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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:32 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Gale Baroness Gale Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues) 3:32 pm, 10th March 2020

My Peers, I thank the Minister for bringing this debate before us today and congratulate her on her new post as Minister for Women and Equalities. I look forward to working with her in future.

This annual debate allows us to discuss all aspects of life for females, and I am sure that we will hear many interesting speeches. I am looking forward to hearing from all Peers, especially the noble Lord, Lord Ranger, who has chosen to make his maiden speech today.

The theme for International Women’s Day is “Each for Equality”, and the theme of our debate is that the House

“takes note of International Women’s Day and the United Kingdom’s role in advancing equalities for women everywhere.”

That gives us quite wide scope, and poses the question of how each one of us achieves equality. Looking at women in politics, we still have some way to go. Following the general election in December there are now 220 women MPs. That is 34% of all MPs, an all-time high. That compares with this Chamber, where there are 220 women Peers and 587 men. Since 1918, when women could stand for Parliament, only 552 women have been elected, but in the same period more than 5,000 men have been elected. It has taken 102 years to get to this number, and in that time only 46 women have become Cabinet Ministers.

The all-women shortlists legislation that was enacted in 2002 enabled political parties to address the underrepresentation of women in political life. The Labour Party has used it in several general elections, and as a result it has more women MPs than other parties. For the first time, there are also more women than men in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

However, we still need to look at diversity in our elected institutions. Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 requires political parties to report on the diversity of their candidates. That has not yet been enacted. This means that there is no collection of data and no monitoring of party representation at all in terms of disability, ethnicity or gender. Without data there is no way of assessing what the problems are and no way of identifying how political parties can put measures in place to address the problems.

It makes it very difficult to hold parties to account for their attitudes towards diversity. This is a way of ensuring that our elected institutions look like the people they represent, and that is what we should be aiming for. In line with our debate, advancing equalities for women everywhere, will the Minister agree to do all she can to ensure that Section 106 is enacted as soon as possible, because until now the Government—from 2010—have refused to act on this.

Where we have a good number of women elected, such as the Welsh Assembly, we do see a different agenda. For example, much legislation has been passed improving the lives of women and children. The first Children’s Commissioner was appointed in Wales and now we have them in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland.

The first Commissioner for Older People in the world was appointed in Wales and there is only one other; in Northern Ireland. The first Future Generations Commissioner was appointed in Wales in 2015, which is working very well. Indeed, we have the Second Reading of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, promoted by Lord Bird, on Friday. I hope that the Government will be supporting it. Sixteen and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote for the first time in elections in Wales. This shows that there is a different agenda when there is a good number of women in our elected institutions.

I am pleased to see the Domestic Abuse Bill has started its passage in the House of Commons. It has been a long time coming. The Minister will be aware that, although it has been welcomed by many organisations, they feel that the Bill may be lacking in some areas and there are concerns it does not go far enough. So can the Minister give a guarantee that the Istanbul Convention will be ratified once the Act has been passed and that it fully complies with the provisions of the Istanbul Convention, including explicit recognition of the gendered nature of domestic abuse and its disproportionate impact on women, and ensuring the protection of all women without discrimination on any grounds, including race, religion, nationality, or migrant or refugee status. All this has been promised for some time now.

The voice of women’s organisations in the United Kingdom was lost to a large extent when the coalition Government in 2010 disbanded the Women’s National Commission, although the Government at the time said it would be taken in-house with the Government Equalities Office having the responsibility. However, nothing is now heard about that and the Equalities Office cannot possibly be doing the work that the WNC carried out. Perhaps the Minister could tell the House what is happening in this field. The WNC was an asset to the United Kingdom. It comprised more than 650 women’s organisations and provided different Governments over a period of 40 years with a great link to the women of the United Kingdom. It was the voice of women to government. Unfortunately, that voice has been lost.

Are the Government prepared to look at this again and reconsider the decision of the coalition Government? I will be very happy to have any discussions with the Minister and I can assure her it will be most welcome to the women’s organisations of the United Kingdom.

We know that women have made advances over the years. We certainly have more opportunities than women of past generations and most of us have the freedom to live our life as we choose. As we mark International Women’s Day, I pay tribute to the work of women in the United Kingdom: those who give their time to care for others, such as grandparents who look after their grandchildren, thus allowing their own children to pursue their careers; those who care for sick partners with little financial reward, and whose wonderful work is often barely recognised, certainly by the state; all the women who work for charities, including those who run charity shops, all of whom are volunteers raising money for their charity; women who are involved in their church, doing all sorts of work; and the women we all know in our political parties who make sure that the machine keeps working but who never seek any political reward.

However, I am thinking particularly of two women I know who work in the field of domestic abuse, and I pay tribute to them today. Rachel Williams and Charlotte Kneer have both been victims of domestic abuse over many years, but they have turned their lives around and now work to help other women who suffer from domestic abuse. Rachel campaigns tirelessly and is committed to ending this abuse. She has four successful petitions on Change.org, with a combined half a million signatures. She is now a qualified independent domestic violence adviser, and she also runs an online awareness Facebook page called Don’t Look Back. She has also written a book about her experience. If noble Lords have not read it, it is available in the Lords Library and I recommend it.

Charlotte is now the chief executive of Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid refuge. I have visited it and am in absolute awe of the work that she does, giving women and their children their lives back. She adopts a holistic approach and provides women with the skills they need after suffering years of domestic abuse. Both are strong women and role models, providing support for women going through the trauma of domestic abuse.

Finally, I acknowledge the achievements of the women and girls who went on strike in 1888 at the Bryant & May factory in Bow. The match-girls’ strike is considered a key date in the history of trade unionism, as demonstrated by Henry Snell’s observation in 1936 that

“the matchgirls’ strike had an influence ... which entitles it to be regarded as one of the most important events in the history of labour organisation in any country.”

They were such brave women, leading the way for all women to get involved in the trade union movement and improving the lives of many women who worked at that time, as well as all those who followed.

We have made progress. There is still a long way to go and I trust that legislation that this Government will bring before us will go some way towards achieving equality for women everywhere.