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Women and Equalities

Volume 618: debated on Thursday 8 December 2016

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Careers Advice: Girls

1. What steps the Government are taking to improve careers advice to girls and reduce the gender pay gap. (907756)

Careers guidance should help all young people to get the inspiration and the advice and guidance that they need for success in working life. We want to see schools giving not only impartial careers advice and guidance, but high-quality guidance. That is why we are investing £90 million over this Parliament to improve careers provision for young people.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that good-quality careers advice is essential. Are there any further plans for the Government to remove barriers for women when they progress with their careers, particularly when they have young children?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that. When we look in detail at the gender pay gap, we see that the situation for people who start a family often presents the biggest challenge that we face in reducing the gender pay gap further. We have given more than 20 million employees the right to request flexible working. We are providing shared parental leave, because childcare is not just an issue for women; it is an issue for men as well. My hon. Friend will know that we have committed to doubling the free childcare provided for working parents of three and four-year-olds from 15 to 30 hours a week.

Will the Government commit today to publishing their response to the Women and Equalities Committee report on the gender pay gap before the House rises for the Christmas recess? The report was published in March this year.

It is an important report, and we have taken time to consider it carefully. The hon. Lady will be aware that we laid gender pay gap regulations before the House in recent days, and we will be publishing that report very shortly.

Are the Government as committed to eliminating the part-time gender pay gap as they are to eliminating the full-time gender pay gap?

We want that to take place. The full-time gender pay gap has never been narrower than it is today, but it is important that we look beyond that and understand that people working part time have the same right to no gender pay gap.

Does the Secretary of State agree that although the gender pay gap has reduced, the fact that the pay gap for full-time workers is at a differential of 13.9% indicates that much work still needs to be done? Has she considered a penalty system for employers who do not comply?

We try to work with employers on a voluntary basis. This is not just about forcing employers, although we have laid gender pay gap regulations on transparency before the House. It is about business understanding why they have an interest in fixing this issue in the first place. Yes, we are bringing in mandatory reporting, and we laid regulations on that before the House in the last few days, but we want business genuinely to grasp the nettle and understand why the issue matters so much.

Female part-time workers enjoy 6% more pay than do their male equivalents. At a time when we are encouraging men to take more of their fair share of childcare responsibilities, is the Secretary of State as concerned as I am by the fact that the excellent Equal Pay Portal is worried that the gap is increasing over the long term?

What is interesting is that we have seen people’s work habits and routine change over recent years. We want to see no gender pay gap, irrespective of which gender is disadvantaged. Historically, this has been a significant issue for women, rather than men, but we want to see no gender pay gap, irrespective of gender.

Rail Companies: Disabled Passengers

2. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that rail companies provide on-board visual and auditory displays for disabled passengers. (907757)

The provision of an audio-visual passenger information system is mandatory for all new trains, and it has been since 1999. For older trains, operators have until 1 January 2020 to fit an AV passenger system. Currently, 70% of the fleet operated on the main line has been either built compliant or upgraded to be compliant, and the rest of the fleet will be upgraded or replaced by 2020.

How can we encourage staff on our railways to make announcements on the trains to help visually impaired passengers when visual displays are either not fitted on the trains or, as is the case most of the time, not working?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is a condition of an operator’s passenger licence that it must publish a disabled persons protection policy. That covers how the needs of visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing people are met with regard to AV systems, including in times of delay or disruption. DPPPs have to be approved by the Office of Rail and Road. Additionally, disability awareness training is mandatory for all customer-facing staff and managers in train operating companies.

This week, the all-party parliamentary group for disability published an informative report on measures to close the disability employment gap. One of the issues raised by disabled people is the cutting of benefits, which reduces their independence and results in the removal of their Motability vehicles. When will the Government reverse this disabling policy?

The hon. Lady raises a very important question. I will have to look into this matter and reply to her in writing.

It is a very important question, but, unfortunately, it is somewhat different from the question on the Order Paper. That may explain the Minister’s need to undertake some important research, the fruits of which I am sure we will witness in due course.

Having a disability-accessible train service is hugely important, but disabled people need to be able to get to the train station in the first place. What is the Minister doing to make sure that local authorities have a more consistent approach to making our built environment more disability-accessible, particularly in making sure that we have more consistency in shared space schemes?

Shared space schemes are a very controversial area, and their name does not help people. With shared space schemes, local authorities are trying to remove some of the visual clutter and improve the built environment, but that cannot be done at the expense of disabled people. In the Department, we have a work group that, with the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation, is looking at good practice in this area, and it will publish its report shortly.

Making audio-visual information on public transport mandatory for buses is overdue. Will the Government confirm that they will accept the amendment to the Bus Services Bill, which is going through the Lords?

The Government tabled an amendment in the Lords to introduce AV displays on buses. The Bill has finished its passage through the Lords, and I think it will be introduced in this House in the new year. We are very keen on the amendment, and we were very pleased to get it into the Bill.

FTSE Companies

3. What steps the Government are taking to increase the number of women on boards and at senior executive levels of FTSE companies. (907758)

When companies have a senior team that better reflects the customers they serve, it is simply better for business and makes good business sense. Since 2010, we have more than doubled the number of women on boards in the FTSE 350. We have now committed to 33% of the members of the boards and executive committees of those companies being women by 2020.

I welcome the work that Plymouth University in my constituency has done to ensure that there are more women on its governing body. As well as the work the Government are doing with FTSE companies, what steps is the Department taking to ensure that more women are on the governing bodies of universities across the country?

Plymouth is always a trailblazer—as we know, one of my hon. Friend’s predecessors was Nancy Astor—and Plymouth University is clearly no exception. I commend the work that the university is doing. Female leaders in universities and colleges are very powerful role models who are inspiring the next generation. We welcome the last WomenCount report on higher education, which showed that a third of governing bodies are now gender-balanced, and we support the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s aspirational target of 40% of women on governing bodies.

The fact that female representation on boards is rising is certainly welcome, but the number of female executive directors is still ridiculously low, accounting for less than 10% of the total number of directorships in the FTSE 100 and less than 6% of the total in the FTSE 250. How are the Government encouraging those companies to promote diversity within their executive pipelines?

The hon. Lady makes an absolutely excellent and very important point. We want more female executives on boards, which is why the Hampton-Alexander review requirement for work on the pipeline is so vital. It is also why the target of 33% female representation on executive committees and on the committees that report to them by 2020 is so important.

What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that successful women entrepreneurs—I am thinking of people such as Leah Totton, of “The Apprentice” fame, from Northern Ireland—are projected as role models, particularly for young females who aspire to follow in their footsteps?

It is absolutely vital that we celebrate successful female entrepreneurs. There are more female-led businesses in this country than ever before, but we know that if women were starting up businesses at the same rate as men, there would be 1 million more of them. That is why it is absolutely vital that we celebrate those fantastic entrepreneurs—through the Careers and Enterprise Company, for example—as role models for the next generation.

Sex and Relationships Education

4. What plans the Government have to update their guidance to schools on the provision of sex and relationships education to include (a) LGBT relationships issues and (b) sexual harassment in schools. (907759)

The sex and relationships education guidance was issued in 2000. MPs from all parties, including those in the Chamber who have held my position during the past 16 years, know that this is a complex area and that we need a thoughtful and measured approach to updating the guidance. I made it very clear at the Education Committee that we are actively looking at the SRE guidance to ensure that all young people are supported in developing healthy and respectful relationships.

As the Secretary of State outlined, five Commons Select Committee Chairs, countless children’s charities, MPs across this House, experts and academics agree that good-quality statutory age-appropriate relationships education in schools will provide children with the knowledge and resilience they need to develop healthy and respectful relationships, and will ensure that they are less vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence. The Government have finally accepted that the current quality and accessibility of SRE are not good enough; will they amend the Children and Social Work Bill to introduce good-quality statutory SRE that applies to every school?

We have already set out the fact that we are actively looking at the SRE guidance. It was first brought in 16 years ago, and we all recognise that the world that children are growing up in now is very different from that world. The hon. Lady’s question raises in particular LGBT relationship issues and sexual harassment. Those are important areas where we can do better. I am very proud of the Government’s record on LGBT issues and bringing forward same sex marriage, but it is an important area and is one that we are looking at.

A young trans person in England is, sadly, three times more likely to have self-harmed and almost twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their peers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that more should be done to improve LGBT sex and relationship education in schools to support all students to understand better and be compassionate, to help reduce those shocking statistics and the often heartbreaking outcomes for those young people?

My hon. Friend is right. No child should suffer the kind of discrimination and harassment she mentioned. In September we set out £2.8 million of funding over the next three years to focus in particular on tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools. It is important that, alongside education, we are clear that we need to change attitudes as well.

I appreciate the Secretary of State’s answer on the SRE guidance. It is indeed almost 17 years out of date. At the last Women and Equalities questions she said she would “provide an update shortly”; now she is carefully “looking” at it. She is right that the guidance is completely out of date. It does not include anything on the internet or online grooming—it does not mention grooming full stop, let alone exploitative relationships. I wrote to her last month about this but she has not replied. Children in this country are waiting for a reply on when they will get proper sex and relationships guidance. Will she please answer now?

The hon. Lady wrote to me on 17 November. I will of course respond to her letter. In addition, we have been very clear that we want to see how we can make progress in this area. However, as many questions have underlined, it is very complex, with many different aspects that we need to work on very carefully to get right. Although I know that within this House there have been some excellent reports underlining some of the areas where the guidance should be updated, there is also a broader debate in the country about the right way to do that. This matter needs to be handled very sensitively. That is why we will make sure we take the time to get the process right and then set it out to MPs.

State Pension Age

5. If she will discuss with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions the provision of further transitional support to women affected by the increase in the state pension age. (907762)

11. If she will discuss with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions the provision of further transitional support to women affected by the increase in the state pension age. (907769)

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is fully aware of the issue, which we debated in this Chamber just last week. He has clearly stated that the introduction of further transitional arrangements cannot be justified given the imperative to focus public resources on helping those in most need. There are no plans to go beyond the £1.1 billion concession introduced when Parliament considered the changes.

I thank the Minister for that response, disappointingly predictable as it was. Will she tell me whether anyone in Government has done an analysis of how much it would cost to implement transitional measures by comparison with what it will cost the Government reputationally and financially when the Women Against State Pension Inequality take them to court and win?

Consistent is how I would prefer to describe my answer. The Government have looked into a variety of different proposals that have come forward in many forms, both from the WASPI campaign and from Opposition parties. As I have very clearly stated, we will not make any further transitional arrangements.

The Minister must know that the lack of transitional support is causing real hardship to women in her constituency, as it is in mine. In the interests of transparency, will she publish any proposals that have come up since the Pensions Act 2011? Will she publish them and the Government’s research, so we can see what they have done?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the welfare system provides a safety net for those experiencing hardship. We have made it very clear that we have already provided £1.1 billion in transitional concessions. The Government have published a great many figures on this subject. It is very difficult for the Government to publish further statistics on proposals that have come forward from both the WASPI campaign and Opposition parties when it is very unclear what provisions would be included around those transitional arrangements for women as well as men.

With the effects of austerity being felt disproportionately by women, another Government policy affecting women is the 4% tax on child maintenance. Does the Minister accept that this places an additional tax on survivors of domestic violence, and will she ensure that that is addressed?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question, although I am not sure how it relates to the WASPI campaign. As she will know, I answered questions on this very subject at the Select Committee yesterday. Interestingly, no mention was made of the charges to parents in the collect and pay system. We are determined to encourage as many families as possible to have family-based arrangements. Indeed, even in cases where there has been domestic violence, the child maintenance service can step in to make sure that bank details can be passed safely, including using bank accounts that do not have a geographic location—they have a centralised sort code—so that we protect women and have as few families as possible within the collect and pay arrangements.

Scientific Professions: Women

It is vital that we encourage talented women into scientific careers. Those working in science, technology, engineering and maths careers on average earn a pay premium of 19%. Ensuring that women work in STEM careers will also help to tackle the gender pay gap. Role models are absolutely crucial for young women, and some 40% of STEM ambassadors are women.

I would like to take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to Tim Peake, who did an amazing job of working with schools while he was on his space trip earlier this year. I have met many, many schoolchildren who have had their interest in STEM stimulated from the work he did while on his space trip.

In a free market, the shortage of science teachers to inspire young women would be addressed by a rising wage. It is worth a try.

We are trying to make sure that some of the very best graduates in STEM subjects go into teaching. Our bursary schemes help to encourage that. Some fantastic teachers are now coming into the profession, which will help us to further build the STEM pipeline.

Research from the Institution of Engineering and Technology shows that science, technology, engineering and maths-based toys are three times more likely to be targeted at boys than at girls. I should declare an interest as a chartered engineer in the IET. Will the Secretary of State declare her support for the Let Toys Be Toys campaign, which aims to give girls and boys, in the run-up to Christmas, a real choice about the kinds of toys they can enjoy and the careers they can have?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight this. There are no boys’ careers and girls’ careers anymore—these careers should be open to all children. A person’s gender should not matter. As we have said, part of how we fix this challenge is by working in schools. I was very proud last month when one of my own schools, Ashcroft academy, won a STEM inspiration award for its Tuesday lunchtime STEM club. Such initiatives might seem small, but they have a profound effect on improving children’s interest in taking STEM forward.

Employment Tribunal Fees

7. What assessment she has made of the effect of the introduction of employment tribunal fees on access to justice for women. (907765)

The Government are undertaking a post-implementation review of the introduction of fees for employment tribunal proceedings. The review is considering, so far as possible, the impact fees have had on women and those with other protected characteristics, and the type of cases they bring. The Ministry of Justice will announce the conclusions of the review in due course.

The Minister will surely be aware of the wealth of evidence submitted to the review that the number of tribunal claims has fallen by 80%. Only 1% of women discriminated against at work have brought a claim to tribunal. There is a whole raft of evidence suggesting that tribunal fees are denying women access to justice. Will she make representations to the Ministry of Justice?

There is no doubt that the number of tribunals has gone down, but in actual fact there is good news here, in the sense that people have been diverted from potentially acrimonious tribunal hearings and into mediation. ACAS has given people the opportunity to resolve their differences through conciliation, and that scheme was used by over 92,000 people last year.

It is well documented that the Minister for Women and Equalities has been sitting on her Government’s equality impact assessment since October 2015, and although I have made several requests to have sight of it and for it to be put in the public domain, I have been consistently told “in due course”. I am still waiting for an explanation of how long that means. Given that this week she published an equality analysis of further changes that the Government want to make to employment tribunals, will she now commit to publishing the document, announced and on her desk since 2015, before we break for Christmas?

The hon. Lady has made her point very clearly. I will speak to the MOJ, and we will get back to her as soon as possible.

Topical Questions

Last month, the Government welcomed the first report of the independent review by Sir Philip Hampton and Dame Helen Alexander of women in the executive pipeline, and we are pleased to welcome their recommendation that FTSE 100 companies should have at least 33% of their executive pipeline positions filled by women by 2020. In addition, this week the Government laid draft gender pay gap regulations that, if passed, will give unprecedented pay transparency to everyone working for a private or voluntary sector employer with 250 staff or more. That means the regulations will affect around 8,000 employers and over 11 million employees.

How can the Minister possibly believe that a budget reduction of 70% will enable the Equality and Human Rights Commission to fulfil its statutory functions, and why have the Government continued to refuse to complete a full equality impact assessment of the implications of the cuts for the work of the EHRC?

The EHRC performs an important and valuable role, and its chair, David Isaac, and his board are well equipped for this task. The commission receives, and will continue to receive, sufficient funds to enable it to fulfil its full range of statutory duties.

T2. Research from Guide Dogs has shown that 42% of surveyed assistance dog owners were refused carriage by a taxi driver in the past year, despite its being illegal. Ministers in the Department for Transport are showing great determination to address this wholly unacceptable discrimination, including through enforcement and education. What will the Minister’s Department do to support these efforts? (907746)

Assistance dogs are vital to the independence of many disabled people, and their continual refusal by a minority of taxi and private hire vehicle drivers is inexcusable. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), for his commitment to addressing this issue and eliminating this discrimination. My hon. Friend makes a profound case, and my Department will do all it can to support this important work.

We have commissioned research revealing that as of the autumn statement 86% of net savings to the Treasury since 2010 through tax and benefit measures had come from women—an increase on the last autumn statement, when the figure was 81%. When will the Minister deem this issue serious enough to warrant action from the Treasury—when the figure reaches 88%, 90%, 100%? And when will she agree to listen to the EHRC and the UN, among others, and publish a cumulative gender impact analysis of the Government’s policies?

One of the best things we can do to help women financially is to make sure we have a strong economy, and that is precisely what we have done, hence the record employment levels for women, which are good news. The hon. Lady’s question missed out our raising of the personal allowance, which has disproportionately helped lift women out of tax altogether.

T3. One of the changes to the state pension that everyone should welcome, but which is not as well known as it should be, is the recognition given to the years spent by women bringing up children, which now count as a national insurance credit towards a full state pension. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the number of women starting to benefit from this and its estimated value during a mother’s retirement? (907747)

By 2030, over 3 million women stand to gain on average £550 extra per year as a result of these changes. For women reaching state pension age in 2016-17, their median net income in retirement is estimated to be approximately £207,000. This is more on average than women have ever received.

T6. According to Age UK, there is clear evidence that older people with cancer are too often under-treated, owing to judgments made on the basis of their age rather than their overall health and fitness. Age discrimination in the NHS is illegal under the Equality Act 2010, so will the Minister tell us what discussions she has had with colleagues in the Department of Health about a plan to improve cancer survival rates for people of all ages? (907750)

As the hon. Lady will know, the Department for Work and Pensions has recently published the work and health Green Paper, and we are looking at working very closely with the Department of Health on a whole range of issues to make sure that older people and our pensioners are treated fairly by all Government Departments and services.

T4. A little earlier, my right hon. Friend stated that she did not wish to see a gender pay gap, so what steps are the Government taking to reduce it? (907748)

Eliminating the gender pay gap remains an absolute priority for this Government. Transparency is one of the most important and powerful tools for shaping behaviour and driving change. That is why we will be requiring large employers to publish their gender pay gaps. Draft regulations were laid on Tuesday 6 December, and if Parliament approves this legislation, which I hope will happen, the regulations will commence in April 2017.

T7. Does the Minister agree with the Resolution Foundation that cuts to the work allowances of universal credit risk undermining work incentives for disabled people? Should not those cuts be reversed now? (907752)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, changes were announced in the autumn statement to the taper rate of universal credit. The reality of our changes to the welfare system is that universal credit is encouraging more people into work, and once they are in work, it is helping them, via our work coaches working in every single jobcentre, to make sure that they get more work and indeed better work.

T5. Research shows that nine out of 10 parents tell us that they want sex and relationship education in our schools to be compulsory. Do the Government agree with them? (907749)

I very much welcome the report that my right hon. Friend’s Select Committee published on this issue. That is precisely why we want to look actively at this issue. She will know from our recent meeting that I think it important to have SRE that works for the 21st century. It is indeed time to look at this, and I am very conscious of the House’s overall view that this is a matter that we should now take on board. My right hon. Friend will know from her previous role as the Minister for Women and Equalities that it is a complex issue, but we are looking to see what we can do to address it.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has found that this Government’s pursuit of an austerity agenda, resulting in cuts to benefits, meets the threshold for human rights violations of disabled people. What are the Government going to do to rectify that?

The Government are committed to providing support for disabled people who need it, as reflected in the fact that spending to support disabled people and people with health conditions will be higher in real terms in every year to 2020 than it was in 2010. The core intention of the recommendations set out by the UN is already incorporated in UK policies, and our response sets that out in more detail.

My right hon. Friend has committed to issuing by the end of the year a consultation document on the future of caste discrimination legislation. Will she update us on when that document will be released?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and he is absolutely right that we intend to issue a full public consultation shortly on how best to provide the legal protection that we want to see against caste discrimination. When we do that, I am sure that my hon. Friend and his community will want to participate fully in the consultation.

It took the Government almost a year to come up with a very thin eight-page review on the care and management of transgender offenders. That referred to

“a number of events linked to transgender prisoners”

that attracted attention last year. Those so-called “events” were, in fact, the deaths in the space of a month of two transgender women held in men’s prisons. Will the Minister tell us why the Government failed to acknowledge those tragedies in their review, and why their proposals are so meagre?

I question all those statements. The response is not meagre; it is thorough. The Government are firmly committed to ensuring that transgender offenders are treated fairly, lawfully and decently, and that their rights are respected. A revised instruction drawing on the conclusions of the Ministry of Justice’s “Review of care and management of transgender offenders” was published on 9 November. It is already being applied, and will be implemented fully by 1 January.

In the two months between 14 September and 15 November, the tax credits of 24,219 families were reinstated after being unfairly removed by Concentrix. What work have the Government done to assess the impact on women—particularly single mothers—who have been disproportionately affected?

The hon. Lady has raised an important issue. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury decided not to renew the Concentrix contract precisely because of some of those challenges, and I will ensure that my hon. Friend contacts her with further details relating to her specific question.