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.