Thursday 11 March 2021
The Grand Committee met in a hybrid proceeding.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now begin. Some Members are here in person, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the Room to wear a face covering except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down, and to wipe down their desk, chair, and any other touch points before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded, or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes.
International Women’s Day
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it is an honour to open this debate on behalf of my noble friend Lady Berridge, but I begin by saying that my thoughts and prayers are with the family and loved ones of Sarah Everard at this very difficult time for them. As the Home Secretary said today,
“every woman should feel safe to walk our streets without fear of harassment or violence.”
This Government have committed to protecting women and girls.
It is 110 years since the first International Women’s Day was marked. I am sure that today we will hear many inspiring examples of women who have advocated for gender equality. I thank particularly the many women working tirelessly in the response to Covid-19 around the world. Covid-19 is the biggest challenge that the UK has faced in decades, and everyone across the country has been hit by its impact. We know that much of the extra pressure of balancing work with childcare and home schooling has fallen on women, and we are working to ensure that opportunities such as the increase in flexible working open up new possibilities as we move forward. Women have been at the forefront of the fight against the virus, and we will ensure that they are at the centre of the Covid-19 recovery as we build back better.
Throughout Covid-19, the Government have worked hard to provide a comprehensive package of support to protect businesses and individuals during this unprecedented time. Across almost all areas of economic policy, we are providing comparable or even greater support than all our international peers. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been extended until the end of September 2021 for all parts of the UK, and the Government have provided generous support to the self-employed during the Covid-19 pandemic through the Self-employment Income Support Scheme.
As I noted, we recognise that this has been a challenging time for parents balancing work, childcare and remote learning. We continue to support families with their childcare costs, and we have set out to spend more than £3.6 billion on early years entitlements in 2020-21. Furthermore, last November the Chancellor announced a £44 million investment in 2021-22 for local authorities to increase hourly rates paid to childcare providers. We have taken action to align key tax-free childcare and 30 hours’ free childcare entitlements with government coronavirus job support schemes, ensuring that parents receiving support through these vital schemes remain eligible for support with childcare costs, even if their income falls below the normal minimum limit.
We have also supported disadvantaged children and young people. The Government are investing over £400 million to support access to remote education and online social care, including securing 1.3 million laptops and tablets. As of 7 March, 1.2 million laptops and tablets have been delivered to schools, trusts, local authorities and further education providers.
We also recognise the hard work of carers, who are continuing their caring responsibilities during these challenging times. We acknowledge that women deliver a greater share of caring in our society. Carer’s allowance is available to provide a measure of financial support and recognition for people who give up the opportunity of full-time employment to provide regular, substantial care for severely disabled people. We have also introduced two important measures until May 2021 to help unpaid carers through the pandemic. The first is the ability to continue to claim carer’s allowance if they have a temporary break in caring because they or the person they care for gets coronavirus, or if either has to isolate because of it. The second is clarification that providing emotional support to a person in need of care can also count towards the carer’s allowance threshold of 35 hours of care a week.
Alongside support for parents, children and carers, the health of women and girls continues to be a priority. It is important to highlight that women have been at the forefront of the fight against the virus, whether that is working to keep people safe in the NHS or keeping the country provided for in the retail sector, with 77% of the NHS workforce and 82% of the social care workforce being female. Throughout the pandemic, women have been at the front line, ensuring that people stay safe and receive the care they need.
As for vaccines, overall, we have been encouraged by the Covid vaccine uptake, with, as of today, 22.8 million people in the UK having now received their first vaccination. We appreciate, however, that work still needs to be done to address the inequalities of take-up, particularly with certain groups around race, religion and sex. As a result, we have developed the UK Covid-19 vaccine plan, which has four key factors to increase uptake: working in partnership; removing barriers; data and information; and, just as important, conversations and engagement.
Alongside this, we are working hard to support pregnant women in the workplace. Employers should regularly review their risk assessments for all pregnant workers and implement any controls needed to support employees. If the employer cannot put in place necessary controls identified by their risk assessment, they should ask the pregnant worker to remain at home on full pay, in line with the long-standing health and safety law. The Covid-19 outbreak has not changed the law on pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and there is no place for it under any circumstances.
We are also aware of the inequalities for women and babies from different ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic groups. That is why, in September 2020, the Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health established the Maternity Inequalities Oversight Forum, bringing together experts from key stakeholders to address issues such as disparities in maternal mortality. The Race Disparity Unit has also met a number of stakeholders over the past few months, including academics, midwife practitioners from regional trusts and public health experts, to develop joint solutions to this issue.
On women’s mental health, it is okay not to feel okay during this difficult time, and we will support everyone in getting the help they need. We encourage everyone to make use of the resources that are out there; for example, Every Mind Matters. The NHS has worked hard to keep mental health services open throughout the pandemic, using technology where needed, but also face-to-face appointments where appropriate. We have invested over £10 million in supporting national and local mental health charities to continue their vital work in supporting people across the country. The well-being and mental health support plan includes a commitment, backed by £50 million, to ensure good-quality discharge for mental health service users from in-patient settings. We also announced in the spending review that the NHS will receive around an additional £500 million next year to address waiting times for mental health services, giving more people the mental health support they need, and to invest in the NHS workforce.
As we look to build back better, we must consciously reflect how Covid-19 has presented an opportunity to reform and improve our approach to how work is organised and accessed. We must retain the positive cultural shifts around flexible working, including in workforces where it was previously unthinkable. As part of this, we want to see more employers offering measures such as flexible working and returners programmes, which we know can improve career prospects for both women and men.
Our behavioural insights research with Zurich, which made every job available on a flexible or part-time basis, showed a 16% rise in female applicants for all jobs and a 20% rise for senior roles. We will be building on that insight in our further work on women’s economic empowerment. That includes supporting our female entrepreneurs. The Government have set an ambitious target of increasing the number of female entrepreneurs by half by 2030, equivalent to 600,000 new entrepreneurs. When we meet young women in schools around the country, we see aspirational, motivated and hard-working people driven to succeed.
The Government are committed to making the UK the best place for women to start and grow a business. That includes the launch of a new voluntary Investing in Women Code to increase the transparency of support given to female entrepreneurs and expose the gender gap in investment. The Future Fund has committed over £1 billion to supporting 1,055 high-growth companies across the country, of which 77 have mixed-gender management teams, compared with the Female Founders report, which found that only 10% of venture capital was going to mixed-gender teams in 2019. We are continuing to look at ways in which we can reach out to all aspiring female entrepreneurs across the country and provide the support and advice that they need to grow their business.
We are also ensuring that our trade policy addresses the barriers that women face in trading internationally. Central to our approach is co-operating with our trading partners to advance women’s economic empowerment through our free trade agreements and beyond.
We know that there is much more to do to improve the lives of women and girls around the world. That is why we have committed to putting gender equality and fairness at the heart of our G7 presidency, driving progress on educating girls, empowering women and ending violence against women and girls. We will use the G7 presidency to unite leading democracies in helping the world to build back better from coronavirus to create a fairer, greener and more prosperous future for all.
We announced earlier this week that our presidency will also see us convening an independent gender equality advisory council to bring new voices to the heart of the G7 discussions. My honourable friend the Member for South West Norfolk will be the ministerial lead. We want to bring together individuals with diverse experiences and perspectives on gender equality, with a key theme for the council being “women fixing the world”. The G7’s continued global leadership on gender equality is integral to our values at home and is a global force for good. I look forward to the council ensuring that the core principles of freedom, choice, opportunity and individual humanity and dignity are integrated across our international agenda.
Through our COP 26 presidency we will champion inclusivity and amplify the voices of those who are most marginalised, and we will support a green, inclusive and resilient recovery. Our co-leadership on the Generation Equality Action Coalition on Gender-Based Violence will make clear that gender-based violence is both unacceptable and, crucially, preventable, and so we must act with urgency.
I will take a moment to highlight our 12 years of education commitment. Twelve years of quality education for girls around the world is one of the most transformational development interventions, and it is a major priority for this Government. Between 2015 and 2020, the UK supported at least 15.6 million children in gaining a decent education, over half of whom were girls. We will use our G7 presidency this year to rally the international community to step up support for girls’ education, and the UK, along with Kenya, will host the financing summit of the Global Partnership for Education in July.
I say again that I am proud to participate in today’s debate with so many advocates of equality for women. I am proud to be part of this Government. It is an honour to play my part in the work that we are doing to build back better, fighting for equality for women both here in the UK and across the world.
It is pleasure to follow the Minister who opened the debate, and I am sure that we all associate ourselves with her remarks regarding Sarah Everard. Our thoughts are with her and her family today.
As we mark International Women’s Day, I believe it is crucial that we recognise the contribution of older women and do more to raise awareness of the challenges and issues they face in their daily lives.
The United Nations and the Commonwealth take these matters seriously. The Commonwealth charter commits its members to core principles of mutual respect and inclusiveness and is opposed to all forms of discrimination, including ageism. The United Nations is working towards a convention for older people as a means of strengthening older people’s rights, showing how seriously it regards the matter.
Nearer home, I want to draw attention to the position in Wales, where, thanks to a Welsh Labour Government, we have had a commissioner for older people since 2008. This is a world first. The commissioner, Heléna Herklots, is independent of government and is a strong voice for older people; her voice has been crucial during the pandemic.
Older women make an enormous contribution to our economy as taxpayers, to our communities as volunteers, and to our families by providing much needed unpaid care and childcare, which often goes unheralded. Despite this contribution, many older women continue to live in poor health, in poverty or to experience abuse. In addition to facing discrimination on the basis of their age, many older women continue to face the sexism they have experienced throughout their lives.
Covid has exasperated this state of affairs. Thousands of older women experience abuse: a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, which causes harm or distress. In 2018-19, over 25,000 incidents of suspected abuse or neglect were reported to local authorities in Wales, of which 52% related to people over the age of 65. This data suggests that older people experience higher levels of abuse than other groups.
It is essential that older women at risk of or experiencing abuse can access the support they need to ensure they are safe and protected. However, previous polling undertaken on behalf of the commissioner found that one in five older women would not know where to go to get support if they were being abused.
Lockdown has been a particularly difficult time for older people who experience abuse. The prevalence of abuse has probably increased during this period, as older women have been spending more time confined to their homes and have seen significant changes to their normal routines
I have drawn attention to how older people in Wales benefit from having a commissioner providing a strong, independent voice. Anyone who cares to look can see the advantages of that. Unfortunately, older people in England do not have such a voice. I have asked the Government what plans they have for appointing a commissioner for older people in England. I have been told there are no such plans, and it seems to me that they are not even thinking about it.
I ask the Minister today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, to do all in her power to inform the Government how beneficial a commissioner for older people would be. It would be such a support, especially for older women during this pandemic, and would empower them in the recovery from the impact of Covid-19.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important International Women’s Day debate, as it comes at a troubling time. I too spare a thought for Sarah Everard’s family and their loss.
When we consider the impact of the pandemic on women, we must also consider the impact on children, because the experiences of children and their mothers are intertwined. As I always say: childhood lasts a lifetime. We women need to nurture and protect children, now more than ever. Yet many vulnerable women are being subjected to exploitation and domestic violence, or suffering from mental health problems which affect their children too. Will the Government create a Cabinet-level Minister for children, because this pandemic will come to define today’s generation of children, just like the Second World War defined an earlier generation?
Even before the pandemic there was a crisis in our children’s mental health. Last year, official figures from NHS England showed that one in six young people had mental health problems. Children have been out of school for many months, away from friends and family, and unable to play or take part in sports. Some children, especially those from black, Asian and minority communities, have suffered bereavement. Many have experienced their parents becoming increasingly anxious about finances, the virus, and balancing work and childcare.
Some 76% of Barnardo’s front-line workers said that they were supporting families who needed to use food banks, community kitchens or welfare. As a vice-president of Barnardo’s—here I declare an interest—I am proud that the charity, along with many others, has played a role in addressing these issues, distributing £350,000-worth of food packages, helping to pay families’ electricity and gas bills, paying for laptops so that children can learn from home, plus providing well-being packs to help with mental health issues.
Another effect of the pandemic on children is the loss of learning and, in particular, the widening of the education gap for the most vulnerable. Home learning is fine if you have your own room and your own computer, with parents who are able to help, but it is very different if you are sharing a room and have one smartphone among three siblings.
There is also a heightened risk of harm to children at home, both online and in the community. Many are trapped at home with adults who are abusive to them or to each other. With both children and predators spending more time online, more children are at risk of grooming or of being coerced into sharing naked images of themselves. On top of this, we have children not feeling safe at home and so hanging out on the streets, at the mercy of gangs looking to exploit them.
During the pandemic, Barnardo’s led a Department for Education-funded programme called See, Hear, Respond. The programme worked with over 80 partners, including small and community-led charities, reaching over 65,000 vulnerable children and young people who do not qualify for statutory support. It carries out vital work: 60% of referrals relate to mental health issues and the focus is on helping children reintegrate into education, keeping them well and safe from gangs. So why have the Government decided not to fund the programme beyond the end of this month? It could play a vital role in helping vulnerable children to adapt back into school and stay safe from harm.
Covid has taken a huge toll on women and the children they love. It is absolutely vital that the Government put families at the heart of the recovery, which must include long-term funding for vital services. It should also mean working differently with partners, including charities, to use our combined resources more effectively to make sure that we deliver the support our communities need to thrive and bring optimism into people’s lives.
My Lords, on Sunday I received an email from a young friend to let me know that one of her closest friends from university was missing and asking whether there was anything I could do to help. Tragically, we now know what has happened to that friend and I cannot start my speech without acknowledging the agony that Sarah Everard’s family and friends are experiencing today—and the fear so many more women are now experiencing as a result of this awful tragedy.
I made my maiden speech in the International Women’s Day debate 10 years ago. The Chamber was a very different place—nerve-wracking—but some things do not change. I think I have spoken in every International Women’s Day debate since then: often, depending on the electoral cycle, on women in Parliament; fairly regularly on the struggles faced by women in the developing world; always counting my blessings to have been born a free woman here in this wonderful, generous country.
However, this year’s topic—empowering women in the recovery from the impact of the pandemic—takes me to a different focus. There is no question that women have had a disproportionately difficult time during the pandemic. Many of the household burdens have fallen more heavily on their shoulders, and more of them have lost jobs and taken on additional caring duties. On top of this, the pressures of home schooling have stretched many women to breaking point. The Library briefing for today’s debate paints a gloomy picture. Yet women’s natural resilience will play a valuable role when the bounce-back comes, as it surely will soon.
Many people’s health, both mental and physical, has suffered over the last year, but I will focus my remarks on the particular health issues that women have suffered, largely in silence, for generations, in part because we have lived with a healthcare system designed by men, for men. Women across the country will be delighted by the first government-led health strategy for England, announced on Monday in the other place by the Health Minister. I also welcome plans for a new sexual and reproductive health strategy, to be announced later this year.
Despite women making up 51% of the population, we still know little and talk even less about some female-specific issues. The average woman’s life cycle from birth, through puberty, childbearing and menopause, can include miserable health experiences. An end-to-end look will include, and this list is far from exhaustive: painful and heavy periods; premenstrual stress; cystitis; thrush; endometriosis, which can take up to eight years to diagnose; painful sex; and pregnancy-related and postnatal issues, including the fact that one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage—crippling in pain and grief. Then there are the common female cancers such as breast, ovarian and cervical, and then the menopause.
Over 30 years ago, when I was pregnant and my own hormones were in turmoil, I ran a charity focusing on the menopause and research into HRT—such a blessing for so many women whose lives were blighted by the symptoms of the menopause. I was shocked to attend a meeting recently at which it became clear that the situation in terms of knowledge and support is no better today than it was then. The life cycle then moves on to osteoporosis, linked to oestrogen deficiency —a miserable broken-bones end to what can be a horrible life for so many women in terms of their health. This is about not just individual health but the cost to communities and to our economy, which will be so crucial as we move forward out of the pandemic.
The call for evidence for the health strategy, running until 30 May, is based around six core themes, which cut across different areas of women’s health, and seeks to examine women’s experiences of the whole health and care system, including mental health, disabilities and healthy ageing. I think this is a first in my lifetime. The form is easy to fill in. I urge women to do so and to benefit from this very welcome initiative.
My Lords, I will focus on the international dimension of International Women’s Day and talk about the work of the UK development agency Voluntary Service Overseas—VSO—and its work with women and girls in the context of the Covid pandemic. I declare my interest as a former volunteer for VSO’s Parliamentary Volunteering programme, for which I completed a placement in Peru, working with women’s organisations on domestic and sexual violence.
VSO has been working throughout the pandemic to reach marginalised women and girls, ensuring that they are not doubly disadvantaged by the effects of the pandemic and that they are at the centre of Covid response and recovery work. The pandemic has seen an increase in gender-based violence around the world. VSO’s networks of community volunteers have been able to mobilise quickly to raise awareness of the rights of women and girls not to experience such violence, using social media platforms, which also help victims seek access to justice and support. This has led to increased rates of reporting, as well as helping to build their resilience so that they can contribute more broadly to post-Covid recovery.
But VSO faces an immediate, urgent problem, as its funding is now under threat from the aid cuts at the FCDO. Over the past four years, VSO has received a major volunteering for development grant to support work in global health, inclusive education and resilient livelihoods. The current phase ends on 31 March, so noble Lords will appreciate the urgency here. A renewed grant would allow VSO to continue and expand its work supporting girls’ education, sexual and reproductive health rights and building inclusive global health systems, but despite its A+ rating, confirmation from the FCDO on future funding has not yet been forthcoming. This does not seem aligned with the repeated statements we frequently hear from Ministers in the Chamber that girls’ education and combating gender-based violence are of the utmost priority in the FCDO.
VSO is a British institution, embodying the values of UK aid, and UK volunteers showcase the best of UK values. If the grant was not renewed it would mean in practice that the UK Government would, in effect, be closing down their support for international volunteering action, just at the time when volunteering has been shown to be an effective means of enabling highly contextualised local responses to complex global challenges, including the Covid-19 response and the delivery of the sustainable development goals. It would bring to a sudden and abrupt end a 60-year strategic partnership between VSO and the UK Government. Covid-19 response work in 18 countries would have to cease, closing up to 14 country programmes and making nearly 200 staff redundant.
Will the Minister undertake to look at the specific case of VSO’s grant? More broadly, will she set out how the Government intend to support the UK volunteering for development sector in its work to empower women and girls to be part of the Covid recovery and response around the world?
My Lords, I am really sorry for you all, but I will follow on from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. VSO changed my life. It gave me opportunities to learn about myself and the world, and to commit myself to a lifelong interest in the developing world and how we change things, particularly for girls and women. I went on VSO when I was 21 and spent two years in Kenya. I have subsequently done other things with VSO: I also did the parliamentary scheme in Tanzania in 2008 and I served in VSO’s governance for over 10 years until a couple of years ago.
VSO is the primary development agency used by this Government for volunteering. It is the primary development agency for pushing volunteering around the world. I had the honour to be in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia for the signing of the first memorandum of understanding with the African Union two years ago. The African Union recognised the sustainable development goal on volunteering and saw, with so many young people in Africa without jobs and almost without opportunity, that volunteering was critical.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, despite the pandemic, VSO’s work has continued on tackling Covid and those things that women and girls have been particularly susceptible to in recent months and years. There are some remarkable examples of the work it has done. I have talked to volunteers who were back from the ICS programme but still keeping in contact with people in the developing world, and to some of the national volunteers in those countries where VSO works. Those national volunteers were working in their own communities, reaching out to women and girls about gender-based violence, and reaching out to their local communities about what Covid really meant, trying to demystify all the myths that had grown up. We know about them here too.
The reality is that young national volunteers are transformed by their experience of being trained and supported by VSO to work in their local communities. I have met groups of women, mainly from east Africa, but also from other places in Africa, who are now absolutely determined to make a difference and to be leaders in their own communities and countries. The Government are in danger of throwing this away because they do not recognise the importance of making a decision quickly. This decision has been hanging on for more than a year; VSO was expecting to get approval in January 2020. Now the money will run out at the end of this month—and nothing. There is no commitment, just, “Oh, we don’t want to close you down but we’re not ready to take a decision.”
VSO will go by default if the Government do not take a decision because it needs the money to do the work. That will have enormous consequences for people involved in the developing world who work on this, but also for Britain’s reputation because VSO is, rightly, working with Governments around the Commonwealth: in Africa and India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere, including Nepal. It is very well respected and loved there, and the Government are not ensuring its continuation. I suspect they will say, “We are not closing you down, we’re just putting it on pause”—
My Lords—or should I say “my Ladies and Lords” in this debate?—I feel a little like the forlorn hope on the outside here, being the first of the male of the species to speak. The subject that brings me to this debate is one which I have touched on over many years, and I remind the Committee of my interests. It is those with neurodiverse conditions. These start with dyslexia, which is the biggest group, but there is an impressive list to run down: attention deficit disorder, the various parts of the autism spectrum, dyscalculia, dyspraxia—the list goes on.
What has happened traditionally is that the diagnoses among males were far greater than among females. These were seen in the past to be male-dominated conditions. We now know that this is not true. Indeed, with dyslexia, we have touched a little barrier since we are now getting almost as many females diagnosed as males. The Government might take some pride from that but we should realise that we are still missing the vast majority, even while doing it in a gender-balanced way.
The real problem comes with the other conditions such as autism, dyscalculia and dyspraxia—try saying all of those without stumbling. Many of the conditions and the ways that people express them tend to be more prominent in males, especially when it comes to people who are higher functioning—the condition does not impair them quite so much. We think this is not because of the male or female brain but because that is taught behaviour.
Somebody with ADHD who is male tends to act out; they tend to be seen and will disrupt the classroom, where we would first hope to spot that. It has been said that a girl with this condition has been told, “You don’t—you internalise it and keep things down.” She may express the problem by doing things such as playing with her hair, or little tics such as constantly organising her desk. A boy with autism who puts a train set across the middle of his floor, where everybody can see it, in exactly the right order is obvious; a girl who brushes the hair of her dolls 100 times each and every night, obsessively, is not.
Again, the odd thing about it is that where the condition is milder and intervention can enable them to interact with society better is also where you miss it. This is because we are not training people to spot it, or spot it well enough; they wait until something comes out and shouts at them. It has been described to me as like someone saying “Pick out the equine quadrupeds” when you are trained only to recognise zebras: you only see the obvious.
I can go on about this issue at considerable length but I have only 40 seconds left—less now. I hope that the Government will pay attention to this. During lockdown, restrictions have been placed on education. There will be more, shall we say, misdiagnosis and a greater lack of awareness about this problem than there is now. I hope that the Government will take this on board and start to address it because it is vital, for these people to function in later life and avoid things such as mental health problems, for them to be spotted and told about the condition so that they can put coping strategies in place.
My Lords, as we have heard, the Covid-19 pandemic, like all emergencies, has affected women and girls disproportionately. There are worrying signs that the hard-won gains on gender equality we have seen in recent years are being reversed. There has been a huge increase in the burden of unpaid care work. Across the world, millions of girls will not return to school, and we are witnessing a terrible rise in child marriage and gender-based violence. We are seeing this here in the UK and across the world. Today, I will focus my remarks on the UK’s important role in empowering women internationally.
We have seen some good global news for the rights of women and girls in recent months, including the legalisation of abortion in Argentina and, in the US, the swift and welcome progress on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Sadly, however, this progress has not been universal. For example, Poland has seen the imposition of a near-total ban on abortion. We know that making abortion illegal does not reduce the number of abortions—it just makes them less safe. Can my noble friend the Minister tell me what representations the UK has made on this issue to the Polish Government, and what support our embassy in Poland has been giving to the people fighting for their basic right to have control over their own bodies?
The UK has been globally recognised as a development superpower and a strong champion for gender equality in all corners of the world. However, this work and reputation is at risk as the Government plan to cut their aid budget by 30%, breaking our manifesto and legal commitment. The amount being saved is less than 1% of what the Chancellor is rightly spending on the Covid-19 response, but these cuts will cause irrevocable harm to millions of the most marginalised women and girls in the world. Existing projects that have proven effective and excellent value for money face huge cuts or closure. These programmes provide access to life-changing contraception and invest in women’s economic empowerment; we have heard powerful speeches from the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins and Lady Armstrong, on the brilliant work of the VSO for women and girls. Unless it gets an answer soon, VSO could be a terrible victim of these cuts; surely the Government need to react urgently to this.
New initiatives, such as the expansion of the UK’s globally recognised work that proves what ends violence against women, or a desperately needed new fund that would invest directly in women’s rights organisations, may never start. I am pleased that education remains a priority but, unless we continue our investment in the broader policies around gender, we will not achieve the ambitious goals that the Government have set. Can my noble friend the Minister tell me whether any analysis has been made of the gendered impact of the aid cuts? At the very least, I hope that there has been proper consideration of the impact that these huge cuts will have on the lives of millions of women and girls.
I am pleased to hear the Government confirm their commitment to DfID’s Strategic Vision for Gender Equality, and I warmly welcome the convening of the gender equality advisory council for the G7. We need a similar focus at COP 26. We must ensure that gender policy is at the centre of our efforts.
The rights and the futures of women and girls all around the world are under threat from the pandemic. The Government must seize the opportunity to be a genuine force for good and a key part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. We must keep our promise to women and girls around the world.
My Lords, we have heard many complaints this week about the effect of the pandemic on women’s potential. The men who have made the relevant decisions are likely to have non-working wives and nannies, and have been oblivious to the reality. However, there is also much to celebrate. There has been a surprising coming to the fore of women’s skills in science and leadership, previously unseen but present. History may look back on this pandemic era as one that was a turning point for women.
If Captain Tom deserved a knighthood for his support for the NHS then Professor Sarah Gilbert, the Oxford vaccine pioneer, should be beatified. She took up her post in 1994, looking at the genetics of malaria, and became a professor at the Jenner Institute, researched flu, then Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and now Covid. Her team is two-thirds female and she, a mother of triplets, is now working to understand the barriers to promotion to senior levels that women face at Oxford. I also congratulate Dr Jenny Harries, and Kate Bingham, who was responsible for the great vaccine procurement.
Then there is Özlem Türeci, co-founder of BioNTech, which produced the Pfizer vaccine. Women make up 54% of her total workforce and 45% of top management. She is reported as thinking that being a gender-balanced team has been critical to developing the vaccine so quickly. The WHO chief scientist is a woman, Soumya Swaminathan, and the senior vice-president at Pfizer is Kathrin Jansen, who also worked on an HPV vaccine. Time does not permit me to mention many others who have taken the lead, despite the fact that Covid restrictions have impinged on women’s research and publication time. Happily in this past year more women have applied to take science, technology, engineering and maths courses. The number applying to higher education for health-related courses rose by 27%, mostly women, and it is the same for nursing.
Mostly, but not in every case, countries led by women have handled Covid better than those led by men: Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, PM Jakobsdóttir in Iceland, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and Prime Minister Marin of Finland. Of course, this is not universal: we have the walking disaster of Ursula von der Leyen, and vaccine has been Mrs Merkel’s nemesis. However, the typical female approach of caution, care for the elderly, empathy, appreciation of schooling and risk aversion have certainly proved winners for some. Those women are in countries that expect women to be independent and to have careers, which has to be contrasted with the default position in this country, especially in family law, that once a woman has found a partner she is exempt for ever more from supporting herself.
In the future we need to highlight how well women scientists have done and that the career is compatible with family life. We need to concentrate on how diseases may affect women differently from men, a topic explored in Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women. We need affordable—ideally free—childcare to be at the top of the list. We must give women free rein, which historically they have been given only when there is a war and they are needed or can work at home. Covid is a war and women have won it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, has withdrawn, so I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly.
I have a confession to make: until I came to this place I had never heard of International Women’s Day, but I am now happy to celebrate it each year none the less. Our decisions are based on our experiences, and I want to discuss this issue from a personal perspective. I went to a girls’ grammar school in the Midlands, where most of my teachers were women. I did A-levels in maths and physics and wanted to be an engineer. My teachers were hugely supportive, and it was only last year that I learned that many of them were at Bletchley Park. I was the first in our family to go to university.
After my degree I decided to get a job in engineering, but with a new mortgage there were only so many times I could take, “We do not employ women”, so I trained to teach maths and the new subject of the time, computer studies. After children and a move to Cornwall, I was appointed as a non-executive director of an NHS trust, and I never looked back. I was empowered in one teaching job by a head teacher, a man, who accepted without question my recommendation that we bought 15 mini-computers, which was a huge chunk of his budget at that time, and by another head teacher, a woman, who regularly posted in my pigeon hole ads that she had cut out of the Times Educational Supplement, which was her way of ensuring that we looked to move on. These were all the nudges I needed as a self-starter, and several jobs in the not-for-profit sector later I find myself here.
So how do we best support those who need more than a nudge? I am a great believer in networks, formal and informal. Inviting a young woman where you work to a networking meeting could be all she needs to give herself confidence. With envy, I watch my children, who, thanks to social and professional online networks, have worldwide contacts. Since Covid, as I am briefed via meetings by hugely bright up-and-coming female civil servants sitting in their homes with a laptop on a table, I wonder how I could have coped juggling a job and home-teaching in lockdown. I hope that they keep their contacts as they move from job to job. LinkedIn and similar databases have really taken off in the pandemic, and I know that many young women have found work just that way.
What have we learned from the epidemic about empowering women? What could we do better in the future? We could accommodate flexible working and working from home. We could promote online and in-person networks. We could give start-up grants to female online business and work networks. We could put more women in the boardroom. We need to look at examples from elsewhere—who does it better? We could give young women who are jobseeking a mentor and pay them the same as men doing the same job.
What makes a woman come across as empowered? A sense of self-confidence; holding her own in any situation or in front of any audience; knowing what she is about and what she wants, and doing what she can to achieve it; being approachable and personable; having a presence. We all know that she probably did not get there on her own—behind her was a mentor or two who pointed her in the right direction. I know I valued those who pointed me there, shared a few home truths and watched from afar. I try to do for others what they did for me.
My Lords, it is a privilege to once again address this House on the subject of International Women’s Day and celebrate the progress that we continue to make on our long march to empowerment and equality.
This year has seen the emergence into the public consciousness of some remarkable female role models for us all to look up to. Take, for example—as so eloquently put by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech—Professor Sarah Gilbert, the leading vaccinologist from Oxford University who helped to develop the vaccine that is fast-tracking the UK out of lockdown. I reflected that, while some of us were working out how to sneak into pubs in our misspent youth, Professor Gilbert was at home studying her chemistry books, and we must all be thankful that she was.
In my own industry of sport, this year’s Super Bowl headlines may have been about Tom Brady’s record seventh triumph, but the story that caught my eye was about Sarah Thomas, the first woman to officiate at a Super Bowl. This comes at a time when rewards for participants in sport are finally becoming more equal. A recent BBC study found that, of 37 sports offering prize money, only three did not offer comparable amounts to men and women in major tournaments—progress indeed, but we all need to do more.
In public service, we now have the first ever female director-general of the World Trade Organization, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, alongside Christine Lagarde, head of the European Central Bank, and Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President. But what about in business, the heartbeat of our political economy? On 1 March, Jane Fraser became the first female head of a major US bank, Citigroup, and Rosalind Brewer became the third black woman to run a Fortune 500 company, Walgreens Boots Alliance. These are all fantastic role models, and their success must be celebrated. Without their trail-blazing efforts, it would be much harder for other women to aspire and reach their potential.
However, these remarkable exemplars should not lead to any sense of complacency or the conclusion that the job is done. There is mounting evidence that this pandemic is setting back the cause of female economic empowerment. Half of women in the UK do not have sufficient childcare to enable them to work and 70% have had to work fewer hours, according to a recent survey of 20,000 women. Lean In and McKinsey’s recently released annual Women in the Workplace report showed that as many as 2 million women were either deprioritising their careers or exiting the workplace entirely as a result of the pandemic.
Even as we celebrate the ascent of these wonderful women to the highest echelons of public and commercial life, we must make sure that this pandemic does not render them the exception rather than the rule. We must use their success to inspire but also to change policy, culture and attitudes. Many of them are the first to do what they have done, but we must make sure that they are far from the last.
Noble Baronesses and noble Lords, today I wish to pay tribute to the women scientists who literally have saved the world. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has given me a lead by mentioning two of them.
SARS-CoV-2—a virus and the disease it causes—was first identified in China just over a year ago. The world did not know then how serious a pandemic was about to follow. It is an incredible feat for scientists to have developed vaccines against the virus in less than a year. The story of the science that led to that is remarkable.
While Brenner and Watson—two Nobel Prize winners —and others identified messenger RNA, it was hard to programme it and to get it into human cells. In 2005, Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian émigrée to the USA, showed how to tweak synthetic mRNA and get it into human cells. Her research was not thought important and she was not granted a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania. She was hoping to develop treatments for cancers, and her research excited many to try to develop cancer therapies. Among them was Özlem Türeci, a Turkish émigrée to Germany, a scientist and a doctor who, with her husband, founded the company BioNTech. A young scientist at Stanford University, on hearing of Karikó’s work, founded a company called Moderna—the name says it all—to develop cancer therapies. Karikó’s research also led to gene editing and earned Nobel Prizes for two women, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier.
With the outbreak of Covid-19, Türeci in Germany and Moderna in the USA switched their research to try to develop vaccines using messenger RNA. A young African-American woman scientist, named Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett, working with Dr Fauci at the NIH laboratory, joined the team at Moderna, working to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. Türeci, BioNTech and Pfizer in Germany, and Kizzy and Moderna in the USA, developed the two mRNA vaccines.
As we have heard, before that, Professor Sarah Gilbert at Oxford—mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Deech and Lady Brady—with experience of developing vaccines related to Ebola and MERS, started working day and night to develop a vector-based vaccine as soon as the genome of Covid-19 was known. It is said that she worked from 4 am until late at night. Her ambition was to develop a stable and cheap vaccine for Covid-19, so that the poor countries of the world could benefit. She achieved this in record time, with a vaccine now known as the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. I have personally benefitted from it, having had my first dose. Professor Sarah Gilbert is a remarkable scientist.
The science behind the development of these vaccines underpins other vaccines that are developed in other countries. These four women are the saviours of the world through the vaccines they helped develop. I hope they will all share a Nobel Prize.
Of course, there are many other remarkable women who have helped and continue to help the recovery from Covid—Professor Sharon Peacock from the University of Cambridge for one, and I hope she does not mind me calling her the “queen of genomic sequencing”. Her contribution to identifying mutations cannot be overstated. The fact that the UK leads in the genomic sequencing of Covid-19 is thanks to her.
Time does not allow me to speak about the many other women scientists and their contributions. We need more women to do STEM subjects and to go into science research, and more women in leadership positions in research. Currently, the numbers are less than 30%. What plans do the Government have to increase the number of girls doing STEM subjects and to increase the number of women in science research?
My Lords, I watched the International Women’s Day address to the European Parliament by the New Zealand Prime Minister. She made some very clear points, including that
“Covid makes clear we are interdependent… no country is safe until all are safe…. the team is not five million New Zealanders but 7.8 billion worldwide… the pandemic has exacerbated structural inequalities between men and women”,
“there is a ‘shadow pandemic’ of domestic violence”.
Here in the UK, before Covid, over 4 million children were living in poverty, which is 30%, or nine in a class of 30. The pandemic has caused jobs losses and insecurity. The poorest are suffering the most. Cardiff Women’s Centre reports that there is a clear relationship between gender and poverty, with women overrepresented in the poverty statistics. The Fawcett Society points out that 64% of the low-paid are women, that there are four times more women in part-time work than men, that women are more likely to receive lower rates of pay, that women are more likely to be single parents— that is nine out of 10—and that there are more child responsibilities and less chance of full-time employment. Department of Work and Pensions statistics reveal that 52% of children in single-parent families are poor, and, as the New Zealand Prime Minister stated, there is a shadow pandemic of domestic violence. We know from research by Refuge that an extra 1.6 million women in the UK suffered economic abuse during the pandemic.
During Covid, clearly women are suffering most. Household food insecurity was on the increase before the pandemic, according to the Food Foundation’s report, The Impact of Covid-19 on Household Food Security. Covid has left more struggling to afford or access a nutritious diet. The Food Foundation states:
“Households with children have been hit hard, with many children still falling through the cracks in support.”
The foundation also found evidence that:
“Covid-19 has dramatically widened inequalities in food security”.
The current picture is that 4.7 million adults—9%—experienced food insecurity in the past six months. There are 2.3 million children living in these households, which is 12% of households with children, and 41% of households with children on free school meals have experienced food insecurity in the past six months. From my earlier points it is clear that women are in more than a shadow pandemic of domestic violence; along with their children, they are also in one of food poverty.
The recent report Build Back Fairer: The Covid-19 Marmot Review made the point, in figure 2 on page 13, that the ratio of deaths of those limited due to longstanding health issues compared to those who were not meant that deaths were 2.4 times higher for females and 1.9 times higher for males from 2 March to 15 May 2020. That says an awful lot.
Before I finish, I have two international points regarding women. The Government pulling aid out of Afghanistan will lead to women being denied schooling and careers once the Taliban is back in charge. Is that what the British Armed Forces made sacrifices for? I was also very impressed to see the up-to-date briefing from MAG, the Mines Advisory Group. The effect of landmines on women and girls is catastrophic, be they directly affected or as a result of being widowed or carers. A growing number of MAG staff are women, over 1,000—more than 25%—across 25 countries. Will the Government commit to maintaining their investments in mine action?
My Lords, I gave the Minister advance notice that I will speak about the need for a feminist UK foreign policy. She may be expecting me to major on the cutting of foreign aid below the 0.7% of GDP that is set in our law, but I assume that the Government will eventually have to stop breaking the law and bring a Bill to the House. While I am often thinking of the desperate women, men, and children of Yemen, pounded by our weapons and denied our aid, for the moment I will put that issue to one side.
Since this is the International Women’s Day debate, I want to think and speak more conceptually, particularly in the light of the announcement from the Biden Administration that their intention is to:
“Protect and empower women around the world”.
Across the channel, the French Government declare explicitly that they have a feminist foreign policy. I am not hearing the same terminology from the UK. But it is not really terminology that I am interested in, but policy and action.
Around the world, women and girls are increasingly using human rights law to try to force climate justice, from the Union of Swiss Senior Women for Climate Protection going to the European Court of Human Rights to the case that 16 children are taking to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
However, a feminist foreign policy goes well beyond protective action and positive action. It goes beyond steps such as those outlined to me earlier today by the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, in supporting access to modern methods of contraception. It is about a transformation of our economic and political systems. It is not just a case of doing some positive things but of reversing centuries of damaging choices and policies; millennia of assuming that humans and the natural world exist to serve that creation of a few—mostly male—humans: the market. It means not operating for the military-industrial complex, or the fossil fuel-finance complex, but making a world that creates a decent life for every individual, from every newborn baby to every centenarian, and that allows ecosystems to flourish and wildlife, for a start, to survive. A feminist foreign policy must be guided by Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. It means ending what the academic Karen Warren has called the “logic of domination”.
Some global progress is being made, notably in the increasing operationalisation of the rights to universal healthcare which have long been contained in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights—not, however, in the UK, where access to healthcare has been taken backwards for many non-citizens. But there is a growing understanding that we need to go beyond medicine and talk about the need for care societies—a concept with enormous potential, as demonstrated by the Women’s Budget Group’s plan for a care-led recovery from coronavirus.
I have talked largely in big abstract terms. What does all this mean in practice? It means caring for and welcoming refugees as survivors of our disastrous policies, large parts of their wealth having been robbed from them, rather than treating them as threats. It means stopping pumping vast quantities of arms into a world choked with them. Last year the UK was the world’s second-largest arms exporter: £11 billion of exported destruction. Many women, children and men will die as a result. It means acknowledging the historic and continuing massive damage of colonialism, and paying reparations for it; the frame of “loss and damage” at the COP 26 talks provides an important potential way forward.
What has been called the malestream—millennia of thinking of the planet as a mine and a dumping ground and people as an exploitable asset—has produced a maelstrom of destruction and a world on the edge of disaster. A feminist world can be one that lives within the physical limits of this one fragile planet while caring for all. Caring is key.
I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. Please can you unmute, Lord Bradshaw? We still cannot hear you. I will move on to the next speaker while we try to sort you out. I call the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness in this important debate marking International Women’s Day on Monday, focusing particularly on the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. I also thank my noble friend Lady Scott for her introduction.
I want particularly to say something about the challenge that the pandemic has posed to women’s mental health. I hope that, in closing, my noble friend the Minister will have something to say about this, and particularly about the resources that are being made available.
On average, even prior to the pandemic, women were more likely than men to experience mental health challenges. This has of course been accentuated by the pandemic. During the pandemic, woman have been more likely than men to experience being furloughed, which, although often necessary and on occasion welcome, will mean lower earnings than from the job that is furloughed. Women are more likely to have experienced loss of employment during the pandemic, with some sectors particularly vulnerable, such as retail, hospitality and food services. The switch of employment from shops to warehouses is, in practice, something that is unlikely to help women. All this of course contributes to mental health pressures. This is also true of additional caring responsibilities, which are likely to fall on women, whether for children at home or looking after older relatives. Pressures on finances during the pandemic also have to be factored in.
Your Lordships’ House is currently taking great pride, and rightly so, in the pioneering legislation that is making its way through the House, as referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker: the Domestic Abuse Bill. It is truly a remarkable landmark Bill, and it is much needed. Women—and it is generally, though not always, women who are the victims of domestic abuse—suffer horribly, and that situation has got far worse during lockdown and the pandemic. Often, women victims have been obliged to relive their experiences. This too contributes to mental health pressures. In the light of the importance of this legislation and the pioneering work we are doing, I would be grateful if my noble friend could say something about the resources that will be made available to deal with this accentuated problem.
I also want to take this opportunity to say something about the position beyond our shores, where we are committed to certain global challenges—although it has to be said that they are more challenging with reduced aid. One of them is girls’ education, which the Prime Minister has championed, committing our country to preventing exploitation and unlocking potential around the world. Indeed, we are set to co-host a major international summit in June, to seek to provide global action to educate all children. This is very welcome and, again, I would be grateful if my noble friend could tell us something about the preparatory work for this and the international commitments that we hope to get from the conference.
Action at home and abroad to end inequality globally is both necessary and welcome. I look forward to my noble friend the Minister’s response.
I call again the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw.
My Lords, my association with public transport, road and rail, extends back over nearly 70 years. When I first came to the railway, there were hardly any women employees, except in the roles of clerks and typists. It was the same on the buses, except there were clippies selling tickets. Public transport jobs were very dirty, and often either hot or cold. They were also oily and greasy and, in the case of the railways, sooty. During the past 50 years, there has been an accelerating transformation. That is what I want to celebrate today. There are woman right at the top of the industry and in all areas, such as civil and mechanical engineering. There is a wide range of entry routes, which enable the new entrant to reach the top, if they wish to do so.
Earlier this week, in the papers, we saw a young female train driver set off on her first intercity train, watched by her father, who was also a driver. She can progress, if she wishes, through the industry. The bus industry is the same, with the managing director of Stagecoach, our largest bus company, a female.
When I recently took my granddaughter, who was considering what she wished to do when she left school, to the Siemens training centre, I was amazed by the technology and by the fact that Siemens was prepared to offer her training that could lead her to chartered engineer status and to pay her while she was trained. The industry has wide training schemes at all levels and premises that you would be proud to work in. It has diagnostic tools that are able to spot defects and weaknesses wherever they occur in the track or the rolling stock. It has retained its furloughed staff, who are anxious to welcome passengers back. During the slack time, training and refresher training have continued to make the staff ready—not to welcome foreign visitors, unfortunately, or so many commuters, but for the burst of activity when people are free to travel again. Much effort is also spent by the industry on the recruitment of ethnic minority people.
I wanted to speak today because we should not talk ourselves into the position of believing that nothing can be changed. It can; I have seen it change, and nowhere more so than in the position of women in the transport industry.
The convention is to address this House collectively as “my Lords”. Given the topic of this debate, in which over 70% of the participants are female, excuse me if I open with “my Ladies”.
Covid-19 has tested our society to its limits. It has closed schools, factories, offices and high streets, and the repeated lockdowns have thrust us all into our homes for month after interminable month. That has placed an enormous additional burden on those who manage the home and those who take the lead in home schooling and other domestic matters. Despite huge advances in equality over recent decades, that burden has unquestionably fallen upon women more than men. Statistically, the Covid-19 virus has afflicted men worse than women. However, the nurses and carers who tend to the sick and the elderly are predominantly female, thus the exhaustion, stress and sheer horror of care in the midst of this terrible pandemic have afflicted women far more than men.
Last week the Chancellor delivered his Budget, reporting the precipitous decline in GDP caused by the pandemic, with economic output collapsing in ways unseen for centuries. In the principal sectors impacted, such as retail and hospitality, most employees are women. There is a dichotomy here. Economic indicators tell of an unprecedented decline in output, yet the output of carers, nurses, mothers, wives and daughters has increased exponentially. Nowhere is that outpouring of love and care found in the Government’s data. Why is that? As a society, we are simply not measuring that output and thus we are not valuing it. In 2019 New Zealand introduced a well-being budget, the first western country to base its entire budget on well-being priorities, with a focus on mental health, family violence and child well-being. Will the UK Government consider the same?
As a lawyer, I have many female colleagues, and I know first-hand that their burden increased much more than that of their male colleagues. It was not lost on me that the return to school coincided with International Women’s Day, and that back-to-school cheers from exhausted parents over social media were predominantly in a feminine voice. What steps are the Government taking to encourage fathers to take a more active role in the home and in childcare? Will the Government increase the availability of paternity leave, allowing fathers to bond better with their children in those crucial early months?
Finally, I turn to equality. This House needs to set the standard but it does not. Only 28% of our membership is female, compared with 34% in the other place. That needs to change. The Lords Spiritual (Women) Act is changing the composition of the Bishops and life peerages are increasingly bestowed on women, but the most shocking gender imbalance is found among us 92 male hereditary Peers. As the youngest child of a youngest child, I am a poster child for patriarchal gender discrimination. I am the 38th Earl of Devon since the title was created by our first female monarch, Empress Matilda, and only one of us has been female—the fiercely independent Countess Isabella de Fortibus, who refused to sell the Isle of Wight to King Edward I until the bishops stole it from her on her deathbed.
This discrimination must cease and eldest children, whatever their gender, must be permitted to inherit hereditary titles. Will Her Majesty’s Government introduce a hereditary titles (female succession) Bill in the forth- coming Queen’s Speech?
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville.
This is the first time I have participated in an International Women’s Day debate, but not the first time I have engaged in supporting international women. International Women’s Day coincides with the Women’s World Day of Prayer, which takes place annually on the first Friday in March. This is a woman-led, global, ecumenical movement organised by a different country each year.
In normal circumstances, a service would be held in churches and benefices up and down the country and over the rest of the world. There is great comfort in knowing that we are engaging in this service with thousands of others all over the world on the same day. I have attended that service for over 30 years, when my commitments have allowed. The collections raised go to the country “hosting” the service and are used to educate many young women and girls. Sadly, the service locally had faltered for lack of someone to do the organising.
Last year, it was the turn of the women of Zimbabwe to organise this service. A small group of us from our benefice of seven parishes decided to revive the custom and organised a very successful service in one of our churches. Last autumn, we met again to start planning for this year. After Christmas, it became clear that Covid was against us. We considered postponing until later in the year, but we wanted to join with other women all over the world on the same day—so we opted to tackle a Zoom service.
This year, the service was planned by Vanuatu. As many will remember, Vanuatu was devastated by Cyclone Pam in March 2015 and again in April 2020 by Cyclone Harold, the latter hitting while the country was in a state of emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite these difficulties, the women were able to organise their service so that, all round the world, women could lead and participate in this important service, which raises much-needed money for their community. Our service was a great success and enjoyed by the women attending, with one even zooming in from Spain. Covid did not defeat us.
The women and girls of Vanuatu, as in many other countries that have met similar challenges, need a ready supply of clean water to prevent the spread of waterborne disease. Many girls and young women do not have access to adequate sanitation and fresh water. As a result, monthly, they feel unable to participate in their education and often drop out altogether. Surely in 2021 we ought to be able to provide fresh water worldwide. Some 80% of people displaced by climate change are women, and therefore more likely to become victims of violence.
Like others, I have received many briefings for today, including some from Zimbabwe, where three women activists have been arrested. Zimbabwe will be one of the countries suffering a cut in UK aid. The noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, spoke knowledgably on this aspect. I urge the Minister to do all she can to make representations to her colleagues to reverse many of these aid cuts.
We have had many questions in our Chamber about the plight of Yemen, where, daily, women are watching their children die, as well as battling the spread of Covid. This is a tragedy that, as a country, we could help to alleviate. Covid is affecting women in all countries but it falls the hardest on those living with poverty, famine, and war. Can the Minister give reassurance that she is taking these matters seriously and will speak up for the oppressed?
My Lords, I too express my condolences to the family of Sarah Everard. I congratulate my noble friend on her powerful introduction to this debate. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, there is still some way to go to create a female-friendly environment where gender discrimination and sexual harassment have been eliminated, and where all women, including those who decide to become mothers, can thrive. I pay tribute to my right honourable and honourable friends Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch, two excellent Ministers who have consistently stood up for women’s rights. I have been very sad to see them facing undeserved threats and intimidation.
Fifty years after it became illegal to pay women less than their male counterparts, it is indeed a sign of progress, but not perfection, that the gender pay gap has reduced to around 17%. However, a far worse gap exists when we reach retirement. Recent NEST research estimates suggest that women’s pensions are worth over £40,000 less than men’s. Other research reports that the gender pensions gap is more than 40%. This significant difference will not go away on its own. There remain nearly 2 million pensioners in poverty in the UK, the majority of whom are women. It is vital that the Government increase their efforts to improve take-up of pension credit.
The reason for the massive gender pensions gap is partly because of the ongoing gender pay gap, which was obviously wider in the past—when today’s pensioners started their careers—but women also have shorter working lives than men, with career breaks, caring responsibilities and part-time work being more prevalent. Some of the lowest-paid occupations are dominated by women: care workers and NHS workers are mostly female. Pay levels in these sectors are much lower than average, as they are in retail, leisure and hospitality, as other noble Lords have said. Even with significant improvements in gender pay gaps, the pandemic has left more women vulnerable to both lower pay than men of the same age and lower pensions.
A related issue is the lingering age discrimination in the labour market, which impacts more on women than on men. Encouraging more flexible working and ensuring that the needs and contributions of older workers are not ignored is vital. Employers should be encouraged to retain, retrain and recruit more older workers, especially women, and offer caring leave so that older women can increase their working lives, otherwise they would have to retire sooner than they should. Of course, women dominate the lower-earning professions. Can my noble friend assure the Committee that even though women may be in lower-earning professions, the programme of auto-enrolment will be extended so that the contribution rules include all workers, and contributions beginning from the first pound of earnings?
Even with the state pension, the UK sees women having much less than men. The state pension is still dependent on how much women earn, or credits received during time off for parenting or caring, with only full years counting. Women often do not know that they needed to claim, rather than it being credited to them automatically. This is not just about gender; it is also about getting more women to feel confident in their own ability and self-worth, including the ability to make financial plans for their future and improve their financial education.
My Lords, the Covid pandemic has highlighted the disadvantage suffered by women in balancing the needs of childcare, home schooling and managing the home while working unsociable hours and contributing to the family income. There seems to be a curious belief that social improvement can be brought about by impressive declarations and by appointing commissions, but such displays of commitment do little to tackle the root causes of social discrimination, including continuing discrimination against women throughout the world.
Before we can cure a malady, we need to look at its cause. We should look particularly at the role of religious texts in putting forward negative attitudes towards women. Eve is blamed for the expulsion of the innocent Adam from the garden of Eden. An ayatollah in Iran suggests that women have smaller brains than men. Marriage vows remind us that women must obey. In other texts, evidence, laws and rights to property disadvantage women. Despite Sikh teachings of the full equality of women, negative subcontinental attitudes towards women percolate into some Sikh homes.
I was over the moon when, while living in India, I became the proud father of a beautiful girl. A Sikh neighbour offered congratulations, adding, “Never mind, it will be a boy next time.” I was not then the mild-mannered individual that I am today and I was almost tempted to punch him in the face. Does the Minister agree, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, did earlier in the week, that for real progress on gender equality we need to look at attitudes towards women embedded in religious texts in the context of today’s times? Although some of the negative attitudes are a distinct improvement on the society of hundreds of years ago, they are miles from full gender equality.
A Christian verse reminds us:
“New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth”.
In looking at religious texts in the context of today’s times, we should also look at words such as “heathen” or “kaffir”—negative attitudes towards other people and women are not the word of God.
My Lords, the past 12 months have undoubtedly been difficult for everyone, but women everywhere have shouldered much of the burden and have faced greater difficulties because of the systemic inequality that they face. So, like others who have spoken, I pay tribute to all the women on the front line and to women with caring responsibilities who have home schooled while working or who have lost jobs or opportunities through no fault of their own.
It is critical, therefore, that the Government recognise that in planning for the recovery to build back better, we do as the UN suggests and “plan for equal”. That means attention must be paid to the needs of the vast numbers of women most affected by the economic and social fallout. Covid-19 has shown the importance as well as the fragility of the care economy by exposing how reliant the economy is on women’s unpaid and underpaid labour. I ask the Minister: why have the Government decided not to award a £20 a week supplement, like the universal credit supplement, to carers entitled to the carer’s allowance? That would help them manage both the higher costs of caring and the lack of services available to help them stay in work.
Many reports have highlighted the adverse effects of the pandemic on women but I will mention just one: a report by the Young Women’s Trust, a charity that works with women aged 18 to 30 who are living on low or no pay. Picking Up the Pieces highlights the need to listen to young women, especially those who face additional discrimination and barriers, such as young women of colour and young disabled women. It found that an estimated 1.5 million young women lost income over the past year and over two-thirds of young women claiming benefits said that they did so for the very first time. The findings also show that they are increasingly worried about their mental health, and feel ignored by politicians and that their voice is not heard. For those young women employed in sectors most affected by the pandemic, such as retail and hospitality, the uplift in universal credit and the furlough scheme are important lifelines, but with both schemes coming to an end at the same time in September, many women face an uncertain future. Perhaps the Minister can explain what measures the Government are considering to alleviate that concern.
In a debate on International Women’s Day it is also important, as others have done, to look outside our borders to see what is happening to woman globally. Some of the issues facing women are universal, such as domestic violence, but in fragile economies the life chances of women and girls are being dealt even greater long-term blows. It is estimated that 11 million girls may not return to school due to Covid-19, with huge consequences for wider society. With the UK hosting the G7 and COP 26 summits, we have a unique opportunity to place girls’ education centre stage.
Finally, as we speak in this debate in the mother of all Parliaments, we should also pay tribute to the brave activists who, following the military coup in Burma, are risking their lives to defend their democratic right to have their vote upheld. As tension increases throughout the country following the coup, women of all ages have flooded the streets in major towns and cities across Myanmar to call for the reinstatement of Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected Government. Among the many who have died at the hands of the Tatmadaw, we should remember 20 year-old Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, and 19 year-old Ma Kyal Sin, known to her friends as “Angel”, who died wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Everything will be OK”. As parliamentarians, we should stand with those women and with the brave women fighting for equality everywhere.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Nye.
It is the very internationalism of this 2021 International Women’s Day that highlights its significance now. Like Covid-19, women are everywhere in the world. Each individual invaded by Covid is unique but the virus does not discriminate between them. Covid has no national or gender barriers, nor does it favour the wealthiest or the weakest. However, there is a disproportionate impact on BAME communities and those in lower-income groups.
I want to celebrate the women who care—the women who have made such huge sacrifices for their families in the midst of this pandemic. Stress levels for women have soared. So has domestic abuse, with its particular obscenity. Women have had to stop working and have often had to compromise their careers to protect their families and the wider community. However, personal appreciation is not enough. We need the Government to recognise the role of women in the pandemic. Women deserve to be noticed for the immense but silent contribution that they have already made and continue to make. I give notice to the Minister that I would like to see a permanent sculpture to the role of women in the pandemic from across all communities.
From the highest echelons of research to cleaning hospital floors—more meagre, perhaps, but crucial—women contribute to the common weal. Female nurses make up a major section of our caring community. They have been slapped in the face by the government recommendation of a 1% pay rise. Once again, the Government have failed to recognise either the contribution that these professionals make or the public esteem in which they are held. I urge that that independent review be concluded, and that the Government increase the level of the pay rise for nurses.
Research already carried out by academics shows that working-class women endure the greatest impact from Covid. As men had their working hours cut, more female carers increased theirs and exposed themselves more to the virus. Women are more likely to lose their jobs than men in the Covid-19 world. They are taking on more of the home-schooling demands and the needs of elderly parents. It is time for a real root-and-branch review of the whole social security system so that the status of the poorest and most needy in our society is lifted and their incomes made realistic. The £20 uplift in universal credit must be made permanent, for a start. I ask the Minister to talk to her colleagues in the DWP about that.
As we celebrate the role of women across the world today, let us do so meaningfully. Let us move more rapidly to ensure that employment and financial rights are protected, and that dedicated funds are allocated to the enhancement of women’s health and opportunities.
Colleagues, I would like to use my time to raise how the criminal justice system responds to the needs of women in prison. It is now 14 years since the ground-breaking report by our colleague the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, which called for a distinct, radically different, visibly led, strategic, proportionate, woman-centred, integrated approach to how we treat women offenders. Ten years on from the Corston report, in March 2017, the charity Women in Prison reported only mixed progress. Its report stated:
“What is required is a joined-up approach that takes into account the root causes of women’s offending. This approach must encompass an understanding of the compelling opportunities for change that appropriate housing, mental health support and gender-specific women’s community support services can offer.”
Four years later again, the Prison Reform Trust has recently completed a five-year piece of work entitled Transforming Lives: Reducing Women’s Imprisonment. That report points out that women in prison are highly likely to be victims as well as offenders, with over half of them having experienced domestic violence and many of them having dependent children.
My final quote is from the Ministry of Justice when announcing in January plans to build 500 new cells in women’s prisons. Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League, commented at the time that
“today’s announcement shows that ministers are looking at the issue down the wrong end of a telescope.”
I spent seven years at the MoJ, between 2010 and 2017, and must share my part of the responsibility for the glacial progress made in achieving the changes necessary.
I do not expect the Minister to be fully acquainted with the sayings of Aneurin Bevan, but he once said, “Why look into the crystal ball when you can read the book?”. This is especially true in the case of women in prison. From Corston onwards, there have been reports which point in the right direction of travel but need resources spent in the right way to promote diversionary measures and alternatives to prison, which could create the opportunity to reduce by two-thirds the number of women in our prisons.
It is always a privilege and a pleasure to take part in this debate and hear the campaigns and concerns of so many enlightened Peers, and even a number of other Peers as well. Tribute has been paid to the magnificent scientists who have really shown the way during the Covid crisis: Sarah Gilbert and Kate Bingham, and Dr June Raine at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which has swiftly, rapidly and effectively approved the new vaccines. Of course, it was the great reputation of the Medicines Control Agency for its work that won us the European Medicines Agency, which we have now had to return. However, Dr Raine’s work suggests that there is hope for the future.
It was not ever thus. I remind noble Lords that James Barry, the first woman doctor, had to pretend that she was a man throughout her career, and had a very good record of clinical work. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson managed to qualify only at a school which later changed its rules to ban women, and found it so difficult to get work. She may have founded a hospital and finally became mayor of Aldeburgh, but her path was difficult. Marie Curie suffered from the Matilda effect—women doing the work, but men taking the glory—and only with great difficulty did she get her work recognised alongside her husband Pierre. More recently, there was the wonderful Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a fellow of the Royal Society and a declared woman who suffered from impostor syndrome. She found the first radio pulsars in 1967, but the 1974 Nobel Prize in physics did not mention her. The men got the credit, and only with a challenge and a fight was she given her recognition.
So I celebrate the changes in my lifetime, and the global female leaders: Janet Yellen—an LSE graduate, I am pleased to say—was the first female chair of the Fed and is now the first female Treasury Secretary, in President Biden’s Government; Christine Lagarde has been spoken of. And then there is the wonderful Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman and first African DG of the WTO, and a great expert in public health, as well as in development economics. How well does that speak for the future?
I believe that women are changing and challenging stereotypes, and we are seeing change in society and in the workplace. In the past month alone, we have seen the Tokyo Olympics chief resign over patronising, sexist comments that employees found unacceptable. He has been replaced by a female, and 12 women have joined the team. In the past month alone, the UK boss of KPMG resigned over an internal team call in which he made comments to colleagues which they loudly challenged. He was swiftly replaced by two highly respected women, Mary O’Connor and Bina Mehta. UK Athletics made international headlines for the sexist, pervasive, oppressive culture of coaches. The new female CEO demanded a zero-tolerance approach. This is different. It was not like this in the past.
There have been changes in the boardroom. In 2011, 12% of FTSE 100 roles were held by females. Now, as a result of the challenge of the Hampton-Alexander review, and following Mervyn Davies’s work, we are up to 33% of FTSE 100, 250 and 350 boards. My noble friend Lady Brady gave another encouraging example. In the public sector, there are more female judges, bishops, doctors, solicitors and vice-chancellors. Only one in four vice-chancellors are female, and I am pleased that one is at the University of Hull, but 10 years ago it was only one in 12—to go from one in 12 to one in four is progress indeed. And we have seen more female Lords spiritual in our House.
Of course there are areas where there have been difficulties and where women have had the greater burden of Covid. The LSE produced a report the other day. I also hope that people have learned more about flexible working and online working, which will enable women to pursue their career and combine it with their domestic responsibilities.
Internationally, I applaud the work of my noble friend Lady Sugg. Provision for gender equality was confirmed by my noble friend Lord Ahmad only this week as part and parcel of our policy of the combined department—
I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine. Lady Falkner?
My Lords, forgive me; I had trouble unmuting. I am more used to physical participation now than to virtual participation. That is my excuse.
In the debate today, we have had powerful testimony about the impact of the pandemic on women. I declare an interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. At the commission, we stand not only for women’s rights but for all those who experience discrimination, and with nine protected characteristics, we have a lot on our hands. Today I want to speak specifically to our work on women.
In this House we recently passed the Ministerial and Other Maternity Allowances Bill, where the drafters of the Bill decided to describe those who benefit from its very welcome provisions as “persons” rather than as “women” or “mothers”. I mention this as it is pertinent to our work at the EHRC. At the commission, it is becoming increasingly clear to us that the most contentious work that we have to do is around the critical issue of balancing different rights. As we seek to reduce discrimination, and sometimes even hate, we do not want to see one group pitted against another, but we are also clear that we must not shy away from difficult judgments of balance in the name of political correctness and must not appear to be in one camp versus another. We stand for all the protected characteristics, but we also judge every policy issue on its merits and with guidance from the Equality Act. Hence we look forward to the review of the guidance on legislative language promised by the Government in this regard, and we were very pleased with the successful amendments moved by the noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Winston—I note they are both speaking in the debate today—that got the Bill through this House satisfactorily.
Turning to the impact of the pandemic, evidence so far suggests that the economic impact is likely to be very significant. Women already face a range of inequalities and barriers to work: an overconcentration on low-paid or part-time work, limited flexible working opportunities and responsibility for the majority of unpaid and often undervalued care work. While men have experienced more severe health outcomes and faced greater unemployment, many lockdown restrictions, such as the closure of certain sectors and of schools and childcare settings, have particularly affected women’s equality in the workplace.
The workplace is the area about which I have the greatest concern for the future. If the statistics are correct as to the impact of a loss of women from the workplace, which is what the survey evidence points us to, that has grave implications well into the future. Take key workers: ONS figures show that nearly three-fifths of all key workers in the UK are women, at 58%. The IFS estimates that women were more likely to work across all the sectors that were shut down during the first national lockdown. As of July last year, more women than men had been furloughed; mothers were more likely to ask to be furloughed than men, and found it harder than fathers to work productively at home. A TUC survey indicated that 71% of working mothers were refused furlough. There is evidence of potentially unlawful and discriminatory practices towards pregnant women and those on maternity leave.
Research published on International Women’s Day by the Guardian and Mumsnet found that more than half of women across the UK believe that women’s equality is in danger of going back to the 1970s. In our work as a regulator, we at the EHRC will use our compliance and enforcement powers to carry out strategic as well as specific litigation, to push back against any diminution of women’s equality. As advocates, we will campaign for improvements in women’s welfare. We know that both are critical at this point in time.
It is a pleasure, always, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, and to be a veteran of these International Women’s Day debates.
We clapped for carers, most of whom of course are women, so perhaps at least this week we can whoop for women. As we all come out from under another Covid lockdown, we know that it is women who have had to shoulder so much of the mental burden over the past 12 months. The ONS confirmed as much this week. As that TUC report of January 2021 put it:
“Working mums … were struggling with the strain of being expected to carry out their jobs as normal, while balancing childcare and home-schooling.”
Nine out of 10 mothers responded to the TUC by saying that
“the disruption had a negative impact on their mental health, with increasing levels of stress and anxiety.”
An earlier IFS report showed that, when it came to home-schooling, mothers were able to do only one hour of uninterrupted work for every three hours done by fathers. How quickly we have reverted to gender stereotypes, as we see women doing more housework and more childcare in all households, except for those in which the man has stopped doing paid work.
The TUC calls on the Government to act to stop the reversal of decades of progress that women have made in the workplace. I am sure we can all amplify that call and, this year, give a big shout-out for women in science and engineering particularly.
This week, we welcome the Government’s Statement on women’s health, and not a moment too soon. I know the Minister does not need me to tell her that the pent-up trauma of women over the past 12 months will have to be faced with unprecedented policy and resources for mental health services, with young women and teenage girls being particularly affected.
Many of us in this debate are also involved in the very important Domestic Abuse Bill. Its coming into law is eagerly awaited by us all, not least by those thousands of women who have been trapped in violent homes during Covid-19. As Women’s Aid puts it in its report A Perfect Storm, abusers have used the pandemic
“as a tool for abuse”.
Calls to women’s specialist services and helplines have surged at times during the pandemic. This is not only the pattern in the UK: the United Nations has described the worldwide increase in domestic abuse as a “shadow pandemic” alongside Covid-19—my noble friend Lord Rooker referred to that. It is thought that, worldwide, cases have increased by at least 20% in lockdowns internationally. I ask the noble Baroness the Minister: how is enfeebling our development budget going to help?
As always, there is so much left to win as far as women’s equality is concerned. The legacy issues of unequal pay and pensions, as the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, has set out, have not gone away. British women were paid an average of £25.73 a week less than men in the state pension last year.
For those who might be ambiguous these days about the word “woman”, and believe that it can be replaced by “person”, I whoop for women more than ever this year.
My Lords, I start by declaring my interest as chairman of the charity Near Neighbours. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, and so many eloquent speakers.
The pandemic has certainly provided challenges to individuals, organisations, communities and Governments across the world. Living in a democracy, we are fortunate to be able to see, and challenge where necessary, the responses of our institutions. Our debate today, as we know, focuses on empowering women in the pandemic, and I am pleased to be able to highlight some exceptional activities by women and for women. But, before I do so, I cannot let the opportunity pass without asking all noble Lords to have in their minds the additional suffering felt by women throughout the world who live under repressive regimes.
There is perhaps no better example of the suppression of women than the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has wealth of over $1,000 billion, but only $500 million has been allocated by the mullahs for tackling Covid. Buying American and English vaccines is forbidden—and this at a time when hundreds die each day.
The United Kingdom Government, in addition to its role in managing the health and economic issues associated with Covid, have also recognised the value of the charity sector in helping to improve public health communications to hard-to-reach groups and has provided funding for such projects. Near Neighbours, which I chair, is one such charity and has worked to dispel myths, reduce fear and build confidence among ethnic minorities. Its projects have aimed at rebuilding trust in government messaging, tackling misinformation and anti-vaccination narratives and encouraging engagement with NHS services.
The funding supports practical projects, many designed and delivered by women. Projects vary from support to those suffering isolation and poor mental health to promoting physical activity and tackling domestic violence. Projects such as the Punjabi Theatre Company engage with south Asian women both to take to the vaccine and to encourage those within the communities to do so. The Peterborough Lithuanian Community project plans domestic abuse awareness workshops and buys comfort packs for women fleeing domestic abuse.
As we begin to address the scars of Covid, it must be a priority to integrate disabled women back into society so as to ease higher levels of loneliness and isolation, which in turn would lead to improved health and well-being. One project to be funded by Near Neighbours will provide accessible creative craft work- shops that will engage disabled women alongside other women in the Jewish community so that they benefit from shared experiences.
Women from the refugee and asylum-seeking communities often face the challenge of financial difficulties. One project has three strands of work: first, to relieve isolation and build self-confidence and, secondly, to provide skills training so that, thirdly, women are able to establish a women’s social enterprise.
The pandemic has enabled us to focus on social ills that existed before but were often unnoticed, the sufferers invisible. Regrettably, even in modern democracies we are sometimes guilty of overlooking very marginalised people. Let us hope that the pandemic has made sure that we do not continue to do so.
My Lords, this debate gives us an opportunity to reflect on women’s roles in the pandemic as well as on how any recovery must address the injustices and harms that it has revealed. Women make up 82% of care workers, who have played a vital role in caring for the vulnerable, disabled and sick. When I was a council leader I visited care homes in my city, and when I spoke to the staff one of the things they told me was: “Even though we do much of the same work as nurses, they are the angels but we are seen as the skivvies. People only change their minds once they see what we actually do.”
We have seen that lack of value reflected in government attitudes and the lack of wider support for this sector. Has there been weekly clapping for care workers, special arrangements in supermarkets for the social care workforce or outrage that care workers are not receiving a substantial pay increase, like for the nurses? Let us not forget the scandal of hospital discharges to care homes, where patients had not even been tested for the virus before being installed among vulnerable people and their carers, with the catastrophic results that we all know about.
Yet so many people depend on care workers just to be able to live their lives, whether independently or in care homes. Social care is a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year activity but in return for that level of commitment its workforce receives pretty poor recompense. The latest data shows that in April 2020 the average care worker was paid just £8.50 an hour, the same as most supermarkets pay. Last year there were 112,000 vacancies at any one time, while turnover rates showed 430,000 staff—30.4%—leaving their jobs in any one year. The care sector has been starved of cash through systematic and deep cuts to the local government funding on which it depends. A senior care worker is now paid just 12p more per hour than a new starter.
Proposals for better care worker pay must include practical ways of requiring better pay when commissioning services. Linking training and qualifications to pay and creating proper career pathways across health and care are also well overdue to help much-needed recruitment. Recovering from the pandemic must include a new settlement for a properly resourced and valued care service. It must recognise and value the huge sacrifices made by the social care workforce during the pandemic, caring for elderly and vulnerable people with great professionalism and often at great personal risk, often in a context of desperately stretched services, sometimes in facilities that were not suitable for isolation, sometimes without adequate PPE and, until September, often without proper access to regular testing. There is an urgent need for appropriate pay, professional career structures and parity of esteem with NHS colleagues.
The Government must step up to their responsibilities and create a service that does not depend on the sacrifice of poorly paid and undervalued workers but instead is properly resourced and fit for purpose for ever-growing future needs.
My Lords, it is a privilege to take part once again in this debate. I thank the Minister for detailing the work of the Government. I also wish to recognise the contribution of my noble friend Lady Gale, whose long-standing leadership to improve women’s political participation is worth all our salutes.
Alongside other noble Lords, I am indebted to the 70% of the NHS workforce and the 80% of the retail workforce who are women. We are also indebted to the teachers who have kept the schools open. All noble Lords have rightly acknowledged the direct and indirect effect of the Covid pandemic on women. It has brought into sharp focus the regressive impact on gender equality, or the lack of it.
It is also worth reflecting on the women deeply affected, referred to in the reports and surveys by the TUC and Mumsnet. I appreciate the difficult choices some of these women are having to make about leaving the workforce or managing family and caring responsibilities.
Valuing women means that every aspect of the work of Parliament and government must be determined to embed social, cultural, political and economic justice. We are not the best example, as has been stated. All political parties are culpable and need to be more serious about achieving parity. The lack of equal representation in Parliament and in public and private organisations where decisions are made means that women remain largely absent from the decision-making process. Hence the endemic violence against women, which remains a catastrophic shame of our generation.
The Government have announced measures about more listening and reporting, including on the health impact on women and on race disparity. Progress on the devastating impact and the consequences of Islamophobia on Muslim women throughout all parts of society is disappointing, hampering opportunities in employment and public office.
All noble Lords have spoken passionately about inequality and I echo, salute and honour all noble Baronesses, in particular, for their history and contribution as well as their call for a women-centred transformation of our political system and structures. This was so eloquently stated by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett.
Does the Minister agree that while listening and consulting exercises are very important, it is time for action which empowers half of humanity and ensures that women in this country have the opportunity to fully participate at all levels of decision-making, and that nothing else is good enough for gender justice?
My Lords, today’s debate on International Women’s Day is important and timely. I want to focus on women who have lost their loved ones achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world.
As I look back, 2020 was an unprecedented, unpredictable and unforgettable year. The Covid-19 pandemic has killed many thousands of people and destroyed economies all over the world. It has spared no country. Sadly, more than 120,000 people have died in the UK as a result of Covid-19. I suspect that more than 50% of those left behind are women, as Covid widows. They are now lonely, insecure and victims of bereavement grief.
The dreadful coronavirus has killed more people from BAME backgrounds. They are poor and face a double burden that is likely to burden their and their children’s lives for years to come. They need financial help and support for their bereavement grief and their unique stories deserve to be heard. It is our moral duty, particularly at this moment when so many women need empowerment and championing. The former UN Secretary-General, His Excellency Ban Ki-moon, has said:
“Despite the many difficulties widows face, many make valuable contributions to their countries and communities … we can reduce the suffering that widows endure by raising their status and helping them in their hour of need. This will contribute to promoting the full and equal participation of all women in society.”
Our Government have left no stone unturned to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. They have invested billions of pounds to support the NHS and research for the vaccine to save lives. The Government have also spent billions more to save jobs and the economy, through furlough for millions of people and through grants to numerous businesses. The vaccine rollout is an exemplary achievement, as more than 20 million people have already received their first dose.
I urge the UK Government to set up a Covid-19 widows support group to provide financial support and practical help to overcome their bereavement grief. By setting up such group, the UK Government will be not only setting an example for other countries to follow, but commemorating International Women’s Day in its truest sense.
My Lords, it is a very great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, whose work is incredibly wonderful and inspiring for widows, particularly in India but also elsewhere. I am followed by one of the most eminent Members of our House, the noble Lord, Lord Winston, whose speech a week ago on the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas on the maternity Bill was truly outstanding and exceptional. It is a pleasure to speak this afternoon.
I raise the challenge of single-sex wards in hospitals, and specific female-only medical treatment in hospitals, special schools and homes. Sir Simon Stevens’s guidance, now over two years old, wrongly informed hospitals that patients may choose their treatment and wards according to gender self-selection. Annexe B of Sir Simon’s guidance seems to have interpreted the equal opportunities Act incorrectly—one of a raft of government institutional statements that followed the same misunderstanding of the Act. In fact, hospitals are excluded from the Act, as prisons are. Therefore, to attempt enforcing inaccurate guidelines piles Pelion on Ossa, to the serious detriment of the good, professional care for which the NHS is rightly famous.
Natal males demanding, and nurses be threatened with expulsion if they do not carry out, the most intimate female treatments on males—vaginal smears and chestfeeding are just two of the many examples I have been given over the last two years—has led to unacceptable challenges for the medical staff and negative outcomes for females. The reverse is true, of course, for young people who are female. I have had some cases with mental health problems where it is clear that a natal male is deemed to be a female for the purpose of offering the most intimate of personal care relating to periods. It cannot be right.
I ask the Minister to meet me on this unique issue and to agree an assessment of guidance from Sir Simon, which may be flawed. Indeed, I heard on 11 March 2020, exactly one year ago today, from the Minister for Public Health, the Member of Parliament for Bury St Edmunds, that there was going to be a review of these guidelines. Has that review happened? I have written a couple of times to the Minister, my noble friend Lord Bethell, and I have not heard that anything has happened—my last letter was in October last year.
We have a wonderful Minister in the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and I was very happy indeed to have read the wonderful statement about her in this week’s Evening Standard outlining the splendid work that she has done. We have two Ministers for Equalities, the Members of Parliament for South West Norfolk and for Saffron Walden, both outstanding people, but perhaps their work should be more supported. This falls fairly and squarely within the Covid debate, since males seem to be more affected than females, and the gender versus sex identification is therefore even more strongly relevant in healthcare than in this week’s census wording judgment, where the judge definitively ruled that sex and gender are not one.
I congratulate all who work in this very difficult area, but I believe the time has come to follow the science. Public health provision must follow the science, a lesson we have all well learned.
My Lords, I do not deserve that very kind mention—even a remote mention—by either of the noble Baronesses, Lady Falkner or Lady Nicholson. In that debate last week I declared an interest in the Genesis Research Trust, which I am very fortunate to chair. It is a large research organisation that looks at the problems that women face related to reproduction.
I want to draw attention to women who miscarry. Some 880,000 babies are lost by miscarriage annually in the United Kingdom alone. This loss of life within has an impact that is much more serious than is generally understood. There is no funeral. Nobody refers to it or talks about it. Years ago, I remember just how frightened we were when my wife had a small bleed during pregnancy. Fortunately, the baby was safe. Often, women are admitted to hospital, where everybody is preoccupied with a more important medical condition. They are given an anaesthetic, the uterus is scraped out by a junior doctor and, because they are not “urgent” and are usually at the end of a long waiting list, they are alone and starved a long time. Then, sad and worried, they are released from hospital without explanation and told to try again, with no understanding of what has happened and no tests to see what is wrong. So often, I am afraid, general practitioners do not pay enough attention to this very common condition—some, of course, do, but many do not. This, of course, has been a problem during the pandemic, as some women who are greatly worried about their pregnancy get little information about the virus and whether it might affect their baby.
Furthermore, there is an issue with repeated miscarriage. This is more common when people are infertile. So often, little or no serious attempt at a diagnosis is made. Such women have a diagnosis attached to them of “unexplained infertility”, which, of course, is an excuse for no diagnosis at all. This leaves, at best, treatments such as IVF without a diagnosis. As good doctors affirm, treatment without a diagnosis, and no attempt to make one, is or leads to bad medicine. Because miscarriage is so common, pregnant women miscarrying are often treated with what seems like indifference.
All this increases the drive for them to seek private in vitro fertilisation. What women are never told is that even after six cycles of treatment by expensive IVF, the figures show that only 43% of women have a live baby—something never mentioned by the HFEA. That is after six cycles, and they may have had more than one miscarriage during that treatment.
Of course, the pandemic has had another effect. One in 10 couples suffer from infertility, and this is much more likely over the age of 38. Virtually all fertility treatment has been halted and IVF has been impossible in most cases. A crucial year has been lost. As they age, these women face a rapidly decreasing chance of having a baby.
I have great respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, so it is a pleasure to pay her this tiny compliment. I think that the pandemic offers a real opportunity. When we revisit the structure of the NHS, as has been promised, may we learn from the pandemic and may the Government give much more consideration to the problems—these common, apparently trivial problems—that I emphasised. In view of the extra money that she announced for research, how much will be earmarked for diseases that women commonly experience during pregnancy?
In following on from the noble Lord, Lord Winston, I want to thank him on behalf of so many people for his work on IVF. Women everywhere are in his debt.
It has been stated here as though it is incontestable that Covid has hit women harder than men. However, despite a lifetime of fighting for women’s rights, I wonder how helpful it is to see every issue through the prism of gender. Earlier this week, I reflected on this question in a debate in the House on the women’s health strategy. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, said that although older men have a higher risk of death from Covid, this unfairly means that older women experience a “higher level of grief”, which affects their mental health. Concentrating on women grieving seems such a perverse way of viewing the issue of more men dying. Women’s rights campaigners must try to avoid putting too much emphasis on victimhood and grievance. I would prefer a more positive approach that emphasises women’s agency and what they can achieve, while avoiding a divisive agenda—particularly one that pits men and women against each other as competitors.
In that context, I was disappointed to read the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee’s complaint that the Government’s
“priorities for recovery are heavily gendered in nature”.
It complained about the investment in
“science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and construction”
and suggested a more women-friendly investment in the care sector instead. That seems far too fatalistic. I want women to be engineers and builders. We should invest in the care system but as a social priority, not just because women work there. If anything, I want the Government to get on and kick-start more productive economic growth, creating jobs for everyone. Focusing on gender can be a distraction in that instance.
I was disappointed to read some of the “build back better” literature that we were sent for this debate. Again, in the name of gendered employment opportunities, it argued that one silver lining of the pandemic is working from home, which could become normalised. I assume that it was written by researchers with big houses and gardens and the kind of broadband I can only dream of. Here is a warning: women have historically fought long and hard to escape the private sphere and gain the right to work in workplaces and join the public sphere. After all the work done by women and trade unionists to get women into a position of equality at work, I dread us coming out of this pandemic and people saying that being confined to the home is a victory.
Indeed, our coming together today recognises that we stand on the shoulders of those women—those giants—who fought for us in the past. I was really glad to be lobbied on the subject of the matchgirls’ strike. Sarah Chapman and Alice Francis were mentioned. These people in the past were dissident women. They were not victims; they were fighters, campaigners and trade unionists, and we owe so much to them. Long may the dissidents win.
Finally, it is important that we recognise that we are celebrating International Women’s Day as though there are no issues around the fact that you cannot say “I am a woman” without it causing problems. There needed to be a fight in this House to turn “pregnant person” into “mother” as a compromise because “woman” was too radical. If we do not want to look like we are just ticking boxes and going through the motions, we must recognise that the gender-critical debate needs to be had out. I know that many women—we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, who has been wonderfully inspiring on this issue—have said that we should do something about this when you have to fight to get women or biological sex mentioned in the census. Let us lead on that rather than just ticking the International Women’s Day box.
My Lords, I am so conscious that Sarah Everard could have been my daughter or, indeed, any of our daughters. To be subject in that way to random male violence is a terrible thing. I recommend to everyone Kate McCann’s short and extremely punchy description of what it is like to be a woman walking home at night.
As Ecclesiastes would doubtless have said if he had been taking part in this debate, “Let us now praise famous women, and our mothers that begot us.” I shall start with Margaret Cavendish—born Lucas, my many times great-aunt—who hammered hard on the doors of the Royal Society and was repelled by the men. When Westminster Abbey celebrated the women who were buried there, her name was left out, but she has the last word: she has been in print ever since she died. There are not many who can say that over 400 years. I also celebrate Olympe de Gouges. To write as she did to Robespierre, with the obvious consequences, is something one should shout out in praise of, as one should for women in Iran today who are doing much the same to the ayatollahs.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, I wish to remember the members of the strike and union committees of 1888 matchgirls’ strike, and I will name them all: Eliza Martin, Louisa Beck, Julia Gambleton, Jane Wakeling, Jane Staines, Eliza Price, Mary Naulls, Kate Sclater, Ellen Johnson, Sarah Chapman, Mary Driscoll, Alice Francis and Mary Cummings. I must also mention Annie Besant, a fellow theosophist of my grandmother, who very much supported them and made their victory possible.
Let us all play our part in the cause of equality of women. It has been a long struggle where each grain of progress matters, so today in this cause I make a plea and have a suggestion. My plea is: Stonewall, please climb out of the hole of misogyny and bullying that you have dug for yourself. The needs of trans people, which are pressing, are not best served by adding to the disadvantages of women. Join the conversation. Let us find a way through that works for all of us.
My suggestion is: it is a large impediment to equality that we impose penalties for the time out that women take to have children. In the pandemic, working part-time from home seems to have become common. Many organisations that I speak to expect this to remain a strong feature in future. My local council is selling its offices because people have been so much more productive working from home. Having children and looking after them well is a role that has value to all of us, especially those of us with mothers. We should do our best to make sure that those who fulfil that role are not at a disadvantage when they return to the workforce. We have learned how well part-time at-home work works. It will be easy in a company which maintains that to fit in parents with care and to keep them involved, up to speed and part of the team so that when they return to the world of work they do so without disadvantage and without having missed out on 10 or 15 years. I say to my noble friend the Minister that the place this should start is the Civil Service because so many of the jobs civil servants do are entirely suitable for part-time home working. The Civil Service should take a lead and make this big step forward for women to take advantage of all we have learned in the pandemic.
My Lords, this year’s International Women’s Day is like no other. As countries and communities start to slowly recover from a devastating pandemic, we have the chance to finally end the exclusion and marginalisation of women and girls. Women must have the possibility to play a full part in shaping the pivotal decisions being made right now, as countries respond to and recover from the pandemic. These choices will affect the well-being of people and the planet for generations to come.
To do this, we must break down the deep-seated historic, cultural and socioeconomic barriers that prevent women taking their seat at the decision-making table, while ensuring that resources and power are more equitably distributed. However, having a seat at the table also leads to problems. The question is whether the women are heard or not. Unless the table has equal numbers of men and women, having a seat will not work.
Different countries have different attitudes to women. Disappointingly, there is a known attitude in some families that, if a girl is born, it is considered as a problem. Science now enables families to find out early in pregnancy whether it is a boy or a girl. The women are often encouraged, and in some cases forced, to abort. I came across an article written by a prominent lady researcher in India. She talked about a family who had a boy and a girl; as they grew up, the girl related to the researcher: “If you look at me or my mother, we are both weak and not in good health. My father and brothers are very healthy. If they are ill, the best doctors or hospitals are used. If I or my mother are ill, only the local untrained person is called in. At mealtimes, my brother and father are served first. My mother and I get the leftovers”.
Unless such attitudes are dealt with, women will always be second-class citizens in their families—and unless legislation is in force, things will not change. I hope that this International Women’s Day will highlight such problems and get Governments to give equal rights to women.
My Lords, I am delighted to participate in this debate, which has been very wide-ranging, covering as it has VSO to IVF. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Scott on introducing it, and for choosing the theme.
I would like to pause for a moment to remember the family and friends of Sarah Everard. I would also like to remember the family and friends of Claudia Lawrence, who was also from York. She went missing in March 2009, and she has never been found. Her mother Joan and the rest of her family live day by day, hoping that she will return, but unsure. Her father’s funeral took place today; he passed away without knowing whether she was alive or not.
I congratulate the Government on the progress made so far, particularly on equality and non-discrimination. Our generation has benefited much more than my mother’s or my grandmother’s generation did, but there is still a long way to go. I recognise that government funds to help during the pandemic have been extremely generous and well received. But if we really are to empower women and enable them to play their part in recovering from the pandemic, we must address one issue as a matter of priority. I invite my noble friend Lady Berridge, when she sums up this debate, to address the gender gap and particularly the position of working women.
Women now have to work until they are 66, or in future 67 and older, before they can claim their state pension, yet it is extremely difficult for older women to find work in the marketplace. The Government must address that as a matter of urgency.
My noble friend Lady Altmann touched on issues regarding pensions, but one that was not addressed was the position of part-time women workers, particularly their inability often to auto-enrol in pensions when they have more than one part-time job but quite possibly are not admitted to an auto-enrolment pension in any of them. That leaves them excluded from a pension that could contribute to keeping them in a comfortable position in later life. I very much support the campaign that Scottish Widows has launched to close a particular gender pay gap: a woman in her 20s starting work today will expect to retire on a pension that is £100,000 less than that of a man of the same age. That is unacceptable and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
So while I recognise that the Government have taken many measures, both during the pandemic and more generally, equality in pensions and regarding women in the workplace, particularly for older women, has a long way to go. I recognise the economic impact that Covid has played, particularly with thousands of jobs being lost in retail, most of them women’s jobs. It will be extremely difficult to place them in the marketplace immediately.
I pay tribute to role models that I have worked with, particularly those I served with in the European Parliament—many noble Lords will know the history of Simone Veil, who suffered under French occupation by the Germans during the Second World War. But perhaps on a more entertaining note, many will not appreciate that Nana Mouskouri served in the European Parliament. And I am fortunate to have served in both Houses with our own inimitable former Speaker of the Commons, Betty, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd.
My Lords, if women are to flourish in society, it is essential that they should play a full part in politics. That is as true in our country as in the developing world. Here I pay tribute to—I still think of her as my noble friend—the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington, who has worked tirelessly to get more women into Westminster. She has succeeded: the 2019 general election returned a record number of women, 220, to Parliament. However, that still amounts to only 34% of MPs and, sadly, some excellent women MPs decided to leave politics at that election. There is no mistaking that discrimination, both in Westminster and without, was one of the reasons.
Allegations of sexism within Parliament are being addressed, not least in the Valuing Everyone programme. Things have certainly improved since the first female MP to sit in the Chamber, Lady Astor, took her seat in 1919. Sir Winston Churchill is said to have described her arrival as being “as embarrassing as if she had burst into my bathroom when I had nothing with which to defend myself, not even a sponge”. Lady Astor retaliated that he was not handsome enough to have worries of that kind.
However, it is now much harder for women politicians to brush off some of the attacks to which they are regularly subjected. That is the result of technology, both a blessing and a curse. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, when an MP, was told that her days were numbered. Antoinette Sandbach, when an MP, faced such threats that the police advised her no longer to hold open surgeries in her constituency. These were only extreme examples of a common problem. Can the Minister assure me that more will be done to stop female politicians being subjected to such anonymous online threats? It is not impossible to do away with anonymity online; it just takes the will. I believe that doing so would encourage more women not just into politics but into public life generally.
The more women there are in politics, the more policies will take account of their needs—and the Covid pandemic has highlighted that they indeed have special needs. Others have pointed out that women have carried more of the burden of coping with childcare and home-schooling than have men. That generalisation does not give due credit to the many households where there is genuine sharing of care. My older son, for instance, is married to a hospital doctor. We are immensely proud of her hard work during the pandemic, but it was her working-from-home husband who had to become home teacher.
Nevertheless, there is overwhelming evidence that women around the world have shouldered most of the childcare during Covid. The recent TUC survey, for instance, showed that many women, unable to get furlough, have been forced to use their annual leave in order to cope. They now face the lengthy school holidays that lie ahead without any paid leave to take to look after their children. Germany have decreed an extra 10 weeks of paid leave for parents and 20 weeks for single parents. Italy has a similar scheme. I ask the Minister, how will the UK help working women through this impending crisis? Without extra help during the school holidays, many women may be forced to relinquish their jobs.
My Lords, there is so much to be said about women, here in the UK and globally, in the context of the pandemic. I begin by referring, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, to the TUC report on the impact on women in the recent period. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, as seen in differential job loss, increased levels of maternity and pregnancy discrimination, exposure to unsafe working practices, the stress of home schooling—often juggled with working from home—and, tragically, heightened risk of domestic abuse.
There are so many fronts on which women still need to struggle to make progress towards equality in this society, and if that is the case here in Britain, those struggles are even more urgent globally. An estimated 70% of the global health and social care workforce are women. These frontline workers in many places face increased pressures and exposure to the virus, often with little personal protective equipment, let alone vaccination. Yet they are much less likely to be involved in decision-making about equipment and funding. This global figure of 70% is lower than the 77% of female staff employed in the NHS and the 82% of the adult social care workforce here which is female.
These are the very same women workers whom we have stood applauding week after week for their incredible work during the pandemic, and yet, when it comes to recognising their work, we see them paid, in the case of social care workers, at barely the minimum wage, as the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, said. Our nurses—here I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick—were offered a paltry and frankly insulting pay increase of 1%, not an increase at all given how much nurses’ pay has declined in recent years, and this at a time when there are enormous levels of vacancy in the NHS and in social care, frankly imperilling the effective functioning of these services.
Applause for these key workers was great but, as my mother used to say, “You can’t spend ‘Thank you very much’.” She was of course right. Perhaps, given the outcry against this pay proposal for nurses, the Government will think again and perhaps also think about the need—indeed, the requirement—to carry out and take into account gender equality impact assessments, both before the implementation of policies and thereafter.
Perhaps by International Women’s Day 2022 we will be able to celebrate fewer girls out of education globally and a reduction in the gender pay gap here at home or at least, in contradistinction to the ONS report of this week, see fewer women in higher levels of anxiety and depression, and even perhaps more men taking a fairer share of household work and childcare. Finally, but so importantly, let us not wait until International Women’s Day 2022 to see the end of violence against women everywhere. We must act with urgency on this, as the Minister said when opening.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to contribute to this important debate, as I believe in gender equality and the empowerment of women in my business, political and social work. International Women’s Day is an important opportunity to highlight the many achievements of women in various fields while paying tribute to the important role they play in society.
I must, however, touch upon some of the challenges still facing women today. A number of experts have stated that the impact of Covid-19 will fall disproportionately on women and the most vulnerable members of our society. The coronavirus pandemic has had an adverse impact on gender equality and threatens to reverse the progress made in this area. Data from the United Nations suggests that approximately 47 million women and girls could fall into poverty as a result of the pandemic. Gender parity is vital to achieving the UN sustainable development goals by 2030. Women are overrepresented in the informal economy, where they tend to have fewer labour rights. Furthermore, mothers and women with caring responsibilities have been disproportionately furloughed or made redundant as a result of the economic downturn.
It is unacceptable that many women in various occupations are still being paid less than their male counterparts. I therefore welcome Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to introducing policies which promote fairness in the workplace and address the gender pay gap.
The importance of addressing the devastating effects of domestic abuse on females in households experiencing prolonged periods of unemployment has become even more urgent. Phone calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline increased by 49% during the first national lockdown last year. There is an unfortunate correlation between economic downturns and increases in domestic abuse. The imminent Domestic Abuse Act sends a clear message that this evil will not be tolerated any more.
The pandemic reminds us all of the debt of gratitude that we owe to the women in our families and communities. Women account for approximately 77% of the NHS workforce and are overrepresented in a number of essential areas, including childcare and nursing homes. It is their strength and resilience that makes women such invaluable members of our communities. Every effort must be taken to empower women and ensure that every female is given the opportunity to reach their full potential.
We know that women in developing countries experience many forms of discrimination. However, in conflict-affected countries, they often face additional risks, in some cases from landmines and ordnance. This issue concerns me a great deal, as I have personally seen mine clearance being carried out effectively in two countries. Can my noble friend the Minister explain how the UK will contribute, through both its diplomatic channels and foreign aid, to reducing the awful damage inflicted by these weapons on women and girls globally?
My Lords, I, too, express my sympathy to the family of Sarah Everard.
I was glad to see that nobody, even Stonewall, suggested that today’s debate should be entitled “International Persons Day”. I congratulate the noble Lords who, during the recent debate on ministerial maternity allowance, exposed the nonsense of “pregnant persons”, getting the Government to accept the amendment to “pregnant mothers”.
Many Peers have rightly paid tribute to women scientists. I want to pay tribute to other women, such as Hibo Wardere, who speaks up for women and girls who, like herself, have suffered and continue to suffer from female genital mutilation and says
“I’m a woman. Get over it”.
Greta Thunberg has shown young people that their voice is important in the biggest challenge we face: saving the planet; while our own Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize winner ever, fights with tremendous courage and determination for young girls’ education.
If you watched the Biden inauguration it gave you tremendous hope to see Kamala Harris, the first black woman Vice-President, who I hope will go on one day to be President, and to see Amanda Gorman, the young black Poet Laureate, deliver her tremendous poem, “The Hill We Climb”. We have a long way to go on equality. My daughter, Laura, a higher-grade nurse in A&E, is twice as qualified as her brother but earns half the pay. That shows us what we think about equal pay for work of equal value. I hope the Government recognise that if we want to create a fairer, equal society post Covid then affordable childcare, as many Peers have said, is essential.
As an apprenticeship ambassador, I am getting more young girls to recognise that careers in engineering, science, construction and IT are worthwhile and necessary for the economy. It is also about getting schools to offer career guidance that shows girls that an apprenticeship is a viable alternative to university.
I want to conclude on the problem of the increased violence towards women and children taking place during Covid. We need to ensure that we protect safe spaces for women in hostels, refuges, hospitals and prisons. Physical threats to women, including rape, by transgender men are a terrible indictment on our society. I want to make it clear that I believe in fair rights for transgender people. I am not transphobic, although no doubt I will be accused of it after this contribution. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, I hope that we will be able to have a reasonable debate on this issue. I hope that in replying, the Minister will recognise the importance of protecting safe spaces for women.
My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my interests in the register as chair of UN Women UK, as co-chair of the APPG for UN Women, along with Maria Miller, and as an adult social care provider. I want to focus most of my time on women from the minority communities. Covid has really magnified issues facing women across the country but more so, I believe, it has demonstrated how little we know about accessing those women from the minority communities who have probably faced greater challenges being in communities where there are language constraints, social isolation and often little access to separate disposable income. There is also a general lack of understanding of BAME issues across many agencies.
I have looked at issues concerning women for as long as I can remember but, over this last year or so, some of the phone calls and emails that I have received have really worried me. I have urged the House every time I can to raise the issue of people from minority communities, particularly women, although we all know that the incidence of violence against women has risen during this period. Women who have no voice or do not know how to access services are unreported, so we do not really know the numbers. We do not know how many people from minority communities are going to come out of the pandemic with huge mental health issues, and with huge problems in just readjusting their lives if they have had to try to home-school without being able to understand fully whether they are providing enough support for their children.
I remember a case not that long ago where I saw a couple from a minority community living in a multi- generational household. After the woman had given birth, she unfortunately became very sick and was unable to communicate verbally or to walk and she had uncontrollable movements. That meant that her husband was left to raise their new baby and manage a disabled wife and an elderly mother. This man was carrying his wife up and down the stairs on his back because he did not have the skills to understand how to access services. There are a lot of issues around minority communities that concern me.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, for raising the issue of care workers. As an adult social care provider, I want to pay tribute to care workers across the country. They have worked tirelessly and, as often as not, have been the quiet unsung heroes who will continue to work long after this wretched pandemic has gone. We need to facilitate better recognition of care work as a profession rather than looking at it as having a low-paid, unskilled workforce. Care workers are among the most skilled people I know, and I hope that after the pandemic we will have a decent, detailed discussion on how we manage people who work in the care sector.
My Lords, I was going to speak on women prisoners, but the noble Lord, Lord McNally, spoke on the same subject, so I had to quickly change gear and invent a new speech, but that is no problem. I shall just say one thing about Covid and women prisoners. I tried to put a question, but I did not win the ballot. Pregnant women who are prisoners require early release, if possible, under the current circumstances. If there is still scope for changing the policy, I urge Her Majesty’s Government to think about it, along with the early release of those on the end of custody temporary release scheme or on special purpose licences—that is the detailed description—if it is possible. I have tried to do that.
I want to make one remark on what the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, said about women MPs getting anonymous tweets and things on social media. She asked whether anonymity could be dealt with. In the past fortnight, I have read that the Government of India have sent a notification to all providers of social media that if somebody complains, they have to reveal the name—not particularly the message but the name. That is being taken to court in India, so there may be a legal problem. If there is anything that we can do to make these things anonymous, especially when a complaint is received from the recipient of an email, that will be a great step forward.
Lastly, I want to make a suggestion which has been bothering me for all the time I have been a professional economist. It is the injustice of the welfare state. If you are a woman living on your own, you get a certain sum of money from the welfare state. Under the universal credit system it is around £342 if you are under 25 and £409 if you are over 25; but if you are with a man, it is £488 instead of £342 and £594 instead of £409. This means that two people do not get double what one person gets, so the state actively encourages the breaking up of a couple’s relationship. This is a very peculiar thing.
People claim we are a Christian country with the sanctity of marriage and all that, but the welfare state actively discourages people living together, and this injustice has been going on for a long time. One thing that we can do—as far as possible, since money right now is flowing like nothing on earth—would be to correct that anomaly. It would make a lot of women’s and poor men’s lives much better; they would not have to pretend to be living separately just to get £50 more. I suggest that the Chancellor should look at that reform urgently.
My Lords, a year ago the TUC found that 52% of women had experienced sexual harassment at work. For young women aged between 18 and 24 the figure was 63%, nearly two-thirds. That is disgraceful.
As the UK gets back to work after the ravages of the pandemic, I propose three steps to the Minister for tackling harassment at work. The first is to suggest an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 to impose a duty on every employer to maintain every workplace free from harassment, violence and bullying. Currently an employer may be vicariously liable but the constraints of the law on vicarious liability make that difficult to establish. A duty on the employer would place a responsibility on its shoulders to take positive steps to prevent, investigate and penalise such conduct.
The second step would be for the amendment to broaden Section 26 of the Act to specify bullying as well as harassment as unacceptable conduct. Bullying might be defined as unwanted conduct at or connected to work, whether or not related to a relevant protected characteristic, where the conduct has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the victim, and where the perpetrator has or reasonably appears to have a more powerful position than the victim whether by reason of status, authority, apparent capability to harm or reward the victim or otherwise. I appreciate that this issue is not confined only to women but women certainly suffer more bullying than men at work.
Thirdly, on Tuesday I asked the Minister’s colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, if consideration had been given to the UK ratifying the International Labour Organization’s convention 190 on violence and harassment, which was adopted on 21 June 2019. He said that he would write to me about it. The convention is directed against violence and harassment at work, particularly gender-based violence and harassment, and stresses the importance of a work culture based on mutual respect and dignity of the human being. It would be an important symbol of commitment at home and abroad if the UK were to ratify this important convention. Will the Minister bring her pressure to bear?
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, in this debate. Harassment at work is a real issue and I hope the Government might consider the three steps that he mentioned. For me, International Women’s Day has taken on a greater significance than ever, and its theme, “Choose to challenge”, resonates very strongly with me.
I was the chair of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review and we spent two and a half years just listening and learning from many hundreds of people who have suffered avoidable harm resulting from medications and one medical device. Those people were overwhelmingly women, and my team and I discovered that, while every story we heard was different and deeply personal, there were some common themes linking them all together. These themes were really disturbing—actually, they were shocking. Women told us that they were not informed about the risks. Without being informed of the risks, they could not actually make informed decisions. That, in turn, meant that they could not give their informed consent and, when problems and painful complications arose, we heard that women were routinely ignored or dismissed.
There are many thousands of these women and they have been feeling powerless, helpless and deeply hurt. Many are in great physical pain and tremendous mental anguish. Too often, they have been treated in a cavalier fashion by a healthcare system that is disjointed and seems to have lost its raison d’être. This is not just a UK phenomenon; it is international. I have been contacted by women as far away as Australia and New Zealand who have been going through the same nightmare. Listening to women is not merely something that is nice to do, it is the starting point for good policy and good care.
Five years ago, I chaired the national maternity review. Our starting point was to listen to women and their families, and our report, Better Births, reflected what we were told. We have been putting these recommendations into being, but listening is only one step in the right direction. The second vital step is to act and, in our report, First Do No Harm, my review team said, “We urgently need an independent patient safety commissioner, someone whose role it is to listen to patients’ views and concerns, and who says, ‘Stop, this does not look right. We need to look into this. We need a pause.’”
We need someone who listens, but also someone who makes things happen. The Government have accepted the need for the commissioner and have legislated to establish the role. That is absolutely great, and I thank Ministers and officials for helping to make this happen. We now need to put this person in place. The need is urgent, because we know that avoidable harm still happens. So, in the spirit of International Women’s Day, I choose to challenge. I choose to challenge the Government: you have made a good decision by legislating to create a patient safety commissioner; for the sake of those who have suffered enough already, and for those who may be at risk right now, let us move at speed. Let us put the commissioner in place. Let us listen to patients, to women. Let us learn. Let us act. Let us improve safety and let us improve the quality of their care. What better commitment, and what better way to mark International Women’s Day?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this debate. By this point in the debate. I have listened to many informative, passionate speeches from colleagues. They demonstrate commitment to post-Covid recovery within the UK and globally. I am proud to be part of such debates, and proud to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, who has done so much work for women and who has listened, learned and made things happen.
The wording in the title of the debate, “empowering women”, is positive and rightly linked to women’s rights. What happens after Covid is of the utmost importance, and we must build on what we have learned. I hope the Government will vigorously promote women’s rights, and not just with rhetoric. Women—and children and men—need to know their rights and how to get support to access those rights. Women’s rights are human rights and contribute to national and global development. Human rights are not just individual, but encourage us to fight for the rights of others, as recently demonstrated in the Black Lives Matter action.
Covid has laid bare inequalities of many kinds, for many people. But the situation before Covid was not satisfactory, especially for women, those with disabilities and mental health problems, those from black and minority-ethnic groups, young people and children, and older people. Some people are of course in more than one of those categories, and women have suffered in disproportionate ways, which have been described by others. Cuts to local authority funding and services such as mental health services were having devastating effects, particularly on young people, long before Covid. It will take huge efforts to reverse a downward spiral.
There are many international conventions on women’s rights. Treaties and conventions are of course useful in their aspirations and practical suggestions, but we know that they must be implemented at a local level. We need countries to react and implement. We need nations to embody these laws and policies in practice. For example, how do local government and the public and private sectors respond? How are grass-roots movements and NGOs supported to add to their knowledge and hands-on capabilities in consolidating the rights of women and girls? Is gender equality really respected?
These rights impinge on all elements of society. We may ask how women are encouraged to stand for office or apply for senior roles. We may ask how many schools have programmes which encourage both girls and boys to examine the issue of human rights and the part that they can play. During the Covid pandemic, citizens have become more aware of rights in general. Wales and Scotland have supported the incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into legal frameworks and into school curricula. Will England follow the same path?
Women’s rights begin with girls and boys knowing their rights and responsibilities, having the confidence to stand up for them and learning how to access what they deserve. We must develop a culture where women’s rights and human rights are understood and enacted, and not just for ourselves. Supporting women in other, less developed countries is vital; I am glad that this has been demonstrated so well today. I envisage—and this is beginning to happen—global networks to empower women, not just those who are already powerful but those who could improve their lives with support such as mentoring and role models, becoming successful in whatever way that they choose.
I ask the Government to take a strong lead on human rights and make the direction clear with a high profile. Will they set out a vigorous programme to tackle the problems, identifying rights which are being abused? I ask for a declaration of intent. How does the Minister respond?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in today’s debate. On International Women’s Day we celebrate the numerous achievements and successes of women, but alongside the victories there are countless statistics and reports about the disadvantages, discrimination and gender-based violence that women face around the world. For all the very welcome advances, the pace of change on women’s rights, as enshrined by the UN 73 years ago, is staggeringly slow.
This past year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, women have often been the first to lose their jobs, and they may well be the last to be re-employed once things return to normal. The burden of childcare, home-schooling and domestic chores has all been overwhelmingly borne by women during this crisis, as noble Lords have acknowledged today. Women make up 39% of global employment; they account for 54% of job losses. If no action is taken in this gender-regressive scenario then, according to McKinsey, estimated global GDP could be $1 trillion lower in 2030.
As my noble friend Lord Bourne stated, Prime Minister Johnson has been a strong advocate for the empowerment of women and girls through education. He has demonstrated his commitment by an initiative to get 40 million more girls into primary and secondary school in developing countries by 2025. If they are reading by the age of 10, they are more likely to go to secondary school, marry much later and have financial independence.
Later this year, the UK will co-host with Kenya the Global Partnership for Education summit here in the UK. It is an opportunity to work collaboratively in this post-pandemic world. Kids have been out of school everywhere; it is important to get them back to school, both here and around the world. We are all in this together. Cuts in our aid budget are understandable due to recent challenges but it is vital that we maintain support for lifting countless children around the world out of poverty through education. It is crucial for our own security and is an important aspect of our diplomacy and influence. To honour our commitments, we will have to find new and creative ways of funding large-scale programmes for the delivery of education.
I want to make one further point. The situation of women in the developing world will not change until we tackle the root causes. Poverty is one but it does not explain everything. We agree that education for girls is key but, in addition, a concerted global effort is required to place specific emphasis on educating men to see women as equals. I must qualify that there are many enlightened men across the developing world who do support women and have been instrumental in bringing about progress.
However, a total shift in cultural mindset is needed, and this will not happen of its own accord. It needs a universal curriculum, if you like, led by the UN or the Commonwealth, which will aim to change the attitudes of future generations in a positive way—sustained efforts in getting more girls into school, parallel with educating boys on the very specific subject of gender equality, and so much can be done online. Centuries of cultural history will not be easy to shift, but this is not religious. As the noble Lord, Lord Singh, stated, most religions—whether it is Christianity, Islam or Sikhism—espouse equality. This is about a cultural mindset. It may take a generation or two to bring about the desired result but if we do not act now then, at the current pace, we may achieve our goals in 100 to 150 years’ time. That is simply not acceptable.
My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register.
Fifty per cent of the world are women. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Choose to challenge”. With that in mind, I want to use this opportunity to remind us all of the key areas that cannot slip off the agenda—especially in a year in which the world continues to face so many obstacles.
Included among those forgotten during this pandemic is the Yazidi community. This community, which was subjected to genocide, rape and torture by the Islamic State group, has been forgotten. The Islamic State’s 2014 genocide created adversity long before the pandemic ever did. Many people from the community were displaced and have been living in camps for six years. Can you imagine what it is like for those children and their mothers who are trying to educate them? The aid budget for this desperate group has been cut by not only the United Kingdom but other countries as well. The British Government had promised that 92% of their aid would be spent in Yemen on nutrition, health and education for the Yazidi community. Now we realise that this has been cut back significantly. This community needs our attention consistently. These people deserve justice, jobs and the support to return home. We cannot forget their sacrifices.
Then there is the refugee crisis. Across the world, millions of people have been driven from their homes as a result of climate change, which is not their fault. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, at the end of 2019, around 5.1 million people in 95 countries and territories were living in displacement as a result of disasters that happened not only in 2019 but in previous years. The countries with the highest number of internally displaced persons were Afghanistan, with 1.2 million, India, Ethiopia and the Philippines.
During the pandemic, asylum seekers are also being displaced by war. They are waiting for their cases to be considered, which often takes years, despite the promise of assistance from countries. The pandemic is making this much worse. These families live in barely adequate, unsanitary tent cities, with both elderly family members and young children. In these circumstances, how can they be protected? We must ensure that they get vaccinated as soon as possible. There will be generations of children whose lives were dictated by their lack of education, healthcare and the right nutrition. Despite the pandemic, we cannot turn our backs on these victims. They have found themselves refugees not through any fault of their own but as a result of war and climate change.
At the same time, there is a global human trafficking crisis. The traffickers are having a great time at the moment because nobody is watching what is happening. We have seen cases of human trafficking, particularly in the garment industry, again and again, where many countries, including the UK and US which have legislation in place, turn a blind eye to women producing garments in factories where workers are not paid a decent wage and are working under deplorable conditions. The Government must enforce the law and ensure for consumers that garments and other household goods are from factories with a stamp of approval to ensure that those goods are not developed through human trafficking.
Another problem is the trafficking that exists. Women and young children are often taken by traffickers. What protection is there for them, who will not have the opportunity to have the vaccine, who are being sold as sex slaves and whose babies are sold on the illegal, underground market? I have previously asked the Minister and the Government to follow the money, which is the only long-term way to tackle this. This is the key way to inhibit this. As we come out of the pandemic, this is one of the key issues we must look at.
Time and again we have seen how women have led the charge in successfully navigating challenging situations, especially this year. I take this opportunity to celebrate leading women who are driving us all forward, including Professor Sarah Gilbert, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who I am so proud to know—
My Lords, the role models we have heard about are incredibly powerful for young girls out there, but they are also incredibly powerful role models for young boys. In the past 15 years, the world we live in has been totally transformed. Young boys are not being brought up in the era of surreptitiously passing around dodgy magazines, but are having an extremist male perspective on sex and sexuality thrust upon them in their pockets. We have not adjusted society, our laws or our intervention virtually at all to deal with this situation.
Gender-based violence is about power and its misuse, and power imbalance. The internet gives the additional weapon of revenge porn, but the normality of what the internet is doing is the most insidious of all. With the online harms Bill we will have the opportunity, if we chose, to do something about it. Will we be focused enough to do things that will have an impact and will we be courageous enough to take the necessary step to redress the balance? The time bomb is not to just ticking; it has been ticking. It is enacting.
I have done an awful lot of work representing survivors of child abuse. I still represent men and women who were severely abused. Just one of the conclusions from the significant number who come to me is that men are more comfortable reporting childhood abuse when it is non-sexual but is violent. I have not had a single case where the violence against a girl was not sexual, and often very violent. The level of unreported cases is what really frightens me. I know from the work I did, and from the people who came up to me on doorsteps and in the street and reported things to me, how child abuse is phenomenally unreported.
We have another problem. I also became frighteningly familiar with cases of sexual assaults on young women by their acquaintances. These cases were not being reported—not to the police, not to any authorities, not to family and often not even to partners. The assaults were discussed just within small, tight-knit groups of women. Hence I was able to find the frightening scale. The projections I got are extraordinary.
The world we live in has changed. The internet is a key part of that change but it is more than that, of course. We are not adjusting to it in our own place of work. When I spoke in the Commons about this sort of thing a significant number of men and women came forward with their experiences. Some had complained before and some had not. What was egregious was that, when people complained, the attitudes of the parties and the authorities were excruciating. There has been a slight shift but we have hardly moved on this. Let us get our own back yard in order and let us have courage when it comes to the online harms Bill.
My Lords, as the grandmother of the House in age and coming up to 40 years sitting on the red Benches—more like the virtual Benches this last year—I speak from some years of experience. However, I take this opportunity to praise my colleagues in this House across all Benches for their tireless work, the mentoring offered and the examples set to others, as well as the years of experience to help make others’ lives better. For together we are stronger than individually, and International Women’s Day recognises this on a global scale.
My daughter recently shared with me that I was one of only 27 women Peers out of the 201 Peers made by Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. I am glad to say that our representation has improved significantly since then, but it remains an uphill struggle in this House and the other place. In a world of alleged equals we find that many things are anything but equal. It means that we in this House and those like us need to shout all the louder and make our presence felt in fighting for what is right, or for what others merely take for granted.
From my work as the UK representative on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and later as chairman of Plan International, I saw at first hand how so many countries rely on the women of the family. I saw the success of small loans to women. For example, a woman bought one chicken and from that one chicken grew her business by selling eggs and investing in more chickens. She was able to feed her family and provide a stable income. It may not be much in the western world but it showed me that women, wherever they are, can be wonderfully entrepreneurial.
Covid has had a massive impact on all our lives, most markedly for women. Whether it is juggling working from home with children’s online schoolwork, or housework on being furloughed, women have borne a disproportionate burden of Covid and its impact. Therefore, it is critical that we help women to get back on their feet through employment and restoring their confidence and self-belief. So much of the past year has been spent coping, thinking about others or fretting about finance that we need to empower women, both practically and mentally, for the future.
The ClementJames Centre in north Kensington runs a women’s confidence programme. It is a six-week course that allows local women the opportunity to focus on themselves, their needs, their aspirations and the ways in which they can successfully achieve their goals. It is even more important now, as we gradually come out of lockdown.
Another key aspect, which others may have touched on, is the importance of women in leading by example and encouraging others to have the Covid vaccines. The matriarch in the family sets the tone for the others to follow.
I wish noble Lords well in all that they do for women both now and in the future.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a recent trustee of UNICEF. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, I also made my maiden speech in this debate 10 years ago. She and I have had coffee a few times, discussing how to promote women into winnable seats within our parties, and I am personally delighted that a number of the women on the Lib Dem leadership programme now sit in the House of Commons.
Ten years ago, my disability was much less visible than it is today. I have been privileged to join the excellent Peers on the “mobility Bench”, as my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester describes the wheel- chair spaces. She and I have the privilege of sitting alongside two outstanding disabled women: the noble Baronesses, Lady Campbell of Surbiton and Lady Grey- Thompson. They are absolutely outstanding disability campaigners—and my personal heroines—giving a voice to disabled women across the country. Their example is significant and historic in a world where women’s voices, let alone disabled women’s voices, are sometimes drowned out.
I also want to mention a young disabled woman who is changing the way in which women with learning disabilities are supported and encouraged to take up the services that they are entitled to. Ciara Lawrence, an ambassador for Mencap, promotes having cervical smear tests to others like herself—but she has done so much more. She is teaching staff in the NHS how to work with learning disabled women like herself, and works closely with the Eve Appeal and Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. She also has her own regular podcast, “Ciara’s Pink Sparkle Pod”.
We heard that, during the pandemic, too many people with learning difficulties had “do not attempt resuscitation” orders put on their files without their or their families’ consent. A very high number have died of Covid because of their underlying health conditions. Despite that, they had to fight to get vaccines along with other clinically vulnerable people; I delight that that has now happened.
I want Ciara’s voice to be heard by more non-learning disabled people, because she is such a brilliant advocate for what those with disabilities can achieve. I ask the Minister: how can the Government encourage more wonderful ambassadors like Ciara?
Other noble Lords have already mentioned access to women’s medical services, but disabled women say that access to family planning services can often be harder too. Will the Government’s review of health inequalities make sure that these issues for disabled women are addressed specifically? They are not “hard to reach” but, unfortunately, they are often at the back of the queue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, talked about some of the medical issues that women face, as highlighted in the women’s health inequality consultation, which launched on Monday. I was diagnosed with endometriosis well over 40 years ago, and I am pleased to say that treatment in hospitals has advanced considerably since those days. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that what seems not to have changed is diagnosis and referral, which is often too slow and dismissive. Can the Minister say what support there is to train all GPs, primary care nurses and even employers to recognise when women have these problems? They should not be dismissed as a bit of a bother because all women have a problem at that time of the month. Endometriosis is agonising.
This is not just an information issue about women themselves recognising it. We need professionals and the business community to understand that endometriosis is a very serious illness and, if not treated early enough, can lead to serious fertility problems. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, spoke movingly of repeated miscarriage; as someone with endometriosis, I also experienced this later on. However, I was extremely lucky 36 years ago to be referred to the wonderful Lesley Regan, who was then starting one of the first research studies into repeat miscarriage. She is now the secretary-general of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics and is the immediate past president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. To my astonishment, she is only the second woman to hold that post, and the first in 64 years. I am afraid that the body that looks after women is still too often mainly run by men. I look forward to more women in that role.
My noble friend Lady Benjamin spoke about the importance of a Minister for children. I agree, especially in order to encourage girls to have ambition. My 90 year-old mother-in-law desperately wanted to be a doctor like her brother, but her father said no. I want there to be no cultural barriers for my granddaughters.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, spoke movingly of girls and women with neurodiversity and how they are judged by society. I think we are slowly learning that there are differences and that we need to treat women with neurodiverse issues in a different way from men.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, noted the worrying changes in access to abortion and family planning in Poland at the moment. I admire the many thousands of young women protesting in the streets about the changes in the law there.
My noble friend Lady Janke spoke of 82% of care staff being women and the Government’s catastrophic treatment of care homes during the beginning of the pandemic. The most important issue for our care homes is: where is the White Paper? Will it ensure that the care workforce is valued as much as the NHS one? That is vital. These are not just minor aides; my mother spent her last two years in a home, and I saw the professionalism with which she was looked after.
The health inequality consultation notes that 77% of the NHS workforce is also women. Earlier this week, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, to ensure that all hospital trusts and CCGs publish their staff gender ratios and pay gaps at each pay grade on an annual basis, as we ask large companies to do, because, despite women being an overwhelming part of the workforce, the ratios are not so good at the top.
More generally in the workforce, the pandemic seems to have acted as a cover for the furloughing of many more women than men and, worse, the appalling treatment of some pregnant women, including summary dismissal. The charity Pregnant Then Screwed has run an excellent advice hub, but the women who have turned to it are probably only a few of those affected. It was encouraging to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, say that this treatment of pregnant women is dreadful. What steps will the Government take to ensure that companies follow the rules for maternity and parental rights?
A number of noble Lords have spoken of issues around our LGBT community. This week, the focus has been on whether the Government will follow up their strong words condemning conversion therapy and now ban it. In the Commons, the Minister has refused to do so. On top of the concerns about the attacks on trans people, there is now a real concern that the equalities rights granted over many years are being rowed back on. Over the last two days, three government advisers have resigned over this issue, the Conservative LGBT+ organisation is demanding an investigation and many Back-Bench MPs are worried. All major counselling and psychotherapy bodies, as well as the NHS, say that conversion therapy is dangerous but government Ministers will not move to ban it. Will there be a firm statement that there is no place for conversion therapy in the UK? Being LGBT is not a mental illness that can be cured.
I was somewhat surprised by the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Young, that women’s refuges were dangerous places because of the threat of trans women being there. I am not aware of any such cases, and for the Domestic Abuse Bill, a number of women’s refuges and other organisations made it plain that they are trans -inclusive. In fact, a 2017 survey showed that the reality is that one in six trans women experience domestic abuse themselves.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, commented on women in transport, particularly on the growth of the number of women in key roles on the railways. I could not get into the Lords when not shielding without the help of many brilliant women staff on trains and in stations.
My noble friend Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville spoke of the Women’s World Day of Prayer. Each year, I find it inspiring to hear of women of faith in another part of the world.
My noble friend Lord McNally spoke—
We seem to have lost the sound of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton.
I am sorry, it muted itself. I have not quite finished.
My noble friend Lord McNally spoke of the Corston review and how progress is slow. Covid has raced through our prisons and work has been done to get prisoners home safely with electronic tags. I hope that this lesson will be used now to reduce the number of women in prison.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, also talked about the UK chairing the G7, and making gender equality and building back better from coronavirus an absolute priority. That is good to hear, but I echo the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg. How on earth will the cuts to the international development budget help women, given that much aid is targeted at girls and women? We know that women are much more affected by violence, and by domestic violence.
As the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said, politics is a particularly difficult place for women to be online at the moment. There is an enormous amount of targeting of women on social media at a very high level, but black and ethnic minority women face much higher levels of abuse. Black and ethnic minority MPs, in particular, are highly targeted. What has gone wrong in our society that people, often mainly men, feel it is acceptable to spew out the most hateful statements, day in and day out? I hope that the online harms Bill, when it is published, will address this.
My noble friend Lady Jolly referred to the women at Bletchley Park. I had the privilege of knowing Dr Lucy Slater who, in the early 1950s, having worked throughout the war teaching trigonometry to soldiers, helped devise the precursor to modern computing operating systems. Subsequently, she helped develop computer programmes for econometrics, working for much of the time with UK government officials. I remember her coming to talk to our primary school girls about how exciting maths was. She really challenged girls never to say that maths was not for them. She was a real inspiration.
As a young woman, my noble kinsman Mary Stocks—later Baroness Stocks—sat in the Public Gallery of your Lordships’ House to hear their Lordships attacking the very idea that women should have the vote. She was also one of the early women life Peers and someone who I admired greatly. She spent her life fighting for women’s access to education, family planning and other medical services. She would be horrified that my four year-old twin granddaughters are likely to be in their 80s before the House of Commons becomes 50% women. Today’s wonderful debate has been a chance to celebrate the role of women in our society, but much change is still needed to get the equality that most of us women still aspire to.
My Lords, I begin by expressing my sincere condolences to Ms Everard’s family and friends, who will be experiencing appalling grief today. No woman should walk home with fear or threat. There must be a recognition of the intimidation and misogyny that women and girls suffer on a daily basis, and until we confront it—unless we speak it out loud—we cannot begin to deal with it.
My noble friend Lady Goudie reminded us that the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Choose to challenge”, and I take up that theme determinedly through my contribution to what has been an excellent debate today from across the Committee. Yesterday, I asked the Minister what steps the Government are taking
“to ensure that … women, and … groups which represent women, are included in the development of their policies responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
In her response, the Minister said that the Government
“continue to listen to the experiences of women as we respond to the Covid-19 crisis … and … carefully consider evidence on how different people have been affected by the pandemic”.—[Official Report, 10/3/21; cols. 1606-07.]
I am sure that listening has taken place in this important debate today, and I recommend to the Minister that action upon that listening is translated into workable policies. Clearly, some people working on equalities issues within this Government do not feel listened to, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has just noted. Three equality advisers quit their roles on the Government’s advisory panel yesterday, accusing Boris Johnson’s Administration of creating a hostile environment for LGBT+ people. Jayne Ozanne said that she resigned over concerns that the Government are backing out of a promise to ban conversion therapy, a range of harmful practices that attempt to reverse someone’s sexual orientation and/or their gender identity. She said that she has been increasingly concerned about what is seen to be a hostile environment for LGBT+ people among this Administration and has seen an increasing lack of engagement. The actions of Ministers have been against their advice, and it felt as if she was dealing with Ministers for inequality, not equality. It does not sound as if a great deal of listening has been going on. The Conservative MP and chair of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, Caroline Nokes, commented today that after listening to Jayne Ozanne on television this morning talking about her experience of so-called conversion therapy, she was disappointed that the Government were rowing back from legislating to ban it, as last July, they gave the impression that it would be done.
I further informed the Minister that a report published just yesterday morning by the ONS, on the differential impact of the coronavirus pandemic on men and women, said that while more men died from Covid-19, women’s well-being was more negatively affected than men’s during the first year of the pandemic. Women were more likely to be furloughed and to spend significantly less time working from home and more time on unpaid household work and childcare.
In January, the Commons Women and Equalities Committee published its report on the gendered impact of the pandemic and, in doing so, raised concerns that the Government’s priorities for the post-Covid recovery are heavily gendered in nature. It was concerned to hear the Minister for Equalities repeatedly refer to considering the effects of policies “in the round” in response to questions about the gendered impact of the Government’s policies. It went on to say that that it was also concerning that a GEO Minister should appear dismissive of the imperative to consider the effects of policies on those with protected characteristics under the Equality Act. Such consideration is a legal requirement clearly set out in the Act’s public sector equality duty. It acknowledged the Government’s intention to take a
“new approach to tackling inequality”,
but the Government have a continuing legal duty to ensure that their policies and decisions do not adversely affect groups of people with protected characteristics.
The report further noted that investment plans are skewed towards male-dominated sectors, with the potential to create unequal outcomes for men and women, all on top of the fact that the pandemic has intensified existing inequalities in almost all areas of life, negating the hard-won achievements of past decades here in the UK and beyond. The authoritative contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, for the continuation of the VSO programme, were admirable. Surely the Government will not let such a successful organisation, and Britain’s wider reputation in the world, simply fold because they have not listened and cannot make a decision. That is one of my choices to challenge.
This week in the Lords, we have started Report on the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. During the debates, speaker after speaker has commented on the significant increase in domestic violence during the pandemic, referring to multiple reports from charities and campaigners of a surge in calls to helplines and online services since the first lockdown, a sobering insight into the levels of abuse that some people live with daily. The pandemic and its related restrictions have clearly closed off access to support or escape. It may also have curtailed measures that some abusers take to keep their violence under control.
When it comes to the workplace, much of the UK’s front-line response to tackling Covid has fallen upon women, including 76% of those employed in health and social care and 86% of those delivering personal care. These sectors have, of course, seen an unprecedented rise in workload, health risks and challenges for work-life balance.
The Women’s Budget Group provided an excellent report prior to the recent Budget highlighting that 46% of mothers who have been made redundant during the pandemic cite lack of adequate childcare provision as the cause, while 70% of women with caring responsibilities who requested furlough following school closures had their request denied. This has led to almost half being worried about negative treatment from an employer because of childcare responsibilities. During the first national lockdown, those in low-paid work were twice as likely to be on furlough, or to have their hours reduced, than those in higher-income jobs, hitting women in particular, as there are twice as many women as men in the bottom 10% of earners.
The TUC research found that job losses have been most acute in three industries—accommodation and food, wholesale and retail, and manufacturing—accounting for 70% of job losses overall. Women are the majority of employees in accommodation and food, as well as in retail. Employment for disabled people has fallen more rapidly during the crisis than for non-disabled people, and disabled people are currently two and a half times more likely to be out of work than non-disabled people.
Gender inequalities are exacerbated by race. Black, Asian and minority ethnic women began the pandemic from a place of disadvantage, with one of the lowest rates of employment. In 2020 that was still the case, with BAME employment at just 62.5%, and the highest rate of unemployment, at 8.8%, compared with 4.5% for white people.
It is well documented that women earn less and are more likely to work in insecure jobs, often in the informal sector, with less access to social protections. They run most single-parent households, which further limits their capacity to absorb economic shocks. Prolonged lockdowns and school closures have seen women’s access to paid work diminish but an increase in unpaid labour. Domestic duties, including preparing food for home-schooled children and looking after ill family members, have all fallen disproportionately on women. It is therefore crucial that women’s voices are at the core of policy development and decision-making on how the UK and the wider world move beyond Covid. The participation of women and girls is necessary and vital at every level and in every arena. Without equal participation, pandemic responses will be less effective at meeting their needs and will lead to negative consequences.
As my noble friend Lady Massey so powerfully said, the empowerment of women is key at whatever level of society. During the pandemic, populations have become more aware of rights in general. I am pleased that the Governments in Wales and Scotland have supported the incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into legal frameworks as well as into the school curriculum. I urge the UK Government to do the same.
Similarly, my noble friend Lady Gale, when talking about the important contribution that older women make to society as taxpayers, care workers, child carers and volunteers, mentioned that since 2008 we have had the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, who is indeed a strong voice and independent of government. I agree with her that there should be a similar provision in England.
Research published last summer noted that around the world women leaders have been more successful than their male counterparts at reducing Covid transmission in their countries. My noble friend Lord Rooker has already noted the inspirational leader, Jacinda Ardern. When she outlined her approach to dealing with the pandemic, she said:
“The worst-case scenario is simply intolerable. It would represent the greatest loss of New Zealanders’ lives in our country’s history. I will not take that chance … the government will do all it can to protect you. None of us can do this alone.”
So what can and should we be doing together in the UK? Statutory sick pay must be increased to the real living wage, and those who have symptoms of Covid or are awaiting test results should not be forced to go to work. The majority of public sector workers are women, so the public sector pay freeze announced in the one-year 2020 spending review should be lifted in order to support public sector workers through the Covid-19 recovery. During the pandemic, society would not have coped without our nurses and healthcare workers, who have been central to dealing with it. We should pay them appropriately for their dedication and skill, and I choose to challenge the Prime Minister to increase the current offer of a 1% pay rise.
The Government should immediately reinstate gender pay gap reporting and must use the upcoming employment Bill to reduce insecurity for low-paid workers by extending employment rights and investing in strong and effective enforcement. Women, and the views of women, must be included as a matter of course in current and future policy development. I choose to challenge this Government to move from appointing Ministers of inequality to appointing Ministers of equality.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to today’s debate. I know that, for many, these speeches have represented the focus of their life’s work. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, and thank all those women and Peers who have gone before me and broken down the barriers to enable me to stand today at this Dispatch Box. I particularly enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, outlining the history of female participation in science.
While we want to celebrate the examples of extraordinary women, I also want to express my sadness to the friends and family of Sarah Everard. My thoughts and prayers are with them. I, too, noticed that I took a taxi instead of walking home as I planned a few days ago.
In line with the Choose to Challenge theme this year for International Women’s Day, I want to share the stories of two inspirational young women who have challenged stereotypes and their circumstances, like Ciara, who was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. Amelia, a care leaver I spoke to as part of the recent national apprenticeship week, took on the challenge of a level 3 apprenticeship in business to open up opportunities for her future and now leads the Institute for Apprenticeships apprentice panel and directly influences how apprenticeships are developed. Grace Vella, a former Manchester City and Liverpool player, has launched what I believe to be the first clothing brand for female footballers in the UK, which now sells into Europe.
I assure the noble Lords that the Government are committed to empowering women and girls across the country, and indeed around the world. Noble Lords have clearly taken the theme very much to heart and outlined many challenges for this Government, probably across every Cabinet role, which I will now seek to address in the time remaining. I hope to assure the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that this is action, not just words.
I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Fox and Lady Deech, for raising the issue of girls in STEM subjects. We have programmes such as STEM Ambassadors raising awareness of STEM careers and inspiring girls to follow the admirable Professor Sarah Gilbert. Last summer we saw 44% of STEM A-levels taken by girls. The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, mentioned computer science, and I am pleased to say that we are now testing how to increase the number of girls taking computer science through the gender balance in computing programme.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, highlighted the changing transport sector. Apprenticeships are now offering an excellent route to higher-paid jobs in this sector, allowing women to earn while they learn.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Benjamin, mentioned the creation of a Cabinet role of Minister for Children. I assure them that policy is being driven from within the Department for Education by the Secretary of State and that in the three currently open maths schools, which are selective sixth-form colleges that offer maths, further maths and physics, part of the outreach is specifically for girls to ensure that they are taking these A-levels and are therefore able to access higher-paid employment.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Crawley and Lady Uddin, spoke passionately about balancing work, childcare and home schooling. In recognition of this, of course, we introduced childcare bubbles, and I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Brady, that employers were able to furlough parents who were unable to work due to the former closure of schools and childcare services. Although we have statistics on the number of women who requested furlough and were turned down, it was still the case that more women were being furloughed than men. We expect to spend £3.6 billion on early years entitlements in 2020-21, and we are establishing a £1 billion fund to support high-quality, affordable childcare before, after and during the holidays, reflecting the comments by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft—and of course we pay credit to her son for his role in home schooling.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and many other noble Lords raised the important issue of children’s mental health. Only last Friday, a further £79 million of investment was given to boost mental health support. I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, that there is funding of £11 million for Barnardo’s See, Hear, Respond programme. Its work has been so important in highlighting the issue of children who are not yet known to children’s social care, which has obviously become more difficult during the lockdown.
As many noble Lords set out, women have been at the forefront of the fight against Covid, and the Government have given unprecedented financial support to sustain businesses, jobs and livelihoods. This contribution has been recognised by the OBR, the Bank of England and the IMF.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, raised the need to protect jobs, particularly in sectors such as retail and hospitality that include high numbers of women. Noble Lords will be aware that the Government have extended the coronavirus job retention scheme until the end of September.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, raised concerns around the welfare system and the support it offers to families. The Covid winter support grant has been delivering £170 million to local authorities in England from December to the end of March to support children and families, and 80% of that fund has been ring-fenced for bills and food.
As noted by my noble friends Lady Altmann and Lady McIntosh, it is important that we address the pensions gap. We are committed to providing a financial safety net for those who need it, including when they are close to or reach retirement. The Government are trying to increase the take-up of pension credit, which is a particular issue that the House has considered this week. More than 3 million women stand to gain an average of £550 a year each by 2030 as a result of the recent reforms to the state pension. In addition, state pension outcomes are being equalised for men and women, or should equalise by the early 2040s, over a decade earlier than they would have done under the old system. Noble Lords raised particular queries about auto-enrolment, which I will address separately in a letter.
Although the pandemic has clearly brought hardship, it has also provided us with an opportunity to challenge our work environments and, as noted by my noble friend Lord Lucas, to promote the benefits of flexible working. The Government’s behavioural insights research with the jobs board has shown that offering flexible working increases job applications by 20% to 30%. We want to make it easier for people to work flexibly, and in our manifesto we committed to encouraging such working by consulting on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to. However, we must be mindful of the caution of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, to ensure that women do not become trapped at home with forced flexible working; it should be by request.
I welcome the contributions made by my noble friends Lady Bottomley and Lady Brady about the need to challenge discrimination in the workplace. Since 2016, we have been supporting the business-led and voluntary Hampton-Alexander review to increase the number of female leaders in the UK’s top-listed companies. The goal of the review—for 33% women board members across the FTSE 350—has been exceeded, and the number of women on boards increased by 50% over the five years of the review. It has been great to see year-on-year improvements, but we know that much more needs to be done, especially to increase the number of women on executive committees. I want to add my congratulations to Amanda Blanc, Alison Rose and Milena Mondini de Focatiis as some of the newer leaders of FTSE 100 companies at Admiral, NatWest and Aviva.
I want to draw attention to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Singh, and my noble friend Lady Mobarik that these attitudes are not based on the tenets of religious faith. Some of the attitudes that prevail in our businesses and workplaces are cultural. I join the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Bakewell, in welcoming the celebration of the Women’s World Day of Prayer, which was such a feature for me, given that I grew up as part of a church in Oakham, in Rutland.
I agree with the important points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, about the value of networking among women, both within the workplace and for budding entrepreneurs. The Government have provided unprecedented support to the self-employed during the crisis, not just through the income support scheme but with bounce-back loans, mortgage holidays, self-isolation support payments and a range of other business support grants. We are determined to unleash the potential of women across the country by encouraging female-led start-ups, such as that of Grace Vella, which I mentioned earlier, and supporting more women into STEM.
On health issues, many noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Blower, and my noble friend Lady Verma, talked about women being on the front line in the fight against Covid, from social workers to care workers to nurses. We all want to pay tribute to all their work during the pandemic.
There are also important health issues that predate Covid, and tackling them remains vital. I thank my noble friend Lady Jenkin for her inspirational work, and in particular for drawing attention in this debate to the women’s health strategy, where we aim to improve the health and well-being of women across the country. There is currently a call for evidence out for this. As outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, there are often unknown stories of women who have had miscarriages. We hope that women will respond to the call for evidence and tell us about their experiences, and that they will talk about the need for understanding in the workplace.
My noble friend Lord Bourne and the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, talked about women’s mental health. The Government have responded by creating the rollout of a 24/7 mental health helpline and £10 million for the voluntary sector. I encourage women to reach out to our mental health services for support.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who I think made the first male contribution to the debate, in promoting the early diagnosis of neuro-diverse conditions. Our refreshed autism strategy, which is due to be published in the spring, will help to ensure that autistic people receive the right support, including timely diagnosis in early years, and for the first time it will include children and young people. I can assure him that, as in my other role in the education department for the capital, I always ask whether we have thought about autism in girls when looking at provision, whether in mainstream or special schools.
In response to the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, let me first thank her for all her years of work on her independent review. We will appoint an independent patient safety commissioner, and I can confirm that work is under way to allow the appointment process to begin.
The noble Lord, Lord Young, and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, mentioned single-sex spaces in hospitals. We understand from NHS England that its National Advisor for LGBT Health, Dr Michael Brady, is currently reviewing the guidance on same-sex accommodation to provide further clarity to patients and NHS organisations.
I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for raising the important issue of IVF. I assure him that, post the first lockdown, those services were open during the subsequent lockdowns. Although I struggled to hear all of the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, I assure him that sex-selective abortions are of course unlawful in the UK.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, on her appointment as chair of the EHRC. In response to her comments and the representations of the noble Lord, Lord Young, the recently passed Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act is an important piece of legislation making changes so that senior Ministers can take maternity leave. Since 2007, legislative drafting guidance has encouraged avoiding the use of gender-specific pronouns to avoid stereotypes and assumptions that constrain women. However, we listened to the strength of feeling in the House and agreed to amend the wording from pregnant “person” to “mother”.
I pay tribute to the many speeches from noble Lords about violence against women and girls, particularly surrounding domestic abuse. It is the shadow pandemic, and we must maintain and enhance our efforts to prevent it and support victims. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, noted, lockdown has been especially hard for some. Home should be a safe place, but clearly it is not for those confined with an abuser. The Government continue to work closely with the designate domestic abuse commissioner and domestic abuse organisations to assess ongoing trends and support needs throughout our response to the pandemic.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, noted in opening the debate, the abuse of older women is unacceptable. Although there are no current plans to appoint a dedicated commissioner for older people, we take this issue seriously through our work on tackling abuse. It will obviously be part of the role of the domestic abuse commissioner.
The noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Desai, raised the issue of women in the prison system. The 2020 White Paper, A Smarter Approach to Sentencing, announced a number of proposals, including measures to divert women from custody. Noble Lords will be aware that there has been a decline in the number of young people in custody, which will of course include some young girls.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, for her challenge on the need to reflect the requirements of disabled, refugee and asylum-seeking women in policy-making. I also thank her for her practical work with Near Neighbours. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, for her insight on the importance of women in decision-making and of reflecting the needs of Muslim women.
Similarly, I welcome the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, who highlighted the plight of widows during the Covid crisis. I will take away his idea about having a specific response for widows in our Covid response.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, for his further comments on the need to increase the equal representation of women across society.
My noble friend Lady Verma reminded us of the importance of access to services for hard-to-reach communities. This is particularly critical. I very much appreciated meeting her and a round table from the Leicester Listening Project. It has been particularly illuminating, when we are not able to meet people physically, to hear from women about their difficulties in accessing the support that is available.
I welcome the challenge from many noble Lords on the role of the UK in fighting for women’s rights across the globe. Many noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins, Lady Armstrong, Lady Sugg and Lady Bakewell, spoke about aid funding and VSO. Covid’s impact on the UK economy has forced us to make tough but necessary decisions to temporarily reduce our aid budget. We know the unique contribution volunteers can make to sustainable development and we are now working through the implications of these changes for individual programmes, including for the volunteering for development grant. No decisions have currently been made but I will ensure that noble Lords are kept up to date. In the wake of the pandemic, we are very proud that the FCDO and VSO were able to work together to pivot over 80% of programming to pandemic response in just 10 days.
We will continue to drive equality and fairness through the heart of our G7 presidency, bringing together the leading democracies around educating girls, empowering women and ending violence against women and girls. I note the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on a feminist foreign policy and gender-inclusive environmental work. Our COP 26 presidency will support a green, inclusive and resilient recovery and we will continue to champion gender equality.
In response to the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Sheikh, on landmines, I can assure them that the UK is committed to the anti-personnel mine ban convention. Since 2018 we have invested £124 million in clearing landmines and explosive ordnance through the global mine action programmes. I can ensure the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, that with regard to overseas vaccines we have given £250 million to the COVAX project.
In reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, and the noble Lord, Lord Mann, on online harms and abuse, which was a theme throughout many speeches, the online harms Bill will consider the role, if any, for anonymity in relation to the internet.
I will follow up the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, and will request a reply from my noble friend Lord Ahmad with regard to that particular convention.
I conclude by once again thanking all those who contributed today. It is not possible for me in the time allowed to cover every question that noble Lords raised, but I shall write to your Lordships to cover the remaining issues. After a challenging year, it is important that we reflect on the strides we have made while continuing to consider what more can be done to empower women and girls in the recovery and beyond. While using our G7 presidency, we will ensure that gender equality is at the centre of our recovery, and we have many new female heroes to celebrate. The majority, however, will remain known only to those whose lives they touched, such as the NHS staff whose kindness reassured the patient coming out of a coma, or the staff in essential shops who may be the only person an elderly person sees in the day. However, we also want to celebrate the likes of Professor Sarah Gilbert and Kate Bingham for their role in the teams which delivered the vaccine programme.
I am sure that noble Lords are also looking forward as I am to welcoming the new Bishop of Chelmsford to the House, the Right Reverend Guli Francis-Dehqani, who is the first bishop of any gender of Persian heritage. It seemed most appropriate to mention her after the comments a number of noble Lords made about the situation for women in Iran. Her family came to this country during the Iranian revolution and fled to the UK, so it is amazing to see, when we challenge, what change is possible.
That completes the business before Grand Committee this afternoon. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Committee adjourned at 6.43 pm.