HL Deb 05 November 1975 vol 365 cc1138-43
Baroness ELLES

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many women have been appointed as United Kingdom representatives or alternate representatives to the Thirtieth Session of the United Nations General Assembly.


My Lords, the four representatives and their alternates this year are Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers or senior members of the United Kingdom Mission to the United Nations, none of whom happen, this year, to be women.

Baroness ELLES

My Lords, while not particularly thanking the noble Lord for that very unsatisfactory reply, may I draw his attention to a recommendation made last year by the Working Group of the Commission on the Status of Women, which demanded of Governments that they should ensure that women should take part in policy formulation at international level, and also to the fact that that recommendation was endorsed by the United Kingdom delegation, and further endorsed in the General Assembly resolution last year and again this year at the World Conference of International Women's Year in Mexico? Could the Minister kindly state what measures he is to take to implement these resolutions?


My Lords, while thanking the noble Baroness for that very helpful supplementary question, with which we entirely agree—there is, of course, complete bipartisan agreement on this—as she will know, successive Administrations have specially attempted to include women in delegations of this kind. Very often it has proved possible, under the criteria, to do so, but sometimes, as has happened this year for a number of reasons, it has not been possible. I believe that that situation occurred in 1973; but, happily, it was not so in 1972, when the noble Baroness was a distinguished representative of this country in New York, or last year, when my equally distinguished noble friend Lady Gaitskell was a representative and a member of the delegation.

As to the promulgations which the noble Baroness instanced, I can only say that we entirely agree and that we make every effort to live up to these agreements to which we have enthusiastically acceded. The noble Baroness referred in particular to the World Conference of International Women's Year. That was the reference, was it not? There was a very strong delegation under the able leadership of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, whose name is perpetuated in this House. It was led jointly by that very able Member of the other place, and of the Government, and the lady Member for Redbridge, North and consisted of 10 members, seven of whom were very formidable women indeed.

Baroness ELLES

My Lords, despite the levity with which we have so far treated this Question, is the noble Lord really saying that there is not a single woman in his Party who could represent the Government at the United Nations this year, when countries like Burundi, Nepal and Paraguay all have women within their delegations? Is he really saying this?


My Lords, I am not really saying anything more than the noble Baroness's Administration said in 1973 in similar circumstances. As to levity, I hope that my levity might be more effective than the noble Baroness's seriousness.


My Lords, does the noble Lord know that there has been grave disappointment in the women's organisations which have been participating in International Women's Year here and all over the world, that the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, who has been such a distinguished member of the United Nations for so many years, was not allowed to go again this year? I find the noble Lord's reply not only very disappointing but quite feeble, because, in fact, there are on all sides of this House and in the other place, first-class women who could do the job extremely well, and on this occasion it would have been right and proper that there should have been a woman in the delegation representing the United Kingdom in International Women's Year.


My Lords, again, I do not dissent from what the noble Baroness has said, except perhaps about my approach to this question. I would hope it was one of robust fortitude, as befits anyone who has to answer Questions in this or in any other place of the type we have had this afternoon. We, like the previous Administrations, are sincerely concerned that there should be the utmost possible opportunity for women, as much as men, to serve on these high level delegations. In most years it has been found possible to do this. This year, as in 1973—and nobody would blame the Administration of the day in 1973 that they failed to do it, any more than we did this year—it has not been found possible.

As to criteria, if we could get the criteria of appointment right—and we believe we have it—then it becomes a matter of actuarial availability. Unfortunately (and I deeply regret this) at the level to which the noble Baroness refers —Parliamentary and public service of this kind—far too few women have found it possible or have chosen so far to come forward. That is a fact; it is an actuarial fact. But that does not affect our desire, and I am sure that of our predecessors, to see to it that both the opportunity and the appointment of women is equal in every way to that of men.


My Lords, can the noble Lord very kindly tell us why it was not found possible?


My Lords, it would take some time to go into that, and I think the noble Baroness is aware that the availability of men candidates, as it were, is greatly in excess to those of women, for reasons I have given. We are endeavouring to improve on this situation all the time, and it would be invidious to go into details as to the difficulties we have encountered.


My Lords, should not the noble Lord adopt as his criterion cherchez la femme?


Not too many at the same time, my Lords!


My Lords, may I ask the Minister a rather more serious question? Is it not the fact that we have had an illustration in this House of the extraordinary ability of women on our own Front Bench and women on the Front Bench opposite? Is it not quite clear that there are women who are capable of representing us at the United Nations equally with any men who are there?


My Lords, that is abundantly true and, indeed, a great many women Members of this House, and of the other place, do represent us in high level places, and they do it with very great ability and effectiveness. However, if the noble Lord would look around and count heads he will see that the availability so far of women is considerably less than the availability of men.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, has the noble Lord approached the Status of Women Commission which I am sure could provide him with the necessary candidate for such a job? Will the noble Lord realise that it is not good enough merely to put women on the Status of Women Commission because all the decisions made there have to go through ECOSOC, which says it never has time to consider the resolutions?


Yes, My Lords, I entirely accept that.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that knowing him as I do I would not suggest for one moment that he discriminates against women, but is he satisfied that his Civil Service advisers are aware of the fact that women feel very strongly about this matter? Do these advisers—generally men—need a little prodding from him, because there is deep-rooted prejudice, and it is quite clear that throughout the centuries the male advisers of the Government are prejudiced against women?


My Lords, if there is prejudice it is certainly not among Members of Her Majesty's Government, but I should not say that it exists in Civil Service circles. We are committed enthusiastically to legislation and to administration which seeks to promote completely equality of opportunity, of appointment and of training for women as for men, and we are determined to make an effective job of this.

I say once more that so far, unfortunately, it has been the availability of women—not the fund of ability, which is there to be tapped—which has been in question. But we look to the future for an equal availability of men as of women for appointment to this kind of delegation.

Baroness ELLES

My Lords, I do not want to prolong the Question, but perhaps at some stage the noble Lord can let us know in writing what organisations were approached in order to get women candidates, because women do not of themselves come forward for these appointments, as he will know. If the noble Lord could tell us which organisations he asked for candidates, we should be grateful.