My Lords, it is a great privilege to join colleagues today in a debate commemorating 100 years since women were first enabled to vote. I pay tribute to all those women who campaigned, struggled and suffered, whether physically or mentally, but who refused to give up the fight for votes for women. I thank them for their courage, fortitude and determination to achieve a basic and fundamental right for women. I also thank all Members who highlighted the contributions and records of particular women throughout this long and important campaign.
Although 100 years is a long time, attitudes and mindsets have been very slow to change, as other noble Lords have said. The battles that the suffragettes and campaigners fought were to counter beliefs that women were intellectually inferior, incapable of understanding such things as politics, and downright dangerous if allowed to vote. Yet these same arguments are used today in discussions about extending the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds. I believe that they are as untrue today as they were then. Young people are not only capable of understanding and evaluating arguments but have to do so much more than perhaps their parents and grandparents did. As school curriculums have changed and learning has been transformed, both in method and substance, it is essential that proper education be provided so that our young people are enabled to be active, interested and sceptical citizens of the 21st century.
Education in citizenship in this country is patchy and variable in quality. How can such important subjects as how we are governed, our democratic rights and how we exercise these rights be considered optional? There has been much discussion on the failure of democracy and disenchantment among young people, yet they are the future and should have the chance to participate in an active way, to be consulted and to deliver their verdict through the ballot box. On the 100th anniversary of the granting of women’s franchise it seems timely to be considering extending democratic rights, including full education on government and citizenship, to 16 and 17 year-olds. I hope that the Government will be listening and will at least soon enable a consultation and public debate on the subject.
Coming back to women’s rights, there have been significant achievements. Many of us here today will have real-life experience of times when low status and even lower expectations were the norm for women. I can remember when I was growing up that the view was held by some that educating girls in anything other than basic skills and domestic tasks was a waste of time. Girls had to demonstrate much higher levels of ability to study science subjects and to be considered capable of higher education. Indeed, I knew many who did not challenge this and left school at 15 to go to work. My own mother, who was a widow, understood that sometimes, as happened to her, women had to manage alone and bring up their children without the support of a man, and that earning sufficient money was possible only with an education.
However, in 2016, 59% of all undergraduates were women and now they lead the way in high achievement. We have the Equal Pay Act and other rights for women, including maternity leave and pension entitlement. But after 100 years of progress, as other noble Lords have said, only 34% of MPs and 26% of Lords are women. It seems scarcely believable that only since 1958 have women been Members of this House. Equally, 60% of FTSE companies have failed to meet the 25% target for female representatives on their boards—and, despite the Equal Pay Act, the gender pay gap is still widening: it was 18.1% in 2016 and 18.4% in 2017.
Unsurprisingly, the historic gender pay gap results in a pension pay gap across every occupation. A report published in January 2018 from Aegon demonstrates that the pension pay gap gets worse as women get older. At 50, the average female pension is worth £56,116, and the average male pension is worth £112,789. A woman would have to find a contribution of £360 a month to gain equality with a man.
A recent IFS report says that for every £1 a man receives, a woman receives £32. Nearly a quarter of single female pensioners live in poverty. Women suffer as a result of the gender pay gap; they are not treated equally, so pension contributions are also unequal. Women suffer even at the end of their lives for having taken breaks in their career to have and bring up children. They are often in low-paid jobs with little pension, and are more likely to be part-time workers with limited entitlement. The OECD reports that the UK has the lowest state pension of any developed country as a percentage of earnings. There is also a high dependence on private pensions, where women receive much less than men. So I hope that, as part of the legacy of 100 years of women’s franchise, a revisiting of women’s pension rights—including the 1950s WASPI women, as described by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Donaghy—will pave the way for fair treatment of women and will provide all women with a pension they can live on.
The sacrifice made by so many campaigners places a responsibility on us all. We must step up the fight for equality of representation, reinvigorate our democracy and extend participation, and battle as the suffragettes did to end the injustice still suffered by so many women throughout their lives.
First, can I say how proud I am to be part of the 25% of speakers—in other words, men—who are speaking this afternoon and this evening? I hope that next year we can get closer to parity—so I shall be enlisting the help and support of my noble friend Lady Jenkin in this cause.
This debate is about the long fight for women to play their full part in the public life of our country. It is about the long battle against the deeply entrenched prejudice that there are jobs that women cannot do, should not do, or cannot do as well as men. The battle has gone on for a century—and it still goes on. Many noble Lords have of course mentioned the Act passed in 1918, which gave women—although only some—the vote and which allowed them to stand for the House of Commons. But a long road still lay ahead. It took another 40 years before women could become Peers and Members of the House of Lords.
Fast forward to 1957, when Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Government brought in the Life Peerages Bill. The Bill was broadly welcomed, but there was opposition to one provision: the admission of female Peers. I will give your Lordships an indication of the kind of prejudice that the campaigners were up against, even as recently as the 1950s. I will read to your Lordships what one Peer said in that debate:
“Frankly, I find women in politics highly distasteful … I believe that there are certain duties and certain responsibilities which nature and custom have decreed men are more fitted to take on … It is generally accepted … that a man’s judgment is generally more logical and less tempestuous than that of a woman. Why then should we encourage women to eat their way, like acid into metal, into positions of trust and responsibility which previously men have held? … If we allow women into this House, where will this emancipation end?”.
He ended his speech by saying that,
“we like women: we admire them; sometimes we even grow fond of them; but we do not like them here”.—[
Fortunately, the House of Lords overruled him. To give that Peer credit, 25 years later he happily and loyally served in the Government of Margaret Thatcher and disowned his remarks.
However, progress elsewhere was still slow. I was amazed to realise that it was not until the 1960s that we had the first female judge, and we had to wait until the 1970s before women were admitted as members of the London Stock Exchange. Then there was a big breakthrough in 1975 with the election of a woman to lead the Conservative Party. At the time, many people thought that a woman leader, whom they caricatured as shrill and shallow, would be an electoral disaster for the Conservatives. I am told that on the evening that Mrs Thatcher was elected leader, Denis Healey went round the House of Commons poking Conservative MPs in the ribs and saying, “Out for a generation. Out for a generation”. Of course, Mrs Thatcher became the longest-serving Prime Minister of the century.
Whatever one thinks of her politics, she showed the world and a new generation of women that a woman can do a man’s job. Indeed, so much so that when in 1990 John Major became Prime Minister, my 11 year-old niece was shocked to find a man doing the job. She thought that, with the Queen as sovereign and Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister, women running the country in a kind of matriarchy was the norm and that a male Prime Minister was rather strange.
But still the battle had to go on—and it carries on today, well into the 21st century. I refer of course to the BBC. The BBC apparently committed to transparency—but in name only, because for years it hid the gender pay gap, which at last has been exposed. I saw Carrie Gracie give evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee last week. I heard her say, as people will have read, how the BBC had tried to justify her unequal pay by telling her that for the first three years as the BBC’s China editor she had been “in development”. Those in the BBC responsible for that should be ashamed of themselves. Christina Lamb, the highly distinguished journalist who has worked for the Financial Times and the Sunday Times, was on “Desert Island Discs” a couple of weeks ago. She said that in 30 years she had never had a female foreign or news editor.
So prejudice persists and, sadly, it still does in some areas of politics. Seven years ago, in 2010, John McDonnell MP said that he wished he could go back in time and assassinate Margaret Thatcher. Then in 2014 he repeated remarks which had been made by somebody else about lynching Esther McVey. I played it back last night. Far from condemning the remarks, he quoted them approvingly—and they were followed by laughter from the audience. I know that he has now tried to disown those remarks—and rightly so, because surely, following the murder of Jo Cox, people should realise how inflammatory and dangerous such casual language can be. Therefore, I welcome the prospect of legislation from this Government to protect parliamentary candidates from abuse and intimidation.
This is a hugely important debate and I have only one regret—I wish that more men were taking part in it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, and perhaps I may match him story for story. In 1834, when this building was burned down, the House of Commons had to meet in the old House of Lords, which had somehow miraculously survived. In 1835 there was a proposal that galleries should be added to the Chamber so that women could come to watch the proceedings. The House of Commons, to a man, was shocked at the idea that women should be allowed to watch them. As one Member said, if women were there, it would cramp their style—I have put that into modern parlance—and therefore it would be a bad thing. Luckily, they were overruled and women were able to watch politicians in Parliament. So progress has been made, although it has been rather slow.
I have another story. In about 1974—I think it was before Mrs Thatcher was elected as leader—I was babysitting my young daughter, who was about two or three years old, and I took her to the LSE. It was a glorious summer’s day and we were standing outside a pub. Robert McKenzie, my colleague at the LSE, was there and I said, “What do you think of Shirley Williams’s future? How soon do you think she could be Prime Minister?”. Robert McKenzie looked at my daughter and said, “It will be lucky if we have a woman Prime Minister by the time your daughter attains maturity”. In 1974 he thought that there would not be a woman Prime Minister for another 20 years. So sometimes time speeds up and sometimes it is very slow.
We have heard lots of very good speeches, especially reminiscences and examples of people who are not in the public eye. I want to make a suggestion which has not been made so far. I think that we need a museum for the women’s franchise and their struggle for the vote. I have recently been associated with another museum which my wife has set up, the theme of which is the partition of India and Pakistan. Memories are still alive there—they have been recorded. We can still record people’s memories about their mothers and other people they knew. Those memories of women who were local councillors, mayors and so on need to be preserved for posterity. If we do not do so, they will be lost. It would involve a lot of work and a lot of money, which I am sure could be raised from private donations. I urge not necessarily the Government but people here to make a concerted effort to set up a museum to pay tribute to women’s progress in our society. Of course, there has not been enough progress, as we all know.
In this debate there has been talk about suffragettes versus suffragists, but I do not think you can have one without the other. The suffragists, starting in the 1890s, patiently burrowed away at Parliament but eventually it was the suffragettes who made progress. They may have publicly lost the support of the Commons but I can tell your Lordships that the Members of the Commons were frightened out of their wits. The suffragette movement was perhaps the most violent political movement in the British Isles—even more violent than many trade union movements had previously been. However, something like that had to be done to wake people up to the fact that there was a burning desire on the part of women to get some sort of equality. Of course, the First World War helped as well. It was not just the suffragettes and suffragists; Rosie the Riveter helped too. Had women not worked as a vital part of the wartime economy, men would not have realised that women could do more than just sit at home and cook. Therefore, those three things—the suffragettes, the suffragists and the First World War—together were very helpful in building the case for women’s suffrage.
Many noble Lords have mentioned that, yes, there has been equal suffrage, but there has not been equality. One has to say that getting the vote is a very small part of the struggle for equality. There is no equality among men, there is no equality among women and there is no equality between men and women. Political action and political democracy is a very small part of what generates the day-to-day inequalities in income and wealth. We could talk about all sorts of disadvantages that we find very hard to remove, and there are parts of the world that still have gender selection of children. Women suffer disadvantages from birth onwards. Very often, even well-to-do families will send their boys to private school but their girls to the local state school. The advantages for the male child are built in from the early years onwards. Those things add up.
Substantial equality between men and women and between all people is a distant goal that we will be able to achieve, but political action is one thing that we can do now collectively. That is why it is important that we go on, through the legislative process, trying to remove the many disadvantages that women suffer. We must hope that, in the future, other people will follow our path and achieve equality. So I welcome this debate and I look forward to the debate in 10 years’ time, when we will celebrate the centenary of universal adult franchise. That is when the country became a real democracy.
Let me add one more thing. The impact of 1918 and 1928 was even more profound on the Commonwealth. All the countries that became independent from the Commonwealth had, at the outset, universal adult franchise. India had universal franchise for men and women in 1950, upon its birth. That would not have happened without 1918. That is a tribute to what was achieved.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Vere of Norbiton for moving this Motion to mark 100 years of women winning the right to vote. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai, with whom I agreed on quite a lot.
It is always good to stand and reflect on how far we have come and how much more there is to achieve. It is right to pay tribute to the extraordinary—and the ordinary—women who put their lives on the line for equality, and to those who have tirelessly and passionately advanced the cause, a number of whom are sitting in the Chamber this evening. But we should remember the motto adopted by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters when they founded the WSPU: “Deeds not words”. It is easy to talk about equality and to impose arbitrary quotas. It is far harder to ensure that all talent flourishes and to show the courage, honesty and relentless determination needed to tackle the real problems.
The increase in the number of female Conservative MPs owes a huge debt to a force of Baronesses—my noble friend Lord Sherbourne assured me earlier that “force” was the correct collective noun. The combined force of my noble friends Lady Seccombe, Lady Morris and Lady Jenkin has certainly helped to support and promote many female MPs and candidates. I know that when my noble friend Lord Maude, as party chairman, made it his mission that the Conservative Party’s MPs should be more representative of modern Britain, many were sceptical about whether we could succeed without all-women shortlists. I have heard the persuasive arguments in the Chamber, but I still believe that quotas and targets are rarely the answer by themselves. Persuasion and merit work far better.
While the battle is well under way, it is far from won. The moral and business cases for promoting women are beyond question, so we need to ask ourselves why more women do not rise to the top tiers of public life. While organisations mostly acknowledge the need to be more inclusive and policy intentions are clear, their implementation is often inconsistent, unco-ordinated and lacking in real drive and commitment. “Deeds not words” must remain the maxim.
The narrow focus on targets and quotas has failed to change the culture, and indeed can sometimes harm the cause. Our successful experience during the coalition Government of increasing the number of women appointed to the boards of public bodies demonstrated that quotas in isolation had previously failed to work. They failed to address the real barriers and obstacles that women faced. A key point was that the insistence on track record and proven experience meant that the same candidates were constantly being recycled from one board to another and did not allow for new participants. By replacing such a requirement with an emphasis on talent and ability, we managed to expand the field of female candidates. We made other small changes, such as the requirement that job advertisements should be written in intelligible English, and we held events to persuade and encourage women to apply. It was not rocket science, but the difference was quite clear: over 45% of appointments to public bodies in 2016-17 were to women, which continued an upward trend from five years ago when the figure stood at 34%.
We applied a similar practical approach when tackling gender diversity in the Civil Service. We commissioned a report from the Hay Group, which was given a remit to be brutally honest, identify real problems and barriers, and make practical recommendations. Its Women in Whitehall report was an eye-opener. Despite policy being broadly in line with best practice, and in some cases described as “leading edge”, the culture and leadership climate was identified as preventing women progressing into senior roles. Line manager practice was variable, so experiences of leadership and talent were something of a lottery. Many women simply did not believe that the rhetoric on policy and promotions matched the reality on skills and behaviours.
I do not have time to go into all the detailed findings, and I am sure noble Lords are grateful for that, but I will highlight some of the more revealing. One man described the contrast between the stated way that promotions are made—on competence—and the way that they are really made, which was on personal recommendation and cronyism. A woman described how she applied for a promotion but failed to get an interview because,
“I would have performed better than preferred candidate—it was his turn for promotion”.
The leaders of the Civil Service were described as simply “not leading” and the culture as “cut-throat and underhand”. It was all quite shocking, and we commissioned further reports on LGBT, BME and those with disabilities, which in turn informed the Talent Action Plan, published in March 2015.
I mention this plan because I fear that what has subsequently happened highlights the ongoing gap between words and deeds. The Talent Action Plan was a two-year plan with key deliverables and specific and measurable objectives. In March 2016, the Cabinet Office published a detailed progress report, highlighting an increase in unconscious bias training and that all Permanent Secretaries now had diversity objectives. However, it is relatively easy to increase training and to write objectives. It is far harder to address underlying problems of culture and the various application of policies across departments. The two-year progress report on the implementation of the Talent Action Plan was due last March. It has not been published. The Minister for BEIS at the time wrote after a debate in April to say that the,
“Civil Service has implemented the majority of actions”.
The plan has now been superseded by the diversity and inclusion strategy, which tells us:
“We have made good progress but we know that we need to go further”.
There is no granular and transparent evidence to show what practical advances were made, what remedies worked and what the practical issues remain. This was the original commitment. I worry that without such focus the diversity and inclusion strategy will be yet another grand strategy, full of bland and worthy platitudes, but which, like so many, fails to implement itself.
The commitment to women’s progress in public life is hard work and we need to get it right. It requires strong leadership and concerted action. I applaud, admire and pay tribute to those who fight, and who have fought, long and hard, but the battle is not over. It will not be over until the old joke—“That’s a very good point, Miss Smith, perhaps a man would like to make it”—becomes unrecognisable and part of history. I fear that we are still some way off that time.
It is a great pleasure to follow my colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, who has been working on the issues that I and others have been working on and will talk about this evening. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for arranging this historic debate today to celebrate 100 years of the Representation of the People Act 1918 receiving Royal Assent and the continuing role of women in public life. What would have happened without the passion and commitment of our ancestors, those old, young and from all work walks of life who were bound together to pursue, demonstrate and lobby politicians until it was accepted that women should have the vote? They went down many difficult roads
In 1918, the vote gave women from the age of 30 with property the right to vote in parliamentary elections for the first time. The key development of women having the right to stand for election to the House of Commons quickly followed. In 1928, women had equal voting rights to men. In our House, it took some time and we saw the creation of women life Peers in 1958. I thank the late Baroness Bea Serota who was a great mentor to me. When I was a local councillor, she was in Camden while I was in Brent. When I came to this House, she was wonderful to me right up until she died.
I would like to think that, in Great Britain, we are leading the world on women in public life. To an extent we are, compared with a lot of other places, including America, which I have to say is going backwards. We were brought up years ago to think that America was the future, but it is no longer and they are having to fight today to keep the rights that none of us thought would be taken away from women. We must also look today to ensure that the rights that we have can never be taken from us.
Great Britain has women in public life. We have more women qualified as lawyers, doctors, engineers and accountants and in the STEM subjects. But where are they at the top? They are not getting the opportunity to move further up, and we have to fight for that.
The debate is to celebrate what we have achieved in the past and where we wish to be. Moving forward, after the next general election, I think that we are agreed across the political divide that we would like to see a larger proportion of women in Parliament and in the elected Assemblies. We should be striving for 50%. To achieve that, political parties must agree to having all-women shortlists for the next three elections. It is possible under the Equality Act. We should take a lead from my party, which did this with the help of the trade unions and the leadership of Harriet Harman and Prime Minister Blair. That made the change for our party. Unfortunately, we did not continue in that way with all-women shortlists and there were other difficulties around the electorate. We should try together to push for that because that will really make the change.
Women are often discouraged from standing because of the violence and verbal harassment against other women politicians that they have seen in the media and in the way that they have been stalked. We need to see legislation tougher and quicker in these situations.
We must look for a way to make the pipeline easier for women to become interested in politics—not just turning up, as we all know, to the dreadful branch meetings that are all right for the very committed. They will come later. Let us really encourage women; then they can see some of the more boring sides of life, which are also important because we cannot get policy change without meeting with the electorate.
With Britain’s influence, we can persuade other countries to have better representation of women. We know in countries that are war-torn, part of the peace process is to have a 50:50 Parliament. On that issue, we must also ensure that Britain takes a firm stand about women at the peace table. Local women are there. They make the decisions, as I have told this House many times. War is over when women say that enough is enough. They have every right to be at the peace table, as they fought for in Northern Ireland. We need to have more women who are trained, as they are being trained at the LSE and in Georgetown, to be part of that peace process with other women parliamentarians. When women are in Parliament and at the peace table, the peace lasts; when it is only men, it lasts five minutes. It is an important issue for us and for this House. Women bear the brunt of all of this.
I ask noble Lords to think about the women in the FTSE 100 and in the 250. Where are the women CEOs? The disproportionate number of women is staggering. In 2010, the 30% Club was launched in the United Kingdom by myself and my colleague Dame Helena Morrissey and it is now in many major countries around the world. The goal is to reach a percentage of 30% of women executives in the boardroom and on executive committees by 2020. The 30% Club has developed what has become an international business-led approach for developing a pipeline of senior executive talent. The 30% Club does not believe in quotas. We believe in a voluntary, business-led approach to realise meaningful and sustainable change.
Our plan works in conjunction with senior business leaders, government, men and women working together to achieve measurable change. Our strategies complement individual company approaches and networking. With the help of the Davies commission and now Hampton-Alexander, we hope to be able to take things further forward.
Statistics show that companies with more diverse boards perform better. One reason is that diverse boards often better mirror customer and client bases. Having a diverse board can help better understand purchasing and consumption decisions, particularly because women drive 70% to 80% of all purchasing. Listening to and including the viewpoints of a diverse board brings a new perspective and new ideas. Above all, it helps the organisation to succeed.
I ask noble Lords today not only to acknowledge and celebrate the changes that have taken place for women in the past 100 years but to realise that, deep within, these changes took strength, grit and perseverance to come to fruition. I ask all of us in this Room to capture a sense of that strength and courage in order to continue to take action for true equality for women. It was not easy 100 years ago for our forefathers who started the momentum. It is our job and our duty to continue to look for a robust pipeline for the future leaders of this country.
Yes. I thought that my spiritual gum-shield might be required today.
If we accept that we have a society comprised of more than 50% of one group, that group should probably be represented in roughly that number among those who make the decisions about it. You will understand it better and have a better way in and so forth. You will be able to understand the pressures and things going on. That is a reasonable assumption to make. But it is one that has the weight of history against it. It also has a great track record of people trying to change that. That is what drew me to this debate. Why has it not happened?
A hundred years ago, women arrived as voters, and very closely after that they arrived as representatives. Then there was a very staggered process through. The amazing thing, looking at the guidance provided by the Library, was that in 1964 we had 29 female MPs. We did not exceed that number until 1987—six general elections in a row there were fewer. That suggests that positive action is required. Then we should discuss what type of action.
We have heard two primary schools of thought here—either to change the structure or to drive change through by action out there with shortlists. I suspect that we will have to work from both to achieve change if we are not to wait another 100 years to get close. But if we achieve change only by affirmative action, we have also failed. You have achieved balance when getting 50% is not a big deal and is not a surprise. You have it when you get to the point where you can say, “This time it was 52% and then it was 48%”. That is what happens when you achieve true equality.
How do we get there? The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, who is also a friend, said that we should work across the parties and learn from each other. That is because we seem to agree on the target. There are different ways to move forward and different pressures, but unless we start to learn from each other, we are not actually going to achieve the target. The cultures and political stresses in the parties will fight against each other and slow things down unless we can establish a degree of consensus. The great virtue of this House is that we can probably start to get some consensus a little more easily than you can down the Corridor, and that is a fact. We are dealing with a practical question, and unless we work together, we will not get there as quickly, easily and sustainably as we might otherwise.
The other thing that attracted me to this debate was the fact that gender balance in representation is another example of how, if you want to change society, you have to be incredibly persistent. Most of the activities I have taken on in this House have been in the area of disability, where you hear similar types of arguments in different packages: “Oh, you can’t do that because”, or, “I know we can make the change, but really we haven’t done it before”, or, “What do you mean I have got to change the way I behave?”. That last is the worst one, and if anyone who has worked in this field has not come across it, I will buy them many beers. It is something that we have to address, so taking the messages from this area of social change is very valuable because, let us face it, it is the one which has the most experience and the most form. You also have potentially the biggest lobby, and it might set good examples to help you carry on. But unless there is a coherent attitude of persistence by saying that certain changes must be made, all of these areas will struggle.
We hear things like, “It doesn’t concern me and it’s okay because no one’s complained”. That is the best one. “We have never asked the question, we have never considered it, it has never arisen, so there is no problem and let’s move on”. You might hear, “We’ve passed a bit of legislation, so for the politicians the job is done”. We only get dragged back to look at an issue when the campaigners say, “It hasn’t worked”, or, “It hasn’t worked properly”. We must take this example into all areas of social change so that we go back, re-examine and make sure that what we are doing is right. Ultimately, time has to be spent on readdressing issues.
What we do not do, and this is a problem across Parliament as a whole, is say, “Okay, we have passed the law, so now let’s see how it works in practice”. If we had done that in the areas I have talked about and in the areas other noble Lords could talk about it—if passing a law were enough—there would not be a problem. “We have the Equality Act. Hey, job done and problem solved. Go away”. But it does not happen like that, because you have to go in and back it up. We have two models in this area: affirmative action and culture change. Unless we learn to bring them together, we are going to come back and applaud ourselves for making small changes, not for the big ones. I hope that we can make progress and take the examples set in this area into other parts of our society that desperately need them.
My Lords, I agree with so much of what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, has just said. Women are now leading and shaping this country like never before, but while it is right to recognise progress, it would be wrong to become complacent. I am afraid that once you scratch the surface, it is clear that there is still significant inequality of power between men and women in this country. The quality of women in Parliament does go some way to making up for the lack of quantity, and we on the Conservative Benches owe my noble friends Lady Jenkin, Lady Seccombe and Lady Morris a great deal on this front. So although the situation is much improved, female levels of representation are still a long way from being good enough. We, like the other place, need to be more representative of society generally, and if not, we surely risk being irrelevant and some of the rocks that are thrown at us are sometimes justified.
We all know why women are not running into politics in their droves. Spectacles like PMQs, with all its braying and shouting, are big turn-offs, as is the combative, aggressive default position of many politicians. We need to show each other more respect in politics. We all want the same thing after all, which is to make the country a better place, but we sometimes disagree on the route to get there. More signs of working together to get the right outcome and less division would make political life more appealing to many people, and not just women. We also need to practise what we preach in Westminster. There would be outrage if business tried to ape some of our loose employment structures. Harriet Harman made this point well last week. If we want more women to seriously consider politics as a career, which no one disputes we do, then we have to find ways to make ourselves more appealing and more modern.
The media also have a part to play in this. I do not suggest that they should stop holding politicians to account by going soft, but I do think the relentless aggression sometimes shown to reasonable politicians simply setting out their stall must surely eat away at the numbers of women wanting to sign up to life as an MP. Technology is supposed to be a great leveller, but with the easy availability of hardcore porn often degrading women and the seemingly endless pressure to be body beautiful, social media need to make sure they do not play an unintended part in holding women back. Moreover, the persistent trolling and intimidation of MPs, or indeed anyone, on Twitter for standing up for their views is a sickening and unattractive development of public life.
This debate is about recognising the progress that has been made in increasing our numbers in Parliament, but we have a duty to represent those who are nowhere near public life, and I want to broaden my speech out with that in mind. All of us recognise that there is no easy switch that can simply be flicked to solve the stubborn issue of gender inequality. The subject is complex and tied up with long-standing cultural attitudes that both men and women still hold. While I do not pretend to have all the answers, a good place to start is being more honest and open about the potential barriers.
First, deeply ingrained gender stereotyping starts early on. When my daughter was barely four years-old she bounced in to the kitchen saying, “Mummy, I want to be a nurse”. I was delighted, until she followed up by saying, “I would quite like to be a doctor, but only boys can be doctors”. This was last year. I have no idea where she gets this into her head—in fact I do, it is “Peppa Pig”, but moving on—but it serves to highlight my point that it starts early and is very subtle. It can still subconsciously drive women and men down different paths.
Secondly, we should be open and cognisant of the female tendency to be a bit more cautious. I have done it myself and I have witnessed it time and again in both my professional and my personal life—passing off opportunities or perhaps not speaking out in that crowded meeting because I did not feel 100% qualified. We need to engender girls from an early age with a strong and resilient self-belief. We also need to keep that ambition going throughout their lives.
I also thank my mother, who is watching this debate. She gave up her career to look after us, so I owe her a great deal. To borrow a phrase from others this evening, I do indeed stand on her shoulders.
I have been unbelievably fortunate in my career. I have had several brilliant bosses—all male, I might add—who never put any limitations on what they felt I could achieve. I drew enormous confidence and strength from their belief in me. I do not think it can be underestimated how powerful mentoring and coaching can be. It frustrates me that it is very often still only the preserve of senior executives. It should be encouraged right from the get go, starting in education and continuing throughout a career.
Finally, on children and jobs, we should be honest about how challenging this can be, if and when children come along. All the talk of superwomen having it all is not very helpful to most women in this country. “Leaning in” is all very well if you are a highly paid executive with wraparound childcare, but less so if you are a single parent or if both of you work very long hours and there is a hard stop for nursery pick-up. It also should not be a crime against your career to want to see your children awake during the week.
Organisations that show little or no flexibility will lose good people, but particularly women. Women do not want special treatment, but we do deserve a level playing field. If a woman takes time out to have a child then companies must try to ensure that the broken service does not serve to level off her opportunities. They must also try to help her maintain the same level of ambition.
Laws and legislation are not the only answer, but the Government should be rightly praised for the proactive role they have played. Shared parental leave and gender pay reporting are arguably the biggest thunderclap moments for this agenda in many years. Legislation makes organisations and companies look at themselves in the mirror and ask painful questions, forcing them to interrogate internally. “Could we change the culture at the top to promote fairness? Are we creating an environment where the juggle is sustainable? Is there flexibility? Is there an option of a meaningful job share, weekend travel bans and”—most importantly in my mind—“a stamping out of a macho culture that sniggers behind its hand at shared parental leave or dads playing a bigger role?”. Equality at home is the ultimate game-changer for equality in the workplace.
Nothing in isolation offers an overnight panacea, but I hope they all add up and over time help to shift attitudes even further. The signs are good: the intellectual argument has been won. Nobody could argue that society is not far healthier if it is balanced and fair, but we must march on and keep the pressure up to make sure a debate such as this at the bicentenary would be long obsolete.
My Lords, I so welcome this debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, for introducing it with such vigour. Speeches from men and women in such debates are always enjoyable and powerful. It is always wonderful to hear how so many amazing women are being celebrated. Women may not be content, rightly, with underrepresentation in Parliament or in top jobs, with unequal pay and other gender discrimination, and with unacceptable harassment and abuse, but women have much to be proud of and to rejoice in.
I am proud that last week, in the Second Reading of the withdrawal Bill in your Lordships’ House, 48 women spoke confidently and incisively on divisive issues. From these Benches, I was proud of the scintillating performances of my noble friends Lady Smith and Lady Hayter, a team who have worked tirelessly, endlessly and patiently to present so effectively the complexities facing us regarding Brexit. The debate was relatively respectful and good humoured on all sides, from men and women. It was an example of knowledgeable and analytical presentation, enhanced, I believe, by the presence of women, just as I believe that today’s debate is enhanced by the participation of 10 men—most of them are not here, but there were 10 altogether. I am proud that women are moved to protest against put-downs, insults and affronts to their bodies. On
It is a good sign that one daily newspaper last week had a huge spread on the history of women’s suffrage. It is wonderful that cities around the UK will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act in dynamic ways in the coming months. I know there are problems with grass-roots funding for projects and I regret that, but today in my local tourist office in Lewes, Sussex, I saw a wonderful window display on women and the vote, together with comments from young people expressing their disappointment that they are not able to vote at 16. I agree with them. I look forward to the Museum of London’s “Votes for Women” exhibition, our own parliamentary “Voice and Vote” in Westminster Hall and the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester’s year-long celebration of the suffragette movement.
Manchester was, of course, where Emmeline Pankhurst held the first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. It may not be generally known that Pankhurst was voted the greatest northerner in history in a recent poll. A statue to her will be unveiled in Manchester in 2019. I was born and brought up close to Manchester and I am proud of the northern suffragettes; not all upper-class ladies but also women who worked in mills and in domestic service. In passing, I say that while we celebrate women in public life we should also celebrate the women who may never be in public life, nationally or internationally, but who work hard and diligently to bring up children, to care for members of their family, to do volunteer work, work in the professions and toil in the lower ranks of politics—we all know what that is like. Here’s to them.
Just after the women’s march, I read in an American magazine comments on the #MeToo movement. It reminded me that women attain professional goals, or sometimes simply do a job, under duress and discrimination. This means that courage and drive play a part. I quote from that article:
“Women in positions of power know one thing for sure: they’re leaving the world a much better place than they found it”.
Studies have shown that female participation in the labour market improves the strength of economies. From working on boards and in Parliament, I believe that women’s contributions improve the depth and quality of decision-making. There is much more to be done in persuading women into and retaining them in public life. It is true that powerful women will leave a legacy, but not without tapping the shoulders of the next generation to continue the fight.
Speaking of tapping the shoulder, Millicent Fawcett acknowledged Mary Wollstonecraft as the “leader in the battle” for votes. One was born in 1759, the other in 1847. Fawcett will shortly have a statue in Parliament Square. Wollstonecraft, for some inexplicable reason, has no memorial except her novels, histories, the great treatise “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” and, of course, as the mother of Mary Shelley. Surely it is time that she received some visible accolade as a leader in the feminist movement.
I move on to more recent events, with two women of contrasting backgrounds that I want to mention again. Nancy Astor became the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. In her maiden speech she spoke these words:
“I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/2/20; col. 1631.]
It is a familiar theme in our Parliament. Margaret Bondfield, a working-class girl from Somerset, became the first female Cabinet member in 1929, in a Labour Government. She witnessed first-hand the drudgery of women and the lack of prospects for women shop workers, and became an active union member, determined to improve equality for women. I cite but two examples of women politicians down the years who have striven mightily for justice and democracy. There have so been many and I am delighted that today we acknowledge and celebrate them.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Vere of Norbiton for moving the Motion marking such a monumental milestone in the life of our democracy and, indeed, civilisation. Although it was long overdue, it is hard to believe that a whole century has passed since women over 30 were allowed to vote in parliamentary elections for the first time, so significant have the achievements been since then. Who could possibly have conceived that only 51 years after the 1928 Act which gave women the right to vote on the same terms as men, we would have our first woman Prime Minister and now, 90 years later, our second? What a tribute that simple fact is to women, to have overcome such prejudice in the public service of our country and its people, and how much richer we are as a society for that, in so many ways. Yet it is worth reflecting that until relatively recently all of this was a pipe dream. As the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, who would have thought it possible?
I will not repeat the key developments about which we have already heard from my noble friend and other noble Lords. I am sure they fill us all both with pride in the progress that has been made to date and, as other noble Lords, such as the noble Baronesses, Lady Gale and Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, have argued, an impatience for the further progress that still needs to be made to ensure that women realise their potential in public life. I say that not just because I acknowledge their right to realise their potential but because it is something that society has a direct stake in—as my noble friend Lady Seccombe told us, it is society as a whole that benefits and has benefited so much over the past 100 years as women have contributed more and more to our parliamentary democracy and other fields.
Marking this centenary is of course a cause for celebration, and yet it is more than that. The remarkable progress achieved by women in public life, particularly when one considers for how long their exclusion had been normalised, is also a cause for hope, not just for other women but for me personally and other disabled people who still face discrimination, as I appreciate some women do—although, I would suggest, to a lesser extent, at least here in the UK. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned disability. We are light years behind the progress made by women. Disability discrimination is still embedded in our culture. Nowhere is it more normalised—more institutionalised—than in the way that a human being diagnosed before birth with a disability such as mine is devalued on account of their disability, to the extent that they are regarded not just as worth less than a non-disabled human being but as worthless, disposable right up to birth, specifically for being diagnosed with a disability.
So why do I, as a severely disabled person, draw hope from this centenary? I do so because it reminds us of a simple but fundamentally important lesson which the experience of the past 100 years teaches us, which is that, as my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, highlighted, attitudes change; that how we look at each other and how we value each other can change so radically as to be revolutionary; and that progress which once seemed inconceivable can be achieved and enduring cultural change can follow.
I will always remember reading as a teenager about someone I do not think has been mentioned so far: Emily Davison, a suffragette who tragically lost—many say gave—her life when she ran in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby 105 years ago in 1913. I ask that while we reflect on her sacrifice for the right to vote, we also reflect on all those human beings diagnosed as female and disabled before birth, whose equal right to exist, to become women, to vote and to contribute to public life has been denied on account not of their sex but of their disability. Their potential contribution—perhaps one of them could have been our first disabled woman Prime Minister—has been lost for ever because the diagnosis of disability before birth denied them the most basic right of all, the equal right to exist. That is our tragic loss as a Parliament and as a people.
I close with this question for the Minister: would it not be wonderful to have as a clear goal the election of many more disabled women to show by their example, as their non-disabled counterparts have done, that being born with a disability need not prevent a woman—or, for that matter, a man—making a significant contribution to public life in the service of our great country? What better way to build on the progress of the suffragettes and since, and thereby disprove enduring discriminatory attitudes that so devalue disabled human beings, male and female alike, before they are even born?
My Lords, like many other speakers in today’s debate, I took inspiration from a couple of women I know of. The first was my great-grandmother, who got up before dawn to make sure that she was the first woman who voted in her mining village in Scotland. The second was called Elizabeth Downie. In 1948, I understand, she proposed the resolution to the NALGO conference to get rid of the married women’s work bar. Within her family, she was known as “Red Betty”. Some years later, when I started to go out with her daughter, who is now my wife, I am not sure what alarmed her more: the fact that her daughter had taken up with a woman or the fact that I was a Liberal Democrat.
The theme I want to explore this evening is hidden history. I was inspired in part by going to a lecture at the LSE library last week. It was about Sapphic suffragettes. It is possible that they were not all straight. It is a bit more difficult to assert that some of them were lesbians, but there is a fairly reasonable case to be made that they could have been, and there is a very good case to go back and take away some of the myths that have grown up around the suffragettes, particularly about the First World War being the reason legislative change came around. There is a case to be made that these women were so well organised and so strategic in what they did that it became apparent to people such as Lloyd George that they absolutely were responsible enough to vote.
But I want to talk about these hidden giants on whose shoulders we are standing. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, was absolutely right that it did not all start in 1918: this was the culmination of something that had been going on for a long time. Noble Lords and noble Baronesses will have walked through Westminster Hall and seen that wonderful artwork “New Dawn”, which marks John Stuart Mill’s presentation of the first petition for women’s franchise. What your Lordships probably do not know is that he was heavily influenced by a wonderful woman called Harriet Taylor, whom he ultimately married. It was she who campaigned away against the prison that marriage was back in the Victorian era and against the harm that happened to women because they had to be economically dependent on men and were treated as no better than chattels.
Another person I doubt very many of your Lordships will have heard about, but who ought to be an inspiration, is Viscountess Rhondda, an amazing woman from south Wales. She inherited her father’s business and, during her lifetime, was a director of more than 33 companies. Extraordinarily, she and her father survived the sinking of the “Lusitania”. After inheriting his business, she went on to set up Time and Tide, the famous progressive women’s magazine. She campaigned tirelessly for women to inherit their titles and sit in this Chamber. She tried to argue this on the 1918 legislation, which talks about women not being barred from any public office, but she did not succeed. We heard the quote from Earl Ferrers earlier, about the admission of women in the 1950s. My other favourite quote from that same debate—the clincher that the men put forward to keep women out—was that to admit women would play havoc with the plumbing. In light of restoration and renewal, maybe they were right. Sadly, Lady Rhondda died moments before that legislation came in. But she was a brilliant woman and, what is more, a lesbian. There are all these people who have parts of their lives and inspirations to what they do that have been hidden for a very long time. We quite often miss the diversity of women’s experiences, inside and outside Parliament, in this fight.
There are so many women who have been truly inspirational. This place is one of immense privilege, but none beats being a colleague of Shirley Williams. She was an absolute inspiration to me when I was a kid and has worked tirelessly to inspire women to come forward, to get their elbows out with the men in the room and to argue for equality.
We have some considerable way to go. We are extraordinarily lucky to be women who live in this country. I know, as a woman from my community, that I am extraordinarily lucky to be who I am at this point in time, when I can be open about being a part of my community and can bring that to discussions in your Lordships’ House. We are not fully there in terms of diversity yet. I hope that before too long, somewhere in Parliament, we will have representatives of the trans community. I hope they will be elected in another place. Would that not be a slap in the face to that woman on the Times who is giving that community a real battering at the moment? They really do need some support.
I will end with a couple of points. Many have talked about statues today. I understand why your Lordships want to do that and why it is important to increase the visibility of women. But I am much more interested in our passing on a different legacy to the next generation, and that we inspire them to be involved and to follow us and tear down some of the walls in this building. I was really pleased during the last election to take part in the “register her to vote” campaign that was happening on Twitter, to get young women registered to vote. I hope the Government will support that and other initiatives. A terrifying statistic is that in 2015, 9 million women who could have voted did not. A number of noble Baronesses will, like me, have stood on doorsteps over the years listening to young women saying, “I really don’t see why I should vote”. Fortunately, it has been a long time since I heard, “I don’t know how we’re voting; my husband hasn’t told us”. It is really important that we inspire young women to vote. I hope Peers will go out and actively support the work of organisations such as the Patchwork Foundation, which seeks to demonstrate through role models to young people from disadvantaged communities that they too have a place in public life and a valuable contribution to make.
I have been inspired to go back and read history and learn the lessons from wonderful women such as Eleanor Roosevelt. She inspired me to look again at that very dry subject of human rights and to ensure that in all that comes before our Parliament—especially in everything that will come before us in the next few months—we never lose sight of women’s rights and human rights, and that we never assume that they have been won and are safe. We have to continue to work for them. We have to recruit and inspire new generations of young men and women to come and join us in the battle.
My Lords, as one of the last Back-Bench speakers speaking today, I thank my noble friend Lady Vere for introducing this important debate. We have heard some deeply moving speeches, reflecting the contribution that women have made over the past 100 years.
I will begin with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, already mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. Not only was she the first female mayor in England but she established a new hospital for women in London in 1872 that was staffed only by women. It was an all-women organisation. She had struggled to qualify as a doctor because she was not accepted as she was not a man. Instead, she became a nursing student, later going on to train in Paris and eventually gaining her Society of Apothecaries certificate to become a doctor.
Elizabeth had a very clear vision of what she wanted to achieve—as did Alice Hawkins from Leicester, whose seven-foot statue was unveiled yesterday in the new market square. Alice left school at 13 and became a shoe machinist. She was actively involved in the Equity Shoes trade union, fighting for the rights of women. She attended the Women’s Social and Political Union rally in Hyde Park, which has already been mentioned, and over the following seven years she was arrested seven times and jailed five—the last time in Holloway, when they thought they had managed to persuade her otherwise.
My noble friend Lord Lexden spoke of Millicent Fawcett and the work done by the Fawcett Society and its members. Indeed, I believe that it is a combination of the approaches of both women, and their determination, that has led to the changes that we are celebrating today. It is true that both Elizabeth and Alice understood the inequalities of life at that time and fought long and hard to change attitudes—although I suspect that others will have come to the fore in very different ways.
One such woman was Rosa Parks, born in America 105 years ago yesterday. She is probably among the top 100 women recognised worldwide. I do not know where she got the confidence to do as she did and withstand the consequences, but she was the girl who, aged 15, refused to give up her seat and get off the bus. In her book, Standing up for Freedom, she said:
“You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right”.
Last week was the bicentenary of the Institute of Civil Engineers. I wondered whether even one of those founding fathers envisaged a future where the person directly responsible for the infrastructure of the 2012 London Olympics would be a woman. Louise Hardy was just that woman. She masterminded the installation of the roads, cables, telephone wires, broadband, water, sewage disposal, heating and everything else that went with it to make it the mammoth achievement that it became.
I have also chosen to talk about women in public life outside Parliament—those working in business and others serving in their communities, both locally and nationally. In the business world progress is being made—although it is slow, as others have indicated. In 2016 women occupied 35% of all managerial and senior positions, but in 2015, a year earlier, 25% of directors of FTSE 100 companies were women, which was an improvement, and I know that the target is now to increase this to 33% by 2020. In many small and medium-sized companies, women are taking the challenge to start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs in their own right. However, it is in bigger companies that women still struggle to reach the top.
I have been intrigued by Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, already referred to by my noble friend. Sheryl is chief operating officer at Facebook. She describes the inbuilt barriers to success. It is a fascinating read and I recommend it. She acknowledges that women in the developed world are better off than ever, but reflects that until women have supportive employers and colleagues, as well as partners who share family responsibilities, they do not really have that chance.
I turn to the City of London. I must admit that I was surprised that the name of Lady Donaldson was not included in the very good list of firsts for women in public life, as Lady Donaldson was the first woman Lord Mayor of the City of London back in 1983. She was followed by Dame Fiona Woolf in 2013. They are the only two women to hold this post. The role of Lord Mayor is not simply one of great occasions and grandeur but is much more about promoting UK business abroad: during their year the Lord Mayor will probably visit 50 countries, giving more than 900 speeches.
I have spoken about the contribution that women make to local government and the many hours they give to their communities. All of us here started somewhere. I began my public life with the Women’s Voluntary Service and continued with other organisations and charities. However, I pay great tribute to my noble friend Lady Seccombe, who was at the helm when I became involved with the Conservative Women’s Organisation. My noble friend is a good example of encouraging others to achieve their goals, and looking around her this evening she must reflect on the many hours she spent promoting and helping some of us women who are lucky enough to sit in this House. In the same way, my noble friend Lady Jenkin continues to help and inspire women to become parliamentary candidates.
I cannot let this occasion pass without mentioning the late Baroness Thatcher. Her total commitment, courage and belief inspired women of all parties, and some of none, to have confidence to take up the challenge and achieve their personal goal.
Finally, we continue to have the experience of women who are leaders in their sectors. I think of Stella Rimington, Anita Roddick, Ellen MacArthur, Rosalind Franklin and Marie Stopes, to name but a few. Their contribution to society should be recognised. Ellen MacArthur broke the record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe back in 2005. She was not just the best woman, but the best. Her achievements helped squash prejudices about women’s inferiority in sport, and her trust helps young people with serious illnesses.
Listening to the contributions today, one cannot fail to be moved by the achievements over these past 100 years—but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, said, there is so much more to do. For me, equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that make seizing the task possible.
My Lords, may I say how much I welcome the debate in your Lordships’ House today, and compliment the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, and my noble friend and sister Lady Gale on their wonderful opening contributions? About the only partisan thing I intend to say is to the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, and the other women on the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Benches—and it is not the first time I have said this in this House. It is possible that the Labour Party at the next general election will achieve a 50-50 gender balance in its representation. Frankly, if the women and sisters in your parties do not do something other than the encouragement that the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, talked about, it will be a long time before we get gender balance overall in our Parliament. We in the Labour Party will not be able to do it all on our own.
It is said that history belongs to the victors, and that is true of who won the vote for women, as in everything else. As noble Lords have said, the smaller voices get drowned out. The history of how women won the vote tends to belong to the famous, the better educated, the most well-off families and leaders of the suffragette movement. Like my noble friends Lady Corston and Lady Massey, the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock, and Lady Byford, and others, I want to reflect on and pay tribute to the women who were less well known, less well off, and particularly those from Bradford, Leeds, Huddersfield and other places in Yorkshire. It is said in my family that one of the women in our family was an active suffragette, and I would not be at all surprised. We are not known for our modesty and our quietness in my family, but I have no proof. In a way, that makes my point.
I am indebted to Jill Liddington, senior research fellow at Leeds University, on the women’s history project, and the contemporary articles from Bradford’s Telegraph and Argus. The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, is quite right. In November 1881, St George’s Hall in Bradford was the location of a huge meeting—3,000 strong—at which Bradford’s provisional women’s suffrage committee was established. It presented the first petition to Parliament demanding the vote in 1882. As my noble friend Lady Kennedy put it, for almost 20 years, women and the men supporting them—I think of Keir Hardie, for example—more or less politely asked for the vote. In October 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst gathered a group of women in Manchester to form a new franchise campaign, the Women’s Social and Political Union, marking the end of what might be called the Victorian campaign. The next 10 years were to be very different, and sprinkled with the names of women whose part in the struggle gave them an indelible and honoured place in our history.
We all know that in 1913 the suffragette martyr, Emily Davison was killed beneath the King’s horse at the Derby. Less famous was Dora Thewlis, a 16 year-old Yorkshire mill worker who, in 1913, despite her impoverished upbringing, was moved to join a suffragette mission to break into the Houses of Parliament. She was thrown into prison and catapulted on to the front page of the Daily Mirror, which said, “Suffragettes storm the House”. The reporters and paparazzi christened her the “Baby Suffragette”. Indeed, in her clogs and mill dress she secured vital publicity for the cause. Again in February 1913, an elegant woman entered the Jewel House at the Tower of London. She removed an iron bar from her coat and threw it at the glass showcase containing insignia of the Order of Merit. Wrapped around the bar was a statement: “This is my protest against the Government’s treachery to the working women of Great Britain”. That was Leonora Cohen, a seamstress from Leeds.
It is only relatively recently that research has uncovered how Thewlis and other poor, often self-taught, Yorkshire women are among the forgotten heroines of the long struggle for the vote. They include Lilian Lenton; Edith Key, a mill worker born out of wedlock and given away by her mother; Lavena Saltonstall, a self-taught journalist; Elizabeth Pinnace, a rug weaver; and indeed, Leonora Cohen. Miss Newton—I do not know her Christian name—was distributing leaflets when a mob of boys picked her up, carried her round the town centre and dumped her on the town hall steps. It must have been terrifying. The local paper reports that she did not let go of her leaflets.
These women fought despite minimal schooling and the risk of censure and ridicule. During this time of the fight in Yorkshire, the organiser was none other than the youngest and least well known Pankhurst—Adela Pankhurst—who ended up in Australia in 1914, a casualty perhaps of the early splits in the suffragette movement. She was the Yorkshire organiser, known for being disruptive in public meetings. In Pudsey, she and fellow speakers were pelted with rotten oranges, eggs and peas. In 1908, as the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, said, she was the one who organised the Shipley Glen rally, attracting 100,000 people. Christabel Pankhurst’s contemporary account says:
“For weeks past all Bradford has been talking about the Yorkshire Suffrage Sunday held in Shipley Glen on May 31st … The vast audience of orderly and attentive persons prevented any effective disturbance, and at 5 o’clock a resolution calling upon the Government to enfranchise the women of this country … was carried with practical unanimity. The Prime Minister expects us to show a popular demand for votes for women. We offer to him the demand of the people of Bradford, which has already spoken officially through its City Council when it adopted some months ago a resolution similar to the one carried at the great open-air meeting on the Suffrage Sunday”.
Several other militant actions caught my attention. In 1910, when Winston Churchill came to a meeting at the same St George’s Hall, his visit ended in chaos, thanks to a handful of suffragettes, who secreted themselves under the platform and leapt out, apparently,
“thirsty, dishevelled and unwashed, but with hearts on fire for their cause”,
as the Telegraph and Argus said. The women waited until the hall filled up, then launched into their protest before being swiftly thrown out.
In 1913, the Bradford suffragettes dug up and scorched the second and 12th green at Bradford Moor golf club, replacing the flags with purple, green and white flags, and then went on to leave a trail of burning letter boxes across the district. Also in 1913, the reservoir at Chellow Dene turned a rich shade of purple, having been discoloured by wool dyes. It was believed to be the work of suffragettes, but it was never proved. Millions of gallons of water had to be drained. I am pleased to report that they had fun, too, turning up to see Ellen Terry at the Bradford Alhambra in full suffragette costume and getting a standing ovation. I pay tribute to these brave women. Indeed, we stand on their shoulders.
With the leave of the House, I am grateful to the Front Benches for giving me just a moment before their closing speeches to apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull. During my contribution earlier, I took her to task about remarks that I thought she had made regarding my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and her so-called lack of support for other women, and was rather incensed. I now realise that, of course, she was talking about our other Prime Minister. Of course, it is rather confusing when you have had two women Prime Ministers—although, as the noble Baroness will have heard from my noble friend Lady Byford, Margaret Thatcher was also a great supporter of women. But I apologise to the noble Baroness for taking her to task for comments that she had not made.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, which has given grants to, among others, WASPI, Make Votes Matter, and other organisations that have been mentioned already during the debate, as well as to many other political reform campaigns. I congratulate the noble Baronesses, Lady Williams and Lady Vere, for introducing this debate. We have had the most extraordinarily unified views about the success over the last 100 years, but also recognise that there are many problems.
I want to move back well over 100 years ago to John Stuart Mill. My favourite quotation from him is:
“The most important thing women have to do is to stir up the zeal of women themselves”.
He said that in a letter to Alexander Bain in 1869. A lot of the rest of his political life was spent helping women to be able to do that.
The woman who stirred up my own zeal was Baroness Stocks of Kensington and Chelsea, who started life as a Brinton and was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. She had an extraordinary life. I did not know that—I knew a doughty old lady who came to lunch on Sundays. She was principal of Westfield College, just around the corner from where I lived. My Conservative father, though not an MP at that time, won every argument at the dinner table, except when Mary was there. She taught me, by my watching the way in which she debated and engaged, that it was perfectly possible for women to do what they wanted. I can remember her saying to me on one occasion in the late 1960s, when I was still just at secondary school and so a bit behind the revolution that was going on around me, “You know, you can do exactly what you want to do. You just have to set your mind to it”. This woman did set her mind to it. She did an extraordinary range of things, as did many of the other women who were suffragists and suffragettes. They took that into other parts of their lives. But her passion and deeds started early. In 1907, aged 16, she was on the Mud March, one of the first big marches of the suffragist movements. I quote her voice at that time from her autobiography, My Commonplace Book:
“I carried a banner in the 1907 ‘mud march’ at the head of which walked Mrs Fawcett, Lady Strachey, Lady Frances Balfour, and that indomitable liberty boy, Keir Hardie. As we moved off through the arch of Hyde Park Corner we met a barrage of ridicule from hostile male onlookers. ‘Go home and do the washing,’ ‘Go home and mind the baby’ were the most frequent taunts flung at us. As we proceeded along Piccadilly it was observed by some of the marchers that the balcony of the Ladies’ Lyceum Club was crowded with members looking down from their safe vantage. Some of the marchers looked up and shouted: ‘Come down and join us.’ I do not know whether any of them did.
It was a great adventure for a sixteen-year-old; and on returning to school on the following Monday I was uncertain how my public exploit would be regarded by authority. I need not have worried. All the mistresses were suffragists, as indeed were all salary-earning professional women”.
She went on in this autobiography to include some of the pictures from her journal at the time. There is a glorious cartoon dated 1913 of three versions of herself. The first is of a glorious young Edwardian lady in the full panoply, hat and social get-up of the upper middle class in London. Underneath, it says, “What Mary’s mother would like Mary to wear”. The next picture is of a young utilitarian girl about town—at this point she was an undergraduate at the LSE—and underneath it says, “What Mary’s mother thinks Mary wants to wear”. But the next picture is the most poignant. It is of a woman prisoner and underneath it says, “What Mary would really like to wear”. That is why I wear these colours, because she was not allowed to become a suffragette. She and many others would have been utterly shunned by their families if they had done so. Therefore, I wear these colours in her memory and that of many women who wanted to do more.
Lest noble Lords think that Mary felt stifled by being a suffragist, I should tell them that she did not. She had many friends who were suffragettes and she acted as a link between them. In her chapter on votes for women, she talks about how both the suffragettes and the suffragists understood that both sides were absolutely vital to winning the argument, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, referred to earlier. The suffragists had the ears of politicians. They were perhaps too patient, especially in the face of Lord Asquith’s opposition. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, is not in her place when I refer to her great-grandfather, but it is true that Lord Asquith was the major block to suffrage happening earlier.
Other noble Lords referred to those who 100 years ago led the way. As others have said, the failure of the Liberal Government was moved on when David Lloyd George ousted Asquith and attitudes changed. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, was right when she talked about the strategic positioning of both the suffragists and the suffragettes. All the right conversations had been had in the background. It is also interesting that the suffragettes’ militant action stopped the moment the war started and all women put their shoulders to whatever task they were asked to do to demonstrate that they were worthy of changing those men’s minds.
Many noble Lords did not want women’s suffrage. On observing the debate in the Lords that night, Mary Stocks said:
“The course of the debate made it clear that a majority of its members regarded even a limited measure of women’s suffrage with distaste, amounting to horror. But in view of the movement of public opinion outside, as demonstrated by an overwhelming vote in the House of Commons, the House of Lords was not prepared to flout democratically expressed public opinion. The anti-suffrage peers abstained from voting in sufficient numbers, thus enabling the vital clause to go through. In fact the Upper House was not in 1918 prepared to frustrate the clearly expressed will of the people. Nor should it be so prepared”.
That has relevance to the debates that we are undertaking at the moment on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and I have been encouraged by listening to the debate we had last week. Despite the fact that this House recognised that it has the opportunity and right—nay, the duty—to challenge and scrutinise, we also recognised that there is a will elsewhere. It does not stop any noble Lords whose political views are that they want to remain continuing to fight for that, but I have not heard that view changed. I am encouraged, though, that even the men who opposed suffrage were prepared to abstain to allow the voice of the people to go through.
The quote from the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, from 50 years later was also interesting. Mary Stocks became a Peer in the mid-1960s. She was somewhat scathing about coming into the House but she also loved it. She reckoned that she was brought in as a broadcaster. For many years, she was the token woman on “Any Questions”, “The Brains Trust”, and the predecessors of “Prayer for the Day” and “Thought for the Day”. She was also an excellent interviewer. The interview to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred is really engaging and the parliamentary archives still have it. Mary Stocks, who was not a Conservative, interviewed Nancy Astor, who was definitely not Labour. If any noble Lord gets the chance to see it, it is fascinating; it certainly was on Parliament TV some time ago.
There have been other notable women in the Lords. I am reminded of Nancy Seear, the first Liberal leader in this House, who was an indomitable woman. If you ever met her, you would never forget it. Shirley Williams was my mentor; many other women in my party and the Labour Party had her support. She guided me for 10 years when I was standing for Parliament and trying to decide what to do, and when I came into your Lordships’ House. I also note some of my current heroes. My noble friend Lady Thornhill was the first woman elected mayor in this country and is about to stand down after 16 years’ service in Watford. My noble friend Lady Benjamin is a role model, and not just in broadcasting. Since she took her place in your Lordships’ House she has become an absolute advocate for the safety of children and we listen to her with great care and attention. I was amused by her stories about the BBC. She and I worked together on “Play School” when I was a floor manager. At the same time as she was being put under pressure for expecting her first child, I got engaged. I was hauled in to see the personnel officer who asked, “So when are you leaving us?”, because married women did not work. I had a colleague who did work after she got married. She came back from maternity leave, having made arrangements for her very small baby. The first thing the floor management team did was send her to Thailand for six months to work on “Tenko”. She resigned.
An experience of my own of being a woman in that field was filming in a men’s club. I was the only woman on the team; the actors in the show and the other people there were all men. I was urinated on as I was trying to cue actors in the corner. My story is personal to me and shaped the way I view things, but every other woman in this House has experienced similar things.
I am glad that there are others who are prepared to affirm it.
On business, I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, talked about the need for deeds not words. She referred to the work of the coalition Government, and I particularly want to highlight the work of my honourable friend Jo Swinson, who steered through parental leave. This is important, and it is not just about maternity leave. My son and daughter-in-law have two very small, premature babies. He works for L’Oreal, to which he moved just as the babies were born. He was told that there were no meetings after 4.30 pm because all young parents should have the chance to be at home to put their babies to bed. With examples like that, we have the pipeline that other noble Lords have been talking about. The responsibility for helping women move on entails an understanding that all parents, regardless of their gender, have a role in helping to bring up their children. Parental leave will take off as soon as organisations start asking young men what they are going to be doing when their baby is born.
The other fun person who I just wanted to raise briefly in the last couple of minutes—I think she has been mentioned in passing—is Marie Stopes. It is not fashionable to recognise her as a heroine but she was. I think her true recognition came in the 1960s, when her contribution was finally recognised for what it was. Mary Stocks wrote—I do not have enough time to quote her—that Marie Stopes did not just want contraception, she clearly changed women’s views about sex. One woman, speaking to Marie Stopes, said:
“He’s a good husband, he only troubles me once a week”.
In the 1920s, that was the common view. We talk about the outside and external achievements, but we must remember that the suffragists and suffragettes who went on to run birth control clinics also changed the lives of women around us—the entire world.
I must correct the view from some noble Lords on the Labour Benches that the Liberal Democrats have not introduced all-women shortlists. We have. Some 58% of our target seats in 2015 and just over 50% in 2017 had women in them. Unfortunately, when you lose seats, the chance of moving forward in other areas is somewhat difficult. We remain committed to that for exactly the same reasons as the Labour Party, because we know that it will improve diversity in other ways. It will improve the representation of disabled, BME and LGBT women in Parliament.
In conclusion, we have talked a lot this evening about deeds, not words. I ask every one of your Lordships to make your own deeds about what you will take out of this debate today. Write yourself a postcard with your top three actions, give it to your Whips Office and ask them to post it back to you in three months’ time to see what you have done. I will tell your Lordships why. I spoke about my granddaughters; they will be two this summer. At the current, glacial, rate of change they will be in their ninth decade before we have parity in the House of Commons. That is not good enough.
My Lords, it is a privilege to be able to participate in this historic debate and an honour to close on behalf of the Labour Party, which has done much over more than 100 years to promote and advance the cause of women’s rights in many areas.
I pay tribute to the noble Baronesses opposite for achieving this debate—it is of course entirely appropriate that they should—and to all those people, as well as organisations, who are recognising the significance of 100 years of votes for women by organising or taking part in such a wide range of events, some of which were mentioned by my noble friend Lady Massey. Our Parliament is well to the fore with its Vote 100 programme of events, and there are special exhibitions at the People’s History Museum in Manchester and at the Museum of London, where the shadow Cabinet will meet tomorrow to mark the centenary. Noble Lords may also be aware of Beyond the Ballot, a free online course which begins today, tracing women’s rights and suffrage from 1866 to the present. It has been produced by the Royal Holloway University of London and the Open University’s FutureLearn digital education platform, and I highly recommend it.
From this distance it seems barely credible that in the early years of the 20th century women felt driven to acts of violence simply to achieve the basic human right of casting their vote for the Government that would pass laws affecting their everyday lives. Violence can never be condoned, but in the circumstances I can understand why it was resorted to as a tactic. Let us not forget that the violence was by no means one way. The shameful events of Black Friday in 1910, when women campaigners were brutally assaulted by police and then imprisoned, where they were force-fed—an act, it should be said, that today we call torture—is not mentioned often enough when the suffragettes are recalled.
Noble Lords mentioned many of the most prominent women whose campaigning culminated in the 1918 Act. I planned to mention two, but my noble friend Lord Davies has left me with nothing to add to his excellent tribute to the remarkable Annie Kenney, one of many working-class women who fought for the right to vote. My noble friend Lady Thornton reeled off an impressive list of other working-class women, together with some beguiling and very interesting anecdotes.
I thought I would be the only person to mention Margaret Mackworth, the 2nd Viscountess Rhondda—but the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, stole my thunder. However, I will say one or two things about her, because she seems to have been a remarkable woman in many ways. She was involved in militant action with the Pankhursts—activities which saw her thrown into jail, and she was released only after going on hunger strike.
Neither the 1918 Act nor the one that followed it a year later satisfied Margaret Mackworth. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 ended most of the existing common law restrictions on women, with marriage no longer legally considered a bar to the ability to work in the professions. But Mackworth realised that much more remained to be done, and you can understand why when I quote from the Times of 1920. I dare say that the Times regarded itself then, as it does now, as the newspaper of record, but it issued grave warnings about the dangers of extending voting rights to women under 30. Mature females might finally be allowed to engage with politics but the,
“scantily clad, jazzing flapper to whom a dance, a new hat or a man with a car is of more importance than the fate of nations”,
must never be entrusted with a vote. So in 1921 Margaret Mackworth founded the Six Point Group, a feminist campaign group focusing on equality between men and women and the rights of the child. It was instrumental in winning support for the change to all women getting the vote in 1928.
After her father’s death, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, mentioned, Lady Rhondda tried to take his seat in your Lordships’ House, citing the 1919 Act, which, in theory, allowed women to exercise “any public office”. The Committee of Privileges voted against her plea and she never did enter this Chamber, although she very nearly lived to see the first women do so in 1958. That was when women were first admitted under the Life Peerages Act and, as many noble Lords have pointed out, a total of only 294 women Peers have been created since—that is less than five a year.
In the debate, noble Lords from all sides have welcomed the all-women shortlists introduced by the Labour Party. I think that generally there has been a great deal of agreement on that across the House. I would say that all-women shortlists are a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and I saw them operate effectively in the Scottish Parliament. So perhaps, as my noble friend Lady Kennedy said in her typically forthright contribution, the time has come to consider quotas to lift the number of women Peers to 50%. Such a move could not be regarded in any way as ground-breaking in your Lordships’ House. After all, for the first 600 years of its existence it operated a quota—of 100%. Of course, as many noble Lords have said, 100 years ago it was not just in terms of the right to vote that women were held back. In many spheres of life—not least in terms of improving themselves—quite artificial barriers were placed in their way.
This year also marks the 150th anniversary of women being admitted to higher education. That was at the University of London and they were able to sit only for “certificates of proficiency” rather than being awarded degrees. It was a further 10 years before that threshold was crossed, although that still left women far apart from men, and it was not until the 1919 Act to which I referred a few moments ago that women were allowed to enter the professions.
In the years since, opportunities for girls and women have advanced considerably, but young women continue to experience gender stereotypes which prevent them reaching their full potential, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, said. It runs a bit further than Peppa Pig; none the less, those are influential children’s television programmes, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, will know. Only one in three girls who take maths and science at GCSE progresses to take a STEM subject at A-level or equivalent, compared to eight out of 10 boys. Many schools still restrict the educational achievement of girls through gendered subjects at school and in apprenticeships. The Royal Society reported two months ago that only 20% of GCSE uptake in computer science in England is by girls; at A-level the figure is 9%. That is an essential tool for our economic future, yet so many females are excluded.
Even when they do well in attainment in education, it does not necessarily transfer to the workplace. There is a major shortfall in the number of women in senior positions, while, as we know only too well, gender-specific roles at work and the glass ceiling persist widely. According to the House of Commons Library, in 2016-17 54% of apprenticeship starts were by women and 46% by men, and more women than men have started apprenticeships each year since 2010. But the Fawcett Society analysis of BEIS data on apprenticeship starts and achievements reveals that men continue to dominate those with the best earnings potential. In 2014-15 nearly 17,000 men started engineering apprenticeships, while only 600 women did so.
The divided labour market is a key cause of the major issue in the working environment—the gender pay gap. This is a national scandal, and we knew that long before the BBC forced it into the spotlight. I have had an interest in this issue for a considerable time. Indeed, my university thesis in 1974 was on the implementation of the Labour Government’s Equal Pay Act. Of course, although that Act got on to the statute book in 1970, there was a five-year lead-in period for employers to make the changes necessary to accommodate the legislation. That was always an optimistic aim but, almost 50 years later, more than a quarter of the gender pay gap remains to be filled.
In 1975, women earned 36% less than median male hourly earnings. The latest available figure issued in April last year in the Office for National Statistics Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings is 9.1%. That represents the comparison between full-time workers and excludes overtime earnings, but of course more men than women work overtime and more women than men work part time, so the 9.1% figure gives a distorted view of the gap in actual take-home pay between men and women. Taking all employees into account, the gender pay gap in 2017 was 18.4%.
That brings me to the BBC. Various noble Lords, not least my noble friend Lady Crawley and the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, highlighted the recent events. I am one of the organisation’s biggest supporters and have defended it often from attacks by Governments of left and right, as well as by the right-wing tabloids. But I have to say—and I would do so were the noble Lord, Lord Hall, in his place today—that the BBC has got it very wrong on pay. As an organisation it has been slow, even reluctant, to take meaningful action for far too long. Who could have listened to the brave and hugely impressive testimony of Carrie Gracie to MPs last week without experiencing anger? That anger was not assuaged by the frankly risible conclusions of the PWC report on pay that there was,
“no evidence of systemic gender discrimination”.
Really? That message would have been no more credible had it been tattooed on the body of a pig flying past Broadcasting House.
Of course, we know what we know only because the BBC is publicly funded and has a duty of transparency. What about private companies in the media, as well as other sectors of employment? Anybody who does not believe that systemic gender discrimination in pay exists widely needs to get out more, probably from the comfort of their men-only club.
The Labour Party is proud to have a gender-balanced shadow Cabinet and to have more women MPs than all other parties put together, but we acknowledge that there is no room for complacency. We have yet to see the first female Labour Party leader elected at national level, although there is at least the fine example of Labour in your Lordships’ House, where we now have our fifth woman leader.
Women’s right to vote was achieved by determined and committed groups of politically motivated women who sacrificed much for their struggle. A record 208 women were elected to Parliament last year. But 100 years after the law was changed to allow women to become MPs, they still account for just 32% of the House of Commons, which simply is not good enough. Only in 2016 was a landmark of sorts reached, when the total number of women MPs ever elected reached 455—the same as the number of men then sitting as MPs. Were the suffragettes and suffragists able to express an opinion on events since 1918, I suspect they would be disappointed that the advances they achieved have not spurred more extensive gains bringing greater equality to the lives of women—and, as many noble Lords have said, a greater presence of women in senior posts in the law, business and the media, to name but three sectors.
My noble friend Lady Kennedy was undoubtedly right when she said that the game can no longer be played by men’s rules. We men must make it our duty, too, to change attitudes. As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, there must be a culture change. It is surely the collective duty of all of us, men and women, to ensure that the progress achieved thus far is extended until its natural and only acceptable conclusion of true equality is solidly embedded in all aspects of life.
My Lords, I begin by thanking all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. It has been not only very good humoured but humorous, and so varied in the number of absolutely fascinating and informative stories that we have heard.
I am very proud of the history that has allowed me the opportunity to stand here and speak. The campaign for women’s franchise started a chain of events that did not stop at the vote and enabled women to take their seats in this House. Before I respond to the particular points raised today, I want first to acknowledge those who made it possible for me to be here, some of whom are in the Chamber today. My noble friends Lady Morris of Bolton and Lady Jenkin, and in the other place the right honourable Lady the Prime Minister, and David Cameron before her, have all been pivotal in my journey here today.
In a wider sense, I have heard so much about the history of brilliant women that I did not know before and I want to go home and read about them all. To name a few, Jessie Stephen sounds fascinating and feisty, as does my noble friend Lady Jenkin’s granny and my noble friend Lady Seccombe’s mother, and who could forget Annie Kenney? Some of the women came from quite ordinary circumstances and went on to do extraordinary things. Those are the most powerful messages that we can deliver in this centenary year.
We must never forget that those women made remarkable sacrifices so that the sight of women here would be unremarkable. They faced criticism, abuse and defamation—one noble Lord told a story about oranges with razor blades in them. Their opponents rebuked them for stepping outside of their domestic environment. Little did those opponents know that it was in just those spaces from which women ran their households and raised their children that they also built their campaigns. It was in a Manchester parlour in 1903 that Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters established the Women’s Social and Political Union. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, might like to know that there is a small room in Manchester underneath the Women’s Aid building where you can find the Pankhurst Centre. We also have the People’s History Museum in Manchester, which tells much about women’s suffrage.
As so many noble Lords said today, it took many decades—you could say hundreds of years—of meetings, petitions and debate to achieve women’s suffrage, led ably by Millicent Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which relied on the volunteering and tireless campaigning of women up and down the UK.
I have also listened to the challenges that women continue to face to enter Parliament, have a fulfilling career and survive the daily aggressions and harassment that can restrict women’s freedom and right to safety. As my noble friend Lady Jenkin said, the UK has made great progress, but there is so much more to do. All young women should be able to see Parliament as a place that they actively want to come to and make a real difference to people’s lives.
To answer a point raised by my noble friend Lady Eaton, we are commissioning evidence of what works from evaluated programmes in the UK and internationally. We know that there are many barriers to participation, but it is vital to understand what is effective and whether it is effective for only some women. Our aim is to offer political parties a range of options that they can draw on and adopt depending on their own needs.
Many noble Lords talked about legislating to commence Section 106 of the Equality Act. We welcome all actions by political parties to demonstrate their commitment to diversity, but we do not believe that further legislation and regulation is the best way forward. We have heard about what political parties are doing, and we believe that they are responsible for their candidate selection and should lead the way in improving representation of women.
When Nancy Astor took her seat in the other place in 1919, she represented the women who protested, picketed, fought and died in a long campaign to be heard. Once elected, she received up to 2,000 letters a week from women all over the UK who trusted her to take their concerns seriously. Too often, many belittle the inequalities that continue to affect women and girls as “women’s issues” instead of society’s issues. These injustices should continue to shock and prompt action.
We have heard particularly about the barriers that women face to enter Parliament. Some of these are about the practicalities of life working in Westminster—working between multiple locations, balancing caring responsibilities with long working days or ensuring financial stability while pursuing election. I would like to commend Parliament, particularly the work of the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, for its work to make this a more family-friendly working environment, through practical solutions such as childcare facilities and changes to the parliamentary schedule.
The Government are also acting to ensure that women can play an equal part in the economy by giving them valuable skills and opportunities, encouraging girls into STEM subjects, introducing coding lessons from the age of seven, and delivering high-quality apprenticeships to challenge the notion that there are men’s jobs and women’s jobs. We want women to have equal access to higher-paying sectors and careers. We are investing £5 million in returners schemes so that people who take time out for caring responsibilities can return to work in jobs that match their skills and experience. We are also determined to address the gender pay gap through new regulations on businesses with more than 250 employees to report the differences in median earnings between women and men. The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, talked about that. These actions are helping to level the playing field so that women are free to make choices about their lives and their aspirations, including politics, while ensuring their financial security.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Donaghy, talked about the WASPI ladies. We should recognise the skills, talents and experience that older women bring to the workforce by equalising the state pension age and eliminating gender inequalities in social security. However, the Government did introduce a concession that is worth £1.1 billion which means that no one should be made to work more than an additional 18 months as compared with the previous timetable to retire as a result of the change in the state pension age.
My noble friend Lord Sherbourne and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, talked about the BBC in relation to its pay issues which have been so prominent in the press recently. We welcome the publication of the BBC’s review into on-air pay and the plans to establish a new transparent pay policy for presenters and journalists. That is long overdue. The BBC must ensure that its pay arrangements are rooted in fairness and equality, and we expect it to act quickly to resolve any outstanding issues. It remains a matter for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to consider whether to investigate pay at the BBC as the regulatory body for enforcing equal pay. We understand that the EHRC has already approached the BBC following the concerns raised by Carrie Gracie, the former China editor.
I have also heard very clearly how women are held back by outdated beliefs that they are unsuited to taking on positions of authority. I am proud that enough people challenge those norms so that we now have our second female Prime Minister, the first of course being Mrs Thatcher, but recent events and revelations remind us that we still have a long way to go.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asked about the closure of the Women’s National Commission. I had not heard of the Women’s National Commission and am pleased to be educated about it. The Government Equalities Office continues to work closely with the women’s sector following the move to bring the work of the Women’s National Commission into government. In preparing the UK’s eighth periodic report to the CEDAW committee, the Government Equalities Office conducted a targeted engagement exercise with a cross-section of women’s organisations and we intend to build on that.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson made the point that no women have been appointed to the United Nations. A range of factors are explored when considering the nomination of a candidate for an election to a body such as the CEDAW committee, and a decision on whether to nominate a UK candidate for the next CEDAW committee membership will be made by
“be professional … and treat all those with whom they come into contact with consideration and respect”.
This Parliament often sets an example to the world with ground-breaking legislation and open debate on the pressing issues of the day, but clearly it also reflects the obstacles facing all of society. The Government acknowledge that a gender-balanced Parliament is long overdue and we share the aspirations of those on all sides to make it happen. Parliament should be a place any person can aspire to work in.
My noble friend Lady Eaton talked about local councils. Women make up 33% of local councillors in England, but only 17% of council leaders. I recall that when I became a council leader I was the only female leader in Greater Manchester—in fact, the only Tory leader in Greater Manchester. That is an interesting form of 100% representation. Government and other administrations should reflect the constituencies they serve and gender parity is long overdue at all levels of governance. In December, the Department for Communities and Local Government held a round table with local government representatives, women’s organisations and others to identify barriers to women and to understand what support the Government can provide.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who I cannot believe is 69 years of age—I have some major repair work to do to myself—talked about greater discrimination against women of colour. I am proud, as I am sure she is, to be part of the most diverse Parliament in history, but we welcome all moves by political parties to remove barriers that limit anybody’s ability to participate in it. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and my noble friend Lord Shinkwin made the same points regarding having more trans and LGBT candidates, and indeed elected and appointed representatives in Parliament. My noble friend Lord Shinkwin talked about having not only the first female Prime Minister, but maybe the first female disabled Prime Minister. That time may well come.
As I have said, we do not think that legislation and regulation is the way to make this happen. We believe that political parties have the primary responsibility for doing this. Different parties take different approaches. The histories of political parties also mean that some of their internal structures differ enormously. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. As time goes on, the public will dictate that both the elected and unelected Houses will look far more representative. That is why the Government Equalities Office is commissioning the review that I talked about. Its aim is to provide political parties with a range of possible solutions that they might want to draw on.
There is other positive activity happening to move the debate forward. In March 2017, the Chancellor announced a £5 million fund to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage. Through it we aim to celebrate, educate and encourage more women to participate so that they have an equal voice. With the fund, we have developed an exciting national programme that includes education projects, a £1.5 million grant scheme for local communities and organisations that are supporting women’s representation, and the commemoration of two important figures of the suffrage movement so that a new generation can be inspired by their story. I have had several suggestions for several statues in several parts of the country. It will keep the DDCMS busy for quite some time to come.
The noble Baroness, Lady Janke, made a point about lowering the voting age. We set out a manifesto commitment to maintain the voting age at 18. We have every intention of doing so. It is widely recognised as the age at which one becomes an adult. Full citizenship rights, from drinking, to betting, to voting, should be gained at adulthood. It is important that children and young people feel engaged in the decision-making process. We do this in many different ways, from the Youth Parliament to gaining the views of children and young people on specific areas of legislation.
We are funding the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, the first woman to be honoured in this way. Manchester, as one of seven centenary cities and towns in England with a strong suffrage history, is receiving a portion of £1.2 million for projects that extend the legacy of their story. As someone who has spent all my adult life there, I am delighted that Manchester is using funds to honour the work and life of Emmeline Pankhurst with a statue. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, requested a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft; she was mentioned by several noble Lords. I know there are lots of calls for statues and campaigns such as Mary on the Green are actively campaigning and fundraising for memorials to mark the achievements of British women.
The presence of women in Parliament has, without question, altered social policy and legislation, and focused Parliament’s attention on gender equality. What is more, I believe we can benefit only from a Parliament, from business and from laws that represent the beliefs and make-up of the UK in its entirety.
Before I conclude, I pay tribute to the Fawcett Society, to Helen Pankhurst and her family, and to the countless organisations that continue to advocate for women in the UK and internationally and press for an end to inequality. I encourage noble Lords to take part in this year’s celebrations to mark the suffrage centenary and to celebrate the many women who have made their mark on Parliament and this House. The Representation of the People Act will be on display in Central Lobby from tomorrow so that any noble Lords who would like to see it can do so.
I shall end on someone I have not mentioned but who has been very influential on me: Mrs Thatcher. I know she commands a wide range of views. She became Prime Minister when I was 11 years old and showed what women could achieve. Women might not agree with her, people might not agree with her, but everyone was always clear about Margaret Thatcher; she knew exactly what she wanted and she went out and got it in what was a very male world at the time. No, she did not promote many women to her Cabinet because there were not many women in Parliament in those days, in 1979, but she paved the way for women to know that they could get there—it was possible. I shall end with a quotation from Mrs Thatcher given by my noble friend Lady Hodgson: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman”. Thank you.
House adjourned at 9.48 pm.