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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:17 pm on 5th February 2018.

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Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 9:17 pm, 5th February 2018

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.