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1.15 pm

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, on giving us this debate today. It is very appropriate, as it has never been more important for women to play their part in the economy. Women have always been fully involved in the micromanagement of their household budgets. In a world where more than half the population are women, we should remember Mao Tse-Tung’s dictum that women hold up the sky.

I served for more than 12 years as chairman of Plan International UK, a charity helping the poorest communities in the world. In my travels around the world I saw many of the problems at first hand, and some solutions. I was always very impressed by the way that women—and it was usually the women—given access to even small amounts of credit, were able to feed their families and help the local community and economy by building small businesses. In the poorest countries, it was the women who were determined to improve life for their families and to do better for their children. The women were workers and had aspirations.

Through Plan visits, I saw the result for poor women in Africa, where we provided funds for them to buy a few chickens. They farmed these birds, producing eggs for sale and more chickens. They built up a small but valuable enterprise and were able not only to provide for their families but to pay back their loans and thus enable other women to have start-up loans. I recall a bush café in the middle of an isolated part of Kenya where we enjoyed an excellent lunch with local customers. This woman's café had become a centre for the community and was a great success. In Bolivia, a thriving food stall in the market was run by a woman and her daughter, and they were helping other women's enterprises through a rotating credit scheme.

It has been clearly established that, provided that women can access small but essential amounts of credit, they will use the money wisely and they will succeed. They have an excellent repayment record in the places I visited, as far apart as Bolivia, the Philippines and Africa. Financial independence has empowered these women. Plan is now making education of girls a top priority. If the mothers are educated, they can do so much more to improve the health and welfare of their families and the community in which they live.

In Ecuador, I visited a swamp where families lived in raised shacks with walkways of loose stones through the water. Plan provided the materials for these rough paths and water-storage tanks. The only water was brought in by trucks and supply was unreliable. A storage facility meant they were no longer at the mercy of the water barons and could manage their supply. They kept precise records. This settlement was formed by families who had just squatted and built there. At a meeting over a simple lunch, I asked these women why they had come to settle in this unwelcoming place. The answer, “for a better life”, was humbling for me. We take so much for granted: electricity at the touch of a switch, water on tap. From these difficult conditions, the children went to school in spotlessly clean clothes, and one family had set up a furniture-making business and was employing seven others. I have followed up this settlement and learnt that it has been officially

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accepted and is now a recognised and respected community with good infrastructure and paths and running water.

This is the typical pattern in so many countries. In Mexico it is the woman who, when the family are failing to eke out a living on the land, takes herself to one of the big cities and finds work, often domestic work, earns and sends money home and, in due course, brings her children and her husband to join her, living probably in a cardboard or, at best, a tin shack. We in developed countries are now aware of economic problems and we all know how serious they are, but women in developing countries have always faced economic problems and so many are still living on an income that we could not imagine even providing a subsistence level. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, spoke most movingly on that subject.

In the 1980s, I was privileged to serve as the UK representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, now does, and to meet women from all over the world sharing the same problems and looking for solutions. The one international message that always came through loud and clear was that for women to be able to help on a large scale they had to be in positions of decision-making, positions that had the power to make changes. The subject of women as parliamentarians was top of the agenda and all sorts of ways of achieving this were considered. It remains more difficult for women to enter Parliament. With just under 20 per cent of women in each House in the UK, we still have a long way to go.

When in about 1982 I fought for and got a second loo for women Peers, I incurred the displeasure—and in fact finished my political career—of our then Chief Whip, who responded to my request by saying:

“You women, you want everything. You want to take over this place”.

Perhaps he was more far-sighted than I realised. When I look at the changes in the House and note that the first Lord Speaker is a woman, we have our fifth woman Leader of the House and we have had many women Whips and Front-Benchers, I rather take his point. I am delighted that we have for the first time an excellent woman as Conservative Chief Whip. Perhaps the global economy would not be in its present mess if women had been in charge.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, for women to play a full part in the global economy, they have first to succeed themselves, and they need support to do this. Women as a whole have a weakness, I believe, in that they are naturally modest and less self-confident than men. Here a man will see a job advertised and think, “I can handle about 60 per cent of that” and apply for the job. A woman, seeing the same notice, will study it carefully, decide that while she can do 90 per cent of the job, she cannot match 10 per cent of the requirements and so she will not even apply. Such women need other women as mentors to provide the encouragement and support to persuade them that

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they should have a go. When they do, they are often successful in securing posts that they might never even have dared to consider without the support of their mentor.

The leadership of past women Members and the continuing role of present women in your Lordships’ House is valued and no doubt provides a political catalyst to many women in the UK, and persuades women, as an Australian would say, “to give it a go”.

1.22 pm

Lord Giddens: My Lords, I also begin by congratulating my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton on having instituted the debate. She will remember that on at least two previous occasions I was the only man speaking in this parallel debate, so I am pleased that this tradition has at least been broken.

Every event, even such an event as a global recession, has a bright side. The noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, will forgive me, but one thing is that we have a lot more jokes about investment bankers than we had before. I am not so sure how good they are. What is the difference between an investment banker and a pigeon? A pigeon can still lay down a deposit on a Ferrari. I saw a nice cartoon the other day, which had a notice on the wall saying, “Beware, investment bankers have been known to operate in this area”. This is not just a comic thing; it is the generic truth of psychology and the social sciences that an unfortunate event is also a stimulus. It is a stimulus, Freud said, to the positive side of the personality to rethink and especially to rethink in the longer term. This should be true of the recession and its implications for women.

Most noble Lords speaking so far have concentrated quite rightly on the implications of the recession for, as it were, the short-term position of women within the economy. However, I think that we should think in the longer-term too, and we should think in this context in relation to financial institutions, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said, although I missed part of his speech.

In the context of the long-term restructuring of financial institutions, we plainly have to find a new balance between government and the financial system. We will never go back to a world in which financial institutions have as much power over the rest of the economy as they have had over the past 15 to 20 years. However, it is entirely reasonable that long-term thinking about what happens after recovery from recession should include improved gender balance, and that should be part of the restructuring of the City and of financial markets more generally.

Women have made enormous progress in western countries over the past 30 years in the economy. In some countries in some areas, women now outnumber men in top positions in business. This is true in the United States in, for example, the media industries and some of the creative industries. Some areas lag behind massively and the City and financial institutions certainly constitute one of these. The Observer newspaper, in the wake of inquiry into the behaviour of top bankers, did an analysis of those who took part in the review. They added up the bankers interviewed by the Treasury Select Committee, the composition of

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the committee itself and the five journalists who also played a prominent part, making 28 people. Of those 28 people, only one, Sally Keeble MP, was a woman.

If you look at the history of the City over the past 20 or so years, it is also plain—of course this does not apply by any means in all sectors—that there is a sort of rampant sexist culture, which was part of City institutions, and which is documented in the book produced by the son of one of the Members of this House, Geraint Anderson, in his book Cityboy. It is a satire but nevertheless shows very clearly the underside of all this in respect of pretty open sexist practices.

As I believe the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton said, when you want a marker for what you can do in improving the gender balance in business, you have to look to Norway, which famously introduced a quota of 40 per cent of women on the boards of publicly listed companies. As I believe he also said—unfortunately, I missed this part of his speech—this has actually been pretty successful. There were only 6 per cent of women on the boards of such companies in Norway before this legislation was introduced. The latest statistics I saw suggested that it is now up to about 38 per cent and nearing the target, which is an extraordinary achievement. This has also had consequences and influence on other countries. For example, France has set a target of 20 per cent of women to be in top positions in business by 2011, and Spain has set the target of 40 per cent of women in top positions by 2015. Here, according to the latest statistics, about 11 per cent of FTSE company directors are women, but the proportion is actually much lower in financial institutions.

The Norway initiative has been largely rubbished here, including by a number of women prominent in business. I found it inspiring. It leads me to conclude by asking the Minister to respond to two questions. First, the Government might not be willing to introduce quotas for the proportion of women in top positions in business, let alone back them up with penalties, as happened in Norway. I hope the Minister will agree that, as we recover from recession, radically improving gender balance and eliminating sexism should be part of reconstructing financial institutions and financial markets. Secondly, if the Minister agrees with this proposition, what policies will the Government put in place to achieve these ends?

1.29 pm

Baroness Afshar: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for always keeping women on the agenda, and declare an interest as a commissioner for the Women’s National Commission. However, my concern today is that, despite UN Security Council resolution 1325, we see a conspicuous absence of women in the processes of peacemaking and formulating the post-war and reconstruction programmes for developing countries and projects.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, rightly said that we must be aware of the skills of women, and that we should value and use them. One of the most important skills that any mother, or one of our small band of grandmothers, has is that of constant negotiation. Any woman who has had to get her kids and family

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out of the door on time, dressed and fed without fights and shouting, knows that every day is a matter of being forewarned about what might go wrong, and knowing where the difficulties are and what kind of solutions are workable. This is absolutely part and parcel of the lived experience of women, yet it is never used in the post-war negotiations.

That may be in part because wars are still seen as a matter of men defending their women, who are in the back rather than the front. However, as experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine shows again and again, wars no longer have backs and fronts. Women are attacked across the board. It is women who usually stand up first and have to get their families together and get themselves developed. Yet it is these very women who are never asked what the peace process should be about and, in particular, how the reconstruction processes should take place. I speak as the president of International Service, an international service provider that does so only with negotiation and in response to local request. We do not see women’s ideas being solicited in the first place, them ever being asked what works in a post-war situation, or what has worked when they have been making do and getting things together. The Grameen Bank and Sewa Bank, the Indian bank of women for women, have already been mentioned. If we look at their experience, we see that when women are consulted they have good examples and good ways of progressing.

What worries me is that, if we look at Iraq and Afghanistan, there are hardly any women in the Governments established after the wars. It is true that, in Iraq, one of the two women Ministers was killed in any case. However, Afghan woman, particularly RAWA—the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan —have a long history of struggle, organisation and working against the Taliban, providing education and care for women at home. These campaigning women with a long experience of protecting or defending women’s rights under impossible conditions have not been asked to join the shuras or any of the post-war organisations. They are completely excluded because they are thought of as “revolutionary”.

Women who conform to the submissive model, who are likely to follow the rules, get invited. They cannot solve the problems on the ground. They have no experience of what is going on. We need to be able to negotiate across the divides, even using women with whose views we might not agree politically. Governments are good at accepting the presence of men across the divides, but not women. For example, there is the fantastic experience in Northern Ireland, where women managed to organise and get themselves together when they only had two representatives at the negotiation table. However, the political experiences of women eventually enabled them to have more representation in the equality negotiations.

It is not that women do not have the skills, experience or projects and ability to do effective work in post-war reconstruction. We suffer from, first, a general academic as well as journalistic view that somehow wars are not the affairs of women, and if women are ever present in any kind of war, they are unusual terrorists. We read a lot about them, but they are fetishised rather than

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recognised as having agency and doing things for reasons. Because women are absent and not seen as important, they are not negotiated with or consulted. Their world of knowledge and wealth of experience is discarded. I hope that, in future, this notion of equality will be extended to equality for women in war zones.

1.36 pm

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for her debate today. I think that the role of women in the global economic climate is to be themselves—to strive to reach their full potential and staunchly resist any attempts to repress them or make them anything less than equal.

I should like to illustrate the wide range of women's talents and interests by talking about Radio 4's “Woman's Hour”. I am a great fan, and of course it is not aimed just at women. Many women enjoy listening to it at home or at work or en route from one to the other. I occasionally catch it on my mp4 player when I am in the gym. Although all the presenters are excellent, I pay particular tribute to my favourite, Jenni Murray, who is a highly professional, warm, funny and courageous presenter.

It is a truly feminist programme, promoting the fact that women are human beings with equal rights and with interests far beyond their homes and children. It covers a wide range of topics which are of interest to everybody, and it often makes me think while I sweat. In the past week alone it has covered sexual violence against women; a story about the dangers of climate change; whether women are losing their jobs faster than men; women who pay for sex; how NICE goes about making its recommendations on drugs; Jacqui Smith on a consultation on violence against women; an item on female incontinence; the Pink Chaddi campaign in India against cultural repression of women; a drama serial, “Writing the Century”, exploring the lives of ordinary people through their diaries and letters; a new biography of Catherine the Great; the funeral of Susan Tsvangirai; and controversy over cosmetic surgery. There were also interviews with Glenys Kinnock, a badly injured soldier and his fiancée and two female bobsleigh gold medallists.

It is a brilliant audio magazine and ranges very widely, and listeners respond with very forthright views. For example, the e-mails following the piece about women who pay for sex were direct and to the point, on both sides of the argument. There was one response from a man which I noted particularly because he said that the way in which this subject is viewed and the fact that they had electronically changed the voice of the female interviewee is a clear demonstration of how society represses female sexuality. He also commented that men are partly responsible because of the way in which they sometimes allow their own egos to interfere with the way in which they bring up their daughters.

I must say a word about violence against women because women will never fulfil their potential if they are living under the thumb of a violent man. “Woman’s Hour” returns to this issue again and again because it is a problem that does not go away. I am afraid that it never will until men stop thinking of women, and their children, as their property. Men sometimes kill women

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who leave them because they feel that if they cannot own them, then nobody else can. The same applies to men who kill their children after a break-up with the mother. We will only ever break the attitude that women and children are property for men to do with as they wish if we start early. We need to teach little boys and girls to respect each other, and each other's differences, from an early age. Teenage boys need to be taught that sexual intimacy is something that is the girl's to give and not the boy's to take. It should be given freely and never through coercion. If we could achieve that, there would be far fewer rapes, and probably a lot fewer teenage pregnancies.

But back to “Woman's Hour”. I went and bought a book that I heard on air called Nella Last'sPeace. It is composed of extracts from the post-war diaries that a housewife kept for the Government's Mass Observation Unit, which wanted to record the lives of ordinary people throughout the war and afterwards. It has made me want to read Nella Last's War as well.

Nella's writing has made me think a good deal about the changing role of women. In her day the “homely arts and crafts”, as she described them, were respected. Women took a real pride in their cooking, sewing and housekeeping, and we must never understate the economic value of those. Nella saw her role as looking after her husband and sons so that they did not suffer too much from the deprivations of the 1930s, the rationing of the war years and the even worse rationing after the war—a fact which I found surprising. In those days, without domestic appliances, housekeeping took a lot longer, but she still found time for volunteering. She was a member of the WVS and worked in hospital supply and a canteen for soldiers on leave. Women had to be smart and creative and make something out of what they had. They were the original environmentalists, demonstrating sustainable living with “make do and mend” and “waste not, want not”. After the war, when the canteens shut down, the women no longer felt needed. Nella felt that she could not be useful any more. The women could not take jobs because they felt that those should be kept for the returning soldiers. However, women had got used to working outside the home and to contributing to society as a whole rather than just to their families. How frustrating that must have been—all that talent without an outlet. It should never happen again.

It made me think how lucky we are today with our education, careers, equality and freedom. I know that we are not there yet, especially on equal pay, but we have come a long way since Nella's day. I would not want to have lived in her world, but one thing I wish we had more of today is the compassion and neighbourliness that Nella showed. She saved little bits of food for her elderly relatives and gave sweets and cigarettes to the many POWs who were still around her home in Barrow-in-Furness, never showing bitterness when she saw their thin faces and poor clothes. She lent to, and swapped things with, her neighbours, and they all looked out for each other in a way which you do not see today.

Here I think we have another role for women in today's economic climate in addition to making the most of their skills and talents at work. Women are

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great volunteers. How many of your Lordships know women who have retired from work but are now busier than ever with voluntary work? It does not need to be organised like the WVS; it just happens, and long may that last. Although I hope that as few women as possible lose their jobs in this credit crunch, I hope that, for those who do, their friends and neighbours will help out as naturally and generously as Nella did. Those women who do lose their jobs will find many opportunities to volunteer. Even in these times the world is still our oyster and we should make the most of all our opportunities, paid and unpaid; and women of course still have the most important role, motherhood, which is, and will continue to be, as important as it ever was.

1.44 pm

Lord Henley: My Lords, perhaps I may start with a brief attempt to protect my own personal honour by making it clear that I was not the Chief Whip who tried to deny my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes the extra ladies’ loo some years ago. Quite simply, I would not have dared.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, on introducing this debate and attracting such an extensive list of speakers. In the previous debate on women’s issues in which I spoke, which concerned violence against women and I believe was introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, I was in the unfortunate position of being the only male speaker. On this occasion, the noble Baroness has attracted a respectable list of male speakers. I make that point because it is important that issues should not be sent off into their own little ghettos and become purely women’s issues on which only women speak, just as when I first entered the House, defence debates tended to attract only male speakers, with the exception of the redoubtable Lady Ward of North Tyneside, who always spoke on those matters. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, therefore deserves to be congratulated on attracting such a list of speakers, and long may it continue.

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