International Women’s Day and Protecting the Equality of Women in the UK and Internationally

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Thursday 17th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott
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That the Grand Committee takes note of International Women’s Day and the United Kingdom’s role in furthering and protecting the equality of women in the UK and internationally.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Stedman-Scott) (Con)
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My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to open this International Women’s Day debate, but I begin by saying that my thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by the events in Ukraine at this very difficult time. We continue to stand united with our international partners in supporting the Government in Ukraine and condemning this reprehensible assault on its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

I will looking to more positive matters. After years of unfair detention by the Government of Iran, British nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori returned from Iran yesterday. Morad Tahbaz has also been released from prison on furlough. It is the result of tenacious and creative British diplomacy. This outcome is the result of intensive efforts over the past six months. We thank our Omani friends for their help in bringing our nationals home. This is a moment of great relief. We have the deepest admiration for the resolve, courage and determination that all three individuals have shown.

I returned this morning from New York, where I took part in the 66th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. The priority theme of this year’s event is “Achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes”. I therefore feel it fitting that we have the chance today to reflect on our role in the international community in prioritising women and girls, as well as marginalised and vulnerable groups, in responding to humanitarian crises. It is easy to feel powerless when faced by threats such as the current situation in Ukraine, but the Commission on the Status of Women provides the perfect opportunity to work with international partners to build coalitions to fight those threats. In fact, while I was in New York I was privileged to attend, in part, the concert that the Met put on for the Ukrainian people; that was really emotional. What was even more emotional was that I was able to meet, for a few minutes, the Ukrainian ambassador out there and pass on my message of support. I am pleased that we are negotiating progressive agreed conclusions that will help to protect and promote women’s and girls’ rights around the world.

I had a busy programme while I was in New York. I met Ministers from a number of other countries to exchange ideas and compare notes. It was fascinating to hear the experiences of Ministers representing countries such as Ireland, Denmark and Sweden. I also led side events to showcase the work that we are leading on gender equality here in the UK. I will tell you more about that work later in my speech. It was my first experience of the Commission on the Status of Women, and I was incredibly proud to have the opportunity to demonstrate the UK’s continued leadership on gender and climate change and to highlight the importance of women’s empowerment as we recover from the wide-reaching impacts of the pandemic, as well as tackling the challenges to come.

All over the world, International Women’s Day is marked in various ways. There are events in local communities and debates across countries, much like the one taking place today in your Lordships’ House. As I have said, it is a privilege to be just one part of these celebrations. This year’s International Women’s Day global theme is “Break the Bias”, encouraging everyone to call out bias, smash stereotypes, break inequality and reject discrimination. That is a theme I am happy to champion. With that in mind, and as we move through one of the biggest challenges this country has faced in decades, we need to keep on working to ensure women and girls have equal access to opportunities so that they can thrive. We know that the pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges that women face. Although challenges mean that women need more support to access opportunities in work and life. I am pleased to have this time today to talk about many of the different areas in which the Government are leading the way in supporting women and girls in the UK and around the world.

I want to talk first about women’s economic empowerment, because it is critical to our post-pandemic recovery. Covid-19 has prompted even greater potential for wage inequalities for women—although, of course, it is not just women who face these difficulties. Your Lordships will have seen the work that I announced on International Women’s Day: a project working with employers to improve pay transparency and a programme to encourage more women to return to STEM careers after taking time out for caring.

Evidence shows that when salary information is not transparent, this has an impact on how people negotiate pay and results in increased inequality in earnings. We need to make it easier for employees to understand if they are being paid fairly and how decisions about their pay are made. That is why we want organisations to be more transparent about what they pay and how it is determined. We want to empower women to negotiate their pay on a level playing field by giving them the information they need to understand the value of their skills and prevent them being held back by their previous earnings.

We are calling on employers to provide salary information on job adverts and to stop asking about pay history during recruitment. We will build an evidence base of the positive impact of this greater transparency and support employers by working with them to develop and pilot a methodology that will enable them to publish salary ranges for all roles in their organisations.

I am also proud to tell the Committee about our progress overseas since last year’s International Women’s Day. FCDO’s flagship women’s economic empowerment programme, Work and Opportunities for Women, has now wrapped up activities that allowed the programme to reach more than 100,000 women across south Asia and Africa, providing them with improved access to higher-productivity and higher-return jobs, more diversified roles and improved working conditions in global value chains.

Empowering women of course goes further, and I am pleased that in December 2021 we launched our Ending Preventable Deaths of Mothers, Babies and Children by 2030 approach paper, setting out our ambitious commitments and emphasising that good health is critical to the empowerment of women and girls.

We know that unpaid care work, especially childcare, is disproportionately done by women. Taking time out of work or limiting work hours can have a big impact on pay and progression. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, not working full-time tends to shut down wage progression, especially for more highly educated women. That is why funding childcare services across the country is key.

Since 2010, the Government have doubled free childcare, adding 15 hours per week, worth just over £6,000 per child per year for eligible working parents. In January 2021, nearly 330,000 children were registered to receive 30 hours’ free childcare. We have also introduced tax-free childcare. For every £8 that parents pay into their childcare account, the Government add £2, up to a maximum of £2,000 of childcare support a year for each child up to aged 11 and up to £4,000 per disabled child until they are 17. Furthermore, those working universal credit households can also claim up to 85% of their childcare costs, up from 70% under the legacy system.

I am pleased that the Government pledged a new £1 billion fund to create more high-quality, affordable childcare, and we are delivering on this pledge with a £200 million-a-year holiday activities and food programme to provide enriching activities and a healthy meal for disadvantaged children in the Easter, summer and Christmas holidays.

Last year was also a year of UK leadership on girls’ education. With the G7, we agreed new targets to get 40 million more girls in school and 20 million more girls reading by age 10 by 2026. In July, we co-hosted the Global Education Summit with Kenya, raising an unprecedented $4 billion—£2.9 billion—for the Global Partnership for Education. At the summit, the UK pledged £430 million—our largest ever pledge. At the UK’s successful hosting of COP 26 Gender Day last year, we showed that girls’ education is essential for responding to the climate crisis.

In 2022, education remains a top priority for our Prime Minister. Earlier this month, he launched a new Girls’ Education Skills Partnership programme on private sector investment in girl’s education. This is a new programme to support adolescent girls overseas with 21st-century skills to give them the knowledge and qualifications they need for employment and enterprise.

The UK put gender equality at the heart of its G7 presidency last year. We convened a gender equality advisory council to bring fresh ideas and new voices to the G7 discussions, galvanising ambitions on gender equality to ensure that our presidency really delivered for women and girls. Education, and especially STEM, is one of the key areas that the council has been looking at, because we recognise the importance of improving gender representation in these industries. We have made great progress in increasing the number of girls studying STEM subjects, but at present women make up only 24% of the STEM workforce in the UK. We need to do more to get women into STEM careers to meet the demands of today’s workforce.

We are encouraging more girls to take STEM subjects at school, college and university. The Government have rolled out several programmes and committed substantial funding to support STEM uptake across all key stages, but there is still more to do, and we must increase the number of women moving from STEM studies to STEM careers. As part of this, we want to support women who are looking to return to the STEM workforce. We will launch a new STEM returners programme to encourage those who have taken breaks to care for others back into STEM, giving them the opportunity to refresh and grow their skills in sectors where their talents are most needed. This pilot will build on previous government returner initiatives and will seek to address the barriers that returners face when re-entering the workplace.

We are committed to improving women’s health outcomes and reducing disparities. This Government are making women’s voices heard and placing women’s voices at the centre of this work. In December, we published Our Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England, which is informed by analysis of the call for evidence. This publication sets out an ambitious and positive new agenda to improve the health and well-being of women across England and reduce disparities. We will publish the strategy this year. Alongside the vision, we published the results of the call for evidence survey. We are grateful to the nearly 100,000 individuals across England who responded to the survey. We will soon publish the analysis of the over 400 written submissions.

We all share concerns about online safety. Tackling online harms, especially when it comes to abuse, is paramount. That is why we announced the online safety Bill, with the aim of making the UK the safest place in the world to be online while defending free expression. Under the new laws, platforms will need to take swift and effective action against illegal online abuse. They will need to proactively remove illegal content, such as revenge and extreme pornography. They can impose sanctions against offending users, or change their processes and policies to better protect their users.

The biggest social media companies will need to stop the vile misogynistic abuse on their sites. Following consultation with Ofcom, priority categories of legal but harmful content for adults will be set out in secondary legislation. These are likely to include some forms of online abuse, including misogynistic abuse.

We all know that women and girls have been among the hardest hit by the indirect impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, both in the UK and globally, including a shocking rise in domestic violence. To respond to the urgent need to scale up the prevention of violence against women and girls, the UK began the “What Works to Prevent Violence: Impact at Scale” programme in October 2021, investing up to £67.5 million in the first ever global programme to systematically scale up proven approaches to prevent violence against women and girls worldwide. This is the largest investment by any single donor Government to prevent violence against women and girls globally.

Tackling violence against women and girls is a government priority. That is why in July we published a new strategy on tackling violence against women and girls, to help better target perpetrators and support victims of these crimes. As part of that strategy, the Government also announced a new package of measures which will strengthen protections for those affected by harassment at work. As soon as parliamentary time allows, we will introduce a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as explicit protections against workplace harassment by third parties, such as customers or clients. We are also supporting the Equality and Human Rights Commission to develop a statutory code of practice on workplace harassment, and are preparing our own practical guidance for employers on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, which will be published in due course.

The steps we are taking will not only raise awareness of the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, but motivate employers to prioritise prevention and ultimately improve workplace practices and culture. Every woman should be able to live without fear of harassment or violence, in the workplace as much as anywhere else, and these measures will help ensure that people feel safe and supported to thrive. In addition, I am pleased to say that the UK Government on 7 March strengthened their world-leading efforts to end violence and harassment in the workplace, becoming the 11th country to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Violence and Harassment Convention. This is the first international treaty to recognise the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment. The UK played a leading role in developing the treaty over two years of negotiations. Attending the ratification ceremony in person at the ILO in Geneva, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Thérèse Coffey, has now completed the ratification process for the UK.

However, it is not just within our own borders that we have a responsibility. The Foreign Secretary has committed to putting women and girls at the centre of the United Kingdom’s foreign and development policy, and this will be demonstrated clearly later this year with the publication of the FCDO’s new strategy on women and girls. The Foreign Secretary has made sexual violence in conflict one of her top priorities. In November, she announced a new package of funding of over £22 million to end child marriage, support survivors, and fund women’s rights organisations on the front lines of tackling violence against women and girls around the world. She also made a commitment to explore all options for global action, including her intention to work towards a new convention on sexual violence in conflict. This is an opportunity to strengthen the international response to preventing these atrocities, supporting survivors and holding perpetrators to account.

The UK is a global leader on action to tackle sexual violence in conflict. We have trained over 17,000 police and military personnel and deployed the UK’s team of experts on preventing sexual violence in conflict over 90 times since 2012 to build capacity of Governments, the UN and NGOs. The UK also plans to host an international “preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative” conference in 2022. This will be a key opportunity to show UK leadership and rally international support to agree further action to eliminate this crime, as well as tackling wider gender equality issues.

I feel privileged to open today’s debate with so many noble Lords who share my staunch commitment to improving gender equality. I am proud to be part of this Government, and it is an honour to be part of the work we are doing. We will continue to fight for gender equality across the UK and the whole world.

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Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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Well, my Lords, here’s to mission impossible. I will do my very best to answer as many questions as I can. I am sure that I will not be able to answer them all but, with my officials, I will make sure that I write a letter, that every question is answered, that the Committee will all receive a copy and that it goes into the Library. I can tell noble Lords that it is definitely not a second-class debate and I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, of my great mantra: it is not what you say, it is what you do; and it is not what you promise, but what you deliver. That is what we should all be judged on.

If I may have a moment to say to the noble Lord, Lord Young: William Booth was absolutely at the head of equality. He commissioned men as lieutenants, captains and all the rest of it, but there were as many women holding the same ranks. There was no differential.

Lord Young of Norwood Green Portrait Lord Young of Norwood Green (Lab)
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He was ahead of his time.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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He was. We have heard some powerful, moving and challenging questions today from across the Room, and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed. The richness of this debate shows how important it is that we have the opportunity to mark International Women’s Day and highlight the wide range of challenges that disproportionately affect women and prevent them accessing the opportunities to help them thrive.

I will deal with one of the elephants in the room, which is not having this debate on the day that so many wanted it. I remember being asked about this in an Oral Question. I went to find out and am advised—I have no reason to disbelieve it—that the usual channels agreed time for the debate as soon as was possible. I will make the case, as much as I can, to have it on a better day.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Portrait Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
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I have agreed to meet you to do that and I stand by that.

I will start by talking about Ukraine; there are many things to talk about in that respect. The noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Loomba, and others mentioned it. We are absolutely committed to supporting Ukrainian women and girls, recognising the critical contribution that women are making on the front line and in communities affected by the conflict. Somebody told me that women were making Molotov cocktails to try to keep back the Russians. All power to their elbows.

We are particularly concerned about the impact of the conflict on women and girls. They will be more exposed to the risk of violence, particularly sexual and gender-based violence. We acknowledge the vital work of civil society organisations. I think I am a poacher turned gamekeeper in that respect, so noble Lords can be assured of my support for good civil society organisations.

I reflect that, when I stood with the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN on Monday, he asked me to do one thing: come back here and ask everybody, regardless of whether they were politicians or not, to help these women and children integrate into our communities when they come to our country. If we do not, sex traffickers will get hold of them. They will be forced into prostitution, there will be forced adoptions—the list goes on. I gave him my word that I would do that. I ask noble Lords to get that message out to make sure that we can stand by the ambassador’s need.

I did not attend all of the concert at the Met but I was there. A Ukrainian bass sang the Ukrainian national anthem. He fell into the arms of the conductor afterwards, such was the depth of despair he felt. Let us all continue to stand by these dear people who need us.

I will answer the question about the Istanbul convention. The UK remains strongly committed to ratification of the Istanbul convention. Almost all the obstacles to ratification have now been removed. We should be in a position to ratify the convention quite soon. [Laughter.] I did not think that was funny; I was being serious.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, mentioned political representation. They gave some figures about the balance of people. We must congratulate the Greens on their 100% record; that is worthy of mention. We will come later to the issue of women in political life and the abuse that goes with it, if I get to answer that. The Government continue to keep Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 under review but remain of the view that political parties should lead the way in improving diverse electoral representation through their own selection.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, talked about the development strategy having women and girls right throughout it. The Government will publish a new international development strategy this spring. That will guide our work for the coming decades and beyond. The new strategy will prioritise spending on life-saving humanitarian aid and support women and girls. The Foreign Secretary is committed to that, and will go through the business plan and strategy development.

The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and others talked about an equality impact assessment of the ODA cuts. We treat equality issues seriously. The UK is a leading global voice on women and girls, LGBT people, disability and wider human rights. We have processes in place through spending reviews and FCDO business planning to ensure that we meet our legal obligations. The equalities assessment was a snapshot in March 2021 aimed at predicting how spending decisions for 2021-22 would have an impact on protected groups. As we move through the project cycle, we will review the actual impact of the spending.

On scrutiny and transparency, which was also raised, we fulfil our international legal and public transparency commitments and continue to be accountable to Parliament and taxpayers for how we spend UK aid and to mandate our partners to be transparent.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham mentioned Lesotho. One thing that came out of this week was that someone asked the question: why are women not in the room when decisions are made, because the decisions would be very different? We want women in the room, women in the chair and women in the lead.

I come to the question asked many times by the right reverend Prelate about the two-child limit. The last time I answered it, I got told off for being a little discourteous, so let me be as polite as I can. Nothing has changed since I answered the question last time and there is nothing else I can say that will help him.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and my noble friend Lord Sandhurst mentioned childcare. This will be critical to get women in work, back to work and into better jobs. I had the pleasure of talking to people from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Denmark, and we formed what you could call an unholy alliance. We will exchange information about what happens in our countries and see whether we can learn from each other to make improvements. Childcare is critical, because this issue is stopping women taking more hours and progressing, and we should redouble our efforts to find solutions to make that better.

The right reverend Prelate asked about the official development assistance budget for women and girls. The Foreign Secretary has been clear that we intend to restore funding to women and girls and to humanitarian programmes. Our spending review 2021 highlighted that we will increase aid funding for our highest priorities. We are bound by the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014 to ensure that gender equality remains at the heart of the UK’s work on international development and humanitarian crises.

In November, the Foreign Secretary announced that she would restore ODA funding for women and girls to pre-cut levels. The baseline year and timing of restoration is under discussion as part of the Foreign Office’s business planning process. So it will be done, but I cannot say when. That is one that I will not let go until he gets the answer he needs.

To mark International Women’s Day, the UK was proud to launch new funding for women’s rights organisations and civil society actors, and there is a £220 million pot of humanitarian aid, to which we are making our largest ever aid match. It will contribute to the Disasters Emergency Committee Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal, matching the first £25 million donated, so it is not insignificant.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson asked about the new convention to hold perpetrators of sexual violence to account. As part of the network of liberty, the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative remains a key focus for the UK Government, and the Foreign Secretary has made tackling sexual violence in conflict one of her top priorities. In November 2021, the Foreign Secretary announced her intention to work towards a new convention on sexual violence in conflict, and it is an opportunity to strengthen the international response to prevent such atrocities, support survivors and hold perpetrators to account.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson and others asked about Afghanistan and what is going on there. I will write on that point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, talked about a rollback of rights. The UK is recognised as a world leader in defending and promoting women and girls’ rights. We have a reputation for addressing often neglected or difficult issues on the global stage, such as sex education and relationships, access to safe abortion, female genital mutilation, child marriage and gender-based violence. In negotiations at the UN and in other multilateral fora, the UK stands firm against organised attempts to undermine women and girls’ rights, including a big discussion at this year’s Commission on the Status of Women.

I also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, that I would be very pleased to learn about the VSO, so if she would like to jack up a meeting, I will be there. I was listening to a very powerful story from a Minister from Chad about how their water has completely run out, so they cannot grow food or look after themselves. It was heart-rending.

On engaging with women’s organisations, I have held a series of round tables with women across England to discuss the impact of Covid-19. I also hosted a round table at the UN with civil society organisations. If there is an organisation noble Lords think I should speak to, please let me know and I will endeavour to meet it.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, mentioned Kashmir. We recognise that there are many human rights concerns in Indian-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. We encourage all states to ensure domestic law is in line with international standards. The British high commission in New Delhi and our network of deputy high commissioners work closely with Indian civil society and non-governmental organisations to promote gender equality and tackle gender-based violence. The noble Lord asked me to write, so I will do so afterwards. Time is not on my side today, that is for sure.

My noble friend Lord Farmer made a really good point about somebody—I cannot say her name, so I will not embarrass myself. She is a sign and we should make sure that we give our support in that way. My noble friend also spoke about sport. It is something that everyone in the country should feel able to take part in. It is for sporting bodies to set the guidelines about trans people in sporting competitions.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy—I nearly called her a noble friend, as that is what often comes out; we are friends—talked about violence against women, women not being able to walk down the street for fear of what might happen and the terrible verbal and physical abuse women experience. I will take back the point she made about what is going on in Scotland. I am advised that we will be publishing a new hate crime strategy in due course, which will take the Law Commission’s recommendations into account. Let us be under no illusion: it is serious stuff and needs to be dealt with.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who I agree is an inspiration on international issues, asked about support for Burma. Myanmar is a focus country for the UK National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, as well as the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative. The UK has sought to integrate support for GBV survivors across its humanitarian and development programme and has provided flexible funding to women and LGBT-led organisations. The UK is also supporting the UN LIFT Fund to reduce the risk of trafficking and support survivors. The term “deaf ears” was mentioned, so we will turn the volume up on that and do our best.

My noble friend Lord Sandhurst and the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy and Lady Thornton, raised the issue of sexual harassment. It is just not on: every woman should be able to live without fear of harassment or violence in the workplace as much as anywhere else. As the debate about the future of the workplace proceeds, the Government are committed to making sure that people feel safe and supported to thrive.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, made a very important point about freedom of speech. I fully support him, and I know that I can count on all noble Lords to be respectful of each other’s views. If we do not show respect, we will not get the debate that we need. We might not agree with each other on certain things, but we have to have an open and honest debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, was delighted that he was working with Rotary International and Rotary in this country. It is a great organisation, and sometimes the things it does do not get the credit they deserve, so perhaps he will go back and thank them from me for what they are doing with his efforts to make money for this important appeal.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, raised the issue of South Sudan. On Sudan, Her Majesty’s Government are committed to continuing to support sexual and reproductive health rights for 2022 and 2023, and our female genital mutilation funding will continue until next year. On South Sudan, as part of our humanitarian assistance and resilience-building, we have a programme called HARISS. We fund a six-year, £25 million UK-funded programme. International medical corporations work with communities and local authorities to raise awareness of gender-based violence to improve safety for women in their communities, and to provide confidential and survivor-centred case management and psycho-social support.

I am out of time, and I am feeling that I have failed noble Lords miserably in answering their questions, but I have the answers, so, as I said, I will write to noble Lords and make sure that all their questions are answered—so my officials will have homework to do. They will not be passing me notes but writing letters. If I may bring the debate to a conclusion, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I stand ready to do my bit as much as I am able to on this particular issue and, especially, to stand up for women. With that, I beg to move.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 4.58 pm.