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30 Oct 2008 : Column GC31

Grand Committee

Thursday, 30 October 2008.

The Committee met at two o'clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall): I remind the Committee that in the event of a vote in the Chamber, the debate will adjourn for 10 minutes from the sound of the Division Bells in order to allow noble Lords to vote. It has been agreed that, should any of the Questions for Short Debate not run for their allotted hour, the Committee will adjourn during pleasure until the end of the hour. Therefore, each of the Questions for Short Debate will start on the hour. In the event of a vote, the time lost will be added to the allotted time for the debate.

Women in Public Life

Baroness Gale asked Her Majesty’s Government what measures they will take to encourage the full participation of women in public life.

The noble Baroness said: The Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently published a document entitled Sex and Power 2008, which shows how slow women’s progress is in all fields of political and public life; the document calls it “a snail’s pace”. The House of Commons is a good example of how slow women’s progress is. Since 1918, when women were first able to stand as Members of Parliament, only 291 women have been elected, but during that same period 4,363 men were elected. If it was possible to put all the women who have ever been elected into the House of Commons today, they would still be in the minority. Women have been able to sit in your Lordships’ House since 1958 and, to date, 1,044 men and 198 women have been appointed as Peers: 84 per cent men and 16 per cent women. So whether elected or appointed, women are, and always have been, a minority in both Houses.

In other walks of life have women fared any better? The Sex and Power report talks about the “missing women”. It says:

“If women hope to shatter the glass ceiling and achieve equal representation we would need to find over 5,600 women ‘missing’ from more than 31,000 top positions of power in Britain today”.

This includes all public appointments, business, local authorities, media, civil servants, senior judges and, of course, the missing women in the Commons—198 more women are needed, and in your Lordships’ House we need another 225 to achieve equal numbers. Can the Committee imagine what the House of Lords would look like with those additional 225 women?

However, there are some good stories. In the nine years since the first elections to the Welsh Assembly, there has always been a good number of women elected. In fact, the 2003 elections saw the Welsh Assembly become the first democratically elected legislature in the world to have an equal number of

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men and women. As far as Wales is concerned, this did not happen by accident. The Labour Party, in readiness for the first elections to the Welsh Assembly in 1999, took a decision to field an equal number of women and men candidates. That was not as easy as it sounds—I know, as I was there—but as a result more Labour women were elected than Labour men, showing that the electorate do not discriminate when it comes to electing women candidates. The problem lies not with the electorate but with the political parties, as their members are reluctant to select women candidates. Unless action is taken, such as through the Labour Party policy of all-women shortlists, this problem will persist.

I have given up believing that over time prejudice against women will be overcome. None of us will be here long enough to see that happen. Today we live in a society in which women are in most cases unable to achieve their full potential. How can this be dealt with? Can government, in bringing in equality laws, change the perceptions, prejudice and culture that exist? I believe that laws can go some way in helping women. I am thinking of laws such as the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which allows all-women shortlists, the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act. Soon we will be debating the new equality Bill. We also have the national minimum wage, two-thirds of the beneficiaries of which are women, and the right to ask for flexible working.

On public appointments, in May this year the Women’s National Commission began working with the Cabinet Office on a new initiative to encourage more women to apply for posts on public bodies. I declare an interest: I serve as the commissioner for Wales. The commission will work with four government departments, as well as the Appointments Commission, publicising the current adverts for posts on the boards of public bodies and encouraging women with the specific skills and experience to apply for these posts. By sharing information on public appointments and engaging with women about the importance of their representation within public appointments, the Women’s National Commission believes that it will be doing all that it can to encourage women to apply for these posts.

I was interested to learn that the Prime Minister has asked the Speaker of the House of Commons to convene a Speaker’s Conference. The conference has been asked to:

“Consider, and make recommendations for rectifying, the disparity between the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large; and to consider such other matters as might, by agreement; be referred for consideration”.

The conference is expected to report its recommendations in 2009. The first such conference, in 1916-17, secured cross-party agreement on the principle that women should have the right to vote. It led to the Representation of the People Act 1918, which extended the right to vote to women over 30 years of age. If the recommendations of this present conference are as powerful as those of the 1916-17 one were, we should expect great things.

In a recent announcement, my right honourable friend Harriet Harman MP, the Minister for Women and Equalities, spoke of the setting-up of a national

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equality panel, which will gather and examine data from the last 10 years, as well as using current information, and will commission new research where necessary. It aims to provide an analysis of how equality trends have changed over the last 10 years, mapping out exactly where gaps have narrowed or widened in society. When the report is published in late 2009, it should give us a better idea of how equal our society is, and I hope that we may get some solutions.

However much legislation is brought in, government cannot do everything in terms of changing attitudes. It is difficult to deal with the prejudice in some people’s minds against equality for women; they are bound up by their own culture and prejudice. Would it make a difference, I wonder, if boys and girls were from an early age taught mutual respect in a gender-free style? Girls and boys should be taught that they are capable of doing whatever they wish. No doors should be closed because of gender. Does my noble friend the Leader of the House think that this could be achieved?

Many countries now use a quota system to ensure that women are elected and that has proved to be successful in bringing more women into public life. Could we use such a system in the UK? I think that that is worth looking at. We should learn from other countries that have tried to tackle the underrepresentation of women in political life.

There are so many women with the talent, ability and merit to rise to the top, but they are not allowed to get there because of cultural attitudes in organisations and of individuals. Changing attitudes is a lot harder than changing the law. The glass ceiling is there, unseen but obvious. When Hillary Clinton made her speech conceding to Barack Obama, she said:

“Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time”.

That is what it is all about. Each one of us can make a difference in whatever field we work in. We can make a difference and make it easier for the next women who come along. It is a long path that we have to travel, but perhaps, with the help of a sympathetic Government, we can make that road less bumpy for the next generation of women. I look forward to the response from my noble friend the Leader of the House.

2.10 pm

Baroness Pitkeathley: I thank my noble friend for securing this debate and for giving us the opportunity to focus on an issue that is dear to the hearts of so many of us, as women and as parliamentarians. We are mostly people who became parliamentarians as a result of participating in public life. I endorse the comments of my noble friend in validating the steps taken by the Labour Government to increase the participation of women. Your Lordships’ House, as only one example, is a very different place in composition and, I venture to suggest, in culture since I first entered in 1997. Much of that change is due to the increased number and participation of our women Peers.

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I also acknowledge the commitment of the Civil Service and local authorities to encouraging women. Only last week, the Women in Public Life Awards were launched for this year; the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has been a recipient in the past. I think that there was a series of stamps with women’s heads on them indicating the success of some women in public life. The Cabinet Secretary puts time into this. We have seen some increase in the number of women councillors, while the voluntary sector is famous for its women leaders. And yet, and yet. Any glance at the numbers shows us that progress is painfully slow. There are fewer women as permanent secretaries than there were five years ago and, even in the voluntary sector, where huge numbers of women work, the number at the top, as chief executives or chairs, is very small.

We must conclude, as my noble friend has done, that the problem is more cultural than structural. That is what I will focus on in my brief time today. I shall highlight two aspects of culture, both of which can be found in women themselves and in wider societal attitudes. The first is the reluctance of women to put themselves forward. We all know—do we not?—that an ambitious man is tough, hard and focused on success, whereas an ambitious woman is strident, shrill and unfeminine. Of course that is not true, but those images are firmly embedded. Moreover, women are usually good at negotiation rather than confrontation and are often relaxed about letting someone else take the credit that is rightfully theirs. I see nods from noble Lords. Women know that that is the way to get things done, but it does not always get you noticed by those who can advance and promote you.

Moreover, the media focus on the personal is considerably more off-putting to women than to men. Whatever our personal views of Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin, I doubt that any of us would condone the attention paid to the colour of the one’s trouser suit or the shape of the other’s spectacles. I do not remember the husband of a Prime Minister being pilloried or praised for the cut of his suit or the type of shoes that he wore to hear his wife’s speech to a party conference. Is it any wonder that women may be reluctant to enter politics, when the Home Secretary is judged more by the shape of her neckline than by the quality of her argument?

The other area to which I want to draw your Lordships’ attention is how poor we are at acknowledging the transferability of skills and experience from one field of life into another. Women who have taken time off to bring up a family often report huge difficulty in convincing an employer that their time has been profitably spent and that it has developed, rather than stultified, their skills. Any woman who has run a household, managed a budget and organised after-school activities, while cooking the dinner and setting up a package of care for her elderly mother, has all the skills and more to be an efficient manager. That is leaving aside all the negotiation that she has done as a matter of course with the school, the surgery, the local authority and the Inland Revenue. Yet how often is that acknowledged, not least by women themselves, who do not know how to package up the skills so as to look good on the CV, or how to fill in the application form in a way that is sufficiently economical with the truth to get her an

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interview, a skill at which most men are adept? Even when you are well established in public life, it is difficult to get anyone to see that skills learnt in one part of life are easily transferable to another. Many of us around this Table have had that experience.

Addressing such entrenched attitudes is the next stage of development in our crusade to get more women into public life. We must start early. I commend the Lord Speaker’s programme and all colleagues who work with schools. We must develop the best possible role models and encourage women who are successful in public life to sponsor others—our daughters, our granddaughters, our younger colleagues. We must be prepared to undertake what can be the most rewarding, as well as the most challenging, of occupations.

We should, of course, challenge sexist attitudes where we find them but, like most women, I have found the carrot rather more effective than the stick when it comes to culture change. The rewards of encouraging women into public service should always be emphasised, using the wealth of talent available and encouraging flexibility in the workforce—I seek assurance from my noble friend the Leader of the House that the current economic situation will not discourage us from doing that. Above all, we must seek to develop the acknowledgement of the strength and relevance for the whole of our population of encouraging more women.

Baroness Thornton: I just make the point that, if noble Lords do not stick to their four minutes, we will lose the remarks at the end of this hour, because it is a timed debate. When the clock clicks to “4”, that is when you need to sit down, not when it goes through the fourth minute.

2.16 pm

Baroness Massey of Darwen: I shall watch the clock. I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Gale has opened a debate again on women’s issues and delivered such a challenging opening speech.

Today I shall focus on what has been done and is being done to interest girl children—and boy children—and encourage them to have the confidence, inspiration and information to get involved in public life when they are older, points touched on by my noble friends who have just spoken. In doing this I shall refer to two things: first, encouraging young people to visit Parliament and having parliamentarians visit schools; and, secondly, the importance of developing self-esteem in schoolchildren, helped by personal, social and health education.

I was excited last week by the launch of the parliamentary educational website. It is well worth a visit. I have it here in front me here—not the website, the books. The Parliamentary Education Service has expanded enormously and is doing a great job of letting schools and young people know about its services. I was also excited last week by the fact that personal, social and health education is to be a compulsory part of the curriculum for all children at last. The aims of the Parliamentary Education Service are to inform young people about the role, work and history of Parliament; to engage young people in understanding

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the relevance of Parliament and democracy through active learning; and to empower young people to get involved by equipping them with the knowledge and skills to take part.

The DVD and booklet for schools are called You’ve Got the Power. What a splendid message for young people to receive about involvement in public life. Some of the areas covered are: using your vote; MPs and Lords; debating and voting in a parliamentary way; and influences on the UK Government. There is much more. The Parliamentary Education Service provides resources for schools, encourages visits to Parliament and organises student parliaments where schools can prepare a debate and carry it out in Westminster. There are 10 of these each year. Teacher training workshops in schools, videoconferencing and visits by Peers and MPs are also organised.

Why is all this important? Many young people, not just girls, are simply not aware of, and not interested in, government at a local or national level. Unless that attitude is addressed, they will grow up disaffected and may not participate, either by getting involved in government or public life or by voting. If we catch them early, that cycle may be broken. They, particularly girls, need to feel that Parliament and governance belong to them. When I take school groups around Parliament, which I do fairly frequently, I always stop at the statue of Viscount Falkland in St Stephen’s Hall. That, of course, is where the suffragette, Marjory Hume, chained herself to Falkland’s sword and was dragged off by the police, breaking the sword, which is now repaired but still shows the crack. What better reason for saying that every woman should vote? This always makes a great impression on children.

I move on to personal, social and health education, which will now be compulsory in schools and will have its own curriculum—of course we already have citizenship education. PSHE is not about sex and drugs for five year-olds, as some media imply; rather, it is a serious attempt by the Government to give young people information at the appropriate age about their bodies and about relationships. But it is not just about information; it is also about exploring values and attitudes towards other people and encouraging honest and open relationships. I like what one young person said about sex education:

“I understand the science side pretty well, but it seems a bit like a pencil—I know it’s made from wood and graphite that gets broken off, but does that tell me how to write?”.

The analogy is clear. We have a duty to ensure that every young person is emotionally, socially and politically articulate and educated.

I have spoken briefly about two aspects of education that I think are important in developing the confidence and involvement of young people. Can my noble friend reassure us that the Government will continue to support such education for boys and girls?

2.21 pm

Baroness Howells of St Davids: It is always challenging to take part in any debate raised by my noble friend Lady Gale and this one is no exception. I join others in thanking her for keeping equality on the agenda. I have used the word “challenging” because such debates

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encourage the House to look at the progress made in the quest for equality and for me to look especially at black women. How are black women faring in the equality stakes in the two areas highlighted by the debate?

Before repeating the statistics that I have gleaned from the second Sex and Power report, which has already been quoted in the debate, I want to share a brief anecdote. When I was sitting in the Tube with two women colleagues recently, the conversation veered towards the discrimination against women still in existence. My colleagues concluded that women have a long way to go because men have so cleverly constructed a society for their own benefit and comfort. At that point I interjected, “Consider yourselves lucky. You only have to deal with gender discrimination. In my case it is double discrimination, both race and gender”. They looked at me and said, “Well”, and there ended the conversation.

That incident has prompted me to repeat some statistics from the 30-page Sex and Power report. On page 16, 11 lines are devoted to ethnic minority women. The report states:

“The glass ceiling is low for most and lower for some”.

I also gleaned the following statistics. There are only two black women MPs, eight black women Peers, no black women AMs and no black women MSPs. Only eight black women are directors of FTSE 100 companies and we have one black woman High Court judge. Given that Britain is changing, it beggars belief how slowly the wheels are turning. Population statistics show that four-fifths of the growth in the working-age population in the UK comes from ethnic minorities. It appears that the workplace, company boards and Parliament have not kept up with the significant implications for the way in which Britain works. If there are not enough black women around the boardroom table or in Parliament, will there ever be change?

I believe that there has to be change. Britain must wake up and encourage more black women of talent to compete equitably for places in public life. It also begs the question: is Britain failing not only its black women but the whole of the black community? Can Britain afford the luxury of doing this, or is our country losing out?

I know that the Leader of the House is currently encouraging black women to be engaged in the system. Is she engaging the women who can really help? Unlearning racism is an art. Most very nice people are racist and do not even know it. To move the dialogue forward, we need to be careful when choosing the women who will advise—women who have succeeded despite racism in the institutions and who are capable of moving others to realise what is actually happening and how subtle it is.

There is no place for discrimination of any kind in the 21st century. Several changes must take place. Dynamic women and men must embrace this time of recession visibly to encourage women, whatever their colour, to work in areas that seem to be held for men and to say no to the inflexible approach to work.

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2.26 pm

Baroness Kingsmill: I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for raising this important issue once again. I pay tribute to her tireless efforts in this area, but do so with fatigue and anger. Like many people around this Table, I have spent more than 30 years arguing and making precisely the points that are being made today. Progress has been dismally little. It is time for radical action. It is time for us to find the political will to make real and fundamental change, because we are wasting the resources of our country. Because of the innate sexism in our system, we are wasting the money that we spend on girls’ education and we are wasting the opportunities that we provide for them.

We will overcome this only by having a system of quotas that ensures that equal numbers of men and women participate. The Government, who have made all-women shortlists lawful, could quite easily say that there will be all-women shortlists in all public appointments, particularly for leadership positions, until there are equal numbers of men and women holding public appointments.

Our plcs should be required to have equal numbers of men and women on their boards. Until we become accustomed to seeing women in leadership positions, we will never achieve true equality. We have spent years touching around the edges, with training schemes and with opportunities here and opportunities there. It has not worked.

I do not intend to take up my whole four minutes. I simply want to make this point as forcefully as I can: it is time for real action, not simply the sort of thing that makes people feel good and feel as though they are doing something when what they are doing actually changes nothing. I donate my remaining two minutes to my colleagues.

2.28 pm

Baroness Uddin: It is a great honour to be here and to support and salute the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and that of my other distinguished noble friends—and sisters, if I may be so bold to say. It feels very comfortable to be here. Yes, we are playing the broken record once more, but it is important to do so.

I shall say something about the work that I am doing with the Government’s task force and something about my own work. Having just come from America, I have become convinced that we need to shout more about the work that we do, because none of us knows enough about the work that many of our colleagues are doing to promote women’s participation in every way.

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