HL Deb 10 February 1982 vol 427 cc176-8

2.53 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

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 what progress has been made towards ratification of the United Nations convention on the limitation of all forms of discrimination against women.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, we expect soon to be able to take a decision in respect of the United Kingdom domestic position on ratification. It will then be necessary to consult in detail the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the dependent territories to establish whether they would wish our ratification of the convention to apply to them.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for his reply, may I ask him whether he is surprised that I am surprised at the excessive delay in ratifying this convention, bearing in mind that the leader of the United Kingdom delegation announced in her speech to the 137 nations at the United Nations World Mid-Decade Conference in Copenhagen in 1980, that the United Kingdom did not sign conventions unless they intended to ratify them?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the studies that preceded our signature of this convention were intended only to establish as quickly as possible that there was sufficient probability of our being able to ratify the convention for us to be justified in signing. Ratification, on the other hand, involves entering into precise legal obligations, and we need to compare the convention in great detail with our existing law and practice. Before signature the dependent territories were only asked whether they objected to us signing. They must now carry out their own detailed comparison of the text of their laws. As to whether I am surprised at the attitude of my noble friend, the answer is, no.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, this type of Question has been asked many times before. Is the Minister aware that we always get the answer that it will soon be ratified? Could he perhaps explain what is meant by "soon"? Is there going to be some sort of limit to the time the Government take to consider it, and then, when it goes out to all the other areas to which he referred, how long is that going to take? Is it not true that this Government, and previous Governments, have been dragging their feet on this? Can he say how many nations have in fact ratified the convention, apart from signing it?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I do not think that I would accept that we have been dragging our feet on this matter. The signature took place only in July last year, and the processes of consideration and consultation are indeed very long and complex. There are a number of difficult matters which arise following this convention. As to the number of nations which have so far ratified, I think the number is about 20, but I have not got the precise figure before me.

Lord Morris

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he has found any difficulty in reconciling the views of the United Nations on this subject with that of a far higher authority? I refer, of course, to the Divine discrimination of the Almighty.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, when your Lordships' House is reformed so that bishops answer from this Box, that will be a suitable occasion for that question.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, would not ratification involve that succession to hereditary titles would always be to the eldest child, irrrespective of sex?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that is indeed one of the matters which has to be considered.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Minister be kind enough not to forget discrimination against men, in terms of retirement age? Is he aware that women live to a much greater age than men—something about which the Government can do little— but are nevertheless entitled to draw their retirement pensions five years earlier?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that is a matter which no doubt will be exercising my noble friend Lady Trumpington.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the preamble to this remarkable document it says that the eradication of domination and interference in the internal affairs of states is essential to the full enjoyment of the rights of men and women? Would there not, therefore, be something of a hypocrisy if Her Majesty's Government were to hasten to ratify a convention in respect of which most of the ratifying states are, at the moment, the Soviet Union and its allies?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am not sure that I would want to be drawn down that particular path at this juncture. I would repeat, in all seriousness, that this is a very complicated matter; there are a number of very detailed and complex implications for our own laws, and also, as it happens, for the law of Scotland, which is not, in every respect, the same as ours. But we will certainly proceed as quickly as we properly can.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, will my noble friend be aware that his reply, alas! will be most disappointing to many women's organisations, and to the UN agencies?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am aware that my noble friend wishes this matter to proceed more quickly than it has done. We certainly wish it to proceed as fast as possible, but we do have to take into account the difficulties that we face.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, will the Minister also take into account the fact that considerable discrimination exists at present against men? As a student of the national press, he will know that a fortnight ago a woman streaker at a football ground received very pleasant publicity in the national press, whereas yesterday it was reported that a man streaker, also at a football ground, was fined £100.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am reminded of the dictum of Oscar Wilde that there is only one thing worse than bad publicity, and that is no publicity.