that men and power are the problem. She stated that men are seen as authoritative; that male experience counts; and that males have more influence on systems. Men are attributed with qualities such as reason, objectiveness, leadership, independence, authority and strength; women with being emotional, irrational, weak and hysterical. In mixed contexts, Spender maintains, men talk more, interrupt more and do not know that they are doing it. When women become visible and assert power, then patriarchal values are under threat and it is scary—look at the Suffragettes. In a recent survey, mentioned earlier, reference was made to this. Many women would assert, as do many men, that when the distribution of power is more equal, men also benefit. Some men would agree.
I return to invisibility. I shall give a couple of examples from literature. Spender points out that there were hundreds of women authors writing for at least 150 years before Jane Austen—invisible women. Let us take as an example the successful playwright and novelist, Aphra Behn, writing in the 1600s, who produced plays, poetry and novels that were immensely popular—Nell Gwynne starred in her most successful play, “The Rover”. Aphra Behn was also an international spy for Charles II. She was described by critics as being “disgraceful” and “bawdy”, whereas Virginia Woolf called her, more flatteringly, shady and amorous. Another example is Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century philosopher, who wrote novels, historical plays and travel books, as well as being an advocate of women’s rights. She was described by Walpole as “a Hyena in petticoats”. When six volumes of biographies on women were published in 1803, Mary Wollstonecraft was missed out—invisible women. The novel Mary Barton was published anonymously in 1848 to great praise. When it was known to be by a woman, Elizabeth Gaskell, praise then turned to criticism. Women had to publish under male pseudonyms—invisible women.
Has this invisibility made a difference to how women see themselves today and to why women are still largely absent from top posts in industry, politics, sport, the Church and the media? Has it influenced how men see women? Are women destined for certain jobs but not in the first flight? Much worse than that, can women be treated with disrespect—even violence? Is the status of women also improving life for other women?
I shall share one anecdote with your Lordships. A close female relative of mine went into a boardroom recently to set up a presentation. Three men were already sitting there and one said to her, “Hey, girlie, where’s the coffee?”. He was shocked and embarrassed when she turned out to be a senior vice-president of the company, setting out its future strategy.
The report Sex and Power has already been mentioned. It points out that a girl child born today will be drawing her pension before she has any chance of being equally represented in the Parliament of her country. It discusses other deficits—in public appointments, the voluntary sector, the law, the Church, the police and so on. Two-thirds of public appointments go to men. Women still earn on average 14.9% less than men for the same job and they lose out on bonuses.
A study published in the Daily Telegraph by Experian expresses some cautious optimism, finding that the number of female directors is increasing but that some professions such as social work, hairdressing and primary school teaching, while dominated by women and having more women in senior positions, have not changed in profile. Both men and women seem to back positive action, and women’s networks are flourishing. Women’s performance is enhancing sport, but coverage is poor.
Has progress been made in the perception of women since the 1980s? Are they less invisible? The answer is a cautious yes. On paper they have more rights, and they are more likely to challenge discrimination, but we are a long way from a guarantee that those challenges will be taken note of.
We must not forget in our deliberations that women in many developing countries, as graphically described by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, are hounded, tortured and denied rights. On International Women’s Day, we should surely embrace and promote visibility for all women, justice for all women and an opportunity for all women to reach their potential.
My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this celebratory International Women’s Day debate, and I thank my noble friend for securing it. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his compassionate maiden speech and welcome him to the House.
This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day, and I pay tribute to mothers everywhere, especially to those who have lost their children unnecessarily through war, gun or knife crime or suicide.
International Women’s Day is to inspire, to celebrate women’s achievements but, most importantly, to focus on issues that women have to confront and the changes that need to take place. In the 1960s, the feminist, bra-burning women’s lib movement set the scene and signalled the beginning of real change towards equality. Hard-working women like my beloved mother made many sacrifices for her daughters in order for them to succeed, and I will be eternally grateful to my mother.
I am proud to say that, today, women are educated, influential and powerful in many areas in society. Not all women—there are those who are still struggling to break through the toughened glass ceiling, especially women from culturally diverse backgrounds. But things have improved dramatically from the days when the careers officer told my mother, “I'm sorry, Mrs Benjamin, your daughter can’t apply for that position. They don’t employ coloured people in that company”. Thank goodness I had a feisty mother who never took no for an answer.
Yes, there has been progress but despite all this women’s equality, as we sit here in the 21st century, on the eve of International Women’s Day, we continue on an almost daily basis to witness revelations of sexual and domestic violence against women, and the sexualisation of young girls in a society where violent pornography is only a mouse click away. This is a pan-global epidemic, underpinned by the media and the internet which support imagery and attitudes that relentlessly promote the idea that social emancipation and free speech equal the freedom to flaunt the boundaries of decency, self-respect and the sanctity of our bodies and souls. Women, especially young women and girls, are the main casualties of this.
No wonder that we witness highly sexualised behaviour by children and young people when they are influenced so strongly to believe that stardom, success, fame, riches and happiness can be achieved by using sex as a commodity. Young boys are learning to see their female counterparts as sexual objects, expected to perform in the same way as they see on porn sites so easily accessible today to anyone with a smartphone, computer or tablet. We now have degrading behaviour by boys who force young girls to perform sexual acts, film the humiliating action and then shame the girls by putting it on the web. The girls in turn self-harm or even take their own lives. This has to stop. The recent NSPCC report, Saying the Unsayable, highlighted a dramatic increase in girls self-harming and committing suicide because of sexual exploitation and degradation.
We are all aware that the sexual exploitation of women is ageless but in recent times the globalisation of media and the internet has led to an explosion in the sexual objectification of women. Women are encouraged, paid, enticed and forced to portray themselves in more and more explicit sexual ways. Young women university students advertise themselves on websites as looking for a sugar daddy, and see this as a perfectly acceptable way of advancing themselves both financially and socially. My main worry is that, while all this is happening every day before our very eyes, children and young people soak up this imagery and accept the messages and culture that they portray as the norm. In the era we are now living in, children and young people lose their innocence far too early as they are exposed relentlessly to this sexual culture, where many young women allow themselves to be exploited, degraded and manipulated.
I tell young women that I mentor never to compromise themselves with their beauty, to respect themselves and keep their dignity intact. It pays off in the long term. We have opened a Pandora’s box and I have no answer as to how we can reverse the trend in the sexual objectification of women or protect our children against its influence. But I know that the global and domestic challenge is for women to join together and lead the fight against this, and stop allowing females to be exploited by the culture of sexualisation—for the sake of their daughters and granddaughters.
Organisations such as the Parent Zone are fighting back. They believe that the internet and technological developments have given women access to economic, social and political opportunities across the world but as mothers they feel disempowered by an environment that ignores their right to protect their children online. Access to their children’s data and images is withheld by companies who have created their children’s online world. There are international laws in place protecting children online. However, mothers are beginning to realise that in the UK their online rights do not match their rights offline. In response to this, the Parent Zone has launched the first Charter of Parents’ Online Rights, calling for the two to be brought into line. The charter calls for parents to have the right to know what data are stored about their child and challenge inaccuracies. They should be able to intervene on behalf of their child if problems arise online, have their consent sought when a child signs up to use an online service and expect minimum safety standards for children’s websites. This is the sort of initiative we must promote and encourage to help parents—especially mothers—fight back against a seemingly unstoppable march into a moral wasteland. I hope that the Government will give support to this initiative.
I tell children when I visit schools to learn to love and respect themselves, have self-esteem and feel worthy even though they may be suffering abuse. They must never feel it is their fault. They must live their lives with integrity, honesty and above all have the moral courage to stand up against those who want to take advantage of them. We must ensure that all children understand the meaning of unconditional love and long-term relationships within which they can enjoy a fulfilling, healthy sexual partnership. We must give our children—boys and girls—the guidance, education and protection they need to achieve this well into their adult lives. As women, we have the power to make the change for good so let us all join forces together and do just that. I say to all women: let us celebrate International Women’s Day and fight for this change, wherever you are in the world.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for her introduction to this debate on International Women’s Day. I also pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry for his fine maiden speech and look forward to the erudition, eloquence and compassion that he will bring to debates in this Chamber.
The UN theme for International Women’s Day is, “A promise is a promise: time for action to end violence against women”. Women come to their experience of violence through many routes. Predominantly, they will be victims, either of domestic or war-zone violence. In places such as Northern Ireland, where the Troubles have dominated our lives for so long, that still takes a toll on those who suffered: on the relatives of the dead, the maimed and the families of the disappeared. There will also be those women who decide to take an active part in conflict as combatants: up to 40% of some groups are female. Those women combatants may ultimately be peacemakers. No matter what role they play or position they hold in relation to the conflict, the range of potential effects of violence is similar. It is important to acknowledge that, to acknowledge that violence has so many facets, and to identify what must be done to address them.
I want to address some of those facets. First, there is physical and sexual abuse, and the lack of mechanisms, structures and the necessary determination to prosecute such crimes. Reparations for rape, real property theft and lost educational opportunities when children are taken for camp slaves have to be dealt with quickly and effectively. In many conflicts, the warlords openly acknowledge that they will rape whole villages as a clear statement of the threat that they represent and to force people into compliance. We have seen the abduction of children from their families to be used as child soldiers, including girls. In some conflicts, tens of thousands—some 50% of all child soldiers—are girls. We probably all know the pressures to which children are subject in organisations such as the Lord’s Resistance Army: pressures to murder members of their family and each other as the combatants seek to take total control of them. We have seen the abduction of women and girls to be used as camp slaves.
Each state has a responsibility—as does the international community—to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for such crimes. That does not happen very often. The consequential exposure to sexually transmitted infection and trauma-related illness give rise to huge medical and PTSD treatment needs That can have an enormous impact on people’s ability to deal with the ordinary challenges of life. They will have higher levels of mental and physical illness, injury and suicide. That is what we have experienced in Northern Ireland.
Displacement from and the loss of their homes is a major problem. These women often end up in IDP and refugee camps for years. Even when the conflict has been resolved to the extent that it is possible for them to go home, they may be reluctant to do so even where there is funding available for them because they have access to health services, education and maybe some protection and security. It has often seemed so terrible yet so understandable to me that they can prefer living in UNHCR tents for years, without electricity or running water, to going home where the impact of the destruction of a local community in terms of unsettled scores, suspicion and resentment may linger for years and where people see the perpetrators of violence walking the streets and even in government, occupying influential and highly paid jobs.
That is part of the price of peace. It can be very hard for those who still seek reparations and the recovery of the disappeared. In Northern Ireland we still have seven families grieving people who were abducted and murdered, and whose bodies lie in unmarked graves that may never be found. For each family this is a daily agony as it remembers the young man or boy who went out one day and never came back.
In conflicted societies one of the biggest barriers to equality for women is often the existence of traditional laws and justice procedures. Women are often not allowed to own property. That will have to change and be a priority in each conflict zone. Where huge numbers of men have died the widows and children risk homelessness and destitution unless change is made. Returning combatants, often traumatised themselves, often bring higher levels of domestic violence.
Issues around demobilisation, decommissioning and resettlement must be dealt with. Women have to fight for their share of funds, as money is normally paid principally to men, who have had front-line posts, leaving a disproportionate amount of the very scarce funds that are available in the hands of men only. There is also the new phenomenon of the vulnerability of some women to fundamentalism and the honour that is perceived as coming to families when one of their number becomes a suicide bomber.
Loss of the opportunity to be educated, because of war, because teachers go to war, or because it is not safe to go to school, impacts on women’s ability to participate in society at all levels. Often they cannot drive, even where motorbikes are about. That means that their capacity to engage in commercial initiatives is limited. Women need, above all, security so that they can access water, food and fuel. In countries where there has been conflict and in others where there is great poverty women will suffer not only violence but all the problems associated with the daily trek for water and fuel, and with the grind to grow food. In those circumstances men may resist attempts to bring water to the community, because their women will then have free time which they may not use as the men would wish.
In times of violence there is also difficulty for women in accessing health and other services, because of costs of travel, time, and the fear and insecurity around travel. Often there is no hospital because of a war, or they cannot afford the fare, they have no access to transport and they are afraid. When you are about to have a baby this can be a time of great need. I lived in Kenya when I was expecting my third child. The rains were coming. It was a 40-kilometre drive up a dirt road to the nearest mission hospital that had no electricity or running water. Yet we knew that we had to go before the rains came. I had that option. The other women in the community did not, because they had no access to a car.
The international community must urgently address the needs of the “UN babies”, born as a consequence of a relationship, prostitution or rape involving UN personnel. These babies may be rejected by their fathers and the societies in which their mothers live simply because they are visibly of a race different from the community in which they live.
These things will involve not just policy change, and planning, training and development, but also changing the hearts and minds of many of those who were the perpetrators of violence and who have lived often for years in abnormal circumstances. There will inevitably be unsettled scores, old hatreds, and a desire for punishment and vengeance that may well have the capacity to destroy an embryonic state. Old combatants will have to come to terms with living at peace with each other. It will take time and energy. Many women have great skills that can be utilised for the benefit of an emerging nation in those matters that require mediation, such as prisoner release, disarmament, resettlement and reintegration.
Gender-responsive policy-making can be life-changing. Gender-responsive changes in the mandates, practices and cultures of states and international institutions are occurring. On International Women’s Day we applaud the courage and determination of women who have emerged to take their rightful place in local and national politics across the world. We meet many of them at Westminster as they travel here to learn more of our practices and procedures, and to be affirmed and encouraged in their role as parliamentarians in situations infinitely more complex and dangerous than those in which we operate. Those women will bring the gender perspective to the debates and law-making of those assemblies, so that each society and state can function to maximum effect, benefiting from the talents of all its members.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Stowell for securing this timely debate. We are here to pay homage to the achievements of women all over the world, as marked by this annual celebration, as well as to emphasise the progress that needs to be made and the challenges that lie ahead.
Women play a central part in keeping families and communities together. There is a strong link between achieving peace and the sustained development and advancement of gender equality. Earlier this week I spoke in a debate on the plans to mark the centenary of the First World War. This was a key influence in the development of women’s rights in the United Kingdom as women often replaced the millions of men who had been called up to fight on the front line. During this time, approximately 1.6 million women joined the workforce across government departments and in business administration, and played an invaluable role in our munitions factories.
The past 100 years are full of numerous examples of the contributions to world history made by remarkable women, such as the suffragettes, led by the Pankhurst sisters. In that time we have covered a great deal of ground, particularly in respect of voting rights, the opening up of various professions, opportunities in higher education and positions in businesses. I am heartened by the progress that we have made in increasing the number of female Members of Parliament in recent years, although the House is united in acknowledging that more needs to be done.
Since Nancy Astor took her seat in 1919, we have seen female representation in the House of Commons increase to 22%, which is a significant step forward, but we must move faster. We have a similar situation here in the House of Lords. It is, however, encouraging that the numbers are much healthier among our younger politicians, with women consisting of half of the 28 MPs under the age of 30. It is accepted none the less that women are still underrepresented in many aspects of political, corporate and cultural life, and in the media.
I believe that this Government appreciate and understand the challenges that we face. On a visit to Mumbai two weeks ago, the Prime Minister stated that there are not enough women in boardrooms, or indeed around the Cabinet table, and that companies and political parties need to be more proactive in attracting women. We have already seen a number of measures over the past two years that have helped women in various respects. One of the most notable has been the establishment of the Women’s Business Council. This looks to challenge the barriers that women face in playing a fuller part in business and the workplace. As a businessman, I am particularly excited by the potential benefits for economic growth in addition to the further female empowerment that could come from this. As an employer, I have always promoted my staff on merit, irrespective of gender.
Better appreciating and harnessing the skills women have to offer will only accelerate our economic recovery and it is estimated that such action could deliver benefits of between £15 billion and £21 billion per year. The Government should be congratulated on their introduction of flexible parental leave, allowing new mothers to share their maternity leave with their partners and giving them ultimate flexibility over how and when it is taken.
The United Nations theme for International Women’s Day 2013 is ending violence against women. Domestic violence against women often takes place in households where children are present, and in some cases these children are also victims of abuse. There should be an increase in support services for children who have witnessed abuse and for those who are victims of domestic violence. Research suggests that a number of adults who witnessed domestic violence as children are perpetrators of violence against their partners. It is also thought that the current economic climate could have the effect of increasing acts of domestic violence in households that are struggling to make ends meet. Does the Minister agree that more attention should be given to identifying those who are most vulnerable and dealing with this disturbing trend?
Human trafficking is also an issue that is of great concern to me. I have raised it on a number of occasions in your Lordships’ House. I believe that this immoral practice is the equivalent of modern-day slavery. I am proud that the United Kingdom has ratified the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. Women tend to be the main targets of the predatory gangs who engage in this immoral trade. What plans do the Government have to ensure that victims of human trafficking are given adequate support to rebuild their lives?
As a former visiting lecturer, I value the importance of education in giving people greater opportunities. Women have historically been deprived of chances to gain access to further education, and this has contributed to further inequality in the workplace. I am pleased to note that there has been a marked rise in the number of young women who are entering higher education in Britain. Last week, I was asked by the high commissioner of Bangladesh to present awards to British Bangladeshi school leavers who had attained very good results, and I was pleased to note that more girls than boys had been given the awards. However, these improvements are not reflected in the poorer parts of the world. It is imperative that we focus on regions and countries that have lacked progress and do all we can to educate and empower women in these places.
I care about the well-being of women, and I have spoken in your Lordships’ House on issues relating to female genital mutilation and forced marriages. Eighty per cent of cases of forced marriage involve girls. The Government have taken some positive steps on these issues, but it is important that we continue to address them through education and by encouraging the involvement of leaders and members of the communities in which these practices are taking place.
We are also very concerned about the use of rape as a weapon of war, which was debated in your Lordships’ House yesterday. I spoke then, and I shall reiterate a point that I made then. I am pleased that this Government have formed a UK team of 73 experts dedicated to combating and preventing sexual violence in armed conflict.
We should continue to lead by example, encouraging other countries to embrace the empowerment of women in the way that we have and inspiring our women, and indeed men, to continue extending and celebrating the reach and impact women can make in every facet of our lives.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for initiating this debate in celebration of International Women’s Day. The title of the debate enables us to roam far and wide, and we know that the issues are many and various, but I have chosen to concentrate my remarks on ways in which the situation of women can be improved by the actions and interventions of men and boys, which the Minister mentioned in her opening remarks. It was the subject of the thematic debate at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 2004 and 2009, and is reflected to some extent within the detail and requirements of a number of the millennium development goals.
Before we depress ourselves completely on the downside of the situation, let us consider how far, over the past 50 or so years, society’s view of women has moved on. Last year, my noble friend Lord Monks forwarded to me an e-mail entitled “Can You Believe This?”. The content of the e-mail consisted of a series of American 1950s newspaper and magazine advertisements commonly used at that time without a hint of irony or even a raised eyebrow. One is an ad for a Kenwood Chef food mixer. The man is saying, “The Chef does everything but cook, but that’s what wives are for”. His happy, smiling wife is looking very grateful. The second is for a vacuum cleaner, which is decorated with a lovely blue satin ribbon. A beautiful woman is lying on the floor beside the object, stroking it and reading the gift card. The wording on the ad says, “Christmas morning she’ll be happier with a Hoover”. I somehow doubt she was happy even then, but she certainly would not be now.
Of course things have moved on, and the advertising industry would not dream of suggesting such copy now, but media images of women still concentrate on a woman’s looks, size and age. Older women lose out on television and in theatre and film because there are so few strong and central roles available to them. Female presenters and newsreaders have to look perfect with not a coiffed hair out of place. This would not be so irritating if the same criteria were applied to men but, judging by some of the sights we see, this clearly is not the case. There is a big responsibility here for men at the top of TV and radio to recognise that this is not only silly and unfair but presents a skewed image of women and helps to promote the notion of woman as object.
Advertising and the media are not, of course, the only areas with room for improvement. Comments have been made this week by the previous Master of the Rolls, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, regarding the small number of female senior judges. He unsurprisingly comes out against positive discrimination, but positive action programmes could be used to help improve the balance. Special events not just for women but to which senior women from the legal profession are invited could be used to help those women get to know the senior men in the profession, and to help the senior men realise that women lawyers are not, after all, such a strange species, and that just like the men they too might have hopes of moving on and up.
The Government’s encouragement of the work of my noble friend Lord Davies in increasing the number of women on company boards is to be lauded and welcomed. However, the businessmen in those companies should not need to wait for government initiatives and pressure. They could, for example, introduce special training programmes to help bring forward some of the women already employed in the company so that they feel ready to move through the pipeline. It makes economic sense and helps to instil commitment to the organisation. Companies should also ensure that they have good return-to-work programmes enabling mothers to continue with their careers, and add to that by welcoming and encouraging paternity leave and flexibility for fathers.
Encouraging women to hold down senior positions in the public and private sectors, and ensuring that they can do so, should not be seen as some sort of extra-curricular activity, but still we continue to have to press the point home. Why, for example, are there not more opportunities for good quality part-time jobs? This is not rocket science, as was shown by two young women in 2005 who started an organisation called Women Like Us. This came about from frustrated conversations at the school gates between them and other young mums looking for decent part-time work. Linking their demands with the needs of local employers proved a very successful approach and, late last year, with the sponsorship of Ernst & Young, Women Like Us launched Timewise Jobs, a website dedicated to providing access to quality part-time professional employment vacancies.
Come on, all you male employers: use a bit of imagination and initiative. Not only will you be on the road to providing a better gender-balanced workforce, you will save money by not losing good and committed female staff who find it impossible to balance full-time employment with being a parent.
There are a million and one ways in which men could be more helpful and could use their influence to increase women’s chances and status. Most important is to start at the beginning, and to look at the role of families and education. It would be wonderful if all families were sufficiently well organised and caring of each other to allow us to say that the home is where appropriate influences should begin and end. It is of course key that we encourage parents to set a good example by treating each other with respect. Seeing fathers help in the home—cooking, tending children and so on—also provides good role models.
However, not all families are able or willing to do this, and the role of the state then becomes important. This could be encapsulated in the Department for Education’s personal, social, health and economic education programme. Unfortunately, this is not part of the core curriculum so many young people will not have the chance to look at life, women and girls in a different and, I hope, more respectful way. This is a missed opportunity on the part of the Government to be able to say that they are playing their part in ensuring that the gender gap, which manifests itself in so many ways in our society, is recognised as being in real need of attention, and that they will play a leading and strategic role in addressing the part that can be played by men and boys.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Since so much of what the commission does bears on the topics of today’s debate, I feel multiply interested, in every sense of the word. I am very grateful to the Minister for instituting this debate and for its length, which enables us to say a little bit more. Like many other noble Lords, I admired the right reverend prelate’s maiden speech; it reminded us of how deep some of these issues go.
International Women’s Day is always a time to reflect on the rights of women, proclaimed, of course, in the 18th century—as the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, reminded us—but secured only very gradually across many decades in many different countries, in many different legislatures and by the action of many different people. We should remember in all this that the rights of women are not to be contrasted with the rights of men; they are rights that today, as earlier, are claimed and defended in the name of our common humanity. They are affirmed in some of the great documents of the modern world: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950.
Earlier today at Question Time, there was reference to the question of whether the United Kingdom might withdraw from the European convention. I will just observe that the irritation that people express is often directed at the court, not at the convention. If we had a British Bill of human rights, I am pretty convinced that it would contain the same rights that are in the European convention, but of course we might lose touch with some of the necessary jurisprudence for interpreting those rights if we made such a shift.
However, we must all admit, and there have been many illustrations of this point, that the extension of rights to women is a very long-fought battle. It is a battle in which many countries have entered reservations, sometimes in order to afford additional protection to women—in matters such as night work, pregnancy or military service—but sometimes to differentiate the rights of men and women in areas such as family law, inheritance or succession. Hence the complexity of the process by which the United Nations has gradually inched the issue of women’s rights forward.
Despite continuing disputes about some of these reservations, though, the most remarkable thing is the progress that has been made in recognising the rights of women and girls, not merely—and proudly—in this country but across virtually every country in the world. There are, of course, still horrifying cases in which the rights of women are systematically ignored, where legislation does not restrict forced marriage or domestic violence, genital mutilation or—unmentioned so far but as serious as any of these—forced child-bearing. The deepened recognition and protection of women’s rights is one of the most profound social transformations of the past century, and it is to be greatly welcomed.
It is very easy to miss the profundity and scope of that transformation if one concentrates only on the human rights declarations and conventions. Human rights documents, in the nature of the case, set out certain aspirations. They seem lofty and abstract. The realisation of women’s rights is another matter, for rights are indeed no more than rhetoric if we do not secure the counterpart obligations. This fundamental point about rights was made with great elegance and accuracy by Clement Attlee, speaking in Scarborough in 1951. He asked,
“what kind of society do you want? We know the kind of society we want. We want a society of free men and women—free from poverty, free from fear, able to develop to the full their faculties in co-operation with their fellows, everyone giving and having the opportunity to give service to the community, everyone regarding his own private interest in the light of the interest of others, and of the community; a society bound together by rights and obligations, rights bringing obligations, obligations fulfilled bringing rights; a society free from gross inequalities and yet not regimented nor uniform”.
That statement has stood the test of 70 years very well. The phrase,
“rights bringing obligations, obligations fulfilled bringing rights”,
gives us a sense of what women’s rights are really about. I do not mean that we should focus once again on obligations or duties at the expense of rights, but we should acknowledge the indispensable interdependence of rights and obligations. Rights without duties are indeed mere rhetoric. Women’s rights are not going to be realised by proclamation—although proclamation has its point and there is a time for it—but rather by respect for and fulfilment of the corresponding obligations. These obligations are rather too often identified with securing legislation in each jurisdiction that enforces respect for the obligations necessary to secure and observe others’ rights. However, we now know that it requires more than legislation, legislation by itself is not enough to secure respect for rights. There is a tendency to imagine that in the case of human rights, all obligations lie with states. That is patently mistaken. Often, obligations lie with individuals and with the institutions of civil society, and the role of states and of legislation in particular is to back up and secure the performance of obligations, when that is the right way to secure respect for rights.
This point was clearly recognised in the 2011 report that has been referred to repeatedly today: Women on Boards. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch, noted that quotas risk leading to tokenism, but that substantial change could be achieved by companies focusing on the robust, commercial reasons for seeking diversity on boards. Why do you need someone who will clone your own views and experience? That is the very person you do not need. Diversity nearly always has good effects.
I finish by asking the Minister two questions. First, how well is the public service progressing in taking steps to encourage the appointment of a reasonable proportion of women to senior posts, and to the boards to which it makes appointments? Secondly, our progress in securing and supporting women’s rights is monitored under CEDAW, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The seventh periodic review of UK performance under CEDAW is now under way, and the UK Government will be discussing its progress in Geneva in July. Will the Minister undertake to secure a debate on progress, or lack of it, on these issues in your Lordships’ House?
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on her enthusiastic introduction to this debate. We are here again, another year older, another year wiser—or, if not, we are perhaps better informed—to celebrate International Women’s Day. I always look forward to this day. The annual debate gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on the place that women have in our society and how it has changed from year to year—a State of the Union debate for women, you might say.
Next year will see the centenary of the start of the First World War; a war that means much to me as my father was one of the millions who suffered the horrific conditions in the trenches. I would like us to quickly reflect on how far women have come since then. That Great War was a real turning point for women. The first “total war” effort demanded the mobilisation of the whole country. The traditional workforce of millions of men was sent out to battle. This created a need for new workers, a need that could be filled only by women. Truly significant numbers started work, but the impact of war on the employment of women meant that suddenly they were able to break into jobs that had previously been the preserve of men, such as heavy industry, munitions and police work.
Since then, each year has seen what may appear to be slight, incremental changes for us as individuals. When they are viewed as a whole, though, we can see the enormous progress that has been made from the time of Emmeline Pankhurst, who as a Tory has always been an inspiration for Conservative women. We have had universal suffrage, women attending university and now among the most highly qualified professionals in the country, women running businesses and of course, memorably, a female Prime Minister.
The year 2012 was particularly great for women in this country. We saw innumerable successes for British women: Olympians like Jessica Ennis and Victoria Pendleton; Paralympians like Ellie Simmonds and Sarah Storey; and above all Her Majesty the Queen celebrating her glorious 60-year reign. Of course we still have a significant way to go, but that is quite some progress in anyone’s books.
There are a number of highly commendable schemes out there to help women, but I would like to update the House on one particular small scheme that I mentioned last year. The Electrical Contractors’ Association hugely impressed me with its pilot scheme, Wired for Success, aiming to encourage young women into the electrical contracting industry through apprenticeships. Last year the scheme’s founder, Diane Johnson, the first woman president of the ECA, won a prestigious First Women award sponsored by Lloyds Banking Group and the CBI. Twelve women started the two-year Wired for Success course, which, when completed, will give them a qualification to work competently and safely in a domestic environment. There are now 10 women nearing the end of the course. Many of them were long-term unemployed and now relish the new-found confidence and opportunities in their lives. Jahmena Wilson-Duhaney, one of the Wired for Success trainees, says:
“It’s been good to be involved in repair and maintenance work, and get a real feel for the job. The course is much more enjoyable than I expected it to be. I hope one day to be able to start up my own all-female firm so I can provide services for those who would prefer a woman to come into their home to do any work”.
Another woman to have benefitted, Josephine Blackwood Demirkilic, went on:
“It’s a real confidence boost because I can understand what is happening and see how the things I have learnt are put into practice”.
This is just one of a handful of brilliant projects that are inspiring women to further success. Through this and other imaginative schemes, we can encourage today’s women to take their future into their own hands. Not only will this help our economy but it will ensure that we continue to build on the tremendous progress that women have made so far. Schemes such as this can act as a beacon for others to adopt. Increased employment must come from the private sector and, in these challenging times, it is so good to have seen a steady rise in the employment figures. Apprenticeships, which must be increased, have for many years been the preserve of men. It is therefore particularly pleasing to hear of women taking advantage of a scheme that will set them upon a path of advancement to a fulfilling and rewarding career.
I am certainly not complacent and unaware. I realise that there are women who are still in a hurry for further progress in every field. However, I think it is important that once a year we reflect for a moment on how far we have come, marvel and then move forward with renewed zeal.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for securing this debate to mark International Women’s Day, which allows me to raise the plight of women prisoners in the UK and to mark another noteworthy event: the groundbreaking report published six years ago this month by my noble friend Lady Corston. Thanks in large part to her review, there have been improvements in some aspects of treatment, notably the ending of the routine strip-searching of prisoners, but there is still much to do. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, for raising this issue so eloquently earlier; I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I restate some of her arguments.
There is a growing consensus that there are better ways to deal with young vulnerable women, often addicted, with mental health issues, unemployed, often homeless yet also parents, than by locking them up for short-term prison sentences for non-violent crimes. However, despite this consensus and the key recommendation by my noble friend Lady Corston in 2007 that custodial sentences for women must be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public, in 2010 68% of women in prison were still there for non-violent crimes.
My noble friend Lady Corston’s report set out the stark facts. Most women prisoners were mothers, some were pregnant and they were often drug users, with habits of £200 a day for crack and heroin. Many were alcoholics and many were unwell, in poor physical and mental health. Common experiences included sexual, emotional and physical abuse, leading to chaotic lifestyles. There was often self-harming.
The Corston report argued strongly that there are fundamental differences between male and female offenders and those at risk of offending that indicate that a different and distinct approach is needed for women. Proportionately more women than men are remanded in custody. Women commit a different range of offences from men. They commit more acquisitive crime and have a lower involvement in serious violence, criminal damage and professional crime. Relationship problems feature strongly in women’s pathways into crime. Coercion by men can form a route into criminal activity for some women. Drug addiction plays a huge part in all offending and this is disproportionately the case with women. Mental health problems are far more prevalent among women in prison than in the male prison population. Self-harm in prison is a huge problem and more prevalent in the women’s estate.
Women represent just under 5% of the overall prison population, standing at 3,967 this month. At the end of June 2012, 58% of sentenced women entering prison were to serve sentences of six months or less. The life chances of these women, even before offending, are severely disadvantaged. According to statistics published by the campaign group Women in Prison, one in four women in prison has spent time in local authority care as a child. Nearly 40% of women in prison left school before the age of 16—almost one in 10 were aged 13 or younger—and 30% were permanently excluded from school. Over half the women in prison report having suffered domestic violence, and one in three has experienced sexual abuse. In the prison population, 19% of women were not in permanent accommodation before entering custody and 10% of women were sleeping rough.
These already vulnerable women suffer more, once in prison. Women account for 47% of all incidents of self harm, and 30% of women as compared to 10% of men have had a previous psychiatric admission before they come into prison. Of all the women who are sent to prison, 37% say they that have attempted suicide at some time in their life; 51% have severe and enduring mental illness; 47% have a major depressive disorder; 6% suffer from psychosis; and 3% suffer from schizophrenia. Eighty-three per cent stated that they had a longstanding illness, compared with 32% of the general female population, and 73% were on medication on arrival at prison. The Ministry of Justice has admitted that women may be less able—for example, because of mental health issues—to conform to prison rules and therefore are often subject to higher rates of disciplinary proceedings than men.
Not only do women suffer grievously by being imprisoned but so do their families. It is estimated that more than 17,000 children are separated from their mothers each year by imprisonment. Only half of the women who had lived or were in contact with their children prior to imprisonment had received a visit since going to prison. Maintaining contact with children is made more difficult by the distance at which many prisoners are held from their home area. This is a particularly acute problem for women given the number of women’s prisons; in 2009, 753 women were held more than 100 miles from home.
These statistics prove the need to fully implement the Corston recommendation that community solutions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm, and that community sentences must be designed to take account of women’s particular vulnerabilities and domestic and childcare commitments. However, 80% of women sentenced to custody in the year to June 2011 had committed a non-violent offence, and only 3.2% of women in prison are assessed as high or very high risk of harm to others.
My noble friend Lady Corston rightly concluded against imprisoning women offenders who posed no risk to the public. She called for the closure of women’s prisons over a 10-year period and their replacement by some small custodial units for serious and dangerous offenders. However, currently there are still 13 women’s prisons in England.
The need for more women’s community centres to act as a real alternative to prison is critical to an effective and humane criminal justice system. Increasingly, though, despite the excellent work being done and the success rate in reducing reoffending, many of these centres are now under threat because of cuts to their funding.
This strategy of providing an alternative to custody also makes economic sense. As my noble friend said in her report:
“Problems that lead to offending—drug addiction, unemployment, unsuitable accommodation, debt—are all far more likely to be resolved through casework, support and treatment than by being incarcerated in prison. The vast majority of women offenders are not dangerous. Because most women do not commit crime there is no deterrence value and the cost to society is enormous, not simply the cost of keeping women in prison … but also the indirect cost of family disruption, damage to children and substitute care, lost employment and subsequent mental health problems. The continued use of prison for women appears to offer no advantages at huge financial and social cost”.
I hope that the long-awaited review of custodial arrangements for women promised for this summer will offer a radical alternative to sending women who commit non-violent crimes to prison, and will finally implement my noble friend’s ground-breaking report.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for putting this debate on the agenda. On this occasion I will speak on the experiences of Iranian women, whose access to education has been systematically curtailed over the past decade, and ask whether it would be possible for conditions allowing bright, qualified, English-speaking Iranian students who apply for universities and have the resources to be more easily admitted via the visa requirements. However, before doing so, I point out that the reason why the access of Iranian women to education has been severely curtailed by the Iranian Government over the past decade is the fear that, through education, they will gain familiarity with and knowledge of their Islamic rights.
Some 14 centuries ago Islam gave women rights that are the subject of discussion in this debate today. I will begin with the right of independent means. Muslim women never lose their property on marriage. As I said to my husband when I married him, what I have is mine—and what he has is mine too. The reason for that is, to follow the comment made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, the duty of reciprocity. That is to say, Muslim men first have the duty to pay for women to agree to sign a marital contract. Marriage is a matter of contract between consenting partners, and men must pay women to participate and sign in the first place. They can impose any condition they like, and these are contractually binding agreements.
Secondly, marriage and motherhood are not indivisible. The noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, raised questions about paying for childcare and motherhood. The reality is that Islam, 14 centuries ago, gave women the right to choose. If they chose to be mothers, they were entitled to payment, not by the state but by men—by their husbands. If they chose to do housework they were entitled to ask for payment—again, by their husbands. Therefore, essentially, rights that as a feminist in the West I have been fighting for ever since I have been in England were bestowed on Muslim women 14 centuries ago.
However, in order to exercise these rights women need to be familiar with the Koranic teachings and with what Islam offers them. This is the Iranian Government’s fear. In fact, they have two fears: the first is of women knowing their Islamic rights, and the second is the fear of the West—of West-toxification, of Iranian women being intoxicated by the West. They have nowhere to turn.
After the Iranian revolution, the post-revolutionary Iranian Government closed all universities in order to cleanse them of any kind of western influence. When they reopened the universities only 10% of university students were women, because women were deemed unsuitable to attend university. However, using their Koranic rights and the teachings of Islam, women fought, and within a decade they made up 18% of university places, eventually reaching 50% of the student population.
Far from seeing this as an achievement, the Iranian Government declared that this kind of access to education caused,
“social disparity and economic and cultural imbalances between men and women”.
This fear was exacerbated when women made further progress until they comprised 65% of students at universities, simply because they were willing to work harder; they passed entrance exams, which are set for all, and they did better than men. We all know that women often do better than men if they are given the chance.
By 2009, 68% of all graduates in the sciences at Iranian universities were women. This caused real fear on the part of the Iranian Government. Ayatollah Khamenei, the spiritual leader, ordered a second cleansing of university material—and Islamification all over again. As part of this, they felt that there had to be severe segregation between men and women; women would study particular subjects while men would study other, more suitable subjects. The result of that was that by the year 1213, 77 fields of study were considered to be male only, and therefore unsuitable for women. The one women-only subject was nursing; it was recognised that we might be good carers, but nothing else mattered.
There was also an idea that because the female dormitories were limited, fewer women would attend universities from towns other than Tehran. Furthermore, it was felt that educated women who accessed universities and read the limited range of subjects that they were allowed to study caused a very serious problem. First, they tended to marry later. Secondly, they tended to be much choosier about who they married and they preferred to marry men who were equally well or better educated than themselves, so the poor old uneducated men were left on the shelf. That was not considered acceptable. Of particular importance was the fact that educated women had fewer children. Following that, the Iranian Government have imposed draconian measures that have resulted in a number of prestigious universities, such as the Oil Industry University and Isfahan University, no longer admitting women. Those universities that do admit women limit them to a very restricted range of subjects. Human rights, English literature, women’s studies and a whole raft of subjects are considered unsuitable for women. I suppose they think that women might get interested in other subjects through reading English literature. At this crucial point it is very important to open doors for those Iranian women who are able to go to university to enable them to do so in countries such as the UK and to treat them as freedom fighters, not potential terrorists.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for securing this debate. I also extend my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry on his excellent maiden speech, which I watched on the screen upstairs. I must confess that I am still reeling from Question Time and the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Flight. I think that he may well be in the running for the title of dinosaur of the year.
My credentials are as follows. In the mid-1980s I was chairman of a public company in the tech sector. We were a fully listed company and we had a woman on our board, who was there because she was outstanding. She was in her late 30s and had just had her first baby. She brought her baby to a board meeting and breastfed it during the meeting. We reckon that we were the first company where that had occurred.
Today I wish to talk about a very special organisation called Women for Women International, on the main board of which my wife sits. It was set up in 1993 by a woman called Zainab Salbi, who was an Iraqi living in Baghdad and whose father was Saddam Hussein’s pilot. I think that it got too hot for everyone at that time and her parents moved to the United States. During the conflict in Bosnia she was smuggled into that country, went to Sarajevo and saw what was happening there. She became very interested in the whole concept of women in post-conflict zones, as Bosnia eventually became.
Today Women for Women International is located in both Washington and London and has helped 350,000 women, which I shall discuss in a moment. It operates in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan and Nigeria—all pretty tough countries. The ethos of this organisation is that stronger women build stronger nations and that, through access to know-how and resources, socially excluded women can change their countries and build peaceful and stable communities. The organisation creates awareness and behavioural change and organises year-long curriculums in which women are taught economic, social and civic rights, health awareness, decision-making, negotiating civic participation, business and vocational skills, how to access income-generating activities and, most importantly, economic self-sufficiency. A KPMG study of this body’s activities in the DRC and Rwanda states that Women for Women International’s programme is having a significant economic ripple effect, as other women in the community are learning from Women for Women graduates who are now viewed as role models in the community.
I want to say a little about my experiences. Three years ago I went to Bosnia for the first time and saw horrific things. I went to Srebrenica, of course. I am Jewish by background, and when you go to those memorials and see the names of the people who died, comprising family name after family name, it is very reminiscent of some of the memorials in eastern Europe to the dead of World War 2. Bosnia was the country that gave us such charming expressions as “ethnic cleansing” and “rape as a weapon of war”.
The Serbs took part in a particularly gruesome activity. In the Muslim community, a dead body has to be buried whole. When Muslim men were killed, the Serbs mixed up their bones so that it would be impossible to find whole bodies. However, since then and with the advent of DNA, the slow process of matching these bones has begun so that bodies can be buried whole. I saw mothers and wives eventually finding some form of closure following the deaths of their loved ones. I know that this is not a political debate but I find it impossible to accept that Serbia could ever become a member of the EU, given that there is so much for which it has not atoned in that awful situation. However, I shall leave that alone. We have a house in Italy that is 200 miles away from Bosnia as the crow flies. However, these activities have occurred in our lifetime and women have suffered as a result.
I have also visited Kosovo and Rwanda. The latter has experienced terrible genocide. Nevertheless, it is one of the happiest countries that I have ever been to. It is an amazing place. In 1945 the world said “never again”, but the fact is that it never stops. However, there is some good news. Women for Women International staff are teaching women in Bosnia to carry out important jobs. I have visited those activities. I went to a chicken farm, a mushroom farm and a tomato farm and saw women who produced embroidery and supplied it to a leading brand in the United States. In Kosovo we met a female beekeeper who had started with two hives, obtained with a microloan. She grew the business to 40 hives and was generating €5,000 a year for her family and teaching more women how to keep bees and make honey.
In Rwanda, which, as I say, is one of the happiest places I have even been to, a group of white women and I weeded and harvested in the fields under the noonday sun with machetes in our hands, although it was horrible to hold a machete in that country. Thank God, after 20 minutes they called it a day. We spoke to the women in that place and one of them asked me the question that throughout my life I have found the hardest to answer—namely, how many litres of milk does my cow provide? That was a tough question to answer.
I end with a few statistics that I think are terribly impressive. The average daily income of women trebles when women attend courses run by Women for Women International. The same is true of savings: 27% of the women are now saving. Knowledge of good nutrition has gone up from 20% to 85%. Knowledge of civil rights has gone up from 16% to 90%, and participating in social work has gone up similarly from 36% to 80%. The two most important statistics reveal that participating in community activities has gone up to 70% and voting up to 75%. I know that my time is up. I would just like to say that this is an amazing organisation, and I ask noble Lords to look it up on the website.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for her introduction to this debate. I also congratulate her friend, Julie, who I think will give the Co-op a run for its money.
As has been said, International Women’s Day gives us an opportunity to reflect on progress made and to call for change. To reflect on progress made, it is perhaps best to begin here in Parliament and in government. There are now 20 countries in which a woman is head of state or government or both, which is a small but upward trend, but fewer than one in five parliamentarians in the world are women. As someone has already said, at the current rate of progress a child born today will draw her pension before she has any chance of being equally represented in the parliament of her country.
In an IPU survey of women in parliaments in 190 countries, the UK has fallen from last year to joint 57th with Pakistan, even though the largest ever number of women candidates were elected in 2010, albeit only a 4% increase since 2000. There are currently only 22 women out of 122 government Ministers, four of whom are full Cabinet members. A third of those are actually in this House, and believe it or not I would like to see more of you here, albeit while we are still unelected.
The Minister mentioned the Prime Minister’s pledge to have a third of ministerial positions occupied by women by 2015, but sadly it looks as though that is not going to be met. It seems a distant time ago when there were eight Labour women around the Cabinet table. Sadly, this has not been the year when there might have been the possibility of change on the Bishops’ Benches. However, after the wonderful maiden speech by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, I hope we will not be waiting too long.
With selections happening now for parliamentary constituencies, we must all work even harder to improve the momentum for political parties to improve the numbers of women represented in Parliament. Women in parliaments everywhere can make a difference. Two weeks ago, on Valentine’s Day, parliamentarians from all parties joined the One Billion Rising campaign, which had organised a coalition of women around the world to sing and dance to stop violence against women. The theme of International Women’s Day this year is “A promise is a promise: time for action to end violence against women”.
Worldwide, 50% of sexual assaults are committed against girls under the age of 16. Over 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not yet considered a crime. Up to 70% of women in the world report having experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime, and over 60 million girls are child brides before they are 18. The One Billion Rising campaign in the UK ran workshops to find out what would make the biggest difference in addressing domestic violence. The overwhelming majority thought that a change in attitude had to start with education to prevent it happening in the first place and that sex and relationship education should be statutory in all schools. I would include free schools and academies in that as well. They are not alone. Most of the agencies that work in this field, including the PSHE Association, have also been campaigning for this.
I know that the Government have conducted a review of PSHE, and I hope the Minister will assure us that they have taken note of these informed voices and will indicate when the outcome of that review will be published. We need to move away from sex education that focuses exclusively on the reproductive aspects of adolescent sexuality and recognise that sexually active and sexually abstinent young people need information in order to be able to make informed choices. Currently, parents can withdraw their children from sex education up to the age of 19, even though the legal age of consent is 16. Horses and stable doors come to mind.
Schools have a vital role to play in helping young people develop healthy attitudes and behaviour, especially when figures show just how routine sexual bullying and harassment are in schools. One in three 16 to 18 year-old girls say they have been groped or have experienced unwanted touching. One in three teenage girls have experienced sexual violence from their boyfriends. We need specialist staff who are committed, experienced, mature and comfortable with this obviously sensitive issue. A recent survey by Brook showed that more than a quarter of secondary school pupils received no sex and relationship education and over a quarter of those who did reported that the teacher was unable to teach it well, so a greater emphasis on PSHE education in initial teacher training and in qualification programmes for head teachers is also needed.
Access to technology has changed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, has said. Mobile porn has replaced internet porn. Young people need help to distinguish between healthy relationships and unhealthy ones, especially as many have no example to follow at home. Research shows that boys have a higher tolerance of sexual violence than girls and need to be challenged at an early age about what is acceptable behaviour. However, new technologies and new ways of communication can play a helpful role. Thanks to a Twitter storm at the weekend, Amazon was forced to withdraw from its website T-shirts with slogans promoting rape and violence. “Keep calm and knife her” was one of the nicer ones that I can repeat. The company involved claimed that the slogans had been automatically generated using a scripted computer process, but no T-shirts denigrating men were on sale. So now we know that computers are also misogynist.
We need to give our children the knowledge and belief that they can make informed choices and the confidence to say no. If financial education can be made statutory in our schools, which I support, then surely a healthy relationship is just as important as a healthy bank balance.
On International Women’s Day, let us celebrate acts of courage and determination by women everywhere who have played a role in the history of their countries and their communities.
My Lords, I have always believed that it is one of the priceless privileges of our House that we can give a voice to the voiceless. In this excellent debate on International Women’s Day—I join others in thanking my noble friend for securing it—I want to lend my voice to a lady named Florence Ky’eeyse, who lives in a small plot of land on the outskirts of a village called Butale in Uganda. Her story comes to me from a very dear friend who knows her well. Florence is a 35 year-old, educated and dignified woman. She is a widow whose husband died seven years ago and she is bringing up two children—one boy and one girl—on her own.
Life for Florence is increasingly tough. Her late husband’s family keep trying to evict her from the land she inherited when her husband died. A woman’s property rights are often undermined when the husband dies. Bringing up her children is a struggle. She wants them to have a better life than she had, but she cannot afford the tuition fees. Only one child is entitled to free schooling at the mission school. Money is very tight. Her two- acre plot of land would once have supported the family, but in recent years Uganda, which had until recently a very balanced climate, has been suffering from the effects of extreme weather, and the banana trees, which provide the staple food, have been struck with banana wilt, a disease that kills them.
Florence works very hard growing matoke to scrape a living and keeps some chickens. In a good month her income is about 100,000 Ugandan shillings, which is about £25. From this she must keep her children fed, clothed and educated. There is no money for luxuries such as electricity, and water must be fetched from a well. Charcoal, which is increasingly expensive, is the only way to cook, and kerosene is used to light the house. Very occasionally, Florence and her family have some meat, but that is very rare because the chickens are too valuable to consume. While Florence earns 100,000 shillings a month, her outlay just to subsist is 103,000 shillings: a gap that is small but which is getting bigger. That is where the most terrible problem—the one I want to talk about today—bites. Florence has AIDS; she was infected by her late husband. Of her two children, one—her young son—is also HIV positive.
Too many, I fear, believe that the problem with HIV in Africa is getting better because of the increasing availability of antiretrovirals, and indeed there has been some welcome progress. However, Florence’s story tells us something different. There is no medical care in her village. There used to be a small clinic but it closed two years ago. The only place she can get medicine is in Masaka, 12 miles away. That would cost her 1,500 shillings in transport on a boda-boda, a local bicycle taxi: money that she does not often have. The alternative is to walk the 24 miles there and back, which means that she is unable to work on the land to earn money to keep the family, a vicious cycle of poverty and illness.
In short, Florence and her family have no access to life-saving drugs. She takes them irregularly when she can get hold of them, but that irregularity is doing her great harm. She goes to the hospital only when she is desperately ill, which happens all too frequently, because her and her son’s shattered immune systems leave them easy prey to infection. Malaria, too, is a real problem, and frequent bouts of that terrible illness leave them increasingly weakened. Antibiotics are expensive and frequently compromised or out of date.
All that means, I am afraid, is that Florence will die before too long—as I understand it, possibly in the next few months—and her son soon after. Her 14 year- old daughter, instead of completing her education, will have to nurse them, and watch what remains of her kith and kin leave her. It is another hard-working, educated, decent family entangled in an inescapable web of poverty and disease, and destroyed by AIDS.
Florence’s terrible story, replicated in thousands of cases all over Africa, contains one central point that we should remember on International Women’s Day; although there have been major advances in treating HIV and AIDS, many organisations ignore the fact that in the rural areas of Africa it remains next to impossible for those suffering to access the drugs that could save their lives. Even though the drugs are free, the distance and costs involved are beyond their reach. The problems are deeper than that, for women in rural Africa have always worked the land; often they are the primary workers. However, they cannot work the land if they are sick or making long journeys to find care. It is a cycle of despair that consumes them.
A few years back, a UN report on HIV and AIDS among women concluded that,
“one of the apparent cruelties of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is that women are at a biological disadvantage relative to men in terms of contracting the disease”.
Indeed, in sub-Saharan Africa, young women are 205 times more likely to be infected than young men. Little wonder that women now comprise 50% of people living with HIV worldwide. The burdens of stigma, discrimination and marginalisation combine with the harsh economic realities of life that I have just described to create conditions that mean that women such as Florence will continue to die in their tens of thousands. We cannot sit back and watch. It is surely time for a holistic policy approach to the treatment of HIV and AIDS among women in the developing world, one that tackles the problems that prevent them accessing life-saving drugs that those in the developed world take for granted. It is therefore not just about medicine but about infrastructure, transport and money.
I ask my noble friend to ensure that this issue stays close to the top of the Government’s agenda for tackling disease and poverty in the developing world. If the message from this House today and the actions of government within the international community and the NGOs are loud and clear, we could perhaps begin to end this spiral of disaster. To my deep regret, and to the shame of so many, that will be too late for Florence and her son. All I can do for them is send them a copy of the report of this House’s proceedings today and say, “Your voice has been heard”.
My Lords, I want to use my few moments to share with you some initial thoughts on the theme of respecting women in 2013. I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, for initiating the debate and especially for her moving story of the redoubtable Julie of Beeston. The people of Beeston are dying to support her. I also warmly welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry to our House, particularly his support for women bishops. He has his work cut out.
A glance around our world on International Women’s Day will show us that one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. According to UN Women, up to 70% of women in some countries face physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. In addition, some 140 million girls have suffered female genital mutilation, and millions will be subjected to forced marriage and trafficking, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh. We live in a world that most definitely does not respect women.
However, there is hope. Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women, pointed out this week that over the past few months, men, women and young people have taken to the world’s streets with signs aloft bearing the legend, “Where is the justice for women?”. They have declared solidarity with the Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousafzai, who is recovering in Birmingham, having been shot at point-blank range by the Taliban for defending the right of women to be educated. The demonstrators pledge justice for all raped women, including in the terrible cases in India and South Africa, as well for as the countless abused women who never make the headlines. The One Billion Rising campaign is truly a global fightback, as my noble friend Lady Nye has said, demanding renewed respect for women, with marches in Afghanistan, human chains in Bangladesh, dancing and singing events in Egypt, events in 126 cities in Germany this year, actions in the workplace through protest, and dance and the arts across the world, from Somalia to Australia.
War and sexual violence were ably debated yesterday in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield, and we must remember that poverty is a close relative of violence against women. It is crucial for the Government to remain true to the achievement of the millennium development goals in this respect, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said. Will the Minister report to us on progress towards the anti-poverty targets in those goals?
While we support campaigns and call for international targets to be achieved and aid budgets to be protected, we can of course apply even more pressure to implementing UK law where it exists to protect girls and women. I am thinking of the law already on the statute book, the intention of which is to protect little girls in this country at our state schools from the lifetime horror of female genital mutilation. The campaigning work on FGM of my noble friend Lady Rendell is rightly to be acknowledged, as is the work of the present and previous Governments on this issue. I welcome the Government’s announcement this week of £35 million towards the eradication of FGM. It is a national disgrace that some 24,000 girls living in Britain—some put the figure far higher—are under threat of being taken out of the UK to be tortured in this barbaric procedure. Why, we must ask, after 30 years of law on this issue, have there been no prosecutions? I would like to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing to encourage prosecutions. I am not claiming that the issue of FGM is anything but complex and multifaceted, but surely bringing prosecutions must at least be part of the mix of solutions to this shameful practice.
Also close to home, our attention in the political arena has been drawn to how we respect pregnant women in this country. The Autumn Statement heralded a cut of £180 a year from pregnant mothers who take maternity leave and care for their babies. It is just over 20 years—with a little help from a European directive that I was closely involved in—since UK mothers finally began to see an upward trend in their maternity rights. We call on the Government to ensure that, 20 years on, new mothers will not see those rights and that maternity pay diminish.
Those of us who received briefings this week from the national charities Maternity Action and the Refugee Council on their recent report When Maternity Doesn’t Matter were disturbed to learn of the impact of the dispersal policies of the UK Border Agency on pregnant refugee and asylum-seeking women. What response are the Government making to this very important report, especially to its recommendation that no pregnant woman should be dispersed in this country after 34 weeks’ gestation, or sooner than six weeks postnatally?
On the subject of respecting women, I recommend last month’s moving speech by Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach of Ireland, on how the Irish Government would have to own up to the wrong that was done to so many hundreds of Irish girls and women put away in the infamous Magdalene laundries in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. It is a speech well worth reading.
In conclusion, I quote from the recently published history of stoicism, Philosophic Pride by Christopher Brooke. I declare an interest: he is my son-in-law— no mother-in-law jokes, please. He refers to Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th century feminist, already mentioned by my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve. I did not realise this, but Mary Wollstonecraft was favourably oriented to stoicism and she said:
“Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers—in a word, better citizens. We should then love them with true affection, because we should learn to respect ourselves”.
Some 221 years on, I say amen to that.
My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate and thank the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, for her gracious contribution. The Minister referred to yesterday’s debate in this House about sexual violence. I was unfortunately unable to take part because, for a rare moment, the role of motherhood triumphed and I attended a parents’ evening. Had I been present, I would have commended our Government’s progress in eradicating the use of rape as a weapon of war.
I begin by saluting my noble sister Baronesses across the House, if I may be allowed to call them sisters. I salute them for their tenacity, resilience and contribution to enhancing our public life. It is not often that we give a roll call to our own champions and heroines. Therefore, I want to remember that our Parliament has been enriched by the contributions of Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler; the noble Baronesses, Lady King of Bow, Lady Howells of St Davids, Lady Amos, Lady Young of Hornsey, Lady Falkner of Margravine, Lady Flather and Lady Prashar; the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland; and the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, who just reminded us about the strength of our faith and all those who use our faith to incite prejudice and discrimination.
All these women continue to inspire our generation and young women and men. As the first Muslim appointed to this House, I have found it staggering that it took more than a decade to get our act in order. A layer of discrimination has been broken by honourable Members in another place with the election of Rushanara Ali, Yasmin Qureshi, Shabana Mahmood, Seema Malhotra, Valerie Vaz, Priti Patel, Helen Grant and Chi Onwura. These women have given strength to Parliament. Theirs are the hitherto missing voices of Asian and black women in Parliament. Their collective entrance to the mother of Parliaments demonstrates that British-born women of minority heritage are just as capable and confident as any others. Access to networking opportunities prevents many more participating in the political process and holding office. As well as those in the other place, I also acknowledge the work of the noble Baronesses, Lady Warsi and Lady Verma, who contribute as Ministers to this Government.
There are significant and positive changes from women entering the political arena. Recently, through the work of the IPU, the CPA and the John Smith Memorial Trust, I had the honour of meeting women parliamentarians from Ghana, Uganda, Oman and, more recently, two of the 30 women appointed to the Saudi Shura Council. Each year as this day approaches, I, like others, am full of complex emotions. While women of course have the vote and are present in all our professions and businesses, and are afforded legal protection from harm and discrimination, the reality of many women’s lives continue to be blighted and stain our claim to an equal and just society.
The number of women active in our economy has grown. Those who have been educated are doing much better. Childcare provision is available, albeit expensive. None the less, this is not so for all our communities. Women from minority communities continue to stay behind in the job market—if they are present at all—and continue to face impossible odds to succeed in senior management positions and on boards. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said about work to improve representation on boards. I hope he will also remember that women on boards should reflect the country that we live in. These sorts of discriminatory practices prevail whether in the public or private sectors.
Although we say we believe that our society respects and values women, every day women are afflicted, abused, raped, forced into marriage and suffer genital mutilation, which the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, spoke about eloquently. They are also raped in war to accomplish military objectives as a weapon of war. Many women with these experiences are British or have come to Britain seeking refuge. Shockingly, women continue not to be believed when they report blatant acts of abuse, violation and brutality. I need not remind noble Lords that I am not referring to a phenomenon elsewhere, but to the position of women who reside in our country and are British citizens.
The noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, also referred to women’s looks, which can lead to discrimination in office, opportunities and public life. This is the experience of many Muslim women who have spoken about discrimination against them as a result of wearing the hijab.
I welcome the right reverend Prelate to his place and add my name to his call for remembering those women who perished in the world wars. This month the Bangladeshi community here and in Bangladesh has celebrated its language movement, which led to the war with Pakistan, in which an estimated 300,000 women were raped and many subsequently died. I want to take this opportunity to remember and honour them, and pray that they will also receive justice in due course.
Two nights ago I attended an amazing and unique event. Of course, many of us attend many different events. This one celebrated motherhood. Surprisingly, all the mothers were nominated by daughters. Not one single son had nominated his mother. I do not know whether to be surprised at that, as a mother of four sons. I was not nominated; I was there to give an award. But it reminded me of the tenacity of my own mother. I forgot to say that. In the spirit of the joy of everyone present and how much they shared about the values of motherhood, I thought that I had best leave my mother alone. However, I want to take this opportunity today to say that I very much value my mother, who is a strong and courageous woman who came to Britain after the war in Bangladesh, and is a source of strength, love and inspiration to my brothers and sister, her grandchildren and my grandchildren.
Let us keep the promise to one another and to all women across the world that we will continue to root out inequality and injustice.
My Lords, it is always a huge pleasure to take part in this debate. I, too, am grateful to the Minister. As ever, I am in awe of the amount of experience, passion and expertise which Members of your Lordships’ House bring to the subject. This far down the batting order—we have had quite a few sporting metaphors today—it is difficult to think of anything new to say, but I just want to say a bit about public service.
All my working life has been in public service. I have never worked in the private sector. I have worked for local authorities, for the NHS or in the voluntary sector. Because I know what a hugely fulfilling experience this has been, I am concerned, even appalled, by recent reports about the fact that the number of women in British public life is plummeting; that there are fewer women now in senior positions in the judiciary, the arts, education, finance, the Civil Service and government than 10 years ago. Nearly 40 years after the Sex Discrimination Act and despite a huge influx of women into professions such as law and medicine at the lower end, as we have heard today, the glass ceiling for senior positions remains very firmly uncracked.
I count myself extremely fortunate to be able to sit in a legislature without standing for election, because of the peculiar institution that is the House of Lords. I know that it is ironic that I am saying that we should have more representation of women when I sit in a House that has only 21% women and, although we have many bishops, no women bishops, as the marvellous maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate has reminded us. It is of concern to me, and should be to all women, that we are 51% of the population, but only 22% of the House of Commons and a bit over 21% here.
A high point came in 2008 when Gordon Brown appointed Jacqui Smith as the first female Home Secretary. Before the Labour Government in 1997, only 40 female MPs had ever held ministerial office. By the time that Government ended, that had risen to 80; indeed, at that time women held a third of all ministerial posts. Currently, I am sad to say, many departments have no women Ministers at all, in spite of the ambition of the Prime Minister, which we have heard about several times.
Of course, many of the institutions that have promoted women have been abolished: the Equalities Office, the Women’s National Commission, to name two; and of course the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has been amalgamated with other institutions.
It bothers me greatly, as I know it does other noble Lords, that there is a perception that the battle for equality was won a while ago—by my generation, perhaps—but it is simply not true. Some people might say that it does not matter but I contend that having an 80/20 split rather than a 50/50 split has a damaging effect on our political life and on our social and cultural life as well.
Why do we find ourselves going backwards? One reason might be lack of leadership from the top. We still have a female Home Secretary, and other women do very well in some branches of industry, but the fact that there are so few sends a message to other women. Is the treatment by the media of women in public life harsher than it is for men? I contend that it is and that may also put women off.
The hours here and in the other place are not family-friendly, as we know. They are better than they were, especially in the House of Commons. The House of Lords is notorious for starting a debate on family-friendly hours at 10.30 pm. In fact, I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, was due to make her maiden speech in that debate.
We do a little better than that now, but perhaps not all that much better. Perhaps the image that politics is an inherently sexist arena—recent events may have reinforced that image—is also not welcoming to women.
We have also heard that it is hard to give up power. Power largely resides in the hands of men, who understandably want to retain it. Inadequate childcare is certainly a factor. A recent survey shows that two out of three local authorities are failing to fulfil their statutory obligation to provide childcare, despite the progress that the Minister mentioned. If the lack of support in the childcare area is a factor, how much more this is true of women who have caring responsibilities for older or disabled relatives.
It is in all our interests to enable those women, many of them over 50, to remain in the workforce. We need them to provide care but also to be able to continue to combine caring with paid employment. Their contribution to the economy is vital in both roles but we must also ensure that the caring role does not of itself lead them to live in poverty or build up poverty for the future because of a lack of pension contributions or savings. I am pleased to say that, yesterday, Carers UK launched an inquiry into caring and family finances, examining the costs of caring and the impact that caring has on the ability to work, with the aim of influencing policy in this area.
So far as public service goes, we must ask: what can we do about it? We can get better leadership from the top. We can stop rubbishing the idea of public service. Too often we hear that civil servants are interested only in bureaucracy. We must talk up public service.
We must have parity on interview panels, because we tend to appoint or choose people in our own image. Having appointed dozens, probably hundreds, of people in my time, I know that men tend to oversell themselves while women go the other way and undersell themselves. In that regard, increasing the self-confidence of women is all-important. Those of us who have been reasonably successful in public life owe a duty to our daughters and granddaughters to build that confidence so that the whole of society can benefit.
My Lords, your Lordships’ House stages an International Women’s Day debate each year but it is not normally opened by a Minister. The noble Baroness deserves much credit for doing so on this occasion.
Tomorrow marks the 105th International Women’s Day. Over the period since 1977, when the United Nations adopted the day, the rights of women have certainly progressed. Of course, much more is required and, as the UN says, International Women’s Day celebrates,
“the achievements of women while remaining vigilant and tenacious for further sustainable change”.
At least there is now global momentum for championing and extending women’s equality.
Emphasis needs to be placed on the importance of employing women to participate in the growth of economies around the globe, especially in under-developed nations, because although many women worldwide contribute to their own country’s productivity, they continue to face many barriers that prevent them realising their full economic potential. This is not something that only holds back women, it holds back general economic performance and growth. According to a recent International Labour Organisation report, the percentage of women in employment globally was roughly 50%. In north Africa, women accounted for 24% of employment, and in the Middle East generally, it was just 15%. That represents vast untapped potential for economic growth.
Each year around the world, International Women’s Day is celebrated through thousands of events, not only on 8 March but throughout this month, to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women. Organisations, governments, charities, educational institutions, women’s groups, corporations and the media celebrate the day. Tomorrow, the UN will itself mark International Women’s Day with an event at its headquarters in New York opened by the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The UN women’s executive director, Michelle Bachelet, will deliver the message that discrimination and violence against women and girls have no place in the 21st century. “Enough is enough”, she will say, in a message of both outrage and hope that discrimination and violence must end.
Such is the extent to which International Women’s Day is marked in the UK that a total of 387 events in all parts of the country are listed on the UN’s website. That is more than 25% of all events worldwide scheduled for tomorrow. I glanced at the list, and it really is an imaginative mix of events of all types, many involving children. An event that particularly caught my eye was called, Suffragettes—A Liverpool Story, highlighting the struggle of women for the right to vote as it evolved within that city. Of course that is particularly apposite as we are now just three months away from the centenary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the incredibly brave woman who took the suffragette movement’s slogan “deeds not words” to its ultimate and tragic conclusion. She, of course, lost her life stepping onto the course at the Epsom Derby to protest for votes for women in a heroic but fatal action that helped electrify the movement and the cause.
Further afield, I noticed earlier this week, an all-female climbing team supported by the United Nations reached the summit of Africa’s tallest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro, in celebration of International Women's Day. The team, made up of women from Nepal and three African countries, participated in the expedition as a way of raising awareness of the importance of women's rights, in particular the need for education for all girls.
However, it has not all been good news, and contrasting with the many positive stories of this week there was one that represented a set back. Two days ago it was announced that the annual United Nations-organised marathon in Gaza will not take place this year due to disagreements with Hamas government officials who have insisted that no women should participate, in a sign of how some men still believe that it is appropriate to try and control women's lives and reminding us how necessary is the focus provided by International Women’s Day.
A further, sinister, example of some men's prejudices against women emerged as recently as last week. The internet sales company Amazon was advertising T-shirts for sale which encouraged violence against women, using slogans that I will certainly not repeat, although one went so far as to encourage rape. The garments were removed as soon as both Amazon and the company selling the T-shirts began to be bombarded with texts, tweets and emails expressing outrage. However, it is instructive that someone, somewhere, must have sat down and drafted these slogans, clearly from the viewpoint that they were not only acceptable but that people—men of course—would be willing to buy them and then wear them, publicly stating that they regarded women as suitable objects for serious violence in various forms. It is telling that the company that produced the T-shirts was initially surprised at the reaction. I am pleased to say it soon got the message, which was rammed home in no uncertain terms as widespread anger inundated its social media sites, all of which had to be closed down as a result. The company said that it had received death threats and that its Twitter account was bombarded with scores of angry messages, many of which said, “Rape is not a joke”. It is appalling that in 2013 people still need to be reminded of that self-evident truth.
I want to highlight today one of the enduring issues surrounding the campaign for women’s equality. That concerns the pay gap between men and women. I have had an interest in that issue for a considerable time. Indeed, my university thesis in 1974 was on the implementation of the Equal Pay Act. It may be recalled that, although that Act got onto the statute book in 1970, there was a five-year lead-in period for employers to make the changes necessary to accommodate the legislation. That was always an optimistic aim, but I doubt that anybody then would have thought that, 40 years later, more than a quarter of the gender pay gap would remain to be filled. In 1975, women earned 36% less than median male hourly earnings; the latest available figure, which was issued in April last year in the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, is 9.6%. That represents the comparison between full-time workers, and excludes overtime earnings. But, of course, more men than women work overtime, and more women than men work part time, so the 9.6% figure gives a distorted view of the gap in actual take-home pay between men and women. Taking all employees into account, the gender pay gap in 2012 was 19.7%.
So only three-quarters of the journey that began four decades ago has been completed and much remains to be done before the destination is reached. Some years ago—2006 to the best of my knowledge—the report of the Women and Work Commission was published. The commission was ably led by my noble friend Lady Prosser, from whom we heard earlier in this debate. That report demonstrated that the gender pay gap in Britain was then one of the worst in Europe. Six years on, progress has certainly been made, but many of the underlying issues that underpin and perpetuate the gap remain.
I cite one example. There has been much publicity in recent years over certain public sector jobs where pay discrimination has been tolerated for years; too often, it should be said, with the connivance of the trade unions of which those women were members. Now, following industrial tribunal decisions and in some cases courts at the highest level, local authorities and some health authorities are faced with massive bills to give women the back pay that is due to them. That is a difficult situation for them as employers, but it is not the women's fault that the discrimination was allowed to persist for so long. It is totally unfair that some should attempt to make them feel guilty for seeking what is rightfully theirs. Public sector bodies ought to have seen this coming and acted accordingly. Some of them have claimed that they now face a choice between their legal commitments and maintaining services. They should face up to their responsibilities and ensure that women do not need to return to court to receive the fair settlement due to them. One means of dealing with this may be to offer an immediate lump sum, with staged future payments which would have the effect of enhancing women’s pensions over the years.
There are different issues in the private sector, where there is often much less transparency. I have spoken to people who say that they have been told by employers that disclosing their pay to work colleagues constitutes a disciplinary offence. That is surely unacceptable because it is no more and no less than a device to enable employers to pay less, certainly not more, than a fair rate, and it hurts female workers disproportionately. It also highlights the need not just for collective bargaining, but for trade unions to enforce it and to continue campaigning for equality of treatment for all in the workplace.
In conclusion, in almost all countries, women continue to be under-represented in decision-making positions. Women's work continues to be undervalued, underpaid, or not paid at all. That is why International Women’s Day is so important. It spells out our responsibility to work for enduring change in values and attitudes, a message clearly enunciated by noble Lords participating in this debate today.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, on initiating this debate, and particularly congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry on his great maiden speech. We look forward to more speeches from him as time goes on. My maiden speech was referred to in this debate. I have to say, it happened not just to me but to the noble Baronesses, Lady Uddin and Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. We all made our maiden speeches about family-friendly working hours at 10 o’clock at night. Indeed, my children were in the gallery in their pyjamas watching me at the time.
We have had some brilliant speeches today. I am particularly drawn to the comments by the noble Baroness, Lady Heyhoe-Flint, about barriers to women in sports and clubs, being stuck in the car park, and so on. It reminded me of an experience I had about 30 years ago when I decided to throw my hat in the ring for selection for a by-election in Bradford, which is where I am from. I turned up to one of the selection meetings at a working men’s club. I was the only woman who was being seen. All the men walked in to take part in the meeting, but I was not allowed to walk in—I had to be signed in by the secretary of the club, because women were not allowed to be members. I am happy to say that I doubt whether that goes on in working men’s clubs these days.
International Women’s Day is a day for celebration, there is no doubt of that, and I am sure that noble Lords and the Minister will all be joining women across the world in singing “One Woman”, the International Women’s Day song which will be launched tomorrow. It is a musical celebration of women world wide, featuring more than 20 artists from across the world. Unlike the Minister, when the first International Women’s Day was launched by the United Nations in 1975, I was at the London School of Economics and the women’s group there had a party to celebrate it. However, I do not remember much about it.
As the Minister said, thousands of events will take place not only tomorrow but throughout the month of March to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women. As has already been mentioned by noble Lords, the theme which has been declared by the United Nations for 2013 is, “A promise is a promise: time for action to end violence against women”. In 2012 the theme was, “Empower rural women: end hunger and poverty”. In fact, every year since 1975 there has been a different theme. Parliaments and countries can choose their own theme for International Women’s Day, of course. In 2012, the European Parliament used a theme around equal pay for work of equal value. We can be proud of the 400 events in the United Kingdom. As my noble friend said, the United Nations website indicates that the UK is the most active country in the world in terms of celebrating International Women’s Day. It could be that other countries have not bothered to send in what activities are taking place, and certainly I am in favour of a few flowers being presented.
We can be proud of the role played by the UK on the international stage, and particularly of our role in the creation of UN Women, the United Nations entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women. When it was founded, the United Nations took an historic step in accelerating the organisation’s goals on gender equality and the empowerment of women. I am particularly proud that during the time I was in government with Harriet Harman and as part of the equalities team, we were key to the promotion and establishment of UN Women. In fact, on one occasion I had a tiny part to play. I was sent to an international women’s event and my job was to lobby some of the leading women from around the world to persuade them to persuade the United Nations to cough up the money to establish UN Women. That lobby included Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia. I have to say that she was one of the most impressive people that I have ever met in my life—and of course she was completely solid on the objectives we had in mind. I also congratulate the Government on the fact that they have continued to support and fund UN Women; indeed, according to the annual report which I read recently, they have increased their contribution.
It is certainly true that the United Nations has made significant progress over many decades in advancing gender equality through landmark agreements such as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women—CEDAW—which was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. It is also true to say that the United Kingdom is represented at all these bodies by cross-party groups of women. It is to the credit of this country that whichever Government are in power, they have undertaken to take representative groups of women to all of these events. I know that many of my noble friends have taken part in them over the years, particularly my noble friend Lady Gould.
In the Labour Party we are proud of the historic role we have played in supporting gender equality over the years. That support goes right back to the days of supporting the family allowance being paid to women. Moreover, Votes for Women was part of our original platform when we were founded as a party. We have supported all the equality legislation since the Second World War: the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Equal Pay Act 1970, maternity rights and domestic violence legislation, the Equality Acts 2006 and 2010; and support for women at work and parents with children. As my noble friends Lady Nye and Lady Pitkeathley mentioned, we have the best record of any UK political party in terms of women’s representation with more women MPs than all the other political parties put together. We have near-equal representation of women and men in the devolved bodies, and many women representing their local communities on councils up and down the country.
I have absolutely no doubt that the two Ministers seated opposite me are totally committed to the representation of women in their parties and that, along with their colleagues, they have worked and endeavoured over the years to try to increase the representation of women. Indeed, I know they have done that because I have spoken about this to women in other political parties over many years. But the fact remains that if our political parties are left to their own devices in their selection processes—I include my own in this—predominantly, they are going to select men. That is why the Labour Party went down the road of all-women shortlists, and that is why in our target of 80 seats for the next general election—this is set out in a document that we published last week or the week before—half of the selections will be made from all-women shortlists. That is because we are determined that we should have a Parliament that represents the electorate and is at least 50% women. However, we cannot do that on our own. We need the other political parties to take positive action. I do not enjoy the fact that we force our constituency Labour parties to pick women candidates, but the reality is just as I have said: if left to their own devices, all but the most progressive will select men as their candidates, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Do we really believe that women are any less capable than men as politicians? I will just point to the fact that our all-women shortlist system has delivered a more representative and stronger Parliamentary Labour Party with a new generation of talented women MPs. I mention Rachel Reeves, Gloria De Piero, Stella Creasy, Bridget Phillipson and Luciana Berger. All of them were selected on all-women shortlists and I would dare anybody to suggest that they are second-class candidates or second-class representatives of their communities; of course they are not. It shows that positive action works. The challenge I would like to pose to the other political parties is that they have to take action if we are going to hit the target of 50% women in our Parliament.
I should like to raise two other matters because although this is a time for celebration, there are a couple of things that we need to look at. The first concerns older women—and I include myself in the group. We are a generation of active older women who have led very different lives from those of our mothers. We are the first generation, if you like, who have been doing it all. We have had jobs and we have brought up families. Some 71% of women aged between 45 and 64—I am towards the upper end of that group—think that employers offer too few opportunities to older women when recruiting staff. In 1983, only 13% of older women thought that. We live longer and we are in better health than our mothers were at our age. However, this group is losing out the most from the Government’s pension changes because they will have to continue working longer than they expected. This generation is angry about being regarded as “past it”, being overlooked for responsibility and promotion, and being prioritised for redundancy. Some of us are very annoyed that the wisdom and experience of older women are not valued in the same way as they are for older men. That is exemplified by the portrayal of older women on television, as we all know.
These women—I include myself—are holding families and communities together, a point made by the right reverend Prelate. We pick up the pieces. We look after the grandchildren because childcare costs are going up. We care for our elderly relatives as social care services are shredded. We are the ones being stretched in every direction. It is time that public policy caught up with this generation of older women. In the Labour Party we have launched the Commission on Older Women, chaired by Harriet Harman MP, to investigate the policy implications for women in their fifties and sixties and what they are facing, and to look for longer-term policy solutions. The commission will focus on older women in the workplace, older women and their caring responsibilities, and older women in public life. All I can say is: watch this space, because I think that the commission is going to produce some interesting results.
I turn now to the earlier end of women’s lives and the position of younger mothers. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, said that the Government have helped women, are positive about them, and are doing a great deal for them. In some senses they are, but I think we need to look at the objective evidence because some of it points in the opposite direction, particularly for young mothers. David Cameron promised to lead the most family-friendly Government ever, but since this coalition Government came to power, new mums have been among the hardest hit by the coalition’s tax and benefit changes. From April this year, the Government will restrict maternity pay to a 1% annual increase and by 2015, in real terms, this cut in maternity pay will effectively be a £180 “mummy tax” on working women, on top of the additional cuts being faced by new mums. Nationally, up to 1.2 million people, including previous children and dads alongside mums, will be affected by the mummy tax each year. We estimate—this is from the House of Commons Library so is almost certainly true—that 210,000 new mums will be hardest hit by this cap. That is why the Labour Party is launching a campaign for this International Women’s Day and for Mothering Sunday called “mums not millionaires”. At the same time as the Government are cutting taxes for people earning over £1 million, the figures compiled by the House of Commons Library confirm that the lowest-paid new mums will lose £1,300 during pregnancy and the baby’s first year, and a further £422 from cuts to child benefit over the same period. This is not a women-friendly agenda. As we celebrate this day, we should be looking at the facts and figures and not just the words and exhortations.
In conclusion, I join with everyone in the House in this celebration of women, their achievements and the progress they have made. However, as my noble friends Lady Massey and Lady Crawley said, this is a long road that we tread. As the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, my noble friend Lord Mitchell and the noble Lord, Lord Black, said, this is a very tough road indeed for millions of women across the world. We should not forget that it was through political activity—sometimes militant political activity—that women won the vote and have made possible the progress that we celebrate today.
I make no apology for the political nature of my speech. If women do not push hard in every area, we will not make progress. Progress may sometimes be noisy and many millions of women have had to be very brave over the centuries. On International Women’s Day, we should remember with gratitude all those women to whom we owe so much.
My Lords, the debates in the House of Lords for International Women’s Day are always outstanding and this one has been no exception. There is such a huge range of experience and commitment among your Lordships in this area that it is a great privilege for me to respond for the Government. I start by paying a particular tribute to right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, who chose to make his very moving maiden speech in this debate today and who will clearly make a major contribution to our debates in the Lords. I welcome him and, with him, hope that it will not be too long before we do indeed hear a maiden speech from a woman bishop.
We have marked International Women’s Day for more than a century, and it is right that we do so. The lives of women in this country have been transformed over that century, as my noble friend Lady Seccombe so clearly showed. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, noted this as the most profound social transformation, and she is surely right. For many of us, we are the first in our families to go to university, yet our daughters, as well as our sons, expect nothing less should they wish to do so. We have the vote and the right to own property, to be employed on equal terms and not to belong to our husbands, fathers or, for that matter, to our sons. However, as noble Lords have made very clear in their speeches, inequalities persist: women earn less and we have by far the larger responsibility for children, the home and the care of elderly relatives as well as working. As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and others pointed out, women are less likely to be in the House of Commons or House of Lords, on boards, at the top of companies, in our Supreme Court, among our judges, on our sports boards, editors of newspapers and so on. We see progress but sometimes it seems to be at a snail’s pace. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, said, it is a long road. Where women are not able to fulfil their aspirations to play their full part, in whatever way that might be, as my noble friend Lady Stowell so effectively explained in relation to her friend Julie, that is quite simply a loss of talent. Our economy and, more importantly, entire society miss out.
Supporting the most vulnerable in our society has been fundamental to our approach. That is why we are cutting tax for more than 23 million working people, lifting 2 million out of income tax altogether, the majority of whom are women. We are making changes to our state pension that will provide enormous benefits to older women, who may have broken records or contributions because they took time out to care for children or the elderly. Our ring-fencing the health budget particularly assists women, who are greater users of healthcare than men, whether through maternity care, through taking their children for care or in later life. Our acceptance of the Dilnot proposals, addressing an issue that has plagued our health and social care system since the establishment of the NHS, and about which no party in power since has been willing to do anything other than undertake yet another inquiry, is game-changing. Noble Lords will recall that it is women who are disproportionately the recipients and givers of care.
We want to support women, empower them and, most importantly, transform the opportunities available to them. We are investing in education, expanding our apprenticeship programme and improving careers advice to encourage young women to make ambitious choices. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, suggests, there are areas of the labour market where women still seem invisible. We need to encourage women to choose subjects such as science, technology and engineering at A-level and at university to enable them to flourish in today’s economy. We are introducing shared parental leave, extending the right to request flexible working to all and working with business to ensure more women are in the boardroom.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked about progress in relation to women on boards. As my noble friend Lady Stowell said at Question Time, since the noble Lord, Lord Davies, issued his report, the proportion of women on boards has increased from 12.5% to 17.3%. As of yesterday, there are now only six all-male boards. The Women’s Business Council will also be making recommendations on how we support women executives progressing up the executive ladder. I do not think that there is a shortage of potential talent. I was a trustee in a leading organisation, and when I stood down I urged that more women should be appointed. However, I was told there were none. I mentioned a name; they said, “Yes, but besides her, there aren’t any”. I mentioned several others; and, as with the “Life of Brian” and the Romans, they said “Yes, but besides those there aren’t any”. To my satisfaction, that board is now chaired by one of the women I recommended.
We have role models elsewhere. This summer, we have seen so many. London 2012 was a triumph for women’s sport, showcasing positive role models such as Jess Ennis, Victoria Pendleton and Ellie Simmonds, as my noble friend Lady Heyhoe Flint made so very clear. Hearing my noble friend on the subject of various sexist golf courses reminded me of an experience I had in Saudi Arabia. I was part of a parliamentary delegation staying in a very western hotel. I hope that my noble friend Lady Heyhoe Flint will appreciate that I took my swimsuit with me and, one evening, went down to the pool to swim. I was told that I could not because it was not the “women’s hour” to swim. I asked when the women’s hour was and was told that there was not one. There are more women taking part in sport but there is clearly so much more that we need to do and, as my noble friend Lady Heyhoe Flint has made clear, we need to do so much more especially in the running of sports. UK Sport and Sport England have included an expectation that all the national governing bodies will have at least 25% women on their boards by 2017.
As well as discrimination, girls and women face very serious challenges, including violence. Various noble Lords have made reference to that, and I assure my noble friend Lord Sheikh and others that we seek to tackle violence against women and girls and take it very seriously. We have protected central government funding for tackling violence against women and, last year, we announced that forced marriage will now become a criminal offence in England and Wales. We are also clear that we will change damaging behaviour only when we have changed the underlying attitudes that cause that behaviour, a point referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Nye. Prevention is key, which is why, with our teenage relationship abuse and rape prevention campaigns, we are helping young people to recognise abuse and understand when to seek help. The noble Baroness, Lady Nye, asked about PSHE and when the outcome of the review will come through. The Government’s internal review was extended to take account of the outcome of the wider national curriculum review and the Department for Education expects to make an announcement shortly. I assure her and my noble friend Lady Benjamin that the statutory guidance for sex and relationship education makes clear that schools should ensure that young people develop positive values, realising that this certainly applies to sexual relationships.
The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, and others mentioned the powerful One Billion Rising campaign, and it is extremely important to have that kind of campaign keeping us all on our toes. The noble Baroness specifically mentioned FGM and rightly paid tribute to the work in this area of her colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell. The Government are also frustrated, as was the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, by the lack of prosecutions in the past 25 years. We welcome the fact that Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, who published a CPS action plan in November, is seeking to improve prosecutions for FGM. As the noble Baroness will know, a major new programme is also being designed by DfID to support efforts to end the practice in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. This has been led by my honourable friend Lynne Featherstone, whose aim is that this should disappear within a generation. She is formidable and I am absolutely delighted that she is taking this forward.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Howe and Lady Healy, asked about women in the penal system. I assure them that we fully understand the challenges that women in the penal system face, and that many have suffered all sorts of problems in the past and maybe suffer still from domestic abuse, alcohol and drug abuse and mental problems. We are striving hard to follow through from the work done by the previous Government to keep women out of prison. I visited Holloway prison and realised very strongly how important it is, not only to the women themselves but to the children who are usually dependent on these women. I saw in Holloway Prison the support that is given for drug and alcohol abuse. We have accepted the majority of the Corston report and are actively taking it forward. I assure noble Lords that my noble friend Lord McNally really gets this.
The noble Baroness, Lady Healy, asked about pregnant refugees and asylum seekers and the response to the report on dispersal. We introduced a new policy last year which includes a commitment not to move any pregnant women within the last four weeks of pregnancy, and any asylum seeker is moved only if it is safe to do so.
Noble Lords have addressed the sexualisation of girls and the risks thereby. We need to address the confidence of girls and, as my noble friend Lady Benjamin said, their need for dignity and the dangers of that sexualisation. The Government appointed Reg Bailey to look into the issue of the sexualisation of children and young people, and he published his recommendations last year. We are using these to work with media, business and regulators to implement, and they include stricter guidelines from the Advertising Standards Authority on sexualised on-street adverts, the launch of the ParentPort website for people to make complaints about media and advertising—we heard some horrendous stories earlier—and an agreement from four of the largest internet service providers on a code of practice, including active choice on whether to access age-restricted material. I am sure this is an area we will need to continue to monitor extremely closely.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, mentioned invisible women and flagged it up in relation to politics and other areas. I hope I can reassure noble Lords that we have extended the ability of political parties to use women-only shortlists to 2030. Labour transformed the House of Commons with these and although the initial reaction of the press to “Blair’s Babes” was horrendous, nobody would term them that now. They contribute in a formidable fashion and this has acted as a spur to the other political parties, including my own, and I pay tribute to what Labour did in this regard. We are also working with the main political parties to collect and publish diversity data on election candidates, to give us better insight into where we need to target efforts. I note what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, in this regard, and on the wider fields I can assure her that we are working with the Runnymede Trust to look at the general barriers facing, for example, Bangladeshi and Pakistani women in the workforce.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Massey and Lady O’Neill, talked about public appointments; we aim to ensure that 50% of new public appointees are women by the end of this Parliament. We have established the Centre for Public Appointments in the Cabinet Office, which is working throughout Whitehall and the private sector to modernise recruitment practices, and we will keep a very close eye on this.
I heard the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, with enormous interest and I look forward to her profound thinking being applied to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. She has asked me whether we could have a debate on CEDAW before July and I will of course feed this into the normal channels. Meanwhile, I encourage all noble Lords to put this down for debate at the first opportunity in the new Session, and the noble Baroness might like to do that herself. I will feed that back.
Noble Lords have made reference to the work that we have done overseas. I am extremely proud of that, and I thank my noble friend Lady Brinton for congratulating us on delivering 0.7% of GNI on aid. Noble Lords who have referred to the situation of women and girls overseas have pointed out that they are of course the poorest and the most marginalised. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, was right to flag up the importance of UN Women.
We have put girls and women front and centre of our international development efforts. What we have heard from my noble friends Lady Brinton, Lord Sheikh and Lord Black, and the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, shows why we have done this and why it is so very important. Every year, more than a third of a million women die in pregnancy and childbirth. Almost two-thirds of those who are illiterate are women. Women own less than 10% of the world’s property. One in nine girls is forced into marriage before their 14th birthday. DfID’s key aims in addressing the situation for women and girls focus on delaying first pregnancy and supporting safe childbirth—again, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, referred to the challenges here—getting economic assets directly to girls and women, getting girls through secondary school and preventing violence against girls and women. They are major programmes.
In the past year alone, we have provided nearly 750,000 women with access to financial services, and supported more than 2.5 million girls into primary school and 250,000 girls into secondary schools. We know that education is critical as far as girls are concerned and that girls going through school are likely to be safer, to marry later and to have fewer children. It is of benefit to them, their families, their societies and their countries. There is also an economic dividend from that, which we recognise.
I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, that we have improved property rights and land rights for nearly 250,000 women, supported 1 million additional women to use modern methods of family planning and helped 300,000 girls and women to access security and justice. We had a passionate debate in the Chamber last night on preventing sexual violence in conflicts. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry is right to flag up the especial vulnerability of women and girls in conflict. I am delighted that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is pushing forward an important initiative to increase awareness and data collection and to bring perpetrators to justice. We recognise that sexual violence is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and is liable to be seen as a war crime to be brought to the International Criminal Court. It is important that we publicise that fact and make sure that the structure is in place to gather data and that cases are brought, with the intention of trying to curb the dreadful abuse of women in these situations. Right now, we have teams of experts in Syria, for example, working on just that task.
I assure my noble friend Lord Black that we are acutely aware of the risk of AIDS. He has clearly shown the vulnerability of women in that situation.
I appreciate the strong support for our international programmes right across the House. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, is right about the power of working together. She and I have seen, as her noble friend Lady Royall will also have seen, the power of working together across the political spectrum in Pakistan. There, in a National Assembly of 270 or so, there is a quota for 60 women’s seats. When I visited in 2006, women parliamentarians were marginalised, but they have used their block of seats in the most extraordinary fashion in the past five years. Working together across political parties, they have identified laws that discriminate against women and had them thrown out. They have moved on to laws that protect women; for example, on workplace harassment and criminalising acid attacks. The women have carried out 70% of all parliamentary business and their achievements are remarkable. I visited the survivors of acid attacks; for example, a woman who sought a divorce from her husband and he threw acid at her. If he was not to have her, then no one should want her. She sat bravely on the steps of the Parliament when the Bill came up, supported by civil society and highlighted in the media. The women persuaded their male colleagues and saw the Bill passed. I think that the work of the Pakistani women parliamentarians is a beacon to others and a model to show what can be achieved worldwide, and I salute them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, drew our attention to the continuing plight of women in Iran, who have seen a further erosion of their rights after being excluded from many fields of study at Iranian universities. I found her exposition of Islamic doctrine enlightening, and it is no wonder that the Iranian regime is concerned. We can assure her that we make clear to the Iranian regime how we view its record on human rights, because, as someone said earlier—I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill—women’s rights are not in contrast to men’s rights; women’s rights are human rights. They are all part of human rights. We make very clear to the Iranian regime how we regard this. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, that, in the light of this development, it is vital that we attract talented Iranian women to study at UK universities.
This has been a wide-ranging and informative debate. We are determined to do everything in our power to transform the rights and opportunities for women both here and across the world. We have achieved a huge amount in the United Kingdom. I am constantly reminded of that when I see some of the situations in which women find themselves in developing countries. Yet we do not sit back: we realise how much more there is to achieve in the UK and we work with those in developing countries who seek, often against enormous odds, to ensure that the position of women and girls is transformed in the lifetimes of those born today. I beg to move.
Commonwealth and Commonwealth Charter
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, this is a timely debate ahead of Commonwealth Week, which starts on Monday and provides a platform for countries around the world to join together in celebration of the links that they share as members of the Commonwealth. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs recently affirmed in his response to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report on the role and future of the Commonwealth, the Government are committed to strengthening our engagement with, and our role within, the Commonwealth. A strong Commonwealth is important to the national interests of all its member states. It can help us to promote democratic values, good governance and prosperity. This is no longer the British Commonwealth but a network of like-minded nations with shared history, values and interests within which the UK plays an active and leading role.
One of the greatest challenges we face is ensuring that the Commonwealth keeps pace with today’s changing world. Much work has already been done to respond to this challenge and the UK has been active in this. Our Commonwealth policy over the past two years has focused on modernising and improving the organisation’s internal institutions and strengthening respect for its values. We are pleased that modernisation discussions that started before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in 2011 reached a conclusion last year, and that the heads have endorsed a number of reforms including the new Commonwealth charter. That we were able to agree so many of these reforms is a testament to the work of my right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Commonwealth and my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford, whose speech will follow mine. In some ways, this debate is a celebration of my noble friend’s two and a half years in the FCO as Commonwealth Minister, to which I pay tribute.
I hope that all noble Lords will join me in welcoming the adoption of the Commonwealth charter, which we see as one of the most important outcomes from the Commonwealth modernisation process. The charter conveys clearly the values that the Commonwealth stands for, bringing together commitments set out in previous declarations and affirmations. Next week, the charter will be presented to Her Majesty the Queen as head of the Commonwealth and launched across the Commonwealth.
For the first time in its 64-year history, the Commonwealth now has a single document setting out the core values and aspirations of its members, and it is all the more significant because it has come at a time when human rights and democratic values are demanded more vocally than ever by citizens across the world. It is now important that we work collectively to raise the charter’s profile, both within the UK and throughout the Commonwealth, to embed it within the Commonwealth’s architecture and ensure that all its members uphold those values. We support the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s call for members to launch the charter nationally during next week’s Commonwealth Week. We are delighted that debates are taking place in both Houses and we are in touch with Commonwealth, civil society and youth organisations to promote the charter in the UK.
We recognise, too, that there need to be mechanisms in place to ensure that all Commonwealth countries support the values that they have agreed to in the charter. We strongly supported the reform of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, adopted in Perth, giving the group more teeth to respond to violations of Commonwealth values. Through its timely and robust response to the political crisis in the Maldives last year, the group demonstrated that it could work in new ways and make a positive contribution to international reconciliation efforts. We would like to see the group demonstrate that it can play a valuable and effective role in addressing a range of situations of concern.
Our work on the modernisation agenda has helped to focus the Commonwealth on the importance of democracy and respect for core values. This creates the conditions in which businesses can flourish by giving them confidence to invest in trade. That in turn creates more jobs and drives greater prosperity. This is what the Prime Minister has called the “golden thread”: the link between the rule of law, effective but limited government, strong civil institutions, well protected property rights, open markets and successful and sustainable economic development. The Commonwealth Week theme this year, “Opportunity through Enterprise”, is particularly relevant for encouraging innovation at this time of global economic challenge.
Commonwealth members share principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, and we have similar legal systems. These provide solid foundations for doing business and a platform for trade, investment, development and, all pulled together, prosperity. Some studies have estimated this Commonwealth effect of a shared legal and regulatory market framework to be between 20% and 50% in trade advantage. As it should, the UK out-trades its European comparators—Germany, Italy and France—in trade with Commonwealth countries.
The Commonwealth network has influence in nearly every international country grouping, making it a key vehicle for promoting regional trade integration. India, South Africa, Canada, Australia and the UK make up a quarter of the G20, the world’s premier global economic forum at present. The Commonwealth exports over £3 trillion of goods and services a year, so the potential for all of us is great; but for trade with Commonwealth countries truly to flourish the Commonwealth needs to encourage conditions that will allow it to do so. One example is to remove barriers to trade, such as unnecessary red tape and, sadly too often, corruption.
Trade is not the only way to increase prosperity. The Department for International Development’s Bilateral Aid Review in 2011 confirmed that many Commonwealth states still need international aid and support. DfID has increased the proportion of bilateral programme expenditure to Commonwealth countries. Total DfID bilateral spend in them is projected to be £1.8 billion in 2012-13. Countries also benefit from regional funding.
We are working, too, to increase the Commonwealth’s engagement with Britain’s overseas territories that share many of the challenges facing the small Commonwealth members. The British Government are the largest financial contributor to Commonwealth institutions. Our contributions amount to approximately £40 million annually, about a third of the institution’s costs. Of this, DfID provides around £34 million to support the Commonwealth’s development work. We are investing in the Commonwealth, not simply declaring our commitment. From 2011 to 2015, DfID will also provide £87 million for Commonwealth scholarships for developing countries. The FCO provides support for Chevening scholarships to around 700 students a year for over 116 countries, including many Commonwealth ones.
DfID’s Multilateral Aid Review in 2011 concluded that one of the Commonwealth’s key strengths is its unique network of networks, as my noble friend Lord Howell has often told us. It saw that the Commonwealth’s secretariat has a key platform for partnerships, and as a leading voice on global issues and a niche development assistance provider. To continue to add value when there are many larger and often better resourced development providers, the Secretariat needs to improve its efficiency and effectiveness and to carve out a niche role for itself. The secretariat’s strategic plan, another product of the modernisation agenda, must play a vital role to make this a reality. Swift and unequivocal agreement on, and implementation of, a realistic and more targeted plan is key to guaranteeing continued donor funding for its programmes.
This year offers many opportunities to drive forward work on the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Youth Ministers Meeting in Papua New Guinea in April will give young people an opportunity to express their views on current issues and discuss the post-2015 millennium development goals agenda, an area of work in which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is strongly engaged in his role as co-chair of the High Level Panel. Sri Lanka will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November. No decisions have yet been made about UK attendance at this event. Ahead of that meeting we will of course talk to Sri Lanka, as we would to any host, about demonstrating its commitment to upholding Commonwealth values of good governance and respect for human rights.
I am sure that all in this House look forward to the UK hosting the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. The games are important, not least because they are as much about promoting Commonwealth values, a key element of the Commonwealth brand, as they are about building prosperity, celebrating sport and deepening links between young people and the Commonwealth nations.
Next year we will also begin to commemorate the centenary of the Great War—the First World War, as we now call it—in which the then British Empire called on the resources of all its dominions and colonies. There were 1.5 million Indians in the world’s largest volunteer army, hundreds of thousands of Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders as well as others from South Africa, the West Indies, and east and west Africa. The shared commemoration of common experience —some of it heroic, some of it bitter and ill planned—will also remind us of our common heritage.
This Government came into office with the determination to reinvigorate the Commonwealth and Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth and its member states. It is our firm belief that we should capitalise on all the networks and relationships at our disposal in order to promote our prosperity, stability and security and to contribute to a more prosperous and stable global order. We have seen notable progress and, through the modernisation discussions, a clearer vision of where the Commonwealth’s real advantages lie. The Commonwealth charter is a strong statement of the organisation’s values and we should collectively look to raise its profile, but we recognise that the Commonwealth’s future credibility is linked to its ability to uphold and protect these values as set out in the charter. We remain committed to ensuring that the Commonwealth and its members live up to these values. If we continue to push forward the reform process, I am confident that we can sustain the Commonwealth as an invaluable global network. The interest in joining the Commonwealth that a number of prospective members are evincing is an indication of the continued vitality of the institution. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind reference. I am looking forward to hearing the words of the right reverend and noble Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth. I gather it is not strictly speaking a maiden speech, but I look forward to it with great anticipation. The noble and right reverend Lord is joining us on what Her Majesty has called the platform of the future, and his voice will be eagerly listened to on these affairs.
I shall start my brief intervention by quoting from an article in the Daily Telegraph earlier this week which said about Britain that,
“the best vision of what its 21st century economy could become”,
“a Britain which rediscovers the Asian and wider global links that propelled the country’s economic growth in the 19th century and could do so again”.
That is entirely right. It is not a dream but a practical vision. Here, in what we now call the emerging economies and powers, is where our future prosperity and destiny clearly lie. That is something that I—not only me, of course —have been saying for 20 years.
The Commonwealth network is a vital and central part of this totally new landscape and this new scene. I once described the Commonwealth as the “necessary network”, in the sense that if it did not exist we would certainly have to invent something very like it. My right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary was showing commendable prescience when a year or so ago he described the Commonwealth as,
“a cornerstone of our foreign policy”.
The peoples of the Commonwealth are family, not foreigners. Commonwealth Governments may be unfriendly at times, awkward, difficult or, frankly, even hostile, but these are family matters, not foreign policy matters. Today’s Commonwealth is an all-powerful network concept. The Governments and policy-making establishments in a number of countries may not have fully understood this but, outside Government, the peoples, businesses and civil societies of the Commonwealth nations certainly have. It is both people-driven and driven by the magnetism of shared values, language and culture, a network of peoples and societies as much as of Governments and states—possibly even more so.
The Commonwealth is of course a generator of soft-power linkages and contacts on an unparalleled scale. That is crucial to our national interests here. It used to be said that trade follows the flag. Today, the situation is that trade, capital flows and investment, inward and outward, follow the softening-up of markets through the intertwining of cultures, languages, social contacts, professions and common interests, all nowadays instantly and continuously communicated. This can be even more important than winning orders through one-off trade missions.
The Commonwealth family has evolved as a design of great intricacy, subtlety and complexity, and is a true reflection of a very complex world. That has not been so for 20 years past. So completely were Commonwealth markets washed out of British concerns in the previous century that, even today, it is frankly very hard to come by any statistics of what is now happening with incredible speed across the global trade and investment pattern. Most figures are gloriously out of date. However, we know that exports to Commonwealth countries have jumped by 120% in the past decade, and much more if one just looks at services. We know that a fast-growing Commonwealth GDP is poised to overtake the GDP of the entire European Union, and that intra-Commonwealth trade has been rising fast. We know that vast new consumer markets are opening up in India, south Asia, parts of Africa and Latin America. We know that thanks in part to the new shale oil and gas revolution, which is totally transforming the world’s energy balance, many African countries now face a far brighter future. We know that countries such as Australia and Canada, with which we now co-locate embassies—which is excellent news—and Malaysia are turning out to be both our best allies and powerful sources of finance for our investment needs.
It should be no surprise that other countries want to join what is clearly seen as one of the world’s best clubs, with clear advantages for its members. Of course they want to join. Anyone can see that the Commonwealth badge of trust and commitment to the rule of law, once earned, are good for business, and I hope that the new Commonwealth charter will make it very much more so. As the noble Lord rightly said, a string of countries have expressed interest in being associated with the Commonwealth. Could the Republic of Ireland even be among them? I have had clear signs of interest from Dublin that suggest that it could.
Most important of all are the links of learning and education at all levels, and the personal contact and friendship that these bring to every corner of the Commonwealth system. We know that this is where the real spread of sympathies, values and good business and trade begins. It is a similar story in area after area: legal and judicial systems, administration, medicine, accountancy, the creative arts and science. The Commonwealth may no longer be Anglocentric, but this is where our interests and influence radiate out and where our readymade UK opportunities truly lie.
This is really our Great British repositioning. This must be our strategy and our narrative. Not everyone yet sees or grasps what has happened, or how a transformed Commonwealth coincides again with our global future and interests and makes for us a vast asset. However, it is here that our energies need to be directed as never before if we want to survive and prosper in a thoroughly dangerous and uncertain world.
My Lords, it is good to follow the noble Lord, a fine Commonwealth advocate, who must blush at the tributes made to him in the FAC’s report published last November on the Commonwealth. With him, I look forward to the contribution from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams, my compatriot from Swansea.
Of course, the Commonwealth stands for the highest ideals of human rights, the rule of law and good governance, summed up in successive declarations—Singapore, Harare and, finally, the Charter of the Commonwealth, which was agreed last December. It is unique and diverse, with valuable soft-power networks. Small countries, such as the Caribbean and Pacific islands and the members of the overseas territories, walk that much taller as members of the club. For us and for them, the commonwealth of networks—the unofficial Commonwealth—is of importance. Of course, as parliamentarians, we pay tribute to the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
Given those high aspirations, it is hardly surprising if the reality sometimes falls short of the ideal. This is well illustrated by the Perth CHOGM’s response to the Eminent Persons Group’s recommendations, particularly the failure to agree the proposed human rights commissioner, who should be independent. CMAG is not enough. Of course, there is the Commonwealth’s failure on election monitoring because of the reluctance to criticise other members of the club.
What about Commonwealth mediation in disputes involving other Commonwealth countries? Certainly the Secretary-General, Emeka Anyaoku, played a significant role in helping to keep the new South Africa within the Commonwealth.
As for today, one sees the impotence of the Commonwealth on the problems of Kashmir, Cyprus, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Recent events show a lack of mutual understanding between Commonwealth countries. On 13 February this year, India gave refuge in its high commission to former President Nasheed of the Maldives, who had been ousted in a coup. Yet in only the past few days, one had heard that, contrary to the agreement between the Maldives and India, the former President was arrested following his leaving the High Commission of India.
There is, of course, a great rivalry between Commonwealth India and China in the Indian Ocean, where China seeks to build a “string of pearls” of bases. Yet on 18 February, Pakistan assisted the Chinese ambitions by giving China management of the Port of Gwadar on the coast of Baluchistan. Of course, China already has a foothold in the Seychelles and strong influence in Sri Lanka, half the aid to which comes from China.
The current debate about the choice of location of the next CHOGM is instructive, and was rather glossed over by the Minister in his opening remarks. Is priority to be given to the values of the Commonwealth or to avoiding the displeasure of Sri Lanka, as the Foreign Affairs Committee report stated? Surely the Government cannot sit indefinitely on the fence. Can they honestly say that there is a serious prospect of change in Sri Lanka between now and the time of the CHOGM in the late autumn? Diversity and consensus are important, but they cover political and economic weaknesses.
On economics, there is no prospect of a free trade area, and hardly surprisingly countries take hard-nosed decisions on contracts: for example, India’s recent decision to buy Mirages rather than Typhoons. CMAG is hardly effective. The Commonwealth Secretary-General is condemned, pace the Perth CHOGM, to be a secretary and not a general. Of the 58 countries in the world where capital punishment is legal, 36 are in the Commonwealth. In this week’s Kenya election, the apparently leading candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta, is an indictee of the International Criminal Court. Our high commissioner and others would find it difficult to speak to him if elected.
I have been more critical than normal, but this needs to be an antidote to the rather blind and excessive claims for the Commonwealth. It is important for us, but it is a second-tier organisation compared with NATO for defence and the EU for commerce and international political clout. Increasingly, member countries give more priority to their own region and to bilateral relations. Countries such as India give relatively low priority to the Commonwealth. Let us laud the diversity and ideals but not lapse into a starry-eyed overload of Commonwealth capabilities, as the Foreign Affairs Committee emphasised.
Contrary to the FCO response to the FAC report, there is a gap between words and deeds, between the Commonwealth of reality and the Commonwealth of illusion. Yes, let us seek to make the Commonwealth even better in its engagement in the world, but its values remain an important and relevant benchmark for perhaps an impossible ideal.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for securing this debate, and I apologise that I was not present for the first couple of minutes.
I would like to speak on Pakistan and its membership of the Commonwealth. Pakistan covers an area of 796,095 square kilometres, approximately equal to the combined land areas of France and the United Kingdom. It is the 36th largest nation by total area, with a population exceeding 180 million people, and is the sixth most populous country in the world. It is the second largest country by population in the Commonwealth, after India.
Pakistan is a federal parliamentary republic consisting of four provinces and four federal territories. It is an ethnically and linguistically diverse country, with a similar variation in its geography and wildlife. A regional and middle power, Pakistan has the seventh largest standing armed forces in the world and is also a nuclear power, being the only nation in the Muslim world, and the second in south Asia, to have that status. It has a semi-industrialised economy that is the 27th largest in the world in purchasing power and the 47th largest in nominal GDP.
Pakistan’s post-independence history has been characterised by periods of military rule, political instability and conflicts with neighbouring India. The country has also suffered greatly and continues to do so in loss of human lives and in economic terms because of the instability and lack of peace in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Pakistan continues to face challenging problems, including terrorism, poverty, illiteracy and corruption. It is a founding member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and is a member of the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Nations, the Next Eleven economies, SAARC, ECO, D8 and the G20 developing nations.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma visited Pakistan last February, 2012, and said:
“Pakistan holds a special place in the Commonwealth. It is one of the eight countries that came together in 1949 to lay the foundations of the modern Commonwealth. Since then, Pakistan has been on a national journey, and so too has the Commonwealth as it has grown in global size, relevance and impact. Today, the Commonwealth has 54 member countries in every continent, of every size and stage of development, accounting for one third of humanity. And Pakistan remains a highly valued member.
A visit to Pakistan for a Commonwealth Secretary-General is always an opportunity to take the pulse of the relationship – to seek direction from leaders in Pakistan on how it wants to see the Commonwealth continue to grow, and to see how the Commonwealth can continue to support and add value to Pakistan nationally. We always meet political leaders but also a wide range of others in society to discuss how the Commonwealth can offer partnership, to strengthen our global networks and collaborations, and to advance the fundamental values and principles which lie at the heart of our Commonwealth family”.
Pakistan also highly values its membership of the Commonwealth. It plays an active role in the activities of the Commonwealth and endeavours to promote the Commonwealth charter. Pakistan looks towards the Commonwealth for mediation with India over Kashmir, and to guarantee the peace and prosperity of the 1.2 billion people on the Indian subcontinent.
My Lords, it is a particular privilege to stand as the appetiser to the speech of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, bringing, as he has already done to this Chamber in another capacity, a unique experience of global affairs through his visits to all parts of the Anglican communion. We on this Bench have so many reasons to be thankful for that and to appreciate at first hand the extremely high esteem in which he is held in so many of the countries of the Commonwealth.
There are three particular reasons why, as Bishop of Leicester, I felt it right to contribute to this debate. The first is because the history of my city in the past 40 years is quite inexplicable without reference to the Commonwealth. The Ugandan Asians, arriving 40 years ago after Idi Amin’s expulsions, set in train a series of migrations from the subcontinent, Africa, and more recently from around the world, which have transformed the culture, economy and reputation of the city for the better. They have also embedded networks of family relationships, friendships and business connections with Commonwealth countries in south Asia and east and west Africa in particular. Further, they bring a familiarity with the concept of Commonwealth as a network of different religions, cultures and ethnicities under a common leadership for the common good.
Further, the three world-class universities of Leicester, Loughborough and De Montfort all educate large numbers of young people from Commonwealth countries, as any visit to a degree ceremony demonstrates, with the immense potential that that creates for inter- generational influence and partnership. Those universities share the concerns of many others expressed in the Home Affairs Committee’s report about the serious effects of a restrictive student visa policy on the wider interests of the United Kingdom.
Secondly, I echo the concerns of others about the serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and the very questionable decision to hold the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo. Some 5,000 Tamils have found their way to Leicester in recent years. They have their own temple, the priest of which is a Tamil refugee whose family were killed in the civil war. Many of these families know at first hand the consequences of the human rights record in that country, in which 12,000 Sri Lankans have disappeared, of whom the Government have confirmed that 6,500 are dead.
Recently, in his pastoral letter to the Church of Ceylon, the Bishop of Colombo called on members of the church to fast, pray and lament over the state of the nation, after what he described as,
“the complete collapse of the rule of law there”.
He went on to say:
“The breakdown of such accountability is a process that has been building up for the past several years.
It has now climaxed in the recent events that have seen both the Executive and the Legislature disregarding the provisions of the very Constitution which they swore to uphold and defend, giving the appearance of a country ruled on the principle that ‘Might is Right’.
The numerous warnings that the Church, other religious organizations and civil society bodies repeatedly issued have been ignored. There is currently a climate of fear and helplessness, where people remain silent rather than speak out against rampant injustice, intimidation, violence and falsehoods”.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, will be able to give the House some further assurance as to Her Majesty’s Government’s engagement with this.
Thirdly, I draw attention to the capacity of the Anglican Communion’s network of partnerships with dioceses in Commonwealth countries to plan and execute exchanges between individuals and communities for mutual learning and understanding. From Leicester two years ago, 24 junior clergy from towns and villages across the diocese visited Trichy Tanjore in Tamil Nadu in south India, establishing friendships and links that change outlooks and perceptions for a lifetime. They were followed by a group of young adults from sixth forms and colleges, experiencing at first hand a range of development programmes with tea planters, Dalits and fishing communities. Their experience “conscientatised” them to many of the issues around tax avoidance and the hiding of money from public scrutiny that so massively reduces revenues that could promote development.
At the same time, we are planning similar visits to our links in Tanzania. Schools from Leicester, Tanzania and south India are now in regular contact, and we are in the process of creating a triangular relationship between churches and communities in the United Kingdom, in Tanzania and in south India. These friendships and relationships are a vivid reminder that the Commonwealth is more than a political or economic entity and its significance extends beyond the political classes. I hope that that vision of the Commonwealth will be deepened and broadened by our debate today.
I echo the gratitude expressed by other noble Lords to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for securing this discussion on a profoundly significant and timely question. It is a particular privilege to begin my recycled life in your Lordships’ House by speaking on this subject.
I note, as have other noble Lords, the wholly distinctive character of the Commonwealth as a family of independent nations allied not primarily for military, or even economic, security but by a shared history that has been translated into a shared vision of ethical politics. The proposed Commonwealth Charter, which has rightly been so warmly welcomed, sets out the main lines of this ethical vision with clarity and force and we must all hope that it will work as an unambiguous point of reference in dealing with crises and failures in the life of individual Commonwealth states, to which reference has already been made.
I draw special attention to the points made about the eradication of all kinds of discrimination—especially today mentioning discrimination against women—a properly pluralistic and transparent political culture, environmental priorities and the protection of more vulnerable states. In short, the charter defines an impressive project that deserves the strongest support from this country and its Government. For this project to be realised, a number of commitments on the part of the United Kingdom will need to be honoured and developed. The extensive support given to Commonwealth students, not least through DfID and the FCO, remains a key element in this. I was very much encouraged to hear the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, underlining this in his opening remarks.
We could enumerate the fruits of these exchanges at length, but perhaps the most important thing to note is the way in which Commonwealth students can be equipped to promote a transparent and accountable political culture in their own contexts, in large part by the experience that they gain here of active civil society networks. Even where it is a matter of students coming from so-called developed countries in the Commonwealth, there is still an agenda of building and cementing partnerships and learning to collaborate effectively in support of the more vulnerable members of the family. We should therefore applaud the support given as part of our development programme to such student opportunities and keep a sharp eye out for any suggestion that there are easy economies to be made by reducing these. That would be a very short-term view: if we indeed want a stable and just international environment, the Commonwealth will play its part by fostering cadres of young leaders with a strong commitment to civil society and human rights.
We need to keep under review those aspects of our Border Agency activities which may impinge negatively on the welcome offered to those who come from the Commonwealth to study, a point touched upon by the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Leicester. This does not apply only to students. Is it really appropriate, for example, that a respected academic from a developed Commonwealth country should be required to provide for the central administration an account of every trip that he or she makes away from their academic base? I refer to a case that has lately become somewhat notorious in Cambridge. Similarly, the immense complications that attend the visa system for many who plan short-stay study trips or attendance at conferences or training events in the UK have not done much to win hearts and minds. I think back to the hours spent by former colleagues at Lambeth Palace arguing about the bona fides of bishops and others from Commonwealth nations seeking to attend church gatherings here. I do not suggest that there is a quick fix to these concerns, only that the current situation maximises the possibilities of embarrassment and unfairness and needs constant monitoring and review.
I move briefly to a second point. The Commonwealth Charter’s clarity about transparency and the vision of what a moment ago I called a stable and just international environment should combine to prompt some continuing questions about the effectiveness of tax governance in Commonwealth countries. Effective and fair taxation would be agreed by all of us to be a cornerstone of good political governance and social stability, and that point has been underlined very strongly in a recent Commonwealth Secretariat paper. Christian Aid, of which I have the honour to be chair-designate, has estimated that $160 billion are lost annually to developing economies worldwide, many of them Commonwealth states, because of the evasion of local tax by multinational interests. At the same time, ironically, a significant number of Commonwealth states and British Overseas Territories function as tax havens, and so compound those problems.
Her Majesty’s Government have given welcome signs of concern about these matters and they will be on the agenda for the next G8 meeting. I trust that others will join me in hoping that the Government will bring some pressure to bear within the Commonwealth itself on these matters, looking to a commitment to better sharing of information on hidden assets and perhaps raising the matter at this year’s Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council.
Those issues represent wide cross-party concern; but more importantly for today, they are entirely in line with the vision so eloquently set out in the Commonwealth Charter. The potential of our Commonwealth to be a beacon of equitable practice is very great, and the will is manifestly there. I trust that today’s debate may assist us towards a future in which we may continue to be proud of our unique Commonwealth family as a model of both cultural diversity and moral convergence in our world.
My Lords, as a member of an Anglican church, it is a great privilege to respond to the maiden speech of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, as a life Peer. He was in my view an unsung modernising archbishop. Noble Lords can now find churches in skate board parks, care homes and even new monastic orders due to the archbishop’s innovation called Fresh Expressions. This also led to the creation of vicars called pioneers, who go to set up a church, not become the vicar of an existing church.
The role of the archbishop is also to speak truth to power, and the archbishop was known for his public opposition to the Iraq war and similar ruffling of the feathers of the political right, while increasing the sales of the New Statesman when he was guest editor. The noble and right reverend Lord has an unfailingly gracious way of causing “good trouble”.
It is particularly apt that the former archbishop’s maiden speech is in this debate, because in that role, I am informed by Lambeth Palace, he visited no less than 19 Commonwealth countries. For the linguists in your Lordships House, his continued presence is an utter delight. There is a choice of 11 languages in which to converse with or write to the former archbishop. No one can be in any doubt about the continued value of the contribution of the former archbishop to the work of your Lordships’ House.
As I grew up, NATO, the EEC and the UN were the international organisations on the news. Yet the coverage of the Queen was often of her visits to the so-called Commonwealth countries, which seemed rather unfashionable. I am sure that your Lordships will agree how grateful we are now for Her Majesty’s wisdom. A mere glance at the list of countries reveals those whose modern history is intricately linked to the United Kingdom. Nigeria, Jamaica, Ghana, India and Pakistan are all nations from which many British citizens have originated and with which they maintain active links. Just try booking a flight during a school half term to see what I mean.
However, it is also interesting to note that the Commonwealth includes Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist majority countries—Malaysia, India, Seychelles and Sri Lanka being respective examples. This could give the Commonwealth a unique role in promoting religious freedom, as outlined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The declaration states:
“This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
I declare my interest as chair of the All-Party Group on International Religious Freedom. The lack of understanding of religious freedom is one of the causes of internal unrest in some Commonwealth countries, such as Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Of course, there are also political causes but can one really understand events in northern Nigeria without understanding the context of the lack of understanding of true freedom of religion?
The Commonwealth Charter was adopted on 19 December 2012, but although I do not wish to rain on the parade, Article IV is worded rather unusually. It states:
“We emphasise the need to promote tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom which are essential to the development of free and democratic societies”.
I do not think that “moderation” has ever been used before in a human rights document and this paragraph seems, on one reading, to link it to religious freedom. Could the Minister please ensure that the Government’s view is not that there will be an interpretation of “moderation”, which could perhaps mean accepting only “acceptable” views.
Why is belief not also mentioned in Article IV, which is about freedom of religion and belief? As other noble Lords have mentioned, Article II outlines the grounds on which discrimination is prohibited, but the word used is “creed”, not “religion” and “belief”. I was encouraged by the Government’s response to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report, when it stated:
“The UK should only accept the Charter’s final wording if it reflects the fundamental principles of the Commonwealth. Before signing the Charter, the Government should assure itself that substantial progress is being made by the Commonwealth towards compliance with international human rights norms”.
I would be grateful if the Minister could provide reassurance and clarification on the matters I have outlined. The security of minority religious communities flows from a proper understanding and enactment of freedom of religion, but it also goes further, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams, stated in your Lordships’ House in his debate on Christians in the Middle East. He stated that the security of minority communities is,
“something of a litmus test in relation to these wider issues of the political health of the region”.—[Official Report, 9/12/11; col. 927.]
The Commonwealth prides itself on valuing democracy, so it should take seriously ensuring true freedom of religion.
My Lords, the Commonwealth is a force for good in many ways and I welcome the charter. It gives the organisation, for the first time in its 64-year history, a single document setting out its core values. Yet the Declaration of Commonwealth Principles from 1971 includes this:
“We believe in the liberty of the individual, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief, and in their inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which they live. We therefore strive to promote in each of our countries those representative institutions and guarantees for personal freedom under the law that are our common heritage”.
However, the Foreign Affairs Committee report, published last November, stated in paragraph 22:
“Several of those we met in Commonwealth countries called for Commonwealth institutions to set out a more vigorous human rights agenda, and to be effective and influential in pursuing it among its members”.
It went on to say in paragraph 25:
“On certain human rights issues, the record of many Commonwealth countries is out of step with much of the developed world … The FCO’s 2011 report on human rights and other sources have recorded intolerance of homosexuality in a number of Commonwealth countries … and the FCO reported that it had recently found it necessary to raise concerns about the possible criminalisation of same-sex marriage in Nigeria and the human rights of homosexual people in Cameroon”.
The language used was guarded and the report gave no suggestion that the Committee had pursued this fundamental issue of human rights any further, but at least it mentioned homosexual repression, unlike the Government’s response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, which did not mention it at all. That is a matter of great regret, because the attitudes and policies of many Commonwealth Governments are shocking. I argue they require urgently to be dragged into the 20th century, never mind the 21st. Article II of the newly signed charter states:
“We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds”,
as other noble Lords have already referred to. The “other grounds” are not specified but they clearly include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, even though consensus could not be achieved for spelling that out in the charter. Of course, that serves merely to highlight the bigotry and discrimination that is rampant among so many of the Commonwealth’s member countries, a disgrace that should give every Member of this House pause for thought.
Indeed, the level of homophobic persecution in the Commonwealth beggars belief. More than 40 Commonwealth countries—80% of the total—currently criminalise homosexuality, mostly as a result of laws imposed by Britain during the colonial era that were not repealed when these nations won their independence. For example, penalties for homosexuality include 25 years in jail in Trinidad and Tobago, and 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia. Several Commonwealth countries stipulate life imprisonment for sex between men: Bangladesh, Guyana, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda. There are currently, or have been, severe homophobic witch-hunts in several other Commonwealth countries including Cameroon, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, the Gambia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
The Government have already expressed concern about the anti-gay Bill that is currently in front of the Nigerian Parliament. Nigeria already has extremely tough anti-gay legislation that designates up to 14 years in jail for men who have sex with men. In the north of the country, where Sharia law prevails, gay and bisexual men can face the death penalty.
Enough is enough: it is time the Commonwealth took a stand against such barbaric behaviour. There are four policies that I believe Her Majesty’s Government should urge all Commonwealth member states to agree to enact: first, the immediate decriminalisation of homosexuality; secondly, the introduction of laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; thirdly, the introduction and/or enforcement of legislation against threats and violence, to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from hate crimes; and fourthly, the offer of consultation and dialogue with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organisations.
Until such steps are instigated, the reputation of the Commonwealth as a body that seeks to uphold and advance human rights throughout its membership will remain indelibly tarnished. Indeed, until such steps are instigated, I believe that the Commonwealth is not an organisation that deserves to be taken seriously in that area of its work, which is a statement that I make as much in sorrow as in anger.
My Lords, there may be some surprise when I commence by saying that this has been one of my interests for more than 75 years. I long cherished the card that was given to me through the Carmel Sunday school in Aberavon, which was issued by King George V on his Silver Jubilee. The card said:
“I ask you to remember that in days to come you will be citizens of a great Empire”.
I am glad to welcome that proposition, although the conclusion may be rather different from that which the King was expecting at that time. The contents most compactly set out in the Charter of the Commonwealth, which have been explained and endorsed already by a number of colleagues, set out what should be the non-imperial conclusion.
I look back on the period when I was able to struggle to play some part in it. Some 12 years after that Sunday school, I found myself on the equator in Kenya, as a lieutenant in the Royal Signals but attached to the East African Signals, themselves attached to the King’s African Rifles. One of my tasks was to run the educational part that we were meant to play with our very effective, long-serving African soldiers. There were about 100 soldiers in that unit including about a dozen Britons, almost all of whom had been in the Burma campaign. Some of the African soldiers had been in London for the victory parade and had been able to establish partnerships with British citizens here at home. I was trying, when doing the non-military work that I had to do, to persuade them that Bwana “Kingy George” was rather better than Bwana Joe Stalin. I hope that I succeeded to some extent. It means having the direct experience of a reality that was less of an empire and more of a partnership, which is what many speakers today have already identified with.
The concept of empire implies authoritarianism. We can see some examples of imperial authoritarianism, which loom in my mind, which help to distort or reform our thinking. I remember, when I had come back from Kenya and arrived at Cambridge, that a gentleman called Patrick Gordon Walker was the Secretary of State for the Commonwealth. He provoked a tremendous student demonstration of horror when he sacked the head of Bechuanaland, Seretse Khama, for the incredible reason that Seretse Khama had married a former London typist. That struck as something contrary to all his other aspects. Many of us reacted with great hostility to that. It led, among other things, to the emergence and the creation by Conservative young colleagues like myself of the Bow Group, when we saw other features taking place. Between 1950 and 1960 there had been an inflow of some 750,000 people from this empire, and it very much strengthened our feeling that we had to make sure that discrimination did not become part of our territory.
Since then, I have been able to see the way in which the Commonwealth worked during my time in office, in a very pragmatic and positive way. For example, the Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting, of which I was chairman during my time as Chancellor, was in itself more important than the IMF. Tension, of course, was not unknown because of the difference in attitudes between different members of the Commonwealth towards the persistence of apartheid in South Africa. Our Commonwealth conference meetings were dominated by the extent to which we could and should do more to challenge that. We had one CHOGM meeting establishing an Eminent Persons Group led by Malcolm Frazer, the Australian Prime Minister. He led a mission on behalf of the Commonwealth to South Africa to challenge apartheid as it then was. They were able to secure Nelson Mandela’s release from Robin Island. When Malcolm Frazer went to see him in his cell, Nelson Mandela rather startled him by asking the question, “Do tell me, is Donald Bradman still alive?”. That seems to underline the unity of the Commonwealth, binding many of us together. It is in that sense that Britain, as one of the Commonwealth countries, was able thereafter to bring pressure to bear against apartheid. We were able to propaganda like that in South Africa, and were able to see substantial success there in the end.
That background, with the Commonwealth as a collective organisation, supporting, encouraging, offering up advocacy of the right course of events, underlines to me the extent of the value of the Commonwealth declaration today. It underlines the positive value of the most practically effective UK/multinational organisation in this context, whether that is alongside the UK/People’s Republic of China relationship, the EU, NATO, the UK/US or the United Nations. In the context that we are talking about, the Commonwealth has a collective wisdom that can help to advance matters in the right way.
I think that that is all I need to say. I have spoken not about contemporary events but about the history and background that have brought us to the present position. It is that background against which the United Kingdom should approach and influence Commonwealth members and benefit from the collective relationship, one that has come into existence and deserves to be enhanced and amplified.
My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, under whom I served on numerous occasions, one of which of course was in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The noble Lord has inspired the commitment of the coalition Government to policies on the Commonwealth. I am glad that he is keeping his hand in on the Commonwealth by, for example, leading the Commonwealth Day ceremonies next Monday in Westminster Abbey.
When I look back to the debates in this House on the Commonwealth over the past six or seven years, I think that on some occasions they have been somewhat frustrating and certainly repetitive about the strengths and the assets that the Commonwealth offers. There was always a feeling that no one was listening very much, either in the Government or outside. However, I think that there is now a greater realisation of the importance of soft power and diplomacy. I should perhaps remind the House that the Commonwealth is not a substitute for membership of NATO, the European Union or the United Nations; that vast network of 2 billion people is something quite different that complements it. What seems to have happened over the past year or two is that various strands have come together: the Eminent Persons Group reporting to the Perth summit meeting in October 2011 with some of the recommendations being accepted, followed by the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, a strong report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons and on to Commonwealth Week next week.
I sense that, as a result of the Perth meeting, for the first time we have a kind of framework for action within the Commonwealth. We have a chance to monitor progress in the Commonwealth and for Commonwealth Parliaments to take reports from Governments about progress on the Perth recommendations, over 100 of which were made. As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said, it was disappointing that a number of the proposals were not accepted at Perth, such as for a commissioner for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, but enough were accepted to demonstrate that, if they are implemented, we can build more confidence in the Commonwealth and perhaps tackle some of the more difficult issues at a later stage.
On the inter-governmental side, like others I welcome the importance of the Commonwealth charter, which consolidates the values expressed in the Commonwealth, but it is important to put flesh on to them. For example, it is good to see that there are going to be stronger measures to deal with good governance in supervising elections. Goodness knows that is needed, for example, this week in Kenya. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which deals with conflict resolution, will be given stronger powers, and the Secretary-General will be asked to use his good offices more forcefully in that direction. All this helps towards the creation of a more stable climate to deal with conflict resolution, which is extremely important for trade. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, that is extremely important and sits at the heart of the Commonwealth.
A number of noble Lords have said that CHOGM next time round is important. To my mind, it is a litmus test of the Commonwealth because it is essential that it shows evidence of progress on human rights issues. I refer to the treatment of the Tamils and the fact that, contrary to the advice of the Supreme Court, the chief justice has been dismissed. Canada has taken a lead on this and it is important that the British Government should express a firm view about it, otherwise there will be a great deal of disillusionment with the Commonwealth.
On the people-to-people side—the non-government side—I will just highlight two areas that the charter stresses. First, in respect of young people, with over 50% of the Commonwealth being under 25, there is the proposal for a youth corps. I myself have been privileged to have been the first president of the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra and am delighted that my noble friend Lady Prashar will succeed me. These kinds of areas are an expression of the importance of the Commonwealth. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and my noble and right reverend friend Lord Williams mentioned education, which is absolutely vital to the development of the Commonwealth. For example, there is the Commonwealth scholarship scheme, from which 27,000 people within the Commonwealth have benefited. There are numerous proposals, for example from Professor Dilks, for more exchanges in the medical world, as well as in the teachers’ and the youth world. All these areas strengthen the network of the Commonwealth.
The second aspect is civil society, which the charter stresses is also very important. Here, as a former chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation, I ask the Minister what is being done to strengthen the Commonwealth Foundation to act as a catalyst in the non-governmental area and civil society and for the promotion of youth in the Commonwealth. I feel, rather contrary to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, that we now have a chance to give the Commonwealth a new lease of life. The secretariat and the Secretary-General have a vital role. The regions may even have a chance in the Commonwealth to give new momentum. This is an opportunity that we must take, and it is in Britain’s interests that we do so.
My Lords, I want to address the issue of freedom of expression within the Commonwealth, so I declare an interest as the chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union Trust and draw attention to my other media interests in the register.
Along with many other noble Lords who have spoken, I strongly believe that in order to ensure its future the Commonwealth must be seen to be relevant. The greatest danger to its long-term survival is inertia, as a prelude to irrelevance. The Commonwealth charter is a sound attempt to avoid that fate. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, put it, the charter is of no use unless words are backed by actions. I draw particular attention to Article V of the charter, on freedom of expression. It states:
“We are committed to peaceful, open dialogue and the free flow of information, including through a free and responsible media, and to enhancing democratic traditions and strengthening democratic processes”.
That is absolutely right. However, my worry is that this declaration is simply the latest in a long line of similar oratorical flourishes which will prove meaningless unless backed by firm action.
Back in 2002, the Coolum declaration for the first time listed freedom of expression as one of the principles on which the Commonwealth was founded. Since then there have been many other similar declarations. Just last year, for instance, the Commonwealth Secretariat published a message for World Press Freedom Day which said:
“Commonwealth leaders have consistently re-affirmed their commitment to … freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The challenge is to translate these commitments into action—moving beyond declarations to walking the talk”.
That is absolutely right, yet is precisely what has not happened, and the situation with regard to freedom of expression within far too many Commonwealth countries is desperate. Countries such as Nigeria, Rwanda, Pakistan, Cameroon and Bangladesh languish near the bottom of world press freedom league tables.
For example, in the Gambia, President Jammeh has explicitly said that he will not,
“sacrifice the interests, the peace and stability … of the Gambian people at the altar of freedom of expression”.
Perhaps he need not worry too much as there seems little chance of that given that, under the Newspaper Amendment Act, it costs around $17,000 to obtain a licence to produce a newspaper, making it impossible for virtually the entire population to exercise its fundamental rights. In Malaysia, the constitution specifically gives the Government the power to impose restrictions on press freedom where it is deemed “necessary” and the repressive Printing Presses and Publications Act, alongside the Sedition Act of 1948, is frequently used to suppress debate. In Uganda, journalists are licensed by the Government, and the state media council, operating under the Press and Journalist Act 1995—which the Government of Uganda now wish to tighten further—has wide-ranging powers to discipline journalists.
This state of affairs, in so many Commonwealth countries, is shocking and shows that good words over many years have not been matched by good deeds. It is surely time to put that right with a firm plan of action across the Commonwealth, demanding an end to draconian and anachronistic laws such as criminal defamation, an end to state licensing of journalists, the introduction of freedom of information and the promotion of effective self-regulation in place of repressive state press councils.
At the time of the introduction of the Commonwealth charter, the Foreign Secretary William Hague rightly said:
“The commitments in the charter should be upheld, adhered to and kept under review by member Governments, Parliaments and civil society organisations”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/3/13; col. WS56.]
I back that sentiment wholeheartedly, but it means in practice that we must begin now to tackle these fundamental human rights abuses. I associate myself completely with the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, about the state of affairs which sees so many Commonwealth countries still criminalising homosexuality, a stain on the reputation of the Commonwealth which is going to be a subject of a debate in this House next Wednesday.
Will my noble friend restate the Government’s commitment, as part of their very welcome plans to reinvigorate the Commonwealth, to promoting freedom of expression throughout the Commonwealth? Does he also agree that one way to ensure that deeds match words is for the Commonwealth Secretariat, in advance of CHOGM, to undertake a freedom of expression audit of all member states to act as a baseline for improvement, an audit against which we can check whether the noble words of the charter are being met with action on the ground? That could be a hugely important first step in ensuring not just that the Commonwealth itself remains relevant and effective but that it is an organisation in which all of us who believe in human rights can be proud to take part.
My Lords, I wanted to address a couple of issues this afternoon, the first being the economic dimension to the Commonwealth. As we have heard from many speeches, approximately one-third of humanity is engaged in the Commonwealth and it very largely shares with people and businesses in this country a common language and very similar approaches to law. Among these diverse countries are those that are extremely rich in natural resources, such as Australia, Canada and many parts of Africa, and many that are growing fast, particularly in Asia and Africa. It seems reasonable that if this country has a connection with many of those countries, while in no way is it a substitute for our membership of the European Union, surely it should be another string to our bow.
At the beginning of our membership of the European Union we turned our back on many of our former trading partners in the Commonwealth. Some felt great resentment and at that stage it was not necessarily in our economic interests. It most certainly is not in our economic interests today. We should pursue, as hard as we can, the economic development of the Commonwealth, because just as the founders of the European Union had it in their minds that strengthening economic co-operation would also go a long way to preventing conflict, similarly economic development in the Commonwealth can also help to eliminate conflict. As we heard from the noble Lords, Lord Black and Lord Anderson, there are things that are far from perfect, and I welcome the charter. It is a very fine foundation upon which to build.
The second issue, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, is the possible membership of the Commonwealth by the Irish Republic. This is something I would strongly welcome and I ask the Minister if this issue has been raised by Her Majesty’s Government with the Irish Government. If we go back some 30 years to 1982, there was considerable conflict at that time with the Falklands war and others. It was Sir Shridath Ramphal, then the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, who implored Ireland, as he put it, to “come home” to the Commonwealth of nations.
The Commonwealth consists of 54 nations, more than 60% of which are republics. It is no longer, as the Minister said, the British Commonwealth; it is the Commonwealth. Given the diversity of countries, given the new charter, given the fact that the majority of members are republics and given the commonality of history and all that goes with it, it seems to me that it could go a long way towards putting on an even stronger foundation the relationship between this country and the Republic of Ireland, taking its place in the Commonwealth of nations, which will, I believe, be a very strong trading bloc as well as a strong soft-power bloc diplomatically throughout the world. It would strengthen relationships within these islands.
While some would see the Republic joining the Commonwealth as some way of assuaging the views of unionists who might then feel less likely to object to being part of a united Ireland, I can assure your Lordships as a unionist that that is not the case. But that does not mean that we should not do anything and everything in our power to strengthen our relationships and help to build what has the potential to be one of the biggest and most successful trading and economic blocs in the world.
The charter would offend nobody in the Irish Republic; it would be entirely consistent with its long-held views and expressions; and there is no military involvement whatever. Given the progress that has been made in the past 15 years—we are coming up to the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast agreement next month—this could be a further step that we could take together. I hope that people in the Republic will give significant consideration to taking this step.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak in this timely and most worthy debate. I thank my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire for introducing it.
I have been clear in this House previously about my admiration for the Commonwealth. For me, it is a network of countries that strikes the right balance between sharing a commitment to democracy and the rule of law and celebrating the diversity that exists within it.
It proudly knows no geographical, cultural or economic bounds; it is a club of equals. Its modern-day relevance is clear, serving as home to a third of the world’s population. Still, there are countries showing an interest in joining, with Rwanda becoming the newest member in 2009.
The Commonwealth is often described as a link between the first world and the third world. The importance of this cannot be exaggerated. It has the potential to play key roles in conflict resolution and the development of democracy in unstable nations through the use of soft power. Perhaps most notable was the group’s substantial contribution to the end of apartheid in South Africa. However, it should now become more involved in conflict resolution. It is also encouraging to see that the Commonwealth has pledged to give extra assistance to the poorest and most vulnerable members who are affected by climate change.
Your Lordships may be aware that the first ever multinational anti-corruption centre was launched in Botswana last month to tackle corruption right across the continent. The Commonwealth is providing £1 million to help fund this over the next few years, which visibly demonstrates the commitment of Commonwealth countries to helping each other.
As a businessman, it is highly encouraging for me to note that this year’s Commonwealth theme is opportunity through enterprise. The talent and innovation of our young people must be unlocked and harnessed to ensure that Commonwealth countries remain at the forefront of technological and economic development.
I have also spoken in your Lordships’ House many times on the need to increase overseas trade from and between Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth itself must be more strongly appreciated as a potential trading network, with more emphasis placed on trade—which at the moment stands at about £1.7 trillion. It has £62 billion of foreign direct investment flowing out of it, constituting more than 20% of all international trade and investment. In fact, most member countries conduct between a third and half of their trade with other member countries. We should look very closely at the economic potential of using such an obvious grouping of countries to build business and trade relationships that could be mutually beneficial to all involved. Quite simply, it provides us with a ready-made relationship with some of the most promising emerging markets in India, Africa and Malaysia. I have visited a number of countries in these areas.
Business and trade aside, what makes the Commonwealth so unique is that its citizens have an exceptional sense of pride from being part of the club. Unlike other regional blocs or trading territories, the Commonwealth gains much of its strength from the sense of affinity that binds its countries together. This year is of course particularly special because we are establishing the Commonwealth charter: a set of core values that the nations of the Commonwealth believe in and are expected to uphold and protect on behalf of their people.
We currently face a multitude of global challenges that threaten the long-term health and stability of our planet, so we can again use the Commonwealth as a force for good by mapping out a consensus on major international issues such as terrorism, poverty and climate change. Although the charter does not set contractual obligations, it encourages a sense of shared responsibility and is set within the moral and ethical context from which the Commonwealth has always drawn its strength. National Governments are often more receptive and a lot less hostile to this type of approach, which frees them from the restraints of bureaucracy or quotas but holds them accountable for their principles by their allies.
Far from being an outdated institution, the Commonwealth is perhaps the greatest of all international associations. It has a unique reach across countries, continents and oceans that both celebrates our unity on liberty and democracy, and encourages national sovereignty and diversity. It is the ultimate network fit for the continued challenges of the 21st century. My noble friend Lord Howell deserves praise for greatly raising the profile of the Commonwealth on the world stage. It is vital that the Government continue upon the course he started in adopting a clearer strategy for their relations with the Commonwealth.
My Lords, in recent years we have seen a number of developments in the Commonwealth: the Eminent Persons Group report triggered some changes to increase the effectiveness of the Commonwealth; the adoption of the new Commonwealth charter; and a renewed focus on the Commonwealth by this Government, thanks to the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford. All these changes are very significant and welcome. They provide a real opportunity to keep up the momentum for change and revitalise both the Commonwealth and its institutions.
The potential of the Commonwealth at all levels is enormous, as we have heard from other contributions this afternoon. The aspirations and expectations of the Commonwealth are high, and those of this Government are very ambitious indeed. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, identified three main areas where he would like to see the role of the Commonwealth strengthened: human rights and democracy; engagement on global issues, working to liberalise trade and break down barriers to international trade; and an even greater role in development and conflict prevention. To meet these enormous challenges we need effective Commonwealth institutions, ones which are nimble, agile and able to develop mature and constructive partnerships with other regional, international and civil society organisations.
In response to the Eminent Persons Group report the Commonwealth Secretariat is developing a new strategic plan, as we heard earlier, and efforts are being made to reform the institution. While these are welcome developments we need further radical thinking and reform. This is not a criticism of what has been achieved but we need to recognise the current realities. We must be sensitive to the diversity of needs in the Commonwealth and its competing priorities. Different members of the Commonwealth have different priorities. Some want to concentrate on development issues, others on democracy, rule of law and human rights, and others on business. These are interrelated but the starting point for different Commonwealth countries may be different. I am not sure that the Commonwealth Secretariat based in London can deliver the ambitious agenda expected of it.
Now that we have a charter that provides a strong framework of core values, should we not be thinking of creating regional Commonwealth hubs, or at least offices, in three regions—for example, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia—with a slimmed-down secretariat in London? This may seem a bold suggestion but it would enable the secretariat to respond to the relevant needs and priorities of countries in those regions within the framework of the charter, develop purposeful links with civil society and other regional organisations there, and have a greater impact.
In the time allocated it is not possible to spell out the notion of regional hubs and offices in detail. In response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the Government said that they would continue to seek to be a positive influence on the Commonwealth Secretariat, working with and through it to make it more efficient, focused and relevant in today’s world. It would be helpful if they could now urge the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to set up a group, similar to the Eminent Persons Group, to explore options for further reform of the secretariat and the feasibility of regional offices and hubs.
This group could also look at what implications this would have for the future appointment of the Secretary-General and his or her senior staff. In a modern world and Commonwealth, appointments should be made through open competition, backed by a clear idea of skills, experience and qualities required for the job. I am not the first person to suggest this; it has been recommended before.
The same can apply to organisations like the CPA and the Commonwealth Foundation. They, too, could look to be part of regional hubs. Similarly, Commonwealth civil society organisations could work and collaborate with devolved regional hubs and be more effective on the ground. As former chairman and president of the Royal Commonwealth Society, I know that there is appetite within civil society organisations to help and support the secretariat. Good practice already exists. For example, the advocacy campaign on ending child marriage in the Commonwealth, led by the Royal Commonwealth Society and Plan International, an organisation with offices across the world, has made and continues to make a real impact.
The time is ripe for radical thinking and reform of Commonwealth institutions if we want the Commonwealth to realise its potential and remain the platform for the future. I very much hope that the Government will take up this initiative and urge consideration of further radical reform.
My Lords, I should declare that I suppose I am, by accident, what might be defined as a child of the Commonwealth. When I first came back with my sister from Canada, where we were left during the war, we were introduced to our family, my mother in particular. Most of her family were called Williams, a lovely patronymic surname that I have always admired. More than that, for family bonding we went on holiday for the first time, which was quite difficult when there was no petrol around, to Mumbles. I therefore have a great affection for the current position of—I must get this right, because my noble friend Lord Howell, got it wrong—the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams. That was my most difficult research before speaking today. I am most grateful to him for a debate that he introduced some time ago on the importance and effect of religion in the Middle East, which touched me deeply.
As a child of the Commonwealth, and knowing that there is so little time left, one must always have a theme. I will take the theme of a minute. A minute is, as noble Lords know, one nautical mile upon the surface of the earth. Therefore, when I look down from heaven or up from wherever it might be, what do I see? Seventy per cent of the earth is ocean or sea. The land is only a very small percentage. It is spread far and wide, and you either look down on it from above the Antarctic, the Arctic or the equator, but, in general, when you look down upon it, the map that you see has Greenwich, which is in the United Kingdom, in the centre, as it should be, due to the technology of the Harrison chronometer. It matters not, but technology was what enabled us to go out into the world.
This degree and this 70% water become important to me because, by some strange calculation, it seems that the United Kingdom, its British territories and the other main Commonwealth countries are the most dominant with their economic exclusion zones of 200 nautical miles controlling the oceans of the world, where there are 22,000 shipping vessels and others. In comparison, the United States has 6.2 million square kilometres against our 27 million square kilometres. The rest of NATO has 4.5 million square kilometres, but the French territories become quite important with 7.7 million square kilometres. Does this mean anything? Possibly it does not, but it can do strategically and if we look at such issues as global warming or trade. If we say that 90% of all trade goes by sea, of the 100,000 vessels upon the face of the earth, 20% are Commonwealth and 20% are fishing vessels. This may be utterly irrelevant to this debate, but to me it is relevant because I want to move on to look at climate change.
I had the privilege to go to a presentation the other day about the Arctic and I got something of a shock. With global warming before very long the north-west passage will be open, which means that the great ships of the world will be moving there in five days rather than eight, with enormous fuel savings. It means that the whole structure of Europe and the United Kingdom may change, and perhaps even Scapa Flow will come back into being.
On the impact of that change and the changes that are taking place in the southern hemisphere, we can talk about Antarctica, which, as a result of the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Montgomery, is well protected and does not belong to anyone, although the greatest claimants are, as your Lordships know, always those who play rugby—I do not know about Papua New Guinea. I do not know what that link is, but it is there. Let us suppose global warning continues. At the presentation I went to, some eminent government scientists pointed out that flooding as a result of climate change could have a major impact on India and many other Commonwealth countries, and that we should be aware that it is not that far away. This is all way beyond my pay grade, but as secretary and treasurer of the House of Lords Yacht Club, it gives me great pleasure to know that floating upon the face of the earth are more British vessels than vessels of any other country, and they are Commonwealth-flagged. We must therefore ask: what is the Commonwealth flag and what does it stand for? Even in today’s debate, we have different opinions. I believe that trade is the bearer of all wealth, knowledge and understanding.
My Lords, I asked a relation of mine what she thought of the Commonwealth, and she said, “Well, it’s a sentimental thing, isn’t it?”. She made it sound like a keepsake or a woolly rabbit, but then she said, “If the members like it, then it must have value”. Judging from its latest report, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee would not be satisfied with that.
The Commonwealth obviously does a lot of good, but is it trying hard enough and can it do better? Having spent most of my working life in voluntary organisations, I see it as a rather cumbersome NGO gently nudging member states around the world towards better modes of governance, democracy, education, human rights and economic development. Some countries move forward, and some, as the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Watson, have pointed out, slip backwards.
NGOs, including church agencies, can have a potent effect, especially at a local level. I have seen the best ones working around officialdom and engaging directly with the community, and often representing them where elected politicians fail them. Some are bureaucratic, but most give value for money. Some are dominated by strong personalities with political motives, but there is no harm in that. My own interest in politics stems from working with Christian Aid. I firmly believe in the potential of civil society to influence events, and for similar reasons I see the Commonwealth as a force for good in the world.
However, as the FAC says, the Commonwealth needs to tighten up its act. As we have heard, the new charter adopted at the Perth CHOGM last year brings together the key values uniting the Commonwealth: democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The charter emphasises the role of civil society, albeit in its final paragraph 16. I welcome that because it is not only a hallmark of such a diverse organisation but a means of extending important principles that might otherwise remain mere aspirations. For example, I can think of a number of countries where there is little progress towards those values but where civil society nevertheless has a strong tradition of resistance.
Parliamentary strengthening is of course a key activity, and I have seen this through CPA visits. However, in this we must move further away from a Westminster-centred approach towards a more respectful recognition of local traditions. Here I concur with what the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, said. This may be why the Commonwealth has recently focused on human rights. The Secretary-General intends to deepen the secretariat’s strategic partnership with the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I wonder if the Minister can explain what that means, remembering that the next CHOGM will be in Colombo. When the FAC complained about this, Her Majesty’s Government’s reply was rather lame. They said:
“We look to Sri Lanka … to demonstrate its commitment to upholding Commonwealth values”.
The Minister repeated something similar just now. It is undoubtedly an embarrassment for everyone except the Sri Lankan Government that CHOGM is taking place in Colombo.
I would like to see South Sudan become the latest member of the Commonwealth. It applied informally after independence in 2011 and its application was universally welcomed in Perth. However, it seems that the Commonwealth may be suffering from enlargement fatigue, a condition normally associated with the European Union. Is there any reason why a post-conflict and least developed country, having survived 30 years of war, desperately in need of international assistance and near the top of every development agency’s priorities, should be made to wait for formalities?
I telephoned and e-mailed the secretariat last week and it told me that essentially the process has no timeframes. It depends on how quickly the aspiring member state follows the requirements, which include a resolution by the country’s parliament. It said that the secretariat does not push the process. Well, who does? Suspecting that South Sudan had been left to its own devices, I rang the South Sudanese Ambassador, Mr Sebit Aley, and he told me that that was indeed the position. His Minister had discussed the application with his Australian counterpart. The FCO was present, and he had received an assurance that South Sudan would be assisted in its application. However, he said that he had heard nothing since then and was still waiting for the list of requirements. I have mentioned all this to our new ambassador to South Sudan. Capacity-building is a familiar concept, and I hope that the Minister will now be able to move things further forward.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. As always, however much one thinks that they know about a subject, there is more that one can learn. It has also been a most appropriate occasion for us to hear from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, in his new capacity in your Lordships’ House.
Last year I was not able to participate in the Commonwealth Day debate here, as I was celebrating it in Brunei. The date coincided with Brunei’s annual session of the legislative assembly, a rare and privileged occasion for one of the smaller members of the Commonwealth. I welcome the fact that this Commonwealth Day debate is becoming a fixture in our agenda, albeit that it is not taking place precisely on the day itself. The idea that all Commonwealth countries should endeavour to hold such a debate on or close to 12 March is a good one. It came out of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s centenary meeting, which took place in London in 2011. Like the noble Lord, Lord Luce, I feel that some of these events are providing a more visible framework for Commonwealth activities.
It is important that parliaments should be involved in the development of the role of the Commonwealth, and that such matters are not just left to heads of government and the Commonwealth institutions themselves. Today’s debate and the suggestions that have come out of it, as well as the debate that is due to be held in the other place next week, prove the point. In this, the United Kingdom branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association plays a leading role, and I declare an interest as a member of the executive council. The programme of meetings, seminars and conferences, which the secretariat organises both for parliamentarians from other countries and for parliamentary officials from other Commonwealth countries, have been hugely successful and popular and are well received.
The theme of last year’s 58th CPA conference, which took place in Sri Lanka, was, “Ensuring a relevant Commonwealth for the future”. I agree that this means not only looking at the trade and networking opportunities that membership of the Commonwealth can offer but at what still needs to be done—for example, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, mentioned earlier, the fact that some 36 countries still have the death penalty. Other references have been made to human rights and issues that still remain to be worked on.
Since today is International Women’s Day, it is worth mentioning that at the Sri Lankan conference last year the Commonwealth women parliamentarian’s steering committee committed itself afresh to strategies to increase women’s representation in parliaments, especially in small states where adequate numbers and candidates might not always receive sufficient encouragement.
Following the centenary of the CPA the year before, last year saw the celebration of the Queen’s 60 years as head of the Commonwealth. There is an All-Party Group for the Commonwealth in Parliament, and yesterday we heard from the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, which was set up to commemorate the Queen’s jubilee with special reference to the Commonwealth. Its current programme is aimed at accelerating the work towards ending avoidable blindness across the Commonwealth, in part through partnerships and by supporting the existing initiatives in this field. It also intends to provide support for young people by bringing them together and providing mentoring for young leaders, and its work needs some acknowledgment.
I underline what has been said about the importance of education and educational links, and wish that the Commonwealth of Learning, which is based in Canada, had more recognition and encouragement in this country. I was delighted to hear from my noble friend the Minister at the outset about the increase in Commonwealth and Chevening scholarships. I welcome the fact that the Commonwealth Youth Parliament is now in its fifth year and that its meetings, which have taken place in your Lordships’ House and the House of Commons, are now to be a fixture in the CPA calendar and are due to take place in other Commonwealth countries. The enthusiasm of these young people must make us optimistic about the future. I also welcome the initiative of the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra, to which the noble Lord, Lord Luce, referred.
I do not want to finish without a brief mention of the overseas territories. I was pleased to hear the Minister’s reassurance that these tiny territories are not forgotten. Their role within the Commonwealth has been somewhat anomalous in the past, so it is important that a special recognition of their existence should be maintained as well as mentioned in the charter.
As has been emphasised throughout this debate, we share so much within the Commonwealth: values, institutions, language and a common history. We can now look forward to a common future, and the adoption of the Commonwealth charter will, I hope, help to bring this about.
My Lords, I warmly welcome this debate, and I have greatly enjoyed the many and varied contributions this afternoon, especially the sort of maiden speech by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, in his recycled life. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, especially for the work he has done for the Commonwealth.
I have always been a firm supporter of the Commonwealth; likewise, I have always been a firm supporter of the European Union. I therefore strongly disagree with those—not in this Chamber this afternoon—who yearn for isolation from the European Union, believing that enhanced links within the Commonwealth would strengthen our position in the world. That is both wrong-headed and romantic. Our membership of a single market of almost 500 million citizens, a powerful global trading block, must never be undervalued. Both organisations fulfil different and distinct roles, but they share common values, which include democracy, human rights, good governance and the rule of law. At a time when there has been an ever-accelerating movement of wealth and power from north to south, from west to east, and geopolitics is in a constant swirl, it is our key relationships with both that help to define our place in the world.
A couple of weeks ago, when the Prime Minister visited Amritsar, he rightly described the massacre, the atrocity of 1919, as,
“a deeply shameful event in British history”.
Churchill described it at the time as “monstrous”, as indeed it was. It brought home the injustices of imperialism, episodes in our history of which we should be deeply ashamed—although clearly we did many good things. For me, it also encapsulated the complexities of the Commonwealth and our shared history.
I was attracted by the suggestions made by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, about further radical reform of the Commonwealth, for example by the introduction of regional hubs. I also welcome the Commonwealth Charter, which defines an impressive project, and agree that it is an important statement of what the Commonwealth stands for. It will ensure that the organisation renews itself and remains relevant in the 21st century, while retaining its values—that is, as long as its declarations are translated into actions, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, said.
There are many who question that relevance. I recall difficult discussions with Indian parliamentarians last year during an excellent visit organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Some of our interlocutors saw the Commonwealth only as an organisation born out of Empire, and believed that our position within the European Union was of much more interest to them. I have no doubt that there will be many successful outcomes following the recent trade mission to India led by the Prime Minister. Although the business potential is enormous, it is clear that we cannot rely on our historic ties and our powerful diaspora for business preferment. I should add that mixed messages about visas do not help. I endorse the comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester about the damage being done by our restrictive visa policy to intergenerational relationships and to our soft power, which is rightly celebrated by the Government.
The charter provides an opportunity for the Commonwealth to restate its role in a fast-changing world, but for that opportunity to be truly grasped, the core values and principles have to be adhered to. It is a voluntary association of independent, sovereign states which celebrate diversity while sharing history and traditions; we share a culture but have many cultural differences. However, those differences must not be allowed to override our shared respect for human rights, as clearly stated in the charter in a gloriously robust paragraph that ends:
“We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds”.
Like my noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie, I therefore have to wonder why, in the 21st century, the Commonwealth still tolerates not only the criminalisation of homosexuality in many Commonwealth countries, but the fact that in northern Nigeria the maximum punishment for same-sex sexual activity is death by stoning, and in Uganda, legislators are considering an anti-gay Bill that includes a death penalty provision.
I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that in all Commonwealth gatherings, we will raise these issues, which are an affront to our declared commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That is, or at least should be, one of the great strengths of the Commonwealth. It brings together countries from North and South, developed and developing, and should enable us to discuss the most difficult issues and to find solutions to problems such as tax transparency. In too many of our discussions in the past on development and migration, we have looked for north-south solutions. However, within the Commonwealth, matters can be resolved though south-south dialogues, and the Commonwealth.
On the issue of human rights, like other noble Lords, I look forward to hearing from the Minister a proper update on the Government’s support for the holding of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka later this year—a country where there are still horrific abuses of human rights. In my view it is clear that the host of CHOGM must uphold the Commonwealth values of good governance and respect for human rights; this is, indeed, a litmus test. Like my noble friend Lord Anderson, I regret that the CHOGM held in Perth last year did not adopt the proposal from the eminent persons group to create a commissioner for democracy, the rule of law and human rights. I know that the arguments against it were that it would duplicate the roles of the secretary-general and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, but I take a very different position. In my view, it would have strengthened the Commonwealth’s institutions and the democratic institutions and the rule of law in all the member states. Democracy is fragile; it needs constant nurturing and vigilance; and the appointment of a commissioner would have helped.
I am sure that we all look forward to free, fair and transparent elections in Pakistan in a few months’ time. This will be the first transition from one democratically elected Government to another in the country’s history. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House what arrangements are being made to monitor the elections. While welcoming the elections, I have deep concerns about the fact that more that 12 million women will not be able to participate in them because they do not have an identity card and therefore cannot register to vote. That says much about the status of women in our Commonwealth, although some wonderful advances are being made by women in Pakistan, which I will briefly mention in due course if time permits.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the work that it does in bringing together parliamentarians and facilitating discussions and exchanges of best practice. Sometimes the deeper understanding and new relationships have very practical outcomes: for example, in developing partnerships between organisations and institutions in the UK and other Commonwealth countries. There are also many examples of links that have been forged between small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK and other countries, providing trading and employment opportunities. Again, this is very much a two-way process, with benefits to developing and developed countries.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a CPA visit to Pakistan to continue a dialogue that we had begun with women parliamentarians from Pakistan and Afghanistan. During our visit, we met inspirational women who are working in Parliament, NGOs, communities and the home to lift people out of poverty and to ensure a more equal society. As we heard in our earlier debate, thanks to the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, there have been stunning successes in getting rid of deeply discriminatory laws. It has also produced laws against, for example, acid throwing and has many more in the pipeline on domestic violence and many other issues of critical importance to women. The greatest challenge now is changing mindsets and culture to ensure the application of those laws. Our discussions focused on women’s economic empowerment, and many of the issues raised were exactly the same as those which I discussed with the Forest of Dean Businesswomen’s Network last Friday. The potential for women’s economic and social empowerment throughout the Commonwealth is mighty and it is right that we recognise that on International Women’s Day.
The CPA and all other organisations and networks that bind the Commonwealth together must never become a mere talking shop, a travelling merry-go-round. They must be effective partners, working together in friendship to protect and support human rights, build the capacity of democratic institutions, respect the rule of law, work for peace and reconciliation and contribute to the millennium development goals. In undertaking these tasks, there are vast opportunities to enhance our relationships in education, business, industry, healthcare and so much more. In our fast-moving, ever-changing world, in which the sustainability of our natural resources grows in importance by the day, it is to our mutual benefit to grasp those opportunities in what should and must be a vibrant global network.
My Lords, this has been a very valuable debate. We covered only a little bit of the Commonwealth, which is a highly diverse, very complicated network. In reading up for this, I become conscious that the value the Commonwealth provides is often extremely different for different members. The smaller states in the Commonwealth find it a huge extension to their global engagement and an opportunity for them to express their strong concerns. For example, in developing a Commonwealth perspective on climate change, the small island states of the Pacific had a major role in explaining to their neighbours and Commonwealth partners just how vital the issue of climate change was for their future viability.
I was struck by the interpretation of the Commonwealth from the noble Lord, Lord Luce, so I will start with that. The Commonwealth is not like the EU or NATO. It is a very different organisation of networks, links, soft power as opposed to hard power, aspirations rather than obligations. That makes it very difficult to assess and to judge and very easy to get deeply frustrated with the moderate lack of progress. It is a loose and diverse association that has to be judged by criteria different from those we currently use to assess the EU, the transatlantic relationship or NATO. I say, as someone who occasionally reads the Europhobe blogosphere, that the Commonwealth is not an alternative to the EU and NATO. It is a very helpful complement to it, which the British Government and other members of the Commonwealth should do their utmost to develop to the full.
Some states fall some way short of the values that we have now agreed in the Commonwealth charter. A few sometimes fall a long way short and, as noble Lords will be well aware, every now and again a Commonwealth member falls so far short that its membership is suspended for a period. That is the way the Commonwealth works, but it works by consensus, not by qualified majority voting. Organisations that work by consensus move unavoidably and necessarily slowly. That can give rise to the more critical perspective presented by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, but we have different sorts of frustrations with the European Union and other tighter organisations than we do with the Commonwealth. We must make the best of what the Commonwealth is and not get too frustrated that it is not something else.
As noble Lords have suggested, there are several dimensions of the Commonwealth relationship. Shared values, shared heritage and shared approach to the rule of law are crucial and it is a major step forward that we have managed to agree the Commonwealth Charter. Alongside good governance, the rule of law and human rights, there is a commitment to development and assistance for sustainable development in particular that has taken us into the area of climate change in which, as a network that crosses regions and the developed and developing world, the Commonwealth has a very useful role to play.
The Commonwealth has brought us all sort of human links between Britain and other Commonwealth countries. I spent a day canvassing in Southwark at the last election and was amazed by how many different Commonwealth countries I discussed with people I met on the doorstep. We have human links like dual citizenship and intermarriage and there is also increasingly a two-way link. Tata owns major British companies; we invest in India, the Indians invest in us. That is something else that we should exploit. This leads on to economic and commercial ties that we should be developing as much as we can. It is a concern that only 10% of Britain’s exports currently go to the Commonwealth. It ought to be a great deal more. It is excellent that they are increasing, but that is not to say that we should be reducing the quantity of exports that go to the European Union; we should be exploiting Commonwealth markets as much as we can.
Then there is the global intergovernmental network, which brings together diverse states to discuss problems of common interest such as financial regulation, tax avoidance and tax havens, which again gives us the opportunity to talk to other important states. In recent years, the Commonwealth has necessarily been discussing renewal and modernisation. We have now agreed a limited reform agenda. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group has been strengthened and Her Majesty’s Government are committed to ensuring that the reforms agreed by Commonwealth heads of government are now implemented. We will monitor this closely, assess the impact of the adopted reforms and keep both Houses updated.
A key part of the reform agenda will be ensuring that the Commonwealth Secretariat sharpens its focus. The secretariat’s new strategic plan is important to refocus Commonwealth programmes on the areas where it can add more value than other organisations. I note with interest the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, that we should be thinking about regional hubs for the secretariat in the future. That is probably something that needs to come from regional groups within the Commonwealth, but Her Majesty’s Government would welcome such a development if viable proposals were put forward.
A number of noble Lords have spoken on the Commonwealth Charter, the aspirations that it spells out and by how far a number of Commonwealth countries fall short of those aspirations. The noble Lord, Lord Black, spoke about problems of press freedom in a number of Commonwealth states, which are very much a matter of concern; the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, spoke about religious freedom and freedom of minorities; and a number of noble Lords spoke about the persecution of homosexuals, the death penalty and so on. I can assure noble Lords that Her Majesty’s Government do raise those issues bilaterally and multilaterally within the Commonwealth. As I read diplomatic telegrams within the Foreign Office, I frequently see reports that Ministers have vigorously addressed these questions when talking to other members of the Commonwealth. We of course hope that other Commonwealth Governments do the same, and we work with them as much as we can.
It is one of the tragedies of where we are in the world that when we talk about the protection of religious minorities, we have to admit that part of the surge of persecution of homosexuals in Africa at the present moment is being driven by competition among Pentecostal churches in some African countries, as well as by competition between Muslim and Christian churches on the great boundary between Islam and the world. However, Her Majesty’s Government indeed raise these issues and work very hard to counter pressures in the opposite direction.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, asked what was being done to strengthen the Commonwealth Foundation. DfID gives about £1 million a year to the foundation, which promotes democracy, good governance and sustainable development by strengthening links and dialogue between civil society organisations. The foundation has just agreed a new strategic plan that provides clear lines for its future action within civil society. We see the foundation’s role at the People’s Forum taking place in parallel with CHOGM as a useful and important supplementary role. The Foreign Secretary made a keynote speech in support of civil society at the People’s Forum at CHOGM in 2011.
Noble Lords also mentioned the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, an independent trust to which a number of Commonwealth Governments have so far pledged support. Its intention is to promote additional Commonwealth scholarships, not just between Britain and other Commonwealth countries but—I am glad to say that this is beginning to develop—between different Commonwealth countries, not always including Britain. The Indian Government have, I am told, begun to develop in their own direction Commonwealth scholarships for students from other Commonwealth countries. That is how the Commonwealth should operate as a network.
The Diamond Jubilee Trust will run for five years, fundraising until October 2013, then distributing the funds and supporting the implementation of programmes for a further four years. It will focus on tackling avoidable blindness and youth leadership. It is now working out the detailed design of its programmes in both areas and aims to work with a broad coalition of partners.
The most difficult area that has been raised is the forthcoming CHOGM in Colombo. The Government of Sri Lanka face considerable challenges and Her Majesty’s Government continue to raise questions about how well they are doing in post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation. My honourable friend Alistair Burt was in Colombo some weeks ago and, as well as the capital, he also visited Tamil majority areas in the north of the country, to see what was happening on the ground. Some progress has been made, for example on economic development, demining and the rehabilitation of child soldiers.
On the other hand, we are distressed by the arrest of the chief justice and what that means for the rule of law within the country. We are clear that more needs to be done, such as on the demilitarisation of the north, political settlement and accountability, and we continue to consider our position on what sort of representation we will provide for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting when it takes place.
A number of other countries were mentioned. The Gambia also concerns us to a considerable extent. I note that the Gambian Government have accused not Britain but the European Union of neocolonialism. There are severe problems in terms of how far one can bring pressure to bear on small countries. Apart from the United Kingdom Government and the European Union collectively, few other countries appear to be actively concerned about what is now happening.
There were a number of questions about election monitoring. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, that we are not aware of a request from the Government of Pakistan for the Commonwealth to monitor elections there. The Commonwealth responds to invitations to monitor, it does not invite itself and there has to be an invitation from the Government concerned. I entirely agree that these are key elections and we would very much like to see a Commonwealth monitoring mission. I am sure that everyone is aware that there is a Commonwealth electoral monitoring mission now in Kenya that is doing its best to monitor the elections there. In 2012, the Commonwealth observed elections in Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Lesotho and Ghana, so this is an active element in what the Commonwealth does.
My noble friend Lord Hussain raised the question of Kashmir. We all recognise the importance of finding a solution to the situation there. It is the key to reconciliation between India and Pakistan and is also an issue on the streets of a number of cities in Britain. We welcome the renewed engagement between India and Pakistan, but recognise that the reconciliation has to be led by those two countries above all. We are willing to provide all necessary resources to assist that process.
We are also concerned with what is happening in the Maldives. My extremely hard-working honourable friend Alistair Burt has just returned from the Maldives where he spoke to the President, opposition leaders and others and is best to assess the current situation. Both the Commonwealth Secretary-General and its special envoy, Sir Don McKinnon, have spoken of the importance of free, fair and inclusive elections in the Maldives, but the situation is still developing. We welcome the engagement of the Indian Government, but we are not entirely sure what the outcome will be.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, spoke passionately and pleasingly about relations between Ireland and the Commonwealth, with perhaps the prospect of Ireland joining. Her Majesty’s Government would of course welcome such a prospect, but the initial request would appropriately come from Dublin and would be made to the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth as a whole, not to the United Kingdom. After all, Ireland has a very strong record in international peacekeeping since the Second World War, and a long tradition of development assistance to Africa, so it has many of the links that one would wish to see, and it self-evidently meets all the criteria for Commonwealth membership.
When Ireland joined the European Union, Garret FitzGerald said to me that joining the European Union was like gaining an additional dimension to Irish independence because it began to have a whole new set of international relationships. I suspect that if Ireland were to join the Commonwealth, it would extend this network even further. I hope that noble Lords have noted the innovation of a small joint UK-Irish military training team in Mali, which is another small but significant step: British and Irish military personnel working together in a peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction operation.
I rather hoped that the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, was going to ask about the Sandwich Islands. He asked about South Sudan. I do not think one can talk about an undue delay to South Sudan’s application. There has to be a consensus among the 54 member states. South Sudan is a very new and still slightly fragile state. I have friends and relatives who are working there and I am aware of just how difficult they are finding it to reconstruct a governmental apparatus after the end of the conflict. There are major efforts by Her Majesty’s Government and by agencies of other Commonwealth Governments, including South Sudan’s southern neighbours, to assist.
I have touched a little on trade and prosperity. We are committed to strengthening trade links with partners across the world, including those in the Commonwealth. The enormously useful and important delegation that the Prime Minister has just taken to India is part of that process. We see this Commonwealth Week’s theme of “Opportunity through Enterprise” as part of that process in which we build on our existing economic links with the Commonwealth. Commonwealth countries can also make excellent springboards into Asia and Africa. For example, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia link the Commonwealth to ASEAN—the Association of South-East Asian Nations—and Canada, of course, represents an important gateway to North America for many countries.
The Government are focused on building stronger links within the Commonwealth and strengthening the Commonwealth as a network of networks. We are taking a number of practical steps to strengthen our engagement in the Commonwealth, including strengthening our diplomatic network. We opened a new deputy high commission in Hyderabad in India last year; another will follow in Chandigarh. We are strengthening our commercial capacity in countries such as Canada, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea and Guyana. Here in London we have increased the number of staff working on the Commonwealth.
Our renewed focus has also involved a change in approach and in the way we work by seeking to make the most of our Commonwealth contacts. In the past 12 months FCO Ministers have visited around 20 Commonwealth countries. This has left us in a strong position to build on the progress we have already made on our Commonwealth agenda.
I am conscious that a number of noble Lords have mentioned the visa issue. We all recognise how delicate and difficult this issue is at present. I will take that away and feed it in to our continuing conversations.
This has been an invaluable debate. If I go on for more than another minute, I shall lose the rest of my voice, so let me sum up by saying that I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, again, for all the efforts he put in to raising the visibility of the Commonwealth as an issue in British foreign policy. I know that there are many in this House who have spent a good deal of their time and careers working on the Commonwealth connection. I hope that there will be many more and that the Commonwealth, with the efforts that we and many other Commonwealth countries will make, will remain a vital, vibrant and values-based international network.
Supply and Appropriations (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill
The Bill was brought from the Commons, endorsed as a money Bill, and read a first time.
House adjourned 5.40 pm.