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Women: Public Life

Volume 756: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to increase the representation of women in public life.

My Lords, we are seeking to remove barriers that prevent women from progressing in public life. For example, the Government have established a centre for public appointments in the Cabinet Office to ensure that best practice is followed. As a result, the proportion of new female appointees to public boards has increased to nearly 40%. We have also supported political parties in increasing women’s representation through a combination of measures.

I invite the Minister to join me in celebrating the fact that the first four women were introduced into the House of Lords on this date in 1958. Since then, without doubt, great progress has been made in women’s representation in both Houses, from those few four. However, we seem to have got stuck at around 23% in both Houses. In the Commons, we in the Labour Party are doing our best to get equal representation, and a general election victory will increase our numbers further. What positive efforts are the two coalition parties each making to significantly increase the number of Liberal Democrat and Conservative women in the Commons? Does the Minister agree that, until and unless they do so, the mother of Parliaments will fall even further down the international table on equal representation?

My Lords, I would also celebrate 1958, when women were brought into this House. We have just seen one of my very able noble friends introduced, and I look forward to her contribution. Indeed, the Labour Party and the other parties have made all sorts of efforts to increase the number of women in Parliament. The Conservative Party now has 25% of women as general election candidates; the Labour Party is ahead with 42%, and 26% of the selected candidates for the Lib Dems are women—and 36% of candidates in our most winnable seats are women. Therefore, I look to the great British public to make sure that those seats indeed prove to be winnable.

My Lords, I hesitate to correct my noble friend but I think that it is 35% on the Conservative side. She will be aware of the APPG Women In Parliament’s recent report, Improving Parliament: Creating a Better and More Representative House, which identified barriers, challenges and improved ways of working in the future. Does my noble friend agree with its findings, and will she urge political parties, Parliament and the Government to look at the recommendations that it contains?

I pay tribute to my noble friend for the work that she has done within her political party to ensure that there are more women in the Conservative ranks in the Commons. The all-party group’s report is extremely interesting. A lot of it relates to behaviour within the Commons. One has to hope that the behaviour in the Lords does not fall into the category of unprofessional behaviour that the all-party group mentioned. The group mentions a number of interesting propositions, including the idea of a Select Committee on women and equality.

My Lords, the Welsh Rugby Union’s decision to appoint its first female board member in its 133-year history is obviously to be welcomed but shows that there is still a mountain to be climbed. Will the Minister give us an update on which sporting organisations in receipt of government funding have reached the 25% target of women on boards?

I will write to the noble Baroness with the details of the most up-to-date position. However, she is right to note that these organisations have tended to lag behind in this regard. They have been chivvied to address this, especially as they receive funding from the Government, as she points out. However, in another field, I am pleased that the head of the BBC World Service is Francesca Unsworth, whom I congratulate on her appointment.

My Lords, I did not think that I could find a sector with fewer women in leadership roles than my native digital sector, but I have. As the recently installed chancellor of the Open University, it seems to me that higher education is even worse than technology in that regard. Therefore, I urge the Minister to look again at whether quotas are now desirable. Although I understand that it may be difficult to mandate this for boards, surely it is time to legislate for quotas in respect of shortlists.

The noble Baroness is right to highlight the legal challenge involved in that process. The Equality Act allows it in certain areas, for example in politics, but we have recently concluded that it is not legal in a number of other areas. It is very important to see women and girls coming through schools and universities, succeeding and being supported so that any caring responsibilities do not fall just on them. Making sure that they remain in work is important so that we do not end up with women at the bottom of the triangle but not at the top—the noble Baroness is quite right about that.

My Lords, in the light of those and other comments and last night’s debate in the other place, is the Minister ready to accept the thanks of the Church of England to both Houses for dealing so expeditiously with this matter? If Her Majesty graciously grants Royal Assent to the Measure, will the Minister convey in a suitably constitutional way the good wishes of this House to the General Synod when it meets to enact the necessary canon on 17 November, which will make way for the admittance of women to the episcopate in the Church of England?

I was delighted with the debate in this and the other House. We congratulate the church on this historic event.

My Lords, there are 30 million women in the United Kingdom yet we seem to have problems finding 325 to become MPs. Is it not time that we studied successful examples in other countries which have adopted quotas in one form or another and different systems to achieve a better balance?