International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:40 pm on 7th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 5:40 pm, 7th March 2019

I agree with the noble Baroness—it was great to start the debate with the excellent opening speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. She mentioned things we need to celebrate in the past year: the anniversary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which allowed women to become barristers, solicitors, jurors and magistrates, and of Nancy Astor taking her seat, and the unveiling of the Fawcett statue in Parliament Square, which was a wonderful event.

I am sure we can expect a stirring closure to this debate from the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, who I hope I can regard as a sister on this day, particularly since I know that when she was a parliamentary candidate some years ago she surprised some of us by saying that she was a reluctant champion of women, that she did not object to being a “Cameron Cutie”—I have to tell the House that I really objected to being called a “Blair’s Babe” all those years ago—and that feminism did not resonate with her. She also said that she thought it was all a bit of a left-wing agenda. I like to think that since then, she has joined the ranks of the feminists on her own Benches in your Lordships’ House who are so effective and who certainly, and quite rightly, do not concede feminist ground to us lefties.

We have had inspiring speakers. I thank the many organisations which sent briefings, and the Library for its brief. My noble friend Lady Gale kicked off on this side by covering a great deal of ground about celebration and the challenges. The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, was right to raise stereotypes of, and to call out casual racism against, Muslim women. I think her mum and mine were probably cut from the same cloth. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth gave a most welcome address. I agree with him that all bishops are bishops and all vicars are vicars; our ranks have a recently ordained deacon.

I cannot mention everybody, but there were some great contributions from the noble Baronesses, Lady Meyer, Lady Hodgson, Lady Rock, Lady Anelay and Lady Jenkin, who is undoubtedly a leader. I have been led by her from time to time on various issues—I am very happy about that—and I think it quite likely that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and I were at Greenham Common at the same time.

My noble friend Lady Donaghy was completely right, and I agree with her about the right to be knackered—I have been in the Chamber for about six and a half hours today. The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, talked about discrimination and primogeniture, although it is not an issue that is very high on the agenda. It is, as it were, from-the-top discrimination.

My noble friend Lady Armstrong was right to talk about access to support for the most vulnerable women. My noble friends Lady Blackstone, Lady Crawley and Lord Griffiths made different contributions—for example, on the part that the European Union has played in protecting women’s rights. My noble friend Lord Griffiths can take back to his wife our thanks that she told him to put his name down for this debate.

While the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, was talking, I was reminded that I met and became a very close friend of a woman called Rosemary Pockley. It was the first time that I had ever spoken to a woman in the Conservative Party whom I regarded as a feminist and a sister. She made me aware of the struggles that Conservative women have had in their party, and they sometimes felt even worse than the ones that we were having in the Labour Party at around the same time. I want to pay tribute to Rosemary because she was a great friend and a great sister.

I want to say a little about the importance of our own body for equality, the EHRC, and its recent report based on the largest ever review of women’s rights and gender equality in the UK. As noble Lords will know, the commission is the regulatory body responsible for enforcing the Equality Act 2010, and we are accredited by the United Nations as an “A status” national human rights institution.

The commission’s duties are to reduce inequality, eliminate discrimination, and promote and protect human rights. Its biggest review of women’s rights and gender equality threw up a whole range of issues. It says quite clearly that important progress has been made in some areas—for example, forced marriage has been criminalised and shared parental leave has been introduced—but that there remains a range of areas where significant challenges face women and girls. The evidence and recommendations have informed the UK’s submission to the United Nations review of our progress on women’s rights. This review takes place across the world every four to five years. I gather that the United Nations is expected to issue its recommendations to the UK Government on Monday 11 March; I look forward to seeing them.

The recommendations include things that we all need to be aware of. For instance, according to the section on just and fair conditions at work, pregnant women, new mothers and women of childbearing age are still routinely discriminated against in the workplace. My colleagues on the Front Bench in the Commons—Dawn Butler and her team—have been highlighting this issue vigorously for a while. The research shows that 11% of mothers reported that they were either dismissed or made compulsorily redundant when others in their workplace were not, or that they were treated so poorly that they felt they had to leave their job.

The EHRC recommends that the UK Government should introduce a mandatory duty on employers to take reasonable steps to protect workers from harassment and victimisation, ensuring that flexible working is offered. They should also make it mandatory for employers to publish the narrative that goes with, for example, the gender pay gap within their companies, and support employers in collecting the necessary data for them to begin closing pay gaps affecting ethnic-minority and disabled women. I hope that the Minister will support those recommendations from our own commission.

I turn to the subject of gender-based violence. Despite signing the Istanbul convention on 8 June 2012, the UK has still not achieved ratification and has been criticised for a lack of accountability and oversight of its violence against women and girls strategy. Are urgent steps in place to ratify the Istanbul convention and, once it is ratified, will sufficient resources be dedicated to central, devolved and local authorities to ensure its effective implementation?

The EHRC recommends that the UK Government should mitigate the impact of welfare reforms on lone-parent families, the majority of whom are women, by uprating benefits, reversing the two-child limit on child tax credits and ensuring that work coaches are trained to deliver tailored employment support.

I turn to the public sector equality duty, which underpins much of the work and was introduced in the 2010 Act. Does the Minister acknowledge that the commission is proposing a new approach to the PSED to ensure that public bodies and government departments focus on the key inequalities affecting those affected by their functions? This would review and amend the specific duties underpinning the PSED to ensure that public bodies are required to focus on them.

I also highlight the recommendation to incorporate CEDAW into domestic law, so that individuals can effectively challenge rights violations by using the domestic legal system and access a domestic remedy for alleged breaches of CEDAW and other United Nations rights. There are many other recommendations, all of which, coming as they do from our domestic Equality and Human Rights Commission, we need to be listening to very carefully.

Finally I join with the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, in her request for some money for parties and events.