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I turn now to the position of carers in these difficult times. Great progress has been made in recognition and support of carers, and the Government have a record in that regard that is, literally, the envy of the world. One of the great advances has been in recognising that we should not expect people to give up paid work as they become carers but rather that the best thing we can do for them is to enable them to remain in paid work as long as possible. Not only does that help them at present, emotionally, financially and practically, but it stops them building up poverty for the future by their pensions being affected as little as possible.

As jobs become scarcer there may be a tendency for employers to pay less attention to the business case for supporting carers and to move back to the assumption that it is better for anyone with caring responsibilities to remove themselves from the workforce for as long as the caring lasts. This we absolutely must not do. We must not waste the talents of carers who are forced to give up work, because the retention of staff is particularly important in a tight economic period.

Most employers want to be carer-friendly, but they need to translate that into concrete action and support. Calls to the Carers UK helpline find that many carers are having problems accessing the right to request flexible working, which the Government brought in and was very welcome. There is a lack of awareness among employers but there is also a cultural reluctance to take caring responsibilities seriously. That makes carers reluctant to identify themselves and to request flexible working. I hope that the Government will encourage more employers to join Employers for Carers, a membership forum with a core group of employers that enables them to understand the benefits to them of keeping carers in their workplace.

I make a plea for a review of the position of carers regarding welfare benefits. The benefit system does not recognise the work that carers do. A review of the system was promised in the National Carers Strategy and recently echoed by the Work and Pensions Select Committee. That review is desperately needed and should be delayed no longer.

3.21 pm

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, in beginning my summation of this debate—which is impossible—I join all those who have thanked the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for introducing it. She is indeed an example to us all, someone who has spent

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years promoting and defending the rights of women, their powers, prowess and ability to get things done. We thank her for her annual contribution to the work of this House.

I have to admit from the first that I am simply not going to be able to refer to every speech made during this long, fascinating, sometimes humorous and sometimes extraordinarily serious debate. I will say only that I never expected to hear a noble Baroness use the phrase, “the highest levels of testosterone in saliva”. That is a new one, which I shall treasure.

The question before us has been how the economic problems we now face will affect women. It is an important question because in many homes both parents need to work to maintain mortgage payments and feed and clothe their children. Continuing to earn two wages may be essential. So far, it seems that women have been less affected by redundancy than men and that the rate of redundancy is rising faster for men than for women. At the same time, the participation of women in the UK workforce has risen significantly since 1971. Today about 70 per cent of women have paid employment. In contrast, the participation rate for men of working age has declined from 92 per cent to 78 per cent in the same period. Participation, as such, has become more equal when comparing men to women, but in many cases the status of women in the workforce, as many contributors have pointed out, does not equal that of men in the same workforce.

Here I thank the men who have contributed to this debate. I was unable to hear the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, but I assure him that I will read it; his speeches are always interesting. We should be thankful for the contributions of my noble friends Lord McNally, Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Addington, the noble Lords, Lord McColl, Lord Henley and Lord Haskel, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel.

Women now make a significant contribution to the family finances; the loss of a woman’s income can make a significant difference to the well-being of the family as a whole. If she is the only parent in the home, the effect of her loss of employment could be positively dangerous for the family unit, in just the same way as the loss of male earnings would be.

We have reliable figures for unemployment up to October to December 2008 from the Labour Force Survey. It shows that fewer women than men and a lower proportion of women than men have lost their jobs, and that unemployment rates have risen faster for men than for women. The conclusion is drawn that women may be benefiting from the fact that many of them work in the public sector, where jobs are less affected by international market conditions and are therefore more secure. However, it is now feared that the increase in pressures on the budgets of local authorities, for example, may lead to a reduction of this employment. Does the Minister have any information on that aspect of the situation?

Many women in full or part-time employment may not have either job security or the certainty of receiving benefits if they lose their employment. Recent figures suggest that of the 1.93 million people who became unemployed in the last three months of 2008, only

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1.23 million claim jobseeker’s allowance. Many of those who did not would have been women.

In general, at the end of 2008, we had some of the highest figures ever recorded for redundancies and the loss of manufacturing jobs, the lowest vacancy rates and the lowest rates of labour disputes since records began—all signs of trouble in the economy. Looking ahead, it is hard not to feel apprehensive about the future of families who have lost a breadwinner or, worse still, the sole breadwinner. Many speakers have expressed such concerns. Housing costs may not be sustainable on a reduced income, and work of comparable value to that which has been lost will probably be unobtainable.

Quite apart from the difficulty of managing family finances in these circumstances, there may be other consequences, such as stress among the adults in the family, which can lead to violent behaviour caused by worry, despair or shame.

Much will depend on how long the crisis lasts. That, in turn, depends—partly, at least—upon how successful the Government will be in encouraging a return by the banks to their traditional investment role in the economy. People are becoming increasingly angry as the transfer of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to the banks is not reflected in a greater availability of loans. Meanwhile, fears for the economy—and thereby the welfare of the population—top the polls as causes of concern.

Looking at the picture from a different perspective, local government—which employs many women, not just in the traditional cleaning, caring and clerical roles but also in senior management—is also facing financial difficulties. Budgets are tight, and revenue from some of our activities, such as parking controls or planning permissions, is likely to decline soon. Will local authorities be able to retain their current workforce? That is a question of great importance to the very many women who enjoy, or are embraced by, this type of employment.

Housing could become a problem for poorer families, particularly single-parent families dependent on the mother’s income. There was talk some time ago about the possibility of transferring unoccupied housing from the private to the public sector landlords to assist in addressing this problem. Does the Minister have any information on how this project is progressing, if at all?

Again, there should be opportunities for upskilling for women who have lost their employment. Are the resources available to bulk up this invaluable training so that people can prepare for a return to work once the worst is over? The danger of real poverty is that it can destroy opportunities for both mothers and kids.

On a more cheerful note—I do not want to be too Pollyanna-ish but it is important not to be too dismal either—perhaps we can all learn again the many pleasures that can be enjoyed for free, such as a walk in the park with a dog, a ball to play with, or friends to talk to while the children play. What about a bus ride to somewhere a little further away from home to fly a home-made kite? What about a bike ride, a free concert in a park, a picnic on the green or in the garden, or a visit to a famous museum? What about taking pre-school

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children to children’s centres for the under-fives? I am told, on personal recommendation, that they are absolutely excellent in both London and Surrey, and no doubt that is true in other places as well. Those are all things which we can enjoy, which will benefit our health and general sense of well-being, and which cost virtually no money at all. We have spent the past 15 years talking about nothing except money—money in our house, money in our car, money in all our electronic equipment, what we need, what we have to buy—and saying that what we need to be happy is something to buy. I do not think that that is really the case, and I hope that we shall be able to change our habits a little as time goes on.

There are other things that we can do. Oyster cards for Mum and free public transport for children under 16 mean that you can go quite a long way. Craft activity may be available in libraries. A free recycling organisation,, will enable you to get equipment for your household for free, and you can contribute the things that you do not want to the organisation, which will recycle them to somebody else who does.

A good outcome from all our justified economic difficulties and fears could be rediscovering how to enjoy simple things which enhance well-being and reinforce family solidarity. I add my voice to the plea of my noble friend Lord Addington for more sport and exercise for women.

We should perhaps remind ourselves that, elsewhere in the world, women and their families are living lives of physical danger, family dispersal, death and disease, rape and starvation, and other horrors that we are very unlikely to have to face in this country. We still have things to be thankful for. We shall survive this downturn in the economy, and we may learn some useful and personal life skills as we go through it.

3.32 pm

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, last year I had a terrible dilemma: should I speak in the International Women’s Day debate or watch Bolton Wanderers play Sporting Lisbon? I chose the latter because I knew that I would have another opportunity to speak in this debate, but I had a feeling that the same would not be true of watching Bolton in Europe. Sadly, I was right.

I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, on her passion, her wealth of experience and her tenacity in once again securing this debate. I always look forward to this annual conversation, connecting us as it does across the Chamber and with women around the world. It gives us the opportunity to celebrate the many achievements of women and to reflect on their role and the perspective that they bring. In this respect, today’s topic is both important and timely.

The contributions have been fascinating and absorbing, ranging from roads, Wales and the arts, to sport, women writers and Big Ben. I am in awe of how your Lordships have woven such a wide variety of narratives into this debate. However, the prize must go to my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes for bringing a whole new meaning to the ladies’ loos in your Lordships’ House.

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There have been some amazing contributions. In the wonderful speeches of my noble friends Lady Hogg and Lady Perry, we heard of the important role that encouraging entrepreneurs plays in shaping a better future for women and the wider society. My noble friends Lady Gardner of Parkes and Lady Rawlings and the noble Lords, Lord McNally, Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Haskel, emphasised the importance of education in raising the aspirations of girls and young women throughout the world, yet, here in the UK, there are still areas where our failure to inspire the young to have ambition and self-belief can lead to the dire consequences that were so graphically and movingly articulated by my noble friend Lady Seccombe.

We heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady Crawley, Lady Howe of Idlicote and Lady Walmsley, how the economic downturn will sadly impact on domestic violence. This was given an international and disturbing perspective by my noble friend Lady Verma. Human trafficking is a vile and pernicious trade that has a disproportionate effect on women and children, and my noble friend Lord McColl reminded us of these uncomfortable and pressing issues.

There could be no debate on the role of women without discussing the wider implications of the family. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, reminded us, as did the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, of the powerful role played here by grandparents. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, spoke of the portfolio careers that many women have to undertake to enable them to carry out their family and caring responsibilities. My noble friends Lady Verma, Lady Rawlings, Lady Gardner of Parkes, Lady Fookes and Lady Perry, along with the noble Baronesses, Lady Flather and Lady Afshar, and many other noble Lords, spoke movingly of the plight of women in developing countries. However, because more women than ever before are supporting families on their wages, I shall focus my remaining remarks on the direct effects of the recession on women in the UK.

We have heard much in the past months about the effects of the economic downturn on British companies, banks and jobs. As shares have fallen and unemployment has risen, we have become all too used to hearing about the financial impact of the recession. However, this debate today is about something altogether more profound and important. It is about the human effect: the effect on people and on women in particular. It is inevitable at a time of great difficulty for business, and of desperation in many cases, that there will be hardship. Working hours are being reduced and employees are having their pay cut. It is understandable that businesses should feel under pressure and need to make savings, but adversity should not be compounded by unfairness, which is at the heart of what we are discussing today.

The Sunday Times reported recently on figures suggesting that perhaps twice as many women as men were being made redundant in some parts of the country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said, my area of the north-west is one of them. It is not hard to see why this might be so. Women are more likely to be employed in the retail sector, which is being particularly badly hit. The overall picture certainly bears this out. Since the start of 2008, the female redundancy rate

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has increased by 2.3 percentage points, almost double the male redundancy rate. In the UK as a whole, just over 12.5 million working-age women are in paid formal employment, around 40 per cent of them in part-time work, compared to just 11 per cent of working men. When tough choices are made and part-time workers are laid off, it is a matter of simple mathematics that the effect is nearly four times as great on women.

While women are now more likely to be in paid work than in previous decades, they remain far more likely to be in low-paid jobs. Nearly 30 per cent of women workers are in low-paid jobs, compared to 16 per cent of men. The two problems combine, with those women who work part-time the most likely to be low-paid. Again, when the axe falls and staff are laid off, the low-paid are often the first to go and women bear the brunt of the hardship, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. When this happens, they face a greater risk of immediate poverty. The Fawcett Society recently reported that, although women are more likely than men to save—my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon reminded us that Prudence is a woman’s name—they have fewer savings overall. They are also less likely than men to qualify for jobseeker’s allowance.

There are other reasons, too, why the financial pressures on business may disadvantage women. Many of those who have spoken in this debate have been staunch advocates of more family-friendly working practices. The right to paid maternity leave and support for childcare have been crucial elements in allowing women, as the main carers in most families, to play their proper part in the workforce. It is perhaps understandable, if not forgivable, that when budgets are squeezed employers find complying with such requirements to be particularly hard. What cannot be allowed to happen is for employers to start seeing women as more costly employees and to discriminate against them when it comes to hiring and firing.

The organisation Working Families provides specific evidence of discrimination occurring. A young parent was told to take annual leave for the birth of her child as maternity leave “had been abolished”, while on the other hand another mother wishing to return early from maternity leave was told that she could not do so “due to the economic climate”. That is on top of the 30,000 women a year who the then Equal Opportunities Commission noted in 2005 were forced out of their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity leave.

As well as direct discrimination, the economic situation impacts in other ways on women more broadly within working families. Many tax credits and other benefits are now administered through the payroll, causing serious problems when businesses go into liquidation. On top of losing their jobs, numerous women are also losing the extra income on which they rely to help to raise their families. The process for claiming outstanding payments is, predictably, complex and long-winded.

All this paints a rather depressing picture, but it is not all bad news. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, spoke of an unfortunate event often being a stimulus to rethink and of the implications that that will have for women. In some ways, the added pressure on businesses means that they are looking at new working

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models to increase efficiency and productivity. This does not always mean laying off staff. I was pleased to read in this week’s newspapers that Sir Richard Branson has said that, where necessary, his businesses will do all that is possible in terms of part-time working and job sharing as an alternative to job losses, which have to be a last resort for all the economic reasons so eloquently described by my noble friend Lady Fookes.

Flexible working has been shown to be a valuable way of cutting overheads while also reducing sickness and absenteeism among employees. It is one of the key aspects of the Equal Pay and Flexible Working Bill, which I introduced in your Lordships’ House in December. Good employers are already adopting this as best practice and of course it has great benefits for working parents, who can more easily fit their jobs around their family responsibilities. We welcome next month’s extension of the right to request flexible working and suggest that every effort is made to educate employers about the benefits that it can have for them, as well as their staff.

Women’s skills will be an important component of our recovery. We heard from my noble friend Lord McColl, and from many other noble Lords, about the importance of this in the City. I recently—I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, will be interested in this—attended a captivating lunch, hosted by Collette Dunkley, who was a board director for a number of global companies before setting up XandY Communications in 2006. She advises organisations on the differences in the ways in which men and women communicate and make decisions and she has done some significant research into testosterone levels. Notwithstanding the comments of my noble friend Lady Hogg, I was particularly struck with the fact that testosterone levels in men are at their highest between nine and 11 in the morning—not the best time, then, to negotiate with them. Given the increased and welcome number of men joining in today’s debate, perhaps it is lucky that we started at 11.30. I just say to my noble friend Lord Henley that, when he referred to the reputable list of men speaking in this debate, I did not quite know whether he meant that it was a reputable number of men or that they were reputable men.

This has been an excellent debate with consensus on the need to ensure that, while the economy may be in recession, we should do all that we can to ensure that women and their families continue to thrive. A few years ago, before the current crisis, my right honourable friend David Cameron suggested that the job of the next Government would be to build a strong society, in the same way as Margaret Thatcher built a strong economy. I think that the task now will be to combine the two—economic recovery and social justice. Women will play a central role in both.

3.44 pm

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon):My Lords, it is a real privilege to respond to what has been an excellent and fascinating debate and I thank my noble friend Lady Gould for securing it. I pay tribute to her for her work over many years in raising the profile of these extremely important issues and in continuing to secure this debate to mark

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International Women’s Day. She is a tireless campaigner and her contribution to these issues is enormous. I am very proud to have her in this House and on these Benches. In addition, I pay tribute not just to the large number of speakers we have heard today, but to the range of issues raised and the quality of the contributions that we have heard: a real testament to the speakers, to the issue and to this House—and a real challenge for me.

We have covered such a wide spectrum, from boardroom to books. I was delighted to listen to the perspective of my noble friend Lady Rendell on women and writing in the recession. I pay tribute to her for the way in which many of her characters have a real understanding of equality and gender. I greatly enjoy them.

I am delighted, too, that this debate is now an annual feature of the business of this House. So it should be. International Women’s Day is an important part of maintaining the pressure for equality. This is the fifth such debate that I have attended and, like many noble Lords, I believe that this has been the best. However, it is a rather different debate this year, because we are living through extraordinary times. My noble friend Lady Crawley called it a “trauma”. She is right. The financial crisis and the recession have swept across the world, and Governments across the world are working hard to tackle them both. Our own country and our own Prime Minister have been at the forefront of formulating solutions to the difficulties that we are all facing.

The issue of today’s debate—the role of women in the current global economic crisis—is therefore the right one. It is not an easy issue or one that any of us would have wanted to see, but the scale of the difficulties that country after country is facing across the globe is such that we must address the issue. I pay tribute to all those who have done so today.

One of the most fundamental changes that we have seen around the world over the past 100 years has been the change in the role of women. In the middle of the 19th century, women made up about a quarter of the employed workforce in Britain. By the beginning of the last century, that proportion had risen to about 30 per cent. However, the social changes of the Second World War and beyond saw a major increase in the number of women in work. By 1970, women made up 40 per cent of the employed UK workforce; 20 years later, it was 43 per cent; now it is as high as 45 per cent. The explosion in the number of women working, and wanting to work, has been one of the most prominent defining characteristics of global development.

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