Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Women

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what barriers remain to women's full participation in the political, economic and social life of the country.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this debate to coincide with International Women's Day. I should like to thank all noble Lords taking part. The history of International Women's Day is the story of ordinary women as makers of history and change. It is rooted in the centuries old struggle of women's ability to participate in society on an equal footing with men. It is a day each year to reflect on the progress made by women in playing a full and active role politically, socially and economically, but also to examine what burdens remain and how they might be overcome.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1008

Such an examination has to take place against the changing nature of women's lives. As recently as 25 to 30 years ago—a time that I can remember—the man was seen as the breadwinner, women's expectations were lower and deference was greater. Women hoped for more, but expected little; choice was not on the agenda.

Today we live in a different world. Women's lives have undergone a revolution. Lone parent families make up a quarter of all families, divorce has trebled and seven out of 10 women are in paid work. But at the same time, women still have the major responsibility for the family. Society is still dependent on women's unpaid labour—work all too often unrecognised. But recognition must come, for it is estimated that by 2020 there will be 12 million over-65 year-olds being cared for by working women over the age of 50.

There is a strange belief that the gender debate has been won and that gender equality has arrived. I wish that were true. There has been progress, but women still experience disparities in income, in missed opportunities, in promotion, in inflexible working and suffer harassment at work and violence at home. To end gender discrimination, there must be the development of flexible working, equal opportunity in the workplace, the closing of the pay gap, the removal of the democratic deficit, and a dramatic reduction in the level of violence against women.

I shall concentrate my remarks on the practical problems of women at work, and pay. However, first, I shall say just a word about domestic violence. I do so in order to congratulate the Government on tackling this serious and abhorrent crime—for crime it is. Domestic violence accounts for a quarter of all violent crime and claims the lives of two women per week. Those are unacceptable facts. Stopping domestic violence and bringing perpetrators to justice is a priority. I trust that the consultation paper, due next month, will do that.

I turn now to women at work. Women are professional jugglers. In one day, not only do they do a full time job, but they are mother, grandmother, wife and partner. To do that well and effectively, they need a package of measures of support and services tailored to their new pattern of living. Women want choice and quality. They need financial security, and they need time.

The new deal for lone parents and the changes to the tax and benefit system give real assistance in enabling women to move from welfare to work. The National Childcare Strategy with the provision of 600,000 new childcare places aids choice. But for real choice, we must go further: there must be a democratic shift in the pattern of working. Research by the DTI identified that there is a strong demand for flexible working. Where employers have offered this option, 69 per cent of employees have taken advantage of such options as reduced hours, job sharing, working a set number of hours per year rather than per week, or working from home. However, Equal Opportunities Commission research showed that only half of employees know that as from next month parents with young and disabled

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1009

children will have the legal right to ask employers for flexible working, and that employers must seriously consider such requests. Much more publicity is needed.

Sensible employers know that if they offer flexibility, they will gain from a reduction in staff turnover, a reduction in absenteeism, and increased motivation, loyalty and productivity. But flexible working must not mean a loss in promotion prospects, currently too often the case for the 42 per cent of women who work part-time.

The 2001 census confirmed that women's and men's jobs are still profoundly affected by their sex. Women remain concentrated in the five lowest paid employment sectors and 60 per cent of women work in just 10 occupational groups. Women make up 84 per cent of employees in personal services; 78 per cent of employees in administrative and secretarial work; and 71 per cent of employees in sales and customer services. There are only 9 per cent in skilled trades; 17 per cent as machine operatives; and only 34 per cent are managers, senior officials and professionals. Fewer than 10 per cent of directors are women and in the FTSE 100 firms, that figure falls to 7 per cent.

The glass ceiling may be broken in places, but it is made of toughened glass and remains shatter proof. Whether it is at senior levels in the public or private sector, women's progress is still blocked by the same prejudices and misconceptions.

Many of those misconceptions start in schools. Girls are outperforming boys at all levels, but sex stereotyping is still prevalent. Sex stereotyping pigeonholes boys and girls into fixed roles and behaviours. It limits an individual's opportunities, as well as contributing to the skills' shortage in sectors such as engineering, science and technology. Despite there being a skills shortage in these subjects, girls are still being steered into traditional areas, particularly for work experience.

The divide is at all levels, through to A-level and into apprenticeships: engineering apprentices are 96 per cent men; health and social care apprentices are 89 per cent women; computer analysts and programmers are 79 per cent men; and primary and nursery teachers are 86 per cent women. Those figures speak for themselves. Careers advisers, teachers, employers and parents all have a responsibility to break this cycle and give more comprehensive advice on the different and differing options available.

Occupation segregation is also one of the key factors for the continuing pay gap. Others are the unequal impact of women's family responsibilities, the secrecy that surrounds pay, the exclusion of women from bonus schemes and lower starting salaries. The latter is so clearly illustrated by the evidence of male graduates earning between 15 and 30 per cent more than female graduates in the same occupations and with the same qualifications. The pay gap stubbornly remains, albeit reduced from 37 per cent when the Equal Pay Act was introduced to 19 per cent today for full-time workers—a gap that widens to 40 per cent for women working part-time.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1010

Businesses are being encouraged by the Government, but not required, to conduct pay audits. It is hoped that 50 per cent of large employers will have carried out such reviews by the end of this year. But as 93 per cent of businesses, big and small, believe themselves satisfied with their current pay systems, this target is unlikely to be met. Pay regulation may be the only way of eliminating the pay gap.

At the end of this month, all government departments will be producing their equal pay reviews. The findings of those reviews, and the hoped-for government response to remove any unjust pay differentials, should be a spur to private employers.

The majority of pensioners are women and in spite of initiatives by the Government to support older women, the pay gap continues to contribute to a pensions gap. The average income of a retired woman pensioner is less than 60 per cent of a retired man's average income. A single woman pensioner's average weekly income is £153 compared with a male single pensioner on £194 per week. That is a 22 per cent difference. This gap in retirement income has to be plugged not only by the state but by private pension schemes which need to be more flexible to take account of women's fragmented career patterns.

In the time allowed, I have been able only to skim the surface of women's discrimination at work and in pay. But women's importance in the labour market is growing. The future success of the UK economy depends on women being able to reach their full potential. We need to change the culture of work so that equal opportunities and equal treatment becomes a priority. We have to continue to break down the barriers and remove the burdens to full participation in society. Only then can we say that women are playing a full part, politically, socially and economically.

6.24 p.m.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, with pleasure, especially in developing her analysis of the problems of promotion for women at work. I focus today on the barriers for women's full participation in our business life, taking it from the top and looking at our 100 largest companies, the FTSE 100 Index. I thank Dr Val Singh and Professor Susan Vinnicombe of the Cranfield Centre for Developing Women Business Leaders for some helpful statistics in their annual female FTSE report. They confirm many of my own observations over the past 26 years, as a result of meeting big company boards in my day job as an investment manager in the City, where I work in equal partnership with a woman.

First, I turn to the facts. In the FTSE there are 14 female executive directors on the boards of Britain's top 100 companies. The noble Baroness has just quoted a figure of 7 per cent for directors of FTSE companies as a whole, but that is a slightly optimistic assessment because it includes non-executives. For the jobs that really matter—the executive directors—the figure is 3 per cent. So today there are 14 women in that

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1011

role; four years ago there were 13. Eighty-nine of the top 100 companies have no woman executive director at all, while the great majority never have had. There is one woman chief executive, one woman chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, and one joint managing director. FTSE retail companies have four executive directors, while two work in the media, one in insurance, two in the former building societies, one in transport and one in health supplies.

What about the vital sectors: oil, leisure, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, water, electricity, information technology, property and the big five clearing banks? They are female-free zones, all of them, as regards women executive directors. The biggest companies, for all their fine gender equality statements and glossy reports stuffed with pictures of happy female faces, are the worst offenders of all. Not a single woman executive sits on the board of one of the top 25 FTSE companies, today valued in total at over £600 billion on the Stock Exchange.

I shall focus on executive directors because they are the people who really matter. They hold the power in a company by controlling the company culture and paths of promotion. We waste too much time both in this House and in business generally agonising about the exact number and role of non-executive directors. Almost all big companies are happy to tick that corporate governance box. They have female non-executives ranging from the genuinely independent and effective down, quite frankly, to the "quango queens" who are there only for adornment.

What kind of message is sent to women working below board level in a company or, indeed, to younger women wondering whether to work at all for that company if no woman has ever worked her way up to the main board? Far too many of our largest companies give the impression not just that there is a glass ceiling for women, but that the door to the boardroom is permanently padlocked. Even the handful of women who have broken through on to the boards of our big companies are usually either foreign or the finance director. So the proportion of women in the top business jobs is pitiful and things are improving at the pace of a lame snail.

The men at the top of the largest companies need to ask themselves for how much longer they can afford to fish in so limited a talent pool. Is there really not a single woman among the tens or even hundreds of thousands they employ who could do their job? If not, what are they doing to encourage, train and promote women, and when do they expect their management succession programmes to deliver? Employees, customers and investors should tell the men on those boards that they are shooting themselves in the foot. They are acting against their own commercial self-interest if the way to the top is not genuinely open to the best talent, regardless of sex. Quotas are not the answer, but enlightened self-interest, backed up by plenty of public pressure and naming and shaming if that is necessary, makes the best case for change.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1012

My wife, who is a doctor and an academic, reminds me often that women will have won equality at work only when there are as many mediocre women in the top jobs as there are mediocre men. On that test, in business, as in so many other walks of our national life, we have an awful long way to go.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, on initiating a very important debate on a special day.

The International Longevity Centre UK, a small think tank which I chair, recently appointed its first fellow, a woman with two children who was at the peak of an exceptional career, with a top finance job in what is traditionally a man's world. She felt that she had to give it all up because she could not manage to have any family life. In spite of the good policies promoted by the Government and many of the best employers, she found the conflict of interests impossible to resolve and wanted a life with her family.

She is now researching how this happens to so many other women—most of them, obviously, in less privileged positions than her—and looking at what policies would enable them, and her, to work on equal terms to men, but recognising the different needs. Huge steps are still needed.

Childcare facilities for women in jobs are limited and expensive for many. For example, a nurse on the top grade—I am the mother of one such young woman—finds it very difficult to cover the costs of a nursery because, as she is earning, she does not qualify for subsidised childcare. The loss of such women to our economy is very serious, especially the many thousands of young aspiring women on whom we place so much responsibility for our future.

As regards older women, we know—the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has told us—that women live longer and in poorer conditions than men. We also know—it has been expressed very eloquently—how this poverty continues throughout life and into old age. Unfortunately, the Government, who are doing a great deal to promote the interests of women—as is the feminist movement, the sisterhood itself—have done much more, in the past at any rate, for younger women than for older women.

We know that women have immense difficulty in matching men in terms of contributions to pensions and that the situation continues to get worse. We also know that women live—possibly partly due to this poverty—in worse health than men typically do. They are not necessarily suffering from life-threatening disease but from disabling and chronic conditions which affect older women more than older men. Claims for incapacity benefit from women are rising.

Many more older women are carers—I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, will go into much more detail on this subject—but, because families are changing so rapidly, we now see a lot of what are called "beanpole" families; that is, families consisting of single women of many generations. We

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1013

have reached the situation where we have women looking after women looking after women across the generations.

Very often now, the "cared for" largely outnumber the carers. That is a huge burden that many women carry. Many grandmothers—and, indeed, great grandmothers—because of marriages breaking up, now find themselves doing full-time childcare jobs, which is a huge difficulty for many of them.

We also hear in the economy nowadays about family-friendly policies which allow breaks that match the school holidays—indeed, in Parliament, particularly in another place, it is now the routine—and flexible hours that fit in with children's school times. A study in the United States found that there were more carers looking after older people than there were looking after children, and it has a younger population than we have. But most policies do not take into account the needs of people caring for elderly husbands and wives and for older people who may be very frail and whose care often lasts for 15 to 20 years.

As to the issue of older women in the labour market, most employers—not the best ones; there are notable exceptions, mainly in the retail trade and largely in areas of high male unemployment—still feel that older women are not worth training because they do not have time to benefit from their labour. However, it has been demonstrated in research—mainly by the Employers Forum on Age—that younger workers tend to leave their jobs after a year and half to two years, whereas an older employee, perhaps one of 60, will give five years of loyal and reliable service. It is well worth retraining and re-employing older people. They can learn new tricks. We have to recognise that talent does not depend on chronological age. It depends, as it does throughout life, on an individual's skills and capacity to do a job.

6.35 p.m.

Baroness Gale: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Gould for bringing this important debate before us today—on the eve of International Women's Day.

Are there any barriers left for women to participate in the political life of this country? Yes, must be the answer. The biggest barrier to overcome for most women is the attitude of members of political parties. In all parties there is still a huge barrier of prejudice towards women who seek elected positions within their party. This can be seen at local officer level, right up to parliamentary level. I believe that there is a genuine desire at the top of all parties to have more women involved. But parties at the top cannot get their members in the constituencies to accept the need to do something positive about it.

Some barriers have been removed—for example, by introducing "family friendly" hours in political institutions, as there are in the Welsh Assembly, and changes to the hours in the House of Commons. But I do not believe that improving the working practices of political institutions is the main barrier to women coming forward to stand for office.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1014

Women put themselves forward for selection, in the main, to serve. Women have as much desire to serve and to make a contribution as men. But that is very difficult to convey to most party members. The main problem is one that women in all walks of life experience—prejudice and discrimination. We have laws to deal with discrimination against women and I believe that it is now time to have laws to overcome prejudice. That will be difficult, but not impossible.

If we look at the present position of women in political life, we see that they are not well represented as local councillors or at parliamentary level. There are exceptions where women are well represented. I refer to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. So why does that happen in Wales and Scotland?

It has not been without difficulty. Special measures were put in place by the Labour Party to ensure that women had an equal chance of being selected; and they worked well. Some believed at that time—in 1999—that the mould had been broken. But, sadly, that was not the case, as the selection of candidates for the general election proved. There are now fewer women Members of Parliament than there were in 1997.

I believe that laws can change people's attitudes towards women. There are already many measures in place. The most recent is the Act which allows political parties to have all-women shortlists when selecting candidates. The Labour Party has already started to use this legislation in Wales when selecting candidates for the Welsh Assembly.

Of the 16 constituency vacancies, six were designated as all-women shortlists. But, in fact, nine women have been selected, making a total of 23 women candidates fighting constituency seats and one woman on the list. So the end result is now 24 women and 17 male candidates. I am not sure what is happening in Wales, but at least it is good! If all the parties in Wales used the legislation, I am sure that there would be at least 30 women Assembly Members out of 60. I am not going to get carried away with this good result. I know that we still have a long way to go before women can achieve equality in all walks of life.

In the political sphere some changes are taking place. Wales is giving a good lead in the Welsh Assembly elections. The Question asked is what barriers remain. The barrier of prejudice is a big one, but it can be dismantled.

I spoke earlier of the importance of legislation in changing people's attitude. If that is the case, is there a need for further legislation to help remove the centuries-old, worldwide prejudice against women? Yes, is my answer. France, for example, has passed a law, used for the first time in 2001, which imposes a quota of women candidates at local elections. The proportion of women councillors rose from 22 per cent to 48 per cent, proving once again that laws can help women and showing that the electorate do not discriminate between women and men candidates. Is there any Government thinking to emulate France—only in this matter—in bringing forward legislation to introduce quotas of women candidates at all levels of elections? Does the Minister agree that this must be the

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1015

next step in the raft of legislation that already exists to ensure that women can make a full contribution to the political life of this country?

6.41 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, for achieving the debate on this significant date and for the marvellous way in which she introduced it.

The terms of the Motion rightly imply that a certain amount has been achieved by successive governments over the years. It is also right that we congratulate the present Government on what they have achieved so far. Their old Labour predecessors were the main architects of the equal pay and sex discrimination legislation and the continuing record of taking measures to make a real difference to women's full participation as UK citizens is worthy of respect.

A major target remains—that of equal pay for work of equal value. I will not repeat what was said, but 30 years after the Equal Pay Act passed into law, and with women continuing to lose between £50,000 and £250,000 over a lifetime, that target must be tackled and achieved. It seems to me that the vital remaining areas fall under two specific headings—attitude change and the need to continue to pinpoint particularly high-profile jobs at the decision-making level. If both were tackled effectively, they would have a considerable knock-on effect with much wider benefits.

The most critical attitude in employment is the acceptance—indeed, the promotion—of the work/life balance. It must become a timetable norm in every workplace. It is not a new concept, it has been urged for some time and I am glad to say that it is gradually gaining acceptance. Married to that—and you cannot have one without the other—is a more widespread acceptance and promotion of a much more equal sharing of family care responsibilities. Men are missing out. They are missing out on children's development, not just on the chores but on the joys of parenthood.

Legislation can often be an appropriate framework within which attitudes can be encouraged to change. A good example was the excellent measure of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, to end sex discrimination in clubs. But legislation cannot do the whole job; ultimately, in a democracy, the people concerned have to accept what is proposed.

In the matter of high-profile jobs, attitudes—conscious or unconscious—must also be dealt with. I will touch briefly on public sector appointments, MPs, and jobs in which the proportion of women remains obstinately low, as well as the corporate sector.

In public appointments—and here thanks are particularly due to Dame Rennie Fritchie, the Commissioner for Public Appointments—the Government have made progress. Every department has been set a 45 to 50 per cent target for women in such appointments by 2005. The DTI's women and equality unit has also conducted an excellent campaign to encourage more women to apply, as only a third of

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1016

appointees are women. I should also like yearly statistics to be published by an independent body—perhaps the Audit Commission—giving a comparative ranking of what each department is up to and has achieved.

Despite these commendable efforts, like many people I remain to be convinced that within the public sector, which is an important role model, women make up a proper proportion of those chosen, particularly for the top jobs—chairmanships, chief executives and paid positions. Many of your Lordships will agree that the proportion of women MPs remains abysmal. I shall not go further into that issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, has given us some hope. With the passing of the recent legislation on that subject, we may see more women MPs—and, I hope, more women in this House, too.

Professions such as engineering seem reluctant to recruit or retain enough women. I was going to say more about that. I am particularly pleased that my noble friend Lady Greenfield is here. She is one of our most eminent scientists and I am sure she will talk about the issue. We must have more action to recruit and retain women in that area.

We have heard the numbers—or lack of numbers—of women in the top jobs in the private sector, despite the 30 per cent who make up the management of the corporate sector as a whole. In his report Derek Higgs points out:


    "a commitment to equal opportunities, which can be motivational as well as of reputational importance, is inevitably undermined if the board itself does not follow the same guiding principles".

Most of us would be able to think of people in top jobs who should have been there much sooner and others who have not arrived yet. I am thinking particularly of Rachel Lomax, the outstandingly well-qualified candidate who has at last become Deputy Chairman of the Bank of England. If she were a man, I think she would have been there 10 years ago when the vacancy arose.

Why does all this matter? Top decision-making levels in the public or private sectors are important, because that is where the framework within which we all work is decided. The sooner we see a better balance of the sexes at the top level, the sooner we are likely to see a country that better reflects the needs of a modern, competitive economy and the needs and aspirations of both halves of the population. Let us hope that the House of Lords—renamed by then, I hope—will not be called on to debate a Motion similar to this Unstarred Question in 50 years.

6.48 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Gould on securing this debate and on introducing it in such a vigorous manner. Formidable presences in your Lordships' House, including the Minister responding tonight, may mask the fact that there are still barriers to the full participation of women in public life. I am glad that there are men speaking tonight. Men are sometimes seen as part of the problem, but they are also part of the solution.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1017

Barriers may be due at least in part to the portrayal of girls and women as invisible and without power or influence. Even today, with more and more positive role models, women are struggling against the legacy of that invisibility in many of our institutions. Thankfully, those images have been challenged, nowhere more so than by the feminist movement. However, there are still deep-seated problems to overcome.

We now see many women determined to overcome the barriers in significant numbers and against some opposition. One such young woman—my daughter, who is a director of a large company—told me that at a client meeting she was assumed to be there to organise refreshments and was addressed as "girlie" by visitors until her role was revealed.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said, images of women and the stereotyping of their roles affect women's perception of self and others' perception of them. A French friend of mine told me of learning English from a text book that described men and women. It said:


    "He is big, he is strong, he has a lot of money and a big car. She is sad, she is weak, she is ill; she has fainted on the carpet".

Noble Lords may remember an advertisement in which a car was draped with a glamorous woman with very long legs—images of women, fit only to drape over a bonnet. A Women's Press card changed the caption to the advertisement to have the woman say, "When I'm not lying on cars, I'm a brain surgeon". Women strike back.

Let us take another example—fairy stories, where women are always helpless, sometimes persecuted by an evil stepmother or sister, and usually have to be rescued, usually by a handsome prince. Witness Rapunzel, she of the long hair in high towers; Cinderella; Little Red Riding Hood; Sleeping Beauty; or Snow White. The women are passive and pathetic, not participants in their own destiny, not supportive of other women, and good only for serving breakfast to dwarves, being eaten by a wolf or sleeping for a very long time.

In our own Palace of Westminster, the statues and portraits are mainly of males, apart from the extraordinary statues of Queen Elizabeth I and Victoria. Many of the women portrayed were despatched in painful and undignified ways. Women can be seen in pictures along the Corridors beseeching help with baleful looks or clinging to the garments of noblemen. A lot of weeping goes on. Where are the images of proactive, powerful women?

If we look in the daily press, women are often invisible except for trivialisation—displays of body parts or involvement in scandal. I have checked some recent newspapers. There was not a single photograph of women in sport and no mention of women in the major stories of the day. Headlines included, "Why women fall for older men (they know their way around a wine list and don't expect you to go Dutch)" and "Anthony Hopkins marries a bankrupt businesswoman". Women are sometimes mentioned in relation to problems-headlines such as "Why women

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1018

worry" or "Help me over this hormone trouble". Women dominate problem pages, often because they see themselves as failing—in relationships, in sexual prowess, in being a parent. It is all negative. Women's bodies are frequently medicalised, as if they have no control over their own health. In one bookshop recently, I came across 15 books on the menopause, 10 on pre-menstrual tension and a very great number on slimming.

Some of that may seem trivial and even frivolous. It is not. Those examples are fed to girls, boys, women and men every day. It is insidious propaganda. We know that how people see themselves, how much self esteem they have, influences what they actually achieve. I suggest that barriers can be subtle but pervasive, and that they still need challenging, leaping over or knocking down.

6.53 p.m.

Baroness Greenfield: My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. The under-representation of women in science, engineering and technology threatens global competitiveness. It is an issue for society, organisations, employers and the individual. Quite often when you talk to people they say, "It will gradually get better. Things are changing". However, as the statistics over the past five or six years show, that is sadly not the case. In the past six years, the numbers have remained lamentable. In the physical sciences, only 20 per cent of PhDs are women. At the professorial level, the numbers are single figures. One might think that the biomedical sciences, traditionally more attractive to women, offer more hope—indeed, at the PhD level, 50 per cent are women. But then only 30 per cent are lecturers; 15 per cent senior lecturers; and under 10 per cent professors.

It was because of this problem that I was recently invited to submit a report to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to explore the difficulties, but also to try to come up with some solutions to the problems of women in science, engineering and technology. One of the most immediate problems for us was that about which we have already heard—having children at the critical phase in one's career. The problem is particularly acute in science where there is no career structure at all in the public sector until you are in your mid-30s. One is dependent on temporary grants during two to three years of living hand to mouth while doing research and publishing papers. It is precisely at that time when one is biologically at one's optimum for having children that one threatens to set oneself back if one has children and cannot get into the race to publish papers and to gain grants.

The solution that I propose is that of ring-fenced funds to enable any woman or, indeed, man, who has had primary care of a child and therefore has potentially jeopardised her or his publication record, to apply for grants from a ring-fenced pool of funds. That would enable them to re-enter—pump prime, if you like—their career, catch up and start to publish again.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1019

Women in mid-career are not represented on panels to the extent that they should be. They lack policy making experience and they lack the mentoring that they so badly need. A mentor is someone who believes in you more than you believe in yourself. Speaking as a woman involved in science, I can vouchsafe that it is important to have someone in whom you can confide and to whom you can pour out your troubles so that you do not bottle things up but rather can explore positive ways forward. The report proposes a nation-wide mentoring scheme to help women.

I turn to the notorious glass ceiling. Women do not apply for senior jobs. Moreover, they are not known to search committees or to head-hunters. That is because women are notorious for not putting themselves forward. There is an old saying that if there are 10 desiderata at a particular interview, men will promote the seven in which they are proficient whereas women will apologise for the three in which they are deficient.

What we need is a system to help women come to the attention of head-hunters and search committees and give them the confidence to apply for jobs and grants. One possibility is to have what is called a working science centre—a sort of database that almost constitutes an employment agency—to enable anyone to consult a database to find out who and what is available. It would simply bring the appropriate candidates—they could be men as well as women—to the attention of potential employers. We know that that is possible as we already have vast databases thanks to the HEFC and research assessment exercises. It would require very little effort to maintain and update those databases and to make them available both to the private and public sectors. It is done already at the Royal Institution to bring together the media and scientists. It would not be hugely expensive and, moreover, it could be funded both by government and by the private sector. I draw an analogy with a media centre. It is possible to ask for very small contributions and obtain multiple donations from industry. In that way many subscribe without it being too much of a burden on them.

Other possibilities are carrot and stick measures to encourage the culture of job sharing and part-time working. Why should that be such an anathema? Traditionally one likes to think that one is the sole pioneer in science. However, scientific papers are usually multi author. I see no reason therefore why one cannot encourage job sharing. Certainly as regards teaching and research, one could encourage a certain amount of sharing in respect of the teaching component.

One could also have teaching remission or, indeed, provide extra funds for those of us who have to bear the extra burden of being the token woman on committees and visit girls' schools to promote the role of women in science, engineering and technology.

Science is at the centre of all our lives and is becoming increasingly so. It affects nutrition, education, reproduction, the climate,

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1020

communication—everything that we hold dear. We cannot afford to allow 50 per cent of the talent in that sector to haemorrhage.

6.58 p.m.

Lord Winston: My Lords, when a little girl is born, she is born with about 2 million eggs in her ovaries. When the ovaries are first formed, she has 5 million eggs in her ovaries. She has already lost the largest proportion of them by the time she is born. By the time she reaches puberty, it is calculated that she has about 200,000 to 300,000 left. Thereafter, she will ovulate, if she is fertile, once a month. That is about 360 to 400 eggs. The rest are lost by a process of programmed cell death during reproductive life. It is a staggering loss. To give noble Lords an idea, during the course of this debate—one and a half hours—the average child-bearing woman will have lost one egg. In the same period of time I shall have made about 10,000 sperm, but that is another matter.

We are forgetting the serious issue that women are very seriously penalised by their biology. If we look at the statistics, the age for having a first child in the United Kingdom is rising year on year, as in most western societies. It is doing so because women are getting skills and education, competing with men in the workplace, earning as much as men and contributing as much to society. However, they are severely penalised. Until we address that, we have a serious problem as to how we deal with the rest of women's status in society.

The great majority of the women whom I see in my clinic have contributed to society and are then penalised. Under the National Health Service, they cannot even get infertility treatment because they are too old. It is worth pointing out that fertility drops dramatically after the age of 35. By the age of 40, at least one-third of women will be infertile. By the age of 42, it is calculated that about two- thirds of women will be infertile. Most pregnancies after that age end in miscarriage. That is a grievous loss of life and is appalling for a woman to contemplate. It is truly shocking. I am sad to say—I say it to the Minister, whose job is not to answer health questions directly—that it has been unfortunately neglected in the health service, and we need to do something about it fairly immediately.

We have sought to use all sorts of inappropriate treatments for the problem. For example, egg sharing is allowed in this country under regulation by the HFEA, so that young women can be exploited to give up their eggs to older women. That is only in the private sector. No National Health Service hospital will do that, because most of them do not regard it as ethical. There is a growing trade in fertility treatment, which means that 90 per cent of affected women cannot get it under the National Health Service. With the exception of one or two health authorities in the London area, virtually none will offer treatment to women over the age of 37 or 38.

It is time that we found ways to deal with the situation. One way that is quite clear is to recognise the problem of age. The Government have focused on

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1021

chlamydia causing infertility. Believe me as someone who has practised in the subject for many years: chlamydia is totally insignificant in comparison with age. Age is much more serious. The problem of chlamydia is that it gives the idea that somehow a woman has caused her infertility. It is a terrible canard and causes great anguish to the very many women who think in some way that they are responsible for their agonising plight. The pain of infertility is equal to the pain of osteo-arthritis of the hip, but it is not dealt with sympathetically and it needs to be. We have to consider that issue very seriously. Until we have improved our reproductive medical services, there will be problems.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, raised the issue of science. It is a real possibility that if there were funding in the area to research how we might prolong reproductive life, we could do so by five or 10 years in women, preserve eggs in the ovary and prevent some of that cell death. That is certainly worth consideration. It would be one solution. It is worth bearing in mind that women are far fitter and live longer nowadays. Therefore, they could probably child-rear later, but are penalised because of their biology. It seems to me that biology penalises them primarily at the moment, and society is failing to take cognisance of that fact.

7.4 p.m.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords—although on this of all evenings I would prefer to say, "My Ladies"—I congratulate my noble friend and say what a joy it is to take part in a debate with so many powerful and articulate ladies and, of course, some powerful and articulate men.

Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that I shall focus on carers, for whom there is a dilemma so far as the topic of the debate is concerned. Although I would not want in any way to discount the contribution of male carers at the heavy end of caring, this is still largely a women's issue. On the one hand, women carers make the most enormous contribution to the economic and social life of this country. Others have referred to that. It is not at all unusual for a woman to have a caring career, starting perhaps as a young carer, going on to care for a child, then for an ageing parent and finally for a spouse. Nor is it at all unusual for women to be multiple carers: I met someone the other day who was caring for two elderly parents and a son with a learning disability. They make a huge contribution as the cornerstone of community and healthcare.

Their contribution was calculated last year as being worth £57 billion per year. That is a sum equivalent to the cost of the National Health Service. The fact that that care is provided within a relationship, usually willingly and almost always with love, should not and must not blind us to the value of that contribution and to the fact that it makes very sound economic as well as moral good sense to support carers. As one carer said,


    "Society would collapse without carers—don't ignore us".

We must never forget that vast participation in the economic life of our country.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1022

On the other side of the argument, I can also put a case about women being prevented from making their full contribution by the restrictions which caring duties place on them. Those duties affect their health. Six out of 10 carers report that their health has been adversely affected by caring. If they are providing substantial care, they are over twice as likely as the rest of the population to have mental health problems, especially if they are receiving no relief at all. Many are in that position.

Carers are also poor. In a Carers UK study, 77 per cent reported being worse off financially as a result of becoming a carer, attributable to loss of income when they had to give up work and to the extra costs of disability. The combined effects of poverty and ill health can lead to isolation and social exclusion and leave carers ill-equipped to deal with life even after their caring duties are over.

Nowhere is that more apparent than with regard to carers in the workplace. Another Carers UK study, Redressing the Balance, points out that carers attempting to rejoin or remain in the workforce are affected by three different types of barrier: the individual barrier of their lack of skills and confidence, especially if they have spent years out of the workforce; systems barriers, which can be about lack of information and problems in getting adequate support services; and financial disincentives to working because of the rules in the benefit system, especially concerning part-time work. There are labour market barriers too. Employers do not always understand the needs of carer employees or offer appropriate flexible working practices.

So, carers struggle in the workplace, and that can be a waste of a very precious resource. Those employers which take pains to support carers—Centrica, for example, has very good working practices—find ample reward, as carers take the commitment and skill they brought to their caring role into the workplace to everyone's benefit. In the workplace or at home carers need recognition and respect, choice, a decent income, proper information and practical help. We must try to ensure that they receive them.

However, I must not be unduly pessimistic. This Government have a proud record of support for this country's carers, male and female, from the National Carers Strategy and the Carers and Disabled Children Act to changes in the benefit, pension and tax systems to recognise carers and the major changes recently made to the Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc.) Bill to recognise the position of carers. Much has been done to improve the position of carers and the way in which we recognise their contribution. More remains to be done, but the power of the carers movement grows year by year.

In the face of the barriers which exist, we can only marvel that, despite everything, carers manage to become involved in their local carers' groups, with local and national health and social care organisations, and somehow manage to become drivers for change. I met a carer in the North of England last week who is now chair of her local

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1023

authority social services committee, having become both politicised and empowered by setting up a carers' support group. As she said to me,


    "Our voice gets stronger all the time. All we are asking for is a fair deal".

7.9 p.m.

Lord Sawyer: My Lords, I want to speak on women, low pay and exploitation in the public services. I should also like to thank my noble friend Lady Gould for initiating this debate and for her lifetime of leadership in this area. I worked with Joyce for many years and it was a great privilege. I also had the privilege to represent low-paid workers for 24 years—80 per cent of whom were women—when I worked for NUPE/Unison as a trade union official.

These women carry the grand titles of ancillary workers, cleaners, orderlies, domestics, kitchen maids, dinner ladies and so on. Their job titles, as does their pay, reflect the value society places upon their work—not much.

Throughout my years as a union official, we fought and campaigned for better pay and recognition for millions of workers, many of whom were part-time, who performed these important jobs and yet they were unseen and undervalued by the people for whom they worked.

In 1997 we achieved what we believed to be a major breakthrough. That was the election of a Labour Government. At last we had the opportunity to halt the privatisation and the competitive tendering that had been eating away at our members' already unsatisfactory pay and conditions. Sadly, we were mistaken. The drive to market test, the push to outsource, the obsession with subcontracting and the dogma of best value cascaded down on the directors of the private companies but on the backs of low-paid women workers.

I have no time to show the scars, but believe me they are deep and unnecessary. I urge all those who hear or read my words to read Polly Toynbee's excellent book, Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain, and to witness in those pages the loss of pay, pensions, holidays, maternity rights, dignity and self-respect that these women in public services that have been privatised have experienced.

I am angry—and I have always been angry—about low pay and its effect on women workers, in particular. However, I want to offer some solutions. They are: first, the simplest and most beneficial way to deal with low pay is for employers to value their workforce and to pay a decent and fair wage. That so many employers choose to exploit workers and expect to get the best from them has always been of constant amazement to me throughout my life.

Secondly, in the absence of that, the state must step in. Here I want briefly to pay tribute to an old friend, Rodney Bickerstaff, the former general secretary of Unison, without whom we would not have a national minimum wage. That minimum wage is about to be updated. The TUC is asking for it to be raised from £5

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1024

to £5.30 per hour. I urge those concerned and others with influence to make it so and to ignore the objections of those who should know better.

Thirdly, the new agreement in the public services on ending the two-tier workforce is very welcome. It should be implemented with commitment and enthusiasm. The spirit and intent of the agreement should be to end economic exploitation of low-paid workers and to introduce dignity and pride at the place of work.

Fourthly, the trade unions have fought hard for government action on this agenda but have failed to recruit and organise low-paid workers. Only 15 per cent of workers in privatised companies providing public serves are trade union members. More needs to be done by the Government. They should talk to the Government about what help might be given.

Fifthly, the use of union learning representatives, learning accounts and learning centres needs to be targeted at low-paid workers. For example, all employers and unions should be involved in introducing basic literacy and skills development for the low-paid workforce. That approach is absolutely crucial. It is about self-help. It opens doors for people in those jobs that have so far remained closed.

I do not have time to discuss childcare and benefit issues, which I recognise are crucial to this debate. My five points are directed at unions, employers and government. If they were taken up they would bring an end to a shameful period of exploitation of women workers, of which none of us can be proud.

7.14 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, for putting down this subject for debate today. She picked a good topic for the right day and we have heard some splendid speeches—not least that of the noble Baroness herself.

Trying not to use up too much time, I shall try not to repeat points made by other speakers—not even, on most occasions, to refer to their speeches. I beg their pardon.

I start from the simple principle that poverty is the greatest inhibitor of women's participation in society. We should be thankful today that the poverty that keeps women chained to back-breaking, unpaid work throughout the developing world is no longer commonplace here; that women in this country are able to control their fertility and access education and work; that we are not forced to flee from our homes; or are, except in a few cases, subject to trafficking as prostitutes into foreign lands.

I make that point to put the problems of women in the United Kingdom in their proper context and show how far we have come. Nevertheless, as many have said, we have not achieved economic security equal to men, by any means. There are seldom complaints from men that women dominate the caring professions, or other poorly paid employment, such as the noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, described. Those areas of employment lack prestige and, taking a cynical view,

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1025

may be thought to be suitable for women—a form of housework, in fact. They may be badly paid and lacking in prestige because women predominate, but I do not have time to develop that argument.

My noble friend Lord Oakeshott has vividly illustrated the problems of reaching the top in business. Success in penetrating the professions at a perfectly ordinary level can also apparently cause unease. The news that more women than men are now training to be doctors seemed to have the British Medical Association in a spin a few months ago, with dark talk about quotas for male students. No doubt experience will show that increased numbers of women in medicine will benefit healthcare and worries will dissipate with experience.

On the other hand, the success of women in capturing some really key jobs is somewhat reassuring. In particular, I think of the first woman president of the Law Society and the success of women in capturing two of the three main jobs at the Trades Union Congress—a welcome development in an organisation that has not always seemed sympathetic to the cause of equality for women in the workplace.

However, the concentration of women in badly paid employment is directly reflected in the earnings gap between men and women. The news that that gap increased last year is discouraging. That has important consequences for the number of women who are poor in their life in retirement. That is especially worrying for their further participation in social life, not just for the women themselves but for society as a whole.

Every voluntary group, including the political parties, knows that in recent years we have lost the most valuable source of volunteers as women have left the marital home for work. If women continue to be poor as pensioners, they may still be unable to play a full part in local society, although they have much to offer.

Women have not been as successful as many of us would have wished in national politics, although, in my experience, the picture in local government is a little better. Years ago, I was in charge of the approval of a selection process for my party in England. I was pleased that we proposed a higher proportion of women as candidates than any other party. We won so few seats that the fact that those women tended not to be selected in winnable seats seemed unimportant. But of course it is of the greatest importance. All the main parties are currently having some difficulty with that, despite the change in the law introduced by the Government—largely, I suspect, because of the prejudice of local selection committees.

There has been much glee in the press about the problems of the Conservative Party and Theresa May in that regard, but that glee is totally misplaced. It does the reputation of our Parliament no good to appear so unrepresentative of the population at large. If substantial improvement does not take place soon, the House of Commons will seem even more out of touch with the people than it does at present. After all, people are now used to seeing women in their workplace. Perhaps the grey suits even deter voters from voting.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1026

Gisela Stuart is about to celebrate 50 years of continuous representation by women MPs in Edgbaston. I have been invited to join her in Birmingham for that event and am looking forward to doing so.

This is an important subject; we have heard some wonderful speeches; I look forward to listening to the Minister sum up.

7.20 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I, too, heartily congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, on introducing this important debate, especially since it is International Women's Day. I also congratulate her on the announcement today of her chairmanship of the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV, which is extremely welcome.

I would love to respond to all the eloquent, concise speeches on this diverse, important subject, in which so many issues were raised from different perspectives. I will be unable to do so in the six minutes allowed, but I shall try. I received an excellent brief from the House of Lords Library containing many articles on the subject. One, in particular, set me off. Its headline reads:


    "Even men say women make the best bosses".

The subject was cogently covered by the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Greengross and Lady Howe. The Higgs report is helpful. Let us hope that a difference is made for those who should be at the top in business. As the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, said, business is acting against its own commercial interests in not opening the way for women to make it to the top.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, spoke of the conflict of coping with family life, which is a real issue that touches on the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Winston. We are all working against our biological clock, trying to achieve so much, but there is that huge problem. Could research be carried out to find out whether it is possible to prolong women's childbearing life to enable them to remain in the workplace?

The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, mentioned the under-representation of women in science and technology. I did not realise that a career structure for women in the public sector did not exist until they are in their 30s, which creates a serious barrier to participation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, spoke eloquently, as ever, about carers and their vast contribution to the economic life of the country. The movement has grown, which I applaud. The noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, spoke passionately about continuing exploitation in the workplace. Low pay continues to be a problem. Employers need to value the need for dignity and pride in the workplace and to value their workforce.

I shall use this opportunity to celebrate women Peers in your Lordships' House. The noble Baronesses, Lady Gale and Lady Thomas of Walliswood, spoke eloquently about politics. But I

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1027

was surprised that no lady Peer even mentioned us when discussing the subject. I have before me a formidable list of Front-Bench women Peers. I speak also of Back-Bench and Cross-Bench women Peers who attend regularly. Noble Lords have said that, without women Peers, the business of your Lordships' House would collapse. Collectively, they embody an outstanding cross-section of skills, expertise and experience. All debate on women and politics focuses on another place as if we barely existed. Perhaps because we are not elected we are perceived as politically illegitimate.

The reputation of all noble Lords was not helped by the awful documentary on your Lordships' House by one Molly Dineen, who failed to understand or appreciate our collective strengths, calibre and purpose. In addition, I recall hearing a woman, when first appointed as a people's Peer, say on the radio that she had greater legitimacy than existing Members of your Lordships' House. That is nonsense. On the contrary, the joy is that, with regard to our role, we are all equal before your Lordships' House. As women Peers, we are at one with our male fellow Peers. That said, I cannot resist the opportunity to articulate the view that, in the treatment that we and our spouses receive—I make a distinction between our role and the treatment that we receive—sexism exists, and most of it does not even occur to male Peers.

Where does the title "Baroness" come from? Somewhere in Europe? It is a constant source of confusion and even, sometimes, embarrassment. I must give a small example. If I book a restaurant or a theatre ticket in my name and my husband presents his card, as Mr Philip Buscombe, to pay, I am sometimes looked on as something of an impostor, a fake. No one understands the title "Baroness", and most assume that we are just someone's appendage. Following the passing of the House of Lords Act 1999, there is no reason why our husbands should not be afforded the same respect as the wife of a male Peer, given that the title "Lord" does not, as of right, bring a seat in your Lordships' House.

The fact that Peeresses are seated in our place on the Benches at the State Opening, while our husbands, who are requested to wear morning dress, are consigned to the Strangers' Gallery, is insulting. It seems odd that we should have the Equality Bill before your Lordships' House and regularly debate general equality issues—which is good—when we put up with inequality in the way that we treat ourselves. It is time to change. The greatest barrier to participation in your Lordships' House is financial. As long as we remain unpaid, full participation will remain the luxury of a few. That cannot be right.

I shall finish with the words of a French woman politician:


    "Some men seek power for its own sake; women seek power so that they can get things done".

I believe that that is true. We should take care to think about our position in your Lordships' House.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1028

7.27 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, it is a huge pleasure to have the privilege of responding to the debate. I add my voice to those rightly congratulating my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton on securing the debate, which celebrates and marks International Women's Day, first celebrated on 19th March, 1911.

My noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton made it plain, as did several noble Lords, that we had come a long way since 1911—but not quite far enough. It is clear from what all noble Lords said that we are on a journey. It has been an extremely long journey, and we are all hopeful that it will soon come to an end. There are no easy answers, but, tonight, we touched on some of the possible pathways that we need to take to resolve the issues. I thank all those who applauded the efforts made by the Government to address this difficult and complex issue. I thank them particularly for the kind words about domestic violence, carers, the pay gap, low pay and poverty.

We were all greatly amused and delighted by the description given by my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen of the invisible woman. We smiled and laughed. What was sad about it was that we all recognised a huge grain of truth about the depiction of women over many years. That presents a challenge. As my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton and the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, said, we must consider what we are doing to our children, our boys and our girls. If we are to change stereotypes, all our young people must be given a more positive image of what they should be and how they should participate.

The Government recognise that schools cannot directly tackle the problems of stereotyping, the pay gap, or the skills shortage. However, we should ensure that young girls understand the long-term impact of the choices that they make at 13 or 14 years-old. That is why the Women and Equality Unit has produced an information pack for International Women's Day entitled, Does Sex Make A Difference? There are copies in the Library. I hope all noble Lords will take advantage of obtaining a copy. The information pack is crammed full of statistics, plans on the pay gap and information on stereotyping, women in public life and domestic violence. It covers many of the topics which we have alighted upon today.

While listening to the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, complemented by the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, I wanted to say that it should be made standard reading for all the FTSE 100 companies and beyond. It was all eloquently stated. These difficulties are very real. The pay gap, which still stands at 19 per cent, is a good example of one of the problems. As many noble Lords have said, we know that women make an important contribution to the success of the economy. However, still they are stereotyped into a narrow range of low paying jobs—as alluded to by my noble friend Lord Sawyer.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1029

In particular, women from the Indian sub-continent earn much lower average hourly wages than white women. However, the Government have made it clear that equal pay and business success go hand in hand. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, that one of the real issues is poverty. I say to my noble friend Lord Sawyer that that is precisely why the Government have recognised the need to tackle low pay, which affects minority ethnic women more than anyone else. Therefore, we introduced the national minimum wage in 1999, currently £4.20 per hour. That represented a real boost to the pay of low-paid workers, 70 per cent—I repeat 70 per cent—of whom are women. Approximately 1 million women have benefited. Of course, I hear all that my noble friend said and that we need to do more.

Our determination to close the pay gap is not just about money, it is about social justice and sound economics—not least because the economy is facing serious skills shortages in sectors such as IT, science and engineering. I should like to take this opportunity to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for her report last year on this issue. The Government are currently reviewing its recommendations. I agree with the way in which she powerfully set out the case today.

I am pleased that the Equal Opportunities Commission and Opportunity Now—which is a business-led campaign to realise the benefits of ensuring that women fulfil their potential—have set up a forum of 240 employers to share best practice and to encourage them to carry out equal pay reviews. The Government are also leading by example. As a noble Lord said, there is no point if one has the rhetoric but does not actually deliver the goods. Therefore, the Government are attempting to do that. We have set a target of April 2003 for departments and agencies to conduct an equal pay audit and prepare action plans to close any gaps.

The issue for women is also about progression. The comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, were absolutely clear. The recent report by Derek Higgs painted a similar picture. As noble Lords will know, the Government are currently looking at how to take forward some of those proposals.

However, I am pleased to say that matters are improving. I agree with the noble Baroness when she says that we should celebrate the achievements of this House—the Front Benches, the Back Benches and the representation of women. Our figures are improving and we should like to see them improve even more. Currently, 16 per cent of our House is made up of women. I want to emphasise the fact that on the Government Front Bench there are six women out of a total of 17. As regards Whips, equality really reigns because we have three male and three female Whips. Therefore congratulations are due.

Perhaps I may also congratulate Wales. My noble friend Lady Gale was right in emphasising the achievements there. However, I was interested to hear about the French experience, but we have new

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1030

legislation and we do not know whether we will follow them. I believe that sometimes the French are better placed in following us, but that is for another debate.

On the importance of childcare, I am powerfully supportive of the comments made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Greenfield and Lady Greengross. Obstacles face women who want to return to work—for instance, the lack of decent childcare—and our new strategy to expand childcare provision particularly in disadvantaged areas has already benefited more than 1 million children. The Government have legislated so that from April this year, employers must seriously consider requests to work flexibly from employees with children under six and disabled children under 18. We recognise that not everyone who wants to work flexibly is a parent. Therefore, the Government have taken action by introducing time off for workers with dependants for family emergencies.

We also want to see more women in this House and in another place. The Government want to encourage more women to apply to join the boards of our public bodies, because only about one third of the places are held by women and just under 2 per cent by women from minority ethnic communities. We have pledged that by 2005 women should hold about half of all appointments. For example, in the Lord Chancellor's Department 43 per cent of appointments should be held by women and 4.5 per cent by members of ethnic minorities by 2005. Last year, the Government ran a series of seminars to encourage more women to enter public life. I spoke in Leicester to minority ethnic women and it was a delightful occasion. We certainly hope that many more women will come forward.

Domestic violence was touched on lightly by my noble friend Lady Gould. I agree that the statistics in that regard are truly shocking. However, we are trying to take positive steps to address the issue. My department is also taking action by improving the way in which the different jurisdictions interact and we are providing £2.5 million over the next three years for a children's fund to develop and expand the provision of supervised contact centres.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, spoke about women pensioners. She is right in saying that they are among the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. That is why we have introduced a range of policies which directly benefit women, including the state second pension; a particular ballast relating to carers, as has been noted by my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley; the stakeholder pensions; and pension sharing on divorce.

I turn briefly to address some of the issues raised by my noble friend Lord Winston. He is right in saying that women have to face the difficulties presented by biology. I am grateful to him for his most thoughtful speech. I say in reply that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence is to issue guidelines so that the latest knowledge and the best practice are available to all parts of the NHS. The health authorities and trusts right across the country will be expected to implement the NICE guidelines in full. In that way, we will be

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1031

assisted in our determination to ensure that in future couples receive fairer and faster access to clinically cost-effective and appropriate fertility treatment.

We have had the most splendid and delightful debate. Perhaps it was not long enough; I am sure that noble Lords could have gone into a great deal more

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1032

depth on many of the issues. However, I rejoice in all the contributions that have been made and I hope that real attention will be paid to what noble Lords have had to say. All the points were extremely well made.

        House adjourned at nineteen minutes before eight o'clock.

6 Mar 2003 : Column 1031


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page