Role of Women in Public Life - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:06 pm on 5th February 2018.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 8:06 pm, 5th February 2018

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.