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Lords Chamber

Volume 836: debated on Friday 8 March 2024

House of Lords

Friday 8 March 2024

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

International Women’s Day

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That this House takes note of International Women’s Day and the steps taken to promote the economic inclusion of women.

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Casey of Blackstock, has chosen this debate in which to make her maiden speech. She has worked tirelessly over the last 30 years in an extraordinary career dedicated to public service and helping others; she is truly a worthy addition to your Lordships’ House. I am sure that all noble Lords look forward with great interest to what she has to say.

It gives me great pleasure to open this year’s International Women’s Day debate. This day is celebrated all over the world in different ways, and I am pleased that we are recognising it in your Lordships’ House today. International Women’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the vital contribution that women make across different spheres—political, cultural, social and economic—while also recognising that work still needs to be done to ensure the safety, security, equality and empowerment of women around the world.

The theme of today’s International Women’s Day is “Inspire Inclusion”. Inclusion is not about women being present—being in the room. How often are women in the room, but, frankly, not really expected to speak? Inclusion should mean women actually feeling able to express an opinion, playing a key part in the decision-making process at all levels of an organisation, government and across society. It means women—more women—becoming leaders. Yet, globally, women continue to be excluded from any level of the labour market, and when they are employed, they work longer hours for less pay—on average 20% less, in fact. Women represent only 30% of entrepreneurs and receive just 4% of financing. There is still much to be done for women’s inclusion, real inclusion, to be fully realised.

I turn first to international policy and aid. The UK has long been a global champion of women’s rights, and many Members of your Lordships’ House have been and continue to be at the forefront of that work; I look forward to their contributions today. Women’s rights are most under threat when they live in a country at war. We have witnessed that in Ukraine, where Russia’s illegal invasion has led to millions of families being displaced and a sharp rise in poverty. My thoughts are with the millions of women and girls who have suffered in the two years and two weeks since that conflict began. The UK continues to stand with Ukraine. The fiscal support the UK is providing contributes to maintaining public services, and our humanitarian funding protects the needs of the most vulnerable, including women and girls—for example, by supporting survivors of gender-based violence. Conflicts such as these throw into sharp relief the importance of legislation that facilitates the economic and social inclusion of women, both domestically and worldwide.

We continue to uphold our International Development (Gender Equality) Act, which sets out a legal requirement to consider gender equality in how we provide official development assistance. We continue to look at ways we can go further to prioritise women and girls in our international work. To set out an agenda that puts women and girls centre stage, we published the international women and girls strategy in March last year and the international development White Paper in November. As set out in the White Paper, our target in the UK is for at least 80% of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s bilateral aid programmes to have a focus on gender equality by 2030.

The White Paper also announced a new global campaign for women’s economic empowerment, which will drive forward global efforts to ensure that every woman has the equal right to decent work, the freedom of safe work of her choice and the resources to reach her potential. A key part of that is integrating gender equality into our economic diplomacy, which means leading by example to create meaningful jobs for women and identifying evidence-based solutions to expand women’s voices.

A strategy that focuses on women and girls has many benefits. The evidence shows that investing in women and breaking down the barriers they face accelerates international development. That is why British International Investment, the UK’s development finance institution, continues to champion “gender-smart investing” and why it has pledged that 25% of its new investments in the period 2022-26 will focus on supporting women’s economic empowerment. In Bangladesh, for example, BII is providing a $52 million loan for the construction of a greenfield manufacturing facility, which will support new business growth in the manufacturing sector. The loan is expected to create 1,000 jobs, and 50% of these will be held by women.

Building on this, the SheTrades Commonwealth programme helps to provide women-led businesses with various elements of support, including technical assistance, networking and support from specialised business support organisations. With UK funding, SheTrades Outlook is a unique global online platform that tracks and compares countries’ progress on trade and gender equality, sharing good practice and lessons learned and promoting women’s economic empowerment.

Ideally, different policy goals must work in tandem. Later this month we are hosting a dialogue at Wilton Park on “Building Women’s Economic Empowerment into Climate Transitions”, which will bring together key actors—academics, civil society, multilateral institutions, the Government and the private sector—to explore how we can build women’s economic empowerment into the green growth agenda. The UK Government will continue to use the full weight of our diplomatic and development offer to put women and girls, in all their diversity, at the heart of everything we do.

Turning now to the domestic front and gender equality in the UK, it is encouraging to see that the gender pay gap across UK employees fell in 2022 to 14.3%, a fall of 3% over the past three years. Transparency is a key tool in tackling the gender pay gap. Back in 2017, some seven years ago, the Government introduced regulations requiring large employers to publish the differences in average salaries and bonuses for men and women. It happens to be the first piece of legislation that I took through your Lordships’ House.

These regulations have been effective, motivating employers to scrutinise their approach and improve equality in the workplace. But a key driver of the gender pay gap is lower levels of female participation in the workforce, accounting for around half the gap, which widens in the 20 years after the first child in a family is born. We know that high childcare costs present a real challenge for many women when weighing up whether or when to go back to work, and how many hours they can work when they have young children to look after.

We are dealing with this head-on through the Government’s tax-free childcare scheme for working parents. For every £8 that parents pay into their childcare accounts, the Government will add £2, up to a maximum of £2,000 in top-up per year. This applies to each child up to the age of 11. For children with disabilities, the maximum amount of government top-up is £4,000, until the child is 16.

Building on this, at the Spring Budget last year, the Government announced the biggest ever investment in childcare in England by providing eligible working parents with 30 hours of free childcare per week for 38 weeks per year. Parents can access this from when the child is nine months old until they begin school. This expansion in early years entitlement is worth an estimated £1.7 billion in the financial year 2024-25. As a result, we expect that 1.5 million mothers will increase the hours they work by 2027-28 and that around 60,000 more will enter the employment sector. At the Spring Budget this week, we confirmed that the Government are guaranteeing the hourly rate paid to childcare providers to deliver the free hours offer, which will give childcare providers the confidence to invest in expansion.

Alongside support with childcare, workplaces must offer their employees flexibility in how and when they work. Flexibility benefits women and men, but we must recognise that women still bear more of the childcare workload and face particular challenges in balancing their professional aspirations with family responsibilities. But it does not have to be this way. If we embrace adaptability in working arrangements, dismantle the rigid structures that have historically hindered women’s career progression and, in turn, offer an environment where talent, not time spent in the office sitting at a desk, is the currency of value, it will have a transformative effect on women’s inclusion.

That is why this Government have introduced the right to request flexible working from day one of an individual’s employment. This will come into force on 6 April this year and will bring around 2.6 million additional employees in scope of this entitlement. We have also passed the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act, which includes measures that support people who wish to discuss flexible working arrangements with their employer. These discussions are important, as we know that the extent to which flexible working is suitable will depend on both the individual’s and the business’s circumstances, so we want employers and employees to come to the arrangement that works for both parties. This will benefit fathers as well as mothers, giving them the opportunity to do their part in the home; and, more broadly, flexible working can lead to more diverse leadership, the development of innovative service and products, and more resilient organisations.

Further, we are committed to supporting pregnant women and new parents who wish to participate in the labour market. So, the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act 2023 extends the existing redundancy protections that currently apply to those on maternity leave, adoption leave or shared parental leave. From 6 April, these protections will also cover the period of pregnancy and a period of time after that. This means that employers are obliged to offer a suitable alternative vacancy where one is available, giving women on maternity leave or who have recently returned from maternity leave priority over other employees who are also at risk of redundancy. This same protection applies to parents taking adoption leave or shared parental leave.

Additionally, the Government announced new measures in Wednesday’s Spring Budget to help parents balance work with looking after their children. From April, the Government will raise the threshold for the high income child benefit charge—HICBC—to £60,000, taking 170,000 families out of paying this tax charge. The Government are also raising the top of the taper at which child benefit is withdrawn to £80,000. This will reduce the marginal tax rate, which will improve people’s incentives to continue working or take up more hours. The OBR estimates that, as a result, those already working will increase their hours by a total equivalent to around 10,000 full-time individuals by 2028-29.

Beyond difficulties in entering the labour market, women can also find it more challenging to reach leadership levels in the organisations that they are part of. In 2016 the Treasury launched the Women in Finance Charter to improve female representation at senior levels with a view to improving the productivity, innovation and competitiveness of the financial services sector. More than 400 firms, employing more than 1.3 million people across the financial services sector, have signed up to the commitments of the charter, from global banks to credit unions, from leading insurance companies to new start-ups. The first wave of signatories to the charter started out with an average level of senior representation of 27%. Today, the signatory base has grown substantially and the average level of senior representation stands at 35%.

The charter’s five-year review found that the average proportion of women on UK executive committees had increased from 14% in 2016 to 22% in 2021, while the proportion of women on UK boards had increased from 23% to 32%. The increase for executive committees is nearly 60% and for boards it is nearly 40%. Average representation on boards and executive committees was higher for firms that had signed the charter— 50% higher for executive committees and 40% for boards. It is really encouraging to see that charter being emulated in other sectors, including aviation and maritime; in other countries, such as Norway, Luxembourg and Ireland; and across diversity strands, such as in the Black Talent Charter. I look forward to the charter’s next annual review report, which will be published later this month.

There is still quite a lot of work to do to continue our progress towards true gender equality and inclusion. In implementing these domestic policies and through our international leadership in putting women centre stage, the UK Government have demonstrated our unwavering commitment to women and girls around the world. I am very pleased to open this debate in your Lordships’ House, and I beg to move.

My Peers, I am very pleased to be speaking in this International Women’s Day debate today, especially as it is on 8 March—the first time for a good number of years that the debate has been on the very day. With so many speakers, I am sure that we will get a wide range of views. As the Minister said, we are all looking forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Casey.

This debate is looking at

“the steps taken to promote the economic inclusion of women”,

but how do we get to that stage and what are the barriers? The United Nations has said:

“Women’s economic empowerment is essential to achieving women’s rights and gender equality. Women’s economic empowerment means ensuring women can equally participate in and benefit from decent work and social protection; access markets and have control over resources, their own time, lives, and bodies; and increased voice, agency, and meaningful participation in economic decision-making at all levels from the household to international institutions”.

That sums it up very nicely. We need more women in positions of power for women to achieve economic and financial freedom. Getting women into positions of power in all walks of life, such as politics, business, public bodies, sport and the arts, is the way forward. Unfortunately, there are many barriers, such as sexism, misogyny and bullying in the workforce, that can prevent women progressing upward in the workplace, as recent reports have shown. The “Today” programme this morning featured three separate instances of sexism and misogyny against women in the workplace.

Where are women in the political life of the UK? Things have certainly improved in terms of getting more women into the House of Commons. Today there are 226 women MPs, who make up 35% of all MPs. But since 1918 only 564 women have been elected as MPs, compared with 4,752 men; that is quite a difference. Where there is a good number of women in elected institutions, there is a different agenda. Wales is an example. Women make up 43% of the Senedd Cymru, the Welsh Parliament. I am proud to say that in the Labour group in the Senedd there have always been more women than men. That came about because Labour took positive action when the Welsh Assembly was established in 1999, ensuring that women would play a big role in this new institution. The majority of the Cabinet at the moment are women, not for the first time.

Where there are enough women in political life the agenda is different, as we have seen in Wales. Wales has a Children’s Commissioner, the first in the UK. It has an Older People’s Commissioner, the first in the world. I really wish the UK Government would accept that older people need a commissioner in England. There is also a Future Generations Commissioner, again the first in the UK and—I am not sure—possibly even in the world. These are just three examples of the influence that women can have on the political agenda.

As the Minister said, things are improving but there is still some way to go. Let us look at what is preventing women having economic inclusion. Commenting on the Budget earlier this week, Helen Walker, the chief executive of Carers UK, said that

“women disproportionately shoulder the bulk of unpaid caring responsibilities in the UK. Of the 5.7 million unpaid carers … 59% are women. And for women out of work with caring responsibilities, the cost-of-living crisis has plunged many into poverty. Thousands are struggling to make ends meet and many are at greater risk of poor health as they cut back on essentials such as food and heating. For women in work, juggling employment with their caring responsibilities can be very tough … women are more likely to be in part-time and insecure work such as zero-hours contracts, often to take on caring responsibilities. This leaves working women who are unpaid carers more vulnerable to loss of earnings and even dismissal. The new Carer’s Leave Act which comes into force in April this year will offer some protection to working women, granting up to five days unpaid leave to carers and offering the same rights as other forms of family leave … But if carers are to be properly supported, all parties must recognise the enormous societal and economic value that people looking after family and friends provide. It is estimated that the value of unpaid care in England and Wales alone is the equivalent of a second NHS—a staggering £162 billion per year. Ensuring carers—including women—have access to practical support, can prioritise their own health and wellbeing while caring, and remain financially resilient is crucial for the overall health of the country”.

I am grateful to Helen Walker for all her work in this field.

The briefing I have received from Refuge, a charity that supports women victims of domestic violence, says that women will experience economic abuse, a form of domestic abuse involving an abuser restricting a person’s ability to acquire, use and maintain money or other economic resources. Research by Refuge in 2020 found that two in five adults in the UK have experienced economic abuse in a current or former intimate partner relationship. Economic abuse often prevents domestic abuse survivors being able to access the vital funds needed to flee from abusive relationships, forcing them to continue living with dangerous perpetrators.

Aspects of the welfare system, including universal credit and the Child Maintenance Service, are routinely used by perpetrators to facilitate economic abuse. The ongoing cost of living crisis has created yet more opportunities for perpetrators to control and abuse survivors through restricting their access to financial resources.

Refuge says that the £2 million flee fund announced by the Home Office in January 2024 is welcome, providing one-off payments to survivors to help them escape from abuse. However, Refuge says that only a fraction of the survivors who need to access this emergency support will be able to. It gives the example of the allocated funds for February this year, which were spent in a matter of days. More funding is required to support all women who need access to this life-saving emergency fund. Adequate investment in the flee fund and specialist domestic abuse services, providing economic support to survivors, is therefore vital. Will the Minister look at this and support the idea of more investment for the flee fund, as it would be a lifeline for women who need to escape from abusive relationships?

The Office for National Statistics report on the gender pay gap in the UK, which the Minister mentioned, shows that the latest figures, from 2023, demonstrate a 7.7% pay gap among full-time employees and a 14.3% gap for all employees. The ONS reported on earnings in April 2023: the median weekly earnings for men were £666 and for women £491. Just for those in full-time work, the figures were £725 for men and £629 for women. The gap seems to be widening, in part demonstrating the impact of working part-time or leaving the labour market due to unpaid care. The effects accumulate across a lifetime, peaking when women reach their 50s.

Considering that the Equal Pay Act was enacted in 1975, how much longer do women have to wait to achieve equality of earnings? It has taken an awfully long time to get to this stage. Does the Minister agree that achieving this would go a long way towards economic inclusion for women? I look forward to the contributions of other Peers and the Minister’s reply, as we all celebrate International Women’s Day.

My Lords, I am glad that we have a debate for International Women’s Day and I thank the Minister for opening it. It was not always like this: the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, will recall her battles in the Labour period to ensure that we had this debate. I and some others joined her in that. I then needed to do the same in the coalition, and I said, “It’s automatic, or it should be”. As a Minister, I found myself opening or winding on several of these debates—which have become automatic. We owe a lot to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for making sure that this is the case.

As we heard, this debate is still very much needed. I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, has decided to give her maiden speech today. I need to insert a wild card here; I hope to be here all the way through. Anyone taking part in the debate knows that they must be here for the winding speeches, and will want to hear the answers to their points; but, on this International Women’s Day, my daughter is expecting a baby—a baby girl, we understand, but who knows? What is more, she sees her midwife at 11.30 this morning, who may hurry things along. For some reason known only to my daughter, she thinks that I am calm in a crisis. If things do move along, she wants me on hand. I am delighted and honoured to do my best to assist, although with some trepidation—but do not mention it to her.

Maybe this is a case in point. It has traditionally been women who have taken on key caring roles, and that has had an impact on their economic position. Much else flows from that. It will be my daughter who takes the lion’s share of parental leave. My son-in-law’s allowance is less generous; at least he gets leave—it used not to be the case—but it is not yet equality. What we need is properly paid parental leave for both parents. It is no accident that this has been happening in Scandinavian countries; that is where there is the best gender equality.

We know that there is no country in the world where there is full gender equality yet. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023 shows this. The rate of progress has slowed between 2006, when the first edition of the report was published, and 2023. The UN’s gender snapshot of 2023 finds that, if current trends continue, more than 340 million women and girls will still be living in extreme poverty by 2030. Close to one in four will experience moderate or severe food insecurity. It is no accident that greater equality is connected to economic position.

I had the privilege, on behalf of this House, of attending the most recent annual Reykjavik Global Forum, which focuses on the position of women. The key necessities for greater gender equality were identified there as equal parental leave—meaning equal, properly paid parental leave—equal pay, equal representation and ending gender-based violence. It is circular: these need to be addressed if we are to secure greater economic equality, and greater economic equality helps to address these issues.

What has happened since we last debated the position of women in the world—besides my daughter being pregnant? In the UK, as worldwide, the cost of living has hit women harder than men. Has the Treasury done a gender impact assessment of the effects of the Budget and, if so, has it been published? I remember, as a DfID Minister in the coalition, needing to point out that the Treasury needed to do that gender impact assessment for the United Kingdom, just as we asked developing countries to do.

The Women’s Budget Group finds, for example, that single men will gain an average £500 more a year than lone mothers from the cuts to national insurance. More significantly, high inflation and cuts have eroded the budget for public services, meaning that unprotected services will see real-terms cuts in day-to-day spending, according to the OBR. That includes local government and justice. These cuts will impact women more than men, because they are more likely to use and work in local services. As for the justice system, we already know that rape cases, for example, have to wait years rather than weeks to be heard. It is appalling that this is likely to get worse, not better.

The situation internationally can be dire for many women and girls, yet we have cut our aid budget. The international development White Paper says that it puts women and girls front and centre but, without the wherewithal to deliver it, it is an empty promise. A key aim here must be to support sexual health and reproductive rights; they are essential to women, their families, communities and countries. In her reply, could the Minister tell us what ODA has been reinstated since the 80% cut?

We know that we face the major challenge of climate change. The poorest are the most vulnerable to climate change, women and girls especially. They often lack the resources required to adapt to the changing climate and ensure their protection. With increasing droughts, women and girls are expected to travel longer distances to collect water and firewood, exposing them to potential violence. The destruction of households and livelihoods and the loss of livestock and crops due to severe drought have become a reality for communities hard hit by climate change. As the climate and nature crisis accelerates, urgent action is needed to ensure that existing gender inequalities are not exacerbated.

In February 2023, the Government published their UN-required UK Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan. It recognises:

“Increasingly climate security and conflict are interlinked. Women”

and

“girls … are affected differently”.

It includes, as a priority, ensuring that gender is addressed, including through the use of international climate finance.

The FCDO’s March 2023 international women and girls strategy and its November 2023 White Paper both highlight the disproportionate impact on women and girls of climate change. Yet, a recent review of UK aid commitments to international climate finance by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact found that, despite the commitments, the UK has not done this. In fact, attention to gender appears to be decreasing. Perhaps the Minister can comment.

This century has seen an increase in the intensity and impact of conflict and violence on civilians globally, with Afghanistan, Ukraine, the conflict in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, and Sudan. The Mines Action Group reports that about 80% of the victims of small arms and light weapons are women and children. Our development budget and strategy should not just say that it recognises this but translate that into the necessary actions.

We need to ensure that there is far greater economic equivalence between men and women, whether in the UK or globally. We also need to ensure that there are more women in positions of leadership, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, has just said. In Reykjavik, I heard one Icelandic Minister say, “Women are often told that they are too young, too old, too single, too married, with not enough experience or with too outdated experience to be leaders”. Does that sound familiar?

There is so much that we need to do. We are not on track either in the UK or worldwide. I look forward to the contributions of others and to the Minister’s reply to this debate, and I cross my fingers that my new granddaughter stays just where she safely is, at least for the moment.

My Lords, it is an absolute pleasure to follow that terrific speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. On behalf of all of us, I am sure, I welcome granddaughter Northover into the world on this extremely auspicious day. I am also thrilled that the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, is making her maiden speech, and I look forward to it. I know I have not very many minutes, but I will try to cover as many things as I can.

What becomes clear, listening to this, and I am sure will become clearer during the day, is that women are still doing the caring and childcare and are not paid for it. I go back 50 years to Spare Rib—I know I have done this before, but I will do it again. One very fundamental thing happened then. When we wrote the original editorial, we said that the gender divide was just as tough for men as for women, that women have to support 2.2 children for the rest of their lives with their two weeks holiday, et cetera. We dropped that within about a fortnight because it became clear that it was women’s stuff, and women’s equality was so huge.

In those 50 years, we have expanded the role of women. I stand here. We all stand here. Effectively, we can be barristers, lawyers, doctors, solicitors, mothers and everything. We never did anything about the role of men. It was very interesting. We said, “We want all the sexy stuff in your life, and we want you to take out the trash”. This was a very bad equation. It seems that what has happened is that men are very frozen in their roles. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, I have a lot of connections with Denmark: my sister lives there. Economically, men get paid to care. The moment you are in a capitalist system, what you get paid for matters, and what you do not get paid for is kicked into the long grass. This is what happens now. In effect, we have not changed at all in this respect.

I was thinking about things that have gone well and things that have gone badly. As all noble Lords know, I work in food politics. I want to announce that, from Sunday, there will be a Mothers Manifesto hunger strike taking place across the road. This is on behalf of lots of groups of mothers, because guess who is skipping meals in this cost of living crisis? It is not the blokes—I am sorry, but it is not. One in four mothers in this country is currently skipping a meal. But 50 years ago, nobody skipped a meal. I am not saying it was all fun and roses, but we certainly did not skip meals. If someone had said to me, “In 50 years’ time, you’re going to stand up in Westminster and talk about food poverty”, I would have said that they were bonkers. But I met the mothers about the hunger strike just yesterday—all my examples are from the last few days. Last week, I was with a head teacher who said, “I noticed this curious pattern about a girl in the sixth form: she came into school only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. This went on for a while, and I asked her teacher, who said, ‘Yes, it’s very, very weird’.” They found out that she and her mother had only one pair of shoes. It was not the boy with his father; it was the mother.

Going on to the international stage, I would very much like to contest the words of the Minister earlier, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said. I do not in any way impugn her willingness to say that we are spending a lot on development, but, according to Care International, which was here in the House doing a very large event widely attended by Peers, we are now spending less than 1% of UK bilateral finance on targeting gender equality, and less than 0.2% reached the needs of women’s rights organisations. No one is under any illusion: unless we empower women, it is about not just our economy but our stability, the wars in countries, the safety of children and how we will go forward.

It seems that we still live in a kind of conspiracy where men dominate. If we look back to the inquiry into Partygate, the decisions about the Covid lockdown were made by a group of young men in their 30s who had no children, had been to Eton and had no idea what it meant to care for an elderly relative or to think, “How am I going to do my zero-hours contract job when I’ve got to look after the kids?” or, “How will I get to the food bank?” None of these things was considered.

So there is a question of legislation about representation, and, ultimately, legislation and support that says, “We have to bring up the next generation well”. I am completely shocked. I am sitting on a new committee about ultra-processed food. One in five kids are going to school, at five years old, obese. Do not just think about them; think about our economy. These children are going to be what we call the “inactive blob”, which we are all worried about. We are spending money on coaching them to get back to work. They will not get back to work. They are sick. We are in the most extraordinary state with this. I find it really depressing. Although I am thrilled, personally, that I can stand here and think that I have had an amazing life, it worries me very much, despite all the work that people have put in and the efforts we make.

There are some fundamental things that government needs to grasp. The first is that we are a society that loves and protects our children, rears them properly and healthily, and supports the people who do that. We are a society that looks after the people who care for people in their old age. We as a country understand that, if the problems of climate change, which are massive, are going to be helped, we up our development budgets to help women in developing countries through women’s projects and women’s representation—and, by the way, we need a lot more than 37% women representing us at COP.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for opening today’s important debate. I also say how much I am looking forward to the maiden speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Casey. I have long been an admirer of her work, her determination, her advocacy, and the way that her work has really made a difference in people’s lives—so thank you.

Today and this debate give us an opportunity to reflect, to pause and to remember the women who lost their lives in pursuit of equality for women, those women who are in the midst of war and conflict, and those women who face sexual violence and general domestic violence as an everyday reality. It is also an important moment to celebrate and honour the achievements of women around the world.

In the short time available to me, I will speak not on international matters, as I generally do, but will touch on inequalities in our healthcare provision, particularly with regard to women’s health, more specifically black women’s health, which has a sustained and long-term impact on their well-being and quality of life, as well as a significant impact on our economy and on economic inclusion. I am extremely grateful to Dr Jenny Douglas, a senior lecturer at the Open University, with whom I have debated and discussed these issues over many years. She is a lifelong and passionate advocate for black women’s health.

There is a wealth of data out there from the WHO, the Institute of Health Equity, and the King’s Fund, on these health inequalities. They identify issues around life expectancy, premature death and disability, productivity losses, the direct cost to the NHS and other welfare services and reduced taxes. There are all these economic impacts, but let us always remember the well-being and welfare impact of these inequalities on women. These are significant consequences to our economy.

The Women’s Health Strategy was published in August 2022, and identified that:

“Although women in the UK on average live longer than men, women spend a significantly greater proportion of their lives in ill health and disability when compared with men. Not enough focus is placed on women-specific issues like miscarriage or menopause”—

although I welcome the recent guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and also the work the Government have been doing in relation to this—

“and women are under-represented when it comes to important clinical trials”.

The report also states that

“while women make up 51% of the population, historically the health and care system has been designed by men for men”.

That still remains the case.

“This ‘male as default’ approach has been seen in: research and clinical trials, education and training for healthcare professionals”

and

“the design of healthcare policies and services. This has led to gaps in our data and evidence base that mean not enough is known about conditions that only affect women … It has meant that not enough is known about how conditions that affect both men and women impact them in different ways—for example, cardiovascular disease, dementia or mental health conditions. It has also resulted in inefficiencies in how services are delivered—for example, we know that many women have to move from service to service to have their reproductive health needs met, and women can struggle to access basic services such as contraception”.

Day after day, we hear from women who speak movingly about their experiences, women who do not feel well-served by our health system as it is.

In that strategy, although mention is made of black, Asian and minority women, the strategy does not really discuss the experiences of racism that black and Asian women experience. For example, a recent report by the Birmingham Race Action Partnership has significant data on this.

A specific example of where black and Asian women’s experience needs to be addressed is in relation to maternal deaths. Thankfully, these are very rare, but there are disparities with black and Asian women more likely to die during pregnancy, childbirth and in the year following childbirth than white women. The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee’s report into black maternal health set out a number of reasons for ethnic disparities in mortality that are not fully understood. For example, pre-existing conditions, socio-economic factors, the quality of maternity care or the need for training on disparities. Black women at term are one and a half to two times more likely to have a stillbirth and four to five times more likely to die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth. There is an intersection with economic disadvantage, with women living in deprived areas having the highest maternal mortality rates.

Will the Minister say what progress has been made in implementing the recommendations in the Women and Equalities Committee’s report on black maternal health? That would go some way to tackling basic health inequalities and support women, particularly black and Asian women, to enable them to play their part in being active, healthy, major contributors to our society.

My Lords, I begin by welcoming the distinguished noble Baroness, Lady Casey; like others, I look forward to hearing her maiden speech. In preparing for this debate, I came across an article on the history of women’s employment in the Civil Service. I learned that it was only in 1869 that women were, for the first time, employed by the British Government. This was occasioned by the Government’s acquisition of the nascent inland telegraph industry and with it a number of female telegraphists who became employees of the General Post Office and hence civil servants.

The following year, the Postmaster General introduced women clerks elsewhere in the organisation. In summarising his reasons for this, he said that “They”—by which he meant women—

“take more kindly than men or boys to sedentary employment and are more patient during long confinement to one place … Women are less disposed to get together to extort higher wages … Women will not require increases related to length of service as they will retire for the purpose of getting married as soon as they get the chance … There will also be fewer women than men on the pension list”.

I was led to the conclusion that he did not get the memo about the financial inclusion of women, but he had opened the door for more women to attain higher-status employment.

However, married women were still disbarred from working in the Civil Service. The marriage bar was not abolished until 1946 for the home Civil Service and, amazingly as it may seem, 1973 for the foreign service. Of course, as has already been pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, it was only during my childhood in the 1970s that legislation was passed making it unlawful to discriminate against women in the workplace and giving women the right to equal pay.

However, whatever progress has been made, we need to remember that many women in this country are still subject to significant economic and financial insecurity and economic disadvantage. As has been pointed out by others, caring responsibilities, childcare costs, social pressures and mores and working hours and work patterns all still play a part in keeping women in this country out of the workforce or out of better-paid roles.

With that disadvantage comes the risk of seeking solutions that only offer further disadvantage. I am, of course, referring to payday lending and gambling. In my declared role as chair of GambleAware, I am acutely conscious that the picture in relation to women and gambling is as dramatic as it is troubling. Gambling Commission data shows that between 2016 and 2023 the number of women gambling online more than doubled from 12% to 25% of all women, a faster rate than for men. As a result, more than 3 million more women are now gambling online than was the case eight years ago. It is of particular concern and relevance to today’s debate that, however mistaken they may be, one of the main drivers of gambling among women is practical and economic: the desire to win money to boost household finances, relieve financial pressure or provide hope of escape from relationships, poverty or domestic abuse.

One in 10 women who gamble turn to gambling to supplement household income. A quarter of women who gamble expect to gamble more in the coming months owing to the cost of living crisis. Because of the stigma attached to women gambling, women who experience gambling harms are, for once, less likely than men to discuss the issue or seek help with it.

Higher gambling expenditure is associated with worse financial outcomes, including financial distress, lower financial inclusion and poor financial planning. Data from GamCare, one of the charities commissioned by GambleAware as part of the National Gambling Support Network, shows that financial difficulties are experienced by 80% of the people it treats, and being in debt is reported by 66% of National Gambling Helpline users.

There is a need to ensure that specific action is taken to support women experiencing or at risk of gambling harms, and to protect them from financial hardship. Among other work, GambleAware has set up a fund to support activities recommended by researchers looking at women’s lived experience of gambling and gambling harms. It has also devised an ongoing stigma campaign, relaunched earlier this week, to break down the barriers that prevent people seeking help with their harmful gambling. However, much more needs to be done.

I hope that many of the measures set out in the gambling White Paper will help women experiencing gambling harm and prevent unaffordable financial losses that can impact their economic security. These include the introduction of financial risk checks, state limits for online slots—which I am pleased the Government have confirmed that they will be introducing —and improved rules on the provision of incentives such as free bets and bonuses.

These measures are all vital to protecting women from the detrimental financial impacts of gambling. They need to be finalised urgently before more people experience harm. As the Government seek to reform their approach to gambling harm, research, prevention and treatment, the third sector providers that deliver the majority of these crucial services need to be given reassurance that their work will be protected and supported. I hope this reassurance will be provided soon.

I join with others in celebrating International Women’s Day and the steps taken to promote financial inclusion. We have come a long way since women were first employed in the Civil Service in 1869, but we need to acknowledge that many women in this country experience serious financial insecurity and face the risks and bleakness associated with it.

My Lords, I thank all noble Baronesses for their work in this House and in their communities. I warm-heartedly welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, to this Chamber and look forward to hearing from her. I also want to acknowledge my mother’s strength and tenacity. Today, my sister, my daughter, my granddaughter and I stand tall because of her journey, courage and sacrifice.

In my contribution today, I wish to highlight the importance of protesting and marches. I have just returned from Bangladesh. I wish to pay homage to the women and men who rose to the call of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 7 March 1971 for a free, independent nation. My mother led, walking in the streets of Bangladesh to demand freedom and justice from the then occupying Pakistani army. Bangladesh today is a thriving nation and fast-emerging economy. The UK Government are much loved and respected for their earliest recognition of its independence and their ongoing support.

The number of women who were raped and tortured at that time is estimated at over 300,000. The USA kept silent on that genocide and stood with the occupiers and barbaric genocidal army. To this day, that army has not been brought to justice or made accountable. It pains me to say that the US has continued its blinkered support to some nations. I find it heartbreaking that it has continued to show callous disregard for human rights and justice in nations where it provides weapons of war.

As a daughter born of that nation, and as a Londoner for more than 50 years, I have marched many times since, demanding an end to the war in Iraq, better NHS services and so on.

As noble Lords have noted, some progress has been made for women throughout the centuries. I draw the attention of the House to the first UK women’s liberation March, commencing on 6 March 1971, when over 4,000 women participated on the streets, demanding equal and universal rights for women. Today, this has evolved to become a 1 million-strong women’s rights movement, demanding the right to live in freedom from the fear of violence, rape, torture, sexual and physical abuse, and, of course, the universal right to participate in public life.

This coming Saturday, this global movement of 1 million women will rise and coalesce alongside hundreds of thousands of men and women of every background, creed, colour and faith, or none. They will stand in solidarity with all the oppressed, occupied and violated women of our world, and in opposition to the killing of women and children in their thousands. They will call for an immediate halt to the killing fields of Palestine, where 30,000 women, children and their families have been murdered, tens of thousands buried under tons of rubble, with bombs more horrific than Hiroshima, while 70,000 more have been injured, maimed or burned with phosphorus, or are starving—women and children—without water, basic food or medicine.

We must hold the perpetrators to account. Until that time, together with many hundreds of thousands, I shall march in peace and solidarity, giving voice to those who cannot. In honour of the Palestinian mothers, daughters and granddaughters who have been slaughtered, I will walk in the tradition of my country—this country—and shout out to demand that our Government must stop their support for the Israeli occupying force and its brutal warfare on the Palestinian people. The PM should rest assured that such marches will not stop until that slaughter stops.

We debate economic equality and justice while women in Palestine, Sudan, Congo, Nigeria, Eritrea, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan cannot truly comprehend freedom, justice or economic liberation. We have been the architects of so many global conflicts. We at home, in Europe and in the USA, cannot contemplate peace, pay gaps and boardroom equity while women continue to be murdered and raped, regarded as collateral and the dispensable property of wars.

Given what we are witnessing on our screens, millions of citizens no longer accept or believe that our arrogant Governments’ war objectives are to free and liberate nations and their women from the shackles of inhumanity, injustice and dictatorship. We have fallen so short of our own moral compass, becoming oblivious to one dictator who is currently slaughtering a whole people while citing freedom and peace.

We appear to have learned nothing from the illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and, sadly, have become even more emboldened towards war. Once again, we are whispering peace despite the mass civilian killing fields of Rafah, the West Bank and Khan Younis. The IDF is roaming free, at will bombing to smithereens hospitals and schools, and thousands of women and children, doctors, nurses and journalists. Women have lost everything that they know as home. Women are holding babies torn to shreds.

What can citizens do but march? I pray that these marches will yield peace and justice. The cause of Palestine has been awakened in the hearts of all citizens throughout the nations, among thousands of ordinary men and women who understand the differences between self-defence and genocidal murder, collective punishment, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. We demand justice and peace.

I hope that these marchers will continue to oppose the actions of our Government, who are so complicit with Israel’s breaking of international laws and breaching the international norms of war. The PM standing and declaring war on protestors may provide temporary cover over his conscience. Allying them with extremist behaviour will do nothing to dissuade me, my neighbours, my children or my grandchildren from marching in the tradition of the Suffragettes, and for all those who march today for freedom and justice, as they have done for hundreds of years. Yes, to call for freedom and justice across all the rivers and the seas, and all the continents, until all women in all nations are free and triumph over occupation, oppression, wars and genocide.

My Lords, I remind the House that while this is a wonderful debate, we have a six-minute advisory speaking time for a reason: so that we can hear the Minister properly later and finish at an appropriate time.

My Lords, I am so pleased to be here celebrating International Women’s Day with all my friends and colleagues in this House. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, whose work I have admired for many years. I look forward to her maiden speech so much.

I am delighted that this year’s International Women’s Day theme centres on investing in women, a topic close to my heart. It is gratifying to see the House focus its attention on this crucial subject. We are all aware of the benefits associated with investing in women’s health, education and economic opportunities. Women’s increased economic participation in their ownership and management of productive assets not only accelerates development but alleviates poverty, diminishes inequalities and enhances children’s well-being. Women typically invest a larger portion of their earnings in their families and communities compared to men. Moreover, providing girls with even a few years of primary education improves economic prospects, reduces family size and boosts children’s access to education.

However, realising these benefits hinges on robust investment. Women, particularly in developing nations, require access to comprehensive credit, banking and financial services to fully develop their assets. This, again, was promised at the meeting of Finance Ministers of the G20. While formal education empowers girls, ensuring they have equitable access to educational opportunities is paramount, especially considering the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on girls’ education.

Recent reports from reputable institutions such as the World Bank and the World Economic Forum underscore persistent global gender inequalities. The widening gender pay gap in the UK between 2022 and 2023—reports have recently been published on this, including this morning—and the projected 131 years to achieve global gender parity, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2023, are alarming. These statistics signal regression rather than progress in women’s rights worldwide.

Yet for women in conflicted areas, time is of the essence. Their lives are endangered daily by violence, displacement, poverty and disease. On this International Women’s Day, I pay homage to the remarkable women serving as human rights defenders, despite facing repressive regimes and violent actors. We have to fight harder for those in Afghanistan, where women protesting against the Taliban are being detained, silenced and subject to abuse. Can you imagine never being able to go out, week after week, nor let your children out? Similarly, women on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict are advocating for peace amid bloodshed.

In Ukraine, women like Oleksandra Matviichuk are trying to expose Russian aggression. They are taking notes and going to war-torn areas so that people can be prosecuted. Ukrainian women are on the front line, from soldiers to grass-roots activists. There are 50,000 women in Ukraine on the front line, in one way and another, playing a pivotal role in countering Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

Three years since the last military coup in Myanmar, women have intensified their involvement in the pro-democracy movement, challenging patriarchal structures and advocating for gender equality. In Iran, women continue to face brutal repression for their peaceful dissent, exemplified by the courage of those who protested against the death of Mahsa Amini.

Women worldwide endure double jeopardy, for their gender and their convictions, yet remain undeterred. I urge this House to join me in honouring the resistance and bravery of women affected by conflict, and those fighting against the odds for a more equitable world. Women’s economic equality is central to realising and protecting women’s rights. When women work, economies grow; when women in emergency settings are held back, the entire process of peacebuilding and reconstruction is in jeopardy. Women think about health and investment; they think about education. Stable economies are paramount to the transition that a country makes from war to peace and can help prevent conflict breaking out in the first place. A number of indexes show that if those women were listened to, it would stop many wars.

The private sector plays a crucial role in bridging the gaps after war and is potentially positioned to accelerate economic resilience for women and girls. Various companies have created initiatives to better support women at local level, from skills training on how to fully utilise their farmed crops to bank account creation and financial courses.

I urge that schools should not be used during a time of war for offices, because it is when people are not being educated that the economy of a country goes down, and it is impossible to assist in bringing it forward. I have worked with two great organisations but, because of the war, children have not been taught to read or write, so they are not able to be employed as they get older in even the most basic tasks, such as hotel trades. Then, labour comes in from outside, which damages the economy terribly. I also urge the Government to encourage greater investment in conflict-affected countries and ask them to promise that no discussions about investment in women or in those countries are held without local women at the table.

I have one other point, on today’s report from the Commons Treasury Select Committee. One of its recommendations is that we should have no NDAs in future. I hope that this and other Governments will put that in legislation as quickly as possible.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for introducing this important debate so ably. Like others, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, and look forward to her maiden speech, but I begin by paying tribute to Theresa May, who today has announced that she is stepping down from the Commons. She was our second woman Prime Minister and had a terrible time in office, for various reasons that we are all familiar with, but she carried on valiantly. She has always been a great supporter of women and did a lot on domestic abuse, trafficking and all sorts of issues. I salute the contribution she has made to our political world.

The theme of this International Women’s Day debate, the economic inclusion of women, recognises the pivotal role women play in shaping our economies and societies. Across the globe, women contribute significantly to their economies—from entrepreneurship to labour force participation, from innovation to leadership. Yet, despite these invaluable contributions, women continue to face barriers that hinder their full participation in the economy. Economic inclusion is not just a matter of fairness; it is an imperative for sustainable development and prosperity. When women are economically empowered, they invest in their families, communities and future generations. They help their countries move forward or, as Christine Lagarde once said,

“when women do better economies do better”.

However, in some countries achieving economic inclusion for women requires an enormous cultural shift in attitudes, norms and perceptions. We must challenge those stereotypes, break down gender roles, and create environments where women are valued and respected as equals.

It is hard to take your place in today’s society without education. We know that investing in girls’ education transforms communities and countries. Here in the UK, girls outperform boys from primary school to university. However, as we have already heard, women are too often held back in the workplace once they have had a child, as childcare in the UK is exorbitantly expensive, being twice the average for the OECD. As we have also heard, usually the childcare duties fall to the women.

It is terrible that there is a country in the world today—the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, has already alluded to this—Afghanistan, where girls are not allowed to go to secondary school. I am sure that the Minister will not be surprised if I ask: what is the Government’s current assessment of the situation in that country?

In many developing countries girls struggle to get an education, with 129 million girls out of school worldwide and only 49% of countries having achieved gender parity in primary education. I am proud of our Government; through the international women and girls strategy, the UK has supported 19.8 million children, including over 10 million girls, to gain a decent education since 2015.

I have recently returned from a trip with the APPG on Population, Development and Reproductive Health to Tanzania to look at UK-supported sexual health and reproductive rights—SHRR—activities. We saw for ourselves the importance of women gaining access to contraception, especially in a country where the population is spiralling out of control. If women cannot have control over their fertility, it is very hard for them to achieve anything economically. It is estimated that every $1 spent on contraception would save $3 in the cost of maternal, newborn and abortion care, because of reduction of unintended pregnancies. I hope that the UK Government will continue to support Tanzania and, in particular, the UNFPA supplies in this regard.

As we have also already heard, it is hard to have economic development, let alone inclusion, if you do not have peace. As noble Lords will know, you cannot achieve sustainable peace agreements in conflict areas unless you include women in those discussions. Often they are excluded from the peace table.

I know that time is short, but I would like to raise one more issue: water. For more than 70% of households without a water supply, it is the women and the girls aged 15 or older who are responsible for water collection. Water collection is exhausting apart from anything else, with heavy buckets of water. Investing in water, sanitation and hygiene is critical to reducing women’s unpaid care work, and it can unlock employment and income. It can also help to improve girls’ access to primary and secondary education and improve women’s health.

We are having this debate at a time when, sadly, women’s rights are falling back across the world. There are so many things we need to get right to enable women’s economic inclusion: peace, education, access to contraception, access to water and sanitation, financial inclusion and literacy. However, I would like to illuminate a ray of hope. I recently attended a conference in Tunisia of women entrepreneurs and was impressed to meet women from many countries who had started their own businesses. As we reflect on the progress we have made and the work that still lies ahead, let us recommit ourselves to the cause of economic inclusion for women. As Michelle Obama once said,

“no country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens”.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger. Her dedication to international women’s issues is an inspiration to me and, I am sure, to everyone in this Chamber. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, for her presentation—it was very comprehensive—and for initiating this debate.

I had thought, when I heard the most reverend Primate in the foreign affairs debate earlier this week talking about most Anglicans being women in their 30s in sub-Saharan Africa who have $4 per day, that maybe I would have a go at the international aspects of women today. Then I thought, “Hmm, Lady Abinger is speaking, as is Lady Northover, and possibly Lady Amos”—although she did not do what was expected. I thought, “No, steer clear, Donaghy. Stick to the knitting; do what you know best”, so that is what I am going to do.

There is no better way of promoting the economic inclusion of women than ensuring they are safe from harm and supporting them when they are subject to abuse, whether that is violence, economic abuse or coercive control. There is a desperate need to increase funding for specialist domestic abuse services. I am grateful to my friend and mentor, my noble friend Lady Gale, for raising this subject. I strongly support what she said.

Refuges, as I said at Question Time on Monday, are having to turn away the majority of referrals as they do not have the long-term resources to cope. The Home Office flee fund was created to ensure that all survivors who want to flee their homes have access to the resources they need to do so safely. The welcome announcement in February of £2 million, as my noble friend Lady Gale has already said, was spent within a few days. It is a fraction of the actual need, as the Home Office itself accepts that one in four women experiences domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime.

It has already been mentioned that the cost of living crisis has a disproportionate impact on women, but imagine the impact on survivors of domestic abuse. It often forces them to stay within an abusive partnership. Of refuge front-line staff, 77% reported that the cost of living crisis was increasing barriers to leaving. There is a reported increase in coerced debt and fraud, and of survivors’ online accounts and devices being misused by perpetrators to take out debt in their name without their knowledge or consent.

Around 60% of Child Maintenance Service claimants are survivors of domestic abuse. Too often the onus is placed on survivors to chase payment. Some staff have pressurised survivors to put in place direct pay arrangements, which means that perpetrators know victims’ bank details and sometimes their location. The collect and pay system, which is often the safest option for survivors, demands financial charges from both sides, which makes it an expensive option. Are the Government satisfied that staff dealing with the 60% who are survivors of domestic abuse are receiving in-depth ongoing domestic abuse training?

Many will remember why Clare’s law was made in 2014. Some in the Chamber will have taken an active part in creating that legislation. The official name of it is the domestic violence disclosure scheme. It was named after Clare Wood, whose father— sadly, he died in 2020—campaigned for it after her murder by a former partner. Police knew the perpetrator to be dangerous, as he had served three prison sentences for violence and harassment of women. Clare’s family were certain that she would not have entered into a relationship with him had she known about his violent past. The law gives the right to ask and a right to know in certain circumstances. The question is: have things improved since 2014?

Only yesterday, Clare’s daughter Maddy said that she feared more people will be killed because of “poor” handling of the scheme. Some people who asked for a background check on their partner had been waiting for hundreds of days for an answer, when they should have received one within 28 days. The Domestic Abuse Commissioner found the findings of the BBC investigation “seriously concerning”. There were around 45,000 Clare’s law applications made in England and Wales in 2022-23, a rise of 300% in five years.

In addition to the delays, thousands of applications were declined. That might be because there is no information to disclose, but can the Minister say why information that was released dropped from 48% in 2018-19 to 38% in 2022-23? Are the Government satisfied that there is sufficient awareness of Clare’s law? One woman on the news yesterday, who was in a refuge after suffering domestic violence, said that she did not know about this. What conversations are the Government having with police forces to improve the position? Wiltshire Police has accepted a catastrophic service failure after reviewing its performance of assessing claims under Clare’s law.

Finally, I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, and the reply from the Minister, although I am content with an answer in a letter with the detail I have asked for.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interest set out in the register: I run a women’s rights charity. I am really pleased to be speaking in my first International Women’s Day debate since becoming a Peer. How beautifully the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, has timed her maiden speech to fall on International Women’s Day—I congratulate her on her forthcoming speech. I look forward to hearing not just what she says but her future contributions, and I look forward to working with her on many issues.

My contribution will be on the economic inclusion of minority ethnic women, particularly focusing on pensions and financial literacy. Since the auto-enrolment policy started over a decade ago, it has benefited many women, with more women contributing to their pensions—so the scheme has been a success. However, minority ethnic women will face pension poverty in the future. A high proportion of black and Asian women, particularly Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, have not saved for their pension.

A number of factors contribute to this pension gap. These women have higher unemployment rates. When they are in work, they are more likely to be in lower-paid and part-time jobs, not meeting the threshold for auto-enrolment. Arguments have been put forward for lowering the threshold for auto-enrolment, and I understand that the Government have looked at that and will not decrease that threshold yet. I agree with that, given the cost of living crisis. Even when the threshold is met, women are choosing to opt out, because every pound counts when they face hardship and cannot meet their daily basic needs or afford to eat or feed their families, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, passionately highlighted when she talked about women skipping meals.

However, there are also women who are in work and can afford to make the contributions but still end up opting out of the auto-enrolment scheme. Many factors contribute to this. They may lack knowledge about pensions, and employers are unlikely to raise awareness because they have to contribute to the pension pot. Women may lack knowledge that employers have to contribute, so they may not realise that they are missing out on this free money that goes into their pension pot. Women may not understand that they would be able to pay slightly less tax. There may be a lack of trust: they may feel that employers might not put money into their pension scheme.

Women may not realise that they can opt in even if they do not meet the threshold. This is particularly applicable to young women who may be living at home with their parents. Women may just be putting off thinking about pensions until later and may not fully understand the impact of their decisions. Some Muslim women may not contribute because they do not think that their pension fund investments align with their faith, and they may not be aware that reputable and sharia-compliant pension funds exist.

Minority ethnic women often lack the right advice. Education on pensions is especially important to women who have been out of work for a long time and are returning after long career break. They are even less aware of some of the points that I am raising today. Some women may be coming back to work after 15 or 20 years. It is not just about pensions: minority ethnic women need to be empowered with financial literacy, financial education and education about their financial rights. For example, there will also be many Muslim women who are not in legally registered marriages, such as those who have had a religious marriage in the UK that was not accompanied by a civil marriage in the UK, which means that they will not be able to benefit from their spouse’s pension should the spouse pass away first.

It is not just pensions. Women in such marriages lose out on other financial benefits, such as inheritance rights and financial arrangements during a divorce. Financial literacy could also have a positive impact on reducing religious-only marriages, which are not legally recognised in this country. It may encourage more women to be more assertive about having a legally registered marriage. Some 25% of Muslim women are likely to be in religious-only marriages, according to research by the Muslim Women’s Network UK.

It is clear that improving financial knowledge is key to promoting women’s economic empowerment, and the Government can play a crucial role in this. I would like to understand what steps the Government will take to close the ethnicity pensions gap and improve overall financial literacy for adult women, and what specific measures will be taken to ensure that minority ethnic women are reached with the information that they really need.

My Lords, I join colleagues in welcoming the esteemed noble Baroness, Lady Casey, and I greatly look forward to her maiden speech. Women are too often the unsung heroines in their contribution to farming and agriculture, but their profound impact goes beyond mere cultivation: it extends to shaping communities, fostering sustainable practices and contributing significantly to the rural economy.

During World War II, when many men were away fighting, women in the Women’s Land Army played a crucial role in maintaining food production and addressing the labour shortage in agriculture. Land Girls took on a wide range of responsibilities, including ploughing fields, planting and harvesting crops, and tending to livestock. They worked in often challenging conditions, but they contributed significantly to the nation’s food supply and supported the war economy.

Today, women constitute an increasing and significant portion of the agricultural workforce, playing pivotal roles across the value chain. Here I pay tribute to Minette Batters, who, when she was elected NFU president in 2018, became the first woman to hold the position in the organisation’s 100 year-plus history. Minette has been an influential figure in agriculture, championing and advocating for the interests of farmers and addressing the numerous challenges faced by our farming communities.

While I was working on the Rock review, looking at the future of agricultural tenancies, I travelled the length and breadth of England, talking to a wide variety of stakeholders, from tenant farmers to landowners and from land agents to professional agricultural organisations. I was struck by how women are the backbone of our rural communities. We do not just have farmers; we have farming families. Everyone in the family mucks in, and women are no longer limited to those traditional roles. Increasingly, we see women engage in agribusinesses, driving innovation in farming practices and involved in all-important farming mental health charities, such as the FCN and Yellow Wellies.

But it saddens me to say that I also saw the negative side when working on the Rock review—not really from farmers themselves but more from some professional organisations. There was a nasty campaign to undermine me and to say that I did not have experience or knowledge and that I, a tenant farmer, did not know anything about agricultural tenancies. I am not sure that would have happened if I had been a man.

Agriculture is often considered a male-dominated industry, but the importance of women in agriculture and rural economies cannot be overstated. Their contributions span from the fields to the markets, shaping the very foundation of food security and economic development. That economic impact of women extends beyond the farm gate. Rural economies heavily depend on the contributions of women, who engage in wide-ranging agricultural activities. The income earned by these women in rural areas is frequently reinvested in their families and communities, fostering a ripple effect of economic development and leading to increased prosperity in rural areas.

Education and training are also key components in enhancing the role of women in agriculture. Investing in education equips us with the skills and knowledge needed to adopt modern farming practices and to use climate-smart agricultural technology, contributing to better environmental outcomes. Creating supportive networks for knowledge exchange among women in agriculture can also be instrumental. Mentorship programmes, forums and co-operative networks can all help women share experiences, learn from each other and collectively address challenges they face in the sector.

I am delighted that Farmers Weekly has launched a new campaign, Level the Field, to bring about real change that will make agriculture more equitable and more inviting for women. The campaign looks at how to build a resilient and gender-diverse business, how to recruit and retain talent and how innovation will increase productivity. All these can be enhanced by gender equality. Indeed, studies consistently show that, when women are given equal opportunitiesin agriculture, there is a substantial increase in productivity and economic growth. Closing the gender gap can lead to a more efficient and sustainable agricultural system.

UK agriculture is facing its biggest upheaval since the land girls worked on farms in the Second World War. Running a viable and profitable business is a struggle for many farmers, who are losing direct payment supports and have high input costs and considerable labour shortages, particularly in dairy and horticulture. Does the Minister agree that, because of these challenges, we need to attract more women to farming careers and make it a more inclusive environment?

In conclusion, let us sow the seeds of change and cultivate a future where the contributions of women in farming are celebrated and valued. Addressing gender disparity in agriculture is not just a matter of social justice to build resilient, sustainable and prosperous rural communities. It is also a smart economic move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, for securing this important debate on International Women’s Day. I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Casey of Blackstock.

It is my belief that the kingdom of God is a place of radical inclusion in which all are welcome and all shall flourish. I speak as the duty bishop today, but I am mindful of the determined advocates on this Bench, which include the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, who is attending the 68th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

I wish to make three points. As we have already heard, disparities are both global and very particular. According to Oxfam in 2020, the 22 richest men in the world have more wealth combined that all the women in Africa. In terms of the prevalence of global poverty, there is little difference between male and female children, but by their late teens the bias against young women is marked, and the gap peaks between the ages of 25 and 34.

First, the restoration of the UK’s ambition to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on overseas aid is something this Bench will continue to call for as an important means to address poverty and the imbalance affecting women and girls. The drop to 0.5% is exacerbated by the fact that domestic spending on refugees is allowed out of the aid budget. Whereas that was 3.2% of aid spending in 2016, by 2022 it was 29% of a budget otherwise intended for overseas aid.

Because the Church is an international entity, my office as a bishop often takes me abroad. In the case of Zimbabwe, with which I am familiar, women are disproportionately likely to be engaged in what is generally known as the informal economy. Their activities in small and micro-enterprises are hampered, according to the International Labour Organization, by the lack of access to, or sudden withdrawal of, credit. It is further curtailed by the scourge of corruption. It is difficult for such enterprises to survive, let alone grow. Aid programmes need to recognise the level at which such enterprises operate.

Secondly, I wish to bring to your Lordships’ attention the report of the archbishops’ Reimagining Care Commission, which identified the challenges experienced by unpaid carers. Other noble Lords have already talked about the caring issue. Research carried out last year by the Trades Union Congress found that women are seven times more likely to be out of work than men, owing to caring commitments—approximately 1.46 million women compared to about 230,000 men. In addition, Carers UK has found that 59% of people caring for someone with a disability are women. This is why it is so important to deliver on the commission’s proposed new deal for carers, which would include the opportunity for restorative breaks, increased financial support and more proactive advice.

Thirdly, I welcome the fact that the Women and Equalities Committee in the other place is conducting an inquiry into the impact on women of the rising cost of living. One of the points raised during oral evidence was the impact the pandemic and the cost of living crisis has had in the form of loss of jobs in the food, retail and hospitality sectors, which disproportionately employ women.

The reduction in national insurance contributions announced in the Budget is welcome, as is reform to child benefit. But we do not have in our political life a programme that will adequately tackle the challenge affecting millions of people struggling to make ends meet, let alone a vision for a full life. A wider programme for a balanced economy of secure, well-paid jobs with proper, regulated provisions for sick pay, leave and severance will benefit women. As the International Monetary Fund has stated, gender equality in turn boosts economic growth and stability.

I welcome this debate, and I hope it informs both the Government’s and the Opposition’s thinking.

My Lords, before I move on to the substantive part of my speech, I want to touch on the impact on women of war, of which we have seen too many examples in the past 12 months, in Ukraine, Gaza and Israel. We have seen graphic examples of the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, in Israel on 7 October; the horror faced by mothers in the war in Gaza; and the fear faced by yet more mothers and women, terrified at the fate of the hostages taken by Hamas and the children stolen by Putin. As always, it is the women who are desperately seeking to protect and hold their families together in the face of horror.

I remind your Lordships’ House of my entries in the register of interests, specifically, my role as the chief executive of Index on Censorship, a charity which works with political dissidents.

I know that this debate is specifically about the role of women in the economy, and we have heard some extraordinary speeches, but economic equality and freedom is available only to those whose voices can be heard—to those who remain with us. I beg your Lordships’ indulgence as today, I remind the House of the women who have paid the ultimate price in the last 12 months because they dared to speak truth to power, dared to challenge the status quo, dared to fight for their communities using the only tool at their disposal: their voice.

Last year, I read out the names of 32 women who did extraordinary things in life which led to their deaths. Today, I shall build on those names and say the names of those who, devastatingly, have joined their ranks. These women are no longer with us, but we have a responsibility to say their names, to remember them and to be inspired by them.

There is Halima Idris Salim, a Sudanese journalist who was run down while covering the conflict by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. Mossamat Sahara, a photographer for the daily Alor Jagat in Bangladesh, was killed while documenting a smuggling operation. Farah Omar, a Lebanese correspondent, was killed in a rocket strike in southern Lebanon, near the Israeli border, while reporting on hostilities in the region. Vivian Silver, a Canadian peace activist who founded Women Wage Peace, was killed on 7 October by Hamas. Ángela León, a Mexican activist leading a group of volunteers searching for some of Mexico’s more than 100,000 missing people, was shot dead for conducting her own investigations. Olga Nazarenko, a Russian anti-war activist, died in unexplained circumstances.

Maria Bernadete Pacífico, a 72 year-old black community activist in Brazil, was murdered by gunmen at her home after receiving threats. Armita Geravand, a 16 year-old Iranian girl, was reportedly assaulted by morality police for not wearing a hijab, just like Mahsa Amini. Tinashe Chitsunge, an opposition activist in Zimbabwe, was stoned to death by ZANU-PF activists. Samantha Gómez Fonseca, a Mexican transgender politician, was slain days before she was due to lead a demo demanding security for trans people in Mexico. Rose Mugarurirwe, an opposition activist in Uganda, was brutally murdered.

Heba Suhaib Haj Arif, a Syrian women’s right activist, was murdered two weeks after receiving death threats. Ludivia Galindez, a social leader and human rights defender, was shot dead by a group of unidentified armed men at her home in Colombia. Bahjaa Abdelaa Abdelaa, a Sudenese human rights defender, was shot and killed at a funeral in South Darfur. Teresa Magueyal, a Mexican human rights defender, was shot dead by a group of unidentified men.

This heartbreaking list is not exhaustive. In authoritarian regimes every day, women are harassed, detained and murdered because they dare to speak out. We do not know all their names so we cannot state them for the record today, but we can take a second to remember them—to remember the mothers, grandmothers, daughters, nieces, granddaughters, sisters, aunts, friends, partners and wives who decided not to be silenced, who tried to fight back. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Inspire Inclusion”. Let us be inspired by these brave women and include them in our prayers. May their memory be a blessing.

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, and I fully associate myself with her comments on the horrors inflicted on women by Hamas and the suffering of women in Gaza and in conflicts around the world. I declare my interests as chief executive of United Against Malnutrition and Hunger and as a trustee of the Royal African Society. I am reluctant to add to the pressure of expectations on the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, but I cannot help the fact that I too am looking forward to her speech. Her contribution to public policy improvements has been extraordinary.

It is a privilege to take part in this debate, which marks the 123rd International Women’s Day, I believe. It is a particularly poignant day for me, as it was on International Women’s Day six years ago that my mother died from pancreatic cancer. Many in your Lordships’ House will know Jenny Joseph’s poem which starts:

“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple”.

My mother embodied the spirit and fun of that poem and, although she was a conservative dresser for most of her life, in her 80th year she added a purple streak to her hair and took to wearing purple outfits. However, her purple phase was not, in fact, a homage to the poem but because, as president of the Richmond upon Thames branch of Rotary International, she was a passionate advocate of its campaign for the eradication of polio worldwide, symbolised by a purple ribbon. The unlikely streak of purple in her hair was designed to lure people into a conversation in which she could then advocate forcefully for them to support polio eradication. Possibly, the purple streak was also designed to provoke eye-rolling bemusement from my father, which my mum naturally delighted in. My mother was, as so many mothers are, an inspiration and an anchor all my life, but her contribution went far beyond her family, although she did the bulk of the caring there. She was a schoolteacher, an inveterate organiser and a charity fundraiser.

Today, 123 years after the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1911, while there has been much progress towards greater economic inclusion of women, there is still a long way to go, both at home and abroad. In many parts of the world, women continue to face overt persecution and exclusion from the economy, from education and from wide aspects of society. Discrimination in access to health services and basic resources such as food remains commonplace, and the burden of disease falls most heavily on women in many countries.

As the APPG on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases has noted, women and girls are disproportionately affected by malaria and NTDs, due to social, economic, biological and cultural factors. These affect women and girls both as patients and caregivers, disrupting their health and keeping them out of school and work, exacerbating existing gender inequalities. Girls are often more likely to be taken out of school to take care of children and family members. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation increases exposure and the risk of developing NTDs for women who bear responsibility for water collection, home and family care. Limited financial resources, time constraints, diminished autonomy, stigma and discrimination create barriers that prevent women accessing timely healthcare, education and employment opportunities.

Through close contact with children, women are two to four times more likely to develop trachoma and are blinded up to four times more often than men. Since women and girls perform two-thirds of water collection globally, they have a higher risk of developing schistosomiasis in endemic areas, an NTD caused by freshwater parasitic worms. Certain NTDs, such as schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths, can directly affect women’s reproductive health and increase the risk of adverse outcomes during pregnancy, including anaemia, premature birth, increased blood loss during childbirth, infertility and a significantly higher risk of HIV. One in three pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa is infected with hookworm, which, in some settings, is responsible for 54% of anaemia cases during pregnancy. Anaemia accounts for at least 20% of maternal deaths.

The economic impacts of NTDs are devastating, constraining productivity and prosperity in so many countries. A recent study by Deloitte showed that if Nigeria met its NTD elimination targets by 2030, it could add $19 billion to its economy. Modelling from the Economist Intelligence Unit showed that by eliminating two NTDs—soil-transmitted helminths and schistosomiasis—Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe would collectively add over $5.1 billion to their GDPs by 2040.

It is not just disease that holds back women’s economic inclusion; there is a huge gender gap in access to food. Some years ago, when I was working on a project in Sudan, we heard repeatedly from women demanding a new dispensation that would end the reality that women and girls frequently ate last and least, and that was before the horrific civil war which has plunged so many further into misery and starvation. As my noble friend Lady Northover said in her excellent speech, we have to return to the previous cross-party commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on international aid, and we should ensure that we spend the aid budget to maximum effect by investing in the foundation stones of women’s economic inclusion: access to good-quality education, access to the nutrition needed to develop healthy and productive lives, and access to health services that can treat and prevent disease.

My Lords, it seems strange on International Women’s Day to begin a speech by saying “My Lords”, so I will say, colleagues, that I am very pleased to take part in this debate and to make a short contribution. Like every other Member, I wish the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, well in her maiden speech. That may not help her, but we all wish her well. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and to her daughter and granddaughter, that I remember standing up here and speaking a mere few hours after I became a grandparent for the first time, and I found myself instantly realising that I had a personal stake in the 22nd century.

The Motion we are debating today refers to

“steps taken to promote the economic inclusion of women”,

and I want to talk today about women and science. Why? Because studying science opens the way to an enormously wide range of opportunities in life, both personally and professionally, and science is as relevant and important a gateway to economic inclusion as any other. To get straight to the point, I want to talk about the scientific inclusion of women. I should say, as in the register of interests, that I am president of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, which is Parliament’s oldest all-party group.

I thank the many scientific organisations that contacted me while I was preparing for this debate to provide material and points that they would like made on their behalf. Frankly, I have been inundated and I am grateful to them all. For the sake of their right to be recorded in Hansard, I thank the Royal Society, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the Royal Society of Biology, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Anatomical Society, the Nutrition Society, the University of Reading, the Campaign for Science and Engineering and the Library for its briefing on today’s debate.

The House should know that all these societies are strong advocates for the inclusion of women, as well as for equality and diversity, in science. They have all provided far more statistics than I could use, but all are engaged in a variety of initiatives designed to promote women. The Royal Society highlighted that just over a quarter of the STEM workforce are women, yet women as a whole comprise 52% of the workforce, so there is still a long way to go.

On the other hand, to be a bit more optimistic, there are signs of some change for the better. The Physiological Society brought to my attention that three of the most eminent scientists in its field are women, one of whom is a Member of this House. The Nutrition Society provided me with a long list of success stories featuring women who have won major awards. The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications pointed out that female mathematicians now occupy some of the most important and distinguished places in public life: the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, the director of GCHQ, the chair of the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, the president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and the heads of the Isaac Newton Institute and the Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Research. I emphasise that these are the first women ever to hold these roles.

Unsurprisingly, there are still areas where progress needs to be made. The well-documented leaky pipeline is as leaky as it was when we held this debate last year. In the chemical sciences and physics, the retention and development of women into senior roles remains poor; the higher up the career ladder, the smaller the proportion of women. We must do more to encourage women taking career breaks to keep in touch with their science and make it easier for them to return as soon as they want to—and not to positions clearly less senior than those they occupied before taking a maternity break, for example. The Royal Society of Biology highlighted “insufficient support” for those with caring responsibilities. The Royal Society, the Anatomical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry agree—frankly, everybody agrees. If I have found one major theme repeated in the many briefings I have received, it is the question of how effectively to enhance support for women in mid-career. This also involves the problem of short-term contracts and funding, because those with caring responsibilities are predominantly women.

This Monday we held the annual STEM for Britain event, which brings early-career scientists to the House to meet their constituency Members of Parliament and exhibit their work. It is highly competitive, and the most brilliant young people came. As I handed out the prizes, I could not help but think to myself that the women getting the prizes would face hurdles in their careers that the men would not. I hope the Minister will acknowledge the crucial importance of this issue.

It is also well known that female scientists frequently fail to get proper credit for their research. Nature found that 13% fewer women were likely to be named as authors on a scientific paper to which they had contributed. When Watson and Crick won the Nobel prize, Rosalind Franklin, whose work had made it all possible, was not even mentioned. The men got the Nobel prize, yet if DNA is not a symbol of the 21st century, I do not know what is.

Role models are also terribly important. The Institute of Physics referred to “outdated stereotypes”. Thank heavens we have some women who can really inspire. Anyone who has seen Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who presents “The Sky at Night”, will know how inspirational she is. As the Oscars are coming up on Sunday, I note that a Barbie doll, whose dress features the sky and who has a telescope, is named after her.

My time is up, so I conclude by saying this. It is really straightforward: scientific inclusion is a vital ingredient of economic inclusion, and our country and economy cannot afford to waste the talents of half our population. Women and girls need science, science needs access to the fullest range of talent, and economic inclusion demands no less.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Stansgate. How wonderful it is to have a full day’s debate marking International Women’s Day. I pay tribute to all those who made it possible, especially my noble sister Lady Gale. As the first woman general secretary of the Welsh Labour Party, she is a legend in that beautiful land of male voice choirs and anthems for peace. I also look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Casey of Blackstock, and to her no doubt many more outstanding contributions to your Lordships’ House in the years ahead.

A story in yesterday’s Guardian begins as follows:

“A document from Prevent, the official scheme to stop radicalisation, includes believing in socialism, communism, anti-fascism and anti-abortion in a list of potential signs of ideologies leading to terrorism”.

What on earth are the Government thinking? I am no communist and I am pro-choice. I am the product of my own personal post-war human rights journey, but the idea that those I disagree with are inherently dangerous is as ridiculous as it would be for me not to acknowledge the significant contribution of British Conservatives to international human rights-building in the second half of the last century.

I want to pay tribute to Clara Zetkin. A political refugee from Bismarck’s Germany in the late 1800s, she later returned to become an organiser, a dear friend of Rosa Luxemburg and the driving force behind International Women’s Day. Later still, as the oldest deputy in the Reichstag in 1932 and at considerable personal risk, she presided over the opening session, using her address to call for working people to unite against fascism. Sadly, we still need acts of such courage in too much of the world today. I am all for the many corporate events now associated with International Women’s Day, but let us never forget its roots in working women’s struggles for suffrage, including when some of their wealthier sisters were happy limiting the franchise to propertied women, and for equal pay in particular.

This Motion is to take note of

“the steps taken to promote the economic inclusion of women”.

We should take no prisoners in identifying the steps not yet taken and the iniquities yet to be addressed. So long after the first Equal Pay Act in the United Kingdom, our gender pay gap is still embarrassingly wide. I hope noble Lords will forgive me for boring them with this previously, including in this debate last year, but equal pay law contains a fatal flaw. There is no enforcement mechanism other than relying on individual women, with or without the help of their trade unions, to investigate what their male colleagues are being paid for the same or equivalent work and then to sue their employers. We would never take this approach to food, school or environmental standards or any other regulatory framework that we even attempt to take seriously in our complex modern world. We must have not just more pay transparency but state enforcement mechanisms involving our trade unions.

AI presents many challenges to our rights and freedoms, but an obvious opportunity lies in the relative ease with which it might be deployed to analyse payroll and other financial information already in the hands of, for example, HMRC. It would allow spot-checking and targeted investigations of companies’ equal pay practice, whatever they claim on their websites and parrot once a year on 8 March.

I am delighted to say that, as of last summer’s National Policy Forum document, this appears to be embryonic Labour policy, thanks to the advocacy of young women senior trade unionists, such as Rhea Wolfson of the GMB, putting these issues on the agenda and transforming the face of our trade unions better to reflect our rapidly changing world of work. She is the final woman to whom I pay tribute today.

Rogue employers beware: these contemporary feminist trade unionists are on the case. Yes, we want more women at the top tables of power in boardrooms and Cabinet rooms, but we must also take care of the women who serve at those tables and build them, who care for the children and the elderly right across the supply chain. In the economic resettlement that must come, as a result of climate change and technological revolution, there must be no gender gap at all. Can the Minister agree? Or is this considered so radical as to be branded extreme by the thought police of the Home Office and the ironically titled Department for Levelling Up?

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be part of this International Women’s Day debate. I too wish the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, well for her maiden speech, which I know will be the first of many significant contributions to your Lordships’ House. I draw attention to my interests in the register.

I am proud to be an ambassador for Smart Works, a charity supporting unemployed women into work through one-to-one coaching and dressing services. Its purpose is rooted in the reality that our chances of success are affected by how confident we feel and how we present ourselves. After finding myself unemployed, I also found the privilege of volunteering for Smart Works, working with our clients to find the right outfit that would let them look in the mirror and say—and believe—“Yes, I can do this”.

Every story we heard was personal. Every job that was bravely gone for was different. I supported women who had been in prison; who had been trafficked; who had not worked for years while caring for others; who had been struck by ill health, relationship break-ups or financial ruin; who could not look at themselves in the mirror; who did not have the know-how or confidence in what the right thing to wear was, even if they could have afforded it—in other words, just women living in today’s world.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of hosting the launch of the Smart Works unemployment index in the House of Lords. Through the evidence-based report, stories, experiences and aspirations are expressed about what it means to be an unemployed woman seeking work in the UK today and why it matters so much to have a job.

In the last 10 years alone, Smart Works has helped more than 35,000 women. Nearly seven in 10 get a job within a month of their visit. This is a remarkable testimony. I pay tribute to the skill of the volunteers, trustees and staff, as well as the referral agencies. I also acknowledge the generosity of many companies that provide top-class clothing free for clients to keep. I thank the individuals who make donations, including many a Baroness in your Lordships’ House who has kindly donated work wear.

However, there is little joy to be found in the report. It confirms that the circumstances in which women seek work have deteriorated in an economy with record levels of inactivity, low growth and low productivity. The report gives a voice to more than 3,700 women of all ages, ethnicities and communities. What they say is not easy to hear. They find it harder to secure work despite applying for more jobs and attending more interviews. They speak about the pressure of the cost of living crisis and the desperation it creates. They reveal that they have had to apply for lower-skilled and lower-paid jobs for which they are overqualified, simply because they have to make ends meet.

Here are the harsh facts about the last year, on which I would welcome the Minister’s view. Women applied for an average of 33 jobs, compared with 28 in the previous year, with more than one in five applying for over 50 jobs. Despite their efforts, they had the chance to attend only three interviews on average, rarely receiving any feedback on why their applications were unsuccessful—that is just plain rude. Furthermore, we hear that 70% of women have had to apply for lower-paid and lower-skilled work, up from 62% in 2022. Well over half reported feeling less confident after going through the application process, which had worn down their confidence.

The one thing that has not changed is just how important it is to have a job. Women want to work because it is part of who they are, it unlocks opportunities not just for them but for their loved ones, and it gives them a sense of purpose. I am sure we can all identify with that.

Women cannot be kept waiting for change, so I want to put to the Minister some immediate proposals on which the Government can work with employers, and to which I hope to get a positive response today. Women need clear job descriptions with salary, location and options for flexibility listed up front. They need reimbursement of costs associated with applications for jobs. Regardless of salary and the qualifications expected, all roles should be advertised where unemployed people will see them. Finally, on one of the points I emphasised earlier, unsuccessful job applicants should receive useful and objective feedback. Women are one of the greatest assets we have in our economy; it is time to act on that.

My Lords, I join today’s common refrain in welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Casey. We very much look forward to hearing her maiden speech, as well as her many contributions to come in the future.

As has been mentioned, International Women’s Day offers us an opportunity to take stock of our achievements toward the economic inclusion of women, and to highlight where more work needs to be done towards greater equality. The debate has been shaped around the economic disparities that persist between men and women globally. Women generally face lower pay, higher levels of informal employment and more unpaid care work than men, as has been repeated multiple times.

I will spend some time talking about signs that there are improvements occurring that are quite meaningful and ought to be stressed. It would be a missed opportunity if I did not highlight several important gains in women’s participation in the economy in recent times. In doing so, I will focus on progress in areas of corporate leadership. While it is arguably a narrow purview, it reflects my own experience in economics and finance, and on the boards of a number of global corporations. Specifically, I will offer three data points that demonstrate clear improvements in women’s economic inclusion.

First, on corporate boards, according to Cranfield University, female directorships in the FTSE 100 have risen from 5.8% in 2000 to nearly 40% in 2022. Secondly, as of just a few weeks ago, in February 2024, 10% of FTSE 100 companies have female chief executives; this is still low, but the number is double the 5% level of a decade ago. We see a similar trajectory in the United States where, in 2023, 10.4% of Fortune 500 companies had women CEOs. A quarter of the 52 leaders had become CEOs in the prior year, obviously suggesting that there is momentum. A third area of positive momentum for economic inclusion is that women are now showing up more as entrepreneurs. In 2022 the Rose review revealed that women in the United Kingdom established more than 150,000 new companies, more than twice as many as in 2018.

Even more encouraging is that a growing proportion of these start-ups—approximately 17,500—were founded by young women aged 16 to 25 years old. In 2022, one in five UK businesses were all-female led, compared with one in six in 2018.

Notwithstanding these positive trends, more effort, particularly targeting a broader base of women, is urgently needed, and clearly this is a message that has become clear in the debate that we have had so far. After all, scrutinising the most senior positions does not offer a true representation of women across the economy. Indeed, when we look over women’s inclusion across the broader economy, it is easy to identify specific areas where much more progress is needed.

Notably, returning to the framework of this debate, the 2023 United Nations sustainable development goals report noted two things. It noted that women spent about three times as many hours in unpaid domestic and care work as men, and that on average, women in the labour market still earned 23% less than men globally. In the United Kingdom specifically, the gender gap—which has been mentioned a number of times already—was at 14% as of April 2023. As has been mentioned previously by my fellow Peers, the Office for National Statistics has stated that the median weekly earnings for men are £666 and are £491 for women.

I was not yet elevated to the Lords, so I was not able to participate last year, but last year’s report by the Financial Inclusion Commission stated that there are 11 million women who are denied access to mainstream financial products, and that women also pay higher interest rates on credit cards—an extra 0.8%—and are less likely to be pre-approved for credit than men. It is here that public policy can and should make a real difference.

Meaningfully addressing economic inclusion matters importantly, because it will reverberate into improved health equalities, educational attainment and, ultimately, social mobility. As has been stated on a number of occasions, this is absolutely foundational if we are to hope for human progress and economic growth.

My Lords—or, on this day of all days, I am going to say “Sisters”—I too am really looking forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Casey. I hope that she does not hold back.

I will take the few minutes I have to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1984 miners’ strike, to pay tribute to Women Against Pit Closures, and maybe to draw some lessons for the future. I declare an interest: I am the former general secretary of the TUC, and I am the sister of a former striking miner. My sister-in-law—a new mother at time—was one of the tens of thousands of women who showed great resilience in the face of real hardship. Needless to say, I am very proud of both my brother and her.

The miners’ strike had a big impact on my generation. Women Against Pit Closures, including Betty Heathfield, Anne Harper, Ann Lilburn and Sian James, showed us that, vital though that work was, the contribution of women was about much more than running soup kitchens. Working class women were leaders too, and they forged new alliances, including with LGBT+ and anti-racist campaigns, and won support from artists from George Michael to the Pogues.

Since the strike, women have also been critical to many truth and justice campaigns, not least the campaign about what really happened at Orgreave. It is shameful that there has been no public inquiry into the brutal police operation there, and into who ultimately gave the orders. The time-honoured principle of equality before the law must be upheld, but it is a mirage if access to the law is denied, or if ordinary people are priced out of justice. That goes for employment tribunal fees too. The last time employment tribunal fees were introduced, the number of claims plummeted by 78%; claims on race discrimination and LGBT+ discrimination were down by 60%; and equal pay and sex discrimination cases dropped by over 80%. Will the Minister agree that employment tribunal fees are bad for women and bad for workplace justice?

Looking ahead, the British economy faces big challenges that will impact on women’s employment, including the drive to cut carbon and the rapid spread of AI. My own view is that AI has the potential to be a liberating force, offering more satisfying work and higher living standards, but only if change is regulated, negotiated and managed, and if the benefits are shared fairly. The risk of disruption and job loss is significant. According to the ONS, seven in 10 of the jobs most at risk to AI are held by women.

This week, the Coalfields Regeneration Trust published a report that shows that the wounds of the Government’s pit closure programmes still run deep. Ex-mining areas have fewer jobs compared with the rest of the UK, and those jobs they have are lower paid and more likely to be zero hours. This time, it must be different. We urgently need a new, practical industrial strategy, investment and a social plan, to support firms, livelihoods and communities through change. The goal must be a just transition to a greener and higher-productivity economy, with good jobs and skills for men and women at its heart.

Finally, the trade union movement today compared with when I was a young rep has been transformed. Membership is now 50:50 men and women, Britain’s biggest unions are now led by women and the majority of those who took strike action over the last couple of years and who led negotiations for a fair resolution were women. That boost to women’s representation sadly does not mean that the trade union movement is now a feminist paradise—any more than the boardroom is, or indeed Parliament.

However, sharing representation and power more equally means that bad behaviours, including sexism and sexual harassment, are more likely to be exposed and tackled. Women and men, black and white, young and old, share a common interest. We all want an economy that delivers secure jobs that pay enough to raise a family, enough time to spend with loved ones, and freedom from all forms of discrimination, just as Women Against Pit Closures fought for the right for women, alongside men, to have a strong voice—a strong union voice—at work and in society.

My Lords and Sisters, there have been some absolutely brilliant speeches today. After the first four speeches—the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, and her optimism, the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, with cold, hard facts, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, with her calm, concise clarity, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, with her passion and sincerity—I ran back to my office to rewrite my own speech. I thought, “I can’t compete with any of those speeches”. When I got to my office and I started casting round to find some things I wanted to say, I suddenly thought, “I don’t have to compete; all I have to do is support what I heard, collaborate, and be part of a debate that is incredibly important in today’s world”.

It is about a century since women got the vote—in 1919 for women with property and 1928 for all women—but society is still unequal, and women are still being left behind. The statistics speak for themselves. Women still do not have equal pay. Women do not have equal representation, whether in Westminster or in boardrooms. One in four women is subjected to domestic violence during her lifetime. The number of rape cases and domestic assault cases that come to court is abysmally low, which we as a society should be utterly ashamed of. Of course, many cases are never reported—why bother if it will take years for them to come to court? The levels of violence against women and girls are at epidemic proportions, and there is strong evidence that the media’s sexist portrayal of women is part of the problem.

The Government could do a lot about that. They possibly have done some things, but there is a lot left to do. My noble friend Lord Sikka today tweeted about something quite useful: the government “policies against women”. He mentioned:

“Gender pay/pension gap. Lower state pension. Unpaid carers. Real wage/benefit cuts—majority public sector workers & benefit recipients are female”.

We have heard about those issues in today’s speeches, and it is a sad reflection on 14 years of Tory government that they have not tried to equalise society in the way that only Governments can.

On the issue of our climate crisis, it is more often women who suffer. They are more likely to die in a climate disaster, be displaced by climate change or die from pollution. They are not inherently more vulnerable, but intersections between sex, power dynamics, socio-economic structures and societal norms and expectations result in climate impacts being experienced very differently by women. In many countries, women more often grow food for their families on small plots and are vulnerable to small changes in rainfall or soil quality. Sex inequality also intersects with discrimination based on other aspects of identity—class, age, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, ethnicity and religion—all of which multiply the impacts of climate change.

When I was casting around for what to say, I looked at my noble friend Lady Bennett’s speech last year. I thought that it was really good and that I would take some of it. I thought I would not bother telling anyone, but then I thought she might notice. She said:

“When we think about food systems and the health and economic well-being of women and girls, we also need to think about the way in which the financial sector plays against it. When the overwhelmingly male-dominated financial markets expand under current arrangements, the rest of the world suffers … This is a threat to women and girls around the planet, to their chances of having a healthy diet and a liveable world. The financial sector is a parasite and we need strong medicine to stop it sucking the lifeblood out of this planet, particularly the well-being of women and girls. The financial sector funds big agriculture—the handful of companies in seeds, agrochemicals and industrial, giant-scale agriculture—which all too often robs the women and girls of this planet of their land, fresh water supplies and current food systems, and of their chance of a sustainable, secure life”.—[Official Report, 10/3/23; col. 1032.]

If we care about women, it is not enough to talk; we actually have to act.

Noble Lords here today probably act in their own lives to make things more equal for women. I first got into politics because of a fluke in our electoral system. After my first year as a London Assembly member, the Evening Standard did a review on how good everybody on the assembly was, and I came bottom of the poll. Two years later, I was the Deputy Mayor of London and, two years after that, I helped the Mayor of London bring in all sorts of multi-million-pound measures. We can do the most amazing things, but we have to change the world. We are all capable of it, but co-operation among ourselves is a big part of it.

My Lords, in a debate like this when one is part of a distinct minority, it is about saying to our sisters of the day, “A small phalanx of brothers are here with you now”. All I can say is that I hope we add to the contributions, listen and carry your messages back to our colleagues.

I am going to make a speech that I do not think will be mirrored in any other part of this debate because I am going to talk about the role of sport, in particular one sport where, let us face it, the stereotypes, although they are changing, are predominantly male: rugby union. I will talk about how it, used in certain aspects in the world, has become—probably slightly unwittingly—an engine for empowering the female of the species.

I mention the Atlas Foundation, started by one Jason Leonard, who held a big, traditional rugby dinner. He said, “Let’s help children abroad improve their educational standards. Let’s do it wherever we can get a volunteer through a rugby-based charity. Throw a rugby ball in, get children running around and get them organised. Feed them and encourage them into education”. What we have discovered is that, if the hands grabbing the ball are female, we get better bang for our buck. Everything is better. We get higher education completion, but one thing that I do not think we expected to discover is that the attitude of the men round the women, when they find the women taking part in the projects, improves as well.

It helps when you get men and women taking part in activity together and being seen, at least in the initial phase, as completely equal. The gender reality is that you have to break up the groups after puberty but, before puberty, children running around can generally do it together. Rugby is a good sport for this because you have a strong authority figure in the middle. We do not have rules; we have laws. We have to have people imposing those laws, which means that we have good, strong authority figures. It also means that it is difficult to do on a casual basis, so there are swings and roundabouts there, but this is a sport that has done it. It is basically a case of getting people together, feeding them to keep them coming, giving them health checks—in the case of girls, it is often about giving them female sanitary products and helping them through period poverty as well—and encouraging them into education. You get good results. It will come as no surprise to this House to know that, if you get girls into school, they get good results. They generally outperform boys because they generally prefer school to boys and have a better relationship with it.

The main thing that struck me in the projects from Memphis, Tennessee, to Kerala rugby in west Bengal was the attitude coming back that the boys in the group were supporting the girls. Even given the huge distance between those two projects, the fact is that they are supporting the girls; for example, pregnancy rates are lower. The boys are making sure that the girls are supported. In Kerala, the boys are making sure that the girls are not molested or sexually assaulted on the way to school. They are taking this on; the girls are standing up for themselves and the boys are coming in and backing them up. That attitude of “Bring it together. We’re all together” is something that I hope we can foster.

If a sport can do it, other activities can do it. Of course, rugby is a macho sport so it is easy, but anywhere you do this, you are going to improve things. Also, attitudes are changing. In one of our projects in South Africa, we have seen a reduction of 39% in reported rapes. Sexual violence is, I am afraid, a part of life down there. If we can bring these groups together so that they find they are a group that comes together, they will get that support. The male of the species is, for once, behaving sensibly: “Make sure your women are more economically viable because, let’s face it, your life’s going to be easier as well”. It is about making sure that you go down there and that the girls, who will become women, are going out there and finishing their education. They will have children later. In Kerala, there has been a reduction of 85% in the rate of child marriage. Just think about that. People are finishing school and going on.

Out of all the projects I must mention, Kerala has a remarkable record of producing female rugby internationals. Our project in Memphis is the same, where 80% of the staff are female, I think, as are 65% of the participants. This is being taken up in this country. The Atlas Foundation has a wonderful online fundraising package, which I encourage all noble Lords to buy into—if I do not say that I will be killed at the next board meeting. Our star project is TackleLondon, which again is predominantly female in its participation.

If rugby can do this, and if sport has the ability to improve women’s image and attention, and can encourage schooling, we can use it to back up all the other things that have been said today. We can also bring in the male of the species to help. There must be lessons that can be learned and applied to back up all the other good work that has been talked about.

One or two Members of the House drew attention to the terminology used when opening speeches. I will follow my noble friend Lady Gale and open with “my Peers”.

It is a privilege and a pleasure to participate in this debate, and it is certainly not something I take for granted. I will direct my remarks to the scandal of the gender pensions gap, as an important element in the economic exclusion of women.

Broadly speaking, women receive lower state pensions than men, and, when it comes to private pensions, the gap is stunning. Women have private pensions that are, on average, only about one-third of men’s. I have spoken about this before, and no doubt I will speak about it again, but I will just summarise.

There are solutions and there are causes. There is the pay gap, obviously; so much of our pension depends on people’s earnings while they are at work, and women have lower earnings so they have lower pensions. To the extent that we can move on and remove the pay gap, that element of the pensions gap will be eliminated. But there is more to it than that. It is compounded by a number of factors, but the key one is the gender care gap. Care in our society is gendered. Childcare and eldercare are predominately undertaken by women and, because they are providing care, they lose out in their profession and work, and end up with smaller pensions. They work part-time, so their pay is lower, and they take career breaks to provide care for children and parents, and so they lose pension. They lose out even when they return to work, because of the impact on their career progression. Care, as well as pay, is the crucial element that means that women end up with poorer pensions.

What are the solutions? Clearly, we hope we are making progress, but much more needs to be done to eliminate the gap in people’s pay. We also have to address the impact on their pensions of the fact that women are the predominant care providers. To a large extent, we have to move away from that model, but I think progress will be slow. First, pay should be equalised, but there has to be access to comprehensive and affordable childcare and eldercare. We have to look at our workplace practices and the extent to which women are losing out in their career progression and so on, and provide them with information so that they know the impact. We have to look at the structure of our pension provision, and automatic enrolment is one element of that.

The key is that unpaid caregivers have to be provided with additional pension—pension credits of one form or another. My preferred option is that they accrue additional elements of their state pension and, when they come to retirement, their state pension is enhanced in recognition of the unpaid periods of care that they have undertaken during their working lifetime. We all benefit from the care provided by women, not just the family and the children, and that should be recognised in the pensions we provide.

I am looking forward to the Minister’s response. I have raised these issues on a number of occasions and I must say that I have not totally been impressed by the response so far. It is true that they are now producing the figures—as we will be told, no doubt—but the fact is that the gap exists. In the longer term, I want to see a shift in the way care is provided and in pension credits, but in the short term I have a relatively modest aim, which I hope the Minister will assure us that we can meet: whenever we enter into this sort of debate, the gender pensions gap must be automatically included in the issues that need to be addressed. When a Minister stands up, and in the progress of their speech, they must say that we are not just moving towards recognising the gender pensions gap but are looking constructively at solutions that will eliminate it.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman and trustee of the Loomba Foundation. A court in India is currently considering an application by a young woman, aged 25, to allow the medical termination of her pregnancy on the grounds that she suffered cruelty and marital rape by her husband, against whom she had earlier filed a petition for divorce. The young woman is currently 20 weeks pregnant, and medical terminations are permissible in India until 24 weeks of pregnancy on various grounds, including change of marital status during the pregnancy such as widowhood or divorce. The young woman has initiated divorce proceedings, but the husband has not consented to them. The case is ongoing and will be concluded imminently.

I tell noble Lords this story because it is an all too commonplace, everyday situation where women, not only in India but in many countries around the world, find that the odds are stacked against them. The law can be a blunt instrument and a slow process when it comes to dealing with situations like this, however enlightened some judges may be. A young woman who has no money or support network should be as entitled as any other to protection from the law to escape from violence and oppression. The prospects of single parenthood and poverty are bleak indeed. A young woman’s ability to free herself from the situation of domestic violence and rape, and to make choices based on the circumstances she then has to face, should be enabled and respected.

As many of your Lordships know, my primary concern has long been the plight of widows and their dependants around the world. But today, as we discuss International Women’s Day, I am thinking of the women trapped in violent marriages and women who, after divorce, can face very similar prejudices, such as being ostracised from families, unable to provide for their dependants and vulnerable to exploitation. As with widowhood, blame often plays a part in marginalising women, and that blame is not only vaguely justified but completely irrelevant to the women’s circumstances and need.

My plea today is that, while we celebrate women’s empowerment and seek to build on the progress made in this country, as in many others, we remember those for whom time has stood still and who remain as oppressed as ever they were. Let us give special thought to women who are marginalised by society, to women trapped in abusive marriages, to women running households singlehandedly for whatever reason. My plea is for respect, understanding and empowerment, to do what we can to provide support for those who need it most, and to change cultures and open hearts and minds to genuine equality of treatment for women, as individuals and by society.

My Lords, and my ladies, I offer my apologies. The fact that I have not been here for a significant part of this debate is not because I was not interested but because I was attending “Learn with the Lords” at the education centre, listening to the views of the next generation of young women and men. It was a difficult choice but probably the right one in the circumstances.

I congratulate the Minister on her opening contribution. She covered the waterfront and showed us that there has been a significant amount of change. You need only to look around this Chamber to know that women are here, here in force and make a superb contribution, whether it is the Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, our own leader, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, or somebody such as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, the first woman General-Secretary of the TUC. To say that things have not changed is clearly wrong. I suppose it is a question of whether you see the glass as being half full or half empty; for me, it is half full.

I also want to congratulate someone it is not very fashionable to congratulate at the moment, and that is Liz Truss—although certainly not on her record during her brief period as Prime Minister. Prior to that she was the woman responsible for appointing the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, who unfortunately is not here today, as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. That was a fundamentally important appointment of somebody who is there to protect the rights of women and who, in doing so, has faced quite a difficult challenge herself. Liz Truss also appointed Kemi Badenoch, who has also been involved in protecting the rights of women in her role as Minister for Women and Equalities. Those were two important appointments.

Obviously, I want to come at this issue in a slightly different way. I look at the people who have fundamentally changed society through what they have done and who, more importantly, have influenced young women. I start with JK Rowling, who has probably encouraged more young people to read books than anybody else I can think of. I can remember queueing up outside Asda at six o’clock to get the next edition of Harry Potter. However, it is not just that. She had the temerity to say, “Didn’t we have a different word for ‘people who menstruate’? What was it? Oh, it was ‘women’. That was it”. As soon as she uttered that word, the people she made multi-millionaires—those who starred in the Harry Potter films—accused her of being transphobic. She is nothing of the sort. She is a woman who has been prepared not only to express her views clearly but to put her money where her mouth is. She has opened a women’s refuge in Scotland and done a number of other things, so it is not just about accretion of wealth.

This country has been through a profound change in the last couple of years. We have been through Covid and had lockdown, which has had a huge impact on the way we work and live. People have discovered the flexibility of working from home. Working women have found that, in fact, life can be improved significantly in those situations. Some 900 companies are now saying to people, “You can work a four-day week and we’ll pay you the same”, and they are finding that productivity goes up. These are important things that actually impact women’s lives.

I listened carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and what can I say? Her assessment was that all is for the worst in this worst of all possible worlds. It was almost an anti-capitalist contribution—nothing has changed or improved for women. That is absolutely not true, and the statistics do not support her. Things have changed. Are they perfect? Of course not; much more needs to change. I am cognisant of the fact that we seem to have gone backwards in Afghanistan, given the plight of women there, particularly in terms of education.

I am an acute observer when I go on the train—all of society is there when you take a train journey. Yesterday, I was sitting near to two women who happened to sit next to each other. One had a badge on that said, “Baby on Board”, and the other was carrying a small child in her sling. I was hoping they might engage in conversation, because, after all, there was the future—I do not know whether the baby was a boy or a girl—sitting next to each other. That, in a way, filled me with hope. It is not easy bringing up children and being a working woman. So, I have a question for the Minister: are the Government doing something about the taper in earnings for women who go out to work, so that doing so is still significantly worth while?

I also want to make a point about the books people read on trains; I am incurably nosy. This morning, a young woman was reading Pride and Prejudice, and I thought that was good—written, again, by somebody who had to fight for their recognition in literature.

Finally, I talked about Afghanistan, but it is International Women’s Day and the point I want to make in closing is this. In Iran, young women are laying down their lives for the right to dress as they wish: for the right to wear a hijab or not to wear a hijab. The thought occurred to me that if young Muslim women in this country could show solidarity with their sisters in Iran and take off their hijabs for just an hour, it might be a powerful gesture in the cause of women internationally.

It has been a privilege to take part in this debate, and I regret that I was not present to hear many of the other contributions. I can see that I have not pleased everybody—my noble friend is shaking her head—nevertheless, that is the benefit of the Lords: we have a wide range of views.

My Lords, I am delighted to participate in my first International Women’s Day debate in your Lordships’ House. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, and look forward to her maiden speech.

I wish to focus my remarks today on an area I believe to be the new frontier for violence against women: the creation of deepfakes. A deepfake can be an image or video digitally altered to use someone’s face on another person’s body. They are often so convincing that it is incredibly difficult to tell that they are not real. Women are disproportionately affected by the creation of deepfake material. Research published by Home Security Heroes in 2023 found that 98% of all deepfake videos were pornographic, and of those, 99% were of women.

I have had the privilege over the last few months of meeting a number of campaigners and charities in this area, including the renowned Professor Clare McGlynn KC and Elena Michael from the campaign group Not Your Porn. All agree that the Online Safety Bill represented a vital first step in creating a safer online environment. However, I share their concerns that it has not gone far enough: only banning the nonconsensual sharing of deepfake material and not tackling the creation of the content itself.

I have previously spoken in your Lordships’ House, highlighting that the use of nudification apps and the creation of deepfake porn for private use is still legal. The largest site creating deepfakes receives an average of 13.4 million hits a month. The rapid proliferation of these nudification apps, 80% of them having launched in the last 12 months alone, has created an environment where anyone can perpetrate harm with ease—and it is not recognised as misogyny. This is backed up by research that found that 74% of deepfake pornography users do not feel guilty about their actions.

Your Lordships may be surprised to hear that, after long consultation, the Law Commission stated that, while it acknowledged that the making of intimate images was a violation of the subject’s sexual autonomy, it was less sure whether the level of harm caused by the making of these nonconsensual images and videos was serious enough to criminalise, and that any offence would prove difficult to enforce.

This report was published in July 2022. In 2023, more deepfake abuse videos were posted online than in every other year combined. Since International Women’s Day last year, the number of new pieces of content created each week has increased tenfold. I am sure many of your Lordships will agree that the creation of this material, in and of itself and without a person’s consent, causes serious harm, regardless of whether a person is aware of its creation, and has a much wider societal impact in the normalisation of online misogyny and hate.

We are now at the precipice of a new age of technology. It is vital that we act now to ensure that, in embarking on this brave new world, which can offer many exciting opportunities, we do not risk creating a technological gender gap that would further limit the economic inclusion of women in society.

The ability to create these images and videos using apps and platforms in a matter of seconds represents a very real threat to all women. A woman can no longer choose who owns an intimate image of her. They can be created by anyone, anywhere, at any time. The impact is often referred to as a silencing effect. Women may withdraw from social media and sometimes even from normal life. Many women are fearful of this happening to them.

As it stands, the current law prioritises the freedom of speech and expression of the creator over that of the woman. After a century of fighting for women’s rights to enter a space, we now run the risk of a new space being created where women fear to tread. While we are still learning about AI, it is crucial that we educate society to differentiate between what is real and what is not, in a world where we can no longer trust the images put in front of us. Time is of the essence. We must not miss the chance to act by legislating against the creation of nonconsensual deepfake content. We must prevent the normalisation of misogyny. Deepfake abuse is the new frontier of violence against women, and we must all take a stand.

My Lords, I think the noble Baroness, Lady Owen, has united everybody in this House in terms of the concerns that she has outlined. She is quite right to say that we should all be extremely worried, especially, perhaps, in election year.

I start by adding my congratulations to my noble friend Lady Gale, not just on this debate but because she has worked so hard on these issues over so many years. It is right that, on International Women’s Day, we draw attention to the unbelievable problems that women in Afghanistan and other parts of the world are facing—but, of course, we have to look closer to home as well. I have to admit that I find myself getting angry every time this debate comes round, because I feel a great sense of frustration that the hope that many of us had that progress would have been quicker on a whole range of issues has not come to pass.

It is right that we should use this debate to celebrate the progress that has been made and the achievements that many people have outlined. When I first entered the House of Commons, admittedly many years ago, there were 26 of us women MPs. In 1997, when I was the leader in the Commons, I stood with Tony Blair welcoming 100 Labour women MPs. Now we have 35% overall, because other parties have done a little as well. But to see breakthroughs of that kind in women’s representation—having more women on boards and as vice-chancellors of universities, or having a woman as President of the Supreme Court—is not enough. We really have to look at the overall experience of ordinary women in this country and, frankly, that is still deeply disturbing.

I was recently fortunate enough to open a debate in this House on maternity services. It was prompted partly by the unbelievable fact that in Kirklees, a large metropolitan area, there are no NHS birthing facilities at all. The prestigious Brontë centre in Dewsbury, which I remember being opened, has been closed since August 2022 and the centre at Huddersfield hospital has been closed for more than 12 months, both because of a shortage of midwives. How can local women in labour be expected to believe in progress if they cannot get local services like that, which they need? Nationally, we also had the report of the Care Quality Commission, which said that almost half the maternity units that it inspected last year were rated as inadequate or in need of improvement. It was half and, as it said, it was not just a post-Covid problem but had been developing for some time.

I will mention two reports that have recently struck me as very important. The first is from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and shows that one in 10 workers are in persistent low pay: that is, four out of five years spent earning below the living wage. It shows that very few of them—one in 20—get out of it and move on. Crucially, one particular finding is striking: of those trapped in persistent low pay, 72% are women. That highlights the structural discrimination against women in the workplace that very often exists. I think that many women will be tempted to say, “Progress? What progress?”.

The second report that I want to mention is from Scottish Widows and touches on some of the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, mentioned. Its research shows that, looking forward and taking into account private pensions, savings and everything of that kind, it estimates a 39% gender gap—nearly 40%. It estimates that the average woman is set to receive an income of £12,000 a year after housing costs; the comparable figure for a man is £19,000. It is £12,000 for a woman and £19,000 for a man, and the report goes on to say that two-thirds of single women, 60% of divorced women and 75% of single mothers are not on track for a minimum pension that would sustain their lifestyle. This is 2024 and I find this immensely depressing. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, pointed out some of the different approaches needed and we really are getting to the stage where this needs absolute and urgent attention.

Finally, if all that was not enough, yesterday the headline from the Women’s Budget Group—after Wednesday’s Budget—was:

“Tax giveaways to better off men will cost worse off women”.

That is the situation we are facing; we need to take it on board and make changes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said that we in this House have had amazing opportunities. That is true, but we are not typical and we have a responsibility to other people. So, yes, let us celebrate success, but let us have no illusions, and let us remember how much there is still to do. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, in her maiden speech, which is very welcome, will be able to point us in that direction.

My Lords—or should I say “my Baronesses”, following the earlier comment of the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate—being here all day has piled the pressure on, as each of you has been so incredibly nice about what I hope will not be as disappointing a speech as I fear it may be. Anyway, I fluffed up the first line, so I will just keep going from here on in. I will go back to the script; that is probably the best thing to do.

I rise today, as you can see, with a degree of nervousness. In part, this is because of the subject matter, but in reality it is because this is my maiden speech in the House of Lords. It is a place I never imagined I would be in, nor a House I would ever imagine in my wildest dreams that I would be delivering a speech in. It is quite extraordinary. I thank all those who thought this was a good idea—be careful—and I promise I will try not to let them, nor indeed many others who support me, down.

There is one piece of protocol which I have fully adopted and taken to heart, which is to thank all the doorkeepers—long-suffering, I fear, in some cases. That was a joke. I thank the security guards, police officers, catering and cleaning staff, along with the wonderful Black Rod, our Cross-Bench team and all the staff here in the House of Lords. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, who is probably another long-suffering person. She was my first ministerial boss, which must feel now like a lifetime ago. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Grender. Together, they introduced me into this place. I thank the many outstanding civil servants and other staff who have worked with me over the years. Last but not least, I thank all the noble Lords across the House for an incredibly warm welcome since I joined—thank you.

The advice from noble Lords on the maiden speech has been a tad varied. One said, “Louise, whatever you do, do not be political and do not be passionate”. I think I might fall at that first hurdle. Someone else said to me, “Be yourself”, and I have gone with that advice today.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Vere of Norbiton, for opening the debate on this International Women’s Day. I thank, in anticipation, the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, for her closing speech later. Her lifelong commitment to tackling men’s violence against women is only to be respected and thanked.

Each year in the other House, Jess Phillips reads out the names of women killed in the last 12 months where the principal suspect is a man. I believe that we in this House should also honour those women and their families. I will start by reading out the list to this House: Alesia Nazarova, Beryl “Bez” Purdy, Holly Bramley, Susan Turner, Bernadette Rosario, Sara Bateman, an unnamed woman, Lucy Dee, Maia Dee, Rina Dee, Elise Mason, Marelle Sturrock, Suma Begum, Johanita Kossiwa Dogbey, Maya Devi, Suzanne Henry, Georgina Dowey, Holly Sanchez, Hayley Burke, Katie Higton, Kelly Pitt, Christine Sargent, Danielle Davidson, Stephanie Hodgkinson, Sandra Harriott, Fiona Robinson, Debra Cantrell, Emily Sanderson, Michelle Hodgkinson, Chloe Mitchell, Chloe Bashford, Tejaswini Kontham, Grace O’Malley-Kumar, Monika Wlodarczyk, Kinga Roskinska, Natasha Morals, Felecia Cadore, Nelly Akomah, Sarah Henshaw, Elizabeth Richings, Lynette Nash, Elizabeth Watson, Carol Baxter, Fiona Holm, Collete Law, Rose Jobson, Ann Blackwood, Hazel Huggins, Sharon Gordon, Claire Orrey, Christine Emmerson, Kelli Bothwell, Liwam Bereket, Chintzia McIntyre, Amy-Rose Wilson, Gabriela Kosilko, Claire Knights, Nhi Muoi “Kim” Wai, Carrie Slater, Susanne Galvin, Helen Clarke, Ruth Hufton, Elianne Andam, Charlene Mills, Alison Dodds, Deborah Boulter, Celia Geyer, Mandy Barnett, Denise Steeves, Mehak Sharma, Caroline Gore, Sian Hammond, Michele Faiers, Christie Eugene, Perseverance Ncube, Sharon Butler, Dawn Robertson, Victoria Greenwood, Salam Alshara, Kiesha Donaghy, Alison Bowen, Taiwo Abodunde, Milica Zilic, Lianne Gordon, Kamaljeet Mahey, Glenna Siviter, Kacey Clarke, Keotshepile Isaacs, Tia Simmonds, Maya Bracken, Alison McLaughlin, Tara Kershaw, Kanticha Sukpengpanao, Claudia Kambanza, Michele Romano, Claire Leveque, Sam Varley, and an unnamed woman, who was 40 years old. Also added this year is Melissa Mathieson, who was killed in 2014, and Eileen Mary Thomson—née Ashcroft—who was killed in 2017, as well as Rita Roberts, killed in 1992. For personal reasons, I ask noble Lords to remember Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, murdered in 2020, and Sarah Everard, murdered in March 2021.

This was the ninth year that the honourable Member for Birmingham, Yardley has read out the list of unnamed women. I am grateful to her and Karen Ingala Smith, who has done pioneering work, as well as Clarrie O’Callaghan and Anna Ryder of Killed Women, for their collective and tireless efforts to give these women sight in our lives and to remind us of the true horror of our collective failure to tackle this problem. Yet there are thousands—indeed millions—of decent men. As Women’s Aid is discussing only today, we women need the decent men in this House and across the country to stand up to that task, or we will never ever deal with the problem. We women cannot keep picking up the pieces and, at worst, being on the receiving end of abuse and violence, largely from men. But I believe that change is definitely possible.

It feels as though the country I love is pretty much on its knees. It is too stretched, we are too divided and too much of the discourse is too fractured. You can blame the pandemic, you can blame Russia, you can blame politics or we can blame each other—but it is just too tough for too many people. Yet I have such hope. For almost 40 years I have worked in public service, and that has instilled that hope in me. I have a faith in those in public service, be it volunteers in food banks or homelessness projects or indeed those here in this House or the other place.

Why do I have that hope? It is because I understand the power of government, institutions and, most importantly, people to deliver change. That is why I have hope that we can fix many of the problems we face, and that we can do that together with consensus and dignity. I have seen that happen right here in this House. I believe in a hand up, not a handout, helping people stand on their own two feet and get on with their lives, not having to be dependent on a charity or indeed the taxpayer.

I believe in people power. We all have the power and the capacity to treat someone with dignity and compassion and, in so doing, help them live a better life. I believe in the power of love and kindness, I believe in the hope that humanity brings, and I believe in the service of others.

I commit to the House and all outside it to stand up for what is right, seek out the truth, and speak as the former and now deceased Cabinet Secretary Lord Heywood of Whitehall asked me to do, “Without fear or favour, for as long as you live”. I thank noble Lords for listening to me so kindly and for all the support they have all shown me in recent months and today, since I joined this very special and unique place.

My Lords, it is my privilege and pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Casey. As she says, I was her first Minister. We recruited her from Shelter to deliver a very significant reduction in rough sleeping across the country, within that parliamentary term—and with Louise we overdelivered. That led to all sorts of things. Louise soon demonstrated her focus on delivery across government, not just in one department, and in the third sector. She was a fearsome champion, absolutely focused on delivery. As noble Lords have heard today, she will do things in unconventional ways and ways you are not expecting. That meant that she was noticed by Prime Ministers, and, when they had a difficult problem——whether it was rough sleeping, anti-social behaviour or troubled families—they would turn to her. On all sorts of issues, Louise was the person who was identified as being able to focus on it, find a way through and get people moving.

Whatever Louise approaches, to me she always represents, as she said herself in a different way, tough love. She is tough on all the barriers—including some of the people involved—that prevent people getting the support necessary to turn their lives around. But she is incredibly caring in support of the most vulnerable. Her most recent work, on food poverty, which she did not have time to mention today, demonstrates that in such a way that I have no doubt that, whoever is in government later this year, she will continue not only to speak truth unto power but to deliver those things that are needed for people who are disadvantaged and not getting their fair share, as well as those who need changes so that they can live with decency, dignity and opportunity.

Louise never does things in a conventional way, as I have said. She works out what is needed to secure change then goes about how to deliver it—I warn any noble Lords who are looking to be Ministers that she will be after you, and so she should. I am proud to call her my friend, and I look forward to continuing to work with her, to make sure that we make a change to the lives of those who do not get their fair opportunity in this country at the moment.

Last week, I went with the CPA to the Gambia, and met the gender equality committee, as well as others in the National Assembly. At the meeting we observed, the committee was assessing how the women’s enterprise fund was working. The fund has been introduced to create, promote and grow women’s enterprises. There was a real feeling that it was important to make sure that women were able to look after their families and be effective in their communities, particularly in rural areas. It is how a number of countries in Africa that I have been to are now working. They recognise that, unless women are empowered economically, their society will not change or move forward. Over the week, the women also talked to us about sexual and gender-based violence. Women’s economic empowerment was seen as a way of tackling these issues; as women were gaining confidence and getting assurance, they were then able to work on the issues in their communities.

I have seen it in other countries too. From my involvement with Voluntary Service Overseas I know that the concentration on gender issues and women and girls—which is reflected in the Government’s international development strategy—has become an important way of us working internationally. Unfortunately, many of the programmes have been severely cut—I was ashamed that we are no longer giving anything to the programme in the Gambia. We could and we did work on these things incredibly effectively. However, as other Members, including the right reverend Prelate, have said, our failure to maintain our commitment on that is having real effects on women and girls and communities across the world.

What I saw in the Gambia, and have seen elsewhere in Kenya and Tanzania, we can learn from—we learned a lot last week. I want to push the Government on how they are going to return things such as the International Citizen Service, so that young women from this country can, with young women across the world, understand and work on these issues together. The young woman with the lead responsibility for women’s programmes in the CPA was an ICS graduate. She had been a volunteer in Malawi and said that it totally changed her life, ambitions and what she wanted to work on. It had an effect not only on the young women she was working with in Malawi but on her. I have seen that with hundreds of young women in this country.

The women in the Gambia National Assembly really want to work with us to make sure that, with the empowerment of women economically and in other ways, they can tackle gender-based violence. Do we not need to do the same? I left thinking that, as a country and as a Government, we need to look again at how we make sure that women are economically secure and able to create their own businesses and so on. We already know that women’s small businesses are much more likely to last and prosper because they will stick with it. The Government must think about what they have seen internationally, through the funds to empower women economically, and what they have learned, so that we can benefit in this country too. That way we could really begin to change how women are looked at and enabled to be strong in our country.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, on her excellent maiden speech; I am sure noble Lords all agree. I thank my noble friend the Minister for introducing this very important debate on International Women’s Day, focusing on the vital importance of the financial inclusion of women in our society. I declare my interest as a vice-chair of the APPG on Financial Education for Young People. I am a strong advocate of this subject and will always jump to make the case for more financial literacy in schools, as my noble friend the Minister may have heard me do several times before in your Lordships’ House.

In 2022, research by PwC showed that 10.7 million UK women are unable to access mainstream financial products. According to the Financial Times, on this important International Women’s Day last year, the average pension pot for a 65 year-old woman in the UK was around a fifth of the average pot of a man of the same age. It is excellent to see charities such as the Financial Literacy and Inclusion Campaign, which the Financial Times has fostered, stepping up to meet this educational challenge. As that campaign reports:

“Financial literacy has been proven to increase social mobility and improve financial behaviour for individuals and communities. It’s our aim to democratise financial education by providing free and engaging content to those who need it most: young people, women, and disenfranchised groups”.

We do not talk enough about the importance of physical and emotional well-being. The Mental Health Foundation report Uncertain Times: Anxiety in the UK and How to Tackle it tells us that worrying about money is the biggest cause of stress. In 2023, 21% more young women aged between 17 and 25 suffered anxiety and depression about money than their male counterparts, according to the National Centre for Social Research. Financial education leads to confidence and better financial decision-making for those who have received it, which in turn can lead to a more secure, stable and healthy financial future.

We have come a long way in many areas of gender equality, but—as has been confirmed by noble Lords across the House today—so much more can and should be done. The Government must continue their mission to ensure that everyone leaves school with a sound understanding of how to manage their finances. Any government-sponsored financial education initiatives can prove key to developing and growing more women’s participation in the workforce, widening access to financial products and increasing their chances of a more secure financial future.

In the UK we do not have a problem with girls wanting more financial education. According to the London Institute of Banking & Finance young persons’ money index, 86% of girls want to receive more, whereas only 70% of boys want the same. This is an area ripe for both policy expansion and school accountability, where we already have a receptive audience. While financial education is a statutory teaching requirement in secondary schools, it is not in primary schools; there are calls to make it so from many quarters.

In isolation, none of these steps solves the disparity between men and women in financial inclusion, but much good work is being done, including the national programmes such as My Money Week, run by the well-recognised financial enterprise education charity Young Enterprise. It aims to encourage children and young people aged three to 19 to take an interest in financial matters, and the teachers also receive valuable support in delivery.

The Centre for Financial Capability, another expert charity in the field, is calling for increased financial education for all children from a young age, to ensure they are equipped with the financial resilience skills necessary for later life. There is clearly much more to be done and an opportunity to grow our audiences in schools, from the age at which primary school children start receiving their pocket money. But bear in mind that nowadays pocket money is more likely to be represented on an app, or in some cases a cash card controlled by parents, than the old-fashioned piggy bank. This makes saving a different educational prospect from that which it was previously. The young persons’ money index also stated that 71% of girls expressed interest in learning more about debt, whereas 6% fewer boys expressed the same concern. It is quite clear that the more prepared you are to cope with your finances when you leave school, the better.

Many reports have been produced, including by the financial education charity MyBnk, which showed in a study in 2020 that 43% of girls were not financially confident, a marked 18% less than boys. Boys display greater confidence in managing money, with 42% feeling highly confident in money management compared with 38% of girls. The gap is wider when we look at children aged 11 or older, according to the Money and Pensions Service in 2022. The hallmark of financial literacy is a combination of knowledge, ability and confidence. Breaking down barriers to high-quality women’s financial education is critical in furnishing more women and girls with the tools and opportunities to make informed financial decisions, which will only increase greater financial inclusion of women and better financial outcomes for women.

My Lords, it was a pleasure to listen to the noble Baroness, Lady Casey. She has spent a lifetime trying to understand the needs of minorities and those who are overlooked and to bring their needs to the attention of people in power. As somebody who, equally, never expected to be in this place, I can tell her that this is a place of unique privilege and that one of the great privileges we have is to speak up for such people. She will no doubt continue to do that as marvellously as she has today.

International Women’s Day is a timely reminder that progress for women and for all minorities is neither inevitable nor linear. I am indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, who talked about the ending of the married women’s work bar. My late mother-in-law proposed the motion to the NALGO conference that suggested that, and she did so against quite significant opposition from men—allies for progress are often not who we might think.

It is important that we acknowledge that this debate happens today against the backdrop of a campaign orchestrated and funded by Christian nationalists in the USA and Russia that is ultimately about trying to wreck human rights legislation and the organisations that protect it. This campaign has a number of tactical aims, one of which is to be anti-gender and anti-LGBT, and it has different emphases in different parts of the world. In Poland and Hungary, it is very definitely anti-reproductive rights. In the USA, it is all that but with a good deal of anti-trans discrimination. It is a very poisonous campaign founded not on evidence but on prejudice and fear, and on a very narrow, stereotypical idea of what women should be. Well, women are diverse and different, and their diversity and difference are a key to economic prosperity; we should not lose sight of that.

I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, will forgive me: I thought it was very moving of her to read out that list, but she will perhaps understand that while I sat here thinking that all those women deserve dignity and respect, as do their families, the name ringing in my head was Brianna Ghey, because this campaign of prejudice being promulgated every day in our newspapers and across the world is not without its consequences. Across Africa, politicians of all stripes have been fed millions of dollars to perpetrate myths and fear about the LGBT community. We can see the direct violence and murder that has been wreaked upon my community. Only last week in Uganda, it became illegal to identify—not to do anything but just to identify—as being lesbian or gay. If you are gay in Uganda, not doing anything or even having a relationship with anybody else, you can end up in jail, not being an upstanding, economically productive member of society. I ask our Government what they are doing to explain to Governments across Africa the harm that they are doing to their people by pursuing and being fooled by this really regressive and repressive campaign, which ultimately has nothing to offer the world except destruction and, ultimately, destitution.

There is some good news. Since the overturning of Roe v Wade, the Republicans have been struggling all across the United States because people are not stupid. Ordinary people understand that the more you restrict women’s access to contraception and abortion and their ability to take a full part in the labour market, the more you will harm not only them but their children and families. It is a lesson that was obvious in 1967, when my colleague and one of my heroes, David Steel, produced that landmark piece of legislation that has done so much to improve the participation of women in the labour market across the world.

Today, voters here in the United Kingdom can see what has happened in various parts of the world. It is good to see that, in places such as Poland, light is beginning to dawn. We can see through this destructive campaign for what it is. I hope that we can use our principal means of affecting the lives of women and girls across the world through our FCDO programmes. I say to the Minister that it is good to see that we will put women and girls at the forefront of our unilateral programmes but ask the Government not to reduce the funding to our multilateral obligations through the Global Fund, Unitaid and all the programmes that—for women principally, as well as men—give access to full and comprehensive healthcare. That is fundamental to economic well-being, which is fundamental not just to women’s rights but to human rights throughout the world.

My Lords—sisters and supporter brothers—being the last of 34 speakers is something of a challenge. It has been such a privilege to listen to all the different aspects that we have heard today in this International Women’s Day debate. I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Casey. I first heard of her when I worked in policing many years ago. She showed extraordinary clarity then, as she did today, and I look forward to hearing many more speeches from her in this House.

I also congratulate Brenda Dacres, who was elected today as the first black woman mayor in a directly elected role in the UK. I send congratulations to her.

Sadly, too many women today are weakened, both mentally and physically, as a result of the domestic abuse they suffer, as my noble friend Lady Donaghy said. The effects are not only life-changing but life-lasting and, sometimes, life-limiting. Their ability to participate in economic activity can be permanently or temporarily impacted. Often, trying to carry on with a career when home is a place of terror and fear can be overwhelming, as is the dreadful fear of stigma and shame that someone will find out that life is not as it appears to be. For many women, however dreadful the abuse they suffer, the fear that escaping it can mean losing their home, financial security and status—and, in the worse cases, their children—will keep them in unimaginable and unendurable circumstances.

When we set up Survivors Against Domestic Abuse some 11 years ago, it was to provide the support that our victims and survivors wanted and, more importantly, designed for themselves. Many of the services that they used were designed by well-intentioned and caring professionals, but they did not address the very real fears that our survivors were dealing with on a day-to-day basis. For example, they often involved removing the family from the local area where they had support, work and schools. I should say that of course there are some situations where there is no other option than to move away, but, more often than not, it can be managed without that further trauma.

Domestic abuse victims suffer devasting consequences in their working lives. Research tells us that 60% feel that the abuse has a negative impact on their ability to work, and 50% believe that it affects their long-term employment prospects and earnings. More than 40% end up with considerable debt, sometimes because there is coercive control of family finances, leaving victims to turn to high-cost lenders for basic essentials. Across a range of initiatives in housing, health, financial services, including benefits, and the criminal justice system, and through an awareness in all workplaces, there is still so much to be done to help victims and survivors to continue their work and careers.

One of our early initiatives was Safe Space, which I mentioned in a Question earlier this week. We now have 35 safe spaces across Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. They are fully furnished and equipped properties, ready to move into even if you flee abuse in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes you stand up in. There will be food vouchers there, and even a backpack for children, with a teddy and a specially written book to ease the trauma. You can stay there on a short tenancy licence while you make up your mind what to do next, but it means that you can carry on working, if you want to, we will help get children to their schools, and our partnership with the local police means that all these properties are as secure as we can make them.

For health and mental health support, we need fast-track empathetic services for survivors. Most women experience 20 episodes of abuse before they seek help. They must get help immediately, when they need it. Can we hear from the Minister what more can be done to fast-track that?

We trained every member of staff from council directors to repairs and maintenance teams to understand the signs of domestic abuse both within the workplace and among our tenants and residents and to know how to respond when they had concerns. We now offer that training widely across local employers. Will the Minister say what more can be done to support such training in the workplace?

We now need the financial services industry and the benefits system to recognise the impact of domestic abuse and to respond quickly and effectively to meet the needs of abuse victims. If we could not make abuse victims wait five weeks while their universal credit applications are processed that would be a transformation.

The court system too often revictimises those in terrible trauma from abuse as a result of patchy witness support and poor witness accommodation in courts to the issue raised by so many survivors: the fear and trauma of parental access. I remember one victim’s words in a letter to our police commissioner David Lloyd: “Mr Lloyd, I will live for ever with the fact that this man wants to kill me and my children and that, one day, he might do so”. What is being done to make this better?

For our survivors, rebuilding confidence and skills and helping them to rebuild broken lives are vital. Local government is so often left with this task with funding cobbled together from a multitude of bidding pots. How much better it would be to have a strong, permanent, flexible fund that does not run out after a few days so that we can do this. I hope the Minister comments on that.

This is a global problem, as outlined by the recent IMF study and many noble Lords in this debate. High levels of domestic abuse decrease the number of women in the workforce, minimise women’s acquisition of skills and education and result in more resources being channelled into healthcare and judicial services. All this has a potential impact on GDP of up to 2%. Surely we cannot allow that to go on. Let us listen to victims and survivors and design solutions that disrupt the cycle of abuse to ensure that women reach their very full and extraordinary potential.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, with the example of her council and its excellent practice for abuse victims. It sounds an interesting project. I am a vice-president of the LGA, and I hope that that good practice will be disseminated throughout local government.

This year’s themes are investing in women and inspiring inclusion. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, for her introductory speech, but it seems to me that the noble Baroness, Lady Casey—I welcome her and her wonderful maiden speech—embodies those themes, particularly from her work as the first Victims’ Commissioner. I thank her for reading the names of the women who were murdered last year. It is a tough ask, but she is also right to say that men should not be bystanders; we need more men to speak out. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, spoke of the “tough love” of the noble Baroness, Lady Casey. Sometimes we in the Lords need to hear that tough love, and I think we will find her contribution very welcome.

My noble friend Lady Northover—I am pleased to see that she is still in her place—reminded us that much of caring in our society is still done by women. In coalition, we introduced equal parental leave, but it has not worked, and I wonder why. Much of this debate has focused on a combination of data, lived experience and examples, some of which can be defined by organisations, but a lot of it is about the culture of our society.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Addington, who expanded on that when he talked about using sport as a mechanism to encourage support for some of the harder-to-reach young girls in our society. I must say, my daughter gave up rugby at 10; once it moved past touch-tackle, “No, thank you”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, spoke powerfully about the pressure on LGBT communities and the challenge faced by the community in Uganda. She was fairly delicate in her description of the new laws in Uganda. You can now be sentenced to death for “extreme homosexuality”, under a law passed last year. That is extraordinary. Are we making representations to the Ugandan Government to reconsider this?

My noble friend Lord Oates spoke movingly about his mother and her passion for the eradication of polio, perhaps helped by her purple hair. It is evident to me and our Benches that my noble friend has inherited from her his passion for the solution of clean water to reduce tropical diseases, including endemic parasites, which are so manageable with that investment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, gave us some wonderful examples of those in the past who stood for women’s suffrage and women, past and present, in the trade union movement. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, reminded us of the importance of women in the miners’ strike, holding their communities together as well as protesting.

The noble Baroness, Lady Moyo, reminded us that the number of FTSE 100 companies with women directors is still low, but finally beginning to rise. These Benches were pleased to ask those companies to note that record in their annual reports and accounts and therefore be held to account. She and the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, also talked about exclusion from financial products. They are right; remedying that is absolutely fundamental. That was built on by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, when he reminded us of the poverty of the pensions gap, principally because of women’s roles in our society as carers. Here we come back to culture and how we can change things.

I move on to international matters. Two or three noble Lords spoke about women in war. I am minded to remember my friend Kira Rudyk, who, as a senior MP in the Ukrainian Parliament, has spent the time since Russia invaded Ukraine travelling the world to talk about what is happening, as many other women MPs have. Kira was bombed out of her house just before Christmas. On Twitter, she just said that it was difficult—“I am hurt a bit but it’s not too bad”. I saw her about a week later; it transpired that she had 12 deep cuts from glass right the way down her back. She none the less continued with her international schedule because, for her, the war is the most important thing. She said to me, “Many more have died. I was lucky with those minor wounds”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, movingly read out the names of journalists and photographers who have died this last year. It is shocking to hear about stoning to death. That punishment for women has been going on for millennia. It should not be happening today.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, outlined the importance of women modelling behaviour. She mentioned in particular the role of commissioners and others. That is vital because, until we have understood that that role is for us, it is sometimes hard to believe that it is possible.

The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, illustrated the health gap between men and women and the fact that women are unrepresented not just in clinical trials but in many other elements of the healthcare sector. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark spoke of the need for a new deal for carers. He is absolutely right. What plans are there to ensure that carers get the support they need? I link that back to the point from the noble Lord, Lord Davies, about recognising carers in the pensions they get. They may get some credit when they are unable to work, but they need more than that.

I want to end on girls and women in STEM, building on the excellent speech made by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate. I particularly want to thank Women into Science and Engineering—WISE—for its briefing and support. Just before I start on where we are now, I will highlight just a few of the trailblazers of the past. Ada Lovelace is known for being the daughter of Lord Byron, but her extraordinary abilities in mathematics meant that she was the first person to see that Charles Babbage’s analytical engine had applications way beyond calculation.

In 1890, Philippa Fawcett, the daughter of Millicent Fawcett and niece of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, was the first woman ever to obtain the top score in the Cambridge mathematical Tripos, but, because she was a woman, she was not granted the title of Senior Wrangler. Indeed, her results were not read out at the same time, but she was described as “Above the Senior Wrangler”. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an outstanding astrophysicist, discovered the Crab Nebula, and Professor Dorothy Hodgkin is still the only woman from the UK to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences. That was in 1964. That is not a problem for the Nobel Prize committee; it speaks volumes to what is happening in science and engineering in our country today.

I knew Dr Anna Bidder, who founded Lucy Cavendish College, well. She was an outstanding zoologist. As with her predecessors, 100 years ago, Cambridge University refused to award her either her undergraduate degree or her PhD. She taught at Newnham College and the university’s zoology department all her working life. When Lucy Cavendish gained its royal charter in 1997, Anna, aged 94, said that this was a centenary of refusing to grant women degrees and 50 years since it decided to finally grant them—but it did not backdate them. She was finally awarded an honorary fellowship by the university that year. On the same day, 70 years late, she finally got her undergraduate and her PhD degree.

So, we follow on the shoulders of these important women. Professor Dame Athene Donald, who is the master of Churchill College, has written an excellent book on the current barriers called Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science. She talked about one of the Nobel Prize winners in Germany whose boss, when she told him she had just won a Nobel Prize, said, “Oh, we must have a party at the institute. I’m too busy to go and get the champagne. Would you do that?”

I raise this because statistics still show us that, despite the improvement in qualifications at school and university in STEM, that is not yet true for physics and the “really hard” sciences. At schools, A-level results at STEM are now at 40%, but physics and maths are still much lower. Even at primary school, Dame Athene Donald talks about gendering happening early on. When my daughter was at my local primary school, Cambridge University sent out maths students to work with the girls at junior level, and many of them were then inspired and loved maths when they got to secondary school.

This government have introduced T-levels. I ask the Minister: how are we going to encourage girls to do some of the more technical T-levels? While it is 50:50, the vast majority of courses that the girls do are to do with childcare.

We must not stereotype. We often do, unfortunately. Athene Donald took issue with Katharine Birbalsingh, who said in 2022:

“Girls do not choose physics A-level because they dislike ‘hard maths’”.

Athene Donald said that it is not a case of campaigning for more girls to do physics; it is a case of making sure that they are not discouraged by remarks such as this, because the girls of today are our scientists and engineers of tomorrow, and our economy needs them.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I always find it slightly strange starting my International Women’s Day speech each year with those words. Perhaps one day we will find a gender-neutral expression with which to address each other, perhaps after we stop being a House of Lords and become something else—but that is a discussion for another day.

We have had a comprehensive and varied debate, as ever, with some outstanding contributions. I loved the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, because she was one of my feminist heroes—and still is—and has lost none of her passion. It was absolutely wonderful. I also loved the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Casey. I welcomed her maiden speech and, even though I had warning of what she intended to do in addressing the grave matter of female homicide, like others I was indeed moved to tears, as I was by the reading out of that sad list by my noble friend Lady Anderson.

I thank the Library and many organisations that have sent briefings to our deliberations. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, for her opening remarks, which were her usual very optimistic ones on the state of the world. It was a very good way to start the debate, even if we may not always agree about the accuracy of some of those things.

I particularly thank my noble friend Lady Gale for opening the debate from these Benches. I believe that she has spoken in pretty much every single debate in your Lordships’ House on International Women’s Day, and her speeches are always very practical—about practical action that needs to be taken for women’s equality, and about what is happening in Wales. It is also worth noting that, as the first woman to be general secretary of the Welsh Labour Party, she is responsible partly for the equality of representation of women in public life in Wales.

I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Amos, Lady Anderson, Lady Armstrong, Lady Chakrabarti, Lady Donaghy, Lady Goudie, Lady Merron and Lady O’Grady, and two Lady Taylors—the noble Baronesses, Lady Taylor of Bolton and Lady Taylor of Stevenage—for their contributions: a formidable set of Labour women if ever there was, whose presence and sisterly support always fills me with joy. Of course, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and other noble Lords and men who have made contributions to International Women’s Day because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, said, without the support of men in our lives, the struggle is that much harder.

The timing of this debate coincides with the publication overnight of Sexism in the City, the latest report of a House of Commons Select Committee. It is worth telling one of the stories that was given to it. It is of a City executive, called Selena for these purposes. When she

“logged on for a Teams call with five senior male colleagues in spring 2021, she was gobsmacked.

She had spent weeks warning bosses that the London-based investment firm risked falling foul of European regulations. She had gathered data and presented supporting evidence, but was repeatedly brushed off. ‘Nobody wanted to listen,’ she said.

So her jaw dropped that afternoon when a male colleague raised the issue and immediately gained support from the same boss who had ignored her. ‘I had to stop the meeting,’ she recalls. ‘I said: “Why does it take a white, middle-aged man to deliver the exact same message that I’ve been delivering over the last few weeks?’”

Noble Lords will not be surprised to learn that:

“When her comments were dismissed, and described as ‘over the top’, it was the final straw. ‘The realisation was it doesn’t matter how hard I work, how talented, how committed I am. They will never ever recognise me’.

Prompted in part by the sexual harassment allegations against hedge fund boss Crispin Odey, the inquiry is meant to determine whether meaningful progress had been made since the committee’s last review in 2018. But the shocking stories recently shared with MPs for its investigation—which ranged from office bullying to allegations as serious as rape—suggest the post-#MeToo focus on diversity and inclusion has failed to eradicate widespread misogyny”

in the City of London.

The report was particularly concerned to hear of the widespread misuse of non-disclosure agreements—NDAs—which have the effect of silencing the victim of harassment and forcing them out of an organisation, while protecting perpetrators and leaving them free to continue their careers and go on to abuse others.

I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that report because it is very reasoned but this is, of course, a first-world problem—although it is as potent a discrimination as any that we have heard about today. From the City of London to the fields of Cambodia, the mountains of Tasmania, the streets of Cape Town and the studios of Hollywood and Bollywood, women face misogyny and violence. As many noble Lords have said today, violence against women and girls is an equalities issue. It prevents women being free and living their lives as they wish to live them.

Over the years, we have all worked hard—and are still doing so—to ensure equal educational opportunities for girls and in taking extra steps to encourage women to go into sectors such as STEM, wherever their talents fit them and whatever they may want to do. We are still fighting for equal pay; there are still 41 years to go, it looks like, but much has improved in terms of pay and prospects for women. Career things are on the up. However, whoever the woman and whatever her career, if she is raped or becomes a victim of domestic abuse, she will be seriously affected, damaged and unable to thrive fully—sometimes for a very long time. Sometimes, these male crimes against women are life-changing and women are just stopped from thriving, full stop. Violence against women and girls is a barrier to women’s drive for equality. No matter how hard one has worked to make good use of one’s opportunities, being a victim of male violence will be a crippling setback.

Some 910,000 domestic abuse cases were recorded by police in 2022—that is probably a quarter or a fifth of the women who suffered it—and 68,000 rapes were recorded; again, that is perhaps one-fifth or less of the women who suffer it and report it. This is a wide-ranging, far-reaching block on women living a life of equality with men. Labour’s mission is to cut violence against women and girls by half, which we think will be a powerful boost to women’s economic equality by freeing more of them from the pain, anguish and trauma of having been a victim of these horribly intimate and undermining crimes. Rape and violence against women are also used often in the conduct of warfare, a most recent example being 7 October and Hamas, which puts the debate about economic inclusion into a very different perspective.

Across the world, women hold less economic power than men, whether it is wages, assets or the disproportionate amount of unpaid care that they take responsibility for; of course, as my noble friend Lord Davies explained to us, that has a clear impact on women’s ability to take on paid, good-quality work and have a sustainable pension later on in life. Clearly, without reproductive work, cooking, cleaning and taking care of children and others, the economy would stall. According to the TUC, more than 1.46 million women are unable to work alongside their family commitments, compared with around 230,000 men; of course, as many noble Lords have said, that has an impact on the type and quality of employment available to women.

Then there are those women whose economic exclusion oftens form an inseparable part of a wider system of denial of human rights. I mention the report from Amnesty International that we received as part of our preparation for this debate. Its recent investigation into the frightening realities of daily life for women and girls in Iran was particularly marked; the same could be said for women and girls in Afghanistan. In Iran, the investigation gathered the testimonies of women and girls who are targeted solely for exercising their rights to bodily autonomy and freedom of expression. Many of them have been targeted economically through, for example, arbitrary car confiscations, fines and denial of access to employment.

We on these Benches are proud of Labour’s record on equality, both nationally and internationally, with the Equal Pay Act, maternity rights and the Equality Act 2010—to name just one or two. Labour has provided a legal and moral foundation for the equality and human rights of this generation and the generations to come.

We, of course, have a plan for if we are fortunate enough to be in government. We will support women at work. We will introduce the right to flexible working from day one. We will modernise equal pay laws to give women the right to know what their male counterparts earn. We will make it illegal to make a new mother redundant, from the notification of their pregnancy until six months after their return to work. We will review the failing system of shared parental leave. We will require large employers to publish menopause action plans. We will ensure that outsourced workers are included in the gender pay gap and pay ratio reporting. We will require employers to create and maintain workplaces free from harassment, including by third parties.

As has been mentioned, on the “Today” programme this morning “Thought for the Day” asked the question: why is there an International Women’s Day and why would we embrace that here in this country? Of course, it is because the discrimination that women have endured over millennia, everywhere in the world, the oppression of various forms of state and organised religion used to suppress women, and the need to create a better world for all of our daughters and granddaughters are common to all women everywhere.

That is why this is a powerful day; a moment to celebrate ourselves and our achievements and to support those women everywhere who need our solidarity and support. I thank all noble Lords for what I thought was a fantastic range of contributions. I believe that we have done honour to this International Women’s Day in a debate filled with passion and determination.

My Lords, it is an extraordinary privilege but somewhat of a challenge to be closing this International Women’s Day debate. I thank all noble Baronesses and noble Lords for their important contributions. In particular, I want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, for her speech. She is now in a very elite weak tear-duct club, of which I am a proud member. To all of us across the House who know the noble Baroness, she demonstrated the courage for which we are so fond of her and the integrity that she brings to every role. Those of us who have been or are in government will recognise the incredible value of someone who is able to execute, deliver and implement well.

I also take this opportunity to offer the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, her daughter and potential granddaughter my very best wishes for whenever the three of them are in the same place.

I started with an 1,100-word speech and have finished with 5,000 words of notes and no speech. So I will do my best, but I fear that I will have to write to many of your Lordships at the end of the debate.

We heard from your Lordships about the importance of economic empowerment, which my noble friend covered in her opening speech. I remind the House that, since 2010, the national living wage has risen by over 30% in real terms—something of which this Government are very proud. These issues were picked up in detail by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, who obviously understands better than I do the law in this area. On her challenges around equal pay, of course, as she knows, paying men and women differently has been illegal for almost 50 years and the Government remain fully committed to the equal pay protections in the Equality Act 2010.

I thank my noble friend Lady Moyo for focusing on progress and the role of women in leadership. She, the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, and my noble friend Lady Sater all talked about the importance of financial inclusion for women, particularly those from minority communities. We are conducting a joint review, together with the FCA, of the boundaries between financial advice and guidance. We have set some initial policy proposals to improve the support available to all consumers, but clearly those who are the most excluded have the greatest to gain. We also have a major focus on financial inclusion within our dormant assets programme. I thank organisations such as Fair4All Finance for the important work that they do in this area.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, returned to the subject of the pensions gap, which is of course important. I think he acknowledged that automatic enrolment has helped millions of women to save into a pension. Pension participation rates among eligible women in the private sector have risen from 40% in 2012 to 86% in 2022, which is equal to men eligible for automatic enrolment. We have supported the Pensions (Extension of Automatic Enrolment) Act 2023, which received Royal Assent last September and introduces powers to lower the age for automatic enrolment and remove the lower earnings limit. That will dispro-portionately help women on lower earnings.

The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, talked about her work with Smart Works. As she knows, I am firmly in the Smart Works fan club and enjoyed visiting its work a few years ago. The Government believe that a lot of effort has gone into the role of Jobcentre Plus work coaches. The noble Baroness knows that if what we intend to happen is not happening in real life then my colleagues in DWP would, I am sure, be delighted to follow up on that.

My noble friend Lady Lampard raised the issue of women and problem gambling. I acknowledge the work of GambleAware and the excellent campaigns that it has recently run, focusing on stigma and gambling harm among women. The Government recently under-took a major review of gambling and will introduce a new range of provisions, including requirements to ensure that operators check customers’ financial circumstances at the appropriate point for signs that their losses may be harmful, as well as tackling aggressive marketing practices and some other measures.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for her powerful speech. The essence of it, if I may, was about getting a real shift in attitudes to some of the issues which limit women’s potential, including the role of men in caring. There are many examples, which I know she is aware of, where the Government are improving protections: for example, in redundancy for pregnant women, improving flexible working, introducing carers leave, and introducing leave and pay entitlements for parents of children who have time in neonatal care.

The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, was calling for a wider attitudinal shift, particularly in relation to supporting fathers to take paternity. History suggests that men have got quite a good voice in calling for change, so maybe we can encourage them to do a bit more of that. She will be aware of the very significant changes and increases that we are making for working parents in the childcare offer, which should close the gap between parental leave ending and the Government’s current entitlement. We will be spending over £8 billion a year on free childcare by 2027-28.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Rock about welcoming the opportunities for women in farming specifically, and in the wider rural economy more broadly.

On women’s health, as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, pointed out, while women make up 51% of the population, our health system does not meet our needs. It was not designed with women in mind, particularly not women from minority communities, as the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, said. In relation to maternal care, we have established the maternal disparities task force, which is improving access to effective preconception and maternity care. We have invested £6.8 million in equity and equality guidance for the NHS, focusing on actions that reduce disparity for women and babies from ethnic minorities and those in the most deprived areas. In January, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced the first ever National Institute for Health and Care Research challenge funding call, which is backed by £50 million, to find new ways to tackle maternity disparities.

On violence against women and girls, the noble Baronesses, Lady Gale, Lady Donaghy—who stuck to her knitting—Lady Jones, Lady Casey and Lady Thornton, particularly highlighted issues of misogyny. It will not surprise the House to hear that I share wholeheartedly almost all the sentiments we have heard today on the continued need to tackle violence against women, not just in this country but internationally. This is a good moment to acknowledge the incredible leadership of my right honourable friend Theresa May MP on this issue, as Home Secretary and Prime Minister. I worked quite closely with her when I led the charity SafeLives, and I know her absolute commitment to ending this injustice. I hope we continue to hear her voice on this issue.

At its most basic, women and children need to feel safe in their homes, in their workplaces and on the street. We are making good progress delivering on our commitments set out in the violence against women and girls strategy and the domestic abuse plan. A number of noble Lords focused on emergency funding so that women and girls can flee their homes in an emergency, something that the noble Baronesses, Lady Gale and Lady Taylor of Stevenage, both highlighted. I recognise all too clearly the importance of being able to leave—but I really do not think that we have achieved what we need to achieve, when our expectation is still that a woman uproots her life, puts it in a black plastic bag and, at worst, moves to the other end of the country to live in one room with her children, leaving her teenage sons behind. That is not okay in 2024, and we should be focusing on making sure that women can stay safe in their homes. That is why I welcome so much the Government’s commitment to addressing the behaviour of perpetrators. We can keep one woman safe, but we then have that man’s next partner, who we have to keep safe all over again. If we do not work with the root of the problem, we will not resolve it.

On the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, about Clare’s law, in part she answered it herself, in that 45,000 is an extraordinary number of referrals. Of course, there is more work to do to raise awareness of that issue, and I will write to her on the specific points that she raised.

My noble friend Lady Owen was right to raise the important issue of violence spreading into the online space, which is obviously something that we recognised in the Online Safety Act. I acknowledge my noble friend’s point about the creation of deepfake images without consent not being a crime, and I would be delighted to meet her and ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to explore that issue further.

Turning to the international stage, last year we launched our first international women and girls strategy and international development White Paper. We are aiming to tackle violence against women and girls not just at home but also on an international level. At a time of terrible conflicts in the world, the House has been right to raise the scourge of sexual violence in conflict. The UK is proud to be a global leader in its prevention. This time last year, we launched the International Alliance on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, which brought together Governments, multilaterals, survivors and civil society. I know that there are many champions in your Lordships’ House working to address this issue, not least my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who will be going on Monday to New York for the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, asked about the changes in ODA spending, as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. The UK is one of the most generous global aid donors, spending nearly £12.8 billion in 2022. We remain committed to protecting the most vulnerable and continue to work towards the target of restoring funding for vital work on women and girls. The new target, set out in the FCDO’s International Women and Girls Strategy, is for at least 80% of the FCDO’s bilateral aid programmes to have a focus on gender equality by 2030.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and my noble friend Lady Hodgson raised the important issue of sexual and reproductive health and rights. There are over 200 million women in low and middle-income countries who want to avoid or delay pregnancy but are unable to use modern contraception. Almost half of all pregnancies are unintended. One of my noble friend the Foreign Secretary’s priority campaigns is to address sexual and reproductive health and rights. We are contributing up to £200 million to Women’s Integrated Sexual Health’s Dividend programme, which will reach up to 10.4 million women and prevent up to 30,600 maternal deaths, 3.4 million unsafe abortions and 9.5 million unintended pregnancies in sub-Saharan Africa. That is quite a thought.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about the work we are doing to uphold LGBT rights globally and, in particular, in Uganda. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary and my right honourable friend the Minister for Development have all raised concerns with Ministers in Uganda about the law to which the noble Baroness referred. We will continue to use our voice to stand up for the rights and freedoms of LGBT Ugandans and others all around the world.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top and Lady Thornton, also talked about gender-based violence internationally. We announced in November last year new funding of £33 million to tackle gender-based violence, which will include an additional £18 million to the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, supporting grass-roots women’s rights organisations. It also included £15 million for a new programme in Somalia on gender-based violence, which will reach over 117,000 people.

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, raised issues of women’s health internationally. The UK Government have, within the international women and girls strategy, a focus on championing women’s and girls’ health rights, and in particular supporting preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children by 2030.

Turning to education, there are an estimated 244 million children not in school globally. Girls are more likely to be out of school than boys, and this is exacerbated in conflict settings. These issues were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, talked about the role of boys within schools making sure that the girls feel safe and welcome, and of the importance of sport. There were questions from my noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, about the education of girls in Afghanistan, the only country in the world where girls are forbidden to have a secondary education. We condemn the Taliban’s decision to restrict the rights of women and girls and remain committed to at least 50% of those reached with UK aid in Afghanistan being women and girls. We continue to support the delivery of education there. In the last academic year, it reached 83,700 girls.

Closer to home, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, there is no cause for complacency. In 2020, women made up less than one-third of the STEM workforce. I recognise the points made by my noble friend Lady Sater about the importance of financial education, not just in terms of future careers but in the area of STEM—although obviously mathematics is an important link there—and more broadly for women’s economic independence. I thank organisations such as Maths4Girls which particularly focus on these areas.

I will say a word about representation and women’s voices in public life and the media. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, is absolutely right to raise political representation in the UK—although, of course, issues of women’s representation are even more challenging internationally. As the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, raised, it is also important that we hear women’s voices and that women feel safe to work in areas of journalism. We have set up a national committee to address that issue.

On voice and representation, I am afraid I absolutely refute the description from the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, of the UK Government’s position on Gaza. The priority must be an immediate pause to get aid in and hostages out, and then progress to a sustainable and permanent ceasefire. The Government have been quite clear about that.

I will finish—I am sure the House will bear with me for one minute more—with the names of the women that the noble Baronesses, Lady Anderson and Lady Casey, read out. It is hard to find the right words. It was a stark reminder of the work that we still have to do. When I worked at SafeLives, we used to have a motto: whatever we did should be what we would want for our best friends. Here we go—I have joined the tear duct club; that is two years in a row. What would we want for our best friends? We would want the best healthcare and the best education. We would want them to be safe at home and safe online. We would want them to have a political voice. We would want them to have economic opportunity, so that they have the greatest opportunity to contribute to society. To all the extraordinary women all around the world who are unable to live as we do, we thank you and we stand with you in spirit.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 2.35 pm.