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.