– in the House of Lords at 10:05 am on 10th March 2023.
Moved by Baroness Scott of Bybrook
That this House takes note of International Women’s Day and steps to support the education of women and girls in the United Kingdom and worldwide.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to open this year’s International Women’s Day debate, but before I proceed further I am sure noble Lords will join me in offering our deepest condolences to the family of the late noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, who was a great stalwart—the first female Speaker of the House of Commons and a noble friend of this House. It is only fitting that we acknowledge and pay tribute to the amazing legacy that Lady Boothroyd leaves behind. I am also very much looking forward to hearing my noble friend Lady Lampard’s maiden speech today. I welcome her to this House and look forward to working with her in future.
We recently marked the one-year anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. It is important to reaffirm the UK’s continued support for the people and Government of Ukraine. I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet the Ukrainian community in London a number of times and have been so inspired by the strength and resilience of the woman and children so sadly displaced by this atrocious war. I send our thoughts and prayers to them today and say that we are with them in their struggle. As part of our £220 million package of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and longer-term development programming, we have worked to prioritise the protection and inclusion of the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach, including women and girls.
I am pleased that the UK continues to demonstrate leadership and commitment to championing the hard-won rights of women and girls as set out in the FCDO’s new International Women and Girls Strategy 2023 to 2030 announced on
The 67th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women is well under way in New York. This is the biggest event of the global calendar on women’s rights and gender equality. The priority theme for 2023 is innovation and technological change and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. The digital age holds exciting opportunities for the advancement of gender equality around the world, but we must ensure that no one gets left behind, that women and girls are supported to participate meaningfully and that technology-facilitated gender-based violence is responded to and prevented. I am delighted that the UK is co-hosting a side event on this important subject at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. I am also very pleased that my noble friend Lord Ahmad is leading our delegation to CSW this year. His programme includes side events to discuss issues in detail and bilaterals with partners, both within the UN system and from other countries. We welcome the opportunity to engage with global partners on this important agenda and value our engagement with civil society as part of the process.
Throughout the world, International Women’s Day is celebrated in numerous ways. There are events in local and regional communities and debates across countries, much like the ones taking place in your Lordships’ House, and it is an honour to be just one part of these celebrations. Equally, it is important to acknowledge that these celebrations take place against a backdrop of a growing cost of living crisis, which is disproportionately impacting on women. The Government understand that people are worried about the cost of living challenges ahead. That is why decisive action has been taken to support households across the UK, with a package of measures to help ease the burden while remaining fiscally responsible.
This year’s International Women’s Day global theme is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”. A key facet of that is education, which is one of the key pathways towards achieving gender equality and remains a global priority. This Government have put education at the heart of their agenda, and I am pleased to support their efforts in this area. I am also pleased to have the opportunity to highlight the progress that this Government have made in the UK and around the world more widely to advance gender equality.
Girls’ education is a top international development priority, and the UK is committed to standing up for the right of every girl everywhere to access 12 years of quality education. From 2015 to 2020 the UK supported 8.1 million girls to gain a decent education. The UK committed to tackling the global education crisis through the Girls’ Education Action Plan 2021 and through two G7-endorsed global objectives: to get 40 million more girls in school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10 by 2026.
Here in the UK the Prime Minister, in his first speech of 2023, set out his ambition of ensuring that all school pupils in England study some form of maths to the age of 18. That reflects his mission to ensure that more children leave school with the right skills in numeracy and literacy.
We are helping our children and young people achieve their potential and recover from the impact of the pandemic. That is why we have made available almost £5 billion for education recovery, with many programmes—including the recovery premium, the National Tutoring Programme and the 16-to-19 tuition fund—focused on helping the most disadvantaged.
As society grows its digital economy, it is critical that we position women to be successful within that economy. This Government have made significant progress in increasing the number of girls studying STEM subjects, and we are keen to do more to get women into STEM careers to meet the demands of today’s workforce. Girls represented 44% of all STEM A-level entries in 2021. The proportion of women entering full-time undergraduate courses taking STEM subjects increased from 33.6% to 41.4% between 2011 and 2020.
However, in 2020 women made up only 29.4% of the STEM workforce in the UK and, worryingly, many of those women leave the workforce because they take time out for caring reasons and find it difficult to return. This Government are clear that the careers of talented women should not be held back because they take time out of work to care for loved ones. That is why, on International Day of Women and Girls in Science,
That brings me on to the topic of women’s economic empowerment. As part of our international women and girls strategy, we are using our influence to encourage the international community and our multilateral partners to scale up their focus and activities on women’s economic empowerment. The UK has successfully included gender provisions in all our free trade agreements newly negotiated since leaving the EU. Our FTAs with Australia and New Zealand contain dedicated trade and gender equality chapters. They complement important provisions secured across the agreements—for example, on non-discrimination in the workplace, promoting women’s access to digital trade and supporting women-owned small and medium-sized enterprises. Our She Trades Commonwealth initiative has helped more than 3,500 women-led businesses since 2018, including in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, creating over 6,000 jobs.
Domestically, the government-backed task force on women-led high-growth enterprise was established to support women entrepreneurs, tackle investing barriers, challenge outdated gender stereotypes and increase the number of women-led high-growth businesses. This measure is driven by the Government’s ambition to increase the number of female entrepreneurs by half by 2030, equivalent to 600,000 new entrepreneurs. I am proud that such initiatives and others, such as flexible working and parental leave, will help achieve a considerable decline in the gender pay gap, which over the last decade has fallen from 19.6% to 14.9%, with the percentage of women in employment going up from 66.5% to 72.3%.
This Government’s commitment to improving the cost, choice and availability of childcare for working parents is central to this, especially as we know that unpaid care work, especially when it comes to childcare, is disproportionately done by women. We have spent over £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on our early education entitlements to support families with the cost of childcare. We know the sector is facing economic challenges, similar to the challenges faced across the economy, so we have already announced additional funding of £160 million in 2022-23, £180 million in 2023-24 and £170 million in 2024-25.
In addition to the action that we have taken to increase women’s economic participation, it is imperative that every woman is able to live without fear of harassment or violence, in the workplace as much as anywhere else. The Government are supporting the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill, introduced by the honourable Member for Bath. That Bill will strengthen protections for employees against workplace harassment, and I am delighted to say that it passed Report and Third Reading in the Commons on
Online safety and digital access are key to achieving gender equality in today’s workforce. The ground-breaking Online Safety Bill delivers the Government’s manifesto commitment to making the UK the safest place in the world to be online. This new legislation will tackle criminal activity online, protect children from harmful and inappropriate content, particularly given the rise in misogyny, and promote greater transparency and accountability for platforms.
Gender-based violence threatens the lives and well-being of girls and women and girls in all their diversity around the world, and prevents them accessing opportunities such as education, healthcare and employment, which are fundamental to their freedom and development, education, healthcare and jobs. I am proud that the UK is recognised internationally for the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, committing £60 million to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence since 2012. In November last year the UK hosted the PSVI international conference in London with over 1,000 delegates, including survivors, civil society, multilateral partners and representatives from at least 57 countries.
We also launched a new political declaration and secured endorsements from 53 countries and 40 national commitments; and published a new PSVI strategy, backed up by £12.5 million of new funding, outlining the Government’s approach to preventing and responding to the appalling crimes of conflict-related sexual violence. Domestically, though, we are still reeling from the abhorrent crimes committed by David Carrick. It is only right that he now faces at least 30 years behind bars.
The Tackling Violence against Women and Girls strategy, published in 2021, is helping to target perpetrators better and support victims and survivors of gender-based violence. It was followed in March 2022 by the Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan, which commits to investing over £230 million of cross-government funding into tackling these crimes.
Improving women’s health outcomes and reducing disparities is a key priority for this Government and an important driver for economic growth. The first government-led Women’s Health Strategy for England marks a reset in the way in which the Government are looking at women’s health. For generations, women have lived with a health and care system that is mostly designed by men, for men. The strategy sets out our 10-year ambition for boosting the health and well-being of women and girls, and for improving how the health and care system listens to all women.
The appointment of Dame Lesley Regan, the first Women’s Health Ambassador, underlines this Government’s commitment to putting women at the heart of health services. Implementation of the strategy will ensure, among other things, better support for women experiencing menopausal symptoms, leading to better diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as endometriosis, which affects one in 10 women. It will, helpfully, also remove additional barriers to fertility services facing female same-sex couples.
As I said in my opening remarks, I am proud to participate in today’s debate surrounded by so many champions for gender equality. I am proud of the work that this Government are doing to support women in all their diversities, in all areas of their lives, but I recognise that there is much more to do. I beg to move.
My Lords, I echo the warm words of the Minister about Baroness Boothroyd. I remember that her comments to me after my maiden speech were very warm and supportive. I also look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, in the House today.
I have great pleasure in opening the debate for the Opposition Front Bench on such an important topic, celebrating such an auspicious day in our international calendar. The campaign theme is Embrace Equity this year, and focusing on gender equity needs to be a part of every society’s DNA. It means creating a fair and equal world. The topic of this debate, education, could not be closer to my heart: I worked at the chalkface in schools, from Brixton to Brynmawr and Newport to Pontypridd, for almost 35 years. My contribution does not come from an ideological viewpoint or from a theoretical perspective, as welcome as these are, but is based on direct experience of five lessons a day, five days a week, for three academic terms a year.
Throughout those decades, I experienced many changes within and outside the curriculum and to the place of women and girls, both as teachers and learners. When I began my career, it was unusual to see a woman head teacher of a secondary school or girls studying science and technology beyond GCSE—or O-level, as it was in those days. Much has changed in those intervening years and both areas are now much better represented but, indeed, more needs to be done.
Research shows that, across the UK, women currently make up 47% of employees in male-dominated STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—with a quarter of the jobs in mathematical sciences and 13% in engineering positions. However, the lack of female role models in STEM is a key reason why girls do not pursue a career in the sector. Just 42% of girls said they would consider a STEM-related career, but this rose to 60% if they had confidence that men and women were equally employed in those professions.
That is why I was so pleased to see the Minister in the Welsh Government, Vaughan Gething, launching a scheme for STEM subjects just this time last year, when he said that Wales’s programme for government looked to celebrate diversity and move to eliminate inequality in all its forms, including by increasing diversity in STEM by seeking out participation from underrepresented groups to build and develop a world in which studying and working in science are open to all. Our innovators and leaders of tomorrow are sitting in our classrooms, colleges and universities of today. We need to embrace and empower women and girls to see themselves as those leaders of tomorrow.
Wales launched its new 13-18 curriculum last autumn. It is now quite distinct from England and it is inclusive, giving all learners a broad and balanced learning pathway. The four purposes of the curriculum are the shared vision and aspiration for every child and young person to become: an ambitious, capable learner, ready to learn throughout their life; an enterprising, creative contributor, ready to play a full part in life and work; an ethical, informed citizen, ready to take part in the world; and a healthy, confident individual, ready to lead a fulfilling life as a valued member of society. The curriculum also covers human rights and diversity, respecting differences and experiences in skills, and careers and the workplace.
In fulfilling these aims, high expectations are set for all, promoting individual and national well-being, tackling ignorance and misinformation, and encouraging critical and civic engagement. It is not simply what is taught but how it is taught and, crucially, why it is taught. This development will contribute to Wales’s goals as a nation as set out in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. It is also an important vehicle for embedding the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Turning to the economic place of women in our society, it is well documented that women often earn less and are more likely to work in insecure jobs, often in the informal sector and with less access to social protections. They also run most single-parent households, which further limits their capacity to absorb economic shocks. It is crucial therefore that women’s voices are at the core of policy development and decision-making. The participation of women and girls is both necessary and vital, at every level and in every arena: central, devolved and local government, or within the community and the wider business arena. Without equal participation, responses will be less effective at meeting their needs and lead to negative consequences.
The empowerment of women is key. I am pleased that Governments in Wales and Scotland have incorporated the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into legal frameworks and the school curricula. I would urge the UK Government to do the same for England.
Alongside my work in the classroom over many years, encouraging my pupils to be their best selves, I have always engaged in mentoring programmes in the Labour and Co-operative Party and in other organisations, such as Equal Power Equal Voice. It runs mentoring programmes to increase diversity of representation in public and political life. Across Wales—indeed, across the UK—there exists a massive social and intellectual capital that is untapped and excluded from our public and political systems. The Equal Power Equal Voice programme aims to help bridge that gap, to get more diverse representation in politics and public life by strengthening the knowledge and skills of those who aspire to be there, while learning from and being supported by those who have achieved positions of power.
I have greatly enjoyed my involvement in those schemes and have achieved some very good outcomes. I note for the record that during our time together a recent mentee of mine, who had no prior political experience, became a list candidate for the 2021 Senedd elections. In 2022, she was elected for the first time to a Welsh council, subsequently becoming the leader as control changed from Tory to Labour. I am glad to have played a small part in her personal and political development, so here is to Councillor Mary Ann Brocklesby and the tremendous changes she is bringing.
Other examples may not be as meteoric, but I am pleased to have helped many women take their first steps into public life. Indeed, after I became the first woman leader of Newport City Council, my successor, Councillor Jane Mudd, and her deputy, Councillor Deborah Davies, maintained the positive representation and the gender balance of the Labour group. Both Newport Members of Parliament are women and one of the two members of the Senedd are female, so women are indeed around the top table in my home city.
I am sorry that one of Wales’s most eminent women is not in her place today due to illness. It would be totally remiss of me not to mention my noble friend Lady Gale, who has done so much in our party to bring the issue of women’s political representation to the fore and has ensured that we have opportunities to stand for election at all levels. The twinning mechanism she brought in for the first Assembly elections in 1999 was nothing short of a masterstroke. It ensured a 50% selection of women candidates, making the Welsh Assembly a ground-breaker in equal representation. That legacy has endured to the present day thanks to my noble friend Lady Gale’s determination and the charter for women that she developed. She changed the perception of women in power in Wales and beyond for ever.
So, what can we do? We need to actively support and embrace equity within our own spheres of influence. We need to challenge gender stereotypes, call out discrimination, draw attention to bias and seek out inclusion. When we embrace equity, we embrace diversity; we embrace inclusion. We embrace equity to forge harmony and unity, and to help drive success for all. Equality is the goal and equity is the means to get there.
My Lords, I too wish to pay tribute to Baroness Boothroyd. Because of the proximity of our offices, we often used to bump into each other in the lift. One day I complimented her on one of her fabulous outfits—she was always beautifully turned out—and in that unmistakeable voice she said, “give it brass and go big.” I have always thought that I will for ever hold that as my phrase: give it brass, go big.
The theme of today’s International Women’s Day is “Embrace Equity”. It is a very good phrase, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, has just said, because it carries within it the implication that we are, as women, diverse—very diverse. Women have different life experiences, different economic circumstances and all sorts of differences between us, yet we have common aspirations for safety, health, autonomy and prosperity. It is important to bear that in mind as we have this debate, because it takes place against the background of a campaign originated and orchestrated by Christian nationalists in the United States, Europe and across Russia, which is very definitely about curbing the aspirations and autonomy of all women.
In the United States and places like Poland and Hungary the focus is on anti-abortion activities. In Africa, the focus is against equality and LGBT rights. In the US and UK, the key focus of this campaign is anti-gender. We are beginning as we go through, to see a greater emphasis on unpicking this campaign and understanding the motivations behind it. The Council of Europe, for example, in 2022 produced a thematic report on legal gender recognition in Europe, which began to show what this campaign is about. Ultimately, it is about the rolling back of human rights and the destruction of human rights legislation and the organisations which are there to protect and promote it. That is a key concern for all women because human right lies at the basis of our equality and equity.
In the UK we know that there is a daily campaign against trans women. We see it day after day in our media. It is a campaign that seeks to pit women against women. It portrays trans women as a significant and systemic threat to other women. I have to say that, after six years, it is a campaign that has yet to provide evidence of that, and it is yet to win significant approval. That is not to say that some politicians have not been taken in by this and have been ever ready to use it to their political advantage. I have to say today that some of us will always reject playing with human rights, because if you play with the human rights of some people, you play with the human rights of all, and if you jeopardise the rights of some women, you jeopardise the rights of all. I hope that politicians in this country will look again at some of the aspects of this campaign and will desist in the demonisation of a very small minority of people in this country. They are at the moment under attack and very frightened, and today, on International Women’s Day, it is important to give them some hope and solidarity.
I want to pick up on one particular point. It is inescapable that the cuts to the FCDO budget will have a tremendous, seriously deleterious impact on women around the world because of the leading role the United Kingdom has had for so long in international health. The FCDO cuts, swingeing as they were, not only jeopardised particular programmes, services, the availability of medical interventions, drugs and treatments; they also did something far more serious but less commented upon. They jeopardised the 40 years of research that has gone into work on infectious diseases such as HIV, and which has had such an important, transformational role in medicine, and not just in relation to HIV. Much of the response to Covid came about as quickly as it did because of the science and learning from those other pandemics. Therefore, I say to the Minister—she did an admirable job of talking up the Government’s record—that unless and until we restore not only the budget but the planning and strategy that went into the long-term programmes in the FCDO, we will be doing serious harm to women and girls across the world.
One particular piece of work we need to do in the HIV field is on PrEP. We know the importance of PrEP domestically and we know its importance for men. It has had a transformational effect on transmission of the virus. We now need to replicate that work across the world and understand what we can do for women, particularly in countries where they do not have a lot of power and autonomy over their own lives and in dealings with their partners, to ensure that they too can access it.
A second area that we need to look at domestically and internationally is the menopause and HIV. One of the great benefits of having had so much scientific success in the field of HIV and other diseases is that we now have, for the first time, a cohort of older people living with these diseases. We do not yet know what the interaction between long-term conditions and diseases such as HIV actually are. That is an area in which, yet again, the UK, because of the existence of the National Health Service and our involvement in health services abroad, can play a leading role in understanding.
Finally, I wish to draw attention to something we often gloss over on International Women’s Day: mental health. We know that women’s mental health is in many cases overlooked and underreported. Why? Because women are so busy coping with everything else that they put themselves last and others first. However, as we began to see in the Joint Committee that looked at the recent draft mental health Bill, there is an underreporting of incidences of women with mental health problems, particularly women with learning difficulties and autism, who are being misdiagnosed in the field of mental health. If that can happen in an advanced medical system such as ours, it must be much more pronounced across the world. In her reply, can the Minister say when we can expect the Government response to the Joint Committee report and whether, following the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, over so many years on this particular minority group, we can look forward to some movement from the Government?
I welcome the appointment of Professor Lesley Regan as the government ambassador and adviser on women’s health—she has been a tremendous champion for women for many years. Taking a life-course approach to women’s health will be a significant step forward. She, like many others in the health service, has a particular fear about the fractured commissioning of contraception, because our contraceptive services are in such a state that we now have an alarmingly high rate—45%—of unplanned pregnancies in this country. Again, we are part of international studies on the efficacy of making contraception available, because, wherever you are in the world and whichever woman you are, having control of your body and reproductive health is absolutely fundamental to your well-being and prosperity. We have typically led in this area since the 1960s, and I sincerely hope that we will regain our eminence in it, because it is one area in which we can teach the rest of the world some news good for all women and girls.
My Lords, it is a tremendous honour to speak in this debate today, and I am most grateful to the Minister for the way she introduced it. I had the privilege of working with the late Lady Boothroyd on the memorial to the women of World War II on Whitehall, on which there are the coats and hats of the women whose names were not known, although they all served this country—many of them lost their lives. If they were still alive, they were deeply traumatised by what they saw and what happened, but they hung up their coats at the end of the war and just got on with things.
I am also grateful for the words about the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, who welcomed me and so many others into this House with enormous kindness and generosity of spirit, which was really overwhelming. We look forward to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard.
I will talk about a woman who inspired enormous change in medicine: Cicely Saunders. She was born in Barnet in 1918, shy, intelligent, six feet tall and somewhat gawky, but she went to Oxford to study PPE. The war intervened and she became, among other things, a hospital almoner at St Thomas’ and a nurse. But she realised that, to change things really, she had to change the attitudes in medicine—so she studied medicine. It was a time when dying was seen as a failure and patients were ignored on wards if they were dying, because they had not responded to the amazing cure that some of these doctors purported to have tried on them. The wards were cold and heartless, and people walked past the end of the bed. She wanted to create a home-like environment to give hope and comfort to the dying, with the best medical care and symptom control.
In 1967, she managed to open St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham. At that time, only 11% of entrants to medical school were women. Now, of course, it is more than 50% in this country, but, in many parts of the world, almost no women are able to study medicine at all. The foundation behind what she did was that education and research must be behind everything we do, and that move for education and research was very important in changing the way that dying people are looked after, with tenacity, intellect and compassion. Her unwavering belief was in her phrase:
“You matter because you are you, and you matter to the last moment of your life.”
How we die in this country has in large part been revolutionised, as it has in many parts of the world—but, sadly, not everywhere yet. Her vision shaped the way things are, and that has moved on to the Cicely Saunders Institute, an international institute of education and research based in King’s College. I had the privilege of being involved in setting it up and in its international advisory group. Its input during Covid and its management of breathlessness won an award in the last year for the contribution it made.
Different hospices around the UK and the globe have opened, and that has been inspired, but I am afraid that, in other parts of the world, women have a really poor deal in the way they are treated. In war-torn areas, grandmothers are bringing up orphaned children who are dependent on them for some love and security. The future of peace around the world lies in these women’s hands.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said, HIV and AIDS are a big problem, and women are disproportionately affected because of gender inequality, discrimination, violence and sexual exploitation and abuse. In sub-Saharan Africa, six out of seven new infections are in young women and girls, and they have limited access to education. Cervical cancer is also a major killer—yet, with the HPV vaccine, we could almost eradicate it, but it is not being rolled out as it should be.
If you ask girls in many parts of the world what they want to be, they will say they want to be doctors. They want to improve the lives of the people around them in their communities and populations, and they want to make the world we live in a better place for all. We have had another role model, Averil Mansfield, who was a professor of vascular surgery, recently featured on “Desert Island Discs” and produced a book about how she broke moulds in medicine.
I will move back to Cicely and what she did, because it is estimated that 75% of the world would benefit from palliative care. Some 77% of the consultant workforce in the UK are now women. We were inspired in Cardiff and set up a distance learning course, and people from that have changed the world: we have educated over 3,000 leaders around the world, in every continent apart from Antarctica. Liz Gwyther led developments in South Africa, and Mary Bunn worked in Sierra Leone with the Cardiff link on cancer and end-of-life care. Cynthia Goh, who sadly died, led Singapore and the whole of that region, highlighting the importance of morphine availability. I also note Sushma Bhatnagar in India, Yvonne Mak in Hong Kong, and Bee Wee, also initially from Hong Kong, who became the national clinical director here in England and was the first to get a distinction on our course. They all changed what has been done through education and research, and we need to support every woman everywhere to achieve her potential.
My Lords, it is wonderful to be able to participate in this year’s International Women’s Day debate alongside such inspirational women. It is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay.
I was recently fortunate to have a participant from the Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme spend a day with me and the Bishop of Stepney as we visited the Stepney area, which is part of the diocese of London. The House may know that the programme was set up in Jo’s memory and in recognition of her leadership and the empowerment of many women. I commend the programme and its recognition of the need for women leaders to spend their time with other women leaders.
The participant and I have very different backgrounds and experiences, but I was struck by the overlapping challenges that we face. Over my life, I have found that many of those challenges are common to women working across different areas. That has certainly been true of the worlds that I have worked in: the NHS, higher education, the Church and government. I was the youngest woman to be appointed the Government’s Chief Nursing Officer in England, the fourth woman to be ordained a bishop in the Church of England and the first Bishop of London to be a woman. By virtue of that position, I find myself among the 28% in the House of Lords who are women. Yet, across all these spaces, there are common challenges, which persist. Often, they have their root in our education system. In spite of growing female representation in leadership and the widely enshrined equality in key legislation, the job is not done.
Nursing has historically been seen as a female profession, with an ongoing perception that care is a female characteristic. The Royal College of Nursing believes that this has contributed to the suppression of wages and the downgrading of working conditions, which are fuelling current workforce issues. Worldwide, the World Health Organization found that, on average, female healthcare workers earn approximately 20% less than their male counterparts—at worst, that figure is 24%.
As I have already mentioned in this place, in 2019 a report by the Royal College of Nursing and the Office for National Statistics found that in the UK women make up 90% of all nurses but fill less than a third of senior positions. It is paradoxical that nursing could be perceived as a female profession yet not enough for women to hold even half of senior positions.
There is much to say about the way in which the composition of senior staff in health impacts health outcomes for those more likely to experience poor health. I have spoken in this place before about the statistic that in the UK black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. There are ongoing issues with the lack of GMH midwives and senior staff in the midwifery sector, including stereotyping of pregnant women, pregnant women not being listened to, a lack of awareness of rights, inconsistency in the allocation of finances and a lack of cultural competency within the service.
Not only is working for greater representation in senior positions good for those holding them but it encourages and develops a more diverse workforce and informs a way of working that produces better outcomes. In nursing, the job is not done.
In the Church of England, women have been ordained to the priesthood only since 1994, and the decision to allow women to be consecrated as bishops came only in 2014. In 2015, Libby Lane, now the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, was consecrated and installed as the Bishop of Stockport in the diocese of Chester, becoming our first female bishop. Last month, I had the joy of welcoming Emma Ineson as the Bishop of Kensington in the diocese of London. It was a momentous day, as Emma is the first female Bishop of Kensington. It is easy to miss the impact that this has not just on the Church but on the wider community. A leader from the Sikh community, a long-standing friend of the Hounslow Deanery, expressed her delight and encouragement at seeing two women bishops in the same room. The truth is that it is still not a common sight, despite the experience of your Lordships’ House.
I often underestimate the impact of my role in visiting girls and young women in schools. They do not all want to be the Bishop of London, but the sight of a woman in a senior leadership position is significant and does not pass them by, and maybe enables them to be slightly closer to their dreams.
The proportion of the Church-stipended or paid clergy in London who are women is still only around 20%. The Church also has more to do; the job is not done.
Many think that this is about helping women to be more confident, and that is not wrong. However, we need to change our schools, universities and workplaces to become spaces where women can thrive. So many of those spaces have been shaped by one gender for decades and sometimes centuries. How can we be dynamic and effective if we do not change the shape of our organisations to embrace and learn from people of difference? It will mean that we do not change women in leadership.
Of course, this is not just about women. This is an intersectionality of which I do not have a full understanding. There are greater diversities that I have not touched on which must be fundamental to our attempts to embrace equality. However, that day in the Stepney area and this day in your Lordships’ House are steps towards change. To be holding a debate of this nature, tone and celebration in this House is, I am sure, a day that many of our predecessors would never have believed could happen. It is a joy to participate.
My Lords, it is a great challenge to follow the inspiration of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. We can easily see why she is the Bishop of London. I thank her for a marvellous talk.
The right reverend Prelate challenged nurses to take on bigger, more important roles. I hope that they are listening, because in my career I have met so many inspiring nurses, wonderful people, who have been rather buried in their careers and have not succeeded as I hoped they would.
I resisted speaking in the debates that made marriage before 18 illegal, because I made the decision to marry at 17. It was high risk, but after 62 years of encouragement from my family and friends, I have no regrets and, secretly, I love him to bits.
Early in my married life I met Dame Margery Corbett Ashby, a past suffragette who in her 90s travelled through the Far East exhorting women to fight for their rights. We owe much to women such as her, the suffragettes.
Even when I started one of the first village playgroups for children under five, I was told that mothers should be at home looking after their own children. Although I confess that there was more than an element of enlightened self-interest, I could see that my children were the winners.
As a chair of social services and later chair of health authorities, I rejoiced at freeing hundreds of “fallen women”, as they were called in those days, from institutions, thus avoiding the scandal that is now besetting Ireland.
I have, I fear, regaled the House often enough with speeches on the disgraceful way in which women have been harmed by the NHS. Even today they are denied redress, which is a scandal. Because they were women, physical symptoms were dismissed by doctors simply as figments of their imagination; they are not. Only last week, pain due to implanted mesh caused a woman to take her life.
In the course of our two-year inquiry, we spoke to more than 700 women. They were not mad, but maddened by false promises or just ignorant doctors. Entitled First Do No Harm, our report makes salutary reading. Some of the recommendations are being implemented or partially implemented, but we continue to work on all nine to ensure that they are implemented.
I have not been a feminist campaigner, but I have a remarkable cousin by marriage, Jane Grant. She has just published the biography, The Other Emmeline: The Story of Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. That Emmeline thought that the women’s movement, the suffragettes, went far beyond the vote:
“It meant also to women the discovery of the wealth of spiritual sympathy, loyalty and affection that could be formed in intercourse, friendship and companionship with one another … The Suffrage campaign was our Eton, our Oxford, our regiment, our ship, our cricket match.”
I have good reason to give thanks to those suffragettes, who, as we know, chained themselves to railings, endured hardship in prison and enabled me to be here in the House today as an equal. I continue to campaign on behalf of over half of the population, who are not yet all considered equal. It is not yet 100 years since all women got the vote. Just consider the progress we have made, not least by winning the support and respect of most of the other half of the population, and certainly the support and respect of Members of this House, for which I sincerely thank them.
My Lords, I am somewhat intimidated to follow three women who have spoken so powerfully and who I know have contributed enormously to taking forward women’s health in this country. I will not talk about women and health, and I will not even talk about a subject that your Lordships have heard me discuss before—the experience of women who have suffered sexual exploitation and violence—although I am still doing work on that through projects in Yorkshire. Instead, I will concentrate on international affairs.
Before doing so, I join the tributes to Baroness Boothroyd. Betty was a great family friend and would visit us in the north-east before I became an MP, so when I came here and she was running for Speaker, she gave me the firm instruction that I and Mo Mowlam, with whom she knew I was very friendly, had to sit either side of her when she was going to be dragged to the Chair so that we could look after her handbag. Of course, we did exactly as we were instructed.
I also welcome today’s maiden speech. I know Kate—the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard—because we both work as trustees for GambleAware. However, as she is its chair, she is very much my senior there, so I bow to her greater knowledge and understanding. I know that she will have a major contribution to make to this House. I wish her good luck with her speech; I know how terrifying these things are.
I will speak about international issues and the role that the Government have in relation to international development. Despite ambitious commitments that we were part of in the sustainable development goals, progress on women’s rights globally remains frustratingly slow. Indeed, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said recently that gender equality is still “300 years away”, so none of us will ever be there to see it.
According to the sustainable development report from last year, globally, 26% of women across the world who are in a long-term relationship—641 million women—experience violence at some stage of that relationship. Further:
“In 2021, nearly one in five young women were married before the age of 18 … 35% and 28% of young women were married in childhood, respectively in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia”, and
“Up to 10 million more girls are likely to become child brides by 2030 due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the 100 million girls projected to be at risk before the pandemic.”
These things are going on. Over
“200 million girls and women today have been subjected to female genital mutilation”, and
“As of … January 2022, the global share of women in lower and single houses of national parliaments reached 26.2% up from 22.4% in 2015”— but essentially, that is still only a quarter. We still have a lot to do.
Many people have heard me pay tribute to Voluntary Service Overseas on numerous occasions for how it made me, enabling me to learn about myself as well as the world. I will say a little bit about its work. I am proud that VSO, for several years now, has worked with women and girls as a priority across all its programming. However, the tragedy is that government funding for organisations such as VSO has reduced significantly, which means that work with women and girls across the board is substantially reduced, despite the very good new publication from the Foreign Office about the international women and girls strategy. This is tragic, because not only does it mean that, while some of the issues I have been discussing may well be addressed in some countries, they now will not be addressed in others—VSO has certainly had to reduce the number of countries it is working in—but it also means in some countries the continuation of violence, abuse and war. The consequences of women’s involvement on the fringes of those sorts of conflict mean that those families will often seek to leave, and they will become the asylum seekers and refugees of the future.
This is short-term policy on our behalf, and we really need to address it. We now know that much of even the reduced budget is now being spent in this country on refugees and defence issues rather than in the developing world and on these development issues. I am proud of the work that international development organisations are continuing to try to do, but, my goodness, we should be doing more and we need to do more, because what happens here has a major effect on women around the world.
My Lords, my husband had just been elected as a ward councillor in 1960 when I began my political life as a member of the women’s committee of the branch of a ward committee of the Yardley Conservative Association in Birmingham. At that time, the treasurer took instalments from members for the payment of such items as the area women’s conference. Therefore, I was somewhat surprised when she informed me that, if anything happened to her, we would find the money she had buried in the garden with a stick beside it. We were active in all aspects of political life, and even submitted a paper on the future policy with regard to the enforced leisure time we expected and the harm it posed. Today, I believe that, surprisingly, our paper is still relevant, and I could say that it was especially relevant during Covid as a result of the enforced lockdown.
Since that time, I have always been involved in the fight for equality for women, so in my short contribution I will talk about the new world of “woke” and the misery it is bringing to the world. It seems to have invaded every sphere of society; indeed, even some in the Church of England appear to be embracing the ideology. I have two great-grandchildren—Sophie, aged four, and Freddie, aged three—and I fear for their future if we do not come to our senses. I believe that children thrive best when they live at home with two parents. I do understand that is not always possible for many reasons, including those in my own experience. I lost my father when I was 11 years old, during the winter of 1942, a difficult time in the war. Our house had been bombed and so we were temporarily living with my grandmother. My poor mother had a more than gruelling time as she coped with the loss of my father, two children and no home. I missed my father terribly and life was never quite the same again.
Today, we have a system where teachers think that they have the right to ignore parents and indulge children about their gender identity. Surely this is exactly when loving parents should be involved in what is a very personal matter, where the needs of children require sensitive and caring management. They are, however, often not informed by the schools. Puberty can be an anxious time for some and bring its own challenges. Many children ease through the change to becoming adults without trouble, while others may look for support at this time and need special guidance.
When I was growing up, it was not controversial to accept that we were all born male or female. Babies are not assessed at birth; they are observed and recorded. I still strongly believe this and have been horrified by the treatment of JK Rowling and other brave people by activists, including those whom she helped to make rich and reach their famous status. I have yet to hear or see anything that JK Rowling has said or written that is transphobic. Like her, I believe it is not transphobic to support women’s rights. I also believe that adults, after much thought, should be free to choose and live their lives in an alternative way and I support their decision if they wish to do so.
I fear for the future of women’s sport. I am always in awe of the success of British women in so many disciplines and admire the parents who, for years, travel the country in support of their child and the training needed to succeed. It is ridiculous and unfair to allow trans women to enter the same race as a woman who is biologically female. I believe that a woman’s physical strength can never equal that of a person who is male at birth, despite the reduction of testosterone in their bodies.
We as women are different. Our life experiences are different. Our contributions are different, very often adding a different perspective. Long may that be the case—but, for goodness’ sake, let us allow our little children to have an age of innocence before they have to cope with the harshness and brutality of what some would call this Brave New World.
My Lords, on an occasion like this, it is perhaps only natural that I should be thinking of my parents. I am the child of a refugee. My mother, who is now 92 years old, was born in Germany. In 1939, at the age of eight, she and her younger sister travelled on one of the last Kindertransport trains from Berlin to England to escape persecution in Nazi Germany. Her husband, my father, was a highly successful, colourful, somewhat idiosyncratic lawyer.
With this parentage, it is perhaps unsurprising that I, too, became a lawyer and that I have a deep commitment to parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and open and accountable public institutions. It is perhaps unsurprising, too, that I have devoted much of my professional life to considering the way that public services are run and whether they meet the needs of those they purport to serve.
Against this background, it is of course a very great privilege and opportunity to have become a Member of your Lordships’ House. I thank noble Lords for the encouragement that they have given me in my first weeks in this House. I thank in particular my sponsors and my mentor. I also thank all the staff of this House for their help and kindness.
In the early part of my career, I practised as a barrister at the Chancery Bar. For some years, I engaged in the sometimes comically inept juggling of the demands of a legal practice, bringing up three children, commuting from the North Downs in Kent and supporting my husband in the running of a family farming and forestry business. I recall that, on one occasion, I was on my feet addressing the High Court when my client—a famous and notoriously anarchic punk rock star—tapped me on the back. I assumed that he wanted to share some pearl of legal wisdom; what in fact he said was, “Kate, do you know you’ve got baby sick down the back of your jacket?”
Eventually, the strain of this juggling—no doubt familiar to very many noble Baronesses present—led me to take another course. I took on a number of non-executive roles, including within the NHS. I also started to undertake reviews and consultancy, often related to governance and management failures in public services. I led the investigations into the sexual abuses perpetrated by Jimmy Savile in NHS settings—a sometimes distressing experience, as noble Lords can imagine. Among other reviews, I have conducted one into the circumstances of the abuse of women at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre.
This sometimes draining work has taught me that those providing services need at all times to be alert to identifying and mitigating the risks and vulnerabilities associated with women service users. To highlight some of these: the potential for subtle, as well as more obvious, imbalances of power to allow abuses to happen and to facilitate their cover-up; the risk that those in positions of power and influence will be indulged and go unchallenged about their wrongdoing; and the reluctance of women to report abuse because of stigma, shame, lack of confidence or a fear of not being believed. There is obviously a role for the education of women and girls to play here. We need to talk openly about the issue of sexual abuse and to educate women and girls about what behaviours are and are not acceptable, and about their right to challenge abusive behaviour. As I found out, these safeguards were largely lacking during the Savile era.
As the noble Baroness—and my friend—Lady Armstrong of Hill Top so generously trailed, I chair GambleAware, the leading charity working to keep people safe from gambling harm in Great Britain. Gambling harms can affect anyone but, as with other serious public health issues, some communities are more at risk than others. People living in more deprived areas are three times more likely to experience gambling harms than those living in the least deprived areas. Those harms can include financial difficulty, relationship breakdown, mental health issues and, tragically, sometimes even suicide. Over the past four years, there has been a 54% increase in women gambling online. There is now a casino in your pocket—indeed, in all our homes and on our sofas—and it carries an increased risk of harm.
The number of women seeking support from GambleAware-commissioned services has more than doubled over the past five years. Terrible as it may seem, a quarter of women who gamble say that they are likely to increase their gambling to supplement the household income. The stigma surrounding women who gamble can also be particularly damaging. Two-thirds of women who gamble say that their gambling is seen as “less acceptable” than gambling among men. I am reminded of the words of Tracy, who spoke about her gambling story publicly last year. She said, “You want to be the perfect mum, you want keep the perfect home”. For too many women, these feelings of shame mean that they do not seek support. Recognising this need, last year GambleAware launched its first harms prevention campaign to educate women on the risks of gambling. I am delighted that, of the women who saw the campaign, half reported taking action as a result.
Gambling remains a male-dominated industry. The long-awaited White Paper on gambling reform is an opportunity to address some of the concerns about the risks that gambling harm poses. At the risk of straying into areas of contention, my hope is that it recognises the need to regulate advertising and marketing by gambling companies better; for deposits, stakes and prizes in online gambling to be brought into line with land-based gambling; the need for safer-gambling messages—including, by the way, by the National Lottery—and the need for a statutory levy on gambling companies to ensure fair funding of the research, education and treatment necessary to tackle gambling harms.
I return to my indomitable 92 year-old mother and her story about arriving in this country, speaking no English, separated from her parents and wholly dispossessed. If she were asked what the key to the revival of her and her family’s circumstances had been, she would undoubtedly say that it was education. I can only concur.
I am absolutely delighted to follow my noble friend Lady Lampard, whom I think we all agree has made an exceptional and outstanding maiden speech. I cannot think of many who are more qualified to come to this House. She had a distinguished career as a practising barrister, and I think we can all concur with her story about juggling a family and having a very active business life, with her record with the NHS and with her continued passion and commitment to keeping people safe from the harms of gambling, as chair of the GambleAware charity, which, as we all know, is such an important subject today. She really does bring so much relevant and extensive experience. I also note that she has some hands-on knowledge of farming and forestry, which I am sure we will hear more about. We will greatly benefit from her knowledge and expertise; her experiences will add huge value to and be essential in this House. I am sure we all look forward to hearing more from her in the future and I wish her all the very best.
Celebrating International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to highlight the important role sport and physical activity can play in improving women’s and girls’ physical and mental health and well-being. While the amazing successes of the Lionesses and many more, and the increased coverage of women’s sports on TV and in the media, is a huge step forward, there remains much more work to be done to get more women and girls physically active. So much of keeping our children fit and healthy starts in childhood and at school. The better physical and mental health that follows from being more active can have huge positive benefits, not only for girls in school but into their adult life. So many life skills are drawn from these activities—I gained many from my sporting career—including confidence, resilience and social skills.
At present, the Chief Medical Officer recommends that children have 60 minutes of daily physical activity, 30 minutes of which is expected to take place during the school day. However, over 50% of girls are still not meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s daily exercise guidelines, and 33% are more likely to experience poor mental health now than before Covid-19. The major announcement on International Women’s Day confirming £600 million of funding over the next two academic years for the PE and sport premium is extremely welcome. Schools will now be asked to offer a minimum of two hours’ PE time and set new standards for equal access to sport, making it clear that girls and boys should be offered the same sports during PE and extracurricular time in school.
So, much progress is being made. We hope this will boost equal opportunity in PE and school sports both inside and outside the classroom. Notwithstanding that, we should give PE the status it deserves and by doing so deliver on the recommendation of the Association for Physical Education in a report I was pleased to be involved in, calling for PE to become a core subject in schools. I recognise that this will not be a panacea, but it will be another positive step forward in helping make the next generation healthier and happier. We all know people who dreaded school sports lessons, especially girls, and we are all aware of many of the barriers that prevented them participating, so the introduction of a new digital resource, Studio You, launched by the Government and Sport England, helping teachers engage less active teenage girls in their PE lessons, will make it easier for them to deliver a broader range of options such as dance, Pilates, fitness and yoga. Encouraging more girls to engage in physical activity is very welcome.
Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, established in 2015, worked to tackle the gender gap in activity levels by supporting more women to be active. Since its launch, it has inspired 4 million women to take action. This should be celebrated, but again, there is much more to do. As highlighted in Sport England’s new campaign, This Girl Can With You, 2.4 million fewer women enjoy sport and activity than men. We hope this new campaign will close that gap.
Finally, let us not forget the important role of our female coaches. They can be great role models and mentors, with the ability to unlock so much potential and help change lives. Female coaches tend to understand and handle better the needs of young girls, and a diverse coaching staff is essential to facilitate equal opportunity. We welcome help from charities such as UK Coaching, a charity for sports and physical activity coaches which recently released a free digital resource to encourage and support females into coaching in order to help break down those barriers. This will inspire more women and girls to give coaching a go. To quote a well-known coach with two successful children—it is not hard to guess who—Judy Murray once said:
“Children learn by example. They are inspired by what they see.”
In recent years we have all been inspired by the great successes of our sportswomen, so let us build on this and get more women active.
My Lords, how pleased I am to be participating in the International Women’s Day debate. Although it is two days after the event, the fact that we achieved three gender-based Questions out of the four Oral Questions on the day was good. Witnessing the noble Baronesses, Lady Deech, Lady Shackleton and Lady Brady, in full sail was an awesome sight. One of our new Labour Peers, my noble friend Lady Twycross, asked a Question on equal pay and showed that she is a class act. From the Lib Dem Benches, the noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Walmsley, made their usual excellent contributions.
I want to say something about influencing international campaigns on women’s safety, health and rights, and about domestic violence and maternity/gynaecological rights in the UK. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office document referred to by my noble friend Lady Armstrong is a good document; it is just a shame about the money. Continuous cuts have significantly impacted areas that are central to the Government’s strategy, according to the organisation Plan International, particularly gender-based violence, sexual health and reproductive rights. To give an example, the 2021 UK aid cuts mean that 9.5 million fewer women and girls will receive contraceptive services and supplies, leading to an additional 4.3 million unintended pregnancies and 8,000 maternal deaths in that year alone. Can the Minister say when and by how much the ODA budget will be improved?
Another area of concern relates to Minister Andrew Mitchell’s statement in that document—a very good statement—that we also have to overcome concerted and well-funded international efforts to dilute women’s rights in the UN and other standard-setting bodies. I understand the need for some diplomacy, but at a time when the world is in turmoil, with war, famine and Covid, we need to know more about these well-funded international efforts so that we can play our part in giving the oxygen of publicity to this. Will the Minister find out, if she does not have the answer today, what information is available and how we can help to overcome these well-funded campaigns?
The Global Partnership for Education, which has helped to enrol more than 160 million children in school, has called for the UK to ensure that it follows through in a timely manner on its £430 million pledge to the global partnership. The Government’s cuts to ODA spending represent a 71% drop, making it the lowest allocation to basic education since at least 2009.
In the UK, gender-based violence and harassment are at an all-time high, with 1.5 million police-recorded incidents in England and Wales in the year ending March 2022. Yet prosecutions and convictions are falling, and 62% of domestic abuse referrals are turned away from refuges because of lack of space. Refuge is calling for more protection in the Online Safety Bill against violence against women and girls, better funding for specialist services, restoring the confidence of women and girls in the police, and improving criminal justice outcomes for survivors. Can the noble Baroness say more about sustainable funding for women’s refuges and specialist services? The noble Lord, Lord Murray of Blidworth, did a good job of treading on eggshells on Wednesday, but he did not answer my question on specialist service funding.
Finally, on maternity and gynaecological services in the UK, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists reported that there are over 550,000 women on a gynaecological waiting list as of December 2022. Imagine the impact on women’s lives and careers and on the economy due to these delays in treatment. The royal college has asked for a fully funded NHS workforce plan. When will the full increase in maternity funding be announced and will there be any ring-fencing of funding for training? Can the noble Baroness answer any of these points from the royal college?
My Lords, it is certainly an honour to speak in this debate and to listen to so many inspiring contributions. I will start with a tribute to a very important person who died last October: Carmen Callil, who created and founded Virago books in 1973. She was an inspiration to young women working in publishing such as me. Much more importantly, Virago has introduced generations of women to the world’s most exciting women writers, both contemporary and classic—those whose works had been allowed to lapse into obscurity, such as Willa Cather and Janet Frame, and contemporary writers such as Maya Angelou. The list would fill my entire allotted time, so I must just say thank you to Carmen Callil. She is certainly a woman to remember on International Women’s Day.
Perhaps it was the contrast from working in publishing to becoming a mother that gave me a lifelong interest in breastfeeding, the subject I will speak about. I really warmed to the comment in the excellent maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, about baby sick down the jacket when in a work environment—I totally related to that.
I am talking about the subject today because the figures on women who breastfeed have plummeted during the last 40 years—and they were not great 40 years ago. That is despite all the advantages to both babies and the women who breastfeed them. I am also talking about it today because the Lancet has just published a series of studies on breastfeeding, and I would like some response from the Government to them. Today is also very exciting because Codex, established by the Food and Agriculture Organization, has concluded that it will finally open the door in being definite that infant health must trump marketing when it comes to formula promotion. Until now, the World Trade Organization has accepted challenges when Governments have tried to legislate in this area.
Let us look at some of the advantages to the baby. The milk is perfectly formulated, protects the baby against many infections, and reduces the number of hospital visits—the NHS estimates that £50 million per annum could be saved if babies were exclusively breastfed until the age of six months—and the risks of sudden infant death syndrome and of cardiovascular disease in adulthood. For women, the NHS lists the benefits as lowering the risks of ovarian and breast cancer, osteoporosis, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
In listing the advantages, I fully recognise that some babies and mothers cannot or do not take to breastfeeding. My remarks are in no way a criticism of them; it is very often hard to combine work and feeding. Physically, the baby may be tongue-tied, for which numerous studies, particularly the Channel 4 “Dispatches” investigation in 2018, have identified that there is a lack of health professional support. Tongue-tied babies may not be spotted, and this is not conducive to being able to breastfeed. Also, mothers who have had caesareans or very hard labours may find that milk does not come as easily. However, given the very clear health advantages, most of which have been known for decades, why has the UK suffered such a dramatic decline in support for mothers who wish to breastfeed?
Although 68% of mothers start breastfeeding after birth, by 12 weeks the number has fallen to 17%. By the time babies are six months old, only 1% are exclusively breastfed. We need to look at the reasons for this. That lack of support for breastfeeding mothers is one, but the other is the relentless marketing of baby formula from the manufacturers. I cannot do better than quote from the Lancet study from February:
“This three-paper Series outlines the multifaceted and highly effective strategies used by commercial formula manufacturers to target parents, health-care professionals, and policy-makers. The industry’s dubious marketing practices—in breach of the breastfeeding Code”, to which the UK Government signed up in 1981,
“are compounded by lobbying of governments”.
Can the Minister undertake that this lobbying will no longer be listened to? Can she assure us that breastfeeding will be strongly promoted by this Government? Will her Government put some political welly behind the effort to put the health of our babies and mothers at the heart of policy?
My Lords, Lady Boothroyd—Betty—was and is an inspiration and role model to so many, mainly those trying to get into Parliament. As someone who still runs a campaign trying to get more Conservative women MPs, I often use her quote:
“My desire to get here”—
“was like miners’ coal dust; it was under my fingers and I couldn’t scrub it out.”
The language may be a little arcane today, but the message is absolutely clear.
The run-up to International Women’s Day, and our Lords debate in particular, is always a period of reflection for me. In our busy lives, I find I no longer have the bandwidth to think about women and girls on a daily basis; too many things and issues in daily life distract us. But International Women’s Day is different. I made my maiden speech in this same debate 12 years ago and have not missed many since. A public holiday in much of the world, this annual event is a chance to celebrate advances towards gender equality as well as highlighting ongoing persecution, prejudice and constraints. It is a pleasure and a privilege to welcome my noble friend Lady Lampard today, with her excellent maiden speech. Although I already knew that she would make a real and important contribution to our deliberations, we have seen proof of that in her speech today.
In previous years I have felt more hopeful than sadly I do today. In many countries, women remain officially second-class citizens. They are denied education, freedom of movement and speech, and the choice over what they wear, who they marry and where they live. Afghanistan is, of course, an extreme example, and I am sure I am not alone in feeling almost too ashamed to look at and think about what is going on there. The Taliban’s additional restrictions on women and girls, even since the last International Women’s Day, will horrify us all. It is now 536 days since they banned girls from going to school, and 81 days since they banned women from university. Women are no longer allowed on board any flights without a male chaperone. In May, women were banned from playing sports, and in November they were banned from gyms, parks and public bathhouses.
Women-owned bakeries have been ordered to stop operating. Women are banned from working with NGOs. All women are to cover their faces, and female doctors and health workers have been warned that legal action will be taken against them if they do not do so. The latest outrage is that women are now forbidden to divorce—although men can, of course—and any women who divorced before the Taliban took control, many for domestic abuse reasons, are now considered adulterers who can be flogged and imprisoned for this new crime. And yet these brave women continue to protest, as they do in Iran, against these injustices. It is hard for us to imagine what they are going through, but we must try. It is encouraging to see the UNHCR suggesting that the persecution of women in Afghanistan could be a crime against humanity, but I am far from convinced that this will happen in my lifetime.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. Our Government’s focus on girls’ education is one of the four top priorities in our international development strategy and a key pillar of the women and girls strategy published earlier this week, which is very welcome. Investments in school-age girls have the highest returns in tackling future inequalities. Achieving universal girls’ education would practically end child marriage, halve infant mortality and drastically reduce early childbearing—some of the main drivers of gender inequality in the first place.
I briefly draw your Lordships’ attention to the Global Innovation Fund, a non-profit, impact-first investment fund set up and supported by the FCDO—and a well-kept secret. It invests in social innovations with the potential to transform the lives of people living on less than $5 a day and has a particular strategic focus on enhancing the agency of women and girls. The Global Innovation Fund’s innovating for gender equality fund aims to demonstrate how innovation can address gender power imbalances, filling a gap in impact-first financing. It is specifically and exclusively focused on finding and funding scalable innovations to transform unequal gender relations and empower the world’s poorest women and girls. I would like to talk more about it, but time is tight.
I now turn to the UK, where women are still paid less than men for the same work—although luckily not in this place. They are underrepresented in powerful jobs. Prominent women are depressingly familiar with online threats and abuse based on their biological sex, and with suffering intimidation in public. Yesterday’s survey by Ipsos UK was worrying. Over 50% of Gen Z and millennials think that society has gone so far in promoting women’s rights that it is now discriminating against men, compared with well under half of baby boomers and Gen X. The same survey found that people in Britain are increasingly afraid of promoting women’s rights, for fear of reprisals. This raises significant concerns about freedom of speech and the climate of fear in which so many women now live. We in this Chamber have a responsibility to speak up for women’s sex-based rights, which are still being challenged in many areas of policy. Any view that progress has rendered International Women’s Day irrelevant is woefully premature.
My Lords, it is a pleasure—if a somewhat daunting pleasure—to participate in this International Women’s Day debate. I confess that, when I looked at the list of speakers this morning, I consoled myself that at least I would not be the first man, so, as it were, someone else would have to break the ice—or perhaps I should say the glass ceiling—of this debate, but it now falls to me to do that. It is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, and so many other excellent speeches from women who are all inspirational role models, in my view. They are all women whom I admire.
It was a singular privilege to be present personally when the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, made her maiden speech. I am personally very grateful to her for spending so much of her time talking about gambling harm, which is an issue that I am very much in favour of Parliament and the Government addressing. I look forward eagerly to her further contributions on that and on other important subjects. She has and deserves the ear of your Lordships’ House.
The sub-theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is to highlight the importance of gender equity in the sphere of transformative and digital technology, and that is the space I want to speak from. Last year, the NHS celebrated the vital role that hundreds of thousands of women played in the pandemic. As we reflect on the fact that about 77% of NHS staff are women, we must also pause to honour the prominent role that female scientists have played throughout the pandemic, and especially in developing an effective vaccine against Covid-19.
Women make up only 30% of the world’s researchers. Despite this statistic, the work of many female scientists has been instrumental in developing effective vaccines. I cannot pay tribute to them all, but I will refer to a few. Professor Sarah Gilbert was an integral part of the team that designed the platform that underpins the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Dr Katalin Karikó, professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania, made synthetic mRNA a possibility for Covid-19 vaccines. Dr Kizzmekia Corbett, along with colleagues at the NIH, was instrumental in the development of that mRNA vaccine by Moderna.
Like some other noble Lords, I had the privilege on Wednesday night of hearing Professor Sharon Peacock deliver a Lord Speaker’s lecture in which she outlined the role that she—and other inspirational women—played in our response to the pandemic. While her account of the challenges she faced as chair of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium was both searching and lucid, I and others were struck by the description of her route into science. She left school at 16, attended night school to redo her GCSEs alongside full-time work, and qualified as a nurse before being accepted, after two attempts, into medical school—all while bringing up three children. She then undertook postgraduate medical studies and somehow combined this with a history degree undertaken on the side.
Globally, women and girls bear the most severe consequences of sickness and poverty. Malaria is just such a case, where women and girls not only are more vulnerable to the disease itself—it causes an estimated 50,000 maternal deaths and 200,000 stillbirths every year in sub-Saharan Africa—but act as the first caregivers and healthcare providers when family members fall ill. Like Covid, malaria is a global challenge we have in common, but a common challenge that has asymmetric effects. In the context of this debate, it is also a field in which female scientists, community organisers and aid workers are taking a lead. Through its participation in multilateral institutions such as the Global Fund and Unitaid, the UK has contributed to a dramatic improvement in the international picture, with 10 million lives saved and more than a billion cases prevented.
In appreciating this, it is particularly heartening that so many British and British-backed women are in the vanguard of the malaria fight. It is always invidious to single out individuals from a truly collective effort, but from the work of Professor Katie Ewer at the Jenner Institute and Dr Cristina Donini at the Medicines for Malaria Venture, to those on the ground such as Suzy Haylock, who has spent 20 years of her life as a community health worker in Honduras providing testing and treatment, the anti-malaria effort exemplifies what can be achieved when women are empowered and given the space and resources they need to devise solutions to a truly global issue.
International Women’s Day is a celebration but it is also a call for action. If there is one lesson that can be drawn from Professor Peacock’s example, it is that equity cannot be achieved through a system that works as a Procrustean bed, demanding that everyone follows traditional pathways into senior positions. Instead, we need to appreciate that, if true equity is to be achieved, we need an approach in which the efforts of individual women to rise to senior STEM positions are met with appropriate requital from those institutions that would benefit from their perspective, insights and energy. Of course, we have seen incremental but slightly halting progress in this area, with the gender imbalance easing at the rate of a couple of percentage points per year.
From Women in STEM’s statistics, there is more to be done to reduce the gender gap in STEM fields. Overall, the percentage of female graduates with core STEM degrees is steadily growing; however, the split is still just 26%. This figure is also translated into the STEM workforce, with women making up only 24% of it. This shows that work needs to be done to encourage women both to study these subjects and to transition into the workforce. The fields of computer science, engineering and technology show the largest gender imbalances—from current students to graduates, and according to workforce figures. I trust that the year that lies before us will show greater progress still, and that society will benefit from greater access to the skills, dynamism and dedication of all those women who still face institutional barriers when seeking to fulfil their ambitions.
Speaking of the necessity for speed of change, I cannot let this debate go by without sharing a quite extraordinary statistic. When thinking about the barriers that women face in entering previously male-dominated professions, and mindful of my own observations about gender imbalance when I was Secretary of State for Defence, I happened across some truly extraordinary statistics on women in aviation. While only 5.5% of pilots in the UK are women, and 4.7% in the US, India leads the world in easing this gender disparity, with 12.4% of all pilots there being women. This is a direct result of key players in government and industry recognising the contribution that women must make and adjusting their employment policies accordingly. This combination of state incentives and private sector recognition of the commercial, not merely moral, value that is derived from diversity is something we could all reflect on.
Disappointingly for those who enjoy having stereotypes and prejudices confirmed, the data gathered in a study by Johns Hopkins University—believe it or not, it was entitled Gender Differences in General Aviation Crashes—found, over 14 years of observation, that male pilots had a greater propensity for accidents than women did, a conclusion buttressed by a further study by the US Army.
The Indian Air Force experimental scheme to induct women fighter pilots was started in 2016. Initially, three women pilots flew fighter jets; now, it is 16. I just hope that all the role models in your Lordships’ House can find room on their Benches for a woman Top Gun as an inspirational role model for young girls.
My Lords, this is an incredibly important debate. It is a privilege, and not one that I take for granted, to be in your Lordships’ House as one of the 226 women who have the right to sit in this hallowed Chamber. As this debate has demonstrated, my fellow noble Baronesses are both extraordinary and completely intimidating.
On Wednesday, for International Women’s Day, I addressed students on behalf of the Anne Frank Trust. I highlighted not only the importance of telling women’s stories but the power of amplifying their lived experiences, wherever they may be. Collectively, we all made a promise that this week—and, I hope, in future weeks—we would seek to tell the stories of the women who have made a mark and ensure that the world knows their names. I seek to deliver on that promise today.
I refer noble Lords to my declarations of interests. I am proud to be the chief executive of Index on Censorship, a charity that endeavours to provide a voice to the persecuted and campaigns for freedom of expression around the world. I work daily with dissidents, both men and women, who risk everything to change their societies and communities for the better. But today, I would like to read the names of some of those women who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the past year for the supposed crime of doing something that we take for granted every day: using the human right to freedom of expression.
Deborah Samuel, a student, was brutally murdered in Nigeria after being accused of blasphemy on an academic social media platform.
Nokuthula Mabaso, a leading human rights defender in South Africa and the leader of the eKhenana Commune, was assassinated outside her home in front of her children.
Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran Palestinian-American correspondent for Al Jazeera, was killed while reporting on an Israeli raid in the West Bank.
Jhannah Villegas, a local journalist in the Philippines, was killed at her home. The police believe that her murder was linked to her work.
Francisca Sandoval, a local Chilean journalist, was murdered, and several others hurt, when gunmen opened fire on a Workers’ Day demonstration.
Mahsa Amini’s name is all too familiar to us as her murder inspired a peaceful revolution that continues to this day. She was murdered by the Iranian morality police for “inappropriate attire”.
Oksana Baulina, a Russian journalist, was killed during shelling by Russian forces in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
Oksana Haidar, a 54 year-old Ukrainian journalist and blogger better known as Ruda Pani, was killed by Russian artillery north-east of Kyiv.
Oleksandra Kuvshynova, a Ukrainian producer, was killed outside of Kyiv while working with Fox News.
Petronella Baloyi—I apologise for my pronunciation—a South African land and women’s human rights defender, was gunned down while in her home.
Yessenia Mollinedo Falconi, a Mexican journalist who was the founder and editor of El Veraz as well as a crime and security correspondent, received a death threat a fortnight before she was shot. She was killed alongside her colleague, Sheila Johana García Olivera.
Vira Hyrych, a journalist for Radio Free Europe’s Ukrainian service, was killed by Russian shelling.
Cielo Rujeles, wife of the socialist leader Sócrates Sevillano, was shot and killed alongside her husband in Colombia.
Luz Ángela Quijano Poveda, a delegate of the Community Action Board in Punta Betín, Colombia, was murdered at her home.
Sandra Patricia Montenegro, a PE teacher and social leader, was shot and killed in front of her students in Colombia.
Clemencia Arteaga, a Colombian indigenous social leader and prosecutor, was murdered by gunmen at her home in the reservation of the Nasa people.
Melissa Núñez, a transgender activist, was shot dead by armed men in Honduras.
María del Carmen Vázquez, a Mexican activist and member of the Missing Persons of Pénjamo, was murdered by two men at her home. She was looking for her son, who disappeared last summer.
Blanca Esmeralda Gallardo, an activist and member of the Voice of the Disappeared in Puebla collective, was assassinated on the side of the highway in Mexico as she waited for a bus to take her to work.
Yermy Chocué Camayo, the treasurer of the Chimborazo indigenous reservation in Colombia and a human rights defender, was killed as she headed home.
Dilia Contreras, an experienced presenter for RCN Radio in Colombia, was shot dead in a car alongside her colleague after covering a local festival.
Edilsan Andrade, a Colombian social leader and local politician, was shot dead in the presence of one of her children.
Jesusita Moreno, otherwise known as Doña Tuta, was a human rights activist who defended Afro-Colombian community rights. Facing threats against her life, she was assassinated while at her son’s birthday party.
María Piedad Aguirre, a Colombian social leader who was a defender of black communities, was violently murdered with a machete. She was found by one of her grandchildren.
Elizabeth Mendoza, a social leader, was shot and killed in her home in Colombia. Her son, husband and nephew were also murdered.
María José Arciniegas Salinas, a Colombian indigenous human rights defender, was assassinated by armed men.
Shaina Vanessa Pretel Gómez, who was known among the LGBTQI+ community for her activism, was shot dead early in the morning by a suspect on a motorbike.
Rosa Elena Célix Guañarita, a Colombian human rights defender, was shot while socialising with friends.
Mariela Reyes Montenegro, a leader of the National Union of Workers and Employees of Public Services, was murdered in Colombia.
Alba Bermeo Puin, an indigenous leader and environmental defender in Ecuador, was murdered when she was five months pregnant.
Mursal Nabizada, a former female member of Afghanistan’s Parliament and women’s rights campaigner, was murdered at her home.
This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination; I apologise for going slightly over the time limit. Compiling the names and profiles of women who have been killed as a result of their right to exercise freedom of expression is almost impossible, not least because of the nature of the repressive regimes they live under. Every name I have just read out represents thousands of others who put their lives at risk day in, day out to speak truth to power. They were mothers, grandmothers, daughters, nieces, granddaughters, sisters, aunts, friends, partners and wives. To their families, they were the centre of the world. To us, today, their stories bring fear and inspiration in equal measure. They are heroes whose bravery we should all seek to emulate.
My Lords, it is an honour to speak in this debate and to recognise Baroness Boothroyd, who very soon after I got here took me out to a charity lunch as her guest and told me not to worry if I repeated things that other people had said, which was one of my concerns, because, she said, the men do it quite comfortably.
We have heard about the vital need to address the many challenges that women face globally, but this should not hamper us considering women in the UK more closely. I will highlight the crucial need to tackle discrimination that parents, particularly women, currently face regarding extortionate childcare costs and gender inequalities in our healthcare system.
The Childcare: Affordability and Availability debate in Parliament on
“is driving a bulldozer through the last 100 years of progress on women playing an equal part in the workplace and in our economy.”—[
The financial burden of childcare is usually borne by new mothers who are unable to return to work or forced to return part-time, thus hindering their career progression and exacerbating the gender pay gap. Data from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of women leaving the workforce for caring responsibilities—for both childcare and other family care—increased by 12.6% last year.
A national report into the childcare crisis released this month by Pregnant Then Screwed—rather than the other way around—revealed that 76% of mothers who pay for childcare say it no longer makes financial sense for them to work. The Coram report published yesterday also raises these issues. The Guardian reported that in the UK, 540,000 mothers have been prevented from working due to the lack of suitable childcare, and many have reduced their working hours for the same reason.
In addition, inflation has increased childcare fees by an average of 44% between 2010 and 2021, resulting in childcare costs being now at least the same as core domestic costs for three in five families; for lone parents, this rises to three in four. Unfortunately, salary increases have not matched the cost of living and some professions have experienced pay cuts. Health and social care staff, for example, have been subjected to real-term pay cuts totalling between 10% and 26% since 2008-09. We have invested in professional education for women, particularly, for example, in medicine, yet very few are able to work full-time, even if they want to—although I accept that some choose not to.
I highlight the case of a mother and sole carer of two children aged 8 and 9, working part-time as a higher trainee in psychiatry. She thought that childcare costs would decrease as her children went into full-time education and that her pay would comfortably cover the costs as she progressed to become a consultant psychiatrist. Currently, she is paying from a single salary for after-school clubs, childminders for late shifts and school holiday clubs, the monthly costs of which surpass her mortgage fees. She found the Government’s tax-free childcare system too complex and has shied away from claiming. Indeed, the recent childcare cost debate in the other House identified that £2.8 billion is sitting unclaimed in the Treasury. The Government need to address the complexity in the system and to consider childcare as part of infrastructure spending to retain women in the workforce. Should childcare costs be tax-deductible, for example, up to a certain level?
Dame Lesley Regan’s report Better for Women in 2019, already referred to, highlights the need to keep women in the workforce by embedding their health issues in workplace policies. Two common debilitating conditions mentioned are postnatal depression and the menopause, which can have significant physical and mental health consequences, making working life difficult. It is well known that work is a really important preventer of mental ill-health. A survey conducted by Wellbeing of Women found that nearly a quarter had considered leaving their jobs because of the menopause. A study for the Department for Work and Pensions estimated that if 0.6 million more postmenopausal women worked full-time, £20 billion could be added to GDP. Dame Lesley Regan’s report recommended that the UK Government introduce mandatory menopause workplace education, training and policies to help keep women in work and to break the stigma associated with menopause.
In Quebec, childcare is treated as critical infrastructure, like schools or roads, costing parents about £6 a day. Hence, 85% of women in Quebec aged 26 to 44 are part of the workforce, generating extra tax and reducing the cost of social benefits. In many of our neighbouring countries, state-funded childcare is provided to all preschool children, thus increasing women’s access to further education and employment and bringing the benefits of work in terms of mental health promotion, through social interaction and increased self-esteem, and economic empowerment. Enabling mothers to work the hours they want could, it is estimated, generate upwards of £9.4 billion in additional earnings a year—an additional economic output equivalent to 1% of GDP.
Therefore, please can the Minister explain the Government’s long-term intention to adequately fund childcare, early education costs and training in the workplace to increase women’s attendance at work?
I start by welcoming my noble friend Lady Lampard; I look forward to learning from her.
It is important that we celebrate the progress we have made on women’s equality and the many achievements of remarkable—and of ordinary—women. It is also important that we highlight, as we should year-round, some of the areas where we are roundly failing women.
Since August 2021, Afghan women have been systematically forced into marriage, abducted, raped and assassinated by their new de facto authorities, the Taliban. Contrary to hopes, restrictions on women’s rights have ratcheted up. The Taliban have banned women from secondary school and university. In December, the Taliban banned women from working in non-governmental organisations, putting vital services for women and girls across the country at risk. Brutally imposed social restrictions, such as mandatory burka coverings, restricted access to healthcare and prohibitions on women appearing in public places without a male chaperone, are once again a daily reality.
As we mark International Women’s Day, we should remember what we helped build, shona ba shona, shoulder to shoulder, with our Afghan friends and particularly with Afghan women. From 2001 through August 2021, Afghan women musicians, artists and journalists thrived. It was not easy, but their strength and determination were globally recognised. Some 6 million Afghan girls went to school; more than 100,000 women graduated from university. More than 4,000 women served in the Afghan police and armed forces. By 2020, 21% of Afghan civil servants were women, compared with none under the first Taliban regime. Some 27% of Afghan parliamentarians were women—compare that with 29% in your Lordships’ House.
We know that the progress made in urban Afghanistan was not immediately replicated in the countryside. The prior history of Afghanistan, which affirmed women’s equality in its constitutions of 1964 and 1976, was already a reminder that human rights are fragile and that without defence they can be rolled back, but the situation is now devastating. As we mark International Women’s Day, I ask for a clear way forward to help the Afghans—women in particular—we left behind, particularly those whose lives have been crushed.
I have four questions for my noble friend the Minister, on four commitments which His Majesty’s Government could make to improve the lot of women in Afghanistan. First, will they ensure that Afghan women facing death and persecution at the hands of the Taliban have practical, accessible and timely routes to seek refuge in the United Kingdom? The two refugee referral pathways for people still in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries were launched last year. According to a Commons Library briefing note in January, only four people have been resettled under one of them, and none yet under the other. Earlier this week I received a message from a female Afghan journalist now in Pakistan. She fears that the Taliban are still hunting her. She is seeking safety in Britain. What will my noble friends in the Government do to ensure that she can find it?
Secondly, will His Majesty’s Government commit to continuing to find ways of providing aid to the women and girls of Afghanistan, who so desperately need it, while making clear to the Taliban leadership that restrictions on humanitarian workers and aid delivery are unacceptable?
Thirdly, will His Majesty’s Government seek to work with our allies around the world in majority-Muslim countries which emphasise religious tolerance and gender equality, to influence the Taliban, empower the more moderate factions, and persuade them that restrictions on women and women’s education are not the only or true interpretation of Islam?
Fourthly, will His Majesty’s Government make every effort to support long-term social change in Afghanistan, and to reach Afghan woman and girls and provide them with continued access to knowledge? I note that the women of Afghanistan, stuck in their houses, watching as every aspect of their life is restricted by the Taliban, are among those who are most dependent on BBC Persian radio, which helps to keep horizons wide even as autocrats seek to limit them. I continue to hope that the Foreign Office, the Treasury and the BBC will find a way to reverse the terribly short-sighted decision to close this lifeline service later this month.
Successive UK Governments have told Afghans that we would be with them for the long term. I am afraid that we have not lived up to those promises, and the women of Afghanistan are paying the price. As we mark International Women’s Day, let us recommit to not walk away and to do what we can for Afghan women.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, on her speech, and look forward to many future contributions from her to the work of this Chamber.
We have just heard a moving account of how bad the conditions can be in some of the worst parts of the world for women. International Women’s Day is a day of celebration, when we celebrate advances that women have made in nearly every walk of life, while facing the fact that, in too many other ways, women are still treated as second-class citizens. Our campaigns must continue and be redoubled as we seek a better deal, inspired in this House by many courageous women, from those in our history—such as the suffragettes and Millicent Fawcett, who gave her name to the Fawcett Society—right up to the widely acclaimed Lady Boothroyd, whose recent passing is being mourned widely in the Chamber today.
I was born in 1945. I have been thinking about the remarks that I would make today. I thought first about the changes that have taken place and the strides forward that many women have made. There are many more women not chained to the kitchen sink but who instead have decent pay and a decent job. Employers and unions are much more switched-on to the equality agenda than they ever were in the days of “Made in Dagenham”, that excellent film set in the late 1960s that I hope most of your Lordships have seen.
Important too is that women have got some rights to control family sizes, which obviously were a major problem in earlier times in this country and still are in the developing world. However, progress has not been universal or comprehensive. Many women get left behind in low-paid, low-skilled work. They experience desperate family conditions and can be vulnerable to abuse. When I started my first job as a hospital porter, I got £10 per week. It was common for my fellow male workers at the time to give their wives £5 to cover family food and rent while they spent the rest, in too many cases in the pub or on the horses. Many women were trapped, supplementing the family earnings with what was widely called pin money. There is no respectable word for the miserable salaries that they got. Of course, there was also dependence on benefits from the welfare state.
For many people, it is not history that I am recalling now but today’s reality, because it still exists for too many. That is why I term the progress made as not comprehensive nor universal. However, we celebrate the progress that women have made, while we are certainly not complacent. If there was any complacency, the publication this week of research on the pay gap by the University of Kent should jolt that. It found that the pay gap between post-school-educated mothers and fathers has increased a bit since the 1970s. There is a motherhood penalty which has got bigger in those 14 years. While the pay gap generally has narrowed, this is an area where it certainly has not.
I welcome today the concerns of the Government in this area. The Minister will gladly tell us in a few minutes what is going on, but there is a lot beginning again—a new surge both in government circles and in the Labour Party, which has taken an initiative to look afresh at narrowing the gender pay gap, in an exercise to be led by my noble friend Lady O’Grady, whom many of your Lordships will have met in the last few weeks.
In my remaining remarks, I want to focus on one factor which has been widely discussed in the media over the past few days and has just been raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins. It is childcare, which, let us face it, has to date been an area of national failure. It is crying out for new solutions. For a couple earning the average wage with two children in a full-time centre, the cost amounted to 29% of their combined income. That is after any benefits designed to reduce childcare fees have been taken into account. These are the highest figures in the OECD, apart from those for Cyprus and the Czech Republic. The already high costs have been rising quickly—in some cases by up to 60% since 2010, while average earnings have gone up nothing like as much. The rise is also much higher than the 24% rise in overall prices over the same period.
These high costs have meant that many women are unable to work because they cannot afford childcare. I note agreement between the CBI calling for action to repair the UK’s broken childcare system, and the TUC calling for high-quality childcare to be available to all from the point that maternity or parental leave ends. These are important alliances that are being formed to see progress in this area. Today, I ask people to reflect on what has been achieved and take pride in that but to renew their efforts and commitment to get more done.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to take part in today’s debate, back in its appropriate place in the Chamber, and such a wonderful debate it has been. I particularly note the contribution of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, stressing how women’s professional contributions in care have been consistently under-recognised and undervalued because of gender.
I particularly commend the powerful speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, who rightly highlighted the witch hunt, the demonisation of trans women, which has scarred our public discourse. I also associate myself with her remarks on the impact of the official development assistance cuts. It is very tempting to focus on that, talking about the damage done to education and reproductive rights, one of the worst decisions among many terrible decisions made by this Government in terms of its impact on vulnerable lives. These are matters of life and death.
Instead, I will pick up an issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, in her opening remarks about women in STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Also relevant are the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, about—if I may summarise—education for life rather than just exams and paid work, and the need to free the social capital of women and girls that is too often constrained by patriarchal pressures.
I will focus on a particular kind of science education, about ecology and agriculture. When we talk about STEM, we often look at reports of a woman in a shiny laboratory, in a pristine white lab coat or hunched over a complicated computer graph. How often do we see women in STEM as a girl with her hands plunged into the soil or a woman crouched in a rainforest monitoring its insect life? But this group of sciences is, arguably, the most crucial of all—earth system science, ecology and agroecology, nutrition and medical understanding of organisms as complete entities, looking at the whole person rather than just the disease. Can the Minister in responding confirm that the Government understand STEM to include ecology and agroecology, soil science and earth system science, and that they want to encourage girls and women into those subjects?
It is a case of not just educating but learning. We need to unleash knowledge around the world, particularly from women in indigenous and traditional communities, so that we all benefit from it. In the climate emergency and nature crisis, with so many planetary boundaries exceeded, this knowledge is crucial to the well-being of us all.
Many noble Lords may have received a short briefing for today’s debate from CAFOD. It highlights that, for example, half Bangladesh’s population rely on agriculture for their sustenance, and 65% of them are women. It is not just in that nation; nearly 55% of the female labour force in Asia and the Pacific work in agriculture.
One of CAFOD’s partners is the Bangladesh Association for Sustainable Development, which works to spread knowledge of organic fertilisers and pesticides, the use of raised soil beds and hanging sacks for vegetables. This is the kind of innovation and science that we need so much more of—it needs to be recognised and supported—as well as social innovations, such as a universal basic income, that would unleash the possibility of every human being on this planet, but particularly girls and women, so they can develop to their full potential and deliver us the solutions that we need.
If we focus and think about the crucial place of girls and women in our broken, failed food system—despite us being told that the development efforts of recent decades have been a great success, when measured by the disastrous goal of GDP—we see 3 billion people around the world who still cannot afford a healthy diet. An article in the New York Times this morning talks about the risk that the gains in life expectancy in Africa will be erased by an explosion of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension—diseases closely linked to ultra-processed, western-style diets and the expansion of multinational food companies and industrial farming systems. In these societies there is now a double burden of malnutrition, particularly among the young not getting the nutrients they need, and obesity driven by the lack of choice of anything but calorie-rich, relatively cheap foods.
There is what I sometimes describe as a “green curse” in politics, a challenge that needs to be taken up by all sides in understanding the complexity and interrelated nature of the biological, economic and social systems on which we and this planet depend.
When we think about food systems and the health and economic well-being of women and girls, we also need to think about the way in which the financial sector plays against it. When the overwhelmingly male-dominated financial markets expand under current arrangements, the rest of the world suffers; it is known as the “curse of too much finance”. This is a threat to women and girls around the planet, to their chances of having a healthy diet and a liveable world. The financial sector is a parasite and we need strong medicine to stop it sucking the lifeblood out of this planet, particularly the well-being of women and girls. The financial sector funds big agriculture—the handful of companies in seeds, agrochemicals and industrial, giant-scale agriculture—which all too often robs the women and girls of this planet of their land, fresh water supplies and current food systems, and of their chance of a sustainable, secure life.
My Lords, I join others in welcoming my noble friend Lady Lampard to the House and congratulating her on an excellent speech.
Last time I spoke in this debate, I focused on the battle during my political lifetime to get more women into Parliament, to encourage them to stay, and to reach high office—a whole other story. I and so many of my colleagues sitting on these Benches have played their part in this endeavour.
Parliaments should resemble the countries they seek to govern, especially this one—the mother of all Parliaments—which sets an example for democracy and representation globally. We speak today of the education of women and girls, and what is more important than that they can aspire to leadership of their nations? We have had our successes and, for many on these Benches—I am looking at my noble friend Lady Jenkin—it was a long, hard-fought journey from the mere 13 female Conservative MPs against Blair’s 101 so-called “babes”. That was the wake-up call that we needed, which has moved representation in our party and on the other side. We should be proud of that progress, although we are still some way from parity.
We have had our failures too. The exodus of women MPs after the very difficult 2017-19 Parliament stands as an example. It meant we lost a generation of senior women who had so much more to give in public life. Now we hear of talented women being deselected by party officials; what does that say to the next generation of young women and girls who aspire to a political career? It stands as a stark reminder that our efforts must continue otherwise our victories quickly unravel.
We face new challenges too: social media for one, a near-constant source of pressure for many in our society but especially for women in public life, who face an almost constant barrage of abuse, unchecked day by day, often from anonymous sources with no accountability. I pay tribute to the women in the other House who, as elected politicians, take the brunt. In my view, the assumption in favour of anonymity gives disguise to trolls and bullies and encourages people to be the worst not the best of themselves. Tech giants posing as platforms claim no responsibility for their own content and have created a sort of social anarchy—hardly the environment to raise a nation of girls into confident women. Now that the Online Safety Bill has finally arrived in this House, I hope that we will all work together to begin the task of reining in some of those excesses.
Of course, abuse goes far beyond the virtual world and sometimes becomes threats to life, which have sadly become all too common in public life. No one should live in fear of doing their job, yet the terrible tragedy is that many do. I pay tribute again today to our much-respected late colleagues Jo Cox and David Amess.
Those in public life deserve respect, but that respect must also be earned. It starts here in Westminster by ensuring the highest standards of behaviour and integrity. Unless we reverse the downward spiral of distrust and disdain, our democracy will suffer, not least as fewer decent, talented people, including young women, will want to go into politics.
As we look further afield, it is not hard to be humbled by the sacrifice and extraordinary acts of bravery from women and girls from all over the world who are caught up in war and conflict, living under autocratic regimes and fighting for the everyday freedoms that we take for granted. Many pay a huge price.
Just over two years ago, we walked away from the people of Afghanistan and their families, who put their trust in us—a grave shame which lingers. Other noble Lords have mentioned this. Of the many people we have let down, the devastating impact on the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan under the Taliban weighs heavily. Every day since we have left, we have heard of threats to life and hardship, of girls unable to go to school and of young women not able to attend university.
We think of the girl who just this week Christina Lamb identified as her woman of the year, who stood outside the gates of Kabul University—guarded by the Taliban and now banned to women—holding a sign up on which was written one word, “iqra”, meaning “read”. She said:
“I wanted to show the power of a single Afghan girl.”
We felt her power, and the extraordinary power and bravery of those girls in neighbouring Iran who took to the streets in rage after the tragic murder of Mahsa Amini to protest against the severity of their regime. We stand by these girls and women on International Women’s Day.
Closer to home, however, we have war—a war characterised by its brutality and cruelty. Once again, we see violence against women weaponised in war—all the more depressing as there has been so much reason to hope that we had made progress thanks to the extraordinary work of a woman sitting just beneath me to my right, my noble friend Lady Helic. I want to speak today in support of her campaign to create a permanent, independent, international body to investigate and prosecute rape and sexual violence as war crimes.
I am sure I echo many in saying that I am proud of what we have done to help Ukraine with aid and weapons and by welcoming many Ukrainians into our homes, but we can also give them the greatest of gifts: we can educate their children. War and exile create lost generations, and I urge the Minister to ensure that all Ukrainian children here in our country are placed in schools while they remain in our care. It is my hope that, one day, the Ukrainian girls exiled in our country will return home having been nurtured and educated by us and will be the teachers, businesswomen, mothers and leaders of a free Ukraine.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak as part of this International Women’s Day debate. I start by thanking women on all sides of the House for their welcome, advice and support since I joined your Lordships’ House in November. I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, on her excellent maiden speech. There have been many outstanding contributions to today’s debate, including the moving reminder by my noble friend Lady Anderson of the price some women pay. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, in particular for speaking about Dame Cicely Saunders. She was an amazing woman who served as a mentor and inspiration to my father and so many others in the hospice movement. Through her work she changed the lives and deaths of so many people. Famously outspoken, she once told my mother that my mother had too many children.
I shall focus in my remarks today on childcare and early years provision, which are vital to ensure that all children get the best start in life and a good foundation to ensure that their attainment in school is maximised. It is also important because the failure of the Government to ensure that all families can access affordable childcare is having a negative impact on women’s ability to return to work after they have children. Two-thirds of UK women with childcare responsibilities say that it has harmed their career progression, as research by the British Chambers of Commerce shows.
It remains the case that women take on more caring responsibilities than men in relation to both children and elderly relatives. The Centre for Progressive Policy has found that nearly half of working-age women provide an average of 45 hours of unpaid care every week, while 25% of men provide 17 hours. This is the gulf in unpaid care work and the “it isn’t rocket science” answer to the question I put to the Minister on International Women’s Day about why we still have a significant gender pay gap.
This leads to far too many working-age women being, effectively, economically inactive or underactive, and significantly adversely affects the UK’s productivity. The TUC has calculated that almost 1.5 million women are kept out of the labour market because of their caring responsibilities compared to 230,000 men. Further research by the Centre for Progressive Policy estimates that the high cost of early years fees is costing the UK economy a staggering £27 billion, the equivalent of 1% of GDP, in lost earnings. The Government would do well to focus on what they can do to support women with young children or caring responsibilities into work rather than homing in on unretiring the over 50s.
This year, International Women’s Day comes a week ahead of the Budget, giving the Government an ideal opportunity to address that problem. We do not mind—in the context of the very positive cross-party consensus today—if they borrow some of Labour’s ideas. Everyone should be able to sign up to the aim of ensuring that all families are supported from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school, and Labour has committed to ending non-dom status to fund a breakfast club in every primary school.
Three aspects relating to childcare need to be addressed. First, there is an acute lack of childcare available. Fewer than half of local authorities say that they have sufficient childcare for parents working full-time, with just 15% saying they have sufficient childcare for parents working atypical hours. Secondly, what childcare there is tends to be too expensive, with the campaign organisation that has already been mentioned, Pregnant Then Screwed, revealing that three out of four mothers who pay for childcare say that it no longer makes financial sense for them to work. The cost of childcare has increased at a faster rate than pay.
Thirdly, just as parents are struggling with the cost of living crisis, the cost of doing business crisis is affecting the viability of childcare providers, and government funding is not keeping up with their rising costs. Local authorities that responded to the childcare survey I mentioned earlier say that the recruitment and retention of staff, the cost of staff, the cost of energy, the funding rate and the cost of food were key factors in decreasing the sustainability of childcare providers in their area. Indeed, one in five local authorities that provided data said that one-quarter or more childminders in their area are at risk of leaving the profession, while 18% said that one-quarter of private providers are at financial risk.
This is a crisis that tinkering around the edges of the current failed free-hours model, which relies on cross-subsidy and additional charges by providers will not solve. It is a crisis impacting our country’s productivity which the Government should tackle now, and a crisis that primarily affects women as the country’s main unpaid carers.
My Lords, unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington, who has spoken in almost every International Women’s Day debate in this House, this is the first time that I have done so, and I have been in the House for 25 years. I was pleased to agree with what she said, except perhaps about getting more Conservatives into Parliament. I also warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, on her maiden speech.
I have never particularly campaigned on the rights of women. I spent my political life campaigning on rights pertaining to all types of characteristics other than sex, but at nearly 72 I find that things are either not improving or going backwards. I became an adult in the late 1960s and 1970s, when things seemed inexorably to be getting better for women almost universally, even in countries such as Afghanistan and Iran. Such illusions have been shattered, however, showing the fragility of women’s rights. Of course things have improved greatly in this country and the rest of the developed world, although patchily, but we should all feel a sense of shame to read in the Ipsos study that almost 40% of Generation Z are fearful of speaking up for women’s rights for fear of reprisals.
Given that our theme today is education, our first thought must be the girls and young women in Afghanistan and Iran, refused education or, in Iran, mysteriously poisoned at school. Although that is acutely discouraging, there are bright notes elsewhere, such as in Africa, where the African Girls Can Code Initiative builds digital skills. I very much agree with the call by the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for the Government to reconsider the cut to BBC Persian.
The first government international women and girls strategy is admirable but, as others have commented, the cuts to international aid bring into question the coherence of that strategy. In rights to sexual and reproductive health, including abortion, there was a huge step backwards in the United States last year as well as around the world. I imagine that US support for such rights through international aid are also at even greater risk now than they were when I was an MEP and the EU was taking up the slack to a considerable extent. Is the UK co-operating with partners, including Nordic countries and the EU, to fill the breach, whatever the US does? While those Nordic countries are top of the international gender quality rankings, the UK is only 33rd in the world in closing the gender gap in education and 44th for closing the gender gap in economic participation. These are sobering facts.
The Minister said that the Government want to support women into, or back into, the STEM workforce in particular. Generally, as we know, the Government lament the employment gap, but as others have said, the availability and affordability of childcare is crucial and we also know that many mothers are struggling. A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers said that women are being priced out of work and in inner London, where I live, a nursery place costs a mother 50% of her take-home pay. It is surely a no-brainer to try to solve that problem. There is also a particular gap between the end of maternity leave and the age of three, so the gender gap is actually widening in pay due to the financial penalty of motherhood. That is a disgrace.
Digital skills are key to employability and coping with modern life, including for older people and especially for women who have not acquired those skills in their lives. I was bereaved a few years ago but I was able to cope with the extraordinary amount of bureaucracy—the unnecessary burden of which is another story, one I mean to pursue with Ministers again—and with the online stuff. A lot of older widows, in particular, cannot because their husbands used to do all the bills and finances. I hope that the noble Baroness can tell us something about what the Government are doing to support digital skills for adults.
In fact, developments for girls and women at home are not so great overall. There seems to be a tsunami of misogyny, offline and online, which is partly what has prompted me to speak today. Some of that misogyny has been around for ever and is only now being uncovered, exposed to some extent and partially addressed, such as in the police. The comment from the former acting boss of the Metropolitan Police that many rape complaints stem from “regretful sex” is both astonishing and deeply depressing.
We need a cultural revolution in this country to change attitudes among men and boys, as well as among women and girls. You still find females being patronised and called stroppy, bossy or aggressive when males would be praised for their assertiveness, boldness and leadership skills. Many of us, however, have had huge and essential support from the men in our lives, as I did from my late father and my late husband. Confident men do not fear confident women.
I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, said on biology. I believe that we need a change in the law. I support the petition organised by the organisation Sex Matters, which has been signed by 100,000 people and will therefore be debated in the other place, calling for reform of the Equality Act so that the protected characteristic of sex is clarified as meaning biological sex. It can apparently be done via the Gender Recognition Act, and it is not transphobic or bigoted to call for this legal clarification. Gender and sex have become conflated in popular parlance, probably because we were a bit coy about the term “sex”. The Gender Recognition Act uses gender and legal sex in the same section, but legally this has become very problematic, especially following a Scottish legal judgment which said that legal sex and biological sex are the same. This needs sorting out, and I hope the Minister can assure us that the Government are attentive to this issue.
My Lords, I rise as an unconfident man hoping to make some kind of contribution of a positive nature to this terrifically important debate. A week ago today, my wife and I headed for the Old Vic, where we saw “Sylvia”. I did not see and hear it; I experienced and lived it. Funk, soul and hip-hop—I never thought that my degree in theology would allow me to say all those things in the same sentence—have released the story from the tight embrace of social historians, and even parliamentary debate, to come alive for our age. While mentioning that, I have to say that my wife is descended from the Pankhursts. I remember her old grandmother, who was a cousin of Sylvia Pankhurst. Despite downsizing when we retired, my wife insisted on the yard of books relating to the Pankhursts coming with us, whatever the cost. The shelves, suitably bent, tell their own story.
It was a wonderful, alarmingly brilliant production, reminding us to remember. We remembered the Holocaust just a month ago. Zachar is the great Hebrew word for “to remember” and remembering is what we must do with these key moments in the drift towards equity, which is at the heart of the debate today. There was more to do after Sylvia did her job, but what courage, resilience, determination and strength she and her supporters showed. “Like a mighty army” is an idea that has come of age, whose time is right. If only we could centre some of the disparate thinking that we have on this and other similar issues in a focused way. A younger audience, which was ethnically very diverse, with a significant proportion of women compared to men, was there for “Sylvia” last week. It was clear to me that what the suffragettes, as mentioned in debate earlier, achieved was to energise society to give it the courage to embrace new ideas. How can we do that again? That was the question I came away with last week.
Last Friday was the churches’ international day of prayer. The material that churches around the world and in this country were motivated by this year was formulated by women from Taiwan. It so happens that the day before, a young Taiwanese couple—two of my friends—came to have dinner here because their parents had come from Taiwan for the first time since Covid. The women there, as well as the material in the notes provided for the worship last Friday, reminded me of the fears of Taiwanese women and girls, knowing what is happening in Ukraine at the hands of the Russians, that something not dissimilar might happen to them at the hands of the Chinese. They are already in a defensive mode.
It does not help that only 13 countries out of 193 members of the United Nations have recognised Taiwan, no doubt out of fear of, and of offending, China. But for all that, it makes them feel very vulnerable indeed. The Taiwanese people I met last week, and whose plight I became aware of, reminded me that in a country like this we must do our darndest to stand in solidarity with women in countries like Taiwan—countries not in the headlines, with women and girls who have genuine fears for their future that are never noticed by anyone. Those were my experiences last Friday.
When I first entertained the idea of speaking in this debate, I thought I would want to talk about the rights of migrant women who have suffered domestic abuse and whose plight is still not addressed by our embracing the Istanbul convention. I am a member of the migration committee of the Council of Europe. I will be in Paris next week talking about precisely this and leading a seminar on it in Parliament on Monday. But I did not dare allow myself to talk about this issue relating to migration in a week when a wretched Bill has been put before us. I fear that a theologically correct, properly brought-up nonconformist boy like me would have had to use vocabulary I keep secret for the most part, as I denigrated the Bill. That is the speech I did not make; I hope you will hang on to one or two of the ideas in the speech that I did.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. As someone who owes so much to my refugee surgeon, who was on the last train out of Prague before the Nazis closed the borders, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Lampard on her outstanding maiden speech.
I declare my interest as the unpaid chair of the IoD’s commission, The Future of Business: Harnessing Diverse Talent for Success. This debate is a chance to thank and pay tribute to the women leaders who serve on the commission and from whom I have learned so much: I Stephanie Boyce, the first woman of colour to be president of the Law Society; Virginia Clegg, senior partner at DAC Beachcroft; Dr Zara Nanu, CEO of Gapsquare; Theresa Shearer, CEO of ENABLE; and my noble friend Lady Morrissey.
This is my first opportunity to pay loving tribute to a powerful and passionate educator of so many people: the Irish playwright, and my aunt, Josephine Egan, who was killed in a car crash on Christmas Eve. I will always love, thank and miss her. She was a very strong woman, like her sisters, one of whom, of course, is my mother, who raised me as a single mum for much of my childhood, while holding down a demanding job. Her example makes it impossible for me to see women as anything other than equal.
This visibility is so important both for celebrating progress and in addressing threats. For, without doubt, the danger of almost unimaginable regression is sadly very real. My noble friends Lady Jenkin and Lady Fall referred to Afghanistan, which provides perhaps the most poignant example. I suggest that the institutionalised misogyny of the mullahs in Tehran comes a very close second. How well the women protesters in Iran have earned the title “women of courage”. I ask my noble friend to relay to her ministerial colleagues at the FCDO the urgency of proscribing the IRGC and thus striking a body-blow to this women-hating terrorist regime. Its collapse cannot come too soon.
Away from such brutality and closer to home, I hesitate to use the term “women of courage” in a first-world context, but I feel it is none the less appropriate when one considers the totally unwarranted vitriol directed against another group of women, who bravely educate us all by their example. I refer to those who, while respecting trans people, nevertheless push back against the polarising poison of trans fanaticism, which tragically toxifies the vital debate on the essence of what it is to be human, especially in relation to our immutable biology. I join my noble friend Lady Seccombe in paying grateful tribute to, among others, JK Rowling, Kathleen Stock, Maya Forstater and of course my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington, as well as Joanna Cherry KC and Rosie Duffield, both of the other place. I pay tribute to their courage, tenacity and integrity in standing up for equality. Recent developments in Scotland have sadly more than vindicated their concerns.
In conclusion, my noble friend Lady Jenkin mentioned the survey published yesterday by Ipsos and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London. This showed that 55% of men say that society has gone so far in promoting women’s rights that it is discriminating against men. After millennia of discrimination against women, the fact that men are at last beginning to know what it feels like has to be a promising sign. What a small price to pay for progress.
My Lords—and Ladies, as I feel I should say today—I add my tributes to those paid to Betty Boothroyd. I never knew her; I came into this House, sadly, after she last spoke here. It was always such an inspiration to hear both a working-class and a northern voice speaking from the House of Commons and then from this House. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Lampard, is no longer in her seat, but I thank her for her maiden speech and for her work at GambleAware; it is so important in my community.
Too often, I knock on doors when campaigning at election time to be told that the resident does not understand politics or voting. Too often, this is said by women. It is time—it is well past time, actually—that we make the history and understanding of democracy part of our education all the way through school. There are stories that can truly bring this to life and I will talk today about one that inspired me.
Tomorrow morning, my noble friend Lady Thornton and I, along with members of the Stevenage and North Herts group of the Fawcett Society—both sisters and brothers, I am pleased to say—will be visiting the beautiful grounds of Knebworth House in Hertfordshire to celebrate the life and courage of one of the great and lesser-known heroines of the suffragette movement: Lady Constance Lytton. She was born into an aristocratic family; her father, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, the first Earl of Lytton, was Governor-General of India and it was he who made the proclamation that Queen Victoria was the Empress of India. In 1905, Lady Constance started to become involved with the Espérance Club, founded in response to the distressing conditions for girls in the London dress trade. In 1908, through her contacts in the Espérance Club, she met released suffragette prisoners with whom she discussed the cause of women’s suffrage—although, at the time, she remained unconvinced by their methods. She began a lifelong campaign on prison reform and continued her discussions with leading members of the movement.
Then, in 1909, she became a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, later stating:
“Women had tried repeatedly, and always in vain, every peaceable means open to them of influencing successive governments. Processions and petitions were absolutely useless.”
She started to make speeches around the country for the WSPU and used her family connections to campaign in Parliament. She wrote to Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, asking for Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst to be released from prison and for suffragettes to be treated as political prisoners. She soon became involved in the active campaigning of the movement and was imprisoned twice in Holloway after demonstrations at the House of Commons. When the authorities discovered that she was the daughter of Lord Lytton, fearing that her ill health and hunger striking would lead to martyrdom, they ordered her release and she wrote to the Liverpool Daily Post to complain about the favourable treatment that she had received.
In 1910, distressed by that difference between her treatment and that of poorer prisoners, Lady Lytton travelled to Liverpool having disguised herself as a working-class London seamstress, Jane Warton. She was arrested there after speaking against force-feeding at an event and after an incident where rocks were thrown at an MP’s car. Imprisoned in Walton Gaol for 14 days’ hard labour, she was force-fed eight times. Even today, well over 100 years later, her descriptions of force-feeding are an incredibly harrowing, difficult read. Using her traumatic personal experience, she went on to campaign against the conditions that the suffragettes endured. It is thought that she was instrumental in helping to end the practice of force-feeding.
Lady Constance never recovered from her prison treatment and her subsequent heart attacks and strokes further weakened her fragile health. She died in 1923, aged just 54. At her funeral, the purple, white and green suffragette colours were laid on her coffin. Her ashes lie in the family mausoleum in Knebworth Park, where we will gather tomorrow to lay green, purple and white flowers in her memory.
But memorial is empty without action; action hinges on education about the consequences and impact of gender inequality. We may have achieved universal suffrage in this country, but we continue to see the impact of gender inequality both here and around the world. We have heard powerful advocacy during the debate for the journey to continue towards equality in employment, pay, education, health treatment and childcare, and to end the horror of violence against women and girls. I thank my honourable friend Jess Phillips MP for yesterday so movingly reading the names of the women killed in violent attacks, which are still at more than 100 a year. I also thank my noble friend Lady Anderson for her advocacy today for those who pay the ultimate price for speaking out.
We remember the battles for fairness in maternity and carers’ leave, which were in front of your Lordships’ House again just last week in Private Members’ Bills. On the issues that Lady Constance campaigned on, we still have a long way to go on prison reform. Our democracy at least enables progress, albeit glacial on some issues. However, we are all horrified to hear of the closing down of the education and employment of women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran. Worse still, we heard reports this week of girls attending schools in Iran being hospitalised due to noxious gases being released into their classrooms. I hope our FCDO Ministers are asking questions of the Iranian Government about this and continuing to make our views on gender-based violence clear, wherever it occurs.
The legacy of our courageous sisters, including Lady Constance, should and does spur us on to continue to champion the cause of gender equality. Keeping their stories alive, and the fight they had to ensure we can vote out those who do not take our issues seriously, is still and always will be a cause worth fighting for. Sisters, the fight goes on. Brothers, thank you for your support—but, as this is so important, can we get a bit of a lick on, please?
Debate adjourned until not before 1.16 pm.