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Women and Equalities

Volume 626: debated on Thursday 6 July 2017

The Minister was asked—

Equality and Women’s Rights: DUP Discussions

1. What discussions she has had with the Democratic Unionist Party on the Government’s commitment to equality and women’s rights. (900270)

8. What discussions she has had with the Democratic Unionist Party on the Government’s commitment to equality and women’s rights. (900279)

The UK has a proud record of promoting equality, and we have some of the strongest laws in the world to prevent and tackle discrimination. The Government will continue to champion equal rights.

We have seen the recent tangle on abortion policy that the Government got into with the DUP. Women with pre-existing medical conditions, such as uncontrolled epilepsy, who seek abortions need to receive treatment in hospital settings to access back-up medical care if it is required. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that women from Northern Ireland with complex medical needs who cannot be treated in a stand-alone clinic will be able to access funded care in NHS hospitals?

First, I recognise that this whole subject area is incredibly sensitive, and we need to approach it with some care and, indeed, some respect. I had a helpful first meeting with a number of the organisations, including charities, that are involved in this area. We talked about not only the core issues that were discussed in the House last week but some of the more challenging issues that women face when seeking abortion services. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will consider all those issues very carefully.

Equality and tolerance are important British values that we should all be proud of, so will the Minister work to overturn the ongoing ban on equal marriage in Northern Ireland? Does she believe that £1 billion is a fair price to pay for selling off such fundamental values?

I am proud to have been part of a Government who introduced same-sex marriage, and we should all be proud that we are in a Parliament that passed that Bill. The London Pride celebrations are taking place this weekend, and that will be a chance to celebrate the progress that has been made. We have to fundamentally win the argument on moving forward on LGBT rights. This is something that needs to take place throughout the country, including in Northern Ireland, where there is a democratic Northern Ireland Assembly. It is a debate we all need to engage in, but we have seen progress over many years and we can be proud of that. Nevertheless, as the hon. Lady sets out, there is still a lot of progress to be made.

In response to a 2005 Northern Ireland Department of Justice consultation, the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Nursing and the Northern Ireland committee of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists all backed changes to give more women in Northern Ireland access to terminations. In the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly, how will the Government deal with this issue?

What we can do is make sure that Northern Ireland women who are presenting here in the UK have the same rights as a woman from England would already have. To my mind, we need to ensure that whether someone’s address is Belfast or Birmingham, if they are here in England seeking abortion services, they have comparable service and comparable rights, and that is what we will seek to do. As my right hon. Friend sets out, though, there is also a debate to be had in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is of interest that Ireland’s new leader has talked about bringing forward a referendum on abortion in Ireland next year.

It is good to see the Rainbow flag flying over the Foreign Office in Pride week. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that she and the Government will remain fully committed to protecting LGBT rights, both at home and abroad, where there is work still to do?

I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend that assurance. There will be no backsliding on LGBT rights from this Government. We aim to continue the progress that has been made working throughout the House and across party lines. We will seek to do that not only in the UK but around the world. I will be part of the London Pride celebrations this weekend and I am proud that since the election we now have, I think, more openly LGBT MPs in this House than in any other Parliament in the world.

I have spoken about equality and the rights of women in our party to my party leader, who is a woman, to my close constituency colleague and a Member of the Legislative Assembly, who just happens to be a woman, and to my most senior member of staff, who is my close adviser and who, shockingly, is also a woman. They seem to be satisfied. I ask the Minister this question: what discussions have been held with Labour’s sister party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which has many of the same moral stances that we have, which is what I believe this question seeks to highlight?

The hon. Gentleman sets out the fact that there is a discussion and a debate to be had across political parties both here in this Parliament and in Northern Ireland. That is a debate and a discussion that I welcome, and I know that we can have it in a constructive way. As I said right at the beginning, it is important that we recognise that this is an important and sensitive issue and that the way in which we have that debate needs to be in accordance with how important it is to have a measured approach and an informed discussion about how we can continue to see women’s rights go forward.

I join hon. Members across the House in wishing a happy Pride to all those celebrating London Pride this weekend. Despite the fact that a number of promises were made during the election campaign on the need to strengthen and protect equality legislation, there was no such commitment in this year’s Queen’s Speech. People across this country have deep concerns that the Tory backroom deal with the DUP could undermine our equality here in the UK. What assurances will the Minister provide that progress on equality will not be sidelined for political expediency?

I think that I have given those assurances on a number of occasions. I will be very happy to come to this Dispatch Box and continue to give them, as they are important. I simply say to the hon. Lady that, as we have been so clear-cut that there will be no backsliding in this area, to continue to suggest that there will be is not a very helpful approach to achieving cross-party consensus to move forward on these issues.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) did not leap from her seat, but I think that she wishes to contribute.

DUP representatives have described homosexuality as repulsive, wrong, vile, immoral, offensive and obnoxious. Does the Minister agree that it is those hateful remarks themselves that are repulsive, wrong, vile, immoral, offensive and obnoxious and that they should have no place in our politics let alone in Government? The DUP once ran a campaign called, “Save Ulster from Sodomy”. Is it not time to save Ulster from bigotry?

The views that the hon. Lady sets out are absolutely not ones that I agree with or that are shared by this House. As I have said, it is important that we have this debate and progress continued improvements in LGBT rights, women’s rights and the rights of disabled people—and all sorts of people who face discrimination in our country—in a measured fashion and that, where we can, we find some consensus. It is in that fashion that we will steadily win the battle.

State Pension Age: Women Born in the 1950s

2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the disadvantage experienced by women born in the 1950s as a result of changes to the state pension age. (900271)

4. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the disadvantage experienced by women born in the 1950s as a result of changes to the state pension age. (900274)

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has regular discussions with all Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues. The Government will not be revisiting the state pension age changes implemented by the Pension Acts 1995 and 2011. This Government are committed to supporting 1950s-born women and men who cannot work, and those who wish to continue working, retraining or returning to work.

Yesterday, in response to the Westminster Hall debate, the Minister made the well-intentioned but ill-judged suggestion that an adequate response to the pensions plight of the 1950s-born women was for them to access apprenticeships. That shows how far out of touch some people are on this issue. There is a clear consensus across this House to address this injustice. When will the Government bring forward legislation to address that injustice?

Many companies such as the Co-operative, Barclays, Aviva, Centrica and others have committed to older workers by recruiting and retraining them. The employment rate for those aged between 50 and 64 is up 48,000 this quarter, and 213,000 on the year. That includes 57,000 people who started apprenticeships aged between 45 and 59, and 3,560 who started apprenticeships over the age of 60.

Following the appalling announcement in yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate, which was probably the best-attended debate ever in that Chamber, many of us have heard through our postbags that the poverty caused by this Government’s decision on equalising the pension age is appalling. Is that not just another sign of this Government showing yet again how out of touch they are with the real world, as they have over the past three weeks?

With the greatest respect, 22 years ago, when neither the hon. Lady nor I was in the House, the Government introduced the Pensions Act 1995 to require equalisation. That was then overseen by various Governments, who provided extensive information in many different ways over the following years. The 2011 Act then accelerated the process by 18 months. Following that, 6 million letters were sent out to individual constituents. If the hon. Lady knows of any individual issues, I urge her to write to me and I will make sure that there is support for any specific constituent that she has.

I am afraid that the Minister, as he knows, was on a hiding to nothing in the packed debate in Westminster Hall yesterday, and although his offer to meet—[Interruption.]

Although the Minister’s offer to meet representatives from the all-party group was very welcome, as he has heard his promotion of apprenticeships for 64-year-olds was perhaps less wise. This is clearly a matter of injustice and inequality for a group of women who have been affected disproportionately, so may we please get everybody back around the table for genuine discussions about finding solutions that will not break the bank but will bring some justice and solutions to hard-pressed women who are suffering now?

I look forward to meeting the all-party group when it is reformed, but I make the point that revisiting the 1995 Act and the 2011 Act would cost well in excess of £30 billion, as my hon. Friend knows. However, I look forward to those meetings and discussions.

Notification is clearly a key concern. Will my hon. Friend confirm what steps have been taken to raise awareness of the changes in the state pension age?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. As he will be aware, there have been multiple leaflets, letters, debates, advertising and discussion all the way through from 1995—for the past 22 years. He will no doubt be aware that there have been multiple debates in Parliament as well.

New Mothers (Redundancy Protection)

3. What steps she is taking to strengthen redundancy protection for new mothers returning from maternity leave. (900272)

The Government proudly supported the Equality Act 2010, which makes it unlawful to discriminate on a number of grounds, including pregnancy and maternity. We know from talking to employers that four out of five say that they want to do the right thing and support pregnant women and women returning to work after pregnancy. There are still far too many cases of discrimination and unlawful treatment and both Minister Margot James and I are absolutely determined to come down like a ton of bricks on employers who break the law and to make sure that women are completely aware of the rights that they enjoy. I am aware of the consultation to extend the time by which somebody can report to a tribunal—

I see little evidence of the ton of bricks. As a former employer, I know first hand the value of protecting maternity rights, not just for the expectant mum or returning mother but for the employer as well. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that we encourage employers to meet their legal responsibilities to prevent the discrimination happening in the first place and that those who do not should be held to account?

I forgot to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. He is absolutely right. We are working with ACAS and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, because not only employers but women returning to work need to be aware of their rights. Having had three children, two in America, I can assure Members that the rights and responsibilities enjoyed here are far better than in other parts of the world, but they are still not good enough. Minister Margot James and I are absolutely determined to sort things out.

Order. That Minister does not require her name to be advertised in the Chamber; we all know who the hon. Lady is. The Minister is experienced enough to know that one should not name names in the Chamber. I am sure she will do better next time.

The fact that some women are still discriminated against during pregnancy or maternity leave is both unacceptable and unlawful. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government not only take the problem extremely seriously but are looking at how laws can be better enforced to give the protection she promises?

I am delighted to give those assurances.

My apologies, Mr Speaker—I shall continue to serve my apprenticeship.

With considerable skill and charm, I am quite certain about that. I thank the Minister for what she has said.

Given the Minister’s view about this, will she take up the issue of tribunal fees, which a previous Government, of which she was a one-time member, increased significantly? Does she not accept that charging a huge fee to take a case to tribunal is one of the biggest reasons why women who have been discriminated against cannot enforce their rights?

The hon. Lady will know that there has been an employment tribunal fees review and we have found no evidence that pregnancy and maternity discrimination is falling foul of the current fees system. She also knows that we are carefully considering responses to the consultation and will be responding.

Ex-prisoners (Support)

5. What support the Government provide to women who lose homes and assets as a result of a prison sentence. (900275)

The Justice Department is aware of the link between homelessness and reoffending, which is why we are making sure that we address female offenders’ housing and support needs as an absolute priority.

The Minister has correctly identified the importance of homelessness in reoffending, but will he give much more detail about what specific assistance is given to individuals who leave prison, who we do not want to see reoffending but who need assistance at a crucial time?

The community rehabilitation companies and indeed the national probation service are required to provide the services to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I guarantee that the female offenders strategy, which is due to be released by the end of the year, will concentrate primarily on improving that community offering.

Thirty-eight per cent of women released from prison have no accommodation arranged for them, and more than 46% of women in prison have experienced domestic violence. The Minister knows that many of the problems associated with women prisoners revolve around their mental health. With increasing evidence that autism is to be found among the female population, will the Minister take advantage of this new set of statistics to look at mental health provision for women leaving prison? That is most important.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the question. I am responsible not only for women’s justice but for offender health. In September, I will have two roundtable meetings to discuss the current mental health provision, both for men and for women. We are aware that the combination of mental health not being treated properly and addiction not being treated properly are significant contributors towards recidivism.

Many of the women who are imprisoned have mental health problems. Imprisonment and losing their home and possessions set back their chance of recovery. Will the Minister in his reports pay particular attention to the impact of women with mental health problems when they become homeless and lose all that they have managed to pull together?

Yes, we will. I am aware that a significant proportion of the female population in prison are victims of very difficult circumstances, be they homelessness, coercive relationships and the like. I confirm that the strategy, as I said previously, will concentrate on improving the community offering so that ultimately these women do not commit offences in the first place.

Will the Government confirm that they do not believe in giving prisoners who lose their home any more support than any other person who happens to be in the unfortunate positon of losing their home? Will the Minister confirm that the Government do not believe in giving female prisoners who lose their home more support than male prisoners who lose their home?

I am very glad to be continuing my brief—my hon. Friend always delivers the question that I expect. I assure him that, with regard to access to housing, I am not aware that ex-offenders will be given any more priority than people who have not committed an offence. With reference to whether we treat men and women who have committed offences equally, I am interested in reducing crime and I am convinced that a disproportionate number of women are committing crime because of the way in which they are treated, be it by their partners or indeed by their housing circumstances. I think he will agree that, if we can get this right, we will be reducing crime, which I think is the best outcome.

Vulnerable women on release are not given adequate support, either with housing or with community reintegration. Many return to abusive relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, and, at worst, crime. Does the Minister honestly believe that we are giving women’s life chances parity of esteem in their current treatment?

I agree that we are not getting the treatment of women offenders right. That is why I was eager to introduce a new strategy. The Manchester area provides an example of where the Department is investing in a whole system approach. I do not think Whitehall is the place to make decisions on a woman’s future before, during or after prison. I would prefer to localise decision making so that decisions are made by people who understand the women concerned, so that we can keep them in the community and away from prison.

We will probably be able to take only the Order Paper questions next, and that must be done briefly.

Gender Pay Gap

The gender pay gap is now at its lowest ever, which is great news, but we need to go further. We are one of the first countries to introduce gender pay gap reporting, and I am delighted that mine is the first Government Department to have published its pay gap figures. What matters is not just transparency, but recognising where women face barriers and taking action.

I welcome the progress that has been made, particularly under this Secretary of State. Does she agree that central to further progress on this issue is a genuine and continued partnership between business and Government?

Absolutely. Mandatory reporting is just the start. We have worked with business to publish guidance on how to pull together accurate information and set out case studies showing what businesses and trail-blazing employers are already doing. With the Government Equalities Office, we recently held events in places such as Leeds and Glasgow that gave employers an opportunity to showcase the business benefits of closing their gender pay gap.

I congratulate the Department for Education on being the first Government Department to publish its gender pay gap and its bonus pay gap. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Department is leading by example in promoting gender equality in the workforce?

I hope that is correct. It is important work and we are strongly encouraging other civil service Departments and employers across the public sector to follow suit.

Globally, only about half of working-age women are employed, and they earn three-quarters as much as men even if they have the same level of education and are in the same occupation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that realising the economic potential of women benefits the whole of society, not just women?

Absolutely. This is not just the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. I have a role on the UN High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, whose work showed that gender equality and women’s economic empowerment is one of the most powerful global levers for growth that we can pull. Indeed, McKinsey did work that suggested that if we bridged the gender gap here in the UK, it could add £150 billion to our GDP by 2025.

International women in engineering day was 22 June. The Minister knows how important career choices are for women and the gender gap. What is she doing about that?

One of the main actions we can take is to make sure that girls study maths and science at A-level. We know that that is a powerful way to keep those career options open to them.

Topical Questions

In April, our groundbreaking legislation on the gender pay gap came into force. This weekend we are celebrating London Pride, where people come together to celebrate how far we have come and to keep up the pressure for progress in LGBT equality. I look forward to joining those celebrations. Fifty years ago this year, Parliament voted to decriminalise male homosexuality in England and Wales, and this year’s general election returned the most openly LGBT MPs Parliament has ever had. Finally, and importantly, I outlined last week how the Government will ensure that women from Northern Ireland seeking an abortion in England will no longer have to pay for NHS treatment.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the Government’s efforts to empower women economically internationally?

I think that we can be proud of the work that this country is doing, not just here at home, but internationally, to beat the drum for women’s economic empowerment. In fact, alongside the work that we have been part of at the UN, this week the Prime Minister will attend the G20 summit in Germany, where women’s economic empowerment will be a priority, and we will keep on being a champion of that.

The Minister will be aware of the levels of persecution, intolerance and hate crime towards transgender people. Can she therefore confirm whether she has plans to develop a new transgender action plan, in line with the previous response to the Women and Equalities Committee? Also, do the Government plan to conduct a review of the Gender Recognition Act 2004?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We responded very constructively and positively to the Select Committee’s important report, and we have been very clear that we will review the Gender Recognition Act. That sits alongside a lot of other work that we will be doing to ensure that we take action on this.

T4. The excellent Leonard Cheshire charity has estimated the disability employment gap to be 31.3%. What are the Government doing to close it? (900250)

On 7 September this year we will have the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Cheshire, the Victoria Cross-winning founder of this great disability charity, so I support this question and this great organisation. The Government remain strongly committed to helping people with disabilities and health conditions get back into work. Over the past three years more than 500,000 people have done so, and we have a Green Paper setting out the full details of the matter.

T2. The Minister for Women and Equalities has this morning heard the overwhelming view across the House on the WASPI issue, following yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate. Is she not embarrassed by the Government’s current policy, and what will she do to change it? (900248)

I know that there was an important debate yesterday in Westminster Hall. This is an important area, but it is also important that we have a steady transition, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has set out. I am content that the way the Government are handling this, which follows on from previous Governments, is the right way. The hon. Gentleman should also reflect on the fact that we have invested £1.1 billion to ensure that there is support during the transition.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the Women’s Leadership Network conference, alongside the principal of Eastleigh College. Confidence is key in getting women back to work, particularly returners, or climbing up the ladder. What are the Government doing to encourage returneeships so that we can support what the Prime Minister has said?

As part of the Budget the Chancellor announced a £5 million fund for returneeships, which we know disproportionately help women returning to the workplace. Industry is already doing some groundbreaking and innovative work. We want to use the fund to help develop that work and hopefully mainstream it.

T3. A TUC survey of workplace representatives found that one in three respondents have reported management criticism of menopause-related sick leave. What discussions has the Minister had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on reducing discrimination faced by women during the menopause? (900249)

Any discrimination of that nature is entirely unacceptable in 21st-century Britain, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, through my Department and the Government Equalities Office, we have discussions across Government to see what more can be done to strengthen the legal framework within which businesses operate, but the framework is already there and it is important that we ensure that it is enforced.

Following an earlier question, women must feel that they can bring forward cases of maternity discrimination. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that people from all backgrounds can access justice?

The question that I think my hon. Friend is getting to is whether there has been a change in access as a result of changes in fees. We considered this issue very carefully, because it was the case, particularly when we talked with small and medium-sized enterprises, that very many vexatious tribunal claims were being brought—[Interruption.] They were. An hon. Lady on the Opposition Benches says, “Rubbish.” She should get out and talk to some businesses sometime and hear what they think. A change was therefore made. We are now reviewing the help for fees scheme so that we can understand exactly what is going on. However, there is no evidence that maternity discrimination cases have been particularly affected by the fees.

T5. Following recent reports of arrests in relation to planned attacks at an LGBT event in Barrow, what discussions has the Minister had with the Home Office to further combat far-right extremism? (900251)

Hate crime is entirely unacceptable. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have developed and are now funding a hate crime action plan. Alongside that, it is important that we work upstream. The work that we are now doing on bullying in schools can play a massive role in the long term. I also draw the House’s attention to the recent social attitudes survey, which really showed that tolerance and inclusiveness of LGBT rights are now widely accepted across the country, but there are clearly still pockets of intolerance, which we absolutely have to combat.

There are record numbers of women in this Parliament, but women are still outnumbered by men two to one. Will the Government consider the recommendation in the report of the Women and Equalities Committee to bring into action section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that each political party is transparent about the gender of the candidates they field?

We will be responding to the Committee’s report. These are incredibly important issues for our country. I am concerned to ensure that, although we have now broadly got up to a third of parliamentarians who are female, we do not now plateau. We all have a role in ensuring that we continue to see progress, and I assure my right hon. Friend that I am committed to ensuring that the Government play a leading role in that, and I am proud that we also have a female Prime Minister.

T6. Two thirds of public sector workers are women, so they are disproportionately hit by the public sector pay cap. What is the Minister doing to argue the case for scrapping the cap? (900252)

We have an evidence-based approach in relation to public sector pay. An independent group of people looks at the pressures on the public purse and at ensuring that our pay settlements are affordable. It also looks at the evidence in relation to recruitment, retention and the numbers of people we want in our public sector, particularly on the front line. That is a sensible approach. The hon. Lady will be aware that a number of pay review bodies will come out with their reports across the board, and we will consider them when they do.

As my right hon. Friend confirmed earlier, the gender pay gap is at its smallest ever, but more needs to be done. What work is being done to encourage girls and women to choose careers in high-paying sectors traditionally dominated by men, especially Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who have the largest gender pay gap?

We heard a question about STEM subjects earlier. That is one of the most important areas where we can really start to level up girls and women in the workplace. More generally, it is important that all girls going through school understand that there is a career ahead of them that they can aim for. That is not just about the subjects they do; it is about ensuring that their attitudes and expectations are suitably high.

T7. Nottingham Women’s Centre recently launched its “Help through Crisis” report—Big Lottery-funded research that indicates that women often experience multiple disadvantage and have complex needs that are not currently being met. May I invite the Minister to visit Nottingham Women’s Centre, meet some of the women who took part in that research and discuss how she will ensure the provision of appropriate holistic services for women with multiple and complex needs? (900253)

I am grateful for that very kind offer. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), will also have heard that request for a visit. From my personal experience as a local MP, I know the amazing work that many such centres do, so I thank the hon. Lady for her invite and I will ensure that somebody responds. I would love to visit.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact of vile online abuse on people, particularly women, coming forward to stand for public office?

Following this election, the issue has never been higher on the political agenda. As somebody who did not have a particular life mission to become an MP, but wanted to play a constructive role in my community and represent it in this place, I think it is important that we get rid of this aggressive sort of political campaigning. It does our democracy no good and puts decent people off running for Parliament, and that is a bad thing.

The Scottish Government have committed to increase the number of women on public boards, and the Partnership for Change 50/50 campaign encourages the private, third and public sectors to achieve gender balance on boards by 2020. At the current rate of change, gender balance will take several decades, so when will the UK Government follow the Scottish Government’s lead?

Since 2010, the number of women on FTSE 350 boards has more than doubled, and we now have the highest percentage ever—over 24%. We have the lowest number of all-male boards in the FTSE 350, with only six remaining. It is not good enough, and we need to make more progress, but progress is being made. The work that the Government are doing through the Women’s Business Council to stimulate a culture change is very important. Diversity and women are good for business.

Order. As we come to the first of the two urgent questions that I have granted today, can I please remind colleagues of the importance of sticking to the time limits that have been declared and communicated repeatedly to colleagues? Obviously this is particularly relevant to the Front Benchers—the person who secured the UQ and who has the allocated two minutes, and the Minister answering it, who has the allocated three minutes. We really do need to stick to the limits, because otherwise it is very unfair on Back Benchers.

No, no—I am not taking points of order now. Points of order come after UQs and statements, but we will look forward to hearing the hon. Lady; we are saving her up for later on in the day.