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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:47 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat 7:47 pm, 10th March 2020

My Lords, International Women’s Day does not belong to any single country or group or organisation—it is global and it is for all of us—and that has been reflected in the wide range of excellent speeches that we have heard today.

Let me be the latest, if not quite the last, to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge—I am really looking forward to working with her—and I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, to her new role as Special Envoy for Girls’ Education. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ranger, on the inspiring story of his mother. From his comments, he is obviously proud of her, and I am sure that she would be incredibly proud of him.

I shall try to group the contributions that we have heard. Women in politics featured in several speeches. The noble Baronesses, Lady Jenkin and Lady Fall, spoke about their hard work to redress the imbalance in the Conservative Party—and well done them. The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, talked about founding Women2Win, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fall, reminded us of the chauvinistic atmosphere that still pervades in politics and puts so many women off. Women now represent 34% of seats in the Commons, and we have a long, long way to go in the Lords.

The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, went back to the earliest struggles, including the suffragettes and women’s toilets—we have all had the experience of queuing for toilets designed by men. Talking about history, the noble Baroness, Lady Osamor, painted a fascinating picture of the lives and deaths of some of the first black women in Haringey—her ancestors in fact.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about the climate emergency, as we would expect, and compared the struggle to that which women face every day to achieve equality. Feminism and environmentalism in this respect are one and the same. We talked about women in work and the strike by the match girls—who were inspirational path-blazers, if you will pardon the expression. The noble Baronesses, Lady Gale and Lady Bryan, and my noble friend Lady Pinnock talked movingly about poverty and its effects on carers, low-paid workers and pensioners.

On women’s start-ups, we heard incredible examples of how the odds are stacked against us—yet, certainly, the noble Baroness, Lady Mone, sets a trail that we would all wish every aspiring entrepreneur to follow. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, talked about the value of diversity in business, with 33% more profitability for diverse businesses. The noble Baroness, Lady Rock, talked about women in tech, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, about women in the creative industries. The noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Lady Nye, talked about women in STEM. I totally agree about how important it is that we acknowledge the potential of 50% of our society. The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, spoke passionately and gave a disturbing description of online abuse and the need for age-verification for access to pornography. The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, talked about women in business and women leaving work early before reaching their full potential as “the broken rung on the corporate ladder”; I might borrow that expression if the noble Baroness does not mind.

We have had lots of contributions from men—very supportive men. We thank them all. It is no good if we talk only to each other or ourselves. I appreciated the contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Razzall and Lord Young. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, talked about how women are less good then men—at violence and other forms of crime. He is himself a wonderful role model of how a man can command great respect from women. The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, talked about the right—or rather what is not so much the right—of primogeniture.

Poverty was a strong theme, including in the contributions from my noble friend Lady Pinnock, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Healy and Lady Crawley. Carers featured in several contributions, with my noble friend Lady Pinnock and the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, talking about benefits for the greatest numbers. Menopause featured heavily in the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy; I wonder what the situation would be if men had to go through the menopause—that is just a thought, colleagues. The noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, tackled the special problems faced by women in rural communities: loneliness, poverty and paucity of care services.

Looking at overseas issues, the noble Baronesses, Lady Anelay and Lady Goudie, spoke about international development work and my noble friend Lord Hussain talked about the crimes perpetrated against women in Kashmir.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Cox and Lady Greengross, and the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, talked about the contributions of older women, including widows overseas, and development work with women in their communities. The noble Baroness, Lady Nye, talked movingly about the Rohingya women and their suffering, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, about women in Afghanistan. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, told us stories about her time as a women’s commissioner.

Several colleagues in the House, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, mentioned the Domestic Abuse Bill. We welcome the Bill and the changes made to it as a result of the recommendations of the cross-party consultation group, which have been incorporated into its next iteration. I am very happy that a duty will be imposed on local authorities to provide refuge for victims, but that needs to be funded properly. There is currently a huge shortfall, with 60% of women who approach hostels and refuges today being turned away.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission makes three recommendations, which we will be supporting from these Benches. First, it calls for a widening of public authorities’ duty to provide refuge services, to include non-accommodation-based services as well as accommodation. As I said earlier, 1.6 million women are affected by domestic violence each year. Thankfully, they do not all need refuges, but they do need other specialist services. The EHRC recommends that the statutory duties should incorporate other specialist services, and there should be a corresponding duty on the Secretary of State to provide the funding to ensure effective implementation. Secondly, the EHCR says that the Bill in its current form leaves those with insecure immigration status without protection and support. These are the most vulnerable people in society. Does the Minister agree that all victims of abuse should be offered support, no matter who they are and regardless of their immigration status?

I have some suggestions that I hope the Minister will feel able to support. In the context of domestic abuse, I draw her attention to the Citizens Advice campaign asking BEIS to fund an “address and collect” service, similar to the post office box service, provided at post offices. Research by Citizens Advice found that half of the survivors of domestic abuse had had their post intercepted. It also estimated that survivors have lost £7.1 billion over the last 10 years through post interception. Arguably worse, 40% of survivors who have fled the abuse have had their new addresses disclosed by an agency, such as a hospital or local authority; 71% of those affected had their safety compromised as a result. Under “address and collect” the applicant would receive an address location that they could use, and their post would be redirected to a post office, to be collected at a time convenient for them. This would overcome some of the barriers to accessing essential services and help to ensure safety. Will the Minister use her good offices to ask BEIS to consider funding such a service? It is the Budget tomorrow—you never know your luck.

My second ask relates to discrimination against women. They pay £200 per year extra for the same everyday goods as men which have been orientated towards women. This has been labelled the “pink tax”; the Gender-based Pricing (Prohibition) Bill tabled by my colleague in the Commons, Christine Jardine, is supported by Members right across the Commons. It would address this gender discrimination by making it illegal for companies to make a surcharge for goods aimed at women but used by both sexes. Personally, I have never felt tempted to buy a pink razor but it seems criminal to me that women should be exploited in this way. Will the Minister again use her a good offices to ensure that the Government consider supporting this Private Member’s Bill?

My third ask is about pay. I wholly endorse the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, about shared parental leave and the right to know. We know that eight out of 10 companies still pay men more than women. A major reason for this is lack of pay transparency as there is no right to know. Even if you suspect that a male colleague doing the same work is being paid more, you may have to go to court to find out. We had a discussion on this in Questions earlier today. The Government committed in 2019 to review the enforcement of equal pay legislation. Could the Minister have a quiet word with her colleagues to see whether this could be recommended as the next stage in shining a light on the dark malpractices that still frustrate our struggle for pay equality?

I finish very quickly with a good news story from Southeastern and Great Western Railways, which offer free train travel to victims fleeing an abusive relationship under a new scheme they invented—“rail to refuge”. Under the scheme, abuse victims can contact the charity Women’s Aid, or a domestic abuse helpline or local outreach service; if necessary, a refuge space will be found for them and a train ticket obtained on the woman’s behalf. This is true corporate social responsibility in action.

I close with the words of the Baroness, Lady Goudie, who said that this has been one of the nicest International Women’s Day debates. That is because we are all on the same page, quite literally.