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Women and Equalities

Volume 579: debated on Thursday 1 May 2014

The Ministers for Women and for Equalities were asked—

Violence Against Women

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on reducing levels of violence against women. (903795)

The Ministers for Women and for Equalities attend the quarterly Home Office inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls and are committed to supporting the Government action plan, published on 8 March, to end violence against women and girls. The Government have taken recent key actions such as rolling out the domestic violence disclosure scheme and domestic violence protection orders, and we commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary’s review of domestic abuse and have announced steps to ensure the recommendations are acted on. I highlighted the action plan when the Minister for Equalities and I gave a presentation to Cabinet this Tuesday on policy issues of particular relevance to women.

I welcome the Minister to her new position, which is well deserved. How will she, in her new role as Minister for Women, support the Government’s commitment to ending violence against women and girls?

I know that my hon. Friend is a dedicated campaigner in this area. The Government recognise that violence against women and girls is strongly linked to gender inequality. Our action plan sets out work to raise the aspirations and ambitions of women and girls and the Government are also taking strong action to support women’s economic empowerment and making lasting changes to ensure that our workplaces match the needs of women in modern Britain, including by extending the right to flexible working, increasing child tax credits and extending the free entitlement to early education.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new role. Two women a week in England and Wales are killed by a current or former partner and in my constituency we have had two violent murders of women in just eight months. Both of the women were in their 20s with a young child or children. Women’s Aid has warned that cuts to services mean that women and children are likely to remain in abusive situations or are more likely to return after they have left. Is it not time for the Government to accept Labour’s idea of an independent commissioner on domestic and sexual violence to champion victims such as those in my constituency and to drive improvement?

This is an incredibly serious issue and I am sure that Members on both sides of the House have dealt with tragic cases of women who have been put at risk of violence or who have suffered violence at the hands of their partner or someone close to them. Protective injunctions remain within the scope of legal aid, and immigration cases in which domestic violence is a factor continue to qualify for funding. We have also recently scrapped the application fee for those injunctions to ensure that there are no unnecessary barriers between people and the help they need, and we have said that if there are any other areas in which legal aid is not being made available, we want to be made aware of them. I am happy to look again at the issues that the hon. Lady has raised.

Most police officers are sympathetic and helpful when women report incidents of domestic violence, but sadly some still have a negative attitude. What more does my hon. Friend think can be done to ensure that police responses are consistent, which is particularly important for women reporting serial offences?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are many excellent police officers up and down the country who respond incredibly sympathetically and supportively to those who make complaints or allegations of violence. It is important that victims of sexual abuse feel empowered to come forward to report that abuse and I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and all Ministers across Government would like to encourage people to do that and to encourage the police to take all allegations seriously. If there is anything further we should be doing, I am happy to look into it.

I welcome both Ministers to their new roles. We have the new Minister for Equalities, and it is always good to see people from ordinary backgrounds at the top table of politics, and the new Minister for Women, and it is a pleasure to shadow another woman from the east midlands in this role.

Violence against women is one of the many examples of how women’s equality cuts across all Departments. In fact, all Government decisions are relevant to women, so will the Minister for Women be attending all Cabinet meetings?

Women’s Sport: Media Coverage

2. What progress the Government Equalities Office has made on encouraging improved media coverage of women’s sport. (903797)

We have seen some progress from the media, and especially from broadcasters, in this area. The top-quality coverage of our inspirational women in Sochi was absolutely tremendous, but of course more needs to be done.

I thank the Minister for that response. Has she had time to reflect on the links between media coverage and sponsorship, and does she not find it extraordinary, in the 21st century, that sponsorship of women’s sport pales into insignificance when compared with that of men’s sport?

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He is quite right that the level of women’s sport sponsorship deals is very low indeed, compared with all deals; it is at about 2%. Having top-level women’s sports events covered in the media will of course encourage companies to get involved. I congratulate Helena Morrissey and her company, Newton, on their smart decision to sponsor the women’s boat race.

Glasgow’s Commonwealth games will be a marvellous opportunity to highlight excellence in women’s sport, but regrettably, regional TV and radio coverage of women’s sport is woeful in this country. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed whether she has made any representations to public service providers and commercial radio about the need for women’s sport to be covered in much more volume and detail.

The hon. Lady makes a good point. Women’s sport is one of my priorities, and visibility and coverage of women is key to so many things, including sponsorship. We have had a number of meetings with the media and print magazines. Sky and the BBC have certainly upped their game since the 2012 Olympics, through more coverage and dedicated sports programmes focusing on women. Female individuals such as Clare Balding and Barbara Slater are an important part of that process.

First World War Commemorations

3. What steps he is taking to ensure that the contribution of people from black and minority ethnic communities in the first world war is appropriately commemorated. (903798)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the significant contribution of ethnic minority soldiers to Britain’s war effort. He may be interested to know that just last week I made a private visit to Ypres; I went to the Menin gate memorial remembrance service and saw for myself that among the names of soldiers whose graves are unknown, there were many from the Indian subcontinent.

I thank the Minister for Equalities for that answer and welcome him to his position. More than 1 million people from ethnic minorities served our country in the first world war, and 12 soldiers from the Indian subcontinent have been awarded the Victoria Cross for valour. What are the Government doing to ensure that Victoria Cross recipients from minority communities born in other countries are properly commemorated?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and I am pleased to tell him that recipients of the Victoria Cross who were born abroad will be commemorated not only in their country of birth, but here in Britain.

I warmly congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. This is the first time in the history of this country that a majority of Ministers in a Department are from the ethnic minority communities—all with different hairstyles, but all appointed on merit. I strongly support what the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) said. Could we have a physical representation of that, and may I offer Leicester as a city in which a monument could be put up to those who served in the war?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his warm words, despite his comments about my excellent hairstyle. He makes an important point about a monument—I cannot think why he picked Leicester—and that is certainly worth looking at.

My great-grandfather fought in the great war, a fact that I became aware of only in the past decade. May I impress on my right hon. Friend that as well as a written record of history, there is often an oral history of acts of great bravery in the Indian and, specifically, Sikh regiments?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question, and for the contribution his family made to the great war—as did, obviously, many other families, but especially, as he highlighted, people of ethnic minority backgrounds. He has made an important point, and I will certainly look at that.

The Commonwealth contribution to the first world war was significant. In particular, one in 10 people who served came from undivided India. In Northern Ireland we have a very large Indian community. What discussions has the Minister had with the bodies responsible in Northern Ireland to ensure that the community’s significant contribution is commemorated?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He will know that more than 70,000 soldiers from the Indian army made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of Britain in the great war. With respect to Northern Ireland, I have not had any discussions so far in my new role, but I will certainly raise the matter at the earliest opportunity.

Bullying in Schools

This Government are committed to tackling all forms of bullying in schools, and have provided advice to schools on how to tackle this harmful behaviour. However, we know that homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying persists and we have therefore recently awarded the contract for a new project to identify the best ways to help drive out this type of bullying.

I am pleased that the Government have this week announced the contract for the review of evidence of what works in tackling such bullying. Can the Minister explain how she expects the outcome of this work to be taken forward and how the findings will be made available to schools in a way that will easily and practically help to inform their approach?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for this important project. This type of bullying is completely unacceptable. It must be addressed and we must learn the best way to do that. NatCen Social Research, to whom the contract has been awarded, has already started looking at the evidence for the most effective measures to tackle such bullying. It will report in the summer and we will use its report to develop and pilot interventions in schools. The learning from those pilots will be consolidated into a single package of guidance on what works, so that we can share that experience widely across all schools. That will help to ensure that the outcomes of the project live beyond the funding that is available and that they are embedded in future support for schools.

What message does it send to those tackling homophobic bullying in this country that this country has a garrison in Brunei, which has just introduced the death penalty—stoning—for homosexuals?

That is clearly a worrying issue, which I am happy to raise with my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, as appropriate.

Clearly, any kind of homophobic bullying is completely unacceptable in schools or anywhere else. I just wonder whether the Department has a hierarchy of bullying—whether it considers homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying to be more serious than other forms of bullying, or whether it considers all forms of bullying to be equally important.

Clearly, bullying is bullying, regardless of the intent behind it. All forms of bullying need to be tackled in schools and stamped out. It has a hugely detrimental impact on the ability of children to enjoy school and on their achievements and their grades at the end of it. In 2012 this Government introduced the requirement that when inspecting schools, Ofsted should consider how the school tackles bullying. That is now considered part of Ofsted’s inspection, to make sure that schools are tackling all forms of bullying, regardless of the intent behind it.

Older Women’s Employment

Jobcentre Plus uses a range of innovative approaches to help older claimants. Local schemes include IT support aimed specifically at older people, dedicated advisers for those aged over 50, and help to convert dated qualifications into certifications that are relevant for modern employers. Overall female inactivity is now at a record low.

I am rather surprised by the Minister’s response, given that unemployment among older women has rocketed by more than 40% and the Work programme has failed more than 90% of women aged over 50. Her response was complacent. What more is she going to do?

I am disappointed by the hon. Lady’s question. More than 3.5 million women aged over 50 are in employment, which is more than 63% of that age group. Across the UK more women are in work than ever before. There has been additional support for older women. One example of the support that jobcentres are providing that has made a real difference is the new employment allowance that helps people to set up their own business. Nearly a quarter of those who have set up businesses using that allowance are over the age of 50 and it is proving particularly popular.

Women are revered in many societies for their knowledge and wisdom, but the first thing that comes up in a Google search for “employing older women” is toyboywarehouse.com. In America, women will not stand for invisibility or marginalisation and have created OWL—the Older Women’s League—to fight for older women in public policy and the workplace. Does my hon. Friend believe that we should do the same in the UK?

The Government are in the process of appointing a business champion for older workers, and an announcement will be made in the next couple of months. That person will have a responsibility to ensure that older workers—in particular women, as the proposal came out of the recommendations of the Women’s Business Council—are taken more seriously by employers and have their skills and experience recognised. This may well be an issue that the champion would like to take up.

The Minister mentioned the older workers business champion, but that was promised over a year ago following a recommendation from the Women’s Business Council. Why have we had to wait for more than a year? The Minister said that the Government are looking at appointing such a champion, but is the year’s delay a result of older women not being a priority?

The Women’s Business Council made a wide range of important recommendations on how women interact in the economy from school age to leaving the work force, and the Government have been working carefully to ensure that we implement as many of them as possible. That element is now in track. The older workers business champion will be appointed shortly, and I hope that we will then see the next part of the process taken forward.