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Women and Equalities

Volume 577: debated on Thursday 13 March 2014

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Disabled People

1. What assessment he has made of the cumulative effect of the Government's policy programme on disabled people. (903033)

3. What assessment he has made of the cumulative effect of the Government's policy programme on disabled people. (903035)

6. What assessment he has made of the cumulative effect of the Government's policy programme on disabled people. (903039)

The Treasury regularly produces analysis of the cumulative impact of coalition changes, including welfare. However, even independent bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies do not feel that results can be broken down reliably for the disabled community.

In my Stockton North constituency, 860 disabled people have been referred to the Work programme, but only 60 have found employment as a result. Does the Minister agree that a 7% success rate is appalling? What will he do to ensure that Work programme contractors provide greater specialist support for disabled people to help them into work instead of abandoning them?

There was only one Government who abandoned disabled people on the Work programme and that was the previous Administration, and that is the truth. We will not allow that to happen. We will work very closely—[Interruption.] Opposition Front Benchers can try to shout me down, but it is the truth, and everyone knows it is the truth. Yesterday I was in Leeds where we talked to employers, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, to give them the confidence to employ people with disabilities and long-term illnesses.

The Government finally seem to have woken up to the scale of the problems that Atos has in delivering the work capability assessment. Why then has it been awarded the personal independence payment contract when it is clear that it has such serious capacity problems?

We are doing something to address the Atos WCA contract that the previous Government brought in. We are working with it to get it out of that programme, because we are not happy with the quality. We will work with it and Capita in ensuring that PIP produces exactly what it needs to do.

A disabled constituent of mine, in common with many others, has been called in four times for assessment by Atos and had his entitlement docked. He has gone to appeal, had a successful result, and had it reinstated four times. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about setting a limit on the number of times that Atos can call in people for a reassessment in any given period? It is a total waste of public money as well as causing immense distress to constituents.

That is exactly what I have been looking at. In particular, I have been looking at tribunal cases, as we have a backlog of cases on the WCA, the policies before PIP and the disability living allowance. I am looking carefully at what is happening. Some can actually go for up to 10 years. That is what I intend to do for people who are desperately in need of the benefit, so that they are not called in as much as they are now.

Does the Minister agree that it is really important that everyone in this country can fulfil their potential and do really well in the workplace? To that end, what is being done to engage employers and help disabled people do really well in business?

As I have said, we have a programme going round the regions at the moment—it was started by the Prime Minister in London—to give employers the confidence to take on employees and to break the myth that it is more expensive and more difficult to employ disabled people or people with long-term illnesses. We all know that they will give more loyalty, dedication and commitment than anyone else in the work place.

I welcome the written statement from the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), that discretionary housing payments can be made available for long-term or indefinite periods for disabled people. Will the Minister ensure that that applies across the board so that people do not have to keep being reassessed when there is no realistic prospect of them recovering?

That is exactly what I am looking at now, as I alluded to in my answer to the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). We want to ensure that when someone has gone to appeal and won at the tribunal, they are not called back in, because there is a suspicion that that is vindictive. We will ensure that that does not happen.

The introduction of personal independence payment requires applicants to complete a demanding form—I am sure that the Minister would call it rigorous—so what assistance is his Department providing to people who are blind or partially sighted in completing the paperwork?

PIP is replacing disability living allowance, less than 6% of the recipients of which ever had a face-to-face assessment. At the moment, around 90% to 95% of claimants are being called for a face-to-face assessment, which is much too high, and we will bring that down as much as possible. We are working with the relevant lobby groups, particularly the Royal National Institute of Blind People, to ensure that the information is available in a way that can be used across the board.

This morning I received a letter from my constituent Tracy, a distressed and house-bound disabled woman who put in a claim for PIP last August but is still waiting for a home visit. She has been told that she might have to wait another six months. It is yet another example of how disabled people are being failed. What is the Minister going to do about it?

People are waiting too long for PIP assessments, partly because of the number being called for face-to-face assessments—between 90% and 95%— which is much too high. The policy was for that to be about 70%, so I think that it could be reduced further. We are looking carefully at whether it is absolutely necessary for that number of people to be called for assessment. When a face-to-face assessment is not needed, PIP will be granted without it.

Occupational Gender Segregation

We asked the Women’s Business Council to look at how we could tackle the barriers women face in the workplace and when choosing a career. It published its recommendations in June last year, and we are working closely with businesses and across Government to turn them into reality.

It is worrying that the number of female apprentices has dropped, and much more needs to be done to attract women into traditionally male-dominated sectors, such as engineering and manufacturing. When will we see some progress from the Government on that?

The Government are very proud of our record on apprentices. Over this Parliament we are funding a quarter of a million more apprenticeship places. In fact, more girls and women are taking up these opportunities than boys and men, particularly at the higher levels, where over 60% of apprentices are women. There is an issue with the proportion of women taking up more traditionally male apprenticeships, which is something I will be taking up with the Minister for Skills and Enterprise, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock).

Women in Public Life

The Government have enabled political parties to use positive action, should they so wish, to increase participation by under-represented groups. We have extended to 2030 their ability to use women-only shortlists. We have also set an aspiration that 50% of new public appointments should be filled by women by the end of this Parliament.

Does my hon. Friend accept that it was a Conservative, Mrs Pankhurst, who campaigned for votes for women; that it was the Conservative party that gave all women the vote; that the first woman to take her seat in this House was a Conservative; and that it was the Conservative party that provided this country’s first woman Prime Minister? We will take no lessons from others about our commitment to enhancing opportunities for women. As I am sure you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, the Unites States will have an opportunity in two years’ time to elect a woman as their next President—Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our party has a proud record on all these areas. However, we recognise that we are on a journey and that it is far from complete. It is therefore very important that all parties continue to prioritise that very important issue.

I wonder whether the Minister can help me. Since 3 February I have been asking various Government Departments about the gender breakdown of public appointments they make and which ones are paid. All the Departments consistently refer me to a table published by the Cabinet Office that makes no reference to which roles are paid. Will she ensure that we know how many women appointed to public office by this Government are paid and how many men similarly appointed are paid?

I know that this is an important issue for the hon. Lady and that she raised it during the international women’s day debate. The Government have a very good record on public appointments. I will do my best to find that information for her. I am aware that she has made a freedom of information request. If she does not receive an answer in the next few weeks, I shall be very happy to look into the matter further.

Will the Minister join me, and I am sure many hon. Members in this House, in congratulating Boni Sones OBE on her achievements in founding and running Women’s Parliamentary Radio? Her work will be archived at the London School of Economics and has led to the book “When There’s a Woman in the Room”. Does the Minister agree that Boni Sones deserves this House’s sincere thanks for encouraging women to participate in public life in the UK and overseas?

I am very happy to endorse and agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. Boni Sones is a fantastic role model in her own right and has done considerable amounts for the representation of women in Parliament.

Will the Minister join me in condemning the Financial Secretary’s comment this week that there are no women on the Monetary Policy Committee because

“appointments are made on merit”?

I am not aware of the exact details of what my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary has allegedly said, but as the hon. Lady has already heard, this party has a proud record in relation to women’s progression. The coalition has driven through a number of policies to promote women and to allow them to develop on merit, and I am sure that that process will continue.

When Labour was in government there was always a woman on the Monetary Policy Committee. Again, I invite the Minister to condemn the comment by the Financial Secretary that

“appointments are made on merit.”

It is obviously a matter for the Bank of England to make its own appointments. However, these are issues for everyone: for Parliament and for all businesses. We must do whatever we can to make sure that women progress and get into positions of power, and I am in no doubt that that process will continue if we all work together.

By maintaining the law that allows the Labour party to use women-only shortlists for selecting its candidates, the Minister must accept that that means either that Labour party selection committees are inherently sexist and turn down the best woman for the job in favour of a man, or that we are not getting the best person for the job in the seats concerned. Can she tell us which one of those it is?

On women-only shortlists, we are a democratic political party and we do not dictate to our grass roots. We know that some of our associations have already chosen women from their own shortlists, but this is a matter for them to decide on.

Women in Work

There are record numbers of women in work and we are taking strong action to support them, including by extending the right to request flexible working from June this year, introducing a new system of shared parental leave from next April, and supporting families through the new tax-free child care scheme from next October.

For international women’s day last Friday, we held a What Women Want at Work event in Westgate community college. Women from across the constituency raised many issues, including zero-hours contracts, sexism, stereotypes and the minimum wage, but the No. 1 issue was child care and how it prevented mums from going to work and those in work from having children. Will the Minister now back Labour’s pledge to increase free child care for three and four-year-olds to 25 hours?

This Government have done a huge amount to improve the child care situation for women in work. We have increased the number of hours that are available free for three and four-year-olds and extended that to more deprived two-year-olds. Under universal credit, we will increase the amount that is refunded for recipients of child care tax credit from 70% to 85%. As I said, from next year we are introducing tax-free child care for parents of children under the age of 12. We are also increasing the number of child care places, and this is having an impact. For example, the cost of child care, particularly after-school child care, is starting to come down in England.

7. The renaissance in manufacturing, particularly in the car industry, means that there is a skills shortage that could be reduced if more women chose that career path. Will the Minister encourage other companies to act like Jaguar Land Rover, going into secondary and primary schools to advocate such career paths? (903040)

The right hon. Lady is right. This is very important. The Government are doing quite a lot of work to try to encourage the number of women going into science, technology, engineering and maths. The Government have a project with the Royal Society on diversity in STEM and we are supporting a scheme of STEM ambassadors going into schools to encourage people to take up those subjects. Of the 25,000 ambassadors, 40% are women and 10% are from ethnic minorities, so the Government are doing as much as they can to try to increase the number of women in these areas.

Women in Work (Overseas)

8. What discussions she has had with her overseas counterparts on steps to promote the role of women in work internationally. (903041)

We participate in the EU presidency Gender Ministers meetings, which enables us to discuss all the goals in the Europe 2020 strategy and the Beijing platform for action, including women’s employment.

Only yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities spoke at an international event at the Commission on the Status of Women, organised with the Tanzanian Minister of Equalities, specifically to promote women working in the science, technology, engineering and maths industries.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Although I agree with the Financial Secretary that appointments should be made on merit, does the Minister agree that City regulators’ record on appointing high-calibre women is pathetic, and that if they were to identify those women, that would go a long way to promoting women in work internationally and they would be very good role models?

The hon. Lady is quite right. We definitely need to increase the number of women in senior roles, not only in the City and financial institutions but across the country more generally. This Government have done a huge amount of work with Lord Davies to increase the number of women on boards and we are starting to see a significant increase in the number of women in those positions. At the beginning of this Parliament, the figure was 12.5%; it is now more than 20% and we are on target to hit 25% by next year. I agree with the hon. Lady, however, that this is an important issue that we need to tackle.