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International Women’s Day

Volume 828: debated on Friday 10 March 2023

Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Moved by

That this House takes note of International Women’s Day and steps to support the education of women and girls in the United Kingdom and worldwide.

My Lords, I will take the opportunity of this International Women’s Day to emphasise the vital importance of educating and attracting more women and girls into engineering.

The UK has a real shortage of engineers and there is a pressing need to diversify our engineering workforce. According to recent analysis by EngineeringUK, only around 15% of engineers are women. The supply of UK engineering skills has largely stagnated in recent years. In higher education, the proportion of students studying it has remained at around 5% for 15 years. UCAS data on university application and acceptance figures for the 2020 cycle shows that women represent just 18% and 16% of accepted applications to engineering and computing degrees respectively. At the current rate of progress, gender parity among entrants to engineering degrees will not be achieved until 2085. The number of young people starting engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships has also been in decline.

The UK is not unique in this. There is a global skills shortage in engineering; there are simply not enough engineers to tackle pressing global challenges, such as climate change. Engineers play a hugely important role in shaping the world we live in, not least in the engineering response to the Covid-19 pandemic and in helping us reach net zero emissions by 2050, so it is even more important that the engineering profession reflects the whole society it seeks to serve.

Over the last five years, the Royal Academy of Engineering has made it a particular mission to show what engineers and engineering really look like, changing public perceptions of engineering and inspiring a new generation to choose it as a career. The academy’s digital This is Engineering campaign aims to inspire young people from all backgrounds to consider engineering as a career.

The All-Party Parliamentary Engineering Group, the APPEG, is very active in inspiring young people about engineering. I declare an interest as its co-chair, along with Laurence Robertson MP. Sponsored by a range of engineering companies and organisations, we invite schools from all over the country to lunch events in the Cholmondeley Room here in the Lords. Typically, each event is attended by about 100 schoolchildren, all doing A-levels in sciences. Around 50% of them are girls. Each event covers a different engineering subject and brief presentations are made by three practising engineers, two of whom are usually young women. There is plenty of time for questions, and there are always many from the schoolchildren.

Recent APPEG events have covered a wide range of topics: engineering for disaster relief in developing countries; engineering for the space industry; engineering for the food industry; and, most recently, the engineering of skyscrapers. The feedback from the schoolchildren at these events has been superb. All of them have had their eyes opened to the huge variety of opportunities in engineering, particularly the girls, and many of them resolve to apply to engineering courses at university.

Progress in engaging young girls in technical subjects is steadily being made, albeit slowly. A 2022 report from EngineeringUK, Women in Engineering, found that around 15% of those working in engineering are women, compared with around 10% in 2010. This proportion is still much too small, but at least it is increasing. The engineering sector is aiming for 30% of the workforce being female by 2030, which is not high enough but would be a substantial improvement.

How should the education of girls change to achieve further improvement? The real barrier to girls entering the engineering profession is perception. At a very young age, peer pressure has a strong influence on what girls decide to study. Many girls miss out because they perceive that engineering is about only machinery or hard hats and construction—apparently subjects only for boys—and they do not want to be thought of as the odd one out. This perception of engineering as a boy’s subject is also widely held by parents and many teachers. In fact, engineering is very much wider than machinery or hard hats and construction. It is simply applied science, and covers a huge range of subjects, including building the net-zero world of tomorrow— ranging from biotech to environmental solutions, and from innovative new materials to novel energy systems such as hydrogen. These subjects are all very creative and potentially very attractive to girls.

Arguably, the misperceptions about engineering are already there by the time a girl reaches secondary school. Education about science and technology should really begin at primary school age. Primary Engineer, an organisation founded in 2005 by Dr Susan Scurlock, does just this. Each year, it engages around 4,000 teachers, 60,000 pupils and 1,500 engineers from hundreds of companies. When children as young as three and four are exposed to exciting engineering, they become inspired. Importantly, when engineering is offered at such an early age, gender is hardly an issue—not only can girls be engineers but the boys know that girls can be engineers.

Inspiring girls about STEM subjects, especially at primary school level, is all important. We must make it an urgent priority to provide many more girls with the skills needed for the exciting, highly varied and fulfilling world of engineering. They are the future, and have so much to offer.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for bringing this Motion to the House. International Women’s Day is an important date in our annual international calendar. It has come a long way from that first gathering by the Socialist Party of America in New York on 28 February 1909. The following year, the International Socialist Women’s Conference was organised in Copenhagen in Denmark, and the following year the day was observed in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and so on—and the rest, as they say, is history. It is a well-known fact that the genesis of this movement is rooted in a true socialist ideology: equality for all—for men and women of all races and creeds. I am pleased to be speaking on this issue in your Lordships’ House.

Over the centuries, women and girls in every country, community and culture have suffered at the hands of male-dominated societies. This suffering has been horrendous, not only in western societies but even more so in eastern societies. In some eastern societies, girls were seen as burden—not worth having—because when they were married off, the family had to give them dowries, which put a dent in their family’s wealth.

My mother, Joginder Kaur Sahota, grew up in the 1930s in Punjab in India, when school for girls was unheard of. She married my father, Gurdial Singh Sahota, in the late 1940s and had several children. In 1967, she moved to the UK. She became a widow at 49 and threw herself into looking after the welfare of the family. Eventually when grandchildren arrived, she took them all under her wing, including my two sons, while their parents went to work. As the years passed on, I once asked her, “Mum, is there anything in your life you did not have and you wished you had?” She replied, “Yes, I wish I could read. It does not matter what language, I just want to read books.” Alas, she never learned to read. She had 12 grandchildren, and she encouraged every one of them to study hard if they wanted to get on well in their lives. Every one of them now has a university degree and is doing well, yet she had a thirst for education all her life. She passed away in 2020 at the age of 91, without knowing that two years later her eldest son would become a proud member of your Lordships’ House.

All the mothers of the world are wonderful. On this International Women’s Day, I say something that should not be confined to just one day of the year but should be said every day: we should value men and women equally and as equal partners. Societies, cultures and Governments that deny education to their girls in this day and age should listen to their mothers. The world has moved on leaps and bounds from my mother’s younger days. Every country is doing its best to close the gender gap in every field—in educational attainment, economic participation and opportunity, health, survival, political empowerment and so on.

However, there still remains in this day and age the problem of gender stereotyping. In some countries, poor families often still favour the boys when it comes to investing in education because the boys are seen as the breadwinners. There still remain many barriers and problems for women and girls in a male-dominated society. According to the World Economic Forum, at the present rate of progress it will take 150 years to close the political empowerment gender gap, 150 years to close the economic participation and opportunity gender gap, and 22 years to close the educational attainment gap.

Currently, women represent only 35% of those in STEM education. Around 129 million girls in the world are out of school, including 32 million of primary school age and 97 million of secondary school age. These figures are unacceptable. The large companies of the world, such as Microsoft and Unilever, have launched a global programme called Girls’ Education Skills Partnership. I applaud them for their effort and call on other large companies of the world to search their consciences and do likewise.

I have a six year-old granddaughter, Puneet Sahota. When I compare her opportunities with my mother’s, they could not be more different. But, sadly, many of the barriers that my mother faced remain for my granddaughter. On that, none of us should rest until those barriers are permanently removed. To all the incredible women who make the world a better place, I wish happy International Women’s Day.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Lampard on her excellent speech and welcome her to this House.

The last time I participated in a debate on International Women’s Day, I spoke about my personal experience of working in financial services in the 1980s and how I was confronted with sexual harassment, molestation and abuse. The view then was that, if you wanted to make it in a man’s world, you had to pay the price and shut up. Thankfully, today in the UK, that kind of behaviour is considered totally unacceptable, even illegal. The view that only men can succeed in politics, business or the arts is no longer acceptable. We have moved a long way in one generation.

The challenge today is to get the balance right and not let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction. We should not condemn femininity, nor should we emasculate men. We should not wage a war between the sexes. Above all, we should not fall into an ideological split between true feminists, of which there are many in this House, and groups that promote extreme ideologies to the detriment of women’s rights. Woman should be allowed to identify themselves as women; allowed to speak without fear of being cancelled; and allowed to have their own space and privacy. Unless we women rise up against these belligerent gender-based ideologies, we will reverse all the hard-fought progress that we have achieved since the 1960s, while the next generation will find themselves more confused and constrained than our parents ever were.

This is why I am deeply concerned at what is being taught in schools, where external lobby groups have been allowed to disseminate inappropriate teaching materials to promote their belief that gender identity is a fact. Of course, teaching children about the lives, experiences and rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual people is welcome; it will help them to understand sexuality in a non-judgmental manner and develop empathy for people from different backgrounds and with different beliefs. However, this is far removed from teaching children that there are 100 genders, and that they may have been born in the wrong body; and encouraging them to believe that changing their gender could be the solution to their problems and anxieties. This is moving from the factual to the ideological. Sex is binary and immutable; encouraging children to believe otherwise is unscientific and dangerous.

Girls often reject womanhood as they start to go through puberty; this is an understandable reaction to their bodies changing and to society’s expectations of what a woman should be. When I lived with my parents in Africa, I had short hair, climbed trees and played with Dinky Toys; that tells noble Lords my age. I wanted to be a boy; I behaved like a boy. This was a phase of my development into who I am today. Not all girls who prefer male pursuits when they are young are trans.

Propagating ideologies that are not based on facts and indoctrinating children reminds me of the Soviet Union. This gender ideology plays straight into the hands of Mr Putin, who accuses the West of moving towards Stalinism—that is a funny comment from him—and

“teaching sexual deviation to children”.

As he explains,

“we’re fighting to protect our children and our grandchildren from this experiment to change their souls … The Russian people still know which bathroom to use.”

Thank goodness for Miriam Cates, who is calling for an urgent inquiry into what is being taught in schools. Will my noble friend the Minister urgently review the material used at school? Will she also press for RSE lessons to be truly age-appropriate? Does she not agree that talking about sexual desires with adults is not only embarrassing for children but is a clear safeguarding red flag?

While we are talking here about our rights, we must remember all the Ukrainian women and children who, at this moment, do not have that privilege. Their concern is survival. Their wish is to end the war, to end the devastation of their country and to survive.

My Lords, I am grateful for the privilege of being able to speak in this debate. I express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, for the way she introduced the debate and, in particular, for her concluding remark that much remains still to be done, as we have heard from so many speakers. I also extend a warm welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, and congratulations on an outstanding maiden speech. I think we have an association, as I am interested in addictions and the noble Baroness’s work with GambleAware. Perhaps we can speak about the assistance we give to people, as an increasing number are having problems with gambling addiction.

I am a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on 12-step recovery from addictions, and that led me, prompted by my noble friend Lady Donaghy, to try to get in in on her Oral Question on Wednesday. I will repeat her Question for the benefit of the government Front Bench:

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve women’s safety (1) from domestic violence, and (2) in the streets.”—[Official Report, 8/3/23; col 795.]

A number of the questions asked in that short debate were not answered.

I have worked on domestic violence, particularly in relation to alcohol and drugs, and in fairness to the Government, I am pleased to say we are seeing some progress being made on drugs. A very good drugs strategy has been drawn up, and I thank the Government for that. In due course it will, I hope, ease some of the pressures arising from domestic violence. I pay tribute to Dame Carol Black, who has led the work and the research and produced a wonderful report. I hope the Government will be willing to encourage and support Dame Carol Black in doing similar work on alcohol. They had a good strategy in 2012 under David Cameron; regrettably, it was not followed through. There remains a lot of work to be done on alcohol and its effect on women and girls, particularly those living on the streets, so we could do with a strategy.

Life for women has improved in many areas, as my noble friend Lord Monks, demonstrated, but in other areas we are still struggling and I regret to say that in some, we are going backwards. An example is pornography, which is a growth industry on a tremendous scale. We are seeking to address it through the Online Safety Bill but, regrettably, the Government’s attempts are falling well short of what is required. I welcome what we are doing to try to prevent children accessing online pornography, but clearly, the availability of pornographic content that depicts violence and abuse is not just a matter of child protection. I bring to the House’s attention the report by the APPG on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, which is well worth reading to discover the all-pervading extent of pornography. As the pornography industry grows, its impact on the whole of society increases.

We do not debate this enough. We do not stand up and say that a halt must be called or at least an attempt made to reverse the direction we are going in. Next week, some of us will be sampling the metaverse opportunities that are now developing, where you put a headset on. As I understand it—with others, I will experience it next week—what is happening there is really quite frightening. We now have censorship, in the lightest possible way, applied in the film industry and with DVDs, but there is no such approach adopted with regard to the material we have online. It is time to review that, to seek a change and to try to find legislation. We need to do that because I suspect that what will come with metaverse digital technology developments will be even more difficult to contain and regulate than what we have experienced in the past. In turn, there will be consequences which will, in particular, affect women and girls.

I hope that the Minister will say that the Government share the views I am expressing about pornography and its growth. What are they doing about it and what will they do to try to reverse the trend?

My Lords, on International Women’s Day, while we are discussing very important issues such as steps taken to support the education of women and girls in the United Kingdom and worldwide, we must not forget those women in conflict zones facing physical torture, verbal abuse, harassment, rape and murder with complete impunity. One of those areas is Kashmir, where I was born.

According to a London School of Economics and Political Science article of 14 September 2020 entitled “Indian Apathy and Systemic Violence against Women in Kashmir”:

“The reality of Indian democracy is most conspicuously exposed in Kashmir, a truth that no nationalist Indian wants to hear. On August 5, 2019, the Indian state stripped Kashmir of article-370 followed by the denial of very essential rights via regular crackdowns on the internet … and phone services, restriction on movement, prolonged lockdowns, and so on to make Kashmiri life even more wearisome. Besides, the routine humiliation—army and police checkpoints, surveillance, harassment, blockades, illegal detentions, profiling—that the people face has become a gruesome yet banal reality of their everyday existence … For the half-widows of Kashmir (husband disappeared/taken away by security forces or militants) leading a dignified life can become a real challenge. In a typical Kashmiri society, women’s identity is intertwined with their husband’s once a woman is married off, she becomes the man’s responsibility. Thus, many of these women (half-widows) and their children get into a survival crisis with no source of income. Nyla Ali Khan an academic … writes ‘the lack of closure in their lives makes their existence unbearable’ … The deep-seated prejudice in India towards Kashmiri women and men is also evident in the selective criminalization of Kashmiris typically—Ali Muhammad Bhat, Lattef Ahmad Waza, Mirza Nasir Hussain wrongfully imprisoned for 23 years, and recently a Kashmiri couple in Delhi, Jahanzaib Sami and Hina Bashir, arrested on alleged charges of links with ISI—as it is quite easy to picture Muslim and Kashmiri labels together with ‘beard and burqa’ as terrorists”.

This is the tip of the iceberg. There are tens of thousands of men and women held in different parts of Indian prisons, often charged under the notorious Public Safety Act or sedition, provocation and anti-state activities laws.

I will share three examples of women held in prison away from Kashmir for a long period. The first is Asiya Andrabi, founder and chairman of one of south Asia’s biggest women’s organisations, Dukhtaran-e-Millat. Aged 58, she is one of the most prominent woman pro-freedom leaders of Kashmir, and is a science graduate in biochemistry, biotherapy, and bacteriology. Andrabi is the first woman resistance leader from Kashmir, who has been booked under the Public Safety Act 20 times since 1993. In 1998 she was arrested for opening rehabilitation centres for widows and orphans of rebels and political dissidents killed by the Indian state.

The charge against Andrabi is simple: she fiercely advocates Kashmir’s liberation from Indian rule. In October 1990 Andrabi married Ashiq Hussain, a resistance ideologist who happens to be Kashmir’s longest-serving political prisoner. The couple have spent only four years together in their 28-year marriage. The 58 year-old Andrabi suffers from various life-threatening diseases and is denied medical support.

The second is Sofi Fehmeeda, who on 20 April 2018 was arrested by the National Investigation Agency of India and charged with sedition. Since then, Sofi has been imprisoned in Tihar, and her mother is still waiting for her release. The third is Nahida Nasreen, who has spent two years in prison, also in New Delhi, which is far away from Kashmir. She is a graduate in theology and Islamic studies.

There are thousands of similar cases of men and women who are held in Indian prisons. Their only real crime is to have taken part in the campaign for the right to self-determination, which was promised by India at the United Nations in 1948 and 1949. I ask the Minister to say what the British Government can do to aid the release of prisoners, such as these three ladies, from Indian prisons. Furthermore, are the British Government prepared to link human rights to their free trade deal with India?

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord and to take part in this interesting debate. I welcome the chance to make a short contribution. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, on her maiden speech. I am sure we all look forward to hearing many more of them, and I am sure she will now have the same sense of relief having made it that we all in our time have had ourselves.

The Motion that we are debating refers to the education of women and girls, and I want to speak today about women and science. It is a good week to do this because on Monday this week we had a major science event in the other place called STEM for Britain, about which I will say more in a moment, and next Monday we have another major science event called Voice of the Future where, to put it bluntly, there is a role reversal: members of the Science and Technology Select Committee and the major spokespeople for science for the major parties appear before a group of younger scientists and engineers sitting around the horseshoe.

I declare an interest: I am president of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. My colleague in another place, the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock, is the chair, and between us we do a great deal to help to improve the extent to which Parliament has the opportunity to debate and discuss science.

In a debate such as this, I need hardly say that we need to celebrate the achievement of women in science to consider some of the barriers that still exist to their making their full contribution. Over recent years there have been plenty of reasons why the opportunities for women to study science have not been as great as they could have been. By the way, I thank the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the House of Commons Library and other scientific societies for providing far more statistics than I could ever get into this speech today.

There are many strategies that the science community could adopt to address what is known as the leaky pipeline. In particular, we must do more to encourage women taking career breaks to keep in touch with their science, to make it easier for them to return as soon they want to and not to positions less senior than those they occupied before taking a maternity break, for example.

It is a well-known fact that female scientists frequently fail to get proper credit for their research. Rosalind Franklin, whose name is now rather more historical than current, was the X-ray crystallographer who made possible the discoveries of Watson and Crick—who got the Nobel prize. I am not saying that they did not deserve it—after all, we have the world-famous Crick Institute by St Pancras now—but Rosalind was not even referred to in their paper, which is a scandal. The problem of undercrediting women in science remains.

We must not forget that people still suffer from a great deal of sexism. I read in the Evening Standard this week about the first woman Tube driver, who started in 1978. Well, 11 years earlier, in 1967, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, probably Britain’s most distinguished living astrophysicist, personally discovered pulsars, a remarkable discovery for which she did not get sufficient credit. She has it now but did not then. She was left off the paper, and other people—men—got the Nobel prize. She has gone on to win almost every scientific prize you can think of. I was at the Royal Society last week to see her get another one, but she should have been properly recognised from the beginning. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for reminding them that when she made her historic discovery in 1967, it was her male colleagues who were asked about the astrophysical significance of the discovery. Guess what she was asked about? I am sorry to have to tell your Lordships that it was her bust size, her hip size and how many boyfriends she had. You could not make it up.

I like to think that things have changed since then, but many Members of this House will be wondering whether they are quite so sure. We have a lot of women active in science. Anyone who listened the other day to Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who presents “The Sky at Night”, will know how inspirational she is. I was interested to hear that they have now manufactured a new Barbie doll based on her. I have only seen the photo in newspapers, but the doll has a dress that looks like the night sky. I hope that this will get people interested in astronomy because, whether you are male or female, it is nothing short of amazing.

My time is running out, so I ought to get in a couple of other references. The first Briton in space was a woman, not a man. A few years ago, Tim Peake got a lot of publicity. That is fine, but the first Briton in space was Helen Sharman, more than 30 years ago. There are other women scientists, such as Sarah Gilbert, who developed the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine and who has been recognised, I am glad to say, and Catherine Green. Others have also in their time been given a Barbie doll in their image.

I want to say a word about an event that took place in the other part of this building on Monday, STEM for Britain. It is a competition for early career researchers who bring their papers to display and discuss them. Their local Members of Parliament are invited to meet them. Others, including some Members of this House, came along to support them, and very welcome they were too. The proportion of women in the five major categories this year was heartening. Some 60% of the physicists were female, as were 55% of those in chemistry, 60% in the biosciences and 50% in maths but only 40% in engineering, which remains an area where there could be more equality.

My time is up, but these are the future. I welcome any support that this House can give to the promotion of women and girls in STEM subjects. I like to think that this House will have many other occasions on which we can discuss such an important subject.

My Lords, I declare my interest as founder, chairman and trustee of the Loomba Foundation, a UN-accredited NGO leading the global campaign to eradicate injustice against women whose husbands have died.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, I first pay tribute to my dear friend the late Baroness Betty Boothroyd, who for many years was not only a patron of the Loomba Foundation but a steadfast and vocal supporter of our campaign. She helped, in her inimitable way, to make people sit up and take notice. Betty attended all our events in London and, in 2004, came to India to meet destitute widows and see our work on the ground. The world needs fearless women like Betty Boothroyd, and I will always be grateful for her contribution.

Since International Women’s Day was introduced some 100 years ago, it has been true that, in many communities, women at all stages of life are marginalised and undervalued by traditions and ideas that are so deeply rooted that they are almost impossible to dislodge. It applies to girls deprived of education, women exploited in the workplace and widows deprived of their status and inheritance rights.

As a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development, I want to highlight the importance of fighting gender discrimination in all its forms if we are to secure a sustainable future for humanity and the planet. Ending poverty and hunger, achieving food security, ensuring healthy lives at all ages, ensuring quality education for all, achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls—none of these sustainable development goals can be achieved unless discrimination against all women, including schoolgirls and widows, is comprehensively ended.

When discussing gender inequality, we must see all forms of gender discrimination as aspects of the same problem and work together to tackle them all. This is what is meant by the guiding principle of the sustainable development goals, which is to leave no one behind.

Notwithstanding that International Women’s Day takes place every year on 8 March, in 2010 the UN adopted 23 June as International Widows Day, recognising the plight of millions of disadvantaged widows in developing countries who are suffering from poverty, illiteracy, diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, conflict and injustice.

The World Widows Report, which was produced by the Loomba Foundation in 2016 and remains the only comprehensive data source about discrimination faced by widows and their dependants, country by country and worldwide, starkly illustrates the practical impacts of discrimination in countries all over the world, with examples of property theft and land-grabbing, unjust inheritance laws, degrading so-called “cleansing” rituals, violence, abuse and intimidation.

If a widow cannot work to support her dependants, if she cannot inherit the family property or business, if she is unable to pay for her children to be schooled, the wealth and stability of the family is at risk. Last year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution recognising that discrimination and violence against widows are an impediment to the achievement of gender equality, the empowerment of all women and girls and the full realisation of all human rights.

Could the Minister tell us, first, whether an assessment has been made of which education and empowerment programmes for girls and women have been impacted by the reduction in development aid finance? Which countries are affected and what are the impacts? Secondly, in view of the reduced foreign aid, what can the Government do to increase effective partnerships with the private sector, as well as charity work and voluntary organisations, to help to tackle challenges faced by widows and their dependants?

My Lords—there is an irony in that phrase—I will say a few words about the independent report on child abuse, which has had very little airing because its publicity was waylaid by a number of fantasists and their encouragers. I think I accurately observe that all of the people involved in that were men. I spent 30 days on that report and represented 30 people, a number of whom were men who had faced the most horrific abuse as children. But the vast majority of people whom I represented from my area were women.

In the 2015 election, when I went around seeking election, as one does, randomly knocking on doors, something happened with unnerving regularity. I would knock on a door, a woman would answer, thank me for my work on child abuse and say something like, “There’s something you need to know.” I have done a lot of canvassing—probably as much as anyone in the country—and I am familiar with trends on the doorstep. That was a trend—I was randomly knocking. I was well known in my area: people recognised and, clearly, sufficiently trusted me. Those cases are not in the system, and the lessons from that inquiry are not being learned—there are some huge lessons.

One thing that I immediately gleaned from that was a suspicion that the problem was hugely deeper than I was aware of. I gathered a group of young women, mainly teenagers but a few more in their very early 20s, to look at the situation anonymously—I was not there. They were asked to say what was happening and what the situation is for young women in this country. The feedback I got, in total and absolute confidence, which I would never breach—other than to generalise—is that the level of sexual assault and impropriety with young women in this country has gone up very significantly, and not from a low watermark to begin with. This is not in the public domain because none of them had taken a case even to their parents, usually, never mind to the authorities, given the trauma of doing that. They were living with this. In itself, that seems a major problem, but the growth in it is also a problem. It is obviously linked, but we are not effectively addressing it. I note the way in which young boys grow up and their interrelationship—pornography was raised previously. What they see as the norm, and indeed what girls see as an acceptable norm at the time, are a major problem, and as a society, we are doing nothing about it.

In the child abuse report, there are only a few nuggets that I think help. One is looking at what are the resource and expertise within schools. The idea that random teachers or low-grade—in terms of status—support workers can handle this is clearly nonsense. This problem is the single biggest unseen problem that we face as a country.

I have no lived experience as a woman, of course, but, looking around our generation—I am not suggesting that we started from a high-water level at all; the child abuse inquiry demonstrated many examples of that—as decision-makers, we are way off the mark in understanding how deep this problem goes, never mind what can be done to solve it. If there was one role for this Chamber, this House, it would be to set up its own special commission to look at this in a proper, deep and thorough way and to come up with more practical answers and put the spotlight on this danger. If we do not, we as a country and society will suffer very bad consequences.

I wish a belated happy International Women’s Day to your Lordships—your “Lordships” again; never mind—and I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward this debate and noble Baronesses across the House for making sure that this debate is an annual, permanent and ongoing event. It is a very important day in our calendar, and long may that be the case.

The challenges are, as we have heard, wide ranging and significant. That is not to say that there has not been progress, but it is important to be aware of those challenges. It is also important, in these days when International Women’s Day has been corporatised and sanitised, to remember its radical roots in the United States and Europe in the early 1900s and that this ought to be a genuinely bipartisan issue—many of the most militant suffragettes went on to be Conservatives. They were impatient for change on an issue of fundamental human rights, and we should all still be impatient for that change and for the completion of some of the tasks that we have begun. I will use my remaining time to talk about equal pay and to float, or develop, an idea of which I have given notice to both Front Benches and which I urge all noble Baronesses and allies to consider with open hearts and minds.

We have had equal pay legislation, famously, in this country for over 50 years. This country was one of the pioneers in the global community on equal pay, but not so much any more. As I floated with the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott—I note that it is not her but the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, who will be responding to this debate—on International Women’s Day, following a Question from my noble friend Lady Twycross, it is my belief that there is a historical and fatal flaw in equal pay legislation. That was Labour legislation; I am proud of it, but there is more to do.

The problem is this: we have left it to individual workers and employees—for today’s purposes, women—to find out, first, what their colleagues are getting paid, not just in the same job but in equivalent work; and, once they have found out what a comparator looks like, we leave it to them to sue their employer, with or without the help of their trade union, to enforce equal pay law. We do not do that in relation to any other regulatory standards that we really care about in our complex, modern world. We do not leave it to parents to do their own detective work about this school’s standards versus that school’s standards and which is doing well, and then to sue the school. We do not do that; we have inspections, notices, advice and, ultimately, enforcement. The same goes for food standards, drug standards, environmental protection and health and safety.

If we really care about achieving equal pay, and if we really believe that it is morally and legally wrong not to pay humans in equivalent terms for equivalent work, we as a community—the Government and the state—need to take some role in inspecting and enforcing that principle. This is a genuinely bipartisan point, because it has not been done to date, and that is why I am offering it up—and not in the usual way; this is not a rhetorical question but a genuine offering for everyone to consider. In addition, it has not really been done in the world community yet, although in parts of Canada, and more recently Iceland, people have moved a little bit further.

There has been transparency—the Minister will know that there have been increasing moves towards enforcing transparency—but, even beyond transparency, we do not want to leave it to individual women to sue when they find out that there is not equal pay. An example of this is in Iceland, where for the last few years there has been a requirement for employers of more than 25 people to certificate. However, I think that we could do better than even that, with some kind of inspection regime, possibly with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which already has powers to look at people’s financial affairs, payrolls and so on for taxing purposes. Whichever agency is involved, could we not explore becoming world leaders again in this area? We should not leave this to individual women or other workers; instead, we should take some collective responsibility to complete the promise on equal pay, so that the law is not a dead letter in a closed book. It should be a living, breathing, enforceable provision of which we can all be incredibly proud.

My Lords, I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, on her maiden speech. She will make many more fine speeches in your Lordships’ House, and I assure her that none will feel as stressful to her as today’s.

Can the 35th of 36 Back-Bench speakers find anything new to say after so many powerful contributions? Well, here goes. In preparation for the debate, I went to the United Nations, which adopted International Women’s Day in 1977, although it dates back 115 years. Since then, the status and rights of women have certainly progressed. However, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his International Women’s Day message,

“we also recognize the enormous obstacles”


“face—from structural injustices, marginalization, and violence, to cascading crises that affect them first and worst, to the denial of their personal autonomy and rights over their bodies and lives.”

As the Minister said when opening the debate, this year the UN is using International Women’s Day to focus attention on the need for technology and innovation to advance gender equality. Technology can lift the lives of women and girls around the world in many ways, such as through greater access to education, healthcare and financial services, but there is a real need to confront the ability to close the connectivity gap. Today, 3 billion people are still unconnected to the internet, the majority of whom are women and girls in developing countries. The barriers that keep women and girls in those countries offline must be broken down; barriers such as the stereotypes, as we have heard in other contributions today, that discourage girls from studying science and maths—an issue highlighted very effectively and powerfully by my noble friend Lord Stansgate. Other barriers are the low levels of education and training in digital skills, and a lack of access to digital devices, data and job opportunities.

The developed world has also erected barriers. Today, women make up less than one-third of the workforce across science, technology, engineering and maths. In cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence, just one in five professionals is a woman. There is an urgent need to increase women’s participation and leadership in those areas, and that must start with broader recruitment pipelines and using quotas where they are deemed necessary.

I am not known for talking up the independent sector of education, but I commend the positive action taken this week by the Girls’ Schools Association, which has announced that it will adopt what it terms a gender-equitable approach to its investment management. It will in future invest only in companies with female leaders or a strong female presence on boards, and I say fair play to them for that initiative.

I also commend the British Chambers of Commerce. As my noble friend Lady Twycross mentioned earlier, it marked International Women’s Day by undertaking a survey involving more than 4,000 of its members to measure the impact that childcare, caring responsibilities and the menopause have on women’s career prospects. It found that two-thirds of women believe they have missed out on career progression as a result of childcare responsibilities, while almost half the women surveyed feel that they will miss out on career opportunities as a result of the menopause. The BCC is now launching a three-year gender equity campaign to tackle these issues with the estimable aim of, in its words, ensuring

“not only … the wellbeing of our women and workplaces”

but guaranteeing a stronger and more equitable economy. Such initiatives are necessary because the pace at which the pay gap in the UK is closing is glacial.

My noble friend Lady Chakrabarti has just mentioned the Equal Pay Act. I have had an active interest in that issue for a considerable time. Indeed, my university thesis in 1974 was on the implementation of the Equal Pay Act. Although that Act got on to the statute book under Labour in 1970, there was a five-year lead-in period for employers to make the changes necessary to accommodate the changes required by the legislation. That was always an optimistic aim, of course, but I doubt anybody then would have predicted that, 50 years later, more than a quarter of the gender pay gap would remain to be filled.

In 1974, women earned 36% less than median male hourly earnings; the latest available figure, issued by the Office for National Statistics in April last year, is, as other noble Lords have mentioned, 8.3%. That represents the comparison between full-time workers and excludes overtime earnings. Of course, more men than women work overtime and more women than men work part-time, so the 8.3% figure gives a distorted view of the gap in actual take-home pay between men and women. Taking all employees into account, the gender pay gap in 2022 was 14.9%. That surely reveals the scale of the task that remains to bring to an end the discrimination faced by women in the workplace.

Joining a trade union would be a useful first step, but this matters to women not just in financial terms but psychologically too. A survey by the Fawcett Society in 2019 found that two-thirds of women said pay discrimination had a detrimental impact on how they feel about their job or their employer. This included feeling less motivated and even wanting to leave their job.

However, all is not lost; help is at hand, because soon there will be a Labour Government. Our paper, A New Deal for Working People, will introduce a raft of measures to transform women’s working lives. These will include banning zero-hour contracts and fire and rehire; 57% of those on zero-hour contracts are women and they are common in sectors that women dominate. They also include ensuring all working women are afforded the same basic rights; implementing flexible working as a right from day one; and introducing paid carer’s leave. The Labour Government will also commit to taking menopause seriously at work and across society. Under Labour, large employers will be required to submit a menopause action plan, detailing how they are supporting their employees who experience symptoms of menopause at work, alongside their gender pay reporting each year.

Earlier, I quoted the UN Secretary-General’s International Women’s Day message. It included these words:

“Gender-based discrimination harms everyone—women, girls, men, and boys. International Women’s Day is a call to action.”

We must all ensure that we answer that call.

My Lords, computer glitches meant that I was kicked out of the list, so I am grateful to be taking part in this debate. I begin by recording my love and gratitude to my single parent, my mother, who navigated the hostility of the 1970s towards migrant and Muslim women while raising five children, all on her own. I too pay my humblest respect to our beloved and distinguished Baroness Boothroyd, whose kindness and affection I shall always hold very dear. I also warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, on her powerful contribution.

I acknowledge that some women have individually experienced distinctive success in their chosen professions. The fact remains that the overall societal, political and financial situation and experiences for the vast majority of women and their families remain stubbornly unchanged. We need only to ask public sector workers to understand the lack of any significant improvement for women’s socio-economic conditions. Notably, the inability to balance the cost of living crisis with high childcare costs means that women are leaving the workforce in their hundreds of thousands. The eloquent description by the Minister of the Government’s commitment to women is painfully out of kilter with women around the country, more so in the East End of London, which was also a significant base for the suffragettes.

The truth is that most women remain constrained by the same old social and economic bondage, and meaningful changes are possible only if we are absolutely committed to resources which bind our Government to mandate equal pay and equal participation in political office and, most crucially, to legislate for a society where women and girls can live free from fear of violence and abuse, be it on their streets, in their workplace, at the hands of law enforcement officers or in their own homes.

Noble Lords have already spoken eloquently about sexual harassment experienced by women in public spaces, which rises to 86% among 18 to 24 year-olds. That is worrying enough. Experts at the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and other organisations are alarmed at the heightened, frightening level of child physical and sexual abuse, exposure to graphic violent and pornographic content online, and grooming, which is endemic. I can testify to that as the chair of the APPG on the Metaverse and Web 3.0, having examined the issue, and as a practitioner in the field of child protection and domestic violence. I have witnessed the tragic long-term consequences for the mental and physical well-being of women and girls who have experienced long-term violence and abuse.

Locally and nationally, statutory and NGO services remain lamentably patchy and inadequate in empowering women’s financial, housing and emotional well-being. Community trauma and counselling services, which are a prerequisite aid for women survivors, are scarce.

All national and international institutions and Governments, including ours, remain pitifully male-dominated, with a handful of exceptions, including in this Chamber, where women have achieved their fullest potential and public leadership. Nevertheless, decision-makers on the economy, education, policing, housing, environment, climate, wars and even within the space of advanced technology appear doggedly determined to ensure that women remain peripheral, at the behest of belligerent men who create absolute havoc with wars and conflicts and cause suffering among innocent women and children in their millions who languish in refugee camps all over the world. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been subject to rape as a weapon of wars, both recent and past. They still wait for justice and reparation, including in Bangladesh.

I am often asked whether women leaders would make different choices. Impulsively, I would say yes, but that has not been the case recently given the ministerial gush of emotional outbursts on migrants. It is not at all the case that all women speak for the masses of women. We have done everything within our means to support—

I am finishing. The progress that we note today is fragile. As other noble Lords have said, we can pledge to do better and act faster to eradicate misogyny and bigotry, which is embedded within our establishment and society.

My Lords, in this rather unexpected role of summing up in this debate, it may be a real case of a fool rushing in where an angel would have turned tail and got out of there right quick.

The tone that I take from this debate is primarily that we are pointing out the lack of resource, or rather the resource that we are turning down, for the betterment of society. If we do not allow 51% of our population to play their full part—I speak for the 49%—we are making our lives rather more difficult than they should be. We are not allowing ourselves that luxury of the support that is out there. There is enough status to go around, to be perfectly honest. If we settle for just half—after all, it is slightly more than we are entitled to—we will not be doing too badly.

The specific points that I was going to raise were to do with women in education. This was inspired by my long-standing interest, of which I remind the House, in special educational needs, particularly in the neurodiverse sector. Something that we have discovered during the past couple of decades is that a problem that we thought was almost exclusively male is rather better shared out between the sexes.

We think that the number of dyslexic, dyspraxic and autistic females, and those with ADHD, were not spotted because of something that works in favour of women—they handle the classroom better than their peers. They soldier on, just about get through and keep their heads down. They try to get on. They put that bit of extra work in, as opposed to taking the traditional male route—this a stereotype; there are obvious exceptions, but it seems to be the rule—and thus they do not get noticed. The boy at the back with ADHD who kicks off, has a meltdown, runs around and gets himself thrown out of the class is noticed, while the girl with ADHD is sitting there playing with her hair obsessively, rearranging her pencils or fidgeting. Those coping strategies are for the same condition, but one is just about acceptable in the classroom and the other is not.

There are costs beyond education departments. A girl with high-functioning autism who is not spotted or paid much attention to in the classroom has the enormous stress of trying to handle that unfriendly environment and adhere to the norms of not only the classroom but her classmates and the break period. I was told of one case, “Yes, she got through the classroom; the meltdowns come when she gets home.” They can totally withdraw from the rest of the family when they get home, because the stress involved is far too high to remain bottled up for ever.

The same is true of dyslexia, particularly for the person who is not dramatically badly affected but who is just about getting on with it, or not failing dramatically enough to be noticed. That person in the middle, who puts their head down and is okay, will carry on, while the one who kicks off or complains loudly will be spotted. Dyslexia, which is the world I know best—I am dyslexic, and took the female approach for most of my career—was said to be four times as common in males as in females. Every time someone has looked at it, that figure has come down a little more. Anecdotally, I suspected that it could not be true—although I probably repeated it in this Chamber—and that we were not spotting what was going on.

The real reason I raise this today is that yesterday we had that wonderful, much-delayed Statement on special educational needs. I am afraid that the same Minister is about to speak. When she sums up, could she give us some idea of the amount of training being delivered to spot the quiet person who is struggling on? That is so important, as is getting in there early. I spoke about the waste of potential; we are wasting potential and making that person’s life more unpleasant. We are not getting them the help and structure that they need.

It is very odd that there seems to be some stigma when this is spotted in the classroom. At universities, there is not; if you have struggled through to them, they are quite good at helping you get support, help and the assessment that goes with the disabled students’ allowance. It is quite common to find someone who has been assessed there later on, but not at school. What is the education sector doing to make sure that it spots everyone, not just the noisy ones? This is an extension of the fact that the whole sector is dependent on the tiger parent.

Unless we get schools and the education structure to do more of the spotting of what is going on, we will always underestimate these groups, particularly among those who do not come from what we will call the exam-passing classes. A person in such a group might be the first to get a qualification. I hope that the Minister will have a few words to say about this when she winds up, because underestimating this group is probably the best bit of unconscious prejudice I have found in a while.

What is the Minister doing to encourage girls to take up sports that give them status? They are generally male sports, of course; the prejudice is historical. I hope the Minister will encourage girls to play the mainstream popular sports. Football is the first and rugby is not doing too badly. The fact that women now have their own Six Nations competition, not tucked in behind the men on a Saturday evening, is a step forward, as is England Women doing so well in the World Cup—and I am somebody who cheers for Scotland. I hope the Minister will give us a hint about what the Government are doing to make sure that these big team games that get attention are being made as accessible as those played by men—or, if they are not doing that, that they are encouraging blokes to play netball.

I hope that the Minister in her reply to my one or two points—and the many other, probably more expected, points—will be able to give us an idea of how the Government will look at and identify women in society who have slightly more hidden problems. If you get them wrong in the education sector, you are always running with a sack on your shoulders.

My Lords, it has always struck me as a bit of an irony that we open the International Women’s Day debate in this manner, so for once may I say, “I thank noble sisters and brothers for participating in a varied and great International Women’s Day debate”? I join everybody in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, on her maiden speech. I also thank the Minister for managing to secure a debate in the Chamber this year, instead of in Grand Committee, and for her comprehensive introduction to this debate. Like others, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Gale, mentioned by my noble friend Lady Wilcox, who, for many years from these Benches, ensured that we had debates and questions relating to International Women’s Day and White Ribbon Day. In many ways, I dedicate my speech and thanks to my friend Anita. I also join others in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, whom I have known all my life because she was with my parents, Peter and Jean Thornton, in the Labour League of Youth in Dewsbury and Spen Valley. She was therefore a constant and inspiring presence, for which I am so grateful and which I shall miss.

Like many noble Lords, I have attended several events organised to celebrate International Women’s Day and, as my noble friend Lady Taylor, said, tomorrow I will be joining her to pay tribute to Constance Lytton at Knebworth. It is important to use this annual celebration to remember the women who have gone before and whose endeavour and sacrifice have allowed us to be here and benefit in so many ways. As my noble friend said, Constance Lytton was born and raised in what we might describe as the privileged ruling class but, as a suffragette activist, she was imprisoned four times and was force-fed. Her health was wrecked as a result, and she died before her time. She is one of many women we need to honour. The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, and my noble friend Lord Monks, mentioned women on whose shoulders we stand. Like my noble friend Lord Griffiths, I have had the experience of seeing “Sylvia” at the Old Vic. I did not know what to expect from a musical about Sylvia Pankhurst. It was a huge shock when this barrage of music hit me. It took me a while to adjust, but it is a magnificent musical which I highly recommend.

This International Women’s Day, 8 March 2023, the United Nations wished us to celebrate the theme “DigitALL” on using innovation and technology for gender equality. Many speeches have referred to this and been inspired by it, like that of my noble friend Lord Watson.

I wish to mark and celebrate women all over the world who are leading their communities through crisis. We must support women taking extraordinary action, such as keeping their families safe in the face of famine or conflict and delivering life-saving responses to the climate crisis. Those of us privileged to live in a safe and wealthy country need to recognise that the climate crisis, conflicts, forced displacement and the global hunger crisis are disrupting girls’—indeed, children’s and young people’s—access to education on an unprecedented scale. I believe that the recently published Illegal Migration Bill is a sad and shameful moment for this country. Support for families, women and girls across the country will only be badly affected by it.

I loved the support and exposition that my noble friend Lord Sahota gave, because this is a critical time for women and girls. The year 2022 saw devastating rollbacks of women’s rights in Afghanistan, as referred to by many noble Lords; a violent crackdown against women’s uprisings in Iran; the catastrophic consequences of the hunger crisis on women and girls in east Africa; and the curtailment of women’s abortion access in several countries, including the USA. These issues were also mentioned by my noble friend Lady Armstrong. I look forward to hearing the answers to the questions that my noble friend Lady Donaghy raised.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, was quite right to say that in the UK we have good news on reproductive rights. That was achieved with cross-party support from the noble Baronesses, Lady Watkins and Lady Sugg, and many others in this House. However, there is much to do across the world and in the UK. As my noble friend Lady Anderson showed us, there is much that we have to be grateful for here and must pay attention to elsewhere.

Turning to the domestic women and equalities agenda in the UK, I particularly enjoyed the contributions from my noble friends Lord Stansgate and Lord Browne. It reminded me of how proud I am that my niece, who is doing a master’s in astrophysics—I think—at Manchester University, spent last summer at the CERN hadron collider. The whole family was bursting with pride at this; of course we were.

Labour is proud to be the party of women’s equality. I am proud to have been part of the team which put the Equality Act on the statute book in 2010, and to have been party to the other initiatives which came before. I have to say that I am puzzled by our delegation to the United Nations women’s assembly in New York being led by a male Minister. As much as I respect the noble Lord—of course I do—I would have thought that one of the noble Baronesses in front of me would have been a good person to lead that delegation. I am not sure what message that sends to the rest of the world about the priority that the UK is giving—

Maybe the noble Lord could have substituted for the noble Baroness doing that then.

Notwithstanding the best gloss that the Minister gave to the Government’s work in this area, the facts are that for the last 10 years, we have seen many women pushed into poverty and the exacerbation of the motherhood penalty, if we can call it that. Women make up the majority of single parents, disabled people and low-paid, part-time and insecure workers, leaving them brutally exposed to the cost of living crisis. The next Labour Government will put women at the heart of our economic recovery, with a new deal for working people to transform their working lives. We will end the injustice that sees mothers and grandmothers forced out of paid work by soaring childcare costs. We have a plan for women’s health, which includes bringing down record high waiting lists for gynaecological care in our NHS.

Something that has not yet been mentioned is the fact that, compared to men, women are disproportionately affected by dementia emotionally, professionally and physically across their life course. Dementia has been the leading cause of death for women since 2011, and 60% of those living with dementia are women. Not only is dementia more prevalent in women; they are also more likely to be unpaid carers for loved ones affected by this condition. This disproportionate impact is not okay and it really needs to be addressed.

We will take the menopause seriously and require large employers to submit menopause action plans alongside their annual gender pay gap reports. We will bear down on the gender pay gap, which, at the current rate of progress, will be eradicated only in 2044. I heard what my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti had to say; we clearly need to have further discussions.

We will tackle the misogyny, harassment and abuse faced by too many women. The Refuge briefing that we all received asks us to speak up on gender-based violence, and that is indeed what we need to do. There has been unanimity on this issue across the House. I am fairly certain that successive Women and Equalities Ministers in this House have taken and are taking these matters very seriously and are championing them across government. However, there is an epidemic of violence and misogynistic abuse to tackle.

That leads me on to childcare. My noble friend Lady Twycross outlined Labour’s proposals. I just want to raise one issue, which came up in the Coram Family and Childcare report that many of us saw yesterday. It reported on the experience of a critical care nurse with more than 17 years’ experience who worked through the pandemic until she was 27 weeks pregnant. She said that work is part of who she is, and:

“It is important to feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, and I don’t want to give that up.”

However, she

“has had to cut her hours to one day a week, and says she will have to change career in the long-term, because of how the cost of childcare eats into her earnings.”

We cannot afford to lose highly trained, highly skilled women from our NHS. My honourable friend Bridget Phillipson said in a speech yesterday that we will reform the childcare system and that it will be her “first priority” when we enter government. She said:

“Labour’s missions must be central to breaking down the barriers to opportunity in this country. To break down those barriers, our Mission commits to reforming the childcare system: that will be my first priority.”

Labour is proud to be the party of equality, especially women’s equality. Previous Labour Governments have always encouraged and empowered women; the next will match that record and more.

My Lords, I thank all noble Baronesses and noble Lords who have spoken today. In particular, I welcome my noble friend Lady Lampard; like hers, my mother was both a refugee and an indomitable woman, so I can identify with some of what she said. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, mentioned the warm welcome she got when she arrived in this House from the noble Baroness, Lady Gale; the noble Baroness gave me an incredibly warm welcome and I know that my noble friend will receive an equally warm welcome from all sides of your Lordships’ House.

Our debate today has provided a space in which to reflect on the many challenges that disproportionately affect women and girls. However, it has also shone a light on the progress we have made in overcoming some of the barriers that prevent women and girls fulfilling their true potential.

Of course, as your Lordships have noted, it is critical in achieving this both at home and abroad that girls and young women get a proper, broad education. It is only fitting, therefore, that I remind the House that the UK is a world leader in championing girls’ education. We used our presidency of the G7 in 2021 to agree two ambitious global targets: getting 40 million more girls in education and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10 by 2026. Educating girls helps to prevent child marriage and early pregnancy; it helps women into the workforce; and it boosts household incomes and economic growth.

There is a huge global education crisis, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, with 244 million children out of school globally. More than half those children are girls. Through the girls’ education action plan, which we published in 2021, the UK supports education systems in developing countries to deliver quality education for all children in a way that is safe, inclusive and sustainable. That is so important to overcome some of the stereotypes that a number of your Lordships referred to, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Ludford, my noble friend Lady Jenkin and the noble Lord, Lord Sahota. Indeed, I got a text message from my daughter this morning because apparently the Financial Times is running an article titled “Style Your Life FT Pink”. She reminded me that, when she was a child, she thought her father got a grey paper and her mother got a pink paper because her mother was a woman. Someone had better break it to the editor of the FT.

At home, the Government recognise the huge contribution of the early years workforce to making sure that every child has the best start in life. The noble Baronesses, Lady Watkins, Lady Twycross and Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Monks, all stressed the importance of accessible and affordable childcare. I was concerned about the case the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, raised of a woman who found it too complex to navigate. Supporting the childcare and early years workforce continues to be a priority for the department. That is why we are supporting the sector in early years to recruit and retain more staff, for example by providing additional funding for graduate-level specialist training leading to early years teacher status. As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, knows, we are also funding an accredited level 3 early years SENCO qualification so that all children with special educational needs and disabilities, in particular the young girls to which the noble Lord referred, are identified at the earliest possible point.

In relation to childcare, we know that the sector is facing economic challenges similar to the challenges faced across the economy. We have already announced additional funding of £160 million in 2022-23, £180 million in 2023-24 and £170 million in 2024-25, compared with the 2021-22 financial year, for local authorities to increase the hourly rates paid to childcare providers. This is crucial for improving the cost, choice and availability of childcare for working parents.

More broadly, in relation to flexible working, which the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, referred to, on 5 December 2022 the Government published the response to their consultation on flexible working, which committed to give all employees the right to request flexible working from their first day of employment. This will ensure that an additional estimated 2.2 million people will be able to request changes to their hours, times or place of work. The Government have also committed to further legislative changes that will support more open and constructive engagement between employers and employees to find acceptable flexible working arrangements.

My noble friends Lady Seccombe, Lady Meyer and Lord Shinkwin all expressed their concerns about the relationships and sex education curriculum in schools. Just to clarify for the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, the Government are clear that biological sex is a fact. It exists and it clearly matters.

There is a very sensitive and precious relationship between schools and parents, and keeping that confidence and level of trust between schools and parents, particularly in these very sensitive areas of the curriculum, is critical. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister was absolutely clear earlier this week when he said that schools should not be teaching inappropriate or contested content in this area. Our priority should always be the safety and well-being of children, and schools should make the curriculum content and materials available to parents. We will be bringing forward a review of the statutory guidance on the relationship, sex and health education curriculum and starting a consultation on that as soon as possible.

My noble friend Lady Sater and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, referred to the importance of school sport. I feel I need to readjust the noble Lord’s perception of status: I think, given the performance of the Lionesses, that perhaps status has tipped a little in favour of the women—but I will leave him to consider that point.

The point I was making was that football is traditionally seen as a male sport—that is the status they have gained—not the fact that women’s sport itself has changed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, has put it well: it was meant in the spirit of this debate. I thank my noble friend very much for welcoming our announcement this week, particularly as I was that girl who dreaded the sports lesson, unlike my noble friend who could not wait for it. We have announced additional funding to support schools to provide high-quality PE and sport to pupils and to make sure that girls have exactly the same access to sport in schools. We want to really acknowledge and highlight, through the School Games Mark, those schools that can really demonstrate their delivery in this area. My noble friend is absolutely right to highlight the role of coaches, and the Government absolutely share her view of the importance of sport in building confidence, well-being and physical and mental health.

On the issue of women and girls in STEM, the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, rightly highlighted the extraordinary contribution of women scientists in the Covid-19 response. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, for also bringing our focus on to women who are at the early stages of their STEM career. I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, that the Government absolutely understand the importance of the issues she raised in relation to ecology, soil systems and the like. She asked about encouraging girls into these areas. The Government’s commitment is always to offering choice. These are incredibly important and exciting careers and I imagine many girls will be enthused by them, but our focus is on choice and for the young woman to decide, and I imagine the noble Baroness has some sympathy with that.

The noble Lord, Lord Mair, raised the importance of engineering. I thank the Royal Academy of Engineering for the work it is doing to encourage women into this field and the noble Lord for the examples he shared with the House: they really brought alive the range of opportunities in engineering. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, raised the importance of careers advice for young women in schools and of being clear about routes into STEM careers. We are taking action on this in specific sectors. For example, we have been supporting the Tomorrow’s Engineers code, which is managed by EngineeringUK.

The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, raised the point about women returning to the workforce. We are funding a new returners programme to help women back into these industries. We are also launching a women-led high-growth enterprise task force to increase the number of women starting high-growth and cutting-edge businesses, which is one element of building the leadership pipeline that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London referred to.

Moving from education to health, the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker, Lady Watkins and Lady Thornton, raised the issue of the menopause. I reassure the House that the Government recognise that the menopause can be a challenging time for women, which is why we put women’s health at the top of the agenda as part of the first-ever Women’s Health Strategy for England.

I remind the House that the Department of Health and Social Care is implementing an ambitious programme of work with the NHS to improve menopause care so that all women can access the support that they need, which will in turn support women either to return to, or stay in, the workforce. Just last month, the Minister for Women announced that, from 1 April, women prescribed hormone replacement therapy will have access to a new scheme, enabling access to a year’s worth of menopause prescription items for the cost of two single prescription charges. This will give around 400,000 women across England better access to menopause support.

More broadly in the area of health, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for highlighting the remarkable work of Dame Cicely Saunders and the extraordinary role that women play, particularly in conflict zones.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, asked what the Government were doing to encourage breastfeeding. She will be aware that we are investing around £300 million in family hubs and Start for Life services. That includes £50 million for infant feeding services, which will allow appropriate support for mothers and their babies in their breastfeeding goals.

The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, asked for an update on our funding of maternity services. In 2022, we invested £127 million into the maternity system, which will go towards the maternity workforce and improving neonatal care. Of course, we keep that funding under review.

I think the House will join me in thanking my noble friend Lady Cumberlege for her work on patients harmed by different medicines and devices. She raised the issue of compensation and will be aware that the Department of Health and Social Care is seeking views from the Patient Safety Commissioner on what redress schemes for sodium valproate and pelvic mesh could look like. But I will again share her concerns with colleagues in that department.

I turn to tackling violence against women and girls. As my noble friend Lady Scott highlighted in her opening remarks, tackling violence against women and girls is a government priority. These crimes are deeply harmful, not just for those affected and their children but for society as a whole. To help end this scourge, we published a new Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy in 2021 to drive improvements, to target perpetrators more effectively and to support their victims. In March 2022, that was followed by the Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan, which commits to investing over £230 million of cross-government funding in tackling these terrible crimes. This money is for our work at home, but I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent, for highlighting the tragic deaths of so many women internationally, simply, as she said, for upholding their human rights. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, for her account of the life and important work of Lady Constance Lytton.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Mann, for raising the issue of the scale and harm caused by child sexual abuse. I recognise his picture of disclosure, maybe not in the capacity of canvassing, but I remember that when I worked in the City, nobody ever asked me about domestic abuse, but when I ran a domestic abuse charity, I could not get on a bus without somebody wanting to talk to me about domestic abuse. It is about giving people that ability, permission and safe place to disclose.

More broadly and internationally, the UK is also a global leader on tackling sexual violence in conflict. As my noble friend Lady Scott mentioned, the UK hosted the International Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative Conference in London in November last year, which brought together partners, survivors and civil society organisations from more than 57 countries.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, expressed his deep concerns about the availability of pornography to children. As he will know from our Online Safety Bill, we expect companies to use age-verification technology designed to prevent children from accessing services that pose a high risk of harm, including online pornography, as a way of protecting them. The noble Lord will be aware that the Government made changes to the Bill in Committee to reinforce the safety of children online.

A number of your Lordships—the noble Baronesses, Lady Donaghy, Lady Barker, Lady Ludford and Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, and the noble Lords, Lord Hussain and Lord Loomba—spoke about our international work. The Government remain committed to returning to spending 0.7% of GNI on this budget when fiscal circumstances allow. The international women and girls strategy commits the FCDO to at least 80% of its bilateral aid programmes having a focus on gender equality by 2030.

The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, pressed me to comment on our work on women and girls in the strategy. In terms of both what we want to do and how we want to do it, the “what” focuses on education, empowering women, championing their health and rights, and ending violence towards women. However, by creating conversations that change the narrative, we also lead by example and through knowledge. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for his work on widows, particularly in India.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, asked what the Government are doing to support Kashmiri women in prison. I am sure that he is aware that we engage with the Governments of both India and Pakistan, and raise our human rights concerns with them whenever we have those engagements. We are also working closely with civil society organisations and NGOs in both countries.

Women in Afghanistan was an issue raised by many noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Shinkwin and Lady Fall, but my noble friend Lady Helic left me with a number of specific questions. I know that she is familiar with the two routes available to Afghan women—the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme and the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, which is obviously for staff who were previously employed locally. The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme will see up to 20,000 people from Afghanistan and the region resettled to the UK in the coming years and is not application based. Eligible people will be prioritised for resettlement.

On providing aid to women and girls in the region, the UK has disbursed £229 million in aid for Afghanistan since April 2022 and £515 million since April 2021. Our aid provides life-saving support in incredibly difficult circumstances, of which I know my noble friend Lady Helic is well aware. We are continuing to support the delivery of education and healthcare services, and to tackle gender-based violence.

My noble friend asked what work we were doing with allies around the world to influence the Taliban and promote gender equality. She will understand much better than I do the scale of that task, but we are working with the international community to press the Taliban to reverse its decisions and to honour the commitments that it has previously made. We do that through the G7, the G20 and the UN. Finally, on supporting long-term social change in Afghanistan, we have worked very hard and been instrumental in unlocking more than £1 billion of funding held within the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund, supporting agriculture, education and health.

My noble friend Lady Fall asked about support for Ukrainian children in our schools. We are immensely proud of the support that we have provided to Ukrainian children and are honoured to do so. We have welcomed more than 20,000 children into our schools.

I hope the House will bear with me if I run just one minute over to do justice to your Lordships. In terms of women’s economic empowerment, the noble Lords, Lord Monks and Lord Watson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, all raised issues of the gender pay gap, which has fallen significantly, with more than 2 million more women in work since 2010 and a higher percentage of women on FTSE 350 boards than ever before. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, will be aware that we are obliged to carry out a review of the gender pay gap regulations after they have been in force for five years. That is something we are doing, and we will take time to consider and publish our views on the evidence.

More broadly, I thank all women across this House for their work in encouraging women into public life, particularly my noble friend Lady Jenkin, who has been remarkable in this area. The Government will continue to work across the House, and across both Chambers, to try to address the growing scourge of online abuse.

I will endeavour to write promptly on any of the points I have failed to cover today. It is truly a great privilege to have been able to close the debate. We have heard from women across the House who have found their voices and their place in the world, whether in business, politics, medicine, STEM, education or more. We have heard about the women who inspired us all. We have also heard about the women who lost their voices and their lives—and, all too often, at the hands of men.

I apologise for the weak tear ducts, but I close by remembering the women and girls who are currently being silenced all around the world, particularly in Iran and Afghanistan. We honour their courage; we are with them in spirit and solidarity. With those women in our minds and hearts, I commend the Motion to the House.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 3.09 pm.