My Lords—and Baronesses—I thank the Minister for bringing this debate before us. It is as she feels: it is a privilege to be speaking in this debate, albeit late on a Thursday afternoon as last business. Perhaps we could have a much better time for our debate next year. This year’s theme is “Balance for Better” and as we consider the UK’s role in advancing gender equality globally, we must face up to the challenges that remain so as to tip the scales, which are currently weighted towards men. Whether it is about intimidation in public life, gender-based violence or equal pay, only by tackling those issues can a truly better balance be found.
Increasing the number of women in public life is about improving decisions and outcomes—and, more importantly, having our elected institutions look like the people they represent. According to the United Nations, only 24% of all national parliamentarians are women. In the UK, for example, 32% of the Members of the House of Commons are women, while the figure for the House of Lords is 26%, for the Welsh Assembly 47%, for the Scottish Parliament 35% and, in Northern Ireland, 32%. I am proud to say that the Welsh Assembly is the best in the United Kingdom, and that if we can do it in Wales we can do it anywhere. That is a challenge to the rest of the country.
The voice of women in the UK was lost when the coalition Government disbanded the Women’s National Commission in 2010. Although the Government said at that time that its work would be taken in house, with the Government Equalities Office having the responsibility, nothing is now heard from it. It cannot possibly be doing the work that the WNC was carrying out. Can the Minister tell the House what is happening in this field? The WNC was an asset to the United Kingdom, comprising over 650 women’s organisations and providing different Governments over a 40-year period with a great link to women. If this Government are not prepared to establish a new WNC, I can guarantee that the next Labour Government will do so. We will provide a strong, independent voice for women’s organisations in the United Kingdom; it will be women’s voice to Government on a whole range of issues.
Women in politics face an extraordinary amount of abuse online and offline, partly because they speak up but also simply because they are women. Online abuse can affect women’s human rights to safety and freedom of expression. Social media companies must do more to protect female users, but this abuse undoubtedly comes from the sexism that still exists in our society and that can manifest in even more violent ways. Sadly, many women in public life have been victims of this violence. I pay tribute to my former colleague, Jo Cox, who was killed just because she was serving the people of her constituency. We think of her today. As we call for more women to enter public life, we must always remember those who have paid the ultimate price.
When talking about the UK’s role in advancing gender equality globally, we cannot ignore the biggest domestic issue of the day. It is difficult to talk about the idea of a global Britain while we leave our most important international institution, the European Union. The EU has been credited with advancing women’s rights and gender equality. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Brexit could lead to equality protections falling behind those in the EU, as well as existing ones being removed. The Government continue to leave no deal on the table, which would be catastrophic not only for the economy but for equality. The Government’s own impact assessment revealed that no deal would leave the UK’s economy up to 9% smaller. The Women’s Budget Group said that such a downturn would disproportionately impact on women. However, there would be many other consequences. A no-deal Brexit would leave hard-earned women’s rights at the whim of future Governments, without the protection of an international court. A hard border in Ireland could mean women travelling to access safe abortions facing increased checks, costs and delays. Will the Minister explain how women will be protected in the event of an economic downturn resulting from a no-deal Brexit?
Another dividing line between the sexes remains gender economic inequality. Eurostat ranks the UK as having the fifth worst gender pay gap in the EU, 2.77% higher than the OECD average. The Office for National Statistics found that the gender pay gap among all UK employees is 18%. More must be done to close this gap. The Minister spoke about this in her opening remarks but I do not think we can wait until 2050, I think it was, when we will not be around to see that. Let us hope we can get a move on.
Gender-based violence remains a major public health issue and a violation of women’s human rights. Women fleeing conflict are left in extremely vulnerable positions. The development charity International Rescue Committee states that,
“girls living in crisis-affected communities … are at increased risk of gender-based violence … including sexual violence and exploitation, intimate partner violence and early and forced marriage”.
The UK must lead the global effort to protect and empower these women but we must make sure that this protection extends to women at home. It is a well-known fact that, on average, two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a partner or ex-partner. Unfortunately, the Government’s austerity programme and the cuts to funding for women’s refuges have left many women with no safe place to go. Women’s Aid found that one in six referrals to a refuge were declined, owing to a lack of space or capacity to support the survivor.
I met a remarkable woman recently: Charlotte Kneer, who is CEO of a women’s refuge. She is a survivor of domestic abuse and took part in a Channel 4 documentary on the women’s refuge she now runs. It was called “Safe at Last: Inside a Women’s Refuge” and it was the first time such a film has been made. Charlotte allowed Channel 4 access to the refuge mainly to highlight the lack of funding but also to show what work is carried out. The staff were absolutely amazing and so dedicated, but they are very worried that it may have to close owing to a lack of funding. I recommend that noble Lords watch this documentary and, if possible, that it be shown in Parliament. I would be really happy to facilitate that. Will the Minister meet Charlotte to hear directly from her of the difficulties that women’s refuges are undergoing? The Government need to ensure that local government has enough funds to support women’s refuges, so that no woman is turned away. When a woman is turned away and must return to an abusive relationship, she is risking her life.
I look forward to the domestic abuse Bill coming to your Lordships’ House and I welcome the Government establishing a Joint Committee to consider it. The Minister has reassured me that when the Bill is passed, the Government will ratify the Istanbul convention. If so, they will need to provide all the resources necessary to ensure the work can be carried out effectively. Can she explain how the role of the domestic abuse commissioner will operate in practice, and how do the Government plan to guarantee the commissioner’s independence?
A better balance of women’s voices, ideas, rights and protections and a fairer distribution of wealth, as per equal pay, can only make the world a better place for women and girls. Gender inequality continues to hold women and girls back. We cannot allow women to be short-changed in the workplace. We cannot allow women to lose their jobs in a no-deal Brexit. We cannot allow violence to be used as a weapon against women and girls and, when we consider the UK’s role in advancing gender equality globally, we should not settle for anything less than the UK becoming a leader in equality. I give the House an assurance that that will be the aim of a Labour Government, and I look forward to the day when there is a “Balance for Better” in the lives of girls and women globally.