HL Deb 26 February 1992 vol 536 cc270-313

3.8 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe rose to call attention to the increasing economic, social and cultural opportunities for women and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am delighted to have been given the privilege and the opportunity to open this debate as it gives us the chance to look at the developing role of women today. All noble Lords have lived long enough to witness the amazing changes which have occurred in society. Some of the most amazing are those which have produced ever-increasing opportunities for women to play a fuller part in every area of national life. Indeed, some Members of your Lordships' House played a significant part in helping to create and develop those opportunities. I pay particular tribute to those who have given enthusiastic encouragement and support to younger women.

There has been a remarkable change in the circumstances of women during this century. It is astounding to remember that some of us were born before all women had the right to vote; that right was given to them only in 1928. The same percentage of women worked outside the home—or to use the horrid current jargon were "economically active"—in 1882 as in 1982. However, what a difference there is in their occupations. In 1882 most women were domestic servants or factory workers. Now there are women in all the professions and many in business and industry.

The women among us can all think of the opportunities which have presented themselves in our own lives. That may include the voluntary sector where women have always played and continue to play a major role in public life. Sometimes that can involve more hours and responsibilities than a full-time job and is always in addition to work within or outside the home.

I do not see myself as a champion of an oppressed minority, for women make up 52 per cent. of the population. Certainly I do not see women as being oppressed. Many of the opportunities which have helped women help men too. But the barriers to opportunity have historically impeded women's progress more than that of men so that women have gained proportionately more as those barriers have been brought down.

To increase women's contributions to society does not just help women; it enriches life for everyone. Women bring different and valuable perceptions to bear on issues and problems. When we talk of their opportunities we are not talking of the world at work but we are talking of the extension of opportunities and of choice which recognises the importance of all roles which women play in domestic as well as professional life.

The best thing that any government can do for all their citizens is to create a climate in which all may benefit. Since 1979 this Government have provided a climate which has particularly helped women. First, we have reformed the tax system. We have brought in independent taxation for married women, giving them more control over and privacy in their financial affairs. Last year the Government abolished composite rate tax. That means that many married women no longer need to pay any tax on their bank or building society income. That measure is particularly helpful to many pensioners.

The 1991 budget also increased child benefit, which was first introduced by a Conservative Government. From this April it will rise to £9.65 per week for the first child and £7.80 for subsequent children. From now on the benefit will be increased in line with inflation. That is a highly significant benefit because it is universal and paid to the caring parent who is usually, but certainly not always, the mother. All those factors help to increase women's economic security.

There has been a significant growth of opportunities for women in the workplace. Britain now has a higher proportion of women in employment than any other European country except Denmark. The statistics are remarkable. Women now make up almost 45 per cent. of Britain's labour force and 25 per cent. of the self-employed.

Since 1979 the number of self-employed women has more than doubled and a third of the entrants to the enterprise allowance scheme are female. The number of women in the key professions has risen dramatically. For example, the number of women solicitors rose from 5,175 in 1983 to 12,683 in 1989. In fact, last year more women than men qualified as solicitors.

Those developments have been possible because the Government have led the way in creating a framework which offers flexibility and generates opportunity. We have strengthened the UK's traditional framework which promotes equality of opportunity and equal treatment for women and men. The Equal Opportunities Commission—almost unique in the EC —offers free advice and help to anyone, man or woman, who feels that he or she has suffered discrimination. We play a full part in EC discussions and actions on equal opportunities in Brussels where UK good practice is acknowledged.

As an employer the Government have been foremost in developing flexible working patterns which help women so much. That is particularly true, for example, within the NHS, which is Britain's and Europe's largest employer, employing I million staff, three-quarters of whom are women.

The Government work to change attitudes too. In each government department there is now a Minister, one of whose tasks is to promote the appointment of women to public appointments within that department. The Prime Minister showed his personal commitment when he launched Opportunity 2000 last October. That is a campaign co-ordinated by Business in the Community in which over 80 leading companies have pledged themselves to increasing the quality and quantity of women in the workforce. Many of the barriers, which initiatives like those address, involve attitudes.

We are also working to remove some of the practical barriers to women's progress. Opportunities in employment often follow from opportunities in education. The new national curriculum ensures that in an increasingly technological society girls will have as much opportunity as boys to study science from an early age. The technical and vocational education initiative has worked to encourage girls to embark on scientific careers. The main government training programme, employment training and youth training, includes special schemes to help women back to work or to enter non-traditional jobs.

All that has produced results. There are now 100,000 more women in higher education compared with a little over a decade ago. More women than men are now starting university courses—97,000 women in 1991 compared with 92,000 men. Many of them are studying subjects less traditionally pursued by women. In 1988 12 per cent. of engineering students were women compared with only 5 per cent. in 1978. That is all good news. Not only does it increase opportunities for women but their contributions will also enrich every area of national life.

There are other practical barriers to women's success namely, those health issues which are unique to women. In 1990 nearly 14,000 women died of breast cancer so our efforts to deal with those problems are of the greatest importance. We are the first country in the European Community to launch nationwide screening programmes for breast and cervical cancer.

Woman's most important role is undeniably that of mother. We need to create a climate of opinion in which all choices are respected and all roles valued. Many women want to concentrate, at least in the early years, on looking after their children. Many, through choice or necessity, combine that traditional role with a job outside the home and see no conflict between the two. That is why significant developments over the past 12 years—initiatives like part-time work, flexi-time, career breaks and job sharing—have literally transformed the lives of many women and their families.

The number of women working part time has increased by over one fifth since 1984. The Labour Force Survey of 1988 showed that eight out of 10 women working part-time specifically wanted a part time rather than a full-time job. As those flexible lifestyles develop, women are often combining their work outside the home with their traditional work of carer. To meet that need there has been a significant growth in child care provision, much of it from the private and voluntary sectors. Over 90 per cent. of all three and four year-olds are now in education or some form of organised day care. Of course, that figure includes playgroups and short sessions at nursery school. But that is just as important for many mothers and children as full-time care. Over 1 million of our three and four year-olds have places in nursery schools, private day nurseries or with childminders.

Comparisons between countries can never be exact. Most statistical comparisons tend to concentrate on child care provided and funded by the public sector. In this country we have developed a different pattern of day-care services with a vital contribution from voluntary bodies and the private sector—a contribution which provides variety and flexibility. The richness and diversity of child care places us near the top of the European table for that kind of provision.

The Government have also helped. The 1990 Budget introduced tax incentives for those using workplace nurseries, encouraging employers to provide them. The Civil Service has 19 workplace nurseries. Of course, not all women are bringing up children or pursuing careers. Many are having to care for elderly or infirm relatives who are often demanding, requiring much patience, understanding and love. Those carers' needs also are being met.

Since 1979 local authority spending on personal social services, with government support, has risen by 59 per cent. after allowing for inflation. Over that time we have seen a substantial increase in home helps, day centre places for the elderly and in the number of district nurses. Helping carers is a top priority for this Government.

We do not believe that women's concerns should be put into some pigeon hole labelled, "Women's issues". All issues are women's issues. Women's needs and concerns are as diverse and all-embracing as those of men. The right honourable lady in the other place, the Minister of State at the Home Office, continually finds that view endorsed as she pursues her Network initiative, meeting women of differing backgrounds and experience throughout the country.

We, both men and women, have our own special and individual contribution to make. I hope that noble Lords on both sides of the House will join me in welcoming the exciting growth of opportunities which are enabling women to contribute, thereby enriching the lives of us all. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.22 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Waddington)

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Seccombe for allowing us to debate this important matter. When one sees the enormous contribution made by women in all fields of life in the country today, it is hard to comprehend how crippling were the disabilities from which they suffered only a comparatively short time ago.

Until the middle of the 19th century a married woman could not own property let alone vote. But one does not have to go back a century one has only to go back a few decades to find a time when it was commonplace for women with good jobs and incomes to be refused mortgages, for women to need male guarantors to countersign contracts and for women to lose their jobs on marriage.

We have come a long way, and today our Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts provide a legal framework of equal rights. Our Equal Opportunities Commission helps in the enforcement of those rights and in the promotion of a climate in which women can take advantage of all the opportunities which may become available to them.

I want to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, and my noble friend Lady Platt of Writtle for the work they did leading the Equal Opportunities Commission. It is an organisation for which a little time ago I had some responsibility. I remember in particular how keen my noble friend was to see that in schools girls lacked no encouragement to embark on science and engineering courses. How right she was!

We now see women reaching the top in all the fields which traditionally were male dominated. For instance, look at the achievement of Helen Sharman, picked to be the first Briton in space. And another less dramatic but more important milestone was passed last October when more women than men embarked on degree courses at British universities. In fact, as my noble friend said, there are now 100,000 more women at our universities than there were in 1979.

A growing number of women want a career at work, but not all. Many women still find fulfilment in all the work they do in the home: many want to devote all their time and energy to their children when their children are growing up. It is not our job to dissuade them from that course any more than it is our job to persuade women at work to stay at home. When it comes to the structure of taxation and benefits it is our job to adopt a balanced approach which helps each woman to choose what suits her and her family best.

The Government therefore introduced family credit to help families with low earnings; we have maintained child benefit (which we also introduced) to help both those who choose to work and those who choose not; and, as my noble friend Lady Seccombe also said, we have introduced independent taxation for married women and abolished the composite rate of tax on savings in banks and building societies. The last change alone benefited 5 million women.

As a major employer the Government have a clear duty to observe high standards and to set an example to others. They have not failed in that duty, the Civil Service being described in a Hansard Society Commission Report of 1990 as a model for other employers. And I am glad to say that the Civil Service has had a programme of action since 1984 which has produced a steady increase in the number of women in more senior posts. With rising numbers of women entrants to the fast stream, more and more will be in the top jobs as the years go by. Since 1986 the National Health Service has also taken a number of initiatives to improve prospects for its women employees.

The Government must not just set an example for others, but give them encouragement to follow that example. I know how pleased my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was to give his and his Government's support to Opportunity 2000, Business in the Community's campaign to improve opportunities for women in industry at all levels, particularly management. The major employers taking part in Opportunity 2000 deserve our congratulations. They, and I think most employers, recognise that not only have they a moral duty to act fairly to women in their workforce, but also they owe it to themselves to do so. Women are now nearly half the labour force and it is expected that they will account for virtually all the growth in the numbers in work in the coming decade. Those concerns which wish to survive will therefore have to follow the best practice in order to attract and retain female staff.

There has been an encouraging growth of schemes in both the public and the private sector to enable staff to have more flexible career patterns. Flexible working hours, career breaks, part-time work—all referred to by my noble friend—and job sharing are all becoming more common and are greatly to be welcomed. By removing outmoded restrictions on women's employment, the Sex Discrimination Act 1986 and the Employment Act 1989 have enabled both employers and their staff to adopt working practices which suit their circumstances. It is now most important that the Government should not interfere with this new found flexibility or impose burdens on employers which would make it more difficult to take on people either full or part time.

Women would be the first to lose if the Government were to impose fresh burdens on employers as a result of a statutory minimum wage, statutory parental leave or the adoption of the part-time work directive as currently drafted. Over 1½ million part-time jobs have been created in this country since 1983 giving new opportunities to workers to join the workforce. It has happened because we have avoided some of the restrictions imposed in other countries. The last thing we need, and the last thing women need, is that we should be forced down the same road.

There is no doubt that one of the most important issues for many working women is child care. What is needed is high quality provision giving choice and flexibility. This can only be obtained through the involvement of the whole range of interested parties, individuals, families, employers, voluntary organisations, private sector providers and local authorities. Variety in care provision as well as in working arrangements is the hallmark of the British scene and allows parents to choose what suits their circumstances best at any given time. But expenditure on under-fives by local authorities alone is up by 45 per cent. in real terms since 1979.

I believe that I have said enough about how the Government are helping women in the field of employment. I want to mention finally the commitment of women to public life. Women make an enormous contribution. As a result of various government initiatives the proportion of women on public bodies has been rising over the years and has now reached nearly a quarter. But we are determined to do better than this. An edict has gone out from the Prime Minister telling his Cabinet colleagues that in each department a Minister must be personally responsible for seeing more women get public appointments and that women must be on every short list for public appointments or a very good reason advanced for that not being so.

I am grateful to my noble friend for having raised this all-important subject. I wish that I could have covered further subjects, but I know that there are many noble Lords who wish to speak in this debate. Once again I thank noble Lords for listening to me and my noble friend for initiating this debate.

3.32 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, for introducing this debate this afternoon. Of course there have been substantial gains. Thirty years ago it was the normal practice for employers to have two rates of pay, one for men and a much lesser one for women. Employers providing pension benefits did not think that these had to include women. A woman on her own had little chance of living independently or negotiating a mortgage to enable her to do so. So there have been gains in the past 30 years and a great deal of the change has been due to the efforts of women themselves.

I should like to take this opportunity of paying a particular tribute to my noble friend Lady Castle, who introduced the first Equal Pay Act in 1970. To my certain knowledge that had an immediate effect on women's pay, particularly among the poorer paid. We have also had the Equal Opportunities Commission. I myself was fortunate to be a member of the commission for some six years. We are lucky this afternoon in having as participants in the debate two distinguished noble Baronesses who chaired the commission my noble friend Lady Lockwood and the noble Baroness, Lady Platt.

Much of the legislation which has been undertaken since the first Equal Pay Act has been due to the activities of the EOC. The first Equal Pay Act had a number of faults, not surprisingly since that was the first attempt at legislation in that field. It did not deal with areas of employment which are virtually women's ghettoes. We eventually got legislation requiring that equal pay should be paid for work of equal value as a result of a decision of the European Court. But the legislation itself is so difficult and complicated that it has not benefited as many women as we had hoped. We still have a situation in which women's earnings generally are substantially lower than those of men. I believe the difference is of the order of 30 per cent. However, cases have been won with EOC backing which have had the effect of changing our law. The EOC's campaign to encourage young women to take up training in careers and professions hitherto the province of men has had some success, although again not perhaps as much as we would have liked. In that connection I particularly mention the WISE campaign (Women into Science and Engineering) which took place while I was a member of the EOC and for which the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, worked extremely hard when she chaired the EOC.

So there has been progress. But I am afraid that that is only part of the story. The vast majority of women are still in low-paid work. The changes in social and sexual behaviour have not always been to the benefit of women, although no one would wish to return to the days when custom and social pressures forced women to remain in relationships that were destructive to them and, often, to their children. Nowadays one in three marriages is likely to end in divorce. There has been a substantial growth in the number of one-parent families. The vast majority of single-parent families are headed by women. Two-thirds of them exist on social benefit, and "exist" is the right word. Many single parents would like to work if work were available, but the child care facilities which are a feature of the social environment in many countries of Europe, are simply not available or, if they are, they are not affordable.

Essentially, poverty is about women and children, and there is a great deal more of it than there was. It is distressing to see how many of the young people now begging on the streets are young women, some with young children. That was something which was not seen 10 years ago. Although I applaud the recent decision of the Government to increase child benefit, I remind the House that we had to campaign very hard, particularly as regards noble Lords in this House, to get the Government to do so. There has also been the failure, on the ground that employment training places are available for all of them, to provide social security support for 16 to 18 year-olds. As we have seen, that is by no means the case.

It has already been mentioned that a large number of women work part-time. I was a member of the European Communities Committee that examined the European directives on part-time employment. We made the recommendation to the Government that the draft directives were a step in the right direction towards creating equal opportunities for women. We believed that the Government should support the proposal that women in part-time employment should have pro rata benefits. However, the Government's view remains, and it has been restated by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, this afternoon, that regulation in the employment field produces less opportunities rather than more. No doubt that is why the Government want to see an end to the remaining wages councils on the ground that they have "outlived their usefulness". But these councils lay down minimum wage rates in a number of industries where unionisation is difficult and where the working population is a shifting one and about two-thirds of the employees are women. They are the most vulnerable people in the labour force. If they lose the minimal protection provided by wages councils, sweatshop rates and conditions will proliferate. Are the Government really advocating sweatshop conditions as a counter to unemployment? I do not believe that that is satisfactory.

There is no evidence that the introduction of a minimum wage, as advocated by my party, would result in further unemployment. Indeed it would immeasurably improve the lot of many women slaving away on low wages. I well remember, when equal pay legislation was first introduced, being told that I and others who had campaigned for it would live to regret it. They said that it would lead to unemployment, that employers would not want to employ women if they had to pay equal pay and that there would be fewer jobs for women. It has not worked out like that. Very few people would now dare to argue in that way even in private. It will not happen with minimum wage legislation either. In fact there may very well be public gains, since at present low wages are to some extent subsidised by the social security system. I for one have never seen why public funds should subsidise exploiting sweatshop employers.

There is a case for looking at the whole legislative framework again. As I have said, in the area of equal value claims in particular, the process is tortuous and complex. My own union has been trying to get justice for speech therapists under this legislation. It has taken us four years and we still have not resolved the issue. The case is now on its way to the European Court. Without backing from either a union or the EOC, individual women would not be able to contemplate such tortuous procedures. The EOC has made detailed recommendations for improvement in the law which are designed to eliminate delays and to try to ensure that, as far as possible, the whole process is very much less daunting for women.

I said earlier that progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go. In Parliament there are only 44 women MPs out of a total of 650. In the top 200 companies in Britain there are only 28 female directors. The overwhelming majority of those in charge of our destinies, whether in government, the board room, or local authorities, are still men. The fact remains that for women to succeed enormous commitment, stamina and often personal sacrifices are required. It is tough for women with young children. Society has an obligation to make it easier. The exceptional individual will normally make out, but there are hundreds of thousands of reasonably talented women who still find it difficult because of the social and family pressures upon them. Men, even more than women, have benefited from the more liberal, social and sexual attitudes which we have had with us since the 1960s.

In the coming decade changes will have to be made. Child care and support services, including improved maternity and paternity leave, will need to be available. Status and pay in the employment areas now dominated by women must improve. In passing I should like to emphasise the claims of the caring professions whose skills will be needed even more as the elderly population increases.

Those are some of the tasks we must address in the future. Progress has been made, but a great deal still remains to be done.

3.43 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate on a very important subject to those of us on these Benches. I am afraid that we have only two speakers today, but normally we would have had more.

The noble Baroness gave a more encouraging picture of the situation than I recognised as regards women and their opportunities in this country. Perhaps I am being unfair to the noble Baroness, because undoubtedly there have been enormous strides forward in recent years. I remember when I was a young man in the late 1950s and early 1960s, having been brought up as a boy in the normal kind of monastic surroundings of "boys only" schools, taking for granted the fact that girls were not educated to go into the professions or into jobs. At the time I was ready to have girl friends I remember how shocked I was when girls wanted to impress, as sometimes they did. When a topic was brought up they would say, "Oh, I don't know anything about that. I am not as clever as you are". I do not think that happens today. Certainly if my own teenage daughters said that it would be very surprising—I would think that they were ill!

A great many strides forward have been made in the attitudes of women to their own potential. The problem arises in the meeting of that potential. The noble Baroness gave us an example when she said that 80 per cent. of people employed in the National Health Service were women. That may be so. But how many women in the National Health Service occupy senior positions, either on the administrative side or on the clinical side? The same applies in other areas.

Undoubtedly there is discrimination in this country. It is timely that today there are two rather extraordinary pieces of journalism in different newspapers. On the wilder shores of the feminist movement—curiously enough, in the Daily Telegraph —there is a report by the arts correspondent that a group of women in the theatre world are seeking to improve the lot of actresses who feel that it is time they were given the chance to play men's roles. In fact, these ladies are no longer saying that they would like to play St. Joan, they are saying that they would like to play Richard III. I understand their view. It is all there. It is just a question of whether people want to pay to see a woman playing Hamlet or Macbeth. Indeed, my knowledge of the film industry tells me that it is purely a commercial judgment. If film moguls felt there was a profit to be made out of casting Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role of the screen version of Hedda Gabler, they would undoubtedly do so. But I think that that is an unlikely event.

To be serious, the discrimination is very real and I should like to pay tribute to the noble Baronesses who chaired the Equal Opportunities Commission and for the incredible work that they and other noble Baronesses who took part have done.

We on these Benches are not keen on what one might describe as positive discrimination in improving the situation of women, although it has been used in one well-documented example which will give noble Lords an idea of what can be done if it is carefully used. In the province of Ontario, Canada, the police force issued a directive to improve the lot of women in the police force. Lip-service was paid to it, but nothing was done. Therefore, they used the means that they had at their disposal and promoted a lady police constable, who in her own time had obtained a good legal degree. They promoted her to the rank of inspector—a big jump. That caused such enormous upheaval among the male hierarchy of the Ontario police force that they ceased just paying lip-service because they were afraid for their own jobs. They thought that it was the start of some major threat. There was a marked improvement in the opportunities given to women thereafter.

That is an example of positive discrimination of which I would not approve in general, but it shows that occasionally one needs what the Government sometimes calls a kick start, to use current jargon.

The amount of wasted potential in this country is extraordinary. I believe that about 45 per cent. to 50 per cent. of first-class university degrees are awarded to women. Here again, one comes back to the National Health Service; the two facts just do not marry up.

It is a question of what can be done in the short to medium term to improve the position. It is on record that recently I asked a Question in this House about the provision of crèches. I specifically asked about the provision of a crèche for mothers working in the Palace of Westminster. I received a most polite and helpful Answer. I do not know whether I shall live to see the day when there is a crèche for mothers in the Palace of Westminster, but I am always an optimist.

The whole area of child care is one which has to be tackled very urgently. It is one area where women do not stand on a par with men. Most women in the normal way of things want to have children. Most women in the normal way of things want to achieve their potential and that often means working. Some choose to work and also to bring up children. I quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that one should not cast aspersions by saying that those who choose to look after their children are in any way the less for that. The choice should be given to them. I agree entirely. But it seems to me that at present there is little choice for many women. Those who want to develop their potential because they have the education to do so, to go out to work and to have children, face a multitude of problems. It is not just the scarcity of maternity care or child care, whether it be nurseries or crèches. Compared with many other European countries, particularly France and Belgium, the amount of incentive by way of tax relief on child care and child minding schemes, and so on, are very few and far between in this country.

That does not mean to say that there is not a considerable amount of great work going on in the country, especially, as usual, in the voluntary sector. I single out the National Child Birth Trust which runs its parent-toddler groups. That is completely missing in France, I am told, although they have highly efficient and generous support for women who go out to work. For women who want to go out to work, though not for part-time work so much, there is an absence of this kind of care in the voluntary sector.

The Government's Opportunity 2000 was an interesting idea, but I wonder whether it falls into the category of the Ontario situation that it is just a piece of window dressing and a statement of intent. Does it fall into the category of the charters, of which we have had so many? I wonder whether Opportunity 2000 will be enough and whether it will need a kick start of the kind that I illustrated to your Lordships. Much needs to be done. This is a most interesting debate. I thank the noble Baroness again for initiating it and I look forward to hearing the Government's response.

3.50 p.m.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I greatly welcome the fact that this debate has been initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, and I congratulate her on her initiative.

I have some scant knowledge of the great efforts that the noble Baroness has made, and continues to make, to encourage girls, young women and those of us who are fast approaching what is called "The Third Age" to take their rightful place in the world of work. There is no doubt in my mind that there is now much wider acceptance of the fact that women do have a rightful place in the world of work and over the past decade great strides have been made in this area.

Some might maintain that the increase in the numbers of women in the labour force is the result of a natural evolutionary process begun by the breaking down of barriers at the beginning of this century when women first began attending universities in significant numbers, when women became active in politics and when feminism developed to encourage women to have faith in their own abilities and to work for equality of opportunity. There is almost certainly some credence in that, but I feel that the developments over the past decade have been so marked that there must be other factors at work.

Before looking at other possible factors, perhaps I may put some of the salient facts before the House. In 1979, women employees in the United Kingdom totalled 9,686,000 of an employee workforce of 23,173,000 some 42 per cent. In 1990, that total had risen to 10,806,000 an increase of 11.6 per cent. and now accounting for more than 47 per cent. of the total employee workforce. I emphasise the words "employee workforce" advisedly as in the self-employed workforce the increases are even more marked, as has already been stated. The comparable figures are: in 1979, 348,000 women were self-employed in 1990, 773,000 women were self-employed, an increase of 122 per cent. Incidentally, I found it most interesting, when researching these figures at the weekend, to discover that total people in employment is at a higher level in 1990 than at any other time; namely, 26,077,000. We hear so much about unemployment that it was quite startling to discover that there are now more people in work than ever before.

But back to women and their increasing participation in the work-force. All of us are aware of the feelings of self-confidence and self-esteem which are generated by being in employment. That is particularly true of women, who undoubtedly used to be conditioned from birth to accept that they were somehow unable to aspire to places of responsibility in the world of work. This increase in the numbers of women in the work-force has been accompanied by a simultaneous increase in the numbers of women in more senior jobs in industry and commerce. The women in these more senior jobs are not only in those functions which are somehow regarded as the prerogative of women—"soft" and "caring" areas such as personnel—but in positions of general management where tough and important decisions have to be taken on an hourly or, in some cases, on a minute-by-minute basis.

How has this come about so dramatically during the past decade? I suggest that there are four principal reasons. The election of a government headed by a woman Prime Minister gave great encouragement to women. Certainly I said to myself, "If Mrs. Thatcher can rise to such a position of pre-eminence on merit, why can't I strive to rise to positions of seniority also?" I have to anticipate some scepticism in parts of the House about that statement, but I assure your Lordships that I honestly felt and said that on many occasions. The fact that we had a woman Prime Minister certainly spurred me on to seek advancement in my career.

Secondly, the work of the Equal Opportunities Commission, to which a great deal of tribute has already been paid, began to be taken more seriously by the males in the work-force. Again, my personal experience was that, instead of titters and somewhat pathetic jokes about the necessity to call manhole covers "personhole covers", a genuine dawning of the realisation that women were a greatly under-used asset took place. I am afraid that the acceptance of this fact was almost always on the grounds of self-interest namely, that employers needed all the talent they could get in an increasingly competitive world and not on the acknowledgment that women had had a raw deal up to then.

Thirdly, as more women joined the work-force the infrastructure adapted to accommodate the changed requirements of women. For example, shopping hours were extended. Most grocery supermarkets now stay open until about 8 p.m., which certainly was not the case before the end of the 1970s. Reference has already been made to my fourth point; namely, child care facilities, flexi-time and so on. I shall therefore skip over that aspect.

All of these reasons and many more, many of which were mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, in her opening speech, have combined to create the climate wherein the working woman is encouraged to progress her career. I am not that naive to believe that there are still no areas of discrimination against women, though being a Member of your Lordships' House could lull one into a false sense of security in that regard. The House of Lords is the most fair, equal opportunity environment that I have yet experienced. I am sure that many noble Lords saw the letter in The Times last Saturday from the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, who put paid to a complaint about inequality by listing the huge contribution made to the House during the Local Government Finance Bill by noble Baronesses on both sides of the House and similar facts concerning the Education (Schools) Bill. There undoubtedly remain areas of discrimination where women still cannot get the top jobs, and naturally one thinks of the Church in that connection. But the Motion draws attention to economic, social and cultural opportunities. I should like briefly to say something about the last mentioned; namely, the cultural opportunities for women.

I have come to know the arts world during the past two years since I took up my position at the Barbican Centre. It is a world which attracts a very high profile, though, I should state, not out of proportion to its contribution to the national wealth—and at some future stage I should like to see that contribution debated in this House. It follows, therefore, that women in senior positions in the arts attract a high profile but the reality is that, although there are a handful of women in very senior positions in the arts world, there is a genuine concern that women could do better and that they need encouragement.

The record is good. Out of 10 regional arts boards two are chaired by women, and of the 191 board members 76 are women that is, 40 per cent. In drama, in dance, in music and indeed in administration, there are many, many effective and efficient women. At the risk of turning my contribution to this debate into a catalogue of names, I shall desist from naming them, but if any Member of your Lordships' House would like to see the list I would be only too happy to show it.

However, the arts world is not sanguine about the strides made and to that effect the Arts Council of Great Britain, aware that proper statistics are not available, has initiated a project researching the position of women in the arts at all levels—as artists, facilitators, administrators and indeed consumers. When this research is completed, recommendations will be made leading to the creation of a national policy specific to women and the arts. The overall aims of this policy will be to ensure that a nondiscriminatory funding system is created which will encourage equal access to both employment and public funding for all groups previously disfranchised by society, including women.

The second objective to be achieved is that the contribution of women to the arts and the work of women artists is accorded great visibility. There are those of us who get the visibility at the moment and are in danger of becoming boringly far too high profile.

A further objective is that a commitment should be made, and effective steps taken, to ensure that diverse cultures and experiences, including those of women, are equitably represented and finally, that programming reflects concerns, issues and experiences of society and so greater access to the arts for peoples previously disfranchised by society, including women, is achieved.

The project seems to me well worth while and I congratulate the Arts Council of Great Britain on its initiative. Margaret Hyde, the deputy secretary general of the Arts Council of Great Britain, has specific responsibility for this issue and I look forward to the deliberations.

Perhaps I may say once more how delighted I am that this Motion is being debated in the House. Great strides have been made in the past decade or so and more and more opportunities are opening for women. Probably one of the most pleasing aspects of these developments is the fact that we are able to take note of them in this debate. We are determined to learn from the past and to encourage even more women to go for the top jobs in the future.

3.59 p.m.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, I too welcome the initiative of my noble friend Lady Seccombe this afternoon. Undoubtedly there has been a great increase in women's opportunities both over this century and, more recently, during the past decade. When I went to school, women teachers had to retire on marriage and women doctors were rare, and when I went up to Cambridge women were not even members of the University. All these things seem anachronistic and unbelievable today, itself a measure of progress.

Similarly I can see great progress during the past decade. I thank noble Lords for their kind reference to my chairing the Equal Opportunities Commission. When I started in 1983 it was a steep, uphill task to persuade schools, universities, employers and trade unions of the need for equal opportunities between men and women generally. Often the idea of giving women fair consideration for senior jobs, technical training and flexible working arrangements to allow them to combine responsible, happy family life with a career simply had not occurred to many people. The fact that Opportunity 2000 was launched last month with the backing of 61 major firms would not have been possible in those days. As the Prime Minister said at the launch: I want to see all women having the same opportunities as men. We want more women in top posts. Relatively few men think that combining career, marriage and children will involve choices or pose dilemmas. But for women these three simple human ambitions are still hard to combine. This is the problem we must tackle today, and which Opportunity 2000 addresses. It is above all about changing attitudes … I am delighted that the employers participating in Opportunity 2000 have … come to terms with these facts. I hope many more employers will follow suit … It is in their interests to do so". That is certainly true. It is encouraging that that national lead has already been followed by another 30 firms, making, I understand, over 90 all told.

The CBI has published a document, entitled Discriminate on Ability, showing how many member firms are adding value to their female and ethnic minority workforce. The booklet is full of examples of firms which are taking positive action to give candidates, employees and mature women returners special training in non-traditional fields of work to develop their skills, confidence and leadership. They are laying down firmly that equal opportunities constitute a part of the firm's policy; that targets will he set to remove discriminatory barriers and that the results will be monitored to see that progress is being made. That means practical progress and not window dressing.

That of course, as they say, makes good commercial common sense as the numbers of young people leaving school reduce dramatically, and the principal source of better skills in the future decades lies in the existing workforce and among mature women returners. In its booklet, Performance and Potential, emphasising the importance of education and training, the Institute of Directors says: Women are especially important in raising the quality as well as the quantity of the workforce. Training them is a doubly good investment". Both booklets are well worth study in encouraging other employers to follow that enlightened lead by two of our most important employers' organisations.

I know that the Equal Opportunities Commission is much encouraged by the fact that over 300 employers have joined its "Equality Exchange" on a voluntary basis so as to obtain practical advice, both from the EOC and from each other's experience, about how to promote equal opportunities in their own firms and to manage the change smoothly and efficiently. All those developments augur well for better opportunities for women in higher paid jobs and moving into management responsibilities in the future. They will also provide practical encouragement to smaller firms to follow the pioneers' lead.

Noble Lords will expect me to mention the WISE campaign—Women in Science and Engineering—as many speakers have today. I thank my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal for his kind support and also for his support when I was chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission and he was at the Home Office.

When I went up to Cambridge to read engineering in 1941 there were five women among 250 men. We later discovered that there had only ever been nine before us. We were not even a statistic. At the start of the WISE campaign set up by the EOC and the Engineering Council in 1984, 7 per cent. of first-year undergraduates in engineering were women. The EOC felt that literally half the talents of the nation were being neglected in this traditionally male field of work. The Engineering Council, post-Finniston, was determined to increase the proportion of women in our profession and therefore also improve its quality.

WISE still continues, and has been backed by schools, colleges, universities, industry and commerce, and the Government from the Prime Minister downwards. Margaret Thatcher launched the first WISE bus, and there are now six of them on the road financed by industry and commerce and government departments. We need more of them. They have proved to be an excellent initiative in showing girls in school that they can operate complex pneumatic and electronic equipment successfully, and also find it fun. There are careers videos and literature on board, proving to the girls that engineering firms both need and want their technical skills at all levels, from craft to technician to future incorporated or chartered engineer status. Firms are putting out excellent recruitment literature and also operating career-break bridging schemes, flexible working arrangements and a variety of schemes for helping with childcare so as to retain these commercially valuable women throughout their careers. They know that they cannot afford to lose them.

The percentage of first-year undergraduates in engineering who are women has now risen to 15 per cent.; that is, double the figure at the beginning of the WISE campaign. That is good progress. But, like everything else, we must not let up in our work of increasing that percentage. We shall see in future years women who are at present only young in the profession climbing the rungs of the engineering ladder in greater numbers. Meanwhile, women form about half of the graduate output of our universities and polytechnics and the proportion is similar in medicine and the law. In accountancy, women form between one-quarter and one-third of the workforce, depending on level, and about one-third of architects.

The doors are ajar, and indeed wide open in many cases. We need more girls and women to have courage, work hard and enter these professions and non-traditional fields of work at all levels. Teachers, careers officers and parents need to give them strong encouragement. There is a good lead from the top. It is possible that, on the stage, people will not pay to see women play Richard III; but they will pay to see them play Viola and Juliet. However, they pay every year to see women play Prince Charming.

During this decade the Government have put the second sex discrimination Act into force. That has meant that women are allowed to work in the mines and qualify as mining engineers. Small businesses, partnerships and private households are now included in the Act. The offshore oil industry now comes under that legislation. Equal pay for work of equal value legislation has been enacted and employers in both the public and the private sector must now set compulsory retirement ages for their employees irrespective of sex. Recently a consultative document was issued by the Government to obtain opinions on how to equalise the state pension age.

The code of practice of the Equal Opportunities Commission was approved by Parliament during my time at the EOC and has formed a powerful tool in the commission's hands. Such developments are very welcome in terms of equal opportunities. Certainly, opportunities are on the increase for women in many fields. I welcome that wholeheartedly. I hope to see those opportunities expand substantially into the 21st century with the encouragement of employers, educationists, the Government and society as a whole.

4.8 p.m.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness for introducing this most interesting debate. My party does not seem to be very interested in the subject, but I am sure that that will change during the run up to the election. Women represent 52 per cent. of the population. Knowing that I was to speak in the debate, I looked up a dictionary definition of men and women. I found the following: Man - a human being. Woman - an adult female of the human race Therefore, we start one rung lower right from the word go. I often think that when the Almighty first created man he was just practising. But he did not think that he had done much of a job so he then created woman. We cannot help being perfect. There is no doubting the fact that women do make a great contribution in every way. However, we are still very undervalued.

As a teacher, I always like to think that human beings do not divide in the way that they are described as dividing. For example, there are just as many intellectually good women of a high standard as there are men. Similarly, there are just as many stupid women as there are stupid men. Therefore, it is not a matter of intellect.

Much was made of the physical differences between men and women when we were fighting for equal opportunities. Women are not supposed to be as physically strong as men, but we all know of weak men and strong women. If there is a war nobody bothers about the jobs that women do. They can drive the heaviest lorries and nobody questions whether they are physically strong enough for that, so that argument is out.

What about the emotions? I do not think that we are more emotional than males. I think that the poor males—or at least English males—are supposed to be straightfaced and all that kind of thing, but inside they are much more emotional than we are. When I served on the Bench much tougher sentences would be given out by three women than by three men. A lot of nonsense is talked about emotional differences.

I cannot do anything about the biological differences. Even if people have a sex change, I gather that there is a certain part of the anatomy that nothing can be done about. But that will come—let the scientists get on with it.

Therefore, there is really only one subtle difference —women produce the children. Other than that, people must be judged on their abilities, gifts and qualities. I believe that it was the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, who said that we are wasting people appallingly by saying, "We don't want a woman" or "We don't want a man" or "You're too old" or "You're too young". Dozens of different reasons can be given as to why somebody does not want to use another person's gifts or talents. I have always thought of people as people, and I have worked in the women's movement for a long time.

Because I know that the Government do not like anecdotal statements—if one has a really good example, they will say that it is anecdotal and shrug their shoulders—I had to get some figures. I did not get them from the Labour Party; I got them from a booklet that has been issued on women in business. I assume that they are good figures because that organisation has nothing to lose one way or another, whichever party forms the government. The figures show that women hold only 15.8 per cent. of the executive posts on public bodies. Why? They hold only 18 per cent. of the posts on advisory bodies. Why? Does that look as though we are being given every opportunity? They hold 20 per cent. of such posts on tribunals and 28 per cent. of the posts on National Health Service advisory boards and authorities. That is not equality, whichever way one looks at it, and that is not giving people due consideration for the qualities that they can offer.

The figures for departmental appointments are not very good either. It is interesting that the Home Office is top, with 36 per cent. of its top appointees being women. The figure for the Scottish Office is 31 per cent.—good luck to the Scots. The figure for the Department of Health and Social Security is 27 per cent. and it is important to note that that for the Revenue is 7 per cent. What is the myth that the female does not understand money? We really will have arrived when we have a woman Chancellor of the Exchequer. We will show them how to balance the books, how to save and what to spend. That has been needed for a long time. Only 7 per cent. of the top posts at the Department of Energy are held by women. The figure is only 4 per cent. for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. But who, even now, prepares most meals and buys the food? That, however, does not appear an important enough consideration.

Do your Lordships know that when it comes to the number of women Members of Parliament, this country has the lowest number in Europe? That is nice, is it not? I have never thought of the French as being very advanced, but they are ahead of us, as are the Germans and the Danes. We are at the bottom of the list, with only 15 per cent. of our MPs being women. That is not for want of trying. I remember how many places my daughter had to go to before she was finally selected as a Member of Parliament—and she is a first-rate MP. She does not favour either one sex or the other in any way—she works for people. That is what women are like. I suppose that the less said about Cabinet Ministers, the better. Had Maggie, when Prime Minister, been a man, the chaps would not have treated her as badly as they did. They will deny this—but men still do to women what they would not do to men. I am not talking about sexual acts, but simply about the way they sometimes behave towards women who work with them.

There are still not enough women employed at the top levels. Only 6 per cent. of women earn over £15,000. Just think about that. There are 3 million women who earn less than £3 an hour. I took the trouble to ask what hospital cleaners were getting. It is £1.50 an hour. Do we or do we not have slaves? That is slave labour—and the sooner we have a minimum wage, the better.

The booklet states that women managers are younger than their male counterparts, paid less, more highly educated and occupy lower levels of management. We are back to square one. I was told that a woman had to be twice as good as a man if she wanted to achieve anything in a man's world. I endorse what one noble Baroness has already said—your Lordships' House is the most egalitarian place in which I have ever been but, of course, it is all right when one is older. Men then accept a woman almost as another object—or rather, as an individual.

What women have achieved is due to a small number of dedicated women who have pressed the point. Let us never forget that. I am the daughter of a suffragette. My mother was a wonderful woman who was well ahead of her time. She was the first woman mayor. I had the privilege of being the first woman to sit on the Government Bench in this House. Nothing has been gained by sitting back. However, I must advise any government that if the 52 per cent. of our population organised collectively, the monstrous regiment of women could be very formidable. But we do not organise—we get on with what we are supposed to be doing.

I happened to go through the daily papers today—and this is the sort of thing that is so ridiculous. All the items towards the beginning of the papers that related to women depicted beautiful girls, who were very unclad and in strange positions which, I should have thought, one could not maintain for long. However, when one gets to the back pages and to the items about money, all the pictures are of men—but not very successful men, given that they are the chairmen of NatWest, Barclays and one or two other banks. Why are only women depicted like that? Why not have the chairman of NatWest depicted in, I was going to say, a bikini? There is still the strange idea that that is the way to depict women.

As one agony aunt, whom I shall not name, has said, "A woman has to be bright and cheerful, alert and interesting, attractive enough to make other men look at her, but not too attractive that she causes complications. She must be successful, but not in his field." That is very important. Finally, "A woman must be mysterious, yet easy to understand. In the sex war, the balance is still in the man's favour".

4.17 p.m.

Lord Alexander of Weedon

My Lords, I hesitated to enter this debate and might have hesitated for even longer if I had known that I should have to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips. Perhaps I may declare an interest as the chairman of NatWest.

Having said that, and in welcoming the positive tones in which my noble friend Baroness Seccombe opened the debate, perhaps I may refer to another positive development during the past decade. As your Lordships know, it has been a decade in which, on the basis of the framework of opportunities that are open to people in our economy, greater emphasis has been placed on the development of small businesses. Those businesses now contribute 25 per cent. of our national output and provide 35 per cent. of private sector employment. I am glad to say that 500,000 new small businesses opened even during the difficult recessionary year of 1991. The essential point of this tale is that 35 per cent. of those businesses are run by women.

While welcoming all the positive things that have been said, I should like to focus on the opportunities that are available for women at work, which I see as the central area in which further progress can be made. Perhaps I may refer, first, to the Bar, which was my profession for many years. Between 1981 and 1991, the percentage of women in practice grew from 10 per cent. to 18 per cent. That is a trend that clearly should continue. Currently, 42 per cent. of the students of the Council of Legal Education are women. Encouragingly, women chair or are vice-chairs of nine of the 16 committees of the Bar Council. That progress should, in time, be reflected, as it needs to be, by greater numbers of women in the senior ranks of the profession and within the judiciary.

I shall move on to concentrate mainly on banking where, for the past two years, I have been keenly involved in issues affecting career development for women. The importance of maximising that development arises at several levels. First, it is quite simply a matter of basic fairness. Secondly, there is an extremely powerful economic impetus. Banking is now a highly competitive environment. We are all crucially dependent upon the quality of service that we give, which is as it ought to be. That in turn depends upon the skills of our work-force. We need to draw on the talents of the whole potentially available work-force, or otherwise we shall suffer. I believe that is now more widely recognised in business and industry. It is a hard-headed, practical, driving force which reinforces the general wish to give people equal opportunities. Quite simply, we have to make the most of our human resources.

My own employer, NatWest, was among the first of the large companies to make a commitment to equal opportunities. More recently, we have sought to give that increased impetus, and to reinforce and deepen that commitment. I am very glad that Opportunity 2000 has been mentioned. NatWest was one of the founder members of its target team. Opportunity 2000 sensibly and correctly focuses on the business reasons for maximising the use of women's talents. It has already done much to highlight the need to set pragmatic, yet stretching, targets for increasing the number of women in management positions throughout business. We are grateful to the Prime Minister for his support for that initiative given so publicly last autumn.

We as a bank have responded by publicly setting our own targets. We have committed ourselves to a goal of ensuring that one third of management consists of women by the year 2000. That target is not arbitrary, nor is it pious aspiration. It represents what we believe we should, and can, achieve if we follow best practices to encourage women in their banking careers. Why could we not go even faster? Sadly we could not do so at present without positive discrimination. We do not, however, believe in that form of discrimination, nor do our women employees want it. Early on I held a working session with women drawn from right across the bank. They emphasised of their own initiative that they would be disadvantaged in the end if they had positive discrimination. What they wanted was equal opportunity on merit. We agree with that, but we think it important that, in order to ensure there is fair opportunity, we should have an active process for identifying women to be shortlisted for the management posts which give them the chance to progress. But it is not enough for us to set a target: the commitment to equal opportunities must run deep through the veins of the organisation, from the top right down through our management team.

How do we set about achieving that? We have a twice-yearly report to main board on progress, which provides not only support from the top but a discipline to accountability from management. We also have a clear recognition from those in key positions, such as our regional executive directors, that we need to give full encouragement.

There are certain factors which we see as being of key importance if we are to succeed in our task. Perhaps I may first mention the part to be played by example, or, as it is called in the jargon, "role models". There is no doubt that it is important to have role models who come up through the organisation into management. They provide visible encouragement to other women and help raise their aspirations. They also accustom the organisation to the sight of women in key senior line positions. We recognise the importance of identifying role models, and publicising their success continually as an encouragement to others. We need also, as we do, to give encouragement to women to remain in their jobs. Career breaks, job sharing, flexible hours, as well as distance learning programmes, all form part of our processes and our training. I should add that we offer those opportunities equally to men and women.

Encouraging best practice is, as my noble friend the Leader of the House said, of ever-increasing importance in this decade. On current projections, the national work-force will grow by 900,000 by the end of the decade. It is estimated that of that number 750,000 will be women. It is therefore vital to have as few barriers as possible which might prevent women from returning to work.

In the time remaining I shall single out one barrier: the present position with regard to child care. We recently conducted a survey within our own regions. The response came clearly that the provision of child care was an important issue as an aspect of economic development. All who responded were satisfied that the provision of child care would be encouraged by a more favourable tax framework. Child care was shown by current research done by Dr. Barnardo's to apply to only 1 per cent. of school children in this country. Out-of-school child care facilities need improving. We appreciate the recognition that the Government gave to child care in the 1990 Budget by creating an employee tax exemption for workplace nurseries, but we do not believe that it should be limited to care in the workplace. In many cases, they are impractical as a child care option. The survey revealed that some inner city and city centre locations were unsuitable, and were not a preferred option for employees. In the case of some individual units, they were also too costly to provide.

In that regard we are behind other countries in the European Community. It is a competitive as well as a social issue. There is clearly a cost in expanding child care relief, but we believe that much of it can be offset by the additional revenue which would be generated if more women were to return to work. We regard that issue as so important that we have made a Budget submission to the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggesting that there is now a unique and timely opportunity to put in place the right tax framework to support the needs of the country's employers and working parents. I would only add that, although we naturally cannot expect that factor to affect the purity of the Budget judgment, our survey suggests that such an extension would have wide electoral support. I hope that we shall see a positive development on 10th March.

4.27 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I too should like to thank my noble friend Lady Seccombe for her interesting speech. We all learned a great deal from it. I also thank my noble friend Lord Alexander. I learnt from him about all the workings of his bank and the strides that he is making.

My contribution will be different from that of other noble Lords. I may be taking the wrong line, but at least I shall be talking about women. I shall talk about widows. For the past 20 years I have been the national president of the National Association of Widows. There are 3 million widows in this country, and 500 women lose their husbands every day. That means that there are many women who may not have a great deal to do and who need a great deal of encouragement. They are women of all kinds, ages and backgrounds. They have all done different things during their careers. They all share one thing: they have all lost the man whom they loved and that brings them together.

Those women can be used—I mean in the nicest way—to help our country. They have all been through the traumatic experience of losing their husbands and so they have a unique understanding—I say that advisedly—of other people's problems. Of all the women throughout the country whom I know, I am aware that they know more about other people's problems than any other sector of our population.

I hope that women can be used in the future as conciliators. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has let it be known that we shall need many conciliators to help young and sometimes older people through the traumatic division of their family life. They may have to go to court for a divorce they may need help in avoiding going to court for a divorce they may just need a shoulder to cry on. Those people have trouble with their marriages. I suggest that, because of the experience of these women of all ages, they should be asked to help the conciliation services. When I say "asked", I mean it. Few women will think that they are good enough to become conciliators for anyone else. Therefore, I suggest that employers should go out and find women who are understanding enough to know about other people's problems.

The 3 million widows are of all ages. Unfortunately, the job market has the impression that a widow must be over 70 or 80. People do not realise that a widow can be as young as on her marriage: in other words, she could be 18, 19, 20 or older. Unfortunately, there are a great number of such widows and they need encouragement and help. I realise that most noble Lords are talking about women in the job market who have to earn a living. Most of the women whom I come across in the National Association of Widows are in that group. They go out to work, when an employer will give them a job. If they have children it is important that the employer should give them an opportunity to look after those children.

Another job which I believe is important for those who have had the experience of losing their husbands is being a grandmother. I expect that most people think that being a grandmother is an automatic part of family life. I disagree. Grandmothers play an important part in our social sphere in this country. We should realise that one family in four splits up, often with deeply unhappy children. To whom do the children turn? They turn to their grandmother. In many cases it is the grandmother who has to bring up deeply disturbed and unhappy children. If the grandmothers have the right understanding of what the children are going through, they can bring them up for the parents who should have done it in the first place. Grandmothers have a great part to play in the social structure of our country. I urge all those in employment, and those who employ people, to seek women who are widows and who have the understanding and courage to try to meet the world without their husbands. Employers should give them extra encouragement in all that they do.

I know that I am way off beam because everyone is talking about people who have jobs. Finally, I would like to quote George Bernard Shaw who said: I cannot bear men and women". I do not agree. I like them both.

4.34 p.m.

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, I too wish to thank my noble friend Lady Seccombe for initiating this important debate. As she has already mentioned, in the National Health Service, of the 1 million employees, three-quarters are women and they are making an increasingly important contribution.

The recent reforms provide more opportunities for women to flourish. There are more nurses today than ever before and more doctors, a greater proportion of whom are women; 50 per cent. of medical students are now women.

Some years ago a graduate of Guy's Hospital was appointed as one of the deans of St. Bartholomew's Hospital and given the job of selecting the medical students. He was so overwhelmed by the brilliance, ability and charm of the women candidates that the intake of women rose to 30 per cent. This led to the rumour that there had been a conspiracy on the part of Guy's to sabotage Bart's chances of winning the rugger championship.

The entry of women into medicine has certainly raised the tone of the medical profession. They work much harder, they are gentler, they listen more readily, and many patients, especially women, prefer them. As the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, has already said, women do not want positive discrimination and they can do without negative discrimination. What they do want is better child-care facilities which will make it easier for them to pursue their careers.

Things have generally improved in the profession in its attitude to women, but there are still some aberrant dinosaurs who tend to treat women doctors in a rather patronising way. However, these women seem well able to defend themselves. During an interview for a surgical appointment in a hospital up north, a rather patronising surgeon asked one of the women candidates what her hobbies were. "Climbing", she replied. "Oh, very good, my dear, we have some very high mountains here in Scotland. How far have you managed to climb so far, lassie?". "Well, sir," she replied, "so far only 29,000 feet up Everest".

When I began my career in hospital in the 1950s, the key people were undoubtedly the matron and the ward sisters. By their example and teaching, they influenced countless nurses and doctors. The ward where I worked as a house surgeon was run by a superb sister, Angela Falwasser, who always knew everything about the patients. She knew what was wrong with them long before the doctors did. Her ward was a haven of peace, kindness, order and efficiency.

However, the nursing staff had a great deal to put up with in those days, which were not quite as rosy as some politicians would have us believe. I shall never forget going into her ward one day and being amazed to find this very distinguished ward sister up a ladder cleaning the walls of her ward because the cleaners would not clean above four feet. This produced a tidemark all round the ward, so the sister used to clean the rest of the walls herself.

Over the past 25 years, ward sisters have lost far too much of their authority and the reforms are beginning to help to restore their former power and glory, giving them a major say in the running of their hospitals. After all, the sisters are the backbone of the hospital service and the return of the matron is providing a necessary support at ward level, with her regular visits round the hospital which boost morale all round. These people have great potential and we must ensure that it is fully realised.

I have had the opportunity of seeing ward sisters taking over managerial roles and also continuing to manage the nursing work-force. Their natural common sense fits them well for this work and also for managing their budget. They are extremely good at it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, said, they are very talented at handling the finances. They take much more trouble over interviewing people, and hence they employ only the best people.

It will come as no surprise to your Lordships to know that this kind of nurse manager has her office not in some remote building but right next door to the wards, and the door is always open. They know that the management of hospitals is about managing people and does not lie in the endless shuffling of verbose and badly written memoranda.

Another advantage of women managers in the NHS is that they tend to be less secretive and exclusive than men, and paranoia does not seem to be a problem with them. They seem far less concerned with ego trips and much more able to work together in teams. Their main objective seems to be to get the job done.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, questioned how many senior executives there are in the health service. He will be pleased to know that 36 per cent. of the executives on the management board of the NHS Guy's Trust are women, including a matron for the first time in 25 years.

The Government have gone a long way to provide the framework within which increasing fairness and equality of opportunity for women can flourish, but there is still room for improving the attitude of the more backward-looking men, with their particular type of restrictive practices.

This way of thinking is not entirely new. In conclusion perhaps I may remind your Lordships of the words of Robert Burns 200 years ago which may be appropriate: While Europe's eye is fix'd on mighty things, The fate of empires and the fall of kings … Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention, The Rights of Woman merit some attention".

4.42 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, as a fellow Scot, I am extremely glad to follow my noble friend's contribution. We have heard from several noble Lords of their direct experience of what women are doing these days in different areas of our national life. I want to make the point that of all the changes in economic understanding that have come about in this country during the past 12 years—and they are many—probably the most significant has been the true realisation that the British economy cannot survive without the maximum contribution of women.

It is all too easy to forget the prevailing attitudes even as recently as 1979 and the early 1980s. At that time people made the assumption that there was a set, limited number of jobs in the economy, that the number of jobs was shrinking because technology was taking over, and that unemployment would inevitably go on rising forever. There was a widespread view that one of the solutions had to be that married women should pull out of paid work altogether, leaving what jobs there were to breadwinning men and to single men and women who would otherwise be unemployed.

Your Lordships may remember the disbelief that greeted my noble friend Lord Young of Graffham when, as chairman of the Manpower Services Commission and subsequently as Secretary of State for Employment, he began to suggest a contrary view. My noble friend Lord Young stood the prevailing agreement on its head. He suggested that what was needed was not fewer people seeking a diminishing number of jobs and certainly not fewer married women seeking work, but that employers should be able to respond to new economic needs by creating different kinds of jobs with different and more varied work patterns, and that it should be made more attractive for people to take those jobs that self-employment should be made easier and that the route to that goal would be the reduction in the rigidity of the labour market to which there has already been reference. His view was that was the way to create more jobs and to bring more people's talent into the system, thus benefiting the economy.

In the face of very fierce opposition during the 1980s, the Conservative Government put policies in place one by one. A framework for this flexibility was created, and what my noble friend Lord Young of Graffham had previously predicted began to happen: old jobs gave way to new ones many new jobs appeared, and the alacrity with which women responded to the new opportunities was remarkable. The current recession may have altered some of the figures temporarily, but there is a trend which is unstoppable.

We have already heard how between 1979 and 1989 1.6 million additional women joined the UK workforce. Those were not people coming into manual jobs 424,000 of those jobs were professional and related work in education, welfare and the health care of which the noble Lord, Lord McColl, has spoken; 426,000 were clerical and related jobs and the number of managerial jobs undertaken by women nearly doubled. It is true that many of those jobs were part-time and many were not at as high a level as the women concerned would have liked, but women undertaking full-time careers take time to make their way up the promotion ladder. When their children are young some women prefer not to climb the ladder too fast. Many married women genuinely prefer part-time work, and many employers find that two part-timers achieve more in a day than one full-timer.

Those preferences are reflected in the 1988 figures, which are the latest ones I can find. Of women with children under five, 31 per cent. work for fewer than 15 hours a week, whereas 70 per cent. of women without dependent children work over 30 hours a week. It is interesting also that in 1990, of all the two-parent households with children both parents worked full time in only 14 per cent. of families in 31 per cent., of families the man worked full-time and the woman part-time and in 27 per cent. of families only the husband worked. That is an interesting pattern.

It is likewise interesting that in the United Kingdom women involved in paid work are on average mostly in their forties, while in Germany they are in their early twenties. Undoubtedly this is related to the different school hours. In Germany children go to school at 8 o'clock in the morning and return at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and the parent is expected to help with copious homework in the afternoon, so married women find employment very much more difficult. In the United Kingdom school is from 9 o'clock in the morning until 4 o'clock in the afternoon, so a job is not so awkward to fit in. So school patterns affect the situation.

Those of us who comprise the female heart of our population still have a long way to go in realising our full potential and contributing to the economy of the country, but we have made a lot of progress since 1979, largely due to the flexible labour market that has been created during this decade. It is essential that that flexibility continues.

I remember going to the Scottish Trades Union Congress a number of years ago and noticing the almost total lack of women in the hall. I understand why the Labour Party has found it necessary to make special rules to force people to vote women into positions of responsibility. I am not sure why creating a Minister for Women would help. It may, but it seems to me to be merely a frill. What is really important is that the government of the day should, without fail, make sure that the labour market is flexible and that jobs exist for women. If the opportunities are there, women will take them. That must be the main theme for the coming year.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I had to attend a meeting of one of your Lordships' advisory panels just now so I missed several speeches, which I regret. I welcome the fact that a large number of my noble friends are present on these Benches. I am surprised, however, that the Back-Benches of the parties opposite are deserted except for one noble Lord.

My noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour very properly said that our economy cannot survive without the contribution of women. I remind your Lordships that we could not have won either of the world wars without their work on the land, in munition factories and in hospitals and their presence in all three of the Armed Forces of the Crown. I have to declare an interest in the debate in that I have no son but I have two daughters who are making good careers and who are also good mothers.

There are some things which women do better than men and some which men do better than women. But there is a vast range of activity, much of which has been mentioned, in which men and women can, and should, and do, compete on equal terms. They include all matters in which only brains, personality and integrity are required. I give as an example the legal profession.

When I was called to the Bar, alas nearly 60 years ago, there were only 12 women in practice, including one King's Counsel. Now, I am happy to tell your Lordships, there are over 1,200 women in practice, including 34 Queen's Counsel. Even more significant is the increasing proportion of women compared with men being called to the Bar. Twenty years ago only 20 per cent. of those called were women. Ten years ago the proportion had risen to 27 per cent. Last year, 42 per cent. of those called to the Bar were women.

As the proportion of women in practice increases, so, over the years, will the proportion of women Queen's Counsel and the number of women judges. It takes 15 to 20 years in practice to become a judge. It takes at least 10 years to become a Queen's Counsel. Therefore, it is not surprising that there are not yet many women judges. However, I am sure that there will be more in future given that such a development is encouraged by the Bar Council and forms part of the policy of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor.

It is interesting to note that there has always been a higher proportion of women among solicitors than at the Bar. There are now 50,000 women practising solicitors, 24 per cent. of the total. In other professions progress is also encouraging. For example, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants now has 2,500 women members compared with only 300 10 years ago. There is progress for you! I would not dare to embellish or add to the admirable speech made by my noble friend Lord McColl, but as the son of a doctor I know that throughout this century there has been an ever-increasing number of women in practice in the medical profession.

My noble friend Lady Seccombe, in her excellent opening speech, said that there were ever-increasing opportunities for women. That is right. However, we must be realistic. We do no service to the women of this country if we are not. Women's opportunities are inevitably limited, as are their opportunities for promotion, by their having to bear children and look after those children in their early years. Therefore, it would be unrealistic for women always to keep pace with men in every occupation all the time. But they can, they do, and they will succeed when they have the opportunity.

4.56 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lady Seccombe for initiating the debate with her usual charm and grateful also to the noble and truly, if not technically, gallant male noble Lords who have supported her.

I made my first point when I said, "My Lords". In this House we are all equal. We are all Peers and as men and women—though fortunately very different in certain respects—are all human beings. That is a perfect example of how things should be run in the best possible of worlds, although there are certain anomalies. Although all of your Lordships are unfailingly polite and courteous, I have noticed that the male Members of this House are even more polite and courteous, if that were possible, to those Peers who are also women. We all find that totally delightful.

Men in this House are not always so advantaged. My spouse, for example, has no courtesy title, although he can, of course, like a peeress, ballot for a place at the State Opening of Parliament. He does not, however, wear an evening dress and tiara which, to be fair, I do not think he minds.

Everywhere, new opportunities for women are opening up. When my aunt first went to sea as a tenth engineer in 1922 she was the only woman engineer in the Merchant Navy. When she retired as a chief engineer in 1963 many more women had adopted a sea-going career. Last Friday, in Dundee I was aboard a Belgian ship, the "Zinnia", which was leading a NATO flotilla. The captain of a Dutch ship told me that eight of his 45 crew were women, two of them officers. It was, he said, a happy ship and all of the crew worked very well together.

Over the past 10 years the number of women working full or part time has increased by almost a fifth. With more child care facilities and greater flexibility of hours and working conditions, more women are finding it possible to continue with a career outside as well as inside the home. That is true in higher education. The number of women studying medicine, dentistry and health at university has risen from 40 per cent. to 60 per cent. Indeed, nearly half the students at university today are women. As my noble friend said, 7,000 more women than men joined university courses last year. We have had a woman Prime Minister. The new head of MI5, Stella Rimington, who started work today, is a woman.

Man has traditionally been the breadwinner, woman the bread maker. "Lady" means loaf maker. I believe that one of the most fulfilling and exciting careers for any woman is that of wife and mother, though that does not now exclude having another career as well. Although bakers are not likely to go out of business, occasionally the smell of warm yeast in the kitchen in the middle of the night shows that ladies are still exercising their traditional skills.

Because one is a woman one does not wish to be promoted as a special category, as something different from the rest of humanity. We do not need or want a special Ministry for Women as suggested in the Labour manifesto, as if woman was some rare and inhuman beast. We are all human beings; we are all part of humanity. Without women, mankind would cease to exist. As women we want only to compete on an equal footing—not so much jobs for the boys as jobs for all. We want to be sure that the best person for the job is the one who gets it. It could well be a man it could also be a woman. But it must be the best.

5 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I am very glad to have the opportunity to take part in this debate. I have come from 17 years as a journalist, where one did not think in terms of discrimination between men and women. I was interested that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, spoke, and that my noble friend Lady Denton is to wind up the debate. I think I am right in saying that among those of us who entered the House at the same time, on John Major's first list of working Peers, there are more women than men. That is of some significance.

This country has a tradition of outstanding women. It may partly be because we base ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, on our Greek heritage. At one time in Greece the goddess Athena ruled supreme. At least three of our greatest monarchs have been women. History will say that one of our greatest Prime Ministers was a woman.

We all have our heroes. Mine is a woman. I happen to believe that three of the qualities which I most admire—courage, determination and idealism—are found more often in women than in men. My "hero" in life has for long been Charlotte Corday. We will be celebrating the bicentenary of her death next year. Noble Lords will remember that she murdered—or assassinated, it depends upon one's point of view—the odious Marat, who was busy guillotining dissidents. She suffered a martyr's death about five days later.

I welcome what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, and my noble friend Lady Strange. One must not think of women as such, one must think of people or human beings. That can be the only sensible approach. I grant that it is not the approach of everybody but it suggests to me that positive discrimination is the wrong approach. To me the ultimate in petty sexism is the Women's Page in the Guardian. I looked at it today. The heroine today is a militant lesbian. Is that the kind of stereotyping in which any Members of this House believe? I believe that positive discrimination is patronising, or worse.

Equally, I find that the snide attitude taken by some feminists toward men is as unattractive as the chauvinist attitude which, regrettably, some men still have toward women. My experience is that on the whole if men make silly judgments, women quickly put them in their place. Noble Lords will remember that a few years ago there was a rapist at large in Cambridge. It was suggested by some men that women in Cambridge should be subjected to a curfew at nine o'clock at night until he was caught. It was soon pointed out that it might be more appropriate for men to be subjected to a curfew.

There is much pressure on women to work shortly after having children. That pressure comes from two sides. It is partly external—economic pressure—and partly internal: the motivation and ambition that women understandably have to return to work. I cannot make a judgment on the second area. With regard to the external pressure, I should like to suggest increasing child benefit. I was very glad that the Conservative Party increased child benefit, although belatedly, in the last Budget. I should like to see it increased further. I am not one for producing extra expenditure proposals, so I would fund it by making child benefit taxable and use the tax clawed back to increase it. I do not believe that it is moral to give money to people who do not need it at the expense of people who do need it. That would be my suggestion.

Certainly I agree with my noble friend Lord Alexander that more women are needed in the boardroom. That is an easy matter to put right. Anyone who has sat on the board of a company will know how very sensitive are directors of companies. I suggest that people—I do not say necessarily that they should be women—should go along to annual general meetings of companies where there is no member of the main board who is a woman. They should ask, "Why not?" One only has to say that three or four times or perhaps for a couple of years. One would find that the board of that company would ask themselves, "What are we going to do about this situation?" and they will do something about it.

It is a pity that there are no Bishops taking part in this debate. I should have liked to see one on each side of the controversy. There are certain things about religion which one can never understand. I cannot begin to understand, try as I may, why we should not have ordained women priests into the Church of England, of which I try to be a member. I am sorry that we have not heard their opposing points of view.

Finally, I should like to say a word on Labour's proposal for a Ministry for women. It is not a sensible idea because that is not how government works. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, is not in his place. He would know that it is not the way in which Whitehall operates. The Minister either will not be in the Cabinet, in which case she will have no real power, or she will be in the Cabinet and there will be a quick Pavlovian reaction when she says something —the Prime Minister will look at his watch. Basically, her comment will not be seen as relevant.

I believe that the approach taken by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is much better; namely, that every Minister should have a responsibility in these matters. I suspect that Mr. Kinnock himself does not believe in the Ministry for women. I suspect that his wife does not do so either. However, I recognise that there are certain pressures to which everyone in politics is subjected, and that is a pressure to which he has had to yield. I end by cautioning Labour against that particularly silly idea.

5.7 p.m.

Lord Kagan

My Lords, I have generously been given one-and-a-half minutes in which to speak. The most important decision that people have to make is about marriage. When a man marries, he looks at a woman, her appearance and her attraction, all of which are possibly evolving or diminishing qualities. In other words, a man shops for the package and wrapping. A woman does not marry a man for his looks—this House is evidence of that. She marries a man for what he is, not what he looks like. She asks herself whether he will be a good provider and whether he will make a good father for her children.

With regard to business training, the best possible business training comes from managing a household on a fixed income. Most women spend their own money. Most men, whether in employment or otherwise, spend either the employer's, the company's or the Government's money. They have vision, but very often their feet are not on the ground. The result is obvious.

Women have a reputation for being difficult and that is because they have vocations, not jobs. In my experience women are motivated to satisfy the requirements of the job. Men are concerned with how to satisfy the boss and worry about their future promotion. If one wants results, give it to a woman. If one wants explanations of why what happened was not his fault, give it to a man.

In my last half minute I should like to cite the Almighty. He had to make the choice of to whom to entrust the bearing of children. He must have practised positive discrimination. I rest my case.

5.10 p.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, following what the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, said, I protest about the generalisations about women and men. Women are as diverse as men. We do not like being lumped together as though we are all duplicates, one of another.

That said, I should like to take up the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, in a most interesting and constructive speech from a more economic view. I take a rather gloomy view about the future of this country at present with the global economy that we face. We simply cannot afford to waste the ability of a single person in this country. There is no doubt that women's ability has been woefully wasted over decades. I do not blame anyone for that. It has been wasted because in the past women have not taken the subjects in schools or continued with studies which have enabled them to enter the more demanding occupations. That applies also to the training that they have received in the past. The urgency is to find the greatest possible number of ways of recovering what we have lost by failing to make use of the woman-power that we have in this country, because we shall need every bit of it.

The situation as regards equal opportunity has changed very much over the past 20 years, not least due to the efforts of two noble Baronesses in your Lordships' House. It is a generalisation to say that today the difference in equal opportunity between a woman with no children and a man is less than between a woman with no children and a woman with children. The heart of the problem is less a matter of sex than of the responsibilities of childbearing. Therefore we need to consider every possible way in which we can ease the difficulties of women who try to combine home duties with work duties, and to consider in detail how we can make very much better use of the talent which undoubtedly is there.

I echo the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, in saying that after all it is not as though while looking after children at home—I can speak from total ignorance of the experience—one does not develop valuable qualities. As someone remarked, if one has run a children's party for seven year-olds with no damage to property or person one must be quite a competent manager. There are surely skills acquired which could be applied elsewhere.

We turn immediately to child care. Again I wish to reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, said in imploring the Chancellor of the Exchequer to extend the tax concessions for child care. I know that it is too late; the Budget is already written. Employer child care can affect only a relatively small proportion of the children concerned. Often an employer is too small a body to provide adequate child care. Do not let us forget that good child care will always be expensive. Often the place of employment is too far away for such child care to be convenient for the mother, but she has to have the child looked after while she is at work.

Child care is not just a matter of crèches and looking after the under-fives. I have been told many times that the biggest problem is school holidays. What does one do with a bouncing 11 year-old who wakes up in the morning with nothing to do and has the whole day in which to do it—often very destructively? We should be considering the provision during school holidays of colonies de vacances, which they have in France. After all, the period of time that a child is at school is very much longer than the period of time before the child goes to school. We should shift the emphasis on child care to some extent to that area.

There is, too, the issue of effectively returning to employment. The NatWest Bank is a leader in the retainer schemes which allow women up to five years off with a guarantee of a return at the same level of employment. One cannot guarantee the same job after that period of time. There is the requirement to come back for two weeks in the year so that the women stay in the atmosphere of employment and do not feel that they have been completely left behind by the developments which go on in what were their jobs. That is extremely valuable. More encouragement ought to be given for more employers to run such retainer schemes.

Financial provision for retraining or new training is extremely important. It is not true to say that the provision made by the Government for retraining is as good for women as it is for men. So much of it has been dependent upon being technically unemployed. Women who have been housewives do not rank as technically unemployed. I know that the Government made some provision for training for women in that category. However, it still leaves a large number who need retraining but who do not qualify for Government grants. It is important that that should be altered.

Perhaps I may put in a special plea for refresher courses for professional women. The loss of their skills and contribution is very serious indeed. Public money on a small scale has been put into some extremely valuable nine-week individually developed courses. They started in Hatfield Polytechnic and they now extend to a considerable number of other polytechnics. Such courses "recondition" women who have had professional training and experience but who are out of date because they have been at home. Those courses can be expensive for the period of time involved, but it is a short period and Government money invested in such courses can be quickly recouped if those women obtain good employment, as a great many do, and start paying tax when they earn. To consider such courses in detail is extremely important.

I urge that the universities in their summer vacations—which are still pretty long—should be encouraged to develop retraining programmes for women. Many have residential facilities. They could make it very easy for women who wish to retrain intensively by attending courses at universities.

Finally, the emphasis should shift. One does not disregard the problems of sex discrimination, but sex discrimination is today entwined with age discrimination. Much of the difficulty for women returning to work—apart from the qualification issues about which we have spoken—is that when they wish to return to work they are at an age at which both men and women are regarded as beyond the pale. One sees that in particular in your Lordships' House. Almost all the noble Baronesses in this House—I can see two or three exceptions, of which I am one—are wives and mothers. They return at an age at which their husbands can apparently spare them quite easily for four days a week—I do not know whether they spare them easily, but they spare them. But it is a fact that very few of them would be accepted by constituencies to stand for another place because the age discrimination from which they suffer would rule them out. That applies not only to the Houses of Parliament; it applies throughout industry. Therefore, an attack upon age discrimination—for which the sympathy of all in your Lordships' House could surely easily be aroused—would also be of great assistance.

5.19 p.m.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, I too welcome the debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, for introducing it and for giving us the opportunity to assess the position of women in society and to consider their prospects for the future. It is an important debate because, as has been indicated by almost all speakers, women are an essential and increasing part of our economy. We cannot hope to maintain, let alone increase, our standard of life if we do not continue to have women's participation in the labour force.

The noble Baroness began by going back to the 19th century. I welcome what was done then and thoroughly admire the work of the early pioneers. However, I suggest that the changes with which we are concerned today began in the 1960s when the new women's movement began to emerge. Younger women began to put pressure on the governments of the day to bring about reform. In 1970 we passed the Equal Pay Act for which, as a Member of Parliament, the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, was responsible. In 1975 we passed the Sex Discrimination Act. During the 17 years since that Act was passed the changes which have occurred have been important and far-reaching.

Perhaps I can say with modesty that the changes were brought about at the instigation of the Equal Opportunities Commission. From the outset the commission saw its role as a catalyst. It did not have sufficient resources to bring about all the changes on its own. Therefore, it saw its role as helping to establish the parameters of the law; to expose discrimination; to help those who were being discriminated against; and to introduce an educative process by exposing discrimination, by its codes of practice and by its guidance.

I welcomed the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon. He represents a perfect example of what is needed by companies; that is, for the head of the company to give a lead. Even before he took office at National Westminster Bank, the bank was the first major employer to introduce a married women's returner scheme. The bank called it its "territorial scheme" because it brought the women back for two weeks each year for a refresher. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, have underlined the importance of that. As yet we have not solved the problem of how women can take a break in their career in order to have a family and then return without losing out. Career breaks, returning at the same level, accelerated promotion and intensified training are important in that respect. However, the changes that have taken place are most welcome.

As regards education, girls now represent 50 per cent. of the intake into universities. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, will share with me a sense of disappointment that as yet the numbers in engineering, science and computing are not high enough. However, the differences which existed in the areas of medicine and law have been eliminated. Women's participation in the labour force is now approaching 50 per cent. They are no longer expected to look upon paid employment as an interlude between school and marriage; they see it as part of their life pattern.

Blatant discrimination has by and large disappeared. However, the annual report of the Equal Opportunities Commission reminds us that discrimination occurs in particular against married women. Women in the professions and in management have been mentioned by most speakers because progress has been made in those areas. However, as regards the lower rungs of the ladder the latest issue of the earnings survey indicates that women still form a small proportion of the highest decile of salary earners. Attitudes have also changed. The stereotype of the dependent woman is disappearing. Even media advertising is beginning to change its image of women being housebound housewives and mothers.

Such changes are most welcome but we need to be realistic in assessing how far we have gone and how far we still have to go. I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, was somewhat complacent, as were a number of other speakers. They failed to look seriously at the barriers which still face women. Many noble Lords put 1979 as the benchline. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act was passed in 1975. I regret to say that many changes have taken place in the teeth of government opposition. There was great opposition in this House when it came to passing the amendment relating to equal value. The Leader of the House took it back twice before we eventually agreed it. The provision was brought to us simply because the European Court said that we were not complying. There have been many cases which have sought to extend women's equality into occupational pension schemes. The Marshall and Barber cases are important in that respect. They were brought about simply by women's determination and by putting pressure on the Government. They had the help of the Equal Opportunities Commission in taking such cases to Europe.

Barriers still exist in pay. The earnings of women represent only 77 per cent. of the hourly male earnings. Among the non-manual occupations where most of the women are concentrated the percentage is even less. As regards part-time workers I was and still am keen to establish flexibility in employment patterns. However, we must not do so at the expense of cheap labour. The latest earnings survey shows that 80 per cent. of part-time workers earn less than the Council of Europe's decency threshold, which is 68 per cent. of full-time average mean earnings. So there is a long way to go. By and large part-time workers do not qualify for sick pay, maternity pay, holiday pay and pension entitlement. They have fewer training and promotion opportunities. As a result, their low status in that respect is taken through into employment. Only 35 per cent. of women are in occupational pension schemes compared with 60 per cent. of men. The Equal Opportunities Commission has suggested a way of helping retired women. It states: At £52 a week the state pension is only a quarter of women's full time average earnings and is not enough to keep them out of poverty. But it still suits women's life patterns best and provides the main income for most retired women". Therefore, it advocates an increase in the basic retirement pension. It is also recommending other changes which, as yet, the Government have not taken on hoard. They have not taken on board the recommendations to strengthen the Sex Discrimination Act which were made after a process of consultation.

The commission is recommending a more comprehensive policy on child care, nursery care and out-of-school care. The Government still have not responded to that. The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, spoke about child benefit and the fact that it is to be uprated. Child benefit was frozen in 1987 until 1991 when new rules were introduced. Had it been continually uprated since 1987 it would be worth 30p more per week for the first child and £ subsequent children. That would mainly help to eliminate poverty among many families.

While we welcome what has been done, there is still much to be done. If the Government are serious about their commitment, they will accept the Equal Opportunities Commission's recommendations on strengthening the Act. They would accept the three directives from Europe on atypical work which would cover part-time workers on maternity and parental leave. All that is essential if the future of women in our society is to continue to improve.

5.31 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, thanks to the initiative of my noble friend Lady Seccombe, we have today had a most interesting and wide-ranging debate. I am grateful to my noble friend and to all noble Lords who have taken part for their contributions.

It is particularly appropriate that this debate should take place in your Lordships' House which, as the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, pointed out, suffers neither from sexism nor, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, pointed out, from ageism, the other part of the problem. Your Lordships' House is an example to many organisations of lesser standing.

We have not had a debate about a minority. As my noble friend said in opening, we have had a debate about the majority, an important resource for wealth creation in the coming years. When people speak about this country running out of its natural resources, they forget about women. Not using the resources which women offer is like entering a race with only one leg.

As my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal demonstrated thoroughly, the present situation is bright and, because of the Government's policies of the past 13 years, the future will be even brighter.

Today we have heard many examples of firsts. Perhaps I may add a few more. My party appointed the first woman Leader of the House of Lords—my noble friend Lady Young. Also, we are exceptionally proud to have on this side of the House the first ever woman Life Peer—my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood. Last year the first woman director of a polytechnic joined us—my noble friend Lady Perry. Other firsts in recent years have been Lady Mary Donaldson, the first female Lord Mayor of London, and Professor Margaret Turner-Warwick, who became the first woman president of the Royal College of Physicians. Tracy Edwards led an all-female yacht crew round the world, and Liz McColgan, with her success in the Tokyo world championships, showed that having a baby does not stop women being winners.

Some women collect firsts with the greatest of ease. Barbara Mills was the first woman head of the Serious Fraud Office and is now to be the first woman Director of Public Prosecutions. There is a real danger that we shall soon be running out of firsts. There must be some nervousness in Lambeth Palace or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, pointed out, in No. 11 Downing Street. The Government have created a climate which allows the aspirations of women to be boundless.

The world works best when people work together. When it is out of balance, whether by statute or discrimination, it is unnatural and less effective. In the past women have often cloned themselves to join worlds scripted by men. We now have a climate which allows all individuals to play to their own strengths.

I should have been much amazed had not a noble Baroness opposite raised the issue that there are no women in the Cabinet. The Prime Minister's political adviser and the head of his policy unit are women. There are five female Ministers of State and one female Parliamentary Under-Secretary. The last intake of working Peers in your Lordships' House, of which I was privileged to be a member, contained five women. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that in this House our sex is well represented, in particular among the workers. This party produced the first woman Prime Minister.

It seems to me rather rich of the party opposite to criticise the lack of a woman in a group of 22 people when women have so substantially increased their influence in this Government. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, comes from a well respected trade union background. Does she suggest that because neither the AEU nor the EETPU have women on their national executives, they do not care about their women members?

The Government have created opportunities for women without creating discrimination where no discrimination exists. If you have a Ministry for Women, what are you saying to men? Is that not the ultimate form of discrimination? Women make up half of this country's population and if the Labour Party continues to insist on treating women as a protected species, guaranteeing them places, special notepaper and departments, is it not possible that they begin to bear a close resemblance to pandas—so heavily protected that they eventually become extinct?

We who care about women know that their natural talents will lead them to the forefront without having their own special playing fields, as my noble friend Lady Strange confirmed. I must express some sympathy for women members of the Labour Party who, when they become a prospective parliamentary candidate or a member of the shadow Cabinet, will never have the satisfaction of knowing whether that was achieved on the basis of their own ability or because they were guaranteed a place. We expect women to want to be at the top of lists—any list, not one reserved for them alone. The Labour Party makes great play of the fact that it has attracted an actress to its midst. The candidate for Hampstead has been given every possible opportunity for comment. Again, I must express sympathy because it cannot be too long before she realises that the scripts she is given will never be Oscar winners.

The Labour Party seems to feel that it should guarantee women places in a man's world. On this side of the House we believe in, and have worked for, a world that is as open to women as it is to men. Above all, we have resisted the temptation to think that women would all want to do things in the same way as men do them.

It was inevitable that we should hear much about child care. For women with young children, it is a crucial issue. However, it is interesting that when the Midland Bank recently surveyed all levels of its women employees, the results showed that their first concern was that the company should provide more women's confidence training. The second was to train management to change its attitudes. Child care came third on the list. It is interesting that the noble Baronesses opposite neglected to point out in their discussions on child care that we are one of only two European countries which provide full-time compulsory education for children from the age of five.

With the successful piloting of CTCs with all-day attendance, we are seeing the development of education systems which are extremely sympathetic to working women. This Government concentrate—I am sure with the approval of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear—on the fact that from 35 to 40, there are opportunities for training and returning not just to work but to a career.

I shall quote someone who, by no stretch of the imagination, could be called a feminist. Jacqueline Onassis said: What is sad for women of my generation is that they weren't supposed to work if they had families. What were they to do when the children were grown—watch the raindrops coming down the window pane? Women are beginning to realise that it is not possible to get too much education. It does not make you fat but makes you happy and rich. The number of women aged 18 and over in part-time courses at further education colleges has almost doubled in 10 years since 1980. There are now more women than men on sandwich and part-time courses at further education colleges.

Distance learning is ideal for women. They can start pursuing their interests part-time and when ready to return to the workforce, be well prepared. The Government have supported the establishment of the open college and last year provided an additional £750,000 to the funding of the Open University to help towards its target of 100,000 undergraduate students by the end of the decade.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will forgive me for interrupting. The noble Baroness keeps quoting history which in some cases, as I shall explain to her later, is inaccurate. However, does she remember that it was a Labour woman who introduced the Open University?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am delighted to acknowledge that all women have contributed to improving rights and opportunities for women. That is something to which I shall return later in my speech. I was going to say in regard to Open University that "Educating Rita" was a box office success. It represented women's hopes and dreams. It is our intention to help deliver those dreams.

In my new role it gives me much pleasure to see that the public sector is leading the private sector in its concern for women as employees. The Civil Service has imaginative and innovative schemes for meeting the needs of working mothers, and women continue to move up the career path quickly.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness how many Permanent Secretaries have been women.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, there have been women Permanent Secretaries. As the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, pointed out, one needs a sufficiently large base in order to get to the top in the same way as one does in the private sector. I was going to point out that the number of women at Grade 3 in the Civil Service has increased from 23 in 1984 to 33 in 1991, and, perhaps even more importantly, two of those women are part-time. I have no doubt that it will not be long before we see another woman Permanent Secretary.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, perhaps my noble friend will forgive me for intervening. I believe that over the past 30 years, during that critically important period, the most formidable Permanent Secretary was Dame Evelyn Sharp.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that information. The proportion of women staff who work part-time in the Civil Service and job share has increased from 4.8 per cent. in 1984 to 14.2 per cent last year. That is important for women. It is no wonder that the Civil Service College received a special commendation from the Working Mothers Association for its positive approach.

As a past member of the Health Service Policy Board I can only endorse the words of my noble friend Lord McColl regarding the success of policies in that sector. I was involved in the setting up of a special unit to look after the opportunities for women and the establishment of a specific person in each region with responsibility for the programme. Tough goals are set for the health service and I can assure the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, that there will be women in top posts soon. I must endorse the tremendous work of Christine Hancock at the Royal College of Nursing in this regard.

Two years ago I was a member of the original board of Opportunity 2000, the Business in the Community initiative. The Prime Minister's support of the initiative based on substantial programmes was crucial to bringing along the private sector. I suspect that men march best when they march in step. With the Prime Minister's lead, Opportunity 2000 has been able to pressurise many captains of industry to be involved in the programmes for women employees in their companies. Every piece of research shows that the key to women having fair opportunities in a company is involvement from the top. The noble Viscount can relax. With my right honourable friend as Prime Minister, the country is in safe hands on the matter.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Turner and Lady Lockwood, talked extensively about the need for legislation and the record of past legislation. Of course there is need for legislation in this area and much has been done. But there is also a need for encouragement. We have all come across the employer who is capable and legally able to stand up and say, "I am an equal opportunity employer. Everybody through the gate by 8.30". We are looking for a climate of change.

I do not apologise for our training policy. There is much to be said for the Chinese proverb which states that it is better to teach someone to fish than to give him a fish. We are determined that people shall be trained. It is not just my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal who comments with doubt on the suggestion of the minimum wage. Last year Gavin Laird commented, It's never worked in the past, there's no logic for it, it doesn't work in any other country and it certainly will not work in Great Britain". I recognise the anxieties which drove much of what the noble Baroness said. I can only repeat that women —the noble Baroness emphasised this—do not wish to fit into boxes, especially boxes drawn by men. Often the desire for five hours' work is not motivated primarily by money but by the desire to escape from the home, to have adult conversation, to feel special. There are many women to whom five hours out of the home are heaven; and grandchildren are often cared for by grandparents because that solves two problems.

The regulation proposed by the Labour Party on child care and minimum wages would blow those choices out of the water financially and practically. Instead of double failure we have encouraged companies to look at double solutions—employing mothers trained and skilled during term time and students during vacations. Solutions such as those look at women's needs.

I should also like to comment on the often raised point of women's earnings. There is still some way to go, though not the 30 per cent. quoted. I hope that I shall please the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, by quoting from 1970 on this occasion when women's average earnings represented 63 per cent. of those of men. In 1991 that had increased to 78 per cent. It is moving in the right direction.

I worry about what the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, terms "wastage" of first class degrees. Should not mothers have first class degrees? Is there a more important job than bringing up a family? With regard to providing a creche at Westminster, I should point out that the children would have to go home at the same time as we foolishly do—at midnight. Flexibility of child care is what we are looking for.

It was good to welcome the contribution of my noble friend Lady Platt to the debate. I joined the Engineering Council when she was a member and no one fought harder than my noble friend to open that first door into engineering for women. I once met a young lady who said that she wanted to be an engineer. When asked what kind of engineer she said, "An engineering engineer". My noble friend makes sure that she knows there are civils, mechanicals, and electricals, and all with increasing numbers of women participating.

The noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, brought glorious commonsense to our discussion. I am proud that my side showed rather more support than hers in this debate. I wonder whether the noble Baroness realises that there is a lot of common ground with my right honourable friend Mrs. Thatcher, who was heard to say—the noble Lord, Lord Kagan will agree —"If you want something said give it to a man; if you want something done give it to a woman". She will also be pleased that the Prime Minister agrees with her anxiety about the lack of women in public appointments. The department will soon by announcing some challenging initiatives aimed at those. However, we must remember that women have two jobs, and a third job in the public appointments area is not always possible throughout their careers.

I hope that my noble friend Lord Alexander did not feel that the order of debate was set up on purpose to draw attention to this theme. As has been said by the noble Baroness opposite, it was an encouraging contribution.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, I said that.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

Yes, my Lords, It was an encouraging contribution. We all know that the words match the deeds. We also know that if they did not, the presence there of my noble friend Lady Young would ensure that they did.

My noble friend claimed that we were behind the EC norm in child care. The league tables usually referred to are for full-time publicly-funded provision. That neglects the United Kingdom's unique mixture of private and voluntary care. The contribution from my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve movingly illustrated that no two women are the same, and what diverse strengths they have to offer! I am sure that her message will be well heard.

My noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour emphasised the magic word "flexibility" in growing opportunities for women. It is flexibility which recognises something which has run throughout the debate; namely, that women have different needs at different times and in different circumstances. My noble friend Lord Renton had a good case, as one would expect, and very good news for those looking to enter the legal profession. My noble friend Lord Marlesford gave us good advice on how to make things happen. Possibly there will be a great up-take of single shares in many companies. I endorse his wish that the Church had joined us in today's debate. In a very brief contribution the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, possibly not only explained a reason for the rise in the divorce rate, but also why women succeed.

It was a pleasure to welcome the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, who was so worthily the recipient of the Royal Society of Arts' Albert Medal this year. If there were an "A" team for women who have supported other women, everyone who has spoken today would be players, but the noble Baroness, would be centre-forward. She so rightly emphasised the difference between needs and solutions. I am pleased that she acknowledged that the Government have recognised the special entry routes for returners and lone parents which they can follow without necessarily being registered as unemployed and that the issues are not just about the under-fives, but about out-of-school hours and careers breaks.

We have to be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, who is a leading supporter of our sex. Not only is she a past chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, but she keeps a constant check on the advertising world. With a few honourable exceptions, which I am sure is due to her vigilance, the advertising world seems not to have noticed the substantial change that we have discussed today. As women, it may be time that we voted with our chequebooks against some patronising and sexist companies.

I point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, that the United Kingdom has one of the longest periods of statutory maternity leave in the EC. It is 40 weeks. This Government talks about people. This is the Government who have introduced the Citizen's Charter which, above all, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said, is about giving more power to citizens as parents, neighbours, patients, tenants and taxpayers. Women are all of those things and so are men. The sexes have different needs at different times in life. We aim to unlock the potential of all men and women to their own choice and to provide them with the information they need about schools, hospitals, and other public services so that they can make their decisions based on knowledge.

"Parent" is not a female noun. Men participate in decisions about where and how their children are cared for and what are also the needs of their own parents. As my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal pointed out, the world has not always been kind to women's needs, but it is changing. With more women in decision-making positions the change will occur faster. My right honourable friend Mrs. Rumbold, the Minister of State at the Home Office and lead player for the Government on women, recently said that the Home Office was surprised when it got a woman as a Minister. It cannot be too long to the day when most departments will hope that they get a woman as a Minister.

I opened my speech by saying that your Lordships' House was the right place to have this debate. I close by saying that the time is very right. Over the past 13 years this Government have put in place many programmes which have increased the opportunities for women and broken down barriers which, although not insurmountable, were undoubtedly in the way. Today no one has questioned the strength of women nor their great ability to manage fast-moving change. We are at a watershed. The canvas has been prepared. It is now for women to chose the path they prefer to tread. Your Lordships have made it very obvious that they will do so with pleasure, success and benefit to the whole country.

5.57 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, this has been a most interesting, informative and very important debate. I can assure noble Lords that we are in no way complacent. It is important to recognise the great strides that have been made, because that is the spur to the younger women who follow—they look to us for an optimistic view of the future. I was very interested to hear about the encouragement of women and about the small number of women in the other place. During the past five years it has been my role to encourage younger women to get on the ladder. I have found that women need to be asked; they need that encouragement. Indeed, that may be historical because they have not seen their role in that way. But, my goodness me, they have great qualities and experience! I am sure that in the coming years we shall see very many able women in the other place.

I want to thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate and particularly my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal. I also wish to thank all noble Lords who have stayed in the Chamber and shown great interest in this important subject. Finally, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Denton of Wakefield on her first wind-up speech. It has been an inspiration and bodes well for the future. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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