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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:10 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 8:10 pm, 10th March 2020

My Lords, I thank every Member of the House who has attended the debate and contributed today. We have heard some very powerful messages from across the Chamber, and I am really pleased to be closing the debate. It is important to use the opportunities presented to us on International Women’s Day and other days like this, to ensure that the issue of gender equality really gets the attention it deserves in this place, and elsewhere.

Sadly, time definitely does not permit me to highlight all the good works which noble Lords and noble Baronesses have done, and continue to do, to improve the lives of women and girls in this country and around the world. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Ranger has used this opportunity to make his maiden speech—a diamond, indeed. I congratulate him and welcome him to his place in the House. I am also pleased that my noble friend was joined by eight other noble Lords speaking today. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, and others that it is really important to hear men’s voices on this issue, not just women’s—it affects us all. We should all agree that next year we must do better. Achieving balance is, of course, in everyone’s interest.

With each year, we do make progress on gender equality; we should celebrate that, and International Women’s Day is a celebration. But with that celebration comes the caveat that more progress is evidently needed, and that has been made clear today. I can assure your Lordships that the Government are determined to push for change, and we know that we cannot be complacent.

Noble Lords have managed to cover a really impressive breadth of ground; I think I had written a 25-minute speech after the first 10 speakers. I shall do my best to address all the points, but I may speed up as I get towards the end.

Many noble Lords and noble Baronesses have spoken of the violence that women and girls still suffer in this country, and much of that is domestic abuse. The home should be a place of safety and comfort. My noble friend Lady Gardner explained how important it is that we admit this and are transparent about it in this country. The Government have taken action to help victims of domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, stalking—the many issues which affect many women in this country. This time last year we published a refreshed violence against women and girls strategy to reaffirm that commitment. As many noble Lords and noble Baronesses have highlighted, last week we reintroduced the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is supported by our comprehensive action plan of non-legislative measures directed to help end domestic abuse. The Government are fully committed to working with both Houses to ensure its swift passage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asked about recognising the gendered nature of domestic abuse. We want to ensure that all victims and all types of domestic abuse are sufficiently covered, and that no victim is inadvertently excluded from protection or access to services. But, as the Joint Committee’s report on the Domestic Abuse Bill recommends, we fully recognise that domestic abuse is a gendered crime, which disproportionately affects women and girls, and has a devastating impact on children. The noble Baroness also asked about the ratification of the Istanbul convention, and, as she knows, we publish an annual report on progress towards that ratification. We remain committed to the ratification of the convention as soon as practicable. The Domestic Abuse Bill contains the necessary measures to satisfy some of those needs.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, asked about long-term housing for survivors of domestic abuse, and we are committed to ensuring that all victims of domestic abuse receive the support that they need, when they need it. This includes having a safe place to stay, with specialist support to rebuild their lives. On the appropriate funding for migrants and refugees, we will of course ensure that local authorities get appropriate financial support to meet the proposed new duty. I will have to come back to her on the address and collect point, but I join her in welcoming the train tickets, which is a brilliant initiative—more of that, please.

Domestic abuse is also linked to female offenders, an issue that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester raised. As we know, almost 60% of female offenders have experienced domestic abuse, and more than a third of them have a problem with a current partner. We are committed to doing all we can to address the issues around female offending, so that we can better protect the public and deliver more effective rehabilitation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, is absolutely right that we must reinforce current case law, that a person cannot consent to violence that leads to serious injury or death. We are looking very carefully at how best to achieve that, but I am entirely in agreement with her. I also want to take the opportunity to mention something that we were highlighting on Sunday, International Women’s Day—the domestic abuse helpline relaunch, with Refuge. This is a free service providing confidential information and expert support; many women changed their Twitter handle to the number on Sunday, and we are really pleased that that is up and running.

On the many issues faced by women at work, I recognise that there is a range of problems, identified by many today, that negatively impact women in the workplace. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, predicted, I am going to say that the Government are taking action to see greater equality and fairness at work. We have strong laws against workplace harassment already set out in the Equality Act, and we launched a consultation last summer to see how they could be improved. We are also ensuring that employers are clear on their responsibilities, including supporting the Equality and Human Rights Commission to develop a statutory code of practice. In addition, the law is absolutely clear that pregnancy and maternity discrimination is unlawful. We have committed to reform redundancy law so that employers cannot discriminate against new mothers on their return to work.

Many noble Lords and noble Baronesses have raised the important issue of the gender pay gap. It is at a record low, but there is still some way to go. I welcome the intention of the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, to bring this vital issue to the forefront as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. We are looking very carefully at her proposals and the question of damages that she raised; we will use this year to reflect on what more needs to be done. I am pleased that she will meet my noble friend the Minister to discuss this further. As the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, said, nearly 100 years to get here is far too long.

My noble friend Lady Penn and others spoke about flexible working and the importance of shared parental leave. We have recently closed the consultation on that; we consulted on increasing transparency, flexible working policies and reforming parental leave and pay to allow both parents to play a greater role in childcare. I am afraid that we are still working through the responses on that but will come forward with something on it in due course. We have committed to make it easier for fathers to take paternity leave, as set out in the 2019 manifesto—not just because the Prime Minister now has a personal interest in that. We are working through those responses and will introduce an employment Bill following consideration of them. I do not want to pre-empt that work. Flexible working, as the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, highlighted, needs to be part of ensuring that women can access work as, when and how they need it.

My noble friend Lady Rock and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, spoke about data and tech. I agree that much more needs to be done to get women into tech. I will pass on her excellent ideas on this to the Office for Students; as my noble friend highlighted, we have a number of programmes on this. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, highlighted the seriousness of this; there is an amusing side to it but gender-biased data is also serious in its impact on women’s health. There are huge opportunities, as my noble friend pointed out, for us in the fourth industrial revolution, but we need to make sure that we champion gender equality as part of that. The work with the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation is commendable; it plays a vital role in advising the Government on the measures we need to take.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Lady Nye, spoke about the importance of apprenticeships. We need to make sure both that apprenticeships are accessible to everyone and that there is a good gender balance in them. I am delighted that our new Apprenticeships Minister was a female apprentice in her time. She will be a great champion for that. We have a Fire It Up campaign featuring apprentices from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Many noble Lords and noble Baronesses spoke about the importance of encouraging women and girls into STEM. We must highlight role models more; we do it already but need to do it more. The noble Lord, Lord Young, spoke about the incredible Katherine Johnson. We all know that you cannot be what you cannot see, so we need to do more work on that.

My noble friend Lady Mone spoke of entrepreneurship. The Treasury has published the Alison Rose review and we are working very closely with industry to implement its recommendations, including the launch of a new voluntary investing in women code, increasing the transparency of support given to female entrepreneurs. This takes me back to the point about role models. We are very lucky to have my noble friend in our Chamber, who is of course an excellent role model and an inspiration to many women and men who want to get into entrepreneurship and start their own business.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, highlighted, the difference in the ways men and women participate in the labour market, whether taking time out or working part time, is the biggest driver of the gender pay gap. I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Ranger that the economic empowerment of women is a necessity, not a choice. We continue to support families with their childcare costs and plan to spend more than £3.6 billion in 2021 to support our early education entitlements.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, highlighted the consequences of gender inequality in our creative industries and the fact that those consequences go well beyond that industry. We are determined to open up the creative sector to all and are working with key industry bodies and stakeholders such as the BFI and Ofcom to boost diversity across the sector.

The noble Lord, Lord Razzall, spoke about the importance of sport. We have had the great campaign This Girl Can since 2015 to ensure that more women take part in sport. I share the noble Lord’s love of cricket and am delighted that the MCC is now open to women—sadly I have not reached those heady heights, nor those of the Ilkley Bowling Club. While we are on cricket, I was really pleased to see that the prize fund of the new Hundred game will be split equally between men and women. Again, more of that please.

Many noble Lords raised political representation, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Gale and Lady Pinnock, and my noble friend Lady Fall. We have more women MPs than ever before, which is great, but we need to ensure that we have more. Of course women must have an equal vote and voice in the decisions that affect them. The centre of Parliament, as my noble friend Lady Fall, said, must reflect reality. I also take this opportunity, as others have, to thank my noble friend Lady Jenkin for all the work she has done for the Conservative Party—not least in organising us for the march on Sunday—and her constant support and mentoring to many women in Parliament, including myself. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Fall for her excellent speech on the challenges that still face women in politics and public life. Part of that means courtesy and respect for those with differing views, as the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, and the noble Lord, Lord Young, highlighted.

I was also pleased to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, speak of the revolution of the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, which my noble friend Lady Gardner also acknowledged. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, also asked about Section 106 of the Equality Act. We have the most gender and LGBT-diverse Parliament ever. That is to be welcomed but, as I say, we have much more to do in keeping Section 106 under review. We will continue to encourage political parties to report on a voluntary basis. Ultimately, however, we believe that it is for parties to ensure that they select a diverse range of candidates and that the selection process is responsive to the barriers that we know. That is the way to improve diverse presentation. However, it is good to hear of successes we have had—we just need more of them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about making misogyny a hate crime. We have asked the Law Commission to undertake a review of the coverage and approach to hate crime legislation, which will include questions of whether we need further protected characteristics, including on sex and gender.

My noble friend Lady Bottomley spoke of the importance of supporting women throughout their career, avoiding the broken rung on the career ladder. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, I may steal that one. We have to make sure that there is no glass ceiling that prevents women reaching the top, as well as ensuring that we support them all the way through. My noble friend mentioned the Hampton-Alexander review, which aimed to get 33% of women on boards. The FTSE 100 has achieved its target ahead of schedule, which is good news, but we should all ensure that everyone involved redoubles their efforts on all those other targets. My noble friend also spoke about Athena SWAN; widening access and participation to higher education remains a priority, and initiatives such as Athena SWAN are seeing advances in gender equality and in improving the representation of women in academia.

Many noble Lords and Baronesses have spoken of the match-girl strikers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan of Partick, made clear, acknowledging women’s history is important, and it was good to speakers highlight the match-girl strikers today. I was also pleased to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Osamor, about the Women’s History Month and the work she is doing to ensure that the people she mentioned are not forgotten.

As my noble friend Lady Newlove said, we must remember the experience of the suffragettes, who fought so hard to give us female politicians the opportunities we have today, and I am grateful for the education on the history of women’s toilets. I will add my name to the long list of admirers of my noble friend and I pay tribute to her work for victims, on safeguarding and for women everywhere.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson spoke of the need to recognise the role of older women. It is important that the Government support older women in the particular challenges they face, not only because they are important in and of themselves—of course they are—but because we know that with demographic change, older women and men will be a far larger share of our population in the future.

There is good news to share: we know that women aged 50 to 64 have seen the largest increases in employment, but that comes with new challenges, as the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, highlighted. It is important that we give the implications of that our sustained attention, because we want to make sure that women are able to fulfil their potential in the workplace at any age. We have worked with businesses and academics to highlight the many practical actions that employers can take to support women going through menopause transition. That also sits alongside other policies and programmes, such as flexible working, which can help everyone remain economically active for as long as they choose to.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Donaghy, and others, mentioned carers. We are committed to creating an economy that works for everyone, and it is great that the female employment rate is at a near record high. However, we know that unpaid care work, including childcare and informal care—for example, caring for sick relatives, friends or neighbours—is disproportionately performed by women, and taking time out of work or limiting work hours to care can have a big impact on pay and progression. We are therefore continuing to support families with their childcare costs, and are investing £6.6 million to support carers to remain in or return to work.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nye, also highlighted the difficulties experienced by young carers, and we need to keep them in consideration too. However, as I say, as the population ages, we will face a growing demand for care. We know that caring can be a rewarding experience but that it can also impact physical and mental health, well-being, relationships and employment. We must ensure that carers continue to have the freedom to provide care as they would wish, but to do so in a way that takes account of their own health and well-being, access to education, employment and life chances.

My noble friend Lady Chisholm and the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, spoke about the necessity of social care. Putting social care on a sustainable footing, where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, is vital. The Prime Minister has made that a priority and has said that the Government will bring forward a plan for social care this year. We are commencing cross-party talks and are inviting MPs and Peers to voice their views. These are complex questions to address, which is why we are trying to build cross-party consensus. However, we have been clear: everybody will have safety and security, and nobody will be forced to sell their home to pay for care.

My noble friend Lady Chisholm also spoke of rural loneliness. The Government are working hard to tackle loneliness; nine government departments are working together on that, including Defra, which works specifically on rural issues. We are funding 126 projects that bring people together and looking at domestic abuse in rural areas. We recognise that victims may face increased isolation from support networks and lack of access to services, and the domestic abuse commission has agreed to undertake an in-depth exploration of current community- based support.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, spoke passionately of the damage that online harms and abuse can do to children and indeed others. We have published our initial response to the online harms White Paper consultation, and the Queen’s Speech included a commitment that the Government

“will develop legislation to improve internet safety for all.”

We will continue to work hard on that to make sure that young people are not exposed to things that they should not be exposed to.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for highlighting primogeniture in this Chamber. As we know, the reform of the succession of hereditary peerage raises a variety of issues, including the legitimate expectation of males next in line to inherit titles and the effect on land and property rights. Any changes in this area will need to balance the desire to modernise the peerage with traditions that have been in place for centuries. Various approaches have been proposed in both Houses to address this but there has not been a consensus on the way forward. It is a complex issue that engages wider issues associated with the peerage. Further consideration is required and the Government continue to listen to the concerns of interested parties. I am grateful to my noble friend for his good suggestion of having a QSD to discuss the matter further and gauge the opinion of the House. We will look into making time for that.

My noble friend Lady Seccombe spoke about single-sex spaces. We must ensure that women’s rights, safety, freedom and dignity are recognised, defended and respected. That means maintaining safeguards to allow organisations to provide single-sex services for women and girls, while ensuring that adults who have decided that they are transgender are free to live their lives fully as they wish. She also spoke of a specific case. Although I cannot comment on ongoing cases, it is vital that every child gets the right care and support that they need if they are questioning their gender.

I have five minutes left to talk about international issues. I am sure that all noble Lords and Baronesses will agree that every woman and girl, whatever her background, should have the freedom, support and, where necessary, protection to achieve her full potential.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester highlighted the issue of domestic abuse across the world. We are a global leader in ending violence against women and girls in all its forms, including domestic violence, sexual violence, female genital mutilation, child, early and forced marriage, and sexual violence in conflict. In November, we announced the largest-ever investment by a single-donor Government to prevent violence against women and girls globally. This builds on DfID’s brilliant What Works to Prevent Violence programme, which has done incredible investigation. We know that violence is preventable and we know how to prevent it; now it is about using that global good to scale up our investment and that of others too.

We will also use the opportunities of the Generation Equality Forum, led by UN Women, France and Mexico to celebrate Beijing+25—coronavirus permitting. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and other noble Lords said, using Beijing as a hook to make further progress will be really important. I can also share that the UK has put itself forward to lead the action coalition on gender-based violence, as this is an area where we think we can work with others to make a real difference.

We are defending and promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights. As the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, highlighted, women and girls must have control over their bodies and access to services they need. Last year, we announced a new flagship programme that will provide more than 20 million women with access to family planning each year, preventing 5 million unintended pregnancies and saving 9,000 women’s lives. We have a strong voice on sexual and reproductive health and rights; we put our money where our mouth is. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, that we will continue to do that.

My noble friend Lady Anelay mentioned women’s economic empowerment. I also met the Lionesses she referred to. I welcome her committee’s work looking into what the Government are doing on Africa. We look forward to contributing to that. She also asked about Botswana. While she knows that DfID will work in aid-eligible countries, we also now have joint Ministers. All junior joint Ministers between FCO and DfID can make that link and ensure that, where we do not have a DfID presence, we are able to use our diplomatic network properly.

On women’s peace and security, I loved the idea from my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Bates, about exclusively female scholarships to encourage leadership. We will take a look at that. I would also love to take on the commitment he has invited me to make on supporting women-only new heads of the UN and NATO, but I am not in a position to do so. However, I will commit to writing to my noble friend Lady Berridge on that, as he requested.

Many noble Lords and Baronesses talked about the importance of women’s political empowerment overseas, with which I agree. On Afghanistan, we must make sure that women are involved in the peace process. I agree completely with my noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, that women have to be central to the peace process; it has to involve the local women who know what the issues are. Afghanistan is a priority country for women’s meaningful participation. In the 20th anniversary year of UNSCR 1325, we continue to make clear to all sides that an Afghanistan political settlement must be reached through an inclusive process.

I am really running out of time. Climate change and COP are incredibly important, a subject that was spoken about by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. Through our presidency of COP, we will make sure that women and girls are at the centre of that; it of course was the focus of the march on Sunday. On the role of older women, I am afraid that I will have to write in detail to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who was quite right to highlight the important work done by them in NGOs. We have ways to ensure that we use those organisations on the ground to deliver the help needed. I join the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for his incredible work on widows, and I will be pleased to hear about that in more detail. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for highlighting that issue as well. She was also right to point out that it is not just older women who are widowed because younger women are too. We do a lot of work in that area and we know that widows are often the backbone of families and communities.

I am nearing the end of my allocated time, but I have saved the best until last because there is just enough time to end with an issue that is close to my heart. My job title now includes being the UK’s special envoy on girls’ education. This is a new role that really will accelerate progress on getting more girls in the world’s poorest countries into school, thus benefiting them from quality learning. I join the noble Lord, Lord Young, in paying tribute to Malala, and we work closely with her foundation. We are committed to standing up for the rights of all girls to receive 12 years of quality education and we will not forget the girls in the IDP camps. It is not only the right thing to do, it is one of the smartest investments we can make. My noble friend Lord Ranger made the case for educating women very well in his maiden speech by explaining what it means to him personally. Educated women have vastly improved health prospects, as do their children, while educated women with access to contraception can choose if, when and how many children to have. They will also help to tackle the biggest challenge of our time: climate change.

I am now definitely out of time. I conclude by thanking everybody. It gave me pause for thought when I realised that the debate would be six hours long, but I have genuinely enjoyed every minute of it because it has been a fantastic debate. I join noble Lords and Baronesses across the House in paying tribute to the many women both in the UK and overseas, from carers to domestic abuse campaigners, from civil rights activists to the women around the world who are fighting for their rights, as well as older women working in NGOs, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. We owe them all our gratitude. As we mark International Women’s Day this year, it is right that we should celebrate with high fives or shots of whisky and look at how far we have come, but we know that there is more that we can do. Both at home and abroad we continue to champion equality of treatment and opportunity and I am proud that Britain has long been and will continue to be a world leader in this respect.

Motion agreed.