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Women and Equalities

Volume 620: debated on Thursday 2 February 2017

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Statutory Sex and Relationships Education

1. If the Government will introduce statutory sex and relationships education to tackle homophobic bullying and sexual harassment in schools. (908513)

The Government want to ensure that all schools are safe, inclusive environments where pupils can fulfil their potential, and we are actively considering how to improve the delivery of sex and relationships education, including updating the existing guidance, which was originally drafted in 2000.

New clause 1 of the Children and Social Work Bill would make sex and relationships education compulsory under the safeguarding duties of schools. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will be supporting that new clause on Report so that all our young people can be equipped and empowered to keep themselves healthy and safe?

I very much appreciate the support around the House for the fact that it is time to look at how we can do better in regard to sex and relationships education, and we are actively looking at how best to improve the quality of delivery and accessibility so that children can be supported. As the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Edward Timpson), has set out, the Government are committed to updating Parliament further during the passage of the Bill.

Police information released today by Barnardo’s shows a 73% increase in reports of children sexually abusing other children. We know that children are not being effectively taught in our schools about mutual respect, self-respect and consent. Will the Minister consider particular amendments to the Children and Social Work Bill that would address those issues? We are running out of time and letting children down.

I have said that we will provide an update during the next stage of the Bill, but my right hon. Friend is right to suggest that a lot of time has elapsed since the guidance was drafted in 2000, and the world is now a very different place. It is time to look at how we can ensure that children have the right access to what I might rename relationships and sex education, and to ensure that it is high quality education. That is why it is right to ensure that the next steps we take are the right ones, and that they can move this forward for the long term. We need to ensure that the young people in our education system today leave school with not only the relationships education but the broader life skills they need to lead successful lives.

Will the right hon. Lady take on board the fact that successive Select Committees have looked at this matter, and that it is vital not only that every school offers this kind of education but that, critically, we train people to have the right skills to deliver it?

I have said that we need to make progress on this, and I have reflected on the fact that there have now been 16 years in which we really have not done so. When Ofsted produced its recent report on this in 2013, it identified issues around the quality of teaching. As the hon. Gentleman says, this is not just about what our young people should be taught in schools and their access to that teaching; it is also about the quality of the teaching. This is a broader question than simply one of updating the legal perspective of where SRE is taught.

There is a worrying trend among people on the left of both sides of the House that things that they do not like should be banned and that things that they like must be made compulsory. What is wrong with the principle of freedom? What is wrong with parents having a role in deciding what is appropriate for their children to be taught?

I strongly agree that parents’ involvement in ensuring that what children are taught at school is acceptable to them and appropriate is vital. However, the most important voices that now need to be listened to are those of young people and children, who say that they do not feel that they are getting the necessary level of education in this area and want a more up-to-date approach to enable them to deal with the world in which they are growing up.

More than half of lesbian, gay and bi pupils have experienced direct bullying, and LGBT people are twice as likely as heterosexuals to have suicidal thoughts or to have attempted suicide. The Minister will be aware that people are committing terrible homophobic and hate crimes online—crimes for which they would be held accountable offline. The “#no2LGBTHate” campaign is calling on Twitter to take action against users who spread homophobia on the site. Does the Minister support the campaign? What is she doing to tackle homophobic hate?

It is important that we support campaigns that are trying to play a role in reducing LGBT bullying. In September last year, we set out a £2.8 million programme to invest in charities that are working to prevent and address homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools in England. The Government have launched their own “Disrespect NoBody” campaign to help young people recognise and challenge abuse within teen relationships. It is important to work in schools to change attitudes due to, as the hon. Lady sets out, the level of discrimination and abuse that many young people say they have received.

I am pleased that the Government are considering the views of charities, campaigners and Members of this House in introducing statutory relationship education. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on plans to update the statutory guidance, which was last updated when I was the ripe age of 13?

I did not realise that my hon. Friend was quite that young. He sets out the serious point that the world has changed immeasurably since 2000. Children now learn about relationships in different ways, but the challenge is that they are learning about them in ways that give them a skewed, inaccurate view of what relationships are about. It is important to look at how we can ensure that the guidance genuinely works and reflects the world as it is today, therefore giving ourselves and our children a better chance to get the education that they need.

Will my right hon. Friend have a word with our excellent Secretary of State for Education and identify the best schools in the country that tackle homophobic bullying and sexual harassment together with the parents of their pupils, and roll out that best practice across the country?

I will not comment on that, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that many schools are doing that—I visited a school in Birmingham that is doing great work in this area. Excellent work is under way, but it is now time to look at how we can learn from what works and see that percolate through our school system so that all schools can do a better job for all children on teaching SRE.

Gender Pay Gap

2. What steps the Government are taking to tackle the gender pay gap for women in their 30s and 40s. (908515)

The gender pay gap is now the lowest on record, at 18.1%, but that is still too high and eliminating it altogether is one of the key targets of this Government. That is why we have extended the right to request flexible working and introduced shared parental leave, and it is why, from September, we are rolling out 30 hours of childcare to the working parents of all three and four-year-olds.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Does she agree with the overwhelming evidence suggesting that the £1,200 employment tribunal fees introduced by her Government are creating a significant barrier to women being able to hold their employer to account for gender pay disparities in the workplace? That is all women, not just low-paid women.

The Government take that very seriously, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Courts and Justice will be coming forward with more information shortly. The Government are committed to ensuring that people from all backgrounds can access justice. Although we are very keen to see much more in the way of mediation, and ACAS has dealt successfully with more than 80,000 cases without having to go to tribunal, on Tuesday we launched a consultation on proposals to widen the support available to people under the help with fees scheme, following the completion of the fees review.

The gender pay gap in the north-east is 28%, some 10 percentage points higher than the national average. What is the Minister and the Government doing to address those very stark regional variations?

It is vital, now more than ever, that our economy is able to benefit from everybody’s skills. We simply cannot afford to waste the talents of a single person. That is why, from April this year, we are requiring all employers with more than 250 staff to publish those gender pay gap figures. We are great believers in what gets measured gets managed, but what gets published gets managed even better.

Can my hon. Friend tell the House what the gender pay gap is for 30 and 40-year-olds in each Government Department? Does she agree that the Government should be getting their own house in order before trying to lecture others in the private sector?

I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that the gender pay gap in the Department for Education is only 5.9%. Although that is 5.9 percentage points too high, it shows enormous progress in the Department for Education. Across Government, the figure is just below 13%, and we will keep working until it has been eliminated altogether.

Given that it is now 42 years since Barbara Castle’s Equal Pay Act, why is there any gender pay gap, not only for 30 and 40-year-olds but for people in their teens, twenties, fifties and sixties?

I thought it was 47 years this year, but maybe my maths is wrong. It was certainly a long time ago.

I thought it was 1970. [Interruption.] Anyway, we are agreed that it is a long-standing statute.

Yes, I think we can all agree that it has been a long old time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns) is right to point this out. We have legislation that stops people being paid differently for doing the same job, but what drives the gender pay gap is the fact that girls tend to go into lower paid sectors compared with men and, of course, the pay gap really kicks in at around 30 and 40 when women leave work to have children and may not be supported back into the workplace as well as we would want. That is why gender pay gap reporting is so vital.

Racially Motivated Incidents

3. What steps she has taken in response to trends in the level of racially motivated incidents since the EU referendum. (908516)

I hope I can say on behalf of the entire House that all Members are clear that hate crime of any description should not and must not be tolerated. We have been working with the police, EU embassies and community groups to monitor the situation, to provide reassurance and to encourage reporting of racist incidents. Recorded hate crime has now fallen to pre-referendum levels. Police force areas continue to monitor racist incidents on an ongoing basis to ensure that any increases are addressed at the earliest opportunity.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Across the UK we saw a rise in hate crime and religiously aggravated offences following the referendum—it was 41% higher in July 2016 than in July 2015. Will he inform the House of what provisions have been put in place to avoid any repetition specifically in relation to the triggering of article 50?

There are a couple of points to make to the hon. Gentleman. We have put in place the Government’s new hate crime action plan, which is taking a number of steps, for example, to boost reporting. There is also new guidance for prosecutors and a new fund to ensure that we have protective security measures and additional funding in place for community organisations so that they can tackle hate crime. I also gently say to him that the Labour party should look carefully at this morning’s CST report, which clearly indicates a 36% rise in totally unacceptable recorded anti-Semitic crime, related directly to the problems in the Labour party.

I thank my right hon. Friend for mentioning the CST report. Clearly, the concern of the Jewish community in this country is that hate crime against Jews is on the rise. He has seen the report and the whole community wants to know what he is going to do about it, so that we stamp out anti-Semitism, once and for all.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. As I have outlined, it is important that we stamp out all forms of hate crime, which is why that action plan was put in place in July by the Home Secretary. We also all need to look at ourselves. It is clear when we look at the CST report that although we should be pleased about people having the confidence to come forward to report crime—the increase in recording is good—a rise in hate crime of any description, particularly a 36% rise such as this one, is disgraceful. I hope Members from across this House will be doing all they can to stamp that out.

The Minister will be aware that the European Union has been a beacon of hope and a key proponent of equality for citizens’ rights across the globe. Will he categorically confirm to the House not only that the discrimination laws and rights bestowed upon people across the UK will be upheld following a UK exit from the EU, but that citizens living in the UK will not be left behind and have their rights taken hostage by Brexit?

We have been very clear all along that we want not only to stamp out hate crime, but to play an important part in this with our partners right across Europe. Indeed, in the autumn, I spoke at the EU Council on this very issue, and aside from the Commission, we were the only ones from any country to talk about it. We should be proud of the fact that this country has some of the toughest laws in the world on hate crime. Just a few weeks ago, on 19 January, we hosted some 19 countries’ embassies to talk to them about what we are doing and what can be done further to drive out hate crime.

Violence against Women and Girls

Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools is totally unacceptable and should not be tolerated, and I pay tribute to the fantastic work of Girlguiding UK, which is tackling this important issue. We are working with it as we take forward the commitment we made in response to the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry on sexual violence and sexual harassment in schools to review existing guidance and then to look at what further support we can put in place for schools.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. How much training and emotional support is given to girl guides and other young girls who are bullied online?

Tackling all forms of bullying, including cyber-bullying, is a priority for us. We are investing £1.6 million over two years directly in anti-bullying initiatives, including via the Diana award project, which has a focus on digital resilience for young people. The Government have also funded the UK Safer Internet Centre to develop new cyber-bullying guidance for schools and an associated online safety toolkit. My hon. Friend’s question highlights the fact that the world is a very different place for our young people these days, and our guidance, laws and teaching need to stay up to date.

Will the Government support Girlguiding’s “Girls Matter” campaign to update the school curriculum to include sexual consent, online safety, tackling violence against women and girls, and LGBT and healthy relationships?

I have set out my feeling that it is time we look at the guidance that is in place and how we can improve the teaching. That is the right thing to do. We will set out our next steps at the next stage of the Children and Social Work Bill, but we are already doing other things, too. We have already held our first advisory group on looking at updating our guidance on tackling bullying. Through that and the frameworks we have in place, we hope that we can help schools to develop improved codes of practice to combat bullying, too.

Will the Minister confirm that there is co-operation at a comprehensive level, particularly with uniformed organisations such as the Girls Brigade, as well as Girlguiding, to combat this pernicious aspect of the 21st century?

Those sorts of organisations can be vital and incredibly powerful in changing attitudes and helping young girls in particular to understand that they do have a voice and should not accept this sort of behaviour. When I was at the Department for International Development, we worked very closely with Girlguiding on gender equality more generally, and I am pleased that that relationship can continue now that I am at the Department for Education.

A vital part of fulfilling the aims of Girlguiding’s campaign to end violence against women and girls is challenging the attitudes and behaviour of the perpetrators of these crimes. What are the Government doing to ensure there is national coverage for high-quality, accredited, community-based perpetrator programmes, such as the ones I was involved in—I declare an interest—before I became an MP and came to this place?

The work that the DFE does is part of a cross-Government programme on tackling harassment, bullying and intimidation. It is about not only supporting people—particularly young people, in the case of the DFE—who are bearing the brunt of that behaviour, but understanding what is driving it and tackling the root causes.

The Girlguiding survey found that 20% of 13 to 21-year-olds have had unwanted pornographic imagery sent to them, and 5% have had indecent images shared without their consent. If the Government really do want to support the Girlguiding campaign, why is the Department cutting the funding to the revenge porn helpline, which has taken more than 2,500 calls in the past year? How will the Minister ensure that victims of revenge porn have access to bespoke support, as promised in the Government’s violence against women and girls strategy, when she is shutting the only helpline in March?

I do not think the hon. Lady has the right information; in fact, we have not made any announcements in relation to that effect yet. Alongside all the comments made by hon. Members today, it is worth reflecting on the fact that another thing we can do is improve the evidence base in this area, which is why we have included specific questions on sexist and racist bullying in the next wave of the National Foundation for Educational Research Teacher Voice survey. We hope that some of the findings from those questions will be available later this year.

Independent Domestic Violence Advisers

5. What discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on the Government's plans to continue direct grant funding to support independent domestic violence advisers after March 2017. (908518)

The Home Office has engaged closely with other Government Departments, through the violence against women and girls inter-ministerial group, to oversee delivery of the violence against women and girls strategy, including the commitment of increased funding of £80 million for the services. We have also engaged closely with commissioners and voluntary sector partners on the support provided for independent domestic violence advisers and our move to support better local collaboration and early intervention through the VAWG service transformation fund.

Some 84% of victims reported feeling safer with an independent domestic violence adviser, and just over 1,000 advisers are needed to support the current number of known victims, yet there are currently only half that number. What steps will the Minister be taking to increase the number of independent domestic violence advisers throughout the country?

As I just said, we have increased the funding to VAWG services to £80 million, and we are working with commissioners in local areas to make sure they can deliver the services that they understand are correct for their area and the women who live there.

I am proud that my local authority, Powys County Council, has become a white ribbon authority. Will my hon. Friend the Minister do all he can to encourage all local authorities to follow that example?

My hon. Friend gives a really good example of where local work is delivering really good local results in a way that others can look at. We have to get better, throughout this country, at sharing best practice, and that is a really good example that others can look at.

Gender Recognition Certificates

6. What progress the Government is making on reviewing the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the process relating to gender recognition certificates. (908519)

The Government are continuing our work on our commitment to review the Gender Recognition Act 2004. We have begun stakeholder engagement programmes to look at how the gender recognition process can be improved, as well as looking carefully at international comparisons. We will provide an update later this year.

I thank the Minister for her answer. My constituent Rebecca Cook applied for a gender recognition certificate, but her application was rejected on the basis that the statutory declaration was more than six months old and she

“may have changed her mind.”

Given that the statutory declaration is a lifetime declaration, will the Minister confirm that the six-month time limit will be reviewed as part of the overall legislative review?

I am really sorry to hear that my hon. Friend’s constituent has encountered those difficulties, and he is absolutely right to bring that kind of case to the House today. We have committed to review, streamline and demedicalise the gender recognition process, and we will certainly consider evidence of any administrative barriers to people gaining the legal gender recognition that they want.

Personal, Social and Health Education

7. What assessment she has made of the potential role of personal, social and health education in promoting equality. (908520)

We want schools to put high-quality PSHE at the heart of their curriculum, ensuring that all young people are prepared for life in modern Britain. Effective PSHE not only helps provide pupils with key life skills, but gives them the knowledge to understand their rights and responsibilities to respect individual differences and to challenge prejudice and discrimination.

Does the Secretary of State agree that embedding PSHE—life skills as she correctly terms it—will help us to deal with social mobility and productivity, and that we should see proper, age-appropriate teaching across the piece in our schools?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to link this matter with social mobility. We know that strong PSHE can make the biggest difference to young people growing up in more disadvantaged communities. It is important not only that we have healthy, resilient and confident pupils coming out of our education system who are better placed to do well academically, but that we improve our non-academic outcomes, as that is also hugely valued by employers.

The Minister will recognise that the churches play a key role in personal, social and health education. What discussions has she had, or will she have, in relation to that role that churches can play in education?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, because we have a large number of faith-based schools. Indeed, the values that we want to give our young people as they come through the education system are not only British but often underpinned by faith values. Coming back to the point on the economy, PSHE can really help students develop their teamwork, communications skills and resilience—precisely the sorts of things that British business wants.

Department for Work and Pensions Estate

9. What assessment the Government have made of the potential effect on equality for social security claimants of its proposals on the future of the Department for Work and Pensions estate. (908522)

The Government are committed to complying with our public sector equality duty, and we will take account of feedback from our public consultations. We will undertake an equality analysis as part of the detailed planning for service reconfiguration, which will include feedback from public consultations in those locations where this applies.

Last week, the UK Government announced the closure of 15 jobcentre sites in Scotland, including the Lonend site in Paisley. This follows a proposal to close eight jobcentres in Glasgow, which was announced in December. Does the Minister agree that it is a dereliction of duty and an insult to those affected not to conduct an equality impact assessment in advance of these plans, given the hardship that they will cause to thousands of the most disadvantaged people?

The views and opinions from the consultations we are carrying out with claimants who use the services across the country, not simply in Scotland, will be fed into our equality analysis.

The single biggest boost to equality delivered through our Department for Work and Pensions estate is the introduction of named universal credit work coaches and their personalised support. What is the current roll-out timetable?

The roll-out of universal credit is increasing apace, and from September we expect it to roll out to 43 jobcentres every single month. My right hon. Friend is right to point out that work coaches are a crucial part of getting people back into work. As part of the service reconfiguration, we are working to ensure that individual claimants can maintain the relationship with their work coaches.

State Pensions: Working-Class Women

11. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of recent changes to state pensions on the income of working-class women in retirement. (908525)

Women reaching state pension age in 2016-17 are estimated to receive more state pension on average over their lifetime than women ever have before. By 2030, more than 3 million women stand to gain an average of £550 a year through the introduction of the new state pension.

Working-class women are more likely to be in manual trades, which take a greater toll on the body as it ages, and to die younger due to the health inequalities from which we still suffer. The Minister did not mention the word “class” in her reply. Will she say right now that she will ensure justice for working-class women and all WASPI women by giving them a fair deal in the spring Budget?

The equalisation of the state pension age has been well rehearsed in this Chamber; and, no, I will not use the word “class” because, to be quite frank, we are all working now.

Topical Questions

The whole House will welcome the fact that the Turing law has now come into effect. Alongside that, Parliament this week approved the regulations introducing mandatory gender pay gap and bonus gap reporting for private and voluntary sector employers with 250 employees or more. Transparency over time can make a big difference. It is one of our key manifesto commitments, and the Government are holding themselves to the same high standards that we expect of others. That is why we have now laid regulations for gender pay gap reporting in the public sector, which we look forward to debating in this House at the earliest opportunity.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the recent trends in the number of women in work?

My hon. Friend may be aware that the number of women in employment has increased by 229,000 over the past year alone. The female employment rate is now at a record high of 69.8%.

As of the 2016 autumn statement, 86% of net savings to the Treasury through tax and benefit measures come from women. The Treasury continues to fail to provide any impact assessment of its fiscal policies or to send a Minister to the Women and Equalities Committee to answer questions. Will the Minister therefore commit to ensuring that women do not suffer the same abysmal impact from the spring Budget?

I have just set out that the female employment rate is at a record high, which is good news and we want it to progress. Indeed, it is the third highest female employment rate in the whole G7.

T4. What are the Government doing to support men to take a more active role in looking after their children? (908551)

We know that when fathers take an active role in childcare, it is not only great for their relationships with their children; it is also important in eliminating the gender pay gap. That is why we have introduced shared parental leave and extended the right to request flexible working, helping both mums and dads to balance their work life with their family commitments.

T2. Does the Minister agree that the Equality and Human Rights Commission must publish an equalities impact assessment of its planned redundancy programme before that programme proceeds any further? (908549)

The EHRC is an independent body that was established under the Equality Act 2006. It has been subject to a substantial reform programme to ensure that it can carry out its core functions effectively, but it must be able to do that under its own steam because it is an independent body.

T5. Research by England Athletics shows that more than a third of women have suffered harassment while out running. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for running. What further help can my right hon. Friend offer to challenge that behaviour, which is clearly a barrier to getting more women out running? (908552)

I totally agree that such behaviour is unacceptable, and we should not tolerate it in any form. I regularly go running, and I have been stopped for selfies, but never subjected to any catcalling. We can do more. Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign and other initiatives have really helped to narrow the gender gap in sports participation. The new Active Lives survey demonstrates that 59% of women are now doing at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week, which is the amount recommended by the Chief Medical Officer, but we can do much more to ensure that there are no barriers to women participating in sport.

I do not know whether the Minister has been stopped for selfies because of the quality of her running, her celebrity status or, more likely, both.

T6. Four thousand eight hundred women in my constituency and countless thousands across the United Kingdom are WASPI women, losing out on thousands of pounds that is rightfully theirs. Does the Minister agree that this affects a generation of women who very often suffer from pay discrimination, and that denying them their rightful pension only heaps injustice upon injustice? (908553)

The Government have been very clear: bringing about state pension age equality was an important principle, and one that we have to maintain. We have made £1 billion of concessions to women in this age group but, as the pensions Minister has made clear, there will be no more transitional arrangements.

The Government have been very clear about the fact that they want equality law to be protected when we leave the EU. That is particularly important. Can the Minister update the House on whether that will form part of the White Paper to be published today?

This is an important point, and it is one of the reasons the Prime Minister set out a number of objectives in her speech recently. I am not going to pre-empt the White Paper, which is being published today, but it is certainly important to ensure that we absolutely maintain—and, indeed, continue to advance—issues of equality and rights.

T7. The Government have said that setting the age threshold for their living wage at 25 creates a financial incentive to employ young people, but given that the Federation of Small Businesses has advised its members that employing a young person on that basis could constitute age discrimination, will the Government review the age threshold and introduce the living wage from 18 to combat age discrimination in the workplace? (908554)

This is an important issue. We have introduced the living wage to make sure that all people get the minimum wage they need to be able to live effectively. We do not have a Treasury Minister on the Bench today, but I will absolutely make sure that one of them responds to the question the hon. Lady raises.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the long-promised consultation on caste discrimination? It was promised by Christmas, and we are still waiting.

It remains, as my hon. Friend suggests, a work in progress, but it will be published very shortly.

According to a report by the Trades Union Congress, between January and March 2014, following the introduction of tribunal fees, just 1,222 sexual discrimination claims were made to an employment tribunal, compared with 6,017 in the same quarter a year earlier. Does that not make a nonsense of the Government’s supposed concern for gender equality?

On Tuesday, we launched a consultation on the proposals to widen the support available to people under the Help with Fees scheme, following the completion of the employment tribunal fees review last year. However, it is also important to point out that ACAS has seen the number of people who are able to sort out their differences via mediation go beyond 80,000, and I think a number of people would be much happier going back into the workplace they have come from having sorted out their problems through mediation rather than tribunals.

This week marks the start of LGBT history month, and, of course, we all celebrate the great achievements the LGBT community has given this country. However, hate crime against the LGBT community remains far too high, with Stonewall saying that one in four LGBT people hide their sexual orientation. Will the Minister take urgent action to tackle that, first by increasing the sentences for those who commit hate crimes against LGBT people?

We do have a lot to be proud of, and the UK continues to be recognised as one of the most progressive countries in Europe for LGBT rights, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we must not rest on our laurels. We must make sure that anybody who attacks anyone on the basis of their sexual orientation is brought to justice. LGBT history month is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate and recognise the contribution that gay, lesbian, bi and trans people have made to British history, British society and British culture.