Oona King

Thursday, 03 March 2011 11:02

Maiden Speech to House of Lords: Gender Equality

Written by  Oona King

13 September 2011

Baroness King of Bow: My Lords, I have often gazed down from the Public Gallery in some wonderment at this golden Chamber, and so it is with much humility, gratitude and a little surprise that I rise from these red Benches to speak. It is customary to thank the staff of the House and I genuinely want to do this, as in all the years that I have worked here they have always assisted me and, more remarkably still, never once arrested me. Long may their indulgence continue.

I would like to mention the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. His is a story of rags to riches. From a poor working class family in the north of England, the noble Lord left school at 14, joined the Royal Marines at 17 and was wounded in the preparations for D-Day. His membership of the Co-operative Party remarkably propelled him to become Prime Minister at the age of 21, pipping Pitt The Younger by three years. He was Prime Minister of the Tyneside Youth Parliament, before being demoted to be MP for Enfield. When I was studying A-level politics, I discovered that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was my mum's cousin. Given that I could not get into Parliament and my class wanted to come and visit, I nagged him to show us around the place, and I have been hanging around ever since.

It is 14 years since I gave a maiden speech in Parliament and, not wishing to sound like a scratched record, I had genuinely hoped to break new ground and move beyond the limited territory of equalities issues. No such luck. Although this debate has been characterised by genuinely enlightened contributions on both sides, I have to be honest and say that we have been having these debates for so long, I sometimes find them claustrophobic, as though I was trapped inside a box. A small box. A small box with a tick on it. But I should not complain. I am great at ticking boxes. I tick loads of them. My dad is black, my mum is Jewish, my grandparents were Scottish, Irish, Hungarian, African-American and native American Indian - there are more ticks on my census form than on my mum's German shepherd dog. I have tick-borne disease, but all these ticks make me think one thing: tick-tock.

At the current rate of progress, it will take 200 years to achieve an equal number of women in this Parliament. Come on, boys and girls, I know we don't go in for revolution, but 200 years? This timeframe is, frankly, lazy. What happened to our work ethic? How long do we have to wait? How many speeches do we have to make? How many clauses do we have to debate? Although the previous Labour Government did what all Labour Governments have done and introduced ground-breaking equalities legislation for women, ethnic minorities, disabled people, gay people, older people, religious groups - basically everyone! - I am still shocked at how much ground is left to break.

Maybe that is because I grew up in a country where the head of state and the Prime Minister were both women and it was an article of faith to me that, in this country, unlike so much of the world, women no longer faced an uphill struggle. The facts presented in this debate prove that I was a misguided young woman. I thought that promoting equality was a matter of us tying up a few loose ends, not actually questioning the whole system. But since I have spent most of my adult life working inside a parliamentary rabbit hole, I realise that we must question the system. I have concluded that Britain is a wonderful country; and I prefer British politics to virtually all others. But having worked within the system all my life, I can say with clear-eyed conviction that our system needs radical repair. Our system is needlessly failing not just women - although they face the brunt of the problems at the moment - but failing children and men as well.

Repair is required in three principal areas:

First, recognise that the equalities debate is for everyone, not just those of us with tick-borne disease. For example, all men in Britain today who desperately want to see their children more than they do, would benefit from greater gender equality at work and around childcare responsibilities. If the average man understood what gender equality meant for him, the average man would be a feminist.

Second, a gender analysis is the most effective way to reduce the harshest inequality of all: the inequality between those who are nurtured from birth, on the one hand, and those who are effectively abandoned, whose lives are thrown away before they reach the age of three.

Third, the most effective way to improve outcomes in our system is to implement an old wives' tale and listen to what our grandmothers said. They said that prevention is better than cure. This was the theme of my wonderfully ill-fated London mayoral campaign last year, the failure of which, thankfully, allowed me to wash up on these noble red Benches. I am ashamed to say that, at the time when I was harping on about early intervention, I had not read what I think is one of the most important contributions that any two back-bench MPs have ever made. They are men, but never mind, I’ll give them credit. Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith's report on early intervention is genuinely groundbreaking and I commend it to everyone.

Given the time limitations, I have discarded half my speech, but I want to tell your Lordships one last anecdote about a social worker that I heard of during the mayoral campaign last summer. The social worker was talking about Baby P, the 17-month-old boy whose 50 injuries included a broken back, broken ribs, his teeth kicked out, the tips of his fingers sliced off, his nails ripped out and so forth. The social worker noted that our entire country was united in an outpouring of grief and rage at the suffering and death of that poor soul. How different their responses would be, said the social worker, had Baby P survived. If Baby P had survived his horrific childhood of constant abuse, all the research indicates that, as an adult, unless he received intensive and expensive help, he would almost certainly have become a sex abuser, wife beater or paedophile. The whole country would have been united in an outpouring of rage against this monster and demand that he be hanged by the neck. We need to reflect on the madness inherent not just in this system's responses but in society's responses to the ills around us.

I conclude by mentioning the fantastic EQUALS campaign, spearheaded by Annie Lennox (and why is it that we politicians have to rely on pop stars so often?). That campaign pointed out that there is no doubt that women's rights have come a long way since 1911, but women still only hold 19 per cent of the world's parliamentary seats, only 9% of the world's leaders are women, women perform 66% of the world's work, produce over 50% of the world's food, and yet only earn 10% of the world's income, and own less than 1% of the world's property.

This House is renowned as a place of reflection. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for securing this debate, and on the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, I hope that we can stop ticking boxes, start to think outside the box, and finally secure gender equality for all.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to be the first of your noble Lordships to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady King, very warmly on her superb, engaging, entertaining, splendid maiden speech. Knowing a little about her illustrious career before joining your Lordships' House, I knew that we could expect a speech reflecting the passionate commitment of the noble Baroness to fundamental values and passionate advocacy for justice, equality, poverty reduction and human rights. These passions were reflected, inter alia, in her membership of the International Development Select Committee in another place from 1997 to 2001 and her membership of many aid and advocacy organisations, including Oxfam, Amnesty International and UNICEF.

It is said that it was at Haverstock comprehensive school that Oona King first showed political ambition, telling her careers teacher that she wanted to become Prime Minister. Apparently, she was advised to become a librarian instead. I am sure we are all delighted that she stuck to her guns and pursued a political career. Her maiden speech in another place [the House of Commons] was acclaimed as "a truly first-class maiden speech".-[Official Report, Commons, 1/7/97; col. 173.]

I am sure the House will agree that the noble Baroness has achieved a repeat performance, treating us to another truly first-class maiden speech here today. We greatly look forward to benefiting from her passion, commitment and experience on many further occasions.

Hansard link: Maiden speech (column 714)

Read 396 times Last modified on Monday, 15 October 2012 10:50
More in this category: Welfare Reform Bill »

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter the (*) required information where indicated. HTML code is not allowed.

You are here: House of Lords Speeches Maiden Speech to House of Lords: Gender Equality