Skip to main content

Women and Equalities

Volume 623: debated on Thursday 23 March 2017

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Exiting the EU: Disability Rights

I would, of course, like to add my condolences to those already expressed by colleagues to the families of the victims of yesterday’s attack, and especially to the family of Keith Palmer.

I can assure the House that the Equality Act 2010 and the public sector equality duty, which incorporates a number of EU directives on equalities, will continue to apply once the UK has left the EU. Additionally, we continue to be signatories to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which is binding in international law.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but she will be aware that a lot of her Conservative colleagues are desperate to do away with many of the regulations. As we go forward post Brexit, will she guarantee that there will be no rush to deregulate and there will not be a reduction in the statutory protections available to disabled people?

The hon. Gentleman mentions my colleagues, but I remind him that the Conservative party has a proud history of protecting disability rights. It was under a Conservative Government that we passed the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which made it unlawful to discriminate against people in respect of their disabilities. The UK is a world leader in support for disabled people, and we are proud of the work that we do to support people with disabilities and health conditions, both in this country and abroad.

There is already a lot of fear and anxiety as this Tory Government have substantially reduced disability support with the powers they already have. How then can we trust this Government’s word? Will the Minister set out exactly which of these rights will be safeguarded following Brexit?

Our reforms to welfare are about making sure that we give more to those who need it most while encouraging those who can do so to get into work. That is why people with the most severe disabilities have had their payments increased and protected from the benefit cap and the benefits freeze.

Over 160 Members have signed a prayer against the new personal independence payment regulations. The period for praying against those regulations comes to an end on 3 April. A debate has been arranged in the other place next week, but to date the Government have refused to arrange a debate and vote on the Floor of this House. There is a huge democratic deficit, as the regulations will come into force under the negative procedure. Why are the Government refusing to hold a debate on the new PIP regulations in this House?

As the hon. Lady will know, the usual channels decide when debates will be held in this place. It is not for me to give such a date today.

Universal Credit

2. Whether she has had discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the potential effect on levels of income of limiting entitlement for the child element in universal credit to two children; and if she will make a statement. (909426)

The Welfare Reform and Work Act was scrutinised by both Houses and gained Royal Assent in March 2016. An impact assessment of the policy was published during the passage of the legislation. The policy strikes the right balance between protecting vulnerable people and encouraging families who receive benefits to make the same financial decisions as those who support themselves solely through work.

The respected Women’s Budget Group calculates that these cuts will disproportionately affect Asian families, costing them £16,000 by the next general election compared with a cost of £13,000 for larger white families. Should not the Government have carried out a comprehensive equality assessment on this and other Budget measures, and taken action to end this disproportionate effect?

As the right hon. Lady will have heard me say, the policy was available for scrutiny during the passage of the Bill. Since 2010, we have worked hard to make sure that families who are reliant on benefits make the same decisions as families in work. Our reforms are about encouraging more people into work.

For the very reason that my hon. Friend has just given—those on welfare benefits should have to make the same choice as those in work—will she reassure me that there will be no U-turn on this policy?

As I have said, the reforms are aimed at helping working parents and they are removing barriers to work for ordinary men and women across the country. Ordinary working families rely on the Government to provide economic stability and we are starting from a position of strength. I assure my hon. Friend that we have looked at the regulations carefully, and we have taken this decision to restore fairness in the benefits systems.

May I, too, associate myself with the comments made by right hon. and hon. Members from across the House?

The Prime Minister wants to transform the way in which we think about domestic violence, and I am sure that the Minister supports her in those efforts, but does the Minister accept that that is completely undermined by introducing the rape clause without parliamentary scrutiny? Will she encourage her colleagues to scrap this pernicious tax?

The hon. Lady will recall that there was a debate on this subject in Westminster Hall in October. I am aware that there have been repeated requests for further scrutiny and debate on this subject, and the usual channels have considered them.

I associate myself with the Minister’s comments about PC Keith Palmer. We will always owe a debt of gratitude to him and our hearts bleed for his family.

From 6 April, new mothers will not be able to claim tax credit or universal credit for their third child. What communications has the Minister had with women who are pregnant now to tell them that they face an unexpected drop in income because of this Government’s choices?

Of course, the hon. Lady will know that no existing family will be a cost loser as a result of this policy. We consulted widely on the exceptions and how to implement them, and we have worked hard with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to make sure that information is available to all staff who have to communicate the policy.

Women’s Voting Rights

First, I would like to set out my own condolences to PC Keith Palmer’s family and all those who were affected by the terrible incident yesterday. I would also like to say a big thank you to the emergency services and the House of Commons staff, who I felt were outstanding yesterday. The kind of people who perpetrate these sorts of attacks need to understand that they will never disrupt our democracy, because democracy is part of our country’s DNA. That is why oral questions are happening perfectly as normal today.

This is a fantastic time to be able to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage. We now have our second female Prime Minister, who I know is committed to encouraging women in politics, and the proportion of women MPs has finally reached 30%. However, there is much, much more to do. In the Budget, we announced a £5 million fund to support projects to educate young people about the important milestone that is coming up and to inspire women to get more involved in politics at all levels.

As we mark 100 years since women were given the right to vote, will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating the election of two female Prime Ministers, the first of whom made our country and the world better places in which to live, and the second of whom will make our leaving the European Union a great success?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am extremely proud that it is our party—the Conservative party—that has delivered not only the first two female leaders of the major political parties represented in Westminster but, critically, the first two female Prime Ministers of our country. One of them shaped the Britain we live in today; one of them will shape the Britain we live in tomorrow. It is long overdue that we celebrate the centenary that is coming up.

Women won the right to vote—they fought for it, as they have had to fight for so many rights. I want to make that clear. What is the Minister doing, as we approach the year in which we celebrate that struggle, to ensure that all women in the country today are registered to vote, as many are finding individual registration difficult?

The Government are committed to ensuring that everybody who is entitled to vote in our country, women included, is registered to vote. I very much hope over the coming months that we can all be role models and inspirations for a new generation of young girls growing up in our country, and encourage them to play their role in our democracy not just in this Parliament, but in councils and other community groups around the country.

This House benefits hugely from the much broader representation that women and all those from different backgrounds bring to it. As chair of the all-party group for women in Parliament, may I ask the Minister to commit the Government to highlighting women’s suffrage, which was hard fought for and should be highly valued and used?

I absolutely give my hon. Friend that commitment. We announced £5 million in the Budget to help community groups around the country to celebrate and highlight this important centenary. When I arrived here as a Conservative female MP just over 10 years ago, there were fewer than 20 others. We now have a huge number, but we need to do more. We all need to work together to say that politics is a place that should have more women in it. It is important that we see that happen.

While it is welcome that next year we will celebrate 100 years of votes for women, those women were also campaigning for economic equality. How then, 99 years on, can the Government justify the fact that 86% of Treasury gains come from women?

One of the Government’s important achievements is getting more people, particularly women, into work. Indeed, there have never been more women in work. However, women’s economic empowerment is vital—it is one of our biggest economic growth levers, not just in the UK, but around the world. I was on a United Nations high level panel that recently completed a second report to hand over to the Secretary General in New York. That will provide a platform for delivering global goal 5 of the sustainable development goals.

Child Tax Credit (Rape Victims)

7. What steps the Government are taking to prepare for the implementation of the requirement for victims of rape to prove that abuse in order to receive child tax credit for their third child. (909431)

The Government consulted on the exception in October 2016 and responded in January 2017, outlining the finalised policy. Since then, we have been developing guidance and working with stakeholders to plan for the delivery of this exception in the most sensitive and compassionate way possible.

The rape clause exception in the two-child limit on tax credits is not just unworkable, but inhumane. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Will the Minister act urgently and seek to persuade her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to reconsider the proposal in order to protect women’s rights?

We know that this issue is difficult and sensitive. The exception will use a third-party model, whereby women can request the exception through engaging with a third party, who will be a recognised healthcare professional. We are setting up procedures that are mindful of the sensitivities involved. Neither DWP nor HMRC staff will question the claimant about the incident, other than to take the claim.

Food Security (East Africa)

8. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for International Development on the Government’s support for women and girls affected by food insecurity in east Africa. (909433)

The scale of the humanitarian crisis we are facing in 2017 is unprecedented. Once again, the impact falls disproportionately on women and children. I am proud that the UK is leading the way, stepping up DFID’s life-saving emergency assistance for those affected by food insecurity in east Africa, with women and girls at the heart of that response.

The Minister is right that women and girls are disproportionately affected by the food insecurity crisis in east Africa, and I recognise her experience in dealing with such matters. What further discussions has she had with the Secretary of State for International Development about not just immediate, short-term aid, but long-term rebuilding, especially access to education for women and girls, which is the best route out of poverty?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced £100 million to support South Sudan in particular. More broadly, we need to look long-term, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is leading a big push to ensure that girls and women, wherever they are in our world, have education. It is vital if women are to take their proper place in our society.

Millions of impoverished women and girls in developing countries spend much of their life fetching and carrying very heavy loads of water to and from their homes. Their lives would be vastly improved if DFID encouraged proper sanitation and water facilities.

I agree with my hon. Friend and, indeed, substantial investment has gone into improving water and sanitation. It is a basic issue, but it makes a tremendous difference to being able to lift up women and girls.

STEM Careers

We simply cannot afford to miss out on the talents of half the population. Increasing the number of women in STEM industries is vital for economic growth and to eliminate the gender pay gap. That is why we are improving the quality of STEM teaching, funding programmes such as the Stimulating Physics Network and the further maths support programme, and raising awareness of career opportunities through STEM ambassadors.

I recently met Katie Goodwill, an apprentice from Rolls-Royce in Barnoldswick, who in November won the gold medal in CNC turning at a 2016 world skills show. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Katie as a role model for other women and girls, inspiring them to take up STEM careers?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating his constituent, Katie Goodwill, on her fantastic achievement. Role models are so important—that is why more than 40% of our STEM ambassadors are women. They are helping to inspire the next generation, just as I am sure his constituent Katie will.

It is important to encourage women and girls into non-traditional careers, but will the hon. Lady ask the Ministers responsible for expanding apprenticeships why there are no targets for increasing the number of girls on apprenticeships in traditionally male areas? There has been a lost opportunity to challenge that.

I certainly will have conversations with my colleague in the Department for Education, but the right hon. Lady must remember that there are no such things as girls’ jobs and boys’ jobs, and we have to get that message across from the earliest stages of kids’ engagement with the education system. That is why we have chosen to focus on increasing the take-up of STEM subjects, which lead to the more technical apprenticeships and jobs.

The engineering education scheme is a brilliant scheme for encouraging primary schoolchildren of both sexes to get interested in engineering. What can the Government do to support that scheme and promote it in schools across the country, including in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that scheme and others that make such a difference up and down the country. She should also be aware that we are investing an additional half a billion pounds in developing technical skills for 16 to 19-year-olds via the new T-level certificate. We are encouraging girls to take advantage of that scheme to gain valuable industry skills and experience.

All the evidence suggests that one of the best ways of getting girls and young women to go into STEM careers is to change STEM to STEAM—that is to ensure that every young person in this country, and particularly girls, has a really strong arts education in their school. What will the Government do to ensure that schools do not cut music teaching and drama education, and ensure that every youngster gets a good arts education?

The Government have taken unprecedented steps to ensure that we continue to invest in those subjects, and that they continue to have massive focus in our schools. We are also publishing online guidance—“Your daughter’s future”—that helps parents to support their daughters in careers choices, so that they ensure that they include all those important subjects when making decisions about their future.

Domestic Violence Refuges

10. What recent assessment the Government have made of the adequacy of the availability of domestic violence refuges for women. (909435)

Refuges provide vital support for victims of domestic abuse. We are investing £40 million over this Parliament in services to support victims of domestic abuse, including refuges. We expect local areas to assess their need, and to provide services and support to meet that need.

Domestic violence refuges are unique within the supported housing sector because many who need them have to flee a long distance to be safe. By relying solely on local authorities to commission refuge services, the Government are failing to maintain a strategic approach. We are now seeing patchy provision with, for example, the recent closure of the last remaining refuge in Cumbria. Is the Minister monitoring the number of specialist refuge services and specialist providers that have closed since 2010? If not, how can he be assured—

Order. I am extremely grateful but we have got the thrust of it. We really do need to be briefer. That was far too long.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

We recognise the importance of refuges. That is why we are exempting refuges from the 1% social rent cap policy, and exempting them from the local housing allowance rate until 2019-20. We are working closely with organisations that provide refuges to ensure that we get the new system for supported housing right, so that we can continue to provide those refuges, which are so badly needed.

I warmly welcome what the Government are doing in this crucial area, but what work is being done with local authorities and social housing providers on the next stage, which is ensuring that there are enough homes for women and their families to return to that provide a safer environment?

I reassure my right hon. Friend that we are working closely with housing associations on that important issue, and particularly on getting the funding stream right for supported housing. We are also working on bringing badly needed new supply on stream.

Women in Work

I am delighted that there are now more women in work than ever before, and that the female employment rate is nearly 70%, which is the highest on record. The female employment rate has increased by more since 2010 than it increased during the three previous Parliaments combined.

Recent figures show that record-breaking numbers of women are in work under this Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is only by creating a stronger, fairer economy that works for everyone that we will continue to see records being broken?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that. We want to ensure that all women can fulfil their potential. That is why the Government have extended the right to flexible working and introduced shared parental leave. From September, we will double the 30 hours childcare offer.

According to Maternity Action, 54,000 women are forced out of work each year due to maternity discrimination. What steps are the Government taking to address that unacceptable gender inequality?

Maternity discrimination and pregnancy discrimination in any form is utterly illegal and must be tackled. Women must feel that they can bring cases forward, which is why we are committed to ensuring people from all backgrounds can access justice. The introduction of the early conciliation service through ACAS has meant that people have to avoid the stress of going through an employment tribunal hearing.

Personal Independence Payments

12. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect on disabled people of recent changes to the level of personal independence payments. (909437)

Recent changes to the PIP regulations clarify the original criteria used to decide how much benefit claimants receive. This is not a policy change, nor is it intended to make new savings. It will not result in any claimants seeing a reduction in the amount of PIP previously awarded by the Department for Work and Pensions.

The Minister, in response to the Labour Front Bench, batted away suggestions that we need a full debate and vote on the Floor of the House on this issue, but given that the Government’s own equality impact assessment says that 164,000 people with debilitating mental health conditions will be affected, does she not think it is her job to go to the DWP and tell them we want a proper vote?

Supporting people with mental illness is a priority, which is why we are spending more on mental health than ever before, and an estimated £11.4 billion this year. PIP does ensure parity between mental and physical conditions, and it achieves this by looking at the impact of conditions on an individual, not which conditions they have. As I have previously said, it is of course up to the usual channels to decide whether there will be further debate on the subject.

Topical Questions

We celebrated International Women’s Day this year with a budget for potential and a budget for equality, including £20 million of funding to combat violence against women and girls, £5 million for internships and £5 million to mark the centenary of women getting the vote for the very first time. Next month, the gender pay gap reporting regulations will come into force. I want to thank Members from all parts of the House for their constructive support as we take forward amendments to the Children and Social Work Bill, enabling statutory, age-appropriate relationship education in primary schools and relationship and sex education in secondary schools.

The European Social Investment Fund has supported a Cardiff-based charity, Chwarae Teg, to deliver a range of successful programmes to help women in Wales achieve pay equality and progress in Welsh workplaces. One example is the £8.6 million for the Agile Nation 2 project. Can the Minister provide a guarantee that post-Brexit the Government will provide equivalent replacement funding for Chwarae Teg?

The Government are proud that we now have the lowest gender pay gap on record. We are absolutely committed to making sure that that continues post-Brexit.

T6. The good news is that smoking rates among both men and women are falling, as is the incidence of lung cancer in men. The bad news is that the incidence of lung cancer in women is rising. What will the Government do to tackle that? (909424)

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health looks into these incredibly serious issues very carefully. I will raise my hon. Friend’s concerns with him.

T2. The Minister said that the Budget was good for women, but actually mothers and couples will be losing 11%, or £2,400, of their individual income. In contrast, their husbands or partners will lose 5%, or £1,700, of their income. What does that tell us about her effectiveness as a Minister for Women? (909418)

The bottom line is that the best route for all of us as women is to be able to have the chance to have a working life and a career. That is why we have more women in employment than ever before, something the House should welcome.

The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) had a question on the Order Paper. She is here and it could be topical. She should be heard.

T5. Will the Secretary of State make every effort to ensure that women are involved in the huge programme of rail infrastructure upgrades we are currently undertaking as a Government? (909423)

Absolutely. The Department for Transport set out an ambition for women to represent at least 20% of new entrants to engineering and technical apprenticeships in the transport sector by 2020. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills visited the Crossrail Academy recently. The academy is exceeding the target: 27% of its apprentices are female.

Some 54,000 women are forced out of work due to maternity discrimination. Will the Government look at reducing the extortionate fees for employment tribunals, and will the Minister specifically look at extending the time for application from three months to six months?

We are consulting on proposals to extend the support that is available under the help with fees schemes. We propose that the gross monthly income threshold for a full fee remission should increase to £1,250, which is broadly the level of the national minimum wage.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that only 36% of headteachers are women? In my constituency, the Affinity Teaching Alliance, led by local headteacher Sarah Watson, is working on an innovative programme to change that. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Sarah Watson on enabling many more women to take up senior teaching posts, and does she agree that that is the best way to get the most out of our workforce?

I would indeed like to congratulate Sarah Watson. Improving flexible working in the teaching profession is one of the best things we could do to ensure that women can get to the top, and later this year the Department will host a summit with teachers to discuss how we can make more progress in that regard.

T4. Eighty-six per cent of cuts and adjustments to tax and benefits have been inflicted on women. Will the Minister agree to meet me, along with women from my constituency who are affected by the changes in the state pension age, and will she tell us why the Government are persistently refusing to listen to the WASPI campaigners, who have fought so long and so hard for a fair deal? (909422)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a long-standing commitment to equalise the state pension ages of men and women, and we continue to look very closely at the state pension age in general. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, welcomes the increase in longevity. The Government have made big concessions with regard to cost—we have already committed more than £1.1 billion—and there will be no further concessions.