Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to open this International Women’s Day debate, but I begin by saying that my thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by the events in Ukraine at this very difficult time. We continue to stand united with our international partners in supporting the Government in Ukraine and condemning this reprehensible assault on its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
I will looking to more positive matters. After years of unfair detention by the Government of Iran, British nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori returned from Iran yesterday. Morad Tahbaz has also been released from prison on furlough. It is the result of tenacious and creative British diplomacy. This outcome is the result of intensive efforts over the past six months. We thank our Omani friends for their help in bringing our nationals home. This is a moment of great relief. We have the deepest admiration for the resolve, courage and determination that all three individuals have shown.
I returned this morning from New York, where I took part in the 66th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. The priority theme of this year’s event is “Achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes”. I therefore feel it fitting that we have the chance today to reflect on our role in the international community in prioritising women and girls, as well as marginalised and vulnerable groups, in responding to humanitarian crises. It is easy to feel powerless when faced by threats such as the current situation in Ukraine, but the Commission on the Status of Women provides the perfect opportunity to work with international partners to build coalitions to fight those threats. In fact, while I was in New York I was privileged to attend, in part, the concert that the Met put on for the Ukrainian people; that was really emotional. What was even more emotional was that I was able to meet, for a few minutes, the Ukrainian ambassador out there and pass on my message of support. I am pleased that we are negotiating progressive agreed conclusions that will help to protect and promote women’s and girls’ rights around the world.
I had a busy programme while I was in New York. I met Ministers from a number of other countries to exchange ideas and compare notes. It was fascinating to hear the experiences of Ministers representing countries such as Ireland, Denmark and Sweden. I also led side events to showcase the work that we are leading on gender equality here in the UK. I will tell you more about that work later in my speech. It was my first experience of the Commission on the Status of Women, and I was incredibly proud to have the opportunity to demonstrate the UK’s continued leadership on gender and climate change and to highlight the importance of women’s empowerment as we recover from the wide-reaching impacts of the pandemic, as well as tackling the challenges to come.
All over the world, International Women’s Day is marked in various ways. There are events in local communities and debates across countries, much like the one taking place today in your Lordships’ House. As I have said, it is a privilege to be just one part of these celebrations. This year’s International Women’s Day global theme is “Break the Bias”, encouraging everyone to call out bias, smash stereotypes, break inequality and reject discrimination. That is a theme I am happy to champion. With that in mind, and as we move through one of the biggest challenges this country has faced in decades, we need to keep on working to ensure women and girls have equal access to opportunities so that they can thrive. We know that the pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges that women face. Although challenges mean that women need more support to access opportunities in work and life. I am pleased to have this time today to talk about many of the different areas in which the Government are leading the way in supporting women and girls in the UK and around the world.
I want to talk first about women’s economic empowerment, because it is critical to our post-pandemic recovery. Covid-19 has prompted even greater potential for wage inequalities for women—although, of course, it is not just women who face these difficulties. Your Lordships will have seen the work that I announced on International Women’s Day: a project working with employers to improve pay transparency and a programme to encourage more women to return to STEM careers after taking time out for caring.
Evidence shows that when salary information is not transparent, this has an impact on how people negotiate pay and results in increased inequality in earnings. We need to make it easier for employees to understand if they are being paid fairly and how decisions about their pay are made. That is why we want organisations to be more transparent about what they pay and how it is determined. We want to empower women to negotiate their pay on a level playing field by giving them the information they need to understand the value of their skills and prevent them being held back by their previous earnings.
We are calling on employers to provide salary information on job adverts and to stop asking about pay history during recruitment. We will build an evidence base of the positive impact of this greater transparency and support employers by working with them to develop and pilot a methodology that will enable them to publish salary ranges for all roles in their organisations.
I am also proud to tell the Committee about our progress overseas since last year’s International Women’s Day. FCDO’s flagship women’s economic empowerment programme, Work and Opportunities for Women, has now wrapped up activities that allowed the programme to reach more than 100,000 women across south Asia and Africa, providing them with improved access to higher-productivity and higher-return jobs, more diversified roles and improved working conditions in global value chains.
Empowering women of course goes further, and I am pleased that in December 2021 we launched our Ending Preventable Deaths of Mothers, Babies and Children by 2030 approach paper, setting out our ambitious commitments and emphasising that good health is critical to the empowerment of women and girls.
We know that unpaid care work, especially childcare, is disproportionately done by women. Taking time out of work or limiting work hours can have a big impact on pay and progression. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, not working full-time tends to shut down wage progression, especially for more highly educated women. That is why funding childcare services across the country is key.
Since 2010, the Government have doubled free childcare, adding 15 hours per week, worth just over £6,000 per child per year for eligible working parents. In January 2021, nearly 330,000 children were registered to receive 30 hours’ free childcare. We have also introduced tax-free childcare. For every £8 that parents pay into their childcare account, the Government add £2, up to a maximum of £2,000 of childcare support a year for each child up to aged 11 and up to £4,000 per disabled child until they are 17. Furthermore, those working universal credit households can also claim up to 85% of their childcare costs, up from 70% under the legacy system.
I am pleased that the Government pledged a new £1 billion fund to create more high-quality, affordable childcare, and we are delivering on this pledge with a £200 million-a-year holiday activities and food programme to provide enriching activities and a healthy meal for disadvantaged children in the Easter, summer and Christmas holidays.
Last year was also a year of UK leadership on girls’ education. With the G7, we agreed new targets to get 40 million more girls in school and 20 million more girls reading by age 10 by 2026. In July, we co-hosted the Global Education Summit with Kenya, raising an unprecedented $4 billion—£2.9 billion—for the Global Partnership for Education. At the summit, the UK pledged £430 million—our largest ever pledge. At the UK’s successful hosting of COP 26 Gender Day last year, we showed that girls’ education is essential for responding to the climate crisis.
In 2022, education remains a top priority for our Prime Minister. Earlier this month, he launched a new Girls’ Education Skills Partnership programme on private sector investment in girl’s education. This is a new programme to support adolescent girls overseas with 21st-century skills to give them the knowledge and qualifications they need for employment and enterprise.
The UK put gender equality at the heart of its G7 presidency last year. We convened a gender equality advisory council to bring fresh ideas and new voices to the G7 discussions, galvanising ambitions on gender equality to ensure that our presidency really delivered for women and girls. Education, and especially STEM, is one of the key areas that the council has been looking at, because we recognise the importance of improving gender representation in these industries. We have made great progress in increasing the number of girls studying STEM subjects, but at present women make up only 24% of the STEM workforce in the UK. We need to do more to get women into STEM careers to meet the demands of today’s workforce.
We are encouraging more girls to take STEM subjects at school, college and university. The Government have rolled out several programmes and committed substantial funding to support STEM uptake across all key stages, but there is still more to do, and we must increase the number of women moving from STEM studies to STEM careers. As part of this, we want to support women who are looking to return to the STEM workforce. We will launch a new STEM returners programme to encourage those who have taken breaks to care for others back into STEM, giving them the opportunity to refresh and grow their skills in sectors where their talents are most needed. This pilot will build on previous government returner initiatives and will seek to address the barriers that returners face when re-entering the workplace.
We are committed to improving women’s health outcomes and reducing disparities. This Government are making women’s voices heard and placing women’s voices at the centre of this work. In December, we published Our Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England, which is informed by analysis of the call for evidence. This publication sets out an ambitious and positive new agenda to improve the health and well-being of women across England and reduce disparities. We will publish the strategy this year. Alongside the vision, we published the results of the call for evidence survey. We are grateful to the nearly 100,000 individuals across England who responded to the survey. We will soon publish the analysis of the over 400 written submissions.
We all share concerns about online safety. Tackling online harms, especially when it comes to abuse, is paramount. That is why we announced the online safety Bill, with the aim of making the UK the safest place in the world to be online while defending free expression. Under the new laws, platforms will need to take swift and effective action against illegal online abuse. They will need to proactively remove illegal content, such as revenge and extreme pornography. They can impose sanctions against offending users, or change their processes and policies to better protect their users.
The biggest social media companies will need to stop the vile misogynistic abuse on their sites. Following consultation with Ofcom, priority categories of legal but harmful content for adults will be set out in secondary legislation. These are likely to include some forms of online abuse, including misogynistic abuse.
We all know that women and girls have been among the hardest hit by the indirect impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, both in the UK and globally, including a shocking rise in domestic violence. To respond to the urgent need to scale up the prevention of violence against women and girls, the UK began the “What Works to Prevent Violence: Impact at Scale” programme in October 2021, investing up to £67.5 million in the first ever global programme to systematically scale up proven approaches to prevent violence against women and girls worldwide. This is the largest investment by any single donor Government to prevent violence against women and girls globally.
Tackling violence against women and girls is a government priority. That is why in July we published a new strategy on tackling violence against women and girls, to help better target perpetrators and support victims of these crimes. As part of that strategy, the Government also announced a new package of measures which will strengthen protections for those affected by harassment at work. As soon as parliamentary time allows, we will introduce a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as explicit protections against workplace harassment by third parties, such as customers or clients. We are also supporting the Equality and Human Rights Commission to develop a statutory code of practice on workplace harassment, and are preparing our own practical guidance for employers on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, which will be published in due course.
The steps we are taking will not only raise awareness of the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, but motivate employers to prioritise prevention and ultimately improve workplace practices and culture. Every woman should be able to live without fear of harassment or violence, in the workplace as much as anywhere else, and these measures will help ensure that people feel safe and supported to thrive. In addition, I am pleased to say that the UK Government on 7 March strengthened their world-leading efforts to end violence and harassment in the workplace, becoming the 11th country to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Violence and Harassment Convention. This is the first international treaty to recognise the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment. The UK played a leading role in developing the treaty over two years of negotiations. Attending the ratification ceremony in person at the ILO in Geneva, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Thérèse Coffey, has now completed the ratification process for the UK.
However, it is not just within our own borders that we have a responsibility. The Foreign Secretary has committed to putting women and girls at the centre of the United Kingdom’s foreign and development policy, and this will be demonstrated clearly later this year with the publication of the FCDO’s new strategy on women and girls. The Foreign Secretary has made sexual violence in conflict one of her top priorities. In November, she announced a new package of funding of over £22 million to end child marriage, support survivors, and fund women’s rights organisations on the front lines of tackling violence against women and girls around the world. She also made a commitment to explore all options for global action, including her intention to work towards a new convention on sexual violence in conflict. This is an opportunity to strengthen the international response to preventing these atrocities, supporting survivors and holding perpetrators to account.
The UK is a global leader on action to tackle sexual violence in conflict. We have trained over 17,000 police and military personnel and deployed the UK’s team of experts on preventing sexual violence in conflict over 90 times since 2012 to build capacity of Governments, the UN and NGOs. The UK also plans to host an international “preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative” conference in 2022. This will be a key opportunity to show UK leadership and rally international support to agree further action to eliminate this crime, as well as tackling wider gender equality issues.
I feel privileged to open today’s debate with so many noble Lords who share my staunch commitment to improving gender equality. I am proud to be part of this Government, and it is an honour to be part of the work we are doing. We will continue to fight for gender equality across the UK and the whole world.
It is a great pleasure to follow the Minister in today’s International Women’s Day debate. I congratulate her too on looking so cheerful after flying overnight to be here with us this afternoon. I know she will have attended a great conference; I have been myself and it is inspiring to be there. I thank her for at least turning up today after a stressful time.
I am very pleased to be taking part today but, as I raised with the Minister a week or two ago, why has it taken so long to have this debate? International Women’s Day was on 8 March and it is now 17 March, St Patrick’s Day. In future, I hope that we will have the debate either on the day or on one of the days either side of 8 March, and that we can have it in the Chamber not Grand Committee. Only 20 Peers have put their names down to speak today, which is the lowest I have ever seen for this debate. Nevertheless, I am sure we will have a good debate.
Although women have come a long way in the battle for equality, there is still a long way to go. If we look at women in politics in the UK, we see that since 1918 there have been only 559 women elected to the House of Commons but 4,500 men. It has taken us 104 years to get 559 women elected, which is not really a very good record. There is still a way to go before there is equality on numbers in the House of Commons, despite the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which allowed political parties to have all-women shortlists of candidates for elections. The Act included a sunset clause; it would have expired at the end of 2015 but was extended by the Equality Act 2010, allowing all-women shortlists to be used until 2030.
Will the Minister agree to look at extending the sunset clause, which will expire in 2030 unless action is taken? It is vital to allow political parties to use all-women shortlists because the elected institutions should look a bit like the people they represent. It is interesting to note that the new devolved institutions do a lot better than old ones. For example, the Welsh Senedd has always had a good number of women elected, and in 2003 broke all records by having 30 men and 30 women elected. That was regarded as a world record; bear in mind that it was in Wales, so it was a really big achievement.
The Labour Party has always made good use of all-women shortlists, which is why we have more Labour women in the House of Commons and the Senedd than all the other parties have together, and other parties are now starting to use the shortlists. We use them not because women cannot achieve, but because in all political parties the local members do not seem too happy about selecting women. We have fantastic women in all the institutions now because of all-women shortlists.
One thing the Government could take action on is to enact Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010. This section says that political parties should keep an audit of candidates to show how many women candidates, BAME candidates and disabled candidates they have. By doing this, each party would have the data and know where it needs to improve. I cannot understand why the Government will not implement Section 106. Does the Minister agree that to solve a problem, one must have the data to identify it? That is the reason for Section 106.
Once political parties publish this data, if they are allowed to do it, it will show for the first time whether any action is required to improve the diversity of candidates. Parties can then take a number of measures that they feel necessary, which is what Labour did to increase the number of women candidates. Does the Minister agree that there is a need for all parties to improve the diversity of candidates, which would eventually lead to all our elected institutions beginning to look like the people they represent?
When the coalition Government was elected in 2010, one of the first things they did was to close down the Women’s National Commission. At that time, the commission had existed for 40 years. It had 650 women’s organisations as partners and communicated regularly with them, including holding an annual conference. The coalition Government said at the time that the work of the WNC would be brought in-house by the Government Equalities Office.
Can the Minister tell the Committee how the GEO communicates with these 650 women’s organisations in the UK, since the coalition Government closed down the Women’s National Commission? I have asked this question several times and the answers I get lead me to believe that the GEO does not, in any shape or form, do any of the work that that commission carried out. This is such a shame, and an indication that the Government have no interest in the work of these organisations, as they do not communicate with them and do not allow them a voice to government, as they had during the time of the Women’s National Commission. If we only had that body now, it could have been doing really valuable work during the pandemic, for instance. I am hoping that the Minister can give me a good answer on that.
I also want to ask when the Government are planning to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, which is better known as the Istanbul convention. This Government signed the convention in 2012 but have yet to ratify it. The UK is way behind other countries, which have already ratified the convention. Can the Minister give an assurance that its ratification will take place in 2022?
I have highlighted several issues which relate to the theme of this debate and suggest three things to the Minister if she wants to see an improvement for women, as I know she does. First, the Minister could discuss implementing Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 with the Prime Minister and her colleagues. Secondly, the Government should ratify the Istanbul convention in 2022. Thirdly, she could find out how the GEO communicates with the 650 women’s organisations—and all women’s organisations—and discuss with them how they are ensuring the work that the WNC carried out on behalf of women is being dealt with, as that was the commitment in 2010. Nothing I have seen or asked about leads me to believe that that is now happening now. If the Minister succeeds with this, it will go some way to improving the position of women nationally and internationally.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. I agree with her remarks, especially the ones at the start highlighting the regrettable change from the precedent that she and my noble friend Lady Northover worked so hard to create: the annual debate in the Chamber to allow for all the considerations for International Women’s Day to be carried out.
My remarks today will focus more on the international side, as I am the foreign affairs and international development spokesperson for my party. I declare an interest in overseas travel, which I will refer to later. I also commend the Minister on her stamina during her overnight journey. She is respected in the House but I hope she will forgive me because, a little later in my remarks, I will highlight some of the areas where I believe that the rhetoric in her speech is not met with the reality, particularly of development policy.
Before I depart from the Minister, let me say that I very much agree with her on the news of the return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others. I pay tribute to noble Lords, including those from my own party—in particular my noble friend Lady Northover, who has been such a consistent and doughty campaigner in making sure that the case for those dual nationals held in such circumstances was constantly on our agenda. I commend and pay tribute to her work. The Minister knows that my noble friend will leave this Committee to cover the Statement in the Chamber; it is absolutely appropriate that she does so, meaning no discourtesy to the Committee.
I wish to refer to the international side in particular, but I will also refer to what the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, indicated is here in Parliament. Recently—two weeks ago—I was in both Baghdad and Beirut. I was supporting the induction of new MPs in Iraq. It has the highest proportion of directly elected female MPs and is in its fifth term of Parliament after democracy was restored. Many of those MPs come from the protest movement and were driven by their disgust at the corruption in government to become active in Parliament. Their impact will be meaningful, I think. Equally, in Beirut, I was supporting a project that mentors women to become candidates in elections and, as the Minister said, overcome bias and implied bias. It is the whole range, from actual violence through to political violence, media violence, implied bias and absolute bias. Many of these women have had to overcome enormous barriers that I have never had to face as a political candidate. They are an inspiration. When it comes to municipal and parliamentary elections, they will have an impact in transforming that system and, in many respects, in tackling the confessional system that is based in many countries around the world. Indeed confessional systems, almost by definition, retain the patriarchy of structures in society, faith and politics, which has meant that the barriers are hard to overcome.
As a former Member of the Scottish Parliament, I was struck when the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, was speaking that, when I was elected to that Parliament, it had 40% representation of women. That has declined slightly, which is regrettable, but it is nevertheless still very strong. I thought I would check the figures. I commend the Labour Party: the majority of its MPs in the House of Commons are women. It has 94 men and 104 women. The Conservatives have 273 men and 87 women. The SNP has 29 men and 16 women. My own party has 13 MPs. Only four of them are men; nine are women. The challenge for us is to retain that proportion when our number of elected MPs grows massively—as will inevitably happen. That is the challenge ahead; we will tackle it with relish.
I will focus the remainder of my speech on development policy, because I regret that, in this area, the Government’s rhetoric is not matched by the reality. I have previously spoken in the Chamber when debating the prospect of an international development strategy, and I referenced the discussions I had had with my colleagues from our sister party in Canada, which has developed the first feminist international assistance policy. There are strands in it directing future government policy but through a gender approach, under the titles of human dignity; quality healthcare, nutrition and education; growth that works for everyone; environment and climate action, and climate finance to reduce barriers for women, particularly in the services sector and finance; investments; inclusive governance; and peace and security. All are directed through a gender lens and all form a very strong international strategy. I am on the record in my party for saying that the Government have an opportunity, when they publish their international development strategy, which is likely to be in a number of weeks, for it have a UK gender focus. I hope it does. If I understood the Minister correctly, there will be a separate women’s strategy for development afterwards. That is a missed opportunity. The opportunity that presents itself is to ensure that the entire strategy is a feminist, gender strategy.
Perhaps it speaks to a deeper truth. The Minister said that women are at the centre of the FCDO, but the Government could not even bring themselves to publish a gender impact assessment, which they had carried out internally and which predicted that programmes supporting women and girls would be disproportionately affected across all ranges of development policy and all the areas that the Minister highlighted. The government officials themselves knew that the spending cuts and the unlawful reduction from 0.7% to 0.5% would disproportionately affect women and girls. We have seen that most clearly as a result of the pandemic, which has seen women and girls struggle far more and be disproportionately affected by the global response.
As far as the development policy on physical violence, I regularly review the UN assessments and that on sustainable development goal 5—equality for women—highlights that 736 million women still suffer physical violence. That has been relatively unchanged over the last decade. But, as we learned through a leak, the Government’s gender impact assessment for their own cuts highlighted that there would be a 70% to 80% cut in programmes on violence against women internationally. It is simply not credible to say that the UK is a global leader.
The £430 million declaration on girls’ education is of course welcome, but it will be over five years and will backfill cuts. Therefore, we know that 700,000 fewer girls will receive the education they would have received if development cuts had not been in place. The Minister refers to the Foreign Secretary restoring cuts to women’s and girl’s programmes, before the decision to cut overall. That was four months ago, and we are yet to see any programmes restored after the cuts. The 0.5% is capped, so we know that any restoration of those programmes will displace others. When we know that one of the secondary impacts of the Ukrainian crisis has been an increase in food prices, and there is no lift of the 0.5% cap, any support for Ukraine, which is fully justified, will squeeze out other programmes. That £220 million for Ukraine is welcome, but it means £220 million less for other programmes, when we know that women are disproportionately affected in conflict areas.
I will close by giving two examples of such areas. Last week, I was in Sudan. In the country to its immediate south, South Sudan, the UK has through its crown agents, in effect, been supporting the delivery of healthcare. UNICEF put it horrifically:
“Giving birth on the floor, cutting the umbilical cord with a stick. That is the reality for some women in South Sudan”.
We have cut our health support for South Sudan by 10% and, quite unbelievably, there is another round of discussions, which has not yet concluded, about further cuts. In that country, one in 10 babies dies before the age of five.
We also know that women and girls have been disproportionately affected in the horrific conflict in Yemen. More people rely on food programmes there than on many places on earth. The cost of their food has gone up and we have cut our support for women in Yemen by nearly 60%.
It is correct to highlight progress in certain areas and I welcome that. It is also very important that we are self-aware about the damage being done, the moral vacuum being caused and the fact that we are simply not seen around the world as a global leader. When we say that we want to rally international support and we ask others to step up, other countries are having to backfill areas which we have retreated from and cut. That is not the backdrop we should be seeing to the international development strategy. It is not too late. We should lift the target back to 0.7% immediately, we should have a feminist development strategy and we should act on all the worthy ambitions which I hope we all share.
My Lords, it is my pleasure to speak in today’s debate and to follow the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed. Like him, I will begin by focusing on international issues. I did put the word around to see if any of my female colleagues were available, because they are more qualified to speak than me, but none of them were today so you have to put up with me. I am glad to have this opportunity.
First, there is much I want to celebrate. As part of my brief, I take special interest in two of the poorest nations on earth, Burundi and Lesotho—one of the others is South Sudan. These nations are making great progress on women’s equality. It has been my privilege to visit Lesotho a couple of times and Burundi very many times. I would like to share some examples.
This month, the Women’s Investment and Development Bank has been introduced in Burundi. This has been praised by the UN as a step towards women’s economic empowerment in that nation. The bank will grant low-interest loans to women’s collectives and their development projects, and will provide training on profitable business.
No one will be surprised that another of my particular interests is how the Church operates in these countries. Today, I want to recognise the incredible work of the Mothers’ Union worldwide—one branch works tirelessly on this front in Burundi—in campaigning for equality for women and girls all over the world. I also mention the national leader of the Mothers’ Union in Burundi, Mrs Claudette Kigeme. She co-ordinates its work and also works with the Five Talents agency, which sets up savings-led rural community groups to train people in growing small businesses.
It has been my and my wife’s privilege to visit a number of those small financial units and hear testimonies from, interestingly, sometimes men as well as women of the impact that microfinance has had on their lives and developing their savings groups. It has utterly transformed their lives and empowered the women. Often, alongside the microfinance, they do literacy and business training because they recognise that the best businesspeople in Burundi are the women. They are much more entrepreneurial and much more reliable in running their businesses well. That is where the testimony of the men sometimes comes in. I have stood in those groups and men have stood up in front of me saying, “My life has been transformed by the way my wife has been empowered—that has developed and changed our whole lives.” Mrs Claudette Kigeme was recently honoured for her work by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, being given the Langton Award.
The second of my friends in Burundi is Mathilde Nkwirikiye. She has led the way in many aspects of fighting for gender justice and equality for women in Burundi. One issue on which she and others are currently working is the right of women to have access to land. Sadly, the law of that land does not currently allow women to inherit land. When you live in an agriculturally based economy, this is a massive injustice which needs to be corrected. Mathilde is one of the women leading the way to see that law changed. Mathilde has championed women’s rights, led work against gender-based violence and engaged in international peacemaking. These two women are utterly remarkable. Meeting them, and seeing them at work, has changed my life and I want to honour them.
I turn to Lesotho and the new Bishop of Lesotho, the right reverend Dr Vicentia Kgabe, who was appointed at the end of last year. She is the first woman Bishop of Lesotho, and the third in the Anglican province of Southern Africa. I contacted her about this debate and asked what she would want to say about the situation in Lesotho and southern Africa. She pointed out that she is a leader in a country which is still patriarchal, where top leadership positions remain a male domain. She notes that education remains male-oriented and that exposure, mentoring and support structures necessitated her to work harder than any of the men to counter this. She is a leader of steady and intentional progress on narrowing the gender gap in Lesotho, and stands as a great figure of reconciliation. Sadly, in recent years the story of the Anglican church in Lesotho has been riven with disputes. One reason why Dr Kgabe was appointed as the bishop from outside Lesotho—she was previously in South Africa—was the recognition that a woman leader, at this point, was the most likely person to bring reconciliation in conflict.
After presenting these examples, I have a couple of questions for the Minister. Will she affirm the leading role played by civil society and the Church—as well as other faith organisations—in addressing gender-based violence and working for equality in many poorer nations? Will she confirm the commitment of Her Majesty’s Government in using overseas aid and development spending to assist this work? Following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, will she please tell us when we will return to 0.7%?
There are many more celebrations than challenges, but I turn to the latter. I noted the Minister detailing ways in which the Government are encouraging women here with work incentives and childcare programmes. These are welcome. However, the reality is that the gender gap is arguably at its worst for women with young children. This is especially so where they have a larger family. Noble Lords, noble Baronesses and the Minister know this, and they know my passion for this issue.
The two-child limit is a policy against which I have campaigned since its outset, for a range of reasons, but one reason pertinent to today’s debate is its disproportionate effect on women. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that 29% of households affected by the policy are single-parent families headed by women, compared with only 1% of single-parent families headed by men. The Pregnancy Advisory Service reported that, during the pandemic, respondents to its survey described being
“‘forced’ by their financial circumstances into ending a pregnancy”
that they otherwise “would have wanted”. Has the Minister carried out any assessment of the specific impact of the two-child limit policy on women, and the poverty of women with more than two children? I hope that she will consider undertaking one if she has not. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s responses, both to the international questions and to this specific question about the two-child limit, in due course.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate, and how wonderful it is that so many men are speaking in this debate today: I think we have nearly as many men speaking as women. Thank you to all the men who are here to support us.
I thank my noble friend, having come back overnight, as we heard, for finding time for this important debate today to mark International Women’s Day and for her introduction. I congratulate her on her speech at the CSW at the UN. This is our opportunity to pause and reflect on the status of women both here and across the world.
Before I begin, I draw attention, as normal, to my various roles listed on the register of interests.
This debate is usually a time to celebrate progress and achievements, but this year, I feel that we are in a difficult place. Without doubt, the women who are most at risk and with least rights are those in conflict countries and unstable situations.
The scenes coming out of Ukraine are truly horrific. It feels very close, and I am delighted that the UK is being so strongly supportive and I applaud how generous the British people are in responding to help, donating through the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal, sending clothes and supplies and offering accommodation. We have seen heart-rending pictures of women and children trying to leave the country and escape the cruel bombardment by the Russians.
However, sadly, Ukraine is only the most recent example of war. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reports that there are currently 45 countries affected by conflict and violence. This is on top of the state of crisis induced by more than two years of the Covid pandemic, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, told us, has typically hit women and girls hardest.
The UN reports that:
“Violence, conflict, political and humanitarian crises have displaced 82.4 million people from their homes; 115 million people are living in extreme poverty; and 100 million do not have enough to eat—up from 77 million last year. Around the world, from Afghanistan, to Ethiopia, to Myanmar, women’s human rights defenders have come under attack and the wave of political violence against women in politics and media has risen.”
In short, the rights of women and girls have been significantly rolled back on all fronts, and I fear we are in no way near this year’s theme for International Women’s Day of “Break the Bias”.
While the media spotlight is on Ukraine, we must not forget the situation in other conflicts. Only last week, it was the 11th anniversary of the Syrian uprising, and we should not forget the terrible scenes in Afghanistan last August, with the takeover by the Taliban. The UK had spent 20 years helping to bring democracy and order to the country. Was it perfect? No, but it was a great deal better off than it had been in 2001, when it was described as the country that was worst in the world to be a woman, with no women being seen in public. With encouragement and support, so many brave women came forward to take their part in society. There were women MPs, judges, Ministers, diplomats, in the army and police, teachers, lawyers—in all professions—yet today, once again, the women in Afghanistan are being brutally suppressed. Women who had a public life have had to flee for their lives or are still in hiding. Many are stuck in third countries. Once again, they have been airbrushed out of public life.
I have been helping to co-ordinate a group of senior women Afghan refugees here—former Ministers, judges, lawyers and MPs—as they try to come to terms with what has happened and how they would like to see the future for their country. We must not let them be airbrushed out of the international scene and forgotten. I thank my noble friend Lord Ahmad for having helped facilitate those meetings and taking the time to meet these women.
Now more than ever it is vital to include women’s voices in peace processes. Evidence that gender equality is essential to building peace and security has grown substantially since UN Security Council Resolution 1325 was adopted in 2000. In fact, involving women increases the chances of longer-lasting, more sustainable peace, yet women continue to be excluded. You cannot build peace by leaving out half the population—look at Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. We should not have to justify why women should be included; we should ask the men with guns why they are there when they have caused all that misery. How do we ensure that women play a meaningful role and that their voices are heard? Will the Minister agree that the women, peace and security agenda is now more important than ever and should be a core part of every FCDO policy?
I very much welcomed the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to increasing spending on women and girls back to previous levels and look forward to hearing the new strategy. I also welcome her renewed energy in the vital preventing sexual violence in conflict agenda. I am delighted that we will have another conference in the autumn. We simply must not give up on this agenda after all the work put in and the progress made; this was always going to be a marathon, not a sprint. We must take care not to risk losing the progress already made by allowing language used around PSVI in international commitments to be watered down. What steps can be taken in tandem to push for greater implementation and to hold perpetrators to account?
As we have heard, this week is the Commission on the Status of Women meeting at the UN in New York, which I and others have previously been to. Have we heard anything about it in the press? I wonder whether any of the men present even know what it is. It is the second-largest meeting at the UN during the year, yet there is a conspiracy of silence. We urgently need to make changes to this meeting to ensure that it is used as a platform to amplify the voices of women being persecuted across the world.
I end by quoting Sheryl Sandberg:
“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”
We may find that they deliver a much more peaceful world.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. I have indeed attended the meeting in New York with her in the past and I know her commitment to working with women in conflict areas. I have learned a lot from her about that.
However, the noble Baroness is also right that we are meeting at a very difficult time to talk about this. The pandemic has exposed the risks women face here and around the world. Here, we have seen frightening levels of domestic abuse and sexual exploitation, with perpetrators taking advantage of lockdown. Changing Lives, a charity based in the north-east that I have a long association with, did some work to look at the particular exploitation of young women on the internet. It was really scary and is something that the young women of today have to face in a way that my generation never had to. I hope the online safety Bill can help to deal with that.
Inevitably, I want to talk about the position of women in the developing world, and the increasing evidence that our decision to restrict aid has had negative and really difficult effects on millions of women. High commissioners, as well as charities, are clear that development has not just stalled during the pandemic but gone backwards—by at least 10 years, they tell me. This, of course, affects everyone in the developing world, but it particularly affects women and children. They have been hit by a range of global crises that are almost intersecting. They are at the forefront of the climate emergency, experiencing extreme weather events such as droughts and floods more frequently, and the effect that has on their ability to find water and grow food for their families and villages.
Women are increasingly experiencing a higher burden of care from both climate change and the impact of Covid-19. I was very pleased that the Minister was proud to champion the drive to tackle inequalities. The problem is that at the moment, this is just not working from the Government. I hear the rhetoric and the determination, but on the ground I also hear how much more difficult things are than in the last few years, certainly pre-dating the pandemic.
There is rollback on women’s rights globally. Space for engagement by women in decision-making processes is shrinking; inequality of opportunity, which affects access to health, education and income, is increasing and exacerbating discrimination against women. We think too of the horror of children not even being able to attend primary school in the last couple of years. That means that there is another huge backlog in getting them anywhere near being able to do STEM subjects. I recently met some young people from Kenya virtually. Their schools were closed for virtually two years. The inability to catch up in those circumstances is just terrifying.
Many people and organisations work in this area. Inevitably—I am sure noble Lords will all say “she’s doing it again”—I will mention VSO, partly, of course, because I know the level of transformation that VSO can make for volunteers and those with whom they work. However, I will talk about one thing that I am not sure that the Government—or at least the Minister—are really aware of: the change in VSO means that it is a much better organisation now than when I worked for it many years ago. It recruits and trains volunteers within the developing country, not just from this county. That means that it is training the potential leaders for tomorrow. It is giving them skills, confidence and voice.
I met young people in this place three weeks ago, at an event hosted by VSO, who returned from a programme initiated by the coalition Government called ICS. They had been working on gender-based violence in different countries in Africa and in Pakistan. They were remarkable about what they had learned, how that had changed how they saw things in this country, what they were prepared to do and how it was working. That programme finished, and I know that the Government are trying to find ways of getting it going again, even though, of course, all the people employed here and around the world lost their jobs, so we would have to start again to build the infrastructure. The Minister would be inspired if she met some of these young people. That can be organised very easily. I met some of the young people who were part of the African teams, because every team from this country is matched by a team of local volunteers. They too, very clearly, had developed leadership skills and their own confidence, resilience and determination to work on issues that would improve their communities. That is what we need internationally.
Actually, our aid cuts are undermining that. Yes, VSO has been given money for the next three years, but it was a lot less than they were given for a year when I was last on their board. It will continue to work and do what it can, even though it is in far fewer countries than it used to work in. I am sure that it is talking to the Government about reinstituting the ICS programme.
There is so much we know that does work, yet we thought, in this country, that cutting aid would be beneficial to us. It is not, because we lose that quality of leadership, determination and knowledge of how things work in the world, and it is certainly not beneficial to the countries that we have been working with. I too say to the Minister that it is absolutely critical to at least restore aid to 0.7%. This is not just about the reputation of the country but about the opportunity of people around the world, and opportunities for people in this country to grow to an understanding of what is going on in the world and contribute to it. That is particularly pertinent for women, because most of our aid was going on women, children and young people. They are the ones suffering most coming out of Covid, and they are the ones suffering most from climate change. We really do have a responsibility to be better.
My Lords, the International Women’s Day debate gives us an opportunity to highlight the empowerment and success of women around the world, as well as the inequalities, discrimination, violence and oppression faced by women in various parts of the world. Violence against women remains a major issue in the development and advancement of women. The violation of women’s rights during conflicts remained an issue in the 20th century and, if not corrected, will surely affect women not only in the 21st century but in the next millennium.
As per the reports of various NGOs and human rights agencies, hundreds of thousands of women have been the target of sexual crimes at the hands of armed forces in Rwanda, Bosnia, Myanmar, Kashmir and elsewhere. These NGOs have documented incidents of gang rape of young girls and grandmothers alike. Sexual abuse, sometimes in the presence of male family members, is used as a weapon of war. Rape by armed forces is a gross violation of international human rights and humanitarian law, and it has to be condemned. The report of the UN special rapporteur on violence against women notes that rape is the
“destructive combination of power, anger and sex which incites sexual violence against women. The victims of rape suffer a disorder, anxiety, and the ‘Rape Trauma Syndrome’ which causes them to constantly relive their rape through a series of flashbacks, dreams, nightmares and body memories.”
I focus my comments on the misery and suffering of the women of Kashmir. As Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and many other credible organisations have time and again stated that the Indian army is involved in illegal detentions, torture, extrajudicial killing and rape in Indian-administered Kashmir. All of this is happening with complete impunity under the Indian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
According to recent reports of Genocide Watch, Kashmir is at the verge of genocide, yet world powers, including Britain, choose to ignore these warnings. According to reports, more than 100,000 people have been killed so far in Kashmir, while thousands of men and women are locked up in prisons across India, and thousands of women are known as half-widows, whose husbands are missing. The discovery of more than 3,000 mass graves adds to their agony—not knowing whether their missing husbands or family members are among those buried in those mass graves. Constant curfews, crackdowns, house-to-house searches, arrests, torture and communication shutdowns have become part of the daily life for women in Kashmir.
There are many well-documented and widely reported rape cases at the hands of the Indian security forces. According to various reports, in 1991, as many as 100 women and girls were gang-raped by Indian troops at Kunan Poshpora in the Kupwara District of Kashmir. Two women, Asiya and Neelofar, were abducted, raped and subsequently killed by men in uniform in Shopian in May 2009. A nine year-old, Asifa Banu, was abducted and gang-raped by Indian police personnel and fanatics affiliated with Hindu extremist groups in the Kathua area of the Jammu region in January 2018. The list goes on.
Last week, I received a letter from the chief executive of Luton Borough Council. At the council meeting on 25 January, the following motion was put forward for the council to:
“Raise awareness of the plight of women of Kunan Poshpura village in Kupwara District in Kashmir. These women and girls have been fighting for justice after being gangraped in 1991. Human Right Organisations determine that at least … 100 women were gang raped by the Indian Army in a horrific event. These women have never received any support from the government of India and still wait for justice. The psychological effect of this has tarnished their lives. Although we cannot change the past, this council can help to raise the public awareness of this egregious event, condemn and abhor violence against women in all its forms and against whomever it takes place and requests both our local members of Parliament and Lord Qurban Hussain to raise this in Parliament to take the matter to the government of India and ask the Supreme Court of India to take all reasonable steps to support these women in their campaign to obtain justice and to request an update report back on this case.”
On behalf of Luton Borough Council and more than 1 million British Kashmiris, I put this case before the Committee as a testimony. What have our Government done so far to raise the grave human rights situation in Kashmir with the Government of India? What response have they received? Furthermore, will the Minister promise to raise the issue of human rights in Kashmir—particularly the Kunan Poshpora gang rape—with the Indian Government at the next opportunity and write back to me with the response as per the request from Luton Borough Council?
Finally, given the serious reports of human rights abuses in Kashmir produced by Genocide Watch and other credible NGOs, can the Minister say why India is not included in the FCDO’s annual report of human rights priority countries? Can she assure the Committee that it will be included in future reports?
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, and his sobering report on the plight of women and children in Kashmir, of which I was certainly not aware. To mark International Women’s Day, I wish to step back and look at the gifts and qualities that women bring to the whole of human life, which are often unrecognised and undervalued. If they were more valued and recognised, they would certainly help in furthering and protecting women’s equality in the UK and globally.
As American comedian Rhonda Hansome says:
“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. A woman must do what he can’t.”
The most obvious thing is that women bear and give birth to the next generation. We ignore the qualities that women bring to their roles as homemakers and child-rearers at our peril. Of course, they do so much more than that, and men often now take a home-front role, but women are almost always the central hub figures in families.
This is not just gender stereotyping. Research has found that it is much more common for a woman than a man to know her children’s friends, hopes, dreams, romances and secret fears, and to know what they are thinking, how they are feeling and when their doctors’ appointments are. Although there is infinite variability within the two sexes, there are clear sex-based differences in tendencies flowing from how male and female brains tend to be wired and their respective physiology, hence the Government bringing forward a women’s health strategy—and, I hope, a men’s strategy, following the report from the APPG for men and boys, of which I am a vice-chair.
Differences are wired into us at the deepest level. For instance, in terms of hearing, women’s discomfort level is half that of men. On smell, women are relatively sensitive and men relatively insensitive. On touch, the most sensitive man is less sensitive to touch than the least sensitive woman. On people orientation, baby girls exhibit twice as much eye contact as baby boys by the age of three.
Flowing from all this, the leadership literature is clear as to the many strengths of what has broadly been termed a “female leadership” style. I caveat again that I refer throughout to tendencies, including prosocial behaviour, women’s more marked relationship orientation, stronger social competence and the panoramic view that they bring to decisions. They accept ambiguity more readily, are more inherently flexible and honour intuition as well as pure rationality. That is something I have always wondered at; it is extraordinary to see how correct female intuition is. Women more commonly try to take everything and everyone into consideration, and their strong social competence allows them to collect information from all sides and consider all perspectives of a situation. It can also give them titanic powers of persuasion, which I say ruefully from experience.
Many sectors of the 21st-century economic community urgently need the natural talents of women: a capacity to read non-verbal cues; emotional sensitivity; empathy; greater patience; an ability to do and think several things simultaneously; a penchant for long-term planning; and a preference for co-operating and reaching consensus. Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan’s classic study found that women want to connect. While men are self-oriented, women are other-oriented; men are rights-oriented and women are responsibility-oriented. Men have an individual perspective where the core unit is “me”; women have a group perspective where the core unit is “we”. Men take pride in self-reliance; women take pride in team accomplishment and focus naturally on empowerment rather than power.
The business guru Tom Peters describes how we have not advanced much since the days in the cave. As a hunter, a man needed vision that would allow him to zero in on targets in the distance, whereas a woman needed eyes to allow a wide arc of vision so that she could monitor predators sneaking up to the nest. That is why, he says, modern men can find their way effortlessly to a distant pub but can never find things in fridges, cupboards and drawers. Women guarded and defended the cave community while the men went out hunting. Men are either switched all the way on or, when in a resting state, only 30% on. Women are never turned off; they are on guard 24/7 and their resting state is 90% on. Men are tuned in or out, seldom in between— I think the Committee gets the picture.
That is why, on International Women’s Day, we have to and should celebrate women. We cannot avoid defining who women are or allow them to be stealthily redefined. As we know, women have recently been called “cervix havers”, “menstruators”, “birthing bodies” and, perhaps most distastefully, “bleeders”. Reducing women to their bodily functions is dehumanising and disgusting.
Returning to the definition of “woman”, the dictionary is clear that a woman is an adult human female. The Equality Act 2010 is also clear: Section 212 states that
“‘woman’ means a female of any age.”
This word needs to be politically detoxified so that politicians no longer quake when asked to define it. The most high-profile recent examples of this happen to have come from the Labour Party’s ranks, but politicians across the spectrum are terrified of getting on the wrong side of what is just the latest incarnation of a misogynist orthodoxy. There is nothing new under the sun. Without being able to use the word “woman” and understand what we mean by it, women’s needs can be obscured and even ignored, but those needs are shared by 51% of the electorate.
It came to this because powerful lobby groups and powerful men insist that anyone can be a woman. I am not a scientist but I know that humans simply cannot change their sex. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, who is a scientist and a professor, categorically said this on the BBC’s “Question Time”:
“You cannot change your sex. Your sex actually is there in every single cell in the body.”
We can change our bodies with hormones and, in some cases, surgery to resemble the opposite sex more closely, but we should not minimise or soft-pedal how difficult this is in practice, and how arduous and costly will be the need for ongoing medical intervention. Unsurprisingly, therefore, fewer than 3% of those who identify as transgender women have undergone such modifications, but many who are naturally sympathetic to trans women—and, of course, trans men—are unaware that the vast majority are still bodily intact.
Yet when a female rape victim asks for a woman to examine her, she needs to be sure that her request will be respected, as does one’s elderly mother who requests that only female carers provide her with intimate and personal care. Women in these and similar situations who have objected when confronted with a bodily intact man who identifies as a woman have been called bigots and transphobes. Women’s prisons can, and do, contain male-bodied rapists. Newspapers talk about “her erect penis” when describing sexual assault. Female prisoners can be punished for misgendering the natal, intact males in their prison. In sport, women and girls are being beaten, sometimes even injured, by bigger, faster and stronger males in their own sports—women’s sports.
Extreme ideologies are breaking down the social norms, the social contract between males and females where we make room for each other’s needs and respect the sex-based differences that I have described. One recognised weakness of women leaders’ pro-social engagement and willingness to see everyone’s point of view is their abandonment of their own interests. Their tendency to want to share success can mean that they doubt their own competence. Women quite simply do not always feel able to stand up for themselves. When I have argued for women’s rights to single-sex spaces in hospitals and prisons, I have been surprised to receive many gentle cards of thanks from those who sign off simply as mothers and ordinary women. The ones who tend to empower others often feel very disempowered in this debate.
Returning to the need to celebrate women, we cannot do that without an agreed definition and freedom to speak the truth respectfully but without fear of being cancelled, pilloried or criminalised. There was global condemnation when Russia meted out that treatment to the courageous Russian female journalist, Marina Ovsyannikova. She did not just hold up a sign—she is a sign and, in my contribution today, she has the final word.
My Lords, I first thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, for leading this important debate. I have great affection for her and it has been wonderful to see her becoming such a strong and powerful voice on the government Benches, the other side from me. It shows how we can all come together positively to talk about issues such as the importance of addressing the ways in which women’s lives are still undermined by misogyny and discrimination and the ways in which women around the world suffer.
I am a lawyer and much of my work is now in the international field. I could have easily made this speech about my work as I see it, day in, day out, on genocide, sexual crimes in conflict and empowering women as parliamentarians. I chair a group of parliamentarians from the MENA region under the Helsinki forum, which helps to address the legislation they would like in their own countries and how they could emulate what happens in other jurisdictions. But today I am going to speak about the domestic situation. I want to ask all in this Room when the last time was that you consciously altered your behaviour, when you were at the bus stop or walking home. A man might struggle to answer that question, but a woman will probably have an example from this week, last week or the week before—or even from going home late last night.
The business of self-safeguarding is built into a woman’s life from an early age. We listen to footsteps. We avoid the shadows. We carry our keys in our hands. We avoid roads that are ill-lit or tree-lined. When I leave this House and go home late at night, I walk up the middle of my road that leads to my house from the Tube station, because I do not want to be close to the dark bushes and shadows on the pavement. As children, girls as young as eight or nine are warned to take care, not to be alone when they are coming back from the park or school, to stay with their friends and to keep to strict timetables. By internalising those messages from our parents, women learn that, unfortunately, there are bad men out there. We hear the message about what they might do to us, which is about sexual violation and the possibility of rape. It is about impregnation. Little girls learn that stuff, and it stays with you for the rest of your life. The lessons that women learn, as they receive that care from their parents and caretakers, is that, if they do not keep to those steps, somehow or other, it will be their fault if something goes wrong. Again, the idea of shame and blame is internalised when women are ill-treated, abused, assaulted or worse. Blame often centres on the victim.
A year ago now, the Scottish Government asked me to form an independent working group to decide whether adding sex to existing hate crime legislation would be an effective way to protect women or whether there should be a stand-alone remedy to deal with misogyny. I was clear from the outset that we do not criminalise thought; it is very important people realise this. There is talk of misogyny being a crime but, fortunately, it cannot be. I hope we hold true to that, because it is the conduct that flows from hate that we address. Modes of thinking, and what happens in that forum internum between our ears, is very precious and has to be protected. Freedom of thought is protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in our human rights conventions and laws. Freedom of thought is protected because that is where our ideas, creativity, imagination and ability to deal with the world’s challenges come from. It has to be protected, but we do not have to protect the ills that come from hatred, which are also harboured in that space. As I am making clear, it is the conduct that flows from hate that we have to address.
Soon after we embarked on our task, Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa were brutally murdered and women up and down the country demanded that something be done. Women were correctly making the link, which I emphasise today, between serious misogynistic crimes such as rape, domestic violence and other serious transgressions that women experience, and the other things they experience which are deemed too low level for police attention. Women were saying that, if you do not deal with the men who rub themselves up against people on the Tube or flash at women in public places —and at little girls; they flash at children from school—or the other ways women experience abuse, whether verbal abuse or touching, groping and so on, unfortunately you then create a normalisation which makes it much more difficult to address the more serious stuff. The crushing weight of those experiences for women cannot be dismissed as too trivial to engage the law.
When I started my legal career, men convicted of rape could often walk out of court with a suspended sentence. Domestic violence was described as six of one and half a dozen of the other. Sexual harassment was laughed at. I have spent a lot of my energy arguing for reform of gender-based law, because it was created from a male perspective—not with any conspiracy in mind, but that was the nature of things. A lot has happened, but not enough has changed. These issues are now being treated much more seriously at policy level, but we are still having difficulty with the outcomes. Outcomes are still poor, and you have to ask why. A lot has changed, but the underlying attitudes within the criminal justice system and society as a whole make it very difficult to secure justice for women.
The questions that my working group addressed in the past year came about by examining the testimony of many women and organisations about the verbal insults, denigration, humiliation, gropings, undermining or patronising behaviour, online trolling and sexual objectification they experience. I have to tell you that, cumulatively, it is a horror story. There is no male experience that is comparable—there really is not. I know young men experience violence on the streets, and so forth, but it is very different. Men do not come out of the pub saying, “Text me when you get home, Charlie”, because getting home might pose a serious problem. But women do it all the time; for young women, this is daily practice. As a result, we have proposed that a new misogyny and criminal justice Act for Scotland should be created that will include a new statutory misogyny aggravation. That is something that we in this House voted for but, unfortunately, it was rejected when it went to the other place.
We really should be looking seriously at what women experience. What we have advocated is law for women, challenging the default position that all law is neutral, because that is not working. Women are being targeted by certain kinds of behaviour, and you need targeted law to deal with it. The default position is that, for example, men can be raped and suffer domestic violence too. However, men are not experiencing stuff such as standing at a bus stop where, if a man comes up and starts engaging with you and you ignore him, you start receiving the foulest torrents of abuse. Men just have no idea what women put up with, including talk of the most salacious and disgusting kind and language that would make your hair curl.
I believe that the internet has created a disinhibition, so that people can say things anonymously. But it is now travelling off the internet and out of social media onto the streets. Young women are receiving this in playgrounds, student unions, bars and clubs—talk of sexual matters of the most explicit, crude and horrible kind. Then, when women reject it, they face discussion of how unattractive, fat and ugly they are and that they therefore do not deserve any sexual interest. They go home feeling wretched and miserable. Is it any wonder that they then do not feel able to ask for equal pay or promotion at work or that they do not take up positions in public life? Is it any wonder that they do not make a success of themselves in many of the areas where they should? This really has to be addressed.
We have advocated that an offence of stirring up hatred against women should be introduced into law, that public misogynistic harassment should be made a crime, and that the issuing of threats or invoking of rape or disfigurement, online and offline, should be criminalised. I say “invoking” because online algorithms often create pile-ons, so that a woman, who might be a Member of Parliament, a journalist or a campaigner, receives a threat of rape in language that is difficult for the police to deal with, because it says something like, “Somebody should rape you”, or, “You deserve to be raped”. They do not say, “I’m coming after you”, they are saying, “Somebody should rape you”, but the terror created in the hearts of women is still the same, because they know that there are people out there who are likely to take up that sort of invitation. Those women start not to go out as often and do not participate in public events in the way they might.
I do not think that older age groups understand what is going on, and I do not think that men have any idea that this goes on. It is really important to look at the stuff we looked at as we took evidence. I do not do social media, and I am glad that I do not—the poor noble Lord, Lord Farmer, is going to receive a whole lot of communications as a result of his speech today—because I take part in too many things that I know will incite the aggressions of folk out there. All I can say is that, when you are required to do it in gathering evidence, it is a shock to the system to see what women in Parliament, women standing for Parliament, women who are journalists, and women who are campaigners are exposed to. The other day I was with the scientists who took part in the Covid matter. Absolutely horrible abuse and insults were poured over them. I heard that the mother of the child who died of a terrible asthmatic attack, who has been campaigning on reducing pollution levels, has also received abuse online. It is unbelievable that any woman who seems to say anything publicly has this happen to her.
I hope that the UK Government will look at the steps being taken in Scotland. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, that it is very nice to hear a paean of praise about women, but we need to bring up our boys better so that they have some of the attributes he gave to women—sensitivity, caring and thinking about the other. I am afraid our boys are now seeing this porn that comes up on their phone willy-nilly and presenting it to girls. They think that intimacy looks like that and that that is how you perform sexually. They are introducing that kind of thinking into their own behaviours.
This is serious stuff. I hope the Westminster Government will at some point follow Scotland’s lead. I hope we will make the necessary change. Most decent men—they are here in this House—do not behave like this and are willing to be our allies in creating a gear-shift, but we need to start looking at the perpetrator and get off this business of examining the women. Let us look at the perpetrators who are doing this and start dealing with these crimes differently.
My Lords, I am very grateful for this opportunity to commend many women in dire situations who exhibit inspirational courage, resourcefulness and resilience. I am also grateful for the opportunity to request that our Government provide urgently needed support for some priority areas.
My small NGO, HART—the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust—was founded to provide aid and advocacy for victims of war, conflict, oppression and/or persecution not reached by major aid organisations for political and/or security reasons. We work with local partners, who use the very limited resources we can provide to make transformational changes for their communities. Time allows only two examples of situations where we are privileged to provide such support: Shan Women’s Action Network—SWAN—in Myanmar’s Shan state; and central belt Nigeria, where massacres by Islamist Fulani militants continue unabated. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, for highlighting the very serious situation in South Sudan. We also support partners there. The situation is dire, as the noble Lord has highlighted.
In Burma—I use this name because it is strongly preferred by our in-country partners—in healthcare, there is currently chaos as a result of the military coup and brutal military offensives against civilians.
I have visited Shan state in Burma many times with HART. As we speak today, its people are trapped in protracted conflict, ruthlessly supressed by the military regime. Among the thousands of displaced, 70% are women and children, including pregnant women, teenagers who have just given birth and the elderly. They have fled with minimal possessions. Some have lost their farmland and homes, forced to flee to remote villages or into the jungle, and are suffering from hunger and cold, lacking shelter and medical care.
It is within this context that HART’s inspirational partner, SWAN, continues to operate. SWAN is a female-led organisation dedicated to gender equality and justice. Staff provide life-saving emergency aid, antenatal care, postnatal care and counselling. They also run safe houses for women and girls affected by domestic violence and provide vocational training sessions for practical support in an emergency.
Without organisations such as SWAN, many more female lives would be lost. Yet SWAN receives no support from within Burma and almost no international support, other than from small organisations such as HART.
I also raise another serious issue faced by health workers in many parts of Burma. In a recent Zoom call arranged by the Tropical Health and Education Trust, I was privileged to talk to nurses inside Burma who are desperate for supplies needed to provide healthcare. Many hospitals are now owned by the military, and attacks on civilians have caused many deaths, injuries and massive displacement.
There is an urgent need for aid for healthcare workers who, in spite of personal danger, are striving to provide healthcare to sick and vulnerable people. Many have been arrested, some have been killed and many more are living in dire conditions, working without funding or essential equipment.
I understand and greatly appreciate that the FCDO has been providing some funding, but I also understand that this funding for nurses is going to stop. In reality, it is even more needed as the situation deteriorates and the impact of Covid becomes more serious. I highlight that very serious problem. Any reduction or cessation of UK support for the Burmese nursing profession would create even more massive problems in the provision of healthcare, especially in remote regions. For example, there have been reports of hundreds of thousands of women deprived of care during childbirth which they would have received before the disruption inflicted by the military coup. This has led to a large increase in maternal and infant deaths. Also, effective treatment of most common conditions—for example, dengue and pneumonia—has become almost impossible, leading to great suffering and many more deaths. Therefore, I urge the FCDO to consider, as a matter of urgency, the provision of significant funding for Burmese healthcare professionals and, in particular in this context, nurses.
I also urge implementation of a policy of working with reliable agencies across national borders to reach those in dire need in remote areas who will not receive aid sent to Yangon. For example, in the past DfID, as it was then, provided cross-border life-saving aid to SWAN. DfID also enabled HART to supply life-saving funds to civilians in Chin state suffering from the Mawta famine, caused by the flowering of bamboo, attracting a massive invasion of rats, which devour all food supplies.
I mention those examples to highlight the fact that we have well-established relationships with health professionals in-country and across borders who have demonstrated integrity and professionalism. They are now all desperate for funding to provide life-saving supplies to some of the many thousands of displaced people driven from their homes by the military offensives and living in terrible conditions in remote jungle areas. I therefore make a passionate plea to the Government to provide life-saving cross-border aid to reach such civilians living in dire need. As I said, these people will not receive aid sent to Yangon.
I turn briefly to the middle belt region of Nigeria, where tens of thousands have been killed or wounded in horrific Islamist attacks, and where millions are displaced. Just a few days ago, I returned from a visit to some of the worst affected regions and witnessed the ruins of homes, farmland, food stores, churches and an orphanage—all attacked by Islamist Fulani militia in the past seven months. We heard detailed accounts of children slaughtered, a 98-year-old woman burned alive, and people hacked to death by machetes as they ran from rapid gunfire.
Islamist Fulani militia attacks continue to escalate against predominantly Christian villages in Nigeria’s middle belt. Thousands of killings have occurred since 2009, with countless others suffering life-changing injuries. It is estimated that around 3 million people in the central belt alone have been displaced by the destruction of their homes, insecurity and fear. Many Muslims who refuse to adopt the Islamist ideology of Boko Haram and the Islamist Fulani militia are also killed. According to Christian Solidarity International, at least 615 people were killed in just the first three weeks of this year by Islamist militants. The number has increased greatly since, as the killings continued during our time there.
The perpetration of atrocities also continues. These are a tiny proportion of the examples. A widow called Beatrice, aged 25 and from Plateau state, told us:
“I returned in the morning but everything was burnt. I went to my home and saw my mother and siblings butchered and burnt.”
A young mother called Ruth shared a similar story:
“Fulani militia burnt everything including animals. Hardly anything survived. Ten people were killed … some were burnt, others shot, others macheted.”
Janet, a mother of four children, told me this:
“I found my husband had been killed. I cannot go back to my village. It has been burnt. We are barely managing.”
Although Nigeria represents 2.4% of the world’s population, it contributes to 10% of global deaths for pregnant mothers and has the fourth-highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Its suffering is impossible to fathom.
So, too, is its courage and resilience. I give just one example: during my many visits to central Nigeria, I have been privileged to witness the phenomenal work of Gloria Kwashi, who is married to the equally inspiring Anglican Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Jos. They are both survivors of horrific Islamist violence and torture. However, Gloria’s enormous capacity for resilience and love is shown by her ever-expanding family. In addition to her own children, she and Archbishop Ben have adopted 57 orphans in need of care. She also runs a clinic and established a school for about 400 children, and gets up at 4 o’clock in the morning every day to prepare food for the hundreds of students. It makes me feel very humble.
Yet, like so many others in central Nigeria, she receives no support. Despite the escalating needs in the middle belt region, the United Kingdom does not provide any humanitarian assistance apart from a small interfaith mediation programme. Such a minimal response from the British Government is in no way appropriate to the scale and urgency of the humanitarian and security crises in central Nigeria. HART is responding to desperate requests to help with the provision of education and healthcare by supporting the provision of vehicles that take educational supplies to the displaced people forced to flee to remote areas. It will soon provide similar vehicles to take healthcare to these destitute civilians.
Therefore, while I commend the Government on their expressions of commitment to empower women and girls and prevent violence against them, I urge the Minister no longer to turn a deaf ear to the massive suffering of victims of violence in Burma’s ethnic states and Nigeria’s middle belt. There is an urgent need for an immediate humanitarian response to enable women to receive the aid they need and to maintain the inspirational contributions of the many valiant women who are working to alleviate suffering and promote human rights, freedom, democracy and peace. They are an inspiration and make me feel very humble.
My Lords, I am very pleased to take part in today’s debate. Like many others, I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, opened it in such a comprehensive way. I certainly do not envy her in responding to it, however, as it has already been so wide-ranging.
I take part today with a somewhat heavy heart, partly because I see the suffering of the women in Ukraine who have to bear such a heavy burden in facing the onslaught of a vicious Russian invasion, whether they stay or flee their homeland. Like the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, I salute the courage of the Russian TV news editor Marina Ovsyannikova, and I of course celebrate the wonderful news of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe coming home. I also celebrate the growing recognition of the achievements of women in the digital policy space that I speak on frequently.
More broadly, however, contrary to expectations, there has been a deterioration in women’s rights and condition in this country in many ways. I was a teenager in the 1960’s and it seemed then that growing equality of treatment in all walks of life and respect for women’s rights would lead to a better society. In so many areas, I fear that is not the case. As Refuge says in its briefing, women and girls in the UK continue to face appalling levels of violence. More than one in four women in England and Wales aged 16 to 74 experiences domestic abuse at some point in their lives, and an average of two women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner—a statistic which has not changed in decades. Women’s Aid highlights the fact that 60% to 70% of women accessing mental health services have experienced domestic abuse.
As Refuge also says, technology is increasingly being weaponised by perpetrators of domestic abuse to harass, stalk and abuse survivors. Technology-facilitated domestic abuse—or tech abuse—has a devastating impact on both mental health and physical safety. The Online Safety Bill, published today, will be judged not only by whether it protects children, but also by whether it protects women from this kind of abuse.
Moreover, rape charges and convictions are at a minuscule level. Home Office crime figures show 56,152 alleged rapes in the year to September 2020, but analysis shows that just 1.5% of reported cases produced a charge. The Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird, said:
“If you are raped in Britain today, your chances of seeing justice are slim. Even though police are now referring more and more cases to the CPS, we have seen a catastrophic fall in rape prosecutions. The latest data show just 1.5% of cases result in a charge. That means that more than 98% of cases do not reach court. This is shameful and has real and profound consequences for victims up and down the country.”
The drop in prosecutions has led to fewer convictions. There were 1,074 rapists convicted in the year to December 2020, a record low and a decline of 64% from the 2,991 convictions in 2016. In criminal justice, we have had equivocation about the status of misogynistic abuse and conduct as a criminal offence, as we heard so cogently from the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy.
In healthcare, the foreword by Dame Clare Gerada to Public Policy Projects’ Redressing the Balance: A Women’s Health Agenda is damning. She says:
“It is my personal feeling that women have no more rights regarding their bodies and healthcare than when I was born 62 years ago. As a GP of over 40 years, I have treated thousands of women. However, throughout the process of crafting this report, I have been shocked to learn that many of the medical interventions and procedures held up by institutions and policymakers are not in place for the good of women’s health but serve to prevent women from being in control of their own bodies.”
Single-sex wards are under threat, as we have discussed during the passage of the health Bill last night.
As a Clapham resident, I was shocked by the policing of the Sarah Everard vigil, the complacency of the outgoing commissioner and the report of the police inspectorate. I am pleased by the outcome of the recent High Court case brought by the organisers, Jessica Leigh, Anna Birley, Henna Shah and Jamie Klingler. All that brings me on to freedom of speech, which is meant to be so dear to us in this country, and in particular to my party. Given the publication today of the Online Safety Bill and the response to the Joint Select Committee on which I sat, it is a highly topical issue.
I have never been trolled or piled on, but when I see those who engage in legitimate discussion of sex-based rights, such as Kathleen Stock, Maya Forstater, JK Rowling, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, and others in my party, cancelled, insulted or moderated out, then I despair. Where does this lead? Can we, for instance, not talk about the concerns raised by the Cass Review, the independent review of gender identity services for children and young people, for fear of giving offence?
There are a few facts from the Cass review which we must talk about. The number of children and young people being referred to GIDS has increased dramatically in just over a decade—from approximately 50 referrals per year in 2009 to 2,500 in 2020, with a waiting list of 4,600. The large majority of these referrals are now for what the report calls “birth-registered females” who are presenting in their early teens. In 2009, girls made up one-third of referrals to GIDS. In 2016, they made up over two-thirds. I have long worked in the autism field, and it is notable that around one-third of children and young people referred to GIDS have autism or other types of neurodiversity.
In the population as a whole, the percentage of people with autism is approximately 1%. If we are to be able to genuinely celebrate women’s achievements and advance their rights, it is vital that we are able to hold a conversation which is civilized and respectful. We must all be allowed to express our genuine beliefs—or, indeed, facts—without fear of censorship or abuse.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the many impressive women speakers here today and the supportive comments of men.
International Women’s Day is a celebration, but it is also a time to assess our progress in protecting the equalities of women. When we look back over the past year, many of us have been left shaken and distressed. The murder of Sarah Everard, and the behaviour of police officers supposedly protecting the bodies of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, were bad enough. However, the subsequent investigations revealed that a large number of police officers held deeply troubling attitudes towards women. It has left the impression that a significant number of serving police officers have, at the very least, a lack of respect for women in general—and their women colleagues in particular—and, at worst, a degree of hatred of women that is frightening.
When I have spoken on similar in issues in this House, some members thought that Scotland was in advance of England and Wales in the way in which it deals with serious sexual assault and rape. Unfortunately, this is not always the case—as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and my noble friend Lady Kennedy can probably confirm. As in other police forces in the UK, there is clear evidence that Police Scotland has misogynists and sexual predators in its ranks. It has failed to protect women police officers, and members of the public, from some officers’ behaviour. A recent employment tribunal found evidence of a sexist culture in the force which left women officers scared to complain, in case they would be left unsupported by male officers when put in dangerous situations. The culture is exposed further by the evidence that over 100 officers faced charges of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, against members of the public. These are the very people they were supposed to protect. It is hard not to conclude that this culture will deter women who need to report rape or sexual assault.
Two additional barriers exist in Scotland which put women and men off reporting such assaults. The first is the legal requirement for corroboration under Scots law. This requirement remains in place, despite an enquiry in 2011 which recommended its abolition. The report found that 58% of serious sexual offences, which were not pursued due to lack of corroboration, would have had a “reasonable prospect of conviction” in England and Wales.
The second additional barrier is the use of the “not proven” verdict, which is unsatisfactory for everyone concerned. It may allow the accused to escape conviction but it implies that they may have been guilty. The complainer may have to watch someone whom they think is a threat to their future safety walk away. “Not proven” is used disproportionately in rape cases. Rape Crisis Scotland pointed out that nearly 30% of acquittals in rape and attempted rape cases were not proven, compared with 17% for all other crimes and offences.
In March 2021, the Scottish cross-justice review group produced its final report, Improving the Management of Sexual Offence Cases. It made significant recommendations for a new approach to cases involving serious sexual offences, proposing that everyone involved in such cases should have sufficient understanding of the crimes involved and the potential impact on complainants. Its main recommendation was for a new national specialist court with trauma-informed procedures to deal with serious sexual offence cases. The judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers, as well as other court officials, would have trauma-informed training. The review further suggested the increased use of commissions for taking evidence, stating:
“It is unquestionable that if a complainer’s evidence, including cross-examination, were captured at as early a stage as possible, much of the trauma arising from the whole trial process would be diminished, the time scale for the complainer’s direct involvement would be greatly compressed and the traumatic effect considerably alleviated. The benefits are such that it cannot be disputed that this is a change which must be made as soon as possible.”
A third proposal for consideration was that sexual offence complainers should have independent legal representation. This recognises the potential tension between the interests of the complainer and those of the Crown. The low level of rape cases that go to trial and the very low rate of convictions show that serious sexual offences are different to most other criminal cases. At every turn, problems arise that prevent a fair trial. These recommendations offer a different approach. I hope that the Minister can recommend this report to the relevant department for England and Wales. For my own part, I hope that the Scottish Government, who have welcomed the report, will soon take action on it.
My Lords, I speak today from the perspective of a retired male lawyer—pale and perhaps a little stale. I shall look at where we have come from and where we have got to today because history is important.
I start with the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, under which, for the first time, men could petition the court for a divorce on the basis of their wife’s adultery. However, a wife wanting to divorce her husband had to prove not just his adultery but an aggravating factor such as rape or incest. That imbalance continued until the Matrimonial Causes Act 1923, which put husbands and wives on an equal footing, each now able to divorce the other on the grounds of simple adultery.
Women’s property rights picked up—that is, for those who had some property—when, in 1882, the Married Women’s Property Act allowed married women to own and control property in their own right for the first time. That was, for some at least, a big step forward.
Let me turn to suffrage. Things kicked off in the late 1880s when a woman who fulfilled the necessary property qualifications was permitted to vote in the new London County Council elections. I have a particular interest in this. My great-great-grandmother, the first Lady Sandhurst—by then a widow—questioned why, if she could vote, she could not be a candidate. So, in 1889, she stood in the London County Council elections—in the Liberal interest, I fear. She won the popular vote in the Brixton seat but her defeated and cross Conservative opponent challenged her election in the courts. He argued that, although the statute gave her the right to vote, it spoke only of men as elected members. That argument succeeded and she was disqualified. She was not deterred: in 1890, she was elected president of the Society for Promoting the Return of Women as County Councillors. She would have been very proud of my aunt, her great-granddaughter, who became a county councillor and, later, the chairman of Oxfordshire County Council.
Although the right to vote in general elections was given to women after the First World War, as we all know, there was still discrimination against women because they could not vote until they attained the age of 30. Only in 1928 was that limitation removed. At much the same time, in 1921, we had the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. This enabled women to read for the Bar. Helena Florence Normanton was the first woman to take advantage of that Act and join an Inn of Court. In November 1922, she was the second woman to be called to the Bar of England and Wales, following the example of Ivy Williams in May 1922.
Progress for the women was slow at first but, after the war, it got a bit better. In 1949, Normanton and Rose Heilbron both took Silk. The next year, in 1950, Elizabeth Lane took Silk. Lane was appointed the first woman County Court judge in 1962 and, three years later, the first woman in the Family Division of the High Court. I appeared quite often before her; she was a jolly good judge. Now, we have women judges at all levels, including the very highest, even if they are still outnumbered by men.
On a personal level, when I joined my chambers of, I think, 15 or 16 men in 1973, it had no women members. There were growing numbers of women at the Bar; a contemporary of mine was Heather Hallett, now the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hallett. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, will know, women undoubtedly needed even more grit and luck to start at the Bar than men—much more. In 1977, we selected the first woman member of my chambers. I recall the initial discussions well. They revolved around two things: first, the lavatory facilities; and, secondly, whether she would leave to have children.
However, we overcome that barrier. Thereafter, at least in my chambers, a candidate’s sex was never an issue. We recruited many more women, although I acknowledge that I cannot say the same throughout the Bar. We also learned, in my chambers, to treat women with respect and not to expect them to join in and enjoy so-called banter. Happily, as I speak today, my old chambers has six women as Queen’s Counsels and a substantial number of women members. Two former women members now sit on the High Court Bench. One of them, Philippa Whipple, will this afternoon be sworn in as a Lady Justice of Appeal.
So, we make progress and have come a long way. However, when I look at the wider world, there is much still to be done. Childcare is hugely expensive. In most, if not all, families, the burden of running the home still falls more heavily on women. I know; I have a working daughter. The large number of women graduates and the growth of working from home will perhaps see the balance change over time and male partners take a greater share. I certainly hope so.
However, to my mind—we have heard this from other noble Lords today—even more serious than opportunities at work are the incidents of daily life that women have to put up with. Only yesterday, the business pages on the BBC News website had as the lead item that Lloyd’s of London had fined a member firm, Atrium Underwriters, £1 million because it had
“admitted charges relating to bullying and misconduct during annual ‘boys’ nights out’ … These included initiation games, heavy drinking and making inappropriate and sexualised comments about female colleagues”.
That was yesterday, so we men have much to learn. We must all do better.
However, the worst part of this laddish culture is that, as we have heard, the disrespect for women and plain misogyny at its heart is not just unpleasant and demeaning for women but leads to violence. This is not getting better. I looked at the crime figures for London. In 2010-11, some 3,300 rape offences were recorded. Ten years later, in 2019-20, that figure had more than doubled to 7,890. As we know only too well, women are afraid to walk home at night alone. I could go on. Put simply, until we men—I am not perfect myself—treat all women with respect and decency, those numbers will not improve.
More generally, too many women are demeaned. That is why, for my part, I am sorry to see the pressure from some in the transgender debate. In arguing for rights, some advocates pour scorn on women who wish to preserve privacy and personal modesty. Women should not have to give up their hard-won rights before they have even got true, effective equality with men. We have come a long way but have a long way still to go. We can and must do better. Women must not come second.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this International Women’s Day debate, as I have done every year for the past decade, on the topic of women’s equality in this country and around the world. This is a critical time because the impact of inequality is always worse in times of conflict and hardship, so I will focus my remarks on the plight of women fleeing war in Ukraine.
We must pray for all those left behind in Ukraine to face the pitiless Russian forces. They include the old and infirm, who will not or cannot leave their homes, and the men and boys who are forbidden to leave with their families and left to fight the invader. But my concern today is with the Ukrainian mothers who have had to flee with their children, not knowing when or whether their families will be reunited. We know this category forms the majority of refugees from Ukraine, at this stage.
For now, and in many cases perhaps for ever, these are single-headed households. As such, they face a double whammy: the inequality of the refugee, navigating the many obstacles placed in their way as they seek refuge, as we have seen in recent weeks; and the inequality of the single mother who must not only be there for her children, but put food on the table, clothe them and ensure they can go to school and receive medical care. All this is while they deal with, and all too often hide, the trauma of their own experiences and their fears for the partners and parents they left behind.
It reminds us that ensuring the equality of women requires us all to take positive action. This is not a matter of ticking boxes or of theoretical rights. Equality requires us to take the trouble to see the reality of how others live, and respond with the humanity and generosity that we are so quick to claim but so slow to dispense. I will not dwell on the delays we have seen in living up to our promises of generosity, but instead focus on what we can and should do to help these mothers in their hour of need.
Last weekend, the Communities Secretary said we will put our arms around them and give them all the support they need. That is welcome. He also said that the first arrivals under the new scheme could be expected this weekend, so let us do all we can to ensure that the support available to these wretched people, and to the British families opening their homes to them, is fit for purpose. It is not just a matter of welcoming these single mothers as refugees. We can do better than that; we can see they are doubly disadvantaged and do something about it.
The Loomba Foundation, which I chair, is planning an association with Rotary International worldwide, and with it in the UK and Ireland, to raise funds in support of Ukrainian mothers fleeing with their dependent children. We will draw on the Loomba Foundation’s extensive experience of the plight of widows, including those widowed in conflict and natural disasters, who all too often face that same double whammy of a sudden change in their status with an increased responsibility for their dependents. The mothers and children fleeing Ukraine are in that situation and we know what it takes to, as the Communities Secretary put it, give them all the support they need.
My plea to the Government today is to do more than matchmaking and providing sums of money to host families and local authorities, essential as this is, but to make sure the dots are connected across national and local government to offer the tailored and joined-up support for these refugees: first, by identifying the likely needs from counselling and health to schooling and economic empowerment, and facilitating a multi-agency response; secondly, by reaching out to mothers arriving with their children and telling them about the special support that is available; and finally, by setting up a special helpline that they can contact for advice.
Women’s inequality has all too often been invisible and ignored, yet the irony is that it is women who are the first emergency service, the people we rely on to look after the children and to care for the elderly and vulnerable. Making women’s equality real means understanding and dealing with the barriers they face. That is an investment that always pays off.
My Lords, I begin with the good news. I very much welcome the return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori and acknowledge that they were victims of geopolitics in which they played no part, as indeed are the women, girls, men and boys in Ukraine.
It is important in a debate such as today’s that we look around us. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, looked at the situation across the political parties. He left one out, however, and I am very proud to say that it currently has 100% female parliamentary representation. Like the Liberal Democrats, we are looking to greatly grow our representation. I am sure there will be some men in the next tranche, but I hope we keep the percentage of females very high.
I associate myself with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, on the location and timing of this debate. I do not know how many people have looked up and thought that we are conducting this debate at the feet of the patriarch. There could hardly be a less appropriate place for it.
When I speak in your Lordships’ House, I often seek to share the words of women of today who are less privileged, who do not have access to the Chambers and who do not have a voice. Today, as we speak in the midst of a building filled with portraits and statues of largely dead, white, rich males, I shall seek to allow voices of women from the past to be heard in your Lordships’ House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, said, there has been a conspiracy of silence. The words and voices of women right through history have so often been suppressed. I will bring a few of those to your Lordships’ House today to see what we can learn from their courage, determination and achievements.
I start by looking at tackling and calling out violence. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, spoke very powerfully about the risks women face outside the home today, as they always have, but of course we know that, today and in the past, the greatest risks of violence against women are inside the home. The 15th-century Italian poet and author of The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan, wrote:
“How many women are there … who because of their husbands’ harshness spend their weary lives in the bond of marriage in greater suffering than if they were slaves … ?”
I also quote the 18th-century English legal theorist, Sarah Chapone:
“a Man … he may be as Despotick (excepting the Power over Life itself) as the Grand Seignior in his Seraglio, with this Difference only, that the English Husband has but one Vassal to treat according to his variable Humour, whereas the Grand Seignior having many, it may be supposed, that some of them, at some Times may be suffered to be at quiet”.
We sometimes think that, in the past, women were forced to endure but they always fought back and spoke out. It is really important that we listen—during this Women’s History Month, as well as by marking International Women’s Day—to our foremothers there. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham talked about how so much education in other countries is male-orientated. Of course, that is also true of so much of our education system today. I do not know, if we went into a school today, how many pupils would know of the two authors I have just quoted.
Looking at the issue of art, there is another woman who I wish to quote, the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. I would posit that she produced some of the most wonderful art that has ever been created. She did so after the most awful and difficult origins. She was raped as a young woman in 1611. When she was 18 years old, she was tortured in court to forcibly prove the honesty of her testimony. Artemisia Gentileschi went on to produce wonderful paintings. Among them, and perhaps the most famous, is the biblical story of “Judith Slaying Holofernes”. That painting depicts Judith, with a knife, cutting off the head of an enemy, while she is helped by another woman to hold that enemy down. I invite your Lordships’ House to imagine what it might be like if that painting were up there, instead of the one that is before us. One of the quotes which comes down to us from Artemisia is:
“As long as I live I will have control over my being.”
What an inspirational phrase that is.
I will also look more broadly than the fate of individuals by turning to Hypatia, the fifth-century Alexandrian philosopher and political adviser. One of her quotes which comes down to us is:
“Regardless of our colour, race and religion, we are brothers”
and sisters. We might think that we have culture wars today, but the culture wars between pagans and Christians in fifth-century Alexandria were considerably more violent. Those noble Lords who know the fate of Hypatia will know that her body bore extreme scars and the cause of her death was that culture war, but she said that we are all brothers and sisters. Let us listen to this wisdom from women of the past.
Finally, I come to one last person to quote, someone who is much closer to the current day: Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner. She said:
“We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own—indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.”
Wangari Maathai was talking about a different kind of model to that which existed, not just in past decades or centuries, but past millennia. In a very fast scan, I have gone through women’s history over the past two millennia. For those millennia, we have had a man-made system. It has given us the world we have today. It is a world in which people are exploited—particularly, but not solely, women—and in which nature is exploited and destroyed, just as people are also exploited and destroyed.
The Minister, in opening this debate, spoke about the slogan for this International Women’s Day, “Break the Bias”. I argue that we need something far more fundamental, as all those women from history teach us. We need to break the system. The system has failed us, and we need a new system with women as leaders at its heart.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak in this debate—I have learned quite a lot—and to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. I am glad that she referred to education because my background is the world of business schools. The language there is entirely male and aggressive. Accounting and finance are all about domination, control, slicing, selling, asset-stripping and plundering. Nobody cares if workers are fired and have no home to go to at the end of the day. None of that ever comes into any accounting calculation. Nobody ever considers the social impact of redundancies, wage reduction and tax avoidance. However, women are more concerned about nurturing, supporting and growing things. There is a stark difference. Women who enter business schools are increasingly forced to leave their feminine selves outside and behind. That is fundamentally wrong. Women need to be valued in their own right in what they bring, not in how they compare to men. That requires fundamental thought. I hope to return to this issue another day in another debate.
I note that the Motion says
“that the Grand Committee takes note of International Women’s Day and the United Kingdom’s role in furthering and protecting the equality of women”.
I wonder what had happened to equity—where is it? Equity is very important too. Without it, many people will never attain fairness and equality. In many ways, equity and equality are elusive. They are always in the process of being made but they never finally are because of many social divisions. That requires constant vigilance, new approaches and searching to deal with social problems. I would have preferred to see equity mentioned as well.
We are in a strange scenario where we have more women in government than ever before yet women’s economic progress seems to have stalled or is slowing down. That is a paradox. I wonder whether women in government are increasingly asked or forced, perhaps unconsciously, to adopt male objectives rather than the female approaches to which I referred earlier, such as growing, nurturing and supporting. Again, that needs to be looked at.
Life expectancy has stalled, if not gone into reverse. Life expectancy for women has now declined, according to ONS data, from 83.6 years to 82.6 years. Inevitably, the poorest women are most negatively affected, yet the Government are doing incredibly little to reduce poverty. If anything, inequalities have increased. More people live in poverty than ever before—14.5 million. That was even before the pandemic, the situation is far worse now.
The Equal Pay Act 1970 promised an era of equal pay for equal work but that remains elusive. Women’s median hourly rate is 10.2% less than men’s. The latest statistic we had from the Government on the gender pay gap for full-time and part-time employees was 15.4%. Why are we yet to reach a goal that we set ourselves 50 years ago? What exactly are the Government doing? I know that we will hear about the many things that the Government are doing—X, Y and Z—but the facts as indicated by the data pose this question: has enough been done? Why has enough not been done?
We are referring here to women, but, of course, women are not a homogenous category. They are differentiated by age, class, disability, ethnicity and many other social factors. Black women are the least likely to be among the UK’s top earners. They face the double hit of gender and ethnicity, which is why I referred earlier to equity. What can we do to lift them up? They are the most underrepresented group in the top percentiles of income in the UK. Some progress could be made by mandatory ethnicity pay reporting but the Government are vehemently opposed to that. It is hard to see how progress on the ethnicity pay gap can be made when the Government accept the principle of gender pay gap reporting for women but not on the basis of ethnicity. That does not help many women; I hope that the Government will revisit it.
Low pay for women results in low occupational pensions, low contributions and, eventually, low pensions. This condemns them and their dependents to poverty and insecurity, especially in later life. We have 1.25 million retired women living in poverty. The Government’s response is to cut the triple lock on the state pension, which pushes even more people into poverty. Again, that is unsatisfactory. The state pension for women is always less than for men, according to the statistics published by the DWP. Why does it have to be less? Of course, over the years, women may pay less in, but is that the only way we are measure somebody’s value—that they have paid less in so they get less out? Is there no other basis on which to think about it, such as humanity, decency, morality or ethics? The two should really be equalised. The state pension for women needs to be lifted up and should be at least as much as what is given to men.
The Government publish all kinds of budgets—we will have the Spring Statement next week—and lots of other legislation but they are never really accompanied by a gender impact assessment. What is the gender impact assessment of what the Government propose in a budget? We struggle to see it. I raised this last year, when I got a lot of soothing noises from Ministers—I have also raised it at other times in the House—but there have been no developments whatever. We now have income tax being hiked by stealth and national insurance contributions being increased as well, but there is no gender gap analysis. Who will suffer the most? What about single mothers? Will they really suffer the most? The answer, possibly, is yes but absolutely no attention is paid to that.
In his Budget Statement last October, the Chancellor used the word “women” just once in his speech but there was not even one gender-specific policy to help women—not one. However, there was a policy that would hurt women: the cut in universal credit of £1,040, affecting 4.4 million families. The Government took back £4 billion from the poorest and gave it to the bankers. Many of the households affected by that are led by single mothers but no help was given to them at all; they are basically condemned.
There is a gender division of labour in our society. Many women are confined to low-paid jobs, whether in teaching, nursing, social care, supermarkets, hospitality or other sectors, yet the Government have imposed a wage freeze. Again, they hurt women the most in pursuit of their economic objectives—although I have never really understood what those objectives are.
The take-home pay of many women has declined as a result of these austerity policies and wage freezes. They are therefore prevented access to nutritious food, good education, healthcare and other essentials. There is again a gender issue here.
We have a paradox: a female worker in social care or a supermarket is getting paid and will pay extra national insurance of 1.25 percentage points, but a speculator speculating on how much economic surplus those individuals will generate will not pay anything from the capital gains made from those speculations. They will not pay any national insurance, never mind the extra 1.25 percentage points. Who are the winners? Who are these speculators? Mostly, they are men. At the very least, the Government could see that the gains picked up by men through speculation are shared with women on whose backs they are made. I see no analysis of or sensitivity to these gender issues in the Government’s policies.
There is no equity or equality of tax treatment of earned and unearned income. That again has gender consequences, because women in low-paid employment are paying taxes at a higher rate than those who are making money through other sources, such as dividends or capital gains. Again, the analysis shows they are predominantly men. Government policies have also condemned many to use food banks; again women suffer, because they are on low pay.
Take just one more example. We have an increase in homelessness all around us these days. You see it as you enter Tube stations and other places. Two-thirds of homeless Londoners living in temporary accommodation are women, so 42,000 women are homeless in London alone. Of the homeless households living in temporary accommodation in London, 39% are headed by a single mother. Many are homeless because of domestic abuse or poverty, or they cannot afford to pay rents because their income is low and the tax system does not do much for them. Unaffordable housing is a key factor and women bear the brunt of housing policy failures.
The cost of living crisis, on top of cuts to universal credit, housing benefit and sexist policies such as the benefit cap, makes it much harder for women and their families to keep a roof over their heads. The Government can help by reversing the damaging welfare cuts and increasing all benefits, at least in line with inflation. That would help to reduce homelessness among women, single mothers and their children. By building high-quality homes with rents linked to local wages, not what the landlords want, the Government can prevent more women becoming homeless. Let us celebrate this year and I hope the Minister makes some positive promises in return.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sikka. At least I will not feel lonely talking about the economics of gender inequality. First, the title of the debate says
“furthering and protecting the equality of women”.
We are really saying that we are combating inequality and hoping that we can reduce it as much as possible.
The central inequality I want to talk about, which is almost eternal, is who does the work. Economists tend to talk about work in terms of paid work. They say there is work then there is leisure, but how does an individual choose how many hours to work? That is all fine, but a lot of work is unpaid and most unpaid work is done by women. We have very little accounting of unpaid work in formal economic analysis and very few policies to deal with unpaid work.
Over a long career in economics, I have explored the idea of citizens’ income—basic income, as it used to be called. The argument with basic income for a long time was that it did not actually deal with the gender issue. How it was dealt with was that citizens’ income should be available for all voters, paid without asking any questions. But then it was said that, if you paid people just the basic income, without work, they would stop working—and then what would happen? That is an irony about paid work: whether you pay basic income or not, unpaid work has to be carried on, because society lives on unpaid work—not only with cooking, childcare, nursing and care of the elderly, but all sorts of things, such as cleaning the house, that are mainly done by women.
It is a very interesting paradox—not paradox, but something to note—that when something like universal credit or other welfare state arrangements are made, there is a great compulsion to say whether you are seeking work. Unless you are seeking work, you are not eligible to be paid money when you are out of work. It is very interesting, because quite a lot of women will not be able to seek work because of unpaid work demands made on them because of the size of the family and other things, which may make it difficult for them to qualify for universal credit in a world in which that is a requirement.
One problem we will have to face is whether we can fashion a basic income package just for women, or for anybody who does unpaid work. That is especially important in the discussion on the Health and Care Bill. It has often been mentioned that some social care workers are not involuntary social care workers as such, but in a family the social care burden has fallen on the woman, who is around. They are unpaid, in a whole category of unpaid social workers, and we ought to be doing something about unpaid social care workers. One idea would be to create a basic income especially for women. Just as we talk about citizens’ income, this would be women’s citizens’ income. You would have to be of voting age to be able to accrue, earn or receive that basic income.
I recently contributed a piece to something called the Palgrave International Handbook of Basic Income with a co-author who was a woman, who was very much the leading light in this joint work. She pointed out that the distinction between paid and unpaid work is central to the issue of gender inequality. Because unpaid work is not compensated, women always have inequality of income relative to men. I know that there is no money in the Government and that they want to cut taxes rather than give money away and so on, but we are about to enter a very difficult economic period in the next five or six years. We will have stagflation and all those sorts of things, so we will have to take greater care of vulnerable citizens, who are mainly women.
Since the Minister answering for the Government is in charge of giving money away on pensions and all sorts of other things—we always have to go to her and say, “Look, can you give us a bit more?”—she ought to explore the idea that women should be paid something like £50 a day for the weekend. It would be a sort of weekend bonus; nothing very much, but only for working-age women. We ought to experiment with that, because doing so would be an experiment in trying to reduce the inequality gap between men and women who are of working age.
That is about it; I do not want to say any more about this and that, because I am the 17th speaker out of 18. However, I want to make one remark on what the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, said. He mentioned the woke controversy that is going on. It is a peculiar thing that the debate about what and who is a woman. It is interesting. It is a difficult job, because the people who question the word “woman”, and so on, are probably as deprived as everybody else. However, we cannot have the majority suffer because the minority feels that it is deprived.
I am not a lawyer, and this is not a flippant comment, but I think we ought to make a distinction of women by birth and women by choice, and men by birth and men by choice. That kind of usage could become normal, or at least usual. We are not insulting anybody, but there is a question of choice. There should be symmetry for both sexes. If you can say “women by birth” and “women by choice”, it may be that the noise—
I want to say something to my dear friend and former economics teacher at the LSE: he probably should not go there because this is not about choice. People who are gay do not choose to be so; they are gay. People who believe that they are a woman believe they are a woman. People who believe that they are a man believe they are a man. There is absolutely a debate to be had but, frankly, it is not a choice.
I have the unenvious task of being yet one more pale male.
I do not always agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, but I agreed with many things in her contribution. I certainly agree with her that, next year, we should not let us become second-class citizens and have the debate in here again. It should be in the Chamber. The symbolism of it—that this has somehow become a second-class debate, with someone saying, “It’ll do, just put it in the Moses Room”—has rightly been remarked on. He was one of my ancestors was perhaps not the most progressive male on the planet, but he was a man of his time. And I cannot help but say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham that the Church fought long and hard to have women bishops. It has to mark its calendar; they should be represented.
I want to return to the last part of the debate. I disagreed with my noble friend Lady Thornton when she endeavoured to say, “Well, this is how it is and we shouldn’t go there”. Well, the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, did go there, as he had absolutely every right to do. He asserted a view that is held by many—perhaps not by my noble friend, but by many—that there is a biological sex of men and women.
Thank you, but I was not going to stop anyway.
This is an important debate, and it is an issue that deserves to be aired on International Women’s Day, as the noble Lord, Lord, Farmer, did. I want to draw attention to women who I think have been very strong and willing to express a view. My interest in this debate started with JK Rowling, who had the temerity to suggest that there was a word, and it was “women”. That produced an unbelievable uproar, and it was followed by Kathleen Stock, who lost her job trying to say the same thing. Interestingly, another woman I admire, also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord, Farmer, is the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, who took over a really tough job at the Equality and Human Rights Commission saying much the same thing: that women’s safe spaces should be protected and that people have to respect the view that there is such a thing as women, which has nothing to do with saying that we should in any way discriminate against transgender people.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned the very important Cass review that came out recently and found that in the current system, far too many young people are being offered puberty blockers on the basis that they have changed their gender. In fact, 80% of people who presented at the Tavistock clinic with symptoms of gender dysphoria discovered, by the time they reached 18, that they are either gay or lesbian, and that trying to change their body was not the solution to their problems. There was the famous case of Keira Bell, who went to extreme lengths and then realised that that was not the solution to her problems in life.
These are difficult issues. The importance of the Cass review is that it says that there should be clinics around the country and much faster treatment for young people. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned young people with autism. I was listening to a group of concerned clinicians recently, and they said that the huge impact of social media on young people is the biggest single factor that makes young girls believe that, somehow, they are in the wrong body. We should not underestimate the impact of social media.
The older I get, the more I find that the women in my life are the most interesting. The women that I have met are inspirational. I shall refer to some of them. I recently came across the woman writer, Bernanadine Evaristo. What an amazing writer. If you have not read her, I recommend her book, Girl, Woman, Other, but even more superb is her autobiography, Manifesto. It tells you what it is like growing up in a mixed-race family in the 1960s: pretty tough. She fought over the years to establish herself. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, because I am a lover of Renaissance art, but it was not that long ago that I discovered Artemisia Gentileschi. There are some wonderful people in the arts.
There are three women I know who I admire. I chair an advisory committee on a social enterprise. The CEO who runs it is an absolutely amazing woman called Jenny Holloway. She pays herself very little. She recruits and trains mostly women in Haringey. They learn how to become machinists and cut patterns to be able to start their own businesses. She single-handedly decided that she would save the Laura Ashley factory in Powys when it closed down, much against my advice because I thought it was mission impossible. She succeeded, and is opening another training establishment in Leicester to stop women there being exploited in the clothing industry.
Ushma Patel is the power behind the throne of the local landlord in my pub. What makes her interesting? We started to chat one night and she told me that she had donated a kidney and not long after that climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I once thought about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with two kidneys, never mind one. I take my hat off to Ushma, who is an amazing woman.
My wife does God in our family, as I somewhat irreverently state, but I go along occasionally on high days and holy days. Once I went along and listened to a lay minister, Liz Wolverson, give an amazing sermon. She fascinated me. I learned a bit more about her. She is the diocesan director of Church of England schools in London. She has rescued probably 10 failing schools. She is a tough cookie: she gives the head teacher six months and if they do not improve she waves goodbye to them.
In my opinion, these are really interesting women. There are many more of them. I am an admirer of Kemi Badenoch, the Minister for Women in the Government.
Last but by no means least on my list, I will mention the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott. I did not know a lot about Debbie. We were talking one day and she told me about her life in the Salvation Army, which she educated me about in a way I never knew before. She can sing some damn good salvation songs as well, but I will not get her to do that here. What I admire about her—I checked, and she would not mind me saying this—is that she is out but proud. That takes a lot of guts. Whatever you think about the policies she annunciates on behalf of the Government, and not everyone will agree with them, nobody can accuse her of not caring.
I ought to hurry up. The Minister talked about more women in STEM. I prefer STEAM, to get the arts in there. It is changing. I am meeting more women in apprenticeships. The Industry and Parliament Trust had a dinner and there were some wonderful women there. There was one young black woman bringing up a disabled child who had joined as a bus driver. I asked, “What’s it like being in a bus garage? All the rest are men, aren’t they?” She said yes. I asked about the banter. She said, “It’s pretty bad, but I’ve learned to hold my own.” The manager of the company was there, and I pointed out to him that it was not about her holding her own but about him improving the management and training in that company.
We should not be too despairing about what is happening. I met two young British Asian women recently who absolutely staggered me. I asked them what they do; I was stereotyping and thought that they were going to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, whatever. One was a civil engineer and the other a quantity surveyor working on HS2. I said, “I’ve got to go and meet your mum and dad.” That is fantastic to see. We should not despair. The other young woman apprentice I met was a paralegal, interestingly. That is another route into it.
Are attitudes changing? I think they are. People laugh when I say this, but I see more men pushing children in buggies than I ever used to. Have things changed fundamentally? No. There is a lot more progress to be made, of course. Men need to be more involved in childcare.
Nobody has referred to the impact of the pandemic we have been through, with lots more working from home. Women have suddenly begun to think, “Why do I have to commute five or six days a week? I want more time, especially if I’m going to be involved in childcare.” I agree with some of what the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said.
There has been a lot of talk about single parents and I agree that childcare costs are very important. Too many fathers are still abdicating responsibility and we do not do enough about that. But what is the single most important thing we could do for a single-parent family? Get somebody in that family into work. That has one of the most profound influences. Then children do not grow up in a family where generation after generation seems to think that they do not need to join the world of work. They do; it is fundamental. The example set by a mother being in work is important.
You can criticise universal credit—people frequently do. Some do so because they do not really know much about the system, I have to say. But let me say this. First, I understand the concern about the £20, but people forget about the taper change, which made quite a difference when people were in work. Secondly, the most staggering achievement of the universal credit system is the digitisation. Some 6 million extra people were able to go on to universal credit during the pandemic. That was an astonishing achievement. Many women were able to take advantage of it.
On pay equality, pay for work of equal value, I look at my son and daughter. I am really proud of Laura, my daughter. She is an advanced clinical practitioner in A&E at Northwick Park Hospital and worked right through the pandemic. She is absolutely brilliant. She is twice as qualified as her brother, Paul, but earns half as much. Why? Because he is in IT. That is the value that we put on them.
This has been a fascinating debate. I would like to end by mentioning the woman who I admire most—the one who has put up with me—Lady Margaret. She is amazing. She is a very skilled craftswoman, but is modest about her achievements. She brought up the family mainly, in my absence. She has a very sharp sense of humour. Recently, we were looking at a bottle of wine in Marks & Sparks. It was quite expensive, so I said, “What are we celebrating?” Quick as a flash, she said, “Well, we’re still alive.” That is something we all need to celebrate. I have enjoyed taking part in the debate and look forward to mission impossible for the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, as she covers the waterfront.
My Lords, I am also grateful that I am still alive. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, for introducing this very wide-ranging debate so comprehensively. I am very glad that we have had a debate for International Women’s Day, though I echo the complaints voiced by my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed, the noble Baronesses, Lady Gale and Lady Bennett, and others that it did not take place close to the day itself or in the Chamber. I pay tribute to the Conservative Peers who successfully put pressure on their leadership, who had no plans to schedule this. The wonderful noble Baroness, Lady Gale, played a key part years ago in making sure that we would hold this debate.
I hope noble Lords have forgiven my absence while I went to contribute on the Statement on the release of the Iranian detainees. It is hugely welcome that Nazanin and Anoosheh are now back home. Of course, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, noted, in the context of this debate, it is wonderful to welcome Nazanin back, caught up as she was—and as so many women are—by events beyond her control.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Purvis, not only for his outstanding speech but for taking a full note of the speeches that I missed. Of course, had we been in the Chamber I would not have had this conflict.
We know that there is no country in the world, yet, where there is gender equality. We know that the Scandinavian countries lead in this regard, and that the least developed countries see the greatest gap between the genders. That is where it is most stark.
As I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, I had a sense of déjà vu—no doubt the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, will as well. The same questions remain unanswered since those first debates in your Lordships’ House and the wonderful team that I see arrayed behind the Minister should be well prepared. They and their forebears will have been passing the same notes to the Minister, year in and year out. Why, for example, have we not ratified the Istanbul convention, as raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale? Why does GEO move from department to department, inadequately supported? When will our Parliaments reach gender parity? Why are we not centrally addressing the position of women in the UK, let alone overseas? They are all so familiar.
So what has happened since we last debated the position of women in the United Kingdom and the wider world? In the UK, as worldwide, the pandemic has hit women harder than men, even though the disease itself may not discriminate. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, picked up the point about how it has hit women harder. Why is that so in the United Kingdom? The same reasons apply elsewhere: women are more likely to have been working in sectors that were disrupted, to have to care for children and to home-school them, and to have responsibility for elderly relatives. All this means the pandemic has hit them harder. We know too, as noble Lords have mentioned, that domestic violence rose and that fewer resources were available to assist women in that circumstance. Women’s Aid has noted that around two-thirds of women seeking access to mental health services, which themselves are scarce, have suffered domestic abuse. As it points out, gender inequality is both a cause and consequence of violence against women and girls—the sharpest end of women’s disadvantage in this country and worldwide.
My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones highlighted the appalling situation we are now in on holding people to account over violence against women and girls. A number of other noble Lords mentioned this. It is appalling to see the awful trolling of women online which my noble friend mentioned. So many women MPs receive death threats; how could we encourage our daughters to come into politics today? The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, has urged that we move forward urgently in this area. She has a remarkable record on this and pointed to the proposed misogyny criminal justice Act for Scotland. We have been debating having that for England and it has been pushed back. The noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, pointed to the lack of progress in Scotland.
Now, as we come out of the pandemic, theoretically, we face the economic consequences. As the noble Lords, Lord Sikka and Lord Desai, and others indicated, unless you have economic equality you will have no other form of equality. The Government warn of constrained budgets, despite hugely rising fuel costs and inflation hitting the price of food and clothes. Again, this hits the poorest the hardest, as we have heard, and women are on average poorer than men. The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham pointed to the way in which women are terribly disadvantaged economically, including through the extraordinary restrictions on universal credit for families beyond two children.
As the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, rightly noted in his fascinating speech, women still carry the greater burden of caring. As we look internationally, we know that the situation can be dire for many women and girls around the world. As we know, in theory, almost as many girls are now in school as boys, which is welcome. However, in reality, the level and quality of schooling differs. The boys are in the better schools and are in school for longer; this brings enhanced life chances. How, therefore, will the Government deliver the global education commitments made in 2021? We have already heard about the 58% gap in economic participation and opportunity, and the gigantic gap in political empowerment.
What did we do in the middle of a worldwide pandemic? We cut aid. Here I must endorse my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed’s speech and his castigation of the Government over their cut in aid. It is all very well saying the same things we hear year in and year out: “We support women and girls internationally, we are supporting education” and so on. No country has gender equality, and it is worst in the poorest countries. That is where our aid is supposed to be going. So, if we cut aid, of necessity we damage the position of women and girl. It is no wonder that the FCDO did not want to publish its impact assessment. The conclusion could not be otherwise: the cuts would hurt women.
No amount of “we can’t afford this” can possibly excuse such an action from one of the richest countries on the planet. The first thing to do is to restore the level of aid. If the Minister cannot do that then no amount of notes from the officials behind will answer that basic question. My noble friend Lord Purvis is right that women and girls must be front and centre in our new, upcoming international development strategy. Will this be the case?
I now put forward the key area of sexual health and reproductive rights. This is absolutely essential to women and to their families, communities and countries. It is of fundamental importance as a pillar for achieving all other areas of gender equality. I recall, when I was a DfID Minister, being in a community where we supported family planning. The image will always stay in my mind of a young woman, probably in her teens, with twins attached to her, sitting on the ground with other small children under five playing around her. She was exhausted. We know exactly why family planning would help her—and she would know too, if she could give any energy or attention to it at all. Fewer children in a family means more of them in school, and the mother is better able to earn a living and more likely to be able to take advantage of the possibilities of microfinance, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham mentioned.
We all know that we face the climate emergency, which the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, mentioned. This will roll back women’s rights globally. The poorest and most vulnerable women and girls are often the most vulnerable to climate change, and often lack the resources required to adapt to it to ensure the protection of their livelihoods and well-being. With increasing drought, women and girls are expected to travel longer distances to collect water and firewood, exposing them to further sexual and gender-based violence. The destruction of households and livelihoods has become a reality for communities hard hit by climate change. In some cases, this loss of livelihood leads to increases in transactional sex and the risk of teenage pregnancies. Women are especially vulnerable in conflict, which will be promoted by climate change. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for her work in this area over so many years, including her necessary work in the role of women in peace in Syria and, now, in Afghanistan.
When the West went into Afghanistan, I recall that at first people said that nothing could be done about women’s rights because of the culture, but that was turned around so that the key change that occurred in Afghanistan was a dramatic improvement in women’s rights, and the noble Baroness played her part in that. It is heart-breaking to see that the Taliban is back in control, so much has been reversed, and families are in such desperation that you now hear of people selling their kidneys. I am glad that we passed that amendment in the health Bill, whichever night it was when we were here so late. Could the Minister update us on what engagement we are having in Afghanistan, having had so little influence over the United States, despite post-Brexit claims? It has cut and run without our being able to exercise any influence over it whatever.
We see even now the impact on women of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with women fleeing with their children and leaving behind their menfolk, their lives potentially changed for ever, as the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and others have mentioned. There was the mother who was hurt in the attack on the Mariupol hospital, then losing her own life and that of her baby. During disasters, health services are often limited and, at times, not available, which means that more women give birth without much-needed medical support. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has spoken of the pressures in Sudan, Nigeria and elsewhere, while the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, spoke of the situation of women in Kashmir and elsewhere.
Then there is the double or multiple discrimination to which the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, has often pointed. The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, mentioned this in relation to the UK—and, of course, it applies even more internationally. In his work on widows, the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, emphasises that they suffer the double discrimination of being women and widows. Older women can suffer particular discrimination, and then there is the double discrimination against women with disabilities and the multiple discrimination against women with disabilities, who are widows and who are simply women.
The sustainable development goals demand that no one is left behind—but the cuts that have been meted out undermine all that. There is so much that we will need to do to deliver those sustainable development goals in only a few years’ time. We are not on track, even in the United Kingdom, to deliver the SDGs, and certainly not worldwide. The pandemic has meanwhile shown that we are all globally interconnected, and the war in Ukraine has shown the geopolitical tectonic plates shifting. How this will settle out is yet to be seen, but we must ensure that, whatever the outcome, the position of women and girls and the need to fight for gender equality is not left behind.
This has been as wide-ranging a debate as ever, and I certainly welcome the fact that we have something of a gender balance here—and so it should be. I look forward to hearing what the Minister says in reply. I think she will see that she has an uphill task and that words need to be matched with actions. She knows, if anyone does, that we can see through empty words.
Hear, hear. First, I apologise to the Committee for my seated comments to my noble friend Lord Young. I want to say something to the noble Lords, Lord Farmer, Lord Young and Lord Clement-Jones, who all meant very well by what they said—and I think we could all agree about the need for careful and respectful debate, and not taking for granted or assuming what people might think or what they might be saying. The only thing that I would say to them is that I have been a feminist all my life. One thing that you learn as a feminist, and as someone who has been active in women’s politics, is that you need to be in control of the battles that you fight. I say to them that it is great that they feel as strongly as they do, and please support me and my feminist friends in any way you can, but actually the fight is ours.
I intend to make a speech that is about breaking the bias and about ending the prejudice and discrimination that women face on a daily basis in 2022. As other noble Lords have said, of course, who could not be absolutely choked up when we heard little Gabriella saying “Mummy” to her mummy? Goodness me, is it not wonderful that that family is reunited? I pay tribute to my honourable friend Tulip Siddiq, the MP for that family. I also wish everybody a happy St Patrick’s Day.
I thank the Minister for getting us this debate because, like other noble Lords, I am sure that she will agree that it deserves to be in the main Chamber; so I will just ask her to put it in the diaries of the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip for next year and mount a campaign—one that we will all join her in—to make sure that we get the debate that we want on the special day on which we want it. I did, however, visit Central England Co-op’s wonderful International Women’s Day debate at the National Memorial Arboretum last week, and spent a very lovely morning there. It was not New York, but it was actually a great event. My job there was to speak about bias in my life and lessons to be learned, so I thought I might mention a few biases that I have known and experienced.
The first example I want to mention involves my late mum, Jean Thornton, the eldest of 11 children in a working-class family in Batley and Spen. I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not aware that my mum was top of her class in her primary school. She was very ill and failed to be able to take her 11-plus exams, and despite the fact that her teachers were really very keen that she should take it, her family did not arrange for her to re-sit it, but they did send her brother to the grammar school the following year and could not afford two sets of uniforms. She felt that missed opportunity literally all her life, which is why I can remember it: I have always known this story about my mum missing that opportunity and suffering from that bias.
Even though she made a great success of her working life and her public life and had seven children of her own, it did make her very ambitious for us, her six daughters. I am the eldest of seven. When the head teacher suggested—and it has to be said that I was definitely a troublesome, campaigning sixth-former—that I might not be university material, and should settle for a teacher-training college, I was not actually sure that he would escape with his life. I did, indeed, head to the LSE.
When I was in my early 30s, in the 1980s, I decided to take a pop at getting selected as a parliamentary candidate in Bradford, when one of our Labour MPs had died. Those of you who have subjected yourself to the ordeal of trying to be selected to fight a parliamentary seat will know that you have to attend a lot of meetings to sell yourself to the members of the local party. However, two of the meetings for this parliamentary selection were held in local working men’s clubs in Bradford, and I, as a woman, could not enter. I had to be signed in and escorted through the club; so while I watched all the other candidates, who were all men, waltz into the selection meeting, I had to wait until the secretary came to sign me in and escort me to the meeting.
At the time, I probably did what most of the women here would have done: I just got on with it. I made the best speech that I could and, needless to say, I did not get selected. It did, however, harden me, and it gave me a campaigning zeal to change the Labour Party selection rules and to ensure that there would be a great pipeline of women ready to stand for election. So in 1997 we saw the 100-plus Labour women, and now more than half of our Parliamentary Labour Party are women.
We have all experienced bias, be it minor but annoying. For example, I am fairly sure that when I came to your Lordships’ House in 1998, Conservative women here in the House did not wear trousers. I do not know if there was a rule or what, but it simply was not done.
Yes, it was the same in the courts. In 1998, women Peers had two little toilets that were by the Chamber. The men still had the splendid Victorian ones, but we gained the one just around the corner within a few years.
Then, of course, the bias goes to the downright dangerous and discriminatory. I have an admiration for the organisation Pregnant Then Screwed. This is partly because, when I was pregnant with my first child, I was without doubt the most senior person in the whole co-operative movement to have ever taken maternity leave; I was not that senior, actually. The chair of the committee for which I worked simply thought that I was being awkward and unco-operative by not saying exactly when I would return to work after my baby was born. Today, I would have known to take out a complaint and have them in a tribunal as quick as you like, but I did not know and so just had not as happy a time during my pregnancy as I should have had.
In the medical and health world where I work, there is still a clinical bias whereby medicines and devices are designed for and tested on men. This is changing but, of course, it is potentially dangerous and certainly can be very uncomfortable. The bias, otherwise known as misogynism, in our police, which has been mentioned already, has appalling consequences for both individual women and their treatment. We know about Sarah Everard but, more recently, a young girl was strip-searched at her school, including the removal of her sanitary wear, by two police officers. She was traumatised by her treatment, which took place without her mother or an adult present.
We have the lowest rape convictions for an age, as noble Lords have mentioned. As Dame Vera Baird said, 1.5% of rape cases reach court, meaning that 98% do not. We have long argued for the inclusion of domestic abuse and sexual offences in the definition of “serious violence”. We argued for violence against women and girls to be a strategic policing issue, given the same prominence as terrorism and organised crime. We argued for safeguards to be set out on the extraction of data from victims’ phones. We argued for a lifting of the limit for prosecution of common assault or battery in domestic abuse cases. We argued for a review into spiking, so that we can get to the bottom of this appalling practice. None of these measures were included in the Government’s original Bill. They are all there as a result of the campaigning work of women’s organisations, the Labour Party and, I have to say, the Liberal Democrats and other Members of your Lordships’ House. We have changed the law for women for the better. The Government have been asked some pertinent questions by my noble friend Lady Kennedy about ensuring that misogyny is made a hate crime and publishing a perpetrator strategy at the end of the month, as the Domestic Abuse Act requires. The Government must adopt these measures.
Turning to health, the area in which I work, we need the women’s health strategy to be produced. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has now said that it will be. The UK has been found to have the largest female health gap in the G20 and the 12th-largest globally. Research has shown a gender health gap in the UK where many women receive poorer healthcare than men and are routinely misunderstood, mistreated and misdiagnosed. There is still a great deal of work to do.
I want briefly to turn to the international issues mentioned by several noble Lords. I just want to add my voice and say this: what a short-sighted, counter- productive decision it was to reduce funding for women and girls across the world at every single level. This was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, my noble friend Lady Armstrong—virtually everybody. We need to return the funding for women and girls to its pre-2020 level; this requires the return of the £1.9 billion in programming. We need it now. We cannot afford not to find it.
I want to mention two other issues. One is to do with bias and tone. Both the current Secretary of State for Health and his predecessor have called out my honourable colleague Rosena Allin-Khan at the Dispatch Box because they did not appreciate her tone. That makes me quite angry because when men do that and say to women, “You’re not using the right tone, my dear”, what they are actually saying is, “You shouldn’t be speaking at all. Please speak only with our permission”. I place that on the table but, do not worry, my honourable friend Rosena is absolutely aware what is happening: those men are saying that she should not be speaking.
Finally, the Labour Party is the party of equality. We are the party of the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equality Act. We understand that our society, our economy and our country are poorer if women cannot play their full part. Women hold the key to a stronger economy. My noble friend Lord Sikka was quite right and I have been asking, all the time I have been in the House, for gender impact assessments. We have been asking for them for many years, so I plead with the Minister to add that to her to-do list.
International Women’s Day is always a bittersweet moment. It celebrates how far we have come, which is a great distance—certainly a great distance in the time I have been in your Lordships’ House—but also notes, with regret, how far we still have to go. It is a chance to recommit ourselves to the struggle for women, the girls of today, and our daughters and granddaughters of tomorrow. Women across the country and the world deserve security, prosperity and respect. We think a Labour Government would give them that but, for as long as we are still on these Benches, we will push the Government to deliver it.
Well, my Lords, here’s to mission impossible. I will do my very best to answer as many questions as I can. I am sure that I will not be able to answer them all but, with my officials, I will make sure that I write a letter, that every question is answered, that the Committee will all receive a copy and that it goes into the Library. I can tell noble Lords that it is definitely not a second-class debate and I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, of my great mantra: it is not what you say, it is what you do; and it is not what you promise, but what you deliver. That is what we should all be judged on.
If I may have a moment to say to the noble Lord, Lord Young: William Booth was absolutely at the head of equality. He commissioned men as lieutenants, captains and all the rest of it, but there were as many women holding the same ranks. There was no differential.
He was. We have heard some powerful, moving and challenging questions today from across the Room, and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed. The richness of this debate shows how important it is that we have the opportunity to mark International Women’s Day and highlight the wide range of challenges that disproportionately affect women and prevent them accessing the opportunities to help them thrive.
I will deal with one of the elephants in the room, which is not having this debate on the day that so many wanted it. I remember being asked about this in an Oral Question. I went to find out and am advised—I have no reason to disbelieve it—that the usual channels agreed time for the debate as soon as was possible. I will make the case, as much as I can, to have it on a better day.
I have agreed to meet you to do that and I stand by that.
I will start by talking about Ukraine; there are many things to talk about in that respect. The noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Loomba, and others mentioned it. We are absolutely committed to supporting Ukrainian women and girls, recognising the critical contribution that women are making on the front line and in communities affected by the conflict. Somebody told me that women were making Molotov cocktails to try to keep back the Russians. All power to their elbows.
We are particularly concerned about the impact of the conflict on women and girls. They will be more exposed to the risk of violence, particularly sexual and gender-based violence. We acknowledge the vital work of civil society organisations. I think I am a poacher turned gamekeeper in that respect, so noble Lords can be assured of my support for good civil society organisations.
I reflect that, when I stood with the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN on Monday, he asked me to do one thing: come back here and ask everybody, regardless of whether they were politicians or not, to help these women and children integrate into our communities when they come to our country. If we do not, sex traffickers will get hold of them. They will be forced into prostitution, there will be forced adoptions—the list goes on. I gave him my word that I would do that. I ask noble Lords to get that message out to make sure that we can stand by the ambassador’s need.
I did not attend all of the concert at the Met but I was there. A Ukrainian bass sang the Ukrainian national anthem. He fell into the arms of the conductor afterwards, such was the depth of despair he felt. Let us all continue to stand by these dear people who need us.
I will answer the question about the Istanbul convention. The UK remains strongly committed to ratification of the Istanbul convention. Almost all the obstacles to ratification have now been removed. We should be in a position to ratify the convention quite soon. [Laughter.] I did not think that was funny; I was being serious.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, mentioned political representation. They gave some figures about the balance of people. We must congratulate the Greens on their 100% record; that is worthy of mention. We will come later to the issue of women in political life and the abuse that goes with it, if I get to answer that. The Government continue to keep Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 under review but remain of the view that political parties should lead the way in improving diverse electoral representation through their own selection.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, talked about the development strategy having women and girls right throughout it. The Government will publish a new international development strategy this spring. That will guide our work for the coming decades and beyond. The new strategy will prioritise spending on life-saving humanitarian aid and support women and girls. The Foreign Secretary is committed to that, and will go through the business plan and strategy development.
The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and others talked about an equality impact assessment of the ODA cuts. We treat equality issues seriously. The UK is a leading global voice on women and girls, LGBT people, disability and wider human rights. We have processes in place through spending reviews and FCDO business planning to ensure that we meet our legal obligations. The equalities assessment was a snapshot in March 2021 aimed at predicting how spending decisions for 2021-22 would have an impact on protected groups. As we move through the project cycle, we will review the actual impact of the spending.
On scrutiny and transparency, which was also raised, we fulfil our international legal and public transparency commitments and continue to be accountable to Parliament and taxpayers for how we spend UK aid and to mandate our partners to be transparent.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham mentioned Lesotho. One thing that came out of this week was that someone asked the question: why are women not in the room when decisions are made, because the decisions would be very different? We want women in the room, women in the chair and women in the lead.
I come to the question asked many times by the right reverend Prelate about the two-child limit. The last time I answered it, I got told off for being a little discourteous, so let me be as polite as I can. Nothing has changed since I answered the question last time and there is nothing else I can say that will help him.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and my noble friend Lord Sandhurst mentioned childcare. This will be critical to get women in work, back to work and into better jobs. I had the pleasure of talking to people from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Denmark, and we formed what you could call an unholy alliance. We will exchange information about what happens in our countries and see whether we can learn from each other to make improvements. Childcare is critical, because this issue is stopping women taking more hours and progressing, and we should redouble our efforts to find solutions to make that better.
The right reverend Prelate asked about the official development assistance budget for women and girls. The Foreign Secretary has been clear that we intend to restore funding to women and girls and to humanitarian programmes. Our spending review 2021 highlighted that we will increase aid funding for our highest priorities. We are bound by the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014 to ensure that gender equality remains at the heart of the UK’s work on international development and humanitarian crises.
In November, the Foreign Secretary announced that she would restore ODA funding for women and girls to pre-cut levels. The baseline year and timing of restoration is under discussion as part of the Foreign Office’s business planning process. So it will be done, but I cannot say when. That is one that I will not let go until he gets the answer he needs.
To mark International Women’s Day, the UK was proud to launch new funding for women’s rights organisations and civil society actors, and there is a £220 million pot of humanitarian aid, to which we are making our largest ever aid match. It will contribute to the Disasters Emergency Committee Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal, matching the first £25 million donated, so it is not insignificant.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson asked about the new convention to hold perpetrators of sexual violence to account. As part of the network of liberty, the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative remains a key focus for the UK Government, and the Foreign Secretary has made tackling sexual violence in conflict one of her top priorities. In November 2021, the Foreign Secretary announced her intention to work towards a new convention on sexual violence in conflict, and it is an opportunity to strengthen the international response to prevent such atrocities, support survivors and hold perpetrators to account.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson and others asked about Afghanistan and what is going on there. I will write on that point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, talked about a rollback of rights. The UK is recognised as a world leader in defending and promoting women and girls’ rights. We have a reputation for addressing often neglected or difficult issues on the global stage, such as sex education and relationships, access to safe abortion, female genital mutilation, child marriage and gender-based violence. In negotiations at the UN and in other multilateral fora, the UK stands firm against organised attempts to undermine women and girls’ rights, including a big discussion at this year’s Commission on the Status of Women.
I also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, that I would be very pleased to learn about the VSO, so if she would like to jack up a meeting, I will be there. I was listening to a very powerful story from a Minister from Chad about how their water has completely run out, so they cannot grow food or look after themselves. It was heart-rending.
On engaging with women’s organisations, I have held a series of round tables with women across England to discuss the impact of Covid-19. I also hosted a round table at the UN with civil society organisations. If there is an organisation noble Lords think I should speak to, please let me know and I will endeavour to meet it.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, mentioned Kashmir. We recognise that there are many human rights concerns in Indian-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. We encourage all states to ensure domestic law is in line with international standards. The British high commission in New Delhi and our network of deputy high commissioners work closely with Indian civil society and non-governmental organisations to promote gender equality and tackle gender-based violence. The noble Lord asked me to write, so I will do so afterwards. Time is not on my side today, that is for sure.
My noble friend Lord Farmer made a really good point about somebody—I cannot say her name, so I will not embarrass myself. She is a sign and we should make sure that we give our support in that way. My noble friend also spoke about sport. It is something that everyone in the country should feel able to take part in. It is for sporting bodies to set the guidelines about trans people in sporting competitions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy—I nearly called her a noble friend, as that is what often comes out; we are friends—talked about violence against women, women not being able to walk down the street for fear of what might happen and the terrible verbal and physical abuse women experience. I will take back the point she made about what is going on in Scotland. I am advised that we will be publishing a new hate crime strategy in due course, which will take the Law Commission’s recommendations into account. Let us be under no illusion: it is serious stuff and needs to be dealt with.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who I agree is an inspiration on international issues, asked about support for Burma. Myanmar is a focus country for the UK National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, as well as the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative. The UK has sought to integrate support for GBV survivors across its humanitarian and development programme and has provided flexible funding to women and LGBT-led organisations. The UK is also supporting the UN LIFT Fund to reduce the risk of trafficking and support survivors. The term “deaf ears” was mentioned, so we will turn the volume up on that and do our best.
My noble friend Lord Sandhurst and the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy and Lady Thornton, raised the issue of sexual harassment. It is just not on: every woman should be able to live without fear of harassment or violence in the workplace as much as anywhere else. As the debate about the future of the workplace proceeds, the Government are committed to making sure that people feel safe and supported to thrive.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, made a very important point about freedom of speech. I fully support him, and I know that I can count on all noble Lords to be respectful of each other’s views. If we do not show respect, we will not get the debate that we need. We might not agree with each other on certain things, but we have to have an open and honest debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, was delighted that he was working with Rotary International and Rotary in this country. It is a great organisation, and sometimes the things it does do not get the credit they deserve, so perhaps he will go back and thank them from me for what they are doing with his efforts to make money for this important appeal.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, raised the issue of South Sudan. On Sudan, Her Majesty’s Government are committed to continuing to support sexual and reproductive health rights for 2022 and 2023, and our female genital mutilation funding will continue until next year. On South Sudan, as part of our humanitarian assistance and resilience-building, we have a programme called HARISS. We fund a six-year, £25 million UK-funded programme. International medical corporations work with communities and local authorities to raise awareness of gender-based violence to improve safety for women in their communities, and to provide confidential and survivor-centred case management and psycho-social support.
I am out of time, and I am feeling that I have failed noble Lords miserably in answering their questions, but I have the answers, so, as I said, I will write to noble Lords and make sure that all their questions are answered—so my officials will have homework to do. They will not be passing me notes but writing letters. If I may bring the debate to a conclusion, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I stand ready to do my bit as much as I am able to on this particular issue and, especially, to stand up for women. With that, I beg to move.
Committee adjourned at 4.58 pm.