International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:50 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 5:50 pm, 7th March 2019

I was not aware of that statistic. I knew the figure was low, but I did not realise it was that low. That is shocking. We certainly should look at that, but the British venture capital industry needs to take a long hard look at itself and figure it out, because it has significant funds and clearly women can make a great success of these companies. We should all call on it to look at that and make sure that the imbalance is sorted out.

In her speech, my noble friend Lady Redfern reminded us of some great female role models in the STEM sector. However, if we are to get the pipeline sorted out, we have to get young girls interested in the first place, early on, from primary school onwards. It is very important that they start at school, then get to college and university and are still doing STEM subjects. We announced substantial spending commitments in the 2017 Autumn Budget on maths, digital and technical education and we are funding programmes, such as the advanced maths premium, to increase the take-up of maths, computing and physics and to support better teaching of maths, science and computing in schools. To address the gender imbalance in computing, we are launching a computing pilot programme this year, to improve girls’ participation in computing as part of an £84 million investment to improve the teaching of computing in schools. This is essential for the AI issue that we talked about earlier. These things all build up together and should lead to greater success for women and girls in this area.

I was taken by the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy. I agree with her that not everything is great. Women are almost three times more likely than men to be working part-time, which is associated with zero pay progression. Women are around 65% more likely than men to be earning the national living wage. We all want to change these things. Now that we know what we are aiming for, I hope these figures will improve.

But how do we improve them? As my noble friend Lady Williams stated in her speech, the Government Equalities Office is working incredibly hard across departments at the moment on the female economic empowerment strategy. My noble friend outlined what this strategy hopes to achieve, so I will not dwell on it too much at this stage. However, I would like to talk about the Women’s National Commission, which the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, mentioned. She is right: it was disbanded in 2010. We do not have any plans to replace it at this time. However, the Government are very clear that the voice of women should be better heard by policymakers, and not just on a committee sitting in a room somewhere, but across government. The Government Equalities Office is doing a significant programme of work to make sure that women’s voices are better heard by policymakers. It is important that the Government really understand the issues that impact on women from every walk of life, and across every part of the Government’s agenda.

I will briefly pick up some issues mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp. He focused on the status of workers, nurses and carers on zero-hours contracts. To focus on the latter, zero-hours contracts cause a great amount of angst and can be quite controversial, but we know that many people working on zero-hours contracts, whether in the adult social care sector or elsewhere, value their flexibility. For some, it is an attractive feature of such a job. However, we are well aware that, for others, fixed contracts with definite hours are preferable. There is an organisation called Skills for Care, which is a workforce development organisation for the adult social care workforce funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. It provides advice to employers on how to attract and retain the most excellent staff with the benefits of offering a choice of different employment contracts.

Finally, on employment and education, my noble friends Lady Meyer and Lady Finn mentioned sexual harassment in the workplace. I am sure there is not a female in this Room who has not had something rather unpleasant happen to them in the workplace. We take this extremely seriously. We are committed to ending any harassment, bullying, intimidation and violence that women might face. The UK has some of the strongest workplace protections in the world, including explicit protection against sexual harassment in the workplace under the Equality Act 2010. The Government will consult this summer to explore whether these should be further strengthened.

I turn to international issues, because there was a significant amount of interest on those issues and I want to make sure that I cover them where I can. My noble friend Lady Hodgson started by talking about the Commission on the Status of Women and how the Government can help it be more impactful. This is the biggest annual international event on gender equality. It has produced some of the most impactful milestones in the history of women’s empowerment, including the convention on the elimination of all forms of violence against women and the Beijing Platform for Action. We are looking forward to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration next year. We will be working with like-minded countries to ensure that the CSW sets an ambitious programme of work for the next five years.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson also mentioned support for human rights defenders. The FCO and DfID strongly support the vital role that they and civil society organisations play in supporting sustainable development. For example, on international Human Rights Day in December, the Secretary of State for International Development spoke at an Amnesty International UK event to highlight the work of five inspiring female human rights defenders.

The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, mentioned the work of women in global health. This is absolutely critical. The Government appreciate that, without good health, nothing else can possibly follow. DfID supports developing countries to achieve international development target 3.8 on universal health coverage. This means ensuring that everyone, everywhere can access quality essential health services for prevention and care without suffering financial hardship. Investment in health workers, the majority of whom are women, is essential to achieve this. DfID invests in nursing and the broader health workforce through bilateral country programmes, multilateral partners and global initiatives such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Furthermore on the subject of health, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, made a very wide-ranging speech about sexual and reproductive health. The UK leads the world in our long-term support for comprehensive sexual reproductive health and rights. We are the largest donor to the United Nations Population Fund and the second-largest bilateral donor on family planning. In 2017 the UK committed to spend an average of £225 million per year over the next five years on family planning. To illustrate what this means, we estimate that every year our investment will support nearly 20 million total users of contraception. It will prevent 6 million unintended pregnancies and so prevent more than 3 million abortions, many of which would be unsafe. It will save the lives of more than 6,000 women every year.

My noble friend Lady Anelay turned our attention to Ethiopia and FGM. Noble Lords will know that the UK has long supported the end of FGM, particularly through our financial support. The flagship programme currently in place comes to an end this year, but in 2018 we announced a programme with a further £50 million of UK aid, which again will be the single biggest investment worldwide to date by any international donor. This programme will continue to tackle FGM across the most affected countries in Africa. We are currently in the early stages of competitive tendering, so we are not yet aware of where that programme will cover. Of course I cannot prejudge its conclusion today, but I am sure that the results of that tendering will be available very soon.

My noble friends Lady Helic and Lady Hodgson spoke about the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative—an absolutely critical and long-term thing, which we must continue to pressure on. We are committed to securing justice for survivors and breaking the culture of impunity by holding the perpetrators to account. The next PSVI conference will take place in November 2019. It is a three-day survivor-centred event and will celebrate progress, address remaining challenges and secure further commitments. It aims to focus on: accountability challenges; support for children born of rape; ensuring service provision for all survivors; and working with militaries, faiths and the media.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, mentioned Kashmir. The UK Government are concerned by any allegations of human rights violations and abuses. Our position is that any allegations must be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently. We noted the concerns raised in the report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in June 2018 and continue to encourage all states, including India and Pakistan, to uphold human rights.

My noble friend Lady Helic mentioned peace in Afghanistan and of course we agree with her entirely. We continue to press for peace negotiations to be inclusive and representative of Afghan society by including women’s participation. We also believe that any political settlement in Afghanistan should respect the rights of all Afghans, and that includes women.

The role of women in peace was also mentioned by my noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. The UK is strengthening partnerships with organisations that share our interest in building women’s capacity to participate in mediation processes, including the UN, other multilaterals and women’s mediation networks. But the UK has a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, which is jointly owned by the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DfID. It sets out how the UK Government will integrate a gender perspective into their work to build security and stability overseas, protect the human rights of women and girls and promote their meaningful participation in conflict prevention and resolution.

I turn briefly to an issue on which I will certainly write to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. We obviously look forward to the report that will come from CEDAW. The UK was examined by the CEDAW committee on 26 February in Geneva and it will issue its conclusion, observations and recommendations later this month. We will of course consider its recommendations fully. If I can provide her with any more information, I certainly will.

On violence against women and girls, and domestic abuse, my noble friend Lady Williams opened with a strong review of where we are but perhaps I may put a few markers down on specific things. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asked about the DA commissioner and whether that person could be independent. The commissioner will provide public leadership on domestic abuse issues and play a key role in overseeing the provision of services in England. Their day-to-day independence from Ministers will be particularly important when called upon to identify local areas where service provision is insufficient.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about the Istanbul convention and its ratification. I believe that, if the domestic abuse Bill is passed, it will ratify the Istanbul convention.

I have 30 seconds to cover public service, recognition of great leaders and Brexit. Well, Brexit is out of the window. We have had so many interesting speeches today on the representation of women. So many Members of your Lordships’ House, despite not being elected themselves, have been very involved in getting others elected to the other place, to councils and elsewhere. We are clear that politics must be representative. We have to do whatever we can to make sure that we have the right sort of diversity.

It is also quite a rough and tough world out there at the moment. I do not know whether any noble Lord has seen the video of Amber Rudd reading out some of the abuse that she has got on Twitter. It is appalling and shocking, and we must fight back against those things. It is not normal: people should not be speaking in that way, whether in person or anonymously.

Sadly, I must conclude, but I promise that my letter will be a very good one. Once again, I thank all noble Lords. It has been an excellent debate. This House works best when we work together, as noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. So let us do just that. Perhaps, as noted by my noble friend Lady Finn, we can structurally re-engineer our whole society—but I do not want to start a gender war, as noted by my noble friend Lady Meyer. So what must we do? We must march on. We know what needs to be done and I beg to move.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 6.11 pm.