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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 608: debated on Thursday 14 April 2016

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Rape and Serious Sexual Offences

The Crown Prosecution Service continues to improve its response to cases involving rape allegations and other forms of serious sexual offending. It has taken a number of steps to improve the conviction rate, which includes increasing the number of specialist staff within its dedicated rape and serious sexual offences unit and improved specialist training for prosecutors.

Despite claims that we have the highest ever number of convictions, conviction rates for rape, domestic abuse and other sexual abuses have fallen in the past two years. How does the Minister intend to rectify that situation?

The hon. Gentleman rightly points to the fact that the actual number of convictions continues to increase, which means justice for more and more victims. It is right that the Crown Prosecution Service brings cases to juries, and, of course, it is a matter for juries to determine whether a suspect is guilty. Increased funding for the rape and serious sexual offences units means an improved early engagement with the police so that the experience of victims becomes a better one, and we have tried and tested evidence that the experience of victims is vital if we are to make improvements.

Part of improving the evidence of victims is surely through the increased use of live links, which we are already seeing, where victims do not physically have to come to the court building to give their evidence. The report published this week by the CPS inspectorate and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary recognises that. It says that, in some areas, the scheme is doing very well, but, in others

“the courts and the CPS were not comfortable with live links even though the video technology was available.”

What more can be done to spread consistency in its uptake?

My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight that important report. In places such as Kent, best practice is clearly being demonstrated. With regard to national training, which is happening now, we will see more and more use of live links from victims’ homes and other safe places to avoid the terrible ordeal in many cases of victims having to come to court to give evidence in the courtroom.

Providing effective and compassionate support for victims and survivors of sexual violence is pivotal to ensuring that more of these heinous crimes are reported in the first place, and, ultimately, that more offenders are brought to justice. Will the Minister tell me how the Government intend to improve victim and witness care within the criminal justice system?

The hon. Lady may already know that revised guidance to prosecutors and Crown Prosecution Service staff about victim and witness care in the courts is already being rolled out. There are also more staff in the court system to help and support witnesses and victims through the process. More work is being done and will be done to ensure that the objectives that she and I share are met.

Will the Solicitor General join me in welcoming the recent violence against women and girls statistics, which show that more cases than ever before are being charged, prosecuted and convicted?

I certainly welcome those statistics. Importantly, they make the point that, when it comes to people’s lives, more and more individuals are finding that their cases are being heard and that justice is being done on the perpetrators of these appalling offences.

What discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in the Northern Ireland Assembly about the possibility of extending Clare’s law to the Province, particularly in the light of the revelation from Women’s Aid that six murders in Northern Ireland had links with domestic abuse?

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the important innovation of Clare’s law, which was introduced in the last Government. I was a key supporter of that legislation. I would be happy to have discussions with colleagues in Northern Ireland. However, it is a matter that, quite properly, has been devolved, but if it would help, I will of course hold those discussions.

European Arrest Warrant

2. What assessment the Government have made of the potential effect on the use of the European arrest warrant as a prosecutorial tool of the UK leaving the EU. (904462)

5. What assessment the Government have made of the potential effect on the use of the European arrest warrant as a prosecutorial tool of the UK leaving the EU. (904465)

The European arrest warrant makes it easier to extradite foreign suspects to where they are wanted for crimes and to bring suspects back to the UK to face justice for crimes committed here. It is the quickest and most economical way to do these things, and other member states would not be bound to co-operate with us in the same way if we left the EU.

The first piece of European legislation that I sat on in a delegated legislation Committee was a regulation that enabled us to track paedophiles more easily across different European countries. Why anybody would wish to end that kind of co-operation between European countries is beyond me. Does the Attorney General agree that the Brexit campaign is soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime?

I have great respect for those who argue for a British exit from the European Union, but I am afraid that I believe they are wrong on this. For the reasons the hon. Gentleman has given, there is considerable advantage to Britain and to British citizens in being part of the European arrest warrant.

Just to be clear, does the Attorney General think that if we were no longer part of the European arrest warrant, criminals from the continent would see Britain as a safe haven because of the extradition arrangements and the concern that they would not be taken back quickly?

There is no doubt that the quickest and easiest way of deporting criminals who face prosecutions in other European nations is, as I said, to use the European arrest warrant. Of course, those who argue for exit from the European Union would have to explain what alternative measures they would put in place to achieve the same objective. I am in no doubt that, as I say, the quickest and easiest way to do that is through the European arrest warrant, and any delay in that process will have very serious consequences.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend’s position take account of the European Court of Justice ruling on 5 April, which effectively drives a coach and horses through the whole of the arrest warrant procedure because it makes it clear that the European Court of Justice is in charge of whether or not a European arrest warrant can be applied for?

I do not think that it is quite as bad as my hon. Friend suggests. In fact, what the European Court of Justice said in that case is broadly consistent with what our own Extradition Act 2003 says. He will know, of course, that in respect of the countries mentioned in that judgment, we already succeed in extraditing people to them. One of them is Romania, and my hon. Friend might like to know that 268 people have been extradited to Romania since 2010.

In the Witney Gazette, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying about the European arrest warrant:

“Some other countries in Europe do not have our rights and safeguards. People can languish in jail for weeks without even being charged. I am not sure that the British people realise what is being done in their name. Are we really happy that with one telephone call from the Greek, Spanish or German authorities alleging that we did something wrong on holiday, we can be swept off to a continental prison? Rights and safeguards that we have enjoyed for centuries are being stripped away.”

Does the Attorney General agree with the Prime Minister?

I do not know when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote that. As my hon. Friend may recall, the Prime Minister and other members of the Government successfully negotiated changes to the European arrest warrant precisely to deal with the problems that my hon. Friend has just outlined. Now, UK citizens cannot be extradited unless the case is trial ready, and not unless the conduct in question would be a crime here and not unless it is proportionate to do so.

CPS: International Co-operation

3. What steps the CPS is taking to work more efficiently with international partners to reduce the threat of serious crime in the UK and abroad. (904463)

CPS prosecutors work closely with law enforcement agencies to give investigative advice and to prosecute serious crime. They draw upon international co-operation agreements wherever necessary to secure evidence and to agree how and where cases that cover various jurisdictions should be pursued.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer, but what are the Government doing to ensure that IRA terrorists are being brought back to the UK to face justice here?

I assure my hon. Friend that cases involving IRA suspects will be considered in just the same way as any other case. The special crime and counter-terrorism division of the CPS deals with cases of alleged terrorism. If a suspect is out of the jurisdiction, extradition will be considered if the prosecution evidential co-test is met.

I hope that the Solicitor General has seen that yet another accused criminal has fled to Pakistan this week. Is it not a fact that we need greater European co-operation because we have no extradition treaty with Pakistan? Where a serious crime has been committed, the perpetrator too often flees to Pakistan—and however heinous the crime, we cannot bring them back.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I mentioned multi-jurisdictional cases. Sometimes these perpetrators will cover more than one EU country and it is vital to have the mechanisms not just of co-operation, but of enforcement, which our membership of the EU guarantees. That is why I am a very strong supporter of remaining within the European Union.

EU Withdrawal: Changes to UK Legal Framework

Under article 50 of the treaty on the European Union, if the United Kingdom were to decide to leave the EU, it would need to negotiate and conclude an agreement with the remaining member states, setting out the arrangements for withdrawal. The EU treaties would continue to apply to the UK until the article 50 agreement entered into force or for two years if no agreement were reached and no extension to that period were granted. Any further changes to the UK’s legal obligations would of course depend on the nature of any further international agreements entered into.

Newcastle has a thriving legal services sector with many internationally renowned firms as well as two excellent degree courses at our universities. Does the Attorney General agree that leaving the European Union would mean that we would face years of uncertainty and confusion over our legal framework, which would necessarily undermine the success of our legal and financial services sectors?

First, I should say that I have boundless faith in the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of our legal professions, and I am sure that they would find a way through. However, the hon. Lady is right to say that there would be considerable uncertainty after any departure from the European Union, at least in part because there is a regulatory structure in this country that substantially depends on European regulation. We would have to decide how much of that to keep and how much we wished to change. She might also know that Professor Derek Wyatt, one of the leading experts on European law, recently gave evidence to the House of Lords European Union Committee. He said that

“it will take years for Government and Parliament to examine the corpus of EU law and decide what to jettison and what to keep”.

That is one of the reasons the Government believe that we are better off remaining within the EU.

Given my right hon. and learned Friend’s immense legal brain and huge legal capabilities, will he confirm to the House that he would want to remain as Attorney General should this country vote to leave the European Union so that he personally would be best placed to negotiate a super-duper British exit agreement in double-quick time?

I have nowhere near my hon. Friend’s faith in my abilities, but I do think that it remains in Britain’s best interests to stay within the European Union. However, if the British people decide that we should leave, the British Government will continue to do their best for the British public.

I hope that the Attorney General of all people will not underestimate the scope of his scholarly cranium, because the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) clearly does not do so.

A condition of our membership of the European Union is that we are also a signatory to the European convention on human rights. Can the Attorney General confirm that this Government are committed to remaining a signatory to the convention and not to join Belarus, the only European country that is not a signatory?

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s first statement is entirely correct, but the Government’s intention is nevertheless clear: we are not seeking to leave the convention but we are seeking to construct a better and more sensible arrangement on human rights law in this country. We do not think that the interpretation of the convention by the European Court of Human Rights is always sensible, and we wish to see a good deal more common sense being brought into human rights law. I regret that that opinion is not shared by Her Majesty’s Opposition.

I appreciate that the Attorney General’s hands are tied somewhat, in that nobody in the Vote Leave campaign has been clear about what we would be leaving to, but surely his officials will have made some assessment of the amount of legislative time that would be taken up by this Parliament trying to unpick 43 years of our involvement in European laws, rules and regulations.

I have just quoted the remarks of Professor Wyatt when he gave evidence in the other place. There is no doubt that considerable time and effort would be required in those circumstances. Of course it is difficult to be specific, because it would rather depend on what alternative arrangements were sought, post-departure from the European Union. The hon. Gentleman is right to say the onus is on those who wish to leave to explain what the world would be like if we did so.

This is very simple to explain. What it would mean is that this Parliament and our courts would take back control of our human rights legislation. It is a simple matter. Does the Attorney General agree?

The human rights laws within European law are extremely limited. The charter of fundamental rights within the European Union law canon does not create new rights and, as my hon. Friend knows, the European convention on human rights is a separate institution. He is wrong to suggest that this would be simple in any way; it would be extraordinarily complicated and take a very long time.

Internet Trolling and Online Abuse

6. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase prosecution rates for internet trolling and other forms of online abuse. (904467)

7. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to increase prosecution rates for internet trolling and other forms of online abuse on social media; and if he will make a statement. (904468)

The Crown Prosecution Service recently revised its publicly available social media guidelines. They are subject to a current consultation, which will result in the publication of finalised guidelines on serious offences later in the year.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the effect of online abuse on mental health can be damaging, particularly among young people? Will he urge the social media sector to engage with the CPS and other agencies to root out poor behaviour and signpost the support that is available to victims in law?

Online abuse can sometimes be worse than face-to-face abuse, because it is all-pervading and does not end at the school gates or allow for privacy at home. The Director of Public Prosecutions has met several social media providers, and the CPS will continue to work with them on measures to improve the reporting and prosecution of such abuse.

Even I have been trolled on Twitter. I do not know whether it was Momentum or someone else, but people have doubted the provenance of my hair. Can you believe that?

However, a friend of mine has a young son of 16 who has also been trolled on Twitter. He did not take it as lightly as I do and the poor boy has harmed himself, which is a serious matter. I was interested to hear the Solicitor General’s reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), but what steps can we take to deter young people from bullying other young people on Twitter, Facebook and other social media?

I am naturally reticent to trespass upon the bailiwick of my hon. Friend’s hair, so I will confine my remarks to the serious issue he raised about the mental health impacts on young people. Work is being done on training so that CPS prosecutors can enable victims and users to report abuse and, in particular, to ensure that offending content can be removed by providers.

What action is being taken in schools in conjunction with the Department for Education to try to curtail the amount of online abuse aimed at young people?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a massive amount of work is being done by not only the Department for Education, but the third sector on cyber-bullying and its effects on young people. The combined approach that is being taken in schools the length and breadth of the country is not only alerting young people to the dangers, but empowering them to make complaints, so that they do not have to suffer in silence.

EU Withdrawal: Effects on Human Rights

Through the European Union, the UK amplifies its work to promote and protect democracy around the world, increasing the UK’s influence on a range of issues. When 28 member states speak out against the most serious violations of human rights, that can help to set the agenda at the UN and other international organisations. That is a valuable way in which the UK can promote its values.

The EU charter reflects wider international standards and obligations that the UK has a history of championing. By moving away from it, we risk undermining human rights and respect for international law. What advice does the Attorney General have about the weakening of legal human rights safeguards that could follow?

If the hon. Lady is referring to the European Union charter of fundamental rights, it does not create new rights for British citizens, as made clear in protocol 30 of the Lisbon treaty, so there would be no significant consequence of departure in that way. However, there is a considerable advantage to the UK in communicating its views and aspirations on human rights protection not just in this country, but abroad, if we were no longer able to act through the medium of the European Union, as we do through other international organisations.

The Secretary of State for Justice recently told the Select Committee on Justice that, as far he was concerned, the framework of human rights across the UK was a reserved matter. Given that the Attorney General advises the Government on legal issues, will he explain why the Government’s view is that the human rights framework is reserved when it is not included in the exhaustive list of reservations in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is the Government’s view and mine that any change to the Human Rights Act 1998 as a piece of legislation is not a devolved matter—it is a reserved matter. That is the issue on which my right hon. Friend will shortly be bringing forward proposals.

The shadow Attorney General, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), cannot be with us today because he is busy changing nappies. May we congratulate him on the birth of his first baby, a beautiful daughter, Stella-Mae? We wish him and his partner, Leanne, all the best.

Does the Attorney General agree that if the UK left the EU, it would not only be human rights in Scotland that would be affected? Surely there would be a question over the whole devolution process in Wales and Northern Ireland. We should not forget that the agreement that gave us the institutions in Northern Ireland took membership of the EU as a given, and if the UK left the EU, it would lead to unwelcome uncertainties.

May I begin by adding to the hon. Lady’s congratulations to the shadow Attorney General on the new arrival in his household? We wish them all well. May I also congratulate her on taking on her new, temporary, but none the less important, responsibilities at the Dispatch Box? On her question, she knows, because she has heard me say it many times before, that I take the view that the protection of human rights in this country can perfectly adequately be undertaken by the British Government and by British courts. However, there is no doubt that were we to leave the European Union, a range of complexities would follow, not all of which we have discussed. There is no doubt in my mind that because of those additional complexities and because, on balance, I think there is huge advantage to Britain in remaining in the EU, that is the right decision for us to take.

Prosecutions for Offshore Tax Evasion

All tax evasion prosecutions are conducted under domestic tax law and no distinction is made in central records between offshore tax evasion cases and other tax prosecutions, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the total number of convictions since 2010 for tax offences is 2,647.

I am grateful for that answer, but the Attorney General will now know, through the revelations in the Panama papers, that industrial-scale money is going offshore. What role will his Department be playing in advising the Prime Minister’s taskforce on that tax evasion? Does the Attorney General expect any illegality to come out in that review? If so, what resources does he have to ensure that prosecutions take place?

As the right hon. Gentleman may know, the Serious Fraud Office, an agency that I superintend, is contributing to that taskforce, and £10 million of new money is available to support the work of the taskforce. As he would expect me to say, the question of who, if anyone, gets prosecuted as a result of that work is not for politicians, but for independent prosecutors, to determine. I am confident that the Crown Prosecution Service and the SFO have the resources they need to pursue this. As he will also know, the Government are providing additional tools by which that can be done, including the creation of new offences, both for individuals and for corporate entities that fail to take the necessary action to prevent the facilitation of tax evasion.

Tax evasion is not a victimless crime, and tax avoidance also has consequences. Both take money out of our hard-pressed public services and away from the people who work in them. This money could be used to fund more police, hospitals, schools and other local services, all of which have had severe cuts under this Government. There is a growing tax gap, and there have been a very limited number of prosecutions. How can the public therefore be confident that the Government are doing everything they can to crack down on overseas tax evaders, given the performance to date?

I do not accept that the performance to date has been ineffective. As I have explained, there have been successful prosecutions of those who evade tax. As the hon. Lady will know, it is not simply criminal prosecution that exists in order to take action against those who avoid or evade tax; civil penalties are also available to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and they bring in a substantial amount of money as a result of the actions that that agency takes. She is right about there always being more to do, which is why I highlighted two particular measures in the field of enforcement and criminal prosecutions that this Government are taking, and I look forward to the Labour party’s support for them.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

New Junior Doctor Contract

1. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the effect on gender equality of the proposed new junior doctor contract. (904441)

16. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the effect of the proposed new junior doctor contract on women in that profession. (904458)

The Secretary of State fully understands his obligations under the Equality Act 2010 and his public sector equality duty. He is aware that he must pay due regard to each of the statutory equality objectives, which cover all of the protected characteristics, not just those that affect women. The new contract is a huge step forward for achieving fairness for all trainee doctors. For the first time, junior doctors will be paid and rewarded solely on the basis of their hard work and achievement, whether they work full or part time. Pay progression will be linked to the level of training rather than arbitrarily to time served. On 31 March, we published the equality analysis and family test alongside the new national contract.

By next year the majority of doctors working in our NHS will be women, yet the Government have freely admitted in their own equality impact assessment of the new junior doctor contract that aspects of it will disproportionately hit female doctors, so how can the women and equalities department possibly condone this shocking treatment by the Government?

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this important matter to the attention of the House. I know that she will want to read the full equality impact assessment over the weekend, and she will find if she does so that it makes it clear that this contract is good for women, that it is a fairer contract and that it does not directly or indirectly discriminate against women. That is why I am very keen to see it implemented as fast as possible.

What estimate has been made of the expected drop in the number of women doctors five years after the contract has been imposed, and how will the skills gap be filled?

We anticipate that this contract is better for women in a series of different ways and we expect women to be able to engage more easily with the workforce than they have under the previous contract. We believe that it is better for working mothers and better for women who are taking time out for maternity leave. For those reasons, we hope that it will reinforce the continued progression of women in the medical workforce, of which we are very proud in the Department of Health.

Can the Minister confirm that the new contract will mean that those who work the most intense and unsocial hours will be better rewarded?

I can confirm that. It will also ensure that women will not be subjected to the enormously onerous hours enforced under the current contract, which make the balance between work and family life completely impossible.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that under the existing contract two doctors doing the same job with the same level of responsibility and the same hours can be paid differently, but that under the new contract the total number of hours that can be worked will be reduced from 91 to 72, and that that will be especially welcomed by female doctors?

I can confirm that and it shows once again my hon. Friend’s attention to the detail of the contract. It should be made clear to the House that the British Medical Association agreed almost all of the contract that we are now putting in place, including many of the aspects that the Opposition are now seeking to attack.

It surprised me to hear both the Minister today and the Prime Minister, during Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, claiming that the contract is good for women, when the equality impact assessment provided by the Minister’s own officials specifically says that it will have a disproportionate impact on women—an equality impact assessment that the Minister will not be at all surprised to hear that I have read in detail. How can it be right to introduce a contract, announce its imposition in Parliament in February and then only sneak out the equality impact assessment six weeks later during recess? Will he and his colleagues get back to the negotiating table and negotiate a contract that is good for patients and good for all junior doctors?

The hon. Lady is an expert in the history of equality impact assessments and the Equality Act 2010, and she understands it well. I must reassure her that through the entirety of the process the Secretary of State has been mindful of his duties under the Act, but not just for form. He is very keen to ensure that this contract is good for women, which is why at every single stage, both in negotiations with the BMA and in internal discussions, he has been mindful of his duties while trying to ensure that the contract is an improvement on the existing one. To be frank, we cannot return to negotiations with a party that does not wish to talk, and I urge the hon. Lady to get her colleagues to condemn the completely unnecessary action taken by the BMA, which put patients in danger.

State Pension Age

2. What steps the Government are taking to address the effect of the increase in the state pension age on women. (904442)

6. What steps the Government are taking to address the effect of the increase in the state pension age on women. (904447)

All women affected by faster equalisation reach state pension age under the new state pension system, which is more generous to many women than the previous system. In the first 10 years, around 650,000 will receive £8 per week more on average, due to the new state pension valuation.

Is the Minister aware of the recent Dutch case of a woman who was affected by changes to her retirement age, with more notice than many women in the UK have received? In that case it was found that the woman’s human rights had been breached. Does the Minister think women in this country have had their human rights breached by the action that his Government have taken?

Nobody denies that the state pension age needed to be reformed, but it is the transitional arrangements that the Government have or have not put in place that have caused so much consternation. I cannot help wondering whether a cynical calculation has been made that those women will have reached retirement age anyway by the next general election. May I ask a straightforward question? Do the Government genuinely believe that the transitional arrangements are fair—yes or no?

The transitional arrangements that were put in place in 2011 were debated in both Houses. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that initially it was proposed that the equalisation should be fast-tracked by two years. Following various debates and intensive negotiations, that was reduced to 18 months, at a cost to the Treasury of £1.1 billion. Transitional arrangements were made in 2011 and the Government have no plans to review them.

13. This is about women and equalities. We know that a woman born in early 1953 will already have retired; a woman born in early 1954 will not retire until the second half of 2019—two and a half years later. That cannot be right. In a spirit of fairness, will the Minister look at this again and give some solace to the women who have to wait an unbelievably long time to collect what is rightly and fairly theirs? (904454)

We need to accept that equalisation was necessary, first, because it was required by European Union directive and, secondly, because people are living longer. Women on the whole recognise that we need to equalise the state pension ages. We are not doing so as fast as some other countries, such as Germany and Denmark, which have already achieved what we are seeking to do.

Following the resignation of the previous Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Pensions Minister Baroness Altmann stated that he had

“often been obstructive to my efforts to resolve important pensions policy issues such as on women’s pensions.”

Now that the main impediment to change has been removed from Government, when can we expect an update on progress for the women of WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality—who have been so unfairly treated for so long?

I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s assessment. As I said in my previous answer, the Government do not intend to review this matter because it was heavily debated and dealt with in 2011.

I thank the Minister for his response, but what is the purpose of the Department and, indeed, of the women and equalities ministerial role if they do not address the inequalities that exist? We have had four parliamentary debates on the issue, MPs have asked dozens of questions, 186,000 people have signed a petition and we voted in this House to agree that the policy is unfair, so after all that, why is the Minister still prepared to defend an indefensible position?

The hon. Lady was not in the House in 2011, but the issue, as I said, was heavily debated. A vote was taken after a Backbench Business Committee debate. As she knows only too well, a point of order was raised after that debate and the person sitting in the Chair at the time happened to be the first and former Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee. She made it abundantly clear that votes taken after debates tabled by the Backbench Business Committee are not binding on the Government.

Effects of 2016 Budget

10. What assessment she has made of the effect of measures in the 2016 Budget on different genders. (904451)

The 2016 Budget helped 790,000 women and 540,000 men by cutting their income tax to zero. It helped 7.4 million women and 5.6 million men with an increase in their state pension, thanks to the triple lock. It helped millions of men and women drivers by freezing their fuel duty. Finally, the national living wage gave an immediate pay rise to 900,000 women and 500,000 men this month.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but she might be aware that the Labour party has commissioned research which shows that, since 2010, 86% of the total amount of cash saved from benefit changes and tax savings has come from women, disproportionately. Since the autumn statement, that figure has increased by 5%. How much more do women have to take the brunt of this Government before action is taken?

We completely do not accept that analysis, which, by the way, has not been published. It appears to take into account the fact that the child benefit for higher rate women, such as myself, has been removed. Is the hon. Gentleman making the case that that child benefit should be returned to higher rate taxpayers? Also, that analysis has not even been published, but similar analysis assumes that extra Government borrowing can make everybody better off—that does sound like the Labour party.

The Government’s own figures show that since 2010 there has been a dramatic drop—more than 10,000—in the number of women taking equal pay cases to the tribunal, yet over the same period there has been a significant increase in the number of men doing so. Can the Minister explain those figures?

I would have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome the fact that the gender pay gap is narrowing so much. In fact, the steps that we have taken in the 2016 Budget, which will increase the pay of 900,000 women, mean that the gender pay gap for the lowest paid will have been eliminated by 2020.

Does the Minister agree that the Chancellor’s measures on small business rates will be hugely beneficial to business women across the country?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I also point out that we are making substantial progress on the number of businesses in this country owned and managed by women, which I believe will also lead to greater gender equality.

The Opposition welcome the Budget announcement about the removal of VAT on tampons, following the campaign led by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff). However, given that the Chancellor has previously reassured me that the £15 million raised from this tax would be providing funds to domestic violence charities and women’s refuges, can the Minister clarify something for me? Did the Budget include a £15 million cut to women’s charities, and where is this Government’s long-term economic plan for women’s safety?

I can confirm that the £15 million announced in the Budget will be allocated to the charities that the Chancellor announced. We have also announced a further £80 million of support for those kinds of initiatives to tackle violence against women in our society.

Maternity Discrimination

I want to start by thanking the Equality and Human Rights Commission for the research it has led and for its report. The Government have accepted the great majority of its recommendations and will work with it, ACAS and employers to root out discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace.

I welcome the Minister’s answer. I am aware of a number of cases of new mothers in my constituency who have lost their jobs after giving birth or experienced some other form of discrimination at work. Will he set out a timescale for implementation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recommendations, and will he create an opportunity, through the usual channels, for a debate in the House on that work?

I am very happy to take up with the Leader of the House the possibility of having such a debate, because I would welcome it. The report made for depressing reading in some respects. Although it is welcome that 84% of employers think that it is important to support pregnant women and new mothers, it is frankly depressing that three in four mothers interviewed said that they had had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during their pregnancy. We need to achieve a wholesale change in culture. I will resist putting a timeframe on implementation of that change in culture, because ultimately that is something that Governments on their own cannot do. However, a debate on how we can all work together to achieve that would be very welcome.

Many women still face difficult decisions when it comes to having a baby, particularly women in high-powered careers in places such as London, where house prices are extremely high and working part time simply is not an option. What are the Government doing to encourage businesses to adopt a modern approach, allowing women the prospect of a balanced work and family life and flexible working hours, where possible?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but I know that he will welcome the introduction of the right to request flexible working and all the Government’s interventions to provide further childcare support for working women of all ages and all income levels. I believe that that will help women who want to be able to balance engagement in the workplace with bringing up young children.

LGBT Young People

8. What steps she is taking to ensure that support and advice is provided to LGBT young people. (904449)

We want every young person, regardless of their sexual orientation, to reach their full potential. That is why in March I announced a further £1 million fund to support schools to address homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying, in addition to the £2 million fund I announced in October 2014.

With Stonewall research showing that 55% of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people experience bullying, I am pleased to hear that the Government are spending extra money, but what else will they be doing to ensure that those issues are covered in the curriculum as well?

The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the 55% figure. That is, of course, a drop from 65% in 2007, but we cannot in any way be complacent. In 2012, 96% of LGBT pupils reported hearing homophobic language in school. The PSHE Association published some excellent new guidance in October 2014 on diversity and relationships in its programme of study, as well as providing support to help teachers to tackle issues around bullying. Of course, having good personal, social, health and economics education and relationships advice, including material targeted at LGBT pupils and all their colleagues, is very important.

Albert Kennedy Trust research has identified that 24% of the homeless youth population are LGBT. That is a disturbing figure, and the Government are planning to cut housing benefit for people under the age of 21. Does the Secretary of State think that the situation is going to get worse or better for those young people?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we gave just over £48,000 to the Albert Kennedy Trust in 2014-15 to develop national online mentoring services. We have also protected homelessness prevention funding for local authorities, totalling £315 million by the end of this Parliament.

Trans young people experience unacceptable and unlawful discrimination. Three months ago, the Women and Equalities Committee published a groundbreaking report outlining more than 30 recommendations to improve the lives of trans people. When can we expect a response from the Government?

I had the pleasure last week of visiting the Young Transgender Centre of Excellence, which has just been opened by the LGBT Centre in Leicester, funded by BBC Children in Need. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention the groundbreaking report published by the Committee that she chairs. She also mentioned the 30 recommendations, which we are working through. I am sure that, like me, she wants us to make sure that when we respond, we do so in a full and open way. The report calls for significant changes to the law, complex changes to the NHS and changes to the policies and practices of more than a dozen public bodies, and I want to make sure that we get the response right.

This Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, have done great things for equality for LGBT people, particularly with regard to gay marriage, but there is one area of terrible inequality—at least one. A promiscuous straight man can have sex with different women every night, and yet that man can give blood. A gay guy can be in a monogamous relationship, and yet he is completely forbidden to donate blood unless he is prepared to certify that he has been celibate for 12 months. That is medical and scientific nonsense. It is also unfair. When will it change?

My hon. Friend and I have discussed this matter, and he knows that I have also discussed it several times with the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison). The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), has also been listening to what my hon. Friend had to say.

We have lifted the lifetime ban on blood donation for men who have had sex with men. As my hon. Friend will know, the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs, which sets blood donation guidelines, has announced that it is reviewing the evidence and the policy. We expect to hear from it sooner rather than later.

Earlier this year, LGBT mental health charity PACE was forced to close, citing cuts to its local authority budget as a major factor. Given that PACE had previously identified that more than a third of LGBT young people had made at least one suicide attempt, does the Minister share my concerns about the level of mental health support currently available for LGBT people?

Members on both sides of the House will know of my long-standing interest in mental health issues for all young people, and of the priority that we give it in the Department for Education, which flows through to the priority we give it in the Government Equalities Office. In the financial year that has just ended, we provided £4.9 million to 17 voluntary and civil society projects delivering support to children and young people with mental health issues, including almost a quarter of a million pounds £250,000 to Metro Centre to establish a mental health service for LGBT young people and to those working with them across London and Kent. We are obviously looking at what we can do in this financial year to make sure that services will continue to be funded. Again, I will work with my colleagues in the Department of Health to make sure that people of all ages with mental health issues get the support they need.

Order. You should start by just saying, “Question 11”. You can build up to your peroration ere long.

Gender Pay Gap

11. What steps her Department plans to take to encourage businesses with fewer than 250 employees to close the gender pay gap. (904452)

We are absolutely committed to eliminating the gender pay gap in a generation, which is why we are requiring larger employers to publish their gender pay gap, as well as their bonus gap. We will support all businesses to do that, regardless of their size, with a £500,000 package, which includes UK-wide conference events, online software and, of course, targeted support to some of the male-dominated sectors. We also have the Think, Act, Report initiative, which is available to businesses of any size.

Last July, the Prime Minister promised that companies with more than 250 employees would have to disclose their gender pay gap. This has already been pushed back by two months. A survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that only one in four firms has done any analysis of this. Does the Minister think that progress in this area is good enough, and what will be done about it?

Of course, this is more progress than we had under any previous Government, but this Government are not complacent. The gender pay gap is the lowest on record and has virtually been eliminated for women under the age of 40 working full time. However, we have brought forward the quite demanding regulation that larger employers will now have to publish both their gender pay gap and their bonus pay gap, and also why we have released a big package of support to enable to us to support them through that process.

Since the Government introduced tribunal fees, the number of equal pay claims has fallen dramatically. The Government talk the talk on equal pay, but why are they making it more difficult for women to challenge unfair pay claims?

We are reviewing this at the moment, but the hon. Gentleman must be aware that many more cases are going through ACAS—over 80,000 more cases went through ACAS last year. Surely he agrees it is actually much better to sort something out through mediation—in a friendly and consolidated way—so that people can go back to their workplace without stigma or any form of hostility.

Welfare Reform and Disabled People

12. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect on equality for disabled people of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. (904453)

The Government set out our assessment of the impact of the welfare policies in the Welfare Reform and Work Act on 20 July 2015. Spending on disabled people will be higher in real terms in every year to 2020 than in 2010.

A Lords Select Committee report published last month said that the Government had hurt disabled people disproportionately through inaction on the provisions of the Equality Act 2010, through spending cuts and cuts to legal aid, and through removing protections with their red tape challenge. Will the Government apologise for their lack of respect for disabled people and for the complete contempt in which they hold them?

If we look at the facts, we find that the Government are spending £50 billion every year on benefits alone to support people with disabilities or health conditions—that is more than 6% of Government spending. I think that answers the hon. Lady’s question very clearly.

Research by Unison indicates that no group will be more adversely affected by welfare reform than people with disabilities. We are at risk of regressing on issues of equality. When will the Government actively heed the voice of people with disabilities and reverse these damaging policies?

I remind the hon. Lady that this Government have done more for disabled people than any Government before us. [Hon. Members: “Rubbish!”] I have just outlined the amount of money that this Government are spending. Under this Government, there are more than 3.2 million disabled people in employment. Employment helps people to have more fulfilled lives. We do not give up on people, unlike the Opposition parties.

Employment Tribunal Fees

14. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the effect of the introduction of employment tribunal fees on access to justice for women who have experienced discrimination at work. (904456)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a post-implementation review of the introduction of fees in employment tribunals. That will consider, so far as is possible, the impact the fees have had on those with protected characteristics who use employment tribunals, as well as the types of case they bring.

The review has apparently been on the Minister’s desk since February, so I hope we get to hear the outcome soon. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, less than 1% of maternity discrimination claims now proceed to an employment tribunal. That means that 99 out of every 100 women who are discriminated against because of their pregnancy have no legal redress. Is he proud of that record or ashamed?

Pregnancy and maternity discrimination are unlawful and totally unacceptable. That is why the Government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission jointly funded independent research into the matter. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the review will take into account some of the findings of that research.

Public Appointments

15. What steps the Government are taking to increase the proportion of public appointments made to women. (904457)

Increasing diversity is essential to appointing the best people to our public boards. We are making real progress in increasing the number of women who are appointed. In 2014-15, 44% of new appointments were made to women, which is up from 39% in 2013-14. The steps that we have taken to increase diversity include streamlining the application process and increasing the awareness of opportunities through outreach and other events, a central website and the use of social media. We have introduced unconscious bias training for senior personnel in the Cabinet Office, including permanent secretaries and, indeed, senior Ministers.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply, which has pre-empted my supplementary. I wonder whether, in some cases, it is a lack of confidence that inhibits women in making an application for a public appointment. Could more be done to communicate to women that their applications are encouraged and will be successful?

It is really important that we get the very best people into public appointments. Women will play a crucial role in that. We recently received a report from Sir Gerry Grimstone that was commissioned to make appointment processes much more efficient, effective and streamlined. We have hit the highest figures ever recorded for women in public appointments, but we have not done enough. We want to go much further and to hit the 50% target we have set ourselves.

Gender Pay Gap

17. What steps she is taking to tackle the causes of the gender pay gap (a) in general and (b) in STEM careers. (904460)

Closing the gender pay gap is good for women and, of course, for employers and our economy. That is why we are requiring large employers to publish their pay gap data. Occupational segregation is one of the main causes of the pay gap, which is why we have announced the ambition of a 20% increase in girls taking A-level maths and science by 2020.

I thank the Minister for that answer. A continuing cause of the pay gap is the lower incidence of women studying science and engineering at university. Does she agree that closing the STEM gap is a prerequisite for closing the pay gap?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics carry a significant wage premium. Although women make up 50% of STEM undergraduates, that simply does not translate into the workplace. That is why we have set up a new careers and enterprise company to bring schools and businesses together to inspire and inform young people. We have also published guidance called “Your Daughter’s Future” to help parents to guide their daughters in subject and career choices.

The Women and Equalities Committee’s report on the gender pay gap showed strong and compelling evidence that increasing the availability of well-paid flexible work would make a significant difference in reducing the pay gap. What will the Government do to make flexible working easy and to encourage employers to offer it from the date of employment rather than having to wait for six months?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is why this Government have done more than any before to extend the right to flexible working to all employees. We will continue to work with businesses to encourage them to get the very best out of every single one of their staff.

The private sector has made great progress in gender equality in recent years, but there is still a big problem. Research by Simon Fanshawe has proved that there are more men called Andrew, David and John in senior positions in FTSE 100 companies than there are women. What more can the Government do to incentivise good practice and better gender equality in the FTSE 100? [Interruption.]

Yes, more Carolines. The hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) is absolutely right, which is why the Government have done more than ever before to encourage FTSE 100 companies to address that issue. There are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. The next stage is to look at the executive pipeline and to make sure that we are encouraging women at every stage, so that we have more women on boards than ever before.