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Women and Equalities

Volume 558: debated on Thursday 14 February 2013

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Working Mothers

We now have more women in work than ever before, using their skills to gain economic independence. To see sustainable economic growth, we need to ensure that working mothers can take advantage of the full range of opportunities available in the workplace. We continue to tackle the barriers that might prevent them from reaching their potential.

The Secretary of State speaks warm words, but in Newcastle alone 1,768 women will be affected by the Government’s mummy tax. Low-paid new mums stand to lose £180 in maternity pay and more than £1,300 in total from the Government’s cuts to benefits and tax credits. We know that life is hard enough for working mums. In too many sectors, too many women do not return to work, and we lose their skills and contribution, so why are the Government making life even harder for them?

I have to challenge the hon. Lady’s assertions. It is clear that the Government are giving women the tools and support to become economically independent. The facts speak loudly. This year, we will have taken more than 1 million out of tax altogether. That is the sort of action we want to see—women coming out of tax, being lifted out of poverty and being given the tools to be economically independent.

What working mothers need from employers most of all is flexibility, but employers find it difficult to be flexible when lots of working mothers are thrown into chaos, through no fault of their own, when schools are closed during snowy weather. As a nation, we are not tackling this problem nearly enough. Will my right hon. Friend hold discussions with the Department for Education to see whether we can nail this problem once and for all?

My hon. Friend makes the important point that, as working parents, we rely on certainty in regard to child care and to schools. The decision on whether a school is open is one for head teachers—they can assess things better on the ground—but his point is well made and I will certainly ensure that it is brought to the attention of my hon. Friends in the Department for Education.

Yesterday, six mothers wrote to The Guardian to object to the Government’s real-terms cuts to maternity pay and other pregnancy and child-related benefits. Having babies costs money, and low-paid mums are set to lose £1,300 during pregnancy and their baby’s first year as a result of the real-terms cut to statutory maternity pay, cuts to other pregnancy support and cuts to tax credits. The real-terms cut to SMP alone equates to the price of 24 nappies a week to a low-paid mum. The Prime Minister said that his Government would be the family-friendliest ever, but does not that promise sound hollow now that they are helping millionaires more than mums?

The hon. Lady has to realise that, in a time of difficult economic circumstances, which is certainly what the coalition Government inherited, we have had to make some tough decisions. The tough decisions that we have made are about helping women into work, and helping them to get the skills they need to ensure that their families are financially independent. She will of course be aware that, in April 2011, the child element of the working tax credit was uprated by £180 above inflation, and that the reforms to the tax system have already set us on the path to taking 1 million women out of tax. Surely she should be supporting those changes.

Judicial Review: Disabled People

2. What recent discussions she has had with her ministerial colleagues on the effects on disabled people of the Government’s recent consultation on judicial review. (143137)

I routinely meet my colleagues in Government to discuss the impact of policies on disabled people. Before Christmas, I met the Lord Chancellor to discuss areas of common interest.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but may I draw her attention to the chronic lack of funding that has led to a crisis in social care that is particularly affecting working-age disabled people? May I also draw her attention to the report “The Other Care Crisis”, produced by five leading disability charities? There has been a colossal 45% increase in applications for judicial reviews of local authority social care policies. Does she think it is acceptable to undermine the judicial review process for disabled people who are simply trying to get the social care that they need?

There is no undermining of the judicial review process. In 1974, 160 applications were made, but last year alone, there were 11,000. Only about one in six of those applications was granted; fewer still were successful. We are ensuring that the right appeals proceed and that the unmeritous ones do not. This is about ensuring the integrity of the judicial review system and the smooth running of the legal process.

A phenomenon that I see in my constituency is that private landlords are saying, “No housing benefit.” The Minister knows that it is illegal to say, “No blacks, no Irish” and so on, but disabled people are more likely to be dependent on housing benefit than other people. Does she believe that what those private landlords are doing is legal or illegal? If it is illegal, will she enable disabled people’s organisations to take cases through judicial review to stop the landlords doing it?

Good local authorities work with good local landlords. As I have said, we will ensure that the correct cases go through. We want to ensure the integrity of the system, and those people who need to take cases to review will be able to do so. We are on the side of disabled people and we will ensure that their views are heard.

Violence against Women and Girls

4. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Education on measures to end violence against women and girls. (143139)

There have been a number of recent discussions involving ministerial colleagues in the Department for Education on issues relating to ending violence against women and girls. These include a round-table with police and crime commissioners and the Local Government Association on local commissioning, and a round-table last month on ending female genital mutilation.

The Minister for Women and Equalities has already welcomed the fact that 1 billion women are rising today, but does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the campaign wants the Government to do a lot more? Will he ensure that he works with the Education Secretary to make the prevention of violence against women and girls an integral part of education policy that is delivered in every school as part of the statutory curriculum, and will Ministers vote yes in today’s important debate?

We welcome the campaign and the opportunity for the House to debate these issues at greater length later today. Schools are, of course, free to teach about issues such as sexual consent within personal, social and health education or in other lessons, and children can benefit enormously from high-quality education that helps them to make safe and informed decisions and choices. The DFE has conducted a review of PSHE and will publish its outcomes later this year.

Will the Minister clarify whether there is a cross-departmental, multi-agency strategy for tackling the horrific practice of honour violence? How effective is this strategy?

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to this abhorrent crime. He uses the commonly received expression, but I urge everybody to stop using it, as there is nothing honourable at all about this form of criminal activity. It is part of the overall approach that the Government are taking to try to combat violence against women and girls. He will know that the Government have ring-fenced nearly £40 million of stable funding up to 2015 for a range of tasks of this type, including for the area he has raised.

It is “One Billion Rising” today, and the Minister’s response to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) was simply not good enough. We have had too many warm words and too much waffle from Ministers on this subject. It is no good saying that schools are free to teach about sexual consent. All schools should be teaching our children and young people not to harm each other and to have respect for themselves. They should be teaching them that sexual violence is not normal. The Department for Education has blocked for three years any movement on legislation to introduce compulsory sex and relationship education with zero tolerance of violence in schools. It has been looking at it for three years and has done nothing. It must act. Will the Minister now support that action and our debate today on introducing compulsory sex and relationship education in schools to protect our children?

I hear my Back Benchers saying, “What did you do?” The idea that this social problem began in May 2010 injects an unnecessarily partisan tone into an area that should be beyond party politics. Of course these matters are taught in schools right across the country. I am pleased that the campaign to reduce teenage relationship abuse, which has been effective and welcomed by people of all political persuasions, is being relaunched today. It will focus on what constitutes controlling and coercive behaviour. I hope it will have a compelling impact on boys in particular, but on teenagers of both sexes when they see that campaign.

I am sure the Minister recognises the importance of cross-border co-operation in tackling organised crime such as the trafficking of women and girls. Will he do everything in his power to ensure that Britain continues to co-operate with our European partners on this important issue?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the need for international co-operation to combat all forms of crime, including the particular form of crime he brings to our attention. The Government are, of course, committed to working with other Governments all around the world to reduce serious and organised crime and its impact on the United Kingdom. That very much applies to other European countries as well.

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities

5. What steps she is taking to improve the position of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in the workplace. (143140)

Tackling unemployment is a priority for this Government, and our approach is to support people according to individual needs. There are 3 million ethnic minority people employed in this country—far more than ever before—and we are determined that this progress will continue.

The all-party parliamentary group on race and community report on ethnic minority female employment found that Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are particularly affected by unemployment, with unemployment rates of 20.5% compared with 6.8% for white women. Is it not high time that the Government revisited their colour blind approach to unemployment and started to take specific steps to support BME communities to access the labour market?

The Government have provided a wide range of targeted support through Jobcentre Plus, the Work programme, the Youth Contract and our “get Britain working” measures. As a result of the increased flexibility that we have given to providers, interventions can be tailored to specific needs.

Equality and Human Rights Commission

We have completed many key aspects of our reform programme. We have appointed a dynamic new chair and a strong and diverse board, and have reached agreement on a budget. We want the Equality and Human Rights Commission to go from strength to strength, and to be one of our most valued and respected national institutions.

What effect might the reform have on the commission’s status as an A-rated national human rights institution?

We all want a strong and effective A-rated human rights institution, and that is what our reforms are intended to achieve. We engage in positive, ongoing dialogue with the international co-ordinating committee, and we will ensure that it continues.

Company Boards: Female Representation

In 2010 we asked Lord Davies to review the obstacles preventing women from making it on to corporate boards. Following his report, a range of steps have been taken. They include a voluntary code of conduct for executive search firms, amendments to the UK corporate governance code, changes to narrative reporting, and the establishment of the Women’s Business Council. Over the past year, 38% of those appointed to the boards of FTSE 100 companies have been women.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the arrival of his new baby daughter, who, for all we know, may be a board director of the future herself?

I thank the Minister for her answer, and I congratulate the Government on the excellent work that they have done to increase the number of women on boards. May I urge them, however, to focus particularly on the pipeline in companies this year, and to encourage our UK corporate boards to engage in a robust discussion about child care, “keep in touch” days, and the big cliff that appears when women reach childbearing age?

My hon. Friend is right. That is the point at which, for many women, it becomes very difficult to participate in the workplace at the same level as before. However, there is a great deal that employers can do to help both mums and dads to play a stronger role in the workplace. The Government’s “think, act, report” initiative is encouraging companies to think about what they can do not only to recruit the best women, but to retain and promote those women and ensure that their talent is nurtured all the way to the boardroom.

Can the Minister confirm that since the publication of the Davies report the number of female executive directors has risen by only 1%? What do the Government intend to do about that?

The hon. Lady has rightly highlighted the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith). It is now easier for women to make faster progress towards becoming non-executive directors, but the executive route is also important. The Women’s Business Council is looking at all the different stages in women’s careers in considering what action can be taken, and we look forward to the publication of its report later this year. We are seeing progress in the right direction, but we must stay on top of the situation to ensure that it continues to improve.

Religious Belief

We will continue to support religious freedoms strongly. For example, the Government believe that people should be able to wear crosses openly at work, and we are pleased about the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the Eweida case. The right of people to manifest their religion or belief at work is a vital freedom.

What weight is accorded to religious beliefs in draft legislation such as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill? Should it not be equal, in the context of discrimination, to the weight accorded to gender?

My hon. Friend, who takes a keen interest in this issue, will know that religious freedom is guaranteed under article 9 of the European convention on human rights. However, just as it is right for people to be able to express their religious beliefs, people in this country have a right not to be discriminated against. The recent rulings in the European Court show that, in law, we have the balance about right.