Public Boards (Women)

Clause 22 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th April 1972.

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10.57 p.m.

Photo of Mr Edward Bishop Mr Edward Bishop , Newark

Nearly 20 million women live in Great Britain and they comprise the majority, 52 per cent. of our population. Yet on the great national and local public bodies of a commercial nature—the nationalised boards, in other words—they play an infinitesimally small rôle, largely because they are denied the opportunity by Her Majesty's Government and Ministers who are answerable to this House and to the nation.

Of the 49 nationalised boards, there are 44 on which there is not one woman, and they include the boards running the railways, the bus services, the airways, coal, gas, and electricity and other services with which millions of women are concerned as workers or consumers. Only five boards have a woman member.

In replies to the 100 Questions I have tabled to Ministers I have been told that such appointments are made on the basis of qualification and suitability. That suggests that Her Majesty's Government think that women do not warrant more than five seats, while 422 positions are filled by men. That is the basis of my charge.

One may well ask who are these extraordinary women so able to fulfil this rôle? They are Mrs. Alison Munro, C.B.E., who sits on the board of British European Airways; Mrs. M M. Joliffe, on the South-Eastern Area Electricity Board; Lady Carew Pole, O.B.E., on the South-Western Area Electricity Board; Mrs. I. O. Stewart, Scotland Area Gas Board; and Mrs. Jane Symonds, Commonwealth Development Corporation. These are the five women who have the confidence of this Government in the matter of running these boards.

I feel that the Prime Minister should have been here to answer this debate—although I welcome the Minister who is here for the occasion—because in the Conservative Manifesto there was a declaration: Women are treated by the law, in some respects, as having inferior rights to men, we will amend the law to remove this discrimination. If the Prime Minister claims that there is no sex discrimination in the appointments to public boards, he ought equally to recognise the need for urgent and massive action by every Department to reshape our educational and career services, to blast open all the doors to occupations and professions and to work for a radical change of outlook on factors which tend to discriminate against, debase and devalue our fellow human beings.

As I represent the Sherwood Forest area in the House, the sword I am about to use to protect the Maid Marions of Britain is the cutting edge of Command Paper No. 4876, entitled "A list of members of public boards of a commercial character as at 1st January 1972". The other weapon I shall use is a blunt instrument called Whitakers 1972 Yearbook, which lists men and women on other public boards, and with just as great a lack of balance. I shall also be assisted by the replies of Ministers to the many Questions I have asked.

Do the Government think that of all the women in Britain—let us remember that women are in the majority—only five are fit to serve on these boards which cater for the domestic and other needs of women as well as of men? When he next addresses a conference of women, will the Prime Minister tell the truth about what he thinks about them, for in the past year there have been 129 appointments or re-appointments to these boards, and only one was a woman, and she was a re-appointment.

Would not the Railways Board be helped at this time by the good sense of a woman? Why is no member of the fair sex helping to run the National Bus Company? There is no woman on either the Gas Council or the Electricity Council, only two women on the 12 area electricity boards, and only one woman on one of the 12 area gas boards. That is all—for services of which the majority of consumers must be women.

In the area of my constituency in the East Midlands, Newark, Nottinghamshire, there are about 1½ million consumers of electricity, but only 12 of the 67 members of the Electricity Consultative Committee are women.

On the non-commercial boards there are very few women. Eighteen men, but no women, serve on the Court of the Bank of England, despite the fact that in homes up and down the country millions of women act as chancellors of the exchequer. Seven men and only one woman serve on the Commission on Industrial Relations, which is so vital in dealing with human relations at this time. Twelve men, but no women, serve on the National Building Agency, even though women have a natural interest in housing and homes. Even the Knitting, Lace and Net Industry Board, the Chairman of which I met last night, a board which is concerned with an industry in which two-thirds of the employees are women, has only one woman among its 22 members.

Why do the Government get into huddles about industrial disputes which are claimed to be losing the country thousands of working days when for many years the immense working potential of millions of women and girls has been ignored, exploited or squandered through being regarded as of secondary importance? This is not only an economic loss but also a denial of basic human rights.

The public, Parliament and the Press must get their priorities right. The Press, particularly the popular Press, newspapers such as the Daily Mirror and the Sun, ought to stop indulging in the daily nonsense and pictures about Pussy Cat Clubs, Bunny Girls and Playboy Clubs, which tend to distort the image of our womenfolk. It is about time that there was as much publicity about women's brains as the Press gives us about their backsides. The country—both men and women—would be all the better for it. Mrs. Greer's observations are not always germane.

I understand that in making appointments the Government have what I would call the ghost of a "statutory woman". If only they would exorcise the statutory woman and if only they were able to see with clear, unbiased and undiscriminating eyes the enormous potential for our womenfolk, we would be the better for it. The Government need not only to see; they need vision.

However, there is one gleam of light in the darkness. A few days ago my noble Friend, Lady White, of another place, was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Metrication Board. I recall the hoo-ha which occurred when she was appointed Minister of State at the Foreign Office, where she found that there were no facilities for women. I believe that a bathroom had to be adapted for the purpose. It is still used as an excuse by industries, including some nationalised industries, that the lack of toilet facilities would involve expense. This is discriminating against human rights.

How do I expect that the Government will reply to the debate? The Under-secretary will probably declare that people are appointed to boards not according to their sex but on merit and that the Government choose the best and most suitable people for the job. If he does that it means that woman do not have much to offer when it comes to running industry in which millions of women have a stake as workers and consumers. He willsay that women have the same chance of appointment as men but that for various reasons they are not quite good enough. Why is there such a shortage when the number of women on public boards could be increased by drawing on the pool of women, albeit the pool is too limited. There are, for instance, 6,700 women magistrates, and the women on our councils represent 12 per cent. of those people who serve on local authorities. There are far too few women in any case but they are, nevertheless, able women. What about the women working in local government and education? Many women's organisations—including business and professional women's organisations, women's institutes, the Association of Head Mistresses—could provide a list of women on whom the Government could draw. I am quite sure that the number could be increased enormously to give women a reasonable chance to participate.

Fifty-six per cent. of all our lecturers and teachers are women, although only 44 of them are apparently fit to be professors compared with 3,281 men. All these sources could provide enough women to restock the nationalised and other public boards. I may be told that the Women's National Commission is in the process of compiling a register of women prepared to serve on public committees for submission to the Civil Service register. But willingness to serve is not the only criteria for the Government have shown that they think that very few women are suitable to serve.

I may be reminded of the reply from the Home Secretary last October to my Question on how many proposals in the Conservative publication "Fair Deal for the Fair Sex" had been carried out. A list was then given in the OFFICIAL REPORT. Some of the proposals were carried out at the initiative of the Government and some at the initiative of private Members, including myself. But one swallow does not make a summer, and in many other ways I have been campaigning about jury service, tax reform and on educational changes to try to bring about an improvement.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will give some assurances tonight that the Government are thinking about the problem. I want to draw the Government's attention to the policy suggestions put out by the National Joint Committee of Working Women's Organisations. It says that the Government should have a policy to provide equal education opportunities for boys and girls; to encourage girls into wider job opportunities; to provide more effective re-entry training facilities for women; to provide better vocational guidance services and a special service for women re-entering employment on the basis of the report by Nancy Seear, now Baroness Seear; and to discourage the growth of private employment agencies. Certainly the "temp" situation needs looking into in view of the harm which can be caused to some girls involved.

The Government should also have a policy to provide better job opportunities for part-time employment for men and women with domestic responsibilities who, as a consequence of which, are unable to partake in full-time work and wish to continue their careers. Local authorities and parent-teachers associations should assist in this direction.

I am delighted with the Anti Discrimination Bill. It has now had a Second Reading in the House of Lords and will be put to a Select Committee of the Lords. I hope that detailed evidence will be given to the Select Commit- tee which will highlight some of the discrimination which goes on and I hope that the Government will follow it up with some action.

We possibly need some legislation to do that.

If coloured people were the majority in this country, as women are numerically, and only five coloured people sat on the boards of nationalised bodies, with 422 white members, there would rightly be urgent action to right the wrongs, or the Government would not last five minutes. As I have said before, with men winging their way to the moon there is no reason why women should not have their place in the sun. This can be achieved.

Although in this speech I have spoken mostly about the need to give women equal opportunity, I feel deeply that discrimination and lack of opportunity in both sexes is wrong, because it debases and devalues men and women, who are regarded as equal in the eyes of our Creator, and who are protected, or should be, by the aims of the United Nations and the Human Rights Charters.

I was very pleased only a few hours ago to meet the Rev. Joyce Bennett, one of the two women priests ordained by the Bishop of Hong Kong in the Anglican Church. This indicates the tide flowing in favour of change in the Churches, and recognises the contribution which, without any hindrance of theological objections, allows women to witness to their faith in the fullest way. The Archbishop of Canterbury—as well as the Prime Minister and the heads of other organisations and institutions—has an opportunity to give women a leading rôle in very responsible jobs. It would be a very good example and encouragement to the whole nation. We hope that this will set the pace.

The Government must give a lead, because the ambitions of women who want to do more work useful to the community, and more satisfying to themselves, depend on the lead the Government, the House and the leading institutions can give. We want women to have the same right as men to develop all their potential to their own satisfaction and to the good of the community in which they live.

11.12 p.m.

Photo of Mr David Lane Mr David Lane , Cambridge

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) for giving it the opportunity to debate this subject briefly tonight. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the tenacity and determination with which he has pursued the matter over recent months, which I have been admiring hitherto from the touch-line. I wish that some of his reasonableness would wash off onto those who are too often strident and irrational when they discuss the problems of discrimination in this and other fields of our national life. I shall try to respond to his points and arguments in the spirit in which he made them.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of the general line of argument he would advance. I do not dissent from it, except from his implied criticism that the situation is all the fault of the present Government, but we shall return to that.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the many constructive suggestions he has made, apart from the comments that I can briefly respond to now, will be carefully considered by other Departments—the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Employment in particular.

I want to make it clear straight away that the Government are not satisfied with the present situation. We want wider opportunities for women generally, and in particular we would very much like to see more women qualified and prepared to serve on public boards. Let me, therefore, draw the attention of the House to two immediate steps that are being taken. The first is on the broader problem of career opportunities, which is very relevant to the subject of the debate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment is putting in hand a detailed study of the problems met by women in securing equal treatment with their men colleagues in matters of employment and training. I doubt whether the announcement which the former Minister of State, Home Office, my noble Friend, Lord Windlesham, made to this effect in the recent debate in another place on the Anti-Discrimination Bill has been widely enough understood as the important step forward that it certainly is.

The study will be concerned to determine the specific areas in which overt or concealed discrimination occurs. Obviously, it will have to be both wide-ranging and thorough and when its results are known they will be of the utmost value in deciding what is the best way of dealing with the problem of discrimination where it exists. To anyone anxious to see an end to discriminatory practices, as this Government certainly is, it must be obvious that such a study is an indispensable preliminary to any kind of effective action, whether or not that eventually includes legislation. This is an important initiative on the part of the Government and the study will be pressed forward with urgency.

Secondly, it is essential in the meantime that the Government should make the utmost practical use of the talents and experience already available among women. We must, as soon as we can, dispel the impression that is bound to be given by the small proportion of women members on public boards, to which the hon. Member has drawn attention. For this reason, as he rather expected, we have arranged with the Womens National Commission to obtain from its constituent organisations the names of women who are in its opinion qualifiedor suited by experience for a wide range of public appointments and who would be willing to undertake them. This information will be made available to all Departments and, while it would be wrong to expect immediate or dramatic results, I am confident that the information will be used, and to increasingly beneficial effect.

Having made those two points, may I turn in more detail to the arguments and statistics the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It is true that with some important exceptions the number of women so far serving on public boards and the like is regrettably small. Where it is clear that particular interests are best represented by women, or where women are involved in a problem in a special way, I suggest that the record is good. For example, half of the 18 members of the Committee on Nursing are women, as are 5 of the 13 members of the Finer Committee which is looking at the problems of one-parent families. No less than 10 of the 15 members of the Committee on abortion, including my eminent namesake, its chairman, are women.

I am old-fashioned enough to think that whatever welcome advances women make on other fronts they will always have a special capacity and commonsense in representing people's everyday experiences and problems. Here is where I part company from the tone of the hon. Member. It has been the consistent policy not only of this Government but of their predecessors, followed in every Government Department, that in inviting people to serve on public boards and councils, tribunals and Commissions the primary consideration should be to choose people best suited by experience and qualification. I certainly do not accept that the small number of women on public boards is any indication of discrimination against women or of any feeling that women have not got, as the hon. Member was saying, a great deal to offer.

The reasons why more women do not become members of these public bodies are complex. An important reason is that membership of many of these bodies is regulated by statutory requirements. For example, the Transport Act, 1962, requires that members of the British Railways Board, the British Transport Docks Board and the British Waterways Board shall be appointed from among persons who appear to the Minister, and this is the standard phrase: … to have had wide experience of, and to have shown capacity in, transport, industrial, commercial or financial matters, administration, applied science, or the organisation of workers … The Transport Act, 1968, passed by the last Government, lays down similar qualifications for members of the boards of the National Freight Corporation, the National Bus Company and the Scottish Transport Group. Similar qualifications are required for members of boards and councils in the electricity industry, the gas industry, the steel industry and in atomic energy.

We must admit that the fairly stringent qualifications necessary by statute for membership of boards such as those I have mentioned so far are not of a sort likely to be possessed by very many women. It is possible for women to have such qualifications, and a number do, but, at least up to now, it has not been a large number. I must remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that these qualifications for membership of public boards are laid down in legislation which has been approved by Parliament, and on many occasions the House has made clear that the important factor in the appointment of members to public boards is the potential members' qualifications and proved ability, and not their sex.

Having said that, however, I can see no easy solution to the difficulties, though I am confident that the two measures which I mentioned at the outset will help considerably.

Across the whole field of employment—this is closely relevant to the matter of qualifications for public boards—we want to see more women rising to the senior positions in commerce, industry, the professions and the public service, from which are filled the important appointments which we are considering tonight. Further back than that, we must try to impress upon young people of both sexes, and on their parents—since the problem often lies there—that, despite the many difficulties, it is worthwhile to choose and plan a career and persevere in the education and training necessary to achieve success in it.

I am the first to admit the special difficulties facing girls in this respect. They know that there is prejudice among some employers, and, of course, they know also that, however rewarding their career may be, most of them will want to interrupt it in order to bring up and care for children.

There is a variety of ways, as the hon. Gentleman knows—through vocational training courses, industrial training grants and so on—by which this latter problem is being tackled. I ought to stress at this point that women are equally eligible with men for training under the Government's vocational training scheme. The number of women training under it has risen significantly in the past few years, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, hopes that this increase will continue.

On another aspect of the matter, the Government has recognised its own responsibility—the hon. Gentleman asked that the Government should take a lead—as a major employer of women to set an example to commerce, to industry, and, if I may dare say it, to the professions. No one in the position into which I have recently found myself put could doubt that. But there is a lot more to this than simply ensuring equality of pay and conditions. What counts is equality of opportunity, and this requires the specific study of ways in which women can be helped to combine a career in the public service with responsibilities at home.

I strongly commend to the House and to people outside the Management Paper on this matter published by the Civil Service Department last October. That document is an example to employers in general of what can be achieved by a thorough, concerned and systematic study of the issues.

I should have liked to spend more time following up some of the specific points which the hon. Gentleman raised. As I said earlier, I assure him that we shall consider them carefully in working out our Government strategy for improving what we admit is an unsatisfactory situation.

I am certain that in the House there is no major difference of opinion about the principles that we have been discussing tonight. It is a long legacy of prejudice from which women have been suffering and which, unfortunately, has too often had an effect on their own attitudes and aspirations. This situation needs to be changed.

It is a big challenge not only to the Government, but to all of us. There may be many different opinions on the best way in which to meet it, but the Government for its part believes that the coming study will analyse the problem in such a way that truly practical remedies will emerge of a kind which command the general agreement of both the House and the country.

We as a Government are fully aware that one of the greatest assets the country possesses is the brains and talents of its people, and we are convinced that it would be morally, socially and economically wrong if we did not take the fullest advantage of the abilities of all our people, both men and women.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Eleven o'clock