Women in News and Current Affairs Broadcasting (Communications Committee Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:21 pm on 8th September 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 5:21 pm, 8th September 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for securing this debate and for his excellent speech and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed. I also take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, and his colleagues on the Select Committee, for the report that they produced in January. It is a timely and comprehensive, and highlights the obstacles that women face in trying to progress in news and current affairs broadcasting, as is often the case in many sectors. The committee’s report rightly said that making progress within this sector is so important because of the huge influence that mass media can have on us all, in particular in shaping the aspirations of future generations. Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond, mentioned that.

The report is set against a backdrop that under this Government we have more women in the workplace than ever—the gender pay gap is the lowest it has ever been and has been eliminated altogether for women working full time under the age of 40. The Government consider supporting women to fulfil their potential an absolute priority. When the Government responded to the House of Lords Select Committee, at which Ed Vaizey and Nicky Morgan presented in November, they made it very clear—I emphasise it again—that this is not just an equalities issue, as questioned by my noble friend Lord Dobbs. Increasing the opportunities and participation of women at every level, in every sector and at every age is vital in boosting the UK economy.

There are strong supporting facts to back up this statement, which makes it imperative to increase the efforts to remove the obstacles to women’s progression, not just in the media industry but across all sectors of society. For example, equalising women’s productivity and employment to that of men’s levels has the potential for increased gross domestic product of 35% in the UK. This could be equivalent to an additional £600 billion to our economy. Studies regularly show that higher numbers of female students than male students are studying in higher education in the UK—for 2013-2014, this was 56.1% and 43.9% respectively—yet women represent only 47% of the workforce.

We have come a long way since “Woman’s Hour” was presented by a man, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, told us, and the thought that the coronation might have been postponed because Richard Dimbleby was ill. But, for example, still in the news media only 35% of employees are women. We would like to see more women behind the camera, not just in front of it.

In news media, women are particularly under- represented in certain roles. The Select Committee’s report made that very clear. One example that it quoted is that in flagship news programmes—noble Lords have mentioned this—three male reporters exist for every one female reporter. It is clear that news broadcasters should ensure better gender balance in their wider workforce. In the news and current affairs broadcast sector the “ripple” effect that can be created by not having women in visible senior roles has an impact not only on today’s working women but on future generations, which my noble friend Lord Holmes also mentioned.

The Government believe that it is for the media industry itself, including broadcasters, producers, media organisations and others, to take the lead and to promote equality among its employers. This business-led approach has worked well in the FTSE 100—an approach spearheaded by the noble Lord, Lord Davies. Unprecedented progress has been made in increasing the number of women working at board level in the FTSE 100. In four years those figures have doubled from 12.5% in 2011 to now nearly 26%. We now have no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. This approach was so successful because of the impressive collaboration involving UK businesses, investors, regulators, headhunters, the media and other stakeholders, such as the 30% Club.

We believe that this approach can be applied to all sectors, including broadcast and print media. The Government are working with stakeholders with expertise in this area to establish a firmer base of evidence surrounding this agenda and to look at what further action can be taken by all stakeholders to speed up progress. We wrote to Ofcom highlighting the long-lasting positive impact that transparency can have on women’s economic empowerment—the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned this. We also supported the 30% Club in the development and launch of Women for Media UK, a database of female leaders in business, finance, government and not-for-profit sectors who are available for media comment on key topics of the day. We believe that the database will help increase women’s visibility and voice within broadcasting and demonstrate the huge talent pool of women out there who are qualified and suitable to speak on key issues of the day. The noble Lord, Lord Razzall, mentioned the lack of female experts being utilised in the media. I know that that was one of the key issues raised by the committee.

The Government also have a more direct role here to help to modernise the workplace culture so that men and women can better balance work and family life by extending the right for all to request flexible working, as well as by introducing a system of shared parental leave and supporting working families with childcare costs. The noble Baroness, Lady Healy, mentioned that; I will expand on it later. We also agreed with the committee’s finding that transparency is key to making progress. That is why we will require employers with at least 250 employees to publish the difference between the average pay of their male and female employees. It is why we welcome the Creative Diversity Network building a new diversity monitoring system for broadcasters, which will standardise, benchmark and report on all the main broadcasters’ data on diversity. It is also why we are continuing to encourage all employers, including media companies, to sign up to the Think, Act, Report initiative, which helps them to tackle the underlying causes, such as recruitment, retention, promotion and pay. I urge all media companies to sign up to this initiative.

I turn to my noble friend Lord Holmes’s point on raising girl’s aspirations. Girls are, of course, the future and the next generation in broadcasting. As I mentioned, the topic of this inquiry goes beyond the scope of women of working age today: it talks about the girls who will be the women of tomorrow. The media as a whole plays an important role in perpetuating or challenging cultural and societal norms, so it is important that this industry is more representative of today’s society.

Investment in the future of our girls and young women will not only benefit them directly but also allow us to maximise their economic potential. The Your Life campaign launched in 2014 aims to help the UK find more engineers, more scientists and more computer scientists to compete in the global economic race. However, we need more visible female role models, and the media can help to achieve this. Having visible, positive role models can challenge the gap between the reality of women’s and men’s lives. By transcending gender stereotypes: for example, those that portray women as solely carers or victims, female role models can give women and girls the confidence to overcome the barriers that stop them reaching their full potential.

The noble Lord, Lord Best, raised a number of points, including the fact that significant steps have been made since the committee’s report in January. This is testament not only to the great work of the committee itself but also to how seriously this agenda is now being taken by all stakeholders. He also raised the important influencing role that Ofcom plays. In its final report, the committee recommended that government make it clear to Ofcom that they no longer wish to remove the power Ofcom has to ensure gender equality under Section 337 of the Communications Act 2003, and that Ofcom should not hesitate to use this power. In our response to this report we stated very clearly that we agreed with this. We have no plans currently to remove Ofcom’s duty to promote development opportunities for training and equality of opportunity under the Communications Act. I think that partly answers the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson.

During the last Government, Jo Swinson wrote to the chief executive of Ofcom in February highlighting the long-lasting, positive impact that transparency can have in relation to women’s economic empowerment. My noble friend Lord Sherbourne also raised this point. She asked Ofcom to support and publicise the data monitoring system being developed by the Creative Diversity Network in order to promote more transparency. We also suggested that it support Think, Act, Report. Also at this time ministerial letters were sent to those media companies—11 in all—in the FTSE 350, encouraging them to sign up to TAR and highlighting the importance of transparency. I am pleased to say that Ofcom has signed up to TAR and a number of high-profile media companies have also signed up: SKY, Virgin Media, ITV and Viacom. Ofcom also confirmed that it is working closely with the Creative Diversity Network on Project Diamond, which the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, also mentioned.

Ofcom also worked jointly with the EHRC to produce the recent guidance on equality for broadcasters launched on 28 August, which will support employers, commissioners and others in expanding the talent pool from which they find the best candidates. Since the publication of the committee’s report, government have worked closely with the Chartered Management Institute to gather together a number of key stakeholders from the broadcast and print sector to discuss the barriers women experience in rising up through the pipeline, and the best way to go about establishing a firmer base of evidence. We hope to be able to drive forward this work over the next few months.

The noble Lord, Lord Best, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, talked about the benefits of broad voluntary targets. We agree with the committee that quotas are not appropriate here. It was suggested that the Government ensure that Ofcom holds the BBC to account in regard to any voluntary targets. Within the existing charter period it is still a matter for the BBC Trust to ensure that its public purposes are delivered, that the BBC is held to account, and that its licence-fee payers are represented in terms of their interests and their gender and identity by the BBC. Of course, BBC governance is one of the key issues being examined in the charter review. The Government have been clear about their role here: that is, to set a regulatory framework of law and responsibility for broadcasters, as with all employers and especially public service employers, and ensure that they understand those responsibilities.

The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, asked what the Government were doing about getting their own house in order, which is a very reasonable question. The Government have set a target of 50% more women in public appointments. Very good progress was made from April to September of 2014—44% of new appointments were women—and we expect the new figures to be even better. We have the most diverse Parliament ever with nearly 30% of MPs being women, up from 23% in 2010, and 20.5% of Conservative MPs are women. There are also 10 women now in the Cabinet.

The noble Lords, Lord Dobbs and Lord Razzall, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, talked about ageism in the broadcast media. Other noble Lords may also have talked about this. The Government agree that women of all ages should feature prominently throughout broadcasting. I believe that broadcasters have woken up and should have learned from the mistakes with the Miriam O’Reilly case at “Countryfile”.

We are playing our part to tackle underrepresentation. The Equality Act 2010 protects employees in all businesses from discrimination on a number of grounds, including sex and age. The Government have appointed the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, as the business champion for older women. A recent report about older workers shows the valuable contribution that older women could and can make to further the economy. Companies are not fully utilising their skills and are missing out. The Equality Act 2010 provides legal protection for employees facing discrimination on the ground of age.

My noble friend Lord Dobbs also mentioned a very interesting point about how the media can promote cultural change in terms of respect for women—for example, in highlighting the dreadful practice of FGM. The noble Baroness, Lady Healy, talked about childcare and flexible working. We will double the free hours of childcare for working parents of three to four year-olds from 15 to 30 hours and we will also introduce tax-free childcare which will save around 2 million families up to £2,000 per child annually. I appreciate just what a barrier lack of childcare is to progressing in any profession, as I am sure do other noble Baronesses. We extended flexible working to all from June and introduced shared parental leave from April 2015. The Government are very much committed to creating a modernised and flexible workplace so that all employees can thrive.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, and my noble friend Lord Sherbourne talked about the remedy being positive action, not positive discrimination, and said that good data are essential to identifying the problem. These are very important points. I agree that positive action is key and the Equality Act allows companies to take positive measures to enable employees to take action. I welcome the initiative of the EHRC and Ofcom, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Best, which will help broadcasters take positive action under the Equality Act 2010.

On the second point of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, I welcome the Creative Diversity Network’s initiative, Project Diamond, to which I alluded earlier, which all main broadcasters have committed to share and report their data on diversity on and off screen. That is progress in the right direction.

The noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Stevenson, talked about freelancers. We expect the industry to take the lead here. With freelancers continuing to make up such significant parts of the workforce, it stands to reason that data should be collected to assess whether there is a problem with gender balance in the freelance sector and across the industry more broadly, and, if so, to enable the industry to take the requisite steps to address it.

My noble friend Lord Sherbourne made a very good point about the impact of television, and he talked about the lady ringing up from Lime Grove who was always assumed to be the secretary. When I came into your Lordships’ House I was asked by a noble Lord who will remain nameless, and who has since been for ever ashamed of it, whose secretary I was. My noble friend also made a good point about women being used as “soft” news presenters, never being seen as able to tackle the hard news elements.

It is very good news that Laura Kuenssberg has been appointed the BBC’s political editor. That is very good progress indeed.

My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond talked about the lack of women in media and broadcasting impacting on the reputation of the industry generally. I totally agree. Research undertaken by the Government Equalities Office shows that there is a significant gender pay gap of 11.4% for media professionals, 8.4% for print media and 18.7% for advertising. The gender pay gaps in various sectors will become more apparent when gender pay gap reporting comes into force. I hope that will focus minds towards positive action. He also talked about the really poor diversity generally in British broadcasting. I totally agree with that point. He also mentioned disabled people. Only 3% of BBC staff are disabled and it is similar for other broadcasters. The number of BME people in the media actually declined between 2009 and 2012 to below 6%.

I am aware that time has run out. I hope I have answered most points but if I have not, I will write to noble Lords. Once again, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate.