Skip to main content

Women: Representation

Volume 769: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2016


Asked by

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

My Lords, International Women’s Day is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in the UK. We now have more female MPs than ever before and more women in the top posts across government. However, we are not complacent, which is why we are taking steps to encourage talented women from all backgrounds to consider politics or public life as a potential career, including setting a clear aspiration that 50% of new public appointments should go to women.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I agree that progress has been made, but it is all very slow and we need to accelerate the participation of women, as she said. Does she agree that having a gender balance in all our elected institutions would mean that we were using the best of all the talents that this country has to offer? To achieve that aim, will she join me in signing up to the UN’s theme for International Women’s Day, which is its pledge for parity: “Planet 50-50 by 2030”? If that target is achieved, it will mean that in 15 years’ time we will have a much better balanced democracy that reflects the electorate of this country.

I thank the noble Baroness for her Question. I agree that organisations make the best decisions when they have a mix of skills, backgrounds and experiences. Increasing women’s political participation is extremely important and helps create female role models. I was struck by the noble Baroness’s comment in our debate last night that in 2003 the Welsh Assembly became a world leader as the first democratically elected institution to have 50% women members. I think that we all want to follow that example.

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge the organisation for which Emmeline Pankhurst was parliamentary candidate for Stepney upon her death in 1928, and of which Margaret Thatcher became the leader a very long time ago in 1979?

I am very happy to acknowledge the achievements of the women that my noble friend mentioned. We now have the most gender-diverse Parliament in British history. We have more female MPs than ever before and more women in top posts. In fact, 26% of all candidates who stood at the last election were women.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the speech made by the Chief of the General Staff today to mark International Women’s Day, in which he recommended to Ministers that all appointments in the Army, including close-combat roles, should be open to women? I wonder what Her Majesty’s Government’s response to that recommendation by the Chief of the General Staff will be.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that question. We are waiting for the results of the physiological study before we give a full response but I am certainly happy to acknowledge that we have 15,550 women in the Armed Forces, who do a fantastic job serving our country.

My Lords, it is very clear now that more women than ever are needed in post-conflict peacebuilding. Can the Minister say how much progress we are making with Diplomatic Service heads of mission in this country? Are efforts being made to attract more young women to enter the service and to crack the glass ceiling in areas such as the FCO? It is said that diplomacy is a man’s world—could she please tell us otherwise?

I am not sure that it would be very diplomatic of me to say one way or the other whether women or men are better at diplomacy so I will sit on the fence on that one. But I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness that we want to encourage more women, both into our Diplomatic Service and across public services. Since 1996, the percentage of women in the senior Civil Service has more than doubled, with women now representing more than 40% of those employed at that level—but I agree that we must do more.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the comments made this morning by the Employment Minister Priti Patel that women who want to leave the EU are like suffragettes? Does she agree that suffragettes would not have wanted to leave the top table of the EU, where we are involved in making laws on such issues as rights for part-time workers and maternity leave, which have benefited women in the United Kingdom?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I will not speak for the suffragettes—I would not presume to do so—but it is extremely important that women have a voice in all public debates, because often they are the voice of rationality.

My Lords, is it not worthy of note that two out of the three devolved Governments in our country are now led by women?

My Lords, the first aspect of women becoming involved is surely the ability to vote. But between March 2014 and December last year, 750,000 people dropped off the register. Can the Minister tell us how many of those are women and can she commit the Government to taking all action possible to make sure that women—and men—are back on the register in time to vote in the European referendum in June of this year?

I absolutely agree that we want to encourage as many young people to vote as possible. I am afraid that I do not have the figures that the noble Baroness asked for but I will happily attempt to find them for her. But what is also important is not only that people vote but also to make sure that the organisations that they vote for are representative of the general population, which is why it is great news that we have the most gender-diverse Parliament at the moment. But we need to encourage more women to get involved in public life, particularly at local authority level, where only 31% of local councillors are women.

The suffragette Hannah Mitchell said that women will continue to be held back so long as they operate with one hand tied behind their back—that is, they have the main responsibility for care in the home. What more will the Government do to encourage men—fathers and others in the home—to do more of the caring and to take up paternity leave, which they are not doing at present?

The noble Baroness has hit the nail on the head. We are trying to encourage a more flexible labour market, which is why we are extending flexible working and are looking to extend how families can choose to use maternity and paternity leave. It is for families to decide how they best want to structure how they look after their children. But we need to try to make it as easy as possible for parents to make those decisions so that they can both enjoy looking after and bringing up their children.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of research released by the Fawcett Society today showing that men are twice as likely as women to say that they are confident enough to stand for public office? For standing as a councillor the figures are 23% as against 10% and for standing for Parliament they are 18% as against 6%. I appreciate that this is mostly a matter for the political parties to address but does my noble friend agree that government has to play a role in encouraging that 6% to come forward?

Yes, I agree with that. We certainly want to encourage young women to build those confidence skills. We are, for instance, working with Debate Mate in schools to encourage girls to participate in debates at an early age to make sure that they realise their ambitions and, if they want to get involved in public life, that they have the confidence to do so.