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.