Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I will not repeat the evidence in that report, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, referred, but it showed that we women bring not just equal ability but something different to the table. When we get on to those boards, or arrive anywhere, what is it about us that makes a difference? The noble Lord, Lord Sugar, perhaps gave us a clue when he talked about his experience of women executives being more focused and lacking in ego in the way that they made their contributions to his organisations. Perhaps we will never have a clear answer to the question, and the simple fact that we make a positive impact might be reason enough.

However, something is getting in the way of us achieving the access that we need to make a difference in more of those major corporations-a difference that would be in everyone's interest. There is recent evidence from research taken among women managers already working in big organisations that low self-confidence is creating a barrier to their chances of reaching the boardroom. However, the same cannot be said for all women. Indeed, increasing numbers of younger women in particular are aspiring to run their own businesses.

It seems that when we can control the criteria that determine our success, little gets in our way. I do not think that we as women need more self-confidence in our ability, we just need to be more confident that the choices we make and the priorities we have as women reinforce what makes us different, and therefore valuable. We also need more confidence that those who control the channels of opportunity, especially in big business, want successful and able women from all backgrounds to put themselves forward.

Finally, I will mention a small group of women in Nottingham who I know well. So that they know I am talking about them, because they tell me that they are following my progress, I shall share with noble Lords the name they jokingly give themselves. They call themselves the riff-raff girls. Between them they have won battles with cancer, and they have coped with widowhood, some of them at a young age when they still had young families, with the loss of close family members in tragic circumstances, some of them including their children, and with the other kinds of everyday trials and tribulations that ordinary women with modest incomes face and cope with all the time. What makes these ladies so special-and I stress the word "ladies", as these women, most of whom are pensioners, are most certainly not riff-raff-is their zest and joy for life. These women face challenges every day, but they never let that get in the way of having an honest good time. I would like to dedicate my speech in this debate about women to those very special ladies.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1217

2.01 pm

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton for instigating this centennial debate and for all her work on behalf of women over many decades, including her expert chairing of the Women's National Commission, which I, too, had the privilege to chair between 1999 and 2002 before handing over to the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser.

It is a very great shame that, as we celebrate 100 years of International Women's Day, we also acknowledge the demise, in the past few months, of the Women's National Commission, a body that has represented the entire women's voluntary sector since the Wilson Government, and through all Governments until now. I have to say to the Minister, who I know takes her brief very seriously, that abolishing the WNC will be seen as short-sighted, not only in the years to come but now, with the Government's current promotion of concepts such as the big society, which we know can work only if it is organised and driven by women.

In the course of 100 years, women's lives in this country have changed out of all recognition. Hugely improved health and education systems, universal suffrage, access to family planning, and some control over economic independence through entry to the labour market, all add up to incredible progress. Yet before we become too self-congratulatory, we have only to look at the hard facts in any area of UK life to pull us up short. In the political arena, for instance, we see that, since women gained the vote, there have only ever been 32 female Cabinet Ministers-32, my Lords, in 82 years. I am proud that 21 of those were Labour Cabinet Ministers, and that former Cabinet Ministers are taking part in this debate, but the shortness of the list is derisory, spanning as it does two centuries.

In the world of work, women are still vulnerable, despite many advances. The present speed and scale of public sector cuts is not helping that vulnerability. The recent labour force survey finds that the cuts will lead to hundreds of thousands of job losses for women, as my noble friend Lady Morgan has said, because women form 53 per cent of the jobs in public sector services that have not been protected from the cuts. These are all held by women. It is clear that, despite the coalition's expectation that,

women are bearing the brunt of the present cuts.

Finally, I briefly mention the world of the boardroom, as mentioned by several others this morning. I very much welcome the report of my noble friend Lord Davies of Abersoch, Women on Boards. It is a vital contribution to the debate on achieving more women in decision-making roles in our economy. Since the crash of 2008, a much wider pool of executive talent is needed more urgently than ever. As my noble friend points out, only 12.5 per cent of directors of FTSE 100 companies are presently women. This is not a statistic of which any of us can be proud. Does the Minister agree that companies and CEOs will take the problem of a lack of diversity on company boards seriously only if the spectre of legislation casts its shadow over them? Would she also give the House

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1218

some idea of how the Government intend to respond to my noble friend's 10 recommendations, especially as boards and chairmen are being asked to announce their goals in response to his report within the next six months?

This has so far been a positive, expert, useful and sparkling debate, with wonderful maiden speeches. If we ask ourselves how women have fared in the past 100 years, the reply of Mao Tse-Tung, when he was asked what the lessons of the French Revolution were, would suffice: "It is too soon to tell".

2.06 pm

Lord Loomba: My Lords, I am delighted that your Lordships' House is debating the global and domestic challenges of women to mark this year's International Women's Day. I first thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould.

I will focus on widows around the world who are poor, illiterate, unable to find work, and disadvantaged. In 2008, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, widely known as Chatham House, conducted a survey on widows. It found that discrimination against widows is widespread, and a global problem, as they are treated worse than the general female population.

I declare my interest as the founder and chairman trustee of the Loomba Foundation, a UN-accredited global charity that has raised awareness of the plight of widows around the world since 1997, when it was established in the UK. Last year, we commissioned a comprehensive research study on widows, which revealed that there are over 245 million widows, and 500 million children, who suffer in silence. One hundred million widows live in poverty, struggling to survive, and 1.5 million children of widows will die before they reach their fifth birthday. It also revealed that widowed women experience targeted murder, rape, prostitution, forced marriage, property theft, eviction, social isolation, and physical and psychological abuse. Children of widows face horrors such as child marriage, illiteracy, loss of schooling, forced labour, human trafficking, homelessness and rape.

Without a doubt, it is a huge problem that has not been adequately addressed by the UN or any nation so far. Unfortunately, the number of widows is increasing in the world, mainly through poverty, HIV/AIDS and conflict. We can see that the conflict in Libya will sadly leave many women as widows. In Afghanistan, due to the war, there are more than 2 million widows in a country with a population of just 26.6 million. Afghan widows are often displaced from their homes by their in-laws.

I am happy to say that, through our tireless campaign, last year the United Nations declared 23 June as International Widows Day, which was initially launched by the Loomba Foundation here at the House of Lords in 2005. The UN-recognised International Widows Day is an effective platform for national Governments, NGOs, corporates and individuals to focus on to highlight the plight of impoverished widows throughout the world. It is, indeed, the commencement of a journey to restore widows' rights and dignity, and to empower them, that will also enable the UN to meet the millennium development goals on extreme poverty, healthcare,

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1219

education, equality and empowerment. For too long, widows have been neglected and sidelined in the policy-making process. They must be at the heart of this process.

2.10 pm

Baroness Browning: My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, not just for opening the debate in such a splendid way but for bringing it to the Floor of your Lordships' House today. She mentioned the 1990 UN Conference on Women, which I was very privileged to attend as government co-chairman of the Women's National Commission. It is worth reflecting that although that was just 16 years ago, much of the debate at that time was around the fate of the girl child, recognising that in some parts of the world simply to be born female was almost an automatic death sentence. We might feel 16 years later that we have moved on, and in many ways we have. Looking at the Government's programme on UK aid over the next four years, which other contributors have mentioned today, it is very encouraging to see that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has the theme of the needs of girls and women going through that document and statement. Others have mentioned individual parts of it-the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, mentioned it in her remarks. I was pleased to see that the Government intend to focus on issues such as the number of women whose lives are lost, some at a very early age through pregnancy and childbirth.

We have been fortunate in this country in successive Secretaries of State at DfID who have grasped the agenda and kept the focus. The Government have set priorities for women's health, for example. Women need to be assisted to become more economically able through programmes that sometimes seem to us in the West rather small steps, such as allowing and enabling women to set up very small-scale businesses through which they can sell some of what they produce to get them out of the downward cycle that ultimately for many leads to ill health for them and their families, and all too often death. These are big issues. In some ways they make the needs that we try to fight for as women in this country almost insignificant when we are still talking of so many millions of people, particularly women and children, for whom every day is a battle for life or death in one way or another.

Having set that down as my opening remarks, I will move on to some domestic agendas. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that coming out of the UN Conference on Women was something that we described back in 1995 as the mainstreaming of issues for women through government departments. I would like her to take that on board. I am sad that the Government have decided that the Women's National Commission should be abolished, and I hope that they will reflect on that. I also hope that my noble friend will take back to the Government what has happened to the the need that was identified in 1995 to look at every policy that a Government produce and ask how it impacts on women. To benchmark women is not an expensive exercise; it does not need a big budget, just a change of practice. All government departments would benefit from reintroducing that and making sure that it works.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1220

Having represented a very rural seat-sadly no longer there-in the heart of God's own county, Devon, for many years, I am familiar with the needs of women in rural communities. Many of the issues that I hope will be at the top of the Government's priority list domestically are domestic violence and the difficulties of women, particularly in remote rural areas where they do not take their part in society even now, as many of us are able to do. Rural isolation is a big problem for many, particularly women. If you live in a very remote farmhouse that is accessible only by private transport and you are the victim of domestic violence, it is difficult to get out of the house and seek help, even if you are strong enough to do that. I hope that the Government will take on board the need to identify those women in their locations and that they will benchmark that in the way in which they have given priority to overseas aid.

2.16 pm

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Gould for this debate today. She really is an inspiration to us all.

I want to speak about the global challenge faced by one woman in particular. She is one of the most remarkable people it has been my privilege to meet. Her name is Sarah de Carvalho and she is the key founder of Happy Child International, an organisation that was established in 1993 to help street children in Brazil. Its aim is to rescue, restore and reintegrate these children into their families and society and to save them from dangerous and violent street life, especially child prostitution.

Sarah began her work by establishing a mission in Belo Horizonte, which is in the south of Brazil. After 18 years of operations, this mission is now completely self-funding and has a local team of 60 staff. The mission has so far rescued more than 8,000 street children. The model of Belo Horizonte is now being replicated in Recife in north-east Brazil where girls as young as 10 are engaging in prostitution for the price of a meal-approximately £1.50 in our terms. Many of their clients are from Europe, and political recognition of this fact is needed to really tackle the global problem of child prostitution, which sadly is on the rise.

I witnessed the phenomenon of child prostitution when I visited north-east Brazil a few years ago. The sight of these young vulnerable children being used by their pimps to entice men who had arrived on the rich tourist cruise ships is one that I have never forgotten. This memory is just one of the reasons why I have become the proud patron of Happy Child International. Currently there are no projects to help the young girls who inevitably have their babies in the street. That is why the plans for the Recife mission include a maternity unit.

Another major reason why I am patron of Happy Child International is Sarah herself. I said earlier that Sarah is remarkable, which is a great understatement. She is totally dedicated to her work raising money for her projects to house homeless girls and teach them how to form proper relationships with other human beings. She works with individuals and organisations to do this. Sarah and her team have brought hope and happiness to children who have had little other happiness

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1221

in their young lives. It is more than 200 years since slavery was abolished in the UK, yet children are still enslaved in Brazil to enforced prostitution, violent gangs and abuse by adults. Happy Child International believes that there are 12 major evils facing a Brazilian street child: violence, poverty, prostitution, fear, criminal gangs, abuse, drugs, exploitation, abandonment, loneliness, despair, and finally death.

Despite efforts of the Lula Government and the current Government, Brazil still contains far too many street children. In the run-up to two important future events in Brazil-the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016-the prospect of more young girls becoming prostitutes is high. That is why Happy Child International is determined to continue its work in Recife. It is also planning to open a third city mission in Africa, which links in with the fact that most of the Brazilian street children today are the descendents of African slaves, mainly from Angola and Mozambique.

About the future, Sarah says:

"Our work in Brazil and Africa over the years ahead will be tough and the challenges many, but nothing compares with seeing a life transformed from the hopelessness of the streets to a life of stability, love and opportunity".

On International Women's Day, let us celebrate this woman and this organisation, which are making a difference in a difficult world.

2.21 pm

Baroness Benjamin: My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate and thank the noble Baroness for securing it, as it celebrates the victories and challenges that women have faced and are facing across the globe. I congratulate all noble Baronesses on their excellent maiden speeches, which highlight the great contribution that women have made to society.

Over 100 years ago, here in Britain, women fought and died to get the vote, to get their voices heard. In 1955, my dear friend and mentor Lady Lothian, who was fondly known as Tony, co-created the Women of the Year Lunch, to celebrate women's professional achievements. I was proud to be chair of the lunch for five years, and I am pleased to say that the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, now presides over the lunch.

In the 1960s, the feminist, bra-burning, women's lib movement set the scene and signalled the beginning of real change towards equality. Huge advances were made; hard-working women such as my mother and many others made sacrifices for their daughters in order for them to succeed. We are all aware that it has taken longer for some individuals and organisations to embrace change. Nevertheless, real change has been made, and many women have crossed that invisible barrier. They are educated, influential and powerful in many areas of society. But we all know that there are still many women yet to make that quantum leap. Some are facing numerous challenges-of abuse of every kind, trying to keep their families together, watching their sons dying from gun and knife crime and wars. But many have not given up hope; they are fighting back; they are survivors and nurturers. Some have set up projects to change young people's attitudes, and are succeeding.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1222

Despite all this progress, here we are in the 21st century, on the eve of the centenary of International Women's Day, witnessing an avalanche of imagery and media promotion of highly sexualised behaviour by women. Children and young people are being influenced so strongly to believe that fame, riches and happiness can be achieved by using sex as a commodity. We all know that the sexual exploitation of women is ageless but, in recent times, the globalisation of the media-and that includes the internet-has led to an explosion of the sexual objectification of women. Women are being encouraged, paid and enticed to portray themselves in more and more explicit sexual ways, and the media are all too happy to give them the platform to do so. There are even websites where young girls advertise for sugar daddies. I am sad to say women have been commercialised and used both to objectify women and to make money.

Of course, many of the organisations which employ women in this way are owned and run by men. The odd thing is that many of the women involved will argue that they are liberated and free to choose what they do. But I believe there is a strong element of powerful persuasion at work which makes many women consider that this path is the only way in which to become successful, especially nowadays in the pop music industry, where some of the performances and videos are so sexually explicit. Recent studies have shown that many young girls are so heavily influenced by the success of glamour models, footballers' wives, pop singers and talent show singers that they aspire to join their ranks rather than follow a career in teaching, law, medicine, science or technology. They just want to be rich and famous. Of course, the reality is that glamour, fame and fortune, social gratification and success are rarely the reward.

My main worry is that, while all this is happening, children and young people are soaking up the imagery and accepting the messages and culture they portray as the norm. In the era in which we now live, children and young people are losing their innocence far too early as they are exposed relentlessly to this sex-object culture. I am sure that the valiant women who over the decades fought and sacrificed to win equality and recognition for women's place in society would be appalled by the way in which many women in the 21st century allow themselves to be exploited, degraded and manipulated.

I believe we have opened a Pandora's box. Things have been taken to the extreme and, sadly, I have no answer as to how we can reverse the trend in the sexual objectification of women, and how to protect our children against its influence. But I do know that the global and domestic challenge is for women to join together and lead the fight against it, and to put frameworks in place to address the problem-to go all-out to promote positive role models, and for women to stop allowing themselves to be exploited by the culture of sexualisation for the sake of their daughters and their granddaughters. If they do not, where will it end?

2.25 pm

Baroness Coussins: My Lords, I, too, must start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for initiating this debate, and by congratulating all six of today's

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1223

maiden speakers for treating us to such inspiring and interesting maiden speeches.

I want to raise two questions about women and the United Nations. The first concerns Security Council Resolution 1325, about the role of women in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction. This is an issue that I have raised in your Lordships' House before, because I have been concerned that the Government have not been doing all that they could do to help to implement the resolution-for example, by nominating sufficient well qualified women for specialist posts. I am pleased that the Government have published the national action plan on implementing the resolution, but several NGOs, not least the United Nations Association of the UK, still have concerns. One of these is the perceived lack of senior-level leadership behind the plan. Can the Minister reassure the House on that point? The second concern is about cross-departmental co-ordination, which is an obvious need. What mechanisms will be used to achieve this? Thirdly, can the Minister say what funding has been specifically allocated to backing the action plan?

The question of funding also lies at the heart of the second issue I want to raise-the resourcing of the new agency, UN Women, which the noble Baronesses, Lady Gould and Lady Kinnock, have mentioned. Leading NGOs, including UNA-UK and Voluntary Service Overseas, have called on the Government to clarify their position as a supporter of this new agency and to commit the resources which will allow it to fulfil its purpose. I strongly associate myself with these requests and ask the Minister to make it a matter of urgency to clear up this uncertainty over the financial viability of UN Women. The agency has, after all, only just been launched and provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the UN to improve the livelihoods of women around the world.

Despite the advances and advantages of life in the 21st century for all of us in this Chamber, globally 1,000 women still die each day in pregnancy or childbirth. Violence against women accounts for more deaths among women between 15 and 44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. In Peru alone, a country with which I am proud to be associated on behalf of VSO's projects on access to justice for victims of domestic violence, an astonishing 50 per cent of women and girls have been subject to violence during their lifetime-the majority of them when they were aged between 10 and 17. Only five months ago, there was a powerful joint statement by the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Development Secretary, declaring an expectation that the new agency, UN Women, would be,

But we cannot expect only other Governments to provide UN Women with resources to fulfil that purpose. The sad truth is that it is already facing a shortfall of $300 million. Its target budget of $500 million is in any case only a fraction of the more than $3 billion allocated to UNICEF, and VSO for one has calculated that a more realistic budget would be at least $1 billion a year. Even that would still account for just 4 per cent of all UN spending.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1224

I share VSO's view that the emphasis the coalition Government have placed on women and girls as target groups in development policy is to be warmly welcomed. But will the Minister today undertake to respond positively to the Godmothers campaign being spearheaded by VSO to secure an annual core funding commitment of £21 million from the UK Government to the new UN Women agency? That would represent just 0.2 per cent of the UK's overseas aid budget, so it cannot be dismissed as just an extravagant demand in times of financial restraint. It would show the kind of leadership that could help leverage similar commitments from other major donors.

2.31 pm

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, in this centenary year, it gives me the greatest pleasure to congratulate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, for instigating this annual debate. She contributes on women's issues whenever she gets the opportunity and shares her passion and wide knowledge with the House.

It is always good to take stock once a year and see where the country has come from and where we hope to be going in the years ahead. I wish to honour again Emmeline Pankhurst and her brave army of suffragettes who endured so much in their efforts to ensure universal suffrage and for the first time entitle women to cast their votes in the ballot box. I went as a five year-old with my grandmother to the polling station and was left outside as I was not allowed in. She told me with great force that I must always use my vote because she had had to wait so many years before she had had the opportunity. As a result, I have treasured that right and always pass the message on whenever I am on the doorstep.

Over the years, women's role in society has changed out of all recognition, with women now holding high office in every sphere of society and public life. That has been accomplished in spite of expectations that it can be done while mothers juggle all the responsibilities of bringing up a family. I marvel at the dexterity of so many energetic young women as they appear to manage it all and still look a million dollars. I wonder, however, if too much is expected. Some may thrive on their hectic lives, but for some, the pull of motherhood at home with young children can put an enormous strain on the rest of the family. There should be much more flexibility so that, particularly with children under school age, mothers can enjoy those few cherished years before children fly away. I am always sceptical about the phrase "Yes, you can have it all". Giving birth is a precious gift that only women have and rearing children should be regarded as an important qualification for future employment. Skills are acquired along the way so it is not surprising that a large number of women start their own businesses and nearly always make a huge success at them. I am sure that such women would have much to add to the boardroom.

Quotas are anathema. They are so patronising and demeaning to women, who should be appointed because they have the talent and skills required by a company rather than just because they are women. Each generation has its thrusters. I support them wholeheartedly and

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1225

we need them to carry on the thrust forward. I hope that we will always be compassionate: a society where family life will be respected so that everyone flourishes and not one where everyone is in a straitjacket and expected to fit into a narrow uniformity. This country flourishes on its diversity and it is our responsibility to ensure that it remains so.

2.35 pm

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend on opening the debate, which she has done for more years than I care to remember. She commands such respect and affection that the other Labour Peers appointed with her, all two of us, have always supported her in this debate on International Women's Day.

In the early days, we discussed challenges such as the barriers to women in the caring professions, now reinvented as the big society. As others have reminded us, today we have a report on the barriers that women face on getting onto the boards of the FTSE 100 companies. That illustrates the progress made in our expectations of women, but also confirms that many barriers remain. But is that all that women really need or want in the world of business? Surely, it is also important that women should be where the action is, playing their part as executives in a business rather than as the token directors on the board.

The boards of our major companies are important in today's world, but tomorrow's world of business is rapidly emerging. Surely that is where we want our best brains and those special skills that women bring-skills about which my noble friend Lord Sugar and the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, spoke. New business models are springing up everywhere in finance and in searching and using the internet. There are new business models incorporating climate change, new science, and the so-called experience economy. I hope that the Minister agrees with me that that is where women must be to play their full roles.

Other speakers have shown that in today's world there are special dangers for women. When women joined the armed services they were not expected to fight on the front line, but in today's conflict who knows where the front line is? As a result, we are slowly learning of the extra bravery shown by women in our Armed Forces.

As others have said, sexual violence itself has become a tool of war. Women reporters must also show this extra bravery. The noble Lord, Lord Black, told us how women reporters encounter special abuse, especially when things are in turmoil. Among all the excitement, who noticed that a woman CBS reporter was sexually assaulted in Cairo? You cannot just leave this to men. It is equally important to report the impact of revolution and change on the lives of women as on the lives of men.

As my noble friend Lady Gould said, the Labour Government recognised the special dangers and barriers that women face because of their gender. Do the new Government recognise and acknowledge these barriers, and will they continue the good work of the previous Government?

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1226

2.38 pm

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, first, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lady Gould for initiating this debate and for her tireless work for women over many years.

The theme of this year's Commission on the Status of Women that is currently taking place at the UN is:

"Access and participation of women and girls to education, training, science and technology, including for the promotion of women's equal access to full employment and decent work".

That seems like a good starting point for today's debate in terms of how the UK is measuring up to those goals.

Overall, the past decade has been a great success story for girls in education. They do better than boys at basic standards of literacy and numeracy at age 11 and are leaving boys behind in terms of their attainment at GCSE and A-levels. In addition, in 2008-09, for the first time, more than 50 per cent of young women entered higher education, compared to only 40 per cent of young men. However, behind those statistics are some major causes for concern, because, in the UK, women continue to be underrepresented on courses for physical science, technologies, mathematical and computer science and engineering. In fact, in some areas, we are going backwards. For example, five years ago, 24 per cent of computer science students were women, whereas now the figure is only 19 per cent. Meanwhile, women increasingly dominate more traditional female subjects such as teacher training, where they now make up 76 per cent of students and where 85 per cent of primary school teachers are now female, and nursing and nutrition, where women make up 82 per cent of students. Women are also overrepresented in arts and humanities degrees.

I have talked a lot about students, but these same issues run throughout the education system. A recent report for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which looked at the career aspirations of 14 to 18 year-olds, found that the top three jobs that girls believe that they would be working in were teaching, childcare and beauty. At a time when we have much to celebrate about women's success in education, there are also considerable concerns about the subject choices that they make and the consequences for their future careers. Of course, there are numerous reasons why girls make those choices. Parental aspiration and peer pressure clearly play a role, as do the media and celebrity portrayals, but in terms of practical politics, there are things that the Government could be doing now to open up new opportunities for girls at school. I have time for just a few examples.

First, there is evidence that career and subject advice in schools continues to stereotype pupil choices and needs to broaden the offer, both academically and vocationally. Secondly, more needs to be done to encourage young men to become primary school teachers. That could help develop alternative role models and perhaps facilitate better teaching of science and technology at that early age. Thirdly, a programme to raise the educational attainment of working-class girls should be introduced to help to break the cycle of early motherhood, low parental skills, low family income and high unemployment. Fourthly, the Government

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1227

should rethink their plans to abolish coursework and re-emphasise exams at GCSE level, as that will disadvantage girls and measure a very narrow set of skills. Finally, the Government should reassess their priorities for funding higher education to ensure that our arts, humanities and social sciences retain their rightful place in the spectrum of courses on offer and at which, currently, women excel.

The Commission on the Status of Women has set us a challenge. It is an issue on which the UK should be leading the world. Let us hope that we can continue to make progress in broadening opportunities for women and not have to look back at the past 20 years as a high point of women's educational achievement.

2.43 pm

Baroness Hussein-Ece: My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for securing this important debate and giving us an opportunity to contribute. I also congratulate all the women who made such excellent maiden speeches today.

Last Saturday, I was a guest at an event organised by the Association of Turkish Women in the UK, an umbrella organisation. It was a fundraising event for Mor Çati-it means "purple roof"-a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence in Istanbul. It receives no government funding and relies on volunteers. Violence against women and girls is shockingly universal and one of the most widespread human rights violations around the world. It is widespread in rich and poor countries. In Turkey, as in other parts of the world, in the past few years the protection of women has improved from a legal perspective. However, it is in practice, through education and enforcement, that we really need change.

Some say that countries such as Turkey, seen as a patriarchal society where domestic violence is seen as a way to maintain power in relationships both in public and at home, have higher incidence of violence against women. Although the issue of violence against women has received relatively more government and public attention in recent years, many Turkish women still do not have the courage to express their need for help. The Mor Çati Kadin Siginagi Vafki, the Purple Roof Women's Shelter Foundation, established in 1990 in Istanbul, was the first women's organisation in Turkey involved in the protection and support of women experiencing domestic violence.

The year of 1987 holds special importance for the women's movement in Turkey. For the first time, a group of feminists organised a resistance campaign following a judge's comment, in turning down a woman's claim for divorce, that:

As your Lordships can imagine, this caused widespread anger and demonstrations, and was a catalyst for bringing women together to organise and campaign under the banner of, "There is no legal violence". A solidarity network was created with the support of doctors and lawyers. In January 1989, a telephone helpline was created offering legal and practical support for victims of violence. Eventually, the Mor Çati refuge

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1228

was established. There is consensus that crimes of so-called honour emanate from cultural and not religious roots, and they can be found worldwide, mainly in patriarchal societies or communities. Honour, for men, is connected with women's behaviour because they are seen as the property of the family and of the community. When women violate those standards, that is deemed a direct blow to the man's sense of identity.

In 1990, together with a small group of Turkish, Turkish Cypriot and Kurdish women, I set up the first domestic violence project for women from those communities in London. It was in the aftermath of a number of high-profile cases where women were attacked, and in a few cases killed, by their husbands. One woman was stabbed to death in the street in Hackney outside her house when her husband was let out on bail after attacking her. She was not told that he was going to be released. That cost her her life.

It was a struggle, and no exaggeration to say that we were subjected to threats and intimidation from men from those communities, who were threatened by our work. I was accused of working to separate women from their husbands, but we persevered. We secured premises and funding. Today, Imece, the Turkish-speaking women's project in Islington, which is still going strong, remains one of my proudest achievements. It has helped thousands of women and has saved many lives.

Much has improved in the intervening years in increased public awareness, zero tolerance and prevention-letting women know that they can get help. In London a few years ago, I was moved by the case where a Kurdish father was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murdering his 15 year-old daughter, Tulay, because she fell in love with a man. In passing sentence, the judge told the court:

"He killed his own daughter because he believed that she had shamed him, his conviction today shows that the true shame was, and always will be his to bear".

Her body has never been found.

My grandmothers had marriages arranged for them at the age of 14. They had no schooling. My mother went to school until she was 12, and she was the first girl in her family to go to school. She had an arranged marriage when she arrived in the UK. For me, just one generation later, to be here in your Lordships' House, is considered astonishing.

I pay tribute to the generations who have gone before me, who made it possible and make the sacrifices. They gave me a passion to fight for equality and social justice. Ending violence against women is one of the five priority areas that UN Women will be focusing on, and for the millennium development goals. We must not take our foot off that accelerator.

2.48 pm

Baroness Ritchie of Brompton: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for initiating this important debate, and congratulate all the women who today have made their maiden speeches.

One area has been an ongoing issue throughout history and continues to have a huge impact on the lives of many women. I refer to rape of women during conflict. According to Amnesty International, rape is now used as a deliberate military strategy. Figures for the number of rape victims are never accurate, as

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1229

many women feel too ashamed to report rape, but the Alliance for Direct Action against Rape in Conflict and Crises has estimated that a minimum of 2 million women in conflict zones were subjected to rape between 1990 and 2006.

In 2010 the UN estimated that there have been 11,000 rapes of women and men and girls and boys in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UN's special representative on sexual violence in conflict, looking into this issue in east Congo where both government and rebel troops use sexual violence as a military strategy, reports one victim saying to her, "A dead rat is worth more than the body of a woman".

Last week for the first time a military court in east Congo, investigating a case of mass rape, sentenced a senior commanding officer to 20 years in prison, finding him guilty of crimes against humanity for sending his troops in to rape, loot and brutalise the population of Fizi on New Year's Day. Unusually, 49 women appeared to testify and eight other soldiers were also sentenced. This is a start, but we have much more to do.

The UK is a member of the UN Security Council. We can take a lead on ensuring that all perpetrators of war rape are brought to justice as war criminals. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which has already been referred to, addressed for the first time the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women. It emphasises that rape is a war crime and all states need to prosecute those responsible, regardless of amnesties. Resolution 1820 on sexual violence in conflicts recalls the inclusion of rape and sexual violence offences in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and stresses that all member states should comply with their obligations to prosecute persons responsible for such acts. Despite these resolutions, a recent report, Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War, led by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, found that,

Will the Minister urge the Government to push for urgent action through the UN to ensure that all perpetrators of sexual violence are brought to justice?

We can also help to strengthen the justice systems of fragile states through training, diplomatic measures and post-conflict reconstruction of judicial and military institutions and law enforcement. I welcome the latest trials in east Congo, but we need to develop ways of supporting victims and witnesses through international advocacy and a witness protection fund to support many more women who need our help.

2.53 pm

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate and thank my noble friend, Lady Gould, for introducing it and the manner in which she did so.

We should be considering, it seems to me, how far we have come and how much we owe to previous generations of women. The last century saw really major advances in women's rights. At the beginning, women did not have the vote, they had only very

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1230

limited access to higher education-women were felt not to need education-and had few career opportunities. If women had jobs, those would be of low status and low paid and women were expected to leave those jobs if they got married. Equal pay was a far-off dream. Women did not have control over their own bodies and there was limited access to birth control centres, which were only available if one was married or about to be married. Abortion was an impossibility, leading to a growth in back-street abortionists with the resultant damage to women's health and even lives.

A great deal has changed. Access to work and basic rights at work have meant that women have achieved a degree of independence they did not have before. They no longer have to stay in relationships that are unsatisfactory. It has become possible to have a career and to have children, as maternity leave and childcare have become available. Of course many improvements could still be made, but this should not detract from the gratitude we should feel to previous generations of women who achieved so much.

The media in this country have done a great deal to bring politics and politicians into disrepute through emphasis on the misdemeanours of a few. This has resulted in some younger people turning away from politics and political involvement. That is wrong. Previous generations of women achieved what they did through organisation: they became involved in politics; they joined unions; they came out on strike for equal pay; they became politicised and campaigned for changes in the law to deal with discrimination. They were successful in securing legislation which outlawed discrimination against women in a whole range of activities. The campaigns still continue, of course, and there are now signs, I am glad to say, that younger people are participating.

Such campaigning is becoming essential, since the times we are now facing are going to be particularly difficult for women. The Prime Minister is now in favour of something called the "big society", but what does it mean? It is apparently about getting people involved and working together in communities, and a great deal of support is promised to voluntary bodies. However, the biggest group of voluntary organisations is the trade union movement, which is not mentioned. Trade unions exist to fight for the rights of their members, who are ordinary working people, but the coalition Government appear to threaten a number of these rights. This is apparent from recently issued proposals dealing with the rights of employees.

Cuts in public services will mean cuts in job opportunities. Some 65 per cent of the jobs in the public sector are held by women. Welfare benefits, including benefits of particular concern to women, are also to be cut, along with child support, tax credits and perhaps housing benefit. Women, particularly low-paid women, tend to be more reliant on public services. Social care for the elderly may be affected as local authorities seek to cut back on expenditure. Carers are mostly women. It is all very well to talk about volunteering, but not if this is intended to take the place of public sector services in which women have been employed. Are they to work for nothing as volunteers in public service work for which they should

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1231

be paid? How are they to live? Are they to live on benefits, which are now being reformed-or should I say reduced?

These so-called reforms may well cancel many of the advances made in the last century. There is every indication that the present generation of young women will not be content to be hassled out of the workforce and back into a traditional, home-based environment. They will do what previous generations have done-organise and insist on their rights.

One can scarcely talk about women's rights without a passing reference to the amazing events occurring in the Arab world. This is a region that has been notorious for its neglect of basic human rights, particularly of women. At our meetings we have often lamented the appalling oppression of women in countries where extremist religious views have dominated. It was wonderful to see, therefore, TV films of protesters in Egypt and Tunisia where women appeared to be playing a role in the struggle for freedom and democracy. We have yet to see what eventually happens in the region. The dominant demand is for democracy, but there can be no democracy if women's human rights are denied. The women we saw on TV clearly recognised this, and we must all wish them well.

2.58 pm

Baroness Afshar: My Lords, I would like to add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for yet again initiating this debate. I had the great pleasure of serving under her leadership when she was the chair of the Women's National Commission when I was a commissioner, which I must say was a wonderful experience.

I congratulate our new noble Baronesses, who are clearly good feminists and fantastic additions. In particular, I would like to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady King, who was once one of my students. I am basking in the reflected glory of her excellent speech.

I would also like to declare an interest. I am the honorary president of the Muslim Women's Network, which only exists thanks to the great care and support given to it by the Women's National Commission. Our network spent two years helping a very disparate group of Muslim women to get together to find ways of becoming an organisation which is now working effectively right through the UK, and it is a matter of great regret that other organisations such as ours will not find their feet because there is no WNC to help them.

I want to speak about the experiences of Muslim women in this country and, in particular, about the problem that the hijab or niqab-the covering-has been seen as an emblem of subordination that has been used to identify Muslim women as a category as submissive, as if women were forced to cover because some bloke told them to do so. As a third-generation Muslim feminist, I can assure your Lordships that I am not likely ever to cover, because my grandmother fought against the veil. However, I feel that it is right for women to choose how they dress and to be respected for the way that they dress. To reply to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, many Muslim

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1232

women cover in order not to be the object of the gaze or to be assessed as pretty, ugly, naked or dressed. It is a way for them-I am talking about young women born and raised in this country-to make a public statement about denying the right of all women to be sex objects. They do not want it. This ought to be giving respect to that rather than otherising a particular category of women because of their dress code.

This otherisation also, I might say, hides a vibrant conversation going on among Muslim women about their Islamic rights and entitlements. That debate is raging not only across the internet; I have supervised three British-born girls who were initially non-Muslim-I did not convert any of them-who looked at the question of Islam and feminism. There are now three theses on the subject at the University of York, among many others. The importance of recognising and understanding Muslim women's contribution to changing Islamic law has been ignored and not understood because of the label that is given to Muslims who cover.

To help Muslim women in this country, I shall ask the Minister something that I have asked about before in this House. Would it be possible to ban the arrival of concubines from other parts of the world as wives of men who are already married to Muslim British citizens in this country? The second wife has no status but is a threat to the first wife. Secondly, is it possible that all Islamic marriages should be registered and recognised as civil marriages, so that if the marriage fails women have a comeback in law to defend their position and their children? Such registration would also protect those who are vulnerable to unilateral divorce because divorce would be subject to the courts.

3.03 pm

Lord Mitchell: My Lords, like every other noble Lord today, I thank my noble friend Lady Gould for introducing this debate. Four and a half hours are a tribute to how seriously we all take it. I also congratulate the six new Members of our House who have made their maiden speeches today. They made a phenomenal contribution and will add to the great expertise that exists in your Lordships' House.

I shall talk about an organisation called Women for Women International. I have a sort of interest to declare in that my wife Hannah sits on its international board. There is a remarkable woman called Zainab Salbi. She is Iraqi, and when she was 15 years old, because her father was a pilot for Saddam Hussein, her mother was able to get her out of the country and she went to the United States to go to university. When all the trouble started in Bosnia in 1994, she went to see what was happening there. She was so aghast at what was happening and, in particular, at the plight of women in that country that she set up this organisation.

Today, Women for Women International specialises in post-conflict zones and the issues of women in particular. Various countries are now part of the Women for Women group: Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. Each country has been subject to great ravaging and terrible consequences, particularly for

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1233

women. It is those women that Women for Women International seeks to help. It works on an interesting basis in that women, in particular, in the West, and some men, are assigned a sister in these countries. They make a donation of £20 a month and are asked to write letters to their sister to tell her that she is recognised and that there is somebody in the West who cares about what is happening. To date, there are 275,000 such sisters around the world who are receiving money and £53 million has been received by the charity.

What happens to these sisters? These women are trained and taught about their human rights, but most of all they are taught how to run a small business and how to generate income. When that happens, they become self-sufficient and can provide for their families. Women for Women also gives microloans which have been tremendously successful. Ninety-eight per cent of these microloans have been repaid. Last May, my wife and I went to Bosnia and Kosovo, which was a harrowing experience. Those conflicts may have ended 15 and 10 years ago, but to the people who are living there, it is as if they ended yesterday. We saw terrible issues which are the result of ethnic cleansing, rape and murder. Women there, particularly Muslim women, who have no confidence in themselves, are now in business. They are rearing chickens or growing mushrooms or tomatoes. The best thing we saw there was the beekeepers of Kosovo. One woman had been trained to raise bees in hives. She started off with three hives that were given to her and now has 10. She has a business and is generating €5,000 or €6,000 a year and is now training 10 other people to do the same. It was a marvellous example of how this system works. You could see the hope that these women were getting in those still terrible circumstances.

Next week, on 8 March, it will be the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. Women for Women International around the world will be linking hands across bridges from our own Millennium Bridge in London to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge in New York and other bridges around the world.

I end with particular thanks to someone who is not in her place but who is very dear to all our hearts: our Lord Speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. She has been gracious enough to host several receptions for Women for Women International in the River Room. They have been tremendous successes, and I know she does that for lots of other charities. I am sure that every Member of this House will thank her for what she does.

3.09 pm

Lord Bates: My Lords, like everyone in this debate, I rise to say how indebted we are to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for securing this opportunity to talk about these important matters. It has been a particularly good debate because of the contributions and the maiden speeches. Having six noble Baronesses giving maiden speeches in a debate on International Women's Day must be a triple-word score in politics, although the fact that it still has to be done in the House of Lords is perhaps a limitation that shows that we still have a little way to go.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1234

My contribution is on conflict. I was moved to speak in this debate while attending a NATO Parliamentary Assembly meeting last week. We got a briefing on events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was a horrific presentation. The presenter made a point which got me thinking and motivated as regards this area. He said that it is now more dangerous to be a women than to be a soldier in modern conflict. That is a profound statement, which should make us take note. The days in which gallant knights galloped off to a lonely field to settle their differences "like men"-whatever that meant-are clearly gone. Conflict in the modern era has put civilians in the front line and no macho talk about smart weapons can disguise the brutal reality. While combatants may wear armour, drive around in protected vehicles, carry weapons and empty their payloads from 10,000 feet, women and children on the ground are unprotected in their homes, schools and marketplaces. Increasingly, we are seeing how they are being used as tools of warfare, a point to which my noble friend Lady Ritchie powerfully alluded. Women are in the front line, yet their voice and presence are insufficiently felt.

My argument is not to introduce a quota approach to encourage tokenism, but to say that women and mothers are the prime victims of modern warfare and that their voice desperately needs to be heard-not for the sake of women, but for the sake of humanity. Balance in international relations means that women must push for peace more vigorously. All too often men seem to be incapable of resisting the urge for war. We need more women in the military, not to change the decor but to change the debate. As men, we need to hear the powerful voice of women.

I am in politics and I suggest that we all are because we abhor violence and want to create a free, safe and just society in which to raise our children where the rule of law operates and there is the democratic operation of government agencies. We need that voice to be heard more than ever and to be heard where it counts. This is not a criticism of men about opportunities for women. It is a call to women to take up their responsibilities in public duty in order to influence the debate at the highest echelons of the military and in politics.

We are talking today about International Women's Day. It was of course pre-dated by Mother's Day, which is an even more important date in the calendar. Today, we think of Mother's Day in terms of chocolates, cards and flowers, but it had a very serious purpose when it was first proposed by Julia Ward Howe, who we remember as the great American poet who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She came out of the horrors of the American Civil War and called for a congress of mothers to unite in the international community. She wrote the Mother's Day Proclamation. I believe that the sentiments in it are even more relevant today than they were then, for the reasons which I have stated. I will close with those words:

"Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts ...Say firmly ... Our husbands will not come to us, reekingwith carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons will not betaken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teachthem of charity, mercy and patience.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1235

We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of anothercountry to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs ... The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.Blood does not wipe out dishonour, nor violence indicate possession ...Arise then women of this day".
3.13 pm

Baroness Prosser: At that point, I arise. I join all others in thanking my noble friend Lady Gould for placing this debate on our agenda for today and remembering that it is the 100th anniversary, which makes it even more important than it has been in any other year. I shall return to a subject that has been mentioned once or twice already.

The new UN Women agency came into life on 1 January. It was launched on 24 February by Michelle Bachelet, who was previously the President of Chile and is now the head of the agency. In her speech, she outlined in broad terms some of the areas of work for which the agency will take responsibility. She said:

"In addition to our role of mobilizing, coordinating and leveraging the efforts of others, UN Women will focus on five areas ... Expanding women's voice, leadership and participation ... Ending violence against women ... Strengthening women's full participation in conflict resolution and peace processes ... Enhancing women's economic empowerment; and ... Ensuring gender priorities are reflected in national plans and budgets, including capacity to support CEDAW reporting. I am determined that UN Women will offer a new dynamic to the global dialogue on gender equality, and bring new energy, drawing on multiple talents, and bringing together men and women from different countries and communities in a shared endeavour".

When I read that, it sounded to me a bit like the global big society.

On 10 January in this House, I asked a Question which sought to elicit from Her Majesty's Government their plans to provide financial support for the new agency. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, who is in her seat, was nice in her response and very positive, but she did not mention anything about what sort of money could be expected.

Prior to my Question in January, in November 2010 in another place, a Question was asked about the possible expenditure and commitment to the new agency. The Minister in the other place replied that a decision would be made when the review of overseas aid expenditure was completed. That review was completed and published this week and we still have no word on the future funding of UN Women. In February, again in another place, the Minister advised that they were waiting now for the strategy to be agreed. While the UK is part of the executive council and that debate, I am confused as to why there continues to be a delay on announcing what our commitment will be.

Along with others, I welcome the Government's publication, UK Aid: Changing Lives, Delivering Results. There is much in it that demonstrates a good commitment and it makes many worthy statements. For example, it says:

"We will ... Help immunise more than 55 million children against preventable diseases ... Save the lives of at least 50,000 women in pregnancy and childbirth and 250,000 newborn babies ... Enable at least ten million more women to use modern methods of family planning by 2015".

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1236

These are laudable statements which are agreed by all, but they cross over the commitments we have already agreed and signed up to under the millennium development goals, so there is nothing new about them.

My argument is that demonstrating a strong and good commitment to the umbrella agency of UN Women and bringing a global and overarching approach to our work is much more likely to achieve the goals stated both in UK Aid and outlined in the millennium development goals. So what is the Government's financial commitment to UN Women going to be? The international community has recognised that there is a need for an annual budget of $500 million. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, has already mentioned that that budget is currently $300 million short. The United Kingdom has traditionally given £21 million per annum to UNICEF, and I would argue, along with others, that that ought to be our contribution to UN Women.

3.19 pm

Lord Sheikh: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for securing this important debate. International Women's Day gives us an opportunity to draw attention to the achievements made by women, often through adversity. The last 100 years is filled with numerous examples of the contributions to world history made by remarkable women such as the suffragettes, led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Rosa Parks's actions played a symbolic role in the American civil rights movement. Following her brave act, a chain of events culminated in the United States electing a President of African origin in the 21st century.

I welcome the launch of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. I am confident that this new body will improve results and efficiency when dealing with this important issue. The United Nations theme for International Women's Day this year is equal access to education. As a former visiting lecturer, I value the importance of education in giving people greater opportunities. Although there has been an increase in the number of girls who are entering tertiary education as a whole, this improvement is not reflected in poorer regions such as, for example, sub-Saharan Africa. Women have historically been deprived of chances to gain access to and further their education, and this has contributed to inequality in the workplace.

Individuals should always be employed and promoted on merit, but in spite of the large number of talented and able women across industries, very few senior positions are filled by them as a comparative ratio to men. Despite this worrying trend in commerce, women have made impressive strides both on the global political stage and in their own countries. As an employer, I have always believed in promoting staff on merit. The gender of the person is not material. I read the report of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, with interest and would appreciate it if my noble friend the Minister would respond to it.

On average, women account for close to 18 per cent of the seats across all chambers of parliament in democracies around the world. Women hold 22 per

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1237

cent of the seats in Latin American and Caribbean legislatures alone. Notable progress has also been made in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Rwanda where women account for 56 per cent of the Members in the lower Chamber. This is particularly impressive for a nation that was ravaged by war in the not-so-distant past and reflects the fact that women continue to play a pivotal role in upholding peace in formerly unstable regions.

Although this debate is a cause for celebration, I feel it is pertinent to draw attention to two particularly harrowing cases. The story of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, has resulted in the death of a Pakistani politician who spoke in her defence. Most noble Lords have probably seen the picture of Aisha, an 18 year-old Afghan girl whose nose and ears were cut off by her husband. These cases serve as a reminder that women are still facing oppression in certain parts of the world. In regard to the blasphemy laws in Pakistan under which Asia Bibi was prosecuted, it is my view that the conviction was totally wrong as Islam regards Muslims, Jews and Christians as people of the book.

Under Islam, women were given certain rights over 1,400 years ago, including the right to own properties and control their earnings. Islam has also given women the right to inheritance; they have a right to choose their husband and no one can impose a decision on them against their will. They can also apply for a divorce in the event of a matrimonial breakdown.

I chair the Conservative Muslim Forum, which is an active organisation. We have established a women's group, as we believe in the empowerment of women, and it looks at various issues concerning Muslim women in the country. It is important that a woman is educated and given every opportunity to succeed: an educated woman will play an active role in the advancement and the well-being of her children and her family as a whole.

I care about issues relating to women. I have spoken in your Lordships' House, and elsewhere, on matters concerning women that include their maternal health, education, human trafficking, domestic violence and rape as a weapon of war.

3.25 pm

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, as the last Back-Bench speaker in this debate, I too thank my noble friend Lady Gould not just for this debate today but for her dogged determination, year on year, to make sure that we have this debate. I well remember the first one, when we were tolerated in a supper-break debate lasting one hour and had to scurry round trying to get speakers, with not one man in the Chamber. We have come a long way and owe due credit to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for the work that she has done in that regard.

Perhaps the biggest compliment and thanks that she could be paid is to have six maiden speeches in the Chamber today-all feisty speeches-and we all look forward to the participation of those new Members in many debates across a very diverse area in this House. With 44 speakers on one topic, you would have thought there would have been repetition. However, I have sat

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1238

through the whole debate and there has been no repetition, because we are not just talking about women but society as it is, both domestically and internationally. There is no area that covers women that does not trespass on society as a whole, whether it is children, men or whatever it may be.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, mentioned that because this is the centenary year, we should commemorate the work that has been done for us by those women who had a much more difficult ride than we have had in getting the women's case across. I agree with that very much. I have been looking around London as a non-Londoner this week, as I have been travelling to and fro, and I have been absolutely astonished at the lack of visual demonstration of the achievements of women in the streets. You can walk up Whitehall and see many statues and commemorations-one of my favourites is the one with the ladies' coats and hats on the hooks, gone off to help in the Second World War but coming back into society-but there is a distinct lack of statues that commemorate the work of women.

We have our debates in this Chamber, but what happens outside also counts. A few years ago in this debate, I talked about a statue for Sylvia Pankhurst-an extremely controversial character-on which I do not think we will get unanimity. She did a lot for women, not just in fighting for the vote with her mother and her sister, but in the whole area of women's emancipation, particularly in the East End of London in regard to education and women's control over their own bodies. I am working with a group to reinvigorate that campaign for a statue for Sylvia and hope that this time next year, when we have our debate again, I will be able to report progress on that. I was extremely disappointed to hear that one of the remarks from within this House-although not from Members of this House, I do not think; at least I hope not-was, "Really, how could we have a statue out there to Sylvia Pankhurst so near the House, when she was never a Member and never had much to do with it?". She arrived in what is now our car park at the front from Holloway prison, where she was on a starvation strike, to come and talk; she skipped in through the passages to the then Prime Minister to talk about how we could get the vote for women. The vote for women was an extremely powerful measure in this country and we want it for all women. I hope we have some success in that area.

The Speaker has inaugurated a series of schools outreach programmes. I have been into seven sixth-forms in October and November last year. I was uplifted by the approach of young girls and how they see their lives, but I was also very depressed in some of the schools. In all our talk about emancipation, we have to work hard to make sure that the next generations coming up are not forgotten. For some of them, their aspirations and their confidence in themselves have not moved on one iota from when I was a young woman, when I was scared stiff to stand up and speak for myself and think what I could have for the future. The outreach programme is very important; I have learned from it that perhaps things in some areas need a lot of work. We must continue to strive to lift the vision of young women to make sure that they have confidence in themselves to play a full part in society.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1239

3.30 pm

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, this has been an excellent debate and a very fine way to celebrate the centenary of International Women's Day, to mark the huge achievements to date and discuss the old and new challenges that remain. Six formidable maiden speeches have enhanced our debate and it is clear that the six noble Baronesses are going to add a huge amount to debates in this Chamber; their knowledge and expertise will be invaluable as we scrutinise and revise legislation. We have also had two young women at the Table today, which must, I think, be a milestone in this House and we all celebrate that.

I pay tribute, like so many here today, to my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton for yet again taking this important initiative. This debate, now an annual event, is always a pleasure because it brings together women, and some men, from all of our Benches to discuss issues that have an impact on women's lives in this country and the wider world. There is much that we agree on and I pay tribute to the fine women that we have in this Chamber and their achievements and also to the women who came before us in this House. I used to work for Lady Castle, but I also think of Lady David, Lady Darcy de Knayth and Lady Carnegy of Lour, to name but a few, all of whom I really revered and of whom I was very fond.

I am delighted that there has been a focus on international issues. It is women who drive development on the ground; it is women and girls who so often do the hard work in the fields, in social enterprises, using micro-loans, in situations where there is conflict, often in fragile states and, of course, in nurturing families, sometimes in desperate or violent situations. It is all too often the women of this world who suffer. The many statistics we have heard today are stark. The fact that women earn just 10 per cent of the world's income and work two-thirds of the hours is just one of them. The human stories and the human misery about which we have heard are even more stark. I could weep and they make me even more resolute to act, not just for our girls and young women, as we have just heard from my noble friend Lady Dean, but for women all over the world.

Like many noble Lords, I received an excellent briefing from VSO entitled The Godmothers: Keeping UN Women on Track. I have a very high regard for the work of VSO and I hope to do a placement with them in the Whitsun Recess, treading in the footsteps of many noble Lords and Baronesses who have seen first-hand their work in the field and the impact that gender inequality has on the lives and livelihoods of women, from poor health outcomes to lack of access to income-generating opportunities. Women are too often held back simply because they are women. That is why, like so many other noble Lords, I believe that the UN women's agency is important, working globally to empower women to improve their lives and addressing the underlying causes of gender inequality. It has a huge task and I know it is one that the Government support. That is why they continue to target women and girls in development policy.

Like my noble friends, I am concerned, however, about funding and I applaud the Godmothers campaign

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1240

led by VSO calling on the Government to commit £21 million in annual core funding-just 0.2 per cent of the UK overseas aid budget-to UN Women. We look to the UN to assist women in conflict throughout the world. At the UN on 19 June 2008 seven of the 20 nations were represented by women when the Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1820 and demanded the immediate and complete halt of sexual violence against civilians in conflict zones. It was a very important moment, under the presidency of the then US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. So it is not just the technical ability and expertise which women bring, it is also the emotional intelligence that can contextualise and give voice to the aspiration of women across the globe.

On all sides of this Chamber we are involved in various aspects of civil society. We all applaud volunteering and we celebrate the work of our charities. On these Benches, however, we believe that the Government are an indispensable partner for the voluntary sector and the bedrock of a strong society. In government we had a proud record of supporting the third sector, and throughout this House we welcome people who want to volunteer. Platform 51, for example, which we used to know as the YWCA, does a great job of volunteering both within its own services and with other organisations, supporting girls and women to make positive changes in the world around them and encouraging them to give back to society.

Mr Cameron has said that he wants to make it easier for people to volunteer, and that is great, but we must not forget that people need to earn a living. They cannot do jobs for free unless they are wealthy or retired, or unless via endless juggling of family commitments they can find a few hours a week. Traditionally, of course, it is women who are at the forefront of the voluntary sector, and it is they who are now suffering disproportionately from the painful cuts that are being inflicted on the charitable sector-or the "big society", as the Government like to call it.

Not only is the big society being asked to step in to pick up the pieces when services are cut, but the scale and speed of the cuts are severely affecting the voluntary and community sectors themselves. They are confronting two enormous problems, and it is often women who are desperately trying to find solutions. Concern has been expressed by the heads of charities, the CEO of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and countless non-political people up and down the country. The NCVO has set up a brilliant website so that people are aware of the problems in their local areas, and it is chilling to see the number of cuts that have been made since the site went live on 24 January.

I know that the Minister will say that the cuts are being made because of the deficit left by my Government, a Government of whom I am extremely proud and who did a huge amount for women. I must refute those arguments before she makes them. We agree that there is a large deficit and it must be dealt with. That is why we had, and have, a plan to halve the deficit in four years. However, the Government had a choice about how to deal with the deficit and they have chosen to cut it too far and too fast. They have chosen to hit local government with bigger cuts than other government departments, and they have chosen to

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1241

front-load so that the heaviest cuts fall in the first year rather than being spread evenly over four years. This is having a profound effect on women who work and volunteer in charities, who work in public services and who benefit from services.

As noble Lords will know, I come from the Forest of Dean in the south-west where there are many rural areas. Women in rural areas, as well as in urban areas, are being hit by a huge cut in bus services, by cuts in respite care if they are carers or being cared for, by cuts in luncheon and other clubs if they are elderly, by cuts in youth centres and services if they are young, by cuts in the EMA if they are teenagers, by cuts in Sure Starts if they are young mums and by cuts in libraries, including mobile libraries, which are so important for women living in isolated areas.

Women and men in rural areas are also being hit very hard by the rise in fuel prices. From these Benches we call upon the Chancellor to reverse the VAT rise on fuel that has added nearly 3p to the cost of a litre of petrol. That would profoundly help women and men all over the country, especially those in rural areas.

Many noble Lords have raised the issue of domestic violence, and I note that the excellent charity Women's Aid has warned that government cutbacks could be catastrophic for victims of domestic abuse in the UK. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, for her practical and excellent work. Noble Lords all around this Chamber are concerned about domestic violence and I ask the Minister, who I know shares these concerns, to do her utmost to ensure that emergency safety accommodation places and support for victims of domestic abuse are protected from the cuts. The Government cannot hide behind the fact that they are providing the money to local authorities; those authorities are having to make dreadful cuts, and it is often women who are living in very violent situations who suffer.

Next week on International Women's Day I am having lunch here with an extraordinary woman and her children. She was attacked by her husband with an axe when she was asleep and, among other injuries, she lost an eye. She has benefited greatly from the support of many charities, including the Castle Gate Family Trust at Gloucester prison, of which I am proud to be the patron. Many of those charities are now struggling to survive despite the fact that this amazing woman, having been a beneficiary, is now working with them, which is absolutely terrific.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, rightly spoke of the situation in Egypt and the evolving situation in the Middle East, as did many other Peers. Like others, I note that there is not one single woman on the constitutional committee in Egypt and I very much hope that our Government, the EU and the UN will do their utmost to try to ensure that where there is democracy-building in the Middle East and new institutions being built there are women, and to encourage these new, emerging democracies to ensure that women are on those terribly important bodies.

Finally, I mention the very welcome report by my noble friend Lord Davies of Abersoch. He was a champion for women on boards when he was in government and was tasked by this Government to do

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1242

further research and write a report. I know that some people-including the Fawcett Society, for which I have huge respect-will be disappointed that he did not recommend a quota system but if headhunters and company chairmen fail in their task to recruit a proper proportion of women on to boards, there must in time be legislation and quotas. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will not hesitate to legislate, if necessary?

We know from all the research and evidence that having more women on boards is not just a matter of addressing an unacceptable inequality. It is about enabling boards to achieve better outcomes for their companies and for wider society. I agree with my noble friend Lady Gould that just as the time was right for this report on women in the boardrooms, perhaps we should now be doing more work and taking more action on the participation of women in the whole field of decision-making at all levels. Women must have access to power and participate in decision-making if the necessary changes in our global society are to be made.

Today, in addition to celebrating the achievements we have made and discussing the challenges here and in the wider world, we have had a superb lesson in social history. I will certainly remember the name of Mr Justice Joyce: I might even stick pins in him from time to time. Despite political and policy differences around the Chamber, we are united in our pursuit of a vision of society in which men and women have the same opportunities, rights and obligations wherever they may live. This is our responsibility. To realise that vision, we have to raise our voices, as my noble friend said. That is what we are doing today and what we can and must continue to do.

3.43 pm

Baroness Verma: My Lords, it is an enormous honour to respond on behalf of the Government to what has been an absolutely magnificent debate-a treasure trove of priceless experience, commitment and vision. All noble Lords' contributions have ensured that the marking of the centenary year of International Women's Day has rightly highlighted and focused the continued need to mark this day with both celebration and a need to remain proactive for positive change. I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, for securing the debate, a responsibility she has taken for quite some time. Over the years, she has worked tirelessly to ensure that the cause of equality for women is enhanced at every opportunity. We pay tribute to her and to all men and women who share our common vision.

We are particularly privileged that several noble Lords chose this debate to make their maiden speeches: the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton, Lady Heyhoe-Flint, Lady Jenkin of Kennington, Lady King of Bow, Lady Morgan of Ely and Lady Lister of Burtersett. Their contributions were moving and insightful and I have no doubt that this House will be enormously enriched by their experience and wisdom.

Like my noble friend Lady Brinton, I see myself as a bit of a rebel. Sometimes it is better to shake loose the shackles found among our cultures, more so in

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1243

some cultures. DfID supports the excellent work that she mentioned in Tanzania. My noble friend Lady Heyhoe-Flint and I share the love of cricket, she as an excellent player and I as an avid spectator. It is crucial to raise the profile of women in sport-that is a must-and to see increased diversity on sporting bodies. My noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington said, absolutely rightly, that there must be more women in political life. I congratulate her on all the work that she has done through women2win. I completely agree that unless men are signed up to this, we will make slow progress.

I am sure that I share the frustration of the noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, but I am not as pessimistic. We are making slow progress, but it is progress. Unless we persist with the equality agenda, nothing changes. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, that we have prioritised the NHS, schools and early years provision. I understand completely her concerns. We are extending free early years education and care for children from the age of two through to four. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, eloquently spoke of the need to tackle poverty at home. It was right to raise the need for a cultural shift. To make a difference in society we need to make those cultural shifts-particularly me, I am afraid; I see it so often in the BME community. Along with her, I am a true Midlander. I have come across some feisty women from the Midlands who have made some incredible societal changes.

We have heard so eloquently in many of the contributions today of the great progress women have made in this country over the past 100 years. However, as every noble Lord has acknowledged, even as we reflect on the hope of our history we must also face squarely the reality of our present, a reality still marked by unfairness and hardship for too many women in this country and across the world. Yet women's strength, skills and wisdom are humankind's most untapped resource. The challenge for us, and what this debate has addressed so effectively, is how we can overcome the barriers women continue to face to ensure that this rich resource can be effectively tapped in ways that benefit us all. I am proud to be part of a Government wholeheartedly committed to that cause. We are unwavering in our dedication to build a society where no one is held back because of who they are, or where they come from. I can say that with personal conviction. I will battle always to ensure that equal opportunity becomes a norm.

In December last year, we published the first ever cross-government equality strategy, setting out our new approach of how we will, right across government, take action to tackle inequality. It is an approach aimed at changing culture, attitudes and tackling the causes of inequality, because we recognise that this is the only change that lasts.

Although it will be impossible to articulate responses to all the contributions that we have heard today, I will try to cover many of the themes of this debate through this speech and the notes I have made as I listened carefully to all contributions. I pledge to write to noble Lords about any questions that I am unable to answer today.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1244

I begin by focusing on the international perspective. Many noble Members have drawn attention to the plight and immense challenges that women face worldwide. Last week, I attended the 55th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. All the other Ministers I spoke to, from EU and Commonwealth partners and elsewhere, shared our conviction that promoting gender equality is vital for meeting all the millennium development goals. Indeed, experience tells us that when women have the power to make their own choices, the chains of poverty can be broken and families can grow stronger. Yet women remain, in many parts of the globe, deprived of the most basic of human rights.

I share in the joy of noble Lords that UN Women-the single, new and powerful agency working for gender equality and the empowerment of women-was launched last week. The new agency will play a fundamental role in eroding the vast inequalities of opportunity that women face across the world. I attended the launch and was able to set out the UK's high ambitions and congratulate the executive director, Michelle Bachelet, who I think will provide excellent leadership.

I assure noble Lords that the Government will continue in our efforts to make certain that real action is delivered for women, and that the agency is managed in a way which will command the confidence of the financial contributors whose support it needs. To this end we will announce core funding for the agency once its strategic plan outlining key priorities, a clear results framework and strategy for delivering results is available in June. In the mean time, we are in close contact with UN Women and are offering transitional funding and any other support the agency may need to ensure that it gets off to the strongest possible start.

For our part, the UK Government have committed to reaching 0.7 per cent of GNI in aid from 2013-a pledge we will enshrine in law. We have pledged to put women and girls at the front and centre of our development work. On Tuesday this week, following a review of Britain's aid programme, the Secretary of State for International Development announced plans to provide 50 million people, many of them girls and women, with the means to help them work their way out of poverty. For example, economic empowerment of girls and women will be our priority. By 2015, we will create 150,000 new jobs for women in South Africa and 83,000 new jobs for women in Zimbabwe. In Pakistan, we will provide 897,000 women with microfinance. Central to these plans is our commitment to give women greater choice and access to family planning and safer births. We have announced that the UK will save the lives of at least 50,000 women in pregnancy and childbirth by 2015 and enable at least 10 million more women to access modern family planning. We are further ensuring that efforts to retain girls through primary schools and into secondary school are integrated in all our education programmes in developing countries. By 2015, the UK will be supporting 11 million children, many of them girls, to go to school in the poorest countries. We will make sure that at least 700,000 girls are supported through lower primary school.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1245

I feel it is important to touch on where I see the role of women in recent events in the Middle East, as we have heard in all the news reports very little on that. History tells us that the active participation of women in conflict resolution is indispensable to the struggle against dictatorship and tyranny. We are closely co-ordinating with the UN, EU and leading international NGOs in the Middle East to prepare for a possible humanitarian response. Our partners all have clear gender and equality policies which will ensure that the rights of women are protected, and that their participation is an integral part of conflict resolution processes.

However, as this debate has so effectively highlighted, while we focus on helping women and girls abroad, we must not take our eyes off the ball at home. Many noble Lords have also put forward their concerns about the degree to which we will be able to make genuine progress for women in these challenging financial times. I do not believe in sugar-coating the situation we are in. We inherited a financial and economic situation of great seriousness as a result of dangerous debts and a deficit that is simply not sustainable. Cleaning up this mess requires making incredibly tough decisions and we take no pleasure in doing so, but they are decisions that I believe any Government working in the national interest would have to take. However, we have been very clear that we must do it in a way that protects the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, as the Prime Minister has consistently said. This includes women and their families, who we know greatly depend on public services. That is why, for example, we are lifting 880,000 of the lowest-paid workers out of income tax, the majority of whom are women. It is why we are protecting the lowest-paid public sector workers-the majority of whom are women-from the public sector pay freeze and increasing child tax credits for the poorest families, protecting against rises in child poverty.

However, we are not just about giving our people a Government who are more affordable. We are in government to lay the foundations of a fairer and stronger society. At a time when women are on the verge of making up half the UK workforce, we are working hard to address the obstacles they continue to face at work. Within weeks of coming to power, we asked the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch, to look into ways of improving female representation on the boards of listed companies. As many of you will know, his report, which the Government have welcomed, was published last month. We will engage with business when considering his recommendations. Likewise, we encourage regulators, investors and executive search firms to take forward those recommendations that fall to them.

We have committed to extending the right to request flexible working to all employees-our aim being to make flexible working practices a normal, everyday part of the modern workplace. We will also promote a system of flexible parental leave that will help both parents strike an appropriate balance between their childcare responsibilities and their careers. We want to give parents the option to choose what works best for them and we will launch a consultation on this shortly.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1246

The Government are also of the firm belief that if you do the same work as a man, you ought to be paid the same wage as a man. So we are working to promote equal pay through using transparency. For example, through the Equality Act 2010, we have stopped pay secrecy clauses being used to hide unfair behaviour in paying men and women differently. We are also currently in the process of developing a voluntary approach to pay reporting, aimed at private and voluntary sector organisations that employ 150 people or more. We will be consulting shortly on whether stronger measures are necessary in cases where there has been shown to be gender pay discrimination.

Let me turn to an issue that has been a persistent cause of concern-violence against women. The Government's ambition is no less than to end violence against women and girls in all its grotesque forms. Achieving this will be no easy task and will require more than the piecemeal initiatives that we have seen thus far, which is why we have pledged to implement across government a more integrated strategy on violence against women, which we will be publishing shortly. We have already taken considerable measures to provide women's services with a more secure future for them to continue their vital work in this area. While we expect local areas to continue to provide the majority of funding to these services, we want to lead by example. Therefore, in January of this year, we announced that a total of up to £3.5 million per year for three years will be spent on supporting rape crisis services. We are further committing an extra £28 million of Home Office funding for specialist services over the next four years. For the first time, the strategy will bring together work to tackle violence against women in the UK with details of the international approach to tackle this global problem. This includes the appointment of Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone as the overseas champion to lead on the UK's international work.

However, the truth is that we will not be able to make true progress on gender equality if we do not have more women in decision-making roles. The Home Secretary will be talking to the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that the issue of women's representation in the House of Commons is considered when we look at our constitutional reform agenda. In the mean time, we have set a new aspiration that by the end of the Parliament at least half of all new appointees made to the boards of public bodies will be women. Last month we also published our proposals for increasing access to elected office by disabled people. Disabled people, many of whom are women, are dismally under-represented in both Chambers. Under our plans, disabled people will have access to a fund to help them overcome the barriers they face, which is just one part of a planned £1 million package aimed at improving their access. We are currently consulting on our proposals, and we hope to launch the scheme later in the year.

However, it is not just on elected positions where we are focusing our work. We want to work more closely with women and women's organisations to help inform government policy making, which is why we made the decision to bring the core functions of the Women's National Commission within the Government Equalities Office and within government. I know that many

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1247

noble Lords here today have been very closely involved with the WNC. I want to say to them that the work and commitment of its former chairs and commissioners have been invaluable and much appreciated. However, to achieve our goals, we must do so in partnership with men. I pay tribute to all of those men who have shared our common goals and who help and support women to fulfil their full potential, including noble Lords who have participated in this debate. We want advice to be closer to Ministers and to provide real influence on decisions that the Government take. More importantly, we want there to be real democratic accountability for that advice. That accountability can reside only with elected politicians. We will shortly be launching a consultation which will set out the details of our new approach.

I will now attempt to address some of the issues raised by noble Lords today. Noble Lords will have to forgive me as my own scribbles are usually very unreadable, so I am afraid I have some from the Box, but I will start off by responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde. I absolutely agree with her. It is crucial that we do all that we can through our work, here in the House and outside, to ensure that young girls and women today feel that they can fully participate in our decision-making processes. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and I share so many common areas. Both of us are desperate to ensure that the equality agenda is never let onto the backburner. The noble Baroness made a point about my mentioning the financial crisis. I had to do so because unfortunately it is what we have inherited. It is a backdrop that we do not particularly feel very comfortable with but we are having to deal with the crisis. I hope that noble Lords around the Chamber will agree that, unless we come to this together, this crisis will not be resolved quickly or easily.

I should like to say a word about the impressive record of my noble friend Lady Trumpington during World War II at Bletchley Park. When I entered this House, I was absolutely daunted to speak to my noble friend, but I have found, in the four and a half years I have been here, that my noble friend has provided me with great insight and skill on how to deal with difficult customers. My noble friends Lady Ritchie and Lord Bates, the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and others, spoke about rape in conflict areas, and about Resolution 1325. The UK has intensified its efforts to secure improvements for women affected by conflict. In December we worked closely with our partners at the Security Council to agree a strengthened accountability mechanism to combat sexual violence in armed conflict. The UK's action plan, which was jointly delivered on Resolution 1325 by the FCO, MoD, and DfID, will be monitored jointly. As I said, I find it difficult to read my writing.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Gould of Potternewton and Lady Royall of Blaisdon, talked about the casualties of the cuts. I have dealt with that within my speech, but we have protected healthcare and have put in additional resources to give social care extra money to ensure that the beneficiaries predominantly will be women. On the question about progress and the remaining challenges and problems facing particular groups,

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1248

particularly the poor and the disabled, in response to the noble Baronesses, Lady Gould, Lady Scotland, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, Lady Heyhoe-Flint, Lady Jenkin, Lady Gardner, Lady Morgan of Ely, and Lady Benjamin, an overarching theme has emerged from today's debate, in particular that noble Lords have stipulated that, although progress has been made, there is an awful lot that we have to do to get better representation in business, public and political life. To that end, I hope to reassure noble Lords that this Government are fully committed to ensuring that we stay on course as best we can. I am sure that we will be held to account at this Dispatch Box if we do not.

The noble Lord, Lord Sugar, the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe of Idlicote, Lady Heyhoe-Flint, Lady Crawley, and my noble friend Lord Sheikh, raised the theme of women in business and on boards. I think that I mentioned and outlined it in my presentation. I have been told that I have two minutes so I shall skip.

On DfID spending, we are proud to say that we have supported what was an agreement in all three main political parties to make sure that 0.7 per cent is enshrined in law. We are determined to keep women and girls at the heart of all the work that we do internationally and at home. Some of the questions asked through the bilateral and multilateral reviews were because we genuinely want to focus on programmes that are working well and want to make sure that we strengthen those programmes. We hope to give other donor countries a blueprint to work from.

I have been told that I have to sit down, so I shall say this quickly. I have pledged to write to noble Lords whose questions I have not answered. In conclusion, it has been an extremely informative and well supported debate. This is one of the most enjoyable debates we have and it is one to which noble Lords always contribute so well.

4.06 pm

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I reiterate the Minister's last point. It is one of the most enjoyable debates that we have annually. I seriously thank everyone who has participated. It has been so stimulating, knowledgeable and absolutely inspiring. I, too, offer my congratulations to the six maiden speakers. Their speeches were varied and powerful, and we certainly look forward to hearing some more. I also congratulate the Minister who so competently tackled her daunting task. It gets more and more difficult as each year passes and the number of subjects discussed widens.

The range of knowledge in this Chamber is phenomenal, whether it is about women seafarers-that was a new debate that we had not had before but I should be interested in having more discussions-business, boards, politics or sport. It is fascinating how many women are football supporters, including myself. Perhaps we should start to compete with the men who somehow think that it is their subject. We heard about trafficking, violence against women, poverty, education and the vagaries of our political predecessors and women campaigners. We commemorated some remarkable women and organisations. Many speeches highlighted the position of women and girls, disabled women and

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1249

women journalists in the developing world and the issues of rape in conflict and conflict resolution. I could go on as I am sure that I have missed out an awful lot of subjects.

I always hope that after these debates those who have not been in the Chamber will read the report of them. It is valuable for them and for all of us to follow through the points raised today. There is no question that we are united across the Chamber to further and better the rights of women. How we do it may vary but the aim of us all is there. It only remains for me to beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

News Corporation/BSkyB Merger


4.09 pm

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, with leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. The Statement is as follows.

"I would like to make a Statement about News Corporation's proposed acquisition of BSkyB. I would like to start by thanking both the OFT and Ofcom for their detailed, thorough and independent analysis, which has been produced to a very challenging timescale. My decision today relates to the issue of plurality of news provision, and not competition or market power issues, which were ruled on by the EU Commission on 21 December 2010.

Earlier this morning, I announced that the independent media regulator, Ofcom, had advised me that undertakings in lieu offered by News Corporation would address the plurality concerns that it had identified in its report to me of 31 December 2010. I also announced that the OFT considered the undertakings to be practical and financially viable for up to 10 years. In light of this independent advice, I am proposing to accept such undertakings, instead of referring the matter to the Competition Commission.

As the Enterprise Act 2002 requires, I have today published these undertakings for public consultation. For the sake of transparency, I have also published all the advice that I have received from Ofcom and the OFT, together with correspondence between myself and News Corporation, and a timeline of the process that I have followed, including details of all the meetings I have held. I hope that honourable Members will have time to study these undertakings during the formal consultation that will start today. However, it may help if I outline the main points.

The undertakings would ensure that Sky News is spun-off as an independent public limited company. The shares in that company would be distributed among the existing shareholders of BSkyB in line with their existing shareholdings. News Corporation would therefore retain a 39.1 per cent stake in the new company, although it will not be allowed to increase this shareholding for 10 years without the permission

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1250

of the Secretary of State. In other words, even if the proposed News Corp/Sky merger goes ahead, News Corp's shareholding in Sky News will remain the same as at present.

The new company would have a 10-year carriage agreement and a seven-year renewable brand-licensing agreement with the newly merged News Corp/Sky so as to ensure its financial viability. Unlike the board to which Sky News currently reports, the chairman would be required to be an independent director. Unlike at present, the board would have a corporate governance and editorial committee to ensure compliance with the principles of editorial independence and integrity in news reporting. For the first time, the requirement for the company to adhere to Ofcom's broadcasting code would be enshrined in the new company's articles of association. In short, the editorial independence of Sky News would be better protected than it would have been, not only if Sky News had formed part of the buyout of Sky shares, but even than it is right now.

The principles of the arrangements are clear and set out in the proposed undertakings. There are still some detailed provisions of carriage, brand licensing and certain operational agreements that will need to be finalised, and the terms ensure that such agreements will need to be approved by me. In deciding whether or not to approve them, I will again take the advice of Ofcom and the OFT, as appropriate. The merger cannot, of course, go ahead until I have been satisfied on all these matters.

I also want to draw the House's attention to the issue of the long-term sustainability of these undertakings. The OFT has said that the undertakings are likely to be practically and financially viable in the short and medium term, but expressed concerns about whether the undertakings would be viable over the longer term. It stated, however, that the appropriate timeframe in this market was for me to decide, with Ofcom's advice.

Ofcom has considered the impact of a 10-year carriage agreement in the context of the media industry and has expressed the view that in a rapidly changing media and technological environment, a carriage agreement of 10 years is a long-term measure. I agree with its independent view of that given the difficulties of predicting with any certainty how the plurality issues will develop over a longer timeframe. However, I will of course only reach a final conclusion on this and other aspects of the undertakings after the consultation is complete.

Consequently, on the basis of the independent advice I have received, I have concluded that a referral to the Competition Commission would not be merited at this stage, and instead propose to consult on the undertakings in lieu, the final version of which has also been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and on my department's website.

In line with the legislation, I am opening a consultation period during which time all interested parties will be able to express their views on the undertakings. Once I have considered representations, I will reach a decision on whether I still believe that the undertakings should be accepted in lieu of a referral. If, after consultation, I am still of the view that the undertakings

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1251

address the concerns about media plurality, I will accept them and not refer this merger to the Competition Commission.

I would add that, quite separately to my consideration of this merger, I have carefully noted Ofcom's point that there is a potential weakness in the current public interest test with respect to media plurality, namely that it can only be applied when there is a commercial transaction to consider. This wider question is one that I intend to consider in the context of the forthcoming review of communications regulation that I announced earlier this year.

Throughout this process I have been very aware of the potential controversy surrounding this merger. Nothing is more precious to me than the free and independent press for which this country is famous the world over. In order to reassure the public about the way that this decision has been taken, I have sought and published independent advice at every step of the way, even when not required to do so by law. After careful consideration, I have followed that independent advice.

The result is that, if this deal goes ahead, Sky News will be able to continue its high-quality output with greater protections for its operational and editorial independence than exist today. For those who have concerns about the plurality of news provision, I hope that this will be a welcome step forward. As such, I commend this Statement to the House".

That concludes the Statement.

4.18 pm

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, I thank the Minister for this Statement. For those of us who have been watching the progress of the referral to Ofcom with some interest, it does not come as a great surprise that we have received a Statement of this nature today. A cynic might say that it would be very surprising if the Christmas social engagements between the Camerons and the Murdoch clan, and the subsequent lobbying, did not have an outcome such as this, although I know that the noble Baroness will have no knowledge of that and I do not expect her to comment.

In November last year we had an excellent debate on the case for maintaining a broad plurality of media ownership tabled by my noble friend Lord Puttnam, who regrettably cannot be with us today. What was noticeable about that debate was the degree of well informed consensus around the Chamber that the proposed News Corp takeover of BSkyB would not serve the public interest. Indeed, I was struck by the passion of noble Lords' belief in the principle of media plurality as a central issue of our democracy-so much so that the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, made it clear that, for the Liberal Democrats, upholding the principle was,

I hope to hear him reaffirming that fact this afternoon.

In preparing for the Statement, I have reread the debate and the many concerns expressed, and have tried to measure them against the package that we

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1252

have before us to see whether we can be reassured that they have been addressed. Unfortunately, many of the earlier doubts remain, and I hope that the noble Baroness can reassure us on some of them today. For example, even if we take Sky News out of the equation, does not the BSkyB takeover still represent a concentration of media power on a scale that would not be allowed anywhere else in the developed world-not even in the US? On the basis that News Corp's share of the national press circulation is estimated to increase to more than 40 per cent by 2014, what are the implications for cross-media dominance in the years to come?

A major concern not answered by this deal is that the strength of BSkyB's financial dominance will allow it to bundle or cross-subsidise its newspaper output, potentially driving competitors out of the market. What steps does the department intend to take to ensure that that cannot happen? That is even more of a pressing issue with the development of internet news and pay-to-view tablet initiatives, in which Murdoch is taking the lead. Surely that underlines the fact that a plurality of news outlets is no longer just about the big TV news broadcasters and that the offering of Sky News as a token sacrifice does not address the real issue of concentration of media power.

There is another reason why sacrificing Sky News might not be the answer. The views of citizens and their access to information are shaped more widely than just by watching news programmes. The nature of entertainment and cultural output matters just as much, as does whether the programmes on offer have, for example, a concentration of American rather than UK origin. Those things matter in shaping how we see our world.

In our previous debate, several noble Lords spoke of Rupert Murdoch as an honourable man, and I have no reason to doubt that, but where might this decision and the promises made lead us in future? How can we stop BSkyB falling into others' hands in years to come? The spectre of Russian oligarchs, or worse, cannot be discounted. How can we be sure that the deal today will be watertight and stand the test of time?

These decisions, once taken, are virtually impossible to reverse. Surely the sensible thing to do is to err on the side of caution. Will the Minister comment on whether the decision could in due course be reversed if it is subsequently shown not to be in the public interest?

In addition to those questions of principle regarding the deal, we have some specific questions about the detail of Sky News governance. For example, who will appoint the Sky News board and chair? What steps would News Corp have to take if it wanted to change its shareholdings or governance arrangements? Are there any constraints on who might buy the remaining shares in Sky News? Finally, what is to stop News Corp in setting up a rival news station to Sky-let us give it a name picked at random, Fox News-and thereby let Sky decline in its impact and status over time?

The Minister set out today the short period of consultation which will follow this announcement. We, too, plan to study the undertakings carefully and consult widely before coming to a view on whether

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1253

this package is in the public interest. We will listen to the views of the regulator and to the other media organisations which may be affected by the decision. At the end of the day, our decision will be made by applying the public interest test in the knowledge that to get this decision wrong could have wide implications for our democracy for many years to come.

4.24 pm

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for those questions, and I will try to answer most of them.

Given our debate in the House initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, to which I replied, the Opposition's stance is no surprise, as it was clearly set out then. The noble Baroness started by voicing doubts about competition. This matter was settled by the EU Commission on 21 December.

On bundling, there is absolutely nothing new. If Mr Murdoch had wanted to bundle he could have bundled a long time ago. He would have had an opportunity before to bundle the 39 per cent control that he has, plus the Times and other newspapers, and obviously is not interested in bundling.

On the control of ownership, the basis of the undertakings is that News Corporation will not have control of Sky News; it will have only 39.1 per cent of the shares. The majority of the board, however, including the chairman, will now be independent. Should News Corporation wish to acquire more shares in Sky News following the merger, it would have to get the Secretary of State's consent to this for a period of 10 years following the merger.

The noble Baroness quite rightly raised questions about future financial worries. The 10-year carriage agreement and the brand-licensing agreement underpin the undertakings and will ensure the viability of Sky News. Both those agreements must be agreed by the Secretary of State, so their terms will be subject to additional scrutiny.

The Secretary of State has made clear throughout his dealings on this that he has been committed to a fair, thorough and open process. I hope that the Statement has made clear that he has not reached a final decision and will not do so until after the consultation period when all parties have had the chance to contribute.

If any questions or points of detail remain that I have not answered, I will, of course, write to the noble Baroness and put a copy of the answer in the Library with all the other documents. I am grateful for the interest that noble Lords on the Back Benches will show on this matter, and I look forward to answering any of their questions.

4.28 pm

Lord Fowler: My Lords, is not the trouble with Mr Murdoch's assurances that, frankly, we have been down that road before, and not very happily in the case of the Timesnewspapers, so will need to study those assurances with very great care?

As I understand it, the new company will be loss-making, will have a 40 per cent News Corporation shareholding, and will rely for two-thirds of its income upon News Corporation.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1254

Who from outside does the Minister believe will be investing in this new company, and will she confirm that the undertakings that Mr Murdoch has given do not prevent him eventually taking back control of Sky News? Lastly, does she agree that this further concentration of powers-as the noble Baroness from the opposition Front Bench was saying-on advertising and cross-subsidy will pose a danger to many other media companies in this country? Is that really in the public interest?

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I am very pleased that my noble friend, Lord Fowler, asks these questions. It gives me an opportunity to inform your Lordships' House further, following the Statement.

I clarify yet again that this is not a final decision. The Secretary of State has announced that he is proposing to accept the undertakings offered by News Corporation. There will now be a consultation period, which will close on 21 March, after which the Secretary of State will decide whether to approve the merger. Ofcom's report on the proposed merger stated, and the Secretary of State agreed, that:

"We consider that the revised proposed undertakings would address the plurality concerns identified in our report of 31 December 2010".

On the question of who outside might bid for the shares, I am afraid I have absolutely no idea. No one has told me anything about who might buy. The figure quoted by the Secretary of State was that 65 per cent of Sky News' income will come from Sky. We have no idea about the rest. The concentration of power will be less because the new Sky News will not have a Murdoch as chairman or on the board. The chairman and the board will be independently chosen.

Lord Borrie:I shall not repeat the excellent points made from the Front Bench by my noble friend Lady Jones, but I shall follow some of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said. In particular, great emphasis has been put in the Statement on the independence of Sky News and of the chairman and the directors. Who is going to appoint them? Will the Murdoch family surely not want some say in how the independent chairman and directors are appointed? I would welcome an answer on that.

Bearing in mind some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, not only do we all recall, I am sure, the failure of the so-called independent directors of the Times, who were a somewhat useless set of people, but I remember, and I am sure many of us will, the so-called independent directors of the Observer, who were set up to put some kind of limit on the unreasonable power of the late Mr Tiny Rowland. The independent board is very much emphasised in this Statement, but I have not yet understood how it will be achieved, particularly if you have, as the Murdoch family will have, a 39.1 per cent share. Is the Murdoch family going to take no responsibility and want no power over the appointment of the independent directors?

Finally, how long is the arrangement to last? I understand the viability point about the 10 years. Perhaps I ought to have declared that some time ago I headed up the Office of Fair Trading for many years. I notice that it has usefully expressed some concern

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1255

about the feasibility and viability of this arrangement and about whether it can last. We must all be concerned, as my noble friend Lady Jones indicated, about who may purchase. It might be some other undesirable person or group of persons whose viability and concern one would want to check.

Baroness Rawlings: The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, makes very valid points. He knows about independence and Ofcom from having been chairman of the OFT. We either have to believe in this country that we have independent appointments or we do not. The way in which this country is run means that many bodies have independent board members and independent chairmen; it is not government and the Murdoch family. Paragraph 3.3 of the paper states that the new chairman will be independent.

The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, mentioned 10 years. The Office of Fair Trading stated that the Sky News company, which was not part of News Corporation, will be viable for at least 10 years. That is a long time in this market, and I remind the noble Lord that it is difficult to predict with certainty what the media world and plurality will be like in that time.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, alas, I fear that there is quite a lot of scepticism on the part of a number of your Lordships and concern about plurality. I accept that an independent chairman will be an improvement, but, by way of helping to reassure myself, I ask about the guarantee for 10 years that this sum-I believe it is 65 per cent-will be provided for the needs of this independent organisation. Will it be available every year or will it be a lump sum? If it is provided on a yearly basis, my concern is whether any condition might be attached-perhaps a delay in paying the sum. Might there be a way in which that could happen?

Baroness Rawlings: Understandably, there is a certain amount of scepticism about some of the details. As I say, this is not a final decision; we are still consulting. The point about plurality came clearly from Ofcom. Its conclusion was that,

At the moment, I cannot give the noble Baroness the details of how the money will be given.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, as the noble Baroness indicated, when we debated this issue in November, with the possible exception of my noble friend Lord Lloyd-Webber there was an overwhelming feeling that this merger should not be allowed to go through. Having read the Ofcom letter and having listened to the Statement, my overall concern, which was expressed from the other Benches, is that nowhere in the Statement or in the Ofcom letter is the question addressed of the overall media power that this organisation will have following the BSkyB merger. That seems to be a huge lacuna in the Statement and the Ofcom letter, which is dealt with simply by reference to the fact that the European Union competition authorities have looked

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1256

at this issue and have passed it, and that therefore we do not need to worry about it. Looking at the faces and nods around this House, it is something that we should worry about. However, as the noble Baroness has rightly said, these undertakings are now going out to consultation, and the devil, as always, will be in the detail.

Various noble Lords have indicated their suspicion about independent directors. I noticed the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, grinning at the comment about the independent directors of the Times. I am not sure which way he was grinning, but he was certainly grinning.

Lord Rees-Mogg: I am not an independent director of the Times and have no business connection with the Times other than writing a column.

Lord Razzall: I understood that. Perhaps I should move on swiftly. There clearly is suspicion about the role of independent directors. Various people have mentioned the Times and the Observer, but even going back to the takeover of the News Chronicle by the Daily Mail, the record was rather poor. Undoubtedly, these undertakings will be looked at with huge scepticism.

Apart from being very light on the issue of overall media power, both the Statement and the letter from Ofcom are extremely light on how the new Sky News will be financed. My question for the noble Baroness is: is it intended that all the money will be put up by News Corporation for the next seven to 10 years? If so, will we have satisfactory undertakings that, despite the fact that it is retaining only 40 per cent of the business, it will continue-

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, this is an abuse of our procedure. Would the Whips step in to sort it out?

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, questions are expected to be brief.

Lord Razzall: My question is whether the financial obligations to fund Sky News will be absolutely guaranteed in the light of future technological developments in the industry.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Razzall started off by asking about the merger and how the House had expressed a contrary view. The whole point of debate is that people should be allowed to express whatever view they wish. What we are looking at now are the reports from Ofcom and others on how to advise the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State is now putting the issue out to further consultation. The overall power of News Corp will actually be lessened because it will no longer control Sky News. It is to be a separate body and thus more independent.

On financial robustness, the 10-year carriage agreement and the brand licensing agreement that underpin these undertakings will ensure that Sky News will be financially viable. Both those agreements must eventually be underpinned by the Secretary of State, so their terms will be subject to additional scrutiny.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1257

Lord Kinnock: My Lords, my personal affection and respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, make me accept from her that this is not a final decision. May I put it to her that if it does not bear close similarity to the final decision when it is made, noble Lords across the House are prepared to be utterly astounded with delight and shocked to their roots? Can I also put it to her that what she has told us this afternoon means that Sky News will by owned by the people and interests who own BSkyB, including 39 per cent by Murdoch interests? Does that not make the same mockery of independence that is evident elsewhere in the Murdoch empire, including the Wall Street Journal and our own Times in this country? Is it not clear that the Secretary of State has accepted this arrangement as a quid pro quo for allowing Mr Murdoch to take complete ownership of BSKyB, and is it not evident that this is a handsome pay-off for the support given by News International to the Conservative Party during the election?

Baroness Rawlings: I cannot say anything about the final decision that the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, has asked for. This is still open to consultation until a certain date, and it will be very interesting. The Secretary of State will then look at it all. There will be independent shareholdings. The Murdoch press will own 39 per cent, but the rest will be open to the public. It is a little unfair of the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, to criticise the Secretary of State. He has made this absolutely clear right from the beginning. Everything is published and available in the Library-papers of every meeting are available for scrutiny by anyone who wants to do so. If people have been worried about anything at any stage, he has always seen them. So I think he is being a little tough.

Lord Elton: My Lords, I have a brief question to ask my noble friend. As I understand it, the situation is that the shareholding is limited to 39.1 per cent at the point of entry into this system, but we hear that the Secretary of State will have to give permission if further shares are to be brought in. Can my noble friend tell us on what grounds that permission would be given, because that is a very important factor?

Baroness Rawlings: My noble friend Lord Elton is absolutely right to say that it is 39.1 per cent, but I cannot give him any further details about further permissions because they are not in my briefing.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I should like to follow up the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote. What pressures can be exerted by BSkyB for an accelerated reduction in the subsidy paid to Sky News over the coming years, thereby reducing the quality of news output by Sky News?

Baroness Rawlings: The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, asks me about the subsidy to Sky News. I am not aware of any subsidy to Sky News as yet; and, if there is a subsidy, I am sure it will be published for everyone to see.

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: My Lords, can I press the Minister on a concern of mine, which is about retaining the quality of journalism on Sky News?

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1258

Is the Minister satisfied that there are sufficient guarantees that News Corp will continue to fund Sky News properly, particularly considering the relentless forward march of new technology, which will necessitate considerable investment over future years? Just as a final thought, I have a feeling that the Telegraph must be thinking that it scored an own goal today.

Baroness Rawlings: My noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter is worried about continuing openness. News Corporation shares in Sky News will be unchanged as a result of the merger, and the independence of Sky News will actually be increased. It has an independent board and a new independent chairman, and we hope that they will keep the high quality.

Lord Prescott: My Lords, this Statement, frankly, is largely about the price of shares and ownership of BSkyB, and little to do with democracy in our society. Is the Minister aware that the investigation into the Murdoch press on phone hacking has now been extended to the Sunday Times. The argument that it was simply one paper and one rogue reporter is no longer true-a number of papers owned by the Murdoch press and a number of their employees have been involved in withholding evidence and illegal practices. Is she happy to extend a major part of our television services to the Murdoch press? Will she consider extending the consultation period until the criminal inquiries have been completed?

Baroness Rawlings: The noble Lord, Lord Prescott, brought this up in our debate on my noble friend Lord Fowler's Question the other day. He raises a very serious point about the hacking, but I cannot address that at this moment in the debate.

Forestry Commission


4.48 pm

Moved By Lord Clark of Windermere

Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, I spent a great deal of my political life being involved in forestry, and I made my maiden speech in the other place 41 years ago on the subject. I introduced the Private Member's Bill that required the Forestry Commission to move from simply producing timber to multipurpose forestry, and I served for eight years as chair of the Forestry Commission. Given that, I was not exactly happy with the Government's proposals, which I regarded as ill judged, to sell off the Forestry Commission estate. However, I was thrilled and amazed by the response of the British people. I did not expect them to share the appreciation of trees and woodland as fully as I did. The fact that over half a million individuals have signed a petition against the Government's proposal-the petition is still there; lapsed, but growing each day-was symptomatic of the feeling of the British people. I was quite frankly staggered that I

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1259

ended up addressing meetings of thousands of people, deep in our forests, who were objecting to the Government's proposals.

However, that is in the past. The Government, thankfully, saw the light, and they retreated. We are all grateful for that retreat, because it gives us an opportunity now, in a calmer atmosphere, to debate the long-term future of a long-term business. As the House knows, we are talking about an industry that thinks in terms of decades, as a minimum, and occasionally in terms of centuries. It is right to take stock and see where we are.

Over a number of years, we in Britain have had a healthy partnership between the public sector and the private sector in forestry. Twenty per cent is owned by the state and the remainder by the private sector. I think that this is about the right balance, and both sectors receive support from the public finances. This balance is right because the state can do some things more easily than the private sector can. On access, for example, I remind noble Lords that the Forestry Commission estate is the largest single provider of countryside access, with 40 million day visitors per year. I remind the House that under the CROW Act almost all the freehold land is legally open for access on foot, and that on almost all the land there is de facto access on cycles for mountain biking and general recreation. Access is given wherever possible for horses as well. This is much easier to provide where the land is being supported by the general public through taxation than it might be for a private owner. I concede that straightaway, and it is one of my arguments for why we need to retain a sizeable public sector ownership of our forestry.

The issue is not only access. In terms of biodiversity, 26 per cent of the forestry estate is designated as SSSI; and of those sites, 98 per cent are designated as either favourable or at an advanced stage of recovery. Forty-five per cent of the estate is within national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty. There are constraints on the production of timber, yet the Forestry Commission estate still produces 60 per cent of all the timber produced from woods and forests in this country. In addition to that, there is the storage of CO2 as well.

As for timber supply, although I have long argued for multi purpose forestry, it is also still very important to produce timber. What has not come out in debate on the Government's proposal to sell off the Forestry Commission is how opposed most of the big users of timber were to it. Modern timber-using industry needs a high level of capital investment and, usually, a great deal of labour. It is imperative that those users of timber are guaranteed a supply 365 days a year, every year. The private sector, quite understandably, will not give those guarantees of supply. When timber prices fall-and it is a highly volatile market-the private sector simply withdraws timber from the market. That makes sense to the private timber owner but not to the timber user in a highly capital-intensive, labour-intensive industry.

I accept that one cannot stand still. As chair of the commission, I was for ever pushing the commission to see if we could find better ways of meeting more

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1260

public benefits and of doing so in a better way. That was an obligation that I felt we had to the taxpayer and to our customers as wood users. I was pleased, for example, to persuade Parliament to agree to a regulatory reform order that allowed the Forestry Commission, as a government department, to do all sorts of adventurous initiatives. We were allowed to form joint ventures with the private sector, and we have done so with effect. There is much more opportunity for us to continue with that as we progress. While I am open about the way in which we go forward and how we manage and utilise our assets in the state sector, I hope that the Government will be as open as they look ahead with their proposals.

We were all pleased-certainly on this side of the House, along with the overwhelming majority of the British people, including 82 per cent of the Government's own supporters-that the Secretary of State announced on 17 February that they were dropping their wilder proposals to sell off 85 per cent of the Forestry Commission estate. That was a vast amount, but there still remains the question of the 15 per cent. I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance about that 15 per cent today. Is it still the Government's firm intention, after they receive the report from the committee of experts, to sell off that 15 per cent? Before the Government throw back at me the fact that we did that I should say, yes, we did. It makes sense to reshape your estate. But we sold about 2 per cent of the forest estate, a net sale, over 13 years. The Government are proposing to sell 15 per cent over four years. The effect will be dramatic in many parts of the country and it is clearly not what the British people wish.

I say this to the Minister. The Government may feel that the protests and the protesters have gone away, but they have not-they are still there. The forests campaign network is having regular meetings because it wants to hold the Government to account on this issue, and it does not want the sale of the forestry estate asset.

I shall conclude my remarks by asking the Minister a number of straightforward questions. The Government intend to set up the panel of experts, which we appreciate will be widely drawn. Will he give us an assurance that it will meet in public, that its records will be public and that its members will be drawn from throughout the regions of the country?

On an organisational matter, the Forestry Commission is currently being pressurised by Defra to reorganise its administrative structure. This would encompass huge areas, stretching from the north-east of England right through to the east coast. I firmly believed that the way forward for the Forestry Commission was to move to regional and local bases. I thought that the Government shared that idea, with the big society. Will the Minister look at this and suggest to Defra that it work with the Forestry Commission so that the reorganisation is put on hold until we have the report?

Defra has also put proposals to the Forestry Commission that it should come up with a new vision. I have seen a copy of that vision and, frankly, it is disturbing. It mentions all sorts of proposals for the commission that I agree with, but at no stage does it

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1261

mention any role for the Forestry Commission estate. Will the Minister have a word with his Defra officials on that issue?

This is a very short and rushed debate, in time allocated to the Opposition. There is sufficient interest in this topic within this House, where there is a great deal of knowledge, and I ask the Government to give us some time in government time so that the House can debate this issue and play its part in the forestry debate.

Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I respectfully remind noble Lords that Back-Bench contributions in this debate are limited to two minutes and that those two minutes are already up when it says two minutes on the clock. If any noble Lord exceeds that, he risks restricting my noble friend's ability to respond to your Lordships.

5 pm

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, those who expect a rational debate on this, as the noble Lord, Lord Clark, has mentioned, will be totally disappointed that we are limited to two minutes, which was the decision of the Labour Party. The recent debate on forestry has neither been measured nor rational, which is in large part due to the Forestry Commission itself.

I ask my noble friend Lord Henley to justify the role of the Forestry Commission today. It is funded by the taxpayer and has always made a loss. With its huge inbuilt advantages, it competes with the private sector for land in the production and sale of trees and timber yet, at the same time, it totally controls what the private sector can do, often through its overbureaucratic and costly regulations. The private sector must have an approved management plan to plant and manage woodlands in order to obtain grants from the Forestry Commission, which are often delayed. That only adds insult to injury for the private sector.

I recall that when we privatised water my late friend Nicholas Ridley, Lord Ridley of Liddesdale, made the bold decision to break up the river management authority organisation and separate the regulator from the producer. I hope that my noble friend will be equally bold in looking at the Forestry Commission. Who, for instance, would support the idea that the Bank of England should not only be the Bank of England but should run high street banks? Why is the Forestry Commission any different? It is not. It is acknowledged by everybody that we need to plant more trees in the UK but there is no way that those trees will be planted by the private sector unless it can be assured that it can produce managed, sustainable woodland at a profitable price. With the present structure of the Forestry Commission, that will not happen.

5.02 pm

Baroness Benjamin: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for securing this debate and declare an interest as the past president of the Ramblers. I was so delighted to hear the news, here in this House, on Monday 28 February that Clauses 17 to 19 and Schedule 7 had been withdrawn. Thank goodness that common sense prevailed. Now we can see the wood from the trees as

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1262

we make future plans, because I am sure that the Minister will agree that the issue of access to woodlands was at the heart of those clauses.

We all know that access to the Forestry Commission estate facilitates not just walking but social interaction, play, relaxation, discovery and enjoyment among all backgrounds. Therefore, it is key that this access is maintained. As an avid walker, I can vouch for the fact that walking has been proven to improve moods. It has also been shown that it reduces the risk of certain cancers and strokes, and that it reduces diabetes and so on. By cutting off access to one of England's most loved places to walk, we cut off a key way of exercising those benefits.

Walking in a group can be a tonic. It is a sociable activity that can help improve mental health and overcome feelings of isolation. The Ramblers' research has found that this benefit is valued by participants in group walks. Believe it or not, walking a mile burns around the same amount of calories as running a mile-although, of course, it takes longer-and can be so wonderfully enjoyable. Improving public spaces and promoting walking as an active means of transport will help to reduce health inequalities as well as combating climate change.

It has been proven that walkers in the English countryside spend over £6 billion a year, generating income of over £2 billion and supporting a quarter of a million full-time jobs. I hope that my noble friend will keep all these thoughts in mind when the Government are making any future plans that affect our heritage and, most of all, the well-being of generations to come. Let us all make access a priority. Then, if we go down to the woods today, or tomorrow, we will not be in for a big surprise.

5.04 pm

Lord May of Oxford: My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clark, for creating this all-too-short debate. Secondly, I declare some interests: I was an independent member of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee from its beginning and for several years; and, more generally, I have a significant and international engagement in research in conservation biology. It is against that background that I make just one substantial point.

The UK is formally committed not just to preserving biological diversity of plants, animals and ecosystems in the UK but also, going further, to restoring the lamentable and well documented declines and losses seen over the past century. This necessarily requires co-ordinated overview of actions which would be greatly impeded under the suggested free-for-all of privatising the Forestry Commission estate.

The Government's plans are in this sense, to a degree, incompatible with commitments that successive previous Governments have given. Furthermore-and, admittedly, more speculatively-it is quite likely that the proposed privatisation will lead to significant deforestation as land is cleared for property development or agriculture, which could cut against our commitments under climate change legislation.

In short, I am of the strong opinion that this is a thoroughly bad idea.

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1263

5.06 pm

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, the future of the state forests is clearly of great importance. I acknowledge the long-standing commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Clark, to it. I would be the first to recognise, as a countryman, that forests and woodlands are much loved and treasured by our nation. I am proud to be wearing the Red Squirrel Survival Trust tie, a species dependent on forestry.

Regrettably, the Government appeared not to be explicit enough to reassure so many that the enhancement of the state-owned forests was always the first priority in any transfer of ownership. Following the recent appointment of a group to assess the regulations governing forestry and woodland management, I would expect people who have practical knowledge of the countryside, and the timber industry in particular, to be fully represented. I hope that all of us can unite in co-ordinated and rigorous action to counter the all-too-many alarming diseases among tree species.

I also draw attention to the substantial amount of woodland which is managed privately. Of course, there is no ideological opposition to private ownership, as the noble Lord, Lord Clark, has said. Under the previous Administration, 25,000 acres of Forestry Commission land was sold. There are many examples of flourishing private woodland. There are also many examples of England's community projects, and these are a continuing success. There are other public organisations which also manage woodland. Epping Forest, for instance, managed by the Corporation of London, provides a much cherished environment close to the capital.

One of the most important issues that should have come out of the last few months of debate is the position of the Forestry Commission as both the industry regulator and a major operator in that industry. This must at least be a matter for scrutiny. The unique arrangement of the Forestry Commission being the main commercial operator in the field and also regulator of its competitors presents a clear conflict of interest.

5.08 pm

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, the future of forests can be summarised by the ABC of accessibility, biodiversity and conservation. Whatever plans emerge in the future, the public clearly want accessibility to be a priority. Biodiversity has recently received more attention from the Forestry Commission, but there are those who believe-and I share this view-that more needs to be done to take us beyond the monocultural forest of conifers and spruces.

The Secretary of State has emerged as a champion of biodiversity at the recent international conference in Japan. She needs to ensure greater biodiversity in our forests. We lecture the world about the evil effects of deforestation. Therefore, we should set an example to the forest nations and adopt the highest principles and standards of conservation and sustainability.

The Liverpool poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, in an evocative poem, "Binsey Poplars", laments:

"O if we but knew what we do

When we delve or hew-Hack and rack the growing green!".

3 Mar 2011 : Column 1264

I commend the poem to all who aspire to manage our forests accessibly, biodiversely and-if I may say so-conservatively.

5.10 pm

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that is a splendid poem.

Like the majority of the people of this country I think that the Forestry Commission does an excellent job in the management, stewardship and protection of our forests, and like the majority of people in this country I want the public forests remaining in public ownership to remain in public ownership.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page