Skip to main content

Women and Equalities

Volume 517: debated on Thursday 28 October 2010

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Supporting People Programmes

1. What recent representations she has received on the likely effect on women victims of domestic violence of reductions in funding to Supporting People programmes. (19942)

We have received no such representations. However, we have been meeting a number of organisations that provide support to women who are victims of domestic violence, and most recently my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities met the chief executive of Refuge to discuss exactly that issue. I am pleased to be able to tell the right hon. Lady that following widespread consultation with the voluntary sector, the Government have committed to providing £6.5 billion to the Supporting People programme over the next four years.

That is, of course, a real-terms cut in the supported housing programme. Women’s refuges also get their money through housing benefit and, at present, they are allowed to charge rates above the local housing cap, and therefore access more benefit than the cap would allow. Will that exemption continue, given the decisions that have been taken to impose that housing cap across all areas of the country?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her concern in relation to support for refuges. We will consult on welfare reform proposals more widely, and that issue can certainly be considered. In relation to the support that refuges provide for victims of domestic violence, I am pleased to tell her that this Government have been able to extend until the end of this financial year the pilot period of the sojourner project dealing with victims who have no recourse to public funds. That is another matter on which we are considering longer-term solutions to ensure that refuges can provide support for the women who need their services.

Will the Minister ensure that all domestic violence centres have access under one roof to welfare, housing and the criminal justice system so that the victim can access them at one single point as is the case at the Croydon family justice centre?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the very good model at the family justice centre in Croydon, which is based on an experience that was developed in New York. I was pleased to visit a centre in New York a couple of months ago and see the benefits there. The Croydon model is a very good one, but it will not necessarily fit all areas. In more rural communities, for example, a single point might not be the answer. Some very good work has been done by Cherwell district council on how to ensure that there is inter-agency working in rural areas where a single physical centre is not always the answer.

May I press the Minister on her answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), as there is considerable concern about this issue? The Supporting People budget is being cut by 11% and the ring-fencing is being removed so that refuges and supported housing will have to take their chances among competing areas while local council budgets are being cut by more than 25%. The Minister has not explained what will happen to housing benefit support for those women who are going into refuges and who are badly in need of support and protection. I do not think her answer was sufficient, and I ask her to consider this further and provide the House with some reassurance. She will know that there is great concern that the spending review is already hitting women twice as hard as men. Will she stand up for women who may be affected by domestic violence and will she guarantee that there will be no reduction in help and support for women who badly need it?

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her position. She held the same position before the leadership elections within the Labour party, but I welcome her again now she has been reappointed. I am sure that we will have a number of interesting exchanges on this issue and I hope that we will work co-operatively on many areas of women’s issues and equality, as is right and appropriate.

The right hon. Lady asks about ring-fencing and the Supporting People funding, but the decision to remove that ring-fencing was first taken by the Labour Government because it has not been ring-fenced since 2009. On the question that the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) asked, a White Paper will be produced before the welfare reform Bill. It will be possible for people to make representations on specific issues such as the impact of housing benefit changes on refuges and for those representations to be taken into account.

Human Trafficking

2. What discussions she has had with her EU counterparts on the co-ordination of member states’ action against human trafficking of women. (19943)

Policy responsibility for human trafficking rests with my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration. There have been no ministerial discussions with other EU member states on human trafficking. The UK plays an active role in combating this horrendous crime and will co-ordinate activities with our European partners where it is in the UK’s interests to do so.

Nothing undermines the dignity of women more than human trafficking and this modern-day slavery. Article 10 of the EU directive on trafficking requires all member states to provide necessary medical treatment to trafficking survivors. When will Britain set an example and sign the EU directive?

We have decided not to opt in to the European directive at the moment, but we are keeping a watching brief. When it is implemented, we might well decide to do so, but we are already doing most of the things required by the directive to a good standard and we do not want to be inhibited by introducing laws in this country. Several things that we do already would need transposing into legislation, but we do not need to make legislation to prove to the Commissioners what we are doing already.

May I urge the Minister not to opt in to the EU directive? I know that human trafficking is one of the Prime Minister’s priorities, but before we opt in we must consider whether we can do things better; I urge caution in this matter.

The question is about co-ordination. By which mechanism can the origin, transition and destination countries get together to deal with the problem of human trafficking?

We do that already without legislation. We have been very involved in Europe in terms of trafficking. Human trafficking is a key area under the Stockholm programme, which sets out the EU justice and home affairs priorities. We also helped to shape the draft EU trafficking directive and helped with the first Schengen evaluation on human trafficking. We are working closely with European colleagues. Quite frankly, it is better that we work in the countries of origin, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, so that we stop trafficking at source by working with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, after which we should work at our borders and then in-country.

Custodial Sentences (Women)

3. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the number of women given custodial sentences. (19945)

The Government are committed to diverting women who do not pose a risk to the public from custody, and to tackling women’s offending. I met the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), who has responsibility for prisons and probation, on 28 July to discuss the community options available to the judiciary, and we agreed to work together on the issue. We noted that the women’s prison population has now reached a plateau. We are jointly supporting a holistic approach to diverting women from custody.

The Minister will be aware of the Corston report, which said that women who pose no threat to the public should not go to prison, owing principally to the attendant issues for children and the next generation, yet in the past decade, the number of women going to prison has increased by 100%, which is four times faster than the number of men going to prison. That cannot be right. What will we do to reverse that legacy?

The coalition is committed to diverting women away from crime and tackling women’s offending. We are taking a number of measures on alternatives to custody. There is a £10 million fund for women-only projects that is run by the voluntary sector and that supports community services. The bail accommodation support scheme means that we can support and mentor women on remand outside so that they do not have to go into the prison system. It is important that we move forward on this issue, because as my hon. Friend says, the knock-on consequences of short sentences for women are totally unacceptable and unproductive.

May I urge my hon. Friend to go a little further on the Corston report, which also recommends that we put women in small local centres to tackle the multiple problems that cause them to reoffend, so reducing the number of women in prison? The previous Labour Government said lots of warm words about the report, but did nothing. What will this Government do?

The Government broadly support all the Corston recommendations and have looked very closely at the recommendation to create another special sort of accommodation. However, we are committed to women not going to prison at all. We are looking at approved accommodation in the community where women can have a good balance between surveillance and support. The ambition is not to need the centres recommended in the Corston report, but keeping women out of prison is paramount.

Women and Work Sector Skills Pathway Initiative

4. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the effectiveness of the women and work sector skills pathway initiative. (19946)

That initiative is part of a broad range of action to improve equality in the workplace, an issue on which my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities and I have had a number of discussions with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The forthcoming skills strategy will set out our approach to improving skills for everyone.

Will the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to help women to get jobs in sectors in which they are currently under-represented?

We are taking a number of steps to ensure that we encourage women in areas in which they are not currently as highly represented, such as funding the UK Resource Centre for women in science, engineering and technology. The Government are, of course, committed to an additional 75,000 apprenticeship places by the end of the spending review period, and I am sure that we will do all we can to ensure that women take places in areas where they are not properly represented at the moment.

Gender Pay Gap

In 2009, the gap between the median hourly earnings of men and women working full time was 12.2%. Including men and women working part time raises this figure to 22%. Those estimates are updated on an annual basis and the Office for National Statistics will provide estimates for 2010 in November. The Government are committed to promoting equal pay and taking a range of measures to end discrimination in the workplace.

I recently enjoyed watching the film “Made in Dagenham” and it struck me that it is now 40 years since the Equal Pay Act was enacted. Will the Secretary of State update us on what she plans to do to narrow the pay gap between men and women?

I had the opportunity of meeting four of the women who were campaigners in Dagenham, and they are as feisty today as they were 40 years ago. We need to address several issues when considering the gender pay gap. It is appalling that we still have such a gap 40 years later, but it is not simply about a legislative approach. Extending the right to request flexible working to all, introducing flexible parental leave and encouraging a wider range of choices in career options, especially for girls and young women, will all play their part in ending the gender pay gap.

I represent an area with the widest gender pay gap, where women earn only two thirds as much as men. I am especially concerned about the effects of the comprehensive spending review, including the number of women who will be made unemployed by the decisions taken and the cuts to housing benefit. What will the Government do about the gender income gap, not just the gender pay gap?

The hon. Lady raises the issue of the comprehensive spending review. Of course, we have had to introduce these measures as a result of decisions taken by the last Labour Government, which she supported, which have left this country in a parlous financial condition and meant that we have had to address this significant deficit. As a Government, we have been looking at equality impact assessments of the decisions in the spending review. It is interesting to note that when the Opposition spokeswoman on these matters was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the then Labour Government did precisely zero equality impact assessments. They made no proper assessment of the equality impact of their decisions.

Flexible Parental Leave

The Government are committed to encouraging shared parenting and making the workplace more family friendly. We will launch a consultation in due course on the design of a new system of flexible shared parental leave.

There is a Brussels-inspired proposal to hike maternity pay to full pay for the first 20 weeks at a cost of £2.5 billion, according to the British Chambers of Commerce, which would be unaffordable for the British taxpayer and for small and medium-sized businesses. Given that we already have one of the best maternity rights regimes in Europe, will the Secretary of State tell Brussels where to get off and begin to repatriate employment and social legislation back to this place?

I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment at the outcome of the first reading vote in the European Parliament. The measures that have been put forward are highly regressive and we do not support them. They would cost the UK at least £2.4 billion a year.

It is desirable for fathers to be able to play a much larger role in the lives of their young children. However, the Government also need to take into account and support very small businesses, which may face pressures on their work force if key personnel have flexible time off. What discussions has the Minister had with the business community on the implementation of flexible parental leave?

As my hon. Friend may be aware, one in seven working people now has a caring responsibility and the issue of balancing work and family life is of growing importance. The Government are committed to a strong culture of regulatory restraint so, in looking at the introduction of shared parental leave, we will consult fully with businesses, small, medium and large.