Women: Homelessness, Domestic Violence and Social Exclusion — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:28 pm on 6th November 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Rebuck Baroness Rebuck Labour 12:28 pm, 6th November 2014

(Maiden Speech) My Lords, it is a great honour to make my maiden speech as a Member of this House. I am particularly pleased to follow such an important contribution from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester.

I express my thanks to all your Lordships on each side of the House for the warm welcome that you have given me, and to the staff of the House, whose consideration and courtesy have surpassed their legendary reputation. I am particularly grateful to my supporters, my noble friends Lady McDonagh, of Mitcham and Morden, and Lord Hollick, of Notting Hill, for their wise counsel and words of encouragement.

I stand here today deeply moved because it was 10 years ago, in November 2004, that my husband, Lord Gould of Brookwood, gave his maiden speech. In fact, today’s date is particularly poignant because it was exactly three years ago that he finally lost his fight against cancer. He would have been thrilled to see me here among so many of his friends on these Benches, and he would have reminded me what an honour it is to have the opportunity of contributing to the debates and legislation that shape our nation.

I personally look forward to championing the causes that I have seen inspire individuals and transform lives throughout my 40 years in the publishing industry: the liberating power of literacy and reading for pleasure; the vibrancy and social impact of the arts; and the dynamism of our creative industries.

For 22 years, as chief executive of a publishing group of which I declare I am now the UK chair, I have been proud of how my industry has led the way on gender diversity, promoting women to the top ranks at a time when the only way into the executive suite in many sectors would have been with a tray of tea and biscuits. However, as we have heard from my noble friend Lady King of Bow, only last week the World Economic Forum report showed that the UK has slipped out of the top 20 countries for gender equality, dropping from 18th to 26th. Today’s important and extraordinarily moving debate highlights how far we still have to go in confronting the systemic problems that blight the lives of too many women.

Ensuring that women from different social backgrounds are given opportunities for self-development is critical in tackling social exclusion. For me, books are a symbol of freedom and transformation. They opened my mind and changed my life and I want others to share in that opportunity. My mother, the eldest of five, had to leave school at 13 so that she could help support her family. My paternal grandfather came to the UK alone, aged 15, to escape persecution in Lithuania. From selling suits off a wheelbarrow—he was a tailor—he became a successful businessman, but he never learned to read or write. There were no books on our shelves at home except for a leather-bound edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but, despite that, each Saturday my mother would take my brother and me to the local library to borrow books. It was the highlight of my week. Books unlocked my imagination and aspiration, and I became the first person in my family to go to university.

Through my years as a publisher, I have always believed that businesses should consider their wider purpose and social impact. It is shocking to me that 5.1 million adults in England can be described as functionally illiterate, struggling to understand a letter home from their son or daughter’s school and unable to read a bus or train timetable. Overall, 14.8 million adults have literacy skills below a GCSE grade C.

There is a range of valuable studies by the National Literacy Trust, of which I declare I am a trustee, that demonstrate the particular role that poor literacy plays in exacerbating women’s social exclusion. Women with low literacy skills are more likely than men to live in non-working households. Some 13% of women with non-functional literacy have experienced homelessness, compared to 7% of men. Lower literacy means that women are more likely to move in with a partner while still a teenager and to have a first child at a young age, and are five times more likely to be depressed. Such women are also less likely to be politically engaged, to vote or to participate in their community. The literate woman, by contrast, is a potentially empowered woman.

I became determined to do something to help those with low literacy. In 1998, I launched the World Book Day charity, on behalf of the book industry, to ensure that children celebrated reading for pleasure at least once a year. For many women, having a child is a spur to improve their literacy, as they want to read to them and help them with their school work. This is why, in 2006, I launched the Quick Reads charity for emergent adult readers. Quick Reads books are written by well known authors in such a way as to be accessible to those with entry-level literacy skills, reducing the fear of reading for the less confident. As one woman said, “I felt as though I had climbed a mountain. I was very proud, because it was the first proper book I’d read”.

It is not just books that demonstrate the role of the arts as a powerful vehicle for encouraging aspiration and liberating potential. For example, in Camden, my home borough, two 20 year-olds founded Youth Sauce, with a mission to deliver change through the creative arts. Their “Somerstown Tales” was an evening of spoken -word poetry addressing the grim realities of youth homelessness, assault and violence told through fairy tales. Another event, HerStory, was for 16 to 24 year-old women not in work, education or training, to enable them to tell their stories and discover their beliefs while honing their literacy skills. MC Angel worked with these young women. She herself grew up in a home torn apart by alcoholism, drugs and violence. From a homeless hostel at age 15, she studied community theatre; now a gifted performing poet and rapper, she also works for the charity First Story to open up creative writing for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Many women from Youth Saucesubsequently joined their local library and then started reading for pleasure, unlocking that unique, immersive experience that touches the core of our humanity by opening up undreamt-of worlds and building empathy. Yet reading for pleasure is only one aspect of our rich creative industries in the UK. We lead the world in literature, film, theatre, dance and art. Here I must declare two further interests as I am chair-elect of the Royal College of Art and chair of the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, established the first creative industries taskforce in 1997. I was privileged to be a member of it and we mapped for the first time the economic impact of the arts in Britain. What we must focus on now, however, is the social impact of the arts. I hope that current academic studies such as the Warwick commission will begin to marshal the enormous amount of data from arts organisations, charities and our schools about the transformative potential of the arts and that this, in turn, will inform all future policy. I have seen the arts change the lives of excluded children at inner London schools and through charities such as Kids Company, offering hope and a vision for a future that is often lacking in young lives. We should strive to ensure that everybody, especially the most marginalised and excluded women in our society, can have access to what Philip Pullman describes as the “rich, consoling, inspiring, liberating” experience of reading.

I thank your Lordships for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am sure that the power of books has touched everyone in this Chamber. I want to make sure that everyone in our society, especially the most vulnerable, also has that opportunity.