My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and acknowledge the work he does on behalf of widows. Congratulations are due also to the noble Lord, Lord Ranger, who so effectively reminded us why we all miss our mothers.
It is always a pleasure to take part in International Women’s Day and I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, to her new post—I hope she enjoys it —and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg.
I acknowledge the work the Government are doing to support women, especially the long-awaited introduction of the Domestic Abuse Bill and the annual obligation for employers to publish the gender pay gap in their companies. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that many women have been very hard hit by years of austerity, as my noble friend Lady Healy said in her excellent speech. Unless the Government get a grip on the problems for low-paid workers—many of them women—beyond what they have already published on statutory sick pay in this coronavirus crisis, many women in part-time and unprotected sectors could see very challenging times this summer and beyond.
I was interested that the UN is aligning this year’s International Women’s Day theme, “I am Generation Equality”, with its campaign to mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995. It took me back to the time I chaired the Women’s Rights Committee in the European Parliament and we were preparing for our participation in that Beijing conference. The organisation UN Women has described the Beijing Declaration as
“the most progressive roadmap for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere.”
It is a shame that another anniversary, last month, to celebrate 50 years of the Women’s Liberation Movement and its first conference in Oxford was marred by the no-platforming of individuals. There is a need in the cacophony of online abuse of women and of misinformation to listen to each other calmly, not to no-platform each other.
Once again, International Women’s Day shines a light on women's pay—many noble Lords referred to this. It is 50 years since the Equal Pay Act and, while the latest ONS statistics found that the gender pay gap among British employees decreased from 17.8% in 2018 to 17.3% in 2019, British women working full-time earn less, on average, than men across all sectors of our economy—even where women outnumber men in full-time work.
We know that women are more likely than men work in low-paid sectors but, even in sectors dominated by women, such as the caring and leisure professions, they often earn less than men. In fact, astoundingly, according to the ONS the only job sector in the whole economy where women are in a majority and earn slightly more than men is being a receptionist. This is 2020 in the western world.
Let me put in a word for the cross-party campaign I am involved in, to get justice for the war widows who have not been treated equally in their attempt to reinstate their pension rights. Their treatment has been shameful—we are talking about a few hundred, mostly older women who would have to divorce and remarry their present partner to get their pension reinstated—a pension they received on the death of their former partner, involved in conflicts such as the Falklands War, the first Gulf War and the Northern Ireland Troubles. They subsequently had to give up those pensions. I ask the Minister if she is able to tell us if the Government have rethought their position on this or if they are still hiding behind the principle of retrospection.
Finally, the World Economic Forum has said that it will take 99.5 more years to close the international gender gap in all aspects of life—across health, education, economic participation and political empowerment—at the rate of progress we are seeing today. That is nearly 100 years; our work, it seems, is never done.