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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 600: debated on Thursday 15 October 2015

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Human Rights Act 1998

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on proposals for reform of the Human Rights Act 1998. (901576)

2. What steps he plans to take to ensure that proposals for reform of the Human Rights Act 1998 meet the UK’s domestic and international human rights obligations. (901577)

The Justice Secretary and I meet regularly to discuss important issues of common interest, including on domestic and international human rights law. I am not, as the House knows, able to talk about any legal content of those discussions, because, by convention, whether the Law Officers have given advice or not is not disclosed outside government.

The public need to be aware that withdrawing from the Human Rights Act does not mean that we will withdraw from human rights, because people will still be able to have those rights. It is just that rather than get them in British courts they will have to traipse off to Strasbourg to get them. The British public need to be made aware of the situation. The issue, of course, is about the convention. Are the Government proposing to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, a move that would remove human rights in this country, rather than just from the Human Rights Act?

The hon. Gentleman is right to a certain extent, but of course he will have to wait for the proposals that the Justice Secretary will make on human rights reform. The other point for the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind is that it is not just the Court in Strasbourg that protects the human rights of British citizens. The British courts do, too, and I believe we can rely on the robustness and good sense of British judges to protect those rights.

Because so many people in my constituency had written to me expressing their concerns about the Government’s plans on this issue, I organised a meeting during the recess. The dozens of people who came along had one simple question, which I hope the Attorney General will be able to answer: which of the rights currently contained within the Human Rights Act would he and the Government wish to see excluded from a British Bill of Rights?

Again, as the hon. Gentleman has heard me say, he will have to wait for the precise proposals we are going to make. It is worth pointing out that the rights he is talking about are found not in the Human Rights Act, but in the European convention on human rights. The Government have made it clear, as I have on previous occasions, that we do not object to the content of the convention—we object to the way it is interpreted.

One important issue in terms of the credibility of the European Court of Human Rights is the quality of the judges. We are shortly to appoint a new British judge, so can the Attorney General assure us that we will ensure that we have a judge of the very highest quality appointed? Unfortunately, the quality some of the appointments from other jurisdictions, not ours, have in the past caused concerns to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

My hon. Friend is entirely right that the quality of the judiciary matters hugely, in Strasbourg and elsewhere. As he has heard me say, we share confidence in the quality of the British judiciary, and I hope very much that one of those excellent judges will be prepared to serve in Strasbourg so that our point of view can be clearly represented.

Does the Attorney General agree that the most convincing argument as to why this Government must press ahead with this move as quickly as possible is set out on page 60 of the Conservative party manifesto? It states:

“The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights.”

Some 11.3 million people voted for that and they will expect it to be carried out quickly.

My hon. Friend will know that I share his enthusiasm for this reform, and I stood on that manifesto, too, and believe in it. But it is important also to make sure that we get this reform right and that we have the details worked out before we announce what we wish to do. There will of course also be an opportunity for all Members of this House to comment on what is proposed, because I know that the Justice Secretary intends to consult on the matter.

The proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act and the potential withdrawal from the ECHR has serious constitutional implications for Scotland. Has the Attorney General seen the proposals and will he be delivering legal advice before they are published in the public domain?

As the hon. Gentleman has heard me say to the Select Committee, I would certainly expect to see the proposals before they are published. He is right, of course, that the devolution consequences of any changes that might be made are significant or potentially significant, depending on what is done. I am afraid that, until we see what is proposed, it is difficult to assess exactly what those consequences might be.

When my constituents say, “Philip, we voted Conservative because we wanted to get rid of the Human Rights Act, when is it going to happen?” what should I tell them?

My hon. Friend can tell his constituents, as we should all tell our constituents, that manifesto promises matter, and this Government intend to honour their manifesto. Of course, a manifesto does not all have to be delivered in the first six months of government. We will seek to do so as soon as possible. I know that the Justice Secretary and his colleagues are working very hard on bringing forward proposals.

Does the Attorney General accept that the continuing uncertainty about whether the UK will remain a signatory to the ECHR is itself damaging? Given that the proposal for a British Bill of Rights has been around in the Conservative party for a considerable time, why cannot the Attorney General be certain and tell us whether the UK will remain a signatory to the ECHR or not?

I do not accept that that uncertainty is damaging. What is happening is that we are seeking a better settlement on the arrangements at Strasbourg. We believe that, on issues such as prisoner voting, it is important that this House, not the Court in Strasbourg, should make the decision. That requires a discussion with the Council of Europe. That discussion will take place. It is important that we on the Conservative Benches at least say that the status quo is unacceptable and that we need to do something about it. If the Opposition believe that the status quo is acceptable, they should make that clear.

Order. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) is something of a veteran at chuntering from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of the thrust of the Government Front-Bench team’s position, but he will have his opportunity, on his feet, in due course.

Rape and Domestic Violence

4. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence in the last two years. (901579)

8. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence in the last two years. (901584)

This year, more cases of violence against women and girls have been referred from the police, charged, prosecuted and convicted than ever before. The work undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service and the police on rape and domestic abuse culminated in the highest volumes ever of prosecutions and convictions in 2014-15.

In the West Mercia region, in which my constituency is located, we have seen the rape crisis go up this year to 700 from 400 cases. Can my hon. and learned Friend assure me that we are doing everything we can to make sure that these people are prosecuted?

CPS West Midlands has a specialist rape and serious sexual offences unit in recognition of the increasing volume of rape and serious sexual offences reported. CPS West Midlands has increased the size of the unit and the team continues to work very closely with the police, victims groups and the independent Bar to ensure that strong cases are built and witnesses looked after.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his original answer. Has he brought forward any specific steps to support an increase in convictions where men are the victims of rape or domestic abuse?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and let me assure him that when it comes to the prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences, it applies equally to men as to women. Boys, of course, can also sadly be the victims of sexual abuse. Sentencing guidelines, of course, draw no distinction of gender, and neither should the investigation or prosecution of offences.

Despite claims of the highest number of convictions ever, the fact is that in the last year the number of convictions for rape, domestic abuse and other serious sexual offences has fallen. What is the Solicitor General going to do to turn those worrying figures around?

I think the hon. Gentleman means that the rate has fallen slightly. I think it important to continue to prosecute more and more of these cases. For too long, many victims have found that their cases have not even been brought to court. Looking at the analysis of rape convictions, I am encouraged to see that the number of convictions that have not been brought because of a prosecution failure is reducing, so drilling down and looking at the reasons for the non-convictions is very important. We have to continue progress in that direction.

Successfully prosecuting rape and domestic violence cases clearly requires a properly resourced CPS, yet the budget has been slashed by 25% since 2010 and the rate of ineffective and cracked trials owing to prosecution issues is at a five-year high. With senior respected personnel leaving and expressing grave concerns, do the Solicitor General and the Attorney General really believe that the CPS can sustain more cuts on the same scale and still deliver justice?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is in error when she suggests that the number of ineffective trials is at an all-time high. As I have said, the number of cases being prosecuted continues to increase, and there is no question of prosecutions not being brought because of a lack of resources. Rape and serious sexual offences units are well resourced, and they will continue to be resourced by the CPS.

Vulnerable Witnesses

5. What steps he plans to take to protect child witnesses in sex abuse and other cases from intimidation during cross- examination. (901580)

11. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve its engagement with and support for vulnerable witnesses. (901587)

The defence case has to be put to all prosecution witnesses, but in order to ensure effective cross-examination, a mandatory advocacy course for all defence advocates is being developed and will include the cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses. Pre-recorded cross-examination has already been piloted successfully, and we are committed to a national roll-out.

In 2011, at Stafford Crown court, a victim of child abuse was cross-examined in a vicious and intimidatory way for 12 days by a team of seven barristers, during a session in which the judge was generally thought to have lost control of the courtroom. Such cross-examination is a massive disincentive for others to come forward. Four years later, may I ask what steps have been taken to prevent it from happening again?

I well remember that case. The good news is that in the retrial matters were handled very differently, and the outcome was successful. However, intimidatory cross-examination should not happen. Judges have a duty to ensure that young witnesses are not cross-examined inappropriately. As I have said, a new advocacy course is being developed to ensure that that sort of abuse does not happen again.

Will the Solicitor General tell us what the CPS is doing to help vulnerable witnesses, such as victims of human trafficking, to give evidence in courts?

Recently, the CPS drew up new guidelines for the care of witnesses in court. Those guidelines are currently being piloted and will be rolled out nationally in the new year. They will go a long way towards supporting witnesses, while avoiding the dangers of coaching witnesses in the giving of evidence, which, of course, would not be desirable.

In the last few years, it has become clear that a great many young people have been sexually abused over a number of years and are traumatised by that abuse. Can the Solicitor General assure the House that the necessary resources are available so that the young people in all those cases can be looked after?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. As I have said many times before, when it comes to the protection of vulnerable witnesses and complainants in criminal cases, the CPS is always working to improve its processes so that the experience can be as smooth as possible. What we do not want is a repeat, in effect, of the abuse that those people originally suffered when they come to court and give evidence.

14. Operation Bullfinch, in Oxford, introduced a number of radically different procedures for coping with vulnerable witnesses. What lessons have been learnt from that? (901590)

I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in improving the processes as a result of that case, which helped to revolutionise the way in which the investigatory authorities all work together. There have been a number of other successful investigations in his own police area, which are helping to improve national practice, and there is a much greater understanding across the country of the way in which such cases can be effectively prosecuted.


The role of the Law Officers in relation to military action overseas is to advise as necessary on legal questions, not to authorise the action. The use of drones in military action overseas does not of itself necessarily give rise to legal questions. The deployment of one form of equipment or another rarely does, in and of itself. Whether legal questions arise will depend on the operational context in which any form of military deployment was undertaken, and the reason for it.

Technological development can undermine legislation under all Governments, but particularly under this Government, who seem to have no strategy for it. We need to know that, while the strikes may be made by drones, the decision makers are still accountable to the House. When will the Attorney General establish a clear legislative and ethical framework in relation to future drone strikes?

Again, that is not my role within government, but the hon. Lady knows that the Prime Minister was extremely eager to come to Parliament and explain the basis of the decision to take the drone strike of 21 August, and he did so on the first available opportunity.

In terms of setting frameworks, it is important of course to treat every case on its merits. In relation to the legal position, as in relation to a political decision making process, each instance will be different and each must be considered on its own facts.

The recent drone strike in Syria was described by the Prime Minister as a “new departure” and a first in modern times. The Prime Minister said he is

“happy to look at what other ways there may be of making sure these sorts of acts are scrutinised”.—[Official Report, 7 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 31.]

Given that any action must be necessary and proportionate to meet the key legal tests, will the Attorney General update us on the discussions between the Government and the Intelligence and Security Committee on reviewing the action and any framework that will be put in place to ensure proper scrutiny in future?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities and wish her well in them. I have no doubt that the new Chairman of the ISC will be discussing with the Government what inquiries they wish to take forward. On my engagement in the process, as the hon. Lady understands, the Law Officers convention makes it clear that legal advice is not disclosed outside government, nor in the generality of cases is even the fact of legal advice disclosed, but she knows, too, that in relation to this incident I thought it was right and proper that the fact of legal advice having been given should be disclosed, and it was. I hope she will understand how difficult it is to go any further than that without undermining the good reasons that I believe lie behind the LOC.

Court Time

7. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that court time is not wasted. (901582)

The listing of court cases is a judicial function and a responsibility of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, but when cases are listed the CPS takes steps to make sure the prosecution case is properly prepared and ready for an effective court hearing so the time set aside is fully utilised.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but during a visit to Corby magistrates court I was shocked to hear about how much court time is wasted owing to the CPS not having its case together in time for when it is scheduled. Does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable for cases that are not complete to be brought to court? We really do need to get away from this; it is unacceptable and it wastes not only time but money.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I know he works very hard with his local courts service. A lot of innovation with regard to transforming summary justice and the increasing use of digital processes is leading to quicker timescales, much more effective first hearings and a more efficient use of court time, so I think he has reasons to be optimistic.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

A constituent of mine who is a very competent manager recently did jury service. He said the court system was medieval and it was about time someone came in and organised it better, managed it better and gave a real return to the taxpayer, with better justice delivered quickly.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. After many years in the courts system myself, I understand his constituent’s concerns. The good news is that a lot of work is being done to digitise the paperwork so that time can be saved. Already there is a new proposed roll-out next year, which will co-ordinate the way in which the courts work with the CPS and other agencies so the sort of delays that irritated his constituent can be reduced and removed.

Human Trafficking Offences: Forced Labour

9. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the number of successful prosecutions for human trafficking offences involving forced labour. (901585)

In advance of the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 the CPS delivered joint training with the police and issued guidance to strengthen prosecutions. In forced labour cases the CPS also encourages prosecution for other offences such as trafficking for forced labour, money laundering, benefit and mortgage fraud, tax evasion and Gangmasters (Licensing) Act offences.

Given the sheer number of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, taking action against human traffickers is of the utmost importance in protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable people. What steps is my hon. and learned Friend taking to improve the confiscation of the proceeds of exploiting migrant workers into modern-day slavery?

I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in this issue. The Crown Prosecution Service is helping to improve the situation by building capacity and capability in other countries, because this is an international problem. This is being done by better linking the work of the regional asset recovery teams with that of the human trafficking investigators, so that financial investigation can become sharper and more efficient.

13. My hon. and learned Friend has outlined what is being done on an international basis. Will he go further and confirm that the Immigration Bill, which had its Second Reading this week, will help to tackle this disgraceful problem at a domestic level? (901589)

The Minister for Immigration and I have the duty of taking that Bill through its stages in this House, and I can assure my hon. Friend that its provisions will dovetail well to improve the range of tools that the authorities have to protect victims of trafficking and prosecute perpetrators.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Women and Girls in Sport

1. What steps the Government are taking to increase the participation of women and girls in sport. (901556)

9. What steps the Government are taking to increase the participation of women and girls in sport. (901564)

First, I would like to welcome the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) to their new positions. I should also like to thank the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) for her commitment to promoting equality.

The Government are determined to tackle this important issue. The award-winning This Girl Can campaign is a fantastic example of the work we have been doing to encourage women into sport. It features real women of all different shapes, sizes and abilities taking part in sport and, most importantly, having fun. We know that 75% of women want to be more active, and this campaign, which has been viewed by more than 13 million people, offers them the inspiration to do just that.

The Pendle sports awards, which took place just two weeks ago, recognised the achievements of sportswomen across Pendle, including Bethany Widdup, who is now a member of the British ski team, and many others who have excelled thanks to grass-roots sports clubs across Pendle. What more can my hon. Friend do to give our local sports clubs the help they need to get even more women and girls involved?

First, I should like to add my own congratulations to Bethany. Awards such as those in Pendle provide a fantastic way of recognising the enormous effort that goes into grass-roots sport across the country, almost always involving incredible volunteers. Schemes such as satellite clubs, supported by Sport England, are helping to link schools and colleges to grass-roots sports clubs across the country, giving a better sporting experience to children and young people.

This week I watched the excellent film “Suffragette”, which illustrated just how far we have progressed in creating a fair and equal society over the past 100 years. Does the Minister agree that sport is a very effective way of continuing to make such progress? Will she join me in congratulating the media on the much greater coverage that is now being given to the participation of women in sport?

I absolutely agree. We have further to go, but—without wishing to rub salt into the wounds of our English gentlemen—I must mention the fact that the brilliant performance of our women’s teams in the recent football, rugby and netball world cups has showcased some fantastic role models and demonstrated character and success. That is exactly why they deserve all the media coverage they are getting—and, indeed, much more.

If we are to build a healthier society, our children will need to engage in sport from a very young age. This applies especially to girls, who, sadly, opt out all too frequently. Some excellent youth programmes for boys and girls are running in Taunton Deane, including the centre for cricketing excellence, Taunton Vale hockey club, Taunton rugby club and Taunton football club. Will the Minister expand a little further on what the Government are doing, especially for young schoolchildren’s participation in sport?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The good news is that, in Taunton, 4,700 more women are regularly playing sport today than in 2005. Research published by the Government Equalities Office shows that year 3 is the critical stage at which to keep girls motivated to play sport. That is the last academic year before the difference between girls and boys—in terms of confidence, body image and sporting participation—starts to grow. That is why investment in schools sports, such as the £150 million a year for primary PE, is so vital for helping girls to develop this very healthy habit for life.

I commend Manchester City football club for its women and girls programme, which provides 12 weekly sessions free of charge to girls and women between the ages of 14 and 25 to increase their participation in football. Do we not need to see other such examples spread right across football in the country?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fantastic point. It is an incredibly successful girls’ football team, and I know that the sports Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), is a huge champion of women’s football and not a bad football player herself.

There are great opportunities for girls to participate in sport, especially in rugby and football, at schools and universities. What has been done to provide that same provision at clubs after university?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We want to encourage that participation through school, university and out into life afterwards. That is why the This Girl Can campaign, which shows real women taking part in sport that is fun and not just competitive, has been such a fantastic way of encouraging them to get out there and lead a healthy lifestyle.

15. As the chairman of the all-party group for running and the father of a young daughter, I am very keen to encourage more girls to take up running, particularly through the excellent parkrun scheme. Mr Speaker, those runs are a great way to start a Saturday morning for those who, like yourself, have a young family. I recommend three miles around your local park. What is the impact of the Government’s investment in the school sports premium particularly on the take-up of sport by girls? (901570)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he is no mean marathon runner himself. Running is a fantastic form of exercise and parkrun has been particularly effective at encouraging inactive people and those from all age groups to get involved in sport. In recognition of that, Sport England is investing £400,000 in parkrun to support its work. The primary PE and sports premium has been really effective in allowing schools to tailor this offer to pupils, giving them suitable opportunities to target particular groups, especially girls.

Gender Pay Gap

2. What steps she is taking to tackle the causes of the gender pay gap (a) in general and (b) in STEM careers. (901557)

I echo my hon. Friend’s welcome to the new shadow Ministers and I look forward to debates on these important issues.

The gender pay gap has fallen to its lowest ever level, but any gap at all is unacceptable, which is why the Prime Minister has pledged to eliminate the gap in a generation. Transparency is an important step in tackling the matter, which is why, within 100 days of the election, the Government have taken steps to fulfil their manifesto commitment by launching a consultation on legislation that will require companies to publish details of their gender pay gap. We must also tackle the causes themselves, by encouraging girls to consider a wide range of careers, including those in the science, technology, engineering and maths fields, and by transforming our workplaces.

I thank the Minister for her answer. The overall pay gap of 2014 stands at 19.1%. Does she agree that more needs to be done to help full-time carers and full-time parents who decide to re-enter the workplace so that we can reduce the pay gap?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Interestingly, the gender pay gap in her own constituency is 14.3%, which is below the national average. Of course we must help more parents to get back into the workplace. I am very clear that childcare is not just a women’s issue, but a parents’ issue, which is why we are introducing flexible working, shared parental leave and more free childcare. We are also tackling the barriers that affect carers, which is why we launched nine pilots across England to test different approaches to supporting female carers to remain in work.

The Minister knows well that girls who give up STEM subjects early on do not get into good management jobs later on. Is it not important to measure how many women are getting into senior positions, particularly in the private sector?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is why transparency is so important and why the regulations that we propose will cover the private sector. He is right in what he says. Women form 47% of the workforce, but make up only 34% of managers, directors and senior officials. This must be the time to make the change.

I applaud the Minister and the Government for their commitment to eliminate the gender pay gap. This generation of women over 50 working full time earn just two thirds of what men of the same age earn. What specific policies do this Government have to address that particular enduring pay gap?

I thank the Chairman of the Women and Equalities Committee for her question. She will know from her time in government that one of the Women’s Business Council’s key strands of work involves helping older workers to stay in work. This is, of course, also about helping women to stay in work for a longer period and to get as high up in their careers as possible before they take time out for caring responsibilities. I have also mentioned the carers pilots because, sadly, even in the 21st century, the burden of caring for older relatives still often falls on women. We have to change that.

A recent report by the Campaign for Science and Engineering found that when parents were asked what type of job they want their child to pursue when they finish education there was a clear gender bias, with parents wanting for their son a career in engineering and for their daughter a career in nursing. Does the Minister agree that it is crucial that we break down those barriers?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is good to see, for example, that maths is now the most popular A-level, and we have more girls studying STEM subjects at both GCSE and A-level. Women are concentrated in the less well-paid occupations, making up 92% of secretaries and 94% of childcare assistants but only 7% of engineers and 20% of architects. Again, that has to change.

Caste Discrimination

3. If she will bring forward legislative proposals to repeal the provisions relating to caste discrimination in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. (901558)

The Government completely oppose caste discrimination and the judgments in the Tirkey v. Chandhok case suggest that legal protection against such discrimination already exists under the Equality Act 2010. We are considering the legislative position in the light of those judgments.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. She will be aware that the case was brought under the Equality Act 2010, not the ill-thought-out and unnecessary amendment made in the other place to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act. This unnecessary and divisive legislation has caused consternation in the Hindu community. Will she undertake not only not to trigger that legislation but to repeal it so that the Hindu community will know where it stands legally?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and I know that he feels passionately about this matter. There are, of course, strong opinions on both sides of the debate. It is important, given the case that I have just mentioned, to remember that the law as it stands has changed because of that judgment. A litigant could now seek to bring a case of caste discrimination in an employment tribunal using the ethnic origin provisions in the Equality Act, which is why we should take time to look at the judgment before making further decisions.

New Businesses (Government Support)

4. What steps the Government are taking to support more women in setting up their own businesses. (901559)

5. What steps the Government are taking to support more women in setting up their own businesses. (901560)

14. What steps the Government are taking to support more women in setting up their own businesses. (901569)

I am delighted that the UK is considered the best place in Europe for women to start a business, but we are not resting on our laurels. That is why we have launched the women in broadband fund and are running meet a mentor roadshows across the country, giving women the support, advice and skills they need.

If the Minister has the opportunity to speak to the Secretary of State for Education, will she encourage her to ensure that girls consider topics such as economics and business studies so that we can get more young women to start their own business?

Well, Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State is nodding furiously at me so I will take that as a yes. We have been celebrating and showcasing women in business as a great way of inspiring the next generation and, of course, we have set up the new business and enterprise company as a great way of showing girls the fantastic careers available to them in both business and enterprise.

I thank the Minister for her original answer. Women entrepreneurs such as Jodie Sheppard from my Havant constituency, who has launched a business helping to improve children’s fitness, are excellent local role models. Does the Minister agree that organisations such as the Women’s Business Council offer excellent support for our women business leaders, and will the Government continue to work hard to help women who want to start their own business?

Jodie Sheppard, who founded Active8 Minds in Havant, is an excellent example of a capable woman running her own business and will, I am sure, be delighted with the fantastic plug her MP has given her business today. I certainly agree that the Women’s Business Council has a vital role in supporting women to reach their potential. We know that if women started their own businesses at the same rate as men do, we would have an extra 1 million women involved and an extra 1 million businesses in the UK.

Cheltenham is home to thousands of talented female entrepreneurs, but broadband and superfast broadband are key to unlocking that potential. How are the Government helping more women in Cheltenham to grow their businesses online?

The fund has been extended for a second year, with an additional £1.1 million to support more women to take their businesses online, enabling them to develop the skills they need to become competitive in a growing digital economy. One example of which my hon. Friend might be aware is the Faster Women project, which is supporting women in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire to develop digital skills. Today, a workshop is taking place in his very own Cheltenham to help women take the first steps to putting their businesses online.

Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination

Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is unlawful and completely unacceptable. The Government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission are working together on the largest independent research project of its kind in Great Britain to better understand the problem. The detail of the final report is due to be published later this year and will inform the Government’s response.

Many women across Salford and Eccles have returned to work after maternity leave with a very uneasy feeling about whether they have a job. The report to which the right hon. Lady refers has found that women returning from maternity leave are even more likely to face discrimination in the workplace than they were a decade ago. What assurances can she offer people in Salford and Eccles that this will not be the case in generations to come?

It is true that when the interim report was published in July this year, we were all disappointed to see that around one in eight women reported that they felt they had to leave work as a result of their pregnancy or maternity leave, but it also shows that the vast majority of employers believe it is important to support pregnant women and women on maternity leave, so we have to build on that. That is why the report will be so helpful in working out exactly what our response should be to make sure that we change this, as the hon. Lady says, not in decades but in a few years ahead.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the work done by Joeli Brearley of Pregnant then Screwed, a Greater Manchester-based organisation campaigning to raise awareness of the appalling examples of discrimination in the workplace? More importantly, will the Minister pledge to work with organisations such as Pregnant then Screwed to help tackle this inequality in the workplace?

I look forward to hearing more about the work that Joeli Brearley has been doing. As I mentioned earlier, we expect the report this year to tell us the types of issues that women face, the perceived discrimination where it is occurring, who is most at risk and which employers in terms of size and sectors are most likely to get complaints. I will then be open to working with all organisations to tackle that discrimination. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me with further details about her constituency organisation, I would be delighted to see them.

Unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination is now more common in Britain’s workplaces than ever before. One in nine women are forced out of their jobs as a result of discrimination in the workplace. In July 2013 the UK Government introduced employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200, amounting to a barrier for women and a charter for rogue employers. What action is the Minister taking to tackle this issue?

Before answering the hon. Lady’s question, may I congratulate her? I understand that she was the winner of the Icon politician of the year award last week for her work. In relation to the fees for employment tribunals, on 11 June this year we announced a post-implementation review of the introduction of fees for employment tribunals. The review is being led by the Ministry of Justice. It is well under way and is due to report later this year. I think we should await the outcome of that review to determine whether current fees or the remission scheme need to be adjusted.

According to research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, one in nine mothers have lost their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination, yet since the introduction of employment tribunal fees nearly seven in 10 cases that could have gone before tribunals are not going ahead, according to Citizens Advice. Why are the Government giving the green light to employers to discriminate against women?

As I said, I welcome the hon. Lady to her position on the shadow Front Bench, but I disagree with her, which will not surprise her. We are not giving any form of encouragement to employers to discriminate. I mentioned the post-implementation review of the introduction of fees, and I should point out that in order to protect the most vulnerable in society, there is already a system of fee remissions under which fees can be waived in part or in full for those who qualify. It is right to try to divert people away from potentially acrimonious proceedings through a conciliation scheme operated by ACAS, but we should also see where the review leads and what it tells us about fees and their impact.

Working Families Tax Credit

8. What comparative assessment she has made of the potential effect on women and men of proposed changes to working families tax credit; and if she will make a statement. (901563)

The Government want to move from a low-wage, high-tax, low-welfare—I mean, high-welfare—society to a high-tax—[Laughter.] This was always going to happen one day; I apologise profusely. We want to move to a high-wage, lower tax, lower welfare society, and this includes some changes to tax credits to help put benefit spending on a more sustainable path. The impact of those changes on different groups with protected characteristics, including gender, has been considered by Treasury Ministers as part of the overall summer Budget package.

The Minister says that it has been considered, but it has not been acted upon. We know that benefits such as child tax credit are twice as big a proportion of women’s income as they are of men’s. He will recall that in August 2014 the Prime Minister said that

“every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family.”

What was the examination in relation to child tax credit, and what has he done about it?

We are in the process of delivering on our deficit reduction imperative, which the House had an opportunity to debate last night. The reductions in tax credits are an important part of that, but they form part of a package, along with measures such as the national living wage, childcare and changes in the personal allowances for income tax. As a result of the income tax change, 660,000 individuals will be lifted out of income tax, 60% of whom will be women. We believe that about two thirds of the beneficiaries of the national living wage will also be women.

Gender Pay Gap

10. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the responses received to the Government Equalities Office’s recent consultation on closing the gender pay gap. (901565)

As I have said, the Government are absolutely committed to eliminating the gender pay gap for good. Our consultation closed on 6 September. We received nearly 700 responses, including from 200 employers and business organisations, including the CBI. The responses from employers have been extremely positive, recognising that we all have a stake in the issue. We will consider the responses and bring forward new regulations shortly.

As my right hon. Friend knows, this subject is of great importance to me, but it leads to a broader question: what are the Government doing to ensure that the pipeline to senior management and director level for women is encouraged, because we still have a 32% earnings differential between women and men in large organisations, which is considerably larger than the 19% alluded to earlier?

My hon. Friend might be interested to know that the gender pay gap in her constituency is 18.2%, which is just below the national average. I agree that this is an important issue. We have more women on FTSE 100 boards than ever before. In fact, we now have no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. Women now make up more than 25% of those boards. However, there is much more to do. She is absolutely right to talk about the executive pipeline. We have to get more women into management and executive positions, and we are currently looking at that issue.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to introducing regulations on compulsory reporting. There is clearly a way to go when the UK’s gender pay gap is 19.1%, which significantly exceeds the European Union average of 16.4%. But does she agree that publishing alone will not be enough? If the information is to be useful, it needs to be consistent, standardised and readily available to workers and their representatives.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her position on the Front Bench. I entirely agree that transparency is important, but the next thing will be what employers, organisations and others do with that information, and how it drives change so that the gender pay gap is eliminated. Also, as we heard from one of her colleagues earlier, it is about how we ensure that women are represented in greater numbers throughout all our workforces.

I am glad that the Minister agrees that the information should be accessible and meaningful, and companies must know that the Government treat this matter with the utmost seriousness. Will she therefore explain why, in the very week that the Prime Minister was proclaiming his support for action at the Conservative party conference, Conservative MEPs were voting against a recommendation that companies should disclose their gender pay gap? Is she not worried about the message that that sends out?

I cannot remember another occasion when a Prime Minister has turned up to something like a CBI conference and chosen the issue of the gender pay gap to highlight. I think that sends the greatest signal. With regard to our MEPs, the view that was taken was that this is a matter for member states, and we could not have a stronger signal from the top of this Government downward that, in this member state, this Government and this Prime Minister intend to tackle the gender pay gap and eliminate it.

Will the Minister organise a meeting in her office to which she can invite the chief executives of the largest employers with the largest gender pay gap and the chief executives of the largest employers with the smallest gender pay gap so that one group can learn from the other?

I thank my hon. Friend for that very practical suggestion. I am sure that my officials have taken a careful note of it, so we will go away and see how and when we can make it happen.

Science, Engineering and Maths

11. What steps she is taking to increase the number of girls studying science, engineering and maths at school and university.


In the week in which we celebrate Ada Lovelace day, let us be clear that we cannot allow any girl to grow up thinking that some careers are off limits because of their gender or background. It is almost exactly one year since we launched the fantastic Your Life campaign, which is encouraging more and more girls to consider careers in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—related fields. As I have said previously in this House, the UK needs 83,000 engineers a year over the next 10 years, and, to be frank, they cannot all be men.

I am pleased that record numbers of girls are studying STEM subjects at school and university. I recently crossed the border into my neighbouring constituency of Gosport—that of the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage)—to visit the defence technology company QinetiQ, of which she is an enthusiastic supporter, to support its powerboat challenge, in which it engaged directly with local schools to encourage their pupils to study STEM subjects. What more can local businesses like QinetiQ do to engage directly with business so that young people, particularly girls, take up these subjects?

The excellent work that QinetiQ is doing demonstrates how girls’ aspirations can be broadened by engaging with local businesses. Its managing director and its apprentice of the year are both female, which is a good start. We are working with British Chambers of Commerce to explore different approaches to school and business partnerships. Last year I announced that we would fund a careers and enterprise company to strengthen links between employers and young people so that they can act in a broad range of careers and so that, at a young enough age, they are inspired by the careers opportunities that are open to them and nobody says that any doors are shut to them.

Diversity Reporting

Of course, companies work better when their workforce reflect Britain’s diversity. It is more important than ever that we make the most of everyone’s skills and talents to maximise our economic growth. That is why we are requiring larger companies, including those in the technology sector, to publish their gender pay gap so that they have the incentive and the information they need to improve fairness for women.

I welcome the Minister’s warm words on women in technology, but she will know that the British Computer Society’s recent IT scorecard showed a lamentable lack of progress in increasing the proportion of women in tech jobs. She will also know that I have long campaigned on this subject. Companies that hide on this key issue for our economic future are betraying the next generation of engineers and technologists. What will she do to ensure that companies and her Government publish information on tech diversity?

The hon. Lady is an incredible champion for the whole of the STEM world, but particularly for women in engineering. Diversity is wider than just gender, of course; it extends to race and social background. Evidence shows that educational attainment is the single biggest predictor of the future life chances of children. We are requiring businesses to publish their gender information. Driving change through transparency works, as we know from the results of the work that Lord Davies has done. There are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. We want to continue this work, particularly in Ada Lovelace week. In an international week celebrating women in STEM industries, there is no better time to be publishing this information, holding businesses to account, and encouraging women to do the very best they can in the fields of engineering.

Setting Up Businesses

16. What steps the Government is taking to support more women in setting up their own businesses. (901571)

The Government are committed to supporting women to start and grow their own business. Last year 5.7% of women in the UK were involved in starting or running a new business, and we would of course like that number to grow. The start-up loan scheme provides mentoring and financial support to entrepreneurs. It has now made over 28,000 loans worth over £150 million, with 38% of those going to women-led businesses.

Does the Minister agree that by extending the provision of free childcare we are helping more women into work and enabling more women to start their own business? Women in my constituency certainly agree that that would be a big help in doing so.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I wholeheartedly agree. I am delighted that tax-free childcare could provide about 1.8 million families across the UK with up to £2,000 of childcare support per child per year. This will be rolled out from early 2017. I welcome the fact that for the first time self-employed women will be able to benefit from this vital childcare support.

Harassment Online

17. What support the Government provides for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people who receive abuse or harassment online. (901572)

The Government are absolutely clear that abusive and threatening behaviour online, whoever the target, is unacceptable. What is illegal offline is also illegal online. My Department has funded the development of a new website—Stop Online Abuse—which launched on 17 June. It provides advice on action that individuals, particularly LGBT people, can take against offensive, damaging or threatening content online and in other media.

As part of my casework I have been contacted by a teenager who is fearful of telling friends and relatives that he is gay. Such young people may be at particular risk of bullying. What particular help is the Minister offering schools to support such cases?

No young person should ever feel that they are not able to be honest about themselves and their sexuality for fear of bullying. Tackling all forms of bullying is a priority. We have awarded £2 million to charities and community sector organisations, to help schools tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. I have also had the privilege of visiting some schools that are tackling the issue head on, such as Eastbourne academy and Caludon Castle school in Coventry, which are both Stonewall champion schools.

One quarter of LGBT students at school say that they suffer online abuse. Is the Minister working with the Department for Education to provide proper advice to schools, and is she working with the National LGBT Hate Crime Partnership’s excellent Speak Up campaign to tackle this particular form of bullying and hate crime?

I am open to working with all organisations in order to stamp out this hate crime. I am lucky enough to hold two Government jobs and am able to bring them together on this particular issue and provide £2 million of funding to pilot projects across the country to work with schools in order to stamp out unacceptable homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. The secret seems to be to take a whole-school approach, with everybody from the head to the teachers and pupils knowing exactly that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable.

Women’s Refuges

We are committed to making sure that no victim of domestic abuse is turned away from the support they need. In July the Chancellor announced an additional £3.2 million to increase specialist accommodation support for victims, including refuges, and to provide more help for victims to access that support.

During my annual community consultation over the recent recess, lots of women constituents raised concerns about the future of refuges, recognising that local authority funding was being stretched to breaking point, particularly in big cities such as Sheffield. The Government’s recent £10 million cash injection is a sticking plaster that will only delay closures. Will the Minister use the forthcoming spending review to put in place a long-term funding solution for the national network of refuges?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that our goal is to ensure that no victim of domestic abuse is turned away from the support they need. We have recently carried out, along with the Home Office, a review of domestic abuse services, and its emerging conclusions will feed into the spending review and the updated Home Office strategy on tackling violence against women and girls. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, all future funding will be dealt with in the forthcoming spending review.

20. . As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) has just pointed out, funding for refuges is under great pressure. A recent report by Women’s Aid said:“The current model for funding specialist domestic and sexual violence services is not fit for purpose. Many services are under huge financial pressure”and are being “forced to close” or to use reserves just to survive. What is the Minister going to do about that? (901575)

As I have said, this is subject to the spending review, but Women’s Aid has warmly welcomed the funding recently announced by the Chancellor. It is important for local authorities to provide such services, and it is also important to note that these services are still being provided up and down the country. We should not talk them down, as Labour Members are doing, because the fact is that if we talk down services and people think they are not available, many women may not come forward and access the important services they need.

Child Poverty

19. What recent assessment she has made of the effect on equality of the Government’s policies on child poverty. (901574)

The Government are committed to governing as a one nation Government and achieving true social justice, which is why we want to tackle the root causes of poverty and improve the life chances of all children. Our proposals in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill introduce new measures of worklessness and of educational attainment, which will make the biggest difference to disadvantaged children now and in the future.

Does the Minister agree that the Government’s rebranding of the child poverty commission as a social mobility commission represents a damaging shift in emphasis? The most vulnerable children will be disadvantaged by this change in tack and by a lack of focus on the equality of outcomes for children living in poverty.

No, I do not agree with the hon. Lady because this Government’s approach is working. The number of children on relative low incomes has fallen by 300,000 since 2010, and the number of children who grow up in workless households is also at a record low. If she wants to focus on outcomes, I encourage her to focus—as we do, particularly in education—on the outcomes of all children. The gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged has narrowed since 2010.

Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways to reduce child poverty is to get into work families that do not have a breadwinner? Is that not exactly what this Government have been doing so successfully?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that work is absolutely the best way out of poverty. Of course, yesterday’s employment numbers showed strong employment growth, including the fact that there are now over 920,000 more women in work in this country than in 2010.