HL Deb 09 March 2004 vol 658 cc1189-206

7.33 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made on the status of women in the United Kingdom.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am pleased that, once again, we have the opportunity to have a debate on the status of women to coincide with International Women's Day. Last year, we had a wide-ranging debate covering many aspects of women's role and participation in society, and I am sure that we will again today. I thank all noble Baronesses—all the speakers are noble Baronesses—for coming to speak tonight, although I would have appreciated some views from our male colleagues and perhaps a little more participation from the opposition Benches. I thank, in particular, the Minister, who is foregoing her dinner break in order to reply to this debate, having spent many hours on the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill.

I wish to concentrate my remarks on the practical issues of employment, pay, pensions and access to services. Before doing so, I shall refer to two achievements over the past year, both designed to improve the lives of women and girls. The first is the enactment of the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, which took effect last week, on 3 March, and which we hope will reduce the misery and pain of many young girls under threat of FGM. The second is the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, which is now, I hope, in its final stages, and steered so effectively by my noble friend the Minister. Again, it is a Bill to protect against the threat and fear of violence. However, I have one concern: research shows that one in five men and one in 10 women believe that violence towards a partner is acceptable in some situations. Such perceptions must be challenged and changed, so I ask my noble friend what actions are planned to do just that?

Over the past year we have also seen the biggest review of our equality institutions and an announcement of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights to tackle discrimination and to promote equality and diversity. I await with interest the White Paper, which is due out at any time now, on the detail of how the commission will function. However, at present, one essential element is missing. Throughout the many meetings in which I have participated on the establishment of the commission, I have constantly argued for consistent equality legislation across all strands. I appreciate that the Government are taking a strand-by-strand approach, but I would like to hear from my noble friend that, by not applying the same legislative framework to gender as to race and disability, sex discrimination will not be downgraded.

Consistency of legislation is particularly necessary in respect of access to services, in which we recognise that women still have different needs and life experiences from men, and different strategies may be required. I shall cite just two examples. On crime, men's greatest fear is vehicle theft; women's is rape and physical attack. On health requirements, there are considerable gender differences in the access to primary healthcare that needs to be built into mainstream services, performance targets and monitoring strategies. A public sector duty built into legislation would ensure that those differences of need would be met.

The Government recognise the difference, because in their report, a very helpful document, Delivering on Gender Equality, they state: The Government needs to tackle inequalities in every area of life. We will only do this successfully if we are honest about gender inequalities where they exist, and then take specific action to tackle them". The document goes on to acknowledge that women's opportunities are still constrained by their caring responsibilities, the lack of affordable childcare, the scarcity of flexible working options, assumptions about traditional women's work and the continuing unacceptable level of the pay gap, at 18 per cent.

I appreciate that low pay has been improved marginally by the Government's introduction of the minimum wage, but that has not had an effect on part-time workers, where the gap stays stubbornly at 40 per cent, unchanged for 25 years. The reasons for the pay gap are complex and inter-connected. Key factors include differences in skills and training, the length of work experience, part-time working and occupational segregation.

I shall look first at the latter point. The Equal Pay Task Force identified that employment in the UK remains strongly delineated by gender, involving both horizontal and vertical segregation. What do we mean by that? Horizontal segregation concentrates women in low-paid occupations and limits their access to other roles. Vertical segregation is the career barriers to women's individual development, the glass ceiling. That ceiling may have cracked in some cases, but it seems somehow to be made of toughened glass and remains shatterproof. That is not to say that there have not been some improvements. The number of women MPs has risen from 5 per cent to 18 per cent, although it has taken 20 years to achieve that, and almost a quarter of top management positions in the Civil Service are held by women. But only 13 per cent of local authority chief executives are women, even though nearly three quarters of the workforce is made up of women. Women's average representation at the top of business remains at 11 per cent. Last week, the Fawcett Society published its findings on the judiciary and the role of women, which showed that there are only five women out of 43 chief constables, only 31 women out of 138 prison governors, and that only one sixth of chief Crown prosecutors are women. We must not forget the real breakthrough in your Lordships' House, with the appointment of the first woman Law Lord.

Overall, women's progress is still blocked at all levels by prejudice and misconceptions. Horizontal segregation ensures that women are concentrated in the five lowest-paid employment sectors, and 60 per cent of women continue to work in just 10 occupational groups. That is no improvement on the figures that I identified last year. At the same time as there is a serious skill shortage in engineering, science and technology in this county, only 9 per cent go into skilled trades.

There is continuing sex stereotyping in schools, which places young women on a path to lower-paid occupations and the prospect of pay inequality. Some 34 years ago, I had a row with my daughter's physics master, who said, "Science is not for girls". Of course, I had taken sciences myself. That divide, which is created in schools, continues into apprenticeships. Only 4 per cent of girls go into engineering; 21 per cent become computer analysts and programmers and, surprisingly, 14 per cent become primary or nursery teachers. There is an urgent need for improved advice to girls on non-traditional career choices by careers advisers, teachers, employers and directly by the Government.

Some 43 per cent of women employees work part-time, as opposed to 9 per cent of men. The reasons for the necessity to work part-time could be overcome if more employers were prepared to provide flexible working. The Employment Act 2002 introduced a new duty for employers to consider requests for flexible working, but much of Britain's business is still missing that opportunity, and is still trying somehow to shoehorn workers into outmoded practices. Farsighted employers, using flexible working to meet their own and their employees' needs, understand that family-friendly policies will reduce the cost of absenteeism, often resulting from stress-related sickness or from employees taking unauthorised time off for caring responsibilities. A more relaxed atmosphere can also increase motivation, loyalty and productivity. Flexible working must not bring with it the fear of lower pay, less job security and less access to promotion, which is currently too often the case for the 42 per cent of women who work part-time.

Many women could more easily balance work/life responsibilities if they were confident about their security in retirement. Being poor in paid life almost certainly guarantees being poor in retirement, creating a lifetime of income inequality. There is no question that pensioner poverty is a women's problem. The current system is clearly not providing security and comfort for many women in old age. This is a clearly identified discrimination in the present system, and a reform of the national insurance system must be considered for women to be able to have a pension in their own right.

I am conscious of the time, although I do get 10 minutes as opposed to everyone else's three. In the time allowed, I have been able only to skim the surface of the question of women's inequality in training, in the workplace and in pay. It is absolutely clear that a great deal more needs to be done to break down the barriers and remove the burdens that women still face. Only then, when that has been achieved, can we truly celebrate international women's day and say that we have come to the end of a journey started many years ago by the women who began this struggle. I hope that that time will not be too long away.

7.44 p.m.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde

My Lords. I thank my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton for initiating this debate, and I express my admiration for the significant ground that she covered in the 10 minutes. It is grace for all of us who have three minutes, because she covered much of what we would have wanted to say.

We have made progress—there is no doubt about that—as the content of my noble friend's contribution to the debate shows. We have a wide agenda, and we have good frameworks in place. We come from a proud history. One of my heroines, Barbara Castle—now deceased, of course—brought in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. On the Front Bench tonight is a Minister who is equally committed. We all feel proud of that, but it does not come down to women Ministers and the departments looking after women's issues: it comes down to every government department.

I must suggest something constructive that the Government could do with public money in one area. I was chairman of the Housing Corporation. Of the 100 largest housing associations in the country, 13 had women chief executives. Yet, over 50 per cent of their tenants and residents were women. That is not facing up to the issues, and it is that kind of instance that I am talking about. We may have frameworks in place, but we must make them work. Clearly, they are not working across the board at the moment.

I grew up in an era when we challenged for equal pay and equal opportunity. It is testimony to the progress that we have made that we now talk about a range of issues, of which the Bill that we were considering before this debate is one. We have made progress, but there is still a long way to go. Today, there are many good role models for young women, something that we did not have years ago. We cannot lose sight of the fact that we must ensure that, in schools, the aspirations of young women are continually raised.

Having said that, I must raise one negative point. It is not something that the Minister or the Government can deal with: it relates to the House's Administration Committee. I am ashamed to say that that committee has refused to agree to the erection of a statue dedicated to Sylvia Pankhurst. There is one for her mother and one for her sister. The committee in the House of Commons has agreed, and Westminster City Council has given planning permission. It is being held up by the Administration Committee of this House. Members, myself included, have written letters on the subject and have been told, "No", but I do not think that we will leave the issue there.

7.47 p.m.

Baroness Gale

My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton for bringing this important matter before us. I declare an interest in that I represent the Women's National Commission as commissioner for Wales. I shall speak about Welsh women tonight.

One of the joys of having a devolved Assembly is that it has given women a chance to serve in a way that no other Welsh institution has. The first elections to the Welsh Assembly in 1999 saw a record number of women elected. They did even better in 2003. For the first time in any democratic legislature in the world, 50 per cent of the Members elected were women. Women form a majority in the Cabinet. Does that mean that Welsh women have, at last, achieved equality? The answer is "No". Since 1918, only seven Welsh women have been elected to the House of Commons and, at present, there are only four women in that House.

Have women fared better in other areas? Again, the answer is "No". In a recent poll, nine women featured in the top 100 Welsh heroes. Catherine Zeta Jones, the highest woman on the list, came at number 16, and Tanni Grey- Thompson came at number 21. The only woman politician on the list was Megan Lloyd George, who came 81st.

Yesterday, the Western Mail had a 16-page insert to mark International Women's Day, devoted to the position of women in Wales. I congratulate the paper on its efforts. One of the articles was headed "Who runs Wales?". It made interesting but gloomy reading. It listed many professions and showed that women were in the minority in all of them. Such inequalities in society cannot continue if Wales is to become a modern 21st-century country. We lead the world, with so many women in the Assembly, but we are way behind in other matters affecting women. Is the glass ceiling over Wales unbreakable, or will Welsh women prove that they will no longer be stifled by the traditional values that have held them back for centuries?

The Government of Wales Act 1998 has a unique clause. Clause 48 states that the Assembly has to give, due regard to the principle that there should be equality of opportunity for all people". Is the Minister contemplating any legislation of this nature for Westminster? I am sure that she will agree that women benefit from that approach. I believe that the Assembly will eventually bring about a Wales where we have true equality for its people. The women in Wales should then be able to break through the glass ceiling in the way that women politicians in the Assembly have.

7.50 p.m.

Baroness Billingham

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Gould for initiating the debate. We have three minutes per speaker. What a challenge to make any case at all. As a former MEP, I have haggled over one minute to speak in the Hemicycle in Strasbourg. Three minutes would have been an exquisite luxury. In that time I could have made the case for the single currency and for the reform of the common agricultural policy, and still had time to spare.

Tonight, looking at the status of women in the UK, the widest of possible topics, perhaps it would be sensible for me to focus on just one facet. That facet is to look at women in a sporting context. But I must say to my sisters and one brother that it makes miserable reading.

A noble Baroness


Baroness Billingham

The facts speak for themselves. Half as many women as men take regular physical activity. Girls and women enjoy fewer opportunities in every sector, whether statutory, voluntary or commercial. They have a much narrower range of activities than men. Stereotyping in the home still puts girls at a sporting disadvantage. Media coverage is appalling. A mere 5 per cent of sports coverage is given to women.

Where there is coverage, it is often sexist and dismissive. Anna Kornikova takes one-third of the websites dedicated to women's sport, and she has barely hit a serious tennis ball in the past three years. Male dominance prevails. We can remember how appalled we were when Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, suggested that female football players should, wear tighter shorts to promote 'a more female aesthetic More likely a cheap thrill for nasty old men like him!

In brief, that is the daunting problem facing any government. What can be done to redeem the situation'? Of course, we welcome the new initiatives, which start in primary schools with better teaching and better facilities; the promotion of positive images of sport and sportswomen, particularly our heroines, such as Paula Radcliffe, and the role models who can make real impact. I applaud the additional funding to Sport England and the CCPR. Much is being achieved in the "Girlsport Project". The high profile publicity of healthier lifestyles and lifelong participation in sport is welcomed.

The Government can and do influence the output from the media. Perhaps there is a case for greater balance from our public service broadcasters. The BBC could help us more in the future. The very evident government support for the 2012 Olympic bid can and should be a huge stimulant to focus attention on sport by both men and women.

Other countries have used proactive measures. Title IX in the USA is a bedrock for a fair balance of funding in schools and colleges. New Zealand has pioneered an agenda in women's sport. We can and should learn from others. But the reality is that in the UK, sport is still run by men for men. A whole area of employment for sport and leisure has been hijacked for them. The objective is clear. Let women have the same opportunities and incentives to have a lifelong involvement in sport, with all the benefits of health and enjoyment that follow that lifestyle.

Finally—I am looking at the clock—do not let anyone forget that the single most powerful influence that children have (both boys and girls) to help develop a lifelong participation in sport is a physically active mother. What greater incentive could there be to galvanise our Government into even more ways of promoting the involvement of women in sport in our society? Much has been achieved, but there is still a long way to go.

7.54 p.m.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness on securing the debate. It is very important that we all recognise how fortunate we are as women to live in this country and not in many other parts of the world. But there are still many issues: in my three minutes, I shall concentrate on older women. They are the majority of older people in this country, but they suffer quite a lot of discrimination.

The pioneering work of the feminists in the 1960s and beyond—the sisterhood—was composed of younger women who concentrated on the situation of younger women. Fortunately, for many of us here, they are now older. They are part of the baby-boom generation that is doing so much to change the image of older people generally. They are determined that the sort of conditions that they had to fight against will change.

However, there are still many things that need to be done. A recent report produced by Age Concern and the Fawcett Society demonstrated that one in four single female pensioners lives in poverty. There were some sensible and limited suggestions for reform; for example, something must be done to change the fact that if a person pays national insurance contributions for 10 years or fewer, it counts for nothing towards a state pension. Eighty-eight per cent of those affected are women. In addition, in this country, for every pound that a man receives from a pension, a woman receives only 32p. That is quite unacceptable.

We also know that the changing social and family circumstances, which our demographic profile changing so rapidly is making inevitable, is altering the role of women in middle age and beyond. We now have a beanpole family situation. In many families, there are women caring for women caring for women for four or even five generations. At the age of about 50, a poor woman sandwiched in the middle often has to cope with two generations of older family and two generations of younger family. That caring responsibility is quite unprecedented.

I hope that the Private Member's Bill now in the other place will for the first time produce a duty on local authorities regarding carers. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley will say much more about that. That Bill would make a difference because, for the first time, it recognises that women who care are people and need that other life as well, whether it is to work, to have leisure, or other occupations. Sometimes a caring life ends, and the carer is still alive and needs to enjoy life.

Equality also has very wide implications that go beyond gender. It is excellent that there will be—I hope that there will be—an equality commissioner before too long. That is very important. Many older women can be discriminated against on many criteria. For example, they can be discriminated against through age, gender, race, a hidden disability or sexuality without people realising. It is dreadful to have to go from one commission to another to get help. We need one-stop shops. I very much hope that this debate will add to the pressure to make those a reality as soon as possible.

7.58 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, after thanking my noble friend Lady Gould I want briefly to explore how women's writing has influenced the status of women. Women's writing, whether it be fiction, non-fiction, crime or poetry is now totally on a par with men's writing. Bookshops are packed with women's writing. Your Lordships' House boasts two of the finest crime writers today: that is, my noble friend Lady Rendell and the noble Baroness, Lady James.

In my view, which of course is very subjective, the finest novelist of today is a woman—Margaret Atwood—and the finest poet is a woman—Carol Ann Duffy. The first woman writer that we hear about is Aphra Behn, who was born in 1640 and was a well-travelled spy in Antwerp for Charles II. She produced satire and caricature of politics, arranged marriages and bawdy adventure stories.

Jane Austen, in the early 1800s—the House can see what a gallop this is—described herself as writing on a small piece of ivory with a fine brush: little of the tumult of the wide world, but brilliant depictions of life and satire of the gothic novels of the day. The Brontes—of course Charlotte had to write as a man in the beginning—produced gripping romantic fiction and poetry.

That magnificent storyteller and unusual woman, George Eliot, discussed class, religion, politics, the professions and the distrust of outsiders with a searing emotional honesty. She wrote a lot of this at the kitchen table. Mrs Gaskell described the social realism of the industrial scene, relationships between employers and employees, and oppression.

Already by the mid-1800s we have women who were not only brilliant users of language, but also social commentators. And we should not forget the women who wrote to describe their own lives, as in the delightful Diary of a Farmer's Wife, written in 1796, where the making of pansy wine, the price of piggies and the dust on the legs of the chairs in the big house are featured.

The new women's fiction of the late 19th century is scarcely known, but represented a great deal of social change. In the mid-1900s Virginia Woolf—here I confess to a total obsession—experimented with new writing forms, discussed cultural processes, sexuality, and made feminist pleas in the most exquisite prose. A character in one of her essays states: We are the indications of a development of womanhood which as yet is not recognised. It has, so far, no ready-made channels to rim in". How powerful and how true. The numerous women writers of today in Britain and abroad owe much to these pioneers. Each adds her own genius.

I end with one example of a modern woman's perceptions of male/female relationships: realistic, pragmatic, humorous. The poet Wendy Cope describes the loss of a lover: 'The day he moved out was terrible— That evening she went through hell. His absence wasn't a problem But the corkscrew had gone as well". Jane Austen might have written it; the romantics would not. Women's writing, with its diversity, perceptions and subtlety, has contributed to giving women a very special status. Women have significantly influenced, as well as been influenced by, the social, moral and political climate.

8.2 p.m.

Baroness Howells of St Davids

My Lords, I shall address my three minutes to black women, and it is not all doom and gloom. Black women have made advances in many areas and we are grateful for small mercies. I recall the words of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. He was very pleased about the record number of women in his Cabinet as this gave the government a feminist perspective and a better reflection of society. Until then, there had been no black women present.

The Labour Government that began in 1997 saw the greatest ever number of women Members. Nevertheless, only two black women were included in government. Diane Abbott entered Parliament in 1997. Having explained and followed her colourful career starting in the Home Office and advancing as a grassroots activist for the Labour Party, but serving first as a city councillor in Westminster from 1982 to 1986, an MP asked, "Who is she? Where did she come from?".

Black women were unknown. The year 1987 saw the first wave of people from the Caribbean and Africa taking their places in Parliament. Harold Wilson can be quoted again. He said that having a mixture of backgrounds in government lends a far more balanced set of views from all areas of British society.

A researcher at the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research wrote: After all, unlike Parliament, 80" of society is not made up of white men". One serving politician was moved to say that the House of Commons is seen as illegitimate by a lot of black and Asian people simply because there are so few black or brown faces elected to it. In his view, it is "shameful and disgraceful".

To date, your Lordships' House has certainly done much better under a Labour Government, with at least two Ministers, one the Leader of the House. And I have to say that the black community is extremely proud of the progress they have made.

In other areas, black women have made impressive advances, in particular in the professions. In sonic areas, since the Second World War they have come to form as much as 28 per cent of the workforce. Despite the double discrimination of racism and sexism, black women have risen to heights once the preserve of white men.

I end by adding my thanks to my noble friend Lady Gould for initiating this debate. I hasten to add that I could speak for another 20 minutes on black women.

8.6 p.m.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall

My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lady Gould on introducing this debate. She and other noble Baronesses have left few stones unturned for a tail-end Charlie. I hope that I shall not lower the tone too much.

The brilliant, if somewhat wayward American humourist, Dorothy Parker, was asked to produce an aphorism containing the word "horticulture-. She came up with the following: You can take a whore to culture but you cannot make her think". The House may wonder on what basis I can possibly introduce this rather dubious reference into a serious debate. Part of the reason is that it makes me laugh and it has been a long day. But, more seriously, it wraps into one elegant turn of phrase the two issues I briefly want to touch on. They are the negative images of women and the power of language to perpetuate them.

We might choose to believe that the classic Madonna-or-whore stereotyping of women is well in the past, but in the past 24 hours I have come across two striking examples of how it continues. One was an article in yesterday's Guardian entitled "Attack the Rap", about young women in the USA and the UK fighting back against the routinely negative and sexually aggressive language of rap lyrics. One is quoted as saying: I am tired of guys calling us 'just a piece of ass"— I am sorry, I know that that is rather unparliamentary language. She went on to say, Music is so influential and it's made this stuff very fashionable, but now it's time for a different fashion". The other example was a discussion on this morning's "Today" programme between the academic Bonnie Greer and Ann Widdecombe MP, in which Bonnie Greer, an American by birth and a long-term resident of the UK, expressed her irritation at the way in which women of all ages in this country are constantly referred to as "girls". Ms Widdecombe, strangely enough, did not seem to mind that much, but I think the point was well made.

My point is this. We have come a long way and we have achieved a great deal since the days when all actresses, for instance—people amongst whom I have spent many of my working days—were whores and the mark of respectability in women was ignorance. But our culture still all too often constructs women negatively through the casual use of derogatory or demeaning language. It is very easy to sound po-faced on this subject, as Ann Widdecombe pointed out to Bonnie Greer on the "Today" programme this morning—not that she was put off in the slightest—but we should not lose sight of' how powerfully undermining negative stereotyping can be, however wittily it is wrapped up.

8.9 p.m.

Baroness Pitkeathley

My Lords, I think that on this occasion I should address the House as "my Ladies". It will come as no surprise to you, my Ladies, that I want to talk about the status of women as carers. I thank my noble friend for giving me the opportunity to do so. I am bound to say that if anyone had any doubts about the richness of female talent in the House, the range and quality of the debate will have dispelled them.

The House will know that 6 million people are carers in this country and that women still carry the bulk of caring responsibilities, with 58 per cent of all carers being women. They are also much more represented in the heavy end of caring. So if you are caring for more than 20 hours a week you are more likely to be a woman.

Caring has a significant impact on your financial situation, on your health and on your well-being. Statistically, women are much more likely to experience a caring episode and, because they are women, the assumption is made that they will care. By the age of 60, women have a 50:50 chance of being a carer, whereas men reach the age of' 74 without having a 50:50 chance of becoming a carer.

A great deal of progress has been made for carers, much of it under the Government. There has been new legislation through Private Members' Bills which give carers the right to an assessment; the earnings limit on the carer's allowance was increased to the level of the lower earnings limit; carers who receive carer's allowance for a full year are credited into the state second pension scheme, allowing them to protect their second tier state pension; and the right to take a reasonable time off for emergencies was introduced in December 1999. Although it was unpaid and the time would amount only to a day or two, it was the first time in law that carers who work are given employment rights specifically because of their caring responsibilities.

I want to draw your Ladyships' attention to the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Bill, a Private Member's Bill sponsored by Dr Hywel Francis in the other place. The Bill will be debated in Standing Committee tomorrow and it seeks to do several crucial things. It promotes equality of opportunity for carers; it intends to break down institutional barriers that exist for carers in accessing work, training, life-long learning and leisure activities, so that they can lead, in the words of one carer, "an ordinary life"; it would place a duty on local authorities to inform carers of their rights, to promote carers' health and to plan jointly information provision for carers.

So a lot has been done—we should be joyful about the progress that has been made—but there is much that still could be done. A review of the carer's allowance, currently the lowest benefit of its kind at approximately £43 per week, is urgently needed. We should consider the introduction of a tax credit that helps financially, rather than hinders, carers who provide substantial amounts of care to combine paid work with caring. We need more carers' rights at work and more flexible working policies; continuation of funding for carers' breaks after 2006 when the carer's grant finishes; and a focus on health promotion by health bodies.

Many people wish to care for their relatives—most people want to be carers—and it is clear that society could not cope if they did not. However, in doing so, there is no reason why they should face poverty, social exclusion, lack of choice, opportunity and ill-health as a result of that caring.

8.12 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I join with other noble Ladies—my sisters—in congratulating our friend and colleague on introducing the debate. She seems to have cornered the market in women's day debates. Sitting on this side of the Chamber, it is an extraordinary sight for me to look across at the absolute mass of women—all able to express themselves lucidly, intelligently and very often amusingly—sitting on the Labour Benches. I wish that I had the same brilliant collection behind me at the moment.

I had prepared a witty speech to sum up the debate. I then realised I had only three minutes and so, like everyone else, I am reduced to making one point. My one point is this: that welcome as the creation of an equality body is, we desperately need a single equality Act.

We have a mass of inconsistent legislation which affects different groups in society differently and can cause enormous problems for lawyers. For example, if a black pregnant woman has been discriminated against, they need to find out under which section of the law she is best represented.

What should this single equality Act consist of? First, it should cover all the groups of people who shall not be discriminated against—women, people from racial minorities, people of different nationalities, people of different ethnic types, people of different sexual orientation, people who are older and people who have undergone gender reassignment. We would have to include everybody who can be and is discriminated against under the same heading.

Then we would have to ask ourselves whose behaviour has to be affected by such legislation. There is a wide range of bodies which must not discriminate against the groups of people covered by the Act. In addition to the public sector, that includes companies involved in selling or providing services to the public, employers conducting employment policy, people selling property or providing education or healthcare. Almost every activity that we can think of must be covered so that no one can escape.

Is simply not being discriminatory enough'? No, it is not. We must oblige all these people to take a positive attitude towards the promotion of equality, not simply to avoid legal penalties for discrimination but positively to promote equality of treatment among every individual in the country. When we reach this wonderful state, we will have no more need for an Equality Commission.

8.16 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I applaud the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for initiating this broad debate on the status of women. In my three minutes, I wish to focus my comments on one particular area not mentioned this evening—the choice for mothers in today's society between returning to paid employment and staying at home to bring up their children. There are two different perspectives here: one is the public perception and the other is practical—financial viability and the provision of childcare.

First, let me focus on perceptions. Equality in the workplace is to be encouraged, but I am concerned with the fashionable perception in the last 10 years or so that all mothers should strive to return to paid employment. I mention specifically a Government report by the Women and Equality Unit of the DTI which said that any mother who stayed at home did not "benefit the nation" and was "failing to pay the state back for the cost of time at school or at university".

It appears that society today does not recognise or value the unpaid work which mothers do in raising their families. A recent study from Full Time Mothers has shown that women too often feel that self-respect and the respect of society are dependent on a job title. The Maternity Alliance, in a survey of over 2,000 mothers, found that only 1 per cent would have chosen to return to full-time work after the birth of their baby. A third was happy to work part time and two-thirds would rather have stayed at home to raise their children.

I turn briefly to the practicalities. In order to encourage mothers to return to work, the Government are currently pursuing a childcare strategy that subsidises non-family care through care funding and the childcare credit. Families using registered daycare can receive up to £7,000 a year towards childcare. This may be laudable, but families in which one parent looks after the children cannot claim any similar benefit, despite the fact that he or she has sacrificed their earnings to do so.

In other cases, for middle-income families, the extra earning of a working mother is simply swallowed up in childcare costs. It is fair to say that, broadly speaking, the tax and benefit systems in place in the UK are biased against mothers who stay at home to raise their children.

I believe that the job of bringing up the next generation is extremely important. Women who decide to take the financially difficult choice to stay at home need our support and should not be seen as taking the easy option and shirking employment.

Finally, I should know more than most that many women do not have the luxury of making that choice. Life is not that simple and all of us have to make those hard decisions which benefit our families most.

8.20 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, it has been an undiluted privilege and delight to participate in this debate. I warmly congratulate my noble friend Lady Gould on exercising such skill in delivering a gargantuan task in dealing with all the issues on which other noble Baronesses subsequently ably supported her. We have had everything, and I agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend who made it clear that, if anyone wanted to see the quality of women, they had only to participate in this debate. We have had the delight of having substance, charm, intelligence, wit and the passion of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, and the sage reminder of the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that women's roles are diverse and must be valued in whichever form they come. I can certainly reassure the noble Baroness that the Government have taken direct action in this regard. The Government want to give families choice. That is why we have introduced the new rights, which are making a huge difference.

We touched on so many matters tonight. I have been given 10 minutes, and I hope that I will be able to follow my noble friend Lady Gould with a quick gallop through some of the issues that she so ably raised. This event gives us a chance to remember a time when women throughout the world were still demanding the right to vote, work and hold public office. Although I am pleased to tell noble Baronesses that we have come a long way since then, I recognise that we still have a long way to go. However, it is right to celebrate that a debate such as this can take place, and that a real song of women's voices has echoed. I am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, in his place. We would have welcomed male voices to sing in harmony with ours.

My noble friend Lady Gould raised the important issue of violence. Noble Lords will know that today we are dealing with the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. It is depressing that so many people feel that violence is still acceptable. As a Government we are tackling this issue at the school level. The Ministers for Women have produced a document, Does Sex Make a Difference?—an equality resources pack for those working with young people. It challenges stereotypes including occupational segregation, equal pay and women's representation in public life. That is very important work that is making the difference.

Another comment was strongly made not only by my noble friend Lady Gould, but by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, who made a cri de coeur for a single piece of legislation to deal with equality. The Government are very much aware of the demand for a single equality Act but do not see this as an essential precursor to the creation of a Human Rights and Equality Commission. Noble Lords and noble Baronesses know how hard we have had to fight to craft this new commission. We will eat this elephant one bite at a time. There is no reason to think that the commission could not operate pragmatically within the current framework. Partnership is a huge matter.

I add my voice to that of my noble friend Lady Dean, who made a point about the House of Lords Administration and Works Committee having refused to allow a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst on Abingdon College Green. As a mere Minister, I could not possibly comment on that committee, but I suggest that it is perhaps mistaken in thinking that Mrs Pankhurst has no connection with the House of Lords that would justify such a prominent site. Quite the contrary, I add my support to those questioning this decision. Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the most prominent suffragettes and clearly deserves this recognition which is long overdue.

That leads me smoothly on to the triumph of my noble friend Lady Gale, who again regaled us tonight with the victorious triumph of the Welsh women who have managed to achieve 50 per cent in a way that has not been achieved by others. We must not be discouraged. Although women currently make up just 18 per cent of the other House, 16 per cent of the House of Lords and 24 per cent of the European Parliament, about 28 per cent of elected councillors in England and Wales are women, although just 2.5 per cent of councillors are from a minority ethnic background.

As noble Lords will remember, the Government introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act in 2002. In Scotland and Wales, where positive measures have been introduced, the numbers of women elected have increased to 40 per cent and 50 per cent respectively. The National Assembly in Wales is the first legislative body in the world to achieve this level of parity, proving that positive measures do work. It can be used as an exemplar. I would just remind my noble friend sitting on the Liberal Democrat Benches that this was achieved without proportional representation.

Women in public life have featured largely in this debate. As noble Baronesses have already pointed out, just over one-third—36 per cent—of public appointments are held by women and just under 2 per cent are held by women from minority ethnic communities. The Government have set a target for every department so that by 2005 women should hold about half of all appointments.

I am pleased to say that in the Home Office, where I have the privilege and pleasure to be a Minister, women already hold 44 per cent of the seats on our public bodies. In 2002, we travelled around the country and talked to more than 2,000 women to encourage them to take up public appointments at a regional and national level. Change is possible and we are making it.

A number of noble friends raised the pay gap. Women are playing an increasingly important part in our economy, but still face an average pay gap of 18 per cent if they work full time, as a number of noble Baronesses mentioned. If we look at the median figure, which measures earnings in the middle of the range, the pay gap drops to just under 13 per cent. In 1997, it was 16 per cent. So legislation has helped. But it is not enough on its own. The Government have been working with the EOC to promote equal pay reviews and have provided trade unions with funding to train workplace representatives. We have undertaken pay reviews in the Civil Service, introduced an equal pay questionnaire and will streamline the complex rules of procedure relating to equal value cases. We plan to introduce new regulations in October this year.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, alluded to the pay gap that varies by age, from 2 per cent for 18 to 20 year-olds to 34 per cent for women over 50. This reflects the increasing educational achievements of young women.

We are still very concerned about the lack of girls going into non-traditional areas of work, such as engineering and technology. I am pleased that this matter was alluded to by noble friends because we have a challenge. I quake to think of the physics master—as he must have been—who now has to deal with the comments that have been levelled against him in this debate. I am sure that he will not do that again.

If we look at the stakeholder pension, we have made a huge difference in the way that older people have been able to take advantage of the increased support that we have given. The pension credit was introduced last year for today's poorest pensioners and guarantees single pensioners an income of at least £102 per week. For future pensioners, the state second pension extends second tier pension rights to people without earnings but with caring responsibilities. Not surprisingly, almost all the carers who will benefit are women. My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley was right to highlight the difficulties and the benefits that flow from the changes that we have made and to argue for more. We hear what she has to say. We have introduced stakeholder pensions that are flexible enough to accommodate the employment patterns of women. Research shows that 40 per cent of stakeholder pensions have been bought by women. We now have pension sharing on divorce—something for which we have fought for a very long time indeed.

As I indicated, the pay gap varies by age. However, we are still very concerned about the issue. The EOC is undertaking a general formal investigation to look at how men and women end up in these traditional gender roles. But that is not to say that things are not improving. Over the 10 years to 2002, the percentage of female graduates in science, engineering and technology increased by more than half. The Government recently announced that they were setting up a new UK research centre for women to help support them.

It is important that we have flexible working for raising the crucial issue of work/life balance for women. Women do five times as much domestic work as men, and it is still overwhelmingly women who are responsible for looking after the children or arranging childcare facilities. Yet over the past 25 years the number of women in the work force has doubled, and projections show that, in 10 years, they will fill most of the 2 million extra jobs on offer. That is why, last year, the Government gave parents of young children the right to work flexibly, improved and simplified maternity leave and pay and introduced paid paternity and adoption leave.

I was intrigued by the exposition on women in sport from my noble friend Lady Billingham. I reassure her that women's football is the fastest growing sport in the UK. Despite the concerns about women in sport, more men than women are overweight. Some 47 per cent of men are overweight, but only 33 per cent of women. And women live almost five years longer than men.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Hudnall made some very powerful points about the negative image of women and how words can be so important. The Government introduced citizenship education into secondary schools in September 2002, and pupils are taught about the origins and implications of the diverse national regions, the religious and ethnic identities in the UK and the need for mutual respect and understanding. So what we may not have achieved for this generation I hope we will achieve with the next.

I also commend what was said by my noble friend Lady Howells of St Davids. She rightly raised the issue of minority ethnic women in this country and how things have changed. We all rejoice in the new complexion of our House and the other place because it gives us a spice and a diversity that might not have been there hitherto.

On literature, I cannot but commend everything that was said by my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen with such wit and vim. More should have been in the House to benefit from her erudition and also her literature. I hope that all will read this debate and rue the moment that they did not participate in it.

I commend all noble Baronesses for having so participated. It was worth not having supper.