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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 2 July 2015

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Forced Marriage

1. What steps the CPS is taking to ensure its prosecutors will be able successfully to prosecute the criminal offence of forced marriage. (900695)

2. What steps the CPS is taking to ensure its prosecutors will be able successfully to prosecute the criminal offence of forced marriage. (900696)

12. What steps the CPS is taking to ensure its prosecutors will be able successfully to prosecute the criminal offence of forced marriage. (900709)

The first successful prosecution using the new offence of forced marriage was recorded earlier this year. Previously, the Crown Prosecution Service had to use offences such as assault and kidnap to address this serious issue. The CPS has provided legal guidance and learning support to its prosecutors on cases of forced marriage to raise their awareness of the issues involved, which includes the important work of joint workshops with the police in every CPS area to tackle this menace.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Clearly, we want to rid society of this scourge. Will he update the House on how many prosecutions have been brought to court and how many are in the pipeline?

From 2010, particular offences that involve forced marriage as a key element have been flagged by the CPS. I am happy to report that the volume of completed prosecutions in the last year, 2014-15, rose to 46, the highest ever. There is more work to be done, but the progress is encouraging.

Forced marriage is a scourge across many communities in the UK and I welcome the work undertaken by the Government on the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Will my hon. and learned Friend update the House on the work being carried out to bring this scourge to an end? What advice has been provided to young men and women who might be at risk of forced marriage?

The joint Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office forced marriage unit, which has been in operation for about 10 years, provides free and confidential advice on the dangers of being forced into marriage and the precautions that can be taken. It operates both here and overseas and last year gave advice and support in nearly 1,300 cases. I commend its work to the House.

I declare an interest, as a barrister. What is the CPS in London, where my constituency sits, doing to embed best practice for the prosecution of forced marriage?

I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. He brings a wealth of legal experience and I am grateful to him for his interest. He mentioned joint training courses; 14 London prosecutors attended last year’s joint training course, held with the Metropolitan police on forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation. There is a specialist team of about 25 lawyers in London dealing with all Crown court cases that include elements of forced marriage and there are similar arrangements in magistrates courts.

Of the 1,271 cases, 11% involve victims who are under the age of 16. In the last Parliament, the Select Committee on Home Affairs specifically asked the Education Secretary to write to every headteacher to make them aware of this problem, especially before the summer holidays. Has this been done? If not, can it be done?

I do not have the information on whether that letter has been written, but I very much appreciate the importance of cross-governmental working to deal with this issue and, indeed, many others that, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, are cultural and need to be tackled head on rather than ignored.

Given that the forced marriage unit, which the Solicitor General rightly commended, is offering advice on some 1,300 cases, we are clearly only touching the tip of the iceberg with the number of cases that come to court. Is he certain that Crown prosecutors have the resources they need to deal with these complex cases and adequate training to understand the cultural and family backgrounds that might lead to victims wanting to withdraw the case?

The hon. Lady makes a proper point. I can reassure her that the degree of training and, importantly, the joint training that goes on with the police is very much understood by the Crown Prosecution Service. It applies not just to forced marriage, but to a range of offences in which cultural barriers and other issues can make it difficult for victims to come forward. It is well understood and I am glad to see that numbers continue to increase, but of course more work needs to be done.

Since the Modern Slavery Act came into force, there has been some limited success, but more has to be done to protect victims. What has been done to train staff in the public agencies to spot forced marriages?

I have dealt with training within the CPS and the police, but the hon. Gentleman makes a proper point about third-party agencies. In the case of young people it is an issue of safeguarding. Forced marriage is a form of child abuse and must be recognised as such. All agencies should be alert to this manifestation and make reports promptly and comprehensively.

Does the Solicitor General agree that the number of successful prosecutions on forced marriages, as with other offences, depends on there being a sufficient number of prosecutors with the time to make individual judgments on cases and to prepare properly for trial? Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that cutting the number of prosecutors in this Parliament and cutting funding for the Crown Prosecution Service is likely to be counterproductive?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place—another experienced lawyer. The work that has been done by the Crown Prosecution Service in the past five years in removing excessive expenditure in the back office and concentrating on the front line has yielded results. I am absolutely confident that issues of resource will never get in the way of the proper investigation and prosecution of such allegations.

Serious Fraud Office

3. What his future funding proposals are for the Serious Fraud Office; and if he will make a statement. (900698)

The Serious Fraud Office is a small and demand-led organisation that comprises investigators, prosecutors, accountants and other specialists. The model, which is known as the Roskill model, gives the director of the SFO the flexibility to have the right combination of expertise to tackle the most complex and large cases. The current blockbuster funding approach allows him to take on cases that are exceptionally demanding in terms of resource, such as the LIBOR case, while avoiding the need constantly to maintain high levels of permanent staff, which are not always necessary.

The SFO going cap in hand to the Treasury when it wants to take on a major case could mean delaying justice. Why not let moneys recovered by the SFO be kept by it so that it has autonomy?

Attractive though that proposal sounds—I take it in the constructive spirit that I know the hon. Gentleman intends—my worry is that that is an even more uncertain means of funding the SFO. The advantage of blockbuster funding is that it allows the SFO the flexibility it needs, allows significant amounts of money to be allocated to its work, and proves the point that funding will never be a bar to the work of the SFO in investigating serious fraud.

I think the Solicitor General is telling us that he is not all that keen on the idea, if one interprets the lawyer-speak.

Installing temporary IT equipment in courts for SFO prosecutions is eye-wateringly expensive and a drain on SFO resources. Does the Solicitor General agree that we need to look again at this issue to establish whether the taxpayer is getting value for money?

The Solicitor General may know of my long-term interest in this matter. We all want a Serious Fraud Office that is fit for purpose; this Serious Fraud Office is not. We go back to the catastrophe that was the daft prosecution and dawn arrest of the Tchenguiz brothers. As he knows, if we have a weak SFO, it relies on accountants, such as Grant Thornton. That is not a healthy relationship for the SFO.

The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to previous failures, but things have moved on considerably in the right direction since the appointment of the current director in 2012. It is important that we give our full-throated support to the work of the SFO because, as the hon. Gentleman says, if there are doubts about the integrity and efficacy of that important arm of the prosecutorial authorities, we are in serious trouble indeed. I hope he will recognise that progress is being made.

Progress might be being made, but why is the SFO not performing better than it is, and what international comparisons have been made to identify better examples that it could follow?

I do not have chapter and verse on international comparators today for my hon. Friend, but I am more than happy to have that discussion with him. The Roskill model, which allows prosecutors and investigators to work hand in hand, is essential when it comes to this type of offending. It works and it must continue to be supported. Whatever the framework within it, that model of investigation is very important.

Rape and Domestic Violence (Conviction Rates)

4. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence in the past two years. (900699)

6. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence in the past two years. (900703)

Over the past two years, the Crown Prosecution Service has worked with the police to increase the number of referrals for rape and domestic abuse. As a result, the number of people prosecuted for those offences last year was the highest ever. However, more is being done to increase conviction rates, particularly in rape cases, through better training and specialisation among prosecutors and better presentation of cases to juries.

What factors explain the variance in conviction rates for domestic violence and rape cases? Will the Attorney General join me on a visit to Kent to meet the excellent Crown Prosecution Service staff?

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. She is absolutely right that there is variance in the statistics, but it is worth noting that there is a difference between what used to happen to bring about those unsuccessful outcomes and what happens now. A large proportion of unsuccessful outcomes in these cases are the result of jury acquittals. The proportion that results from victim issues or discontinued cases is going down. It is important that we do what we can to help juries reach the right conclusion in each case. She will know that I have visited her constituency in the past, as have many hon. Friends. We rather hoped that she would be in a position to ask questions in this House as a result, and I am glad that she is. I will be happy to visit again.

I declare an interest as a barrister, and indeed as a member of the same chambers as the Attorney General. I welcome the recent statistics showing the highest ever conviction rate nationally for rape and domestic violence cases, but does he share my concern about the figures in Hampshire, where the conviction rate for rape fell in 2014-15? What action will he take to address that?

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place—I am delighted that she has joined us. This must surely be the safest place to say that there can never be too many lawyers in the House of Commons. [Interruption.] It is the safest place, but still not entirely safe.

It is a matter of concern that the conviction rate in Hampshire is not higher. As I mentioned in my previous answer, we need to look at the factors that are bringing about unsuccessful outcomes. As my hon. Friend well understands, it is not true that acquittal is the wrong outcome in every case, but we need to do everything we can to ensure that cases are presented robustly to juries so that they can reach the right conclusions.

An effective way of increasing the number of referrals from the police and increasing the prosecution and conviction rates for such crimes is to ensure that victims of abuse feel confident that they will be taken seriously when reporting the crime and supported by the whole criminal justice system thereafter, bearing in mind that many of them, if not all, are extremely traumatised. What steps is the CPS taking, in conjunction with the police, to ensure that the requisite support for victims is in place throughout the process?

I agree with the hon. Lady. She is entirely right that we need to ensure that victims are supported throughout the process. That starts when a report is made, which of course relies on the police adopting a sympathetic attitude. We then need to see referrals from the police to the CPS. As I mentioned, we are seeing an increasing number of referrals, which is a good sign. We then need to follow through the process, as she says, which is as much about communication as anything else. Giving evidence in court is intimidating for anyone, and even more so for the victims of this type of offending, so we need to ensure that everybody does what they can to ameliorate the process.

Rule of Law (Magna Carta)

5. What steps he is taking to ensure that the rule of law continues to be upheld in line with the principles of Magna Carta. (900701)

Last month, along with guests from many other countries, I attended the commemoration of the sealing of Magna Carta 800 years ago at Runnymede. In the centuries since, the rule of law has played a fundamental part in our national identity. The Lord Chancellor and the Law Officers share a particular responsibility to promote it in Government—one that we all take extremely seriously.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me and the House that any future Bill of Rights will contain the principles of Magna Carta? Will he also join me in paying tribute to William Marshal, who later became the Earl of Pembroke? He was one of the original signatories of Magna Carta, served five English kings loyally, saved us from the French, and then reissued Magna Carta under his own seal in 1216.

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those who brought about the original Magna Carta; we all owe them a great debt. He will know that William Marshal and others would probably not recognise the human rights landscape now; a lot has changed. We want to promote a new and modern version of a Bill of Rights that I hope maintains all the important principles of Magna Carta but recognises what has changed in the past 800 years.

I declare that I am a barrister. The county of Lincolnshire holds one of only four copies of Magna Carta. What steps is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to ensure that the principles that have been developed in this country since 1215 are promoted abroad?

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place—another lawyer; this is good news, we are heading in the right direction. She is right to point out that the rule of law is important not just in this country but across the globe, and this country has a proud record of doing what it can to promote it. We are a leading member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. She will be aware of the efforts of our former right hon. Friend, William Hague, in relation to sexual violence in conflict. We are the first state in the world to implement the UN’s guiding principles on business and human rights, and there are other examples.

Order. I do not want a situation to develop in which we have time for the questions but not for the answers. We are short of time.

The Prime Minister celebrated the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta by announcing his intention to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. The Attorney General will no doubt be aware that the European convention on human rights is enshrined in UK law through the Human Rights Act and, in Scotland, through the Scotland Act 1998. What assessment has he made of the implications of the repeal, particularly for the relationship and interactions between Scots law and the legal system of England and Wales?

It is important to draw the distinction between the Human Rights Act and human rights. We are not in favour of the first; we are very much in favour of the second. As for the devolution consequences of any action we may take, the hon. Gentleman will have to be patient and see what proposals my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor brings forward. I can assure him, however, that whatever they are, we will engage in proper consultation with the devolved Administrations.

Are there any fundamental principles, as opposed to details and modernity, which conflict between Magna Carta and the Human Rights Act?

The hon. Lady will recognise that Magna Carta was far from a perfect expression of human rights. That is why I say that things have moved on in the past 800 years, and we should welcome that. On the European convention on human rights, the Government have been very clear. We have no quarrel with the wording of the convention; our quarrel is with the way in which it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. That is the problem we seek to address.

Vulnerable Victims and Witnesses

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on dealing with vulnerable victims and witnesses. (900705)

I discuss regularly with the Director of Public of Prosecutions support for vulnerable victims, including measures that the CPS can adopt or apply for in the trial process, and ongoing work between the CPS, the police and the voluntary sector.

I declare an interest as a barrister and a former DPP. Does the Attorney General agree that the time has come for a comprehensive victims’ law, giving enforceable rights from the beginning of the process to the end of the process? If so, will he assure the House that there will be an early consultation on this important issue?

In welcoming the hon. and learned Gentleman to his place, I think he must win the prize for the most impressive declaration of interest so far this morning. He comes at the issue from a uniquely knowledgeable perspective and we are grateful to have him here.

Whether or not the rights of victims are expressed in legislation, there is no doubt that we have more to do to make sure that they are properly supported and informed about the processes of which they are a crucial part. The hon. and learned Gentleman did a huge amount of good work as the Director of Public Prosecutions to assist that process, and, as he knows, there is a good deal more to be done. One of the areas we must look at, straightforwardly, is the opportunity for prosecuting lawyers to speak to victims and witnesses before and after hearings to make sure that they are clear about what is going to happen and what has happened. I think that would be a huge step forward and we will undoubtedly wish to consult the hon. and learned Gentleman and others about what else can be done.

11. I have no legal qualifications whatsoever.Two years ago, a 13-year-old girl was subjected to three weeks of intimidatory and vicious cross-examination by a team of seven barristers—a process that she described as worse than the initial crime. Will the Attorney General update the House on what he is doing to stop such incidents being repeated? (900708)

On my hon. Friend’s declaration of interest, I would simply say that nobody is perfect.

My hon. Friend raises a very serious point. There is no doubt that there have been bad examples of cross-examination in criminal trials. Let us be clear: intimidatory cross-examination is never appropriate. Defence counsel is entitled to put its case to prosecution witnesses, but it should never do so in an intimidatory way. Judges should intervene if that happens, and they now have the power to set ground rules before cross-examination takes place, which is a step forward. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we are in the process of making another huge improvement, namely the piloting of pre-recorded cross-examination for young and vulnerable witnesses, which is much better for many of them. We shall look carefully at the results of those pilots, and if they are what we hope, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor will wish to introduce the process more widely.

I thank the Attorney General for calling me last weekend to brief me on the DPP’s decision to bring criminal proceedings against Greville Janner following the review by David Perry QC. Of course, we on this side of the House welcome that decision. It allows complainants to see the allegations aired before a jury and shows that the Crown Prosecution Service’s victims’ right to review scheme, which was implemented by the former DPP, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), is working as intended. I now hope that the future focus will be on ensuring that historical sex abuse cases are properly funded, so will the Attorney General give a commitment to the £50 million of extra funding that the current DPP says she desperately needs to prosecute such cases?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks, but I shall start with his last point. On the upcoming spending round, he will understand that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General and I will do our very best to make sure that the CPS receives the funding it needs. We should pay tribute to the way in which the CPS has made necessary savings and still maintained a good service on the front line.

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, he knows that it would be wholly wrong for me to say anything at all about the individual case of the noble Lord Janner. In any event, it would not be right for me to do so because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the protocols for Law Officers are clear: we are not engaged in the detail of any potential prosecution against a parliamentarian.

Let me say this as a more general point: it is vital that our system has independent prosecutors—prosecutors who are independent of us as politicians—who make these difficult judgments. We should stand behind them when they do so, and the victims’ right to review, which the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras introduced during his time as DPP, is a positive step to enable victims to challenge those decisions and, where appropriate, for those decisions to be changed. It seems to me that that system worked as it was designed to work in this case.

Order. Owing to an administrative error, the numbering of the questions to the Minister for Women and Equalities continues from the questions to the Attorney General, so we begin with Question 14.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

STEM Careers

14. What steps the Government are taking to encourage more girls and women to take up careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. (900711)

We want girls to be able to choose from the broadest range of careers. The new careers and enterprise company will support greater engagement between employers, schools and colleges to ensure girls get the inspiration and guidance they need to succeed in working life. Parents also have an important role to play through publications such as “Your daughter’s future”.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. In my rural constituency of Boston and Skegness, science and technology plays an ever more important part in agriculture. What opportunities are we taking to make sure that the doors opened to women and girls by studying science and technology are obvious in the rural economy in particular?

I welcome my hon. Friend to his place; I do not think I have heard him speak in the Chamber before. He is absolutely right: rural areas contribute £210 billion to the UK economy. The Government are funding the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to work with private sector employers to support those in low-paid, low-skilled work into higher-paid, higher-skilled work. In phase 1, that funding has supported more than 200 women, who are under-represented in agriculture, land-based engineering and environmental conservation industries.

In Northern Ireland, we have identified a number of job opportunities in engineering that young women have taken up alongside young men. That is because further education and secondary education have worked together to identify where there will be vacancies. What have this Minister and other Ministers done to identify vacancies here, and to give such people those jobs?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: this is about giving young people early advice and guidance on the opportunities that are available to them, and about making sure that no options are shut off. That is why I announced just before Christmas the creation of and our backing for a careers and enterprise company. I was delighted to announce in yesterday’s debate that Claudia Harris will be the new chief executive.

Prison Uniform Policy

15. What recent assessment she has made of the equality implications of the way that the prison uniform policy is applied to male and female prisoners. (900712)

It has long been the case that women are not required to wear prison-issue clothing. Men can earn the opportunity to wear their own clothes under the incentive and earned privileges scheme. That reflects the understanding that the experiences that lead to imprisonment and the impact of imprisonment can be very different for men and for women.

I very much welcome the Minister to her position. Female prisoners do not currently have to wear prison uniforms because it might affect their self-esteem. Research by the Ministry of Justice that was supposed to back that up was so deficient that it was not even published. In the interests of real equality, not just the “equality but only when it suits” agenda, will she get on with ensuring that both male and female prisoners have to wear prison uniforms?

I am interested in equality whether it suits or not. The fact is that 95% of prisoners are men, and our entire prison system is largely designed with them in mind and to suit them. I make no apologies for the fact that I believe our prisons should be places of rehabilitation as well as punishment. If this small compromise helps to achieve that aim, it is well worth doing.

I thank the Minister for noticing that one of the problems with the prison system is that women prisoners are too often treated as though they were “not men” prisoners. Will she tell the House how far from their children the average woman prisoner is compared with the average male prisoner who has children?

That is a detailed question, and I will of course write to the right hon. Lady with a full answer. We take the needs of women in our prisons very seriously. Lots of schemes are being introduced to help to build and maintain bonds for women, particularly those who have caring responsibilities, not least the use of video links so that they can keep in contact. Babies and children are allowed into some parts of our prisons, and we will keep that under review.

Rather than focusing on uniforms, what lessons does the Minister take from the work of the Scottish charity Families Outside to ensure that offenders, in particular mothers, can continue to play a role in their children’s lives, which reduces the likelihood that they will reoffend, and from the measures taken by the Scottish Government towards a custody in the community approach to female offenders?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point, and I am very happy to look at the charity that she mentions. We have to look at the individual needs of mothers, particularly if they are sole carers, because in many cases we must consider what will happen to the children if their mothers are in prison. Judges look at every case individually and take into consideration whether mothers have caring responsibilities, and we know that they will continue to do so.

Gender Pay Gap

As we discussed in the House only yesterday, the gender pay gap has fallen to its lowest level ever, at 19.1%, and has been virtually eliminated among full-time workers under the age of 40. We remain determined to eliminate the gender pay gap for all, which is why we will require larger employers to publish gender pay information. We will publish an initial consultation on that soon, with a view to making regulations as soon as we can.

We heard the views of many Members in an important debate yesterday. In my constituency, the gender pay gap is about 29.8%, which is above the national average. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must all do more to highlight the importance of tackling the gap?

I entirely agree that it is crucial that we continue to raise awareness of the gender pay gap among employers and employees. I am sure that as the new champion for her constituency, my hon. Friend will do that. One way is to challenge gender stereotypes in schools through the Opening Doors project, which I know Cams Hill school in her constituency is participating in.

The gap is even larger when taken with ethnicity, particularly for Bangladeshi, Pakistani and African-origin women. How will the Minister address that?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We need to inspire young people about career options and subject choices when they are at school, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. Often, women end up in careers in the five c’s—cleaning, catering, clerical, cashiering and caring—for which salaries tend to be lower. As we discussed yesterday, there are many complex reasons for the gender pay gap, and we will do all we can to tackle them.

28. As my right hon. Friend has said, the group of women who endure the largest gap in pay by comparison with their male peers is those over the age of 40. What is she doing specifically to address that? Many of those women are highly talented and highly skilled, but we as a country are not getting the best out of them. (900725)

We are going to take forward Baroness Altmann’s recommendations on older workers, including workplace training irrespective of age, and stamping out age discrimination in the recruitment process. My right hon. Friend will be aware, as she was the Minister when it was set up, that the Women’s Business Council has a specific strand of work on older workers staying on in work. There are also the pilots for carers that I mentioned yesterday.

Does the Minister agree that in places where the living wage is implemented, the main beneficiaries are often women? What steps is she taking to incentivise companies to pay the living wage?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The Government have made it clear that we would like employers to consider paying the living wage, but it has to be the right decision for them. We have made moves to increase the minimum wage, and we have increased the level at which people start to pay income tax, which has disproportionately affected women.

32. In a letter from the Minister’s Department in March, I was informed that the greatest gender pay gap could be found in the finance and insurance sectors, in which it is 35.2%. Is that a problem? If so, what specifically is she doing about it with those sectors? (900729)

My hon. Friend raised this issue in one of the last Women and Equalities questions sessions of the last Parliament. He is right that the full-time gender pay gap in financial and insurance activities is 35.2%. I refer him to the answer that I gave earlier about the need to inspire young people and make sure that girls in particular do not count themselves out of particular careers, or out of specific subject choices at school so that they cannot go into those careers later on.

The gender pay gap in Coventry increased to 16.2% in 2014, up from 15% the previous year. What targeted action are the Government taking to address the issue in areas such as mine where the gender pay gap has widened rather than narrowed in recent years?

The figure that the hon. Lady gives is thankfully smaller than the overall United Kingdom figure, but that does not mean it is acceptable. I am sure she will work with employers in her constituency when the regulations are published and brought into force to ensure that employers work hard on gender pay transparency and take specific steps to tackle the gap.


17. What steps the Government are taking to encourage women looking for work to consider careers in all sectors of the economy. (900714)

It is vital that women can access good quality careers guidance throughout their working lives. The National Careers Service provides more than 1 million people annually with impartial and professional careers information to help them enter work or learning. Priority groups, including women returners and the low-skilled, can also receive in-depth face-to-face guidance with a qualified careers advisor.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the initiative from BP in schools in my constituency, such as Annecy catholic primary school and Seaford Head, to encourage girls and young women to study science, technology, engineering and maths to set them up for jobs in the future?

I greatly welcome that initiative and I am delighted that BP has also pledged to work with schools under the Your Life campaign as part of a wider call to action for business to boost girls’ participation in engineering and technology. As my hon. Friend says, inspiring young people—particularly girls—to choose STEM careers is a key challenge for our economy.

The European Union recently decided to dictate to this country that we have too many women not in work who are staying at home to look after their children. Does the Minister think it wrong that the EU should stigmatise women who want to stay at home and work, and would she like to tell the European Union to butt out?

With particular reference to consideration of careers in all sectors of the economy—not that I wish to suggest that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to shoehorn into this matter his own particular preoccupation with British approaches to the European Union. Far be it from me to suggest anything of the kind.

I shall take your direction, Mr Speaker, and say that we are talking about choice of careers, and that choice of course extends to women staying at home and looking after their families. We want women to be able to make that choice, as well as fathers, as often it will be they who stay at home. I am tempted by my hon. Friend’s invitation to speak to the European Union. I might change the language, but I think I will take him up on his offer.

Participation in Public Life

18. What steps the Government are taking to continue to ensure greater participation of women across all areas of public life. (900715)

Following the general election we now have the highest number of women in Parliament in our history, although we recognise that we still have further to go. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) who has been elected as the first chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. That Committee will play a pivotal role, and we are sure that it will take a close interest in increasing the number of women in public life.

I thank my hon. Friend for that fine reply and look forward to seeing that work in action. I am proud to support the Government in their steps to increase the representation of women in Parliament and to give local communities more power to shape their future. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage women to stand for their local councils?

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place and as the new chair of the all-party group for women in Parliament. How can we get more women to be local councillors? I know that my hon. Friend served as a local councillor, as have many colleagues across the House, and she will know that women are under-represented on local councils, making up only 31.7% of members. That is why schemes such as the Be a Councillor campaign, which has been run by the Local Government Association since 2012, are important. We want to encourage new candidates from all walks of life to come forward and represent their local community.

Despite the lauded progress that is apparently being made, only 26% of 110 Government posts are occupied by women. Does the Minister agree that it would be a fine time to follow the example of the Scottish Government and persuade the Prime Minister to create a gender-balanced Cabinet?

We have made enormous progress on that and a third of the Cabinet is now female. I do not like the idea of quotas—I may speak for myself on that—and I do not like anybody thinking that the women in Parliament or in our Cabinet are there only because we took men out of the equation. We know that all women in Parliament and in our Cabinet are there under their own merits.

What steps are the Government taking to promote mentoring and positive role models to encourage greater participation in public life across all sectors?

Mentoring can play a fantastic role in all areas of public life and business. The Meet a Mentor scheme across the UK is encouraging women into business, and I would like such schemes to be extended to other areas of public and political life.

Education (Equal Treatment)

19. What steps she is taking to ensure that there is equal treatment of women and girls in every school, college and university. (900716)

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits educational institutions from treating girls as second class in the quality or choice of their education. My Department—the Department for Education—takes seriously its responsibilities under the Act. We consider equality when deciding whether to open new schools and they are held to account through a rigorous inspection once they are open.

Does the Secretary of State not agree that there is a worrying tendency, certainly in some of the schools that I have visited up and down the country? I believe that separate is never equal, and separate education for girls in many faith schools is seen as important. I disagree. What does she think about it?

In co-educational schools, our expectation is that boys and girls will be taught together. There may be limited practical exceptions to that, such as elements of sex and relationship education or PE, and there may be situations when there is a genuine educational benefit. I should also point out that, as we showed in Birmingham last year, we will always respond swiftly and decisively to tackle those unacceptable practices if we discover them.

Access to Jobs (Disabled People)

20. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of Government policies in tackling disadvantages faced by disabled people in accessing jobs. (900717)

Some 3.2 million working-age disabled people are in work, an increase of 238,000 in the past year, which demonstrates the success of our policies. We are building on that by launching specialist employment ability support, expanding the Disability Confident campaign, extending Work Choice and expanding the use of our Access to Work mental health support service.

During the last Parliament, the Government callously closed the Remploy factories, casting thousands of disabled people out of work. Less than 50% of those people are back in work—many grappling with short-time hours and low pay. What is the Minister doing to improve those horrendously unacceptable figures?

Some 1,190 of the 1,537 former employees have already found work; 875 are being supported by a personal case worker; and additional support will remain in place, as is the case for anybody with a disability. I celebrate the fact that 650 disabled people a day over the past 12 months were able to find work.

Does the Minister agree that we have a challenge in ensuring equality of opportunity in employment for people with mental health conditions, and that the Disability Confident campaign has made an excellent start? Will he consider attending the Disability Confident campaign roadshow that I plan to organise in my constituency?

My wife and I would be delighted to support my hon. Friend’s event in North Devon. Mental health is incredibly important. We spent £42 million in the Budget on a series of pilot schemes for telephone, group and face-to-face support. We have provided funding for an extra 40,000 people to receive cognitive behavioural therapy. Through the Access to Work scheme, we are helping 1,500 people, with a 92% retention rate.

Women in Business

With more women in work than ever before, it is vital that they are able to fulfil their potential in business. That is why we are making it easier to balance work and family life, and promoting flexible working and shared parental leave. From next autumn, almost 2 million families could benefit from a new tax-free childcare scheme worth up to £2,000 per child.

Will my hon. Friend join me in applauding the efforts being made by traditionally male-dominated business organisations such as the CBI and the Institute of Directors to champion gender equality in the workplace, and for their efforts to increase female membership?

We welcome the work of the Institute of Directors and others to increase female membership. I congratulate Lady Barbara Judge, who has recently been appointed as the institute’s first female chair. It is vital that women are able to take their place in organisations that have traditionally been male dominated.

26. My constituency has many small businesses run by successful women, such as Louise Beard, who runs the Josefina gift shop, the winner of an Uckfield chamber of commerce business award, but we need to do more to encourage female entrepreneurs. It has been calculated that boosting female entrepreneurship could add some £60 billion to our economy. Will the Minister therefore confirm that she is working with the Secretary of State for Education to ensure that girls at school who aspire to set up their own business later in life know that they will be supported in doing so? (900723)

Yes, I am sure my hon. Friend’s local business will be very pleased with that fine plug. The Secretary of State for Education is nodding furiously at me, so I can reassure my hon. Friend that encouraging schoolgirls to become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs is central to the work of the Department for Education. Last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education announced a new careers and enterprise company which, among other things, will develop an enterprise passport to help young people to develop their business skills.

Educational Inequalities (BAME Communities)

22. What steps the Government are taking to address educational inequalities experienced by BAME communities. (900719)

We are determined to ensure that every child, regardless of background, is given an education that allows them to fulfil their potential, and that includes an understanding of fundamental British values. We have invested more than £6 billion in the pupil premium to date. Disadvantaged pupil attainment has risen, including among poor pupils from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Schools such as Whitefield infant school and nursery, which was recently rated as outstanding and which I visited with my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), have been part of that transformation.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Education in Bradford is at the bottom of the league tables, but it is much worse for those from the BAME community or working-class backgrounds who have to overcome further hurdles. Does she believe that, in order to make a positive difference and address the problem of educational inequality, there needs to be a change in policy? Will she work to make Bradford a pilot for reinstating the highly successful city challenge, so that we can reduce educational inequality in the city?

I am sorry that I missed the hon. Gentleman’s maiden speech, which I think he gave in the Education and Adoption Bill debate. I understand that he expressed very clearly, as he has again today, his passion for good education for all students in Bradford. He wants exactly what I want, which is educational excellence everywhere in our country. We have some fantastic schools and fantastic teachers, but they are not yet everywhere. I take his point about the attainment of those from black and minority ethnic communities. It is possible, as we have seen in other schools, for them to achieve very highly. We have spent £36 million in pupil premium funding in the past year in Bradford. I am very happy to hear more from him about how he would like to take this forward.

Does the Secretary of State agree that to help address educational inequalities, more academics from BAME backgrounds should be present in our higher education system? Only 85 of the 18,500 professors in UK academia are black, and within that number only 17 are women. The statistics are equally damning in senior management roles, with only 15 black academics. What are the Government doing to boost BAME representation in our universities?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: there is a lack of diversity, and not just in higher education institutions; unfortunately, we see that in other parts of our society, too. Higher education is not within the Department for Education’s remit, but I would be very happy to talk to the Minister responsible for higher education. The hon. Lady is also absolutely right to identify the importance of role models. I am sure she will join me in recognising that in the recent Queen’s birthday honours list more than 51% of the recipients of honours were women.

Career Progression

23. What steps the Government are taking to ensure more women are appointed to boards and to help them progress in their chosen career. (900720)

The Government have been supporting Lord Davies to achieve the 25% target of women on boards of FTSE 100 companies by this year. We are improving transparency and providing more support to businesses, such as through the Women’s Business Council, within and outside the corporate sector, to help them to build their talent pipeline and to utilise and develop all the talents in their female workforce.

It is great news that the Institute of Directors has appointed its first female chair in its 112-year history, but the fact remains that women still make up only about 20% of the membership of boards. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the key ways to redress the balance is by encouraging and inspiring more female executives?

I entirely agree. The latest published figures showed that 23.5% of FTSE 100 board appointments were female, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that that relates particularly to progress made on non-executive directors, not on the executive pipeline. It is important to work with executive search firms, which is why in the previous Parliament the Government worked with them to develop their voluntary code of conduct. That has brought about real cultural change, but of course there is much more to do.

The Secretary of State mentions executive search firms. All too often, board appointments are made by executive search firms that do not actually conduct comprehensive searches but go for the same old candidates. What is she doing specifically to ensure gender balance on shortlists? Does she welcome the launch this evening of Harvey Nash’s Inspire apprentice board programme?

I am very happy to welcome the publication by Harvey Nash to which the hon. Lady has referred. She may be aware that in July last year the previous Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills launched the voluntary enhanced code for executive search firms, which built on the Lord Davies report of 2011. The aim was to recognise and reflect on those executive search firms that were already working to improve gender equality in British boardrooms. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that adverts often ask for the same old skills and do not recognise other experiences that women might have had that they could bring to the boardrooms of our top companies.

Order. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) has already contributed on Question 15, which we all savoured, but I am afraid that it is not possible for a Member to contribute twice in the same session. I urge the hon. Lady to store it and use it on a subsequent occasion. We look forward to that with eager anticipation. Meanwhile, I call Gloria de Piero.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate the England women’s football team? Last night’s result was gutting, but as captain Steph Houghton said, they can walk away with their heads held high—they did their country proud.

Since 2011, fewer than 10 women have been appointed to executive positions on FTSE 100 boards. Will the Secretary of State set a target?

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady about the pride we all saw in the England women’s football team playing last night. She invites me to set a target for executive appointments on boards. I am not a great fan of targets, but I agree that much more progress needs to be made.

Ah, the usual dexterity of a QC. We are grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman, who is also an Arsenal fan, so he has many reasons to celebrate.

Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation is a barbaric act, for which there can be no excuse. It is child abuse. Girls may be particularly at risk during the summer holidays. We are introducing FGM protection orders on 17 July this year. An order could, for example, require a passport to be surrendered to prevent a girl from being taken abroad for FGM. Border Force and the police will also carry out joint operations over the summer, targeting outbound and inbound flights.

We are coming to that time of year when girls are trafficked abroad for this barbaric practice to be undertaken. Does the Minister agree that it is critically important in this area to ensure that health care and safeguarding professionals have full and proper support to tackle FGM? What is she doing to ensure that that is the case this year?

My hon. and learned Friend makes a very good point. The Government recognise the importance of equipping those on the front line with the tools they need to tackle FGM—and that means across the board. The Department of Health has funded a £3 million FGM prevention programme to support NHS staff and the Department for Education has provided £2 million to support a national programme, backed by Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association, that will create a highly specialised team of skilled social workers.

Family Courts (Equal Treatment)

25. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on equal treatment of men and women in the family courts. (900722)

Family law does not discriminate between men and women, and the family courts apply the law to men and women equally. Judges know that they must not discriminate on any grounds, including gender.

The recent case involving a woman who ran away with her son to frustrate an order of the court is the tip of an enormous iceberg. Many children lose contact with their fathers each year, due to women wilfully obstructing child arrangements orders. Will the Minister undertake research on the impact of that on the life chances of the children affected?

My hon. Friend speaks about an emotive subject, but the law changed last October and now requires the family court to presume that each parent’s involvement will further the child’s welfare unless there is evidence to the contrary. However, the child’s welfare remains a paramount consideration for the court. Where either parent breaches a child arrangements order without a reasonable excuse, the court has the power to deal with it, including by imposing community sentences or even by treating the breach as a contempt of court, punishable by imprisonment or a fine.

Legal Aid (Domestic Violence)

27. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on reviewing the eligibility test that victims of domestic violence must pass to obtain legal aid. (900724)

Tackling domestic violence is a core priority for the Government. Following an early review of the system, we introduced a number of changes to make it easier for victims to gain access to legal aid. They include making acceptable forms of evidence such as domestic violence protection orders, and making existing forms of evidence easier to acquire.

When criminal justice agencies fail to respond appropriately to domestic and sexual violence, women pay with their lives. What is the Government’s response to the inquiry conducted by the all-party parliamentary group on domestic and sexual violence, which established that 89% of experts had found that women did not have access to justice? Were those experts wrong?

I shall be happy to give the hon. Lady a full response in writing, but I can tell her that the number of convictions has risen to its highest ever level under this Government. We will be reviewing the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which transformed the legal aid landscape, and, as my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary said last week, we will ensure that the very richest in our legal aid system do a little bit more.

STEM Careers

29. What steps the Government are taking to encourage more girls and women to take up careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. (900726)

I refer my hon. Friend to my earlier answers on this topic. I should add, however, that the Government support a STEM ambassadors programme involving a nationwide network of more than 30,000 volunteers employed by science, engineering and technical companies. They work with schools throughout the United Kingdom, and 40% of them are women.

Oaklands Catholic school, which is in my constituency, is taking part in the Opening Doors pilot project initiated by the Institute of Physics to tackle gender stereotyping in schools. Will my right hon. Friend update us on what the outcome of the project will be?

I am delighted to say that the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), attended Oaklands. We are funding the Institute of Physics to pilot methods of addressing gender stereotyping, and the institute has enabled two regional networks of schools to work together on the project. A good practice guide will provide advice for schools on how to identify and address gender stereotyping.

33. Since 2010, the number of female A-level entries has risen in all STEM subjects. As a former biomedical scientist, I think that that is fantastic news for the future of British industry. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that we continue to attract talented young women to STEM professions, and that females continue to study STEM subjects when they enter further education? (900730)

I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. What has been interesting about this Question Time is the number of Members who have asked about inspiring young people, and girls in particular, to study STEM subjects. That is very encouraging. Given my hon. Friend’s background, I hope that she will consider becoming a STEM ambassador, if she has not done so already, so that she can inspire the next generation.

As I have said, we support the Education and Employers Taskforce, whose Inspiring the Future programme enables volunteers to talk to young people in schools about possible future careers.