Global Gender Equality

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Monday 17th June 2019

(5 years ago)

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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather (CB)
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My Lords, I was not at the conference; I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, for the good, clear picture she has given of what went on there and I thank her for that. I was also going to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, on putting his name down to speak, but sadly he has scratched. It is absolutely right that men should participate in this issue. Women cannot do this by themselves; it is not possible. Society is made up of men and women and we need both to work towards a more equal society; otherwise, we will for ever be saying, “We wish, we wish”.

There are countries where women play no part in the economy or in society as a whole. We sit here in this wonderful Chamber with wonderful people and forget how terrible women’s lives can be. I speak particularly about India, which is my country of origin. Women in India are mostly treated as worthless—not even whole, maybe half—human beings. When convenient, they can be discarded; when it suits someone, they can be burned to death. Anything can be done to women in India. Rapes are so commonplace, especially in the north of the country. It is amazing how many women get raped in north India; Delhi is very bad. Of course they can go to the police, but the person has to be found. That requires a real commitment to doing something, and there is no such commitment. Ultimately, we have to accept that there is no commitment by countries such as India to look after women.

The present Prime Minister decided in his previous term that women should have proper toilets. He made a rule that a lot of toilets should be built—not in schools, of course, which was difficult for girls, but apart from that a lot of toilets were to be built in villages and so on. I came back from India in February and what did I hear? A lot of these toilets do not have water; a lot of the materials used were discarded materials, broken toilets and other bits and pieces that made it look as though the job had been done. This is very common in India: contractors who are given a contract will do a job in such a way that most of the money goes into their pockets and nothing really improves. Unless somebody makes sure that the work is done properly to provide them, women will not have toilets; it will be just words. If they cannot use them, they do not have them. It is very upsetting to me to notice how many things that are supposed to be done are in fact not. The constitution of India gives equality to women but in reality they have never had it, and gives equality to people of all castes but they have never had it either, and it looks very unlikely that that will happen in most of our lifetimes; I have very little left, but there are quite a few people here with longer lifetimes left. What is the point of laws if they are not enforced or a constitution if it is not followed?

How do you change the life of a poor woman in India? My personal view is that there is only one way and that is by giving her access to paid work, even a small amount—a small amount of pay, that is; the work may be whatever. If she earns even a little bit of money, that changes her position in the household. Please do not forget that it is not only society that does not value her; her family do not value her either. She is the one who has to do all the work and provide for other people in the family, not to mention the husband, who probably gets drunk every Friday—Saturday, sorry; we do not have a Friday holiday—and beats her up. Most women in the big metropolises, not so much in Delhi but particularly in Mumbai, who are not educated but are quite intelligent are working in the informal sector. They cook and clean as well as doing a small amount of such things as nail polishing and massage, and they earn money. But what happens to that money is that the husbands take it away from them, and a lot of the men stop working when their wives start earning.

The other side of the coin is that there are many families in which, if a woman earns something, her position changes in the household and she becomes a person instead of being just a body in the house. To my way of thinking, our Government should focus a bit more on small-scale co-operatives or organisations that provide small-scale work for women. If you do that, you change those women as well as other people’s view of them. The most important issue is how people view women in a country such as India; they are not viewed as capable, or as able to do things or be someone. If they start earning money, that changes everyone’s minds. We all know that. Many of your Lordships have probably been to projects and seen how the women change once they are earning money.

However, that is not happening because the big companies and corporations do not employ women. Even if the job is to run a cafeteria or do the cleaning in the office, it will be men doing it. Everything is done by the men, not the women, and I do not know how we can change that. Perhaps we could ask our Government to focus more on bringing about the capacity for women to earn something, because that would change their lives and those of their families. They say that men spend only 35% of their wages on their families. Imagine how much they spend on themselves.

There are issues that need to be looked at. Unless men join in this battle, change will not happen. Village councils have quotas for the number of women. Some of those councils have women presidents or chairmen. Who are they? They are probably the mothers of the worst thugs in the area or the wives of the richest men. We need the women to do whatever they are going to do because they can do it. We do not need women to be put forward by their menfolk, which is quite common in a country such as India. If you go further north to a part of India called Haryana, which is the richest state and where earnings and income are very high, that is the worst for women. On a Channel 4 programme, I saw that a girl and a boy had been hanged in the house by their parents, because they married without their consent. It is very depressing to hear that these things are happening.

My last point relates to the protection of women in conflict situations. Nobody protects women in conflict situations and now the United States has introduced a strong ban on any kind of abortion. Even if a woman is raped 10 times in a conflict situation and becomes pregnant, she is not allowed to have an abortion. If she does, the organisation which carries out that abortion will not get any US aid. I once wrote a letter to the ambassador, saying, “What if it was somebody you knew? What if it was somebody from your family?”. All women are women. They should be treated as if they are members of a man’s family, but they are not—perhaps because these men do not even treat their own families well. It is very worrying that the United States has introduced such a strong ban on abortions, even in conflict situations.

There are a lot of battles to be fought. I do not know whether they will be fought, or whether they will be won. We all keep trying in our own way. I have set up a registered charity called Women Matter, which focuses on getting women into paid work. We all try, in our own way, to do whatever we can. I think all noble Lords here would agree with that, but it is a big job.

International Women’s Day

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Thursday 7th March 2019

(5 years, 3 months ago)

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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather (CB)
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My Lords, I have just come back from my annual visit to India. I have been going to India for many years, just to see what has changed—what has got better, what has got worse. I was very distressed this time. Things have not got better, and they do not seem to be getting better, particularly in relation to women. I now feel very strongly that I do not want to go back again, because things are so bad. Seeing how difficult women’s lives were was personally hurtful to me.

India has the largest number of poor people in the world, and noble Lords can imagine who are the poorest of the poor: it is always the women. It is said that men spend 37% of their earnings on their families, and the rest they need to enjoy themselves. As noble Lords can imagine, earning more does not help much; men still give their families only what they wish to give them.

India is a country of Indias. We must not think of it as one large, cohesive country, because it is not. Each state has its own culture, food and dress—some of us can even tell which state a person is from. Having said that, the north is much worse for women than the south. In the south, they still have some respect for women and do not do the sort of things that are done to women in the north. Mumbai is much better for women than Delhi. Delhi is pretty bad; there are a lot of rapes and attacks on women, and very few people are caught because, as we all know, it is never considered the top priority. This sort of thing is very distressing.

Modi, the present Prime Minister who will be facing an election soon, said that he would work on making women’s lives better. He has not done very much. He reduced the abortion of girl babies in his state of Gujarat by quite a bit, but it is still happening in the northern provinces. It is rife. In Haryana, there are 12% more boys than girls. What some do there is even more horrible: they buy a girl—Nepali or Bangladeshi or something—and when one man has had a baby with her he passes her on to another man to have a baby. Sometimes when you think about women’s lives, things are so bad that you cannot actually stay sane.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, said that we are very fortunate to live in this country. We should realise that. I hope all the women who live here know that, because they complain all the time; I call it the British disease—moan, moan, moan all the time, whether it is about the weather or whatever else. Yes, we are better off here; there is no question about that. In that poor country, there has just been the wedding of a very rich man’s daughter. The wedding cards cost 100,000 rupees, which could have fed several families for a whole year. This man spent so much money on his daughter’s wedding, and to me it is an obscenity. How could he do that? In our culture, when you have a wedding, you go and feed the poor at the same time—that is what you do. He did not feed a single person. All these things together have put me off going back.

There is another issue in Haryana. If a girl and boy marry without parental permission, the parents’ agents find them in one of the big cities and kill them. It is just so bad. I have set up a charity, which is not showing any success, called Women Matter. By visiting a lot of projects, I have discovered that if a woman earns even a small amount of money, she changes: she changes; her family changes; her status changes; everything changes. And it is very quick—it does not take years, but weeks. Suddenly she is somebody, because now she can bring in money. The whole idea is to try to get companies to employ poor women—not the educated ones—and give them a little training if necessary. If women are very hungry, they train very quickly. That is what I am trying to do, at the moment a little unsuccessfully.

On Muslim girls and boys, I want to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, that I used to teach immigrant women, and there is no question but that the girls learn more quickly and assiduously. But those are the girls born here, or who are at least very young when they come here; the ones who come as wives have a different problem. Boys do not do anything, because they are little princes—why should they bother? Why the men are so much more important than the women, always and everywhere, is another issue.

I will say one last word about faith or religion. Religions have not supported women. I do not know how your Lordships feel about it—I am looking at the clock and am finishing—but they have not supported women. If they had supported women, it would have been a lot better for us.

International Widows Day

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Thursday 28th June 2018

(5 years, 12 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather (CB)
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My Lords, I became a widow very recently. The only thing I have suffered from is a bit of loneliness, which is something all widows go through. It is not a big deal, actually, because I have your Lordships’ House and no complaints. Many widows, however, who have no access to lots of other things can suffer greatly from loneliness, especially in this country where there are no family links as there are in other communities. I have known widows who have nobody—nobody ever comes to see them. That is the important issue for the developed countries. Becoming a widow does not mean that you do not have enough to live on or are on the street, but it can mean that often you do not have people to look after you for your own sake. That is important, and it is important to focus on finding family links.

I will, however, just go through some rather more horrible things that happen in other places. In India, for example, a long time ago—actually not so long ago: in the 18th and 19th centuries—they used to burn the widow on the husband’s funeral pyre. Someone called Raja Ram Mohan Roy stopped that. He made the British Government stop the burning of widows. Another extremely important thing that he did for India—I am sad that he is not better known—was that he made sure that English remained a language in India. We should remember how important that has been for India. He was a great man. He has a little memorial in Bristol because he died there and at that time there was no cremation—the burning of bodies was not allowed, so he has a little memorial in the cemetery in Bristol.

Other horrible things of this kind are still going on, to a lesser extent. One of the most horrible is child widows. A girl is betrothed to a boy when they are seven, eight or nine years old. If the boy dies, she is left a widow and cannot marry again. How ridiculous and stupid that is. When I was young, there were lots of ladies who were child widows. They either worked in people’s homes or joined a religious community and spent their lives like that. When I remember them, I think, “What kind of life did they get?”. These things are still happening—not much, but there are still child widows, which is utterly horrible.

The main problem in India, as my noble friend Lord Loomba has said many times, is that a woman has no status. Once she becomes a widow, she becomes a non-person. She is not a human, she is something which has no position in society. If you are rich, it does not matter, but even the rich treat their widows very badly. If you are poor, you are sent to Varanasi, for example, to beg. You sit on the roadside and beg. You have no opportunity to do anything else. Some are taken into temples where they pray and sing at the right moment and get food for doing so. This is no way to treat any woman.

In many places in Africa, when the husband dies, if the woman has something in the house—objects, clothing or anything that can be used by others—the man’s family comes and takes everything. They will empty her house. I know this for a fact because I know women who have gone through it. Nothing is left. They do not have anything they can sell to live off for even a few days. These things are going on around us, and I believe that they will just keep going on. I do not know how you stop the things that people do to each other. We do horrible things, and one of those is what we do to widows.

Before my mother became a widow, my father had very bad dementia and was not in good health. She wanted to have a ritual prayer—I do not know how to translate it into English—for his longevity. She disliked him intensely: she had never liked him. My brother said, “What are you saying? The man is in no state to go on living. He is not enjoying life. He has nothing to live for, but you want to increase his life. Nothing doing”. He stopped her, but she was all ready to carry out a big ritual to keep him living. She was of course very upset when she became a widow, despite the fact that she did not care for her husband at all. She broke her glass bangles, as they do. The saddest thing is that even a woman who should be thinking, “My God, I am free now”—could not do that. I know that my mother-in-law felt that way, but then she was well off and never suffered as a widow because her children were good to her.

I will stop because I have to stop.

Immigration: Hostile Environment

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Thursday 14th June 2018

(6 years ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather (CB)
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My Lords, this is a timely debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for tabling it. It is time that we looked at this issue from all our different points of view, so this is a good opportunity for us to point the finger where it should be pointed.

Before I came to your Lordships’ House, I was involved in race relations as a member of the Commission for Racial Equality, as was the noble Lord, Lord Morris. Why was I involved in race relations? It was because at the time you felt that you had to be involved. If you were not a white person, things were not that good, so you wanted to be involved. If you could do something, you felt that you should do it.

The whole issue of the “Empire Windrush” is interesting. Everyone who was involved, even if we had no connection with the “Empire Windrush”, knew that it was an iconic event in race relations when the ship arrived. Films were made about it and it was on the news. Everyone knew about it, regardless of whether we were old enough to understand or whether we had any connections with it.

The Home Office has a real problem. It does not know anything about historical immigration events. Immigration has gone through different phases and people are here for different reasons. Home Office staff who have to deal with these issues should have at least an inkling of what has gone before, but they do not seem to. If they did not know about the “Empire Windrush” then they did not know about Southall, where two British Army officers went to India and recruited from the men who had served with them in the war. So, the Southall community started because they brought Sikhs back with them. Immigration did not just happen; a lot of things led to different people coming to different areas.

Initially, there were three groupings for Indians: A, B and C. Group C was for totally unqualified people. Callaghan said that he would drop group C, but he gave people between a year and two years beforehand so an awful lot of category C people, who were not qualified in any way, came here. At the time, even the Indian Government said, “If you let in all these people in one go, you will have problems because you have to find them work and housing and look after them. You shouldn’t do it”. That is very interesting to note but I know that that is what happened. A lot of people coming at once was probably not the best idea.

There was also a feeling that once the first generation was here and the second generation went to British schools, there would be no problem; they would all adapt and become British. This does not just happen. How did the British do in other parts of the world? They never learned even the rudiments of the languages of the countries that they were in. It is amazing that the Government thought that everything would change in one generation. As your Lordships know, it did not and it still has not. A lot of things were not thought through, such as English. There was no compulsion to learn the English language but there should have been. Language is the beginning of everything. If you cannot speak or understand, you are deaf and dumb. You do not know what is going on around you, which is extremely bad.

I was elected as a councillor in Windsor and Maidenhead in 1976; I was the first minority woman councillor. Of course, everybody used to come to me with their problems. I used to go to people’s houses. They had put their brown envelopes on the mantelpiece. They had not opened them because they could not read; they could not understand what was said. At first, I used to ask permission but then I stopped; I just went to the mantelpiece, opened the envelopes and told them what the letters said. They were all sorts of communications, mainly from the Government or institutions. These people did not know what the letters said or what they should be doing. That is a pretty bad way to treat immigrants. They did not know anything, so they did not do the things they needed to know about, such as look after their health, or know what sort of food to eat. There are still problems there.

We have a lot of illegal immigrants. When there is a desire to stop illegal immigrants or find them, how do legal and settled immigrants respond? It is an interesting question. They respond in two ways. Of course, they feel unsettled, especially if they have any doubts about their own position, but they also want the illegal immigrants to be found because they feel that illegal immigrants threaten their position. It is not all one-way, where they do not want anybody to find the illegal immigrants; they want them to be found.

This brings us back to the Home Office. Why are there so many illegal immigrants in this country? Is the Home Office not supposed to keep an eye on people who come to this country? It is no good starting to turf them out and so on once they are here. The Home Office should be stopping them from coming here in the first place. It is not functioning to any kind of standard. Everything takes too long. Even English people trying to get a visa do not know when their passport will come back. It is a very serious situation. The Home Office cannot function with all those responsibilities and should not be one huge department like it is. Immigration in particular needs its own department and people who know the history of migration to this country—why people have come, where they have come from and what the situation is.

It is no good saying that we do not want the illegal immigrants—clearly we do not. They should be stopped from coming, rather than being picked out once they are in this country and have merged with the rest of the population. When you start doing that you upset them and other people that they are working with. As has been said clearly, you are bound to worry people. On the other hand, if you do not do anything about illegal immigration you do not reinforce the position of those who are here legally.

As a councillor I used to get a lot of people coming to me with their problems—little problems and so on. My MP at the time was Dr Alan Glyn. He was brought up in the traditional English way and he thought that documents mattered. If you are Indian or Pakistani you do not need to spend more than £2 or £3 to get any kind of document with as many seals as you want on it. You go to the marketplace and find a man who does that. Dr Glyn would say, “But they have documents”. That is not the point. We have to realise that not everybody functions like the British do. People from other countries have other issues to worry and think about. They want to come here—why would they not?—so they do what they can to find a way to come here.

There is a huge number of illegal immigrants in this country. I do not think that there is any way now either to find them or to send them back without causing a lot of problems for people who live, have families and have made their home here. It is not the way forward, which is for the Home Office to function properly, systematically and without such great periods of time elapsing. Unless we can get the Home Office to function properly nothing can change. If the Home Office functions properly maybe not many more illegal immigrants will come.

Trying to pick out illegal immigrants in the population is not only very difficult but probably impossible. We need an efficient Home Office that can try to stop illegal immigrants coming to this country. We need Home Office staff to know the history of migration to this country. For them not to know what the “Empire Windrush” was is incredible, because it was one of the most iconic incidents. All the people who came on the “Empire Windrush” had worked here in the Air Force during the war. They went back to Jamaica, they did not like it too much and they came back. They were people who had served here during the war. There was no way that there should have been any problem later on with that generation or their descendants. If anything is to be done it should be done to the Home Office.

Equality and Human Rights Commission: Disability Commissioner

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Thursday 10th May 2018

(6 years, 1 month ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for introducing the debate.

I have no disability, as far as I know, but I was married to someone who was very disabled. He was diagnosed in 1983 with MS and died last year at the age of 80. We were together with his disability for 34 years. I therefore learned a great deal about disability because you cannot avoid it. He was lucky to live to 80 because I am told that many people with MS do not live that long. I think he did so because he kept working and, as has been said, it is important to be useful and doing something. That is what he used to say: “I feel useful. I am doing something”. He sat as a part-time judge, mainly in Reading, and he worked until retirement age. The court in Reading then asked him to stay on for two more years and he was proud of that. It is a great comfort to someone who has to struggle most of the time to do the work they are doing. I am happy to say that his brain never deteriorated. On the day he died, he was reading a book I had given him for his birthday: a book of poems by Rupert Brooke. Very important factors were that we could talk to each other and have something to share.

I put it to the Committee that disabled people are not treated well, which is very sad. When you go out, a lot of restaurants and shops are very pleased to help you as much as they can, but not everyone is. In many places there is no way for a disabled person to get in. It might seem that that does not matter, but it is the law that there should be some way for them to get in. If you write to the company that owns the business, you will not hear from them. Those things are very important because, if you are disabled, going out to do something is a big event. You cannot just say, “I’m going out for a drink” or “I’m going out for dinner”. It is not like that. Everything must be planned down to the very last detail, including transport.

I think we do need a commissioner. To some extent, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, that it should be a representative person. It is not, in my opinion, necessary for a race commissioner to be of a certain race, because there are so many races. But a disability commissioner should be a person with a disability.

Disability is so varied, and no two disabled people have the same issues or problems. A lot of people do not realise that. They think that if you are in a wheelchair, that is your disability. But no, you may be very stupid and unable to work at all or you may be very bright and work all the time: you cannot tell unless you talk to the person, get to know them and find out what is wrong with them. Usually, people do not even make the attempt to find out what a person can offer to the world.

We all know “Does He Take Sugar?”, and we have all experienced that. Even later in my husband’s life, people would ask me whether he needed a drink. I said, “Ask him, I don’t know”, or I would ask him. You have to constantly try to guard against the mistreatment of disabled people.

There has to be someone with proper responsibility for disability because it is complex and varied. Unless somebody really knows about it, they cannot do anything to help. I have learned a lot this afternoon. Everyone who has spoken has taught me something. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, and the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser—it is good to know what is going on. When I first joined the Commission for Racial Equality, it had no connection at all with the women’s commission. I suggested that we must at least meet that commission. It was daft that we were all dealing with equality issues but did not know each other. I was very moved by what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and I thank her for that.

My time has finished. I thank also my noble friend Lady Deech, who taught me something. I am not entirely in agreement with what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, but I thank him.

International Women’s Day: Progress on Global Gender Equality

Baroness Flather Excerpts
Thursday 8th March 2018

(6 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather (CB)
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My Lords, I was here for the Finance (No.2) Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, was saying how few people had taken part in the Second Reading, so one noble Lord who was still there said, “Well, it’s because the next debate is so important. But if this debate is so important, why are so few men taking part? Nothing will change in the world unless the men commit themselves also to improving women’s lot. It cannot be done by women alone and I am sure that all the women here know that perfectly well. Until half the people speaking in this debate are men, I will feel quite disappointed. I had been hoping for this all along. I have been in your Lordships’ House since 1990 and it has not happened yet. It is amazing to think that we can do this alone.

Men have really been in the lead since time immemorial: men have been this, men have been that, while women have not. We used to think the cavemen were ahead of the women, but now they have found that cavewomen were very strong indeed. Maybe that will give us an important point to work towards. As has already been said, this whole concept of women today is global and not just British. I thank the Minister as well that it is global. There are so many different and unbelievable things happening in our world that sitting in this Chamber, we cannot really get our heads around it, but we ought to try if we can.

First, I want to remind ourselves of what is happening to some of the women in this country. We already know that a sharia marriage is not recognised by British law. What does that mean for a woman who has a sharia marriage? She has no rights whatever. Is that the right thing? She cannot ask for anything from her husband. He can put her out on the street and that is it. He can sometimes even put the children out on the street. When people say to him, “Why don’t you look after your family?”, he will say, “The Government will look after them”. There are two negative points to this: first, the woman has no rights and, secondly, the Government have to pay to look after that woman and have no claims against the husband. The sooner this is looked at and changed, the better. It is quite wrong for people to come to live in this country and to follow rules which are completely the opposite of what we believe in. It is not right and will never become right. We have to look at these things and say they are not acceptable.

It is nothing to do with religion: sharia is not a religious law, but a law which has been created by the priests—the maulvis. It changes from country to country, and sometimes it changes from one group of three presiding priests to the next three presiding priests.

So please make an effort to get this put right. It is appalling. The statistics tell us that more than 60% of women under 40 could be in unregistered sharia marriages. The families do not like registration. Why should they? Is it not much better for them if they do not have to do anything for their wives? This bothers and upsets me. A sharia review said clearly that these marriages should be registered. What has been done as a result of the Casey report? We know these things are not right, but we just go on doing them. We should know much better.

In many countries there are laws to protect women—in India, for example, there are a lot. If you were to ask a lawyer, they would tell you, “Oh, we have this, we have that”. Ask them how much is enforced. Nothing is enforced, or what is enforced is a minute fraction. It is no use having a law that is not enforced. It is far better to have fewer laws that are enforced. There are a lot of lawyers here today, so I am sure they will agree with me.

In Africa and India put together there are 1 billion women, and they do more work than the men in these areas—it is said that women do more than three-quarters of the work. When I was in Jamaica I saw the women doing far more work than the men. I begged them to have a one-day strike and to do nothing except look after the very sick and the children.

Women have worked very hard in every age and at every stage. They did not have, for example, the support of religion. You might say that religion could have supported women. Some people, such as the Sikhs, say, “Oh, but we believe in equality”. Yes, their religion believes in equality, but it does not exist in fact. So we have also had the burden of religion saying to women, “your place is here”—Kirche, Küche, Kinder—“not in public life”.

I felt quite close to the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, when she said that she did not like being called “the first and the only one”. All my life I have been called “the first and the only one” because that is how my life started. When I came to this House in 1990, I was “the only one”. There were very few women here then as well. I was “the first” to be the Mayor of Windsor. Things have been happening but I think we need to be in these positions because it encourages others to realise that if this woman can do it, they can do it as well. Always be proud of what you have done and what you are able to show other people that you can do.

I would like to talk about women’s attitudes towards other women. It is improving, but it has been quite bad. Women have not been willing to support other women. We have to learn to support each other all the time in everything. I hope this will happen in due course because younger women are much more aware of it.

Lastly, how do we change the attitude of mothers towards their sons and daughters? We have done a lot of work in this country and attitudes have changed, but there is a whole, vast world still where the son is the prince—not the daughter.

Registration of Marriage Bill [HL]

Baroness Flather Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Friday 26th January 2018

(6 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Registration of Marriage Bill [HL] 2017-19 View all Registration of Marriage Bill [HL] 2017-19 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather (CB)
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My Lords, this is a very interesting occasion, because I cannot criticise anything. I would have liked to say something critical, but the right reverend Prelate’s Bill is so sensible and necessary that there is nothing to say in criticism—I am sure that some minor improvements may be made if it goes to Committee, but the Bill is necessary.

Such a long time ago, when the mother’s name was left out, how was one to know whose child it was? The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, has already referred to that in a sideways way. The only person who knows whether they are a parent of that child is the mother, not the father, yet the mother is left out.

I have no criticism to make, but I want to bring up something else, because one rarely gets an occasion when one can bring up something which I think is pretty serious. I am sure that noble Lords know that many marriages in this country have no registration. All Muslim sharia marriages have no registration. This is not right. It means that women have no rights under such marriages; they have no status, and they are thrown out by their husbands without anything. If you then say to the men, “Why don’t you do something about looking after your ex-wife and children?”. They say, “Why? The state will do that. Why should we do it?”. In every respect, it is wrong that anybody who comes to live in this country should not have a marriage registered properly. The sooner the Government pay attention to that, the better it will be for all those Muslim women who have no rights and for the state which has to look after the families of men who get away without doing anything. I know that this issue is not part of the Bill, but it is an occasion to raise it. We have talked about humanist marriages and I would like to talk about sharia marriages. Sharia is not proper law. It changes from country to country, and it almost changes from imam to imam making judgments. We have to be extremely careful, and some thought should be given to this matter.

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Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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What the noble Baroness says is quite helpful, and I am very happy to discuss this matter further. The point I am making today is that this is a very narrowly drawn Bill, and to expand on it in any way would risk the Bill in its passage through your Lordships’ House. I am simply pleading with noble Lords to stick to the content of the Bill. We can certainly have discussions about humanist marriages outside the Chamber, but this is the plea I am making. I am not denigrating in any way what noble Lords have said, but the minute we start adding to or amending Bills like this, the more we are in danger of them not securing their way through.

The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, asked to see draft regulations before Committee. It is our aim to make a draft of the affirmative regulations available before Committee. The noble Baroness also asked for clarification on the definition of parent. The regulations will prescribe who can be included under the headings for both sets of parents of the couple in the marriage entry. This will enable us to keep pace with societal developments as well as family composition changes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked if there was an intention to reform marriage law. This Bill simply modernises marriage registration, as I have said, and facilitates changes to the register entry to allow the inclusion of both parents’ names. This Bill is not at all intended to include wider marriage reform.

My noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton asked a very valid question about what is put in the entry if you do not know who your parents, particularly your father, might be. There will be provision for both parents to be included in the marriage entry, and the option to leave this blank, as is the case now, I understand.

My noble friend Lady Seccombe asked for assurances that the cost of the marriage certificate will not be raised, as she is concerned that any additional costs and processes will discourage people from marrying. Fees for marriage certificates are set at a cost-recovery basis, using HM Treasury guidance, and are reviewed annually. The provisions of the Bill would not directly lead to an increase in costs.

The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, was, I think, so perfectly content with the Bill that she just thought she would talk about sharia marriages. But I think she knows that the scope of the Bill is narrowly about marriage registration.

Baroness Flather Portrait Baroness Flather
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I just want to say, I do not expect that to be in this Bill—and I have no intention of putting it into this Bill—but I wanted to draw attention to this matter. I would be very grateful if the Minister would allow me to come to talk to her.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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My Lords, anyone can come to talk to me about any issue pertaining to the Home Office—I give that assurance on the Floor of the House. I know what the noble Baroness’s intentions are.

My noble friend Lady Seccombe asked for assurances on security, which is a high priority, as she says. The proposed changes will increase the security of marriage records, which is very important. Currently, the requirement for open marriage-register books and for blank certificates to be held in churches and other religious buildings means they can be a target of theft, as we have heard. The solution in this Bill should minimise that public protection risk, as marriage registers are currently held in some 30,000 different religious buildings. The certificates themselves will still be printed on paper with secure features, in the same way as now.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asked for the timetable for the changes to be confirmed. Subject to the successful passage of the Bill, implementation will involve, clearly among other things, affirmative regulations being made, system changes and training and guidance for local registration services and those who solemnise marriages. We will aim to implement these reforms as soon as possible following Royal Assent.

We have had an excellent debate today and I know that noble Lords recognise the importance of taking forward these changes, which will modernise the process of registering marriages.