International Women’s Day

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Thursday 11th March 2021

(3 years, 3 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to today’s debate. I know that, for many, these speeches have represented the focus of their life’s work. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, and thank all those women and Peers who have gone before me and broken down the barriers to enable me to stand today at this Dispatch Box. I particularly enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, outlining the history of female participation in science.

While we want to celebrate the examples of extraordinary women, I also want to express my sadness to the friends and family of Sarah Everard. My thoughts and prayers are with them. I, too, noticed that I took a taxi instead of walking home as I planned a few days ago.

In line with the Choose to Challenge theme this year for International Women’s Day, I want to share the stories of two inspirational young women who have challenged stereotypes and their circumstances, like Ciara, who was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. Amelia, a care leaver I spoke to as part of the recent national apprenticeship week, took on the challenge of a level 3 apprenticeship in business to open up opportunities for her future and now leads the Institute for Apprenticeships apprentice panel and directly influences how apprenticeships are developed. Grace Vella, a former Manchester City and Liverpool player, has launched what I believe to be the first clothing brand for female footballers in the UK, which now sells into Europe.

I assure the noble Lords that the Government are committed to empowering women and girls across the country, and indeed around the world. Noble Lords have clearly taken the theme very much to heart and outlined many challenges for this Government, probably across every Cabinet role, which I will now seek to address in the time remaining. I hope to assure the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that this is action, not just words.

I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Fox and Lady Deech, for raising the issue of girls in STEM subjects. We have programmes such as STEM Ambassadors raising awareness of STEM careers and inspiring girls to follow the admirable Professor Sarah Gilbert. Last summer we saw 44% of STEM A-levels taken by girls. The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, mentioned computer science, and I am pleased to say that we are now testing how to increase the number of girls taking computer science through the gender balance in computing programme.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, highlighted the changing transport sector. Apprenticeships are now offering an excellent route to higher-paid jobs in this sector, allowing women to earn while they learn.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Benjamin, mentioned the creation of a Cabinet role of Minister for Children. I assure them that policy is being driven from within the Department for Education by the Secretary of State and that in the three currently open maths schools, which are selective sixth-form colleges that offer maths, further maths and physics, part of the outreach is specifically for girls to ensure that they are taking these A-levels and are therefore able to access higher-paid employment.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Crawley and Lady Uddin, spoke passionately about balancing work, childcare and home schooling. In recognition of this, of course, we introduced childcare bubbles, and I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Brady, that employers were able to furlough parents who were unable to work due to the former closure of schools and childcare services. Although we have statistics on the number of women who requested furlough and were turned down, it was still the case that more women were being furloughed than men. We expect to spend £3.6 billion on early years entitlements in 2020-21, and we are establishing a £1 billion fund to support high-quality, affordable childcare before, after and during the holidays, reflecting the comments by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft—and of course we pay credit to her son for his role in home schooling.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and many other noble Lords raised the important issue of children’s mental health. Only last Friday, a further £79 million of investment was given to boost mental health support. I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, that there is funding of £11 million for Barnardo’s See, Hear, Respond programme. Its work has been so important in highlighting the issue of children who are not yet known to children’s social care, which has obviously become more difficult during the lockdown.

As many noble Lords set out, women have been at the forefront of the fight against Covid, and the Government have given unprecedented financial support to sustain businesses, jobs and livelihoods. This contribution has been recognised by the OBR, the Bank of England and the IMF.

The noble Earl, Lord Devon, raised the need to protect jobs, particularly in sectors such as retail and hospitality that include high numbers of women. Noble Lords will be aware that the Government have extended the coronavirus job retention scheme until the end of September.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, raised concerns around the welfare system and the support it offers to families. The Covid winter support grant has been delivering £170 million to local authorities in England from December to the end of March to support children and families, and 80% of that fund has been ring-fenced for bills and food.

As noted by my noble friends Lady Altmann and Lady McIntosh, it is important that we address the pensions gap. We are committed to providing a financial safety net for those who need it, including when they are close to or reach retirement. The Government are trying to increase the take-up of pension credit, which is a particular issue that the House has considered this week. More than 3 million women stand to gain an average of £550 a year each by 2030 as a result of the recent reforms to the state pension. In addition, state pension outcomes are being equalised for men and women, or should equalise by the early 2040s, over a decade earlier than they would have done under the old system. Noble Lords raised particular queries about auto-enrolment, which I will address separately in a letter.

Although the pandemic has clearly brought hardship, it has also provided us with an opportunity to challenge our work environments and, as noted by my noble friend Lord Lucas, to promote the benefits of flexible working. The Government’s behavioural insights research with the jobs board has shown that offering flexible working increases job applications by 20% to 30%. We want to make it easier for people to work flexibly, and in our manifesto we committed to encouraging such working by consulting on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to. However, we must be mindful of the caution of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, to ensure that women do not become trapped at home with forced flexible working; it should be by request.

I welcome the contributions made by my noble friends Lady Bottomley and Lady Brady about the need to challenge discrimination in the workplace. Since 2016, we have been supporting the business-led and voluntary Hampton-Alexander review to increase the number of female leaders in the UK’s top-listed companies. The goal of the review—for 33% women board members across the FTSE 350—has been exceeded, and the number of women on boards increased by 50% over the five years of the review. It has been great to see year-on-year improvements, but we know that much more needs to be done, especially to increase the number of women on executive committees. I want to add my congratulations to Amanda Blanc, Alison Rose and Milena Mondini de Focatiis as some of the newer leaders of FTSE 100 companies at Admiral, NatWest and Aviva.

I want to draw attention to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Singh, and my noble friend Lady Mobarik that these attitudes are not based on the tenets of religious faith. Some of the attitudes that prevail in our businesses and workplaces are cultural. I join the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Bakewell, in welcoming the celebration of the Women’s World Day of Prayer, which was such a feature for me, given that I grew up as part of a church in Oakham, in Rutland.

I agree with the important points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, about the value of networking among women, both within the workplace and for budding entrepreneurs. The Government have provided unprecedented support to the self-employed during the crisis, not just through the income support scheme but with bounce-back loans, mortgage holidays, self-isolation support payments and a range of other business support grants. We are determined to unleash the potential of women across the country by encouraging female-led start-ups, such as that of Grace Vella, which I mentioned earlier, and supporting more women into STEM.

On health issues, many noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Janke and Lady Blower, and my noble friend Lady Verma, talked about women being on the front line in the fight against Covid, from social workers to care workers to nurses. We all want to pay tribute to all their work during the pandemic.

There are also important health issues that predate Covid, and tackling them remains vital. I thank my noble friend Lady Jenkin for her inspirational work, and in particular for drawing attention in this debate to the women’s health strategy, where we aim to improve the health and well-being of women across the country. There is currently a call for evidence out for this. As outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, there are often unknown stories of women who have had miscarriages. We hope that women will respond to the call for evidence and tell us about their experiences, and that they will talk about the need for understanding in the workplace.

My noble friend Lord Bourne and the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, talked about women’s mental health. The Government have responded by creating the rollout of a 24/7 mental health helpline and £10 million for the voluntary sector. I encourage women to reach out to our mental health services for support.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who I think made the first male contribution to the debate, in promoting the early diagnosis of neuro-diverse conditions. Our refreshed autism strategy, which is due to be published in the spring, will help to ensure that autistic people receive the right support, including timely diagnosis in early years, and for the first time it will include children and young people. I can assure him that, as in my other role in the education department for the capital, I always ask whether we have thought about autism in girls when looking at provision, whether in mainstream or special schools.

In response to the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, let me first thank her for all her years of work on her independent review. We will appoint an independent patient safety commissioner, and I can confirm that work is under way to allow the appointment process to begin.

The noble Lord, Lord Young, and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, mentioned single-sex spaces in hospitals. We understand from NHS England that its National Advisor for LGBT Health, Dr Michael Brady, is currently reviewing the guidance on same-sex accommodation to provide further clarity to patients and NHS organisations.

I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for raising the important issue of IVF. I assure him that, post the first lockdown, those services were open during the subsequent lockdowns. Although I struggled to hear all of the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, I assure him that sex-selective abortions are of course unlawful in the UK.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, on her appointment as chair of the EHRC. In response to her comments and the representations of the noble Lord, Lord Young, the recently passed Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act is an important piece of legislation making changes so that senior Ministers can take maternity leave. Since 2007, legislative drafting guidance has encouraged avoiding the use of gender-specific pronouns to avoid stereotypes and assumptions that constrain women. However, we listened to the strength of feeling in the House and agreed to amend the wording from pregnant “person” to “mother”.

I pay tribute to the many speeches from noble Lords about violence against women and girls, particularly surrounding domestic abuse. It is the shadow pandemic, and we must maintain and enhance our efforts to prevent it and support victims. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, noted, lockdown has been especially hard for some. Home should be a safe place, but clearly it is not for those confined with an abuser. The Government continue to work closely with the designate domestic abuse commissioner and domestic abuse organisations to assess ongoing trends and support needs throughout our response to the pandemic.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, noted in opening the debate, the abuse of older women is unacceptable. Although there are no current plans to appoint a dedicated commissioner for older people, we take this issue seriously through our work on tackling abuse. It will obviously be part of the role of the domestic abuse commissioner.

The noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Desai, raised the issue of women in the prison system. The 2020 White Paper, A Smarter Approach to Sentencing, announced a number of proposals, including measures to divert women from custody. Noble Lords will be aware that there has been a decline in the number of young people in custody, which will of course include some young girls.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, for her challenge on the need to reflect the requirements of disabled, refugee and asylum-seeking women in policy-making. I also thank her for her practical work with Near Neighbours. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, for her insight on the importance of women in decision-making and of reflecting the needs of Muslim women.

Similarly, I welcome the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, who highlighted the plight of widows during the Covid crisis. I will take away his idea about having a specific response for widows in our Covid response.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, for his further comments on the need to increase the equal representation of women across society.

My noble friend Lady Verma reminded us of the importance of access to services for hard-to-reach communities. This is particularly critical. I very much appreciated meeting her and a round table from the Leicester Listening Project. It has been particularly illuminating, when we are not able to meet people physically, to hear from women about their difficulties in accessing the support that is available.

I welcome the challenge from many noble Lords on the role of the UK in fighting for women’s rights across the globe. Many noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins, Lady Armstrong, Lady Sugg and Lady Bakewell, spoke about aid funding and VSO. Covid’s impact on the UK economy has forced us to make tough but necessary decisions to temporarily reduce our aid budget. We know the unique contribution volunteers can make to sustainable development and we are now working through the implications of these changes for individual programmes, including for the volunteering for development grant. No decisions have currently been made but I will ensure that noble Lords are kept up to date. In the wake of the pandemic, we are very proud that the FCDO and VSO were able to work together to pivot over 80% of programming to pandemic response in just 10 days.

We will continue to drive equality and fairness through the heart of our G7 presidency, bringing together the leading democracies around educating girls, empowering women and ending violence against women and girls. I note the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on a feminist foreign policy and gender-inclusive environmental work. Our COP 26 presidency will support a green, inclusive and resilient recovery and we will continue to champion gender equality.

In response to the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Sheikh, on landmines, I can assure them that the UK is committed to the anti-personnel mine ban convention. Since 2018 we have invested £124 million in clearing landmines and explosive ordnance through the global mine action programmes. I can ensure the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, that with regard to overseas vaccines we have given £250 million to the COVAX project.

In reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, and the noble Lord, Lord Mann, on online harms and abuse, which was a theme throughout many speeches, the online harms Bill will consider the role, if any, for anonymity in relation to the internet.

I will follow up the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, and will request a reply from my noble friend Lord Ahmad with regard to that particular convention.

I conclude by once again thanking all those who contributed today. It is not possible for me in the time allowed to cover every question that noble Lords raised, but I shall write to your Lordships to cover the remaining issues. After a challenging year, it is important that we reflect on the strides we have made while continuing to consider what more can be done to empower women and girls in the recovery and beyond. While using our G7 presidency, we will ensure that gender equality is at the centre of our recovery, and we have many new female heroes to celebrate. The majority, however, will remain known only to those whose lives they touched, such as the NHS staff whose kindness reassured the patient coming out of a coma, or the staff in essential shops who may be the only person an elderly person sees in the day. However, we also want to celebrate the likes of Professor Sarah Gilbert and Kate Bingham for their role in the teams which delivered the vaccine programme.

I am sure that noble Lords are also looking forward as I am to welcoming the new Bishop of Chelmsford to the House, the Right Reverend Guli Francis-Dehqani, who is the first bishop of any gender of Persian heritage. It seemed most appropriate to mention her after the comments a number of noble Lords made about the situation for women in Iran. Her family came to this country during the Iranian revolution and fled to the UK, so it is amazing to see, when we challenge, what change is possible.

Motion agreed.