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Women and Equalities

Volume 583: debated on Thursday 3 July 2014

The Ministers for Women and Equalities were asked—

Rights of Women and Girls

1. What recent discussions she has had with her counterparts overseas on protecting the rights of women and girls internationally. (904633)

The Government are committed to the protection and promotion of women’s rights in the UK and internationally. I met many of my overseas counterparts at the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict last month, which brought together 128 country delegations, UN agencies and civil society. We discussed how best to achieve that aim, including providing opportunities for international collaboration and the exchange of best practices.

I thank the Minister for that answer. What can the Government do to help prevent distressing cases such as that of Mariam Ibrahim which arose simply because she was a Christian?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this case, and pleased that Mariam Ibrahim and her family have now been released. They are currently staying at the US embassy in Khartoum. The British embassy in Khartoum continues to follow the case closely and is in close contact with the defence team. We continue to raise our concerns about this case and the broader human rights situation in Sudan with the Sudanese authorities, including with a recent delegation of Sudanese female MPs whom I met. We will continue to work bilaterally and in international forums such as the UN to tackle violence and all forms of discrimination against women.

Ministers are right to draw attention to the appalling sexual violence faced by women and girls in conflict, but we also have responsibilities when women seek sanctuary in the UK. Will the Minister set out what action is being taken following the serious allegations and concerns about operations at Yarl’s Wood detention centre?

The hon. Lady is right, and it is important and extremely welcome that the Government set up last month’s global summit. Those who seek asylum in the UK need to be offered protection, and the Government are committed to making our asylum system more gender sensitive. We have made significant progress, including putting in place new enhanced guidance supported by high-quality training for all decision makers. Women who seek asylum can request a female interviewing officer and interpreter. They can also bring a friend with them to interviews to provide emotional support if needed.

In last night’s Adjournment debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) talked about the case of the abducted girls in Nigeria. He made the point that the problem is not that those girls were abducted, or that others have been abducted since, but that many are at risk and are no longer going to school. Will the Minister look at that speech and prepare a written statement on behalf of her Department to respond to the points my right hon. Friend made?

I certainly will look at that speech—I am afraid I did not have a chance to read it in full before this morning’s Question Time. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that one of the tragedies of the situation that has evolved in Nigeria is that the girls who were abducted were doing exactly the right thing—they were in school and taking exams. We absolutely do not want to put girls around the world off their education. The UK remains committed to helping to find the schoolgirls. I shall look at the speech and think about how best to respond.

Gender Pay Gap

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is good to be back. May I place on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott) for the fantastic job she did in covering my maternity leave?

The full-time pay gap has now been almost eliminated for women under the age of 40, but we must close the gap across all ages and for part-time workers. We are promoting transparency through the “Think, Act, Report” initiative. As the pay gap is partly driven by the different sectors and jobs in which men and women work, we are encouraging girls and young women to consider a wider range of careers through the “Your Life” initiative.

I, too, welcome the Minister back to her place. The Equal Pay Act 1970 dates back some 44 years, so why does the Minister think that last year the difference between earnings for men and women went up and not down, and why have women in their 20s seen the gender pay gap double since her Government came to power?

The 0.1% increase in the pay gap in the past year is certainly not a sign of things going in the right direction, although it was a very small increase. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the fact that 40 years after equal pay legislation, it is not good enough that we still have a pay gap in this country. We need to look at the causes of that pay gap, which might include time out of the workplace. The new flexible working entitlements regime that came in this week will help to change the culture of our workplace. As I mentioned, we need to look at occupational segregation. We also need to look at discrimination and outdated attitudes when women are not being paid the same for the same work. We need to change that, which is why we are working with businesses.

What more can be done to get women to consider a wider range of careers, particularly in science and engineering?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. Only 7% of engineers are women. That difference in the sectors is a significant driver of the pay gap. The problems start very early in children’s lives, so we need to look at the messages that are being put out through the education system but also more widely in the media regarding stereotypes and what young girls are encouraged to aspire to. We are encouraging parents and schools to have the information they need to assist their children.

I, too, welcome the Minister back.

Progress on narrowing the pay gap has all but come to a standstill. Progress was much quicker under Labour, so will the Minister admit that narrowing the gap by 0.1% in four years is just not good enough?

I certainly agree that we need to ensure that we close the pay gap. This is an important issue. It is ideal if we can work with employers to do so. The “Think, Act, Report” initiative means that 200 employers covering 2 million employees in the work force are working to improve the situation for women. They have already made significant steps forward since joining up and since that initiative started in 2011. Two thirds of those employers say that they now publish more information on gender pay. Nearly half of them now do pay audits. That would not have happened without this Government’s initiative, but we have said that we will keep the issue under review, because we need success.

Global Economy

3. What discussions she has had with her counterparts overseas on the contribution of women and girls to the global economy. (904636)

In June I met many of my overseas counterparts at a global ministerial round table at the global summit of women held in Paris. This event brought together business, professional and governmental leaders to explore strategies and best practices in accelerating women’s economic progress worldwide. The most important task for the UK Government, as for the rest of the global community, is to build a stronger, fairer economy capable of delivering lasting prosperity. Women and girls are essential to the UK’s economic growth.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that comprehensive reply. What issues were identified in those recent discussions?

What was really interesting about going to the international summit—it was the same when I went to the Commonwealth summit in Bangladesh last year—was just how many of the same issues we share around the world in terms of enabling women to play their full part in economies. We talked about gender equality, parental leave, returners to work, supporting older workers, women’s access to finance and the importance of coaching, mentoring and role models in encouraging women to set up their own businesses.

Last week we had national women in engineering day. As the Minister says, only 7% of professional engineers in this country are women. What she did not say is that that is the lowest figure in Europe. In eastern European countries, the figure is 30% and countries such as China and India are far ahead of us. In her conversations, will she see what we can learn from other countries that are more successful?

When I speak to counterparts overseas, I always engage with the lessons Britain can share and what we can learn from other countries. I am proud to represent Loughborough university, which has, I am told, the highest number of female engineers in the country. I understand that last night the hon. Lady was at the Royal Academy of Engineering awards, where more than one half the rising stars awards went to female engineers. There is, however, more progress to be made.

We want young girls to achieve and to travel the world. Many young girls want to get into business and to travel. If they do not have science and maths as a basis for getting into business and getting good careers, they will not succeed.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I assume that he supports the EBacc and that he welcomes the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who I think has done more than anyone else in recent years to triumph and to talk about the importance of all students, particularly girls, studying science and maths. [Interruption.] I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman was there supporting her, too.

Female Entrepreneurs

The Government offer a wide range of support to women entrepreneurs—for example, the new enterprise allowance, mentoring, business advice and start-up loans. I also recently announced a £1 million challenge fund specifically to support women to move their businesses online and take advantage of superfast broadband. We know these measures are making a difference, with more women running their own businesses than ever before.

Which particular areas have the Government identified where we can celebrate the success of women entrepreneurs?

There are many different areas, but let me just pick one. The latest statistics from the Federation of Small Businesses show a dramatic increase in the number of women starting up businesses in the retail sector, and high streets across the country are seeing the benefit. Half of all small businesses established in retail in the past two years are primarily owned by women. That is in stark contrast with 20 years ago, when it was less than a quarter. That demonstrates the fundamental role that women are playing in helping the country to recover from recession. I hope that Members on all sides of the House will encourage retail businesses on their high streets to apply for the Future High Streets Forum’s Great British high streets awards.

Nobody doubts the Minister’s commitment to equality, but why are there so few black and Asian women sitting on the boards of our companies?

It is a very good question. There is no doubt that more progress is needed. Earlier this week I was at an event for the 30% Club, which has been campaigning for a voluntary business-led approach, started by Lord Davies, to get more women in particular on the boards of companies. Part of that is about working with executive search companies and asking the chairmen of companies to think differently about appointments. Often the traditional and expected route of a CV is not something that women or others, particularly from black and minority ethnic communities, can put forward. We need to broaden the way in which chairmen of boards, and the boards themselves, appoint new directors.

6. The rise and rise of women in business is boosting growth and opportunity across the country. We have an inspiring role model in Gloucester, in the first female editor of the Gloucester Citizen in its 138-year history, Jenny Eastwood. The chair of the Gloucestershire local enterprise partnership, Diane Savory, is one of only three female chairs of the 39 LEPS. Will my right hon. Friend join me in recognising their achievements, and in encouraging both Jenny and Diane to do even more to promote new female “Gloucesterpreneurs” like Sarah Churchill of the award-winning Artisan Kitchen? (904640)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on coining the new word “Gloucesterpreneurs”, and I hope that he will campaign vigorously under that slogan over the next few months. I am happy to join him in congratulating Gloucestershire Media on its Women in Business awards. Through the work of the Minister for Cities—my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)—and the Deputy Prime Minister, the Government are focusing on regional growth, city deals and the power of local enterprise partnerships, and on encouraging growth outside London. That is why I am particularly pleased to hear about the new female entrepreneurs in Gloucester who have set up businesses during the past few years.

Participation in Sport

5. What recent steps the Government have taken to encourage access for, and participation by, under-represented groups in (a) grass-roots and (b) professional sports. (904638)

Sport England and UK Sport are committed to achieving equality in grass-roots and elite sport. They invest in a range of expert bodies to work with sport to remove barriers to participation among under-represented groups.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we might achieve even more success in international sporting competitions if our sporting authorities had deeper contacts among ethnic minorities, and were able to use their expertise in what we might consider to be minority sports, but what in their countries of origin are majority sports?

My hon. Friend has made an interesting point. UK Sport and national governing bodies capitalise on a wealth of diverse global expertise in order to get athletes on to the podium. Sport England also invests in organisations such as Sporting Equals to promote physical activity and diversity in all sport.

I know that I speak for a certain proportion of people in this country who were dreadful at sport at school and never improved thereafter. What will the Minister do to encourage people who have never had a positive experience of sport to take our necessary exercise by that means?

The hon. Lady has made a very interesting point. I would say that there is a sport out there for absolutely everyone. We need to listen to what people want, and give it to them.

Marriage Certificates

7. What steps she is taking to ensure that mothers' names are included on marriage certificates; and if she will make a statement. (904641)

The content of marriage registers has not changed since civil marriage was introduced in 1837, so it is about time we took a further look. I have discussed this matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and we are currently considering a range of options.

The Minister has referred to a range of options. Given that Labour changed the law in respect of same-sex couples and adoption back in 2002, what consideration has he given to ensuring that any changes that may be made to marriage certificates reflect the fact that many individuals now have legal parents of the same sex?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has raised a very important point. When the rules were drawn up in 1837, equality was not a priority for our society. Today, thankfully, it is, so those are just the kind of changes that we are considering.

Can the Minister tell us how much it would cost to bring marriage certificates into the 21st century? If he cannot, why are his colleagues in the Home Office team saying that it would be too expensive? What price do he and the Government place on equality?

If the hon. Lady had been listening carefully, she would have already heard the answer to that question; I talked about civil partnerships earlier. We have rightly said that when people are converting civil partnerships into marriage, having entered into those partnerships before same-sex marriage was available, we will waive the fee. I think that that demonstrates the Government’s priorities.