Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 629: debated on Thursday 12 October 2017

Last month, I was delighted to be able to speak at the Financial Times Women at the Top summit, urging business leaders to fast-track their plans to address their gender pay gaps.

Similarly, on a separate matter, we will mark the centenary of voting rights being extended to women for the first time, by creating a new £5 million fund to help celebrate this landmark occasion. That will include a £1.5 million scheme specifically for projects run by local and community groups across England. We will set out plans for that shortly, and I hope that many communities will take part practically in those centenary celebrations.

I am delighted to say that the number of girls taking science, technology, engineering and maths A-levels—we saw the results this year—increased by 20% between 2010 and 2017.

Elsewhere on our policy agenda, we have now received over 100,000 responses to the nationwide survey on the views and experiences of LGBT people living in the UK.

The High Court judgment on Monday found that the Government’s 2016 redefinition of torture for immigration purposes was unlawful. Will the Government now widen the definition of torture so that vulnerable women who have been victims of abuse and trafficking who are currently held in Yarl’s Wood can be immediately released?

We can be proud of this country’s record on not only fighting torture abroad and improving human rights but being a sanctuary and home for asylum seekers. In relation to the court case the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I have no doubt that Ministers are looking at the judgment carefully and will want to address the issues it raises.

Earlier this week, we saw new information that shows that the incidence of sexual harassment and sexual violence against girls in our schools is increasing, and that is a year after the Women and Equalities Committee published its inquiry into the subject. What more will the Government do to make sure that their policies are working to keep girls and children safe in our schools?

As my right hon. Friend points out, we have taken a range of steps already, but the recent report highlights again how significant an issue this is for young people now. As social media become a staple part of young people’s lives to a greater and greater extent, those risks will only grow. She will be aware that we are trying to make sure that the guidance that we provide to schools remains up to date, and that sits alongside other areas of action from the Government such as updating the relationship and sex education guidance. We are clear that if schools see this happening, they should report it to children’s social services or the police—it is vital that they take action.

Schoolgirls in Yorkshire and elsewhere have had to use toilet paper and even socks stuffed into their underwear because families cannot afford sanitary protection due to poverty pay and welfare cuts. Will the Secretary of State consider matching our commitment to set aside funding to tackle period poverty and ensure that girls never miss out on their education just because they are having periods?

Schools already have discretion over how they can use their funding. If they want to make sanitary products available to disadvantaged students, they are free to do so. The House will recognise that the issue goes far wider than the role of schools: it is also about making sure that parents understand the need to play their role in educating their children and, separately, the clear-cut duty that they have to comply with the law and make sure that their children are attending school.

The Secretary of State referred to the welcome increase in the number of girls doing STEM subjects at A-level. What measures will the Government take to increase the number of girls choosing careers that require STEM subjects?

The work of the Careers & Enterprise Company will be vital in making sure that employers are plugged into schools and helping to shape careers advice at a much earlier stage, including in primary schools, than in the past. It is welcome that we are now truly building that pipeline of women who will be able to go into those careers. I opened the National College for High Speed Rail earlier this week, and many girls were starting their apprenticeships there, but there is much more work to be done.

T2. While I welcome the Prime Minister’s initiative to tackle ethnic inequality in targeted areas, including Kirklees, can the Minister explain what that will actually do to improve the lives of my constituents? (901088)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. It is important that we look closely at the findings of the racial disparity audit that was released this week and work across the Government in every Department—including the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education—to bring forward positive changes to address some of the very uncomfortable findings in the audit.

We have made incredible progress since women won the right to vote, and I am especially proud of my female colleagues and Ministers and, of course, our second female Prime Minister. What more will the Minister do to increase the number of women in Parliament?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Interestingly, for all political parties—much of this is down to political parties—it is about the pipeline. Only 17% of council leaders are women; only one third of councillors are women; and, shockingly, of the board members of combined authorities, only 4% are women. Next year represents a fantastic opportunity not only to celebrate the centenary, but for all elected representatives to encourage more women to enter public life.

Yes, but the hon. Lady is No. 3 at topicals, and therefore if she is fizzing with a further inquiry with which she wishes to favour the House, she is welcome to do so. It is not compulsory.

T3. May I therefore press the Minister on the period question, because I find her attitude a little harsh and I wonder whether she will review it in the light of what has been said today? I think the matter needs a second look. I think her approach is a little harsh in terms of, first, schools having to stump up money for sanitary pads and, secondly, blaming parents. Periods are just one of those things; we cannot blame parents for periods. (901089)

As I said, this is clearly an important area, but we have to recognise that we need to allow schools some discretion about how they deal with this alongside a range of other specific issues that the pupils that they teach may face. I do not agree with the hon. Lady; I do think that parents have a responsibility to play their role in making sure that children understand how to approach adult life.

The publication of this week’s racial disparity audit contained many interesting findings, including that Chinese pupils do particularly well at school and that white British males are under-represented in university applications. How will the Minister promote and replicate the first issue and tackle the second?

My hon. Friend is quite right. He will be aware that our opportunity area work—bearing in mind the communities in which it is being done—is doing a lot to address those issues. We have excellent data in the Department for Education to enable us to look at where we are doing well at improving outcomes for white working-class boys, but we absolutely have to do a lot better. That is why we are taking a much more place-based approach to our education delivery.

T5. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about adding misogyny to the list of hate crimes? (901091)

We keep all public order offences under constant review. If the hon. Lady would like to make a submission in relation to that, I would be happy to look at it.

It is important to ensure that our girls, as well as our boys, get a good education, and the best way to do that is to ensure that we have good teachers. What is the Minister doing to ensure that more girls, as well as boys, go into teaching?

We are determined to increase the number of high-quality graduates coming into teaching, whether they are male or female. We have a series of generous tax-free bursaries of up to £28,000 to encourage the best graduates to come into teaching. We have a very strong economy, so we are competing with industry and commerce for those graduates, but we are doing everything we can to get more good people into teaching.

T6. Can Ministers say what more can be done to eliminate the cruel and barbaric practice of female genital mutilation? (901092)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have campaigned on this for many years, and we can be proud of the role that the UK has played in helping to tackle this atrocious practice overseas as well as at home. We have introduced FGM protection orders, and most recently the Girl summit was co-hosted by the Department for International Development, of which I was Secretary of State at the time, and by the then Home Secretary, who is now the Prime Minister. There is much more work to be done, but we are more on track than we have ever been in the past. We are, importantly, working with communities on the ground to change cultural attitudes.

We are out of time, but I am going to take a question from one more hon. Member who missed out earlier—Gerard Killen.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Following yesterday’s High Court decision to allow a full judicial review of the Government’s policy, does the Minister agree that it is time for the UK to join countries such as Ireland and Australia in issuing gender-neutral passports?

I know that the Home Office will be studying the Court ruling carefully. The Office for National Statistics is also looking generally at how we approach data in relation to gender. I simply say that, although we need to reflect the modern world in which we live, I hope that a bit of common sense can be brought to the matter.