International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:56 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Conservative 3:56 pm, 7th March 2019

My Lords, today is the day to celebrate progress while recognising that there is more to do. I thank the researchers in the Library for providing me with a favourite number: 228. I am only the 228th woman to have been appointed under the Life Peerages Act since 1958. I find this sobering when I think of the centuries of history in this Chamber. Many barriers still exist, but like my noble friend Lady Seccombe, I count myself fortunate to have been born at this time and in this country, where I can own property, start a business or charity, vote—in most elections—and speak my views freely. As a lawyer by profession, I know that there are a growing number of role models. Twenty-five per cent of the Supreme Court judiciary, including its president, are now women. Overseas, the testimony of the former Attorney-General of Canada, Jody Wilson-Raybould, defending prosecutorial independence against interference by the Prime Minister, should be standard viewing for all law students.

Injustices still exist, however. The problem of forced marriage led the coalition Government to take the positive step of making it a crime. There are cases where the victims are men, but 77% of the victims are women. To make this criminal law effective, the Government changed the definition of marriage to any religious or civil ceremony, whether or not legally binding. Some women are brave enough to give evidence against their husbands and perhaps other family members, and successfully secure a criminal conviction, proving beyond reasonable doubt that there was a forced marriage. But they are left without a remedy in the civil court to get their share of matrimonial assets, as the woman is not viewed in the civil law as married. Our law is therefore contradictory: she is married for some purposes but not for others. It is not the crime of forced cohabitation; it is the crime of forced marriage. This irrational situation will last until a victim of forced marriage attains a media profile because, having no claim on his assets—his house, business and, probably most likely, pension—ends up claiming universal credit. I would be grateful if my noble friend could arrange a further meeting to discuss this gap in our law.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, said Martin Luther King. As a state comprehensive girl from factory-working parents, this lofty quote compels me to raise one of the last—perhaps the last—bastion of direct discrimination against women in UK law. I call it the “Lady Mary Crawley problem”, because Downton Abbey was in search of a male heir as women could not, and still cannot, inherit. When we changed the law for the monarchy, part of Her Majesty’s Government’s reasons for not getting rid of this discriminatory law was that it meant,

“disinheritance of individuals with legitimate expectations to inherit an hereditary peerage”.—[Official Report, 11/9/15; col. 1633.]

Men cannot possibly rely on legitimate expectations created by direct discrimination against women to prevent law reform. I pay tribute to the work of Daughters’ Rights and wish to place on record that, like many other Members of this House, I do not vote in any hereditary Peer by-elections where there are no women on the ballot paper. This law directly affects the gender balance in this Chamber; I would be grateful to hear the Government’s view on this matter.

Finally, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, I want to address briefly the double discrimination that many women face: additional barriers and prejudice against women from black and minority-ethnic communities. I support the recommendation made outside the Chamber by my noble friend Lady McGregor- Smith that companies should publish their data on this matter. The next logical step from a gender pay gap reporting requirement is publishing the ethnicity pay gap. However, this issue concerns not just business but the charitable and social investment sectors. I discovered that the UK has the fastest-growing social investment market in the world, worth £2.3 billion and growing at 17% a year, but BME women are sadly the least likely to hold a directorship, representing only 2.8% of such positions. I am surprised that charities are also underperforming, with 62% of the UK’s largest charities having all-white boards of trustees, despite black people being the ethnic group most likely to volunteer each month. Surely there should be some reporting requirement to make such boards justify this absence of diversity. I hope my noble friend the Minister will raise this with the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, the chair of the Charity Commission.

Today, I will finish work, as I often do, walking past the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. Thank God for her life, but today I will also be grateful for her part in enabling me to be female life Peer number 228.