Moved by Baroness Gale
That this House takes note of the status of women and girls in the United Kingdom since 2010 with regards to their economic wellbeing, welfare, safety and opportunities.
My Lords, today, as we look at the status of women since 2010, we see a cost of living crisis that affects most people but especially mothers bringing up their children on their own. We see many women fearing that they will be attacked as they walk the streets at night on their own. There have been a number of tragic cases where women have been murdered when all they were doing was walking home alone. We see that the number of women who are victims of domestic abuse continues to be high. We see women wanting to enter political life facing many barriers: abuse, discrimination, and misogyny. These are some of the matters we will be debating today.
Eradicating child poverty by 2020 was a key commitment of the last Labour Government. Unfortunately, progress has been reversed under the Conservatives amid the austerity drive that the coalition Government embarked on in 2010. Figures from the Child Poverty Action Group charity show there were 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK last year—more than one-quarter of all children. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the rise in poverty for children living in lone-parent households reflects reductions in the real value of state benefits from 2011 to 2019. I quote from a newspaper report:
“Among the cuts in support that have most affected single mothers are the benefit cap, the four-year freeze in benefits between 2016 and 2020, the two-child limit and a lowering of the age of the youngest child when single parents must start looking for work.”
Previously, lone parents were able to claim income support until their youngest child reached 16, or 19 if in full-time education. Now single parents are expected to prepare for work when their youngest reaches the age of one, and then be in a job from when their child is three. Experts say that the benefits cap, first imposed in 2013, and the four-year freeze on benefits were among the biggest drivers of financial damage for single mothers. They were launched by former Chancellor George Osborne as a crackdown on those who he claimed were “living a life” on public assistance—that is no life. Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said:
“This alarming research is a wake-up call showing the need for additional support for families with children in response to the cost of living crisis. It is no surprise to see child poverty rates rising fast for lone-parent families after the harsh effects of years of benefit cuts and freezes, and with no shock absorbers left to deal with inescapable soaring living costs.”
With the rise in poverty, many use food banks to have enough food to feed their children. Stories of mothers eating only one meal a day to ensure that their children are fed should make the Government ashamed. For single mothers raising children today, life is difficult and, with the cost of living crisis, it looks as though things are going to get worse. That is a bleak prospect that looks set to continue, although I have no doubt that the Minister will mention the support that the Government are giving, which starts today. That will be of some help to some people, but long-term policies are needed to deal with the high inflation rate and energy costs.
How safe is it for women in today’s society? We are all aware of these issues. Why is it that women have to worry about their safety if they are out late at night? Even in the day, women out for a walk will get men shouting sexist remarks at them. We are all aware of the tragedies of women walking home unaccompanied getting attacked and murdered. Women who are raped have little chance of seeing the perpetrator convicted. With the conviction rate so low, most rapists get away with it.
Domestic abuse of older people is often hidden away. There are no figures available for the number of people over the age of 74. I believe the ONS has said it will start collecting figures this year, but it will be some time before the statistics are known. Many of us are mourning the loss of our dear friend Baroness Sally Greengross, who died recently. She founded Hourglass, the charity which works for older people who suffer domestic abuse. Sally continued her campaign right up until the end. She wrote to the Prime Minister only days before she passed away:
“Prime Minister, I beg of you to do the right thing by older people in this country by ensuring that the Hourglass helpline receives the funding that it so desperately needs to do its important work”.
What a great tribute it would be if one of his last acts as Prime Minister was to acknowledge the work of Hourglass and ensure its funding.
If we look at women in politics, we see that there has been an increase in the number of women in the House of Commons, with 225 women there today. Women are still underrepresented in political life, although in the devolved parliaments they fare much better. We do not have a diverse Parliament in Westminster—one that reflects the electorate. One measure the Government could take would be to enact Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010. This Act was passed by a Labour Government just before the 2010 general election. The enactment of Section 106 could change the look of political representation, as it would require all parties to publish diversity data on candidates standing for elections to the House of Commons, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd. An organisation called the Centenary Action Group is running a campaign called Enact 106. It comes to something when there is a campaign to get the Government to enact a piece of legislation that became an Act of Parliament in 2010.
The Minister will be aware that over the years I have asked Oral and Written Questions on this, the last one being in January this year. The Minister’s reply was:
“The Government keeps section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 under review but remains of the view that political parties should lead the way in increasing diverse electoral representation through their own approaches to the selection of candidates.”
That is just not good enough. At the last general election, most political parties gave a commitment in their manifesto to implement Section 106, but not of course the Conservatives. What is it that the Government do not like about Section 106? It would give all political parties the opportunity to see how they are doing in getting a diverse range of candidates. It will give them the data necessary to look at how they can improve the diversity of their candidates.
The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 allowed political parties to use all-women shortlists to address the underrepresentation of women holding political office. The Labour Party has used this extensively and as a result has more women MPs that all the other parties. This Act has a sunset clause which has been extended from 2015 to 2030. Are the Government planning to extend it further? We are only just under eight years away from 2030 now.
In July 2019, the Government announced the publication of their policy paper Gender Equality at Every Stage: A Roadmap for Change. This paper detailed eight issues around gender inequality that the Government have pledged to tackle, including limited attitudes to gender and the gender pay gap. The policy paper noted:
“Commitments in this roadmap will be absorbed into departments’ 2020/21 single departmental plans as necessary”.
In addition, the Government stated that they would
“provide an annual progress report to Parliament, alongside annual reporting against the Gender Equality Monitor”.
Announcing the launch of the road map, the then Minister for Women and Equalities, Penny Mordaunt, stated:
“I want everyone in our country to be able to thrive in life. That means being able to be in control of the choices you make and have the opportunities you have to seize. We must be honest that many women do not have those choices or opportunities, and as a consequence are not able to be as financially resilient or independent. This inequality is faced at every stage of a woman’s life—from how she is treated in the classroom, to the caring roles she often takes on, and the lack of savings or pension she accumulates.”
I have read the document and it struck me that it is full of things that the Government say that they will do. It said they would
“provide an annual progress report to Parliament, alongside annual reporting against the Gender Equality Monitor, to ensure we continue to respond to emerging issues, level up, and create true gender equality.”
That sounds great. Unfortunately, as of this month in 2022, there has not been any progress report published. That was three years ago, and we have not heard a word about it since. Perhaps the Minister can say what has happened to all the good intentions of that report. Do the Government have any plans to ensure that all the things they said they would do in the report will someday be carried out? If they carried out the aims of that report, it would go a long way to improving the lives of women.
The status of women has improved in several areas, but we have had setbacks along the way. There is still much work to do and, with government action, it could happen. However, we may have to wait to see a Labour Government before we see the change that is needed.
I acknowledge that the Government have acted in some areas such as domestic abuse legislation. There have been some really good initiatives such as the publication of the policy paper Gender Equality at Every Stage: A Roadmap for Change, which I mentioned earlier, and the ratification of the Istanbul convention. That has to take place, according to the Government, by
We need action on a number of fronts to enable women to achieve equality and I am hoping this debate might help us along the road to equality. I look forward to the Minister’s response and the contributions of all noble Peers today.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for facilitating this debate, for the breadth of the title of the debate, and that she has laid the foundation for the remarks I want to make today, which focus on the status of women in Parliament, how to get more of them, how to engage more girls in politics and encourage them to consider a political career.
Political activism is important but not enough; to change things, you have to join a political party and get stuck in. Noble Lords will appreciate that my focus is inevitably on Conservative women because, although Labour certainly has some problems with women, the Parliamentary Labour Party currently consists—as the noble Baroness has said—of 51% women, and frankly they are not my concern.
Theresa May and I founded Women2Win in 2005 at the very beginning of David Cameron’s leadership. At that stage there were 17 Conservative women MPs, just 9% of the parliamentary party—or, to put it another way, 91% of our MPs were men. Our journey to the 87 women MPs elected in 2019 started with the 2010 general election, which produced the first leap forward to 16%, and consistent, if slow, progress to the 25% women MPs we have in the Conservative Party today. It is better, but not good enough.
Recent weeks, with the allegations of sleaze and impropriety, have focused minds once more on the behaviour of some parliamentarians, all of whom have one thing in common I am afraid: they are men. I am not saying that women are saints—their behaviour can of course be unedifying—but I believe that the toxic mix of stress, booze, testosterone, power and opportunity drives behaviours that are unacceptable. It is crucial that all the contenders for the leadership of my party commit to prioritising efforts to improve our standards in public life.
However, when it comes to encouraging more women to stand up and put themselves forward, I am seeing some, angered by what is going on, finally filling in their form to start their journey into public life. I am particularly proud that, as of this morning, and despite women MPs making up only a quarter of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, four of the six remaining leadership candidates are women, and very diverse at that. I am delighted with the wide range of those who have put themselves forward to be our next leader, showing ambition and no sign of imposter syndrome. I hope that their confidence will act as a spur to others watching. What amazing role models they are for girls in this country.
As a Conservative, I am obviously proud that we have had two women Prime Ministers, with a possibility of another to come in the next few weeks, but Parliament and public discourse must change in order for women parliamentarians to thrive. The abuse experienced by all MPs, and women in particular, across all parties, is unacceptable, but we do need more women with resilience and commitment to start that journey into public life.
“There is one ‘first’ that is still long overdue and that is the moment when—for the first time—we finally achieve 50:50 … in our Parliament.”
Very welcome words, but I am afraid that is all they are. In the only place where he has the power and opportunity to make this happen—here in your Lordships’ House—he has so far appointed seven women and 29 men to the Conservative Benches. It is not too late to put this right and I very much hope that he will take the opportunity to do so.
I welcome the progress from 49 Conservative women MPs in 2010 to 87 today, with two-thirds of our leadership candidates women, but there is no room for complacency and I hope that everyone involved understands this.
My Lords, before I move on to the main thrust of what I want to say today, I say that political parties can survive with the majority of their MPs being female, because the Liberal Democrats have done it. Our nerves are, I feel, matched when I meet some of these new and enthusiastic parliamentarians in my own party. Having said that, I accept that as a hereditary Peer I probably represent the historical block of male privilege.
I draw noble Lords’ attention to one part of our lives that probably comes under the “opportunities” mentioned in the Motion’s title and where there has been a sea change for the good: the growth of women’s sport and how seriously it is taken. At the moment, we are in the middle of a major celebration of a female sporting tournament on its own terms: the Women’s Euro 2022 football. It has not arrived as an afterthought; it has been built up and the nation has been told to “go and celebrate”. This is a major change, as it is not happening as an add-on, nor on the sideline. It is not just for those who are interested and do not mind digging around to look for it; it is a major event at a major time that the nation as a whole should watch.
Sport was a bastion of male privilege X number of years ago. For some major team games, female involvement was not exactly frowned upon, but it was seen as an optional extra. The way it has been covered in the media has changed, but it requires space and time to make change happen. It is not enough to change things and say, “By the way, here come the ladies and the girls”. It has to be a celebration, and on its own terms.
It is a fact that men tend to be bigger and stronger. If women’s competitions are placed at the same time, the attention on them goes down. The criticism, when it is not seen as a contest in its own right, is that it is seen as something lesser. I think this is something we have proven. So, the way that we are doing things at the moment is the way forward. We must encourage skilled tournaments, on even terms, for that half of the population—or slightly more—that is taking part.
The history of broadcasting in this area has, unsurprisingly, been driven by the free-to-air broadcasters. The BBC must take most of the credit here. I hope that in the Government’s response it will be accepted that this is one thing that only a free-to-air, nationally funded organisation can do. Broadcasters driven by income from advertising will always have to ask if something has become big enough that enough people are interested in watching in order to justify taking it on. Those that rely on subscriptions and advertising will always lag behind. It needs a broadcaster with a public service remit to go on, or something that has already done enough to change things. I cannot see anyone other than the BBC taking this forward, and it has been something that has been good. We have proved that what is needed for this, is to make sure that people know it is coming and it is seen in its own particular position.
Rugby union has also taken a step forward with the Six Nations tournament—the oldest and most celebrated of all the national tournaments. The women’s competition was fitted in around the edges and around the sides. Even a rugby nerd such as me cannot watch three full games, highlights and something else over a weekend. We need to be able to concentrate on the Women’s Six Nations. Let us face it, old players such as me, do not feel quite so intimidated watching it. Having its own timeslot meant that people took time out to go and watch and it status went up. The way it was advertised on social media, with Tik-Tok being a major sponsor, has also helped. We know, when advertising sport, you have to hit the target audience. That often means, specifically, advertising in the right media and the right place.
I do not know if this is covered in the Minister’s brief, which will be a very wide one, but perhaps she could convey to her colleagues the importance of finding the right slot and support in social structures to make sure that women’s sport is taken seriously. Can she also convey to members of her own party that, unless those broadcasters that have the opportunity to cover this without damaging their economic model are supported, they will have great difficulty expanding this coverage in future?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, very much indeed for giving us this opportunity to discuss a wide range of women’s and girl’s rights. I will touch on the welfare and safety of women. I am aware that the Minister will not be able to answer my rather detailed questions, and so I seek a meeting with her, and perhaps with other noble Baronesses, to discuss the topics that I raise.
My concern is that, on welfare and safety, we have gone backwards for the most vulnerable people. To refer to a statement made yesterday by Safe Schools Alliance, the introduction of graphic or extreme sexual material in sex education lessons reinforces the porn culture that is damaging our children in such a devastating way. That came from the Children’s Commissioner. I would add to that that it is extremely damaging to have, for example, a mentally handicapped boy in school being asked to understand and to agree that the man in front of him is in fact a woman.
“you can’t change your sex”.
And as Kellie-Jay Keen, another woman activist of great eminence, remarked, that is the “perfect headline”. Indeed, I suggest to the right reverend Prelate that that is rather useful for the Church of England, as it will be able to define a woman today, whereas it could not the day before. I will ask the Church to do so as soon as possible.
When we look at health boards, we see that the rights of women and children have gone back again. The approach to single-sex wards makes meaningless that name when one invites transgender people who are men who declare as women to take spaces in female-sex wards and then defines them in the records as women, it is no wonder that one cannot find the evidence of sexual assaults that I have mentioned in this Chamber before. I have that evidence, but the hospitals concerned have been informed by their trusts that if a man says he is a woman, he is woman and he goes down on that record, so it is not unlikely that the ministry cannot find those references. I am very sad to say that denial of sexual assaults goes as far as declaring “Remove the complainant from the hospital ward”. This is completely unacceptable; it is a wrong identity, and it degrades the woman disgracefully. As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, says, you cannot change your sex.
This is affecting speech-impaired and paralysed patients. As Transgender Trend has remarked, sex-based rights are effectively under threat; I would say that they have been destroyed. Let us take the case of a 16 year-old girl, reported only yesterday. She is severely learning-disabled, autistic—therefore non-verbal—and entirely dependent on others for what is now known as “intimate care”. It is scandalous that the special needs place in which she is resident has removed “cross-gender consent from personal and intimate care policy”. I have an earlier case of this—I had thought it was a once-off—in a school in Surrey. It is no longer a once-off: I understand that 50% of local authorities have adopted that position. To be blunt, this means that behind the closed doors of a lavatory, male members of staff, without any necessary qualification, with no consent from the parents of the patient and with the patient unable to agree, can dress, undress, use tampons—I apologise, but I have to be accurate—and indulge themselves, if they so wish, with female genitalia. These are girls and woman who cannot object and cannot consent. I would suggest that there are plenty of female carers around. There are threats of rape. The Brent HIV case of a couple of years ago, involving a girl called Cassie, shows that this is no figment of the imagination; there are actual evidenced cases. Health boards’ approaches to single sex make such cases seem meaningless—“remove the complainant”—and sexual assaults are happening.
JK Rowling, our most eminent and wonderful author, with whom I have worked for acutely disabled children in eastern Europe either side of the same bed, calls it “this horror show”, whereas an NHS professional who works with patients who cannot move or speak declares it intentional cruelty. I believe it is illegal, because it is against the Health and Social Care Act 2008 and the Act of 2014. I beg the Minister to allow me a meeting.
My Lords, I thank my great friend and colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for initiating this debate. She has worked tirelessly, both in her life in Wales with the Labour Party there and in this House.
Human rights are women’s rights. Women belong in all places where decisions are made, including at the peace table. This Government gave an undertaking prior to Covid that we would not go into any peace negotiations without both local women and women outside being at that table. Can the Minister give me an undertaking that this will continue? Should we become involved in peace talks in relation to Russia and Ukraine and Sudan and parts of Eritrea, it is vital that we know this today. Local women add to our knowledge of what needs to be done in their areas—about local schools, investment, further and higher education and the rebuilding of communities. Without women having been at the peace table, Northern Ireland would not be at peace, which has now lasted for 30 years.
The Government are considering moving away from the European Convention on Human Rights. This would be a great mistake for women and girls. Further, would we want to be lumped with Russia and Belarus? They are the only two European countries not part of the convention on human rights.
The WEF report published this morning makes depressing reading. It indicates that we are going backwards and that the political gap is huge. We need only look at the G20. We need to look too at our own Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There are no women Ministers. This is the department that is meant to encourage companies to have more women on boards and in other places, but it has not had one woman Minister for some time. If we look at it clearly, it does not seem to want to fund the department’s work on women on boards. Again, the Minister should give us an undertaking that this will be looked at and the funding replaced. There is a person working there but no support staff.
I thank Prime Ministers Brown, Cameron and May, plus the noble Lord, Lord Davies, who started the whole initiative. Along with the Financial Times, the noble Baroness, Lady Morrissey, myself and other colleagues, they started the 30% Club to make the change for women on boards. This was by getting CEOs and financial directors and chairmen of major companies to work together to make the change. Diversity on boards is really important. We have seen from Parker report how some of these targets are now being met. But targets are not enough; we have to keep looking at the targets and going over them. We have seen that the financial rewards for boards and shareholders are enormous. We have seen that through the work of ShareAction, which has put pressure on shareholders to ensure that we have more women on boards. It is not just on boards; it is also right through from the C-suite up to the top. I like the situation we have in Great Britain, where people can serve on a board for only so long—two terms—and then they have to move off. The same happens for a chairman: they can do only a percentage. That ensures that we have turnaround, unlike in other countries, where once you are on, you are on for life. We see a huge amount of experience used and people giving it. We have to remember that a person on a board is a responsible for every woman’s pension, for every woman’s mortgage and for every woman’s wages, and it is vital that we have the right diversity on those boards. Women’s pensions in this country are not good at all; we need to ensure that more is done about that. We also need more teaching of finance in schools, as well as opportunities for girls to go into the C-suite and to aspire to be on a board and at a senior level.
Many Members of this House work with Speakers for Schools and the schools programme. When we go to schools, we have to explain to students that every door is open to them as it has been made open to us. Nothing is closed. Education also has to change to ensure that every girl knows. We can do that only by men and women working together to make this change. We have seen this change on boards in this country and a number of others. The 30% Club is not changing its name, because some of the countries in which we have our 20 chapters do not have the same percentages and the same way of working.
We believe in parity. It is on that basis that I want to go back to some of the opportunities that that Prime Minister Cameron mentioned when we first started. He said that all government boards should be 50:50. I would like the Minister to respond to that, to ensure that it is going to happen—there are plenty of people out there to take up these positions—and that we have a wider choice. We are working with head-hunters and investors through the 30% Club, and they keep telling us of really good people. KPMG has a whole list of people who are ready for this, but the Government still seem to be giving the positions to a very small grouping—it is not the same people; I would not say that—when we need women on those boards. That goes also for when we look at the departmental NEDs, charities and chairmen.
My Lords, I too welcome this debate. It is an honour for me to speak after so many excellent speeches.
In the 1980s, I worked in financial services and was confronted by a world dominated by men, many of whom saw the arrival of women as a threat. Molestation and abuse were common. My promotion was once delayed because I refused to submit to my boss’s sexual advances. There was no point in complaining; if you wanted to succeed in a man’s world, you just had to put up with it. Today, this kind of behaviour is unacceptable—illegal, even. It has been a long struggle but it is not over yet. As many noble Lords have mentioned, misogyny still exists, but we women should be proud of what we have achieved in just over a generation.
I am also proud of the Conservative Party: we have provided two women Prime Ministers and, as my noble friend Lady Jenkin noted, of the six remaining candidates for the party leadership, four are women. However, this is no time to celebrate. No sooner had we demolished the barriers of misogyny, then others sprang up in their place. These are far more dangerous; they are based on bigotry and ignorance, and they send women’s rights back to the Dark Ages.
The fanatics of gender politics have perverted a worthy campaign to give transgender people the protection of the law; it is now a demented ideology which denies the reality of biological sex. It is now enough for a man to say that he feels like a woman to be treated as a woman, despite the plain fact that he is still a man. In just 10 years, gender ideology has infected a whole range of public and private institutions. It is playing havoc with our pronouns and grammar, and it invents words to give itself a veneer of pseudoscience. It despises feminism and even has homophobic undertones. It is no wonder that President Putin used JK Rowling’s battle with the trans fanatics to highlight the decadence of the world.
Women have been shocked to discover that what they thought were safe places—toilets, gyms, hospital wards, prisons and the like—now admit men with fully intact male genitalia claiming to be trans women. Free speech is damaged; the no-platforming of countless people who challenge trans identity is an offence to democratic values. I therefore warmly welcome the Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.
Most dangerous of all, the teaching of gender fluidity to pre-adolescent children can do harm for life. There are charities that encourage sex change treatments for children involving hormone blockers and mastectomies. Take the example of Keira Bell: by the age of 20, she had had her breasts removed and the treatments she took for years had given her body hair, a beard and a low voice, and had impacted her sexual functions—and none of it has helped her. The court ruled in her case that it was doubtful that children could be given informed consent to treatments which might affect the rest of their lives. I go further and say that it is child abuse, plain and simple; it is scandalous.
To be clear, I stand before noble Lords not as a womb carrier, a birthing person, a chest feeder, a cervix owner or an adult human, but as a woman and a mother. Can the Minister reassure this House that the Government will update the Equality Act 2010 with clear, biologically sound definitions of “men”, “women”, “sex” and “gender”? At the very least, this will help some bishops with their predicament.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Gale for introducing this debate, which is important not just for women but for men and for all of us in the country at large.
In May, we discussed aspects of the Queen’s Speech in this Chamber and I chose to speak on the subject of levelling up as it was taking place between men and women. At the end of the debate, when the Minister was making his remarks, he drew attention to my comments on levelling up between men and women and said that, of course, the Government are
“levelling up for women, for men and for everybody.”—[
At which point, I thought he had spectacularly missed the point: if people start off unequal, levelling everybody up means that they are still unequal. I hope that today we can get the Minister to recognise that we need to think about levelling up for women.
I concentrate, as always, on women in the world of work. First, back when we had a Labour Government, we had a programme that concentrated on recognising the continuing gender pay and opportunities gaps. As part of that programme, the Government introduced various positive action ideas. I ask the Minister today to say whether this Government will recognise that positive action is important and necessary. For example, we all know that many women find it impossible to carry on with their employment when faced with the extraordinarily high costs of childcare. Many women at that stage choose to work part-time; that is fine, but we need companies—the Government can play a major role here—to work together to identify better part-time opportunities. In the past, most of those women went to work in retail, but over the last five years, 650,000 jobs have gone from retail, so even those chances are no longer there. Many women with qualifications and the wherewithal to move on to better things ended up not being able to do so, simply because the job chances were not there.
Secondly, will the Government work with businesses to provide positive action training programmes for women? Many women go to work in all kinds of places, from food factories to the legal profession, doing different kinds of work. They often have the intelligence, wherewithal and determination to move on and do better things that will bring them better rewards, yet those chances are not there. Companies can provide those training chances; they have done it in the past. As I said earlier, it would be beneficial to the whole country to enable women to move forward in that way.
My final point is not about the world of work but about the fact that, through the limited opportunities in the world of work, many women end up with very little of their own money in their own pockets. We all abhor domestic violence; it is often mentioned in this Chamber. Many women are stuck in relationships where there is domestic violence because they do not have the financial wherewithal to be able to take themselves off and get out of that situation. Again, this is a very important issue. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, has initiated this debate today, which will consider the status of women and girls in the UK. I am hugely honoured to be a Member of your Lordships’ House, a prospect that seemed completely out of the question to me as a woman when I was growing up. My selective single-sex grammar school did nothing to engender aspiration in any of us. The choices of careers were made clear to us: as girls we could as aspire to be a teacher or a nurse. Both are very valuable professions, but limited choices in a world that should have had so much more to offer.
It was a great pleasure to see the hugely improved opportunities in practically all walks of life for women and girls, and I share with others the pleasure that there are four women standing for the election of our new Prime Minister, showing how much attitudes have changed. Women can now move more readily, aim for the top, and actually reach the top in so many fields.
Having seen a generation of women growing in confidence and success in so many fields, I have at present a real worry that there is a very great danger that this is being seriously undermined. Obscure, dehumanising terms are frequently used to replace ordinary words such as “women”, “girl”, and “female”. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has mentioned, we hear of “birthing people”, “menstruators”, “chest feeders”, and “people with a cervix”, and we have all heard the embarrassing interviews with leading politicians who were unable to define what a woman is. The Lancet, a trusted medical journal, on its cover in 2021 called women “bodies with vaginas”. Our so-called national treasure, the NHS, is removing words such as “mother” and “female” from its website, and replacing them with unacceptable, dehumanising terms such as “birthing people”.
Women most definitely are not a collection of sexual organs, bodily excretions and reproductive functions. Such language reduces women’s power as a political constituency. Women’s needs are erased by turning us into a series of micro-groups—“menstruators”, “birthing bodies”, “lactators”—when actually they are all the same group. All these things are done in the name of inclusion, making sure that men who identify as women are not upset by being reminded that women are a group with characteristics that no man can ever have, and making sure that women who identify as men are not left out when we talk about women’s issues. In the name of inclusion, all these actions and words actually exclude many more women. By using language such as “people with a cervix”, women and girls who do not speak English as a first language may miss out on important health messages. Older women, women with a history of sexual assault, teenage girls suffering sexual predation, women from certain faith traditions—all may have a greater need for privacy and women-only spaces.
It grieves me to think that girls are growing up in the United Kingdom and receiving such undermining messages about their status as young women. Having seen society recognise the valuable role that women and girls can and do make in society, we should use clear, polite language for the two sexes, ensuring the dignified provision of single-sex facilities, and keep all males, however they identify, out of women’s sport. These are all inclusion measures, ones essential to the dignity of women and girls, giving them status and full participation in society.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady Gale on providing us with the opportunity to have today’s debate, and on giving me the chance to make a brief contribution from the Opposition Back Benches. The part of the Motion to which I draw the House’s attention is the reference to “opportunities”. To get straight to the point, I want to talk about women and girls and their opportunities to study science. Perhaps I should refer to my entry in the register of interests as president of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee.
I thank the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the House of Commons Library, and the Royal Society for providing far more statistics in this area than I could ever fit into the speech time available to me, but I want to refer to a few. The Higher Education Statistics Agency publishes data on student enrolment, and it shows that there are small increases in the proportion of women students in STEM subjects, but nothing dramatic. A Royal Society report in 2019 showed a 1% rise in the number of women fellows, from 9% in 2018; and 34% of researchers offered fellowship grants were women. The Royal Society also highlights that at the end of 2019 just 27% of the STEM workforce were women, although women in the workforce as a whole comprised 52%.
So there are still areas where progress needs to be made and where we may be going backwards. For example, take mathematics, a fundamental science that underpins all other areas. The latest figures produced by the Protect Pure Maths campaign, of which I am a supporter, show that the proportion of women enrolling in first degrees in maths actually fell from 39.3% to 37.7% in the space of seven years. This is not good news. The 1% of women enrolling in doctoral research in maths slipped from 29% to 28% over the same period—again not good news—and in the 2017-18 academic year 89% of maths professors were men while only 11% were female. In the chemical sciences, the retention and development of women into senior roles remains poor. The higher up the career ladder, the fewer the proportion of women. At professional level it even drops below that for physics; only 9% of chemistry professors are women, whereas the figure for physics is 10%.
There are many strategies that the science community could adopt to address the leaky pipeline. In particular we must do more to encourage women taking career breaks to keep in touch with their science, and to make it easier for them to return as soon as they want to, and not to positions clearly less senior than those they occupied before taking a maternity break, for example.
It is a well-known fact that female scientists frequently fail to get proper credit for their research. Rosalind Franklin—I agree that this example was 70 years ago—was the person whose X-ray crystallography made it possible for Watson and Crick to discover the double helix, for which they got the Nobel Prize. I am not saying that they did not deserve it, but she was not even referred to in their paper, which is a scandal. The problem remains. A new study published by Nature found that women were 13% less likely, on average, to be named as authors on scientific papers to which they had contributed. When it comes to the patents that emerged from the research, women were 58% less likely to be named as authors than men who spent a comparable time in the laboratory. In other words, at every level, women are less likely to get the credit, although they spent the same time at work as the men.
We must not forget that people can still suffer from a great deal of sexism. I remind the House of the experience of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, probably Britain’s most distinguished living astrophysicist. As the House will know, in 1967 she personally discovered pulsars, a most remarkable discovery, for which she did not get sufficient credit—she has now, but not then. She was left off the paper, other people got the Nobel Prize, and she has written in a recent book, The Sky is for Everyone, about her experience. Her supervisor at the time—the press was very interested in the discovery—was asked about the astrophysical significance of the discovery. What was Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell asked about? Her bust size, her hip size, and how many boyfriends she had had—you could not make it up; it is astonishing. I like to think things have changed since then, but there will be many people in this Chamber who are not so sure.
Thank heavens, we have more women now active in science who can inspire. Anyone who has listened to Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who has presented “The Sky at Night”, will know how inspirational they can be. My time is fast running out so, with the indulgence of the House, let me just get in a reference to some more women scientists. For example, the first Briton in space was not Tim Peake but Helen Sharman. Then there are the women scientists at Oxford who spearheaded the development of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Sarah Gilbert, who was recognised with a damehood for science in public health, and Catherine Green, who received an OBE for the same contribution. You may remember the moment at Wimbledon when the crowd discovered that Sarah Gilbert was in the royal box, all stood up and gave her a standing ovation, which she certainly deserved. I understand that Sarah is now being celebrated by the toymaker Mattel, which is making a Sarah Gilbert Barbie doll, one of six to honour women in STEM.
I must not test the patience of the House, but this week, the James Webb telescope produced the most fantastic, beautiful images of deep space. I am very pleased and heartened to tell the House that the BBC interviewed the following people about what those images mean: Sarah Kendrew from the European Space Agency, Jane Rigby from NASA, and Becky Smethurst from the University of Oxford. If only the media had been present at the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee meeting—I am coming to the end—last week when we had two brilliant young women who were chief executives of start-up companies.
In conclusion, my message is very straightforward: our country cannot afford to waste the talents of half the population. Science needs access to the full range of talent, and women and girls need science.
I remind noble Lords that five minutes is not an advisory speaking time for this debate; it is actually a limit. If we go over, the Minister will not have as much time to respond.
My Lords, I hear the word and will try to observe it. First, I must express an interest: I have a 20-year association with the Central Foundation Schools of London, for over half of that time as chair of its board. I retired in December but will make reference to this experience in my remarks.
I come at this subject from a slightly different angle. I want to honour those who have fought the fight. In the first instance, I refer to my indefatigable and noble friend Lady Gale, who has flown the flag for such a long time and reminded us constantly that this is not a debate that is finished but one that we are in the middle of. I attended a recent debate in Grand Committee on the Istanbul convention, to which my noble friend made reference in her remarks. Every single speaker in that debate paid tribute to my noble friend Lady Gale, and quite rightly too. When my noble friend Lady Hayter made her final remarks, she referred to the fact that my noble friend Lady Gale was always asking, “When are you going to ratify the Istanbul convention?” It is going to be ratified on
I want to choose another object for my remarks. Tomorrow, I will be making a speech at the Central Foundation Schools for the retirement of a headteacher at the girls’ school. It is a truly remarkable school in Tower Hamlets, with the strapline and mission commitment, “Educating tomorrow’s women”. The school has 1,500 pupils, 85% of whom are Muslim and hijab-wearing, and who are largely Bangladeshi by background, and a BAME quota of 90%. It is an extraordinary school which has risen to become the second in the attainment list of Tower Hamlets schools. Some 60% of its pupils qualify for the pupil premium and free school meals. English is a second language for so many of them—the noble Baroness opposite referred to instances of that kind—and cultural attitudes within the Muslim community add their own difficulties to finding educational, aspirational models in an outward-facing direction.
That is the school. The headteacher, Esther Holland, is a very remarkable person, and she will step down tomorrow. She has long Covid, and her doctors say that she can expect to suffer from that for many years to come. Her heroism in holding the tiller through this last academic year has been extraordinary too. She has built up a leadership team around her who make it possible for her, with her diminished energies, to have authority at the school while not letting its standards slip at all.
The year 2015 was particularly difficult for the school. In February of that year, three Muslim girls from the nearby Bethnal Green Academy went off to Syria. In July of that year, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act was passed, heightening our awareness of those possibilities for schoolchildren to be inculcated in the sympathies of terrorist groups. Esther Holland has overseen the implementation of the Prevent programme for early intervention in a constituency where the girls come from extremely difficult socioeconomic backgrounds, with extended families and all kinds of other factors. I wanted to use this debate—I hope I can ask for the sympathy of my colleagues here—to pay tribute to a remarkable woman, who in her way is educating women for tomorrow.
I know that I have gone over time and that I should not have, but I have a second slot on the speakers’ list, so I have let the clock run on for 33 seconds. I gladly renounce the time I am still entitled to claim when my second slot comes round, and I commend these wonderful women to the sympathy of the House.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Gale for giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject. Clearly, in a weak economy and with a Government not exactly firing on all cylinders—although I exempt the Minister from that comment—the sharpest decline in living standards since records began in the 1940s will impact on men as well as women, but it will most affect those with the lowest incomes and in the least secure jobs, the majority of whom are women.
Women predominate in the lowest-paid jobs—caring, cashiering, catering, cleaning and clerical work—and even though employment levels may be recovering, the recent surge in job vacancies is entirely driven by low-paying occupations, according to the IFS. Wages are not keeping pace with inflation. Average wages today are no higher than they were before the financial crisis in 2008, which represents a wage loss of £9,200 a year. The UK lags internationally on hourly pay adjusted for purchasing power, and similarly for household incomes. We have a weak social security net. Basic unemployment support is now down to 13% of average pay, its lowest level on record. The Government’s policy of starving people back to work has been successful, and I hope that they are proud.
The employment rate of women is highest in the south-west and south-east, at 75% and 74% respectively, and lowest in Northern Ireland and the north-east, at 68%. Perhaps that 6% to 7% gap points a way to how real levelling up might take place, as opposed to dealing out occasional grants to favoured constituencies. Those 30% of women on the national minimum wage are still trapped in low-paid jobs: they must simply love it when politicians urge them to get a better-paid job.
The Covid pandemic had a particular impact on women, not just in terms of extra work caring for the elderly, home-schooling and being in jobs that made them particularly at risk of catching the virus. The number of black and ethnic minority women in work fell by 17% between the third quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2020, which is likely to lead to a further increase in gender and race inequalities.
The furlough scheme also had a gender impact. Women were less likely than men to have their wages topped up by their employer beyond the 80%, putting them at an economic disadvantage. Some 46% of mothers made redundant during the pandemic cited a lack of adequate childcare as the cause. According to the TUC, 70% of furlough claims made by women with caring responsibilities following school closures in January 2021 were denied. The Self-employment Income Support Scheme discriminated against women on maternity leave and, although statutory sick pay is only £95.85 per week, 15.5% of women do not even earn enough to quality for it. Women in employment were twice as likely as employed men to be key workers and experience high levels of exposure to Covid-19; they were therefore more reliant on that inadequate sum.
Fifty years ago, we talked about equal pay for women, the problem of job segregation, the importance of childcare and adequate benefits, and job security. Why do we still have to discuss these issues 50 years later? The gender pay gap is still stubbornly high, at 8%. We know that benefit increases can rapidly boost income and reduce poverty; they played an important role in cutting absolute poverty in early 2020 and most of 2021. It is a crying shame that they were reversed.
We know that the employment rate for disabled women is 53%, compared with 72% for full-time women. Just think of the loss of talent and opportunity that this figure represents for disabled women. We know that a public sector pay freeze will have a particular impact on women, who make up two-thirds of all public sector employees. We know that extending employment rights and investing in strong, effective enforcement will help to reduce insecurity among low-paid workers.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for the opportunity to join this debate. I want to focus on the safety of women and girls part of the subject matter. I feel slightly out of place here as a man among so many women—in fact, proportionately, it reminds me of my Pilates class—but it is the implications of a biological man taking part in a biological woman’s event that I would like to touch on briefly today.
I know that it may not look likely, but this old wreck standing before your Lordships today was once a keen rugby player. Rugby is a sport where no quarter is given or taken. I take the liberty of assuming that not many noble Baronesses here today have ever been rugby-tackled but, if they have, they will know that a rugby tackle is a form of uncontrolled violence where—in men’s rugby anyway—two big, beefy players run as fast as they can and the one from behind launches himself at the person in front with the simple intention of stopping him in his tracks and bringing him to the ground with as much force and as little subtlety as possible. The mind boggles at the damage that could be done by somebody like the person I used to be—15 stone of muscle and bone—launching myself flat out on to a 10-stone girl and bringing her down as forcefully as possible. At the very least, she would be battered and bruised, but it could easily result in broken bones or damaged brains.
It seems like madness that such a thing is permitted, yet this is exactly what England Rugby does permit, despite World Rugby being a pioneer in recommending that males are categorically excluded from female sports. England Rugby had to choose between fairness and inclusivity—clearly incompatible choices. It is obviously completely unfair that girls should have to compete in contact sports against fully developed biological men, yet they ignored fairness and common sense for the false god of woke inclusivity.
Other problems arise when the final whistle blows. Rugby is a sweaty and often muddy game; after it, we all repair to the changing and shower rooms. Typically, at club level, there will not be male and female changing rooms but just one room as, up to now, men and women have played the game separately and at different times. Most trans women still have their male equipment intact, so we now have a situation where women and girls obviously do not want to get undressed and shower with a fully equipped biological man present. At the very least, it is awkward and undignified. It is certainly uncivilised and potentially dangerous; it is amazing how it has been allowed to happen.
I must emphasise that this is absolutely not an attempt to dissuade trans athletes from playing any sport, including other contact sports such as kick-boxing where, unbelievably, biological men can kick-box women and girls. Rather, it is a plea that biological women play against biological women while there is a new third category—let us say, a form of open category—where trans athletes can compete for honours among themselves and win them fairly in the true spirit of sport.
My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Gale for securing such an important debate. It has thrown up many interesting issues already. I also congratulate my noble friend on a lifetime of service to her community, her party, this country and the continuing, vital cause of women’s equality. She is a veritable lioness of a woman, if I may say so; I send my congratulations to the Lionesses on their fantastic displays in Euro 2022. It is nice to be positive for a change because what those young women are doing on the pitch for little boys and girls in terms of their belief in equality and in what women can do has been so inspiring. I continue to be riveted and inspired by this tournament.
Less happily, I have to talk about rape. According to Rape Crisis England & Wales, one in four women has been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult. That is 5 million women in this jurisdiction. One in six children has been sexually abused. One in 20 men has been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult. In 2021, the police recorded the highest-ever number of rapes reported to them: 67,125. However, only one in a 100 of those reported rapes resulted in a criminal charge in that same year. Charge rates and conviction rates have dropped to their lowest in our country since records began. That is totally unacceptable in one of the wealthiest countries on earth in the 21st century. It represents a veritable pandemic of rape, in particular against women, and we are failing. After all these years of austerity, our criminal justice system is failing women when they are raped.
Half of these rapes against women are by a partner or ex-partner. There is a lot of talk at the moment about rebalancing the relationship between Parliament and the courts, wicked old judges and activist lawyers, but I remind noble Lords that marital rape was only outlawed in this country as late as 1991 and it was the House of Lords Judicial Committee—not a Government or a Parliament but the judges who stepped in—that did this. Let us just remember that when we are trying to put judges back in their boxes and be proud of ourselves for being parliamentarians.
Five in six rapes against women are by someone they know, 98% of prosecuted sex offences are against men and five in six women who are raped do not even go to the police. Some 40% of them say they are embarrassed, which is understandable, but 38% of those who do not go say they do not believe the police can help and 34% think it would be humiliating. Every year in England and Wales, 618,000 women are raped. That is based on the March 2020 crime survey, which is the latest crime survey. That is one in 35 women. Whether we realise it or not, each of us probably knows a woman who has been raped in the past year. This is the scale of the problem. I hope the noble Baroness has some notes from the relevant officials that tell us what the Government plan to do about this. We need a fundamental reset of policing and the justice system on these matters.
Noble Lords may remember a wonderful film from 1980 called “Brubaker”. Robert Redford played a prison governor who goes undercover as a prisoner to expose the corruption and abuse in that system. I wish the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner well in his task, but he might want to consider an investigation that drastic, because the situation is so bad.
I thank my noble friend Lady Gale for all her work in favour of women over many decades. I also thank her for her excellent, probing opening remarks today. Most of us speaking see ourselves as second-wave feminists. We fought for equal pay and conditions and for universal childcare in the 1970s and 1980s. Some of us pitched up at Greenham Common; some of us burned our bras—not all of us, obviously. Fast-forward to the 2020s and we realise that we can never be complacent, as the status of women and girls continues to be a cause for great concern. You have only to listen to some of the extremely strong contributions made today from all sides of the House.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Labour Party has, perhaps more than any other institution, helped to feminise Britain. In 1997, more than 100 women were elected as Labour MPs. Less than a generation earlier, the number was just 10. Those years from 1997 saw the birth of the minimum wage, the rollout of tax credits, the introduction of Sure Start—all political decisions that did so much to assist the lives of women in low-paid jobs.
When Labour left government in 2010, we had made huge strides in maternity and paternity leave, thanks to a Labour Government working with EU standards. While things were never perfect in the history of Labour in government after 1997, from that year, according to the ONS, there was a steady decline in the pay gap, at least for full-time workers, to its position now of 8%. Thank goodness for the Fawcett Society for keeping alive the dream of equal pay for work of equal value.
There is so much more we could have done, but the last 12 years have seen women and girls in this country feeling more unsafe, having less trust in the police, being poorer in many cases and, in terms of girls, feeling more unsure of their identity and self-worth than ever before. Much of that is down to the unwillingness of this Government to tackle the internet giants where it hurts—in their pockets—despite the long-awaited Online Safety Bill, which of course has now been delayed.
The last 12 years have brought us to the point of being told in a recent study by Legal & General, reported last month in the Financial Times, that the average pension pot of a woman at retirement was found to be £12,000, compared with an average of £26,000 for a man. For all the talk of modern, well-off pensioners, older women earn less than their male counterparts and therefore face very weak personal pensions. They are seriously dependent on state provision to stay fed and warm. This coming winter must be terrifying for a lot of older women.
The coalition Government introduced some welcome gender equality initiatives, but the emphasis on austerity policy kept contradicting them. Most of that ongoing austerity policy in the last 12 years was directed at single-parent households, nine out of 10 of which are headed by women: the benefit cap, the two-child limit and the bedroom tax. Also, half of all single parents now receive no child maintenance at all, as Governments have continuously offloaded that responsibility. The list goes on.
The Domestic Abuse Act introduced by the present Government has indeed been an important step forward, but deep cuts to the justice system have had a hugely detrimental effect on women. We have only to look at the desperate situation with rape cases, as set out by my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti, to know that that is so. Covid saw millions of women taking more than their fair share of the consequences of that terrible pandemic. The Government may say they are not responsible for the arrival of the pandemic, and it cannot be blamed on them, but it is important to remember that all those years of austerity policies meant that the poorest women in the country were less resilient in coping with the pressures of the pandemic and, more recently, of this unique cost of living crisis.
My Lords, I feel I must begin by asking the noble Lord, Lord Strathcarron, to reconsider some of his assumptions. As he was speaking, he was facing a female rugby player—me. Thirty years ago, I was playing informal but full-contact games against and with men. I suggest he looks at the distribution of the bell curve, because some of the men on those pitches were smaller and lighter than I was. I also suggest he reads a book called The Frailty Myth.
Since we are on sport, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, in celebrating the women’s Euro 2022, which is happening now. I am hoping to make it to a match next week, but I point out that this is one of the last areas—probably the last area—of legal discrimination. In 2006 I wrote about a potential woman, whom I named Waynetta Rooney, who might have wanted to be selected by a Premier League team. She is not allowed to play for that team or to get the salary that would go with it because of her gender. All those wonderful players we are watching now are paid vastly less and are not allowed into teams where they could be paid more, because of their gender.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for securing this debate. I will focus briefly on a lifestyle economic analysis. We start with a girl in school who faces stereotypes about the subjects she should study and restrictions that will affect her lifetime earning potential. She will be expected to sit quietly and to be polite and compliant, something particularly difficult for neurodiverse girls.
A recent study by the charity In Kind Direct found that in some cities and towns period poverty affects two-fifths of girls and women. In Brighton and Hove it is 46% and in Oxford 40%. I am proud that Green councillors on Oxford City Council have just this week submitted a motion for free period products to be put in public toilets, town halls and community centres. However, the fact that this is necessary is a dreadful indictment of our society.
I note the points made by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, about discrimination in science and work. Why do we have the Francis Crick Institute, named after a very controversial character, instead of the Rosalind Franklin Institute? Lynn Margulis is one of my scientific heroes. She is an evolutionary biologist who proposed a real change to the science of evolution. Her gender definitely had something to do with the difficulties she had in having that accepted.
Going back to economics, there is something called “sheflation”. Note that figures from the Living Wage Foundation show that 20% of women earn less than a real living wage. The figure for men is 14%; it is unacceptable for both. Every worker of whatever age should earn enough money to live on. Many people have referred to the situation of single parents, 90% of whom are women. The New Economics Foundation has figures showing that, in the current cost of living crisis, single-parent families have seen 50% more of their income lost to the crisis than families with two adults.
We come to middle age and the generation trap. So many middle-aged women are now caring for younger children and teenagers and providing support for older children and their own parents, or even grandparents. The slashing of government services has meant that the practical reality is that the overwhelming weight of that has landed on women.
I come to my worst figures. They are from the Health Foundation. A number of other noble Lords have referred to the situation of female pensioners and older women. Life expectancy for women in the poorest areas of the UK is lower than the overall life expectancy for every country in the OECD, except Mexico. We are doing worse in the poorest parts of the country than all but one other OECD country. That is a measure of the level of discrimination.
I shall make one final point. Sometimes this is seen as a zero-sum game—more for women, less for men. Actually, however, if we make a society that is fit, decent and caring for women and girls, we make a better society for everyone.
My Lords, the word “indefatigable” has been used about my noble friend Lady Gale. I say amen to that and thank her for today. Your Lordships will not be surprised that I will concentrate on the role of women and girls as carers in the years since 2010. I include girls because, as your Lordships know, there are many underage carers. What we have to say about caring is that there is more of it and more women and girls are involved. Since 2010, the number of women providing unpaid care has continued to increase and the average woman now has a 50:50 chance of providing unpaid care to a family member or friend by the age of 49, 11 years earlier than for any man and significantly ahead of the time they reach retirement age. This of course impacts on women’s ability to work in full-time employment. The lack of investment in social care, which I have brought to your Lordships’ attention many times, has served to exacerbate these challenges. The lack of an adequate social care workforce has placed additional pressure on carers’ lives. We must have a social care system fit for the future if we want all women to be able to participate fully in society and the economy. Is it not interesting that we have not heard one word about social care from the candidates for Prime Minister—not a single word about what they will do about social care, except that some have pledged to cut the levy that was going to fund it?
Overall, women are much more likely to take on caring roles than men. More than half of carers are women. Carers UK has calculated that the economic value of the unpaid care provided by women in the UK is a massive £77 billion a year. They are more likely to be around the clock carers, more likely to be sandwich carers—the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred to caring for young children and elderly parents—and more likely to have given up work or reduced their working hours to care. Is it not a pity that the promise made in the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto to bring in five days’ unpaid leave for those with caring responsibilities, a modest enough proposal when all is said and done, has not been carried out because of the lack of an employment Bill? There is a Private Member’s Bill in the other place that I hope may serve to rectify this omission.
If you do not continue full-time work, what do you do? You build up problems with your pension and build up poverty for the future, and that is without thinking about the cost of living problems. We hear that carers are having extreme difficulty in managing choices about whether they eat or heat their homes. Many cannot afford to do both. Just over half of all carers responding to a recent survey are currently unable to manage their monthly expenses. This is not sustainable without urgent intervention because it will lead to carers breaking down and being unable to continue caring for family and friends—instead, passing the cost of doing so to local authorities and the state.
I do not want just to whinge. Caring is necessary for and central to human relationships and a desirable feature of family and community life. It happens to all people and in all walks of life, although disproportionately to women. Most carers do not resent the care they give. They see it as their duty and family responsibility, but the quid pro quo of taking on the things they do, willingly and with love, is that carers suffer disadvantages and problems with their own health, including their mental health, and economic and financial insecurity. I have pointed out their difficulties with paid work. Their rights as citizens and voters also suffer if they are not able to pursue their own interests or have any free time. We must recognise and support all carers, but especially women carers. We should remember that, because the contribution they make to the economy far outstrips anything else, even the resources of the National Health Service, it makes very sound economic sense—as well as moral good sense—to support carers.
My Lords, as all of us have said, we really appreciate this debate initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, in which we get to voice our concerns. Indeed, one way of framing our commitment to improving the status of young women is to help them find their voice and give them the skills and space to be heard. It is why campaigners complain about mansplaining or worry about young girls being bullied off social media by sexist trolls.
I want to talk about two categories of young women whose voices we seem happy to have muted because their stories offend contemporary political orthodoxies. Some women’s voices are definitely more equal than others. The demand to listen to women arguably reached its zenith with the #MeToo movement, even leading to the slogan “Believe all women”. This slogan sometimes dangerously dispensed with important principles such as innocent until proven guilty. Those who spoke out were often encouraged to elide serious sexual abuse with more trivial, if unpleasant, incidents of interpersonal advances.
Regardless, at the height of #MeToo, while Westminster and the media raged about predatory abuses of power, with acres of coverage telling those victims’ stories, the same politicians and commentariat ignored another group of young women at the heart of industrial-scale sexual abuse by grooming gangs operating across myriad northern towns such as Rotherham, Oldham and Blackpool. This week, the Telford inquiry revealed details of the horrendous catalogue of rapes and sexual degradation of thousands of young women over decades. When these largely white working-class girls turned to the authorities for help, schools, social services, councils and police officers dismissed the complaints, looked the other way, even victim-blamed. One survivor, Joanne Phillips described how they were dismissed as “child prostitutes”.
When one young woman went to Telford police about Shabir Ahmed abusing her, her complaints were ignored. Grotesquely, Ahmed went on to work for Oldham Council as a welfare officer, simultaneously leading an Oldham grooming gang now convicted of rape and sexual trafficking, crimes that could have been prevented if its original female accuser had not been contemptuously disregarded. More shamefully, despite inquiries, court cases and mealy-mouthed police and council mea culpas, polite society continues to sideline these young women’s stories. Is it not shocking that, despite these revelations, there is no clamour for Urgent Questions and emergency Statements about the issue here in Parliament? Where are those social justice activists taking to the streets chanting the name of 16 year-old pregnant Lucy Lowe, who died alongside her sister and mother in a house fire started by her abuser, Azhar Ali Mehmood?
Is this awkward silence due to political expediency? We know that the reason these horrendous incidents happened in plain sight was that those in authority feared that investigating the Asian male perpetrators could inflame racial and religious tensions. Council employees who tried to whistle-blow, with rare courageous exceptions, were silenced themselves by the threat that they would be labelled as bigots. Indeed, that message—“You can’t say that” for fear of being branded a hatemongering bigot—is silencing another group of young women who, ironically, simply want to discuss womanhood. In recent months we have heard of the 18 year-old who was bullied out of school by her fellow pupils, who accused her of transphobia. She was abandoned by her teachers for fear of guilt by association. Her crime was using her voice to challenge a noble Baroness who was speaking at her school when she quoted a debate in this very Chamber about the attempt to pass maternity legislation minus the words “mother” or “woman”.
While we all know about Professor Kathleen Stock, who was hounded out of Sussex University, less attention is given to those female students I have met who have confessed they were too scared to speak in support of Professor Stock in case of reprisals by activist tutors or having their academic prospects destroyed if dubbed a bigot. Such censorious intolerance of views that clash with identity politics has real-life victims. Today, law student Lisa Keogh should be attending her graduation at Abertay University, but after a two-month misconduct investigation for having the temerity to say “women have vaginas” in a gender and feminism seminar, she has been ostracised by fellow students, despite being cleared. Congratulations, Lisa—you should be there. No wonder the lesson of these and many other examples I could give is that young women in 2022 believe they should stay schtum and self-censor in order to avoid being branded a bigot. The old sexist dictum, “Be seen, not heard”, is back with a modern twist.
To conclude, here in this Chamber we must not simply proclaim our commitment to giving young women a voice. We must instead mount a vigorous defence of free speech; the freedom to voice dissenting, even unfashionable opinions. We owe it to the victims of grooming scandals to learn a bitter lesson: if we enable a culture that chills speech in case it offends or leads to demonising labels, it can lead to catastrophic, tragic results for women.
My Lords, this has been a fascinating and mixed debate, and I fear some of issues raised will pose some challenges for the Minister today. I start by congratulating my noble friend Lady Gale on choosing this debate, although I doubt even she could have anticipated how relevant it would be in highlighting the shortcomings of this Government in dealing with the safety and security of, and need for trustworthiness for, women in the UK. My noble friend’s introduction to the debate was a tour de force and posed many of the questions the Government need to address. I particularly appreciated the tributes from my noble friends Viscount Stansgate and Lord Griffiths. They were very welcome and positive and needed to be said. Indeed, I have a small lioness in my own family: I am very pleased to say that my eight year-old granddaughter is in the football team this evening. She sees no reason at all why she should not be playing football and intends to do so.
I intend to focus on security for women in its broadest sense: economic, physical, and for families. Sometimes, those forms of lack of security are experienced all at the same time, because there is no doubt that the evidence shows that many women are in a much less secure position than they were in 2010. As my noble friend Lady Crawley said, we cannot be complacent, and as my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley said, totally correctly, until we have, for example, comprehensive social care in the UK, we will not make women economically emancipated.
Some noble Lords have put as positive a spin as they can on the status of women and girls today, and without doubt there has been some very welcome progress in many areas since 2010. We have equal marriage and we now have equal pay statistics. My noble friend Lady Goudie mentioned the 30% Club. I pay tribute to the work she has done over many years in involving women and persuading them to play their part at a senior level in our lives; indeed, we have seen an increase in the number of women MPs, for example. I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkins, for the work she has done over many years with Women2Win.
I also commend and recognise the diversity of the now shortening list of potential candidates for the Conservative leadership—even though their politics are still the same old, same old. I also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, and my noble friend Lady Gale that we all have battle scars from trying to make our parties more representative and to get more women elected. That unites us. However, we must ask if the policies and programmes pursued by consecutive Conservative and Conservative-led Governments have substantially challenged the patriarchal nature of our society and whether women and girls are able to thrive in safety and opportunity.
I particularly enjoyed the speech of my noble friend Lord Stansgate; had my noble friend Lord Davies of Brixton been here, I know that he would have joined him on the importance of girls playing their part in science, maths and technology. As my noble friend said, it is the idle comments that have the deepest effect and discourage girls from taking physics to a higher level—an ill-judged quip that girls cannot do maths or physics or that it is too hard can lead to their making life-changing decisions that influence the subjects they study or the career they pursue. Noble Lords will know the person I am referring to who has made those idle comments, which can have such a devastating and negative effect.
The evidence suggests that tackling misogynistic conduct from the top of our society to its bottom has been patchy at best. I will come back to misogynistic matters and will look for a moment at investment in growth and the levelling-up agenda, which is an important political focus. The usual focus for an economic stimulus package after a downturn is on the construction industry or investments in physical infrastructure. Women make up just 11% of the construction workforce and 1% of the UK’s on-site construction workforce. When the Treasury issues a call for shovel-ready projects, it is actually saying it wants to invest in male-led occupations.
The ADASS is doing some very interesting work on the adult social care workforce, of which 82% are female. Modelling indicates that any investment in care in the UK would produce 2.7 times as many jobs as an equivalent investment in construction. I invite the Minister to pick that up and champion it, because that is how we will get growth and investment in our society and create jobs for women. My noble friend Lady Donaghy made a great case on issues of low pay; I cannot better it.
The truth is that Governments of the past 12 years have pushed women further into poverty. Noble Lords across the House have described the cost of that. I will not repeat what has been said, but one of the keys to women’s economic emancipation has always been childcare, which is important for the security of family life. The cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two has risen by approximately £1,500 over the last five years. Some 98% of providers responding to a recent survey said cutting childcare ratios would not cut costs for parents.
This Government have knowingly underfunded free childcare hours, and Ofsted data shows that 4,000 childcare providers closed between March 2021 and 2022, limiting access to childcare and driving up price rises. Under the Conservative Government, soaring childcare costs are compounding the cost of living crisis and putting increased pressure on families while pricing people out of parenting. Labour’s children’s recovery plan would invest in childcare right now, with a more than fourfold increase in the early years pupil premium and before and after school clubs, ensuring that every child gets a new opportunity to learn, play and develop.
I turn to physical security and misogyny, which many speakers have mentioned. It is disappointing for us all—but must be particularly so for Conservative Members, the Minister and some of her colleagues—that so many Conservative MPs have been sexual harassers or worse over the last year. It would seem that the Prime Minister and his party were an outlier on misogyny and sexual harassment, if it were not so redolent of the standards recently prevailing in the Metropolitan Police.
The facts show that there is an epidemic of violence against women and girls under the watch of this Conservative Government. As my noble friends Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Crawley said, women feel threatened in both reality and the virtual world. The number of women homicide victims is at its highest level for 15 years, rape prosecutions and convictions are at a record low and victims are abandoning their trials due to delay. Although I credit the Government for publishing the very welcome domestic abuse plan a few months ago, it commits only to “considering” and “looking at” a register for serial domestic abuse perpetrators. This side of the House and the sector have been demanding this for years, so why are they now only looking into it? This is yet another example of piecemeal steps instead of the widespread reform we all need. I ask the Minister to respond to a simple question: why is there not a RASSO unit—a rape unit—in every police force in this country? Can she explain why?
I will wind up with some questions for the Minister. Does she agree that it is time that misogyny is made a hate crime? Will she commit to the Government bringing forward the victims’ Bill? I look forward in particular to her response to my noble friend Lady Prosser’s remarks on levelling up and practical solutions to women’s work. When will we get the long-promised women’s health strategy? Will the Minister give a commitment, for example, to tackling the gender bonus gap, which in 2021 was 40%?
Labour has a plan. For example, we have a new deal for working people which will put women at the heart of our economic recovery. I think I just need to say: what this country needs, and what the women in this country need, is a Labour Government, and we need the opportunity for an election to have one.
I start by echoing many of the tributes paid to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for bringing forward this debate, and to all Members who have spoken and contributed to such an all-encompassing discussion. I would also like to pay tribute to those men who have joined us today and made very forthright contributions. It is great that you respect women, and their role and potential in the country. I thought the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, gave five minutes of excellent value, and it was a very significant contribution which I will refer to as I go through.
One thing is as sure as eggs: I am never going to be able to answer everybody’s questions. If I do not answer your question, it is not because I do not want to, or I am disrespecting you, but I will, at the end, make sure I write to all noble Lords who took part in the debate, and make sure all your questions are answered to your satisfaction.
I had the great pleasure of being part of the International Women’s Day debate held in March, when again the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, made a very powerful and eloquent speech. While that debate was not all that long ago, I will never turn down a chance to highlight the great work taking place across government to ensure that everyone can access opportunities and reach their full potential.
I suspect that for most Members here, as is certainly the case for me, 2010 now feels like a very distant memory, although it was a momentous time for me, being the year that I first took my seat in this place. I am conscious that, while this Chamber still looks the same, the world around us has changed immeasurably. A great number of things may be different, including those currently in government. However, one thing that has remained constant is our commitment to achieving gender equality. Each successive Government have reaffirmed their resolve to make the UK a place where women and girls can access all opportunities on an equal basis and be able to thrive.
We know that this is not something that can be achieved overnight; there are no quick fixes or silver bullets, much to the frustration of probably everybody in this Chamber. It can often feel as though the pace of change is too slow, and progress is always just out of reach. But this week I have more than one reason to step back and appreciate just how far we have come since 2010.
On Monday, we celebrated—and the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, was there—10 years of the Women’s Business Council, and I was overwhelmed to hear what it has achieved within that time. In 2010, the gender pay gap was 19.8%, and in 2021 it was 15.4%. There are nearly 2 million more women in work since 2010, and the number of women in FTSE 100 boardroom roles has jumped to 39% from 12.5% 10 years ago. At the 2010 election, 143 women were elected to the other place; in 2019, it was 220. We have got some way to go on this, and more about that later. While we can all agree there is more to do, and my ministerial colleagues and I are certainly not complacent when it comes to tackling that challenge head on, it is remarkable to see the strides that we have already made in such a short space of time.
I do not believe that we should dwell on the past or rest on our laurels, so I want to focus on the exciting work that we are doing now to ensure that this progress does not stall but in fact is accelerated. The underpinning principle behind government work undertaken since 2010, is that women should have the economic freedom to make choices about their lives and careers, unconstrained by inequalities or expectations. We want women to be economically empowered, and to remove the barriers that prevent them from reaching their full potential.
The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, Lady Prosser and Lady Thornton, all talked about the importance of women in careers where they could really achieve their potential, not least of all construction and science. I am pleased that one of the ways in which we are doing this is by ensuring women can enter into higher-paid sectors and positions. The STEM world is calling for people with the right skills to come and help them meet the needs of our future economy, yet women currently make up only 24% of the STEM workforce. If we are to meet those challenges, then we need to first tackle this occupational segregation.
Of course, much of this relies on inspiring girls to consider STEM careers and study STEM subjects from a young age. We are already making some progress here, with girls representing 44% of all STEM A-level entries in 2021, and the proportion of women entering full-time undergraduate courses taking STEM courses having increased to 42.2%. The Department for Education is currently supporting a number of initiatives to encourage a more diverse uptake of STEM subjects and pathways. To name but a few, it funds the Inclusion in Schools project and the Stimulating Physics Network, it is researching interventions to tackle the barriers young women encounter to studying STEM, and it is enhancing mathematics teaching through a national network of 40 school-led maths hubs and funding the Advanced Mathematics Support Programme.
However, it is not just getting young women interested in STEM that is important; the real challenge is how we get them into STEM and keep them there. On International Women’s Day, I announced a programme to encourage more women to return to STEM careers after taking time out for caring. The pilot will give them the opportunity to refresh and grow their skills in sectors where their talents are most needed, and will build on what we have learned from previous government returner initiatives.
The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, also mentioned women and diversity on boards and women in leadership. We are not just supporting women into higher-paid STEM careers; it is also about helping them to reach the top within their chosen profession across a range of sectors. Over the last 10 years, the Government have lent support to successive reviews, most recently the FTSE Women Leaders Review, to drive progress on female representation at the top of our biggest companies. This business-led framework has had fantastic success. In 2021, the UK FTSE 100 ranks in second place compared with 11 similar counties. But it has now turned its attention to fixing the pipeline of talent, making sure that this level of representation spreads through the entire leadership team and across a wider range of companies.
When the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, speaks to that school tomorrow, will he pass on the very best wishes of everybody in this Chamber today to that head teacher, who has given and given, and thank her on our behalf?
We also want to help women to realise their entrepreneurial aspirations. As it stands, only one in three UK entrepreneurs is a woman—a gender gap equivalent to 1.1 million missing businesses. That is outrageous, and we must do something about that. Our aim is to increase the number of female entrepreneurs by half by 2030, so we will look very closely at that.
Many noble Lords mentioned the gender pay gap. One of the ways we are helping women in every workplace, regardless of how senior they are, is by driving transparency on pay. We will not have the situation where a woman goes for a job and is asked, “How much did you earn in your last job?” We do not want that. We want a salary on the advert so that women can negotiate the pay that shows their worth. We recently announced that we will take this transparency one step further. We will provide women with the information they need, making it easier for employees to understand whether they are being paid fairly.
However, as many of my noble friends have noted today, the world of work does not exist within a vacuum. So much of what goes into getting work right, not just for women but for everyone, is about making sure that workplace culture and practices fit with the lives that people lead outside of them. All the effort we put into empowering women and girls throughout their lives and careers goes to waste if we do not also remove the barriers that can prevent them being able to fully realise their ambitions.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Prosser and Lady Thornton, touched on the subject of childcare. This is something that is vexing me. I am on it. I cannot make promises, but I can promise to try getting to the bottom of some of the things that we can do to enable women to get the childcare that they need so that they can fulfil their potential in the workplace. The Government have doubled free childcare and have done much on tax-free childcare. But we want to help parents with the cost of childcare so we have introduced, as I have said, tax-free childcare, providing working parents with up to £2,000 of childcare support a year for each child. Much has been done on flexible working and parental leave. I am really proud that we extended the right to request flexible working to all employees with 26 weeks of continuous service with their employer.
Half the time has gone already, and I will not be able to answer everything, but let me turn to some of the other points that were raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, spoke about the remit of the Government Equalities Office being reduced. The equality hub will move beyond the narrow focus of protected characteristics and drive real change that benefits people across the United Kingdom. We have announced a new approach to equality, which will extend the fight for fairness beyond the nine protected characteristics covered by the Act, to include socioeconomic and geographical equality.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, raised Section 106. If the aims of Section 106 are to be realised, all political parties must be truly committed to it rather than be forced to do something. It is our job to drive that change to come naturally. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, raised the Istanbul convention. We are delighted to be ratifying the convention. This will send a clear message, not only within the UK but overseas, that Britain is committed to tackling violence against women and girls. Whatever the differing views on the two reservations, we can all agree about the vital importance of ratification. Ratifying will make it easy for us to hold to account those countries elsewhere in Europe that are pulling away from the convention.
Many noble Lords have raised the cost of living crisis and the impact on women, particularly lone parents. We understand completely that millions of households across the UK are struggling to make their incomes stretch to cover the rising cost of living. That is why the Government have provided an extra £37 billion this year. On a point of difference that the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, raised about giving one-off grants as opposed to fixing the system as one would like, the Government are not standing there watching people struggling. We are adding vast sums of money for people as quickly as possible. Our Plan for Jobs campaign is working, as is the Way to Work campaign, which got over half a million people into work. As my Secretary of State, Thérèse Coffey, an outstanding woman, said, we want people to be in work. Once they have a job, it is easier for them to get a better job and then into a career. I cannot say more about the benefits system than I have said and said yesterday. We are doing all that we can to support people.
On the point raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Gale, about what we are doing to improve rape prosecutions, protecting women and girls from violence is a key priority for this Government. We have made it clear that we need to make improvements to restore victims’ faith in the criminal justice system. We published our rape action plan setting out clear measures to more than double the number of adult rape cases reaching court by the end of this Parliament. However, there are no holds barred here. There is still work to be done, still progress to be made. We will not stop driving actions forward to rebuild confidence in the criminal justice system to pursue justice for rape victims.
My noble friend Lady Jenkin, the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and others mentioned women in politics. If I may, I will take a moment to congratulate my noble friend on the work she and others have done on Women2Win. She does not take her foot off the pedal at all on this. We have more women MPs than ever before and political parties, as I said, are responsible for their candidate selection and should lead the way in improving the diversity of representation. Let us all redouble our efforts to see whether we can get to that 50:50 target. I would also say that we need to understand why people do not want to enter politics. I had a conversation with someone about this earlier and if we can address the reasons why people do not want to do it, perhaps we will inspire some younger people to take it up.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, got us off to a great start about the football. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, is obviously very excited about the performance of our wonderful team. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, a rugby star in her own right—
Oh, she has changed her mind. Noble Lords are absolutely right that these women are doing a great job.
I was at the football on Monday in Brighton. I have never been to a football match in my life. Before I went, my other half said to me, “Please behave. Don’t start shouting out and telling people what to do. You know nothing about football.” I had been there about 10 minutes and I was alive with it. They were like rockets running round the field. They were absolutely fantastic. I just wondered why I had not seen them before. They are doing a great job and if they get to the final at Wembley, I will be pleased to represent all noble Lords and shout. I started to get excited and then realised that I was sitting next to the Duke of Gloucester and I had to calm down. I take on board the challenge from the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I will speak to my noble friend Lord Parkinson about investment in sport.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathcarron, raised the issue of transgender athletes participating in sport. All sports which compete internationally must comply with their international federation rules on that level and the Government are clear that a way forward is needed that protects and shows compassion to all athletes while maintaining the integrity of the competition. I heard the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, and others in the Chamber today. I am very happy to commit to meeting the noble Baroness and other noble Lords to discuss this.
The gender pensions gap was raised. We take this very seriously. Our reforms, including automatic enrolment, have helped millions more people save into a pension. Pension participation among eligible women working in the private sector was 86% in 2020, up from 40% in 2012.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, on her 30% Club. I will have to write regarding 50% of women on government boards because I do not have that figure to hand. The noble Baroness also mentioned women and girls in the Ukraine conflict. To mark International Women’s Day this year, the UK was proud to launch new funding for women’s rights organisations and civil society actors working to support the critical needs of women and children both inside and displaced outside Ukraine. There is more information, but I will include that in my letter.
The noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, mentioned levelling up for men and women. I thought her explanation of the fact that if we levelled up, it would still be unequal was really quite interesting—
I did not say that if we levelled up for everyone, it would still be unequal. I said that the Minister who responded to the debate seemed to think that levelling up for women, men and everyone was the answer. My point was that we start off unequally so we end up unequal at the end. My point is that we should level up for women and make it equal.
I thank the noble Baroness for clarifying that and I agree with her.
My noble friends Lady Meyer and Lady Eaton raised the issue of the protected characteristic of sex. This is a subject that we shall have to come back to and debate. As I have said, everyone must be free to express what they feel about it, but everyone must be respectful and tolerant when some people have different views from theirs.
I am afraid my time is up. I knew this would happen and I am sorry, but I am incredibly grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. As such, I will write, as I promised, and have the meetings that we so need to have.
I thank the Minister very much for her response to the debate. We met only yesterday; she is always willing to meet and have discussions, and I thank her for that.
I thank all noble Baronesses and noble Lords for their contributions today. There is no doubt that we can say that this has been a wide-ranging debate. Today we have covered a whole range of political life: women on boards; women in science; women in peacemaking; the gender pay gap; women in sport; the very low incidence of convictions for rape; domestic abuse; pension pots; carers; and young women victims. It has been a really good debate in that sense, but I think we all recognise through the debate that we still have a long way to go.
There is no doubt that we are getting there. There have been many improvements in women’s lives. Certainly since 1918, when women first got the vote, we have seen a gradual increase of women in political and public life, although we know that there are still many barriers. That is something that we will no doubt come back to, but we all know what the campaign is and we will keep on.
It has been great to hear women and men with experience speaking in this debate today. I thank your Lordships very much.