Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it is wonderful that we have so many excellent speakers in this final, very important debate today. Many noble Lords have made transport arrangements, so I shall just say, in the nicest way possible, that it would be much appreciated if noble Lords could stick to the time allocated.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to open this International Women’s Day debate—for the fourth year running, I think. International Women’s Day provides us with the perfect opportunity to come together, to celebrate the remarkable achievements of women and to commemorate the great progress we have made and continue to make. Around the world today, women and men will be marking this celebratory occasion in various ways. There will be events in local communities, discussions in places of work, arts performances in schools and debates across countries, much like the one taking place today in your Lordships’ House, and it is a privilege to be just one part of these celebrations.
We have come a long way in a short time and we should celebrate all that we have accomplished. Last year, in particular, was an outstanding year for women’s progress, and I want to highlight some of our incredible achievements. We allocated £5 million of funding to mark the centenary of voting rights for women. This money funded over 300 projects that raised awareness of this crucial milestone and encouraged more women, in particular, to participate in democracy, building a diverse political system that reflects the nation it serves.
For example, the Courage Calls event built on the Ask Her to Stand model, featuring workshops hosted by parliamentary experts and discussions with serving MPs, and providing help and guidance for 350 women to get on that crucial first rung of the political ladder. I hope to see some of the women who participated enter Parliament as sitting MPs one day.
There was the Centenary Cities fund, allocated to seven towns and cities to celebrate their suffrage history. These cities hosted a range of exciting projects to celebrate as well as remember those individuals who helped to make votes for women a reality. Let me give your Lordships a taste of what was on offer. In Manchester, we had cycle rides through history, touching on the lives of some of the women who made important contributions to the cause of women’s suffrage. In Nottingham we had banner-making workshops, encouraging people of all ages to celebrate the anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918. In Bristol we had the Black Women 100 event, which unearthed stories about the incredible women of colour who fought for the right to vote in the early 20th century. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I know that in Leeds, Bolton, Leicester and London there were hundreds, if not thousands, of other events, which took place as part of the celebrations.
Of course, we had the statue of Millicent Fawcett—the first statue of a woman to stand in Parliament Square—and the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in my home city of Manchester. It was a huge privilege to be part of the unveiling, and what made it so special and so significant for me was the fact that my daughter was watching from the building opposite, where she works. I know she wished to work for her employer due to its proven track record on gender equality, which makes me incredibly proud of her. I am certain that all these statues will serve as a reminder to all us of the courage of our foremothers, and will inspire future generations of women and girls to come.
In November, we hosted Women MPs of the World. More than 100 female MPs from across the world participated, and we witnessed history as the House of Commons Chamber, for the first time ever, was filled solely with women. It was a herculean task to pull it off. I must pay tribute to the right honourable Member for Camberwell and Peckham. It started as her idea and evolved into a collaborative effort of two political parties, three government departments and three arm’s-length bodies to fly in around 100 female MPs from around the world to participate in receptions, plenary sessions and workshops here in Westminster. It demonstrated the power the House has when we all pull together.
Last year’s work has left a lasting legacy that will undoubtedly provide greater opportunities and influence for women in our society. But the fight for equality did not stop last year. We need to carry forward the momentum from the centenary year to make sure that our progress towards gender equality does not stall.
We know that inequality still persists across the world. Globally, one in three girls or women has been beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. Every two minutes a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth. Over 200 million women living in 30 countries have undergone female genital mutilation. In the UK, we know that women are much more likely to have time out for caring, with lasting impacts on pay and progression. Nearly 90% of those not working due to caring for home and family are women. The gender pay gap still stands at 17.9%. Until we have true economic, social and gender parity, we will never be equal.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Balance for Better”. With that in mind, I want to look to the future. I want to talk about what the Government are doing to ensure we have better balance in our society and how we are delivering for women and girls.
Yesterday, the Government published the refreshed violence against women and girls strategy, which sets out how we are going further and faster in our response to these terrible crimes. Much has changed in the three years since the Ending Violence against Women and Girls strategy was published. We have a better understanding of the effects on victims and have seen increased public awareness through the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, which is welcome.
The refreshed strategy will implement a review of the criminal justice response to rape and serious sexual violence, which is crucial to ensuring that victims and survivors see the justice they so desperately need. I welcome increased reporting of these crimes, which shows that more victims have the confidence to come forward, but we must ensure that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the response through the courts are as robust and effective as can be. We will also develop guidance for providers and commissioners on best practice in supporting LGBT victims of VAWG, as well as reviewing our national statement of expectations to ensure that VAWG services delivered locally are as effective as they can be. Sadly, violence is something that touches many of our lives. We must do all we can across government, working with statutory agencies and specialist third-sector organisations, to support victims and bring perpetrators to justice.
Later this spring, we will publish our gender equality and economic empowerment strategy, setting out our plans to address the persistent gender-based barriers that women—and men—face across the country at every stage of their lives. The strategy will focus on four key themes: entry and progression in the workplace, especially for those far from the labour market or in low-paid, low-skilled work; optimal choice over parental leave and childcare; economic well-being in later life; and attitudes and social norms about the roles that men and women play.
My right honourable friend the Minister for Women and Equalities shared her emerging thinking about the strategy with a wide range of stakeholders on Monday this week. She set out that a key theme will be tackling the financial fragility that impacts on some vulnerable women and girls. As a compelling example of this, she announced that she will be convening an expert cross-sectoral task force to find sustainable ways to address period poverty in the UK, along with UK aid support for projects tackling period poverty and stigma globally.
The gender pay gap reporting deadline for year two is less than a month away. Our world-leading legislation meant that, for the first time last year, over 10,000 employers reported their gender pay gap, providing an unprecedented level of transparency, driving board-level discussions and pushing employers to take real action to close the gap. In fact, Bloomberg liked our model so much it has integrated our key measures into its gender equality index for investors.
Reporting is just the start; it is crucial that employers use their gender pay gap data to identify the barriers to women’s recruitment and progression, and take action to break down these barriers. We had 100% compliance last year and we expect the same this year. We saw the gender pay gap fall to its lowest level ever of 17.9%, but it will take until 2052 at this rate—
No, we will not—to eradicate it completely in the UK, and much longer globally. We have to do better.
We have committed £5 million in funding to help people return to work after time out for caring and to find jobs that use their valuable skills and experience. In addition to the initial £5 million fund we established for returners in 2017, a further £500,000 has been provided to support those with additional barriers to participating in the labour market. This may include people with complex needs or multiple barriers, such as substance abuse or homelessness. We have gone even further, and an additional £100,000 of funding has been announced to support those people with little or no work history. We have also launched best practice guidance and a toolkit to help employers run effective returner programmes. We urge them to make the most of these publicly available resources.
Gender equality is a global issue. I recently attended a gathering in Spain of Ministers from across Europe. While we are leaving the European Union, we are clear that we will continue to work with partners in Europe and across the world to ensure that women and girls have the same rights and opportunities as their male counterparts.
I conclude by saying again that I am proud to participate in today’s debate with so many staunch advocates of gender equality. I am proud to be part of this Government, and it is an honour to be part of the work we are doing and will continue to do to fight for gender equality across the UK and the world. We are making great progress and it is only right that we celebrate how far we have come. Now, all I ask of you is to keep working together, especially in these challenging times, to think about how we can balance for better, and how we can ensure that gender equality becomes a reality sooner rather than later. I beg to move.
My Lords—and Baronesses—I thank the Minister for bringing this debate before us. It is as she feels: it is a privilege to be speaking in this debate, albeit late on a Thursday afternoon as last business. Perhaps we could have a much better time for our debate next year. This year’s theme is “Balance for Better” and as we consider the UK’s role in advancing gender equality globally, we must face up to the challenges that remain so as to tip the scales, which are currently weighted towards men. Whether it is about intimidation in public life, gender-based violence or equal pay, only by tackling those issues can a truly better balance be found.
Increasing the number of women in public life is about improving decisions and outcomes—and, more importantly, having our elected institutions look like the people they represent. According to the United Nations, only 24% of all national parliamentarians are women. In the UK, for example, 32% of the Members of the House of Commons are women, while the figure for the House of Lords is 26%, for the Welsh Assembly 47%, for the Scottish Parliament 35% and, in Northern Ireland, 32%. I am proud to say that the Welsh Assembly is the best in the United Kingdom, and that if we can do it in Wales we can do it anywhere. That is a challenge to the rest of the country.
The voice of women in the UK was lost when the coalition Government disbanded the Women’s National Commission in 2010. Although the Government said at that time that its work would be taken in house, with the Government Equalities Office having the responsibility, nothing is now heard from it. It cannot possibly be doing the work that the WNC was carrying out. Can the Minister tell the House what is happening in this field? The WNC was an asset to the United Kingdom, comprising over 650 women’s organisations and providing different Governments over a 40-year period with a great link to women. If this Government are not prepared to establish a new WNC, I can guarantee that the next Labour Government will do so. We will provide a strong, independent voice for women’s organisations in the United Kingdom; it will be women’s voice to Government on a whole range of issues.
Women in politics face an extraordinary amount of abuse online and offline, partly because they speak up but also simply because they are women. Online abuse can affect women’s human rights to safety and freedom of expression. Social media companies must do more to protect female users, but this abuse undoubtedly comes from the sexism that still exists in our society and that can manifest in even more violent ways. Sadly, many women in public life have been victims of this violence. I pay tribute to my former colleague, Jo Cox, who was killed just because she was serving the people of her constituency. We think of her today. As we call for more women to enter public life, we must always remember those who have paid the ultimate price.
When talking about the UK’s role in advancing gender equality globally, we cannot ignore the biggest domestic issue of the day. It is difficult to talk about the idea of a global Britain while we leave our most important international institution, the European Union. The EU has been credited with advancing women’s rights and gender equality. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Brexit could lead to equality protections falling behind those in the EU, as well as existing ones being removed. The Government continue to leave no deal on the table, which would be catastrophic not only for the economy but for equality. The Government’s own impact assessment revealed that no deal would leave the UK’s economy up to 9% smaller. The Women’s Budget Group said that such a downturn would disproportionately impact on women. However, there would be many other consequences. A no-deal Brexit would leave hard-earned women’s rights at the whim of future Governments, without the protection of an international court. A hard border in Ireland could mean women travelling to access safe abortions facing increased checks, costs and delays. Will the Minister explain how women will be protected in the event of an economic downturn resulting from a no-deal Brexit?
Another dividing line between the sexes remains gender economic inequality. Eurostat ranks the UK as having the fifth worst gender pay gap in the EU, 2.77% higher than the OECD average. The Office for National Statistics found that the gender pay gap among all UK employees is 18%. More must be done to close this gap. The Minister spoke about this in her opening remarks but I do not think we can wait until 2050, I think it was, when we will not be around to see that. Let us hope we can get a move on.
Gender-based violence remains a major public health issue and a violation of women’s human rights. Women fleeing conflict are left in extremely vulnerable positions. The development charity International Rescue Committee states that,
“girls living in crisis-affected communities … are at increased risk of gender-based violence … including sexual violence and exploitation, intimate partner violence and early and forced marriage”.
The UK must lead the global effort to protect and empower these women but we must make sure that this protection extends to women at home. It is a well-known fact that, on average, two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a partner or ex-partner. Unfortunately, the Government’s austerity programme and the cuts to funding for women’s refuges have left many women with no safe place to go. Women’s Aid found that one in six referrals to a refuge were declined, owing to a lack of space or capacity to support the survivor.
I met a remarkable woman recently: Charlotte Kneer, who is CEO of a women’s refuge. She is a survivor of domestic abuse and took part in a Channel 4 documentary on the women’s refuge she now runs. It was called “Safe at Last: Inside a Women’s Refuge” and it was the first time such a film has been made. Charlotte allowed Channel 4 access to the refuge mainly to highlight the lack of funding but also to show what work is carried out. The staff were absolutely amazing and so dedicated, but they are very worried that it may have to close owing to a lack of funding. I recommend that noble Lords watch this documentary and, if possible, that it be shown in Parliament. I would be really happy to facilitate that. Will the Minister meet Charlotte to hear directly from her of the difficulties that women’s refuges are undergoing? The Government need to ensure that local government has enough funds to support women’s refuges, so that no woman is turned away. When a woman is turned away and must return to an abusive relationship, she is risking her life.
I look forward to the domestic abuse Bill coming to your Lordships’ House and I welcome the Government establishing a Joint Committee to consider it. The Minister has reassured me that when the Bill is passed, the Government will ratify the Istanbul convention. If so, they will need to provide all the resources necessary to ensure the work can be carried out effectively. Can she explain how the role of the domestic abuse commissioner will operate in practice, and how do the Government plan to guarantee the commissioner’s independence?
A better balance of women’s voices, ideas, rights and protections and a fairer distribution of wealth, as per equal pay, can only make the world a better place for women and girls. Gender inequality continues to hold women and girls back. We cannot allow women to be short-changed in the workplace. We cannot allow women to lose their jobs in a no-deal Brexit. We cannot allow violence to be used as a weapon against women and girls and, when we consider the UK’s role in advancing gender equality globally, we should not settle for anything less than the UK becoming a leader in equality. I give the House an assurance that that will be the aim of a Labour Government, and I look forward to the day when there is a “Balance for Better” in the lives of girls and women globally.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this important debate and pay tribute to the Government’s work in advancing women’s equality and rights globally, building on the work of successive Governments and the incredible work that has taken place around the world. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and I pay tribute to all the work she has done as well.
I come to this as somebody who has been involved in gender equality and working with women, particularly women from ethnic minority communities, for many decades. I founded the first domestic violence project for Turkish, Kurdish and Middle Eastern women 25 years ago, and I am proud that it is still going from strength to strength. Many of the women who initially came there for support have gone on to become empowered women, much more in control of their lives, and to help other women. That has been something that has followed down the track and been successful.
My contribution today is on the public discourse on black and minority ethnic women, particularly Muslim women. I want to touch on this because I have become increasingly concerned that narratives and stereotypes persist that Muslim women are either victims—subjugated, oppressed, controlled by their families and unable to speak English—or, at the same time, blamed for bringing up children who become radicalised. My contribution may not be popular but it needs to be said, because I have become increasingly uncomfortable. I have been at various events this week with other women from Muslim backgrounds—younger, empowered and educated women—who are fed up with this narrative that persists.
For example, whenever there are Questions in your Lordships’ House that refer to Muslim women, they are inevitably about forced marriage, FGM or child brides. They are never about anything positive. I recognise that these things exist, but this is not the only dimension in which we should look at women from these backgrounds. We are missing the opportunity to support and empower Muslim women if we stereotype them and put them in a box of oppressed women. I come from a Muslim background. My mother was a Muslim woman and I can tell you nobody ever controlled my mother; she barely took suggestions, let alone instructions. That is the line of women I come from and I know many women like that from other communities.
I want to touch on some facts. British Muslim women face various layers of discrimination. They are women, they are an ethnic minority and they are Muslim. A 2015 study found that 35% of Muslim women are employed, compared to 69% of all women, but we are told that Muslim women are not allowed to work. But they do want to work. Some 16% of Muslim women are always looking for work—that number has probably gone up—compared to 5% of the rest of the female population. Looking at the figures, Muslim girls and women are doing extremely well in exams and schools, and going on to further education. They are pushing at the door, wanting to get into more professional jobs, from which they have traditionally been excluded. They want to be part of, and integrate into, British society. Let us accept that that is what we all are; I am one of those who is part of British society. There is no other, and Muslim women need our support to reach their empowerment.
Many factors directly impact on Muslim women. Forty-six per cent of the Muslim population live in the most deprived areas of the country. That has an impact and we must recognise it. There is strong evidence that Muslim men and women are being held back in the workplace by Islamophobia, racism and discrimination, and they are less likely to be in full-time work, not for want of trying.
I was looking at recent research from the Government’s Social Mobility Commission. Professor Jacqueline Stevenson of Sheffield Hallam University, which led the research, said:
“Muslims are being excluded, discriminated against or failed, at all stages of their transition from education to employment … Taken together, these contributory factors have profound implications for social mobility”.
Academics cite similar problems. Students face stereotypes and low expectations from teachers. There are fewer positive role models in the classroom. Young Muslims routinely fear becoming targets of bullying and harassment and feel forced to work, as one put it, “10 times as hard” as their white counterparts to get on and be accepted.
I come to headscarves, because this is such a big issue. There is an obsession with what women wear. Women wearing headscarves face particular discrimination. I do not know why what a woman wears should be of such consequence, particularly to men, but apparently it is. It is a controversial and emotive subject, and it is sad that the previous Foreign Secretary likened Muslim women in niqabs to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, which led to an increase in abuse and attacks on women. That was unfortunate.
We need our political and civic leaders to act responsibly in the public discourse. We need to stop this narrative that Muslim women are all victims who need saving or figures of fun. Let us not tolerate this casual racism. We need more positive role models, and it is very positive, as the Minister mentioned, that we now have eight Muslim women MPs in the other place. That is a record number and it is great, but we need more. We need more here as well. We need more BME teachers. We need more role models, because schools and pupils are losing out on the talents and skills of BME teachers, who are unable to advance their careers.
As I said, however, women and girls are doing better. If we value the contribution of all women in our society and are serious about BME women and men feeling valued and integrating into our society, we must create a level playing field, and dispel the outdated narrative that women from different communities are all oppressed and simply need saving.
I shall close with this. BME women are now leading in the media, the arts, business and sport. I meet so many talented young women, who have come here from around the country and are doing so well. Let us celebrate this and ensure that these women’s voices are heard, celebrated, valued and encouraged. The “Balance for Better”, the theme of International Women’s Day, can be achieved only with the efforts of men and women in positions of influence to give all women a strong voice in our society.
My Lords, I rise with some caution, conscious of the considerable risks as a man speaking on International Women’s Day. But dwelling in ambiguity is perhaps the lot of those occupying these Benches. I am acutely aware, for instance, that as a Lord spiritual speaking on defence matters, I interest myself in swords and in ploughshares.
It was sporting those two hats that I recently watched the RAF’s current recruitment advertisement. Its images depict the reality of women in a service in which every role is open to everyone. We see women readying themselves for combat, as engineers and pilots. The voiceover, alas, articulates a more familiar reality, in which women are told, predominantly by men, that their concerns centre on lip gloss, skincare and the contents of their wardrobe. The disparity between voice and image strikingly expresses the distance travelled, but also the many miles we have yet to traverse. I sensed some of this while listening to this week’s Questions and debates in your Lordships’ House. We have reflected this week on FGM, on consent, on pay and abuse, on how much has been done, on how much we want to do and on how much there is to do.
I cannot avoid reflecting that the same is true of the Church. Next Tuesday sees the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England. The fruits of the hundreds of women who have followed their call are all around us, including in this House, with the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Gloucester, the Bishop of Newcastle and the Bishop of London sitting on these Benches—shortly to be joined by the Bishop of Derby. In the College of Bishops, women represented around half of appointments made between 2014 and 2018. Among the clergy, I was particularly struck by the comments from a first-year ordinand, Hannah Barr, at a recent anniversary service at Lambeth Palace. She said that, in preparing for priestly ministry, she stood on the shoulders of giants, inspired by the first great generations of women in ordained ministry. They have made the Church better; they have made society better; they were, and are, pioneers.
We can look to the promise of the years to come. At Ripon College Cuddesdon, where I serve as chair of governors, half the academic staff are women. On Cuddesdon’s different pathways to ordination, we see a clear majority of women. The same is true of a subset of that group, the ordinands on my own diocese’s training programme, the Portsmouth Pathway. That pattern is replicated more widely.
And yet. Your Lordships might have noticed that I refrained from describing women in ordained ministry as “women priests”, nor would I describe female colleagues on these Benches as “women bishops”. That risks suggesting that there are priests and bishops—and then there are women priests and women bishops. No. There are priests and there are bishops, all of whom have been obedient to their call. Similarly on numbers, a majority in training does not translate into equality. We are decades from that. Even at that distant point, much will depend on who sits where.
Our culture, in the Church and in society, has some distance to travel before we can confidently say that we are inclusive. As one ordinand, Jo Winn-Smith, put it, equality happens only when men start doing what women do, not when women do what men do.
We have much about which we must be humble, perhaps even penitent. I wonder therefore whether this is a moment for celebration; it is rather more an occasion to mark, to take note.
I end with this thought. Christians, or more exactly theologians, are fond of the word “eschatology”. I risk the ire of those same theologians for grossly simplifying a complex notion, but we might say that eschatology is interested in progress towards the end time and anticipates that time—the time when all things are made new. That is a helpful concept for today’s debate. There is progress, yes, but we have much more progress to make before we reach one particular eschatological moment. That is our arrival in another country, a country in which we find it no longer necessary to mark International Women’s Day or the anniversary of the ordination of women. In that other country, equality is so embedded in our lives, our practices and our very beliefs that what is right is what is normal, unexceptional and natural. We are still far from that New Jerusalem.
My Lords, it is clear that many women around the world still lack equal rights and empowerment opportunities. They face discrimination and violence. As parliamentarians, what can we do individually to change that? One way is to be an active member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. All of us here today are automatically members of that by virtue of being parliamentarians. The IPU feels strongly about achieving gender equality, recognising the link between democracy and the equal participation of men and women in parliaments and civil society.
Travelling overseas with the British group of the IPU or taking part here in the inward programmes for overseas parliamentarians gives us all the opportunity to work for gender equality. We can demonstrate the advantages of the progress already made here in the UK and support the work of DfID in developing countries. We have made good progress in the UK, but we have much more to learn—we can do that—from other countries to make gender equality a reality worldwide.
In the February recess, I took part in the IPU visit to Ethiopia, together with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and Pauline Latham MP. Our objective was to strengthen the relationship between the UK and Ethiopia at a time of political change and reform. In his first year in office, the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has appointed women to 50% of Cabinet positions, appointed the first ever female President, appointed a woman as Speaker of the House of the Federation and put a woman at the head of the Supreme Court.
Despite these changes and Abiy’s determination to carry out widespread reforms rapidly, many worry that they will not sufficiently address the deep-seated bias against women in the country, which is near the bottom of the UN rankings on gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa. DfID’s annual budget in Ethiopia is £300 million. That is its largest budget in Africa and its second-largest worldwide.
The Ethiopian Government have used international aid and their own resources to lift millions out of poverty over the past decade, but it remains a country with enormous development needs. It still has high rates of chronic childhood malnutrition and maternal mortality. That, combined with female genital mutilation and early marriage, leads to acute gender inequalities.
I was therefore keen to learn about DflD’s work on education and health. Access to both transforms the lives of girls and women. We visited a UK aid-supported elementary school and health centre built on the same site in Ada’a district. One of the barriers to girls’ attendance at school has been a lack of access to water and toilet facilities. DflD’s water and sanitation strategy is vital. DfID also gives financial and technical support to the health centre to procure essential maternal and child health medicines, including vaccines and family planning aids. The centre is staffed by a clinical officer, nurses, midwives and auxiliary health workers, and there is an ambulance to bring mothers to the health centre to give birth.
Against this background of genuine improvement in reducing maternal and child mortality, much more needs to be done. At our DflD pre-brief in Addis, Pauline Latham asked the officials what work was currently being done by DflD to eradicate FGM. She had visited Ethiopia a few years ago with the Commons Select Committee and seen DflD’s work on FGM projects. It was having some success. But the surprising answer to her question was that DflD officials were not aware of any UK development aid-assisted projects on FGM in Ethiopia now. I hope that that is not the case. Can my noble friend the Minister outline the current work of DflD or DflD-funded projects to eradicate FGM in Ethiopia? If that work really has stopped, why is that, given that FGM is still so prevalent?
DflD’s programme in Ethiopia remains vital to the country’s development and for improving the prospects for women and girls. We can do much to assist progress there towards gender equality, but at the same time we can learn how we can make even better progress ourselves and practise what we preach.
My Lords, this time last year we held two debates. In addition to our regular one on International Women’s Day, the other, in February, was around the role of women in public life, recognising not only the centenary of the Representation of the People Act but also 60 years since women were first made life Peers. As my noble friend said in her introductory remarks, last year was a big year for those of us involved with and concerned about encouraging and supporting more women into public life. Looking back, it feels a bit like two steps forward and one step back—perhaps even one step forward and two steps back.
There were many highlights of the year. We marched in the usual International Women’s Day march, but a very special memory were the processions in June when tens of thousands of women and girls, wearing violet, green and white scarves, came together in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London as part of a celebratory mass participation artwork. It was a beautiful day and a very joyous event. The unveiling of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square was another highlight. I was lucky enough to be in a front-row seat and, with our second woman Prime Minister unveiling the statue, we all felt uplifted and hopeful about the future. The summer was full of Pankhurst parties and EqualiTeas—rather too many cups of tea and cakes, to be honest.
November saw a great #AskHerToStand event, with around 250 MPs inviting women from their constituencies to an inspiring day at Westminster. A huge effort, it was organised by 50:50 Parliament and supported by the Fawcett Society, of which I am now pleased to be a trustee. As my noble friend Lady Williams said, Parliament hosted an international Women MPs of the World conference where, for the first time ever, elected women from more than 100 countries across the world were welcomed to sit on our green Benches by senior women MPs from all sides of the House, sharing both best practice and challenges.
The Centenary Action Group, which has organised a coalition of more than 40 women’s groups, has become a powerful lobby organisation, and 50:50 Parliament, the only organisation committed to the simple aim of a balanced Parliament, run by the indefatigable Frances Scott, has been a game changer for those of us from all parties campaigning to get more women into Parliament. She runs it on a shoe-string but with incredible energy. I urge my noble friend to look inside the pockets of the GEO to see whether some funding might be made possible for 50:50. It would help to increase its capacity and outreach work.
All this activity and a full year of asking women to stand has culminated in a substantial increase in the number of women starting their journeys towards public life, probably in all political parties but certainly for us in the Conservative Party, where I understand that between 400 and 500 additional women are now in the pipeline. In August, our Conservative Party chairman, Brandon Lewis, announced his ambition to increase the number of women on the candidates list from around 30% to 50%. He admitted that this would not be easy but confirmed that he personally would work tirelessly to make it happen. I look forward to working with him to achieve this increase.
So a year of activity and optimism—and yet. Is it two steps forward, or one step forward and two back? The vile and violent assault on women parliamentarians, especially in another place, has increased exponentially. This puts women off even starting their journey. I recently heard of one elected woman in a senior role in public life who is being harassed by a group of men who resent her position and are doing what they can to drive her out. Apparently, she is a “difficult woman” who needs “taking down a peg or two”. Really? Nothing about doing the job competently or well—just what appears to be good, old-fashioned misogyny. Both Labour and the Conservative Party have lost women MPs to the Independent Group, taking us in the Conservative Party back down to below 20% of MPs. To put it another way, four out of five Conservative MPs are still men. This is disappointing.
But there are events and organisations to celebrate this year. The Conservative Women’s Organisation, the oldest political women’s organisation in the world—formerly chaired by my noble friends Lady Seccombe, Lady Anelay, Lady Byford and Lady Hodgson, inspirational role models all—starts its centenary celebrations at this weekend’s conference. We look forward to the unveiling of Nancy Astor’s statue in Plymouth to commemorate the centenary of her election as the first woman MP, and a Conservative to boot.
The 90th anniversary of the first general election with full voting equality will fall in May. The credit for that, as I am sure noble Lords will be aware, lies with Stanley Baldwin. In 1927, he said:
“democracy is incomplete and lop-sided until it is representative of the whole people, and the responsibility rests alike on men and women”.
In 1928, he extended that franchise to all women over 21, overcoming strong opposition in his Cabinet, led by Mr Churchill, who thought that “flappers” would find socialism irresistible. Mrs Pankhurst, a friend of Baldwin, who was adopted as official Conservative candidate for Whitechapel in 1926, sadly died before the 1929 election, at which she would have proudly displayed the Tory colours.
Finally, I have a word of advice for those considering starting their journey into this building. If you do not buy a ticket, you will not win the lottery. Get going. Who knows where it may take you?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for initiating this debate. One of the key ingredients for advancing gender equality is leadership, and I believe that the noble Baroness has shown that in spades.
When I first started on the road to try to advance gender equality, more than 50 years ago, I hoped we might have gone further down the road than we have. We seem to have won the right to work twice as hard as men, all the while multitasking—the right to be knackered. I want to talk about two things. The first is that macroeconomics do not take women’s contributions sufficiently into account. Secondly, I want to give examples of how inspiring women keep me going.
Almost all macroeconomics is male based. Women’s unpaid care work is a crucial and often neglected consideration in the design of economic policies and reforms. One report of a conference run by the Women’s Budget Group highlights how unpaid work,
“unjustly absorbs economic shocks and often compensates for austerity measures”.
In other words, it is women who pick up the pieces during periods of austerity, and the Government must accept some responsibility for this. The disproportionate burden of unpaid work on women and girls creates a barrier to access to decent jobs and promotion prospects.
There may be more women in employment than ever before, but many have been displaced from secure public sector jobs into temporary work, the informal economy or underemployment. This increases their financial insecurity and widens both the wage gap and the gender gap. Importantly, many have few opportunities to participate in decisions that directly or indirectly affect their living conditions and those of their families and communities.
All economic policy changes should be subject to a gender equality impact assessment. The failure to take account of the full range of contributions made by women means that the impact of austerity measures is not taken fully into account. Local government is a case in point. Central government funding fell by nearly 50% between 2010 and 2018, and this has had a devastating effect on local services mainly used by women: adult social care, domestic violence refuges, childcare. It has also led to more job losses for women in public services.
In the last year, there have been two reports from UN experts highlighting the devastating impact austerity is having on women’s rights. Combine the austerity measures with the obscene gap between rich and poor and the result is disillusionment with traditional social democratic parties and fertile ground for extremism or populism or both.
I turn to how women in leadership can be a vital element in encouraging and motivating others. I have time to mention only three. Watching Julia Gillard, when she was Prime Minister of Australia, in total control at the Dispatch Box in Canberra—and yet finding time to see me immediately after Question Time—was inspiring. She is now leading global education projects and inspiring many more.
Su Patel from USDAW, the shopworkers’ union, who chaired this year’s TUC Women’s Conference, has said:
“We are underrepresented in decision-making structures … and overrepresented in poverty statistics”.
Gina Martin told the Sunday Mirror:
“I’m just an ordinary working-class girl from the North”
and, she went on, “if I can change the law, anyone can”. As many noble Lords will know, she was at a festival when someone photographed under her skirt. She reported it to the police, who told her it was not a crime. When she posted a picture of the two perpetrators on Facebook, she was told to take it down because it was harassment. She felt so violated that she started an online petition to make upskirting—as it is called—illegal. She said:
“Eighteen months later, I watched the law being changed at the House of Lords, tears streaming down my face. People who take violating pictures up skirts can now be sent to prison for up to two years”.
That is a case of actions speaking louder than words. Let us renew ourselves for another year of fighting for gender equality.
My Lords, each year in this debate many noble Lords speak of their experiences and share uplifting stories. They also speak of traumatic situations and practices they have witnessed around the world—and very troubling some of those events are. I thought that this year I would concentrate on the good fortune that we have as women living at this time in this country, and be thankful for the changes that have taken and are taking place.
When I was first married and became involved in politics in the 1950s, life was very different from today. Many married women did not take paid employment, for various reasons; some institutions did not employ married women, and some women felt that, as their income was added to their husband’s, there was no point—he paid tax on it and, as noble Lords can imagine, difficulties often arose. Women were unable to open a building society account or to buy any item on hire purchase without their husband signing the document. I believe that one of the most important emancipations for women has been the implementation of legislation in 1990 for the independent taxation of husband and wife, changing a woman from being a chattel, and in the process often saving many a woman from being chained to an abusive husband.
Women began to take a greater interest and role in public life, and over the years flexed their muscles to improve the lives of women in the workplace. Despite legislation, the gender gap has still not been eliminated and, as we heard from the Minister, it is likely to be a long time before it can be. It can at best be assessed as work in progress.
I am proud that the Conservative Party has had two women Prime Ministers, setting the aspiration for all women candidates. Baroness Young blazed the trail as Leader of this House nearly 40 years ago. I understand that we must set the goal of equal male and female representation in the other place, and we are very slowly getting there. I believe that preferential treatment is not the way forward. There are, however, so many well-qualified women out there who should be elected, and we must continue to promote and assist them. Headway is being made. Women2Win is a brilliant association, and my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington deserves much praise for being an inspiration to us all by always working for others.
Brexit has absorbed our nation and taken some matters of urgency off the agenda for now. We must resolve Brexit and return to normality so that we can deal with our national problems. There is so much to do, but we will get there.
In this debate we have heard of the dire situations of many women across the world who know what real poverty is. They value education for their children and will go to all possible lengths to get them there. I congratulate the Government on giving us a buoyant economy so that this country can spend 0.7% of its GNP funding aid to enable developing countries to grow their economies.
Last year we celebrated the centenary of the first partial emancipation of women, and I am so happy that we were able to ensure that Emmeline Pankhurst remains in her rightful place close to Parliament. Along with her colleagues, she was certainly someone who fought constantly throughout her life for the status of women. She and all of them have been an inspiration. She certainly deserves to have such recognition.
In no way am I complacent, but I believe that once a year it is right to be grateful for the progress across the world and to be thankful for our own situation in which we take so much for granted. During this next year we will face an exciting future and, I hope, a time when we will all come together and be proud of our country and what we stand for. I hope we will be an example that others, particularly developing nations, will feel they wish to emulate.
My Lords, there are some debates in your Lordships’ House that are remarkable by their gender divide. Today's debate has 35 speakers, of whom about 85% are women; I do not think it is any the poorer for that, and I am honoured to take part in it and see many whom I have come to regard as friends on other Benches.
When we have a debate in the House on defence, weapons or war—
When we have a debate in this House on defence, weapons or war, the inverse is true. At a political level, even in 2019, wars, weapons and even navies—the noble Lord, Lord West, is representing the Navy, as ever—are regarded as a man’s area. Nowhere is this starker than in the area of nuclear weapons.
Part of the reason why there are not more men here—this has been said already—is that the debate was unfortunately timed for a Thursday. I would have spoken, but I cannot be here at the end of the debate. On the Navy, 30 years ago I carried out a study into the employment of women at sea; it was remarkable at that stage how women were considered as nothing. I said that they should go to sea, but it still took time for that to happen.
I thank the noble Lord for his contribution. He slightly proves my point.
Yet nuclear weapons, including our own Trident system, specifically target civilians; they target cities and women and children as a so-called deterrent.
I will use my time today to ask the Minister whether there is a correlation between the lack of women involved and the fact that not only have nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament talks largely stalled, but we are now likely to be heading into a new nuclear arms race. That truly terrifying prospect was highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, when he talked of the evidence that the International Relations Committee had heard that,
“we were on the verge of a terrifying new arms race and the possible spread of tactical nuclear weapons, and that the limits on nuclear warfare that the world has hung on to since Hiroshima are now slipping away and could leave our cities in smoking ruins”.—[Official Report, 27/2/19; col. 253.]
Your Lordships will remember that back in 2000 the UN passed Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, to encourage greater female representation on disarmament bodies. That has not happened to the degree that was hoped for then. One of the women to see this first hand is the United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Her Excellency Ms Izumi Nakamitsu. As frequently the only woman at high-level talks, she says:
“More perspectives could help to find new approaches to break stalemate”.
Many noble Lords will have heard of the Doomsday Clock, which moves nearer to midnight according to the threats. Right now it is at two minutes to midnight because of nuclear war and climate change.
I am sure that noble Lords will agree that, the moment you have children, the existential threats to the future take on a new urgency. Back in the early 1980s, when the US was planning to, and did, put nuclear-armed cruise missiles in the UK, the women of Greenham Common were so moved—Helen John in particular, who was their leader—that they raised public awareness, putting the issue firmly in front of politicians and the public. Taking part in the “ring the base” at Easter made me aware of the power of women acting together to address this terrifying threat to humanity. We need that power again. Of course we need it for climate change, and Greta Thunberg is doing a great job with the much younger generation; Spring Uprising in Bristol is looking at that. However, the threat from nuclear weapons has not taken on the urgency that it needs to prompt the same sort of action among the young.
We need nuclear weapon use or possession banned. It will not happen in my lifetime, but the first step was taken with last year’s UN ban treaty, which was signed by 122 countries—sadly, not the UK. When it is ratified, it will make the possession or use of nuclear weapons illegal. As we start on the first steps of this process, if humanity and the world as we know it are to enter the 22nd century, we need women to be far more involved. Men have not had the impetus or the will to achieve nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Women are good negotiators; we are realists and we invest emotionally in the future. Women must become involved in the nuclear disarmament effort at every level—and fast.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak among so many inspirational women—and men—as we mark International Women’s Day. It is always a privilege to rise in this Chamber, but never more so than in this debate today. Given the barriers women face to participation in both political and leadership roles, I am acutely aware of the privilege we hold as women Peers within your Lordships’ House.
Female representation in Parliament is just one of many advances for women over the last century. Educational attainment, workforce participation, control of reproduction, and anti-discrimination laws are all evidence of the scale of change, here in the UK and in countries around the globe. But all these gains have failed to translate into equality in terms of leadership. Across the world, women make up just a quarter of parliamentarians, news media leaders and judges. Just 15% of corporate board seats are occupied by women and only in healthcare, education and the non-profit sector does female corporate leadership exceed 40%. Change is happening, but it is at a snail’s pace. A lack of consistent data makes global progress hard to track, but analysis of LinkedIn data found that over the decade to 2017, the proportion of female leaders increased by just 2% across 12 industry sectors.
Therefore, despite all the advances in gender equality that we celebrate, it is clear that women still face significant barriers in progressing to leadership roles. Some of these are embedded in law: in at least 100 economies worldwide, women face gender-based job restrictions, and in 18 countries, husbands can still legally prevent wives working. Some 59% of countries have no law against workplace sexual harassment. More often, though, the barriers are embedded in culture and customs—those unstated norms that conspire to exclude women or prevent them accessing the influential networks that offer a leg up on the ladder to the top.
Alongside this, we read that women’s educational choices can leave them less prepared than men to prosper in the workplace. In a wide range of economies, women’s access to technology is limited, so they lack proficiency in what is becoming the critical skillset of the future. As we know, women are more likely to carry domestic and caring responsibilities, which leaves them more likely to seek part-time or flexible working.
As we have heard, when women rise to leadership, they continue to face challenge, marginalisation and hostility. We have seen horrific examples of this over recent months in the UK, but this is a worldwide concern. Of 55 female parliamentarians from 39 countries surveyed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2016, almost half reported threats of death, rape or violence.
In parallel to this overt hostility is a more insidious form of assault. Blair Williams at the Australian National University wrote her PhD thesis on the ways in which media representation had reinforced gendered and sexist stereotypes in the three weeks following the elections to power of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Theresa May in 2016. Analysis of newspaper coverage revealed that, far from having moved on in the years between the UK’s two female Prime Ministers, references to appearance, clothing and gender had doubled in some areas of the press. Both women were repeatedly compared to head girls, a term that infantilises women and denigrates their skills and success. An over-emphasis on handbags and kitten heels is just one of the not-so-subtle ways in which the media undermine female political leaders at every turn and, in doing so, undermine women as a whole.
Perhaps it is not surprising that across the four areas on which the 2018 Global Gender Gap Index reports, the major disparity was in political empowerment. Just 17 of the 149 countries assessed have female heads of state; and on average, only 18% of Ministers and, as we have heard, 24% of parliamentarians across the world are women.
Why does this matter? I do not need to tell you, but I will: in short, because women’s political leadership results in better outcomes for women and girls, which means better outcomes for society more broadly. Research indicates that women work harder at communicating with their constituents, and there is a correlation between female representation and higher expenditure on social issues. A 2018 study found that when women are signatories to peace agreements, they are more likely to be implemented and to have longer-lasting effects.
There are plenty of quantifiable arguments for women’s political empowerment, but even without them, its justification is irrefutable. Women make up half the world’s population, yet their voices are still not equal in the places where decisions are made. The prediction is that it will be 107 years before this particular gender gap is closed. On the eve of International Women’s Day, does not the Minister agree with me that 107 years is far too long for us all to wait?
My Lords, today is the day to celebrate progress while recognising that there is more to do. I thank the researchers in the Library for providing me with a favourite number: 228. I am only the 228th woman to have been appointed under the Life Peerages Act since 1958. I find this sobering when I think of the centuries of history in this Chamber. Many barriers still exist, but like my noble friend Lady Seccombe, I count myself fortunate to have been born at this time and in this country, where I can own property, start a business or charity, vote—in most elections—and speak my views freely. As a lawyer by profession, I know that there are a growing number of role models. Twenty-five per cent of the Supreme Court judiciary, including its president, are now women. Overseas, the testimony of the former Attorney-General of Canada, Jody Wilson-Raybould, defending prosecutorial independence against interference by the Prime Minister, should be standard viewing for all law students.
Injustices still exist, however. The problem of forced marriage led the coalition Government to take the positive step of making it a crime. There are cases where the victims are men, but 77% of the victims are women. To make this criminal law effective, the Government changed the definition of marriage to any religious or civil ceremony, whether or not legally binding. Some women are brave enough to give evidence against their husbands and perhaps other family members, and successfully secure a criminal conviction, proving beyond reasonable doubt that there was a forced marriage. But they are left without a remedy in the civil court to get their share of matrimonial assets, as the woman is not viewed in the civil law as married. Our law is therefore contradictory: she is married for some purposes but not for others. It is not the crime of forced cohabitation; it is the crime of forced marriage. This irrational situation will last until a victim of forced marriage attains a media profile because, having no claim on his assets—his house, business and, probably most likely, pension—ends up claiming universal credit. I would be grateful if my noble friend could arrange a further meeting to discuss this gap in our law.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, said Martin Luther King. As a state comprehensive girl from factory-working parents, this lofty quote compels me to raise one of the last—perhaps the last—bastion of direct discrimination against women in UK law. I call it the “Lady Mary Crawley problem”, because Downton Abbey was in search of a male heir as women could not, and still cannot, inherit. When we changed the law for the monarchy, part of Her Majesty’s Government’s reasons for not getting rid of this discriminatory law was that it meant,
“disinheritance of individuals with legitimate expectations to inherit an hereditary peerage”.—[Official Report, 11/9/15; col. 1633.]
Men cannot possibly rely on legitimate expectations created by direct discrimination against women to prevent law reform. I pay tribute to the work of Daughters’ Rights and wish to place on record that, like many other Members of this House, I do not vote in any hereditary Peer by-elections where there are no women on the ballot paper. This law directly affects the gender balance in this Chamber; I would be grateful to hear the Government’s view on this matter.
Finally, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, I want to address briefly the double discrimination that many women face: additional barriers and prejudice against women from black and minority-ethnic communities. I support the recommendation made outside the Chamber by my noble friend Lady McGregor- Smith that companies should publish their data on this matter. The next logical step from a gender pay gap reporting requirement is publishing the ethnicity pay gap. However, this issue concerns not just business but the charitable and social investment sectors. I discovered that the UK has the fastest-growing social investment market in the world, worth £2.3 billion and growing at 17% a year, but BME women are sadly the least likely to hold a directorship, representing only 2.8% of such positions. I am surprised that charities are also underperforming, with 62% of the UK’s largest charities having all-white boards of trustees, despite black people being the ethnic group most likely to volunteer each month. Surely there should be some reporting requirement to make such boards justify this absence of diversity. I hope my noble friend the Minister will raise this with the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, the chair of the Charity Commission.
Today, I will finish work, as I often do, walking past the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. Thank God for her life, but today I will also be grateful for her part in enabling me to be female life Peer number 228.
My Lords, these contributions are very brief. I know that many of us would love to talk about a much larger range of women’s activities and contributions across the world.
Today, I will limit myself to talking about a very small part of a commission I have chaired for the past 18 months, which last week published a report looking into the experiences of the most disadvantaged women in this country. They have experienced violence and abuse, chronic poverty and what has become, for them, a punitive benefits system that often compounds their problems. Without support, many such women go on to develop mental health problems and use drugs or alcohol to cope with trauma and abuse. That often leads them into a downward spiral, with some of them even facing the criminal justice system at some stage.
The commission looked into the experiences of our most disadvantaged women. As I said, many of them develop a range of other problems. It is estimated that one in 20 women in England—equivalent to about 1.2 million women—have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence throughout their lives. More than half of these have a common mental health disorder; one in three of them has an alcohol problem; and one in five has been homeless. We worked extensively with them. One of our greatest experiences was being able to pick up and train these “women with lived experiences”, as they are known, as peer researchers. They then interviewed 18 women in their own localities who were suffering from these sorts of disadvantages. They were a joy to work with, and I will come back to this.
Many women who come to this country expect to be safe and protected. They have heard us talk in positive terms about what advantages we have as women. However, their experience when they get here is far from that. Hearing from some of them made me feel ashamed. I want to give just two examples of where we really must address the needs of women who do not have settled migration status.
We were told that the hostile environment had led to women in abusive relationships without settled status fearing to report what was happening to them. They were scared to go and seek help. Often, the abusive partners would say that they would be deported if they did so. Safe pathways to reporting violence against women and girls should be created for all women, not only those of us who are confident about our position in this society.
The second example is that of the whole issue of having no recourse to public funds. This affects people who do not have settled status. Too many are denied support, which means they are unable to access help and support. They are unable to go to a refuge and they are unable to access alternative accommodation. They do not have any money and they are certainly not going to be taken on by landlords. As I say, even many refuges will deny access for that reason. They are unable to get treatment for health conditions or for what has happened to them as a result of abuse. We have to look very carefully at abolishing the rule for women in this position.
There are some really good and practical recommendations in the report—although I would say that—which is entitled Breaking Down the Barriers. I do not have time to go into them all and I hope that noble Lords will take the opportunity to read at least the executive summary.
At both the local and the national level we have to make sure that services and NGOs can work across the silos and meet the needs of individual women. We have to use and employ women with lived experience. As I say, they are a real inspiration. They are the ones who know what it is like and are therefore the best first contact with other women. We also have to extend the use of trauma-informed work. Too many women present but no one understands or recognises the consequences of abuse, so they are pushed from pillar to post, from service to service, and no one deals with the essential first thing: that they have experienced trauma as the result of violence and abuse. We have much to do on this, but it can be done. I hope that we will all work towards making a change.
My Lords, it is a great honour to speak in celebration of International Women’s Day. It has a special personal meaning for me. On this day 102 years ago, my mother was born in St Petersburg in Russia. She lived for 100 years and two weeks. When I think of her life’s journey, I am reminded of women’s resilience and courage. I am also reminded of the many misfortunes that women of that generation had to endure and overcome.
For the first 30 years of her life, hardship and danger were my mother’s travelling companions: from Russia on the eve of the revolution, through the years of civil war in Siberia, exile in war-torn China, tragedy during World War II in Indochina, where her first husband was killed by the Japanese when she was nine months pregnant, to sanctuary at last in Paris and London. When I think of her life, I remind myself how lucky my generation was to have been born in this country when we were. Yet we had our own struggles—and we too needed more than a few drops of determination to overcome them. Those of us who decided to forge a career in the 1970s and 1980s could be confronted by an often intimidating and hostile world dominated by men, many of whom saw the arrival of women as a threat to the natural order.
While at university, I decided to become a commodity broker in the City; I was one of the first women to do so and I enjoyed it enormously. But to get there and stay there, I had to run the gauntlet of harassment, molestation and abuse, some of which would make you blush today. The view then was that if you wanted to make it in a man’s world, you had to pay this price and shut up. Thankfully, today that kind of behaviour is considered totally unacceptable and often illegal. This is surely something for all of us—men and women—to celebrate. It is an example to the world. This Conservative Government can be proud that female employment is at a record high and the gender pay gap at a record low.
But there is no room for complacency. Some men will always resist the equal treatment of women. Power too often goes to the heads of men who wield it, leading to abuse and bullying—we have seen gross examples in the press—so the struggle goes on. Eradicating misogyny is challenge enough, but we need to move beyond that. More women should be positively encouraged and helped to become politicians, CEOs, firefighters, surgeons or train drivers—whatever they want to do—with equal opportunities and equal rights. That should also embrace women who want to stay at home as wives and mothers, if that is their choice, without being judged as second-rate by their female peers. The challenge for women today is to get the balance right and not to let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction.
Let me explain what I mean. I have a confession to make: I like men. I have two sons, two stepsons and a husband. I do not want to emasculate men, bludgeon them into submission or turn them into our enemies. I do not want them to be afraid of paying me a compliment, opening a door or entering a lift alone with me. What I want above all is for the vast majority of decent men to be on our side—to work with us. We do not want to wage a gender war, nor do I believe it necessary. What we want is to be respected for what we are and who we are. In turn, we need to do the same and respect the majority of men. So let us include them in our fight. I see very few men here today, and I hope that next year the debate will be earlier so that more men can participate. After all, we are all—women and men—one humanity. This is how I have watched my sons and stepsons grow up—to cherish and respect women as their equals, to enjoy their company and, if it is their choice, to love them.
My Lords, I am pleased to take part in the International Women’s Day debate, which is to recognise and celebrate women’s achievements as well as highlighting the challenges they face across the world.
I wish to speak about the plight of Kashmiri women who are living under some of the most difficult conditions in the world. The daily lives of the women of Kashmir are controlled by occupying military forces. They do not know when the Indian Army or some other paramilitary force will force their way into their homes, harass them, rape them, beat up family members and take away the men, some of whom will come back alive with torture scars; the bodies of some of the others may be found weeks or months later on roadsides, and others may not be seen again.
The term “half-widows” is commonly used in Indian-occupied Kashmir for the wives of men who have gone missing. According to the Guardian of 10 October 2010, while authorities in Kashmir estimate the missing number to be approximately 4,000, the Association of Disappeared Persons estimates that there are between 8,000 to 10,000 missing people in the region. The number of publicly announced and reported half-widows in the Kashmir valley is between 2,000 and 2,500. Along with the plight of 6,000 orphans—the children of half-widows who are affected deeply by the conflict—this issue adds much to the crisis. True data and numbers for both half-orphans and half-widows are thought to be much higher.
According to a detailed report of 2007 by the award-winning Kashmiri-based journalist Haroon Marani, the primary concern of a family is to find their missing person. They move from one police station to another; from one army camp to another, and so on. It takes months and years to find out.
On pellet gun victims, according to a report on French news channel France 24, on 30 November 2018, India introduced official “non-lethal” 12-gauge pellet shotguns in Kashmir in 2010. Reliable aggregate data about the number of injuries and blindings from the pellet guns is hard to come by. Government data from 2017 revealed that the weapon killed 13 people and injured more than 6,000 in eight months alone, including nearly 800 with eye injuries. The Central Reserve Police Force, the Indian paramilitary deployed in Kashmir, told a court in 2016 that it fired about 1.3 million pellets in just 32 days.
Amnesty International has urged the Indian Government to ban the use of pellet guns, and lawyers and other rights groups have appealed to courts, to little avail so far. US-based Physicians for Human Rights has called their use “inherently inaccurate”, “indiscriminate” and potentially,
“lethal to humans at close range”.
There is an estimated figure of between 10,000 to 12,000 women being raped in the last three decades by the security forces. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report of April 2018:
“Authorities have failed to independently investigate and prosecute allegations of sexual violence by security forces personnel. There is no record of allegations of sexual violence by security forces being prosecuted in a civilian court …
One significant case that illustrates the state’s failure to investigate and prosecute allegations of sexual violence and addressing impunity for sexual crimes in Kashmir is the Kunan-Poshpora mass rape, which took place 27 years ago and for which attempts to seek justice have been denied and blocked over the years by the authorities at different levels.
According to survivors and a local administration official, on the night of 23 February 1991, soldiers from the 4 Rajputana Rifles regiment of the Indian Army gang-raped around 23 women of Kunan and Poshpora villages of Kupwara district. The Indian Army and Government of India have denied the allegations”.
The special rapporteur states that:
“Information received through both written and oral testimonies highlighted the use of mass rape, allegedly by members of the State security forces, as well as acts of enforced disappearance, killings and acts of torture and ill-treatment, which were used to intimidate and to counteract political opposition and insurgency … she was ‘not informed of any measures to ensure accountability and redress for victims’”.
Women in Indian-occupied Kashmir are living lives under siege and constant surveillance whether in public or in their own homes. According to the UN Human Rights Council, they have lived for many decades under the mercy of the security forces, which operate with complete impunity. These women fear for themselves and their children, brothers, husbands and fathers day and night. They are suffering from grave physical and mental traumas. They are in dire need of help.
As many noble Lords know, I have stood on these Benches of your Lordships’ House many times and pleaded for justice and protection for Kashmiri women, but I am disappointed to say that I have not seen our Government taking any action at any level in this regard. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the head of the Commonwealth, Britain has huge responsibility for human rights globally—
My Lords, everyone has been very good about trying to observe the advisory time limit. I know Members have undertakings at the end of this debate, so if the noble Lord would respect the time limit and bring his remarks to a close, that would be very helpful. I am sorry: you are well in excess of the advisory time limit at the moment and other Members have to be taken into account.
We simply cannot turn a blind eye to the appalling and horrendous conditions that Kashmiri women are having to live under. May I ask the Minister whether she believes that the dignity, honour and respect of a Kashmiri woman is any different from that of a British or European woman? May I also ask what she is prepared to do to help the women of Kashmir live a normal life without fear? What will the Government do to raise these issues with the Indian Government?
My Lords, sadly there is still no country in the world where there is true gender equality in political, economic and social terms. International Women’s Day this year, with its theme “Balance for Better”, gives us a chance to take stock and celebrate the successes but also to identify the challenges that remain at home and abroad.
As my noble friend Lady Jenkin mentioned, I, and several of my noble friends, began political life in the Conservative Women’s Organisation. On Saturday, I will be attending the CWO centenary conference. I pay special tribute to my noble friend Lady Seccombe, who was Conservative vice-chairman for women for 10 years. Many of us owe our political careers to her encouragement and mentoring. She has made a real difference to so many on our side.
This morning we had the Third Reading of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Bill, which I have helped my honourable friend Tim Loughton MP progress through this House. It will bring in simple but important changes for women. Since 1837 there has been provision for only the father’s name on a marriage certificate, and the Bill will enable mothers to witness marriage certificates too. It also requires the Government to prepare a report on how the law should be changed to permit the registration of pregnancy losses before 24 weeks, which cannot be registered as stillbirths under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, and a report on whether coroners should be able to investigate late stillbirths, which would support the current work by the Department of Health and Social Care to improve maternity safety in the UK.
Next week, I and many other women from around the world will head to the UN in New York for the Commission on the Status of Women meeting. This year’s theme is access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. The CSW meeting is the second largest of the year at the UN, yet almost nothing is heard about it in the media. Although the CSW is enormously welcome, can the Minister please tell us how the UK will work with others to improve the impact that the CSW makes across the world? In many countries, women desperately need international support.
I co-chair and run the APPG on Women, Peace and Security, and last autumn we greatly welcomed the UK’s fourth national action plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325. I also congratulate our Ministry of Defence on launching JSP 1325, the policy on human security in military operations. This is vital in protecting civilians, especially women and children.
However, there is still much more work to be done. Eighteen years after the adoption of UNSCR 1325, why are Syrian women not allowed at the peace table? We should not have to justify women being included in peace processes; we should ask the men there to justify their exclusion. As we look at tentative peace processes in Yemen and Afghanistan, where are the women? You cannot have peace that excludes half the population. How can we, in the UK, exert global influence to make sure that women are included?
The Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, launched by William Hague—now my noble friend Lord Hague—in 2012, brought to global attention the fact that rape is used today as a weapon of war. This initiative was always going to be a marathon, not a sprint, and we must ensure that focus on this important issue is not lost. Its relevance is seen in the conflicts raging today, with the high levels of sexual violence committed by Daesh against the Yazidis and the terrible stories coming from the Rohingya camp at Cox’s Bazar. Can the Minister please update us on the plans for the PSVI international conference that the UK will host this year, five years on from the unforgettable 2014 global summit?
There are always many inspirational meetings around International Women’s Day, but the one that will remain with me this year was the APPG on Human Rights on Tuesday, when we heard from two journalists—women human rights defenders—Zaina Erhaim from Syria, and Nurcan Baysal, who is Kurdish and from Turkey. Listening to them was truly humbling.
We should never forget that there are many women around the world who, in spite of constant threat, continue to stand up fearlessly for what they believe in. As we safely celebrate International Women’s Day here in the Palace of Westminster, we must hold out our hands to them and offer our heartfelt help and support.
My Lords, each year when International Women’s Day comes round, we can celebrate the extraordinary contributions that women have made both nationally and internationally. We can also celebrate the fact that in many aspects of women’s lives there are improvements over what went before. However, we cannot be complacent and assume that gender equality is just a few years away. It is not. On present progress, it could be a century or more before the gap is closed, according to the World Economic Forum.
Last year, the UNDP reported:
“The disadvantages facing women and girls are a major source of inequality and one of the greatest barriers to human development progress”.
In considering those barriers, I want to focus on the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls in poor, developing countries. Unless this is addressed, millions of young women will not achieve their potential as fully engaged citizens and many will suffer horribly. The subject of this debate is the UK’s role in advancing gender equality globally, and it is my contention that there can be few areas more worthy of our attention and our commitment to securing a better life for women and girls than this one.
One source of vulnerability is the lack of education. In spite of huge advances in access to education in many countries, girls are still more likely than boys to leave secondary education before completing it. Girls with poor levels of literacy, and who lack the capacity to obtain secure employment, are likely to become victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, and to be trafficked. They are also more likely to be pushed into very early marriage. Extending the education of girls must be part of a preventive strategy to promote improvement in the lives of young women in poor countries, and countries where there is a prevailing culture that fails to recognise the rights of women.
One of the most horrific statistics I have seen for a long time is that in South Sudan, where 72% of children are out of school, a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than to complete secondary education. According to the UN, in 2017, an estimated 21% of women aged 20 to 24 were married or in an informal union before the age of 18, and one in three girls aged 15 to 19 have been subjected to FGM in the 30 countries where it is most concentrated.
Very early marriage and FGM run the risks of problems in childbirth. Both need to be prevented. New laws specifying a minimum age for marriage of, say, 18 would be of great value. Better information about the risks of giving birth at too young an age is needed, and better access to contraceptive services is vital. If a young girl becomes pregnant, she will need to obtain antenatal care to identify whether she is at risk and likely to need specialist help during childbirth. Advice should be available on access to safe abortion, where it is legal.
In remote, rural areas, and in countries where there is conflict, it is especially important to try to provide these services through development aid programmes. Can the Minister say what priority DfID is giving to these services? I ask this against the fact that the leading cause of death for 15 to 19 year-olds globally is complications from pregnancy and childbirth. Around 11% of all births worldwide are to girls aged 15 to 19. According to the UN Population Division, one or two countries have an adolescent birth rate as high as 200 births per 1,000 girls of this age, compared with a global average of 44 births per 1,000 girls.
While, overall, maternal mortality has declined, there are still far too many preventable deaths, especially of adolescents. The involvement of DfID in the sexual and reproductive health and rights agenda is very welcome, but I would like to raise two or three points for clarification about how it is taking its work forward. First, can it more clearly articulate its vision in this area and give greater priority to the neglected areas of safe abortion and the care of at-risk adolescents before and during childbirth? Secondly, when it articulates its vision for comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights, can it translate them into concrete measures in all DfID country plans, ensuring that fragile and conflict-affected areas are included? Thirdly, will DfID ensure that family planning is given high priority in its programmes, and support national Governments in sustaining the supply and distribution of contraceptives?
In conclusion, I hope that the needs of girls and women who are still suffering from a denial of access to good reproductive healthcare will remain central to the UK’s programmes under DfID, as well as to overseas development aid financed by other departments. Even if it will not be achieved in my lifetime, I want my daughter and granddaughters on some future International Women’s Day to be able to celebrate global equality in the provision of sexual and reproductive health rights. We still have a long way to go.
My Lords, the theme for International Women’s Day—“Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change”—puts innovation by, and for, women and girls at the heart of efforts to achieve a gender balance. As the UN Women website says:
“Achieving a gender-equal world requires social innovations that work for both women and men and leave no one behind. From urban planning that focuses on community safety to e-learning platforms that take classrooms to women and girls, affordable and quality childcare centres, and technology shaped by women, innovation can take the race for gender equality to its finishing line by 2030”.
We heard a different figure from the Minister at the beginning of this debate, but I know that we can achieve the fifth sustainable development goal: gender equality.
It begins with making sure that women’s and girls’ needs and, more importantly, their experiences and voices, are integrated at the very inception of new technology and innovations. It means building smart solutions that go beyond acknowledging the gender gap to address the needs of men and women equally. Of course, ultimately, it means innovations that disrupt business as usual by paying attention to how and by whom technology is used and accessed, and ensuring that women and girls play a pivotal role in emerging industries.
Global youth organisations, such as World Merit, are proudly operating from the UK and driving this agenda forward with great results. I had the great pleasure of speaking to more than 200 young people worldwide and being in a room full of good vibes—together as one, as they said. There was no gender divide in that room; teamwork thrived.
I thought about how I could add my experience as Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales to this debate, even though my work does not reach outside those countries. I think this plays a part and we need to bring victims’ voices into this Chamber. As Melinda Gates said:
“A woman with a voice is, by definition, a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult”.
As Victims’ Commissioner, I travel up and down the country, meeting victims and survivors of horrendous crimes of domestic abuse, sexual abuse and rape, sitting with them face to face and hearing them tell their stories, which come from the darkest places—places where they were so brutally trodden down by their abusive partners, who said that they loved them. I stand here today as the proud mother of three beautiful young daughters, who are all psychologically damaged because they witnessed every kick and punch of their father’s brutal murder. As Melinda Gates said, searching for that voice is remarkably difficult.
I stand here to say that, listening to how all the victims of domestic abuse, sexual abuse and rape across our country survive, and hearing the passion in their voices, creating a life for the next generation is so important. We need to have that message in this country as well as globally. This is such an important debate. I am sad that we are at the end of the list; it is typical that women are at the end, but we have a voice. We should have a two-day debate on this, like the ones we have on Brexit at the moment. I believe in coming together as one, because we all have a part to play in making our words come to life, and because our needs and words and our fight for the next generation are so important.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to be taking part in this debate today and I thank the noble Baroness for ensuring that we have the opportunity to speak ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow.
We are all aware that women all over the world face a huge number of problems, including violence, sexual harassment, abortion laws, pay and pension gaps, FGM, trafficking, modern slavery and other human rights violations. However, there is one issue that has not been highlighted much, and that is that of widows. I declare my interest as the founder and chairman trustee of the Loomba Foundation.
There are estimated to be 258 million widows around the world. Sadly, their number is increasing every day due to conflicts in many countries, including Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and, more recently, Venezuela and some South American countries. Widows and their daughters in conflict zones face extremes of abuse and violence, including sexual violence. Both conflict-afflicted mothers and daughters are vulnerable to traffickers, sexual slavery, forced “temporary remarriage” and modern-day slavery.
Then there is the question of “half widows”. There are uncounted millions of wives of men forcibly disappeared or missing. In Colombia 86,000 are missing, and in Sri Lanka 40,000. In Syria and Iraq there are uncounted missing husbands, sons and brothers. In so many conflict zones men go missing or lie unidentified in mass graves. These women are in limbo, unable to have any closure, their status so ambiguous.
These women, widows, half widows and their daughters need help if we want to achieve gender equality as well as the sustainable development goals by 2030. I was extremely pleased when the noble Lord, Lord Bates, called a meeting in his office last month, inviting a few organisations that work for widows to discuss and understand the problems that widows face across the world, especially in developing countries. It was a constructive meeting and I truly appreciate the initiative taken by him.
Gender balance is not just a theme but a way of life that we should all aspire to achieve around the world. We need to make an extra effort in developing countries and fragile states suffering from conflict where the input into civil life from the female population is often very limited. Empowerment of women, especially marginalised widows who are doubly discriminated against, will not only help them but improve the lives of many more people in their communities who are living through conflict and strife.
I urge the Minister to set up a specialist unit in the Department for International Development to focus on widows and their issues. We really need to address this issue and to provide skills training to widows and their unmarried daughters so that they can become self-reliant, earn money, educate their children, support their family and lead a life of dignity and equality.
My Lords, just before I came into the Chamber this afternoon, I heard the very sad news that the principal of my old college, Sister Dorothy Bell, has died. I want to put on record that she was strong, compassionate, very funny and a great supporter of other women. She was a person I will never forget. She is now in Hansard—and, I am sure, in heaven.
I am delighted to be taking part in this year’s Lords debate to celebrate International Women’s Day. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, for setting out the many positive initiatives that the Government have put forward or are supporting, especially on violence against women. However, like my noble friend Lady Gale I am dismayed that this might be the last such debate with us as members of the European Union, which has been the bedrock of women’s and family rights legislation for four decades.
We discuss the Irish backstop a great deal in this House, but the EU’s historic backstop in the protection of women’s workplace rights is a story still to be told. EU law underpins the Equality Act 2010, including rights to equal treatment for part-time workers, the majority of them women; to health and safety protection for pregnant workers; and to maternity leave, emergency time off for dependants, and parental leave. As chair of the Women’s Rights Committee in the European Parliament in the early 1990s when this country signed up to the maternity leave directive, I am inclined to take these issues personally. The TUC, the BMA and others have written to us setting out their concerns that while the Government have committed to maintaining equality rights and transposing other rights into UK law upon withdrawal from the EU, those rights could become vulnerable to amendment, narrower interpretation and weaker enforcement following Brexit. So for me, Brexit is no good for women.
It is inspiring to think that debates such as ours today are taking place in Parliaments all around the world this week—from countries where voting rights for women are over a century old to those where women have only just won the vote. As I understand it, one of the themes this year is the need to highlight the gender digital divide. That divide is highlighted in the research by our own excellent Lords Library for this debate, which says that an analysis of world labour markets in 2018 by the World Economic Forum,
“focused specifically on the gender gap in artificial intelligence … It found that, globally, 22% of AI professionals were female, compared to 78% who were male. This produced a gender gap of 72%; the WEF stated this remained constant and ‘does not at present indicate a positive future trend’. The study ranked the UK 10th globally for its AI talent pool, with 20% female”.
Three worrying future trends come out of these figures. First, the AI skills gender gap may exacerbate the gender gaps in economic participation and opportunity for women, as AI represents an increasingly in-demand skillset. Secondly, the AI skills gender gap implies that general-purpose technology across various fields is being developed without women’s talent, so limiting its innovative and inclusive capacity. Thirdly, the low integration of women into artificial intelligence talent pools represents such a missed opportunity in a sector where there is insufficient supply of adequately qualified talent. Some estimates tell us that by 2030, up to 9 million people’s jobs will be replaced by AI. It is the future, whether we like it or not, and not enough women and girls are creating that future. I would like to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, has to say—I am sure she is as concerned as we are about these figures—and what she believes the Government can do about it.
My Lords, I too thank the Minister for bringing this important debate before us and for her opening remarks. It was Rosa Parks who said that,
“knowing what must be done does away with fear”,
and her quiet determination not to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 was the catalyst for the civil rights movement. It is perhaps not a coincidence that it was a woman—indeed, a black woman—who symbolically gave birth to one of the greatest ever freedom and equality movements. Gender and race often go hand in hand in the struggle for equality. Since Montgomery, much has been said and done about these issues but there is still more to be achieved. As Rosa Parks said, we need to act on what we know must be done.
One of the strongest female role models in my life was my mother, who came to Britain from Jamaica. She worked as an auxiliary nurse. She used to tell me, “John, being black is not a profession. Make sure you get a good education”. Once, in sheer desperation, when I was about 10, I retorted, “Mum, you’re just picking on me because I’m black”. That argument failed to resonate with my mother. I cannot think why.
There are numerous women of colour who have historically overcome the obstacles of racism and issues connected to gender. They include Mary Seacole, the Crimean War nurse, and the black suffragette, Sarah Parker Remond. Although overdue, last year the first statue of a woman was unveiled in Parliament Square, alongside a line-up of male leaders. This was of the suffragette campaigner Millicent Fawcett. Will the Minister explain what plans the Government have to ensure that more women are represented in this way in our public places?
As we celebrate the centenary of women in Parliament, my American wife Laura was keen to remind me that the first woman to take her seat as an MP in the House of Commons, in 1919, was Nancy Astor, originally from the United States. Turning to more recent times, as a journalist I interviewed some inspirational women from BME communities—for example, Dame Kelly Holmes, who overcame a challenging upbringing, rose through the ranks in the Army and won two Olympic gold medals, and the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who came to England from Jamaica as a child. As noble Lords know, she is now chaplain to the Queen and performs that role brilliantly in the House of Commons.
Although 20% of small and medium-sized companies are run by women, there is still so much untapped business talent among women, especially BME women. As we all know, most corporate boards are still mainly male and white. So my next question for the Minister is: what plans do the Government have to encourage an increase in women company directors?
There are other ongoing issues, such as the pay gap between women’s and men’s earnings, and the cost of childcare. When I was a district councillor in the Midlands in the 1980s, I remember a lady complaining to me that her take-home pay was so low that it would not even take her home. I am not sure that much has changed for women in low-paid jobs. According to the Women in Work Index report by PricewaterhouseCoopers last year, the closure of the gender pay gap would produce a £90 billion boost to the UK economy. In the developing world it is widely recognised that empowering women is an important step to driving economic growth. What plans do the Government have to help reduce the gender pay gap?
Between 2015 and 2016, according to the same report, the UK fell from 14th to 15th place in a ranking of 33 OECD countries, based on five key indicators of female economic empowerment. As the fifth-richest economy in the world, surely we can do better than that, so my next question for the Minister is: what plans do the Government have to address this backward step? We are going backwards.
There is still a need for more women in science, technology, engineering and as university vice-chancellors. I say this as a former chancellor of Bournemouth University, which had at the time one of the few female vice-chancellors. Women-led businesses contribute about £82 billion of gross value to the British economy. I acknowledge that the Government try to support first-time business owners. There is the broadband challenge fund, for example, but its budget is modest and it is linked to only 13 localities. What will the Government do to expand that project?
I suggest that one of the most inspirational women role models in the world is our sovereign, the Queen. For the last 67 years we have had a female Head of State. Let us not forget that. She has continued to conduct herself with dignity and poise throughout, during smooth and rough times.
Lastly, we must not forget that women making a contribution to an economy is not new. There were prominent women business leaders in the Bible, over 2,000 years ago. For example, in the Book of Acts, Lydia ran a fashion company, Priscilla owned an up-market residence franchise and Queen Candace governed her nation’s economy. There was also Deborah, in the Book of Judges, who was the nation’s chief lawyer. There are many more examples. Those biblical heroines and women of today show that women are a real voice, not just an echo.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, for moving the Motion to mark International Women’s Day. I am proud to take part.
Tackling injustices such as the gender pay gap is part of building a country that works for everyone. It is simply good business sense to recognise the enormous potential of women and to take action to support and help progress female talent.
The target for women to make up 33% of FTSE 100 boards by 2020 is ambitious, but it is part of a commitment to drive forward workplace equality and to look for opportunities to demolish barriers. Many of the UK’s top companies are already leading the way in making sure that everyone’s contributions to the workplace are valued equally.
However, the gender pay gap is not going to close on its own. BAME women, disabled women and younger women are still woefully underrepresented and have experienced significant discrimination over the past years. Sciences and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. In many cases, long-standing bias and gender stereotypes are still steering girls and women away from science-related fields.
Women’s employment continues to be on the rise in traditionally male-dominated STEM fields. In 2018, the head engineers at Google, Adobe, Lockheed Martin, Apple, SpaceX and General Motors were breaking barriers not only as women in STEM but as women from diverse racial backgrounds. However, women are still deeply underrepresented.
Last year saw women breaking the Nobel prize barriers, with Professor Donna Strickland becoming the first woman in 55 years to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, joining a very small group which includes Marie Curie. Professor Frances Arnold shared joint honours in the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the fifth woman ever to win the award. What role models they are to aspire to. Studies continue to confirm that girls and women have just as much natural aptitude as men when it comes to STEM subjects.
The message is getting clearer. Girls and women are getting the message that they belong as much as boys and men in computer science, where no one should be told that they cannot. The number of computer science jobs is projected to grow by 15% to 20% through to 2020, but it is thought that the majority of these positions will be filled by men.
As STEM-related industries on the whole add more than 1.7 million jobs in the coming years, we do not want a notable absence of women in the field. At a time when technology continues rapidly to transform the way we live, we can and should work to empower more young women to take an active role in that transformation, to encourage young women to be challenging and confident and to look past everything when entering a male-dominated field, with aspirations of making their own individual mark.
The lack of visible female role models continues to be a major problem, so we have to raise the interest in STEM subjects at every stage of the STEM skills pipeline. To do so earlier and earlier, even at primary school, would intrigue young, inquiring minds and help them think about futures in the tech industry, for the tech industry stands ready to turn pink.
It is not only about the enticement of pay; it is also about what female talent can bring to STEM and the impact on STEM itself. The UK and the world are ready for women, and will change. It is about stating the fact: “You can be what you want to be”. The race is on.
My Lords, it is an honour to contribute to this important debate and I too thank my noble friend the Minister. I am very privileged to be a founding ambassador of Women Supporting Women for the Prince’s Trust. We are committed to supporting and inspiring young women to build their own futures through skills, education and employment, and female employment is, as we have heard, at a record high. This is worthy of celebration and, to be clear, we are celebrating fairness first and foremost, but we are also celebrating the means by which we can capitalise on the economic opportunity that empowering women gives us: that businesses with more women in senior positions perform better. McKinsey has estimated that bridging the gender gap completely would add £150 billion to the UK economy by 2025.
Today I shall focus on a specific and vital aspect of our economy: technology. I say “aspect” quite deliberately, because technology is not a sector, it is everywhere. It will change every industry and impact every business. It is the means by which we will stay competitive and future-proof our economy. If we do not deliver gender equality and opportunity in tech, we are missing the biggest opportunity of all. Economic opportunity and a sense of fairness should pervade our attitude to female economic empowerment, but there is another area that I would like to touch on: tackling inherent gender bias in applications of technology that impact every aspect of our economy and society. If we do not, because tech is the ultimate means to more productive ends, all these ends will have gender bias baked in.
We have heard about bias in recruitment—it is no different in tech than in other industries. But what if the algorithms that assist with recruitment and candidate screening are written by men and effectively for men? Then, we will simply see current cohorts replicate themselves and a perpetual cycle repeated. Artificial intelligence is just that: it is artificial and the artifice comes from people who create the algorithms, who code the inputs into the black boxes that spit out outputs. The data on which these algorithms are trained and developed will itself reflect historic biases, so this is about getting female coders developing the AI of the future and making sure that we take steps to address biases in the data they all work with. The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, eloquently raised many of the issues associated with artificial intelligence.
What, then, can be done about it? In short, we can choose to have a responsible approach to algorithms and the principles of human conduct that govern them. There are a few emerging initiatives that should give us all hope. I was fortunate to be part of the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. We specifically addressed algorithmic bias in our report, saying that,
“developers set the parameters for machine learning algorithms, and the choices they make will intrinsically reflect the developers’ beliefs, assumptions and prejudices. The main ways to address these kinds of biases are to ensure that developers are drawn from diverse gender, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and are aware of, and adhere to, ethical codes of conduct”.
This is a simple, analogue solution to a very complex digital problem. If the people who write the algorithms are reflective of the community, their outcomes are likely to be just.
While the Government did not accept in full our recommendation to use the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to address this diversity issue, I am confident that it is an agenda we can deliver against—through the world’s first Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, an advisory body dedicated to strengthening and improving the UK’s use of data and artificial intelligence. I am fortunate to be a member of the board and we see algorithmic bias as one of our first priorities. Through this work, we have the opportunity not just to address the risks of exacerbating unfairness, but to harness the power of these systems in the cause of diversity, tackle bias and increase opportunity for all. The centre will bring together expertise from across sectors and society but also, importantly, listen intently to the public voice and ensure that our governance of these transformative technologies reflects our society’s values.
Technology creates new opportunities for our economy, but also poses new challenges. I am confident that if we act decisively to address gender bias in tech, we will reap all the economic benefits that technology and female economic empowerment can bring, as well as all the societal benefits.
My Lords, I have just come back from my annual visit to India. I have been going to India for many years, just to see what has changed—what has got better, what has got worse. I was very distressed this time. Things have not got better, and they do not seem to be getting better, particularly in relation to women. I now feel very strongly that I do not want to go back again, because things are so bad. Seeing how difficult women’s lives were was personally hurtful to me.
India has the largest number of poor people in the world, and noble Lords can imagine who are the poorest of the poor: it is always the women. It is said that men spend 37% of their earnings on their families, and the rest they need to enjoy themselves. As noble Lords can imagine, earning more does not help much; men still give their families only what they wish to give them.
India is a country of Indias. We must not think of it as one large, cohesive country, because it is not. Each state has its own culture, food and dress—some of us can even tell which state a person is from. Having said that, the north is much worse for women than the south. In the south, they still have some respect for women and do not do the sort of things that are done to women in the north. Mumbai is much better for women than Delhi. Delhi is pretty bad; there are a lot of rapes and attacks on women, and very few people are caught because, as we all know, it is never considered the top priority. This sort of thing is very distressing.
Modi, the present Prime Minister who will be facing an election soon, said that he would work on making women’s lives better. He has not done very much. He reduced the abortion of girl babies in his state of Gujarat by quite a bit, but it is still happening in the northern provinces. It is rife. In Haryana, there are 12% more boys than girls. What some do there is even more horrible: they buy a girl—Nepali or Bangladeshi or something—and when one man has had a baby with her he passes her on to another man to have a baby. Sometimes when you think about women’s lives, things are so bad that you cannot actually stay sane.
The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, said that we are very fortunate to live in this country. We should realise that. I hope all the women who live here know that, because they complain all the time; I call it the British disease—moan, moan, moan all the time, whether it is about the weather or whatever else. Yes, we are better off here; there is no question about that. In that poor country, there has just been the wedding of a very rich man’s daughter. The wedding cards cost 100,000 rupees, which could have fed several families for a whole year. This man spent so much money on his daughter’s wedding, and to me it is an obscenity. How could he do that? In our culture, when you have a wedding, you go and feed the poor at the same time—that is what you do. He did not feed a single person. All these things together have put me off going back.
There is another issue in Haryana. If a girl and boy marry without parental permission, the parents’ agents find them in one of the big cities and kill them. It is just so bad. I have set up a charity, which is not showing any success, called Women Matter. By visiting a lot of projects, I have discovered that if a woman earns even a small amount of money, she changes: she changes; her family changes; her status changes; everything changes. And it is very quick—it does not take years, but weeks. Suddenly she is somebody, because now she can bring in money. The whole idea is to try to get companies to employ poor women—not the educated ones—and give them a little training if necessary. If women are very hungry, they train very quickly. That is what I am trying to do, at the moment a little unsuccessfully.
On Muslim girls and boys, I want to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, that I used to teach immigrant women, and there is no question but that the girls learn more quickly and assiduously. But those are the girls born here, or who are at least very young when they come here; the ones who come as wives have a different problem. Boys do not do anything, because they are little princes—why should they bother? Why the men are so much more important than the women, always and everywhere, is another issue.
I will say one last word about faith or religion. Religions have not supported women. I do not know how your Lordships feel about it—I am looking at the clock and am finishing—but they have not supported women. If they had supported women, it would have been a lot better for us.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing forward today’s debate and for giving us the opportunity to celebrate International Women’s Day. It is humbling, as ever, to follow in the footsteps of such inspiring women on this important day. But in this august Chamber, which has seen debates on and the passage of many important Bills that further the cause of gender equality, it is perhaps time to recognise the limits of legislation in getting us where we need to be.
I say this on the 100th anniversary of the sex disqualification Act, which opened up the professions and universities to women. It was an essential step, but not nearly sufficient when it comes to true equality of opportunity across the gender divide. What we now see is a system where the letter of the law is gender neutral but, in practice, we are a long way from declaring victory. For a start, we cannot legislate away a sexist culture. The law protects us in extremis but not from everyday casual sexism. It happens to all of us. Only recently, as I insisted on a particular detail in a contract, my boss was asked, “How do you put up with her?” In a man, it is seen as attention to detail but in a woman, it is—what?—nagging or being bossy.
I have long argued against a narrow focus on quotas, preferring merit and persuasion, but the time has come to ask who is deciding the merit. We need to stop playing by male rules and unpick the male bias that pervades every aspect of our economy and society. The Hampton-Alexander review into improving gender balance in the FTSE leadership found that merit was coded “male”. Briefs to recruit people to senior positions are written for men. Concerns were often raised that women lacked City experience because they were less well-known on the networking circuit. Similarly, in a recent book called Invisible Women, it was found that everything from crash test dummies, to office heating settings, to medicine dosage, is all coded for men.
We now live in an age where female qualities are better understood and recognised. In the magnificently titled book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, the author highlights the bias towards confidence, and even self-absorption, as qualities. This blocks opportunities for women, and indeed for men who do not obviously exhibit those qualities.
The question is not whether male and female brains are different, but why society still insists on labelling male brains as better. My daughter, studying physics at university, was recently appalled at the treatment by male students of a top female lecturer. They repeatedly interrupted her, questioning her analysis and intelligence in a way they simply did not do with male professors. This is not an isolated incident. Studies show that students appear to evaluate women poorly simply because they are women.
Top companies know the benefits that ensue from more gender diversity, not least in financial performance, but despite some excellent progress there remains a profound sense of inertia. Indeed, the Hampton-Alexander review demonstrates that, even with the facts on superior performance and the prospect of more transparency and disclosure, listed companies can and do continue to resist change.
In a debate last year in this Chamber on women in public life, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, made the point that we have tried to “make nice” and adjust our demands to the male norm, but it is time to structurally re-engineer our whole society. Only then will we be able to unpack inbuilt cultural gender bias that the law cannot reach. The noble Baroness’s speech resonated in so many ways. Countless times, I have been told not to make a fuss, but we need to be less complacent and continue to fight. She finished her remarks by calling for quotas and all-women shortlists. In the face of the evidence and the lack of progress, that is harder to resist. We need to stop messing around and take this agenda seriously. It is worth making a fuss. Until and unless we do so, women will be behind for another century, and that is simply unacceptable.
My Lords, this afternoon’s debate marks the culmination of a week of questions addressed to the Government on the role and rights of women and the restrictions they face in our communities, our nation and the world. I hesitated long and hard before adding my name to the speaker’s list. I felt that I should just listen rather than speak on such a day and on such a subject. But my wife counts the Pankhurst sisters among her forebears. “Put your name down”, she said, and I did. I congratulate all those who are contributing to our deliberations and, in the end, I am delighted to be counted among their number.
The Library briefing for this debate identifies key issues and addresses them, in the main, by means of statistics. This allows us to look quantitatively at various aspects of the situations faced by women: domestic violence, representation in the boardroom and senior management, the gender pay gap, our educational system, health, and participation in leadership and political life. This approach allows us to build an evidence-based picture, to spot trends and to measure success—or the lack of it—in efforts to build a world of equal opportunity, equal rights and equal rewards. It offers a vital tool as we move forward.
The last thing we need today is to be damned with faint notes of paternalism: some nice, comforting, cheap words from someone like me about solidarity and support for the struggle—good, high-minded things such as that. I want to stand in solidarity and want keenly to offer support, but I would prefer that to be measured by what I do rather than by what I might choose to say. My reason for adding my voice to that of so many others today may be thought somewhat strange. It is self-interest that has driven me to speak. I am tired of being part of a culture, and heir to a history, of patriarchal domination. As a 21st-century man, I am weary of feeling imprisoned within a stereotype: that of male power, trapped on the wrong side of all those statistics, part of an unfair and unjustifiable system. I long for continuing and accelerating progress in the journey towards gender equality, certainly for its own sake but also, undeniably, because the freedoms that will thus be enjoyed by women will bring consequential freedoms to men.
As a white man, I could put forward an almost identical case for race equality. As a heterosexual man, I could do the same for justice for people of all sexual identities. As a Christian, I long for the extirpation of all that smells of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. As a relatively well-off person, I must fight the corner of the dispossessed and marginalised. Progress in any of those fields of endeavour will inevitably bring benefits to me too. The freedom of others is the best possible guarantee of something approaching freedom for me. Is it selfish? I suppose so. Is it motivating? Definitely.
Let me bow out by borrowing some lines from the poet John Donne. The relevant lines for the point I am trying to make will be obvious, but I have left in two or three words that are superfluous to my argument but not without their importance at this time. We all know the original words anyway. No person is an island; everyone is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, and,
“if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less”—
those were the words I spoke of, in case your Lordships’ had not guessed. Any person’s inequality diminishes me because I am involved in humankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for me.
I am more than grateful for the opportunity to speak on a day such as this and on such a noble subject. I express the hope that I might be a beneficiary of all the progress aspired to by those who have contributed thus far to this debate.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. As other noble Lords have said, it is an occasion for both celebration and publicising what more needs to be done, and an opportunity for renewing the energy for and commitment to more advocacy and change. This area is enormous, so I will talk specifically about health, and just a part of it. To start with, let me say that health is a field in which women play by far the largest role—a fact that is not always, if ever, recognised and acknowledged.
I will start at the celebratory end by congratulating Dr Roopa Dhatt and her colleagues at Women in Global Health and its sister organisation, Women Leaders in Global Health. Women in Global Health aims for gender equality in global health leadership in order to achieve better global health. Leadership in health globally is largely male but, as Women in Global Health argues, many excellent and well-qualified women are simply not recognised. Women in Global Health works to increase their visibility and opportunities for inclusion in leadership at all levels everywhere. It advocates for organisations to adopt gender-equal leadership, draw leaders from the entire talent pool and address the inefficiencies caused by gender inequality that weaken global health. It is great to see Women in Global Health growing in membership and influence, and it is very important to note that gender balance in the way it describes it is fundamental to improving health globally.
Let me widen this out by talking about nursing. Nursing is not a gendered profession, but about 80% of nurses globally are women. Incidentally, although this is not my main point, nursing needs to attract more men. It is one of the few fields in which there will be enormous growth in future years, and we need to involve the whole population. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health recently reviewed nursing globally and found, across all countries, a systematic undervaluing of nurses—a devaluing, really—and an underutilisation in the sense of nurses being well trained but not being able to work to the top of their potential—“to the top of their licence”, as the Americans might put it.
In our survey, we read comments like, “We are invisible”, “We are taken for granted and kept down” and “We are seen as just nice women doing what doctors tell us”. They are not seen as truly trained professionals or allowed to work as such. Evidence suggests that this is happening partly because most nurses are women—how women are treated in particular countries seems to be reflected in the way nurses are treated there—and partly because they are not doctors and there is some territorialism about who does what. Whatever the cause, this is a most extraordinary waste of talent, passion and commitment—and, frankly, resources, if the largest part of our global workforce is unable to work to its full potential and contribute fully.
Moreover, as our report, Triple Impact—which came out of that study—shows, if you develop nursing, you do not just improve health and promote gender equality, you also promote the economy. For example, in African countries you involve more women in the cash economy. As my noble friend Lady Flather said, when women have money in their pockets, they are more likely to spend it effectively and for the benefit of a wider range of people. So there are three big wins from promoting and developing nursing, which is why my noble friend Lady Watkins and I set up Nursing Now, to improve health globally by raising the profile and status of nursing.
I have three questions on what the UK can do to advance gender equality globally. First, what are the Government doing to support the aims and work of women in global health? Secondly, what are the Government doing to raise the status and profile of nursing in the way that I have described—beyond their very welcome support for the campaign Nursing Now that Ministers have already pledged? Finally, perhaps I may raise a domestic issue. Noble Lords will know that the majority of carers in this country are women and that almost all of them are on zero-hours contracts. It would be interesting to know whether the Government recognise this as a problem, and, if so, what they will do about it.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. It is an honour to speak in the debate today. First, I pay tribute to our Prime Minister and to the Minister and her team here for their commitment to women’s rights and gender equality. I welcome the Government’s commitment to ensuring that the victims of gender-based violence are supported, that the perpetrators are brought to justice, and that everything possible is done to prevent these crimes happening in the first place.
I also particularly welcome the Government’s commitment to tackling domestic violence and the introduction of the Domestic Violence Bill. I am sure that every one of us here either knows or is aware of someone who has been a victim of domestic violence. We are all aware of the tendency to avoid talking about this behaviour, even when we see it and recognise it. We have to break that taboo and stigma in order to support families who endure this despicable, shameful and pathetic behaviour in all its manifestations, and strengthen our laws and institutions accordingly.
Our willingness to confront entrenched gender violence and harassment in our own society should be matched by an equal determination to defend the rights of the most vulnerable women in the world. Indeed, the test of our commitment to women’s rights is how we behave as a country in the most challenging situations. I will raise three issues in that regard.
Two months ago, the United States envoy for the Afghan conflict, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced that a framework for a peace agreement had been agreed with the Taliban. The US would withdraw its troops and, in return, the Taliban would undertake to prevent Afghanistan being used by terrorists for attacks on other countries. There are many unanswered questions, and great concern that the women of Afghanistan are once again in the sights of the Taliban. The negotiator for the Taliban has said explicitly that the Taliban rejects the constitution of Afghanistan which enshrines the principle of equal rights for men and women and Afghan women’s right to education, political participation and economic opportunity. Our Government have welcomed the “progress” made by the US special representative, but I hope that this support is not unqualified.
Afghan women’s groups from across the 34 provinces have recently come together to issue a declaration stating:
“We, Afghan women, request the Government negotiating team to fully defend our rightful and legitimate demands ... at every stage of the peace process, and prevent any type of compromise that undermines the achievements of women”.
They go on to say that they expect the international community to,
“firmly adhere to their commitments to protecting democratic, civil and human rights”,
in Afghanistan. I look to the Minster to give assurances that our Government will listen to Afghan women, that we will uphold their right to be formally involved in negotiations, in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 1325, and that we will not support any peace agreement that does not protect their hard-won rights and freedoms.
My second point relates to our ally in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, which announced this week that 10 women’s rights activists who were detained last year, and reportedly tortured, will be put on trial for “undermining the state’s security”. Our Foreign Secretary has hailed Britain’s “strategic partnership” with Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the Minister could ask the Foreign Secretary to urge our “strategic partner” to release these women activists rather than put them through a show trial. What does it say about a country when it fears journalists and women, and what does it say about us if we place our strategic partnership with any country above such vital, non-negotiable principles of human rights?
Finally, I welcome the Government’s commitment to hosting a review conference in November this year on the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Ahmad on his personal leadership and commitment to this. I also welcome the news that Her Royal Highness the Countess of Wessex is to support the initiative. I hope that the Government will soon set out ambitious goals for that conference.
As the Minister will be aware, sexual and gender-based violence is endemic in situations of conflict, disaster and human displacement, yet programmes for countering it are routinely underfunded and insufficiently prioritised in humanitarian responses. I therefore renew my call on the UK Government to commit to dedicating a fixed minimum proportion of the international development budget to this purpose. I believe that this would make a huge difference, particularly if other countries could be persuaded to do the same.
Let me finish by expressing my respect for our female parliamentarians, from all parties, who have suffered vicious online abuse, including sexist and anti-Semitic hatred. I applaud their courage. We need more outspoken and principled women in public life.
My Lords, how do you summarise that lot? I thought I would group them today, but you cannot group these speeches—they are too individual, and of course they reflect the individuals who made them. It has been a privilege to sit here and listen to some of the really erudite and sometimes quite passionate things that people have said.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, started off by talking about the £5 million given for events last year. I ask her: what about this year? Can the Government perhaps find another £5 million down the back of the sofa? I hope we may be able to do something like that again this year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, talked about the voting system in Wales being the best in the UK. Of course, it is not the first past the post system, which works against so many different minority groups in this country. If it were the additional member system and we got fair votes, we could have a more representative and wider democracy.
I am grateful for that intervention. I do not think it destroys the point I was making, but I congratulate those women.
My noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece focused her comments—very rightly, I am sure—on BAME women, particularly Muslim women. She made the valid point that Muslim women are not all victims. There are some hugely educated, talented women who can thrive, make a superb contribution and enrich our society.
I particular loved the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, who said we are not to talk about female bishops because they are all bishops. It does not make any difference; they are bishops who happen to be women. I had already written down “female bishops”, then I quickly scrubbed it out. He talked about it not all being about women doing what men do. We had a lot of people talking about women in STEM and doing men’s occupations, but he rightly said that it is also about men doing what women do. When we are all doing a similar kind of job, using the talents we undoubtedly have, we will get a much fairer society.
The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, talked about the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the situation in Ethiopia. She said there is still hope—particularly with the actions of the brave Prime Minister—and still problems to deal with, but that progress is being made, albeit slowly. That is always the way; progress always seems to be slow.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, talked about the 50:50 movement, #AskHerToStand, and the successes and setbacks in the Conservative Party. I pay tribute to the hard work of many Conservative women and the efforts they have made in their own party. There are champions in the other parties too, of course; other champions are available.
The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, referred to winning the right to work far harder than the men. She is not the only one who is knackered. I am also knackered after trying to accommodate all the wise words that we have heard during the debate. I am sure the Minister will wish to comment on the importance of gender equality impact assessments for all new legislation.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Seccombe and Lady Bull, talked about how lucky we are to be who we are and where we are at the time we are in, and referred to giving a hand-up to our sisters elsewhere in the world who are not so fortunate. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said we are lucky, yes, but we still face challenges at home and in the world. Like my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece, she said that we are not what we wear; that we do not need to be judged by whether we are wearing a scarf or by the way we are dressed. However, it is the way of the world, unfortunately.
My noble friend Lady Miller referred to the role of women in war and in peace and the fact that there is a direct ratio between women’s involvement and the degree of danger and fear, particularly of nuclear attack. She related inspirational stories about the Greenham Common women all working together.
The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, has a magic number—228—the number of women Peers. I have a magic number too—167. I was the 167th woman ever to be elected to the British Parliament, which really puts matters into context.
The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, referred to women who do not have settled status—a hugely important area—having no recourse to public funds and the help that all abused women should receive regardless of their status.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, gave an inspiring description of her brilliant mother—a Russian exile who faced great tragedy—and she also referred to how lucky we are.
My noble friend Lord Hussain, referred to the plight of Kashmiri women and described a harrowing picture of half-widows, their search for their missing men and mass rape. It is a terrible situation and I commend him for the work he does.
I also commend the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and the work of the Loomba Foundation and the importance of the priority given to women all over the world.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, asked where the women are in the peace process. It is wrong to exclude 50% of us from the process; we are the peaceful 50%.
I realise that I have now had seven minutes. There have been many other wonderful contributions—people have sat here for a long time today—and I particularly enjoyed those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Crawley, Lady Redfern and Lady Rock, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Warwick, in talking about the economic impact of women. We can work together to create better chances for women. If men are allowed to write all the algorithms we will get what they planned for, and we do not need that.
I finish by again referring to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on this year’s theme—“Balance for Better”—and government planning for great things, including on period poverty, on which I have campaigned for a while.
It occurred to me that we have a very special talent as women: we are very good at working together. Shame on us if we do not work together and make sure that we use our combined talent across parties, for no party and for all parties to achieve success for us and our male counterparts—I particularly loved the contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, which was well worth listening to—so let us get on with it. We can do this together.
I agree with the noble Baroness—it was great to start the debate with the excellent opening speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. She mentioned things we need to celebrate in the past year: the anniversary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which allowed women to become barristers, solicitors, jurors and magistrates, and of Nancy Astor taking her seat, and the unveiling of the Fawcett statue in Parliament Square, which was a wonderful event.
I am sure we can expect a stirring closure to this debate from the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, who I hope I can regard as a sister on this day, particularly since I know that when she was a parliamentary candidate some years ago she surprised some of us by saying that she was a reluctant champion of women, that she did not object to being a “Cameron Cutie”—I have to tell the House that I really objected to being called a “Blair’s Babe” all those years ago—and that feminism did not resonate with her. She also said that she thought it was all a bit of a left-wing agenda. I like to think that since then, she has joined the ranks of the feminists on her own Benches in your Lordships’ House who are so effective and who certainly, and quite rightly, do not concede feminist ground to us lefties.
We have had inspiring speakers. I thank the many organisations which sent briefings, and the Library for its brief. My noble friend Lady Gale kicked off on this side by covering a great deal of ground about celebration and the challenges. The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, was right to raise stereotypes of, and to call out casual racism against, Muslim women. I think her mum and mine were probably cut from the same cloth. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth gave a most welcome address. I agree with him that all bishops are bishops and all vicars are vicars; our ranks have a recently ordained deacon.
I cannot mention everybody, but there were some great contributions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Meyer, Lady Hodgson, Lady Rock, Lady Anelay and Lady Jenkin, who is undoubtedly a leader. I have been led by her from time to time on various issues—I am very happy about that—and I think it quite likely that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and I were at Greenham Common at the same time.
My noble friend Lady Donaghy was completely right, and I agree with her about the right to be knackered—I have been in the Chamber for about six and a half hours today. The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, talked about discrimination and primogeniture, although it is not an issue that is very high on the agenda. It is, as it were, from-the-top discrimination.
My noble friend Lady Armstrong was right to talk about access to support for the most vulnerable women. My noble friends Lady Blackstone, Lady Crawley and Lord Griffiths made different contributions—for example, on the part that the European Union has played in protecting women’s rights. My noble friend Lord Griffiths can take back to his wife our thanks that she told him to put his name down for this debate.
While the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, was talking, I was reminded that I met and became a very close friend of a woman called Rosemary Pockley. It was the first time that I had ever spoken to a woman in the Conservative Party whom I regarded as a feminist and a sister. She made me aware of the struggles that Conservative women have had in their party, and they sometimes felt even worse than the ones that we were having in the Labour Party at around the same time. I want to pay tribute to Rosemary because she was a great friend and a great sister.
I want to say a little about the importance of our own body for equality, the EHRC, and its recent report based on the largest ever review of women’s rights and gender equality in the UK. As noble Lords will know, the commission is the regulatory body responsible for enforcing the Equality Act 2010, and we are accredited by the United Nations as an “A status” national human rights institution.
The commission’s duties are to reduce inequality, eliminate discrimination, and promote and protect human rights. Its biggest review of women’s rights and gender equality threw up a whole range of issues. It says quite clearly that important progress has been made in some areas—for example, forced marriage has been criminalised and shared parental leave has been introduced—but that there remains a range of areas where significant challenges face women and girls. The evidence and recommendations have informed the UK’s submission to the United Nations review of our progress on women’s rights. This review takes place across the world every four to five years. I gather that the United Nations is expected to issue its recommendations to the UK Government on Monday 11 March; I look forward to seeing them.
The recommendations include things that we all need to be aware of. For instance, according to the section on just and fair conditions at work, pregnant women, new mothers and women of childbearing age are still routinely discriminated against in the workplace. My colleagues on the Front Bench in the Commons—Dawn Butler and her team—have been highlighting this issue vigorously for a while. The research shows that 11% of mothers reported that they were either dismissed or made compulsorily redundant when others in their workplace were not, or that they were treated so poorly that they felt they had to leave their job.
The EHRC recommends that the UK Government should introduce a mandatory duty on employers to take reasonable steps to protect workers from harassment and victimisation, ensuring that flexible working is offered. They should also make it mandatory for employers to publish the narrative that goes with, for example, the gender pay gap within their companies, and support employers in collecting the necessary data for them to begin closing pay gaps affecting ethnic-minority and disabled women. I hope that the Minister will support those recommendations from our own commission.
I turn to the subject of gender-based violence. Despite signing the Istanbul convention on 8 June 2012, the UK has still not achieved ratification and has been criticised for a lack of accountability and oversight of its violence against women and girls strategy. Are urgent steps in place to ratify the Istanbul convention and, once it is ratified, will sufficient resources be dedicated to central, devolved and local authorities to ensure its effective implementation?
The EHRC recommends that the UK Government should mitigate the impact of welfare reforms on lone-parent families, the majority of whom are women, by uprating benefits, reversing the two-child limit on child tax credits and ensuring that work coaches are trained to deliver tailored employment support.
I turn to the public sector equality duty, which underpins much of the work and was introduced in the 2010 Act. Does the Minister acknowledge that the commission is proposing a new approach to the PSED to ensure that public bodies and government departments focus on the key inequalities affecting those affected by their functions? This would review and amend the specific duties underpinning the PSED to ensure that public bodies are required to focus on them.
I also highlight the recommendation to incorporate CEDAW into domestic law, so that individuals can effectively challenge rights violations by using the domestic legal system and access a domestic remedy for alleged breaches of CEDAW and other United Nations rights. There are many other recommendations, all of which, coming as they do from our domestic Equality and Human Rights Commission, we need to be listening to very carefully.
Finally I join with the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, in her request for some money for parties and events.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed today. It is indeed true: I regard myself as a champion of equality, albeit a reluctant one as I am rather irritated that we still need to have these debates. I truly wish that was not the case. In the olden days I did not like the word “feminist” because people used to tell me what to think and I do not like being told what to think. So I am very happy to be a sister, but perhaps I will not quite put on the T-shirt.
We have heard some powerful and moving messages from across the Chamber today. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that we continue to discuss and debate gender equality to ensure that this issue gets the attention it deserves. We will be back the same time next year, but earlier in the day.
I have to cover education, employment, women’s leadership—particularly in public and civic life—discrimination, Brexit, the tragedy of violence against women and international considerations in 20 minutes. I do not have a hope. Therefore, if I cannot do justice to the questions asked by noble Lords, I will of course write. In fact, I very much look forward to that letter as it will give me an opportunity to go into more detail than I am able to do today.
I turn first to employment and education, which is a thread that runs through everything. Women can be empowered only if they are educated and gainfully employed so that they can have their own income. This was mentioned by so many noble Lords. Working from the top—I do not plan to address peerages; I am thinking more of women on boards—this issue has been around for many years. I was going to cite all the figures. It is true that we have made progress with women on boards, but not nearly enough. I am disappointed that these figures are not better. I recognise the restrictions of the pipeline and the other things that feed into our ability to get women on to boards, but I also find the paucity of women in executive roles very disheartening. I hope that in a few years’ time we will return to this and find that the numbers look much better than they do now.
The gender pay gap was covered by my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford so I will not go into it in great detail. But it is worth remembering that reporting is just the start. We said that we would start noting how companies are doing on the gender pay gap. It is crucial now that employers use gender pay gap data to identify the barriers to women’s recruitment and progression. They must take action to break down those barriers; otherwise, what on earth is the point of reporting all this data? We have published evidence-based guidance on practical actions that employers can take to close the gap, alongside help to diagnose it: to figure out why their gaps are happening in the first place.
I turn to the speeches by my noble friend Lady Rock and the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. On the gamut of tech and AI, was it not absolutely fascinating to hear about the algorithms written by men and how rubbish they are, as they do only one thing whereas we need them to cover everybody? There was some comment about what the Government can do. We are doing many things to make sure that the technology space becomes more diverse. We are supporting a scheme called the Tech Talent Charter. It is a private sector initiative designed to promote diversity in the tech workforce. The signatories to the charter pledge to implement recruitment and retention practices that will address the gender imbalance in tech roles. Some 290 companies are signed up to it, from international tech giants through to start-up SMEs and charities. All government departments have agreed to adopt the charter; DCMS was the first to sign up. This is one of the many tangible things we can do to get more women interested in tech and to make sure women are there to sort out our algorithms for us, because clearly they will not sort themselves out.
Another point to mention is that we are supporting female entrepreneurs. That is important. We have heard before that women often struggle to get loans from banks or equity from VC funds. The government-backed start-up loan system is providing funding and support to new entrepreneurs. Some 39% of loans go to women, so it is not quite 50%, but it could be worse. That is £450 million, which is a fair amount of money, and I wish those women great success.
I was not aware of that statistic. I knew the figure was low, but I did not realise it was that low. That is shocking. We certainly should look at that, but the British venture capital industry needs to take a long hard look at itself and figure it out, because it has significant funds and clearly women can make a great success of these companies. We should all call on it to look at that and make sure that the imbalance is sorted out.
In her speech, my noble friend Lady Redfern reminded us of some great female role models in the STEM sector. However, if we are to get the pipeline sorted out, we have to get young girls interested in the first place, early on, from primary school onwards. It is very important that they start at school, then get to college and university and are still doing STEM subjects. We announced substantial spending commitments in the 2017 Autumn Budget on maths, digital and technical education and we are funding programmes, such as the advanced maths premium, to increase the take-up of maths, computing and physics and to support better teaching of maths, science and computing in schools. To address the gender imbalance in computing, we are launching a computing pilot programme this year, to improve girls’ participation in computing as part of an £84 million investment to improve the teaching of computing in schools. This is essential for the AI issue that we talked about earlier. These things all build up together and should lead to greater success for women and girls in this area.
I was taken by the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy. I agree with her that not everything is great. Women are almost three times more likely than men to be working part-time, which is associated with zero pay progression. Women are around 65% more likely than men to be earning the national living wage. We all want to change these things. Now that we know what we are aiming for, I hope these figures will improve.
But how do we improve them? As my noble friend Lady Williams stated in her speech, the Government Equalities Office is working incredibly hard across departments at the moment on the female economic empowerment strategy. My noble friend outlined what this strategy hopes to achieve, so I will not dwell on it too much at this stage. However, I would like to talk about the Women’s National Commission, which the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, mentioned. She is right: it was disbanded in 2010. We do not have any plans to replace it at this time. However, the Government are very clear that the voice of women should be better heard by policymakers, and not just on a committee sitting in a room somewhere, but across government. The Government Equalities Office is doing a significant programme of work to make sure that women’s voices are better heard by policymakers. It is important that the Government really understand the issues that impact on women from every walk of life, and across every part of the Government’s agenda.
I will briefly pick up some issues mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp. He focused on the status of workers, nurses and carers on zero-hours contracts. To focus on the latter, zero-hours contracts cause a great amount of angst and can be quite controversial, but we know that many people working on zero-hours contracts, whether in the adult social care sector or elsewhere, value their flexibility. For some, it is an attractive feature of such a job. However, we are well aware that, for others, fixed contracts with definite hours are preferable. There is an organisation called Skills for Care, which is a workforce development organisation for the adult social care workforce funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. It provides advice to employers on how to attract and retain the most excellent staff with the benefits of offering a choice of different employment contracts.
Finally, on employment and education, my noble friends Lady Meyer and Lady Finn mentioned sexual harassment in the workplace. I am sure there is not a female in this Room who has not had something rather unpleasant happen to them in the workplace. We take this extremely seriously. We are committed to ending any harassment, bullying, intimidation and violence that women might face. The UK has some of the strongest workplace protections in the world, including explicit protection against sexual harassment in the workplace under the Equality Act 2010. The Government will consult this summer to explore whether these should be further strengthened.
I turn to international issues, because there was a significant amount of interest on those issues and I want to make sure that I cover them where I can. My noble friend Lady Hodgson started by talking about the Commission on the Status of Women and how the Government can help it be more impactful. This is the biggest annual international event on gender equality. It has produced some of the most impactful milestones in the history of women’s empowerment, including the convention on the elimination of all forms of violence against women and the Beijing Platform for Action. We are looking forward to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration next year. We will be working with like-minded countries to ensure that the CSW sets an ambitious programme of work for the next five years.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson also mentioned support for human rights defenders. The FCO and DfID strongly support the vital role that they and civil society organisations play in supporting sustainable development. For example, on international Human Rights Day in December, the Secretary of State for International Development spoke at an Amnesty International UK event to highlight the work of five inspiring female human rights defenders.
The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, mentioned the work of women in global health. This is absolutely critical. The Government appreciate that, without good health, nothing else can possibly follow. DfID supports developing countries to achieve international development target 3.8 on universal health coverage. This means ensuring that everyone, everywhere can access quality essential health services for prevention and care without suffering financial hardship. Investment in health workers, the majority of whom are women, is essential to achieve this. DfID invests in nursing and the broader health workforce through bilateral country programmes, multilateral partners and global initiatives such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Furthermore on the subject of health, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, made a very wide-ranging speech about sexual and reproductive health. The UK leads the world in our long-term support for comprehensive sexual reproductive health and rights. We are the largest donor to the United Nations Population Fund and the second-largest bilateral donor on family planning. In 2017 the UK committed to spend an average of £225 million per year over the next five years on family planning. To illustrate what this means, we estimate that every year our investment will support nearly 20 million total users of contraception. It will prevent 6 million unintended pregnancies and so prevent more than 3 million abortions, many of which would be unsafe. It will save the lives of more than 6,000 women every year.
My noble friend Lady Anelay turned our attention to Ethiopia and FGM. Noble Lords will know that the UK has long supported the end of FGM, particularly through our financial support. The flagship programme currently in place comes to an end this year, but in 2018 we announced a programme with a further £50 million of UK aid, which again will be the single biggest investment worldwide to date by any international donor. This programme will continue to tackle FGM across the most affected countries in Africa. We are currently in the early stages of competitive tendering, so we are not yet aware of where that programme will cover. Of course I cannot prejudge its conclusion today, but I am sure that the results of that tendering will be available very soon.
My noble friends Lady Helic and Lady Hodgson spoke about the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative—an absolutely critical and long-term thing, which we must continue to pressure on. We are committed to securing justice for survivors and breaking the culture of impunity by holding the perpetrators to account. The next PSVI conference will take place in November 2019. It is a three-day survivor-centred event and will celebrate progress, address remaining challenges and secure further commitments. It aims to focus on: accountability challenges; support for children born of rape; ensuring service provision for all survivors; and working with militaries, faiths and the media.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, mentioned Kashmir. The UK Government are concerned by any allegations of human rights violations and abuses. Our position is that any allegations must be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently. We noted the concerns raised in the report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in June 2018 and continue to encourage all states, including India and Pakistan, to uphold human rights.
My noble friend Lady Helic mentioned peace in Afghanistan and of course we agree with her entirely. We continue to press for peace negotiations to be inclusive and representative of Afghan society by including women’s participation. We also believe that any political settlement in Afghanistan should respect the rights of all Afghans, and that includes women.
The role of women in peace was also mentioned by my noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. The UK is strengthening partnerships with organisations that share our interest in building women’s capacity to participate in mediation processes, including the UN, other multilaterals and women’s mediation networks. But the UK has a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, which is jointly owned by the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DfID. It sets out how the UK Government will integrate a gender perspective into their work to build security and stability overseas, protect the human rights of women and girls and promote their meaningful participation in conflict prevention and resolution.
I turn briefly to an issue on which I will certainly write to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. We obviously look forward to the report that will come from CEDAW. The UK was examined by the CEDAW committee on 26 February in Geneva and it will issue its conclusion, observations and recommendations later this month. We will of course consider its recommendations fully. If I can provide her with any more information, I certainly will.
On violence against women and girls, and domestic abuse, my noble friend Lady Williams opened with a strong review of where we are but perhaps I may put a few markers down on specific things. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asked about the DA commissioner and whether that person could be independent. The commissioner will provide public leadership on domestic abuse issues and play a key role in overseeing the provision of services in England. Their day-to-day independence from Ministers will be particularly important when called upon to identify local areas where service provision is insufficient.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about the Istanbul convention and its ratification. I believe that, if the domestic abuse Bill is passed, it will ratify the Istanbul convention.
I have 30 seconds to cover public service, recognition of great leaders and Brexit. Well, Brexit is out of the window. We have had so many interesting speeches today on the representation of women. So many Members of your Lordships’ House, despite not being elected themselves, have been very involved in getting others elected to the other place, to councils and elsewhere. We are clear that politics must be representative. We have to do whatever we can to make sure that we have the right sort of diversity.
It is also quite a rough and tough world out there at the moment. I do not know whether any noble Lord has seen the video of Amber Rudd reading out some of the abuse that she has got on Twitter. It is appalling and shocking, and we must fight back against those things. It is not normal: people should not be speaking in that way, whether in person or anonymously.
Sadly, I must conclude, but I promise that my letter will be a very good one. Once again, I thank all noble Lords. It has been an excellent debate. This House works best when we work together, as noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. So let us do just that. Perhaps, as noted by my noble friend Lady Finn, we can structurally re-engineer our whole society—but I do not want to start a gender war, as noted by my noble friend Lady Meyer. So what must we do? We must march on. We know what needs to be done and I beg to move.
House adjourned at 6.11 pm.