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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 606: debated on Thursday 25 February 2016

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Vulnerable Witnesses

1. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to ensure that there is adequate support for vulnerable witnesses giving evidence in criminal proceedings. (903719)

In September last year the Crown Prosecution Service published guidance for advocates on better communication with all witnesses. Advocates receive mandatory training for cases involving vulnerable witnesses, and special measures for those witnesses are regularly used at court, including pre-recorded evidence, intermediaries, screens or the use of a video link.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, in my experience as a former solicitor, witnesses, particularly the most vulnerable witnesses, want to be kept better informed of the process of their case, to hear updates in a timely fashion, to be able to give evidence as quickly as possible without losing their right to be heard, and to be treated in the least intimidating way possible within the court process?

Indeed. It is important that we ensure that witnesses who are engaged in criminal trials, which will be difficult experiences for them at the best of times, understand what is happening in the case around them. I hope that my hon. Friend will be as encouraged as I am by the trials that have been run in three different Crown courts for pre-recorded cross-examination. That will enable vulnerable and young witnesses in particular to get their part in the trial out of the way and any further delays in that trial will not affect them. That is a huge step forward.

I remind the Attorney General that the Conservative party manifesto promised a victims law. We are quite some time now from the election. Will he enlighten the House as to when that will be forthcoming?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that manifestos are for Parliaments, not just for the first year of Parliaments, so we have a little time left. When we do bring forward proposals I am sure he will be encouraged to see ways in which we can help victims understand better what is happening in the cases in which they are involved, and help them have a less difficult experience within the criminal justice system. Having held ministerial responsibility for the system, the right hon. Gentleman knows full well that we will never be able to get to a place where giving evidence and being involved in criminal trials is easy for victims and witnesses, but we can make it less hard and we will bring forward proposals to do so.

I welcome what the Attorney General has said about the new victims code. What discussions has he had with the CPS regarding implementation of that code by prosecutors?

The Solicitor General and I have regular conversations with the CPS about how we make sure that what prosecutors do assists victims and witnesses. My hon. Friend will understand that it is a prosecutor’s responsibility to prosecute a case on behalf of the state, not solely on behalf of a victim, but it is none the less important that victims are spoken to regularly and sensitively by those who are involved in the prosecution.

May I, through the Attorney General, thank the Government for deciding to reverse their decision to close Stockport courthouse, which has excellent facilities for victims and witnesses? Given that Her Majesty’s inspectorate has said that services to victims and witnesses require improvement, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman set out precisely what the Government will do to provide that?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the court estate is not part of my responsibilities, but I congratulate him on the success of his representations. In relation to victims and witnesses, there are a number of things that need to be done. Some will come from the Ministry of Justice; some, as I have indicated, come from encouraging prosecutors to do their job of interacting with victims and witnesses in a more effective way. We are making progress on that. Better communication, as I said, is important. Better training for prosecutors in dealing with cases, particularly where vulnerable witnesses or children are involved, is important and we are doing that too. Some of the measures that we are taking, which I referred to earlier, in respect of ways in which victims give evidence can also help in ensuring that the experience is distressing as little as possible.

Judges and legal advisers play a crucial role in assisting vulnerable witnesses in court. Is the Attorney General aware of the profound distress and demoralisation among legal advisers about the increased pressure that they are under because of the imposition of continued legal aid cuts and the effect on courts?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that legal aid is not part of my responsibilities, but I will say that in my experience—and, I am sure, in his—those who act in our courts on behalf of defendants and on behalf of the Crown do the very best they can to present the evidence clearly and give people the best possible experience of the trial process, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so. He makes an important point that when it comes to the cross-examination of young or vulnerable witnesses, both advocates and the judiciary have a role in ensuring that it is conducted in the right way. I hope and expect that they will continue to play their part in doing so.

Constitutional Legislation

2. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the potential effect of a British Bill of Rights on Scotland. (903720)

The Government are considering the devolution implications of the Bill of Rights carefully. That will of course include engaging fully with the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It emerged during an evidence session to the House of Lords Constitution Committee that the UK Supreme Court may be given a new role as a UK constitutional court. Given that the UK Supreme Court is the final court of appeal for Scottish civil cases and has a role in the devolution aspects of Scottish criminal cases, will the Attorney General commit to consulting with the Scottish Government before any such proposals are included in a consultation?

If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the Lord Chancellor’s evidence to that Committee, which I have read, he is not quite right; the Lord Chancellor was talking about the prospects for considering how the Supreme Court might fulfil a different role, and he was referring to the German example of how that is done. The hon. Gentleman will also know that no proposals have yet been brought forward; he will see them when they are. As I, the Lord Chancellor and others have said, we will ensure that there is proper consultation on any proposals.

As the Attorney General will be aware, both the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights have independently commented on the undesirability of any overlap between the proposed consultation on the Bill of Rights and pre-election periods, including for the Scottish Parliament elections in May. What discussions has he had with the Justice Secretary regarding publication of the consultation?

Again, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait to see the proposals when they are brought forward. On timing, he will know that the Cabinet Office has very clear guidelines on respect for purdah periods before elections, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor is keen that all due regard is paid to them.

The Attorney General might not be aware that the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, Alex Neil MSP, recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice to express concern that he has not sought to discuss the proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act with the Scottish Government. Given the wide implications of any repeal of the Act on Scotland, does the Attorney General agree that the Secretary of State for Justice must formally engage with the Scottish Government to discuss their concerns?

The hon. Lady is right; I have not seen that letter. But I do know that Mr Neil, and indeed other Scottish Government Ministers, have had contact with UK Government Ministers to discuss these matters. I can reassure her that when the proposals are brought forward, there will be proper consultation with the devolved Administrations.

The impending imposition of the British Bill of Rights could have the effect of curtailing the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice in Luxembourg as well as the Court in Strasbourg. Is it not the case that that will require further renegotiation with our EU partners and, therefore, should it not have formed a crucial part of the recent so-called renegotiation?

I am not sure that there is much appetite anywhere in Europe for re-opening those negotiations. The hon. Gentleman might find that there are proposals coming from this Government to make our relationship with the charter of fundamental rights clearer, based on protocol 30 of the treaties, which, as he will be aware, was negotiated by a previous Government. The protocol makes it clear that the charter does not extend rights in this country. We will bring forward further proposals on clarifying that, and again he will have a good opportunity to discuss them when he sees them.

Investigatory Powers

3. What discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of Government proposals on investigatory powers with EU law. (903721)

I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest, including on EU law matters. I am unable to talk about any legal content of those discussions, because whether or not the Law Officers have given advice, by convention, is not disclosed outside Government.

Recent judgments from the European Court of Human Rights, such as in Zakharov v. Russia, strongly suggest that the powers in the United Kingdom’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill could violate the European convention on human rights. What discussions has he had with his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that powers provided for in the Bill are compatible with the convention?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in the most recent case in the Court of Appeal, in November last year, the provisional view was that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 was not inconsistent with EU law. A reference has been made to the Court of Justice of the European Union. I will not comment on that particular case, but I can assure him that when it comes to issues of compatibility, anxious consideration is always given to ensure that legislation here is in accord with the rule of law.

In an unsafe world, we need to keep the United Kingdom, and indeed our European partners, safe. With the security charter for the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, how will the Government get the balance right between civil liberties on the one hand and national security on the other?

My hon. Friend asks probably the most important question about that balance. I can reassure him that the draft Bill, and indeed the legislation that will come forward shortly, strikes that balance, most notably in involving judicial authorisation for the granting of warrants. That double-lock process, which involves the Secretary of State and the judiciary, strikes the right balance.

The case involving the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), which the Solicitor General has referred to, and which is before the Court of Appeal, but with a reference to the European Court of Justice, could have implications for the draft Investigatory Powers Bill. The case is being heard in April. How does the Solicitor General see that impacting on the timetable for the Bill going through this House?

While we understand that the case will be heard in April, it is still very much an unknown factor as to when a judgment will come. What I can say is that the outcome of any case will, of course, be carefully considered. However, I do not anticipate that causing a delay to the introduction of that important Bill, bearing in mind the sunset provisions in DRIPA.

Human Rights Obligations

4. What discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues on the UK’s domestic and international human rights obligations. (903723)

7. What discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues on the UK’s domestic and international human rights obligations. (903728)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer Question 4 alongside Questions 7 and 9. I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest, including on domestic and international human rights law. As the House knows, not least because the Solicitor General has said this once already today, I am not 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.

Order. Question 9 has just been withdrawn, although the Attorney General was not to know that, and I thank him for announcing the grouping.

Will the Attorney General list which of the convention rights currently enshrined in the Human Rights Act he plans to repeal?

I have no plans to repeal any of them. As the hon. Gentleman may have heard me say in this place before, I do not think any of us has any serious argument with the content of the European convention on human rights, which is an admirable document. The difficulty we have is with the interpretation of that document by the European Court of Human Rights. This is not a matter of repealing rights; it is a matter of bringing some common sense back into the ambit of human rights law, and the Government are committed to doing that.

Does the Minister think it causes any legal or constitutional problem that the Lord Chancellor will no longer be able to ask his Department’s officials for advice on the powers of the European Court of Justice?

I do not think that is the position at all. The Lord Chancellor will continue to do the excellent job he is doing of running the justice system. He will be able to ask for advice from his equally excellent Government lawyers.

Part of the UK’s human rights obligations is to ensure that minority communities are not subjected to harassment and distress. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that allegations of rabid anti-Semitic behaviour from the Oxford University Labour club are a disgrace to Oxford and no doubt an embarrassment to the Labour party, and that they should be dealt with robustly by the University, if not by other authorities?

I agree with my hon. Friend: these are very troubling allegations, and I hope they are dealt with swiftly and effectively. However, he makes the important point that all of us, on both sides of the House, believe in the protection of human rights and in rules and laws that allow that protection to happen. What we are not in favour of is the perversion of human rights law by the introduction of silly cases that should not be before the courts at all. That obscures the important work my hon. Friend is referring to.

Under the Lisbon treaty, the European Union has a treaty obligation to join the European convention on human rights. However, the European Court of Justice has said that that would be incompatible with EU law. Does that not demonstrate that the European Court of Justice is, indeed, supreme?

I am sure you, Mr Speaker, were as worried as I was that this session was going to pass without mention of the European Union, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that matter right. As he knows, the decision on whether the European Union accedes to the convention on human rights is for the European Union, and it is therefore not unnatural that the Court of Justice of the European Union should express its opinion. All member states, and indeed the institutions of the European Union, now need to consider carefully what action they take next, and I am sure that is what they will do.

I am sure the Attorney General will recall that the Attorney General played an important role during the Iraq war, and that it continued right up until the various inquiries, including the Chilcot inquiry. I think he ought to declare now, in order to get rid of any doubts, whose side he is on—the Justice Minister or the Prime Minister. It is a fairly easy question: which side is it?

I am on the Government’s side; I think I made my position quite clear yesterday. In relation to the role of the Attorney General in inquiries, the hon. Gentleman is of course right that the Attorney General, and the Law Officers more broadly, have an important part to play in ensuring that the Government actions stay within the law, domestic and international, and previous and current Law Officers take that responsibility very seriously.

Yesterday, Amnesty International published its annual report, which rightly criticises the Government’s plan to scrap Labour’s excellent Human Rights Act. Amnesty’s UK director, Kate Allen, commented that the behaviour of the UK towards China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt shows that the Government have lost their passion to promote human rights. Does not the Government kow-towing to countries like China and Saudi Arabia, without challenging their dodgy human rights records, and the Prime Minister’s phoney plan to water down the Human Rights Act, send the wrong message to dictators and rogue states?

No. The position is this: Government Members, I am sure in common with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, will continue passionately to advocate the case for the protection of human rights both in this country and abroad. He is quite wrong to say that this Government, in common with their predecessors, do not challenge other states that have a doubtful human rights record—we continue to do that.

In relation to the Amnesty International report, I have a huge amount of respect for what Amnesty International does, but in this report it has, in my view, overstated its case just a little. It is not the case, as I have said before and as the hon. Gentleman knows, that human rights and the Human Rights Act are the same thing. It is possible to protect human rights without the Human Rights Act—in fact better to do so—and that is what this Government intend to do.

Can we please speed up? I want to get to the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who is the last questioner, and progress is frankly too slow.

Sexual Offences: Conviction Rates

5. What steps the Government have taken to improve the conviction rate for rape and serious sexual offences. (903726)

The CPS has undertaken a considerable amount of work to place priority on the improvement of rape prosecutions.

I thank the Solicitor General for his admirably brief reply. He will know that despite claims of the highest number of convictions ever, convictions for rape, domestic abuse and other sexual offences have fallen. I work closely with Sheffield Rape Crisis, which tells me that there is a real postcode lottery in support for victims, and if victims are not supported they are less likely to come forward. What discussions has the Solicitor General had with the Home Secretary to ensure adequate funding for sexual violence advisers?

With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, I work regularly with colleagues in the Home Office to look at a wide range of measures that need to be put in place to give support to victims of sexual offences. I remind him that in terms of absolute volumes, conviction rates continue to rise and are the highest ever. I assure him that the CPS has now engaged 102 specialist prosecutors in its RASO—rape and sexual offences—units to place proper priority on the swift and effective prosecution of these serious cases.

In our enthusiasm to get convictions where they are deserved, can the Solicitor General make sure in his discussions with the Home Office that other parts of the system, particularly the police, do not lose their commitment to justice, and that, while they must owe a proper duty to the complainant, they should not simply ignore potential exculpatory evidence in their investigations?

I reiterate that the police should follow the evidence wherever it leads. There should be no presumptions of truth or otherwise and they should objectively and fairly investigate cases before presenting them to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Is the Solicitor General aware that Scotland’s conviction rate for rape and sexual offences has increased significantly over the past few years as a result of setting up a centralised national sexual crimes unit in Edinburgh, in which the specialist prosecutors oversee the prosecution of all sexual crime across Scotland? I am sure that Scotland’s Law Officers would be very happy if England’s Law Officers wanted to visit and learn more about it.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for raising that matter. The scale involved in England and Wales is slightly bigger, so they have taken the regional unit approach, but I entirely agree with her about the need to standardise practice. The Attorney General and I are always very conscious of that in our conversations with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the chief executive of the Crown Prosecution Service, and work is being done to improve that standardisation.

In the latest thematic review of rape and serious sexual offence units, the CPS inspector found that the care given to victims of rape and sexual assault

“fell well short of what is expected”.

Is the Solicitor General concerned by Kevin McGinty’s findings that in some areas the CPS has stopped giving early investigative advice to the police because resources are overstretched?

I remind the hon. Lady that that report related to a particular period from a year to 18 months ago, and since then the CPS has taken huge strides both in increasing the number of prosecutors and in improving the methods by which cases are assessed and managed.

Criminal Sentencing: Leniency

6. How many times the Law Officers referred a criminal sentence to the Court of Appeal for review on the grounds that it was unduly lenient in the last year. (903727)

In the calendar year to 31 December 2015, the Law Officers considered 467 sentences and referred 150 offenders to the Court of Appeal.

Can the Attorney General confirm that he is fulfilling our manifesto commitment to review the unduly lenient sentences scheme, and will he comment specifically on whether that review will take into account family courts, where it is currently at the discretion of the presiding judge whether to refer up sentences of serious cases of sexual crimes and rape?

The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend’s question is yes, we will fulfil that commitment and, as she knows, we are looking carefully at how best to do so. I will also consider what she has said in relation to matters considered by the youth courts. There are difficulties with including all youth court cases, but we will consider carefully what she has said and see whether there is a way of accommodating it.

Legal Framework: Social Media

11. What steps he plans to take to improve the level of public understanding of the legal framework applicable to social media. (903734)

There is clearly some awareness of the legal framework applicable to social media, but I publish warnings online reminding people of their responsibilities wherever appropriate. My office also sends tweets warning social media users of the risk of being in contempt, where a particular problem has been identified. I assure my hon. Friend that I am always looking at ways of raising awareness in this area.

Can my hon. and learned Friend explain what steps are being taken to prevent media coverage of ongoing cases?

The media quite properly play a role in reporting cases, but any lack of responsibility allows my office and, indeed, criminal law to intervene, particularly in respect of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Detailed guidelines on the prosecution of such cases are available on the CPS website.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Race Inequality

The Prime Minister has set out challenging Government targets to increase black, Asian and minority ethnic opportunities by 2020, including take-up of apprenticeships, employment and recruitment to the police and armed services.

The Scottish Government have launched a programme entitled, “New Scots: Integrating Refugees in Scottish Communities”, in order to ensure that refugees have every opportunity and support to rebuild their lives in Scotland. What similar initiatives are the UK Government taking to support refugees and fight racism?

The Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who works across the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Home Office, is working extremely hard to support refugees in a way similar to the programme that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

Research suggests that people with ethnic-sounding names have to make twice as many job applications as do white Britons to get job interviews. Will the Minister therefore discuss with the Business Secretary and others how to strengthen guidance to companies on their recruitment practices?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made a significant commitment in that area. Many of the country’s top employers, including the civil service, are committing to name blind recruitment processes, and UCAS will be making university applications name blind from 2017.

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Government on introducing name blind recruitment in the civil service, the NHS, and other large graduate employers. Will he join me in encouraging other large companies across the UK to follow suit?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should certainly encourage companies across the country—not just FTSE 100 companies, which seem to be making significant efforts, but companies large and small—to look at diversity and how they can use it to improve their business.

People from black and minority ethnic backgrounds make up 26% of apprenticeship applications but only 9.6% of the apprenticeships that are taken up. What is the Minister doing to improve those disappointing statistics?

Apprenticeships are an extremely important part of the Government’s agenda. We have a target of 3 million apprenticeship starts during this Parliament. Within that, the Prime Minister has clearly set out the Government’s commitment to ensure that 20% of those apprenticeship starts are for BME young people, which I think is a great step forward.

Universities: BME Students

3. What steps the Government are taking to increase the number of BME young people receiving a university education. (903737)

The Prime Minister, as we have just heard in respect of apprenticeships, has set a goal of increasing by 20% the number of BME students in higher education. In our new guidelines to the director of fair access, which we published on 11 February, we ask him to maximise the contribution of access agreements towards that ambition. The share of BME enrolments at the United Kingdom’s institutions has already risen by just over 20% to 23% between 2009 and 2015. Expenditure to widen access through agreements is expected to reach £746 million in 2016-17, up from £444 million in 2011.

Many gifted BME young people in my constituency and across the country who have lived here all their lives and are lawfully and legally resident in the UK, and who have made their way through the UK education system, are effectively prohibited from accessing the student finance support that would allow them to progress to higher education because they do not have settled immigration status. Will the Minister take steps to ensure that the Government introduce new eligibility criteria as a matter of urgency, to ensure that all our young people have the opportunity to make the most of their talents this academic year?

The hon. Gentleman seems to be making a very good point, which I am more than happy to discuss with the Home Office. I see that one of the relevant Ministers is already here, and we will have those conversations.

I welcome what the Minister has said about the figures for university applications. Does she agree that we must not take our eye off the ball when it comes to other routes, and that we must also encourage BME students to take courses such as apprenticeships and ensure that they have equal status in those routes?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In the city of Nottingham, I have also seen the great success of mentors and the hugely important role that they can play not only for BME youngsters but for women. Mentors do excellent work, and there is good evidence of their importance. I encourage all Members of this place to go out and make sure that in our schools everything possible is being done to make sure that there is fairness and equality.

Research shows that while BME students are over-represented in university entrance figures, they tend to go to the new, post-92 universities. The Women and Equalities Committee heard this week that the Russell Group universities are poor at doing outreach to encourage students from disadvantaged and BME backgrounds to apply to their universities compared with the Ivy League universities in the US, which have a far better record on that. Will the Minister join me in seeking to address this issue?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point, if I may say so. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, who makes the point that the London Academy of Excellence is a very good example. I must say that my nearest university, the University of Nottingham is—like Nottingham Trent University and many other universities—making a really positive effort to get into all our schools to make sure that all our pupils have every opportunity and that they, if I may put it this way, aim high.

The Government talk the talk of encouraging more black and minority ethnic students into university; yet, according to the Government’s own impact assessment, their recent decision to scrap maintenance grants will disproportionately affect those very same students. Does the Minister believe that this disproportionate impact is acceptable?

I am not familiar with the impact assessment, but I have to say that I am quite surprised by it. I reiterate the point: it is absolutely imperative that we make it very clear that everybody should aim high. That is what we want to do and that is what we are seeking to do.

Gender Economic Inequality

The employment for women is at a record high, and the gender pay gap is at a record low. The Government are committed to enabling women and men to fulfil their economic potential.

That all sounds very nice, but with women being over-represented in sectors in which low pay is prominent and persistent, what is the Government’s strategy for tackling extended occupational segregation?

I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that 65% of the people who will benefit from the new national living wage in a couple of months will be women. This Government are taking that very important step to raise pay for the lowest-paid in our country.

I do not doubt my hon. Friend’s commitment to reducing the gender pay gap further, and I commend the Prime Minister for his position, but the reality is that women in my constituency of Basingstoke face a gender pay gap of 30%. Should this not be on the agenda of every single company throughout the country, as well as on that of our local enterprise partnerships?

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, given her interest in this matter, not only are we taking steps to publish this information for companies with more than 250 people on the payroll, but for financial services—the sector I, as Economic Secretary, engage with most—which has the highest pay and the biggest pay gap, we have appointed Jayne-Anne Gadhia to review pay in the sector and see what further steps we can take. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last July:

“Transparency, skills, representation, affordable childcare—these things can end the gender pay gap in a generation.”

The WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality—campaigners are not going away, so will the Minister raise the issue of better transitional state pension arrangements with her Department for Work and Pensions counterpart? These women deserve fair play.

As a woman whose state pension age has gone up by six years during her working lifetime, I welcome the changes that will equalise the state pension age for men and women. That will end the discrimination of women in their late 50s, which has prevented far too many of them from reaching higher-paid roles in our society.

What are the Government doing to reduce the economic inequality caused by gender differences in life expectancy?

We are putting more money into the NHS to ensure that everyone benefits from the good healthcare that has resulted in one of the remarkable features of our age—the fact that people of both genders are living much longer, which we should welcome.

Women’s under-participation in the labour market costs the UK economy £600 billion in lost productivity, according to the Government’s own analysis. Will the Minister guarantee that the forthcoming Budget will reverse the universal credit cuts that reduce work incentives and guarantee a childcare place to every working mum who needs one, and will she ask her colleague the Chancellor finally to change course and stop introducing a series of measures that disproportionately penalise women?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady, who is my twin, is completely wrong on this. The facts are that we are extending the free childcare offer to many people and bringing in tax-free childcare for many, many people. I share her aspiration to unleash the economic potential of women in our economy. The OECD has said that if the participation rates of men and women were equalised, the economy would be 10% larger. We are therefore taking a range of steps to encourage that to happen.

I welcome the draft gender pay gap reporting regulations that the Government published last week. Although I understand why the Government would not want to bring in enforcement procedures for non-compliance, will the Minister assure the House that the matter will be kept under constant review? Does she agree that it would be counter-productive for companies not to comply with the new regulations, as it would deter the most talented women from applying for their jobs?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point and I welcome his support for the initiative. It is a voluntary scheme. We are trying to change the culture, and transparency is part of that. It will allow women to make a choice. If they are thinking of working for a company, they will be able to ask, “Am I able to see how this company treats men and women?” And at a time of record employment for women in this country, women have more choices.

Domestic Violence Services: Funding

The Government have already announced £40 million of funding for domestic abuse services between 2016 and 2020, as well as a £2 million grant to Women’s Aid and SafeLives to support early intervention. We will shortly publish a refreshed cross-governmental violence against women and girls strategy, which will set out how we will do more still to secure long-term funding for domestic violence services and support for all victims.

I return to the question of long-term funding for domestic violence services, which is so important, having raised it in January, when the Minister said she was holding discussions with service providers. How are those discussions progressing, and when will we see an outcome? Can we know at some stage, if not now, who is involved in those discussions?

I should make it clear that central Government funding for domestic abuse services has not been cut. I want to make that clear so that there is no confusion. The issue is about locally commissioned services. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right that I have been having discussions with local commissioners and service providers, and I will issue the refreshed VAWG strategy shortly.

The Prime Minister said in January 2014 that he would ratify the Istanbul convention as soon as the UK banned forced marriages. The relevant legislation came into force in June 2014. Will the Minister explain what is now delaying the process?

There is an issue with article 44 of the Istanbul convention, which is about extraterritoriality. It is an issue regarding the devolved Administrations, of which there is more than one, as the hon. Lady will be aware. When we have clarified that point and passed the relevant primary legislation, we will ratify the Istanbul convention.

Welfare Reform: Gender Equality

6. What assessment she has made of the effect on gender equality of the Government’s welfare reforms. (903741)

The Government set out their assessment of the impacts of the policies in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill on 20 July. Every Government policy change is carefully considered, in line with the legal obligations.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that working lone parents with assets or unearned income are more likely to lose out under universal credit. With single parents overwhelmingly being female, it appears to me that the Government’s austerity programme is once again targeting women. What representations has the Minister made to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the impact of universal credit on women’s equality?

I come back to my opening comment: we fully assessed the impact of the Bill’s equality measures, and we are meeting our wider obligations. As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, universal credit supports people in employment, and that applies equally to women. That is alongside all the additional measures that we are now implementing, such as the national living wage, increased childcare and tax-free childcare.

18. The Minister will be aware that women’s aid groups have expressed serious concerns that changes to housing benefit could force the closure of many refuges. Will she challenge her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to exempt refuges from those changes, to protect vulnerable women and children who are fleeing domestic violence? (903754)

The hon. Lady will know that there are measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, and they are in conjunction with the many discussions that we have with stakeholders, and we take on board all considerations. That is exactly what the Department will do in its dialogue with third-party organisations.

Retirement Age

7. What recent meetings she has had with women who have been affected by changes to the retirement age; and if she will make a statement. (903742)

We all know that women are affected by changes to the retirement age, and Ministers and their officials have met and corresponded with hundreds of women about pensions reform. The changes have been subject to many recent parliamentary debates, and the Government’s position has been made clear.

Indeed the Government’s position has been made clear, and they are cloth-eared in listening to women who are affected by these pension changes. If the Minister had been present yesterday in the debate on providing transitional protection for women affected by the pensions changes, she would have heard Conservative Members—indeed, Members from every party in the House—cite individual women who have been degraded and impoverished by these changes. When will the Government begin to listen to them?

I did listen to that debate, while I was also in another debate in Westminster Hall. Let us be clear: the Government have listened to extensive concerns that have been raised in the House, and concessions worth more than £1 billion were introduced to lessen the impact of the changes for those worst affected. The previous Government introduced future changes to the state pension age for women and men, following extensive debates in both Houses of Parliament. Importantly, the Government have made difficult but necessary decisions when it comes to speeding up the timetable for the equalisation of the pension age.

Women born in 1953 and 1954 are particularly badly affected by these changes. Many of them went into work at the age of 15, and will have to work more than 50 years before they can access their pension. Will the Government have another look at this? There are things that can be done if the political will is there.

The Government have listened extensively to the concerns raised, and they have also worked with pensions organisations. To reiterate, the Government have made concessions of £1 billion, which have been introduced to lessen the impact of the changes on those affected.


The apprentice national minimum wage applies equally to all apprentices, and from October last year that rate was increased by 21% to £3.30 per hour. We continue to focus on improving the quality of all apprenticeships, and we are putting that into statute. We all go into schools, and one great thing we can do is not only to act as role models, especially if we are female, but to sing out about things such as the apprenticeship scheme, and make clear that it is not confined to boys.

I thank the Minister for her response, but the reality is very different to what is on paper. Results from ComRes commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust in September found that female apprentices earn £4.82 per hour, compared with £5.85 for men. Another survey stated that there is an £8,400 difference in those areas of work where women figure highly, such as social care, childcare and hairdressing, in comparison with men, so actually, it is not correct.

I am not quite sure what is not correct, but, in any event, I know what the minimum wage is and it is for all apprentices. If there is evidence that women doing apprenticeships are being in some way discriminated against in their pay, we want to know about it, and we look forward to the hon. Lady coming forward, meeting the Minister for Women and Equalities, and between us we will sort it out.

Will the Minister assure me that older women are getting a fair deal when it comes to apprenticeships, and especially that they are able to return to work after caring responsibilities? Will she look carefully at the engineering and construction sectors to ensure that they are truly open to all?

My hon. Friend makes a really important point. When it comes to those sectors, the Minister for Women and Equalities and I—in fact, all of us—are extremely keen to make sure that we use every opportunity and anything available to us to make the case that younger women in particular must go into these excellent work streams. We know we need to do more. We all have a part to play and that, of course, includes Government.

Given that the apprenticeship gender pay gap for women stands at about £2,000 a year, does the Minister share my concerns that this is where the gender pay gap begins? Will she explain why the Government’s new institute for apprenticeships does not include provision or targets for women? What message does she think that sends to women seeking apprenticeships?

The institute, with which I am familiar, will comprise all the sorts of people it should have on it—primarily employers, but it will look to work with providers—to make absolutely sure not only that the quality of apprenticeships is good, but that we get everybody and anybody applying for apprenticeships. Whatever someone’s background might be—sex, colour of skin or ethnicity—absolutely does not matter at all. In certain areas, I do not have a problem at all in making a positive case to make sure that more women or more people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds go into apprenticeships, especially the high-quality ones. There should be no barrier.

Older Women: Caring Support

9. What steps the Government are taking to support older women with caring responsibilities; and if she will make a statement. (903744)

Unpaid carers are the backbone of our society. That is why the Care Act 2014 gave carers new rights that focus on their wellbeing and give them properly targeted support. We have also invested £1.6 million in a series of pilots to look at the best ways to support those who have caring responsibilities.

I have been visiting care homes and care companies in my constituency that are currently facing unprecedented challenges. Does the Minister agree that this places an even greater onus on older carers, who do invaluable and compassionate work? What measures will she put in place to help older carers get back into employment when their care duties come to an end?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Unpaid carers are the unsung heroes of our economy. The value of informal care is about £62 billion a year. For many carers it is literally a labour of love, which is why we have extended the right to request flexible working. A pilot project is considering the best way to support carers, through investment in technology and professional support, to stay in employment.

A constituent visited my surgery last week to seek help. She had planned to retire and care for her elderly mother, but she now finds, unexpectedly, that her retirement date will be significantly later than planned. Does the Minister understand the wide implications of the issue raised by the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign and the real difficulties that problems with notification of pension date changes are causing for 1950s-born women with caring responsibilities?

The hon. Lady makes a valid point. I understand the concerns, but she must remember that the new state pension will give 650,000 women an average increase of £416 a year on their pension and, in addition, support those who take time out of employment, for example for caring roles, by crediting this very important work.

Entrepreneurs: Government Support

We are absolutely committed to supporting women to start and grow their own businesses. I am really proud that Britain has been named the best place in Europe for female entrepreneurs. Our £1 million women and broadband programme enables them to take advantage of technology to start or grow their own business. We are running nationwide “meet and mentor” sessions to help give female entrepreneurs access to the right support and encouragement.

Self-employment is at record levels. Since 2009, women have accounted for more than 50% of that increase. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming Julie Deane’s new review into self-employment, and will she work with colleagues to take forward recommendations that will help more women to set up businesses successfully and to thrive?

Julie Deane is an incredibly inspiring example of the great female entrepreneurs we have here in the UK, and about a million of our small and medium-sized enterprises are indeed led by women, contributing an incredible £85 billion to the British economy. Julie has made some wide-ranging recommendations as part of her review into self-employment. I know that my hon. Friend has been involved in those recommendations, and they will be considered very carefully by the Government.

I ask the Minister to face the House. I understand that her questioner is behind her, but she should face the House.

More generally for women who choose a career in business, I understand that Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have recently appointed Sir Philip Hampton to lead a review into increasing the number of women in UK boardrooms. I just wondered why the Minister thought that appointing that man was the right thing to do for this particular job.

I think we have to get away from the supposition that this is just a women’s problem. The fact that women are not as fully engaged as they should be on boards or indeed all the way through the business pipeline is a problem for everybody, and all businesses need to address this issue. That is why we need excellent people to lead this investigation, ensuring that it is all done as properly and fully as possible.

Homophobic Bullying

Whether online or offline, all forms of bullying, including homophobic bullying, are completely unacceptable. That is why we are investing £2 million to support schools to address homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying more effectively. In fact, my Department is funding Stonewall’s Train the Trainers project in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, at the Great Clacton Church of England School, to build skills and confidence to address this form of bullying.

On which note, does the right hon. Lady agree that Stonewall’s Education Champions programme offers an excellent model for local authorities, academies and free schools to follow?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman saw sight of my answer, because I think we can firmly agree on that. I mentioned the £2 million project that we are funding. Stonewall is very much one of the bodies delivering on this, as are the Anne Frank Trust, Barnardo’s, Diversity Role Models, EACH—Educational Action Challenging Homophobia—Educate and Celebrate, the National Children’s Bureau and Show Racism the Red Card. They are all doing an excellent job.

Gender Pay Gap

We are committed to closing the gender pay gap within a generation. This is important not only for women, but for business, prosperity and the health of the UK economy. That is why from next April we are requiring large employers to publish their gender pay gap, and why we have been working very closely with business to help deliver this.

I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome the steps that are being made, but will she join me in commending the Scottish Government for laying regulations in Holyrood to extend the requirement on public authorities with more than 20 employees to publish information on their gender pay gap and equal pay statements?

Yes, we are always keen to take on board any information we can gather from anywhere that tackles the gender pay gap. We are consulting on the issue and we will shortly announce what we intend to do in respect of the public sector.

As the father of a growing number of daughters, it is important to me that women can enjoy exactly the same level of career advancement as men, which they clearly do not. Many experts and leading female CEOs of international companies believe that the lead indicator is not the gender pay gap, but the level of career advancement for women. Will the Government consider looking in future into whether major companies could report the percentage of men and women at every stage within their organisation to help change the culture?

This legislation will require businesses to show how many people are employed at the different sectors of their organisations. However, my hon. Friend is right that this starts right from the beginning when girls are given careers advice about which businesses and sectors they should aim to get into. We need to get away from the idea that there are “girls’ jobs” and “boys’ jobs.” There are just “jobs.”

I have recently put a series of parliamentary questions to every Government Department on the gender pay gap, and every Government Department that has answered to date has shown that there is a gender pay gap. What is the Minister going to do about the situation on her own watch?

Public sector employers will also be required to publish their gender pay gap statistics. It is a subject that we take very seriously. Nobody will be left unaffected by the legislation.

I wonder whether this legislation will be broad enough to help a constituent of mine who recently separated from her boyfriend. She now has a “To Let” sign outside her house at 102 Church Drive, Shirebrook because she works for Mike Ashley at Sports Direct on a zero-hours contract. I think that is disgraceful, and I would like to see legislation that ensures that employers who operate zero-hours contracts cannot put women such as my constituent in jeopardy so that they lose the roof over their heads.

Unlike the last Labour Government, we have taken steps to address the issue of zero-hours contracts, and those who apply them will be included in the legislation.

STEM Subjects: A-level

14. What steps the Government are taking to encourage more girls to take science, technology, engineering and mathematics at A-level. (903750)

The number of science and maths A-level entries among girls has increased by 12,000 in the last five years, but the Government are determined to encourage even more girls to study those subjects to help them to secure rewarding jobs in the future. I recently announced that, by 2020, we want to see a 20% increase in the number of girls applying to study science and maths. To achieve that, we will build on an extensive range of Government-funded support for schools.

There are some fantastic STEM schools in my constituency, including Outwood Grange Academy, where I attended a brilliant STEM skills workshop a couple of weeks ago, and Woodkirk Academy, which I visited with the Minister for Women and Equalities last year. Will she join me in praising those schools, which are helping more pupils to consider STEM careers by finding imaginative ways to show them the possibilities that those subjects hold? Pupils have even participated in a LEGO minecraft workshop at Woodkirk.

I welcome the opportunity to join my hon. Friend in praising the work of Outwood Grange and Woodkirk Academies for their excellent work in this regard. During my visits I was impressed to see at first hand how the academies engage pupils in STEM subjects, demonstrating the application of science and maths and promoting STEM careers.

I am sure the whole House agrees that STEM subjects provide exciting, rewarding, fantastic career opportunities for women and girls, but studies show that without some personal experience of STEM careers, girls are unlikely to consider them fully. Why have the Government abolished face-to-face careers advice and made work experience something that girls have to organise for themselves? Will the Secretary of State bring back mandatory work experience?

Actually, we are going to go much further. We have introduced, and are funding, the Careers & Enterprise Company. We shall be investing more than £70 million in careers work during the current Parliament to enable young men and women to be inspired by people who visit schools, by work experience opportunities, by finding out more, and by the Your Daughter’s Future programme. We discussed the gender pay gap earlier. I think it worth noting that those working in careers in science or technology are paid, on average, 19% more than those in other professions, and I think we can all agree that we want more girls to go into such careers.

Affordable Childcare

The Government will have invested an extra £1 billion per annum by 2019-20 to help hard-working families with the cost of childcare. We are doubling the amount of free childcare to 30 hours for working parents of three and four-year-olds, and from early 2017 tax-free childcare will benefit about 2 million families by up to £2,000 per child. Many families will also be able to claim 85% of childcare costs through universal credit.

I thank the Minister for that, and especially for the extra £13 million that is being made available to councils such as mine in Staffordshire so that they can roll out the childcare plan sooner. That will help thousands of hard-working families throughout the country. However, will she give particular consideration to what can be done to help families with disabled children and children with special needs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we are investing more in childcare. Those with disabled children receive £4,000 of tax-free childcare per child. During the last and current Parliaments, we have been rolling out education and healthcare plans for children, including those aged nought to 25 who have more complex needs. We are clear about the fact that our childcare policies must require providers to cater properly for children with disabilities.

Sanitary Products: VAT

17. What progress the Government are making in negotiating the removal of VAT on women’s sanitary products. (903753)

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury has written to the European Commission and to other member states setting out our strong view that member states should have full discretion in regard to the rate of VAT that they can apply to these products, and that that should be considered in the context of the Commission’s action plan on VAT, which we expect to be published in March.

Frankly, I think that many women throughout the country will be rather disappointed by the Minister’s response. Will she guarantee that the Prime Minister or the Chancellor will come to the House and make a statement once the Commission has responded to our request, so that the public know where we stand before the referendum?

Of course, the Government do believe that this is something on which we want to take action. I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that the Chancellor has already announced a new £15 million annual fund to support women’s charities in the interim period before we can tackle this on a unanimous basis across Europe.