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Women and Equalities

Volume 611: debated on Thursday 26 May 2016

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Disabled People: Employment

1. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on progress towards the Government’s employment target for disabled people. (905112)

There are 365,000 more disabled people in work than two years ago. Our ambition to halve the disability employment gap is a key priority of this Government.

Ministers promise that people currently in the work-related activity group will not see their payments reduce, but all new claimants from April 2017 will see such a reduction, including many people who have learning disabilities and need the same support as people currently in the group. How will further cuts in the incomes of disabled people help to get them into work?

First, to be clear, those who would be in the support group will see no changes at all. On the specific area of those with learning disabilities, my Department, jointly with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, has set up a taskforce, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). We are looking at the best ways of accessing the apprenticeships scheme to help those with learning disabilities to have a greater chance of taking up an opportunity to work.

Will the Minister confirm that there have been detailed conversations about the value of the Access to Work programme and that the Government continue to be committed to it? The scheme was raised with me at the weekend by two disabled working people in my constituency who are concerned that the Government are not committed to it and that they may be let down.

The Access to Work programme is one of the incredibly important levers we are using to meet our commitment to halve the disability employment gap. I am delighted that funding has been increased to provide an additional 25,000 places a year, which builds on our near record number of just short of 37,000 people who benefit from the scheme.

What rationale was there for the Secretary of State for Work and Pension scrapping the White Paper on the health and work programme and punting the issue back to a Green Paper for an indeterminate time? Surely punting it into the long grass will, from a health or disability perspective, harm the chances of people returning to work.

My discussions with stakeholders give a very different view. A Green Paper gives an opportunity for stakeholders with genuine, first-hand real life experience to help shape our future policies and make sure that we do the very best for vulnerable people in society.

The jobcentre disability employment service has a ratio of one adviser providing support per 600 disabled people. That key cause of concern was highlighted by a Work and Pensions Committee inquiry in December 2014. Does the Minister believe that that inadequate ratio is part of the reason the Government are set to fail to reach their employment targets for people with disabilities?

First, 365,000 more disabled people have come into work in the past two years, which we are proud to celebrate, but there will be further work towards our bold ambition to halve the disability employment gap. We recognise that support in jobcentres is important. All job coaches have extensive training and are multi-skilled, but we acknowledge the feedback from the Select Committee report and will be increasing the numbers.

Employment: Women Returnees

Women returnees often have large amounts of skills and experience that offer great value to our workforce. We have invested in up-front personalised jobcentre support and will extend it to parents of children aged three or four from April 2017. Our wider package of reforms includes the new national living wage, more affordable childcare and flexible working, which will all further support women to make the transition back into work.

Single parents, the majority of whom we know are women, will be hit hardest by the Government’s cuts to work allowances. Does the Minister agree that those cuts will damage financial incentives for low-income women, acting as a barrier to returning to work?

The national living wage will have an impact for women more than anyone. It will make such a massive difference to women, and to single mothers in particular. The Government have getting women back into work in mind in a lot of what we are doing, which is why we are seeing more women in the workplace than ever before.

Will the Minister consider allowing flexible working for women returning to work after having a child from the outset, as a default, rather than them having to wait six months before they can ask for that privilege?

We have a package of measures for women who are returning to work: affordable and flexible childcare, flexible working—up to 20 million people in the UK can now apply for that—and shared parental leave. That package really supports women who want to return to work.

As the Minister will know, many women who wish to go back to work find that they are essentially earning wages to pay for childcare. With that in mind, what are the Government doing on part-time and flexible hours for those women who want to go back to work but have been discriminated against because of their need or desire for more flexible working?

I was one of those women—under the Labour Government, I was literally working to pay for my childcare. I am so proud that this Government have done more than any other to make childcare affordable and flexible; that is why parents with children aged three to four will be able to access up to 30 hours of childcare.

Order. We will get to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) in due course. He need fear not.

While this Government have cut workers’ rights, attacked trade unions’ ability to organise and legislated to block women’s access to justice, the EU has protected maternity rights, strengthened paternity rights and upheld our fundamental rights. Does the Minister agree that EU membership will protect rights for women returning to employment?

I do not agree that this Government have undermined women’s rights, but I agree that the EU has done an enormous amount to protect them.

Sentencing Policy: Child Neglect/Abuse

3. What assessment the Government have made of reasons for gender differences in prison sentencing for people found guilty of child neglect and abuse. (905114)

Child neglect and abuse are absolutely abhorrent crimes, and those who are guilty must be brought to justice. Sentencing decisions are a matter for the independent judiciary and not Government. Those decisions take into consideration a number of factors, including the seriousness of the offence, aggravating and mitigating factors, and a guilty plea. Our sentencing framework is gender-neutral.

Despite what the Minister says, according to the Ministry of Justice’s figures for the last available period 33% of men convicted of cruelty and neglect of children were sent to prison, but only 15% of women were. That does not sound gender-neutral to me. Notwithstanding the fact that those figures are clearly far too low, given that, as she made clear, these crimes are abhorrent, will she explain why there is such a huge discrepancy between the two figures? Given the nature of these crimes, she surely cannot trot out her normal answer that women are not being sent to prison so that they can spend more time with their children.

Every case is different, and, as I have said, the sentencing framework is gender-neutral, and the same criminal offences, maximum penalties, guidelines and principles of sentencing apply to every case. I say gently to my hon. Friend that data can be used to prove anything. In 2014 the average custodial sentence for child cruelty or neglect was the same for men and women, but in 2015—according to figures from the Ministry of Justice—on average women received longer sentences than men for child cruelty or neglect.

Has the Minister seen recent disturbing evidence of women who have been convicted of non-violent crime, often fraud, who are given horrendously long sentences when they should be serving their punishment by working in the community?

As I have said, the judiciary is rightly independent of the Government, but the Justice Secretary is keen on considering alternatives to custody, particularly when an individual might have child caring responsibilities. That is why we are putting a lot of effort into things such as electronic tagging.

Does the Minister agree that universal access to family planning and maternity services is paramount for the health and equality of women and girls? How will she ensure that migrant women access maternity services in the UK when they have no means of paying for those vital services?

This is in relation to those in prison, having been found guilty of child neglect and abuse—it is fair to say that it is a testing question.

I am not aware that birth control is a massive issue within women’s prisons—I certainly hope it is not, but I will take a look at that.

STEM Careers

My Department has set an ambition for a 20% increase in girls’ entry to A-level mathematics and science by 2020. We fund programmes in schools and colleges to encourage young people to take qualifications in science, technology, engineering and maths, and to improve achievement in those subjects. Those working in science and technology careers are paid on average 19% more than those in other professions, so motivating girls to study those subjects is important if we are to eliminate the gender pay gap.

Nursing is now a graduate-entry profession, and STEM subjects form part of the course for student nurses. Once they qualify, student nurses take on the role of many junior doctors in prescribing medication and ordering investigations, so does the Minister agree that nursing is a STEM career to which young women, and indeed young men, should aspire?

I know about my hon. Friend’s own nursing background, and I agree that nursing is a fantastic career for young women, and indeed young men. We are committed to strengthening careers provision for young people across England, and projects funded through the Careers and Enterprise Company’s investment fund will do just that. She may be aware of a project led by Skills East Sussex that seeks to improve the work-readiness of young people, the take-up of apprenticeships locally, and the gender balance in key sectors.

Owing to ongoing cultural stereotypes and a lack of visible role models, many women do not realise the fantastic career opportunities that engineering and STEM subjects offer until they have left formal education. What is the Minister doing to ensure that routes are available for retraining older women, particularly through adult education and lifelong learning?

I agree it is important that we tackle perceived gender stereotyping or bias in certain careers. We have funded programmes in schools, and I have mentioned things such as the STEM Ambassador network. After that come apprenticeships—the Minister for Skills bangs that drum at every opportunity—and the opportunity for someone to earn while they are learning.

More young women entering Scottish universities are choosing to study science, technology, engineering and maths, and they now make up 48% of all those gaining degrees. Will the Minister look towards Scotland as an example of how to encourage more women into STEM subjects?

As I said in last night’s debate on the Gracious Speech, I spoke to the Cabinet Minister with responsibility for education in Scotland earlier this week. There are always ways in which we can learn from each other. I should mention Loughborough University, which I represent as a constituency MP, as it has the highest number of women engineering undergraduates in the country.

I recently visited the Thales site in Crawley and saw some wonderful high-quality engineering jobs; unfortunately, not enough of them are held by women. Will the Government heed the recent findings of the CBI that over 90% are not receiving the careers advice they need, and support face-to-face careers advice from age 11, which would assist more women to enter engineering careers?

I have been very clear since taking up the role of Secretary of State for Education that we need to look at careers guidance. That is why, in December 2014, we announced our backing for the Careers & Enterprise Company, which was set up to bridge exactly that gap between schools and colleges and the world of work. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that starting early is very important. I hope that he, along with all Members across the House, has spoken to his local enterprise co-ordinator, through the local enterprise partnership, to support the work of the Careers & Enterprise Company.

Older Women in the Workplace

Older women have a whole range of skills and experiences that are extremely valuable to employers and potential employers. We are publishing a new employer-led strategy later this year, which sets out how we can help people to have fuller working lives. We will continue to challenge outdated perceptions about older workers and actively promote the business benefits of employing them.

Does the Minister agree that the key issue for older women in employment is flexibility, as they very often face caring duties? Indeed, of all carers more than half are aged over 50 and they are disproportionately female.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why we have invested £1.7 million to look at the best ways to support carers to stay in employment, including exploring how businesses can give employees with caring responsibility more help through flexible working and setting up carers surgeries. We have extended the right to request flexible working, with more than 20 million workers now eligible.

Age discrimination remains a problem. I am delighted to hear the Government are taking the matter seriously, but what concrete steps can be taken to ensure that older women, who are increasingly important as the pension age increases, get the opportunities they deserve?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is vital that women are supported in returning to work following a break in their career. I recently attended the launch of the Barclays and Women’s Business Council “Comeback Toolkit”, which is a fantastic example of innovative working practices and inspirational case studies, such as their “Bolder Apprentice”, Lucille Galloway. She spoke passionately about how returning to a role in the workplace has transformed not only her life but the lives of those around her.

Does the Minister agree that 50 years ago women experienced far greater degrees of discrimination in the workplace, and that the impact of that discrimination is still affecting their prospects today? Does the Minister also agree that changes to the state pension age compound the difficulties and challenges women face?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that we have made great strides in gender equality, and I am incredibly proud of that. The average woman who reached state pension age in 2015 will get a higher state pension income over her lifetime than any woman who has reached state pension age at any point before her. We have legislated for an independent review every Parliament to ensure that any future changes are fair, affordable and sustainable, and that no one is unduly penalised.

Given that women are having children later in life, what thought has the Minister given to extending statutory paternity leave to six weeks to enable women to get back to employment more quickly?

We do want men to take the shared parental leave already available. The signs are that men are beginning to do that, but we need a cultural change to encourage men to take their share of shared parental leave.

I want to mention just one workplace. While it is perfectly right that someone in his late 70s should be a regular presenter on BBC television—he is younger than I am—can the Minister imagine a female of that age in the same position? Is that not a form of age discrimination by a public body?

I am obviously in favour of older male television presenters, particularly of news programmes, but absolutely we need many more female counterparts.

9. It is vital that the civil service shows leadership in this regard. In 2011, women finally achieved parity at the top of the civil service, but since the Prime Minister gave himself the power to choose the top jobs, he has painstakingly reassembled the glass ceiling, and now only 18% of permanent secretaries are women. Will Ministers commit to publishing the gender breakdown of all applicants and those shortlisted for the top jobs in the civil service? (905120)

This is a really important issue. Four of the permanent secretaries appointed in the last year are women, but we want more and that work will continue.

International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia

6. What plans the Government have to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia 2016. (905117)

The UK is proud of its record on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, which is why the Prime Minister and I hosted a reception at No. 10 to mark IDAHOT. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has announced that approximately £900,000 from the Magna Carta fund for human rights and democracy will go to projects working with LGBT communities around the world. Several Departments, including mine, also flew the rainbow flag in a show of support.

And a lovely reception it was too! This year, IDAHOT drew everyone’s attention to the importance of institutions being able to further LGBT rights. To mark the day, I joined Members from across this House and the other place to highlight the benefits of our membership of the EU to further those rights. Does the Minister agree that the EU has done an awful lot to protect the rights of minority communities across the UK and EU?

I agree that it was an extremely enjoyable reception and that the EU plays a key role in improving the lives of LGBT people in Britain, the EU and internationally. We work closely with the Commission, the Council, the European Parliament and member states to improve the lives of LGBT people across Europe. Through our membership of an EU national focal points network, we can share our approach to LGBT equality law across Europe.

11. According to recent figures published by Transgender Europe, there have been 117 murders of trans and gender-diverse people in Europe since 2008. Will the Minister commit to working with our European partners to end transphobia across our continent? (905122)

The hon. Lady raises a really important point. It is why our membership of international networks, including the EU, is so important. I am proud to say that the UK can lead the way in tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. We are also investing money, of course, in our own schools to make sure that the next generation shows tolerance towards everybody.

Notwithstanding the benefits, or otherwise, of the EU, would my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of marking this international day is better forms of screening for diseases that affect LGBT people, one of which, of course, is the human papilloma virus?

Putting our differences aside on the EU, I am delighted to say that the public health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), today laid a written ministerial statement in the House stating that from June this year Public Health England will start a pilot to see whether it is possible to offer the HPV vaccination to men who have sex with men and are attending sexual health service clinics. The pilot will eventually reach up to 40,000 men at high risk of attracting HPV. I hope that the House will welcome this move.

13. A transgender constituent of mine who is being held in custody is having a very difficult time in a men’s prison. The Minister will recall that two transgender women died in men’s prisons at the back end of last year. We were promised a review. What discussions has she had with the Justice Secretary and how close are we to some outcomes from that review? (905125)

If the hon. Gentleman wants to raise a specific case with Ministers, we will be pleased to look at it. The Government are firmly committed to ensuring that the needs of transgender prisoners are fully met. The Ministry of Justice has carried out the review and it will be published shortly.

The global focus of this year’s international day against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia was mental health and wellbeing. Does the Minister share my concerns about the impact that local government cuts are having on LGBT mental health organisations in the UK, and will she take steps to protect LGBT mental health services?

I agree with the hon. Lady that mental health services are incredibly important for all people. This issue has been raised with me by members of the trans community and more broadly. I cannot agree with her that this has been caused by changes to local government finance. There is a much broader issue of making sure that services are available to people as and when they most need them.

Women in Business

We are absolutely committed to supporting women in business. I am delighted that Britain has been named the best place in Europe for female entrepreneurs. We have invested £2.2 million in our women and broadband programme, enabling them to take advantage of technology to start or grow their business. We have also run 19 nationwide “meet a mentor” sessions to provide help, support and encouragement for female entrepreneurs.

I am grateful for that answer. Wimborne Women in Business are fearless in promoting their own businesses locally, but broadband speeds in parts of Dorset remain frustratingly slow. What more can the Minister do to engage in this subject and ensure that women in business in Mid Dorset and North Poole have access to adequate broadband speeds?

We are working very hard to ensure that 95% of UK homes and businesses get access to superfast broadband. Coverage in Dorset will continue to improve during 2017 through a Government and local enterprise partnership-funded ultra-fast programme, which I hope Wimborne Women in Business will appreciate. Through the Dorset Go Digital women and broadband programme, we have supported almost 100 women in the past six months alone to take advantage of this and develop the digital skills they need to start or grow their business.

Does the Minister agree that if there were more women at senior levels in business, we might have fewer advertising campaigns such as that by Calvin Klein, featuring overtly sexualised images of young women, including what are known as “upskirt” shots? Will she join me in urging Calvin Klein and similar organisations not only to be more responsible in their advertising, but to donate some of the profits they have made to charities that are solving rather worsening the problems women face in society?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point out this sort of irresponsible advertising, and I recently met the advertising industry to discuss the issue. She is also right to say that we need more women on boards. Currently, 26% of the people sitting on FTSE 100 boards are women—more than ever before. This is an issue on which we will continue to work—on boards, but in the executive pipeline as well.

Revenge Porn Helpline

Let me be clear that revenge porn is an abhorrent crime. The pilot of the revenge porn helpline has received approximately 4,000 calls, relating to 785 cases since its launch in February 2015, sadly indicating a clear need for the important practical and emotional support it provides. The helpline has been successful in removing over 1,000 illegal images online.

That demand for the revenge porn helpline reflects the fact that there were more than 1,000 police reports of online revenge porn last year, yet two thirds of those cases saw no action taken because of problems with the evidence or victims withdrawing. When will the helpline and this new law be matched with police training and the option of anonymity for victims?

The Chairman of the Women and Equalities Committee raises an important issue. We criminalised revenge porn in early 2015. Last year, there were 82 prosecutions and 74 cautions. Thousands of police officers are trained in digital crime, and revenge porn is used as a specific case study in the College of Policing mainstreaming cybercrime training programme. We must ensure that victims report the crime. I will certainly raise this matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary when I next see her.

Topical Questions

I hope that hon. Members will join me in welcoming the introduction of topical questions to Women and Equalities oral questions. Along with the introduction of the Women and Equalities Committee in the last Session and the cross-government Front-Bench presence here today, we are sending a powerful message to the public about the importance that this Government and this House place on equality. I am delighted that at the recent G7 Education Ministers meeting in Japan, I was able to persuade all Ministers to recognise the need to address the discrimination that children might suffer, including because of their sexual orientation or gender. That was captured in the formal summit communiqué.

I am delighted to be asking the first Women and Equalities topical question.

One group of victims of domestic violence who are not entitled to access protection consists of women whose immigration status is dependent on their partners, the perpetrators of that violence. I have raised the issue in two Westminster Hall debates in recent weeks, and two Ministers have agreed to make representations to the Home Secretary about it. Will the Minister—probably the most relevant Minister in this context—add her voice to calls for equality for all women in those circumstances?

Let me begin by welcoming the appointment of Angela Constance as the Cabinet Minister with equalities responsibility in the Scottish Government. I very much enjoyed working with her when she had the education brief in the last Government.

I will certainly look at the issue that the hon. Lady has raised. As I have said, I shall be meeting the Home Secretary soon, and I will add it to our agenda.

T2. During a recent visit to Crossrail, I was delighted to learn of the major contribution that women have made, at every level, to Europe’s largest infrastructure project. Given that both HS2 and Crossrail 2 are on the horizon, will the Minister tell us what action has been taken to retain those women and their skills, which are so important to the future of our infrastructure projects? (905103)

As a result of the Government’s unprecedented investment in transport infrastructure, opportunities for women in construction will continue to grow, and we must build on Crossrail’s excellent example. The industry already has some great role models, including Ailie MacAdam, who led the team that delivered the channel tunnel rail link, managed the construction of St Pancras International, and was a delivery director for Crossrail. I hope that many young women will follow in her footsteps.

T3. The Scottish National party is committed to reviewing and reforming gender recognition law in Scotland so that it is in line with best practice for people who are transgender. Will the Minister join me in applauding that approach, and will she press for such legislative change here, through her own Department? (905104)

As I have made very clear, discrimination on any grounds is abhorrent, and the Government want it to end. There is more discussion now about issues facing the trans community, and I pay tribute to the work of the Women and Equalities Committee, which has published an important report on transgender issues. The report made a number of recommendations to Departments throughout Whitehall; we are studying those recommendations, and will respond to them fully in due course.

T4. Will the Minister join me in congratulating The R&A on barring Muirfield golf club from hosting the Open championship in the light of its decision not to admit women as members? Does she think that the club should put that right, and admit them? (905105)

T6. What conversations has the Minister had with the Home Office about the equalities implications of the Prevent strategy? In a written submission to the Home Affairs Committee, terror watchdog David Anderson QC said that the strategy would benefit from an independent review, expressing the concern that “aspects of the programme are ineffective or being applied in an insensitive or discriminatory manner.” (905107)

I think it will be clear to the hon. Lady from the Home Office representation at this session that such conversations are taking place, but I note the point that she has made.

T5. By the age of six, young girls have begun to decide which roles are for them and which are for boys, often to the detriment of careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In many cases, that is because certain toys are marketed for girls, and most science toys are marketed for boys. What plans have the Government to show that young girls do not have to limit their career aspirations? (905106)

I know that my hon. Friend is passionate about this issue. As I have said, no career should be off limits because of factors such as gender, race or sexual orientation. Careers education in primary schools, including initiatives such as Primary Futures, is important to broadening horizons and bringing children’s learning to life. I mentioned the Careers & Enterprise Company earlier; I hope that Members in all parts of the House will support their local enterprise co-ordinators.

T7. Given the importance of the health and work programme, which supports disabled people who are unable to work or gain access to work, will the Minister ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to publish his Green Paper as a matter of urgency, so that disabled people do not have to wait any longer to access support? (905108)

The Green Paper gives a fantastic opportunity for stakeholders, with their first-hand experience and knowledge, to help shape the policy, and, where there is local best practice, to look for ways in which we can scale that up.

The White Paper on education that I published in March reinforces our commitment to develop a diverse supply of school leaders. More than 450 women are benefiting from our equality and diversity fund, and earlier this year I announced a women in education network to support women’s career progression. I have called on exceptional school leaders to come forward and pledge to coach women into leadership, and 300 have already signed up to do so.

This matter was raised in the Women and Equalities Committee’s report. Evidence was taken on it and it is something that we are considering, along with all the other issues in that report.

The Secretary of State very kindly referred to the Select Committee earlier. We have produced two reports so far in our short existence: one on the gender pay gap and one on transgender people. One of those reports is now five months old, and we have yet to receive a response to either of them. When can we expect those responses?

I always say that if you want something done, ask a busy woman, and they certainly make up the majority on the Women and Equalities Committee. I am delighted to see that it has been so busy. My right hon. Friend mentions two reports: one on transgender issues and one on the gender pay gap. They make recommendations for cross-government co-operation. I want to ensure that we get the best possible responses, but I expect to publish them shortly.

I hope that “shortly” means well before the summer recess. That seems to be a very tardy response indeed. This is really not very satisfactory.

In February, Women for Refugee Women made freedom of information requests on the number of pregnant women being detained under immigration rules. What has happened since has been described by as

“an instruction manual in obfuscation and delay”.

Can the Minister explain why the Government are so reluctant to reveal this information, and tell us when they will finally release the data?

The detention of pregnant women under Immigration Act powers occurs only in limited situations, either when there is a clear prospect of early removal or in exceptional circumstances. Very few pregnant women are detained. Central recording of the number of detained women who have disclosed their pregnancy started in August 2015. Options for the collection of wider data on pregnant women are being considered as part of the implementation of the Immigration Act 2016, which has just gone through this House.

I am sure the Minister will be aware that, against a background of tens of thousands of gun murders every year, 11 states in the United States have decided that the question of who uses which bathroom is the key issue affecting public safety. Will she assure me and the House that our Government will not go down that path and that they will focus on real public safety priorities rather than the ones being imagined as a result of prejudice in the United States?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and I am more than happy to have a conversation with him about his concerns. This is not something that has been raised with me previously.

Order. Just before I call the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) to put his urgent question, I would emphasise that although it of course covers an extremely important matter—and is, by definition, urgent—exchanges on it should be completed by 11 o’clock. We have the business question to follow, and a ministerial statement by way of an update on the steel industry and a very heavily subscribed main debate thereafter. The time limits will therefore need to be strictly enforced.