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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:28 pm on 5th February 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development) 9:28 pm, 5th February 2018

My Lords, I begin by thanking all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. It has been not only very good humoured but humorous, and so varied in the number of absolutely fascinating and informative stories that we have heard.

I am very proud of the history that has allowed me the opportunity to stand here and speak. The campaign for women’s franchise started a chain of events that did not stop at the vote and enabled women to take their seats in this House. Before I respond to the particular points raised today, I want first to acknowledge those who made it possible for me to be here, some of whom are in the Chamber today. My noble friends Lady Morris of Bolton and Lady Jenkin, and in the other place the right honourable Lady the Prime Minister, and David Cameron before her, have all been pivotal in my journey here today.

In a wider sense, I have heard so much about the history of brilliant women that I did not know before and I want to go home and read about them all. To name a few, Jessie Stephen sounds fascinating and feisty, as does my noble friend Lady Jenkin’s granny and my noble friend Lady Seccombe’s mother, and who could forget Annie Kenney? Some of the women came from quite ordinary circumstances and went on to do extraordinary things. Those are the most powerful messages that we can deliver in this centenary year.

We must never forget that those women made remarkable sacrifices so that the sight of women here would be unremarkable. They faced criticism, abuse and defamation—one noble Lord told a story about oranges with razor blades in them. Their opponents rebuked them for stepping outside of their domestic environment. Little did those opponents know that it was in just those spaces from which women ran their households and raised their children that they also built their campaigns. It was in a Manchester parlour in 1903 that Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters established the Women’s Social and Political Union. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, might like to know that there is a small room in Manchester underneath the Women’s Aid building where you can find the Pankhurst Centre. We also have the People’s History Museum in Manchester, which tells much about women’s suffrage.

As so many noble Lords said today, it took many decades—you could say hundreds of years—of meetings, petitions and debate to achieve women’s suffrage, led ably by Millicent Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which relied on the volunteering and tireless campaigning of women up and down the UK.

I have also listened to the challenges that women continue to face to enter Parliament, have a fulfilling career and survive the daily aggressions and harassment that can restrict women’s freedom and right to safety. As my noble friend Lady Jenkin said, the UK has made great progress, but there is so much more to do. All young women should be able to see Parliament as a place that they actively want to come to and make a real difference to people’s lives.

To answer a point raised by my noble friend Lady Eaton, we are commissioning evidence of what works from evaluated programmes in the UK and internationally. We know that there are many barriers to participation, but it is vital to understand what is effective and whether it is effective for only some women. Our aim is to offer political parties a range of options that they can draw on and adopt depending on their own needs.

Many noble Lords talked about legislating to commence Section 106 of the Equality Act. We welcome all actions by political parties to demonstrate their commitment to diversity, but we do not believe that further legislation and regulation is the best way forward. We have heard about what political parties are doing, and we believe that they are responsible for their candidate selection and should lead the way in improving representation of women.

When Nancy Astor took her seat in the other place in 1919, she represented the women who protested, picketed, fought and died in a long campaign to be heard. Once elected, she received up to 2,000 letters a week from women all over the UK who trusted her to take their concerns seriously. Too often, many belittle the inequalities that continue to affect women and girls as “women’s issues” instead of society’s issues. These injustices should continue to shock and prompt action.

We have heard particularly about the barriers that women face to enter Parliament. Some of these are about the practicalities of life working in Westminster—working between multiple locations, balancing caring responsibilities with long working days or ensuring financial stability while pursuing election. I would like to commend Parliament, particularly the work of the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, for its work to make this a more family-friendly working environment, through practical solutions such as childcare facilities and changes to the parliamentary schedule.

The Government are also acting to ensure that women can play an equal part in the economy by giving them valuable skills and opportunities, encouraging girls into STEM subjects, introducing coding lessons from the age of seven, and delivering high-quality apprenticeships to challenge the notion that there are men’s jobs and women’s jobs. We want women to have equal access to higher-paying sectors and careers. We are investing £5 million in returners schemes so that people who take time out for caring responsibilities can return to work in jobs that match their skills and experience. We are also determined to address the gender pay gap through new regulations on businesses with more than 250 employees to report the differences in median earnings between women and men. The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, talked about that. These actions are helping to level the playing field so that women are free to make choices about their lives and their aspirations, including politics, while ensuring their financial security.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Donaghy, talked about the WASPI ladies. We should recognise the skills, talents and experience that older women bring to the workforce by equalising the state pension age and eliminating gender inequalities in social security. However, the Government did introduce a concession that is worth £1.1 billion which means that no one should be made to work more than an additional 18 months as compared with the previous timetable to retire as a result of the change in the state pension age.

My noble friend Lord Sherbourne and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, talked about the BBC in relation to its pay issues which have been so prominent in the press recently. We welcome the publication of the BBC’s review into on-air pay and the plans to establish a new transparent pay policy for presenters and journalists. That is long overdue. The BBC must ensure that its pay arrangements are rooted in fairness and equality, and we expect it to act quickly to resolve any outstanding issues. It remains a matter for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to consider whether to investigate pay at the BBC as the regulatory body for enforcing equal pay. We understand that the EHRC has already approached the BBC following the concerns raised by Carrie Gracie, the former China editor.

I have also heard very clearly how women are held back by outdated beliefs that they are unsuited to taking on positions of authority. I am proud that enough people challenge those norms so that we now have our second female Prime Minister, the first of course being Mrs Thatcher, but recent events and revelations remind us that we still have a long way to go.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asked about the closure of the Women’s National Commission. I had not heard of the Women’s National Commission and am pleased to be educated about it. The Government Equalities Office continues to work closely with the women’s sector following the move to bring the work of the Women’s National Commission into government. In preparing the UK’s eighth periodic report to the CEDAW committee, the Government Equalities Office conducted a targeted engagement exercise with a cross-section of women’s organisations and we intend to build on that.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson made the point that no women have been appointed to the United Nations. A range of factors are explored when considering the nomination of a candidate for an election to a body such as the CEDAW committee, and a decision on whether to nominate a UK candidate for the next CEDAW committee membership will be made by 7 March.

The Prime Minister has updated the Ministerial Code to state that, as well as maintaining the highest standards of personal conduct, Ministers must,

“be professional … and treat all those with whom they come into contact with consideration and respect”.

This Parliament often sets an example to the world with ground-breaking legislation and open debate on the pressing issues of the day, but clearly it also reflects the obstacles facing all of society. The Government acknowledge that a gender-balanced Parliament is long overdue and we share the aspirations of those on all sides to make it happen. Parliament should be a place any person can aspire to work in.

My noble friend Lady Eaton talked about local councils. Women make up 33% of local councillors in England, but only 17% of council leaders. I recall that when I became a council leader I was the only female leader in Greater Manchester—in fact, the only Tory leader in Greater Manchester. That is an interesting form of 100% representation. Government and other administrations should reflect the constituencies they serve and gender parity is long overdue at all levels of governance. In December, the Department for Communities and Local Government held a round table with local government representatives, women’s organisations and others to identify barriers to women and to understand what support the Government can provide.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who I cannot believe is 69 years of age—I have some major repair work to do to myself—talked about greater discrimination against women of colour. I am proud, as I am sure she is, to be part of the most diverse Parliament in history, but we welcome all moves by political parties to remove barriers that limit anybody’s ability to participate in it. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and my noble friend Lord Shinkwin made the same points regarding having more trans and LGBT candidates, and indeed elected and appointed representatives in Parliament. My noble friend Lord Shinkwin talked about having not only the first female Prime Minister, but maybe the first female disabled Prime Minister. That time may well come.

As I have said, we do not think that legislation and regulation is the way to make this happen. We believe that political parties have the primary responsibility for doing this. Different parties take different approaches. The histories of political parties also mean that some of their internal structures differ enormously. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. As time goes on, the public will dictate that both the elected and unelected Houses will look far more representative. That is why the Government Equalities Office is commissioning the review that I talked about. Its aim is to provide political parties with a range of possible solutions that they might want to draw on.

There is other positive activity happening to move the debate forward. In March 2017, the Chancellor announced a £5 million fund to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage. Through it we aim to celebrate, educate and encourage more women to participate so that they have an equal voice. With the fund, we have developed an exciting national programme that includes education projects, a £1.5 million grant scheme for local communities and organisations that are supporting women’s representation, and the commemoration of two important figures of the suffrage movement so that a new generation can be inspired by their story. I have had several suggestions for several statues in several parts of the country. It will keep the DDCMS busy for quite some time to come.

The noble Baroness, Lady Janke, made a point about lowering the voting age. We set out a manifesto commitment to maintain the voting age at 18. We have every intention of doing so. It is widely recognised as the age at which one becomes an adult. Full citizenship rights, from drinking, to betting, to voting, should be gained at adulthood. It is important that children and young people feel engaged in the decision-making process. We do this in many different ways, from the Youth Parliament to gaining the views of children and young people on specific areas of legislation.

We are funding the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, the first woman to be honoured in this way. Manchester, as one of seven centenary cities and towns in England with a strong suffrage history, is receiving a portion of £1.2 million for projects that extend the legacy of their story. As someone who has spent all my adult life there, I am delighted that Manchester is using funds to honour the work and life of Emmeline Pankhurst with a statue. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, requested a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft; she was mentioned by several noble Lords. I know there are lots of calls for statues and campaigns such as Mary on the Green are actively campaigning and fundraising for memorials to mark the achievements of British women.

The presence of women in Parliament has, without question, altered social policy and legislation, and focused Parliament’s attention on gender equality. What is more, I believe we can benefit only from a Parliament, from business and from laws that represent the beliefs and make-up of the UK in its entirety.

Before I conclude, I pay tribute to the Fawcett Society, to Helen Pankhurst and her family, and to the countless organisations that continue to advocate for women in the UK and internationally and press for an end to inequality. I encourage noble Lords to take part in this year’s celebrations to mark the suffrage centenary and to celebrate the many women who have made their mark on Parliament and this House. The Representation of the People Act will be on display in Central Lobby from tomorrow so that any noble Lords who would like to see it can do so.

I shall end on someone I have not mentioned but who has been very influential on me: Mrs Thatcher. I know she commands a wide range of views. She became Prime Minister when I was 11 years old and showed what women could achieve. Women might not agree with her, people might not agree with her, but everyone was always clear about Margaret Thatcher; she knew exactly what she wanted and she went out and got it in what was a very male world at the time. No, she did not promote many women to her Cabinet because there were not many women in Parliament in those days, in 1979, but she paved the way for women to know that they could get there—it was possible. I shall end with a quotation from Mrs Thatcher given by my noble friend Lady Hodgson: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman”. Thank you.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 9.48 pm.