Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

All elements of violence against women, exploitation and abuse are both a cause and a consequence of women's inequality. Almost half of women in England and Wales experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking in their lifetime. Every 34 minutes, a rape is reported. Women represent around 85 per cent of victims of forced marriage, and it is estimated that around 33,000 young women and girls are currently at risk of female genital mutilation.

There are complex inter-relations between all elements of violence, be they domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse, FGM, forced marriage and honour killings which require a long-term, integrated strategy that includes prevention work, with clear targeted funding and evaluation.

There have been many good initiatives over the past decade to improve women's safety, including the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act, the cross-government action plans on sexual violence and abuse, and the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 which stops girls being taken out of the country for FGM. But these initiatives are often disconnected, and as a consequence good policy does not always

6 Mar 2008 : Column 1215

have an impact on the ground. Only a third of local authorities across the UK have the specialist Violence Against Women support services. Almost one third of local authorities have no domestic violence services. There is no 24-hour helpline for rape victims, and fewer than one in three local authorities have services for women in prostitution.

It is estimated that there are between 50,000 and 80,000 women involved in prostitution, with 28 per cent working in street prostitution and the other 72 per cent working in indoor establishments and as escorts. And, frighteningly, up to 75 per cent of girls become prostitutes before they are 18 years of age.

Clearly, there is a case for an examination of the law on prostitution, and the Government are right to do so, but there are widely diverse views on the solution. They must be given careful and detailed consideration. Is the answer decriminalisation, or will legislation and regulation provide the greater protection for these women?

Britain has become a major focus for the global trade of sexual exploitation of women by traffickers who trick or abduct young women and push them into prostitution. The Home Secretary, the right honourable Jacqui Smith, has committed the UK to ratify some time this year the Council of Europe’s convention against trafficking. That is very good news because it will give greater protection to the victims of trafficking by recognising them as such and so prevent them being treated as illegal immigrants or criminals. It will also provide them with physical and psychological care, medical treatment and, importantly, to allow them to escape it will provide accommodation.

Alongside that, the Government are committed to prosecute the traffickers, confiscate the proceeds of the traffickers’ crime and prosecute men who rape trafficked girls. Violence against women is probably the most pervasive rights violation. It must be challenged and tackled vigorously.

In conclusion, while we have to continue to break down the barriers and remove any burdens that prevent women’s full participation in society, and while we celebrate the achievements, the opportunities and the challenges for women, genuine equality is relevant to every citizen, man or woman, regardless of their background, their ethnicity or their sexuality.

The Equalities Review, published last year, defined an equal society thus:

We must create that equal society. That must be our goal. I beg to move for Papers.

12.17 pm

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, on initiating the debate. She and I are both—I hope that she does not mind my saying so—tribal politicians and I respect her greatly for that. However, a debate such as this will, I am sure, show how much there is that unites us across all party bounds.

6 Mar 2008 : Column 1216

I greatly look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, and the noble Lord, Lord Stern of Brentford. I always welcome new Peers to our discussions, particularly those who have come through the Appointments Commission. The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, is, I see from several websites, the first Iranian woman to be a Member of our Parliament. As is widely known, the noble Lord, Lord Stern, has made a distinguished contribution in his report on climate change. We look forward to hearing their speeches today. I cannot resist also mentioning the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, who I hope will define a third way between a man and a woman.

Surely every day should be a woman’s day; surely we should give the fullest attention to women’s concerns on every day of the year. If that is not felt to be so, it is a reproach to successive Governments.

There is far more common ground between the vast majority of men and women than there is difference. Equally, there is also infinite variety among women. For instance, my wife broke a career to dedicate herself to raising a family. Her choice—the same made by millions of others—deserves the fullest respect, which I fear it does not always receive. The essence of the matter must surely be choice. Flexible working, which my party strongly supports, is still not sufficiently developed to enable women who want to, or need to, maintain a career to find the right work-life balance.

I wonder whether any noble Lords saw the 1955 Good Wife’s Guide in the press yesterday. It included such gems as:

We have come a long way since then—such attitudes are well forgotten—but we cannot be complacent at the loss of some of the grace of the past.

Across those years we have passed some great milestones. Every man in my party was immensely proud when Margaret Thatcher became our first woman Prime Minister and when Lady Young became the first female Leader of this House. It is inconceivable now to think of politics without women in high places at any time in the future. We are becoming well used to women leaders in our House; it is almost the norm now.

It is all too evident in all too many countries that the oppression of women comes not from anything inbuilt in men. Men are the first to admire and to celebrate women’s success. Where that is lacking, it comes from a lack of civility, discipline and self-discipline and from an absence of a core set of values that were once better taught in most homes and in almost every school. It comes from ignorance, lack of respect for the uniqueness of every individual and—something that we see all too often even in this country—a vulgarisation of public sensibility and the exploitation of women in violence and pornography in film and media, which seem to plumb new depths of the acceptable every year.

I do not see men and women as two naturally armoured, glowering sides of an eternal divide. We are literally partners. We are stronger when we confront the real and undoubted issues that affect

6 Mar 2008 : Column 1217

each of us together, whether that is the fight against breast cancer or against prostate cancer, or scourges such as stroke, which affects both sexes, as can be all too readily forgotten.

That said, of course there are many serious problems. Let me begin with crime and the fear of crime. You do not need to have read of some recent appalling crimes to realise that, after dark, many of our streets are becoming places no longer of community but of fear. Criminals and violent drunks are privatising too much public space. We must reclaim that space for women, older people and, indeed, all ages. That was done in Manhattan; we must do it here in Britain. It needs candid acknowledgment of policy failure—failure in policing, failure in sentencing and failure in drink laws. It is obvious that bureaucratic rules imposed on the police have made our streets less safe. They have taken police off the streets and tied them up in paperwork. That bureaucracy must go; scrapping it would do a lot more for women’s safety than umpteen courses in human rights.

On sentencing, it is wrong for the courts to be coming under political pressure not to inflict custodial penalties. Of course we want constructive alternatives but, for crimes of rape and assault, tough penalties are needed. Some 47,000 women are said to be raped in England and Wales each year. That is a truly shocking statistic, even more so because, in 2005, fewer than 14,500 cases were recorded and only 2,800 were proceeded against. Under 20 per cent of recorded rapes resulted in proceedings and little over 5 per cent resulted in convictions. The conviction rate has declined from one in three in 1977 to one in 20 in 2005. Average sentences for rape fell from seven and a quarter years in 2003 to six and three-quarters years in 2005. Surely that is the wrong signal to send out about this atrocious crime.

Rape crisis centres often struggle for secure funding. A Conservative Government would introduce stable three-year funding cycles for rape crisis centres. We would also reinforce values in sex education both to help young girls to resist peer pressure to have premature sex, which can be so damaging to their long-term physical and psychological health, and, by law, to include explicit teaching of the concept of sexual consent.

In her introductory speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, mentioned prostitution. On sexual exploitation, now that Ministers have dropped provisions on prostitution from the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, what will the Government do to tackle properly the bestial trade in women and girls for prostitution? A weak, open-door policy on immigration has helped the traffickers. We urgently need the UK border police, first proposed by my right honourable friend Mr David Davis. Fighting trafficking should be a core police responsibility. We need interviews for women and children travelling alone with an adult who is not a parent, guardian or husband. We need more traffickers prosecuted, more places in safe houses, the opening of the Poppy Project to 16 to 18 year-olds

6 Mar 2008 : Column 1218

and an effective helpline for victims. This trade is a new slavery; it is a giant evil of our times. We must root it out and rub it out.

Is any creation of the new Labour years less appealing than the binge-drinking ladette? Women are entitled to enjoy a drink, but how are women served by nightly scenes on our streets, seen in our newspapers and on television, of young women staggering out of clubs and pubs in the small hours and often prostrate in the streets through drink? Underage drinking is equally troubling: one survey showed that half of 15 year-old girls said that they had lately been drunk, a far higher proportion than boys. This is desperately dangerous for their health and personal safety. I agree that many of the so-called celebrities who set examples of drug use and binge drinking deserve severest censure. They should be dealt with harshly if they find themselves before the courts. With the privilege of celebrity goes heavy responsibility.

The Government, too, need to rethink policy and to do so in a way that is different from Mr Darling’s remarks that caned families who enjoy a quiet drink at home. The Local Government Association is quite right to say that 24-hour drinking has been a disaster in many areas. During the passage of the Licensing Bill, this House repeatedly warned of the dangers—warnings that the Government foolishly ignored. It goes against all logic to see a drink problem among young people and to make drinking easier by enabling it to happen round the clock. It is as glaringly absurd as the Government’s other idea that you regenerate areas of poverty by planting tens of thousands of slot machines in their midst. No people suffer more from the effects of addictive gambling than wives, partners and their children. A casino society has nothing to do with the advancement of women.

We respect cultural differences in our society but we have a right and a duty to seek adherence to common values of respect for women from all who live in this country. Forced marriages—not arranged marriages freely entered into—have no place in a modern Britain. Nor should benefit rules promote polygamy. If these matters have not been dealt with, the next Conservative Government will address them.

Women are among the first sufferers from the broken society so acutely analysed by my right honourable friend David Cameron. We owe it to women and to all our citizens to heal the wounds that have opened up in recent years. I very much welcome the opportunity to raise these issues in today’s debate.

12.28 pm

Lord McNally: My Lords, I echo the welcome given by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to the introduction of this debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. Let me claim a little credit for these Benches: today was our debates day, but we readily ceded it for such a good and worthy cause. It is also a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. He said that this was a cross-party occasion, although I detected the odd party-political thrust or two in about every four lines of his speech. I have to be a bit humble about this. If Members of the

6 Mar 2008 : Column 1219

House were asked to draw up a list of new men here, I am not sure that the noble Lord and I would come at the top. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to follow him and to agree with a number of the points that he made.

My starting point is something that I noted in the report Britain in 2008 by the Economic and Social Research Council. It records a recent survey that said that happiness for the modern woman is a family, a job and a man who knows how to unload the washing machine. As I said to my wife this morning, two out of three is not bad. I look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Lady, Baroness Afshar, and the noble Lord, Lord Stern.

Last year when I spoke in this debate, I contrasted the life chances of my daughter, who is now 12, with those of her great-grandmother, who died in childbirth aged 35, and my mother, who left school at 13, because of the death of her mother, to look after her siblings. That was in 1913. In the 95 years since, there has been much progress. Sometimes, by their very nature, these debates become a litany of the challenges that remain. Nobody should underestimate—as the speeches of both the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, indicated—the massive problems that women still face in their societies, both at home and abroad. There is no doubt that in the near-century since my mother and grandmother were facing life, there has been great social and economic progress.

The report to which I referred, Britain in 2008, says that many women now have considerably better conditions than in the past, with paid maternity leave, pension rights and sick rights. The report also refers to the continued existence of problems for women in many of the professions, not least politics, which I will come to later. Abroad, the problem is even worse. A recent UNDP paper, Gender, Poverty and Trade, found that,

It went on:

Finally, it says:

Welcome to the global economy, sisters. There is a real danger that such advances as have been made will be eroded by the pressures for what is called global competitiveness.

Economic advance is there for all to see. This week I was at two events, one addressed by the head of the London Stock Exchange and the other by a key executive of one of our big retail companies. Both were women in important jobs; it was no surprise that they were there.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, referred in their different ways to another problem, whether you call it cultural

6 Mar 2008 : Column 1220

differences or differences in social and religious practices. As a society, we must come to terms with how we offer groups within our communities tolerance, understanding and respect for religious and social customs without seeming to tolerate departures from a recognition of universal human rights, which we have fought for and espoused. We must make it clear, as has been said, that violence within marriage, practices such as female circumcision, forced marriages, honour killings and the denial of education to girls are not matters of choice for an individual, religion or race, but relate to a universal commitment to rights, which we are determined to uphold.

I agonise about our commitment in Afghanistan. On the one hand, what are we doing there? Would it not be better if we brought our troops home? On the other hand, I cannot help but ask, “Do we leave the women of Afghanistan to a regime that would take them back to the 14th century in the denial of their rights?”. That is one of the most extreme examples, but there are others, both within our society and in international relations, to which we must face up.

Finally, I come to women in politics. I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, referred to the 1867 attempt to give women the vote. That was done by John Stuart Mill, in a short but distinguished parliamentary career in another place. What shocked me most was that the number of women who have served in the House of Commons since 1918 is 291. That is an appallingly small figure, inflated by the 1997 Labour intake, which was created in part by all-women shortlists. It is only through positive discrimination that the paltry figure of 291 is not even worse.

We all know how difficult it is for women in politics. They are tested not only on what they believe but on how they dress and speak and on their attractiveness. I ask colleagues to look at some of the reporting of the American presidential primaries to see the judgments made about Hillary Clinton, which would never be made about a male candidate. In any party, we all know that in selection conferences some of the harshest decisions about prospective women candidates are made by women themselves.

The impact of women in this House has already been pointed out. Although only 20 per cent of the membership and about one-third of regular attendees are women, they have a disproportionate impact on the work of this House. I can reveal a conversation that I had with a leader of our party. I will not specify which one; noble Lords will have to choose from four or five. When we were considering nominations, I said to him, “I can tell you this: the women on our Benches do twice the work of the men”. That may apply to other Benches as well.

I do a lot of talking to sixth formers, which I enjoy. I sometimes get rather tetchy and angry with sixth-form girls, who show ignorance of, or a lack of interest in, politics and the political process. I tell them that they stand on the shoulders of giants. It is important that their generation becomes involved in the struggle, as did those who came before them. I am

6 Mar 2008 : Column 1221

quite often asked to recommend a book. I always recommend Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, mother of my predecessor as leader on these Benches, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. Vera Brittain said that it was probably true that the largest scope for change still lies in men’s attitude to women and in women’s attitude to themselves. It was true when she said it; it is true today.

12.39 pm

Lord Stern of Brentford: My Lords, it is a great privilege to speak for the first time in this House. I thank the noble Baroness the Lord Speaker, my noble friend Lady D'Souza and the many noble Lords who have so kindly both welcomed me and guided me on the ways of this House, as have the excellent staff of this House. Having worked as an economist in academic life, in the World Bank, in the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and in Her Majesty's Government, I hope to be able to contribute to discussions in this House on economic policy and economic development, as well as climate change, on which I have been working most recently.

My father came here as a Jewish refugee from Germany, someone who would probably now be termed an asylum seeker; and my maternal grandmother, a Muslim from Turkmenistan, came here with my Christian grandfather, from an English émigré family from St Petersburg, in the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian revolution. Thus I also hope to contribute to discussions of the splendid social diversity that is British society.

Our subject today is of immense importance and I offer a perspective based on work on and in developing countries, including from the north Indian village, Palanpur, which I have been studying for more than 30 years. I believe that there are important lessons from developing countries for our own. At the outset, let us recognise that development policy is made in developing countries. But there is much that we can do to support it, not only through the international institutions and the Department for International Development, the best of the world's bilateral development agencies, but also through government policy across a broad range including on trade, conflict, migration, health, technology and climate change. Thus UK policy and ideas can and do play an important role in international policy and development.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page