HL Deb 11 April 2000 vol 612 cc167-82

8.23 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the Charter of Intent signed by the Euro-Mediterranean Forum of Women Parliamentarians in Naples on 8th March.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in March this year I and three other Members of this House attended the Euro-Mediterranean Forum of Women Parliamentarians in Naples. All four of us speak tonight as a co-operative effort. I raised the debate for two reasons: first, to give the Government the opportunity to put on the record their response to the Charter of Intent signed by those countries represented in Naples. I have put copies of the Charter of Intent in the Opposition Whips Office for any noble Lord interested to read it.

Secondly, I wanted to ensure that we are accountable to the British people on the matter. They so often read in the newspapers of alleged "jollies" enjoyed by parliamentarians travelling here, there and everywhere around the globe. Of course, they are right in respect of every such parliamentary visit abroad to ask, "What has it got to do with me?" I hope to answer part of that question tonight and to hear from the noble Baronesses who went with me to Naples the other part of the answer.

The questions that I shall address are as follows: who created the forum and why; who attends it and why; why did it meet this year; and what is its future? As for the detail of what actually happened at the forum, I shall leave it to other noble Baronesses who attended to fill in the background. I shall try to paint a picture of the good intentions which underlie what can appear to the interested—or, perhaps more often, the disinterested—observer to be a bureaucratic mountain of declarations and charters flowing from various meetings. My noble colleagues will, I hope, be able to put interesting flesh on my rather dry bones of a speech.

The forum was created by the President of the European Union and the Presidents of the Euro-Mediterranean countries; in other words, it was created by something rather like a speakers' conference. They met in Majorca in March 1999 and approved a declaration of Euro-parliamentary co-operation. That declaration included among its objectives the creation of a forum of women parliamentarians to meet at regular intervals. The first meeting was last month. Those entitled to attend the forum are four women representatives from each of the signatory countries to the Barcelona Declaration. The Barcelona Declaration was the parent to the Majorca meeting. I had great fun trying to work out which came first; it was rather chicken-and-egg.

The Barcelona conference in 1995 brought together the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the European Union countries and their colleagues in the Mediterranean Basin. In addition to the EU, the following countries were represented: Algeria, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority. The conference ended with a declaration. The signatory for the United Kingdom was my right honourable friend Malcolm Rifkind. Therefore, the basis for the declaration has the co-operation of both the past and the present Government. The declaration set out the work that should be done by the EU with the other Mediterranean Basin countries, comprising political and security issues; economic and financial matters; and social, cultural and humanitarian sectors. The overall objective is to make the Mediterranean Basin an area that enjoys peaceful stability and shared prosperity as a result of us all talking to each other instead of fighting.

Part of the work needed to achieve that objective is the strengthening of democracy and of the understanding between different cultures. That takes us to the importance of women talking to women about their perceived needs in their respective societies and about the different pace of change we can see and of movement towards equality with men within those diverse societies. The forum met this year with a particular section of work set out for it by the Majorca conference. It was directed to look at three particular issues: first, women's participation in political life—putting emphasis on the development of the Euro—Mediterranean partnership; secondly, the safeguarding of human rights; and, thirdly, the issue of migration.

The participants had also to decide on the future pattern of work of the forum—indeed, whether the forum should continue at all—and to ensure that women parliamentarians work together as a more effective force for change; change which should be of benefit to all who espouse equality between women and men, and the importance of human rights for all.

What is the Charter of Intent agreed at the forum? The charter that emerged from the forum gives a general commitment to good practice on a range of policy issues and a commitment to assess how far we achieve that in good practice. It must not be merely good words; we must be able to measure what we achieve. It was a fascinating experience, to say the least, to work over a couple of days with such a diverse group of women parliamentarians, all of whom were determined, come what may, to come to an agreement on a declaration to which all could put their name. We were diverse in our cultural experience and very diverse in our political allegiances.

As I mentioned earlier, I shall leave other speakers to say what went into the charter. I should merely like to comment on one issue which was excluded at the eleventh hour and which will be top of the agenda for discussion at the forum next year, if indeed there is such a forum.

I refer to the original paragraph 7 which states: Commitment to ensure, in the host countries, the recognition of the fundamental rights of migrant women and women refugees, protecting their health and dignity of life". I start by saying that all four United Kingdom members present were happy to endorse that comment. We found no problem with it. However, it fell at the last fence because agreement could not be reached at that stage between Israel and the Palestine Authority, either on the wording or, indeed, on whether it should be in the charter at all. In order to save the remainder of the charter, a pragmatic solution was found. That part would simply be taken out and postponed for discussion until next year. I suppose it was rather a case of the old story of whether the horse might eventually talk.

I mention that simply because this will be an important issue for discussion and perhaps creates a potential difference of opinion that could arise as far as concerns the UK and other countries. When I attended the migration seminar group I listened with great interest, but also some measure of concern, to the presentation given by the Italian chairman. She stated that underlying this paragraph on the agenda was the recognition by Italy that the EU countries should—the translation of what she said is as follows: develop a strategy of integration for non-EU nationals who are economic migrants and provide paths of citizenship for them as of right when they express a wish to stay [in the host country]". I consulted noble Baronesses who were with me in Naples about what could be said on behalf of the United Kingdom Government. Consequently, I pointed out that I am proud to live in a multicultural society. Indeed, in Woking, the town from which I come, 12 per cent of our population comes from a different ethnic background from the remainder of that population. We are proud of the way in which our society is enriched by that multicultural aspect.

I pointed out too that our country has been a country of destination for migrants for centuries—for us, it is nothing new—but that we do not currently have a policy for automatically accepting economic migrants from all non-EU countries and that I could not see that happening in the near future. I also made it clear on the record that the wording of paragraph 7 as it then stood on the duties of host countries was absolutely acceptable to the United Kingdom but that it should be understood against the background of current government policy in the UK.

What does the future hold for the forum? In the short term, the answer is, rather prosaically, that the chairman of the forum will report on the decisions taken at Naples to the next conference of the presidents of the Euro-Mediterranean Parliaments and the European Parliaments that will take place in Alexandria next month. If all goes well, the next meeting of the forum will be in Spring next year. But in the long term the future of the forum will be determined by the goodwill of the member countries and their governments.

I conclude by saying that it was a privilege to have the opportunity to represent the UK Parliament at the forum and to work with the other three noble Baronesses present. I learnt much from them as well as from the whole experience. I am grateful to the committee staff of the House of Lords for making all the travel arrangements. I particularly thank the Italian Government and the region of Naples for their amazing hospitality. They bore all the cost of the conference, the accommodation and considerable security for the parliamentarians. My goodness, they are a hard act to follow for a future host.

It is vital that the goodwill which undoubtedly currently exists between the countries involved in the forum should be maintained and should enable the good intentions which now exist to be translated into good practice. I look forward to hearing the other speeches tonight.

8.34 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, for tabling this Unstarred Question and for her succinct introduction outlining the background to the conference in Naples arising, as she said, from the Barcelona Declaration of 8th March 1999. I, like her, was pleased to have the opportunity to attend. I endorse her thanks to the Overseas Office in this House and to the region of Naples and the Italian Government for, as she says, their amazing organisation and hospitality. We had discussions about whether we would be able to provide the same if the conference was ever held here.

All too often we take part in delegations and nobody hears why we went and what was the outcome. On this occasion, our views and conclusions will now rightly be on the record. The noble Baroness was also right to ask the question: "What has it got to do with me?"

As vice-president of Socialist International Women for over 10 years and chair of the Equality Committee at the Council of Europe, I have attended and participated in many such conferences. There are times when one ponders about the value of participation; what value do we receive and is our presence important to other countries? Does it matter if we are there or not? Of course it does.

'The added dimension of gender and equality to our discussions has meant that women around the world have always understood the importance of dialogue, communication and drawing strength from each other. Priorities will vary from country to country and region to region but the world's women share a common feature; that is, discrimination. But as the Charter of Intent states: Aware that we represent diverse cultures and experiences, we can promote a fruitful exchange of ideas and foster international co-operation". For me, the value of such meetings is hearing of and learning about personal experience. This is vital if we really are to understand differences and similarities. That was achieved at this forum by the bringing together of women from the industrialised countries of Europe, whose main priority is to eliminate the more subtle forms of discrimination and "glass ceilings", and those in the more rural and developing areas, whose priorities are the elimination of traditional attitudes to women's equality and in particular to low levels of education.

The revolution in information technology brings us closer but for me it also highlights stark contrasts. At the same time as we were discussing the importance of literacy and the lack of education for so many women, we also determined that we would communicate with each other by e-mail and the Internet. I do not think that there could be much more of a stark contrast than that.

The noble Baroness also referred to the need for us to talk. Only by talking can we achieve stability, peace and shared prosperity for the Mediterranean region.

She also referred to the sensitivities of trying to arrive at a form of words for the question of migrant women and women refugees. There is no doubt that women are more vulnerable to immigration difficulties, because many of them rely on the consideration given to their husbands' cases and rarely obtain refugee status in their own right.

Similarly, a great deal of time was spent in trying to overcome the raising of an internal matter relating to Turkey. It is absolutely crucial that in any deliberations we are always conscious of the political and cultural sensitivities of different countries. I believe we tried to achieve that at the forum.

Equally, we were conscious of the fact that still too many women continue to suffer second-class status. We heard how they continued to be subject to violence, exploitation and intimidation, continue to be subordinate and have little control over income and assets. Clause 7 in the charter clearly illustrates how true that is, calling, as it does, for a continuation of the struggle against trafficking in human beings and the labour and sexual exploitation of women and children. I recall similar words being used in declarations from international conferences many years ago. But that does not mean that progress has not been made; it has. That came over too. However, there is still a lack of gender analysis in policy decisions. Women in too many parts of the world continue to suffer purely because they are women. Many of the speeches, particularly from the southern shores of the Mediterranean, refer to their struggle against social and economic poverty, illiteracy and violence.

Many speakers also mentioned a common condition, one that we all share, but to very differing degrees; namely, not being full and equal participants in the public policy choices that affect our lives. One cannot separate women's empowerment from progress towards women's equality. That means that women must achieve equality in the decision-making bodies in parliament, local government, civil service, industry and on NGOs. It was therefore correct that this first conference of the Euro-Mediterranean Forum of Women Parliamentarians should have as its main theme women's participation in the political process.

I was privileged to be one of the introductory speakers and I was gratified by the interest shown in my remarks. I was able to concentrate on the position of women in the political life of the UK. I attempted to do that in the context of political participation being a human right as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reinforced at the UN Conference in Beijing, which were also the themes on which the conference discussions were based. In particular, as regards Beijing, there were four key objectives to form the platform of action: acceptance that improving women's social, economic and political status depends on the sharing of power between men and women; the goal of gender balance throughout government and all public bodies; the importance of establishing adequately resourced national machineries to promote and monitor policies for the advancement of women; and for the above to be achieved by mainstreaming throughout government.

In that context I was able to refer to the women Ministers, the Women's Unit and the work of the Women's National Commission and the EOC, and to report that women comprise 18.4 per cent of the House of Commons and 15.7 per cent of your Lordships' House—figures with which we are far from satisfied. They place us only 25th on the world scale. They put us way behind the Scandinavian countries, at nearly 40 per cent, and far from achieving the target of 30 per cent set by the UN Economic and Social Council. But our problems are much less acute than in so many other countries, not least because women MPs make up a third of government.

In the workshop held on women's participation we heard about the real struggle in other countries. In a sense it made us feel a little ashamed of the fact that we felt that we were not doing well. In Turkey, women make up 4 per cent of government membership; in Greece, a little over 6 per cent; Malta has 9 per cent and Israel has 11.7 per cent. One of the delegates from Israel was the first Palestinian woman in the Knesset. She was not sure that she would retain her seat, nor was she hopeful that other women would join her. The delegate from Egypt told the conference that because of a change in the electoral system, there had been a reduction in the number of women MPs, which had been about 6 per cent and was now down to 3 per cent.

The first question I put forward in my introduction was: why do women MPs make a difference? In Naples I tried to respond to that question as it affects the UK, but I believe that it applies to everywhere. I believe that we make a difference because we bring a diversity and experience of different occupational backgrounds. Women also have the distinct experience of balancing work and home responsibilities. The latter point is reinforced by women in this country taking on five times as much domestic work as men and the fact that 1.2 million women care for elderly relatives. Many MPs have young families, but it is the women MPs who bear the brunt of having to carry out the two jobs of being a parliamentarian and also looking after the family. This gives them a genuine empathy with all women who work long hours and have problems in finding satisfactory childcare.

That led me on to my next question: how do women parliamentarians make a difference? The charter we agreed in Naples makes it clear that women's participation in the decision-making process can make a difference. This has been reflected in a number of ways, but I shall not go into the detail tonight. However, there are positive examples from the UK that show that the contribution of women parliamentarians is both significant and effective.

As the noble Baroness has already said, the forum took the decision to meet on an annual basis within the parliamentary dimension of the Barcelona process, focusing on a specific issue and adopting a resolution which would provide the basics of support for women in their respective parliaments. I found the internal meeting we held to be of great interest in this respect. It was held to try to get the wording right. It took a considerable amount of time because it was a question of whether we should be a subsidiary to the Barcelona conference and also whether we could instruct our respective parliaments when we returned home—I only wish we could. Nevertheless, the form of words we agreed on showed that we could offer a basis of support for women in their respective parliaments. For that reason, I hope that this country will again be represented in 2001. I believe that the conference will be held in Tunisia.

I have said that I hope that we will be represented because I feel strongly that women will move forward only by forming alliances, networking, building strategies, lobbying and campaigning for change. Indeed, this debate has been summed up for me by a quote that I came upon quite by accident the other day. It is from Mary Robinson, speaking when she was President of Ireland. She said: As women lead, they are changing leadership: as they organise, they are changing organisation … When women lead and articulate their purposes, they work together with a sense of community in a healthy way … Women have fresh and imaginative skills of dialogue and are setting a more open, flexible and compassionate style of leadership". The 20th century saw massive progress in the advancement of women, yet much more needs to be done. Discussions such as we had in Naples—dialogue at both national and international levels—will help to build bridges and to assemble common aims and agendas. These must continue so that in the 21st century we might see equality after all.

8.46 p.m.

Baroness Richardson of Calow

My Lords, I, too, wish to say that I am grateful both for the time that has been given for this debate and also for the experience of the forum. For myself, it was my first experience as a parliamentarian. I am still learning exactly what that means and so I found it a valuable experience, both to share it with the noble Baronesses with whom I attended and also to see what it means in other parts of the world.

It was an extremely interesting experience. We were royally treated by our Italian hosts. The meals and banquets we enjoyed perhaps ought to be declared! We were guarded by police escorts and met in a wonderful palazzo. The 20 countries represented at the meeting revealed an amazing variety of different people, cultures and religions. It was a rich experience.

However, I believe that the forum would have been helped by one or two improvements. We needed more in the way of advance information. I believe that I have learnt more of its origins from the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, tonight than I did before or during the time I was in Naples. We also needed a little more time for meeting people and sharing in small groups. I felt that perhaps there were rather too many prepared statements that people were going to deliver at whatever cost. However, when we considered the conditions in the places from which these people came, and the pain and hurt they so often experienced, it was quite understandable that those delegates wanted everyone to hear about it. On many occasions it was deeply moving.

The event began with speeches from four men telling us at length how important women are. At the end of their contributions, most of the press who had been in attendance decided to leave. I was reminded of similar reactions on many occasions when women meet together. One receives one of two reactions: "The ladies, God bless 'em", or "The women, God help us". Nevertheless, the meeting was not one that addressed women's issues. It was clear that we were debating and discussing issues that were of real importance to the whole community, but those were mainly where women's experience has a great deal to offer.

As has already been said, the three main areas covered were participation, migrants and human rights. We were reminded of how far we have come in the region since the days of the old nation states and the fortresses, and of how we are moving away from the old female experiences of discrimination, exclusion and subordination. Most countries have entered into legislation for change, even though that change is taking a long time to happen. There is a long way to go, but the actual occasion was an experience of encouragement for many who were there.

I wrote on my paper a quotation from one of the delegates and about which I thought afterwards. She said: Women hold the strings of generosity and integration". That is largely true. There are a great many things that women can do if we put our minds to it. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, made a wonderful presentation at the beginning that set the tone and the scene for much of what happened later.

The groups into which we formed were rather more hearings than discussions, but none the worse for that. They provided fascinating glimpses of other people's experiences. My group was concerned with migration. As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, she talked of the way we think about these things, and to great effect if I may say so.

Some topics in that group were new to me and posed problems about which I had not particularly thought before. Britain seems to be the stopping place for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and that is our problem. It was interesting to hear the experience of some countries which are not the end place, but have a flowing through of migrant peoples in huge quantities.

The chairman of the group was from Italy and spoke at length, quoting figures which surprised me. She mentioned that of a study of 585 women, 52 per cent had a university degree and 27 per cent had postgraduate specialisation; but when they found work within the country, 77 per cent were involved in jobs that required little in the way of education.

The concerns of the group were reflected in two of the clauses of the charter that was eventually agreed. One was Clause 6, which sought to support policies aimed at fostering growth and employment in disadvantaged countries and regions so as to reduce migratory pressures. It was clear that everybody felt that that was one of the major tasks. The other was Clause 7, which sought to continue in the struggle against the trafficking in human beings and the labour and sexual exploitation of women and children. Again, that was a very real problem in some of the countries and was highlighted by them.

Probably the greatest value of the forum was the meeting itself; the mutual encouragement and sharing of experiences. Sometimes, when people begin to speak of what they know, it confirms and encourages them in their own place. It is important to develop a trust so that the real issues are not avoided, as I felt they were this time. I hope that on the next occasion when we deal with these sensitive issues, they will be dealt with properly and significantly. There was a lot of empowerment of individual women who can go back to their own parliaments and speak of the support they received from the number of women who were there.

But the real value of the forum was in the results from all the talking, and that must go on in the individual countries as those insights are fed back into the way in which we do things. It was helpful that the charter spoke, first, of monitoring the implications of international conventions and action plans. Perhaps that is a role that the women among us can continue; that is, we must ensure that those factors are not lost sight of. We must organise a further gathering which will, assess the degree of implementation of the commitments made". So it is not just a new forum every time, but that what we have done on one occasion will be carefully considered the next time.

In conclusion, perhaps I can make one further point. I rather regret that it was not possible to send two Members who have seats and voices in the other House. I hope it might he possible next time. That is important even if it means that there will be no room for me. The only long-term value is in the government policies that are implemented.

8.55 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Dourer

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, for giving us the opportunity for this debate tonight and for her clear introduction which, like the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, I appreciate as an historical perspective. For me, one of the greatest pleasures was to get to know three colleagues from different Benches of the House. It was a privilege to be able to do so as one of the newer Members of the House; to be able to share their experience and knowledge, and many of the humorous moments too.

I feel that in some ways it was particularly good that it was a delegation from the Lords that attended on this occasion, especially as we have a woman leader in this House. The Chairman of the Women's National Commission is also a Member of your Lordships' House, in the form of the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. The Front Bench of the Government in this House is particularly well blessed with able women, compared with the other place. Therefore, although I share the feelings of the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, that it would be nice if the other place were to take an interest in the future, in this instance this House is leading the way.

First, I should like to talk about the point of the charter and why it is important to discuss what women can do in the countries that came together for this forum. Secondly, I want to reflect for a moment on what we should be doing in our own country to further the aims of the charter and perhaps ask the Minister for her views on that.

One of the early questions to which we addressed ourselves in the forum was whether it duplicated efforts already being made in the European Union. Of course, similar work is going on in the European Union, but this forum widens that debate both to the south and the east. We can become too inward looking if we share such a debate within the current European Union, when so many issues—particularly in relation to refugees and asylum seekers—affect that wider area. It was interesting to hear from those member countries on the southern rim of the Mediterranean on some of those issues.

The common themes that arose as being extremely important to women, as delegate after delegate spoke, were under-representation of women in every country, at every level in the political arena; violence against women; and sexual exploitation of women. A number of countries mentioned the issue of women in peace, and it was particularly heartfelt perhaps from the delegate from Cyprus. The Palestinian delegate mentioned the links between the lack of women representatives and illiteracy and poverty, and several other delegates mentioned illiteracy and the importance of education if women are to take their rightful place in the political scene.

A delegate from Sicily spoke about the difficulties of integration and pointed out that that was a particular problem in the cities in relation to immigrants. Jordan and Algeria highlighted the role of the media in portraying women in a positive light. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, we all shared the frustration at the way the press left as soon as the men had spoken. I am sure that, over time, and if we are persistent, that will change.

Tunisia was concerned at how countries implemented the United Nations Convention on Human Rights, particularly with regard to the role of women in the household. Morocco highlighted the bad economic position of women, especially in rural areas. It was clear how common the issues were. Morocco saw the difficulty of under-investment in its country, and we and France saw the effect of that lack of development because Moroccan families are having to move north in search for work.

The way in which we shared these issues was very important. It was particularly interesting to hear of the commonality, the different points of view, and also of how increasing mobilisation can intensify many of these problems. I have in mind the delegates who talked about trafficking in women and children. That was particularly sad, recalling how last year the press was highlighting police comments on the numbers of women now being brought into the UK to be exploited in the sex industry. Going to a forum such as this made all of us feel—I certainly did— that we must all give these issues a higher profile on our own national agenda.

Turkish delegates felt that political parties were part of the problem, in that there was great difficulty for women candidates to get on to the party lists. Once on those lists, there was perhaps less of a problem; but there were many, almost invisible, barriers to being selected in the first place. Many women in the United Kingdom would also feel that that invisible barrier still exists. Proportional representation based on a list undoubtedly produces a much better result for women. That is a debate to which we shall no doubt return. One has only to look at the recent Welsh—and Wales was widely cited—Scottish and European elections to see the positive effect that producing a party list can have, particularly if it is a balanced one. My own party, for example, chose the method of "zipping".

I would pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, who walked a very honest, straightforward but sensitive tightrope in promoting what this Government have done and are continuing to do for women in politics, but at the same time not painting an over-rosy picture.

The issue of women and armed conflict was a particularly difficult one. The noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, has touched on how difficult it was—impossible, in fact, in this instance—to achieve agreement on paragraph 7, which highlighted the difficulties of refugee women in host countries.

The Naples Charter also highlights the positive role that women can play in conflict resolution, and also the high price that they pay as refugees from any conflict. I believe that the current debate in this country about asylum seekers would have taken a longer and cooler look at the causes for people seeking asylum if women were driving the discussion, particularly the discussion in the tabloid press which has taken a very macho rather than an objective approach.

The Naples Charter explicitly urges signatories to support policies aimed at fostering growth and employment in disadvantaged areas so as to reduce migratory pressures. I hope that that is a debate to which we can return in this House.

There was extensive debate as to whether signatories would accept a clause which called on host countries to recognise the fundamental rights of migrant women and women refugees to protect their health and dignity of life. When the delegates from the UK go to the next forum, whoever those delegates are, it will be against a background of self-examination as a country, given our debate about how we, as a nation and not just politically, treat refugees and what dignity of life means in these cases.

It was a very useful forum in terms of making all of the delegates think about the targets which their own countries must set and in creating a very supportive atmosphere in which to envisage the way forward.

The attainment of 50 per cent representation in political life by women is a very slow process, but it is considerably speeded up by networking, by hearing about what does and does not work and by letting governments know what is happening elsewhere— particularly for those women with more reactive governments. They at least can go back to their home countries and say, "This is what is happening elsewhere. Maybe we should be thinking about it".

As it moves forward, the forum will be about setting targets, making plans and making commitments together, then going back and pursuing those commitments in our own countries. It is about making commitments to each other, nationally and internationally.

9.05 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for bringing this matter to the attention of the House and for giving the Government an opportunity to respond. I would also like to thank the other noble Baronesses who attended the conference and who have participated in the debate this evening. I endorse their view of the importance of accountability to Parliament and to the British people.

I am not sure whether this is the first time in this House that there has been a debate in which all the speakers have been women, but it has been a very rich experience. The noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, certainly brought the conference to life for me, with her descriptions of the palazzo, the outriders and, in particular, the good food!

As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, made clear in her opening remarks, the organisation of the Euro-Mediterranean Forum of Women Parliamentarians was a goal of the Declaration on Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Co-operation, approved last year by the Conference of the Speakers of Euro-Mediterranean Parliaments.

The Charter of Intent of the Women Parliamentarians sets out a number of important commitments. I would like to focus this evening on the action the Government are taking in a number of areas: human rights; trafficking in women and girls; equality legislation and national machineries; education—which was not mentioned specifically this evening but is in the charter—and I shall also say something about our priorities as a Government for the future.

Let me start with human rights and the international conventions. The United Kingdom is a signatory to all the major human rights conventions and takes its commitments very seriously. A condition of the conventions is a commitment to report regularly to the relevant United Nations committee and to undergo an oral examination on the progress made towards achieving the goals of the convention.

In the case of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the UK's fourth report was submitted and examined by the committee in June of last year. Our latest report under the Convention on the Rights of the Child was also submitted last year, and awaits oral examination. These documents are available in the Library of the House. As noble Baronesses are aware, these reports are substantial documents and a clear sign of the Government's commitment to the implementation of the conventions, both in letter and in spirit.

But we do not rest on our laurels. The Government continue to take measures to improve the position of women and girls. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, talked about the importance of women talking to women in the context of the forum. My noble friend Lady Gould talked about the importance of dialogue, communication, hearing and learning. The Listening to Women" campaign provided an opportunity for more than 30,000 women across the country to talk to Government Ministers through a series of regional roadshows, focus groups and postcard questionnaires. The findings of this consultation were published in an innovative magazine-style document, Voices, last autumn. This was a valuable contribution in establishing the priorities of women, so that the Government can find ways to tackle those issues of most importance.

We take action not only in the UK but also in our development programme. In February of this year, as part of a series of strategies for achieving the international development targets, the Department for International Development issued a consultation document on poverty eradication and the empowerment of women that is now being discussed with all interested parties, including NGOs and civil society. The paper argues that the goal of gender equality needs to be pursued across all the internationally-agreed development targets and in the wider process of governance and the pursuit of human rights.

The Government are also committed to playing a leading role in international human rights fora, such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission that is taking place at the moment in Geneva. We shall also be playing a leading role at the Beijing plus Five meeting in New York in June, which will examine progress made towards the equality of women since the 1995 World Conference on Women. One of our main contributions to this meeting will be the launch of a document, Equality in Practice, which will outline work of the UK Government and partner countries in five key areas—women and the economy, making equality happen, education, health and the resolving of violence and conflict. The aim of the document is to share examples of best practice and to stimulate debate on what more governments can do to improve equality for women around the world. I cannot put it any better than the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, who talked about the importance of "insights" being fed back in to the process.

My noble friend Lady Gould spoke about women suffering violence and intimidation. The noble Baronesses Lady Richardson and Lady Miller mentioned trafficking. The seventh commitment in the charter is on the theme of trafficking. This is a subject that the Government take very seriously. People who traffic in women can already be charged under various laws. As part of the review of sex offences, we are considering making trafficking a specific offence.

The UK is playing a leading role in the negotiation of a UN convention against transnational crime, which will include a protocol on the trafficking of women and children. We are also trying to tackle both demand and supply for trafficking in our policies. We have sponsored a research study into the consequences of trafficking in England and Wales. We are also taking a number of steps to improve labour standards in developing countries by encouraging British companies to adopt voluntary codes of conduct and by supporting the trade unions, NGOs and business in developing the Ethical Trading Initiative, which commits major retailers to continuing improvement in labour standards in their supply chains in developing countries. These standards have a major impact on the employment rights of women.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, talked about the importance of women and peace which was raised by some delegations at the forum. The noble Baroness will be pleased to know that the FCO, the DfID and the MoD are currently engaged in discussions about conflict resolution and conflict prevention. We are well aware of the impact of war on women and the need for government departments to work together and think about ways in which we might prevent conflict. However, we are also aware of the positive role that women can play in conflict resolution; indeed, we have seen examples of that in Northern Ireland.

I turn now to national legislation on equal opportunities. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970 form the basis of our legislation on sex discrimination. Both Acts are under regular review and have led to further legislation, including the Pensions Act 1995 that began equalising the provision of pensions for men and women.

In 1998, the Human Rights Act was passed to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into English law, thereby allowing UK citizens, both men and women, to argue their case before a UK court when they believe that their rights under this convention have been infringed.

My noble friend Lady Gould spoke of the importance of political participation and of national machineries. The Government support various national machineries to monitor and promote equal opportunities for women, including the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Women's National Commission. Following the election in 1997 the Government established two Ministers for Women—one in the Cabinet—and the Women's Unit. One of the unit's roles is to ensure that women's concerns are taken into account in government policy. One of its most recent reports considered women's incomes over their lifetimes. For the first time the reasons for the differences between men and women's incomes were quantified and explained. The key finding was that there is both a cost to being a woman—what we call the "female forfeit"—and a cost to being a mother; that is, time spent away from work and women choosing to work shorter hours—what we call the "mother gap".

The Government are taking a series of actions to close that gap through improving education—I shall return to that—supporting women in the workplace through improved rights and through policies such as the national minimum wage, the working families' tax credit and the childcare tax credit.

I said that I would return to education. The Government have comprehensively reviewed their policies for education. The national curriculum already promotes equal access for boys and girls between the ages of five and 16 to a broad and balanced curriculum. The next three years will see a significant real growth in government spending on education. The Government have set out a four-part strategy to achieve widespread excellence, including laying firm foundations for young people through nursery education for all four year-olds; improving all schools; making a real push for inclusion—which clearly includes working with girls—and modernizing comprehensive education.

Our priorities for the future include looking at what more can be done to reduce the pay gap; giving women better information on money, savings and investments; supporting women to strike a good work/life balance; supporting women wanting to start up or expand a small business; encouraging more women to apply for public appointments; helping girls to fulfil their potential through careers advice, better and earlier "education for life" in schools and greater participation in sport; and communicating more effectively with women.

In conclusion, women are a key asset in our economic prosperity. As technology continues to make the world a smaller, more interconnected place, women have what it takes to flourish in this new economy. Policies and practices need to recognise and encourage women's contributions and to see them as central social actors, not victims. This Government are committed to working with others, at home and abroad, to empower women to reach their full potential and claim their rights. It is important that we share ideas and learn from others' experiences. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, that we need to foster good will between countries. I am therefore grateful to noble Baronesses for drawing our attention to the Charter of Intent. I also thank them for their hard work, their diplomacy and pragmatism, which were clearly needed in negotiating the charter, and for representing the UK at the meeting.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes past nine o'clock.